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Dragon’s Back Race® 2021…Failing Forwards

Posted on October 13th 2021 by Kate Worthington

RAW Adventures - Me and Ross at DBR Day 1 Pen y Pass

Me and Ross at DBR Day 1 Pen y Pass

Pleased to blog-meet you. I’m Kate and I co-direct RAW Adventures, a mountain activities business in North Snowdonia with my husband, Ross. I’ve been working as a Mountain Leader since 2006, with RAW Adventures operational since 2010.

I’m originally from NW London, but now we live underneath the shadow of Snowdon in a small village called Nant Peris, with our daughter and border collie dog, Nonny.

For the last 20+ years, I’ve loved to run: road, trail, hill and mountain. Snow, rain, wind or breezy sun. Not sand.

And now time flies; time runs…

Read more about me and my reasons for entering the ‘the world’s toughest mountain race’ in a previous blog post. Hopefully, for those I’ve not met on the hills and trails of Wales, it will give some background to me, RAW Adventures Official Recce Events and how I was feeling about my journey to Conwy Castle. And read on for a summary of my Dragon’s Back Race days, and a few personal race strategies I found useful for me.

Back in October 2020 – I was on a rehab plan to recover and strengthen a previously sprained left ankle. I’d given myself the goal of entering the 2021 Montane Dragon’s Back Race® to focus the personal and professional body and mind, after the weirdness of Covid (sound familiar?!)

In July 2021, though, I had to curtail my specific training and #TeamRAW Recce Event working to rest and recover painful tendonitis issues in my right ankle. Post-Covid and injury, my potential 11 months to train up for the Dragon’s Back Race ended up looking like 5 useful months. And they were good months, full of consistent and specific training and great days out on the course itself either working or personal running.

At this point, I felt grateful for general running experience, mountain skills and route knowledge, which would pave the way for a ‘solid’ attempt (I had to believe in this… to avoid the inevitable ‘injured runner’ frustration). July was a very restful month: a lot of yoga, dog-walking, rehab exercises and kit packing. But no running. And August was all about building back some easy miles, and a couple of longer hill runs.

I was at least moving again, without as much pain. This is me as a ready as I can be now. In the (many) months leading up to the Dragon’s Back Race, patience and loving support from family and friends is essential. I am so grateful to have had this, thank you x

RAW Adventures - Bike recce of Day 6 while not running in July

Bike recce of Day 6 while not running in July

As I have heard Shane Ohly tell runners,

A race like the Dragon’s Back Race is a true adventure, because the outcome is unknown

There are certainly elements of race preparation and execution we can control; and there are elements we can’t control. But we can exercise strength in how we manage the ‘uncontrollable’; and how we deal with uncertainty in a mental and physical sense. I was determined to manage myself carefully, giving me every fighting chance of completing each day within the race time allowed, and deal with the unexpected with an open mind.

RAW Adventures - Family and friends' smiles at Conwy Castle

Family and friends’ smiles at Conwy Castle

My experience of the Dragon’s Back Race was, ultimately, one of micro-management, practising resilience and patience. But this quiet commitment and focus also kept me ‘head down’ a lot of the time; and I missed opportunities to chat to runners on the course, as they were usually faster than me uphill – SO much faster! And considering my capacity to move pretty well over technical terrain and downhill (I was the second fastest female over Crib Goch, to my surprise), I missed talking to people on the descents, too, as this was usually my only opportunity to keep my average pace up during the day.

“Damn, I want to keep pace with people uphill!” was my daily reflection. But I savoured all the sweet interactions with other runners out on the course; probably more than they know! The Dragon’s Back Race is a joint-human endeavour in the hills and mountains of Wales.

Yes, we are out there as individuals at times, but the whole week sees a myriad of people working towards the same goal; runners and Event Team alike. This human journey is beautiful and life-affirming, against a landscape of drama and majesty.

My Dragon’s Back Race 2021 goes like this:

Day 1 – 12:15

10th Female – 2nd Fastest Female on Crib Goch

My favourite day and terrain type on ‘home ground’. I paced myself well, 20 mins at Support Point, but felt super-slow on the ups as I managed the heat and heart rate, ascending Tryfan and Crib Goch, for example. Nice to see Becki P, Thia M and Sophie L after Support Point at various places. I just about won the heat battle; keeping myself cool with lots of water poured on me, wherever I could. Kept eating and drinking in the heat – none of it very palatable (loved the salmon jerky, though, Geoff C!).

The afternoon light and stillness on Crib Goch and Snowdon was sublime. Lucky Dragons. Made up some ground towards the end (this happened each day, pretty much). Enjoyed the final descent and then sat in a stream. Ate ‘just’ about enough in camp; probably not enough, with hindsight.

RAW Adventures - Start of Day 1 Crib Goch traverse with the awesome Geoff C

Start of Day 1 – Crib Goch traverse with the awesome Geoff C

RAW Adventures - Day 2 Yay Finish

Day 2 – Yay Finish!

Day 2 – 14:24

9th Female – Slow after Support Point, felt better in the early evening

Started at 0635 (was recommended to start at 0700-0730), climbed Cnicht quite conservatively in the shade, and nice to see Matt B. Ate from my running pack immediately after leaving camp, knowing that I needed to make some calorie deficit up from the previous day/evening. Tried to make up ground/average pace on descents, used poles to protect knees and legs on some descents. Pouring water over my head/clothes at every opportunity.

Forced myself to eat/drink every 20mins – salty nuts, Kendal Mint Cake, the odd gel, wine gums, Crème Egg, Mini Babybel and more. Ate blackberries from the road above Maentwrog – lush! Spent 30mins at Support Point trying to cool down and wanted to proactively look after feet.

Felt really sluggish on the next ascents (I’m now thinking this is digestion related) and for most of the afternoon, until my confidence and mojo returned after Rhinog Fach and I made up some ground over the last summits and descent to camp: tighten laces…away you go.

Still didn’t get in till 2100, and this made for a short recovering/eating time in camp. I was annoyed with myself. On reflection, didn’t eat enough in camp that evening.

Day 3 – 15:01

12th Female – High heart-rate ascending Cadair Idris and then more hot valleys!

0610 start. I just had to be ok with what seemed like ALL the field of runners over-taking me on the way up Cadair Idris! I wanted to steady the racing heart-rate; too little sleep and recovery time. Enjoyed the cooler breeze ascending Cadair Idris, but was not looking forward to dropping into the hot valley below, but there were hedgerows of lovely blackberries again!

Zipped through a Water Stop, wanting to hang on to precious minutes that would be eaten up by my next uphill. Saw a friend by the road, cheering on runners – a lovely surprise. Ploughed through the, roller-coaster Tarren hills; thankful for a breeze. Lovely to see lots of faces to greet, on the out and back of Tarren y Gesail. Drank 2 litres of milk in Machynlleth, which felt really nourishing at the time, but this and my ‘lunch’ rice bag made for a heavy stomach leaving Support Point. Vowed never to eat again.

RAW Adventures - Day 3 Ascending Tarren y Gesail

Day 3 – Ascending Tarren y Gesail

Got bored even with myself plodding away for the next few hours (think Cat C – another spectating friend saw me at my lowest point here!) Great to see Thia M during this afternoon. Really valued walk/running with Fred N…thanks for the Haribo! Up and over Pumlumon Fawr, felt stronger, and had the go-juice to get off this hill with Thia M in under the hour, we made a good team. Sat in a cold stream for a while; nice.

RAW Adventures - Day 4 Final road section selfie moment

Day 4 – Final road section selfie moment

Day 4 – 13:54

12th Female – I knew this day was going to be ‘runnable’ and mentally challenging!

0605 and I valued the misty, cool start – thank you, weather. It was great to run and chat with Cat S and Sam L at points. But this day is more undulating and needs ‘running legs’ for sure. My running legs were running 70 paces and walking 40 paces; my strategy for keeping my body and mind going, especially when on roads and flatter sections. I was tired and felt quiet.

I can see on reflection I wasn’t eating enough in camp (time, organisation, appetite, food choices etc) but I was eating a lot while out running, especially in the mornings, which was seeing me through…just. I spent way too long at Support Point: got myself into conversations, interviews, faffing with taping/cleaning feet, changing trainers, changing them back again. What a 45min Support Point horror-show! Event Team Little Dave C told me to FO outta there…and I did!

Ran/walked myself over Drygarn Fawr, trying to keep pace with other runners to give my mind something to work on. Enjoyed my daily chat with Phil W as he would pass through at some point…working hard but skipping along. And then deluges of rain bouncing off tarmac. Long periods of solitude and then a social flurry of Dragon hellos before a quiet run/walk back along 10km of road.

I was not looking forward to this final section, but just ate/drank and chunked my way through it. Took my only selfie of the week and sent a text message to my husband. My mind must have been wandering!

Back in camp, saw Shane Ohly and he asked me how I felt about finishing, “Yeah – I think I can do this”, I said (first time I’d probably admitted this to myself), “I’m worried about the road section to start, and getting through Cut Off at Usk Reservoir, but, yeah…I’m looking forward to getting back to the hills after Support Point”. Feeling psyched, although leaving and arriving to camp when it’s dark is another mental challenge. Enjoyed a calm sit in the river. Ate more in camp this evening; well done me.

Day 5 – Reached summit of Pen y Fan but DNF

Turned around at Pen y Fan, 13km from finish – even though I started Day 5 feeling psyched and sorted

0600 left camp, anticipating the upcoming road section for the next few hours! I was psyched to get this done without using too much energy…so a lot of run/walking and not even stopping for a pastry in Llandovery (doh!) Out of Support Point in 30mins (still too long…faffing with feet taping again). Worked hard up Fan y Brycheiniog, really wanted to keep my average pace uphill. It was a long climb and I was working at a higher rate than other uphill efforts in the week. My heart rate was back down again and feeling more comfortable, so I wanted to push a little.

I relished the atmosphere of the weather, feeling really ‘back at home’ in the cloud, rain and wind. I was looking forward to the next ‘Fans’ section, with all those steep climbs up and down. BRING IT ON! I ease down a technical section of summit path and pretty quickly notice a niggle above my right knee. My poles are already out: good. Keep on it; it’s Day 5.

Over the next steep ups and downs, my knee and thigh are now tightening and debilitating my movement. I’m slowing down. I eat and drink to keep physical and mental energy levels topped up; more salt (is it weird cramp?) The radiating stiffness and soreness feels like cramp as my whole right thigh and hip do a very good job of refusing to move. But there was a specific pain around my knee, which didn’t fit with cramp.

All my layers and gloves are on as I inch up Fan Gyhyrich, I’m pretty exposed in the inclement weather now. Time to look after myself even more. This is what all the training and experience is for. “You can still do this, y’know”, I had to believe in myself.

So many friendly folk are chatting and passing, but everyone is working really hard in the poor visibility. Some are limping. Some are confused with route finding. I’m slowing up and time is ticking away…

I bum-slide down towards Storey Arms with Oli H (this is actually quite fun in itself, but highly s**t in the context of what’s coming next!) Oli H goes on to competitively finish DBR in Cardiff. I am so full of respect, as he was coping with his pains sliding down Fan Fawr. But he must have really cracked on post-famous burger van. My week was full of these very fleeting glimpses into other people’s races and hearts; we all have ‘our’ Dragon’s Back Race to own and to remember.

And now time flies; time runs…

“Get yourself up Pen y Fan in an hour”, says Event Team Little Dave C, “and then see where you’re at…” This is his feedback to my emotional outburst. I can’t move up or down hill at any kind of pace now; working out the maths of time/distance in my head…and a 2200 Cut Off. I can have all the grit and determination in the world; I can eat all my food and take stronger painkillers, but if I can’t mechanically move my leg (especially down steep inclines), the rest of the route was going to be a very slow, pigeon-step affair. I could feel the inflammation in my right knee filling up my waterproof trousers. But I go…I am failing forwards, at least.

A lonely hour and I’m at Pen y Fan at 1915. A victory. I’m off the other side and down the longer descent and re-ascent to Cribyn. Except I can’t get down the awkward rocky steps. I try various techniques of straight-legged weirdness. This foot first, that foot first, forwards, backwards. Stop, start, slide sideways. No ways.

I stop and re-assess the time and the route ahead of me (I know it well). It could take 3hrs moving well, but how long would it take moving like I am; in fading light and worsening conditions? I answer my own question, knowing my decision will take me out of the competitive race at this point, rather than a painful 6hrs later. I decide that my Dragon’s Back Race is to stop here, and re-ascend to Pen y Fan summit.

I am pretty clear that I have to escape from this darkening summit, without causing myself further damage. This felt important to me; self-preservation kicked in, and it was my driving force at this moment. I send a text to Race Control to let them know my decision and retreat along the route, keeping to a low contour. I can’t shake off my ‘mountain safety’ head. I send a text to my husband:

19:27 – Hello from Pen y Fan 😬 I’m just letting you know that an angry knee has played havoc with my progress today and I am coming back down the hill. Can’t descend or ascend at a rate with time available. Being pragmatic. Even had stronger painkillers and hasn’t worked. Sorry x

Day 6 – Cardiff Castle – a truly special day shared with family; fellow runners and friends

A morning of reflection, contemplation, eating and drinking and walking slowly around Cardiff! It’s exciting to see runners burst into the castle; it’s a magnificent setting. There is so much human drama and emotion contained within the walls of Cardiff Castle. It is a very poignant day, for sure. My husband and daughter were so looking forward to seeing me run across the finish line, too – but I’m already standing with them.

I feel sadder for their dashed expectations, than I do for my decision to exit the race, at times. Families put up with a lot in our desire to enter the Dragon’s Back Race, don’t they. And I felt I had taken away some of their excitement and joy, in a way. I was (just about!) coping with my decision because I’d experienced 5x days of amazing journeying, learning, doing, experiencing and being, which they had not. I felt selfish. But their kind words and cuddles were so well-received.

I know I worked hard and I covered a lot of ground in this most epic of Dragon’s Back Races; all my previous experience and training was put to good use…and I have a clear mental path of where I need to take myself next. Failing forwards…


Over the next few days, I jotted down all the thoughts and reflections that were buzzing through my head. I kept my ‘DBR Notebook’ handy at home and it’s full of post-race scribbles. I will use these lucid thoughts to inform my future training and preparation for entering 2022 Dragon’s Back Race, and to plough into my future work with more amazing #DragonsInTraining and #TeamRAW Official Recce Events for 2022.

Post-event, I was functioning ok (I will always ask myself, could I have pushed harder?) and I am feeling my way into running and training again now; after some kindness and recovery. I’m still mindful of keeping weird/new ankle niggles at bay. I feel strong in mind and body to give myself another fighting chance next year and I am thankful I can do this. I guess this is what I chose on top of Pen y Fan.

Huge hugs and thanks to my husband, Ross, and Libby – for all their love, support, messages and social media chat while I was romping down through Wales. And I loved seeing so many #TeamRAW Dragons, met on various Recce Events over the summer. Really special people that I will remember. I shared Tent 2 with quietly courageous, generous and inspiring females; each of them creating their own journey and successes (including winning female, Katie!) They were awesome to listen and learn from.

The Dragon’s Back Race Event Team are remarkable – they work tirelessly to support runners and each other. Being involved in the Dragon’s Back Race as a runner or a member of this team is a life-affirming week, for sure.

And to all other 2021 Dragons – you are fierce and brave beings and my respect goes out to each and every person that started their journey at Conwy Castle. That’s a win to start with. Maybe I will see some of you in September 2022!

Kate x

RAW Adventures - Happy DragonInTraining

Happy #DragonInTraining

Some strategies I found useful for me:

* I spent 5 mins towards the end of Day 1 cleaning and dressing a cut shin, not wanting to lose any more blood out of the small, but quite deep, hole below my knee?! I put a lot of pressure on my shin, with dressings and a tight buff, which allowed me to run again without causing more bleeding and damage. Always carry a small First Aid kit with you on the hill, and gain confidence using it. Thanks to the Medic Team for further cleaning and help with steri-strips to keep the wound closed. I have a nice DBR scar, now…

RAW Adventures - Nice soft feet after Day 5

Nice soft feet after Day 5

RAW Adventures - Nice shin scar to remember DBR 2021

Nice shin scar to remember DBR 2021

RAW Adventures - My best calorific real food treats

My best calorific real food treats

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