memories from a Dragon

Spoiler: I didn’t manage to complete the 2017 Dragon’s Back Race.

Whilst it must be remembered that Ancient Greek Cynicism did not give much value to athletic feats there are a number of Cynic principles that can be pulled in as analogues in considerations of ultra running. Primarily the concept of epimeleia is hugely relevant for ultra runners, this Foucauldian ‘care of the self’ applies personally to each individual runner prior to and during an event (from general care to avoid injury through stretching, eating correctly, selecting the correct kit and looking after feet) but this care also stretches out, in Cynic fashion, as a duty to those around the runner. The care that the runner takes over their preparation and performance creates a defence against the needs of others to compromise their own safety through having to rescue the ill-prepared runner for instance. It may also be that the runner who takes care may share their knowledge to guide and motivate others.

Further, the Cynic consideration of the two ways is relevant. Whilst ultras are by no means short they are arduous and certainly not taking the easy option. Lastly, a dose of Diogenean renunciation can come into play when the runner struggles to re-pack their kit bag for the nth time and wishes that it were a little less burdened by unnecessary items.

Day 1: 53km and 3800m of ascent. A 7am start from Conwy and once through the congestion and queues along the town walls the filed began to spread out nicely. A good day in the 3000ers of Snowdonia where my background in mountain walking levelled the playing field (metaphorically) against a few of the runners at least as the rocky ground and steep ascents/descents reduced most to walking. Navigation was simple through the first half of the day but low cloud and drizzle meant tight nav was required particularly in the crossing of Crib Goch and the descent from Snowdon. (12hours 0minutes 1second)

Day 2: 58km and 3600m of ascent. A 6:15am start. Lowish cloud meant that Cnicht and the Moelwyns required careful navigation. A couple of errors put me off the best lines and left me on a damp cliff wondering whether to go up or down at one point. No major disasters though. Back down to valley level and the day was warming up. After the support point stop and up the Roman Steps my eating wasn’t going too well and I struggled through the Rhinogs and down through the forestry to Dolgellau. Finishing quite empty and unable to eat much dinner. (13hours 58minutes 13seconds)

Day 3: 71km and 3500m of ascent (26km and 1362m of ascent). A humid and murky day, struggling from the off to do anything but walk steadily on flats, ups or downs. Seemed to have  little more go on the initial road hill up towards the foot of Cadair Idris but that soon faded. Still unable to eat anything but Kendal mint cake and the little energy I had soon disappeared. Broken low cloud and military jets added an unwanted atmosphere of foreboding. I Hauled myself up and over the summit of Cadair Idris and then along its interminable ridge to Tal Y Lyn and dropped down through the mandatory section to the valley below. My heart sank looking across to the climb around the side of Bird’s Rock. I reached the road near Dolgoch as a husk. I struggle now, with a week’s hindsight, to recall just how impossible it felt to go on. I was behind the cut-off for the next summit but possibly could have got through in time for the Machynlleth one but truth was I felt utterly empty and did feel able to enter the next twenty kilometres of the Tarren’s domain knowing them well from my training runs. Gutted I (along with two others) claimed a lift back to Machynlleth with a kind couple who had been watching the race with their son. Back in Machy I found an appetite and ate lots and then collapsed at the support point to get a lift to the overnight camp. (4hours 4minutes 4seconds)

Day 4: 71km and 2400m of ascent (36km and 963m of ascent). Deciding that I would like to do the whole of Day 5 I opted to do the second half of Day 4. A frustrating hour or two at camp and then a lift to Elan Village preceded my start at about 10:30. I felt ok, had eaten a reasonable breakfast and was looking forward to a good afternoon. It was hot, very hot and I started out steadily but beautifully runnable grass above Caban-coch Reservoir couldn’t be resisted. Through Rhiwnant and along a track and then pathless moor brought me up onto the uplands and Dragyn Fawr. The ‘early’ start at Elan had left me near the front of the field. Somewhere around here Jim Mann had taken a shorter route and passed me during his bid to reclaim the race lead (a battle far from my thoughts apart from as a fan of the sport!). Down from Dragyn Fawr and onto the first long road section through Abergwesyn and then up and over a lovely little bwlch to the Llyn Brianne Reservoir road. Although all on tarmac the 9km or so down the Tywi valley was softened by the spring glory of the landscape arriving at the campsite in good time to wind down slowly and even enjoy the local pub and a bathe in the river. (5hours 9minutes 42seconds)

Day 5: 63km and 2200m of ascent. After two unexpected shorter days I was feeling much better today. I had eaten well the previous day and rested well too and was ready for the final day of the race. I was away soon after 6am into a glorious morning with barely a cloud in the sky. Our days destination of Black Mountain was clear on the horizon, again I took it fairly easily to begin with, revelling in the conditions and trying to absorb as much as possible. After about 2 and a half hours I passed through Llandovery and grabbed some food and drink—a jam doughnut for then and sandwich for later. The bottles of Ribena and Coke didn’t last long but fuelled me for the run through to the Usk Reservoir support point where ice creams also awaited us courtesy of the race organisation. Then onwards and upwards through more forestry and out onto open upland moor. I was slightly concerned about the climb up onto Fan Brycheiniog but I took it at steady pace and reached the summit with little distress. Then it was west along the ridge using some route tip-offs I had been given and an unexpected ice cream van at a high car park for further cold drinks and ice lollies. The going underfoot was tough around this section as the rocks didn’t permit easy progress although the sheep trods (once found) were a godsend. Dropping down off the end of the ridge and then up and down through farmland and tracks. Passing Carreg Cennen Castle (and another opportunity to grab a cold drink) and then the final few downhill kilometres on tarmac. Kind words of encouragement from Carol Morgan (eventual winning lady) spurred me on downwards to finish the day and race at Ffairfach. (10hours 2minutes 45seconds)

A heartfelt thank you to Ourea Events and all the staff and volunteers who presented such a succesful and entertaining event. I will be back to complete the dragon in 2019.

[I may add further detail to this text over the coming weeks]

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your kind words yesterday.

Thank you also for your offering of the notion of tactician (and for the ensuing discussion it led to). So, put simply the difference between tactic and strategy is that the latter is planned and maybe considers a broader theatre of engagement whereas tactics are much more focussed and reactive. I assume though that one can have a strategy to be a tactician?

The word tactic and its resonances have some very appealing elements for my research. The word’s etymology is found in the Greek taktike (or tekhne) meaning “the art of arrangement.” There seems to be then a paradox in the word as this military reading of a reactive response sounds a little less thought out or is it a case of being ready for the ‘unknowns’?

As I raised yesterday, the idea of tactics as reactive contains a possibility of a sort of feedback. There would surely be some sort of reciprocity in there but if so it is asymmetrical…transverse?

Apparently both Foucault and de Certeau suggest that tactics are the “art of the weak.” This statement comes from the idea that the weak, the poor have no place, no position (to be strategic from). This point to me then fits nicely with the models of the Romantic and the Cynic that I have been trying to flesh out. For the Cynic their only place (apart from a hazy ‘beyond society’) is their pera, their bag,…their world that they carry with them. How do you defend a territory you don’t have…through tactics it seems.

One further twist for the moment is that my dictionary tells me that an archaic meaning is (of course) to do with touch. Coming through a Latin root-route this time (tangere – “to touch”) that leads us to today’s ‘tact’,’tactile’ and ‘tact’. There’s something interesting in the idea of a tactor-tactician (including the alliteration!).

Sorry not to have caught up properly for a while. I’ve been a bit preoccupied…it will pass. I hope all is well with you—I thought of you recently (four times!) as I passed near Palmer’s ‘valley of vision’ and looked across from the train.

Yours taciturnly,


PS I leave you with this image of a cartwheel I took recently at Acton Scott farm in Shropshire. Apparently wheels like this are constructed from three different woods: the hub is of elm, the spokes are of oak, and the felloes (rim) is of ash. In each position the wood plays to its strength: the contorted fibres of elm are strong enough (it’s difficult to split) to accept the multiple mortices, the oak has lateral strength so the wheel doesn’t crumple under load and the ash has give in it and so provides some shock-absorption. I wonder what new surfaces Simon’s colleagues would ‘hear’ in this?