Since Monday, dot watchers have been kept busy as 367 runners set off from Conwy Castle, aiming to complete the 2021 Montane Dragon's Back race from north to south along the mountain spine of Wales. Over six days, the runners who stayed the course covered 380km, and around 17,400m of ascent. For the first time the route went over the Brecon Beacons to finish at Cardiff Castle.
Many retired early from the gruelling race, which has a well deserved reputation for toughness. Runners who missed a cut-off time by even one second were out of the event.
Simon Roberts, who'd led the field for most of the six days, went on to win the event; while Russell Bentley, who'd run him a close second for much of the way (and recorded the fastest time on one stage) came in as runner up.
Here's a day-by-day summary of the action:
Day 1 is a notoriously tough affair. The runners are straight into Snowdonia from the coast and tick off a number of Welsh 3000'ers – Pen yr Ole Wen, Tryfan, Glyder Fawr – before tackling the mighty Snowdon horseshoe.
In the women's race, Katie Mills got off to a fast start ahead of Elaine Bisson and Zoe Murphy. Katie said:
'"It was very hot but lovely today. I got the worst cramp on all the uphills, so I just tried to go slow and then try to make it up on the downhills. I am really surprised to be the first lady. I started pretty much at the back because I wasn't sure where to line up. I wanted to enjoy the city walls at the beginning, which I did."
But the real drama on the first day was in the men's race where two of the favourites – Marcus Scotney (2017 winner) and Kim Collinson – pulled out due to injury. The 2012 winner Steve Birkinshaw also pulled out of the race. It was Simon Roberts and Russell Bentley who led the field, running most of the day together and finishing within 13 seconds of each other.
The heat and ascent took its toll as 118 of the runners dropped out from a mixture of injury, dehydration, fatigue or failure to meet the cut off times.
Starting at Nant Gwynant, Day 2 covered 59km with 3400m of ascent and took in Cnicht, the Moelwynion and the Rhinogydd, the roughest ground in Wales. Second place Russell Bentley set off an hour and twenty minutes before Simon Roberts in an effort to put himself ahead. However, by the end of the day, Simon had managed to regain a lead of 56 minutes.
Russell commented: "Man, it's hot out there. I went for a full on swim in a couple of the lakes, just to try and cool down."
In the women's race, Katie Mills extended her lead over Elaine Bisson by over an hour, whilst Cat Slater had a strong day and moved from 5th to 3rd.
Soaring temperatures cut the overall number of runners to 125, meaning that nearly half of those who started the day failed to complete it.
Day 3 was one of the longest of the event, with runners expected to cover 70km with another 3400m of ascent and the imposing Cadair Idris. In the women's race, Katie Mills increased her lead to over two and a half hours and moved into the top ten overall.
Katie commented: "It was good today, and it was more runnable. There was also a breeze. It was the first time I could look at the views because for the past two days I have been staring at my feet due to the tough terrain. I am usually terrible in the heat. So, I have just slowed down. I drink a lot more water than normal, force myself to eat and dowse myself in rivers a lot. I am enjoying the race."
Russell Bentley stuck with his early start tactic setting off just before 6:20am but again, it was Simon Roberts who had the fastest day finishing in 8:41:43 (and 24:59:08 overall).
Simon said: "I felt a lot more recovered this morning than I thought I would be, but I still found today very hot. I was melting out there. I also ran out of food too soon before the support point and I found it hard to eat all day. The past two days of heat has taken it out of me. I felt like I had dead legs and I struggled. But tomorrow is another day, and I will just keep on running."
The number of runners left in the race had dropped to 105 as the cumulative effect of three tough, hot and mountainous days took its toll.
Running through the wild hills of Mid Wales, Day 4 was another long one at 69km, but with slightly less ascent. Conditions were much cooler with rain, cloud and mist. Russell Bentley had the fastest day in the men's race as he tackled the remote, trackless and tussocky moorland that finished along a brutal section of tarmac that all Dragon's Back entrants have come to dread. He finished with a time of (7:09:59 and 33:34:49 overall) cutting Simon's lead to just over an hour and a quarter – a slim buffer on a course where one mistake could see hours wasted.
For the women, Katie Mills continued her strong performance and moved up to eighth place overall (9:14:36 / 41:45:32). Katie explained that the total mileage in one week was the most she had ever run and noted that the cooler conditions helped massively.
Elaine Bisson was now almost four hours behind, while Cat Slater continued to consolidate her third place position.
On day 5, the penultimate stage, the event ventured into new territory. In a change from previous editions of the race, runners had to complete 70km and 3200m of ascent, including a challenging traverse from the Black Mountain to the Brecon Beacons.
For the first time in this year's event, navigational skills were really tested as the cloud closed in, bringing more rain with it, along with windy conditions. Another 10 athletes failed to complete the day, and by the cut-off deadline of 10:00pm there are only 92 left in the full race.
The top two runners, Simon Roberts and Russell Bentley, ran together for most of the day. Simon was slightly faster, and had a lead of almost 82 minutes going into the final day. Matt O'Keefe finished third, over five hours ahead of the next athlete. Seven competitors remained in the women's race, which was still led by Katie Mills, who finished seventh overall.
Katie Mills was the fastest woman on the day, despite missing a checkpoint and having to go back to find it.
"It was brutal today" she said.
"I am pleased the Brecon Beacons were at the end but my feet have been really hurting today. It was also a bit annoying to miss CP2 and have to go back. It was while chatting with someone else and then we realised we had missed it. So I have done 76km today. It has been a long day."
Though already weary, the remaining competitors had their work cut out on day 6, with a last 63km and 1300m of ascent running south from the Beacons, through The Valleys to finally reach Cardiff Castle.
In the end, the lead that Simon Roberts had built up in previous stages proved unassailable, and he was first over the finish line in Cardiff with a total time of 45:42:11 for all six stages. Russell Bentley came a very strong second, at 47:08:55, with Matt O'Keefe in third place.
Katie Mills was the winning woman, and finished in seventh positon overall, in a time of 61:12:54:
- You can see the results table here