300 kilometres. 16,000 metres of ascent. Five days. The Dragon’s Back Race is Britain’s toughest mountain race. We gave Damian Hall a sword (OK a map) and sent him to try and slay it…
At the briefing in Conwy YHA the night before the 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, none of us needed reminding what a daunting task awaited us the next morning. But race director Shane Ohly thoughtfully delivered one anyway. “I have 60 finisher medals,” he tells the room of 139 competitors.
The air fills with nervous tittering. And there may have been a one-cheek squeak or two (sorry about that). His implication is clear: he doesn’t expect even half of us to make it to the end.
The Dragon’s Back Race is a five-day, multi stage, mountain marathon, starting at Conwy Castle on the north Wales coast and, 300 kilometres and 16,000 metres of vertical later, ending at Carreg Cennen Castle, near the bottom of Wales.
The original Dragon’s Back Race happened in 1992, but was considered so gruelling it didn’t take place again for another 20 years. And when it did, two-thirds of the field failed to complete day one (though the course has been tweaked since). Now, like a successful blockbuster film, it’s back for a second sequel. The word most usually associated with the race is “legendary”. That’s what made me want to do it. That and a chance to see the mountainous spine of Wales and get intimate with a few peat bogs.
Instead of a set route, each day averages 10 controls we have to reach, usually on mountain summits, but how we get between them is up to us. The day’s map is issued each morning, just before you start.
The first morning has an almost tangible buzz. Mountain running history is being made. Britain’s top ultra runner Jez Bragg, with a recent Charlie Ramsay Round record under his belt, and 2012 DBR winner Steve Birkinshaw (albeit only running in the Berghaus relay team) are on the start line. Plus two-time Spine Race winner Pavel Paloncý, renowned mountain runner Jim Mann and others with fell, mountain and ultra running CVs I can only dream of matching. As well as Scandinavians, I’m surprised by how many Americans are here and I ask one what attracted him to Wales. “There’s just no other race like it,” he says.
The stirring vocals of the Maelgwn Male Voice choir echo around castle walls, drowning out the noise of the hasty folding of new maps, and standing hairs on end. And we’re off.
As we leave welcoming little Conwy and scamper into the claggy Welsh foothills, I try to play it safe at first, ensuring I’m behind the likes of Bragg and Birkinshaw. But as we gradually climb, I push on a little, and pass them both.
The overall distance doesn’t alarm me as much as the gradient – almost twice the climb of Everest from sea level. And the need for navigation. I’m bobbins at that. I know it will trip me up at some point.
Soon there’s white cloud all around and grey rock below. I reach a control, take a bearing, and try to trust it. But I glance back to see two runners, I’ll later learn to be Konrad Rawlik and Jasmin Paris, heading off in a different direction. Hmmm. I instantly drop any faith I had in my choice and follow them instead. It’s cowardly and I don’t want to make a habit of it. But I don’t want to get lost either. There’s a choice of routes down to Tryfan. I’d already decided on the longer, less steep one and it’s a fun old tumble.
The ascent of Tryfan offers a choice of a direct, pathless scramble or a longer path. I don’t know Tryfan well and having already learned my clag nav isn’t beyond improvement I go for the latter.
In the whiteout, I inevitably lose the path amid big boulders. I scramble on, thinking the only way is up. But then reach a ridge and have no idea which way the summit is. I gamble on one direction… and meet Ed Catmur, Jasmin and Konrad coming towards me. I reach the control then turn back to catch them up. But it’s slow going amid the big wet rocks and some of us (OK, me) slip and fall. But we help each other with nav. I move ahead of them on the long but fun descent to Pen-y-Pass. André Jonsson hammers past me and I keep up until I get a weird pulsing feeling in my adductors and remind myself this is a five-day race (André will finish second today, but be out of the race by day three).
Before I know it we’re on the infamous knife-edge ridge of Crib Goch, using hands for balance and grip. Thankfully the clag blocks out some of the fearful steep drops. Jasmin glides past us, dancing into the mist.
Soon the sun is out, the clag has gone and mind-boggling mountain scenery – namely the Snowdon Horseshoe – is all around. It’s pure Hollywood. All that’s missing is a fearsome dragon rising above the horizon.
From here it’s a long spectacular descent to the day’s overnight camp. Ed, Jasmin and Konrad suddenly shift up a gear, but after almost 50 kilometres and 3,800 metres of ascent, I’m pretty much spent and can’t keep up. I crash over the finish line a few minutes behind them, happy with sixth place.
The camps are hives of activity and full of like-minded loons. Smiley volunteers rush around attending to every need. The fabulous food tent never seems to stop churning out meals to runners eating twice the calories they normally would.
It’s exciting watching the others come in and exchanging stories of a tough but unforgettable day in the Welsh mountains.
I room share with fellow Outdoor Fitness man Tobias Mews in our eight-man tent, which will gradually become more spacious during the week as runners retire, and I sleep exceedingly well (despite his snoring).
I start day two, which sends us up into the Moelwyns and Rhinogs, with Jasmin and Konrad. Handsome, pointy Cnicht (689m) is a testing climb, followed by a long, knee-juddering descent. Later we have a key decision to make: a tussocky, pathless, seemingly shorter route, or a longer route via road.
Jasmin, Konrad and I go for the former, but it’s a frustrating faff and we lose time on the road runners. I leave the dropbag point alone, but soon bump into race leader Jim Mann, coming from an entirely different direction to everyone else.
I can’t keep up with him. His descending on steep, loose rocks is phenomenal and would teach a mountain goat a thing or two. He leaves all but Jasmin in his wake. She clings to him, while I try to put a gap between myself and Konrad and Jez.
By late afternoon, after another lovely spell of mountain running in the sun, I’m placed third with only around 10 kilometres to the finish. But I make a huge howler, picking an idiotic long-cut through unrunable waist-high shrubbery and endless tussocks. My frustration, and perhaps a spot of sunstroke, inevitably leads to another madcap mishap and I lose serious time on Konrad and Jez. An ice cream on my arrival at camp is a welcome consolation. But I don’t think anyone sleeps well on the second night. My legs keep me awake, twitching like they’ve just had electric shock treatment.
Day three is the longest at 68 kilometres and I’m happy to start out with my friends from the Spine Race, Pavel and 2015 lady’s winner Beth Pascall. But my tendons aren’t happy. Tendonitis around my ankles and shins – presumably from taking the downhills too hard – whinges all day. The idea that I may not be able to complete the race crosses my mind and while I try to push it away, there’s still a long way to go.
We climb the multi-headed Cader Idris in the mist and get temporarily topographically befuddled again. I’m eager to learn from Pavel and Beth. Normally their nav is spot on, and they run consistently hard all day. At one point we pause to check maps and Beth disappears, not to be seen again till camp.
The later you get to camp, the earlier you have to begin the next morning, so we start catching other runners, exchanging encouragement with new friends. I like passing the Americans most because they always say “Good job!” We pass a guy belting out “Why, Why, Why, Delilah”, which is surreal and perfect.
As has become the norm, about halfway through the day the Jim-Jasmin juggernaut storms through. Pavel, who took a nasty fall on day one has a heavily bandaged leg, but is still faster than me, tries to keep up with them. I try to keep up with him.
In the late afternoon I get a text from a friend watching the online trackers. “C’mon, get a get a move on!” he says and I manage a sprint finish of sorts. Though I’ve still only placed fifth overall for the day. Konrad has tendonitis as well, and I lend him my trekking poles, cowardly allowing myself to use it as an excuse if I don’t catch him. I go to the medical tent for some kinesiology tape and feel guilty for troubling them with my trivialities when there are two runners in there in full leg braces.
Half the runners who started are now out of the race. Maybe Shane does have enough medals. The camp atmosphere peaks on the third night, when for most of those left there’s a feeling the Dragon’s Back can be broken. “You only have one more day, until there’s one more day,” says Shane at the evening briefing.
There are some birthday celebrations, too, for the popular Tobias Mews. Although not everyone is happy. “What are these ‘tussocks’?!” says one American. “I hate these things!” It’s become a swear word and we agree the terrain here is, er, unique at times.
On day four I start out with Pavel and Beth again. When the Jim-Jasmin juggernaut catches us up we manage to keep up to their pace for about three hours this time. Which totally burns me out.
The last hour, on roads, has me at my worst: weary, slow and spiralling into self-pity. I run with my good friend Lizzie Wraith for a while, but she rightly gets fed up of my humourlessness and pushes on. As usual, the sun blessed campsite makes it all worthwhile though. There’s an ice cold river right by it, perfect for protesting muscles and tendons.
Everyone’s weary now. It’s hard work is mountain running. But utterly brilliant. Life has become so wonderfully simple: get up, eat, run up and down mountains all day, eat more, socialise with like-minded people, get a massage, eat more, sleep. If I didn’t miss my children so much, I’d happily do this for the rest of my life. It’s been a dream holiday.
Despite a short spell of unfriendly weather, day five has a celebratory feel. We know the Dragon’s Back is broken and most of the placings are as good as settled. I relax and enjoy it, running the last few miles with Lizzie, soaking up our big Welsh adventure. Like reading a great book, I can’t stop turning the pages but paradoxically I don’t want it to end.
The sight of Carreg Cennen Castle on a ridge ahead makes me feel like a medieval knight returning from a dragon slaying quest. I’ve finished fifth overall, which is fine by me and my pesky tendons.
At the celebratory feast, Jonas, my Swedish tent mate, says: “I will never, ever do this again.” But otherwise everyone seems triumphant and merrymaking goes on long into the night.
In another nice touch in an unforgettable race that should be on everyone’s bucket list, each finisher comes up individually to collect their Dragon medal in front of applauding staff and runners. Of the 139 starters, 65 of us have finished. So Shane did have to order more mdeals in the end. Albeit only five.
The Dragon’s Back Race takes place every two years. The dates for 2017 are 22-26 May. More info, berghausdragonsbackrace.com