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The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race

08-Jul-15

Last updated: 07-Mar-16

By Ian Corless

Back in 1992 when men were men and women were as hard as nails, a race came on the scene called the Dragon’s Back. It was a simple race. You start in the north of Wales at Conwy Castle, travel down the spine over multiple days across the tough mountainous terrain that Wales has to offer. You then finish in the south at Carreg Cennen Castle, after completing 300 km and 16,000m of vertical gain, all while navigating your own way.

It was a race so tough that it never happened again; it became infamous and just the mention of its name made the most experienced fell and mountain runner quake.

That is until 2012.

Shane Ohly from Ourea Events, an experienced mountain runner himself, revived the event and sticking to the original format, a 20-year hiatus was broken. Legendary mountain runner Steve Birkinshaw won the event outright and 1992 champion, Helene Whitaker returned and won the ladies prize. She placed 4th overall.

The Guardian Newspaper at the time said:
Five days, 200 miles, 8½ miles of ascent – the grueling Dragon's Back Race, which started on Monday 3 September, crosses the length of Wales, from Conwy Castle in the north to Carreg Cennen Castle in the south. One of the world's most challenging races, it fills even the hardest runners with awe.’

The event had found a new client base. You see the sport of ultra running was changing. Further, harder, more vertical, gnarly and mention the word ‘toughest’ and runners flock to sign up. The once infamous reputation of the Dragon’s Back was now a calling card. It was sherbet to ants and, believe me, the ants came. Only 30 people completed the 2012 edition. 300 people applied for 2015, but Ohly imposed very strict entry criteria and only 140+/- were accepted. You could call them the lucky ones?

Slaying the Dragon

Day 1 of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race is arguably one of the best days in the mountains you could have. Crossing the Welsh 3000’s over a 49km route, which includes 3823m of vertical and the infamous Crib Goch, it would make a great stand-alone race! So much so, that a race already exists that takes in much of that day 1 route; the V3K, part of the Skyrunning UK series. However, participants in that race, run for one day, stop, rest and then go home. Not at the Dragon’s Back! That is just day 1 and what follows are 4 lengthy and torturous days that would make the hardiest competitor question his or her sanity.

It covers 5 key regions:
Carneddau, Glyders and Snowdon - 49.3km 3823m+
Moelwyns and Rhinogs - 53.9km 3544m+
Cadair Idris and Plynlimon - 68.3km 3712m+
Eland Valley - 64.0km 2273m+
Brecon Beacons - 56.5km 2313m+

Multiple days of relentless climbing and descending, terrain as rough as a badger’s backside, and daily distances well over 50km, force each every runner to question, ‘Can I do this?’ Of course the weather plays a huge factor and 2015 was a good year. Rain did make an appearance here and there and the occasional clag covered the mountain summits, but all things considered, conditions were kind.

Of the 140 +/- that were accepted for 2015, 128 made the start line. Statistics show that only 65 completed the journey, a 50% failure rate.

Jim Mann showed every competitor a clean pair of heels throughout the event, dominating each day with a master class of running and on-the-go navigation. After establishing an unassailable lead, Mann ran the latter half of the race with ladies revelation, Jasmin Paris. Paris not only dominated the ladies race but would place 2nd overall.

Just like in the original race, when Helene Whitaker showed the men a thing or two, 2015 was a repeat performance with Paris leading the way closely followed by Beth Pascall (4th overall) and Lizzie Wraith (6th overall). This was something Ohly touched on at the awards ceremony on the final day:
Despite the so called ‘advantages’ men have, ladies once again triumphed at the Dragon’s Back Race and I think that it is brilliant.’

Travelling 200 miles under you own steam does make you look inward. It was enlightening to see how people changed from day-to-day. Some found increased strength from the process, realizing that the mind was actually the supreme endurance tool and not the legs or lungs. For others, the mind became weak, exhausted from the full-on concentration required of placing one foot n front of the other and navigating the fastest way to the line. Some participants were getting just 4 hours asleep per day before heading out again. It was an inspiring thing to see.

It was a race of highs and lows and I don’t only mean in the mountainous sense.

Race competitor Mike Evans summed it up when he said:
So what a week, what a journey, impossible to explain how tough, how mentally and physically challenging it was, but also how spiritual it has been. Cut off from the world, no social media, no showers, just living in the wild with a group of equal enthusiasts.’

The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race has now gained a reputation as one of ‘the’ races to do. But just as we all had to wait 20 years for it to be revived we must wait 2 years before the next edition. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you and lets face it, an event that happens every other year, adds to the mystique.

But Ohly, the Race Director,  knows what he is doing. Next year he launches a new event! The Cape Wraith Ultra; similar in size, scale and difficultly as the Dragon’s Back but located in Scotland. That should fill the gap nicely.

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