Over the next few posts I am going to try to capture my experience of participating in the 2019 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race: a 5-day journey down the 315 km mountain spine of Wales. Starting at Conwy Castle in the north, the race covers a diverse range of mountain terrain before reaching Llandeilo in the south. Over the course of the journey, the race climbs over 15,500 meters – roughly twice the height of Everest.
The adventure has left me with many memories, new friends and a vast range of emotions.
Each day was a unique series of mini adventures which wove themselves into a larger, richer experience – an experience that will last a lifetime.
I’m not good at writing race reports, so don’t expect to find that here. What I plan to share is an insight into how I felt participating in this mythical and iconic event.
All adventures need a staring point. I’m not sure when the decision to enter the DBR happened, but I do know when I decided to start running again, and it is that decision that brought me to the start line at Conwy.
It’s late April in 2015. I’ve just visited the Olympic stadium in London, and I’ve had this sudden urge to run again after 25 years of not running! A quick trip to TK Maxx, and I have my kit sorted. I’m up at 6am the next morning for a 1/2 mile jog from my hotel to the Houses of Parliament and back!
Fast forward to May 2019 and I am about to start the Dragon’s Back Race. How the hell did that happen?
In short, I’ve had a whirlwind romance with trail running that has grown stronger and stronger. You see, I used to run, until injury and bad advice stopped me running for 25 years – but on that April day in 2015, I was back for good.
The journey to the start line of the DBR has been an awesome adventure in itself. However, I knew that to stand a chance of finishing the race I had to up my game in terms of speed, distance and hill work. My mountaineering background has prepared me well for long, back-to-back days on the hill. However, it is one thing to be able to cover the distance, but an altogether different challenge to be able to cover it within the race cutoff times.
My plan was simple: to get in as many hill days as possible running and hiking over steep rough terrain, with a few back-to-back adventures thrown in for good measure. I live close to the Cairngorms and my job involves travelling around the north of Scotland, so I am fortunate to be able to get out on the hill on a regular basis.
Looking back, the following six things probably helped the most in preparing for the event:
- Completing a multi-day stage race over rough terrain.
- Entering an event organised by the same team.
- Running as many Munros and Corbets as possible.
- Running regular back-to-back days on tired legs.
- Completing a multi-day fast packing journey, carrying a heavier pack, one month before the event.
- Finding some friends to share the experience with.
In 2018 I completed OUREA Event’s sister, multi-day stage race, the Cape Wrath Ultra. This helped me appreciate exactly what running a race of this type involved. From this event I took away three key learning points. One, avoid pre-race injuries at all costs. I entered the CWU with an underlying injury. This flared up on day 3 and had to be managed. Two, admin is key – and making sure you are efficient in camp is critical to maximise recovery. I wasted too much time faffing on CWU, mainly because I had too much stuff with me. Less is definitely more when it comes to stage racing. Three, find some friends to run with. If you are a middle to back of the pack runner like me, you are going to be on the hill a long time – anywhere between 10 -14 hours. I like my own company, but not that much! Surrounding yourself with a bunch of like-minded people will make all the difference. They will support you though the difficult times and make you laugh when you need it most. On CWU, I had the fortune to run with the best.
What I hadn’t realised at the time was that by participating in an OUREA event I was also picking up valuable intel on how the whole event functioned, including registration, daily kit checks, food, washing up and the all important strike system for bad behaviour! This background knowledge was invaluable in helping manage my time in camp during the DBR.
In the year leading up to the race, I set myself the challenge of running as many Scottish hills as possible. I focused on altitude gain rather than speed or distance. On the DBR you spend most of your time going up or down, frequently over very rough and steep ground, with the odd rock scramble thrown in for good measure. You need to be strong on the up and steady on the down. Most injuries happen on the down, with a missed foot placement leading at best to a wobble and some jarring and at worst to full flight and a face plant – something to avoid at all costs on steep rocky terrain.
The race organisers make it clear that if you can survive until the end of day 3 then the odds of finishing are on your side. Part of that is down to the challenging landscape you cross on days 1 and 2. However, in my opinion, it is as much down to being able to get up and repeat day after day. The body is often tougher than the mind, so you need to be good at convincing your mind that it’s ok to run on tired legs – and the best way to do this is to get used to running long distances back-to-back. To motivate myself to do this, I set myself some mini adventures in the 6 months leading up to the race – including running round the Island of Unst, arguably the inspiration for R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
The 3 days fast packing with a heavy pack one month before was, in hindsight, probably the most valuable bit of training I did leading up to the event. The 70 plus miles of the Pennine Way we covered over 2.5 days was tough, but meant that by the time the DBR came around I knew I’d be running with a much lighter pack.
In any long distance race, friends are important. Let’s be honest, most of us are there to get to the finish line – getting there in good style with a good time comes way lower down on the list. In my opinion, friends are key to getting to that finish line. In a later post I will tell you why I think they matter so much. However, in short, they make it fun, rewarding and something that can be shared. On the CWU they were absolutely invaluable and I’m not sure I would have got to the end without them. However, I knew the same people would not be running DBR, so new friends were needed – and yet again, I found the best.
In the following chapters I will take you through each day of the race – the magical moments and the tough times. I’m going to try to give you a real sense of what it was like to be there – and if I inspire you to take on your own DBR, whatever that may be, I will have done my job.
When I run I don’t like to listen to music, as I find it takes away from being in the moment. But once I am home, events seem to adopt a soundtrack.
And boy do I have a soundtrack building for this race – starting with this retro classic!
‘Rock n Roll Fantasy’ – Bad Company.