Berghaus Dragons Back Race 2017

Berghaus Dragons Back Race 2017

Fire in the Belly  

 Ras Cefn y Ddraig Bergahus 

 

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It’s harder than passing a kidney stone and then trying to put it back. It’s harder than growing a new shin (which I really did try to do). It’s left more broken bodies in its wake than drunken overconfidence and it’s responsible for more lasting mental damage than the lie about Father Christmas.

The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race (Ras Cefn Y Ddraig) has long been regarded as one of the hardest races in the world. Plenty of stories have been spun about the severity of this challenge. I can now confirm that they are all true. 100% true.

First staged in 1992, the race lay dormant for 20 years before its resurrection in 2012. It’s only been staged four times. With a dauntingly low completion rate of 47% you can see why this running race is revered the world over. It’s verging on mythology.

As usual I signed up on the premise of an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and only then did I begin to realise what I had got myself into. Prior to this I’d ran one marathon and I didn’t even know what an ultramarathon was (I’m still not entirely sure!). I was out of my depth in a big way.

The more I looked into it, the worse it got. With 315km of running and 15,500m of altitude gain all crammed into five consecutive days, the stats alone are startling. But weave these numbers into the unforgiving terrain of the Welsh mountains and this dragon truly comes alive. It starts in Conwy on the North Wales coast and ends in the Brecon Beacons. The route takes the runners up, over and through the highest & roughest terrain Wales has to offer.

Preparation

In the five months leading up to the race I did everything I could to improve my miniscule chances of getting through. I researched the best kit, sought route and nutrition advice from the experts and did some good-old-fashioned hard training (see Outdoor Fitness magazine). This pressure cooker of preparation proved to be another unforeseen element to deal with – the more I put in the higher the stakes got. Getting to the start line of this race proved to be hard enough. Almost a quarter of the people who signed up and paid didn’t even start (if this is the case you do get to defer your entry).

Since I started training more and going out with some serious running groups I began to realise that fell runners have a certain build – long legs, massive calves, optional beard and the less of the rest the better! I on the other hand, I’m built more like a hairy baked potato, designed more for mining and eating sausage rolls than bouncing over mountains. But getting out of your comfort zone is good for you right?

Day One

  • Route: Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon
  • Distance: 52km
  • Ascent: 3,800m
  • Time: 9hr52min
  • Daily position: 28th

 

Somehow, I made it to the start line. I was one of 237 twitchy fell runners poised on the ramparts of Conwy Castle. The cloud was hanging low – weighed down with the weight of expectation and sacrifices made. The atmosphere was tense – almost electric as all that pent up energy and excitement reverberated off the castle walls.  The starting hooter broke the dam and signalled the start of this epic journey. I was surprised to feel a weight lift – all the trepidation and tension of the past few weeks & months seem to dissolve with the base notes of the male voice choir (Hogia’r Ddwylan) seeing us off with a stirring rendition of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of my fathers).

That first day was a joy. Flowing through Snowdonia, dancing down over the boulder pebble dash on the Glyderau and flying down Pen Yr Ole Wen. Even Grib Goch in the clag and a 30 mph wind was no trouble; I finished in 28th position and as I looked around the finishing paddock alarm bells started to chime. I was in the company of some hard, wiry looking mountain goats, I stood out like a fell runner at Weight Watchers. I would come to regret this first day of wanton abandonment on the descents.

Day two

  • Route: Moelwynion and Rhinogydd
  • Distance: 58km
  • Ascent: 3,600m
  • Time: 13hr 19min
  • Daily position: 100th

I started too late, too cocky, two hours after the runners in the know. It was high stakes stuff as I charged through the thick morning mist reciting bearings and distances like a madman. One navigational error and my race would be over. Other runners would be hearing me before they saw anything – God given bearings drifting out of the clag! I made it to the halfway checkpoint with less than an hour to spare. Others weren’t so lucky.

The Rhinogydd were rough, as expected. Remote and untouched compared to northern Eryri the difficulty of the terrain came hand in hand with stunning scenery and some unforgettable moments as the sun burnt away the curtain of morning mist. From running past a mirror flat Llyn Eiddew-mawr in the company of a pair of honking Canada Geese to standing and taking a moment on Y Diffwys – the final mountain of the day. The sun was setting as I looked down at the Mawddach estuary snaking its way past the base of the adjacent giant Cadair Idris. Stunning yet daunting, as it was a job yet to do – tomorrow’s load to bear.

 

Day Three

  • Route: Cadair Idris and Pumlumon Fawr
  • Distance: 71km
  • Ascent: 3,500m
  • Time 14hr 06min
  • Daily position: 87th

Touted as the make or break point of the race, if you get through today you stand a good chance of making it all the way. Or so they say. A mist smothered Cadair Idris was our wakeup call. I slowed my pace right down to try and right the wrongs of the previous days. Down to Dyffryn Dysynni, past the old ruins of Castell y Bere* and over Tarren Hendre to Machynlleth I went. By mid morning it hit 28 degrees and with less and less water en-route by the time we got to Machynlleth we were a sorry bunch. We decimated the little town like a plague of smelly, lycra clad locusts – consuming everything within reach. For the second half I had the pleasure of running in the company of Joe Foulkener (the only person to have completed all four DBRs). I learnt a lot. In an endurance sport like this, to have endured four of these things over a period spanning 25 years, is an incredible achievement. What a chief. I asked him why he had come back four times? “The journey” was his beautifully simple answer.

I was just coming down the final mountain of the day Pumlumon, when, with 500m to go, my shin went. I didn’t even know they could go! I had a searing pain down the outside of my right leg. I hobbled home, desperately trying to ignore the 71km that were waiting for me the next day.

Day Four

  • Route: Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr
  • Distance: 71km
  • Ascent: 2,400m
  • Time: 15hr 56min
  • Daily position: 138th

This day was one of the hardest of my life. I got up at 4:30am, strapped my right leg, had breakfast, packed and was gone with the first wave at 6 am. If I was going to make it I needed every second I could get. My shin was no better, in fact it was getting worse. I had over 130km of mountains still to go and I could not run downhill and even the flats were reduced to a wretched hobble. It was agonising. It was the first time I actually thought that I might not be able to finish. I started thinking of everyone that had helped me get this far – all the sacrifices others had made on my behalf – and here I was failing miserably, letting them down. It hit me like tonne of bricks and I started crying. My sunglasses were the only thing saving my embarrassment as other runners cruised past.

The next three hours were my lowest of the whole race. I eventually ran out of tape after plastering my entire foot in a desperate attempt to make it work. Although my pace was horrendously slow I was, however, moving in the right direction and miraculously my uphill legs were untouched. I set myself the goal of getting to the half way support-point in the hope that one of the medics could help me out. Through a mixture of bad singing and too much Ibuprofen I made it through the first 40km.

Berghaus Dragon's Back Race

 

This last support point was like a war zone. Bodies were strewn all over the place and busy medics were strapping people up. The only thing that was missing was some background artillery fire to set the mood. The medical team gave me a thorough check over and a stern talking to about taking too many Ibuprofen (it can lead to kidney failure when mixed with dehydration), but eventually gave me the good news – It wasn’t a stress fracture, the injury I had been dreading. Shin splints or tendonitis they said, and these would not leave any proper long term damage. On hearing this a weight lifted off my shoulders. It couldn’t get much worse than the previous five hours and I was closer to the finish. The mornings cry-baby episode seemed to have passed leaving me recharged and after overhearing my conversation with the medic, some absolute legend casually walked over and lent me one of his walking poles. Things were looking up.

I somehow started to enjoy it again. I shared a glorious sunset with a new Japanese friend over an otherwise deserted Caban-coch Reservoir. He was as delirious as me, repeatedly screaming “beautiful” at the top of his lungs as we came down the final mountain of the day. I soon realised that this was the sum total of his English vocabulary so I just joined in. This obviously developed into a Welsh/Japanese conversation about the merits of mars bars that made the final 10km of tarmac fly by. I made it with less than an hour to spare, which was the closest I came to the dreaded 11 pm cut-off.

Day 5

  • Route: Carmarthenshire and The Black Mountains
  • Distrance: 63km
  • Ascent: 2,200m
  • Time: 13hr 38min
  • Overall Position: 118th

This was the final push. I left at 6am sharp – no way was I falling at the final hurdle. I acquired a pair of semi-broken poles from the lost and found and got on with it. By now I’d perfected my drunken hobble and, excluding descents, could cruise at a respectable pace. It was hot, in a valley below Fan Brycheiniog (The Black Mountain) it hit 34 degrees, but apart from the heat the day passed without much incident. The organisers arranged some surprise choc ices at the final checkpoint, which were unimaginably good. They refused to let me into the freezer so I just had to crack on to the finish. I made it home in a total time of 66hr53min and in 96th position – a broken, smelly, happy mountain-mess looking for a shower and a beer. I had both and fell asleep halfway through the latter. Only 127 runners made it.

Winners

Men’s Race: The 2015 winner Jim Mann floated over the big rough stuff of the North and was leading until he made a navigational error on day three that saw him lose close to an hour to Marcus Scotney – then commenced an epic chase down the length of Wales that went down to the wire – Marcus being better on the flatter terrain of the south saw him hold onto his lead and won in a total running time of 37hr58min. Just to emphasise the quality of this field, this winter Jim Mann broke the records for all three UK fell running rounds (The Ramsey, the Bob Graham and the Paddy Buckley), in the same month. a phenomenal feat.

Women’s race – with half a day to go there were three women in it – on the way up to the final mountain the current race leader Sabrina Varjee went astray and the 20 min detour was enough to lose her the race lead to Irelands Carol Morgan who won the desperate chase to the finish and took the win in a total running time of 48hr41min and also took ninth position overall. One week after coming second in this race, Sabrina Varjee completed an unsupported Bob Graham Round in around 21 hours. This is mind boggling – at this point in time I’d just about managed to pull my shoes off and literally was struggling to walk. Not quite emulating Helene Whitakers feat, who beat some of the world’s best male mountain runners in 1992 to win the original DBR, but not bad!

 

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