"The legendary Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ follows the mountainous spine of Wales from north to south. This incredible 5-day journey is 315 kilometres long with 15,500 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain. It is the toughest 5-day mountain race in the world."
I lined up on the start line (with long time friend Ash, we were taking on this challenge together) of this infamous race with these words from the official website spinning around my head! This was to be the toughest challenge of my life, and without sounding like a showboating bragger, I've done some pretty tough stuff in the past!
I was quietly confident that I had what it takes to complete this race, a race that has previously only seen roughly 50% of it's starters even make it to the finish line! I know I was fit enough, but there were some fierce cut-offs that were dominating my mind, would I be quick enough over the unforgiving terrain to stay in the race?
Day 1 - The Dragon's Punch in the Face
Carneddau, Glyderau and Snowdon massif
With considerable ascent, day 1 was the Dragon's Back way of sorting the men from the boys, you would soon know if you had what it takes to complete this iconic race as we headed straight into the mountains. The weather was warm and we were working our way from checkpoint to checkpoint with relative ease, we knew the terrain from previous recce's and our plan to preserve ourselves seemed to be working as we hit the first cut off with over 2 hours to spare. This was going to be easy!!
Each day had multiple checkpoints where you had to 'dib' in, between checkpoints you could take whatever route you pleased, so navigation was key. At least twice a day there were checkpoints with a timed cut off, miss the cut off, even by seconds, and you are out the race.
We then headed up Tryfan, basically rock climbing our way, without ropes, to the summit, from here on the day got serious as we headed into mist and then eventually up to the famous Crib Goch ridgeline, up to Snowdon then a few more peaks after, just to finish us off for the day. It was brutally hard terrain but we moved fairly well and made it in with plenty of time to spare, day 1 complete, success.
Day 2 - The Reality Check
Moelwynion and Rhinogydd
Day 1 had been really tough, but we'd tackled it well, not going to fast or hard and getting ourselves into the finish with plenty of time to spare before the cut-off. If we could maintain this, it would be a fantastic, stress free, week. Then day 2 happened, and our new found confidence was beaten out of us.
We headed into the Moelwyn's and into the mist, this was a section we we'd recce'd but I was struggling to remember any of it, I simply couldn't visualise most of the section and it was bugging me. We navigated fairly well, a few minor mistakes, through the mountains and felt that we were cruising nicely. Then we realised something, we really were cursing nicely, too nicely, we'd already become complacent as we hit a checkpoint just 2 minutes within the recommended time. It was panic time, how had this happened? Why were we so slow compared to yesterday? With no time to consider the details we started HAMMERING the next 2 sections, hitting the hills hard and running the flats much faster than we'd have liked, but we had no choice, there was no way I was getting timed out if I could help it. Thankfully we nailed the nav through a tricky section and got to the timed checkpoint with 30mins to spare, we'd made up enough time to at least eat and briefly rest.
The afternoon saw the sun blazing down on us, it was BOILING. We went up the Rhinogs and then messed up our descent of the first one, annoying as we'd recce'd a great decent only weeks before, it took us ages to get down as we crawled down huge boulders, avoiding massive holes, and heather traps. Again, we were losing time.
We hacked on over the next few mountains, 5mins within the recommended time again, time to hammer another section. I was exhausted, the efforts from earlier, and the heat, were getting to me. We made up the time though. When we eventually got in, it was late, almost 10pm, this was not ideal but we were still in the race, many other were not.
Late finishes would now become the theme of the week, we'd get in at 10pm, quickly eat, wash our feet, take care of kit, set up beds, sleep for 4-5 hours maximum then the alarm went off at 4:45am. Straight up, breakfast, pack kit, back on the course at 6am. It was the only way we'd complete this race and it was relentless.
Day 3 - Long and Lumpy and Neverending
Cadair Idris and Pumlumon Fawr
This was a day to fear, huge distance and yet still loads of climbing to be done. We'd be lead to believe that if you can crack 2/3's of this day, you were pretty much home and dry for the race. Many people had already retired or been timed out, including some friends, we had to do this, for them, for everyone that was supporting us, for ourselves.
We were confident on this day as it had more runnable sections and less technical climbing, which suited us. The heat was cranking up even more and it apparently hit the late 20's on this day. When you are out on the open hills you are literally getting baked by the sun, there is no shade, it was like doing a hilly version of the Marathon Des Sables!
We moved well and but we were still close to the cut-off times, thankfully not as close as the previous day for the most part, just keep moving, just keep moving. Once again the climbs were relentless but the views spectacular, we were both really flagging again, the previous days and lack of sleep catching up with us. This day seemed to go on FOREVER and it was another late finish, but we made it, we were still in the race, somehow!
Day 4 - Wales Doesn't Get this Hot
Elan Valley and Drygarn Fawr
Another incredibly long day and another incredibly hot day. This day had the 'slightly less ascent' tag attached to it very quickly, but with 3 days of mountain running, crawling, climbing, walking in our legs, it wasn't going to be easy.
We started the day in the best way possible, by getting lost! Thankfully it wasn't just us but a huge clan of around 25 runners all looking confused in a forest. It's this way, it's that way, the problem here was there were too many chefs, and no one knew who to trust, or not trust! We ended up sliding down a forest covered cliff in the end, spilling out onto a footpath at the bottom, much to the shock and amusement of our fellow competitors who had taken the correct route. This wasn't good for time, we lost a load and were already playing catch up. Thankfully there were some straight forward runnable sections ahead and we took full advantage, gaining back the time we'd lost and some.
I'd been lucky up to this point, with minimal blisters or issues. This changed when I lost my foot in a hole full of cow shit! Not a big deal initially but suddenly my heel started to sting, really sting! I had the tiniest crack appearing and the dirty water was clearly aggravating it. You have to sort these issues early, before they get out of hand, otherwise you are in trouble. I did a quick job on it out on the trails and then as soon as I got to the timed check point, new shoes went on and the issue was taped, and taped some more. Problem sorted.
It was another huge day and we were totally broken by the end, drained of all energy, it was put determination that drove us forward, we got in late again but we knew there was one day to go and the end was in sight.
Day 5 - How Can We Stop You Now?
Carmarthenshire and The Black Mountain
This was it, time to finish this thing. Final day, it didn't matter than we could hardly walk when we woke up, it didn't matter that we were totally ruined, there was nothing that would stand in our way between us and the Dragon trophy that lie in wait.
Or was there?
I knew that if we got to day 5 in one piece, we'd nailed this race. We'd not been fast, but we were still in the race and all I cared about was getting to the end and getting that Dragon trophy. We set off sore and aching. We'd recce'd this whole day previously and knew it was relatively straight forward, or from what I could remember at least...
The first 30km flew by, we were smashing it, 2.5 hours ahead of the time cut-off and enjoying ourselves. We grabbed more food at a check point and cracked on, eager to get this thing done. Then the wheels started to fall off, and the doors, the windows, the lights....everything. It was BOILING, and there was hardly any water around so we were rationing. I could feel myself burning up and getting dangerously dehydrated. Just keep moving.
We had one last mountain range to conquer, and from what I remembered, it wasn't so bad, I'd remembered wrong. For some reason I'd forgotten about an additional 3 or 4 summits that we had to hit, and they were horrible. I was hot, felt ill, struggling to eat, surely I wasn't going to fail now? I had concerns for sure.
We kept going, I was grumpy, tired and felt worse and worse as time went by. The going was slow but we kept moving, one step at a time. FINALLY we made it to the castle that marked 5km to the finish. We were buzzing, I started to perk up as I knew it was all downhill from here, Ash was bouncing around like he was on a parkrun!
The final 3km were on road, and earlier in the day I'd made a promise to Ash, when we hit the road, we'll put some music on to distract us from the pain. We hit the road and I stopped and started fiddling with my phone, Ash was keen to get on and then the music started playing (A punk band called Midtown if anyone cares!?) and we both had huge grins on our faces. We ran down that hill like school kids at a rock concert for the first time, jumping around and playing air guitar as we went, time flew and that memory will last with me forever more. Then we saw a steward waving and clapping, I quickly turned the music off, we were done, we'd done it, we finished, we BLOODY FINISHED...we entered the finishers funnel to whoops and cheers, I had a tear in my eye, it was over, we were done.
We did it, never any doubt ;)
I want to thank everyone for all their amazing support and Ash for being the best running buddy anyone could ever have, we completing this race against the odds and it was an experience that I will never forget.
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