Registration is now in full swing at Ysgol Porth y Felin, a primary school set beneath the fortified town walls of Conwy and 232 runners from 24 different nations are going through the formalities ahead of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race.
There is a noisy hubbub in hall as a dozen tables are staffed and the runners move around for kit and ID checks, labels, tracker collection, and to pick up maps and numbers. There are a lot of people talking at once, and the racers are excited to reach the start of a race they have been preparing for over many months, in some cases years.
Pre-race drybag prep ©guillemcasanova.com
The activity helps ease the nerves that have been building up, and they have reason to be nervous, as this is no ordinary race. It is often referred to as a legendary race, and for many years that is exactly what it was.
The first Dragon’s Back Race took place in 1992 and attracted some of the very best mountain and ultra runners in the world. (I’m not sure the name ‘Trail runner' was even in use then.) The 5 stages along the mountain spine of Wales tested them to the limit, and with the backing of an oil company as sponsor the press coverage was extensive, helped by the fact the race was won by a mixed pair, Helene Diamantides and Martin Stone. Naturally most of the coverage focussed on Helene.
Martin and Helene, 1992 ©Rob Howard
The race was a great success, but it was too hard to repeat and despite all that was said and written about it at the time, it didn’t continue. The Dragon’s Back Race became a legend, remembered as a one-off gathering of the mountain running elite who gathered a long time ago to achieve near impossible feats.
The legend of the race was no doubt built up over time as it’s story was spread by word-of-mouth among the running community though the years. At the time of the first race there were no digital photographs, websites or social media and if you search for information online from the original race you won’t find any. In today’s terms it may as well have happening during a past age when the castles along the route saw battle and dragons roamed!
But as we now know, one of those who knew of this legendary race was Shane Ohly of Ourea Events, and he was inspired to revive it in 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the original. Shane does not like to compromise on his route setting, so he took the iconic 1992 route ... and he made it harder!
The original route didn’t visit a great many summits and included considerable road running sections so he revised it to be a more mountainous challenge, truly following the mountain spine of the country. To this end he also included all the Welsh 3000’summits on day one, and of the 80 who started that race only 30 made it to the finish line.
2012 on Crib Goch ©Jon Brooke
The runners had been told the history of the race, and to expect one of the ‘hardest mountain running races in the world’, but that phrase and the word ‘legendary’ are so often event marketing hype and in consequence perhaps they underestimated the race. Those who took part in 2012 found out the legend WAS true! It WAS one of the hardest mountain running races in the world!
A change of date for longer daylight hours, and taking out some of the Welsh 3000’s on the first day allowed for a higher finish rate in 2015. And by now most (but not all) of those entering knew what they were up against.
Another ‘modern’ variation added in 2015, which the original racers and organisers could not possibly have imagined, was to issue a GPX track of the route for loading onto a handheld GPS devices (or watches). Navigation was still important, but technology now helped.
Navigation, and route choice between checkpoints still play a key part in the race, and the organisers are keen to stress The Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race is not a trail race. The rebirth of the race coincided with a boom in trail running, but this is a mountain race and 22% of the route this year is described as ‘trackless’. Much of the time there is no trail!
Those registering now, and setting off from the courtyard inside Conwy Castle just after dawn tomorrow morning, will become part of the remarkable history of this great race. If they’ve prepared properly, and all goes well, they may join the elite few who can say they’ve finished the Dragon’s Back Race.
2012 start at Conwy Castle, ©Rob Howard