In most races the lead contenders will most likely know each other and have raced against their rivals before, but that is not quite so true of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race. Some here will know each other by reputation and results, the British mountain runners will have raced against each other, but even so the first morning is a chance to settle into a pace and then look to see who is around you.
Among the elite runners it was perhaps also a chance to make a statement by starting strongly, but on such a hard first day of 5 that is risky. It is likely some of those in the top 10 may suffer from starting too fast in the days ahead because this first day is an abrupt introduction to the realities of the race.
Early on in day 1 - Conwy Mountain ©iancorless.com
It’s not the longest day, but does have the most ascent and descent as it takes the runners across 3 ranges, the Carneddau, the Glyders and the Snowdon range. Much of the ground it rough going and in his briefing Shane Ohly described it as, “starting your traverse over the dragon at the head, setting off straight into the teeth and the fire!”
One runner who knows exactly what to expect of course, is defending champion Jim Mann. Mann’s reputation is considerable, for his win in 2015, and since then for an unparalleled set of mountain challenge records set all around the UK, but he’s perhaps so well known outside the UK. He is the home favourite taking on all comers and it was something of a surprise when he was a late entry. After his impressive win in 2015 he had nothing to prove and this is not a race to lightly enter for a second time, especially if you won first time out.
NIckadaemus Hollon from the USA heading up the Tryfan, above Llyn Ogwen ©iancorless.com
Mann was first into the support point in the Ogwen Valley today with an 8 minute lead, and behind him was Marcus Scotney, another well known British runner, and the winner of the first Cape Wrath Ultra last year. (The other Ourea stage race which alternates years with the Dragon’s Back Race). Scotney is a meticulous planner and will have researched the route in detail but won’t know it as well as Mann.
One of the Race Director’s picks for the podium, Neil Talbott, was in third and also among the top group of runners was Jez Bragg. A former UTMB winner, Bragg has been to this race before in 2015, but came in straight after another mountain challenge and didn’t finish the course. I’m sure he has unfinished business here.
The first woman into the support point was Sabrina Verjee, who completed the race in 2015 (14th overall) and has won the Silva Great Lakeland 3Day event this year too. She was surprised to find the support point so early in the day. She must have forgotten where it was from 2 years ago!
Caroline McIlroy, putting in a strong bid for podium placement for the women ©iancorless.com
The support point was set up in a layby on the A5, by Ogwen Lake and directly below Tryfan, the rocky peak which the runners had to cross next. The leading runners had approached along the road from both directions, coming around either end of the lake as they descended into the valley, and this is just one of dozens of route variations along the course. Apart from small areas marked as mandatory the runners do have free choice, although there is a ‘recommended route’ marked on their maps.
This variety was illustrated again when Bruce Poll left the transition in a different way to everyone else, and set off directly up the craggy face of Tryfan. He is a mountain guide and must have decided the direct line was quicker for him. Everyone else I saw took the longer way around on the path.
You can follow these variations on the race tracking and see all the runner’s positions. It is very early days, but the first morning at least gives us an idea of who the front runners might be in the days ahead.