A stream of runners ran along the turreted town walls of the North Wales coastal town of Conwy this morning, setting out on the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race 2017. They were starting the first of 5 days of extreme mountain running, following a route down the mountain spine of Wales and the start released the pre-race tension. The 223 international runners face a daunting challenge and now , at last, they were underway!
Participants gather at Conwy Castle for the start of the 2017 Berghaus Dragon's Back Race - photo credit www.guillemcasanova.com
As they passed me on the narrow stone walkway the runners were taking in the majestic setting, and I heard shouts of,” What a day!” and “This is a bad ass start!” (It was a near perfect day for running with dry conditions, now low cloud on the hills to hamper navigation, and dry conditions.)
Everyone had assembled in the Conwy Castle car park for 06.00 on a fine Monday morning and at 06.30 they filed up the ramps into the castle ready for the start. The start banner was set up inside the huge open castle courtyard and everyone had time to explore, climbing up onto the ramparts from where they could look down on the start and out to the hills beyond. The perfect place for the pre-race selfie.
It is fantastic setting for the race, and the songs of the local Welsh male voice choir echoed around the walls to build the atmosphere and welcome the racers to Wales. They even sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in Welsh for one participant!
Pre-race photo opportunity with spirits running high - photo ©guillemcasanova.com
There were hugs for old friends met at previous races, some of the runners had friends and family with them for company and there are some groups who have travelled together. A Japanese quartet were lively, stretching, laughing and joking, and all wearing headbands emblazoned with the red sun. Miyuki Tamura (Mimi) told me, “We all saw a talk by a participant from 2015 and were inspired to come by the scenery. In Japan we have lots and lots of trail races and many mountains – the sport is very popular.” The four travelled together but run at different paces and will meet up each night in the camp.
Also cutting a dash was Nick Hollon of the USA, wearing resplendent vividly coloured beach shorts and top. He just said, “It’s a special occasion, isn’t it?”, and added, “It’s my first trip to Wales.” He is among the elite racers, listing a finish at the infamous Barkley Marathons on his race record.
The race background of the participant is varied and there are numerous adventure racers in the field. Wendy and Inge Fjellstad have raced several times in the Adventure Racing World Championships and I asked if they’d completed any stage runs before. “No,” said Inge, “We have run 24 hour events before but not a running stage race, though we raced many times for a week non-stop in adventure races. For us it will be strange to stop and sleep at night and not to cycle or canoe!” Wendy said, “We’ve were attracted to come because it’s a race we don’t know if we can finish. It’s both daunting and exciting!”
Maelgwn Male Voice Choir serenaded competitors ahead of the start of the 2017 Berghaus Dragon's Back Race - photo credit www.guillemcasanova.com
Some were returning to the race, several having set off in 2015, but not made it to the finish line. One of those with unfinished business is Enrico Bieri of Germany who told me, “I had to pull out after day 3 last time so wanted to try again.” Enrico is easy to spot as he’s the tallest racer in the field! There is a large contingent of Swiss and German racers here and Carsten Drilling said, “I have run many times across the Alps, but I know this is different. Everything is signed there and there are more trails, here we are navigating and off the track.”
Not all the runners were in groups or had friends to chat to. Many were solitary, quietly enjoying the atmosphere or focusing on what lay ahead ... or perhaps trying not to! One such was BBC Radio 2 sports presenter Vassos Alexander, who was standing on his own. He’s a regular trail and marathon runner, but is stepping up to a whole new level of difficulty on the Dragon’s Back Race and perhaps only just now realising the full enormity of the challenge. He’d recently been on the start line of the London Marathon, but his was a very different start line for him. “I asked,” half jokingly, “What possessed you?” He took the question seriously and said, “That’s a very good question ... and one I really don’t have an answer for right now!”
He’s not alone, all of the runners will have asked questions of themselves, and over the next 5 days they are here to find their answers.