I first came across the Dragon’s Back Race (DBR) through Vassos Alexander’s book: Running Up That Hill: The highs and lows of going that bit further in which he described this absolute monster. I’d not been running regularly for long at the time, and had only just started to leave the tarmac, so it was certainly something I viewed in disbelief.
Over the next few months, I seemed to have a flurry of DBR accounts, videos and marketing thrown my way. The joys of the internet and its algorithms perhaps. At that point, I clocked that the race began in Conwy, where my parents had moved to once I’d flown the nest for university. This made me turn my head and notice. But still, I continued to view it with disbelief and awe.
However, as is the case with these silly races, the notion that this was in effect a “local” race was something I couldn’t get out of my head, and it started to become something I referred to as a “one day, perhaps” bucket list item.
The mistake I made was mentioning it to a friend at work, who quite fancied the idea of doing it himself, and evidently brought it up enough for me to say, “OK, I’ll have a crack in three years”. This led me to fill out a volunteer application for the race and not long after to receive an email to say that I had been successful. For context, I had said that I would look to volunteer before attempting because a) I’d gain invaluable insight from the week and, given I’m an adopted Yorkshireman, b) you get a free entry to use within the following two years.
“Things are now in motion that cannot be undone” – Gandalf.
So that is how I came to find myself stumbling over to Conwy School the Saturday morning before the race start on the Monday, looking bleary-eyed and wondering what I had signed up for.
The DBR bills itself as “The World’s Toughest Mountain Race”. It’s 380km across six days, with 17,400m of climb, across the spine of Wales from Conwy to Cardiff. I kept thinking: if it’s that tough for the competitors I can’t imagine it’s going to be a breeze for the crew either.
I’d been informed that I would be on the “Main Camp Team”. From watching enough documentaries of the race, I knew this would, at a minimum, involve putting up and taking down around 40 or more eight-person tents each day (it turned out to be 56). Back-testing stuff.
The weekend before the race start consisted of team inductions and instructions: everything from dos and don’ts for the week, to how to put up a Berghaus eight-person tent; and, most importantly, registration of the 360-odd participants of this year’s DBR, fewer than usual due to the pandemic.
Where the day before had felt slower paced, with team introductions and rules and regulations, the Sunday suddenly saw the whole crew sprang into action. The tent was transformed with impressive large screens showcasing DBR videos and various pictures of winners and participants from years gone by.
Then, before I knew it, runners started arriving. As you’d expect, this really gets the excitement and nerves going, which you could see across both participants and crew – it all started to feel quite real.
I, along with a happy fellow Yorkshireman, and hopefully future NLFR member, called Will, found ourselves initially tasked with weighing participants’ dry bags, of which they were each allowed a large overnight 60L bag and a smaller 15L day bag. These were to (strictly) weigh no more than 15kg and 2.5kg respectively.
It was clear that keeping under these weight limits, for some at least, had been no easy task. The look of dread on many runners’ faces approaching me, bags in hand, had me wondering if this was the environment a Weight Watchers session housed week in week out. The look of despondency on their faces on being told they were over the limit, very much so in a couple of instances, brought an equally apologetic one from myself and Will. And so would commence the chaos of tipping out odds and sods to try and figure out what item(s) would amount to the offending weight.
Tragically, though somewhat thankfully, given the growing heat in the marquee, we were told that the scales we were using were giving different readings to the final weigh-ins at bag drop off and were consequently relieved of our duties.
Our new responsibility then turned to meet and greet at the front of the marquee, welcoming and directing the sudden influx of hundreds of runners who’d arrived on coaches from Cardiff, ensuring they moved along in an orderly fashion.
I enjoyed this new task as it gave me the chance to speak to many an aspiring dragon slayer as they queued up. It’s safe to say there was a range of different runners with mixed experience, from those who’d hardly run in the mountains, to seasoned mountain goats with a steely, determined look in their eye. In my excitement of recognising him, I couldn’t resist the urge to say hello to Steve Birkinshaw and letting him know I am currently reading his book. Far too fanboyish, but oh well. Then suddenly registration was done. The runners were briefed, fed and ready for bed.
Monday morning was an early start for all, but the enthusiasm in the air was palpable. As with any race start line, there were runners doing last-minute stretches and scurrying around looking for mandatory kit they’d misplaced. By and large though, there were smiles all around, the mix of relief and excitement that only comes from runners who are finally about to be let loose out of weeks of tapering.
Sadly, another casualty of COVID was the lack of choir to sing at the start line, usual DBR feature, but given the past 18 months, it was going to take a lot more to dampen the mood. I was in awe of the speedsters at the front – Kim Collinson and Marcus Scotney stood out to me in particular – with their steely mountain legs. Then suddenly the countdown began and they were off!
As the runners proceeded along the castle walls up towards Conwy Mountain, the crew made their way back to the registration base to take down tents and load up the final pieces onto the convoy, a fleet of 60 vehicles.
The journey to the first overnight camp offered the chance to familiarise with those we would be sharing a vehicle with for the week. By luck or by design, though I’m confident it’s the latter, everyone across the crew, including those in the vehicle I was in, were friendly, enthusiastic and hardy. As the week went on you would find out more and more hidden gems about each other’s background, from impressive endurance track records to aspirations for setting astounding new ones.
Overnight camp one (based at Gwastadannas) is in a stunning setting, with imposing mountains overlooking the site, and refreshing neighbouring streams flowing into Llyn Gwynant.I say refreshing as the early morning mist and gloom had lifted to give rise to a sunny day. At ground level, it was ideal, neither too hot nor too cold, but you could see how piercing the sun was if you were on the tops, particularly the last section running the Snowdon horseshoe.
And so began the chaos of putting up 56 tents. Thankfully, they were air tents so there wasn’t the usual mayhem that comes with fitting poles. However, 56 tents are no easy work, and I say that knowing that there were 365 poor souls soldiering across some of Wales’s toughest mountains. I won’t labour the point, but it’s not until you’re faced with the prospect, that you realise the thought and effort that goes into ensuring the tents fit the field, aren’t too close to the toilets, are correctly put up and ordered and 101 other things I’ve since forgotten.
Whilst we continued erecting the tents, news dribbled through that some well-known names – Scotney, Collinson and Berkinshaw – had withdrawn due to injury. That left two Welsh lads – Simon Roberts and Russell Bentley – leading the race.
Once the tents were up, the Main Camp team awaited the first runners in. The team had been split into two – early birds and night owls – depending on the shift you would do. The role was to greet runners as they came in, source and carry their overnight bag to their tent, and check that they were OK. As I was on lates for the week, I decided to mill about my tent for a time. As this was next to a stream, it meant I could chat to some of the runners as they came in and beelined to the water to cool down. There was quite a range in the state of the runners – from Russell Bentley who looked as fresh as a cucumber and happy to make conversation as he cooled down, Katie Mills (leading woman) who was full of beans and possibly the happiest person on-site during the whole week, to runners who had clearly found day one a gruelling battle in the heat.
When it was my turn to bring runners their drop bags, I was raring to go, excited to hear how they had found the day. Though many arrived looking somewhat battered, by in large there were smiles across the board, the satisfying sort that comes at the end of a long day in the mountains.
As the night went on and the cut off time of 22:00 loomed, the mood changed more to relief at having made it in time. You could see the final descent from the camp, with the line of torchlights making their way down from the top, allowing us a best guess of which runners were likely to make it in time. I found it quite sombre to see the lights in the distance, knowing there was next to no chance they would make it in time.
The clock ticked past 22:00 and that was it, any further participants were no longer in the race. I collected the bag of the next runner (who was one minute late) and tried to offer my condolences as he was in a desolate mood. It had been a brutal first day, with roughly a third of the field not making it through.
And that was largely how the week continued to go. We would rise early, take down the tents and pack everything into vans, make our way to the next site, and set up as quickly as we could ahead of the arriving runners. Day one’s heat had nothing on day two, which was a real scorcher and saw the field culled even further. The third was a lot kinder in terms of temperature, and by in large those that made it through that day went on to complete. Days four and five saw the weather flip on its head, with rain, the threat of thunder and changing visibility.
This year, Race Director Shane Ohly had amended the route to include a sixth day, enabling it to become a coast-to-coast race finishing at Cardiff Castle. On arriving, much of the branding and marquees had already been set up and it was an impressive sight to see. It was somewhat surreal pitching up my tent in the heart of the castle grounds. The setting looked fantastic and worth the added day (admittedly that’s easy to say when you haven’t run from Conwy).
Then before I knew it, the first runners had arrived – Simon and Russel – still holding an impressive pace at this final stage, followed by a steady stream of happy and relieved faces. The atmosphere was joyous and complimented by an idyllic sunny day to reflect the mood.
The presentation of trophies then got underway, with many a sore (but beaming) finisher limping their way to the stage to collect their deserved prize. Once the winners had received theirs, everyone funnelled out to the finish line to eagerly await the final runner, who was greeted with resounding applause and handed his dragon trophy by the first male (Simon Roberts) and first female (Katie Mills) – fun fact: the last DBR finisher receives the largest, and perhaps most impressive, trophy of all. And just like that, the 2021 Dragon’s Back Race was finished.
All in all, it was a fantastic week filled with great people and lots of fun. Shane clearly knows what he’s doing and puts on a great race. I would recommend volunteering at an Ourea Events race to anyone.
So now it’s time to start the long process of getting my injury-ridden body to the start line in a couple of years. I’m under no illusion that the race doesn’t live up to its name in terms of toughness, but in any case, the hourglass has been turned and the countdown clock on my free entry has begun. But to quote Tolkien again: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him”.