If you had told me that one day I would be trudging and running all over Wales in a Five Day 200 Mile Race I would have laughed...but all to often the running gods have something else in mind and you wake up one day at the start line of something you thought you would never be doing. I was very fortunate to be traveling to Wales for the Berghaus DragonsBack Race with my good friend and coaching client, Pam Kirby of Austin Trail Running Company. Pam had made it to Day Three in 2017 before timing out and was determined to gain revenge on the Dragon in 2019.
There were two things for me to consider when doing this stage race.
First: Would I be able to commit to the amount of training needed to prepare through a snowy winter with no trails to run on. Not even dirt. Could I prepare myself for the best opportunity to finish?
Second: Family. How much would training cut into our time? Balance and compromise would be needed and thankfully my wife understands my world, has taken part in it and supported me beyond words.
DragonsBack was first run in 1992 and was supported by a Welsh Parachute Regiment. It was a long 20 years before the Dragon rose again in 2012 and has since been held in 2015, 2017 and now the Fifth Edition in 2019. It is a unique Stage Race.
Trail running involves moving on a designated path or trail.
Fell running (famous in the UK) is running your route of choice between checkpoints on NO set trail. In DragonsBack there are no Course Markings to guide you for the route.
No Aid Stations, only an area you would reach once a day to access your drop bag and water.
Racers must rely on map/compass/watch or gps. There are various checkpoints along the way that must be scanned to validate you were on the route. Each runner also carries a mandatory gps tracker. There are strict time cut-offs each day and if these were not reached, you were disqualified.
The route begins at the Castle Conwy (constructed in 1283 by King Edward I) in North Wales near the coast and heads south for nearly 200 miles (depending on your route choice) along the spine of numerous mountain ranges and open ranges to the town of Llandeilo and finishing near Castle DineFwr constructed in the late 12th Century. These castles are two of the 600 castles in Wales of which 100 have been restored.
The race is divided into five days with the first three being the most difficult. If you get through those three, statistically you have a good chance of finishing. The first day would have us climbing the highest 13 peaks in Wales. All in all, DragonsBack has 57,000 feet of climbing.
At night we were assigned to large 8-person tents that had four 2 person vestibules inside. Our overnight bags were put in the center so that sleeping areas had more room. Shoes, I mean stinky shoes, were left outside. For 4 nights we shared the same tent with the same people. If you had not reached designated time cutoff points for the day you were eliminated. On our first day we lost a tentmate to the cutoffs and our tent was a bit less crowded. My most valuable piece of sleeping gear was a Paria Air Pad and silicone ear plugs. (There is always a snoring monster in the bunch)
Racers are provided an early morning breakfast of cereal, oatmeal, eggs, sausages and toast or bagels and a dinner consisting of vegetarian fare like stews, pasta, curry and chips (fries) and gravy, salad and dessert later that night.
Tents and gear are moved by volunteers to new locations each day along with the mess tent....no showers just funk for five days. The only thing that mattered was eating, sleeping and making cutoffs...one hill and one checkpoint at a time.
My preparation began in January and consisted of long days listening to podcasts (Joe Rogan) and logging vertical on snow covered roads. I did high volume (70 mile weeks) of low intensity and lots of uphill (15,000 feet a week)
By the time I headed over to Wales I had accumulated over 1000 miles and 175,000 feet of climbing along with 25,000 box step-ups, 4500 pushups and 2500 pull-ups.
The most important aspect is the mental game. If you have any doubts for any race you may as well stay home. It is game over. Believing in your preparation is a key to success. It was once said, "You won't rise to your expectations, you will fall to the level of your training." I will admit I was nervous about navigating over 200 miles and had some concerns. I had no doubts about going the distance because you really can only break a stage race down to edible chunks. Checkpoint to checkpoint. Conserve the legs to preserve the body.
Our 3600 calories needed for each day on the course included:
Honey Stinger Chews
TrailButter and Bacon Jerky
I used an Ultimate Direction Mountain 4.0 pack and an Ultraspire belt to carry my poles and make some food more accessible.
My shoes were LaSportiva Mutants and Hoka Evo Mafate (For less Technical days) I also wore Drymax Socks.
The one piece of clothing that made all the difference for my legs was wearing RecoFit ankle to hip compression sleeves during the night while I slept. They helped control swelling and my legs felt more refreshed the next morning.
For cramping, muscle soreness and joint pain I took Hylands Leg Cramps and ArniSport. Normally 8 packs a day.
We also prepared each days route and checkpoints on a small recipe card. It displayed the actual checkpoint and the mileage from the start.
Example: CP1 Summit 12.2 miles
These cards were then laminated and I carried them in my pocket for reference. We could not afford any navigational errors that would cost us time. It was fairly easy to navigate though as race maps gave us a recommended route to follow. Basic compass skills and map reading were a requirement as technology could fail at any time.
So what was it like?
It was hard. Very hard.
Climb after climb after climb.
Technical, rocky and steep downhills.
Beautiful rolling fields shared with sheep. Open, soggy bogs.
Uneven footing. Some trail, mostly not. Towns few and far between.
Each day began like this:
4:30 wakeup and pack mat and sleeping bag. Brush nasty teeth.
5:00 be in line for breakfast. With your own mess kit and mug. I usually just had coffee with some Tailwind Recovery mixed in...a hot-choffee treat along with a protein puck with a whopping 400 calories.
6:00 Stand in line to turn in drop bags and camp bags.
At this point we were required to show items on our mandatory gear list, ie. headlamp, rain gear etc. Each day we were checked on different items. If you forgot them you received a strike. Three strikes and you were out.
6:15 Start. Racers could start individually or in groups anytime between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. The faster runners always started later.
I can honestly say that the first two days were the hardest mountain running I have ever done. Ever. The exposure, the scrambling, the steepness. It was unrelenting. The beauty and rawness of Wales left me speechless.........and breathless. Literally.
Usually there was a midday cut-off that had to be reached. On our third day we were only about 15 min. up on the cut-off approaching 1 p.m. This was the crux of the Dragon. Time to take the gloves off. It was time to race.
We ran through the next few checkpoints flawlessly, navigating the steep climbs and descents and gaining time. As we approached the cut-off point at the edge of a small town we were 1 hour 20 min. up. This gave us time to grab a coke and candy bar and chips before our drop bag. It was just enough to get revitalized with a short break. We left that cutoff with 13 minutes to spare but over the next 9 miles gained another hour of cushion.
There was hope. Three days down now and two to go.
Day 4 was no gimme. It was 44 miles and another 8000 feet of climbing. I knew that this day should not be underestimated. We had lost over 150 runners by this point in the race. It was long and hot then turned cold as we made our way down a winding 10k of road approaching darkness. There was nothing more welcome than the smiling face of a volunteer greeting you.
It was another 15 hour day. It was another one portion evening meal of lasagna eaten before dark. It was a pack prepared immediately for the next day. It was feet tenderly cleaned and cared for.
It was sleep that came effortlessly......
It was a blessing and a curse. A blessing to be nearly finished. A curse to be leaving the beautiful, rugged countryside. It was surreal and bittersweet. It was emotional.
The spirits of everyone were high.
Pam and I continued to focus on each checkpoint. No mistakes now. The Dragon was waiting to strike.
In a race like this things can change in a nano-second. Step on a rock wrong and roll an ankle. Fall.
Make a wrong turn. Ignore eating and your blood sugar drops and mistakes are made. With 8 miles to go a UK runner just behind us read his map wrong and went to the wrong peak. He backtracked. He went to another peak. Wrong. He corrected himself got it right and yet he arrived at the FINAL CUTOFF OF THE RACE 15 min. late. Game over. I really felt for the guy. To come that far. But that Dragonsback. Unforgiving.
In the twilight of that fifth day after 72 hours on a 200 mile course we entered the town of Llandeilo and the finish of a grand adventure.
I very rarely, if ever, have moist eyes but that finish got me and to do it with a great friend made it so special.
Would I do it again? Nope
Some things are better left alone. It was once upon a time, it will never be again.
A do-over could never be better.
I loved preparing for Dragonsback.
I loved each day of the race and the difficulties of them.
I loved knowing there was no way out. Only forward.......