The Dragon's Back race has become a legendary race due to its reputation as being one of the hardest mountain races in the World. The route follows the mountainous spine of Wales from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle and competitors spend an incredible 5 days racing approximately 300km across wild, trackless, remote terrain and incorporating 16,000 metres of mountainous ascent. It isn't a trail race and it isn't for everyone; only the most capable runners can compete with cut-off points each day to ensure the safety of competitors. The original Dragon's Back Race took place in September 1992 and, ever since, it has been whispered about with a mix of awe and trepidation. Its reputation is legendary and the race has only happened twice since the inaugural event.
|Jim at the start. ©Joe Faulker, NAV4.|
In 2012 I raced the Dragon and everything that could go wrong went wrong. I'd had a month out injured before the race but when I managed a 30 mile run the weekend before I decided I could probably manage it, (yes yes I know about tapering now!). Needless to say on day 1 I got completely lost not once but twice, (over an hour of errors in good weather), and then blew up really badly. Day 2 and onwards was about finishing and having been lucky enough to meet the legend that is Helene Whittaker on Crib Goch on day 1 I had some company for the journey and a new friend as well. It was tough though - really tough.
So why go back?
I could do better - I knew I could and it was eating away at me. I was fit and procrastinating about entering but Shane had promised to hold a place for as long as it took me to decide. 10 days before I finally cracked. The email said all that was required: "Room for a little one??"
I started really steady, determined not to get caught up in a race. I saw in 2012 how easily people get caught in a head to head battle and that is when the Dragon itself strikes and they are gone - onto the DNF list – that wouldn't be happening to me!
I was one of the last out of the castle and again off the walls. At the punching start I was away and immediately picking my route through the field - there were a couple of single track paths which were frustrating but over time I started to gain on the leaders who I could see stretched out a good half mile in front. By the time we got into the Carneddau I was with the leaders. It didn't seem like anyone was keen to take it on so I just kept the same pace and eased ahead. Andre Jonsson (Inov8) came with me and then pushed a little more. I let him go - I meant what I had said about running my own race and racing today was not in the plan. On the top of Carnedd Dafydd I realised that the control box had not been touched, I was first here. The fog was thick so I had no idea where I had taken the lead as I could only see a few meters but I was pretty sure I was first through. I stuck with the plan and ran steadily but consistently all the way to Llyn Ogwen where the 'mid day' drop bags would be. We were just below the mist here which was bad. I knew the next section and didn't want to be followed or to be a target for someone to lock on to so I pushed down the road, grabbed a couple of ready prepared bottles and an eccles cake and left as fast as I could - I wanted to get back into the mist before anyone could follow me. There is a good footpath up Tryfan from the car park but instead I went up the valley a little bit so I could hide in the gully and scramble up that way. Time wise there is not much difference but the scramble is steep and far more fun :)
Eventual 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ winner, Jim Mann, heading away from Pen-y-Pass at the start of the Snowdon horseshoe. ©iancorless.com
I kept my head down and cracked on. Tryfan felt slow with lots of wet slippery rock but I found a good line over the Glyders and was feeling better. At Pen-y-Pass I mistakenly ran right past the control station and ended up doing a full lap of the cafe to get the punch. The next bit I was not very sure of. I had never been up Crib Goch from this end so was a little nervous especially as the mist was still low but I just headed up and then along the top and it was fine. A small nav wobble with the penultimate control of the day and I was headed into the camp. Leading had never been in the plan but I felt ok. I had worked hard but was far from all in. I punched and got straight into my recovery regime. Warm, hydrate, feed, feed more, sleep lots. Tomorrow would be a big day; the Moelwyns and Rhinogs are my favourite parts of the route and I planned to go hard.
People looked tired as they came in - had I looked that tired - I didn't think so but maybe??
The fast guys certainly looked more tired than I felt and hopefully on today's rough ground I could do some damage.
I let everyone go first then got settled and started to push on pretty fast. I was intent on testing people today to see who was serious. On the way to CP3 I saw Andre coming away from it. I could only be a couple of minutes behind him yet he had set out about 10mins ahead of me. I went after him - no doubt now my race head was well and truly on. I caught him at CP4 and took off down the hill. I had recce'd that descent and knew my line. I was in no mood for company and wanted to avoid any chance of being trailed through the Rhinogs. He dropped back but I decided to keep pushing hard to the road then ease back a little.
I was worried that the pace was too fast and I may pay the penalty later. Just as I got to the road though Ed Catmur appeared - I hadn't expected that and it gave me a big lift initially (I had Ed down as pre race favourite) but then I realised I had to get past him and away before the next bit if I wanted to run on my own. I knew I had to keep pushing hard. Thankfully I got away and once I was safely hidden in the forest I set about refuelling. It had been tough work but I was on my own and getting closer to the Rhinogs which made me happy - they are the most fantastic, remote hills, wild, untouched and strewn with huge boulders; I can't help but smile just thinking of them. The next bit was messy and some people went right round on the main road or through one of the low cols. I opted for the direct route right over the top of the ridge. It's a bit less distance and a bit more climb so probably not much in it either way but my route certainly has the best views. It is a stunning ridge that very few people visit and sometimes what is good for the spirit is good for the body too. I didn't see a single person until I dropped into the col above the aid station on the other side (clearly not the path most trod - you all missed out ;) )
Jezz Bragg heads off into the Moelwyn mountains on the second day of the 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™. ©iancorless.com
I had a quick turnaround at half way - it was hot so I picked up my belt which had additional food and water in it as well as my 2 ready prepared bottles. I wasn't in great shape as the heat and pace were taking their toll so I made sure I ate and drank as much as I could. Drinking was fine but I was suffering indigestion and having real trouble eating. Near the top of the first Rhinog I saw Jez Bragg and then realised Jasmin was there too. That was great news race wise as the only person I hadn't seen was Konrad but they told me he was struggling with a bad foot and just behind us so I guess I passed him whilst taking a more direct route up. If I could hold this together I would have a very good lead tonight. I went past Jez and Jasmin before the long gully descent and Jasmin came with me. I was glad of the company. We ran together all the way through the Rhinogs chatting. I knew some good lines here and was happy to share them as I had now built a significant lead. On the run in though when we were nearly back, the wheels fell off completely and suddenly. The lack of eating caught up with me and I was on empty. I ate a full bag of sweets, just stuffing them in but it wasn't working. I was a little better but still a real mess. Jasmin waited - she didn't have to do that and I didn't expect her to but she saw it as repayment for me showing her the fast route over the last few hills (I love this sport - where else would that happen?).
At the end I moved straight into recovery focus again. Warm, dry, eat, hydrate, shower etc. People generally seem to think we relax at the end of stage but that really isn't true. The recovery is as important as the running if you are going to run hard again the next day. I went as far as to have a list on my bag to remind me of what I must do both at the midday and the overnight – don't worry that level of organisation won't last :)
News started to come in of a rapidly depleting field. Ed Catmur retired after a fall, Andre Jonsson retired with knee trouble, Jez Bragg was solid but a fair way back, clearly feeling the effects of his record breaking Ramsay Round just a week ago and Damian Hall had dropped back a bit further so that left Jasmin and Konrad just over an hour and 1hr 20mins behind me respectively.
For the first time I started to think that this might be a race I could win but I needed another good day tomorrow. Jasmin really worried me - she had finished a lot stronger than me and could have taken a good few minutes back off me at the end if she had pushed on. She is fiercely competitive, very determined and extremely fast and if she kept getting stronger then the next 3 days would be really tough. The other girls were having a strong showing too, with Beth Pascall and Lizzie Wraith starting to work their way up the field and looking very comfortable whenever I saw them.
I was awakened by people moving about in the night so got up and had some more food and went to the toilet at 1am. My legs were a bit sore so I decided to stretch them until they were loosened up. Charlie Sproson was just getting washed after a long day of looking after us all (I had no idea till then that the marshals and support team were doing 1am finishes and 4am starts - thank you all so much for your hard work and constant happy smiles!). I think he thought I had got up just to stretch in secret in the middle of the night and he had fun winding me up about it.
Braddan Johnson nears the summit of Gau Graig the first checkpoint on day three. ©iancorless.com
In the morning I wasn't very keen to get going and had to be chased from my tent by the poor marshals who had to pack everything up and move it on - sorry. Again I was off last and on a mission. Today I had to chase down Jasmin - if I could extend my lead to 1hr 30mins I felt that I would have a defend-able lead but that was a big ask and there is a lot of trail on day 3. I don't like road or trail so this was going to be hard work but mission 'hunt Jasmin' was on. It started well with a decent first climb but as I got onto the end of the Cadair Idris ridge what had started as a clear day began to close in. Very soon I was in thick clag and worse than that I was convinced that everyone else had got over it in the clear. I was really annoyed - this was going to cost me time. Why didn't I go out earlier when the weather was good? After a few harsh words with myself (yes, out loud!) I got my focus back and made sure I kept the nav on track. The ridge felt slow but as I came back out of the mist I saw Jez ahead - it couldn't have been that bad then!? We ran together for a short while until he needed a toilet stop and he told me that he had been lost on the ridge - my heart sank, we had both been slow. I set to eating up the trail. I was going ok again until I took a wrong turn coming down the final descent to the midway support point and again lost time - this wasn't going to be my day. At the midway point however, I learned that Jasmin was 18mins ahead - that was great news - she had set out a lot more ahead of me than that - the hunt was on and I was fired up but Jasmins are very rare, extremely fast and notoriously hard to catch so this wasn't going to be easy ;)
The next section it was all hard undulating trail until Plynlimon where you have a steep ascent then gradual descent to the overnight camp. I was slowly closing up and overtaking people but it wasn't easy. I passed several of the other fast guys including Konrad but still no Jasmin - she was up ahead somewhere apparently but I couldn't see her. If I just kept going surely she would appear but nothing and I was feeling really tired. By the time I got to Plynlimon I was slowing and had given up on catching Jasmin - she must be running really well. I just wanted to be finished for the day but the descent went on for what felt like forever. When I finally got to the camp there was a happy smiling Jasmin cheering me on. Thankfully she had only been in a few minutes and I soon discovered my lead was up to 1hr 37mins - I was relieved that I could relax a little tomorrow but there was still a long, long way to go and so much that could go wrong. My mindset switched into recovery mode - eat, drink, hydrate and sleep ready to go again in the morning.
Konrad had been struggling with a tendon injury in the front of his foot since day 2 and had borrowed poles to use on day 3 to try and take some pressure off the injury. As a result he couldn't keep up with Jasmin who he had been running with. I was with them both when Konrad told Jasmin that he couldn't keep up and that she needed to run on her own on Thursday. Running with Jasmin on Tuesday had been really nice and it’s so much easier in very long races to stay focussed when you have company if they are running at about your pace so I checked if Jasmin was still chasing me and thought she could catch me. She thought the gap was too much now so I suggested we run together tomorrow if she wanted to. I was very pleased when she agreed. Beth had been running really well behind Jasmin and had actually closed the gap on day 3 (no small feat!) so Jasmin wanted to ensure she was safe. For me running with Jasmin meant I would always know where she was and as long we were running together my lead margin would stay intact.
At the start of day four a group of competitors head into the desolate mid Wales landscape. ©iancorless.com
It was a fun day – the Elan valley gets a bit of a bad rap for its tussocks but that aside it’s actually very beautiful and offers some good running. I'd run about two thirds of the 2012 course for day 4 just a few weeks ago and felt like I had found some good lines and when I got the map there were quite a few bits that were the same. We ate up the first half of the day and it was nice to not be on my own. We caught up with Beth, Pavel, Damian and Lizzie just before the midday point and then ran in a larger group for the next couple of hours.
The group finally broke up on the top of final hill when Jasmin and I opted for the more direct route over open fell and the others followed the trails down to the road and round. We didn't want to spend any more time than we had to on the hard stuff and knew that the last 10k was on road anyway so set out to make the most of the remaining wilderness. We were rewarded by not only a fast route but also the discovery of a remote and very beautiful valley. After a quick sheep rescue we were onto the road (which I have since blocked out of my mind!!) and into the overnight camp together.
Jim Mann and Jasmin Paris on the fourth day of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™. ©iancorless.com
It was all looking good for me but I was tired and dehydrated, the indigestion was back and all I had managed to eat during the day was half a snickers bar (not enough) but I was drinking plenty of energy drink to carry me through. The medics gave me something for the indigestion and I ate 4 meals and was quickly back to good shape and an early night.
Just one day to go! No mistakes or mishaps and I could actually win this.
I was pretty excited but still very aware that I had a long day ahead of me. The morning of Day 5 is all road and trail but I was looking forward to the Brecon Beacons – they are not huge hills and not very technical but they are a nice day out and spectacular ridge. I ran again with Jasmin meaning I basically just had to finish now. We were going well, the early mist lifted and the sun came out. By the time we got to the midway point at the reservoir not only was I in good spirits but I was looking forward to the ridge. As we started to climb we could see it stretching out ahead of us in the sun and I knew in a few hours I would see the castle and the finish. I couldn't wait for the beautiful ridge run ahead, sun on my back, stretching out for home – what a way to finish the week.
As we neared the top of the ridge however a cloud moved across and it looked like a shower was coming in (that wasn't in the script – not in my head anyway!). By the time we were on the ridge the mist had completely closed in around us and it was very much map and compass time. Then the wind and the rain started. I was confident it was just a shower and would pass. The group kept growing along the ridge as more and more people ended up together. After more than an hour in the 'shower' I was cold and soaked and should really have had my jacket on 45 mins earlier. I stopped and layered up – man I wanted to be at the finish. It was miserable (yes, we all have those moments), I was really struggling to eat again and everything tasted like cardboard and took about the same amount of chewing too.
It felt like an age before we started to approach the final summit and came across Konrad battling on with his poles. It looked like he had done enough to keep 3rd place from Beth who was in our group and again running well. Huge respect to Konrad – it would have been very easy to give up with an injury like that but he just kept going and pushing on – he really deserved that result – he is one tough nut! As we started the final descent there was a lot of chatter and different ideas about the best route off but I wasn't really in any shape to think about nav at this point and was getting tired with it. Jonathan Whilock was with us – he is a good navigator so I simply stuck with him and he routed us off– thanks Jon!
The iconic Carreg Cennen Castle finish at the end of the 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™. ©iancorless.com
The weather had started to improve and it got warm as we descended and then when we were on the track I took off for the finish. I would have been very happy to finish with Jasmin who was in a remarkable 2nd place overall but she understandably wanted to finish with Konrad ,3rd overall, having caught him up and being in no danger of being caught herself could enjoy the run in with him.
The adrenalin kicked in and I found a new lease of life on my way back to the castle. I couldn't quite believe it – I was going to win the Dragon's Back….
Jasmin Paris and Jim Mann celebrate at Carreg Cennen Castle at the end of the 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™. ©iancorless.com
Jasmin Paris and Jim Mann celebrate at Carreg Cennen Castle at the end of the 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™. ©iancorless.com
Thoughts after the race:
It was again a great journey – great comradery, amazing marshals and team. I have had two very different but equally amazing experiences at the Dragon. The event was so much improved on 2012 (and 2012 was amazing); I cannot credit Shane and the team at Ourea events enough for this – the Dragon is truly a world class event.
Congratulations to all competitors, organisers, marshals, medics, the media team who got some amazing videos and photos of the week and of course the catering team alike – an outstanding event is a result of so many fantastic people working very hard – thank you all for making it such a great experience.
Jim Mann, 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ winner, receivers his winners dragon trophy, presented by three times finisher Joe Faulkner and Race Director Shane Ohly. ©iancorless.com
Jim Mann, 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ winner with his winners trophy. ©iancorless.com
|Jim enjoying a well deserved pint with his trophy. ©Joe Faulker, NAV4.|
I have been asked a lot if I will return again in 2017 – the truth is I don't know yet but I suspect not. Not because I wouldn't want to or didn't enjoy it but because I don't think I could ever match 2015 so sometimes things are just best left as they are. We all have a really great race in us whether that is a parkrun PB or an Olympic final but they are very very rare. If you have ever experienced it you'll know what I mean, that race where you perform beyond your ability both mentally and physically and everything comes together just right. Well, I am pretty sure I just used mine up – but what a great time to use it.
Jim Mann, 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ winner. ©iancorless.com
Jim Mann’s pack and map. ©iancorless.com