The Dragon's Back Race, an event that many believe to be the toughest fell race ever, was held last week for only the second time in 20 years. Starting at Conwy Castle, the route followed the mountain spine of Wales southwards to the finish line at Carreg Cennen Castle - via a blister-inducing 220-odd miles and 50,000 feet of ascent along the way. Dozens of strong competitors took to the field on day one, but a drop-out rate of well over 50% gives some indication of the scale of the challenge. Only 29 runners made the finish on Friday 7 September. The winner Steve Birkinshaw recorded an overall time of 43:25:30, while the fastest woman and fourth overall at 49:10:05 was Helene Whitaker (nee Diamantides), joint winner of the original 1992 race. Here's Rob Howard of SleepMonsters with a day-by-day account of the race, which was sponsored by Berghaus.
In the early hours of Monday 3rd September, all around Conwy, runners carrying dry bags full of kit emerged into the darkness from B&Bs and the Youth Hostel onto the streets, to make their way to the Castle. Most were waiting patiently and many were talking to friends who had come to see them off. Sitting on his own was John Sreeves who has run several ultras, including the Marathon des Sables and the West Highland Way. 'In Scotland you had to be accompanied if it got dark,' he said, 'but there will be nothing like that in this race – it's a different class of race altogether.' When asked what class of race it was he said, 'I don't know... it's unique!'
As the runners walked through the entrance into the castle, 1992 winner Helene Whitaker (nee Diamantides) said, 'I'm really nervous!' Maybe because she has done it before she had more reason than most to be nervous, but the runners were not kept hanging around too long to fret. First there was the group photo to take, then the maps were given out. Next a traditional Welsh Male voice choir performed and then the Mayor and local council leader said a few words... then it was time to go! Just as the sun rose over the castle the runners jogged down through the gates and along the old town walls, with marshals directing them out of town and onto a footpath into the hills.
After all the talk it was time for action... but the pre-race briefings were right. This is one of the toughest foot races in the world, and day one is the hardest day, and it had been made harder than it was 20 years ago. As day one progressed, taking runners into Snowdonia and across the highest summits of the week, the true scale of the challenge began to hit home.
Day one leader, Steve Birkinshaw arrived 2 hours later than expected, having spent nearly 10 hours running. 'That was hard,' he said, 'after the first section it's all very rocky underfoot and hard to get going. That route on Crib Goch is terrible and I had an awful time up there... I'd never been up there before' He was followed in by Rob Baker some 23 minutes later who announced, 'That was the hardest thing I've ever done... but it was a great day out, some of the views were stunning and I think I've completed my tick list for Wales in one day.'
With the weather deteriorating (low cloud, rain and rapid fall in temperature), darkness about to fall and the realisation that many of the competitors would not make the checkpoint cut-off times, the decision was made to shorten the first day for competitors who remained on the hills. Race Director Shane Ohly commented,
'It is always a difficult decision to shorten a race unexpectedly and I am sure there were some competitors affected who could have made it. However, the safety of all the competitors is my primary concern and on reflection it was a good call.'
Day One Results
As the racers arrived at the start tent they were given their maps for day two and told it had been shortened slightly in response to yesterday's tough day. Race Director Shane Ohly was telling racers they'd be more sympathetic today. Ohly thought the runners were split 50/50 between those who thought day one was too hard, and those who thought it was amazing.
'I am, of course, disappointed for the runners who didn't make it,' he said, 'but am not apologising for the difficulty of the route. The distances and ascents of the day have been on the website for six months now so everyone should have known what to expect. We've said it is one of the hardest runs in the world too, but I get the feeling lots of events say they are the toughest/hardest etc so competitors don't really believe you when you say it. But we meant it!'
Early on day two a line of racers in their bright Berghaus waterproof jackets made their way slowly up into the hills, heading for the summit of Cnicht, the first checkpoint of the day, before moving on the Moelwyn hills. It wasn't long before the early cloud and mist cleared off and another fine day followed, with clear skies and a gentle, cooling breeze. It was still warm, but not as hot as yesterday, and the weather was as good as the competitors could have hoped for.
The two leaders (who had started the day together) made different choices through the Rhinogs with Rob Baker opting for the longer route, and Steve Birkinshaw going directly over the tops. Baker was hoping to eat into Birkinshaw's day one lead, but it didn't work and he lost a few minutes. 'I'm a hopeless road runner' said Birkinshaw, 'so I'd have lost a lot of time if I'd gone the longer way around.' Some of his route was across boulder fields covered in heather and we asked him if he was able to run across it. 'Not really, but I can move faster than most' was his reply.
Once again it was Steve Birkinshaw who won the day (08:34:12), pulling out a lead of over 25 minutes on Rob Baker (09:01:25) and putting him in a commanding position overall with a lead of around 50 minutes. In the ladies race Helen Whitaker finished in 6th overall, with day one winner Nicky Spinks 1 hour 37 minutes behind in 15th place. Whitaker, one of the joint winners of the original Dragon's Back was asked if it was easier this time compared to 20 years ago and she replied 'yes', then changed it 'maybe not' Easier or not she is once again showing the determination, skill and endurance which she did on the original race. Spinks said 'I was feeling better today, but I think we took some eccentric route choices'
Day Two Results
Day three was a magnificent late summer's day for running across Cadair Idris, and the day when the race has settled down after the shock of day one. The camp, transport and food arrangements were all operating smoothly and now the racers truly understand the nature of the Dragon's challenge. It is also clear who the leaders and contenders are, and everyone is coming to terms with what they hope to, and can realistically achieve.
At the front of the race Steve Birkinshaw has a 51 minute lead over Rob Baker and the real surprise so far is that third place overall is Helene Whitaker, though she is only a couple of minutes up on Patrick Devine Wright. There is still a long way to go of course, but to be in such a position 20 years after winning the first race with Martin Stone, is an amazing achievement. Two of the other 'returnees' (Joe Faulkner and Wendy Dodds) are still racing the full course as well, but sadly Steve 'Dubby' did not start day 3. 'My hamstrings are in a bad way' he said, 'and it is really difficult going downhill at all.' He was seeing the race doctor and hoping to be OK to complete the second half of today's route.
Many other racers are doing the same and one of these is Mike Dacar of the USA. He is a very experienced runner with many ultras trail races and multi-day events on his racing CV, but said, 'This is too hard for me, I've just not trained well enough. There is no one thing which makes it so hard, it's a combination of the ups, downs and underfoot conditions and it's a real experience – I've not competed in anything else like it. This is my first time in the UK and Wales and I looked at the mountains being only 3000 feet and the distance of 200 miles over 5 days and thought it was not too bad ... but it is a lot tougher than I expected. I'm not a navigator either, but that has not been too hard, the maps have been OK to find the paths. It's definitively not a trail run though – I train on bigger hills and at longer distances, but my mistake was to train on the trails. I should have left the track and found the hardest way possible and trained on that!'
It was another long day on the Dragon's Back Race and at the end of it racers arrived at a sheep barn high on the mid-Wales hills to find their tents set up inside. As Helene Whitaker put it, 'I've never been so happy to see a tent set up in sheep shit before!' (To be fair there was some hay too.)
As the evening drew on and the sun set, the temperature dropped very quickly and the camp gradually filled up. There is always a fair bit of activity in the camp. The kitchens are busy of course, serving soup, bread and chips, supplying endless amounts of cake, and later the evening meal, and the runners sit around the dining tables to chat or wander off to wash in nearby streams.
Day Three Results
The camp at the sheep barn had a good spirit overnight, and later arrivals were cheered in, wrapped up and found tent spaces by their fellow competitors.
Something else that made most runners happy was a shortened route for day 4. Checkpoints 6 and 7 on the day (the summits of Gorllwyn and Drygarn Fawr) were taken out of the route removing some of the climb and the most difficult terrain on the day. 'It's a pity' said Shane Ohly 'but everyone is so beaten up and we do want to get as many of them as we can to the finish, so it's the practical choice.'
The early part of the day took runners over a series of low hills and a 'super group' of around a dozen racers formed to run together. There was a much stronger, cooler breeze today and it was not quite so hot, but the skies were clear and views were stunning. The racers could not have had better weather to see Wales at its best, and in the course of five days they are seeing more than many visitors do in weeks or years. The second half of the day took them past a series of reservoirs, starting from the support point in Elan Village.
Rob Baker had been suffering on the long final leg and comparing notes to Steve Birkinshaw later found he'd lost 50 minutes on this stage. As the stronger road runner he'd been hoping to maybe eat into Birkinshaw's lead today, but it wasn't to be. 'I think we may have pushed each other harder by not running together' he said, 'but I was beasted today, there is no doubt about it. I think today was where my lack of preparation and experience started to show and I lost it a bit mentally as well. Having said that it was great to run alone and the scenery was stunning.'
The camp for tonight was in a remote spot again, but this time in hollow by a river. The plus point was the river to wash and cool down in, the negative was that the midges were out and biting. Runners continued to come in as darkness drew in and the big open mess tent beside the taped run-in was full of competitors cheering and clapping everyone in as they finished. It was the atmosphere of a wedding party rather than a race finish.
The outcome of today is that Steve Birkinshaw has a huge overall lead now – nearly 2 hours. Rob Baker has a similar lead over 3rd place, but then there are a group of runners with five of them within an hour of each other. Patrick Devine Wright is third by just 8 minutes from Helene Whitaker.
Day Four Results
The day began with heavier cloud cover, but by mid-morning it was another hot day with clear skies. The planned chasing start didn't happen as the leaders are so far ahead it wasn't practical, so once again the racers decided when to set off, and those who are doing the 'half-way race' (now known as The Spanish Dragon) cheered them off and helped break camp before getting lifts out to the supply point in every available vehicle. As always the Spanish team were in a cheery mood, singing 'Why, Why, Why .. Delilah!'
About half the full course runners had arrived here while the Spanish Dragon racers were waiting to set off, so there was a big crowd to cheer them in. Steve Birkinshaw and Rob Baker were still running together, though Baker looked like he was struggling, and ladies course winners Helene Whitaker was still with the 'super group' of runners chasing the leaders.
First to run up the steep, steep hill and climb the steps into the compact castle ruins was Ian Symington who has been one of the fastest runners for the past 3 days of racing. The second runner in was the overall winner, Steve Birkinshaw, who has been a class apart and a convincing winner. Just behind him was Rob Baker, who is also a clear second, but he acknowledged Birkinshaw's mastery. 'He is a great runner, but it is more than that. Every line he takes saves a few steps and he makes decisions quickly. When he eats, drinks and stops he is so efficient, very professional.'
The rest of the chasing group came in next with Patrick Devine Wright of Ireland crossing the line to take 3rd place and a very drawn and exhausted looking Helene Whitaker coming in to take 4th overall and win the ladies race. She gave Steve Birkinshaw a hug and they congratulated each other on their wins. For Whitaker it was a repeat of her triumph of 20 years ago, though this time she did not win outright. 'I am glad it's over' she said, 'and that I don't have to do it again, but at least I've proved it was not a freak win all those years ago.' She said finishing here did bring back memories, but that this time; 'I didn't have to carry two rucksacks up that big hill at the finish or race in to the finish. In fact it was an easy day as 20 years ago the last day was the longest, and this time it was the shortest!' Her achievement is one of the most extraordinary in endurance running. The first win has been much written about and described by some as one of the greatest runs ever, but to come back 20 years later and not only complete the race, but win, is perhaps an even greater achievement. And she has beaten most of the best male endurance runners again.
The second Dragon's Back Race drew to a close at about 11pm on Friday night in the dark courtyard of Carreg Cennen Castle. The speeches had already been made and the prizes given out but there was still one more trophy to be given, and that was to the last runner on the course, Wendy Dodds.
Wendy was the oldest competitor in the race (61) and one of four runners taking part who had also completed the first race 20 years ago. She was accompanied by some race staff over the later part of the course and the crowd who had walked up to the castle to see her finish began cheering when their headlights came into view in the woods on the final climb. Going at a good pace she passed through the crowd and began the final climb into the castle. With the finish line in sight she put on such a spurt up the hillside the supporting crowd couldn't keep up with her!
After some hugs, photos and congratulations she was accompanied back down the hill to the function room where the prize giving had taken place and got the loudest cheer of the night and a standing ovation. She became the third competitor to finish both Dragon's Back Races.
The other two double finishers were Helene Whitaker and Joe Faulkner, who had both walked up to see her finish. 'I was determined to enjoy today' said Faulkner, 'and I did. I really concentrated on navigation and every microline so there were no mistakes and its very satisfying to have finished.' Whitaker made a short speech to thank all the race staff for their incredible efforts, before handing out the trophies to all the competitors who took part.
These were small versions of the heavy brass Dragon trophy given to Steve Birkinshaw, who held it above his head as everyone applauded. He then gave Shane Ohly a birthday card (it's his birthday Saturday) signed by all at the race and with a front cover photo of the group shot taken in Conwy Castle.
The final results show that 29 runners completed the full course. Of these three were international visitors from outside the UK who had to cope with unfamiliar maps and even more unfamiliar terrain. 'It is a fell running event' said Wouter Hamelink of Belgium, 'as well as an ultra stage-race, and you need to be able to navigate too. I am pleased to finish, even though everything hurts. I never really recovered from the first day, but managed to finish each night without using my torch. You have to have enough time to recover each night – if you finish too late you won't recover the next day and you are late again and its all over.'