Taming the Dragon
It’s no easy race, ask anyone that has contemplated it, more importantly, ask anyone who has toed the line.
It’s a race that has put fear into many a runner, magnified by its history, you see the first edition happened just once in September 1992. Considered to be the toughest mountain running event ever organised, twenty years on, the legendary race returned and the Dragon breathed a new fiery breath.
Organised by Shane Ohly from Ourea Events, the 2012 edition closely followed the original route. Starting at Conwy Castle in North Wales, the route traced the mountainous spine of Wales southwards over five days to finish at Carreg Cennen Castle in the Brecon Beacons. Competitors had to contend with a course that was approximately 320km long and with 15,000m of ascent.
Cut to 2015 and the Berghaus Dragons Back Race becomes an event that will take place every other year alternating with another Ourea Event, the Cape Wrath Ultra – an 8-day journey that travels along the west coast of Scotland and finishes at the most northern point – a race that echoes the format and ethos of the Dragons Back. The 2015 edition was won by Jim Mann and Jasmin Paris. Mike Evans, a participant in the 2015 edition summed up the journey well:
‘So, what a week, what a journey, impossible to explain how tough, how mentally and physically challenging it was but also how spiritual it has been. Cut off from the world, no social media, no showers, just living in the wild with a group of equal enthusiasts.’
The stage was set for the 2017 edition. Travelling from the North to the South via the ‘Dragons Back’ – the Berghaus Dragons Back Race was all set to have the makings of a classic. A gigantic 315km route awaited the runners with 15.000m of vertical gain ahead.
Day 1 is a tough day in its own right, as the first day of a 5-day race it is brutal. Jim Mann, the 2015 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race™ Champion, today set out his stall with a strong and dominant performance that left all the other runners following in his wake as he dominated the tough, challenging and yes, intimidating day 1. Neil Talbott, Marcus Scotney and Jez Bragg followed.
For the ladies, Sabrina Verjee also produced a strong performance despite pre-race concerns that a recurring calf injury may surface and scupper her plans. Caroline McIlroy and Carol Morgan, both pre-race favourites followed and completed the podium slots.
Having completed day 1, the competitors have a starting window of 0600-0900. the slower runners starting as early as possible allowing themselves as much time possible to complete the day before the 2300 cut-off. Jim Mann was slowly but surely reeling all the competitors in, having started last – the fox, he was chasing the rabbits. Marcus Scotney, Neil Talbot and Jez Bragg were putting up a battle but Mann was just on fire. At the final summit, Diffwys, Mann ran fast and smooth and at the finish line he set the fastest time of the day – elapsed 15:20:25. However, Scotney who had started earlier was the first to cross the line in16:30:29. Neil Talbot (16:46:40) managed to hold off Jez Bragg in 4th. Sabrina Verjee, like Mann, was taking a grip of the ladies’ race.
Carol Morgan and Caroline McIlroy put up a battle to Verjee and this resulted in McIlroy gaining time on Morgan, 20:21:52 to 20:22:27. The battle for 2nd lady now very close with just 35-seconds between them – Verjee by contrast extended her lead, her elapsed time 19:45:08.
Sabrina Verjee and Carol Morgan pretty much shadowed each other for most of the day, however, in the latter stages Verjee looked hot and bothered with her effort in the strong hot sun – she crossed the line in 11:01:05 and retained the overall lead in 30:46:13 elapsed. Morgan finished in 11:07:46 with an elapsed time of 31:30:13 but the ladies story was all about Caroline McIlroy who finished in 11:06:52 and therefore consolidating her lead for 2nd with an elapsed time of 31:28:44.
For the men, it was a dramatic day! Race leader Jim Mann made a navigational error and in the process, gave away his hard earned 90-minute lead over Marcus Scotney. Scotney buy contrast was having a great day – running fast and smooth. It was the end of the day when the damage was really starting to come clear. Scotney arrived at the line in 7:54:33. When Mann finally arrived, he was a long way back and pushing hard – 9:30:43! The true extent of the damage was finally confirmed, Scotney had taken the overall lead by approximately 26-minutes, 24:25:02 to Mann’s 24:51:08 elapsed time. Neil Talbott remained in 3rd.
Mann set off at a ridiculous pace and despite a day of sun and high temperatures. He pushed and pushed breaking splits for his 2015 winning time. On the rolling terrain he rarely walked, constantly switching from running to fast, hands-on-knees hiking. The terrain suited Marcus Scotney and his fluid running style but Scotney’s 31:46:28 to Mann’s 31:54:34 meant that Mann had closed the gap to just minutes and the last day of the 2017 Berghaus Dragons Back Race was going to be epic!
For the ladies, Sabrina Verjee had a tough day battling heat and dehydration and crossed the line in 9:51:25. Whereas Carol Morgan had a game changing day crossing the line in 9:14:18 – this eradicated much of the time gap Verjee had built up over the first three days. Morgan moved up into 2nd place and this left her just minutes from a potential 2017 victory. The first 3 ladies had just 15-minutes between them.
Most the field started early at 0600 but all eyes were on the 0800 ‘chase’ starts. Scotney and Verjee would start on the stroke of 0800 and then 2nd placed runners, Mann and Morgan would depart as per their time deficits to the leader. The same applied for 3rd placed lady, McIlroy. Quite simply, the first man or woman across the line would be the 2017 Berghaus Dragons Back winner. Scotney, despite a troublesome knee was flying, the terrain suited him and allowed him to stretch his legs. By CP2, Scotney was pulling away from Mann and Verjee and Morgan were equally matched with McIlroy losing time. More good running to CP3 and then the climb to CP4 and the run along the high ground with the impressive Llyn Y Fan Fact to the right saw Scotney extend his lead. When Mann arrived at CP5 he was over 30-minutes back and barring Scotney having any problems, the race was his for the taking. Mann no doubt paying a price for a tough first 3-days and a hard chasing 4th day. Scotney crossed the line in 6:12:09 1st and Mann came in much later (7:43:40) having eased off the gas knowing that his place for 2nd was secure. Neil Talbott who had started later than the 1st and 2nd placed runners had a long day chasing all in front of him, his 3rd place secure in 7:31:04 placing 2nd on the stage. In the ladies’ race, the possible threat of a blazing run from McIlroy didn’t happen and the race was now between Verjee and Morgan.
Morgan hunted Verjee down and by CP6 had caught and passed her. It was all about putting her head down and pushing on. Victory was hers in 7:57:16 and with it, the title of Ladies 2017 Berghaus Dragons Back champion.
A tough race for all concerned but when you race over 5-days with the highs and lows that this type of race can throw at you, it’s about how the runner manages all aspects of the race and not just one day. The 2017 edition will go down in history as one of the most compelling, particularly in the final 2-days. Over 50% of the race starters did not make the finish line, a special nod goes to Joe Faulkner, legend that he is, who completed the very first Dragons Back Race in 1992 and came back for more. He completed the 2012 and 2015 events and now the 2017 – a remarkable feat.
Attention will now turn to 2019 and the next edition of the race but as Ourea Events rightly say, don’t forget it’s the Cape Wrath Ultra in 2018 for those who need their fix!
Top 3 results:
1 Marcus Scotney 37:58:37
2 Jim Mann 39:38:14
3 Neil Talbott 41:54:33
1 Carol Morgan 48:41:17
2 Sabrina Verjee 49:29:42
3 Caroline McIlroy 50:23:47