Matt Fortes On The Dragons Back Photo: Jon Brooke
The evening before the race, 1992 winner Martin Stone had explained to all the competitors and marshals that participating in the Dragon’s Back Race would be a life-changing experience for many of them. Indeed it was.
The shock of the difficulty of day one dented the pride and many of the competitors were clearly frustrated that, for all their training and planning, their dreams of completing the full Dragon’s Back Race were over. As a result, the atmosphere at the overnight camp on Monday night / Tuesday morning was noticeably despondent. The only poor weather of the week, low cloud and light drizzle, didn’t help. With hindsight, I think that when a race describes itself as “the toughest mountain running event ever organised” runners just don’t really absorb this information, partly because phrases like ‘toughest, hardest, longest’ etc are overused and partly because the aspiration to participate in such an iconic event is strong.
During Tuesday and Wednesday, the majority of competitors had to acknowledge that the challenge of the Dragon’s Back Race was greater than they had realised. At the same time it was obvious that there were about thirty runners who were capable of completing the full course. I took a decision that my initial approach to the race would need to soften or I’d end up with lots of unhappy people and very few finishers. So the course was shortened very slightly most days (it was still longer than the 1992 version) and we provided some information about the best/fastest route. It was also clear that all the competitors were making a huge effort to complete as much of the race as they could but that some felt that their effort wasn’t being recognised by the organisers. Although this was far from the truth, I decided to award finishers’ trophies to all the competitors who made it as far as Carreg Cennen Castle in recognition of the incredible effort they all made. Although this was a departure from the plan of only awarding trophies to the runners who completed the full course, I think that small gestures like this, made a huge difference to the atmosphere of the race.
Camping in the huge barn at Eisteddfa Gurig Farm on Wednesday night had a strange effect on everyone. We were all literally brought closer together and it felt as though marshals and competitors were knitting together as a real team with the shared goal of enjoying the journey of the Dragon’s Back Race. By Thursday night, there was a great atmosphere at the overnight camp with everyone cheering and clapping as competitors finished into the evening, swimming in the nearby river and watching a beautiful sunset over the mountains. It was a fantastic evening.
On the Friday night at Carreg Cennen Castle, we handed out trophies to all the ‘finishers’. For anyone that experienced the clapping, cheering, singing and speeches they will appreciate how happy everyone in the room was.
Steve Birkinshaw at Carreg Cennen Castle. Photo: Jon Brooke
Berghaus athlete, Steve Birkinshaw proved himself a class apart and confirmed his place as the dominant long distance mountain runner of the last decade with his win. 1992 winner and fellow Berghaus athlete, Helene Whitaker’s result (4th overall / 1st women) is equally impressive and is surely one of the most remarkable endurance running stories of all time. Alongside her, Wendy Dodds and Joe Faulkner also completed the full course for the second time.
As Helene said at the trophy ceremony, the reason the race hasn’t happened for twenty years is because it took the Army to manage the logistics previously. The complexities of coordinating the movements and managing the safety of nearly 150 people in the mountains, whilst on the move yourself, over an area that at times spanned 80 miles is mind boggling. Add to that, the lack of mobile phone coverage at almost every location we used, no mains electricity and no mains water. We also provided breakfast, afternoon snacks and dinner to everyone, serving food between 0500 and 2300 each day. The biggest challenge though has been permissions as the 200 mile course passes through five different local authorities, two National Parks and the land of hundreds of different landowners, ranging from the National Trust to individual farmers. Consider all this and one might just get an inkling of the incredible logistical complexities of organising an event like the Dragon’s Back Race. However, none of this would have been possible with the awesome support of the volunteer marshalling team, so a huge thanks from me and the competitors is due to them.
For all the planning, organisation and technology that actually made the race happen, it is the incredible spirit and humanity of the competitors and marshals that has left the strongest impression. The 2012 Dragon’s Back Race was only made possible thanks to the hard work of many and the contributions of key sponsors. Berghaus stepped in to give the event major backing and worked hard to publicise it before, during and after. Other vital support was provided by Nordisk, Silva, Trail Running Magazine, Sleepmonsters, Conwy County Borough Council and National Trust.