29th May, 2019
The week-long Berghaus Dragon's Back Race is a major commitment in terms of both time and finance. Having just finished the race (blog post here), I wanted to give my thoughts on whether it's worth the investment and also how I would advise next year's first timers to do things better than I did.
I should point out that I'm not sponsored in any way by anyone or any company with any relationship to this race and this is purely my public service annoucement!
Is It Worth It?
This year's race was the most expensive ticket price of anything I've ever entered by far at £900. The cost could be paid in one go up front or split over three installments, the first one being just £100. You had more refund rights if you paid everything in a oner.
I don't know what 2021's prices and payment schedule will be - I assume possibly a bit more.
In pure money terms, having experienced the best running event of my life and one of the most rewarding weeks of my life, I am absolutely going to say that it was well worth it.
What you get included (apart from a world-class event which is the main thing of course) is:
- - accommodation for 5 nights in high spec tents
- - morning and evening meals - you could eat as much as you liked and you certainly will once you start burning calories. The food was of a very good standard and veggie
- - personal tracker with emergency beacon
- - a 24/7 team of medics on hand
- - a team of physios
- - if you have to drop, the ability to continue as a non-combatant or repatriation to a transport hub
- - evening buffet at registration and an after party at the awards ceremony
The question is always how do you personally assign value.
I ran the Boston Marathon a couple of years ago and I don't think I got much change from £2K with flights and a hotel etc. I also personally generated about 1.5 tonnes of CO2 getting there and back. I could say the same for New York, Chicago etc. though they were a lot cheaper when I ran those.
At the Dragons Back I scaled Crib Goch and gazed out over the Snowdon massif. At Boston I got 26.2 miles of tarmac, a small hill and a CitGo sign.
For me there is no comparison.
I spent three short breaks in Wales recceing the race, travelling up by train - probably £200 a throw - but these were excellent breaks in their own right. Time spent in a beautiful country, running mountains and trails with a pint or two with the locals. So I don't consider those a cost of the race as such. I would have missed out had I not gone.
Considering Running it in 2021?
I'm going to do a brain dump of various points that occurred to me and I'll add to this as I think of them.
Recces and map-reading
I was suprised to hear a number of people tell me before and during the race that 'they had never climbed a mountain' and 'never run an ultra' - this seems nuts to me. Anecdotally one of the Women who did very well hadn't run more than a half marathon before so clearly it's not absolutely essential but extrapolating that to one's own chances seems foolhardy to me. It's a big commitment so I'd strongly suggest do the preparation. Not far off half didn't finish.
The recces were great for me to learn what type of terrain would be coming my way. I have to admit they were a shock! I would have been in a difficult position if I'd not had a foretaste on day 1.
I had assumed the field would immediately spread out but I was hardly out of eyeline of another runner the whole race. Also the weather makes a huge difference to your experience of the route so I think learning it through recces is a nice to have rather than essential. That said there are definitely short cuts and if you have time to test them out then you could shave a chunk of time off your race.
It's essential that you can read a map, even if you plan to use GPS. The official GPS track is not so detailed that it will give you more than a general direction to head in. Also, the route can be changed at any time, even the morning of the race.
You can start any time between 6am and 9am but the cut offs remain fixed. Start at 7am rather than 6am and you have therefore an hour less to reach the support point.
I really struggled to get out of the door. Not because I slept in - I was up by 5am each day - but because there are a lot of jobs to do that eat time.
Definitely pre-bag and label each day's running gear and food. Then ideally pack each category of thing in a bigger bag and clearly label what's in it.
Bear in mind if you get back by around 8:30pm, set up your bed and then go and eat it will be dark in the tent when you get back and you probably won't want to spend hours trying to find stuff with a headtorch. But that said - getting the food down you is essential and priority #1.
You will be sharing with up to 7 others - the tent is divided into three rooms - two bedroom wings and a central shared space. Each bedroom wing is divided into 2x2 berths. As the week goes on you will get more room (if you're still in it!)
It was pretty warm out on the course this year though it's certainly been a lot hotter. But in the mornings and the evenings it gets very cold and damp in camp. The race recommends a padded coat - Pet Shop Boys' Chris Lowe Issey Miyake style ideally and that is well worth it. Plus take some fleece hoodie thing for under that.
The race-recommended bags are the Ortleib dry sacks. They are good but I would not go with their 60ltr version for your overnight bag. You will have to tip everything out and put everything back. And if you're like me and filled every last cubic millimetre of space, you will find that on the morning of day 2 you won't remember how you achieved that and it won't shut. Bag tetris will then consume your early start. So if there is a 60ltr bag with a zip so you can leave everything in situ and take what you want that would save a huge amount of time and stress.
The midge headnet was a good investment - certainly for day one where there was a plague of the things - it's cheap and packs tiny.
I left my phone off and there is almost no reception across large swathes of the course and at the camp sites. I took enough power packs to reboot Drax but 1x20000mah would have been sufficient for watch and phone. No doubt technology will be totally different in 2021!
Download the Viewranger app and ensure you have offline access to the maps that cover the course. It can direct you even if there is no mobile connection. See point above, but it's never too early to recce the route!
Everyone went down with heartburn and acid reflux - take some antacid tablets / Gaviscon kind of thing.
Shoes - I used Saucony's Peregrine which worked well. You will be getting your feet wet and I took a second pair for use in camp and which I ran in on days 4 and 5, mainly because the wet shoes were aggravating blisters.
You have to supply all your own hill food. There are shops en-route but not many - Machynlleth and Llandovery certainly. Of course you need to have enough time in hand to go shopping so best not absolutely depended upon.
For lunch I took M&S balanced meal pots which don't need to be kept chilled and are fine eaten cold. Pretty good. Compact and around 300-330 calories. Plus I took a tin of fruit which was a really good choice - I looked forward to those every day. Pineapple chunks were the best! Others swore by the meal-in-a-bag adventure food things but I didn't try them. NB There is no hot water at the aid points.
I took two soft flasks of 500ml each and a hard bottle also of 500ml which I hadn't planned to run with. However I was warned there is little water on the course so I carried it after all. A good decision. Of course how much water you need is an individual thing but there are long stretches where there is nothing available on the course - eg most of Day 1.
The race attracts trail runners, hikers, fell runners and mountain runners and there are sections of the route that will favour each particular set of skills.
I think the key thing (as someone who spent 14 hours a day on the hill and therefore is hardly pushing for podium) is to look after yourself and eke out your resources so that when your favourite terrain presents itself you can take advantage. If you cannot run when running would otherwise be the thing to do then you will struggle to make the time.
If you are walking, walk with purpose. Poles were an enormous help and be like a European and drive yourself forward with them rather than just using them for stability. It only takes a nav error to place you under severe time pressure.
If you have any questions I'm more than happy to help - just post your comments in the box!