Last year Lisa and Bodil signed up for the 2019 Dragon’s Back event. This 5-day race averages 40 miles (63km) and close to 10,000 ft (3000m) of ascent per day. On top of that, the event is self-navigated, often over pathless moorland and rocky mountain ridges.
This page details our training and race journey as we prepared and completed this crazy challenge. With a finishing rate ranging between 39% and 56% over the last three events, we are proud to announce that we both earned our Dragon Title this year – read on to find out more!
Post Race Interview – Slaying the Dragon
Libby: Fresh (and fortunately for my nose I mean that literally as well as figuratively, I let them shower first) from running 315km down the length of Wales and climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest… twice… from sea level we caught up with Bog Beauties Bo and Lisa to hear their reflections on the 2019 Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race.
We’re AMAZINGLY happy to announce that both Bo and Lisa finished the race (not an easy feat with the drop out rate nearly reaching 50% of the start field). Lisa moved up through the rankings as the week unfolded and, after a nail biting racing start on Day 5 which started with just 73 seconds between her and 2nd place Sabrina Verjee she finished FIRST LADY with a cumulative time of 44 hours, 33 minutes and 23 seconds, the 3rd ever fastest female time. What a week!
1) Can you sum up the race in 5 words?
Lisa: Indescribably awesome and incredible experience!
Bo: Awesome, gruesome, painful, challenging and inspirational…. Which is an amazing combination of words! ❤
2) Which stage did you enjoy most?
Lisa: I loved day 3. Whilst intimidatingly long its much more runnable than the earlier rocky stages and I stopped holding back on the descents (I love running downhill but had previously been trying to save my quads). I made really good progress across the first half. I felt a bit ill running through Machynlleth but a quick pit stop in the Co-op and at the support point to grab & eat some snacks sorted me out. I then ran most of the second half with Andrew Jones (222). It was awesome to have some company and we pushed each other to run quickly, the miles flew by.
Stage 3 also has beautiful scenery and cool mountains but is strangely less well visited than Snowdonia. The terrain is much more like the Peak District where I’ve done most of my training. The heathery tussocks suit me and I’m able to move fast over them. It was also the day when I realised I was really in with a chance of a podium finish.
Bo: Good question! I enjoyed Crib Goch a lot – I was worried about the cut-off times on day 1, but by this point I was 2-3 hours ahead of cut-off and could just enjoy the views and moving on rock. I also enjoyed the morning of day 4 a lot, it was moody weather, with empty moorlands and big tracks in between them. I just felt like running!
3) Which part of the race did you find the hardest?
Lisa: I found the second half of day 2 really hard. I love the Rhinogydd but they are tough! I had been running with friends all morning which was really fun but I left them at the support point (I really liked to be quick though the support points and not stop too much so my legs stayed awake!). In the afternoon the climbs felt hard and food didn’t seem to be helping much. The views were still stunning I was hoping to catch someone up to chat away the miles but I did spend a big portion of this section on my own. Eventually Dan Murdoch caught me and we ran off Diffwys together. Seeing Libby and Hetty once more lifted me up too. I couldn’t keep up for the torturous 8km road section at the end though. It took a lot of will power to push it though that. The thought of a shower at the campsite and cheers from Lucy at the toll Bridge spurred me on!
Bo: The second half of day 3 was a real struggle. I got to the support point in Machynlleth having ran for 3 days, with way too much ascent, and already having done over a marathon distance that day. Mentally it was so hard to know I still had to start the second half of the day. Luckily my friend Natalya caught me up during this section and talking to her gave me some much needed distraction from the pain of running!
4) What kit did you most appreciate having with you?
Lisa: Poles! And a cap and suncream. Having a lightweight waterproof (I used the Alpkit Gravitas) was great too. Fortunately it was a really dry week and I spent most of it in a T-shirt & shorts but it was reassuring to have a waterproof with me that I could trust to keep out the wind and rain when I needed it to and it packed down so small that barely noticed it in my pack the rest of the time.
Bo: Yes, POLES! As the days went on, I just loved them more and more. I was looking forward to a good uphill so I could use them! The funny thing was, I liked them because leaning on the poles took the slightest bit of weight off the soles of my feet. Oh so nice.. Also, I really loved my shoe choice for the week. I normally blister quite easily and it was prime blister territory but at the end of the week I had no blisters at all!
5) Luxury items! Bo – you were planning to take your own coffee and Lisa was going to squeeze a large jar of nutella into her overnight bag. Did you appreciate these luxury items?
Bo: Yes my “coffee in a bag” was great – it works like a tea bag, but means you get filter coffee! I did really love a good cup of coffee in the morning, so that was a hit. And it did not take any extra effort which is also a bonus. I did not have any extra luxury items, really. I did not have very much time in camp to enjoy them anyhow!
Lisa: Sadly I didn’t touch it. I just couldn’t eat sweet stuff in the evening.
6) How did your stomachs hold up over the week? You were both packing a lot of day food. Did you manage to eat well?
Lisa: my stomach generally behaved itself. I managed to eat well when on the move opting to eat my ‘lunch’ (a pasty for the first 3days) on the move rather than stop at the support point. I did wish I could have eaten a bit more in the evenings but it didn’t seem to go too badly.
Bo: Food is a thing we are really good at I think. When the Bog Beauties train together we always check if the others are eating and we generally eat about 1 thing an hour. I found that as the week went on I needed to eat every 45 mins. I guess my metabolism was going in hyper-activity mode! When unpacking at the end of the week I found I had eaten about 80% of all the food I packed (and I packed a lot!) which I think is pretty good. It was a nice balance of savoury and sweet food as well. My stomach held up fine, the only nausea I experienced was because of pain, not food.
7) Lisa, you ran a phenomenal race and finished first female. Starting steady you picked up the pace throughout the week and rose up through the results table each day. You finished day 4 with a 73 second lead over 2nd place Sabrina Verjee and were faced with a racing start on day 5. Tell us what was going through your head throughout the week and especially on Thursday evening.
Lisa: It was always my plan to try and take it a bit easy on day 1 and 2 then pick up the pace later on. I knew I was running well over the first few days but as I’ve never done anything this challenging before I really had no idea that I was on form for such a high placed finish, this really took me by surprise. My aim each day was just to run as best I could, enjoy myself as much as possible and get to the end still smiling. On days 3 and 4 I was aware I was gaining time on Sabrina [leading lady until day 4] but as I generally started before her each morning (mostly out of fear that the wheels would come off or I’d make a nav error) I didn’t see her much and it didn’t really feel like a race, just a personal challenge to run as well as I could. I was aware I would probably have to do a chasing start on day 5 but didn’t know the details until Carol Morgan [female winner of the 2017 Dragon’s Back] came and found me to tell me the gap was only a minute and that I had to start first – there was no way to avoid the competitive atmosphere then! I get really bad race nerves so this made me feel pretty sick. I struggled that evening and the next morning to want to eat much, I was hoping to find Sabrina to chat to her about it all but couldn’t find her at camp. Sabrina is an amazing experienced athlete and it felt so weird to be racing her so directly! In the end I had some lovely chats with my tent mates and other friends at the event who reminded me that I should just do what I had been doing all along, enjoy myself and try my best… So I did my best to put my nerves to bed and set off with that in mind! I am a very competitive person so the adrenaline of the chasing start almost certainly sped me up considerably and as we were in the final day I felt there was no point leaving anything in the tank so I pushed hard all day, I love running fast and the Black Mountain is really one of my favourite parts of the route. Once I got going and past the initial less interesting section of route I forgot all about the competition (and the pain), got into my stride and loved it!
8) Bo, we talked previously about your low iron levels. How did this affect your race?
Bo: I am just really glad to have finished the race! The doc said it was absolutely crazy I managed it – I guess the rest of my body must have adapted during my training to make up for the lack of red blood cells (i.e. the oxygen carrying ones). I am really chuffed to have done quite well, but secretly do wonder what would have happened if I had been at normal blood levels…
9) How did you find the weather? To an observer the conditions looked pretty perfect – sunny, patchy cloud, no rain, low wind and only one or two patches of hill fog.
Bo: The weather was everything I wished for! I really do not like very hot weather, I am definitely a Northerner! Wales showed itself from its best side. Suncream was definitely needed but I managed to not burn despite being out for 12-14 hours every day.
10) And the often dreaded question; what’s next?!
Lisa: I couldn’t really imagine life post dragons back and I had no idea how I was going to feel so I have very little in the calendar. I suppose the first thing is to try and get my head around this crazy experience and enjoy it for a little while while my legs recover. I definitely feel like I want to enter some more events and I feel like stage races really suit me as I’m able to recover really well overnight. I dedicated a year to training for the Dragon’s Back so I think I will need to find something that inspires me on the same level to have the same amazing of experience I just had. So I need to do some searching. I’m also keen to do some other ultras as day 3 (71km) is currently the furthest I’ve ever run but I’m sure I can start pushing that distance now. I’m also interested to see how I fare at a non-stop race but so far the idea of tactical sleeping/not-sleeping terrifies me. I’m also starting to dream up some personal challenges to have a go at, but I’m not going to commit to anything just yet so… watch this space.
Bo: My legs have had a bit of a beating at the race so definitely no running for two weeks to help them make a good recovery. Like Lisa, this race has been my main objective for the last 12 months so I have no new running goals for now. But I am sure another adventure will soon grab my attention – I love our long-distance self supported adventures and hope we can have a go at another one soon! But maybe first make some new red blood cells!
Lisa and Bo are both writing up a race report so if you want a more detailed account of how the 5-day long race unfolded for each of them then watch this space!
One week to go! – pre-race interview with Libby
It’s 6 days until the start of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back – a 315km (195 mile) 5 day stage race down the spine of Wales with an intimidating 15,500m ascent. If you’ve been following the website you’ll know that Bog Beauties Bo and Lisa both have entries and have been training hard. We put some questions to them to find out how they are feeling ahead of the race;
What made you choose to enter the Dragon’s Back? There’s lots of long distance stage races on offer now so why this event rather than any other?
Bo: For me, the seed was planted 5 years ago when I saw a film about the Dragon’s Back at SHAFF (Sheffield Adventure Film Festival). I had only just started running at that point. I loved running out in the Peak District but back then I thought that 6 miles was a long run! I was so thoroughly impressed with the people doing the race in the film, and really thought “I could never do that” – which just means I need to prove myself wrong!
Lisa: I first heard of this race when my friend Matt completed it in 2015. Obviously at the time I thought it was totally nuts and way beyond what I would be capable of, but I guess this planted the seed. In 2017 I followed the progress of the race and decided to sign up to volunteer with Ourea at the Cape Wrath Ultra in 2018. By this time I was much more into long distance running so it seemed more of a possibility. By May 2018 I had done a few multi day adventures (Running Hadrian’s Wall and setting a fastest known female time for a self-propelled continuous Munro round) , although not competitively, and with added knowledge of the event from volunteering and a few friends also signing up it seemed like the perfect time to give it a go. I absolutely love ‘run-touring’ and adventuring close to home on the amazing landscapes that the UK has to offer so this just seems like the perfect challenge.
Which stage are you most looking forward to?
Bo: I am most looking forward to Crib Goch! But only if the weather is nice. It will most likely be early evening when I get there, and I love the scrambling.
Lisa: I’m incredibly excited to just get started, I think the whole route is fantastic. I love Snowdonia and the race starts through going over some amazing mountains but I think I’m most looking forward to is Stage 2, I was quite nervous about this stage so I’ve practised it a lot and in doing so I’ve fallen in love with the Rhinogydd and their brutal rocky beauty. You aren’t far from the main part of Snowdonia here, yet it already feels a million miles from anywhere. After that I can’t wait to be on the Black Mountain on Stage 5, there are stunning views and the end will be (nearly) in sight!
Which part of the race do you think will be toughest?
Bo: The section I am dreading most is the 10k road section at the end of day 4. That is a looooong way on a hard surface, and my joints will definitely be sore by then!
Lisa: As long as you pick some good lines on day 2 (the descent of Rhinog Fawr can be awful if you get it wrong) then I think Stage 3 will be the toughest, it is a long way and while it is mostly on good trails and relatively run-able you need to feel physically able to run! Conversely to Bo, I am dreading Crib Goch, I am a total wimp and hate scrambling, my main aim is to take it slow and steady here and try not to embarrass myself. Fingers crossed the weather will be better then on our recce.
The organisers transport an overnight bag for you. Are you packing any luxury items?
Bo: I’m not sure if I will have any time in camp to enjoy these luxury items! Do clean clothes count as a luxury?! I am packing my own coffee. They supply instant at breakfast and I am well known for being a bit of a coffee snob.
Lisa: It depends how well everything fits in. I’m hoping to be able to stash a huge tub of Nutella (and a spoon).
What running snacks are you packing?
Bo: The list is pretty long! I’ll take some fresh stuff for days 1 and2, and will have to eat dried stuff such as muesli bars the rest of the time. I am planning on taking (in random order) shotblocks, babybells, cheesy bread rolls, hot cross buns, tuna salad packs, fruit puree, avocados, mozzerella balls, mars bars, malt loaf, haribo and pepperoni sticks!
Lisa: Oh I have a lot of food. As everything needs to last for 5 days in my drop bag this is a little tough but at the moment I have packed:
a large variety of cereal bars – a different selection for each day
a couple of baby bells and cheese strings
homemade date and cashew balls
Savoury sandwichs (e.g a wrap with Primula)
I also have some rehydration tabs for my water
In the midway support bag I have also packed
Jamie Oliver sachet meals (e.g. lentils/quinoa)
oh, and I’ll probably throw in some choc covered coffee beans in too for any moments where I need a pick-me-up.
Lisa, the race organisers have named you as a potential “dark horse” with a chance of a podium finish . How do you feel about that?
Lisa: I’m really flattered that the organisers have so much confidence in me. I volunteered with them last year and it was lovely to spend so much time with the team, it really feels like one big family, it’s great that they are being so supportive. My training has gone well and I have had a few great races this year, but I have never tried anything as challenging as the Dragon’s Back. My aim is to do the best I can do while still enjoying myself, I am wary of letting my competitive spirit take over early on at the expense of finishing or even enjoying the race (The film “Riding the Dragon” with Huw Jack Brassington about the 2017, shows well what can happen if you do this!). So, I think my plan is to take it steady early on and see what I have left in the tank on the later stages. Obviously, if I manage to do well I would be incredibly happy but I would be content with a solid finish. It is such a long event that anything could happen, let’s see how it plays out.
Bo, you’ve recently been told you have an exceptionally low blood iron count, do you think this will effect your race?
Bo: It definitely will affect my race, I simply can’t get the oxygen round my body very well! So I will be slower on the uphills and more easily tired. However, I have done most of my training with this condition so I’m hoping it just feels normal to me! And it’s not like I was going to sprint along this 200-mile Dragon spine anyhow…
In 2 weeks the race will be over. Can you imagine life after Dragon’s Back? Do you have any other races booked in?
Bo: I’m not sure if I can! Though I am pretty busy after the race, since I have put so much of my normal life on hold and postponed seeing friends and family to after Dragon’s Back. I hope to keep enjoying running and am keen to explore the Lake District more – I moved here six months ago, but have spend more time in Wales than in my new home-hills!
Lisa: That’s a hard question. I really can’t imagine what that will be like! Like Bo though I’m going to make sure I take time to recover and catch up with everyone/everything I’ve neglected while I’ve been training! I’m definitely keen on fitting in some fell races but I’m going to see how it goes. I’m also hoping to go away for another running holiday in Europe later in the year depending on how I feel (and whether I still like running!) knowing me i’ll start dreaming up another big challenge for next year.
What would your perfect weather conditions be for the race?
Bo: My perfect race conditions would be 10 degrees C, little to no wind, high hanging cloud (to avoid sunburn). Not that I’m picky or anything! I like running in cool weather!
Lisa: I mean cool, clear and dry would make it really enjoyable. But if I put my competitive head on I do tend to place better when it’s foggy and wet as I’ve done lots of training in those sort of conditions (such as recce’ing day 4 in March in the middle of Storm Hannah) , my navigation is OK and I’m happy to get on with it. I would definitely prefer the views to competitive advantage. Also 5 days of wet tents and wet kit would be gross.
Bo: Yeah, no wishing for rain and fog please!
Good luck to Bo and Lisa. We’ll be keeping our Instagram and Twitter pages updated with their progress but if you want to follow along in real time they will both be carrying trackers (provided by the race organisers) so if you want to follow their progress you will be able to do so here http://www.berghausdragonsbackrace.com/
First recce weekend: Day2 (Nant Gwynant to Llanelltyd)
With the rest of the UK enjoying the soaring heat on the beach, in a lake or with a beer, Lisa and Bo had decided that last weekend (7-8th of July) was our first outing on the official Dragon’s Back race route. The 2017 route map arrived just in time for us to plan our first recce, which combined public transport, hitchhiking/getting lifts to make our point-to-point route possible!
With 55 km (34 miles) the second day of the race is comparatively short, but the large ascent and pathless moors more than make up for its length! We decided to split the race day in two, and run the longer section from Maentwrog to Llanelltyd on Saturday and the shorter section from Nant Gwynant back to Maentwrog on Sunday. We started off strong on Saturday by getting lost in some farmers fields. We knew the navigation would get much harder than a couple of fields with cows, and focused to read the map properly and use a compass. The lack of clouds had one advantage: perfect visibility. Once on the moors and in the mountains we could relatively easily identify our next checkpoint and pick our route towards it. For the rest of the day we found the navigation fairly straightforward and found lots of useful trods, one exception was finding a good route down Rhinog Fawr. We didn’t traverse far enough east so had an exciting scramble boulder strewn heathery slopes while we were trying to get back to the path we could see below us – something to practice again.
The absence of the clouds did come with a very hot, sun-soaked day for us. The temperature kept rising during the day and by the time we got to the big hills we were running low on water. The lack of rain meant that most streams have dried up or have been reduced to a tiny trickle! Some dodgy water with purifying tablets later, we pushed on and finished our run with the most amazing – SHADY – downhill forest trail. Our swim in the sea afterwards did leave us wondering if our skin just got less, or more, salty?!
Sunday somehow was even hotter. At 8am having breakfast we were already too hot and we had only moved from the tent to a picnic bench. Thankfully today was a relatively short day for us so we decided just to take it easy and enjoy the views and maybe swim in a tarn or two along the way. On the way up Cnicht we met some very friendly locals out who helped us route find the best way down the mountain, they also helped us with some Welsh pronunciation – something we definitely need to work on to avoid embarrasment! On the next mountain, Moelwyn Fawr, we bumped in to Caz and Lawrie, friends from volunteering at Cape Wrath, who gave us yet more route tips. We couldn’t keep up with them hurtling along to Moelwyn Fach but we enjoyed the rest of the route at our easy pace (whilst compulsively checking twitter for news of Kilian’s progress on his record-breaking Bob Graham round).
A great weekend, and really useful recce. Looking forward to the next one!
Volunteering at the Cape Wrath Ultra
Lisa has just returned after spending a week in Scotland volunteering at the Dragon’s Back sister event the Cape Wrath Ultra. As well as being a great way of giving back to the ultra-running community by being a small cog in running of this event (a mammoth task!), it was great fun make many new ultra-running friends and to become part of Ourea Events family.
I was part of the camp team and my main duties were to kit check participants before setting off, followed by dismantling the camp and packing it into the vans so it could be transported to the next site. Once we arrived at the next camp spot the first job was to set it all back up again so the participants could return from a long days running to a fully functioning event village complete with catering, medical tents, a mess tent and the big blue tents (their home for the week). In the afternoon and evening shifts were rotered so there was normally time to get out for a quick run before or after our evening duty. I was posted on the finish, where I collected the trackers back in off the runners and welcomed them home – a really nice job! Others on the camp team helped by showing the participants to their tents and carrying their overnight bags.
I was also lucky enough to spend a couple of shifts helping in Race Control as a professional dot-watcher. Using the tracking information allows Race Control to anticipate incidents before they occur, i.e. if someone has started to go off route or has slowed down considerably and is unlikely to make a cut-off time. This allows race control to coordinate the remote checkpoint, medical and first response teams appropriately. The trackers which were used for the event also allow messages to be sent to participants, i.e. to reassure them that help is on its way if they have had to stop due to injury.
To make this event a success everyone (particularly the event organisers and catering team) worked hard for long days but it was so rewarding to be part of this amazing event and to spend time in North-West Scotland. Although I spent last summer here during my Munro round the weather at the time was miserable so to re-visit the area in such beautiful weather was a treat! I also really valued the opportunity to understand the inner workings of an event like this, and I now know what to expect when Bo and I tackle the Dragon’s back next year. Above all, getting to know such a fantastic group of people, both participants and other event team members, was amazing and I’m really looking forward to being part of future Ourea events, whether that’s volunteering or participating!
If you want to find out more about the Cape Wrath Ultra (including some stunning daily highlight videos of the race) or find out about entering or volunteering at other Ourea events – check out the websites linked above.