Dragon’s Back – one of the hardest mountain races in the world
‘What crazy challenge are you up to next?’ It’s a question that I get asked a lot and one that I often feel obliged to answer with something interesting. After all, I’ve carved a career out for myself by competing in and the writing about races from around the world, whether they be hard-as-nails ultra marathons, skyrunning events, iron distance triathlons or expedition length adventure races through to the fun stuff such as wife carrying (yes, really) and obstacle course racing!
I don’t enter a race to simply suffer, although that often is a byproduct. No, I enter races that will take me out of my comfort zone, offer stunning scenery and most importantly for me, offer an interesting story. So when someone does ask me about what makes a race special, then it should be an easy sell.
But recently, the more I hear about the Dragon’s Back Race, which has a reputation as one of the world’s toughest mountain races, the more I have begun to question my own sanity and ask myself, ‘Have I gone one race too far?’ I’ve been telling myself that I’ve been training for this race for the past 10 years and it will be my toughest yet. Never before have I been so afraid of not finishing. So what’s so scary?
Deemed so tough, race took a 20-year hiatus
For the uninitiated, the Dragon’s Back is a 200(ish)-mile, five-day running race (starting on Monday June 22) across the remote mountainous spine of Wales. The event was first held in 1992 and attracted some of the finest mountain running talent from the around the world. However, it was deemed so hard, that it didn’t happen again for another 20 years, until 2012. True to form, on its return to the calendar the Dragon’s Back proved as fierce as ever, with over half the competitors dropping out on the first stage (day one) and only 40% finishing the entire five stages.
So if you add together the accumulative toll of running 40-plus miles each day over wild, technical terrain in unpredictable weather, all whilst navigating with a map and compass, it’s not surprising that people don’t finish, especially when you factor in the accumulative 16,000m of ascent and equally punishing descent.
Getting back to basics in preparation
For those who have indeed heard about the Dragon’s Back, the next question I’m asked is whether or not I can navigate. It’s a very good question and one that I’d normally answer with a resounding ‘Yes’. With six years in the army behind me plus a Mountain Leader Training course, numerous adventure races and mountain marathons – if I’ve not learned to navigate by now, all hope is lost.
But the snag is that ones ability to navigate, just like anything else, can deteriorate if not regularly practiced. We’ve all become so reliant on smart phones and GPS devices, that the good old map and compass is something many people would expect to find in George Orwell’s Room 101. So with that in mind, I’ve dusted off my compass and done some homework and a bit of practicing – whether that be doing a recce of the Welsh 3000s, the Bob Graham Round or a traverse of Dartmoor. Which brings me on to another very important point.
The trials and tribulations of a flatlander
I live in South West London. It is not hilly. Not even a tiny bit. Despite being fortunate enough to have lots of green parks and commons within striking distance, none of them can even come close to replicating the mountainous terrain of Crib Goch or the Brecon Beacons. So, acutely conscious of my vertically challenged handicap, I’ve been going through something of a running revolution in my search for lumpy bits outside of England’s capital city. And the closest I can get is the North and South Downs.
Box Hill and the North Downs Way is less than an hour away and the South Downs are 90 minutes. And thanks to the Long Distance Walkers Association and their brilliant archive of paths and trails, I’ve been having the time of my life exploring hitherto areas of the South East of England. With a bit of imagination, you can find some fantastic places to run and get some decent elevation gain in. Okay, it’s not mountain running, but it’s the best I’ve been able to find.
Race to Train
For as long as I’ve been running, my favourite way to get my long runs in has been to enter a race. I love racing – the atmosphere on the start line, chatting to fellow competitors, discovering a new area and the endorphins of finishing. After 200 or-so races in over a dozen countries on five continents, I still can’t get enough of it. To that end, I’ve done three ‘interesting’ races over the past couple of months. Races that will hopefully have some residual benefits when it comes to doing the Dragon’s Back.
The first was the Eco-Trail de Paris in March. This is an 80km trail race through Paris, finishing on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. Although it didn’t have very much ascent (1500m), it gave me valuable time on my feet testing out the Race Ultra 270s. It was the first time I’d used them in anger – and they were perfect for the job.
In April, I travelled to an island off the northwest coast of Africa known as the ‘Pearl of the Atlantic’. As soon as I’d seen the video of the Maderia Island Ultra Trail, I just new I had to do it. Running a full traverse of the island, I experienced 115km of trail running paradise – running through 100m long tunnels, alongside peaceful levadas (the irrigation system used on the island) and over stunning peaks, often with the cloud sitting beneath us. And with 7,000m of technical climbing (almost half that of the Dragon’s Back), I got a decent workout and a chance this time to put the Race Ultra 290s to the test.
And then in April, I returned to the same part of the world, but to La Palma in the Canary Islands for my first Skyrunning race – the Transvulcania Ultra. To describe this 73km race you have to imagine running up a scoldering hot volcano littered with razor blade sharp rocks and sand whilst doing numerous ice bucket challenges. On this occasion, I used the updated Roclite 295s with the Race Ultra 5 backpack.
So I’ve had an excellent opportunity to test out the inov-8 kit on the terrain it’s been designed for, whether that be on trail or mountain. But as you’ll have noticed, none of these races involved a map and compass!
Revelling in an adventure and paying homage to the Dragon
I know that I can run the distance. I’ve run 100 milers around the Tour du Mont Blanc, week-long expedition length adventure races in New Zealand and numerous multi-day stage races across mountains, deserts and jungles. But the Dragon’s Back deserves respect.
For me, the Dragon’s Back is first and foremost an adventure. And as most people will agree, the definition of an adventure is that the outcome is unknown. Five days of running the length of Wales in one of the UK’s most iconic ultra marathons – what’s not to like about that? At first, I might have been a little worried. But now, with only four days to go, I can’t wait. I will have both the X-Talon 200 and new Terraclaw 220 in my kit bag, picking each day which one is best suited to that stage’s terrain.