Nickademus Hollon has taken on – and beaten – many of the world’s toughest ultra running races. The American is one of only 15 runners since 1995 to have finished the notoriously brutal Barkley Marathons and came second in the 2014 Tor des Geants, a race that took him over 76 hours. Now Nickademus has set his sights on arguably the UK’s toughest foot race – The Dragon’s Back. Starting on Monday (May 22), he will race approximately 200 miles, including more than 50,000ft of ascent, over the mountainous spine of Wales, from north to south. The race is split into five days, with each day’s stage posing a new set challenges on the journey from Conwy to Llandeilo.
Renowned for being run over technical, trackless terrain amid wild surroundings (just check out the image above courtesy of Jon Brooke), the Dragon’s Back could be Nickademus’ biggest undertaking yet. Below is a video trailer to the 2017 race followed by Nickademus’ pre-race blog post.
Nickademus: Why Dragon’s Back Race?
The Dragon’s Back Race, first run in 1992 after a 20-year hiatus (because the race was deemed too tough), then again in 2012, 2015 and now this year. Its occurrence is mostly unknown to those living within the borders of the USA, but fell onto my radar sometime shortly after completing Tor des Geants for the second time in 2014.
Someone, somewhere posted on social media a click-bait of an article titled World’s Toughest Ultra Runs. It was the usual suspects: Hardrock, Jungle Marathon, etc. I’d pondered them all before, all but one. Dragon’s Back.
I was still on the ‘high’ coming off the 205-mile Tor des Geants and couldn’t believe there was another 200+ miler out there – and that it was supposedly just as hard. Terrible weather, navigational challenges, no trails, five days of running and infinite sheep… wow! I had to know more about what this course was about. It was still early enough to apply for the 2015 event but I couldn’t figure it into my schedule that year. And so to the back of my mind it went.
Fast forward two years, my curiosity with the event has grown even further. I like things that are hard to get an entry into… think Barkley Marathons (ed – Nickademus is one of only 15 runners since 1995 to finish this notoriously tough race) and Badwater. I take immense pleasure in discovering races that aren’t popular or well known in my community out here in San Diego. I absolutely love races that are so full of nasty, horrible terrain and weather that it’s almost more about you versus the course than it is about you versus the competition. Dragon’s Back seemed to fit all of my strange requirements perfectly.
Nickademus: Dragon’s Back Race preparations
So after sporadically entering into the Orcas Island 100 earlier this year, I teetered back and forth between committing to Dragon’s Back or committing to an early-July attempt at the Long Trail FKT in Vermont. I asked myself, ‘If I died next month which race would I most regret not running?’ I’ve been to Vermont plenty of times with my dad who lives in Connecticut but I’ve never been to Wales. I know absolutely nothing about the language, the people, the culture, the food and yes, those notoriously difficult looking ‘hills.’ Dragon’s Back won by a landslide.
Two months ago, in preparation for the event, I asked myself, ‘Where am I weakest? Where can I improve the most between now and the event?’ As I’d roll out of bed in the mornings the ache in my right foot (plantar fasciitis), something I’d tossed in the closet and swore to deal with ‘one day,’ gave me its usual dull morning pains. And then something new that I’d been dealing with since I went to squat down and fill my dog’s water bowl, knee pain, or more specifically a mild case of Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner’s Knee). I’ve studied running gait/technique and preached the importance of range of motion to the athletes I coach… now I had to turn the mirror on myself.
And so it was here that I decided this was my biggest weakness going into Dragon’s Back. I needed to fix these chronic pains, restore full range of motion to my joints, ensure the proper muscles fire when they ought to and that I’m not ‘compensating’ with anything. I want to be running ultras for a long time and with several ‘car alarms’ going off internally in my body, it seemed obvious that the most important thing was to clear up those injuries. Stability work, posterior strengthening, muscle stripping, foam rolling, myofascial release, biking for cross-training and yes, running just enough to feel confident for this event… that is how I’ve prepared for Dragon’s Back. Simply put, in training for Dragon’s Back, I chose to focus more on health rather than fitness.
Nickademus: Dragon’s Back Race expectations
So what are my expectations? I am a complete outsider to this event, but I’m heading overseas with an open heart and mind. I’ve been reading as many blog posts and race reports as possible while also watching all the documentaries and videos of the event. Without getting overly nervous, I’m a bit terrified of the navigational element for this event. A map and a compass and the option to follow a GPS tracker are great. But in thick fog descending a technical 3,000ft mountain, how am I supposed to tell a farmer’s field (you get disqualified if you cross these) from an open fell? I’m just a bit afraid I guess of making some dumb navigational mistake or, worse still, a wrong turn that could penalise my race.
Thankfully my knees are feeling good, my plantar fascia is down, my stress levels are low, my relationships back home are great and I’m feeling immensely grateful for the opportunity to just be there on the start line. I’m healthy, happy and for five days next week I’ll be doing what I love most.
* I’ll likely use both the X-TALON 212 and TERRACLAW 220 running shoes over the five days. Much will depend on how soft the ground is. The softer it is, the more likely it is that I’ll wear the X-TALON 212 (see video below) with its more aggressive outsole for increased grip in mud. As for my pack, I’ll go with the RACE ULTRA 10 BOA, which I’ve used on a lot of ultra races. Inside it will be a range of inov-8 clothing including my lightweight waterproofs in the shape of the AT/C STOMRSHELL and AT/C RACEPANT.
* Follow Nickademus throughout his Dragon’s Back adventure via the live tracker page. Nickademus is number 288.
2017 Dragon’s Back Race by numbers
Distance: 200 miles (approx), average of 40 miles a day
Ascent: 50,000ft (approx), average of 10,000ft a day
Time: Race lasts 5 days, starting Monday May 22 and finishing Friday May 27
Runners: 300 (approx) from countries including UK, USA, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, France, Germany, Sweden, China and South Africa
2015 winners: Men: Jim Mann 40hrs 08mins 03secs. Women: Jasmin Paris (who was also 2nd overall) 41hrs 45mins 34secs