”The legendary Dragon’s Back Race™ follows the mountainous spine of Wales from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle. This incredible 5-day journey is approximately 300 kilometres long with 16,000 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain. It is not a trail race. It is an extreme test of endurance.”
So what does it take to finish it?
Do you need to be super human? Running since birth? Using a compass before you could walk?
Have legs carved out of rock? Maybe such characteristics could help, but in a word, NO!
I think finishing the Dragon’s Back comes down to 3 things.
A – How much you want to finish.
B – How well you look after yourself during the race.
C – How well conditioned your body is to the long days on your feet.
In my first multi stage race (Gobi Challenge) in 2010 I was probably one of the least experienced entrants and didn’t really run much before that (it was my first running event) but I had practiced doing long 2-3 day hikes on tough ground carrying my pack along with strength training for my legs. In the race I relied heavily on determination to get me through. I was mid pack and I had to really work for that finish medal. I REALLY WANTED to finish! I didn’t care if it meant I was the last finisher.
Some questions to ask to help you focus your training time effectively and best prepare for the DBR ….
What is your aim within the race?
Where are you at right now?
What type of terrain do you usually run on?
What experience do you have in the mountains?
How confident are you navigating remote and often trackless areas potentially in the cloud?
How tough are you mentally?
What kind of state you want to be in at the finish?
Essentially you need to define your areas of weakness and figure out what might be holding you back from finishing the race. Get used to the kit you plan to use, practice with it and refine it, consider your fueling strategy, get some long days out in the hills to experience the terrain, someone who has been crushing loads of fast miles on the road wont necessarily be in a good position for an event like this.
In terms of getting your body ready for the event which I’m covering in this article here’s the process I’d go through.
1 – Assess running form and technique
See what your technique and form is like when running. If your technique is very poor then any training you do will stress the body more than necessary. Similar to driving around with your brakes partially on in the car. I don’t think there is one global running style that suits everyone but it makes sense to make some small tweaks. If there was something simple to at least keep you upright and more relaxed for example, keeping your eyes up and looking a few steps ahead rather than looking straight down to the floor when you’re on runnable sections or keeping your cadence up when ascending and reducing your stride length, perhaps becoming more aware of your foot placement when descending, landing with your weight over your foot rather than your foot being far ahead. These findings could help improve your running without having to add to your training time. Also if you can place less stress on the body that’s great to reduce the chance of an overuse injury.
2 – Define any weaknesses or imbalances.
If you’ve got a problem area that keeps causing issues, maybe preventing you from training or maybe just something a bit stiff or niggle-y, it’s worth seeing someone who knows what they are looking for and getting help fixing it. It could be that the ITB keeps bothering you causing some pain, or an aching hip that comes back when you increase your mileage. Simply stretching and massaging something that constantly bothers you is only a temporary fix. Find out why that’s happening and learn what you can do to get the body in good alignment.
Most of the non running training I do when racing a lot is keeping things mobile and ensuring that my body is working smoothly and in good alignment. Again it’s a way of reducing the stress on the body, you might be strong enough to get through 40 – 60 miles a week without any pain but perhaps some tightness, consider the race length much longer than this, it’s difficult to mask an area that’s hurting for that long. Worse still you could end up putting more stress on to a different area of the body in order to compensate causing a chain of issues.
3 – Build your training up gradually!
I know, I know, ground breaking statement right?! Not really, whilst we all know someone who just went out and started running and did their first ultra with no training. I’ve not seen anyone come up with the magic number of miles to train per week or month. The nature of the DBR means some long days out in the hills, 5 days in a row to be exact. Over the past few years I’ve used back to back long runs regularly in my training and since I started them, my stamina in ultras has grown and grown. It depends where you’re at right now but you might start going out for an easy paced hour the day after a marathon or perhaps something like the shorter mountain marathon type events where you’re doing 3 to 4 hours in the hills back to back. If you’re planning on entering the next Dragon’s Back then it’s likely you’ve already got some sort of base of running or hiking fitness. I used some of the national trails in New Zealand to hike over a couple of days as part of my training for my first stage race. I learned a lot! Nowadays I pick a couple of trail races on the same weekend such as a marathon and a 40 miler I did one weekend or my own planned routes in Snowdonia.
4 – Practice makes perfect?
Providing you practice something specific to the race of course! Can you switch some of your runs and include more running on hilly or rough terrain? Squeeze in a few trips to the hills to recce the area of the race? It doesn’t have to be every run. Once a week near where I live I can drive 30 mins to some small hills and if I really try I can get over 500m of ascent in a couple of hours. Not quite up to DBR standards but making the most of what’s available! The weekends I try to get to somewhere like Snowdonia to train on some real hills or do a race (generally I pick the hillier ones) but the rest of the week days I have to make do with either flat road or canal path type trail. I can use these days to either work on my speed or recover either with easy running or some cycling.
First get to grips with where you honestly and realistically are, right now. Ask yourself what areas will be holding you back the most. Weight, navigation skills, stamina, confidence?
Now it’s time to make some decisions…. Decide which area will have the biggest impact on you and set to work improving that aspect first. Speak to a relevant person if needed. Your friends mums taxi driver who was ‘reet good at that there cross country at school’ might not be your best bet! It could be a physio, coach, navigation expert, past competitor or something totally different.
Break down and list the steps between where you are now and where you want to be and then….
DO SOMETHING STRAIGHT AWAY. Sitting there all motivated is great but wont get you through it alone! Start doing something right away that will help you toward that finish line!
Be consistent, keep focused and listen to the body.
You can read my own personal experience of the DBR on my race blog at www.charliesharpe.co.uk
There is also a free video series and other articles you might enjoy!