I’ve read everyone else’s tips on how to ‘slay the dragon’. Here are my 5 tips for anyone attempting the Dragon’s Back Race. I haven’t seen these anywhere else, so hopefully, they bring something new.
Tryfan, Welsh for ‘Absolute Bastard!’ – Matt Whyman
The goal of this post is to take one Dragon’s Back hopeful (could it be you?), who might have otherwise found themselves drifting onto the wrong side of a cut-off time, deep in the belly of Wales, and give them the slightest lift, just enough for them to make it through, to the hallowed Cardiff Castle, and the glory that awaits them there, as they complete the World’s Toughest Mountain Race.
Please forgive me if anything below sounds harsh. I will try to be as gentle as possible. The truth is, it is a harsh race, and there are some harsh realities that come with it.
1. Do Your Homework
Devour everything you can find on the subject. Every single thing. Documentary, book, podcast, blog (excellent blog here by the way). Of course, you should have done all this before you laid out the big bucks, but you didn’t (neither did I), so now is the second-best time to get started.
You don’t know where that invaluable piece of advice is waiting for you, that lightbulb moment. This is the fun part, reading about everyone else’s misery in the comfort of your own home. At the very least, it will help you get to the start line with your eyes wide open.
The standout moment for me, in my research, came when I was watching a documentary on Amazon Prime. Jim Mann was racing against a Canadian guy, Galen something (I’m not Googling this, can you tell?). They ran one of the days as a team, were both smiling and waving to the cameras, and arrived at camp together. Jim Mann casually walked behind the back of a tent where he thought no one was watching. He proceeded to get down onto his knees, and put his head to the ground. He just stayed there. I’m not sure, but I think he was sobbing. Jim Mann! Training 200 miles a week. Previous winner. If the race could do this to him, what could it do to me?
2. Taper Like A Pro
I was not good enough to stay in the Elite Athlete’s hotel at the Berlin Marathon, but I was good enough to be allowed to visit. All the world’s best athletes in one place. All doing precisely the same thing. Nothing. As much of it as possible. The marathon is a gruelling event, these professionals were selfishly hoarding every ounce of energy for the immense task ahead.
Do you know what is more immense than a road marathon?
6 marathons over 6 days on some of the hilliest, most inhospitable terrain you can find. Yet, when I turned up to registration the day before the Dragon’s Back, it felt like I was at a festival. Oh the fun in the sun! Laughter, shouts, enthusiastic back slaps, selfies. I literally, actually, saw people on the climbing frame and I am being serious.
I get it. After all that training alone, it feels like a release to finally be here, so close to the big moment, with all these people who have been through the same trials as you. But, no matter who you are, this challenge will require everything you have. Last year, 118 people failed to finish Day 1. Lots of runners missed cut-off times by mere minutes, even seconds.
You only have one battery. Keep it fully charged. Socialising is tiring. Smile, be polite, take care of your business as quickly as possible, and then go lie down. This last sentence should really be applied to the entire week leading up to the race. Why are you here? To make friends, or finish the race? There’s plenty of time to make friends on the hills. The memories of successful completion will put everything else in the shade.
3. Train Your Sleep
The best thing you can do to recover, is sleep. It only gets more important as the event goes on. If you stumble off a cliff because of poor coordination or end up 20 miles in the wrong direction because of poor decisions, chances are, you have not had enough sleep.
Don’t expect it to come naturally when you need it most. After a big day out in the hills, your brain can go into overdrive trying to process everything. Added to this, 7 other tired and sweaty runners will also be restlessly trying to sleep, inches away from you. Plus, you are in a tent. When was the last time you slept in a tent? It’s different.
You can train your sleep. Ear plugs, eye masks, meditation, breath work, sleep apps, pillows, sleeping bags, ground mats, noise-cancelling earphones. Take your roll mat and sleeping bag and sleep out in the garden. Make sure everything is as comfortable as you can make it.
Get your sleep admin down to a T. You won’t be very popular if you slap your sleeping tentmate in the face while scrambling around in the dark. Have everything positioned so you know exactly where it is. I had my headtorch right there for emergencies. My hoodie went into a stuff sack which became my pillow. I had two bottles next to my bed (one full, one empty, you can figure it out). Also next to me were snacks for the inevitable midnight munchies. I had my earplugs exactly right and my black buff over my eyes. I lay on my side and squashed my hands into my ears so I couldn’t hear my tentmates as they groaned, snored and threw up all night (I’m not joking).
Better sleep = better recovery = better performance
4. Poles May Not Be The Answer
I know, controversial. The majority of ultra people seem to use them these days. Maybe they are a help, but I just want to put it out there, maybe they are not. Yes, I’ve tried them for a decent amount of time. No, I am not convinced. The science is inconclusive. Studies say they lower the perception of effort, but actually burn more calories. Humans are the apex endurance animals. No other mammal can compete over this distance and terrain. It’s not easy to improve upon 6 million years of evolution. Yes, we wear shoes. They don’t fundamentally change the way we move. Yes, everyone uses poles at UTMB. The trails on the Alps are child’s play next to the pathless bogs of Elan Valley.
Rain and wind make poles much harder to control. There is the faff of getting them in and out every time, they tie up your hands so you can’t do useful stuff like eating, drinking, reading maps and dibbing. If you become dependent on them, then you are relying on them not getting damaged or lost down the entire length of Wales. It is a lot to make up for.
People like selling us stuff, and we like buying it. If you find poles are not for you, that’s ok. Your legs are incredible by themselves, and they can become stronger and more injury-proof (check out an excellent strength routine here) very quickly. Plus they are harder to break, or leave behind by mistake.
5. Time On Your Feet
Ok. This is the biggy. I should have put this one first, because it is, by far, the most important. I wanted to gently lead you up to it. Other sources have rightly stated that you need to train for this event. But I want to emphasise what it really comes down to.
Time on your feet. So simple. So often overlooked. How many hours are you spending outdoors running or hiking? How many hours is enough? Well, before we answer that, lets go through a few numbers:
- Less than 1 in 4 people finished last year (the weather was a factor, but the weather is getting more extreme every year)
- The longest day took between 10 to 15 hours to complete
- The whole six day race took between 45 to 90 hours to finish
- The average UK adult spends 4 hours a day watching screens, outside of work (link here)
So, how many training hours are you putting in every week? And when I say training, I mean; outside, running, hiking, preferably off-road.
I can’t give you a magic number, but, if your answer is in single digits, you are doing less in a week than you will need to do in a day at the Dragon’s Back Race. I respectfully refer you back to the first bullet, above.
Put the Hours In
Your success or failure won’t come down to kit, but body and mind. You can’t purchase an upgrade. You have to spend the hours on your feet, in all weathers, with gravity, hot sun, cold rain, bearing down on you, making you earn every step.
When you put the hours in, a lot of great stuff happens;
You make massive physical improvements.
Most of the big Facebook forum problems seem to disappear; kit choices, blisters, chafing, nav issues. It all gets easier with practice and experience.
You will steel your mind in preparation for the big question, which will inevitably come, out on a godforsaken hill somewhere in Wales:
Do I really want this?
It won’t matter what you tell yourself, the answer will come from how many sacrifices you have made, and how many hours you’ve put into training. Words are cheap. Actions are hard.
Quick Fire Round
If those 5 tips for the Dragon’s Back Race weren’t enough, here are a few quick-fire pointers:
This is how it should be
- Pack 5 pairs of socks. Nothing is more soul destroying than putting on wet socks in the morning. You will not have time to dry anything.
- Don’t stop. Keep moving. Learn to do everything whilst walking. If you need a rest, slow right down, the difference between stopping and walking slowly is small in terms of recovery, but enormous in terms of distance accumulated. The sooner you get to camp, the sooner you can sit down.
- Don’t put anything down. At some point in The Dragon’s Back Race you will forget it and walk off. If you need to take your gloves off, put them straight into a pocket. If you are map reading and need a free hand to eat, wait until you know where you’re going, then put your map directly back into your rucksack. You can put your poles down though, I’m sure they’ll be fine!
- Make a little wrist band out of stretchy material to tuck your dibber into. It can be annoying, flapping around all the time.
- Eat and drink when you’re walking uphill, not when you are flying downhill.
- Start as soon as you are allowed. Anything can happen out there. Don’t miss a cut-off because you had a lie-in. The earlier you get to camp the easier it will be to get ready for the next day.
- Recce the towns. Harvey maps are brilliant for hills, not so much for urban areas. I went wrong in the towns more than on the hills.
- You will probably have to queue at registration. Sit on your kit bag. Save your energy.
- No matter how tired or fed up you are, always be polite and kind to the staff.
If you are a Dragon’s Back hopeful with a question, the best place to get in touch is probably my Instagram.