How tough is ‘The worlds toughest mountain race’ - The Dragons Back and why tackle it?
Why would you take on the 'The worlds toughest mountain race'? Well that's exactly what we asked Montane athlete 2019 winner and Dragons Back course record holder Galen Reynolds as he recounts the 5 day event and his build up.
When I first came across the Dragon's Back Race in 2012, I couldn't comprehend it. The daily length, terrain and amount of climbing seemed impossible. I wasn't far removed from not being able to run a mile on the road without stopping for several walking breaks. As I had seen the Dragon's Back Race in a list of the world's toughest races, I filed it away for crazy people and didn't come back to it for another five years.
In the meantime, what started as a way to get in shape turned into a solid attraction to ultramarathons; the more difficult the better. I didn't mean for it to happen! The goal was to try and finish a 100-mile trail race within the cut-off times. The build-up was a little fast but given I knew absolutely nothing of training or running… ‘ignorance was bliss’. My kit in those early days were big baggy basketball shorts, cotton t-shirts, business socks, a mountain biking hydration pack and a pile of candy bars.
In 2017, I started to take running more seriously, wanting to see just how far I could push myself. I followed the 2017 Dragon's Back Race, amazed at the scenery and difficulty of the race. I found myself drawn to races and challenges that are beyond what I thought previously possible. The Dragon's Back Race (DBR) was the perfect challenge. Because of the distance and terrain, I had no idea if I could complete the race. Watching the 2017 race unfold and the runners come across the line, I put this race at the top of the challenge list. At the time, the DBR was being held every other year, which meant I had two years to ponder and prepare for the 2019 edition.
Taking things more thoughtfully, I had a training plan for the first time, which I grabbed from a generic template online. I signed up for some of the most challenging races I could find in Europe to try and get used to mountain races. It was tough sledging; living in London at the time, the largest ‘mountain’ I could find was about 80m tall!
When 2019 rolled around, I had lined up races with lots of ascent and descent, along with weekends in Wales to recce the course and beat up my quads for all the descending to come. I had two weekends, mini-training camps, where I ran back-to-back long days on the course through the mountains. Seeing the course and realising how rugged and trackless it was at points was quite a surprise but one I was happy to get out of the way before the actual race.
By the end of those weekends, I could hardly walk from the battering my quads had endured.
Two years of prep still left me running from work in my work clothes on the Friday night before the race to the local mountain shop to buy a sleeping pad before making the journey to the race the following day!
I was fortunate enough to chat with Montane teammate and the winner, course record holder of the 2017 Dragons Back Race and general ultra-running legend Marcus Scotney. He was great in sharing the tips and tricks that he had learnt from the previous edition. Great advice I listened to; Make sure to sort your kit as soon as possible after finishing the days, ahead of the next day’s stage. As it's so easy to chat away in the meal tent and lose track of time, it is much easier sorting kit in the light if possible. And great advice I tried to listen to, but failed on, don't go out too hard on the first day as you'll pay for it later on.
The 2019 version of the Dragons Back Race was 5 days with 315km and 15,500m of ascent. The stage distances were, mainly, even however, the terrain made every day a different challenge. Apart from the varying challenges the distance and terrain would make was the self-navigation of the route. Fortunately for me, the rules allowed for GPS watches for nav. That little directional line on my watch was a race saver.
After making it to the top of the first hill with fellow runners all around, the fog rolled in, and I ran a good bit of the first half with one other runner. We were separated in the fog, and I didn't see him again until the end of the day. On the boulders hopping from the rocky Tryfan peak over to the Glyders, the fog lifted for amazing views of Snowdonia. While the views were great, I didn't see any other runners and had a couple of moments of panic with my paper map out to make sure I was headed in the right direction and, most importantly, hitting all the trig points at each summit. The scramble over Crib Goch was incredible and terrifying at the same time, we were incredibly fortunate that the weather was on fine form. Coming into the finish line, I was greeted and told that I was in first. That was a shock; almost as much as the microphone in my face with questions after nearly 8 hours of being in the mountains.
Turned out to be the make-or-break day. I had a target on my back and everyone aiming at it. I knew something was up when many of the top guys stood around pretending to tie and retie their shoes, not wanting to be the first to dib out and start the clock on the day. On the first steep climb up Cnicht, Konrad Rawlik, a very speedy uphill mountain goat, started pushing the pace hard. For the next 3 summits, it was a battle. I had to dig really deep to keep him in sight. On the long descent into the town of Maentwrog I finally put some time on him and started to relax. Five minutes later, Jim Mann came barrelling past me with a big smile on his face. I knew I couldn't let him go or he'd be off, and the race would be over. For the following 4 hours, it was a back-and-forth fight for the lead. To me, we were seemingly running a 40k race with no concern about how this effort would destroy us for the remaining days. When I thought I couldn't go any harder and would then be dropped by the 'Mann' I noticed he had slowed and was a minute behind. I gave everything I could and climbed the last 2 peaks and ran the never-ending descent with a long flat to the finish as fast as my depleted state would allow.
Days 3 & 4
The terrain levels out; everyone seems to be in a good rhythm with the toll of the first two days and the promise of an extended 5th day looming, keeping our pace reasonable. I was fortunate to run with Jim Mann for both days as our running style happened to be closely matched. Working together was massively beneficial for having someone about to chat with and pushing each other on when one of us was having a bad patch.
The final day started with some disbelief I was still in the lead of this legendary race. With one day left, I only had to dig deep one more time. The start was a chasing start where I would begin running, and Jim, who was in second place, would start at the time he was behind me in the overall standings. About 35 minutes. This led to a tough day where the temperature increased, water was sparse, and all the previous days could be felt in my whole body. The entire time not knowing where Jim was behind me. When the finish line eventually came into view, it was with an overwhelming feeling that's hard to describe. Crossing the line knowing I didn't have to run anymore was terrific. After getting over some severe dehydration, the party atmosphere and final dinner were a great way to hang out with everyone and trade stories of the event.
The most memorable moments were getting to know heaps of other runners at the end of each day in the food halls and lying about in the fields, relaxing, trying to get some of the stink off in the local streams when available, and eating absurd amounts of chips. Chatting about the days' challenges, past races we'd have in common and future plans. The hardest thing was remembering to head to bed as there was always someone up for a chat.
With the staggered start each day, we were able to look forward to seeing other runners out there and catching up quickly. Although most of the time, I was out of breath and couldn't do much talking. Everyone from the volunteers to the other racers were extremely friendly and super easy to chat with. I met many people I'm still in touch with today, whether heading out for runs, meeting up at different races and cheering each other on in our various challenges!
The Montane Dragons Back Race is a legendary multi-stage, ultra-running journey down the spine of Wales.
6 days, 380km, 17,400mtrs of ascent from Conwy Castle to Cardiff Castle.
The 2021 event runs from 6th – 11th September.
Written by Galen Reynolds. Photos courtesy of Montane and Dragons Back Race.
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