Slaying the Dragon
My journey to finishing the Dragons Back Stage Race in Wales
Last month, before I left for this race I joked with my staff that I felt like I was finishing up my third master’s degree (yes, my brain has been severely financially leveraged over the years). The Dragon’s Back Race is a 5 Day Stage race held every other year. It runs from North to South Wales across almost all of the summits through the mountains of Wales. My google review on Wales: Wales is stunning. There are tons of sheep. The cheese is out of this world.
My interest in the race began three years ago. I attempted the race in 2017 and failed, for a number of reasons. Stage racing and running in the UK is different animal than trail running and ultra-marathons in the States. After some much needed reflection in 2017, I decided I would make another go of it in 2019, but I would approach it much differently.
Training and running in general, whether you run 30 minutes a day or are training for a marathon, it is a commitment. As your distance and difficulty in the event increases, so does that commitment. For a race like this, I knew that I would have to train around 15 hours a week of running (average) and 2-3 hours of strength, plus regular visits to the chiropractic and massage to stay healthy. It is a part-time job. I also had to really ask myself can I make this commitment, on top of a 60 to 80 hour work week, and also keep my marriage in tact. I have a fantastic team at the Austin Trail Running Company and an even more amazing husband, whom without any of them, this would have never happened. Nonetheless, I had to realistically cut a few hours at the store, turn off what little social life I have and for the last seven months, I basically had three focuses: marriage, my business and training.
So, instead of writing a traditional race report, I wanted to write a recap on how I approached a race that was way over my head and ultimately had success (i.e. I finished; 50% did not). Regardless of your goals, I hope that you find this useful in your own training or at the very least you don’t make similar mistakes in the future. This was a longterm goal, and a long process to ultimately get to the Day 5 Finish line, but it is also completely doable for all of you because I have proven it along with the other 251 finishers this year.
Our team! We are thinking about starting a band.
What is Fell Running?
There are a few distinct differences between fell races and trail races. First is the terrain. A traditional fell race is run on much rougher terrain that is often pathless, and includes bogs, heather, tussocks, boudler fields, scree and “easy scrambles”. For example, I was informed in a casual conversation during the race that the climbing we did up to and across the Crib Goch on Day 1 is a Class 4 in UK and a Class 5a in US. (Apparently we are not nearly as tough in the US!). So easy is a relative term.
Second, in trail races there is a set route or trail that you must follow whereas in fell races, once you are on the fell itself , you have the freedom to go your own route between the checkpoints. We did have a few mandatory routes on our course, often through a farmer’s field the RD was trying to not upset or through a town, but for the most part, we followed a suggest route on the map that was given to us at check-in.
Our Race Map
A Short Recap of the Race:
The Dragon’s Back is a 5 Day Stage Race. Each day we run a set distance with a set checkpoints until we reach the finish line. The course is not marked, so we are given a map and required to carry a compass. As long as you hit the checkpoints, it mostly doesn’t matter how you get there.
I ran the majority of the race with my coach and friend, Mike Ehredt. Most nights I thanked Mike for putting up with me and for the most part it went great. We both had some lows, and I was often stressed, so wasn’t the most delightful 72 hours.
Each night we camp overnight in large tents that sleep 8. We were often in farmer’s fields (lot’s of sheep droppings!) without showers but we were provided a hot meal each night and some sort of a “breakfast” in the morning. We were not allowed to take any food from the mess tent to the hill for the day. The RD moves an overnight bag for us to the next finish line and we have one support point a day where we have access to water and a small re-supply bag that we also provide. If I needed additional water along the way, I stopped and grabbed some in a creek or at a river crossing. The itinerary was:
Day One: 32.45 miles, 12,073′ of climbing
Day Two: 36.9 miles, 10,159′ of climbing
Day Three: 40.3 miles, 9,510′; of climbing
Day Four: 42 miles, 7,300′ of climbing
Day Five: 41 miles, 6,405′ of climbing
Start would be inside the Conwy Castle
We started just outside the beautiful National Park of Snowdonia (you can buy cheese from here at Central Market! It is amazing!) and traversed through their famous mountainous spine. The first day kicked off with the best of Wales: The start line is in a 700 year old castle with a Welsh Male Choir giving you the sendoff. Over the day, we climb Tryfan and the Glyderau, the iconic razor-edged ridge of Crib Goch, and the highest mountain in Wales, Snowdon. Some climbs, like Tryfan on Day One had 1900′ in just under a mile was close to a 40% grade!
Heading to the infamous Crib Goch
Each day was unique and had it’s own set of challenges, in addition to fighting fatigue, stomach (or lack of appetite) and staying mentally in the game. Any one of these days would be an awesome race. The weather all week lucked out, we had spectacular views, sometimes all the way to Ireland as we traversed through several mountain chains: Rhinog Fawr, Rhinog Fach, and Diffwys, Cadir Idris, The near-vertical gratuitous up-and-down Tarren y Gasail on Day Three before we hit the lovely village of Machyneth for a much needed Coke and savory snack at the gas station. We had a long slog through the Cambrian mountains after stressful morning of almost chasing cutoffs, successfully making it and then a major crash. We finished the third day climbing over Pen Pumlumon and then rebounding and booking it to the finish. Only to then crash even harder, barely eat three bites of food, and crawl into our sleeping bag. I was freezing, and sweating, but the worst of the it was over.
On top of the UK on Day One
Day Four was my least favorite. Statistically, we would finish, but we still had another 80 or so miles to go. The weather forecast was very wrong and we were cooked passing through the Elan Valley. We stopped at a hotel close to our support point and spent 20 minutes enjoying the best Pepsi of our life (Mike had a sausage sandwich) before carrying on. It was here that I also learned that my tracker was not working and apparently, those following me on Wednesday thought I was at the beach getting an ice cream! It’s a funny story now, but I was really happy my the dipstick we used at the orienteering checkpoints worked the whole time to prove I was still on the course. To sum up day four, it was a slog. I had horrible heat rash on my feet. I was very sunburned and waffling between too hot and freezing and I was at that point running my “this is Pam at 75 years old” pace. When I finished, I was asked again about my tracker, assessed my feet, put on warm, dry clothes and shoved a few bites of veggie lasagna in my mouth before calling it a day. This was the latest we finished (9:45pm) and it was demoralizing.
One of the pretties spots all day
At the start of Day Five, I declared that I was going to have the best ****ing day! I was going to be happy, take pictures and enjoy the amazing experience of running through Wales! I give myself a B+. My legs came back to life, I slathered my feet in Boudreaux’s Butt Paste for Diaper rashes, put on my trusty Mutants and set off. It really was a good day. We chatted with several other competitors and even made some great friends as we descended into the final town of Llandeilo.
This race was really stressful and so it was nice to connect with a few other competitors towards the end. Some were normally much farther ahead each day, but their feet were so wrecked, they were just hobbling it in. We could have finished, probably an hour faster that day, but in the end, the difference between 71 and 72 hours and a couple of places in the finishing ranks really didn’t matter. We were going to get our coveted Baby Dragon and finally, after almost 6 days, take a shower. 🙂
A Multifaceted Training Program
So there is actually quite a lot to think about when doing a race like this. The obvious- spending a lot of time on your feet, mostly trail, climbing and building strength. I wish I was faster, but my focus on was vertical and building strength to get through the week. The UK talent is so… insane…. I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near the top, so my definition of success became finish uninjured.
For the physical part of training, I claimed five weekends between November and May that were going to be “DIY” Training camps or 3-5 day blocks of back-to-backs:
- January- Short weekeend trip to the Guadalupe Mountains for building time on feet and climbing
- February- Raced the Lonestar 100k in El Paso
- March- 5 Day training block in the Great Smoky Mountains
- The best part of races like this for me is the training and it gave me an excuse to explore a new park!
- Four days of long miles and climbing in Guadalupe Mountains’
- Followed by a back to back races at the Yakima Skyline for a final long run and additional climbing.
When Mike and I started laying out the 7 months of training blocks, we looked at when I could incorporate my back to backs, what tools I could take advantage of in Austin in-between those blocks and how to maximize my training without it taking over my life.
I didn’t quite hit my targets, but I finished this training block in May with 1606 miles, 295,970′ climbed, 10,000 box step-ups and 60 hours at Travis County Strength. It’s pretty obvious we don’t have mountains, but we do have lot’s of hills, rocky trails, online backcountry courses to take advantage of and significantly more accomplished people in Austin to pick their brains.
Sample of the training schedule
One of my absolute favorite training resources is, and was the Uphill Athlete. The chapter on mental strength helped me shift a lot in my personal headspace over the winter. And with this many workouts to do, I found short videos on Youtube to keep me excited about the race and to keep focus.
Other aspects of training that I added this time and ignored in 2017:
- I used the sister race Cape Wrath Ultra in 2018, as a way to prepare for and get comfortable with camp life, a slightly different cuisine, working on my daily routine during the race and navigation.
- The Cape Wrath is an 8 Day expedition race across Scotland. It is not as tough, but in some aspects tougher than Dragon’s Back. 🙂 Almost 9 days of no showers, lot’s of bogs, very, very remote landscape and equally stunning. 250 miles, but quite a bit less climbing. It was also more fun and social than this one.
- Working on my “admin”
- One huge oversight I had before was the complete lack of thought on my daily routine at the Camp. In a trail race, when you’re done, you’re done! Slip off the shoes, have a beer unless you’re in a state park and chill.
- In a race style like this, after 10-14 hours on the trail, once you are led to your tent, your night tasks are:
- Get out of wet clothes, especially socks and dry feet.
- Take a wet-wipe bath
- Make recovery drink concoction.
- Hang damp gear or in my case, put in a ziplock bag and deal with it next week.
- Set up bedding
- Empty garbage from pack; assess all the calories you did not eat.
- Start charging phone and Suunto
- Re-pack the hydration pack.
- Put on waterproof socks, Hoka sandals and walk slowly over to the catering area, force down as much food as possible, make small talk with new friends
- wash camp dishes
- visit the porto (they flush in the UK!)
- contemplate brushing your teeth
- review route for next day
- Start sleep routine: 3 calm forte (hylands), 3 packs of Arnie Sport (also hylands), a “swig” of Scotch and insert wax earplugs.
- In the morning:
- Awake; usually around 4:50am. Assess body. Sometimes I would use the lacrosse ball to work on a quick knot or my back.
- Talk to my tent mate Nikki for a few minutes while I woke up.
- Put on run clothes for the day.
- Double check pack, required gear for the day.
- Pack up bedding and anything else I wasn’t taking with me.
- Brush Teeth.
- Pack drop bag.
- Go through kit check and turn in bags.
- Fill water bottles.
- Hit the trail; usually between 6:15 and 6:30.
I had a hard time with food all week, so I typically skipped breakfast. Plus the quie was too long and I didn’t want to waste 30 minutes waiting for beans, or porridge or dry bread, so I skipped it 4 out 5 mornings. I did have success with pancakes on Day 3 but it cost me 25 minutes. I would often just eat baby food or the ultimate breakfast of champions- A snickers bar, within the first hour of being out on the hill.
I also spent a lot of time reviewing the map, since I was fortunate to have a copy from the 2017 race. The course did not change much, so I was really comfortable with reading it this year. I knew the distance between each checkpoint over all the days, the landscape of each day, how far the support point would be, what I would wear on my feet and also knew that half of my plan would probably get thrown out the window and I would just have to roll with whatever the day presented.
For example I planned for 4,000 calories a day, plus a hearty breakfast. Realistically, I skipped breakfast and I probably ate 1500 calories on Days 1-4 and 2500-3,000 on Day Five. I also did much worse with dinners this time around versus Scotland. Last year, I would often get two bowls of chips (fries in our world), and one to two servings of dinner. This year, I maybe ate one bowl of chips most nights, half to one portion of a small dinner and desert. But I ate when I was hungry and with the exception of a few moments of grumpiness, I managed fine. Using a calculator the military uses for calorie expenditure while hiking, I estimated I burned 80,000 calories over those days, and I probably consumed around 16,000 total. Don’t worry, I’m not withering away! I did make up for some of it London. 🙂
British Tea Service for Recovery
The most important aspect of training though began before last Fall. I had a realistic conversation with my husband about the time it would take to train for this, the sacrifices I would have to make, the additional stress it would add to a hectic schedule, the costs associated with training, staying healthy, the race entry, gear, and the time abroad. I also have other goals I’m pursuing, so I had to consider those as well as the need and desire to continue to grow the business. Finally, I thought about the burden it would put on my staff, what balls were going to be dropped (I’m sorry!) and what can I had off to them to minimize that without over-working and burning them out.
I honestly think these are the most important decisions and are often overlook when one decides to pursue for a “big, hairy audacious goal” that is ultimately a hobby.
Whatever the goal is for you, it is still a big goal and if you want to have success you have to look at all the aspects involved or you will get frustrated, disappointed or even worse, face burnout or severed relationships. I am so happy to have pursued this and I am so happy to have the monkey off my back. I’m proud that this time it was a success. I have no major future plans, other than to enjoy the summer, stay in shape but dialing back and picking up all those dropped balls.
If you’ve made it this far, well done! Since I own a trail running store, I am going to end this very long blog post with my gear list:
- Shoes: La Sportiva Mutant and La Sportiva Unika
- Five pairs of bottoms: Arc’teryx shorts, 2XU compression shorts, 2XU compression tights (one pair)
- Five tops, mostly Patagonia plus the race shirt from Berghaus
- 12 pairs of socks: Drymax, Stance for the camp, plus pair of waterproof booties for camp
- Recovery Sandals: Hoka One One Ora Slide
- Pack: Salomon Agile 12 Set
- Sunglasses: Julbo Aerolite
- Headlamp: Spark Light
- Medical kit- made my own, but I do love RockTape
- Sleeping Pad and pillow by Exped
- Sleeping bag- Enlightened Equipment rated 20 degrees F; also used a silk liner
- Recovery: Collagen protein powder, with Tailwind Recovery. Also drank a bottle of Athletic Greens and used three products from Hylands throughout the week: Leg Cramps, Arni Sport and Calm Forte.
- Dry bags- Ortlieb
- GPS watch- Suunto 9 (super long battery life!)
- Compass- also by Suunto
- Waterproof kit- Arc’teryx Norvan Jacket and Deluge pants by Ultimate Direction
- Food- 5 bag of 4000 calories: mostly baby food, M&M’s, Snickers, potato chips, Endurance Tap, GU Birthday Cake (total of 5), Dates, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, bacon, cashews, trail mix and a few stick packs of Tailwind. I also bought some last minute sweets in the town we started in.
Thank you for reading this very long report! Feel free to reach out with any questions.
I also have a few people to give thanks to for all of their guidance, support and for putting up with me:
- My husband!
- Mike for coaching me, and ultimately running the race with me! 72 hours is a long time to spend with someone
- My team- Cassie, Tehra and Philip
- People who kept me healthy- Olga for massage (bummed she has now moved to CO), Dr. Sellers for chiropractic, Devon at Tao Health Clinic for weird niggles
- Travis and Jen at Travis County Strength for their fantastic gym
- Paul Terranova for meeting with me back in 2017 to talk about how to actually prep for races
- Muz for having coffee with me after his successful finish in 2017!
- My training buddies over the past few years, especially to Lise for joining me on the Smoky Mtns adventure
- Sally for being flexible on her schedule for being a dog that likes to sleep in 🙂
- To everyone who sent me Dragon Mail during the race, thank you!! That really is one of the best parts.