Friday, 17 April 2015

Waiting for Dragons

Well it's the Highland Fling in 10 days time now and the Keswick Festival Ultra a few weeks later. I'm looking forward to both events and I'm sure they will be enjoyable and rewarding days out, but looming ever closer on the horizon is my major enterprise for the year, the Dragon's Back Race.

June 2015 will see the third running of this already iconic event, the first two being in 1992 and 2012, both in September. It starts at Conwy Castle on the North Wales coast and finishes at Carreg Cennan Castle a few miles short of Swansea in the south, taking in all the major Welsh mountain groups along the way. It is a five day stage race, this year occupying 22nd to 26th June. Overnight stops are in tented accommodation provided by the race organisation and you are allowed a drop bag to follow you to each of these. Dinner and breakfast are provided but you have to supply all your own food for when you are out on the course.

"The course" is probably not the right description though, because the race follows the principles of mountain marathons or the "10 peaks" events, in that there is no set line to follow, only a series of checkpoints to be visited in a set order; you have to choose your own route between the checkpoints while respecting any areas that the race decrees you can't enter ("out of bounds"). So route selection and navigation are very much a part of the deal. On paper, the statistics are not too frightening, 183 miles and 54,000 feet of ascent over the 5 days; a walk in the park compared to say the Tor des Geants with its 200+ miles and 80,000 ft of uphill? Well, no actually. A number of factors conspire to up the ante quite considerably on the Dragon's Back.......

(a) It is not a continuous race, so not all of the hours in the 5 days are available. The cut-off times for each day are not known until the day starts, but I think it's fairly safe to assume that we won't have much more than 15 hours to complete each day, and that means 2,5 to 3mph on average  -  you can't plod your way through this one.

(b) Although the general line of the event will stay close to the previous two runnings, the exact course (in terms of checkpoints and out of bounds areas) are not known until the start of each day when you receive your map for the day. Depending on your individual competence, this means that time can be lost by (i) not choosing the optimum route, on which the course stats are based, and (ii) not being able to navigate even your chosen route as precisely as you would like. You can use a GPS if you want to - it's just that you are not allowed any extra time to put the route into it! I think I'm a reasonably competent navigator, but I'm expecting to cover at least 10-15 miles and maybe 3 thousand feet or so more than the optimum course over the 5 days.

(c) As the Race Director Shane Ohly puts it in the race description, "This is not a trail race". This is the real difference in terms of how hard you have to work to make progress. Think Bob Graham territory rather than Lakeland 100 - tracks might help you find your way but they don't necessarily make the going any easier. I doubt that there are more than a dozen miles along the course where you don't have to concentrate on each footfall - rocks, boulders, grass, bog, tussocks, mud, plenty of all of these I suspect.

The hills of Wales are where I spent many of my formative years but I haven't been back to some areas for half a lifetime, so I've spent an enjoyable 4 or 5 days so far in a bit of re-acquaintance. You can't learn the route of course because you don't know exactly where it will go, but you can get a feel for the territory, the ground underfoot and so on. I didn't bother with the classic "Welsh 3000's" area of Day 1 because I've spent plenty of time there in recent years, but I've enjoyed wandering the Moelwyns and Rhinogs, Cadair, the Tarrens and Plynlimon, and I'm working my way south into the lonely ground around the Elan Valley. Maybe I'll make a day in the Brecons, maybe not, but I'm happy that my trip around the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks last year will stand me in good stead.

I said to someone on the last Lakeland recce recently, "You know, to compete in this race (the Lakeland 100) you have to be a runner, but to complete it the main requirement is to be able to walk up a lot of hills." I think it must be the same only more so for the Dragon's Back, so that's what I'm doing. I had to work pretty hard for a 45 minute 10k last week, but I'm climbing 10,000ft a week and I think that's more important.

So what are my chances?  Well, of the 80 starters in 2012 only 30 made it to the finish, but reading between the lines I think many dropouts were because entrants really didn't understand the nature of what they were getting into, particularly foreign runners who are more used to well marked trails and easier ground underfoot. Hopefully, Shane's fairly rigorous application process for this race will ensure that the 125 hopefuls currently on the start list have a better statistical chance this time around. And we have more daylight this year with the race being in June rather than September.

I entered The DB because a race of this nature on my doorstep was just too good to pass up. It's already a significant commitment because it interrupts my run of consecutive West Highland Way races, currently at 8 and which I had every intention of turning into 10 in a row had the Dragon's Back not come around. I entered the DB for this year becausein 2012 I was already committed to the Tor des Geants, and if I leave it until 2018 (assuming the race continues at its current frequency) I will be a few weeks off 70 which I think will make it significantly harder. I think this year I'll have the skill (yes) and the fitness (just about), but my main concern that is that my knees, used to a day's rest after a battering in the hills in recent times, have somehow got to step up to the mark five days in succession.

So it's an adventure that I'm certain is near my limit, but which is possible. And one way or another, isn't that what we're all after?

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