Friday, 21 October 2016

Preparing for Dragons

I'm writing this as a sort of "message to self" if you like, to keep my mind straight in tackling next year's Dragons Back race. Now if you've already completed this little jaunt, or have entered and are just wondering how you are going to while away the long evenings between completing each day's running and dinner, then this isn't for you, click out now. But if like me you realise that this is possibly the most demanding undertaking you've attempted in the running game it might be worth staying with me for five minutes or so.

I tried the event in 2015 and didn't finish. If you want to spend another ten minutes reading the full story it's here, but basically I wasn't fully fit so I hatched a strategy to allow for that; there was nothing wrong with the strategy, it allowed me to operate to the best of my ability at the time but it wasn't good enough to finish the race and I ran out of time before the end of Day 3. I was close enough though for me to believe that with a bit more fitness and a slightly better plan another attempt would be worthwhile so I have entered the 2017 race.  This post is about what I think I learned in 2015.

1. Don't underestimate just how tough the route is

A lot of people do. In the 2015 race, 126 runners left Conway, a fully vetted field who had to have demonstrated in their applications that they had at least a reasonable chance of making the finish. 65 actually got there (51%).  Looking sensibly at the statistics for the first three days helps to see why:

Day 1  -  31 miles, 12,500 ft of ascent
Day 2  -  34 miles, 11,600 ft of ascent
Day 3  -  43 miles, 12,200 ft of ascent

These are fell-running figures. To the best of my knowledge there is no trail race currently run in the UK that matches these rates of climb. Day 1 has an average ascent per mile of 403 ft (it's actually double that because half the miles are downhill, but a good enough figure for comparison). The figure for the first 33 miles of the Lakeland 100 (generally thought to be by far the toughest third of an event which is a yardstick for a gnarly UK 100 miler) is 260 ft. And the ground underfoot in the Lakeland is much easier. On the DB Day 1 all competitors will use their hands on some sections. Most runners will find Day 2 harder than Day 1. For the slower (less fit) contenders, cumulative fatigue will make the first half of Day 3, where around 27 miles and 9000 ft have to be covered at an average of nearly 3 miles an hour, the toughest section of the week.

I think as a rough guide, each of the first three days presents a challenge at least equal to half a Bob Graham round (which coincidentally also has a climb rate of just over 400ft per mile).

2. Don't play cutoff roulette

I've done a couple of week-long "continuous"  races where basically so long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other and stop for a couple of hours sleep occasionally you'll finish in the time allowed.  The Dragon isn't like that. Moving over the ground that it covers would often be very problematic in the dark, even with gps, so it makes sense for both runners and organisers that it is run as a stage race in daylight (mostly!). So even on paper, seven hours out of every day are not available for forward progress. In practice, it's more than that. In 2015 I planned to be out on the course for 15 hours a day and set my speed accordingly. I completed Day 1 in 14 hours and Day 2 in 16 (I made a navigational bad judgement on Day 2 which cost at least an hour) so I was hitting my pace plan fine. But I found it didn't leave enough time to recover each day. If you arrive at the overnight camp at 10 or 11pm (when the more competent competitors have been resting and eating for several hours), by the time you've had something to eat and drink, got the worst of the mud off, sorted your feet, unpacked your sleeping stuff and got your kit ready for the next day, it will be well after midnight. And if you want to be away at the first opportunity (6am), you need to be up early enough to have your overnight bag packed and be first into the breakfast queue, so you won't have had a lot of sleep.

I decided that I was just too close to edge last time. For 2017 I will try my best to get fit and competent enough to complete each day in 12-14 hours to leave a better cushion for rest and the odd glitch. I'm going to spend a lot of time between now and next May running in the hills and doing a lot of uphill. 14 hours seems an awfully long time for 30-40 miles of progress. It isn't. For me, it will mean running (jogging) as much of the downhill and flat as I possibly can. In 2015 my strategy was to walk the uphill and flat, and only jog the downs; it wasn't fast enough.

3. Look after your feet

I've done a lot of long races in a lot of bad conditions, and I've never had blisters or any other foot problems. Until the DB.  By the end of Day 2 the medics were telling me I was borderline to get through the week. I think it's safe to say that each day, sooner or later, you will get wet feet. The continuously hard ground will work on that and if you don't spend the time to sort things out, even if it seems too much effort at the day's mid-point stop or by headtorch in a tent at the end of a hard day, it's easy to get into a downward spiral. I won't make that mistake again.

4. Get the route wired.

We're lucky for 2017. We know the route ahead of the event, a luxury that competitors in the first three runnings of the event didn't have. We won't have to make route decisions after the gun has gone off. I have no knowledge of the route beyond Elan (midway point of Day 4) but I will make sure I do by next May. I know that pre-knowledge of the route is thought of as "impure" by some runners, even looked upon as cheating, but if the event is near your limit you need every bit of edge you can get. The gps trace on the race website is, from my knowledge of the areas involved, the easiest way of linking up the probable checkpoints; maybe not the fastest for a real fell-runner but certainly the best for me, so that's the route I'll take. I won't be too proud to use my gps, even on ground which I think I know, if the conditions make it the sensible choice. I can use a map and compass as well as the next guy but gps is much faster. If we get the checkpoints confirmed in advance I'll put them on my gps trace. I suspect that in the conditions we got on the day, the first half of Day 1 in 2015 came as a bit of a shock to anyone who didn't know the ground and wasn't a competent navigator.

So I've got a fair bit to work on during the winter and spring. 

There has been some discussion on the DB Facebook page about suitable preparation races for the event. Well, my view as I alluded to above is that I don't think there are any that truly replicate what you're up against in the UK, certainly not in the winter/early spring. Later in the year you have stuff like the Clif Lakes 10 Peaks, the Lakes 3 x 3000 and the first part of the Lakes in a Day, and I'm sure there are others (such as the Lakes Sky ultra which I haven't done yet but have signed up for next year), but all are too late as warm-ups for the DB. But I personally like to have an event every month or so to keep me sharp and enthusiastic, so for what it's worth here's my run-up to next May, chosen to be fun, to contribute in some way to DB preparation, but above all not to compromise it:-

Late November:  Wooler Trail Marathon  - 28 miles 6000ft
Late December: Tour de Helvellyn  -  38 miles 6000ft
(notice these, and most of the others that follow, are nowhere near DB rate of climb)
Mid January: Spine Challenger 
(planned before my DB entry decision - no help at all to DB but should not compromise it at this stage)
Early February: South Devon Coast Ultra  -  34 miles 4800ft
(coastal series are the most reliable for reasonable weather early in the year)
Mid March: Hardmoors 55  -  55 miles 8000 ft  
(for a longer day out)
Early April: Exmoor Coast Ultra plus  - 45 miles 11,800ft
(best final warm-up I could find, if height figures are to be believed, I did the Exmoor "standard" ultra three years ago which was 35 miles but only about 6000 ft)

No big distances except the Spine Challenger which by it's nature will be a fairly slow affair. Of the others, I find I recover fairly quickly from anything that takes 12 hours or less, especially as I will be treating many of these events as training rather than races. So I think this is a reasonable programme interspersed with the hill training (which will mostly be in the Lakes) and I'm looking forward to it.

That's about it, well enough for now anyway.

If you're a potential DB "tail-ender" like me, hope the training goes well and see you in May.

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