Dragon’s Back Race: Recovery

Dragon’s Back Race: Recovery

The Long Road to Recovery

Six weeks down the line, my feet have shrunk back to their original size and look far less like day old battered haddocks. I’ve more than replenished the stone in weight that I lost during the race and I’ve just gone for my first run (flat 3km!). Recovery is going to be a long process for a mere mortal like me.

Everything about this race was extreme. My body, my mind and all my senses were pushed to their absolute limits. The highs were joyous and unforgettable, the lows were crushing yet galvanising; the scenery was raw and beautiful; the smell of my kit bag was noxious and, more than likely, carcinogenic by the end. I’ve never eaten or drank so much in my life.

At the time, I couldn’t take it all in. The whole experience was overwhelming and I had little spare energy or time to do anything except survive. But looking back now, it’s hard to believe that it all happened in five days.

The 47% average completion rate is one of the lowest in the world, but I don’t think it does the DBR justice. It’s harder than this. You have to remember that’s 47% of a field consisting of some of the best fell runners out there, no part timers would even contemplate this race (me being the one stupid exception of course!). Just to get out of the starting blocks you’ve got to be proficient in the mountains and have exceptional running endurance. With the advent of GPS, the navigation element of the race has, unfortunately, diminished which is probably the reason behind the slight increase in completion rate over the years; from 39% in 2012 to 56% this year.

The factor that stops most people is the cumulative damage of rough downhill running – slowing down or losing weight are the only options. It’s no big secret that top fell runners are light – Kenny Stuart (8st), Joss Naylor (9st), Killian Jornet (9st 2 lb). But for multi day events like this it seems to be even more prevalent. Not directly applicable but take a look at the Tour de France and you get an idea of the physique needed to keep going over mountains for days on end.

All the hard work is, however, paid back tenfold. In fact, if I was ever feeling low, all I had to do was look up to see a never-ending supply of fuel for the fire. And that’s the one thing that you need above all else to get through this – fire in the belly. Fitness and compass skills will only get you so far, you must really want that finish line to get there.

Another thing that helps is the camaraderie; it was a crucial part of what got me through. I was sharing a tent with four others – Jezz Bragg (one of the best distance runners around, modest and funny – an inspiration), Radio Two’s Vasos Alexander (bubbly and somehow always full of energy), a mild mannered yet steel-willed doctor named Dave and last, but not least, Ed – a Royal Marine.

On the end of the second day I’d crawled in late. I was pretty empty and confronted with one of the unexpected challenges of this race, admin. Unpack 59ltr expedition dry bag – change clothes – cry a little – pack day bag for up to 15hrs of running the next day – pack and re-stock half way drop bag – lance blisters – eat food – prepare clean running kit – more food – food until I was sick of the sight, smell and thought of it – and all of this flopped on my back like a dying fly with my legs seized up and my feet swollen so that they wouldn’t fit into my spare shoes.

I was just setting to the task when Ed got up out of his sleeping bag, sacrificing precious recovery time and insisted that he helped me. Clearly an absolute legend but let me frame this picture a little further – he did this, knowing full well that he was struggling himself. He was forced to pull out part way through the next day with stress fractures in his legs. What a chief. Not many people get through this alone and I was no exception. Thank you Ed.

Yes, this was the hardest race I’ve ever done and parts of it were painful. But once the blisters have healed and the fell shoes have been burnt, the pain is just a distant niggling memory. The rest is still vivid – priceless, hard-earned memories of an epic journey through a beautiful country.

I remember back to the end of the fourth day. My legs were long since spent, the best I could muster was a shuffle – but what a shuffle! I was completely alone in a vast sloping valley near Dyffryn Elan, chasing my shadow as it carved its way through a sloping field of blue bells. The quiet was intense, natural and ran to the beat of a solitary Cuckoo. It cut through my stupor – a crystal clear memory that I would never have had without this race.

The logistical capabilities and faultless organisation that underpin this race are mindboggling. How they do it is a mystery, the fact that most of the organisers and support staff are veteran fell runners is a big factor. You might ask yourself what you get for your £800 entry fee and the answer is one of the most spectacular journeys you’ll ever take. Breath-taking in every sense – the harder the climb the better the view.

Joe Faulkners Top Tips for pros

  • Get used to long days on your feet. Not necessarily running, standing all day will help. Start this ASAP e.g. a year out from the race.
  • Recce all of the course.
  • Drink from streams – carry as little as possible.

Huws Top Tips for novices

  • Use the word “clag” indiscriminately and as often as possible and it will help your integration into the fell running community.
  • Get very excited when someone talks about a “line” they took. This is where a real mountain runner makes up time (never by running faster).
  • Lose weight – I was 12 stone starting this, If I were to do it again I’d aim for 10 ½ stone.
  • SLOW DOWN!! Especially descending. No matter how comfortable you are going down, the increased impact is ruinous in multi day fell runs. This, I think, is especially true for the heavier runners. The descents are the ones that will break your body down. Go for gold on the ascents.
  • Take walking poles for the flatter days. Saves 10% on your legs and essential if you pick up an injury.
  • Do not rely on GPS. Using a map and compass will keep you switched on and allow you to react to the situation at hand. The best route on the day will depend on numerous factors.
  • Start early to make sure of the cut-offs.
  • Start slow and speed up on day four & five if you still have anything in the tank.

Kit Bag

  • Maui Jim Sunglasses: Surprisingly my most indispensable bit of kit. Designed for water sports in Hawaii, their anti-fog is faultless. My prescription lenses were crystal clear even in the clag with me sweating buckets beneath them – vital for map reading and avoiding falls, two race-ending mistakes.
  • Footwear: My biggest error was going for lightweight racing shoes with minimal cushioning. Your feet get pounded to pieces in this race so next time I’d go with the majority of the field – Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra all the way – the extra cushioning is vital in the DBR. Take sandals or crocs for the evening, at least one size too big (your feet will swell).
  • Jackets & Waterproofs: The Berghaus Extreme range is pricey but worth every penny. Lightweight and they did everything I asked of them (which was a hell of a lot!).
  • Nutrition: The fact that Science in Sport (SiS) energy gels didn’t require water made them indispensable and not sickly. Their Re-go shakes & over-night protein are delicious and therefore easy to take in – this proved to be very important as my appetite was non-existent. Whatever you choose get used to it.
  • GPS: My Suunto Spartan worked every time I needed it. Instant satellite pickup. But keep it as backup – save the battery.
  • Backpack: My Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 12set distributes the weight and hugs the body much better than a conventional backpack. Light, comfortable & accessible.

 

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