Friday, 19 June 2015

Enter the Dragon

As the Dragon's Back approaches, I am unsure if I'm looking forward to it, or absolutely petrified of it.......

"The legendary Dragon’s Back Race follows the mountainous spine of Wales from Conwy Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle. This incredible 5-day journey is approximately 300 kilometres long with 16,000 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain. It is not a trail race - it is one of the hardest mountain races in the world"

Initially I was really drawn to the idea of an amazing week in the mountains with nothing to do but run (or walk or I have to), talk, eat, drink and sleep....I wasn't thinking of it as a competitive event, but more of an unforgettable life experience to be relished and enjoyed (!). As the startline approaches, I'm trying my hardest to keep this mindset and not be drawn in by "race pundits" commenting on how they think the week (and the runners) will pan out....and so one of the best things I've heard this week was from my friend Audrey, who said she would rather hear that I'd come 15th and enjoyed the week, than finished on the podium but made myself miserable due to the pressure and expectation laid upon me!

It seems an appropriate time to post the blog entry that Berghaus (the race sponsor) had asked me to write for them (all the following pics courtesy of Berghaus)..................

Last year became rather a whirlwind of road races at a very public level, with the marathon, the 50K and the 100K, so this year I really wanted to take a step back and have a break from the pressure of chasing times and other specific road goals.

I wanted to regain my love for running for the it's own sake, but wasn't quite sure how to do this. Shane Ohly of Ourea Events came to my rescue by suggesting The Dragon's Back race to me. This is a 5 day event (I say "event" rather than race, as it may be more about endurance and survival than classical speed) down the mountainous backbone of Wales, from North to South. Berghaus were looking for a couple of runners, not necessarily fast runners, that would be interested in taking part and talking about their experiences. Having done a few Mountain Marathons and a multi-day desert race, I was rather intrigued and so watched the DVD of the 2012 race with anticipation....and some awe!

It looked perfect - several days out in the hills....... just running, eating, sleeping and chatting to people.....and all of this in beautiful scenery in a part of the world that I'm ashamed to say that I hardly know even though it's relatively I was in!!!

It took a couple of days (?weeks) for the reality to set in - or rather panic.....what had I done? What was I thinking? How could I prepare for such an undertaking? I'd get totally lost! I'd never make it through the first day, never mind the week!!!

Although Shane carefully vets every application to ensure that people have experience of mountainous, navigational and endurance events, I am sure that many other runners also have serious doubts about their own ability when they start to think about how to prepare for the Dragon's Back, and it is often reassuring to know that you are not alone in your worries.

I have tried to divide my preparation up into 5 main groups in my head - endurance/general fitness, familiarity with terrain, choice and comfort of kit, nutrition, and the event itself - this may not work for everyone, but breaking things down makes them seem more manageable to me.

1.  I don't think that fitness/endurance is too much of an issue for me, as I've been running for several years now, have taken part in several distance events, and seem to recover quite well. I know that some people like to do a lot of long distance runs, such as back to back long runs at weekends (ie a long run on both Saturday and Sunday), but I have found that this doesn't suit me. I just get more tired than I'd like - which would make the second run less enjoyable, more of a chore and I would be more likely to have an accident or develop an injury. What has seemed to suit me better is to have a shorter faster run on the Saturday, and then a longer slower run on the Sunday, though I admit this is a case of trial and error, and has to fit in around other commitments.

2.  Familiarity with the terrain is an interesting one, as nothing would beat actually living and training in the mountains of Wales, but obviously this is not possible for most people. As I live in Scotland, it is often assumed that I'm up in the remote Highlands, but actually I live at sea-level in SW Scotland, not far from the border, so rather a long way from the mountains. I also have a busy day job and so although I try to go to the woods for some easy recovery runs, much of my running has to be done on nearby streets, roads and pavements.
I had a few road race commitments already, but knew it was important to spend some time on the hills, as I freely admit that I'm no mountain goat. I like to ascend, but the whole world and his dog will run past me on descents - and I'm famous for my flailing "girlie arms" as I go down. Unfortunately the first time I went out for a run on the Yorkshire Three Peaks, I tripped and cracked a bone in my hand....but I made myself go back and run the race a couple of months later, and survived that without further tumbles. I spent a day out on some of the Welsh 3000s with friends - and again found myself lying on the ground (this time due to a combination of cold, the wind and rocks) with a bruised swollen shin - but better to do that now than at the start of the Dragon's Back. I joined the same friends for a weekend running in the hills round Annecy, and took part in the Intercounty Fell Champs in Wales (Ok, so I was near the back of the field in the race, but it made me run faster than is comfortable for me on off-road terrain), so I'm actually looking forward to enjoying the hills more than fearing them now!

3.  I still haven't (quite) finalised my kit - either what I will have in my overnight bag or what I will be running in during the day. Angela (from Berghaus) sent me some different items to try out, as it is important that you are familiar and comfortable with everything come race day (or week......actually, we might all become rather too familiar with each other's kit by the end of it). I aimed to test out how waterproof and windproof outer shells were, how comfortable shorts and tops were - did they fit? did they chafe? did they wick? - and what socks/shoes provided the most comfortable combination over time. Fashion isn't really my thing - and neither is standing out - so I was a bit shocked at some of  the bright pink colours....but then again, I'd rather be spotted if the weather turns on me, or if I'm struggling.

4. favourite thing!!! I love my food and drink, so one of the most appealing things about the event are the cake when you arrive at camp (that will inspire me to make sure I'm not the last arrival or else there may be none left), and the catered breakfasts and dinners - the menu looks delicious - and I don't have to cook anything!! I'm generally not very fussy about what I eat out on the hills, as long as I get enough of it. I have no problems in trying out new food combinations (though obviously before an event not during), as I know from experience that you can get sick of just having the same thing all the time. Over a week I think it's important to have a variety of flavours and textures, both sweet and savoury, though a stock of old favourites is also vital. I know from Mountain Marathon experience that supermarkets to tend to look at you strangely when you actively seek out the hot choclate sachets with the most calories in them, and start asking about the lightest, most calorie-dense food......not what they expect from slimmer ladies!!

5. The only thing left is the event itself......and it's fair to say that although I'm looking forward to it, I'm also rather nervous about it. I did speak to Shane about the navigation element of it, as I know that some course planners make checkpoints harder to find than others, but he reassured me that this would not be the case, as the main challenge is not meant to be the navigation. I know that some people use GPS devices, but for me, I like the mental as well as physical challenge, so I will be a map and compass girl (and hopefully not a mountain rescue girl!!). I think that if you are sensible and don't destroy yourself early on, then there's no reason why everyone cannot complete the course (though obviously accidentsd and injuries do happen unexpectedly however good the prior preparation is). My poor descending ability might help me out, as it will certainly mean that I'm a lot further back down the field than some of the mountain goats, and so mean that I actually relax and really enjoy the whole week, running with people and making new friends rather than trying to race anyone. In fact, the more I think about it......I can't wait to get out there and meet everyone!!!

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