“How did your training go for Dragon’s Back, Haydn?”
“Erm….”

Dragon’s Back Training

Written by Haydn Williams

“How did your training go for Dragon’s Back, Haydn?”
“Erm….”

Training was a bit of a mixed bag – generally excellent, but with some less-stellar bits built in. I decided to enter Dragon’s Back 2017 on the day before entries opened, in May 2016. Becs and I were on holiday in the Lakes and I mentioned how it must be amazing to do something like that. Unfortunately she unexpectedly suggested that I enter, and I didn’t have any excuses ready. This meant I had one year and one week to get myself sorted. This post is about my overall training experience, with intermissions describing some of my less glorious moments in races and on long training runs. You can read my race report here.

Welsh 1000m (Short Course) – 2016
This might be my favourite race. I got second place in 2015, and was confident I could do good things again last year. It turns out that’s only possible if it’s not scorching hot, and I don’t have to lie down in the shade for 20 minutes halfway around to cool down. After this experience I was desperately hoping DBR wasn’t too hot.

On the Lakes trip I tweaked my leg a bit, so was looking for a physio. I found Tim Budd at Global Therapies, and what caught my eye was the fact that he is a fell runner. We’ve all been to generic physiotherapists who do other sports and don’t necessarily understand the specifics of fell running. Tim sorted my leg out very effectively, and it wasn’t long before I was back in the consulting room talking about getting some personal training for DBR. I liked the fact that he knew all about the different lines off Cnicht towards the Moelwyns, and was clearly a pretty serious runner if he’d won the Spine MRT Challenger in 2016, with a time that would have placed him third in the main Challenger race.

This post is NOT sponsored by Global Therapies, I promise!
This post is not sponsored by Global Therapies, I promise!

I didn’t have to give it much thought, really, and so Tim set about creating a plan. I’ve never actually trained properly for anything before, and I was expecting things to be pretty horrendous. It quickly became clear that I was a wobbly mess with no core strength, all kinds of asymmetries, and an inability to do more than one press-up (we’ve fixed two of those things; press-ups are still my nemesis!). I therefore spent a year doing lots of squats, lunges, Turkish get-ups, ab clusters and dead lifts to get me into shape.

Marmot24 2016
It turns out that I am basically a toddler and I will have a tantrum when things don’t go my way! In this case, I disagreed with the course planner’s definition of ‘runnable’, had a strop and returned to camp. I went out again a few hours later, had another strop and went home. Total distance in 24 hours: around 35 km. Classy.

I’ve had weeks focussing on power, strength and endurance, each one mixing up gym work, running and not running (the rower is my friend/mortal enemy). I was doing ‘stuff’ six days a week, although that includes easy recovery days. On the seventh day I rested. Days were re-arranged around work if necessary, and fortunately Tim isn’t the kind of guy to go mental if you swap something around because you’re away from home without access to a gym. I did get a knock on the door in one Premier Inn when staff thought they should check if I was OK one evening – apparently the noise of my not-so-subtle burpees was causing some concern on the floor below!

Rab Mountain Marathon 2016
Solo, and feeling good. Third person off the line, to maximise the time I had available for the day. Stunning first hour and fifteen minutes, followed by a twisted ankle, lots of screaming, retirement and about six weeks of recovery. Eurgh.

Rab Mountain Marathon tweet.
Rab Mountain Marathon tweet.

Not only did I join a gym, I am now a competent user of free weights! This has all been new to me, and I’ve found it incredibly interesting. Lots of work focussed on my quads so that they didn’t fall apart on descents, and it was great to have this validated when I did the Pedol Peris route in the snow. During the race in 2015 I was in pieces by the time I tried to descend Snowdon, whereas post-training I skipped down the Ranger path and then ran down Telegraph Alley without a care in the world.

Pedol Peris 2016
I really enjoyed Pedol Peris in 2015, so was looking forward to the 2016 race. I registered successfully, then pulled my glute on the walk to the start! I set off anyway, but it was clear by the time we got to Bus Stop quarry that I wasn’t going any further. The nice marshal there offered me a biscuit but I had to refuse since I’d only run about 300 yards.

Pedol Peris 2016. You can't lie to Strava.
Pedol Peris 2016. You can’t lie to Strava.

Let’s remember that I was only aiming to finish DBR, not to place in the top twenty or anything. My training was therefore very much about ensuring that I could keep moving for five days without falling apart. Speed on really rough rocky ground wasn’t an issue, because I spend a lot of time in North Snowdonia, but the longer days were well beyond any distance I’d ever run before (even as a one-off). In this respect everything went exactly according to plan – I could still walk at the end of the race, I went climbing on the Tuesday after it finished, and was on my mountain bike a week after finishing.

Marmot Dark Mountains 2017
I mentioned this briefly in a different post, but suffice to say we spent a lot of time failing to find a control in a cloudy blizzard, then gave up and went home.

We should have gone along orange from the South and then off West. We actually went purple. GPS sampled every ten minutes, so it was actually even worse than it looks!
We should have gone along orange from the South and then off West. We actually went purple. GPS sampled every ten minutes, so it was even worse than it looks!

I could have done with more long (35 km +) days to be really confident, but real life got in the way and meant that I didn’t get in quite as many as I’d have liked. There were, however, plenty of gym sessions with Tim as well as on my own, and it’s great to leave knackered but knowing you’ve pushed yourself hard (#kettlebells).

Driven. Working towards the Dragons Back. Strength and resilience.

A post shared by Lynne Taylor & Tim Budd (@globaltherapies) on

DBR Recce – Day 2, Cwm Bychan
New Year’s Day 2017. On the descent of a grassy slope into Cwm Bychan I slipped and put my hand out to break my fall, resulting in a very loud crack and lots of pain. Chester hospital diagnosed a soft tissue injury, then wrote to me two weeks later saying they’d reviewed the x-rays and that there was actually a fracture. QMC in Nottingham subsequently confirmed a displaced helical fracture of the middle metacarpal shaft. D’oh!

Side view of my left hand (fingers up, thumb closest to you). The spiky shard of bone bottom-left shouldn't be there!
Side view of my left hand (fingers pointing up, thumb closest to you). The spiky shard of bone bottom-left shouldn’t be there!

So in a nutshell, taking on a personal trainer who understands the nature of the race was the best decision I ever made. I’m also glad that I did so with a full year to work in – turning up two months beforehand would have been a disaster. I shudder to think about the state I was in when I first went along to see Tim. Obviously completing DBR was great, but one of the most uplifting parts of the whole process for me has been getting 30 km into a hard mountain day and still purring along nicely, enjoying everything that’s going on around me. That ability to cruise along without being in agony or just dog-tired is a wonderful thing, and I’m so pleased it’s something I can continue to make use of post-race.

More recently, it was interesting to find that my sense of proprioception has really developed too. I did a biking “Jumps and Drops” course at Llandegla, during which the course instructors were repeatedly telling us to make certain specific movements with arms, legs, feet, and so on. With the past few months of working on individual movements and paying attention to form while working in the gym, I found it noticeably easier than such things have been in the past, and I was really able to ‘isolate’ particular movements (and I can now clear the jumps in the skills course too!).

Group DBR Recce – February 2017
A weekend with some other DBR entrants to recce the Day 4 route, with 40 km planned. Unfortunately it became clear about 2 km in that my back was hurting a lot, and so after a sweary descent from Plynlimon I became that guy and and got the bus back to the campsite after running only 10 km in total. By this point I was seriously concerned about my lack of long days out, and so what no-one on that recce knows (up until now) is that as soon as they left to continue their run, I phoned Becs and burst into floods of tears. That was the only point during the whole Dragon’s Back process at which I doubted whether I’d be able to get through the race. A bus then unexpectedly turned up in the middle of this, so heaven knows what the driver thought as I asked for a single to Rhayader through sniffles and a tear-streaked face. #realmendocry

It would be remiss of me to finish this post without mentioning that Tim and Lynne are also incredibly nice! They genuinely care about your performance and want you to succeed; sessions are delivered in a fun way, without any shouting or drill-sergeant style bellowing; if you need to amend something in the plan then it’s just worked around. Not only did they both encourage me to think I could complete DBR, they also listened to all of my concerns beforehand (gear, weather, route choice, blah blah blah), and then provided amazing support throughout the race via Dragon Mailâ„¢ too.

Although I’ve been playing up the worst of the training for interest in this post, it also gave me loads of brilliant days I wouldn’t have bothered doing if I hadn’t needed to get some miles under my belt: Pedol Peris route in the snow with a fantastic sunset; those hills opposite the Howgills on the way up the M6 (just me and an owl up there); snowy Moel Siabod; new bits of the Peak District; leg-busting repeats of the Peckforton railway incline; the outskirts of Manchester Airport, and some fantastic new running buddies.

Comments: 2

  1. Dave Unwin says:

    Hi

    good talk about the DBR last night at the BCC slides. Many thanks. John Redmayne of Bowline (he was then) did the first DBR in 1992. He was by a very long way the best BCC long distance runner and with the late Craig Harwood won the European Karrimor one year. I have a press cutting from the Guardian showing him on the DBR, I suspect in the quarries on the Moelwynion if you can send an email.
    Dave Unwin

    • Thanks Dave, I’m glad you enjoyed the talk. I’ll certainly pop you an email, thanks.

      Regards,
      Haydn

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