Iain Best on conquering the Dragon's Back Race

success stories ultrarunning Oct 02, 2023
Conquering the Dragon's Back Race

IntesEATfit's athlete, Iain Best, achieved an incredible feat last month by completing the Dragon's Back Race - considered one of the toughest mountain races in the world. Over six days, Iain covered a distance of 380km and climbed a total elevation gain of 17,400m, securing the fifth position in the race.

In this interview, Iain shares his experience and sheds light on what it takes to conquer such a massive challenge.

Please share a bit about your running background 

I’ve always been into running but I kicked it up a notch in 2019 when I did my first ultramarathon. I finished, but other than that it wasn’t a spectacular performance, so I then commenced the endless pursuit of trying to get better and better. I’ve done a lot of 50ks and a few 100k races, but no matter the distance I generally prefer the mountains, the more elevation the better.

What inspired you to take on the Dragon's Back Race?

I first had a go at this race in 2021. I was living and working in the UK with a Welsh organisation and I heard about it through some friends. The documentaries on Amazon about the race sealed the deal and I signed up with a few mates. In short, it didn’t go well. The first two days were 30 degrees+ after a summer that had barely gotten over 20. I really struggled in the heat. That combined with some navigation mistakes and poor nutrition/hydration sent me into a downward spiral leading to my withdrawal on day 2. It was my first DNF and a hit to the ego, so Dragon’s Back was stored away as something I had to go back and finish.

Can you describe the race and its unique challenges for those who may not be familiar with it?

Dragon’s Back Race is a 6-day race starting in Conwy on the north coast of Wales and finishing in Cardiff on the south coast. It covers approximately 380km (if you don’t get lost) and 17,400m of elevation. You have from 6am to 10pm each day to finish the stage. 

The route is pretty wild and remote. It is a mixture of mandatory and recommended routes that navigate you between GPS recorded checkpoints. Days 1 and 2 go over some of the biggest mountains in Wales and are often better described as scrambling/rock climbing than running. Days 3-6, while ‘less mountainous’, still come with their own challenges as you get into the most remote parts of Wales where there are no tracks (or the ones that exist go through bogs that desperately try to roll your ankles).

To help get you through each day there is one support point with a drop bag and water, one water point and occasionally the luxury of the few shops you might pass in towns. Any other external support is forbidden. Once you finish the stage, dinner, breakfast and snacks are catered for in the race camps. Overnight you stay in these camps set up by the event, sleeping in 8-person tents and living out of the 15kg dive bag you are permitted to have for sleeping gear, nutrition and other items.

How did you prepare both physically and mentally for this grueling 6-day event?

I am fortunate to live near a very hilly state forest, so physically I spent my training trying to get as much elevation as possible. To prepare for back-to-back days I did big, back-to-back weekends. At my peak, this would look like a 90min hill session on Fri after work (gaining 1000m+), a 4-5h hilly long run on Sat morning (gaining 2000m+) and another 2h long run on Sun (gaining 1000m+).

Mentally, I was in the position where I knew what to expect from my 2021 attempt, or more importantly I knew where to improve. I am a better runner now than I was then, and when the nerves started building, I tried to remind myself of that. I also got help. My biggest mistakes in 2021 were nutrition/hydration and navigation – so I got help from Gaby for the former, and the latter I studied the route as well as spent a bit of time talking to a guide from Wales who runs recces of the course.

How did your nutrition strategy play a role in your training and preparation?

I had the privilege of working with Gaby in the past where we had refined what did and didn’t work for me. I was also lucky to be a guinea pig for some testing Gaby ran at Monash Uni which provided us with a lot of data on me as a runner – the key one being that I needed to drink a lot more than I had been in my racing to date.

This led to the creation of a plan that I tested on these back-to-back weekends. Training for summer in Wales was hard to replicate in a Victorian Winter – especially trying to up my water intake in the cold. 

The first thing I did was rug up far more than I would normally, in the hope of triggering more thirst. Another big challenge was getting used to carrying the extra water – Dragon’s Back has extensive mandatory gear, so fitting up to 3L in my vest was a logistical pain in the butt. I hated carrying that much, but I had the voice of reason (Gaby) reminding me of what I needed instead of me caving in to what I wanted. 

The other thing I tried to practice was eating a more substantial meal close to the start of my run and as soon as I could after. Worst case, you could be starting each day of the race at 6am and finishing at 10pm. This gives you 8h in which to have dinner, sort your kit out, try to get some sleep and have breakfast. You might not get the luxury of eating hours before starting and letting it settle, or being able to wait a few hours before having a substantial post run meal.

What are some memorable moments or challenges you faced during the race?

This race is full of moments – everyone I spoke to had plenty. A couple that stood out for me:

  • Seeing my wife and daughter in the last few kms of day 2. Before the race, I was incredibly nervous about the day that ‘defeated me’ in 2021. During the 2023 event, I was really caught up in the ‘process’ of getting that day done. When I saw them, my wife was a bit emotional on my behalf and that is when it really hit me that I had overcome this barrier I had created for myself, and that made those last few kms of the day really enjoyable.
  • By day 6 the rankings were all but locked in, I had a fairly achievable stage time to go under my overall time goal and the day is relatively easy (compared to the rest) so finishing was not a huge concern by then. A tent-mate and I decided to run the last day together, removing any ‘race pressures’ off ourselves and just enjoying the day. It became a really enjoyable day, with really good company, the highlight of which had to be sitting at a pub, that was also the water point at 50km, enjoying the best cold coke of my life on a scorching day. This day really emphasised the points people make about the friendships you establish during the race (although I couldn’t find my running mate after the finish line so if anyone knows Rob (the Brit) from Orange then tell him I am looking for him!).

Were there any unexpected situations that tested your preparation and adaptability?

There are so many challenges inherent with this race, but this time it was the heat. The UK had a record-breaking heatwave that coincided exactly with the race. Each day was close to 30 degrees or above with only day 4 offering any sort of respite with clouds. Coming from a Victorian Winter was a real challenge. Even with the substantial heat management strategies enacted by the organisers, the finisher rate of the full course was less than 30%. I drank basically a litre per hour every day to get through it (thank you Gaby for making me practice that in training!!) At first, I thought “not again” after my experience in 2021, however, I was also grateful for the opportunity to prove I could do it in similar conditions.

This was your second attempt at this race, what do you think were the key factors in ensuring this second attempt was such a successful experience? 

Overall, I had a lot more respect for this race. It titles itself as ‘The World’s Toughest Mountain Race’, but that isn’t a marketing ploy, they take pride in the fact that this race is hard because, as the race director says, “adventure only happens when there is some jeopardy and uncertainty”.

More specifically, I knew what to expect, particularly of day 1 and 2. I knew myself better as a runner, what my strengths and weaknesses were and how they would affect me in this race. I also came in with a far more thought out, personalised and practiced nutrition strategy.

Were there any key nutrition strategies that helped you stay energised and focused during the race?

I had a nutrition strategy that I knew worked because Gaby and I had refined it over a few races, and I had practiced it repetitively in training runs and some lead up races. We really emphasised being able to consume a high volume of fluids balanced with gels and solid food that would keep things interesting. It was simple so I could keep track of it and had flexibility so I could adapt when things invariably changed. For those wondering, I trained to consume 750ml/hr+ of water and Tailwind, as well as either a gel or nut bar every hr (with some caffeine gels every 3 or so hrs), totaling 70-80g of carbs/h. Each day was the same plan, which was at risk of becoming repetitive over 6 days but because I liked it and it worked, I wasn’t concerned. In reality, I stuck to that plan on day 1 and 2 and suffered a bit towards the end of each day with heat (both these days had minimal natural water sources so you were heavily reliant on the 2 water points). By day 3 I was drinking basically 1L/h, with the solids remaining as per the plan. On a few days I was lucky enough to add a can of coke and/or packet of chips to that, but sadly that was an infrequent luxury!

How did you approach recovery after completing such an intense event?

It is 3 weeks post event and I am still recovering. My first week was spent by a resort pool hydrating almost exclusively with cocktails. This was great for morale but maybe not a nutritionist’s recommendation… Week 2 saw me resume a proper diet, and start some very easy running. The legs were wobbly, weak and full of niggles that were kept at bay by going VERY easy. This week (week 3) is still just some light, easy runs. I feel much better, and the desire to run has properly returned, but my plan was always to take it easy for about 4 weeks before considering resuming any sort of normal training structure. From listening to past competitors, I knew the toll this race takes on your body so I have really tried to manage my ego and not rush into anything.

What valuable lessons did you take away from the Dragon's Back Race, both in terms of racing and nutrition?

Preparation is key – I spoke to a number of other competitors during the week. They were great people and highly motivated to finish the race, but a lot of people made comments like “this is my first ultra” or “I had no idea it would be like this”. Unfortunately, the race ended the exact same way for them. Conversely, the male and female winners both had devoted themselves to preparing for this race, having recced most, if not all, of the course and really dedicated a large amount of training to this race (admittedly not luxuries everyone has). I think there is a middle ground between those two categories of people. I firmly believe a lot of ultras are achievable even for quite inexperienced runners, but you would have to be a very good runner to go into Dragon’s Back without any preparation.

It is amazing what your body can do – in the back half of this race I would hobble my way to the tent, crawl into bed and lie there for a few hours in pain wondering how I’d be able to run 70km the next day. Somehow, I would wake up from a few hours sleep, I wouldn’t be hobbling anymore, I’d have a decent breakfast and find myself running off the start line for another day. I think with good training, and good hydration and fueling, it is amazing the toll your body is capable of taking.

In terms of nutrition, my biggest lesson was understanding what I needed and what works for me. I need more water than most, I need to train to eat solid food because my stomach won’t like just tailwind and gels, I like flexibility in scheduling my consumption to windows and not a fixed time, and I like being able to adjust on the fly when the plan stops working. Gaby helped me refine a plan that satisfied all of those so I balanced what I needed and what I liked, which meant it not only worked but I enjoyed it too.

Do you have any advice for aspiring mountain racers who hope to one day take on this race?

  • It is not easy. You really need to give this race the respect it deserves (and yourself the best chance of finishing) by preparing carefully. People have different perspectives on it, but I am in the camp that this is a 24h, 6-day race; you might only be running 10 hours a day, but your routine in camp sorting out gear, managing your body, refueling and rehydrating all matter too. It is not just about your running ability.
  • It isn’t just running either (well not all of it). Look up Crib Goch, which you cover on day 1, and you will see that it is basically rock climbing and very exposed. Even the unexposed days have huge sections of boggy fields with tussocks that make it extremely difficult to run and not roll your ankle. Wales can be extremely remote and wild, and you spend a lot of time on very un-runnable terrain.
  • Use the resources. The race website has a lot of resources for you to learn about the race. There are a number of good documentaries on past editions as well. It would be remiss of me not to plug the podcast of one of the guys I ran with during the race, he does a very thorough summary of his and his co-host’s experience: Podcast | Trail and Error
  • Have a nutrition plan and practice it. You have to provide all the nutrition that you consume while running, this isn’t a race with regular aid stations full of coke, fruit, chips and lollies – the event will only give you water (twice) on the course each day. You also only have 15kg worth of gear you can ship between camps which includes sleeping equipment, camp equipment like a plate, spare clothes, toiletries and your nutrition (it adds up fast). To add to the complexity, you might be a runner who could finish each stage in 10h but if you have a bad day and take 16h, you don’t want to have only brought enough nutrition for your best-case scenario. 
  • Ensure your nutrition plan works for the specific requirements of the race. You don’t want to be weighing your kit the night before the race and realise you can’t fit all your food in your 15kg limit.
  • It is worth it. I don’t know anyone who has finished this race and didn’t experience some kind of ‘emotional moment’. Because it is so hard, you gain an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your journey and the importance of nutrition in multi-stage racing?

I think the main thing I realised with multi-stage racing is that after day 1, you are not performing at your best – in fact you are performing closer to your worst. Your body is fatigued and you don’t have the same energy levels as day 1 after a delightful taper and carb load. The winners of Dragon’s Back weren’t running blistering paces, in fact they were relatively average, if you took each day as a single day race. Even though they were not performing at 100%, what set them apart was their ability to fuel and manage themselves so that they were able to get out of first gear and push themselves close to their limit each day.

My experience in 2021 after day 1 was being completely drained, struggling to eat and drink at dinner then going to bed fairly empty. Breakfast the following day gave me enough to get started but definitely not enough to get through the day. What I feel got me through this time was that my race nutrition was right, which meant not only was I fueled throughout the day but I also wasn’t in a major deficit when I finished. This made it easier to top myself up with dinner, and really fill the tank back up at breakfast before starting again.