A Finisher's Guide to the Montane Dragon's Back Race

Owen Jackson completing the Montane Dragon's Back Race

Regarded as the world's toughest mountain race, The Montane Dragon's Back is a six-day, 240-mile endurance event held annually in Wales. Starting at Conwy Castle in the north, participants run down the spine of Wales to Cardiff Castle, traversing the highest peaks in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons along the way. For any participant aiming to 'tame the dragon', preparation is key. We caught up with 2023 finisher, Owen Jackson, who shared his experiences of the event and offered some nuggets of wisdom for future Dragon's Back hopefuls.

Owen Bio | The Route | Race Tips

Who is Owen Jackson?

Owen Jackson is the youngest person to complete the Montane Dragon's Back Race, finishing 23rd overall in the 2023 event at the age of 20. A keen mountain biker, hiker and general outdoorsman, Owen only recently began trail running when a friend encouraged him to give it a go during a bike ride. He did, and quickly became obsessed. After building up to a couple of 50-mile runs, he secured a last-minute entry into the Dragon's Back Race with only weeks to spare. We caught up with the Bury-born runner and picked his brains on what he'd learnt during his successful first attempt at a multi-day race.

The Route: A day-by-day breakdown of the Dragon's Back Race

An infographic map of the Dragon's Back Race route

Day 1 – Conwy Castle to Nant Gwynant | 49km (30.5 miles) | 3800m (12,467ft)

"Day one is the hardest day of the week" according to Owen. Starting at Conway Castle, participants tackle the many mountains of Northern Snowdonia.

"It’s got the most amount of elevation. It's also the most technical underfoot. At the start of the race, adrenaline is running high for everyone, but for the first 20 miles I was taking it easy, moving well and just trying to keep my energy level to a minimum."

"I was going into the race with no experience on the route so everything was a surprise. The main three mountains we climbed on day one were Pen yr Ole Wen, Tryfan and Glyder Fawr. To get up to the summit you have to climb and traverse Crib Goch, which is a Grade 1 scramble with massive exposure in some parts. At this point, I wasn’t moving fast. Every step was hard with the 29-degree sun beating down on me and no wind to cool me down".

Day 2 – Nant Gwynant to Dolgellau | 59km (36.5 miles) | 3400m (11,155ft)

Underestimate these mountains at your peril – they might be small but they are perfectly troublesome. Those are the words of the official race website, and it would appear that Owen shared the sentiment. A tough day.

"The first miles of the day were through a nice cool wooded area before the sun came out for the day. We did a big climb to start and then got to the top of a hill known as bum slide hill. The main mountain we climbed was Moelwyn Mawr. Going to the summit of this was extremely windy with 30mph gusts blowing you sideways. Another big mountain to climb was Rhinog Fawr. To get to the top we ventured along a path called the Roman Steps, which is a very popular route."

"One of the last mountains you have to climb on day two is called Diffwys. I found this challenging as I was running with another guy who decided to pull out due to feeling unwell and there was nothing I could do to help. On the descent down from the top, I got a nosebleed which stopped me for 10 minutes and just rounded off my mood at the time. Luckily, this was on the final descent of the day."

Owen Jackson running in Wales during the 2023 Dragon's Back Race

Day 3 – Dolgellau to Ceredigion | 70km (43.5 miles) | 3400m (11,155ft)

According to the organisers, if you complete day three, the statistics are on your side for completing the whole race. But standing in the way of that psychological achievement are Cadair Idris and the extensive Cambrian Mountains.

"Day three was one I was looking forward to as other people said it was quite a runnable day with lovely views throughout. Our first main climb was up Cadair Idris. Visually from the valley, it really does look like a dragon's back. We then continued the day going over a large number of mountains, closer with every step to Cardiff. Later on in the day, we came to a mountain Tarren y Gesail, which was a familiar site as I have done some mountain biking around that area."

"After we descended, we came into a town called Machynlleth. I stopped off at Greggs, which was much needed after all the miles we had run. The last 10 miles of the day were spent running uphill through long grass as the path was twice as long as it should have been. The final descent into camp is a nice grassy downhill. I felt really good at that point, so really powered into camp feeling strong."

Day 5 – Into the Brecon Beacons National Park | 70km (43.5 miles) | 3200m (10,499ft)

The race organisers describe day five as "another monster mountain day and likely to be the crux of the race for many participants." But having underestimated day four, Owen wasn't making the same mistake again.

"All week everyone had been saying day five was the hardest out of the six. It's the longest, you're exhausted from all the other days and the lack of sleep adds up. I only got about three hours a night. But I went into the day feeling extremely positive and ready to tackle anything that it had to offer."

"The day started well with quite a lot of runnable sections for the first 10 miles before stopping off at the bakery in the town of Llandovery. Then onto Fan Brycheiniog, a spectacular mountain with a beautiful view of all the other summits we had coming our way later in the day. At the halfway checkpoint my mum, dad and brother had come to meet me. It's so nice to see your family cheering and supporting you along the way. It gave me a feeling that is hard to explain."

"We were heading for the hidden valleys starting with Pen y Fan then descending to Cribyn, Fan y Bîg and Waun Rydd. Looking back you could see every single fold of the mountains you had been up. At this point, we’re coming to the end of the day. I was passing people on the climbs and the descents feeling really good and just having the best time out on the trails. I made it to the camp feeling like I had just set off. It was an amazing day that I learned so much from. Your mind is where it all starts. If you are in a good place in your mind it will show in your performance."

If you feel bad, eat. If you feel tired, eat. If you feel good, slow down a little you can do this

Day 6 – To Cardiff Castle | 63km (39 miles) | 1300m (4,265ft)

Less than 40 miles to Cardiff Castle, Owen found himself relishing every moment of day six. "The day that most people dream about was here and I was feeling good and just really not wanting the journey to be over."

"With there being a lot less climbing on day six, it was much more runnable. We went up a mountain called Mynydd Cilfach-yr-encil. My legs were heavy, but I was still moving. I stopped off at the co-op as we passed through Merthyr Tydfil to get a couple of snacks. I kept moving throughout the day with all my thoughts on the finish line and just trying to imagine how I was going to feel."

"With about 10 miles to go, we joined onto a stretch of the river Taff. This was nice as it was full of supporters cheering you on. The emotions were running high – I did nearly let out a little tear or two but held myself together. The castle came into sight for the first time in 240 miles and oh what a sight it was! Running – sprinting – full of adrenaline through the castle walls and into the grounds with all the supporters cheering and screaming, the feeling is undeniably one I will never forget. Crossing the finish line I saw my family and then my girlfriend, Daisy. I was full of happiness, joy and excitement and also a bit overwhelmed that it was all over. I just wanted to be stood on Conway Castle ready to do it over again."

Owen Jackson posing for photos after completing the Monaten Dragon's Back Race 2023

How to prepare mentally for the challenge of the Dragon's Back Race

Long-distance runners often talk about how your body can get you through the first few miles, but it's your mind that gets you to the finish line. Being prepared mentally is the biggest advantage you can give yourself, so much so that the Dragon's Back Race organisers appointed a sports psychology partner for the race called Fit-Think. Their advice includes being compassionate and honest with yourself, avoiding catastrophising when inevitable problems occur and conserving mental energy by not trying to control the uncontrollables.

Owen's advice is to prepare yourself for a tough old grind. "I think the main thing is just accepting you are going to be out for a long, hard day. Every day. You are going to struggle along the way. You are definitely going to feel down at some point. But it doesn’t last forever and you will come back around. Always remember pain is only temporary and the feeling of getting to your goal is amazing."

"Along the way, I kept telling myself if you feel bad, eat. If you feel tired, eat. If you feel good, slow down a little and you can do this. I didn’t give myself any other option than to cross the finish line. I went in with a goal and never looked back".

How to prepare physically for the Dragon's Back Race

"Slowly increase your distance and time spent running each week. But make sure coming up to the event that you tail down the mileage and time spent running. When push comes to shove, it is much better to come up to the event slightly under-prepared than injured from overtraining."

"I would say that running back-to-back days in your training plan is a must. No matter if they are long or short. Getting your body ready for the short rest and back out running is going to be hard to get used to but will definitely help."

"I also think training with the food you are going to eat at the event is a must. You need to know it doesn’t disagree with your body. I'd suggest having a wide variety of flavours as your body can start to reject the same taste as the days go by. I made this mistake and only took orange and raspberry-flavoured gels, so when I got to day four I really struggled to get the food down. Another tip is if the sun is out and you are sweating, salt tablets are a lifesaver and will keep replenishing all the minerals you lose."

Owen Jackson's feet after six days of running during the Montane Dragon's Back Race

How to look after your feet during the Dragon's Back Race

Your feet are the most important piece of kit you have on any multi-day event. According to the Dragon's Back Race organisers, 35% of participants in 2017 received medical treatment for blisters with many participants failing to complete the full course or having to retire from the event altogether as a result. There is a medical team on hand to help treat foot issues during and after the race days, but prevention is always the best strategy. You can find more information on the official race website's foot care guide. Here's how Owen cared for his feet during the race.

"Pre-event, make sure your toenails are trimmed so they're not sharp. Not too short though or else they could become painful. I tried to cut mine a couple of days before the event to make sure they were okay."

"Halfway through each race day, there is a checkpoint where you can collect your drop bag that you have prepared the night before. In mine, I had some food, a good selection of first aid supplies and a spare pair of shoes. I would always encourage changing your shoes at this stage to give your feet a chance to use different muscles. I would say get a size bigger as your feet may swell. I always carry a spare pair of thin socks just in case I can feel any hot spots. A bit of baby powder on your feet when you change your socks can also be beneficial to get rid of any moisture and prevent rubbing. But just keeping them dry is the main goal throughout the event."

What to stick in your daily resupply dry bag

All participants are required to use two specific dry bags during the event, one to transport their main kit and the other to be used as a resupply bag during each race day. You can read the event's Guidance on Dry Bags page for the specific requirements.

"The larger bag of the two is for all your overnight equipment like camping kit and clothes for other days. This has to be under 15kg. Then a small dry bag is used to carry anything you need halfway through each day. The weight limit is 2.5kg on this. In my resupply bag, I had some extra food and a selection of foot care items like creams, baby powder and plasters. I also had my second pair of shoes and a pair of socks." Some participants also packed spare layers and hydration to refill their bladders.

Owen Jackson celebrating at the finish line of the Montane Dragon's Back Race 2023

What did you learn during the race?

"The longest I had run before the event was 58 miles and I didn’t have much experience running long days back-to-back. I just took every day as it came. I found it useful to break each day down into small achievable goals for myself and basically run from checkpoint to checkpoint."

"Next time, I’ll definitely do more training leading up to the event focusing on elevation gain and trying to improve my overall endurance. I will take a wider variety of gel flavours just to mix it up and I will also take more salty foods like pretzels and nuts in my drop bag and maybe even some ready-made camping meals to eat at the checkpoint."

"This is the first event where I have taken salt tablets and I will be taking them in my future events as I really believe this helped me. Also, hydration tablets in my water to replace everything I lost during the event. I set myself a goal of eating every half an hour to keep on top of my energy levels which worked very well. I had constant reminders along the way of what happens when you stop eating and drinking with people feeling unwell and eventually pulling out."

What is the Dragon's Back Hatchling event and how does it work?

The Hatchling course is a smaller version of the Dragon's Back Race. It's ideal for those using it as a stepping stone to a full Montane Dragon’s Back Race completion in a future year or those who withdraw from the main race but want to continue with the event. It is in itself a huge achievement to finish the Hatchling.

"The Hatchling allows participants to stay with the event and still get the atmosphere of camp and the amazing running experience. They really pushed the Hatchling this year and even had to make more trophies for finishers. Instead of leaving the event, people carried on pushing themselves, making friends and enjoying everything the full Dragon's Back has to offer just on a smaller scale."

Visit the Hatchling FAQ page for more information on the event.

Adam is a lover of the outdoors who’s recently moved back to rural Lancashire after living in the urban confines of Leeds for the past few years. His favourite pastimes include cooking, playing countless sports to a barely acceptable standard and exploring the local countryside with his dog, Chip.

When the weather gets in the way, Adam can be found at home watching films & TV and listening to music. If he’s not there, he’ll be in the pub down the road.  

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