‘It’s all about the challenge. Will it break me? Because if it doesn’t, it will just make me stronger.’ – Orran Smith
This quote is in reference to the event known as the Dragon’s Back Race, which has widely been recognised and referred to as the world’s toughest mountain race.
Six days of running from Conwy Castle, in north Wales, to Cardiff Castle, in the south, over the “spine of the dragon”. With an overall distance of 380km this equates to an average of about 1.5 marathons run a day over the six days and it ISN’T flat. In fact there’s 17,400m worth of ascent on the tops of the Welsh mountains, which is almost twice the height of Everest. Do your legs hurt yet?
Dragon’s Back Race translates to Ras Cefn Y Ddraig in Welsh, which also roughly translates to Bat Shit Crazy. I suppose that’s the best way to describe anyone who is up for the challenge of slaying the dragon, and one person who did just that was Orran Smith, one of our own, who as of Saturday afternoon, finished the race in an incredible time of 52 hours and 42 minutes, placing an unbelievable fourth overall!
This isn’t a fluke. Of an original 367 runners, only 91 finished and Orran finished in the top four competitors. This doesn’t happen overnight, it happens from hard work and hours upon hours of training and dedication. The pandemic has meant Orran has been unable to recce the course at all, apart from sections of day one when he took part in the Welsh 1000. Meaning large areas of the course were unknown.
Training itself takes time and the Isle of Man terrain is nothing like the rocky slopes of Snowdon, Carneddau and Glyderau, so it comes as no surprise that the top 3 males are natives to the Welsh mountains.
The event itself is a beast. Self-navigation to checkpoints throughout the route and timing cut offs along the way, even just one second over and you’re out. It’s brutal, but the race is brutal.
Another interesting feature to this race is the kit limit of 15kg of what you can take with you and at the end of each day you have to camp! Fortunately the event organisers will move your kit and set up camp for you! Just what you need after running 70km in the day!
Day one is an incredibly tough outing. The runners are straight into Snowdonia from the coast and tick off a number of Welsh bigguns – Pen yr Ole Wen, Tryfan, Glyder Fawr – before tackling the mighty Snowdon horseshoe.
Orran started the event midpack, hoping to pace himself into the race. After about two hours he had cleared the big crowds which meant passing people were very few and far between. Disaster then struck, as around the halfway point Orran realised he had lost his map.
‘You really can’t compete in a race like this without a map, so I had to turn around and go looking for it. 20 minutes later and I had found a guy who had decided to drop out, he gave me his map and I was back racing again!’
Orran finished the day in 20th position after an incredibly hot day. The heat and ascent took its toll on day one as 118 of the runners dropped out of the race.
Day two was another grueling hot day, said Orran. Starting at Nant Gwynant, the second day covers 59km with 3400m of ascent and takes in Cnicht, the Moelwynion and the Rhinogydd, the roughest ground in Wales.
Orran was keen to make up for lost time and pressed hard on the hills and mountains for the first 5 hours but the intense heat and conditions got to him. He said “the finish couldn’t come quick enough” but after 11 hours running Orran had pushed himself up the leaderboard after finishing 6th for day two.
After a hard day it’s important to refuel and the camp hosts catering for the runners. It’s important to be regimented with your routine to prepare yourself for the next day’s racing.
Day three was one of the longest of the event, with runners expected to cover 70km with another 3400m of ascent and the imposing Cadair Idris. It’s no surprise that only 105 competitors remained after day three proving just how difficult the race can be.
Runner’s can start whenever they want after 6am, but must meet the cut-off’s in time. Orran said that he left it late, setting off on day three, which resulted in him rushing to the checkpoint. Despite this he made it with enough time to spare and once he was up on the tops he was able to enjoy the beautiful views and openness of the Welsh scenery.
Finishing 5th for the day, Orran still found the latter third of the day tough and welcomed the camp. Having completed half the race though, Orran was coming into the second-half of the race tired but determined.
Day four was another long one at 69km, but with slightly less ascent. Conditions were much cooler with rain, cloud and mist, despite thunder and lightning in the forecast. Orran commented, “I took advantage of the cooler conditions and the terrain was very similar to what we are used to on the island.” Orran pressed on hard and tackled the remote, trackless and tussocky moorland, but the latter part of the day finished along a brutal section of tarmac that is difficult for all Dragon’s Back runners to face.
Despite this, Orran posted his best finish so far with a brilliant 4th on the day, having spent 8hrs and 21 mins running. This ate away at the time of his nearest rivals.
The penultimate stage five loomed and the event ventured into new territory. In a change from previous editions of the race, runners had to complete 70km and 3200m of ascent, including a challenging traverse from the Black Mountain to the Brecon Beacons.
With thick clouds, the navigational skills were really tested. Another 10 athletes failed to complete the day, and by the cut-off deadline of 10:00pm there were only 92 left in the full race.
‘My quads were so smashed by this point I could hardly run.’ After the four days Orran had endured I wasn’t at all surprised that this was his take on the start of day five.
A slower pace was held by Orran for the first 4 hours but the worst was to come. Descending mountains at speed is hard on the quads at the best of times and Orran decided to keep his cool and walk the flats and downs. After all, this is a six day race and Orran knew that there was still 40 miles on the final day to do.
This race is just as much a mental battle as it is physical, and being aware of managing your body is key. Orran still finished 6th for the day and his nearest competitors faltered, and knowing a good solid day on the final stage would mean 4th overall was a definite possibility.
With much of the hardest climbs complete, the remaining competitors still had their work cut out on day six, with 63km and 1300m of ascent running south from the Beacons and through the Valleys to complete, to finally reach the finish at Cardiff Castle.
‘My legs and feet were knackered.’ With most of the day behind him, Orran caught up with 3rd place finisher Matt O’Keefe, he was also, unsurprisingly, struggling. “I caught up with him and we ran the rest together and both of us acknowledged at the finish that we had pushed each other to what would have been an impossible pace to have done alone. It wasn’t fast but we were both so exhausted.”
The finish on the final day meant Orran secured an amazing 4th overall place in his first outing of the Dragons Back Race.
When asked about if the race lives up to its name as ‘the world toughest mountain race?’ Orran said, ‘It’s the toughest I’ve done so far… but it didn’t break me.’
Orran continues and talks about preparation, training and the overall approach to the race, there’s no room for ignorance or complacency and you must remain focused if you want to complete this challenge. ‘You need to have a solid understanding of why you’re doing it and keep your focus throughout. You also need luck on your side, while being resourceful and not getting injured!’
I think the final factor of the race is the support. It was visible to me that Orran was well supported by the wider Manx Fell Running community, and received lots of messages from friends and family.
Orran saved his final words for praise and said, ‘I really have to thank my parents so much for their support throughout as they gave so much of their time to look after my kids while I was out training. My two girls for being my inspiration and motivation and a big thanks to Nikki, my girlfriend, who helped me prepare for this event and keep me strong throughout.’
Orran’s achievement is one of physical and mental admiration. For me, it proves that no matter the challenge you are facing in your life, if you surround yourself with strong support, work hard then the results can be epic. Your limits don’t break, they just bend. Orran’s final word’s opened this article up and I think it’s the right way to end – ‘will it break me? Because if it doesn’t, it will just make me stronger.’