Photos: No Limits Photography
Taking place in Wales during September, racers attempting the Montane Dragon’s Back Race must always expect the unexpected when it comes to what weather they’ll experience during the week. This is especially true after last year's notorious heatwave in which the event lost nearly 50% of the runners on day 1 alone.
Thankfully though, this year the weather was a lot kinder to the participants and the thunder and lightning, which was originally forecast for most of the week, only made an appearance once (phew). Instead, the humidity stuck around which meant hydration was key but, alongside this, there were also plenty of rain showers to contend with, meaning waterproof jackets and trousers would soon become runners’ best friend in this race!
For those unfamiliar, the Montane Dragon’s Back Race tests even the best of runners and each day has its own challenge. Just take a look at our dedicated story behind to learn all about the race’s impressive origins and for a detailed breakdown of the route.
Off to an unforgettable start
At 5.30am on the morning of the 5th of September, 261 sleepy-eyed and eager participants (222 men, 39 women) as well as volunteers and supporters, all gathered within Conwy Castle’s walls. Not only was the night transitioning into day, but the harmonising voices of the Welsh male choir sent echoing sounds through the walls and shivers down the spine. As silence fell at 6am, off the runners went, running into the sunrise and embarking on their epic journey through Wales. Sounds of cheering and ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau..’’ chants followed. The stage was suitably set and all was, once again, for the taking this year.
With the race in full swing, a shoutout must go to Chris Cope, who was not only taking on the Dragon’s Back for the first time, but also his first multi-stage race. Despite this, he set the bar high over the first few days of the race, standing out for his speed, with no one keeping up to him during days 1-3. To top it off, he would arrive at camp with the cheeriest of smiles. Chris is a type 1 diabetic and, because he sweats so much, not only does he have to carry extra water, but his layering system is a lot less than the average. They do say skin is waterproof after all!
#TeamMontane take on the dragon
This year we had several of our own inspiring athletes out on the trails. This included Simon Roberts, the defending champion, who returned to try and tame the dragon for 2 consecutive years in a row. Despite taking a fall on day 1, he still finished strong. Simon pushed hard until day 5, where he sadly had to retire with a stress fracture injury. We wish this Welsh legend a speedy recovery!
Other members of #TeamMontane taking on the challenge included fellow Welshman Gary House, a North Wales resident who is no stranger to the Dragon’s Back, having previously taken on the race back in 2019. Mountaineer Becks Ferry, German-based Dennis Pemsel (who smiled the whole week no matter how much pain he was in!) and Simon Gfeller, who had travelled over from Spain but is originally from Switzerland, also took part in this year’s event. Becks had to pull out after day 1 following a twisted knee, but Gary, Dennis and Simon all made it to the finish line on day 6 and successfully conquered the dragon - congrats guys!
In addition to our pro racing team, this year we also introduced the Montane relay team - made up of members of Montane staff both from the HQ office and those who work for us further afield who are passionate runners. Each day one of the team would take on the challenge and this included: David Williamson (day 1), Pete Sissons (Day 2), Matt Hickman (day 3), myself joined by Hannah Foster for a chunk of the run on day 4, Hannah Campbell (day 5) and Montana Hull on the final day of the race! Here’s what Matt Hickman had to say about day 3 of the Montane relay:
“After completing a day of the Dragon's back ten years prior, I had an ever-lasting memory of how tough this race was! Even a single day of the event needs treating with respect, and this time around it was even tougher than I remembered! Like all long days in the mountains, they have their "ups and downs". As well as enduring well over 3000m of climbing, my mood and enthusiasm also meandered as I battled the elements and terrain.” Matt Hickman, Montane Global Marketing Manager
Ultimate Dragon’s Back glory goes to…
Of the 261 participants , 102 slayed the dragon and were welcomed into Cardiff Castle on day 6. Reaching the finish line is no mean feat - just ask the original dragon slayer Helene Whitaker who has completed the race 2 times, including winning the very first Dragon’s Back in 1992. Listen to Helene’s podcast to find out more.
First to cross the finish line this year, and the official winner of the 2022 Dragon’s Back, was racer James Nobles, with a time of 50:40:23 overall. Already a familiar face around camp, James was a volunteer at last year's race. James ran strong all week, holding onto 2nd/ 3rd place each day until day 5 when he cranked things up a notch and finished the day in 1st place, much to his disbelief.
He was welcomed in Cardiff by his family which included parents, who didn’t realise exactly the scale of the event he had spent the last 12 months training for, and his wife who is expecting. A real tear jerker of a moment. We managed to catch up with James shortly after finishing the race who said:
“It has been amazing but I am glad it is done! Day 4 was a bit of a low point and I went into it thinking of it as a rest. It was longer but with less elevation and it was just so hard. The road killed everyone off!” James Nobles, Dragon’s Back Race 2022 Winner
First woman to finish the race went to Lisa Watson, an inspiring female for the sport who reclaimed her victory from 2019 with an overall time of 53:46:22. Lisa came 4th overall this year and also looked incredibly strong throughout the whole week. We managed to catch Lisa at the finish line in Cardiff and here is what she had to say:
“I genuinely really loved it. I only had a couple of low points and loads of high points. I love running in the hills and I got to do this for 6 days. You get fed and don’t have to worry about anything. It’s like a package holiday!” Lisa Watson, Dragon’s Back 2022 Winner
Anyone wondering how early race pace setter Chris Cope got on? We’re pleased to say he managed to complete the race and slay the dragon, coming an impressive 6th overall!
The legends behind the race
Alongside the brave racers taking part, the event wouldn’t be the well oiled machine that it is if it wasn’t for the 150 members of the events team working tirelessly in the background. The majority of these are volunteers, eager to give back to the race, having run it previously. Some earnt credits, with the aim of slaying the dragon in the future and others are just doing it to be part of the most positive and vibrant team of people you would ever want to be around.
From the crack of dawn to when the last runners arrived at camp, the team were laughing, chatting, and supporting each other as well as the runners in need during some of their darkest hours. Come rain or shine, they were all sharing their own stories, as well as wanting to listen to yours. They are the very heart of the Montane Dragon’s Back Race and every participant I had spoken to would mention how wonderful they all are.
A massive shout out goes to the water station legends Ian and Caz-with-the-Hat. Just when you hit that point of wishing for camp and in serious need of water, these two appear from nowhere both to fill your flasks and enthuse you with positivity, dancing (or twerking from Caz) and some great music to send you on your final push of the day. Nice one guys!
In their second year of sponsoring the Dragon’s Back Race, Montane made sure to get as heavily involved as possible! Alongside the Montane relay team, this included serving up our now-famous Montane smoothies (a firm favourite at the Lakeland 50&100 ultra). The whole of the camp was fuelled up with berry goodness on Friday night, ready for the last push to Cardiff the next day. There was a lot of emotion in the tent that evening…alongside several broken bodies. The camaraderie and kindness experienced during this really summed up the event for me - such a special experience to be part of!
Feeling inspired by the Montane Dragon’s Back Race?
Our event report was brought to you by #TeamMontane athlete and 2022 Dragon’s Back volunteer Kat Roberts. For those feeling inspired by the tales of endurance that have taken place why not take on the challenge for yourself? Entries are now open for 2023.