In 2021, Montane-sponsored athlete Simon Roberts became the first Welsh person to win the 236-mile Dragon’s Back Race. We quizzed him on what it takes to be a champion ultrarunner.
Some claim the Dragon’s Back Race is the toughest mountain race in the world. The multi-day run across the mountains of Wales requires racers to rack up a total ascent adding up to twice the height of Mount Everest. Tracing trails from Conwy, North Wales in Conwy to Llandeilo, South Wales there’s little time for landscape-gazing. Simon Roberts shares his Dragon’s Back Race setbacks, showstopper sections – and those where he still gets lost – with The Great Outdoors.
This is a sponsored advertorial in partnership with our friends at Montane. Main image credit: Neil Irwin.
How do you get to know the Dragon’s Back route as well as you do? You must spend hours recceing…
“A huge part of the Dragon’s Back Race [DBR] experience is the preparations leading up to the race. The hours put into recceing the route, the sleeping in cars and staying in bunkhouses throughout Wales: it’s a huge time commitment just getting ready for the race.
I am based in South Wales so I have years of experience on days five and six, so I feel right at home on those hills in the Brecon Beacons. I love day five – it’s one of the hardest days, I know it well. I’ve also done a lot of racing up in Snowdonia, so I’m very familiar with day one as well. I have done the Dragon’s Back Race twice, but I do still get lost sometimes.”
Which are your favourite parts of the route?
“My key highlight would have to be day one in northern Snowdonia; it’s the craziest terrain of the course, super-sharp ridge lines and mega-steep scrambles. Scrambling up Tryfan and running across Crib Goch are definite highlights. Plus, if you’re lucky with the weather, those views!
I also have a soft spot for day four, the Elan Valley. I had never been to this area until I did the race in 2019. This area is stunning, with beautiful green hills and stunning lakes. I’ve been back to the Elan Valley many times since. I love it. It’s a real hidden treasure in Wales.”
When you’re doing something as physically demanding as the Dragon’s Back Race, do you find moments to enjoy the landscape? Or are you just too focused on the physical challenge?
“In the past, yes, landscape-gazing was a huge part of it. Beautiful mountain views can definitely help take your mind off the pain. Since I’ve found this warrior competitive mindset, sadly not: I’m just totally focussed on the running, head down and moving forward.
I can dig myself quite deep! It’s intense down there so I’m not really taking notice of the views. It’s pure concentration, managing the effort, trying not to trip over or get lost.”
How do you know when to push your limits in a race like the DBR? Are you ever worried about pushing yourself too far? How do you know where to draw that line?
“At last year’s race, I was probably pushing the limits every day. If you don’t push your limits, you will never know what you’re actually capable of. You never know, you may find yourself leading a race. There were many moments when I was red-lining, especially when trying to keep up with Russell Bentley on the road sections.
You take yourself right to the edge and if you go over, you have to drop back and correct yourself to get yourself back in your rhythm. It’s a risk you must take sometimes. I had trained well and had done the homework so I knew I could handle a big effort.”
What are your hopes for this year’s race? How prepared do you feel? How much does winning again matter to you?
“I’m feeling strong now. There were a few setbacks early this year, what with catching Covid and getting injured at the Cape Wrath Ultra in the Scottish Highlands. But recently I’ve been on a good track, getting strong and enjoying the training. So, yes, I’m going in for a win, to defend my title.
Last year, history was made with me being the first Welsh person to win the race, something I am very proud of, and this year I have the opportunity to become the first person
to get back-to-back overall wins. That would be quite something. It’s a strong motivator, I’m feeling ready to race hard!”
What are your ultimate mountain running goals? Are there any places in the world that you’d love to run that you haven’t yet? Any events you’d love to try?
“There are quite a few races on my bucket list, the first one being the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee. It’s known as the race that eats its young. I’m a little bit obsessed with it and its history of being the hardest race out there!
Another race I would like to get to would be the Iditarod Trail Invitational: 1000 miles across Alaska in winter just sounds like an epic journey! Also the Montane Spine Race coming next January. I’m looking forward to doing well at that one.”
Gear picks: Simon’s favourite pieces of kit
The outdoor gear Simon uses has to meet the highest standards of design, durability and performance. Here are some of his favourites…
The Montane Spine jacket served me well in the Montane Spine Challenger North Race, however for the Dragons Back this year, I will be swapping to the new Phase Lite Jacket. It’s very lightweight at 300g and has a Gore-tex active shell that provides great protection and also gives a tougher denier material than the Spine.
Another piece of kit I used on the Montane Spine Challenger North race was the Montane Gecko VP 20+ race vest. It’s a super-lightweight 20-litre race pack, which is essential on very long races when there is an excessive kit list that is heavy to lug around. The pack fits all of the Spine Race mandatory kit list with ease. This leads on to the other Gecko packs in the range: VP 5+ (5 litre) and VP 12+ (12 litre).
I love both: they are perfect for the shorter distance ultra-marathons or just for any big day out in the hills. I love that they are so lightweight and have an array of storage which is all easy to access on the move. The fit is great with no bounce when you are flying up and down the hills!
When running in the summer, I like to keep myself cool wearing the Montane Dragon Shorts and Montane Sabre tops combination. It’s great gear, very lightweight to wear, and very breathable – keeping you cool in the summer.