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Running Wales’ Dragon’s Back race and other ultramarathons

6th September 2012

After a 20-year hiatus, the 200-mile Dragon’s Back race over the mountainous spine of Wales is back, one of a growing number of ultramarathons around the world

Tomorrow, 91 very weary runners will stagger in to the Carreg Cennen Castle on the western edge of the Black Mountains on the Welsh Borders – and boy, will they deserve a pint. They will have just run the length of Wales over five days, covering 200 miles with 8½ miles of ascent. That’s assuming all 91 complete the gruelling course.

The first – and until this week only – Dragon’s Ba,ck race took place in September 1992. Back then it was won by Helene Whitaker (née Diamantides), a record-breaking mountain runner who beat some of the world’s best and toughest male runners. Twenty years later and the Dragon’s Ba,ck race is back, one of a growing number of ultramarathons and endurance events aimed at competitors who want to push themselves to the limit (see our pick of other hardcore endurance events around the world, below). And amazingly, Helene Whitaker is also back and competing in the race she won 20 years ago.

The runners are now into their fourth day of the run, which closely follows the original route, tracing the mountainous spine of Wales southwards. The end is – almost – in sight.

The Dragon’s Back is considered to be a good one to start your ultra career, as it’s fully supported, meaning tea and a tent with a sleeping bag await you every night. But make no mistake: this is considered to be one of the toughest mountain races in the world.

In Feet in the Clouds, Richard Askwith’s book about fell running, he wrote: “Imagine yourself there, standing in the rain at Conwy Castle on the north coast and contemplating the coming ordeal. Somewhere to the south of you should be Conwy Mountain and the Carneddaus, but all you can see are wet foothills and low cloud. You are cold already, but you know that this is as nothing to the chill you will feel on the high ground. You are about to spend the best part of a week on that high ground, immersed in cloud, with most of the waking hours devoted to climbing and descending as fast as your body will allow, while knowing all the time that if you stop concentrating on your map and compass for a moment you will be lost. Does your heart sink? If not, think about it again until it does.”
Further information:


Badwater Ultramarathon, USA

Beginning at 85m below sea level in Death Valley, Nevada, and ending 135 miles later, 2,530m above, at Mount Whitney, Badwater is considered one of the toughest ultras – and temperatures of up to 55C don’t make it any easier. This year, Mike Morton won the race in 22 hours and 55 minutes.
Next race: 2013 dates tbc

Yukon Arctic Ultra, Canada

If you fancy upping the ante a tad, this event will have you running on snow – for up to 430 miles (there are 100- and 300-mile options for lightweights), from Whitehorse to Dawson City. You can run, cycle or ski it but you can’t argue with the organiser’s declaration that this is the world’s coldest ultra – it can drop to 50C degrees below freezing.
Next race: 3-16 February 2013

Norseman extreme triathlon, Norway

Sometimes going wild for one sport simply isn’t enough. The Norseman takes three to their extremes, dropping competitors off the back of a ferry 3.8km offshore in the Hardangerfjord. After swimming to the shore they cycle 180km followed by a 42.2km run – uphill.
Next race: 2013 dates tbc – enrollment open early October

Amazing Maasai Ultra, Kenya

Kenya’s only ultra began in 2010 as a way of raising funds to sponsor Maasai girls through secondary school. You can choose to run the “normal” marathon but if you go the whole 75km it counts as a qualifying race for the UTMB, so if running ultras is as addictive as reckoned, you’re already en route to another by the time you finish.
Next race: 29 September 2012

Highland Fling, Scotland

An unsupported 53-mile race along the West Highland Way from Milngavie near Glasgow to Tyndrum, the Fling is fast becoming one the UK’s most popular ultras, with 363 people finishing this year’s event. Taking runners along the shores of Loch Lomond, it offers plenty of beautiful scenery for those pounding out the miles to contemplate.
Next race: 27 April 2013

The Bob Graham Round, England

The challenge of the round is to successfully complete the 72-mile circuit of 42 of the highest peaks in the Lake District within 24 hours. That’s around 8,230 metres of climbing. There’s no set race day – register your attempt with the Bob Graham Club and have a go. Easy.

The HURT 100, Hawaii

When a race includes pain in its title you know you’re signing up for a biggie. And if you thought Hawaii was all beachside cocktails and surfer dudes you need to reassess. Pretty much all of the race is on single-track trails through semi-tropical rainforest, five laps of a 2- mile circuit, 7,467 metres of height gain – all within a 36-hour time limit.
Next race: 19-20 January 2013

El Cruce, Chile and Argentina

If you feel like you need epic scenery to detract from the strain of running 100km, El Cruce could be the race for you. A three-day stage race, the route changes every year as it takes runners across the Andes between Chile and Argentina. Mountains, volcanoes, forests, lakes, valleys – you name it, you run through it.
Next race 5-10 February 2013

Hardmoors 100, England

The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is one of the qualifying races for the Hardmoor 100 which should give you an idea of what you’re in for. It follows the Cleveland Way around the North York, Moors giving you acres of heather moorland as a backdrop before hitting the coast. There is 6,000 metres of uphill, while the organisers round down the distance – the route is actually 110 miles …
Next race: 24 May 2013

Swiss Iron Trail

A good one if you fancy giving mountain ultras a go but don’t want to commit to a life threatening distance. With the Iron Trail you can choose between four ranging from 25km and 1,860 metres of climbing to 201km and 10,750 metres of climbing. The setting is the Swiss Alps, taking in pretty towns and peaks such as Arosa, St Moritz and the Weisshorn.
Next race: 23-25 August 2013 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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