Sheffield-based Lisa Watson was hoping to get round the gruelling Dragon's Back Race last month - she never expected to top the female podium. One of the world's toughest mountain races, it's a 315 km, five-day journey along the spine of Wales from North to South. We find out more about Lisa, how the race went, and her tips for anyone thinking of entering next year. She's definitely one to watch.
The conditions were perfect for race week - sunny, patchy cloud, no rain, low wind and only one or two patches of hill fog. Wearing mostly shorts and a t-shirt, Lisa surprised herself by moving steadily up through the rankings as the week unfolded. Sabrina Verjee, a Berghaus-sponsored athlete who came second female in the 2017 Dragon's Back Race, was in the lead for most of the race — then Lisa finished Day 4 just 73 seconds ahead of her.
That meant a nail-biting finish on Day 5. Knowing that Sabrina would be setting off just seconds behind her, Lisa gave the race everything she had left. She finished first female, in a cumulative time of 44 hours, 33 minutes and 23 seconds: the third-fastest female time ever. The male winner was Canada's Galen Reynolds.
Lisa Watson: My least favourite stage was day 2. I love the Rhinogs but they are tough. The climbs felt hard and food didn’t seem to be helping much. I was hoping to catch someone up to chat away the miles but I ended up spending a big portion of this section on my own. Eventually Dan Murdoch caught me up and we ran off Diffwys together. I couldn’t keep up with Dan for the torturous 8km road section at the end, though, so it took a lot of will power to push through that. The thought of a shower at the campsite and cheers from my friend Lucy at the toll bridge spurred me on!
My favourite stage was day 3 - while intimidatingly long it’s much more runnable than the earlier, rocky stages. I also stopped holding back on the descents - I love running downhill but had previously been trying to save my quads. I felt a bit ill running through Machynlleth but a quick pit stop in the Co-op sorted me out and I then ran the second half with Andrew Jones. It was awesome to have some company and, as we pushed each other to run quickly, the miles flew by.
Day 3 has beautiful mountain scenery but is strangely less-visited than Snowdonia. The terrain is much more like the Peak District, where I’ve done most of my training. The heathery tussocks suit me - I can move fast over them. It was also the day I realised I might do quite well.
As I’d never done anything this challenging before, my aim was just to run my best, enjoy myself and get to the end still smiling. On days 3 and 4 I became aware I was gaining time on Sabrina Verjee, who was the leading lady. However, as I generally started before her each morning (out of fear that the wheels would come off or I’d make a nav error) I didn’t see her much and, until the end of Day 4, the race just felt like a personal challenge to run as well as I could.
Race nerves kicked in when I realised I was in the lead and there would be a chasing start on day 5. Then Carol Morgan (female winner of the 2017 Dragon’s Back) came over to tell me that Sabrina had finished just 73 seconds behind me on Day 4. That meant that she would also start 73 secs behind me on day 5, so whoever got to the end first would be the winner. I get really bad race nerves so this made me feel pretty sick and I struggled to eat much.
Sabrina is an amazing, experienced athlete so it felt weird that I would be racing her directly. Some lovely chats with my tent-mates and other friends at the event reminded me that I should just do what I had been doing all along: enjoy myself and try my best.
Adrenalin from being chased got me running fast on day 5. I really enjoy pushing myself and seeing what my body can do but I prefer when it comes from within rather than being chased! Once we were back into the mountains I forgot about the competition, gave day 5 everything I had left and loved it.
Lisa with her enormous Dragon Trophy. Photo: Bodil Oudshoorn
Previously, I’ve done more personal challenges than races - the biggest was a continuous self-propelled Munro round in 2017. My friend and I set a new fastest-known female time of 77 days. We wanted to inspire more women to go out and do challenges like this and it’s really exciting that there have been several female attempts since.
In terms of races, over the past year I've done a few locally in the Peak District. I was 2nd female (9th overall) at 9 Edges, 1st female team (4th overall) in the High Peak Marathon, 1st female (21st overall) at the Edale Skyline and 1st female team (2nd overall) and new female CR at The Four Inns.
The kit I most appreciated on the race was poles. Also a cap and suncream. Having a lightweight waterproof (I used the Alpkit Gravitas) offered peace of mind, too. Fortunately it was a really dry week so I spent most of it in a T-shirt and shorts, and there was no faff with layers.
One thing I would pack if I ran the race again is a small cool bag. My tent-mate Joe Faulkner had one is in his overnight pack which meant he could keep a lot more cheese and tomatoes and other savoury food.
My luxury item - a jar of Nutella - came home untouched. I got sick of sweet stuff. And they had Nutella in the catering tent anyway!
I definitely want to enter more events. I think stage races suit me as I recover well overnight. I spent a year training for the Dragon's Back. I'd need to find something that inspires me on the same level, so I need to do some searching. I’m also keen to do some more ultras.
Day 3 (71km) is the furthest I’ve ever run but I’m sure I can push that distance now. I’m also interested to see how I fare at a non-stop race but the idea of tactical sleeping terrifies me. I’m also starting to dream up some personal challenges, but I’m not going to commit to anything just yet so… watch this space.
More about Lisa on her blog: beautiesandthebog.com
More about the Dragon's Back Race here: berghausdragonsbackrace.com
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