In September 2022 James Nobles won the brutal Montane Dragon’s Back Race, a six-day 380km challenge stretching from Conwy Castle in North Wales to Cardiff Castle in the South.
Nobles had not been leading the race until day five, but as others around him began to fall away the he held firm to claim a magnificent victory, finishing in a total time of 50:40:23.
Now, the Senior Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University has given an insight into how he won one of the world’s toughest multi-day events, and what he plans to do in the near future, including taking on the Bob Graham Round and next year’s Spine Race.
The appeal of a big feat
It was only in 2016 that running graduated from a hobby to a passion for Nobles, as he told the Tea & Trails podcast (embedded below), and his route to Dragon’s Back glory only started a few years after that.
“I went and helped a friend on his Bob Graham Round,” Nobles explained, “I think that’s a really good introduction to longer distance, almost team-based running with a lot of camaraderie around it.
“Ever since then I’ve just been hooked; 2019 I had a go at the Bob Graham round, spent a good six months training up for it and got around in quite a respectable time.
“The year after that I did the Paddy Buckley round and then last year I did the Lakeland 50, the Charlie Ramsey Round before that and then the Dragon’s Back.”
Other than the Lakeland 50, in which he came seventh, Nobles admits he had relatively little experience racing going into the 2022 Dragon’s Back.
But the Welsh race enticed him in a way other events didn’t.
“I’d done more on the rounds and set hefty personal challenges,” he explained. “It was only because of a few friends talking a lot about the Dragon’s Back and having volunteered for the Dragon’s Back that I thought this is quite a big feat and it really appealed to me because of that.
“I gave myself a year to train for it and then put everything out on the table.”
“I wasn’t going into it thinking I can win this”
And so it was he found himself joining up with his fellow would-be-Dragon-slayers in 2022.
“When I went into the Dragon’s Back I only knew of Simon Roberts really,” Nobles said, speaking about the 2021 Dragon’s Back winner. “I wasn’t going into it thinking I can win this, I wanted to give it everything I can and if I came out with a top five or three I’d be really happy with that.
“I thought day one, I’m just going to get a feel of what his [Roberts] pace felt like and set off with him.
“He developed a bit of a gap between the two of us, but I was quite comfortable hanging back. There was no point emptying the tank on day one, because the chances of recovering that night to then go and do it again the day after is just slim.
“You’ve got this continual attrition in the Dragon’s Back. For me it was more about just get through and make sure I have more to give on the following days.”
One of the main features of the Dragon’s Back race as a multi-day event is the camp, in which all competitors eat, sleep and wash together before setting out for the next day’s leg.
“You hear the camp come to life at about 4 o’clock in the morning,” Nobles explained, “it’s a real spectacle to see what the camp looks like and how everyone is faring.
“The camp is where there is an awful lot of camaraderie and friendship building- the camp life is just as good as doing the running itself.”
“I was just waiting for him to come”
As the days went on, Nobles found himself oscillating between second and third in the standings – but on day five everything would change, and not in the way he expected.
“Day five, I knew Simon knew the Brecon Beacons exceptionally well,” Nobles explained, “he put the burners on that day and I didn’t really try to keep with him.”
But soon Roberts’ dreams of back to back titles collapsed when an injury became too much, and Nobles found himself in a strong position as fellow title rival Chris Cope began to fall away with injury.
“I think he [Roberts} called it a day at Fan y Big,” Nobles said, “It was at the end of that day when Simon had dropped out and Chris Cope had slowed down a bit that I was in first place.
“The last day was a racing start so I started at 6am and I was just waiting for him [Cope] to come behind me.”
But Cope never passed him, nor did anyone else. Nobles raced home along the concrete trails of day six, wearing the same shoes he had worn for “basically the whole week,” to take the win.
“That last day was the hardest one of all of them,” he said, “I just had to keep a constant good pace going.
“For me mentally, that was the most difficult day.”
For some, being ‘in the zone’ is a requirement for having a successful race. But as Nobles explained, nothing could make him resist the pull of a good chat as he trekked his way down Wales.
“I don’t know if I take it seriously enough [the racing],” he laughed, “I take the training and prep seriously, but when I’m in these events I chat a lot to people.”
“I do a lot of talking because I just like being out in the mountains with like-minded people, I don’t typically stress when I’m doing the event.”
But despite his relaxed attitude during the race, a lot of planning went into his win, mainly to avoid forgetting important steps or prevent himself from becoming too complacent, including starting each day as early as he could and powering himself with food.
His secret weapon? Baby food.
“It’s a really weird thing the start line of each day of the Dragon’s Back,” Nobles explained. “It’s just me and that’s it, there’s no one else starting with you.
“You could almost fall into a complacent approach where you just tootle off. The start line was almost a non-event really.
“I planned calories more than anything: I planned to be out for a max of 10 hours a day, so I planned for about 3000 calories a day and I had an alert set on my watch for every half an hour and I was always eating something.
“I had quite a mix of foods, so I had lots of gels, I had quite a few bars and lots of baby food – I never knew what I was going to get out of my bag but I knew there were calories in there.
“The baby food was the winner for me – whenever I got one of those out, I knew that was a good point of the day.
“I was a loser with the admin. I made an A4 piece of paper which had tick boxes to make sure I did X, Yand Z.
“It even had things like ‘go to the toilet in the morning’.”
Nobles is father to a newborn, but that hasn’t stopped him plotting out his next runs as he looks towards future races and challenges.
“I’ve signed up to the Northern Traverse at the beginning of April, so the training has properly begun for that now,” he explained.
“I feel like my body is in quite a good place at the moment so I’m hoping that I can train hard for that and compete for that one.
“I’m going to have another go at the Bob Graham Round in the summer. I just want to see if I am fitter and stronger than I used to be, it’s all conditions dependent but I would like to really give it everything I’ve got.
“The Spine Race next winter will be the main one for me. I’m trying to line things up for that.”