Steve Birkinshaw talks about racing in the legendary Dragon's Back Race

We recently caught up with Steve to chat about his up coming entry in the legendary Dragon’s Back race.

Hi Steve. We’ll come on to your impressive list of racing achievements soon but could you explain how you got in to competitive running and orienteering?
I started orienteering when I was 7. My brother and older sister were going round courses by themselves so I was also determined to go round by myself. I would get lost loads and there were lots of tears but as long as I completed the course I would be happy. My navigation gradually improved and I competed at a top level throughout the junior age groups coming 33rd in the world junior championship. But I always excelled over the longer, rougher courses so I really enjoyed fell racing and mountain marathons. When Adventure Racing started my endurance and navigation ability meant I also excelled at this sport.

Can you give us an idea of some of the races you’ve competed in?
I have competed at a top level in a range of sports, including: orienteering, mountain marathons, fell running, adventure racing and ultra running. Some of my successes have been:

• 7 times winner of KIMM/OMM elite
• Winner of elite at the following mountain marathons: Saunders, Mourne, Lowe Alpine, Rab and Arctic
• Winner Lakeland 100 (UTLD) – 105 mile trail race
• 2 times winner British Adventure Racing Champs
• 7th World Adventure Racing Champs
• Winner Hebridean Challenge
• British 35+ Orienteering Champion
• British Night Orienteering Champion
• Bob Graham Round (17:09) 6th fastest
• Charlie Ramsay round (21:02) 6th fastest -fastest solo round
• Paddy Buckley round (20:27) 5th fastest
• Adidas Terrex Adventure Race winner

That’s a pretty impressive list of achievements, what is your proudest running achievement?
My seven wins in the KIMM/OMM is my greatest achievement. This is the mountain marathon that everyone wants to win so to have done it seven times is amazing.

You work (nearly) full-time. Could you explain your job and how you balance training with work?
I work as a research scientist at Newcastle University. My job is a hydrologist which basically involves understanding and explaining how water travels through the ground and into rivers. My boss at the university is flexible as to where I work as he knows I will get the work done. This means I can work at home (in the Lake District) most of the time and this allows me to go running during the day and fit my work around it. Running as training is also a very efficient use of time, I can go for a 1 hour hard fell run and come back exhausted and quickly be ready to start work again.

As well as work you also have a family. How do you juggle competing interests and does it ever cause problems?
I have a wife (Emma) and three children: James (8), Matthew (6) and Hannah (3). Emma also used to compete at a top level in orienteering, mountain marathons and fell running but had to stop due to injuries. So she is very supportive and understanding of my running. She also knows that if I do not go out running I get grumpy and frustrated, whereas if I do go out running I come back happy.
The Dragon’s Back clashes with Hannah’s first week of school. It was a really difficult decision to miss this and do the race but Emma was supportive of me doing the race.
Since we have had children I have modified my sporting interest. Before then I was seriously involved in Adventure Racing doing races in other countries and with lots of mountain biking, kayak training etc. Since we have had children I have concentrated on running as it is a much more efficient use of time and I rarely do any races outside the Lake District. There are plenty of fell races and orienteering races in the Lake District to keep me happy.

The Dragon’s Back has an almost legendary status after a gap of 20 years. What is it that motivates you personally to compete in such a gruelling race?
I enjoy racing against other people and I also enjoy long days running out on the fells – the rougher and longer the better. So the Dragons Back is the perfect race for me. There will also be a navigation element in the Dragons Back, finding the best lines between the checkpoints will be really important and I really enjoy and excel at this aspect.

Races over such long distances that require constant concentration must be difficult to prepare for mentally. How do you go about getting your mind in shape for the challenge?
Before the race it is a matter of doing the hours of training. But I also have a long background of endurance races and training so I know I have the ability to complete this sort of race. Mentally it is harder during the race; there will be high points and low points. Getting through the low points is tough, but again, having done it before gives me the strength to carry on at those points knowing that I will eventually start to feel better again.

Thanks Steve and the very best of luck for the race. You can keep up to date with Steve’s latest blogs on our athlete blog area.

You can also read a Q&A with Helene Whitaker who is also a Berghaus sponsored athlete in the Dragon’s Back, and also won the original race 20 years ago here.