Steve Birkinshaw – Winning the Dragon’s Back Race Part 2

By the second morning I was still 1kg down on my pre-race weight. Clearly I needed to make sure I did not get dehydrated. Luckily the morning was my favourite running conditions – wet and drizzly. I set off with Rob, last of the starters. We were both feeling tired and happy to go really steadily to start with. We passed lots of people on Cnicht and more climbing Moelwyn Mawr. But the drizzle stopped at this point and the sun came out. After this it was a long route choice leg to the bag drop point at Cwm Bychan at the bottom of the Roman Steps on the Rhinogs. I went straight and Rob went a long way east on the road around Lake Trawsfynydd. I was just leaving this transistion point when Rob turned up (a lead of around 3 minutes). A big group with Helene was also ten minutes in front and I was keen to catch them as I knew the route on the next section around the Rhinogs was difficult and Helene has reached some of it.

I gradually caught and passed Helene’s group and could see my lead on Rob was extending. On the last two summits I pushed hard and then it was just a long descent and then flat road section to the finish. I just about kept a good pace going but Rob had taken a few bad route choices and finished 27 minutes after me to give me an overall lead of 50 minutes. Helene had moved up into 3rd place 3 hours behind me. Clearly the race was between me and Rob but we were both very tired and wondering how we could cope with 3 more long days.

After another night’s bad sleep me and Rob again agreed to set off together.  This time we set off a lot slower and walked the steep climbs on the road. Eventually we reached the fell and had an enjoyable climb and then run along the ridge of Cadair Idris. A long flater section followed before a climb up to Tarrenhendre. Here leaning forward to fill my water bottle a grass reed went straight into my eye. This cut my contact lens into two and made my eye a bit sore. Oh well, i would have to manage with one good eye and one sore eye.

We tried to follow a none-existent path to Tarren Gesail.  Eventually we descended into Machynlleth. The final steep descent and the heat at this low level left me suddenly feeling exhausted. We stopped in the garage for some coke and a sandwich and continued to the bag drop point. After more food and drink we were off but it was clear that i was going slower than Rob, so he gradually got away from me. However, a dodgy bit of map enabled me to catch up. After this we stayed nearly together although Rob was running steadily, I would run fast for 100m and then walk. The big climb of Plynlimon was not as bad as I had expected and the first part of the descent from there to the finish was a perfect gentle angle.  I finished with Rob, so the positions between us had not changed but we had taken another hour out of Helene and the group around her. That night we camped in a barn, it was a bit rocky but at least we did not have to worry about dew in the morning.

I woke up the next morning feeling really rough. Muscles everywhere were hurting and my chest was tight. I was planning to start with Rob but I was ready first and shivering. So we agreed it was best that I should leave straight away. For this day I swapped my Inov-8 X-Talons for my Berghaus Limpet Claws. There was a lot of road/track running so I thought trail shoes would be better. Strangely as soon as I set off i felt great, I think it was because it was that bit cooler than the previous days. I kept looking back but there was no sign of Rob (maybe he had left a big gap before starting, I could not risk going slowly and letting him catch up, I had to go hard especially with the road sections which i knew rob would be stronger than me on).

I took a bad route choice and got stuck in some horrible terrain between Esgair Penygarreg and the Elan Village but Rob had not been through when I arrived. I decided to go on the road to the end of the reservoir. I hate running on roads but I thought it would be faster. The road was as horrible as I thought it was going to be. I was getting a lot of pain down my legs from my lower back and i had a new problem. I was getting really bad anterior shin splits (i.e the front of my leg just above my ankle was really sore). I enjoyed the rest of the day whilst I was climbing but the descents and the flat road sections were really painful. At least the last 8km on the road was up and down but I was very relieved to see the finish. There was a lovely cool river to swim in and put my sore leg in. Over an hour later, Rob ran in looking very tired, he had had a bad day and my lead was 2 hours. In most races that sort of lead would be impossible to loose but not in the Dragon’s Back. I knew how sore my leg was and if I had to walk significant parts of the route I could easily loose that two hours.

On the last day I again set off with Rob. We knew there was no point in racing. The injury was the only thing that would prevent me from winning and similarly there was a 3 hour gap behind Rob. We passed a lot of other runners (or walkers by this point in the race) and although I felt sore I knew it was nothing compared to many of these other guys – so it was time to shut up and get on with it. After 3 hours we reached the resupply point with Helene’s group (who had set off 20 minutes before us). After this it was a big climb up to 800m at Fan Brycheiniog. It was a pleasure walking up this mountain compared to the pain of my shin running on the tracks and roads. The ridge from there to the final checkpoint at Tair Carn Isaf was great running on another beautiful sunny day. The only problem was the lack of water. Soon we had descended from the final checkpoint to the river and were making our way up the final climb to Carreg Cennen Castle. I sprinted the last climb and crossed the line to win the Dragon’s Back Race 2012.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. A journey along the length of Wales over almost all the major peaks. As expected there were some amazing highs during the 5 days – in particular the views. On the Wednesday evening we even had time to stop for a minute on the top of Plynlimon (the highest mountain in that part of Wales) and appreciate the views. The low points for me were the feeling of dehydration creeping up on me on a couple of days and also that getting out of bed in the morning feeling, thinking about pushing my aching body through another day of running.

I would like to thank Berghaus for sponsoring me for the event and providing me with my running kit, rucksack and trail shoes and Inov-8 for providing me with my fell shoes. I would also like to thank Shane Ohly for having the courage and vision to put on this event after a gap of 20 years. All the other competitors were great – encouraging and supporting each other. In many ways I had it easy, I pushed it hard every day but I had the evening to recover. Those taking 15 hours a day finished in the dark ,then had to eat, sort out all their kit, get some sleep and get up early the next morning to do it all again. So congratulations should go out to everyone that finished this exceptionally tough race. The medical staff were great at checking I was OK and sorting out my blisters. Gareth’s Bowen sessions really seemed to help me recover. The other marshalls/volunteers were great – always happy, helpful and encouraging and the caterers provided great food all day,every day.

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