18 September, 2012

Steve Birkinshaw – Winning the Dragon’s Back Race Part 1

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Athlete Blogs and News, Steve Birkinshaw, The Dragons Back Race

Steve Birkinshaw – Winning the Dragon’s Back Race Part 1

I arrived in Conwy on the Sunday afternoon after a relaxing drive down with Helene (winner with Martin Stone 20 years ago). I had a hotel room in Llandudno, which was great as it was away from all the other competitors and their stresses and anxieties. I spent a couple of hours sorting out my kit then went off to register and go to the race briefing and a talk about the race 20 years ago by Martin Stone. Registration and the briefing were very smooth and I felt relaxed and excited to go. Shane Ohly (Race Director) told us that we were doing a longer day 1 and a shorter day 5 than 20 years ago. But I knew the course was different from 20 years ago, all that mattered was doing the course I was given as fast as possible. More importantly he said we were doing the Welsh 3000’s (i.e. every 3000 ft peak in Wales). This meant a lot of ridge running and not much water and with a hot day forecast it was already clear that this would be important.

At 7am we left Conwy castle the next morning to start the race. We had dropped off our bags 40 minutes earlier. In those 40 minutes I drank another bottle of water and gave the empty bottle to a friendly marshall.  I also needed the toilet but I had a bit of a sneaky plan – the timing only started at the end of the castle walls. I sprinted off at 7am on the sound of the gun and went straight to the visitor centre toilets. I joined the rest of the competitors at the back and so started a couple of minutes after the fastest runners. After about 30 minutes I had caught up with the leading guys and I felt great. So I continued at a fast (probably too fast) pace – I did not want everyone following me all day. We passed a stream before the first checkpoint I drank my water, filled my bottle up and splashed some more over my head. By the time we reached the 3rd checkpoint I slowed down a little and let the three guys just behind catch up.

With me were Rob Baker, Mark Palmer and Jim Mann – three of the guys I knew would be potential winners of the race. Jim had the wrong shoes and struggled on the contouring leg to Yr Elen so on the final peak (Pen Yr Ole) before the Ogwen Lake there were just 3 of us. We decided to take the easterly route as it was more gentle and had a stream part way down. We reached the bag drop together. It was really hot down there. The marshalls sprayed us with water and gave us water to drink. I had two litres to drink, filled my water bottle, grabbed my food bag and was off first. Luckily I found the tourist path up Tryfan and as I climbed I started to feel stronger as the food and drink got into my system. I reached the summit but with no sign of Rob and Mark, they had chosen another slower way.

Coming off Tryfan i was cramping up but I was taking electrolyte tablets so I thought it would not get any worse. I could not see the path to the top of Glyder Fach so I just went up the Bristly Ridge (a v.diff rock climb), which was quite enjoyable with the dry rock. The ridge along to Eldir Fawr I had done before on my Paddy Buckley round but there was more climb than I had remembered. Eventually I reached Eldir Fawr, I could see someone around 20 minutes behind me. I ran along the ridge a bit and found some nice scree and then a path to the road at the bottom. It was a couple of miles along the Lllanberis pass road and the major climb up to Crib Goch. There was a nice river on the climb to keep me cool and to get some more drink. But I was struggling and climbing slowly. I was not sure of the way up but eventually I could see the col between Crib goch and Garnedd Ugain and I headed for that. I was getting very wobbly at this stage and only climbing at around 10m/minute but I pushed on hard.

Eventually I reached the col and continued along the ridge to the summit. I had never been on Crib Goch before and although I knew it was rocky, I was surprised how difficult it was. I tried following the ridge but had to retrace my steps a couple of times when I reached some big drops. I quickly realised the best route was off to the south side of the ridge. Eventually I reached the checkpoint and I could see Rob Baker just below me coming up the north ridge. This spurred me into action and I returned to the col along a much better line and up to the summit of Snowdon. I passed Mark Palmer on the way who had taken a bad route choice to Crib Goch. I was shattered but luckily I can descend quite fast however tired I am.

The descent was a long way but eventually I reached the road and the last mile to the finish of day 1. I was completely exhausted but I knew refuelling as soon as possible was vitally important. I was weighed (as part of a nutrition study) and I had lost 4.5 kg, I clearly needed to get a lot of fluid inside me. I had some tea and soup and lay down on my air mat. I do not really remember much of the next three hours – I tried to drink more and the doctor came round to check i was OK but I did not move much.  Rob Baker came in 23 minutes after me and then Sam Smith about 50 minutes after me, followed by Mark Palmer over an hour after me. Clearly this tough long day was causing everyone to suffer. The rest of the evening I ate as much as I could and then tried to go to sleep in a tent which I shared with Rob. Unfortunately sleep did not really come, as soon as I lay down there was really bad pain in my knees, lower legs and ankles – the pain moving all the time but always sore. The caffeine I had been taking all afternoon also seemed to keep me awake. But at least I was lying down resting.

Read Part 2.

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