Reporting by Rob Howard / www.SleepMonsters.com
Just for today Carreg Cennen castle has an extra tourist attraction to go with the ancient ruins and panoramic views for which it is famous. The Dragon’s Back race has moved in for the afternoon and among the earliest runners to arrive were the race winners Steve Birkinshaw and Helene Whitaker.
First to run up the steep, steep hill and climb the steps into the compact castle ruins was Ian Symington who has been one of the fastest runners for the past 3 days of racing. He ran strongly across the finish line then walked away from the cameramen and marshals to gather his thoughts for a moment and perhaps shed a tear. He was emotional thinking of what might have been. “It is good to finish,” he said, “but in a way it’s all for nothing as I didn’t run day two. I was really sick after day one and just could not start the second day.”
The second runner in was the overall winner, Steve Birkinshaw, who has been a class apart and a convincing winner. Just behind him was Rob Baker, who is also a clear second, but he acknowledged Birkinshaw’s mastery. “He is a great runner, but it is more than that. Every line he takes saves a few steps and he makes decisions quickly. When he eats, drinks and stops he is so efficient, very professional.”
Birkinshaw sat down on one of the low stone walls when he’d crossed the line and answered questions from the assembled media. When he was asked if he do it again he just laughed and said to ask him again in a few weeks, adding; “I hope I don’t have to wait another 20 years if I do!” He has suffered from severe blisters the past few days, but showed no signs of letting that slow him down and said the best thing about the race was “running with Rob”. Baker didn’t reciprocate – Birkinshaw had been too hard to keep up with!
Birkinshaw said his adventure race experience had been a help. “It’s the only other time I’ve raced over 5 days,” he said, “and you learn how to stay organised and manage yourself, especially when things are going badly.”
Mark Ford came in shortly after Baker, having joined the leaders to see what it was like to run with them – he said the main difference was the chasing pack only jogged the flats and downhills, but the two leaders managed to run up slight inclines and climbed more strongly.
The rest of the chasing group came in next with Patrick Devine Wright of Ireland crossing the line to take 3rd place and a very drawn and exhausted looking Helene Whitaker coming in to take 4th overall and win the ladies race. (The results are provisional at this stage.) She gave Steve Birkinshaw a hug and they congratulated each other on their wins.
For Whitaker it was a repeat of her triumph of 20 years ago, though this time she did not win outright. “I am glad it’s over she said, “and that I don’t have to do it again, but at least I’ve proved it was not a freak win all those years ago.” She said finishing here did bring back memories, but that this time; “I didn’t have to carry two rucksacks up that big hill at the finish or race in to the finish. In fact it was an easy day as 20 years ago the last day was the longest, and this time it was the shortest!”
Her achievement is one of the most extraordinary in endurance running. The first win has been much written about and described by some as one of the greatest runs ever, but to come back 20 years later and not only complete the race, but win, is perhaps an even greater achievement. And she has beaten most of the best male endurance runners again.
After the finish line photos inside the castle courtyard the runners made their way down to the new visitor centre to be greeted by Race Director Shane Ohly, and then to the camp in a field at the foot of the hill. Runners will be finishing throughout the rest of the day and the prize giving is tonight in the visitor centre at the castle.
Early results will be up on www.sportident.co.uk and a finish line photo gallery will be at http://www.sleepmonsters.com/racereport.php?page_action=gal&race_id=9939