Will Birkett on his Wales Classic Rock Record Interview

© Will Birkett

On 28 May, Will Birkett completed an unsupported North Wales Classic Rock Round, running between the climbs. He completed all 21 Welsh routes featured in Ken Wilson's book 'Classic Rock' in 21 hours 45 minutes. The round involved around 60 miles of running with 135 pitches (2335m) of climbing. Rob Greenwood caught up with Will to discuss training and tactics...

How does the North Wales Classic Rock Challenge differ to the Lake District Classic Rock Challenge?

In theory they're the same challenge: complete all the Classic Rock routes on foot without external support within 24 hours, but the substance of the two rounds is vastly different. The Lake District hills are easier to run over as you're never far away from some sort of well-trodden path. On the other hand, running over the Welsh hills and trying to link up all these crags is really hard work. Half the time you're not on or near paths — you simply cross over them and continue to the next objective. I suppose this adds a sense of being slightly more esoteric and out in the sticks, but you're still never over a few hours from a road. The next big difference and what feels like the elephant in the room when looking at this round on a map is the 30 miles to Will o' the Wisp from Tremadog.

Will Birkett on his North Wales Classic Rock round.  © Will Birkett
Will Birkett on his North Wales Classic Rock round.
© Will Birkett

As a result of the distances between the routes, it's historically been done (on the few occasions it has been) with a bike on the long sections - why did you decide to do it all on foot? 

I like to push myself and this seemed like the next obvious step after the Lakes Classic Rock to really get involved in a project that allowed me to experience both climbing and running. It also opened the door to Wales in a completely new way as I'd never normally go there to run. It's a beautiful place and it was a delight to head down there on consecutive weekends, get up at 5 a.m. and go playing in a new territory all day. Using a bike just didn't appeal to me as you're almost guaranteed to complete it in that style. The true challenge to me seemed to be in the running.    

You've described getting into running as something that threw you down into "a rabbit hole I never knew existed". How have you found balancing both climbing and running?

To be honest it's been a bumpy road. If I look back to when I was 21 and around those years, I just lived to climb. It's all I really thought about outside of work, and to be honest I had a slightly unhealthy relationship with climbing in the sense that I would purposely not eat much to stay light, which became a bit detrimental in the long term. Then when Covid hit I'd just returned from a back to back trip, America then Spain, so I was climbing pretty well at the start of 2020. Then over the cause of that year I ended up running loads, not following a strict diet and putting a fair bit of weight on. Two years on and I've had to reinvent my entire life style, diet and training, but I'm slowly crawling back to a level of climbing I'd consider OK. It was a fairly mind-blowing experience to go so far backwards at climbing so fast after putting so much into it for all those years, yet my running just blew up and every week I was just getting better. I've had to get disciplined to do them simultaneously.  

Flying Buttress on the Cromlech.   © Will Birkett
Flying Buttress on the Cromlech.
© Will Birkett

What sort of training did you do in order to build up to it?

It wasn't anything special to be honest. I stay pretty fit most of the time, so I didn't have to tone up my training. If anything I toned my usual schedule down so I wasn't tired at the weekend and I could go and practise the different legs. After six weeks of doing massive loops around Wales I soon built up some running endurance, but it was a brilliant process. At one point I wasn't sure that I could do it under 24 hours and the feeling when I finally realised for the first time that "it was on" was exhilarating.    

Before the big day, how many of the routes - and how much of the ground in between - had you managed to recce?

So I had managed to climb all the routes at least once and the more troublesome ones I had practised a few more times. Nia was the route that got the most attention. I chose to downclimb it and enter Llanberis Pass via that route, but its hard to find the top when you're running over from the Ogwen Valley and even more difficult to downclimb with a heavyish bag on. In the end it took me 9 minutes from top to bottom. I'd also done Red/Avalanche/Long twice before the send date, both times I'd gotten completely lost and had a mini epic but was confident I wouldn't mess up again. I'd also never looked at running off the top and down to the main road, so that was just making it up on the fly. Luckily it went smoothly.

Running to Dinas Mot, down from the Cromlech.  © Will Birkett
Running to Dinas Mot, down from the Cromlech.
© Will Birkett

I only ran the last 30 miles two weeks before running the round, as I didn't want to hassle anyone for a lift from Will o' the Wisp to Tremadog. I drove down Friday night, slept down at Will o' the Wisp, got up early Saturday and cycled my crusty old mountain bike to Tremadog then dumped it and ran back. The rest of it I had done a few times; the Ogwen and Llanberis legs were easy to practise as you can loop back to the van easy enough, but to practise running along the road to Tremadog was an out and back trip. 

When it comes to the routes themselves, they're actually a little easier than the ones on the Lake District Classic Rock Challenge, but there's more of them. How would you say they compare?

The Wales routes feel much more gruelling. For example, there are three massive routes on Tryfan, each is around VDiff and it takes 45 mins of flat-out climbing to tick them off, and that's just 3 out of 21 routes. In some ways the Wales round just feels like more of an adventure. Most Classic Rock Routes are 3 star classics and all in the selective guide — not Great Gully though, the route I started on, it has 0 stars and is all but impossible to find in most guidebooks. Personally I thought it was a fun gully climb, but I can see how people have epics on it.

Both the Lakes and Wales rounds have some pretty epic ticks. The Lakes routes are classics to climb; you have to think about them as they're a little more pokey and you get taken into some wild positions. That being said, the Welsh routes are classic because of their exposure and atmosphere, but less so for their individual moves or sequences.         

What are the bogey routes on the list (if any)?

I ended up climbing most of the routes when they were wet on practice recces, but Main Wall was really not fun when I was first up there. It had lots of wet seeping patches - which I had no choice but to climb through - and a fair bit of loose rock too, just when I thought I'd escaped, one of the last holds I had as an undercling started to pull out as I rocked up on it... not pleasant.

The Cracks on Dinas Mot.  © Will Birkett
The Cracks on Dinas Mot.
© Will Birkett

What were the toughest stretches of running - was it the more technical mountainous terrain or the longer flatter sections linking Tremadog and Craig Cywarch?

I was dreading the road miles when I first looked at this round, but saw it as a novelty as I never choose to road run normally. To my surprise running on the road is actually pretty easy; it just became all about having a good head game towards the end, especially in the dark running towards cars speeding towards me at 60+ miles an hour when I still had 6 hours more to go.

The fells are what I'm used to and what I normally run on. Working out the rough terrain comes second nature now, but it never feels that easy, you always have to pump your legs to get anywhere fast.      

You started at 4:30 a.m, heading up to Craig yr Ysfa for the crag's infamous 'Great Gully'. Were its wet walls a rude awakening or was it just nice to get going?!

Ha, Great Gully just reminds me of a misspent youth in the Lake District. Scrambling up steep overgrown gullies is what we call fun. I was buzzing going up that first route, almost laughing at what a ridiculous thing I was doing early on a Saturday morning.     

Heading over to Tryfan, you didn't have ideal conditions, with strong winds and cloud on the tops. How were the routes in this condition and how was navigating between?

Definitely the worst weather of the day! The cloud had not burned off yet so the rock felt clammy and damp for the most part. Navigating off Tryfan was really not fun as I did get off-track and disorientated in the mist. Luckily I found my way but I did have to run through scenarios of how long would I waste before calling the round off.    

After completing Direct Route on Glyder Fach you headed over and across into the Llanberis Pass, where you were met by fellow Cumbrian James McHaffie (aka. Caff), who joined you for a few routes. Was it nice to have someone with you for a while after the early (and probably quite lonely) start?

It was such a moral boost for Caff to come out. Originally I was thinking it would be cool to have a different person accompanying me for each of the legs, but this proved hard to organise as people had various commitments and I was waiting for a weather window. Caff coming out definitely broke up the tedium and boosted the psyche. He also got a bunch of photos, which was great as I only managed a selfie just as the sun went down.       

Will completed all 21 routes in 21 hours 45 minutes.  © Will Birkett
Will completed all 21 routes in 21 hours 45 minutes.
© Will Birkett

In your write-up on Facebook it sounds like you changed into climbing shoes for Nea. What percentage of routes did you do in climbing vs. running shoes?

I changed into my Boostics for probably 2/3 of the climbs. It was just a time vs comfort equation. On something like Great Gully there was no point putting rock shoes on as the climbing was mainly wet bridging, but something like Nia would feel way too sketchy to downclimb relatively fast without rock shoes. You need the security and sensitivity they provide to climb fast sometimes, but on other routes like Red/Avalanche Wall I only put my rock shoes on near the top of the climb as it's 12 pitches long and most of it is easy. In short I'd only put them on if I felt I'd be losing time without them, as my feet were quite sore.        

It sounded like your first (and second) impressions of Lliwedd were pretty mixed. Can you tell us about these impressions and the importance of recceing the routes in the challenge?

Lliwedd is an amazing crag. It's uber iconic, sat right beside Snowdon, but the guidebook description and photos were pretty terrible — especially on my phone screen as I stand on crumbling mud 40m above the deck. The first time I looked for it I was on the wrong buttress. I saw a fixed static line hanging down the crag, so I thought maybe a guide had rigged it to take clients up there. So I kept following this rope and the route kept getting way less classic. I'm not sure at what point I realised I'd messed up. My interpretation of the guide was not good. I downclimbed back to the floor and then found the correct route a long way away from where I had been. The second time I got lost was over a month later and just before I did the round in full. I climbed up to a completely wrong ledge and had to revaluate my route-finding ability.

As the morning went by the cloud lifted it developed into a very hot day - how did you cope with the conditions (particularly through the valley section towards Tremadog - it must have been roasting!!)?

It was so hot and I hadn't applied any sun cream that morning so the risk of getting burnt was really high, but even worse in the short term there was a massive risk of getting dehydrated. I spend the majority of my time outside, be it working or playing, and this was not the first time I'd been alone on a long run in potentially hazardous conditions. I feel quite aware of my threshold for hardship and although uncomfortable running in that kind of heat, it was within tolerance. My ridiculous hi-vis windproof also doubles up as a great sun blocker and drinking 750ml of water with an electrolyte tablet in at least every 60 minutes allowed me to keep plugging away.  

Arriving at Tremadog, you reached your food stash and the company of friends Rachel and George. Can you tell us why you opted for this approach/style (i.e. meeting friends + stashed gear vs. completely solo + carrying everything)?

It was funny because George and Rachel thought I'd be way slower than I was. I'd messaged them from the top of Y Lliwedd then turned my phone off to save battery, so as I ran past the main cliffs at Tremadog I heard a shout from above somewhere, "Will!" There were loads of climbers out that day and I couldn't tell which one just shouted my name, so I threw a hand up and kept on running, they finished whatever they were climbing and met me as I ran through town after I'd climbed Creagh Dhu Wall.      

To me the challenge is to complete the round unaided and on foot in 24 hours. I'd rather not have stashed food at Tremadog, but carrying an extra 3000 calories from start to finish is a significant increase in weight so I settled for leaving one stash of food at Tremadog, which marks the end of the North Wales climbs. It seemed silly to say no to friends who were in the area and wanted to come out and get some photos or whatever. Having people pop up along the way broke up the tedium a little and was another way I could verify that I'd done the round.   

Descending in the dark.  © Will Birkett
Descending in the dark.
© Will Birkett

On the note of style, something else you did was track it all on Strava, which (presumably) was to ratify your successful completion of the round. Do you think that this is something that has become necessary in the modern day and age, where proof (as opposed to someone's word) is now required?

I actually messed up using my GPS watch when I did a Bob Graham round in October 2020. It ran for almost 22 hours in ultra track mode. I wrongly assumed it would still be up to the challenge this time, but as it turned out batteries degrade and somewhere around 15 hours the battery died. I've since got myself an updated version with a solar panel in for next time. I had witnesses at Tremadog and Will o' the Wisp and 100s of cars driving past a head torch running down the main road through the middle of the night, so I'm confident in the way it was recorded, although it would have been better if the battery didn't die.          

I think in today's world it's so accessible to get hold of a GPD tracker, why wouldn't you record it? When Tom [Randall] and I were gunning for the Lakes Classic Rock round, we both had trackers on each time we did it and when it came down to it there was solid proof of our routes and times.

I'm aware that your watch died. It died pretty late on, and as/when it did you had witnesses, so it feels pretty robust as far as proof is required.

After leaving Tremadog you made the long and (what looks to be quite unpleasant) journey to Craig Cywarch, which features a whole lot of road. Did you wonder whether or not a bike might have been a good idea at this point?!

A car would have been better than a bike! But I'd set out to compete this challenge by running and I was only doing it to challenge myself. I don't think anybody else really cares about some obscure climbing/ultra marathon hybrid round.     

At your final route, Wil o' the Wisp, you were met by George Sanderson (in the very, very early hours of the morning). How was it seeing someone again - and finishing the final route?

I was so unbelievably psyched to see George's head torch bobbing up towards me as I crested the hill. I was so knackered but somehow I found my legs again and ran down to meet him like an excited kid. I'd been alone for quite a long time by this point and had no signal, so wasn't entirely sure he would be there at 3 a.m. We topped out just as the first light began highlighting the mountain peaks.  

While the challenge itself was over, there was one final problem: getting your car back. Can you tell us about your somewhat epic journey back into the Ogwen Valley?

It turned into its own ordeal, standing on a roadside for hours trying to hitchhike back to North Wales. One woman picked me up and drove me 10 minutes down the road and after that 4 hours went by without a chance of a ride. Then a thunderstorm rolled in and I ended up sheltering under a relatively porous bush with my bag held over my head. This was a low point of the experience as my legs were quite sore and didn't feel fit for this kind of situation. Luckily Tim Blake made a monumental drive to pick me up and drop me off at my van, so I found a café to sit in for an hour and waited for him to pick me up.

Having now completed the challenge, how did the reality of it compare to your expectations?

It always feels quite underwhelming when you actually achieve something; the process is always more fun than the outcome in my experience. In a way I was preparing to be driven into the ground by this challenge, so when everything went smoothly my mind straight away started breaking everything down and working out where I messed up and how I could have done it faster.    

As always, it wouldn't be an interview if I didn't sign off with the following, unimaginative question, which is - what next?!

Getting fit for upcoming climbing trips is my main priority right now. I'm still feeling a bit fatigued from the round, so it's slow and steady until I'm back to full fitness.   

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