Our writer took on the gruelling Dragon’s Back Race so he could interview one of its most famous ever winners
Words by Mark Brightwell | Lead image, Neil Talbott tackling the infamous Crib Goch ridge, by Ian Corless
I’ve been running for five days and my body is breaking down. I’ve covered almost 300km and ascended nearly 15,000m by the time I hit the final range of hills, the Black Mountain of South Wales. They’re the final barrier between success and failure, completion and a DNF (Did Not Finish).
I lean heavily into my running poles, push hard through my shoulders and arms and try to find a way of moving which avoids the shin twinges, each one of which elicits an involuntary whimper of pure pain response. My head is strong but my body is failing. Will it last? Will it carry me to the finish? There is only one way to find out.
It’s 2017 and I am running the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, billed as the toughest five day race in the world. It’s an endurance challenge so gruelling that it was cancelled after its first iteration, partly out of fear for competitors’ safety, and wasn’t contested again for 20 years. Remarkably that first iteration was won outright by a woman, Helene Diamantides Whitaker, who took the trophy as part of a mixed pairing with Martin Stone back in 1992.
“My physical capacities are regularly surpassed by women and my ego has learned that that’s ok”
For most of this year’s 232 starters this is as much a journey as a race: a personal quest or challenge – the value derived from the uncertainty of the outcome. For Helene, Martin and the other elite pairs on the start line back in 1992 there was less doubt however: “It was definitely going to be a race. Just knowing who was involved; we all wanted to win. It was never not going to be a race,” says Helene, laughing.
And what a race it was. Remarkably, in a field of around a hundred, of which only three were women, it was the mixed pair of Diamantides and Stone, after much trading of position, that took the finish line. For TV show Trans World Sport this was great: “If another man had won another long race it wouldn’t have been as interesting.”
But Helene didn’t necessarily think it was anything unusual. She says: “I was aware that Sarah Rowell had won The Seven Sisters Marathon outright. I’d run a few of the big rounds in the fastest overall times, so I guess it was outsiders looking in that took most interest in the gender thing. I knew women were winning outright…
“I think if you’re good enough to be there, it doesn’t matter whether you are in your sixties or female. The good thing about fell running is that everyone stands on the start line and does the same thing in the same conditions on that day.”
But it wasn’t always so. Growing up in Greece, Helene describes an environment where women weren’t allowed to do anything that involved sweating, let alone stand on the same start line as men and embark on an endurance test in which being aggressive and competitive were essential to success. She recalls her father being asked how many children he had.
“I have two daughters,” he replied
“No, how many sons?” came the response.
Luckily Helene’s father did not think like the person who asked him that question, and encouraged his daughters to pursue their goals – a progressive outlook that saw Helene study at Durham University, where she discovered fell running.
“That was just about the time that women were being allowed to do long distances. I think the first time I raced Ennerdale was the first time we were allowed to do the long course.”
We take a lot for granted now. And even though of the 232 starters in this year’s Dragon’s Back Race only 31 were women, Helene points out that this is a lot better than just three out of a hundred in 1992. But how can we make it more?
“Perhaps it’s about how we bring women up. Women need to be prepared to have a go at something, even if they feel they’re going to be out of their depth and they’ve no idea what they’re doing. Men are more willing to have a punt, whereas I don’t see any women having a punt, not in a five-day mountain race. It takes a huge amount of confidence to think: ‘Right, I can do this – I can stand on the start line day after day and get through it.’”
But it’s not just about instilling confidence in ability. Women have to be given a license to be themselves, even if this flies in the face of male-driven ideas of what femininity should look like.
Helene cites some of the current top female runners, saying: “These people are probably fairly aggressive in the way they run, and as a woman, it is not ok to acknowledge that you are competitive and fiercely so – it’s not a very feminine trait – we discourage girls from being aggressive and competitive, although less so now… so if you are looking towards who’s going to do well, it is going to be the more masculine females.”
All of which is a healthy challenge to the patriarchy, and in my own case, to a macho ego integral, or so it seemed, to my former role as an infantry officer in the Gurkha regiment. In the new, happier world I inhabit, that of mountain running, my physical capacities are regularly surpassed by women and my ego has learned that that’s ok.
From her younger days as a runner I bring Helene forward twenty years. The 1992 Dragon’s Back was “niche even in the niche world of fell running”.
The dropout rate was so high and it was so hard in every respect that it was not repeated until 2012 – by which time Helene had evolved into a 47-year-old mother of two. But that wasn’t going to stop her lining up on the startline once again. What on earth motivated her to go through it a second time?
“Part of it, I wanted to see if I could. And part of me wondered whether it had been luck to do so well first time around. So I wanted to see how fit I could get – to do it to the best of my abilities. I desperately, desperately wanted to finish it second time around. I just wanted to run the best I could run.”
“You make friends with everyone who’s around you, who are suffering just as much as you are”
I am reminded again that value derived is proportionate to uncertainty. If this were easy, everyone would do it. If the outcome were certain, where would the fun be?
From Helene this sounds perhaps like a shift in mindset – a focus more on the personal journey than purely on racing. It’s the same race, but different, and she’s the same woman, but different.
In terms of the race, no longer a pairs event, it is more personal. In 1992 she had won as part of, and because of, the strongest pairing. She and Martin Stone had raced before together in tough events and knew how to help one another through the peak and trough flow of a hard endurance race. How did she manage second time around without a teammate?
“You make friends with everyone who’s around you, who are going to suffer as much as you are, who are running the same pace as you, who are doing exactly the same thing as you. Different reasons maybe motivate them but ultimately, everyone is out there running alongside and not against you.”
This sounds very familiar, as I think back to my own Dragon’s Back.
By the 15th hour of the fifth day, the remaining kilometres are few in comparison to what I have already done. But where as many of those earlier kilometres glided by, I am now wading through treacle. My knees and ankles are so swollen that bending them is difficult, descent is excruciating and crossing styles has become unfathomably challenging. My ego departed a long time ago.
I am not the runner I have been over the past four days. I’m no longer proud of how I move through the hard mountain terrain. I am slow and pitiable. And I am ok with that.
As I reach the final few kilometres, the descent to Llandeilo, I know that I do not have to move quickly. I just have to move. Move without stopping. I’ve been on my own and inside my own head for hours and the thought of the people I’ve made friends with over the past week motivates me. I know they are at the finish, wondering what has happened to me and willing me on.
It’s nearly dark as I reach the finish and enter a world of bright light and an eruption of applause. I’m so late in fact that the post race dinner has happened and prize giving is well under way.
I’m just processing things when my name is announced and the marshals usher me to the stage. As I hobble forward to shake hands with the Race Director and receive my ‘Dragon’ (the race’s medal equivalent) I look out and feel a special warmth. These are the friends I have made over the course of five days, 315km and 15,000 vertical metres of climbing. From the top of the field to the bottom, we’ve all done the same thing. As Helene says: “Right foot, left foot and keep repeating”
It turns out she’s still pretty good at this. She did not simply finish the 2012 Dragon’s Back: Her left and right feet repeated their way to the finish line faster than any other woman and all but three men.
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