Twenty Years Later - An Interview with Helene Whitaker and Martin Stone - The Berghaus Dragon's Back Race™

Twenty Years Later - An Interview with Helene Whitaker and Martin Stone

Shane Ohly, the Race Director for the 2012 Dragon's Back Race chats with Helene Whitaker (nee Diamantides) and Martin Stone and asks them to reflect on their victory twenty years ago.


Helene Whitaker - Twenty Years Later...

Above: Helene Whitaker at the 2011 Olympus Marathon. Photo: Olympus Marathon

When Helene Diamantides stood on the start line of the inaugural Dragon’s Back Race™ in 1992, many greats from the world of mountain and ultra running were there alongside her. No one could have predicted that Helene and her running partner Martin Stone would win the World’s toughest mountain race of the day. Their result redefined how female ultra runners could compete with and sometime beat their male peers.

In the years preceding the Dragons Back Race™, Helene had proven her international pedigree by setting records and winning races internationally. In 1987, along with Alison Wright, she set a new World record for running from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu – a journey of 167 miles with 32,000ft of ascent and 46,000ft of descent – in 3 days and 10 hours (including 8 hours of sleep) whilst impressively beating the previous Sherpa record, by 12 hours.

The following year Helene won the 31km Mount Cameroon Race, shaving 35 minutes off the women’s record, and also won the famous Mount Kinabalu race in Borneo. That summer she set a new women’s record for the Bob Graham Round in the Lake District, despite running solo and unsupported.

During the summer of 1989, Helene ran all three of the classic British Round’s – Charlie Ramsay (Lochabar, Scotland), Bob Graham (Lake District, England), and Paddy Buckley (Snowdonia, Wales), becoming the first person to complete all three rounds in one year (alongside Adrian Belton, who completed all three rounds the same year, running the Paddy Buckley with Helene). For each of these rounds, she set a new record (women’s or combined) and unsurprisingly was named the Long Distance Fell Runner of the Year by the Fell Running Association.

In the months before the 1992 Dragon’s Back Race™, Helene set records for the Lairig Ghru race and the Langdale Horseshoe and was clearly in top form when the competitors gathered in Conwy. The formidable array of competitors included many of the great ultra and mountain runners from around the World such as Swedens’s Rune Larsen (three times winner of the Spartathlon), Germany’s Stefan Schlett (the World’s most prolific endurance runner), America’s Tom Possert (350 mile Iditasport record holder) and the cream of British mountain running that included Adrian Belton and Mark McDermott, who between them held every major British 24-hour record. The British armed services also sent three teams of Paras and there was even rumored to be a team of elite SAS soldiers.

Richard Askwith’s best-selling book about fell running, Feet in the Clouds, describes perfectly what awaited the competitors that morning:

To get a sense of what Diamantides did that September, in partnership with Martin Stone, you need to imagine yourself there, standing in the rain at Conwy Castle on the north coast and contemplating the coming ordeal. Somewhere to the south of you should be Conwy Mountain and the Carneddaus, but all you can see are wet foothills and low cloud. You are cold already, but you know that this is as nothing to the chill you will feel on the high ground. You are about to spend the best part of a week on that high ground, immersed in cloud, with most of the waking hours devoted to climbing and descending as fast as your body will allow, while knowing all the time that if you stop concentrating on your map and compass for a moment you will be lost. Does your heart sink? If not, think about it again until it does.
 

Shane: Feet in the Clouds, describes your Dragon’s Back Race™ win as “…the first time any woman has won outright a fell race involving men. And Helene has done it on perhaps the toughest course ever, against the toughest opposition imaginable”. That is quite some statement. On reflection, how do you feel about your 1992 win at the first Dragon’s Back Race™?

Helene: Actually, Sarah Rowell won the Seven Sisters off-road marathon outright in 1986…It is all an awfully long time ago now and in many ways long distance fell running was a lot simpler; most fell runners simply had a “good long day out on the hills”.

Shane: Sarah Rowell's achievement at the Seven Sisters Off Road Marathon is very impressive and often overlooked but the course is on well maintained trails rather than rough mountains so I think that the distinction Richard Askwith makes is fair. So, do you feel that long distance fell races twenty years ago where less competitive that they are now?

Helene: There were fewer competitors and certainly fewer women running then. I guess the fact that some records stand and others are broken is an indicator of standards then compared to now. I think people forget how talented some of the “old guard” were. Jon Broxap’s 24 hours Munroe record still stands (I think) and the competition between many people of similar abilities doing long runs really pushed the challenges and records forward. Now I guess there is a wider range of runners in long distance events, and whilst there were fewer on the start line, the standard was very high. I think it’s also easy to forget what the kit involved. Now with all the technical fabrics and lightweight equipment, it’s easier to have the “right kit” for bad weather. PVC cagoules, “smelly Hellys and Ron Hill tricksters were about it. I used Dachstein mitts on cold long distance events and we all had those nasty itchy wooly balaclavas with a bobble on top that REALLY held the water well!

Shane: Reading about the history of the Dragon’s Back Race™, it seems clear that there was a particularly strong running partnership with Martin Stone. Had you raced together before and did you race together again?

Helene: We had done a few two day mountain marathons together. I don’t think we raced again together after the Dragon's Back.

Shane: After the 1992 Dragon’s Back Race™, you went on to race with the likes of Angela Mudge in the Scottish Islands Three Peaks Yacht Race and competed with other Male and Female British fellrunners in the Australian Three Peaks Yacht Race with plenty of success. Do you prefer to race with a male or female partner, and how different are the experiences with male and female partners?

Helene: I am very competitive and, unsurprisingly, I find I run well with other competitive people…male or female. When I race hard, I don’t chat and most other women who want to win don’t either. Most men don’t chat at all so that works well when racing! Women tend to have much lower self confidence in their abilities than men and there are fewer women who are comfortable navigating and able to look after themselves in serious situations. Most women are worried about being out of their depth and getting into difficulties either with navigation or extreme distances. Consequently if you find a lady on a start line of a serious race on her own, she’s likely to be quietly competent.

Shane: In 1992, there were very few ultra races let alone off trail events like the Dragon’s Back Race™ to choose from. At the time the Dragon’s Back Race™ was described as “the toughest mountain event ever organised”. Do you think that this reputation was warranted and how do you think the race compares to modern ultra running events?

Helene: The Dragon's Back Race was a first in Britain.  Stage races in the mountains had been happening abroad albeit, on a much lesser scale than today. However in most of these events navigation wasn’t such a big part.

I haven’t done many ultras recently, but the routes I have seen are reasonably straight forward and speed is the main test. British fell running is unique in its requirements of navigational skills, route choice, mountain craft, running in a variety of terrains, coping with weather, self sufficiency… its all just a bit more extreme. I feel quite strongly that whilst GPS’s may make the event safer for an organizer to put on, it does change the nature of the Dragon's Back Race that set it apart and made it unique. Perhaps GPS’s should be a safety back up in emergency but with a time penalty for its use??!!

Shane: We have taken Helene's comments about GPS use onboard, which are in common with feedback we have received from other competitors and amened the rules on their use (see here for full details). Briefly, we will still allow competitors to carry and use GPS's but the maps for each day (and therefore all information about the route and checkpoint locations) will now only be issued after competitors have started each morning. This will mean that entering route information, waypoints etc must be done in race time.

Above: Helene Whitaker descending the steep trails at the 2011 Olympus Marathon. In case you are wondering she finished 40th overall and 3rd women. Photo: Olympus Marathon

Shane: You will be twenty years older when you line up on the start line at Conwy Castle this September. In addition to the difference in age, you also have a young family now. How has this affect your training and preparation?

Helene: I don’t have the selfish luxury of hours and hours roaming the hills! Nor do I want to anymore. My old joints certainly wouldn’t thank me for it either if I tried to.  It was my husband who encouraged me to enter, as I didn’t think it would be fair to the family to commit the time and effort required to have half a chance of making it to the start line, let alone the finish line. I’ve had to concentrate on trying to get fit enough to train for the DB without something breaking: being old and female has major consequences for strength and cardiovascular fitness. Trying to be time efficient focuses the mind wonderfully on what needs to be done, not what you would like to do!

Shane: Even before we had launched the Dragon’s Back Race™ website or sent out the first press release, we were receiving emails from potential competitors asking to take part. What were your first thoughts when you heard that the race was to make a return?

Helene: Honestly? “FANTASTIC, thank goodness I don’t have to do it again”. Then “Does Shane know what is entailed and is he likely to get it off the ground?” Shane, its true! I checked you out to make sure you were capable of organising it before I got in touch... It was not just you doing the vetting!

Shane: We have organised a training camp for the Dragon’s Back Race™ competitors’ (Mountain Running Essentials) and I know that many of the competitors are training hard in preparation for the race. What sort of training are you doing and how does it compare to your 1992 preparation?

Helene: In 1992 I ran a lot, I could devote the time to it and I was more resilient. I am working hard on my strength – the ability to remain standing AND moving forwards at the same time will be my main goal. On asking for advice from Pete Sheilds, I was told I needed to “get faster, stronger, and stretch more”... was there anything left I wondered?

I have charged one of my oldest friend who has huge ultrarunning experience with the job of keeping me mentally intact. She knows me so well she will spot the signs of wheels beginning to come off.  She too knows what it is like to juggle work, family and running ambitions with creeping decrepitude (sorry Cath).


Shane: Some of the competitors have mentioned you as an inspiration for their running. So, do you have any running heroes?

Helene: Oh golly, that’s embarrassing. I don’t feel like inspiration I feel knackered (Ed - this email exhnage was taking place late in the evening). My running heroes but in no particular order:

Roger Bannister - believed he could do the sub 4 min mile

Stelios Kyriakides – survived German occupation (and near execution whilst on a training run: his Berlin Olympics pass kept as a memento in his wallet saved him) and civil war in Greece to run the 1st Boston marathon held after the war. The village gave him food to train. He sold his wife’s fridge to pay for a one way fare because he believed he could win.

Anyone still running and fell racing over the age of 60- I now have some inkling of how hard it is to keep going and the effort required to fight the ravages of age!


Shane: I know that you recently sat down to watch the film of the original Dragon’s Back Race™ with your children for the first time. What on earth did they make of it!?

Helene: They thought it was soooooooooo funny seeing mummy on TV. . . what was I wearing? And wasn’t my hair a mess! (lycra wasn’t in use for mountain kit then, and my hair is still a mess…)

Shane: Thank you very much Helene and we look forward to seeing you on the start line in September.


Martin Stone - Twenty Years Later...

Helene’s running partner at the 1992 Dragon’s Back Race™ was Martin Stone and, although much of the media attention focused on Helene after their win, Martin was a formidable mountain runner himself and key to their successful partnership.

During the latter half of the 1980’s Martin set a series of impressive records for solo and unsupported runs. In 1986 he traversed all of the Scottish 4,000ft Munros in 21 hours (83 miles / 17,000ft) and in 1987 he added a 10 mile extension to  Ramsay’s Round to complete a new Scottish Munros 24 Hour Record (26 Munros, 70  miles / 30,000ft).  In 1987 he became the first person to complete the Big 3 Rounds - Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley Round and Ramsay Round.  He is still the only person to have completed all 3 rounds solo-unsupported.  He has also completed the only solo-unsupported mid-winter Bob Graham Round in 1987 and Paddy Buckley Round in 1989.

Now the custodian of the Fell Running Association (FRA) long distance records, Martin is considered by most fell runners to be the authority on all the long distance challenges in the UK.

Above: Martin Stone about to present the Elite winners trophy at the 2004 LAMM. Photo: Shane Ohly

He also organises the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon, which comes highly recommended and would make perfect training for the Dragon’s Back Race™.

Shane: You have set records yourself and for years provided excellent and informed commentary on others long distance running feats, in your role with the FRA. Using all your experience, how does your Dragon’s Back Race™ win feel now and can you recall how you felt at the time?

Martin: I’ve always considered the Dragon’s Back to be the most exciting and satisfying team event I ever took part in.  But, to be honest, with the passage of the years, the event had rather slipped from my consciousness.  I’m really pleased that you are re-awakening the Dragon and I must say that our discussions about the event have brought great memories from 20 years ago flooding back.  

20 years ago in 1992, I was hoping to set a record for all the Lakeland 2,500ft peaks.  I had a cunning figure of 8 route planned that would save miles on the previous efforts and I was hoping to knock quite a few hours off the existing record.  Helene had been doing some dedicated reccying of the Dragon’s Back route during the Summer and when her original partner dropped out, I changed my plan and was pleased to be able to join her.  We had run a number of events together and we knew we were really compatible on mountain marathons.  Helene had got very fit that Summer but I had no idea until the event was underway that we would be quite so strong.  The “opposition” was formidable.  Adrian Belton and Mark McDermott, Phil Clark and Mike Walford were good friends and had all won Elite KIMMs.  The foreign competitors had set records for ultra distance and multi-day events.  For us Brits, the only experience we had to date of multi-day events was the Elite KIMM and the only way we could visualise the Dragon’s Back was as a 5 day Elite MM.  Not surprisingly, this made us all feel very nervous and well outside our comfort zone!  Could the body be expected to perform well on day 5 of an Elite MM?

The pattern of things to come was set within the first few miles on day 1 as we ran along valley roads towards the Carneddau.  The rest of the field, like a herd of sheep, turned left at a road junction and we turned right.  As we ran along on our own, checking the map again and concluding that all the other experienced athletes must know what they are doing, we tried to make light of the situation - we had blown it in the first 3 miles.  Imagine our surprise when we climbed onto the Carneddau to find ourselves some minutes ahead of all the other teams.  

The race was completely absorbing, tactical and finely balanced.  When the top teams were running with us, Helene and I reveled in games of cat and mouse.   For a while we would all be mates running together across misty mountains.  But the moment the opposition took their eyes off us, we were gone, evaporating in the mist, never to be seen again until the end of the day.   

I think Helene and I were really surprised (and relieved) that we felt comfortable and within our comfort zone for most of the 5 days.  Throughout the event, we each went through a few hours of personal struggle on days 4 and 5.  Apart from that we were loving the running, the miles seemed to pass quickly and the relentless journey south was so satisfying.   The whole experience felt very liberating.

Over the 5 days, the lead changed every single day.  The final day began with a chasing start and by mid morning we had taken the lead.  For the first time we sensed victory, so we felt the need to be decisive and for the next few hours, we absolutely legged it across the Black Mountains.  But I then made a stupid, time-consuming navigation error, the only mistake we made in the whole 5 days and I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to make it.  This allowed Mark and Adrian to pass us and get well ahead of us again with about 12 miles to go.  Helene and I applied some positive thinking to our predicament and our mantra became “we’ve overtaken them once today and we’ll just have to bloody well overtake them again”.

After the days of drama played out on the Welsh Mountains, winning was more than wonderful.  I can’t begin to describe the sense of elation but for the first time in the 5 days I was unbelievably exhausted too.


Shane: There are so many running events to choose from these days. How do you think the Dragon’s Back Race™ compares with other long distance races in the UK and overseas? Would it still be up there with the toughest?

Martin: In 1992 there were very few stage races anywhere in the world – the Dragon’s Back was an event years ahead of its time.  In most other countries, often because of restrictions such as vegetation, multi-stage races mainly need to follow trails.  In the UK we are blessed with huge expanses of open country and you can run/navigate for miles.  There are plenty of other tough ultra races abroad but I think that Ian Waddell was visionary in his creation of a race as unique as the Dragon’s Back.

Shane: You have already observed that at the 1992 Dragon’s Back Race™ both you and Helene and Adrian Belton and Mark McDermott had a mountain marathon background. Analysing the entries for 2012 you can split the competitors into two distinct categories: 1) runners with a traditional British mountain running background (fell races, mountain marathons and the three big rounds) but with less ultra distance experience and 2) Ultra runners with experience of multi-day racing (but often on trails) who have less of a ‘mountain’ background. How do you think the two types of runners will compare this time and what kind of preparation would you recommend for competitors?

Martin: There is no doubt in my mind that the top performers in 2012 will, like ourselves 20 years earlier, come from a mountain background and excel at mountain marathons and long journeys in the mountains.  Those with only trail running experience will struggle to keep up as they pick their way across rough mountain terrain and try to navigate across misty, featureless moorland.

I think the best preparation is long days out in the hills and mountain marathons.  Come and do the LAMM!

Shane: Thank you very much Martin.