Helene Diamantides Whitaker interview to Advendure.com

Από 05 Οκτ 2012

Almost a month ago, Helene Diamantides Whitaker finished 4th at the second edition of the brutal "Dragon's Back 5-days race" of the 350 kilometers and +13.716 meters of vertical climb, that crosses the lenght of Whales. Before 20 years - at the first edition of the race - she managed to finish first. A major achievement, which holds a special part at Richard Askwith’s best-selling book about fell running, Feet in the Clouds. Advendure.com had an exclusive interview with Helene Diamantides about the race but also regarding ultra-running and endurance issues in general.

Helene Diamantides was born in 1964 in North Yorkshire, but lived in Ghana and later in Greece till 1982 when she moved back to Durham (England) to study for a degree in education. Her first sports sttempt was in pentathlon as a teenager, and she ran her first marathon at the age of 16. Fell Running comes after she moved to Durham, through her University running club. She completed several races with Karrimor International Mountain Marathon (KIMM) as a highlight of this period.

Her first major achievement was the completion in 1987 of the famous Bob Graham Round, which consists of the 72 miles, 27,000 foot round of 42 of the highest peaks in the English Lake District within 24 hours. In 1988 she returned and broke the women's record with 20 hours and 17 minutes. During the same year she broke together with her friend Allison Wright the Crane brother's record of the 167-miles (269 km) route from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu which includes 32,000 feet (9,800 m) of ascent and 46,000 feet (14,000 m) of descent. They managed to run it in 3 days, 10 hours and 8 minutes, 24 hours faster from Crane brothers and 12 hours from a team of Sherpa that made the same attempt. During 1988 she won the Mount Cameroon race and the Mount Kinabalu race. She also came third in the 100-mile (160 km) Hogger 'Super Marathon' in Algeria. Lizzy Hawker broke that record in 2011.

A great highlight of Helene's career was the effort of run and break the records in all three famous British 24-hours rounds during one summer. The English Bob Graham Round, the Welsh Paddy Buckley Round, and the Scottish Ramsay Round. She not only completed all three rounds in seventy-two days, breaking their records, but she had also broken her own BG record by just over an hour!

But her biggest legend was the winning of the "Dragon's Back" race in 1992, which was a 220-mile (350 km) five-day race the length of Wales, taking in the some of the most challenging mountainous terrain the country has to offer. She managed to beat all other elite ultrarunners and finished first together with Martin Stone in 38 hours and 38 minutes. The significance of this legendary win can be seen from the fact that the strong pair of Mark McDermott and Adrian Belton came second with a time of 39 hours and 10 minutes. Actually, McDermott is one of the greatest fell runners of recent years, having the distinction of running seventy-six Lake District peaks in 24 hours.

Helene Diamantides ran Olympus mountain 44 kms (+3.100 meters) race in Greece in the summer of 2011, with an excellent performance. She finished 40th overall out of 518 athletes and 3rd women.


[Advendure]:  Dragon’s back is a multi-stage race. This kind of races is becoming more popular these days with lots of people running, sometimes solo and sometimes in teams (e.g Transalpine Run in the Alps). On the other hand, very big ultra races (like the new European “hit” – The Tor De Geants of 330 km length) are also getting significant attention from runners. Tell us a few things about the differences between those types of races, especially in terms of the athlete’s physical and mental management for overcoming the obvious difficulties during the race.

[Diamantides]: I don’t have much experience in many multi-day or multi-stage races, having only done the Dragon’s back race, a few 2 day mountain marathon events and a 5 day stage race in the Sahara in the 80’s. Personally, I find I am able to recover well given overnight stops, and I seem to be able to do these races better than the continuous events where there is no stages.

 Preparation, as always is everything. One race will be completely different to another, even if the mileage is the same. I always look at the height climbed, and draw up a gradient. Where is most of the climb? At the beginning? At the end? I then change my training to prepare for this. Its also important to analyse the terrain and temperature. This means it is possible to be specific in your training which leads to appropriate physical and mental preparation.

 If you can run 6 miles, you can run 60. The only difference is wanting to. Therefore the preparation is as much mental as physical. Ultra races are tiring. You have to anticipate this and know how to keep going physically and mentally when tired. You learn this by training, having confidence in knowing what preparation you have done is right for you. Read books and listen to others, but at the end of the day, you have to do what you need to do to get to the finish line. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Its important to “know yourself” and then work very, very hard!


[Advendure]: Just before the start of the race you indicated – as we read at the reports - that you were very anxious. Is this because you’ve done it before 20 years and you knew the level of difficulty, or because you wanted to prove that your glorious victory at 1992 edition was not something random or a matter of coincidence.

[Diamantides]: I wasn’t sure if physically my body would stay injury free long enough to cross the finish line. I am 47, havnt done any ultras for over 9 years and I knew what was involved! I trained for 13 months preceding the race, mainly on strength work to ensure I had the best possible chance of completing the course. Some ultras it is possible to race, some it is only realistic to aim to finish, and whatever happens happens. The Dragon’s Back is one of the latter. I think it was so long since the last Dragon’s Back, people had forgotten or underestimated how hard it actually was.


[Advendure]: It seems that in Britain, Scotland, Ireland or Wales in this case, the orienteering type of races are very popular, where there is not a specific trail that the athlete must follow but a map is the key to find the shortest or more effective way to the finish. This is not common in the rest of Europe or USA. Why is that? Is it the tradition, or the type of terrain that plays an important role?

[Diamantides]: In the UK Mountain running has always had navigation as a main feature of its events. We do not have many trails, we are a very small island, and most of our wilderness is spectacular but in the mountains. Route choice is always a part of our racing, and extremely rough terrain is what we have to run on. It makes it very difficult for overseas competitors to prepare for but this is part of the unique nature of our racing scene and is part of the skills of a British Fell Runner. It does mean that most Fell Runners are well equipped for mountain survival and has basic navigational skills that are essential for even short events in the UK.


[Advendure]: What are the main difficulties that you encountered during the race or the high and low points of your effort? We have read that the weather was not so good, especially during the first day, but on the other hand the last day was shorter than the first edition back in 1992.

[Diamantides]: The first day was particularly long but probably worked to my strengths as I am not particularly fast, but can keep going. I feel it is important not simple to recreate an old event, but to evolve something new and after 20 years, it is important to move forwards and not live in the past. I don’t like trails or roads much, and as I got tired, the pounding on tired legs was very sore on my joints. It is also hard to keep eating constantly whilst running and make yourself re-fuel at the end of each day when you are tired and just want to lie down.


[Advendure]: Your first win, back at 1992, was something unique in endurance running and a lot of things have been written about it. Now, after 20 years, you’re coming back and made a spectacular performance winning a lot of your elite male endurance athletes and the women’s first position.  According to my opinion, this is probably an even greater achievement. Tell us your thoughts about these two great performances separated by 20 years.

 [Diamantides]: I did not anticipate I would finish in 4th position this year. On the first day, someone told me I was in 8th position and I thought “top 10, that’s terrific, I hope I can keep my position”. If you had told me my final result at any point before I started I would not have believed you. I simply set off to get around the course as well as I possibly could to the best of my ability. I am very competitive, but realistic and I know I am older and slower. 20 years ago it was not possible to foresee the result either, but being faster and paired with Martin Stone, we were able to race and push for a good result. I feel I am lucky that I have found a sport I seem to be good at physically and mentally…and most importantly, I enjoy! My results are a bonus.


[Advendure]: You have done a lot of Fastest Known Times (FKT) performances, like the Bob Graham Round (BG), the Crane brother's running route from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu, the completion in one summer all three of the classic British twenty-four hour rounds, and others. Do you believe that this kind of performances is the future challenge of adventure running? Is this a more challenging prospect for an endurance athlete than racing?

[Diamantides]: I did all those because I wanted to do them, to see how I could do, not to race others (with the exception of the Everest Base camp – Kathmandu run with Alison where we set out to break the record). They were all done many years ago, so I would be worried if this was the future! There are so many women running who are faster than I ever was, and I look forward to seeing them do amazing things in the future with imagination and difficulty. That is the way forward.


[Advendure]: Why ultra races seem to influence deeper the people involved with? Is more the emotional part of this issue or the size of the challenge that someone has to deal with?  What do you think is the main reason behind the significant increase of ultra races around the world?

[Diamantides]: People always want to see what they are really capable of. Challenging yourself is an important way of seeing how good you could actually be if you tried. When we all stand on the start line of an ultra, we all know there is a strong chance something could go wrong that will stop us completing. How we deal with that is part of the challenge of these tough events. Sometimes it is physical, mostly it’s a mental challenge.


[Advendure]: What is coming next? Tell us about your future running goals. Are you considering running again in Greece, after your Olympus Marathon 2011 great performance?

 [Diamantides]: I can’t begin to think about what to do next! Over a year out of my family’s life has been consumed with training for the Dragon. I need to give back to them first. I loved doing the Olympus Marathon and this year took my husband back over the mountain to show him the route. Maybe we could come back and race it together one day?


Dimitris Troupis

Δημήτρης Τρουπής

Κατάγεται από το Ξυλόκαστρο Κορινθίας και ζει μόνιμα στην Πάτρα. Συμμετείχε στην συντακτική ομάδα του Adventure Zone από το 2009, ενώ μαζί με τον Τάκη Τσογκαράκη ίδρυσαν και "τρέχουν" το Advendure.  Το τρέξιμο στα μονοπάτια των βουνών και η μεταφορά εικόνων και συναισθημάτων μέσα από τα άρθρα του αποτελεί αναπόσπαστο κομμάτι της ζωής του. Παθιάζεται με τους αγώνες ορεινού τρεξίματος, υπεραντοχής και  περιπέτειας. Έχει πολλές συμμετοχές και διακρίσεις σε αγώνες ορεινού τρεξίματος όλων των αποστάσεων, με έμφαση στους αγώνες ultra trail.  Θεωρεί ότι το τρέξιμο και η πεζοπορία στη φύση είναι μια εσωτερική ανάγκη του ανθρώπου, μας φέρνει πιο κοντά σε αυτήν και μας κάνει να αγαπήσουμε περισσότερο το περιβάλλον.




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