Helene Whitaker – After the Dragon's Back: What now?

18 09 2012

It has taken a week for me to stop feeling nauseous, to be happy about walking around the corner (rather than going in the car….i know, I know..) and I can manage a day at work without feeling the irresistible urge to fall asleep suddenly, for no reason. I still continue to eat every 20 […]

It has taken a week for me to stop feeling nauseous, to be happy about walking around the corner (rather than going in the car….i know, I know..) and I can manage a day at work without feeling the irresistible urge to fall asleep suddenly, for no reason. I still continue to eat every 20 minutes as the hunger is virtually constant, in an effort to recoup the lost 5 kg.

So where to begin?

How about with the small but perfectly formed “Shane’s army”. The happy and hopelessly cheerful volunteers made arriving at each camp a positive joy. An enthusiastic welcome for everyone, an erected tent, and kit bags ready and waiting: beats a mountain marathon any day!  Dr Mike, in particular was rather good at a very affable “Now how are you?” whilst carefully scrutinising faces for subtle signs of distress. How did the controls miraculously appear on the hills? How did our half way bags always get to the right point in time for us? What lovely maps each day…you get the picture, the background boys had a very busy week indeed whilst we all basked in the limelight of achievement, real graft was happening behind the scenes on our behalf.

And the food. Oh the joy! Hot tasty soup, conjured up fresh from real ingredients in the van. I saw potatoes being peeled for leek and potatoes soup, fresh ingredients went into the main meals. No mean achievement for the huge number of starving folk that were constantly demanding calories. The kindness of the catering staff who had to pander to all sorts of vagaries of the runners, never faulted. As an army of runners, we certainly did march on our stomachs.

It was commented at the end that so many folk wanted to know how 2012 compared with 1992. Allowing runners to enter as individuals certainly made the event more sociable. I was no longer working in a pair against everyone else; I was looking for friends to work with against the course….. and Shane’s plans! It resulted in more friendships, more running with other people, and getting to know folk I had never met before and I wish there had been more time to spend doing so. It soon became clear that it paid to work to your strengths, and whilst I may have felt like the Larson cartoon of the deer with a target on his side “Bummer of  a birthmark Hal”, it is apparent I would not have completed the event as fast nor as well as I did without the rest of “The Posse”. Patrick, Jim and Mark ran faster than I would have chosen to do had I been on my own. It is because of them I did so well over the full course of the event. Thank you.

Keeping body and soul together is one thing. Eating right, drinking right and going in the right direction keep the show on the road and the heat made this all the more critical. Drinking became a fine art with hydration and salt balance juggling act. Food that on training events had been fine, suddenly became unpalatable. One runner binned a whole box of sandwiches, whilst I made up mine daily. As a result, the inevitable depletion started to be a limit on day 4 and 5 as fatigue and sore bits started to grind at the body.

Many folk had hideous foot problems, blisters and anterior shin / foot pains being the most common symptom. Certainly footwear can help with this, but simple overuse is hard to accommodate for on multi-day events.

The Dragon’s Back Race is a bit like a pension. You never know if you have done enough or the right thing until its too late. Did I get it right? For me, yes. I surpassed my goal of finishing and was terribly excited to finish in an unexpected 4th place.  The 13 months of preparation were just about right for me. And I think therein lies the key: know thyself! Working on my weaknesses, minimised the problems, and maximised the parts I could do well. I should have done more navigation as I did stuff up spectacularly on a few occasions. I did do the right strength work (old ladies loose muscles and the Dragon is all about staying upright and moving forwards to the best of  your ability), and the speed work was probably as much as I could do without further injuries. It has been a fine line all year getting the body in shape for this; I now plan to seriously enjoy not having to!

For those who want more day to day detail:

The possibility of a hot week in Wales seemed as remote to us all as it probably has seemed to the Welsh all summer, but we got the week that was summer! Frantic kit changes ensued for most of us athletes as the forecast remained consistent without last minute hurricanes materialising. In went sunhats and sun block, but none of us really believed it until day 3 and by then we were all burnt to a crisp.

Day 1 set us off into the welsh heat (got to use that description whilst I can). Not content with the simple monstrosity of the Dragon’s Back, Shane gave us all the Welsh 1,000m peaks to do as well. Route choice discussions centred on the feared Crib Goch and the best way to negotiate the precipitous ridge with 10 hours of running already in our legs. Local gossip helped confirm the decision to go to the col first from Llanberis but this entailed facing the dreaded ridge twice. Sat down in the comfort of an arm chair with a good cup of tea, route choice is so much simpler. Fuelled by fear, fatigue and fear of failure, the brain makes less predictable choices. Encouraged by Patrick, who was quietly steady, and motivated by Jim, more scared than I, we managed the scramble and survived to tell the tale and complete the event.

Day 2 was going to be shorter than the 11and half hours of day 1 … we all hoped. Already people were starting to show signs of having underestimating the Dragon. Setting off into the mist behind the singing (but not navigating Spaniards) meant a slightly erratic line to the summit of Cnicht. Terrible line off as couldn’t see the route of choice ended up with wasted time bog flogging but at least secure in the knowledge of heading in the right direction. The Posse takes shape and works well together tackling the hills, roads and forestry in turn.

Day 3 was the day I had dreaded all along. I knew it was going to be a long one. Cadair Idris at the start of the day and Plynlimon at the end are the two redeeming features of this day. There is a lot of runnable less pleasant stuff in between that doesn’t really play to my strengths. The Posse keep me going. Day 3 is crux day. Get through it in good shape and it bodes well for a finish. Finish tired and the Elan valleys could take you out of the event on day 4. I finished tired but body intact, and managed to eat and drink well that evening which really made up for the heat of the day.

Day 4 in the Elan valleys was cut short. All the bog, tussock and man-eating mires were taken out. This was possibly a good thing for the remaining competitors, and as an organiser I may have done the same, but it was a shame not to follow the original route to the summit of mid wale’s highest hill, Drygarn Fawr. The amount of road running made this a particularly fast day but also brutal on sore feet and legs. The tarmac put pay to a few runners and triggered some serious injuries slowing down many folk. However sore, all managed a trot across the finish line next to where the dinner tent was laid out, all cheering folk in.

Day 5 Any one still in the race was going to finish and the determination was palpable on the start line…. No more banter…this was it! Whilst the first half of day 5 was “green and pleasant” the latter half reverts to ankle twisting rock and heather. Not so the lovely green ridge that is envisioned whilst trotting over Fan Bryncheiniog, but grinding uneven stumbling to reach the final checkpoint above Carreg Cennan castle. A not-so-quiet sob at the relief at having finished, in the privacy away from the impending cameras at the finish, then down the hill to the old fort.

I feel so privileged to have been able to do this event twice and to have met so many lovely folk, many of whom I now owe so much, not least my gratitude. Resurrecting the Dragon was always going to be a monstrous undertaking. To repeat history was never the aim, and I am glad the race had individual characteristics that made it unique. After all, isn’t that why we entered? I always knew I was going to be out for 10-12 hour days. I prepared accordingly and wasn’t disappointed.

To Shane, Marshalls, Caterers, Medics, volunteers and fellow competitors I would like to say a big Thank you to you all, particularly Patrick, Mark and Jim. In some way you all kept me going, motivated and to the finish. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Last but most importantly, without my family and Jonathan, I wouldn’t have been there at all. I owe it all to you.

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