The first full weekend in September is the date traditionally reserved for the Bullock Smithy Hike. The event involves a 56 mile circuit through the Peak District which starts and finishes at Hazel Grove in Stockport and is organised by the dependable and well organised, 3rd Hazel Grove Scout Group. This year the date has further significance within the ultra running community as it is shared with both the Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and more significantly the Dragon's Back race in Wales. The Dragon's Back is a 200 mile endurance epic that has only been run once before in 1992. It begins at 7am on Sunday morning three hours before the Bullock Smithy presentation!
The Dragon's Back is an endurance run of unparallelled difficulty. Many consider it to be the toughest endurance race ever organised.The race involves running over the spine of the Welsh Dragon from Conway Castle in the North to Carreg Cennen Castle in the South, with the minor obstacle of 45,000ft of the harshest Welsh Mountain territory in between. The legend of the Dragon's Back is best understood by watching the footage from the 1992 event. The Independent has also previewed the race. Fellow Bullock Smithyers might be interested to know that many of next weeks Dragon's Back entrants have run previous Bullock Smithy's, including the most revered female Dragon's Backer who won the event in 1992 with her partner Martin Stone. Scan your finger down the 1999 Bullock Smithy results, It wont be long before you find her.
In 1999 I approached the summit of Chinley Churn then scrambled down to the check point which lies underneath the rocks. As usual I was out of breath after the long ascent from Furness Vale. Just as I checked in I was met by a female runner that appeared to have run the long route from Whalley Bridge. "Oh hello, that's a crafty route you took?" she said easily as she pointed to the map in her hand. I tried to catch my breath to explain that I'd run the event many times before and that the route from Furness Vale was generally favoured but the tanned, long legged female literally sprang off down the hillside towards the drinks stop at Peep 'o' Day.
That chance meeting had a big impact on me, I have never forgotten it. The female that I had encountered looked supremely fit, absolutely glowing, she had long tanned legs and was tall and thin but looked very powerful. The woman was as visually fit as I had ever seen anybody before or since. I remember trying to keep up with the woman as she bounded off with long strides down the hill. I floundered hopelessly in her wake. I was so impressed (or so embarrassed) that when I got to the roadside drinks stop I had to talk about it. "Did you see that, did you see that woman, where is she?" I asked. It was too late. I had no idea who she was but she had left for Edale Cross. I didn't see her again - not even at the finish.
I was later to learn that I had been privileged to meet Helene Diamantides (now Helen Whitaker) one of the best endurance athletes of all time and the woman who doesn't recognise gaps between male and female performance. Diamantides had driven from Scotland to take part in the Bullock Smithy in 1999, she finished 2nd in 9 hours 22 minutes then got straight back in her car and drove back home to Scotland. It is widely believed that if she knew the route as well as Bullock Smithy legend Tony Okell (previous winner of the Tour of Tameside among other notable achievements) who came home first, she would have won. Helene finished ahead of another endurance great, Mark Hartell which further underlines the significance of her run, and all whilst navigating with a map. There's a brilliant piece of footage (here at 7:47 in) where Diamantides and Stone run to a checkpoint in the 1992 Dragon's Back event. Stone appeals to find a stream or stay at the checkpoint long enough to have a drink but Diamantides is having none of it, directing that instead her partner must "take water with him" you can almost feel the desperation as if Stone re-recognises the colossal partner that he has become involved with, as he mutters "oh God". Helen Whittaker doesn't run quite as much these days but the lure of the Dragon has tempted her back. She will line up with the cream of international mountain runners in Conway again next Sunday morning. I am just as excited to see how the Dragon's back unfolds as to see how my own fitness carries me round the Bullock Smithy. To be able to witness the bravery and heroics of these people who can push themselves further than I dare dream is just as interesting for me as taking part in my own less demanding events.
This years Bullock Smithy is again incorporated within the UK ultra distance championships. Hopefully that will attract more participants and make up for any loss of entrants who have bigger fish to fry. I understand that some of the Macclesfield Harriers regulars have a date with the dragon including another revered athlete who came second in 92. That should leave Stockport Harriers to continue their recent dominance of the event. I am also aware of many particiants who will toil for the best part of 24 hours to hike around the course. Whether you are running or walking, looking for a time or just wanting to 'get round' it should be a good event on a great weekend for British endurance running.
Roll on next weekend!