My favourite domestic event of 2019 was the inaugural Brathay Ambleside Trail 60. It was a route of some 37.5 miles made up of three distinct sections. A fast, flowing trail up and over Loughrigg from Ambleside to Coniston was followed by a series of steep ups and downs for the next 20 miles to the foot of Grasmere Common. The final section was made up largely of road and hardpack to the finishing line in Rothay Park.
After so many cancellations, it was great to receive the news that the 2020 event was going ahead, despite the return to work from furlough of many of the Brathay staff just a month earlier. The weather this time around was very different to last year’s ‘Indian summer’ race. Registration was at Brathay Hall under a heavy and brooding sky. Ambleside Parish Council had ruled out the use of Rothay Park as a start and finish area which resulted in the longest and most technical walk to a start line I’ve ever encountered, at Lily Tarn, a ‘mere’ 20 minutes away up on Loughrigg Fell. I thought I had plenty of time to meander and take a couple of photographs. I made it to the line with a minute to spare!
The line was a three-square socially distanced grid to enable runners to start in groups of six at five minute intervals. Runners who expected to take longer than 10 hours had been asked to book a starting time between 7 and 8am. I had selected an 8.35am start, having completed the dry weather route in just over 8 hours in 2019. It was wet and very greasy underfoot on the rocky walk to the start so I now doubted my thinking after seeing only a handful of runners with later starting times including the likes of Ben Abdelnoor. There were four of us in the grid when the starting signal was given by the marshal and two of my fellow ‘competitors’ sped off into the distance as though they were in a 10k fell race and wanted to be back in time to shower and change before the pubs opened. Suffice to say I didn’t see them again.
The early flowing trails of 2019 were once again evident this year. I never recovered my form after last year’s event when I ran the last 5 miles hard but I went on to suffer with problems that a chest examination and thoracic X-ray didn’t clarify. A long October day out at Lakes In A Day – some 3 hours longer than planned – had been followed by a DNF at the Tour de Helvellyn in December. I resolved to take it easy this year and run well within myself, especially as my training plans for August were stymied by a hectic return to work since the end of lockdown. My pace of 10 minute miles during this lightly rolling opening section was comfortable and I felt pretty good. I had overtaken two runners in the first 10k but Ben Abdelnoor and a few others had floated past me. Running through the Tongue Intake Plantation, I guessed that I must be close to the back of the field.
The weather had actually done little to change the opening miles of the challenge although I did my best to make it harder by turning into some woods with fallen trees after a large route marker had shifted direction at a forest road intersection. I retraced and stopped to replace the tilting marker to prevent others from going the same way. My mind had been distracted by information coming from my Garmin. I’d put it in UltraTrac mode for the first time, to conserve battery life. It had suggested that I had clocked a couple of 6 to 7 minute miles, impossible for me at the best of times! I also began to doubt the distance information as I went on my way towards the beautiful balcony section of trail that overlooks Tarn Hows from the east.
The wind picked up and the rain started just as I followed the broad and elevated path. A glimmer of sun suggested it would ease so I kept the waterproofs stowed but it worsened dramatically as I began the first steep ascent of the day intersecting Coniston and Yewdale Fells. Another, brighter shaft of sunlight offered hope but it only brought a worsening in the weather – the mild start had also given way to some wind chill – so I donned the waterproof and moved on. Seconds later I ran into John and Gemma Wandless, a warm welcoming distraction from the hoolie. I was more than happy to chat for a minute, a natural break from the effort of the climb. I moved well to the high point and descended into Little Langdale where I made the first of numerous stumbles that were to become quite common during the next few miles. When my feet stop moving well, it’s usually a sign that I’m not at my best and I began to feel tired as I headed towards Blea Tarn.
The promise of the feed station at 30km helped my spirits even though I knew that it would be a limited affair with water, electrolyte drink and energy bars. The wonderful food that was on offer last year was a casualty of running a ‘Covid-secure’ event. The feed station at Skelwith Bridge had been dropped completely and the first one was much later at Great Langdale. A brief exchange with another runner – I was being overtaken again – confirmed that my watch was deceiving me. I had thought it was a kilometre to the feed station and it was more like five. The next three miles were a grind.
I was awful on the relatively flat section of The Cumbria Way to the foot of Stake Pass. Offering some salt to another runner suffering with adductor cramp, he recovered well enough to overhaul me soon afterwards. I was walk-jogging at this point. One heavy stumble, recovered just before a face plant beckoned, had tweaked my unreliable back and I popped a couple of paracetamol with a handful of plain chocolate coated ginger bonbons, a jam sandwich and a generous swig of electrolyte. As I began to ascend Stake Pass, a double equipment fail of my waterproof zip opening from the bottom and my pole belt detaching itself into a puddle around my ankles had me ready to throw the rattle, toys, cheating sticks and everything out of the pram. Right on cue, the wind and rain returned with a vengeance to scatter my frail state of mind across the fellside. A few minutes of faffing ensued and I gave myself a proper telling off. For goodness sake, the hardest part of the event was still to come, and then some.
Whether it was the energy rush or paracetamols (or both at the same time) I found a really good hiking rhythm up the unrunnable Stake Pass and crested the top completely rejuvenated. I overtook perhaps a dozen runners, en route to the next feed stop at Langstrath (40km/25 miles). Cold roast potatoes were an unexpected treat and the hiked ascent to Grasmere Common was a joy, especially so as I took time to look around back to the beautiful Langstrath Valley. Even a treacherously wet section of hand to rock adjacent to Lining Crag was enjoyable. This is the stuff that focuses the mind on efficiency and safety of movement rather than time and distance. Brownrigg Moss and the ridge to Gibson Knott was a fun-packed bogfest full of hamstring stretching leaps which tested my short legs to their limits. Although this section felt much rougher than last year, I enjoyed it more. After passing Gibson Knott, the clag remained high enough to see the approaching shape of The Howitzer atop Helm Crag. I remembered this as a key moment last year as the zigzagging, runnable descent of the Bracken Hause sits a few hundred metres before the summit of the crag where the transition from boggy fell back to trail begins and the final hardpack/road section of the Trail 60 beckons.
Happily running down the Hause, I arrived at a simple wooden footbridge next to the road which I promptly tripped over and almost went down again. No worse for wear, I happily jogged through Grasmere Village to the final feed station at 32.5 miles (52km). The hardpacked trail provides picture postcard views of the lake and is followed by a beautiful section along Rydal Water. I’m not known for my love of road running but I was more than happy to move on easier ground on the run in to Ambleside by the quiet lane under Loughrigg. I had called Sue from the feed point to say that I hoped to be at Brathay Hall within the hour. Just over 47 minutes later, I rolled in some 8 hours and 50 minutes after setting off, 35th out of 108 finishers. I was surprised to be 1st MV55 home out of 12 (3rd over 50/22). I was some 15 minutes behind the first overall vet 55, Catherine Musetti from Ambleside AC, who was also – rather wonderfully – 1st female.
Thanks to Sue and to John and Gemma for being at the finishing line supporting the runners coming home. John and Gemma had already put in a decent shift on the fells. Sue, as always, was at the finish and ready with my favourite post-race treat, two blocks of a plain chocolate Bounty!
The Ambleside Trail 60 is a super event which I can heartily recommend to anyone looking for a tough challenge that is shorter than the Lakeland 50. What it lacks in distance, it more than makes up for with a series of hard ascents and rough terrain amongst some of the most beautiful valleys and fells of The Lake District. Whether you are thinking of your first Lakeland ultramarathon or your umpteenth, this one is a great choice.
I’d seen the Esk Valley Walk route a few months ago, and had been toying with the idea of running it, either over 2 days, or making it a more challenging single day out. This weekend, I opted for the latter, along with a night camping in the van with Adrian.
The route starts with a 17 mile loop (leg 1) from Castleton round and over the moors to the source of the Esk. Then there are 3 shorter ‘legs’ from Castleton to Whitby, generally following the river valley but wandering up and down either side. The terrain is a good mix of moor, grassy field footpaths, tracks and trails, plus a little road (though often with a soft grass verge to keep off the tarmac). As well as beautiful countryside the route passes through some of the prettiest villages in the area.
I decided to do this ‘solo’ and ‘unsupported’ – which basically meant carrying a large picnic, along with other essentials. I could top up my water from ‘natural sources’ – no problem considering my route. I downloaded maps and the route description from the website – the description in particular is excellent and easy to follow.
Adrian dropped me at Castleton just before 7.30am and saw me off from the start at the railway station; he was later on the pier at Whitby to see me finish. I am so grateful he’s happy to support me in my adventures, even when it means he misses his weekend lie in.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day out – the route is fabulous and I would recommend it as either a run or walk. The weather was good, plenty of sunshine, though a brisk breeze on the first moorland leg, and great views. I felt ok – legs tiring (as always, as expected) after about mid-20 miles but managing a relatively constant overall pace. And more importantly I was happy all the way, grazing through my picnic, drinking Esk water, and soaking up the scenery.
I didn’t race round – I was treating this as a fun day out, stopping to admire views and the interesting things on route. But hitting leg 4 and only 8 miles to go I thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to do this in under 8 hours’ – which culminated in a sprint through Whitby town centre to the pier, not recommended on a sunny, busy, Saturday afternoon!
My watch recorded 38.4miles and just under 3500 feet of climb, most of the ups being on the moors on ‘leg 1’, and up to Danby Beacon, with the rest of the route ‘gently undulating’.
Adrian and I camped that night just outside of Whitby, and I used my day out as a fine excuse for making the most of an enormous pub meal and bottle of wine – a good end to a wonderful day.
The Pandemic meant there were no events when the first lockdown restrictions were lifted so Melanie and I turned our attention to doing some long distance trails in roughly ten mile sections with a car at the start and end of each section.
We were particularly attracted to the new Northern Saints Trails http://www.northernsaints.com/ which were only developed shortly before lockdown started. Part of the interest was because four of the six trails finish at Durham Cathedral so we would not have to travel too far. The Northern Saints website has excellent route descriptions, but the gpx files aren’t very accurate, so below we have given links to hopefully more accurate gpx files which we have fine tuned as we ran the trails. Signage on the route is very variable, some routes have few or no signs, others aren’t too bad especially as you get close to Durham (when you need them less…). Also the signs (as illustrated) do not have an arrow on them like most public footpath signs, so when you get a junction and there is a sign on a post at the junction, which way do you go ? We made quite a few errors, but working out what to do next was part of the fun. Having OS maps on our phones was often our saviour and we enjoyed seeing sites we hadn’t seen before. The routes sometimes make small diversions to run past churches and we found a couple of diversions because of the pandemic and building works.
Way of Life 30 miles Gainford to Durham https://www.fetcheveryone.com/routes-view.php?id=1811763 Rolling hills and a runnable trail which starts at the village of Gainford to the west of Darlington and goes north to West Auckland, then Witton Park, Bishop Auckland, Buyers Green, Whitworth, Tudhoe, Low Burn Hall and Durham
Way of Light 46 miles Heavenfield to Durham https://www.fetcheveryone.com/routes-view.php?id=1816311 Heavenfield is on Hadrian’s Wall north of Hexham and the route heads south to Hexham and continues on to the lovely Hexhamshire, followed by Slaley Forest, Blanchland Moor, Blanchland, more moors above Derwent Reservoir, Edmundbuyers, Castleside, Lanchester, Esh, Ushaw College, Witton Gilbert, Flass Vale, Durham. If you are only going to do one of these, do this one, it is stunning ! There is currently a high locked gate in Ushaw College but if you amend the above route to stay to the north of the main College buildings that will save you backtracking.
Way of Love 30 miles Hartlepool to Durham https://www.fetcheveryone.com/routes-view.php?id=1815142 This one starts by going up the coast and then through Hart, Castle Eden (but sadly not the Dene), Trimdon, Cassop, Old Durham, Whinney Hill and to the Cathedral. This twisty route has more old railway tracks than most of the other trails. There is a very overgrown nettle section before Trimdon Colliery, we would advise taking the footpath to the north !
Way of the Sea 40 miles Warkworth to Jarrow https://www.fetcheveryone.com/routes-view.php?id=1815796 You could start this one at Holy Island and follow St Oswald’s Way to Warkworth. St Oswald’s Way turns inland there and the Way of the Sea continues south along the coast via Blyth, Whitley Bay and Tynemouth to North Shields and across the Tyne on the passenger ferry and on to the finish at Jarrow. That links to the Way of Learning which starts from there.
Angel’s Way 31 miles Seaton Sluice to Chester-le-Street https://www.fetcheveryone.com/routes-view.php?id=1817189 The most urban route starting on the coast north of Whitley Bay. It joins the Tyne Wear Heritage Way https://www.tynewearheritageway.org.uk/ for a while and then heads into North Gosforth and right into the centre of Newcastle, down Northumberland Street to the Quayside and past the Sage, on to Saltwell Park and then of course, the Angel of the North. Then off to the west towards Beamish and then back east to Chester-le-Street where you can join the Way of Learning back to Durham if you wish. There is currently a well sign posted temporary diversion from the route above because of house building at White House Farm near North Gosforth.
Yes, it had to happen! Sooner or later actual racing was going to restart, and Martin Stone, well-known to fell-runners and those using SiEntries, was the man to organise it. This 13-mile race was set up as, I think, a bit of a test event, the first fell race since lockdown, and one to be observed by the FRA and others to check out Covid19 security measures. These involved using essentially a time trial format, six runners going off at a time at five minute intervals: 234 runners, taking all morning to get set off. We could choose our start time, and groups of up to six could ask for the same start to have a bit of a mini-race. No water stations, mask on at the registration and finish, and they asked for not too much hanging around before and after the race.
So, how did it go? Well the whole thing was organised superbly, and no one behaved stupidly, as far as I could see. The only people perhaps not socially-distancing enough were the quite large numbers of the general public also in and around Lowther Castle during the event – quite a few in the cafe courtyard – but the organisers had no control of that.
Race-wise, I set off pretty strongly, but had a taster of how the day would go when I found the long 3-mile climb out of Askham very heavy-going. I put it down to the heat at first (20 degrees at 11:00, then getting hotter), but as I kept taking little walks to get my breath back, it dawned on me that giving blood six days earlier was having an effect: I kept going ‘into the red’ far too easily. Once I realised this I could manage it better, and try and keep my effort (and pulse rate) down on the climbs. But it was much harder work on any sort of gradient than it had been just a week earlier.
I’d expected lots more overtaking, and being overtaken, than in a normal race, where runners essentially self-sort till you end up alone. But, though I did see more people, we were still pretty sparse. Nice route – a bit of everything, including lovely soft grass, some tarmac, some stony hard track, a long drag, a very big hill, a bit of bog … and a plodge through a river!
Very pleased to get back to the castle … took about two and a half hours, which was much longer than I’d expected, but it could have been worse in the circumstances.
A good crack! If this is the new normal for racing, it isn’t bad …
Following on from the announcement of Keith’s sad and far too early death,it occurred to me that many club members, especially newer ones, will not know Keith or be aware of his contribution to the Striders over many years. Due to Covid restrictions we won’t be able to give him the send off he deserves and because of his shyness and modesty it’s also a chance to share a bit more of Striders history too.
Keith took to running at school in Middlesbrough,combined with a serious and successful road cycling career, including with Cleveland Wheelers on Teeside.
When he came to Durham he ran with Durham City Harriers and later Chester le Street AC,riding the wave of the running boom in the early 1980s, including the emerging popularity of London Marathon and Great North Run .By the time he joined the Striders quite frankly he had done it all, including a sub 2.30 marathon, 6 and 12 stage relays, National Cross Country several times and all of the established track,road,fell and cross country races.
With that pedigree Keith,along with the likes of Dave Jenkins ( Sunderland) Mickey Page( Houghton le Spring AC), John Marshall and Barrie Evans ( Durham Harriers) was part of a small experienced group who trained with the Striders in the early days and passed on their experience of the running world ,helping to establish the Striders as a new club in the North East, while still competing seriously for other NE clubs.
Keith’s racing experience, advice on targeted training, his careful approach to injury management and peaking for specific races proved invaluable to all of us as we naively explored the running world by doing as many races as possible. His long Sunday runs and hill sessions around his home area of Esh and Cornsay were legendary.
Eventually Keith realised that he could run seriously and also have more fun so left Chester le Street to become a regular with the Striders,turning out for over 20 years at races,relays,Harrier League and the gamut of club events. He was also one of the many club members who gravitated to the Saturday morning runs on Waldridge Fell,where he became a key part of the social off road running there.
Together with his wife Gill he was also a regular at most social functions,parties,fancy dress runs and Christmas handicaps. There was a great deal of truth in the story that most of his costumes were directly from his current wardrobe!!
As a club member Keith was always reliable and committed,a creature of habit who did the races he knew and loved, dragging Gill and his family around the country, often disguised as holiday destinations or weekends away. For 20 years or so when the Calderdale Relay came round he would say ” Put me down for leg 6″ and he would guide his relay partner round, always saving energy for a fast last mile to overtake competing pairs and ensure we weren’t last!!
As an individual Keith often presented as a complaining, Victor Meldrew-like personality, known for a time as Grumpy of Esh,a title bestowed on him by Mudman and Mudwoman, Geoff and Susan Davies. For those who got to know him over the years he was a funny, kind, devoted family man who had a huge amount of detailed knowledge about running, athletics and cycling. If you ever did a long run with him you might also benefit from his more specialist subjects, including cars, aeroplanes,motorbikes ( anything with wheels and/or an engine), wartime airfields of Lincolnshire, Polish steam engines ,the journalistic skills of Suzannah Reid,or the well-hidden musical talents of the Pussycat Dolls.
Post- running on Wednesday nights, refuelled by a pint and his staple chips and gravy,apart from talking about the races coming up in the near future his regular lectures on how not to parent three teenage girls or how to prevent them from ever getting a boyfriend were legendary.
Keith made a significant contribution to the club, especially in the early days,then wearing the Striders vest in races for many years. He will be sadly missed by many friends in the club and our thoughts are with Gill and family after his sudden and unexpected death.
David Shipman, President – Elvet Striders August 2020
I found myself in the unusual position of being able to take a day off at the end of July, so I took my opportunity and booked it. I really wanted to go to the Lakes to run some fells but other commitments meant that a full day trip wasn’t practical, so I started looking a bit closer to home – perhaps the North Yorks Moors or the Yorkshire Dales? I’d never run in the Dales before, so when I came across the Reeth 20k Trail Race and realised it would be about an hour’s drive from home my plan started to take shape.
The weather forecast was scorching, with temperatures due to reach 29C in the afternoon, so I wanted to be finished before it got too hot. I managed a fairly early start, arriving in Reeth just after 8:30 only to find that Friday is market day, with part of the green taken up with the market and a lot of people already parked up. Luckily there was still some space, though, so I parked up and paid £2 into the honesty box for all day parking. After changing my shoes and checking my kit, I was off.
Rather than walk to the normal race start, I decided on a gentle jog in to warm up a bit. I found my way past the chapel and along a back lane to drop down to the river and suspension footbridge. It was deserted as I picked up the race route on the other side and started off at a gentle pace for the first mile or so proper alongside the Swale. At the far end, the path turned away from the river and climbed to the road where I doubled-back for a quarter of a mile, before following the finger-sign pointing me right, up onto the moor and the start of the main climb of the day.
All of the route from here, until reaching this road again, was on clear tracks and very easy to navigate, so much so that I tucked away my map and unconsciously let my Garmin do the work for me (I’d uploaded a copy of the course that I’d found online and checked against the OS map beforehand). Nav beginner mistake number 1! It wasn’t until a little while later when I thought “I don’t know this area and don’t actually know where I am on the map” that I gave myself a virtual cuff around the back of my head and got my act back together. GPS can fail for many reasons and should only ever be a back-up. I worked out where I was along the track from the various features and kept tabs on my position as I went after that.
I’d set off with the intention of running this route in a relatively relaxed way, not treating it as if it were a race, so I was walking the steeper hills (in fact, most of them) and getting moving again on the easier and downhill sections. In reality, I was working reasonably hard, not helped by the heat. I was slathered in factor 50 and turned my cap around to help keep the sun off my neck. I’d drunk a bottle of water with an energy sachet in it on the drive down so I was fairly well hydrated to start and kept taking on water as I went.
I was stopping periodically to take photos as well. There were some great views across Swaledale; this isn’t the rugged, craggy fells of the Lakes and a bit bleak in places on the tops, but with the mostly clear skies and a bit of distant haze there was plenty of scenery to take in, when it was possible to raise my eyes from the track! I also noted a few local features, like the road crash barriers re-purposed as drainage culverts across the track. There were also childrens’ paddling pools being used to create drinking ponds for either the sheep or grouse, it wasn’t obvious which they were intended for.
And if I spooked one grouse, I upped a hundred, they were almost as common as the sheep. A word of caution for anyone heading up there after the not-so-Glorious Twelfth (of August) – I’m sure a lot of this route will have grouse shoots going on, so better to check before travelling down. There were a lot of other birds around too (none that I got a clear enough view to identify) as well as the ever-present sheep (mostly Swaledales, of course).
The track climbed continuously, with a couple of respites, until a T junction on Whitaside Moor at about 4.2 miles into the race route (4.8 miles for my run). Turning left, the climb continued right up until crossing the fence that runs over High Carl and Gibbon Hill and marks the top of the southern ridge of High Carl. From there, the track enters Apedale (at least, the beck is called Apedale Beck and the track Apedale Road, so I’m calling it Apedale). Here it starts to drop, so I took the chance to open up my stride a little and benefit from gravity. I still needed to be cautious as the surface underfoot in the steeper top section was still pretty stony. It would be very easy to turn an ankle and this is a pretty remote part from which to need rescuing and combined with the pressure it would put on Mountain Rescue due to Covid-19 restrictions I wanted to make sure I avoided that. Further down, where the gradient eased, the surface improved and this was a chance to really get moving, hitting sub-7 minute miles at some points (put in the context of a 15 minute third mile during the climb and getting on for an 11 minute mile average over the whole run, this should give you an idea of how much fun the downhills were!). Another thought going through my mind was not to get too carried away as I knew I had another decent climb to come.
The sign this climb is approaching is reaching Dent’s Houses, which are just the other side of another gate across the track. At the crossroads, a left turn took me almost immediately up towards Greets Hill. Near the top there’s a small quarry (stay to the right, towards the cairn, if you want to avoid the quarry itself) and the fence junction at the top marks the end of the second climb. From here, the bridleway became more grass than stone, which was much more pleasant to run on and allowed a pretty rapid descent to the road across Grinton Moor.
Apart from a farm crew repairing the track early on, this is where I saw my first people of the day, as a couple of cyclists passed slogging their way uphill. I was pleased to still be descending, even if on tarmac for a bit. It wasn’t long (a third of a mile or so) before I was back off onto the bridleways and heading up the valley above Grovebeck Gill. This was a marginal incline – noticeable by this stage (I was 10 miles in) but eminently runnable. The target was the spoil heap and building visible up the valley, at which point the track turned and I was back into downhill mode.
Approaching a complex-looking junction, I quickly re-checked the map – straight on – and continued the descent. Rockier underfoot here, so cautious again. Eventually the track reached a field above the road and this is where I made my first minor nav error, following the bridleway to the right as I hadn’t seen the track branch off left, cutting off the corner. Not to worry, no big deal. Another short stretch of road before a right turn at Harkerside Place which has a footpath signpost to Reeth – nearly home. This is where race signage or marshalling would have helped because the footpath signs get a bit sparse. With a few false starts and a minor detour I eventually got back on the right path and dropped down to the “finishing field”.
I decided that the end of the suspension footbridge would be my finish point – I would have regretted running all the way back up the path to the village. And besides which, the crowds had started to come out – there were kids swimming in the river, people queuing to take photographs of the bridge (no, I’m not kidding), dog walkers…I was just glad I’d set off early!
In the end my route recorded as 13.2 miles with 560m of climb, which included a 0.6 mile warm-up from the village and a couple of small nav errors in the last mile, so 20km / 12.5 miles was pretty much spot on.
The village green was even busier when I got back but after taking a steamed-up “finished!” selfie and a quick change I couldn’t help starting my recovery with a good mix of protein and carbs from the Ice Cream Parlour.
This was a great route with some lovely views of the Dales. It was very quiet despite the glorious weather and with the combination of distance and climb should prove to be a helpful session ahead of some Lakeland runs, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
It is with huge regret that I have to announce the death of Keith Wesson, long term member of Elvet Striders, Cestria cyclist and regular Waldridge Warrior. Having undergone successful cancer surgery Keith was re-admitted into hospital where he died on Thursday. Our thoughts and condolences go to Gill and the family at this difficult time.
There was no familiar Striders’ Coach, no crowded streets and huddled masses and no clandestine trips into the Cathedral to use their toilets. Only a quick 5-minute jaunt in the car to get to the start line this year. No Can Can dancers and no historic bell to signify the start, just a couple of bemused students and a last-minute panic on how to operate Spotify.
Having parked at the Duke of Wellington myself and Michael did a steady mile and a half warm up to the start line (the only time in recent history we have ran together!). Race nerves were heightened even for a virtual event and we were already getting all our excuses in before the race started. The start line was marked by a road sign at the roundabout at the top of Southfield Way, Michael set off and very quickly peeled away as expected. With Allan’s wise words ringing in my ears I still set off far too fast (typical of Blaydon) and was soon zooming along past Whitesmocks and towards Durham Johnston. A sub 8mm first mile! Will I ever learn?
Of course, it was not the same as racing with hundreds of others through the city centre streets of Newcastle but there were still important sights to see. On my right, there’s St Nicholas Drive, familiar now for its Saturday morning non parkrun event frequented by the Robsons and the Masons. Then the Strava segment between Neville’s Cross and the Duke, the times I have sprinted that section in an effort to beat my time. And then past the bunting opposite the Duke marking the finish of the non-London Marathon event attended by Corrine, Anna, Karen, and Sarah.
Now the slog along from the Duke to the Cock of the North, surely that stretch is about 500 miles long?? After what seemed a lifetime, I headed down South Road. A loving glance towards Low Burnhall Woods carpark, gateway to the Willow Miner. Some (fond???) memories of chasing around the car park at Sniperley park and ride, do I miss the Theatre of Dreams? A footpath noted towards Mount Oswald, as yet unexplored by me, now on the list. South Road is not wholly downhill, and that first mile began to bite. I slowed slightly but was still far ahead of my expected pace.That wonderful stretch at the bottom of the hill towards Whitechurch I felt I was flying! The times myself and Michael spent in that establishment under its former name The New Inn when we first met. The hours watching him play on the golf game machine with Chris and Matty. He certainly knew how to woo a girl. Gosh we were vastly different people then!
Dashing past the Science site, memories of all those hill reps! And then the little bump up and then the glorious down towards the traffic lights at Maiden Castle. Still get a little lump in my throat as I pass the track.
There were no cheering crowds along the route handing out orange segments and jelly babies. No live music either just my trusty playlist in my headphones and the occasional friendly smile and wave from other passing runners some evidently following the same plan, busting a gut while wearing their Blaydon shirts with pride. At Maiden Castle, I definitely started to wane and wished the race were 5 miles rather than 6. Had Michael measured this correctly? Could I manage a further mile and a half? I safely crossed the road at the Rose Tree and headed up the path towards noisy bridge. Another familiar and well-trodden route. Past the bridge and the old turnaround point and across the skinny bridge. Still some distance to go… Surely Michael would not make me run up a hill to the finish?? And where was he anyway? He had promised to turn back and accompany me to the finish line and there was no sign of him, had he fallen in the river?
And the perfect song comes on my playlist.
O-o-h Child by The Five Stairsteps. A track from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack so a welcome reminder of times with my two beautiful boys. And these lyrics: Ooh child Things are gonna get easier Ooh child Things’ll get brighter Some day, yeah We’ll put it together and we’ll get it undone Some day When your head is much lighter Some day We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun Some day When the world is much brighter.
God, I hope so…
This gives me the push to finish in style, could almost be described as a sprint….
6 miles. 49:06. 8:10mm average pace. A 5k pb and on track to beat my 10k pb. And where was my husband to share my glory?? Oh, here he comes. Lolloping along the riverbank with a carrier bag in hand. No Blaydon beer in the goody bag, no black pudding, pickled onion, and ham and pease pudding stottie but Michael did provide a bottle of cider and even remembered the bottle opener.
I was astounded by my time given I have done no real speed work in lockdown and covered far more miles through run/walking or just walking so, this came as a real surprise. When we got home, I asked Lewis to guess how I’d done ‘sub 50 minutes, about 8mm pace?’ Turns out he knows me better than I know myself, or perhaps he just believes in me more.
Oh, and as an addendum. Michael did cracking too. 34:10 – superb pb. A good night in June for the Littlewoods
Michael Littlewood’s club challenge for the week was to get the most elevation in half an hour or an hour. For me, that came with parallels for my last 2 months and I wanted to make sense of that time before my next challenge – another kind of chemo for my brain tumour.
Before anything else, I hope all are well and can still run. For me, my consultant says I can get out but shouldn’t shop
I’ll start on a good bit. On 6th March I caught the buses to Wolsingham and ran the 19 miles home. The longest run since my 20s, there were some proper climbs at the start and I could see snow on the tops further West.
The second half was mostly cycle tracks – much easier. I’d love to get out there again.
On the 10th I went for an MRI – results can take ages. Then on the 14th came the race at the Lambton Estate. I took the wrong shoes for the hard ground. Pilates had pushed my gait to the limit. It was the last cross-country so of course I pushed it despite the feel. I was an idiot and I limped away from the finish line
Four days later I limped to chemo – but there were to be no pills this time. Instead my consultant came to see me. The tumour showed a ‘fleck’ that shouldn’t be there; I’d had twenty rounds of chemo and was hitting the limits; I should help my immune system fight covid 19 if needed. It wasn’t a huge surprise to stop chemo but the only up-side at this point was alcohol. It doesn’t take much after so many months off!
Back home, my ankle was too bust to run, all gyms were closed but… a recent optician’s test looked OK, my bike was still there… I took my son out on the pavements. Then I started going out on the road, sometimes alone and pushing it, sometimes with a child or two and enjoying that too. I got as high as Burnhope. It was lovely.
At the end of April I started running again. With cycling and Pilates it’s one hell of combination. On the 27th I cycled to and from Newcastle for the follow up MRI. No need for my wife to drive me – and the kids – to the hospital. No need for public transport. Quiet roads provided the best option for the virus. A slow ride North to minimise the sweat; a pannier with a change of clothes… and 17 miles flat out home in the sunshine.
The call came the next day. The tumour is growing – even I can see it in the images (November-April. The latter is on a newer MRI. All MRIs are upside down, so right=left).
I will finish the three month break, then start on the next type of oral chemo. As before, it’s palliative. Because of covid, the blood test will happen in my home, then be checked by the hospital. The pills will be delivered to my door and are as dangerous as last time, so they go on a shelf that only I can reach. It’s somehow very normal. The NHS has looked after me for more than half a decade
Later that week I took my son out on his first proper climb, up to Sacriston. He kept going, used his gears, eased off on the flat. For a few seconds on the way down we were doing more than 30 mph. I’m so glad we did that, even if it’s just once. He ached for days afterwards. I hope he remembers the down bit too!
On Sunday 3rd May I went for a run before breakfast. 3 miles in, most of the way up the side of a field, things went wrong. I fell over on the familiar footpath. The route looked wrong somehow. I slowed down and took the shortest pavements home. I ate breakfast, got a shower… still not all here. Julie took me to A&E. The kids stayed in the car. The doctor found I was missing all my sight on the right hand side. I could say my name but not much else. Julie couldn’t understand me. My head ached.
Late that afternoon I’d slept and the paracetamol had eased things. I could talk but reading was a nightmare. I went home with five days of steroids. I know, now, that the problem had probably been a seizure. The first knocked me out back in 2018, this was my second.
To write this, I’ve had to work out some of the words. Misspellings had the right sound but the wrong letters. Reading is variable. My sight isn’t missing the full half any more but it’s rough first thing. Cycling is stopped again. Whether things get better or not depends on whether the chemo works. I’ll find out in August. Another chemo reps challenge would be good.
In the meantime, my body is registered to train medical students and I want to leave them the best specimen I can. A club challenge is just what I needed. I’d cycled Charlaw Fell and knew it was about as high as I could get to. I looked for the lowest – the Wear at Cocken Bridge, less than a mile from home – and suddenly there was a new route. Back roads, only half with pavements – but my left sight is fine. I couldn’t resist this one. I even got down to the river to start, just 10 metres above sea level.
The first climb was 45m up in 600m running. The next stretch was flatter with some dips, then over the dual carriageway and steeper up to Nettlesworth. ‘Gentle’ climbing, then down Cross Lane in Sacriston. Then up and up on Acornclose Lane and the steep climb to the Trig point 232m above sea level. 222 metres up, 4.5 miles in 37:30. Glorious.
For me, there’s a purity to that line. East to West, bottom to top, one aim – but it didn’t seem quite right for a half-hour/one hour challenge. My thinking was that a long up-down-up was better than reps – two-thirds up not half – so back I went to Charlaw Fell, via Norburn Lane this time. I think I got the pace right – I was certainly pumping my lungs by the end and the last stretch is steeper. It was a great thing to aim for but, given Alex Mirley’s ‘lunch run’ of 890 metres elevation, it clearly wasn’t perfect! Still, 221 metres climbing in 30 minutes with a 6:23 mile in the middle can’t be bad.
There was a niggle though – how close to half an hour could the river-Trig course be? I’d start on the bridge, not by the river. I would push the pace. On the way home from the up-down-up I found ways to cut corners in Sacriston and Nettlesworth… a second attempt beckoned, and this time there would be me to race.
This is where ‘me’ gets complicated. For a while on the 3rd I lost the kids’ names – but I still loved them. I can, I hope, cope with losing tools like words and sight, but sometimes I wonder if there’s some ‘me’ missing – and there’s no way to find out. This is far from unique – my grandfather and many others died of Alzheimer’s. That doesn’t make it any easier. While I remember, you’ve probably seen comments on medical diagnoses not happening. The hospitals are separating covid 19 from other illnesses. GPs are doing phone appointments. If you or someone you know have something wrong that should be looked at, please go find out about it. Give yourself a head start. Lecture over, back to racing whichever version of me ran 37:30.
All the advantages of a second go: knowing how hard to push it because you know what’s coming; knowing the short-cuts; in this case, giving myself a head start – 16 metres above sea level this time. Downside of three climbs in a week? There were bits of me that were sore before I started. Result: top of Acornclose Lane (193m) in 30 minutes dead. Top of Charlaw Fell in 33:04 having nearly thrown up. Quarter of a mile less distance, 6 metres less height – but pace going from 8:20 per mile to 7:47 and that view again. I don’t want to stop doing this.
I wake alone on the floor of the van, my sleeping bag around me in a twisted mess, rain is hammering down on the roof. Where am I? I open my eyes and roll over to look out the window, its daylight, my watch says its 13:00. I feel like I’m 9 again, having successfully wrangled one extra day off sick from school, but mum, knowing full well what I’m up to forces me to stay in bed all day.
I try to remember what’s outside the van and realise I’m in Capel Curig, the meeting point for our Paddy Buckley attempt.
Now I need a wee, I glance over to the bottle in the corner, it’s already perilously full from last night. Perhaps if I fart it’ll take the pressure off for a few more hours? Dangerous game that. I recall a gas fitter friend who admitted going to the loo in his van as he was fed up with cleaning folk’s mucky toilets after he’d carefully used them. I pull the sleeping bag up over my head, try not to think about what’s to come and fall back asleep.
I wake again at 16:30, we’re meeting at 18:00 so I figure it’s time to get up. Half dressed I peer out of the van door into the fresh air and I’m greeted by Graham Thomas, who’s arrived early and instantly comments on how much he still loves my hair, I reply it’s a work in progress but that I think I’m through the awkward phase. He’d planned to run the round but has a few niggles so he’s supporting legs 1 and 3 with his dog Edwin – a Springer-fauve de Bretagne cross. I wonder if he’ll still be tempted to have a crack at it anyway. I put a brew on for us and gobble down my breakfast porridge.
My Dad and twin-sister Faith arrive shortly after, “Can I get a hell yeah?!?” she exclaims and shows me the tick bites she got from a recent trip to Etna complete with lyme-disease rings, “It’s not infectious”, very cool. “We’ve made everyone a stack load of pasties, brownies and flapjack, all vegan”. It sounds delicious right now but I know I’ll struggle to get it down later.
Martin Wilson joins our growing group. Mild-mannered and dependable, he’s our support for legs 1, 2 and 5 – he just asks if I’m ready. I nod and take one last look at my feet – sorry fellas, smother them in Vaseline, inspect my socks for grass seeds and lace up my shoes.
Tim Wiggins, who’s running the round with me arrives with his wife Lee and Nala the dog – who bounds out of the pickup and makes a beeline for Edwin’s breakfast. We briefly say hi, shake hands and give each other a hug, there’ll be time to catch up later. We all pile into two cars and head to Pont Cae’r Gors, our start point for the round at 19:00. The cloud lifts as we drive to Beddgelert revealing towering damp rocky fells on all sides – I try to suppress the nerves.
What the fuck am I doing?
The weather has finally settled down, ex-hurricane Lorenzo fizzled out to nothing. We gather the last of our gear at the start point, switch on the GPS tracker and pose for a quick photo, its 18:50. Too cold to stand here for another 10 minutes, shall we go? Just like that we’re off.
We cross the A4085, jump the gate and start the boggy climb to Craig Wen. Ten strides in and my feet are sodden – welcome to Wales!
We take the first climb easy, admiring the glowing sunset on the nantlle ridge over our shoulder, it’ll be a while before we cross that ground. We chat about how Martin broke his finger during a recent fell race, but pulled it back into place and still ran well. We keep calling Edwin to heel from sheep on the horizon.
One summit down, 46 to go, we’re 15 minutes down on our ambitious 21-hour schedule.
The wind whips the grass tussocks as we run along the ridge towards Yr Aran, the light quickly fades and we put on our head torches. It was great to start in the daylight. A quick summit to Yr Aran and on fresh legs we make easy work of the long slippery descent to the base of the southern ascent of Snowdon via Cribau Tregalan. We briefly lose the trod part way up the climb, a common occurrence on this round less travelled, but Edwin sniffs out the trod up ahead and shows us the way. As we traverse Bwlch Main the conversation shifts to the perils of internet dating, always a popular topic between Graham and I. We cover what makes a successful profile photo, how to secure a date or two and why it is that the best ones are always a little bit bonkers. Tim, being the only married gent in our group of exceptionally eligible bachelors shakes his head in disbelief. Before we know it the rest of the climb passes without drama, we smell the diesel fumes from the cafe generator and the summit of Snowdon looms into view amongst the thin cloud.
We touch the brass-plated trig point in turn and head down the staircase tourist track. Easy running now, our pace quickens. Graham and Edwin cross paths mid-bound, Edwin comes out the worse off. He briefly yelps in pain then resumes his place at the front of our group, “sorry buddy”.
We slow to make sure we hit the junction for Crib y Ddysgl marked by the standing stone, here we pass two lads camping out at what looks like a race checkpoint, they ask and we reply we’re on the round. We’ve already passed them as they shout back to wish us luck. I head in front on the gentle climb to the top, cairn after cairn comes out of the mist in my head torch beam. Then the clag really closes in. I start to doubt my nav and I sense we’re heading downhill. Where is the summit? “It’s still further on”, Tim reassures us, and sure enough it’s the next thing to come into view. We’re still only 15-minutes down on our schedule, good to be holding pace. Graham takes a bearing from the trig and we descend west through the boulder field. I glance back to check that Martin is still with us as he hasn’t spoken for awhile, and of course he’s still there just getting on with it. We cross over the tourist path at the old station platform, then the railway line and continue the westard bearing to pick up the ranger path. The temperature rises quickly as we lose altitude and we make stops to take off sweaty gear and to drink. We make short work of the remaining grassy peaks, I feel very strong but we’re only three hours in and I sense I’m pushing too hard. I ease off the pace and focus on eating and drinking. Chat quietens down now, we’re all thinking about the warm food in Llanberis.
We tick off Moel Eilio and make the ridgeline descent towards the lights of Llanberis. We hadn’t reccied a line through the farmer’s fields to link up with road support, but a bit of off-piste descending through bracken on a compass bearing and Edwin’s trusty nose does us right and we make the road support point 12 minutes down on schedule. The road crew have all the food and drinks out ready for us to devour, winner! It’s 23:00 and as I munch on a pasty my brain suggests now would be a sensible time to lie down and sleep. We leave the Llanberis support crew along with Graham and Edwin after a 15 minute stop, pretty much on schedule. Tim and I agree it’s going to plan – one leg down, four more to go.
We start the climb out of Llanberis along the mine access path, high slate walls line our route, then through the parallel ruins of single story barracks that were once miner’s accommodation. I try to imagine what it must have been like to work here during the peak of slate production.
We reach the bottom of the incline that will take us straight up through the quarries. We discuss how much water we’re carrying between us given the mild temperatures and consider if the high voltage cables within the shallow concrete conduit we’re to clamber over are still live, the warning signs look pretty fresh.
We make steady progress to the top of the incline, as we clamber we’re accompanied by the distinctive clap of slate slabs underfoot and their echo off the big quarry walls, the lights of Llanberis spread out below and we follow the fence line to the access road of the reservoir, taking care to avoid castration as we hurdle the high barbed wire. We head left then follow the straight line trod through heather and boulders to Elidir Fach the first peak on this leg, then traverse the loose slope up towards Elidir Fawr. I’ve pushed hard on this climb, well ahead of our intended pace. Tim and Martin are being sensible and have hung back, sticking to the plan. Their headtorches are easy to spot in the darkness and I wait for them here, my heart thumping against my ribs.
I recall the advice given to me at Moot Hall by Andy Blackett before my Bob Graham, relating to glycogen and heart rate when on a round, essentially keep your heart rate down and don’t thrash your legs, otherwise you’re screwed. I stare at the black horizon and concentrate on getting my heart rate back down, if this is even possible, as Tim and Martin pass by with a few choice words about exactly what it’s like when your legs blow up. Point taken I drop in behind.
We skirt the rocky ridge and the sheltered hollow of Elidir Fawr then zig-zag up the ridge before the grassy climb to Mynydd Perfedd. I let Martin know this one is an out and back, but he comes along anyway. He’s going so well I wonder who’s supporting whom. If Tim and I bail he’ll definitely finish the job!
We pick up the pace on the grassy descent and loose switchback climbs of Foel-goch and Y Garn. I let Tim and Martin know this is a good climb to grab a bite to eat. Tim is leading the way but I can tell he’s going through a rough patch, I try to break the strenuous silence with uplifting conversation, which must be thoroughly annoying and we both know he’s just got to ride this one out. We top out at Y Garn as the clag closes in quickly. I try to figure out the height of the cloud base and look west out into the darkness towards the rocky moonscape of the Glyders and Tryfan, a challenging piece of ground but all that’s between us and the next support point.
It’s now 01:30, 6 1/2 hours in. I take a moment for a deep breath of cool mountain air, to forget the task at hand and to appreciate being in the hills with friends.
We enjoy the easy running down past Devil’s Kitchen to Llyn y Cwn and the loose gully climb to Glyder Fawr. The clag has really closed in now but we find the summit easily, so far so good. We head east from here towards Glyder Fach and pick up a faint path through the boulder field. Our pace slows as judging shape and depth of the boulders becomes more difficult as the wind swirls the mist in our headtorch light. We hit the smooth narrow path before Castell y Gwynt and contour around the southern side. Then it all goes to shit.
I’ve misjudged our distance travelled and feel the need to start to push on north from here, taking a bearing uphill through increasingly larger and angular slabs of rock. We scramble and jump between the slabs and eventually come up against a sheer wall of rock. We find some footholds and make it to the top of the outcrop, only to find it descends as steeply on the other side. We’ve gone wrong somewhere and it seems we are trying to summit the Castell.
I’d done this particular line in the daylight on a previous recce with two lads from Lancashire I met on the trail who were also out for a recce. I followed their nav and we took this exact route and it didn’t end up all too bad. But in the dark and clag mid round it’s all going to hell. We double back on ourselves and try to skirt round the southern flank of the Castell but we end up getting disorientated again and ending back at the sheer wall we just climbed. I can feel the minutes passing and try not to panic. Eventually Tim demands we take a bearing to Glyder Fach and to stick to it. I agree and say that he must ignore my gut feeling to change direction. We head off on the bearing, I tell Tim I don’t think it feels right, he ignores me as per the plan and we make it out of the Castell and eventually find the small rocky summit of Glyder Fach and the easy out and back ascent to the top from the south east. Goodness knows how much time we’ve lost here.
We make the steep loose descent north east and start the climb to Tryfan. We climb over the stone wall in the col of Bwlch Tryfan and begin the ascent of Tryfan. Each time I’ve reccied this ascent I’ve done it a slightly different way, all with success, but this is my first ascent at night. Things go to plan and we top out next to the far southern peak, scramble round to the left and make the final climb up to Adam and Eve. I know the summit well and pick up the descent path, but the clag is thick. We spread out and take our time on this descent. Tim is starting to struggle and I sense he hasn’t really come out of the bad patch he was in earlier. My fannying about on the Glyders won’t have helped matters either.
Eventually we hit the tourist path and make the grassy run in to the checkpoint at Ogwen Cottage, at 05:00, 10 hours in and a whole 02:30 down on the 21 hour schedule but having crossed the toughest terrain on the round in pretty crap conditions. My sister gives me a hug and passes me a bowl of warm soup and bread. “You took a long time, we were worried about you”. I reply that I was worried about us too but that we made it ok.
The plan from here is for Graham to support the next leg to Capel Curig, but there’s been a mix up and he’s nowhere to be seen and isn’t answering his mobile. He would have been here already given that we are properly behind schedule, so it looks like he’s not coming along. Tim and I could really do with some support. I look over to Martin, having just done two legs for us already, loaded up like a packhorse and down for leg 5 later in the day, I get a strong facial expression back but no words – he’s not up for it. I glance over to Tim. He’s already figured out the deal. He’s not looking great and Lee is having a concerned looking discussion with him. I feel he might have had enough, which would leave me to do this leg on my own. I tuck into my soup, head down, I’m planning how to convince my crew to let me head onwards into the night on my own, finesse is not my strong point. I finish my soup and stand to see Tim has put his headtorch on. “You’re coming along then?”, he nods. Lee gives me a concerned look and says to be careful as he didn’t want to go. I say I understand.
We head down the road to begin the ascent of Pen yr Ole Wen. Tim – thank you – you knew they wouldn’t have let me head out alone and so carried on, even though you really didn’t want to. I owe you big time.
We keep the chat up on the long ascent and take things steady. We discuss how far we’re off schedule and how keeping the pace down here right now is the best way forward. We make the summit and head north into the Carneddau. The clag is still down very thick, but we enjoy the first bit of easy running underfoot for the last few hours.
I’m starting to feel very tired and struggling to concentrate. For those that don’t know this round, there are rocks, lots and lots of rocks. The placement of your foot on every stride requires thought.
We start the gradual ascent of Carnedd Dafydd, having been on the go for 11 hours and my poorly adjusted body clock is fighting back. I follow Tim, his head down as a dull shape in the clag as he zig-zags between the ankle-high rocks on what must be a faint trod, and I zig-zag along in his footsteps, the blind leading the blind. Perhaps he’s choosing the most efficient line? We haven’t spoken for at least 30 minutes. Blood sugar is low and both our brains are barely ticking over.
Friends often ask what it’s like to do a round. I explain that you disappear into this magical world where life becomes very simple and you disregard all but the single-minded task of making progress over terrain. Only the rounds are long enough to get to this place and it’s in the days and weeks after that I long to return to this place. This for me is one component that makes the rounds so special and it was at this point that the door to this world opened for me, this is why I come to run these rounds, finally – I’m in. “Mate you’re gonna have to go first, I’m falling asleep here”, I realise I’ve not been pulling my weight and move past Tim to keep us on track.
We keep moving but the ground is relentlessly rough and devoid of any significant features, it feels like an endless rocky conveyor belt. The October night feels equally endless, “It’s getting light now mate, won’t be long until we can up the pace” Tim says, I glance over to the east, it looks deep black to me but with Tim being a navy lad I don’t question it, perhaps he’s referring to nautical twilight? He’s right of course and at long last the terrain gradually expands out in front of us from our dim 5 meter headtorch halo to a well-lit 30 meters in the mist. Now that we can see where we need to be running our spirits and pace lift. Finally the sky starts to lighten and right on cue I need the loo. One of my best in recent times, I feel like a weight has been dropped and I’m lighter on my feet for it.
We make quick work of the run off of Carnedd Llywelyn and the Bwlch Eryl Farchog ridge, it’s at this point that I start to get a pain in the outside of my right knee – it’s typical IT band pain and I know that it’ll be with me until the end. It’s partly masked by my tiredness and the rest of the aching in my legs. I dig out the blob of voltarol from my pack in a small wrap of clingfilm. I pretend it’s making a difference as I rub it on my knee and carry on regardless.
We pass the first group of early morning hikers on the descent from Pen yr Helgi Du, they give us a cheery set of smiles, which is encouraging to see instead of the classic opened mouth stare which usually signals we aren’t looking too chipper. We make the climb to the top of Pen Llithrig y Wrach, the last for this leg. Tim smiles and pats me on the back. I return the gesture. He looks properly done in and I want to be sick. He says he’s had enough now and I point out it’s all downhill to Capel Curig from here.
As we descend I hear the drone of an engine down in the valley. It’s a high revving 4-cylinder motorcycle. I hear the rider drop down a gear going into a corner and the revs build as they exit the bend and set away down the road. This is comforting as it tells me two things – we must be close to Capel Curig; and that the weather is likely to remain settled for at least the next few hours.
Tim picks up the pace as we make the run to Capel Curig. The tiny uphill slope feels like a killer as we stagger into the car park behind the Joe Brown shop to a crowd of support crew.
14 hours in and 3h30m behind schedule. Three legs down, two to go. I see a familiar face. It’s Ewan Brown, a friend from my time in Edinburgh. He’s a local lad, runs for the Scottish hill running team and is an absolute beast of an athlete. I’d let him know I was doing the round this weekend and he was keen to be involved but we hadn’t finalised plans. He must have found my schedule one way or another but I wasn’t expecting to see him here. I give him a nod. I get emotional about the unexpected support and feel my eyes start to fill up with tears.
The plan now is for Patrick Bonnett and Ross, a climbing friend of Graham’s who I’ve just met to support the epic 7 hour leg from here through the Moelwyns to Nantmor. As I sit down to eat Patrick already has his phone out, “Smile for the camera!”, I give him a big cheesy one but can’t help feeling like the dancing monkey in some wicked show. I guess you can’t question folk’s interest in your own selfimposed destruction. Graham has returned from wherever he was at and points out I’m still on track for sub 24 hours if I can smash this one out in 7 hours. Ross and Patrick are raring to go and this lifts my spirits as I give Tim a departing handshake.
We jog along the road to start the long climb up to Moel Siabod. Ross and Patrick are chatting away and asking how the night was. I splutter out a few details about us getting stuck in the Castell and that I’m glad it’s daylight now, they have a spring in their stride but slow up once they see I only have one gear. Patrick is a veteran runner who supported me in my Bob Graham round last year. It’s great to have him here again and I’m pushed on by the fact that he’s kindly made the overnight trip down from Durham amongst his busy work schedule – you can’t mess about when there’s an elder in attendance!
We make use of the climbing time to sort out the food and water for this leg. An extensive menu of goodies is reeled off and I manage to cram in a gel on the way up. I’ve had trouble with my stomach shutting down on long runs and I’m mindful I need to keep eating even though I don’t feel like it. This leg is a long one but we have plenty of food between us. We top out on Moel Siabod just behind schedule for this leg and enjoy the long grass descent.
Ross hasn’t run this leg before but leads up ahead with a gps which I’d loaded up with a track put together from my reccies. We make good time over the next few tops and I’m being pushed on by the undulating terrain and Ross’ pace. I have short spurts of decent pace but then drop back into first gear. I’m being constantly badgered to eat, but I don’t feel up for it. I rummage around in my pack and find half of a slab of dark chocolate that someone must have slipped in there at Capel Curig without me noticing. I make the mental suggestion of it to my stomach and it agrees – I eat the whole lot in one go. My energy immediately lifts along with my vision and balance. I catch Ross up and decide that I haven’t seen him eat in awhile, I ask him if he’s eating ok. He laughs at the fact that I’m worried about him. It might seem like compassion on my part but really I’m just checking he’s able to carry me when the time comes. The weather is remaining still and clear and we make steady progress with ticking off the multitude of little tops that make up this section of the round.
I discuss with Patrick about why these seemly minor lumps of rock have been included in the round, perhaps they are significant in Welsh folklore? Or maybe it’s just to break up the long steady slog through the heather and bog of this section. Perhaps Paddy Buckley thought we’d be missing the rocks by now? My impression was that this section was the hardest to nav and easy to miss some of the smaller tops and so I’d reccied this section of the round a number of times in both directions and even gone to the trouble to rebuild some of the summit cairns, which I was pleased to see were still standing.
We make our way up to Allt-fawr which signals the end of the little tops and onwards to the big tops of the Moelwyns proper to the south of Rhsydd quarry village. Up to now Patrick had been following me, I’d been following Ross who had himself been following the gps track. A perfect setup, until the gps decided to crap itself and die – I don’t blame it, it was an old garmin model I’d had for years and clearly this jaunt was the final straw. I felt like doing the same. But now Ross didn’t know where to go so we had to switch things up.
Much to the delight of Patrick it was time to go oldschool and get the compass out. I think he tried hard to hide his satisfaction that the electronic cheating device had bailed out on us but I spotted it nonetheless. I mostly knew the way from here but given my past nav error and just to be sure Patrick took a bearing, paused for a moment then pointed. And so Ross sprinted off in that direction and I hobbled along behind. Occasionally Patrick would shout from the back. We’d both stop, look around and he’d point in a new direction and we’d set off back in that direction. It was a comical chain of command but it worked well and made a refreshing change to the proceedings.
We made decent pace on the southern loop section of the leg, choosing not to dump some of our gear at the quarry village. Patrick was flagging a bit on the steep grassy climb up to Moel-yr-hydd but he kept pace with us along to Llyn Stwlan reservoir. It was at this point that he decided it’d be best to wait in the col for Ross and I to do the out and back to Moelwyn Bach on our own, with just a map and a compass. What could go wrong? As usual I was happy I knew the way and so we cracked on.
We traversed on the eastern side of the mountain and I remember there being a steep climb up through a grassy gully to pick up the trod. Except the gully wasn’t there and so we carried on contouring round to the east. Ross hadn’t run this section before and so it was all down to me. Had I just screwed up again? The trail looked unfamiliar so I decided we take a bearing west and straight line it up the summit. We scrabbled up the grassy bank and onto a broad rocky top, which also looked unfamiliar. Oops. We traced a few large circles to try to find something familiar but it all looked new to me. We took a look at the map and decided to head north towards ground I should know and after a few minutes we hit the familiar trod to the final climb. When we finally made it back to the col Patrick wondered what we’d been doing on such a simple out and back. We gave him the compass back pretty quick!
Regrouped we set off on the narrow climb up to Craig Ysgarn. This is one of my favourite sections of the round. It feels exposed and deep within the mountains. We continued the climb to Moelwyn Mawr, but I was really starting to flag now. My stomach wasn’t wanting food and I was starting to trip up over the rocks. We made it to the top and decided to take a minute to try and get some food in, I think they could see I couldn’t keep going. I didn’t have anything I fancied in my pack and the usual offered options of gels, crisps and bananas came up short too, until Ross rummaged out a block of Jamaican ginger cake. I used to have it with custard as a kid. My eyes relay the massage to my stomach and the green light is given. But Ross says there’s a problem, he’s not sure if it’s vegan – I tell him not to check and cram it down my throat.
Once again I’ve got some energy and we begin the descent back to the quarry village. A tough section of the round done, but I can sense we are well off the pace. Patrick takes the low level shortcut on the access track to Nantmor leaving Ross and I to tackle the final top of this leg, the aptly named ‘Cnicht’, which I assume is Welsh for ‘the bitch’, along with the 3 mile run out. We cut off of the access track and through to rough grass tussocks, descend to the dam of Llyn Cwm-y-foel and begin the straight ascent up the grassy slope. The ginger cake has filtered through to my legs and I decide I’d rather get it over with quick and bash on ahead and wait once I hit the hiker path. Ross follows quick behind and we top out shortly after. We shake hands, the last one done for this leg and just the run in to do now. Except I’d forgotten how horrendous the descent of Cnicht is.
The trail cuts across the foliation of the slate here, which is of great interest if you’re into your geology, but for everyone else it just means lots of exposed slippery rock. A lot of bum sliding saw done here to make it down and I start to get frustrated at how slowly I’m going. Eventually we hit the landrover track and I’m guessing by now Patrick is already tucking into this soup at Nantmor. Ross leads ahead and I try to keep up with the pace as best I can, my right knee is really pinching now, my feet are swelling and the rim of my sucks are cutting into the front of my shins. We make it to the National Trust car park. 22 hours in and 4h30m down on schedule. It’s 17:00. Four legs down, one to go.
I’m lifted by the energy of the support crew. My sister has convinced Ewan to set up the back of his van with a bed and blanket in case I want to rest. He’s left the side door open and they point to say I can go in there for a rest if I want to. It looks heaven but I know if I get in there I won’t be coming back out again so I politely decline. There’s no doubt between them now that I’ll finish. They ask where I’m sleeping at the end of this, I say it’ll be in the back of the van at Capel Curig and we joke about my van being towed by the police for overstaying with me asleep in the back.
I manage to gobble down some more soup and a handful of brownies. I change my top and socks for the first time as my top half is sodden with sweat and it is starting to rain. Ewan and Martin are ready to go. Ewan has a map and asks where the gps is. I pause and break the news that it didn’t make it. He looks concerned. I assure him that I know this round well having reccied it many times and that he has nothing to worry about… I also note that him being Welsh will do us right.
We cross the old stone bridge in the valley bottom and climb up through the trees on an overgrown and washed out stone path. Martin is in good spirits having had a sleep in the car. Ewan and I catch up having not seen each other for a few years. We ascend to the wall corner on the heather slopes of Bryn Banog and take a bearing to the top which comes easily. I explain that I’m not fussed about the pace but just to make sure that I hit all the tops. I don’t want someone pointing out tomorrow that I missed one. Ewan is happy with the nav being on home terrain and I follow his line, which is more direct that those which I’ve reccied, and takes us across some rough wet ground. I plow on knowing that there’s only so much more of this left. Martin digs out some vegan jelly sweets, I offer them one or two each and then down the rest in a couple of mouthfulls. I also manage to get in two gels and stick another in the front pocket of my jacket for the next climb.
We make the steep rocky ascent up to Moel Hebog which reminds me of the slog up Yewbarrow from Wasdale. We don’t stop at the top and go straight into the steep grassy descent with burning legs. Me knees are aching with every step but I make it down in a respectable pace.
I imagine the route in my mind and count the tops left. There’s 5, out of 47. I ask if we can start counting these down now? Martin and Ewan agree this is a good call. I take a look at my watch I’m just under 24 hours in. Can I make it back in under 26 hours?
We crack on with Ewan doing all the nav. He stuffs the map in his jacket and says he’s knows the rest now. We tick off Moel yr Ogof (4 to go) and Moel Lefn (3 to go). Then I realise that number is too low. I ask Ewan if he can check the map. He checks and counts them off and corrects me, there’s actually 5 left. I ask if we can start the countdown again and cram in another gel!
The rain is coming down hard now and the wind has gotten up. I consider this the last ditch attempt of the powers that be to stop me from completing. I smile to myself and lick up the fresh rain water as it runs past my mouth – bring it on. I’ve passed the 24 hour mark now and the sun beings to set. Into the second night now and I put my headtorch back on. We make Y Gyrn and start the long climb to Trum-y Ddysgl. Ewan is leading the way and my legs feel really strong having finally got some calories in. I ask if this is the last climb, he says we need to visit Mynydd y Ddwy Elor first, a minor top on the slopes of Trum-y Ddysgl, which much to be embarrassment I’d completely overlooked on my reccies, having assumed I’d automatically bagged it on the main climb. Thank goodness someone is still with it as I’d have missed this one.
We make the short detour and get back to the last climb. I double check with Ewan at this is the last one and decide to empty the tank. I give it full gas. It’s a decent climb but is near constant gradient so I figure if I can settle into a rhythm I’ll nail it. Ewan is laughing his ass off at my side “Mate this pace is bonkers!”, Martin shouts that he can’t keep up. I keep going, Ewan points out that a must ignore a trod to the right but I misinterpret his instruction and take a sharp right onto the trod, he yells at me that it’s wrong and I cut back onto the route and then my legs blow up. Ewan shouts for me to keep going and I give it another push but I’ve had it. I slow to a brisk walk and the trod levels off to the gentle climb. The rain is still lashing down and the wind has increased. Martin has caught up and we bring our heads together to shout to each other in the gale.
In the darkness up ahead we can hear the wind blowing up and out of the corrie on the northern face of Trum-y Ddysgl. Ewan dashes on ahead and I’m concerned he’ll overshoot the top. We make the top and briefly stare down into the darkness of the corrie. The wind and the rain persists. Two more tops to go on the nantlle ridge. Ewan leads the way, we follow the narrow hikers path then cut back up slope to the tip of the ridge to reach Mynydd Drws-y-coed. The rock is polished smooth and soaking wet. I look down and point my headtorch at the spot where I want my feet to go. I throw a leg forward and miss the spot I wanted by miles. My foot lands and sticks through so I go with it. Martin in close behind and we make slow progress around and over the rocky ramparts. We come up to traverse along a narrow ledge. Nothing too bad but with a significant exposed drop. Ewan goes first and scampers across. I make note of his route choice as far as I can with my headtorch. He makes it onto easier ground, clearly loving it he chuckles like a madman and dashes off into the darkness without a look back. Great. Martin and I make slower progress and follow the best line I can see along the ridge. We come to another rampart and I hear a shout to my left, Ewan has found the line and is making his way down. I follow with care and when I get to the bottom realise it’s steeply exposed on both sides with only a narrow run out at the bottom of the crag. I make sure Martin gets his footholds on the wet rock and we follow Ewan’s headtorch in the distance.
The ground becomes easier now and we regroup to make the final short climb to Y Garn (the second such named top on the round). The scattered stone cairn comes into view. Ewan has already made it. I clamber up the pile, bend down and kiss the wet rock. 47 done!
We all cheer and take a quick photo. Then I start to feel the cold. I’m soaked now and the exposure is chilling me. I check my watch, we’re over 26 hours now. No bother I got it done.
We make the long descent down the grassy slope and into the forest. Mentally I’ve done it now and this takes me over an hour. We pass through the gate into the forest and the trail levels off onto a gravel fireroad. My legs are killing me and the top of my socks still feel like they are cutting into my shins. I can’t wait to get them off. Martin and Ewan try to lift the pace to a steady run by I’ve had it. We shake hands and slow to a walk. The trail widens and the edges of the trail is littered with leaves and broken twigs. I spot a silver rabbit at the side of the trail, only a few feet away and still in the night, its fur glistening in my torchlight, then another appears soon after, but as I try to focus its features become less clear. I glance over to Martin and Ewan, they haven’t noticed these wee Welsh creatures lining our path. I say nothing. There’s a head torch down the trail and my sister comes up to greet us, “You’ve done it!” she exclaims.
feel like it’s done me to be honest. My Dad smiles, “You’re bloody nuts you lot”. I finished the Paddy Buckley round in 27hrs 23 mins, being the 196th completion since Wendy Dodds in 1982.
I’d like to thank everyone that helped me to finish, including all those who couldn’t be there on theday but pushed me on with my training. We will all be back out on the fells soon.
Max Wilkinson, November 2019 (finally completed during lockdown, May 2020)