February 2009, South Pennines: Snow, ice and sleep deprivation combine with some terrible navigation, leading to a deeply unpleasant last few miles of the Trog.
February 2012, South Pennines: The mercury hasn’t risen above 0°C for 2 weeks in Hebden Bridge and child number two is going through a sleepless phase. Deja vu.
Actually, not quite – this time the conditions are bad enough that the cheerful lady from CVFR starting the race informs us that the first mile of the race is now changed, due to the sheet ice coating every road, track and rock in the Calder valley. We’re also warned (I think, as a last-minute toilet stop has left me at the back of the starting pack) that we probably ought to stay off every path we encounter, should we wish to finish the race with the same number of bones we start with.
It would be nice to say that she was exaggerating and the first mile or so wasn’t too bad, even if much of it was spent shuffling forwards through the pack, waiting at the bottlenecks created by the many ice-covered stiles on the alternative route and trudging slowly uphill onto the tops. The sun shone intermittently, the breath of 140 runners hung in the still air and shards of frozen grass and heather shattered and flew through the air as runners’ ankles gently brushed them. The moors appeared beautiful and dead. That was mile one, probably the slowest mile I’ve ever raced and, paradoxically, one of the miles I’ve most enjoyed. From here things got faster, as we climbed further, hit the first checkpoint and started to descend to the Upper Dean reservoir, previously dry and relatively warm feet now getting soaked in one of the rare patches of non-frozen bog, ensuring discomfort for the rest of the race. Straight out of this came a slope I remembered well from three years ago, its incline necessitating simply dropping onto my bottom and sliding downwards until hitting a thick patch of dead bracken by the frozen reservoir. Turning around briefly, I saw that my pursuers were all, voluntarily or not, using the same technique. Next came an uphill drag, a long stretch across some empty moorland (the choice of footing being ice sheets, snow drifts or the odd tussock of grass perched on a peat hag), punctuated only by two road crossings, one of them with chocolate biscuits and orange squash with ice chunks floating in it, and the descent down a flagstone path that could have doubled as the Cresta Run to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse that inspired Wuthering Heights. Today there were no hordes of literary tourists, just two more smiling marshals from CVFR warning that the ‘ground’s a bit tricky’ on the next stretch and handing out jelly babies.
In warmer weather, the next few miles would be a delight – packhorse roads across gently undulating hills, a drop down to another frozen reservoir, ducks stood disconsolately on the solid ice surface. and the occasional skirting of hill farms, these the only reminder of how close we are to a densely-populated valley. They are, despite the scenery, not a delight – the need to take baby steps all the way along the iron hard, slippy-but-less-slippy-than-the-path mud to the side of the packhorse roads and the frequent slips and falls that occur despite reducing speed and barely taking my eyes off the earth the reasons. It is actually a relief to get back onto the moors again, where the energy-sapping snow-drifts may drain and slow but at least do this to everyone, giving me a chance to catch up places I’ve lost during the last few miles. Finally I’m back at the first checkpoint, which is also the twelfth, and its here that things actually go wrong, probably as I’ve had a good few miles of slow, steady running to get here and have made good progress relative to others. Put it this way – if you ever get to a checkpoint, think ‘right, I don’t need to bother with my map and compass, I’ve done this race before’, remember that the only time you’ve ever done this race before you’d had two hours sleep per night (maximum, for several months), have barely eaten that morning and were basically hypoglycaemic and probably hypothermic, please ignore these thoughts, get out your compass, take a bearing and run on it. I didn’t and it cost me, I’d guess, eight places on what should have been one of the easier sections of the race, a detour taking me through thick heather and snow when relatively easy running along clear paths would have taken me to the final trig point. Once I’d eventually reached said trig point, more tired than I should have been due to my selective memory and a bad decision, these was a final mile to shuffle down farm tracks covered in half-inch-thick ice and fields of deeply-rutted mud, perfectly churned by cows to ankle-breaking depth and then frozen solid for maximum danger before reaching the woodland bridge that held the last clip. One more pull uphill, one of my overtakers reeled back in and a skate across the track back to Old Town Cricket Club and, for the first time in the race, the lap around the pitch gave me the chance to open my legs up and run. It felt good. it felt fast. It was almost certainly a geriatric shuffle, but that wasn’t the point. It felt amazing and the sooner it was done, the sooner I got to defrost, shower, prize my fell shoes from my feet, ice-encased laces and all, and shove my face into the vegetable soup, bread, coffee and cake laid on by CVFR.
I didn’t enjoy all of this race, but the good outweighed the bad and most of my problems related to my inexperience in running on ice, along with not having the footwear to do so with confidence. I certainly enjoyed it overall, despite my bruised body feeling like it’s been beaten up, and will recommend it to anyone who is prepared to give it the respect it deserves. Particular mentions must be made to the following: CVFR for organising, flagging and marshalling this race, feeding the runners and throwing in a t-shirt, all for £6 per runner – this is, frankly, incredible. To Nicky Spinks, the first lady who, until I went a bit wrong towards the end, I spent several miles pepper-potting and who, following a rather unpleasant fall, paused to stretch out my cramped calf; whatever the female equivalent of gentleman is, she’s it. Finally, the runners who are recorded as DNF because they stopped to assist off the hill another runner who had broken his leg. It took them 90 minutes to cover 1.5 miles, many runners further forward having finished the race before they’d made it to a marshal with the casualty, raised the alarm and got the injured runner safely evacuated by ambulance, an effort that puts into perspective even that of the eventual winners.