First and foremost, this race report would not have been possible without the countless volunteers who spent hour upon hour out in the freezing temperatures, often in quite remote places, to ensure this race went ahead. I owe you a huge amount of respect and my sincere thanks to you all.
I’m still not quite sure why I chose the Hardmoors 55 to make my ultra-marathon debut, but I did, and in the days leading up to the race the nerves were kicking in. I’d enlisted the help of two friends to provide support at the two main check points – Kildale and Osmotherley – and I was to run the race with my good friend Jen, but she’d been having real problems with her knee which had kept her out of training for at least six weeks. Jen’s plan was to get to Kildale without injury and that would be her race done, but I wasn’t convinced that was her true ambition.
The weather forecast in the days leading up the race had not been good and with a number of races already cancelled it seemed touch and go as to whether this would go ahead. A final email from Race Director Jon Steele, confirmed that the race was still on. There and then you just knew this was going to be epic.
Race registration on Saturday morning was smooth, kit checks were thorough and there was an air of excitement and tension as 133 runners (or as my friend put it, idiots) gathered to take their place at the start. During the race brief we were told that the out and back loop of the White Horse had been taken out due to the conditions and that a decision was still to be made as to whether we would be taking the high pass over Wainstones or directed along the low path.
And so the race began, off along a disused railway line out of Guisborough, the cold easterly wind was biting but manageable. Keeping the pace slow, after a short distance we turned off this path and to the first little climb out onto the Cleveland Way. Having run this section plenty of times before, I chose to start the race in my Mudclaws but the freezing temperatures meant the tracks were frozen solid making for very uncomfortable running.
The seven miles to Roseberry Topping passed without incident, but taking the first check point at the top gave me an indication as to the true conditions I would face later in the day. The two marshals manning this check point deserve a medal for standing in the unrelenting gale force winds and still smiling and chatting to competitors. I didn’t hang around and made a sharp retreat off, flying past Phil Owen, who I think was aiming a camera at me. I don’t suspect he got much of a shot.
The next section up to Captain Cook’s Monument provided good running and shortly after, Jen and I arrived at Kildale, 12 miles in. Mission accomplished for Jen, but I could see the desire in her eyes to keep going, Into the village hall we met our respective support crews where I was handed my first drop bag of food and a bag I’d asked them to carry with a change of clothes. Here I changed my top, jacket and socks then decided I’d be better off changing out of my Mudclaws and into my Mizunos for the next section as my feet were beginning to hurt.
Jen’s knee was holding out and she’d decided to keep going to Osmotherley. We left the village hall and headed up a steep climb where I took the opportunity to get some food intro me. (If you’re interested I had a banana, pork pie and half a Cornish pasty!) The wind was blowing strong in our face and as we reached the top of the road we turned onto the snow covered track and head on into the wind. This was fierce and unrelenting with 40mph winds, a windchill of around -20 and snow drifts of up to three foot made the six miles up to Bloworth Crossing check point an absolute battle of physical and mental toughness.
By the time I reached Bloworth I was mentally drained, the left side of my face was numb, I could barely open my eyes and my water tube was frozen solid, but for a brief moment I felt elation. Jen and I had made it; our high five was a significant celebration. At that point you could have stopped the race and I’d be writing this report with the same sense of achievement. But this race was far from over; we had three miles to the next check point at Clay Bank, but fortunately the route changed direction and I now had the wind behind me.
At Clay Bank I was met by my supporters who forced food and water into me. Here we were to find out if we were taking the high path or the low. My heart sank a little when I was directed up the hill towards Wainstones, the first of three significant climbs along the route towards Carlton Bank, the half way point. Getting up each of these was hard, the wind knocking me off my feet on several occasions, but the downhills in the deep snow brought out the child in me.
Carlton Bank was the half way point and psychologically uplifting, but the effort needed to run in the conditions was beginning to take its toll on my muscles and I could feel the first twinges of cramp. Jen seemed to be coping well although she too was clearly feeling the strain. After Carlton Bank we dropped down into the valley where we missed a turn and ended up running in the wrong direction for about five minutes before realising our mistake. Once back on track we made slow but solid progress in our effort to get to Osmotherley. Arriving at the village hall we took our time to change, eat and relax a little as it was nice to be out of the cold wind. Fellow Strider, Anna Seeley was manning the village hall check point and came over to offer some words of encouragement. (I hope I wasn’t rude or overly vacant too you?)
The thirty-two miles to Osmotherley were hard won, and at that point the absolute furthest I’d ever run. I was still feeling good and Jen’s knee was still holding out. I knew now she wasn’t dropping out so off we set. It was 4;30pm now and we made it our mission to get as close to Sutton Bank before dark, but he next three miles out of Osmotherley had other plans. This section was a steep climb back out on to the moor and I hit the wall with a bang. I’d been conscious of keeping well fuelled and hydrated throughout the race but my water tube kept freezing so wasn’t taking on board the water that I would have liked.
The climb was steep and it wasn’t long before the path was covered by snow, just as it was heading to Bloworth. Only now I was tired and had ran thirty-two miles to get to this point. The distance between me and Jen grew quickly, I couldn’t keep up and she seemed to be getting stronger. The snow drifts and wind felt more pronounced as I staggered about forcing one foot in front of the other. Like any runner, there is a point when you feel you just can’t go on; this was my limit. Part of the mandatory kit was to carry a survival bag and I was seriously contemplating getting into it and waiting for rescue. I’d reached my absolute limit; my mind was telling me to stop, but I couldn’t stop, I won’t stop, I’ve come too far now.
I have two energy gels and push on. Jen is still in the distance but she keeps turning to make sure I’m still moving. I’ve never felt so low but eventually the climbing ceases and we are back on a level track, still in deep snow, but at least its level. I manage to break into a canter and I can feel a second wind. I’m still totally exhausted but psychologically I’ve broken through a barrier as we press on. Jen is forcing the pace now, always a good 30 meters ahead of me, making me run when I really don’t want to.
We reach High Paradise Farm check point at thirty-nine miles and the light is quickly diminishing as we head towards Sutton Bank. At this point the snow drifts are deeper than they have been and the wind is blowing across my face forcing my already sore eye to shut once again. I stop to put on my headtorch but it doesn’t help me much as I’m having real trouble with seeing. I follow the lights up ahead as they take a sharp descent down a deep, snowy track. I must have been in a trance and didn’t see Jen come sliding down in front of me from a higher route saying I’ve taken the wrong path. But I’m not taking on board what she’s saying. There are about six people ahead of us as we continue down the track until Jen finally snaps. “This is not the right path.” Everyone stops and a quick map check confirms this. We all turn to start the long hard climb to get back onto the right path.
I feel totally dejected at this point, spending energy I simply did have on correcting a silly mistake. Once back on the Cleveland Way I find it hard to get going but I manage to start running again. Eventually I reach the Sutton Bank checkpoint. My support crew are there to greet me. It’s such a boost to see them as they tell me about the ultra-pub crawl they’ve been on as they follow my progress. A cup of hot chocolate and a few bits of food from the marshals and it’s off once more with only eight miles to go.
Its pitch black now and I’m happy to still be running on what, for the most, will be downhill into Helmsley. Jen seems to be running stronger than ever and is really pushing to get to the finish but always looking back to make sure I don’t fall too far behind. I feel like I’m letting her down. She’s waiting for me when she could probably have gone off and finished the race, but I’m eternally thankful she’s there to help me along and keep me running.
Eventually we drop into Helmsley with its street lights, and terraces, and tarmac roads. I’ve made it, we’ve made it! Following the signs we head up the road towards the football club and the finishing line and burst through the door to a huge cheer and round of applause. I give Jen a huge hug as we celebrate our achievement. 12hrs and 35mins of pure hard graft, physically and mentally.
Without doubt, this was an epic race and everyone who took part, whether they finished or not, should be immensely proud that they even made it to the start.