Many of you, having been harangued by me over the last few months, will know that this race is special to me. It is also special to the Club, as evidenced by the fact that they pay entry fees for as many teams as we can muster. I can’t answer for the Club, but for me there is a lot to be said for the scenery, the fact that it is now a summer race, meaning you can enjoy said scenery (having raced the winter version before a particularly brutal cold spell caused cancellation in 2010, I know of what I speak), and the pairs-relay format. Why the latter? Simple: no two runners are the same. There is joy when, as team captain, you match a pair of runners well enough that they complete a leg mutually-exhausted and having run in a way that just feels right for both of them. Witness Jack Lee and Mark Warner in 2016 or Tom Reeves/Jon Ayres and Diane Watson/Angela Greathead in the same year.
There is also the challenge of trying to finesse the selection of runners in Elvet A to maximise the chance of us both being competitive and getting the baton around the course, against ever-tighter cut-offs which date from the years of this being a winter race, with dusk at 1600hrs.
This year, the challenge was truly set, as we had to make 2 teams of 12 runners, in 6 pairs each, to complete the 55 or so miles of the ever-undulating course. Courtesy of clashes with P2P and Windermere, family commitments, last-minute emergencies and a general nervousness about the fact we would be travelling 2 hours south just to get beaten by some of the UK’s best fell-runners, we had 17 runners to make up these 2 teams. Not quite Jesus, the bread and the fish, but I like to think something of that ilk was required in order to hand in 2 complete team sheets at Heath RUFC, bright and early on the Sunday morning.
We’d opted to go with what we thought would be the quickest Elvet A team possible, at the cost of this team comprising 7 runners for 12 places, 5 of them doing 2 legs apiece. Elvet B had the relative luxury of 9 runners for their 12 places, with only Angela G, Danielle W and Mandy D having to double up. The instructions for Elvet B were something along the lines of ‘enjoy, it’s a lovely day for it, see you on the course.’ Elvet A’s first two leg pairs, all of them doing other legs later, were asked to give everything they had on the first leg, hold nothing in reserve, then try to do it again later.
Final words spoken, Phil Ray and I stood with Nigel H and Mandy D at the bottom of the bank for the mass start, surrounded by close-packed bodies and ready for the sprint to the start of the climb through the woods. Words were spoken, the runners in front of us moved and so did we, with the intention of getting far enough up the field that we would get ‘trapped’ in position neither too far forward nor too far back as, after about half a mile or so of climbing, there is a mile-long section where overtaking is near-impossible on a narrow path between a fence an foliage skirting the moor.
I took the pace here, trusting Phil to stay roughly behind me and to shout if any problems, and we next saw each other at the top when we were able to exit the woodland path and start slowly overtaking pairs in front of us, hitting a road crossing just after two miles to the encouragement of the Striders who’d driven up to shout us on at this early point.
The field was fairly tight here, with us following a pair of Barlick ladies who we’d tail for the remainder of the leg, as well as assorted other colourful vests from Yorks and Lancs. Firm ground made for a decent pace, Phil leading across the moor edge as the Calder Valley fell away to our right, taking us through miles 3 and 4 at sub-8m/m pace until we hit a long downhill into Ripponden where we let the feet fly, high-fiving at 7 minute-mile pace a trio of amicable drunks who appeared to be at the end of a long night, swigging cans of Polish lager as they tried to ascend the lane we were hammering down. The fun ended here, as a core rule of fell-running is that if you lose height, you’ve got to re-gain it; so it proved, with the next three miles being a slog out of the town, a brief descent and then a longer pull upwards, initially through bluebell woods then onto an interminable farm track/minor road combination, hitting the moorland again at around 8.5m, slowly climbing a little more and then downhilling all the way for the last mile and a half, finally over-taking the Barlick pair, being overhauled by CVFR B despite now running sub 7m/m, leaving the moor, cutting through more pretty woodland and dropping into Cragg Vale to hand the baton on to Fiona and Jack, arms outstretched and with the intensity of hungry greyhounds at the front of the waiting group.
Job done in 1.29hrs for 10.7m (27th overall). Water on board. Wait for Mandy and Nigel, see of Danielle Whitworth and Jan Young, then off to Todmorden.
I can’t really comment on leg 2, other than to say it is:
a) hard, particularly in the heat
b) clearly well-suited to Fiona and Jack, who managed 1.12 for it, comparable to the best-in-recent-years time set by Tom and Jon, handing over to Mike Bennett and David Gibson for Elvet A, Paul Foster and Angela Greathead doing the honours for Elvet B, though we had to leave before they set off. Leg 3, by the way, is only 5 miles, but they’re all uphill and by now the day was uncomfortably toasty (official met-office terminology).
The next stop for the race is Blackshaw Head, a small village sitting high up on the edge of the moorland, with the luxury of a portable loo and a cake/tea stall set up to raise money for the local school. After earlier exertions, Fiona and I should probably have partaken in the latter but did not do so as we were more concerned with getting registered for the leg and making our way to the start, in the hope that Mike and David had thrashed themselves. To their credit, they did, managing 54 minutes for the leg, meaning Fiona and I had around 1.25hrs to beat the cut-off for this 9.5m leg.
Fresh, I think we might have managed it, and we managed a rapid-enough start down the first hill, over the ancient packhorse bridge (under repair), up to Heptonstall and down to the river, Fiona positively bouncing when presented with a descent. The fourth mile, however, was an absolute swine, 441′ of climbing in the mile, reducing us to 15 minutes for said mile and effectively wrecking our chances of beating the clock, as our legs were not quite able to capitalise as they should on the next few miles of glorious open moorland. Basically, we slowed whenever the path went upwards and could not quite compensate when it went down. On the plus side, a pair overtaking us (one of three who did so) called Fiona a ‘legend’ when they heard that we were on our second leg of the day, which I think is high praise indeed; a muttered ‘well-done’ is more standard in the world of the fells. In pain, leg four ended with a rapid descent past the evocatively-named Jerusalem Farm, through more woods, over another stream, up through the trees and, finally, at near-walking pace, to the handover point at Wainstalls, all runners (including our own Jack, Phil, Danielle and Dave Shipman) now departed as we’d managed 1.36hrs. There was little to do but sag, mutter ‘well done’ to each other and gratefully accept the water thrust at us by Danielle’s mum (a Sowerby Snails runner herself). Mandy and Camilla were in a while later, both looking suitably sweaty.
For us, the war was over, and there was little to be done but head back to the rugby club for the finish, as we’d not be able to get to the leg 5 finish/leg 6 start in time to see off David G, Mike Hughes, Keith Wesson and Angela G at Shelf village. So we did, admittedly somewhat disappointed, albeit (in my case) hugely impressed with the guts shown by Fiona in putting herself through a painful second leg with nothing in the tank. The rugby club had showers, tea and food, as well as the all-important sunny, dry field to watch the finishers. My vest now has a pink streak on the left-hand white stripe, where I had inadequately-vaselined myself; it started to move, so I generally didn’t. David and Mike came in, both looking slightly worse for a day that was now officially super-toasty (again, official term), their 1.58 seeing us 45th team of 100 (in 8.24hrs), then Angela and Keith finished off for us, their 2.21 giving us a time of 11.52hrs for Elvet B, 98th of the 100 teams.
I’ll leave it there, but for to say that this was a hot, hard day for running, and everything I asked of the runners doing two legs was given in spades. Rarely have I been so pleased to see harrowed, hollow-eyed faces. Particular mentions to both Danielle and Fiona, both of whom were out of their comfort zones, both of them also fairly new club members – to take this on was no small undertaking. Thanks also to those who came down to run one leg each, particularly given the effort apparent for all. Next year? Well, the dream of being able to submit Elvet A, B and C lives on, and it remains an aspiration to run Elvet A as a one-leg-per-runner team, as I maintain we could be fairly competitive on this basis. Ladies and gents, I have a dream. Or three.