What a difference a week makes, a week filled with persistent rain and milder temperatures. The snow had melted (except on top of The Cheviot), so it was safe to say that we could expect it to be soggy. An understatement, it turned out.
Geoff and Susan Davis had offered me a lift to Rothbury, which I was very grateful for. We arrived in plenty of time to register at the Institute, which was being used as headquarters, and as Susan rightly pointed out – good toilets again. There’s a theme here. We also bumped into Graeme Watt there (in the hall, not the toilets). Easy prediction on the first Strider home, right there!
After a warm-up through the town and a short briefing from Paul, the Race Organiser, we were off bang on 11 o’clock. I’d deliberately started at the back again so I wouldn’t start too fast. In that sense this was wise, but the pinch point at the bottom of the road meant I should have pushed further forward.
Once we were free, we crossed the footbridge over the swollen river and started to climb, the first half mile again on tarmac. By starting at the back, I was passing people early on, which always feels good. The road turned to a track and carried us gradually up towards the fell.
At Whittondean, there was a slightly surreal moment of passing a bloke who was standing playing Christmas carols on a mouth organ. Crossing over the burn and through a gate, the gradient ramped up and I was reduced to a fast walk up the greasy, grassy track. I passed another runner taking a video on their phone. Thankfully, this was short (the climb, not the video) and the course dropped over the ridge and down into a small car park at the foot of the fell proper.
We climbed up onto the moor, keeping left where the path split but after that, the next stretch is a bit of a blur. The ground was absolutely sodden, so all of my focus was on where I was putting my feet and staying vertical – I wasn’t taking in much of the surroundings (again). I must have put my buff on as a headband at some point here, I remember the breeze making my ears feel cold.
My concentration didn’t serve me well with hindsight. The mixed terrain meant I’d chosen a trail shoe that would be more comfortable on harder surfaces, and the result was I’d compromised on grip in the mud. In a straight line I had no real problems, but I was struggling laterally. Eventually, friction and gravity conspired somewhere before Spylaw, and I slipped sideways onto my right leg. I picked myself up, took a few tentative steps and, with nothing hurting, set off again. Somewhere further along, I went down again, this time landing on my arm and jarring my shoulder. That one hurt, but once I’d shaken it off (aka stopped swearing), I got moving again. Dominic Martin from Saltwell Harriers checked I was OK as he passed. I assured him I was and dropped in behind him. We managed a bit of chat over the next mile or so. I’d lost confidence in my grip so I wanted to ease off a bit and staying with Dominic really helped.
Having passed through a new, high metal fence, we entered what was marked on my OS map as forest, though clearly it had been recently felled. The path soon pulled up to a forest track where a young family were camped out at a marshal point with water available. Having had a bit of recovery, I felt strong and pushed ahead of Dominic up the slight incline, making the most of the firm surface.
It was brief. Almost immediately we were back onto wet, slippery moorland, with the narrow path snaking through heather, marshy ground and swollen streams, periodically crossing the treacherous boardwalks we’d been warned about in the briefing. Some of these were under water, making them even more hazardous.
I had my sights on the next runner ahead and I knew I was ready to push on again, remaining conscious of my traction problems. When I caught her going up a steeper slope near Selby’s Cove there wasn’t space to pass, so I caught my breath and waited for my moment. It came just before the final steep climb up to the summit of Simonside and I nipped past.
The climb was slow, steep and slippery, but I held my position and even though I struggled to get running again on the flatter top, no-one caught me. The path curved around the top of the escarpment, then suddenly there was the summit cairn and a marshal offering me a jelly baby from a box. Slightly unexpected, but a very welcome sugar hit.
Across the tops, the path was on large, flat flagstones. With the shoes I’d chosen, I found they had plenty of grip despite the stone being wet. On sloping sections, the flags changed into steps and I took these carefully, my falls still fresh in my mind. I could see a brightly coloured (orange?) backpack ahead of me and I fixed my sights on my next target.
The forecast rain started as I approached Dove Crag but I was already pretty wet and stopping for my waterproof seemed pointless while I was warm enough.
As I finally dropped off The Beacon, I caught my target, which turned out to be Nina Cameron from NFR who Geoff & Susan had introduced me to earlier. However, I’d also been caught by Xian Zhar, who I’d seen a couple of times over the route. It seemed descending was her thing and she fair flew past on the steps.
We crossed back through the car park and we started to retrace our earlier steps to Rothbury. Initially, this meant a short climb and it seemed I was still stronger uphill than Xian as I overhauled her again. Nina wasn’t far behind either as I could hear them exchanging a few words.
I was still lacking confidence with my grip on the grassy descent – normally this is somewhere I’d look to make up time, so it was frustrating. Xian came past again but I snuck in front as she struggled with a closed gate and I hopped over the adjacent stile instead.
We were back on firm track now, so my traction problems were behind me. I was off. I pushed as hard as I could in the mile or so back down to the town and I built up a 30 second gap as I charged back down the hill.
One tip for a “lollipop” course like this – or anything with an out-and-back section – it’s well worth looking back every now and then on the way out. It often looks very different on the return. I had a couple of moments where I didn’t recognise the way we’d come, only to be rescued by a well-placed piece of red and white tape marking the way.
I crossed the river and was back at the finish. No temptation of, or need for, a sprint finish today, which was probably just as well. I caught my breath and saw Xian, Nina and Dominic all come in over the next minute and a half. We wandered back to the Institute together, exchanging our experiences of the race. And mostly comparing shoes and their lack of grip.
It turned out I’d taken a harder hit to my knee that I’d realised on my first fall. It took a while to clean it up and get changed, and by then the prize-giving had started. Geoff and Susan collected the spoils of their age group placings (third M60 and F60 respectively) and chatted to friends from NFR they don’t see often. I ate my lunch, topped up with some soup and a cookie from the kitchen, before we headed back south again.
|North Shields Poly
|NFR / Elvet Striders
|NFR / Elvet Striders
Full results can be found at Northumberland Fell Runners
This report was originally published as part of a set in the article below.
Nick finds that a change in the winter weather makes a big difference to two similar winter fell races in Northumberland, only a week apart.