Plan for 2018, after the running horrors of Jan 16-Oct 17: train hard, do XC and hit the ground running with the long races of Marsden-Edale, Wadsworth and the Skyline, with a view to longer stuff later.
Reality: pick up an Achilles injury after Christmas, miss Capt Cook, run/limp a stinker at Herrington XC when injured (worst performance at HL I can recall), exacerbate injury in the process, miss races and become limited to running no faster than 8min/mile without the troublesome tendon swelling and hurting. Up to this point, with the possible exception of the English XC Championships in London, where I ran slowly but at least got round somehow, 2018 has not been a great deal of fun.
So, expectations set to ‘low, just get round,’ I found myself being counted into the starting field at the bottom of the Nab, looking up to the dark edges of Kinder scout, seeing snowy streaks and a sky with a few hopeful-looking patches of blue. It was probably best to look upwards, rather than to my sides, as this was an English Championship race, and the quality at ground level was intimidatingly-good. The usual brief pre-amble over, we ran to and then ascended at a shuffle the familiar zig-zags of the Nab then, just for this one year, turned left on summiting Ringing Roger, one of the many high points of the Kinder plateau; yes, reader, this year the Skyline went backwards, thus making it even more unmissable! In practise, this meant that we hit the clart sooner than usual, and spent the first couple of miles round to Grindslow Knoll undulating, bouncing off rocks, getting our feet soaked in the frequent streams and occasional snowdrifts trapped in sheltered cloughs, and generally spreading out a little; for this section and, as it turned out, much of the race I hung onto the familiar vest of a Sunderland Stroller, catching him on every little climb and watching him bounce past me on the downhills.
‘Brown Knoll’ used to be words that sent an involuntary shudder down the spine of many a fell-runner: a relatively featureless morass of peat, sphagnum, trods leading to uncertain places and, crucially in this race, an area in the final third of the traditional Skyline route, thus hitting the unsuspecting runner precisely when they least needed it (see report from 2015). Not without controversy, a route over it has now been paved due to erosion concerns, which meant this was a faster-than-expected, albeit quite dull section, though I remained cautious and gained fewer places than I could have done with a more aggressive approach here, instead starting to attack a little as we left it and began the long succession of ridge-running that would take us all the way to Lose Hill, that Strollers’ vest remaining an aiming point as we passed a few runners beginning to tire. Half-way along we dropped into Mam Nick, our first encounter with tarmac all race, then reduced pace to a hands-on-thighs walk until hitting the top of Mam Tor, start of the section of the race with ALL the views – this year we could see for miles to both north and south. Lose Hill came, was climbed at a plod, and went again in an exhilarating, wet run/slide combination, one done less well than the dozen or so runners I’d beaten on the climb, all of them repaying the favour with interest on the way down; Hope village at the bottom presented our second encounter with tarmac, a second jelly baby and the start of the real test.
Memory: an unreliable thing. I remember from 2015 the entire section from start to Hope, via Whin Hill, as being fairly easy running and likely to present a nice final few miles the other way round. I still remember 2015’s course this way, though the evidence of my split times and recent nociceptor experience disproves it utterly – once I’d trotted over the railway bridge out of Hope the ascent was severe, on wet, bracken-covered peat with little purchase, the Mars bar nauseated me and I was able to manage a shuffling run when the incline slackened towards the top, through the heather and then on the shooting track. That said, the strung-out line of runners ahead did not look healthy and I was able to gain a lot of places, finally leaving behind the Stroller, passing him again after touching the trig and heading the final 5 miles for home. Mystery solved: I remembered little of this stretch as it was relatively dull, 2 miles of an easy trudge along farm tracks, 3 of a steady uphill back to Ringing Roger, livening up as we left grass and got back onto rock and peat, sore feet and knackered proprioception not helping, though more places gained before dibbing for the last time and heading downhill…where 15-20 runners I’d led, slowly, uphill flew past me and hit the finish line just ahead.
Number cut off and water being taken from the jerrycans stacked against the wall, I watched as both the Stroller I’d raced for hours (Adnan Khan, though we did not know it yet, to show me a clean pair of heels one week later at Alnwick’s Harrier League fixture) and another (Ken Maynard) came in, amongst a steady flow of battered bodies; blood both fresh and dried was prominent on many. An hour later, washed in the stream, fed with chilli, rehydrated with tea (Victoria Wilkinson, having just smashed the female record for the race, queuing patiently behind me) and having gained a new injury (thigh strain) to go with the pre-existing one, life felt better.
It would have been better yet had a hundred Kurds not blockaded a railway line and caused a 3-hour wait for the train back to Sheffield but that, reader, is another story…