My favourite domestic event of 2019 was the inaugural Brathay Ambleside Trail 60. It was a route of some 37.5 miles made up of three distinct sections. A fast, flowing trail up and over Loughrigg from Ambleside to Coniston was followed by a series of steep ups and downs for the next 20 miles to the foot of Grasmere Common. The final section was made up largely of road and hardpack to the finishing line in Rothay Park.
After so many cancellations, it was great to receive the news that the 2020 event was going ahead, despite the return to work from furlough of many of the Brathay staff just a month earlier. The weather this time around was very different to last year’s ‘Indian summer’ race. Registration was at Brathay Hall under a heavy and brooding sky. Ambleside Parish Council had ruled out the use of Rothay Park as a start and finish area which resulted in the longest and most technical walk to a start line I’ve ever encountered, at Lily Tarn, a ‘mere’ 20 minutes away up on Loughrigg Fell. I thought I had plenty of time to meander and take a couple of photographs. I made it to the line with a minute to spare!
The line was a three-square socially distanced grid to enable runners to start in groups of six at five minute intervals. Runners who expected to take longer than 10 hours had been asked to book a starting time between 7 and 8am. I had selected an 8.35am start, having completed the dry weather route in just over 8 hours in 2019. It was wet and very greasy underfoot on the rocky walk to the start so I now doubted my thinking after seeing only a handful of runners with later starting times including the likes of Ben Abdelnoor. There were four of us in the grid when the starting signal was given by the marshal and two of my fellow ‘competitors’ sped off into the distance as though they were in a 10k fell race and wanted to be back in time to shower and change before the pubs opened. Suffice to say I didn’t see them again.
The early flowing trails of 2019 were once again evident this year. I never recovered my form after last year’s event when I ran the last 5 miles hard but I went on to suffer with problems that a chest examination and thoracic X-ray didn’t clarify. A long October day out at Lakes In A Day – some 3 hours longer than planned – had been followed by a DNF at the Tour de Helvellyn in December. I resolved to take it easy this year and run well within myself, especially as my training plans for August were stymied by a hectic return to work since the end of lockdown. My pace of 10 minute miles during this lightly rolling opening section was comfortable and I felt pretty good. I had overtaken two runners in the first 10k but Ben Abdelnoor and a few others had floated past me. Running through the Tongue Intake Plantation, I guessed that I must be close to the back of the field.
The weather had actually done little to change the opening miles of the challenge although I did my best to make it harder by turning into some woods with fallen trees after a large route marker had shifted direction at a forest road intersection. I retraced and stopped to replace the tilting marker to prevent others from going the same way. My mind had been distracted by information coming from my Garmin. I’d put it in UltraTrac mode for the first time, to conserve battery life. It had suggested that I had clocked a couple of 6 to 7 minute miles, impossible for me at the best of times! I also began to doubt the distance information as I went on my way towards the beautiful balcony section of trail that overlooks Tarn Hows from the east.
The wind picked up and the rain started just as I followed the broad and elevated path. A glimmer of sun suggested it would ease so I kept the waterproofs stowed but it worsened dramatically as I began the first steep ascent of the day intersecting Coniston and Yewdale Fells. Another, brighter shaft of sunlight offered hope but it only brought a worsening in the weather – the mild start had also given way to some wind chill – so I donned the waterproof and moved on. Seconds later I ran into John and Gemma Wandless, a warm welcoming distraction from the hoolie. I was more than happy to chat for a minute, a natural break from the effort of the climb. I moved well to the high point and descended into Little Langdale where I made the first of numerous stumbles that were to become quite common during the next few miles. When my feet stop moving well, it’s usually a sign that I’m not at my best and I began to feel tired as I headed towards Blea Tarn.
The promise of the feed station at 30km helped my spirits even though I knew that it would be a limited affair with water, electrolyte drink and energy bars. The wonderful food that was on offer last year was a casualty of running a ‘Covid-secure’ event. The feed station at Skelwith Bridge had been dropped completely and the first one was much later at Great Langdale. A brief exchange with another runner – I was being overtaken again – confirmed that my watch was deceiving me. I had thought it was a kilometre to the feed station and it was more like five. The next three miles were a grind.
I was awful on the relatively flat section of The Cumbria Way to the foot of Stake Pass. Offering some salt to another runner suffering with adductor cramp, he recovered well enough to overhaul me soon afterwards. I was walk-jogging at this point. One heavy stumble, recovered just before a face plant beckoned, had tweaked my unreliable back and I popped a couple of paracetamol with a handful of plain chocolate coated ginger bonbons, a jam sandwich and a generous swig of electrolyte. As I began to ascend Stake Pass, a double equipment fail of my waterproof zip opening from the bottom and my pole belt detaching itself into a puddle around my ankles had me ready to throw the rattle, toys, cheating sticks and everything out of the pram. Right on cue, the wind and rain returned with a vengeance to scatter my frail state of mind across the fellside. A few minutes of faffing ensued and I gave myself a proper telling off. For goodness sake, the hardest part of the event was still to come, and then some.
Whether it was the energy rush or paracetamols (or both at the same time) I found a really good hiking rhythm up the unrunnable Stake Pass and crested the top completely rejuvenated. I overtook perhaps a dozen runners, en route to the next feed stop at Langstrath (40km/25 miles). Cold roast potatoes were an unexpected treat and the hiked ascent to Grasmere Common was a joy, especially so as I took time to look around back to the beautiful Langstrath Valley. Even a treacherously wet section of hand to rock adjacent to Lining Crag was enjoyable. This is the stuff that focuses the mind on efficiency and safety of movement rather than time and distance. Brownrigg Moss and the ridge to Gibson Knott was a fun-packed bogfest full of hamstring stretching leaps which tested my short legs to their limits. Although this section felt much rougher than last year, I enjoyed it more. After passing Gibson Knott, the clag remained high enough to see the approaching shape of The Howitzer atop Helm Crag. I remembered this as a key moment last year as the zigzagging, runnable descent of the Bracken Hause sits a few hundred metres before the summit of the crag where the transition from boggy fell back to trail begins and the final hardpack/road section of the Trail 60 beckons.
Happily running down the Hause, I arrived at a simple wooden footbridge next to the road which I promptly tripped over and almost went down again. No worse for wear, I happily jogged through Grasmere Village to the final feed station at 32.5 miles (52km). The hardpacked trail provides picture postcard views of the lake and is followed by a beautiful section along Rydal Water. I’m not known for my love of road running but I was more than happy to move on easier ground on the run in to Ambleside by the quiet lane under Loughrigg. I had called Sue from the feed point to say that I hoped to be at Brathay Hall within the hour. Just over 47 minutes later, I rolled in some 8 hours and 50 minutes after setting off, 35th out of 108 finishers. I was surprised to be 1st MV55 home out of 12 (3rd over 50/22). I was some 15 minutes behind the first overall vet 55, Catherine Musetti from Ambleside AC, who was also – rather wonderfully – 1st female.
Thanks to Sue and to John and Gemma for being at the finishing line supporting the runners coming home. John and Gemma had already put in a decent shift on the fells. Sue, as always, was at the finish and ready with my favourite post-race treat, two blocks of a plain chocolate Bounty!
The Ambleside Trail 60 is a super event which I can heartily recommend to anyone looking for a tough challenge that is shorter than the Lakeland 50. What it lacks in distance, it more than makes up for with a series of hard ascents and rough terrain amongst some of the most beautiful valleys and fells of The Lake District. Whether you are thinking of your first Lakeland ultramarathon or your umpteenth, this one is a great choice.
I’d seen the Esk Valley Walk route a few months ago, and had been toying with the idea of running it, either over 2 days, or making it a more challenging single day out. This weekend, I opted for the latter, along with a night camping in the van with Adrian.
The route starts with a 17 mile loop (leg 1) from Castleton round and over the moors to the source of the Esk. Then there are 3 shorter ‘legs’ from Castleton to Whitby, generally following the river valley but wandering up and down either side. The terrain is a good mix of moor, grassy field footpaths, tracks and trails, plus a little road (though often with a soft grass verge to keep off the tarmac). As well as beautiful countryside the route passes through some of the prettiest villages in the area.
I decided to do this ‘solo’ and ‘unsupported’ – which basically meant carrying a large picnic, along with other essentials. I could top up my water from ‘natural sources’ – no problem considering my route. I downloaded maps and the route description from the website – the description in particular is excellent and easy to follow.
Adrian dropped me at Castleton just before 7.30am and saw me off from the start at the railway station; he was later on the pier at Whitby to see me finish. I am so grateful he’s happy to support me in my adventures, even when it means he misses his weekend lie in.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day out – the route is fabulous and I would recommend it as either a run or walk. The weather was good, plenty of sunshine, though a brisk breeze on the first moorland leg, and great views. I felt ok – legs tiring (as always, as expected) after about mid-20 miles but managing a relatively constant overall pace. And more importantly I was happy all the way, grazing through my picnic, drinking Esk water, and soaking up the scenery.
I didn’t race round – I was treating this as a fun day out, stopping to admire views and the interesting things on route. But hitting leg 4 and only 8 miles to go I thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to do this in under 8 hours’ – which culminated in a sprint through Whitby town centre to the pier, not recommended on a sunny, busy, Saturday afternoon!
My watch recorded 38.4miles and just under 3500 feet of climb, most of the ups being on the moors on ‘leg 1’, and up to Danby Beacon, with the rest of the route ‘gently undulating’.
Adrian and I camped that night just outside of Whitby, and I used my day out as a fine excuse for making the most of an enormous pub meal and bottle of wine – a good end to a wonderful day.
The Spine Challenger – ‘A non stop 108 mile race between Edale and Hawes…This challenging and technical section of the Pennine Way is a physically and psychologically demanding route that demands concentration, good physical fitness, resolve and respect.’
Where to start? I feel shell shocked, overwhelmed and as if the last few days have all been a very strange dream verging at times on a nightmare! But then I look down at my elephant feet and I realise it was more than just a dream.
I’m standing on the start line of one of Britain’s iconic races, ‘Britain’s second most Brutal race’, absolutely petrified. Frantically trying to open my poles and spot where my family have gone. The start has caught up on me way before I feel ready….
If I take a deep breath, I know that’s not entirely true, my own training plan I have followed to the letter, despite struggling round one of the long runs, The Tour of Helvellyn, with flu…what doesn’t kill you and all that! Strength and conditioning, done. All of my kit has been weighed, checked, packed on training runs and used. Although somehow, I didn’t quite anticipate such a heavy bag, the kit list is huge including sleeping bag and stove, all in all its just shy of 10kg. My big let down is my recceing, I managed two recces, the other planned days were taken over by illness or other commitments. I’ve studied the maps. I know if I take my time, I’ll be fine. I just have to believe.
I travelled down on Friday to get my kit checked and register, a pretty stressful event in itself. The race briefing is the scariest one I’ve ever been to. We are warned about the weather…’gusts that WILL blow you off your feet. Constant rain’. We’ve been told to wear our goggles, too many last year fell victim to wind blindness and had to retire…wind blindness, really????
Registration done, we drive 10 minutes to the cottage I have for one night, my family for the weekend. Aptly called Happy Feet, it’s beautiful and I wish I hadn’t found such a gorgeous one, to make it easier to leave.
Back to the start line, Stuart nudges me, pointing at Jen Scotney, he believes she is my only worry. Standing there, my only worry is whether I’ll make it to the other side!
The valley is gorgeous with the rolling grassy fells flanking its sides, the sun has only just decided to rise, the wind is already making itself known. We wind our way up towards Jacobs Ladder, I know this is where I’ll potentially see my rivals…I’m always good at climbing, even when my legs are shot. I reach the top in first lady position and am briefly interviewed whilst on the run. I tell them I’m looking forward to the adventure…
The landscape becomes increasingly wild and absolutely stunning. Huge boulders everywhere, the sky glowing pink, the wind blowing a hoolie and trying its best to knock me over…which it does, quite a few times. I feel alive! We traverse Kinder Scout, the tiny lights of Glossop still twinkling as the dawn breaks. We make our way to what is surprisingly called Kinder Downfall. It certainly wasn’t falling down today as spray curls upwards soaking everything nearby, myself included. Crossing on to Mill Hill, I’m getting increasingly more confident, absorbed in the moment and the landscape.
Despite a little line of runners leading the way, the man in front has already managed to take 3 wrong turns…whilst on a pretty big trail or flagstone path. I quietly giggle to myself.
On to Bleaklow, the path is quite sheltered, being cut away and almost sunken in the landscape. This does mean I can’t see any other runners, but I’ve got my map. I’m attentive to any other turns, of which there aren’t any, and continue on. Soon enough I’m out of the dip and views stretch across to Torside Reservoir. We circuit the steep side of Torside Clough and descend onto a large track to the first mini Mountain Rescue checkpoint. I spot my family in the car, just arriving on the road, they all stick their heads out and shout ‘we love you, well done!’ It always amazes me how such a brief meeting can cheer you up for miles.
I’m pleased to be offered tea and biscuits which I stop to enjoy, dunking custard creams into my tea. Stuart catches me up, then the second lady. She’s polite but I sense the competitiveness as she refuses any nourishment and quickly disappears along the track. Not long after, I catch and pass her on the way up to Blackchew Head. I feel happier as I manage to increase the lead by gaining more ground on the climbs.
The side of the ridge of Laddow Rocks drops precipitously to my right. I’m concerned as with the height we’ve gained the wind has picked up and is again trying its best to push me over the side. I use my sticks to fix me to the ground and feel relief when we finally drop down onto stone slabs. I’m still with Stuart and we chat away, its quite a bleak run towards Wessenden head MR point. Here, we’re told in no uncertain terms to put on our goggles or risk missing the race. I stop briefly to locate them and then I’m off on a wide track to Wessenden. It’s a pleasant downhill run around the reservoirs, then off up a steep muddy trail and across Wessenden Moor. The wind is ferocious now. We are reduced to a walk as we fight to gain ground. It’s blowing big waves across the tiny reservoir. At the A62 junction my family, to my surprise, have stopped again and my daughter has run to meet us. She tells me how cold she is in the wind, as if I don’t know! I get a few brief cuddles, shouts of ‘we love you mum’ and I’m gone. Leaving Stuart behind as he tops up fluids.
It’s strange passing over the M62, all of those people in warm cars, speeding along, miles passing in minutes. While I’m up on the footbridge, being buffeted and threatened by everything mother nature can hurl at me. I’m soon aware that I’ll have to stop as the rain and darkness threatens to fall. When the man in front sees his opportunity, I too stop and get my waterproof trousers and mitts on. I stuff my headtorch into my pocket. Stuart passes, already fully waterproofed and I work hard to catch him up again.
Just before Chelbourn Moor, we drop down to another MR point. Someone is holding the gate open and shouting my name. To my delight I realise it’s Kerry and her daughter, who I’d met at the coaching course. I stop again briefly, hiding in the MR van and have another tea with numerous biscuits until I brace myself and exit, back into the wild. Darkness has engulfed everything and the weather is horrific. I’ve not witnessed anything so scary and I’ve been out in all sorts. Soon we’re submerged into hell. The light from our headtorches bouncing back off the mixture of fog and horizontal rain as it lashes us this way and that. The wind howls and gusts. We can barely stay upright nor see our feet, never mind discern the track we’re supposed to be following. Thankfully we are a party of three and we stick together, one clutching his GPS like his life depends upon it. I keep telling Stuart how scared I am. Stuart then suggests one of us keep our headtorch on and follows the others without their headtorches switched on, allowing the others to see better. It works a treat and we take turns until it improves.
Soon enough it lifts and we’re onto Warland Drain and briefly on water laden flags until the boggy bits before Stoodley Pike. I’m quite excited to be there. I’ve seen it from the valleys but have never run up to it. It’s a welcome sight, even in the rain and gloom.
There’s a light up here and I think its attached to a building until I see it move and realise it’s Max. I cheer up no end. To have ventured out to greet us on a dark, extremely windy and rainy night, means a lot. He’s careful to run behind us so that we can’t be accused of cheating. Soon he turns off back to his car and we head down a good track to Hebden Bridge. By now I’m starting to feel the cold. The bogs have slowed my progress and the wind is strong. I pick up speed on the descent, eager to get warm again. Somewhere along the road, Stuart drops back and I don’t see him again until the checkpoint.
I’ve picked up another runner. We work our way to Hebden Hey, me spotting signs and him check, check, checking against his GPS and map. We make our way up a tiny little lane, rising steeply from Hebden Bridge and wade through the quagmire.
We pass up a little lane by a house and I’m pleased I have company. The lane is lined with odd gnomes, one of which is a clown and surely would feature in a horror movie. It’s still raining, although not so heavily. Soon we’re on the main road of Slack and drop down steps, ankle deep in mud and debris with a newly formed stream gushing over everything. This is where I’ll have to retrace my steps after the checkpoint. Those new dry socks I’d been so looking forward to will immediately be soaked and covered in mud.
I get a lovely welcome from the volunteers who cheer and clap and quickly and efficiently lead me through. I take my trainers off and they’re labelled and put near a radiator, not that it’ll do much good. My bag is already on a table. It seems surprisingly quiet, there are only a handful or so runners there already. They tell me food is available in a different room. I ask to see a medic. I’ve been religiously applying Vaseline to my back, where I know my pack rubs, but it’s beginning to feel sore. I change into a full set of clean dry clothes. It’s heaven.
I hang my coat near the fire hoping it’ll dry while I’m eating food. In another room, I’m welcomed by the giddy staff cheering me in as first woman. I am offered four different meal options. I opt for a vegetarian pasta then a lovely rice pudding with a heap of strawberry jam. I have two cups of tea then go through to see the medic. She quickly and expertly puts pads and then Ktape across my lower back. She says I’ve probably caught it in time.
Then I’m back to sort my supplies. I’ve given myself 30 minutes grace and want to use it efficiently. I left myself a checklist on top of my bag so that I wouldn’t forget anything. It’s another 62 miles to the finish, with very little support on route. I happily go through everything and only faff a bit choosing extra layers. I’m told the rain that had been forecast to stop at 2am is now set to stay. I opt for lots of layers, putting on my baselayer, primaloft top, primaloft jacket and Paramo jacket. I stuff another fleece into my bag and get my spare gloves, hat and buff on. I’m ready, sort of. On my way out, feeling refreshed, I pass the second and third women. This gives me a boost, they certainly do not look fresh!
When I go to leave, the interviewer asks who I’m buddying up with for the night. I shrug. He tells me the man I came in with, has only just left. He’s on the Mountain Rescue Team race and would be great for nav and pacing. I try my best to catch up with him. We stay together over Heptonstall Moor. Everything by now is waterlogged. The paving slabs all sit below inches of water. My headtorch creates these amazing waves across the long grass in the bogs, it seems to dart lazers along the stems. It’s quite beautiful.
We weave our way round the Walshaw reservoirs. I’m enjoying his company. We don’t talk too much, but keep each other going at a good pace and on the right track. On toward Withins Height. It’s with huge disappointment that I realise his pace is dropping. He soon tells me he’s struggling with shin splints and urges me to push on. The trail across the moor is reasonable but I soon see a light ahead and try harder to speed up. Just above Ponden I catch up with Gary Chapman. He’s a Spine and Spine Challenger veteran, in fact he’s local, living near Ponden. My luck is in! He knows all of the direct lines across what are now swamp fields and he chats incessantly. It’s lovely company and reassuring that I won’t lose time or waste energy covering any extra miles by getting lost! The rain has by now subsided and I start to think daylight is nearing, only to realise the full moon is lighting up the tracks.
We stop briefly at Lothersdale MR point. Gary’s club has put on a non-official checkpoint for the last few years, offering food, drink and shelter. His friends are all marshalling and they run up the track taking orders via a walkie talkie, so hot drinks and soup are all ready when we arrive. It’s a first class service and much needed escape from the elements as we’re wrapped in warm blankets and fussed over. Chris soon arrives, although I haven’t met him yet…
Gary had planned a longer stop, but his friends tell us we are unbelievably in 6th and 7th position. I easily persuade him to reduce it significantly. He’s never been so high up or so quick with his splits. Happily, he accompanies me out of the door and up onto mud sucking fields. Each and every field tries it’s best to pull our trainers off whilst simultaneously draining our legs of all energy. I don’t enjoy the next few miles. It’s flat and on a good dry day you could skip over these fields but today every step is a huge effort, pulling against the mud and wading through sodden fields. By now Chris has caught us up.
At Gargrave, a lovely lady who has driven to Mcdonalds at some silly time in the morning, waits at the roadside with 3 teas for us to enjoy! She’s been busy tracking us through the night and has arrived in perfect time. We happily accept her kind offer and shelter briefly in a bus stop.
I start to feel incredibly tired, its been nearly 16 hours of darkness and it’s starting to take it’s toll. I’m relieved when the sky lightens around Airton. There are a few diversions in place to avoid the worst of the waterlogged fields.
I enjoy the track toward Malham Cove. Leaving the monotonous water drenched fields behind, is a relief. The landscape at last opens up in front of us and is stunning. I do wonder whether someone has been up painting images of sheep onto the face of Malham cove, but keep quiet, quite sure it’s just my sleep fogged brain playing tricks on me. On the steps up to Malham Cove, we leave Gary behind, he’s eager now that we push on. I stay with Chris and follow his lead as he goes across the limestone. Moss and huge cracks, threaten to twist or break our ankles. He slips and falls breaking one of his poles. With our daft route choice, we’ve lost time and arrive back on the Pennine Way only to realise Gary has pushed quite far ahead by taking a higher, easier path.
I start to feel quite cold, my pace has dropped off with the awkward, rock strewn path. I’m getting quite low in spirits (I really wish I’d brought more gin). Thankfully, just before Malham Tarn, Max appears again with his cheery smile despite the inclement weather and my moody face. By the checkpoint I’m really cold and quite concerned. I’m wearing almost everything and look like a Michelin woman. I warm up with a lovely hot chocolate and somehow manage to persuade Chris to join me back on the trail. ‘Let’s get this finished’, I urge. By now he’s 3rd male and desperately wants to cling on to it and I’m still maintaining first lady position. He’s also feeling the cold and getting increasingly fed up. We start to run to warm up on the easier tracks and continue towards the end, run/walking and encouraging each other on. He’s perfect company.
Fountains Fell seems a never-ending climb. It’s pleasant and easy enough but the higher we climb the more cold, windy and foggy it gets. I’m trying to orientate myself and chivvy myself on. Desperately searching the skyline for glimpses of Pen-y-ghent, our next big climb. Its hidden in cloud. Dropping down to the road Chris pushes ahead. My knee is beginning to hurt on the descents.
On the road I’m stopped twice. Firstly, offered a tray of cookies and when I decline, saying they look gorgeous but I would struggle to swallow them, the man races back to his car and brings out a handful of gels! A few hundred metres further on, an old man jogs up and asks for a drink order, he then races back to his car and presents me with a lovely sweet coffee. It’s part of The Spine magic, I’m not sure if they realise just how touching these wonderful gestures are. They even know my name as they have been tracking me.
Heading up to Pen-y-ghent, Chris has waited to make the climb together. I struggle with tired legs and the wind that is trying to detach us as we scramble/crawl up the rocks with our huge packs. There are a few moments when I fear I’ll be blown off. The other side is even worse, descending on the God-awful slab steps. Chris, again, pulls away.
Surprisingly, Max is again waiting up the lane and he chats briefly trying his best to reassure me that the second lady is not gaining, despite my slower pace. Problem is, I think he’s just being kind. Panic rises as I start to think that after 90 miles of being first, I’m going to drop my position. Arriving at the MR checkpoint, I’ve just about had enough despite the kindness of the staff, who bring me soup and bread. I’m entering into quite a dark place. I sit with Chris, who looks equally crestfallen. Two rather sprightly men pass through and we both think our places are dropping. I urge him to get up and head on out before him.
I spend a while faffing on the road in Horton, my brain is muddled and I can’t make head nor tail of the simple map. The more I look the more I get in a pickle. It is ridiculous, its daylight, the sun has even decided to make a brief appearance, I’m on a large road in Horton. It’s quite obvious where I am and I can’t remember the way nor see it on the map! Thankfully, Chris catches me up, calms me down and I’m back on it. Map in hand, I’m determined not to lose any places by getting lost on this final stretch. I know the route, I’ve covered the ground numerous times before, my confidence is increasing again.
By now, my quads are in agony, my legs work but I have to ignore the pain. I tell myself over and over ‘pain is temporary, victory lasts forever’…something on a motivational video Stuart has filled my head with, although I later realise the ending is somewhat different. I like mine better! It works and I continue to walk the hills and sort of run the flats and downs. Chris is lagging behind until we pass a photographer. He tells Chris he is in fact third male, the other two who had passed were MRT challenger racers. We work together pushing onwards to Cam End. By Cam Road he’s had enough of the panic that has risen in him. He stops to check his tracker. Catching me up he reassures me the second lady is way behind, maybe 4-5 miles. However, he says the next male is about 2 miles away. He calculates and recalculates our pace and time. We move as fast as we can. Unfortunately, I struggle to keep up and its disappointing to see his red jacket pull further away into the increasing darkness. By West Cam Road, I really need to put my headtorch on, but I know if someone is not far behind it might just be the thing they need to give them a spurt of energy. I still don’t believe anyone about my lead over the second woman! I keep it off until a high wall when I’m out of sight. I have to stop again to get my goggles out. The wind has picked up, a few times I’m blown and stumble to the side and my eyes are stinging with its ferocity.
I search and search for the signpost onto the last boggy section to drop across the fields into Hawes. Aaron had warned me before my recce that it was easy to miss, so I’m on high alert not to miss it today. Finding it, I start to panic as there are two tracks and for a minute I can’t remember which one is correct. Taking stock, I calm myself down and choose the right track but take my GPS out just to make sure. I’m too close to risk it now. Soon I see the familiar red jacket again, Chris has waited to run into Hawes with me. He said he’d tried to wait on Cam Road but the wind had been horrendous, so he’d pushed on.
It’s a wonderful feeling being a team again and seeing those longed-for lights of Hawes. It’s just a shame it seems to take an age to make them any bigger! Chris is still on high alert, he keeps checking behind to see if a light is catching us. We slowly make our way down into Hawes, taking another diversion that has been put in place to avoid the worst of the muddy fields. We gladly follow the road and soon we’re passing through the houses, along the tiny lanes, through a gate and we’re again being interviewed as we make the final push to the finish. I hear cowbells and my daughter appears, mad as a hatter. Chris’ pace increases and increases, somehow I keep up and it’s with relief and extreme happiness that we pass through the finish line together. Unbelievably, I am joint 3rd overall and 1st lady.
Afterwards, I sit with my family, Fiona and Max who have come to cheer me in. I eat soup and drink tea, I’m transported to the YHA to shower and clean up (the best shower ever!)I have my photo taken with a trophy, mine will be engraved and sent on. I’m awkwardly interviewed. Then going out of the door I’m told my ‘prize’ is free entry into next year’s Spine Challenger. ‘Oh hell!’, I think.
Over the next few days I eat everything in sight and I’m still hungry. I stumble around, my feet belong to an elephant and I have no shoes that fit. I have managed to survive relatively unscathed, minimal blisters, a few toenails due to fall off, but pretty well considering. I’m totally overwhelmed with the messages I’ve received. I never imagined that while out in the wilderness, at times feeling very alone and scared, that so many people would be watching my tiny dot progress.
Strangely, it doesn’t take me long to start thinking about how I can improve for next year…Britain’s most Brutal certainly is an apt tag line. It has been the biggest adventure and challenge of my running life and yet I did it. I vowed never again…but perhaps ‘never’ is a word I shouldn’t utter!
“The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in”
It was approximately 2015 when I first heard about The Montane Spine Race. This beast is a 268 mile race covering the entire Pennine Way, in January. I was intrigued but thought it was just ridiculous, who were these absolute lunatics that even contemplated taking it on? Were they completely insane? Just why would you even want to put yourself through that? The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in, as it seemed a million miles away from anything I would ever be capable of.
Over the two few years I started to compete in bigger and bigger races always wanting to push the boundaries and see just how far I could go.
I was offered a last minute place in The 2018 Spine Challenger, this is the miniature version of The Spine race, known to some race veterans as the baby spine or the fun run. At 108 miles the challenger didn’t seem like much of a fun run to me, I knew I couldn’t take it on last min but it got me thinking as to weather or not I could do it with the right training? The person that offered me the place certainly thought so and the seed was planted.
At the back end of 2018 I finally had the confidence to apply for the 2019 race, the race was sold out by then so I took a waiting list spot. Even at the end of December 2018 I didn’t know for certain if I was running brass monkey or the challenger, I ran brass monkey.
Being self employed I was able to follow The Spine race closely in 2019, I spent nearly the full week cheering various runners on around the course. I got that carried away with everything I even drove up to Kirk Yetholm to watch Jasmin Paris shatter the course before calling in to cheer another random runner on near Hadrian’s wall, in the dead of the night on my way home, I was truly inspired.
At this point in time I wanted to take on the full spine race, all 268 miles , however my good wife Susan persuaded me it might be a good idea to do the fun run first. I knew doing the challenger first was the most sensible option and with having 3 kids the full spine would also be a massive ask for my wife so the fun run it was.
As the race grew nearer my excitement started to build, I’d missed out on the Lakeland 100, due to a last min injury, and really wanted to smash the challenger to make up for that. I felt great and my coach Margarita Grigoriadi, along with many at Elvet Striders had got me into great condition to do this.
After a request on the Spine facebook page I was kindly offered a lift to the start by Phil Owen, who was on the safety team and Sue Jennings who was also running the challenger. I could not have been happier, I was buzzing and felt so alive, the following day I was not going to be a parent, a taxi driver or a husband, tomorrow I was going to be an ultra runner on one hell of an adventure doing what love.
My race started well, I’m terrible for going off to fast and really wanted to stay with Elaine, she’s a good friend and paces so well, unfortunately for me she was just pushing to hard and I had to let her go, I knew I had to get my pacing right as 108 miles is a long way and I really I didn’t want to mess up this race.
After a few miles I caught Elaine up and we ran together in appalling conditions with rain, fog and really bad visibility, due to concentrating on moving well in the horrendous conditions I neglected to fuel well and this is where my problems started.
New Strider and DFR member Max Wilkinson made a surprise visit to the course and cheered us on not far away from the first checkpoint at Hebdon Bridge, it was great to see someone we knew randomly out there in such tough conditions. When Max left a group of about 4-5 ran together, I knew I needed to take on some food but didn’t want to slow down and risk loosing the pack so I pressed on. As time went by I was getting more and more concerned I needed fuel so I eventually made the decision to eat and lost Elaine and the others.
In big ultra running events if you mess up your nutrition you are done so I knew I had to eat as much as possible at Hebdon Bridge so I tried my best to eat as much as possible and soon felt good again, I was back in the game.
As the miles passed by I was loving every second of it I was doing what I love surrounded by like minded people and knew Elaine was leading the woman’s race everything was great and I could not be happier.
The miles continued to pass by as the rain, fog and darkness continued. There is not much daylight in January and when you have a long race to do the daylight hours are extremely precious, especially on boggy ground in the fog and rain when you have navigate yourself.
In long ultras the field often becomes very spread out and if you start finding it hard with nobody to be seen as far as the eye can see it really starts to screw with your mind. It was in the early hours of the morning I guess at about 55 miles in on Sunday when my real problems started, I just couldn’t eat. I’ve changed my diet a lot recently and after having had virtually no dairy products for the last couple of months I just couldn’t face my normal race food of Ella’s kitchen and rice pudding.
I was totally by myself and gutted I’d ended up in this situation, I knew any chance I had of racing this event was over and that was a hard pill to swallow as I’d had so much confidence a top ten finish was possible, if everything went well.
I was now in a massive dilemma, I’ve always said I would never quit a race if I’m not injured and have always encouraged other runners to battle on through rough patches, I’ve read many books on ultra running and I know so much of it is about having the correct mindset, staying positive and knowing anything is possible if you just have the belief it can be done.
The main issues I had were I was currently by myself on a boggy hill in the early hours of the morning on the Pennine way, its early January, I have already covered 55 miles with poor fuelling, I’ve been awake for nearly 24 hours, I’m pissed off I have no chance of a top ten finish and there is 53 miles of the race left. I can DNF very soon and probably be back in Durham fast asleep in a nice warm comfy bed surrounded by my family within a few hours or I can attempt to ‘see out’ another 53 miles of the Pennine way, even writing thus now it seems insane but somehow I was able to convince myself that this was the way forward.
I’d had so many messages of support from friends an family going into this event and as I’d told a few people the time I was hoping for I didn’t want to finish hours and hours behind that without an explanation so I posted on my face book page that unfortunately I was done but I would finish. This meant I now had to.
Within a very short time of posting my message an exceptional ultra runner named John Parkin, I’d met through Bob Graham recce had seen my post, it turns out he lived 5 minutes away from where I was so he got straight into his running gear and came out to say hello and make sure I was OK. I knew John understood me more than most, as he’s run the UK’s big 3 rounds, and he helped convince me what I was attempting to ‘see out’ was a good idea.
The next 10 miles took me about 4 and a half hours, I was so frustrated, I kept thinking I’ve run that in just over an hour before this is ridiculous it also dawned on me I would be heading into a second night in yet more fog, wind, bogs, rain and poor visibility. I was also getting a little cold, not really bad or anything but if I’d had extra clothing that wasn’t already soaked through I would definitely have put it on.
I’m not going to lie in saying the next few hours weren’t hell on earth I was just walking along completely and utterly spent, I kept shouting at myself to get a grip, I was seeing things and kept randomly busting into tears I had so long to go but quitting was just not an option for me , I could not believe I actually paid a lot of money to put myself through this living hell.
I would walk for what seemed like at 2-3 miles to see on my gps it was about half a mile I had a long way to go but also knew I could just pull the plug at any time like the 70 plus other runners that did not finish the race.
Every time I came across a supporter, someone from the safety team or mountain rescue I would sort myself out and tell them all was good but mentally I was battered.
The miles slowly very slowly passed by I gained a massive boost when I came across a shop and was able to get some warm food and a coffee. The boost from the warm food and drink got me to a cafe at Malham which left only 34 miles, its funny when you start to think of a marathon a 10k and a bit of a parkrun as the home straight!
Not long after I felt Malham I was intercepted by the Spine media team, I enquired if anyone had won the woman’s race yet and when they said no I continued on my way until I had a sudden thought. I knew Elaine had the potential to win and last I’d heard she had a good lead so I turned back and asked if I could film a message for the winner as I knew it was definitely going to be Elaine, they laughed and made the clip which later made two episodes of the official spine race summary videos.
As the food from Malham went to work I managed to keep moving forward however I was being extremely lazy using only my gps for navigation and not even bothering to look at my map (I can feel Geoff shacking his head as I write this) in my tired state I started following a blue line instead of the purple one and soon found myself off course. Thankfully this was only minor detour and I did get back on track pretty soon, after having lost a walking pole.
Why couldn’t there just be one big hill instead of ten smaller ones, and fog what’s the point in that?
As the darkness fell for the second night the temperature also started to drop, I must have fallen a dozen times in the next couple of hours, shouting, swearing and cursing at the top of my voice I couldn’t wait for this prolonged torture to come to an end I was definitely going to take up track running as soon as I was finished this God forsaken race.
I called Susan at this point to tell her it was pretty hard and she didn’t sound to surprised. I asked if Elaine had won, she had but my initial happiness for Elaine soon turned to anger as I realised how far I still had to go an how long this was going to take me. I’d planned to run with Elaine for as long and was hoping to finish within a couple of hours of her but see was already finished and I still had a bloody marathon to go how was this even possible??? Susan assured me I was still doing great but I felt like a total failure.
As I plodded on I noticed another head torch coming towards me this was a welcome site and a decided I was going to give it my all to keep up with them. We were heading for Pen-y-Ghent and the other runner was telling me to prepare for the climb but assured me it was fine once we got off the other side. I gave it my absolute all and managed to tail this other runner all the way to the summit, it was such a great feeling to get this section out the way. My legs had managed the uphill fine but I really struggled on the downhill and was soon on my own again.
I was surrounded by thick fog on Pen-y-Ghent and the decent seemed to be taking forever, I was getting frustrated that there were so many hills, what was the point in them? Why couldn’t there just be one big hill instead of ten smaller ones, and fog what’s the point in that? Its just stupid, such a waste of time and so annoying! I prayed as soon as I got a bit lower the visibility would improve and thankful it did, as the lights of Horton in Ribblesdale came into view I was a very happy man.
There was a checkpoint in Horton and I was greeted outside by a member of the Spine team who offered tea, soup and other warm food it was amazing. I’d been awake for about 35 hours at this point and had covered just over 100 miles, it didn’t take much persuasion to take a power nap. The checkpoint team asked how long I would like to sleep for so I decided on two hours as this would give enough time for my phone and head torch to fully charge and wouldn’t drag the race on for to much longer before I took on the final push.
The two hours flew over and I was slightly confused as I was woken up by my friend Chris Everett, he had driven all the way down just to offer me a bit of moral support. Chris shoved a tea in my hand and more or less told me to get my arse into gear, stop messing about and get on with it, this is exactly what I needed.
I was dressed and raring to go in no time, it really is amazing what two hours sleep can do for you. I put my favourite fearless motivation album onto repeat and had it blasting out from my fully charged phone as I left Chris and the checkpoint I felt determind and very happy to finally be on the home straight, until another 5 miles down the trail when I started shouting and swearing again.
Where is the stupid bloody left hand turn? Why on Gods earth are they spaced out so much? Whats the point in spacing them out so much surly it would be better for everyone if the turns were closer together? All these questions went round and round in my Head as I got more and more frustrated. I’d had my map in my hand continuously since Hordon but as my watches were both dead I had no idea of distance or time covered and every way-mark I had identified seemed to take so long to get to.
I was moving along constantly staring at the ground, the fog was thick I could have been warmer, I was determind not to miss my turn, you could not believe how long a 2 mile journey can seem when never take your gaze off the ground and with every single step you are hoping the turn is going to be there, would this torture ever end?
Eventually the turns got ticked off one at a time and the end really was in sight. I called Susan to let her know I was nearly finished and I can remember being so, so happy the pain of everything I had been through immediately started to fade.
I could see a headlight in front of me as I came down off the fell, It turned out to be Chris again as he had decided to hang about at the end to see me finish and transport me home, I was so happy to see him.
I didn’t know how I was going to react at the end and half expected to make a fool of myself by crying again but I didn’t, I was just happy, very content and extremely proud of myself for seeing it through. Despite the convincing myself I’d had the worst race ever I was surprised to learn I’d actually finished as 12th male and 16th overall.
Mentally the Spine challenger is by far the hardest running event I have ever completed, as far as racing is concerned it was probably one of my worst ever performances, however as an overall experience I absolutely loved it and will remember this race till the day I die. I am 100% confident I am going to move on from this experience stronger and even more determind than ever before.
I have learnt so much from this race and despite everything I went through I can not wait until the day I kiss the wall at Kirk Yetholm after having completed the Full Spine race, I know this day will come because I know how much I want it and I’m prepared to put in the work to get there. I’ve always believed you should never except limits or listen to other peoples beliefs of what they think you are capable of, you are the only one that truly knows what you are capable of and if you put in the work and believe something is possible it quite often is.
Its just after 6:30 on Saturday evening. It’s dark outside, you can hear the wind howling. I’m sitting in a cosy cafe in Ingram next to John Kelly (amongst others!) A beautiful glass 2nd female trophy is on the table in front of me. I’m sipping on hot, sweet, tea and chatting about Nicky Spinks, Jasmyn Paris, TDS, BGR, Grand Round attempts and Spine training. I’m covered in mud, its smeared all over my clothes, across my face, remnants still linger in my eyes occasionally making everything blurry. My hair is windswept and matted with mud and rain. I have an indent on my forehead from where my headtorch has been pressing for the last few hours. I no doubt stink. I’m tired but extremely happy. It’s a deep sense of satisfaction, one that I’ve craved for months now. This is it, this is what I love and this is why I keep returning.
Its Friday night, I’m standing in my bedroom, clothes strewn across the floor. I’m wondering what bag to take and what clothes to wear. I’m not off out for a wild night on the town, I’m preparing for a day on the wildest of Northumberland fells. I seem to have grown horns and quite quickly I get the sense that my family are avoiding me. Occasionally my kids peep in but they rapidly retreat and leave me to it. I go to bed early, hoping to sleep but instead I keeo checking I haven’t missed my alarm. It finally goes off at 2:55. I tiptoe round the house and start my journey at 3:30. Its quiet on the roads until I turn of the A1 towards Ingram. I catch up with a long line of about 10 4x4s, the mountain rescue team on their way to race headquarters before they’re deployed across the fells in the hope they will keep us safe. At the race briefing I stand next to Nicky Spinks. We are to run the route in reverse, the forecast is for extreme weather conditions, winds now of 40mph, gusts of 60mph, increasing all day to reach 80mph. We are to get the higher more isolated terrain over with first.
The wind gets stronger as we climb, the voices of Carol Morgan and Nicky Spinks have long since disappeared. I can just about make out the white trig point of Hedgehope hill. There is a string of lights stretching far across the fells. The sun is rising from its sleep, reluctant to awaken amidst the imminent storm, its colours splash across the sky. The bogs glisten and sparkle as though they are things of wonder. A man, submerged up to his thighs calls for help as another two go to his aid, hauling him from the bog. Our fight against the elements has begun.
The wind strengthens as we climb toward the Cheviot, the fog descends yet despite the ferocious wind, the mountain rescue in red jackets still welcome us and wish us well. It’s hard work running forwards on the slabs to the summit, the wind is blowing us sideways. Reaching the trig I tap it with my hand, I wonder if that’s what everyone does, or do they loop round it or is standing within a metre of it enough?
Then its back the way we came, passing people precariously, neither wanting to leave the safety of the slabs to step into bog. Nicky isn’t far behind, she is the only one not to smile, not to wish me well. I wonder how many metres I can keep up this charade of being first female?
The border ridge is magnificent in its wild windswept beauty. Dropping down beneath the fog the views stretch up to Scotland and over England. Rolling hills for miles around, uninhabited countryside. Isolated. Unforgiving. The ground beneath our feet also wants to reclaim its ownership, to deny the presence of humans. Complacently, I attempt to step on a slab that has sunk deep beneath the bog. The sensation of plunging out of control, sinking into the bog is worse than the drop on Tower of Terror. My breath is taken away as mud splats in my face, eyes, all over my clothes. I have to grab the nearest slab to pull and crawl out. I can’t see properly for miles, bog swimming around my eyes. I have nothing clean to wipe it off and I seem only to make it worse.
17miles, I showed Nicky the way for 17m until that bog unnerved me and slowed my progress. Then she’s past. Max gestures for me to jump on board the ’Nicky train’. I just about keep them in sight until I stop at Blindburn and the Marshalls help me to wash the bog from my eyes and clean up a bit! 5miles of road, I’m loving it,I can actually see again and the smell of tea is keeping me going. I hated this section last year but after my battle with the bog I’m pleased to land on safe hard ground. Its not long when I reach the little stone building. A Marshall giddy as can be says ‘you’re second lady, not far behind Nicky Spinks, you’re doing amazingly, miles in front of everyone’. Now that’s why it’s quieter, I’m doing better than last year, far better. I turn another bend and my eyes lock on Nicky’s, I sense the dread as she spots me. I have to say, that look was the best part of the day. I may not have had a chance of beating her, but I made her wonder whether I could!
I quickly sort my bag. I’m impressed with my own organisation skills , my drop bag is efficient and I spend minutes refuelling. I carry a soup and bread up the hill , not willing to lose any time. Max assures me he’ll catch me up, which he does, very quickly. From here on in the weather worsens and worsens. We form a group of three, Max, Al and I. Perhaps I could have gone faster but I’m not convinced I remember the way and I know there is a huge area of bog not far off. I HATE bogs. What idforgotten was just how much bog. Its never ending, the wind is now shooting rain at us horizontally, the fog has descended again. The ground is treacherous, threatening to swallow us up if we take a wrong step. It seems to go on forever and when I stupidly think we’re nearing the track,I spot a runner in front missing what I thought was the trail and heading straight up over more bog infested land. It’s a place you wouldn’t venture out of choice, there is nothing beautiful about it. Miles of Bogland, like its been a war zone…the front line of a war zone with craters and human traps everywhere.
I cheer myself up with a now frozen Snickers. It’s a pleasant surprise how tasty and easy to swallow a frozen Snickers is!
Reaching the track I virtually jump for joy, then Max does a funny dance and shouts at Al to hurry up. We see him shrink to half his height as he plummits into bog, metres from safety. A three again we’re heartened by the solid ground. 10miles left, seems like loose change. Its relatively more ‘pleasant’ down in the valley, I can actually feel my fingers again and hear.
Darkness falls, I like it. It obscures what is coming and somehow because of the need to concentrate, the miles pass quicker. We’re enjoying ourselves too much that we miss a turn, I quickly notice our mistake and its not too long to backtrack. Only now am I bothered about maintaining my position. I push on, unwilling to allow another female to skip past. At some point I no longer hear their voices or see their torches. I can’t see well or move fast enough, everything is cloaked in a veil of fog. I’m desperate to reach the finish, counting down the miles on my watch, they seem to take forever. Then through a gate I recognise, another, then lights ahead…not of a headtorch but of a building. I pick up speed, I’m so excited, I have a grin from ear to ear. I round the bend up the path and that’s it. Its done.
I’m back into safety, into warmth and comfort and company. My adventure is over, and yet now, I wish it wasn’t….
The growth of ultra marathon running has been nothing short of spectacular in the last few years. If you’ve not tried one, I would encourage you to give it a go – don’t be scared!
But this growth has meant, and this includes races of all distances in general, that they are getting bigger, often more expensive and quite difficult to get a place in. This year’s Hardmoors 55 was a sell out with over 400 people having fun on the North Yorkshire Moors in the deep winter. Bonkers!
Now I’m not complaining (much) but sometimes it’s nice to run a low key, inexpensive, no-frills kind of race and that’s exactly what I found in the Pen-Y-Ghent ultra.
Organised by Ranger Ultras, this race was the baby of two races that day, the other being a 70k race which took in the other two of Yorkshire’s three peaks of which 100 people had signed up to. If you were feeling really mad they offered the 70k runners to the chance to extend to 100k by heading back out from the finish up Great Shunner Fell to Thwaite and back.
The Pen-y-Ghent ultra was a mere 50k heading out along the Pennine Way from the village of Hawes up onto the Cam Road, an old Roman highway, before dropping into Horton-in-Ribblesdale for a loop up and over Pen-y-Ghent and then retrace the route back to Hawes. With just 19 starters it was certainly low key, and the 70k runners heading out an hour before us meant that solitude was almost guaranteed. Running with my long-time running partner in crime, Jen, the first few miles were a sloppy slog up along the Pennine Way to the Cam Road which gave way to expansive views over the Dales and its three peaks in the distance.
A steady plod was the order of the day. I wasn’t here to break any records, just enjoy a nice long day out, so I maintained a nice pace that wouldn’t have me blowing up at any point. It was a nice easy route to follow as I made my way down into Horton where there was a simple check point offering hot drinks and cold pizza. From there I enjoyed the climb up to the summit of Pen-y-Ghent, it was a bit more relaxed than my last visit in the fast and furious 3 Peaks Fell Race a few years ago. At the summit, the lead runner in the 70k race caught me. He looked strong and relaxed as he bolted off down the nice and new looking flagstone steps that lead off the fell. Taking my time has its benefits but soon, as I approached the last checkpoint with around 6 miles to go, the weather turned getting cold and wet and generally miserable, visibility reducing to near nothing. Cold pizza dipped in hot tomato soup cheered me up and is definitely the future of ultra running fuel!
With waterproofs, hat and gloves quickly put on I made my way onwards to the finish back down the even wetter and sloppier tracks of the Pennine Way and back to in Hawes in just over 7hrs. Not fast by any means but a great way to spend a Saturday. I hung around a little to see some of the 70k runners coming in and for one or two of the foolish souls to head back out for another 30k – what’s the matter with these people?
So, if you’re looking for a low key challenge, I’d highly recommend one of Ranger Ultra’s many races.
In mid-July an email from Nigel Heppell* entitled “This one’s got your name all over it”, contained a website link to the Abraham’s Tea Room Round. “A tea room? Does that mean there is cake?” I thought wistfully….and clicked to explore further. Fast forward two months, and Nigel’s dangled carrot resulted in probably one of my most enjoyable days on the hills to date, and the reason for this report (both to cement it in my memory banks, and to tempt other folk to give it a try…).
*please note: IT WAS HIS IDEA!
Ok so here goes for the background history bit…The George Fisher store in Keswick was originally the Abraham’s photographic shop, but in 1957 George Fisher turned it into an outdoor equipment store. High up on the top floor, with spectacular views – is Abraham’s Tea Room. The view from the café is beautiful, but often obscured by the weather, so someone has painted the view above the window, and labelled all the fells that you can see on a clear day.
A remark from Alan to Jacob (who work at the store and had clearly been looking at the painting and daydreaming) apparently went along the lines of “Tell ya wat Jacob. Garn round skyline from Tea Room would be a grand day out eh?!”
This inspired the 30 mile route that starts at the front doors of the shop, it’s creation coinciding with George Fisher’s 60th Anniversary – see the George Fisher Blog.
The website states that the tops you need to ‘touch’ are: Catbells, Robinson, High Stile, Grisedale Pike, Hopegill Head (AKA Hobgarton), Eel Crag, Sail, Causey Pike, Rowling End and Barrow. You can do them in any order/sequence that you like, and successful completion of the route (photos and submission of a GPX trace as proof) is awarded with a badge, and place on their leader board.
The website states that the tops you need to ‘touch’
are: Catbells, Robinson, High Stile, Grisedale Pike, Hopegill Head (AKA
Hobgarton), Eel Crag, Sail, Causey Pike, Rowling End and Barrow. You can do
them in any order/sequence that you like, and successful completion of the
route (photos and submission of a GPX trace as proof) is awarded with a badge,
and place on their leader board.
Having had a relatively empty race calendar since my Hadrian Hundred at the end of
May and no trips to the Lakes at all this year, I was feeling rather dubious
about our chances; not worried about the distance, but rather by the climb…with
“12,000ft +” it has over twice the amount as the Tour (de Helvellyn) which I
have done a few times and is always a tough one. Was this bonkers?!
Nigel and I vaguely pondered logistics…usually
in the pub after club night, and mostly without any resolution (other than
continued consumption of pints and soggy thrice-fried chips). When to do it?
Clockwise or anti-clockwise? Who could we rope in? Could we run it as a relay?
Were we fit enough? Were we mad enough?!
As the weeks went by, summer was fading and it
felt like this was a project best saved until the Spring, with better weather,
longer daylight hours and more serious recces under our belts. We’d vaguely
considered the 23rd September as a possible date, but long term forecasts
didn’t look that hopeful, and we had agreed that – after my two previous 100
mile rainstorms – this was NOT going to be a bad weather outing. But then the
Met office predicted a strange thing…was this a mini heatwave on its way?
Surely not?! I emailed Nigel…. we had a weather window! would he consider an
outing sooner than planned…in fact very soon…like, THIS weekend?! Shall we just
go and DO IT?!
After roping in another last minute willing victim
in the shape of Mike Hughes, at 5.45am on Saturday morning 14th September, we
were driving down a deserted motorway bound for the Lakes, not quite sure what
the day had in store. We parked in Keswick, made our way to George Fisher’s
(slightly eerie walking through empty streets that were usually rammed with
tourists) and took the obligatory starter selfie on their doorstep before
setting off soon after 8am.
The route starts with a short run out to
Portinscale village before heading up and over the top of Catbells. As we made
our way up the first climb, the early morning sun was shining, spirits were
high and we were all enjoying the distinct lack of tourists – a rare occurrence
here! A calm Derwent Water was gleaming below us, and we stopped frequently to
savour the views. If it continued like this, it was going to be a cracking day.
We descended down into Little Town in the Newlands
Valley, trotted past Newlands Church and up the grassy banks of Robinson:
familiar territory from leg 1 of the Bob Graham, only difference being this
time I was allowed to pause for breath! After another selfie at the summit
cairn – all grinning from ear to ear – we descended Robinson using an easier
grassy route than the hideous slippery rock scramble down to the road that we
had tried on a recce (when I had ended up on my bottom x4 times), this time
taking us straight to Gatesgarth and the shores of Buttermere. Well aware of
the most difficult section that lay ahead, we enjoyed a quick pie pit stop and
psyched ourselves up for heading into virgin territory for the loop on the
other side of the Lake.
The climb up High Stile starts innocently enough
as the path contours parallel with the water, climbing gradually until you
cross a fast flowing gill, but then you clamber up through the crags ..up and
up…a relentless quad-burning and calf-popping climb (there was swearing), which
wasn’t helped by the increasing strong winds. But the views back over the Lake
(and beyond in all directions) were breath-taking, and at one point the three
of us just sat down to gaze back into the valley and soak it all in.
Knackering, but what better place to be on a Saturday morning?!.
After a windy summit photo stop, the only way back down was to tick off Red Pike Summit too (staggering views on the ridge line but avoid Chapel Crags edge), and the descent from here down to Bleaberry Tarn was dismal…sliding/staggering down on loose scree and rocks that smashed at your ankles and sapped the (now waning!) energy from the legs. The route back to Buttermere eventually takes you through Burtness Wood, on a never ending path of rocky steps that –with wobbly legs – was frustratingly impossible to attack with any sort of speed (if you still valued your teeth).
Ah, returning to Buttermere was a relief! All feeling a bit battered, we headed to a cafe to refuel on shortbread and tea (well, it was a tea room round after all!). As we sat savouring our cuppas, my comment of “anyone fancy getting the bus back then?!” was met with unanimous agreement that we were going to crack on. After this we would be committed to be up in the hills for a good few hours, but I think we all felt ok. The thought of coming back and having to do High Stile again if we failed on this attempt was all the motivation I needed to carry on.
It was soon after 4pm when we left Buttermere, the possible rain that had been forecast hadn’t appeared, and in our minds – even though we had hours ahead of us – it felt like we’d broken the back of it. For the first time that day, it dawned on me that we had a good chance of completing the round, and we trotted out of the cafe feeling rejuvenated. As we headed out of the village up through the woods alongside the river, I grabbed the chance to devour another of my sarnies before I needed both hands for my poles and the climb up Whitless Pike. As we clambered up to the top it got progressively rockier and ridiculously windy (same as last time I was there…coincidence, or bad luck?) and the poles were soon ditched to make sure I had both hands to grab on safely.
Over the top, we took the track to Wandhope and over to pass east of Crag Hill. By now everything felt a lot more isolated & exposed, and the only other faces we saw were the fluffy-cheeked smiles of Herdy sheep that were idly chomping on their early supper, but the terrain was more runnable in parts. Stretching out in front of us to the left was Sand Hill & Hopegill Head behind it, and Grisedale Pike to the right, both of which we had to climb. The skies (that had been full of high cloud for most of the afternoon) were clearing, and the low sun gave everything an orange glow as we set off to do this out and back. The odd shaped triangular bit of the route on the map didn’t look too daunting compared to what we’d already done. Someone commented “this bit’ll be over in a jiffy”, which of course wasn’t the case.
It was hard going, but again the views from Hopegill Head were a just reward. The ridge route along Hobcarton Crag was, er, bracing! (and another crawl on all fours in parts…just felt safer when my bum was on the floor!) and after a quick selfie stop on top of Grisedale Pike, the pace quickened to get back down asap, and retrace our steps back to the crags, and back to the route that returned to the eastern side of Crag Hill. After a ludicrously steep but relatively short climb up to Eel Crag, we pushed on to Crag Hill summit, and paused. This was the highest point, with spectacular views and beautiful skies in all directions, and the landscape around us was burning in low evening sun. Wondering if I’d ever be lucky enough to experience these kind of views and conditions again, I just stood there and savoured it for a bit.
Shortly afterwards on our way down, we sat in a line on the grass, legs stretching down the hill and resting back on our rucksacks, and just had a breather. It was just before 7pm, and my Garmin said we’d done 25 miles. Only 5 miles to go? Hhmm I was starting to suspect it would be longer, and it wouldn’t be long before we lost the daylight. But the toughest climbs were behind us…for the next few miles it was a case of running along the ridges with gradually decreasing height…it felt like the end was in sight.
We pushed on across to Sail, past the squiggly ‘fix the fells’ giant zig zag path, and along Scar Crags. The increasing wind had become bitterly cold (yet more layers were pulled out of the rucksack), and again going was slow as safety demanded trying to get as much contact with the rock as possible. The side wind on Causey Pike summit was mental…I struggled to stay on my feet, removing my glasses before they were whipped off my face. The sun was just setting behind us as we descended down, creating orange and pink clouds ahead of us and rich inky shadows down to our left in Rigg Beck Valley.
The out and back run from Causey Pike to Rowling End was memorable due to the attentions of an extremely stubborn and persistent grouse*. Not content with bursting out of the undergrowth around us every few minutes, flapping about our heads and generally making a horrendous din, it manoeuvred itself on the path in front of Nigel and became our little bobbing front runner! This somehow seemed even funnier on the return journey. But even so we were glad to be rid of it when we turned to drop down into Stoneycroft Ghyll.
* it turns out the grouse had almost celebratory status on the ATR facebook group. George Fisher commented “we actually decided you needed a bit more of a challenge so have been training “attack grouse” to help keep your times competitive”. On a more serious note, they realised that it was probably protecting a next somewhere and have asked folk to be considerate.
By now it was almost completely dark, and I could just make out Nigel and Mike’s silhouette’s as they headed down into the valley through the heather ahead of me. Even in daylight, there is no visible path or trod…. it’s a case of spotting the path up (eventually bearing right, up to Barrow) on the opposite side of the valley, heading in that general direction and hoping that you can cross the beck when you get to the bottom. It was a long slog down, but thanks to Nigel’s lead, we found the path, crossed the beck, and paused to put on head torches before we climbed up again…the LAST ascent…and not before time.
We climbed up in silence, tired but determined, the world around me confined to the small pool of light from my torch, with spiders, toads and other wriggly wildlife things scuttling out of sight. At Barrow summit we stood and looked down at the twinkly lights of Braithwaite and Keswick. The three of us let out an audible sigh of relief…we weren’t home yet, but it was all downhill from here.
The inky black route down to Little Braithwaite seemed blanketed in calm after the earlier windy heights. We let gravity tug us down over the gently descending grassy banks and every now and then spotted the little flicker of a glowing insect (beetle?) flashing up from around our feet. Once down on the road, for the final couple of km (that dragged!) we followed the signs to Portinscale and Ullock and the feeling of nearing civilization grew as the houses became more frequent, until we found ourselves back on the same path leading back into Keswick, and walked through town back up to the market square. We got some odd looks from Saturday night revellers who were spilling in and out of the pubs around 10pm, and looking at the selfie we took when we reached the doors of George Fisher, I’m not surprised!! We looked somewhat more bedraggled and weather beaten than we had at the outset, but the big smiles were still there. We had done it!!
At the end, Mike had muttered something under his breath about “never opening an email from Jules again”…!…but over the few days that followed there was swapping of photos and stats. 32.89 miles; 14:01 hrs; 14,603ft ascent: 7hr15m going up: 5hr43m going down; and 1hr05m flat time. After emailing our gpx proof to George Fisher, a reply informed us that we had been added to the Leader Board of Glory and would also receive some spoils in the form of Badges of Honour, and…wait for it…. free tea and cake in the café next time we are there!
Next time I am there? Will I be in Keswick to just to sit in the café, or will it be to try this again? There is no doubt we could have done it quicker (skipping the food shops/food stops/sit downs/café visits/grouse chasing episodes), but would I want to? I’m not so sure… the day was pretty near perfect as it was.
But one thing is certain…next time I am in Keswick for whatever reason, there WILL be cake.
Lakeland 50, 2019: a lock-down inspired race report of my first ultra
“Do these paracetamols belong to anyone?”. Blank stares all round. I pop a couple. It’s cheating a bit, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to podium, so it’s probably okay.
I’m at the second check point (Mardale Head, 20 miles in) and, as well as cheating, I have just sat down ignoring some advice I had read in a Strider race report: ‘Beware the chair’. It’s lashing it down and windy, so the checkpoint makeshift ‘shelter’ isn’t really doing its job (think market stall with a few seats under the canopy). Still, the biscuits and sandwiches are a welcome distraction and the marshals have had to drive out to the middle of nowhere to set this up, so I think myself lucky.
I’m starting this report at check point two because it’s where the challenge began for me – it’s when the endurance bit of the race started. It hadn’t really been necessary to stop at the first check point in Howtown (10 miles in) but it was nice to use the loo and get out of the rain. Here, Ash and I were in pretty good shape. Ash is good friend since university days and we were doing the race as a pair. After this stop, the tallest climb on the route (about 2,000 ft at 11 miles) had taken us up into the hills away from the familiar sight of Ullswater and it wasn’t too bad at all. We had hiked up in mud and trotted down the other side without any drama. We were chatting to friendly, soggy competitors, all in good spirits, but it wouldn’t be long before things started getting difficult, for me at least.
It was between 18 and 20 miles that I had grown uncomfortable jogging and when leaving check point 2 even my walking was limited by increasingly tight knees. I didn’t say anything to Ash but when we began the next 1000ft climb it became obvious I was struggling. While he maintained our normal pace, I started to fall behind quite quickly. I was hoping I could just ‘walk it off’ but doubt set in as I carried on with small steps, zig-zagging up a normally unchallenging rubble path. I caught up with Ash who was waiting for me periodically and then he would head off up again. As my legs didn’t improve and I inched up the slope, I started to mull things over. We had clocked less than 25 miles. Not even half done and my knees were sore to the point of wincing with each lift. I was asking myself whether I should be just realistic and call it a day? With all the preparation and excitement that would spell a small, personal disaster.
What I needed at this point was someone to convincingly say: ‘this isn’t the end of your race, it’s the start of the next bit’ and that ‘to finish you need to accept sore legs and crap weather, move forward and do not stop, it’s going to be worth it’. I have now read books that tell you that it is the last third or the last quarter of your big challenge where you have to rely on your determination more than your body. I didn’t really understand this at the time, and perhaps you can’t until you have done something like this already.
It’s doesn’t make for a good story, but I didn’t make a single, determined decision – there was no ‘I’m going to do this!’ moment, I just carried on as best as I could. A big consideration was that if you start Lakeland 50 as a pair then you need to finish as a pair. Alternatively, you both DNF. I didn’t want to balls-up Ash’s race, too, so I plodded on aware I was eating into our 16hr target time. To make things worse Ash was, at times, literally skipping along.
We eventually reached the top of the big climb and, as the landscape levelled, I realised that I was relatively comfortable on the flattening path. This changed my outlook: it was mountainous terrain but parts of it were going to be flat, and perhaps downhill would be okay, too? I now figured that the event was, possibly, doable.
Pushing through the next few miles, I wondered why my knees went so early on given that our pacing had been very sensible; I was expecting a recurrent calf problem to be the issue if anything. During my training in months prior, I had been running half marathons off-road at weekends and shorter runs in the week. Not ideal in terms of distance, but I had at least included quite a lot of steep hills and step-up workouts. Maybe I should have ran with my full pack more, or perhaps my knees were always going to be a problem without better training? I’m none the wiser now. Anyway, we managed to make it to the next check point at Kentmere (mile 27) without pausing.
All the check points have small stories in their own right, for which there isn’t time. For example, at Kentmere I realised I had left our hard cups at the last checkpoint. Ash took the news well and was distracted anyway as he thought he had forgotten to dib his electronic dibber and was stressing about DNF’ing as a result (#newbies).
At each point, Lakeland 50/100 marshals and volunteers do a great job; some are even in themed fancy dress (what is it about runners and costumes?). A key thing for checkpoint for me was that, even though most were indoors, I started to lose body temperature and shiver whilst in them (drying out a bit, resting and eating). After leaving Kentmere, a concerned marshal even asked me if I was okay because I had full on body shivers and was setting off in slightly the wrong direction. I said I was fine – I knew that I just had to get moving again to warm up, and because of this I was actually looking forward to cracking on with the next looming hill.
Up and up again, we were now heading to Ambleside. The rain had been patchy all day, but the cloud hadn’t spoiled all of the elevated views. The weather was deteriorating now though, as was the daylight, and some of the paths had turned to total mush.
As night fell, we trapesed through flooded steep hillside fields, slanting rain, up to our ankles in mud, the only head torches in the darkness. Such places made me appreciate just how much harder it must be to do the race solo at 50miles and particularly at 100miles. We had passed quite a few of the tail-end Lakeland 100 competitors a number of whom, in all honesty, seemed like broken, shuffling phantoms in the night. I’m not being derogatory: they had already completed our distance and were cracking on to do the same again in pretty horrid conditions. Some were happy to exchange a few words, where others just grunted in recognition, or pain, as we passed.
We descended down into Ambleside and I was happy for the pavement, well-wishing people out on a Saturday night, and the camaraderie, salty veg soup and boxes of crisps in the parish centre. Out of town, we sploshed our way through some more miles. Occasionally disembodied sheep eyes reflected our torches in the distance; some waited, unspotted in the darkness and then bleated loudly as we passed. (‘Mint Sauce – you little buggers!’) It wasn’t all tough: there were sizeable flattish sections where I was able to lead because my energy levels were pretty good (it was just my stupid knees on the climbs). In fact, I distinctly remember thinking on some level single track that my shadow, cast by Ashes torch, showed how I was power walking rather than limping along, but I might have been a bit delusional at this point.
Next up was Chapel Stile (40 miles in). This was a brilliant checkpoint. An open fire heated the Marquee where some kind marshals provided us with quality brownies. We exited the tent and Ash pointed out there was only 10k until the last check point which was Tilberthwaite (46.5 miles). We were both rested and in a good place. It sounded very doable and we strode off enthusiastically. At the time we probably both could run 10k in around 52-54min. It took us 2 hours 15min. There had been a steep 500ft climb though and we were having to dig deeper now being weaker at the business end of the race. There is only one unmanned, open check point in the 50 mile event at Blea Moss. We had to do quite a lot of bog trotting, but navigation was aided by small ribbon flags some kind soul had set out to show the way where the path wasn’t clear. Approaching the dibber area, we saw a man in his 60/70s standing in the rain dressed in country walking clothes. I remember reading that the organisers had tracked him down – it turns out he is a local widower who likes to guide people in and provide support at this point each year. What a legend!
We approached Tilberthwaite, quickly grabbed an odd cheese toasty, which had been cooked using an outdoor log burning stove. We then headed straight off as we had agreed not to stop ‘so close to the end’. We had no illusions about how tough the last 3.5miles would be. Jacobs Ladder is no secret and it begins the final proper climb of around 800ft. At the beginning there are nicely defined steps with lanterns highlighting each one trailing up into the hillside. But at some point, god knows when, it got steep (think easiest grade rock climbing at times), muddy and endless. This was the only stretch of the route where at one point I was on all fours.
We found our way to the last summit and started to wind our way down to Coniston. We were ambling and chatting now. The weather had cleared, and we had realised some time ago we were going to miss our 16-hour target, so we were content just to finish. The clouds above and below us were starting to lighten with the dawn and, a bit later on, looking back up the mountain I could see a string of tiny head torches tracing the way we had descended. It was a nice view and also good to know that there were a lot of competitors behind us.
Coniston at dawn was very quiet and we strolled up to the finish and had a hug and a selfie. We were led back into the main marquee where the calmness was shattered by light and noise as we were announced by someone banging a pot and lots of people (those who had finished) cheering. We got our finisher’s medals and a picture taken and met Mark our friend who had completed hours before us and who was sporting a big grin. He had drank lots of coffee and was our designated driver. We swapped a few war stories on the way back in the car, but Ash and I lasted about 20min into the drive before we both snoring.
Will I try another ultra? I am not sure. It’s a lot of time to train and a big ask of the family. I am sure about this though, as a result of signing up for this event, I found a new hobby in off-road running and I also found a great running club. Both of which will have to tolerate me for years to come.
It’s a quiet Friday afternoon here at work, and after some reflection I feel recovered enough to compile a run report. I’m not joking, this was a tough one and I’m still feeling it.
I’ll start at the Finish, When we finished fellow Strider Aaron Gourley was sat on the steps with his head in his hands having finished around 35 minutes before us. “That was one of the toughest races I’ve ever done” I recall him saying. It sticks with me because, Yes Aaron, It was a tough day on the course, and if someone like Aaron is saying that just imagine how I was feeling!
I ran this race in 2018 with friends and we finished around 3am, it was a real hot day last year and two of the five of us that started dropped out en-route. 2019’s event was to be even tougher, at least for me anyway. It was hot, but not blazing blue skies hot, there was plenty of cloud cover. It was the humidity that was to cause the pain and suffering in 2019.
Starting in Wooler and finishing in Melrose this was the shorter of two Trail Outlaws St Cuthbert’s Way events taking place on the day. The longer event, 100KM had started two hours earlier on Holy Island. Both events follow the St Cuthbert’s Way national trail. Now St Cuthbert might have been a good monk, but his sense of direction is terrible. Its only 35 miles by road to Melrose from Wooler and all pretty flat. The route his trail takes is anything but!
The first 20 miles to the checkpoint at Morebattle are tough. The vast majority of the courses 6700 foot (ish) of climb takes pace in these first 20 miles. The second half of the run (no chance of racing!) is much nicer for running with the exception of the last 2/3 miles which take you over the Eldon hills and in to Melrose. This year though for me there seemed to be far more up than down.
I’d agreed to run this race with my good friend and fellow Strider Dave Toth, agreeing to stay together from the start no matter how they day was progressing. Something I’d be thankful for in the later stages, as Dave pretty much dragged me round (more on this later).
From the start at Wooler you take in some of the fantastic views that the Cheviot Hills have to offer, heading towards the first CP at Hethpool at around 8.5 ish miles. This first part of the run was great fun, fresh legs, nice views, and some cloud cover to protect from the burning sun. We met up with our support crew for the first time just before the CP, ironically as I was walking up a hill eating.
Just after CP1 starts the real challenge, the battle to Morebattle. CP2 is at Morebattle and all I can remember of this section is it goes up, up a bit more, you think you’re at the top, then you swear a bit as it’s a false summit and you’re still going up. Eventually you do come down, but then there’s another climb before finally getting to CP2. During this section we caught up with fellow Strider Eric Green who was not having a good day Eric was with us for a while before dropping back. We found out later that Eric had stopped at Morebattle. This wasn’t his target event and in the days conditions probably the wise choice.
Our amazing support crew not only were on hand at CP2, but had ran out to meet us shortly after the delights of Wideopen Hill. The sight of full bottles of water was one I will remember.
Fresh t-shirt and socks at CP2 were the order of the day and that’s what I got. Now I normally always run in a compression top (to keep the bouncy bits in place), but today as luck would happen I had forgotten my second short sleeve one and had to go for t-shirt alone. I may have passed out with a compression top on as the humidity was so intense it was sapping the energy out of me like never before.
Not wasting any time we were off again towards CP3 at Bonjedward eating sandwiches as we left, at least I was. Elaine Bisson who was running the 100K event came into the checkpoint as we were leaving. She had ran about 19 miles more than us and was looking strong.
Around about midpoint between Morebattle and Bonjedward there is a newly built house next to a road, I have no idea where this place is, but it’s around 25 miles into the route. It was here that our support crew were about to become life savers, not just to us, but other runners too!
The heat and humidity were by now really starting to get to me, and I was struggling to cool myself down, even walking and pouring water over my cap and buff wasn’t having the desired effect I was over heating and knew it. Knowing where the next place our crew could get to I called Jill up, the shock of the phone call from me probably sent fear through her, and asked them to meet us by the new house.
Elaine Bisson had not long passed us on her phenomenal run when we again caught up with her, she was in need of sugar to keep her going and Dave suggested that she meet our support and have his jam doughnut. I believe the crew offered gin, but the doughnut and water was enough. When we reached the crew I had ice packs placed on my shoulders, and water doused over me, this along with some cola seemed to do the job and get my body temperature down. Dave, as always, was fine or at least he wasn’t letting on if he was struggling. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen him struggle.
Onward we pressed, 5 ish more miles to the next official CP at Bonjedward, seemingly all uphill from memory apart from the descent into the CP itself. Straight through this CP with a quick stop for melon, Red Kola (a constant on Trail Outlaws events) and a water refill.
The route to CP4 at Maxton Church is pretty much a blur. I can recall rivers, crossing a suspension bridge, making a navigation error, some fields, a speed camera (navigation error). Essentially fatigue was really starting to kick in now and the main aim was to just keep moving, and in the right direction.
Just before CP4 at Maxton we once again met up with our support crew who had ran / walked out to meet us, they accompanied us into the CP and set about doing their things. water refills, food stocks, etc. They really were amazing. I was ready for another change of shirt and socks before the final push into Melrose, and it was here that the cramp kicked in… As I sat on the passenger seat of Jill’s car attempting to remove my socks my left calf went into cramp, I started screaming, Jill started shouting. “I’m in cramp” I said in agony, “Well there is nothing I can do about it is there”, Jill replied. ” Stand up” she said firmly. Eventually, socks on, shoes on, salt tablet taken we headed back out onto the course.
The final 8/9 miles, again are a bit of a blur, until the Eildon hills anyway. There’s lots of wooded sections, a village with a nice smelling Chinese takeaway, a river, a golf course and the constant throbbing that was the cramp in my left calf, that bit I can vividly remember. The thunder storm and ensuing down pour I can also remember. I had been wanting this all day! Wetness, freshness, coolness! We were leaving the golf course when this happened if anyone cares (or knows where I’m on about).
As we entered the final section and ascended the Eildon Hills the day’s heat and humidity followed by the thunder storm brought with it fog and mist in the woods, making visibility a real challenge. Fortunately, there was only one trail to follow. Dave, leading us up the hill as he had done all day, had the brightest light ever seen attached to the back of his race pack and I was able to ’follow the light’ up the hill, out of the woods and to the glorious sight that was Melrose town beneath us. We only had to descend and we were finished.
The earlier thunderstorm whilst being kind enough at the time to cool me off had also decided it would turn the trail descending in to Melrose into mud; adding extra weight to already tired legs. Descending carefully we entered Melrose to be greeted by the welcoming committee, our support crew and 11th placed Mark Dalton who was staying with us. From where we met the days ‘heroes’ to the finish is only around 300 metres up the high street past, our accommodation, and in to the rugby club. These were to be the fastest 300 metres of the day.
A fellow runner who we’d been running with, navigating on and off during the last section had over taken us whist we’d been enjoying our victories with friends. We weren’t going to be beaten by him, so a sprint ensued. It was probably more like a gentle jog, but felt like a sprint to beat this guy into the finish. We did it, and since Dave had lead all day he lead us home.
It had taken us until just before midnight to complete this epic challenge, but we made it. Starting and finishing on the same day. I was handed a ‘Gin in a Tin’ and sat down on the steps opposite Aaron Gourley. I was grey. I was exhausted. I felt sick. I was drinking that gin.
What have I learnt?
Well, firstly I couldn’t do anything like this without the support of my fantastic other half Jill and the rest of the day’s support crew. They were amazing. I would have DNF’d without them. Secondly I have realised that I don’t have the mental capacity to do an event of this nature on my own. Without Dave setting the pace and pushing on up the hills allowing me to give chase I would have slowed and just walked a lot more than I did. I would have ensured that I finished, but it would have been hours later. Lastly I have learnt that I can’t do events like this without having two recovery days after the event. This event took place on the Saturday, finishing just before Midnight. I was back at work on the Monday, lets just say it was a struggle and leave it there.
So what is Endure24 you ask? Simples really, you have 24 hours to cover as many miles as you can, run, walk, crawl or just endure till you can’t give any more and the time expires. The person who covers the greatest distance is declared the winner. You start at midday Saturday and end 24 hours later. The course is a mixed terrain 5 Mile loop, chip timed and quite challenging in places. You can stop/start whenever you like within reason, eat, sleep, change clothes, shower, whatever you need. Your battle is against yourself, the ticking clock and your desire to achieve a distance you never thought possible.
I ran this event in 2018 as my first ever proper ultra and it went really well to say the least. I won with 125 miles, breaking the course record with a personal distance PB of 90 miles. It remained my absolute top running highlight of all time, something I believed deep down I would never be able to top, so I was quite happy to move on to other challenges. It was with mixed feelings then, that I ended up entering Leeds endure24 2019.
How did this happen? As the Leeds champion, the organisers asked if I would like to run their larger sister event at Reading. Quite a big honour, so felt like I had to give it a go and said yes. I later checked the dates and realised to do Reading my traditional spring marathon would have to be sacrificed, a definite no from me. So I decided to switch my place to Leeds, allowing me to enter Blackpool and Windermere marathons, hopefully it would all work out for the best.
The build-up this year was very different, I was in good shape for my goal marathon at Blackpool, but unfortunately the wind destroyed my sub 2:45 goal. On the day I still went out hard chasing my dream time but suffered towards the end placing a good 3rd which I was still happy with. A bearded lad from a northwest running club caught and passing me in those last few miles. I’d aimed high and had fallen short again, as it turned out I’d see this runner again at endure24 for a rematch. Windermere marathon was only 4 weeks later, a quick recovery and turnaround. I ended up running it even faster than Blackpool proving to myself I’d been in shape to achieve that day if conditions had been kinder. I was happy with my training and had been in great shape, but unfortunately it will have to wait for another day, endure24 was fast approaching.
I had 6 weeks of good training leading up to endure24, the highlight being parkrunathon on the 1st of June organised perfectly by Catherine Smith. We helped raise approximately £6000 for IUCS and was a massive success on many levels. It was a privilege to play my part and running 8.5 parkruns with breaks between them was great Endure24 training too. In the build-up I also managed to win a 50k race on the Manchester canal ways holding a good sub 7 min mile pace. Training miles peaked with a 70-mile week (high for me but still quite low for ultra training) but in the end I opted for a longer taper this year. Not perfect but with so many variables in ultras, it’s better to be fresh and ready to go at the start than over train and tired.
We arrived early on Friday to get a good camping spot in the solo area, the event had grown again from last year, now with 4000+ runners in total taking part. We wanted to be next to the course if possible to make things easier. Me, Catherine, Kerry, Anna and Rob all got a great spot and started making the place feel like home. We had a 3 tent pitches with a good cooking/gathering area next to the course rope. The Strider solo team area plus Rob (borrowed from TBH) was done, First goal achieved.
The event was definitely bigger than last year, but the festival for runners feel was still present as we walked to the registration area. The Beer tent, pizza stall, hot drinks, a full canteen area, and a big fire pit in the middle. I started to get those familiar pre-race nerves and excitement coupled with doubts about the task ahead. I kept thinking, no way was I ready, last year was a fluke, all the ultra-pros will be out this time, you’re a short distance road runner…. what are you doing Mr Pritchard? I tried hard to ignore these negative thoughts, putting that pressure on myself is always a bad idea. Catherine in her normal easy way brings me back to reality and we enjoyed a relaxing pre-race night of camping. Good food/chat with friends and catching up with people from last year. Relaxed and ready, we tucked ourselves up in our tents for the night ready for the 24 hours of endurance ahead.
Catherine decided to run endure24 solo with Kerry, both hoping to achieve their distance goals together and enjoy the experience. Anna once again attacked her dream 100-mile target, and I was the other strider solo taking part. We also had some Durham Mums on the run here as relay team members (a total god send in the end for their awesome support) which also included Striders and other local runners we knew. Having taken part last year, we already knew a lot of the people taking part along with others from different events. This was quite normal, the running world is a small community and it’s one of the reasons I love it so much. I walked to the start line feeling relaxed and ready, kit/food sorted in the tent/solo area, I did my best to hide in the crowd on the start line. It was almost perfect till the PA announcement happened, “ the course record holder and winner from last year, Gareth Pritchard, is taking part” I felt like the whole place was looking at me and a very big target had just been painted on my back. I shrugged it off best I could, and off we went. The relay teams charged off, and I settled in around mid-field.
I went straight into my run/walk plan as per my training plan. It’s a tricky thing to do, walking so early into a race when you feel fresh and strong. But 24 hours is a long time and I wanted to keep going, this means I had to walk the hills to conserve as much energy as possible. Run clever and stick to my plan, I ran/walked from the very first to my very last lap. I knew I’d lose little in time from my training, and it really does help keeping things under control.
The plan went perfectly apart from one small problem, that Saturday turned out to be the hottest day of the year. The temperatures climbed to 30 + degrees from the start and we poor runners got slowly cooked. An unfortunate side effect is that your heart rate shoots up under hot conditions, so while I was prepared for the sun with hat, high factor cream, etc. I still suffered massively in those early hours and it required a bigger effort than normal to keep the miles ticking over at the pace I wanted. I somehow managed to stick to my plan for 50 miles, 10 full laps without too much issues. Then something happened, it all went downhill and fast, the wheels started to come off big style. I’m talking the 20-mile marathon hitting the wall hard here, wobbling about, end of the world feeling. The legs were gone, complete lead weights, I could hardly move let alone walk. Somehow I got back to our solo tent area and collapsed on the floor, the game over, I was done. No retaining the title, no 100 miles and no moment of glory, the disappointment felt absolutely crushing.
It was an odd feeling laying on the floor defeated, I didn’t know what to do. My body refused to move and I still had a very long way to go. Rob our support star was doing his best to console me and bring me back to my senses. Flat out on the floor is how I stayed for a good length of time as I got my thoughts together. Foam rolling my legs might help I guessed, hot drink/food, then hopefully try grinding out some more laps if possible. I slowly came round and tried to sound more cheerful as one solo runner after another went past our tent and saw my sorry condition, asking if I was ok. “just not my day, will hopefully still get to 100” this was all I could think of saying. Rob helped put me back together and after a while I decided to set off again, very slowly for another lap, still struggling but at least going again. The trick is to keep moving forward if you can in these situations, one step at a time, relentless forward movement. The next 3 laps were my slowest and most painful. I was just about still in the game.
24 hours is a long time and the great thing about that is it’s possible to have a massive blow up yet still recover and achieve. Through stubbornness and effort, I kept moving forward and found myself on the other side. After some refuelling and time, I managed to get my legs back and started to feel human again. Yes, the win might be long gone, but I believed the 100 miles was still achievable. The joy of the event was back with full force.
I was really looking forward to the sun going in at this point and happily it turned into a perfect night for running. I ran throughout the night in a t shirt with calf compression and shorts, feeling very comfortable. I really got into a nice rhythm and started to count down the laps toward the dream 20 (100-mile point). I still stopped every lap, getting the food and hot drinks down me when I could. This is when your support team is absolutely priceless in keeping you going. I still believed the win was long gone at this point, but I was enjoying the experience, soon the sun was coming up with morning fast approaching. The relay teams were still crashing past me and words of encouragement were being exchanged with everyone on the course. I love this stage of the 24-hour event, the hard work mostly done, sun coming up and only another 6 hours to grind out…….
After about an hour of morning sunlight and some good laps, the big 100 came and went in relative silence as I passed the start line. I cheered inside then slumped off to the solo area for a well-earned break, time out and food. Last year I loved milk chocolate as a treat, but now I’m a vegan and didn’t have this option. Gone were the pork pies, meat pizza and milk, I was now powered by plants and stronger for it. Catherine had found some amazing alternatives which I now gladly tucked into from my box. Greg’s vegan sausage rolls, mountain fuel bars, salted crisps, lots of coffee. Melon was also another god send, out on the course and in solo area. 100 miles done and I could still move, considering the state I’d been in at 50 miles, I was extremely happy and felt surprisingly good.
From Catherine, Rob and my team I started to hear that I might still be leading or at least it was very very close. I was in shock, I still felt good, relatively fresh and apparently still in with a shot of placing well. The idea of doing the double and retaining my title came back with full force, I was back in the game. I knew who the leader was at this point as he had lapped me much earlier. The same lad who had beat me in those last miles at Blackpool marathon. A good runner beyond doubt but the idea of getting my own back now definitely drove me on.
I must have passed him at some point in those last 7 laps but I honestly couldn’t tell you when. Catherine was being amazing with her support and I’d get updates as I lapped. I would give myself targets I’d be happy to achieve by the end of the race to keep me going. Just try to equal 25 laps (my total from last year) surely that would be enough. 125 miles won by a clear 5 miles then, so on I went. I started to realise how close it was, but at no point did I panic or think I couldn’t afford to walk or stop. The 125 mark was a big milestone for me, achieved with a 54 min lap and still running well. I celebrated like I’d just won when I crossed the line.
I was quickly told the lad in 2nd was matching me lap for lap, slowing but still within distance and with race time still left. I’d have to do another; the course record would need to go. He was about 30/40 mins behind me at this point. The problem now was that this event is sort of a 25-hour race not a true 24 hours. If you pass the start/finish line before 23:59:59 then you are allowed to keep going for another lap as long as you’re in by the 25 hours’ point. This had always sat funny with me, I said before the event I wasn’t going to go over 24 hours as it wouldn’t count in my head as endure24. The real possibility now was I could stop before the 24-hour point as planned yet still loose due to the 25-hour rule. I knew deep down that my Blackpool Lad would go out for another lap if time allowed. It was eating me up inside as I set off for another lap, I still had no idea what I would do if it happened, would I have to run over 24 hours for the win? Did I want to? I felt I could if needed as I was still moving well.
I decided in my head I was going to keep running when I passed the line at 130 miles with 26 laps done, I would need 27 laps at the very least regardless of the 25th hour problem. it was too tight and the situation was starting to bug me. I learned later Catherine and the others were desperately trying to think of ways to get me out again for lap 27. They had already worked out that the Blackpool runner might be able to match my 135 miles, but would most likely run out of time completing his 27th lap and would not be allowed to attempt another. He wouldn’t get round within 24 hours and the time on the clock would beat him.
Just 23 hours and 35 mins into the race I crossed the line for my 27th lap and 135th mile for the win to massive cheers, one of the best feelings ever. The Durham mums on the run were cheering loudly but I couldn’t see my solo gang. It turned out I’d ran that last lap quite fast and they weren’t expecting me in yet. I could see them dashing towards me after the cheering and PA announced I was crossing the line. The DJ was asking if I would head back out for another lap? A big no from me, I’d finished within 24 hours and that was all I really wanted. I didn’t quite realise at the time just how close I was to regretting that decision.
Our bearded runner in second apparently ran round that last lap like a mad man, sprinting when he could and chasing the clock. He crossed the line 30 mins after me and importantly 4 minutes after the 24-hour mark, unable to complete another lap. I only found this out later, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He had 20+ club members cheering him on in that last stretch and unfortunately he didn’t take it very well. At the presentation he refused to shake my hand, despite the achievement of running 135 miles. You can’t always win, but it’s important to know how to loose well too. I’m not perfect at this but I’m getting better, enjoy your achievements when they come but most importantly try to enjoy the experience regardless of the outcome.
So endure24 is over for another year, I won’t be doing it again in 2020. In September I turn 40 so it’s time to concentrate on the short and fast now for a while. I’ve learned I can just about do both, with a 10k PB in the build-up, but that 5k speed has definitely drifted. Well done to The Durham mums relay team who placed first in their category. Catherine and Kerry achieved with good distances on the day, despite challenging conditions which caused blisters throughout. Anna suffered in the heat, yet still achieved an impressive distance. I have no doubt she will go on to get that 100 miles in the near future.
2019 endure24 Leeds champion and course record holder, I still can’t quite believe I did it. Recovery is ongoing weeks later and I’m not quite running again yet, but I have no regrets. I’ll be back up and running soon, fitter faster and just happy to be able to run. Onto the next challenge, ultras are amazing but I’m not quite ready to leave my short stuff behind just yet. Gareth