Calderdale Hike, Saturday, April 14, 2018
40 miles / 6800 feet
To say I was over-prepared for this race would be an understatement.
After last year’s (frankly embarrassing) DNF I was determined to finish this year. On time and on budget. So I had done a lot of homework. I’m an IT tech and if there’s anything a tech hates, it’s a Single Point of Failure (SPOF). I had split the route into 8 sections and numbered and laminated maps for each section. I had a spare OS map in waterproof bag, smartphone with route marked on OS maps, 2 spare battery packs (in case one jumped out my bum bag), and Garmin with route programmed. Plus, I’d done a lot of armchair thinking.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Calderdale Hike. The course changes a little every three years or so, and for the 40th anniversary the long route would be a neat 40 miles. The event is primarily a navigation challenge and although the organisers give a suggested route you are free to make your own decisions on how to get from checkpoint to checkpoint, providing your route choice is legal and uses only public roads and rights of way. I spent a fair amount of time before the race studying the checkpoints and experimenting with different route choices all from the comfort of an armchair. Nothing beats a route recce, but Sowerby Bridge is a bit of a trek and a recce of the 40 mile route would have taking quite a commitment.
I was soon kit checked and after a leisurely cup of coffee we went outside to hang around waiting to start on a decent dry mild morning. I even had the first couple of kilometres memorised. Last year the peloton had split almost immediately, an experience that had both disconcerted and confused me. So this year I was ready. Or at least I thought so.
They did it again! We started a couple of minutes early and I was about to jog off in one direction, but realised that everyone else, without exception, was jogging off in the opposite direction! I did what any normal independently-minded runner would do, I followed the crowd, to discover a small gap in wall led to a street taking a more direct route down towards the canal and the first checkpoint. Despite hours of preparation it just shows nothing beats a bit of local knowledge.
There was a fiddly steep downhill to the first checkpoint, then the next few kilometres east along the canal path were lovely. Flat and gentle, with everyone settling down. After the checkpoint at Copley we turned south and started to climb. There were a couple of minor route choices here but I wasn’t sufficiently confident of their benefit, especially after the quirky start, so just stick with following the runners ahead. What may be shorter on the map, may also be muddier and slower in reality.
After the Greetland checkpoint I headed south across Saddleworth road and onto the footpath. I was following the suggested route. However I noticed a runner that I’d just passed having a good look at his map before heading west and sticking to the road. Some time later when I caught him up again at Ripponden, we compared notes and although he’d taken the longer road route, it had undoubtedly been quicker and more straightforward than the squelch I’d had across muddy fields and with frequent navigation checks.
Ripponden was a food station and I sat down and had a cup of tea and a sandwich. It was going to be a long day and there was no point in trying to save a couple of minutes by dashing on. I had also settled into a pattern with my navigation. At the checkpoints I would look at my paper maps (beautifully laminated if I say so myself), study the section to the next checkpoint, and get the basics in my head. Map Memory, as they call it in orienteering.
Then while running I would use GPS and smartphone maps to take care of the twists and turns, with the paper maps always there as a backup. Stopping to map read and route plan between checkpoints can be a bit of a hassle and quite time consuming.
Leaving Ripponden there was a substantial route choice to be made. The suggested route headed North East and meandered along the Calderdale Way. But heading west and sticking to the quiet lanes was more direct, and quite a bit shorter, with no extra climbing involved. There were some walkers ahead and they headed for the Calderdale Way and I had a moment of indecision. But I was sure my route was quicker, and although part of me thought it not in keeping with the Calderdale Hike, not to actually go along the Calderdale Way, the orienteer in me is hard-wired to optimise a route and take the most efficient path possible. So for the first time in the hike I took my own route and started climbing North
West out of Ripponden towards the next checkpoint at Hinchcliffe Arms.
I think it was a good choice but it’s difficult to be sure. With an event such as this runners become sparser as the day goes on. So without anyone else to compare myself with I had no real way of knowing whether I’d made the correct decision. At the Hinchliffe Arms checkpoint runners and walkers on the short (27 miles) route took a different path, and things got even quieter.
The next section took us past Withens Clough Reservoir and over to Lumbutts Chapel with Stoodley Pike monument of to the right. Navigation was pretty straightforward here with a combination of dead-reckoning and when possible just sticking to the nice runnable surface of the Calderdale Way. An easy runnable descent brought me to the half-way point at Lumbutts Chapel where Roberta was there to meet me. Although I’d been out for over 4 hours we were only a few miles as the crow flies from Sowerby Bridge.
Lumbutts Chapel is no longer in active use but the checkpoint, a table outside the main entrance in the churchyard, had to be nicest checkpoint on the route. The day was mellowing out nicely, the sun was out, and everything felt very springlike. I checked in, bid goodbye to Roberta who was meeting an old University friend for lunch, and headed out.
On the road to Todmorden I once more decided to avoid the Calderdale Way and stick to the quiet lanes and easy descent to the canal. There was a brief respite of a kilometre or so along the canal path, then a climb up to the next checkpoint at Todmorden Edge. After descending down to the main road there was a long, steep, draining 300m climb to the next checkpoint Keb Bridge.
Towards the top the path drifted right through the Bride Stones and a few of us had to veer back west to get to the road. The checkpoint was easy to miss as it was a dog-leg to the left, down the road a couple of hundred metres, to the car park of the Sportsman Inn.
The next few checkpoints were straightforward and for a while I often had a couple of Calder Valley vests in front of me who I sensed had some good local knowledge. As we descended from Heptonstall I knew there was a route choice over Hebden Water. The Calder Valley vests went left, and I went right. My route was shorter but I suspect a bit gruntier on the climb up the other side of the valley towards the checkpoint at Peckett Well.
Peckett Well was an important checkpoint. It had a chop time, and as I discovered last year, you may be contentedly running along but blissfully aware that you’re running out of time and out of the race. This year I had about 45 minutes to spare, not as much as I would’ve liked, but not too close to the wire either. It pretty much confirms my experience last year, where I didn’t have sufficient speed to recover enough time from my navigational error.
Leaving Peckett Well the route started climbing again towards a track leading out onto Midgley Moor. Just ahead of me I was catching another runner who seemed to be examining his map closely. Good stuff. There was an important route choice to be made and we could have a little meeting, weighing up the relative distances, altitudes and terrain. He glanced over his shoulder, and perhaps he didn’t share my interest in contour intervals because he leapt away and next time I saw him he was disappearing into the distance. Even further away I could just detect the splash of a pink jersey that I’m sure had passed me several checkpoints back. Both runners following the suggested route.
The track opened out onto the moor and I paused to have a think. I studied my map. This was a really interesting bit. No, really! I’d spent some time on my homework for this one and it was quite a tasty puzzle. Like all the route choices, I’d decided I’d choose on the ground, on the day, depending on how I saw things. The organisers’ suggested route stuck to the Calderdale Way, edging south across Wadsworth Moor then turning east across the shoulder of Crow Hill. This involved losing a bit of height (about 10-20m) then climbing to around 360m (are you bored yet?). However, heading straight east across the moor involved a bit more climbing (10-20metres), but you didn’t bleed off any height unnecessarily, and was 1.6km shorter than the organisers’ serving suggestion.
Conditions were good, the paths looked firm, and if it all went wrong it was just a question of following the compass on East and a bit and hitting a track before long. It’d be fine. Low risk, more fun. More interesting navigation.
I clicked my heels together and headed east. The next few kilometres were definitely
in the very pleasant This is why we run category. The shadows were lengthening and the sun was warm and hazy and despite being weary I was pretty comfortable. I was ok for time and there was only about 10km to go. Life was good. My route choice turned out to be sound and I was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the marshalls at the penultimate checkpoint at Jerusalem Farm.
The remaining kilometres counted down steadily as I jogged gently downhill to revisit the first checkpoint at Tenterfields, before the final mile and 100m climb to the finish. Being a back-of-the-pack runner I wasn’t surprised to find people packing up and getting ready to close down the event, but was re-assured when some of the vests I’d spotted out on the course drifted in some time after I’d finished. Perhaps my route choices hadn’t been too bad after all.
Max elevation: 425 m
Min elevation: 72 m
Total climbing: 2298 m
Total descent: -2299 m
Total Time: 10:18:28
Cannonball 100KM Canalathon, Sowerby Bridge to Manchester and back, Sunday, March 25, 2018
5 am on the morning that the clocks changed, how cruel is this RD?!? And the alarm goes off, final preps stumbled through, ice scraped off the car before registration and a 7 am start time. The Canalathon race briefing was simple, run to Manchester, run back. If you get timed out don’t argue, just accept it and come back again next year to try again, simple.
I think the 13 hour cut off had definitely had an effect on the number of entries, averaging 12:30mm shouldn’t have been too much of a challenge but take off that stops at CPs and any time wasted on navigational errors and it was looking a bit tighter. There were only 52 registered and as it was only 36 showed up; only 4 females. This was going to be a potentially long lonely run, not helped by a complete ban on headphones. I’d have to keep myself amused.
7 am and we were set off, running down the streets of Sowerby Bridge then onto the canals and in the first mile of the race, people’s intentions became clear. No one was hanging about. I’d intended on sticking to a 9 min run, 1 min walk for as long as possible but to warm up the legs decided to run the first couple of miles which allowed me to settle into a nice little group of 4, in joint last place averaging 10mm! As the rest of the field disappeared into the distance decisions had to be made, did I stick to my original plan and take up the last place on the theory that the others were either superhuman or had gone out too fast, so would be caught later? Or did the plan go out of the window and I try and stick with the others at the back. I figured the original plan was more likely to result in me finishing but the run-walk was at a quicker pace than ever should have been sensible, I wanted to keep the others in sight.
5 miles in and the route crossed a road, the towpath disappears in places so you have to deviate off then back on, but as I was trying to vaguely keep up with the group in front I wasn’t concentrating and followed them up the road. What’s an extra ½ mile when you’re already at the back and pushing the time limits? Only on ending up in the middle of Hebden Bridge did I shout the others back and we managed to get ourselves back onto the towpath.
I briefly managed to end up 4th last as I’d turned back first but that didn’t last long and soon I was tail running the field again.
Another navigational error at Todmorden saw more time lost but I finally got to CP1; an extra mile in total added onto the route by this point. I think being last unfortunately meant that the food that had been put out for the 100Kers had been demolished and fresh supplies hadn’t been put out, so no food picked up here. A quick cup of coke was downed before it was onwards and upwards.
From here the canal started to properly climb up to the Summit Inn. Locks were getting closer and closer together and each climb at the lock seemed to get steeper. Luckily the scenery in this section is definitely the prettiest experienced along the canal and this acted as a nice distraction to the task at hand. Beyond the summit, the downhills after every lock, rather than the gradual uphill grind, were greatly appreciated and the next few miles flew by, helped by the steady flow of 50K runners coming the other way who were all so encouraging of us 100K nutters.
The sun had come out and it was really quite a nice day, so different from the horrible conditions we’d faced in training in the run-up to the race. CP2 was really crowded with the 50Kers coming the other way so it was a matter of grabbing a couple of Jaffa cakes, a cup of coke and legging it. Shortly after this, the lack of food and fluids started to hit. Going too quick and running through CPs was not on the plan. I never trust races to provide decent food at the CPs so I was carrying enough with me to get by but nothing was appealing. Forcing a bar down over the next few miles I started to feel a bit more human and gradually I started to catch a few runners.
The canal heading towards Ancoats starts to go through some dodgier areas at times so there was no hanging about and I’d heard a couple of messages come through but wasn’t going to dig into my bag to find my phone.
With about ½ a mile to go to the turnaround point, I spot a couple of purple hoodies… was this a mirage? Was I hallucinating? Or had our wonderful Captain and Vice-Captain come down to support?!? Yup.
As I got closer the latter became apparent and what a pleasant and appreciated surprise that was. 50K is a long way to run alone and knowing you were about to turn round and run the whole thing back again is enough to start to play games with your head. Knowing that I had friends who had taken their time to come down and cheer me on meant that a DNF was not going to be on the cards, whatever happened.
I did then run off and leave them to get to the CP, I needed to have the distance ticked off. A quick catch up at the CP and it was time to make the return journey, retrace my steps hopefully minus the navigational errors.
Having run downhill for the last 17 miles it was a gradual uphill again for 17. The run-walk was being dictated by the locks which were messing up my rhythm and it was between the halfway mark and the CP at 42ish miles that the wheels well and truly came off.
It was here that I struggled the last time I ran this race, with the result being me DNFing at Rochdale. I wasn’t going to let it happen again. A lad on a motorbike kept riding up and down the towpath which was freaking me out slightly, as in a tired stumbly state with fairly deep water to your side you don’t need any extra distractions.
A lot of families walking and on bikes were also around along with dogs on extendable leads, all making life more difficult once you’ve lost the ability to steer.
There was less and less running and more and more walking and I could feel the time I’d built up slipping away. Now was not the time to panic, a constant drip feed of shot bloks and fluids kept me going but I knew despite feeling sick I was going to have to eat something at the next checkpoint.
Due to going over distance on the way out I couldn’t work out exactly where the CP was distance wise on the way back and one bit of industrial canal looks very much the same as another bit so the sight of purple hoodies again was fab. I was just hoping that they hadn’t run out from the CP to find me. Luckily not and with Catherine sent on the hunt for chocolate milk I walked the final stage. More coke, a couple of Jaffa cakes (this eating of food thing just wasn’t happening), and chocolate milk and I was sent on my way hoping I wouldn’t be sick after consuming such a ridiculous combo.
While walking with Kerry I’d been talking about the Summit Inn and saying that even though it wasn’t the halfway mark on the return journey it would feel like it was, as beyond there it’s downhill and I knew that I would get to the finish. My pace was still dropping but I knew that once we stopped climbing I would start to run more again and it would improve.
Due to the first overly speedy 50K, I had plenty of time in the bank and for the first time in the day wasn’t last. There weren’t many behind me but knowing there was at least someone was reassuring. A message asking me to let them know when I could see the pub made me wonder if they’d decided to come to there to support rather than the next CP and sure enough a beer holding mirage appeared. Never has beer tasted so good or produced such an improvement in both mood and performance, I positively flew down the next few miles to CP5 with a smile on my face.
CP6 was only 5 miles further along the canal as they decided to position one on the road crossing that had been our downfall on the way out. I managed to find the little footbridge over the canal at Todmorden on the return journey so no wasted time or effort there and it didn’t seem like anytime at all before the support reappeared.
As I walked along to the CP with them I was repeatedly steered away from the edge of the canal by an increasingly highly pitched Catherine. The recent wet weather meant the towpath was rather muddy and slippy in places and I think she could envisage a rather soggy end to my race. Luckily without any mishaps I got to the last CP only to find out they’d run out of coke, vile tasting energy drink would have to do instead.
Last 5 miles and time to walk them, if I needed to, but I could smell the finish and suddenly the competitive side of me decided to kick in. I’d overtaken 3 guys on the way to the last CP and there was no way they were catching me and I had another runner in sight, so 59 miles into an ultra I decide to give chase.
Not knowing how far I actually had to go didn’t really help but soon enough I’d caught and passed that guy and shortly after that, the finish appeared wahoo!! Never have I been so glad to finish a race. Having DNFed my previous 2 canal ultras, never having finished one despite running further on what would be classed as “more difficult” courses I just wanted a finish time and I’d done it. In the end.
Would I recommend the race? If you like canals and flat routes and don’t mind running on your own for large sections then yes, the CPs are well spaced out and the marshals are super friendly. I, however, am never ever running along a canal again, give me hills any day.
Hardmoors 55, Helmsley to Guisborough, Saturday, March 17, 2018
This race received a lot of negative media attention – most of which bordered on hysterical – mainly from the masses that I would assume are the same people that claim Health & Safety has got mad!
Yes, the forecast had told us that the ‘Beast from the East’ was set to return, but one thing is for certain, we (Hardmoors 55 runners) all knew what to expect and were well prepared for it.
Jon Steele’s rambling emails in the lead up to the race drove home the point that mandatory kit and checks would be strictly enforced, but a new addition for this race was the inclusion of a GPS tracking device that all competitors were to be given at the start. Not only do these trackers allow friends and family to see where you are but they also add another layer of safety for the race organisers who can keep track of all on the course.
So with the impending weather on my mind, the night before the race was a bit of a nervous time, selecting kit to wear, what to carry and what to place in my two drop bags. After a few hours of faffing and constantly checking the forecast, I finalised my gear and then headed to bed.
I woke just before my 4 am alarm so set about getting ready and took an easy drive down to Guisborough to meet my running buddy Jen and where the buses would pick up the mass of runners all huddled behind a public toilet block in a car park and take them to the start in Helmsley.
Once at Helmsley we were deposited from the buses and made our way to the sports club where a slick kit check and registration process left me with nearly two hours to kill before the race start. There was far too much time to allow nervous energy to build but thankfully ample to allow for a good toilet break before the start of a long day.
Finally, as 9 am approached we were ushered out into the cold where Jon gave one of his now legendary rambling race briefs. At 9:10 am the race finally started and I found myself at the front with all the speedsters as they dashed off down the road towards the start of the Cleveland Way footpath.
I checked my watch and noticed I was pushing 7:10 mm pace so I eased right off once on the official start of the Cleveland Way and watched Jen make her way up the field. I was quite happy to drop back and allow the faster runners to go past but not too many did.
The weather at this point was cold with a strong intermittent wind but there were no real signs that the ‘mini-Beast from the East’ would be anything more vicious than an angry puppy whose toy had been snatch from it.
The route makes its way from east to west out towards the first major checkpoint at the White Horse near Sutton Bank, which meant the wind was behind us. There were a few flurries of snow, some driven by the intense wind, but cleared quickly each time to sunshine.
I reached the White Horse in a good, steady time had a quick drink and refill of water bottles before setting off once again. I saw Jen at the top of the steps and thought I might catch up but that would be the last time I’d see her for the rest of the day.
From here the route headed north to Osmotherley across higher, more exposed ground so the wind was driving in across more starkly now but was still bearable with the kit I had on.
I was happy with the way I was moving and despite a few people passing I seemed to be holding my position well. I was adamant not to get sucked into running to keep up with people ahead. As the route made its way towards High Paradise Farm, the wind started to pick up and drive in the snow again, but luckily we were sheltered from the worst of it here.
Upon reaching High Paradise Farm I caught up with a woman who, for the next few miles to Osmotherley, I would trade places with several times. She had a brilliant ultra-plod and made up ground really quickly and then I would catch her as she began to walk.
This section brought us out on to the first real exposed moorland stretch of the Cleveland Way and the wind made its presence felt driving across the snow and trying to knock over anything or anyone in its path. It was a case of head down and keep moving.
Eventually, the wind eased as we dropped down to Osmotherley Square Corner before making our way to the first indoor checkpoint at Osmotherley Village Hall. Here I picked up the first of my drop bags which contained a couple of corned beef sandwiches and a few other treats to see me through the next, and in my opinion, toughest 20-mile section to Kildale.
The village hall was a warm retreat from the four-plus hours of freezing cold temperatures I’d endured to get there but I didn’t want to hang around so made a quick exit once I’d had a refuel.
I walked out of Osmotherley and back out towards the TV mast before dropping into the woods heading to the next checkpoint at Scugdale. Cutting across a very muddy field I slipped and went sliding for a few meters – luckily the ground was very soft and no damage was done other than a dent in my pride and having my whole backside covered in mud.
At Scugdale the route begins to rise again up onto the moors as it heads towards Carlton Bank and Lordstones Country Park. The wind was still blowing hard and the exposure of this section meant there was little respite. I felt ok and was never too cold as long as I was moving.
The ground here was noticeable hard from the cold and coming down the flagstone steps, was made treacherous by the ice that covered them, which made for slow progress. I opted to take a fell runners line on all the descents along this section gaining as a result plus it was far easier to negotiate.
I still felt I was moving well. I began my crossing of the ‘Three Sisters’ which includes Wainstones, a tough little rocky outcrop made more difficult by the wind, snow and ice.
Interestingly, an Eagle Owl has decided to make this section its home and had been attacking runners and walkers in the weeks leading up to this race so all eyes were on the sky in the event of an attack. Instead of an Eagle Owl, however, at the top of Wainstones, a marshal stood armed with a camera taking pictures of weary runners.
From here there is a run across more open and exposed high ground which the wind and snow driving across was making difficult. Teasingly in the distance, when the snow stopped, the peak of Roseberry Topping would come into view – so near yet so far.
The route then dropped to Clay Bank where there was another checkpoint. Here I refilled my bottles, which had started to form ice in them. In fact, the one I’d had orange juice in had started to freeze like a slush puppy. Not hanging around I crossed the road and back up the steep path towards Blowarth Crossing. This is a long and arduous section and one of the most exposed parts of the route.
I was still moving well, walking the ups and plodding the flats but Blowarth has a reputation and form in this race – in fact when I first ran this race back in 2013 (in the opposite direction) Blowarth was probably the toughest few hours of running I’d ever encountered.
Today it didn’t disappoint. The wind picked up and brought with it the most intense snowstorm of the day. The puppy was maturing and bearing its teeth now. It was unrelenting as the route took a turn right into its throat. But I, and those around me, had our heads down and kept moving. Eventually, the turning point at Bloworth appeared and took us out of the direct force of the wind so that it was cutting across east to west once more and on to a flatter section where it was easier to run.
But the wind and snow kept coming, and the path seemed to never end. I contemplated stopping to put on an extra layer but decided it was far better to keep moving and get to Kildale where I could take stock.
Pressing on for what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it to the road leading into Kildale. The snow was being blown intensely and the road was covered. I got to the village hall at 6:38 pm and was relieved to be out of the wind for a few moments.
Here, Sue Jennings and Denise Hughes were on hand. I grabbed my drop bag, which contained a spare top and a pair of fresh socks whilst being handed a slice of pizza and a bowl of rice pudding.
From Clay Bank to here I’d been debating in my head whether to change my socks (you’ve got to think of something when running long distances!). I had already decided to put on my waterproof layers as they would give me a bit more protection against the wind and change my top so I decided I was definitely going to change my socks. The only problem was, I couldn’t get the changed pair on, so I spent far too many minutes struggling with them.
Whilst running over Bloworth both my water bottles had frozen solid so I’d not had a drink for a while. Denise took them and filled them with warm water which would at least give me a bit more of a chance to have a drink as the temperature was dropping as darkness fell outside.
It was around 7 pm when I went to leave the village hall, but as I made my way to the door, Andy Norman who was on timing duties stopped me to inform me that the out and back to Roseberry Topping was no longer part of the race due to the conditions outside.
I was slightly disappointed as I’d been targeting this for most of the day as it loomed in the distance but I could understand why the decision had been made and I was sure I’d be thankful at the end of the race.
Back outside, it was really dark now and as I made my way through Kildale, I noticed a group of head-torch lights heading down a path that was off track. I gave them a quick shout and made sure they were aware they’d gone wrong before making my way through the woodland and back out towards Captain Cooks Monument.
From here the route skirts around Roseberry Topping. The wind was still howling but the snow had stopped. As I looked over to Roseberry, I could see head torch lights on its slopes. I wondered if we were still going up and down it? Eventually, I reached the gate at the start of the out and back where a marshal pointed me away in the direction of Guisborough Woods.
I was definitely not going up Roseberry Topping and felt guilty that I was taking the places of those last few that had gone through before the decision was made to close it. From here the route winds its way up to High Cliff Nab providing extensive views of the lights of Guisborough and Teesside below.
The route takes a cruel detour through the woods and away from Guisborough before dropping onto an old railway track which heads back towards town. With a mixture of walking and shuffling, I eventually reached the bridge above the Rugby Club before dropping on to the road towards the finish at the Sea Cadets.
It was such a relief to turn the corner and head into the hall where a young lad was ringing a bell to signal the arrival of runners. I was handed my t-shirt and medal and went to sit down feeling exhausted but elated.
I must have looked a sight as Shelli Gordon came over and gave me a nice hot coffee and a thick sleeping bag to warm up in. I swear I felt ok, but what I didn’t realise at the time was that the race had been stopped. It was 9:31 pm when I finished but over in Kildale, the race had been stopped due to the deteriorating conditions.
It wasn’t until I got home and woke the next day that I found out what had unfolded. I could totally understand the decision and as the day progressed and news spread it became apparent that this was going to spill over. I couldn’t say what happened in Kildale but from my experience, Jon & Shirley who organise Hardmoors made the right decisions throughout the day.
I ran this race in 2013 in what were probably worse conditions underfoot with deep snow and high winds, what was different this time was the unrelenting nature of the wind, the colder temperatures and the amount of people on the course towards the end of the race.
Of those ‘rescued’’, most if not all, would have completed had they been able too, but on sound advice of Mountain Rescue, and the conditions on the roads the decision was made to call it a day which was a shame for those not able to get back out in time.
If you look at the Hardmoors website, it clearly states ‘Do not underestimate this race!’ It’s a winter race – it’s the conditions that make it appealing to me. If you want to be mollycoddled then look elsewhere.
I entered this race in the full knowledge that the weather could throw anything at us. In fact, I’ve done this race four times now and each in completely different conditions, but each time in the full knowledge that my safety and that of other competitors is of paramount importance to the organisers.
Montane Cheviot Goat Winter Ultra, Ingram Valley, Cheviot Hills, Saturday, December 2, 2017
I’ve never written a race report before, however, due to the massive amount of support and well wishes over the last few days I thought that needed to change, so here is my report on The Montane Cheviot Goat.
As soon as I heard about this race I was intrigued, I logged straight onto the website, read all the information and instantly thought, there is no chance I’m not doing that especially in December and that was the end of it.
Fortunately, the organisers kept putting out info on it and then I heard my mate Andy Berry had signed up. He’s the guy who first got me into ultra running. He’s an absolute machine, but every time he’s completed a race, I’ve wanted to do it, convincing myself if he can do it so can I. Andy Berry is also the reason I’m attempting the Bob Graham Round on May 5th. Andy won the Cheviot Goat so I really should have found someone a little easier to compete with!
As I have been building up my fitness for the BGR, I’ve been putting in a lot of training, including heading down in the middle of the night, on a few occasions, to meet random fell runners and BGR enthusiasts I’ve met through online forums etc. I’ve also trained quite a bit with Scott Watson after being massively inspired by his successful BGR attempt earlier in the year. It’s just as well I have been training so hard as I would never have completed that course without it. I’ve completed a 50km ultra and two 69 mile runs previously but they were nothing compared to the mental and physical challenge of the Cheviot Goat. Anyone thinking about it for the future really needs to appreciate this and read other people’s reviews of the course that can be found on The Cheviot Goat Facebook page.
As the event was approaching, the weather forecast just seemed to be getting worse and worse with fog, gale-force winds and temperatures of -5°c with a wind chill of -20°c being reported. To add to my concerns, I’d read on a couple of Internet forums that many thought the event was way harder than people were expecting and a lot of people were going to feel way out of their depth and really struggle. This was not what I needed to hear before my first winter ultra!
The day before the event I was trying to eat as much as possible with plenty of porridge, brown rice, chicken, pasta and sweet potato with a load of water to wash it down.
My plan was to head up to a hotel just near the start at about 6 pm to ensure a good nights sleep but I didn’t end up setting off till after 8 pm and then had to go and register and collect my race number. It wasn’t as busy as I had expected, as many failed to register due to the weather! I ended up getting to the hotel at about 11 pm but the mattress was far too soft and the heating was far too hot, so I only ended up with about 4 hours sleep, again not ideal.
I had to be at the start for 4.30am for kit check and safety brief with the race starting at 5.30am. I felt really fit and strong until I saw the others lined up who made me feel out of shape. We set off bang on time with everyone wrapped up tight with head torches blazing. I felt great at the start but my confidence ebbed a little at the first water station when I didn’t stop and found myself not knowing where to go. The course is totally unmarked and I took the lazy mans option of just following those in front, this strategy worked fine when there were people I could see in front! After rummaging through my various pockets for a minute, I dug out my map and compass and from this point on my map stayed firmly in my hand.
The first few miles were on low lying ground with very little snow, but as soon as we started to climb this changed. Before long we had a good foot of snow to deal with. I was feeling great at this point and knew I was quite near the front of the field, as I could only count about 8-9 sets of footprints in the snow. Brilliant for my navigation, as my new technique was just to follow the footprints. The other benefit of being in the position I was, was the fact the front runners were acting as a snow plough. If I managed to position myself exactly in their footsteps, the going was nowhere near as hard.
The snow had drifted quite a bit in places but I was still able to get a bit of speed up on the downhill sections. Quite often you didn’t know what you were stepping onto but at least when you did fall it was just into soft snow. My waterproof socks were a godsend at this point, as they have a wetsuit type effect. When the water gets in your feet heat up the water so they never really get too cold. I never noticed my feet being cold all day despite the conditions.
After the first section of deep snow it thinned out and the sunrise was absolutely amazing. Myself and the woman I was running with, at this point, talked about how stunningly beautiful it was and what a fantastic feeling it was to be running there. I ended up leaving my running buddy not long after this conversation and shot off down the mountain feeling absolutely king of the world. The feeling I had at this point has only ever been achieved, for me, whilst running in the fells.
A little further along the route, I could see two guys operating a drone on top of the hill I was heading to. I never know what to do when I’m being filmed, so couldn’t decide to look serious, cool and focused or just shout woo-hoo and put my arms out as it hovered above. I think I went for an option somewhere in the middle and am really looking to see that bit of footage when I was on such a natural high.
The next bit was a bit of a blur until we were nearing the halfway point and all I could think about was the rice pudding and can of coke I had in my drop bag. There was quite a climb just before the food station and one guy caught me up and then shot straight off up the hill leaving me standing. Soon after the guy passed me, I turned to see the woman I had been running with at sunrise also catching me up and it’s lucky she did, as I’d dropped my buff while searching for Haribos in my bag and she kindly retrieved it for me. We got talking again. She asked my name then introduced herself as Carol before we started talking about how well our mutual friend Andy Berry was running at the min. We talked about some other races and she mentioned ‘The Spine Challenger’, a 108-mile winter ultra, to which I said there was no chance I would ever enter. I asked her about it and she said she was running ‘The Spine’ race after doing it last year. That thing is 268 miles! I asked if she did well in it, to which she replied she got a good time. I later Googled the race and found out my running buddy was Carol Morgan who smashed the woman’s record in The Spine race last year by 43 hours!!!!
When I got to the halfway point I was greeted with a hot cup of chunky vegetable soup and a bread bun, but all I could think of was my Coke and rice pudding. I ripped open my drop bag and nightmare the coke and rice pudding were missing. I must have put it in the wrong bag! After the soup and a nice bit of cake, I headed out with a Snickers in my hand determined to eat it, as I knew I needed it, especially after having missed out on the rice pudding. I think I carried the Snickers for about 3 miles before I finally got ¾ of it down but it was hard work and I just couldn’t finish it.
The next section was starting to get tough, as tiredness started to kick in and I never saw a single person for miles. At this point, I was so focused on moving forward and watching the ground I got a big surprise when I looked up and saw the most amazing view of the sun setting behind it. The happiness of seeing the beautiful sunset was short lived as I suddenly started to worry about running in the dark once more. I can remember thinking at this point I have about 22 miles left, so that’s only two ten milers and a bit of a parkrun or a great north run and 3 park runs and that’s not too bad.
There was a water station at about 40 miles and it was great to see. Whenever you reached a station or a marshal, they came to great you and gave you a round of applause. It was great seeing them after such a long section without seeing another soul. I can remember joking with them about the takeaway and beer I would be enjoying in a few hours whilst they were still out there.
I really started to slow down after the 40-mile station and the great north run plus one parkrun I had left started to seem like a lot greater a challenge than I had initially hoped. I soon started the climb up to Cheviot and it seemed to go on forever. I think one mile took about 33 min’s and yet again I found myself in deep snow. This was probably my lowest point of the race mentally and physically, as I was just so tired and making very slow progress as darkness fell. I can remember thinking, if it starts snowing or raining heavy, am I even going take make it. It was at this point I considered ringing my wife, but I knew how worried she would get, so I didn’t. If I didn’t have a tracker with an emergency button on it I would have been extremely worried at this point, as I hadn’t seen another runner in hours. They don’t call this race the most lonely for nothing!
I really wouldn’t recommend ever being in that sort of situation without a GPS tracker, a phone and all the proper kit, If a storm had come in at that point and I’d lost my bearings I don’t know if I would have even made it back!
The snow made the very last of the light last longer and I waited until I couldn’t see more than about a meter before digging out my head torch, buff, thicker hat and waterproof trousers. The wind was also getting up at this point but I instantly felt better as I warmed up in my full kit.
As I plodded on up The Cheviot I started to contemplate missing out a section of the course, just to give me that extra chance of making it to the finish. There was a checkpoint about 1km from the summit and the course brought us up around the trig point then down the same route. It just seemed so harsh making us go that bit further to come down the same path. I remember asking the marshal exactly how far it was to the summit, even though I had a map in my hand. I honestly think if he’d said two miles I would have just missed it out. He reassured me it was definitely only about 1km so I continued on.
I can remember thinking at this point I wasn’t even bothered if I missed out part of the course, as all I could hear was the organisers saying you all know your limits so don’t exceed them and I felt right out of my depth at this point. I think the only thing that kept me going was the fact that I didn’t want to hand my race t-shirt back. We had been given them at registration but I’d already decided I’d hand it back if I didn’t complete and I really didn’t want to do that after everything I’d been through. Never before have I been bothered about a race t-shirt but this was no ordinary race.
After reaching the trig point I got a massive boost from somewhere and felt great again. On my way back down to the marshal I passed 4 or 5 runners (the first I’d seen in hours) and made a real point of assuring them how great they were doing and it wasn’t much further to the top. Suddenly the possibility of finishing was back on!
After passing the marshal for the second time there was quite a long downhill section however, the problem was that the snow was that deep you had to, sort-of, skip down the hill and you had no idea what was under the snow. Every now and again you shot down to your waist in the snow, due to a hole you had no idea was there. I spent a good while shaking out my jacket trying to get rid of the snow that had made its way up my back as I’d fallen
As I passed the 45-mile mark, the thought of another 10 in these conditions was an absolute nightmare; three park runs all of a sudden seemed almost impossible! I knew I needed more energy but just couldn’t bring myself to eat any more sweet stuff and the thought of a gel made me feel sick. I will definitely be packing a lot of savoury snacks on my BG attempt. Luckily I still had a load of high-energy mountain fuel in my water bladder so I just drank as much as I could and powered on.
As I neared the bottom of the downhill from Cheviot, I could do nothing but walk and it’s not a good feeling knowing you really should be taking full advantage of the downhill but just couldn’t. I can remember looking back at this point and seeing two head torches slowly catching-up on me. I was so jealous I couldn’t make the most of the downhill like they were. When that first runner passed me, he was the only one to have overtaken me in twenty miles, but it’s a good job he passed me when he did, as not long after he passed, his foot shot down through the snow and became completely stuck under a rock. Luckily for him, I was right behind him and was able to give instant assistance digging him out. We quickly dug away at the snow and he started to shout. His leg was going into cramp. Once all the snow was removed, we started digging out the soil and found that his foot was wedged between two rocks, thankfully one wasn’t too big and we were able to dig it out and free his foot.
The above incident really brought home the extremities of the conditions we were running in. What if the other runner gaining on us had already passed me and my foot had got stuck and nobody was there to help me? I could easily have been stuck there freezing for 30 min’s plus before another runner caught up. If I’d been unable to move, I would have got very cold, very quickly. I did have the GPS tracker with an emergency button, however, due to the remoteness of the location, I couldn’t see the Mountain Rescue being able to get there anytime soon and that is a frightening thought!
After many thanks from the freed runner, it was time to start the next climb, get these final few miles out the way and get the hell out of there. I could see a tread cut out of the snow on the line the runners before me had used, however, I just didn’t have the energy to use it. There was a fence running right the way up to the summit on my right, so I just chose to cling onto that to use it as a handrail most of the way up. The problem with using the fence to pull myself up was nobody else had used that line, so I was cutting through deep snow most of the way up, but I felt it was worth it.
Reaching the top of Hedgehope was an amazing feeling as I was now in the final section of the map. I now knew I would make it and I could keep my t-shirt. I had pretty much given up all hope of running any of the course from here but amazingly my body kept finding that little bit extra and little runs broke out here and there.
With about 3 miles or, as I was thinking, only one park run left, I was walking very slowly and bumped into two guys who worked for an adventure film company. They were making a film about one runner’s story and build up to this race and they offered to walk with me. This was fantastic and I will always be grateful to them. These guys were the first people I had really got to talk in hours. I have no idea what I was babbling on about to them but just having others with me at this point was a massive help.
By this point, a few runners were catching and passing me so I just followed any lights I could see. The downfall of this lazy man’s option became apparent, once again, when it transpired a couple of guys in front had gone the wrong way and I had just blindly followed them. Luckily we didn’t go too far off track and again I was reminded of the importance of good navigation.
With about one and a half miles to go, I started getting excited that the challenge was nearly over. The film guys took a call and I couldn’t be bothered to wait as they stopped to talk, so I just left them, without so much as thanks or goodbye. I feel really bad about this now but was just so focused on finishing at the time.
With about one and a half miles to go my recently changed spare head torch battery died and I was left trying to run in the dark. There were a few runners a little way in front but I soon lost them as I just couldn’t keep-up trying to run without a light but I knew I was on the home straight now.
I came off the fells and onto a road within striking distance of the finish but had no idea of my bearings and couldn’t see my map as it was too dark. My phone was in the bottom of my bag but I couldn’t be bothered to dig it out to get to the light, so I just started running on the road with no idea as to the direction I should be travelling. On reaching a junction I didn’t know where to go. A car passed which I tried to flag down but they mustn’t have had anything to do with the race and drove around me and left me standing waving like crazy.
I was in a massive dilemma now. Do I just continue on in a random direction, as I know the end is a few hundred meters away, or go back to try and find another runner. I wasn’t thinking straight and just wanted to run in any random direction but then started thinking, what if I accidentally take a shortcut and get disqualified. I couldn’t risk having to give my t-shirt back now! Of course, the sensible option was just to stop and get my phone with a built-in torch out, but my brain just wasn’t working properly, so I went for the option of shouting a long list of swear words as I ran back up the road to where I had left the fells. Thank god two runners were just coming onto the road as I got back. I ranted at them for a minute about what had happened to me whilst following them back up the road I now knew well and over the finish line!
A small group came out to applaud us as we finished and there were many congratulations from fellow runners and race organisers. I collapsed into a chair and swore blind to buy a drink for any person I ever see in any bar wearing a Montane Cheviot Goat T-Shirt!
The pain in my feet was unreal as I pulled my trainers off and I could hardly walk over to my bags to retrieve my clean warm dry clothes. I pulled my fresh clothes on and called my wife, so happy to proclaim, I had finished and was still in one piece. As I sat there waiting for some feeling to return to my feet, I started sorting through my bags and instantly found my rice pudding and Coke in the top compartment of my drop-bag. It had been there all along…..gutted!
This race is by far the hardest ultra I have ever run, it pushed me to the max both physically and mentally and although I swore never again at the end, I cannot wait to beat my time next year!
Thank you to everyone in the Striders who has helped me improve my running, as I would never have completed this run without your help!
Anyone interested in seeing the relive video of my run can find it here:
Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra Marathon, Saturday, October 28, 2017
So after my reasonably successful bash at a full-distance triathlon, I decided to try and delay the inevitable slide towards couch-potato-ism by finding another foolish endeavour to undertake. I’ve never attempted to run past marathon distance, and I have never finished a marathon thinking ‘ that was good, but I wish It went on for ages more with some big hills in it’, but everyone seems to be pushing the boundaries these days, so I thought I’d give it a crack. Hello Jedburgh Ultra.
Another early start, 4.30am alarm, long drive up the A68 in the dark. Arrive still yawning at the car-park next to the abbey. It’s not yet 7 am, still pitch black and happy people in hi-viz direct me in. Collect race number from a happy person, have chip attached to wrist by another happy person. Have a wristband put on my wrist by happy person that says ‘Rule #1: don’t be a dick’. Happy people and not being a dick become themes of the day.
A quick kip in the car, coffee, race briefing (don’t be a dick), a jolly warm up to YMCA and we’re off.
This race is awesome. Solid tracks and trails up from Jedburgh to Melrose, through woodland, fields, along river banks, up over the Eildon Hills (three peaks), through a children’s playground where you are made to tackle the rickety bridge, climbing frame and slide (or you’re disqualified), and back. Beautiful scenery throughout. I planned to take some photos from the hilltops but 50mile-an-hour winds nearly blew me off so I didn’t want to hang around up there, this ropey effort from distance is all I’ve got:
It’s inevitable that regardless of the distance I’m running, by the time I’ve reached the last quarter of the race, all my optimistic plans of finishing times and pace have gone out of the window and I just want to get it over with before my legs fall off; it’ll happen at parkrun next week. The thing about this kind of distance is I still had 10 miles to go when I reached this conclusion, and the scenery doesn’t help much in this regard. That said, if you reckon you have it in you (I barely did) I sincerely recommend this well organised (drop bags at check-points with redistribution of ket from the discarded bags), well signed (no need for map and compass), lovely friendly (got a hug from a giant squirrel) race. The tech T-shirt is emblazoned with Peace, Love, Run, Beer. I just wish I could have stayed on for the post-race pub party.
Rat Race Ultra tour of Edinburgh, Sunday, October 22, 2017
This caught my attention as soon as I’d seen an advert on Facebook, a really different race with the additional challenge of a new distance. The event video and description had me hooked from the word go….
“Sets off with a Braveheart charge down the Royal Mile. Weaves through streets, alleyways, onto hills, up crags, past monuments, museums, seats of Royalty, Government and up and down 3000 feet of ascent and descent.”
I love Edinburgh, so a chance to have a guided race around this beautiful city seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Registration was on the Saturday 08:30-10:30 at Murrayfield stadium, the finish line. I’d booked into a hotel minutes from the start beside St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile (so that I didn’t wake all my family up at some ungodly hour to first have my pre-race porridge, then leave v early to get to the start in time!) It’s unusual to get a night away from my kids. Unfortunately, I was far too excited/nervous to fully appreciate the peace. The event organisation was well recommended and the spectator guide was so detailed that even my family were excited to plan their day around supporting me.
I woke early to eat my porridge, the hallowed 2 hrs before the race and arrived at the start at 06:50. The streets were dark, the sun barely touching the sky.
The race starts at 07:30. I was all too pleased to bump into Alex Collins while we were putting our bags on the baggage bus, it seems you can’t do any race without bumping into fellow Striders! By 07:20 we were called to line up before the start….I made a quick dash for the cash point. I’d somehow forgotten the mandatory kit requirement to carry £10 cash.
The place was amazing, barely just gone sunrise. The sky had an orange glow lighting up all those wonderful old buildings and cobbled streets. There was a palpable buzz of excitement. The promise of some excellent adventures ahead.
The start was a bit of a manic race down the Royal Mile. Advice from Jules had me holding back. She’d told me to be sensible, don’t go out too fast and I could look forward to catching them later! All too soon we were heading up past the Scottish Parliament buildings and up the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. The views were amazing but also quite daunting as you could see all across the city to the Pentland Hills…our big climb of the run. Their heads were covered in cloud and loomed ominously over the city.
55km round a city, can it be pretty?
This has got to be one of my absolute favourite runs. The varied terrain, the views, the relative solitude of racing in a large city. After that mad dash down the mile, the people spread out. I was running alongside a group of about 5 men from then until the last check-point…at which point I left them behind as I’d caught sight of a girl!
We passed through 800m long tunnels covered in graffiti, with the sound of our footsteps reverberating off the walls. We climbed up through forest paths, across fields akin to cross-country mud! Past Craigmillar Castle, weaving through and up Blackford Hill past the Royal Observatory. Along canal paths, river paths, by farms, up past the dry ski slope, up, up, up to the three Pentland peaks, with warnings to be mindful of the Highland cows, down past a loch, through a forest and back into the city, around 200m of a sports track….but again it wasn’t long before we left the urban terrain behind and hit the tiny trails that criss-cross throughout the city. Past the zoo, on up Corstorphine hill then down to Newhaven Harbour and onto the waterfronts of Leith. Again back along ‘waterway of Leith’ pathways (there were a lot of these) and up to finish in Murrayfield Stadium. It was quite magnificent. The views, the terrain was so varied it was just exceptional.
I knew it would get hard, I’d never run over a marathon but the absolute pleasure of running through Edinburgh but seeing it in such a different light…we passed through the grounds of the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, ah I just felt lucky to be alive. My legs ached from 27 miles but my spirits were lifted when my little support crew popped up every 10k. I had no idea of my position through the race. Marshals were encouraging but at no point told me where I was in the field. The start was a mad dash and I hadn’t registered who I was running with. I just concentrated on keeping a comfortable pace that perhaps I could maintain for the distance. My surprise when John turned up at the final checkpoint and said (with surprise in his voice), “You’re doing well…no I really mean you’re doing amazingly well…we think you’re 3rd lady and well up the field. Keep it up and we’ll see you at the stadium.” That was exactly what I needed to keep going for those last 6miles. From being sensible, it was now a race to maintain and keep the fourth lady at bay.
When I finally crossed the last road (there were 20+ quite busy road crossings) and turned down to see the stadium, I let out the biggest cry of joy and startled the nearby runner. The finish was great, trackside in the stadium with our names called over the tannoy and the few supporters (maybe 30)…but who cares when my fab four were there cheering me in.
It’s a long way, it’s quite a battle. Aerobically I felt strong…that was the plan, the terrain and climb does take its toll though and my legs were telling my head to stop. Good job my head is too stubborn to listen!
I loved it, over the moon to finish 13th overall and 3rd lady. It’s pricey but incredibly well signposted and the marshals are all brilliant. I’d highly recommend it…even just to explore a different side of Edinburgh. And my husband told me afterwards, “It’s a real shame you’re not slower as that supporter guide was really lovely and we could have enjoyed a great day out in Edinburgh if we hadn’t have been trying to catch you”!
Dark Skies Run, Galloway Forest, Saturday, October 21, 2017
I looked at the ticket machine and realised that, strictly speaking, I might be overstaying my allotted time. But if anyone was going to be checking the tickets after midnight for parking outlaws then good luck to them.
The weather forecast wasn’t great. It wasn’t too bad at the moment and having a nice warm cafe to sit inside and drink coffee while waiting for things to get underway was a big boost. Time ticked on and I kept looking to see whether any other Striders had checked in. I was feeling a bit nervy as I hadn’t undertaken any sort of structured training for this race and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on. A cold that had suddenly said Hello two days earlier was another complication. But on the whole I didn’t feel too bad. But it’s not how you feel sitting in a warm cafe drinking coffee that’s important, it’s how you feel when you’re out on your own, in the dark, miles from anywhere.
The course was advertised as well marked but I’d studied it hard anyway so that I knew the checkpoints and my drop-out options. I don’t have any hangups about abandoning a race. And the more expensive the race, the fewer the hangups. I reckoned if I was going to drop out, it’d be in the first few miles. I’d know by then whether it was a bad idea, and I’d simply turn round and head back to the cafe.
Despite having a lot of experience running a lot of weird races in all weathers I always go through a strange panicky ritual about what I’m wearing for any particular race. I look around at the other runners and often interrogate people on what they’re wearing and why. There was more purple in the cafe now and I realised I was the only one who seemed to be seriously considering wearing overtrousers from the Start. A warm wet night looked on the cards so no point in making it a boil-in-the-bag event.
I’ve always wanted to race at night and as we went outside for the race briefing I began to feel more upbeat. It was still light, and still dry, so the head torches wouldn’t be needed for another hour or two. I wondered where to keep my head torch until then, and eventually decided that I might as well keep it on my head. This curiously enough was not the favoured option. Most runners kept their headtorches hidden away but I reasoned I had to carry the thing anyway, so I might as well carry it somewhere handy.
The great thing about Ultras is that the starts are usually quite civilised. There’s no elbowing to get to the front as there’s no point going off as if you were doing a 5k. We’d be out for hours. Looking around at the briefing I reckoned there were only about 30 of us so it promised to be quite a small, cosy, and probably quite lonely field. A few of us were disconcerted to hear that there would a strict cut-off around the 6 mile mark. The other side of a remote bog that, given the recent rain, was likely to be on the very boggy side of boggy. I’m not keen on strict cut-offs, especially in the early stages of a race. It can take me a few hours to feel like I’m warmed up and an early cut-off can be a bit of stress that I can do without.
We left the warm of the Kirroughtree Visitor Centre and for the first few miles surfaces were good. Then up and onto the moor and east under the shadow of the wonderfully named Door of Cairnsmore. The sun was dipping and the sky was dry, treating us to an eerily tranquil scene as we trudged, walked and occasionally jogged into the fading light. I was with Kerry & Co. settled in front of the sweeper and we were checking the time nervously in case we were cutting it too fine. The warning about the strict cut-off had spooked us a little and we would all feel a bit happier when that first checkpoint was ticked.
The path, such as it was, dipped down and I jogged on a bit to join up with Catherine and Gareth before presently we came to a raging burn that probably only a day or two earlier was a pathetic trickle. Still, it was a raging burn today, and as it was today we were wishing to be on the other side of it, its ragingness was a bit of a pain. We all took our chances on various wobbly crossing points that all turned out to be deeper and faster than they pretended to be.
Down from the moor and into the forest and good paths. First checkpoint ticked off, and for the first time since the race started we were on decent runnable tracks. I switched on my head-torch and started running.
What I like about Ultras, and of getting more experienced at running Ultras, is that you get better and better and knowing your pace. You need to settle into a pace that you feel like you could run all day (or night), then you can switch off and step inside your head and listen to some music or recite poetry or write race reports or something. Monteleone by Mark Knopfler usually jumps uninvited into my head during long runs, and stays there for hours. Generally that works out ok as it’s a good tune with a nice gentle running cadence that suits me, but I’m dreading the day that I stop liking it and it won’t go away.
Another thing I’ve learned about ultras is the importance of walking. It’s a discipline I’d practised for Comrades and it has now become second nature. Walk the hills, and run the flats and downs. It’s tempting to run the ascents especially if you feel the gas is in the tank to do so, but it’s far more important to conserve that energy for later on when it’ll be far more useful.
The second checkpoint came along pretty quickly and we turned north. The section towards Clatteringshaws Loch had lots of long steady climbs on good forest tracks and I settled into a comfortable, hard walking pace. I’d been on my own for an hour or two now and occasionally I would look around for other lights. At one point I became aware of a headtorch or two that seemed to close on me quite rapidly before fading again, and eventually I reasoned that it must have been mountain bikes as the lights seemed quite low and the speeds erratic. Then they disappeared altogether even though we hadn’t passed any junctions. Perhaps I was just going mad.
This was the first time I’d used my headtorch in anger in a race at night. It’s a Petzl Nao and generally I’ve found it to be the canine’s nadgers. I was unsure how long the battery would last though. About 6 hours according to the manual, but I brought a spare battery pack just in case. And a spare headtorch, to use so I could see what I was doing when I had to change the battery pack. The Nao is a reactive headtorch that senses and auto-adjusts depending on where it’s pointing, what it’s seeing, and how much light it feels like giving you. So I could look far up the road and it would easily pick out the high-viz course markers that were now so familiar to me.
Still, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and my Petzl Nao was burning very very brightly. After just two hours of use and as I approached the Clatteringshaws checkpoint, it started doing the flashy flashy thing to tell me it had had enough. This was a little alarming I thought, as I changed the battery pack. Not even close to what the manual suggested I should expect. And I definitely had it on the auto reactive setting rather on full afterburner. Assuming I got the same amount of light from the spare battery pack then I should expect to be plunged into darkness with some distance to go to the finish.
I decided to worry about that if it happened. Perhaps the spare battery would be better than the main battery. Or perhaps I would be a lot faster from now on. As I left the Clatteringshaws CP the marshalls warned me that after a few hundred yards the course turned right away from the main A712. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened, but you had to keep an eye out for the flags otherwise it’d be quite easy to settle on the main road and miss out on all the wonderful wetness of the higher Old Edinburgh Road.
I was pretty settled now having found my pace and was really enjoying the run. The fact that it wasn’t cold made a big difference. Even the frequent rainy squalls were quite surreal as I zipped up my hood, and looked ahead along the bright cone of light from my Petzl. There was some pretty varied terrain for the next few miles; flooded rocky paths, mud, bracken, paths and tracks, and all the time you had to concentrate, peering ahead picking out the high-viz flags like the welcome cats-eyes on a quiet country road.
We’d been warned that one of the checkpoints would involve wading across a fast-moving burn hanging onto a tree trunk for support while reaching out for the beckoning hand of a marshall leaning out to grab runners. So I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned when I found myself up to my knees in a torrent of water, hanging onto a nice bit of Sitka Spruce (deceased), and reaching out hopefully for the guiding hand of a marshall as I eased past this sting in the Grey Mare’s Tail.
Things got slightly less exciting from this point on, although I think it may have been somewhere around here that Anna decided to go off-piste. Deciding that 29.1 was a really untidy number and something in the 30s would sound a lot better she added a few miles on. A bit like running round Palace Green a few times with an eye on the garmin, but with more trees and fewer cathedrals. I don’t know if Vicky Brown had a similar blip in the 14.
I’d passed another couple of runners at the checkpoint but apart from them I hadn’t seen many runners on my travels. After the bumpy and quirky section along the Old Edinburgh Road from Clatteringshaws the route settled down onto good surfaces and more long, steady climbs on a gentle south-westerley sweep.
On I contentedly ran, passing Murray’s Monument somewhere on my left, although Murray and myself were both blissfully unaware of this. It must have been off to the left somewhere, asleep for the night in its invisibility cloak. The forest road continued to provide a good runnable surface until two bright lights appeared ahead. I assumed this was a checkpoint, at which point I’d swing a hard left then there’d be a couple of hairpins before heading home. I assumed that it was headlights, from a car. But when you’ve been out for several ours in the rain and dark, you start to assume that it’s Close Encounters, or perhaps an FBI SWAT team, you know, out here, in the remote Scottish hills.
It wasn’t a check point, it was a ‘radio guy’. Doing radio stuff. Wondering how many people were still after me. I was sorry to break it to him, but I was, surprisingly for me, pretty much mid-field, so he had a bit of wait yet. I jinxed left, then right, then down to the final checkpoint on the main road. I asked how much further it was and he joked that it was another 6 miles. I was running Garmin free so was none the wiser and just shrugged. That sounded fine. 3, 6, 9 whatever. I was fine. I was enjoying the dark. I felt pleasantly lost in time, and space, and meaning.
I hung around this checkpoint for a bit chatting to the marshalls as they were having a bit of a time of it all. I was now on the half-marathon route too and it seemed runners had been appearing from a bewildering number of directions, some of them correct. I was
surprised to hear this as I couldn’t fault the route-marking and said so. I had a few more jelly beans, adjusted my head-torch, and when they were distracted by some radio chatter I took my leave.
West along the road for a few yards then a hard left for the final few miles to the Finish. My head torch decided that was enough for the day and started flashing in alarm. I tried to switch to a sort of ‘economy’ mode, but it still flashed. It really wasn’t happy. So I fished out my emergency spare head torch, the one I’d only packed so I could see what I was doing when I was changing the battery on my main one, and switched it on. The Petzl Tikka XP2 is a pretty decent head torch, but after several hours of the Nao, it was looking a bit feeble. I had to concentrate to pick out the course-marking flags and even though they were there if you looked, I began to see how it’d be possible to go for a wander if you weren’t concentrating on looking out for the flags.
The last mile or two seemed very long indeed, and in the last mile, feeling slightly disoriented, I stopped to check my position to find that the finish was, indeed, just round the next corner. I jogged to the line and applause, with no idea of how long I’d been out. I soon discovered it was a fair bit longer than I’d expected or thought it to be and I was way overdue for my booked meal. Luckily for me and many other runners, Sofia from the Cafe at Kirroughtree kept things open way beyond closing time and I soon found myself sitting down having a hot meal and coffee in the warm indoors watch the cold outdoors through the glass.
I couldn’t see Anna which puzzled me as she’d gone of like a rocket at the start, but I soon recognized Gareth and Catherine crossing the finish line. They were soon tucking into some supper and I began to feel uneasy about the lateness of the hour. Roberta would’ve been expecting me back at the hotel by now, and cellphone coverage at race HQ was pretty hit or miss. Luckily the cafe allowed me (very brief) access to their landline (it being the emergency contact number) to make a quick call and I felt bad when Roberta gave an alarmed Hello! as she answered the phone. Seeing a strange phone number appearing on you cellphone in the middle of the night is quite likely to make you think Something Bad has Happened.
I hung around for a while more, gradually settling down to earth after nearly 7 hours out in a slightly surreal world. We had got our dark skies as it happened. For a brief time the sky had cleared and Gareth and Catherine had turned off their headtorches to watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. I had wanted to wait for Kerry and Co. to finish, and I would only discover later that Anna had gone off course and would be finishing with Kerry too. But I was cold now, and while Gareth and Catherine jumped in the shower, I jumped in the car for the short drive back to the hotel.
This was my first night-time race and I loved it. A small field meant that for hours on end I didn’t see another soul. The isolation was quite spooky at times but on the whole it was quite relaxing. Relaxing until the head-torch starts flashing to tell me the battery is giving up. I need to give some thought to batteries. You wouldn’t have wanted to be out in the dark skies without a light.
Lakes in a Day, Saturday, October 7, 2017
50 mile ultra run from Caldbeck to Cartmel
Four years ago exactly I ran my first marathon at Kielder. It didn’t end well – yes I got the sub 4 I wanted but due to poor clothing and fueling I ended up needing medical attention as soon as I crossed the finishing line. When I finally came round I swore to myself never to attempt such a stupid distance again…
So this weekend I find myself embarking on Lakes in a Day, a 50 mile race from the North to South of the Lake District wondering how I got here. I’m not an ultra runner. Indeed I still haven’t learnt how to pace a marathon properly. But I do love the Lake District and as soon as I saw this race advertised I knew I had to give it a shot.
The week of the race arrived and the forecast was terrible. Rain, gales, more rain, no visibility… the optimist in me was sure the met office would change their mind. They did – by Friday they were saying bits of rain, maybe some wind on the peaks but not as bad as it could have been. Saturday morning at 430am my alarm woke me and I was happy not to hear rain outside the window of my quirky airbnb in Cartmel. Maybe we were going to be ok….
The race started at 8 from Oddfellows Pub in Caldbeck. Everything about this race is impeccably organised – the pub staff were amazing providing teas, coffees and bacon sandwiches and we all chatted excitedly before James Thurlow, the fabulous race organizer sent us on our way. As we set off to the first climb we discussed how lucky we were with the weather in comparison with the forecasts earlier in the week… we would live to regret these comments!
It is very much a race of two halves. The first half tough fell racing – a lot of it open fell and on difficult terrain, the second half less mountainous and more on tracks or moorland. This was its fourth year and on every previous occasion it has been dry and clear – within a mile or two of leaving Caldbeck it became obvious this year wouldn’t be the same. The waterproofs were coming out as we entered the cloud and began the climb up High Pike. Visibility was getting worse, winds were increasing and the rain was coming at us horizontally. This was to be the theme throughout all of the fell section. No views, no grip on either slippy rocks or slippy grass/mud and for me no feeling in my fingers so no access to drink, food or maps! In spite of this I loved it. The route takes you up Blencathra at which point there is a decision between Halls Fell Ridge (hard in any conditions) and Blease Fell (easier but 2 miles longer). Coming up Mungrisdale Common was so bad with winds apparently up to 50 mph, I decided I should probably put my kids first and try to avoid death but when I saw others taking Halls Fell I couldn’t resist. This was the only place on the route with event support. They advised us to take it easy – I’m not sure anyone could go anything other than easy on this. It was terrifying but brilliant. From race reports I’ve read I now know quite a few people got stuck and needed help. And quite a few were more sensible and took Blease Fell… Somehow I got through it and by 11am was back down in Threlkeld at the first of three truly amazing feed stations. The crew were incredible – couldn’t do enough to help us and the food was definitely chosen by fell runners. Anything you could possibly want was there. As I was only 3 hours in I stuck to tea, coke, fruit and a few crisps.
The next section was without doubt going to be the hardest and longest as it took us from Threlkeld to Ambleside via amazing peaks such as Helvellyn and Fairfield. I’ve run most of this section at least a couple of times so I knew how hard it was even on a good day but also felt fairly confident of knowing the route. Unfortunately the mountains don’t look the same in cloud and rain so I did have a few mishaps route-wise firstly after Helvellyn where a few of us started heading off down to Thirlmere but fortunately realized our mistake fairly quickly. The descent to Grisedale tarn was tough – the rock path was way too slippy to contemplate so most of us took the grass option which although better in some ways did mean more concentrating to avoid accidents on hidden rocks or losing a foot into bog. On the positive side it was a bit clearer and calmer down at the tarn but I knew the worst bit was coming. I don’t like climbing Fairfield. It’s a long drag and after 23 miles and nearly 7 hours it was never going to be fun. The battering rain didn’t help and I was really getting quite cold and hungry but with numb fingers and no wish to stop there was no way I was going to get anything out of my bag to eat. So up I plodded…. And plodded…
When I eventually reached the top I was so happy I broke into a little run and immediately fell flat on my face. I was slightly winded and lost my companions and headed off following someone without really thinking about where I should be going. Climbing down some tough rocks I fell again, slid down on my bum and ended up sitting at the bottom of a rock quite nicely sheltered. I decided it was time to give my body a break, grabbed a bag of crisps out of the side of my bag and quite happily chomped on them waiting for the next runner to come by so I could pair up with them. Sadly the next runner didn’t come.. and didn’t come.. and it became obvious I wasn’t actually on the race route. No worries, I had a GPS tracker safely tucked away in my bag so I could use that to get me back on course. Out of the plastic bag, click it on and it happily told me I was still in Caldbeck. No matter what I did or said to it, it just didn’t believe that I had left the start… [You can get a tracker replay on the Opentracking website. ^DN]
I was just starting to get a tad worried when a runner appeared. Possibly not a bright runner (he’d gone wrong too) but someone to tag onto. He was convinced we were on the right route but I managed to persuade him we probably needed to head up and left to meet up with the other racers. Eventually we were back on track. The run down into Ambleside (over several peaks on the way) was very boggy and much slower than when I’d recce’d it but seeing the town gradually get closer spurred us all on.
So feed station two and I was about 9.5 hours in. The longest I’d ever been out running and the furthest I’d ever run in the Lakes (and not far off my distance PB of 50k prior to today).Before the start I’d told myself I could stop here but there was no way that was happening. The sun was finally creeping through and I’d been fed pasta and flat coke and was ready to face the world. This was the also the point where we were allowed to change shoes so my sodden x-talons came off and were replaced with nice dry trail shoes. I felt ready to set off on the second half…
So off we went on the next leg. This section is mainly along the coast of Windermere but with a few climbs including Claife Heights and Rawlinson Nab. Leaving Ambleside the horrors of the first half seemed like a bad dream. The sun was breaking through and the views were lovely as we followed the road down to the lakeside. So this half was actually definitely going to be fine… Once we were off-road it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as I’d hoped. Knee deep mud and puddles the size of a swimming pool faced us to ensure there was no rhythm to be gained. But it was fun – the views along the lakeside were stunning and although there were climbs there was nothing too difficult and the route was now easy to follow with arrows provided for the entire second half. As we went through the village of Sowry I realized the sun was about to disappear and there was still a way to go before the last feed station. I stopped to get my headtorch out only to discover the batteries had died. Thankfully Alex, a much more organized and experienced runner, was with me and kindly lent me his spare torch. Being a spare it was pretty weak so visbility was going to be poor for the next section. I stuck with Alex and his much more powerful torch to Finsthwaite. As the sun went down an enormous moon emerged and in spite of the mud, roots and other hazards I really enjoyed this section.
At the final feed station we were met with soup, rice pudding and more coke and tea. Looking back on the day I suspect I was high on caffeine for a lot of it! We watched a big screen which showed the trackers and we were impressed to see that several runners had already finished. But even more impressed to see that some were still going on Fairfield. It was now 930pm and they were doing that impossible open fell section in pitch dark. Many of them went on to finish in the early hours of Sunday. Massive respect to them.
After 15 minutes or so and with my headtorch now fixed it became apparent the last 8 miles were not going to run themselves so I left the warmth of the hall and set off, commenting to my fellow runners that this was likely to be quite a long 8 miles. It certainly was. The route for this section was across boggy fields and up and down woodland paths. Although it was hard I was actually enjoying myself – it was a lovely night and I now knew I was going to succeed.
The race finishes with a couple of miles of road. By the time this finally appeared I had passed a few people since Finsthwaite and running up and down the road to Cartmel I somehow found a bit of pace and managed to overtake a few more. Looking back I have no idea what was going on. I was finishing this race fresher and less tired than most marathons or half marathons!
Cartmel Priory School finally appeared and I crossed the line in 15 hours and 7 minutes. 53 miles done, over 4000 metres of climbing, 9th lady and a day I would never forget. I grabbed the race director and gushed about what a great race it was. He thought I was mad – the conditions had been awful how had I enjoyed it?! I don’t know but all I can say was that as I sat eating a baked potato with cheese and beans and talked to other fellow ultra runners I felt absolutely on top of the world. After a year with more than its fair share of lows this race meant so much to me for so many reasons. I will definitely be back. But next year I’m ordering better weather…
CTS North York Moors ultra marathon, Saturday, September 30, 2017
33.6 miles / 4227 feet
So a summer of training, two weeks of tapering and a week of self-doubt had come to this… my first entry into the mad world of ultrarunning at the endurance life CTS North York Moors ultra marathon. Surrounded by professional-looking lithe runners, I nervously made my way across a freezing (literally, a balmy 10 degrees in Durham had fallen to 3 in Ravenscar) field to collect my number, receive my timing tag and be given my t-shirt. Should I just leg it and tell everyone there was no medal and the t-shirt was the prize? Three loo trips later and suddenly briefing was upon us and it became apparent that numerous runners had come from London to do this thing…. I was feeling more and more out of my depth, and I was beginning to doubt not only my ability to finish but even my ability to run at all. The high place finish at the recent Clennell marathon must have been a fluke. Complex instructions (do not follow the 10k signs! Do not follow the half signs!) were issued and for the first time I saw doubt on my fellow runners’ faces. We had numerous loops to navigate, not least a final one, past the finish with the last 7 miles following the 10k route. Thankfully we were offered one final loo trip before a super quick countdown and then we were off!
As expected, being a snail, I was overtaken by nearly everyone, immediately. Race plan screaming in my head “stay calm, stay slow, you are a metronome” I tried not to let it upset me, but on a single track, covered in mud, hearing people tut and puff behind you and with few places to stop and let them pass it did become demoralising. However, within a few miles, we were spread out, alone, left to our own devices, facing the distance in our own ways. At 11 miles, the marathon leaders (who set off around an hour behind us) started to overtake us. They were fast, but friendly, glad to hear of their position. By this point I was beginning to believe that as long as I could hear the miles tick by the challenge would be completed.
I came through the finish for the first time at around 14 miles, heading towards boggle hole and Robin Hood’s Bay. It was here that we met the half marathoners on a different route. The terrain became more challenging with steeper hills and seeming more like the trail marathon I had done in the summer. I slowed to a walk…. knowing walking was necessary if the distance was to be done.
Miles ticked on, passing and passed by marathoners and halfers, although there were few ultras to be seen. A long moorland hill ended in a big muddy puddle miscalculation and one trainer would be significantly heavier for the remainder of the run. The “one mile to go sign” came into view and I could sense the anticipation from those around me. As we approached the finish, I was directed away from the funnel, heartbreakingly and had to stop. At this point, a distance pb was starting to result in nutritional issues. Needing something, I looked around for my support crew (chowing down on ice cream in the local cafe I later found out!) hoping they could get me the coke that was in the car. The cp only had water and with too much being drunk and no food being taken on, my stomach had started to complain. Loudly. Another ultrarunner was also waiting, desperately and eventually we both gave up, smiled at the poor marshal directing us away from the finish and headed on the lonesome 10k route. 2 miles in, the wheels, axle, doors and roof fell off and I limped into CP 5 an unknown distance later. Smiley faces and “less than a parkrun to go!!!” They sent me off and with a walk/run strategy along the railway line I came into the finish for the third and final time as fourth lady.
7 hours and twenty odd minutes. 35 miles by my garmin. Still getting over it but signing up for the Northumberland one at the end of February.