Ouch, that was a toughy…
After sacking off Manchester Marathon due to a slight Achilles issue in January, I was looking to revise my springtime race calendar once the ankle allowed me to run again. My first port of call is as always, the club GP fixture list, it offers such a diverse range of events I couldn’t recommend it more to any of our new members looking to do something slightly different, chances are there’s always going to be at least one other strider there. Saying that I’m fairly new to the off road stuff, other than the harrier league, I’d ran in a couple of races over the Christmas period and managed to place 8th at Captain Cook’s on New Year’s Day so I was keen to give road racing a break and have a bash at more fell races.
Bilsdale was next on the agenda, £10 entry, 15 miles and just shy of 4000ft of climb. Lovely.
I have absolutely zero knowledge of the North York Moors so when Fiona B suggested a quick trip down for a recce a few weeks before the race I jumped at it, the only problem with this was that it was the day Thornley got cancelled because of Storm Ciara. The wind was absolutely crazy, on the descents you could lean forward and the gusts would hold you up like a scene from a Michael Jackson video, at least it can’t be any worse than this on race day I thought! However, in the time between our recce and race day, the Lambton Estate HL fixture was rescheduled for the Saturday before Bilsdale. This put me in a bit of a predicament knowing how demanding Bilsdale was going to be and given that the men’s team were joint second in Division 1 and with a big turn out there was potential to top the league. I was never in any doubt that I would participle in Lambton but just how hard I would go, maybe I could take it easy for two laps and push on the final? These thoughts rattled round up until about five minute before the gun when I saw Nina just after finishing the ladies race, she was also doing Bilsdale and I think her exact words were, “it’s a different kind of race tomorrow, it’ll be fine”. Needless to say I went hard from the off…
Arriving at Chopgate village hall early on the Sunday morning for registration, everyone was a bit precautious with the handshakes and congregating in close proximity to each other due to the current climate, but everyone seemed to be grateful that this, unlike so many other events was still going ahead. Having had my kit check complete, picked up my number I had a meander round the car park eyeing up the competition; I’d already done my usual cross-check of last years’ results and this years’ participants, followed by a browse on power of 10 and Strava profiles… In the build-up I was quietly confident that if things went well, I could place quite high in the field. What I’ve learnt in my short tenure in fell racing is that things don’t always go the way you plan.
The start is at the bottom of the first climb, quarter of a mile or so on tarmac before turning off onto a trail and up to the first steepish section. I started off in the lead pack of 4, an easy pace compared to what I’m use to but I knew what lay ahead warranted the slower pace, the pack began to spread out by a few yards and I made an error by following the guy in front instead of looking up at the tracks. By going round instead of straight up a climb I lost a bit of time and two guys from Durham Uni passed me by taking the shorter route, I carried on at the easy pace regardless knowing that from CP1 there was a long stretch of downhill that I could open up my legs and try to regain some of that distance. The looped one way system at CP1 allowed a quick thumbs up to both Michael and Barrie before putting my head down and picking the pace up down towards the road crossing, thankfully the wind wasn’t too bad on this section and I started to slowly reel in the two lads in front. They were just starting the climb up the steps from the road as I was crossing it, this is where the efforts from the XC the day before began to make itself known; from the road to CP2 is a continuous climb up and my legs started to feel it big time. I looked at my watch, 5 miles, wow I was in for a long day if I’m hurting already. I plodded on, not really making time on the lads in front and no one had passed me so at least I was breaking even, passing CP2 and heading round towards The Wainstones where I made another bad call on the route.
During my recce we went straight through the stones and down but pre-race Barrie mentioned there was an easier trail that went round to the left, I did neither and found myself doing a few zigzags/parkour leaps until I found a way out and back onto the route, passing Zoe and the kids spectating. After another climb up to CP3 and the subsequent descent where again, I made another error following the guy in front by bearing left after a gate we started to climb again and when we approached a junction I knew we were in the wrong. I followed the trail on the right to get a better view and down below as expected, I could see a few runners heading towards the scout hut at CP4; I had two options here, either head back to the gate and get on the right route inevitably losing more time or as the crow flies straight down through the bushes, I decided on the latter more fun option. The climb out from CP4 towards the stone seat absolutely killed me, my legs were absolutely screaming by this point and I could have quite happily face planted and slide all the way back down. I opted not pursue with this strategy though and carried on slowly climbing, from the stone seat was pretty uneventful for me heading back down and electing for “the shoot” route towards the stream checkpoint (CP6), from here the route was flagged up to a small road section to keep us pesky runners off someone’s land. This time round the tarmac section seemed so much longer and steeper than what I remembered from our recce.
There was further uncertainty among a few of us on the route to CP7 but no major issues or loss of further time, Jan was marshalling at this checkpoint and she called out I was in 11th, people ahead must have missed this checkpoint as I thought I was further down the pack. Slowly getting to the top of the climb a walker and his grandson stopped to ask me what the race was, welcoming a very quick break for my worn legs I stopped and pretty much had shout over the howling wind for him to hear me. From here it was anyone’s guess at the best route down to CP8, I carried on down the firmer track until I thought it was the best time to veer left through the heather and down to the gate; I’d overshot it by about 200m and ended up on a small track with runners heading towards me, that’s never a good sign but it didn’t look like I had lost too much time by the time I had U-turned at the checkpoint. From here on I was pretty confident of the route and there were no major hiccups in route selection, the biggest challenge now was just getting to the end, I had absolutely no power left in my legs; I’d already had a gel and even tucked into my emergency food supply.
Heading out of Scugdale (CP9) I had a brief chat with another runner who gladly pointed out this was the last climb, once at the top and heading towards CP10 I employed a run/walk strategy with the first signs of cramp in my right quad showing, I didn’t want to push too hard to have to walk the whole way back to Chopgate. The twinges in my quad became slightly more bearable so I gingerly dropped the walk element of the run/walk strategy and plodded on to Cock Howe Cairn, the final check point, I felt a slight wave of relief overcome me as I knew it was all downhill from here. My legs were too far gone by this point to even try and pick up the pace, I had to use all my energy to concentrate where I was putting my feet regardless of hearing the panting of someone behind me, I couldn’t even muster the effort to try and put in a spurt to hold him off and he went flying passed towards the finish. With about 200m to go, from behind, I heard “COME ON GEORGIE!!”, it was Fiona coming in fast and we eventually finished with about 10 seconds between us. She finished first lady, a brilliant performance. I scuttled straight round to my car and chugged a bottle of water and got some warm clothes on before heading into the village hall to have a delightful cheese pasty and piece of red velvet cake to regain some calorific goodness.
Regardless of the pain I was feeling for pretty much 66% of the race, this was a great event in a great location and as long as it doesn’t land on the same weekend as a HL fixture next year I will definitely be back – it has only contributed to my ever growing love for fell racing.