Having watched Graeme in, we were off, up a short muddy slope through the woods and out into open moorland. A slow run soon turned into a steady hands-on-knees walk as the slope steepened through bracken and heather. The next hour or so was hard work. Muddy tussocky narrow paths, the occasional bog and stream crossing, and short sharp uphills, grabbing on to rocks and heather for extra grip. When we didn’t have our heads down watching where our feet needed to land next, Paul and I had the odd exchange.
Alright, yeh, keep it going, fast walk, no shame in that, Kendal mint cake, no thanks, stunning view, no sign of Elaine and Fiona, phew…..
Between checkpoints 4 and 5 we had our only real route choice. Contour round to the next checkpoint, longer but safer, or a more direct route down into a gully, through a stream and up the other side. We went for the latter, stumbling down through knee-high heather and head-high bracken down a steep ravine before crossing the stream and clambering up onto a runnable track where our pace picked up again. We began the final climb and reached checkpoint 5 having gained a few places. The final mile was the fastest of the 8, it was great to stretch the legs on a gradual downhill path, before descending steeply through heather, open field and woodland, handing over to Geoff and Nigel for leg 3. A great team event, well organised, perfect weather and a very tasty chilli at the end. Who’s up for next year then?!
Cat: there’s no way this one’s getting into the FRA calendar
Reviewing my running in 2018 in November was, on the whole, a satisfactory experience: decent weekly mileage? Check, with only a few slack weeks due to injury or work. Getting some worthwhile XC and cat A/B fell races in? Check, with a handful I’d never done before slipped in. Knocking a bit of time off previous PBs on a couple of races? Check once more. The only real holes in what was otherwise a good year were the failure to get across to any of the Lakeland Classics and the 2x ultra, Did Not Starts, the former (Calderdale Hike) due to a bout of man-flu that hit me the evening before and saw me find out what a temperature of c40c feels like (not great, would not recommend), the latter (Bradwell) as a result of a shift over-running to the point that I’d not left work by the time my train pulled out of Central Station. As a consequence, whilst on a bit of a high after taking 6 minutes off my Pendle PB, I looked at the ultra calendar for something, anything, that I could knock off early in the year to get some big miles in my legs. This essentially boiled down to a choice of two southern ultras, the Peddar’s Way in Norfolk and the Country to Capital Ultra, the latter eventually chosen as it was easier to get to and less likely to be snowed-off in the event of a ‘Beast from the East’ reprise. Once booked, I did the logical thing and promptly returned to training by both running up and down hills, and doing some road-based interval work, managing to rack up a single run in the intervening period of 20 miles (I think), but definitely getting faster over middle-distance – a core ultra skill.
Funnily enough given the above, I was not 100% confident when 12 Jan 19 came around that I had the necessary miles in my legs, and upon getting to Wendover early on the Saturday morning, had distinctly mixed feelings about what was about to transpire, repeating to myself the mantra ‘be like Anna (Seeley, the only ultra-runner I know who makes it look easy),’ as this was the only way I could see myself finishing – set a pace, stick to it, don’t think about going too fast etc; essentially, run metronomically for hour after hour after hour. Oh, and stop and take whatever food and drink is on offer, whenever it is on offer. With this plan, I registered, collected my EMIT tag and number, dropped my bag at the van that would take it to the finish, used the portable loos repeatedly and then set off in the middle of the 2-300 runners down Wendover High Street hoping to get to Paddington in around 7 hours or a little less.
The first mile was easy, and essentially a tour of a fairly pretty market/commuter town before mile 2 saw us hit the first, and biggest hill of the course, a pleasant walk up a wooded track, which would have been very runnable were it not for the facts that a) everyone else was walking and I was stuck b) there was still a VERY long way to go. We got to the top and I started running again, keeping a pace of 8:20 – 8:50 min/miles dependent upon terrain (largely wooded/farmland and rather pleasant), with a brief dip sub-8 on a nice long road descent, and hit CP1 at Chesham, 7.7m in for water, a bit of cake and the knowledge that the leader had gone through in around 53 minutes; I was impressed, though the occupants of this outpost of Betjeman’s Metroland appeared less-so, carrying on normal Saturday morning life as a stream of runners trickled through their town centre, through a nature reserve and past youth football training, en route to CP2, Horn Hill, 17.3 miles in and again, most of it nice-if-unremarkable green countryside with the occasional village to break up the greenery.
After leaving CP2 it was straight downhill through more fields to the M25, which I must confess to feeling slightly awed by, running high over it on a bridge that appears used largely by animals and tractors (judging by the underfoot matter) and feeling viscerally the speed and relentless roar of the many lanes of constant traffic underneath.
Straight after crossing I actually had to apply my brain a little, as several of us became temporarily confused by the correct route out of Maple Cross, eventually finding our way down to the A41, which we hand-railed for the next mile. This loose agglomeration of half a dozen of us was to last for a few miles, taking us off the main road and up a steep wooded embankment to skirt Denham aerodrome and cross a golf course, thankfully both holes crossed having people putting rather than giving it their all with their drivers. Into Denham itself, the railway station served as a convenient landmark (we had to run under it) as well as the halfway point and, also, a marker that the fun was nearly over. One of our remaining trio (two had dropped away and one other had picked up his pace) had reconnoitred the second half of the route, running from Paddington to Denham and taking the train back, and simply said ‘welcome to the Grand Union Canal, in its’ bleak majesty. It all looks a bit like this from now on.’ He was not wrong.
Before things became truly unpleasant there were highlights, however: CP3 was only a further 4-5 miles in, marking marathon distance (3:46hrs) and being equipped with water, mini-sausages and mini-beef-and-veg pasties, which hit the spot very nicely as I walked away (again, figuring that losing a bit of time was better than accidentally inhaling pastry and provoking a coughing/vomiting fit – it has been known).
Food taken, I trotted on, solo now for the rest of the race as my companions were looking to run in at 9-9:30 min/miles from here, whereas I was still feeling comfortable at c.8:30 or so and knew I had one more piece of navigation to accomplish, this being taking the Paddington canal branch at a white bridge 3 miles on, with a sign pointing and saying ‘Paddington’ on it. Backing myself to manage this, I followed the water, occasionally changing sides as the towpath switched at locks, urban London starting to intrude more as the greenery beside the canal became dotted with fly-tipping and the quiet of the countryside was disturbed by the hum of concrete plants, distribution warehouses, rakes of freight wagons on lines running parallel and over and then, finally, commuter and tube trains announcing we were definitely in the capital. Having passed through Southall, the highlight being a bouncy floating bridge carrying the towpath past a building site, CP4 came at 33 miles, then was followed a mere 4 miles later by CP5, the organisers bunching them closer to allow for the fact that later runners would be finishing in the dark, paired after 1500hrs. I was still at a pace that felt comfortable breathing-wise through both, but was starting to slow slightly after CP5 and both feet were beginning to get rather sore; if honest, whilst the backs of factories and warehouses are of interest in some ways, this was not the scenery I’m used to and the lack of reason to change pace or watch my foot placement was strangely hypnotic, the daydreams being disturbed only by occasional cheers from passers-by, the smell of skunk at fairly regular intervals and the odd grunted hello to a competitor as I ground past them. Truthfully, even a day later I can’t remember how many people I overtook in the last 10 miles of the race, but it was a handful and all appeared to be suffering a little, with just finishing clearly being the aim. Again, all I tried to do was maintain rhythm and pace, step-by-step, mile by mile, and the repression of my earlier instincts to run faster made this possible.
Finally, Little Venice arrived, the finish being hidden from view until 20 yards away by a bridge, and all the more wonderful for the surprise. EMIT handed in, confirmed that I’d managed 6:22, and was apparently 22nd overall, the winner having managed sub-5hrs. After that, tea, water, reclaim baggage and stroll to the tube with a couple of other finishers, doubtless smelling a bit ripe, before a quick wash in a pub toilet prior to getting the train back north.
Thoughts? Good event, though even stripping out the fatigue effect, the first half is much nicer running than the second. Well-organised, the pleasant-seeming organisers being ex-military, which is always a plus, and serious runners themselves, with the CPs being spaced sensibly and the cut-offs neither too tight nor too likely to lead to disaster.
Overall, despite this being some distance outside my comfort zone for pace, terrain or distance, I enjoyed this more than I expected. Indeed, I’d even recommend it to Anna, whose way of doing business essentially got me around, next time she wants some long-distance, canal-based fun.
I love running and I love mountains but for some reason, I rarely combine the two, so when Paul Evans put a call out for an Elvet Striders team for the ‘British Fell and Hill Relay Championships‘ in the Lakes, it seemed like an opportunity to combine the two. I had put myself forward for the first leg, as I had to be back in Durham for work later in the day. More experienced members of our team helped check I had the right kit to carry around with me, gave me a map and some last minute fell running tips and before I knew it, we were being herded into the starting pen.
Without having considered a race plan, the gun went off and on a spur of the moment decision; I thought it might be fun to ‘blast’ the first field. Zoom, I was off! Head of the pack – Elvet Striders leading the race! But crikey, before I knew it, I had lactic burning like I’d just raced an 800m on the track. Then we started going up – I’ve never run on anything like it; about 3 miles up – getting steeper all the way. The everlasting incline was no place to be trying to clear the lactic acid, my heart and lungs were on fire. This was not running, as I know it; folks were pulling themselves up the mountain on tufts of grass, or rocks – whatever you could grasp. As the race got higher we entered the clouds and visibility was very poor – I was just trying to keep someone close by as I hadn’t really entertained trying to navigate too, but at some point, I reached the summit and then we were heading down.
Through reading, and some of Geoff’s off-road sessions, I know the theory of running downhill (switch off brain, lean forward, don’t brake) but can I put it into practice? – err, no! The whole way down the mountain, despite trying to relax, I was clearly thinking too much and leaning back and braking – my quads were taking such a hammering (5 days after the race, writing this, I still can’t walk properly) but it certainly was exhilarating. After 3 miles of heart and lung burning going up, this was 2 miles of slipping and sliding my way down.
Back to the starting field after handing over to Jack and Fiona, I managed a brief catch up with the rest of the team and used my token for some hot food and drink before heading home. I had a great day – I love the variety of running, but I always seem to enjoy the day more when it’s a team event or relay, it really brings you together.
Leg 2, Jack Lee and Fiona Brannan, paired, 6,7 miles, 2800 ft
Jack: “So that’s what you call dibbing!”
I have never understood fair weather running. Heat makes me overheat while I find a drizzly, windy and generally just a bit crap day brings out my best. I was probably at close to my best at the relays and still I had no chance of keeping up with Fiona on the downs. (Fiona: I’m not a great fan of the ‘up’ part, but I really, really like the ‘down’…)
Our leg of the relays started with some shouts that Mark had been spotted and a fast run away from the line, only to be quickly assaulted by the fells. Usually, the ascent tires me out but today I just plodded on surprised by how easy it was going. (Fiona: it’s true, I’m not much good at ‘up’) Leg 2 started with the ascent of Great Rigg and then Fairfield from Grasmere, and after that it becomes a bit of a blur.
Fiona and I spent 50 minutes trudging up Fairfield with the occasional jog on the flatter section; it was a bit damp but the effort kept us warm, however, when we got to the top the cold wind cut through my clothing. You could get cold very fast if you stayed still but fortunately after a slower start Fiona had found her legs (Fiona: have I mentioned I don’t like the ‘up’ parts?!) and it was all I could do to keep up with her. The next half an hour was one of the most frenetic (Fiona: I think he means fun and exciting!) of my life. I leapt over rocky escarpments, slid down bog on my backside and waded streams all at a frenzied pace just to keep up. I have never descended so fast and was pushing my limits; quite a few times I placed my foot on muddy paths of steep slopes for my footing to go. I was, after all, in a pair of borrowed shoes, as I had forgotten mine. I owe Nigel my eternal thanks and a beer sometime for the loan of shoes. (Fiona; our split times on this section are somewhat more impressive than the ascent, and we managed to gain around 30 places here so must have been doing something right!)
Eventually, as must happen, the slope became shallower but this just encouraged Fiona to up the pace, so I dug deep and used all the pace I had left just to keep up and after a treacherous descent over the final muddy field (onlookers hoping for exciting slips and falls!) we sprinted in just ahead of fell running legend Angela Mudge and her partner from Carnethy. We tagged Paul and Geoff and our job was done.
Leg 3; Geoff Davis and Paul Evans; paired ca. 6-7 miles, 3000 ft, navigation leg
Having done the fell relays a couple of times before, both times leg 2, 2018 saw me decide to push out of my comfort zone a little and take on leg 3 with the guiding hand of the veteran Geoff D to keep me right and deflect my natural inclination to take route alpha at all opportunities; essentially, I was there to push the pace and to learn, he there to ensure sanity and to guide me in the subtle art of efficient hill running. This played out as follows on a leg of 7 miles and c3000 feet:
Start – CP1: fast start along a lane away from the event field, having been tagged by Fiona and Jack. Easy running on tarmac, then sharp bend upwards to a pair of marshals who hand us our maps of the control locations. A quick glance at the map and it becomes apparent that Geoff’s talents will be of use, as my urges are to go up and over, whilst he takes us nicely up the side of a fast-flowing beck, twisting up the valley over slippery rocks and through bracken to arrive at a stream junction and CP1, other teams arriving and departing rapidly.
CP1-2: the fun starts here, as we exit northeast, traversing up a hill into the low cloud. We follow a sheep trod, and other teams also, then it all becomes very puzzling as we arrive at a tarn that isn’t on the map, but with a saddle that definitely is. We know we’re somewhere around Heron Pike and then, Eureka! Unsurprisingly, the only such body of water on the map is, we realise, where we must be even if we’d been further up the hill, as we’d assumed, and therefore closer to our destination. We lose a good few minutes pondering this, though it turns out, race leaders Keswick lose even more (and, in the process, the overall race). Upwards, over the ridge, downwards, aiming for another stream junction with a sheepfold beyond; I suggest we simply follow the stream to our left and make up for my error with the tarn to an extent by this proving correct, albeit with an element of luck. Dibbed, and done.
CP2-3: easy – take a bearing and follow it, climb gently, descend gently onto a Land-Rover track and the next control, with marshals huddled in a tent.
CP3-4-5-end: easy navigation, but straight up and over, a long line of ant-like figures ascending into the heavens/cloud above us. This gets chilly, and I push the pace fairly hard as we use all limbs to get us up to the very runnable ridgeline, where we make up a few places before contouring around a valley head and then dropping sharply through endless greasy bracken, broken earth and unseen rocks. There are now teams to our left and right, some of them last seen on the climb, some not seen previously. We hit the stream, cross it and then have a choice – up and over or veer round to our left then back right again, adding 300m but taking out the climb. Geoff prefers the latter, so we do it and meet at the next control the teams who entered the water with us: no advantage either way until we then race them downhill on a firm track and realise we have more in our legs, taking out 4-5 further teams. By now the back of the leg is broken and we’re heading home, a little climb taken with aggression and then the final run-in down churned, slippery tracks, CP5 hit, then fields, control on the descent limited and Geoff slipping ahead as I’m just rubbish on this terrain. We re-enter the final field and Geoff’s driving hard and not looking back, knowing I’ll go all-in to catch him again, which I do before we hit the line and tag Nigel. Job done, baton not lost, lessons in the art of navigation on the move gained. Here goes Nigel…
Leg 4; Nigel Heppell, solo, 4.3 miles, 2000 ft
Leg 4 – known as the ‘glory’ leg; also suitable for 16yr olds – I’m well
Standing for several hours in a field on a wet Lakes day while legs 1,2
and 3 take place, I try to keep as much clothing on as possible before
getting down to race kit and entering the holding pen in what I think
should be a reasonably short time before Geoff and Paul appear for the
handover at the end of their navigation leg. Such is the calibre of the
superstars of the fell running world that the loudspeakers let us all
know the relay has actually been won before half the field even set off
on the last leg and there is a 5min call for the mass start. Peering
into the distant murk, I spot the unmistakable gait of an HH top leading
Paul down the final slope and into the funnel and then it’s my turn to go
off up the lane with a grateful lead on the pack behind.
The official route description says it all; narrow lane; cross beck;
path up to tarn; big zig- zags on climb; scenic dash
around tarn; cross wall; stiff ascent of Heron Pike; nothing to see now
as we enter the cloud base shrouding the tops; onto Fairfield Horseshoe
race line; contour below summit of Great Rigg; speedy contouring descent
onto summit of Stone Arthur; exit cloud cover; hair-raising descent down
leg 2 ascent path; and back into the event field.
On the climb up I very soon hear the sounds of the pack gaining
on me; one or two lanky types begin to lope past; then a whole bundle go
through – I guess the fitter club runners who were held back by the late
arrival of their leg3 runners – then I seem to hold my position; ascent
of Heron Pike is just plain hard work; a bit chastened to be steadily
overtaken by what appears to be a classrooms-worth of school children
but then things level off and we get running again. A few of us trade
places once or twice along the contour and then the fun starts as
gravity kicks in. It always amazes me how timid some become on a descent
over rough ground and now it’s my turn to overtake; beyond Stone Arthur
the slope increases dramatically and keeping a foothold is marginal at
best; no way of slowing down without a fall so go for it, trying not to
wipe out runners caught in front; through hole in wall and into final
descent of event field; others say this is really steep and slippery but
it feels quite relaxed after what went before and I again have to expend
energy running into the finish.
For the road runners amongst you, I ran this at a pace of 15min/mile –
For the fell runners, my rate of ascent was a lowly, but fairly steady
60’/min; and my rate of descent was largely 200-220’/min.
[Footnote – The photograph of Jack and Fiona was generously provided by Beau Dog Photography. There is no oblligation but if you would like to make a donation to the Phabkids then please follow the link and give from as little as £2. Thank you https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Lee-and-Sarah ]
Sometimes, words are not necessary, and numbers will suffice. The pertinent numbers here are, as above, 14 and 6000. That is, 6000 ft of ascent and descent in 14 miles or, to be precise, 483 ft of ascent for every mile run. For perspective, to be category ‘A,’ a fell race must have 250ft ascent per mile, so the Sedbergh race effectively is basically meeting the grade, then sticking 233 ft/mile on you for fun. Why? Because.
Unsurprisingly, both times this race has been in the club GP it has only attracted a handful of Striders, despite its relative proximity to Durham and the ease of entry; I suspect the numbers above are relevant to this. That said, it is as pure a fell race as can be found, in that the tarmac content is a couple of hundred yards at the start and finish, navigational skills have to be deployed and the scenery, whilst not Lake-district spectacular, bears witness only in fits and starts to the hand of mankind. When one can see it, of course, which wasn’t really the case for Geoff D, Mike B, Nina M and I, Mike and Nina having merely to get round to wrap up the fell category in the GP for the season, having found the time to run enough of the other races, and the form to run them hard, to be certain of their victories as long as DNFs were avoided.
The race this year had a field of c120 runners, and due to conditions we were advised that the two cut offs, at Arant Haw (2m in) and Black Force (7m) had been extended to 45 minutes and 1hr55m respectively; clearly the organisers expected some navigational mishaps. A quick 3-count set us off, the first stretch on slightly uphill tarmac, bending right, into a farmyard, then onto the slopes of Winder, skirting the peak to the east, climbing on gradients that permitted stretches of slow running between stints of walking as fast as grip and incline permitted. Already, within 10 minutes, I was sweating and had lost sight of the leaders, visibility limited by the low cloud which seemingly sat at around 350m throughout the race. Having missed the top of Winder, the course drops briefly into a saddle, from where the fairly runnable southern slope of Arant Haw takes you to CP1, the marshals well-wrapped and with tent and flasks evident. This leads to a nice grassy descent where the legs can be let rip, as there is a good trod and nothing technical for a mile or so; I let fly here and gained a couple of places, feeling ever so pleased with myself until it occurred to me that I now had to try to remember where exactly to break off the trod and veer north-west to hit Chapel Beck where it forms at a Y-junction of streams. Reader, I guessed, and the lack of knowledge of 5 or 6 others showed in that they went with me too, even though it transpired I’d gone a little too early and the first water I saw on breaking through the clouds was one of the feeder streams. That said, it acted as a nice visual marker in that I just had to keep going downhill and left to know I’d be back on track, the other confirmation coming from the stream of more accurate runners descending slightly to the west. The beck this year was not the trickle of 2 years ago, and the force of it swept a leg from me as I crossed, resulting in a face-plant into the water, so it was probably a good thing that the climb out, to CP2 at Castley Knotts is a hands-on-knees beast; strictly no running here. From the control comes a section that should be fairly quick, and started so this year until the visibility meant that I lost the path that largely contours round to Black Force, descending sooner than I should and having to pull myself back up wet slopes, through temporary springs erupting from the hillside, runners above me who’d kept to the trod, runners below who’d miscalculated worse than I – at one point, a runner glimpsed in the valley bottom, seemingly intent on working his way back up the stream bed of Black Force. I regained the trod, dropped at speed into the stream junction that forms CP3, stopping to take the waters deliberately this time (cold, with the delicious sweet tinge of peat that you never get from the tap) before moving on to the section that broke me 2 years ago.
Between CP3 and CP4, which is at the confluence of Hazel Gill and Bowderdale Beck, is a mere 2.5-3 miles of eastwards running. The sting is that it is pathless, and takes 3 climbs and descents to get there. The first, Docker Knott, was relatively simple and permitted a bit of a run with only a little walking before a fairly easy descent and a climb out to the south of Simon’s Seat, hand-railing a stream in a re-entrant up to a saddle then dropping again, the handful of runners in sight providing no clues as they were all taking different lines to each other. from the saddle a trod seemed to lead the way, but my compass said otherwise, so I trusted it and dropped on a bearing due east, down a steep, wet, grassy and uneven fellside, to be met by the welcome sight of 2 more streams in spate, again meeting. This was my marker, and I aimed directly at it, went through them both, the water thigh-high in places, then up and out to climb/traverse Hazelgill Knott, aiming not for the summit but to cut around the northern slopes and then SE to CP4. Here, I picked up on a couple of runners as we hit the cloud again, and tailed them as I walked the last few hundred yards of climbing, reasoning that at about 9 miles in it was not unreasonable to break out the sugar, in the form of Kendal Mint Cake (brown). Shoving this, and the map and compass back into my bum-bag, it was with relief that I crested the slope and started to descend to CP4, life just getting better when it appeared exactly where expected and the marshals had thought to strew a handful of plastic beakers next to the beck for refreshment purposes. Two cups duly drunk, it was with enthusiasm that I laid into the next section to CP5 (The Calf), which the PB Sports map describes as ‘all runnable,’ a statement that doubtless applies to the elite but which, I had to accept was not true for me; the first mile, heading due south with the beck I managed, the second, climbing steadily to the calf I confess to having slipped a couple of little walks into before resuming a run as things started to flatten towards the top of The Calf; that said, I managed to overhaul the pair I’d tailed to Bowderdale Beck and got another couple of runners into my sights, intermittently. From here, navigation was easy and the gradients kind, progress from CP5 (where Jan Young had emerged from the mist, as always heard before she was seen) to 6 being relatively rapid along rough but clear tracks and relatively shallow rises and falls; it was another 2.5-3 miles to Winder, but they did not compare to the CP3-4 section in any way. Winder trig, CP6 came, the post being touched and the descent commenced with glee, all the more so when I broke out of the cloud to see Sedbergh below and DPFR and Bingley vests to chase down. The former was caught, only to evade me as the greasy wet slope got steeper and steeper, leaving me on my bottom too often and sliding a good 100m in one go at one point. I got him back in sight on the road, but he was too far ahead to catch, and I had to settle for 25th (3hrs, 2mins), admittedly a big improvement on 2 years ago, when an ankle had gone at 8 miles and the remainder had been limped, slowly.
A quick shower, a bottomless teapot in return for a donation to the MRT, and life was good again, all the more so when Mike, holding ribs cracked on the final descent, Geoff and Nina all arrived in short order, all sub-4hrs. Similar tannin therapy and they were vaguely restored also. As races go, this is a bit of a beast, and the numbers act as fair warning that this is probably not a first fell race for anyone. However, like so many things, and people, in life, treat with respect and the rewards are immense; although, with no Striders being in the prizes, said rewards were not, on this day, financial.
I’d not planned to race Holme Moss, having trained with an eye on Wasdale, the week before. However, having being unable to get transport over to the Lakes and ‘chomping at the bit’ for a chance to race again, I scanned the FRA calendar for anything marked ‘AL’ that could feasibly be reached by public transport. This SW Yorks classic ticked all the boxes. The early Sunday train to Manchester dropping me at Huddersfield and a directionally-challenged taxi driver (we had to dismantle then replace a Yorkshire Water barrier due to route choice), running me the last few miles to Cartworth Moor Cricket Club, which sat sun-baked above Holmfirth. It was clear that it was going to be warm and little of the mandatory kit was likely to be needed. Sun-cream and Vaseline were of more use in the conditions. It was also apparent that there was a fair amount of talent from the Yorkshire clubs, with the sharp end of the field assembled on the farm track for the start looking distinctly lean and focused.
The first mile was exactly what you’d expect when the race begins on a hard, straight track, falling initially then rising steadily towards a road, with a hard pace being set by the frontrunners and everyone else hanging on, slowly falling away, in the white dust kicked up by their heels. As is all too often the case for someone who likes a steady start but is aware that after a short time, paths will narrow and overtaking become more difficult, this felt unpleasantly quick all the way along the track, over 100m of road (CP1) and then upwards onto the moor. It was also worrying that in a race of 17 miles, it appeared that little of the 4000′ ascent had taken place in the first mile and would not take place in the last, leaving less distance to squeeze all that climbing into; the reason became apparent as we crested the moor and dropped hard and fast down a dry path cut through the heather to Riding Wood reservoir.
I was conscious that overtaking was impossible here, so needed not to annoy the runners behind by my usual cautious descending, and was therefore relieved that conditions were dry and I reached the metal bridge over the stream feeding the reservoir intact and un-bruised. From here, things steadied a little, and the next two miles were a steady climb up to Holme Moss summit, traversing on fairly good paths the flank of Twizzle Head Moss, ascending at a gradient that increased slowly but permitted running until the final 300m before hitting the road, and the 4-mile point.
We were greeted with cowbells and a blanket of low cloud; less welcome for me was the realisation that on hard ground my shoe choice had been poor, both heels having just enough room to achieve lateral movement sufficient to start stripping the skin from them. I felt I was running well, and estimated I was around 30th, but also knew that every mile from here on out was going to hurt.
Had my feet been in good nick, the fun would truly have begun here, as the meat of the race is in this middle segment, with a rapid descent through tussocks to Heyden Brook, a sharp climb then gradual rise to Westend Moss, mostly on peat that was firm but with just enough spring in it to be fun, then a long descent to Crowden (CP3), the only cut-off at 7.5 miles. Writing this report nearly three months later I cannot really recall how this felt, as the human mind is notoriously bad at recollection of pain, but objectively I lost at least half a dozen places and had a good think about ‘Doffing’, in order to JUST MAKE IT STOP.
Looking back, knowing that I made the cut-off by only 15 minutes whilst still in the top third of the field, it strikes me that this is a race not generous with its timings. Anyway, had I been sensible, the report would end here except for maybe a sentence or two of regret for the wise decision to spare my feet, which by now had blistered, burst and were working on deeper blisters. I didn’t, so on we go – to the farm track that crossed Crowden Little Brook then hand-railed Crowden Great Brook, then to the long haul up Bareholme Moss, ascending back into the clouds (and picking off a few runners also), to CP4 and the inevitable comment of ‘got your number, 118,’ (accompanied by salacious wink) from a Holmfirth Harriers’ marshal; she gave me a jelly baby also, so this was tolerated a lot better than when the same words escape the mouths of a posse of chavs in a Micra on the A167.
From here it was straight back down again through pathless heather, splashing in Crowden Great Brook and stopping to take the waters, then up the other side through rocks and bracken that obscured all vision. It was here that I made my first and only nav. error of the day, staying too far north to pick up the path that led out of the bracken to the base of Laddow Rocks; with visibility of about 0.5 metres in all direction, the compass had to come out to point me through the ‘forest’ and into the light (I shall worry about the carcinogen exposure another day). The rocks were a three-points-of-contact affair, though dry sandstone is as good a surface as one could get for this, with water waiting at the top courtesy of marshals and a quad bike (CP5). This last mile had taken nearly 20 minutes.
Interestingly, memory tells me the next 4 miles (to Black Hill, CP6, and then down to Holme Moss) were fairly easy running along the Pennine Way then a good, twisting track over more firm peat, and it appears that I averaged 9.30min/mile for this chunk of the race, though the map tells me I climbed around 500′ to reach Black Hill, then descended off it again back to the road. I also know that by now my feet were feeling pretty dreadful, but that I’d broken the back of the race and others were definitely flagging even faster than I, so pushed as hard as I could and regained further places.
Road crossed again (at around 13.5m), the next four miles were a re-tracing of the first four, the traverse down Twizzle Head being pretty dreadful on the feet but offering tantalising glimpses of the reservoirs and conifer plantations near the start.
Finally I hit the metal bridge again and set off uphill, determined to run for as long as possible and to overhaul at least a couple of the line of runners strung out up the last hill – the GPS at one point seemed to think I’d stopped moving, but I made up two places when others stopped to gasp in air, and then another two on very wobbly legs on the shooting track back down to the road.
The last 0.9 miles, deathly dull, back along the roasting, dusty farm track, were hard work but also somehow the fastest of the day at 7.17 min/mile pace, gaining me another three places and seeing me finish in 26th place of 126 starters (my 3:18 finish some way behind winner Karl Gray’s 2:33). In other words, all the hard work of the last 8 miles had brought me back to where I’d been at the 4-mile point; such is the glorious futility of fell-running, and tea rarely tastes as good as when provided in vast volumes whilst watching other runners struggling up the finishing field, all various shades of lobster.
In summary: good race, hard but not too technical, bad shoe choice (my flayed heels made walking rather sore for the next week), rather glad I did it even if not originally planned; I’m also rather taken by the fact that entry, 2x advance rail tickets bought the week before and taxi there/bus back came to almost exactly this year’s GNR entry fee.
Many of you, having been harangued by me over the last few months, will know that this race is special to me. It is also special to the Club, as evidenced by the fact that they pay entry fees for as many teams as we can muster. I can’t answer for the Club, but for me there is a lot to be said for the scenery, the fact that it is now a summer race, meaning you can enjoy said scenery (having raced the winter version before a particularly brutal cold spell caused cancellation in 2010, I know of what I speak), and the pairs-relay format. Why the latter? Simple: no two runners are the same. There is joy when, as team captain, you match a pair of runners well enough that they complete a leg mutually-exhausted and having run in a way that just feels right for both of them. Witness Jack Lee and Mark Warner in 2016 or Tom Reeves/Jon Ayres and Diane Watson/Angela Greathead in the same year.
There is also the challenge of trying to finesse the selection of runners in Elvet A to maximise the chance of us both being competitive and getting the baton around the course, against ever-tighter cut-offs which date from the years of this being a winter race, with dusk at 1600hrs.
This year, the challenge was truly set, as we had to make 2 teams of 12 runners, in 6 pairs each, to complete the 55 or so miles of the ever-undulating course. Courtesy of clashes with P2P and Windermere, family commitments, last-minute emergencies and a general nervousness about the fact we would be travelling 2 hours south just to get beaten by some of the UK’s best fell-runners, we had 17 runners to make up these 2 teams. Not quite Jesus, the bread and the fish, but I like to think something of that ilk was required in order to hand in 2 complete team sheets at Heath RUFC, bright and early on the Sunday morning.
We’d opted to go with what we thought would be the quickest Elvet A team possible, at the cost of this team comprising 7 runners for 12 places, 5 of them doing 2 legs apiece. Elvet B had the relative luxury of 9 runners for their 12 places, with only Angela G, Danielle W and Mandy D having to double up. The instructions for Elvet B were something along the lines of ‘enjoy, it’s a lovely day for it, see you on the course.’ Elvet A’s first two leg pairs, all of them doing other legs later, were asked to give everything they had on the first leg, hold nothing in reserve, then try to do it again later.
Final words spoken, Phil Ray and I stood with Nigel H and Mandy D at the bottom of the bank for the mass start, surrounded by close-packed bodies and ready for the sprint to the start of the climb through the woods. Words were spoken, the runners in front of us moved and so did we, with the intention of getting far enough up the field that we would get ‘trapped’ in position neither too far forward nor too far back as, after about half a mile or so of climbing, there is a mile-long section where overtaking is near-impossible on a narrow path between a fence an foliage skirting the moor.
I took the pace here, trusting Phil to stay roughly behind me and to shout if any problems, and we next saw each other at the top when we were able to exit the woodland path and start slowly overtaking pairs in front of us, hitting a road crossing just after two miles to the encouragement of the Striders who’d driven up to shout us on at this early point.
The field was fairly tight here, with us following a pair of Barlick ladies who we’d tail for the remainder of the leg, as well as assorted other colourful vests from Yorks and Lancs. Firm ground made for a decent pace, Phil leading across the moor edge as the Calder Valley fell away to our right, taking us through miles 3 and 4 at sub-8m/m pace until we hit a long downhill into Ripponden where we let the feet fly, high-fiving at 7 minute-mile pace a trio of amicable drunks who appeared to be at the end of a long night, swigging cans of Polish lager as they tried to ascend the lane we were hammering down. The fun ended here, as a core rule of fell-running is that if you lose height, you’ve got to re-gain it; so it proved, with the next three miles being a slog out of the town, a brief descent and then a longer pull upwards, initially through bluebell woods then onto an interminable farm track/minor road combination, hitting the moorland again at around 8.5m, slowly climbing a little more and then downhilling all the way for the last mile and a half, finally over-taking the Barlick pair, being overhauled by CVFR B despite now running sub 7m/m, leaving the moor, cutting through more pretty woodland and dropping into Cragg Vale to hand the baton on to Fiona and Jack, arms outstretched and with the intensity of hungry greyhounds at the front of the waiting group.
Job done in 1.29hrs for 10.7m (27th overall). Water on board. Wait for Mandy and Nigel, see of Danielle Whitworth and Jan Young, then off to Todmorden.
I can’t really comment on leg 2, other than to say it is:
a) hard, particularly in the heat
b) clearly well-suited to Fiona and Jack, who managed 1.12 for it, comparable to the best-in-recent-years time set by Tom and Jon, handing over to Mike Bennett and David Gibson for Elvet A, Paul Foster and Angela Greathead doing the honours for Elvet B, though we had to leave before they set off. Leg 3, by the way, is only 5 miles, but they’re all uphill and by now the day was uncomfortably toasty (official met-office terminology).
The next stop for the race is Blackshaw Head, a small village sitting high up on the edge of the moorland, with the luxury of a portable loo and a cake/tea stall set up to raise money for the local school. After earlier exertions, Fiona and I should probably have partaken in the latter but did not do so as we were more concerned with getting registered for the leg and making our way to the start, in the hope that Mike and David had thrashed themselves. To their credit, they did, managing 54 minutes for the leg, meaning Fiona and I had around 1.25hrs to beat the cut-off for this 9.5m leg.
Fresh, I think we might have managed it, and we managed a rapid-enough start down the first hill, over the ancient packhorse bridge (under repair), up to Heptonstall and down to the river, Fiona positively bouncing when presented with a descent. The fourth mile, however, was an absolute swine, 441′ of climbing in the mile, reducing us to 15 minutes for said mile and effectively wrecking our chances of beating the clock, as our legs were not quite able to capitalise as they should on the next few miles of glorious open moorland. Basically, we slowed whenever the path went upwards and could not quite compensate when it went down. On the plus side, a pair overtaking us (one of three who did so) called Fiona a ‘legend’ when they heard that we were on our second leg of the day, which I think is high praise indeed; a muttered ‘well-done’ is more standard in the world of the fells. In pain, leg four ended with a rapid descent past the evocatively-named Jerusalem Farm, through more woods, over another stream, up through the trees and, finally, at near-walking pace, to the handover point at Wainstalls, all runners (including our own Jack, Phil, Danielle and Dave Shipman) now departed as we’d managed 1.36hrs. There was little to do but sag, mutter ‘well done’ to each other and gratefully accept the water thrust at us by Danielle’s mum (a Sowerby Snails runner herself). Mandy and Camilla were in a while later, both looking suitably sweaty.
For us, the war was over, and there was little to be done but head back to the rugby club for the finish, as we’d not be able to get to the leg 5 finish/leg 6 start in time to see off David G, Mike Hughes, Keith Wesson and Angela G at Shelf village. So we did, admittedly somewhat disappointed, albeit (in my case) hugely impressed with the guts shown by Fiona in putting herself through a painful second leg with nothing in the tank. The rugby club had showers, tea and food, as well as the all-important sunny, dry field to watch the finishers. My vest now has a pink streak on the left-hand white stripe, where I had inadequately-vaselined myself; it started to move, so I generally didn’t. David and Mike came in, both looking slightly worse for a day that was now officially super-toasty (again, official term), their 1.58 seeing us 45th team of 100 (in 8.24hrs), then Angela and Keith finished off for us, their 2.21 giving us a time of 11.52hrs for Elvet B, 98th of the 100 teams.
I’ll leave it there, but for to say that this was a hot, hard day for running, and everything I asked of the runners doing two legs was given in spades. Rarely have I been so pleased to see harrowed, hollow-eyed faces. Particular mentions to both Danielle and Fiona, both of whom were out of their comfort zones, both of them also fairly new club members – to take this on was no small undertaking. Thanks also to those who came down to run one leg each, particularly given the effort apparent for all. Next year? Well, the dream of being able to submit Elvet A, B and C lives on, and it remains an aspiration to run Elvet A as a one-leg-per-runner team, as I maintain we could be fairly competitive on this basis. Ladies and gents, I have a dream. Or three.
This is not just a report about a race. This is a love story. With a race central to it.
I’d first heard of the Anniversary Waltz when, around 14 years ago, a striking photo of a runner approaching the summit of, I think, Robinson, the lush green of the Newlands valley in the background, graced the front cover of The Fellrunner. Over the years, I’d wondered at the unusual name and had got as far as entering a few years ago, only for life to make other plans. This year was different, as it was announced that the race would be run for the final time, due to the death of one of the married couple who have for two decades organised the race; if not now, never.
Race day dawned bright, with the skies over Keswick clear and the road out to Stair village busy with running traffic – it appeared that Jack, Fiona and I were not alone in taking the last opportunity to race here, and we were informed that c600 runners were here for the Waltz, and c300 for the Teenager (the 15m extended version), many north-eastern vests amongst them, as well as a smattering of national-level talent; to all intents and purposes, this felt very much like an unofficial extension to the English Championships.
Registration was busy though efficient, and after watching the Teenager competitors walk up their first hill from the start (Causey Pike), we had a pleasant half-mile or so to the start, an old mining track that cuts below Catbells. A brief, eloquent speech was made about the life and legacy of Steve Cliff, whose marriage to Wynn this commemorated and in whose name the proceeds would be donated to MND research (I presume the pollen count was high, as there was a lot of eye-rubbing going on), and then we were off, shuffling from a position too close to the rear of the pack, slowly picking up speed as we dodged around runners, descending into the valley bottom with Jack on my shoulder and Fiona not far behind.
The first 3 miles were rapid, and felt it, my watch recording the second mile as sub-7min/mile pace, and I quickly began to realise that if we’d lost height in the first three of nearly twelve miles, and the last mile was downhill, then ALL of the 3600′ height gain would have to take place in the next eight miles. This thought occurred as the track turned to grass, Robinson loomed on the right-hand side and it was decision time – take the pain of climbing Robinson now, in order to get it out of the way, or keep up the speed on the gentle track up the valley and then brace for a sharp final ascent? I went for the former, Jack, just ahead of me, for the latter, and we saw each other again at the top, both hurting a little from the quad-straining gradient and the short section of scrambling. From this first summit, Jack loped ahead of me at speed down the grassy flank of Robinson to the path that leads up to Hindscarth, the next peak of the horseshoe. I tailed as rapidly as I could and rather enjoyed the shallow gradient and springy, forgiving ground, not losing him to sight, then slowly regaining on both he and an NFR runner as we climbed again, passing them near the top, along with another 15 or so runners. Hindscarth summited, it was down again to Dale Head, another nice runnable section with a final rocky drag, passing Tim Skelton en route (not in the race, so a rather surprising sighting) before the section I’d been fearing.
I am a terrible descender in rocky terrain. My balance is not great and my eyes water so much that often I can barely see as I go downhill at speed, leading to a lot of falls. My intention had been to come off Dale Head to the south, using the tourist path. However, having realised I was a reasonable way up the field by now and, more importantly, actually a little ahead of Jack, I could not bring myself to be sensible and therefore attempted the direct route to the stream leaving the tarn at the bottom. If memory serves me, the descent was not enjoyable, was faster than I thought possible, still lost me a dozen or two places, probably accounted for the bruised bits I felt the next day and had me at one point on the verge of having to stop to ‘do a Paula.’ Let us move on; love stories do not include that kind of mess.
The hard bit over, and feet refreshed in the clear waters of the rocky stream crossing, the rest of the race passed well, with places regained on the climb to High Spy, no more lost on the gentle descent before Catbells, another handful gained on the steady run up to Catbells and then a grassy descent that hurt the feet as it got steeper and steeper (I was looking forward to running down the natural curve of the hill, only to be pointed sharp left, down the steep bit, by marshals), but gave enough traction to maintain pace sufficient that only a handful of runners came past me again – none of them Jack, who I was convinced was on my shoulder. Down onto the track where we had started, through a farm, onto tarmac and back to the village where the finishing funnel, a stream for foot-washing and a chap with a hosepipe awaited. At the time of writing, results are unpublished, but I think I took around 2:10 and Jack came in a few minutes later, not helped by one of his shoes disintegrating on Catbells and a touch of heat illness. Fiona? She’d started the race as a ‘nice, steady run’ and then felt competitive halfway round, so had spent the back half picking people off one by one, and seemed fairly upbeat.
It has been said that the deaths of those who will be missed deeply, by many, lead to the most enjoyable wakes; this was such a day – a massive field of people who love the hills gathered together for a day simultaneously about life, death and running. The world moves on. This race does not, though was a fitting tribute to a man who loved the area and the sport and a reminder that a day spent in the hills, with friends, is never a day wasted.
Plan for 2018, after the running horrors of Jan 16-Oct 17: train hard, do XC and hit the ground running with the long races of Marsden-Edale, Wadsworth and the Skyline, with a view to longer stuff later.
Reality: pick up an Achilles injury after Christmas, miss Capt Cook, run/limp a stinker at Herrington XC when injured (worst performance at HL I can recall), exacerbate injury in the process, miss races and become limited to running no faster than 8min/mile without the troublesome tendon swelling and hurting. Up to this point, with the possible exception of the English XC Championships in London, where I ran slowly but at least got round somehow, 2018 has not been a great deal of fun.
So, expectations set to ‘low, just get round,’ I found myself being counted into the starting field at the bottom of the Nab, looking up to the dark edges of Kinder scout, seeing snowy streaks and a sky with a few hopeful-looking patches of blue. It was probably best to look upwards, rather than to my sides, as this was an English Championship race, and the quality at ground level was intimidatingly-good. The usual brief pre-amble over, we ran to and then ascended at a shuffle the familiar zig-zags of the Nab then, just for this one year, turned left on summiting Ringing Roger, one of the many high points of the Kinder plateau; yes, reader, this year the Skyline went backwards, thus making it even more unmissable! In practise, this meant that we hit the clart sooner than usual, and spent the first couple of miles round to Grindslow Knoll undulating, bouncing off rocks, getting our feet soaked in the frequent streams and occasional snowdrifts trapped in sheltered cloughs, and generally spreading out a little; for this section and, as it turned out, much of the race I hung onto the familiar vest of a Sunderland Stroller, catching him on every little climb and watching him bounce past me on the downhills.
‘Brown Knoll’ used to be words that sent an involuntary shudder down the spine of many a fell-runner: a relatively featureless morass of peat, sphagnum, trods leading to uncertain places and, crucially in this race, an area in the final third of the traditional Skyline route, thus hitting the unsuspecting runner precisely when they least needed it (see report from 2015). Not without controversy, a route over it has now been paved due to erosion concerns, which meant this was a faster-than-expected, albeit quite dull section, though I remained cautious and gained fewer places than I could have done with a more aggressive approach here, instead starting to attack a little as we left it and began the long succession of ridge-running that would take us all the way to Lose Hill, that Strollers’ vest remaining an aiming point as we passed a few runners beginning to tire. Half-way along we dropped into Mam Nick, our first encounter with tarmac all race, then reduced pace to a hands-on-thighs walk until hitting the top of Mam Tor, start of the section of the race with ALL the views – this year we could see for miles to both north and south. Lose Hill came, was climbed at a plod, and went again in an exhilarating, wet run/slide combination, one done less well than the dozen or so runners I’d beaten on the climb, all of them repaying the favour with interest on the way down; Hope village at the bottom presented our second encounter with tarmac, a second jelly baby and the start of the real test.
Memory: an unreliable thing. I remember from 2015 the entire section from start to Hope, via Whin Hill, as being fairly easy running and likely to present a nice final few miles the other way round. I still remember 2015’s course this way, though the evidence of my split times and recent nociceptor experience disproves it utterly – once I’d trotted over the railway bridge out of Hope the ascent was severe, on wet, bracken-covered peat with little purchase, the Mars bar nauseated me and I was able to manage a shuffling run when the incline slackened towards the top, through the heather and then on the shooting track. That said, the strung-out line of runners ahead did not look healthy and I was able to gain a lot of places, finally leaving behind the Stroller, passing him again after touching the trig and heading the final 5 miles for home. Mystery solved: I remembered little of this stretch as it was relatively dull, 2 miles of an easy trudge along farm tracks, 3 of a steady uphill back to Ringing Roger, livening up as we left grass and got back onto rock and peat, sore feet and knackered proprioception not helping, though more places gained before dibbing for the last time and heading downhill…where 15-20 runners I’d led, slowly, uphill flew past me and hit the finish line just ahead.
Number cut off and water being taken from the jerrycans stacked against the wall, I watched as both the Stroller I’d raced for hours (Adnan Khan, though we did not know it yet, to show me a clean pair of heels one week later at Alnwick’s Harrier League fixture) and another (Ken Maynard) came in, amongst a steady flow of battered bodies; blood both fresh and dried was prominent on many. An hour later, washed in the stream, fed with chilli, rehydrated with tea (Victoria Wilkinson, having just smashed the female record for the race, queuing patiently behind me) and having gained a new injury (thigh strain) to go with the pre-existing one, life felt better.
It would have been better yet had a hundred Kurds not blockaded a railway line and caused a 3-hour wait for the train back to Sheffield but that, reader, is another story…
‘I’ve not yet done the full course, so back next year it is.’
So said I, two years ago, after the Tour was shortened due to inclement weather (for a fell race, this takes a lot), shortly before developing an unhealthy relationship with work for the next year, with far too many hours spent behind a desk and training tailing off somewhat, along with any motivation to run. The extra stone or so, as a result of this inactivity and a love of bacon, was not exactly helpful either.
Instead, let us forward two years, to now, minus 36 hours, when I stood back on the line (actually, tucked somewhere halfway down the field, safely away from the pointy end), ready for the hammer to drop on this compact, punchy East Lancs race: conditions excellent (cold, clear, blustery but no rain), field sizeable (c400) and Strider numbers one (plus an ex-Strider now running for Kirkstall Harriers). I’d had my porridge at a suitably ghastly hour, had found actual toilet paper in the toilets and was full of tea, so all was basically good. Better yet, earlier XC fixtures at Wrekenton and Druridge had even seen the return of something that felt like competitiveness, which boded well.
The race begins with a fairly flat mile on the reservoir track, primarily to permit the field to spread before turning due north up the slopes of Buttock, onto Pendle Hill. This passed quickly, with a degree of mild frustration when trying to pass slower runners, until I reminded myself there was a long way to go and a lot of it would be spent walking; this indeed occurred shortly, with the first climb being a run/walk affair until the contour lines began to space out and permit a steady pace to be achieved up to the trig at CP1, the high point of Pendle Hill (in case you’re wondering, the entire race is essentially an up-down affair of one hill, the hill only being 558m in height). The top was wet but runnable, and the leg down to CP2 was a delight, what with being able to see this year, all of it downhill and none of it steep – 2 miles of pleasure, with only the wet ground at all hazardous (reader, we had bottom/ground interface for the first time when ambition trumped ability in an over-taking attempt), then another easy half mile to CP3, hand-railing another reservoir.
The fun was now over, and we needed to climb sharply through slippery mud and bracken, then back onto the
moorland; this was slow, but profitable in terms of places, and I crested ahead of those who’d come past me on the way down. I then saw them again as they flew past me on the infamous ‘Geronimo’ descent, which started slowly, got faster as I gained confidence and finished sliding on my posterior, stopping just short of the stream of Ogden Clough (CP4); this was 2 climbs and descents of a total 6 accomplished, and it was starting to hurt, though the field was beginning to spread and I was gaining one or two more places on each climb or flat section than I was losing. I’d also acquired some blood on my right hand and face (another runner pointed this out), though was unclear how.
Through the stream and sharp left, we ran single-file along a narrow, rocky path towards the headwaters, then crossed it again and made a shorter climb that was actually runnable for the second half (another place gained) before dropping gradually, at proper running pace again, to CP5, legs loosening and enjoying the chance to stretch out. Up again to CP6, another left off the top, with yet more descending like a crab/ball/a.n.other thing incapable of running in a straight line on feet, and it was onto the final two climbs, those missed off the bad-weather course of two years ago. Going back onto the top to CP 8 started well, though the horror of concave slopes is that they get harder the closer you get to the top, so the first hundred or so yards were fine, unless you raised your eyes and looked up at the grassy wall in front – the one peppered with dots of colour, all moving slowly upwards. I would say that everyone was suffering by this point, but realistically the winners were nearly home by now, so that would be untrue; the rest of us were firmly in ‘hands-on-thighs’ mode, though I managed to steal a place or two by getting hands-on and essentially crawling upwards, hitting CP 8, embellished with a massive union flag blowing in the wind along with the waterproofs of the well-wrapped marshals.
I now knew we had half a mile of running on the flat top of Pendle, another descent, a final climb and then home for tea and cake. It played out essentially that way, with me holding my place on the top, dropping a couple on the downhill section (a few little crags on this one, just to keep you on your toes), then working as hard as possible, again with hands-on-grass, on the last uphill, knowing this was the last chance to push for places – in the event, I gained half a dozen or so, and hit CP10 (at the trig passed on the first leg) opening my legs desperate to hold whatever slim advantage had been gained in the last 15 miles. The leg to CP11 was the reverse of the initial leg, but a little to the west – grassy and downhill all the way to Ogden Clough, easy running and probably fun were it not for the competition. It hit me here that I wanted this place, wherever in the field I was, and that the competitive urge largely absent for a long while was back – I would probably not resort to knee-capping other runners to hold my position (this isn’t XC, after all!), but I’d not dismiss the idea out of hand…idle thoughts aside, I had breath in my right ear and the vests of Bowland, Todmorden, Rossendale and some club in red ahead of me, all of them possibly catchable. Some, on the reservoir road that makes up the final mile, were caught, others were not, and some who’d not been in sight initially were chased fruitlessly as I got closer – there was even an approximation of a sprint finish, entirely in vain as I was never going to make up 30 yards on someone who was themselves only 20 yards from the line.
That, then, was that – the line crossed, a ‘well done’ from the time-keeper and handshakes with those in front and behind me for a race hard-fought, whilst drinking from the jerry-cans of water set out for runners. 17 miles done and a category AL race in the bag, for the grand cost of £9. As things stand, writing this on Sunday evening whilst wearing the race T-shirt that the organisers throw in), I don’t actually know my finishing time (3hrs-ish?), nor my position (top half?), but am satisfied they couldn’t have been a lot better on the day in what is always going to be a hard race, no matter the conditions: six times up and six times down a hill that’s not that high sound so much easier than it actually is.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt compelled to spend a Sunday evening sat at a laptop, trying to recall what took place the day before. Probably around two years or so – [ actually just last year! ^DN] the website seems to show nothing from me since November 2015 [<cough!> Paul Evans ^DN]. However, a return to racing with a rejoinder from our webmaster means that what happened must be relayed, for the ever-developing archive of north-eastern running that is our website. Here goes…
0712hrs at Sheffield railway station for a 25 minute ride on a rattling little train, older than I, to Hope. The journey is spent checking bumbag contents, unpacking and adjusting. The only other passengers seem similarly absorbed in their kit, and I assume both are heading for the tour, either long or half, also. We walk the mile or so the Bradwell in amiable silence. The fact that the western edge of the valley is obscured by cloud bodes ill. I consider switching to the half tour, a 17-miler that cuts out the more punchy climbs, then remember I’m returning with a ultra so I don’t HAVE to race it.
0810hrs. Check-in for the race is slick (impressively, EOD are taken as well), laminated maps are issued and a demo is given of the new electronic timing system. Hot brews are offered and received, and the portaloosportable toilets provision is adequate. Kit is re-checked, re-assembled and then adjusted once more, nipples taped and anything that might chafe greased to fairy obscene levels. A decision is made to add to the bumbag a half dozen mini pork pies, on the basis that I’m not really racing, but instead here for a nice day’s running.
0900hrs. Assembly at the village green, in a light rain with overcast skies promising more. No kit check. We set off at an easy pace for the gentle undulation of the first mile or so along a damp, overhung lane, the rumble of the enormous cement works a background note. I’m not impressed to note that my Mudclaws are showing themselves to be awful on wet concrete, having switched to Inov8 after four successive pairs of Walshes disintegrated early in their lives [same here, sadly. ; a gentle downhill sees me skid to one side and hug the fence. Control 1 is found easily (ie. at the point you leave the lane – truly idiot-proof) though it later turns out that my timing gear does not register, despite flashing and beeping. From here a steady run, with occasional walking on the steeper parts, takes us through the quarries that feed the plant below, along a track to CP2 and then down some grassy fields…
…to the abomination that is Cave Dale. For those of you who have not visited Cave Dale, it is a picturesque descent through limestone crags and lush greenery. For tourists, it is delightful. For farmers, it’s a nice place to graze sheep. For runners, it is a steep downhill over loose limestone, polished by water for centuries, today in the rain. It is an axiom of ultra-runner to ‘walk the ups, run the downs.’ I did the opposite, and lost a good number of places to those with a little more poise and balance, only falling twice, which I think a result of sorts. This led into Castleton, pretty as ever, along a minor road to the climb up to Hollins Cross, then straight down a good track, under the railway line and into Edale.
1030hrs. Edale gained, with two of the big climbs over with. Banana and a few peanuts offered along with water, and a small group of us trotted out past the Nag’s Head/Pennine Way start, over the footbridge and up the zig-zags that mark the start and finish of the Edale Skyline fell race; walking only here. About two-thirds of the way up the climb flattens and the ground becomes soggier, helped by the rain that’s picked up a bit. Reaching the plateau I hit my stride, unfortunately making the mistake of enjoying the running too much to notice the trod that leads to CP5, the Druid’s Stone. Heather-bashing needed, then more of the same to regain the edge, followed by what someone following me informs me I’ve ‘picked a great line’ through the rocks and heather tussocks that take us down to runnable fields (I don’t tell him that I descended earlier than intended then made the best of it/pretended I had a plan). A fast downhill mile brings us under the railway again, then it’s over the road and straight up the other side of the valley to Lose Hill, walking pace resumed. I crack open the mini pork pies. I eat one slowly, then realise it is not sitting well; in retrospect, this lack of hunger should have been a warning. Nevertheless, Lose Hill CP6 is gained with a stiff tab to the steps and then a run along the tops, legs feeling less stiff than earlier. The descent is a grassy delight, halted only to call back a handful ahead of me who’ve taken a bad line and are liable to end up a mile or so west of where they need to be. Hope, CP7, is another food/drink station and by this point we’re well-mixed with runners doing the half tour, so it is harder to ascertain who the competition is. If I were being competitive, which I’m not.
The next few legs are fairly easy running, bar a cheeky climb up Whin Hill, with views of Ladybower reservoir, some very enjoyable forest trails and a bit of flat converted railway line taking us to CP9, the cut off for the full tour.
1230hrs. The two races separate, the half tour runners having broken the back of their race and heading home. It feels lonely again. I change pace again to drop down from the line through a couple of fields onto CP10, situated halfway along Bamford Weir, admire the serenity of the ducks paddling through the lilies, then accept I cannot change the fact that a couple of miles of climbing, on road then rocky track, lies between Stanage Edge and I. Strangely, I make up a few places here, my ability to sustain an uphill plod serving me well, gain CP11 and then shuffle-run along Stanage Edge to Burbage Bridge, the sun now out and the views superlative, miles of purple heather to the left and lush valley to the right. CP12 at the roadside sees us fed again, though I’m really not hungry by now, and we descend steadily to Toad’s Mouth, 2 miles of largely downhill easy running…or would be if my left foot were not now hurting with every step. CPs 13, 14 and 15 feature no big climbs, some pretty woodland and Burbage Brook, which is this afternoon rammed with children paddling, fishing and enjoying themselves. How dare they, when some of us are suffering? Some even have snacks they appear to relish eating, rather than 5 uneaten pork pies they cannot face but must carry.
1430hrs. CP15 reached, a lot of water and 4 peanuts forced down and the rest shoved into a pocket. From here, I know I’ve got about 6 miles, an hour, one big, but steady climb and, in the immediate future, one short road climb to go. I and two others who appear also a bit on the tired side climb to the farm track, descend into the woods and then walk-run through terrain that seems more uneven than the map suggests to CP16, at a brook I refill my water bottle from. We then climb slowly to Abney hamlet, take a right up an interminably-long track (the map says only 3/4m, but it feels worse) and then skirt another quarry before dropping down through gorse and mud into Bradwell, for a final half-mile trot along the road. Our threesome has split by now, after all checking that we’re fine, and I come in last of the three after another involuntary trip down the hillside on my bottom.
1545hrs. It is done. Hot brews and soup. Flapjack that takes 15 minutes a square to eat as my mouth does not have sufficient moisture to masticate adequately. Lying on my back in the warm grass, the moist soil fragrant. A walk back to the station and half an hour sat waiting in the sun, finally able to eat again, content, knowing it is all done and that, hurting feet and all, it has been a run to remember. And I might have, despite all good intentions, actually raced the thing. Maybe a little.