So the previous Saturday I’d timed out at Borrowdale Fell Race. On Tuesday, after a few days of rest (I was on holiday after all) and cursing my:
a) navigation mistake; and,
b) my climbing ability,
I decided to go out for a run-up and down Skiddaw – as you do.
On Wednesday evening, after a day exploring Ambleside and Grasmere, I dropped my wife and daughter off at the Kings Head Inn at Thirlspot and headed back to Steel Head Farm for the Steel Fell Race.
This is a tough little 3-mile race which takes you up to the summit of Steel Fell turn around and run back to the finish. I parked up, registered, then went back to the car to get changed. It was then that I realised I’d forgotten my Striders vest, and more importantly, my fell shoes!
If there’s a race where you need grip, this is it. I had my Adidas Kanidia’s which have a fairly aggressive sole but nothing in the way of the Walshes or Inov-8’s. And I had a tech t-shirt but, as you can imagine, I looked a bit like a fish out of water surrounded, once again, by the fell running skeletons of the Lake District’s clubs.
This is a peculiar race. There’s no entry fee, no kit check and there are no prizes, but it’s seriously competitive with just over 100 runners taking part. On the stroke of 7:30 pm, we were off, up the path for a gentle warm-up run before turning sharply onto the slopes of Steel Fell.
Once more my I found myself head down, hands on knees marching upwards. This time though, I was holding my place, breathing well and seemingly feeling good, but 1.5 miles of solid climbing takes its time.
Eventually, the climb starts to shallow a little but as I look up, I see the first placed runner, Keswick’s Carl Bell, making his way back down. He’s phenomenally quick. I look at my watch which confirms this. I’ve been climbing for over 12 minutes; he’s on his way back down. This is why he was one of Killian Jornet’s pacers for his record-breaking Bob Graham Round, although he narrowly missed out on a win at Borrowdale Fell Race, being beaten, by only 5 seconds, in a sprint finish from a rejuvenated Ricky Lightfoot.
Anyway, back to my race, and with the vertical now shallow enough to stand up straight and run, I made my way to the summit turn-around point. I managed to grab a few places from those that were still recovering from the climb whilst trying not to get in the way of the returning front-runners.
Once at the summit, it was all-systems-go to get back to the finish as quickly as possible. The runoff across the plateau is just shy of half a mile, climb a fence then onto the steep slope back to the finish field. It is here that makes or breaks the race, and my usual confidence and exuberance on the downhills was gone with the worry of the grip of my replacement shoes.
A heavy downpour earlier in the day had made the slopes greasy, so I was worried that if I let fly, I’d end up coming down in a very unconventional manner but one that’s not uncommon – on my arse!
Normally, I’d take places on a downhill, but today I was losing them which was really annoying but I kept going as fast as I could and eventually reached the gate to the road for the final few hundred metres of running to the finish. With legs of jelly, I put in everything I had to hold my place and not get caught in the final straight.
I finished in 87th place, in 34:20mins, just shy of a minute slower than last year but feeling much better and considering my exertions the previous days, I was very happy with that time. Looking at my Strava data I was also surprised to find that I’d actually descended faster than the previous year despite the lack of proper footwear, so I just need to work on getting up the hills faster and I’ll probably become a better fell runner.
I never really got into running to be fast or win races – I’m far too slow for that. What I do love is an adventure which is why I very rarely venture out onto the roads. I love the trails and the freedom you have to explore and go at your own pace and often your own way. But it’s this freedom to choose your own way that got me into a bit of a pickle within the last few miles of Borrowdale Fell Race.
Borrowdale is one of the classic long Lake District fell races and the race that inspired me to take up fell and trail running. In the start field just off the main road in the village of Rosthwaite deep in the Borrowdale valley, I stood waiting patiently for the start of the race. Around me, as per usual, are the skeleton-like bodies of the local fell runners. There’s also the stars of the genre gathered – Ricky Lightfoot, Carl Bell, Nicky Spinks and Jasmine Paris to name but a few.
The route is approximately 17 miles and totals around 2000 metres of climbing across some of England’s roughest terrain and its highest peak, Scafell Pike. With kit checked, the 250 plus runners shuffled forward, and following a short word from the race director, we were off.
I took up my place towards the back of the field, keen to take it easy along the valley and through the farms before the tough climbs begin. The field stretched out before me in a long line, the front runners making the most of the shallow incline and single-track to make progress on the rest of the pack.
Before long the route takes a sudden and sharp turn beyond a gate which is, once again, being held open by fell running legend and Borrowdale resident, Billy Bland. From here it’s a head down, hands on knees march up the incredibly steep slope to the first peak and checkpoint at BessyBoot.
I take my time as my biggest weakness is climbing; I just haven’t got the lungs for it. But this is a race and there’s a balance to be had between taking your time and beating the cut-offs which are strictly enforced.
Although my progress is slow, I’m still moving well but I’ve lost a lot of ground on other runners who I’ve come to recognise in these races. The summit of BessyBoot seems to take an age to reach, but once there I check-in then make my way off to try and catch up some of the ground lost on the climb.
The next section is a roller coaster of ups and downs. It’s surprisingly boggy in parts given how dry it’s been but nothing like in previous years where there was a real danger of being sucked in up to your waist. The route skirts around the back of Rosthwaite Fell and under the peak of Glaramara, the steep slopes of Stonethwaite Fell add to the jeopardy of a misplaced step to my left.
I’d forgotten just how long and tough this section can be, my breathing is heavy and legs are working hard to keep up any kind of pace. The sun is beating down but over to the north across the summits of the Gables, there’s a thick mist hanging ominously.
Soon, I reach the col around Allen Crag and pick up the path to the second checkpoint at Esk Hause. From here you join the hoards of walkers making their way to the summit of Scafell Pike. But fell running is about efficiency and direct lines so the most direct route took me off the well-worn path and straight up across more rocky ground that cuts out a more commonly used path from Great End to Broad Crag.
The previous weekend I’d been here supporting a Bob Graham round. The weather was foul and with almost no visibility and winds that forced us to stop and sit for moments, it had been a tough slog. Today was the total opposite, with blue skies, warm temperatures and good visibility all around.
I made the most of this and was happy to be making my way over the boulder field towards Scafell. There’s a steep drop then a solid climb to the summit but I was moving well and was relieved to finally reach the summit checkpoint which was teaming with walkers. There were glorious views to be had but that mist still hung ominously over the Gables. From here the real fun part of the race begins – the direct drop down the scree slope to the Corridor route.
As fun as it is, it’s still incredibly tough and quite dangerous, not so much to me, but to those below and the danger of dislodging rocks that could roll down onto them. Once at the bottom, I took the time to empty my shoes which had filled with stones on the descent. Whilst doing so, I was struck with cramp in my right calf trying to get my shoe back on. This was not good and set me back a little.
Once I’d recovered I began my quest to get to the next checkpoint at Styhead Tarn as quickly as possible. Here is the first point where you can be timed out. The problem with this one is that you’re still at around 500 metres above sea level and around 2 miles of rough ground from the nearest road so it’s not a good place to be dragged off the course.
Taking the runners line off the Corridor route, I eventually made it to the checkpoint, grabbed a few jelly babies form the marshal and set off for the steep and unrelenting climb to the summit of Great Gable. I was still moving well but fully aware that I was pressed for time.
I was now in the cloud that had been hanging over the Gables for most of the day. It was cold and damp and a stark contrast to the warmth and sun I’d enjoyed in the start of the race. Once again my weakness in climbing was laid bare as runners around me started to pull away but I knew that if I just kept going I’d be ok.
Eventually, after what seemed an age, I reached the summit and the checkpoint, dibbed my dabber and made off. The mist was thick and visibility was very low. My glasses were covered in dew which made seeing quite difficult. I was on my own now, I couldn’t see anyone else, runners or walkers, but knew where I was heading, down and back up Windy Gap and skirting below Green Gable and on towards Brandreth. From here it’s across open ground to Grey Knotts to cut through for a direct descent to Honister Slate mine.
Sounds easy, it is easy, but the thick mist and my increasing fatigue played a trick on me and instead of taking the path that would have led to the right of Grey Knott, I took the line that swung me out left. As I ran I got the feeling something wasn’t right. I stopped and checked the map but because of the lack of visibility, I was unsure as to exactly where I was so I pressed on.
Descending out of the mist it became apparent I was on the wrong side of the peak. I’d gone too far to turn back and knew that I had to keep moving forward as I was now seriously under pressure to reach the last checkpoint before the cut-off.
Cursing my mistake, I made the descent off the high ground down the grassy slopes. To my left, there was the path that led back down to the slate mine, but I choose to keep moving right and try and get back on to the more direct line that I should have been on. Eventually, I made it back on track but knew that I was probably too late to continue beyond the checkpoint.
Once at Honister, I marched up to the marshal who informed me that my race was over. I’d missed the cut-off by 5 minutes. I was gutted but not surprised. I’d been running tight to the cut-offs and my navigation mistake cost me what time I did have. After around five minutes I was given a lift back to the finish where I handing in my race number and dibber.
I’ve never been timed out in a race before so it was a strange feeling but one that I have to accept. Had it not been for that simple mistake I’d have gotten around, probably last, but finished none the less. But this is why I love the trails, there’s a sense of adventure and jeopardy. Part of the race was bathed in sunshine and glorious views, the other half thick mist and cold temperatures. I’ll be back next year with the aim of being more competitive – but then again, I said that that last time I ran this race and ended up doing worse!
It was hot when I arrived at Keswick football club on Sunday morning – the type of heat you expect when you step off the plane upon arriving at your summer holiday destination. Stepping out of the air-conditioned car made it feel even more intense.
I’d arrived with the family in tow so they set off for a wander around Keswick while I made my way over to register for the race. The usual fell club vests were on display, hanging loosely from the skinny bodies of those whose playground the high fells of Cumbria belong.
I paid my £7 and went back to the car to get changed. I’d last run this race in 2015, in cooler conditions and had had a blast. For the unknowing, this is a fast out and back race up to the summit of Skiddaw, starting and finishing on the field between the football and cricket club of Keswick’s Fitz Park.
The race was due to start at 12:30 pm with around 100 runners gathered awaiting entry to the start pen following a very thorough kit check. It may have been hot with no chance of conditions changing but the organisers were fastidious in ensuring everyone was carrying the required kit set out in FRA rules.
Once everyone was checked in the start area and following a quick brief from the race organiser, we were off.
The pack spread quickly as the route snaked its way out of the park and up the lane towards the bridge crossing the A66. From here the gradient begins to steepen up through the woods. It was also nicely shaded here.
The path winds its way up out of the tree line to a car park at the foot of Skiddaw. From here the route hits the wide path that leads directly to the summit. A few little ups and downs the bang – straight on to the slope. The path steepens sharply as it zigzags its way up and mine, and everyone else’s pace drops dramatically.
It’s now hands on knees for the long slog to the top. There is no air; it’s hard to catch a breath. Sweat begins to pour off my head, into my eyes and off the end of my nose. I look up; I’ve not gone very far. Ahead of me, there are just headless bodies, everyone is doubled over marching their way up the hill with hands on their knees.
My breathing is swallowing, my legs are trembling and I’m having negative thoughts. I’m pretty sure I can’t make it to the top. The last time I was here was with Stuart Scott in November training for his BGR. It was cold, windy and covered in snow that time. What I’d have given for those conditions right now.
I pass two walkers (turns out it was Steph Piper) who shout encouragement and it gives me a temporary boost. Onward I march until eventually the gradient levels out enough to stand upright, catch a breath and break out into some kind of run once again.
Just as I’m approaching the gate at the foot of Skiddaw Little Man, the lead runner comes hurtling past on his way back down. He’s got a huge lead on the second place runner who also beats me to the gate.
Eventually, more runners come past on their way back down as I make my way to the final short sharp climb towards the summit plateau. It’s still hot but there’s a mild breeze blowing behind me, which helps a little as I make my way over the rocky path to the summit and turnaround point.
I’m greeted by two marshals, directed around the summit cairn and then it’s back the way I came off the mountain. The views are stunning and it’s hard not to gaze, but full concentration is needed to get back off quickly and safely – those rocks ready top trip you over at any time.
Slap, slap, slap go my feet as I try to make my way down the steep slopes quickly and efficiently. There’s a skill to downhill fell running, one that I think I’m fairly good at, but it takes a lot of concentration and nerves of steel to trust yourself and your foot placements. If only I could get up these hills quicker I’d have a fighting chance of being competitive.
The heat and my breathless assault to the top have left me exhausted so coming down is not done with my usual vigour. My thighs are burning and I’m struggling for breath. I pass some of the more cautious downhillers whilst those with more energy fly past me.
Eventually, I reach the bottom of the slope and have the run back through the car park and into the woods. This should be a relatively straightforward run back but I just haven’t got any energy left and the heat has taken its toll so my pace is slow as I make my way back to Fitz Park.
Finally, the finish field is in site and I cross the line and slump to the floor under the shade of the trees.
I check my watch for the first time during the whole race – 1hr59mins – 19 minutes slower than my previous effort. I knew this was going to be slow, given the heat, but I was disappointed at just how much slower it was. And so my struggles continue as I try and find some kind of form but I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I can take in a race with some real effort.
“Don’t you dare sit down,” barked my support runner Gary Thwaites as we reached the final checkpoint at the White Horse in Kilburn.
It was too late; I’d seen the chair and was in it before he’d finished the sentence. I’d come so far, it was so hot and I just needed a few minutes to regroup. I was miles behind my planned race times but knew I was still on track to finish comfortably within the 36hrs cut-off. I’d passed the magical 100-mile mark (102 miles with 10 more to go).
White Horse was a moment to reflect. I knew that this was the final stretch of a plan dating back years. I’d always thought of this moment from my first foray into the world of ultras, and in particular, Hardmoors ultras.
This was the race that I wanted but couldn’t get into my head the mentality needed to enter it. I’ve so much respect for everyone who attempts it – whether they enjoy success or fail – they put themselves on the line.
After years of running the Hardmoors 55 and 60 races, it was time for me to finally take on the challenge. Last year’s West Highland Way reduced my fear of the distance but at 16 miles longer, the Hardmoors 110 would represent and much sterner challenge.
Like all best-laid plans, training went a bit astray from March onwards. I was still putting the miles in but life had dealt me a crap hand, which left me with very little spare time to focus fully on the training I’d planned.
However, after all the months of training and planning, the day finally arrived.
I’d arranged a crack support crew of Gary Thwaites from the start in Filey to Saltburn, where he would hand over to the O’Neill gang for the night shift who would then hand back over to Gary and my wife from Osmotherley the next morning.
All my kit, food and drink supplies were packed neatly into boxes in the car, route instructions and a loose timetable were drawn up so all that was left was for me to get on the start line and fulfil my destiny (or dream, or madness).
The morning was cool and fresh, almost perfect for running as we gathered on Filey Brigg awaiting the countdown from Jon Steele. At 8:03 am we were off. I found myself, as I did at the Hardmoors 55, among the front-runners, so quickly found a space on the grass verge and let the faster runners stream past. There was a long way to go, so I didn’t want to get carried away.
The miles ticked by, and I chatted to a few people including James Campbell who looked in good shape and was plodding along at a good pace.
The first few miles gently rolled by towards Scarborough before dropping onto the seafront for around 2 miles of flat running to Scalby. Here I met Gary once more to fill bottles and grab some food before heading off for the long stretch to Ravenscar, the first major checkpoint.
I was enjoying the views looking north up the coast and yo-yoed with several groups of people along the way. The temperature was starting to rise slightly but I was fine with what I was wearing. The route drops into Hayburn Wyke where a diversion was in place following landslip earlier in the year. The diverted route, while a little longer, cut out the steep climbs and was a joy to run. It reminded me of Castle Eden Dene.
At Ravenscar the route heads up the hill to the village hall where the checkpoint was buzzing with runners and support crews. I took my time here to apply a liberal coating of Vaseline to my feet, which were starting to swell and rub in my shoes. I also took a bit of food and drink here but knew Gary was just down the road with my own supplies, so didn’t stay long.
On the way back to the Cleveland Way I passed Gary and grabbed a bit more food and refilled my bottles before setting off for Robin Hoods Bay.
This is a relatively short section and takes in some of the best parts of the route for views and little gems like Boggle Hole before dropping into Robin Hoods Bay.
It was on this stretch that I caught up with Lyndsey Van Der Blyth who was running the Hardmoors 160. She was smiley and chatty and seemed to completely defy the fact that she’d been running since the previous evening having set off from Sutton Bank along with 16 others. We chatted as we made our way up the steep road to the top of the bay and I felt inspired as we parted when I met Gary once more for a quick restock of fuel and drinks.
The next section gently rolled by towards Whitby. The temperature was starting to rise still and a pop-up water stop at Saltwick Bay caravan park was a welcome relief with its ice-cold water on offer.
Onwards I pushed into Whitby, which was as busy as ever. I ran down the 199 steps with no real problems and into the narrow street where everyone came to a halt. Someone had decided to park their car in the middle of the road and so no one could get past. After a few minutes of pushing and shoving I managed to break through only to turn onto the main road and find the bridge was closed to allow boats through. Once again I was held in the crowds and had to fight my way through once the bridge had reopened.
I made my way up past the Whale Bones where I heard the cheery voice of Dave Robson who was supporting another runner and then onwards to Sandsend for the next checkpoint at 36 miles. Here I took a bit of time to refuel and use the toilets before pressing on. From here the climbs up the cliffs get steeper and longer and start to take their toll on weary bodies but I still felt comfortable and was just about on target for times.
The next section rolled by to Runswick Bay but the climb down to the beach and back up to the checkpoint at the top of the car park is cruel. I pressed on to the next point of interest – Staithes. I was starting to feel a little ropey by the time I reached this lovely little fishing village and I met Gary who ran on ahead to the car to get some food and drinks prepared, along with a warm top as it was getting cooler on the cliffs. As I made my way up the final hill out of Staithes it happened. I was sick. I have a real problem with sickness in long races and it was back.
I met Gary feeling really sorry for myself and doubts had started creeping into my mind as to whether I could do this now. But I pushed on, the next section to Saltburn being rather tough taking in some of the highest east-facing cliffs in the UK.
I was sick a few more times but managed to keep moving at a fairly steady pace. My legs and body felt generally fine, I was just struggling to keep food and drink down.
I arrived in Saltburn around an hour behind my planned time but I wasn’t too worried about that. Here was where Gary would depart and the O’Neill’s would take over. It was great to see them and I spent a bit of time getting changed into clothes for the overnight section. I had some chips and a cup of tea, which were a struggle to get down but hit the spot.
Jen had decided to run with me from here to Slapeworth so we set off up the hill. I was feeling refreshed and revived at having changed and picking up the company but that all changed in an instant when I found myself back on my hands and knees being sick once more. The next few miles to Slapeworth were a drag and I was feeling really low.
At Slapeworth the crew was waiting once more, I was feeling dispirited but knew I had to keep going. I saw my poles by the side of the car so decided to take them. I think they would become my comfort blanket for the rest of the race. Jen was stopping here so that she could run the next section from Gribdale to Clay Bank so off I went on my own into the darkness of Guisborough Woods.
I know this section relatively well but the darkness coupled with a thick fog meant you could see no further than a few meters which made this a very difficult section. I was confident I knew where I was until I spotted a sign pointing down to the Tees Link footpath. I immediately cursed myself knowing I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and that meant a stiff climb back up to High Cliff Nab to get back on track.
Back on the right path, I made my way towards Roseberry Topping, for the out and back. It was a tough climb up and at least 10 people were on their way back down as I made my way up. I got the top where the marshal was buried deep inside a tent, which was being battered by the cold constant wind. I shouted my number and made a hasty retreat off.
I made my way to Gribdale where my crew were waiting for me. It had taken me a lot longer than expected but I was feeling much better now. Jen was ready to run so after a bit of a rest we set off up to Captain Cooks Monument and towards Kildale which we reached at around 2:50 am, about an hour and fifty minutes behind schedule but well within the cut-offs.
Kildale is a little oasis in these races, be it on the 110 or the 55, and Sue Jennings was there to welcome us in. I made the effort to have something to eat, pizza being the food of choice here, and took time to plaster Vaseline on my feet once more. It really was helping.
After nearly 20 minutes we set off for what is a mind-numbing section towards Bloworth Crossing. We made good steady progress up what is a long arduous climb on a bleak road to, well, nowhere! Marching, chatting, one foot in front of the other was the order of the day on this long section. Eventually, the track levels out as you reach the high point.
Along this section, we caught up with two guys who were running the 160 race together. They looked strong and again gave me a lift from their spirit and determination. As we headed towards Bloworth Jen noticed a pile of orange peels shaped into an arrow, then the words ‘Help yourself’ spelt out in stone to which someone had left a pile of oranges on a big rock. It’s little things like this that really do make you smile and the efforts that people go through to give you a bit of comfort never ceases to amaze me.
Onwards and upwards, we finally reached Bloworth Crossing and in the distance, to the east the sun was starting to rise which was showing us how beautiful it can be up here. I felt privileged to be running in such on such a beautiful morning in good company but also knew I had a long way to go and had better put a bit of pace into my legs.
Eventually, I reached Clay Bank at 5:41 am, 79 miles in. This is the start of probably the toughest section of the race over the ‘Three Sisters’, which include Wainstones. These were tough climbs but the views from the low hanging cloud and inversions took my mind of some of the pain. I was beginning to feel quite tired and was feeling the effects of a lack of food caused by my nausea.
I passed through Lord Stones Country Park and headed up the final steep climb of this section to Carlton Bank before the long downhill into Scugdale. It was getting warm now as the sun began to rise further and from here it was the long, but a relatively straightforward drag to Osmotherley Square Corner.
By the time I reached Osmotherley, the sun was beating down so I sent Jen to the shop for an ice-lolly. This lifted my spirits for a bit but I struggled on the final climb to Square Corner where my wife and daughter were waiting with Gary to take over for the final section. It was such a relief to get there. I was now 3hrs down on my plan but I didn’t care at all. This was 90 miles and I knew I had only 22 miles left to finish. My legs felt good but my depleted energy levels and the rising heat were starting to get to me.
After changing into a light t-shirt and shorts I said good-bye to the O’Neill’s and to Jen and set off on the final stretch with Gary who would run the last bit with me whilst my wife took up crew duties. Gary, for all his efforts, had probably the worst job of the day trying to keep me motivated over the 9 or so miles to the White Horse. He was patient with me as I huffed and puffed and generally ignored everything he said and ask me to do over this part of the race. (Sorry Gary).
Eventually, I reached Sutton Bank where my wife was waiting with the sun cream, which I so desperately needed now as the sun beat down on my exposed skin. I had all but 10 miles to go. I knew I had it done now, I knew I was going to finish, the question was, how quickly could Gary get me to the end?
The final part of the race is a meander through farms and villages on the way to Helmsley. Very easy running normally but I was happy to just keep plodding until finally, the castle appeared on the horizon.
I’d done it!
The final mile wormed its way into the village; I took a moment to touch the Cleveland Way marker (finally I’d conquered it), before making my way to the finish at the sports club. My daughter was there at the end but she quite clearly couldn’t decide if playing on the swings with her new found friends was more important than running the final few meters with me –typical!
After 34hr02mins, I crossed the finish line. It was the moment I’d waited for. It hadn’t gone the way I’d hoped, there’d been lots of ups and downs – quite literally – but I’d finished the race and at that point, my legs gave up and I lay on the ground in a warm glow of pride and muttered ‘never again’ (maybe!).
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.
What happened on the 17th March has put this race on another level in the ultra community and I’m sure its appeal will only grow as a result.
My legs feel like jelly…in fact they don’t feel like they’re mine anymore as I hit the road for the final chase into the finish. There’s a Keswick AC runner up ahead whom I’d eyed as a potential catch to gain a vital place in this short but incredibly tough little fell race but my legs have other ideas. My brain can’t decide what to do with them, they don’t feel real.
32 minutes earlier, I’d been on this path heading up the hill to the start of the off-road climb up Steel Fell. From the farmer’s field at West Head Farm just off the A591 beyond Thirlmere, over 70 runners gathered – Keswick, Ambleside, Helm Hill, Bowland and Kendal are some of the vests synonymous with fell running that are donning the mostly lithe, athletic and clearly fit for the fells, runners.
I stood cutting a lone figure in my purple Striders vest – the Lone Strider – tipping up for this summer fling as I happened to be on a week holiday in the area. The fee? free for 3 miles of fell running fun.
The premise of this race is easy – wheeze your way to the top of Steel Fell, run around the summit cairn then leg it as fast as you can back down the same way. How hard could that be?
With heads down and hands on knees we make our way up the steep slope on a beautiful summer evening. Every now and again I look up to see what progress I’m making and to see if the front runners are on their way back down yet – they’re not! How far is this race again? Surely they must be heading back, I’ve been climbing for what seems like ages!
Eventually I reach the plateau where the gradient levels off. Now I can see up ahead the summit cairn and turn around point. I can also see the front runners on their way back, they’re like gazelles leaping effortlessly across the rough ground.
With the field well stretched out now, I make my way slowly to the turn around point before the fun of the downhill starts. There’s about half a mile of easy running before the gradient drops. I run to this point, take a moment to savour the view of Thirlmere and the valley stretching out in the late evening sun, then, with a sharp intake of breath, hurl myself down the slope.
I’ve eyes on a couple of people who I think I can catch. My legs are pounding and arms are held aloft to keep balance as I pass two guys taking tentative steps. Then I spy another target, which I manage to take. My legs are really taking a battering now but there’s not far to go and I’m enjoying the experience.
Then up ahead is the Keswick runner, I think I might have this place but it’s going to be a battle. Back onto the road and the battle is lost before it begins. My only hope is no-one catches me from behind as I try to maintain my form for the final stretch to the finish.
Job done but my legs have took a serious battering from this little beauty of a race.
“I’m never running another ultra again,” I muttered to myself as I lay on the floor in the finish hall in Filey at the end of the Hardmoors 60 last September. Feeling totally exhausted and dejected after the wheels of my race fell off in spectacular fashion at Scalby, I’d decided that was enough and I wanted no further part in the activity.
But time is a great healer and before I knew it, I was entering the ballot for the West Highland Way race 2017 after being inspired by the BBC Adventure Show’s coverage of the 2016 race. I also managed to tempt my running partner in crime, Jen O’Neill into entering. With a place secured for both of us, all my focus was on this race alone and I knew I had to seriously improve my training if I was to complete and ultimately, enjoy this race.
But the West Highland Way is a race that comes with many conditions, one being the need for a support crew which is a massive commitment for anyone. I luckily was able to secure the services of Phil Owen whose experience of this race, both as a runner and support crew, would prove invaluable and a good friend who I going hiking with, Brian Shepherd.
As the race approached doubts about my ability started to creep in, a two day Lakeland 100 recce with Gary Thwaites at the beginning of June had me seriously doubting my ability and almost forced me to withdraw, but I stuck by and on Friday 23rd June I set off for the long journey to Scotland.
Arriving at Milngavie station car park was the first moment of real nervousness. I’d tried to sleep in the car on the way up but couldn’t. The car park was full and there was a real buzz around the place. I went to register, got my timing chip and the first of four weigh-ins and headed back to the car to change, eat and rest until the start of the race at 1am on the Saturday morning. This rest was disturbed when a slightly drunk women drove into the car park and hit mine and another car as she tried to park. Not a great way to relax for a big race like this.
As 1am approached I made my way to the start line at the underpass next to the station for the race brief and met up with Jen who was looking nervous and not confident given the huge problems she’s been having with her knee lately. Soon it was 1am and we were off, through the underpass, up a few stairs and along the High Street before turning off into the darkness of the trails.
The miles from Milngavie ticked by uneventfully, it was dark and the light from head torches stretched into the distance. I kept a steady pace, trying not to get too carried away and running too fast on the fairly flat trail. Before long we were at the first significant point on the route, Drymen where Phil and Brian were to meet. I didn’t hang around and made off again into the darkness.
Next few miles ticked over until day light broke as we approached Conic Hill, the first significant climb on the route, and provided us with expansive views of Loch Lomond below. The weather had been windy but mild, in fact almost perfect for running in, but the clouds hung low in the distance and looked ominous with the forecast for rain throughout the day. The big plus though was the dreaded Scottish midgies were kept at bay.
All too soon, after a steep drop off Conic Hill, Jen and I reached the first check point of Balmaha at 19 miles. Here we both had a quick refuel and toilet stop before setting off for the next section along the banks of Loch Lomond. The run out was good and the views were spectacular as the sun rose, but all too soon the trail got trickier and more technical to run. We made it to Rowardennan check point together for the first of two drop bag points. I had a square of sandwich and a Boost chocolate bar and we set off once more.
However, I could see my heart rate starting to creep up and was working hard to keep the pace so took the decision to drop back from Jen who was running strong. I really didn’t want to break my race at this point.
As Jen headed out of sight I made my way carefully along the banks of the loch to Inversnaid. This section was really tough and I was feeling tired having been up since 7am the previous morning. I took a moment to refill my water bottles before setting off for the next checkpoint where I would see Phil and Brian again, Beinglas Farm.
I made it in and learned Jen had put 15 minutes on me (she went on to have a storming race and finished in 23hrs51mins – 44th place). I was tired but feeling ok. After a quick sit down and being forced to eat a few fork fulls of Pot Noodle, I was off. From here to the next checkpoint was a bit of a blur but before long I was at Auchtertyre where I was weighed at the checkpoint, I’d lost nearly 3kgs but still within the safe limit. I then found Phil and sat in the car for a bite to eat and a nice cup of coffee and a rice pudding. All was good, I’d gone through a bit of a rough patch getting there but was feeling ok, then as I stood up to head off, I felt an awful sensation run over my body, then before I knew it I was on my hands and knees being sick. The coffee and rice making an unwelcome return.
I was devastated by this then I noticed the marshal from the checkpoint coming over and I feared my race was over. But she kindly offered me a wet wipe to freshen my face with, a cup of water from someone who was supporting another runner and a few words of encouragement from Phil and I was back on my way, I had 3 miles before I would see them again at Tyndrum.
At Tyndrum I met my support and they forced me to eat some pasta and soup but I was scared it might make me sick again. I had a little bit, but bizarrely, I really craved an ice-lolly so Brian went off to the shop and returned with a Calippo. I trudged out of the Tyndrum with my Calippo. I must have looked mental to the walkers coming past the other way as the weather had turned again and the wind and driving rain battered from the west. I didn’t really care as I ate it along with a few Shot Bloks and before long I was feeling ok again as the track stretched out ahead of me towards Bridge of Orchy.
Having found my rhythm again I was able to start running as the track was fairly flat and great for running on. Before long I was making great progress and came into Bridge of Orchy full of beans. Here I had a quick turn around and Phil sent me off up Jelly Baby Hill with a handful of Pringles and a sandwich.
Jelly Baby Hill gets its name from the Murdo who makes camp at the top of the hill and greets runners with good cheer and the offer of a Jelly Baby. The wind at the top was fierce and Murdo was camped firmly in his tent, only appearing when runners reached him before disappearing back to shelter. On my approach he came out, greeted by with a firm handshake and sent me off with lovely green Jelly Baby.
The path down the other side of the hill was very runnable but the wind was fierce and biting cold. Phil had opted to meet me on the road side at the bottom and I took the chance to have some food and make a full change of clothes including long leggings, a new top and OMM waterproof ready for the next section over Rannoch Moor as I knew it would be exposed and cold on this stretch. As I left I had a few more snacks and felt good to still be running, I’d passed 60 miles now, the furthest I’ve ran up to now so I was going into the unknown, but I felt good.
There was a long climb up onto the moor and the wind was really getting up but was manageable, but then as I approach the plateau, the wind really picked up and brought with it driving rain. It became really difficult to see as the rain swept across the open moor and the temperature plummeted. I made an effort to keep running as it was really getting cold and the wind was driving the rain hard. It seemed to take a long time to get across the moor but before long I was at Glencoe Ski Centre checkpoint.
I checked in and spotted my support car so made my way over looking to get full change and a hot drink as I was freezing and soaked through. But when I got to the car I realised they weren’t there, so I headed up to the ski centre where I found them about to settle into nice warm drinks. They were both surprised when I walked in as they thought it would have taken me longer to get there but as I explained to them the conditions and the fact that I’d pressed on they both sprang into action to fetch a change of clothes and Brian kindly gave me his cup of hot tea which went down a treat.
I spent the next hour here getting changed, warming through and having a small bite to eat as Phil changed having decided he would join me for the next section to Kinlochleven. All too soon we were back out in the cold and wet as we headed down the long path and up the valley to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase. This was a drag and I’d lost my momentum, the conditions I’d encountered up on Rannoch Moor had really demoralised me. We pressed on and started the relatively short but steep ascent of the Devil, I was really struggling now and more competitors started catching me on this climb.
Each step felt heavy but then I spotted a sign saying ‘Shop 500 metres’. Was I hallucinating? was this some kind of sick joke? We pressed on and eventually another sign read ‘Shop 100 metres’ and then another at 50 metres. I was really struggling with reality then all of a sudden at the top of the staircase were two bright yellow tents stacked with goodies and cans of pop along with an honesty box. This was a tremendous gesture by someone and I’d have loved a can of Iron-Bru that was on offer but neither me or Phil had any cash on us so we pressed on.
The path down to Kinlochleven was long, gnarly and steep making it difficult to get any kind of momentum. In the foot of the valley we could see our destination but it seemed to take a long time to reach it as we passed through the forested hillside and across various streams and by a dam which was in full flow. It was now around 10:30pm but still light enough to see as he reached the village and made our way to the checkpoint which was a welcome relief.
At the checkpoint I was weighed once again and Brian was there with hot drinks and the bag full of food and treats. I have to admit I was seriously flagging now, shear tiredness was really taking its toll. Once more after what felt only a few moments it was time to head off for the last 15 miles to the finish. I knew I’d cracked it but still had a long way to go over what was probably the roughest part of the race, and it was now pitch black.
Phil continued with me for this last section as we made our way up the long climb out of Kinlochleven. On this climb we passed a guy sitting dejected, with his crew partner, he’d decided to call it a day. He simply had nothing left to give, such shame to see so close to the end but it made me more determined to finish than ever. We pressed on into the darkness. The next hour or so was a steady climb until we reached Lundavra where a marshal team were out and their Saltire flags being stretched in the howling wind. They had a table laid with various fizzy drinks. A cup of Iron-Bru was so welcoming as I sat for a few moments to gather myself.
Pressing on, the track for the next few miles began to resemble a river, it got pointless trying to find a dry line as there was so much water. The darkness was disorientating but I followed Phil’s lines. Soon we hit the forest, or at least what used to be forest but work to clear this had torn he paths up making it awful to cross. It was at this point that Phil took a tumble, (in my sleep deprived state, this is how I remember it, Phil believes I’m over playing it!) heading head first off the side of the path down the steep side of the valley. It was terrifying to see he fall but he managed to save himself and clamber back onto the path. Then as he brushed himself down, I couldn’t help but laugh, childish I know, but I couldn’t help it.
Anyway, with Phil back up and running we pressed on. It was starting to get light again as we made the final little climb out of the forest and onto the fire road for the final 3 miles. The path was steep and we briefly broke out into a trot but I had a stitch so settled for a fast paced walk. Since Kinlochleven, we’d been trading places with various people along the way, up ahead were two runners that had passed when we had a short stop at the final checkpoint. We caught and passed them once again, then a group of around four runners passed us.
As the gradient shallowed I looked at my watch for the first time in a long time, It was after 4am, I was still moving well and though that I had a chance to get back in under 28hrs. This was the only point in the whole race where time became important and I made the decision to try and press on and get to the finish as quickly as possible.
Just as I dropped onto the road heading into Fort William, Phil took a toilet stop, I pressed on thinking he would catch up. As I ran along the roadside I realised I was gaining quickly on two people up ahead and soon I was alongside them as we ran into Fort William.
The group of four were now just ahead and I laid down the challenge to the runners I was with to catch them, so we upped the pace and soon were alongside them. Now, the leisure centre and the finish line came into view and I’m not sure who began it, but all of a sudden we were racing to the finish line.
It felt fantastic to be racing for this final 200 metres, four competitors battling for position at the end of nearly 28hrs on our feet in dire conditions. I finished in a very respectable 102nd place in 27hrs41mins.
After a few hours sleep we headed over to the Nevis Centre for 12pm and what is a truly unique prize giving. Nearly every competitor turns up and is individually presented with their crystal goblet in order of their finish position. I must admit I felt on top of the world going out to collect mine, it was a very proud moment. Even more special is the tradition that the person who came first presents the final finisher with their goblet. This went to a lady who showed true spirit and finished a mere 20 mins before the final cut-off and presentation to rapturous applause.
On reflection I learnt a lot from the experience. Yes, I could have trained better, yes I could have spent less time at checkpoints, I most definitely need to learn how to eat better on big runs but none of those things matter if, especially in this race, you don’t have a good support crew. I’ve never really appreciated how important a support crew is. Phil’s experience really helped and Brian’s commitment to the full weekend ensured I made the start line. Both waited on me hand and foot, made me eat when I didn’t want to and encouraged me to keep going during low points and I will be eternally grateful to them both. At the time I said I’d never do the race again, but writing this report has me thinking that I may have unfinished business, 2018 might be a possibility!
I’d had my eye on the TdH for a while having been inspired by Geoff and Tom’s race reports over previous years but never thought I’d be capable of running.
This race, a self supporting, self navigation 38 mile race around Helvellyn, is held on the weekend closest to the shortest day of the year and is a bit of a beast to say the least and as their website suggests – it’s not one for novices!
So with that in the back of my mind I’d stayed away from it until this year when I threw caution to the wind and decided to enter, on the basis that there were a good number of other Striders taking it on. But alas, I was too late, the entry limit had been reached. I placed my name on the waiting list but didn’t expect to get in, in fact, I was quite relieved in one sense as I still wasn’t sure if I was capable of running it.
But then I got an email inviting me to take a place and I was in.
Race day was Saturday 17th December, but I’d chosen to stay over the night before at Askham community centre, the race HQ. £5 for a place on the floor with around 100 other runners – not for the faint hearted either it seems. I’d even forgone my works xmas night out in Newcastle, I must be mad.
In Askham I met up with Mandy, Juliet and Scott Watson who were also running, in the pub for a really nice meal. If anybody thinks Scott is not eating enough then you would have been surprised to see him tackle the most amazing array of desserts that were on offer.
Scott and I were both staying at the hall, Mandy and Juliet had opted for the comfort of a hotel, although not the one they’d thought. I slept ok but it was punctuated by snoring and someone having nightmares and shouting out in his sleep.
At 5am, we were pretty much all woken by the race organisers (Nav4) getting ready to open the registration and cook breakfast.
I got ready as more and more people arrived and the hall got fuller, busier and louder. Striders for the day were Geoff Davies, David Gibson, Mike Hughes, Mandy, Juliet, and Scott.
This race is more of a time trial and runners can start anytime between 7am and 9am. I’d decided to set off around 7:30am but so had most of the other runners so getting through the thorough kit check took a while.
I was going to run with Mike and David for a long as possible and thought they’d already gone through check so I dashed out and caught up with Geoff who’d left just ahead of me, but turned out Mike and David were still not out of the hall so I stopped and waited for them.
The morning light was just breaking and a bright moon shone as we set off over Askham Moor, the conditions were cold but as good as you could wish for.
Mike and David set the pace, I followed on behind trying to maintain a good pace but not get left too far behind.
The first few miles breezed by across the moor as I kept check on my map to ensure I had an idea of where I was going on the return leg later in the evening.
The race allows you to make your own route choices so long as they’re legal, and you get to the next checkpoint within the timeframes. Our first decision was to take a low route through Howtown to the first self clip checkpoint at Martindale Church. It seemed to work as people who were ahead were now behind. From here it was a long slog up Boardale Hause before a steep but thrilling decent down into Patterdale and the next checkpoint at Side Farm.
We stopped here for a quick refuel and refill of water bottles before setting off for the run to Glenridding. Just as we were heading out on to the road side, Scott caught us up, looking very cheery. He’d left Askham some time after us but had made good progress in the first 10 miles and looked strong as he took off into the distance.
This section marks the start of the long climb up to Sticks Pass just under Helvellyn. There’s a long zig-zag path up to the old mines, some chose to follow it, we decided to cut straight up.
Before long, we were at the quarry and had caught Mandy and Juliet who had set off around 30 mins ahead of us. We ran with them up to Sticks Pass when we were joined by Geoff who we must have passed at some point on the way up. We all ran down the steep valley side to the next checkpoint 4 near Stannah Beck. I particularly liked this decent as it had long, grassy sweeps that were good for running on.
At the bottom we made our way to the next checkpoint at Swirls Car Park where we could top up water bottles and get some food. We didn’t hang around long as we set off on the long meandering path towards Dumnail Raise. The run along the valley was brilliant and the conditions made for a stunning cloud inversion in the distance.
As we reached the foot of Dumnail Raise, we turned and made our way up the steep sides of the beck that was flowing. I started to suffer a bit here and was powerless to keep up as Geoff, David and Mike pulled away. I decided there was no point in trying to keep their pace as cramp took hold making it difficult for me to run across the mix of bog and rocky ground as we skirted Grizedale Tarn to make the long decent back to Patterdale.
With Mike and co, now out of sight, I resigned myself to finishing the race on my own, but still hoped to get back before dark. I reached Side Farm for the to find them still there so quickly grabbed a cup of tea and a light snack before following them out for the tough ascent back up Boardale Hause. But I should really have stayed longer at the checkpoint and recovered a bit more as I found the climb difficult and just couldn’t keep up with them.
Out of sight again, I pressed on at my own pace which was a mix of walking and shuffling. I wasn’t too worried as I was still moving at a good pace but was conscious it was soon to get dark. My main worry about this race had been getting lost in the dark going back over Askham Moor.
I pressed on reversing the route I’d ran earlier that day. Dusk was falling as I reached the stone circle known as the Cockpit. This was significant as it’s here that many runners often go astray. With still enough day light I was able to pick the right line just as Mandy and Juliet came running past. They were looking strong and focused, so much so that they didn’t even notice me.
I maintained my own pace and my own line. Soon it was dark and I had no choice but to put on my head torch for the final mile and a half. across the rough ground I’d chosen.
Before long the lights of Askham appeared and after what seemed an eternity I made it back to the warmth of the Community Centre for the finish.
There was a lively buzz in the room as I walked in. I was exhausted but elated to have finished such a fantastic race. I’ll definitely be back next year but hopefully finish feeling stronger although I doubt conditions will be as favourable.
I’d battled with myself as to whether to enter this race for a while then late on Friday afternoon, race organiser Garry Scott posted a video on the Trail Outlaws Facebook page from a very snowy Cheviot summit. By the time the video had finished my mind was made up, I was in and luckily just in time as entries would close very shortly after.
So forward to Sunday and I left the warmth of my bed and headed up to Wooler for the Wooler Trail Marathon organised by Tim Bateson and Garry Scott of Trail Outlaws. I first met Tim a few years ago on a recce of the Hardmoors 55 and kept in touch ever since as he’s grown Trail Outlaws. I ran their first ever race the Pieces of 8 half marathon, but since then the races have grown to include several ultras and marathons across the north east and Northumberland. Tim’s a great guy and his passion for running and in particular, the Chevy Chase fell race held each summer in Wooler, being the inspiration for this particular race.
Registration was in Wooler YHA and was quick and efficient although I did get there rather early just to be sure. As more runners arrived I spotted Dougie Nisbet who was also running the marathon and had a quick chat before making my way out into the cold for the race safety briefing before we were led over to the start line just over the hill for the race start.
Taking in much of the first part of the Chevy Chase, the Wooler Trail Marathon snakes its way through the valley to the base of the Cheviot before a long climb to the summit. Race day was cold but could have been a lot worse, and thankfully the low temperatures meant that the ground was pretty much frozen solid which made for good running.
Onwards and upwards towards the summit the field of 140+ runners was well stretched now. I’d started from mid-pack and took it easy, running at a pace that felt very comfortable across the undulating trails knowing that if I set off too fast, I’d suffer badly at the end.
As I trudged up the long frozen path to the summit of the Cheviot I passed a few other competitors but was conscious to maintain my pace so that I never felt like I was working too hard as gradient rose above the low cloud line and the perma-frost turned to snow and ice on the ground. Near the summit a hardy marshal was stood to make sure runners were ok and guide us up over the ladder stile and on to the slab path heading to the summit. The summit of Cheviot is big and flat and the low cloud and snow covered floor blurred together to hide any visual cues that helped you identity you were approaching the top. Then after a few minutes of running the large summit cairn came into view. I touched and then was off, following the treacherous slab path of the Pennine Way off the summit and down towards the check point being manned by Phil Owen.
I gained quite a few places on the long downhill as others cautiously made their way down the frozen trail paths. I found it much quicker, and safer, to find a line in the overgrowth, let loose and put faith in my Walshes and balance. It worked and I made good progress and the race now followed the trails of the Pennine Way before heading across the border into Scotland.
A sharp turn brought us off the Pennine Way and back across the border into England onto the St Cuthbert’s Way long distance path. Back on lower ground below the cloud line the scenery was jaw dropping as I took time to savour where I was running.
As the route snaked its way back towards Wooler there were still plenty of twists, turns, climbs and surprises on offer, the trail through a dense wood at around 18 miles being rather inspiring. I was still running well and feeling really good but know these races too well to get carried away – there’s always a sting in the tail on something like this. Because of my very late entry, I’d not noticed that this race was actually 28 miles so on approaching the final climb of the day I had in my mind there were only a few more miles left to go. I made the decision to push on a little as I could see a couple of runners ahead of me that seemed to be slowing so thought I’d try catching them. I made good ground and could feel my heart and lungs really starting to work hard as I picked up the pace and eventually with Wooler in sight, I realised I might have further to go than I thought. The runners I was tracking were soon out of sight as I hit the road for the final mile back to the YHA feeling tired but strong and with a massive smile on my face at the quality of the course I’d just completed.
The finish was inside the hostel, I was given my time – 5hrs40mins finishing in 32nd place. The t-shirt and medal were well earned and the kitchen was stocked with loads of hot soup and bread to help warm up.
This was a fantastic first race with lots of potential to become a real winter classic. I take my hat off to Tim and Scott for devising such a good route.
By chance I happened to be checking my emails one afternoon when one popped up from Jacquie Robson that there might be places available to club members for the Great North Run on a first come first served basis. A very quick reply and I was in.
This would be my first road half marathon since the last time I ran it in 2012 so I was hoping for some sort of improvement. I put a lot of focus into speed training, turning up for Alan’s track sessions when I could but also needed to keep my weekly mileage as high as possible as I would be running the Hardmoors 60 a week after the GNR.
On race day I travelled up to Newcastle with my brother, who’d done all of a bout 5 training runs ahead of this. He was looking to just get from Newcastle to South Shields without being sick. Although there was never any danger of him beating me, I still wanted to put in a good performance over him (brotherly love and all that!).
As we travelled on the Metro to the start I explained the nuances of the course and how he should attack it – don’t charge off like a madman at the start being the main focus of my advice.
Having explained this tactic to my brother, it was down to me to take my own advice, and as the start approached it was hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere. Love it or hate it, there is a really special atmosphere generated at this race.
Once the race started I had no trouble staying at a steady pace, but found it difficult to not weave in and out of people so on occasions I found myself running at a slower pace than I would have liked. But I wasn’t worried about this, I was moving along comfortably and passing over the Tyne Bridge is always a highlight.
Then it was the tough part in my eyes – the climb up the A184 to Heworth and White Mare Pool. This takes me past my office so I know it well. I kept a steady pace and tried not to stumble on people ahead.
As I approached the halfway mark I was still running slightly slower than I would have like but still at a good pace and feeling really comfortable.
As the race progressed towards South Shields it was good to get the support of the crowds and hear the various bands playing.
Miles 10 to 12 are always tough with the steady climb towards the coast, and as I approached the top of the hill just before the roundabout I was greeted with cheers from the Waltons. They gave me a much needed boost but Graham’s shout of “Paul (Swinburne) is just ahead” gave me an incentive to push on.
As I looked up I could see Paul around 200/300 meters ahead so it was my challenge to try and wheel him in before the end. With my mind focused I hit the final mile along the coast feeling exhausted but determined to finish strongly.
The crowds are brilliant along this stretch and really help to push you on. I managed to overhaul Paul and finished with a time of 1:36:54, a good 6 minute improvement on my last outing. It wasn’t quite the 1:35 that I’d have liked but never the less I was happy and with the Hardmoors 60 the following week on my mind, I didn’t go flat out to get it.
After congratulating Paul and letting him know how he’d helped me in the final mile (he gave some excuse about cycling 60 miles the previous day!) I went of to find my wife and daughter and then waited to see if my brother would make it in. I finally spotted him at the 12 mile mark, red faced but looking focused to finish in 2hrs20mins. Not bad for a fat lad (his words).