Category: Members’ posts (Page 1 of 3)

The 2021 Dragon’s Back Race : A volunteer’s view

I first came across the Dragon’s Back Race (DBR) through Vassos Alexander’s book: Running Up That Hill: The highs and lows of going that bit further in which he described this absolute monster. I’d not been running regularly for long at the time, and had only just started to leave the tarmac, so it was certainly something I viewed in disbelief.

Over the next few months, I seemed to have a flurry of DBR accounts, videos and marketing thrown my way. The joys of the internet and its algorithms perhaps. At that point, I clocked that the race began in Conwy, where my parents had moved to once I’d flown the nest for university. This made me turn my head and notice. But still, I continued to view it with disbelief and awe.

However, as is the case with these silly races, the notion that this was in effect a “local” race was something I couldn’t get out of my head, and it started to become something I referred to as a “one day, perhaps” bucket list item.

The mistake I made was mentioning it to a friend at work, who quite fancied the idea of doing it himself, and evidently brought it up enough for me to say, “OK, I’ll have a crack in three years”. This led me to fill out a volunteer application for the race and not long after to receive an email to say that I had been successful. For context, I had said that I would look to volunteer before attempting because a) I’d gain invaluable insight from the week and, given I’m an adopted Yorkshireman, b) you get a free entry to use within the following two years.

“Things are now in motion that cannot be undone” – Gandalf.

So that is how I came to find myself stumbling over to Conwy School the Saturday morning before the race start on the Monday, looking bleary-eyed and wondering what I had signed up for.

The DBR bills itself as “The World’s Toughest Mountain Race”. It’s 380km across six days, with 17,400m of climb, across the spine of Wales from Conwy to Cardiff. I kept thinking: if it’s that tough for the competitors I can’t imagine it’s going to be a breeze for the crew either.

I’d been informed that I would be on the “Main Camp Team”. From watching enough documentaries of the race, I knew this would, at a minimum, involve putting up and taking down around 40 or more eight-person tents each day (it turned out to be 56). Back-testing stuff.

The weekend before the race start consisted of team inductions and instructions: everything from dos and don’ts for the week, to how to put up a Berghaus eight-person tent; and, most importantly, registration of the 360-odd participants of this year’s DBR, fewer than usual due to the pandemic.

Registration

Where the day before had felt slower paced, with team introductions and rules and regulations, the Sunday suddenly saw the whole crew sprang into action. The tent was transformed with impressive large screens showcasing DBR videos and various pictures of winners and participants from years gone by. 

Then, before I knew it, runners started arriving. As you’d expect, this really gets the excitement and nerves going, which you could see across both participants and crew – it all started to feel quite real.

I, along with a happy fellow Yorkshireman, and hopefully future NLFR member, called Will, found ourselves initially tasked with weighing participants’ dry bags, of which they were each allowed a large overnight 60L bag and a smaller 15L day bag. These were to (strictly) weigh no more than 15kg and 2.5kg respectively.

It was clear that keeping under these weight limits, for some at least, had been no easy task. The look of dread on many runners’ faces approaching me, bags in hand, had me wondering if this was the environment a Weight Watchers session housed week in week out. The look of despondency on their faces on being told they were over the limit, very much so in a couple of instances, brought an equally apologetic one from myself and Will. And so would commence the chaos of tipping out odds and sods to try and figure out what item(s) would amount to the offending weight.

Tragically, though somewhat thankfully, given the growing heat in the marquee, we were told that the scales we were using were giving different readings to the final weigh-ins at bag drop off and were consequently relieved of our duties.

Our new responsibility then turned to meet and greet at the front of the marquee, welcoming and directing the sudden influx of hundreds of runners who’d arrived on coaches from Cardiff, ensuring they moved along in an orderly fashion.

I enjoyed this new task as it gave me the chance to speak to many an aspiring dragon slayer as they queued up. It’s safe to say there was a range of different runners with mixed experience, from those who’d hardly run in the mountains, to seasoned mountain goats with a steely, determined look in their eye. In my excitement of recognising him, I couldn’t resist the urge to say hello to Steve Birkinshaw and letting him know I am currently reading his book. Far too fanboyish, but oh well. Then suddenly registration was done. The runners were briefed, fed and ready for bed.

Monday morning was an early start for all, but the enthusiasm in the air was palpable. As with any race start line, there were runners doing last-minute stretches and scurrying around looking for mandatory kit they’d misplaced. By and large though, there were smiles all around, the mix of relief and excitement that only comes from runners who are finally about to be let loose out of weeks of tapering.

Sadly, another casualty of COVID was the lack of choir to sing at the start line,  usual DBR feature, but given the past 18 months, it was going to take a lot more to dampen the mood. I was in awe of the speedsters at the front – Kim Collinson and Marcus Scotney stood out to me in particular – with their steely mountain legs. Then suddenly the countdown began and they were off!

The Race

As the runners proceeded along the castle walls up towards Conwy Mountain, the crew made their way back to the registration base to take down tents and load up the final pieces onto the convoy, a fleet of 60 vehicles.

The journey to the first overnight camp offered the chance to familiarise with those we would be sharing a vehicle with for the week. By luck or by design, though I’m confident it’s the latter, everyone across the crew, including those in the vehicle I was in, were friendly, enthusiastic and hardy. As the week went on you would find out more and more hidden gems about each other’s background, from impressive endurance track records to aspirations for setting astounding new ones.

Overnight camp one (based at Gwastadannas) is in a stunning setting, with imposing mountains overlooking the site, and refreshing neighbouring streams flowing into Llyn Gwynant.I say refreshing as the early morning mist and gloom had lifted to give rise to a sunny day. At ground level, it was ideal, neither too hot nor too cold, but you could see how piercing the sun was if you were on the tops, particularly the last section running the Snowdon horseshoe.

And so began the chaos of putting up 56 tents. Thankfully, they were air tents so there wasn’t the usual mayhem that comes with fitting poles. However, 56 tents are no easy work, and I say that knowing that there were 365 poor souls soldiering across some of Wales’s toughest mountains. I won’t labour the point, but it’s not until you’re faced with the prospect, that you realise the thought and effort that goes into ensuring the tents fit the field, aren’t too close to the toilets, are correctly put up and ordered and 101 other things I’ve since forgotten.

Whilst we continued erecting the tents, news dribbled through that some well-known names – Scotney, Collinson and Berkinshaw – had withdrawn due to injury. That left two Welsh lads – Simon Roberts and Russell Bentley – leading the race.

Once the tents were up, the Main Camp team awaited the first runners in. The team had been split into two – early birds and night owls – depending on the shift you would do. The role was to greet runners as they came in, source and carry their overnight bag to their tent, and check that they were OK. As I was on lates for the week, I decided to mill about my tent for a time. As this was next to a stream, it meant I could chat to some of the runners as they came in and beelined to the water to cool down. There was quite a range in the state of the runners – from Russell Bentley who looked as fresh as a cucumber and happy to make conversation as he cooled down, Katie Mills (leading woman) who was full of beans and possibly the happiest person on-site during the whole week, to runners who had clearly found day one a gruelling battle in the heat. 

When it was my turn to bring runners their drop bags, I was raring to go, excited to hear how they had found the day. Though many arrived looking somewhat battered, by in large there were smiles across the board, the satisfying sort that comes at the end of a long day in the mountains.

As the night went on and the cut off time of 22:00 loomed, the mood changed more to relief at having made it in time. You could see the final descent from the camp, with the line of torchlights making their way down from the top, allowing us a best guess of which runners were likely to make it in time. I found it quite sombre to see the lights in the distance, knowing there was next to no chance they would make it in time.

The clock ticked past 22:00 and that was it, any further participants were no longer in the race. I collected the bag of the next runner (who was one minute late) and tried to offer my condolences as he was in a desolate mood. It had been a brutal first day, with roughly a third of the field not making it through.

And that was largely how the week continued to go. We would rise early, take down the tents and pack everything into vans, make our way to the next site, and set up as quickly as we could ahead of the arriving runners. Day one’s heat had nothing on day two, which was a real scorcher and saw the field culled even further. The third was a lot kinder in terms of temperature, and by in large those that made it through that day went on to complete. Days four and five saw the weather flip on its head, with rain, the threat of thunder and changing visibility.

This year, Race Director Shane Ohly had amended the route to include a sixth day, enabling it to become a coast-to-coast race finishing at Cardiff Castle. On arriving, much of the branding and marquees had already been set up and it was an impressive sight to see. It was somewhat surreal pitching up my tent in the heart of the castle grounds. The setting looked fantastic and worth the added day (admittedly that’s easy to say when you haven’t run from Conwy).

Then before I knew it, the first runners had arrived – Simon and Russel – still holding an impressive pace at this final stage, followed by a steady stream of happy and relieved faces. The atmosphere was joyous and complimented by an idyllic sunny day to reflect the mood. 

The presentation of trophies then got underway, with many a sore (but beaming) finisher limping their way to the stage to collect their deserved prize. Once the winners had received theirs, everyone funnelled out to the finish line to eagerly await the final runner, who was greeted with resounding applause and handed his dragon trophy by the first male (Simon Roberts) and first female (Katie Mills) – fun fact: the last DBR finisher receives the largest, and perhaps most impressive, trophy of all. And just like that, the 2021 Dragon’s Back Race was finished.

All in all, it was a fantastic week filled with great people and lots of fun. Shane clearly knows what he’s doing and puts on a great race. I would recommend volunteering at an Ourea Events race to anyone.

So now it’s time to start the long process of getting my injury-ridden body to the start line in a couple of years. I’m under no illusion that the race doesn’t live up to its name in terms of toughness, but in any case, the hourglass has been turned and the countdown clock on my free entry has begun. But to quote Tolkien again: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him”.

Phil Davies

Learning How to Fell Race at Ilkley Moor

“Text me when you’ve finished, so I know you’ve not had a heart attack,” says my mum, as I give her a call and mention my plans for Sunday afternoon.

On the face of it, I can see why running a fell race seems like a really odd – and potentially heart-wrecking – way to spend your Sunday mid-morning. I mean, most people actively try and avoid hills when they run. As far as I can tell Ilkley Moor Fell Race has been designed to cram as many ups as possible into five miles, and somehow not that many downs.

It’s not like I went into it completely naively. Back in early August one of our club runs turned into a recce of the course. Lining up to race I couldn’t really remember that much of it. But I could remember a lot of climbing and a lot of bracken.

The whole fell running thing is still quite new to me. I’ve spent plenty of time legging it up and down the hills of the Meanwood Valley Trail and Leeds Country Way, but only joined North Leeds in July and am very much still finding my climbing (and my pegging it downhill without worrying I’m going to fall over) legs.

The fell racing thing is brand new. So much that I ask a few anxious questions on Facebook before. “How early should I turn up?”  “Where do I park?” That kind of stuff.

The mandatory kit thing sends me in a bit of a spiral. “Kids, do either of you have a whistle?” (I found one woven into my hydration pack and cut it off.) The printer jams and I need a copy of the map (which then spends the entire race tucked in a pocket slowly soaking up sweat). Hang on did the FRA guidelines really say “fatalities”?!

It turns out the whole thing is thankfully pretty low-key. A van and some caution tape make up the registration point (as well as the spot where post-run result print-offs will tell me the pleasant news that I finished 42nd). Groups of people jog up and down the hill to warm up.

We gradually make our way to the start. We’re warned of overgrown paths but compared to the positively jungle-like recce we’d done the month before, this time it was like running along a motorway. The one thing I’d heard repeatedly was that the race starts with a bit of a bottleneck. But despite knowing this, I lack the necessary guile to shimmy and sneak my way forward from the off. Eventually though, over-taking opportunities present themselves and I’m happily inching my way forwards.

A lot of race reports I’ve read talk about specific climbs or descents. I can’t do that here because a) I’m new to these places, so I don’t know the names of most of the hills, rocks and way-markers; and b) the exertion required means a lot of it all seems quite fuzzy even if I did.

What I do know is that racing up and down hills is pretty different from taking a club run up and down the very same hills. What I hadn’t really considered was that the aforementioned club run recce had included a fair amount of standing, waiting and catching my breath at the top of each hill. The race – obviously – didn’t. Well, not once we’d got started anyway.

As we hit the first proper climb, I start to feel disgruntled at the line of racers walking upwards, and am impatient to keep going at a pace. I’m less than halfway up before I realise I was being foolish. By the third and fourth big climbs I’m positively grateful each time the person ahead slows down and grimace as they pick up pace and I feel the need to keep up.

I see a few people trip, fall, and swear loudly. Most quickly pick themselves up and keep going. A few take a while longer. I’m pleased to see their fellow runners stop and check they’re ok.

I – more than once – wonder why I decided to do this. I glance at my watch. Not yet halfway. I start to feel a stitch. I never get stitches. My heart is really thumping. My mum was joking about the heart attack. Right?

At some point – around mile three – the big climbs stop. “I’m pretty sure this is the last one,” I say to the runner just behind me, hoping I’m right.

I am. And it does get easier from there. By this point the pack has thinned out and I find myself trailing behind clubmate Garry, and this is pretty much where I remain for the last two miles or so.

Both images by Dom Nurse

The final descents feel positively blissful after so much climbing. Though I can’t quite activate “brakes off, brain off” mode yet – and as I try to control my descent I see Garry vanish into the distance – having gravity on my side, and the space to open up the legs and run, feels amazing.

My finish is non-dramatic. Not close enough to chase anyone down, no-one close enough to chase me down. The finish itself is as low-key as the start. A few claps, some electronic thingies to run over and make beep (for the timing chip), a bottle of water and some post-race chat and more clapping for those still finishing.

And there I am, first fell race done, feeling utterly exhausted, and very pleased with myself.

My thoughts turn to other races I’ve seen club-mates do on Strava. Races that go further, climb higher. How do they do it? I begin to wonder. And then I realise that just two months ago, the idea of running a race like this would have felt barely possible. So the only way to find out how they do it is to try it myself.

But first, I have to text my mum. “I survived”, I write to her, as I climb into the car to drive home.

Tom Goodhand

Kettlewell : A marshal’s eye-view

I have been training for marshalling for a few years now; standing around and staring into the distance is something I am particularly good at. I can also clap and say “well done” a lot. Marshalling duties started with meeting the ‘Kettlewell Anniversary Advanced Party’ (Mike A, Dave M, Ice Cream and Flap Jack) in the afternoon so that so we could flag the course. Given the amount of tape we used we were preparing for visibility of about 10m: it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Mike also used ducks on makeshift posts, because…well, because he is Mike and to be honest this seems to be one of the less strange things that goes on in his head (see ‘sharks’ later). Also, when I say we flagged the whole route, what I mean by that is, Dave M, Mike A and I set off up to the top of the hill, they carried on down the hill on the other side, whereas I went across the top of the hill and started flagging the (what I hoped was the correct) course for the final descent (I think we are building up a picture of why I like marshalling and not ‘racing’). The Kettlewell Anniversary Advanced Party, minus the ice cream and flapjacks, reconvened near the farm on the hill overlooking the field that seemed to have all the local moors allocation of sheep in. Turns out this was true; however, they were all to be released from the field prior to the race starting. We flagged the rest of the course together and returned to race HQ. By this point Adam, Richard F, Rose, Neil, Dom and many other people, had arrived and were setting up registration. After standing around and watching other people work, and about 30 minutes before the race started, I headed back off up the hill with the other marshals. Incidentally, the Scottish (midges) had started their invasion of England: specifically, the lowlands of Kettlewell.

Most of us walked up the hill together, repeatedly asking how Will broke his neck, and admiring his dedication to the course (come on, a pun is a pun, no matter how serious the bone-breakage is). There were some keenos though, the Checkpoint 2 crew, one of which was Helen, who ran to their marshalling post on the far side of the hill. It is this kind of ‘swottiness’ though that won her and her teammate the women’s pairs category at an orienteering event…which definitely existed alongside the male categories (it didn’t), and this isn’t a political statement (it is), and I am most definitely not digressing (I am). Incidentally, Dom was meant to go to checkpoint 2 as well with Helen & Co, but he had already used up his allocated injury-free month for this year, so instead he organised us from the midge zone.

As we headed up, the cloud-base was starting to lower; all that red tape may come in handy after all. People were ‘dropped off’ at their marshalling (in some cases, midge food) posts as we walked by; first to go was Sharon and her dog. I didn’t see her after the race but assume she wasn’t eaten alive. Then Arran, Will, me, and finally Ian arrived at ours. Leaving Will was devastating as he had a chocolate orange, and he was happy to share it. Once in position, we all realised that we had set off way to early and wondered around in small circles until our first runners come through. I knew when they were about to come past Ian as I could hear him prevent any short cuts by asking the runners to “go around the finger post and the turn right”. This, and one marshal’s booming clapping (the equivalent of Brian Blessed talking), was the soundtrack for the next hour or so.

Watching the first runners is always impressive, they always look like they are putting limited effort in, just bobbing along in the hills. Except there are two running along with sharks (Sarah McCormack and Joe Baxter); they took these off Dave M just after the hill in an exchange for tasty headache material. The rest of the runners came through and for the most part everyone looked happy, even the guy who had rolled his ankle and had a limp. Heading up the very back of the field, doing the equally great job of sweeping, where you run, but you are not allowed to overtake are Amanda S and Neil W. Once they go by, we can all go down the hill and get a pint. We see Richard F, Adam N and Mike A completely covered in future bites. This does not bode well for the pub. Indeed, Smidge failed us, with the Scots winning the battle after our pathetic, futile attempt at trying to sit it out for just one pint. I momentarily dream of the gin I could have won if I wasn’t me and could race men carrying sharks. I remember there is gin at home. I find Mark, who is excited to have done his first fell race, and we go home.

I think I have dragged this “we went up the hill, stood, cheered, pointed and came back down the hill” story for long enough now, thanks for reading.

— Meg Galsworthy  

Ingleborough Mountain Race

I once ran a 20K race in India, when Delhi was in the middle of a heatwave. A heatwave in the UK is high 20s to 30C. In Delhi it was 50C. So the race started at 5am, and even then it was stunningly hot. I survived though I can’t quite remember how. I do remember the camel though, and the pleasure of running with a bunch of Indian strangers who became Strava friends.

I don’t quite know how I managed Ingleborough Mountain Race last weekend, either. It’s a summer gala race, and I always love those, especially when the gala field contains at least one source of ice-cream. But I wilt in heat, apparently a physiological inevitability: your body tries desperately to cool itself by shifting blood away from the core to the skin, and making you sweat more. Essentially, working out in heat is twice as hard as it should be. Give me 6C and overcast and I’m happy. Compared to how I feel about running in blazing sunshine, I’d be happy in a Tour of Pendle blizzard, or a hailstorm on Whernside.

Did I mention that the race starts at 3pm?

I have form with this race, too. The last time I ran it, the weather included a big lump of dense clag over the summit. Although it’s an out and back, I managed to get lost by drifting over the footpath on the way back down, then quickly losing the sound of voices. I added about a mile to the route, and was only guided back to the route by Neil, who was spectating, trying to tell me which way to go. One memorable instruction: “Do you see the sun? Follow that.”

There was little chance of me getting lost today but I was nervous. I’d done an easy 5 miles in shady woodland a couple of days earlier and felt heavy-legged and totally lacking in energy. I actually looked up the symptoms of heat exhaustion because you never know.

The race is organized by Settle Harriers. Until race day, they were still requiring full kit, but at registration there were signs saying the kit was waterproof top and hat only. Nothing about a compass or whistle but no way was I setting off without mine. There was another sign warning of HEAT EXHAUSTION.

We were set off in five waves, each five minutes apart, once we’d found the start, which wasn’t where we expected (we knew it wasn’t in the gala field but at the foot of the moor, but we still had to do a big loop to find it). I suspect they put the start where it was to replicate the steep climb of the usual route, because it did. We set off and by the time we reached the road I thought, oh dear. Further, up and over the moor to meet the track and I’d already walked a bit. That was going to be my strategy anyway to get up the mountain: walk 10 seconds, run 20. I mostly stuck with that though the proportion reversed the higher I got.

In the first mile, I thought seriously about dropping out. I felt awful and overheated and I’d only just started. But I had a word with myself and trudged onwards.

Neil had alerted me to a good grassy trod that I could take instead of the rocky footpath, and amazingly I remembered it. I was drinking but still didn’t even finish one 500ml flask, which was nowhere near enough. But I drank as much as I wanted on the way up and on the way down there was no chance.

I am more used to arriving at Ingleborough from the Three Peaks route side, and as the last time I’d done this race I couldn’t actually see the mountain, I wasn’t prepared for how many bloody false summits there are. After the third, I went all John McEnroe. You can’t be serious. By now I’d been passed by lots of people from the fifth wave, including Ruth from North Leeds, who made up the other half of our club representation. I could have been demoralised by all this passing, but I was too hot to care. Who the hell runs up a mountain in a heatwave, for fun?

I passed Pat Wardle on the way up, who was supporting his wife Laura. He wasn’t racing, probably because he finished a Bob Graham Round recently, but he still ran up the mountain. He got this nice pic of Neil which ended up on BBC Breakfast News, after Neil responded to a request for images of what people had done in the heatwave. He was the only one running up a mountain, oddly. Pat thought he’d photographed everyone he knew but he forgot about me. I got one of Laura though, who later said she didn’t even remember me taking it, she was in heat delerium.

Finally I reached the summit, and was instructed to loop around a marshal rather than the trig, as the trig was busy.

Neil had also suggested I come down to the left, down some steep grass shelves, and I remembered that too. I love descending and after a year of knee troubles, I think I’m getting my descending glee back, and I took places, though this was probably irrelevant as they were probably from the wave behind. A bit more rocky footpath, then I remembered the grass trod again, and followed a Settle Harriers woman along it. I managed not to fall, and even managed a sprint of sorts on the road down to the finish. Had I been more alert, I’d have noticed how many people were crashed out, but I needed water and more water: to drink and to pour over my head. I joined Neil, and my mates Marion and Louise in some precious shade provided by the van belonging to the Cave Rescue folks, one of whom came over to check we were OK.

It turns out there was a lovely leafy path back to Ingleton that we’d missed on the way up, and this lovely leafy path led directly to an ice-cream shop. I didn’t win anything, finishing in 1:27, though I inevitably got a PB by simply not getting lost. But it definitely felt victorious to have a vanilla cone in my hand.  

— Rose George

Kettlewell Anniversary Fell Race 2021

After having a year off official racing, the time had finally arrived to make my legs burn. The last time I ran Kettlewell Anniversary Fell Race was pre-Covid in 2019. I don’t have the fondest of memories of it. They were mainly “oh dear, this hill is longer than I thought” and “I’ve totally overcooked it”. This was probably my fault as I had never been to the valley before and not realised how many false summits the first climb had. This time around I was ready and prepped for the pain. I had nicely warmed up the racing legs two days earlier with the NLFR summer solstice race around Burley Moor. 

On the drive over, the temperature dropped and the clag set in on the summits. This would make for very atmospheric running during the race. Due to Covid the race organisers had decided to set the runners of in staggered starts. The two minutes between each group would help with the congestion going through the Slit, a narrow passage through rocks. Waiting in our pens my nerves began to build and the butterflies flapped in my stomach. Adam and Mike started the countdown. 3, 2, 1, GO! We were off, charging up the first climb, jostling to get into a good position before the Slit. There were lots of strong runners in the first pen who seemed to simply fly off up the hill and I soon lost sight of them.

As in all races I slotted into a small pack of runners around my speed. We began to play leapfrog with each other as we slowly chugged up the hill. The summit finally came after 12 hard minutes of fighting off the lactic acid. The descent couldn’t have come soon enough, but sadly it was over too quick. As I reached the bottom I caught up with Dave. He had been waiting at the top of the first climb with the inflatable sharks for the king and queen of the hill. A weird but fun tradition for Kettlewell Anniversary FR. [Ed’s note: the first woman and first man to reach the shark-holder get to carry a shark each for the rest of the race. Obviously.]

The beauty of running next to a chatty guy like Dave is that he gives you a hell of a lot of loud encouragement. His loud whooping and cheering definitely helped as I began the second climb.

This is where my previous battle on the course came into my favour. I had known to save enough beans in my legs to break away from my pack and I gradually started to reel in the next group. I browed the final top and began the fast grassy downhill. Due to the mist, the grass was very slippery and I slid over a couple times when trying to cut the corners. On one of my slips I ended up kicking a thistle and got a few spikes in my big toe. No time to stop and sort that out when you’re racing to the finish.

Last time, I was overtaken by a runner 200 yards from the finish. But this time, I got my redemption and pipped one last runner [Ed’s note: and Ollie also held off champion mountain runner Sarah McCormack: see photo]. A final sprint and I was over the line. What a rush, 40 minutes of pain but totally worth it.

As soon as I’d finished the leg pain stopped but another pain began, midges. Bloody midges. I hate midges. They were everywhere, swarming over the runners as they finished. I swiftly changed into my longs and with a buff high over my face and my hood up, I just about kept them at bay.

Mega thanks to Mike, Dom, Richard, Adam and all the rest of the NLFR team who put the race together and marshalled. It was another brilliant evening. Looking forward to next year.

Oliver Roberts

Ultra: Race to the King

In 2019 as I approached the next decade I decided it was time to do something a little different.  Most people, I guess, would not choose to run 54 miles across the South Downs Way, but I did. I entered the Race to the King, so named because it ends “on the steps of Winchester Cathedral, one of the most historically significant buildings in Britain and claimed burial ground of twelve English kings, making it England’s first-ever Royal Mausoleum.” I was accepted, the date was set for June 20th 2020, at which point I would be a Vet60.

I started training started in November 2019 but it was to be short-lived. A family bereavement in January 2020 then a pandemic had its impact, the race was cancelled until 2021 (a small mercy given my lack of training). I deferred my place to 2021 and sat back as though I had all the time in the world. After all, how hard can this be?!

Fast-forward to January 2021. Despite the pandemic still rampaging around the world I had to assume this would go ahead.  So I got out the training plans I’d found earlier again.  I must have been alert at the time as re-reading them I could not understand why none of them went beyond 30 miles as a longest run. I have 54 to do, so could I really leave 24 miles as uncharted territory?  I think not.

I contacted a coach, Neil Wallace of Run Brave. A number of our club members (including me) have used Run Brave’s weekly structured training sessions to improve our running over the last couple of years. Many of us have gone on to have PBs and seriously improve. But the ultra required more. I signed up for a bespoke training plan with coaching support (Neil would regularly check in and discuss my progress). My objective? “Just get me round.” With this vagueness, he began to develop my training plan: a series of four to five week blocks.

The first one rolled in. A five-week schedule with a longest run of 19 miles. Great! I’ve got this. Once that was done, the second plan arrived then the third. In March I had planned to run the Lulworth Cove marathon, but this was cancelled. Undeterred I decided to do the same distance on the beautiful Yorkshire moors.  With advice from Neil, I decided a route that was twice around Simons Seat, clockwise then anti-clockwise. It was great to complete 28 miles and with the support of running friends I made it.  

How to get rid of a stitch, honest.

More training blocks arrived. The longest run was 45 miles. Yikes, I no longer have this. Four weeks before the event, I had a complete meltdown on my longest run, with only 38 miles done. The wrestle with emotions and fatigue took its toll. Was I going backwards? I settled with the fact my meltdown happened before the event rather than during.

Friday 18th June. I checked my pack several times, then some more, then tried to rest.  On Saturday 19th June at 5 am I was in my hotel room wondering what the hell I was doing. Can I do this? I arrived at the start about 7 am and as they were letting us go in 5-second waves I just decided now or never so off I went. Strangely it was very emotional.

As the miles ticked down I had my coach in my ear. “What are the three things you are good at?” I could only remember one: pacing. Think about the tortoise and the hare. Other runners en route were really nice and chatty but on a couple of occasions I felt I was being pulled faster than my pace so I dropped back.  After 10 miles I reached pit stop 1. Feeling good. Take on liquid and eat. Go.

I continued through pit stops  2, 3 and 4 still feeling good. At 31 miles I was greeted by [my partner] Julie and Jelly the Jack Russell just before Butser Hill. More local southern runners feared this hill and talked about it for the 10 miles before it. I looked at it and thought nah! we have much bigger. But after 31 miles it somehow seemed a lot more daunting.

I conquered the hill and pushed on. At 46 miles I still felt ok.  At the final pit stop 7 miles from the finish I was determined to get in before darkness fell. My quads were turning to concrete.

A young man had reached his limit and told me he could not make it. “Oh yes you will,” I told him. “We’ll finish together.” Off we trotted (it was more of a shuffle) to the finish where family was waiting, encouraging each other along the way.

I did it and it felt amazing that I actually finished in the same day I’d started. I spent the following day walking like the tin man from Wizard of Oz but it was worth it.

Liz and a King

Would I do it again? Yes.

Did I learn anything?

  • Don’t go into this lightly.
  • Enlist the help of a coach, there are lots of plans online but they don’t talk to you or support you. Neil’s continued support and encouragement was so worth it. I can’t thank him enough.
  • Plan your run and run your plan. Don’t get dragged along by others. Pacing is SO important.
  • Nutella sandwiches are the food of gods and my chosen nutrition.

It was HARD. The investment of time, long, lonely, unsupported (carry own food/water) hours running, the fatigue. The need to go out and train whatever the conditions, from freezing wind, rain and ice to very hot humid days. But I loved every minute of the race, even the painful ones towards the end.

Stats for the day:

  • Weather cool and overcast (excellent)
  • Time: 11hrs 33 mins
  • Category: First V60 [WHOOP WHOOP editor’s comment]
  • Breakfast: Scrambled eggs on toast
  • Number of Nutella sandwiches consumed: 8. And a Kit Kat and a bag of plain crisps.
  • Litres liquid consumed: 9
  • Blisters: 0
  • New friends: 3

Liz Casey

Bradford Millennium Way Relay

June 13, 2021

Five legs, 47 ¼ miles, 6300 feet of climb

A relay and an actual race. How exciting. We were delighted to dig out our race vests and buffs to take part in the Bradford Millennium Way Relay, organized by Saltaire Striders. It starts and ends in Bingley, and takes in Wilsden, Denholme, Oxenhope, Haworth, Oakworth, Steeton, Silsden, Addingham and Ilkley. We’re still in a pandemic of course, so there were restrictions, including staggered starts for some legs. Maybe the hardest loss was the exceptional cakes baked by the people of Laycock, the thought of which kept the Leg 3 pair in 2020 going for the entire leg, because they knew they had set a strawberry tart aside before they set off, to be consumed when they returned to pick up the car at the end. (Canny.) Some may think this relay not particularly “felly”, but there are plenty of moors and fields and glorious Yorkshire landscape. And, as leg 1 will attest, plenty of hills. The forecast was for heat and sun, and it delivered, though the day became more overcast than predicted. We put out a mixed team, expertly organized by our new women’s captain Emma Lane (thanks Emma), and Team 16 had a fine day out. Reports from three legs below.

Leg 1: Beckfoot Lane, Bingley to Penistone Hill Country Park, 10 miles, 1789 feet

Pair: Ann Brydson Hall and Andrew Sugden

The first and final legs of a relay usually go to the strongest runners in a team. A fast start and you stamp your authority on the race and give your team-mates a lift. The final runner(s) then run their hearts out for the best possible final position. I bet Usain Bolt used to run the first or last leg. Anyhoo. I do hope that Ann and I lived up to expectations. Ten miles with lots and lots of hills on a hot day was quite a challenge but I think we did pretty good really. Between us there was a combined age of 119 years but we still passed much younger runners, some who were walking on the flats after six miles. Maybe we were picked for our experience and wisdom? Well, perhaps not, as we nearly missed the start having jogged too far down Beckett Lane and before they put out the big START signs.

I must say that the first leg is a delight and I loved my little recce runs despite getting hopelessly lost twice. The leg has pretty villages (not Denholme), beautiful woodland, moorland and waterfalls although I’m not sure how much of it Ann noticed. My partner put in a gritty performance and one steep hill of only 20 metres was the only time I saw her power-walk. That last uphill mile to the finish goes on forever and whilst others walked, Ann carried on running. BMWR was my first race for NLFR and it was great fun. Proud to wear my new vest.

— Andrew Sugden

Leg 2 : Penistone Hill Country Park to Laycock, 9 miles, 1230 feet

Pair: Liz Casey and Caroline Clarke (representing the VF60 category!)

The day dawned bright, fine and warm. I was woken earlier than expected by Liz who’d had a family emergency overnight which meant our travel plans needed to change and an earlier than expected start was needed. As I hadn’t planned to drive to Laycock I relied totally on Google Maps which sent me to a closed road! Mild panic, I called Liz to explain, abandoned Sat Nav in favour of a couple of dog walking blokes who gave me correct directions and arrived in Laycock, met Liz with plenty of time and drove to the start. Well not quite, we slightly under-shot the start. Still, we had a good warm up from there to the handover point.

It was strange to be on Penistone Hill in fine weather, rather than the usual freezing gales, horizontal rain and fancy dress characteristic of the Woodentops races held in the depth of winter.

This relay is always popular amongst local clubs and was full so there were lots of familiar faces waiting in anticipation of their leg 1 friends arriving before the mass start. Liz and I chatted to friends from other clubs during our wait but it didn’t last long: Ann and Andrew didn’t disappoint and handed over the baton in plenty of time to avoid the mass start.

We set off in great running conditions, very dry underfoot if a little warm. Route-finding was easy due to Liz’s knowledge of the race and the much needed recce.

A note to fellow runners. We were disappointed to find a lot of the gates en route left open in fields containing livestock with no sign of the previous runners! This behaviour gives runners a bad name and potentially spoils everything for others if farmers complain. Please, people, shut gates after you and follow the Countryside Code. The rules were pretty relaxed on the day apart from that one request. The least we can do is observe them.

We ran through a superb mixture of moorland, valleys, fields, farms and woodland and finally that killer hill from Goose Eye to Laycock and the finish line outside the village hall. Sadly no cakes were on sale due to Covid but a handy collapsible water cup was given to all competitors.

Thanks to Emma Lane for organising and for Saltaire Striders for putting on the race. It was great to see so many happy people delighted to be racing again. A special thanks and congratulations to team-mate Liz for her nav skills and for the completion of a 54-mile ultra the following week!

— Caroline Clarke

Leg 2: Liz Casey and Caroline Clarke

Leg 3: Laycock to Silsden, 8 miles, 811 feet

Pair: Emma Lane and Rose George

This is a good opportunity to highlight what Emma did in May: to thank St. Gemma’s Hospice, which cared for her granddad George when he died earlier this year, Emma decided to do a testing challenge. Every day, she would get up and run a number of kilometres to match the day’s date. No rest, no break. And she did it, splendidly. I joined her for a couple of runs and though my chosen route had plenty of inclines, she was full steam ahead up them. On her last day, she looked fresh and comfortable, though she had run a total of 496 kilometres. So she was uncertain about what form she’d be in for the relay, even after a week’s rest. She didn’t need to worry: all that fitness and all that stamina meant she was in great form and fresher than I was. I was worried though, by the weather forecast. I droop in hot weather, and our leg would set off near midday. I packed a cap and plenty of water and hoped for the best. Emma’s mum and fellow NLFR runner Hilary gave us a lift to the start (she’s coming back from injury otherwise would have taken part), and we had plenty of what Emma and I both call “faffing time.” Time to get your head in place, time to say hello to people you always saw at races but haven’t seen in 18 months, time for several toilet visits, time to calm the race nerves. Race nerves! Hello old friends, I haven’t seen you for a while. Actually, I didn’t have any, maybe because this was such a novel experience. We saw our friends Marion and Louise from Fellanddale finish really strongly, though Louise looked extremely overheated. Mind, they’d just run up Goose Eye, a fearsome hill that finishes Leg 2. We thought our Leg 2 pair might make it before the mass start, but they didn’t so we mingled out on the road. There was no staggered start although there were more than 20 pairs, which was odd, because the route goes up a narrow track and then along another narrow track, and there was congestion. Still, as soon as we got to the fields, it spaced out. The route has 800 feet of climb but it’s a net downhill, though not in that first mile. I’d recced the route as Emma was a bit busy doing her challenge and I was happy to, and I thought I knew most of it well enough. There were a couple of points when I hesitated, but plenty where I knew where I was and where I was going, which is always a nice feeling. Hilary and my partner Neil were out on bikes and kept popping up like welcome sprites along the route. It was always great to see them but as we went on, and the sun shone, I began to flag, especially as we approached the Keighley bypass, my least favourite part of the route, which involves you running into oncoming traffic. It had been coned off though, which made it a more tolerable experience than during recces, where I’d been confined to an uneven and frankly alarming verge. But over the bypass and to the bridge, and there were Hilary and Neil, smiling and cheering. Neil, god bless him, was holding a bottle of water that was partly iced and it was the best thing I’d ever seen. I poured it over my head and felt instantly better. After the first mile or so everyone had spaced out, there was no more overtaking. We had overtaken a Baildon pair, but lost that advantage when I started fading, and although we had them in our sights, we didn’t catch them again. It’s an enjoyable route, through fields and farms and woodlands, and with very few technical bits. Also, you get to cross a railway track and talk to cows.

Clouds covered the sun, I perked up, and we arrived at Silsden in 1.32:35, in 50th position out of 68. One of the marshals had a bucket of water and a sponge by his table: until you have run in heat and sponged water over your head you have not known true relief. (I know, it was only 8 miles. But I’m a hot weather wimp.) And Emma? She was fresh as a daisy.

— Rose George

Leg 5: Ilkley to Bradford & Bingley rugby club, 10.7 miles

Pair: Phil Davies and Andy Foster

Me (Andy) and Phil started the leg with a walk of shame. We knew that if our leg 4 runners hadn’t reached their finish before a certain time we would have to join the mass start. So here we were waiting with the rest of the leg 5 runners for the go ahead and over the brow of the hill came Lisa and Ruth. We were chuffed to be able to avoid the mass start so we jogged over to the start and sprinted off once Lisa and Ruth had reached us. But around 50m from the start we heard shouting and turned around to loads of mass start runners calling us back to the start. Apparently even if your previous pair arrives before the mass start, within a certain time you have to leave with the mass start anyway. So then came the walk of shame back to the start line, where we received some friendly stick from some Roundhay Runners women for our “false” start.

Luckily that meant we were at the front for the mass start and the duo from Roundhay became good pace keepers for the first 3 or so miles past White Wells and up Rocky Valley. Phil was apologetic for his fitness prior to the race as he was just getting back into the swing of things after a few injuries earlier in the year, but he kept a good pace and we really shone during the downhill sections with a little more confidence than the other trail runners on rocky, technical sections. Around 7 miles in, near the Glen House Pub, we heard the news of a Sterling goal for England which spurred us on providing us with some needed distraction in the form of some football crack for the next mile or so to the canal. The final part of the run is the least exciting, over some football fields and a little bit of road running but the end was in sight and we put the thrusters on a little to make sure two runners behind us didn’t catch up. We finished our leg which was around 17.5km in 1hr 43mins. A quick couple of minutes to catch our breath followed by a brisk walk up the hill to catch our train back to Ilkley.

— Andy Foster

Leg 4: Lisa Rudkin and Ruth Dorrington

The valley that saved me through lockdown

I took for granted the freedom that I was privileged to have during my childhood and growing up in the 1960s and 70s: those endless days exploring the vast woodland of Meanwood Valley with friends and siblings. We named rocks, had picnics in the thickets of Scotland Woods, dared each other to walk across the unfenced aqueduct of Adel Woods, waded with fishing nets in the beck, swam, paddled, swung on rope swings above muddy waters and sledged down the slope above the swings.

We trudged home when hunger registered or clothes were too soggy after we’d fallen in the streams. I attended the primary school next to the park so sports and nature walks were spent in the greenery of the parkland.

Time did the inevitable thing of passing by and I embarked on a new hobby during my teenage years: running. This was a time when running fashion was a pair of flat pumps and shiny nylon shorts that flapped at the sides with the slightest of breezes. I found myself again playing up and down Meanwood Valley, running over ancient rocks and roots of the same protected trees, re-carving out the paths of my early childhood.

However, Meanwood Valley took on a sleeping historic form, a forgotten gem, because I had discovered the Yorkshire Dales and mighty mountains of the Lake District. I enjoyed the challenges of racing and spent weekends making up new runs, again taking for granted outstanding beauty in another form.

That was up until March 2020 when suddenly society was forced into a most unnatural prison sentence. For me, lockdown seemed necessary yet on a personal level an impossibility. My allocated slot of daily exercise allowance became my saving grace. As I live in the vicinity of Meanwood Valley, it was inevitable that my running routes of yesteryear became, once again, my playground. The spring sun simmered through newly budding trees, the flow of the water sparkled, radiating hope during this horrific pandemic. Watching the seasons change and trails turning from arid dust to mud, snow and ice, I continued embracing what I had on my doorstep.

I re-discovered trails with routes from old forgotten nooks and crannies, reminiscing about fond childhood hiding places. My runs were a joy. They put on hold my missing of the Yorkshire Dales. I made new friends: shy nods became sincere greetings. I became adept at the Covid shuffle of avoidance. It was a pleasure noticing women walking alone in the dense woodland without fear in their eyes and enthusiastic children playing as I did all those years ago.

My valley runs were indeed my lockdown anti-depressant. The changing seasons have been a splendour. I have never been more thankful and will forever appreciate what I have at my immediate disposal: a paradise for the hobby I began way over forty years ago……and fairies still dance under the trees.

Ann Brydson Hall

Lockdown legs

Last year was one everyone will be very eager to forget, but for me there was one silver lining: finally joining a club.  

I’m relatively new to fell running, and probably haven’t earned enough stripes to call myself a fell runner yet as most of the running I’d done prior to 2020 was on the road. After a few marathons and one pretty flat ultra I found that the most exciting parts of those races were the tricky, technical sections where I’d have to concentrate on the placement of my feet rather than just putting one foot in front of the other. This new found love of off-road running led me to take on a few Lakeland Trail races which I think are such a great entry point for anyone who is sick of running on tarmac.

Having enjoyed those, I looked for events closer to Leeds. I enjoyed the brief window of races that actually went ahead at the start of 2020 : High Cup Nick on 27th February and the Ikley Moor fell race on 3rd March. Both were awesome! 

I remember standing alone at the Ilkley Moor race start point (having arrived way too early) without a hat, in pretty rainy miserable conditions, looking over at some NLFR-vest-wearing runners and thinking firstly would they lend me a hat, but also that at least I wouldn’t be stood on my tod before races if I was part of a club. So after some nudging and encouragement from my girlfriend I joined NLFR, and it’s hands down the best thing I did last year. 

I had the same worries so many starters seem to have… Am I fit enough? …Will I be stranded in the middle of nowhere when everybody else speeds off? But it turns out I had absolutely nothing to worry about. 

So my message to all those wannabe Leeds fell runners reading this post is come and give it a shot! The sessions are often split into different groups based on speed, so there’s usually a group of similarly paced pals to keep you company. I find myself in the weird place between the fast and the slower group but there’s no egos here and the super fast runners always wait to make sure everyone has caught up.

The fell runners I’ve met through the club are all like-minded, friendly people who love the fells, the mud and a well-earned beer after a run. Unfortunately I’ve joined NLFR at the worst time to take advantage of the post run beers but the club has still given me new routes, new friends and definitely kept the lockdown legs away.

–Andrew Foster

Christmas day gallop

This was a very different Christmas for everyone. For me there was no roast dinner and just a 30-minute visit to my elderly mother and then my daughter. My sister was in hospital recovering from having a kidney stone removed. Luckily I had been invited to my friends for a festive evening of great food, vast amounts of wine and rum, and much silliness.

Some traditions could still be preserved and that includes my usual Christmas morning gallop. It just means that little bit less guilt when it comes to yet another, last, After Eight mint. Calories burned running mean calories enjoyed eating.

This time there was no Strava pressure, no squeezing out the extra miles. Just a gentle run in the winter sun around Black Carr Woods. This is where I grew up, played out, fought the kids from Holmewood estate and badly lost, built dens and at the age of 14 went for my first ever ‘run’.

This is where I have run and walked through lock downs and tier 3. I know the names of the dogs that try and chase me (Bruno the giant, biggest dog I have ever seen), Lix the big gentle horse and his pretty owner, and where I have raced with other local runners up and down the hills.

Those hills do not disappoint. Scholebrook Lane, the Gib, Keepers Lane, and the legend that is Post Hill have both strengthened and hurt my knees this year. On Christmas morning my legs were so tired and I was happy to avoid hills, instead take some pictures and indulge in a little mindfulness running.

The light at this time of the year is so beautiful and especially after a few days of grey gloom and gloaming. Textures, shadows and colours that you don’t see at the height of summer. My favourite time however is without a doubt early spring because first there are wood anemones then celandines, bluebells, wild garlic, and red campion. I followed the seasons changing from March until now as I ran and ran and ran through the pandemic.

Christmas and the New Year are a time to reflect but even more so to look forwards. The vaccine is coming, races will be run again, my arthritic knee and my IT band will not bother me one bit and the people of the Lake District will welcome us back.

That night my tired but strong legs got me through an evening of debauchery and extreme Dad dancing. The next day I had my first hangover in years and my knee would not straighten. I still went out running.

Happy New Year to all.

Andrew Sugden (NLFR newbie)

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