Having recced this one and raced it in the past I was quite confident of the route and hazards. Caroline, Niamh amd I were only there a couple of weeks before so I had got my bearings and knew it would be tough.
The long track and road section at the start of the race wasn’t my favourite stretch, but knowing I would soon be in the depth of Lakeland landscape I wasn’t too put off. My running suddenly came to an abrupt halt as I clambered-up the side of Robinson, (almost hands and feet in parts) . When I appeared at the top I was knocked sideways by tremendous gusts of wind , steadying myself I was immediately knocked over again and again before the wall of rock that greeted me.
Being terrified of heights was my main concern, along with this wild wind knocking me over, but I really didn’t want to lose my hat.
After the first climb came more fierce winds and a second rock face. Once over this my energy levels were almost zero and my jelly legs took a while to recover , I was all over the place. I had a word with myself, pulled myself together and trundled on.
During the recce I had run most of the hills but that wasn’t happening in the race, (probably due to not stopping for picnics and photo shoots). I had quite forgotten what these Lakeland races were like. Down and over Hindscarth and Dale Head wasn’t bad but by this time I realised I was carrying far too much in the way of supplies and laughed at myself for being over cautious. I had a bag of cooked, chopped tofu, a pocket of dates, a bar and a gel. (Plenty for a Bob Graham round). Dale Head was another gusty one but I stayed upright. Up towards High Spy and my brain wouldn’t shut up from saying, “high spy with my little eye something beginning with.. H…hill, S… sky” etc etc. I even said “shut up Ann” out loud.
I enjoyed Maiden Moor but then I started singing folk songs with the word maiden in the lyrics. (Shame I’m not fast enough to run away from myself.) I began to feel at peace when I knew I was nearing the end and was greeted by the support team. Hilary was shouting, “do you want some sweets?” but I declined so she shouted, “but I searched for these vegan ones especially for you!” (Sorry, Hilary.)
The last section was easy enough but as soon as I hit the road my calf cramped up but as the end was in sight it didn’t bother me too much. My time wasn’t quite as fast as my previous time but I had done it and was pleased enough with that.
Free beer would have been great if I drank. I asked if they had zero alcohol beer and the bartender told me there was alcohol free tea and water outside so I downed some of that instead.
What a great race with breathtaking scenery. Thankyou to the support team of Hilary , Caroline, Martin, Linda and Jonny with his cowbells.
For the first time ever, I had paid for a training plan for this marathon from coach Josh Griffiths (who ran a 2.14.49 London Marathon in 2017). Anyway, I followed this plan to the letter following the dysphasia of my London marathon last year. Boston is again an incredibly flat marathon; it is a circular route around the arable fields of Lincolnshire, no hills, no anything.
It was a warm day with a gentle sea breeze. The race still started in waves, so like London, I wasn’t sure how I was doing. My plan of nutrition disintegrated when my five gels fell out of my bumbag at the start, I scrabbled to get them from under pounding feet and lost two due to burstage, not a good start (there were none on the course either). The marathon, was as always, increasingly psychologically challenging.
The initial gambolling runners were reduced to limping figures in the last six miles, the flatness (total ascent over 26 miles is 86 feet) like running on a treadmill. Many were tempted by the turn-off for the concurrent half marathon. My second half pace dwindled, but I developed fortitude in the last two miles and passed many finishing in 3.47.38, 6th in my age group and 40th woman. It does give me an entry time for Boston USA should I ever fancy it and a further London good-for-age time for 2023. London 2022 next? The winning man was Lincoln runner William Strangeway in 2.25.11 and first woman was Natasha White in 2.59.07.
For the past two weeks I have been on strike in support of the University and College Union industrial action over cuts to pensions, pay cuts, casualisation, equality pay gaps and unsafe workloads. This post isn’t about the strike but the role running has had in this strike.
To mix up the picket lines, and to keep warm on bitterly cold strike days, the Leeds UCU branch have organised a “running picket line”. Every day we meet up and run three laps around the circumference of the University campus with whistles, banners and flags. It helps me gets a 10K run in before lunch time, but more importantly it has allowed me to meet fellow striking colleagues who I wouldn’t usually meet during my regular working day.
I find that running as a group provides an easy way to speak to new people, hear about why they’re striking, hear about why they’re running, and hear what they love about their work. I’ve run with post-docs in plant science, professors in romantic literature, language support staff, PhD students, school engagement officers and library staff! While the journeys that brought us to the University vary wildly we come together everyday and run for a common cause. The first lap often involves introductions to new-comers, the second lap allows people to mingle in naturally paced groups, and by the third lap, high on endorphins, we’re ready to take on the world!
More widely, away from campus and strikes, I love how group running allows people from all walks of life to come together and create a powerful energy and joie de vivre. At least that’s what I have found from running with NLFR and UCU.
Caroline left a comment on Strava: “rock up and do 20 miles, why don’t you?”
She was right. It can’t be anything other than rocking up when I didn’t get an entry until the Tuesday before the race on Saturday. Inadequate training is now a theme with me, but this was even more daft than usual. More daft than training for the Three Peaks with spin classes; or Tour of Pendle having done hardly any double-digit running for weeks?
Yes. Even dafter than that. Because this was a 21-mile race I’d never done before, that was entirely unflagged, that had only four checkpoints, and that I’d had no time to recce. It also had a small number of entries —- under 100 — which would mean a spaced-out field. At least the weather forecast was good. And as it was aimed at walkers and “non-competitive runners” too, there would be a) people out longer than me in case I got extremely lost and b) hot food no matter what time I got back.
Moors the Merrier. I think it was the name that appealed. And the fact I’d never done it before and I have a habit of doing the same races each year, if the pandemic allows. My friend Louise told me about it. She had entered, as had Tanya from Fellandale. But then Louise fell and cracked a rib so the only person I’d know would be Tanya and although a few years ago we were matched for pace, that has long since been untrue. She stormed round Wasdale this year, for a start, with a fabulous performance, and she’s been running brilliantly. I’d be running around on my own.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Four or five or six hours – who knows – of my own company? I’m good at solitude (writers are) but I also enjoy running with friends or making friends on the way round. It felt like it was going to be a very long day out. And it was a day that started early: the race HQ was Hebden Bridge golf club, high on the valley side, which meant a 6.45am start from Leeds. Of course the night before I was wide awake at 3am with a horrible restless leg, plus an equally wide awake cat who thought it was breakfast time.
I knew where the golf club was as I’d run near it the week before doing Mytholmroyd fell race. I’d had a great day at Mytholmroyd: not that I’d won owt or got any category glory, but I’d taken places all the way round, felt strong, and finished by pelting down the steep valley side feeling like I was good at this lark.
I’d also had a good run at Tour of Pendle, my birthday race. As usual, Kieran the RO, had given me my age as my race number, a handy thing when you’re in the hinterlands between 50 and 55 and can’t quite remember how old you are when asked. I love Pendle, and this year I ran really well, right up to when the clag came down, as it always does, because the women hanged as witches quite rightly want revenge even when they were hanged miles away.
I followed someone who was following a GPX, missed the turn-off to CP11 and added half a mile to my route. I know that not by Strava geekery but because people I’d overtaken much much earlier were then ahead of me. Does that serve me right for passively taking advantage of GPX? Yes.
Anyway, Moors the Merrier. It’s run by Craggrunner, who also put on The Lost Shepherd, a cracking race. On this one there were two starts: 8 am for the walkers and non-competitive runners, 9am for everyone else. I wondered about the non-competitive bit. I’m competitive but I rarely get any category prizes. But if competitive means trying your best, then I was going to start at 9am.
The weather was clag and more clag. I got to the golf club just as the car park had filled up so parked along Heights Road. Darren, the RO, had emailed with copious instructions of where to park so as not to annoy bus drivers, along with this mandatory kit list:
Waterproofs (top and bottoms) with taped seams and jacket must have a hood
Hat and gloves
Map of the route, compass & whistle
Plastic mug for hot drinks on route (optional)
Spare long sleeve top
Spare food and drink
I assumed the repetition was for emphasis, not that I needed to carry three Santa hats. So I gathered my Santa hat that I’d been given at the Stoop race, decided against my elf socks in favour of my usual mucky rainbow ones, and trudged up to the golf club. I’m fully in favour of rigorous kit lists, and so I had followed it to the letter, to the point where I could only fit one 500ml flask of water in my pack because of the survival blanket and extra long-sleeve and head-torch. So I was slightly disconcerted that the kit check consisted of checking that I had waterproof trousers, spare food and a headtorch. They didn’t even check I had a jacket. Weird.
We’d also been asked to bring a present, maximum value of £2, to “put in the bran tub.” I had no idea what a bran tub was but I brought one anyway. A bran tub looks a lot like a garden trug to me.
[Update. Bran tub :“a lucky dip in which the hidden items are buried in bran.”]
There was no bran.
The golf clubhouse being a golf clubhouse, it was warm and comfortable. For fell runners without campervans who are used to car-boot/back seat changing this was luxury. There were changing rooms with lockers, though the solitary shower in the women’s was broken. If you’re desperate for a shower, Darren wrote, we can sort something out with the men’s. I don’t think any woman was that desperate not when there were hot water taps and wet wipes.
I usually like to spend my faffing time in the car, but I wasn’t going to schlep half a mile just to do that, so I sat at a table with a cup of tea and watched the time pass. I was trying to understand who the crowd was. Wall-to-wall Inov8s, race numbers on chests, race vests, shorts = fell runners. Numbers on legs or — worse – racepacks, long tights, the odd Hoka = ultra runners. I know, how judgmental of me. But I’m not wrong. I decided this was a mix with the majority more ultra than fell. Not that it mattered, but it passed the time.
I told Tanya that I was worried about navigation. I’ve got a GPX file on my OS maps app, I told her, because it’s not an FRA race, is it? She put me right: on the notice board was a sign saying it was run under FRA rules. Oh. No GPX then. I’d drawn the route onto an old-ish OS map, and had printed out the pdfs on the race web page, though my printer had run out of colour ink. I would regret this later. I planned to carry the pdfs, 6 pages of them, swapping them around in the plastic folder so that I could keep my thumb on my position all the way round.
Faffing time was up, and we went outside. It was a small gathering of Santa hats, and very nice to see. The clag was still clag, but we set off, up behind the golf course and onto the moor towards High Brown Knoll, where I’d been seven days earlier, heading down to Mytholmroyd. I had my thumb on my map and would keep it there for 21-ish miles, and for a while I was really pleased with myself, checking off landmarks in the landscape and finding them on my map. Shaft, check. Sharp left turn, check. Climbing the contours, check. I didn’t need to do any of this, there were plenty of people around, but from Pendle I knew this could change very rapidly and I’d be reduced to squinting into thick fog trying to see if anyone else was going the way I was going. I realise this means I put ridiculous levels of faith in other people’s navigation. I’d also regret this later too.
Through the clag, I heard the booming Yorkshire tones of the one and only Dave Woodhead. You again! I shouted, as I’d seen him last week too. Dave and I yell at each other but it’s affectionate: I think he and Eileen are brilliant to be standing out in all weathers photographing just for the love of the sport. He was standing just by the trig pillar, and this was our conversation. :
Him: Stand over theere by the trig, it’s got a heart on it.
Him: Right, now bugger off.
Me: I love you Dave.
Him: Merry Christmas girl!
He’s a tonic. Onwards to CP1 on a main road. The clag was lifting now, I had people in front to follow, my thumb was on the map, I knew where I was and I could see the hi-viz of marshals in the distance. Number taken, then the marshal said what I thought was “have a good day” but actually he said “don’t forget to dib,” because I had. We had our dibbers on wrists like giant babies with tracking devices, set free from hospital cribs to lurch across sodden moorland.
Was this a fell race? It had plenty of off-road in it so far, but paths rather than trods. It was being run under an FRA licence which meant FRA rules, which meant you could make your way bewteen checkpoints as long as you weren’t flagged to a particular route or didn’t cross private land. But Darren in his setting-off announcements had said to stick to the route, so I was going to try to stick to the route.
Page 3 of my maps and bloody hell I recognised where I was. I expressed this delight by saying out loud “Nook!” which people around me wisely ignored. Nook is the ruined building on the way to Stairs Lane (or maybe on), last seen on the Haworth Hobble. I had no idea where we were going after that, but every now and then I’d recognise sections from one race or another. I think there were bits of Mytholmroyd, Haworth Hobble, Heptonstall (at one point I said to a woman running near me, “This is Heptonstall backwards!” and most bizarrely she didn’t respond).
It wasn’t cold, the forecast rain hadn’t yet arrived, and I felt comfortable. A woman ran up behind me and said, “I wish I’d worn shorts.” Only me and one other woman did. I answered with my usual self-critical, “My legs have plenty of insulation,” and she said, “that’s a magnificent pair of legs” and I fell in love with her immediately, enough that when she overtook me by climbing a gate instead of going over a steep and tricky stile as she should have, I nearly forgave her. Nearly.
I didn’t feel as strong as I had done on Mytholmroyd. I even looked at my watch, saw I’d only done 8 miles or so and thought, shit. I try not to watch-watch but for the next half a dozen miles I did, and it didn’t help. I couldn’t understand why I felt so tired.
I tried to chat to people to make the time go quicker, especially ones who seemed very confident in the route or had recced it. They were going to be my very special friends. If I’d been left to my own navigational devices, I think I would have gone wrong quite a few times. But perhaps I’d have been more rigorous than keeping a weather eye on my map. I’d already realised that black and white maps aren’t ideal: the colour gives clarity, particularly when the colour is blue and denotes big reservoirs that you can see with your eyes but not on the map. Except it actually was on the map because this is what this excellent navigator did: for an entire map section, I couldn’t undrestand where I was. My thumb wasn’t making sense. I was with people who seemed to know where they were going — no hesitation at junctions — so I wasn’t too worried, and by the time I was thoroughly confused by the disconnect between landscape and map, there was only a mile or so to the checkpoint. There was a reservoir in plain sight, but I couldn’t see it on the map. The trouble was that I was convinced that a section on the map was a bit we’d just come through, a clough with a beck and a bit of wiggling up the sides and then I tried to make the rest of the map fit even when it didn’t. And I put the missing reservoir down to my black and white print-out.
When I reached the checkpoint, then set off again sorting out my map pages, I realised.
I’d been following the wrong map. We had been running along pdf number 3, and I’d been following pdf number 4. What a bloody idiot. The reservoir that wasn’t? Perfectly present and correct – Gorple Reservoir – on the right map. I suppose if you are keeping your thumb on your map it helps if it’s the right one.
I swore to pay more attention, and keep my compass to hand.
By now there were 3 or so of us who were running near each other, sometimes overtaking, sometimes retreating. There was an older man behind me with a full OS map. I mention that because for some reason my brain told me “ full OS map means he knows what he’s doing.” He was one of the people with his race number pinned to his racepack, and on one climb I asked him why. “Because if you change your top you don’t have to faff around changing your number.” Oh, I said innocently, but I thought it was against the rules? “Well,” he said, “no-one has bollocked me yet.”
Plenty of people were using GPX too. I didn’t, but I benefited briefly when we ran a section that I recognised though god knows which race it had been a part of. (I’m going with Lost Shepherd.) This took us down through more bog, no paths in sight, and the map route ended with another wiggle, only we got the wiggle wrong, and only a man with his GPX put us on the right direction. At that point the route headed due east, no paths, and I got my compass out and used that. We’d passed Lumb Falls early on; now we were heading into another dell with rushing water and slippery rocks. None of this was familiar but it all looked like any other dell with rushing water, woods and rocks: Hardcastle Crags, Lumb Falls, anywhere. I should point out that it was beautiful even if my eyes were mostly on my Mudclaws.
On the way to the next checkpoint I saw a man ahead carrying a huge log on his shoulder. I thought it was a local carrying some firewood – a lot of firewood — until I ran past him and saw he had a race number on his shorts. “Are you doing this for training?” I asked. Yes, he said, I asked no more, we wished each other a good run or walk, and I headed to the checkpoint for a cup of tea. 15 miles in, nothing was going to surprise me.
By this point I should have been worried. I hadn’t even drunk 200ml of my water, and looking back I was definitely dehydrated. I hadn’t fuelled much either: a couple of gels, a quarter of a Snickers, and a small wrap with hummus does not consist of adequate fuelling for 5 hours on your feet. But it was cold enough that I didn’t feel thirsty, and I wasn’t hungry either. Daft. And it explained why I was so tired, along with the energy-sapping bogs, bracken and soft fields.
Burnley Road, over the other side, and up into the woods. I passed caber man again. “Are you fundraising?” “No.” “What does it weigh?” “30 kg.” “Right.”
The route showed zig-zagging switchbacks all the way to the top. I was on my own, with the OS maps man behind me, and I carried on the main path, not exactly confidently, but not feeling like I was going wrong either. I saw two women with race numbers walking down below and got thoroughly confused, and still don’t know where they were going. I carried on upwards, thinking, it should be switchbacks but it will turn back on itself soon. I also thought, as long as we get to the top and I head south, I’ll be fine.
So I carried on, past two lads on motorbikes who said “is it a sponsored event or something?” and along a decent path (the Pennine Way) that ended at a gate. I could see Stoodley Pike up ahead, and I was pretty certain that the route contoured around a hill. I also knew it was southerly. But at this gate there was a sign for the Pennine Way and it was not going south, but there were flagstones and it was the only path amongst bog and bracken. I still didn’t think I’d gone wrong, and when I looked behind me, the OS maps man was following so I must be right, right?
At the other side of the bog, I joined a track and then to my right, nearly a dozen runners arrived, and I’d never seen them before. I had been running with two other people in sight, mostly, for miles, and suddenly there was a crowd. Oh.
I thought: I’ve obviously gone wrong. I thought, I wonder how much I’ve short-cut. I thought: But as long as I dib at all the checkpoints, I can’t be disqualified. There was no way I was running all the way back to the missed turn-off, nor making my way through sodden bogs to get onto the correct route. I kept on.
It was nice to have different faces around, although I couldn’t work out whether they were walkers or runners,as not that many people were running by that point and on this terrain, which was vigour-draining bogginess. It’s hardly polite to ask someone if they’re walking when they’re supposed to be running. Sometimes I thought I knew what was what by people’s footwear, until someone in what I thought was a pair of hiking boots starting running, and I gave up. By now I was in the minority for having kept my Santa hat on, so I was pleased to be Santa-ed into second place by this man:
I headed upwards, but mostly following people and thinking I’d never have found this on my own. I was still running and feeling a bit stronger. By now I was near a group of young women who I’d only encountered after my accidental short-cut. Even without the shortcut I wouldn’t have thought we’d be anywhere near each other in the race field, but I looked later and learned they had been Early Starters. I can’t remember the next stretch: it seemed long and all I knew was that it ended up in Mytholmroyd and that Mytholmroyd was the last step before Hebden Bridge golf club and warmth and food.
I crossed over Burnley Road again, puzzling Christmas shoppers with my mud and Santa hat, and I was in the last mile.
It was a nasty mile. I don’t mind testing finishes. I’m quite fond of Butt Lane on the Yorkshireman, or running up cobbles, or any uphill finish. I’d rather have an uphill finish than run a lap around a field. This though: we were at the bottom of the valley and had to climb to its top and the Calder Valley is properly steep. It was only slightly shorter than the steepest climb: 700 feet after 20 miles. Also it was exactly the route I’d done 7 days earlier only I’d been careering downhill, not slowly trudging upwards dreaming of pie.
It was hard. No-one was running by now, and there was general trudging and silence. I felt exhausted, both my knees hurt and I was in a world of niggles. Up, up, up and more bloody up, till a footpath that veered off the road and was a shorter way back to the clubhouse. Then the tarmac drive that also headed uphill.
Make it stop.
It stopped. I finished. 5.09. Inside, I found Tanya, who had only come in 15 minutes before me, and had found it oddly tough. It was harder than Tour of Pendle, she said, although it was less climb but more distance (5000 feet over 17 miles, 3500 feet over 21 miles). She’d gone wrong a few times, missing High Brown Knoll trig so that she passed under it hearing Dave Woodhead’s voice through the clag. I’d got half a mile less on my watch than she had.
I got my cheese and potato pie and when the server said “do you want mushy peas with that” I practically yelled OF COURSE I DO. Hot pie, mince pie, still not enough liquid. The walk back to the car, in the delayed heavy rain that was now falling, seemed a very very long way.
I was 9th V50 woman, which is a fact that I find delightful: that so many women over 50 are so strong and fabulous that I haven’t a hope of winning category prizes except in tiny races. I didn’t get a prize for wearing my Santa hat all the way round, but I did get a packet of miniature Cadbury chocolate bits and bobs from the bran tub. Everyone’s a winner.
It was a grand day out. I’d got to unknowingly run through and near places called Cock Hill, Miller’s Grave, Bogs Eggs Edge, the famed Tom Tittiman, Cludders Stack, The Notch, Egypt and of course Horodiddle.
All that, all those moors, and all that sky, with a pie to finish, for £15.
I ran this race for old time’s sake last month. The Abbey Dash was founded by Abbey Runners and more specifically Colin and Hetta Morath. Hetta has remained an inspiration to female runners and continued racing into her 70s. Colin very sadly died from a brain tumour a few years ago, still a fit and relatively young man. I have co-written this article with Hetta.
Lisa: This 10K occurs earlier and earlier now (due to Leeds CC I believe) and is no longer on wintery December or November days. It is known as a flat 10K. This year’s field was a reduced number of around 3000 and started and finished outside the town hall in Leeds. For you dedicated fell runners who have no idea, the course is an out and back to Kirkstall Abbey. There were some friendly faces from NLFR helping at the start and finish. The race was nostalgic for me and I was the only NLFR running and was accompanied by my sister Hannah from North Wales Road Runners. I finished in 46.59, 11 out of 123 VF50 and 146 out of 1161 women. The winner was Kadar Omar from Birchfield Harriers in 28.46 and first lady was Jessica Piasecki in 31.19, 56th place overall.
Hetta: My late husband, Colin, one of the founders of Abbey Runners, and long term president of the club, had long wanted to organise a Christmas race in the centre of Leeds. Richard Witt, a member of Abbey Runners, and then working for Mind, but later Help the Aged which became Age UK, had the same idea, so they teamed up to organise a Christmas race from the centre of Leeds and back again.
It was a good fast course and always intended to be a race, though of course still suitable for runners of all abilities. Colin was a registered course measurer and was meticulous about accuracy. Many were the trips he made at break of day on a Sunday morning when traffic was at its lightest, to measure the shortest and most accurate route, and to ensure the kilometre signs were in the correct places. Subsequently the race has always attracted a field of elite runners. This year, up to the start of the race 32 men had run sub 30 for 10K. In the Dash, there were 27 men under 30 minutes. After them came nearly 3000 runners, which demonstrates the race’s enduring popularity and over the years must have enabled it to raise thousands if not millions of pounds for charity.
The first race was run in 1986, entirely organised and managed by the club, many of whose members were also helping this year. For many years, Colin was race director, until Alex Grant took over. The first field was around 600. Before chip timing the results were done manually, and I remember a feeling that this was about the limit for us to handle. It was started as a Christmas event as, at that time, there were very few quality races in the winter. Many enjoyable post-race get-togethers were held in local pubs or, when it started, the German Christmas Market. For various reasons the race has moved earlier in the year but is hopefully still going from strength to strength.
Some changes have had to be made to the course over the years. The start has moved from Wellington Street, and the loop around Kirkstall Abbey has gone, though the link with the abbey remains in the race title and the U-turn immediately outside. Fast and flat, it passes several places of interest for those who have energy to spare for looking. From the magnificent Leeds Town Hall, along the Headrow, which used to be the northern boundary of the medieval city, past the Yorkshire Post Building, the YTV Studios, Kirkstall Viaduct and the Cardigan Arms pub, where it is said William “Buffalo Bill” Cody stayed in 1904 when he was appearing in a show.
I hope the race will continue for many years and that plenty of Abbey Runners will continue to enjoy it and maybe find it is good for a 10K PB.
Registration for the first race of the series was held in a barn nestled under Bram Crags at the foot of Great Dodd. It was early November, very wet and very windy, with heavy clouds just touching the top of High Rigg on the other side of the valley.
I started off quite far back within the group. Within the first 50 metres there was a narrow bridge over St John’s Beck which constricted our flow causing some tripping over heels and elbows out from fellow runners. Once over the bridge and into the fields we spread out. The ground was heavy going, soft but pitted by cows hooves threatening to turn ankles for the unlucky.
I moved to the edge of the pack and increased my speed passing runners with ease, feeling strong and thinking I should have started further towards the front, or that — considerably more probable — I was not pacing myself very well for the hills that lay ahead.
We soon reached the footpath that traverses around the bottom of High Rigg to the southern tip before turning sharply and starting the first proper climb.There were a few gates to frustrate, and slippery slabs of rock too much for even the purest of graphene soles.
The path was narrow, pinched between the hillside on the right and the river down to the left. There were few overtaking opportunities for me or indeed those behind me so we snaked along close together, in silence apart from the sound of feet pounding the wet ground. The wind was howling through the trees, sending autumn leaves churning all around us.
I lost some places on the first climb, and when it got too steep for me to run I tried to take my rain jacket off and stuff it in my bum-bag. This turned out to be harder than it sounds while trying to scramble up a hill in high winds.
Wren Crag is the top of the first climb, then the route follows an undulating series of craggy outcrops, grassy slopes and deep mud around the perimeter of little tarns too small to be named. I battled against the wind with it repeatedly pushing me off-balance and making me unsteady on any exposed rocky sections.
As often happens, I found myself in a game of cat and mouse with a few runners, who I would pass usually on a climb, before they would then catch me up and fly past me with enviable descending ability.
High Rigg is the highest point, and I felt for the marshals stood out in these conditions, even the two collie dogs who are built for it looked unimpressed. From High Rigg there was a steep descent (where I was passed by a few more downhill experts) down to a farm track and then up the final climb.
Coming off Low Rigg there was a great section of downhill through soft springy wintered bracken, I managed to gain enough momentum to hold off anyone snapping at my heels.
At the bottom of the hill we joined the flat cow rutted fields again, this time with tired legs, head-on wind and biting rain. It all sapped any remaining energy I had, but the end was now in sight. I attempted a sprint for the finish line with high-fives from my kids leaning over the wall and cheering me in.
It was a great race in classic Lakes conditions, but I was glad we were heading for a warm pub and a late lunch.
I had finished 42nd overall, 37th in my category, netting me a measly 1 point in the series standing. I vowed to try and work on my descending skills for race 2 in December.
Whilst the majority of my club members were loyally scampering up the hills for the British Fell Relays on Saturday, I was committed to running the Cheshire 10K. I chose this race due a combination of factors: running in my birth county, trying a new race and a mission to find my paternal grandma’s pauper’s grave in Bolton.
The Cheshire 10K was a low-key event, pleasantly so for road races these days which are often “run festivals” sold by large companies. It started in the grounds of stately home Arley Hall and the course took us through closed country lanes. There was a marshall every 1K or so, interestingly always with a tambourine. Congestion was minimal and I was glad to be back in a mass start race so that I could more accurately pace myself with others ( I now realise how much this lack of ability to pace with others in the London marathon due to all the wave starts detracted from that race for me).
I finished in 47.14, 3/24 F50 and 24/227 women (551 runners overall in the race). I ran a better race, my heart rate remained lower than London throughout and I actually enjoyed it!
I found my grandmother’s “grave”, just a patch of grass in a Bolton cemetery; she died aged 40, twenty years before I was born, having committed the crime of bigamy in an effort to escape an abusive marriage, prostituted out by her husband. She had been imprisoned and died soon after, having brought shame on her family, and unentitled to have a proper burial. I mulled over the liberating euphoria of the race compared to the moral control society inflicted on women two generations ago and felt sort of energised and just, frankly, lucky and grateful to be alive.
Perched on the moors above Haworth sits the forlorn Top Withens. Not much remains of this ruined farmhouse, standing as it does roofless and windowless, its grey stones dour and lifeless, long since abandoned. But the hum of visitors and well-trodden paths that lead to it suggest a notoriety not usually reserved for such places. The plaque set in its wall reveals all: this farmhouse served as inspiration for the house of Wuthering Heights.
Not far away, last Sunday, amongst the literary artefacts, flag-stoned paths and russet bracken, I found myself on the start line of the category BM Withens Skyline for my NFLR race debut. Not only that, but this would also be my first ever fell race, NLFR or otherwise, the first time I’d worn a vest and pinned a number on the front. Luckily, Jonathan Coney was also running and was on hand to calm any pre-race nerves, show me the ropes, and lead me on a little warm-up jog.
By the time that clocks down in Haworth were striking 11:30, I and one hundred and thirty-eight runners were gathered in a long-disused quarry to begin the 6.5 mile course – a simple out, up, down and back. Under bright blue skies and a warmth seldom felt in October air the race began: up and out of the quarry, through the car park and onto a muddy path. The initial scramble for places at the start caught me by surprise and over the flat (ish) opening two kilometres I felt slightly stuck behind runners who I was a little faster than.
Once over a small stream though, about a quarter of the way in, running soon turned to walking as the path turned upwards to head onto the moor. Here, my steady start helped as I began to overtake those whose over-exuberant starts were coming back to bite, running as we were now away from the narrow path onto more open moorland, making overtaking feasible. Away from a clear path, the ground grew boggier underfoot and I had a taste of what the race must be like in more typical October weather. Fortunately these bogs were mostly avoidable. I pressed onwards, up onto the top where, at the trigpoint, I was greeted by “King Rat” himself – Mike Ayers – now shorn of his crown, cape and mascots that he worn for effect during the earlier junior races. His encouragement was welcomed as I struggled to turn out a steady rhythm on the flatter, open section of moorland and it was now my turn to lose a couple places as those I’d overtaken on the climb found their second winds.
From the top of the moor, the race descended a series of flagstone steps – mercifully dry in the midday sun – that lead to Top Withens itself, the gloomy abode of Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s tale. I knew though that all this pain was voluntary and by this point was eased by the knowledge that the highest point had been gained and a downhill was to come. Dropping down, I was more or less running alone whilst passing such sites as Brontë Bridge and Brontë Waterfall, clapped on by spectators, devotees of Brontë history, and dog walkers out for their Sunday strolls. I’d have liked to stop for a view, but the sound of footsteps at an unknown distance behind drove me on along the slog which was the final couple of miles.
After a road crossing the end was near, with a final pull up to the finish proving predictably uncomfortable. With the finish line outside the picturesque Haworth West End Cricket club in sight I managed to coax a sprint of sorts out of my heavy legs and crossed the line in good form and high spirits, which rose further when I found out I’d come in 12th. After a cup of water and a rest, I devoured the Curly-wurly that all finishers receive and basked in the warm air, enjoying the convivial post-race chitter chatter. My first fell race is done: I look forward to many more.
This was the first year this race was run and I was curious to try a new cat-A race an hour’s drive away in the Peak District. On paper it looked a straight forward lollipop-shaped course mainly following the Pennine Way with a modest amount of climbing for the distance. However, the on-paper-easiness belied some energy sapping, constantly changing terrain. It was a beautiful day with stunning September sunshine and perfect running temperature.
The first 3/4 of a mile is a flat, gravelled path. With fresh legs and a healthy tailwind, this felt great as I set off. There’s then a section of fairly steep stone steps that makes up a big chunk of the total elevation. Having reccied part of the route, I tried quite hard up the steps, knowing that what lay ahead of this was 2.5 miles of very narrow paths banked by deep heather and very few passing places. The terrain constantly changes from large shards of angular rocks embedded in the earth to sudden, random peat bogs to loose rocks and shale.
It was tiring physically, but also required total concentration up and down. Having finished the descent, I faced what I found the most difficult part of the race; a flat, unchanging, seemingly interminable 3⁄4 of a mile into a headwind. The 1st man was Ben Light of Buxton AC in 1:02:24. first woman was Imogen Jones of Pennine Fell Runners in 1:16:07. I was 7th woman and first V50 in a very small field in 1:31:52.
Having moaned about all the tricky bits, I’d still recommend this race. It’s easy to get to, it has parking and toilets, stunning views and a goody bag of a mug with a picture of Bleaklow, numerous sweeties and bottled water.
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.
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!
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”.