The Old Man of Coniston was the first ever Munro I remember walking up with my parents. This is despite the fact that it is neither a) above 3000ft, or b) in Scotland. Having grown up North of the border, with parents who would occasionally drag us haphazard gang of children up the odd hill, asking if something was a “Munro” was simply a way of gauging how long and awful the day’s outing would be. It didn’t have specific criteria that must be met to earn the badge, it was just a way of figuring out if our efforts would include a really big hill. It wasn’t until I was far too old for it not to be embarrassing, did I realise that The Munros were a defined set. Anyway, the memory of slogging up to the slate mine in sweltering heat, while pouring with sweat, is very clear in my mind. The steep rocky path seemed neverending. Chimes of “are we nearly there yet?” rang in the air almost constantly. I remember the twisted and rusted metal relics of the old mine and how impossibly cold Low Water felt. I even remember my disbelief watching a Speedo-clad old man happily wade in before pushing off for a swim. I couldn’t keep my toes in the water it felt so cold, never mind popping in to do a couple of lengths. I’m not sure if we even made it up the Old Man, but in my mind, we’d definitely climbed a Munro.
I ran the Coniston race for the first time last year, and I’d been mightily happy with my result. I’d come much further up the field than usual and I simply assumed that the race must’ve suited me really well. In reality, it was because there was a championship race the next day, which had massively thinned out the field. Ignorance is bliss. I had run well though, by my standards at least, managing the steep descent straight off the Old Man and hanging on to the speed right until I ran straight past the bridge I was supposed to cross in the final kilometre. The guy who had been just in front suddenly appeared on the other side of the river about 10m to my left. I instantly recognized my mistake, but enthusiastic descending left me unable to run back uphill to the crossing. In the heat of the moment, I dashed straight down the mini ravine separating the two paths and scrambled back up the other side. I’d lost 10 places and a couple of minutes but at least I’d never make the same mistake again. It’s not a route choice I’d recommend.
Race day this year was warm with promise of colder winds higher
up, ideal conditions. It went as it always does, heads bobbing up the road in
waves before the turn onto the fell. I felt great going up this bit last year, but
my legs couldn’t be bothered now. It kept coming. Step, step, step, occasional
scurry over a flatter section, step, step, step. Reaching Wetherlam was a
relief as I joined my running mate Bill. I was glad to have someone to run
with, but also cursing the pace. We leapfrogged back and forth, gaining and
losing distance as the terrain pandered to and protested against our merits and
shortfalls. Up and over Swirl How, and it sped up again. I was trying to gauge
our contours correctly, aiming to skip unnecessary summits without shooting too
wide. I’m on the fence about the efficacy of our strategy, but that happens no
matter which way you choose. Coming off the Old Man, Bill took the rightward
line directly east, and I took a crap line sort of north-east and so we parted
company. The steep and tufted grass was hard to descend with its jutting rocks
and uneven surface. I found myself cutting sharp turns as if I was skiing
moguls, twisting left and right, highly focused on not going arse over tit. The
crapness of my line was made clear as I rejoined the path at the disused
quarry. I’d barely saved any distance on the path, and I still had most of the
awful flagstones to descend. I was however fortunate enough to find myself in
sight of people better acquainted with the route, so I followed them as they
minimized their time on the unforgiving rocky path. Flying down, last year’s
missed turning was at the front of my mind, as I crossed the bridge and joined
the path back to the start. The steep and feet-slapping tarmac made my battered
feet wince, but I still had enough beans left for a sprint finish.
The rest of the day was spent with a quick visit to the slightly bizarre Ruskin Museum, with its interesting juxtaposition of information about the humble origins of life in the Lake District, and Bluebird, the jet-engined hydroplane. Informed, if a little baffled, we sauntered along to the pub to enjoy a great post-race pint of Bluebird X7, and to chat running-related nonsense with the other runners.
Lothersdale has all the makings of a great mid-week fell race. It’s short and steep, costs £3, and you get a bottle of beer, a feat which not only seems to defy the laws of economics but also firmly hoists the flag of virtues that I associate with good races (cheap, no frills, fun and booze). It is held on the Wednesday after the Yorkshire Three Peaks race, so I was under no illusion of hoping for a decent performance, but the sun was out, and the small village hall was bustling with runners. The standard plod up and down the road to shake some life into my legs was met with quite some resistance from my being, but the promise of a short course pushed any concerns away. It’ll be over before it’s even begun, I foolishly convinced myself. Chatting at the start line, I offered the advice I was given from a friend regarding races under 5 miles “Go as hard as you can, and try not to blow up.” That strategy was about to sabotage me a few minutes later.
The race set off up the steep and narrow path and my legs almost
instantly shit themselves. I’m very aware that’s not really physiologically
possible, but I can’t bring to mind a better way to describe it. My chipper
enthusiasm was replaced with dread. Not real dread, like the feeling on a
Sunday before the return to school, when booking a dentist appointment, or
checking your bank balance after an exuberant night on the piss, but more like
the kind of dread when someone unsheathes a bottle of vulgar and exotic spirit
when you’re casually drinking cans. It’s dread with a wink and a chip-toothed
smile, one that provokes fear with a dash of intrigue. Everything felt wobbly,
my legs had gone to jelly, my lungs were puffing harder than the Flying
Scotsman, and I seemed to be moving no quicker than a mobility scooter with a
flat battery in a swamp. The quick pass through the fields and up a track then
pulled down, to my dismay, onto a downhill concrete path. The hard ground and
downward trajectory had me praying to the Gods of Quad to keep my useless pins
from folding under me. I always thought it’d be some giant leap over boulders
in the rain that would gift me my first downhill clatter, but this little
concrete track in the Parish of Craven had other ideas. I rambled my way down,
miraculously avoiding full body contact with the deck and regain the upward
path. The gradient was frustratingly runnable and offered no excuse for
breaking into a walk and any hope of momentary respite. The disparity between
perceived effort and tangible output was laughable, like revving a car to the
red-line but leaving it in first gear. I’m sure my exhaust gasses weren’t too
The summit and its turnaround was reached and wobbled through. My legs were joined by pretty much every other part of my body in the customer services queue to complain to the manager, as I thumped my way down on the solid flagstones. The brief descent on the way out was back again to cause discomfort on the way back up it. Again, the course was too short to justify walking and this tiny stretch jeered at me to falter, and only with oxygen starved exasperation was the tiny mound crested. The final 200m is steep downhill as you’re funneled into the finishing straight, gripped with fear as small children pop out to encourage you, worried that a wrongly placed stride may land you with some difficult explaining to a parent as to why their little darling is now a lot flatter than they used to be. Thankfully the finish line was crossed without issue and I was able to crumple into a heap without any steamrollered children on my conscience.
Safe to say, I don’t think I’ll find a better way to spend £3.
Calderdale Way Relay is the biggest off-road club event, organized by Halifax Harriers. There are six legs that cover the 50 mile run, and teams run in pairs. We fielded a women’s team.
Leg One: West Vale to Cragg Vale, 10.55 miles
I hadn’t done Leg One for a few years but it was the only leg I could even vaguely recall. Cat had done it the previous year so reccying wasn’t required (this is a plus for a non-driver / someone dependent on others). We still got lost on the way to the start though. Once there, there were long queues for registration and generic portable loos [edited to comply with a trademark request!] the last more important when you need more than just a wee. This is where the plumber’s van and buckets are handy. The start was in Clay Park and began with a section of grass running to divide the hares and tortoises before the climb up through woods until Norland Moor. I asked Cat, “Best if I go in front or stay behind’, not sure whether that made me a considerate running partner or a patronising one? She advised that the worst was still to come, as the second part of the 10.5 mile leg is much hillier and also has a few miles on road. I’m not a fan of jumping over rocks on flat moorland so hills and road seemed safer to me.
By halfway we were
overtaking a few and our pacing was good. At the top of the climbs and hitting
a mile of road I’m sure the info said good views of Stoodley Pike could be seen
(it was later on apparently but I still missed it). There were only a few miles
to go once on the tops. The hard work was done, there was a nice flattish grassy
bit and then a downhill. Cat told me she’d tripped and fallen along this bit,
but I didn’t see it, which I felt about but at least spared her blushes. Downhill to the finish and we encounter some Hyde
Park women who have taken the wrong turning. We did shout out to them as we
nipped down in front of them to the single track then the final descent to the
finish. We shouldn’t have told them, as the youngsters (well with faster
mobility) outsprinted us to the end. We arrived a few minutes short of the cut
off time but we’ll put it down to Cat coping with an iron deficiency (and still
managing a great run). We’ll crack it another year.
Leg Two : Cragg Vale to Todmorden, 8.46 miles
Organizing a relay makes herding deaf and blind cats look easy. So for Hilary Lane to get a women’s team out of our boutique-sized club is amazing. But of course as is always the way with relays, there were injuries and illness and obstacles along the way. For all these reasons, it turned out the best option was for me to volunteer to run two legs, so I’d be running Leg 2 with Eleanor and Leg 5 with Hilary. Weirdly, though you’d think there would be plenty of time between the two, there wasn’t, if registration was open for a limited time as it was on our leg (it closed at 9, though the mass start wasn’t until 9.45). In fact, there was so little time that Eleanor and I couldn’t afford to do the usual two car drop (leaving one car at the start and another at the finish) because I would have to get my skates on to get up to Wainstalls, Leg 5 start, in time to register. In short, I began to have relay-organizing stress dreams (as did Hilary) and was weirdly nervous on the morning of the race, but that might be because I had to wake up at 5.30am, a time so early even my cat was puzzled. We made good time to reach the finish at Todmorden, and I’d organized a lift to the start, thanks to the good and kind hearts of Nick and Clare Greenwood of Pudsey Pacers, who had answered my Facebook appeal. Seriously, the transport logistics of relays make running them look like child’s play.
We arrived with plenty of time at the start, unlike last year when Liz and I were strolling down Cragg Vale road, about half a mile from the Hinchcliffe Arms HQ, when we realized we had about four minutes until registration closed. Nothing like a warm-up. There was the usual kit check. I was carrying even more than my usual picnic and camping set, as I had to carry everything I needed for the whole day, including a change of clothes because I would have time to cool off before I ran again, and chilly sweat is not nice. I couldn’t quite fit in a warm hoodie and joggers though, so Hilary was going to bring a pair for me for the finish. We had time for a coffee and a Tunnock’s tea-cake in the pub, which counts as very classy pre-race prep. There were the usual several toilet visits, and then we went to loiter outside, as we thought Kate and Cat had a good chance of making the cut-off. They didn’t though (see above) and so we set off with the mass start, which is good for navigation purposes and also takes some pressure off. We shouldn’t have needed the navigational help, as I’d recced and run the leg last year, and Eleanor had done the Halifax Harriers group recce, but both of us were a bit hazy about the last two miles up and down Tordmorden. Eleanor was worried about her fitness and that she hadn’t been doing much running, so she walked – very speedily, ultra-runner-style –up the long drag to the reservoir. Then she hit the flat and boom! She was off and I was struggling to keep up. In the end, we balanced each other out really well: I had more on the hills and she was Usain Bolt on the flat. Up to Stoodley Pike then a lovely careering descent where it was odd to see absolutely no-one go off-piste but stick to the technical path. I did, fully expecting to encounter some hidden pot-hole which must be the reason all these people were sticking to the path, but I survived. My right knee was grateful for this as it still has three holes in it from an encounter with a rock on Simon’s Seat during Charlesworth Chase.
One of the great things about relays is how quickly they pass because you’re in company. On we went, finally dropping down into Tod where the race route cruelly immediately sends you back out again and via a bloody big hill. At this point, I remembered I had chocolate-covered mint cake in my copious pack, and even better – as Eleanor is vegan – it was dark chocolate. By ‘eck, it tasted good.
We made it to the finish line in 1:22. Then, Wonder Woman style, I did a quick change in the portaloos, emerging not with a gold bustier but a fresh-ish vest and shorts, and we jumped in the car and headed to Wainstalls for the next leg.
Leg Four: Blackshaw Head to Wainstalls Road, 9.36 miles
I knew this leg was going to be tough, one for the fell runners I have heard. I was also partnered with Ann Brydson who has been flying on the fells recently and earned a well-deserved age group win at the Dick Hudson fell race.
We were in the mass start which was very informal, so informal there wasn’t a countdown or whistle, we just ran off after the rest of the runners. Ann led the way for the whole leg, which I expected. It started to feel hard going up Pecketts Well and the merciless climb that came after that until we were on the moors. I am usually a steady strong climber, but had to walk the climbs at times. Ann skipped up all of them like Bambi! Dave Woodhead was taking the obligatory photos. I commented to him that I was struggling, as I did to his wife, Eileen, who was taking photos further along the moor. At this point I was able to have a breather from the relentless climbing, long stretches of flat running, then we were descending down path, road and woods.
I was dreading the last batch of climbing and Ann cajoled, encouraged and verbally dragged me to the finish… at a sprint! Ann and I made the right decision to run in trail shoes as the route was virtually dry. I was surprised we finished in 1 hour 43.36 which was over 30 minutes quicker than the organised reccie by Halifax Harriers that I went on the previous weekend. I wasn’t happy with my performance but proud that the club were able to field a women’s team.
Leg Five : Wainstalls Road to Shelf, 7.55 miles
Eleanor dropped me off at Wainstalls Road which was a huge help as people were parked at least a mile all the way down it. I’d worried about registration closing but they were relaxed about it, and I was pleased that it was my favourite fell-running kind: numbers dispensed out of a car window. I got there about 12.15 and the mass start was at 1pm, so I had time to spend in the very long toilet queue (that’s not a complaint, I’m grateful that Halifax Harriers had portaloos at every changeover). I wasn’t quite sure how best to prepare. Should I stretch? Dynamic stretch? Warm-up? But wasn’t I warmed up already? Or had I cooled down enough in the car? In the end I didn’t do anything but went to the toilet and milled about. I wasn’t hungry either: Aly G from Kirkstall had given me a packet of crisps at the finish in Tod, and I didn’t want anything else. Hilary was very solicitous about whether I needed fuel or drink, but I felt fine. Again, we thought Sharon and Ann might arrive before the cut-off but in the end they didn’t, so we trooped over the stile, familiar to anyone who has done the Yorkshireman, gathered round and then with little ado, we were off. I felt fine, and Hilary and I were well matched. I knew the first few miles from the Yorkshireman but after that I was totally in Hilary’s hands, and she was an excellent navigator, telling me what was coming up before it came up. I was really enjoying myself, partly because it’s a nice route. Then we got to the section of the route where it diverts from the Yorkshireman. We ran down past a little hamlet and I noticed a man hanging over his fence holding a pint, then we reached a table where a man was offering drinks pouring something pale and fizzy out of a jug. Great, I thought, apple juice. I took a cup and a big gulp – the weather was warm – and only after drinking half the cup I realised it was beer. I’ve mostly been teetotal in recent months, and the last bit of alcohol I had was half a pint at the end of Charlesworth Chase. Maybe I am condemned to only drink alcohol while running. I wouldn’t have drunk it had I known it was beer, as I’d be worried my digestion would strongly object. But it was too late now and I was thirsty, and it tasted good, so I finished it. And mostly, my digestion accepted it with good grace.
Hilary had known there would be beer, but I hadn’t read the Leg Five instructions. Mistake. I can’t remember much of the rest of the route, there were twists and turns and tarmac which Hilary didn’t like but on my getting-tired legs seemed like a bit of relief. I mostly felt surprisingly good, and that I was operating on Three-Peaks-training fitness, but then I began to flag a bit on the hills. At one point on a steep climb up a road Hilary put her hand on my back and pushed me up. I was surprised as I hadn’t heard her ask if I wanted her to do that, and I’d never had it done before, but it felt great.
Hilary ran really well, and we got to Shelf in 1:25 which I was pleased with. Then, we jumped into the car and drove to the finish where – thank the lord – they had provided cheese pasties as well as hot pork pies (and a vegan option, of sorts), which was an excellent end to a very long day.
Well done to all our runners, I’m really proud we have such a hardy and dynamic women’s section. In the end we came 78th overall out of 97 teams, with a total time of 09:27:22. But – very impressively – we were 9th women’s team out of 16.
My friend N. doesn’t do much fell running, but now, after marshalling for a few years at Three Peaks, has decided to do it in earnest. She began looking for qualifiers right after the race last weekend, and found Black Fell. Pre-entry but a guaranteed entry for elite runners. She asked a reasonable question: is this normal for a fell race? Isn’t it a bit, well, elitist?
I agreed that it was. And that it wasn’t normal. There’s none of that at fell races usually, I told her. Your changing room is the boot of the car in a freezing car-park on top of a windy hill or in a wet field, you might get a wash in a river if you’re lucky, there are no airs and graces, and no elitism when you can mix with Brownlees and their ilk in the pub afterwards.
N. had run Dick Hudson’s last year and decided to do it again. It was my first time running it. I wasn’t sure my legs were up to it as they’ve been sore with DOMs all week, but by Thursday that had worn off. And who can resist a race named after a pub?
The weather didn’t look promising, and it didn’t sound promising when the rain pounded on the skylights in my house just before we were due to set off. I suspected Wharfedale Harriers wouldn’t require full kit but I took it anyway, and we headed to Ilkley. We found Hilary, Emma, Ann and Clare already in the car park, and set off up to what Wharfedale calls the Barrier car park (but I and Google call the White Wells car park). There, for N, was a perfect fell race set up: numbers being dispensed out of the back of a van. I reckon there were about 150 by the time we gathered at the barrier (I was 100). The rain had stopped, my jacket had been put away, and we were off. I was carrying water and a jacket; many runners had no kit at all.
N. had told me that everyone goes however they like up the ridge, and I watched people go up two different routes, both of which looked short and steep and soft underfoot, but I followed the people going the conventional way up to White Wells. I thought I’d be walking most of this climb but my legs did an extraordinary thing and kept running. I kept Ann in my sights because she’s such a good climber, and managed to stay with her until the top of the moor when it flattened out and she zoomed off. I’d looked at the map before setting off and knew it was an out and back and that we went past the Twelve Apostles, but I couldn’t remember ever running the route to Dick Hudson’s before. I know the moors of Ilkley and Rombald enough to recognise paths, but not enough that I can’t get lost. Even so I didn’t pay much attention to where I was heading but just followed the Otley man in front of me. There were a few miles of nice gradient, though it was rocky and tricky. I heard someone fall behind me and turned to look, but she had people helping her so I carried on. It turns out it was Clare, who twisted her ankle and had to walk back. (Hope you recover quickly Clare.)
It was raining by now and I was cold but I was running well enough that I decided to run through it. I’d had a tough time at Three Peaks with cramp, so I was taking advantage of the months of training that were in my legs. Onwards, and then a strange thing started happening, and a few people overtook me who seemed to be young, quick men. I couldn’t understand why: were they just having a bad day? But I dismissed the mystery and perservered, all the way to the final steep field and the descent to Dick Hudson’s pub, where I shouted my number to the sodden-looking but cheerful marshal, touched the gate, turned round and set off back.
I got through the gate again and there was Rowan from Kirkstall coming towards me. This made no sense. He is tremendously quick. But sometimes he likes to float around races so I thought perhaps this was one of them. Perhaps he had chosen an uphill route to the ridge that had been really long? But I put it out of my mind because I had to concentrate on what was feeling like a slog, because it was (nice long descent = not so nice uphill return). My legs were heavy and I was cold. But the time and distance passed, and we got to the flagstones, and I managed to get some places by hurtling down the flagstones. Then it happened again, that much faster runners were overtaking me. I gave way to a couple, as I could hear their speed was greater than mine, and by now we were on narrow trods, as I’d followed people going the softer way back past the conifers and bypassing White Wells. I didn’t much want to be hefted into the bracken by someone who couldn’t control his momentum so giving way was self-preservation.
I enjoyed the descent, although my contact lens was giving me trouble, making it harder than it should have been to see all the rocks and obstacles, particularly now the evening was turning to dusk. But I stayed upright until just before the path, when I apparently decided a bum-slide would be better. Then a quick pelt downhill to the finish, which in good fell-race tradition was someone taking numbers at the barrier.
With the post-race milling around, I learned the answer to the mystery of the improbably quick yet behind-me blokes. They had all got lost.
What? On an out-and-back?
Not that I can laugh, having got lost on Ingleborough out-and-back. But I’d got lost in thick clag. And these moors were our local ones. And Wharfedale Harriers had put a map on their website. Straight out, straight back. I heard a couple of varieties of lostness: Rowan said he’d ended up at a barn (maybe the shooting hut on Burley Moor?). Others said they turned left after Twelve Apostles rather than going straight on, which would take them to Horniman’s Well. Most had done a mile and a bit extra, including David from Chapel A, who I have never before beaten in a race and never will again.
I really love evening fell races, and this was a beauty: the gathering twilight of the moor, the silence studded by the sound of thudding feet and sometimes a bird, the feeling when you finish that you can’t think of anything else you’d rather have done with your evening, then the satisfying fatigue that comes from effort, that rolls you into your bed, where you run the race all over again in your dreams.
This was my third year of running Heptonstall Fell Race. The first year it rained all the way round. The second year I got lost. And here I am again on the cobblestones, listening to a kindly vicar say actually very sensible Christian things (I am an atheist but think there is a lot of sense in the Bible). He said he had tried to find quotes appropriate to what we were about to do, so he wished us perseverance, and also — though I forget the exact phrasing — to go forth and find fellowship while running. It was nice, and I was grateful for it, because I was dreading the race. My nerves were all over the place, and they weren’t calmed by me setting off for the toilets 15 minutes before the start and realising I had forgotten to put in my contact lens. I would still have been able to see, but my lens helps me pick out tree roots and rocks and I knew there would be plenty of both on the route. So I had to run quarter of a mile up the road to the field of car parking, put in my lens in a state of panic, which is the state in which it usually takes me 10 minutes and several lenses to get it right, then run down to the start and hope I didn’t need the toilet again.
What was I nervous about? I’d run the Yorkshire vets race the day before. (Yorkshire Veterans Athletics Association, not animal doctors.) I don’t normally do double-header weekends, but I hadn’t done many vets races last season, and they are friendly and fun. They are also oddly encouraging because when you are passed by people 20 years older than you (you know this because you wear your age category on your back), it is inspiring, not demoralising. It’s my last year in the F45 category, and it’s going to get no easier in F50 because there’s some fiercely good over-50s. Also inspiring.
The race was only five miles long, and it was around Middleton Park, which is a nice wooded area of Leeds. But I found it very tough. I ran most of the hills, but still, I had heavy legs, and I was slower than I’d expected. I can explain some of that. As part of HRT, I have to take progesterone for 10 days a month. This is the progesterone time, and it always makes me depressed, dopey, bloated and ravenous. Taking progesterone for 10 days is like being prescribed PMT for ten days. Fun.
So I was worried I’d feel like as sluggish as I had at the Vets. And I had usual pre-race nerves too. In short, I was really good company. At registration, the women handing out the numbers complimented me on my handwriting (I was probably the only person who’d filled out the FRA form with a calligraphy pen) then asked if I minded having number 13. I said no, because how could things go worse than last year?
There were lots of people I knew also doing the race — I spotted fellow NLFR Adam, Andrew and Martin variously in toilet queues and doing pre-race warm-ups though as often happens we weren’t organised enough for a team photo — and we gathered together at the start. Amongst them were Louise and Izzy, who like me have been getting run coaching for the last eight weeks from my partner Neil, who is now fully qualified as a coach and has set up as Run Brave coaching (website to come, Facebook page here). We have all noticed major improvements in form and understanding, and we have all been getting really good race times. When I ran Rombald Stride, I felt great, and ran all the runnable bits, which doesn’t normally happen, and got a 20 minute PB over a 23 mile race.
But that seemed a long way off as we waited on the cobblestones for the vicar to blow his horn (that is not code). The race organiser gave his announcements and said that the route was more flagged than last year, which was good news for me. And then we were off. And as soon as I started running, I realised:
This was going to be OK. I felt good. I felt strong.
And I felt strong nearly all the way round, for 14.8 miles of tracks and trods and bogs and fields and hills and becks and paths, and 2,905 feet of climb. We had done a recce of the route a few weeks earlier, but although I could remember parts, I couldn’t remember which order they came in, and there were long stretches I’d forgotten, and only remembered when I got to them. But I knew that after the climb up the cobblestones, there was a short sharp descent into the woods, then, immediately, a steep climb back up to the top of the valley that we had just descended. And that is the joyous perversity of Heptonstall all over, and I love it. I knew I was going to be OK when I found myself running up the fields. I deliberately use “found myself” because it seemed like an impulse that was not a decision. It happened again and again: my brain said, you’re tired, but then my legs started to run. A strange but wonderful feeling that I remembered from Rombald Stride. Here is a good illustration of how I felt on Rombald’s:
Heptonstall has cut-offs, a phrase I usually dread, but they are more generous than the Three Peaks ones, so I put them out of my head and just resolved to do my best. FRB, trying to calm me down before the race, when I had made a comment yet again about getting lost, advised me to keep my map handy and look at it whenever I was walking uphill, and locate myself on it by remembering the checkpoints. Of course I forgot to take my map out of my pack. And for the first three checkpoints, there were plenty of people around, and throughout the race, an extremely generous amount of flags. I knew though that things would get stretched out at CP3. Before that, there was what felt like a very very long nav section over open moorland. It was flat/undulating, but the bogs sapped the legs, and we were only a couple of miles in. It felt like it would never stop.
But it did because it always does. We passed a standing stone, where a cheery fellow was dispensing “well done”s to everyone (a fact I appreciate when some supporters only cheer for their own club mates), then to the trig, round the trig and off to a delightful descent. At this point during the recce I had fallen over, and so I decided to do the same thing. I was trying to overtake a man in front, but just as I approached him, my brain said, “he’s wearing a green t-shirt, I wonder if he’s a Chapel Allerton runner” when it should have been saying, “there’s a cunningly hidden tussock there, watch your step.” But I didn’t and I went flying, nearly taking out the man in green. It was a soft landing though — my brain had planned that bit right — so apart from some scraped skin and muck on my elbow, I was fine. Bounce, and back up. I’d worked on my bouncing skills on Rombald’s, where I fell three times, once on ice, twice over my own feet. On the third fall, Louise had said with admiration, “you actually did a commando roll.”
I can’t remember the next stretch, the time passed, the moor rose up to meet me, and then we were descending to the beck, and up a steep road to a steep hill. I knew the road because it’s part of the Widdop fell race, so I steeled myself to run up it. I turned the corner and there, like a vision, was a mass of Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team, red-dressed angels perched on a wall. They were fantastic. They are fantastic anyway because of what they do, but here they were cheering everyone and being a big puff of sheer goodwill, and I thought they were great.
Up a very steep bank, onwards, and then I can’t remember the next stretch until the reservoir, and I remembered to cut down through the grass, because I’d gone wrong there the first year, and then there was a long long track up to High Rakes, and I ran and kept running, and still felt good. I had the usual picnic with me, and I made sure to fuel. But actually I didn’t have much over three hours: a mouthful of raisins, a gel, a small piece of Kendal mint-cake and a jelly-baby. Ahead of me was Aileen, a really impressive 60+ runner from Stainland Lions. She is super steady, so I followed her. FRB had asked me what my tactics were, and I had come up with “not get lost” but look, here I was being tactical. As in, hang on to Aileen.
Later, we got to the dell where I had got horribly lost the year before. There was no chance of that this year, because I had learned during the recce where the route went, and even if I failed to turn on the right bridge, as I’d done last year, I knew how to find the route and most importantly where it was. We’d only been about 100 metres away from it the year before. There was also no chance because the marshals were on the crucial bridge this year. Some of the marshals were scouts — thank you scouts — and one of them was sitting on a rock with a clipboard, asking quite quietly for numbers, and when I first saw him I thought he was a woodland sprite. Over the stream and up the steep bank, along the track and keeping an eye for the flag on the left that signalled another steep climb.
I will mention my shoes, because I ran on plenty of hard surfaces during this race and they should have been hurting but weren’t. Two weeks ago I’d fallen for the hype around Inov-8’s £140 Graphene Mudclaws. Graphene for the extraordinary lugs, a Kevlar upper. My friend Chris had got a pair and worn them on the recce and kept saying with wonder, “they’re like slippers”. It’s difficult to imagine a pair of shoes built for serious mud and bog and rocks could feel like slippers. Another friend had got a pair and said she was thinking of wearing them for the Three Peaks because the cleats were so big, they were actually really comfortable on hard surface (of which there is plenty on the Three Peaks route, a race you could probably do in road shoes). I’d only worn mine for the first time the day before on the Vets’ race, and the toe box was narrower than I was used to, and I worried my wide feet would start to suffer. But I decided to wear them, and they were brilliant. I got a sore little toe, but otherwise: superb grip, and comfortable even on hard tracks. Not quite slippers, but not far off.
(I’m never going to wear those gaiters though.)
Also I managed to keep them on my feet. Heptonstall includes an infamous bog, where fell runners have disappeared and not been found for centuries. Not really, but it is deep and it is wide and it is boggy. The official advice had been to sweep round it from the left, but I followed the people in front as they didn’t appear to be sinking and went straight through and it was barely a bog at all. By that I mean, I got wet to my calves but no higher, and I kept my shoes to myself.
The shoes were a conversation starter too because as I went over a stile somewhere or other someone behind said, “are those the Graphene Mudclaws?” and we struck up a conversation and stayed talking more or less for the rest of the route, finishing together. Nice to meet you Nick.
I had a couple of weak moments where I looked at how many miles had gone by and how many miles there were to go. At one point Nick tried the “there’s only a park run to go” and I responded as I usually do to this, with, “but I don’t want to do a park run.” I passed a family of walkers, with youngsters, and tried to distract myself by asking the sister and then the brother whether they were going to be fell runners. The sister said nothing and ran up to her brother for sanctuary. The brother said, “no.”
Another example of my conversational skills: I am very grateful to marshals who stand out in all weathers, and I too have marshalled in all weathers. I try to convey my compassion by saying, “I hope you’re warm enough.” For the first time, when I reached this man on top of his knoll, the conversation went like this:
Me: I hope you’re warm enough.
Him: No, I’m not.
*Runner pauses, desperately thinks what to say to make things better*
Me: There’s not a lot I can do about that. Sorry.
*Runner runs off, perfectly warm.*
The weather: the forecast had been for 10 degrees, not too much wind. But this was the proper tops. At registration, the air was biting, and FRB, as hardy as they come, was questioning his choice of bringing only a vest. I ran in a vest and long-sleeves and I was fine. Afterwards he said he was fine too, but he has more body hair than I do.
Something odd happened in the last few miles: I got better. I overtook people, including Aileen (this rarely happens). And I still felt good, and my legs still moved by themselves.
The final mile is particular. You run along a beck, along a conduit, and then reach the Stairs of Hell. I hadn’t had to climb these last year because I’d got lost way before then. And in 2017 it was pouring so hard all the way round, the stairs were a relief from the weather, no matter how steep they were. (They’re actually steps not stairs but by the time you are halfway up you won’t be thinking about vocabulary except the swearing kind.) They are definitely steep, but they passed soon enough. And I knew that what was to come would feel harder even though it wasn’t, because there were two fields to get up on exhausted legs, before the finish field. Heavy legs and grass: it’s funny how many race organisers end their races with that sapping combination. But the inexplicable strength continued, and I ran where before I would have walked, and then there we were at the finish field, and I’d had such a nice time that I didn’t even mind seeing all the dozens and dozens of people quicker than me who were already strolling back to their cars. But I put on as best a downhill sprint as I could, and encouraged Nick to do the same. Later, some friends said, “we were urging you to beat that man you were running behind”. But I didn’t need to: because he’d been very good company, and because he had arrived too late to register so he was running as a ghost and it didn’t matter whether I beat him or not.
I got to the finish, my lucky 13 was cut off me, there was Neil looking fresh though chilly (he’d finished with a superb 15-minute PB in 2 hours 35 minutes so he’d been there long enough to be on his third flapjack). I didn’t know what time I’d done until later, but when I did I nearly fell over although I was sitting down. 3 hours and ten minutes. That is, 24 minutes quicker than I’d done in 2017.
My fellow Run Braver Louise had got a PB of 25 minutes, and Izzy had had a storming run on her first attempt. The moral is: structured run coaching is very good for you.
I don’t think I ran faster. I think I ran more. Everything that was runnable, I ran. I ran more of the inclines where before I would have walked. I remembered to think about my form and technique and when I did remember, to make adjustments to make things easier: to remember to move my arms when I’m tired, to lift my knees when my legs are knackered, to hold myself high on hills and use shorter strides.
It worked. I had a wonderful time. It is a fabulous race route with beautiful scenery, and afterwards they give you flapjack and more food. I’m very proud of myself and conclude that I should now only run races that are blessed by vicars. See, coach, I do have tactics, of sorts.
Having done numerous mountain marathons and a lot of night running, when I was asked if I wanted to join my MM buddy Toby on this adventure I thought it seemed a great opportunity to combine the two. The fact that I hadn’t done any long distance stuff for over a year and would have only four months to prepare for it didn’t seem a problem at the time. The problem is four months goes very quickly and I definitely hadn’t covered enough miles or hills but hey ho let’s give it a go.
There are various routes, Linear where you follow a fixed series of checkpoints (46k 38k, 34k and 28k) and Open Score over 8,10 or 12 hours where you choose which check points you visit where the aim is collecting points. We were doing the Short Open Score at 8 hours. Registration started at 5pm, our start time was 10:24pm so we didn’t arrive til nearly 8pm by which time the elites and Long Score (12 hour ) had already set off. As we arrived, it started raining!
The registration tent was filled with lots of runners clad in a wide range of very technical gear, all of it designed to cope with some very serious weather. We were clearly in for a treat! We all had to carry full kit — including tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, spare clothes, cooker, pot — so rucksacks all looked pretty full. The weather forecast was for more rain (snow on the tops) which would clear up at around 2am with plummeting temperatures and rising winds. This was pretty accurate as it turned out.
Tea was provided and consumed then we got ourselves ready and presented ourselves to registration and kit check. This done, it was a matter of waiting for the off. We met Cat and Alison, who doing the C course, who arrived later as their start time was about 10.45pm.
At the appointed time we dibbed at the start, collected our maps and set off. The aim on an Open Score is to have an idea of how the whole round will look from the start. You have to have an eye on getting back in time but be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities you find on the way. Coming in late costs points, and if you are more than 30 minutes late you generally lose them all so planning a fast route back picking up easy checkpoints happens at the start.
Nav in the dark is all a matter of practice, good map reading and trusting your compass. We found only on our third checkpoint that depressions lined with gorse make quite good positions, not necessarily to ‘hide’ a control but to make it difficult to see unless you are almost on top of it so our route trace is a bit circular at this point. From then on it was pretty good and bar one, easy enough to find all the controls we visited. It was all about pace and running where we could and choosing the routes with least climbing and most running. Unfortunately hills are part of the event and unavoidable. The rain stopped for longer and longer periods. Our waterproofs did as much to keep the sweat in as keep the rain out so we were just as wet and began to get cold in the increasing exposure as we climbed.
I found at about 2:30am I was beginning to flag. This was now into overtime as far as my training had gone. I tried to eat but found it increasingly difficult. A half pork pie from Toby and drinks from steams helped but I was getting slower. Going up steep hills became a serious effort. The top of Loadpot hill in snow and high winds is not the place to decide you’ve had enough and want a rest. The water in our water bottles was freezing even with electrolyte tabs in so we had no choice but to press on. Toby was very accommodating and did most of the navigating from this point with a few comments and suggestions from me. However a handful of jelly babies, water and a caffeine tablet boosted me and being on familiar ground made it easier. We sped up and picked up several more checkpoints finishing much more strongly than might have been anticipated 3 hours earlier. The skies had cleared, the stars were sharp and the moon bright but waning. It turned out that 5am was a wonderful time to be out in the hills.
Tired but satisfied. We had tried our best given my lack of preparation, and we came in with 13 minutes to spare, with 380 points and having covered 21-22 miles. We ended up winning the Vet competition and coming 4th overall. We bypassed one checkpoint by about 100m but Toby thought that more climbing probably wasn’t the best for me at the time we pushed on downhill. Had we got that we would have come 2nd. The winners though were much further ahead and we wouldn’t have caught them. Fourth is a good place and winning the Vets was great.
Then: breakfast, a damp kip in the car for an hour, prize-giving and the long drive home to a hot bath and the blessings of sleep! As for Cat and Allison, we didn’t see them at the end. We later discovered that half way round Allison had a simple fall but managed to dislocate her patella and rupture her tendon and had to be rescued by the events team. Cat spent the morning in hospital with her where they are likely to operate tomorrow. [Update: surgery went well]. Well done to Cat for her first aid and helping rescue Alison and we all hope that Alison makes a speedy recovery. This is a great event and well organised and if anyone is up for some adventure I would heartily recommend this.
This running and/or walking event was previously organised by the LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association), and is now run by the Halifax Sea Scouts (as Cat commented, Halifax couldn’t be further from the sea but apparently they do lots of water activities).
I am not a regular of events starting near enough in the dark (8am) but my
attendance this time was made possible with a welcome lift. I’d only entered
the 15 miler, Cat and Alison were doing the full 22 miles. (You can decide to
do 22 once you get to 15 or opt to do 15 if not up for the 22: a very generous
The event starts in Mytholmroyd, takes in part of Hardcastle Craggs and
skirts Blackshaw Head & Stoodley Pike. There are a few strenuous climbs, a
mix of terrain & 4 checkpoints on route (on the 15), with a mile or so on
road near Hardcastle Crags and at the of the 15-mile route, but not the 22. The
event prides itself on the refreshments offered, during and after exertions.
Someone had complained of no cake at checkpoint 3 (after 3.5 miles). It must
have been a walker.
I was very glad I had recced as the route wasn’t marked and at Stoodley
Pike there was very poor visibility and snow. Fortunately I had others to tag
on to before they carried on to do the 22 mile route. I would definitely do the
Hebden again if training for a longer race but the event fills up quickly, the entries
open in August and are full within a week or two, so it’s one for the diary.
I had forgotten what off-road long distance (for me) is like, it’s been nearly
two years since I completed a race this long. I recognized that
just-about-moving feeling when totally spent. All in all it was an enjoyable,
well-organised event with lots of post-race food and a Scouts waiter service.
Well done to Cat and Alison for going the whole 22 miles!
Simonside Cairns, Totley Two Turtle Doves and the Soreen Stanbury Splash.
So 2018 has
rushed past, as every year seems to. The highs of countless days running in the
Lake District and the lows of injury troubles seem long behind.
foray into Northumberland for the Hexhamshire Hobble at the start of December,
I rushed back the week after for the Simonside Cairns race. I guess I had just
reminded me of how much I miss the place. Rothbury, where the race is held, is
also the town where I spent many Wednesday evenings training Cumberland
Westmorland Wrestling in the school hall, practicing our hipes, hanks,
cross-buttocks and inside heels. We were always chatting on with the parents of
the younger kids, relaying their progress and offering encouragement: each younger generation being the key to the
survival of this small traditional sport.
these frequent visits, I’d never actually gone up Simonside. There’s great rock
climbing up there as well as the walking and running trails but I’d never made
it for one reason or another.
The day was
proper bluebird. Clear skies and a crisp winter air that almost had a crunch to
it. The low winter sun cast a warming orange light, even through the midday
hours. The purple bracken complimenting the burnt umber of the earth. If I’m
honest, I only made these observations so clearly because I spent most of the
race staring at the ground in front of me, as I doggedly plodded along.
enough for a couple laps up the street to warm the legs before it’s down to the
alleyway for the start. Packed into our tight corridor, we are read our rights
and the race is off. A quick burn takes you out of the town and up the hill
onto the moor. No chance for let-up even on the rolling moors as the pace is
fast. I buzz past a cheery local belting out Christmas songs on a harmonica, a
moment of levity to break the monotony of exertion. Quick feet are needed to
keep you from losing a shoe into the mud. It’s pretty boggy in places and the
wooden platforms are slicker than ice. After almost decking myself in a
cartoon-like manner, I opt to avoid the platforms. This works well until I land
thigh-deep in ice-cold bog. The platforms are there for a reason, I guess.
Nipping through the forest, I’m greeted mid-run by the greatest sight of all, a
checkpoint with Jelly Babies. The sugary infant forms take away any malice from
my bog encounter and then it’s up to Simonside. The views are fantastic. The
slight ridgeline from Simonside to Dove Crag wanders down in front of you is a
line that’s just asking to be run along. And with this great scene comes evidence
of a more populated and well-trodden route. Nothing out of hand, but enough to
need stone laid on the path to prevent erosion. A stone-laden descent always
brings a bit of a grimace to my face, and I opt for spongy mud and moss every
time where possible, but I manage to nip a few places ahead anyway. My feet are
skipping down at a high tempo, like I’m playing some extreme form of hopscotch.
One wrong foot and it’ll be an expensive trip to the dentist! After regaining
the path that we had taken up from town, it’s a case of emptying the tank and
trying not to explode. This goes well, until I reach a junction and my brain
stops working entirely. I have absolutely no memory of where to go. Fortunately
someone less useless is just behind and we’re back on track. Down the road,
over the bridge, try and not throw up at the finish. An absolute cracker.
Back at the
pub it’s bustling with happy runners clutching their cups of soup (with many
compliments to the chef!). I nip outside and catch my old wrestling coach
Jason. He’s a tall and proud Northumbrian, a champion wrestler at several
weights and his massive hand engulfs mine as he thrusts it out to say hello. I
can’t help but smile ear to ear: it’s good to see him. We pop up the road to a
quieter pub to have a catch up. He fills me in on the details of local goings
on – some grave but many not – we have a proper loud laugh at some of the
dafter wrestling memories and speculate on the future of the sport. “Three
pints and some chips” is probably not the optimal post-race meal, but I left
the pub full up of everything: the scenery, the running, seeing an old friend.
I’m a bit of an emotional sod, but some days are just good for the soul.
Simonside, festive chaos seems to engulf life and everything around it, like some shitty, tinsel laden black hole.
Days fly by, activity drops but calorific consumption skyrockets, and before I
know it, Boxing Day has arrived, I’ve put on half a stone, turned 30 and I’m
smashing it down the motorway, trying to make it to Totley on time for the
race. My partner drops me off as I run into the cricket grounds to try and
register. Fortunately for me, plenty of others are still on festive time so I’m
far from the last to sign up. I even spot a club-mate, Sharon Williams, after
expecting to be the only blue stripe [ed:
surely you mean “sash”] representing NLFR. There’s even time for a couple
quick warm-up laps of the cricket field. I feel quite good, which bizarrely is
a bad sign. Good legs can only get worse, while bad ones can only get better.
This holds true, and after a pointlessly enthusiastic starting lap of the
field, everything goes to shite. Head pounding, legs unresponsive and will to
continue wavering. The race is only five miles, so my strategy was always going
to be to go out as hard as you can and just try to hang on. I’m definitely
going as hard as I can, I’m almost hanging on, but I’m just not really going
anywhere. Those mince pies and festive indulgences come at a price, and I’m not
going to be able to settle the bill today. Hyperbole aside, it’s a great little
course over woodland trail, with a couple decent climbs to keep you working.
Once we’re over the top, it’s a stomp back down, gaining some track and then
onto the road. The tarmac trying to jiggle free last night’s Christmas Dinner.
Fortunately for all involved, I manage to prevent any gastronomical
reemergences, and I rag myself round a final lap of the cricket field to the
finish. Any performance-based grievance is instantly washed from my memory as I
try and huff as much oxygen back into my blood as possible. There isn’t a
better way to spend your 30th I reckon.
New Years came and went. More festivities, more indulgences. January begins and life starts to normalise again. The scales inform me of the incurred cost of my debauchery: over half a stone this time. Not that I needed the scales to tell me, my squidgy midsection had done that already. Either way, all debts must be paid in full. New Year’s resolutions never really made sense to me, but this year my dietary digressions have me reconsidering their benefits. Strict no alcohol rules are dropped on the household. Remaining Christmas chocolates are cast deep into the cupboard. I’m even cutting down on my bread habit (not the easiest task for someone who works as a baker).
Now all that’s left is to actually do some bloody running, and what better way
to start the year’s racing than with the Soreen Stanbury Splash. Guaranteed to
chastise you for your holiday sloth and gluttony, the local winter classic is a
must. Count me in.
The day arrives, and so does the weather (does it ever leave Penistone Hill?). (Ed—no.)
Sideways rain and wind gusting to 50mph wipe the smile off my face. The decision to get out of bed seems so unwise. Even just running up to registration seems like a battle, the winds letting their presence known straight away. Packed into the tiny cricket club hut are countless kids wrapped in cagoules, on the hunt for their hard earned goody-bags, senior runners eyeing each other up, trying to figure out if we’re actually about to do this. Alas, the form is filled out, cash handed over and number received. The contract is made. Nothing left to do now other than a nip to the most weather exposed porta-loo I’ve ever been in. I’m filled with nightmarish thoughts of the thing being blown over with me in it which kindly hasten my ablutions. Business completed, it’s off to the start. There’s a steep and very muddy slope which people are heading down towards the quarry where the race begins. The couple in front are trying to hang onto the grassier verges to avoid slipping. None of that nonsense for me. Straight down, run it out, no problem, all in good style, until the faceplant into the muddy puddle at the bottom, of course. With this fantastic opening gambit, I join the huddle of runners hiding from the wind and realise I’m also one of about only four runners who opted for vest only. It’s just going to be one of those days.
The briefing is brief, and off we go! Someone in front goes down instantly. I manage to avoid them but I’m swept past before I can see if they regain their feet before the trampling herd does their worst. I’d definitely better pay attention I think.
first burst out of the quarry, it’s a romp up some hard track, before you’re
posted down the field into your first splash. The people in front are a touch
hesitant, allowing me a big leap ahead, almost acquiring my second faceplant of
the day. The wind across my face is cold enough to make it droop numbly on one
side, I’m lucky to have dodged the cameras I reckon. Along to the second
“splash” of the race and I manage to leap the gap (much to the astonishment of
both myself and the bloke beside me). Grabbing handfuls of heather, I quickly
propel myself up the short scramble out of the ravine and back into the wind.
I’m not the slightest of builds – something that I often curse at on steep
climbs – but with the wind blowing as it was, I was actually quite glad for my
heft planting me to the ground for once. The same wind that we’ve been
struggling against is suddenly whipped behind us as we make the turn at half
way. My cold legs actually struggle to keep pace with this rapid extra
propulsion, although it’s a very enjoyable problem to have! Romping down the
track and road feels bloody great. The weather might be crap, but it’s fun in
its own way and everything’s better with the wind into your back.
into the grassy field where the first river crossing is, I notice I have nil
grip in my trail shoes on the trodden path, I try to pull wide onto fresher
ground to keep upright, but the slope quickly steepens, there’s nothing for it
but to commit and kick my legs out and launch into the best bum-slide of my
career thus far. Highlight of the race to be honest. After that, the final mile
practically feels like a sprint, and I’m into the tea queue at the hut before I
know it. The tiny shelter is packed with the smiling faces of runners as giddy
as myself. To think I almost stayed in bed!
Is there a better way to spend a sunny winter Sunday morning than Mytholmroyd Fell Race? Probably, but it was pretty unbeatable for those who did it. Two steep climbs and fast muddy descents makes this a smile bringer, especially with a craft beer to sup on the finish line.
I arrived there with Wharfedale’s Dave McGuire with moments to spare, our “dav-nav” having malfunctioned. Starting at the back of the field I worked my way up and through the field on the long first climb before the open fell. P&B’s Graham Pilling caught me up and we spent the rest of the race pushing each other.
The descent to the finish was very muddy and needed some decent grip. I couldn’t quite keep up with Graham, but was happy with 22nd out of 150-odd.
My hopes for a v50 prize were extinguished by the sight of Ian Holmes and Mike Fanning languishing by the finish line. So I consoled myself with a besting of my navigator.
NLFR’s Rose, Catriona and our new member Stuart also ran and had big smiles at the finish.
I’ve had a pretty good year so far. I planned to train for, and then run a proper Lakes AL. From January to June I put the hours and miles in, culminating with the Ennerdale fell race at the start of June. My little training chart — compiled by a mystical computer algorithm — had a lovely upward trending squiggle. And I do love a bit of data-based reassurance. I was running well and completed my goal (albeit with a performance slightly dampened by a cold) so I promptly took a few weeks off.
My little squiggle took a downward turn, but with my desires sated, that wasn’t a concern. Training and rest must be balanced carefully if you want the scales of performance to tip in your favour, after all. But then Kentmere Horseshoe appeared on the horizon. It had been my first Lakes race the previous year and I was keen to see if I’d actually improved since then. It’s a cracking race; long and steep enough to put you to work, but not so serious as to scare you off.
A work stint in Carlisle gave me the perfect base for a bit of fitness rebuilding. I managed to make some quick hits on Scafell, Skiddaw, the Buttermere Sailbeck, and Striding Edge, to name a few, and my squiggle ascended accordingly. I was primed for Kentmere. The race brought some testing conditions, which resulted in countless route variations (or detours, depending on who you ask) but it was a fantastic day nonetheless. Placing further up the field than before, I was happy with my improvements and started to plan out the rest of the summer’s races.
I returned to my local training ground — the Otley Chevin — with great fervour, stomping up the track with great intention. Cresting the top of the climb with a newfound momentum, and pulling round the corner, my foot somehow didn’t quite land underneath me and with an horrific crunch I stumbled to the floor in a pile of curses and pain. The summer’s racing plan almost visibly evaporated before me.
A dog walker enquired if I needed assistance but I declined, either from denial or embarrassment, I’m still not sure which. I hobbled back down the track to the car. Surely it can’t be so bad if I can walk on it?
Once again the squiggle tumbles, this time for two months. Eight weeks of holidays, stag dos and weddings later, I’ve ridden that downward squiggle like a party rollercoaster. Kilograms gained, fitness lost. I might as well take up tiddlywinks.
And then up pops a little message from Dom.
“Can you run in the Fell Relays?”
Which brings me to the bit I actually meant to write about: The British Fell Relay Championships. They are organised by Ambleside AC and held in Grasmere, and NLFR fielded four teams, no mean feat for a small club. Shrouded in darkness, we piled onto the bus on a dreary Saturday morning. I was to be running the first leg, a hearty five mile romp with 2400ft of climb. I avoided looking at the route in advance, choosing to remain in blissful ignorance; I knew it was going to hurt and that was sufficient. Either good fortune or foresight had me on a fully flagged route, something I was definitely happy about upon our arrival at a very claggy Grasmere.
The marquee was absolutely buzzing with teams from all around the country getting down to their pre-race rituals. Reassuringly, everyone seemed to be juggling dibbers, numbers and maps, with expressions of less than total comprehension. This is the cottage sport of fell running not the Olympics, after all.
Soon enough the time rolls round to switch into race gear. I do the classic awkward shuffle into my shorts and vest, trying to use my hoody to shield my sliver of dignity. I head for a quick trot up the hill to get some blood back into my legs. They feel as rubbish as you’d expect after a few hours on a coach. It was a bit of a shock. Even walking the hill felt pretty hard going, and it’s only about 200m from the start. Not the greatest omen, but with the swirling fog and tense atmosphere, today wasn’t a day to let superstitious thoughts get the better of me. I trundled back down to the start with 20 minutes to go, launch prep commenced final ablutions, a quick scoosh of caffeine-charged energy gel, a swill of water, a kiss to my partner, and a saunter to the pen. The sight of a familiar face – Bill from Chorley – helped break the tension. We laughed at the ridiculousness of our nerves; it’s only a run up a hill anyway. I make the slight error of not jostling my way to the front, but before I had time to adjust position, we were off!
Races always set off fast, and so should you [really? —ed]. I don’t. Well, not fast enough anyway. The first steep climb was as unpleasant as expected but it turned into a speedy bit of track soon enough and the pace shot off. It felt great to be smashing along the winding path as it slowly gained in incline. Steady and fast for just over a mile, and I felt a touch regretful for not pushing harder for position at the start, now locked into the locomotion of runners snaking their way up the path, pace dictated by your allotment in line. This is what cross-country must feel like. The path steepened again, my heart was pounding and lungs pumping, but a cursory glance at my watch told me there was less than a mile to go. A mile to the top of the climb that is, the only marker that matters for a gravity-burdened plodder like myself.
Checkpoint one at Grisedale Hause passed, dibber sweatily fumbled into the reader, and steeply up to Sandal Seat we went. Now we were less than half a mile from the summit, but the angle and terrain were unquestionably fell rather than cross country now, my hands pumping down on my thighs (if I’ve got to lug these bloody arms up with me I might as well use them), sweat pouring from my face even in the cold, claggy air. The summit was crested with another clumsy thrust of my dibber into its target, and the sweet relief of a downward trajectory began.
The grass was slick in the wet, and the lack of pronounced tread on my shoes promptly makd this clear, traction being variable at best. Either way, I’m definitely a downer rather than an upper, so I threw myself into the descent with the regular reckless abandon. Arms wind-milling, I kicked my legs into long strides, as if I was trying to launch a football the full length of a pitch. I interspersed the long leaps with the occasional tap left or right, trying to keep the unwieldy vessel on its winding course. Questionable as the technique appears to be, I kept passing runners, so I continued, my body shaking and praying that my legs weren’t about to crumble. Even a minuscule miscalculation would send me Klinsmanning down the fell. That was brought clearly into focus when I passed a downed runner, head bandaged, surrounded by co-competitors who had come to his aid.
We rambled through the final checkpoint, and the surrounding runners and I all audibly groaned as we realised there was still some uphill left. Climbs — no matter how insignificant — always seem an order of magnitude worse when they’re near the end (a pertinent issue with The Tour of Pendle approaching). But with some heart-pounding stomps, we were up and over and on our way back along the fast track. The final steep descent, the same one that caused such concern at the start — continued to deliver, as I completely lost all grip, engaging in a full bum slide manoeuvre. Definitely not the Olympics. Still, back on my feet, and a final romp back through the starting field. Arms flailing as I dived into the pen, passing the invisible baton to my 2nd leg team-mates.
In my anoxic state, I clambered through the barrier, completely disorientated, and totally oblivious to the finishing pen and mandatory kit check to my left. It seems reasonable proof that I was trying hard at least, or that I’m an idiot, both plausible options. Redirected by the marshal, like a bouncer gently guiding an intoxicated patron, I emptied the contents of my race vest and thus validated my stint, with all the correct accessories, and we were done.
Back in warm and dry clothes, gleefully tucking into a polystyrene box full of chicken, rice and peas, I was very cheery man.
Over the day, the runners from the remaining legs returned, some jubilant, others glad to be passing the baton, sharing stories of the day’s trials and tribulations. A fantastic achievement by all, on a course with no easy legs, and conditions to match.