Category: Race Report (Page 1 of 8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Registration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Davies

Learning How to Fell Race at Ilkley Moor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both images by Dom Nurse

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Goodhand

Kettlewell : A marshal’s eye-view

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

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

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

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

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

— Meg Galsworthy  

Ingleborough Mountain Race

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

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

Did I mention that the race starts at 3pm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Rose George

Kettlewell Anniversary Fell Race 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver Roberts

Ultra: Race to the King

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

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

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

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

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

How to get rid of a stitch, honest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz and a King

Would I do it again? Yes.

Did I learn anything?

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

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

Stats for the day:

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

Liz Casey

Bradford Millennium Way Relay

June 13, 2021

Five legs, 47 ¼ miles, 6300 feet of climb

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

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

Pair: Ann Brydson Hall and Andrew Sugden

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

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

— Andrew Sugden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Caroline Clarke

Leg 2: Liz Casey and Caroline Clarke

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

Pair: Emma Lane and Rose George

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

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

— Rose George

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

Pair: Phil Davies and Andy Foster

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

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

— Andy Foster

Leg 4: Lisa Rudkin and Ruth Dorrington

The Lancashireman off-road “marathon”

A race. An actual race. A race with real numbers that you pin to your club vest with actual pins. Real checkpoints. Real marshals. Everything real. Everything vivid. Everything I have not done for six months, since FRB and I did the 30-mile Haworth Hobble in March, in the last weekend before lockdown. For this race, timing was important. A week before it was due to be run, we still hadn’t entered and the entry list – it had only 100 runners – was full. Oh. I wrote to Jamie, a fell-running mate of ours who organizes it, and congratulated him on the race selling out and cursing my lateness at entering. It’s not a passive aggressive message request for places, I wrote, meaning it. Anyway, the dodgy knee that I have had since a month into lockdown would be thankful that I was not going to be running the 28 miles of the Lancashireman off-road “marathon” (they are generous in Lancashire) on very imperfect training.

Jamie wrote back. He had a couple of places and would Neil and I like them?

Oh.

The reasons against accepting:

  1. The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
  2. The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
  3. The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.

I had spent hours on my feet during a week in Scotland, but before that I’d not run beyond 15 miles for months, since the Fellsman was one of the first races to be cancelled. But I have form at running long runs unprepared. I said yes please to Jamie, and started eating everything. I was worried about my knee, as although my physio had decided my knee pain was due to inactive glutes, and finished with “go forth and run,” it was not getting better and sitting and lying both made it hurt. The only time it seemed OK was running, but not steeply downhill. But I accepted the places, hoped my knee would behave, and got quite excited.

 

I did a training session of mile efforts on the Wednesday, then no more running. I had a seriously crappy week for work/book reasons, and began to think that running for six or so hours across Lancashire countryside was exactly what I needed. We headed to Burnley on Saturday night, had a night at the Premier Inn for £33 (pandemic price), then up at 6.30 to eat our DIY breakfasts: Weetabix in Tupperware and an M&S baguette. Elite fuelling.

I was going to try Mountain Fuel again for this. I’ve used it once before and liked it and thought I needed all the help I could get. So I downed half a packet with my baguette, and filled my soft flasks with the other half. As usual I packed a full picnic: chocolate bars, sweets, flapjacks, Quorn sausages, Mountain Fuel sports jellies. The weather forecast was perfect, predicting single figure temperatures but outbreaks of sunshine. It would be cool on the tops though, and there would be a lot of tops, so I put on a merino long-sleeve with my vest.  

The race had been allowed to go ahead because it was going to be Covid-secure. That meant only turning up to get your race number 15 minutes before your designated start time, designated start times that set people off in groups of no more than six, only packaged food at checkpoints, and no milling. Everyone was conforming to this when we turned up, ready for our 8.21 start, and with little faffing time, we were set off. We had a plan: 10 minute-miling to start with, and steady steady all the way. That way, Neil thought, we could comfortably finish in six hours and beat our time of last year (just over 6.30). He also thought we could win the mixed pair category, but I tried to put that out of my head. Steady, think of your knee, steady, steady, steady.

Image by Neil Wallace

I thought I knew the route. I’d recced most of it last year, and we’d run it of course, though partly in pouring rain. The weather this year was so far beautiful, with clear sunny skies. Maybe that’s why I realised I couldn’t remember much of the second mile through woodland. This was going to be a theme for the whole route, as it turned out that once again, I knew sections but not necessarily in the right order.

The route mostly follows the Burnley Way, a path that Visit Lancashire describes with odd grammar as “a 40-mile adventure from industrial heritage, along waterways, through fields, parks, old farms, and Forest of Burnley woodlands to the wild South Pennine Moors.” The route “has been recently updated and revised into six easy sections.” Easy? I knew there were more than 4,000 feet of climb over the 28 miles and that the biggest climb of all was at mile 20. At least, deep inside I knew but I was refusing to think about it.

Seven miles in, we reached the part that had caused chaos last year, with runners all over the place trying to find an elusive footbridge. So this year I had studied it online, calculating that we had to turn south a third of a mile after Shore Hey farm. Neil had also worked out when to turn, and this year we mostly got it right. On the hill ahead of us, runners appeared like Scottish warriors in an epic film; they had gone too far and were on their way back. If you don’t accidentally detour at least once on the Lancashireman, you’ve probably done it wrong. Jamie & crew do their best, with the odd chalked LORM and arrow, and the Burnley Way is waymarked now and then with a sunny B, but there are plenty of miles where it isn’t.

By now the runners who had gone the right way and runners who had gone the wrong way were all converging, so that up the hill on the far side of the bridge, the narrow singletrack path of stone steps — known as the Ogglty-Cogglty — became bottlenecked. This is a usual situation in fell running, but not in fell running during a pandemic. I turned and courteously asked the man behind me to back off, and he did. Neil meanwhile had a man behind him so close, it was clear he’d had garlic the day before. Asked to Ogglty-Cogglty off, politely, he didn’t, so it couldn’t be dismissed as thoughtlessness. It’s not like anyone was going anywhere fast: the climb was steep, no-one was running it, and it was packed solid. I really try to dampen my judginess in life these days, else I would spend my life internally fuming at people getting too close, wearing masks wrong, just being wrong. But this was unsettling.

Out of the woods, the sun was warmer than forecast, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. We reached the first checkpoint, staffed by cheery marshals in green t-shirts. This was my first experience of a Covid-secure checkpoint and as advertised, all food was packaged – biscuits, chocolate bars, crisps – and water was dispensed from jugs. There could have been improvements such as a one-way funnel, but there was plenty of hand sanitizer and it was being done as safely as possible. You can never eliminate risk, just reduce it as best you can. A young woman who was pouring me water looked behind me and said, “well done Mum!”.

I was surprised, I think because I immediately pictured my own mother arriving behind me in a race. She is 80, and fabulous, and has been walking 12 miles a week during the pandemic, but she’s never going to be a fellrunner.

I asked the girl, stupidly, “your mother is running?”

“Yes, that’s her in the red.”

I turned to look. “How old is she?”

“60.”

I said “oh shit,” and people laughed and I’m still not sure why I said that. There were no age categories in the mixed pair category and anyway, I wasn’t being competitive, remember? Still I kept an eye on her for a while until we drew away from her. Habit.

Soon we stopped to strip down to vest-only. Then onwards, up horrible tarmac, some fake-running for the photographer, who managed to make my short Welsh legs look even shorter.

My brain was busy calculating what was coming next. It was like that animation of a human brain using mechanical wheels and whirring. Finally the whirring stopped and I knew: Widdop reservoir and moorland. More whirring: A couple of miles across the tops of the moors, past Gorple Stones, down to Hurstwood reservoir and that would be halfway.

 Far off in front of us was a young woman who I thought we would never catch. Then, as we turned off the road to boggy paths around Widdop reservoir, she slowed, and we passed her easily. I don’t know if the Lancashireman counts as a fell race but if you don’t have fell experience, obviously that will show in the boggy bits. Not that I didn’t fall. I did, but I made sure to fall on a soft bit.

The view from Gorple Stones was beautiful, as it always is. Later, we learned that a runner had fallen here and dislocated his shoulder. He’d been content to run on, until the marshals pointed out that his bone was several centimetres forward from where it should have been.

Hurstwood. I couldn’t have sped up, but I didn’t need to slow down or stop. I felt quite good, and we made sure to run harmoniously for Jamie’s camera.

Along the way we encountered two men running ahead of us. One had a very bloodied head. He had fallen, also after Gorple Stones. He was OK to go on, and said he would wash off in a beck, then didn’t. Finally I offered him a wet wipe, then had to dig around in my pack for it as of course my first aid kit was at the bottom of my copious dry bag of kit. “Sorry lass,” said David, of the bloodied head. “Sorry to hold you back.” Oh, we’re not competitive said Rose (the same Rose who knows exactly by how many minutes they came second eventually in the mixed pair category and calculates that this was probably the same amount of minutes lost helping David but that’s fine).

We ran on together, past the next checkpoint, along the thankless Long Causeway tarmac road, past cloughs and gullies. Before dropping down into the hamlet of Portsmouth, we passed through fields that had a powerful stink. We passed a tractor approaching with a trailer full of more fragrant manure, then reached the path, turned and saw him spraying it exactly where we’d just been. Lucky escape.  

By now something strange was happening. I was running more. My legs would run when my brain didn’t want to. I felt stronger. It was very odd. Maybe it was the Mountain Fuel? It was useful though as the hardest climb was coming up, to Heald Moor and Thievley Pike. At this point, my poor memory was an advantage, because I had forgotten how long and steep the climb was, so I just put my head down and climbed. Behind me, two women were telling two other runners what was coming up. “Horrendous! The worst climb ever! It’s awful!” I wondered at this. It wasn’t horrendous, it definitely wasn’t the worst climb ever, and if it was that awful, why were you doing the race? It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the views back to the other side of the valley were lovely. Perhaps that negativity got them up the hill more easily. Whatever works.

Image by Neil Wallace

Me, I was enjoying it. I was running easily and not tiring. My knee was sore but not disabling. And we only had a few miles left. Down into the grandiose Townley Hall, where we ran past a footballer lying on the ground and I thought, I bet a fell-runner would run through whatever injury he has. Past families with ice-cream, and a young girl who looked at me and asked her mother what I was doing. “She’s running!” But I wasn’t at that point, so then I had to.

There was only one short real climb to go, but it was uphill to Todmorden Road before that. Then along above the railway, with runners around us clearly tiring but enduring, as we were. Through the Kilns, where I directed a chatty pair from Accrington. At least, she was chatty. He wasn’t, and had to be chivvied, if chivvying consists of “COME ON MICK.” I’ve never seen a man running with clingfilm wrapped around his leg before, and I won’t forget Mick’s. They were both doing the relay, which you could do in pairs or threes or more. Mick made it to the end, clingfilm and all.

Finally, after we had run away from Burnley to run back to it, we were running down into town, past someone getting their Morrison’s delivery, and a smile from the young woman driving the van, to the canal where of course I wanted to go to the wrong way and almost set off on the route again. The last bit seemed such a long stretch though it was probably only half a mile. Then, eventually, the sound of clapping and cheering and there was Sandygate plaza, and some steps to run up that were nothing as bad as Butt Lane at the end of the Yorkshireman, but also not flat. We got to Jamie at the top and then: where was the finish line? Stop, said Jamie, stop! You’ve finished. This is it. He was it.

28 miles on little training and through niggles and cramp, but it was fun. It was good to be out racing again amongst beautiful scenery and the like-minded. It was good to pin a number on my race vest again, and pull out the rainbow race socks. It was good to stop and eat the two Quorn sausages that I had been carrying for six hours. It was good to be out, away from bad news and more bad news, to run past a man with binoculars and think, what a lovely smile he has, to be greeted with good cheer by everyone, to have my sinuses cleared by fresh cow shit.

Six hours. Actually it was 6.07. That was fine, and 25 minutes quicker than we had done the year before. Better weather this time, but worse training. Though last year I had run the Yorkshireman a week earlier. We placed second mixed pair after a couple from Clayton-le-Moors. We will do better next year, because I will definitely be back to the dark side, if the pandemic allows.

p.s. My knee? It hurts.

It had to be done.

By Rose George

High Cup Nick

I’ve done High Cup Nick race five times, by my count (which is probably off), and I will be doing it again, because it is so astonishingly beautiful. And because the race route serves my skills perfectly: five miles to the top of the Nick, then four miles mostly downhill. So as long as I do OK getting up, I will usually win places going down and as I only ever then lose places if a downhill is followed by a climb, in this case I should be able to keep them. Not that that mattered, particularly, except that a few clubmates were also running, and some of us are very well matched for ability and pace, and we have a friendly rivalry. And I am lying about it not mattering: I wanted to beat them. (Sorry not sorry Liz, Caroline and Emma.)

The weather forecast was poor, again. As if last week’s winds were not enough, this week’s were no better. Different forecasts showed different numbers: Mountain Weather Forecast showed 80kph, the BBC showed 45mph, but down in Dufton village. Variously, showers or sleet showers were also predicted. In winds, the A66 can sometimes be closed, so we set off in good time, having checked beforehand (it was closed but only to high-sided vehicles). Neil — better known to you as Braveshorts — told me that the A65 was closed though, and that could affect my clubmates. Neil was coming with me even though he hadn’t entered the race. He decided he would go for a run and then aim to be at the top of the Nick to meet runners, depending on the state of his cold (virus) and the cold (blowing a hoolie and temperature).

The parking was in a farmer’s field a ten minute walk from the village hall, previously race HQ but now Cake HQ as the registration was supposed to be in a marquee, but had been shifted to a small barn because the marquee blew away. We got there early but already the state of the field meant spinning wheels, and many people rushing to help spinning cars with a push up to the parking place. It was a cheering sight of the kindness of humans. But the field situation could only get worse the more cars arrived. I left Neil to get ready for his run and walked the long walk to get my number. By the time I got back the rain had set in. The driving, cold, miserable kind of rain.

So I wasn’t surprised to find him sitting in the car all kitted to run but looking at this view.

He is no fairweather runner, but it just looked too grim to open the car door. He set off eventually when it lessened, aiming to go up Dufton Pike and then up to the Nick, still. And I faffed in the warm car until it was time to head to the start. Some black’n’blues were milling about — Will, Dom, Ian, Bianca, Liz, Caroline — but a few hadn’t arrived. Five minutes before the start I saw two of the missing: Emma and Adam had taken the A65 and had a long and terrible trip up. No time for faffing, they said, but no time for fuelling either. Sharon H. never arrived, though I saw her later in the day: they had arrived at Dufton but the queues to get into the Field of Spinning Wheels were so long, and it was getting so late, they’d decided to terminate and headed off somewhere else to run instead.

Of course we never got a team photo, because we never do, but here is a sort of one with our good Fellanddale friend Louise.

By now, a few minutes before the start, the weather was lovely. Not too cold, not windy, not wet and some sunshine. I was wearing long tights again, which astonishes all my running friends who only ever see me in shorts. In Hilary Lane’s precise words: “The weather must be bad if Rose has legs on.” But I based my choice on those wind speeds, no matter how sunny the sky. People had made all sorts of clothing choices, from full waterproofs to vest only. That of course is up to them, as long as they carry kit, though I have my views on running in a vest in those conditions.

I was in vest and long-sleeve and no jacket. We set off, and for the first few miles, I was warm. The race goes up a tarmac lane for a while, then up to some fields, then contours along a couple of shoulders. At one point I cursed Neil for advising me to wear tights, as I wanted to be in shorts. But I was running well and felt good, and tried to concentrate on that, not on what was covering my legs. Anyway, he was right, because almost as soon as we turned into the valley, the weather turned too. First we had to cross a beck that I knew would be deep and rushing. It was a treat to see the Kirby Stephen Mountain Rescue team there: thank you KSMRT. And especially to the man who was standing nearly to his waist in freezing water helping each runner to cross. I am always grateful for a helping hand, and these three helping hands, passing me from one hand to another, were very welcome.

Then the wind came, and it was strong, even though it was friendly and pushing us up the valley. I could have dealt with that, but then the hail and sleet came at us sideways, and I began to get cold, and to stop regretting my clothing choice. I didn’t want to stop and put my jacket on, but I remembered last week and I knew I would get colder the higher I got, and that Neil, who knows his winds, had told me we would be running against a headwind on the downhill section. So I stopped and tried to put on my jacket, and it was tricky, not because my hands were too cold, but because the wind didn’t want me to. It was a jacket fight. I lost about 15 places to the tussle — both Liz and Caroline passed me — but it was the right decision, because I never wanted to take it off once over the following five miles. And I was warm enough to be able to put it on without asking for help (although this was offered by a few people who passed: thank you).

The run along the valley floor is long. Nor is it as flat as it seems. The Nick seems to get further away not nearer, like Stoodley Pike, and underfoot is either boggy or rocky and nothing inbetween. But I didn’t stop and walk as I have in other years, and I got a few places back (sorry not sorry Caroline and, eventually, Liz). At the base of the Nick, I ran as far as I could, then again on a flatter bit, before the boulders began. At this point I saw that people were taking a wide arc up the first part but I couldn’t see the sense in that, when all was boulders. So I just went straight up, and got more places that way. (I’m not obsessed with getting places, it just doesn’t happen very often that I do or that I can catch up after losing a lot.) The wind was so strong that the waterfall was blowing backwards. I stopped and turned because on the Nick I always stop and turn, and it was stunning, because unless there is clag, the view is always stunning.

The boulders towards the top were slippery and icy, and I thought my old fear of exposure could have reappeared. But it didn’t, and I really enjoyed the climb, and even managed to smile, according to Mike’s camera:

At the top, I heard “well done Rose” from Neil and Mike. I tried to give Neil a hug, but I didn’t notice his cowbell around his neck, so I managed to crush my voicebox on his cowbell which I think is not an injury that even experienced A&E staff will frequently encounter. I turned, and it was like running into a brick wall. The wind was ferocious. This kind of ferocious. It wasn’t as bad as on top of West Kip during the Carnethy 5 last week, but I still had to use a high proportion of my energy just to go forward (at West Kip, it had been about staying upright, never mind running). I suddenly felt extremely drained, but I knew Caroline was right behind me, and she is competitive and can beat me, so I kept going. Past the Mountain Rescue team at the quad bike, where we waved our contactless dibbers, and into the wind. There is a long trod across the headland, a short incline, more trod, then the downhill proper. At this point the headwind was so bad that my contacts were sore, and I found it hard to blink. Not the best eyesight for a quick rocky downhill, but I got more places, and I kept all except one, up into the farmer’s field that is a slight incline but feels mountainous, and across the field, into the lane, where you see habitation and know you are nearly done, up the short hill into the village, round the back of houses and through yards, to the village green and the welcome sight of flags and people.

Back.

I was filthy. I knew my face was mucky because I’d used my mitts on the climb up, on my hands and knees, and then wiped my face loads of times because it was the kind of wind where your nose blows itself. But I didn’t realise how mucky.

Oh well. I headed into the village hall, putting blue plastic over my shoes as requested. It was, as it always is, extremely crowded, but I got my soup, and found a tiny space next to the windowsill. “Rose,” said Dom, “wipe your nose.” He meant wipe it free of mud, not anything else, so I washed my face. But I didn’t get changed because I felt warm. That was stupid, as once I’d gathered two cakes and a cup of tea and set off to the car, I got very very cold and didn’t warm up for a long time. Basic mountaincraft: remove your cold clothes even if you don’t feel you need to.

I really enjoyed myself, though I’ve had enough of wind storms. And the hail can do one. High Cup Nick is such a beautiful place, and although my time wasn’t the quickest, I think I lost ten minutes to conditions, so I’m content. Thank you to the people of Dufton, to all the volunteers, from the stalwarts in that field of spinning wheels doom to the beck sprite and anyone who stood out in the cold to marshal or cheer.

It is said that if you don’t like the weather in Scotland (or Yorkshire or Wales), wait ten minutes. This was that kind of race: autumn to begin with, a glimpse of spring, then winter, then more winter, then autumn again. But it was great fun, because it always is. This was the first year it had a waiting list, because it is rightly becoming a) a classic and b) popular. So keep an eye out if you like astonishing views of official geological wonders with your fell races.

All results here. NLFR results:

— Rose George

Carnethy 5

“It’s iconic.”

“How?”

“It just is.”

“But it’s only six miles long.”

“Aye. It’s still iconic.”

I didn’t believe it. I’d heard of the Carnethy 5, but I still couldn’t understand why it had such a reputation when it was short and when even the elevation per mile wasn’t that intimidating. But my partner Neil is from East Lothian, so we could combine the race – in MidLothian — with a family visit. Otherwise there were factors definitely against me agreeing to do it. It cost £17! That’s a road race price. And it would mean a nine-hour round trip to run a six mile race, something I would normally consider ludicrous. Then there was the small matter of Storm Dennis.

But I always like to visit Scotland, and I had run once before on the Pentland Hills, where the Carnethy 5 is based (it is named for Carnethy running club, which is in turn named for Carnethy, one of the Pentland hills). The race commemorates a 1302 battle that involved William Wallace. From Carnethy’s website:

In February 1302, a messenger arrived at Neidpath Tower to ask Sir Simon Fraser to meet someone at Biggar. Sir Simon Fraser rode hard, for the person he was to meet was none other than Scotland’s hero — Sir William Wallace. The Wallace’s plan was for himself to be seen gathering together an army up north, while Sir Simon waited with the main army in the south. Sure enough the plan worked, for when the English heard that The Wallace was getting ready to attack from the north, they left their winter quarters in Edinburgh heading south — Sir Simon waited.

Randolf the English General was unprepared for a fight. His army was separated into three groups of 10,000 each, some miles apart. At Dryden they suddenly found themselves confronted by 8,500 Scots. Colmyn, Saintclair and Fraser, loyal friends of Wallace soon carried the day, and rushed on to Rosewell to meet the 2nd army. The weary Scots were again triumphant, but tired, and when yet another 10,000 men approached they were ready to flee. But Sir Simon was a crafty gent, he had been warned about the 3rd army, and had sent a few ot his men to carry two tree trunks up a neighbouring hill. Then Sir Simon shouted to his men… Well, part of the old ballad says it better:

“Look ower, look ower, on yonder hill,”
Quo’ Sir Simon lood and clear,
They blich’t and saw the lift gao ill,
Then saw a cross appear.
“Tis gude St. Andrew” cried ae man,
Then doon they gaed to pray,
“Gae to,” they heard the gude Sir Simon,
“Gae to,” we’ll win the day.”

The inspired Scots rushed into battle!

This would be the 50th running of the race, so I knew that if they could go ahead, they would. But fell races and hill races were being cancelled, and we checked the forecast regularly in the week before, and it never got any better. Depending on which metereologists I checked (I’m fond of the Norwegians YR.no weather forecast), the winds were going to be between 40 and 75 miles an hour, and that stayed true until the Friday, when we set off. It didn’t matter that Storm Dennis was going to wreak more havoc in England than Scotland: we were going. I was sure the race would be called off. I know it had been run the year before even though runners had been told at the start that marshals and Mountain Rescue would be lying down because they wouldn’t be able to stand, the wind was so strong. Even so, I was sure that no race organizer would allow marshals to stand out for a few hours in 70mph winds.

Carnethy said they would make a decision at 11am on the Saturday. If we didn’t hear owt, the race would go ahead. The race starts at 2pm, and part of the reason for the cost is that runners get bussed to the start from race HQ at Beeslack High School in Penicuik. We had to set off at 11am to get to the school in good time, and the only clue as to Carnethy’s decision was a retweet from someone wishing everyone doing Carnethy 5 good luck. Even so, I didn’t believe it was on until we got to Penicuik and the car park was full and there were many lean people wandering about in waterproofs and lycra tights. I had been advised to bring “EVERYTHING” and so I had: although I run in shorts even in snow – my legs rarely get cold – I had brought long tights and plenty of layers. The race organizers required everyone to carry full body cover, and a long-sleeved top. In practice, most people in the hall seemed to be wearing all their kit at once, including me.

I was more nervous than usual. I’d had a race stress dream the night before (the one where you can’t find your kit or shoes or something), and I’d convinced myself that everyone in Scotland was a fabulous hill runner, and that they were all Jasmin Paris (who runs for Carnethy) and Finlay Wild (who always wins the Ben Nevis race), and that I would be the lumbering Englishwoman – actually half Welsh but that’s irrelevant – at the back. Tim, a Holcombe Harrier who Neil had met a few years ago at Trapain Law race, but whose wife is from up here, reassured me. The race field is no different to what you are used to, he said. All sorts. You won’t be last.

Dom was also running the race, as he was combining it with a visit to Edinburgh. It’s not often that we remember to get team photos but here is one:

See? I’m wearing EVERYTHING. Dom kept his jacket on throughout too.

I think I made five toilet visits, only four of which were necessary, and eventually, we made our way out to wait for a bus to be driven ten minutes to the start. The kit check was carried out in the bus queue, and consisted of, “have you got a map? Gloves? Hat? OK then.”

The bus took us to a field underneath Carnethy Hill, where a few marquees were managing to stay upright. The winds weren’t too bad down here, and my nerves were slightly soothed by the piper standing on a mound nearby, piping us up five snow-capped hills.

The hills are beautiful. Robert Louis Stevenson called them his “hills of home..” We’d got one of the last buses so didn’t have long to wait for the start. I managed to warm up, but still decided to keep my jacket on. I was kitted out excessively according to my usual standards: long tights, which I’ve only ever worn for Rombald’s in snow and cold, and a waterproof jacket.

There were announcements but most were carried away by the wind. I expect they were the usual: don’t do anything stupid and if you fall over find a marshal and report back to the marquees. And then we were off. Neil, who has run Carnethy before, had given me some tips: there was a long stretch of very boggy and wet ground before we began to rise up to climb Scald Law. Stay to the left, he said. It will still be boggy but better. Also, head for the tiny hi-viz dot standing by some green bushes, which is a marshal. I squinted, saw a tiny hi-viz dot, just about, and agreed to do that. There was a gunshot, or cannon, or something, and we set off. Steady away, Rose, you will need your strength for the wind. Even so I was anxious: don’t be last, don’t be last.

So silly.

I ran as best I could, though the ground was not ground but swamp, and there was a beck crossing. So even this first half mile was hard going, as your legs are working twice as hard to accommodate the water. I felt neither good nor bad, I just kept going. Carnethy 5 has a purity to its planning: you go up and then you come down, five times.

In Carnethy’s description: “The race is over rough open hillside, through thick heather and boggy/rocky sections of ground, with minimal paths. The race involves 2,500′ of very steep ascent and descent, some of which you will struggle to run. It’s fair to say this race will feel a lot harder than a flat road race, but it is not beyond anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. As a very rough guide, the race organiser completes this race in somewhere between his road 10k and half marathon times.”

I climbed to Scald Law, I loved the descent, I climbed again to South Black Hill, I loved the descent, East Kip, I loved the descent, and then there was West Kip.

I can’t remember which hill I was climbing, but at one point I nearly fell backwards. A kind arm stopped me and righted me, and that was the nature of this race: there was kindness and people looking out for each other. The solidarity of fighting extreme elements. Neil had a similar experience except a man grabbed his buttocks to keep him upright. My assistance was more decorous, and I was grateful for it.

West Kip though was something else. This was the fourth hill, and by now I had begun to tire of the wind, but the wind knew this and decided to re-stoke its engines. I had my hood up as it was also hailing – of course – so I kept bumping into people as I could neither hear nor see them coming. We all trudged up as best we could. Towards the top, I was on my hands and knees and standing upright seemed actually dangerous. Here is a photograph that Peter MacDonald, one of the marshals on the top of West Kip, took, though how he managed to stay standing and use a camera is an enigma.

Image by Peter MacDonald

I had my phone with me, and I turned round a couple of times to look, and there were runners behind me, a trail of colour over the brown bracken and white snow of the hills, and it was beautiful but not enough for me to consider taking off my gloves, getting out my phone, unwrapping it from its weather-proof sandwich bag, wiping my fingers dry enough that the phone would recognise them, taking a picture and doing it all in the reverse. Too much effort. No photos.

I was so thankful to the marshals on top of these hills. The wind was so strong, it was an assault. I usually object to people using the word “brutal” about races, as most are not, not really. But this section, this struggle to stay upright while your pack is being blown off you and while you could fall off the hill: this section was brutal. I have run Tour of Pendle in a blizzard, and it was hard. I have run in hail so biting it gave me pockmarks. But I don’t think I’ve ever had to fight the weather as much as on this race. It got to the point on West Kip where it was so extreme that I had to laugh at it. What else can you do? You can’t reverse. You have to get off the hill. You may as well glory in the extremity of it and keep running.

We turned on the summit to descend and suddenly the wind was even more dangerous, because the descent was tricky and the wind was now behind: it didn’t get us on the top so now it wanted to push us down a steep slope. I persevered, and my legs began to enjoy the descent, steep at first then levelling out. Not flat though: I knew this because I was overtaking people and I only ever do that on descents. The final part as we descended towards the Howe, actually a house overlooking Loganlea reservoir, was a grassy muddy bank. I slipped, and then suddenly slid at great speed, so fast I didn’t know how to stop, until a bush helped me out, luckily just before the beck. It was great fun and I was laughing out loud, and quietly thankful that no rocks had punctured my backside on the way. The power of that slide! A fellow runner congratulated me on it and I agreed that yes, it was some of my finest work.

Onwards to the reservoir, then to the cut-off, which I had forgotten about. Nor had I checked my watch. The cut-off was 1 hour 15, and I think I got there in about an hour but as I didn’t even realise it was a cut-off, that didn’t matter. About 20 runners didn’t make it. (I mean, they weren’t quick enough, not that they expired.)

Up again now, for the final climb to Carnethy Hill. I was alongside a man in shorts who said he rather regretted not wearing long trousers, as his legs were blue. I got myself up the hill and then there was the joy of the final descent. Tim had warned me before about this part, that there was gorse that bit and rocks that tripped, and that the two together were rather testing. But much of the gorse and heather had been burned and tamed. There were a few sections of scree-sliding, and then a hell-for-leather how-do-I-stop careering, which was fun. For a while I couldn’t figure out why I could hear the powerful jet engines of an airliner, until I realised it was the wind in my hood.

Then the long slog back over the swamp and through the beck to the finish. A photographer at the beck got some excellent pictures, though not of me (I stayed upright).

Image by Paul Dobson

And there were the feather flags of the finish, and Neil standing waiting for me. I had a cup of hot liquid which may have been tea or coffee and it didn’t matter at all which, and a biscuit. Then Neil said, shall we run back instead of waiting for buses? And I must have been on such a high from the final descent that I agreed without question. A marshal gave us directions for the three miles back to the school, which ended up being mostly farm tracks and woodland, so it was pleasant.

Just as we approached Beeslack High School, the rain began and then it intensified, and we arrived back to a downpour. There were changing rooms and showers but with 500 entrants, including a healthy proportion of women, there was no room, so I had a wet-wipe shower in the middle of the sports hall, with the help of a judiciously placed towel. Then I headed to the kitchen for food, which was a lentil dal or a spicier vegetable curry, and it was delicious. In fact, the £17 was good value, as we had also been given a bottle of Carnethy 5 beer, a 50th anniversary mug and a beer mat.

I realised afterwards that I’d been sitting next to a woman who had run the whole race although she was 80 or thereabouts. I wish I’d known because I would have genuflected at her feet. In the main hall, Jasmin Paris and her husband were hanging out, and I got starstruck, by Jasmin as well as by her daughter Rowan, who became as famous as her mum after the Spine Race. I let them be though. Nobody wants to be bothered by genuflecting strangers, do they?

We didn’t stay for prizegiving, although I did want to see the female and male winner each get a broadsword. Me, I got my beer and beer mat and mug, and I was happy to have those as well as significant satisfaction at having run a race in actually brutal conditions, and doing alright. Do I think they were right to run the race? Yes.

I came 404th out of 503 runners, with a time of 1:38, and I’m pleased with that. Dom came 199th, in 1:20. I think I’ll be back.

— Rose George

Featured image by Peter MacDonald

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