9am and I’m woken by Ollie knocking on the door. I’m still in my pyjamas and still in bed. I’ve been snoozing the alarm since 8.30, desperately grasping for the last remnants of sleep, all the while wondering why the hell I’d signed up for a fell race the morning after our Christmas do? I gather my racing vest and various layers from the radiators, open the door to a far-too-chipper Ollie then pile into the car to head off to the race, just about below the legal limit.
Mytholmroyd fell race is the last of the races organised by Calder Valley Fell Runners and is a popular end of season jaunt. It’s reasonably short (~6 miles long), of middling steepness (category B) and flagged for most of the way, making it a good race for those still new to racing. It’s a good one for a December Sunday morning, getting you out in the mud and cold before returning home for a roast dinner and a curl up by the fire… or so I’d thought when I’d entered a few weeks ago. Last Sunday though, queuing outside Mytholmroyd cricket clubhouse, shivering in the cold and drizzle with my head slowly throbbing, I was regretting my hubris. “Maybe I should just wait in the car and snooze off the hangover”, I thought.
I forced myself through the requisite kit check (and dashed back to the car to retrieve my whistle: it’s always the whistle I forget) then joined the steady jog half a mile along the canal to the start line. Here, I found the rest of the black and blues – 10 of us in total – each in various states of freshness reflecting the amount of alcohol consumed the night before.
I half-listened to the race briefing with the coffee starting to kick in and my faculties slowly returning, then made a panic change out of my pyjama top which I’d accidentally left under my Helly-Hansen and vest an hour earlier. I chucked it to nearby Will Hall who’d come along to spectate and got ready for my first fell race since the fell relays in October.
The start of Mytholmroyd is steep and hellish, but it demands a sprint off the gun if you’re to avoid the inevitable bottlenecks as over a hundred and fifty runners vie for a single track. The horn blew and I sprinted off among the front runners, who were quickly reduced to walking pace by the gradient, up and out of the Red Acre woods, through the fields on our way onto the top of the moor. I had the usual early race thoughts of “this pace is insane, there’s no way I’m not going to die” and at one point almost chucked up some of last night’s pizza. But the race calmed as it always does and once on top, I settled into my running, along well marked and runnable footpaths, catching a glimpse of Harry well out in front and leading proceedings. Here, the races-within-the-race began and I sized up who I felt I could stay with, who was OK to let go, and who under no circumstances I would allow to beat me.
We headed across the moor to Crow Hill, then down a furious descent that broke up any happy rhythm, dibbed, then contoured along the base of the moor, up the charming Ludden Valley. I’ve gotten into a bad habit recently of dawdling in the middle third of races, as the race breaks up into little groups and the pace softens a touch. Mytholmroyd was no exception and my thoughts wandered away from the race, back to hazy glimpses of last night’s revelry. Oh god did we do shots? Why are my arms so sore? Oh yeah, the pullup challenge.Whose idea was that?! Hmm… did we get a kebab? God I’m hungry…
This final thought was enough to get me back into the present. I opened my bumbag to fish for the gel I knew to be in there. I was struggling to feel for it with my mittens on, so stopped to take them off and have a proper look. Two runners ran past while I searched. Frustratingly, I found no sustenance anywhere. I zipped up the bumbag and carried on, three places down, no calories up.
A set of steep wooden steps took us the direct and vertical route back up onto the moor. The drizzle had abated by now and patches of sunlight dappled the heather. I was feeling a little overdressed. Gaps opened up and I retook the places I’d lost, then set my sights on the red and white vest of the Calder Valley runner ahead. Maybe just the thought of a gel had been enough for a second wind, more likely it was the actual wind, blowing now from behind and pushing us back along the Calderdale Way to home. The final descent retraced our original ascent and was fast and furious. The gorse lined path shredded my legs, the stone slabs that followed were like an ice rink in the wet, and the final muddy fields almost put me on my arse. I loved every bit of it. I tumbled my way down to the finish line and a respectable 13th place, annoyingly pipped on the line by a local Todmorden Runner, whose footsteps had hounded me every step of the descent. Harry was waiting at the finish line fully clothed in layers and looking like he’d been back a while. “Yeah, I won” he said with a grin when I asked him.
Back at the cricket club, a cup of homemade soup and rye bread warmed us up, as did the awards, where Niamh, Harry and myself won the fastest mixed team prize – a great win for North Leeds holding off the organisers Calder Valley Fell Runners. Harry won the overall and Niamh the V40 women and collected their tins of chocolates. Among the runners there were smiles all round – hard not to when you get a free beer for finishing – and gratitude to CVFR who put on another enjoyable race. I was grinning too: it turns out fell racing is the best cure for a hangover.
This event is a competition between runners and cyclists with (usually) the first 10 in each category to score. The winning team holds the Fisherman Trophy for one year. The trophy is named after The Fisherman Inn from where the race starts and where the prize giving takes place afterwards. On the few occasions where a bucket of lukewarm water is not provided in the pub cellar to shift all that ground in dirt, ample washing facilities can be found in the nearby Leeds-Liverpool canal!
The race starts at 2pm, I have just arrived at about 20 minutes to 2pm and the woman who has just given me my race number has explained that I should always bring my own safety pins. I haven’t brought any safety pins, and neither has Ian, who gave me a lift. A comedy lengthy search of Mike’s car turns up one safety pin which I stick through my vest and number.
We change very quickly in Ian’s van and run to the start line, stopping to pee along the way. Across a bridge along a canal and across another bridge into a muddy field full of fell runners and cyclists. We arrive just in time and manage to each scrounge a couple of pins in time to get into the race pen.
Then we are off, up a steep grassy bank. The cyclists wheeling or carrying their bikes and everyone getting caught in a squeeze at the first gate. Off we go. This is my first race since the spring as I have had a prolonged bout of too much work and then injury, so I need to remember to go steady and not get too carried away.
The route is great, across boggy fields, through the woods, across streams and up to the top of the moor in the fog. By this time I have forgotten to take it easy and I am having way too much fun trying to chase down the people in front whilst also trying to avoid being destroyed by a cyclist firing down at full pelt.
Then on the final ascent up a steep and narrow ginnel I spot my friend Rob in his Ilkley vest and think it’s a great idea to try to beat him. I fire up the hill and catch up with Rob just before we cross the final boggy field home. I overtake him and victory is in sight but the bog and the sprinting down hill catch up with me and he gets back in front beating me to the finish.
It turns out I am still a bit out of practice. It’s a fantastic race with pie and peas in the clubhouse afterwards, and wonderfully organised by Andy Brown of Bingley Harriers. Was a runner or cyclist victorious this year? Results here.
What a spectacular weekend at the fell relays. Firstly a huge thanks to our team captains Emma Lane and Ollie Roberts for getting the teams together and dealing with all the red tape. A special thanks to Emma whose team, due to the volume of entries, wasn’t able to run, yet she gave up her time to support those who could. Other thanks to those who came to support: Dan, Sarah, Emma, Emma and Dom who gave encouragement, took photos and generally helped keep up morale.
Many of us arrived on Friday evening and stayed in tents, pods and vans just outside Peebles. I camped. A hot water bottle made possible a snug and cosy night. We woke to pouring rain which sounded pretty bad in the tent but it soon stopped, giving way to sunshine and glorious views of the surrounding hills. After a healthy breakfast and last minute kit checking and faffing, we arrived at the race field to find our shiny new shelters (thanks to Emma and Liz for sorting those!).
Most of the teams were already there looking pretty happy and relaxed. Well, most team members were there. Dom’s group — who set off ages before us hadn’t arrived — and they had Ellis, the Women’s Open Leg 1 runner with them.
A bit of a panic when we got news that there had been a Sat Nav error that had sent them in the opposite direction. Someone was in trouble! They weren’t sure they’d make the start so Sarah was asked to step in and be ready to run if needed but Ellis arrived just in the nick of time. The race’s navigation leg 3 with maps, compass and real people proved much more reliable than Google Maps; some justification for the FRA’s insistence on banning GPS at races.
The race HQ was in a stunning location. It was in a valley surrounded by the hills we were about to climb which were grassy and smooth, displaying beautiful autumnal shades of green, russet, and brown.
Fell running is a low key, inclusive sport. Where else could you “compete” with elite athletes in the same event? I was on leg 4 which involves a lot of waiting but it means you can watch most of the event. However, Dark Peak, the winning team were in and off to the bar before I set off on my leg.
The main event started promptly at 11 and my mass start (which I was very likely going to be part of) on leg 4 would set off at 15.25. Lots of time to relax, do a bit of browsing at Pete Bland’s and try not to be too nervous (not easy for me). I wasn’t particularly fit. I’d not done much training due to a few set-backs. I’m much improved now but training has been thin on the ground.
Less of the excuses (Ed — surely “reasons”?) and back to the race. First to finish in our team was Ann Brydon on leg 1. Ann had a great run and finished 5th in our V60 category.
Next up were Sheelagh Ratcliff and Hilary Lane. All leg 2 runners reported a very tough route with huge climbs over about 7 miles. Sheelagh and Hilary were exhausted but delighted when they came in: great run you two. Martyn Price and Mike Ayres were on the nav leg. They were still out when my leg started but they reported no serious errors, had a good run and finished 7th. Nervous but resigned to my fate I set off up that bugger of a hill. The weather was fine but windy as we set off. Earlier we’d watched the elites and very few were running up that hill. What chance had I? It was clear that I would be doing a lot of walking!
It was a fully flagged route with a lovely grassy descent before the climb up to Hammer which was tough and seemed to go on forever. I thought I may be able to relax after that climb but then the weather came in. It was freezing! Sleet and a strong headwind. Perhaps I should join a gym or stick to park runs if I didn’t want these conditions. I gave myself a talking to, head down and spirits up as surely this is what fell running is all about.
It felt great when I could see the marquee in the race field and hear the cheers from the club as I came down that final descent to the finish. Thanks all for that and in the rain too. It means a lot.
Our team was 8th out of 9. However, the V60 rules are different from other mixed teams who have to have a team of 3 men and 3 women. The V60 teams can have any combination including all men. Out of 9 teams in our category, four were all men; the rest had mostly one or two women and the rest men. Ours had four women and two men. So by my reckoning, had there been a level playing field, we may have won!? Thanks Team V60. It was a great day out.
Registration for the first race of the series was held in a barn nestled under Bram Crags at the foot of Great Dodd. It was early November, very wet and very windy, with heavy clouds just touching the top of High Rigg on the other side of the valley.
I started off quite far back within the group. Within the first 50 metres there was a narrow bridge over St John’s Beck which constricted our flow causing some tripping over heels and elbows out from fellow runners. Once over the bridge and into the fields we spread out. The ground was heavy going, soft but pitted by cows hooves threatening to turn ankles for the unlucky.
I moved to the edge of the pack and increased my speed passing runners with ease, feeling strong and thinking I should have started further towards the front, or that — considerably more probable — I was not pacing myself very well for the hills that lay ahead.
We soon reached the footpath that traverses around the bottom of High Rigg to the southern tip before turning sharply and starting the first proper climb.There were a few gates to frustrate, and slippery slabs of rock too much for even the purest of graphene soles.
The path was narrow, pinched between the hillside on the right and the river down to the left. There were few overtaking opportunities for me or indeed those behind me so we snaked along close together, in silence apart from the sound of feet pounding the wet ground. The wind was howling through the trees, sending autumn leaves churning all around us.
I lost some places on the first climb, and when it got too steep for me to run I tried to take my rain jacket off and stuff it in my bum-bag. This turned out to be harder than it sounds while trying to scramble up a hill in high winds.
Wren Crag is the top of the first climb, then the route follows an undulating series of craggy outcrops, grassy slopes and deep mud around the perimeter of little tarns too small to be named. I battled against the wind with it repeatedly pushing me off-balance and making me unsteady on any exposed rocky sections.
As often happens, I found myself in a game of cat and mouse with a few runners, who I would pass usually on a climb, before they would then catch me up and fly past me with enviable descending ability.
High Rigg is the highest point, and I felt for the marshals stood out in these conditions, even the two collie dogs who are built for it looked unimpressed. From High Rigg there was a steep descent (where I was passed by a few more downhill experts) down to a farm track and then up the final climb.
Coming off Low Rigg there was a great section of downhill through soft springy wintered bracken, I managed to gain enough momentum to hold off anyone snapping at my heels.
At the bottom of the hill we joined the flat cow rutted fields again, this time with tired legs, head-on wind and biting rain. It all sapped any remaining energy I had, but the end was now in sight. I attempted a sprint for the finish line with high-fives from my kids leaning over the wall and cheering me in.
It was a great race in classic Lakes conditions, but I was glad we were heading for a warm pub and a late lunch.
I had finished 42nd overall, 37th in my category, netting me a measly 1 point in the series standing. I vowed to try and work on my descending skills for race 2 in December.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
Lisa Rudkin and I competed in the Penmaenmawr fell race in North Wales on Saturday 16th November as an alternative to the Tour of Pendle back in Lancashire. We stayed over the night before with Lisa’s mum who lives in Penmaenmawr. She made sure we were fuelled up on home made chips!
The race was organised by Eryri Harriers and is in its 45th year. The distance is between 9 to 10 miles depending on which pre-race information was accurate, with 1700ft ascent. There was drizzly rain, mist on the tops, a long boggy stretch, obligatory mud and pools of water on the runnable tracks and a rocky, muddy slippy descent to finish.
I finished in 96th position, Lisa 97th out of 157 finishers. Lisa should have finished higher up but took a wrong turning in the clag. Everyone received a bottle of local ale at the finish. It made a nice change to go ‘international’!
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.