I love this race. I will try to do it no matter what. One year I did it with jetlag. Another year I’d overcome some other obstacle. This year I decided to do it while recovering from the second cold virus I’d had in two weeks. Reasonably, a friend asked if it wouldn’t be more sensible to stay in the warmth and fully recover. Another person responded by sending me a link about the dangers of viral myocarditis and how it is causing many deaths amongst young people because people are mistaking it for flu. I took this into account. But I didn’t have flu. The cold had not gone into my chest, it was on its way out, and I needed a day of fresh air.
On race day, I woke up with a profoundly upset stomach. Oh dear. I made a banana and yogurt smoothie and hoped that would work. But it was the first day for a while I hadn’t woken up spluttering. Nor had I needed to take any paracetamol, for the first time in a week. So I decided to set off and see how I felt. The race is organized by Morgan Donnelly, a fine fell runner and a fine emailer: he’d sent out two race information emails on Thursday and Friday, advising about parking. Dufton, race HQ, is a small and beautiful village with a small and beautiful village green, and quite rightly the organizers didn’t want people to park on it. The second email included information on “cheeky farm-yards” which might provide parking space and ended with “sleep well,” which is how you can tell it was written by a runner. All race information emails should finish with “sleep well.”
A nearly 200 mile trip to run a 9 mile race. But I knew it would be worth it, if I ran. The weather forecast had been chilling: 40kph winds on the tops and a wind-chill of -6. I even packed long tights, though of course I ran in shorts. We got there in good time and got priority parking in a farmer’s field, though I wasn’t sure, given how the tyres were spinning on the mud on the way in, how we’d get out again. Registration was at the village hall as usual, where there was the customary huge spread of cakes. The race is sponsored by Inov-8, which means a good serving of elite runners: I spotted Ricky Lightfoot and Vic Wilkinson before the start, in-between toilet visits and going for a short run to check my legs still worked. There were six NLFR’s running, and I managed to spot half of them though we didn’t manage a proper team photo.
We gathered on the green, Morgan made some race announcement that where I was standing was entirely inaudible, then he yelled “GO” and we went.
I set off and hoped for the best. My best, apparently, was not great. I managed to run up the first incline but felt very weak. Last Sunday I’d done hill reps in Pudsey valley and I’d not walked once, and felt really good. Now I was looking at the inclines coming up and dreading them. I very nearly pulled out in the first mile and was only stopped by the fact that I have never had a DNF and I’m stubborn. Instead, I patted my ego on its head and put it in a box, and carried on. I walked when I felt like walking, and I didn’t worry too much. The day was glorious. I was in a t-shirt and long-sleeve and perfectly comfortable. Sunshine and no wind, as we ran up the tarmac, then turned into the boggy bits. I knew from running this before that stretches that seemed flat were actually going uphill. So I splashed through all the bogs I could, and enjoyed it. The sun was out, the day was fine, and I was moving at pace through a beautiful landscape. All was well.
The race route runs along several shoulders of several contours. On each shoulder, I expected to round it and see the valley of High Cup Nick, but it took several turns before I did. So, into the valley, through more bogs, through a beck which was in a timid state and only calf-high, then the long boggy stretch up to the Nick.
It looks so benign in that photo. Such nice soft grassy ground. It didn’t feel benign. It felt like it feels every year, that the valley will never end, and the Nick will never come, and that all you have ever done is run ploddingly through boggy ground that sucks your legs into the earth like an underground triffid. Then the wind started. It had been forecast to push us up the Nick, but it changed its mind. It was a ferocious headwind, enough that I stopped to put on my jacket and nearly lost it to the valley. At least this year the boulder field wasn’t too slippery, despite someone near me saying, “ooh, this is dangerous.” I thought, wait till you get further up. I don’t have a good head for heights — and was reduced to a gibbering jelly on an ascent of Great Gable — but for some reason the Nick doesn’t bother me, although it’s steep and rocky and there is crawling.
I made sure to stop and turn round and gaze. If you don’t, it’s a waste of one of the most breathtaking views in fellrunning. I understand that elites can’t afford to stop, but I think otherwise you should or what’s the point?
At the top — after another good gawp at the landscape — there’s a run along the ridge, a couple of other inclines, some snow and ice. I felt much better now the climb was over — funny that — and once we hit the track and the several miles of downhill, I forgot about the virus and the stomach-heaving chips, and I just ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I pelted it down. A couple of times I looked at my watch and saw with some surprise that my pace began with a 7, and a couple of times I almost fell but didn’t. I overtook a lot of people, and I stayed ahead of them, and I felt surprisingly good. The farm track goes on a long while, then ends at a checkpoint, a right turn into a field and a short climb. Actually it’s an incline, but after three miles of fast descending plus a mile of sharp climbing, a grassy incline makes for jelly legs. I walked for a bit, ran for a bit. In one of the fields, I found Phil, and he ran ahead of me to take my picture and I managed a smile and to flash my vest. Thanks Phil.
At one checkpoint, a marshal said, “well done! Last push. All downhill now.” I appreciated the encouragement from him and all the other marshals: this is a very well organized race with copious flags and cheery marshals. But if I hadn’t been quite so tired, I would have realised: either that nice marshal doesn’t know the race route or he’s lying. There were two inclines to come, one a small but sharp one up a field, which feels larger and harder than it is. And the other in the last half mile, a track back up to Dufton, which I recognised and remembered as soon as I got to it, with a groan. But it was over soon enough, then the last effort round houses and farmyards, and back to the green. I really tried to push it and must have because Morgan on the finishing line had to put his hands up and say “Stop running!” so I did. I finally looked at my watch and was delighted. It wasn’t my quickest time — 1.43 — nor my slowest — 2.00 — but it was good enough for me. 1.53. I’m happy with that. Well done to my fellow black-and-blues and hope you had a good run too. Results here.
— Rose George