I finally gained the club place for this marathon after about 7 years of trying. I had already entered Manchester for the following week, but quickly changed my plans. The last three marathons I ran were all the Eryri (Snowdonia).
The thing about London , if you buy into it, is that it is a massive occasion, an iconic race, people book the weekend miles in advance, hoping they will be one of the 500, 000 ballot entries to gain a place. I’ve realised that I was a bit bah humbug and actually preferred the turn-up-five-minutes-before-the-start of the Eryri marathon.
London this year was full of extra rules due to COVID. You couldn’t leave any baggage, which made it hard to run without an assistant. There were also start waves; this meant there was no sense of being paced or trying to pick people off as you had no idea when they started. There were no formal pacers, so it all felt a little uncertain.
The crowds were certainly loud and supportive, something runners always comment upon and love. Apparently the crowds were down to half a million this year, rather than the usual 750, 000, but my God, it still was massive to me. The course has its iconic moments, but the majority is winding round parts of east London you would never normally frequent.
I found it hard running from the start, the unedifying flat tarmac (hey, I like my roads!) stretched on and on. When the sign came for 600m left, I felt no joy, just a “thank God” moment. I swayed through the finish in 3.52.13, a passable good for age time, but a little disappointing to me.
In summary, I want to do it again knowing now what to expect. Hopefully I will get a GFA place for next year. I prefer the tranquility and iconic beauty of the Eryri marathon and its elevation. I don’t think I am a good responder to crowds (I’m definitely not a high fiving runner) and would happily run a marathon in solitude. Training-wise, I should have done all my long runs on tarmac, not trail. But most importantly, thanks NLFR for giving me the place this year!
Perched on the moors above Haworth sits the forlorn Top Withens. Not much remains of this ruined farmhouse, standing as it does roofless and windowless, its grey stones dour and lifeless, long since abandoned. But the hum of visitors and well-trodden paths that lead to it suggest a notoriety not usually reserved for such places. The plaque set in its wall reveals all: this farmhouse served as inspiration for the house of Wuthering Heights.
Not far away, last Sunday, amongst the literary artefacts, flag-stoned paths and russet bracken, I found myself on the start line of the category BM Withens Skyline for my NFLR race debut. Not only that, but this would also be my first ever fell race, NLFR or otherwise, the first time I’d worn a vest and pinned a number on the front. Luckily, Jonathan Coney was also running and was on hand to calm any pre-race nerves, show me the ropes, and lead me on a little warm-up jog.
By the time that clocks down in Haworth were striking 11:30, I and one hundred and thirty-eight runners were gathered in a long-disused quarry to begin the 6.5 mile course – a simple out, up, down and back. Under bright blue skies and a warmth seldom felt in October air the race began: up and out of the quarry, through the car park and onto a muddy path. The initial scramble for places at the start caught me by surprise and over the flat (ish) opening two kilometres I felt slightly stuck behind runners who I was a little faster than.
Once over a small stream though, about a quarter of the way in, running soon turned to walking as the path turned upwards to head onto the moor. Here, my steady start helped as I began to overtake those whose over-exuberant starts were coming back to bite, running as we were now away from the narrow path onto more open moorland, making overtaking feasible. Away from a clear path, the ground grew boggier underfoot and I had a taste of what the race must be like in more typical October weather. Fortunately these bogs were mostly avoidable. I pressed onwards, up onto the top where, at the trigpoint, I was greeted by “King Rat” himself – Mike Ayers – now shorn of his crown, cape and mascots that he worn for effect during the earlier junior races. His encouragement was welcomed as I struggled to turn out a steady rhythm on the flatter, open section of moorland and it was now my turn to lose a couple places as those I’d overtaken on the climb found their second winds.
From the top of the moor, the race descended a series of flagstone steps – mercifully dry in the midday sun – that lead to Top Withens itself, the gloomy abode of Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s tale. I knew though that all this pain was voluntary and by this point was eased by the knowledge that the highest point had been gained and a downhill was to come. Dropping down, I was more or less running alone whilst passing such sites as Brontë Bridge and Brontë Waterfall, clapped on by spectators, devotees of Brontë history, and dog walkers out for their Sunday strolls. I’d have liked to stop for a view, but the sound of footsteps at an unknown distance behind drove me on along the slog which was the final couple of miles.
After a road crossing the end was near, with a final pull up to the finish proving predictably uncomfortable. With the finish line outside the picturesque Haworth West End Cricket club in sight I managed to coax a sprint of sorts out of my heavy legs and crossed the line in good form and high spirits, which rose further when I found out I’d come in 12th. After a cup of water and a rest, I devoured the Curly-wurly that all finishers receive and basked in the warm air, enjoying the convivial post-race chitter chatter. My first fell race is done: I look forward to many more.
This was the first year this race was run and I was curious to try a new cat-A race an hour’s drive away in the Peak District. On paper it looked a straight forward lollipop-shaped course mainly following the Pennine Way with a modest amount of climbing for the distance. However, the on-paper-easiness belied some energy sapping, constantly changing terrain. It was a beautiful day with stunning September sunshine and perfect running temperature.
The first 3/4 of a mile is a flat, gravelled path. With fresh legs and a healthy tailwind, this felt great as I set off. There’s then a section of fairly steep stone steps that makes up a big chunk of the total elevation. Having reccied part of the route, I tried quite hard up the steps, knowing that what lay ahead of this was 2.5 miles of very narrow paths banked by deep heather and very few passing places. The terrain constantly changes from large shards of angular rocks embedded in the earth to sudden, random peat bogs to loose rocks and shale.
It was tiring physically, but also required total concentration up and down. Having finished the descent, I faced what I found the most difficult part of the race; a flat, unchanging, seemingly interminable 3⁄4 of a mile into a headwind. The 1st man was Ben Light of Buxton AC in 1:02:24. first woman was Imogen Jones of Pennine Fell Runners in 1:16:07. I was 7th woman and first V50 in a very small field in 1:31:52.
Having moaned about all the tricky bits, I’d still recommend this race. It’s easy to get to, it has parking and toilets, stunning views and a goody bag of a mug with a picture of Bleaklow, numerous sweeties and bottled water.
I first came across the Dragon’s Back Race (DBR) through Vassos Alexander’s book: Running Up That Hill: The highs and lows of going that bit further in which he described this absolute monster. I’d not been running regularly for long at the time, and had only just started to leave the tarmac, so it was certainly something I viewed in disbelief.
Over the next few months, I seemed to have a flurry of DBR accounts, videos and marketing thrown my way. The joys of the internet and its algorithms perhaps. At that point, I clocked that the race began in Conwy, where my parents had moved to once I’d flown the nest for university. This made me turn my head and notice. But still, I continued to view it with disbelief and awe.
However, as is the case with these silly races, the notion that this was in effect a “local” race was something I couldn’t get out of my head, and it started to become something I referred to as a “one day, perhaps” bucket list item.
The mistake I made was mentioning it to a friend at work, who quite fancied the idea of doing it himself, and evidently brought it up enough for me to say, “OK, I’ll have a crack in three years”. This led me to fill out a volunteer application for the race and not long after to receive an email to say that I had been successful. For context, I had said that I would look to volunteer before attempting because a) I’d gain invaluable insight from the week and, given I’m an adopted Yorkshireman, b) you get a free entry to use within the following two years.
“Things are now in motion that cannot be undone” – Gandalf.
So that is how I came to find myself stumbling over to Conwy School the Saturday morning before the race start on the Monday, looking bleary-eyed and wondering what I had signed up for.
The DBR bills itself as “The World’s Toughest Mountain Race”. It’s 380km across six days, with 17,400m of climb, across the spine of Wales from Conwy to Cardiff. I kept thinking: if it’s that tough for the competitors I can’t imagine it’s going to be a breeze for the crew either.
I’d been informed that I would be on the “Main Camp Team”. From watching enough documentaries of the race, I knew this would, at a minimum, involve putting up and taking down around 40 or more eight-person tents each day (it turned out to be 56). Back-testing stuff.
The weekend before the race start consisted of team inductions and instructions: everything from dos and don’ts for the week, to how to put up a Berghaus eight-person tent; and, most importantly, registration of the 360-odd participants of this year’s DBR, fewer than usual due to the pandemic.
Where the day before had felt slower paced, with team introductions and rules and regulations, the Sunday suddenly saw the whole crew sprang into action. The tent was transformed with impressive large screens showcasing DBR videos and various pictures of winners and participants from years gone by.
Then, before I knew it, runners started arriving. As you’d expect, this really gets the excitement and nerves going, which you could see across both participants and crew – it all started to feel quite real.
I, along with a happy fellow Yorkshireman, and hopefully future NLFR member, called Will, found ourselves initially tasked with weighing participants’ dry bags, of which they were each allowed a large overnight 60L bag and a smaller 15L day bag. These were to (strictly) weigh no more than 15kg and 2.5kg respectively.
It was clear that keeping under these weight limits, for some at least, had been no easy task. The look of dread on many runners’ faces approaching me, bags in hand, had me wondering if this was the environment a Weight Watchers session housed week in week out. The look of despondency on their faces on being told they were over the limit, very much so in a couple of instances, brought an equally apologetic one from myself and Will. And so would commence the chaos of tipping out odds and sods to try and figure out what item(s) would amount to the offending weight.
Tragically, though somewhat thankfully, given the growing heat in the marquee, we were told that the scales we were using were giving different readings to the final weigh-ins at bag drop off and were consequently relieved of our duties.
Our new responsibility then turned to meet and greet at the front of the marquee, welcoming and directing the sudden influx of hundreds of runners who’d arrived on coaches from Cardiff, ensuring they moved along in an orderly fashion.
I enjoyed this new task as it gave me the chance to speak to many an aspiring dragon slayer as they queued up. It’s safe to say there was a range of different runners with mixed experience, from those who’d hardly run in the mountains, to seasoned mountain goats with a steely, determined look in their eye. In my excitement of recognising him, I couldn’t resist the urge to say hello to Steve Birkinshaw and letting him know I am currently reading his book. Far too fanboyish, but oh well. Then suddenly registration was done. The runners were briefed, fed and ready for bed.
Monday morning was an early start for all, but the enthusiasm in the air was palpable. As with any race start line, there were runners doing last-minute stretches and scurrying around looking for mandatory kit they’d misplaced. By and large though, there were smiles all around, the mix of relief and excitement that only comes from runners who are finally about to be let loose out of weeks of tapering.
Sadly, another casualty of COVID was the lack of choir to sing at the start line, usual DBR feature, but given the past 18 months, it was going to take a lot more to dampen the mood. I was in awe of the speedsters at the front – Kim Collinson and Marcus Scotney stood out to me in particular – with their steely mountain legs. Then suddenly the countdown began and they were off!
As the runners proceeded along the castle walls up towards Conwy Mountain, the crew made their way back to the registration base to take down tents and load up the final pieces onto the convoy, a fleet of 60 vehicles.
The journey to the first overnight camp offered the chance to familiarise with those we would be sharing a vehicle with for the week. By luck or by design, though I’m confident it’s the latter, everyone across the crew, including those in the vehicle I was in, were friendly, enthusiastic and hardy. As the week went on you would find out more and more hidden gems about each other’s background, from impressive endurance track records to aspirations for setting astounding new ones.
Overnight camp one (based at Gwastadannas) is in a stunning setting, with imposing mountains overlooking the site, and refreshing neighbouring streams flowing into Llyn Gwynant.I say refreshing as the early morning mist and gloom had lifted to give rise to a sunny day. At ground level, it was ideal, neither too hot nor too cold, but you could see how piercing the sun was if you were on the tops, particularly the last section running the Snowdon horseshoe.
And so began the chaos of putting up 56 tents. Thankfully, they were air tents so there wasn’t the usual mayhem that comes with fitting poles. However, 56 tents are no easy work, and I say that knowing that there were 365 poor souls soldiering across some of Wales’s toughest mountains. I won’t labour the point, but it’s not until you’re faced with the prospect, that you realise the thought and effort that goes into ensuring the tents fit the field, aren’t too close to the toilets, are correctly put up and ordered and 101 other things I’ve since forgotten.
Whilst we continued erecting the tents, news dribbled through that some well-known names – Scotney, Collinson and Berkinshaw – had withdrawn due to injury. That left two Welsh lads – Simon Roberts and Russell Bentley – leading the race.
Once the tents were up, the Main Camp team awaited the first runners in. The team had been split into two – early birds and night owls – depending on the shift you would do. The role was to greet runners as they came in, source and carry their overnight bag to their tent, and check that they were OK. As I was on lates for the week, I decided to mill about my tent for a time. As this was next to a stream, it meant I could chat to some of the runners as they came in and beelined to the water to cool down. There was quite a range in the state of the runners – from Russell Bentley who looked as fresh as a cucumber and happy to make conversation as he cooled down, Katie Mills (leading woman) who was full of beans and possibly the happiest person on-site during the whole week, to runners who had clearly found day one a gruelling battle in the heat.
When it was my turn to bring runners their drop bags, I was raring to go, excited to hear how they had found the day. Though many arrived looking somewhat battered, by in large there were smiles across the board, the satisfying sort that comes at the end of a long day in the mountains.
As the night went on and the cut off time of 22:00 loomed, the mood changed more to relief at having made it in time. You could see the final descent from the camp, with the line of torchlights making their way down from the top, allowing us a best guess of which runners were likely to make it in time. I found it quite sombre to see the lights in the distance, knowing there was next to no chance they would make it in time.
The clock ticked past 22:00 and that was it, any further participants were no longer in the race. I collected the bag of the next runner (who was one minute late) and tried to offer my condolences as he was in a desolate mood. It had been a brutal first day, with roughly a third of the field not making it through.
And that was largely how the week continued to go. We would rise early, take down the tents and pack everything into vans, make our way to the next site, and set up as quickly as we could ahead of the arriving runners. Day one’s heat had nothing on day two, which was a real scorcher and saw the field culled even further. The third was a lot kinder in terms of temperature, and by in large those that made it through that day went on to complete. Days four and five saw the weather flip on its head, with rain, the threat of thunder and changing visibility.
This year, Race Director Shane Ohly had amended the route to include a sixth day, enabling it to become a coast-to-coast race finishing at Cardiff Castle. On arriving, much of the branding and marquees had already been set up and it was an impressive sight to see. It was somewhat surreal pitching up my tent in the heart of the castle grounds. The setting looked fantastic and worth the added day (admittedly that’s easy to say when you haven’t run from Conwy).
Then before I knew it, the first runners had arrived – Simon and Russel – still holding an impressive pace at this final stage, followed by a steady stream of happy and relieved faces. The atmosphere was joyous and complimented by an idyllic sunny day to reflect the mood.
The presentation of trophies then got underway, with many a sore (but beaming) finisher limping their way to the stage to collect their deserved prize. Once the winners had received theirs, everyone funnelled out to the finish line to eagerly await the final runner, who was greeted with resounding applause and handed his dragon trophy by the first male (Simon Roberts) and first female (Katie Mills) – fun fact: the last DBR finisher receives the largest, and perhaps most impressive, trophy of all. And just like that, the 2021 Dragon’s Back Race was finished.
All in all, it was a fantastic week filled with great people and lots of fun. Shane clearly knows what he’s doing and puts on a great race. I would recommend volunteering at an Ourea Events race to anyone.
So now it’s time to start the long process of getting my injury-ridden body to the start line in a couple of years. I’m under no illusion that the race doesn’t live up to its name in terms of toughness, but in any case, the hourglass has been turned and the countdown clock on my free entry has begun. But to quote Tolkien again: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him”.
“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.
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.
Last week, we were delighted to host Emma Beddington on her first ever fell run. She is filling in for Rhik Samadder’s series for the Guardian on trying new experiences: Emma’s were fell running and swordfighting (yes, yes, not together). So she turned up promptly with photographer Richard Saker at our club run meeting spot in Burley-in-Wharfedale, managed not to look too terrified, then set off on a specially designed “not *too* brutal” route devised by Mike. And although you may not think it from this piece as she does not throw flowers at herself, she did brilliantly. Also, Emma, there was nothing pretend about those breathers!
Anyway if you have found your way here via Emma’s piece, welcome. If you are local to Leeds — that includes flat York — please do come and run with us one evening, you would be very welcome. Unlike most clubs, we are happy for you to run with us without joining, although of course we are always happy to have new members. We do insist though that you fill in a track and trace Google form that you can find on this website under “Covid.”
Emma Beddington tries … fell running: ‘It’s like dragging bags of cement uphill – only the bags are my legs’
My favourite part of childhood summer holidays with my dad was our trip to the Yorkshire Dales agricultural show, a respite from his usual gruelling regime of mountain walks and examining dead fauna. Between prize rams and displays of trimmed leeks we watched the fell-running races: infants and gnarled pensioners scampering up and then down a sheer crag, all for a biscuit and a certificate.
“Look at the little bastards!” Dad would exclaim, gesturing incredulously, plastic pint glass slopping bitter as wiry five-year-olds whizzed past, legs a blur. Lumpen by his side, mouth crammed with cake, I would feel an obscure longing: why wasn’t I a fearless, muddy-kneed dynamo?
Nearly 40 years later, I’m joining North Leeds Fell Runners for a run on Ilkley Moor to scratch that itch. “Fell running is an all-terrain sport,” the Fell Runners Association website explains, “and often involves routes with no paths … You should expect open moorland, rocky grass, bogs, tussocks, heather, boulder fields and some very steep climbs and descents.”
I live in York, perhaps the flattest place in the UK, and my exercise regime is booking then skipping Pilates classes. I did one practice run, which I thought went OK until I got home and realised I had been out for only 12 minutes: this will be an uphill task in more ways than one. Limbering up in singlets and shorts, the North Leeds runners offer little reassurance. The age range is wide but everyone looks intimidatingly fit, even Burt the dog (he’s not in shorts).
I’m terrified. Ominously, before we start, I have to provide an emergency contact, then a woman called Liz says I’m very brave – immediate alarm bells – and a man called Dave tells me it’s fine until your peripheral vision fails. He’s laughing, so it might be a joke.
Thankfully, Mike, the unofficial run-leader, (65, with frighteningly long legs) has devised a “not too brutal” route for the group I’m joining: him, Hilary and Clare, who are recovering from injury and returning after a break respectively, photographer Richard and my friend Rose (a proper, hard-core fell runner who has volunteered for “keep Emma alive” duty). The bigger, faster groups choose their routes, then we’re off, through the gate on to the steep, bracken-lined moor.
Rose claims it’s a misconception that fell runners always run, but my impression is of accidentally joining a greyhound race: lithe frames whiz past at absurdly high speed. I’m going nowhere fast. It feels like dragging bags of wet cement uphill, except the bags are my legs. I’m overtaken by a limping sheep.
Far above, Mike points out the “fast lads”, already sprinting across the horizon. “If it helps,” says Rose conversationally as I stagger past, sweat in my eyes, chest itchy and heart trying to escape from my mouth, “your body is in shock.” I’m not sure it does.
What does help is the group often pretending they need a breather. This compassionate fiction keeps me going, plus my guilt at poor Richard, who – Ginger Rogers to my lumbering Fred Astaire – is doing everything I am, but backwards, with a bag of camera gear.
Finally, mercifully, the gradient levels out. As the prospect of imminent death recedes, I can look around: we’re surrounded by honey-scented purple heather punctuated by limestone outcrops.
The sky feels huge, the clouds shading from cotton wool to angry black, blue sky and diffuse golden sun. It’s wonderfully silent until the plump grouse startle ahead of us, grumbling. I’m running on Ilkley Moor, baht’at (unless my fleecy headband counts)! I’m starting to understand the appeal.
Perhaps sensing that, Mike’s encouragement becomes more muscular. “Come on!” he shouts. “Get moving!” It’s like walking with my dad, except he isn’t taunting me with a withheld Mars bar. The top is worth it: I love the 12 Apostles – a windswept stone circle – and the panoramic view over the Dales, Pennines and moors.
Instead of savouring it, however, it’s time to try “straight-lining”: picking a destination and heading there, path be damned. Mike hares off into an arbitrary patch of boggy, stony heather, like some kind of moorland anarchist. “Pick your feet up,” Rose advises. “And don’t get too close to the runner in front,” adds Hilary. There’s absolutely no danger of that.
The final mile is a sheer scramble downhill. “Brakes off, brain out,” Mike says: trust your legs and instincts. Against all odds, I love it with all my risk-averse heart. “This is great,” I hear myself saying, gleefully hopping from rock to tussock. I feel fearless, playful and childlike; subsequently pictures reveal I look like a flustered matron who has left Zoom Zumba in a hurry to bring the washing in.
But the feeling is real: I reach the bottom tingling all over. Lactic acid? Endorphins? Who cares?
The faster runners reappear, barely puffed after twice the distance; Burt the dog still wants to play. I’m ecstatically disinhibited at merely surviving. “How do you stretch your bum?” I ask peripheral vision Dave, a total stranger.
On the way home after chips in the pub – the best bit – I send my father a picture of me in “action”. “Wow!” he replies. I can almost hear his pint spilling: mission accomplished.
Would I go back?
North Leeds run all through winter, with head torches. Apparently, it’s stunning in the snow. Maybe I’ll … ha, of course I won’t. No.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 severaltimes, 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.
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.