I took for granted the freedom that I was privileged to have during my childhood and growing up in the 1960s and 70s: those endless days exploring the vast woodland of Meanwood Valley with friends and siblings. We named rocks, had picnics in the thickets of Scotland Woods, dared each other to walk across the unfenced aqueduct of Adel Woods, waded with fishing nets in the beck, swam, paddled, swung on rope swings above muddy waters and sledged down the slope above the swings.
We trudged home when hunger registered or clothes were too soggy after we’d fallen in the streams. I attended the primary school next to the park so sports and nature walks were spent in the greenery of the parkland.
Time did the inevitable thing of passing by and I embarked on a new hobby during my teenage years: running. This was a time when running fashion was a pair of flat pumps and shiny nylon shorts that flapped at the sides with the slightest of breezes. I found myself again playing up and down Meanwood Valley, running over ancient rocks and roots of the same protected trees, re-carving out the paths of my early childhood.
However, Meanwood Valley took on a sleeping historic form, a forgotten gem, because I had discovered the Yorkshire Dales and mighty mountains of the Lake District. I enjoyed the challenges of racing and spent weekends making up new runs, again taking for granted outstanding beauty in another form.
That was up until March 2020 when suddenly society was forced into a most unnatural prison sentence. For me, lockdown seemed necessary yet on a personal level an impossibility. My allocated slot of daily exercise allowance became my saving grace. As I live in the vicinity of Meanwood Valley, it was inevitable that my running routes of yesteryear became, once again, my playground. The spring sun simmered through newly budding trees, the flow of the water sparkled, radiating hope during this horrific pandemic. Watching the seasons change and trails turning from arid dust to mud, snow and ice, I continued embracing what I had on my doorstep.
I re-discovered trails with routes from old forgotten nooks and crannies, reminiscing about fond childhood hiding places. My runs were a joy. They put on hold my missing of the Yorkshire Dales. I made new friends: shy nods became sincere greetings. I became adept at the Covid shuffle of avoidance. It was a pleasure noticing women walking alone in the dense woodland without fear in their eyes and enthusiastic children playing as I did all those years ago.
My valley runs were indeed my lockdown anti-depressant. The changing seasons have been a splendour. I have never been more thankful and will forever appreciate what I have at my immediate disposal: a paradise for the hobby I began way over forty years ago……and fairies still dance under the trees.
Last year was one everyone will be very eager to forget, but for me there was one silver lining: finally joining a club.
I’m relatively new to fell running, and probably haven’t earned enough stripes to call myself a fell runner yet as most of the running I’d done prior to 2020 was on the road. After a few marathons and one pretty flat ultra I found that the most exciting parts of those races were the tricky, technical sections where I’d have to concentrate on the placement of my feet rather than just putting one foot in front of the other. This new found love of off-road running led me to take on a few Lakeland Trail races which I think are such a great entry point for anyone who is sick of running on tarmac.
Having enjoyed those, I looked for events closer to Leeds. I enjoyed the brief window of races that actually went ahead at the start of 2020 : High Cup Nick on 27th February and the Ikley Moor fell race on 3rd March. Both were awesome!
I remember standing alone at the Ilkley Moor race start point (having arrived way too early) without a hat, in pretty rainy miserable conditions, looking over at some NLFR-vest-wearing runners and thinking firstly would they lend me a hat, but also that at least I wouldn’t be stood on my tod before races if I was part of a club. So after some nudging and encouragement from my girlfriend I joined NLFR, and it’s hands down the best thing I did last year.
I had the same worries so many starters seem to have… Am I fit enough? …Will I be stranded in the middle of nowhere when everybody else speeds off? But it turns out I had absolutely nothing to worry about.
So my message to all those wannabe Leeds fell runners reading this post is come and give it a shot! The sessions are often split into different groups based on speed, so there’s usually a group of similarly paced pals to keep you company. I find myself in the weird place between the fast and the slower group but there’s no egos here and the super fast runners always wait to make sure everyone has caught up.
The fell runners I’ve met through the club are all like-minded, friendly people who love the fells, the mud and a well-earned beer after a run. Unfortunately I’ve joined NLFR at the worst time to take advantage of the post run beers but the club has still given me new routes, new friends and definitely kept the lockdown legs away.
This was a very different Christmas for everyone. For me there was no roast dinner and just a 30-minute visit to my elderly mother and then my daughter. My sister was in hospital recovering from having a kidney stone removed. Luckily I had been invited to my friends for a festive evening of great food, vast amounts of wine and rum, and much silliness.
Some traditions could still be preserved and that includes my usual Christmas morning gallop. It just means that little bit less guilt when it comes to yet another, last, After Eight mint. Calories burned running mean calories enjoyed eating.
This time there was no Strava pressure, no squeezing out the extra miles. Just a gentle run in the winter sun around Black Carr Woods. This is where I grew up, played out, fought the kids from Holmewood estate and badly lost, built dens and at the age of 14 went for my first ever ‘run’.
This is where I have run and walked through lock downs and tier 3. I know the names of the dogs that try and chase me (Bruno the giant, biggest dog I have ever seen), Lix the big gentle horse and his pretty owner, and where I have raced with other local runners up and down the hills.
Those hills do not disappoint. Scholebrook Lane, the Gib, Keepers Lane, and the legend that is Post Hill have both strengthened and hurt my knees this year. On Christmas morning my legs were so tired and I was happy to avoid hills, instead take some pictures and indulge in a little mindfulness running.
The light at this time of the year is so beautiful and especially after a few days of grey gloom and gloaming. Textures, shadows and colours that you don’t see at the height of summer. My favourite time however is without a doubt early spring because first there are wood anemones then celandines, bluebells, wild garlic, and red campion. I followed the seasons changing from March until now as I ran and ran and ran through the pandemic.
Christmas and the New Year are a time to reflect but even more so to look forwards. The vaccine is coming, races will be run again, my arthritic knee and my IT band will not bother me one bit and the people of the Lake District will welcome us back.
That night my tired but strong legs got me through an evening of debauchery and extreme Dad dancing. The next day I had my first hangover in years and my knee would not straighten. I still went out running.
I had never really enjoyed running, although I had always loved the outdoors and getting out into the hills. Before our kids came along six years ago most trips or holidays would be focused on some type of mountain or hill exploration, but since fatherhood my only real exercise consisted of mountain biking a few times a year.
So due to my painfully sedentary job and lack of regular exercise I found that my waistline was steadily increasing as the final years of my 30s were rapidly decreasing. Around this time, I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea which if left unresolved can lead to health issues later on, and although technically not too bad on my BMI score, any excess body fat can make sleep apnoea much worse. Luckily my usual eagerness to drink and be unhealthy had slowly faded over the years as the consistency of being woken by children at 6am with infectious enthusiasm for life tends not to sit too well with a banging hangover. So thanks to both my kids and the doctor’s advice, in August 2019 I bought the cheapest GPS watch I could find to motivate me on my journey into the world of running.
First I decided to try and lose a stone, but with one very strict rule. No dieting. I mean I got “hangry” at the best of times; there was no way I would be able to run and restrict my eating…It turned out that my Garmin watch included training plans for a beginner to 5K which I followed consistently though September and October slowly increasing my runs until I could do a 5K with only a handful of pauses to let my stomach acid gently drain back down my oesophagus.
The longest run of my life thus far was a very slow and painful 7 miles from my house through Golden Acre to Eccup and back again, so naturally I thought it was good time to sign up to the Leeds 5K Race Series at the Brownlee Centre. It consisted of 10 x 5K races over the year for people who mostly seemed to belong to running clubs ending in Striders or Harriers.
I had not considered my pace much at this point and had just been focusing on distance for my runs. On race day I started out strong, I was keeping up with the head of the pack with the first few 100 meters being my strongest and fastest. But my muscles soon began to burn with lactic acid, and I was passed by more and more runners as my legs died a painful death. I crossed the line in 25.06: still a PB for me but I had certainly not yet discovered the ancient art of pacing.
For Christmas that year we had chickenpox. The kids caught it first and then passed it to me. It knocked me out of action for a few weeks. My whole body looked like I had had lost a fight with a wasps’ nest, I didn’t want to scare the neighbourhood so had to take a break from running.
By late January I was starting to run a few times a week again, but the bathroom scales had not moved much in my favour. Speed 5K was evidently not my thing; I needed a new goal to motivate me. I stumbled across the 1000 miles in a year challenge during a YouTube wormhole; it seemed like something I could aim for. I needed to do around 84 miles a month which sounded possible, but in January I could only manage 20, so I knew that with a gradual increase each month I would need to be doing 120 mile months towards the end of the year to meet my target.
I stuck to the plan and increased my mileage as much as I could each month, doing longer and longer runs; on May 10th I did my first 10 mile run, and on June 11th my first half marathon distance. Then on June 14th I attempted an even longer run but as I hit 10 miles my knee decided that was my limit, I limped on for a bit hoping it would sort itself, but in the end I had to call my wife Jess for the first, but not the last roadside rescue.
I had read that you should only increase your mileage by 10% at a time, but I had not followed this or even worked out what increase I was doing each month and my body was struggling with my new activity levels. It was rare that I would complete a run or even start one without some sort of pain. But I just wanted to get to a fitness level where I actually enjoyed being out running, and then hopefully it would become a permanent fixture in my week leading to a long-term healthier lifestyle.
They say it takes an average of 66 days’ repetition for a new behaviour to become automatic. This is where I wanted to get to, I wanted my running to be a habit, something that I just did, part of my routine, not something that I had to force myself into each time. In July, (way longer than 66 days later) I started to feel different, I began to enjoy running more, even with all the aches and pains I seemed to be almost disappointed if I couldn’t fit my scheduled run in due to other commitments. This was most peculiar. Was my brain re-wiring itself?
On the 19th of July I headed out early to Pen-y-Ghent and did a 10-mile loop. It was a perfect clear sunny morning, and in a small way it was my first bit of “fell running”. As I slipped and sank in the peat bogs on Plover Hill I made a mental note to look into fell shoes for my next outing. I had enjoyed this run from start to finish, had no issues with knees and felt great. When I took my shoes off at the car it was even a relief to lose my first toenail. It had been bruised and sore for a few weeks and was now just hanging on and pulled off easily. I had Googled the issue and discovered I apparently had “Morton’s toe” whoever he is. It’s where your second toe looks longer than your big toe, this means these toes take a beating in running shoes but using a runner’s loop to tie your lace can hold the ankle better to reduce the problem, also going half a size up in shoe is supposed to help. I did both of these things, but when my nails grow back they soon became purple and sore again so guess it doesn’t work for my particular type of freak toes.
August 4th was my first 16 mile run and my 2nd rescue, as I again called to be picked up, this time from a compete burnout and the realization that my usual 150ml water bottle was now insufficient for longer runs. I figured that by now my training in the Cookridge hills, aka the San Francisco of Yorkshire must have forged me into a tough mountain athlete honed and ready to join the prestigious North Leeds Fell Runners.
My first club run was an easy paced run around the Meanwood valley trails. This filled me with some confidence that this “fell running” was certainly something I could do. However, the next few club runs kicked any confidence I may have had about my ability to run up anything apart from the mildest incline firmly into the grass. What followed was a chest-busting climb up Beamsley Beacon, before hurtling down again over rocks, steams, heather and mud. To my surprise I made it down without smashing my face into the ground, but what was this madness I had found, where was the consideration for health and safety, and how could these people run so goddamn fast up and down a hill?
With a few more club runs on Ilkley and Baildon moors charging around in the dark, fog and rain, I felt the bile creep up on me once again as my body got used to the change in pace from my usual flat amble around Eccup and Harwood. But it was great fun, I felt energized, could this be a way to combine my love of the hills and mountains with my fledgling running hobby and healthier me?
On October 26th I did my first marathon distance. I had wanted to run from my house to Almscliff Crag for a while. I had estimated it would be around 18 miles so not much further than my longest run of 16 miles. It had been raining for a few weeks and the ground was completely saturated so I wore some fell shoes. This was fine until I arrived back in Cookridge having unexpectedly extended the run around Otley Chevin. The final five miles of pavement-bashing in a shoe with no cushioning built for soft terrain was a new level of sore. I had never given much thought to doing a marathon distance before and assumed I would need to do a hell of a lot more training before I could attempt it, but at mile 21 it seemed too close, I had to try. So when I shuffled past 26 miles I was more than a tad surprised.
I had known since October that barring any serious injury I would be able to hit my 1000-mile target sometime in December. But strangely the knowledge that I could do it made me less motivated to try, the thought of completing it on just a normal jog around the local trails seemed a bit of a let-down. I wondered if I could do a 50K as the final run of my challenge. It seemed a better goal to have, but I honestly did not know if my body would be able to do it. I had done no real training plan as such; I had just been going for regular runs.
I had done another marathon distance on November 14th and that had been twice as hard as the first, maybe because I knew now how far it felt now, or maybe because I still couldn’t get food down on a long run. I had tried various items but everything had made my mouth feel bone dry and I struggled to swallow any down. It just left me feeling sick. At mile 26 with only a mile or two to reach home I was broken and had to call to be rescued by Jess for the third time.
I planned my route. Start from home, head to Bramhope, along the Chevin, through Menston and Burley Woodhead up to the trig point on Ilkley moor, then across to the trig on Baildon moor, down Shipley Glen to the canal in Saltaire and then follow the towpath all the way back down to the bridge across the River Aire in Horsforth, and finally up the hill to Cookridge. My OS app said it would be bang on 50K.
I estimated that when I was back near Calverley I would pass the marathon mark; I knew the canal towpath could be busy on the weekend and I pushed the thought of a very public collapse out of my mind. If I used what I had learnt over the past year I thought I would be OK. Namely: Eat a good breakfast. Do some stretching. Use a roller even if you don’t know why… it might do something. Take lots of liquid. Carry some food. Actually eat the food. Even if previously a dog person, when running assume all dogs want to kill you. Pace yourself. Choose a day without the option of an emergency rescue so you can’t bail out again.
It all went perfectly. I even managed to eat a whole Snickers when I reached the top of Ilkley moor. But as I headed down and over to Baildon I jarred my knee in a hole, not too badly, I thought it would shake itself out. It didn’t, and later on at around mile 20 it was really starting to flare up and cause a lot of pain. I hobbled on until Calverley Bridge which was the first opportunity to cut the run short and I gingerly walked home from there.
So my year did not end in a 50K blaze of glory, but perhaps more fittingly I crossed the invisible 1000-mile line somewhere on Ilkley moor during the NLFR winter solstice run. I was actually still nursing the bad knee more than I knew when we set off…sorry for slowing anyone down.
Fell running is definitely something I know I will continue to pursue in future and running in general is now something I love to do. I had finally lost a stone. It took the full 12 months, so probably not the most inspiring weight loss story. (But all with no dieting.) More tellingly my BMI score was 4 points lower than it had been and I felt better than I had for a long time.
I look forward to when my body recovers from the injuries and pains this new healthier lifestyle has given me, I can’t wait to head out to the hills again. For now, I will have to be content with putting my feet up, eating cheese, drinking port and reading Feet in the Clouds.
A race. An actual race. A race with real numbers that you pin to your club vest with actual pins. Real checkpoints. Real marshals. Everything real. Everything vivid. Everything I have not done for six months, since FRB and I did the 30-mile Haworth Hobble in March, in the last weekend before lockdown. For this race, timing was important. A week before it was due to be run, we still hadn’t entered and the entry list – it had only 100 runners – was full. Oh. I wrote to Jamie, a fell-running mate of ours who organizes it, and congratulated him on the race selling out and cursing my lateness at entering. It’s not a passive aggressive message request for places, I wrote, meaning it. Anyway, the dodgy knee that I have had since a month into lockdown would be thankful that I was not going to be running the 28 miles of the Lancashireman off-road “marathon” (they are generous in Lancashire) on very imperfect training.
Jamie wrote back. He had a couple of places and would Neil and I like them?
The reasons against accepting:
The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
I had spent hours on my feet during a week in Scotland, but before that I’d not run beyond 15 miles for months, since the Fellsman was one of the first races to be cancelled. But I have form at running long runs unprepared. I said yes please to Jamie, and started eating everything. I was worried about my knee, as although my physio had decided my knee pain was due to inactive glutes, and finished with “go forth and run,” it was not getting better and sitting and lying both made it hurt. The only time it seemed OK was running, but not steeply downhill. But I accepted the places, hoped my knee would behave, and got quite excited.
I did a training session of mile efforts on the Wednesday, then no more running. I had a seriously crappy week for work/book reasons, and began to think that running for six or so hours across Lancashire countryside was exactly what I needed. We headed to Burnley on Saturday night, had a night at the Premier Inn for £33 (pandemic price), then up at 6.30 to eat our DIY breakfasts: Weetabix in Tupperware and an M&S baguette. Elite fuelling.
I was going to try Mountain Fuel again for this. I’ve used it once before and liked it and thought I needed all the help I could get. So I downed half a packet with my baguette, and filled my soft flasks with the other half. As usual I packed a full picnic: chocolate bars, sweets, flapjacks, Quorn sausages, Mountain Fuel sports jellies. The weather forecast was perfect, predicting single figure temperatures but outbreaks of sunshine. It would be cool on the tops though, and there would be a lot of tops, so I put on a merino long-sleeve with my vest.
The race had been allowed to go ahead because it was going to be Covid-secure. That meant only turning up to get your race number 15 minutes before your designated start time, designated start times that set people off in groups of no more than six, only packaged food at checkpoints, and no milling. Everyone was conforming to this when we turned up, ready for our 8.21 start, and with little faffing time, we were set off. We had a plan: 10 minute-miling to start with, and steady steady all the way. That way, Neil thought, we could comfortably finish in six hours and beat our time of last year (just over 6.30). He also thought we could win the mixed pair category, but I tried to put that out of my head. Steady, think of your knee, steady, steady, steady.
Image by Neil Wallace
I thought I knew the route. I’d recced most of it last year, and we’d run it of course, though partly in pouring rain. The weather this year was so far beautiful, with clear sunny skies. Maybe that’s why I realised I couldn’t remember much of the second mile through woodland. This was going to be a theme for the whole route, as it turned out that once again, I knew sections but not necessarily in the right order.
The route mostly follows the Burnley Way, a path that Visit Lancashire describes with odd grammar as “a 40-mile adventure from industrial heritage, along waterways, through fields, parks, old farms, and Forest of Burnley woodlands to the wild South Pennine Moors.” The route “has been recently updated and revised into six easy sections.” Easy? I knew there were more than 4,000 feet of climb over the 28 miles and that the biggest climb of all was at mile 20. At least, deep inside I knew but I was refusing to think about it.
Seven miles in, we reached the part that had caused chaos last year, with runners all over the place trying to find an elusive footbridge. So this year I had studied it online, calculating that we had to turn south a third of a mile after Shore Hey farm. Neil had also worked out when to turn, and this year we mostly got it right. On the hill ahead of us, runners appeared like Scottish warriors in an epic film; they had gone too far and were on their way back. If you don’t accidentally detour at least once on the Lancashireman, you’ve probably done it wrong. Jamie & crew do their best, with the odd chalked LORM and arrow, and the Burnley Way is waymarked now and then with a sunny B, but there are plenty of miles where it isn’t.
By now the runners who had gone the right way and runners who had gone the wrong way were all converging, so that up the hill on the far side of the bridge, the narrow singletrack path of stone steps — known as the Ogglty-Cogglty — became bottlenecked. This is a usual situation in fell running, but not in fell running during a pandemic. I turned and courteously asked the man behind me to back off, and he did. Neil meanwhile had a man behind him so close, it was clear he’d had garlic the day before. Asked to Ogglty-Cogglty off, politely, he didn’t, so it couldn’t be dismissed as thoughtlessness. It’s not like anyone was going anywhere fast: the climb was steep, no-one was running it, and it was packed solid. I really try to dampen my judginess in life these days, else I would spend my life internally fuming at people getting too close, wearing masks wrong, just being wrong. But this was unsettling.
Out of the woods, the sun was warmer than forecast, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. We reached the first checkpoint, staffed by cheery marshals in green t-shirts. This was my first experience of a Covid-secure checkpoint and as advertised, all food was packaged – biscuits, chocolate bars, crisps – and water was dispensed from jugs. There could have been improvements such as a one-way funnel, but there was plenty of hand sanitizer and it was being done as safely as possible. You can never eliminate risk, just reduce it as best you can. A young woman who was pouring me water looked behind me and said, “well done Mum!”.
I was surprised, I think because I immediately pictured my own mother arriving behind me in a race. She is 80, and fabulous, and has been walking 12 miles a week during the pandemic, but she’s never going to be a fellrunner.
I asked the girl, stupidly, “your mother is running?”
“Yes, that’s her in the red.”
I turned to look. “How old is she?”
I said “oh shit,” and people laughed and I’m still not sure why I said that. There were no age categories in the mixed pair category and anyway, I wasn’t being competitive, remember? Still I kept an eye on her for a while until we drew away from her. Habit.
Soon we stopped to strip down to vest-only. Then onwards, up horrible tarmac, some fake-running for the photographer, who managed to make my short Welsh legs look even shorter.
My brain was busy calculating what was coming next. It was like that animation of a human brain using mechanical wheels and whirring. Finally the whirring stopped and I knew: Widdop reservoir and moorland. More whirring: A couple of miles across the tops of the moors, past Gorple Stones, down to Hurstwood reservoir and that would be halfway.
Far off in front of us was a young woman who I thought we would never catch. Then, as we turned off the road to boggy paths around Widdop reservoir, she slowed, and we passed her easily. I don’t know if the Lancashireman counts as a fell race but if you don’t have fell experience, obviously that will show in the boggy bits. Not that I didn’t fall. I did, but I made sure to fall on a soft bit.
The view from Gorple Stones was beautiful, as it always is. Later, we learned that a runner had fallen here and dislocated his shoulder. He’d been content to run on, until the marshals pointed out that his bone was several centimetres forward from where it should have been.
Hurstwood. I couldn’t have sped up, but I didn’t need to slow down or stop. I felt quite good, and we made sure to run harmoniously for Jamie’s camera.
Along the way we encountered two men running ahead of us. One had a very bloodied head. He had fallen, also after Gorple Stones. He was OK to go on, and said he would wash off in a beck, then didn’t. Finally I offered him a wet wipe, then had to dig around in my pack for it as of course my first aid kit was at the bottom of my copious dry bag of kit. “Sorry lass,” said David, of the bloodied head. “Sorry to hold you back.” Oh, we’re not competitive said Rose (the same Rose who knows exactly by how many minutes they came second eventually in the mixed pair category and calculates that this was probably the same amount of minutes lost helping David but that’s fine).
We ran on together, past the next checkpoint, along the thankless Long Causeway tarmac road, past cloughs and gullies. Before dropping down into the hamlet of Portsmouth, we passed through fields that had a powerful stink. We passed a tractor approaching with a trailer full of more fragrant manure, then reached the path, turned and saw him spraying it exactly where we’d just been. Lucky escape.
By now something strange was happening. I was running more. My legs would run when my brain didn’t want to. I felt stronger. It was very odd. Maybe it was the Mountain Fuel? It was useful though as the hardest climb was coming up, to Heald Moor and Thievley Pike. At this point, my poor memory was an advantage, because I had forgotten how long and steep the climb was, so I just put my head down and climbed. Behind me, two women were telling two other runners what was coming up. “Horrendous! The worst climb ever! It’s awful!” I wondered at this. It wasn’t horrendous, it definitely wasn’t the worst climb ever, and if it was that awful, why were you doing the race? It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the views back to the other side of the valley were lovely. Perhaps that negativity got them up the hill more easily. Whatever works.
Image by Neil Wallace
Me, I was enjoying it. I was running easily and not tiring. My knee was sore but not disabling. And we only had a few miles left. Down into the grandiose Townley Hall, where we ran past a footballer lying on the ground and I thought, I bet a fell-runner would run through whatever injury he has. Past families with ice-cream, and a young girl who looked at me and asked her mother what I was doing. “She’s running!” But I wasn’t at that point, so then I had to.
There was only one short real climb to go, but it was uphill to Todmorden Road before that. Then along above the railway, with runners around us clearly tiring but enduring, as we were. Through the Kilns, where I directed a chatty pair from Accrington. At least, she was chatty. He wasn’t, and had to be chivvied, if chivvying consists of “COME ON MICK.” I’ve never seen a man running with clingfilm wrapped around his leg before, and I won’t forget Mick’s. They were both doing the relay, which you could do in pairs or threes or more. Mick made it to the end, clingfilm and all.
Finally, after we had run away from Burnley to run back to it, we were running down into town, past someone getting their Morrison’s delivery, and a smile from the young woman driving the van, to the canal where of course I wanted to go to the wrong way and almost set off on the route again. The last bit seemed such a long stretch though it was probably only half a mile. Then, eventually, the sound of clapping and cheering and there was Sandygate plaza, and some steps to run up that were nothing as bad as Butt Lane at the end of the Yorkshireman, but also not flat. We got to Jamie at the top and then: where was the finish line? Stop, said Jamie, stop! You’ve finished. This is it. He was it.
28 miles on little training and through niggles and cramp, but it was fun. It was good to be out racing again amongst beautiful scenery and the like-minded. It was good to pin a number on my race vest again, and pull out the rainbow race socks. It was good to stop and eat the two Quorn sausages that I had been carrying for six hours. It was good to be out, away from bad news and more bad news, to run past a man with binoculars and think, what a lovely smile he has, to be greeted with good cheer by everyone, to have my sinuses cleared by fresh cow shit.
Six hours. Actually it was 6.07. That was fine, and 25 minutes quicker than we had done the year before. Better weather this time, but worse training. Though last year I had run the Yorkshireman a week earlier. We placed second mixed pair after a couple from Clayton-le-Moors. We will do better next year, because I will definitely be back to the dark side, if the pandemic allows.
The Frog Graham Round FGR) is a swim and run challenge that crosses 18 fell tops and four lakes in the Lake District. The route begins and ends in Keswick and covers a distance of approximately 40 miles with more than 15,000ft of ascent.
My FGR was a rather spontaneous event. As the pools were closed during lockdown we had taken to swimming in our local lake so I had an unexpected summer of open water practice behind me (and a bit of swim run practice when the police turned up and we had to scarper into the woods). Then the easing of the restrictions had taken me up to the Lakes for a couple of reccies. “I definitely want to try this next year,” I thought. However, when the nights started coming earlier I had a yearning for one adventure to get me through the winter. “Why don’t you just have a go?” said Linda. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I had a quick message round of the usual suspects who could help out and I could get someone with me on every leg and a swimmer for Thursday 13th of August. (“The 13th?” said Allison ominously. “Well, it might be lucky for some people.”) However Thursday 13th looked unlikely as the longterm forecast the week before had predicted thunder, lightning and torrential rain for the end of the week and all weekend.
The forecast took a dramatic change as late as Wednesday. It looked it was going to be a bit hot and humid, but clear and no storms. One of the team couldn’t make it for leg 3, but it looked like an FGR would still be possible if I did a leg on my own. The preparation wasn’t as much as I would have liked as I hadn’t spent the summer in the lakes climbing and descending and was short on training runs over 20 miles. Also I hadn’t reccied the whole route, none of my supporters had reccied. But what the hell… let’s have a go! I managed to get Wednesday afternoon off work to do the prep, and it turns out that one afternoon isn’t long to prep for a round…who knew? I decided an 18-hour schedule should mean I did all the swims in daylight, but I had no idea if it was achievable. At 7.30pm Wednesday evening, after an organising and baking frenzy, I left my house in chaos and I jumped into the van with Eleanor and we headed up to the Lakes.
We met up with Linda and Andy and found a spot to sleep for a couple of hours, but an irate local moved us on. People who had been there recently hadn’t been very well behaved. We found another spot over Whinlatter Pass and tried to get some sleep. After an hour and a half of sleep the 2 am alarm went off and we headed for Keswick. I got dressed and ready to set off but then…where were my fell shoes? We emptied out the van with a feeling of dread rising in me. “Are you sure you brought them?” asked Eleanor. “Absolutely sure,” I said, but my inner voice asked, “are you?” We headed back to Whinlatter Pass by which point I had decided they were sitting in my hall in Leeds. Suddenly we saw a carrier bag in the middle of the road. My shoes! What a relief. How did that happen?
After a few more minor disasters involving headbands and headtorches our 3am start turned out to be a 3.28am start, but I told myself that the route to the Frog Graham never ran smoothly and that at least we had started! Keswick was deserted as we jogged towards Skiddaw. The night was oppressively hot. “How will I get through the day if the night is like this?” I thought, but tried to stay positive and reminded myself that I had cycled across France through the heatwave the summer before. As we climbed higher we got a lovely breeze and it got light earlier than we expected. I had a great leg with Eleanor and arrived at Church Bay a few minutes up on my schedule. Bassenthwaite Lake looked really inviting and Mike was there to meet me for the swim. I had opted for a shortie wetsuit so that it would be lighter to carry and I had borrowed a friend’s for this swim to avoid any contamination later on. The swim was lovely and I arrived at the other side to Linda looking fit and ready and a lovely cup of tea made by Andy.
I set off with Linda on leg 2. This is such a beautiful leg and my memory of this is having a great time, chatting away. There was cloud cover keeping the temperature a bit lower and we were making good progress. I met a fell runner on Lord’s Seat who I bumped into later in Keswick, which felt about two weeks later for me. At this point I didn’t have anyone to accompany me on leg 3. “Maybe I’ll do it with you,” said Linda. “It’s only a short leg.” But I had done a reccie of leg 3, and I remembered it being tough. “The distance isn’t the only factor,” I said. “The terrain is difficult, the first climb is really steep, the nav is difficult through the bracken and last descent.” None of this put Linda off and I phoned Allison on the way up Hopegill Head to tell of the change of plan. She later told me that I sounded so relaxed and happy on the phone that she knew then that I had it in the bag. After Whiteless Pike, Linda trotted off into Buttermere to get around the lake while I turned right towards Rannerdale Knotts.
Again the swim was so inviting because of the heat, and I crossed Crummock Water with Mike and set off up Mellbreck with Linda. Reccieing hadn’t really helped me. I didn’t get a good line (is there one?). Even Linda, who is well known for her ability to do any distance or amount of climbing with no obvious sign of discomfort, was finding it hard as we dragged ourselves up over heather and bracken. “I did warn you,” I said. “I thought you were exaggerating!” she replied. It was so good to have her with me though. Massive kudos to the people who do this as a solo unsupported event. I carried my own gear, food and water, but the people who were with me on the route were undoubtably a huge help to me and I picked food up in between the legs. We struggled through the bracken towards Scale Beck and I started to have a low moment on the climb up to Red Pike. I managed to bounce back a bit though, and by the time I reached Buttermere I was in good spirits. Buttermere was the perfect temperature, it was a really lovely swim and I got out the other side thinking the worst was behind me. Could I start to believe?
Allison was waiting for me at the other side for the home leg. She had spent most of the day getting Mike, pasta and water (in that order) into the right places. I hadn’t been up Robinson this way before and I had been warned that it was a tough climb. “After what I’ve been through on leg 3?” I said chirpily. “Don’t worry, nothing can be as bad as that!” Hmmm. It started off OK and I was feeling good but the sun was out and it was uncomfortably warm and as it steepened it started to take its toll on me. Allison led the way and kept shouting at me to eat and drink. It was soft stuff only now. I had a lot of trouble trying to eat a flapjack. I knew there was a danger that I might not be able to eat soon so kept trying to eat while I could.
I was slightly over my predicted time at the top and felt a bit crestfallen. Were the wheels coming off? Dale Head looked so far away. However, I reached Dale Head a couple of minutes ahead of time, and my spirits were raised again. Neither me or Allison had reccied the route but we had done Teenager with Altitude a few years previously. So although I was struggling to navigate in my depleted and dehydrated state, Allison didn’t have any trouble. I was now having trouble jogging and feeling very tired. The bottom of my feet felt like I was walking on broken glass but I kept pushing on with Allison’s encouragement, I was so close now!
When I reached Derwentwater Mike was waiting for me again and there was Andy in a kayak. The water was very choppy and there was a headwind so I really glad to have Andy there. It made me feel safe. When we reached the third island I asked Andy “Can I believe now?” He certainly thought so and I swam the last bit where I met up with Allison again and we all started running back to Keswick. All my aches and pains were going, even my feet didn’t hurt anymore. We had a slight navigational discussion at the roundabout and a guardian angel turned up from nowhere and shouted “Frog Graham – this way!” It is a great feeling running to the Moot Hall and I felt a little bit emotional. We celebrated by eating chips and mushy peas on the steps, and telling interested passers-by about the route.
I have so many people to be grateful to: Peter Hayes who invented the fantastic route, the people who do the admin for the event, Lisa and Vernon for introducing me to the delights of the local swim spots and training me up and, of course, the people who supported me on the round. I’m not sure who sorted the weather out, but thanks for that too! This was my first experience of a challenge that you do with support, and I am so grateful for their company. I had such a fantastic day out, and it was made better because it was a fairly impulsive decision, but maybe that’s the better way to do it.
So what next? Well I have a few debts to pay on the supporting front and I am told that I have inspired a couple of people to have a go. And as for me; I have a few ideas…So I’ll wait till I’ve stopped walking down stairs sideways and I can wear something other than slippers and then I will start planning.
We are now into day three of our lock down in Spain (where we have a house). We are comfortable and have a full fridge and freezer. The authorities are trying their best to keep some semblance of normality and food stores and services such as bin emptying etc are continuing. No restaurants, non-food stores, gyms, play areas, beaches or public areas are open and we are not allowed to leave our homes without good reason.
The isolation at first seems easy then it really kicks in, within 24 hours. To try and explain how it feels: you suddenly have none of the everyday noises that are a constant in the background. I am hearing so many things from wildlife that I never knew about which is good but to hear no traffic, walkers, runners or cyclists or people to just nod or pass the time of day with, that is the real element of isolation. The silence is strange and deafening. I get excited when I here other voices outside: people, real people! We rush to the window to see who it is.
Being confined to your home is not as easy as you think. We are allowed to go to the supermarkets for food but that is all. Police are on constant patrol making sure people stay at home. We are not in a very densely populated area yet they are still able to patrol at regular intervals. The biggest thing for me is that I miss my family especially my mum. Having lost my dad in January it is particularly hard for us both. I also think I will miss my son’s 30th but I hope we can celebrate in style at a later date.
Why don’t you come home? I hear you say. Because we drove down and to set off back to the UK home I need to be sure I can make the full journey, and that we have enough fuel, food and will find places to stop. When I arrive home I’m sure you will all be in isolation so I will have to repeat this and I don’t want to do it twice.
Panic shopping took place here as well although loo roll is still widely available! I did however question one man’s priority as he had a trolley loaded with wine. Each to their own.
Our lockdown progresses to another stage today in that all major roads will be blocked by the police and armed forces to prevent people moving around. The police are armed here which also makes it feel very different and I will admit a bit scary.
I have seen comments on various sites about the cancellation of various races and the disappointment. I totally understand this and suggest you enjoy the hills while you can and look forward to your return to them, as the lockdown is heading your way.
I have managed to sneak out in the early hours to do a short run in the hills behind me and am lucky enough to be able to train on the solarium roof but it’s not the same as running freely. For fit and healthy people isolation is not an easy ask.
I strongly suggest you dig out your jigsaws, books and good old family games. Don’t underestimate what isolation does. Panic shopping is one thing but adapting your daily routine to confinement and restrictions to your liberty is another, especially when there is no defined end to this scenario.
Stay safe folks and I look forward to returning to a place where we can all move around freely.
I’ve done High Cup Nick race five times, by my count (which is probably off), and I will be doing it again, because it is so astonishingly beautiful. And because the race route serves my skills perfectly: five miles to the top of the Nick, then four miles mostly downhill. So as long as I do OK getting up, I will usually win places going down and as I only ever then lose places if a downhill is followed by a climb, in this case I should be able to keep them. Not that that mattered, particularly, except that a few clubmates were also running, and some of us are very well matched for ability and pace, and we have a friendly rivalry. And I am lying about it not mattering: I wanted to beat them. (Sorry not sorry Liz, Caroline and Emma.)
The weather forecast was poor, again. As if last week’s winds were not enough, this week’s were no better. Different forecasts showed different numbers: Mountain Weather Forecast showed 80kph, the BBC showed 45mph, but down in Dufton village. Variously, showers or sleet showers were also predicted. In winds, the A66 can sometimes be closed, so we set off in good time, having checked beforehand (it was closed but only to high-sided vehicles). Neil — better known to you as Braveshorts — told me that the A65 was closed though, and that could affect my clubmates. Neil was coming with me even though he hadn’t entered the race. He decided he would go for a run and then aim to be at the top of the Nick to meet runners, depending on the state of his cold (virus) and the cold (blowing a hoolie and temperature).
The parking was in a farmer’s field a ten minute walk from the village hall, previously race HQ but now Cake HQ as the registration was supposed to be in a marquee, but had been shifted to a small barn because the marquee blew away. We got there early but already the state of the field meant spinning wheels, and many people rushing to help spinning cars with a push up to the parking place. It was a cheering sight of the kindness of humans. But the field situation could only get worse the more cars arrived. I left Neil to get ready for his run and walked the long walk to get my number. By the time I got back the rain had set in. The driving, cold, miserable kind of rain.
So I wasn’t surprised to find him sitting in the car all kitted to run but looking at this view.
He is no fairweather runner, but it just looked too grim to open the car door. He set off eventually when it lessened, aiming to go up Dufton Pike and then up to the Nick, still. And I faffed in the warm car until it was time to head to the start. Some black’n’blues were milling about — Will, Dom, Ian, Bianca, Liz, Caroline — but a few hadn’t arrived. Five minutes before the start I saw two of the missing: Emma and Adam had taken the A65 and had a long and terrible trip up. No time for faffing, they said, but no time for fuelling either. Sharon H. never arrived, though I saw her later in the day: they had arrived at Dufton but the queues to get into the Field of Spinning Wheels were so long, and it was getting so late, they’d decided to terminate and headed off somewhere else to run instead.
Of course we never got a team photo, because we never do, but here is a sort of one with our good Fellanddale friend Louise.
By now, a few minutes before the start, the weather was lovely. Not too cold, not windy, not wet and some sunshine. I was wearing long tights again, which astonishes all my running friends who only ever see me in shorts. In Hilary Lane’s precise words: “The weather must be bad if Rose has legs on.” But I based my choice on those wind speeds, no matter how sunny the sky. People had made all sorts of clothing choices, from full waterproofs to vest only. That of course is up to them, as long as they carry kit, though I have my views on running in a vest in those conditions.
I was in vest and long-sleeve and no jacket. We set off, and for the first few miles, I was warm. The race goes up a tarmac lane for a while, then up to some fields, then contours along a couple of shoulders. At one point I cursed Neil for advising me to wear tights, as I wanted to be in shorts. But I was running well and felt good, and tried to concentrate on that, not on what was covering my legs. Anyway, he was right, because almost as soon as we turned into the valley, the weather turned too. First we had to cross a beck that I knew would be deep and rushing. It was a treat to see the Kirby Stephen Mountain Rescue team there: thank you KSMRT. And especially to the man who was standing nearly to his waist in freezing water helping each runner to cross. I am always grateful for a helping hand, and these three helping hands, passing me from one hand to another, were very welcome.
Then the wind came, and it was strong, even though it was friendly and pushing us up the valley. I could have dealt with that, but then the hail and sleet came at us sideways, and I began to get cold, and to stop regretting my clothing choice. I didn’t want to stop and put my jacket on, but I remembered last week and I knew I would get colder the higher I got, and that Neil, who knows his winds, had told me we would be running against a headwind on the downhill section. So I stopped and tried to put on my jacket, and it was tricky, not because my hands were too cold, but because the wind didn’t want me to. It was a jacket fight. I lost about 15 places to the tussle — both Liz and Caroline passed me — but it was the right decision, because I never wanted to take it off once over the following five miles. And I was warm enough to be able to put it on without asking for help (although this was offered by a few people who passed: thank you).
The run along the valley floor is long. Nor is it as flat as it seems. The Nick seems to get further away not nearer, like Stoodley Pike, and underfoot is either boggy or rocky and nothing inbetween. But I didn’t stop and walk as I have in other years, and I got a few places back (sorry not sorry Caroline and, eventually, Liz). At the base of the Nick, I ran as far as I could, then again on a flatter bit, before the boulders began. At this point I saw that people were taking a wide arc up the first part but I couldn’t see the sense in that, when all was boulders. So I just went straight up, and got more places that way. (I’m not obsessed with getting places, it just doesn’t happen very often that I do or that I can catch up after losing a lot.) The wind was so strong that the waterfall was blowing backwards. I stopped and turned because on the Nick I always stop and turn, and it was stunning, because unless there is clag, the view is always stunning.
The boulders towards the top were slippery and icy, and I thought my old fear of exposure could have reappeared. But it didn’t, and I really enjoyed the climb, and even managed to smile, according to Mike’s camera:
At the top, I heard “well done Rose” from Neil and Mike. I tried to give Neil a hug, but I didn’t notice his cowbell around his neck, so I managed to crush my voicebox on his cowbell which I think is not an injury that even experienced A&E staff will frequently encounter. I turned, and it was like running into a brick wall. The wind was ferocious. This kind of ferocious. It wasn’t as bad as on top of West Kip during the Carnethy 5 last week, but I still had to use a high proportion of my energy just to go forward (at West Kip, it had been about staying upright, never mind running). I suddenly felt extremely drained, but I knew Caroline was right behind me, and she is competitive and can beat me, so I kept going. Past the Mountain Rescue team at the quad bike, where we waved our contactless dibbers, and into the wind. There is a long trod across the headland, a short incline, more trod, then the downhill proper. At this point the headwind was so bad that my contacts were sore, and I found it hard to blink. Not the best eyesight for a quick rocky downhill, but I got more places, and I kept all except one, up into the farmer’s field that is a slight incline but feels mountainous, and across the field, into the lane, where you see habitation and know you are nearly done, up the short hill into the village, round the back of houses and through yards, to the village green and the welcome sight of flags and people.
I was filthy. I knew my face was mucky because I’d used my mitts on the climb up, on my hands and knees, and then wiped my face loads of times because it was the kind of wind where your nose blows itself. But I didn’t realise how mucky.
Oh well. I headed into the village hall, putting blue plastic over my shoes as requested. It was, as it always is, extremely crowded, but I got my soup, and found a tiny space next to the windowsill. “Rose,” said Dom, “wipe your nose.” He meant wipe it free of mud, not anything else, so I washed my face. But I didn’t get changed because I felt warm. That was stupid, as once I’d gathered two cakes and a cup of tea and set off to the car, I got very very cold and didn’t warm up for a long time. Basic mountaincraft: remove your cold clothes even if you don’t feel you need to.
I really enjoyed myself, though I’ve had enough of wind storms. And the hail can do one. High Cup Nick is such a beautiful place, and although my time wasn’t the quickest, I think I lost ten minutes to conditions, so I’m content. Thank you to the people of Dufton, to all the volunteers, from the stalwarts in that field of spinning wheels doom to the beck sprite and anyone who stood out in the cold to marshal or cheer.
It is said that if you don’t like the weather in Scotland (or Yorkshire or Wales), wait ten minutes. This was that kind of race: autumn to begin with, a glimpse of spring, then winter, then more winter, then autumn again. But it was great fun, because it always is. This was the first year it had a waiting list, because it is rightly becoming a) a classic and b) popular. So keep an eye out if you like astonishing views of official geological wonders with your fell races.
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.
Why are we having a sprint finish Will? I’m sure a slow
little trot would suffice. We still have about 40 minutes until our time is up.
It’s an odd feeling running (or shuffling) along tarmac after almost 12 hours
of bashing about in waist-height heather. My legs had become accustomed to the
slow pace, high knee, bracken gallumping from last night, and now they were
being asked to move quickly. But, if you ask nicely enough, they sure get their
act together and oblige. We crashed over the line and landed the final dib of
the night. Whoa, what a night eh? It was nice to see that Will was looking as
wrecked as I was but still smiling.
The days leading up to Dark Mountains was full of the usual mountain marathon (MM) kit prepping and organisation.* Running through the kit list and laying everything on the floor, before playing Tetris trying to stuff it all in my bag. Something a bit unique on the list was an ice axe and micro spikes, but thankfully the weather was warm enough so they weren’t needed. Saturday night quickly approached and before we knew it, we were standing at the start line. Joking with the marshals who said we looked like the springiest runners they had seen so far. I don’t think I felt it though. At exactly 18:44 we were handed our race map with a splatter of checkpoints sprawled across it. We worked out a rough plan, and then headed out onto the fells excited for what the night would bring.
As perfectly described in the planner’s insight, the terrain was notoriously rough. They even advised on avoiding one particularly bad section marked “Here Be Dragons!” As always for the first handful of checkpoints, we were leap-frogging other teams until the field thinned out. The weather was relatively dry and mild, but the fog was thick on the tops creating that ever so helpful glare from your headtorch. Around the fifth checkpoint we decided on a different route choice to the other teams that were near; and we soon ended up in the dark by ourselves. As a kid I used to be scared of the dark. I remember one particular night-time bike ride through the local woods in Newcastle. I had recently watched Predator, so every rustle in the bushes made me jump. I got too scared of the dark and begged my dad to take me back to the car. However, over the years I now find being in the dark second nature, especially when you are with someone else. This is because if Predator does turn up, you push over your partner and let them be taken ha ha! (Sorry Will…)
The first few hours ticked away nicely, and we picked
off the checkpoints without too much bother. But around midnight I began to
feel cold and tired. I pushed on for a couple more checkpoints and I got
quieter and quieter. Only saying the odd “a bit more left” or “a bit more
right” if we were straying from the bearing. This was the first time in a race
where quitting crossed my mind. I realised that if I didn’t put on more layers
and eat more food the next 6 hours were going to be rough. I put on my
waterproof trousers for the first time ever in a race, and had some sausage
rolls and energy bars. I soon perked up, and we even took the luxury of
stopping and turning off our headtorches to admire the stars. They were some of
the clearest I’d seen in the UK for a long time. This was the boost that we
More hours of bumbling about passed with plenty of trips
and falls. The most memorable was when Will’s legs disappeared into a hole, and
he bashed his bum as he folded in. As we ran over rocky sections, we would sing
“ROCKS-ANNE” in the tune of The Police song. Something I found a bit too funny considering the crap joke. The
final few hours passed quickly, and we were soon faced with a classic MM
decision. Take it easy home, or go for glory with one more checkpoint and then run
like hell. To Will’s dismay I managed to persuade him of the latter, and to go
for one final 25 pointer. Thankfully, the running gods were on our side and we
made quick progress leaving us a whole hour to get back. This didn’t stop us
from the sprint finish down the last track though! It was great fun hammering
it down the slippery slope, skidding around other teams on their return. We crossed
the line to the claps of the marshals. I wonder if they thought we still looked
Our splits were downloaded, and to our shock we had somehow come in 1st out of the 13 teams that were back. But there were still another 16 teams to finish so let’s not get our hopes up just yet. It was going to be a nervous 45 minutes wait until 7am. This would mark 12 hours since the last long score team set off and therefore would confirm our final position. In the meantime, we staggered over to the café and shovelled some food into our faces. To Will’s delight they had a decent vegan breakfast for the competitors. Hash browns, mushrooms, beans, Linda sausages, toast and ample tea and coffee. We sat in the event tent getting warm and watching other competitors crawl through the door. During this time, we saw a rather exhausted, cold and wet Mike Ayers stumble in and slump into his chair, bag still fully strapped to his back. He had been out on the medium score with his usual MM buddy Toby White. Mike was in good spirits as always, especially since he had managed to run for 10 hours without too much bother from his knee. Finally, just after 7am we checked the results and our final ranking was 3rd! Woohoo, absolutely epic. We were not expecting to do this well, especially as this was Will’s first MM. We realised that we were only 20 points clear of 4th, so good job we went for that final 25 pointer.
We wobbled to the car and changed into dry clothes and
attempted a few hours of kip before hitting the road home. When I shut my eyes,
my brain replayed images of map contours and the scan of heather with my
headtorch. Clearly my brain was still stuck on navigation mode. After a couple
hours of restless sleep, we watched the prizegiving and then carefully began
the drive home. The deal, as always, is that if the driver is tired, the
passenger can’t snooze and they must act as DJ. Will did not disappoint and
played some bangers. I was most impressed by him not snoozing, as in his
delirious state he thought it was raining inside the service station bookshop. We
chatted nonsense and dreamt up plans for future adventures. Will has definitely
caught the MM bug as there were talks of the Saunders, ROC, OMM and the
Scottish. How many of these events can we do in a year? Answer: N+1.
*Ed’s note: a regular mountain marathon usually happens over two days. The Dark Mountains marathon packs all that into one night instead. Competitors chose between linear courses of varying distances, or a fixed time — a “score” — in which they had to reach as many checkpoints as possible. Short score (8 hours), medium score (10 hours), long score (12 hours).