The Pennine Way extends 268 miles from Edale, in the Peak District, through the Yorkshire Dales and the Northumberland National Park, ending at Kirk Yetholm, just before the Scottish border. On 6th June, in a day’s window of sunshine, we decided to do the first two legs from Edale, finishing just off route in Slaithwaite. Helen’s grandmother lives up on the moors by Deer Hill and over 30 years ago her dad and uncle hiked the route. Ever since, Helen has been keen to follow their footsteps, largely for the promise of a healthy portion of sausage casserole and rhubarb pie at the end! The route is around 50 km and neither of us had run or walked that far before. (Helen’s longest running distance was a half marathon.)
Anticipating a rather long slog, we were up early to run down to Leeds station and hop on the train to Edale. By 9.30am we were on our way enjoying the rolling green hills of the north Derbyshire Peak District, clambering up Jacob’s ladder and skirting around Kinder Scout. Before long we reached the panoramic views across Kinder Downfall before a sharp right at Mill Hill to follow the paved path (not turning left and ending up near Glossop and a mile off route…). Twenty kilometres in and so far so good.
Then came Bleaklow Moor along with that long-distance-running-knee-thing people talk about which began with a Superman face-plant onto the cobbles from Helen and eventually ended with a hobble into Crowden campsite for a much-needed lunch stop after 35km.
Following a breathless gobble of sugary carbs we were back on our feet and feeling fresh. We ran up to Black Hill enjoying more lush green landscapes across the valleys. Since Crowden is technically the start of the second leg of the Pennine Way, and since we set off from Crowden later in the day, we didn’t see a soul making it an incredibly peaceful stretch. At the top of Black Hill we could begin to see the tops of Meltham Moor, on the other side of which was our destination.
With renewed energy and what felt like a spring in our step we shuffled down to Wessenden reservoir and snaked a right at the top of Blakely reservoir to leave the Pennine Way and run towards Deer Hill. With less than a mile to go, the rain began at Shooters Nab as we galloped through the cotton grass into the open arms of a rather excited grandmother wearing a pair of binoculars big enough to see us in Edale.
The Old Man of Coniston was the first ever Munro I remember walking up with my parents. This is despite the fact that it is neither a) above 3000ft, or b) in Scotland. Having grown up North of the border, with parents who would occasionally drag us haphazard gang of children up the odd hill, asking if something was a “Munro” was simply a way of gauging how long and awful the day’s outing would be. It didn’t have specific criteria that must be met to earn the badge, it was just a way of figuring out if our efforts would include a really big hill. It wasn’t until I was far too old for it not to be embarrassing, did I realise that The Munros were a defined set. Anyway, the memory of slogging up to the slate mine in sweltering heat, while pouring with sweat, is very clear in my mind. The steep rocky path seemed neverending. Chimes of “are we nearly there yet?” rang in the air almost constantly. I remember the twisted and rusted metal relics of the old mine and how impossibly cold Low Water felt. I even remember my disbelief watching a Speedo-clad old man happily wade in before pushing off for a swim. I couldn’t keep my toes in the water it felt so cold, never mind popping in to do a couple of lengths. I’m not sure if we even made it up the Old Man, but in my mind, we’d definitely climbed a Munro.
I ran the Coniston race for the first time last year, and I’d been mightily happy with my result. I’d come much further up the field than usual and I simply assumed that the race must’ve suited me really well. In reality, it was because there was a championship race the next day, which had massively thinned out the field. Ignorance is bliss. I had run well though, by my standards at least, managing the steep descent straight off the Old Man and hanging on to the speed right until I ran straight past the bridge I was supposed to cross in the final kilometre. The guy who had been just in front suddenly appeared on the other side of the river about 10m to my left. I instantly recognized my mistake, but enthusiastic descending left me unable to run back uphill to the crossing. In the heat of the moment, I dashed straight down the mini ravine separating the two paths and scrambled back up the other side. I’d lost 10 places and a couple of minutes but at least I’d never make the same mistake again. It’s not a route choice I’d recommend.
Race day this year was warm with promise of colder winds higher
up, ideal conditions. It went as it always does, heads bobbing up the road in
waves before the turn onto the fell. I felt great going up this bit last year, but
my legs couldn’t be bothered now. It kept coming. Step, step, step, occasional
scurry over a flatter section, step, step, step. Reaching Wetherlam was a
relief as I joined my running mate Bill. I was glad to have someone to run
with, but also cursing the pace. We leapfrogged back and forth, gaining and
losing distance as the terrain pandered to and protested against our merits and
shortfalls. Up and over Swirl How, and it sped up again. I was trying to gauge
our contours correctly, aiming to skip unnecessary summits without shooting too
wide. I’m on the fence about the efficacy of our strategy, but that happens no
matter which way you choose. Coming off the Old Man, Bill took the rightward
line directly east, and I took a crap line sort of north-east and so we parted
company. The steep and tufted grass was hard to descend with its jutting rocks
and uneven surface. I found myself cutting sharp turns as if I was skiing
moguls, twisting left and right, highly focused on not going arse over tit. The
crapness of my line was made clear as I rejoined the path at the disused
quarry. I’d barely saved any distance on the path, and I still had most of the
awful flagstones to descend. I was however fortunate enough to find myself in
sight of people better acquainted with the route, so I followed them as they
minimized their time on the unforgiving rocky path. Flying down, last year’s
missed turning was at the front of my mind, as I crossed the bridge and joined
the path back to the start. The steep and feet-slapping tarmac made my battered
feet wince, but I still had enough beans left for a sprint finish.
The rest of the day was spent with a quick visit to the slightly bizarre Ruskin Museum, with its interesting juxtaposition of information about the humble origins of life in the Lake District, and Bluebird, the jet-engined hydroplane. Informed, if a little baffled, we sauntered along to the pub to enjoy a great post-race pint of Bluebird X7, and to chat running-related nonsense with the other runners.
My friend N. doesn’t do much fell running, but now, after marshalling for a few years at Three Peaks, has decided to do it in earnest. She began looking for qualifiers right after the race last weekend, and found Black Fell. Pre-entry but a guaranteed entry for elite runners. She asked a reasonable question: is this normal for a fell race? Isn’t it a bit, well, elitist?
I agreed that it was. And that it wasn’t normal. There’s none of that at fell races usually, I told her. Your changing room is the boot of the car in a freezing car-park on top of a windy hill or in a wet field, you might get a wash in a river if you’re lucky, there are no airs and graces, and no elitism when you can mix with Brownlees and their ilk in the pub afterwards.
N. had run Dick Hudson’s last year and decided to do it again. It was my first time running it. I wasn’t sure my legs were up to it as they’ve been sore with DOMs all week, but by Thursday that had worn off. And who can resist a race named after a pub?
The weather didn’t look promising, and it didn’t sound promising when the rain pounded on the skylights in my house just before we were due to set off. I suspected Wharfedale Harriers wouldn’t require full kit but I took it anyway, and we headed to Ilkley. We found Hilary, Emma, Ann and Clare already in the car park, and set off up to what Wharfedale calls the Barrier car park (but I and Google call the White Wells car park). There, for N, was a perfect fell race set up: numbers being dispensed out of the back of a van. I reckon there were about 150 by the time we gathered at the barrier (I was 100). The rain had stopped, my jacket had been put away, and we were off. I was carrying water and a jacket; many runners had no kit at all.
N. had told me that everyone goes however they like up the ridge, and I watched people go up two different routes, both of which looked short and steep and soft underfoot, but I followed the people going the conventional way up to White Wells. I thought I’d be walking most of this climb but my legs did an extraordinary thing and kept running. I kept Ann in my sights because she’s such a good climber, and managed to stay with her until the top of the moor when it flattened out and she zoomed off. I’d looked at the map before setting off and knew it was an out and back and that we went past the Twelve Apostles, but I couldn’t remember ever running the route to Dick Hudson’s before. I know the moors of Ilkley and Rombald enough to recognise paths, but not enough that I can’t get lost. Even so I didn’t pay much attention to where I was heading but just followed the Otley man in front of me. There were a few miles of nice gradient, though it was rocky and tricky. I heard someone fall behind me and turned to look, but she had people helping her so I carried on. It turns out it was Clare, who twisted her ankle and had to walk back. (Hope you recover quickly Clare.)
It was raining by now and I was cold but I was running well enough that I decided to run through it. I’d had a tough time at Three Peaks with cramp, so I was taking advantage of the months of training that were in my legs. Onwards, and then a strange thing started happening, and a few people overtook me who seemed to be young, quick men. I couldn’t understand why: were they just having a bad day? But I dismissed the mystery and perservered, all the way to the final steep field and the descent to Dick Hudson’s pub, where I shouted my number to the sodden-looking but cheerful marshal, touched the gate, turned round and set off back.
I got through the gate again and there was Rowan from Kirkstall coming towards me. This made no sense. He is tremendously quick. But sometimes he likes to float around races so I thought perhaps this was one of them. Perhaps he had chosen an uphill route to the ridge that had been really long? But I put it out of my mind because I had to concentrate on what was feeling like a slog, because it was (nice long descent = not so nice uphill return). My legs were heavy and I was cold. But the time and distance passed, and we got to the flagstones, and I managed to get some places by hurtling down the flagstones. Then it happened again, that much faster runners were overtaking me. I gave way to a couple, as I could hear their speed was greater than mine, and by now we were on narrow trods, as I’d followed people going the softer way back past the conifers and bypassing White Wells. I didn’t much want to be hefted into the bracken by someone who couldn’t control his momentum so giving way was self-preservation.
I enjoyed the descent, although my contact lens was giving me trouble, making it harder than it should have been to see all the rocks and obstacles, particularly now the evening was turning to dusk. But I stayed upright until just before the path, when I apparently decided a bum-slide would be better. Then a quick pelt downhill to the finish, which in good fell-race tradition was someone taking numbers at the barrier.
With the post-race milling around, I learned the answer to the mystery of the improbably quick yet behind-me blokes. They had all got lost.
What? On an out-and-back?
Not that I can laugh, having got lost on Ingleborough out-and-back. But I’d got lost in thick clag. And these moors were our local ones. And Wharfedale Harriers had put a map on their website. Straight out, straight back. I heard a couple of varieties of lostness: Rowan said he’d ended up at a barn (maybe the shooting hut on Burley Moor?). Others said they turned left after Twelve Apostles rather than going straight on, which would take them to Horniman’s Well. Most had done a mile and a bit extra, including David from Chapel A, who I have never before beaten in a race and never will again.
I really love evening fell races, and this was a beauty: the gathering twilight of the moor, the silence studded by the sound of thudding feet and sometimes a bird, the feeling when you finish that you can’t think of anything else you’d rather have done with your evening, then the satisfying fatigue that comes from effort, that rolls you into your bed, where you run the race all over again in your dreams.
First completed as a recorded route in 1887 by three teachers from Giggleswick in 10 hours, and run competitively from 1954 [ed: but only opened to women in 1979], the Three Peaks race is definitely not a new kid on the block. It’s one of those races that comes up enough in conversation that I felt obliged as a Yorkshire resident to give it a shot, perhaps just to appease those who ask if I’ve done it when the subject comes up. The weeks before the race had the typical British micro season of Fool’s Summer: a burst of unseasonal heat that tricks everyone into thinking that winter is over before winter roars back with a vengeance. I decided to plod my way round the course as a training run, as my weekly mileage hadn’t been fitting for someone hoping to fit plenty of ALs in this summer, and my holiday to Texas for a friend’s wedding was still evident when I stood on the scales each morning.
Two weeks before the race, which is the minimum time-frame for adaptation and recovery according to some vague memory of something I read (a highly scientific method I’m sure you’ll agree), I set off to Horton in Ribblesdale. Any hopes of catching the cool morning air were long gone as I faffed my way to a 1pm start. I was baked by the sun from start to finish and having to take the long way up Whernside didn’t help either (the direct route up is reserved for race day only) (ed’s note: there is a permissive walkers’ path up though which is a better approximation of the race route). 26.2 miles in total gave me a marathon tick for the day, but the heat had cooked me out of making the race cutoff times (2 hours 10 minutes at Ribblehead and 3 hours 30 at Hill Inn). It wasn’t really the reassuring recce that I’d hoped for. My legs had cramped and faltered, and I felt like I’d taken a beating far beyond what the numbers suggested. These three mountains were merely half of what I was used to in the Lake District, yet I was a hobbling mess upon my return to the car. Too late to fix anything now though, nothing left to do but rest up and hope for cooler weather. And cooler weather we got. A cold front came sweeping across the country, bringing torrential rain and high winds. Fool’s Summer had ended and the cold chill of True British Summer had arrived. I’d always posited that I performed better in cold weather, citing my unfailing ability to produce gallons of sweat in anything but the dreichest of conditions, and the 65th Yorkshire Three Peaks was looking to be the control test.
I felt awful in the week leading up to the race. I woke up with a stirring in my stomach every day, followed by a dash to the bog to complete my morning ablutions. Better an empty house than an angry tenant, I guess. Race day was to be no different. I could barely touch my muesli, my stomach in knots as I ran around the flat packing my bags. Grabbing gels, clean socks and any other random items that popped into my mind, before stuffing them into an array of plastic bags in a pile by the door. I was planning to drive on from the race to Haweswater to hike up to Mosedale Cottage Bothy for the night, so a rucksack of overnight gear had to be assembled as well. The packing of which had to be slightly more stringent, accounting for my tattered post-race legs on the steep trudge up to the cottage. Spirits were decanted from glass into plastic bottles, mixers and low strength beverages left behind. Bang for your buck in terms of weight vs toxicity was the order of the day. Finally, sleeping bag and mat were wrestled into place atop the makeshift cocktail bar, the rucksack clearly too small for its already spartan kit-list, and with that I threw it all in the boot of my trusty Astra and sped off to the race.
My extra packing and taking the wrong exit on a roundabout had eaten into my already slim amount of spare time. I arrived and parked up in the field, sprinting to the tent to collect my number and race pack, then straight to the queue for the bogs. With the clock ticking and the announcers directing the runners to attend the safety briefing on the tannoy, I was starting to worry about being late to the start line. With barely a moment to spare I finally arrived at the front of the queue and dashed into the first available cubicle. The otherworldly relief of reaching the plastic throne was soon marred by the predicament of the distinct lack of paper consumables. All of a sudden the slow movement of the queue had been explained, as I found myself in the same dilemma that all those in front of me had just minutes before. Tiny scraps of bog roll tube strewn across the floor told the story clearly enough. Fortunately for me, the Y3P organisers are an eco-friendly bunch, and had doled out the race packs in paper bags. Andrex triple-ply quilted luxury it is not, but a bag is better than sacrificing a fancy running sock.
Liberated of my demons, there’s just enough time for a kit check before merging into the horde heading for the start. I join my mate Bill Beckett and we exchange our lists of woes: he’s nursing a sore calf and my guts feel like they’re on strike. Perfect partners really, both just hoping to get round without major mishap and relishing the opportunity of some mutual encouragement in the less than favourable conditions. The start gun fires almost abruptly, and the sea of bobbing heads drags out the field and onto the road. The usual enthusiastic pace of the pack builds as we snake through the village towards the path. “I don’t fancy keeping this up,” I confess to Bill, and thankfully he agrees. Things begin to settle as the terrain roughens and the angle steepens. The expected jostling and shuffling happens as the pack finds its natural order heading up to Pen y Ghent, something I always find interesting that even at this early stage the order won’t change that drastically over the next 20 miles, everyone knows their place I guess. As the climb begins in earnest, the wind and rain come to meet us, no longer sheltered by the landscape that falls around the mountain, we’re exposed to its meteorological charms. Calls of “Runner!” bounce down to meet us as the race leaders shoot past, Bill offering a who’s who of elite fell runners, encouraging most of them by name. As we gain height, the elements build in ferocity, and passing the summit, Bill politely questions if I’d like to stop and put my jacket on. He’s far too nice to tell me I’m being an idiot and that I NEED to put my jacket on. Pulling down onto the grassy slopes, I concede and awkwardly wriggle into my smock, but without stopping running. This is completely stupid and a fine way to break an ankle, but what can I say? There’s a reason I’m not a rocket scientist .
We regain the main path and pass the remaining runners heading up to the summit. Back over the junction and onto the path towards Whernside. We’ve got a couple of cut-offs to make before the next climb and I’m glad to have Bill pacing us over this flat section. I haven’t done any road miles at all recently and I can feel it. Bill tells me that according to Darren Fishwick, the key is to get a couple of decent 8-10 mile road runs a week when training for the race, a strategy he used to run himself into a PB on the course. Good knowledge to have, albeit a bit late now! It’s a funny bit of the race really; I found it probably the most uncomfortable section on the hard and flat ground and without Bill keeping us going steady I could have easily drifted into missing the cut-off. It seems daft that the hard bit of a race that goes up three mountains is on the flats between them!
At least the weather is more favourable down here, with even an occasional, if momentary, bit of sunlight breaking through the clouds. We pass through High Birkwith, dibbing in, chucking down a cup of water, scoffing some food, and hitting the track again. We’re 15 minutes ahead of cut-off, closer than I’d like but through nonetheless. The Ribblehead Viaduct appears in the distance where our next checkpoint and cut-off is located. The one advantage of the flat terrain is the miles fall by a bit quicker, the mental tally of remaining distance happily diminishing as we go. However, when we hit the road before Ribblehead, it seems to arrive with a thump. My studded fell shoes seem to whack the tarmac with every stride. But grinding as we go, we sweep round below the mighty viaduct and dib into safety ahead of the cut-off. Some familiar faces in the crowd offer energetic encouragement, and I try to mask my withering state, both for their benefit and my own. Fortunately it isn’t long before the angle starts to increase again, and although my calves start to creak from the miles on the flat, my quads are soon back in familiar territory heading up Whernside. On race day the route takes a highly direct line to the summit, rather than the wide arc of the tourist path. During my recce, I’d become a bit unstuck on this variation. The lower angle and increased distance make it a lot more runnable, but after the previous flat miles on the recce my legs were having none of it and had cramped with a vengeance. No such problem today though, the plod-plod-plod of slugging it uphill was a much needed return to familiar territory.
Blustery winds and smiling marshals greet us at the top, as we swiftly turn and drop onto the descent. I briefly lose Bill as he liberates a stone from inside his shoe, smashing down the erosion-preventative but knee-smashing limestone paving. I try not to speed ahead, but gravity’s natural velocity has other thoughts. The route flattens again and my exuberant descent makes its effects known in my legs, as I jump and click my ankles together for a photographer, instantly almost crippling myself with cramp. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Trundling into the checkpoint at the Hill Inn, Bill reappears and we make sure to properly replenish ourselves, the warning shots of cramp ever present as I try and smash some nutrients and fluid back into my body.
The last one is in sight now. Only Ingleborough left to go. I try not to think about the much longer way back down on the other side. The landscape looks weirdly filmic as we head past Pot Holes, the rain has cleared any humidity from the air and coated the rock in a thin reflective sheen. Everything looks crystal clear. It’s a bit of a romp as the gradient increases, the thick limestone slabs grey and slippery, before we reach the rougher and steeper final climb. Tiny steps and consistent cadence are key, any big steps threaten the cramp that many runners around me are falling victim to. Their groans, pained faces and halted progress painting an all too familiar picture. As we reach the summit plateau, we’re absolutely smashed by the headwind. The chill is instant, muscles clenching to try and stave off the bite of the wind. I try and gain momentum with my arms, no doubt looking like some ridiculous power walker as my elbows oscillate in such an unnatural fashion. I’m hoping that the extra movement will generate the slightest extra bit of warmth. In my haste to keep warm I pull ahead of Bill but he gallantly tells me just to go on ahead. From there it’s a quick dib on the summit, before I turn round and hammer it back to town. The fierce wind is now thankfully at my back as I do my best to holler a raspy salute of encouragement as I pass Bill coming up on the other side of the tape. Running down, it’s off the plateau, over some rougher rocky sections before getting back on hard flat track. Feet pounding down, trying to keep speed to save energy, while simultaneously trying to avoid overstepping into cramp. More thick limestone pavement to stomp down, and I even manage to pass some runners. It’s all going well until it flattens out again and my legs seem to lose the enthusiasm they had while descending. The slightly uneven, rocky and muddy ground seems to rob me of what tiny energy is left. I see a couple of runners in front taking tumbles (both regaining their feet and continuing unbothered, fortunately), making the need to stay focused ever more pertinent. After what seems like an age dragging my feet over the flat, the village reappears and the path becomes a descent once more. Last burn now. I can feel a big smile across my face as the last kilometer ticks by. Through the garden, over the road and into the field. I even had the beans for a sprint finish. A final dib and we’re done.
A quick change, a fantastic bowl of chili, a sugary cup of tea and a fat slab of cake later, and I’m back on the road. The race is over, but the next had just begun because I had to get to Mosedale Cottage Bothy before nightfall. Fortunately I was parked up at Haweswater, armed with my rucksack and walking poles, and on my way up with plenty time. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t be keen on having to hike anther 1500 feet in the rain to get to their bed for the night, but with some good tunes in my ears, and walking poles in my hands to share the load for my legs, I couldn’t have been happier.
An incredible day, in incredible places. I’m just glad to live in a place with such a rich environment. As always, a monumental thanks to all the marshals and helpers out in such minging conditions. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a sport that is supported by such willing and giving individuals. Cheers!
This was my third year of running Heptonstall Fell Race. The first year it rained all the way round. The second year I got lost. And here I am again on the cobblestones, listening to a kindly vicar say actually very sensible Christian things (I am an atheist but think there is a lot of sense in the Bible). He said he had tried to find quotes appropriate to what we were about to do, so he wished us perseverance, and also — though I forget the exact phrasing — to go forth and find fellowship while running. It was nice, and I was grateful for it, because I was dreading the race. My nerves were all over the place, and they weren’t calmed by me setting off for the toilets 15 minutes before the start and realising I had forgotten to put in my contact lens. I would still have been able to see, but my lens helps me pick out tree roots and rocks and I knew there would be plenty of both on the route. So I had to run quarter of a mile up the road to the field of car parking, put in my lens in a state of panic, which is the state in which it usually takes me 10 minutes and several lenses to get it right, then run down to the start and hope I didn’t need the toilet again.
What was I nervous about? I’d run the Yorkshire vets race the day before. (Yorkshire Veterans Athletics Association, not animal doctors.) I don’t normally do double-header weekends, but I hadn’t done many vets races last season, and they are friendly and fun. They are also oddly encouraging because when you are passed by people 20 years older than you (you know this because you wear your age category on your back), it is inspiring, not demoralising. It’s my last year in the F45 category, and it’s going to get no easier in F50 because there’s some fiercely good over-50s. Also inspiring.
The race was only five miles long, and it was around Middleton Park, which is a nice wooded area of Leeds. But I found it very tough. I ran most of the hills, but still, I had heavy legs, and I was slower than I’d expected. I can explain some of that. As part of HRT, I have to take progesterone for 10 days a month. This is the progesterone time, and it always makes me depressed, dopey, bloated and ravenous. Taking progesterone for 10 days is like being prescribed PMT for ten days. Fun.
So I was worried I’d feel like as sluggish as I had at the Vets. And I had usual pre-race nerves too. In short, I was really good company. At registration, the women handing out the numbers complimented me on my handwriting (I was probably the only person who’d filled out the FRA form with a calligraphy pen) then asked if I minded having number 13. I said no, because how could things go worse than last year?
There were lots of people I knew also doing the race — I spotted fellow NLFR Adam, Andrew and Martin variously in toilet queues and doing pre-race warm-ups though as often happens we weren’t organised enough for a team photo — and we gathered together at the start. Amongst them were Louise and Izzy, who like me have been getting run coaching for the last eight weeks from my partner Neil, who is now fully qualified as a coach and has set up as Run Brave coaching (website to come, Facebook page here). We have all noticed major improvements in form and understanding, and we have all been getting really good race times. When I ran Rombald Stride, I felt great, and ran all the runnable bits, which doesn’t normally happen, and got a 20 minute PB over a 23 mile race.
But that seemed a long way off as we waited on the cobblestones for the vicar to blow his horn (that is not code). The race organiser gave his announcements and said that the route was more flagged than last year, which was good news for me. And then we were off. And as soon as I started running, I realised:
This was going to be OK. I felt good. I felt strong.
And I felt strong nearly all the way round, for 14.8 miles of tracks and trods and bogs and fields and hills and becks and paths, and 2,905 feet of climb. We had done a recce of the route a few weeks earlier, but although I could remember parts, I couldn’t remember which order they came in, and there were long stretches I’d forgotten, and only remembered when I got to them. But I knew that after the climb up the cobblestones, there was a short sharp descent into the woods, then, immediately, a steep climb back up to the top of the valley that we had just descended. And that is the joyous perversity of Heptonstall all over, and I love it. I knew I was going to be OK when I found myself running up the fields. I deliberately use “found myself” because it seemed like an impulse that was not a decision. It happened again and again: my brain said, you’re tired, but then my legs started to run. A strange but wonderful feeling that I remembered from Rombald Stride. Here is a good illustration of how I felt on Rombald’s:
Heptonstall has cut-offs, a phrase I usually dread, but they are more generous than the Three Peaks ones, so I put them out of my head and just resolved to do my best. FRB, trying to calm me down before the race, when I had made a comment yet again about getting lost, advised me to keep my map handy and look at it whenever I was walking uphill, and locate myself on it by remembering the checkpoints. Of course I forgot to take my map out of my pack. And for the first three checkpoints, there were plenty of people around, and throughout the race, an extremely generous amount of flags. I knew though that things would get stretched out at CP3. Before that, there was what felt like a very very long nav section over open moorland. It was flat/undulating, but the bogs sapped the legs, and we were only a couple of miles in. It felt like it would never stop.
But it did because it always does. We passed a standing stone, where a cheery fellow was dispensing “well done”s to everyone (a fact I appreciate when some supporters only cheer for their own club mates), then to the trig, round the trig and off to a delightful descent. At this point during the recce I had fallen over, and so I decided to do the same thing. I was trying to overtake a man in front, but just as I approached him, my brain said, “he’s wearing a green t-shirt, I wonder if he’s a Chapel Allerton runner” when it should have been saying, “there’s a cunningly hidden tussock there, watch your step.” But I didn’t and I went flying, nearly taking out the man in green. It was a soft landing though — my brain had planned that bit right — so apart from some scraped skin and muck on my elbow, I was fine. Bounce, and back up. I’d worked on my bouncing skills on Rombald’s, where I fell three times, once on ice, twice over my own feet. On the third fall, Louise had said with admiration, “you actually did a commando roll.”
I can’t remember the next stretch, the time passed, the moor rose up to meet me, and then we were descending to the beck, and up a steep road to a steep hill. I knew the road because it’s part of the Widdop fell race, so I steeled myself to run up it. I turned the corner and there, like a vision, was a mass of Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team, red-dressed angels perched on a wall. They were fantastic. They are fantastic anyway because of what they do, but here they were cheering everyone and being a big puff of sheer goodwill, and I thought they were great.
Up a very steep bank, onwards, and then I can’t remember the next stretch until the reservoir, and I remembered to cut down through the grass, because I’d gone wrong there the first year, and then there was a long long track up to High Rakes, and I ran and kept running, and still felt good. I had the usual picnic with me, and I made sure to fuel. But actually I didn’t have much over three hours: a mouthful of raisins, a gel, a small piece of Kendal mint-cake and a jelly-baby. Ahead of me was Aileen, a really impressive 60+ runner from Stainland Lions. She is super steady, so I followed her. FRB had asked me what my tactics were, and I had come up with “not get lost” but look, here I was being tactical. As in, hang on to Aileen.
Later, we got to the dell where I had got horribly lost the year before. There was no chance of that this year, because I had learned during the recce where the route went, and even if I failed to turn on the right bridge, as I’d done last year, I knew how to find the route and most importantly where it was. We’d only been about 100 metres away from it the year before. There was also no chance because the marshals were on the crucial bridge this year. Some of the marshals were scouts — thank you scouts — and one of them was sitting on a rock with a clipboard, asking quite quietly for numbers, and when I first saw him I thought he was a woodland sprite. Over the stream and up the steep bank, along the track and keeping an eye for the flag on the left that signalled another steep climb.
I will mention my shoes, because I ran on plenty of hard surfaces during this race and they should have been hurting but weren’t. Two weeks ago I’d fallen for the hype around Inov-8’s £140 Graphene Mudclaws. Graphene for the extraordinary lugs, a Kevlar upper. My friend Chris had got a pair and worn them on the recce and kept saying with wonder, “they’re like slippers”. It’s difficult to imagine a pair of shoes built for serious mud and bog and rocks could feel like slippers. Another friend had got a pair and said she was thinking of wearing them for the Three Peaks because the cleats were so big, they were actually really comfortable on hard surface (of which there is plenty on the Three Peaks route, a race you could probably do in road shoes). I’d only worn mine for the first time the day before on the Vets’ race, and the toe box was narrower than I was used to, and I worried my wide feet would start to suffer. But I decided to wear them, and they were brilliant. I got a sore little toe, but otherwise: superb grip, and comfortable even on hard tracks. Not quite slippers, but not far off.
(I’m never going to wear those gaiters though.)
Also I managed to keep them on my feet. Heptonstall includes an infamous bog, where fell runners have disappeared and not been found for centuries. Not really, but it is deep and it is wide and it is boggy. The official advice had been to sweep round it from the left, but I followed the people in front as they didn’t appear to be sinking and went straight through and it was barely a bog at all. By that I mean, I got wet to my calves but no higher, and I kept my shoes to myself.
The shoes were a conversation starter too because as I went over a stile somewhere or other someone behind said, “are those the Graphene Mudclaws?” and we struck up a conversation and stayed talking more or less for the rest of the route, finishing together. Nice to meet you Nick.
I had a couple of weak moments where I looked at how many miles had gone by and how many miles there were to go. At one point Nick tried the “there’s only a park run to go” and I responded as I usually do to this, with, “but I don’t want to do a park run.” I passed a family of walkers, with youngsters, and tried to distract myself by asking the sister and then the brother whether they were going to be fell runners. The sister said nothing and ran up to her brother for sanctuary. The brother said, “no.”
Another example of my conversational skills: I am very grateful to marshals who stand out in all weathers, and I too have marshalled in all weathers. I try to convey my compassion by saying, “I hope you’re warm enough.” For the first time, when I reached this man on top of his knoll, the conversation went like this:
Me: I hope you’re warm enough.
Him: No, I’m not.
*Runner pauses, desperately thinks what to say to make things better*
Me: There’s not a lot I can do about that. Sorry.
*Runner runs off, perfectly warm.*
The weather: the forecast had been for 10 degrees, not too much wind. But this was the proper tops. At registration, the air was biting, and FRB, as hardy as they come, was questioning his choice of bringing only a vest. I ran in a vest and long-sleeves and I was fine. Afterwards he said he was fine too, but he has more body hair than I do.
Something odd happened in the last few miles: I got better. I overtook people, including Aileen (this rarely happens). And I still felt good, and my legs still moved by themselves.
The final mile is particular. You run along a beck, along a conduit, and then reach the Stairs of Hell. I hadn’t had to climb these last year because I’d got lost way before then. And in 2017 it was pouring so hard all the way round, the stairs were a relief from the weather, no matter how steep they were. (They’re actually steps not stairs but by the time you are halfway up you won’t be thinking about vocabulary except the swearing kind.) They are definitely steep, but they passed soon enough. And I knew that what was to come would feel harder even though it wasn’t, because there were two fields to get up on exhausted legs, before the finish field. Heavy legs and grass: it’s funny how many race organisers end their races with that sapping combination. But the inexplicable strength continued, and I ran where before I would have walked, and then there we were at the finish field, and I’d had such a nice time that I didn’t even mind seeing all the dozens and dozens of people quicker than me who were already strolling back to their cars. But I put on as best a downhill sprint as I could, and encouraged Nick to do the same. Later, some friends said, “we were urging you to beat that man you were running behind”. But I didn’t need to: because he’d been very good company, and because he had arrived too late to register so he was running as a ghost and it didn’t matter whether I beat him or not.
I got to the finish, my lucky 13 was cut off me, there was Neil looking fresh though chilly (he’d finished with a superb 15-minute PB in 2 hours 35 minutes so he’d been there long enough to be on his third flapjack). I didn’t know what time I’d done until later, but when I did I nearly fell over although I was sitting down. 3 hours and ten minutes. That is, 24 minutes quicker than I’d done in 2017.
My fellow Run Braver Louise had got a PB of 25 minutes, and Izzy had had a storming run on her first attempt. The moral is: structured run coaching is very good for you.
I don’t think I ran faster. I think I ran more. Everything that was runnable, I ran. I ran more of the inclines where before I would have walked. I remembered to think about my form and technique and when I did remember, to make adjustments to make things easier: to remember to move my arms when I’m tired, to lift my knees when my legs are knackered, to hold myself high on hills and use shorter strides.
It worked. I had a wonderful time. It is a fabulous race route with beautiful scenery, and afterwards they give you flapjack and more food. I’m very proud of myself and conclude that I should now only run races that are blessed by vicars. See, coach, I do have tactics, of sorts.
The Wadsworth Trog is a 19-mile category BL (hilly and long) fell race over Wadsworth Moor near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. It is known for its energy-sapping boggy and muddy terrain. The only thing sapping my energy on this occasion was the snow covering the frozen ground, with the occasional surprise foot-in-bog.
Most people start the year with the intentions of
making a fresh start. Upon reflection 2018 was the most successful running year
ever, over 2280km (+62000m elevation) compared to 2017’s 1466km (+29000m
elevation). For some reason, rather than feeling ultra-pumped for another year
of mileage I found coming into 2019 a rather daunting affair. So much so that I
pretty much relapsed from the off with plenty of high mileage in terms of drinking
and eating but very low running mileage and very little interest in going
I guess it’s hard to explain but this lack of belief
and diluted fitness turned into quite lacklustre performances in both PECO
cross country races I took part in, followed by a slightly disappointing
Stanbury Splash, a race I had been looking forward to for two years. I guess
it’s easy to blame the cold spell, the weather or whatever, but in any other
race I would have embraced everything that was put in front of me, I just wasn’t
really enjoying my running.
This may come to a shock to a few people as on the
surface I’m generally a positive and sociable chap who generally won’t shut up.
Looking back, if January was there to serve one
purpose that would have been to be to set the bar low, the absolute lowest. I
was determined to take it as the stand-out worst month of the coming year, I couldn’t
let it get worse than that.
Being invited to take part in the Wadsworth Trog after
being on the waiting list was a huge relief for me. Judging by the popularity
of that weekend’s three local sold-out races (the other two were Rombald Stride
and Mickleden Straddle) I’m guessing this “get the hell out of January with a
tough race” attitude is the same for many other people.
So here we are, on the second day of February. On Friday
night I’m packed up and tucked away ready for an early drive over to the Happy
Valley. Punxsutawney Phil must have predicted
an early spring, the weather is absolutely amazing. Despite being around
freezing I can feel the heat of the sun through the car window and the sky is blue
and almost cloudless.
So we’re two happy campers driving over for the 10:30am
start, except, well it’s a 10am start and the runners are lined up and ready to
go as my co-pilot Jonathan of Kirkstall Harriers and I are waltzing into the cricket
club getting our kit out for inspection and registration. Note: I swear I
checked the website and saw 10am the previous evening, but considering I was
the only one, that may have not happened! Not only that but I soon discover I
am lacking a pair of waterproof trousers. That’s my first ever kit check fail. (To
be clear as soon as I found out that I was missing kit I knew I wasn’t racing,
no arguing: Dom can you have a look in the back of your car please?)
Jonathan is all ready to go and runs over to the start
as the runners are setting off whilst I’ve pretty much given up the idea of
racing and I’m thinking now I have time to go to the toilet and will go for a little
jaunt. On my way back from the toilet the race director hands me a race number
saying that one of the tail runners has a spare pair on him. How awesome is
So I set off, it’s 10:15 and I have a 6-minute
handicap, I’m following the footprints of the 186 runners in front of me. How
many can I overtake? That is the new goal for the day. Up the first hill around
2km is where I first see the pack, black dots on a white canvas, the tops look
like a big white cake; it is such a nice day, and at a few points in the race I
wish I’d brought sunglasses.
Another excellent thing about this race and its
marshals is that when I catch the tail runners who are unmarking the course ahead
of me, they have clearly been informed, and before I know it, the trousers are
in my pack. As slick as an Olympic relay. Race on, I’m legal!
I hit the first steep descent which is where I catch
the rest of the field, not the ideal situation but I carefully (and politely)
overtake the back group of around five runners. Soon after the trails become
narrow so pretty much all the overtaking can only be done at opportune moments,
usually requiring me to go off piste in the six-inch-deep sapping snow.
The first 10km goes by and all is good. I have had
problems with my hips and hamstrings recently due to transitioning from heel
strike to forefoot style, but the constant buzz from overtaking the field is
driving me at this point. So much so that an hour and a half has flown by and I
had more or less found my place in the field with the first instance of being
overtaken at around the halfway mark, oops, I have been overdoing it!
Once I find my feet the field around me starts to see-saw,
some people overtaking me on the uphill, then slowing on the downs and vice
versa and at one point a large group of us get lost after checkpoint 11 and
have to heather-hop back on course. At this point I slow a hell of a lot and my
left hamstring isn’t feeling too good, I think it’s gone and I am reduced to hobbling.
The thought of having to walk the final 5k of a fell
race in freezing conditions doesn’t sound appealing, and the irony of having to
put on the emergency trousers enters my mind. No, this is only a bit of pain, I
can carry on, maybe I’ll do a big stretch later, come on!
Fast forward to the final few kilometres and I’m back
in the game, not sure what happened there, and after a few near falls on
treacherous trail I finally take a fall, on the road. A two-metre power slide
followed by a lovely cramp in my left calf bites me hard, I let out a
ridiculous scream that startles a couple of nearby runners.
“Yes I’m fine, keep going, sorry I’m a very vocal runner.”My fuelling strategy for this race was to use Tailwind power/water mix with a single Torq Bakewell-tart-flavoured gel halfway. It was my first time using Tailwind and through the entire race I felt pretty good, and it was only really muscle fatigue that slowed me down towards the end. I think using this in longer distance runs is preferable to gels, though in very long trail/ultra-distance real food will always win. Jelly babies count too, and thank you to the marshal who left the Jellybaby box out, it was well received!
Speaking of tail wind, I feel like I have one on the final climb, I am still able to run up that last hill overtaking a few chaps before entering the cricket ground for the victory lap. Maybe that burst came from was knowing I was close, although the marshal who told me we had a mile to go should be punished, it was at least two!
Official time 3 hours and 55 minutes, 118th
place. Had I been on time I’d have done 3 hours 48 minutes, that would have got
me in the top 100. There’s always next year.
I’m absolutely knackered and so relieved to have completed the course. I feel like this event really helped me exercise those January daemons and I am so thankful to the organisers and volunteers for making it happen.
Simonside Cairns, Totley Two Turtle Doves and the Soreen Stanbury Splash.
So 2018 has
rushed past, as every year seems to. The highs of countless days running in the
Lake District and the lows of injury troubles seem long behind.
foray into Northumberland for the Hexhamshire Hobble at the start of December,
I rushed back the week after for the Simonside Cairns race. I guess I had just
reminded me of how much I miss the place. Rothbury, where the race is held, is
also the town where I spent many Wednesday evenings training Cumberland
Westmorland Wrestling in the school hall, practicing our hipes, hanks,
cross-buttocks and inside heels. We were always chatting on with the parents of
the younger kids, relaying their progress and offering encouragement: each younger generation being the key to the
survival of this small traditional sport.
these frequent visits, I’d never actually gone up Simonside. There’s great rock
climbing up there as well as the walking and running trails but I’d never made
it for one reason or another.
The day was
proper bluebird. Clear skies and a crisp winter air that almost had a crunch to
it. The low winter sun cast a warming orange light, even through the midday
hours. The purple bracken complimenting the burnt umber of the earth. If I’m
honest, I only made these observations so clearly because I spent most of the
race staring at the ground in front of me, as I doggedly plodded along.
enough for a couple laps up the street to warm the legs before it’s down to the
alleyway for the start. Packed into our tight corridor, we are read our rights
and the race is off. A quick burn takes you out of the town and up the hill
onto the moor. No chance for let-up even on the rolling moors as the pace is
fast. I buzz past a cheery local belting out Christmas songs on a harmonica, a
moment of levity to break the monotony of exertion. Quick feet are needed to
keep you from losing a shoe into the mud. It’s pretty boggy in places and the
wooden platforms are slicker than ice. After almost decking myself in a
cartoon-like manner, I opt to avoid the platforms. This works well until I land
thigh-deep in ice-cold bog. The platforms are there for a reason, I guess.
Nipping through the forest, I’m greeted mid-run by the greatest sight of all, a
checkpoint with Jelly Babies. The sugary infant forms take away any malice from
my bog encounter and then it’s up to Simonside. The views are fantastic. The
slight ridgeline from Simonside to Dove Crag wanders down in front of you is a
line that’s just asking to be run along. And with this great scene comes evidence
of a more populated and well-trodden route. Nothing out of hand, but enough to
need stone laid on the path to prevent erosion. A stone-laden descent always
brings a bit of a grimace to my face, and I opt for spongy mud and moss every
time where possible, but I manage to nip a few places ahead anyway. My feet are
skipping down at a high tempo, like I’m playing some extreme form of hopscotch.
One wrong foot and it’ll be an expensive trip to the dentist! After regaining
the path that we had taken up from town, it’s a case of emptying the tank and
trying not to explode. This goes well, until I reach a junction and my brain
stops working entirely. I have absolutely no memory of where to go. Fortunately
someone less useless is just behind and we’re back on track. Down the road,
over the bridge, try and not throw up at the finish. An absolute cracker.
Back at the
pub it’s bustling with happy runners clutching their cups of soup (with many
compliments to the chef!). I nip outside and catch my old wrestling coach
Jason. He’s a tall and proud Northumbrian, a champion wrestler at several
weights and his massive hand engulfs mine as he thrusts it out to say hello. I
can’t help but smile ear to ear: it’s good to see him. We pop up the road to a
quieter pub to have a catch up. He fills me in on the details of local goings
on – some grave but many not – we have a proper loud laugh at some of the
dafter wrestling memories and speculate on the future of the sport. “Three
pints and some chips” is probably not the optimal post-race meal, but I left
the pub full up of everything: the scenery, the running, seeing an old friend.
I’m a bit of an emotional sod, but some days are just good for the soul.
Simonside, festive chaos seems to engulf life and everything around it, like some shitty, tinsel laden black hole.
Days fly by, activity drops but calorific consumption skyrockets, and before I
know it, Boxing Day has arrived, I’ve put on half a stone, turned 30 and I’m
smashing it down the motorway, trying to make it to Totley on time for the
race. My partner drops me off as I run into the cricket grounds to try and
register. Fortunately for me, plenty of others are still on festive time so I’m
far from the last to sign up. I even spot a club-mate, Sharon Williams, after
expecting to be the only blue stripe [ed:
surely you mean “sash”] representing NLFR. There’s even time for a couple
quick warm-up laps of the cricket field. I feel quite good, which bizarrely is
a bad sign. Good legs can only get worse, while bad ones can only get better.
This holds true, and after a pointlessly enthusiastic starting lap of the
field, everything goes to shite. Head pounding, legs unresponsive and will to
continue wavering. The race is only five miles, so my strategy was always going
to be to go out as hard as you can and just try to hang on. I’m definitely
going as hard as I can, I’m almost hanging on, but I’m just not really going
anywhere. Those mince pies and festive indulgences come at a price, and I’m not
going to be able to settle the bill today. Hyperbole aside, it’s a great little
course over woodland trail, with a couple decent climbs to keep you working.
Once we’re over the top, it’s a stomp back down, gaining some track and then
onto the road. The tarmac trying to jiggle free last night’s Christmas Dinner.
Fortunately for all involved, I manage to prevent any gastronomical
reemergences, and I rag myself round a final lap of the cricket field to the
finish. Any performance-based grievance is instantly washed from my memory as I
try and huff as much oxygen back into my blood as possible. There isn’t a
better way to spend your 30th I reckon.
New Years came and went. More festivities, more indulgences. January begins and life starts to normalise again. The scales inform me of the incurred cost of my debauchery: over half a stone this time. Not that I needed the scales to tell me, my squidgy midsection had done that already. Either way, all debts must be paid in full. New Year’s resolutions never really made sense to me, but this year my dietary digressions have me reconsidering their benefits. Strict no alcohol rules are dropped on the household. Remaining Christmas chocolates are cast deep into the cupboard. I’m even cutting down on my bread habit (not the easiest task for someone who works as a baker).
Now all that’s left is to actually do some bloody running, and what better way
to start the year’s racing than with the Soreen Stanbury Splash. Guaranteed to
chastise you for your holiday sloth and gluttony, the local winter classic is a
must. Count me in.
The day arrives, and so does the weather (does it ever leave Penistone Hill?). (Ed—no.)
Sideways rain and wind gusting to 50mph wipe the smile off my face. The decision to get out of bed seems so unwise. Even just running up to registration seems like a battle, the winds letting their presence known straight away. Packed into the tiny cricket club hut are countless kids wrapped in cagoules, on the hunt for their hard earned goody-bags, senior runners eyeing each other up, trying to figure out if we’re actually about to do this. Alas, the form is filled out, cash handed over and number received. The contract is made. Nothing left to do now other than a nip to the most weather exposed porta-loo I’ve ever been in. I’m filled with nightmarish thoughts of the thing being blown over with me in it which kindly hasten my ablutions. Business completed, it’s off to the start. There’s a steep and very muddy slope which people are heading down towards the quarry where the race begins. The couple in front are trying to hang onto the grassier verges to avoid slipping. None of that nonsense for me. Straight down, run it out, no problem, all in good style, until the faceplant into the muddy puddle at the bottom, of course. With this fantastic opening gambit, I join the huddle of runners hiding from the wind and realise I’m also one of about only four runners who opted for vest only. It’s just going to be one of those days.
The briefing is brief, and off we go! Someone in front goes down instantly. I manage to avoid them but I’m swept past before I can see if they regain their feet before the trampling herd does their worst. I’d definitely better pay attention I think.
first burst out of the quarry, it’s a romp up some hard track, before you’re
posted down the field into your first splash. The people in front are a touch
hesitant, allowing me a big leap ahead, almost acquiring my second faceplant of
the day. The wind across my face is cold enough to make it droop numbly on one
side, I’m lucky to have dodged the cameras I reckon. Along to the second
“splash” of the race and I manage to leap the gap (much to the astonishment of
both myself and the bloke beside me). Grabbing handfuls of heather, I quickly
propel myself up the short scramble out of the ravine and back into the wind.
I’m not the slightest of builds – something that I often curse at on steep
climbs – but with the wind blowing as it was, I was actually quite glad for my
heft planting me to the ground for once. The same wind that we’ve been
struggling against is suddenly whipped behind us as we make the turn at half
way. My cold legs actually struggle to keep pace with this rapid extra
propulsion, although it’s a very enjoyable problem to have! Romping down the
track and road feels bloody great. The weather might be crap, but it’s fun in
its own way and everything’s better with the wind into your back.
into the grassy field where the first river crossing is, I notice I have nil
grip in my trail shoes on the trodden path, I try to pull wide onto fresher
ground to keep upright, but the slope quickly steepens, there’s nothing for it
but to commit and kick my legs out and launch into the best bum-slide of my
career thus far. Highlight of the race to be honest. After that, the final mile
practically feels like a sprint, and I’m into the tea queue at the hut before I
know it. The tiny shelter is packed with the smiling faces of runners as giddy
as myself. To think I almost stayed in bed!
Is there a better way to spend a sunny winter Sunday morning than Mytholmroyd Fell Race? Probably, but it was pretty unbeatable for those who did it. Two steep climbs and fast muddy descents makes this a smile bringer, especially with a craft beer to sup on the finish line.
I arrived there with Wharfedale’s Dave McGuire with moments to spare, our “dav-nav” having malfunctioned. Starting at the back of the field I worked my way up and through the field on the long first climb before the open fell. P&B’s Graham Pilling caught me up and we spent the rest of the race pushing each other.
The descent to the finish was very muddy and needed some decent grip. I couldn’t quite keep up with Graham, but was happy with 22nd out of 150-odd.
My hopes for a v50 prize were extinguished by the sight of Ian Holmes and Mike Fanning languishing by the finish line. So I consoled myself with a besting of my navigator.
NLFR’s Rose, Catriona and our new member Stuart also ran and had big smiles at the finish.
I wasn’t born or raised in Newcastle, but I did a lot of growing up there. I moved when I was 17 to study at university, and the nine following years formed me as much as the previous 17 in Edinburgh had. Weekends were usually spent driving out into Northumberland to climb on some of the many amazing sandstone outcrops: Bowden Doors, Kyloe in the Woods, Great Wanney’s. The climbing was much like your archetypal Northumbrian: stout, hard, high quality and full of character. It’s generally pretty quiet. The geography puts it just beyond the normal ventures of most, with people diverting to the Lake or Peak District, many even driving straight past on the way to Scotland. This leaves you with a real hidden treasure. It’s one that still feels like a closely guarded secret when I visit now, astonished (but glad) that there aren’t more people enjoying this beautiful place.
It may have been climbing that introduced me to Northumberland, but it was the slightly more esoteric sporting pursuit of Cumberland Westmorland Wrestling that really buried its place in my heart. One summer I found myself working on an exhibit that was to tour the County Fairs. It was an old horse wagon that had been converted into a museum of the history of the boxing booths that used to feature at fairs and show grounds. The basic premise of a boxing booth was “Go three rounds, win a pound!”, a seemingly achievable goal for a bounty of over a day’s wages. There was, as with every fairground challenge, a factor set to greatly diminish that illusion of achievability: a world-class boxer. And world-class is by no means an exaggeration. Jimmy Wilde “The Ghost with the Hammer in His Hand” was a well-known booth boxer who later became a World Featherweight Champion several years running. The cloak that concealed his dagger was his diminutive stature (5 foot 2 and 8 stone), which would draw hardy working-men into the ring, unable to perceive the danger they were finding themselves in. The slight but devastating Wilde provided great spectacle and income for the booth. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sight of this small man knocking 16 stone monsters onto their arses must have been one to behold.
Unsurprisingly, this form of entertainment didn’t quite survive into the modern era, so the touring exhibit I worked on was more cultural than physical. We’d set up a marquee with a boxing ring inside, and different performers would come and do their acts on the theme of boxing in the ring. It would receive mixed praise with many coming to tell amazing stories of the booths, but an equal number voicing their disappointment at the lack of bloodsport.
Once we’d set up, we were free to walk around the County Fairs. Prize-winning vegetables, lovingly restored vintage tractors, pedigree sheep and competition cakes all had their appeal, but it was the wrestling that really caught my eye. I enquired to one of the local competitors (the meritorious Jack Brown of Hayden Bridge, for the interested) if the public ever entered, and was informed that it was highly common and often profitable, with prize money being offered to the top three or four of each weight category. The format appeared simple enough, left hand over, right hand under, clasp your hands behind your opponents back, don’t let go, and try and throw or trip them to the ground, best of three falls and that’s that. Either way, I fancied my chances much more favourably than trying to survive three rounds with an iron fisted world champion for a measly quid!
Name entered, weight checked on an antique set of counterbalance scales and I’m good to go. Soon enough I’m called into the foray – a circular ring defined by a line of sawdust – and I’m faced with my opponent. Fortunately for me, it is not a cold blooded knockout-artist world champion, but instead a cheery Northumbrian teenager called Archie Singer who had only minutes before been giving me pointers on how to wrestle. Also in my favour was the fact that unlike boxing, in wrestling, an amount of strength bereft of technique can occasionally leverage a victory. The referee, Jimmy Pringle, calls us into the middle and in his unmistakable deep Northumbrian accent instructs us “Wrestlers, tek hod”, “On yer guard”, “Wrassle!”. And with a good amount of tussle, I manage to unbalance and tumble down on top of Archie. A win! We gather ourselves up and shake hands – as is the tradition before and after every fall. Taking hold again, Archie launches a quick attack the second the bout commences – a quick push and a foot placed behind my own and I land flat on my arse. One all. Third time round, I’m a bit more prepared to fend off his attacks, and I manage to awkwardly tumble down on top of him again, to victory. A quick handshake, and a hand raised in the air to signal the win to the judges’ table and that’s that. It’s probably worth noting that I was ten years older, and several stone heavier than Archie at that moment – a momentous triumph it was not. My next opponent was from the other end of the wrestling scale, it was 6 foot 3, 15 stone and All Weights Champion, Andrew Ord. Informed of his accolades by Archie, he told me not to worry, “He’s dead gentle”. Slightly baffled by this apparent contradiction I enter the ring, shake hands and take hold as instructed. My feet leave the ground the instant the bout commences, as he spins me round for an inside-hipe. Using his leg, he tips my body horizontal in the air and lays me down as softly as a parent putting a baby to bed. I guess that was pretty gentle. He picks me up off the deck with a smile and repeats the exact same thing for the second round, sealing the set. As an aside, I ended up training at the same club as Andrew – Rothbury Wrestling Club – for years to come after this, and during that time and over hundreds of bouts, I can count the times I took a fall off him on one hand. Nicest bloke you’ll ever meet.
That’s Andrew with the beard. Losing.
Anyway, my efforts had given me a 4th place in the category, receiving £5 in an envelope. Definitely better than getting my head punched in over a pound. That summer I wrestled at every show I worked at, and then started traveling on my own just to wrestle, evening joining a club to train at weekly. I wrestled for about five years before I moved away, traveling all over Northumberland and Cumbria, even competing in Celtic Wrestling competitions in France and Iceland. But the point of this giant literary detour, was that the first show I ever wrestled at was in Allendale.
The Angus Tait Memorial Hexham Hobble, held at Allendale Primary School, is in its 25th year this year (I think?). It is named after the race’s first winner – the late Angus Tait – who died suddenly in 2010. He lives on not only through this eponymous race, but also in the form of the trophies. When he won the first race he was disappointed at the lack of a trophy for his efforts, so he found an old running shoe, spray-painted it gold, and attached it to a wooden plinth. A sentiment that the race organisers (Allen Valley Runners) have wonderfully recreated with new, professionally cast and mounted golden trainer trophies.
The course is a fast 10.5 miles and 1200ft ascent, on road, Landrover track and muddy path, over and round Hexham Common. With 220 entries it’s definitely a popular event and rightfully so. The cake selection alone merits the journey from Leeds.
As always, I’m glad to see some familiar faces: I spot an old climbing friend, Joe Spoor, who tells me he “does a bit of running in the winter,” before smashing his way home with a top 20 finish (classic Geordie understatement, eh).
With the weather looking good – cool and dry – everyone jostles over to the start, and we’re off. Joe shoots off at the front of the pack and my suspicions of his superior ability are confirmed. “See you in an hour and a half” I shout.
The race starts fast and stays that way. None of the inclines are steep enough to justify walking (a rarity for me), so much to my chagrin I run the whole lot.
The terrain might not be the most titillating, and you aren’t faced with beautiful vistas of great mountains. But the low mist sweeping across the Northumbrian moor is breathtaking. Definitely a secret I’m happy to keep. But as wonderful as is it, the landscape soon becomes irrelevant. My legs are working as hard as they can, and the spare thoughts and observations floating around in my head drop off one by one, until I’m consumed by bodily response. My thighs feel dull, unaccustomed to this steady high cadence, but they keep stamping out the beat. I speed up to nip past someone on a stretch of wide path and my proximity to my limit becomes apparent as this momentary overexertion makes my legs tremble for the next five minutes. We pass over the highpoint on Lilswood Moor, and it’s onto the slightly undulating but mostly downhill second half. Head down and keep spinning the legs. Up the blip of Stobb Cross and it’s tarmac hell to the finish. Almost two miles of ever steepening asphalt. You’ve got to keep your pace or you’ll find yourself flying headfirst down the hill – gravity forcing you to punt your legs underneath you to avoid full-body road rash. Back into town, pull a right and you’re pointed into the pen. Done. Absolutely burst. I even stagger my way past the other finishers, fearing some sort of internal bodily mutiny threatening to explode out of me.
20 minutes of bewildered staggering around later, I’m drinking a cup of tea and enjoying a giant wedge of coffee cake. Couldn’t be happier. I even won a pair of socks in the raffle. Quids in.
Massive thanks to the race organisers, marshals, cake and tea producers and suppliers, it was a proper quality day.
Standing in the queue for some post race replenishment, I’d asked Bill what his next race would be. “Tour of Pendle in November, last AL of the season”.
Never heard of it.
“How is it?”
“Oh, it’s great!”, he informs me with his usual wide-eyed enthusiasm. An enthusiasm faultlessly unencumbered by the prospect of long and arduous races, I should add. He is Lancastrian after all.
16 and a bit miles, 4800 feet, in November, on the windiest hill in England, four weeks after my first race post-injury. It’ll be fine. Then I remember, I haven’t done a long category race since June. It’ll be fine-ish.
Unable to find out much about the origin of the race, I’ve concluded that the route was devised by dropping spaghetti on a map, and the most offensive strands were selected to give the grandest day out possible. That, or some devious cartographer went to work figuring out how to get an AL out of a hill that’s 2 miles wide and 1800ft tall. Either way, the result is a criss-crossing tour that seduces you with 10 easy miles, before smashing you to bits by throwing the majority of the ascent at you over four miles, and then making you sprint it home on tarmac for a mile. Saucy.
The night before, I follow my Team Sky-esque pre-race protocol: one large pizza, chicken wings and a big packet of Maltesers, followed by sorting my kit out two hours after I should have gone to bed. Dave Brailsford would be proud. I sleep terribly, rise reluctantly, throw some coffee at my face and grumble through a bowl of muesli. This is what Peak Performance™ looks like, I’m sure. Fortunately the transcendent effects of the coffee kick in and I’m happily on my way to Barley before I know it.
My morning drudgery aside, the day is off to a good start. The weather is fair – a particularly positive omen with previous years’ races being hit with every weather type imaginable – and I squeezed my Astra into a spot so tight Guinness World Records might come a-knocking (I’m tempted to attach a picture because it’s that much of a bobby dazzler).
[Ed—happy to oblige]
Number and t-shirt collected, map purchased from Pete Bland and there’s nowt left to do but plod up and down the road a few times to remind my legs they’re on duty today.
The giant mass of runners pile down the lane to the start, and without a moment to stagnate the heads in front start to bob up and down as the wave of commencement drifts towards us. There are a lot of people running this race! I have to admit I feel awful, the realization striking me of what lies ahead, everything a bit off kilter, my stomach carved hollow. Too late now, anyway. It’s a pretty standard schlep up Pendle Hill to start which helps draw attention away from my intestinal quandaries.
[Ed—”pretty standard if you mean full clag”?]
The trig is passed, and the dreamy 4.5 mile descent towards CP2 begins. Keeping it steady, I’m passed by Bill, a decent indicator that my pace is correct, as he knows what he’s doing, I don’t! “See you at the finish!,” I laugh and off into the distance he goes. Down to CP2 then past the reservoir and up the next climb. It’s a narrow path so you’re tightly slotted into your running order. Trying to make up places here will be a clear waste of energy (or a good excuse to slow your pace, depending on your pedigree). Sadly the climb doesn’t give a great return on its investment, the ground drops away steeply, presenting the aptly named “Geronimo” descent. Running in my comfortable trail shoes, the wet grass isn’t offering much purchase and I find myself working my legs hard to keep in control. Too hard in fact. So I decide to match my decline in altitude with a decline in dignity. Setting free my inner seven year old, I pick the grassiest line and bum-slide my way down. I’ve heard that if it’s stupid but it works, it can’t be that stupid. I’m not sure anyone’s buying it though.
I still feel pretty capable, if a little wobbly, as CP5 approaches. I’m on schedule, hitting the 10 mile mark under two hours. That gives me an hour and a half for the remaining 6.5, at around 15 minutes a mile. This is also the last chance to do any maths, before the arriving climbs siphon all the oxygen out of my blood, rendering me into some kind of Neanderthal and thus stripping me of my already limited numerical capabilities.
The turn from CP5 heads straight for the climb via a dip over the stream. Your cover from Pendle’s ever-present winds is whipped away and the steepness robs me of my pace. The powerful gusts try and liberate me from my race cap, as I tighten it, pulling it over my brow. The peak is acting as a pair of blinkers for this tired old packhorse. Ignore the other runners and trudge away, I think to myself. Tiny steps but keep the cadence. It feels stupid taking these teeny steps, but for the first time ever, I’m actually taking places while going uphill. It definitely helps that my stout build grounds me with a greater wind resistance than my whippet-limbed compatriots. The caffeinated energy gel swilling around my guts is threatening revolt but the call to arms seems to be rousing a second wind. Feeling pretty burst, I console myself with the reminder that there’s only two climbs left.
The descent offers little respite as the steepness demands that the legs work hard to keep me on track. I try and relax my body to stop it stealing precious energy for the approaching ascent. The penultimate climb starts and by some miracle of sports nutrition, the viscous devil I squirted down is doing wonders. But still, the plod, plod, plod begrudgingly goes on. Then a stroke of good luck: the rasping sound of tired breath and howling wind is broken by a Lancastrian accent so thick you could spread it on toast. The unmistakable tones belong to Bill, who’s only a few places ahead. Seeing a friend in a long race is worth way more for performance than any gelatinous nutrition packet. So I power on, trying to catch up. But much like those dreams where you’re stuck to the floor, limbs refusing to cooperate, I just can’t quite bridge the gap. The chase continues over the top and back down.
Another sapping descent delivers us to the foot of the final uncompromising climb. And the best really is saved until last. The trodless hillside offers no line of weakness, just a steep aspect, uneven footing and guaranteed discomfort. It’s a bloody great way to finish a race, I must reluctantly admit. My body has now diminished from Neanderthal to horse to some kind of amoebic puddle. The single file of runners disperse into a loose scattering on the hillside, each runner in their own battle against the elevation. I laugh to myself at how daft this must look, droves of knackered looking runners cresting the hill like some kind of lycra-clad zombie apocalypse.
Up and over, nothing left now but to empty the tank and to try and avoid premature disintegration. I’m back with Bill as we hit the tarmac. The harsh feedback from the solid ground underfoot shakes through me and lets me know the end is nigh – both the finish line and my ability to walk. Only 8 minutes of this and you’ll be done. Grit your teeth and put it down. My quads want to explode. My guts are shriveling. But my pace is good and I’ve made some good distance on Bill, I think. Round the final corner, finish in sight. Then out of bloody nowhere a Lancastrian bullet comes flying with a sprint finish to make Usain Bolt proud. My floppy legs give it my best but the man in black and white has kept his ace in the back pocket and thrown it on the table just in time.