My friend N. doesn’t do much fell running, but now, after marshalling for a few years at Three Peaks, has decided to do it in earnest. She began looking for qualifiers right after the race last weekend, and found Black Fell. Pre-entry but a guaranteed entry for elite runners. She asked a reasonable question: is this normal for a fell race? Isn’t it a bit, well, elitist?
I agreed that it was. And that it wasn’t normal. There’s none of that at fell races usually, I told her. Your changing room is the boot of the car in a freezing car-park on top of a windy hill or in a wet field, you might get a wash in a river if you’re lucky, there are no airs and graces, and no elitism when you can mix with Brownlees and their ilk in the pub afterwards.
N. had run Dick Hudson’s last year and decided to do it again. It was my first time running it. I wasn’t sure my legs were up to it as they’ve been sore with DOMs all week, but by Thursday that had worn off. And who can resist a race named after a pub?
The weather didn’t look promising, and it didn’t sound promising when the rain pounded on the skylights in my house just before we were due to set off. I suspected Wharfedale Harriers wouldn’t require full kit but I took it anyway, and we headed to Ilkley. We found Hilary, Emma, Ann and Clare already in the car park, and set off up to what Wharfedale calls the Barrier car park (but I and Google call the White Wells car park). There, for N, was a perfect fell race set up: numbers being dispensed out of the back of a van. I reckon there were about 150 by the time we gathered at the barrier (I was 100). The rain had stopped, my jacket had been put away, and we were off. I was carrying water and a jacket; many runners had no kit at all.
N. had told me that everyone goes however they like up the ridge, and I watched people go up two different routes, both of which looked short and steep and soft underfoot, but I followed the people going the conventional way up to White Wells. I thought I’d be walking most of this climb but my legs did an extraordinary thing and kept running. I kept Ann in my sights because she’s such a good climber, and managed to stay with her until the top of the moor when it flattened out and she zoomed off. I’d looked at the map before setting off and knew it was an out and back and that we went past the Twelve Apostles, but I couldn’t remember ever running the route to Dick Hudson’s before. I know the moors of Ilkley and Rombald enough to recognise paths, but not enough that I can’t get lost. Even so I didn’t pay much attention to where I was heading but just followed the Otley man in front of me. There were a few miles of nice gradient, though it was rocky and tricky. I heard someone fall behind me and turned to look, but she had people helping her so I carried on. It turns out it was Clare, who twisted her ankle and had to walk back. (Hope you recover quickly Clare.)
It was raining by now and I was cold but I was running well enough that I decided to run through it. I’d had a tough time at Three Peaks with cramp, so I was taking advantage of the months of training that were in my legs. Onwards, and then a strange thing started happening, and a few people overtook me who seemed to be young, quick men. I couldn’t understand why: were they just having a bad day? But I dismissed the mystery and perservered, all the way to the final steep field and the descent to Dick Hudson’s pub, where I shouted my number to the sodden-looking but cheerful marshal, touched the gate, turned round and set off back.
I got through the gate again and there was Rowan from Kirkstall coming towards me. This made no sense. He is tremendously quick. But sometimes he likes to float around races so I thought perhaps this was one of them. Perhaps he had chosen an uphill route to the ridge that had been really long? But I put it out of my mind because I had to concentrate on what was feeling like a slog, because it was (nice long descent = not so nice uphill return). My legs were heavy and I was cold. But the time and distance passed, and we got to the flagstones, and I managed to get some places by hurtling down the flagstones. Then it happened again, that much faster runners were overtaking me. I gave way to a couple, as I could hear their speed was greater than mine, and by now we were on narrow trods, as I’d followed people going the softer way back past the conifers and bypassing White Wells. I didn’t much want to be hefted into the bracken by someone who couldn’t control his momentum so giving way was self-preservation.
I enjoyed the descent, although my contact lens was giving me trouble, making it harder than it should have been to see all the rocks and obstacles, particularly now the evening was turning to dusk. But I stayed upright until just before the path, when I apparently decided a bum-slide would be better. Then a quick pelt downhill to the finish, which in good fell-race tradition was someone taking numbers at the barrier.
With the post-race milling around, I learned the answer to the mystery of the improbably quick yet behind-me blokes. They had all got lost.
What? On an out-and-back?
Not that I can laugh, having got lost on Ingleborough out-and-back. But I’d got lost in thick clag. And these moors were our local ones. And Wharfedale Harriers had put a map on their website. Straight out, straight back. I heard a couple of varieties of lostness: Rowan said he’d ended up at a barn (maybe the shooting hut on Burley Moor?). Others said they turned left after Twelve Apostles rather than going straight on, which would take them to Horniman’s Well. Most had done a mile and a bit extra, including David from Chapel A, who I have never before beaten in a race and never will again.
I really love evening fell races, and this was a beauty: the gathering twilight of the moor, the silence studded by the sound of thudding feet and sometimes a bird, the feeling when you finish that you can’t think of anything else you’d rather have done with your evening, then the satisfying fatigue that comes from effort, that rolls you into your bed, where you run the race all over again in your dreams.
This was my third year of running Heptonstall Fell Race. The first year it rained all the way round. The second year I got lost. And here I am again on the cobblestones, listening to a kindly vicar say actually very sensible Christian things (I am an atheist but think there is a lot of sense in the Bible). He said he had tried to find quotes appropriate to what we were about to do, so he wished us perseverance, and also — though I forget the exact phrasing — to go forth and find fellowship while running. It was nice, and I was grateful for it, because I was dreading the race. My nerves were all over the place, and they weren’t calmed by me setting off for the toilets 15 minutes before the start and realising I had forgotten to put in my contact lens. I would still have been able to see, but my lens helps me pick out tree roots and rocks and I knew there would be plenty of both on the route. So I had to run quarter of a mile up the road to the field of car parking, put in my lens in a state of panic, which is the state in which it usually takes me 10 minutes and several lenses to get it right, then run down to the start and hope I didn’t need the toilet again.
What was I nervous about? I’d run the Yorkshire vets race the day before. (Yorkshire Veterans Athletics Association, not animal doctors.) I don’t normally do double-header weekends, but I hadn’t done many vets races last season, and they are friendly and fun. They are also oddly encouraging because when you are passed by people 20 years older than you (you know this because you wear your age category on your back), it is inspiring, not demoralising. It’s my last year in the F45 category, and it’s going to get no easier in F50 because there’s some fiercely good over-50s. Also inspiring.
The race was only five miles long, and it was around Middleton Park, which is a nice wooded area of Leeds. But I found it very tough. I ran most of the hills, but still, I had heavy legs, and I was slower than I’d expected. I can explain some of that. As part of HRT, I have to take progesterone for 10 days a month. This is the progesterone time, and it always makes me depressed, dopey, bloated and ravenous. Taking progesterone for 10 days is like being prescribed PMT for ten days. Fun.
So I was worried I’d feel like as sluggish as I had at the Vets. And I had usual pre-race nerves too. In short, I was really good company. At registration, the women handing out the numbers complimented me on my handwriting (I was probably the only person who’d filled out the FRA form with a calligraphy pen) then asked if I minded having number 13. I said no, because how could things go worse than last year?
There were lots of people I knew also doing the race — I spotted fellow NLFR Adam, Andrew and Martin variously in toilet queues and doing pre-race warm-ups though as often happens we weren’t organised enough for a team photo — and we gathered together at the start. Amongst them were Louise and Izzy, who like me have been getting run coaching for the last eight weeks from my partner Neil, who is now fully qualified as a coach and has set up as Run Brave coaching (website to come, Facebook page here). We have all noticed major improvements in form and understanding, and we have all been getting really good race times. When I ran Rombald Stride, I felt great, and ran all the runnable bits, which doesn’t normally happen, and got a 20 minute PB over a 23 mile race.
But that seemed a long way off as we waited on the cobblestones for the vicar to blow his horn (that is not code). The race organiser gave his announcements and said that the route was more flagged than last year, which was good news for me. And then we were off. And as soon as I started running, I realised:
This was going to be OK. I felt good. I felt strong.
And I felt strong nearly all the way round, for 14.8 miles of tracks and trods and bogs and fields and hills and becks and paths, and 2,905 feet of climb. We had done a recce of the route a few weeks earlier, but although I could remember parts, I couldn’t remember which order they came in, and there were long stretches I’d forgotten, and only remembered when I got to them. But I knew that after the climb up the cobblestones, there was a short sharp descent into the woods, then, immediately, a steep climb back up to the top of the valley that we had just descended. And that is the joyous perversity of Heptonstall all over, and I love it. I knew I was going to be OK when I found myself running up the fields. I deliberately use “found myself” because it seemed like an impulse that was not a decision. It happened again and again: my brain said, you’re tired, but then my legs started to run. A strange but wonderful feeling that I remembered from Rombald Stride. Here is a good illustration of how I felt on Rombald’s:
Heptonstall has cut-offs, a phrase I usually dread, but they are more generous than the Three Peaks ones, so I put them out of my head and just resolved to do my best. FRB, trying to calm me down before the race, when I had made a comment yet again about getting lost, advised me to keep my map handy and look at it whenever I was walking uphill, and locate myself on it by remembering the checkpoints. Of course I forgot to take my map out of my pack. And for the first three checkpoints, there were plenty of people around, and throughout the race, an extremely generous amount of flags. I knew though that things would get stretched out at CP3. Before that, there was what felt like a very very long nav section over open moorland. It was flat/undulating, but the bogs sapped the legs, and we were only a couple of miles in. It felt like it would never stop.
But it did because it always does. We passed a standing stone, where a cheery fellow was dispensing “well done”s to everyone (a fact I appreciate when some supporters only cheer for their own club mates), then to the trig, round the trig and off to a delightful descent. At this point during the recce I had fallen over, and so I decided to do the same thing. I was trying to overtake a man in front, but just as I approached him, my brain said, “he’s wearing a green t-shirt, I wonder if he’s a Chapel Allerton runner” when it should have been saying, “there’s a cunningly hidden tussock there, watch your step.” But I didn’t and I went flying, nearly taking out the man in green. It was a soft landing though — my brain had planned that bit right — so apart from some scraped skin and muck on my elbow, I was fine. Bounce, and back up. I’d worked on my bouncing skills on Rombald’s, where I fell three times, once on ice, twice over my own feet. On the third fall, Louise had said with admiration, “you actually did a commando roll.”
I can’t remember the next stretch, the time passed, the moor rose up to meet me, and then we were descending to the beck, and up a steep road to a steep hill. I knew the road because it’s part of the Widdop fell race, so I steeled myself to run up it. I turned the corner and there, like a vision, was a mass of Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team, red-dressed angels perched on a wall. They were fantastic. They are fantastic anyway because of what they do, but here they were cheering everyone and being a big puff of sheer goodwill, and I thought they were great.
Up a very steep bank, onwards, and then I can’t remember the next stretch until the reservoir, and I remembered to cut down through the grass, because I’d gone wrong there the first year, and then there was a long long track up to High Rakes, and I ran and kept running, and still felt good. I had the usual picnic with me, and I made sure to fuel. But actually I didn’t have much over three hours: a mouthful of raisins, a gel, a small piece of Kendal mint-cake and a jelly-baby. Ahead of me was Aileen, a really impressive 60+ runner from Stainland Lions. She is super steady, so I followed her. FRB had asked me what my tactics were, and I had come up with “not get lost” but look, here I was being tactical. As in, hang on to Aileen.
Later, we got to the dell where I had got horribly lost the year before. There was no chance of that this year, because I had learned during the recce where the route went, and even if I failed to turn on the right bridge, as I’d done last year, I knew how to find the route and most importantly where it was. We’d only been about 100 metres away from it the year before. There was also no chance because the marshals were on the crucial bridge this year. Some of the marshals were scouts — thank you scouts — and one of them was sitting on a rock with a clipboard, asking quite quietly for numbers, and when I first saw him I thought he was a woodland sprite. Over the stream and up the steep bank, along the track and keeping an eye for the flag on the left that signalled another steep climb.
I will mention my shoes, because I ran on plenty of hard surfaces during this race and they should have been hurting but weren’t. Two weeks ago I’d fallen for the hype around Inov-8’s £140 Graphene Mudclaws. Graphene for the extraordinary lugs, a Kevlar upper. My friend Chris had got a pair and worn them on the recce and kept saying with wonder, “they’re like slippers”. It’s difficult to imagine a pair of shoes built for serious mud and bog and rocks could feel like slippers. Another friend had got a pair and said she was thinking of wearing them for the Three Peaks because the cleats were so big, they were actually really comfortable on hard surface (of which there is plenty on the Three Peaks route, a race you could probably do in road shoes). I’d only worn mine for the first time the day before on the Vets’ race, and the toe box was narrower than I was used to, and I worried my wide feet would start to suffer. But I decided to wear them, and they were brilliant. I got a sore little toe, but otherwise: superb grip, and comfortable even on hard tracks. Not quite slippers, but not far off.
(I’m never going to wear those gaiters though.)
Also I managed to keep them on my feet. Heptonstall includes an infamous bog, where fell runners have disappeared and not been found for centuries. Not really, but it is deep and it is wide and it is boggy. The official advice had been to sweep round it from the left, but I followed the people in front as they didn’t appear to be sinking and went straight through and it was barely a bog at all. By that I mean, I got wet to my calves but no higher, and I kept my shoes to myself.
The shoes were a conversation starter too because as I went over a stile somewhere or other someone behind said, “are those the Graphene Mudclaws?” and we struck up a conversation and stayed talking more or less for the rest of the route, finishing together. Nice to meet you Nick.
I had a couple of weak moments where I looked at how many miles had gone by and how many miles there were to go. At one point Nick tried the “there’s only a park run to go” and I responded as I usually do to this, with, “but I don’t want to do a park run.” I passed a family of walkers, with youngsters, and tried to distract myself by asking the sister and then the brother whether they were going to be fell runners. The sister said nothing and ran up to her brother for sanctuary. The brother said, “no.”
Another example of my conversational skills: I am very grateful to marshals who stand out in all weathers, and I too have marshalled in all weathers. I try to convey my compassion by saying, “I hope you’re warm enough.” For the first time, when I reached this man on top of his knoll, the conversation went like this:
Me: I hope you’re warm enough.
Him: No, I’m not.
*Runner pauses, desperately thinks what to say to make things better*
Me: There’s not a lot I can do about that. Sorry.
*Runner runs off, perfectly warm.*
The weather: the forecast had been for 10 degrees, not too much wind. But this was the proper tops. At registration, the air was biting, and FRB, as hardy as they come, was questioning his choice of bringing only a vest. I ran in a vest and long-sleeves and I was fine. Afterwards he said he was fine too, but he has more body hair than I do.
Something odd happened in the last few miles: I got better. I overtook people, including Aileen (this rarely happens). And I still felt good, and my legs still moved by themselves.
The final mile is particular. You run along a beck, along a conduit, and then reach the Stairs of Hell. I hadn’t had to climb these last year because I’d got lost way before then. And in 2017 it was pouring so hard all the way round, the stairs were a relief from the weather, no matter how steep they were. (They’re actually steps not stairs but by the time you are halfway up you won’t be thinking about vocabulary except the swearing kind.) They are definitely steep, but they passed soon enough. And I knew that what was to come would feel harder even though it wasn’t, because there were two fields to get up on exhausted legs, before the finish field. Heavy legs and grass: it’s funny how many race organisers end their races with that sapping combination. But the inexplicable strength continued, and I ran where before I would have walked, and then there we were at the finish field, and I’d had such a nice time that I didn’t even mind seeing all the dozens and dozens of people quicker than me who were already strolling back to their cars. But I put on as best a downhill sprint as I could, and encouraged Nick to do the same. Later, some friends said, “we were urging you to beat that man you were running behind”. But I didn’t need to: because he’d been very good company, and because he had arrived too late to register so he was running as a ghost and it didn’t matter whether I beat him or not.
I got to the finish, my lucky 13 was cut off me, there was Neil looking fresh though chilly (he’d finished with a superb 15-minute PB in 2 hours 35 minutes so he’d been there long enough to be on his third flapjack). I didn’t know what time I’d done until later, but when I did I nearly fell over although I was sitting down. 3 hours and ten minutes. That is, 24 minutes quicker than I’d done in 2017.
My fellow Run Braver Louise had got a PB of 25 minutes, and Izzy had had a storming run on her first attempt. The moral is: structured run coaching is very good for you.
I don’t think I ran faster. I think I ran more. Everything that was runnable, I ran. I ran more of the inclines where before I would have walked. I remembered to think about my form and technique and when I did remember, to make adjustments to make things easier: to remember to move my arms when I’m tired, to lift my knees when my legs are knackered, to hold myself high on hills and use shorter strides.
It worked. I had a wonderful time. It is a fabulous race route with beautiful scenery, and afterwards they give you flapjack and more food. I’m very proud of myself and conclude that I should now only run races that are blessed by vicars. See, coach, I do have tactics, of sorts.
Having done numerous mountain marathons and a lot of night running, when I was asked if I wanted to join my MM buddy Toby on this adventure I thought it seemed a great opportunity to combine the two. The fact that I hadn’t done any long distance stuff for over a year and would have only four months to prepare for it didn’t seem a problem at the time. The problem is four months goes very quickly and I definitely hadn’t covered enough miles or hills but hey ho let’s give it a go.
There are various routes, Linear where you follow a fixed series of checkpoints (46k 38k, 34k and 28k) and Open Score over 8,10 or 12 hours where you choose which check points you visit where the aim is collecting points. We were doing the Short Open Score at 8 hours. Registration started at 5pm, our start time was 10:24pm so we didn’t arrive til nearly 8pm by which time the elites and Long Score (12 hour ) had already set off. As we arrived, it started raining!
The registration tent was filled with lots of runners clad in a wide range of very technical gear, all of it designed to cope with some very serious weather. We were clearly in for a treat! We all had to carry full kit — including tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, spare clothes, cooker, pot — so rucksacks all looked pretty full. The weather forecast was for more rain (snow on the tops) which would clear up at around 2am with plummeting temperatures and rising winds. This was pretty accurate as it turned out.
Tea was provided and consumed then we got ourselves ready and presented ourselves to registration and kit check. This done, it was a matter of waiting for the off. We met Cat and Alison, who doing the C course, who arrived later as their start time was about 10.45pm.
At the appointed time we dibbed at the start, collected our maps and set off. The aim on an Open Score is to have an idea of how the whole round will look from the start. You have to have an eye on getting back in time but be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities you find on the way. Coming in late costs points, and if you are more than 30 minutes late you generally lose them all so planning a fast route back picking up easy checkpoints happens at the start.
Nav in the dark is all a matter of practice, good map reading and trusting your compass. We found only on our third checkpoint that depressions lined with gorse make quite good positions, not necessarily to ‘hide’ a control but to make it difficult to see unless you are almost on top of it so our route trace is a bit circular at this point. From then on it was pretty good and bar one, easy enough to find all the controls we visited. It was all about pace and running where we could and choosing the routes with least climbing and most running. Unfortunately hills are part of the event and unavoidable. The rain stopped for longer and longer periods. Our waterproofs did as much to keep the sweat in as keep the rain out so we were just as wet and began to get cold in the increasing exposure as we climbed.
I found at about 2:30am I was beginning to flag. This was now into overtime as far as my training had gone. I tried to eat but found it increasingly difficult. A half pork pie from Toby and drinks from steams helped but I was getting slower. Going up steep hills became a serious effort. The top of Loadpot hill in snow and high winds is not the place to decide you’ve had enough and want a rest. The water in our water bottles was freezing even with electrolyte tabs in so we had no choice but to press on. Toby was very accommodating and did most of the navigating from this point with a few comments and suggestions from me. However a handful of jelly babies, water and a caffeine tablet boosted me and being on familiar ground made it easier. We sped up and picked up several more checkpoints finishing much more strongly than might have been anticipated 3 hours earlier. The skies had cleared, the stars were sharp and the moon bright but waning. It turned out that 5am was a wonderful time to be out in the hills.
Tired but satisfied. We had tried our best given my lack of preparation, and we came in with 13 minutes to spare, with 380 points and having covered 21-22 miles. We ended up winning the Vet competition and coming 4th overall. We bypassed one checkpoint by about 100m but Toby thought that more climbing probably wasn’t the best for me at the time we pushed on downhill. Had we got that we would have come 2nd. The winners though were much further ahead and we wouldn’t have caught them. Fourth is a good place and winning the Vets was great.
Then: breakfast, a damp kip in the car for an hour, prize-giving and the long drive home to a hot bath and the blessings of sleep! As for Cat and Allison, we didn’t see them at the end. We later discovered that half way round Allison had a simple fall but managed to dislocate her patella and rupture her tendon and had to be rescued by the events team. Cat spent the morning in hospital with her where they are likely to operate tomorrow. [Update: surgery went well]. Well done to Cat for her first aid and helping rescue Alison and we all hope that Alison makes a speedy recovery. This is a great event and well organised and if anyone is up for some adventure I would heartily recommend this.
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.
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.
I’ve had a pretty good year so far. I planned to train for, and then run a proper Lakes AL. From January to June I put the hours and miles in, culminating with the Ennerdale fell race at the start of June. My little training chart — compiled by a mystical computer algorithm — had a lovely upward trending squiggle. And I do love a bit of data-based reassurance. I was running well and completed my goal (albeit with a performance slightly dampened by a cold) so I promptly took a few weeks off.
My little squiggle took a downward turn, but with my desires sated, that wasn’t a concern. Training and rest must be balanced carefully if you want the scales of performance to tip in your favour, after all. But then Kentmere Horseshoe appeared on the horizon. It had been my first Lakes race the previous year and I was keen to see if I’d actually improved since then. It’s a cracking race; long and steep enough to put you to work, but not so serious as to scare you off.
A work stint in Carlisle gave me the perfect base for a bit of fitness rebuilding. I managed to make some quick hits on Scafell, Skiddaw, the Buttermere Sailbeck, and Striding Edge, to name a few, and my squiggle ascended accordingly. I was primed for Kentmere. The race brought some testing conditions, which resulted in countless route variations (or detours, depending on who you ask) but it was a fantastic day nonetheless. Placing further up the field than before, I was happy with my improvements and started to plan out the rest of the summer’s races.
I returned to my local training ground — the Otley Chevin — with great fervour, stomping up the track with great intention. Cresting the top of the climb with a newfound momentum, and pulling round the corner, my foot somehow didn’t quite land underneath me and with an horrific crunch I stumbled to the floor in a pile of curses and pain. The summer’s racing plan almost visibly evaporated before me.
A dog walker enquired if I needed assistance but I declined, either from denial or embarrassment, I’m still not sure which. I hobbled back down the track to the car. Surely it can’t be so bad if I can walk on it?
Once again the squiggle tumbles, this time for two months. Eight weeks of holidays, stag dos and weddings later, I’ve ridden that downward squiggle like a party rollercoaster. Kilograms gained, fitness lost. I might as well take up tiddlywinks.
And then up pops a little message from Dom.
“Can you run in the Fell Relays?”
Which brings me to the bit I actually meant to write about: The British Fell Relay Championships. They are organised by Ambleside AC and held in Grasmere, and NLFR fielded four teams, no mean feat for a small club. Shrouded in darkness, we piled onto the bus on a dreary Saturday morning. I was to be running the first leg, a hearty five mile romp with 2400ft of climb. I avoided looking at the route in advance, choosing to remain in blissful ignorance; I knew it was going to hurt and that was sufficient. Either good fortune or foresight had me on a fully flagged route, something I was definitely happy about upon our arrival at a very claggy Grasmere.
The marquee was absolutely buzzing with teams from all around the country getting down to their pre-race rituals. Reassuringly, everyone seemed to be juggling dibbers, numbers and maps, with expressions of less than total comprehension. This is the cottage sport of fell running not the Olympics, after all.
Soon enough the time rolls round to switch into race gear. I do the classic awkward shuffle into my shorts and vest, trying to use my hoody to shield my sliver of dignity. I head for a quick trot up the hill to get some blood back into my legs. They feel as rubbish as you’d expect after a few hours on a coach. It was a bit of a shock. Even walking the hill felt pretty hard going, and it’s only about 200m from the start. Not the greatest omen, but with the swirling fog and tense atmosphere, today wasn’t a day to let superstitious thoughts get the better of me. I trundled back down to the start with 20 minutes to go, launch prep commenced final ablutions, a quick scoosh of caffeine-charged energy gel, a swill of water, a kiss to my partner, and a saunter to the pen. The sight of a familiar face – Bill from Chorley – helped break the tension. We laughed at the ridiculousness of our nerves; it’s only a run up a hill anyway. I make the slight error of not jostling my way to the front, but before I had time to adjust position, we were off!
Races always set off fast, and so should you [really? —ed]. I don’t. Well, not fast enough anyway. The first steep climb was as unpleasant as expected but it turned into a speedy bit of track soon enough and the pace shot off. It felt great to be smashing along the winding path as it slowly gained in incline. Steady and fast for just over a mile, and I felt a touch regretful for not pushing harder for position at the start, now locked into the locomotion of runners snaking their way up the path, pace dictated by your allotment in line. This is what cross-country must feel like. The path steepened again, my heart was pounding and lungs pumping, but a cursory glance at my watch told me there was less than a mile to go. A mile to the top of the climb that is, the only marker that matters for a gravity-burdened plodder like myself.
Checkpoint one at Grisedale Hause passed, dibber sweatily fumbled into the reader, and steeply up to Sandal Seat we went. Now we were less than half a mile from the summit, but the angle and terrain were unquestionably fell rather than cross country now, my hands pumping down on my thighs (if I’ve got to lug these bloody arms up with me I might as well use them), sweat pouring from my face even in the cold, claggy air. The summit was crested with another clumsy thrust of my dibber into its target, and the sweet relief of a downward trajectory began.
The grass was slick in the wet, and the lack of pronounced tread on my shoes promptly makd this clear, traction being variable at best. Either way, I’m definitely a downer rather than an upper, so I threw myself into the descent with the regular reckless abandon. Arms wind-milling, I kicked my legs into long strides, as if I was trying to launch a football the full length of a pitch. I interspersed the long leaps with the occasional tap left or right, trying to keep the unwieldy vessel on its winding course. Questionable as the technique appears to be, I kept passing runners, so I continued, my body shaking and praying that my legs weren’t about to crumble. Even a minuscule miscalculation would send me Klinsmanning down the fell. That was brought clearly into focus when I passed a downed runner, head bandaged, surrounded by co-competitors who had come to his aid.
We rambled through the final checkpoint, and the surrounding runners and I all audibly groaned as we realised there was still some uphill left. Climbs — no matter how insignificant — always seem an order of magnitude worse when they’re near the end (a pertinent issue with The Tour of Pendle approaching). But with some heart-pounding stomps, we were up and over and on our way back along the fast track. The final steep descent, the same one that caused such concern at the start — continued to deliver, as I completely lost all grip, engaging in a full bum slide manoeuvre. Definitely not the Olympics. Still, back on my feet, and a final romp back through the starting field. Arms flailing as I dived into the pen, passing the invisible baton to my 2nd leg team-mates.
In my anoxic state, I clambered through the barrier, completely disorientated, and totally oblivious to the finishing pen and mandatory kit check to my left. It seems reasonable proof that I was trying hard at least, or that I’m an idiot, both plausible options. Redirected by the marshal, like a bouncer gently guiding an intoxicated patron, I emptied the contents of my race vest and thus validated my stint, with all the correct accessories, and we were done.
Back in warm and dry clothes, gleefully tucking into a polystyrene box full of chicken, rice and peas, I was very cheery man.
Over the day, the runners from the remaining legs returned, some jubilant, others glad to be passing the baton, sharing stories of the day’s trials and tribulations. A fantastic achievement by all, on a course with no easy legs, and conditions to match.
Apparently we have experienced the best summer since 1976, which is quite nice for the Brits. I have spent about 60% of this summer in Vienna, which has had pretty much the same heat, but the locals are used to it. Either way, I have not seen rain like this for quite some time. Skiddaw was dry as a bone only four weeks ago. At 7am on Sunday in Leeds it’s biblically wet. My first thought—though actually I say it out loud— is “I can’t be doing a fell race in this!”
I set off to Kentmere accompanied by some podcast friends Adam Buxton and Richard Herring (I’ve been on a bit of a marathon with these podcasts recently) so the drive goes by in no time and I’m soon pulling into the start field. I hope they have a tractor on stand-by, it’s still raining.
“I can’t be doing a fell race in this” I said out loud again.
Still, I’m here now, and I’m excited. I see a few familiar faces, Andrew from NLFR and a small group of Hyde Park women.
The time last year it was a heatwave, I was doing a poo 2 minutes before the start and had forgotten to change into my fell shoes. I was determined not to run 12 miles in trainers this year, or be caught short. Just before the start I knelt down to tighten my laces to see hundreds of pairs of suitable shoes manufactured by the same brand: it clearly has a stranglehold in the UK more than in Europe.
If you think this race report is unceremonious it’s nothing compared to the start of this race. I always like to giggle about fell race starts. No major announcements, no inspirational talk. Just a bloke with a whistle. Actually I don’t think he even had a whistle. Although on this occasion I can’t blame them for getting it over with quickly, it’s pissing it down. A quick “get back to the line” [Eed: had they hired Dave Woodentops?] and we were off. The weather was so comprehensively British, and something a lot of us might have not experienced for what felt like six months.
A few kilometres in we are all snaking up the climb and one by one runners are peeling off their waterproof jackets: everyone would rather be wet than hot. (It’s 17ºC). My phone is recording my time on Strava and it’s in my Salomon battle vest 2000, unprotected, but I take a risk anyway, performing the tangled ritual of stuffing my waterproof into a back pocket whilst hiking up the hill.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so used to running in the heat, and I don’t think I have done a less than desirable weather run for around 5 months. I love this weather and I have a birthday-like grin on my face, “Fuck the Alps” becomes my mantra. You cannot beat the Lakes!
I catch up with fellow NLFR Andrew. We’ve been running about 40 minutes and at one point soon after the first checkpoint pretty much everyone around me comes to a sudden stop. It’s a traffic jam of runners looking at maps. This is caused by infectious doubt, as the trail seemed quite simple, but one person’s hesitation seems to be giving everyone second thoughts. This happened a few times. Just before the second checkpoint we are suddenly heading face first into a hailstorm. I felt like I was being stabbed in the face by ants and at one point the wind caused me to collide with another runner. It was the strongest wind I have ever experienced in my life, and I forgot my goggles so it was quite difficult on the descent.
Soon after the final checkpoint we get another issue with navigation. I’ll be honest here, I had no idea where I was and I couldn’t remember anything from last year. I see runners going off in different directions and make a quick judgment on who looks like they know what they are doing. So I followed three guys down a steep slope and I was followed in turn by a train of runners, so I guess this tactic is employed by many. At this time with all the hail and wind I just wanted to get down, so I figured even if it meant arriving in a different village and having to navigate back to Kentmere I’d be fine with that, we had passed the last checkpoint anyway right? Luckily we arrived at a stile I somehow remembered from the year before so I knew we’d only overshot the path a bit and hadn’t lost too much time. I use the stile to tighten up my laces as I had rolled my ankle at least six times. This takes time as the laces are quite tough to untie when you can’t feel your fingers. In this time the train of runners has not only caught up with me but has disappeared over the stile and into the fog. I’m alone.
This is one of the sections I remember the most from last year, a pretty fast and fun descent, and I’m glad I tied my laces up for it. One thing I have learned about fell running is that sometimes the least slippery part is the wettest part. So I’m pretty much descending puddles in a waterfall until I’m out of the cloudline and I can see the bottom. I can also see a pack of runners, some coming from a completely different direction, so I kick it up a gear. This time last year in the heat I was completely ruined, but this year I am fitter and the conditions are much better. There’s no chance of me getting dehydrated today.
I get overtaken by a chap who clearly thinks by his pace that he’s closer to the end than he really is. I tell him, “There’s still quite a way to go.” It’s a legitimate warning, but maybe also a bit of subconscious psychological warfare because I am a terrible human being. Then I get overtaken by a man in road shoes. No comment.
There is a fantastic end to a dramatic race. It’s nice to see so many runners still quite close together. The weather dictates the finish to be as unpretentious as the start. Soon I’m back in the car, changed and dry with Adam & Richard on my way back to Leeds. I beat last year’s time somehow by over 20 minutes, hopefully because I’m fitter and not because I accidentally cut half the course off or had the right shoes on. I guess next year’s time will help answer that question.
And if anyone isn’t familiar with the Courtyard Dairy on the A65 between Clapham and Giggleswick it’s definitely worth a visit. They get lots of runners through their doors and seemed less impressed by my day out than I expected. Maybe something to do with their recent influx of Lakeland 100 visitors?
I feel a week or so is a reasonable time to let the dust settle and try to get my thoughts down about Ennerdale. The good: I trained properly, or I did the training I had planned to do: 30 miles and 7500 ft ascent a week for a good few weeks before the race. I recce’d the whole thing as I’d planned. I got round the course. The weather was OK. A week before, I was probably in the best shape I could have hoped to be in. The less good (excuses?): I had a stag do the weekend before and promptly picked up a cold. I felt pretty shit the week running up to the race. I should have taken the extra 500ml water I was considering taking.
So, the actual race. Arrive at the start with plenty time for registration. Feel good and relaxed (if a little concerned about the cold). Race starts with a mile or so on flat track, I have a reasonable pace of 8 minute miles and I can feel this doesn’t feel as easy as it should. The steep climb to CP1 at Great Borne is similar: OK but not straightforward. But it’s the first big climb. “You’ll settle in,” I tell myself. “Stay comfortable” is the mantra repeating itself in my mind. Next on the list is Red Pike. The path rides up into the clag, and I’m very much hoping I’m not going to get lost or spend the day staring at a map and compass. But there are always people to follow and I do know the route (to an extent). Regardless, the terrain is very runnable until the loose rock nearer the summit, but again, despite my very comfortable pace, I feel a little bit strained. “Stay comfortable” becomes “stay comfortable and slow down a bit just in case”. Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag all go by reasonably well and I get to enjoy the rockier sections where I’m a bit faster generally.
Now to error number one. I’d planned to keep to the simplest navigational line to make life easier but I hadn’t realised that the route follows the fence ROUND Haystacks, rather than the path OVER Haystacks. F*ck it, keep it simple, the damage is done. At this point I’m about 7-8 miles in, and I feel bollocksed. The same way I felt at mile 17 on my recce. And from here on in, the day become long. I don’t really have any will for pace other than maintaining a trundle. There’s just no horsepower, I’m not running on fumes but I’m definitely in a speed restricted vehicle. Anyway, onto Blackbeck Tarn where you can refill your water bottles. I take one look at the rather stagnant tarn and decide against it. I’m not sure exactly, but I think I’m about 20 mins ahead of cutoff at this point and vaguely concerned about it. The waddle up to Green Gable begins. What should be runnable is trundled up. They have some cups of water at the CP which I am very grateful for. I’ve gained about 10-15 minutes on the cut-off time here which is a good morale booster. I’m feeling pretty broken. I’ve mostly been running on my own and the internal mental dialogue has been one of doom and gloom, my body echoing the sentiment. But a simple “you’re doing great” from the CP marshal genuinely gets me back on track. Great Gable in front of us looms grey and sinister, its vertical walls of rock disappearing into the clouds. I feel glad to be sneaking below it rather than over it. The loose rocky descent is hard on my body, I feel it in my core and my legs aren’t over the moon either. The lad in front running with poles seems less daft now he can descend with support. He spots a small stream and I follow, not enough flow to fill a bottle but worth a good few gulps. The refreshment feels good but Kirk Fell looms. Another slog, but at least I’m going as fast as everyone around me (i.e., slowly). At the Kirk Fell CP I’ve gained plenty time on the cut-off and I’m no longer worried about timing out. A small relief. The funny thing is that even if you’d want to quit (which a large part of me does), you’re still just as far from the start anyway. The descent from Kirk Fell takes a very loose gully that has taken an absolute pounding due to its featuring on the Bob Graham route. An alternative route is suggested but no one wants to route-find at this stage, so we precariously wind down the steep, loose gully. Again, I can feel myself going slower than hoped, the impact of descent more punishing than usual. If I was bollocksed before, I’m beyond it now. My legs hurt. They properly hurt: they are throbbing and aching but there’s too long left to go to bother thinking about it. On we go. There’s only one direction home anyway. But, a stroke of luck – a familiar face catches me up on the way up to Pillar – the last big climb of the route. Being able to chat rather than being stuck with your own thoughts makes a massive difference. Something I confess and we laugh about. Suffering together seems a lot more fun than suffering alone. The climb up to Pillar is long, and slow. I was quite happy that despite my slowness, I did manage to keep a consistent pace. Slow AND inefficient was something I didn’t have the capacity for.
Importantly though, once you’re over Pillar, you’re on a downward trend until the finish. Six or 7 miles of grinding it out. However, I miss a contour at Scoat Fell, falling behind my companions and the solo trudge home is set. From here, there isn’t much to mention. The terrain is straightforward, the navigation simple (you follow a wall for miles), a bit of a climb to Haycock, over to Caw Fell, dip down, then up to Iron Crag, and along to the final climb that is Crag Fell. What is straightforward by description is actually a tortuously long slog but there’s little satisfaction in writing or reading about it. Alas, the final climb: Crag Fell, which wouldn’t get a mention if it was anywhere else on the route, but at this point it definitely feels significant. A guy in his 60s catches me up and offers me the last of his water. He says he’s been watching me wilt over the last few miles and he’s not mistaken. It’s a token gesture as we’re over the worst of it, and about half a mile from a flowing stream. I’m not turning it down either way. He passes me and I manage to maintain a run on the windy path through the trees, and onto the track leading to the finish. I’m amused to see a group of friends have turned up to cheer me in, with a sign and everything. Finish line. Done. Definitely, definitely done.
I don’t much go for gushing tales of hardship or suffering, but I do feel that it’s hard to convey how unpleasant the race was. I got it done, that’s all that matters I guess. Numbers: Ennerdale, 23 miles, 7500ft ascent, Time: 6:45, 105/135. I was 15 minutes quicker than my recce (even though I spent an hour not moving on said recce), so I’m not overjoyed at my time, but I’m also very happy to have completed the race, despite not feeling 100%. It’s frustrating to train properly and then to fall off, just as race day arrives, but thems the breaks. Two days before the race at Ennerdale, I marshalled at the Kettlewell Anniversary Fell Race, a race which was my first ever fell race the year before. So while the result was a touch disappointing, going from a 5 mile, 1500ft race, to a 23 mile, 7500ft race, in a year, definitely seems like good progress.
“Do you fancy doing weets?”
“Do I fancy doing what?”
“It’s a race. Called Weets. A bit like a mini Tour of Pendle.”
Ah. That clinched it. Although I know this is perverse, I’m very fond of Tour of Pendle, maybe because I got a 25 minute minute PB on it last year on my birthday, or because I feel like a steely adventurer, Ernest Shackleton-like, when I remember the year before when I ran much of it through a snow blizzard. Even so, Weets should not have been an option: an hour’s drive to run just over five miles slightly skews the miles-effort scale that I usually operate under. (High Cup Nick is the one race that is immune to this scale.) So, up early on Saturday morning and over to The Other Side where the clubs are called Trawden and Barlick and have French in their names (Clayton-le-Moors) and they talk different. The weather forecast predicted heat, but I was chilly in the car and the sky looked overcast, so I was fooled. I didn’t apply suncream and I set off wearing a buff. Idiot. The race HQ was a small marquee in Letcliffe Park outside Barnoldswick (which I’ve only lately realised is where Barlick gets its name and that Barlick isn’t a place. To this, Jenny rightly said later, “there are some things you don’t admit to.”) The park is hidden off Manchester Road so that even when your sat nav tells you you’re there, you think you aren’t. Only the sight off to the right of juniors running up and down a hill made me realise I was in the right vicinity, and a phone call to already arrived folk got me into the ample car parking on the field in the park, which I’d never otherwise have found. See, navigation is always a necessary fell running skill.
£5 entry, which is just acceptable on the other well-known metric of fell-running, the Wallace-Buckley scale, a joint Scottish-Yorkshire effort devised by Jill Buckley and Neil Wallace, that dictates that no race should cost more than a pound per mile. This has the handy effect of ruling out most road races, so is very useful. There were more people there than I’d expected, but maybe everyone else was fond of Tour of Pendle too.
Up we go to the tarmac lane where the start is, and there is some milling. The NLFR team consisted of me and Jenny, so we had a collegiate photo with Neil, Karen and Gary from P&B where our vest sashes managed to almost perfectly reflect the race profile. (This might actually shut up the P&B comments about “your sash is going the wrong way” though probably not.)
Then from me, some dynamic stretching, also known as reminding my glutes they have work to do and not to leave everything to the hamstrings. I’ve just been diagnosed with hamstring tendinopathy, but this diagnosis, from the excellent Coach House Physio in Leeds, included the magic words:
So I did. Eck though it was hot. Muggy but powerful heat. The buff came off straight away and I was thankful that I had conformed to my usual policy of always running with water even when hardly anyone else did. Up we go, up the tarmac road, and I felt sluggish and heavy but kept going. (I’m a cold weather runner.) Lots of Barlick supporters, so many that I began to think my name was Nicola, as it was constantly shouted in my direction. (She was just behind me.) Up and up to the trig point on Weets Hill, where I was surprised to see runners coming back down, and they all seemed to be aged about 11. I cheered them on, of course, as they seemed to be winning the race, then later found out that a juniors’ race had set off with us but was just going to the trig and back. So they weren’t actually winning our race but theirs. But still, well done.
After the trig, a lovely descent, whoosh, which was so good I forgot that we’d be going up again. I’d checked the race profile and knew that there were four climbs and that we’d only done two. Still, whoosh. The next climb was definitely the mini-Pendle one. I’d drunk plenty by that point but still felt a bit drained, and even more so when I looked up and saw a hill with no end. So I did my usual technique of counting. I have an entente cordiale method of getting up hills: if they are really huge (Whernside, Clough Head), I count in French. Backwards. Having a tired brain figure out the right order for deux cents quatre vingts dix neuf gets you up about thirty feet. I can get up Whernside in 300 in French, but Clough Head was about quatre cents. For smaller hills I use English. One to ten, for as many times as it takes. It passes the time, your brain is distracted enough not to think of all the climb you haven’t yet done, and you keep moving.
There was another fine descent down a familiar grassy field (the route is an out and back with a loop, so classic lollipop), where I ran past a fellow, while exclaiming, “I like this bit!”. I took this out of the fell running handbook, chapter, Stating The Bleeding Obvious. Then up a tarmac lane, back over the fields, a bit of moorland trod running where I could feel blokes breathing closely behind me, but they didn’t ask to pass so I didn’t offer. I hadn’t recognised Eileen Woodhead on the way out as she had a big floppy hat on, but it’s hard to miss Dave as he usually yells something at me. On the way out it was “ROSE I DIDN’T RECOGNISE YOU WITH YOUR NEW VEST ON” (“new” meaning about a year old). On the way back it was “DON’T LET THOSE TRAWDEN LADS GET YOU.” I tried not to, putting on a sprint down the lane to the finish that impressed me and probably shocked my muscles into remembering when I used to be a sprinter 35 years ago.
One of the lads did pass me and the other one didn’t. I managed to put the brakes on in time, and there was the usual splendid fell running habit of people you finish around saying well done and you saying well done back. I deviated slightly from this by telling the Trawden “lad” (actually a six-foot 40ish fully grown man) not to tell Dave he’d beaten me. Then I downed several cups of squash and we went to a pub and I ate a veggie burger that was bigger than me and all was well.