Tag: race report (Page 1 of 3)

Runners and Riders

4.9 miles, 890ft

Most fell races start mid-morning, which makes organising your pre-race routine pretty straightforward: get up – have breakfast – get stuff together – travel – register – warm up – race. An early afternoon start is a bit trickier. Enjoy a long lie in? Late breakfast?/mid-morning snack?/early lunch? Do something else with the morning first?

Last Sunday’s race, Runners + Riders, started at 2pm. Waking early, I decided to get out and about rather than sit around at home, there’s already quite enough of that at this time of year. Conditions outside looked unpromising, so I packed two extra sets of clothes along with everything else (this proved to be a good decision). With the race being in Appletreewick I thought it would be a chance to have a poke around the old lead mines above Grassington, which I’d read about but not previously visited. I imagined this would be as much about exploring as covering distance so I wasn’t going to expend too much energy before the race.

I’ve never much liked Grassington – too twee and busy – but driving up onto the moor beyond you enter a very different world. I parked the car at the end of the road at Yarnbury and immediately came across the remains of an old mine, the various abandoned debris adding to the general sense of desolation of the open moor. I started loosely following a marked trail that takes you around various holes, derelict buildings and spoil heaps, in the general direction of a chimney on the skyline, which would have been more prominent if it hadn’t been for the sluicing rain and swirling mist. Arriving at the considerable remains of an old smelting mill I came across the most impressive feature, a half-mile long flue – straight as an arrow to the distant chimney – which once took all the smoke and fumes away from the mill. With the whole moor pockmarked with dubious-looking shafts and other hazards I didn’t explore too closely, but it was OK to duck under the base of the chimney, scramble in and look all the way up. At least it got me out of the by-now howling wind for a moment.

With conditions rapidly deteriorating all thoughts now turned to getting back to the relative shelter of the car. Despite having been out for under an hour I was soaked. With still four hours to go until the race I had plenty of time to effect drying out, as well as to linger over an unbeatable £3.50 piping-hot sausage sandwich and coffee offer at the Threshfield Spar. Mid-morning snack it turned out to be. It also gave me the chance to get to Appletreewick nice and early and secure a vital parking space on hard-standing (yes we did help push someone out of the mud later on). Having registered in the barn, the final stage of the drying-out procedure was completed on a faded sofa in front of a roaring log fire, taking in several draughts of healthy wood smoke.

Soon four other members of the NLFR gang arrived – Jonny, Josh, Nick and Harry – and before long we were lining up in the field ready to start (spot 4 of us in the photo below):

Photo by Andy Holden

The race is a joint affair for both runners and cyclists, on a course 4.9 miles long with 890ft of ascent, carefully designed to give all an equal chance. In that respect, much of it is relatively flat for a fell race, although you do get two proper climbs in, one about three-quarters of the way round, the other right at the start. This certainly helps spread the field out quickly:

Photo by Olga Wood

With 170 runners and 30 cyclists, there was plenty of space for everyone. Not like Bingley Harriers’ Harriers v Cyclists in November, where the ratio is more like 50-50 on a tighter course, so the risk of being cut up by the cyclists is much more part of the “fun”. Good hearing and peripheral vision helps!

Apart from those two climbs this was a pretty speedy race, particularly at the end as you zig-zag down the final field to the finish, with the cyclists whizzing past. In the end 168 ran, 31 cycled and 1 e-cycled, thus 200 in total.

NLFR results:

5th: Harry Kingston: 34:09

27th: Dave Middlemas: 38:27

29th: Jonny Coney: 38:41

43th: Josh Day: 41:13

73th: Nick Flower: 44:49

Full results here.

But these are mere numbers, the highlight was yet to come. This race makes me about as happy to part with £10 as is possible, because that gives you the race, a donation to three local charities (including Mountain Rescue), the sofas and the fire, and as much post-race cake, sandwich and hot caffeinated beverages as can be reasonably consumed. Below a picture of a fraction of the spread from a previous year, I was too busy stuffing my face to get the camera out this time.

Many thanks as always to Ted Mason, Wharfedale Harriers and Appletreewick village for organising and hosting this event, a mid-winter classic

These are not just fell runners, these are North Leeds fell runners

Dave Middlemas

The Ben. A race like no other.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to run up Britain’s highest mountain? To ascend effortlessly into the clouds then glide back down, soaring on a wave of support and euphoria? If so, stop reading this and go listen to Finlay Wild’s podcast. He won it again this year, for the 12th time in a row.

For us mere mortals, however, the Ben Nevis race is one of the classic fell races of the year (or hill races, as they’re called north of the border). Simple in its conception, merciless in its execution, the race is a (roughly) 2-hour slog: go up 4,400ft. to the top, go back down 4,400ft. the same way. Easy, right?

I’d not really considered doing the race before and had heard it was hard to get a place, but I’ve Will Hall to thank for both. Back in March this year he rang me urgently, demanding to know which category A races I’d done. I was skiing so didn’t answer the phone. Fortunately, our race captain Johnny did, and provided the info on my behalf (thanks Johnny, you do look after me). Next time I checked my phone, a rather surprising email was waiting, informing me that “your entry to the Ben Nevis race pre-selection has been received.” A few weeks later I got the email I’d been simultaneously awaiting and dreading – “your entry to the Ben Nevis race 2023 is confirmed”. It’s been on the calendar since, written simply as two ominous words. 

“The Ben.”

Naturally, I promptly forgot all about it, lost in the business of house buying, holidays and general work and life grind. It was only when trying to sort a completion date, and flicking over to September, that I saw the two words again. I messaged my brother for training tips. “Just get as much climb in as you can” was his advice, so I went out and did some reps of the Meanwood ridge for good measure. Needless to say, with race day approaching, I was feeling a little unprepared. Two days before the race though, just getting there looked unlikely. A positive COVID test from Will’s girlfriend and upcoming train strikes had combined to thwart my travel arrangements. But on Friday morning, the day before the race, there was good news: a negative test from Maddie, and some unlikely few trains running from York to Edinburgh. I drove over (no trains were running from Leeds to York), winced as I paid for weekend parking, and got on the train up North. The Ben was back on.

Will and I left Edinburgh Saturday morning in his van, making good time up the A82, through stunning Glencoe, and I felt that familiar crackle of pure excitement that arriving in the Highlands gives me. We arrived in Fort William at around 11:30, a full 2 and a half hours before the start, the earliest I’ve ever been! Fortunately, I was with Yorkshire’s chattiest man and around the registration area, we stopped every two minutes to chat with someone else that Will knew (runners from clubs, friends from school, a man he’d met earlier in a toilet in Tyndrum). Meanwhile, I spied a familiar face and svelte frame pinning a number to a yellow and green vest. Yes rather sneakily my brother Tom ‑- now living in Scotland and managing the Ratagan youth hostel but still running for Keswick AC — had also entered. Mum and Dad had even promised to come and watch too, although neither Tom nor I would be the first Day to run it: Uncle Richard had run a blistering 1:44 back in ‘87, and followed it up by running the races in 88, 89 & 90 (it seems he’d stopped after Tom was born).

Wait, isn’t Will a Bogtrotter now? oh aye, there he is in the wrong vest.

Registration included a generous haul, comprising a t-shirt, programme, small bottle of whisky and a voucher for a free post-run massage. It also contained a wristband – to be handed in at the top of the Ben – and a red card, to allow access into the starters’ paddock. It all seemed a little convoluted, but I can only assume some previous skullduggery had necessitated it.

At 2pm sharp, we were marched around the football pitch by the local pipers, then with the bang of the starter’s gun we were off, out on the [98th] Ben Nevis Hill Race. We left the football field and turned on to the road, which was having the desired effect of thinning us out before the climb began in earnest. Up ahead Finlay Wild was already well ahead and heading further out of sight. I glimpsed the yellow and green of Tom up in the lead pack and settled into my own race. It was hot. I began rueing the measly 300ml of water I had taken in my bumbag. A group of lads sitting on the grass beside the road had it right, cheering on with beers and cider. It was – as they say up here – “Taps aff” weather.

Off the road, we turned up onto the steps to begin contouring around the side of Meall an t-Suidhe. At seemingly random points, various runners dove into the braken, up trods and shortcuts to cut off the zig-zags. Crossing a small wooden bridge, we joined the main path from the youth hostel and began the long series of flagstone steps. Somehow, I managed to fall going up these, my Mudclaws slipping on the smooth rock, to a wry comment of “Steady on, save all that for the way back” from a watching spectator. The course has been changed this year, so that runners are not allowed to cut across adjacent to the Red Burn, and instead must continue on a long out and back up the path to the Lochan, then staying on until crossing the burn again. Only then can runners start hacking straight up. I did as told and followed the path, dipped my cap in the burn as I crossed it to cool my hot head, then turned upwards onto the scree.

Pic by Lorne McFarlane (and paid for)

Off the path, I picked my way straight up, with Tom Stapelton of Wharfedale, and an Ilkley Harriers runner beside me, a Yorkshire-based trio among the mass of white and blue local Lochaber runners. “Go on North Leeds!” I heard to my right. “Oh, hello Zoe!” I replied, seeing former black and blue Zoe Barber up above, out in support of her Glasgow-based club Shettleston Harriers. Her boyfriend was up above, battling out for an impressive 3rd, but she was kind enough to remark to me “you’re looking strong!”. I actually felt it too and began pressing on a bit, sticking to the larger rocks where grip was better, rather than the scree path, hopping from rock to rock.

The climb seemed to go on forever, but eventually, the gradient eased, which I knew meant we had about 150m more climb to go – just an Otley Chevin then (I spend a lot of my running calculating things in units of Otley Chevins, or OCs. Some handy conversions: Simon’s Seat: 3 OCs, Scafell Pike: 6 OCs, Ben Nevis: 9 OCs). We were back on the tourist route now and into the clouds, sharing the path with the ordinary walkers, who wore rain macs, over-trousers and weary expressions, the novelty of being overtaken by a sweaty, grizzled runner in vest and short shorts having clearly already worn off. A few were wearing matching t-shirts to commemorate the finishes of personal challenges and possibly felt slightly outshone by the gazelle-like progress of (some of) the runners. Some tourists stepped aside, others didn’t. I just carried on, trying to be polite and managing a “thanks” when I had the spare air.

It was around here, approaching the top, that I started to feel the first pricks of cramp in my leg. Fearing the worst, I gulped my second and final gel. At the summit, I handed in my wristband, grabbed some jelly babies that were on offer, took a deep breath, and prepared for the descent.

Pic by Lorne McFarlane (and paid for)

It’s a cliché about the Ben that the summit is only the half-way point, but one that I still refuse to learn. Quite soon into the descent, I was feeling the effects of my earlier efforts whilst “looking strong”. Actually, the word that flashed through my head begins with f and rhymes with stuck, but I had little choice but to carry on. Unfortunately though, you can’t blag a 4,400 ft. descent and despite my rigorous Meanwood ridge hill reps I just didn’t have the legs.

Down the initial steady part I was OK, if a little slow, and even on the steep, gnarly scree slopes that followed I didn’t have time to think about my legs for fear of stacking it. However once we turned onto the flagstones of the tourist path by the burn, I knew the remainder of the race would be all about survival.

I tried to accelerate into a run, but immediately felt a spasm of cramp in my calf. Counter-balancing this, my groin then cramped. I couldn’t run anymore, instead resorting to a sort of controlled hobble, gently trying to edge faster while keeping the cramp at bay. After the lochan, on the steeper stone steps, I nudged on too far, cramping hard on my right calf, and nearly falling off the side of the steps in the process. I collapsed and had to be given a humiliating cramp-and-calf stretch on the side of the hill by a nearby marshal. I sipped some water he gave me, then hobbled the rest of the race, variously overtaken by faster finishers. Hitting the road again at the end was no respite – in fact worse – and unfortunately here I saw Zoe again, who gave a sympathetic laugh, and also my parents, who clapped spiritedly. The long lap of the football field seemed to go on forever. At the end, I tried to “sprint” past a runner I’d been reeling in, cramped again, was re-overtaken by him, and all but crawled over the line. It was pretty ignominious. 

I lay on the ground cramping for a good 10 minutes. Then eventually, after a river swim and a free sports massage, recovered enough to head back to Will’s van. We convened later in Fort William with his HBT mates and the Shettleston Harriers at the Black Isle Brewery for pizza and beers. Then decamped to the Nevis Centre to watch the awards ceremony (and have another beer). Things get a little hazy after that. We headed back to town to a pub, where a series of random connections occurred. The masseuse who’d sorted my calves was out on the town, so too was Zoe’s boyfriend Daniel, who’d come third. I’m good friends with two of her exes, so that was a slightly odd moment when asked how I knew Zoe. Another chap was cycling over to Skye to meet a mutual friend of Will’s, another turned out to be Alex Sharp’s best man. The strangest connection of them all though was being recognised at the urinals and asked “did you cycle to Vladivostok?” by a guy called Max who’d driven there in a Nissan Micra. We’d eaten at the same cafe in Vladivostok and got to know the owner. His reg plate is on the cafe wall, my cycling jersey is beside it. Small world.

About to start the Double-Day press conference (plus some Wharfie)

Somehow, later I found myself in Roobarb, Fort William’s best (and only?) nightclub. Finlay Wild was there. So too were the Howgill Harriers boys, drinking beer out of the second place cup, with the shield for first team being passed from waist to waist like a boxer’s belt. I just wore my finisher’s medal. In the stumble along the high street I’d lost Will. Later I saw a message from him on my phone:

“What’s the craic?”

“Good for a shit club, where are you?”

“I had an amazing poo in Spoons then came to the van”

Sometimes it’s the little things in life.

A few hours later I joined him and collapsed into his van. The next morning we recovered with a Spoons breakfast, with the rain pouring down outside. My brother joined us for a coffee there too, having come back to pick up his car. He looked worse than me. At least I have one thing I’m better than him at. We parted ways soon after with a hug, then drove back down to Edinburgh, stopping to dip heavy legs in the cool waters of Loch Earn.

I left Will to go to a music festival his girlfriend’s brother was playing at and boarded the train home. Out of the highlands, the sun shone and I trundled down the east coast mainline on the train, admiring the blue waters around Bamburgh castle. I alternately napped, then watched the BBC footage of the Proms which I’d sung in the bank holiday Monday before (Rose – what a shameless plug, you can take that out if you want. Ed: nope). Even better, my car was still there in York, without a parking ticket. It had been a whirlwind 48 hour trip up and down the country and up and down Britain’s highest mountain. The Ben: what a race. Sign me up for next year’s.

Josh Day – 97th – 2:15:03

Will Hall – 105th – 2:16:46

(Tom Day – 27th – 1:56:01)

(Finlay Wild – 1st – 1:something stupid)

–Josh Day

Fat Boys Stanage Struggle

6.2 miles, 1165 feet
Stanage Edge – Hathersage

This is a favourite of mine.  It’s in the beautiful village of Hathersage just outside of Sheffield. I have entered it for many years now.  It’s low key, £7 to enter, fabulous cakes afterwards and all the proceeds go to the local primary school. What more could you want?

As usual I prepped my kit the night before.  I was feeling tired but just had an early night and thought no more of it.  Sunday morning arrived and my throat was like the Doorway to Hell (Google it)… A couple of coffees and some paracetamol and like all of us runners I thought I could run it off….

At the start line I felt the usual tenderness in my limbs of an oncoming chill.  My muscles ached and the doorway to hell was back in my throat.  I told myself, if you manage the first mile you may as well continue.  We set off and started our climb up Stanage Edge. My head was pounding and my body weak however I kept hearing my mother reminding me that her cure for most things was fresh air. If you complained of feeling unwell you had a choice: sweep the garden or go for a walk.
It must have worked because I finished.

It wasn’t pretty and I managed a PW but the the views, course and cakes did not let me down and the scenery was as beautiful as ever.

My takeaway : do better next year…

I do recommend this race: It has good climbs and fantastic downhill sections.

Liz Casey

Pendle Way on a Midsummer’s Night

45 miles, circa 6000ft ascent

Weather: 21 degrees falling to 18 degrees overnight with 80% humidity

by Rose George & Liz Casey

This run – a midsummer version of the annual winter Pendle Way in a Day – is purposefully held on the shortest night of the year, but only when that happens on a weekend. The next opportunity to do this will be 24th & 25th June 2028 so put it in your calendars.

LIZ

The training started earlier in the year getting tough enough to do the distance and spend such a long time on our feet. During training, aside from the eating, drinking and what to wear on the day, Rose acquired some running poles. On occasion we found it hard to find a solution to carrying these when not in use so they were a) comfortable b) easy to access/store while moving c) didn’t rattle around. Rose announced on event day she had found a solution for all the above.

OMG! Was she right…. A quiver…yes a proper quiver…. I think my excitement at this item of her kit made the whole event so much more fun.

ROSE

I’m not sure whether I spent more time training or googling solutions for carrying running poles. Joke. I definitely spent more time training, for once. Top tip for when you realise you have made a commitment (I still can’t remember why) to run 45 miles overnight: get a coach and a training plan. Both Liz and I had plans drawn up by Run Brave aka Neil Wallace (aka my partner), and amazingly, we both followed them pretty closely. They featured circuit breakers (intervals, then hill climb “circuit breakers” then more intervals), pace management, time on feet and the hardest but probably most useful: the split long run. I did two of these: the first consisted of me running Leg 5 of the Calderdale Way Relay with Martha, on a punishingly hot day, then driving home and making myself run another 6 miles. Of course this was all about increasing mental grit as well as physical endurance. The second had me doing 12 miles in the morning then spending the rest of the day trying not to make myself wimp out of getting out at 8pm and doing another 12 miles. I did it, and really enjoyed it. By the time we got to race day, I had no idea how I was going to stay awake overnight let alone run 45 miles, but I couldn’t have trained much better. Also, I had a quiver. (£14.99 from Decathlon.)

Rose (L) and Katniss (R)

LIZ

The race started at 8pm on Saturday evening from Barley and headed straight up Pendle Hill. As we ascended Rose pulled her poles from her quiver and snapped them into place like cracking a whip and marched up Pendle Hill. All we needed was a bow and we would have been tributes in an episode of the Hunger Games. OK it didn’t quite happen so smoothly and we did not look anything like Katniss Everdeen and it was more of a “would you mind getting my poles out of my quiver please?” We did not care. The quiver provided fun (it actually worked very well too).

ROSE

There were about 80 runners milling about at the start outside Barley Village Hall, which I knew well from doing Tour of Pendle. There was an option to do a 30-mile route but I assumed most of these people were doing the 45. I had spent ages thinking about how much food to bring, as I was really worried that in the early hours the last thing my body would be expecting was food, yet I had to fuel properly and consistently. In hindsight, I had a stupid amount of food. I thought this might be the case when I saw that Liz had only a 5L pack, whereas I had a 10L stuffed to the gills, plus a waistpack. I had gels, powerballs, mint cake, sweets, veg sausages, salted boiled potatoes, a pouch of jelly, blister plasters, electrical tape, garden wire (you never know!), a powerbank (which I ended up needing for both watch and phone), two small bottles of flat coke, full kit plus an extra t-shirt. And toilet paper. I’d originally had a long-sleeve but the forecast was that it would feel like 23 degrees at 2am and be 80 percent humidity. Bye bye long-sleeve.

So I was definitely overloaded but on the other hand I saw at least two runners who had only a tiny bumbag to which my and Liz’s reaction was WTAF? That first mile up Pendle was memorable for three things: Liz first deciding that I was a character from the Hunger Games, the astonishingly blue sky patterned with mackerel clouds, and my god the humidity. I couldn’t see for sweat.

One mile down, 44 to go.

We hadn’t recced as there was little point for an overnight race. We were going to navigate by following people who seemed to know where they were going, looking out for fingerposts with witches on them, Liz’s GPX on her watch and my OS maps app on my phone.

LIZ

As darkness fell the temperature did not seem to follow suit, it was a very warm and humid night. Running overnight was very different to torchlight club runs. The saying ‘still of the night’ was real. All we heard were animal sounds where we disturbed them and randomly a house party in a very remote location. The darkness lasted around 5 hours but it never seemed to get totally dark. We did at one point turn our torches off to view the night sky – I promptly tripped so just gave up on star gazing….

ROSE

Weirdly the thing I’d been most worried about was the easiest: running through the night when my body would usually have been fast asleep. I think I probably bored Liz by occasionally expressing my amazement that it felt so normal. The heat made wearing a buff uncomfortable, but other than that I really enjoyed the night. Liz kept turning to look at groups of headtorches behind us, and they were a comfort, particularly as later we wouldn’t see a soul for miles. She also got a reputation – with me – for having some sixth sense for fingerposts. “There! There’s a fingerpost!” Though perhaps that was just that she could see better, as I’d forgotten to put my racing contacts in. Her second spidey sense was for frogs. A couple of times she exclaimed and I thought something was wrong, but no it was just another lovely speckled frog on the trail, sitting there and not moving just because some hefty human was coming past. Physically I had been fine up until then (about six hours in), but then my knee started hurting. This happened on the Hebden 22 – extremely painful to go downhill, fine to go uphill – and I figured it was my ITB insertion point. I suppose it’s a fatigue-related weakness. So I had to stop to take drugs, fiddle with my pack and finally realise that what had been digging into my back for six hours was my first aid kit. Then I also had to find a quiet spot on a steep bracken slope to have an emergency toilet stop too. You try doing open defecation (about which I have written a book but that didn’t help much) while on a steep gradient in the dark and trying to leave no trace while not keeping your companion waiting too long. Exciting times at 2am.

We really need to work on our selfie skills

We didn’t hang out much with other runners but not because we didn’t want to. Maybe because it was night running? The couple we saw the most was a northern Irish woman and a man called Dave (I know his name because he stopped to take a picture of a bench which had been carved into the name DAVE). They didn’t run uphills or apparently the flat (ultrarunning technique?) so we would shuffle past at a jog, but as soon as we slowed to a walk, whoosh, they would overtake us walking and zoom off. They could walk so fast, it was seriously impressive. We took to calling them the Rocket Walkers (it was the middle of the night, we were knackered, we didn’t have a lot of creativity to hand).

LIZ

Rose noted the sunrise around 3.30am. I put it down to light pollution – I was wrong! Birds began singing, the flies appeared again, and at last there was a cool breeze. It was strange but nice to run through villages at such an early hour when everyone else seems to be sleeping. We encountered a group of young people going ‘somewhere’ with what looked like a festival tent at about 5am then a young man who looked as though he was on a walk of shame (he probably wasn’t but it’s fun thinking he was).

Not the city of Manchester

ROSE

Look over there, Liz, the light is coming. No, she said, there must be a city there. I thought, it must be a big city, but also that I could be wrong, it seemed early for dawn, even after I’d learned from the National Maritime Museum that there are three twilights (twilight is between light and dark and not just an evening thing): astronomical, nautical and civilian. This faint red was hazy, and finally I worked out that it was in the east and convinced Liz it was the sunrise. The gentleness with which the light came back was a delight. It was also a treat to take off our sweaty buffs and head-torches in the middle of yet another field. Liberated! We were both tired now, and on climbs – of which there seemed to be LOADS to the point where I would look ahead and say “oh bloody hell not another hill” and Liz would give me a positive thinking talking-to so I would say instead, “another hill! Cool!” –  I gave Liz one of the poles. Even one pole helped significantly. I knew we were tired, because I’d stopped my every-30-minutes “EAT SOMETHING” instructions to Liz and to me.

LIZ

We finished in 13 hr 50 m. We had had some navigation issues and ran out of water 90 minutes before the end. The Pendle Way is marked by a witch 🧙on fingerposts obviously. And the race organisers ensure that funds from the run are given back to maintaining the Way. The first four checkpoints provided food and drink: one had fairy lights (very pretty in the dark) and at the checkpoint in Laneshawbridge after Wycoller (operated by Roxanne, joint RO with her husband Jamie) there was a whole bloody bar. Rum and whisky! We didn’t partake. Too busy chugging Coke.

ROSE

Running out of water was not strictly our fault. It’s very hard to find people to staff checkpoints overnight, which meant that ideally there would have been water and food at Barnoldswick (9 miles from the finish) but there wasn’t. So the last provisions, in the form of a Tupperware box of goodies and bottles of water left on a bench with a sign asking people not to nick them, were in Earby, still 20 miles from the finish. We both filled our flasks in Earby, but we should have taken an extra bottle each. Probably the worst stretch of the route were the few miles of numbingly boring canal coming into Barnoldswick. Liz disliked the canal so much she stopped running in protest. Then it was up and over Weets and down into Barrowford to find a self-clip with the instructions “a cobbled lane and an iron gate.” We could have gone to find a newsagent at that point, things were starting to open, but we just desperately wanted to finish and we had just over three miles to go. I’d hoped we could do 4 miles an hour and finish in a total of about 11 hours. But I’d also thought the route was 42 miles because that’s what the GPX provided by the race organiser said. No. It was 45 and the 11 hour target receded pretty quickly thanks to navigation, night running, and niggles (mine).

LIZ

I would recommend this run to anyone. It was an amazing and fun experience and given I was in the company of Katniss Everdeen so how could it not be fun? Katniss may well have converted me to the use of poles. Would I do it again? Hmmmmm given the next one is 5 years away we will have to see…. The daytime winter version is on every year.

Never has a glass of orange squash tasted so good

ROSE

I’m so proud of myself for having done this, even if we did it more slowly than I’d hoped, and I was disconcerted to arrive at Barley to be told that we were the last. Though my disconcertedness had to wait because although Jamie, the RO, was offering us a lovely laser-cut wood coaster bearing of course another witch, we said YEAH BUT CAN WE HAVE SOME WATER RIGHT NOW. I can’t remember being as thirsty as I was for that last 90 minutes. At one point we were going through a field and I wondered if I chewed the grass whether I’d get some liquid. There is nothing as overwhelming as thirst and I am determined I will never experience it again if I can help it. Otherwise, it was a fantastic 13.50 hours, Liz was excellent company, as were the frogs. And the reason we were last is only 12 people did the 45-mile route, and plenty who had signed up for it dropped to the 30 instead which explains why we stopped seeing people behind us after Roxanne’s bar: that was the decision point. There were only 3 women in that 12 and we were two of them. (The other was the Rocket Walker.)

I didn’t eat all my food. I’m definitely not taking as much next time.

AFTERMATH

ROSE

I was not at all sleepy during the run and only yawned once. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. As soon as we set off in the car, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I’ve felt bone-weary since. So I’ve slept loads. The first night I tried spraying magnesium on my legs but the nettle stings and bramble scratches made that a very bad idea. Don’t do that unless you want to wake your neighbours with your yelps and screeches. The oddest thing is how little hunger I have had. My usual pattern is to do a long run, have no appetite for an hour or so then eat everything. This time has been different: the eating everything part has never materialised. Maybe because we ran through the night and that threw things out of whack, or perhaps because the distance and the time on feet triggered “lac-phe,” a metabolite that is related to exercise and suppresses appetite. Other than that, my chafing subsided, though I found a nasty abrasion from my bra strap that I hadn’t even noticed. When I took my shoes off in Barley car park they were greyish white and looked awful. But they have recovered nicely too. I suppose I’d better start running again.

LIZ

Like Rose I have felt fatigued and not wanted to eat. I managed to sleep for a couple of hours when I got home on Sunday. On Sunday night the magnesium spray took a real beating as my legs would not stop twitching. On Monday I enjoyed one of those nights where you feel you have not moved at all and slept really well. My trench foot had disappeared and my toes had almost forgiven me. Now in Spain for a few weeks, I am ready to go again, however the heat (current highs of 34 and lows of 23) has a different plan. I must remember to drink water and run very early in the day.

Thanks: Jamie and Roxanne and all the doughty volunteers who stayed up all night to feed and minister to us. And to Neil for cycling over to Barley at 5am so he could drive two very tired people home.

Wardle Skyline

It’s a balmy easter bank holiday weekend in Wardle village, and the R.O. has just done about his fifth lap of the square encouraging all runners to drink plenty of water (the dangers of heat exposure are real, folks, he’s seen it before on this race, etc, etc). Even the whiteboards at registration advise that there’s no mandatory kit today, but that water is recommended. In Phil Davies’ words: a heat stroke warning at 15°C might just be the most British thing ever! On a very pleasant warm-up jog to the reservoir and back we’ve discovered that there’s a decent breeze though, and I’d go as far as to say conditions are pretty much perfect. The Marathon des Sables it is not.

Image by Paul Taylor

I do my usual trick of setting off mid-pack but starting fairly strongly, gradually making up places on the run out of the village and on the first climb up Brown Wardle. I manage to get behind a Rochdale Harrier shortly after as well, and get the unexpected bonus of a few nice alternative lines to follow. After the second climb up Middle Hill the route undulates over the next few hills and I start to slow down and lose a couple of spots but the route is excellent, the views open up going over Rough Hill and a distant Stoodley Pike is visible on the horizon.

Image by Steve Taylor

An only partially-healed blister I picked up the weekend before starts to burn on the long descent back towards Wardle and my heel, which is propped on a bag of frozen sweetcorn as we speak, starts to twinge worryingly (excuses excuses!). I’m not carrying enough speed downhill and lose a few more positions over a painfully long section of lethal cobbles. The route description promised a sting in the tail and a draggy climb of around a kilometre on tarmac delivers a tough finish. With the village square in sight I hear feet closing in behind me and manage to find a sprint finish to cross the line without losing another place. After catching my breath I look up to see that Phil has come in just behind me after a strong descent.

Image by Paul Taylor

As we all know, the post-race spread is crucial, and the scout hut put on a terrific array of cakes. Sadly I didn’t have a brew so I’m unable to confirm the type of tea on offer, though this was Lancashire so we should probably fear the worst. The real drama of the day was that the front runners all managed to miss the tag drop at Rough Hill though, and our own Jonathan Coney looked set to be denied a brilliant sixth-place finish as a result. The world held its breath…until Thursday morning when the official results dropped and confirmed no disqualifications! There may yet be protests from the first of the tag-less finishers, a formal enquiry, and almost certainly rioting in the streets of Wardle. Watch this space!

Nick Flower

NLFR Results:

6th – Jonathan Coney – 00:51:06

56th – Nick Flower – 01:04:40

57th – Phil Davies – 01:04:44

Spine Challenger 2023

What?

The Spine Challenger is a 108-mile ultramarathon along the Pennine way in the glorious month of January. It starts in Edale in Derbyshire and finishes in Hawes in North Yorkshire. It is a self-sufficient race with only one official aid station in Hebden Bridge at 48 miles.

Why?

I bloody love shit weather and the exhilaration of being out in conditions when part of your mind is thinking “I’m not sure this is safe”. I have also wanted to do an event which I am not sure I can finish. The Spine seemed like a good way to satisfy both these itches.

What with?

The mandatory kit list for the Spine is a lengthy affair (25 pages!). New highlights to note this year included a poop shovel and poo bags, two pieces of kit I took great joy in demonstrating the function of to my wife Helen.

The full kit list can be seen here:

In order to travel light you can be looking at a black hole of money where shaving grams off here and there gets increasingly more expensive. Fortunately, I had accrued quite a lot of kit in many a fastpacking trip so it wasn’t too terrible.

My Kit

Montane trailblazer LT 30L

Sea to Summit Spark II sleeping bag

Thermarest NeoAir sleeping mat

Mountain Warehouse bivvy bag

MSR Pocket Rocket Stove

Garmin 64s (GPS unit)

Rab Arc Eco Waterproof Jacket

Montane Minimus waterproof trousers + over mitts

Montane Prism Insulated mid layer

Montane Dry Line Pertex Shield insulated mitts

Head UltraFit Running Gloves

Inov-8 Roclite shoes

Injinji toe liner socks

SealSkin Waterproof socks.

Prep

Running around a lot with all the kit.

I had told myself that on paper that I was probably fit enough to cover the distance. But what I wasn’t sure about was whether I would have the mental fortitude to do so when shit got real at 5am in a blizzard.

I figured that I needed to ensure I was able to keep myself

1) Fed

2) Warm

3) Relatively dry

4) Caffeinated.

If I was could do all that then I should be able to keep my mind from going to those dark places where I don’t think I would possess the mental resilience to keep going.

So a lot of my training was based around making sure I knew how I was going to do the following:

Access food on the run without taking my pack off. This would be very important in cold weather as I realised on a night recce between Hebden and Gargrave in the snow and -4* where my body temperature plummeted as soon as I stopped and as a result avoided doing so and so I stopped eating. I bought a new pack, the Montane Trailblazer LT 30 which has two huge mesh side pockets where I kept pretty much all my food in for the race so it was easy to access it all on the move and therefore be able to keep stuffing my face silly. The trick I have found with eating a lot over a long distance is variety. So I had cheese and pickle bagels, vegetarian sausage rolls, date and nut bars, jelly babies and the king of running food; the mighty Bounty bar. Now I’ll tell you why a Bounty is the best, have you ever tried to eat a Mars bar or a Snickers that’s been kept at 2 degrees for 6 hours? It turns into ROCK. But the glorious Bounty keeps soft and delicate even at low temperatures. I also found some vegetarian bean “chorizo” in Waitrose that I highly recommend, it had that salty fatty goodness that sometimes you just crave at the business end of a race or just when you’re feeling a bit sad. I also had a couple of dehydrated meals as a last resort backup.

Stay warm.

I tend to get very warm when I run, particularly my trunk. But my hands can get quite cold. So during training I tried out different types of glove systems. I went with a quite a thick but tight running glove. Then I had a waterproof shell mitt (Montane Minimus) which packed down very small and that I kept in the front pocket of my jacket so I could whip these out as soon as it looked like it was about to rain. I also had a more insulated waterproof pair of mittens which I had the option of wearing by themselves or over my running gloves. Or if shit really hit the fan I could wear all three! 

Stay dry (ish)

I wasn’t too worried about the wet from the outside but rather the wet from the inside. I‘d spoken to a number of people who had DNF’d the Spine and a theme that came up often was temperature regulation and the danger of overheating and sweating through your inner layers. This can cause problems if you suddenly gain altitude and or it gets dark, cold and windy. Then, your damp inner layers can suddenly become dangerous and cause hypothermia. I know I run warm so I practiced running in just a base layer and my waterproof shell and using the big arm zip vents and modifying gloves and headwear to control my temperature rather than wear more inner layers. This seemed to work in training and I found it helped to pre-empt temperature changes such as taking off gloves/hats before heading up a hill rather than half way up once I’d started to sweat. I did have options of a thin microfibre fleece (a basic Trespass number) in my pack but I also had a synthetic insulating mid layer if things got rather chilly.

Stay caffeinated

Being a caffeine addict I have realised that it is very important to keep a steady stream of caffeine in your system to stave off those bad thoughts. I remember when I first started running longer distances I would really start to struggle perhaps 6-8 hours into a run until I had the epiphany that on a normal day I would have had three coffees within that time. I now carry an little re-purposed spice jar in which I place some espresso strong enough to wake the dead, to chug at the point that I’m feeling a bit naff.

I hoped that if I nailed the above issues then I could keep in a good enough headspace that I could keep putting one foot in front of the other without having any major tantrums.

***

Game Plan

  • Spend the first 70 miles looking after myself and take it easy.
  • As per preparation stay warm, dry and eat to the point of nausea and keep yourself there.
  • At 70-ish miles look at the tracking and then perhaps think about racing (if that’s even possible at 70 miles?).

***

The Big Day

Wet. Dark. 6 degrees. 7am.  Minimal sleep the night before because I was like a kid the night before Christmas, too excited to sleep. And we were off to some brief applause before all the supporters sensibly ran back to their cars to go back to bed.

Normally ultras are very social affairs and there is a lot of chat and banter but heavy rain forced everyone’s hoods up and eyes to the floor so it was a bit of an anti-climax if I’m honest.

What do you mean, Type A?

We trudged over the fields at the bottom of the Edale valley as the dawn broke. I was concentrating on not getting over-excited and steaming into first climb up Jacob’s Ladder to Kinder Scout where we met a stark reality check which was the 50 mph westerly which tore into us as we reached the Kinder plateau.

Even If I wanted to talk to anyone around me they wouldn’t have been able to hear me as the wind was overwhelming. The first 10 miles were just head down and grinding out the steps, trying to stay roughly moving in a straight line. The only highlight was Kinder downfall which had turned into an upfall, a water up, or water climb, whatever the opposite of a waterfall is, it was blowing straight back up the hill like a geyser.

Snake Pass was where I saw my lovely crew for the first time. This was my mum and dad who had driven up from Devon and my wife Helen who was only there because I had booked a fancy room at a pub at both the start and the finish and sold the idea to her as a “lovely holiday”. The look on her face as the wind and rain was tearing her piece of  A4 paper with “Go Alex” written on it to shreds spoke volumes about how much she regretted agreeing to this.

Side note: the Spine is an “unsupported event” so I was not allowed to take any assistance from Helen or my parents unless it was given to every runner in the race. My mum took this as an opportunity to hug and kiss every single participant who went past much to her amusement.

Next came the climb to Bleaklow Head during which I spoke to a German fellow named Roland who comes over to England regularly to partake in long arduous bleak races such as the Spine and Hardmoors events. Apparently there is little to no ultra or trail running scene in Germany. I was also sad to hear that he DNF’d later in the race. We had a lot of fun failing to keep our feet dry navigating the path-cum-river that led up Bleaklow.

See ya

Fortunately, as we dropped towards Torside reservoir the rain lifted and I started being able to see more than 20 meters ahead of me and could lift my hood. The views, the wind in my hair and having my peripheral vision back felt excellent and I hared down the descent to the reservoir leaving the group I had been running with. This gave me some time to pet the pigs at the farm at the bottom of the hill which lifted my spirits even further. I was now 15 miles in and feeling good, eating well and moving nicely.

Back up the other side, halfway towards the top of Black Hill where I encountered a man pushing a drop-bar hybrid bike down the footpath, a good two miles from the nearest cycle-able path. He met my amused and inquisitive questions with a stormy face and a grump. I still wonder how on earth he got that bike up there in the first place.

I caught up a jolly fellow named Dan who told me how he enjoyed not running with poles then proceeded to eat his words as the path crossed a river no less than 10 times within half a klick. My poles offered me a nice vault over the water but Dan had to make do with a wade, a splash and a dunk. We found a good stride together and we ended up spending the next 22 hours with each other. A real 0-100 relationship.

The cloud lifted high enough on the top of Black Hill to give us a cracking view of the West Riding from the ‘fax to Emley Moor tower and even Ferry bridge power station in the distance.  I bloody love this bit of Yorkshire.

The beauty was short-lived as we made our way past Wessenden Head Reservoir where we got a dose of hail to the face. It seemed to be directly in our faces no matter which direction we were running in! Fortunately, the sporadic hail flurries were short-lived at least so I didn’t have to fish out the clear goggles from my pack (another mandatory piece of kit). I now fully understood why we had to carry them. I could not have tolerated face hail for much longer without them.

I bonded with my new companion Dan over our shared experience at Leeds Uni. He also took his degree as a vocation and went from English into theatre and now is a freelance playwright and producer. With Boff Whalley, he has written and performed a show called “The Hills are Ours”, about running and land ownership.Likely right up a lot of your streets, NLFR.

Daniel (L) and our P&B mate Boff (R)

Dusk started approaching as we made our way up Standage . Miraculously the sun made a distant appearance on the horizon casting an ethereal glow over the valleys that dropped down the western slopes of the Pennines. The majesty of this seemed an antidote to the murky silhouette of the skyline of Manchester in the distance. It was breath-taking.

It was refreshing not having my phone to hand to ruin the moment by trying to take a picture as it was buried deep in my bag and had been off the entire day.

As the sun went down I felt the inevitable creep of fatigue, but fortunately we quickly happened upon Nicky’s food bar. This consists of an unassuming shipping container/lorry cafe placed on a muddy truck stop next to the M62 whose owner opened for 48 hours straight to supply the Spiners with much-needed nourishment. One large burger, a Fanta lemon and a coffee later I felt bloody marvellous. My experience there was only slightly tainted by the American gentleman who has his bare foot on the table and was aggressively sanding his soles and applying copious talc with a little foot brush.

The next section is flattish and quite runnable along the side of the reservoirs and towards Stoodley Pike. However a belly-full of burger made the running part of this slightly challenging. We seemed to get every kind of weather along this section. Hail, rain, snow and lightning all in rather wild but brief episodes as the wind whipped away the weather as quickly as it arrived. Approaching Stoodley Pike we were rewarded with our own personal firework display from a house in the valley in Todmorden. It was a unique experience witnessing fireworks from above.

A easy descent into Hebden Bridge then up and over into the Calder Valley then over again into Hardcastle Crags and Hebden Hey Scout camp, our first and only checkpoint. I was feeling OK at this point considering we had covered 48 miles. I had been enjoying the experience of moving without the stress of thinking of it as a race and the time seemed to be flying.

As soon as we entered the checkpoint I was taken to a seat, I was swarmed by volunteers who helped me out of my soaking wet shoes and put them next to the fire. I placed my watch on charge and headed to get double helpings of lentil pie with a side of crisps and malt loaf. After eating way too much I was shepherded back to my belongings for some faffing, getting dry socks and base layer on from my drop bag and filling up on food and drink. The staff at the checkpoint were remarkable and each person was waited upon as if they were a professional athlete.

Despite the 20 minutes of rest and a good meal I couldn’t get back into a rhythm when we started back again. I felt quite rough and very bloated. The next two hours up to Top Withens I felt tired, crap and I couldn’t even think about eating. I was a bit worried and I started wondering how on earth I was going to finish the next 50 miles feeling like I did. Dan kept up the stream of encouraging words which helped drag my ass up the hill.

I took my pack off at Top Withens to get at my medical pack to pop an anti-sickness tablet and out of nowhere I released a colossal fart and felt some immediate relief. More copious flatulence on the way down toward Haworth and I felt better and better. Thank Christ.

I suspect that the drastic physiological and environmental change between running in the zero degree temperatures to being sat still in a very hot room then back to freezing running had sent my digestive system into a state of shock and it has stopped functioning temporarily. The double helping of pie and three coffees had been sitting in my stomach unabsorbed for a whole two hours since the checkpoint until the downhill movement and gaseous release triggered it to be dumped into my small intestine. I was back in business.

The next 18 miles were in quite non-specific and undulating terrain and passed the towns of Ickornshaw and Lothersdale. We were very pleased to receive some cold rice pudding and some hot water for a dehydrated meal at Lothersdale courtesy of the tri club there. We were informed that the race leader had already made it to Malham tarn, 16 miles ahead of where we were at that point, which was staggering!

Slogging through the early hours we made it to Gargrave (68 miles) at about 4am. I felt Gargrave was a bit of a milestone in my head as I knew the following section really well. As I had promised myself I turned my phone on for the first time here and looked at the tracking. Dan and I were in 8th and 9th place which we were very pleased with. However 7th place was an hour and a half ahead of us which took any pressure off me to race as I felt that that was an unattainable gap to cover.

It’s that way, not that way

So we set off towards Malham and were quickly blindsided by some torrential rain and serious wind which we had not expected considering we weren’t too high up. This led to some miserable slogging through very wet muddy fields, eyes down on our GPS’s as the paths were barely visible. I could feel myself getting cold but there was no shelter from the weather where I could get another layer on. We started picking up the pace to keep warm but it was difficult getting through the mud while also trying to keep on the right route in the dark. I was getting worried that if we didn’t manage to get some shelter things were going to go south but fortunately we came across a wood as we dropped down towards the river. I managed to get my fleece on and went for triple glove power. Phew.

We found out later on that while we were battling that weather on Eshton Moor at 150m altitude, the race leader Rory Harris was tackling the same weather but on Pen-Y-Gent, and the weather was winning. The visibility was so bad that he was having to use his headtorch and a hand torch pointed directly downwards just to see the floor and his progress was so slow that he became dangerously hypothermic and spent 1.5 hours in Horton at the cavers’ volunteer rest stop just trying to warm up. Fortunately for him he had built up such a lead that he still won with a four hour cushion over second place.

The section along the river Aire toward Malham was wet. There was water literally everywhere. It wasn’t clear a lot of the time where the river ended and the flood plain begun. It was a slow wade. Climbing up towards Malham Tarn Dan had begun to slow a little and seemed to be struggling. I hadn’t noticed him eat in a while and he confessed he just couldn’t face eating anything. I wasn’t having any of that and got my emergency back-up calorie dump which was three soft flasks with 400kcal of Tailwind powder in each. I filled one up with water from the tarn run off and demanded he finished the lot. Which, hats off to him, he did! We made it to the Malham Tarn activity centre which was a “mini-checkpoint” and sat down for a cup of coffee. Surprisingly there was a runner in there who said he’d been there for about 20 minutes already. He looked very comfortable and didn’t look like he was going anywhere very quickly. He told me that 6th place had left the checkpoint only 10 minutes previously.

I was galvanised.

We had somehow made up an hour and a half to catch 7th place and 6th was only 10 minutes ahead.

But Dan had taken his shoes off and said he was going to need some time to collect himself before heading on. I felt conflicted because me and Dan had spent 22 hours together at this point. It had been such a team effort especially when I thought we were long behind everyone else. And we had said that we would finish this thing together. However, I was moving well and I now knew that 5th place wasn’t too far ahead and it was Rob Greenwood no less. I’d met Rob running in the Cheviot Goat race in 2021 and had passed him in the last section of the race. So the thought of doing that again was amusing. I decided I had to push on. I gave Dan all of my Tailwind and made him promise me he’d get to the finish.

I was off. The return of daylight, more coffee and 6th place in my sights and I felt better than I had in 12 hours! The snow up Fountains Fell made it slow going and it wasn’t until halfway up that my sleep-deprived brain remembered that I had Yak-traks in my bag. They made an impressive difference, now I wasn’t sliding back with each step and my progress improved. I even found the energy to run down the back of Fountains Fell into the valley.

Seeing Helen and her parents on the Silverdale road waiting to support me brought a tear to my eye and they weren’t able to escape a muddy and snotty hug.

This gave me another boost and I managed to catch 6th place on the ascent to Pen-Y -Gent, but wait, there wasn’t just one runner but three! 4,5 and 6th! Bagged three in one! What a result. They weren’t moving very well and said they had been death marching since Gargrave. It was certainly nice to see Rob and tease him for being caught by me for the second time.

I left them on the way down towards Horton as the cloud was clearing and a sun was coming out. It was turning out to be a beautiful day. The descent to Horton is long and was tough on tired legs and carrying a backpack. I had started paying for the flurry of “speed” or should I say effort (as it wasn’t objectively speedy) from Malham tarn to this point. I hobbled into the Cave Club rest stop in Horton and was lovingly offered soup and coffee which felt bloody marvellous.

My watch had run out of battery on the way down from Horton but in my head I had about 11/12 miles left. I was very upset to hear the news that it was 14! The three chaps I had passed on Pen-Y-Gent trudged into the rest stop. One of the guys, Sam, sat down next to me with what I can only describe as a 1000 yard stare. Helen, bless her, attempted to be helpful by offering to change the batteries in my GPS and somehow managed to dislodge the memory card so for the rest of the race it was rendered useless.

The sun was shining and the views making my way out of Horton were very motivating. I decided to use some music to keep the pace up and some thumping techno was doing the trick. Unfortunately, despite moving well, I got lost in my techno daydream and managed to follow the Three Peaks route instead of the Pennine way route when they diverged. Clearly on autopilot. Frustratingly it took me over half a mile to realise. I used some choice words for myself that I should not put down in writing when trudging back to the Pennine Way. This mile detour decimated my fragile motivation and the next section up to Cam High Road was a slog.

I had spied a runner catching me but after my navigational embarrassment I just didn’t have the drive to push any harder. This drive lessened further when I realised it was my friend Rob catching me. I decided I needed some company to boost my morale.

With 6 miles to go at the top of Cam High Road Rob and I decided to run the last section together. We felt that a joint 4th and a comfortable finish was a far better outcome than a miserable race down to the finish and a possible fifth. For any dot watchers that were witnessing me and Rob passing each other as we “raced” down into Hawes I’m sorry to inform you that we trudged down dragging each other’s sorry bodies and no racing was even thought of.

We came into Hawes about 30 minutes before sunset. Ideal. I put on a brave race and even attempted a “run” along the high-street to the finish.

32 hours 14 minutes and 54 seconds.

Joint 4th

Out of 96 starters, 46 finished

I was done.

4 pints and two meals later and I was swaying in my seat at the pub and almost falling asleep in my sticky toffee pudding. I had managed to cheer Dan in to his finish. He had taken a bit of time at Malham, got some food in him and had finished well.

But now it was time to sleep.

What followed was one of the worst night’s sleeps I’ve ever had. I could not regulate my body temperature. It felt like I was simultaneously freezing and boiling. It was like when you have a fever. The sheets were soaking with cold sweat in the morning. I suspect that my body had got used to producing so much heat and warmth from movement over the past 32 hours that it had thrown my temperature regulation completely out of whack.

The next morning with a slightly clearer head I inspected my body for issues. Naturally the muscles in my legs ached deeply but I did not have any particular joint or ligament pain. My main problem which I had discovered when I had entered the shower the night before was significant butt chafe. This had only caused mild discomfort during the run but this changed when the hot water from the shower hit it, ouch. Helen was not best pleased when I asked her to take a picture to survey the damage.

I seemed to recover surprisingly well within a few days and feeling a bit cocky I joined Will, Mattia and Jonny on a trip to Snowdonia a few weeks later. I had 12 miles of feeling great then things started going wrong and by 18 miles I felt almost as bad as I did at the end of the Spine. It felt like I’d hit the wall despite eating copiously throughout the run. I think this was my central nervous system telling me I’m and idiot and I clearly had a long way to go. Back to rest.

***

Reflections a month later

It’s hard to sum up an experience such as I had at the Spine Challenger. I once heard someone describe a 100-mile race as “a lifetime in a day” and I think this sums it up perfectly. Never in just 32 hours have I experienced such extremes in emotion, seen such beauty, forged such fast friendships and pushed myself as far physically.

This race was also a lovely antidote to the ever more connected, fast-paced and stressful lifestyles we lead (or at least I seem to). It was a chance to disconnect and experience life in a more simple form: you eat, you drink and you put one foot in front of the other. I think this is part of the pull I feel towards the longer unsupported events.

Would I do something like this again? Absolutely.

Would I do the full Spine? Absolutely.

Just not for a while.

Alex “Sharpy” Sharp

The other Boston Marathon

Boston Marathon (UK) :18th April, 2022

For the first time ever, I had paid for a training plan for this marathon from coach Josh Griffiths (who ran a 2.14.49 London Marathon in 2017). Anyway, I followed this plan to the letter following the dysphasia of my London marathon last year. Boston is again an incredibly flat marathon; it is a circular route around the arable fields of Lincolnshire, no hills, no anything.

It was a warm day with a gentle sea breeze. The race still started in waves, so like London, I wasn’t sure how I was doing. My plan of nutrition disintegrated when my five gels fell out of my bumbag at the start, I scrabbled to get them from under pounding feet and lost two due to burstage, not a good start (there were none on the course either). The marathon, was as always, increasingly psychologically challenging.

The initial gambolling runners were reduced to limping figures in the last six miles, the flatness (total ascent over 26 miles is 86 feet) like running on a treadmill. Many were tempted by the turn-off for the concurrent half marathon. My second half pace dwindled, but I developed fortitude in the last two miles and passed many finishing in 3.47.38, 6th in my age group and 40th woman. It does give me an entry time for Boston USA should I ever fancy it and a further London good-for-age time for 2023. London 2022 next? The winning man was Lincoln runner William Strangeway in 2.25.11 and first woman was Natasha White in 2.59.07.


This is me and friend Keith at the end.

Lisa Rudkin

Dick Hudson’s

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.

—Rose George

Heptonstall : the return

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.”

Right.

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.

Me: Oh.

*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.

Twenty-four minutes!

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.

Marmot Dark Mountains

Lake District Eastern Fells. 26/27 Jan 2019. 

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. 

Checkpoint on Loadpot Hill in the snow and gale. Image by Andy Jackson (who slept up there in a tent looking after the radio repeater station: top man!)

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.

Results here.

—Mike Ayers

« Older posts