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.

After my 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.

Despite 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.

I’ve time 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.

After 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.

After the 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.

Dodging 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!

—Andrew Sandercock