Perched on the moors above Haworth sits the forlorn Top Withens. Not much remains of this ruined farmhouse, standing as it does roofless and windowless, its grey stones dour and lifeless, long since abandoned. But the hum of visitors and well-trodden paths that lead to it suggest a notoriety not usually reserved for such places. The plaque set in its wall reveals all: this farmhouse served as inspiration for the house of Wuthering Heights.
Not far away, last Sunday, amongst the literary artefacts, flag-stoned paths and russet bracken, I found myself on the start line of the category BM Withens Skyline for my NFLR race debut. Not only that, but this would also be my first ever fell race, NLFR or otherwise, the first time I’d worn a vest and pinned a number on the front. Luckily, Jonathan Coney was also running and was on hand to calm any pre-race nerves, show me the ropes, and lead me on a little warm-up jog.
By the time that clocks down in Haworth were striking 11:30, I and one hundred and thirty-eight runners were gathered in a long-disused quarry to begin the 6.5 mile course – a simple out, up, down and back. Under bright blue skies and a warmth seldom felt in October air the race began: up and out of the quarry, through the car park and onto a muddy path. The initial scramble for places at the start caught me by surprise and over the flat (ish) opening two kilometres I felt slightly stuck behind runners who I was a little faster than.
Once over a small stream though, about a quarter of the way in, running soon turned to walking as the path turned upwards to head onto the moor. Here, my steady start helped as I began to overtake those whose over-exuberant starts were coming back to bite, running as we were now away from the narrow path onto more open moorland, making overtaking feasible. Away from a clear path, the ground grew boggier underfoot and I had a taste of what the race must be like in more typical October weather. Fortunately these bogs were mostly avoidable. I pressed onwards, up onto the top where, at the trigpoint, I was greeted by “King Rat” himself – Mike Ayers – now shorn of his crown, cape and mascots that he worn for effect during the earlier junior races. His encouragement was welcomed as I struggled to turn out a steady rhythm on the flatter, open section of moorland and it was now my turn to lose a couple places as those I’d overtaken on the climb found their second winds.
From the top of the moor, the race descended a series of flagstone steps – mercifully dry in the midday sun – that lead to Top Withens itself, the gloomy abode of Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s tale. I knew though that all this pain was voluntary and by this point was eased by the knowledge that the highest point had been gained and a downhill was to come. Dropping down, I was more or less running alone whilst passing such sites as Brontë Bridge and Brontë Waterfall, clapped on by spectators, devotees of Brontë history, and dog walkers out for their Sunday strolls. I’d have liked to stop for a view, but the sound of footsteps at an unknown distance behind drove me on along the slog which was the final couple of miles.
After a road crossing the end was near, with a final pull up to the finish proving predictably uncomfortable. With the finish line outside the picturesque Haworth West End Cricket club in sight I managed to coax a sprint of sorts out of my heavy legs and crossed the line in good form and high spirits, which rose further when I found out I’d come in 12th. After a cup of water and a rest, I devoured the Curly-wurly that all finishers receive and basked in the warm air, enjoying the convivial post-race chitter chatter. My first fell race is done: I look forward to many more.