A race. An actual race. A race with real numbers that you pin to your club vest with actual pins. Real checkpoints. Real marshals. Everything real. Everything vivid. Everything I have not done for six months, since FRB and I did the 30-mile Haworth Hobble in March, in the last weekend before lockdown. For this race, timing was important. A week before it was due to be run, we still hadn’t entered and the entry list – it had only 100 runners – was full. Oh. I wrote to Jamie, a fell-running mate of ours who organizes it, and congratulated him on the race selling out and cursing my lateness at entering. It’s not a passive aggressive message request for places, I wrote, meaning it. Anyway, the dodgy knee that I have had since a month into lockdown would be thankful that I was not going to be running the 28 miles of the Lancashireman off-road “marathon” (they are generous in Lancashire) on very imperfect training.
Jamie wrote back. He had a couple of places and would Neil and I like them?
The reasons against accepting:
- The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
- The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
- The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
I had spent hours on my feet during a week in Scotland, but before that I’d not run beyond 15 miles for months, since the Fellsman was one of the first races to be cancelled. But I have form at running long runs unprepared. I said yes please to Jamie, and started eating everything. I was worried about my knee, as although my physio had decided my knee pain was due to inactive glutes, and finished with “go forth and run,” it was not getting better and sitting and lying both made it hurt. The only time it seemed OK was running, but not steeply downhill. But I accepted the places, hoped my knee would behave, and got quite excited.
I did a training session of mile efforts on the Wednesday, then no more running. I had a seriously crappy week for work/book reasons, and began to think that running for six or so hours across Lancashire countryside was exactly what I needed. We headed to Burnley on Saturday night, had a night at the Premier Inn for £33 (pandemic price), then up at 6.30 to eat our DIY breakfasts: Weetabix in Tupperware and an M&S baguette. Elite fuelling.
I was going to try Mountain Fuel again for this. I’ve used it once before and liked it and thought I needed all the help I could get. So I downed half a packet with my baguette, and filled my soft flasks with the other half. As usual I packed a full picnic: chocolate bars, sweets, flapjacks, Quorn sausages, Mountain Fuel sports jellies. The weather forecast was perfect, predicting single figure temperatures but outbreaks of sunshine. It would be cool on the tops though, and there would be a lot of tops, so I put on a merino long-sleeve with my vest.
The race had been allowed to go ahead because it was going to be Covid-secure. That meant only turning up to get your race number 15 minutes before your designated start time, designated start times that set people off in groups of no more than six, only packaged food at checkpoints, and no milling. Everyone was conforming to this when we turned up, ready for our 8.21 start, and with little faffing time, we were set off. We had a plan: 10 minute-miling to start with, and steady steady all the way. That way, Neil thought, we could comfortably finish in six hours and beat our time of last year (just over 6.30). He also thought we could win the mixed pair category, but I tried to put that out of my head. Steady, think of your knee, steady, steady, steady.
Image by Neil Wallace
I thought I knew the route. I’d recced most of it last year, and we’d run it of course, though partly in pouring rain. The weather this year was so far beautiful, with clear sunny skies. Maybe that’s why I realised I couldn’t remember much of the second mile through woodland. This was going to be a theme for the whole route, as it turned out that once again, I knew sections but not necessarily in the right order.
The route mostly follows the Burnley Way, a path that Visit Lancashire describes with odd grammar as “a 40-mile adventure from industrial heritage, along waterways, through fields, parks, old farms, and Forest of Burnley woodlands to the wild South Pennine Moors.” The route “has been recently updated and revised into six easy sections.” Easy? I knew there were more than 4,000 feet of climb over the 28 miles and that the biggest climb of all was at mile 20. At least, deep inside I knew but I was refusing to think about it.
Seven miles in, we reached the part that had caused chaos last year, with runners all over the place trying to find an elusive footbridge. So this year I had studied it online, calculating that we had to turn south a third of a mile after Shore Hey farm. Neil had also worked out when to turn, and this year we mostly got it right. On the hill ahead of us, runners appeared like Scottish warriors in an epic film; they had gone too far and were on their way back. If you don’t accidentally detour at least once on the Lancashireman, you’ve probably done it wrong. Jamie & crew do their best, with the odd chalked LORM and arrow, and the Burnley Way is waymarked now and then with a sunny B, but there are plenty of miles where it isn’t.
By now the runners who had gone the right way and runners who had gone the wrong way were all converging, so that up the hill on the far side of the bridge, the narrow singletrack path of stone steps — known as the Ogglty-Cogglty — became bottlenecked. This is a usual situation in fell running, but not in fell running during a pandemic. I turned and courteously asked the man behind me to back off, and he did. Neil meanwhile had a man behind him so close, it was clear he’d had garlic the day before. Asked to Ogglty-Cogglty off, politely, he didn’t, so it couldn’t be dismissed as thoughtlessness. It’s not like anyone was going anywhere fast: the climb was steep, no-one was running it, and it was packed solid. I really try to dampen my judginess in life these days, else I would spend my life internally fuming at people getting too close, wearing masks wrong, just being wrong. But this was unsettling.
Out of the woods, the sun was warmer than forecast, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. We reached the first checkpoint, staffed by cheery marshals in green t-shirts. This was my first experience of a Covid-secure checkpoint and as advertised, all food was packaged – biscuits, chocolate bars, crisps – and water was dispensed from jugs. There could have been improvements such as a one-way funnel, but there was plenty of hand sanitizer and it was being done as safely as possible. You can never eliminate risk, just reduce it as best you can. A young woman who was pouring me water looked behind me and said, “well done Mum!”.
I was surprised, I think because I immediately pictured my own mother arriving behind me in a race. She is 80, and fabulous, and has been walking 12 miles a week during the pandemic, but she’s never going to be a fellrunner.
I asked the girl, stupidly, “your mother is running?”
“Yes, that’s her in the red.”
I turned to look. “How old is she?”
I said “oh shit,” and people laughed and I’m still not sure why I said that. There were no age categories in the mixed pair category and anyway, I wasn’t being competitive, remember? Still I kept an eye on her for a while until we drew away from her. Habit.
Soon we stopped to strip down to vest-only. Then onwards, up horrible tarmac, some fake-running for the photographer, who managed to make my short Welsh legs look even shorter.
My brain was busy calculating what was coming next. It was like that animation of a human brain using mechanical wheels and whirring. Finally the whirring stopped and I knew: Widdop reservoir and moorland. More whirring: A couple of miles across the tops of the moors, past Gorple Stones, down to Hurstwood reservoir and that would be halfway.
Far off in front of us was a young woman who I thought we would never catch. Then, as we turned off the road to boggy paths around Widdop reservoir, she slowed, and we passed her easily. I don’t know if the Lancashireman counts as a fell race but if you don’t have fell experience, obviously that will show in the boggy bits. Not that I didn’t fall. I did, but I made sure to fall on a soft bit.
The view from Gorple Stones was beautiful, as it always is. Later, we learned that a runner had fallen here and dislocated his shoulder. He’d been content to run on, until the marshals pointed out that his bone was several centimetres forward from where it should have been.
Hurstwood. I couldn’t have sped up, but I didn’t need to slow down or stop. I felt quite good, and we made sure to run harmoniously for Jamie’s camera.
Along the way we encountered two men running ahead of us. One had a very bloodied head. He had fallen, also after Gorple Stones. He was OK to go on, and said he would wash off in a beck, then didn’t. Finally I offered him a wet wipe, then had to dig around in my pack for it as of course my first aid kit was at the bottom of my copious dry bag of kit. “Sorry lass,” said David, of the bloodied head. “Sorry to hold you back.” Oh, we’re not competitive said Rose (the same Rose who knows exactly by how many minutes they came second eventually in the mixed pair category and calculates that this was probably the same amount of minutes lost helping David but that’s fine).
We ran on together, past the next checkpoint, along the thankless Long Causeway tarmac road, past cloughs and gullies. Before dropping down into the hamlet of Portsmouth, we passed through fields that had a powerful stink. We passed a tractor approaching with a trailer full of more fragrant manure, then reached the path, turned and saw him spraying it exactly where we’d just been. Lucky escape.
By now something strange was happening. I was running more. My legs would run when my brain didn’t want to. I felt stronger. It was very odd. Maybe it was the Mountain Fuel? It was useful though as the hardest climb was coming up, to Heald Moor and Thievley Pike. At this point, my poor memory was an advantage, because I had forgotten how long and steep the climb was, so I just put my head down and climbed. Behind me, two women were telling two other runners what was coming up. “Horrendous! The worst climb ever! It’s awful!” I wondered at this. It wasn’t horrendous, it definitely wasn’t the worst climb ever, and if it was that awful, why were you doing the race? It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the views back to the other side of the valley were lovely. Perhaps that negativity got them up the hill more easily. Whatever works.
Image by Neil Wallace
Me, I was enjoying it. I was running easily and not tiring. My knee was sore but not disabling. And we only had a few miles left. Down into the grandiose Townley Hall, where we ran past a footballer lying on the ground and I thought, I bet a fell-runner would run through whatever injury he has. Past families with ice-cream, and a young girl who looked at me and asked her mother what I was doing. “She’s running!” But I wasn’t at that point, so then I had to.
There was only one short real climb to go, but it was uphill to Todmorden Road before that. Then along above the railway, with runners around us clearly tiring but enduring, as we were. Through the Kilns, where I directed a chatty pair from Accrington. At least, she was chatty. He wasn’t, and had to be chivvied, if chivvying consists of “COME ON MICK.” I’ve never seen a man running with clingfilm wrapped around his leg before, and I won’t forget Mick’s. They were both doing the relay, which you could do in pairs or threes or more. Mick made it to the end, clingfilm and all.
Finally, after we had run away from Burnley to run back to it, we were running down into town, past someone getting their Morrison’s delivery, and a smile from the young woman driving the van, to the canal where of course I wanted to go to the wrong way and almost set off on the route again. The last bit seemed such a long stretch though it was probably only half a mile. Then, eventually, the sound of clapping and cheering and there was Sandygate plaza, and some steps to run up that were nothing as bad as Butt Lane at the end of the Yorkshireman, but also not flat. We got to Jamie at the top and then: where was the finish line? Stop, said Jamie, stop! You’ve finished. This is it. He was it.
28 miles on little training and through niggles and cramp, but it was fun. It was good to be out racing again amongst beautiful scenery and the like-minded. It was good to pin a number on my race vest again, and pull out the rainbow race socks. It was good to stop and eat the two Quorn sausages that I had been carrying for six hours. It was good to be out, away from bad news and more bad news, to run past a man with binoculars and think, what a lovely smile he has, to be greeted with good cheer by everyone, to have my sinuses cleared by fresh cow shit.
Six hours. Actually it was 6.07. That was fine, and 25 minutes quicker than we had done the year before. Better weather this time, but worse training. Though last year I had run the Yorkshireman a week earlier. We placed second mixed pair after a couple from Clayton-le-Moors. We will do better next year, because I will definitely be back to the dark side, if the pandemic allows.
p.s. My knee? It hurts.
It had to be done.
By Rose George