Hardmoors 50

Well.  On the one hand I’m totally speechless.  On the other I have so much going through my head about this race.

We knew the weather was going to be interesting.  The debate leading up to the race was whether to start with waterproofs on; what to wear, what layers to pack.  I really don’t mind weather so long as I’m prepared for it.  And I was.  I knew I was going to run; I wasn’t going to hang around, so wore my long sleeved merino hoody under my OMM Kamleika, long merino socks under tights, with my inov-8 waterproof ultra light over-trousers.  At no point did I regret my clothing choice, except for wishing I had more at the very end.

Anyway, to the race.  Once I realised the usual arrangement of meeting a coach at the finish of the race first thing in the morning and taking it to the start had been changed, I arranged for a taxi to take us from the finish to the start.  The rain had woken me at 2.30am and by the time we drove across the moors to Guisborough, the roads were fully flooded and we were very grateful for our grand Land Rover Discovery taxi as it ploughed through the waterlogged roads.

Our registration passed without comment and my friend Con and I hung around like you do, waiting for the start.  We said hello to another Hardmoors old hand, Nige Hargreaves and was supposed to meet up with Chris Randall too but the Scout Hut got busier and busier, eventually forcing us out of the main hall and into one of the side rooms.  We found Helen and from there we got hotter and hotter so decided to go outside to wait for the start at 8am, which was only 5 minutes away.  It was raining hard outside and we quickly became wet and cold, getting restless as 8am came and went and nothing seemed to be happening.

Eventually, at 8.18am, something happened at the front and people started shuffling forward.  We were off!

Down in Guisborough, although the rain made itself known, the wind was quiet and we had an uneventful mile or two to the bottom of Highcliff Nab.  I have gone up here once before at the start of Hardmoors 60 but the mud surpassed my memory and much mincing and swearing ensued as the still closely grouped runners slipped and staggered up the steep hill.

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Photo credit: Conrad Wild

When we reached the top the wind hit us and we staggered at its force. Wow, ok. So this is what it’s going to be like.  We set off down the flag stones, with the next stop Roseberry Topping.

In case you don’t know about the Hardmoors series, check out their website here.  Hardmoors 55 is a race run between Guisborough and Helmsley along the Cleveland Way but this was a special year; not only was it the 10th anniversary of Hardmoors 55, but it was also the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Way so the director Jon Steele decided to make this year’s race “special”. The race was reduced to 50 miles (he is notorious for all his races being over the advertised distance) and we spent the entire race trying to figure out where on earth he had changed the route to make it supposedly shorter. However, the one obvious difference was Roseberry Topping. We had to climb it twice. Great!

The actual climb up it isn’t so bad in my book, but the wind at the top took our breath away. Take a look at my periscope clip to get an idea of what it was like. Then we had to descend off the right side of Roseberry Topping (the phone got put away as I saw it meant climbing down!) and down we went, fighting the wind as it tried to snatch our footing from us, dodging people coming up who were already on the return trip. This descent was never ending! Down the stone path, through a gate, down a muddy path, switch back, all the time making way for runners coming up (we are all still bunched up at this stage), down through the woods to a checkpoint at the bottom. Turn straight around and go back up! Ugh.

It was a long ascent but eventually we got back up underneath the trig and off down the path returning the way we had come.  Con flew off as he loves whizzing down the descents but I was more lady-like (of course).  Not only was I wearing Hoka Challengers but I was cautious to pace my legs as I knew there was nearly 10,000 feet of elevation coming up and I wanted to keep my powder dry.

Next stop was Kildale, a drop bag checkpoint. When I was arranging our drop bags the night before, Con questioned why a drop bag point was only 10 miles in.  I didn’t know the answer, but I did think that I wouldn’t need to carry any food at the beginning and any weight saved is a bonus to me, considering the fairly hefty mandatory kit we had to carry.  As we ran, however, I realised we had had breakfast at 5.30am and by the time we arrived in Kildale at 10.45 we would be hungry.  I was looking forward to my cheese and pickle sarnies and stuffing my vest with goodies to see me through Bloworth Crossing.

I knew the next 8 mile section very well. I had done it in both directions, and had also waited anxiously when I was crewing for a friend on the other side of it. I knew it was a long slog and mentally a tough challenge even in calm weather. Once we had climbed up onto the moor again, it was a long rocky track to Bloworth Crossing itself – a convergence of trails and tracks up on the moor. This was where American Werewolf was filmed and you can see why the lads were advised to stick to the path.

There is a stark beauty to these moors and when you look in detail at the flora and fauna around you it is stunning, but taking in the big picture I find it very bleak; moors stretching in all directions to the horizon, the wind whipping across with no natural features to stop it until it hits you. And that’s on a calm day. On this day it was anything but calm and the rain lashed across us horizontally, the track flooded with water, turning it into a river and the immensely strong gusts of wind trying to push you over.

The race director had sent an email out before the race suggesting that some sort of goggles might be a good idea in case the weather was similar to the previous year (heavy snow). However, in these windy conditions I was very grateful for my goggles and put them on.  Although my vision wasn’t great with them, the footing wasn’t precarious enough to matter and the sharp needles of rain on my face were very painful.  By pulling up my buff and tucking them under my goggles, I was protected.  Con said I looked like I was about to fly a biplane but frankly I didn’t care!

I knew once we reached Bloworth, we were more than halfway to the next checkpoint so I was pleased when we finally reached that point. Con and I couldn’t talk in this weather so we had been running along together in silence and sometimes another mate of ours Dennis would catch us up, chat for a bit, and keep going. He was struggling with an injury but when he was running he looked very strong and always ran past us but then we caught him as he kept stopping, I assume to stretch.

Finally we descend down, out of the wind (how is it possible it was in our faces the whole way??) and to the Clay Bank checkpoint. Another memory point – both of my previous DNF at HM110, when my mate Gav was crewing me and was at the gate to meet me with a cup of tea, and also the place where I, in turn, had crewed him and waited anxiously for his arrival off the moor in the dead of night.

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The first of 3 Sisters after the Clay Bank checkpoint.  Con looking well chuffed!

And now we had the 3 Sisters to look forward to – 3 sharp little hills which somehow weren’t nearly as impressive as I remembered from before. Perhaps training in the Peaks really has helped me. As I came to the top of each hill, I was still strong enough to immediately set off at a trot and although my legs had complained crossing the moor, suddenly they felt loose and running at a good trot came easily.

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I knew Con was struggling with foot pain and he dropped back slightly but I wasn’t concerned. I knew he’d get his second wind soon enough. However, a couple of miles from the next checkpoint, Scugdale (these place names are so glamorous), I glanced over my shoulder to check he was there but found myself staring at a complete stranger behind me.  Oh no, it’s ok, that must be Con behind him.  No. My gaze slipped back to each figure along the flagstone path, searching for the fairly easily recognisable silver overtrousers but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.  Shit!

I was appalled and instantly felt guilty.  We were mates and were running this together and somehow I had dropped him without even noticing. I got my phone out but it was soaking wet and although I keyed the right password in, it said I hadn’t and locked me out. I turned and started running again; without him in sight I must crack on. I had an agenda and even despite that, you absolutely couldn’t stop for long without getting very cold, very quickly.

I pause when I reach the checkpoint, try my phone again and get locked out for even longer – ffs!!  I wanted to check the tracker to see how far back he was. But again, I didn’t dare hang around long and cracked on towards Osmotherley.

The next few miles passed without me noticing much – all my focus was on running while my legs felt good. Walked the steep hills, jogged the creepy-uppies, run everything else. I was leap frogging with a couple of friendly guys who I’d had a quick shoe chat with (imagine!!) and came down with them into Osmotherley, 30 miles in, 20 to go and the second drop bag checkpoint.

By this point my brain was starting to fry I think and although I was compos mentis enough to produce my headtorch at the spot kit check, when I retrieved my drop bag I looked vaguely in it and stared at the food laid out on the tables and had a momentary brain shut down. I wanted to push on. I had said to Con when we got here I’d take my shoes off and give my aching feet a rub, wring out my socks etc but my feet were feeling fine and I had this sense of urgency to move on. I grabbed a sandwich and bag of fruit out of the bag, put the bag back in the pile for Con to retrieve later, and left within a few minutes.

I was now surrounded by strange people, not the familiar ones I had been frog hopping with for miles before.  It’s funny isn’t it how you get used to the people around you even if you don’t talk to them.  But my new companions were a miserable lot so my head went down again and now my focus was purely on getting to the White Horse checkpoint before dark.  Once I was there, it was 10 miles downhill to home.  Easy.

We looked happy at the beginning!

Ha.  Perhaps this is where I went wrong. I was so focused on getting to White Horse, that when I did, the wheels kind of exploded off. I did slow down in the last couple of miles and I did have to get my headtorch out just before I reached it but the descent to the checkpoint took its toll, and the never ending track to the checkpoint itself through the woods, a nasty muddy track, slowed me to a walk. My back was aching, my stomach was aching, my arms were aching. I was simply exhausted.

After staring blankly at the checkpoint marshals, I pushed on but just before climbing the steps out I stopped and got out my microfleece.  I knew I was struggling, it was now full dark and it would get very cold.  I did a bit of a sort too and emptied the pockets of my stuffed vest into my dry bag in the back and set off again. Once I had climbed back up (I may have used the handrail here), you had to run back along the same track you had run in on and here I passed several headtorches on their way to the checkpoint. I looked at them all carefully in case one of them was Con but they weren’t.

Don’t get me wrong – I can and do races by myself but when you enter with friends, so long as everyone is roughly of equal pace, you stick together and keep each other going. It is one thing to enter a race alone, mentally geared to running alone, but quite another to suddenly find yourself alone when you had been running with your best friend. Coupled with the fact I was feeling guilty anyway, I did feel a bit sorry for myself at this point (ok, I threw my toys out).

Soon enough I had to turn off the escarpment path and turn east for Helmsley.  I got a little lift when my watch said there was only 9 miles to go – I thought it was 10 so that was a bonus. But my heart sank when the path turned to very wet, very thick mud.  I slid and staggered along, my feet getting very cold and wet again (in the last 5 miles or so the rain had stopped so I had pretty much dried off under my coat and leggings.

My back was sore. My feet were sore. My stomach was sore. My arms were sore. My poor biceps had been carrying my forearms in the 90 degree position for 11 hours and they weren’t used to it!! I thought I would design little slings on my vest that I could hook my arms into to rest them.  Yes, as you can see, my poor brain had gone.

My death march continued on, getting passed occasionally by people still able to raise a jog. I arrived at a road and again stared blankly around me.  Where to go? I remembered I had a watch that could helpfully tell me this important information and I consulted it and continued on, staggering down a road into the face of an oncoming car.  I managed to avoid getting squished.

I didn’t remember this bit at all but my only memory of this section was from 3 years earlier in reverse, so I wasn’t surprised I didn’t know where I was. I heard footsteps behind me and I exchange a few words with the chap who joined me, then I heard a familiar sound. The sound of a breath being forced out sharply, as you do when making an effort. Con!! I turned, saw him coming up behind me and gave him a huge hug.

We exchanged our stories; he had dropped so far behind because he had waited at the checkpoint thinking that perhaps I had gone to the loo but he had started feeling much better quite quickly after losing me and when comparing our split times afterwards you could see him reeling me in as the time between us dropped from 20 mins to 8 mins at the previous checkpoint.

I explained I was done in and death marching in. Whilst slipping in this infernal mud. I might as well have worn road shoes but I still didn’t regret my shoe choice. I had to keep stopping to stretch my back, my feet were still incredibly cold and painful and whenever I tried to jog when it wasn’t muddy, I immediately felt nauseous. It was a very long, very painful slog back and took us 3 hours to cover that 9 miles.  You’ve all been there and I don’t need to describe it further.

When we got back we found out there had been over 100 DNFs out of the approximate 500 entries.  The provisional results show 300 finishers so that means there were about 100 DNS.  It was very cold and if you couldn’t run, I can see how there would have been many casualties. On our march back to Helmsley I got very cold, miserably cold but I knew the end was in sight so kept walking fast (something to thank Chris Randall for!).

Although I was utterly miserable for those last three hours, and disappointed that I had imploded so much after running so well and strongly to the White Horse checkpoint, I have only taken positives away:

  1. I am much stronger going up hills.
  2. I am much stronger mentally at running along the boring flats.
  3. I went into this race knowing my endurance wasn’t great so I am not surprised that I only made it to 40 miles.  But I made it to 40 miles very well considering the conditions and elevation and that was the point of this race after all; to boost my endurance.
  4. Although my back went again, I had been managing it throughout most of the race well.  It had been twinging during the drive up so I suspected it would give me trouble but I was able to keep on top of it. Everyone has their weaknesses and when you are exhausted from battling 40 mile an hour winds, when every muscle has been tensed to fight the next gust, if I didn’t have a back problem something else would have started hurting to slow me down.
  5. I finished. With these sort of races, I think finishing is something to be proud of.

So, the first part of my training for Lavaredo has gone to plan and completed successfully.  Next up? Watch this space ;0)

 

 

 

 

 

“The belonging you seek is ahead of you, not behind you”

As many of you will know, the last couple of years have been a tough battle with my back.  I dnf’d all ultras in 2017 despite seeking help from doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, physiotherapists and even an acupuncturist. Throughout all of this I went to a gym and had a private coach for 6 months doing strength training with me.  None of it worked.

However, towards the end of 2017 there was a glimmer of hope as I finished the South2North 2 day Peak District race which was 30 miles on day one and 25 on day two.  With some gentle but consistent training over winter, I successfully completed my local Peddar’s Way Ultra which was 48 miles. South Downs Way 50 was also successful, as was a 30 miler 2 weeks after that, recceing a new course with a friend.  But this hopeful start was dashed by an epic DNF at Skye Trails Ultra in May but then a successful SVP100 finish in August.  There is no rhyme nor reason.  The cause is muscular and if I catch it early I am able to fend off the pain by focusing on lengthening my spine, keeping my pelvis at the right angle.  When I am tired I tend to arch my back and logically one can see the added pressure this brings to bear over distance.

Then a friend helped me with a completely new training plan leading up to Hardwolds 80 in November last year.  Rather than just running randomly, he suggested an 12 week plan which included two blocks of 60 miles a week for three weeks, with one rest week in between.  I had never done this mileage before but was up for giving it a go and the difference I felt in myself was amazing.  Perhaps there is an element of psychology here as I’ve always felt getting the miles in was important but being a single mother has made consistent running hard.  But having the 60 mile weeks as a goal not only got my miles up but ensured I was running consistently, every day except Mondays as a rest day.

At the end of the last block of high miles weeks, I ran the Beachy Head Marathon as my last long run before tapering for Hardwolds.  I was feeling so good, so fit and lacking in any pain, I decided to run it hard.  I had a great race, felt strong and hammered the hills, up and down.  But the following week, going out on a normal run, my back seized and I was forced to walk home.  It continued to spasm over the next few days, forcing my decision to DNS Hardwolds 80 that weekend.

Despite this, however, I was feeling decidedly optimistic.  The training had gone really well – being strong and fit clearly helps me control my back.  It was a stupid mistake to go so hard at the marathon, and I clearly need to improve my form going up and down hills, but I felt no disappointment at missing out at Hardwolds.

Last September the same friend suggested I enter the Lavaredo ballot. To me, going abroad for a race was a whole new level and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it but I thought there was no harm in entering the ballot.  To my amazement, when I received the email confirming my entry in October, the excitement I felt at doing this race surpassed any feelings of wanting to go back to finish a race I had failed at before (I had entered Hardmoors 110 too).  Having been to Chamonix, running with friends for a few days last August, I realised that I love those technical mountain trails and even the climbs and actually I’ve had enough of English winter mud.

So not doing Hardwolds was no issue for me and my plans for 2019 took place; with every run and training week planned, leading up to Lavaredo at the end of June.

So, here we are.  Hardmoors 50 is this weekend.  I’ve done some good training although I feel it has slightly lacked long runs.  But that is what this coming race is for – getting my endurance up gradually over the next few months.  I am happy to endure the English mud for the benefit of training and getting stronger and I am looking forward to starting this race for a 3rd time.  In 2016 I ran this race the opposite way with friends, and did it in 11 hours 48 minutes.  You can see how happy we all are above 😉 but I shall be aiming for the same time, albeit over a supposedly shorter course and going from Guisborough to Helmsley is technically easier as the big climbs are in the first half of the race, with the last 10 miles being generally downhill.

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Will my back go?  I have no idea.  But I have done everything I can to prepare myself and as this weekend’s race is merely a stepping stone, I won’t be devastated if it doesn’t go to plan.  I am looking forward to running with my best mate and other friends who have all been so supportive to me over the last, very hard, year.

Carpe diem :0)

Feature photo credit: Conrad Wild

 

Watch this space 👀

I am building up to writing again. I do enjoy it, but it only happens when I feel passionately about something…. I have so many hopes for this year; already I feel I am suffering a set back but because I started working towards my goal from so far away I am as yet unperturbed.

Don’t worry, I’ll keep it strictly running based 😉

All roads lead to Lavaredo 🙌

St Oswalds 80

This is my first blog. Probably my last too but this race made me feel strongly enough to write about it. I may witter on. Consider yourself warned.

I entered St Oswalds within a week of DNFing Hardmoors 110. I was hungry to get a 100 mile race under my belt and felt my DNF was an unlucky combination of factors I could avoid next time. St Oswalds had always been top of my list and it fitted perfectly over the September weekend that Hardmoors 60 was on that I was no longer interested in running, now that I was out of the Hardmoors Triple Challenge.

The first hint of unease came when I tried to find out about checkpoints. Friends on twitter who had done the race before had told me there were plenty of checkpoints, about every 6 miles, but all I could find on the website were checkpoints spaced very far apart. I sent an email and got a reply listing checkpoints every 10k or so and a place name next to them. This was great but one of the checkpoints listed on the website was not in this email. I replied asking for clarification but never heard back. I asked my twitter friends and one of them kindly emailed me with a description of the checkpoints. Very helpful, but I also needed more detail.  I dropped it, had other stuff to think about at that time and didn’t follow it up.

A couple of weeks before any race is when I really start to focus on it, thinking about where it is, the terrain, pacing and what my plans and aims are for the race. At Lakeland 50 I used a pacing card I had copied and adapted from Joe Butler which worked really well. It has the checkpoints listed on it, distance between checkpoints, total distance to each checkpoint and the time I am planning to arrive at that CP and the subsequent average pace I need to maintain in order to get to that CP by that time.  This is not cast in stone, just something to aim for and even if pacing is way out (as it was when I fell and hurt my back at L50) it is still a useful tool to be able to get out and see what distance it is to the next picnic table and gives me the ability to recalculate timings etc.

So I send another email asking for clarification. Also Joe asked me to enquire whether the two drop bags we were allowed would be returned to us.  By this point Joe and I had agreed he would run it with me rather than just crew me, something I would be very thankful for later.  Whether or not drop bags are returned is crucial to know. Does one only put disposable items in it or can one put a spare pair of shoes or clothing to give you more options to adapt to conditions during the race.

Again, zero response. I was pretty annoyed by now but a day or two later an email was sent out and at least one of my queries was answered; drop bags would not be returned. The description of water, sweets and coke at every CP until Warkworth was alarming and depressing. Joe and I made sure we had plenty of food in our drop bags but they were 47 miles into the race and I was hoping like hell that, as someone said, “oh there’s bound to be more than that at the CPs”. I think I really did go into it thinking no one would only offer jelly babies for that distance.

I had decided to travel up to Northumberland by train, remembering what pieces I was in after HM110 and it also allowed me to return home a day earlier as I wouldn’t need the extra night’s rest in order to drive back after running for 24 hours. Joe was also going to take the train which meant we were relying on taxis to ferry us about. I don’t like this reliance on others for transport but decided it was better than doing all that driving.  It also meant I had to get some poor taxi driver to pick me up from my lodgings at 5.15am as the coach taking us to the start from the nearby finish hotel departed at 5.50am. Oh no wait. Here’s an email, the day before the race, to say the bus is now departing at 5am. Great. I didn’t need that extra hours sleep anyhow. Some explanation would have been nice, which local friends in the know supplied saying it had something to do with the thunderstorms the night before. Hmm.

My humour level has descended to “pretty narked” by now. However, we get there in the end, I managed a power nap on the bus and a beautiful day was dawning over the pretty Holy Island where we were to start. It was lovely to see the newly (and secretly) wedded happy couple Emma and Ryan; Mark, Keith and Glenn (“the Boyz”) and to finally meet Tricia and Johnny. Johnny and Sarah were spending the weekend running around the area and had kindly offered to meet and cheer us on and help in any way they could. I hadn’t seen Sarah for ages so it was lovely to catch up with her. I do love my twitter friends and feel very lucky to have met so many top people.

And so to business. I have my usual panic when I try and load a course onto my watch (it takes ages, then freezes and nothing seems to happen but somehow if I’m patient when I press start, it works) and after the usual RD briefing I pay absolutely no attention to, we are off.

 

 

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A long way to go

St Oswalds is certainly an amazing course and threw multiple terrains at us. To begin with it lulled us with a beautiful castle-lined coastline; we came across gorgeous beaches and quaint villages. Comparable to Hardmoors 60 but without the steps – we thought we were onto a winner! Despite the course elevation profile only showing 5,500 ft over the whole 100 miles, once we had crossed the causeway it certainly started out pretty lumpy.

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Sarah and Johnny cheering us on at the end of the causeway
We knuckled down, concentrating on getting some miles in the bank and the first 10 miles went pretty quickly. As expected, the first little CP was water only which was fine. At the 12 mile CP there were a few jelly babies and I was tucking into my chia flapjacks by this stage. I really don’t want sweet food in the early stages of an ultra – to me jelly babies are a life saver when all appetite has gone and you can just nibble on them. Hey ho, off we go looking forward to the first main CP in Bamburgh, thinking there’d be more substantial food on offer after 30kms. My knees were really hurting for some reason and running down hills was very painful. Joe was also complaining of his legs aching more than they should do at this stage but we put our aches down to my undertraining over the summer and his 100kms run back and forth across the Humber Bridge 4 weeks earlier (I know, don’t ask).

Approaching Bamburgh we met Chris Randall, another face to put to the twitter profile and it was nice to have a little chat with him and compare notes. He was doing the 50k and looking forward to a pint at the end.

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Bamburgh Castle
Having done a small loop inland, coming back towards the coast Bamburgh Castle tantalised us as it appeared and disappeared behind hills and sandy bluffs but eventually we caught it and saw the welcome sight of Johnny and Sarah waiting for us under the castle. Sarah had the most amazing sight in her hands I had seen so far, however, and she passed over the packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Heaven. They lasted about 5 mins, 4 mins 55 seconds longer than they should have done but I was taking care not to inhale crumbs, something I can assure you is not a pleasant experience when running.

To my dismay the Bamburgh CP was yet again water and jelly babies only. Sarah gave me another packet of crisps to take with me and we moved straight off down the coast.

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This was very pretty and we came across beautiful golden beaches and little sandy coves. We passed through little fishing villages and this part strongly reminded us of Hardmoors 60 and we wondered how our friends Kirk, Dennis and Nigel were getting on there. The pain in my knees had disappeared, as had Joe’s achy legs, and I suddenly realised that with the hot day our salts must have been low. At the previous CP to Bamburgh I had not bothered to mix up Mountain Fuel in my bottle which would explain why I was low on minerals. Doh! I made sure not to skip it for the rest of the day. So on we went, settled into a good ultra rhythm of running and walking the hills. It might not have been speedy but we were both mindful of the miles ahead, and assured ourselves that we were going to finish this no matter what and that we were there to encourage each other when one was going through a low patch. I have no shame in telling Joe to slow down when we get to a road section, as being the speedmeister he is, he naturally zooms off when back on his natural habitat of flat tarmac.

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Still happy at Craster
Ever onwards, we pass through a village where I buy a very fetching fuchia pink visor as the sun glare was very harsh, and another one where I buy some Pepperonis – I am really hungry now (having scoffed all my onboard food already) and we finally reach Craster and the 50k race finish. Surely there’ll be food here? No. However that Pepperami has had an unwelcome effect on my tummy so am relieved (in both senses of the word) to find loos.

Sarah and Johnny meet us again, and again supply us with life saving crisps. It was great to see Tricia finishing and we were rather envious of the 50k finishers all tucking into pints and settling down to enjoy the rest of their day. Off their feet. With food. Are you sensing a theme here? Food.  I also took the opportunity to put some time into my feet. All ultra runners know how essential it is to look after ones feet.  I have two issues to look out for. My little toes get squashed and then they swell and then they get more squashed. And the soles of my feet basically start screaming after a certain amount of mileage. My toes are dealable if I wrap them up so at Craster I put a huge blister plaster on the one complaining the most and the usual hot spot under my big toe. All comfy and ready to go.

We started to realise many people were suffering with the heat and were dropping out. So in the heat and the sun our pace quickly dropped into the familiar ultra shuffle and we adopted a run/walk strategy that worked well.

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We passed Boulmer, Alnmouth, commenting on how many golf courses and caravan sites we were coming across.  Warkworth was stubbonly refusing to get closer but at last, come dusk, after dreaming about cheese for many miles, we came into the pretty town of Warkworth and the first drop bag point in a lovely cosy cafe. Ironically it was also the first checkpoint they offered proper food: delicious soup, brownies, bread, tea etc, even a super helpful volunteer who offered to take anything we wanted to the finish, despite rules saying no drop bags would be.  It was a welcome respite and I quickly wolfed down a big tub of cottage cheese (my new not-so-secret ultra weapon), soup, chocolate brownies and the essential cup of tea.

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Still a long way to go

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Headtorches on (dark so early now!) we were looking forward to turning inland and the change of scenery it would bring. The terrain now changed to rutted and muddy field tracks and we watched in awe as a huge blood red moon rose above the town we had just left.  Navigation was fairly easy at this stage; handy red and white tape was normally in a good position and the tracks went on for long enough that the map could go away for a spell while we ran.  Approaching Felton is where we started to encounter cow strewn fields, with steep ups and downs, wet boggy grass and ankle turning divots. Combine that with navigating across a pitch black field, trying to find the correct point to exit the field whilst nervously keeping an eye on the eyes blinking at us in the dark, made the going very tough and slow. Always having to stop and check the map is frustrating and now that the sun had gone down the temperatures plummeted too and it got very cold.

The organisers had thoughtfully put reflectors in such a way that you could navigate from one to the other quite easily. The only trouble was having got used to this we then found several were missing, or broken, and some had just been turned in the wind so that they didn’t reflect in the right direction.  Crossing fields with barbed wire fences and/or hedges means you need to find the right point to get across which can be tricky when you cannot see visual references because of fog or darkness.

At one point we entered a field and the path looked like it could be followed simply enough. But halfway across the field was a new fence. Not on the map. The path clearly crossed it but there was no stile or way over.  We saw two headtorches pause at the stile into the field but then they continued along the road to where there was a bridge over the river and a road that then nearly paralleled our route north of the river across the fields.  Joe suggested we do that but on checking the map there was no way of crossing back over the river before Rothbury and it would have meant going much further. Not what we wanted.  We needed to stay south of the river.  The field we were in had the river as one of its boundaries and I found that the new fence, right where it ended on the river bank, had a small section of rails that we could climb over.  Very carefully, very gingerly, with a pitch black fast flowing river inches away it was not a place to slip.

Fog also rose and made visibility tough. When some miles took 30 minutes you know you are in for a long slow one. Joe was getting very tired and I was anxious to get him to the large checkpoint at Rothbury as soon as possible. He even fell asleep on a stile while I quickly ran up a fence line looking for a way over. The map was telling me we were at a point where the path diverged; the left path took an old railway line straight into Rothbury and the right path wiggled down to the river through fields. We needed to be on the railway line which was just over the fence and across a thick bit of copse but I couldn’t find a way across.  We climbed a wall but only found a huge chasm that looked too hard to get down – I assumed the railway line was at the bottom.  We climbed back over and two more headtorches appeared in the fog and with some relief I turned to them explaining my problem. We all agreed we couldn’t go that way so continued down the hill and eventually found another way over to the railway line.

It was a relief to start jogging again but by now Joe was really struggling and literally falling asleep on his feet so we slowed to a walk. I grabbed his arm and dragged him onwards, trying to talk to him and cajole him to the CP.  If he had passed out and gone over there is no way I could have got him back up again.  We eventually got to the 100k mark at 2am and Joe immediately went to sleep on a padded bench seat. Someone kindly put a space blanket over him and I concentrated on getting us some hot soup and food and started sorting through our drop bags. But I got very concerned when I looked over and saw the space blanket shivering. I was straight over, kicking some poor bloke off the comfy seat next to Joe and waking him up, forcing him to change into the warm dry clothes he’d packed into his drop bag and eat some hot soup. I was horrified to see, when Joe took his waterproof jacket off, all he had underneath was the tech t-shirt he’d worn all day. No wonder he had got so cold and, as we subsequently discovered from the paramedics, the tiredness was the body starting to shut down.

Big trembles were still going through him as we discussed the fact he didn’t feel able to carry on and I must continue without him. I knew carrying on was the right thing to do – I still had some running in me but I found it very hard to leave my running partner behind and I was also anxious about travelling alone through the night in such conditions. A couple were just leaving and Joe suggested I ask if I could join and they very kindly said yes.

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So off we went, into the cold fog, passing the incoming paramedics who looked after Joe. Out of Rothbury straight up and onto moorland. Moorland? Yes, somehow I was transported in time and having slogged up what felt like a small mountain, I was back on Bloworth Crossing, the scene of my previous DNF at a 100 miler. Thankfully I was still running and had on good gear so we were able to move fairly quickly across this bleak windy landscape. My feet, having been excruciatingly painful, were feeling better (I reckon it was the wet freezing grass in the cow fields that numbed them) and a body scan showed remarkedly little was complaining.  After a quick introduction (David and Vicky) and explanation of why I was leaving Joe behind, we all fell into silence as we ran, shuffled, stopped to scratch our heads over which way next and generally stumbled our sleepy way across the moorland.  The full moon, made hazy by the fog that still lingered even up there, cast an eerie light over everything and the heather and stone still did their best to trip us up.

My headtorch battery had run out when I was still with Joe, probably because I had it in full Super Nova mode and it subsequently gave up after 5 hours. So I then had to put ordinary batteries in it, in a less bright mode which I found rather dim. A few hours of this and at around 5am I realised the dimness was the batteries running out again, not just my dodgy eyesight. However running with complete strangers, having thrown yourself at their mercy because you don’t want to be alone, puts you in an awkward position. Having gone from being in charge of navigation I was meekly following the others (keeping an eye on the map to make sure they weren’t going wrong of course) and I didn’t feel comfortable asking to slow when I needed to take off my coat, and then again when I needed a wee.  So when I realised I needed to change my headtorch batteries you’ll probably all roll your eyes when I say I didn’t want to ask for another stop to change them and so I continued on, trying to use the light from the full moon and the torch light from another bloke who had joined us and was just behind me. We had by now entered Harwood Forest and the going was really tough and we were completely slowed to a walk as we picked our way round bogs, sedge grass, logs and all manner of things doing their best to trip up sleepy runners. Not being able to see properly really wasn’t helping matters but my brain was addled and I was too worried about asking for another stop to realise a quick stop to change them would have made my life so much easier. I continued to urge the sun to hurry up and just as we exited the forest itself and emerge onto the tracks between the trees the sunlight was enough to see by. Relief. However, the slow picking our way across the forest floor had taken its toll and everyone remained walking a slow plod and the distances between us grew as we all slowed. I put my down jacket on but the cold still crept in, in its usual sly way. My eyes started drooping and I mused how it had taken this long for sleep to catch up with me and decided that concentrating on navigation really helps focus the mind and sleep just hadn’t got a look in. Now however, following the others in a sheep-like fashion, I was suddenly absolutely exhausted. My feet were screaming again and my walk resembled that of a party goer at 5am in the morning after a good night out. Ah those were the days. I was in misery. The pain in my feet was like walking on hot coals. The miles had been wonky throughout the race (the gpx track from the website stated 104.9) and my mileage was a good 6 or 7 ahead of that advertised at each CP. So despite my watch approaching 80 miles travelled, it was still saying 30 miles to go. I calculated how long it would take me to finish and the answer clashed with my train home. I even thought about dismissing the train home, finding someone to take my daughter to school the next day and continuing no matter how long it took. But the pain in my feet wouldn’t go away. I was in company that, despite the kindness, was strange and above all I simply didn’t care enough about getting to the end. I was miserable, in pain, to all intents alone and this is not what I wanted. It was another 5 achingly slow and painful miles to the next CP. I spent every second wishing it over. When I saw a van at the end of a long track ahead I burst into tears of relief. This is not what running is about for me. It brings tears to my eyes just remembering it. I refrained from throwing myself at the feet of what turned out to be an ambulance crew in charge of the CP and just stood there crying and shaking my head. Vicky was struggling with the cold and had been bundled into the front of the ambulance to warm up – they were not letting her leave until her temperature rose from where it was at 35°. David very kindly offered to give me a piggy back to the finish (! my own friends refuse to do this for me) but I was adamant about my decision and was given a seat in the back of the ambulance. I immediately contacted Sarah and Johnny, who I knew were planning on coming to see us at the finish so hoped they were near enough to possibly rescue me. I had had some contact with Joe after I left and now discovered he had been transported to the finish at Chollerford but was otherwise stuck so he was rescued at the same time.  I shall always be hugely grateful to them for that, as well as the crisps. I’m not sure yet which was more important.

I’m not one to say never again. Who knows  what lies over the horizon. But I have decided that for now 100 milers are not for me. Many out there are able to dig in, grit their teeth and continue into the pain regardless. I can’t because the end result isn’t more important than the pain I am going through. And frankly death marching for 30 miles is simply out of the question to me. So I accept that I am not up to it now. I love the 50-60 mile distance that is runable the whole way, that doesn’t destroy my body or make me question my mental strength. I love the mountains and the variety of pace and scenery that comes with it. I have learned that what keeps me going is a passion for my surroundings and discovering new places. I love navigation, working out where I am and where I need to go; it keeps me focused on the now, not worrying about later stages of the race.  Perhaps I should have been brave enough to leave that CP alone – it might have given me the focus to drive forward instead of merely following.  But I am not one to dwell on what ifs.  It is what it is and can’t be changed and valuable lessons are still taken forward.

So in essence I would say a fantastically tough course; for my purposes it was badly organised this year but I know plenty who would love it so yes, I would recommend it. But not to novices like me: only to those hardy souls who I admire and respect enormously – the 100 mile runners.