I’m sitting here, on a flight to Venice, in a slight state of shock, still not able to grasp the job ahead of me.
In 40 hours I’ll be starting a race I’ve planned running since I entered the Ballot last September. A race I’ve been excited about since I dared consider doing it. But right now, I’m totally relying on the fact I’ve spent so much time preparing and training for it because for the last few weeks I’ve not thought about it at all. Not once.
I’m thankful I’m organised enough to have booked flights, accommodation, and hire car all well in advance. I’m relying on notifications my phone pings to me to do things like check in and print off rental car voucher.
I’m thankful that I’ve trained hard and long, since the end of December, with the sole goal of being ready for tomorrow night’s start because I’ve not run more than three times in the last three weeks since Scafell Sky Race.
I really should know by now how stressful moving is. In 2005 I moved our entire household to Africa (whilst 6 months pregnant) and then moved it all back again in 2008. I moved house in 2010, 2016, 2018 and now again in 2019. Each time it seems to get more stressful – probably because I have less and less money each time and must do more and more of the work myself.
I’ve attended to loved ones going through stressful times themselves; Charlie is finishing her last couple of weeks at a school she’s been at since she was 3. The next stage is understandably frightening to her and she’s very anxious.
Because she’s finished her exams, the school put on a wonderful array of activities for the senior children while they wait for term to end. I’ve had to ferry her about the country while she visits her new school but doesn’t want to miss out on the activities her current classmates are doing.
I lost my job at RunUltra in May. Sadly it’s been coasting without power since funding dried up, although in my spare time (!!!) I’m continuing to field emails and keeping an eye on the website in the desperate hope someone wants to buy it (anyone?! Expert web admin comes part of the deal 😉).
Because of this, I brought forward the move north in order to rent out the Bury flat earlier to help with cash flow. It’s been impossible to look for work as well as focus on the move and Charlie and Lavaredo. I want to be around for Charlie over the summer: to help her settle into our new home as well as prepare her for the terrifying thought of a new senior school in September.
So. The movers came in Tuesday. Charlie is in Snowdon for a week and goes to her father this weekend. Now finally I can think about running Lavaredo. But it’s a bit late. I am genuinely going to have to turn up and hope for the best. I’m exhausted; I’ve not slept properly for weeks so I’m hoping to catch up a bit in the next 40 hours.
If you fancy dot watching, here is the link and I’m number 123. Just cross your fingers for me the dot doesn’t droop and stumble off a mountain edge and somehow I can gather myself for one last monumental effort before I can collapse, in just over a week’s time, in Mallorca with Charlie and friends.
This is possibly the first race I have started which I actually felt prepared for. Mentally I was in a good place; I knew it was going to be the hardest run I’d ever done; I knew the weather was potentially going to be horrendous; I knew it was going to be a long hard slog.
Physically, with the exception of the odd difficult week, training had gone well since I started at the end of December; Hardmoors 55 was a confidence boost at which I’d felt great throughout until my back went. Plus the weather there had toughened me up.
Where to start?
I was sharing an Airbnb cottage with mates Dan and Chris and we all arrived there early evening on Friday. I imagine the scene that ensued will be familiar to everyone; despite going over kit 100 times in the preceding weeks, we all set about emptying our bags and going through our kit again. Chris cooked us supper; much to my alarm….
…. but it turned out to be delicious. While dinner cooked we set off to Threshfield to register and have our kit checked.
We arrived at registration, which was at the finish in the local school, and started with being told all the later buses in the morning, taking runners to the start, were full so we were allocated the 6am bus. Ugh. We then approached the kit check with some trepidation, as it was taken very seriously.
Unlike at other races where a spot check is taken, absolutely everything was inspected and checked. I had a mild moment of panic when my Custom design OS Map I’d had done for the Fellsman was queried by one of my inspectors for not being Explorer OL2, OL30 or the specific Fellsman one you could buy. Thankfully, however, the other one said as it was an OS map with the whole route on it, it was good to go.
We all passed our tests and skipped off back to the cottage for some food and an early night. Ha!
Shepherds pie wolfed, we then had to repack our packs with all the gear. And add those last bits like battery packs. Another dither over whether to pack that extra gilet…. in my case the answer should always be yes. Eventually, I think we went to bed around 11.30pm, having set my alarm for 4am.
Why on earth 4am? Because I need to snooze at least once before I get up. I need time to faff in the mornings. I need time to make tea. I need time to contemplate whether or not I can go to the loo at that hour, usually not. And we had to drive to the Fellsman car park and get a shuttle bus to the finish in time to catch the bus to the start.
We left the house at 5.15am, and set off in search of the car park. Turned out to be in a quarry outside of the village. I bagged a sneaky spot by the gate and as luck would have it a mini bus turned up straight away. Oh and do I need to tell you it was raining? No. The 2019 Race Weather Fairy has clearly buggered off on holiday.
We got to the finish about 15 minutes before our bus. People were drifting in looking a bit pie-eyed and wandering around. Breakfast could be had if you’d ordered and paid for it but we had chosen not to. I had been very organised the night before and made myself a peanut butter sandwich for this time; eating before I left was simply too early for me. Sadly I lacked the wherewithal to bring it with me.
The bus arrived, we all trooped on. Dan and I sat together and Chris sat across the aisle, with a Fellsman veteran next to him, and Chris wasted no time asking for tips. I drifted off to sleep listening to the man giving instructions about which side of the wall to stick to…… go up the left side of that gully…… I hope Chris is taking notes…..
The start in Ingleton was in the Community Centre and the huge hall quickly filled up with runners, all in various stages of dress. Looking outside, the sky was fairly bright but it was raining so we agreed to start the run wearing full waterproofs. Jamie found us – another Twitter mate long known but never met so it was great to meet him.
With echos of Hardmoors, we troop outside for the start in the rain and much to our amusement, as the field slowly started across the playing fields, it immediately split into two groups. I didn’t expect to use the nav on my watch so quickly but we decided to go with the majority who branched left. From the moment we left the playing fields we went up and didn’t stop until we reached the Ingleborough trig 3 miles later. It was to be the easiest ascent of them all.
A friend Lio was crewing for the 3 Peaks which was also being run that weekend and said he’d hop over to run a few miles with us. I met him coming down from Ingleborough as I was on the way up. Chris and Dan were already slightly ahead of me so I spent the next few miles chatting to Lio and learning a great deal about descending from this amazing runner from the Alps. We caught up to Dan for a bit, and jogged together through Chapel le Dale and started the next ascent to Whernside, where I lost Dan again. Lio stayed with me until the trig and peeled off back to his car and crewing duties.
I turned back on myself and started the run back down Whernside wondering where the boys were. The plan had always been to run this together. But I was reluctant and stubborn enough not to be lured faster than the pace I felt was sensible given what was ahead of us. I realised I wasn’t going to catch them up and they weren’t waiting for me anywhere so I started to mentally prepare myself to continue this journey alone.
The next climb was Gragareth. The steepest and nastiest climb I have ever done but only the first of many such climbs and the poles finally came out and were appreciated going up this muddy gradient.
You’ll notice a familiar theme through most of the photos; fog/cloud/rain/murk with bog/grass/steep gradient. We really had all the weather throughout the day but mostly it was simply wet. Even after the dry weather we’ve been having, my feet disappeared into bog up to my knees several times. No, the poles don’t help here.
I made good time running along the ridge from Gragareth to Great Coum. Although the ground was very wet up here, I seemed able to skim along the top without great issue and seemingly made up a fair bit of ground as I found the boys waiting at the next big checkpoint at Dent, 20 miles in. Tongue lashing given, I quickly forgot my ire as my relief took over at finding the boys, not only because I wanted to be with them but it also meant I wouldn’t be grouped alone with strangers for the night section later.
On we went, along a short road section, before the start of another long climb to Blea Moor and then down to the next food checkpoint at Stonehouse, about 27 miles in. We had just arrived in the tent and sat down when a huge hail storm hit. Several people were hanging onto the tent while the clowns fed and watered us. I had two bowls of the best pasta ever here.
Onwards we went, again another monster climb up to Great Knoutberry Hill, a particularly disheartening out and back where the trig never seemed to get any closer. My legs were pretty dead now and we noticed at the top how there appeared to be clear skies over to the left of us and clear skies over to the right of us but ahead, in the direction we were going, was still black and menacing clouds. Hey ho.
We started the descent and found a good route around the bog down to the next major checkpoint at Redshaw. After another thorough dousing Dan started fantasizing about the next checkpoint being a village hall; where we could change into our dry clothes for the night in warmth and comfort. Where there’d be a loo (something I’d eaten wasn’t sitting right in my tummy).
Of course it was another damp but warm tent, albeit with the cheerful volunteers manning it. We spent a long time here, and it was also where we were to be grouped for the night as dark was falling quickly.
One of the interesting aspects of The Fellsman is that, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to cross the moors at night alone (too many werewolves?). So groups of 4+ are made at various checkpoints depending on the time of day and when you happen to turn up. You must stick together until dawn, when the next major checkpoint after sun-up allows you to disband.
We changed into warm, dry clothes and when we were ready Chris told the CP manager and he grouped us with 4 other people and we became a party of 7, with Chris in charge of the group listing, which had to be checked off at each CP over the night to ensure we stuck together.
So, with these random strangers who set off ahead, we went back outside into the cold wet evening, straight into the longest stretch of cold wet bog we had experienced. I was slightly irritated I’d just changed into my warm dry socks but I didn’t regret the change and as is the best way, just shrugged and walked through most of it.
Our new team mates seemed to know what they were doing navigation wise. They had various means of navigating, as we did, but they seemed keen to be ahead and I occasionally put in my two pennies worth when there was a debate over direction. It was a system that was to work fairly well throughout the night. By this stage I was tired and fairly withdrawn so wasn’t really up to chatting with strangers and I hope they didn’t think I was too aloof.
The next climb was Dodd Fell and we went straight up into a heavy mist as full dark came upon us. I took the lead for a change, and we headed down off the hill. Eventually, after a bit of confusion and scrambling over a couple of walls, we were on track for Fleet Moss checkpoint. Another good stop, resting and eating, we moved on to the next bit that our team mates were moaning about but Chris, Dan and I were actually looking forward to – a road section!
Everyone was muttering about the huge change to the route that prevented us crossing the moor and forcing us down the road before cutting back up to the moor, presumably around someone’s land who didn’t want us on it. It seems to me that saved us a lot of time – it was a good few miles to the next checkpoint and doing that straight across the moor would surely have taken us a lot longer.
Apart from the steep descent that had my quads screaming again, it was bliss to be on a firm surface and getting some forward momentum. Although we wanted to trot earlier, it was clear to us none of the others was interested in running so we didn’t suggest a trot along the road at the bottom.
The next instructions were to go back up to the moor, via a route that was to be strictly adhered to and which had our team mates struggling for the first time to find the elusive checkpoint on Middle Tongue.
This is the 3rd occasion I’ve gone through the night (running that is, not clubbing) and as on the previous two occasions, I hit the wall at about 1am. It is particularly hard to fight the urge to sleep when you are also climbing a slope that looks like a wall in front of you, and some complete strangers are clearly leading you astray and off course. When they stopped again, Chris sat down and told me to stop and rest too for a minute.
I gazed around blankly then got my map out and checked myself to see where we were and if the others were looking for the right coordinates. Chris reckoned we needed to be further east and he was right. We went back on ourselves slightly, crested another rise and bingo, there was the tent, lurking with the volunteers not getting out but punching our tallys through a gap in the zip because it was so cold.
We turned and saw a sudden horde of headtorches approaching up the hill so we cracked on towards the next CP at Hell Gap. Progress is slow; we are still walking directly across moorland so the poles had been superglued to my hands for hours now. However tough the going is, because your speed is so slow you really don’t retain any body warmth and it turned out Dan was starting to suffer. To my surprise and sadness he said he would drop at the next CP; he was simply too cold and his quads were shot.
Having got past Fleet Moss and heading towards Hell Gap, I really felt we were on the homestretch; in fact we were merely in the last 1/3 and there was still a long way to go. Unfortunately the CP at Hell Gap was only a man in a truck trying to stay warm under a duvet (!) so Dan had to push on, luckily only another mile down the road to a proper CP with tent and food.
I was very sorry to see Dan stop. He’s a great mate and good company on a long haul. But I know what it’s like – once you are that cold there is no coming back. Having taken on more food and drink (I’m just drinking tea and eating the odd biscuit now) we set off again.
One of our team mates immediately announced he had a tip from someone at the crew stop and instead of following the path down the road, we went straight across into a wet boggy field. Two of them went ahead to scout which way and the rest of us trudged wearily across yet more bog (will my feet ever dry up?).
We were in a random field, climbing ridiculously steep slopes; then we had to clamber over huge dry stone walls with wire across the top and I watched enviously as headtorches bobbed along the nice dry road below us. We continued to clamber up and up, searching for Buckden Pike, the next peak to summit.
I was suddenly aware of a huge drop to my right. Don’t look don’t look don’t look and to my relief we crested that particular climb to see Buckden Pike ahead of us. Was that light the first hint of dawn behind us?
To our collective horror, the drop that had been on our right curved round in front of us and a huge cut lay between us and Buckden. There was no way we could get down and back up the other side and a quick check of my map showed the original path lay on the other side of the gap. I cursed and just as I was about to round on the navigator, one of the others suddenly whooped and showed us the valley head was just to the left of us.
Huge relief all round and we trooped round the amazing natural feature and on to join the original path up to Buckden Pike. I was feeling good again so led the way up to the summit, another mountain accomplished.
So, just Great Whernside to go; surely we were only a couple of hours away from the end now? I had absolutely no knowledge of the area at all. I had only visited once before to run with friends from Malham, so I had no concept of where we were in relation to the start or finish. The tracking card I usually make (see above) to carry had crumpled to nothing in the wet so I was literally going on the gpx from my watch or map reading and had no clue anymore as to the distances to the next checkpoint, or even the finish.
We made it to Top Mere (a complete blank – can’t remember that one at all!!), then down to the checkpoint at Park Rash where the night grouping was disbanded at last. The other team bid us farewell and went off, leaving Chris and I to finish together. It was here it dawned on me that we still had 10 miles to go – which could easily take us another 3-4 hours.
Strangely that didn’t perturb me particularly. I was tired but unsurprised and it was just time to get up and keep going. It helped greatly to know I had nowhere to go on Sunday so it didn’t matter how long it would take us – we’d passed the last cut off easily and no matter what now we would finish.
Chris and I started the climb to Great Whernside – the usual heavy bog at the base, then the steep climb up the side of this monster. Sunday had decided to be benevolent towards us and the day was sunny, albeit still windy and chilly. It was lovely to see it out and see the stunning views. I really hadn’t expected the vastness of the landscape that was so reminiscent of the Lakes; those huge glacier-carved valleys are truly stunning and I was happy to stop and rest and take it all in every now and again.
I had pulled a little ahead of Chris towards the top of Great Whernside where there were great boulders lying around all over the place so I lay down briefly on one, soaking up the warmth of the sun. Chris arrived and pulled me up and on we went, finding the CP, getting the clip and of course visiting the trig before turning for home.
The descent off Great Whernside was the most dispiriting; whether because it was literally miles of bog or because I was just exhausted beyond belief I’m not sure. But it took forever, down and down, Chris now navigating. One of the defining memories I’ll have of this place is the scale of the walls. Every single one of them, without exception, was at least 5ft high. Did this used to be Troll country? Why on earth were these walls so big? We passed stone wall after stone wall, counting them to find the right one to turn down.
At last, we leave the moorland behind and start crossing livestock fields, which then turned into a track. My feet were killing me at this stage – little toes squashed and angry from all the uneven terrain and although I’d put on blister plasters at Park Rash, everything was screaming again.
There were still a few miles to go so I stopped briefly and downed a couple of neurofen and 3 Pro-Plus. Chris, going through his own pain and down patch, was then subjected to my sudden annoying cheerfulness and verbal dissection of the stock fencing we were going past – sorry Chris!
We hit the road, the last checkpoint (24 of them!!), and started down the final part of our journey. Chris was grumbling about the never ending road and the steepness of the descent, but although my quads were painful too, I was hitting that high of knowing we were at the end – we had done it! Or it might have been the Pro-Plus. Whatever. I was so so happy.
I texted Dan. When he dropped it was agreed he would take my car back to the cottage to sleep and wash then come back to collect us. Dan was waiting for us just outside the school – it was so lovely to see him.
We staggered in like the walking dead. I’m still feeling a little spaced, Chris is clearly shattered, Dan is running around after us as if he hadn’t just gone through the night himself. We were given Fellsman buffs and our tally discs were taken off us to be checked and sent to us later.
I am really the most proud of finishing this race above all others. It was one of those occasions when everything actually came together and worked and more importantly my head and back were in the right place. Plus its reputation as a tough route is warranted – many of you will love this race and I would definitely recommend it.
Did the poles help my back? I’m sure they did. But I’m also sure the long checkpoints helped too. Sitting down and resting always helps. At the end of Hardmoors, when my back had been at its absolute worst for 10 miles, cramping and stopping me regularly with pain, after sitting down for 10-15 minutes I was able to walk back down the road without any pain at all.
Dare I say Hardmoors looks like a parkrun to me now – all those flagstone paths are so easy to run on! I’m not good at running across moorland – I don’t like it and don’t want to so don’t be put off by our slow time. This was always going to be a long hike for me and many of you would complete it much quicker.
The Fellsman encapsulated everything I hate the most. But that’s why I did it. If I can go for that long in that terrain and hate it, it should set me up for doing a similar distance and elevation but in a stunning location I want to be in. So I go forward feeling great about Lavaredo and Scafell. They’re both huge challenges in their own right, but at least I can say I’ve set myself up in the best way I can for them.
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.
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.