It all started at Halstead

I ran the Halstead Marathon last Sunday. I ran a Personal Best of 3 hours 44 minutes. I loved it.

In 2012 I ran my first marathon at Halstead. I did it in 4 hours 34 minutes. I hated it.

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Finishing in May 2012

I don’t know why I chose to do a marathon. I can’t remember the thought process that got me there. What I do remember is coming back from Africa in 2008 and piling on the pounds.

Although I’ve always run as a means of fitness, I stopped in all the chaos of moving continents with a 2 year old and two dogs, not to mention a husband who was too busy working to help at home.

So when I got tired of being slightly dumpy, I started running again the following summer. I didn’t run in winter in those days. How different life is now.

On one particular run I did 8kms. 8!!! I returned home ecstatic with this immense distance I had achieved. The feeling of achievement and accomplishment filled me with excitement. The next day I set out to do exactly the same again.

Within a mile I rolled and tore my right peroneal tendon. I was horizontal on the trail for some time with the pain; a dog walker found me; husband was called to rescue me and I spent 6 months seeing a physio and getting back on my feet.

But that feeling of euphoria stayed with me throughout that winter. I champed at the bit to get back running and find that feeling again.

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Halstead 2014 with a blown calf but much fitter and happier. Photo credit Hazel Buist

On 1st March 2010 I set off on a 3 mile jog on a beautiful sunny day. And started entering 5 and 10k races. I honestly can’t remember why I made the leap straight into marathons, but I did.

I joined Halstead Road Runners after a riding friend suggested I join her club and it was through the club I learned about the marathon they organised.  It’s held all around the beautiful, quiet and surprisingly hilly lanes of north Essex.

I followed a marathon training plan, from an app on my phone. I have to say, even at the time, I felt it didn’t provide enough long runs, or even that the long runs were long enough. But I followed it and toed the line in May 2012.

I hated it. It was a classic case of train just enough to get to 20 miles then crash. I still look at the formulaic marathon plans that you can pick up off the internet and wonder why the long runs only go up to 20 miles.

I ran with my friend happily chattering round and as things started to get harder towards 20 miles I started grinding to a walk and my friend eventually (and rightly) kept going.

I then spent a tortuous 6 miles walking and jogging painfully, my glutes seizing regularly, cursing and feeling an absolute failure. I finally waddled in 4 hours 34 mins and practically burst into tears at the finish. I had walked. I was a failure.

Before people criticise me for saying that, I must just point out that no marathon finish is a failure. But if you set yourself a goal and if you don’t meet that goal, you feel you’ve failed. To me running a marathon was just that. Running. Walking meant I hadn’t trained enough.

Of course, despite vowing off running marathons ever again, I did actually plan on running in 2013 and I started training in the January with every intention of training better. But in March/April I was struck with cold after cold and training became non existent and I simply wasn’t starting unless I felt confident my training had got me fitter.

And that summer, Facebook suggested I might like to follow a new page called SVP100. What was this? A local race! That ran literally along the bottom of my road. But wait a minute…. 100 KILOMETRES?? What was this madness?

I followed the page with interest. Read the comments posted by runners leading up to the event, read the comments made by runners after the event. And, most importantly of all, I read the blog of someone who started SVP and would later go on to be a friend, mentor and coach; Dan.  This blog was instrumental in giving me the idea to do this mad race. I’ve blamed him ever since.

Why? Dan DNF’d the race.  How could that persude me to try it? It was reading not only his account of the race, but his reasons for not finishing and the reasons that he was OK with not finishing.  Reading this took away the fear of failing and it actually gave me the confidence to give it a go. Because if something didn’t work out, and I couldn’t finish, it wouldn’t be the end of the world; I wouldn’t be the failure I thought I was after the marathon, and it would all just contribute to my experience and knowledge going forward.

I signed up for SVP100 2014 the moment entries opened in October 2013 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Kate Allen SVP100 2014
The finish of SVP100 2014

I’ve run Halstead a total of 4 times and I believe this year is my last.  I’ve run many other marathons in between, but Halstead will always remain the best for me and so special for starting me on the road to ultras.

The Fellsman ⚒

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.

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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….

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…. 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.

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No run is complete without the usual salute.

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…..

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A dull photo, but it shows the terrain well that we had for the majority of the race.

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.

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Descending Ingleborough, with Ribblehead Viaduct in the far distance top right

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.

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Me, Dan and Lio. Photo credit: SportSunday

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.

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Looking back down the climb to Gragareth

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.

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I didn’t dare ask for more from this clown

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.

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Photo credit: Dan Thompson. 

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.

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Dan getting warm at last

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.

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Buckden Pike just before dawn

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.

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Finally! Sunshine

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.

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Happy to make the last summit of Great Whernside

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.

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I think this was somewhere near Top Mere

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.

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We did it!!!

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.

 

 

My last Will and Testament before Fellsman

The Fellsman is in 9 days. At some point during the 20 hours thereafter I may well die.

This race was one of the first on my list to do when I ventured, innocently, into the world of ultras. Gazing around me in wonder, I heard about a notorious race across the Yorkshire Dales that only the most hardy consider and thought YES! I’ll do that. Sounds nice.

Travel forward in time and experience, to when Chris Randall asked if I fancied running it with him and Dan Thompson. Good mates that I’d ended up finishing SDW50 with last year (or, more accurately, they found me wandering on the trail and dragged my sorry arse home).

I considered and decided it would be a good training run for Lavaredo. How so, I hear you say. Well, they might be very different terrains but in terms of elevation, difficulty underfoot and time on feet, the Fellsman should set me up well. In fact I’m rather hoping after the bog hopping slog of Fellsman, Lavaredo will be a joy by comparison.

I’ve only started really focusing on the Fellsman since Hardmoors. And it’s only really been in the last few weeks as the lads and I discuss and prepare for the race, that I realise how hard it’s going to be.

It might “only” be just over 60 miles, but it has 11,000ft of elevation as it climbs some iconic hills in the Yorkshire Dales and, of course, there are the moors.

I know exactly why the American lads were warned “don’t stray off the path” in the film American Werewolf in London and it had nothing to do with werewolves.

I am starting to suspect the terrain may well be very similar to that of the Trotternish Ridge of Skye. And one where my friend Emma advised me to embrace and learn to love the 30 minute mile. Dear god. Some of you may remember Skye nearly killed me. The Fellsman definitely has the potential to finish me off.

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However, I have added a new weapon to my arsenal. Poles. Yes. I have actually bought poles. And I like them. And the more I research the race the more I believe they may actually save me. And save my back.

I have enjoyed going over the map and plotting the route.  There are some major changes to this year’s race and there’s nothing more I love doing than pouring over a map, trying to visualise the terrain.

Although technically you must navigate yourself from checkpoint to checkpoint, there are only a certain number of ways one can go from A to B via bog so there are gpx files available and comparing those to the notes from the Race, and a bit of healthy competitiveness between me and Chris over who plots the best route (obviously me) and I’m pretty confident we won’t get lost*.

I even ordered my own custom OS map so that I could get the whole route on one map instead of two.

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Putting all my gear together has been interesting. The mandatory kit list is long. 5 long sleeve tops!! An emergency foil poncho hoodie as well as a bivvy bag?! 3 pairs of trousers?!

And somewhere it is advised a 16l -20l pack is optimal. After putting everything together in a ridiculously huge pile, I realised my largest race vest is 12l. Damn.

I have an 18l Osprey pack which I use for day trips and walks with C. That will have to do. It’s nothing like a race vest however; no pockets at the front. I’ve bought some bungee cord to make up loops for the poles.

I took it out for a run for the first time the other day. Holy shit it was heavy and bulky.

Those poles really do have their work cut out.

So, if you never hear from me again after next Saturday you’ll know why. I’ll have stepped onto the moor and immediately sunk into it without trace.

*Disclaimer; written after 2 glasses of wine so ridiculously optimistic at the time of writing

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)