The hill is made from Millstone Grit. It is a magnificent sight, looming over the horizon as you drive over from Yorkshire, or up to Cumbria. It seems to fill your eyes, its long flat shape as striking as its height. It is especially striking when you know you are going to have to run up and down its height several times over several hours.
Tour of Pendle. We had been well acquainted for a while. In 2014, I stood in freezing cold weather at the bottom of Geronimo, a fearsomely steep descent off Spence Moor, and waited to hand FRB his lucky egg. Really. He had wanted me to carry a hard-boiled egg in case he felt, after sliding and careering off Geronimo, that an egg is what would get him up the next climb. We had only just started going out, and we weren’t “out,” so his two club-mates, who were also there supporting, managed to politely suppress their surprise when I said I was there to support FRB, and again when I produced the egg. I watched the runners come careering down Geronimo. Some ran, some fell, some slid. One slid and slid and hit rocks, so he ran the rest of the race with a sore backside, I presume, and a large hole in his shorts. After FRB had passed – and refused his egg – I took myself and the egg up over the top of the hill to meet him at the top of the last climb, the wonderfully and accurately named Big End. The clag had dropped over Pendle Hill, as it often does, and I walked up and over the moor in deep fog. It was unearthly and spooky, not because of Pendle Witches (I think there are scarier things in history than women who villagers decide are a threat and persecute for no good reason) but because of the dense eerie quiet that fog produces. I didn’t really know where I was going, beyond a vague direction, so I sat down on some bracken and checked my map. I could see nothing, but faintly, then, I heard some voices. I walked towards the sound to find FRB’s clubmates Sharon and Steve, and walked with them the rest of the way to the top of the Big End, where we shivered until FRB appeared, looking exhausted and asking for his mammy (he was only partly joking). He refused his egg again. It ended up in a bin in Barley village.
It was an odd and surreal experience, and it made me want to run Tour of Pendle, so I entered last year but couldn’t run. This year, I could. I’d missed a couple of weeks of training after the Yorkshire marathon because of depression and then a horrible cold. After that I’d stuck to my training plan, but I still didn’t feel trim or fit. FRB had taken me on a recce of 5 of the checkpoints, which was supposed to make me understand where I needed to navigate, but because we didn’t do them in order, it had the result of confusing me further. The day before the race was my birthday, and I spent a lovely day having posh lunch with my mother, then a matinee and pizza with FRB. I may have had some prosecco then some wine then a bit more wine, so it wasn’t ideal race preparation, and perhaps that’s why on the morning of the race, I was in a state. I haven’t been in that much of a state since the Three Peaks, and I think perhaps that was due to a comment that FRB had made, quite lightly, a few months earlier: that he thought Tour of Pendle was harder than the Three Peaks.
This swirled around my head constantly, along with the fact that where I would be in the field, I may have to navigate. With a map! And a compass! Neither of which I am particularly good at using. (Yes, I will get better.) FRB had given me a map where he had carefully added bearings at important junctions, as well as other features that weren’t on the OS map: SW for solid wall, BW for broken wall, FP for footpath, PoS for Pile of Stones. But I knew there were some points where I would probably have to take a bearing, and I couldn’t rely on good visibility. All this wracked my nerves.
I’d packed my race kit the day before my birthday. How’s that for being prepared? Early on Saturday morning, I was ready and on time to pick up FRB. (Punctuality from me used to be unusual but FRB has finally trained out most of my chaos on race days. Now, I make lists.) He’d asked me what time I wanted to arrive at race HQ, also known as the village hall in Barley, and I’d said 9am, as that would give me a good 90 minutes to freak out, as well as make the half dozen toilet trips that I would “need”. We got there on time, parked near enough to the village hall that we wouldn’t have a half mile walk after the race (note that point: it will be relevant later), and went to get coffee and eat Soreen (in my case) or a cheese scone (FRB) in the canteen area, where a village hall volunteer was frantically laying cardboard to counteract muddy fell shoes. She said that they usually have to spend several hundred pounds to clean the carpet, so the cardboard was worth it.
Weather. We had been checking Mountain Forecast all week. I like Mountain Forecast. It gives you a choice of elevations, and it has most hills you’d care to run up. At the height of 558m, Pendle’s weather had been predicted to consist of light snow showers, a wind chill of minus 6 but nothing worse. There was rain forecast for the day before, so it would be boggy underneath. But visibility was predicted to be good, which soothed my terror a bit.
We went back to the car to get changed. I decided on a Helly long-sleeve thermal under my vest, shorts, my rainbow socks, and – no decision necessary – Mudclaws. My Just-in-Case equipment included full kit, of course: full body waterproof, hat, gloves, map, compass and whistle, as well as an extra long-sleeved t-shirt, an extra pair of mittens, a foil blanket and enough food to run three Tours of Pendle. I had marzipan balls stuffed with coconut and nuts, Soreen balls, half a cheese scone that FRB had given me, two small Mars bars, plus two small bottles of electrolytes, a bottle of flat Coke, and 1 litre of water in my bladder. I thought that made me ready for most things. Even to run 16.5 miles and climb 5000+ feet, and do six climbs and descents of this:
The field of runners was a sea of beards and buffs. And some women. We were counted through a gate, and then we were off, in a low-key, “oh the person in front of me is running so I’d better run too” kind of way. I knew that there was a mile of climb up a track until Pendle Hill, and I concentrated on running steadily. The weather was OK: it was cold but not bitter, and it wasn’t snowing. Yet.
Then we got to the hill. It was covered with deep snow, and I realised that this would be to my advantage, because after 300 or so runners had gone before me, a clear path had been tramped through the snow. Little Red Riding Hood had breadcrumbs; I had a slushy brown channel. Navigation might not be as big of an issue as I thought. There were lots of runners around me as we all climbed. I stopped running pretty soon, because I knew I needed to conserve energy, particularly in snow. As we got higher up, the weather came. Light snow showers my foot: they were not light, and they were sideways. I stopped to put my waterproof on, and it never came off again.
The first couple of miles passed quite quickly, as I was busy thinking one thing: what about the dibbers? FRB had told me that at one Tour of Pendle they’d been given a ring of bread tags (the plastic tags that tie the plastic bags around loafs). At each checkpoint you hand in a tag. Low-fi, and functional. As soon as I set off, I thought: dibbers. Had I missed the dibber handing-out when we picked up our numbers? Was it in the corner behind the group of runners and I’d not noticed it? I checked out everyone who ran past me: did they have anything that looked like a ring of plastic bread tags? I couldn’t see anything and I was too stubborn to ask: I thought it was better to get to CP1 and if they disqualified me then, at least I’d have had a few miles out on Pendle. At one point, I told myself that I could hand them a jelly-bean at each checkpoint. I fabricated all these scenarios in my head, in great detail, including with what words I would plead for a jelly-bean substitution, and they got me to CP1, which was a man standing at a field gate or maybe a wall, who simply clicked his clicker and let us go. No dibbers required. I kept my jelly-beans.
The path to CP2 was over the moor. The snow intensified. I don’t know if it was stinging snow or actual hail, but it began to bite. At one point I put my hand up to the side of my head and realised my buff had a coating of ice. I was still warm otherwise though, and in good spirits, not least when a man at CP2 handed me a green jelly baby. Tour of Pendle has a cut-off: you have to get to CP2 in two hours. It’s very generous, and far more generous than Three Peaks cut-offs, which – although I know why they exist – I suspect are unfairly tight for women. To be discussed. I got to CP2 in 1:15, and realised I’d been so busy concentrating on getting there in time that I’d forgotten to start fuelling. The route after CP2 turned out of the weather and there was some respite, so I took a gel, drank something and set off up to Spence Moor. A young woman in front of me intrigued me. I admire anyone who takes on a race like Tour of Pendle, no matter what they’re wearing, but she was wearing what looked like a walking jacket and had a huge rucksack on her back. Huge, that is, compared to what most people were carrying, which was waist packs or at the most 30L backpacks. I ran behind her for a while and watched her bag shifting hugely from side to side and wondered how she tolerated it. But she did, and she got round so good for her.
Up to Spence Moor. The field was spacing out now and I could only see one woman ahead of me, but when I got to Geronimo, there were more people around. Geronimo. My god. It looked like the side of the Eiger. I was planning to slide down some of it but I knew there were rocks, and I treasured my shorts too much. I said this to a woman running near me and she said, “I don’t care about shorts: I’d be more worried about my skin.” Good point. No sliding. It was slow going, and treacherous, and I was glad when it was over. Here is an example of one Geronimo descending technique:
Image: Phil Dornan
Note: I didn’t take a camera and it was too cold to take out my iPhone, and no-one photographed me running beyond the first half mile so I’ve borrowed all these images from the FRA Facebook page. If anyone objects, let me know and I’ll take them down.
And here is what Geronimo looked like afterwards:
Image: Matthew Warters
Two climbs done, four to go.
The run to CP5 is a blur. I know it was on a footpath, I know I was behind a slower runner but not bothered about overtaking him. I think I did eventually and he said, “well done,” because fell runners at my position in the pack are nice and encouraging. (I can’t speak for the fast ones.) My feet were cold by now after the snow of Geronimo, and I just wanted them to warm up. I’ve got no memory of CP5, but I do remember CP6, because it was at the top of the next big climb. I ate half a mars bar, and started marching (trudging) up. A man was descending, and chatting to all the climbers. He said something like, “nice day for it,” to a man in front of me, and he responded. “Aye. Better than shopping.” Which even though my feet were extremely cold and I had three more climbs to come I couldn’t argue with.
CP6 done. CP7 was down at the bottom of the hill, which of course you had to climb again. That one, I did slide, and though my backside froze, it was worth it. It also got me some places. I paid for it by having my feet replaced with blocks of ice. Tour of Pendle veterans all talk about The Big End with awe. It’s the last climb, and it is hard, but the penultimate one is harder. But I didn’t know that, which was an advantage. I have a technique now for climbing hills and running intervals: I count. I got up Whernside by counting up to 50 then resting. This time, I just kept going, without looking up. Never look up.
Up to the top of the hill, and then a long run before the descent down to CP9 and the Big End. And the weather turned for the worse. There was a blizzard, and a white-out. It was snowing so hard that the clear path though the snow that I’d been following all the way round disappeared. The field had spread out now, and I’d overtaken a woman who had started walking, because I was so cold, I had to keep moving. It was daft of me to rely on other people to show me the way, but I did, and now I could only follow a runner up ahead who kept disappearing into the blizzard and clag. Visibility was challenging:
Image: Nigel Hodson
I didn’t get lost. More white-out, more blizzard, and then suddenly through the snow, a stone cairn, and a British flag! I honestly nearly cried. I think it was the result of battling through such weather, and then seeing something familiar and warm.Thank you, Rob Januszewski, who apparently mans CP8 year in, year out.
There was more bum-sliding down to CP9, where apparently there was a food station that I missed (though it may have been cleaned out by the time I got there). I remember the cow bells though. What thoroughly heroic marshals. I asked most of them if they were warm enough, though I’m not sure what I’d have done if they’d said “no:” dug out the t-shirt in my bag? Offered them a warming tot of electrolytes? But they all smiled and said they were fine.
I didn’t mind the Big End in the end (how many ends can I get?) because it was the last one, and it was nearly over. I just did my counting and kept moving and didn’t look up. I was following closely behind a woman who kept slipping and swearing. At one point she belched, and I said, with sympathy, “gels can be hard to digest, can’t they?” She said, “it’s not the gels. It’s the beer I had last night.” It had to end eventually, though I couldn’t quite believe it when it did. At the top, there was a stone stile to cross, and this was awful. FRB had given me instructions: small steps. Mince your way up. Try to avoid lifting your legs high. He said this was the best way to avoid cramp, and he was right, because I minced and minced, and I didn’t get cramp. But the stone stile nearly got me, and the stones were covered with sheet ice, which was perilous for the combination of exhausted legs and Mudclaws.
Image: Jamie McIlvenny. Caption: I’m just going outside. I may be some time.
Homeward. Another run across the moor. I was running by now with Lucy (the beer belcher) and Kirsty. They looked at my shorts and said, “aren’t you cold? we’re in thermals.” I think I was past feeling much by that point. And by now my internal monologue consisted of “GET ME OFF THIS F********* HILL”. I had had enough. We ran together, down to CP11 (which had previously been CP4), then along the track, and – bliss – shelter from the weather. Lucy turned to me at one kissing gate and asked me my name, and I asked hers, then we ran together all the way to the finish, past the reservoir, down into Barley. I have never been so pleased to see a building. Civilization. Something that meant that I was no longer going to battered by snow on a bleak open moor.
4 hours, 42 minutes.
FRB was waiting at the finish, and – after high-fiving Lucy and thanking her for her company (and if I didn’t, thanks Lucy, it was a real comfort) – I fell into him and said “hold me.” He did, but then quick-marched me to the car because he knew I had to get changed quickly. I did, but it was difficult, because I realised that though I’d drunk flat coke, I hadn’t taken any electrolytes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. So I’d run for hours and taken on no salt. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I paid for it. As soon as I tried to take my socks off, my inner thighs cramped and it was agony. I yelled and yelled. The only saving grace was that it had happened in the car so I didn’t scare passing children, and that I wasn’t trying to get up a hill at the time. FRB took my socks off for me – THANK YOU – and eventually I got changed. He said that when he’d finished, he’d seen runners at their car boots – the car boot is the Fell Runners Dressing Station – attempting to untie their laces but shivering too much to do so. Oh dear, I said, with sympathy, thinking I’d escaped that. Then I got into the village hall and tried to eat soup and started to shake uncontrollably. When I was moving, my body temperature had obviously stayed at just the right height to keep everything but my extremities warm. When I stopped, and even though I was in dry clothes, it dropped. I didn’t warm up or stop shivering for about an hour. Shoelaces? No chance. I only just managed the soup.
They were the hardest conditions I’ve ever raced in. I came 312th out of 330. Nineteen people retired, and I’d guess that up to 100 hadn’t started in the first place. There are no images of me running it beyond the first half mile, so it will live on in my head without documentation. I won’t forget it. And I’m proud of myself. And of FRB, who ran it in 3:48 which, in the conditions, was brilliant (someone said the conditions added 20 minutes at least to your time).
The race is organised by Kieran Carr, and here is his race report. He writes that he has never experienced snow on race day in all the years he’s been doing it, thanks the heroic marshals, and finishes with this: “Next year’s race is on the 18 November 2017, let’s hope we get a better day. The Village Hall is booked.” Prepare the cardboard: I’ll be back.