The 64th Three Peaks Race

There are harder jobs than writing books. Trauma surgery, or being a Conservative politician who manages to keep her or his job. Truck drivers, nurses, teachers. So many people are what is called time-poor. I have more freedom than many people – that’s why my job is called free(lance) — but writing a book, when it comes to the writing period of it, is still intense. For several months last year, I wrote 100,000 words and spent weeks on end at my desk from 7am for twelve hours a day. I had no social life and FRB forgot he had a girlfriend. I sent that draft in in autumn, and got fitter and did Tour of Pendle and got a massive PB. In January, the book began to come back from my editor, and there began another few months of rewriting, re-researching, doing more interviews. I tell myself that the next book will be one that doesn’t require me to understand medicine or science, neither of which I’m trained in. But this one does, and it was hard work.

The long, the short and the ugly of this is that I didn’t follow my Three Peaks training plan.

Of course I had one, because my partner is Coach FRB and he does excellent bespoke training plans. Hire him. Although I kept a base level of fitness with a weekly spin class, a weekly weight-lifting class and a couple of runs a week, I neglected to do the tempo, interval or hill sessions or long runs. Quality not quantity was the essence of the plan. It was meant to address all the skills necessary to run the Three Peaks, because there are so many. Climbing ability, obviously. But also good technique to descend over slippery, rocky ground. Speed, to get between the peaks inside the cut-offs. Stamina, to get through the cut-off at Hill Inn, look up at Ingleborough and not cry but then run another 8 or so miles. My plan covered all these skills, and I did hardly any of it.

Throughout the writing period, I’d also consumed far too much chocolate and cake. You take your small comforts where you can, and when I was stuck at my desk all day every day with very few outlets, my comfort became the subsidised vending machine downstairs, and pickled onion Monster Munch. This was all visible on what is known as “writer’s butt,” and on what I call my “hockey legs.” In this case the word “hockey” is a euphemism for “chunky.” FRB tried to encourage me. Your legs are powerful, he said. They will get you up hills. Yes, but my bin:

I finally sent in the second draft of my book a month before the race and took a long hard look at myself. I had put on weight. I was undertrained. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to run the Three Peaks and told everyone as much. I didn’t want to run it and do badly, I said. I’d rather do it in peak fitness, I said. The state I’m in, I won’t even get past Ribblehead, I said.

April 28, 10.30am. Here I am again in a field in Horton, about to attempt what the organizers call “the circuit of the summits of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough.” Here I am again, about to attempt the 64th Three Peaks Race.

A month earlier, though I was convinced I’d never be in good enough shape to run the race, I had made a plan. I would train as hard as possible in the time remaining, and then make a decision on April 21, with one week to go. I did this. I did longish runs, hill training, more hill training, tempo runs. It didn’t begin well: FRB and I celebrated my freedom-from-my-desk by going to Addingham and climbing the steepest side of Beamsley Beacon. The face is almost as steep as Whernside in places, a hands-and-foot ascent. We followed this by three miles of tempo running, then ran another eight or so miles. A lot of those miles were uphill but still I felt absurdly broken. After the tempo section, I barely ran. I thought, this isn’t even half of what I’ll have to do on race day, even on the first leg. Speed is never my strength, and the six miles between the bottom of Pen-y-Ghent and Ribblehead are always a challenge. Even if I make good time getting down PYG, I can lose it on that stretch. I was despondent.

But slowly, over the weeks, I began to feel fitter. I got to the point where I’d see a hill that I didn’t need to run up and run up it anyway. I was still carrying too much weight, but there wasn’t much I could do about that in time. On the 20th, I decided to do the race. I thought my chances of getting to Ribblehead were slim, and slimmer for Hill Inn. Me, though, I wasn’t slimmer. But I would try to get round the race anyway. God loves a trier.

I did a couple of recces in the Peaks. The first, with my old club-mates from Kirkstall Harriers and FRB. And the second with Laura, a second-claim Kirkstall Harrier (like me) who was doing the race for the first time. We decided to do Whernside and Ingleborough, and to ascend Whernside by the permissive path that runs up about 300 metres parallel to the race route. Runners aren’t supposed to use the race route before race day: it’s private land and lambing season. So it was disconcerting to watch a male runner overtake us at the viaduct and and then head up the race route. Unless he is close friends with the farmer and had permission — this is not impossible — that was a reckless thing for him to do and could have ruined the race for everyone.

For the first time in a few years, FRB had decided not to race. Instead, he volunteered to marshal on the top of Pen-y-Ghent, so this would be a mirror situation of 2015, when I was up there freezing and marshalling, and he was running. He headed up to Horton a couple of days early to help our friend Martin, who is course director and marshal-organizer.

So on race day morning, I was alone. I woke absurdly early, though I’d slept well. I’d eaten well too, for the previous few days. I was unsure of my running ability, but I could control other aspects of it. Last year I hadn’t eaten enough before starting, nor throughout the race. This year, I planned very carefully what I would eat and where. A gel at Whitber Hill. Another gel on the incline up to the Ribblehead road. A Quorn cocktail sausage – for the salt content – at the viaduct steps, so that I wouldn’t cramp again at the summit of Whernside. Chocolate at Hill Inn, and something else at the foot of Ingleborough, if I got that far.

It was a beautiful day. Of course I had been checking the forecast and the Settle & Carlisle railway webcams all week.

Mid-week, the forecast had predicted fierce winds on the top of Pen-y-Ghent. 30 miles an hour in the wrong direction. But this calmed down, and on the day there was hardly any wind, the skies were clear and sometimes overcast, both of which were fine, and the temperature was cool enough to run in comfortably. I wore a t-shirt, vest and shorts, and I was never cold. The weather, in my view, was as perfect as it could be.

I saw FRB on the road in Horton as he headed up to his marshalling position, but there was no room to stop, so there was no last-minute coaching or hugging to be done. I could have done with the hug. Instead, my pre-race prep consisted of seeing lots of people I knew and watching them not recognise me (different hair, new glasses). This passed the time. My friends Louise and Laura were both doing the race for the first time. Louise was nervous, Laura was nervous, so I thought I’d better act like I wasn’t. Laura had written the cut-offs on her arm. Clock time first: 12.40 to Ribblehead, 2pm at Hill Inn. She also had the elapsed time she needed to do: 1 35 to High Birkwith, 2.10 to Ribblehead, 3.30 to Hill Inn. I remembered the first year, when I’d done the same thing and got thoroughly confused, and thought I had to be at Ribblehead at 2.10pm. I advised her to stick to elapsed time.

The parking monitors had directed me to the furthest field, by the river – anyone who knows Horton will know it as the field with all the hens in – and it was quite a walk. But walking calmed me down. I got ready, quite serenely, and remembered to eat some Soreen. I headed back to join the huge toilet queue – where I watched with annoyance as men blithely used the ladies’ toilets – and then it was time for kit-check and race briefing. The kit check was not rigorous, which is odd when runner safety is held so precious that we had to give photo ID to collect our race numbers (so that no-one could turn up and wing it). A man looked inside my bag, agreed with me when I said, that’s my trousers, jacket, hat, gloves and didn’t check that my race map was a map of this race or in fact the Timbuktu 10K. I also think one gel – which was all he could see, though I had plenty more food – does not count as adequate emergency food for a 23-mile race.

Into the marquee, to the fragrant smell of bacon sandwiches and Deep Heat. The race briefing was given by Paul Dennison, who has been race director for years. The stage had been moved so that more people could hear the briefing, but I was at the back, doing the only warm-up I had time to do (dynamic stretches and a lot of jumping) and I still couldn’t hear a thing. I moved forwards and managed to hear some of it, including him giving the wrong cut-offs, before someone corrected him. He gave them according to clock time, which I don’t find useful anyway. He also said that we had to stick to the path at Bruntscar coming off Whernside, because otherwise we would annoy the farmers. Any runner who disobeyed this would be disqualified.

To the start, then. I watched with some surprise as one runner near me inserted earphones and switched on a music player. Headphones aren’t allowed in the race and wearing them can get you disqualified. Nobody else had them, which should have been some clue. But the race was about to start, and I didn’t say anything, and she didn’t get disqualified. I was really pleased that both Ian and Alan from Keighley & Craven, with whom I run in plenty of races, were doing the race. Alan is my Tour of Pendle Twin. We are sort of evenly matched on pace, and our race efforts pendulum between him beating me and me beating him. I guessed today would be a victory for my twin.

Pace. I had to get my pacing right. I couldn’t set off too fast and be depleted for PYG. I couldn’t go too fast up PYG and be depleted for the Ribblehead stretch. I couldn’t go too fast to Ribblehead and have nothing left for Whernside, but I had to have enough wiggle room – the more, the better – at Ribblehead so I had more time to get off Whernside, especially if we had to stick to a highly technical rocky path stuffed with walkers, dogs and sticks, and to Hill Inn. All this translated as: go steady. We set off, up out of the field, along the road, round the corner, and I looked up for once, and saw a mass and stream of runners ahead of me. I had three thoughts:

  1. What an amazing sight: all those colours.
  2. I’m at the back.
  3. I’m staying at the back.

People passed me but I didn’t mind. I didn’t have a minute-per-mile pace in mind, because mountains make a nonsense of that, but when I looked at my watch on the road and saw I was doing a 7.30 minute mile, I slowed down. These were my race tactics

  1. Go steady.
  2. Don’t lean into the hills.
  3. If you are out of breath, then walk.
  4. Don’t look at your watch too much.

This was the first time I’d trained at walking faster. I experimented: standing tall with fast arms, or the fell-runners’ crouch. Both are good for different gradients.

There was the usual bottleneck at Horton, then it was up to Pen-y-Ghent.

Pen-y-Ghent

It is the smallest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, at 2, 277 feet. It is made up of millstone grit on top of carboniferous limestone. The summit acts as a watershed with water flowing into the River Skirfare to the east, then to the Humber Estuary. Westwards, water flows into the River Ribble and to the Irish Sea. Pen and y are from the Cumbric language, a Common Brittonic language spoken in the Old North and related to Old Welsh. They mean “head” and “the”. Ghent may mean border or winds. Pen-y-Ghent: the Head of the Winds

It was such a glorious day. Runners were dressed in all sorts: some in full body cover, some in vest and shorts. I looked up to the mountain and saw a yellow paraglider, which was beautiful and free and so, so far away. Never mind. Alan-the-twin was staying with me, and kept saying, “come on, kid,” so I did. I could see Laura up ahead, and I knew Louise was up there too, but I thought that if I managed to stay in the race and not be timed out, I might catch her up. She’s very good on flat and undulating terrain, but still working on her descending.

Shoes: of course there had been the shoe question. FRB had been out and about flagging and taping the course. He reported that the ground was extremely wet and sort of advised Mudclaws. Hmm. The grip would be good, but the course has far more hard surface than soggy surface. So I stuck with Roclites, and they were mostly fine, except for slipping on rock.

On the way up to the hairpin bend, the elites started coming down. I cheered them, and Victoria Wilkinson, and then I shut up and concentrated on getting myself up. Compared to last year, I felt great. I felt rested, and fed, and hydrated, and I was enjoying it. At the hairpin bend, I found Mike and Tim of my club, who were marshalling. Mike cheered me on, Tim cracked a joke about me getting lost. Even I can’t get lost on this race. Because the marshals are organized by Martin Bullock, who runs for Pudsey Pacers, I knew that a lot would be from Leeds clubs. I knew I’d have friends at most checkpoints, and I was hoping to be a fit state to greet them properly. Upwards.

My twin is the bloke with the beard. The other fellow is my Lost-Mate from Heptonstall. Both of them beat me.

I walked when I had to, shuffled when I could, and got myself up the newish stone steps that some people don’t like. I like them better then I like erosion. I looked at my watch and saw that I’d done it in 50 minutes, which I think was on target. And there was FRB in the distance with his dibber. I dibbed, we kissed, I ran off. He told me later that his fellow marshal said, “Is that your girlfriend?”

And he said, “No, she’s still to come up.”

I love the descent of PYG: there’s a nice soft bit, a tricky rocky bit, then a pelting down on a relatively clear path. So I shifted, and I felt good. I got cheers from Adrian and Cathy of Pudsey Pacers, who were marshalling at the first gate, and these were the first cheers of many. On the stretch to Ribblehead, the race field has settled, and you’ll start to recognise people running around you. I got chatting to a few, including Rachel, a woman from Milton Keynes, Jacqui from Shropshire, and a man who I greeted by saying, “great hat. You look like a goblin.” Surprisingly, he didn’t take offence but told me he had grown up in Leeds, lived in Munster in Germany, which is flat, and had trained by walking in the Alps. I also started chatting to one man I thought I recognised as a Pudsey Pacer, and told him that I was with FRB and blah blah. After the race I realised his yellow vest belonged to a club in St. Alban’s, and he’d had no idea what I was on about. Sorry, Jim.

The checkpoint at High Birkwith was marshalled by yet more Pudsey Pacers, and the people running near me began to look at me: who are you?

The answer is: I’m from Leeds.

When I introduced myself to Rachel, she said, yes, I know. Then, “I’m thinking of changing my name to Rose.”

I caught up with Laura on Whitber Hill and yelled at her to fuel, because I know she sometimes forgets. Then I looked at her face. “How do you feel?” “Awful.” She said she had cramp, and that she wanted to drop out. I could see that she was talking herself out of it. I put on my stern FRB coaching voice. “Laura, you are an excellent runner, and you have a strong brain. It’s your brain that will get you round. Start running.”

Then, “RUN.”

I kept turning to look, and she was running, and I was pleased for her. I got to High Birkwith slightly over target, but that was immaterial because I couldn’t remember how many miles I had left before Ribblehead. So the only thing to do was run as fast as I could. I still felt great. By that I mean, my legs set off running on their own, a sure sign that I’m feeling good. I ran inclines. I kept moving. I made sure to eat and drink. I saw my friend Sara, who had run Three Peaks for the first time last year and triumphed, and this year was marshalling, and ran towards her with my arms wide open for a hug. It was a very welcome hug though I probably looked like a madwoman. Even so, when I got to the road, nearly two hours had passed, and the cut-off was 2.10. Oh. It’s a busy road that motorbikes use for a testosterone workout, along with the rest of the Yorkshire Dales. Some are the kind of motorcyclists who have caused trauma staff to call motorbikes donorbikes (frequent deaths by head injury, salvageable organs). I heard later that a motorcyclist had zoomed past the marshals at 50mph, into oncoming runners. Unprintable words here.

The tiny incline up to the checkpoint at Ribblehead felt as implausibly steep as it always does, but I got up it, and over the road, and there were my mates and fellow Women with Torches Caroline and Sharon shouting encouragement. A few hundred metres earlier, I’d suddenly remembered that I’d put both my bottles – you can leave one bottle at Ribblehead and another at Hill Inn – in one bucket. But which? Luckily I was running with copious amounts of liquid and a full picnic, so I wasn’t worried. There was no bottle at Ribblehead. I stopped to talk to Emma, who was marshalling, another Kirkstall Harrier, and said I didn’t think Laura would make it. I wasn’t doing her down, but even though she’d started running, I’d lost sight of her and I wasn’t sure she’d make up the time. She did though, and got through Ribblehead and up and down Whernside, which considering how low she had been feeling, is impressive. To be feeling awful, and to run five miles at speed, then get up and down a punishing hill: that is a massive achievement. (She was timed out at Hill Inn, but she’ll be back.)

Whernside. Ah, Whernside.

The highest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. The highest point in the ceremonial county of North Yorkshire. Two thousand, four hundred and 15 feet. From its summit you can see to the sea. Whern, from querns or millstones. Side from the Norse sætter, an area of summer pasture. Modern day descriptions of Whernside include “a whale” and “a long, slumbering monster.”

From where I was, running along the track to the viaduct, Whernside looked not like a whale, not like a monster, but like a lot of pain and effort. It looked like a mountain. One tourism website wrote “it is prone to all those fit-types zooming up and down it, so it can feel a bit like the M25 during rush-hour.”

I was definitely not zooming, but I was shuffling where last year I’d walked. I felt tired but OK. On the steps, there were some people shouting, well done Alan, and I turned round and there was my twin, his knee bloodied, but right behind me. I was astonished. I hadn’t seen him since Pen-y-Ghent, so he must have had a storming run to Ribblehead. We ran together for a bit, but once we were through the beck, through Palletgate-gate (blessedly open again) and began the long slog across the bog, he overtook me and I didn’t see him again. I managed not to get stuck in a bog, but I didn’t enjoy this bit. It’s such a long way to the steep climb, and the ground was sodden and it sapped my legs. Every time I looked up there seemed to be another climb ahead of me. I did what I do when I’m flagging, and counted. To 50, then a rest. To 50, then a rest.

I got to the summit in just over an hour, which left me less than half an hour to run the 2.5 miles to Hill Inn. That would be very easy if it was a clear and smooth path. But I knew it wouldn’t be.

I began to stress and panic, enough that I failed to recognise Olly, Martin’s nephew, who was handing out jelly-babies (I’d also failed to recognise Charlie Mac and Graham P on PYG, and I wasn’t even depleted then.) At least my legs had not turned into peg-legs, so I set off as best I could. Along the ridge, then down a steep technical bit, then onto the path. There were loads of walkers, but they were kind and moved out of the way (they could have seen more than 600 runners by then so had practice. They would also have been entitled to be grumpy, but they weren’t). The path went on and on and on. Rocks, flagstones, more rocks. Thousands of boulder-sized hazards; thousands of catch-your-shoe stones. I knew there was lovely soft ground to either side of the path, but it was beyond the course tape and off-piste meant disqualification. I stuck to the rocks.

Eventually I got to the final gate and the tarmac stretch to Hill Inn. I didn’t have much time. Suddenly I was a bit baffled as to how this had happened: I’d felt so good, and I thought I’d been running well, and yet here I was still with a serious risk of not making the cut-off. (Race analysis: I lost time where I usually lose time, between PYG and Ribblehead). I hadn’t liked the Whernside slog but my feelings about that were nothing compared to how I detested this last mile and a half. It was horrible. I was running and panicking and running and panicking. I’d had more time the year before. This felt like the first year that I’d run the race, when a kind man had come and run alongside me to the finish. The incline up to the farm looked like a mountain and there was no kind man coaxing me up this year. But I ran up it and I kept going and tried not to give up when someone said, run to the flag, and I saw a Union Jack flying but it looked like it was in the next county.

I made it. 3 hours 30 minutes and 29 seconds. They let me through.

I was dazed. I’d never really thought I’d make it. But I made it, on only three weeks of proper training and rather a lot of Yorkshire grit.

There and then I thought, I’m not doing this again. I’m never doing this again. It’s not worth the stress.

My friends Niamh and Andy were at the checkpoint, and directed me onwards. When you arrive so close to the cut-offs (although they relaxed it by a few minutes) marshals don’t want you hanging round in case they have to time people out and people say, but you must have just let that runner through. Jill from Kirkstall was also marshalling there and she said it was heartbreaking. Some people take it well; some are bereft. This is why I don’t like references to the Bus of Shame, supposedly the nickname for the minibuses that transport people who have been timed out. There is nothing shameful about having run either one peak or two, or having done your best.

I picked up my two bottles and thought the best thing to do was to carry them, and I headed up to Adductor Stile. This is the stile into the fields that lead to Ingleborough, and it always gives me agonizing adductor cramp. This year was an improvement: only one leg got it. I hobbled around in considerable pain and asked Tony, another Pudsey Pacer marshal, what to do about it.

“Dunno.”

There’s no reason he should have known. They don’t hand marshals a degree in sports medicine along with the hi-viz. But I was desperate for advice. In the end I did the only thing I knew, and kept walking, and it wore off. My friend Louise, who I’d caught up on Whernside, had got through the cut-offs behind me, and there was now a group of five women together, including Jacqui and Rachel. It was companionable and nice.

Each time I run this race, I promise I will do better with Ingleborough. I swear I won’t walk all the way to the flagstones. Each year I walk all the way to the flagstones. Not quite, but I did walk a long way. When I compared my times to Nicky Spinks, she took 35 minutes to get up Ingleborough and I took an hour. But I was so happy I’d got through I didn’t much care about times. I usually feel like that until a mile from the end when I realise what my finish time is going to be, and wish I’d made more effort.

Ingleborough. It is the second largest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, at 2,415 feet. Borough is from burgh, for fort. Ingle may be from Angle. The summit shows the remains of a hill fort, probably built by the Brigantes and known by the Romans as King’s Fort. Along the Three Peaks challenge route to the climb, there are many caves including Great Douk Cave and Meregill Hole.  

For now I just drank and fuelled. Rachel was cramping and asked if anyone had salt, so she got my bottle of electrolytes meant for Ribblehead. She turned down a Quorn cocktail sausage. The ascent to Ingleborough was the same as ever: steep, and rocky. We went up alongside walkers, and I ran when I could, and was patient otherwise. At the top, where the path narrows, there were a handful of marshals, and it was busy with walkers. One of the marshals yelled, “Walkers! You’ve got to give way to runners!”

I disagreed with her. We share the mountain. Walkers didn’t have to do anything. Behind me, a group of lads from Liverpool were cursing at her and I said mildly, no need for that language. Swearing on the top of a mighty mountain in fresh air on a glorious day seems as ugly as smoking. An air turned blue, an air polluted. They apologised, and we began to talk. This was their third peak, they were exhausted, and they hadn’t taken kindly to being told what they had to shift out of the way, quickly, when their legs were as tired as ours. It was fair enough. We got to the top, I began to shuffle again, and we parted as friends who had climbed the same mountain.

Friends. I spend a lot of races running alone. This isn’t one of them. I’d made friends along the route, I’d seen friends at every checkpoint. A thing, also, that I love about fellrunning is that it doesn’t matter what people do away from what we are doing together. I run with nurses, teachers, labourers, electricians, HGV drivers, all sorts of people I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. And now I had still more friends to meet: Jenny and Dave were at the summit checkpoint. Ingleborough is a thankless marshalling post: you head up early (I’d seen Jenny and Dave leaving Horton at 9), it takes five miles of walking each way, and they stay there until the last runner. Luckily for Jenny and Dave, I wasn’t far in front of the last runner, so their escape was in sight. I grabbed some jelly-babies and set off, overtaking Louise and Jacquie to the sound of “there she goes, we won’t see her again.” A lot of people dislike the last stretch to Horton, but I like it. For a start, there are no more mountains to climb. And I like the fact that my legs still work, and that the body is an amazing thing. Being able to run for five miles after all I’d done, even though it was me doing it, astonished me.

FRB had shown us a good route down, less rocky, but in my tired state I couldn’t remember whether going off-piste was also a DQ offence here or just at Brunscar. So I stuck to the route that the marshals were shouting to me to take, though it was an awful one: slippery, technical rock. I managed not to fall, and I managed not to fall all the way back, that long, long path of treacherous rocks large and small, of limestone cuttings, of pitfalls and hazards. Finally I recognised where we were and said to Rachel, “this is the best bit.” It’s the view down to Horton. The giant white marquee. The sight of the end. Then it was another mile or so, up green fields, down green fields, through a tunnel, over the road, and the finish. Rachel and I finished together, and I remembered to have my number visible so that the announcer knew who I was. Of course I was so exhausted I didn’t listen to the announcer. The final dibber, and I collapsed onto FRB.

After that? A change of clothes, which meant walking all the way back to the car as I’d forgotten about the changing tents. Back to the marquee for food and a debrief. FRB told me he had been trying to track my progress on the screens, but they kept failing. So Martin went to the results tent and found out that I’d got through Hill Inn, and FRB punched the air. He said, as we sat at the tables with our veg chili, “I didn’t think you’d get past Hill Inn.” I’ve told people he said this and they have looked surprised. I take it as it was meant: he was worried I wouldn’t make it, but extremely impressed that I had.

I drank a bucket of tea. I’d been dreaming of tea for a few miles, enough to use it as a metronome.

Cup.
Of.
Tea.

Cup.
Of.
Tea.

Finally we headed back towards the field where the car was parked. Most cars had gone. I’d finished in the last brace of runners. 686th out of 701. There had been 760 starters, some had retired, probably about 50 had been timed out at Hill Inn and Ribblehead. My position in the race meant that most cars had departed, so that when we walked through the gate into the field, there was my car, almost alone in the far corner, surrounded by the hens that had been released from the hen-house, the boot wide open.

I said, oh.

But because fell runners are a wonderful group of people, no-one had stolen my expensive race-pack or my expensive Stormshell jacket, or my three pairs of shoes. Thank you fellow runners.

Afterwards, FRB said that he thought this was my highest running achievement. He kept saying, “on three weeks training,” in some wonder. I’d had base fitness, and done some stuff, but yes. I did the Three Peaks race on three weeks training. When I compared my splits to last year’s, they weren’t far off. I got my pacing right. I got fuelling right. The organizing committee had ordered the right weather. I only took two minutes longer to get from Whernside summit to Hill Inn than FRB, and I did it quicker than I ran it last year, when I did go off-piste.

FRB collated some stats which showed I overtook people all the way round. These were my placings.

PyG 752/767
HB 734/761
Ri 731/758
Wh 717/740
HI 708/740
Ing 695/701
Finish 686/701

His words: “Not saying you were a tortoise, but by’eck, it pays to pace.”

Thanks here: to FRB, of course. To all the volunteers and marshals and race committee. I’ve had some insight into what it takes to put on a race with nearly 1,000 runners. It’s a lot of hard work done for little reward. Thank you. Thank you, also, to everyone who cheered, hugged, handed out sweets or kindness. All of it was profoundly welcome.

I ran Rombald’s Stride on inadequate training. I ran the Yorkshireman on inadequate training. I don’t recommend that as a race strategy. But I am extremely proud of myself: finishing so far back of course dents my pride, but that’s a stupid way to think. I did well. I did very, very well.

I wonder what I could do if I followed a training plan?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DNF

DNF.
Did.
Not.
Finish.

My first ever. Entirely avoidable. And entirely my fault.

Heptonstall. I ran this last year and all I remember of it was pouring rain from start to finish. It was meant to be held last Sunday but was snowed off. I couldn’t have run it then as I was still deep in book editing. So I was delighted when it was rescheduled for this Sunday and I was even more delighted when the weather forecast promised warmth, dryness and sunshine. It delivered on all of those. For the past two nights, I’ve had Heptonstall stress dreams. I can’t remember the details, but both times I was impeded from getting to the race start. The second night, I started but ages behind and by the time I woke up had not caught up. I suppose I had reason to be nervous: I’ve only just finished an intense several weeks of 12 hour days. I have kept fit, but not kept to my 3P training plan, and not done as many long runs as I was meant to. I ran out and did ten miles as soon as I could, but even so, I know my fitness is not what it should be by now. I remembered Heptonstall was hard, principally because my Strava description of it was Oh. My. God. And I knew there were cut-offs. I checked them, and I checked last year’s time, and it seemed like I’d easily meet them. FRB advised me not to worry about them so I didn’t. I worried so little about the race that I didn’t study the route. I didn’t have time to recce, and the rescheduled race was only announced late last week, but I could have had a good look at a map. Remember this bit.

We got to Heptonstall in good time. The roads were clear, the sun was shining, and the Calder Valley looked as magnificent as ever. We parked and walked down the cobbles to the start in the pub. When I say “in good time” I mean this early.

But by the time I had got my number and my free SIS gel – “Apple? Lime and lemon? Chocolate?” – the  man at the museum who gave us tea last year would have opened up and would hopefully be providing hot tea this year too. He was. His name is Rupert and he is a very nice fellow. We went over and had tea and learned about his willow plantation and how he wants a coppice to do coppicing for basketry, and that it’s too cold in Heptonstall to stay there sometimes, and that even last week, when the snow wasn’t so deep but the drifts were mighty, people still came to the museum, and he still opened up because the council pays him for 10 hours a week and so opening the museum is, he feels, a duty. Our mates Louise and Chris from Kirkstall arrived, and eventually we all made our way back up the cobbles to change. I made the vital – and correct – decision to go vest-only. The first of the season. And I was never cold. I was many things during this race, but not cold.

Back to the pub, a quick warm-up, then words from Steve the race organizer, who told us about two, no three hazards, then described where they were using place names only locals or people who had studied the route would know. Oh well. I suppose I’d recognise a steep drop and a massive bog when I got to it.

Usually the race is started by Howard the vicar, but he must have been elsewhere in his parish so a hoot and we were off. Up the cobbles, then further up. I felt OK and then I did not feel OK. Oh dear. This may be harder than I thought. But at the point of me feeling like I would not make it to mile 2, there was a lovely descent and of course then I thought I’d easily run the 15 miles, conquer the Three Peaks and basically be invincible. Until the next uphill. After that I don’t remember much until the long stretch of moor between CP1 and CP2. It will be soggy underfoot with the snow melt, said FRB, and he was right. Ouf, it was sapping. But I plodded on, trying not to think of cut-offs, and all was well. There was a tremendous downhill on soft ground with no hidden hazards. This is the absolute best kind of descent. Halfway down there was Eileen of Woodentops which made it even better because she always greets me with an Eyup! How are you? and it is always a pleasure to see and hear her. I remember thinking just after I’d passed Eileen, as I was hurtling downhill in glorious sunshine with views that people pay to see, that it was joyous. I was full of joy. All was well.

On then, to the big bog, which I remembered as soon as I got to it, and managed to remember also what Steve had said, which was not to climb the wall, please but to pass to the far side. There were little red flags pretty frequently placed. This was useful because the race field was only 160 which meant that a) I could easily come last and b) I would probably be running in a very sparse field. For a long time I ran alongside and nearby two men, a short Clayton-le-Moors man who powered uphill impressively, and another man with whom I pendulumed. At one point, he went off a track up a hill, but there were no flags visible and it felt wrong, so having followed him, I turned back and found the right route and felt proud of myself. Remember this bit.

CP3 was manned by three very cheery Scouts. At that point, I thought of cut-offs again as I knew that the first was at CP4 and the second at CP5. The trouble is, I couldn’t remember what they were. I convinced myself that the first was 1 hour 45 minutes, and with this in my mind, I tried to get a shift on, and was so focused on a long downhill to the farm where I was convinced CP4 was, I missed the turnoff and was only turned back by a Calder Valley Mountain Rescue man yelling at me from the other side of the wall. NOOOO! BAAAAACK! Thank you, Calder Valley Off-track-Runner Rescue.

I’d run for about 1 hour 40 by then, and the CP was not at the farm so I decided he had said not 1 hour 45 but that we needed to be at CP4 by 12.45, ie a duration of 2 hours 15. But that was making my head hurt and by now I was feeling very depleted. I ran across the reservoir, one of the few parts I remembered from last year, but only because the year before, I had stood there handing out sweets to runners. At this point I definitely needed something and ingested a shed-load of sugar: two jelly-beans, then a gel, then some flat Coke. It worked and I felt a lot better. I tried to get a shift on, and remember there was a descent on a very soft path through woods, then at some point two marshals standing on a bridge. CP4 and I had made it with ten minutes to spare. Great. I headed past them, and turned left into the woods, then kept going. And I kept going. And I kept going. It began to feel wrong. Slowly, I realised I hadn’t seen a flag for a long while. I realised that there were fewer studmarks on the ground. This should never be an indication of a true path, as I learned when some friends followed studmarks up Pendle Hill and did two extra miles. I asked a few walkers, have you seen runners, and they all said yes. I asked, did they seem lost? And they said, no. So I kept going until I came to a weir and a mill-house and found the Clayton-le-Moors man standing there looking as lost as I now felt.

A slow panic. A mild dread.

I got my race map out. I decided we had gone too far along the river, but then I made a stupid error. I thought we needed to stay on this side of the river. I can’t explain why I thought that except it was a thought that had taken root in my head, based on nothing. Let’s climb up to the top and see, I said. And I believed that there had been a switchback leading up the hill we were now climbing, and that we had both missed a flag, and that we would reach the race route by walking along the ridge of the hill. That sounds easy, doesn’t it, walking along a ridge of a hill. It wasn’t easy. It was a steep scramble, then there was no path, the ground was soft, there were branches and roots and logs and a camber so severe, the sides of my feet are now bruised. But I thought this was right and I soon learned my fellow Lost-mate was as navigationally clueless as I was. Eventually, I realised I must be wrong. We should descend to the path along the river then head back to CP4 and ask for help.

We did this, but at that point being lost was giving me stress-brain that was making clarity of thought and decision-making even worse. My Lost-mate was no better, and I’m convinced that if either of us had got lost on our own, we’d have somehow figured it out. But it was a perfect storm of increasing dithering and confusion. On the river path, we headed back to where I thought CP4 was, on a bridge. We got to the bridge I thought it was, and there was no-one there. We’d probably spent 40 minutes or so trudging along the hell-ridge, and I would definitely have been towards the back end of the field, so it was entirely possible that the marshals had packed up and gone. But then I was suddenly unsure whether it was the right bridge. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had no clue about anything any more, an and no idea how to get out of this fix. I got out my map and this time my compass, and I figured out north and south and which direction we needed to be heading, but then I still couldn’t understand which side of the river we needed to climb up. I can’t explain that now because it’s actually very clear. But I was stressed and despondent and panicking, and I still thought we needed to be on the eastern side of the river although the map told me something different. Partly it was because from the east I could see no path along the west. I couldn’t see a way out. Finally I understood we were probably on the wrong side of the river so we crossed it and found a track heading south along the eastern side of the river. We set off, and if we had carried on running, we’d have seen a flag, because the race route passed over the track. In fact, after the bridge with the marshals, there was only 50 metres or so on that side of the river before the race route crossed over the river again over a bridge and headed up the hill. We were a couple of hundred metres away from the race route.

But this didn’t happen. We never saw the red flag because a man in a Landrover was driving down the track and we asked him for help. He was from Midgeley but was looking after the poultry for his farmer friend nearby. One has disappeared, he said. Fox. Feathers. So he didn’t know where Turn Hill was – the location of CP5 – and he didn’t know how best to get to Heptonstall. He suggested we drive down into Hebden Bridge and make our way from there, but although I could not manage to make my way from CP4 to CP5, I did know that Heptonstall is a heck of a climb above Hebden and I wasn’t planning on doing that. By now I knew my race was over. Even if we found CP5, we were way outside the cut-offs. I should have been upset, I suppose. I’d never DNF-ed before. DNF. Did. Not. Finish. But I was in such a state of bewilderment by then, I didn’t really think about it. The Landrover man suggested that he dropped us at Gibson Mill, the mill I’d seen by the weir where I’d encountered Lost-mate. There were National Trust people there, he said, and if they didn’t know the race route, they would know how to get to Heptonstall by footpath. He dropped us there, very kindly, and the National Trust man, very kindly, let me use his phone to call the marshal number on my race-map. I was anxious that we had both gone missing and that people would be waiting for us for a very long time at CP5. In his pre-race announcements, Steve had emphasized that anyone who retires must make that known to a marshal. I knew this and that this is what I should have done. But I still had no clue where CP5 was. The phone number went to the voicemail of “Derek in Informatics” which didn’t seem right. Then I remembered that I was using last year’s map and the number was probably wrong.

Lost-mate and I agreed that at this point, the best thing to do was to get back to Heptonstall as quickly as possible. The nice man from National Trust gave us clear indications: up here, footpath through the woods, a switchback, go straight over, ignore the track, look for Slack Methodist church then run along the road. But I hardly took any of that in and neither did Lost-mate. Instead we ran along the path, with legs that now felt rather battered, until I saw some buildings and something that might have been a Methodist chapel. I asked some walkers again, because I hadn’t learned my lesson, and they said, dunno. I asked another one and he said, go up this path and Heptonstall’s right there, as if we were very peculiar for not knowing that. We got up the path, found Slack, turned left along the road, then up the road to Heptonstall. A few people told us “well done” as we passed, which was odd. We weren’t on the race route. I saw my friend Ben at his car and he shouted WELL DONE ROSE and I shouted back WE GOT LOST. It was strange that the closer I got to the finish, the more upset I was getting. I felt stupid and angry with myself.

Onwards, down the cobbles, a left turn that led to a track on a wall on the other side of the race finish. FRB was there and saw me and immediately looked concerned. God knows what I looked like. Terrifying, probably. At that point all the stress of the previous hour was funnelling into a powerful need to weep in shame and frustation. This was daft. I hadn’t been injured. I’d had half a race and loved it. All I’d done was get lost, about a mile and a half from the race finish. We went inside the tent where Heptonstall’s famous flapjack is served, and I reported in to the radio operator there, who groaned and said, “YOU’RE number 4.” Then I went outside to report to the finish marshals, and I was profoundly apologetic. A very lovely woman said, no, we were just very concerned, but we knew you were probably together as you were both missing, and we’re just glad you’re not injured.

I got back to FRB and other friends, and they suggested flapjack but I didn’t have the stomach for it. By now the adrenaline of being lost and unable to understand why had changed into deep embarrassment. No matter how many people said, “it happens,” which I know is true, this was the first time it has ever happened to me. I’ve been worried many many times on races about getting lost because of where I generally am in the field, but I have only got lost twice before, one mildly and it was quickly resolved, and the second time at the British Fell Relays, which was not. This was worse though. Lots of people had got lost, my friends said, and most of them at the same point as I had. Most, though, ran on and then turned back and found the route, or got to the mill and found the track and made their way back that way.

I got changed and headed back to the pub for cold soup. If I want warm soup, I should run quicker. After the presentations I apologised to Steve, the run director, that I had caused anyone any concern. He said it was fine, and that the marshals at CP4 would usually have been standing at the bridge that led back over the river, and that’s why it wasn’t flagged. But they had chosen to stand on another bridge, and so people had missed the turning. But he said, we’re just glad you’re alright, and because of the weather we weren’t too worried.

Next time, said FRB, get into a habit of looking at your map at each checkpoint and understanding where you are. Do you do that, I said? “No. But I’m different.” This is true. He is navigationally competent. How ironic, that I was meant to do the FRA navigation course in March but had to cancel because of my book.

I’m fine now. It happens. It happened to me. And these are the reasons it happened:
1. The field was sparser than expected because it had been rescheduled
2. The marshals were on the wrong bridge
3. I had last year’s map with the wrong marshal contact on it
4. I had no phone. (This was irrelevant as there was no signal in the valley but might have come in handy when we got higher up and I could have phoned FRB to ask him to tell the race organizers we were safe. Then I would not have run for a few miles intensely worried that everyone would think we were missing or injured.)
5. My map was not detailed enough to show bridges, and because the race route had been traced in yellow, it obscured details. That’s my excuse.

These are all reasons. But it was entirely my fault that I got lost. Because:
1. I didn’t have time to recce
2. I didn’t study the route because I made assumptions that it would be flagged throughout and that I would have people to follow. I should not rely on flags, and there is no obligation on fell race organizers to flag at all. So this was foolhardy of me
3. I did not get a grip of my confusion and just got in more of a state
4. I didn’t have an OS map with better detail

I have learned my lessons. Be better prepared. Never assume a race will be flagged. Never believe walkers who tell you they have seen lots of runners (though so many apparently got lost, perhaps this was true). Always believe there is some truth to your stress dreams, even if they get wrong which part of the race you will miss.

It hasn’t been my best racing day, but of all the days to get thoroughly lost, at least I chose one with glorious weather. Heptonstall is a fantastic race and I will be back next year and I might even finish this time. Also, I never got my flapjack.

Clairvoyance

Last autumn, I marshalled at a fell race. It was a decent day. The forecast was benign: about 13-14 degrees, not too much wind, a chance of rain. But that forecast applied to Ilkley, whereas the race was on Ilkley Moor. It’s not a huge amount of difference in height, but in that the difference the weather can change. I arrived a little late for the briefing, and had to run up a hill to catch my fellow marshals, and I was sweating a lot by the time I reached them. I was warm in my hoodie. Half an hour later, at my marshalling post halfway up the moor, I had my puffer jacket on. Ten minutes later, when it started to rain — and I was still waiting for the first runners to arrive — I put my waterproof on. Then, at intervals, my hat. Finally, my mittens. At no point was I cold but at no point was I too warm.

When the runners came through, about 40 of them, they were nearly all in shortsleeves and shorts. I would have been too, had I run it. I watched them pass, felt envious of their muddy legs, then moved to my second post 50 metres down the moor, where they would come through again. I still wasn’t warm enough to take off my layers, though for a while I removed my hat. It was wuthering and blustery. And when the runners came through a second time, I paid more attention. I was looking for how many were carrying kit, and I counted a total of three. I made sure to say “well done” to every one of them, but by the time I realised how few were carrying a bum bag or jacket, I changed that to, “well done for carrying kit.” Each of the three looked a bit surprised, but I meant it.

At this point, many fell runners will scoff. We are hard as nails. It was a warm day. The race organizers had decided that kit was not required. To demand otherwise would be nannying, weak, soft.

But I saw muddied feet, torsos and a face, meaning people had stumbled. I knew that if anyone had injured themselves and not been carrying kit, that they would be cold within a minute or two. Admittedly, we were not at the top of some magnificent fell in the Lakes, where an injured runner would probably have to wait a few hours for Mountain Rescue. We were close to roads and Ilkley and I guess that is why so many people had no kit. But I still think the point remains: a fell runner should be a clairvoyant.

Clairvoyant, from the French: to see clearly. It has no meaning about seeing into the future, but a fell runner does need to see clearly into what might be the future. He or she has to see the next toe that clips a rock, or ankle that twists, or balance that fails. They have to see the stumble, the face against rock, the pain and the crippling. They have to account for it, though it may never happen. And once the ankle is twisted or broken, who will keep the runner in vest and shorts warm? My marshal instructions suggested I take a space blanket, which I might have, had I not forgotten about it. But marshals aren’t there to rescue runners. Of course I would have helped, had anything happened, and given clothing and warmth. But that wasn’t technically my responsibility. In practice, other runners would have stopped, because we are fell runners and that is what we do, and they would have offered their kit and space blankets and comfort. I have seen runners being helped plenty of times, and I have done it myself. When I used to fall a lot, my friends always helped me, offering warmth and drugs. It’s a great kindness and a testament to what kind of tribe we belong to, but it shouldn’t be relied upon. It is shocking to be injured, and it is shocking how quickly you can get cold.

The great joy of fell running is to run in the wild. No roads, no cars, no daily stress. It is a precious freedom, and I love it. It is being human amongst nature and amongst what the elements can throw at you. But it also means being aware that they can throw all sorts at you and you need to be responsible for yourself. It is not hard as nails to run with no kit, unless you are prepared to die for the sensation of not carrying a waistpack or a backpack, or get severely injured or hypothermia. It’s an insult to chance and an invite to the rock that will trip you when you least expect it.

PLEASE.

CARRY.

KIT.

High Cup Nick 2018

I love this race. I will try to do it no matter what. One year I did it with jetlag. Another year I’d overcome some other obstacle. This year I decided to do it while recovering from the second cold virus I’d had in two weeks. I posted this on Twitter:

Reasonably, a friend responded by asking if it wouldn’t be more sensible to stay in the warmth and fully recover. Another person responded by sending me a link to the dangers of viral myocarditis and how it is causing many deaths amongst young people because people are mistaking it for flu. I took this into account. But I didn’t have flu. The cold had not gone into my chest, it was on its way out, and I needed a day of fresh air. I am the child of a man dead of a heart attack, and with heart attacks on both sides of my family, I hold the health of my heart to be very precious. I wouldn’t have run if I’d thought the virus had gone below my neck. Also, it’s High Cup Nick and I love it.

FRB and I had chips as our pre-race dinner the night before, got a decent night’s sleep, and woke up in good time. Oh dear. Both of us had profoundly upset stomachs. Bloody chips. FRB had also developed a cold, but later than I had, so his was raging more than mine. He felt and looked distinctly unwell, and I wasn’t well either. The race start isn’t until 2pm so we had time to think about the wisdom of running, and for stomachs to settle. I made us a banana and yogurt smoothie and hoped that would work. I definitely thought FRB shouldn’t run, and I probably shouldn’t either. But it was the first day for a while I hadn’t woken up spluttering. Nor had I needed to take any paracetamol, for the first time in days. So we set off up north, picking up our friends Martin and Caroline and headed for Dufton Village. The race is organized by Morgan Donnelly, a fine fell runner and a fine emailer: he’d sent out two race information emails on Thursday and Friday, advising about parking. Dufton is a small and beautiful village with a small and beautiful village green, and quite rightly the organizers didn’t want people to park on it. The second email included information on “cheeky farm-yards” which might provide parking space and ended with “sleep well,” which is how you can tell it was written by a runner. All race information emails should finish with “sleep well.”

Still, as Caroline said in the car, “it’s quite a long way to go for a race.” 98.3 miles to run a 9 mile race. But I knew it would be worth it, if we ran. The weather forecast had been chilling: 40kph winds on the tops and a wind-chill of -6. I even packed long tights, though of course I ran in shorts. We got there in good time and got priority parking in a farmer’s field, though I wasn’t sure, given how the tyres were spinning on the mud on the way in, how we’d get out again. Registration at the village hall as usual, where there was the customary huge spread of cakes. A sandwich each though it was just gone 1pm and in hindsight that’s quite late to be eating something substantial. FRB was looking only slightly less green, but he decided to do a warm-up run and see how he felt. I guessed he would run, and he did. We gathered on the green, Morgan made some race announcement that where I was standing was entirely inaudible, then he yelled “GO” and we went.

I wasn’t nervous as such. It was more like dread. I was better than I had been, but I wasn’t right, and I hadn’t run all week. But I set off and hoped for the best. My best, apparently, was not great. I managed to run up the first incline but felt very weak. Last Sunday I’d done hill reps in Pudsey valley with FRB and I’d not walked once, and felt really good. Now I was looking at the inclines coming up and dreading them. I very nearly pulled out in the first mile and was only stopped by the fact that I have never had a DNF. Instead, I patted my ego on its head and put it in a box, and carried on. I walked when I felt like walking, and I didn’t worry too much. I was expecting to see FRB on the roadside at any point, but I didn’t, and I assumed he had either pulled out early on, or had carried on (much more likely).

The day was glorious. I was in a t-shirt and long-sleeve and perfectly comfortable. Sunshine and no wind, as we ran up the tarmac, then turned into the boggy bits. I knew from running this before that stretches that seemed flat were actually going uphill. So I splashed through all the bogs I could, and enjoyed it. The sun was out, the day was fine, and I was moving at pace through a beautiful landscape. All was well.

The race route runs along several shoulders of several contours. On each shoulder, I expected to round it and see the valley of High Cup Nick, but it took several turns before I did. So, into the valley, through more bogs, through a beck which was in a timid state and only calf-high, then the long boggy stretch up to the Nick.

It looks so benign in that photo. Such nice soft grassy ground. It didn’t feel benign. It felt like it feels every year, that the valley will never end, and the Nick will never come, and that all you have ever done is run ploddingly through boggy ground that sucks your legs into the earth like an underground triffid. I may have taken more pictures than necessary because I wanted to stop and rest. But I’m glad I did.

Still, the weather was still nice. But not for long. FRB had said that the wind direction would favour us, coming up the valley and pushing us up the Nick. But the wind had changed its mind, and it blew straight into us. Towards the end of the valley, it got ferocious enough that I stopped to put my jacket on, reasoning that it would get colder as we climbed up, and nearly lost my precious Stormshell — a Christmas present — to Notus, god of the southern wind. I think Boreas, god of the north wind, was also involved, as he was “the bringer of cold winter air.” Their combined efforts were impressive: it took me a few minutes to control the wild flapping of my jacket enough to get it on. The wind, the bogs, my fitness: all combined to do what they do every year, which is to forget that I so desperately want the long boggy stretch to be over than I forget that it ends with this:

First, there is a boulder field. This year, it wasn’t too slippy and was much easier going than last, when we ran the race in clag and fog. Still, someone near me said, “ooh, this is dangerous,” and I thought, wait a few minutes and you’ll see what dangerous feels like. In the car, FRB and I had been trying to give a sense of the route to Martin and Caroline, who hadn’t done it before. All of us except FRB have a fear of heights. I don’t really understand mine: I was terrified on a railway bridge over a river in Saskatoon, and on the scramble up Grey Gables. By terrified, I mean my legs felt like jelly and my mind froze with panic. I was describing the climb to Martin when I said, “and make sure you cling on,” and he went white. But I meant, cling on when you look round because you will be overcome with the beauty of the view. I tried to explain that, but the damage had been done, and as I climbed the boulders, I hoped he was OK. Because in fact, it is a steep and potentially scary climb, even though there’s only 700 feet of it. By the top, most people are on hands and knees. The wind had died down, or the geography of the Nick somehow diverted it, and I’d soon removed my jacket and gloves. I’d climb robustly enough to keep warm. Even so, I made sure to stop and turn round and gaze. I understand that the elites have no time to do that, but apart from them, if you don’t take a minute now and then to turn around and look, then it’s a waste of High Cup Nick. Because it looks like this:

It is breathtakingly beautiful, and I choose that adverb carefully. I didn’t have much breath to spare. So I gazed, and I climbed, and I stopped and I gazed and I climbed, and in this way got to the top. There’s a run along the ridge, a couple of other inclines, there was some snow and ice. I was moving adequately but not fast, but I knew a long descent was coming. I felt much better now the climb was over — funny that — and once we hit the track and the several miles of downhill, I forgot about the virus and the stomach-heaving chips, and I just ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I pelted it down. A couple of times I looked at my watch and saw that my pace began with a 7, and a couple of times I almost fell but didn’t. I overtook a lot of people, and I stayed ahead of them, and I felt surprisingly good. The farm track goes on a long while, then ends at a checkpoint, a right turn into a field and a short climb. Actually it’s an incline, but after three miles of fast descending plus a mile of sharp climbing, a grassy incline makes for jelly legs. I walked for a bit, ran for a bit. In one of the fields, I found Phil from my club, and he ran ahead of me to take my picture and I managed a smile and to flash my vest:

At one checkpoint, a marshal said, “well done! Last push. All downhill now.” I appreciated the encouragement, and if I hadn’t been quite so tired, I would have realised: either he doesn’t know the race route or he’s lying. There were two inclines to come, one a small but sharp one up a field, which feels larger than it is. And the other in the last half mile, a track back up to Dufton, which I recognised and remembered as soon as I got to it, which isn’t much use. I splashed through the mini-ford at its base, and had enough brain left to notice a supporter who had climbed halfway up a wall, and to realise he’d done that because we were all running through the ford. But then my brain gave up, briefly, and I started to walk up the track until I heard “WELL DONE ROSE” and there was FRB waiting at the top. Damn. Now I had to run. So I did, and he encouraged me, and I had the wherewithal to think, he’s in racing kit so he’s finished and he’s alive, and that’s good. He must have seen that I was tired, because he usually tells me to overtake the person in front, but this time he just told me to stay with her. So I did, and then I overtook her on the village green, which was a bit mean-spirited — sorry — but I wanted to see if I could sprint the last bit. I did, to the extent that Morgan on the finishing line had to put his hands up and say “Stop running!” so I did.

I couldn’t quite believe I’d got round, given how ropey I’d felt early on. But I did, and the human body is a strange and amazing thing. Not least because my virus, exposed to 9 miles of Cumbrian fresh air, decided to morph into some weird back-of-the-mouth-but-maybe-the-ear shooting pain all the way round so that now and then I’d stop and hold my ear or my jaw and look puzzled. I bet viruses aren’t used to being made to climb High Cup Nick. I’m sorry for my immune system, which I venerate and cherish, having been writing all week about how the immune system works and how it tries to defeat HIV, and I shouldn’t really have given it that extra pressure. So a shooting pain in a strange part of the body is how I’m paying for it, and that’s fine.

We didn’t go for soup and cakes, as we had a long drive back and FRB looked exhausted. He’d run it only a minute slower than last year, despite swearing that he wasn’t going to race, “only run,” and despite being emphatic that he’d taken it really steady. I finally looked at my watch and was delighted. It wasn’t my quickest time — 1.43 — nor my slowest — 2.00 — but it was good. 1.53. I’m happy with that. This morning FRB and I compared Strava data (I know) and he saw that I’d done the descent in 38 minutes. He was impressed by that, and so am I. “You know”, he said, with some wonder, “if you could just climb faster, you’d be really quick.” That’s true. I would. I will think about that, as I’ve got this wee race coming up again.

 

Rombald Stride 2018

Ready?

Was I ready? I’ve been running but not sticking to a training plan since Tour of Pendle. FRB and I went to France in January and stayed fit, even while getting pickled on wine and over-carbohydrated with cheese and bread. We did some local runs, then got a couple of days in the mountains. In shorts, obviously. And I got to use the snow spikes he’d given me for Christmas.

They worked.

So I felt fit but I’d only done one long run — 15 miles to Harewood and back — since getting back. I did Tigger Tor race in mid-January: it’s one of my favourites and I did it last year after my series of calamities and falls. I did really well: I was nine minutes faster than last year. I enjoyed it and I felt strong all the way round. What does “feeling strong” in this context mean? It meant I ran bits I might not have: inclines I might have walked. It meant I didn’t feel like death at any point, nor like I wanted to sit down in the nearest bog. I had strength enough to do a 7.30-minute mile in the last stretch AND chat with people as I passed them (Yes, FRB, I know. I wasn’t running fast enough.) It’s a downhill mile of tarmac, but still. All in all, I was really pleased. Probably too much so.

The week leading up to Rombald’s I did three things: not much exercise, a lot of eating and a lot of checking the forecast. I did two spin classes, no running, and ate a lot of pasta and chips. I’m spending most of my days in my studio doing book rewrites and edits, so I was looking forward to the day out, even when the forecast looked like this:

Sleet didn’t look like much fun, so I chose a merino top, vest, shorts and the usual socks. I carried an extra long-sleeve top and full cover waterproofs. Rombald Stride is run by the 15th Airedale Scout Group, and they don’t do kit checks, but I was going to be out in cold weather for several hours. I also had the usual picnic (chocolate, sweets, gels, veggie sausages) and a foil blanket. I slept well, and by 7.50am on Saturday was parked near St. Oswald’s Primary School in Guiseley, the race HQ, feeling nervous. About what? I don’t know. I was certain I would get round, because I’m stubborn. I really hoped I could do it in less than 4.30, because I’d done 4.15 in 2015, 4.28 in 2016 and 4.42 last year. I wanted to stop the slide. Of course conditions make a huge difference, but I’d been running well, I’d got significant PBs at Tour of Pendle and Tigger Tor, and I wanted to do well.

It didn’t quite go to plan. We mingled in the hall, I drank coffee, the air was the usual mixture of Deep Heat and hot drinks. I saw Bal, Carol, Vicki and Laura from Kirkstall. Bal and Carol were going to walk it — it’s a Long Distance Walkers event officially, and us runners have hitched onto it — and Vicki and Laura were going to run it. Or, in their words “we’ll have a shuffle round and enjoy the food. Rombald’s is great for food because there is usually lots of it. At other races such as the Yorkshireman, the offerings can be a bit sparse by the time I get to them. But because there are walkers, and because they have a cut-off of ten hours, all the checkpoints are laden with cake, sweets. And at one of them, vegetable tempura. Of course this would be the Burley-in-Wharfedale one, because that’s where I was once offered roast lamb or nut roast. I refused both.

I jogged to the start with Karen, a very fast and talented runner who ran it very fast and impressively, as usual, and way ahead of me. I knew that there were four North Leeds Fell Runners doing it, and we managed a nearly quorate team photo (I’ve never used the word “quorate” before joining North Leeds; there are a few lawyers in the club). It was drizzling, so most people had waterproofs on. We milled and mingled, then there was a klaxon and that was that. No race announcements. Everyone knew what was what: you had a token that you had to drop into a bucket at the first checkpoint, and a laminated race card, handed to you with a piece of string, that you had to get clipped or self-clip. Eleven checkpoints, 22 miles, 3500 feet of climb. Go.

I set off steady. This had worked at Pendle and Tigger Tor, so I thought it would work here too. For a while I ran with Serena, who I’d watched zoom off last year. She did the same this year and looked pretty strong, though she had been out with injury. I caught her up later though. The weather was fine, in that it was snowing persistently but not heavily. I like snow like that: the visibility is mostly OK and it’s refreshing. For the first few miles, I kept meaning to take off my waterproof but didn’t want to stop, and by then the temperature dropped along with the clag, and the waterproof stayed on. I felt really good. At the second checkpoint, I even took the short sharp climb up rather than the longer path, which I’d been intending to do. The first biscuit, a quick drink, a glance at my leg and no idea why it was bleeding, and I was off again. The next highlight was Sandy Gallops, where Harvey Smith had/has his stables. I love to cross a track and have to do the Green Cross Code but for galloping racehorses. One came past as I was approaching, but ambling, but then four came galloping through the mist and it was beautiful. What magnificent creatures. No, not the jockeys. I managed to take a picture which conveys nothing of the majesty and grace of racehorses but looks like a bloke ambling on a pony.

 

 

I passed lots of walkers and tried to say hello to all of them. Perhaps this was annoying: maybe you don’t want to say hello to 500 runners when you’ve got an eight to ten hour walk ahead of you. Sorry. I still felt good, enough to compliment someone’s dog and his beautiful blue-grey coat. “He’s changing colour,” said his owner and my running brain thought, wait, what, what kind of dog changes colour until I realised he meant from the bogs. Mucky pup. Up Baildon moor, down the other side, over more moorland. There weren’t as many spectators as usual, understandably, so I made sure to fervently thank the ones who had come out and who didn’t just cheer people they knew, including these two very encouraging and cheery women near Baildon checkpoint: Thank you.

 

I still felt good, though bogs do sap. I made sure to stop at every checkpoint because I was HUNGRY. Actual rumbling stomach. This was not how things were supposed to be. Hindsight: I should have had more to eat than two slices of toast at 6am. Even though I had something at each checkpoint, it was usually only a biscuit or sweets. I got my fuelling totally wrong. At Weecher, I set off walking because I can’t run and eat, and a woman came past. “Are you Rose George?” I said yes, and she shook my hand. This was unexpected. She hadn’t even recognised me from my socks, the usual tell (I’d already passed a man on a field who had looked at my socks and said, I read your blog!), but she had read my Tour of Pendle reports and was wanting to run it. We were running close by for the next couple of miles so I learned she’s only been fell running for less than a year. Of course I told her she can do Tour of Pendle (you can, Jules), and though she overtook me later and I didn’t see her again, I got a Ready Brek glow — at this point I could have done with some real Ready Brek — at what she’d said. If I inspire anyone to run even half a mile, I’m delighted.

I wasn’t feeling particularly inspirational at this point. Flagstones. I don’t much like flags. You’d think I would, as we had run a few miles of boggy ground, and flags are hard and visible and less trouble. And this year they weren’t icy either. But god, they went on, and on, and on, and on. I went into a trance to the extent that at one point I had no idea how long I’d been running on flagstones, and it seemed like it had been for much of my lifetime. Of course with the snow it made figuring out where I was harder than usual, which didn’t help the trance effect. It was beautiful, but it was long.

 

The bogs at the end of them felt like a relief, even when they looked rather snowy. Even when the marshals had written on the sign “Yes we know it’s wet.”

“Wet” doesn’t quite describe it. That wall stretching into the mist in the distance? That was the most solid thing for the next few miles. The bogs weren’t a relief. At this point my strength left me. I’d been running fine, and feeling good, and now I didn’t. I felt old and grumpy. The bogs were thigh-deep or deeper — FRB later said with decorum that he went “up to my knackers” in one — and it was hard going. I didn’t fall, but nor did I trip lightly over the ground and through the waters with fleet of foot and gossamer steps. Plod, plod, plod. Plod, plod, plod. Finally, some blessed descent, down to Piper Gate, over a stile on which some nice marshal had put a packet of sweets — and the marshals looked freezing and I wanted a magic tap of hot whisky to appear for them — then on to White Wells. Except suddenly I didn’t really know the way. I hadn’t done any recces, thinking running the race four times might count as knowing it. But I hadn’t counted on my running brain colliding with my menopause memory mixed with my verbal not spatial memory. Result: no clue beyond knowing Ilkley should stay on my left. I came across Aileen, an extraordinarily good veteran runner — she’s 66 — who was looking lost too, and with the help of walkers and asking HAVE ANY RUNNERS GONE THIS WAY a few times, we found our way to the Keighley Road checkpoint under White Wells. In fact we probably couldn’t have got lost: I knew not to descend to Ilkley and not to climb the ridge. But it still felt disorienting. I didn’t stop at the checkpoint although I should have: I was feeling sick and nothing appealed. I’d been looking forward to a cup of tea, but I didn’t trust my stomach.

Folk. Don’t do like I did. Eat when you feel sick. Something sensible.

I set off alone from the checkpoint. Other people were sensibly having food and drink. There was a man crouched above White Wells to support — thank you — but after that there was nobody. It was eerie to find myself alone amongst boulders and mist. The loneliness of the long-distance fell runner. Who was walking.

I was on my own for a mile or so, and I took it steady: I didn’t trust my feet not to trip on the rocks. I haven’t fallen for a good while but tired legs and wet rocks are not a great combination. FRB and I had done a recce at one point where we’d taken a trod up through the bracken and heather to the ridge, avoiding much of the treacherous slippery rocks. He’d advised me to do that, but at this point I had no idea where it might be, and I couldn’t see for the clag. So I kept on with what I knew: through Rocky Valley, cross a beck then turn right up through the heather to find Pancake Rock. It’s ironic that this stretch was where I felt most navigationally adrift, and it was the stretch where I was entirely on my own. At this point, I began to hear runners again, and turned to see them coming from all parts: high up on the ridge, mid-way up the hill, further down than the path I’d taken. I knew then I was OK and on the right track. The next checkpoint was a self-checkpoint at Coldstone Ghyll. I thought that was pretty soon after Pancake Rock, so I was alert. Of course it was actually about two miles off, and I’d confused one ghyll — a steep cleft or rocky ravine cut by a stream, according to Robert MacFarlane — for another. In Rob’s tweet about ghylls, he quotes Wordsworth so I will too:

I wandered where the huddling rill
Brightens with water-breaks the hollow ghyll.

I don’t know what a huddling rill is but after about 15 miles, I probably had one. I’d been penduluming for several miles with a couple of runners who were obviously running together. I’d seen them earlier, when they had yelled POTTER at Jules, then the male runner — Steve, it turns out — had had an entertaining thigh-deep encounter with a bog, and his female partner — Alice — had pealed with laughter. Which was nice to hear. I like running along and hearing laughter behind or in front of me, it’s like a bit of fairy fuel. Alice and I ran along together for a while, neither of us with any clue where the self-clip was. I thought the best thing to do was carry on in the vague direction of Burley. It turned up eventually, a scrap of ribbon on a wee pole in the midst of fog and snow:

 

I enjoyed the snow. It wasn’t hard enough to be blinding, and it was light enough to feel refreshing. Down, then to Burley checkpoint, my refusal of the vegetable tempura, and onto Menston. Now I was on sure ground. It’s daft that I run so often on Ilkley and Rombald’s moors and still get lost, but in a way that’s what I like about it. An enchanted moor that’s always changing (not really, but as it never gets fixed in my memory, it’s the same thing). But from here on in I knew the route perfectly. I was running with Aileen again now, and we compared stride lengths — really — and ran along companionably through the fields and ginnels and tracks. A man with a race number was standing expectantly on the corner of a street in Menston, clearly with no idea where to go next, so we guided him down to the hidden ginnel which was the next important junction, then waited for him about half a mile later, but when he didn’t appear, left him to his own devices. And hopefully a map. (This wasn’t cruel: there were other runners around him.) I wasn’t looking forward to the next stretch, as it’s a series of fields and several stiles to cross, which is not what your leg muscles require after 18 miles, then a long run down West Chevin Road, and then The Climb up to the top of the Chevin. I’d decided to wear Roclites not Mudclaws, as they have better cushioning, but I wasn’t sure how they would cope on The Climb, which can be a mud-slope.

It was a mud-slope. I’d had hopeful visions of me striding up it, but no chance. Instead, it was an inelegant scramble, trying to find patches of bracken on the mud that would give some purchase, grabbing on to any tree branch or sapling that looked sturdy enough. Of course I tore my legs open on brambles, but that’s a given. At this point I had no idea what time I was doing. I’d put my watch away a few miles earlier, because it was an added stress I didn’t need. I got to the top, and somehow my legs kept moving, and I tried to tank it down to Guiseley. There’s a half mile or so track though before the road down into the town, and it was more deep bogs and it annoyed me. I’d had enough of bogs by then. I managed to get up some speed on the way down, the usual dodging of bins and cars and people. Then, the roundabout and the last five minutes along the road, where you have to show that you are making an effort because there are people you know who have already finished who are shouting you in, and you have to earn the encouragement. Along the road, left into the primary school, into the entrance. This year, they handed out tags so it didn’t matter if you forgot to go up to the desk and check in, as I’d done one year. Finally I looked at my watch and I was appalled. 4.43. My slowest ever time. I went to find FRB and I was almost in tears. I can’t explain it. I’m not proud of this, but when he said he’d got a PB, I nearly burst out sobbing, and only just managed to say “well done.” I can only assume that on the way round I’d been putting myself under more pressure than I’d thought, and this was the steam coming out of the pressure cooker. Sorry FRB and well done.

Warm clothes, and then the traditional Rombald’s Pie and Boiled Potatoes, which always tastes as good as a school dinner would taste after you have run nearly 22 miles. Brilliant. Even the tinned fruit and cold custard.

I slowly calmed down and got a grip. Then we collected our certificates and memento: a useful supermarket trolley coin and keyring. I’m not proud of my meltdown at the finish and actually I’m very pleased I got round. I really love this race and given my deadline lifestyle at the moment, I should have just focused on the fact I was getting several hours of running in a beautiful and beloved part of the world, and a month’s worth of fresh air. And snow. All that snow. I’m disappointed I didn’t do better, but I’ll treat it as an incentive not a sign. I’ll be back.

FRB gets his revenge at my churlishness by making me look like a Hobbit

 

 

Tour of Pendle 2017

I like Tour of Pendle. I like Pendle Hill. This may seem odd, given the conditions of last year’s ToP. But I do like it, and I wanted to do well on it. I began training over two months ago, using, as usual, a bespoke training plan carefully designed by FRB. (He does wonderful training plans. Hire him.) This one, unlike the Three Peaks one, had more tempo and speed sessions, along with the usual hill sessions and longer runs. The longer runs were more concerned with time on tired feet than mileage, so a 10-mile moor or fell run would be as good as 17 miles of road. I was fairly dedicated to my plan, to the point of agreeing to add several miles after running Shepherd’s Skyline. I also did one spin class and one weightlifting class a week. I think I probably followed 70% of my plan, though that may be generous. I felt like I was sort of ready, but as with any race, it could depend on sleep, food, mood, hormones, conditions, happenstance.

I slept horribly. Really badly. But there was nothing to be done about that, so I woke at 6 to allow myself a good 90 minutes of faffing time. I’d spent much of the day before packing, as I wasn’t just packing for Pendle. I’d been asked to give a keynote speech at the World Toilet Summit in Melbourne, and had accepted. The trouble was twofold: they wanted me there by the Sunday evening, the race was on Saturday, and it takes two calendar days to get there. I had to negotiate: there was no way I was going to miss a race I’d been training for for two months. So I would run the race — translated to the WTS organisers as a “longstanding family commitment”, which was true, if FRB is family — then we would stay overnight at a Manchester airport hotel, then I would get up at 5am and spend 24 hours in a plane. This was not ideal: I’d probably be in a condition where I was at higher risk of DVT than most passengers, as I doubt they’d just have spent a few hours climbing 5000 feet and running 17 miles. So in amongst the lists for the race bag, the race pack, the suitcase and the carry-on, there was aspirin, compression socks and a commitment to stretch my legs every half an hour.

I drove over to pick up FRB, and we got to Barley village in such good time, there was even room to park in the car park. This went down like a lead balloon with FRB, who is particular about such things and pointed out that the roadside was not muddy and the car park was. But I had had very little sleep and he got short shrift. Also, it was my birthday, and I had birthday leeway. I understand that for many people, running a tough fell race is not a desirable birthday activity, but it suited me fine. FRB had organised with the race organiser Kieran that my bib number would match my age: 48.

We collected our numbers, and headed to the village hall canteen, the flooring again covered in cardboard, to eat more and drink more. The main room of the village hall was already busy, and neither I nor FRB find it relaxing to stand around in a crowd before a race, so tea and Soreen and bananas in a quiet room was a much better option.

Eat. Toilet. Drink. Toilet. Change. Toilet. Start-line.

I do things in that order and I did things in that order. Buff, check. Rainbow compression socks, check. Insoles in shoes, check. A full picnic in my race pack, check. For the interested, I had energy gels, Quorn sausages, marzipan balls, two Milky Ways, a bag full of jelly beans and plenty of liquid. I ate hardly any of that. I’d planned to wear shorts and a t-shirt under my vest, but when I saw FRB had got a long-sleeve top on — and he is a man who will run in only a vest and shorts whenever possible — I changed my mind and my top. It was the right decision. I was never seriously cold, and never too warm. I was Goldilocks right.

The weather was good. I’d been checking it all week and it had always been good. A temperature of about 7 degrees, not much wind, and even some sunshine. For me, a cold-weather runner, this seemed perfect. I felt OK despite my sleeplessness, and we gathered at the start, were counted through a kissing gate, milled about for a bit more, heard no announcements and as is usually the way in fell running, noticed that people had started shuffling and that the race must have begun. Such is a fell race start.

Steady. Steady she goes. I knew this was key because I knew enough about this race to understand that pacing was essential. I had to move fast enough to meet the cut-off, but not so fast that I didn’t have the strength to climb and descend very big hills six times, plus the rest. About the cut-off: I got it wrong last year, when I thought the cut-off was two hours to Checkpoint 2. Not quite. Last year, and this year, it was the same: two hours to Checkpoint 4. That is only eight miles in distance, but it included two big climbs, up Pendle Hill and then up to Spence Moor, a run across boggy terrain that could, depending on the previous week’s weather, be sloppy and slow-going, then the mighty descent that is Geronimo. I didn’t think the cut-off was particularly generous, but FRB was serene. “You’ll easily make it.” So I took his confidence and put it in my race pack, and concentrated on my pacing.

Steady. Steady she goes.

There is a mile of tarmac, most of it uphill, until you reach the base of Pendle Hill. I watched as most of my club mates zoomed off, along with Caroline of Pudsey Pacers, who had a fantastic run. My Kirkstall Harrier mates also overtook me, including Louise, who had come out on a recce with us several weeks earlier, and was extremely worried. She is a great runner, but not an experienced fell runner, and she does not yet get on well with descents. I was worried that this would seriously handicap her, and I wasn’t entirely sure, given the steepness and height of Geronimo, that she would make the cut-off. But then, I wasn’t sure I would either. The weather was so good that if I did as well as last year, I’d probably be at least ten minutes quicker, but I didn’t know that I could do as well as last year. So I did what I do, which is keep going. Up Pendle Hill, through Checkpoint 1 — a man with a clicker — then shuffling as soon as I could, then the long run across bogs, past the clough, down onto a rocky technical track, and a much longer stretch than I remember to Checkpoint 2. I caught Louise up just before we dropped onto the track, and we stayed together all the way up to Spence Moor and to the top of Geronimo. As I’d done last year, I took advantage of the small incline after CP2 to eat something. With apologies for run-nagging, I told Louise that the most crucial thing was to fuel. Even if she didn’t feel like it, to eat something every half hour from now on. I think I followed my own advice even if sometimes the fuel was two jelly beans or half a Milky Way. I never felt depleted so I suppose I got it right.

On the climb up Spence Moor, I turned round to take a photo. My mother had given me a new FRC (fell running camera) for my birthday: a lightweight point and shoot that is easier to operate than things that need clean fingers to swipe. The new camera was also an improvement on the Cash Converters one I’d bought, as it had a big difference: it worked. It’s probably not a popular thing to hear, when you’re trying your hardest to climb a hard hill, but I yelled, “smile!” and got this:

The man from Keighley & Craven looked at me and said, “Are you Rose George?”. This has happened before. It happened in the start line, when someone said, “ah it’s the famous blogger Rose George,” and it was Scott Leach. I know Scott online but we hadn’t met in real life. He also knows I’m not a famous blogger. I was sure I’d never met this man, despite my atrocious memory. He said he was friends with Ian, who I’ve run alongside and behind (mostly) at various races, and who was far ahead of us on this one, and that he’d read my blog. (At least I think he said that.) It was a nice encounter but not the end of the serendipity. First, there was Geronimo.

Ah, Geronimo. People dread it. I don’t dread it, because descending is my best strength. Though it’s not the kind of downhill that I’m best at. I like the kind where you point your feet downwards and whoosh. There is not much whooshing on Geronimo because it’s so steep. I did it all wrong, probably, as I mostly went down as if I were on skis, my feet parallel to the contour, and not facing downhill as would have been better. But at least I got there on the right route: FRB had told me to follow a trod over the moor which would give me a better line down than the main path. He said the trod led out from a kissing gate, at about 45 degrees from the main path. There was no kissing gate. But despite myself, I managed to end up on the trod by the technique of following two Trawden runners in front of me, and only after a while looking up and seeing a lot of other runners going off on another path about 45 degrees away. Trawden, I thought. Local. Local enough that they may know where they are going. And they did, and so we reached this:

Photo by Mick Fryer

I set off, leaving Louise to manage, and made my way diagonally down, to the beck, over the beck, up through the kissing gate, and I’d made the cut-off with 15 minutes to spare. I got through the gate and heard someone say, “Happy Birthday!” But it wasn’t to me. It was to the Keighley & Craven bloke behind me, who I now called Fell Running Twin (yes, FRT). Someone somewhere could probably work out the probabilities of running one place in front of a person with the same birthday in a race field of 423 people: I’d guess they were slight. On the other side of the gate was the lovely sight of my club-mate Hilary and Linda, whose husband Martin was racing. I was very pleased to see them, but somewhat puzzled when Hilary offered me a tupperware saying, “Potato?”

At least, I thought I looked puzzled. Apparently, as Linda’s camera shows, I looked horrified.

Photo by Linda Bullock

Sorry Hilary! I wasn’t horrified, just startled by the concept of a boiled potato. If she offered it again, I’d have it. Maybe there is something about Checkpoint 4 and improbable race food: remember FRB’s lucky egg? I scorned the potatoes and had a few sweets, but I was obviously dehydrated, as the sweets stuck in my throat, like the magnesium tablet I’d had a couple of weeks before which I thought was going to kill me. I’d learned from the magnesium choking that water is the solution, so I drank more and didn’t choke from a Costco vegetarian jelly bean. Live, and eventually learn.

I felt tired. This was probably the lowest part of the race for me, when running felt like trudging and legs felt like iron weights. But I trudged and kept going. Louise was still halfway up Geronimo but I knew she’d make the cut-off so I wasn’t worried. She was doing brilliantly considering half her office had come down with whooping cough and she’d been coughing for a week. And I didn’t know how I was doing. It will seem improbable, but beyond getting through the cut-off and beating last year’s snow-time by at least a minute, I didn’t have a time in mind. I thought maybe I could do 4.30, having done 4.39 the year before, and I’d have been happy with that. But the more tired I got, the less able I was to calculate what I had to do to make that time so I followed my usual race procedure: keep on, keep on.

There was a wonderful descent down to CP5, on soft and easy ground, with no hidden rocks or tussocks. It’s a rare thing to have a long descent like that, and I always love it. Unleash the child you were, and helter-skelter. After that, the real race began. People say that Tour of Pendle starts after Geronimo and that’s fair, because your legs have been pushed to the limit with the climbs and the extremely steep descent. If you avoid cramp, you’re lucky. I was lucky. From now on, it was steep descents and steep climbs, times 3. Plus the rest. I always think of the first climb as the “it’s better than shopping” climb, as that’s what one bloke had said the year before. And it was true, even in snow and ice. The sun that had been forecast was being mean with its appearance. This was as close as it came to “sunny intervals.”

Up, and up. I turned round now and then, and at one point yelled to Louise, “REMEMBER TO EAT” which probably alarmed everyone around her and near me. Sorry. At the top, there was a long run across the tops, then another severe down, another severe up and then then the same again. There were some highlights: a lovely backside-slide down to the beck; a horrible run on an evil camber that was so severe I thought that I was going to lose both my shoes and my right hip; the cow-bell at CP9 as usual; and the stalwart marshal at CP8 with his Union flag. He’d been standing at a field gate just after CP1 with the flag, and I’d thanked him, and thanked him even more forcefully for being there the year before, when I saw his cairn and felt like a lost Polar explorer seeing rescue. He said merely, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”

Of the climbs in Tour of Pendle, The Big End is supposed to be the worst. That’s not true. It’s the one before that is worst and which I called The Bigger End. The Big End is just the last. I climbed the Better than Shopping Hill, and the Bigger End, using my patented hill-climbing-on-knackered-legs technique which is: count in French. If I’m quite tired, I’ll count forwards in French. If I’m really tired, I’ll count backwards. The point is to distract the brain. And there is little more distracting than being exhausted and having to remember that 97 in French translates as four-twenty-ten-seven or that 78 is sixty-ten-eight. It always works.

At the Big End, there was a surprising sight.

x

Chris from Kirkstall and Martin from Pudsey Pacers, both of whom are usually far ahead of me in any race, and neither of whom I expected to see. But Tour of Pendle can surprise even experienced runners, and so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them. It was great to have their company; Louise hadn’t caught me up and I kept overtaking then being overtaken by my clubmate Sheelagh, but mostly I’d been running alone. We climbed together and Chris occasionally told the grass and rocks what he thought of the race and the climbs (not much). He’d done a 30-mile ultra two weeks earlier so I don’t think his legs were thanking him.

Quatre-vingts douze.
Quatre-vingts treize
Quatre-vingts quatorze
Etc.

And I got up Big End, in French, and suddenly there were no more climbs. Martin is quicker than me, and I urged him to go on, but he said he was happy to run with me and was not pushing for any great time. And again, I was thoroughly glad of his company.

Martin was more lucid than me at this point, and he looked at his watch and said, we can make it in 4.15. I said, “huh?” and he said it was 2.5 miles to the finish, most of it was downhill, and we could do it in 4.15. He said it should take 35 minutes. I didn’t really believe him, but I kept going as best I could, and loved the downhill to CP11 (the same marshals and almost the same position as CP4). After that it was a run along the contour, then down to the reservoir, then a mile on the tarmac. It’s the same mile, mostly, that we run on the way out, and I dislike it on the way out and I dislike it on the way back. But I couldn’t slack off, because now I had a pacer. Come on, said Martin. Keep pushing. And he encouraged me all the way back, even when I looked along the length of the reservoir and knew that the finish was at the other end and then some, and it looked so very very long. But he kept me going, and I kept going, and I whizzed past him on the downhills, and he caught me on the flat bits, and we ran down into Barley together, down past the fancy Waterworks apartments, past runners who have finished and who are walking back to encourage others (thank you), past FRB cheering us in, and then, finally, it was done.

4.15.39

I couldn’t believe it. A 25-minute PB on one of the hardest races in my racing calendar. I’d have got a PB without Martin’s encouragement on the last stretch, but I wouldn’t have made 4.15. I’m thankful to him, and I’m proud of myself. I know that me getting round the Three Peaks both times, given my abilities and the rigorous cut-offs, is probably my biggest running achievement. But this is up there too. I’m chuffed, delighted, joyful.

How did I celebrate? With hot vegetable soup and two cups of tea. My Fell Running Twin (whose name is Alan) had told me he was off to have a cake in a camper van in the car park, and invited me. But I forgot this of course. Happy birthday Alan, and I hope you enjoyed your Keighley & Craven cake. FRB — who had also got a PB, of course, because these days he always does — drove me to the hotel where we ate our weight in burgers, and I broke my no-alcohol rule, with abandon. And then I flew to Australia.

As birthdays go, my 48th was a cracker.

British Fell Relays

My new club, North Leeds Fell Runners, is what interior designers call “bijou.” They mean “small,” though bijou means a jewel, and I think NLFR is rather glittering, despite us having fewer than 40 members. A bijou club, but we still managed to find enough people to field three teams at the British Fell Relays, when far far larger clubs only managed one or two (and some didn’t bother with any). The British Fell Relays — actually it’s a British Fell Relay — is an annual event and does what it sounds like: you run a relay over fells. It sounds daunting, and it was, when I arrived in Llanberis, this year’s location, and found nearly 1000 runners all looking as lean as mountain goats. I think I had more body fat on one thigh than all of them put together. The relays were hosted by Eryri Harriers, a club based in Llanberis, and they had got the use of a slate quarry as the venue. This meant that clubs wanting to bring gazebos and tents could leave their pegs at home, and resorted to rocks.

We (FRB was running for Pudsey & Bramley) drove down to Wales the day before and had an excellent walk on the beach. It was warm and sunny and weird to be doing that in late October, but I thought we may as well carry on pretending it was summer, and had an ice-cream on the cafe terrace overlooking the beach. It was a good idea to take advantage: Hurricane Ophelia was due to hit Ireland the following day, and knock-on gales would probably hit Wales. The race was probably going to be what fell runners call “a bit breezy”: 50 mile-an-hour winds.

We stayed in Caernarfon, in a quiet AirBnB overlooking the river, and spent the evening wandering around and bumping into all of Wharfedale Harriers in the Black Boy pub. They were drinking beer, FRB was drinking beer, and I was drinking lime and soda: I gave up drinking alcohol a month ago to try to shed some weight. So far so good, and I see no need yet to revert. Though I am a little tired of lime and soda. Then FRB and I both selected our chosen pre-race meal: mine was chips. His was pizza. Thankfully Caernarfon town planners must have known this by siting the pizza place over the road from the chippy. The planners had also decided to screen a film on the side of the castle, which was an idea better in conception than execution, as it consisted of a film that you couldn’t quite see because of the bricks, and you couldn’t hear. So the evening’s entertainment was not the film but the sight of many baffled people screwing up their eyes and looking dissatisfied.

Llanberis is a fifteen minute drive from Caernarfon, so we got there in good time, and set off up to the registration. And lo! There was Ben Mounsey coming the other way. Ben and I have been communicating on social media for ages, and I love his writing (here is one of his latest, which is brilliant). He is an extremely good runner who manages to combine enormous talent with encouraging kindness, to all abilities, and I will always salute that combination. We have nearly met several times, and I suppose we did meet, if you count me watching him descend Pen-y-Ghent at speed during the Three Peaks, while I slogged up it. That doesn’t really count. The good news is that he is delightful in person too. I love it when that happens. He was off to sit in his flash campervan and drink tea, as we had plenty of time. Both he and I were doing Leg 2. The relays consist of this:

My Leg 2 partner was Jenny. I knew she was worried: she hasn’t done as much fell running as usual, and also came off her bike while doing a sportive so hadn’t run much at all for the previous three weeks. The night before, she texted FRB to say, “Will you get Rose to carry some bricks in her race pack?” I didn’t have bricks, but I did have, as usual, loads of food and drink. What I didn’t have, as I realised when I started to get ready, was any insoles for my shoes. Shit. We had got there at about 9 and probably wouldn’t be running until at least 10am, but this was at 9.40 or so and the car park was a ten minute walk away, where I thought I might find a pair of orthotics that I had happened to throw in my bag because they had just been posted back after refurbishment and were on my kitchen table when I was packing. Usually I have a carrier bag of spare insoles, but I’d left it at home, despite being what I thought was extremely assiduous at preparing, with lists and tickings-off and everything. The sight of my fell shoes with no insoles in was quite a shock. Jenny and her husband Dave immediately dashed off to the Pete Bland stall outside to see if they had any. No. I didn’t have the car key and FRB had gone off somewhere so I dashed off too in a mad panic. Luckily he was milling about at the P&B encampment, and probably got rather a shock when I ran up and yelled,

GIVEMETHECARKEYIDON’THAVEANYINSOLESANDTHEY’REINTHECARANDGIVEMETHECARKEYNOW

then ran off again.

I ran down and found the orthotics, which don’t quite fit my fell shoes but never mind, then ran back up. Of course we still had about half an hour to spare before Ann finished Leg 1. Meanwhile my club-mates had gone to Pete Bland and decided not only to buy new shoes but to run in them.This breaks a cardinal rule of sensible running: never break anything in on a race that you haven’t tried out before.

Me: “You’ve run in this model before, I assume? ”

“Nope. I usually wear Salomons.”

Fell runners, eh. (If this makes no sense to you, ask anyone who runs off-road to explain the different merits of Salomons, Inov-8s and Walshes and prepare for a) opinions so entrenched they make words carved in stone seem like chalk on a board and b) to be there for a very, very long time.)

To wait for Ann to get back, we had to enter the waiting pen, then be herded across the race finish line and wait on the other side. FRB wasn’t going to be running for at least three hours, probably, so he had time to act as Director of Photography. “Look nervous!” I don’t think Jenny heard him, but I did.

I knew Ann was a very good runner, but I was really surprised to see Rachel and Karen of P&B, both extraordinarily fast, still waiting, and waiting, as Leg 1 runners got in, touched their Leg 2 pair, and the Leg 2 pair set off. While a dwindling group waited behind. In fact both Ann and P&B’s Leg 1 runner (who, it turns out, is not too good with technical terrain or water, both somewhat of an obstacle on this race) arrived at the same time, so Jenny and I set off up the quarry with Rachel and Karen, which would normally never happen. They of course promptly zoomed off and overtook about 15 pairs. We, on the other hand, were constantly overtaken. I did set off with some ego, while knowing my limits, and this bothered me at first, but eventually I developed an armour and got over myself. I knew Jenny’s fitness was not optimal, and so the fact that she was attempting this at all, and — it seemed for the first couple of miles — giving it her very best, was good enough for me. I’m not saying I would have gone zooming off. Of course I wouldn’t. I only wish I could zoom. But anyway all these thoughts were pointless. We would do as well as we could.

The weather was perfectly fine, until we started climbing. We knew we had 900 metres of climb coming in the first six miles. That is tough. The only option: head down and keep going. By the time we did the first climb, the winds were howling on the tops. I was blown into a fence. At one point the wind was so loud and ridiculously strong, I stopped and screamed at it. If you can’t howl at the wind now and then, what’s the point of fell running? Jenny was keeping up really well. The route was pretty clear. We had been told it was marshalled and flagged and so far we had seen tape (which is what “flagged” can mean) and marshals so so far so good. Onwards, upwards, and into weather that deserved a capital W. But we persevered. Finally came a glorious descent, and we made our first mistake. A golden rule of fell running: Never believe what a stranger tells you. Early on on the descent, the flags — and marshals — disappeared. I had no idea which way to go, apart from down. At this point, I should have got out my map, but I was so excited by not climbing, I didn’t.

A walker said, “the others have gone that way” and pointed straight down. I launched into a descent, taking a mostly vertical line down, and got to a field gate at the bottom. Jenny’s descending is slower than mine, so I had time for both a picture and a toilet stop. This is not a picture of the toilet stop.

When she reached me, we looked around for a flag or runners and saw neither. I got my map out and it was no clearer. Finally we realised we should have descended diagonally and were about 300 metres further along the hill than we should have been. Reverse, regroup, find the stile, and we were fine again.

For now.

A mile or so of track, then we passed a checkpoint that I was about to dib at when they said, no, this isn’t yours. We had done four checkpoints by then and I knew there were five. The rules of the relay are that you must dib at your leg’s checkpoints, in order. We kept going, now with tired legs, amongst rather beautiful views.

I knew roughly what the route was meant to do: it looped round then reached the quarry via a descent that was muddy and rocky and either awful or good fun depending on your tastes. (Good fun, for me.) At a bend in the track we saw several pairs of runners climbing a hill to our right. There was a tiny scrap of tape on the gate, so we went through it and followed the runners. At the top was an unmanned checkpoint on a cairn, and a broken down wall and barbed wire. It didn’t seem right, but we had seen no other indications on the track. Checking the map was useless as I had no idea where we were, a key to using a map properly. That is, I knew roughly where we were because we could see the quarry down in the valley. We just didn’t know how to get there. We were getting very confused, and that got worse when a load of Leg 3 runners started climbing up towards us. The mass start had set off, and we knew that because all their bib numbers began with C (we were B). There were a few other B-bib pairs around though, looking equally lost. We climbed up and down that hill five times trying to understand where we were and where to go next. This is what that looks like on a map:

 

My good mood had thoroughly disappeared, especially when one of our descents was through rocky waist-high bracken. Eventually we decided to dib at the checkpoint, and the dibber beeped as it was supposed to, and we set off down the hill again. There were about three other pairs, all women, and we sort of followed each other, and that was yet another mistake. None of us had any clue where the route had gone, but it certainly wasn’t the way we took, which was via massive rocky outcrops, a sheer drop into a quarry and a sign marked DANGER DO NOT ENTER, copses full of brambles and nettles. All this time we knew where the finish was, but there seemed to be endless obstacles in the way. It definitely wasn’t the right way but at this point we all just wanted to finish. I was frustrated and furious and embarrassed. Eventually, after climbing walls and barbed wire and going through nettles, we found a track down that ended up on the road we’d started on. We ran up it and met the race route at the corner above the quarry. There were some surprised looks. By this point I wasn’t sure we’d got the right checkpoint but I didn’t care. Back, and down the finish funnel, and into the tent where we explained, roughly, what we’d done, and realised that we’d got the wrong checkpoint. All Leg B checkpoints were manned, and the one on the cairn wasn’t. So that was that. We were certain to be disqualified.

Ben Mounsey came up and asked how we’d done and when I explained, he was all sympathy. He said, it can happen to anyone. He said that because he is nice, and because it is true. But in this case it happened to anyone who gets distracted by runners who are not running the same leg and turns off the right race route. Those runners we’d seen going up the hill had been Leg 3 runners, and if we had only carried on on the track, we would have quickly come to our manned Checkpoint 5.

I wasn’t in the best of moods, and once I’d changed and cleaned up in the fell-runners’ changing room — a Portaloo — my mood wasn’t improved by the fact that no-one at our table could locate our club’s hot food vouchers. I went up to the food table and showed my race bib and explained, but got nowhere. This was the conversation, more or less.

“I don’t have a voucher because our club has lost them. But here is my race number, can I have some hot food please?”

“No. You need a voucher.”

“But I’ve just been running for three hours in gales and got lost in brambles and barbed wire and I’m really hungry can you please show some kindness and give me some hot food anyway?”

“No. You need a voucher.”

“Then can you fetch your manager and I will have an adult and calm discussion with him or her because I really need some hot food.”

“No. You need a voucher.”

I will be fair to the woman: she was probably temporary staff on a minimum wage and worried about her job. But it was not the best encounter I could have had. So I comforted myself with a bag full of Quorn sausages, which I’d taken in my race pack and not eaten, not even at the worst moments, and hot tea.

And we weren’t disqualified. I still don’t know why. Maybe it was because we obviously gained no advantage by using the wrong checkpoint and taking an hour more to get back, and we did dib at a fifth checkpoint, it just wasn’t ours. I’m grateful. There were other disqualifications, so it wasn’t because they didn’t notice.

What did I learn? That if I see other runners tramping up a hill, I should check my route map. We were so stupidly close and so stupid to veer off the route. But tired brains and legs warped our thinking. I learned that “fully marshalled and flagged” has a wide and elastic meaning, and that I should never rely on that. I have signed up to do an FRA navigation course, and I’ll be back to do the relays, but next time with insoles in my shoes, my map held in my hand all the way round, and a hot food voucher tattooed to my back.

 

 

Yorkshireman


I decided to try an experiment. It was a very foolish idea. Could I run a marathon on inadequate training? More precisely: could I run an off-road marathon on training that had amounted to about one run a week for the last four weeks; nothing above nine miles; hardly any hills; when the marathon included 3,000 feet of climb?

The answer should have been no. To run the Yorkshireman on as little training as I have done for the past few months was the act of a lunatic. I have kept relatively fit, during my book-writing lock-downs, by doing spin classes and weight-lifting. But I had done no long runs since the Three Peaks in April. I had hardly run at all, compared to my usual three or four runs a week. And yet something in me stubbornly refused to withdraw. “Are you sure you don’t want to switch to the half?” said FRB a few weeks ago. No. Not least because the half — actually a generous 15 miles, this being Yorkshire — had more climb per mile than the marathon. And because with no grounds for believing this, I thought I could do the full. I was stubborn for another reason. Last year, when I ran it as half of a pair with Sara, I had learned the route. It is the only route that I know extremely well. I was not going to waste that knowledge by running the half instead.

But of course I was worried. In other news, I have left my club Kirkstall Harriers after several years, and joined North Leeds Fell Runners. I’d been thinking about this for a while. I want more company on fell races, and I’ve drifted away from Kirkstall over the last year. There are still loads of Kirkstall Harriers I like very much, but I don’t socialise with the club as much as I used to, I haven’t been to training for months, I’d like more company at fell races, and it just felt like time to move. This is perhaps regarded as anathema by many club runners, who stay with clubs for years out of loyalty. And I did stay with Kirkstall out of loyalty for a long time, because it has been extremely good to me. But now I have given up purple and taken up the black and blue. In fact, although I have paid to be released from Kirkstall (it costs £10) and paid my membership for NLFR, England Athletics hasn’t yet processed the change and I don’t really belong to any club until my transfer has been approved by the Eligibility Committee. But I didn’t know this, so I paid for a new club vest, which is a cracker: black, with a sky blue sash and a red kite (though a blue red kite) over the logo. This would be my first race as a North Leeds Fell Runner, and I didn’t want that to coincide with it being my first DNF (Did Not Finish).

There wasn’t much I could do about it. I wasn’t going to pull out so I would have to run it. I asked FRB to be brutally honest and tell me whether he thought I could get round. He said, “you can get round.” He paused. “But it will be uncomfortable.” He calculated that if we managed an average pace of 12 minutes per mile, we could do it in 5 hours 15 minutes. After running it in six hours last year, and being disappointed with that time, this sounded brilliant. Twelve minute miles? Easy. That’s because I was forgetting all the climb. And the weather. FRB said “we” because he had decided to run it with me. This was a huge gesture of kindness: he would have to run two minutes a mile slower than his usual pace, which would be very tiring for him, he had run the very very tough Castle Carr race the week before, and all in all it would be a taxing day out for him. But the thought of having company when it was going to be five or six hours out in the wilds was a big comfort.

We both checked the weather in the week leading up to the race. FRB favours the Met Office and BBC. I prefer the Norwegians. I don’t remember where I read that the Norwegian weather service is supposed to be the best in the world, but I thought it was probably true when FRB kept showing me the weather for Keighley because the BBC didn’t have a forecast for Haworth, but the Norwegians did. Also, if you keep the website in the Norwegian, you can feel like you’re getting the weather report and you’re in a Scandi drama at the same time. (They got the forecast exactly right.)

Apart from that, I ate a lot. I took my cue from part of the Yorkshireman route. Not the Fill Belly Flat bit but the regular version. Fill Belly. Then Fill Belly Some More.

I wrote a list, I prepared my race pack, I looked at the route and tried to visualise my way through it. I wouldn’t need to navigate, with FRB, but all these things were breaks from struggling with writing a chapter on HIV. I woke promptly at 6.30, drove to collect FRB and we headed for Haworth. Last year I’d managed to plan things so that I had to walk down and up the rather brutal finish of cobbled Butt Lane, twice. This year we planned better, parked elsewhere, and were in the school dining room, race HQ, with plenty of time. Coffee, a Mars Bar, apply Vaseline and rainbow socks, change shoes. The half-marathon runners, whose start was 30 minutes after ours, began to arrive. Jenny from NLFR was ill and had pulled out, so I was going to be the solitary NLFR. But there were plenty of folk I knew from local clubs, including Diane and Ian, who I’ve run in a few races with, who run as a pair, and who tend to fall out with loud and swearing frequency mid-race. Ian said, “I’ve changed my attitude.” Diane said, “He’s had his final warning.”

There were a few toilet visits, of course. And bloody well done, Keighley and Craven, for being the first race organizers ever to have potty parity in the portaloo provision. Five unisex portaloos, one male-only, and four ladies-only. That is how things should be, as women take longer in the toilet than men, and poor provision of toilets is why there are always longer queues in the ladies. I told this to everyone in the queue of course, and that I’d written a book on it. I was only trying to take people’s mind off things. I’m not sorry.

We had a pre-race picture. FRB likes to tell me that my new vest has the sash going the wrong way, and that it should pass over the heart. I told him that the heart isn’t where he thinks it is, and my colours are better.

We headed up the hill to the start, which is on Haworth’s main street. A quick warm-up. Too quick for FRB who looked at me sternly and said, you know there are 26.2 miles to run? There was time to take some fashion pics:

Then down the hill, a bit of milling about, and an announcement from race organizer Charlie, which consisted of:

  1. We’ve got goodwill from farmers and landowners and that hasn’t always been the case so behave
  2. If you see any YORM stickers that have fallen off or are the wrong way round, stick them back (to which FRB added “if you know which way round they’re supposed to go”)
  3. On your marks, get set, go

Most of the climb in the Yorkshireman is in the first half, and the first two miles feel like all of the climb is in the first two miles. I was determined to go steady, and I did, walking even the early inclines. FRB and I had an agreement: I would always be behind him, so if I was going to walk, I would yell “walking!” This worked, then transformed later into a second stage. After walking, I would say “shuffle” or he would say “shuffle?” and we did. But for now all was fine. I felt good, the weather was cool and dry, the way I like it, and on we went. There were lots of hooped vests around us, from Keighley & Craven, the hosts, but also Bingley and Calder Valley. I’d seen the man with McParty Tartan from last year, but I hadn’t managed to persuade FRB to run in his. “For 26 miles? No chance.” But he wore his family tartan buff instead, and Woodentops — Dave and Eileen Woodhead — took some lovely pictures as usual. Dave usually yells out something. This year, as we approached side by side, it was “Fatman and Wonderwoman!” which was more poetic than accurate, given the size of me and the size of FRB. I’m pleased that there is something called “the writer’s butt” but not so pleased that I have got one. And two sets of hockey legs combined into one. But still, they can shift no matter what size they are.

Along the way of course I thought of lots of things I wanted to remember and I have forgotten them all. Although I do remember thinking I should run with a dictaphone and keep it switched on. Anyway I felt mostly serene, and was astonished to see that an hour had passed and that we had run five miles. FRB every so often reminded me to pick my feet and legs up, something that would become more essential the more tired I got. My spirits were OK too and not too daunted by the fact of all the miles to come. I think I had managed to persuade myself, after book and menopause and the usual, that I was going to enjoy a day out, no matter what. And I did. The scenery around Haworth is lovely, I really like the Yorkshireman route, and I knew that the checkpoints always had good food.

Just as we reached the moor leading to Withens pub (which is no longer a pub), the first half marathon runner caught us. I know that this was galling for FRB, as they’d usually not catch him, or only just. But he didn’t say anything, and I was grateful. I’d made a deal with myself as I do whenever I run with someone who is faster: I will feel guilty for the first five minutes about slowing them down, and then I won’t. The leader was a few minutes ahead of the rest and I said well done, because I’m nice. He said “cheers” and he was the last one to do so. After that, it seemed that civility diminished with each approaching runner. I understand that they are going fast and that we were not. But they should find their own paths, not cut in front of me so I have to pull up short. Oh well.

Over the moor, then, to Withens pub, negotiating bogs and tussocks and skinny men running fast and splashingly. I stopped for a banana and a biscuit, then set off walking and eating, past the wind turbine farm that wasn’t there last year but now is, to the turn-off to Warley Moor. A woman running the half ran past me and said, “well done!” and that almost let me forgive the others, but I was pleased that the half and the full runners were about to part ways, and I turned onto Warley Moor with relief. And then it started raining. I didn’t take any pictures because my iPhone was in a plastic bag and it was too much trouble to get it out. And the important thing to was to keep moving no matter how slowly, but to move at faster than walking pace, for as long as I could. “Small steps,” said FRB. It is easy to stride with too much gusto on boggy ground, and Warley Moor was very very boggy, as FRB found out when he went in, in his words, “up to my knackers”. Right, I said, I’m not going that way. FRB: my bog-diving canary in a coalmine. Warley Moor seemed to last a long time, but that was because of the weather. At one point it felt like I had been making my way across it for my entire life, and that I would be there forever more. Daft. But the brain works like that when it is being pounded by rain and heavy wind and all you see is mud and water and tussocks.

As we dropped down to the road, I shouted to FRB, “look! folly!” because we had once had a dispute about whether a folly existed on that road (it does). He looked shocked and when we were safely on tarmac and out of the wind said, “if you’re going to shout at me, don’t do it on a downhill,” a reasonable request. And also maybe not to shout “folly” when it sounds like “fallen.” M aybe to make up for this I did fall a mile later, though for once I managed to do it on soft ground, in a narrow snicket overtaken with brambles and nettles. I got a bleeding knee, but that’s usual, and you haven’t really run a fell race if you haven’t drawn blood. FRB handed me some leaves in the next field to clean it off. Later, he said, “on reflection, maybe giving you leaves growing in a field with cattle in it wasn’t a good idea,” but unlike my sheep shit infection, my wounds survived cow pat residue.

On, and on, and I can’t remember much except that the effort got bigger. I think I had a low point at around mile 11 when suddenly it seemed impossible. FRB said I looked pale, and handed me some fizzy cola bottles. It’s a mark of how I was feeling that he said, “sorry, they’re not vegetarian,” and I said “I don’t care” and ate a fistful. Coming up to Ogden Water, we began running with a Bingley man who was unsure of the route. He stayed with us for a while but then dropped back and finished half an hour after us. I am certain that if FRB had not run with me, I would have done a similar time. But we managed to work out a serene running partnership, mostly. Most of his instructions and advice continued to be helpful, though “keep breathing” is not one of his better ones. “Keep moving” though was more useful than it sounded, and somehow, though I’ve no idea how, I did. The best trick was to walk-run and to judge best when to walk. Mostly, I walked every incline and ran the rest. Another trick was to divide up the enormity of it all, distance and time. For that, checkpoints were useful. I was looking forward to Denholme Velvets, as it was more than halfway round and last year they had jam sandwiches. This year there was only one marshal there and he looked cold and wet but still smiled. And he had Fat Rascals! What a champion. Later, my spirits were lifted enormously by a marshal who was wearing this:

He had trousers on, I think, but as he was at the penultimate checkpoint and there was a significant climb coming up, who knows? But he was delightful, cheery and charming and he had bananas. He made me smile, which in mile 24 is a massive achievement. Thank you, Keighley & Craven bananaman. Then there were the alpacas. I was really looking forward to the alpacas, but couldn’t remember where they were. This meant that for the 15 or so miles until I saw them, FRB had to deal with the equivalent of the parents’ endless torment of “are we there yet?” which was “are we near the alpacas?”

They were worth the wait. (Last years’ picture.)

The last few miles are a blur. I remember I was dreading Harden Moor, but I just put my head down and kept going. Except we stopped briefly to take pictures:

In FRB’s race debrief (ie we were chatting about it on the sofa while I drank as much wine as my body could take and ate all the chocolate) he said that those miles were when I impressed him most. Because I kept moving. He said, “I kept saying, let’s shuffle, and you’d just do it.” I’m not saying that to be vain but because I was surprised by that too. I didn’t think I had that mental strength, but I did. Before the race, I’d meant to write a mantra on my hands. Naff but useful. My mantra was going to be STRONG on one hand and BRAIN on the other. Because I knew my brain would be what got me round. There were other phrases in my head on the way round: Knees up, head up, feet up. But strong brain was what I chanted when I was struggling. And it worked. On the Worth Way, we encountered a group of Calder Valley runners who were mostly walking. They looked like they were no longer having fun. Keep the group in sight, said FRB, and we did, then overtook them. In fact, no-one overtook us at all in the second half, and we gained about fifteen places. Not bad.

The last checkpoint, which I can’t remember. A final bit of moorland, then — thank god — the drop down into Haworth. The Worth Valley railway steam train was heard but not seen, and I tried not to think of what was coming up: about three quarters of a mile (I think) along the valley floor, then the severe climb of Butt Lane to finish. I ran, and I ran, and then I smacked my foot into a stone slab and nearly gave up. The pain was immediate and excruciating. I was sure I’d broken my toe, not least as all my toes were as bruised as you’d expect from running 26 miles in fell shoes, including lots of rocks and downhills. Everything stopped for a moment, and FRB said sternly, “run through it!” I was furious with him for a minute, but even then and definitely now I knew he was right. I ran through it, the pain disappeared, and we got to Butt Lane, and somehow up it and even then I still managed to shuffle. A few people were still waiting at the top of Butt Lane to cheer us in — thank you! — and then it was the last few hundred metres to the school. Our time expectation had slowly gone down. We’d started with 5.15, then it was 5.30 and by the time I smacked my toe against the rock, I thought we were heading for 6. But FRB knew we could still make 5.45 and we did. Well, he did: he dibbed in first and got 5:44.59, and I got 5.45:02. He apologised and said he should have let me dib first, but I didn’t care about the two seconds. I cared about the fact that on such derisory training, and a stressful few months, I had run a marathon. Not just that, but a marathon that was off-road, in wet and boggy conditions, in some rain and wind, and with 3,000 feet of climb.

Thank you, FRB. I hope I could have done it without him, but I’m not sure. And I would probably have walked the last few miles. So I am grateful to him, and proud of myself. Post-race photo in which FRB seems to have gone a bit Jack Nicholson, probably from the relief of never having to hear again, “are we near the alpacas?”.

And, once I had changed my filthy clothes (I’d had a few puddle washes, but I still stank), it was time for the rewards: a bright yellow t-shirt that actually fits, a cup of tea that tasted like the best cup of tea ever, a hunk of bread and a bowl of soup. Yet more reason to love the Yorkshireman, as if I needed any.

 

Folk

I haven’t been racing. I have been writing. My schedule has been heavy: up very early, into my studio very early, 10-12 hour days at my desk. There has been a lot of comfort-eating. I’ve tried to keep fit, going to spin classes and doing weight-training, and running once or twice a week, usually up the road to Woodhouse Moor, around the park three times, then back. One thing, before I continue: people who run in cities, why are you so miserable? I’m used to running or walking on the hills and moors, where everyone says hello. But I could pass a fellow runner several times and get no acknowledgement. It doesn’t take much effort to make eye contact or nod. And there were never more than a dozen runners in the park at any time. Leeds city lunchtime runners, cheer up.

I hadn’t been on the fells for so long, that I planned a day out somewhere wild as my reward. Last Monday, I sent in most of my book. On Tuesday, I fiercely pottered. And on Wednesday, we went to the hills. FRB was in charge of navigation and route-planning, as usual, and he had decided on a run up to Simon’s Seat, near Bolton Abbey. The weather forecast was for light showers, which didn’t bother me: I was so desperate to get outside, I would cheerfully have run in pouring rain. Which we did, as it chucked it down from start to finish. We parked at Barden Bridge, where a Yorkshire Dales ice-cream van was, surprisingly, open for business. It was also surprising, and impressive, how many people were out for a walk. It was full waterproof weather, not light showers. But still, folk were out, though no runners. We put on waterproofs, then FRB produced two flat caps from the boot. It was the day after Yorkshire Day, and also the day of the Flat Cap Five, a lovely race in Dewsbury for which you are supposed to wear flat caps. But I had not known whether I’d be free by then so not booked, and it was sold out. This was our own Flat Cap Nine. We set off along the river. The mighty River Wharfe, which looked wilder than last time I’d seen it, when I had swum in it while running along Leeds Country Way, in the weeks of writing when I would take Sundays off (that didn’t last).

 

It looked fierce and much better where it was, away from me and away from the woodland path we were running through. The woods were lovely, and they kept the rain off. I was worried about the fact that I had done hardly any hill running — in fell runners’ language, this is “I’ve done no hills” — for two months. I also realised that I hadn’t taken my iron tablet for four days. But I did OK and kept going. Through the woods to the cafe, over the bridge and along to the Valley of Desolation, which doesn’t look very desolate, then onwards and upwards to open moorland. A sign told us that the moor would be closed for several days in August so that humans could come and shoot birds in the name of sport. Stupid stupid humans. And how do you close a moor? We ran on, and the weather got no better. We passed a couple of soggy walkers but otherwise it was just us and the grouse. Grouses? Grice? Another reason to be thankful I grew up speaking English and didn’t have to learn it. Occasionally I looked to the skies for better weather but there was none. A long track led upwards, and my legs stopped running.

 

Rocks, bogs, mud: it was atrocious weather but still brilliant. I was soaking wet but it was still brilliant. Near the top, I paused to stand on a rock and open my arms wide and laugh at the weather. It was driving rain, and wind, and I laughed at it.

FRB said the view from Simon’s Seat was usually beautiful. It wasn’t, when we got there, but it was still brilliant:

 

We got back, soaked, did a back-seat-car-change (the fell-runner’s changing room) and drove to Addingham. For about three miles, I’d been dreaming of eating a pie at The Crown Inn at Addingham, which has a pie and mash menu, and delicious vegetarian pies. Usually, of course, the pub would be shut and no pies would be had, but this is a good news post, and the pub was open, and I had a Heidi pie with sweet potato and goat’s cheese, and mushy peas and mash and vegetarian gravy, and it was bloody great. (Oh, and to the French mate on Instagram who said, “how can you eat such things?” my response is, because I’m not French and a food snob.)

 

So my hill legs were woken up, and I decided to keep them awake by doing my first fell race in two months. Round Hill fell race is run by Otley AC, and it covers nine miles from Timble village up to the summit of Round Hill, about four miles of climb. Then a lovely descent, and — in my memory — a short incline before you’re back on the forest track you started on and at the finish. My memory is rubbish. There were another five miles after that short incline. But I’m ahead of myself. We got there early and parked near the race HQ at Timble village hall. Timble is a preposterously lovely village where I’m guessing the median income is £100,000 a year. Pale stone, big houses, careful gardens, beautiful borders. We paid our £5 entry fee, and headed back to the car to get changed. Then, as other runners began to arrive, we met fellow club members and friends, and I realised: I’ve missed this. I’ve really missed this. Not just the running out on the moors and hills, and the gorse and heather and grouse and birdsong. Not just the bogs and rocks, and tired legs and gels and jelly babies. But being with like-minded folk who can also think of nothing better to do than run over a moor on a Sunday morning, and eat cake afterwards. I’d really missed that.

It was great to see four club-mates too. My club is not big on fell-running and the committed fell-runners in it are a hardy handful. But others are getting interested, we now have a fell and trail championship along with the usual club one (which is 90% road races), and so it was ace to see Chris, Louise and Yekanth, who all said they were doing their first fell race. Louise was nervous, and Yekanth told me he was going to stick closely with me, a strategy I wouldn’t necessarily endorse, as I thought I’d be the slowest of all five. They’d all done trail and cross-country races, and Chris and Louise had done the Bingley Gala 10K, which is described as a fell race but which they said was mostly trail. But they were still nervous, because “fell-racing” strikes intimidation into people. I understand that because I was exactly the same when I started. I was terrified about the prospect of having to navigate. I was scared by the concept of kit requirements. I still get very nervous at smaller races where I’m likely to be on my own near the back. But I’ve had to navigate only once in two years of doing fell races. I must be so blasé about kit requirements, this time I forgot to bring my waterproof. Luckily, it was only recommended not required. I told Louise there was no way she would get lost, that the route was taped and that, as fast as she is, she would not be on her own in the field, and that she would start running and wonder what she’d been worried about. I told her, it’s no more intimidating than a trail race.

I’d forgotten about the bogs. Round Hill can get very boggy, and it had got very boggy. Most of the route was on clear paths (by clear, I mean, they were paths, even if they were filled with rocks and gullies. I don’t mean flat shale tracks. It’s not a trail race.) But there were some narrow trods, there were some passages over moorland and there were some deep bogs. Yekanth did stick with me until I started walking up one hill, and told him to run on. He did, and I didn’t see him again until the end of the race, when he appeared to have turned into someone covered in mud from head to foot. That is not an empty description: he had mud on his nose, his forehead, everywhere. It was impressive.

I was nervous too, about my fitness and the fact I had done barely any hill climbing for two months. But FRB was surprised that I did as well as I did on our Simon’s Seat run, so maybe all the spin classes had helped. And I didn’t feel too bad on Round Hill. I even managed to overtake people on the downhill. On the same descent, there had been an altercation: I’d felt someone running very very closely behind me. He stepped on the backs of my shoes. This is not what you do. Another man running behind me told him off, and the shoe-treader protested. “Aren’t we allowed to overtake on downhills any more?” I said, “yes, of course you are, but do it properly.” By that I mean don’t barrel the person in front out of the way. Find a space, and pass. The other man was more succcint. “Stop running like a twat.”

At mile five or so, I started to feel exhausted and heavy-legged. I had the Runner’s Conundrum: run on and run through it, or lose time by stopping to have a gel and water? There was actually a third option, of giving up altogether, but that was not a possibility. I chose the gel, sensibly, because it helped. Even so, I couldn’t catch Yekanth, nor two Otley women who had overtaken me and who were in my sights, but I was running OK, and I was enjoying it. Just being outside: it helps. It helps with everything.

Louise did great, though when I saw her afterwards, she did say something about all the bogs. I felt slower than usual and thought my time would be way down on last year’s, when I had tried to overtake Andrew B. and fallen headfirst into the heather, then fallen again and opened up an injury I’d done the day before (which then got horribly infected). In fact, I was only four seconds slower than last year.

So, I’m back. Here is me a) washing my shoes and b) wondering how I’m going to do the Yorkshireman marathon in five weeks.

Unrunning

So. My grand plan to get fitter, faster, stronger? It’s not really working. Since I did the Three Peaks, I have hardly run. That is, I ran ten miles the week after, because I had to do a recce of the Calderdale Way Relay, which is this Sunday. FRB, who was kindly guiding me round, said — as he had already run several miles that week, unlike me — that I would be OK for six miles and then my legs would remember they had done the Three Peaks. He was right. It was at about 6.3 miles, and I suddenly deflated. I walked hills I would have run up the week before. I was exhausted. “Why are you so grumpy?” asked FRB during the last two miles, and I pointed out, later, that I was not grumpy but barely sentient from tiredness. I did a few other runs here and there, and even got a Course Record and a PR on one local hill, which was a) surprising and b) provoking FRB to say on Strava that I obviously hadn’t run hard enough at the Three Peaks then. Which I think we can both agree is true.

But what I have not done is woken up and thought, I’d really like to run today.

What I have not done is go to training.

What I have not done, much, is run.

I’m keeping fit though. It’s very strange, as I love the outdoors so much, that I have come to also love doing spin classes. A spin class has everything I should loathe: it’s indoor, it’s got loud music, it’s a bit of a cult what with all the women doing the weird call and response thing (UP 2-3-4 DOWN 2-3-4). And yes it is the women, and no, I will never be one of those women. Yet I do love it. I love the intensity of it, and the fact that I pour sweat. I like hearing AHA and Enya speeded up and wondering who provides spin class music and who invented that machine. And now I have discovered a new class which I also love, which has the horrible name of RIP30, but which is a weight training class. My strength training has gone to hell. When, years ago, I had a personal trainer, I was strong. I could do 20 press-ups, no problem. And now I weakly do 10 press-ups and feel pathetic and find myself kneeling rather than doing the full thing and wonder where my upper arm strength has disappeared to (answer: into not doing strength training). I tried to fit in one strength session a week during my Three Peaks training, but usually didn’t. Again, the class is indoor, it has absurdly loud music (and no AHA or Enya), I can’t hear a thing the instructor is saying and neither can anyone else. But I love it. I really enjoy weight training, and I love to do a dead-lift.

I understand, partly, why my running has faded. I’m working a lot, and I don’t want to break off at 5 to go to run club. And my HRT makes me extremely dopey in the mornings so I haven’t managed to run then either. Also, I don’t want to. Maybe this is just a phase, and the equivalent of marathon blues, and my running will come back. When it does, I’ll have the strongest arms in Leeds.