The 63rd Three Peaks race

I rarely check the weather except through the window. There are two exceptions: when I want to know whether I can plant out seedlings, and when I’m due to run the Three Peaks race. Because this is what happened last year: snow underfoot, hailstorms, snow overhead, sideways. A blocked gate and a couple of minutes stuck in a bog. I didn’t want any of that to happen again. FRB sent me the link to the Settle and Carlisle Railway webcams: one at Ribblehead, which has a good view of Whernside, and another at Horton for Pen-y-Ghent. I became somewhat obsessed with them, checking again and again. And each time it was fair and clear and I checked the mountain weather forecast and it seemed perfect too: 5-6 degrees and very little wind. Without wanting to jinx everything, I thought: those are perfect conditions. Then on Thursday, with the race coming up on Saturday, I checked the Ribblehead camera. A blizzard. Seemingly heavy snow everywhere and still snowing. My heart sank even lower than its current I’ve-got-to-run-the-Three-Peaks position.

The next morning Ribblehead was clear and fine and lovely again. I put my weather worries aside and concentrated on the rest of things I had to worry about. Here are a few things that battered against the sides of my head from one bit of brain to another (that’s not scientific but it’s what it felt like).

Will I get round?
I won’t get round
Yes, I’ll make it
But I haven’t done all my training, I won’t make it
But I did the recces OK, I’ll make it
But I didn’t run from the start and I still only got up Pen-y-Ghent in 50 minutes so I won’t make it
But I’ve got a year’s more fell running experience, I’ll make it
But I have awful sleep half the time now, and I get bad depression days about six times a month, so I won’t make it
But I did it last year, I know what it entails, I have the mental strength to do it
But I won’t make it
But I did Baildon Boundary Way six minutes faster than last year and it was a longer and steeper course, so I’ll make it
But I inadvertently started tapering two weeks before the race and feel like I have lost fitness so I won’t make it
I can’t remember how to run so I won’t make it
My period – or the bleeding induced by taking progesterone as HRT – is due so I won’t make it
I can’t even conceive of doing the Three Peaks so I won’t make it

God, it’s exhausting being my head. On top of all that, of course, is the constant stress and workload of having to write a book by mid-June, which is not yet written. I was working long days at the studio, getting home late, eating and sleeping. I began training for this race in January. It’s the biggest one of my year so far. And I did my training if I wasn’t travelling or debilitated by my diminishing oestrogen (by “debilitated” I mean capable of nothing except lying in darkened room with my cat, because anything else made me weep). I’m not making excuses. They will come later. I made sure not to ask FRB whether he thought I would make it round, because I know that last year he hadn’t thought I would, or hadn’t been sure, and there was no point asking him when he would try to alleviate my fear by not quite telling the truth. But I did ask him about it, a few days before the race, and his answer was, “I don’t think you’ve done as many hills as last year.”

Tailspin.

Later he said, “but you’ve got a year’s more fell-running.” He said, “you have the mental strength to do it. You know what to expect.” Then, “I think you will make it round.” So back to my spinning head: I haven’t done all my training, but my times are pretty similar on Strava to this time last year. But, but, but, but.

By the Thursday night before the race, I’d finished working on two chapters, tidied my studio and told myself to forget about the book until Monday. I wanted to be relaxed on race-day morning, so, as we did last year, FRB and I booked a B&B. Last year’s was in Chapel-le-Dale, this year was a gorgeous place called Shepherd’s Cottage, off the road to Hawes from Ribblehead.

But first, there was the packing. I made a list. It was a long list. What happened to running being a very simple activity of putting a foot in front of the other foot? It included kit, shoes, watch, the obvious stuff, but also food for before, during and after, clothes for before, during and after. Things my addled brain is likely to forget, like my fell shoes or my watch. I dealt with this by writing WATCH and SHOES in capitals. I put on my lucky t-shirt and my lucky race nail polish. Everyone running the Three Peaks should do it with moral support from Snoopy and Woodstock.

I had worked out my fuelling: shot bloks, then solid food on the steep bit up to the road to Ribblehead, probably a marzipan ball stuffed with chopped nuts, which I made the night before. Then something savoury at Ribblehead while I walked and drank flat Coke, a shot blok at the foot of Whernside. Or something like that. I also carefully printed out the maximum times I needed to get to meet the cut-offs. 50 minutes up to Pen-y-Ghent, 35 to High Birkwith, 35 to Ribblehead, 50-55 up Whernside, 30 to Hill Inn. Hill Inn was my goal. Beyond that, I didn’t care what happened.

It’s curious that there are people who don’t have to have these considerations. They don’t have to worry about meeting cut-offs. It must be such a different race for them. I know that that is most of the race field and that I, and people of my pace, are the minority. For me, it’s three and a half hours of stress and worry that I won’t make it. I knew that I couldn’t do the PYG-Ribblehead stretch much faster than the cut-offs, because I’d tried it in recces and even when I’d belted it, I still only got to Ribblehead with five minutes to spare. Yet a fellow runner, after the race, looked bewildered when I pointed this out, because he’d never had to consider such a thing. I aspire to be fast enough not to have to worry about cut-offs, but I’m not sure that will ever happen.

Pre-race: chips, obviously. First, Billy Bob’s diner near Settle, where we ate everything. That’s Dandelion and Burdock in my glass. From a soda fountain. Which is about as classy as Yorkshire pop can ever get.

We checked in at the farmhouse, which was definitely going to be quiet. Except for the 4,000 sheep belonging to the neighbouring farmer, whose son arrived on a quad bike, looking rugged with ginger hair. I have no idea how all Yorkshire farmers manage to look like they have arrived from central casting, but they do. I hope that ewe 970 found her lamb because she was making a right racket. 

Then in the evening, we drove to Hawes and to the chippy. It was easy to find because there was a queue coming out of the door. Along the road, someone had parked his tractor while he went for a pint. (Yes, I’m making a sexist assumption but I bet it’s right.) Every pub in Hawes had a line of 4WDs or farmer vehicles outside it.

We tried to digest by walking around Hawes, then back to the B&B for some daft telly and a hot chocolate. The daft telly was the Hunt for Red October and before FRB conked out he quizzed me on who had played Jack Ryan (I think this was a hypnotism technique to make me fall asleep). I only got Harrison Ford. This is relevant, because overnight I had a spectacular stress dream, in which I couldn’t get to the race because I was stuck in an enclave in Andorra or somewhere similar, with Harrison Ford. I woke up with relief that I was actually in a small farmhouse on the Dales Way. Then I remembered I had to run the Three Peaks.

Even so, I was quite calm. But there was a problem: I had no appetite. FRB had ordered a full cooked breakfast, though with vegetarian sausages. He scoffed it. The thought of that made me heave. Eggs. God, no. I asked for toast, and accepted a croissant. Both tasted like sawdust and I had to force them down. In terms of ideal pre-race fuelling, I don’t think half a piece of toast, half a croissant and a Longley Farm black cherry yogurt really cuts it. I thought I would eat later before the race, but I didn’t. There was a lot I didn’t do that I meant to before the race, like really properly warm up.

But I’m running fast ahead of myself. Unlike during the race when I didn’t run very fast at all. So. The race field: we drove 15 minutes to Horton, paid the £3, were greeted by a young farmer, and set off to register. The weather was clear, warm, lovely. Pen-y-Ghent looked enormous but not covered in snow, which was a novelty.

I tried to register, forgot my ID, had to go back to the car to fetch it. In place of my brain at this point was a big pile of nervous mush. Not even Harrison Ford or Snoopy could have helped. It was lovely to see lots of people I knew: several Pudsey Pacers, and two of the three other Kirkstall Harriers who were doing it. Again, I was the only woman from my club to attempt it. This is a shame but I suppose me going on about how nervous the race makes me doesn’t help. Women of Kirkstall Harriers: If I can do this, so can you, so please do. Everyone seemed cheery and in good spirits. But my Yorkshireman running partner Sara was attempting it for the first time, and she seemed as nervous as me. There were several toilet visits, and I managed to expel a lot of useful nutrients and didn’t have the appetite to replace them, though I’d got some carefully buttered Soreen. If you are thinking of running a long and tough fell race, ensure to have carefully buttered Soreen and then not eat it.

I did some warming up behind the main marquee: dynamic stretching, opening my hips, sticking my fingers in my groin to space out tangled hip flexors. I’m a sight, me. There was a kit check. Mine was carried out by Brian, the man who had had to deal with Pallet-gate last year, when a farmer had blocked a gap in the wall and we’d had to wait several times. I reminded him that we’d shared a B&B, and he kindly pretended to remember, then offered me some extra brownie points for having a foil blanket and a first aid kit. This will seem excessive, particularly to the more macho fell runners, of which there are plenty, but me carrying a foil blanket and first aid kit had nothing to do with the weather. It can be warm, and you can fall over on the tops and still get very cold very quickly. And me with my falling over record… Also I would be useful if someone else fell.

We gathered in the marquee for race instructions. The race director saluted Stephen Owen, who died during Loughrigg fell race. 37 years old. Rest in peace Steve, you sound like you were a lovely chap.

Then we lined up, and I lined up where I belonged, back at 4-5 hours. (There wasn’t a 5-6 hours bit though my time last year was 5:24. They probably don’t want to encourage that.) A man wearing a Saltaire Striders vest came up and said, “Are you Rose George?” and he did that without looking at my rainbow socks — apparently the usual giveaway — so I was puzzled. His name was Darren, and he said, “you’re the reason I’m doing this.” We ran a lot of races together, apparently, but had never met, and he had noticed that our finishing times were usually within a minute of each other. So he read that I had done this last year and thought, if she can do it, I’m going to try. Which is bloody brilliant. You know how every time someone doesn’t believe in fairies a fairy dies? Every time someone says I’ve inspired them to try fell running or something off-road, a whole troupe of fell running fairies burst into life out of a cairn on Ilkley Moor to spill more inspiration on walkers, and the world is a better place.

And then we were off, up the field, down the road, along to the track that leads up to Pen-y-Ghent. The hill looked magnificent. The weather seemed magnificent too: clear and warm.

I ran, and I felt awful, and I carried on running, and I felt awful. I felt really really awful. I couldn’t understand it. I began thinking negative thoughts, and then more negative thoughts until there was a big swirl of blackness in my head. I began to think I would have to retire after PYG. I thought there was no way I would make even the cut-off at Ribblehead. I had no energy. I couldn’t understand it. Was it because my period had started? Was it because I hadn’t eaten enough? Was it too warm? Maybe, yes, and yes. And perhaps I was just having a bad day. I started walking far sooner than I’d have wanted to. My friend Hilary is a fantastic climber of hills, and a few years ago did the Three Peaks in four hours something, which is the stuff of dreams for me. When we did a recce recently, she ran all the way up to the dog-leg, which will mean nothing to anyone who has not walked or run PYG. But it’s a long way up. I didn’t make it that far, not by a long way. I started walking much sooner and watched as Sara went on ahead, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. Eventually, the elite runners started to descend, pelting past us. I kept an eye out for Ben Mounsey, as he has always been so encouraging, and I wanted to cheer him on, as well as actually encounter him in real life. I’m not sure if seeing someone run past you at a pace of knots counts as meeting them in real life, but anyway: I cheered, and he was in some kind of extreme mental zone and I could have bashed a gigantic cymbal by his ear and I don’t think he’d have noticed. Possibly because he was finding it tough too, as his blog post says. NB I always cheer the elites and never expect a response. They seem like they’re in the same reality as me, but they’re not. Afterwards, when I was telling FRB how hard I’d found it, and how puzzled I was, he said: it was warm. It was really warm. Lots of people found it hard.

I did the only thing I could do, apart from stop, and ate and drank as much as I could. Two Shot Bloks, some electrolytes, some water. And I began to feel a bit better. In fact, my climb this year was pretty similar to last. Snow and ice or shitty nutrition and warm weather: same difference. At the top, I had got some strength back, and set off as fast as I could. I loved the descent: it’s off-piste at first, then on the path, but this year I could see where my feet were going, as the ground wasn’t snow-covered, so I could go off-piste more. It was great, but I knew that the section that made me most nervous was coming up. PYG to Ribblehead is about six miles, and the cut-offs meant I had to do it in an hour and ten minutes. 35 minutes to High Birkwith, 35 to Ribblehead. Last year I did it in 40 minutes and six seconds. This year I was three seconds slower.

I was on my own by now, having overtaken Sara on the climb. But first, there was Sharon and Caroline, two of my fellow Women With Torches, standing at the top of the first sharp incline after the bottom of the PYG descent, when you climb up to Whinber Hill. Sharon had been entered but had seriously bruised her ribs and decided not to run. Caroline is also a great fell runner, but when I’d asked her if she wanted to do 3P, said “No” with the finality of a glacier. I asked why not, and she said, “I don’t want to.” A very good reason. But they were both there cheering and being extremely supportive. I found it really welcome. Later, Caroline said, if I’d been a runner, and I’d just run up a hill, and it was hot, and these two loons were yelling at me, I’d have told them to sod off. Sharon took pics of me, including this one. I think I’d just said, “Try not to show that I’ve peed my pants”. Because no way was I stopping for a toilet and why do you think I always wear black shorts? And she didn’t. Thanks, Sharon!

They also took one of FRB (who had gone past many minutes earlier) who looked rather less sunny. Here by the way is his race report.

I got my head down, tried not to look at my watch, and ran as fast as I can. Then it happened again. A man I was running next to said, “Are you Rose George?” This time it was Colin from Clayton-le-Moors, who organises the Stan Bradshaw Pendle Round, a race I love. We ran and chatted until High Birkwith, which was manned by Pudsey Pacers, and it was very nice to see their friendly faces and get their encouragement. Thanks, PP.  Then Colin looked at his watch and said, that’s great, we’ve got 15 minutes in hand. I didn’t understand that: in my head I had 35 minutes and we were on the nose. But I was seduced by this for a while, then sped up and got a shift on. My carefully laminated wrist band with all cut-off times, cumulative and clock targets? I’d lost it. Instead, marker pen and the bare basics:

I got to Ribblehead in 2:05. Not great, but quicker than last year. It only left me five minutes to spare, but even so I took my bottle of flat Coke and had a bit of walking and drinking (Thanks Andrew B for taking my bottle). I was pretty tired and Whernside looked bloody enormous, so I don’t even remember that Dave Woodhead was there. I’m very fond of Dave and Eileen Woodhead, because they are always cheery and encouraging. And also because even though I realise it’s difficult photographing an important race like the Three Peaks, because if you hang around to take the whole field, you risk missing the winners arriving at the finish. But Dave did hang around and took pictures of slowpokes like me, and I’m grateful.

So, Whernside. I always think of this as my favourite peak, right up to the point where I get to Ribblehead, gasping, and see it rising out of the earth like a gigantic, unsurmountable colossus of a mountain. It may be a hill, it may be a mountain. You all go off and argue about it. All I know is it’s bloody big. There was no pallet-gate this year, just Brian standing by the stream, and a beautiful gap in the wall that we all passed through as if by magic, or because three pallets hadn’t been firmly nailed across it. Whatever the race organizers did to negotiate with the pissed off farmer: thank you. (NB, he was probably pissed off because lots of people doing recces had gone through his private land.) After that, if last year’s race was any clue, there would be a few minutes of me being stuck in a bog. But no. I didn’t even see the bog. The ground was dry and mostly runnable. I always think of Whernside as being mostly about the steep climb up the face. But in fact it’s mostly the long slog across to the steep climb. I got up that by counting to 50, resting for 5, and on my hands and knees. Apparently people were shouting encouraging things from the top but I was in my own version of the Ben Mounsey zone at that point, and it could only include counting and zig-zagging and praying for it to be over soon. I knew that I needed to be at the checkpoint by 3, and I reached it in 2:57. My plan then was a helter-skelter down the path as fast as I could. Except, then:

Cramp.

I reached the top of the climb, and my calves suddenly turned into sticks of wood. I’ve only ever had cramp during a race once, and it was my adductor last year during the Three Peaks, going over the stile after Hill Inn. I had no real experience of cramp and had no idea what you were supposed to do with it. So I did a quick massage which made no difference and thought, right, I need to get down this hill so I’ll just have to run on it. I wasn’t the only one. I’d made sure to eat something savoury after Ribblehead but perhaps not enough. Luckily I hadn’t even seen that Ribblehead marshals were offering salt water. FRB took some and nearly boaked. Steve, another PP, took some and threw up several times. I understand why they were offering it, but salt water on a running stomach is surely never a good idea. The heat and dehydration and inadequate salt intake had had the same cramping effect on others: I saw several falls by people who, from their prone position said a) they were fine and b) it was cramp. What does running with two severely cramping legs feel like? Bloody weird. Like your legs don’t flex at all and you are running on peg legs.

It lasted all along the ridge and then tapered off. I followed the path down, unlike the race leader, hours earlier, who had gone off along the ridge in the wrong direction, lost his five minute advantage and then lost the race. When his sponsor, Salomon, later tweeted something that implied he would have won otherwise, I thought that was disgraceful. Fell running — though 3P is not really a fell race — is about navigation. The winner, Murray Strain, knew which way to go, and he won, and he deserved to win. Shut up, Salomon.

I quite enjoyed the descent, as the route wasn’t as taped as last year, and I wasn’t stuck behind walkers, and I could go off-piste. My toes were battered though. I was running in Inov-8 Roclites, which have grip and more cushioning than Mudclaws. But rocks are rocks, and toes are toes. Again, I thought I’d done the descent much quicker than last year, but I was only a minute faster. The brain is strange. I was busy calculating how much time I had left to meet the cut-off, but I couldn’t remember the distance between the various gates and Hill Inn, so I just ran as fast as I could. The answer came when I found Sharon, Caroline, Jenny and Dave again, who looked absolutely delighted to see me and shouted EIGHT MINUTES! YOU’VE GOT EIGHT MINUTES! and things like “YOU’RE AMAZING”. Thank you, Supporters of the Year. I heard this, and promptly walked for a bit, which is why I’m not an elite fell runner. Then I looked at my watch and thought, you stupid oaf, you have no time to spare, and got a move on. I got there in 3:26, five minutes quicker than last year, and was very very happy. Then I walked pretty much all the way to Ingleborough.

Why? I was tired. And my head was telling me that I’d done the important bit, and I wasn’t bothered about getting a better time than last year. Stupid head. Also, I got the same adductor cramp going over the same stile and it was so painful that I had to stop and yelp. Really. Yelp. But I kept going, sort of, shuffling along. I had no idea whether Sara had made it through, but just as I got to the limestone paving, she caught me up. Hurrah! I was delighted for her. She’d been convinced she wouldn’t make it when she’d had a bad race at Heptonstall so she’d done bloody brilliantly. And she’d fallen on Whernside and was bleeding from her leg and still made the cut-offs. True grit.

Ingleborough? Ingleborough is Ingleborough: rocky, steep, high. Near the top kids were handing out water and someone gave me a marshmallow, which was delicious. All the way round, the support was wonderful and I thank everyone who came out to watch, cheer, support, marshal, volunteer. Every friendly face, every cheer, every sweet is extremely welcome. On the way down and back to Ingleborough, I was worried that I’d go much slower as I’d run it with Dave Burdon of PP last year. In fact, I was faster. Along the way I came across a group of young lads, probably just teenagers. They were of the age you may be slightly wary of on a dark street in an urban setting, or the age that may heckle you when you’re out for a run. This lot were delightful: come on, you can do it, you’re looking great. I said, thanks, and I hope you attempt this one day, and I really hope they do. I said the same to two young girls who were equally encouraging, and I hope they do too. I often wonder what young girls and women think when they see me out running on the fells. I guess they think “she’s mad,” which is a reaction that drives me mad, when I wasn’t mad in the first place. I guess they also think, “I could never do that,” which is also wrong. And I hope they think, “I’m going to try that: it looks like fun.” Like the walker who was out when I was doing a Whernside recce recently, who saw me go off-piste and said, “that’s a great idea!” and followed me all the way down, running in his hiking boots. He got to the bottom a lot quicker than his mates and probably had a better time doing it.

On, and on, and on and on. I couldn’t remember if it was five miles or four to the finish. I’m not FRB, who knows every distance from every stile. So all I could do was keep going. This was peak falling period — tired legs, many rocks — so I had many words with myself, usually consisting of Lift. Your. Feet. Up. I kept penduluming with two lads, and we finally got the blessed sight of the race marquee in the distance, a large mass of white man-made materials in a green field that looked like the Promised Land. A final couple of inclines, up a field, then we were going under the railway line, we could hear the tannoy, we were through the private garden and past the chicken coop, and over the road, marshalled by cheery Pudsey Pacers again. I was just behind the two lads and I could probably have got a spurt on to overtake, but what’s the point? Instead I said, “Get a shift on!” to them and they did and I couldn’t catch them. I’d stopped looking at my watch but hoped I might do it in 5 hours 15, but I didn’t, despite FRB yelling from the finish line “TAKE TWO PLACES!” I managed to get a whole minute on my PB. 5:23.

This is where I have words with myself. I was very proud of myself for getting through Hill Inn five minutes quicker, but I’m bizarrely disappointed with a one minute PB, even when I told myself I didn’t care what time I did, as long as I got round. But I do care. I tell myself that with those conditions underfoot I should have done better. I tell myself I shouldn’t have wasted as much time getting up Ingleborough, nor taken my feet off the pedals. And then I think, I got severe cramp, I didn’t do all my training, I’ve done alright, I’ve run a race that hardly anyone in the country has done, that is usually describe as “gruelling” and I’ve done it while still dealing with the sodding menopause and all its accompanying debilitation.

I’ve done alright.

I’ve not done as well as I hoped.

But I’ve done alright.

I want to salute some people: FRB, who got yet another PB, this time 4.30, and did brilliantly. Andy Carter of my club, who did his first Three Peaks in a quite amazing time of 4.33. Sara, of course, who pulled a gritty and determined performance out of her bag. I’d quite like one of those bags. Me, for not falling over. Victoria Wilkinson, who broke the women’s course record by five minutes, which is simply astonishing. What an athlete. She’s going to be my fridge inspiration for the next year, because I’ve got plans for next year. I’ve had several days of feeling dissatisfied with my performance but now I think: I’m going to get better. Faster, stronger, better. You know how Nike is doing its Two Hours project? Mine is Five Hours. And at this point I must salute FRB again, because his careful, thoughtful training plans and coaching have been fundamental in getting me round both times. If you are tempted to try the Three Peaks, or any other big fell race, and want a coaching plan or a coach, he’s available for hire. Message me below and I’ll put you in touch. Meanwhile, for the Five Hours, stay tuned.

(Thanks Andrew Byrom for this picture. Hope you’re doing it next year?)

 

Tigger Tor

I was born, through no fault of my own, in Sunderland. But I moved to Yorkshire after a few months, and I hope I count as a Yorkshirewoman. As such, I’m supposed to have the following characteristics: frankness, tightness, humour and grit. I’m not tight, actually, though my accountant wishes I were. I am frank, because I don’t see that there’s any alternative. Sometimes I’m funny. And I think I have grit. But I’m not swayed by daft positive thinking. I’ve never thought much to life coaching (though therapy is another matter: that’s useful). I do not have mantras displayed anywhere, nor any books with the word “motivate” or “positive” in the title. The nearest I come to that sort of thing is a small book that my friend Molly once sent to me called “Cheerful Thoughts,” which is a series of literary quotes. She knows me well.

So when it came to getting back to the fells after last week’s calamity, I had no mantra, nor talisman, nor good luck charm. All I had, really, was grit and a pair of Mudclaws. Also, FRB had bought me entry to Tigger Tor, a race in the Dark Peak, as a Christmas present, so it would have been rude not to run it. Even so, I hadn’t run or exercised all week. I was still chain-ingesting painkillers until mid-week. My face-against-rock headache didn’t disappear until Wednesday. My leg was cut and sore, and – oddly – my knuckles were the most sore of all, possibly because it looks like I cut my little finger knuckle almost to the bone, and it’s bloody hard to heal a knuckle, when you’re always bending it and opening the wound up again. But I couldn’t not run because of a knuckle.

I was definitely unactive all week. Only on Friday did I feel like my knee could bend painlessly enough to cope with a bike ride, even just a 5 mile commute. I thought about doing parkrun on Saturday but then deliberately didn’t set an alarm to get up in time, and so I didn’t get up in time. Stubbornly, without admitting it, I decided that if I was going to run again, it would only be on the fells, and only for Tigger Tor. FRB had been out for a week too with a heavy cold. So neither of us were particularly fit or in fine fettle, though a massive carbohydrate dinner from my mother (whose house we stayed in on the way down south) helped: veggie toad in the hole followed by bread and butter pudding. At one point, my mother looked up from making a second egg and milk mix (having just made batter), and said, “you do know you’re having a custard followed by a custard?” And to the second egg custard – the bread and butter pudding – we added custard.

Tigger Tor is run by Totley AC. It’s one of Sheffield’s two big clubs (the other is the Steel City Striders), based in south Sheffield near Dore, where the race HQ was. We got there in good time, parked at Dore More Nursery (plants not babies) and made our way to the race HQ in Sheffield Tigers rugby club.

There is no Tor called Tigger. The race goes to Higger Tor and the Sheffield Tigers are the tigger bit. The forecast, which I had checked obsessively all week, had gone from rain to mist to fog. Driving down from south of Wakefield, there had been lovely sunshine, until we reached Sheffield, looked south and saw a bank of dense fog, and the Arts Tower of the university rising out of it like a spooky Gothic castle. Oh, we said. Fog was an important factor, because Tigger Tor is advertised as a race that can require navigation. And you know how good I am at that. I’m this good: in the car on the way to the race, I asked FRB, “when is it that you need to align the compass with lines on a map?” But the race had sold out – for the first time ever – so there would be about 400 people to keep an eye on. I told myself this, anyway, and tried not to notice the thick, navigationally treacherous fog that had settled like a horror film set over the rugby pitch.

Kit. I focused on kit. Totley AC, to their credit, performed the most rigorous kit-check I’ve ever had. I had the basics checked – jacket, trousers, gloves, hat, compass, whistle, map, emergency food – but the woman also checked my jacket had a hood, and took the trousers out of their packet to check they had taped seams. She was strict, and I appreciated it. It was an impressive start. And it only got better, when I realised there were changing rooms. For women! And enough toilets! And showers! At this point I thought I couldn’t be at a fell face – I’m more used to portaloos on Penistone Hill, and the changing room known as My Car’s Back Seat – and must be at a luxury event that cost £100 to enter, not under £10. That wasn’t all. Once I’d changed and made my way into the bar area, there was a log fire. I’m pretty sure this would make Dave Woodhead of Woodentops laugh his Yorkshire buff off. It was welcome though. A sit-down, a warm-through, and a chance to calm my nerves. Except I didn’t. I get race nervous, but this time I was more than nervous. I was scared. I was terrified of falling again.

I tried to deal with this by going outside to warm up. A run, some high kicks, some moving lunges, hip swings, deep squats. Then we gathered in informal pens – in bunches behind signs with our relevant number range on – and prepared to start. Instead a man came out with a microphone. This was another luxury, which meant I could actually hear what a race organiser said. Usually, because I stand where I do in the race field, and because microphones are a rarity, I hear “mmmmmblllgggghhhhhhhhmmmmmblllgggghhhhhhhh GO”. This man announced that someone who had registered had not gone through the pens. They were also seeking number 13. It was impressive race organisation. Then another Totley fellow started to speak. He said something about kit check and then “it didn’t happen in our day, you just turned up and ran.” This got some laughs, some groans. Then he said, “we’ll start you then you’ll hear a shotgun. That’s to let the marshals know we’ve started. We’ve only got two bullets; the other one is if you haven’t got your kit.”

Except then they announced spot prizes. Then some club award. Then there were some Totley club anecdotes. And people were shuffling and getting cold. A couple of minutes of announcements is fine, but nearly ten? Finally though, someone said, “GO,” the shotgun went off, and so did we.

This is the route.


 

Andrew B, a club mate of FRB’s, was also running and pretty nervous about it, as he wasn’t confident about navigation either. So FRB had sent us both an email with a suggested route, plus suggestions to calculate our speed over 500 metres in different terrains (as 500m descending can pass a lot quicker than 500m uphill on rock). I sat down with the map on Saturday night and worked out ups and downs and directions, and how long I’d take to get between checkpoints. I thought, despite my nerves, that I was as prepared as I could be. Except for not knowing when to use a compass with a map, rather than just finding north on the compass and then the bearing I needed to take. I know how to do that. But so, probably, do toddlers.

We set off out of the rugby club, up a ramp, along a road, then though a stile – where I watched with some surprise as someone took out his inhaler – and up, up and up through a field. After a week off and reduced fitness, this felt like a slog. Then we hit a track, past some marshals who I assumed were there to direct us, and on we went. There was bog and heather, and I regretted wearing knee-length tights the minute I reached the first heather, because it bit. But at this point and for the next nine miles, I didn’t dare look up. I ran the whole race like this:

 

I only dared look around me on climbs, when I was walking. It was beautiful. The fog cleared, and the weather was stunning:


 

Despite my preparation, there was a factor I hadn’t accounted for. I knew what the route was on the map. I knew, for example, that between checkpoint 2 and 3 was 500 metres of downhill, and then we would skirt a conifer forest and head west until we reached a footpath, then due south. But I couldn’t fit the landscape with the map that was in my head. Fortunately I didn’t need to navigate. Far from me being isolated, I was in a section of the race field where sometimes there were queues. I got stuck a couple of times behind people who were walking when I’d have run. But that’s fine. Someone posted on the FRA forum that during the race, he’d heard someone shout out on a narrow trod, “Come on lad, it’s a fell race not a walk.” And he said it wasn’t kindly meant. My view on being stuck behind someone slower is that there are two options: 1. Wait, and pass when you can or 2. Ask if you can pass. Frustration is pointless. And that applies to you, old codger who, when I hesitated all of two seconds at a huge boulder because I was deciding whether to sit-jump up or stride, said, “Come on lass.”

Part of the reason I didn’t know where I was is because I wasn’t looking up, which means that forever more FRB will say to me, “you didn’t see the conifer forest? The MASSIVE conifer forest? The MASSIVE conifer forest that we ran right past?” But partly it was because I had no idea which checkpoint was which any more. There was an impressive amount of marshals on the route, but there was no sign when they were checkpoints. No flag, no sign, no checking of numbers. That’s not a criticism, particularly, but it meant it got confusing. When I finally asked a couple of marshals which checkpoint they were, I expected them to say “3.” They said, “5.” At that point I gave up trying to understand where I was and got back to not falling over.

I said earlier that I have no mantras, but on this race I did. It was “Lift. Lift. Lift,” and it was directed to my right leg. I know it sweeps rather than lifts when I’m tired, so I told it what to do. Also, my kneecap has been sore since it hit the rock last week, and it was changing from sore to painful the more I ran. My shoes clipped rocks a couple of times, but I stayed upright. (FRB fell three times, but each time on a soft landing, including one fall that threw him face-first into a puddle.) I knew I was running cautiously. By cautiously, I mean, slower than usual. I’d usually be near Andrew B in the field, and hoping to beat him on the descents, but when I did finally see him at a switchback, he was about ten minutes ahead of me. I was pleased for him, because I knew how nervous he’d been and he was running really well, but I also felt despondent that I was so far behind him. Then I had a word with myself, picked up my toys, and plodded on, past more checkpoints, some of them staffed by cheery cheering marshals, some of them by marshals who noticeably cheered on Totley runners, and gave everyone else a desultory “keep going.” There were Totley runners near me, so the disparity was noticeable, but even so: my club instructs marshals in our races to cheer everyone because that’s how it should be. Swings and roundabouts though: I’m very grateful to the marshal who was handing out sweets at the top of a tough climb. And the marshals at CP9 were splendid: “Come on! Great running! This is your last big climb! This is the last highest point!” If you’ve never run a hard, race through force-sapping bogs, you won’t know how profoundly comforting and energizing this was. But it was. Thanks CP9.

 

I did get lost.

I had run and walked over moors and boulders. I did two water crossings. I ran through deep peaty sucky bogs that sapped my leg strength, and over snow-covered rocks and through icy puddles. I ran through heather so dense I couldn’t see what was under it and on sheep trods so narrow, the sheep would have been breathing in. And I chose to get lost on a wide, clear track half a mile from the finish.

It was at Checkpoint 11. Or maybe it was CP10. I still don’t know which were marshals and which were checkpoints. We turned at a bridge, and ran down the track. It was rocky, and of course I was looking at the ground. This was the danger zone, when I was really tired, and all it takes is one small stone. So I concentrated fiercely on my “line,” enough to not notice everyone else turning off. There was a woman running 100 metres behind me who didn’t call me back, nor did the marshals. I carried straight on for another 300 metres or so until I realised I was on my own. An elderly man was approaching with dogs, and I asked him if he’d seen runners. “No, only walkers.” So then I said, with a brusqueness that arose from sudden panic, “WHERE AM I?” and got my map out for the first time in the race (except when it fell out a few hundred metres in and was skilfully drop-kicked back to me by a runner behind me), and tried to understand, but the panic made me stupid. Sorry, dog-walker, I was far too ungrateful, and you tried hard to help me. I set off back to the bridge, running into another walking group. One man said, “do you want the race route?” perhaps because I had a large number 63 stuck to my chest, and directed me to a nearby right turn, saying it would join the route further down. Later, FRB told me that that was the way he’d come up. I hadn’t even realised we’d come up that way. That explains why no-one called me back: in fell races you can choose any route between checkpoints, and they assumed I’d chosen that one. It was a quicker route down, actually, but I still lost half a dozen places. I tried to make up for it by mustering some speed. Then we got to a road, and to a woman who, in my fatigue, I thought was wearing a pink pussy hat (it was just a pink hat) then a right-turn, then a long descent on road which I did at 7.30 minutes per mile. I don’t like road running, but I quite liked running on that road just for the reminder that my legs can shift and I can overtake, sometimes. Then, a sharp turn right, a stretch of track, a steep incline that I walked up, then the blessed sight of the rugby posts, and the lovely word FINISH.

I made it, in one piece. And though it was a muted performance, I’m proud I got back out there only a week after two significant falls. Luckily I’ve nothing much planned for the next couple of weeks, unless you count running 22 miles around the moors for Rombald’s Stride next Saturday.

This is my “my face is in one piece” face.

The shock of the fall

For a while now, I’ve been part of an informal group of women. We are called Women with Torches, and every couple of weeks we go out with head torches and run several miles off-road. Nothing more complicated than that. The group began because we were talking at a race about how we dislike road running, even in winter, and how there are men in our clubs who go off and do head-torch runs, but they are fast, and we didn’t feel like having to keep up with them or guilty about slowing them down. Nor did we feel comfortable about going off into woods and moors in darkness on our own. Though as the only time I’ve felt unsafe was in the very posh suburb of Alwoodley in Leeds, I think woods and moors are probably much more secure. So the solution was: numbers. There are about a dozen of Women with Torches now, from several Leeds clubs, and it’s great.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. Or perhaps it is, as I want to write about fell running and danger. Several of our Women with Torches will be attempting the Three Peaks in April, including me. I don’t need to qualify as I ran it last year, but some women need to do two qualifying races to enter (as the Three Peaks organisers demand a certain level of competence). The qualifying races are AM, AL or BL, in FRA terms. Translated, that means, shortish and steep, longer and steep, longer and less steep.

One of the good local-ish qualifying races is the Mickleden Straddle, in the Dark Peak of the Peak District. It’s a 14-mile route that starts and finishes at Langsett Reservoir near Penistone. Sara, my Yorkshireman running partner, and Caroline both decided to do the race, and wanted to recce the route, and invited other Women With Torches, and other fell-running women, along too. I thought 14 miles of running around the Peak District sounded like a very good way to spend a Saturday, and it would be my long run of the week and would beat running around the roads of Leeds. FRB decided to come too, though he was a little wary about being the only man in a women-only group. We told him it would be fine. That was until we turned up at the car park at Langsett Reservoir early on Saturday morning, and met our fellow runners. They had come in a camper van that was actually a Tardis, because more and more women poured out of it, and FRB looked more and more disconcerted. In the end, we were ten women and one man. FRB dealt with this by being FRB.

The route is relatively straightforward. You follow a footpath south towards Howden reservoir, and then do a lollipop across country before joining the path to head back north to Langsett. Namely, this:

I was keen to do the route because I want to run more in the Peak District. We usually go north, to the moors, or the Dales or the Lakes. The only time I’ve run in the south Pennines was during my club weekend away, when I did a ten mile ridge run that took in Mam Tor, in an attempt to run off a horrible cold. It didn’t work, and I was in bed for days, but the scenery was gorgeous. Out of Langsett, we ran on a track for a while (this will become important later), then a footpath. The nearer to the carpark, the easier the footpath. The further we ran, the rockier it got. I know that when I run I can have a tendency to swipe my right leg around instead of lifting it, though that’s usually when I’m tired. I don’t know what happened this time, as we’d only run for a mile and half or so, and I felt fine. Probably it was karma, because I had just said to Sara, “make sure you’re not running on automatic pilot,” meaning that she should take in the route rather than rely on other people, which is really easy to do when there’s a group of you, when some of you know the route, and when you’re at the back, as me and Sara were. As soon as I’d said that, my foot clipped a rock, and I fell. I wasn’t going fast, but add speed and my body weight, and by the time my kneecap made contact with a rock, there was enough force for it to hurt, a lot. I think I yelled, because Sara turned back and came to me. I sat there in shock for a while because I couldn’t think beyond the immediate pain. I tried to stand on it, but my knee wouldn’t bear weight. I’ve had problems with my right knee for a while, though I think the actual problem is my right hip. Whatever the cause, if I don’t stretch properly after running – by that I mean doing half an hour of hip-specific yoga – the next day my knee gives way when I’m climbing or descending stairs. The weakness passes, and there’s no pain, but there’s clearly something I need to work on. It makes sense that I fell on what FRB calls “your duff leg,” because that’s the one that doesn’t run properly. I sat on the ground for a few minutes, then managed to stand up, then leaned on Sara and walked. FRB had run on ahead, but I knew he’d figure out that we were missing, and soon enough, he came running over the hill, and it was a very welcome sight. I said, I can try to run now, as the pain had abated, but he told me to walk until we were over the brow of the hill. I did, and found the rest of the group down below waiting on a footbridge. FRB suggested that we took Sara’s car-key in case I or we needed to cut short the run and get back to the car, but I was stubborn. “No. I’m carrying on. We don’t need a key.”

Stupid me. But I did carry on, and my leg ached and ached and ached more. FRB gave me paracetamol which worked magically (and later Hilary gave me ibuprofen too). And the scenery helped:

By now the group had split and wouldn’t be a full group again until sat around cafe tables with warm drinks and soup. So we were half a dozen running together. Sometimes we had time to take pictures:

 

 

The “path” was rocks, rocks and more rocks. It was one of the most technical routes I’ve run in a long while. Someone asked me last night whether “technical” was a fell running term. I said, I suppose it is, and translated it. It means terrain that means you can’t take your eyes off your feet. You can’t look up, or sideways, or anywhere but at what your feet are on. It’s too risky. CORRECTION: As I’ve been rightly corrected, you should look at your line, not your feet. This means looking a couple of feet ahead of you, so you know what’s coming and where you should place your feet. This, along with other things, is why fell running is as good for mental agility as it is for physical agility. You always have to think ahead, process, plan, be alert.

So we went on and on, along the rocky path, through beautiful gullies and valleys, towards Howden reservoir. It was cold, particularly on the heights, and the bracken and grass was frosty and beautiful. There is a stretch of running which makes the word “path” laughable, as it’s bogs and big boulders and more bogs. This may be where there is a checkpoint called Slippery Stones. But then there are flagstones, then at some point we turned up into woods, then began the lollipop back towards the main footpath. We’d run about eight miles by now and I wasn’t in good spirits. I was regretting my stoicism, my “I’ll run on” confidence. The painkillers had worn off, but as I’d taken maximum paracetamol and maximum ibuprofen I couldn’t yet take any more. And my leg was a mass of dull ache. The last thing it wanted was several miles of a sheep trod through tussocks and bogs, but that’s what it got.

I tried to feel better. I tried to put a smile on my face. I was running, and the scenery was amazing and beautiful. Sweeping hills and valleys, bleak and magnificent, with no sign of human civilisation except the odd stile, walker and us. It was the kind of situation and landscape in which I am usually happiest. But I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted it to be over, but keeping on and running back was the quickest way to achieve that. By now, Sara and I were running at the back. Hilary and Caroline were a short distance ahead, and FRB was around, but he was getting cold, having decided to wear shorts, but not realising he’d be back-of-the-pack running with us, at a pace that made shorts a very cold wardrobe option. He needed to get some pace on and run on, and he did, saying he would loop back. I was wearing a thermal and t-shirt but not a jacket, and I knew I was cold but thought it was tolerable. But then I got to the point where I thought it wise to put a jacket on, and it was the right decision. This blog post, by a lad who ran Trigger the other week, is a reminder of how difficult it is to judge when you are safely cold or dangerously cold. The trouble with hypothermia is that once you have it you can’t think straight enough to know you have it.

I wasn’t hypothermic. But I was tired, and grumpy, and my leg hurt, and that was also a risky state to be in, because I probably wasn’t lifting my right leg up enough. I knew that was a risk, and the last thing I wanted was to fall again, so I tried to pay attention to it. But after ten miles, my self-awareness was diminishing, and I was just focused on getting to the end of the run. We got back onto the rocky track/path/series of boulders that passed for a path. Sara was running ahead of me, and I knew we only had a couple of miles to go. And it happened again. I fell.

I can’t remember what happened except for this: I fell forward. I think I yelled something, either “NOT AGAIN” or “FUUUUUUCK”, but it didn’t stop me, because I fell with my full body weight, and my face hit a rock. I can remember my nose hitting a rock and thinking nothing verbal but being aghast and horrified. And then there was just shock and pain. I burst into tears. When I say I burst into tears, I mean I was sobbing like a child. It was pure shock, and the shock of hitting the most vulnerable part of you against a hard immovable object. A 47-year-old woman lying on the ground bawling. Sara of course ran back and crouched down next to me and held me, and I couldn’t stop crying. There was so much blood and I didn’t know where it was coming from. I didn’t know if I’d broken my nose or if I had smashed my teeth. I had no awareness of my face at all, because it was all pain. My hands were covered with blood, I was dripping blood onto the rocks, and it didn’t seem to be stopping. After a while, I managed to say, “I’ll stop crying soon, it’s the shock,” but I kept crying. I had no control over it, though it was partly fury at my own stupidity at having fallen again, and even more seriously. Sara was amazing and I will be grateful to her for all time to come.

Initially I couldn’t stand up, as I’d obviously whacked the palm of my left hand when I fell and couldn’t put weight on it, so Sara lifted me up, and looked at my face, and told me my nose didn’t look broken and my teeth were all OK. I’m still not sure where all that blood came from, but I’d cut my lip, my eyebrow and my knuckles, all good bleeders. We started to walk, and I’d finally stopped crying, and felt foolish and terrible. Hilary and Caroline were waiting for us. They’d been a few hundred metres ahead of us and realised we should have been in sight and weren’t, so they tried to phone, but reception was bad (and anyway, I’d cleverly left my phone in my jacket pocket in Sara’s car), so they waited. They, too, were lovely: they offered layers and warmth and wet wipes. I didn’t think I needed layers, my torso felt OK, but my hands were freezing, and I’d just spent several minutes lying on cold rocks, a few of them in a foetal position bawling my eyes out, and now my temperature was suffering. This of course was the point where I realised I’d lost one of my super-warm mittens. But I had spare gloves, so I put them on and was still cold. Caroline offered me some woollen gloves, and Hilary found a wet-wipe to wipe the worst of the blood. I didn’t want to touch my face until I could get to warm water and a sink. I had no idea what I looked like. FRB had tried to phone first me, then Caroline, but I wasn’t too worried as I knew he’d be running back.

My leg had been bashed again as well and was cut in several places. Even so, I thought I should run, but only because I felt awful that I was holding back Caroline and Hilary and Sara, and there were still two miles to go. But they insisted they would walk with me, and we walked for a while and then there was FRB, looking concerned. He put his arm round me and I nearly started blubbing again, but he sternly told me to keep moving, to stay warm. I didn’t mind the sternness as I knew why he was doing it, and it worked. I didn’t start howling again. He and I told the others to run on, because everyone was cold. At least I think we did. It’s a bit of a blur. I just know that I began to shuffle, then run a bit, and somehow we all got back to the reservoir path, which is shale and flat and which has NO ROCKS. Hilary said we could do a short-cut through the woods, and I heard the word “short-cut” and nearly embraced her with gratitude, and we made our way back to the car park, past walkers who looked at me a bit funny. They must have thought I was a right state. “Or,” said someone later, “that you were a hard as nails fell runner.” Or, that anyone in shorts and covered in blood and mud is a bit weird.

I went to the toilets to wash my face, then we went to the cafe to minister ourselves with warm food and drink. The others were there, and everyone enquired after me, and I was grateful for everyone’s kindness but I felt stupid, like I was the clumsy idiot at the back. I know the falls were connected: my aching leg meant I was tired and annoyed and not paying attention, and that’s why I fell again.

But I wanted to talk about danger. You might think this would put me off fell-running. I have a theory which is not at all borne out by evidence, that road runners have chronic injuries, but fell runners get injured by incidents and accidents. This theory relies on the fact that off-road running is usually a variety of terrain, so the chronic injuries which – again, on little evidence – caused by the constant repetition of road running don’t generally happen. The trouble is, fell running injuries can hurt. Today I am battered, and bruised, and I can read on my body what I did when I fell, because the right side of my face took the impact: my nose is grazed, my eyebrow cut and bruised, my lip opened. Obviously I turned so that my right side hit the rocks. I know there was more than one rock because my right leg has track marks of bruises, and half a dozen cuts and abrasions. But my nose wasn’t broken, and neither were my teeth. I’m lucky. Though I do look like this:

(Quote from FRB as he took this picture: “You’re writing a book on blood. Consider this hands-on book research.”)

What is the outcome? I don’t want to run on any rocks this week. I don’t know if my confidence has been battered like my body, but I hope not. The joy of running on moors and hills, for me, is the exhilaration of descending, and if I’m scared of falling, the exhilaration will be muted and pale, and I don’t want that. I will return to running soon, as soon as my leg is healed and my face stops aching, and when I can bend my leg without wincing. And I will get back to rocky paths, and lift my legs up.

The moral of this long-winded post, and the answer to my mother, who is too polite to ask but who wonders constantly why I choose to do this “dangerous” activity, especially when I fall, is that fell running is risky but not. There is risk but it is worthwhile, and the very slight chance of injury is outweighed, hugely, by the benefits. Not just the opportunity to run freely amongst beautiful landscapes. But also the kindness of my fellow runners, who would never have left me alone, who offered me painkillers and layers and warmth, but also patience and generosity and care. And this is not unusual behaviour on the hills, which makes it more wonderful still. I’m not going to relate this to politics but perhaps we forget, at the moment, how kind people are. They are, though, and more often than not. I’m very very grateful to FRB, Sara, Caroline and Hilary: Thank you.

And now I’ll try to stop falling over.

Tour of Pendle 2016

The hill is made from Millstone Grit. It is a magnificent sight, looming over the horizon as you drive over from Yorkshire, or up to Cumbria. It seems to fill your eyes, its long flat shape as striking as its height. It is especially striking when you know you are going to have to run up and down its height several times over several hours.

Tour of Pendle. We had been well acquainted for a while. In 2014, I stood in freezing cold weather at the bottom of Geronimo, a fearsomely steep descent off Spence Moor, and waited to hand FRB his lucky egg. Really. He had wanted me to carry a hard-boiled egg in case he felt, after sliding and careering off Geronimo, that an egg is what would get him up the next climb. We had only just started going out, and we weren’t “out,” so his two club-mates, who were also there supporting, managed to politely suppress their surprise when I said I was there to support FRB, and again when I produced the egg. I watched the runners come careering down Geronimo. Some ran, some fell, some slid. One slid and slid and hit rocks, so he ran the rest of the race with a sore backside, I presume, and a large hole in his shorts. After FRB had passed – and refused his egg – I took myself and the egg up over the top of the hill to meet him at the top of the last climb, the wonderfully and accurately named Big End. The clag had dropped over Pendle Hill, as it often does, and I walked up and over the moor in deep fog. It was unearthly and spooky, not because of Pendle Witches (I think there are scarier things in history than women who villagers decide are a threat and persecute for no good reason) but because of the dense eerie quiet that fog produces. I didn’t really know where I was going, beyond a vague direction, so I sat down on some bracken and checked my map. I could see nothing, but faintly, then, I heard some voices. I walked towards the sound to find FRB’s clubmates Sharon and Steve, and walked with them the rest of the way to the top of the Big End, where we shivered until FRB appeared, looking exhausted and asking for his mammy (he was only partly joking). He refused his egg again. It ended up in a bin in Barley village.

It was an odd and surreal experience, and it made me want to run Tour of Pendle, so I entered last year but couldn’t run. This year, I could. I’d missed a couple of weeks of training after the Yorkshire marathon because of depression and then a horrible cold. After that I’d stuck to my training plan, but I still didn’t feel trim or fit. FRB had taken me on a recce of 5 of the checkpoints, which was supposed to make me understand where I needed to navigate, but because we didn’t do them in order, it had the result of confusing me further. The day before the race was my birthday, and I spent a lovely day having posh lunch with my mother, then a matinee and pizza with FRB. I may have had some prosecco then some wine then a bit more wine, so it wasn’t ideal race preparation, and perhaps that’s why on the morning of the race, I was in a state. I haven’t been in that much of a state since the Three Peaks, and I think perhaps that was due to a comment that FRB had made, quite lightly, a few months earlier: that he thought Tour of Pendle was harder than the Three Peaks.

Oh.

This swirled around my head constantly, along with the fact that where I would be in the field, I may have to navigate. With a map! And a compass! Neither of which I am particularly good at using. (Yes, I will get better.) FRB had given me a map where he had carefully added bearings at important junctions, as well as other features that weren’t on the OS map: SW for solid wall, BW for broken wall, FP for footpath, PoS for Pile of Stones. But I knew there were some points where I would probably have to take a bearing, and I couldn’t rely on good visibility. All this wracked my nerves.

I’d packed my race kit the day before my birthday. How’s that for being prepared? Early on Saturday morning, I was ready and on time to pick up FRB. (Punctuality from me used to be unusual but FRB has finally trained out most of my chaos on race days. Now, I make lists.) He’d asked me what time I wanted to arrive at race HQ, also known as the village hall in Barley, and I’d said 9am, as that would give me a good 90 minutes to freak out, as well as make the half dozen toilet trips that I would “need”. We got there on time, parked near enough to the village hall that we wouldn’t have a half mile walk after the race (note that point: it will be relevant later), and went to get coffee and eat Soreen (in my case) or a cheese scone (FRB) in the canteen area, where a village hall volunteer was frantically laying cardboard to counteract muddy fell shoes. She said that they usually have to spend several hundred pounds to clean the carpet, so the cardboard was worth it.

Weather. We had been checking Mountain Forecast all week. I like Mountain Forecast. It gives you a choice of elevations, and it has most hills you’d care to run up. At the height of 558m, Pendle’s weather had been predicted to consist of light snow showers, a wind chill of minus 6 but nothing worse. There was rain forecast for the day before, so it would be boggy underneath. But visibility was predicted to be good, which soothed my terror a bit.

We went back to the car to get changed. I decided on a Helly long-sleeve thermal under my vest, shorts, my rainbow socks, and – no decision necessary – Mudclaws. My Just-in-Case equipment included full kit, of course: full body waterproof, hat, gloves, map, compass and whistle, as well as an extra long-sleeved t-shirt, an extra pair of mittens, a foil blanket and enough food to run three Tours of Pendle. I had marzipan balls stuffed with coconut and nuts, Soreen balls, half a cheese scone that FRB had given me, two small Mars bars, plus two small bottles of electrolytes, a bottle of flat Coke, and 1 litre of water in my bladder. I thought that made me ready for most things. Even to run 16.5 miles and climb 5000+ feet, and do six climbs and descents of this:

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The field of runners was a sea of beards and buffs. And some women. We were counted through a gate, and then we were off, in a low-key, “oh the person in front of me is running so I’d better run too” kind of way. I knew that there was a mile of climb up a track until Pendle Hill, and I concentrated on running steadily. The weather was OK: it was cold but not bitter, and it wasn’t snowing. Yet.

Then we got to the hill. It was covered with deep snow, and I realised that this would be to my advantage, because after 300 or so runners had gone before me, a clear path had been tramped through the snow. Little Red Riding Hood had breadcrumbs; I had a slushy brown channel. Navigation might not be as big of an issue as I thought. There were lots of runners around me as we all climbed. I stopped running pretty soon, because I knew I needed to conserve energy, particularly in snow. As we got higher up, the weather came. Light snow showers my foot: they were not light, and they were sideways. I stopped to put my waterproof on, and it never came off again.

The first couple of miles passed quite quickly, as I was busy thinking one thing: what about the dibbers? FRB had told me that at one Tour of Pendle they’d been given a ring of bread tags (the plastic tags that tie the plastic bags around loafs). At each checkpoint you hand in a tag. Low-fi, and functional. As soon as I set off, I thought: dibbers. Had I missed the dibber handing-out when we picked up our numbers? Was it in the corner behind the group of runners and I’d not noticed it? I checked out everyone who ran past me: did they have anything that looked like a ring of plastic bread tags? I couldn’t see anything and I was too stubborn to ask: I thought it was better to get to CP1 and if they disqualified me then, at least I’d have had a few miles out on Pendle. At one point, I told myself that I could hand them a jelly-bean at each checkpoint. I fabricated all these scenarios in my head, in great detail, including with what words I would plead for a jelly-bean substitution, and they got me to CP1, which was a man standing at a field gate or maybe a wall, who simply clicked his clicker and let us go. No dibbers required. I kept my jelly-beans.

The path to CP2 was over the moor. The snow intensified. I don’t know if it was stinging snow or actual hail, but it began to bite. At one point I put my hand up to the side of my head and realised my buff had a coating of ice. I was still warm otherwise though, and in good spirits, not least when a man at CP2 handed me a green jelly baby. Tour of Pendle has a cut-off: you have to get to CP2 in two hours. It’s very generous, and far more generous than Three Peaks cut-offs, which – although I know why they exist – I suspect are unfairly tight for women. To be discussed. I got to CP2 in 1:15, and realised I’d been so busy concentrating on getting there in time that I’d forgotten to start fuelling. The route after CP2 turned out of the weather and there was some respite, so I took a gel, drank something and set off up to Spence Moor. A young woman in front of me intrigued me. I admire anyone who takes on a race like Tour of Pendle, no matter what they’re wearing, but she was wearing what looked like a walking jacket and had a huge rucksack on her back. Huge, that is, compared to what most people were carrying, which was waist packs or at the most 30L backpacks. I ran behind her for a while and watched her bag shifting hugely from side to side and wondered how she tolerated it. But she did, and she got round so good for her.

Up to Spence Moor. The field was spacing out now and I could only see one woman ahead of me, but when I got to Geronimo, there were more people around. Geronimo. My god. It looked like the side of the Eiger. I was planning to slide down some of it but I knew there were rocks, and I treasured my shorts too much. I said this to a woman running near me and she said, “I don’t care about shorts: I’d be more worried about my skin.” Good point. No sliding. It was slow going, and treacherous, and I was glad when it was over. Here is an example of one Geronimo descending technique:

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Image: Phil Dornan
Note: I didn’t take a camera and it was too cold to take out my iPhone, and no-one photographed me running beyond the first half mile so I’ve borrowed all these images from the FRA Facebook page. If anyone objects, let me know and I’ll take them down. 

And here is what Geronimo looked like afterwards:

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Image: Matthew Warters

Two climbs done, four to go.

The run to CP5 is a blur. I know it was on a footpath, I know I was behind a slower runner but not bothered about overtaking him. I think I did eventually and he said, “well done,” because fell runners at my position in the pack are nice and encouraging. (I can’t speak for the fast ones.) My feet were cold by now after the snow of Geronimo, and I just wanted them to warm up. I’ve got no memory of CP5, but I do remember CP6, because it was at the top of the next big climb. I ate half a mars bar, and started marching (trudging) up. A man was descending, and chatting to all the climbers. He said something like, “nice day for it,” to a man in front of me, and he responded. “Aye. Better than shopping.” Which even though my feet were extremely cold and I had three more climbs to come I couldn’t argue with.

CP6 done. CP7 was down at the bottom of the hill, which of course you had to climb again. That one, I did slide, and though my backside froze, it was worth it. It also got me some places. I paid for it by having my feet replaced with blocks of ice. Tour of Pendle veterans all talk about The Big End with awe. It’s the last climb, and it is hard, but the penultimate one is harder. But I didn’t know that, which was an advantage. I have a technique now for climbing hills and running intervals: I count. I got up Whernside by counting up to 50 then resting. This time, I just kept going, without looking up. Never look up.

Up to the top of the hill, and then a long run before the descent down to CP9 and the Big End. And the weather turned for the worse. There was a blizzard, and a white-out. It was snowing so hard that the clear path though the snow that I’d been following all the way round disappeared. The field had spread out now, and I’d overtaken a woman who had started walking, because I was so cold, I had to keep moving. It was daft of me to rely on other people to show me the way, but I did, and now I could only follow a runner up ahead who kept disappearing into the blizzard and clag. Visibility was challenging:

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Image: Nigel Hodson

I didn’t get lost. More white-out, more blizzard, and then suddenly through the snow, a stone cairn, and a British flag! I honestly nearly cried. I think it was the result of battling through such weather, and then seeing something familiar and warm.Thank you, Rob Januszewski, who apparently mans CP8 year in, year out.

There was more bum-sliding down to CP9, where apparently there was a food station that I missed (though it may have been cleaned out by the time I got there). I remember the cow bells though. What thoroughly heroic marshals. I asked most of them if they were warm enough, though I’m not sure what I’d have done if they’d said “no:” dug out the t-shirt in my bag? Offered them a warming tot of electrolytes? But they all smiled and said they were fine.

I didn’t mind the Big End in the end (how many ends can I get?) because it was the last one, and it was nearly over. I just did my counting and kept moving and didn’t look up. I was following closely behind a woman who kept slipping and swearing. At one point she belched, and I said, with sympathy, “gels can be hard to digest, can’t they?” She said, “it’s not the gels. It’s the beer I had last night.” It had to end eventually, though I couldn’t quite believe it when it did. At the top, there was a stone stile to cross, and this was awful. FRB had given me instructions: small steps. Mince your way up. Try to avoid lifting your legs high. He said this was the best way to avoid cramp, and he was right, because I minced and minced, and I didn’t get cramp. But the stone stile nearly got me, and the stones were covered with sheet ice, which was perilous for the combination of exhausted legs and Mudclaws.

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Image: Jamie McIlvenny. Caption: I’m just going outside. I may be some time. 

Homeward. Another run across the moor. I was running by now with Lucy (the beer belcher) and Kirsty. They looked at my shorts and said, “aren’t you cold? we’re in thermals.” I think I was past feeling much by that point. And by now my internal monologue consisted of “GET ME OFF THIS F********* HILL”. I had had enough. We ran together, down to CP11 (which had previously been CP4), then along the track, and – bliss – shelter from the weather. Lucy turned to me at one kissing gate and asked me my name, and I asked hers, then we ran together all the way to the finish, past the reservoir, down into Barley. I have never been so pleased to see a building. Civilization. Something that meant that I was no longer going to battered by snow on a bleak open moor.

4 hours, 42 minutes.

FRB was waiting at the finish, and – after high-fiving Lucy and thanking her for her company (and if I didn’t, thanks Lucy, it was a real comfort) – I fell into him and said “hold me.” He did, but then quick-marched me to the car because he knew I had to get changed quickly. I did, but it was difficult, because I realised that though I’d drunk flat coke, I hadn’t taken any electrolytes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. So I’d run for hours and taken on no salt. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I paid for it. As soon as I tried to take my socks off, my inner thighs cramped and it was agony. I yelled and yelled. The only saving grace was that it had happened in the car so I didn’t scare passing children, and that I wasn’t trying to get up a hill at the time. FRB took my socks off for me – THANK YOU – and eventually I got changed. He said that when he’d finished, he’d seen runners at their car boots – the car boot is the Fell Runners Dressing Station – attempting to untie their laces but shivering too much to do so. Oh dear, I said, with sympathy, thinking I’d escaped that. Then I got into the village hall and tried to eat soup and started to shake uncontrollably. When I was moving, my body temperature had obviously stayed at just the right height to keep everything but my extremities warm. When I stopped, and even though I was in dry clothes, it dropped. I didn’t warm up or stop shivering for about an hour. Shoelaces? No chance. I only just managed the soup.

They were the hardest conditions I’ve ever raced in. I came 312th out of 330. Nineteen people retired, and I’d guess that up to 100 hadn’t started in the first place. There are no images of me running it beyond the first half mile, so it will live on in my head without documentation. I won’t forget it. And I’m proud of myself. And of FRB, who ran it in 3:48 which, in the conditions, was brilliant (someone said the conditions added 20 minutes at least to your time).

The race is organised by Kieran Carr, and here is his race report. He writes that he has never experienced snow on race day in all the years he’s been doing it, thanks the heroic marshals, and finishes with this: “Next year’s race is on the 18 November 2017, let’s hope we get a better day. The Village Hall is booked.” Prepare the cardboard: I’ll be back.

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Yorkshireman off-road marathon

They call it YORM. It is an acronym I won’t forget, however ugly it is, because for 26.3 miles, every so often there was another red YORM sticker on a wall or a fence post or on the ground. The route was so well stickered I wondered if I could have got round without recce-ing, without going over the map and the narrative instructions a dozen times, trying desperately to embed them in my brain, and asking FRB to test me the day before as we lay abed, fiercely tapering by doing nothing, and I went through the whole route. He gave me a score of 75% and looked impressed. That, from a human sat-nav, is fine with me.

I wasn’t nervous. Perhaps because this was my fourth marathon (though at one point, with my menopausal brain fog still rearing up now and then, I couldn’t remember how many I’d done). Perhaps because I don’t aspire to be fast these days and we weren’t going for a particular time. We, because I was running as a pair with Sara from Pudsey Pacers. I’d asked her a while ago, once I’d found out that YORM allowed pairs to run together. I knew she’d be great company, and we are currently fairly well matched on pace. We’ve had some lovely recces together, which I will remember fondly, not least for the fact that we discovered Asa Nicholson’s bakery and cafe in Denholme, and would stock up there with flapjack and bread and pork pies and coffee, and drink coffee and flapjack before setting off. The young woman serving us was a torrent of loveliness and positive energy, and buying a block of fresh yeast from her – another amazing and valuable discovery – was the equivalent of several energy gels. She has just started running, and runs with a women’s running group in Denholme. We said, have you been on the moors yet? She said no, that was beyond her, and we told her firmly otherwise, waving up at the beautiful moorland that we could see out of the bakery window, so I hope she gets up there soon.

I felt confident about knowing the route, which is fortunate, as several weeks after the marathon, I discovered that in my race kit I’d packed the narrative instructions for Rombald Stride instead. FRB had written us narrative instructions, as the assistance from Keighley Harriers was, er, minimal, consisting of a pdf of the route map which I’d had to ask for. Charlie, the organiser, said they would be selling them on race day but that’s not much use for recces. So FRB came to the rescue, except he had based the instructions on his memory of running the Yorkshireman in 2013, as well as OS, so there were little changes, like a wind farm that no longer exists. And some allotments which exist only in FRB’s head. But in general, they were brilliant. So I did two recces with Sara, meeting her at Lees reservoir near Oxenhope and running back to Denholme, then driving back to Oxenhope. We both managed the two car thing without either of us leaving our car keys in the wrong car (it is easy to do), though my yeast ended up in Sara’s boot and in her husband’s bread later in the week. I like recces; you don’t have to pelt them out at a pace, you get time to see the scenery, and time to hopefully learn the route. I fell twice on this one though, as you can see from this post. I did another one with FRB, from Denholme to the finish (though without going up the steep, cobbled, horrid Butt Lane that the malicious race organisers have put in the route), another one with FRB one gorgeous mid-week evening, because Sara and I had gone wrong over Warley Moor, ending up on a road with no clue, no good map and no phone signal. So I wanted to get that bit right in my head. In fact the path is pretty clear, we had just had a different interpretation of “head to Rocking Stone Flat.” FRB maintains Rocking Stone Flat is a long rock formation and you can’t see most of it so you are heading to it, whereas I still maintain that when instructions say head to Rocking Stone Flat, and Rocking Stone Flat is as distinctive as this:

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We are still choosing to disagree about it. Hours of fun.

The final recce was again with Sara, and again going from Denholme (via Asa Nicholson’s of course) to the finish, and again avoiding Butt Lane until we couldn’t avoid it any longer (on race day). This time something went wrong again. I think it was the progesterone I have to take for two weeks a month, but about 20 minutes after we’d stopped on Harden Moor for a lovely cheese pasty, I suddenly had stomach cramps, a vague term that in this case meant severe shooting pains. I ran through it for several miles, but every footfall sent a shudder of pain into my pelvis, and finally I had to admit that I had to stop and walk. Sara was wonderfully patient, and had injury issues of her own to deal with – a dodgy ankle – and said she was glad of the walk. I think we were a couple of miles from the finish, and I’d spent several miles trying not to cry. FRB, who had done his own run but elsewhere on the route, joined us as we hit the Worth Way back into Haworth, and seemed alarmed at how quiet I was. Pain makes you quiet, sometimes. You concentrate all your effort into enduring it. All I could think of was getting to the car and lying down, and that’s what I did. Not sending all that impact up into my abdomen and pelvis helped. Anyway, it wasn’t fun, and I got myself to the GP. I’m getting a scan, but I’m pretty certain it was the progesterone.

Back to the marathon. After a week of tapering, I felt fat and heavy and horrible, and I was looking forward to fresh air and running, while of course having no clue how to run and feeling like I’d never done it before. In short, a normal taper. FRB and I have learned that for big races, we are best off staying in our respective houses and meeting at the venue. Race nerves do not lead to harmony or good sleep. So that’s what we did. I was, for me, amazingly well prepared. I’d made lists. 

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I laid everything out in careful piles. I thought about hydration, nutrition, covering. I bought veggie sausages and chopped them into bite-sized pieces because there always comes a time in a marathon when I can’t bear any more sugar or energy gels gloop. I made marzipan balls and stuffed them with chopped nuts and coated them with desiccated coconut. Of course in the end I ate no sausages and had one marzipan ball, but fell runners are like Scouts: always be prepared.

The race began at the primary school in Haworth where it would also end. There is also a Yorkshireman half that starts half an hour later, and I was the only Harrier running the full marathon so there were no other purples around. The school corridors were a pungent mix of Deep Heat and coffee. And I hadn’t quite thought through my parking decision: I’d parked at the bottom of Butt Lane, but not carried kit with me, not realising what a schlep it was up to the school. I suppose I was just paying for not having done recces of Butt Lane. Instead, I did two of them on race morning. I felt OK, and it was nice to be in cheery company; a few Pudsey Pacers were doing the full, along with Sara.

Having done a damn good warm-up up and down Butt Lane, I finally found myself with kit in the right place. I got changed: lucky striped socks (actually hooped calf sleeves, FRB), funny Injinji toe socks over toes slathered with anti-chafing cream. My Kirkstall vest, sadly, was still somewhere over on the Dark Side, as I’d left it behind at Turnslack fell race and it hadn’t made its way home yet. I had a technical Kirkstall 30th anniversary t-shirt instead, which I hadn’t done a long run in – oops – but hoped would do. (It did, mostly, though its tendency to ride up made for some unflattering belly shots before I realised I should tuck it in.) We were ready.
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The marathon runners gathered up on the cobbled streets of Haworth. I hadn’t recced the first couple of miles, as I reckoned there would be enough people to follow, and that was the case. Charlie Marshall, the race director, gave instructions. The first one was, has everyone got their dibber? You were given it when you collected (re-usable, rather stiff) race numbers but it wasn’t extremely clear and I could see how people might have missed it. There were two audible exclamations and two blokes ran off back to the school, a good five minutes away, to collect theirs. In fact their start was timed from the school, which was generous. 
And off we went. Up, up, and more up. God, it hurt. I knew the first couple of miles was going to be hilly, but by ‘eck. The Yorkshireman is a CL in Fell Running Association rules, which means it’s long and the flattest of all categories, but what climb it has has mostly been chucked into the first section. Sara and I agreed: steady. Save the legs. And so we did, up to Lees Reservoir, up another hill, and then onto a long long conduit, where we encountered both Woodentops (Dave, then Eileen Woodhead). I tried to jump in the air for Dave, but it didn’t quite work. I think Eileen took this picture, which I love:
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We were passed at this point by a bloke in a green kilt. I asked him what tartan it was. Obviously that’s the kind of chat you have on a long off-road marathon. “It’s not mine,” he said, and I thought he meant the kilt. But he meant the tartan. It was what FRB calls McParty Tartan. Off they ran, kilt flapping, and we didn’t see them again. As the miles went past, the field got thinner and thinner. But they also passed amazingly quickly, as Sara and I were chatting about families, Bake-off, running, everything. I looked at my watch and saw we’d done nearly six miles.
I was delighted to realise that I knew most of the route. There were parts which blended into each other, usually long stretches of field and stiles. Although FRB is still training me to remember routes by what kind of stile – “no, then you go over a wooden one,” and how many, I still can’t remember them. But I knew enough to be sure-footed. I also didn’t fall over. It was a lovely day to begin with: not too hot, sunshine, and the views over the moors were gorgeous. I tried to take them in, while trying to keep a decent pace, while trying to save the legs. I lied about not going for a time: I started off hoping for 5 hours, then that diminished to 5.30 hours. I kept that hope until the last seven miles or so when it was clear it wouldn’t happen.
It was so great running with confidence that I knew the route. I know I’m emphasising this, but usually I feel inadequate, and rely on FRB or other runners. I’m going to do proper recces more often. At Ogden Water, a pair of runners we’d been pendulum-running with (they go ahead, we catch them up, we go ahead, they catch them up) suddenly stopped and looked lost. We showed them the way, but they stopped at the toilets, and on the road beyond the reservoir there is a cunning hairpin turn onto a track, and I don’t think it was stickered. After that we were on our own for the rest of the race, so I think several people must have missed it. At Denholme Velvets, there was a checkpoint where we were greeted with “Table for two, ladies?”. The marshal was lovely, and he had jam sandwiches, which made me love him more. At least until he said, “you’ve done all the hills now.” Really? I said, and reeled off the four I knew were coming. There was a runner at the checkpoint who had DNF-ed (for non-runners: Did Not Finish). He looked rueful. “I had a week in Paris and ate all the cheese and drank all the wine.” In which case, well done to him for running 15 miles. He didn’t look rueful about having consumed all the cheese and wine.
I’d thought that we’d probably only find crumbs at some checkpoints, but in fact there was something to scoff at all of them, and most of it welcome. I even ate the squares of cheese and pineapple just after Hewenden Viaduct even though the cheese was weeping in the heat and the flies were loving it. 
By Denholme, we were over half-way. It had got hotter and hotter: I put a buff on my head which may have been daft, especially as I was also carrying a cap (a buff is heavier). I made sure to drink lots, and had pee stops, which is always a good sign that I wasn’t just absorbing all the water and therefore not hydrated enough. And on we went, on and on, over track and moor and past llamas (or are they alpacas?).
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There were apples from trees and orchards and blackberries, and miles of gorgeous views, and walkers and no wind farms. On Warley Moor there were bogs, and more bogs, and it was what is known as “technical.” I usually love to run through bogs, but even I had to slow, sometimes to a walk. It would have been quite hard to finish a marathon with a bog-twisted ankle.
With about seven miles to go, Sara started to get niggles. She already had problems with her ankle, and then her back started playing up. We slowed it down, and in the same way she had been so kind and considerate when I’d been crippled by stomach pains on our recce, I considered it my job to make it as easy for her as I could to get to the end. I was also finding it tough in the last miles: My feet were battered, but my spirits were actually OK. I’d like to think that my Three Peaks training, though it was so many months ago, has taught my brain to be strong when it’s knackered. So I tried to strike a balance of being encouraging – “we’re on the home stretch” “we’re doing really well” – and accurate “there are 2.5 miles to go” and I hope I managed it without being annoying. The last thing you want when you are tired and in serious discomfort and just want it all to end is someone cheerleading in your face. There are some hills in the last stretch which aren’t that high but feel like mountains, particularly one up to the bracken moor overlooking Haworth. At that point, I felt exhausted and my spirits really sagged. My feet hurt, both the hard skin under my big toes, and my toes were battered. Every time they hit a rock, I cursed. The air over Haworth was blue. I’d tried to greet everyone I passed, but by this point, no chance. Sorry, mountain bikers on the bracken moor. 
By now I realised that 5.30 was out of the question, but I thought we might do 5.45. Really, at that point, it didn’t matter. But as the miles had gone on, it was inevitable that conversation faltered, so I’d had to keep my mind busy somehow. After the bracken, which seemed to go on for miles, it was downhill into Haworth, past a checkpoint where a marshal was bizarrely shirty with us (I only remember him because everyone else had been lovely), along the Worth Way where we passed another marathon pair, one in an Um Bongo vest, along the cobbled road to the bottom of Butt Lane.
It won’t be that bad, FRB had told me of Butt Lane, because there will be loads of people cheering you up. Not if you take six hours to run the marathon, there aren’t. Everyone had left. We made our way up: walking the first very steep stretch, then shuffling up. Two people had remained to cheer, and that was extremely welcome. Thank you. I knew we weren’t last, because I knew that we’d lost several people at Ogden Water. We’d also heard on the way round about the Lost Americans: a group of Americans, or people who had come from America, who, when we got to one checkpoint, were nearly an hour behind us. Afterwards, I found out that one of them had arrived at Manchester airport after an overnight flight, at 8am, dashed to Haworth, started late, and they still ran a full marathon. Respect.
But from the quietness of Butt Lane, the number of runners driving home, I knew we were pretty far back in the field. Never mind. Keep shuffling. Butt Lane is awful, but I think the incline up to the school is worse. You think you’re nearly there, and it just goes on and on and on. But we did it, and FRB took a picture which shows us running in perfect sync, no sagging hips or flailing feet.
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Past the first entrance, to the second entrance, down the steps, along the passageway, to the main entrance and
THE END.
Six hours and forty-eight seconds.
I’m proud we got round, and I loved running as a pair. I really appreciated Sara’s company, and I’d recommend running a marathon as a pair, if only for the experience. I’ve run three four marathons now, and for two of them I spent several hours on my own in the middle of crowds of people and often wished for someone to help the miles pass. It can get quite lonely in big city marathons. So running companionship is great. And so is the Yorkshireman: The scenery is magnificent, it’s all runnable, the marshals are delightful, and they give you stew and a t-shirt afterwards (though, annoyingly, my pre-ordered S t-shirt had been taken by someone quicker).
I confess: I wish we’d done it faster but I would, wouldn’t I? And that’s what next year’s race is for.

 

Laughter

ADMISSION: I have started, worked on and failed to finish the post below about a dozen times. I’ve sort of lost my mojo, both for running and for running writing. It may be because I’m stressed about my book, or because I have put on weight and can’t shift it (not least because I keep eating all the cake), because I still get days of depression though it’s much better than it was; because I feel I’m getting slower; because I realise I loathe road running and don’t find the time to get off-road. It may be that I did legitimately have to stop running when I fell four times in two days (twice on a recce, twice on a fell race the next day that I didn’t have to do, while overtaking when I didn’t have to, but it was too tempting). My leg got infected, and I was off for a week:

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But then again: I have done many recces for the Yorkshireman marathon (this Sunday!) with FRB and with my marathon partner Sara (we’re running as a pair). Here is half of us totally lost on Warley moor:

 

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I have run in the evenings over moors in gorgeous sunshine and it was so beautiful I had to stop and gaze and gaze more, even though FRB was cantering off into the distance and I was supposed to keep up. I have made new friends:

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And I have learned to work it while in fell shoes:

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I have done hill reps that I was supposed to do, and some training runs that I was supposed to do. I have run around Harewood in the rain and loved it, and though I felt heavy and slow, still stopped at the horrible hill and run up and down it three times though that wasn’t in my plan. But I don’t feel ready for Sunday, even while I’m looking forward to it. I wish I could be the person who adhered completely to her training plan, but I was only ever that person in the months before the London marathon. I don’t know why I don’t adhere to my training plan. I just know that recently there have been spells of two or three days where I have done no exercise, even though I know it not exercising makes me feel dreadful. Yet still I haven’t done it.

Probably I’m being too harsh. Probably I’ve done more than it feels like I have. I got up yesterday at 6.30 and ran around Roundhay and listened to the birds waking up and saw the swans snoozing. I did a 17 mile road run around Eccup which was beautiful, though my feet hurt. But it feels like there’s something missing, and I hope I will soon get it back. Or is this just Taper Fever?

Anyway, that post.

There are differences between fell and road running. Different shoes, with things called “cleats” or “lugs.” An inability to leave the house for a run without a waist pack containing at least a waterproof and some jelly-beans because you never know what the skies will bring. A lack of neon, and definitely a lack of headphones. But one of the things that I think distinguishes running outside, off-road, on moors and fells and hills, is laughter.

For example, Turnslack. It’s a race on the Dark Side near Rochdale. Steve from Brooks Running UK has always been generous in so many ways, by sending kit and shoes, but also by liking and praising all my fell-running exploits and writing. He’s an experienced runner, but not a fell runner. The only fell race he had done was the Carnethy Five, a notoriously tough one up and up and up the Pentlands near Edinburgh. He didn’t enjoy it (he says it made him cry). So months and months ago we started to talk about him coming up north (Brooks is based near Brighton) to do a proper fell race. Now, there is hierarchy in fell running like anything else, and us who don’t live in the Lakes or belong to the famous Lakeland clubs – Keswick, Ambleside, Borrowdale – might think we do not have “proper” fell races. I went to a talk by Nicky Spinks recently in which she said that the Three Peaks was not a proper fell race because you don’t have to navigate. I don’t mind that opinion, but in that case I’ve probably never done a proper fell race. But in my head, a proper fell race is one that has muck and moors and hills and bogs. With juggling of dates and Steve’s availability, we decided on Turnslack. Steve thought he could fit in the race with visits to his northern clients, so last Saturday we drove over the M62, past moors I’d always thought I’d love to run on, to a race which was going to enable me to run on them. The HQ was in a church, which was hilarious. We got there so early that FRB and I both had single digit numbers, which reminded me of running the Yorkshire marathon and starting ahead of the Kenyans. Steve arrived shortly afterwards, having driven up from Brighton, and with the intention of driving straight down again after the race (the client visits didn’t work out). He looked a bit nervous:

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We milled around, as usual, queued for the one toilet (in the church), then gathered in the road opposite the churchyard, which was also the bus route, and the short-cut into town. So setting off took a while, as it consisted of the race director starting to speak, then everyone moving to the sides of the road as yet another car arrived. Finally, the race director – who hadn’t invested in a megaphone – said something like “oh sod it, off you go,” and off we went. Steve was wearing Pure Grits, which are great, but I wasn’t sure they would have sufficient grip for bogs and slippery grass. But the first few miles were on track, I think (FRB will probably correct me. In fact read his account here for more clarity than I will provide). It seemed to be a long slog upwards. Steve and I ran together then he pulled away and I could see his bright neon t-shirt in the distance, a disturbingly long way off. I knew I’d try to catch him up later though: my shoes were grippier than his so I might have an advantage on the descents, if they ever bloody turned up. This race was all up, up, up. Even so, I felt OK, and it was a beautiful day and the scenery was a delight. I stopped now and then to take pictures, including of Steve looking a wee bit happier:

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Finally there was a descent, then a climb, then another descent. And I caught Steve up. My cleats were bigger than his. But also, descending is something you get better at, which is probably not expected. Everyone can run downhill, right? It’s running uphill that is the hard bit. Not really. Many people who run downhill do so with the brakes on. They lock their knees, consciously or unconsciously, because they are scared of falling over. I’m not the best downhiller either but my one advantage is that I love it. It is a joyful thing to do, a reversion to the unfettered, unbothered enjoyment of being a child and outside (without Pokemon Go). And if I fall, and if anyone falls while running downhill, or going through bogs, there is usually laughter (as long as injuries aren’t too serious). I have fallen and bounced up, laughing. I have fallen and not bounced up, but still been laughing. I have been helped out of bogs and picked up, all with kindness and a grin. It’s why, though I don’t think I’m a proper fell runner (I haven’t been doing it long enough), there’s nowhere else I want to run, now. You don’t get many giggles in road races.

But, Turnslack. I overtook Steve and he didn’t catch me. I probably fell over again. I didn’t actually know how long the race was (or rather, I’d forgotten), so when, suddenly I landed on a road, and I could see a spire, I thought there must be another two mile loop to do. But no: down the road, turn the corner, along the road, take a sharp right, and up the lych gate entrance into the churchyard. It’s probably the only race in the world where you get to finish your race tracing the route of a corpse. (Lych-gates are where funerals pass through.)

Steve finished soon after, and pretended he’d enjoyed it. Maybe that’s because he knew that inside the church doorway there was splendid cake served by cheery women, and excellent tea. There was also a prize-giving ceremony with a wide variety of prizes, including bathroom scales. Which made me laugh, just like fell running makes me laugh, with joy. And there isn’t enough of that about.

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Beamsley Beacon

It turns out that going to India for three weeks, then coming back and doing the Wharfedale Half Marathon, then going on a cruise for two weeks, is not good for maintaining hill legs. I had a great time on the cruise (I was accompanying my mother), and tried to keep as fit as possible. I twice ran five miles around the deck, even though the jogging track was only a tenth of a mile long. That’s over 50 times, people. I plotted to run ashore in Santorini, inspired by this post by Laura, but was foiled by the fact that the ship was anchored off-shore, people on booked excursions had priority in the tenders ferrying them ashore, and they weren’t going to the right place anyway. By the time any tenders were going to Fira, from where I was planning to run six miles to the end of the island and back again, it was 9.30 and 35 degrees. No way. I went to run around the jogging track instead, consoling myself that the views weren’t too shabby:

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A very thin couple in their sixties, dressed in running kit, were up on the jogging track deck too, gazing at the island. I stopped to talk to them. He was Swiss, she was Dutch, and they wanted to run up the mountain. This mountain:

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Even I wasn’t planning to do that. “It’s ridiculous,” the man said. “They give priority to fat people on tours, and fit people can’t do anything.” He was going to go anyway, once the tenders started. I didn’t see them again, so I hope they weren’t vaporized by the heat.

I also swam a lot, and did a few of the yoga and Pilates classes on the ship. They were held here, which is probably the nicest yoga studio I’ve ever done a class in:

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But of course, this was a luxury cruise. Even if I ate lots of salads and fresh food, and even if we drove around beautiful Greek islands and stopped in village tavernas and ate wonderful feta and salad and bread and amazing olive oil, I also drank wine and ate all the desserts. There was a lot of this:

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I got back on Tuesday, and on Wednesday did the Beamsley Beacon fell race. It’s a straight up and down, or supposed to be, departing from Addingham near Ilkley. I didn’t feel like I was in great form, not least as I’d forgotten to take my anti-depressants for a couple of days, and my mood was pretty fragile. But I went anyway, and we paid £5 for entry, in the race HQ (the pool room in a pub). The start was a milling in the street outside, we were going up, up and up, and then down. The route up would be clear, but the route back was self-navigated. Note that part.

There were 120 or so runners, and as soon as we set off, I thought, oh, this is going to be very hard. I’m going to be in the last dozen, and the way my legs felt, I could easily be in the back half of that dozen. It was a beautiful evening, but my legs felt leaden and slow. I walked half of the uphill, which I’d never have done at Three Peaks fitness. I wasn’t enjoying it, and for the first couple of miles seriously considered a DNF. But my pride stopped me: I’ve never done a DNF and wasn’t it better to run and come last rather than DNF?

I reached the top, touched the trig point, and set off after the man in front of me. I had no idea of the route down, just that I shouldn’t go back down the way I came, as that was longer. “You’ll have people to follow,” said FRB, because he didn’t realise how much fitness I’d lost, and how far back I would be. In fact, I could only see the one man in front, and put blind faith in him knowing the route. Mistake. After a while, we found ourselves running through a field at the bottom of someone’s garden. It was more of an estate, and the house was stunning, as I told the owner when he came out and told us, kindly, that we’d gone wrong and that we needed to go through the farm. So, reverse and through the farm. By this time a woman I’d been running behind and then in front of and then behind again, who ran with a really odd shuffle which was a lot faster than it looked, had joined me. So she was there when a blond woman came out of a driveway and started yelling at us. Really yelling. She was almost spitting with fury. This is what she said:

YOU BLOODY RUNNERS. LAST YEAR YOU SCARED MY COWS AND THEY WERE IN CALF AND ONE OF THEM LOST A CALF AND THE RACE ORGANIZER SAID THERE WAS NO MONEY AND NO INSURANCE. YOU DO THIS EVERY YEAR, YOU COME THROUGH HERE AND DISTURB THEM. BLOODY RUNNERS. HOW DARE YOU, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, YOU HAVE NO IDEA OF THE DAMAGE YOU CAUSE, YOU’RE A DISGRACE etc

I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. The shuffling woman said, in broad Yorkshire, “I’m so sorry, oh that’s terrible, I’m very sorry,” to which the farmer replied:

YOU’RE SORRY? WHAT GOOD DOES THAT DO ME? EVERY YEAR WE HAVE THIS AND EVERY YEAR YOU BLOODY RUNNERS. IT’S ALL VERY WELL BEING SORRY BUT WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?

Etc. I was trying to be calm with her too, as she obviously had legitimate grounds to be angry, if the race organizer hadn’t compensated her for the lost calf. But she just kept yelling and finally I lost my temper too, said, “What can we do about it?” then “take a bloody chill pill” (I wasn’t feeling articulate by that point) and ran off in dudgeon, then had to look stupid because I’d gone wrong again and had to run back to face her again. Finally we found the right route, and I realised I’d lost about six places, and was last. I couldn’t do much about that, as by being last I had to close all the gates, which lost me more time. I was upset – being yelled at had really thrown me – and weepy, and then we had to run through an extremely narrow, overgrown snicket, where you couldn’t see your feet. I hated it. That’s how I knew something was wrong with my hormones, because normally I’d have loved it.

Finally at one gate, the man I’d followed down mistakenly (who apologised for going wrong), offered to close the gate instead, and didn’t catch me up. With a better level of fitness, I’d have taken a couple of places, but I had no energy, I hated the race and wanted it to be over. It was, eventually, and I was second last, and I was furious and almost crying, so I headed straight for the pub toilets, then went to the car, hoping not to see anyone. But FRB followed me – he had seen my face as I ran to the finish and was worried – and tried to talk to me, before he understood that what I needed was to sit in the car and cry. So I did, and I calmed down, then joined people for the prize-giving, at which I learned that Joe Baxter of Pudsey and Bramley had been winning by a good margin, before he went colossally wrong too, and came fifth or sixth. The Beacon gets us all.

I didn’t much feel like running after that. Both the experience of running the race, and the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed it, were a shock. But on the Saturday I made myself get up and do Parkrun. I didn’t take a watch, and I just ran, and enjoyed it, and did a decent time (25:55). And on Sunday FRB and I went up to the moors around Ilkley and ran 12 miles through heather and past rocks and past runners racing the Bradford Millennium Way, and I wasn’t fast, but I loved running again. Now, back to training.

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The 62nd Three Peaks Race

About a year ago, I was standing on the summit of Pen-y-Ghent, one of three small mountains or large hills, depending on your view, which make up the Yorkshire Three Peaks. I was marshalling the 61st Three Peaks fell race, a 24-mile run up and down all three peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough – that includes 5300 feet of climb, and usually at least two of the four seasons. There were half a dozen of us marshals at the summit, and our job was to guide runners up to the dibbers, the devices that runners have to check in to at various checkpoints. The rain was horizontal. The temperature was freezing. The fog was dense. And I was as cold as I’d been for many years. As the first runners approached out of the fog, and as I jumped up and down trying and failing to find some warmth, I decided something.

Running must be more fun than freezing to your bones in a hi-vis vest. Next year, I’ll run it.

And so I have. And I got round. And I am inexpressibly delighted. Because it was the hardest race I’ve ever done, and because I nearly didn’t manage it. So here is a race report that will probably take you as long to read as it took me to get up to Pen-y-Ghent (just over 50 minutes).

Training
FRB drew me up two training plans. The first started in December and carried me through to running Rombald’s Stride in February. The second went up to last week. Each week, I had to run a combination of hills, speed intervals, tempo runs and more hills. There were negative splits, and a Chapel Allerton circuit right on my doorstep that combined a hill run, a tempo run immediately afterwards, and a recovery run. I got weirdly fond of that. The aim was not just to get me better at climbing hills, but to ensure that having climbed a tough hill, I could run off the top of it. I suppose you could call it the Running Off Tired Legs Plan.

I tried to fit in one session of strength training and one Pilates session a week. I also tried to do 100 or so deep squats a day, to strengthen my quads and ankles, both crucial for climbing, and to keep up my glute exercises which would hopefully keep my troublesome tendon happy. I sort of paid attention to my food, trying to eat lots of iron-rich kale and greens, and as race day grew closer, making sure I ate plenty of carbohydrates, and getting thoroughly sick of pasta.

Of course I didn’t do as much as I should have, either with the running or the strength sessions. Mostly that was because I was fighting depression and the menopause, or because I was taking sleeping tablets to sleep now that the menopause is messing with that too, which made me horribly dopey. But all in all, I did OK. I ran in rain and snow and wind. I ran on moors and hills and road. I grew oddly fond of Stonegate Road in Leeds, not the most picturesque of roads (anyone who has run the Leeds Half will know it well). But it’s such an elegant rise up from Meanwood to the top. I got used to training in tough conditions and keeping going. I ran up so many hills that by the end of my second training plan, I could never run just once up a hill, but always had to do it at least twice. Like Post Hill, a crazily steep climb in Pudsey, where I ran a race that included two climbs and five miles of running, and as soon as I finished, I climbed the hill again, to the bemusement of everyone. I got better at climbing hills. There’s a circuit around Harewood, a country estate just north of Leeds, that I love to do because it’s beautiful, and there are stags, and there’s a horrible short hill that is very good training. When I started the first training plan, I could never run to the top of that hill without stopping and walking. By the end of plan 2, I ran up and down it four times without stopping.

I’ve walked the Peaks, but only once, so it was important to do a recce. I also wanted to know whether I had it in me to beat the cut-offs. So I did two recces up at the Peaks, the first with FRB, when we ran up Pen-y-Ghent then Whernside one day, then on the next from Ribblehead (a mile from the foot of Whernside) up Ingleborough and the five miles back to Horton, where the race starts and finishes. It wasn’t like running the whole race, but my legs on day two were sufficiently knackered that I thought it would give me a good indication of how I might feel on race day. Then I went back when FRB was running up in Scotland and did Whernside on my own, twice, thinking that I needed to know if I could run it on tired legs. I did OK. The first time, I got to the top in 45 minutes from Ribblehead, which was far better than expected. The second time, it was slower but I would still meet the cut-offs.

Oh yes. The cut-offs.

The weather of the Three Peaks can be as tough as the terrain. It can change on a ha’penny spin. And because there are dozens of marshals who have to stand out on summits and at checkpoints in all weathers, the race organisers ensure that anyone who enters is at least theoretically capable of running it in a time that will not leave marshals standing out all day. This is not a race for the relaxed. There is no winging it. To enter you must have either run the race before, or done two qualifying races of a certain distance and climb. I did Gisborough Moors and the Badger Bar Blast to qualify, and in the six months I was training, I did at least one fell race a month. On the day, you must reach each checkpoint by a certain time. If not, you will be stopped. The race would start at 10.30am and I would have to get to the checkpoints by these times:

High Birkwith: by 12.05pm
Ribblehead: by 12.30pm
Hill Inn (the final checkpoint): by 2pm

FRB had added the times I needed to run on my training plan, because he is a damn good coach (hire him!).

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It’s odd though: I remember doing London and feeling streamlined and super fit. This time, although I had evidence, from every race I did, that I was stronger and better at climbing hills and even a bit faster, I didn’t feel particularly on top form. The recces had given me some confidence, but the cut-offs were still going to be tight. Right up to about 2pm on Saturday afternoon, I had no idea whether I would get through Hill Inn or not.

Friday
Both FRB and I are not particularly relaxed before races. I’m too chaotic, and FRB gets too wound up about my chaos, and the results are not relaxing for either of us. I thought that this race was so important for me that I wanted to minimise any stress, so I booked us a room at a lovely B&B in Chapel-le-Dale, the hamlet near the fateful checkpoint of Hill Inn. We had of course been checking the weather for days, and trying to ignore the freezing temperatures and snow outside. By the time we got to Chapel-le-Dale, the forecast was pretty good for race day: some sunshine, perhaps some light showers. But all the tops were covered in snow. This is what Pen-y-Ghent looked like. Inviting.

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Which meant The Shoe Question.

Runners go on about shoes, but the amount that fell runners can discuss shoes makes road runners look like mutes. See, we have so much to think about, and particularly on the Three Peaks, which has track, cinder track, tarmac, bogs, rocks, rocky paths, becks, grass, and probably moon-rock too. So you have to calculate: do you want really aggressive studs on your shoes for the soft bits? But then you still have many miles to run on tarmac and hard surface, and you don’t want blisters. So do you choose trail shoes, which have less aggressive soles, but are softer on the feet? I was choosing between two shoes: Mudclaws or Roclites. Both are made by Inov-8, and both are great, but I know that Mudclaws batter my feet on hard surfaces because they have less cushioning. I decided on Roclites, which have less aggressive cleats (studs) but a bit more cushioning and would probably leave my feet in better shape.

I packed my kit carefully on Thursday and packed it again on Friday. FRB’s instructions: I should make sure I knew where everything was in my waist pack, because a minute is a precious thing and I don’t want to have to stop to pile everything back in. Into my waist pack, then, went the following:

A waterproof with taped seams and a hood
Waterproof trousers
A hat
Gloves
Mittens
A compass
A whistle
1 collapsible bottle of water with electrolytes added
2 small bottles of water with electrolytes added
A small tub of anti-chafing cream
In the right pocket, solid food: half a dozen marzipan balls made with nuts and chia seeds, and a few scrunched up balls of Soreen. A Snickers bar cut in half. A bag of jelly babies.
In the left pocket: four gels

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I packed another bag with warm clothing to change into after the race, plus some chocolate milk, plus more chocolate. I bought a bottle of water and a bottle of coke, and put my race number on each, because each entrant is allowed to leave a bottle at both Ribblehead and Hill Inn checkpoints. I packed ear-plugs and eye-mask in case of loud cows or sheep. And we set off to t’Dales.

But first we had to fuel up. Once again, we stopped at Billy Bob’s Diner near Bolton Abbey, on the way to Skipton, and ate everything on the menu.

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Then we stopped in Settle to see a wee cycle race. I’m not convinced that cycle races are the best spectator sport, even the Tour de Yorkshire, but the atmosphere was good, and I was given some Arla protein shakes (only one at first, then I said we were running the Three Peaks. “Oh, take three then.”) And Settle was in a very good mood, which was lovely:

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The tour passed, all those cyclists with their mucky faces and amazing legs, and we set off to the B&B. But first, there would be chips. We stopped at a chip shop in Ingleton, then drove out half a mile to have our chips in the car, with a view of Ingleborough, glowering, magnificent and looking very snow-bound. At the B&B, our host Martin told us that he’d had plenty of Three Peaks walkers, but that we were the first runners. He sounded like running the Three Peaks was an odd thing to do. Perhaps it is. Apart from that, we had a quiet race preparation evening in which the most exciting thing to happen was FRB asking me if I wanted to let out my gas.

He meant making Coke flat. Both he and I were going to have a flat Coke at one checkpoint and electrolytes at the other. This is letting out gas in progress:

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He also worried about where to put the packaging for the latex gloves he’d brought. Someone on FB had suggested taking some Marigolds just in case both pairs of gloves got sodden, and FRB had provided surgical gloves instead. He was worried about what Martin might think if he found an empty packet for latex gloves in the bin, though two runners about to run a fiendishly hard race are the least likely to be having kinky frolics the night before involving latex gloves. Still, we took the packaging away with us.

Then I read my friend Mary Roach’s book Grunt, about science’s efforts to make soldiers’ combat lives easier/safer/less deafening. I should have gone to sleep, but the chapters on maggots and stink bombs were way too interesting. Then, for the first time in my racing history, I slept well. Of course, I had a Three Peaks stress dream, in which Dave Woodhead of Woodentops was again a race director, and I was again late. But there were no stink bombs or maggots in it, which is a bonus.

Saturday
Pen-y-Ghent
We weren’t late. Even my chaos had been subdued by how big a thing this race was for me, and I was prepared and organised. I was surprisingly calm at breakfast, which consisted of tea and delicious pancakes with banana and honey. Perfect. We met another couple staying at the B&B, a man called Brian and his wife, who were both going to be marshalling. Then off we went to be at the race field in good time and spend about an hour and a half freaking out. Me, that is. FRB seemed calm. That’s because he knew what was coming, and because there was very little question of him not being able to meet the cut-offs, which was my biggest worry. Pen-y-Ghent was beautiful but snow-bound, and I got my number, dropped off my drinks for the checkpoints, then quietly started to panic. So I kept busy: going to get my kit, then queueing up for the portaloos. I met a woman in the queue who was philosophical: “If I get round, I get round, and if not, it’s a nice day out, so I’m not going to worry about it.” I tried to tell myself the same. Even if I didn’t get past Hill Inn, I would still have done a Two Peaks Race. But I wanted to do well. I wanted to get round. I wanted to surprise people. I wanted to beat the sodding menopause. I went to the race briefing and heard none of it, and had the first kit-check I’ve ever had at a fell race (they do happen, I just haven’t had one yet). Even so, it was bit cursory: FRA rules require waterproofs with taped seams and full waterproof trousers, but I just showed the Mountain Rescue man my pack, saying, that’s a waterproof, that’s trousers, there’s my hat. Then I went for a warm-up run around the field, and did some deep leg squats and bends, to open my hips and put less pressure on my knees. It worked, because afterwards my joints felt fine. I found a secret toilet, too. No, not a bush, but a toilet in a building at the far side of the race field. As the portaloo queue was about 60 people long (there were urinals too but men do get nervous, don’t they?), a toilet with one person waiting counted as a triumph.

I saw Ricky Lightfoot warming up too. For someone who runs on the fells so much, he looks very pale. I didn’t see Victoria Wilkinson, but I did see a few Nepalese. I thought, is a Gurkha running? But then later, running up Pen-y-Ghent, someone shouted “Well done Mira!” at a Nepalese woman descending at elite pace, and I realised it was Mira Rai, one of my running heroes.

Finally I was ready. I slathered my feet with anti-chafing cream. I had put my rainbow race socks on. I’d decided on a Helly layer under my vest, but shorts of course. Always shorts. My Roclites were going to have cope with any slush or mud. And it was time to line up at the start. I aimed for the back, so did FRB. Half of the runners were already wearing waterproofs, as rain was forecast, but I decided to wait for the water. Someone announced something, but I was too nervous to pay attention. Someone fired a gun, and off we went. Round the field, up onto the road, over two narrow winding bridges, along more road and then up onto a track that led to Pen-y-Ghent. Afterwards, FRB said, “did you see the amazing sight of all the runners in all the different colours, streaming up the road after the bridge?” No. I didn’t. I was so nervous by that point I wouldn’t have noticed a mastodon joining in. I was nervous about pacing. My pace band had times on, but actually it wasn’t a pace band because paces are pointless when you are climbing things like Pen-y-Ghent. There’s no way of knowing when you’ll have to walk, or when conditions will slow you. So I just resolved to run as best I could, and to take it steady. I was dreading the first part, as I usually really struggle in the first mile as my body adjusts – because I never warm up properly – but the warm up run and stretches had worked. The sun was shining, the fells were beautiful, and it was a lovely day to be out in the fresh air, running.

I did really well on Pen-y-Ghent, running further (that is, till the point where I started walking) than I’d done in the recce. I was definitely stronger. I’d taken beetroot the night before, and it felt like I’d done everything right for once. I was hydrated, I felt well fed, nothing was hurting. After about half an hour, the leaders started belting back down, having been up to the summit already. Like everyone around me, I applauded the first few but after that thought, sod that, I need to concentrate on my own run. I wasn’t running by that point, and though I managed a shuffle a bit higher up along a flattish bit of the climb, I didn’t run again until I’d got to the summit (in 50:23, on target), profusely thanked all the marshals, perfected my dibbing technique, and set off down. Lovely, lovely downhill. There was grass to run over, clear paths and trods to follow – one of the great advantages of being a middle or back of the pack runner – and it felt like fell running often feels: free and wonderful.

I passed Dave Woodhead at the bottom of the descent. He shouted, “keep up with that big group, Rose, you’ll be fine!” I shouted back, “yes, boss!” and promptly stopped and walked. I’d planned a fuelling strategy and was going to stick to it no matter what. At the bottom of the descent, the ground rises again steeply, and there are steps. That’s where I had decided to take a gel and some water, and that’s what I did. Sorry boss.

After that, there were three or so miles to the next checkpoint of High Birkwith, then another three or so miles to Ribblehead. There were no big climbs, but the route wasn’t flat either. I was supposed to get to High Birkwith in 35 minutes, but I thought I’d been slow and I was: 40.06. I was trying desperately to calculate everything using my pace band and watch, but I was beginning to get confused between the chronological time I was supposed to be at checkpoints and how long I was supposed to take. Was Ribblehead 2pm or 12.30pm and 2 hours? I no longer had any idea. So I just ran, as best I could. There was water at High Birkwith, and more cheery marshals. It’s a very very well organised race, mostly (see next paragraph), and the marshals are all superb.

Whernside
I got to Ribblehead, my results print-out tells me, in 2:04. That gave me a leeway of six minutes. But I didn’t know that. All I was relying on was people around me musing out loud about what time we were doing. I stopped briefly at Ribblehead to get my drink and eat some marzipan and Soreen balls, the better to climb Whernside. Of the three peaks, everyone hates Whernside most, but I was looking forward to it. I’d enjoyed running it in training, and I thought I’d enjoy it again. We hadn’t run the race route in the recce, but FRB said that the route we ran – up a permissive path about 300 metres to the left of the race route – was harder. The race route though had a beck to get through. Some people may leap it, but I walked across it carefully. I didn’t want a daft injury if I could avoid it. Going hell for leather on a descent and getting injured is different: that’s unavoidable. Beyond the beck, through a short railway tunnel (I think: it’s a bit of a blur) there was a queue. About forty runners were waiting at what I thought was a stile. The marshal was Brian, who we’d met at breakfast, and he had clearly landed the worst marshalling job in the race. Because the race route ran through private land. The race organisers spent months negotiating with farmers for access, but something had gone wrong. The farmer had blocked a gap in the wall that was the access point (and that was his wall, though it gave on to publicly accessible land according to OS maps) with a pallet. It was nailed firmly in place. I don’t remember any of this, just the queue, and saying hello to Michael from Pudsey Pacers, who was just behind me. This was unexpected as I thought he was much faster than me. As the wait continued, and mounted up to 5 minutes, the muttering was gloomy. “We’ll never make it.” “They’ll have to make leeway at the cut-offs.” “This isn’t fair.” Etc. One bloke arrived and said, “I’m a runner, I have to get through” to which he got a chorus of WE’RE ALL RUNNERS. The FRA Facebook group and forum has been discussing The Pallet Scandal at great length ever since, including the fact that a man and a well known female veteran runner, who nobody wants to name but I am very very tempted to – her first name rhymes with a word that is a synonym for “flexible” – blatantly queue jumped, running to the front of the queue and going over.

That, quite simply, is cheating. If you arrive later than other runners, then overtake them as they wait, it’s cheating. If you jump over a wall or a field gate when there is a queue at a stile, that is cheating and against the Countryside Code. My club mate Randolph was in the queue when the woman cheater did her cheating, and he said that no-one said anything. Because she’s famous, as famous fell runners go? Or because she was a woman? I really hope I’d have said something. I think I would because I think that is disgraceful. Shame on you, woman whose name rhymes with a word that is a synonym for flexible.

I felt for Brian, who must have had to suffer much complaint and fury. I felt for the race organisers too: there’s no sense that this is a poorly organised race, so something unforeseen had clearly gone wrong. Some very charitable people said perhaps the farmer was well-meaning too, and wanted to make a secure stepping point by nailing the pallet in so firmly. Or perhaps he was making a point about all the runners who during training had ignored the fact of private land and run the race route anyway. As for adding time to the cut-offs, Brian didn’t have a radio, we were about to run into a fierce hailstorm, and after the race I learned that the race organisers were told of the stile delay only five minutes before the cut-off at Hill Inn.

But I had a bog to deal with first. I was definitely tired at this point, because I did something colossally stupid. Before the steep climb up Whernside there is a mile or two of boggy, difficult ground to cover. On the permissive path route I was used to, much of the slopes up to the climb are runnable. I thought these were far less runnable. And I must have decided to test the limits of runnability by not running at all. We reached a bog, and I saw that a runner was stuck in it up to his thighs, and yet I saw a patch of deep clear water and thought, that looks safe. And then both one foot then another sank deep into the bog and were stuck fast. I couldn’t move them. There were plenty of runners around me, so I shouted, “can someone get me out please?” but for a while – it was probably only a dozen seconds or so – no-one did, so I shouted it louder with desperation and hysteria. Michael from Pudsey Pacers and someone else reached in and hauled me out. When I say “haul,” I mean I was dragged out on my face. I have no idea how I emerged with both shoes still on my feet, especially as the one fault of my Roclites is that they are loose on the heels, but I did. I am profoundly grateful to Michael and the other runner for helping me: Thank you.

I was covered in mud up to my waist. I looked like I’d indulged in open defecation, but very inaccurately. But I picked myself up and carried on. I don’t really remember much of the climb, except that it started hailing. Hail. The forecast that I had obsessively checked had said rain. But this turned into a fierce hailstorm. It was so fierce, I started talking to it. “YOU MUST BE JOKING.” Around me, runners were saying, “we’ll never make it now.” “We’ve no chance.” But I thought, if I can get up the steep section OK, I can go at speed on the descent and make up a few minutes. That kept me going for a few hundred feet. And then I decided that what will be, will be. And then I got to the top, and I changed my mind again and tanked it.

I ran as fast as I could along the path, past walkers and more walkers. Once again, the Sikhs were doing their annual charity Vaisakhi walk, and lots of other people were doing the Three Peaks Challenge. I don’t mind walkers, even when I’m running, but I wish they’d keep control of their poles and their dogs. Until we got to the first steep part of the descent, I still thought my tanking plan would work. But then I saw that the path was fully taped, not just in parts, and that marshals weren’t letting anyone go off-piste, either to stop erosion or because with the covering of snow, it was bloody dangerous. We had to stick to the path, and the path was steep, narrow, filled with walkers, and treacherous. This meant that rather than making up time, I was constantly braking, which was loading my joints and knees. But at that point I was concentrating on getting past the walkers. I did a bum slide down one section, as it seemed the most sensible thing to do, and I already looked like I’d had an incontinent accident, so I may as well add to it. It was the one moment where I really really wished I was wearing Mudclaws, because they grip so well on slippy slidy mud. But even with Mudclaws, going off-piste was too dangerous. I came to one very narrow and winding part of the path, and to a group of walkers who had small dogs, both loose. I yelled at them, “please hold your dogs!” I like dogs and I like walkers, but to have dogs off the lead on that path with that many runners coming through seemed daft. We could easily have accidentally kicked or stamped them. But they were probably sick of runners by that point: about 700 must already have gone past them.

I survived the path, got to the bottom, where I knew there was about a mile and a half to go until Hill Inn. I’d long since stopped looking at my watch, but someone said, “we’ve got ten minutes,” and I started sprinting. It felt like sprinting. Later, I found it was nine minute miling. About 500 metres or so from Philbin farm, the place where I’d been patched up after falling on Whernside, a runner came up from the opposite direction. I remember he had grey hair and a nice face. I happened to be running with two other women at the time, and he decided to take us all on. “Come on ladies,” he said, “you can do it. But you need to push. PUSH.” He ran with us all the way to the checkpoint. It was bloody awful. I felt like my lungs were going to come out of my ears. I felt like crying. At one point I’m pretty sure I was crying and running. It was less than half a mile but it felt like so much more. I was panicking and running, panicking and crying, running and crying. As I approached the checkpoint, a man said, “ONE MORE MINUTE” and I had made it. I had made it by the skin of all my teeth.

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Ingleborough
I couldn’t believe it. I had a massive grin on my face which stayed there for the next mile. I realised that I had probably never really thought I’d make it. But now the pressure was off, and I could relax a bit. I told myself I didn’t care what time I finished it, though actually I did and wanted to beat FRB’s first Three Peaks time of 5:37. So I kept moving, to find my flat Coke, and I watched a man vomiting copiously near me, and I thought, god, I am tired. I was so, so tired. I must have hung around at the checkpoint for a couple of minutes, but finally I set off again. I saw my club mate Adam, covered in blood and mud. He’d fallen on Whernside. He’s much faster than me normally, and I thought it odd that he was still at the checkpoint, but doing the Three Peaks for the first time can catch everyone out. We set off walking up to the stile that led to the Ingleborough path. Over that, and then there was a mile or so of runnable fields.

Stuff that. I was walking. Adam ran off, and got back 15 minutes before me. But my inner thighs were cramping, which was bizarre, as I’ve never had running cramp before. And I was tired and still had two thousand or so feet to climb, and a difficult descent, and five more miles to run. But I still had that grin on my face. I’d made it. Even if I did it in six hours, I’d made it. And that kept me going. I ran a bit, walked a bit, ran a bit, walked a bit. I saw a sign saying that SportsSunday, sports photographers, were round the corner, so I picked my pace up, stuck a smile on my face, and was rewarded with first “that’s a cracker!” from the photographer, and this lovely photo:

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See the state of my gloves? That was from the bog. But I was still wiping my nose with them. It was cold enough that I kept my waterproof on, and I knew it would get colder. Eventually I got to the foot of Ingleborough. It’s a rocky tricky technical climb up, and as I approached the start of the steep climb, I saw a line of runners snaking up and up and up. It looked so high. But actually it was fine. It was the last one. I got to the top in 56 minutes, almost exactly the same time as I’d done Whernside in (you’re supposed to do each peak in roughly the same time). Along the way I helped a walker who was slipping, and I think chatted to other people but now I can’t remember any of it. At the summit, I thanked the marshals loudly. It’s the longest marshalling stint: they can be up there for 7 or 8 hours, and it was COLD. There was snow everywhere. This film by my clubmate Adam Nodwell gives a very fine sense of the whole race.

But you know what? At the summit, THERE WAS NO MORE HILL TO CLIMB. Blessed, lovely descent. I set off, passing another runner who I turned to speak to, and saw that it was Dave Burdon of Pudsey Pacers. Dave is 60 and has run the Three Peaks eight times, I think. I knew he planned that this would be his last one. We decided to run together to the finish, and I’m so glad we did. That sounds so simple, doesn’t it? “Run to the finish.” But the last four and a half (or maybe five) miles to Horton are very difficult. Your legs are exhausted, but you can’t take your attention off the terrain for a second. There is the steep descent of Ingleborough, which starts off rocky then turns slushy and grassy with snow as well. If I’d been able to see the ground, I could have gone off-piste again, but there was no chance here. I wasn’t going to fall at this point. Dave was great to run with: he told me constantly what was coming up. “Flagstones, here, Rose, they’ll be slippery.” “Technical bit here, Rose.” I’m quite sure I’d have walked more if I’d been running on my own, but with Dave, we ran steadily, all the way back.

I almost forgot Colin. Coming off Ingleborough, or perhaps going up it, I passed a couple with a collie dog. They called the dog over and I said, “Colin?” “Yes,” they said. “Colin the collie.”

Of course.

There were rocks and gullies, and grass, and heather, and mud, and a checkpoint with water, that was very welcome. There was a moment where Dave had to stop because his legs were badly cramping, but he had one of my marzipan balls and recovered enough to run on. Magic marzipan. Later, I found out that Ben, another Pudsey Pacer, had collapsed at about this point, and had to sit down for five minutes while Mountain Rescue fed him chocolate. He said it was astonishing how soon after he’d eaten the chocolate that he felt better. You can’t run a race like the Three Peaks without knowing how your body works and what it needs. It’s too risky. But he got up and ran on and did a great time, so well done Ben and well done Mars Bars.

At about a mile from the finish, it seems like you are in a bucolic vision: there are green rolling hills, and you can see the village of Horton in the distance. Two Mountain Rescue people stood near a stile saying, “only two more hills!” and they were right, though they were more like inclines. But they felt like mountains. We got ourselves up them, over the field, over another field, under a railway bridge, through someone’s garden. I’d been warned about this bit, that there would be chickens. It’s probably a good thing because otherwise I’d have thought I was hallucinating. But the chicken coop was empty, probably emptied by all the thundered cleated feet. And then, holy cow, there was the finish line. A woman over the PA was presumably reading out the cute anecdotes that you put on your entry form. Mine was something about learning to run on a container ship and being good at swaying. But she could have been singing the national anthem and I wouldn’t have noticed at that point. All my attention was focused on the dibber. The final, beautiful dibber.

I got round in 5 hours and 24 minutes. I beat FRB’s first-year time. I couldn’t stop grinning. FRB had beaten his time by a minute, which in that weather counts as ten. He told me that for 20 minutes or so, he thought I hadn’t made it, because the screens in the marquee that track people’s times through checkpoints showed that my time at Hill Inn was 3 hours 30 and a few seconds. Until I got through Ingleborough and that went up on the board, he thought I hadn’t made it. He said he felt so despondent, then our fell-running friend Sharon – who was supposed to have run the Peaks, but unsurprisingly hadn’t quite recovered from running the 60 mile Fellsman in an amazing time two weeks before – ran up to him and said “Rose is through! She’s gone through Ingleborough!” And he was elated.

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Dave Woodhead was in the finish area with his camera. He took pictures of me, then of me and Dave Burdon, then of Dave, then of I can’t remember who. He went off then called me over. I did as I was told, because you do what Dave Woodhead tells you, mostly. Then he called two other blokes over and made me stand between them. “Do you know who these men are?” he asked. I didn’t. But at that point I’d barely have recognised Mo Farah. Dave said, “this is Harry Walker, a fell running legend. He’s won the Peaks three times. He’s in Studmarks on the summits.” I said, sorry, I hadn’t read Studmarks but was he in Feet in the Clouds? The other man is John Calvert, who used to run cross-country for England, who has also won the Three Peaks and still holds his club’s 10 mile record, thirty years after he ran it. Anyway I love this picture, and I also love the fact that Harry, who was as puzzled as me as to why Dave was asking us to pose together (a rose between two thorns?), said, “were you first lady?” Yes! If you don’t count the other 677 runners (not sure how many women) who finished before me.

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Marc Lauenstein, a dentist from Switzerland, came first, Ricky Lightfoot second. Victoria Wilkinson was first woman, Mira Rai came second. And I made it, and though I say this far too rarely, I am proud of myself. The Three Peaks is not just one of the toughest races I’ve ever run, but it’s one of the hardest challenges I’ve set myself. I’ve had a difficult and troublesome six months, with my mental health and menopausal symptoms, and yet I kept going, and I did it. I am deeply grateful to everyone who encouraged me along the way, and especially of course to FRB, who ran a brilliant race himself, and who has been unfailingly encouraging, supportive and wonderful through the last six months of hard training and hard health issues. Thank you, FRB.

So if you’re thinking about taking something on but you don’t think you can do it, you can, whether it’s going from running no miles to one, or from 13 to 26.2, or giving a speech, or writing the first paragraph of your book. You just can. See you in a field in Horton next year, or whatever your field consists of.

Inside and out

I had lunch with FRB yesterday. He said, you look really healthy and well. And yet it was one of the black days. They happen every third day, at the moment, either because my HRT patch runs out, or because the dosage is too low. When the HRT patch is working, on the other two days, I feel positive and great. But on days like yesterday, though I looked fit and well on the outside, inside I had that catch in my throat that you get when you try to stop crying. And a deep, inexplicable sadness that is almost grief. It feels biological, fundamental, but I know it usually passes by the next day. I meant to get up at 6 and run to breakfast yoga, but I didn’t. I meant to run to make up for that, but I didn’t. I thought maybe I should sow some seeds, or tidy my office, or keep my mind occupied. But I didn’t. I took a sleeping pill and chose knock-out instead.

And today is another day. In the post this morning I got OL2, an OS Explorer map of the Three Peaks. And I’m rather scared. I may look fit and well, but I also feel bloated and crap every third day. I don’t know if I’m fit. I know that I’m better at hills, and that I have many many miles in my legs, but does that make me ready to run 24 miles and climb 6000 feet, and do two-thirds of that in under 3 hours 30 minutes? I still don’t know. I don’t feel streamlined or super-strong, though we did a recce of all the Peaks the other week and I was OK. I got up Pen-y-Ghent in 55 minutes, and just made the made-up cut-off at Ribblehead. I think I may manage it, but it will not be easy, and I will not be able to relax until I get to the final cut-off at Chapel-le-dale. Meanwhile, I’ve started doing an altitude spin class once a week to try to train my lungs. And yesterday I saw Lucy the physio, as my left knee has been persistently sore for a while now, and she said, as she was massaging my legs, “you’ve got quads!” So the 100 squats a day and the spin class may be doing something.

I’ve learned lessons. We ran 12 miles around Ilkley moors at the weekend, and I realised, when I felt awful, that I’d had hardly any carbs the day before. So even though I’m smiling in this picture, I was hurting:

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Does it feel any easier, when I’m running up a steep incline? Not really. I think the difference is that I keep going. And that even when I walk a bit, my legs seem to automatically start running again. I am better, definitely, at “running off the top,” so doing a steep climb and then being able to run on jelly legs. I ran the Baildon Boundary Way half marathon last week and did well. And we’ve been doing lots of moor and fell running. So perhaps I’m stronger than I think, and I’ll stop focussing on the Third Days and take my strength from the other two. This weekend I’m going to run up Whernside. That is, run what I can and crawl the rest. And I’m looking forward to it, to getting outside the house and outside my head.

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Stan Bradshaw

I didn’t want to run. Not at all. Not remotely. I woke up at 7am with a pounding headache and having had the worst night of sleep in a month. It’s been a month since I started getting night sweats, which for those of you who have never had them, is like running a race several times a night, so you pour sweat, wake up boiling, fall asleep, then wake up freezing because you have been sleeping for an hour or so in cold sweat.

It sucks and I hate it. These days I rarely wake up without feeling sleep-deprived, and am grumpy because of that. Plus the lovely menopausal depression. All in all, the last thing I felt like doing was getting in my car and driving all the way to Lancashire to run nine miles over a very big hill.

But I did. Because in the depths of my morning fury and sleep-deprivedness, I managed to remember that running is the only thing that makes me feel better. It is a cliche now to say that you never regret a run but you will probably regret not running. But it’s true. So I ate crumpets, packed my kit, and set off, picking up on the way FRB plus his club-mate Ben and Ben’s girlfriend Amy, who was coming to support. The Stan Bradshaw Pendle Round starts in the village of Barley, where I’ve been to three times now: once to support FRB doing Tour of Pendle, and twice to run. As we drove over the border and over hills, Pendle hill suddenly came into view. Oh, I said. I’d forgotten how big it is.

Barley is a pretty village, with two major attractions apart from the magnificent Pendle hill rising behind it: free public toilets, and a warm village hall with a cafe and more toilets. We went to register, had tea and Amy’s muffins, then back to the car to change. Amy set off, wearing about four layers. It was cold but not as much as I’d expected. But the route had been changed because the snow had made one bit difficult, and the hill, looming behind Barley, was white. I wore vest, base layer, shorts and gloves, as usual, and Inov-8 Mudclaws for the snow. A few more toilet visits, a check that I had everything in my bum bag – full kit was required, and there were kit checks – and we gathered up the lane from the village hall. Craig, who had organised the race, gave some instructions. He said, we’ve ordered the sun for you, as the sun was shining. The atmosphere was amiable, at least where I was in the pack. I’d tapped a woman on the shoulder as I got to the start, and she turned and said fiercely “WHAT?” I said in a small voice, “I just wanted to tell you I like your buff” because it was a map buff of the Three Peaks, and she looked mortified and said, “I’m really sorry. I wouldn’t have been so rude, but I thought you were my sister.”

We set off. Steady, steady, steady. I don’t remember much about race routes, but I do remember that there is a long slog up the track at the beginning of Stan Bradshaw, followed by a long climb up the hill. I ran the track, then it was a long walk. Even FRB took 20 minutes to do the hill. The going was OK: there was snow and bogs, which made it, er, interesting, as you can put your foot on snow and find your leg sinks knee-deep in a bog. At the top, it was runnable again, and the views were beautiful. I didn’t want to stop to take photos, but then I did anyway:

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There was a long stretch of downhill then, which we deserved (though FRB will probably tell me there were another two climbs that I’ve forgotten about). Apart from the snow, I remember the following:

A lone marshal with his son at a cairn or something
Dave Woodhead crouching down with his camera, and he called me Rose instead of Rosie, and was as encouraging as he always is
A few deep steps into bogs, but no falls or bleeding injuries for once

I thought that as usual I’d be able to pick off a few places in the downhill, but actually I didn’t, much. I never once looked behind, because that’s my new vow. Orpheus the fell-runner. There was a steep descent down to a reservoir, which I remembered, then a run along a tarmac track, which I remembered, then a short sharp climb up to the tops, then a few more climbs. The revised route was longer but it missed out 200 feet of climb. There was a lot of this:

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There was also a stretch through a wood, which was a) dark and hard to see your feet and b) the worst kind of surface – wet stone – for fell shoes. I went as fast as I could, but I was glad to get out of it. At the next checkpoint, I glimpsed a woman being held by some marshals, and heard a marshal say that they would walk her somewhere. Later, an ambulance came zooming into the village, and I heard that she’d broken her ankle in the woods. Get well soon, whoever you are.

Somehow on the last mile, down the path to the village, I managed a sort of sprint. I overtook two women who were running together and said, “come on ladies,” and they grinned and sped up a bit. But I sped up a bit more and though they were loudly cheered in – COME ON RUTH – they didn’t catch me. FRB and Ben were waiting a wee bit up from the finish, and also encouraged me, but they didn’t get much reaction because I was running at 7.05 minute mile pace and I was puffed.

So did I do better than last year? 9.3 miles last year, more climb, and I did 1:57 and came 165th out of 180 runners. This year it was 9.5 miles, my time was 1:49, I was 170th out of 205 runners, but there was 200 feet fewer of climb.

I have no idea. It’s making my head hurt trying to work it out. All good training.

I forgot to mention another attraction of Barley: it’s got a natural shoe-washing machine:

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