Clairvoyance

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLEASE.

CARRY.

KIT.

High Cup Nick 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rombald Stride 2018

Ready?

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

They worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Tour of Pendle 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steady. Steady she goes.

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mick Fryer

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

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

Photo by Linda Bullock

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

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

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

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

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

At the Big End, there was a surprising sight.

x

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

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

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

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

4.15.39

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

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

As birthdays go, my 48th was a cracker.

British Fell Relays

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

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

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

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

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

GIVEMETHECARKEYIDON’THAVEANYINSOLESANDTHEY’REINTHECARANDGIVEMETHECARKEYNOW

then ran off again.

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

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

“Nope. I usually wear Salomons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“No. You need a voucher.”

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

“No. You need a voucher.”

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

“No. You need a voucher.”

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

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

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

 

 

Yorkshireman


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Folk

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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:

pendle-hill

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:

matthew-warters

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:

nigel-hodson-pendle

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.

jamie-mcilvenny

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.

15078628_10154877140454994_3641639721588833405_nImage: FRB

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