Heptonstall : the return

This was my third year of running Heptonstall Fell Race. The first year it rained all the way round. The second year I got lost. And here I am again on the cobblestones, listening to a kindly vicar say actually very sensible Christian things (I am an atheist but think there is a lot of sense in the Bible). He said he had tried to find quotes appropriate to what we were about to do, so he wished us perserverance, and also — though I forget the exact phrasing — to go forth and find fellowship while running. It was nice, and I was grateful for it, because I was dreading the race. My nerves were all over the place, and they weren’t calmed by me setting off for the toilets 15 minutes before the start and realising I had forgotten to put in my contact lens. I would still have been able to see, but my lens helps me pick out tree roots and rocks and I knew there would be plenty of both on the route. So I had to run quarter of a mile up the road to the field of car parking, put in my lens in a state of panic, which is the state in which it usually takes me 10 minutes and several lenses to get it right, then run down to the start and hope I didn’t need the toilet again.

What was I nervous about? I’d run the Yorkshire vets race the day before. (Yorkshire Veterans Athletics Association, not animal doctors.) I don’t normally do double-header weekends, but I hadn’t done many vets races last season, and they are friendly and fun. They are also oddly encouraging because when you are passed by people 20 years older than you (you know this because you wear your age category on your back), it is inspiring, not demoralising. It’s my last year in the F45 category, and it’s going to get no easier in F50 because there’s some fiercely good over-50s. Also inspiring.

The race was only five miles long, and it was around Middleton Park, which is a nice wooded area of Leeds. But I found it very tough. I ran most of the hills, but still, I had heavy legs, and I was slower than I’d expected. I can explain some of that. As part of HRT, I have to take progesterone for 10 days a month. This is the progesterone time, and it always makes me depressed, dopey, bloated and ravenous. Taking progesterone for 10 days is like being prescribed PMT for ten days. Fun. For the first time I’d noticed that it also weakened my bladder. I’ve been good at doing pelvic floor exercises, and for the last few weeks have actually managed to run without the usual stress incontinence (which I wrote about here for the Guardian, and will be writing about again soon). Unless you have poor bladder control, you won’t know the relief of being able to run without worrying about smelling or showing that you’ve peed yourself. I had got used to it being better, and it had felt great. So last week when suddenly I seemed to have no control again, I couldn’t understand it, until I googled progesterone. It is a muscle relaxant that also relaxes pelvic floor muscles that hold the bladder in check no matter how much stronger those pelvic floor muscles have become with your assiduous daily exercising of them. Great.

So I wasn’t looking forward to that. I was worried I’d feel like as sluggish as I had at the vets. And I had usual pre-race nerves too. In short, I was really good company. At registration, the women handing out the numbers complimented me on my handwriting (I was probably the only person who’d filled out the FRA form with a calligraphy pen) then asked if I minded having number 13. I said no, because how could things go worse than last year?

There were lots of people I knew also doing the race, and we gathered together at the start. Amongst them were Louise and Izzy, who like me have been getting run coaching for the last eight weeks from FRB, who is now fully qualified as a coach and has set up as Run Brave coaching (website to come, Facebook page here). We have all noticed major improvements in form and understanding, and we have all been getting really good race times. I never finished the post I wrote about Rombald Stride in February. I ran it with Louise, and felt great, and ran all the runnable bits, which doesn’t normally happen, and got a 20 minute PB over a 23 mile race.

But that seemed a long way off as we waited on the cobblestones for the vicar to blow his horn (that is not code). The race organiser gave his announcements and said that the route was more flagged than last year, which was good news for me. And then we were off. And as soon as I started running, I realised:

This was going to be OK. I felt good. I felt strong.

And I felt strong nearly all the way round, for 14.8 miles of tracks and trods and bogs and fields and hills and becks and paths, and 2,905 feet of climb. We had done a recce of the route a few weeks earlier, but although I could remember parts, I couldn’t remember which order they came in, and there were long stretches I’d forgotten, and only remembered when I got to them. But I knew that after the climb up the cobblestones, there was a short sharp descent into the woods, then, immediately, a steep climb back up to the top of the valley that we had just descended. And that is Heptonstall all over, and I love it. I knew I was going to be OK when I found myself running up the fields. I deliberately use “found myself” because it seemed like an impulse that was not a decision. It happened again and again: my brain said, you’re tired, but then my legs started to run. A strange but wonderful feeling that I remembered from Rombald Stride. Here is a good illustration of how I felt on Rombald’s:

Heptonstall has cut-offs, a phrase I usually dread, but they are more generous than the Three Peaks ones, so I put them out of my head and just resolved to do my best. FRB, trying to calm me down before the race, when I had made a comment yet again about getting lost, advised me to keep my map handy and look at it whenever I was walking uphill, and locate myself on it by remembering the checkpoints. Of course I forgot to take my map out of my pack. And for the first three checkpoints, there were plenty of people around, and throughout the race, an extremely generous amount of flags. I knew though that things would get stretched out at CP3. Before that, there was what felt like a very very long nav section over open moorland. It was flat/undulating, but the bogs sapped the legs, and we were only a couple of miles in. It felt like it would never stop.

But it did because it always does. We passed a standing stone, where a cheery fellow was dispensing “well done”s to everyone (a fact I appreciate when some supporters only cheer for their own club mates), then to the trig, round the trig and off to a delightful descent. At this point during the recce I had fallen over, and so I decided to do the same thing. I was trying to overtake a man in front, but just as I approached him, my brain said, “he’s wearing a green t-shirt, I wonder if he’s a Chapel Allerton runner” when it should have been saying, “there’s a cunningly hidden tussock there, watch your step.” But I didn’t and I went flying, nearly taking out the man in green. It was a soft landing though — my brain had planned that bit right — so apart from some scraped skin and muck on my elbow, I was fine. Bounce, and back up. I’d worked on my bouncing skills on Rombald’s, where I fell three times, once on ice, twice over my own feet. On the third fall, Louise said with admiration, “you actually did a commando roll.”

I can’t remember the next stretch, the time passed, the moor rose up to meet me, and then we were descending to the beck, and up a steep road to a steep hill. I knew the road because it’s part of the Widdop fell race, so I steeled myself to run up it. I turned the corner and there, like a vision, was a mass of Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team, red-dressed angels perched on a wall. They were fantastic. They are fantastic anyway because of what they do, but here they were cheering everyone and being a big puff of sheer goodwill, and I thought they were great.

Up a very steep bank, onwards, and then I can’t remember the next stretch until the reservoir, and I remembered to cut down through the grass, because I’d gone wrong there the first year, and then there was a long long track up to High Rakes, and I ran and kept running, and still felt good. I had the usual picnic with me, and I made sure to fuel. But actually I didn’t have much over three hours: a mouthful of raisins, a gel, a small piece of Kendal mint-cake and a jelly-baby. Ahead of me was Aileen, a really impressive 60+ runner from Stainland Lions. She is super steady, so I followed her. FRB had asked me what my tactics were, and I had come up with “not get lost” but look, here I was being tactical. As in, hang on to Aileen.

Later, we got to the dell where I had got horribly lost the year before. There was no chance of that this year, because I had learned during the recce where the route went, and even if I failed to turn on the right bridge, as I’d done last year, I knew how to find the route and most importantly where it was. We’d only been about 100 metres away from it the year before. There was also no chance because the marshals were on the crucial bridge this year. Some of the marshals were scouts — thank you scouts — and one of them was sitting on a rock with a clipboard, asking quite quietly for numbers, and when I first saw him I thought he was a woodland sprite. Over the stream and up the steep bank, along the track and keeping an eye for the flag on the left that signalled another steep climb.

I will mention my shoes, because I ran on plenty of hard surfaces during this race and they should have been hurting but weren’t. Two weeks ago I’d fallen for the hype around Inov-8’s £140 Graphene Mudclaws. Graphene for the extraordinary lugs, a Kevlar upper. My friend Chris had got a pair and worn them on the recce and kept saying with wonder, “they’re like slippers”. It’s difficult to imagine a pair of shoes built for serious mud and bog and rocks could feel like slippers. Another friend had got a pair and said she was thinking of wearing them for the Three Peaks because the cleats were so big, they were actually really comfortable on hard surface (of which there is plenty on the Three Peaks route, a race you could probably do in road shoes). I’d only worn mine for the first time the day before on the Vets’ race, and the toe box was narrower than I was used to, and I worried my wide feet would start to suffer. But I decided to wear them, and they were brilliant. I got a sore little toe, but otherwise: superb grip, and comfortable even on hard tracks. Not quite slippers, but not far off.

(I’m never going to wear those gaiters though.)

Also I managed to keep them on my feet. Heptonstall includes an infamous bog, where fell runners have disappeared and not been found for centuries. Not really, but it is deep and it is wide and it is boggy. The official advice had been to sweep round it from the left, but I followed the people in front as they didn’t appear to be sinking and went straight through and it was barely a bog at all. By that I mean, I got wet to my calves but no higher, and I kept my shoes to myself.

The shoes were a conversation starter too because as I went over a stile somewhere or other someone behind said, “are those the Graphene Mudclaws?” and we struck up a conversation and stayed talking more or less for the rest of the route, finishing together. Nice to meet you Nick.

I had a couple of weak moments where I looked at how many miles had gone by and how many miles there were to go. At one point Nick tried the “there’s only a park run to go” and I responded as I usually do to this, with, “but I don’t want to do a park run.” I passed a family of walkers, with youngsters, and asked the sister and then the brother whether they were going to be fell runners. The sister said nothing and ran up to her brother for sanctuary. The brother said, “no.”


Another example of my conversational skills: I am very grateful to marshals who stand out in all weathers, and I too have marshalled in all weathers. I try to convey my compassion by saying, “I hope you’re warm enough.” For the first time, when I reached this man on top of his knoll, the conversation went like this:

Me: I hope you’re warm enough.

Him: No, I’m not.

Me: Oh.

*Runner pauses, desperately thinks what to say to make things better*

Me: There’s not a lot I can do about that. Sorry.

*Runner runs off, perfectly warm.*

The weather: the forecast had been for 10 degrees, not too much wind. But this was the proper tops. At registration, the air was biting, and FRB, as hardy as they come, was questioning his choice of bringing only a vest. I ran in a vest and long-sleeves and I was fine. Afterwards he said he was fine too, but he has more body hair than I do.

Something odd happened in the last few miles: I got better. I overtook people, including Aileen (this rarely happens). And I still felt good, and my legs still moved by themselves.

The final mile is particular. You run along a beck, along a conduit, and then reach the Stairs of Hell. I hadn’t had to climb these last year because I’d got lost way before then. And in 2017 it was pouring so hard all the way round, the stairs were a relief from the weather, no matter how steep they were. (They’re actually steps not stairs but by the time you are halfway up you won’t be thinking about vocabulary except the swearing kind.) They are definitely steep, but they passed soon enough. And I knew that what was to come would feel harder even though it wasn’t, because there were two fields to get up on exhausted legs, before the finish field. Heavy legs and grass: it’s funny how many race organisers end their races with that sapping combination. But the inexplicable strength continued, and I ran where before I would have walked, and then there we were at the finish field, and I’d had such a nice time that I didn’t even mind seeing all the dozens and dozens of people quicker than me who were already strolling back to their cars. But I put on as best a downhill sprint as I could, and encouraged Nick to do the same. Later, some friends said, “we were urging you to beat that man you were running behind”. But I didn’t need to: because he’d been very good company, and because he had arrived too late to register so he was running as a ghost and it didn’t matter whether I beat him or not.

I got to the finish, my lucky 13 was cut off me, there was FRB looking fresh though chilly (he’d finished with a superb 15-minute PB in 2 hours 35 minutes so he’d been there long enough to be on his third flapjack). I didn’t know what time I’d done until later, but when I did I nearly fell over although I was sitting down. 3 hours and ten minutes. That is, 24 minutes quicker than I’d done in 2017.

Twenty-four minutes!

My fellow Run Braver Louise had got a PB of 25 minutes, and Izzy had had a storming run on her first attempt. The moral is: structured run coaching is very good for you, and Run Brave is brilliant.

I don’t think I ran faster. I think I ran more. Everything that was runnable, I ran. I ran more of the inclines where before I would have walked. I remembered to think about my form and technique and when I did remember, to make adjustments to make things easier: to remember to move my arms when I’m tired, to lift my knees when my legs are knackered, to hold myself high on hills and use shorter strides.

It worked. I had a wonderful time. It is a fabulous race route with beautiful scenery, and afterwards they give you flapjack and more food. I’m very proud of myself (even if I did pee my pants again) and conclude that I should now only run races that are blessed by vicars. See, coach, I do have tactics, of sorts.

The 64th Three Peaks Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is: I’m from Leeds.

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

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

Then, “RUN.”

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

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

Whernside. Ah, Whernside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

I said, oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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











Inside and out

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

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

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


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




Moors and water

It’s almost time for Rombald Stride again. I loved it last year, and I will do it this year. But it’s 23 miles over moorland, and theoretically self-navigated (last year there were enough people around me that I only got lost once). So a recce – a reconnaissance run, to non-runners – is always useful, especially with my dreadful topographical memory. There was only one problem: haemoglobin. I gave blood again about two weeks ago. This time, after my last donation, I knew that my oxygen capacity would be affected for six weeks, not the 24 hours that NHSBT airily tells you about. But this time it seems to have been harder than before. It could also be due to the sertraline I’m taking, but I’m generally tired, tired and tired. I’m still running, but I have no oomph, mojo, zing or zest. I sleep a LOT. I don’t feel fit, though I am and though I can do what I did yesterday, which was run for 14 miles from Guiseley to Ilkley over the moors.

There were four of us: me, FRB, Tony and Sara. Sara used to be my pace but has got considerably faster, but she kept me company all the way round. It was a clear and mild day, though we all had full kit: a waterproof top and bottoms, spare mittens (some super lightweight gorgeous Montane ones that FRB got me for Christmas), drink, chocolates and mince pies. You never know what weather the moors will choose to throw at you. We were planning to stop for lunch in Ilkley afterwards, then get the train back to Guiseley. Bradford trains were still running; Leeds trains, because of the shocking floods, were not.

Sara hadn’t done Rombald’s before. I have, but can’t remember most of it. So we set off with FRB leading, trying to learn the route. McDonalds, first, for a toilet stop. Sara said, are we just going to use the toilet without buying anything? Hell, yes, I have no problem with exploiting McDonald’s. Then off, under a bridge, through a muddy field, up into the woods then down to Esholt. Guiseley hadn’t been flooded, and the field was wet but not flooded either. But as soon as we dropped down to Esholt, the water took over. The river was raging, and although it was clear some water had receded, by the rubbish and debris stuck to the fences like bizarre streams of bunting, we passed people who had just finished emptying their house of belongings. “You should have come past ten minutes earlier,” they said, and we said, of course we would have helped, that we were so sorry, then ran on. The lane became a small tarn, and to our right, a caravan park had become a lake with a few caravans peeking out of the water, like weird white islands. “Look,” said Tony, and we stood to stare at an astonishing sight: the mangled remains of a caravan, wrapped around a tree. I was shocked: I’ve seen all the streets in Leeds and York and the Calder Valley under water, and buses floating down streets, but this was the most violent example of the water’s power that I’d seen. And I suppose I’d better get used to it.

We ran on, up to Baildon moor, with its russet and brown gorse and heather, and up and over, past Sandy Gallops, the estate owned by Harvey Smith, a show jumper I remember watching on TV when I was young, then down past a reservoir, where we stopped for mince pies. I felt pathetic. My legs were managing to move, but not fast. Although, I had run for seven miles the day before, which probably contributed. But I was sluggish up hills and always, always glad of a walk or a stop. At the top of one moor, we stopped to have pictures taken:


As usual, the contrast between our clothing and what walkers were wearing – thick coats, hats, gloves, scarves – was funny. But I wasn’t cold, until the temperature dropped when we dropped down from Baildon Moor and up to Rombalds Moor. I could explain where that is by saying that Rombalds is part of Ilkley Moor, but actually Ilkley is part of Rombalds. It’s named after the giant Rombald, who was fleeing an enemy, stamped on a rock and formed the Cow and Calf. “The enemy, it is said, was his angry wife. She dropped the stones held in her skirt to form the local rock formation The Skirtful of Stones.” If that isn’t true, it should be.

On a clear day, it is a beautiful place.


There were other hills to climb, then rocks to descend, and trods between bracken. There were instructions from FRB to be remembered, to keep a wall on my right, or head for the mast, but I doubt I’ll remember them. I’ll follow the person in front on the assumption they know where they are going, which is a dangerous and daft assumption in a race. But it is what I’ll do. High on Burley Moor, we passed the Twelve Apostles, though I was so tired by that point, I’d have missed them if FRB hadn’t pointed them out.


Then there were flagstones across the moor towards Ilkley. They were long, long, long, and it was strange to run with such fierce concentration on my feet, so much that I went into a sort of trance. It was lovely.

I’ve probably remembered this in all the wrong order, but so be it. I do know that we ended up on the Millennium Way, and that walkers began to multiply, and were less bothered about saying hello – on the tops, everyone greets each other, in common sympathy at being insignificant humans in a wild place – and we stopped so that Sara could put on and break in my Montane mittens, because her hands were freezing. The walkers stared at the mud on our legs, which was significant. No-one had fallen, but there had been plenty of knee-high steps into black bogs. We reached the road to White Wells, and ran down into town, into another world of sale shoppers. I heard a group of young men say, “fell runners!” though I don’t know if it was with awe or disdain. We searched for a place to eat that would accept us in our muddy state, and found La Stazione cafe in the station, where FRB ordered a hot chocolate “with everything,” and I had a cup of hot tea and a toasted cheese sandwich and it was like a banquet.

I was slow, and it was hard, but I loved it. I went home and slept, and slept some more, and then some more for luck.


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New York City

Big city running. I try to avoid it. I run through Leeds city centre, but always in company, and Leeds is a small city. I’m happiest in an early morning park or running through woods or on moors and fells. But here I am in New York, and I needed to run. I didn’t really know how far because my marathon training has been haphazard. I’ve only done one long run, at the Vale of York half marathon, to which I added five miles by running up and down the airfield before the start. I felt I should do another, but I couldn’t find any marathon plan that agreed with me. Most suggested much less for the last two weeks before a marathon. So I was winging it.

I was in New York to watch the Global Citizen festival, which I’ll be writing about elsewhere. But I was also jet lagged so I left the concert at 9pm, after Beyoncé and before Pearl Jam, and as usual was awake at 5, then 6. I waited for it to get light, and then I set off, west towards the Hudson River. I’d run up the riverside path a couple of years ago when I was in the US to give a talk, and my seafarers’ welfare friend Roger ran with me. It was the day of the New York half marathon, so the roads were closed. It was freezing, and I was so cold, I begged for us to stop before we got to the George Washington bridge, which had been our plan. But I remember it was a lovely run, and the path seemed quiet and calm.

I decided to aim for that again on Sunday. It was ten miles to the bridge from where I was staying, near Union Square, but I thought I’d get as far as I could. This time the riverside path was rather different. Without a closed road, much of it runs alongside the noisy and busy West Side highway. Without so many runners running the New York half marathon, it was also busy on the path, with runners, cyclists, walkers. There are sections of riverside park, and – well done New York City parks – frequent and functioning water fountains, which I needed because I’d forgotten to pack a waist pack or backpack. The further north I got, the thinner the exercising population got. I ran past ships and docks and cruise-liners, and on the right, wondered what the city looked like. Every so often I’d see a street sign. 50th street. Then 72nd, then 105th. That must be Harlem, I thought. The path cut in, under a roadway, and alongside road-building equipment, past a football field belonging to FC Harlem. I kept going. There was a park next, and a police officer there on his motorbike who grinned at me. There were enough people about that I felt OK, but I didn’t like knowing what kind of neighbourhood I was running through. Also, I wanted to get to the bridge, but god, it seemed a long way away. Finally I got to some basketball courts, another blessed water fountain, and I decided that was enough. I took a picture to show Roger that I’d got a lot closer than we had done:


I think I’d have got to the bridge in about a mile, but I turned round and ran back. I felt OK, but my legs were tired. I think despite the water, I was quite dehydrated, as I’d definitely not drunk enough water while standing for five hours at the concert, and I always get dehydrated on planes. I’d had a banana before I left, and I had three gels during the run. So I wasn’t hungry, but my legs were. I kept going though, on and on, southwards, past the football field, past the sight of the tower of the Cloisters peeking over the trees. If you go to New York, go to the Cloisters, it’s magical.


I got back to the busier sections, when suddenly some police came past on motorbikes, strongly urging people to get the hell off one side of the path and onto the other. I thought it was a bit officious, then I turned round and saw hundreds of people on bikes, horizontal bikes, tandems. They were all wearing fancy Army cycling kit, and had their names on little ID badges hanging under their saddles. It was quite a sight and kept me going for a while. I stopped at the clean and lovely public toilets provided by the Parks Commission, had a gel, and then kept going. And then I stopped.

It was at mile 14. My legs were tired, my feet were tired, my brain was tired. My foot caught a metal grate that was covering some tree roots, but which was not flush. I went flying. A proper face-plant, at speed, onto tarmac. I lay there for a few seconds, shocked, then got up. A man was running right past me in the other direction. He must have seen me fall and I was so furious I shouted, “I’M FINE THANKS” but he had headphones on and ignored me. There were lots of people all around me and not a single one asked how I was. I sat on a bench and pulled myself together, but I was very upset. That would never happen at any race I run in the UK. It wouldn’t happen even if it wasn’t a race. It wouldn’t happen on the fells, and nor would it happen in the city. I thought it was disgusting. I know that big cities require a certain way of life. The sociologist Erving Goffman calls what city humans have to do “civil inattention.” To live together in such quantities and at such close quarters, humans have to ignore other humans. They selectively tune in and out, and society proceeds harmoniously. OK, I get that. But this was more than that. This was inhuman and unpleasant. Not just that I was prone on the ground, but that people had seen me fall. Shame on you, New Yorkers.

Later, I told my New Yorker friend Vanessa about this. She said she had once, in winter, been crossing a road covered in snow and ice near her apartment, with a rucksack full of books. She slipped on the ice and also went flying. Her nose was bleeding, her clothes were covered in blood. She thought her nose might be broken, and so she went to her local nail salon and asked if she could use the mirror to check whether it was broken. They said, no.

I lived in New York for six months or so in the early 1990s, when I was an intern at the Nation magazine. I loved it. But this has punctured my enchantment. If that’s big city life, I don’t want it.

I got up from the bench and carried on running for another three miles. But I ran with anger in my heart, and that’s not the way to run.


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Vale of York half marathon

I don’t remember entering this race, but then, I don’t remember entering many races. I do them in a flurry, like I’m on Racebest crack, and then months later, discover I’m running them. Apparently I entered Vale of York when I was still off with injury, so I must have been feeling optimistic, like I could actually run a marathon, as planned, in October. By September, I was feeling less optimistic. I was back running, but any formal marathon plan had long since gone out of the window. I’d done a few longish runs, but the longest had been 15 miles. So I had no choice: I’d have to turn a half-marathon into an eighteen mile training run.

We got to Sherburn airfield early. Martin and Mark, the race organisers, were still setting out the start bollards. The airfield had looked on the map to be about a mile long. I’d looked on gb.mapometer, my usual source, for a nice five mile run, but the lanes around Sherburn-in-Elmet were mostly the country kind that don’t have pavements. In the end it seemed easier to just run up and down an airfield for five miles. So I did. And it was nice, actually. I saw hares or rabbits scampering off at the far end of the tarmac road, and at the other far end were two polite RAF cadets marshalling the traffic, who looked at me quizzically until I said “marathon training” and then they looked at me pityingly instead. Martin shouted from his car, “You’re in the lead!” and I shouted back “this is the only race I’ll ever win!”. The miles passed quickly, and I’d left myself half an hour between finishing them and the start of the race, for the usual toilet necessities, and for some coffee and bananas. It could have gone wrong, of course, and I could have stiffened up in that half hour, but actually I was fine. The sun was out, and it was a beautiful day. I told myself to put the first five miles out of my head (a tactic that didn’t really work as my Garmin kept going rather than going back to zero) and off I set again.

I knew the first mile on the airfield road intimately, having run it several times already, up and down and up and down. I started near the back to avoid congestion and because it was chip-timed. I didn’t have a pace in mind, but it turns out my legs wanted to run at 9.30 minute miles and didn’t really budge from that. There were about 1400 runners but the congestion disappeared pretty quickly, there was always space to run, and it was a friendly atmosphere, with a good mix of club and unaffiliated runners. The route is lovely: flat, mostly – hence its PB reputation – apart from a railway bridge near the beginning. The views were fields or woods or pretty villages, and supporters now and then: thank you to them. I liked the three in camping chairs who were sitting by the road in the first mile, and still there for the thirteenth.

I’d guess half the route was sun-exposed and half went through beautiful shady woods, though I am probably misremembering because the woods are what I remember most. I didn’t find it too hot but I know some people did. I watched Burjor and Patrick (lovely, lovely blokes but usually a lot slower than me) overtake me and disappear, but I wasn’t going to budge from my pace. The voice in my head said, “this is a training run. This is a training run.” I made sure to drink at every water station and take a gel, and I felt properly hydrated and nourished all the way round. I loved that the water volunteers were bikers with big motorbikes, and I enjoyed the little girl spraying us with her hose-pipe. Being overtaken by a Dalmatian – a woman in dotty shorts with dotty legs and two black floppy ears who told me about Pet Rescue and how it does pet therapy with children – was fun. I ran alone for most of the race so had time to think my usual thoughts which are not, as most non-runners think, always the compassionate and caring kind, because sometimes I’m thinking, “your bum’s a weird shape,” or “you’re going to get a hip injury with that flailing foot,” or “for the love of god get a decent sports bra” or “TAKE THOSE HEADPHONES OUT” to some veering numpty: those fleeting running brain thoughts that keep you going, like oil on wheels. I bet you have them too. I ran behind a tattooed woman for a while, but all I could see of her back tattoo underneath her vest was a wing and a nipple. That kept me entertained for a while, not least because I was trying desperately to speed up so I didn’t have to look at it any more.

About four miles from the end, I thought, this doesn’t feel too bad, and then, I’m going to be over two hours. This bothered me a lot at first: my PB is 1:49 and I’ve never run a half marathon in over two hours. But then I shoved my ego back in the box and thought, I’ll have run 18.1 miles (actually Martin, it was 18.2), I’ve had a crappy few months with injury and it’s amazing I’m running at all. Not only that, but my tendon doesn’t hurt and I may actually be able to run a marathon. By the time I got to the final strait, I was still managing to overtake people, and getting cheered on by my team-mates – now all pretty in the pink technical t-shirt – and I was quite happy. Even if Burjor and Patrick both trounced me.

Vale of York has a reputation as a nice, fast race. It’s definitely nice, and if you don’t run five miles beforehand or have had a spotty running year, or if it’s several degrees cooler, then it’s probably fast too. There were some grumbles about the bottles of water not having caps on – making the bottles difficult to run with – and about chaotic marshalling at the finish, so that the fast runners found themselves competing for space with an ice-cream van. But overall, it was smoothly organised and run. Also, how often do you get very polite young marshals in RAF uniform? Or a medal? There are rumours that the race may not survive building plans for the airfield land. I hope not, because I’ll be back.

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A view inside a runner’s head:

11pm: I will get up at 6.30am, drive to Harewood and run twice around the loop. Definitely. Yes, I’ll definitely do that.

Midnight: Shit, I’m still not asleep.

06:30 No. No. No. I cannot get up yet and run 10 miles around Harewood.

06:40 No. No. No. I still can’t get up.

06:50 Shut up, James Naughtie and no, I won’t run 10 miles around Harewood. Maybe I’ll run to Roundhay instead so I don’t have to drive. But not yet.

07:00 Oh hello, cat. Now I’m really not getting up now that I’ve a furball cuddling me. I’m so warm and cosy, and the last thing I want to do is get up and run. I’m tired. I’m so tired. I won’t do 10 miles. I may do 9.

07:10 I suppose I’ll get up in a bit. But not yet. Maybe 8 miles will be enough.

07:20 OK. I’m getting up.

07:30 I’m up. Where is my kit?

07:40 I’m up. Where is my smoothie?

07:45 I’m actually leaving the house in running kit. I may as well run.

07:50 I’m running.

08:15 I’m running. There aren’t many people, but I’m going to say good morning to all of them. Positive thinking. This lake is so beautiful. This park is so beautiful. I’m very lucky.

08:50 I’m still running. God, I’m slow today. 35 minutes to do 3.4 miles? That’s pathetic. Never mind. Keep going. Can I be bothered to do another loop of the woods? No. But I will.

09:00 I haven’t done enough. I’ll have to loop around these woods too. God, everything hurts. My calf muscle hurts. My tendon has started to niggle. And what the hell is that? My ITB? No bloody way. Keep going. Keep going.

09:15 Eight miles. I’m exhausted. I’ll make oat pancakes and scoff them.

10:00 I’m more exhausted. I think I need a lie-down. Who’s going to know?

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Marathon, finally

My friend Gemma looked at me, puzzled. “You’re doing the Yorkshire marathon, again? Why?” I thought for a bit. “Because I’ve got a free place and it’s half an hour up the road.” Also, last year it was so foggy, this year I’m hoping to see the scenery. Also, unless I can run through safari parks in Uganda or raise thousands for Sierra Leone, a road marathon is a road marathon, up to a point. I ran the London marathon but was most delighted by my achievement, not the scenery. Perhaps that’s cynical. But I don’t see anything odd in running Yorkshire again, though I’ve no desire to do London again for a long time. We were talking about marathons because we have a friend who does foreign ones frequently. But they are so expensive. New York: probably £1000, once you’ve paid for flights and a week’s accommodation. I’m paying the petrol up to York and back. I’m so delighted to be in shape to run a marathon – potentially – that I don’t really care where it is.

On Thursday I got a missed-you card from the postie. I dashed down to the post office hoping it was my replacement orthotics and it was. I left the post office with a big grin on my face. FRB and I were planning a long run the next day so they had arrived with perfect timing. And Brooks had extremely generously sent me some replacement Pure Flows, my chosen marathon shoe, so despite Brussels Airlines still being unable to locate my bag, I’m ready. Or at least my equipment is ready.

FRB is training for Loch Ness marathon in a couple of weeks. But after running Ben Nevis last week, he wanted something flat. He turned down my suggested route of Eccup, Harewood and round about: too many hills. His quads and calves would go on strike. Instead, we decided on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, me to do 15 miles and him 15 or more, and after various logistical possibilities – two cars, one left at Kirkstall; or a car left in central Leeds then a train to Bingley – we separately made our way to Bingley and set off north towards Skipton. FRB bombed off, with a plan to do 7.5, turn back, do more on the way back then join me for the last four. I didn’t understand that even before running 15 miles so I just let him go and assumed I’d see him again at some point. The canal was lovely. It had rained heavily all morning, but now the skies cleared and turned blue, and the sun shone. I’d dug out my earphones and intended to listen to some podcasts. I haven’t listened to podcasts or music for ages, and usually I like to run without. But this, I expected, would feel long, and it would feel difficult, so I needed the help. First, Ruth Rogers on Desert Island Discs but I didn’t like her, so she was soon switched off. Then the New Yorker fiction podcast, which I love. I chose this Patricia Highsmith story and it was captivating. But it was still a shock when I looked at my watch, thinking I’d done about five miles, and I’d only done three. What do you do then? You sigh, pull yourself together, and keep going.

There were lots of stops for gels, and fruit, and to adjust things. I saw FRB running back; he checked I was OK, I checked he was OK, then we headed off northwards and southwards. He said, “I ran to the bridge with the stop sign on it.” At least I think he said that. But all the bridges I saw had stop signs on them. I think my Garmin dropped out for a bit, but I had nothing else to rely on to guess my distance – the mile markers saying Liverpool was 115 miles away weren’t much help – so I kept going. I saw beautiful gardens dropping down to the canal, with terraces filled with plants; I saw lovely weeping willows inclining themselves into the water from the bank; and people having an outdoor party behind a huge England flag. I saw many canal boats sailing along, and people inside reading books in narrow cabins. I saw people walking, now the rain had gone: families, and friends, and a group of Asian women in glorious bright salwar kameez, just as I was thinking, “why don’t I see more Asians walking on the canal?”. I ran on, and on, past swans and geese and ducks, all in abundance, past the still, green water and the humans and animals who were enjoying it. At a bridge with a stop sign, past Silsden, my watch said 7.5 miles, so I stopped and ate dried fruit, and a family walked past, coming from the farm behind and heading for the footpath, carrying fishing nets and I didn’t know where I was but it didn’t matter. I set off back, and the day was so beautiful, and the scenery so lovely – green canal, green fields, sheep – I put my earphones away and just listened to the world.

My shoes were great and the orthotics were definitely helping. I could tell I was getting another blister but I think that’s because I was running through puddles and my socks had got wet. A word about my relationship with Brooks here: they have sent me a few pairs of free shoes, but never with any obligation. If I didn’t like them, I’d say so. I’ve abandoned my Brooks Pure Connect, despite having three pairs, for example, because they’re not for me (though I bought those). I love the Pure Grit, though they are slippery in mud. I genuinely think Brooks make great shoes, and the overwhelming reason I think that is that I can put on a pair straight out of the box, run fifteen miles in them and feel like I’ve been running in them for months. They feel like slippers – airy slippers – from the first minute, and that has yet to change. So I’ll trumpet about Brooks shoes because I think they’re a bloody good product. That said, Brooks, I wish you’d design women’s shorts with better pockets, along with nearly every other sportswear/shoes company. My running skirt has three pockets, including one that fits an iPhone, but none of my shorts have anything but small ones that hold a gel, maybe, but not much more.

The only trouble on this run was my lungs. I’ve had a cough for four weeks now. It began as a sore throat, then became a dry, tickling cough that kept me awake, and now my lungs are full of phlegm. So the pastoral peace of the canal was often interrupted by me stopping and hacking my lungs up, then spitting like a person who has smoked for forty years. I think it’s getting better, and I know it’s not a good idea to run when there’s trouble in your lungs, but I’m so delighted to be fit again, unless it gets worse, I’m going to run through it and phlegm be damned. FRB caught me up again, looking a bit worried. “Did you go further than you thought?” No, I just took longer to do it. Actually, I probably had gone further because when my watch got to 15 miles, we were still a mile short of where the cars were parked. Still, I did it, though I was too tired to do my habitual “this is the longest I’ve run” jump.

I do have a marathon training plan, but it has long since been abandoned. So now I’m winging it. I’m running when I want to, never two days in a row, and getting in a long run every week. This weekend I’ll be running the Vale of York half, and plan to get there early and add an extra five miles. My tendon was sore after the 15 miles, but we stopped for a drink in the pub – after we’d changed soggy, muddy clothes – and I asked for a glass of ice, put it in a carrier bag and iced my foot for the duration of a lager shandy, and that helped. FRB said that when he first crossed me on the canal, my hips had been noticeably rotating, which isn’t good, and means I need to stabilise my pelvis and get back to my glute exercises. But he said that later my form was much better, and I was clearly focusing on moving my arms properly, which seemed to align me.

I’m writing this while I’m walking on my office treadmill. 3.3 miles so far today. I’m hoping that’s helping. Meanwhile I’m extremely happy to have run so far – the furthest I’ve run since I abandoned marathon training in March – and for my tendon to be coping. Onwards.

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Small steps, keep going

Mojo. Mine’s gone missing. It’s weird, because I’ve been racing, and loving it. But in my few months of not running, I’ve lost a trigger that I used to have. Before, I would never find an excuse not to run. I would read pieces in running magazines and blogs explaining to people how they should motivate themselves to get out of the door, and I could never understand it. Why would you not want to run? I ran in rain, cold, darkness, whatever. If I planned to go to a club training session, I never missed it.

Not any more. Last week I ran the Yorkshire Vets race on Tuesday and that was it. My plan called for two more five mile runs, and I did neither of them. I walked on my treadmill, I did a kettlebell class, but no running. What are my excuses? Well, I was blindsided by an unexpected and very heavy period. My periods are erratic now that I’m in the perimenopause, and I can’t predict them any more: months of nothing, then ten days of heavy blood loss. This one was heavy and painful, and though I can usually run throughout my period, I didn’t want to. On the weekend, when I thought I would run, I spent all day Saturday and Sunday at East Street Arts where we had an open weekend. But that’s an excuse, I could have run in the mornings. Maybe it was because I fell down the stairs? I’d had three glasses of wine, got myself a cup of tea, and started off upstairs with no lights on. I reached for the banister, missed it, and went flying back into the kitchen. Result: I didn’t die, though my head only just missed the corner of the sink unit, but I did scald my hand badly. I ran it under a cold tap, but I was tired and wanted to sleep so went to bed. Mistake. The throbbing and stinging got so bad that I googled the nearest A&E, then didn’t go. Instead, I dunked my hand in cold water for ten minutes, then found an insect bite soothing gel that calmed down the heat enough so I could sleep. I got burn plasters from Boots and that, I thought was that, until on Sunday it started to look angry. It was dark purple and there was a line of dark red leading down towards my wrist. So, to the walk-in centre in Burmantofts, which was busy:


The nurse was lovely. She started telling me about a book she wants to write, and unlike many people who tell me about books they want to write, hers sounded fascinating. She laughed when I told her I’d fallen down the stairs backwards with no lights on with a cup of tea, then said, “I’m laughing with you, not at you.” And she said my burn – actually, as it was caused by liquid, it’s a scald – was infected. The red line snaking down my hand to my wrist was infection. Boots burn plasters, it turns out, Boots pharmacist woman, should not get wet. She put a dressing on my hand, bandaged it, told me to keep it dry at all costs, to get it re-dressed mid-week and prepared to set me forth. I said, “can I run?” She looked surprised. Yes, of course.

But I didn’t. On Monday I had a horrible day of depression. I got myself to my studio but not for long and soon retreated back home. All day. I kept meaning to go to training but the thought of having to run seven miles while chatting did not appeal. I didn’t go. I told myself that I should go and run on my own, but I didn’t do that either. Instead, I went to my allotment and built bean supports and harvested things. I came home and made gooseberry pie, and a quinoa and feta stuffed mushroom thing. And I went to bed and read a beautiful book and waited for the next day to come, as is my usual practice on one of the black days. The next day, I told myself, I would run.

And I did. I woke up at 5, when my cat woke me, dozed until 6.30, and was outdoors with my running kit on by 7. I absolutely did not feel like running. I’d eaten nothing, and drunk nothing. It was a stupid way to set off running, but I did anyway. I thought I’d do a gentle jog, but then I decided to run up the steep hill in Little Switzerland. Small steps, keep going, and I got to the top without stopping. Hurrah. I ran to Roundhay Park, and round the lake, and round the little lake, and up Hill 60 – small steps, keep going – and I did it without stopping. I ran back to Little Switzerland along Lidgett Lane, past the schoolkids now on their way to school, as my gentle jog had not been gentle, but nor had it been particularly quick, and the world had now fully woken up. I got to the bottom of Bracken Hill Woods and thought, I’m quite enjoying the hills, so I ran back up it again. I have never done that. Up, back down, then along to Chapel Allerton park, another steep hill, and I ran up that too.

Goodness. Maybe running on no fuel is something I should do more often.

And my injury? I just strapped a Garmin on it and kept going. Small steps.

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My orthotics arrived. I was told they would take up to a month, but if I paid £20, I could get them in four days. Weird. I paid £20. Here they are:


The important bit is carbon fibre; not sure about the upper but as Karen said I could trim it with scissors, I guess it’s not expensive. They have a lifetime guarantee. I was given strict instructions about wearing them in: one hour on the first day, then two and so on. But they were so comfortable I wore them for a couple of hours yesterday, had a break, then walked home – two miles uphill – in them. No problems. The only time my tendon complained yesterday was when I lugged four big sacks of horse-manure home from the allotment for my neighbour. As I was hefting them into my car boot, I had a few thoughts:

1. my car is going to stink
2. my trousers are going to stink
3. my ankle doesn’t like this
4. I’m a bloody nice neighbour

My other instructions from Lucy the physio are to wear them in properly before trying to run. The orthotics leaflet I was given has dark warnings about ruining everything by being too hasty. So I am not going to run today. I may not run tomorrow. But by the end of the bank holiday I will.

I posted a picture of the orthotics on Facebook, and on Twitter. Both times, someone said, oh I don’t agree with orthotics. Both times I thought: then keep it to yourself. I am aware of the debate around orthotics. Anyone who believes in barefoot, chi or minimalist running thinks they are the devil’s spawn, in sole form. Christopher McDougall doesn’t like them. Someone who is my Facebook friend but who I don’t know in person, said, “as a physio, I don’t like them.” To which FRB responded, “as a physio he should know that what works for him doesn’t work for everyone.” I get that the ideal state would be to get my body into a biomechanical state of nirvana where everything works smoothly. I understand that a crutch is only a crutch: your leg still needs to get better. And that is how I am going to use my orthotics, as a crutch until my feet get stronger. The Facebook friend said, changing your biomechanics and your neural programming is how to overcome injury. No shit. I responded very sharply to him because I was annoyed: I am doing everything I can: rest, rehab, physio, neural reprogramming, glute exercises, calf stretches everywhere (including in any queue or wherever I have to wait for more than a minute, which means many car drivers look at me oddly). Orthotics are not a solution, but they will take me towards a solution.

In other news, I tried to swim today. I tried three days ago and was told that our membership had run out. I tried yesterday but my bike got a puncture just as I was leaving the house, and I switched bags but didn’t transfer my swimming kit. But I’d done a couple of seven minute workouts in the morning so I was allowed not to, in my head. Today I tried again. I was late out of the house (because I am lazy in the mornings and because I had to check my inner tube for punctures again), and knew the pool was having school swimming lessons at 11. Great: I can get there for 10 and have a quiet hour. No-one will be there at 10: people who work are at work.

But in my rush to get to the pool in time, I had picked up my bike lock and not my goggles. Idiot. I’ve done that in the past and asked the pool attendants if there are any goggles in lost property I can borrow. It’s worked before. This time though: “No, we throw them away because they can cause eye infections.” Really? So I had a decision: no swim or hairdresser’s swim.

What is a hairdresser’s swim? It’s the breaststroke done by women who don’t want to get their hair wet. Head above water, duck legs below.

I decided on the hairdresser’s swim. It’s not ideal, because it’s much harder to keep your body from sagging down to the floor. But it would be better than nothing at all. Even though the pool was crowded. There were baby swimming lessons in half the pool, which was sweet and lovely to see. There’s not much more joyous than seeing a toddler laugh uproariously at a splash of water. The rest of the pool was divided into two lanes. The supposed fast lane was populated first by a couple of front crawlers, and a very slow breaststroker then by two men walking up and down it. I don’t know: don’t people know about lanes? I was clearly grumpy and needed to swim. The middle lane had some breast-strokers, so I joined that one. Then the slow woman in the fast lane moved over and started backstroking quite badly – ie. splashing arms going horizontally not vertically – in the middle lane. Oh dear. I know: I encourage anyone to be fit and swim. Just not when I’m already in a grump because I’ve forgotten my goggles.

But I’m supposed to have got over my dislike of crowded public pools. Even in crowded pools I can always get a workout. And it’s hard to be grouchy to the sound of giggling children. So I had a sharp word with myself, did a few lengths, then lurked in the deep end of the aqua-tots lane and did some aqua running. Which is bloody hard. Of course I’d forgotten my special aqua-running belt: why would I actually remember something I need? But it worked. I worked out, enough to get tired. The backstroking woman was still backstroking horizontally when I got out, and I thought, good for her. And I meant it.


Photo from My Vintage London