Trail de Caussou

Caussou. A place I had not heard of.  A place many people may not have heard of as it is a small village on a mountainside in the Haute-Ariège. I have a house in south-western France, near the Pyrenées, and as we were coming on holiday for a few weeks, obviously I looked for a race to run while I was here. Trail de Caussou sounded perfect: 11km, about an hour’s drive from my house over the Col de Chioula, and organized by the village hunt committee. (This last part, as I am vegetarian and loathe hunting, was problematic. But not problematic enough for me not to enter.) It was a simple concept: you had to get to the top of Pic Fourcat and down again. FRB was not certain he would run, although he broke his injury and illness period by running Turnslack with me the other week. “Don’t be afraid if I fall behind you,” he said, and I nodded, thinking, that’s never going to happen.

I told him about Caussou and he looked it up. Rose, he said, do you realise the climb is almost as high as Ben Nevis?

No.

I looked at the race page a bit more. Caussou is at 3,000 feet altitude more or less, and climbing Pic Fourcat added another 3,500 feet. In my head, I retained this fact: we would climb for four miles and descend for four miles.

We drove 1,000 miles to France, arrived mid-week, and early on the Saturday morning set off to Caussou. I knew the way: up to the Pays de Sault, up further though the alpine villages of Camurac and Prades, up to the Col de Chioula pass, which has views as beautiful as the panoramic café staff are grumpy, and then turn right for a direct road to Caussou. We left plenty of time, because although I speak decent French, the website details were slightly unclear. Does “inscription à 8h” mean registration opens at 8 or starts operating at 8? I suppose I could have asked a French speaker, as despite the best efforts of English expats, the village where I have a house is still full of them. But I didn’t. Instead we allowed generous time. I checked Google maps and there were no traffic problems indicated. We got to the turn-off and there suddenly was a problem, unindicated by Google maps. The road was closed. In fact, there had been a landslide and there was no road.

Oh.

FRB managed not to splutter and so did I. I appealed to his Scottishness. “If we miss the start we can always run for free.” Caussou was already outside the FRB scale of race entries, as it cost more than £1 per mile. We went over the pass, down into Ax-les-Thermes and along the valley, then up again, adding about 40 minutes to our route. As we came off the main road, we encountered another car that had stopped to ask for directions. The man in in the car was waving his hand in what I consider to be a Gallic fashion to indicate frustration. (There was no signpost indicating Caussou, only a tourist sign for la route des crètes: the road of the mountain crests.) We saw his helper’s mouth make the form of “Caussou”, turned to each other and said “he’s doing the race” and followed him. This worked much better than trusting Google, because we got there. On a road that still existed.

Caussou is a tiny village high up and lovely. There were runners wandering up and down with numbers on, but also some without numbers who didn’t look panicked. From this I concluded that “à 8h” meant “from 8” and so it was. We produced our medical certificates, required in France if you don’t belong to the French athletics association, paid 14 euros, and received with grateful surprise a little headtorch, a very useful gift when you have a large 300-year old village house with a three-story barn attached and a leaking roof that tends to leak in the middle of the night. Back to the car and dis donc, suddenly we see a posse of Pudsey & Bramley runners. This was less surprising than it may have seemed; Gary and Debbie who run Pyrenées Haven are P&B, and we knew our friends Graham and Rachel had been planning a holiday there. There was also Niall, another P&B, who was accidentally still there due to a broken-down car and crap service from his insurer. If you think your car may break down in heat and mountainous terrain, or even anywhere, don’t use Axa. There was also another Brit, a Borrowdale fell runner. Out of a race field of about 70, six Brits was an impressive amount. I took appropriate pictures, one of which was photo-bombed by one of the organizers, a woman who managed to look like Maradona from behind (better than looking like him from in front).

The other runners looked like trail or mountain runners. Why do I say that? Because of all the poles. And all the compression socks. A Nordic walk along the same route set off at the same time as us, and for a time I thought all the people with poles were doing the walk, but they were runners too. I’ve never used poles, and I’m not persuaded, having seen runners clack-clacking up through forests no quicker than me, that they’re much cop. Then again, Ben Nevis.

We milled at the start, a fancy inflatable overhead thing from Decathlon (which sponsored the race) enhanced with a nice rustic touch.

Someone started talking via a microphone but I couldn’t hear it. Typical fell race start so far. Then a pistol shot. Not a typical fell race start. I jumped half a foot from shock then set off. The up was immediate and it was hard. I only managed to run for a few minutes, and then it was a walk for the next 3,500 feet of climb. This means I got to know the runners around me. Walkers, really. We were all walkers. There was a young lass in front, and an old fella behind. We climbed up through some woods, a bit of open grassland then back into the trees. I don’t know how long it went on for but when I saw some people standing up ahead with food and drink, they looked like forest angels. I love French races for the refreshments: there were sweets, but mostly it was dried and fresh fruit. Dried apricots and cut oranges, but also prunes. Prunes? Fructose can cause digestive issues, but prunes are usually even worse. I took some apricots and a cup of orange juice, thinking, fructose, then thinking, SUGAR. I heard the older fellow say, “I’m going to be last again,” and I said, “you might not, it might be me, and anyway it doesn’t matter.” Because it didn’t. What mattered was getting to the end of this climb. Up again, through the trees.

The route was excellently signposted with strips of Decathlon tape hanging from branches. Even I couldn’t get lost. Even so, FRB said, check your map after checkpoints. I did. Once.

I checked my watch now and again. God, we’ve only gone a mile. God, we’ve only gone a mile and a bit. Finally we left the treeline and set off up an open expanse. This was felly terrain and familiar: tussocks galore. And the odd lonely tree.


I remembered to turn around to look and nearly fell over from the beauty and glory of it. Mountains, mountains, mountains.

The hills are alive with the sound of huffing and puffing

Far up ahead I could see what looked like a ridge, but I told myself it was a false summit, it couldn’t be the real summit because this race was four miles up and four miles down, and we hadn’t yet done two. I looked behind me and saw someone I didn’t recognise. He was a young man, and he was climbing fast. When I next looked, he was even closer. It was like that scene in Princess Bride where Westley is climbing the cliffs of desolation. Soon enough he had reached me, and went past saying, “I missed the start!” He seemed to be making up for it.

I kept going, having a brief chat with the young lass near me, though I was slightly hampered by the following conversation in my head:

Should I vousvoie or tutoie? (Vous = polite version of ‘you’; Tu = more informal.) Italians much more readily use “tu,” the French more usually use “vous.”. Surely out here on a mountain even the more formal French wouldn’t use vous. I asked her if she was OK, using tu. She responded with vous.

Oh.

She said, using vous, that she had a made a mistake and should have carried water. As usual I had lots and gave her some. Using tu.

I looked up and saw folk on a summit. This was very puzzling. Perhaps there was another one to climb as well as Pic Fourcat? I got to them, not even managing to run for the photographer, and found the answer to FRB’s earlier question of “how will they get refreshments up without a road” in the shape of a huge quad bike, which had been turned into a serving table. Apricots, prunes, sweets, and flies everywhere.

I thanked everyone and set off as fast as my legs could carry me.

My legs didn’t like that. Think of a just-born calf, its upper body disconnected from the strange long things protruding from it. Gangly doesn’t cover it. My legs were moving but it was momentum not intent. It was not easy terrain to move fast over: grassy, tussocky, treacherous. Still, I ran as fast as I could. As fast as my legs could carry me. Then: halt. There was another incline ahead. Aha: there is another summit. But it was only a short incline. A woman with poles who I’d overtaken descending now overtook me on the climb. That’s fine, except I said hello to her and got short shrift so, as is the way of things in the runner’s brain, that meant: you’re not beating me. At the top of the incline I think there was a man with a clipboard, though perhaps he was a mirage, and then: DOWN. Five miles down. Because the race was in fact not four miles up and four miles down, nor even eight miles long. It was 3,500 feet of climb in two miles, then five miles back. I did my fell running thing and pelted. No-one else did: they seemed to have a steady pace that didn’t change much whether they were going up or down. There was no sprinting.

A short toilet stop in a prickly bush, a brief consideration of ticks, then I was off again. Again, it wasn’t easy. This was not a fair and spongy mountainside of easy running grass. It was rocks and narrow paths or tussocks. I have forgotten much of it, but I remember the next checkpoint. A young boy handed me a drink of water and though I still had some, I accepted it because mine was warm, his was cold, and he had plenty. I made conversation, asking the lad if he spoke any English. He lowered his head with shyness. No English, said the man on the checkpoint. Here we only speak French and Ariégois. He meant it jovially and I took it jovially. He also said, “be careful now; the path gets rocky.” I heard this, and thought two things: that “cailloteux” is a beautiful word, and, what, MORE rocky? And it was. It was properly tricky. I’d read an online piece about Kilian Jornet, who broke the Bob Graham Round record recently. It considered why he was so good, and concluded that it was because he was so fit, and so good at descending, that his descending was actually recovery. It taxed him so little, it gave him more strength for climbing.

I am not Kilian Jornet. This descent taxed me a lot. I rarely want descents to be over, but this one was exhausting. Boulders, pebbles, stones, rocks, dark woods: it had all of that. And my tired legs had to deal with it. I kept going, I managed not to fall over, and then got briefly lost in a dell, a fact I am not ashamed of as when I told FRB I’d got lost in a dell, he knew exactly where I meant. Oh, THAT dell.

I still thought the race was eight miles long, so when I emerged onto a grassy track and began to see barns and buildings, I was confused. Maybe they would stick another mile on it for fun? There was plenty of height to descend, as Caussou was up a mountainside. But then I saw the church spire, and I knew I was reaching the end, and that the race was just over seven miles, and that that was a blessing. Down into the village, past a few cheering folk. Bravo! Bravo! Past the lavoir, the stone washing basins where people used to do laundry, where I managed to note that runners were washing their feet and legs, round the corner and:

Fin.

Part 24 of FRB’s photo series in which he manages to make me look like a hobbit. A sweaty hobbit.

The P&Bs were all long back, of course. I found a toilet first, then encountered the older man I’d been alongside early on, who was sitting down looking exhausted. He saw me and said, “I couldn’t catch you! I manged to stay with you up to the summit but then you set off downhill like a rocket!”. I thanked him and said it was due to enjoying descending and having little fear of it. Oui, he agreed. And you also have muscular legs. At least I think he meant muscular. He pointed to his lean ones. “Pas comme moi.”

FRB directed me to a water fountain gushing cool, lovely water. I drank some, poured some on my head, recovered a bit, then exchanged my number for a beer. I don’t drink beer, but this was delicious. It was still hot, so we sat in the shade before I remembered the lavoir and we headed for that. Two bored-looking firemen were standing outside it, on race ambulance duty. Someone said, there’s a giant catfish in there, and so there was. Huge, monstrous, and looking sad, unlike FRB, because beer.

What is a giant catfish doing in a village lavoir? I don’t know, but I didn’t like the thought of its teeth encountering my legs. Fish spas are disgusting even when they don’t involve catfish. I asked one of the firemen whether it was safe to bathe. He grinned. “Well, the other runners emerged alive.” Then, in English, “Trust me.” He was handsome and in uniform and wearing dark glasses, so I was minded to. But even so: it was a giant catfish.

We managed to wash while drinking beer, unscathed, then ambled back around for the prize-giving. I liked the look of this: there was an actual podium, which had been fashioned out of a tractor trailer that you climbed onto using a chair and the helpful arm of a nearby woman. The announcer’s microphone wasn’t brilliant though, but the prizes were. I’d seen them inside where the toilet was and wondered what the things that looked like hi-tech prosthetics were. Snow shoes! It was such a small field that the P&B lot were bound to get prizes, and they did: Rachel was 3rd woman, Graham got a Vet’s prize category. I didn’t expect to get anything: the results had already been pinned up and I was fifth out of five 40-50 women. But then, as I was making my way merrily through my second beer, I heard something like “ooze djoj.” None of the P&Bs paid it any attention. But I wondered, and wandered over to the announcer. Did you say Rose George? “Oui,” he said. “Ooze djoj.” I had no idea how, why or what I had won, but I remembered to put my beer to one side, climbed up onto a podium for the first time that I can remember, and was handed a shopping bag with a post-it on it: 3eme Master V1 F. Me! On a podium!

I obviously managed to hide the beer

I got off the podium in one piece (I remind you: I don’t drink beer) and opened my shopping bag to see what prizes I had. This is what was inside:

  • a bottle of foot deodorant
  • a bottle of beautifying milk
  • a hairbrush
  • a plastic Sellotape-like dispenser that instead dispensed a bandage
  • a packet of sweets

Every fell runner should have one of these

I loved it all. Especially the bandage, when I steam-burned my arm quite badly a few days later. The foot deodorant has come in useful too. But mostly, I loved the generosity of a small village race that thinks someone like me worthy of a prize. I worked out later that I had definitely come fifth out of five in my category, but the top two women had finished first and second overall. Impressive, and to my foot-deodorant advantage.

On the entry form, there had been an option to pay 15 euros or something to join in the village meal. I’d had small hopes, when the meal was arranged by the local hunt committee, of finding a good vegetarian option, so we had brought a picnic instead. We found a picnic table under a shady tree next to the village hall, where the meal was being held. I looked over the wall down into the garden where the food was being prepared: a giant hog roast, dripping fat into about two thousand potatoes. I went back to my bread and cheese with only a little bit of regret (I really love potatoes). After a while, a group of villagers came past, released from their race duties, and one shouted over, “aren’t you joining us?” We explained we had not paid, and were clearly picnicking but she was unfazed. “Come and sit with us anyway.” Which is why I love village races, hunt committees or not.

As for FRB and his conviction that he would be running behind me? He overtook me at the start and I didn’t see him after that. He told me he looked down from the summit and saw me in the distance and thought, “I’d better get a shift on”. He beat me by twenty minutes, but he didn’t win a hairbrush.

A cautionary tale

Or, how to turn a trail race into a fell race, without meaning to.

It’s gala season. Gala races are fun, because they are often short, there is often ice-cream afterwards and before the race starts you can watch 11-year-olds put their all into winning sack races. On Saturday it was Ingleton Gala, and Ingleton Gala Mountain Race. Fell-runners can often argue about whether a fell race is clearly a fell race. Plenty of people think the Three Peaks is not a fell race and that there is very little that is “felly” (yes, that is a word and if not it is now) about it, as most is on clear paths and there is a lot of hard surface as well as three mountains. Ingleton Gala Mountain Race was definitely a race, and it definitely involved a mountain, as the race route consisted of heading up to Ingleborough, known by me as the “one I always mean to run to but always walk to” as it’s the third of the Three Peaks and the only one beyond the Hill Inn cut-off. It is also known by many as Inglebugger, either because it is the third peak of three, or because of its severe and steep face of limestone rock. But most of the route is on a well-defined track, so it’s probably a trail race.

FRB has been ill and injured for the last month: first he was injured, and then he was ill. But he is feeling better on both counts and decided to come up for the day and support, so off we set on the usual route to Skipton, then to Ingleton. It was a civilized race start of 3pm, and we got there with time to spare to check out the gala. £2 entry to the gala and £4 for the race. The checking-out of the gala didn’t take long: there were sack races and obstacle courses, a few stalls, and some magnificent raptors who, as I wasn’t feeling full of vim and vigour, I thought of asking for a lift up the mountain. The weather was good: not too hot or muggy, and overcast, though warm. I saw a few runners with what looked like full kit back packs, but there were no signs one way or the other, so I asked at registration. Yes, they said. Full kit. I must have looked surprised: many gala races in fine weather relax kit requirements. It wasn’t that I disapproved: I usually find more to disapprove in macho runners who refuse to carry water or any kit, as if they will magically sprout feathers or fur and a water fountain if they break a limb on the tops. The man at registration said, “full kit because someone broke his leg last year and he got cold very quickly.”

I said, “Right. Yes. I approve.”

Pause.

“Not of the broken leg, obviously.”

I fetched my kit. The only thing that was sub-standard was my race map: I’d forgotten the OS map on my coffee table, so I had the Three Peaks map, which had half the race route on it. It wasn’t ideal, and I was annoyed with myself that I didn’t have the actual race route, but I didn’t think I’d need it. There were no kit checks, and we gathered in the sack-racing field and waited. Then we waited a bit more. The announcer said, sorry, he needed to find Paul the ambulance man, as he had a call-out. Behind him was a fire engine and crew who were doing a show-and-tell-and-climb-over-our-fire-engine session at the gala. Suddenly the crew all climbed into the truck and off they went too. (It was because of this head-on collision.) Finally there was a brief count-down and off we went. I had no tactics in mind other than getting up the mountain and getting down again. I felt OK: not too hot, quite sprightly. I ran more than I thought I would, keeping an eye out for FRB. He finally appeared after about two miles, though his voice appeared first, as it was shouting “ROSE YOU’VE GOT TO RUN NOW.” So I did. I passed two people in front of me and said, “I’m only running for the camera” and they laughed and FRB got this lovely shot:

Up and up we went, and the overcast became clag. I can’t ever remember seeing Ingleborough in fine weather, though FRB says we did once, on a recce. Today it looked first like this:

And then like this:

That shouldn’t have been a problem. This was an out-and-back race. The most straightforward kind: you go up on one path, and you turn round at the trig, and you come back down on the same path.

As we neared the final climb to the summit, the leaders began to come back down. They were pelting, zooming, whooshing past us. As I plodded up and wondered when the hell the summit was ever going to appear, I thought: that looks like such fun. I began to look forward to the descent. A woman next to me from Saddleworth was saying “well done” to every runner who passed her. I thought this was a) extremely generous and nice and b) a waste of breath she needed to get up the mountain. I usually say well done to the top three, who are always going too fast to say anything back; to people I know; and to the first couple of women. The Saddleworth woman and I had a chat, and she expressed some concern about how rocky the path was and that the descent looked really tricky and technical. I stupidly mentioned that someone had broken his leg the year before, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Sorry, Saddleworth woman; that was not diplomatic of me. Still, feeling guilty about that kept my mind off climbing for the next five minutes. I didn’t share her worries: I was dying to get to the top and then do some hurtling. Where I fit in the race field, I am improbably fast at descending, because I love it. A lot of folk of my pace are more cautious. So I can usually take several places, which I usually promptly lose on the next climb. All this was in my mind as I kept going up — helped by a big fellow with a beard who did a good “whoop” now and then — and finally there didn’t seem to be any more false summits, just the faint outline of a trig point, around which we went anti-clockwise then headed back to the path. I’d seen runners coming down from the summit way off to my right, and earlier, a lot of the fast runners had come down off-piste. Both these things were in my mind and in hindsight I wish they hadn’t been.

I started on the path. I overtook people who had been running around me. And then I veered off the path in search of better ground, and I veered too much. I don’t exactly know what happened for the next five minutes, but suddenly I found myself unable to see anyone or hear anyone, and there was nothing but profound clag all around me. I knew I was on Ingleborough, and that there were villages within a few miles, but suddenly it seemed such an unearthly place. So quiet and desolate. I began to panic. I realised I hadn’t been concentrating on anything but my feet, as I was so giddy to get on with the descent, and now I had no idea where I was. For a while, I heard faint voices, but I think they were on the summit. I shouted several times and no-one replied. Then I really began to panic. Luckily I had my phone, and I knew FRB was on the track a couple of miles below. Also, very luckily, I had reception. I phoned him. The phone was answered but there was silence.

Me: Hello?

FRB: Well done Graham

Me: HELLO?

FRB: Well done Chris

Me: FRB?

Me: FRB ANSWER THE PHONE?

Finally he said hello. He’d been cheering runners going past. Later he told me that I’d pocket-phoned him while I’d been running up (I’d done the same to my mother who later said, “I don’t know if it was a mistake or whether you actually wanted me to hear the sound of your footsteps”). All he could hear that time was breathing and thudding. This time I was breathing heavily from running downhill and from anxiety, and so FRB thought I had done the same thing.

Me: I’m lost.

There was a pause. I’m quite certain that in that pause FRB’s brain was trying to calculate the chances of someone getting lost on a race route that consisted of going up a path and down the same path. Then he recalculated, adding in the fact that it was me. But he was careful to sound kind.

FRB: Where are you?

Me: I don’t know.

FRB: What can you see?

Me: Sheep. And clag.

I carried on describing what I could see, babbling, until he said ROSE BE QUIET.

For some reason I didn’t think to get out my compass at this point and for some reason FRB didn’t think to tell me to get out my compass. If I had, I’d have known from the map to head south-southwest. Instead, FRB said, can you see some conifers and a farm? Yes! (Later we realised we’d been talking about different conifers and a different farm). He said, can you see the sun? Sort of.

OK, he said, head for the sun. That’s pretty much the right direction. Call me in ten minutes.

I obeyed. I ran, I walked. I still couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see a path or any humans anywhere. It was just me, wild landscape, limestone and sheep. Had I not been in a state of anxiety, it would have been a lovely trek, because it was beautiful and wild and lonely and quiet. But it was not straightforward. There were tussocks with deep channels in-between that are proper ankle-breakers. Ingleborough’s limestone plateaus have lots of holes, and I almost didn’t avoid one about ten feet deep. I stung my hands on gorse. And still there was no path. The clag had lifted, but so my perfect visibility enabled me to see that I had no idea where I was. I kept going south south-west, my compass now around my neck. I called FRB ten minutes later. No reception. This went on for about ten minutes, and I finally found some kind of trod. Maybe it’s the race route? It wasn’t. Now I can’t remember in what order these things happened, but I saw two cairns on a rise and thought they would be a useful thing to head for, so I did. I vaguely remembered seeing cairns on the way up. The trod petered out. I kept going south-south-west and came to a limestone gully. Finally I had some reception.

FRB: Can you describe where you are?

Me: I’m in a, I don’t know how to describe it. Not a valley or a plateau. A sort of sweeping thing. (Maybe the word was “cutting”.)

FRB: Okaaaaay. Keep going south-west.

I had asked him earlier to call the race director to let him know I was lost. But there was no number to call on the race number, or on the mountain race website. FRB said he had finally found it on the FRA site, but that he hadn’t called, because he knew the last runner — Antonio from Otley Runners — hadn’t gone past him yet, and until he did, I wasn’t lost.

I jumped down a short limestone drop and headed on. Finally I came to a wall, and phoned again.

FRB: I think I saw you. Can you wave?

I waved.

FRB: Hmmm. Not sure. Can you jump?

Me: Not really, I’m standing on rocks.

FRB: Can you crouch?

I crouched.

FRB: Yes! It’s you.

Now in front of me there were grazing fields and there in the distance, like the yellow brick road, shiny with promise, was the race route track. Only I was standing in front of a wall with barbed wire and no gate in sight. I asked forgiveness of the Countryside Code, checked I could only see sheep and not cows, and found a place to climb over the wall. I was careful not to dislodge anything. I ran down the next field, almost running into a dozing sheep — my version of the gala obstacle race — then over another wall (sorry, landowners), along the next field and then, oh my god, there was a field gate, and there was the track and I was back on it.

I thought I must have done many more miles, but in fact my particular race route and the actual race route weren’t that different in length. Duration though: where I reached the path, there was under a mile to the finish, and I ran down it with FRB, into the village, through the car park, down the very steep grassy bank, where I nearly took out a heedless father and toddler LOOK OUT RUNNER COMING LOOK OUT, then I sprinted to the finish. A five-year-old lad handed me two bottles of water and said very seriously how worried he was because someone had come down with a bleeding leg wound. It had taken me 1 hour and 50 minutes to run under seven miles. I assured the toddler I was fine, and then FRB and I headed straight for the ice-cream van.

At this point I was delirious with relief, which I was about to exacerbate with sugar. I was so relieved, I didn’t care that I’d come third from last, or that the woman behind me might have wondered why I suddenly appeared in front of her like a genie only one that climbs a field gate. The DOH! shame came later. We ate ice-cream, headed off to find tea, and found Randolph from Kirkstall who told me — oh marvellous Ingleton — that there were hot showers and a changing room. This, at the kinds of races I do, is five stars. I told Randolph I had got lost, and he said,

How the hell did you get lost? It’s an out-and-back?

On Instagram, I posted something about the race saying I’d got lost, and Josh, who won it, commented, “how did you get lost? It’s an out-and-back!”

On Strava, someone posted, “how did you get lost? It’s an out-and-back!”

I got lost because I got giddy and it was claggy. From Strava, I learned that I had crossed the race route, then carried on, so ended about half a mile out of my way. In those conditions, it’s not surprising that by that point when I realised things had gone wrong that I couldn’t see or hear anyone. Anyway, I got more of a fell run out of it than anyone else in the race.Nothing like making your own way between checkpoints. Via limestone gullies, hidden pot-holes, cliffs and barbed wire.

Lessons: get out the compass at the first opportunity. Pay attention. Have FRB on the other end of the phone. Do not get lost.

Weets

“Do you fancy doing weets?”

“Do I fancy doing what?”

“It’s a race. Called Weets. A bit like a mini Tour of Pendle.”

Ah. That clinched it. Although I know this is perverse, I’m very fond of Tour of Pendle, maybe because I got a 25 minute minute PB on it last year on my birthday, or because I feel like a steely adventurer, Ernest Shackleton-like, when I remember the year before when I ran much of it through a snow blizzard. Even so, Weets should not have been an option: an hour’s drive to run just over five miles slightly skews the miles-mileage scale that I usually operate under. (This translates as: distance travelled vs distance to run. High Cup Nick is the one race that is immune to this scale.) So, up early on Saturday morning and over to The Other Side where the clubs are called Trawden and Barlick and they talk different. The weather forecast predicted heat, but I was chilly in the car and the sky looked overcast, so I was unprepared. I didn’t apply suncream and I set off wearing a buff. Idiot. The race HQ was a small marquee in Letcliffe Park outside Barnoldswick (which I’ve only lately realised is where Barlick gets its name and that Barlick isn’t a place. To this, my clubmate Jenny said, “Rose, there are some things you don’t admit to.”) The park is hidden off Manchester Road so that even when your sat nav tells you you’re there, you think you aren’t. Only the sight off to the right of juniors running up and down a hill made me realise I was in the right place, and a phone call to already arrived folk got me into the ample car parking on the field in the park, which I’d never otherwise have found.

£5 entry, which is just acceptable on the other well-known metric of fell-running, the Wallace-Buckley scale, a joint Yorkshire-Scottish effort named for its inventors, that dictates that no race should cost more than a pound per mile. This has the handy effect of ruling out most road races, so is very useful. There were more people at Weets than I’d expected, but maybe everyone else was fond of Tour of Pendle too. I like small fell races, but I also like race fields that are big enough that my chances of being right at the back are minimised.

Up we go to the tarmac lane where the start is, and there is some milling. The NLFR team consisted of me and Jenny, so we had a collegiate photo with FRB, Karen and Gary from P&B where our vests managed to almost perfectly reflect the race profile.

This might actually stop FRB from telling me that my vest sash is going in the wrong direction and the usual conversation:

FRB: It’s supposed to cross over your heart
Me: The heart is in the middle of the chest
FRB: Yes but it’s still going the wrong way
Me: No it isn’t
etc

Then from me, some dynamic stretching, also known as reminding my glutes they have work to do and not leave everything to the hamstrings. I’ve just been diagnosed with hamstring tendinopathy. I got a niggle a couple of weeks ago, which I definitely noticed when I ran Helvellyn and the Dodds, a race I still have to write a report about. It has not got worse but not got better so I went to my usual physio, Coach House in Leeds and was seen by the affable and very clear and explanatory Rob Hobkinson, (my usual physio — if “usual” is “I see her once a year” — Lucy is off ministering to the British diving team as she often does) who taught me about inflamed hamstring tendons that get compressed by sitting, which is why my pain is absent in the morning but worse if I sit down. But Rob also told me these magic words:

You
Can
Still
Run

So I did. Eck though it was hot. The buff came off straight away and I was thankful that I had conformed to my usual policy of always running with water even when hardly anyone else did. Up we go, up the tarmac road, and I felt sluggish and heavy but kept going. Lots of Barlick supporters, so many that I began to think my name was Nicola, as it was constantly shouted in my direction. (She was just behind me.) Up and up to the trig point on Weets Hill, where I was surprised to see runners already coming back down, and they all seemed to be aged about 11. I cheered them on, of course, then later found out that a juniors’ race had set off with us but was just going to the trig and back. So they weren’t actually leading our race. But still, well done.

After the trig, a lovely descent, whoosh, which was so good I forgot that we’d be going up again. I’d checked the race profile and knew that there were four climbs and that we’d only done two. Still, whoosh. The next climb was definitely the mini-Pendle one. I’d drunk plenty by that point but still felt a bit drained, and even more so when I looked up and saw a hill with no end. So I did my usual technique of counting. I have an entente cordiale method of getting up hills: if they are really huge (Whernside, Clough Head), I count in French. Backwards. Having a tired brain figure out the right order for deux cents quatre vingts dix neuf gets you up about thirty feet. I can get up Whernside in 300 in French, but Clough Head was about quatre cents. For smaller hills I use English. One to ten, for as many times as it takes. It passes the time, your brain is distracted enough not to think of all the climb you haven’t yet done, and you keep moving.

There was another fine descent down a familiar grassy field (the route is an out and back with a loop, so classic lollipop), where I ran past a fellow, while exclaiming, “I like this bit!”. He rightly ignored this, an example of the Fell Running Observations of the Bleeding Obvious. Then up a tarmac lane, back over the fields, a bit of narrow trod moorland running where I could feel blokes breathing closely behind me, but they didn’t ask to pass so I didn’t offer.

I didn’t realise they were *that* close

I hadn’t recognised Eileen Woodhead on the way out as she had a big floppy hat on, but it’s hard to miss Dave as he usually yells something at me. On the way out it was “I DIDN’T RECOGNISE YOU WITH YOUR NEW VEST ON” (“new” meaning about a year old). On the way back it was “DON’T LET THOSE TRAWDEN LADS GET YOU.” I tried not to, putting on a sprint down the lane to the finish that impressed me and probably shocked my muscles into remembering when I used to be a sprinter 35 years ago. (Coach FRB’s response: “Really good running form. No flailing foot. Arms a bit too much across your body though.”)

One of the lads did pass me and the other one didn’t, which is OK with me. I managed to put the brakes on in time at the finish funnel, so didn’t take out any of the marshals, and then there was the usual splendid fell running tradition of people you finish around saying well done and you saying well done back. I deviated slightly from this by telling the Trawden “lad” (actually a six-foot 40ish fully grown man) not to tell Dave he’d beaten me. Then I downed several cups of squash and we went to a very fine pub and I ate a veggie burger that was bigger than me and all was well.

The 64th Three Peaks Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pen-y-Ghent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is: I’m from Leeds.

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

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

Then, “RUN.”

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

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

Whernside. Ah, Whernside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dunno.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cup.
Of.
Tea.

Cup.
Of.
Tea.

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

I said, oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DNF

DNF.
Did.
Not.
Finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A slow panic. A mild dread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clairvoyance

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLEASE.

CARRY.

KIT.

High Cup Nick 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rombald Stride 2018

Ready?

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

They worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Tour of Pendle 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steady. Steady she goes.

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mick Fryer

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

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

Photo by Linda Bullock

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

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

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

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

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

At the Big End, there was a surprising sight.

x

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

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

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

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

4.15.39

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

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

As birthdays go, my 48th was a cracker.

British Fell Relays

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

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

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

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

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

GIVEMETHECARKEYIDON’THAVEANYINSOLESANDTHEY’REINTHECARANDGIVEMETHECARKEYNOW

then ran off again.

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

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

“Nope. I usually wear Salomons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“No. You need a voucher.”

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

“No. You need a voucher.”

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

“No. You need a voucher.”

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

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

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