The 63rd Three Peaks race

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

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

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

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

Tailspin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cramp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve done alright.

I’ve not done as well as I hoped.

But I’ve done alright.

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

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

 

Thrifty foreign fitness

There is an obvious way of keeping fit on business trips, of course, which is the hotel gym, assuming you are not a cash-conscious freelance author but are instead someone with a sizeable expense account that allows for expensive hotels with good fitness centres. I don’t have an expense account. Normally I’d just work out a running route outside and set off, but I’m in a city that has gone from minus 30 degrees last week to spring weather this week, which means the pavements are covered in lethal black ice. So I’ve had to get inventive. Here are my tips.

1. Make friends

You may think people who post local routes on Strava, Mapmyrun  are your friends. But are they? You can never account for people’s taste: one person’s chosen Sunday loop may include a heavy industrial area. Sometimes the routes or loops are complicated and you’d spend most of the run looking at a map if you had one, or using fiendishly expensive data on your phone. You may feel unsafe in areas that someone who has run here for years thinks is no big deal. My tip: write to a local running group and ask if you can run with them. Runners are a friendly tribe and I’ve never been turned down: I’ve run with people in Kathmandu and Texas and almost run with people in Salt Lake City (except I didn’t have a car to get to the meeting point and it was too far to run to). A friendly Salt Lake City club runner still told me some good running routes though. Here in Canada, I approached Saskatoon Road Runners and asked to run with them and the response was, as the response often is, “sure!” In fact the club mostly organizes races, and group training runs congregate at Brainsport, a local running shop here (which, it turns, out operates a wonderful community outreach program of shoe donation as well as other community outreach stuff). Also they have a good, plain-speaking sign.

On my first full day in Saskatoon, still reeling from jetlag, I turned up at Brainsport, met a nice fellow called Harvey who said, I’m going running on river trails after work, and you’re welcome to join me. He emailed a few other people to see if they wanted to join, and he offered to lend me demo Salomon spiked shoes – essential for snow – and a headtorch. So instead of lounging on my bed at 6.30 pm feeling – rightly – that it was 2 am, I was running along beautiful snow-covered trails along the mighty South Saskatchewan river with Harvey and another young woman who had turned up at short notice to keep us company. Saskatoon is known as the city of bridges, and we ran from one to the other and back again. It was so good that on Wednesday I did it again on Brainsport’s formal group running night. There were half a dozen groups going out, and of course I picked the trail one, only this time I got lost and caused an international incident, after I stopped to take a picture, got separated from the group and took the wrong trail. I knew my way back, more or less, but they didn’t know that I did. I made it back, and so did they, and looked extremely relieved that they hadn’t lost their British guest into the South Saskatchewan River weir: sorry, folks. They were thoroughly both forgiving and welcoming and I got to experience both Canadian trails I’d never have found and Canadians that I’d never have met otherwise. Running with a running club is the perfect antidote to the hotel-meeting-lonely dinner-hotel pattern that is most business trips.


2. Research

My hotel doesn’t have a gym. But I’m training to run the Three Peaks race again, and though I’m in the prairies, I need to get some hill training somehow. Short of driving hours to the Rockies, the only solution was a treadmill that inclined. So I began to research. Saskatoon city is currently running a scheme where you can get a two week free trial membership with lots of leisure centres. I didn’t feel it was particularly ethical to do that as I was only going to be in town for a week, but I emailed the nearest gym, the YWCA, and asked about day passes. It turns out that for $10 they would let me use the gym, pool and all facilities, and it was a short-ish walk over the bridge from my hotel. When I got there, I found a gym that was far better equipped than the one I use at home, with all sorts of intriguing machines (which I ignored, once I’d found the inclining treadmill and the weights area). I could have signed up for classes for my ten bucks a day but didn’t. I did the same thing in Toronto and found that Goodlife Fitness had an offer for three free visits, but their website never worked, and by that time I had a horrible cold and gyms were far from my mind.

3. Look for trial offers

I walked past a spin studio on my way back to the hotel one day, researched it and found that they were offering one trial class. That sounded like a perfect solution (see hill training requirements above) so I duly signed up for an early evening class. Then I duly succumbed to jet lag, had a late afternoon nap that lasted longer than it should have, and missed it. But it was a great idea in principle. Maybe try Groupon or similar for other class offers. Or approach studios directly, perhaps without mentioning the fly-by-night nature of your visit (see ethical point above).

4. Walk

Saskatoon is a car town. It is built around the car and though there are buses, I decided to be one of its few committed pedestrians. As my interview appointments have been all over the city, I’ve walked several miles a day. This has seen me walking on pavements where no other human seems to have set foot since autumn. And because of the record-breaking February temperatures this week (it should be minus 10, but it’s 8C), I walked through deep puddles, slush, and, alarmingly, lots of black ice. This may be my assumption, but it seems that gritting pavements is not a priority here. A Saskatonian told me that they don’t tend to fall because they start skating from a young age and have good ankle stability. I actually think they don’t fall because in winter they always travel by car. I didn’t fall either though I had several near-misses a day. I encountered a few hazards. The first: don’t ask locals how far it is to walk. They will invariably say “20 minutes,” but they have no idea because they mostly drive around the city. It never takes only 20 minutes. Another: during a long walk back from visiting a small charity in the north of the city, I was directed to walk straight down a long, long road to the river and to cross the bridge. Easy enough, and I had a lovely walk in beautiful sunshine, past industrial zones and then residential areas, up a bank to the CPR railway bridge, which has a pedestrian walkway. Except that the walkway consists of wooden boards nailed together, and the boards have gaps in through which you can see the rushing river sixty metres below. I set off with confidence, and a couple of minutes later my fear of heights kicked in and I walked the long, long bridge whimpering and talking to myself: “Don’t look down. Look ahead. Don’t look down. Look ahead.” Lesson: I prefer solid bridges. When I told my Saskatoon friends about this, they said, “you should try being on the walkway when a train goes past. Everything shudders and sways.” And I would probably have jumped into the river. The other hazard to walking around Saskatoon in a melt is the huge puddles that form on the road side of the kerb. It is a testament to the niceness of Canadians that I wasn’t splashed once.

The result of all this? I didn’t lose as much fitness as I’d feared. I saw lots of Saskatoon that I would otherwise have not seen from a car or a bus. And I lost five pounds in weight. For not much money at all.

 

 

Tigger Tor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the route.


 

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

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

 

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


 

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

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

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

 

I did get lost.

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

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

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

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

The shock of the fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I’ll try to stop falling over.

Tour of Pendle 2016

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

pendle-hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is what Geronimo looked like afterwards:

matthew-warters

Image: Matthew Warters

Two climbs done, four to go.

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

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

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

nigel-hodson-pendle

Image: Nigel Hodson

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

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

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

jamie-mcilvenny

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

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

4 hours, 42 minutes.

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

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

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

15078628_10154877140454994_3641639721588833405_nImage: FRB

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A run

I spend many weekends racing. I spend a lot of time preparing my race kit the night before (if it’s a fell race) or at least getting my Kirkstall vest out of the laundry basket where it probably is, and deciding which shoes to wear, and packing a spare t-shirt, pants and wet-wipes for dry showering at the back of the car afterwards. But sometimes, I just don’t want to. And that’s fine too.

Last week I did the Shepherd’s Skyline with FRB, over in Hebden Bridge. You run up to Stoodley Pike, a sharp downhill and then up again. It was bitterly cold, so that I even had to wear a double layer. Still shorts though. None of this long tights stuff. Before the race, my mate Andrew B said, “I like this race, it’s one of the few where you can take in the scenery.”

As soon as we set off I realised this was nuts. The first mile or so was like the Abbey Dash (which I’d been due to run the next day, but didn’t): not much room, single file, a mass of runners. It was a mass of runners heading uphill in beautiful moorland, not down Kirkstall Road, but that made no odds. Traffic jams are traffic jams. That was frustrating, but I assumed that the field would spread out as usual. It took a while, but eventually it did, and so I assumed, again, that I’d be able to take in the beautiful scenery that Andrew had promised.

No. Not a chance. I’ve not done a race as technical as Shepherd’s Skyline for a long time. For non-fell runners, this means tricky, testing, thorny, precarious, quirky, knotty and all other synonyms for tricky. It means paths that are narrow and sometimes gullies, and that contain large rocks and stones, and puddles and mud. Sometimes there is bracken, sometimes grass, sometimes a wee bog. “Technical” means you can never take your eyes off your feet for more than a foot ahead, to see where your feet should go next. This face of mine: this is my “this is very very technical” face:

14962676_10210420048238249_2371311294633435632_nAnd I think this was one of the less technical bits.

I’d been meaning to keep an eye on Andrew B. This isn’t difficult, as he’s about 6 foot 5 and wears a bright yellow vest. I wanted to beat him, because he’d beaten me at a fell race earlier in the year, and not only that, but I’d gone for a burton (Yorkshire translation: fallen head-first) in the tussocks when I’d foolishly tried to overtake him on a descent. He’s not confident about descending, and I knew that. But the tussocks got me. Anyway Andrew B had disappeared in the traffic jam at the beginning so I forgot about him and just ran as best I could. I’d met a couple of women wearing Liverpool blue and white striped hooped vests (despite most of the English-speaking population referring to vests with horizontal differently coloured lines as “striped,” FRB insists on “hooped” and damn it, he’s right). They’d come over from Liverpool with two other club-mates. I don’t remember asking if they’d done fell races before, but I did say something about there not being many fells in Liverpool. I pendulumed with them a few times (they overtake me, I overtake them etc), and then we got to Stoodley Pike where, amazingly, I could look up and see the view and then it was helter-skelter down to a lane. It’s a wonderful descent and I loved it. One of the Liverpool lasses was running in front, but I overtook her and said something inane about there being not many fells to practice on in Liverpool. I admit, my fell-running conversation is not sophisticated.

She said, “No, we just run around Brookside Close.”

And that had me laughing all the way down the hill. Here she is: Hayley from Liverpool, and it turns out this was her first fell race.

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I slogged back up the hill, then felt like the insides of my legs had been scooped out and replaced with Playdough, but I carried on along the top, past Dave Woodhead from Woodentops and his usual encouraging “go faster, Rosie” or something similar. Dave is very useful for making your walking legs speed up to a slow shuffle, no matter how much Playdough they consist of. In the last mile, I finally saw Andrew B and his yellow vest. Target. I caught him up, he speeded up, I caught him up again and on the final descent to the finish, I overtook him. That was probably daft, as the tricky terrain didn’t let up until the last few metres, so I was pelting down a perilously ankle-turning series of rocks and boulders and gullies. Later, FRB said he was standing with his club mates, and they saw Andrew B and they saw me, a little spot of purple up on the hill doing her best to overtake a grown man. I did it, and I didn’t fall over.

But I didn’t mean to write about that race. I wanted to write about this weekend, when for some reason, although there was my beloved Burley Moor fell race on Saturday, and a fixture of my beloved Yorkshire veterans series at Spenborough on Sunday, I did neither. Instead, FRB and I did an extraordinary thing. We just went for a run. Of course there were hills to be climbed: it’s Tour of Pendle in a week, and there are always hills to be climbed. So we went to Otley Chevin, a beautiful forest park with a monster hill that features at the end of the 22-mile Rombald’s Stride. As usual I followed FRB’s coaching advice: he was going to run up and down the Chevin’s monster hill three times, so so was I. (By “run up” I mean, run 10% of it, briskly walk 70% of it, stagger up the rest.) After that, we would do our own thing. And it was brilliant. Not necessarily to do our own thing, but to have no prescription, to run along any path and if I saw a trod leading into the woods, to follow it, or if I wanted to turn around and back up the hill I’d just run down, to do that (OK, I did that only once). The Chevin was busy; it was a lovely Sunday, and I lost count of the number of dogs and toddlers being walked. The dogs mostly ignored me; the toddlers all stared at me as I ran past, as if I were a bright green mastodon, as if I were the strangest thing they’d ever seen.

Along the way I stopped to look at things, to read information about the woods, to read bench inscriptions, because I always like to read bench inscriptions. I found a good one:

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Love you always rat.

I ended up running 1.5 miles less than FRB, probably because of all my pootling and peering. But I loved it. I loved not racing. It’s not often I finish a run and say, “I really enjoyed that.” Particularly one that included 1500 feet of climb. But I did, because I was just running. Not racing, not puffing, not chasing Andrew B. Just running through a beautiful forest on a beautiful autumn day. I prescribe it as a vital brain protection device. You don’t have to run, but get outside when you can, and switch off social media and the awful, horrible news, and smile at baffled children, and jump over dogs. It helps.

Yorkshire marathon #3

Marathon number 5, Yorkshire marathon number 3. Done. It was not a certainty. You know me: before every big race I’m convinced I can’t run, haven’t done enough training, am too fat. I’m definitely overweight at the moment, as my poor chafed thighs keep reminding me, but it seems I can run and have done enough training.

I didn’t feel too stressed about Yorkshire but my brain told me different, concocting some interesting stress dreams where I could never find my running shoes, and had to watch the marathon set off without me. The best was the one where I had to tie my running shoes with sewing thread. Perhaps my awake calmness was simply denial. I remember standing in the shower on marathon morning and thinking, I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to run 26.2 miles. And also, I didn’t really want to. I felt like I couldn’t be bothered.

But I did bother, and I am glad I did. FRB arrived early, I was mostly ready, and we set off to York, along an A64 busy with what we assumed was marathon traffic. To the university, then to the VIP parking, as the marathon organisers Run for All had kindly given me another VIP place. FRB had one too as he was going to be writing something as well. Back, then, to the Van Brugh building and the VIP room with its pastries and coffee. We sat on a table with a woman from another Leeds running club who was not feeling too serene. I’m being polite: she seemed terrified. She’d run-walked London but this was her first running marathon, and she’d had a few years of injury. I tried to calm her by saying there was no point trying to calm down because she would be terrified right up to the start, and as soon as she started running, she’d be fine. I next saw her storming past me on one of the switchbacks, and thought, she looks alright.

We set off to the start at 9 for a 9.30 race start. No way was I going to start ahead of the Kenyans again this year. There was no chance of that as there were no Kenyans anyway, but once we got to zone 1, I sidled back to the back end of zone 2 where I belong. It was cool and perhaps even chilly, but that was perfect. The forecast was 13 degrees with some sun but not too much and that was also perfect. A warm-up, and off we went. And then I realised that I hadn’t expended all the liquid I should have done and spent a very uncomfortable first mile with my leaky bladder, until I got to the first set of portaloos. Until you have peed into your socks, you won’t understand what a real leaky bladder is. I wasn’t the only one, though, and had to wait five minutes in a queue. At this point, I had to realise that although I’d said to myself and to FRB that I wasn’t going for a PB, in my head I was. That is daft: I’d run a six hour race a month earlier, my regular running pace is about a minute slower these days than last year. Running 8.30 minute miles for 26.2 miles, which was what I would have to do to beat 3:58, was not going to happen. I hoped I’d be able to stick to 9.15 or so and perhaps get in under 4.15. Those five minutes in a toilet queue made that unlikely, though they did eject me back into the race at about the right place in the field.

The first couple of miles of the marathon are wonderful in two ways: there’s a downhill, and there is York Minster. As has happened each year, the Minster was pealing its bells, whether for Sunday service or for us. I choose to think it was for us. The sun was shining, there were cheerful crowds on the streets, and the bells were ringing. It was a moment of pure joy.


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After that, I broke the run up into chunks, trying to come up with something to look forward to in each chunk, such as the vicar in Stockon-on-the-forest with his striped scarf, high-fiving hand and “God bless you, good running.” He must say that, and high-five people, about three thousand times. God bless him. I couldn’t remember how far Stockton was, but I just kept heading for it (it’s at mile 6). After the first few miles, the long quiet stretches began. Long long roads and lanes bordered by fields; not many supporters, no villages. These can be difficult, unless you can daydream. I can’t remember what I thought about only that I remember thinking, I must remember this. It probably included:

  • How on earth is that woman even running when her legs are kicking out at 90 degree angles in opposite directions? And faster than me?
  • Why do people buy Karrimor running kit when it’s shit and baggy?
  • Good form.
  • Get a better sports bra.
  • Stop heavy breathing behind me.
  • Oh god, stop hacking up phlegm and spitting.

There are lots of reasons to speed up but a spitter in your wake is a major one. Mind you, they probably thought the same about my snot-rocketing. This is a fell running technique which involves holding one nostril and power-emptying the other. It’s not very pleasant but it’s essential on cold hillsides. I’m not sure it’s acceptable during a genteel road race but I did it anyway and without warning either. I did look behind me first. I’m not a philistine.

At York Minster, I’d said to a woman next me, “this is my favourite bit.” She said, “The finish is my favourite bit.” She had blonde plaits – which seem to be the default running hairstyle for women with long hair – and bright pink socks, and turned out to be my accidental pacer for the first ten miles. It’s risky choosing an informal pacer, as you have no idea what they are aiming for, nor whether they are consistent. But she seemed very consistent, so I kept her in sight until I overtook her and didn’t see her again. After her, I chose a Vegan Runner with bright green socks, but at mile 17 she started walking too.

I felt good. I had eaten enough – though my stomach was rumbling after the first few miles – and I felt properly hydrated and nourished. It’s been so long since I’ve done a long road race that I wasn’t sure what to carry. There were enough water stations (every 3 miles) that I didn’t need a bladder, but I did need gels and chafing cream, especially as it turns out I’d left my favourite Inov-8 shorts, which are long enough to stop chafing, in France. So I decided to do several stupid things: I ran in Brooks Glycerin 7s, which I’d hardly done any training in, but my feet get so battered in PureFlow, I wanted more cushioning. This worked out partly alright: my feet were cushioned. But both were blistered and my feet still felt battered. It’s not down to the shoe though: I realise I grip my toes when I run, which is daft and painful. Back to the running form doctor.

I’d said to FRB that my current steady pace is 9.15-9.20 and so it turned out. On then, through villages and long quiet stretches. There, again, was the bagpipe band at the corner where I remember a huge group of students yelling Oggy oggy oggy during the year of the fog (2014), so that their voices trailed behind you with the mist. There was Vicar Terry. After that I don’t remember much until the first switchback, which puzzled me. I knew there was a long, long switchback coming at mile 18 or so (actually 16-20), but I’d forgotten this one. I think it was this one that had a singing Elvis at the end, which helped. It was also nice to see fellow Harriers running up the other side. (FRB was too quick.) There were half a dozen of us doing the race, all in club vests. I mention that because I do feel slightly odd running a marathon in a club vest, when there is now huge unspoken pressure to run for charity. But I think if you run for charity it must be something that you find very, very difficult. I don’t feel justified in asking for people’s money otherwise, and marathons, though they are not easy, are not challenge enough for me to be able to ask for money. No, I’m not going to start running with a fridge. I’ll think of something.

There must have been things I thought about up until mile 16, but I can’t remember them. I know that I wished for company, and tried to talk to a few people along the way but with not much success. I passed one woman who was wearing in some marvellous socks, and complimented her on them. I told her I’d cut the feet off mine, just making conversation, and she said, “Oh, bless you.” Which is odd. I had another conversation when I interjected in a conversation behind me about the Three Peaks. Of course my ears prick up at that. A man was telling a woman that there was a Three Peaks Challenge, and I told him there was a race too, and that it was quicker than walking.

I didn’t promise you intellectual heights. This was marathon chat.

But mostly, I was on my own. Afterwards, FRB told me he had run three-quarters of the way with club-mates, and that the only stretch he’d run on his own was the hardest. I don’t like running alone in a road marathon, and I don’t find big city marathons very friendly. Probably that’s because people are digging in and with better things to do than chat to me. But 4.5 hours of keeping yourself entertained is a long 4.5 hours. Of course the difference in fell running in the size of the field and the number of supporters. In fell running you get camaraderie from your fellow runners. In big marathons, it comes from supporters. And they were indeed great, from the little ginger lad on his knees with a tupperware box on his head, repeating in sing-song tones, “Sweets…for energy! Sweets…for energy!” to the little girl who had clasped a sweet in her hand and had her hand stuck out, so I took the sweet and then wondered whether I’d stolen it.

I high-fived as many children as I could. Later, I was interviewed by a woman and a cameraman, and I must have been high on endorphins then because I emitted a comment of extreme cheesiness. Something like high-fiving a child is like fairy dust: each one makes you run faster. Just writing that makes my Yorkshire plain-speaking hackles rise. But it’s true that anything that is stimulation really helps, and high-fiving children: running over to that side of the road, making human contact, is stimulation. Humans need stimulation, even while running a very long distance, as this excellent piece by George Monbiot demonstrates.

My next dose of stimulation was going to be seeing Anne and Noel at mile 18. This switchback is long, long and long. Anne was at the beginning of it, taking photos and hugging the running Minion (you know your place in the universe when a child who is about to cheer you on suddenly gazes away from you and says, “there’s a Minion!). Here is her report, and here is that scene-stealing Minion.

 

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Here also is Anne’s picture of me. No flailing feet, which is good, though I’m not surprised my thighs were chafing. (I’m trying a low-carb, high-fat diet to get rid of the evidence of too much cake, wine, and HRT.). But I’m smiling.

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I said hello to my fellow Harriers again, and thought a couple of them were looking a little less serene. Later, I overtook two of them, which was unexpected. “I’m goosed,” said Chris, when I passed. I think I must have been flying on the flat Coke which was the one thing I’d made sure to carry. By now “mile 18” and “flat Coke” are indelibly paired in my head. At this point, my pace dropped to ten minute miles and never picked up again. But I kept going, because my next target was my brother Nick and niece Alice – “we are a small but perfectly formed welcoming committee” – in Osbaldwick, at mile 24. Before that, we had another long quiet stretch which was the most difficult of the lot. Then to Murton, where there was another pipe band in full bearskin hats and kilts. They looked amazing, and I thought, the least I can do to show my appreciation is do a wee jig, so I did, doing two full pirouettes, persuading a fellow runner to do one with me, and not falling over, although my steering by then was very shaky. The supporters applauded and I think the conductor gave me a wink or a nod. Stimulus, again. It was odd that I felt so good. I’d overtaken lots of people walking, but I kept going. I think, again, it was about mental strength. I need to remind myself that I’ve trained my brain pretty well and to acknowledge it to myself. As my friend Rachael says, you can throw flowers at yourself now and then.

I poured a bottle of water over my head as we got into Osbaldwick. It had in fact become uncomfortably warm for the previous few miles, and I didn’t want to stink too much. There were loads of people out and about, and every cheer and clap was, as ever, a really important boost. If you were out supporting last Sunday, THANK YOU. I am extremely grateful. It really, really helps. Thank you too for all the uplifting music. To the people at about mile 20 who were playing Chariots of Fire, though, you know that that just makes everyone want to run in slow motion?

So, to my small but perfectly formed welcoming committee. I forced a hug upon Alice, who gamely accepted it. I love this photo:

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Then another stretch along a road, along another road, to the Shell garage which now, belatedly, I recognised as being the same Shell garage we’d run past in the first mile, and at which I had gazed wistfully in the hope that it had a toilet. I knew that there was a hill coming and then the finish. Probably I could have run faster, but I liked the pace I was doing, because I could still talk. My feet hurt, but nothing else had gone wrong. Up the hill, which apparently some people crawl up but which if you live in Leeds is nowt, then along to the finish. I managed a sprint for the final 100 metres, and tried to chivvy a young woman along with me, but she didn’t follow, so I crossed the line and had no idea what time I’d done. I hadn’t noted the clock time when I crossed the start; I’d lost time when I’d gone to the toilet; and I’d stupidly stopped my watch. So I had no idea. And at that point, I didn’t much mind. (It was 4:18.)

I took water from the army lads handing it out, saying to one, “I bet you could run that in full kit,” and the lad laughed. I got my t-shirt, my medal, and hobbled back to the VIP lounge, where FRB was finishing some soup. He’d done 3.36 which I think is excellent, but he wanted to get under 3.30 so he’ll just have to do another road marathon. I urgently removed my shoes and apologised to my blistered feet. And once I removed my bum bag, I realised that my back was severely bruised and swollen. Stupid me for running in untested kit: I should have worn my fell waist pack instead, rather than digging out a smaller waist-pack that I never use and thinking, “that will do.”

I say frequently that I’m not going to do long road races any more. But I have much affection for the Yorkshire marathon. It’s only in its fourth year, it’s well organised, there is great support, and how many other races can provide something that looks like York Minster, ringing its bells for you? So I’ll be back. Maybe. Probably.

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Yorkshireman off-road marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Laughter

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Anyway, that post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beamsley Beacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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