The Carnethy 5

“It’s iconic.”


“It just is.”

“But it’s only six miles long.”

“Aye. It’s still iconic.”

I didn’t believe it. I’d heard of the Carnethy 5, but I still couldn’t understand why it had such a reputation when it was short and when even the elevation per mile wasn’t that intimidating. But FRB’s Dad, a runner so good he has no more room for trophies in his house, had entered and so so did we. FRB comes from East Lothian, so we could combine the race – in MidLothian — with a family visit. Otherwise there were factors definitely against me agreeing to do it. It cost £17! That’s a road race price. And it would mean a nine-hour round trip to run a six mile race, something I would normally consider ludicrous. Then there was the small matter of Storm Dennis.

But I always like to visit Scotland, and I had run once with FRB and Dad FRB on the Pentland Hills, where the Carnethy 5 is based (it is named for Carnethy running club, which is in turn named for Carnethy, one of the Pentland hills). The race commemorates a 1302 battle that involved William Wallace. From Carnethy’s website:

In February 1302, a messenger arrived at Neidpath Tower to ask Sir Simon Fraser to meet someone at Biggar. Sir Simon Fraser rode hard, for the person he was to meet was none other than Scotland’s hero — Sir William Wallace. The Wallace’s plan was for himself to be seen gathering together an army up north, while Sir Simon waited with the main army in the south. Sure enough the plan worked, for when the English heard that The Wallace was getting ready to attack from the north, they left their winter quarters in Edinburgh heading south — Sir Simon waited.

Randolf the English General was unprepared for a fight. His army was separated into three groups of 10,000 each, some miles apart. At Dryden they suddenly found themselves confronted by 8,500 Scots. Colmyn, Saintclair and Fraser, loyal friends of Wallace soon carried the day, and rushed on to Rosewell to meet the 2nd army. The weary Scots were again triumphant, but tired, and when yet another 10,000 men approached they were ready to flee. But Sir Simon was a crafty gent, he had been warned about the 3rd army, and had sent a few ot his men to carry two tree trunks up a neighbouring hill. Then Sir Simon shouted to his men… Well, part of the old ballad says it better:

“Look ower, look ower, on yonder hill,”
Quo’ Sir Simon lood and clear,
They blich’t and saw the lift gao ill,
Then saw a cross appear.
“Tis gude St. Andrew” cried ae man,
Then doon they gaed to pray,
“Gae to,” they heard the gude Sir Simon,
“Gae to,” we’ll win the day.”

The inspired Scots rushed into battle!

This would be the 50th running of the race, so I knew that if they could go ahead, they would. But fell races and hill races were being cancelled, and we checked the forecast regularly in the week before, and it never got any better. Depending on which metereologists I checked (I’m fond of the Norwegians weather forecast), the winds were going to be between 40 and 75 miles an hour, and that stayed true until the Friday, when we set off. It didn’t matter that Storm Dennis was going to wreak more havoc in England than Scotland: we were going. I was sure the race would be called off. I know it had been run the year before even though runners had been told at the start that marshals and Mountain Rescue would be lying down because they wouldn’t be able to stand, the wind was so strong. Even so, I was sure that no race organizer would allow marshals to stand out for a few hours in 70mph winds.

Carnethy said they would make a decision at 11am on the Saturday. If we didn’t hear owt, the race would go ahead. The race starts at 2pm, and part of the reason for the cost is that runners get bussed to the start from race HQ at Beeslack High School in Penicuik. We had to set off at 11am to get to the school in good time, and the only clue as to Carnethy’s decision was a retweet from someone wishing everyone doing Carnethy 5 good luck. Even so, I didn’t believe it was on until we got to Penicuik and the car park was full and there were many lean people wandering about in waterproofs and lycra tights. I had been advised to bring “EVERYTHING” and so I had: although I run in shorts even in snow – my legs rarely get cold – I had brought long tights and plenty of layers. The race organizers required everyone to carry full body cover, and a long-sleeved top. In practice, most people in the hall seemed to be wearing all their kit at once, including me.

I was more nervous than usual. I’d had a race stress dream the night before (the one where you can’t find your kit or shoes or something), and I’d convinced myself that everyone in Scotland was a fabulous hill runner, and that they were all Jasmin Paris (who runs for Carnethy) and Finlay Wild (who always wins the Ben Nevis race), and that I would be the lumbering Englishwoman – actually half Welsh but that’s irrelevant – at the back. Tim, a friend of FRB’s who he had met a few years ago at Trapain Law race, but whose wife is from up here, reassured me. The race field is no different to what you are used to, he said. All sorts. You won’t be last.

My club-mate Dom was also running the race, as he was combining it with a visit to Edinburgh. It’s not often that we remember to get team photos but here is one:

See? I’m wearing EVERYTHING.

I think I made five toilet visits, only four of which were necessary, and eventually, we made our way out to wait for a bus to be driven ten minutes to the start. The kit check was carried out in the bus queue, and consisted of, “have you got a map? Gloves? Hat? OK then.”

The bus took us to a field underneath Carnethy Hill, where a few marquees were managing to stay upright. The winds weren’t too bad down here, and my nerves were slightly soothed by the piper standing on a mound nearby, piping us up five snow-capped hills.

We’d got one of the last buses so didn’t have long to wait for the start. I managed to warm up, but still decided to keep my jacket on. I was kitted out excessively according to my usual standards: long tights, which I’ve only ever worn for Rombald’s in snow and cold, and a waterproof jacket.

There were announcements but most were carried away by the wind. I expect they were the usual: don’t do anything stupid and if you fall over find a marshal and report back to the marquees. And then we were off. FRB, who has run Carnethy before, had given me some tips: there was a long stretch of very boggy and wet ground before we began to rise up to climb Scald Law. Stay to the left, he said. It will still be boggy but better. Also, head for the tiny hi-viz dot standing by some green bushes, which is a marshal. I squinted, saw a tiny hi-viz dot, just about, and agreed to do that. There was a gunshot, or cannon, or something, and we set off. Steady away, Rose, you will need your strength for the wind. Even so I was anxious: don’t be last, don’t be last.

So silly.

I ran as best I could, though the ground was not ground but swamp, and there was a beck crossing. So even this first half mile was hard going, as your legs are working twice as hard to accommodate the water. I felt neither good nor bad, I just kept going. FRB’s Dad had decided not to run as he was injured, but he was going to try to endure the weather and take photographs, and there he was standing on a bank before we turned to start climbing. I would get used to this sight, of a line of runners climbing in front of me, because Carnethy 5 has a purity to its planning: you go up and then you come down, five times.

In Carnethy’s description: “The race is over rough open hillside, through thick heather and boggy/rocky sections of ground, with minimal paths. The race involves 2,500′ of very steep ascent and descent, some of which you will struggle to run. It’s fair to say this race will feel a lot harder than a flat road race, but it is not beyond anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. As a very rough guide, the race organiser completes this race in somewhere between his road 10k and half marathon times.”

I climbed to Scald Law, I loved the descent, I climbed again to South Black Hill, I loved the descent, East Kip, I loved the descent, and then there was West Kip.

I can’t remember which hill I was climbing, but at one point I nearly fell backwards. A kind arm stopped me and righted me, and that was the nature of this race: there was kindness and people looking out for each other. The solidarity of fighting extreme elements. FRB had a similar experience except someone grabbed his buttocks to keep him upright. My assistance was more decorous, and I was grateful for it.

West Kip though was something else. This was the fourth hill, and by now I had begun to tire of the wind, but the wind knew this and decided to re-stoke its engines. I had my hood up as it was also hailing – of course – so I kept bumping into people as I could neither hear nor see them coming. We all trudged up as best we could. Towards the top, I was on my hands and knees and standing upright seemed actually dangerous. Here is a photograph that Peter MacDonald, one of the marshals on the top of West Kip, took, though how he managed to stay standing and use a camera is an enigma.

Image by Peter MacDonald

I had my phone with me, and I turned round a couple of times to look, and there were runners behind me, a trail of colour over the brown bracken and white snow of the hills, and it was pretty but not enough for me to consider taking off my gloves, getting out my phone, unwrapping it from its weather-proof sandwich bag, taking a picture and doing it all in the reverse. Too much effort. No photos.

I was so thankful to the marshals on top of these hills. The wind was so strong, it was an assault. I usually object to people using the word “brutal” about races, as most are not, not really. But this section, this struggle to stay upright while your pack is being blown off you and while you could fall off the hill: this section was brutal. I have run Tour of Pendle in a blizzard, and it was hard. I have run in hail so biting it gave me pockmarks. But I don’t think I’ve ever had to fight the weather as much as on this race. It got to the point on West Kip where it was so extreme that I had to laugh at it. What else can you do? You can’t reverse. You have to get off the hill. You may as well glory in the extremity of it and keep running.

We turned on the summit to descend and suddenly the wind was even more dangerous, because the descent was tricky and the wind was now behind: it didn’t get us on the top so now it wanted to push us down a steep slope. I persevered, and my legs began to enjoy the descent, steep at first then levelling out. Not flat though: I knew this because I was overtaking people and I only ever do that on descents. The final part before we descended towards Loganlea reservoir was a grassy muddy bank. I slipped, and then suddenly slid at great speed, so fast I didn’t know how to stop, until a bush helped me out. It was great fun and I was laughing out loud, and quietly thankful that no rocks had punctured my backside on the way. The power of that slide! A fellow runner congratulated me on it and I agreed that yes, it was some of my finest work.

Onwards to the reservoir, then to the cut-off, which I had forgotten about. Nor had I checked my watch. The cut-off was 1 hour 15, and I think I got there in about an hour but as I didn’t even realise it was a cut-off, that didn’t matter. About 20 runners didn’t make it. (I mean, they weren’t quick enough, not that they expired.)

Up again now, for the final climb to Carnethy Hill. I was alongside a man in shorts who said he rather regretted not wearing long trousers, as his legs were blue. There, again, was FRB Dad, taking pictures and joking with folk he knew, of which there were plenty.

I got myself up the hill and then there was the joy of the final descent. Tim had warned me before about this part, that there was gorse that bit and rocks that made you stumble, and that the two together were rather testing. But much of the gorse and heather had been burned and tamed. There were a few sections of scree-sliding, and then a hell-for-leather how-do-I-stop careering, which was fun. For a while I couldn’t figure out why I could hear the powerful jet engines of an airliner, until I realised it was the wind in my hood.

Then the long slog back over the swamp and through the beck to the finish. A photographer at the beck got some excellent pictures, though not of me (I stayed upright).

Image by Paul Dobson

And there were the feather flags of the finish, and FRB standing waiting for me. I had a cup of hot liquid which may have been tea or coffee and it didn’t matter at all which, and a biscuit. Then FRB said, shall we run back instead of waiting for buses? And I must have been on such a high from the final descent that I agreed without question. A marshal gave us directions for the three miles back to the school, which ended up being mostly farm tracks and woodland, so it was pleasant.

Just as we approached Beeslack High School, the rain began and then it intensified, and we arrived back to a downpour. There were changing rooms and showers but with 500 entrants, including a healthy proportion of women, there was no room, so I had a wet-wipe shower in the middle of the sports hall, with the help of a judiciously placed towel. Then I headed to the kitchen for food, which was a lentil dal or a spicier vegetable curry, and it was delicious. In fact, the £17 was good value, as we had also been given a bottle of Carnethy 5 beer, a 50th anniversary mug and a beer mat.

I realised afterwards that I’d been sitting next to a woman who had run the whole race although she was 80 or thereabouts. I wish I’d known because I would have genuflected at her feet. In the main hall, Jasmin Paris and her husband were hanging out, and I got starstruck, by Jasmin as well as by her daughter Rowan, who became as famous as her mum after the Spine Race. I left them be though. Nobody wants to be bothered by genuflecting strangers, do they?

We didn’t stay for prizegiving, although I did want to see the female and male winner each get a broadsword. Me, I got my beer and beer mat and mug, and I was happy to have those as well as significant satisfaction at having run a race in actually brutal conditions, and doing alright. My profound gratitude to everyone who stood out in those winds to marshal: thank you.

Do I think they were right to run the race? Yes. Though it took courage to do it.

I came 404 out of 503 runners, and I’m pleased with that. I think I’ll be back.

Heptonstall : the return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Me: I hope you’re warm enough.

Him: No, I’m not.

Me: Oh.

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

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

*Runner runs off, perfectly warm.*

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

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

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

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

Twenty-four minutes!

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A slow panic. A mild dread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Cup Nick 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rombald Stride 2018


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

They worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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