A race. An actual race. A race with real numbers that you pin to your club vest with actual pins. Real checkpoints. Real marshals. Everything real. Everything vivid. Everything I have not done for six months, since FRB and I did the 30-mile Haworth Hobble in March, in the last weekend before lockdown. For this race, timing was important. A week before it was due to be run, we still hadn’t entered and the entry list – it had only 100 runners – was full. Oh. I wrote to Jamie, a fell-running mate of ours who organizes it, and congratulated him on the race selling out and cursing my lateness at entering. It’s not a passive aggressive message request for places, I wrote, meaning it. Anyway, the dodgy knee that I have had since a month into lockdown would be thankful that I was not going to be running the 28 miles of the Lancashireman off-road “marathon” (they are generous in Lancashire) on very imperfect training.
Hey, remember me? I used to write this blog quite regularly. And then the entries got further and further apart, and the half-finished and quarter-finished accounts piled up in my drafts folder, and then there was silence. I did write this about lockdown running, for the New York Review of Books, but otherwise: nothing and zilch. I kept running during the silence, I found new routes locally and enjoyed them, I fell in love with my local woodland, I did a few virtual challenges that my club set up, characteristically not doing them for two months then doing all three in a week. I began to do more and more yoga to the point where I now feel a need to do it and feel odd if I don’t. I bought road shoes at the start of lockdown which now have nearly 300 miles on them. I went mostly vegan, trying to be vegan during the week and eating all the cheese at weekends, and watched half a stone drop off with no effort. I discovered that vegan cheese is a work in progress, unless you like everything to smell and taste of weird coconut, and that vegan cream, yoghurt and ice-cream is great. But mostly I have coasted along like everyone else, as best I can. We decided against our annual trip to my house in France and some good mountain training, because the UK government decided France is so infected anyone coming back must quarantine, and the French government, when I asked them on Twitter, did not commit to not committing to a reciprocal quarantine, which would have meant a month in France would have been half quarantine and then another two weeks on return. So, non merci.
Instead, we went to Scotland and stayed in a house by a railway line in Pitlochry, and waved at trains and counted the cows in the far away opposite field, and learned Gaelic from Duolingo (a cow is a bo; a dog is a cu. Confusing), and ran/walked up beautiful mountains. I have never before experienced a run/walk in which the slowest mile was downhill, but then I have never encountered such a perfect mix of scree, bog and slush as I did on Airgiod Bheinn. The sun mostly shone, the midges stayed away, we ate haggis (vegetarian for me, which always baffles me, as it’s really only oats and onions), and we had a fine time.
Then we came back and I wrote to Jamie. He wrote back: it just happened that he had a couple of places and would we like them?
The reasons against accepting:
1. The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
2. The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
3. The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
We had spent hours on our feet in Scotland, but before that I’d not run beyond 15 miles for months, since the Fellsman, the 60-mile race we had planned to do in April, was one of the first to be cancelled. But I have form at running long runs unprepared and so does FRB. I said yes please to Jamie, and started eating everything. I was worried about my knee, as although my physio had decided my knee pain was due to inactive glutes, and finished with “go forth and run,” it was not getting better and sitting and lying both made it hurt. The only time it seemed OK was running, but not steeply downhill. But I accepted the places, hoped my knee would behave, and got quite excited.
I did a training session of mile efforts on the Wednesday, then no more running. I had a seriously crappy week for work/book reasons, and began to think that running for six or so hours across Lancashire countryside was exactly what I needed. We headed to Burnley on Saturday night, had a night at the Premier Inn for £33 (pandemic price), then up at 6.30 to eat our DIY breakfasts: Weetabix in Tupperware and an M&S baguette. Elite fuelling.
I was going to try Mountain Fuel again for this. I’ve used it once before and liked it and thought I needed all the help I could get. So I downed half a packet with my baguette, and filled my soft flasks with the other half. “Don’t pack too much,” said FRB, as he knows I usually pack a full picnic, and we knew there would be food at checkpoints. So I packed a full picnic: chocolate bars, sweets, flapjacks, Quorn sausages, Mountain Fuel sports jellies. The weather forecast was perfect, predicting single figure temperatures but outbreaks of sunshine. It would be cool on the tops though, and there would be a lot of tops, so I put on a merino long-sleeve with my club vest.
The race had been allowed to go ahead because it was going to be Covid-secure. That meant only turning up to get your race number 15 minutes before your designated start time, designated start times that set people off in groups of no more than six, only packaged food at checkpoints, and no milling. Everyone was conforming to this when we turned up, ready for our 8.21 start, and with little faffing time, we were set off. FRB had a plan: 10 minute-miling to start with, and steady steady all the way. That way, he thought, we could comfortably finish in six hours and beat our time of last year (just over 6.30). He also thought we could win the mixed pair category, but I tried to put that out of my head. Steady, think of your knee, steady, steady, steady.
I thought I knew the route. I’d recced most of it last year, and we’d run it of course, though partly in pouring rain. The weather this year was so far beautiful, with clear sunny skies. Maybe that’s why I realised I couldn’t remember much of the second mile through woodland, and there were a couple of junctions where FRB wasn’t sure either because it had been raining so hard the year before, and there were lots more runners around to follow. Even now I’m not sure I’d be able to find my way again. And this was going to be a theme for the whole route, as it turned out that once again, I knew sections but not necessarily in the right order.
But between us we knew most of it, and FRB knew which section followed which, so on we trotted at a steady pace. A few fast men running alone passed us, some with courtesy and some without but mostly any other runners we encountered were good-humoured. The sunniness that sunshine brings. The route mostly follows the Burnley Way, a path that Visit Lancashire describes with odd grammar as “a 40-mile adventure from industrial heritage, along waterways, through fields, parks, old farms, and Forest of Burnley woodlands to the wild South Pennine Moors.” The route “has been recently updated and revised into six easy sections.”
Easy? I knew there were nearly 4,000 feet of climb over the 28 miles and that the biggest climb of all was at mile 20. At least, deep inside I knew but I was refusing to think about it.
At one point FRB suggested we slow down. Your breathing is off, he said. I felt alright but not super strong. But I also didn’t have that panic of looking at my watch and feeling my heart sink at how many miles were left. I thought we had done 5 and looked and saw we’d done more than 8, and that lifted my spirits for miles. My knee was sore but functional. FRB’s problematic ankles were sore but functional. We carried on. Anyway I had a get-out clause if things got bad: I could give up at Hurstwood reservoir, half-way round the route, and get a bus back to Burnley, a couple of miles away.
Seven miles in, we reached the part that even FRB was unsure about. Last year we had lost time by having to go back on ourselves to find a footbridge at the bottom of some fields. So this year we had separately studied it online. I’d calculated that we had to turn south a third of a mile after a farm with stables. FRB had worked it out with orientation. This time we turned at the right point, headed down to a gate, seeing ahead of us on a hill runners who had gone beyond and were now doubling back. If you don’t accidentally detour at least once on the Lancashireman, you’ve probably done it wrong. Jamie & crew do their best, with the odd chalked LORM and arrow, and the Burnley Way is waymarked now and then with a sunny B, but there are plenty of miles where it isn’t. Even so, FRB still thought we had to go back east to find the footbridge, and I didn’t. A runner ahead of us said, “well, this is where the footbridge was last year so I’m going that way this year.” He was right. It was there.
But by now the runners who had gone the right way and runners who had gone the wrong way were all converging, so that up the hill on the far side of the bridge, the narrow singletrack path of stone steps — known as the Ogglty-Cogglty — became bottlenecked. This is a usual situation in fell running, but not in fell running during a pandemic. I turned and courteously asked the man behind me to back off, and he did. FRB meanwhile had a man behind him so close, FRB knew he had had garlic the day before. Asked to Ogglty-Cogglty off, he didn’t, so it couldn’t be dismissed as thoughtlessness. It’s not like anyone was going anywhere fast: the climb was steep, no-one was running it, and it was packed solid. I really try to dampen my judginess in life these days, else I would spend my life internally fuming at people getting too close, wearing masks wrong, just being wrong. But this was different: we all knew that we had to keep a distance.
Out of the woods, the sun was warmer than forecast, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. We reached the first checkpoint, staffed by cheery marshals in green t-shirts. This was my first experience of a Covid-secure checkpoint and as advertised, all food was packaged – biscuits, chocolate bars, crisps – and water was dispensed from jugs. There could have been improvements such as a one-way funnel, but there was plenty of hand sanitizer and it was being done as safely as possible. You can never eliminate risk, just reduce it as best you can. A young woman who was pouring me water looked behind me and said, “well done Mum!”.
I was surprised, I think because I immediately pictured my own mother arriving behind me in a race. She is 80, and fabulous, and has been walking 12 miles a week during the pandemic, but she’s never going to be a fellrunner.
I asked the girl, stupidly, “your mother is running?”
“Yes, that’s her in the red.”
I turned to look. “How old is she?”
I said “oh shit,” and people laughed and I’m still not sure why I said that. There were no age categories in the mixed pair category and anyway, I wasn’t being competitive, remember? Still I kept an eye on her for a while until we drew away from her. Habit.
Soon we stopped to strip down to the fell-running fashion category “vest-only.” Then onwards, up horrible tarmac, some fake-running for the photographer, who managed to do what FRB usually does and make me look like a Hobbit.
My brain was busy calculating what was coming next. It was like that animation of a human brain using mechanical wheels and whirring. Finally the whirring stopped and I knew: Widdop reservoir and moorland. More whirring: A couple of miles across the tops of the moors, past Gorpal Stones, down to Hurstwood reservoir and that would be halfway.
On a parallel road on the far side of the valley, there was honking and shouting from a few cars driving past. “Something to do with Yorkshire,” said FRB, who can hear better through a buff than I can. The route passed briefly into Yorkshire so the honking was justified, in my Yorkshire view.
Far off in front of us was a young woman who I thought we would never catch. Then, as we turned off the road to boggy paths around Widdop reservoir, she slowed, and we passed her easily. I don’t know if the Lancashireman counts as a fell race but if you don’t have fell experience, obviously that will show in the boggy bits. Not that I didn’t fall. I did, but I made sure to fall on a soft bit.
The view from Gorple Stones was beautiful, as it always is. Later, we learned that a runner had fallen here and dislocated his shoulder. He’d been content to run on, until the marshals pointed out that his bone was several centimetres forward from where it should have been.
Hurstwood. I couldn’t have sped up, but I didn’t need to slow down or stop. I felt quite good, and we made sure to run harmoniously for Jamie’s camera.
Along the way we encountered two men running ahead of us. I was running behind FRB as usual – this very reasonably winds him up because it’s not always about pace but habit – so didn’t hear the conversation until I got closer and saw one of the men’s head was covered with dried blood. He had fallen, also after Gorple Stones. FRB said he had seen him up ahead holding his head. He was OK to go on, and said he would wash off in a beck, then didn’t. Finally I offered him a wet wipe, then had to dig around in my pack for it as of course my first aid kit was at the bottom of my copious dry bag of kit. “Sorry lass,” said David, of the bloodied head. “Sorry to hold you back.” Oh, we’re not competitive said Rose and FRB (the same Rose who knows exactly by how many minutes they came second eventually in the mixed pair category and calculates that this was probably the same amount of minutes lost helping David but that’s fine).
We ran on together, past the next checkpoint, along the thankless Long Causeway tarmac road, past cloughs and gullies. FRB occasionally called people back who had gone wrong, because he is kind, and his memory was far better than mine for the right lines and turn-offs, although I had reccied the route last year and he hadn’t. He knew to correct and when, though one correction had us going through a large clump of rushes that hid nettles, where FRB found a trod that I didn’t notice. The nettles noticed me though. By now something strange was happening. I was running more. My legs would run when my brain didn’t want to. I felt stronger. It was very odd. Maybe it was the Mountain Fuel? And, as if we were on a see-saw, FRB started to weaken. He kicked a rock on a rocky descent and got cramp, and it didn’t abate for the last hour. And this being the Lancashireman, the hardest climb was coming up, to Heald Moor and Thievley Pike. At this point, my poor memory was an advantage, because I had forgotten how long and steep the climb was, so just put my head down and climbed. Behind me, two women running in pink were telling two other runners what was coming up. “Horrendous! The worst climb ever! It’s awful!”
I wondered at this. It wasn’t horrendous, it definitely wasn’t the worst climb ever, and if it was that awful, why were you doing the race? It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the views back to the other side of the valley were lovely. Perhaps that negativity got them up the hill more easily. Whatever works.
Me, I was enjoying it. I was running easily and not tiring. My knee was sore but not disabling. And we only had a few miles left. FRB had gone quiet in the way that pain makes you quiet. I wasn’t used to being the stronger runner, so wasn’t as good as I should have been at chivvying, only now and then asking if he was OK, if he wanted to walk, whether he could go on.
Of course he went on. Through a field where manure had been freshly spread, next. Good lord, what a stink. Just as we got to the far side and a blessedly unmanured path, the tractor started spraying it again, just where we’d been. FRB looked behind and said, lucky escape.
The path led down, eventually, into the grandiose Townley Hall, where we ran past sports pitches and a footballer lying on the ground and I thought, I bet a fell-runner would run through whatever injury he has. Past families with ice-cream, and a young girl who looked at me and asked her mother what I was doing. “She’s running!” But I wasn’t at that point, so then I had to.
There was only one short real climb to go, but it was uphill to Todmorden Road before that. Then along above the railway, with runners around us clearly tiring but enduring, as we were. Through the Kilns, where I directed a chatty pair from Accrington. At least, she was chatty. He wasn’t, and had to be chivvied, if chivvying consists of “COME ON MICK.” I’ve never seen a man running with clingfilm wrapped around his leg before, and I won’t forget Mick’s. They were both doing the relay, which you could do in pairs or threes or more. I think they were doing the two-leg relay, which was still 12 miles or so. Mick made it to the end, clingfilm and all.
Finally, after we had run away from Burnley to run back to it, we were running down into town, past someone getting their Morrison’s delivery, and a smile from the young woman driving the van, to the canal where of course I wanted to go to the wrong way but even FRB in pain knew the right way. This seemed such a long stretch though it was probably only half a mile. The last half mile of 28 will always feel like it is three times the distance. Then, eventually, the sound of clapping and cheering and there was Sandygate plaza, and some steps to run up that were nothing as bad as Butt Lane at the end of the Yorkshireman, but also not flat. We got to Jamie at the top and then: where was the finish line? Stop, said Jamie, stop! You’ve finished. This is it. He was it.
28 miles on little training and through niggles and cramp, but it was fun. It was good to be out racing again amongst beautiful scenery and the like-minded. It was good to pin a number on my race vest again, and pull out the rainbow race socks. It was good to stop and eat the two Quorn sausages that I had been carrying for six hours. It was good to be out, away from bad news and more bad news, to run past a man with binoculars and think, what a lovely smile he has, to be greeted with good cheer by everyone, to have my sinuses cleared by fresh cow shit.
Six hours. Actually it was 6.07. That was fine, and 25 minutes quicker than we had done the year before. Better weather this time, but worse training. Though last year I had run the Yorkshireman a week earlier. We placed second mixed pair after a couple from Clayton-le-Moors. We will do better next year, because I will definitely be back to the dark side, if the pandemic allows.
ps My knee? It hurts.