For a while now, I’ve been part of an informal group of women. We are called Women with Torches, and every couple of weeks we go out with head torches and run several miles off-road. Nothing more complicated than that. The group began because we were talking at a race about how we dislike road running, even in winter, and how there are men in our clubs who go off and do head-torch runs, but they are fast, and we didn’t feel like having to keep up with them or guilty about slowing them down. Nor did we feel comfortable about going off into woods and moors in darkness on our own. Though as the only time I’ve felt unsafe was in the very posh suburb of Alwoodley in Leeds, I think woods and moors are probably much more secure. So the solution was: numbers. There are about a dozen of Women with Torches now, from several Leeds clubs, and it’s great.
But that’s not what I’m writing about. Or perhaps it is, as I want to write about fell running and danger. Several of our Women with Torches will be attempting the Three Peaks in April, including me. I don’t need to qualify as I ran it last year, but some women need to do two qualifying races to enter (as the Three Peaks organisers demand a certain level of competence). The qualifying races are AM, AL or BL, in FRA terms. Translated, that means, shortish and steep, longer and steep, longer and less steep.
One of the good local-ish qualifying races is the Mickleden Straddle, in the Dark Peak of the Peak District. It’s a 14-mile route that starts and finishes at Langsett Reservoir near Penistone. Sara, my Yorkshireman running partner, and Caroline both decided to do the race, and wanted to recce the route, and invited other Women With Torches, and other fell-running women, along too. I thought 14 miles of running around the Peak District sounded like a very good way to spend a Saturday, and it would be my long run of the week and would beat running around the roads of Leeds. FRB decided to come too, though he was a little wary about being the only man in a women-only group. We told him it would be fine. That was until we turned up at the car park at Langsett Reservoir early on Saturday morning, and met our fellow runners. They had come in a camper van that was actually a Tardis, because more and more women poured out of it, and FRB looked more and more disconcerted. In the end, we were ten women and one man. FRB dealt with this by being FRB.
The route is relatively straightforward. You follow a footpath south towards Howden reservoir, and then do a lollipop across country before joining the path to head back north to Langsett. Namely, this:
I was keen to do the route because I want to run more in the Peak District. We usually go north, to the moors, or the Dales or the Lakes. The only time I’ve run in the south Pennines was during my club weekend away, when I did a ten mile ridge run that took in Mam Tor, in an attempt to run off a horrible cold. It didn’t work, and I was in bed for days, but the scenery was gorgeous. Out of Langsett, we ran on a track for a while (this will become important later), then a footpath. The nearer to the carpark, the easier the footpath. The further we ran, the rockier it got. I know that when I run I can have a tendency to swipe my right leg around instead of lifting it, though that’s usually when I’m tired. I don’t know what happened this time, as we’d only run for a mile and half or so, and I felt fine. Probably it was karma, because I had just said to Sara, “make sure you’re not running on automatic pilot,” meaning that she should take in the route rather than rely on other people, which is really easy to do when there’s a group of you, when some of you know the route, and when you’re at the back, as me and Sara were. As soon as I’d said that, my foot clipped a rock, and I fell. I wasn’t going fast, but add speed and my body weight, and by the time my kneecap made contact with a rock, there was enough force for it to hurt, a lot. I think I yelled, because Sara turned back and came to me. I sat there in shock for a while because I couldn’t think beyond the immediate pain. I tried to stand on it, but my knee wouldn’t bear weight. I’ve had problems with my right knee for a while, though I think the actual problem is my right hip. Whatever the cause, if I don’t stretch properly after running – by that I mean doing half an hour of hip-specific yoga – the next day my knee gives way when I’m climbing or descending stairs. The weakness passes, and there’s no pain, but there’s clearly something I need to work on. It makes sense that I fell on what FRB calls “your duff leg,” because that’s the one that doesn’t run properly. I sat on the ground for a few minutes, then managed to stand up, then leaned on Sara and walked. FRB had run on ahead, but I knew he’d figure out that we were missing, and soon enough, he came running over the hill, and it was a very welcome sight. I said, I can try to run now, as the pain had abated, but he told me to walk until we were over the brow of the hill. I did, and found the rest of the group down below waiting on a footbridge. FRB suggested that we took Sara’s car-key in case I or we needed to cut short the run and get back to the car, but I was stubborn. “No. I’m carrying on. We don’t need a key.”
Stupid me. But I did carry on, and my leg ached and ached and ached more. FRB gave me paracetamol which worked magically (and later Hilary gave me ibuprofen too). And the scenery helped:
By now the group had split and wouldn’t be a full group again until sat around cafe tables with warm drinks and soup. So we were half a dozen running together. Sometimes we had time to take pictures:
The “path” was rocks, rocks and more rocks. It was one of the most technical routes I’ve run in a long while. Someone asked me last night whether “technical” was a fell running term. I said, I suppose it is, and translated it. It means terrain that means you can’t take your eyes off your feet. You can’t look up, or sideways, or anywhere but at what your feet are on. It’s too risky. CORRECTION: As I’ve been rightly corrected, you should look at your line, not your feet. This means looking a couple of feet ahead of you, so you know what’s coming and where you should place your feet. This, along with other things, is why fell running is as good for mental agility as it is for physical agility. You always have to think ahead, process, plan, be alert.
So we went on and on, along the rocky path, through beautiful gullies and valleys, towards Howden reservoir. It was cold, particularly on the heights, and the bracken and grass was frosty and beautiful. There is a stretch of running which makes the word “path” laughable, as it’s bogs and big boulders and more bogs. This may be where there is a checkpoint called Slippery Stones. But then there are flagstones, then at some point we turned up into woods, then began the lollipop back towards the main footpath. We’d run about eight miles by now and I wasn’t in good spirits. I was regretting my stoicism, my “I’ll run on” confidence. The painkillers had worn off, but as I’d taken maximum paracetamol and maximum ibuprofen I couldn’t yet take any more. And my leg was a mass of dull ache. The last thing it wanted was several miles of a sheep trod through tussocks and bogs, but that’s what it got.
I tried to feel better. I tried to put a smile on my face. I was running, and the scenery was amazing and beautiful. Sweeping hills and valleys, bleak and magnificent, with no sign of human civilisation except the odd stile, walker and us. It was the kind of situation and landscape in which I am usually happiest. But I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted it to be over, but keeping on and running back was the quickest way to achieve that. By now, Sara and I were running at the back. Hilary and Caroline were a short distance ahead, and FRB was around, but he was getting cold, having decided to wear shorts, but not realising he’d be back-of-the-pack running with us, at a pace that made shorts a very cold wardrobe option. He needed to get some pace on and run on, and he did, saying he would loop back. I was wearing a thermal and t-shirt but not a jacket, and I knew I was cold but thought it was tolerable. But then I got to the point where I thought it wise to put a jacket on, and it was the right decision. This blog post, by a lad who ran Trigger the other week, is a reminder of how difficult it is to judge when you are safely cold or dangerously cold. The trouble with hypothermia is that once you have it you can’t think straight enough to know you have it.
I wasn’t hypothermic. But I was tired, and grumpy, and my leg hurt, and that was also a risky state to be in, because I probably wasn’t lifting my right leg up enough. I knew that was a risk, and the last thing I wanted was to fall again, so I tried to pay attention to it. But after ten miles, my self-awareness was diminishing, and I was just focused on getting to the end of the run. We got back onto the rocky track/path/series of boulders that passed for a path. Sara was running ahead of me, and I knew we only had a couple of miles to go. And it happened again. I fell.
I can’t remember what happened except for this: I fell forward. I think I yelled something, either “NOT AGAIN” or “FUUUUUUCK”, but it didn’t stop me, because I fell with my full body weight, and my face hit a rock. I can remember my nose hitting a rock and thinking nothing verbal but being aghast and horrified. And then there was just shock and pain. I burst into tears. When I say I burst into tears, I mean I was sobbing like a child. It was pure shock, and the shock of hitting the most vulnerable part of you against a hard immovable object. A 47-year-old woman lying on the ground bawling. Sara of course ran back and crouched down next to me and held me, and I couldn’t stop crying. There was so much blood and I didn’t know where it was coming from. I didn’t know if I’d broken my nose or if I had smashed my teeth. I had no awareness of my face at all, because it was all pain. My hands were covered with blood, I was dripping blood onto the rocks, and it didn’t seem to be stopping. After a while, I managed to say, “I’ll stop crying soon, it’s the shock,” but I kept crying. I had no control over it, though it was partly fury at my own stupidity at having fallen again, and even more seriously. Sara was amazing and I will be grateful to her for all time to come.
Initially I couldn’t stand up, as I’d obviously whacked the palm of my left hand when I fell and couldn’t put weight on it, so Sara lifted me up, and looked at my face, and told me my nose didn’t look broken and my teeth were all OK. I’m still not sure where all that blood came from, but I’d cut my lip, my eyebrow and my knuckles, all good bleeders. We started to walk, and I’d finally stopped crying, and felt foolish and terrible. Hilary and Caroline were waiting for us. They’d been a few hundred metres ahead of us and realised we should have been in sight and weren’t, so they tried to phone, but reception was bad (and anyway, I’d cleverly left my phone in my jacket pocket in Sara’s car), so they waited. They, too, were lovely: they offered layers and warmth and wet wipes. I didn’t think I needed layers, my torso felt OK, but my hands were freezing, and I’d just spent several minutes lying on cold rocks, a few of them in a foetal position bawling my eyes out, and now my temperature was suffering. This of course was the point where I realised I’d lost one of my super-warm mittens. But I had spare gloves, so I put them on and was still cold. Caroline offered me some woollen gloves, and Hilary found a wet-wipe to wipe the worst of the blood. I didn’t want to touch my face until I could get to warm water and a sink. I had no idea what I looked like. FRB had tried to phone first me, then Caroline, but I wasn’t too worried as I knew he’d be running back.
My leg had been bashed again as well and was cut in several places. Even so, I thought I should run, but only because I felt awful that I was holding back Caroline and Hilary and Sara, and there were still two miles to go. But they insisted they would walk with me, and we walked for a while and then there was FRB, looking concerned. He put his arm round me and I nearly started blubbing again, but he sternly told me to keep moving, to stay warm. I didn’t mind the sternness as I knew why he was doing it, and it worked. I didn’t start howling again. He and I told the others to run on, because everyone was cold. At least I think we did. It’s a bit of a blur. I just know that I began to shuffle, then run a bit, and somehow we all got back to the reservoir path, which is shale and flat and which has NO ROCKS. Hilary said we could do a short-cut through the woods, and I heard the word “short-cut” and nearly embraced her with gratitude, and we made our way back to the car park, past walkers who looked at me a bit funny. They must have thought I was a right state. “Or,” said someone later, “that you were a hard as nails fell runner.” Or, that anyone in shorts and covered in blood and mud is a bit weird.
I went to the toilets to wash my face, then we went to the cafe to minister ourselves with warm food and drink. The others were there, and everyone enquired after me, and I was grateful for everyone’s kindness but I felt stupid, like I was the clumsy idiot at the back. I know the falls were connected: my aching leg meant I was tired and annoyed and not paying attention, and that’s why I fell again.
But I wanted to talk about danger. You might think this would put me off fell-running. I have a theory which is not at all borne out by evidence, that road runners have chronic injuries, but fell runners get injured by incidents and accidents. This theory relies on the fact that off-road running is usually a variety of terrain, so the chronic injuries which – again, on little evidence – caused by the constant repetition of road running don’t generally happen. The trouble is, fell running injuries can hurt. Today I am battered, and bruised, and I can read on my body what I did when I fell, because the right side of my face took the impact: my nose is grazed, my eyebrow cut and bruised, my lip opened. Obviously I turned so that my right side hit the rocks. I know there was more than one rock because my right leg has track marks of bruises, and half a dozen cuts and abrasions. But my nose wasn’t broken, and neither were my teeth. I’m lucky. Though I do look like this:
(Quote from FRB as he took this picture: “You’re writing a book on blood. Consider this hands-on book research.”)
What is the outcome? I don’t want to run on any rocks this week. I don’t know if my confidence has been battered like my body, but I hope not. The joy of running on moors and hills, for me, is the exhilaration of descending, and if I’m scared of falling, the exhilaration will be muted and pale, and I don’t want that. I will return to running soon, as soon as my leg is healed and my face stops aching, and when I can bend my leg without wincing. And I will get back to rocky paths, and lift my legs up.
The moral of this long-winded post, and the answer to my mother, who is too polite to ask but who wonders constantly why I choose to do this “dangerous” activity, especially when I fall, is that fell running is risky but not. There is risk but it is worthwhile, and the very slight chance of injury is outweighed, hugely, by the benefits. Not just the opportunity to run freely amongst beautiful landscapes. But also the kindness of my fellow runners, who would never have left me alone, who offered me painkillers and layers and warmth, but also patience and generosity and care. And this is not unusual behaviour on the hills, which makes it more wonderful still. I’m not going to relate this to politics but perhaps we forget, at the moment, how kind people are. They are, though, and more often than not. I’m very very grateful to FRB, Sara, Caroline and Hilary: Thank you.
And now I’ll try to stop falling over.