I decided to try an experiment. It was a very foolish idea. Could I run a marathon on inadequate training? More precisely: could I run an off-road marathon on training that had amounted to about one run a week for the last four weeks; nothing above nine miles; hardly any hills; when the marathon included 3,000 feet of climb?
The answer should have been no. To run the Yorkshireman on as little training as I have done for the past few months was the act of a lunatic. I have kept relatively fit, during my book-writing lock-downs, by doing spin classes and weight-lifting. But I had done no long runs since the Three Peaks in April. I had hardly run at all, compared to my usual three or four runs a week. And yet something in me stubbornly refused to withdraw. “Are you sure you don’t want to switch to the half?” said FRB a few weeks ago. No. Not least because the half — actually a generous 15 miles, this being Yorkshire — had more climb per mile than the marathon. And because with no grounds for believing this, I thought I could do the full. I was stubborn for another reason. Last year, when I ran it as half of a pair with Sara, I had learned the route. It is the only route that I know extremely well. I was not going to waste that knowledge by running the half instead.
But of course I was worried. In other news, I have left my club Kirkstall Harriers after several years, and joined North Leeds Fell Runners. I’d been thinking about this for a while. I want more company on fell races, and I’ve drifted away from Kirkstall over the last year. There are still loads of Kirkstall Harriers I like very much, but I don’t socialise with the club as much as I used to, I haven’t been to training for months, I’d like more company at fell races, and it just felt like time to move. This is perhaps regarded as anathema by many club runners, who stay with clubs for years out of loyalty. And I did stay with Kirkstall out of loyalty for a long time, because it has been extremely good to me. But now I have given up purple and taken up the black and blue. In fact, although I have paid to be released from Kirkstall (it costs £10) and paid my membership for NLFR, England Athletics hasn’t yet processed the change and I don’t really belong to any club until my transfer has been approved by the Eligibility Committee. But I didn’t know this, so I paid for a new club vest, which is a cracker: black, with a sky blue sash and a red kite (though a blue red kite) over the logo. This would be my first race as a North Leeds Fell Runner, and I didn’t want that to coincide with it being my first DNF (Did Not Finish).
There wasn’t much I could do about it. I wasn’t going to pull out so I would have to run it. I asked FRB to be brutally honest and tell me whether he thought I could get round. He said, “you can get round.” He paused. “But it will be uncomfortable.” He calculated that if we managed an average pace of 12 minutes per mile, we could do it in 5 hours 15 minutes. After running it in six hours last year, and being disappointed with that time, this sounded brilliant. Twelve minute miles? Easy. That’s because I was forgetting all the climb. And the weather. FRB said “we” because he had decided to run it with me. This was a huge gesture of kindness: he would have to run two minutes a mile slower than his usual pace, which would be very tiring for him, he had run the very very tough Castle Carr race the week before, and all in all it would be a taxing day out for him. But the thought of having company when it was going to be five or six hours out in the wilds was a big comfort.
We both checked the weather in the week leading up to the race. FRB favours the Met Office and BBC. I prefer the Norwegians. I don’t remember where I read that the Norwegian weather service is supposed to be the best in the world, but I thought it was probably true when FRB kept showing me the weather for Keighley because the BBC didn’t have a forecast for Haworth, but the Norwegians did. Also, if you keep the website in the Norwegian, you can feel like you’re getting the weather report and you’re in a Scandi drama at the same time. (They got the forecast exactly right.)
I wrote a list, I prepared my race pack, I looked at the route and tried to visualise my way through it. I wouldn’t need to navigate, with FRB, but all these things were breaks from struggling with writing a chapter on HIV. I woke promptly at 6.30, drove to collect FRB and we headed for Haworth. Last year I’d managed to plan things so that I had to walk down and up the rather brutal finish of cobbled Butt Lane, twice. This year we planned better, parked elsewhere, and were in the school dining room, race HQ, with plenty of time. Coffee, a Mars Bar, apply Vaseline and rainbow socks, change shoes. The half-marathon runners, whose start was 30 minutes after ours, began to arrive. Jenny from NLFR was ill and had pulled out, so I was going to be the solitary NLFR. But there were plenty of folk I knew from local clubs, including Diane and Ian, who I’ve run in a few races with, who run as a pair, and who tend to fall out with loud and swearing frequency mid-race. Ian said, “I’ve changed my attitude.” Diane said, “He’s had his final warning.”
There were a few toilet visits, of course. And bloody well done, Keighley and Craven, for being the first race organizers ever to have potty parity in the portaloo provision. Five unisex portaloos, one male-only, and four ladies-only. That is how things should be, as women take longer in the toilet than men, and poor provision of toilets is why there are always longer queues in the ladies. I told this to everyone in the queue of course, and that I’d written a book on it. I was only trying to take people’s mind off things. I’m not sorry.
We had a pre-race picture. FRB likes to tell me that my new vest has the sash going the wrong way, and that it should pass over the heart. I told him that the heart isn’t where he thinks it is, and my colours are better.
We headed up the hill to the start, which is on Haworth’s main street. A quick warm-up. Too quick for FRB who looked at me sternly and said, you know there are 26.2 miles to run? There was time to take some fashion pics:
Then down the hill, a bit of milling about, and an announcement from race organizer Charlie, which consisted of:
- We’ve got goodwill from farmers and landowners and that hasn’t always been the case so behave
- If you see any YORM stickers that have fallen off or are the wrong way round, stick them back (to which FRB added “if you know which way round they’re supposed to go”)
- On your marks, get set, go
Most of the climb in the Yorkshireman is in the first half, and the first two miles feel like all of the climb is in the first two miles. I was determined to go steady, and I did, walking even the early inclines. FRB and I had an agreement: I would always be behind him, so if I was going to walk, I would yell “walking!” This worked, then transformed later into a second stage. After walking, I would say “shuffle” or he would say “shuffle?” and we did. But for now all was fine. I felt good, the weather was cool and dry, the way I like it, and on we went. There were lots of hooped vests around us, from Keighley & Craven, the hosts, but also Bingley and Calder Valley. I’d seen the man with McParty Tartan from last year, but I hadn’t managed to persuade FRB to run in his. “For 26 miles? No chance.” But he wore his family tartan buff instead, and Woodentops — Dave and Eileen Woodhead — took some lovely pictures as usual. Dave usually yells out something. This year, as we approached side by side, it was “Fatman and Wonderwoman!” which was more poetic than accurate, given the size of me and the size of FRB. I’m pleased that there is something called “the writer’s butt” but not so pleased that I have got one. And two sets of hockey legs combined into one. But still, they can shift no matter what size they are.
Along the way of course I thought of lots of things I wanted to remember and I have forgotten them all. Although I do remember thinking I should run with a dictaphone and keep it switched on. Anyway I felt mostly serene, and was astonished to see that an hour had passed and that we had run five miles. FRB every so often reminded me to pick my feet and legs up, something that would become more essential the more tired I got. My spirits were OK too and not too daunted by the fact of all the miles to come. I think I had managed to persuade myself, after book and menopause and the usual, that I was going to enjoy a day out, no matter what. And I did. The scenery around Haworth is lovely, I really like the Yorkshireman route, and I knew that the checkpoints always had good food.
Just as we reached the moor leading to Withens pub (which is no longer a pub), the first half marathon runner caught us. I know that this was galling for FRB, as they’d usually not catch him, or only just. But he didn’t say anything, and I was grateful. I’d made a deal with myself as I do whenever I run with someone who is faster: I will feel guilty for the first five minutes about slowing them down, and then I won’t. The leader was a few minutes ahead of the rest and I said well done, because I’m nice. He said “cheers” and he was the last one to do so. After that, it seemed that civility diminished with each approaching runner. I understand that they are going fast and that we were not. But they should find their own paths, not cut in front of me so I have to pull up short. Oh well.
Over the moor, then, to Withens pub, negotiating bogs and tussocks and skinny men running fast and splashingly. I stopped for a banana and a biscuit, then set off walking and eating, past the wind turbine farm that wasn’t there last year but now is, to the turn-off to Warley Moor. A woman running the half ran past me and said, “well done!” and that almost let me forgive the others, but I was pleased that the half and the full runners were about to part ways, and I turned onto Warley Moor with relief. And then it started raining. I didn’t take any pictures because my iPhone was in a plastic bag and it was too much trouble to get it out. And the important thing to was to keep moving no matter how slowly, but to move at faster than walking pace, for as long as I could. “Small steps,” said FRB. It is easy to stride with too much gusto on boggy ground, and Warley Moor was very very boggy, as FRB found out when he went in, in his words, “up to my knackers”. Right, I said, I’m not going that way. FRB: my bog-diving canary in a coalmine. Warley Moor seemed to last a long time, but that was because of the weather. At one point it felt like I had been making my way across it for my entire life, and that I would be there forever more. Daft. But the brain works like that when it is being pounded by rain and heavy wind and all you see is mud and water and tussocks.
As we dropped down to the road, I shouted to FRB, “look! folly!” because we had once had a dispute about whether a folly existed on that road (it does). He looked shocked and when we were safely on tarmac and out of the wind said, “if you’re going to shout at me, don’t do it on a downhill,” a reasonable request. And also maybe not to shout “folly” when it sounds like “fallen.” M aybe to make up for this I did fall a mile later, though for once I managed to do it on soft ground, in a narrow snicket overtaken with brambles and nettles. I got a bleeding knee, but that’s usual, and you haven’t really run a fell race if you haven’t drawn blood. FRB handed me some leaves in the next field to clean it off. Later, he said, “on reflection, maybe giving you leaves growing in a field with cattle in it wasn’t a good idea,” but unlike my sheep shit infection, my wounds survived cow pat residue.
On, and on, and I can’t remember much except that the effort got bigger. I think I had a low point at around mile 11 when suddenly it seemed impossible. FRB said I looked pale, and handed me some fizzy cola bottles. It’s a mark of how I was feeling that he said, “sorry, they’re not vegetarian,” and I said “I don’t care” and ate a fistful. Coming up to Ogden Water, we began running with a Bingley man who was unsure of the route. He stayed with us for a while but then dropped back and finished half an hour after us. I am certain that if FRB had not run with me, I would have done a similar time. But we managed to work out a serene running partnership, mostly. Most of his instructions and advice continued to be helpful, though “keep breathing” is not one of his better ones. “Keep moving” though was more useful than it sounded, and somehow, though I’ve no idea how, I did. The best trick was to walk-run and to judge best when to walk. Mostly, I walked every incline and ran the rest. Another trick was to divide up the enormity of it all, distance and time. For that, checkpoints were useful. I was looking forward to Denholme Velvets, as it was more than halfway round and last year they had jam sandwiches. This year there was only one marshal there and he looked cold and wet but still smiled. And he had Fat Rascals! What a champion. Later, my spirits were lifted enormously by a marshal who was wearing this:
He had trousers on, I think, but as he was at the penultimate checkpoint and there was a significant climb coming up, who knows? But he was delightful, cheery and charming and he had bananas. He made me smile, which in mile 24 is a massive achievement. Thank you, Keighley & Craven bananaman. Then there were the alpacas. I was really looking forward to the alpacas, but couldn’t remember where they were. This meant that for the 15 or so miles until I saw them, FRB had to deal with the equivalent of the parents’ endless torment of “are we there yet?” which was “are we near the alpacas?”
They were worth the wait. (Last years’ picture.)
The last few miles are a blur. I remember I was dreading Harden Moor, but I just put my head down and kept going. Except we stopped briefly to take pictures:
In FRB’s race debrief (ie we were chatting about it on the sofa while I drank as much wine as my body could take and ate all the chocolate) he said that those miles were when I impressed him most. Because I kept moving. He said, “I kept saying, let’s shuffle, and you’d just do it.” I’m not saying that to be vain but because I was surprised by that too. I didn’t think I had that mental strength, but I did. Before the race, I’d meant to write a mantra on my hands. Naff but useful. My mantra was going to be STRONG on one hand and BRAIN on the other. Because I knew my brain would be what got me round. There were other phrases in my head on the way round: Knees up, head up, feet up. But strong brain was what I chanted when I was struggling. And it worked. On the Worth Way, we encountered a group of Calder Valley runners who were mostly walking. They looked like they were no longer having fun. Keep the group in sight, said FRB, and we did, then overtook them. In fact, no-one overtook us at all in the second half, and we gained about fifteen places. Not bad.
The last checkpoint, which I can’t remember. A final bit of moorland, then — thank god — the drop down into Haworth. The Worth Valley railway steam train was heard but not seen, and I tried not to think of what was coming up: about three quarters of a mile (I think) along the valley floor, then the severe climb of Butt Lane to finish. I ran, and I ran, and then I smacked my foot into a stone slab and nearly gave up. The pain was immediate and excruciating. I was sure I’d broken my toe, not least as all my toes were as bruised as you’d expect from running 26 miles in fell shoes, including lots of rocks and downhills. Everything stopped for a moment, and FRB said sternly, “run through it!” I was furious with him for a minute, but even then and definitely now I knew he was right. I ran through it, the pain disappeared, and we got to Butt Lane, and somehow up it and even then I still managed to shuffle. A few people were still waiting at the top of Butt Lane to cheer us in — thank you! — and then it was the last few hundred metres to the school. Our time expectation had slowly gone down. We’d started with 5.15, then it was 5.30 and by the time I smacked my toe against the rock, I thought we were heading for 6. But FRB knew we could still make 5.45 and we did. Well, he did: he dibbed in first and got 5:44.59, and I got 5.45:02. He apologised and said he should have let me dib first, but I didn’t care about the two seconds. I cared about the fact that on such derisory training, and a stressful few months, I had run a marathon. Not just that, but a marathon that was off-road, in wet and boggy conditions, in some rain and wind, and with 3,000 feet of climb.
Thank you, FRB. I hope I could have done it without him, but I’m not sure. And I would probably have walked the last few miles. So I am grateful to him, and proud of myself. Post-race photo in which FRB seems to have gone a bit Jack Nicholson, probably from the relief of never having to hear again, “are we near the alpacas?”.
And, once I had changed my filthy clothes (I’d had a few puddle washes, but I still stank), it was time for the rewards: a bright yellow t-shirt that actually fits, a cup of tea that tasted like the best cup of tea ever, a hunk of bread and a bowl of soup. Yet more reason to love the Yorkshireman, as if I needed any.