Tuesday, 23 April 2013


I entered this race on a bit of a whim.  My training has been concentrated on the roads recently.  I have been trying to increase my running speed by doing faster but shorter runs, mainly on flat roads and trails; certainly not ideal preparation for a 37 mile ultra through the moors and hilly terrain of the Calder Valley.  Two weeks before the race I went for an undulating 20 miler which was my sole long run in a while. I had done a few half marathon distances but nothing of serious length that would confidently qualify me for doing an ultra any time soon.  Time to jump in at the deep end.

In the final two weeks I decided to taper of sorts.  If I wasn’t going to be fit enough for the race I was going to be damn sure I was well rested.  The day before I printed out the maps, packed my gear and put my feet up and then suddenly got a pang of panic.  What was I thinking? Suddenly, 37 miles seemed much too far.  Being a long distance runner I am adept at self-deception.  One mile at a time, just 37 times.

In an effort to quell my nerves I made a list of things to do in the morning.  I was going to have to get up at 5am which is a time of the morning when my brain operates at about 20% efficiency.  The list included things like “put clothes on” and “leave the house”. 

After working out how to switch off all of the three alarms I had set the night before, I dutifully went through all the items on the list and set off into the murky gloom of the morning.  And after a sleepy drive up to the town of Sowerby Bridge I registered and had my kit checked.  As usual I stood around at the start feeling vaguely uncomfortable in the presence of all these “proper” runners.  I was fidgeting nervously with my kit and trying not to think about the miles ahead.  

With very little fuss we were sent on our way.  I always feel rubbish in the first few miles of most runs so I settled in to a slow plod up the road to the first checkpoint at Nab End.  There were a few patches of snow and some muddy bits that were to hint at the troubles ahead.  On the steep descent into Cragg Vale my feet were already soaked as I trudged through the first proper bog of the day. 

The hill up past Hoo Hole to Broad Head was hard, I mean really hard.  My legs felt leaden and I couldn’t get air into my lungs quick enough.  Less than five miles into an ultra and I was already thinking about sitting down.  If there were many more steep hills like this one it was going to be a very long day.  My head was spinning and it was too hot but the next checkpoint came along quickly.

The run up to Stoodley Pike was mostly good running with a short, sharp hike up to the monument.  But the seeds of doubt had been sown on that last hill.  I started to think that I had bitten off more than I could chew.  If the distance wasn’t going to get me then the hills surely would.  I started to think I simply was not fit enough for this endeavour.  The monument on Stoodley Pike is a gargantuan of a thing and on a more relaxed day I would have loved to have spent some more time there taking photos.  But onwards, I made my way down to the busy checkpoint in Lumbutts.  I enjoyed the steep descent and even managed to overtake a few runners.  Whilst I am no Kenny Stuart I am a pretty good descender and these glimmers of aptitude gave me a small measure of hope.

A beautiful wooded trail gave way to a road leading into Todmorden and then onto the steep path up to the next checkpoint at a golf course.  It was very hot and I was glad to get a refill of my water and then headed off up to higher and cooler ground.  I was struggling to get into any sort of rhythm due to the patches of snow and mud.  I could see the runners in front of me disappear off into the distance whilst I slogged and plodded along.  I was getting annoyed because a lot of this trail should have been easily runable but I was constantly being reduced to a slow march.

I started to think up excuses for me to stop.  What would I say at the checkpoint that wouldn’t make me seem like a complete wimp?  Could I fake a knee injury, a hamstring pull; anything but saying “I am a failure and I cannot continue running because it is too hard”.  Whilst mulling over these desperate hardships I soon realised that I had not been paying attention to where I was.  I couldn’t see any runners in the distance.  Damn. Was I lost?  I decided to keep moving west; I would hit a road sooner or later and from there it would be easy to find the checkpoint at Mount Cross.  As it happened, I turned a corner and there was the checkpoint.  I was on the right track after all.

From reading the previous year’s race reports I knew that the next section of the route was potentially going to be the hardest.  The hike up to Hoof Stones Height was not too bad but it was only a calm before the horrors to come. Oh, the horrors.  You see, there is no path along the top of the moor just a long myriad of tussocks and bogs.  The terrain was relentless and seemingly endless.  I don’t know how anyone can run over this stuff.  With every step the peaty earth tried to hang on to each tired leg.  After a small aeon in the age of man the bog finally came to an end and mercifully, the path became a beautifully mud-free well trodden track.  I felt like sinking to my knees and kissing the dry ground. 

Unfortunately, the horror bog had taken its toll.  I had turned my ankle up on the moor and as I ran down to Widdop Reservoir things were not looking good.  Every time my foot landed at a certain angle on the uneven surface of the path it became a burning ball of pain.  This discomfort would dissipate after a couple of minutes and then flare up again whenever my foot landed awkwardly.  I won’t lie; there was part of me that thought this was the perfect excuse to give up.  I had a proper injury now but I still couldn’t bring myself to say the words: “I give up”.  Somehow I managed to box that thought away in a dark corner of my mind whilst trying to convince myself that the worst of the hills and bogs were over.

From the checkpoint at Widdop I left feeling refreshed.  The tarmac road gave my ankle a bit of a rest and I was soon past the Walshaw Dean reservoirs and on up to Top Withins.  I felt pretty good and was glad of the flagstones that paved the way up to the ruins at the top.  I could hear a fellow runner swearing and grunting behind me all the way up.  I’m not one to usually take solace in another’s misfortune but I was glad that I wasn’t quite at the sweary grunting phase.  That would come later.

On the way down my ankle started playing up again.  I was getting frustrated.  The descents were where I was meant to be making time.  Instead, I was hobbling down at barely more than a jog.  I could see other runners disappearing off into the distance and midway along the Millennium Way path I had had enough.  My spirit was crushed.  I made the decision that at the next checkpoint at Tom Sells Seat I would take as much time as I needed to rest and gather myself.

As I approached the checkpoint the rain started coming down and the wind picked up.  I quickly donned a jacket and gloves, gulped down a couple of painkillers and headed off into the gloom with a big handful of jelly beans.  I started to feel a bit better.  The painkillers were helping with the ankle and the warmth of an extra layer made me feel good.  I’ve always liked running in the rain and the pattering of the droplets on my coat made me smile.  This was much more better.

It was a good hike up to Top of Stairs.  I even managed to overtake a few runners and felt pretty strong.  Apart from the ankle my legs felt good. 

At the top there were various snow drifts to contend with which slowed everything down and filled my shoes with ice cold melt water.  No sooner as I was through the snow, the route dropped down to the next checkpoint at the Grain Water Bridge where I stocked up on custard creams and squelched off up the valley towards New Bridge.  Subconsciously, I had the notion that if I managed to get to New Bridge I would have a good chance of finishing.  Invigorated by this thought I was quickly at the next checkpoint where I was given a warm cup of sweet tea.  This was very necessary as I knew that the next climb was going to be tough. 

The steep climb up to Delf End Farm really started to take the wind out of my sails.  I wheezed my way up to the checkpoint by which point a group of about six lads passed me on the final ascent over Low Brown Knoll.  I knew I was going to get to the finish but my pace was slowing.

At the top of the knoll I was confronted with yet more bog.  I started to get cross.  This was perfectly good, runable terrain being hopelessly spoilt by ankle deep mud.  Seriously, I would have been quicker in a canoe.  My foot was hurting again and I was getting cold.  Really cross now.  Humph.

With wet, cold feet I saw my escape route: a small path leading down towards The Lowe Farm.  Down through the farm I found a road which would hopefully lead me to the checkpoint at Jerusalem Farm.  From now on it was all road-running.  No more bogs. Wahey.

After leaving Jerusalem Farm I suddenly started to worry that I might finish in last place.  Silly really, since my goal was always just to complete the 37 miles.  I had no notion of competing with anyone but myself.  But pride got the better of me and I focused on quickening my stride and soon enough passed an ailing runner.  Now all I had to do was keep my form and run strongly to the finish.  Easier said than done, I was running well but tiring quickly.  Not a whole lot left in the tank.

Soon enough I found myself at the last checkpoint and made an important route choice.  I saw the group of runners who had passed me near Delf End take the path along the north side of the canal.  I decided to follow my planned route and follow the train line past an old scrap yard and on to the final sting in the tail.  The climb back into Sowerby Bridge was cruel.  I could see the church at the top of the hill but the climb was steep and had me stopping on a few occasions to fill my lungs with the damp air.  I knew that my choice of route along the canal had gained me a few places and I wanted to keep it that way.  But I was spent.  Just keep going.

Mercifully, the road levelled out and I knew I was going to make it.  Past the church and down towards the Cricket Club.  My legs were screaming but I was intent on enjoying these last few metres.  I kept thinking, “well bloody done, boyo”.  With as little fanfare as the start of the race I took the final few steps into the Pavilion, handed in my tally and looked for the nearest empty seat to collapse into.

I sat there for an age.  Someone commented that I looked very thoughtful but in fact it was the opposite.  My mind had gone blank; if anything I was thought less.  I had been concentrating on continuous forward motion for so long my mind was having trouble readjusting to the real world.  I slowly came to and realised I was cold and damp to the core.  I changed into some warm, dry clothes and wolfed down a large helping of baked potato and cheesy chilli con carne all washed down with a cup of sweet tea.

After 9 hrs and 6 minutes of walking and running I felt amazing.  This is what it’s all for. 

Have to say a big thank you to the race organisers.  Everyone was very friendly and if it wasn’t for the kindly support from the checkpoint marshals I don’t think I would have got round.


Nick said...

Just found your report, James. Good effort and well done for completing against adversity.


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