Spine Challenger Recce – Day 3

The final day of the recce dawned, and after a tasty full English breakfast at The Old Stone Trough, we headed straight up to Thornton in Craven to pick up the trail where we left off. I’ll admit that we drove a small way up Cam Lane before getting out of the car; after running up and down the final lane the night before, I didn’t feel too bad about it.

I also popped a paracetamol to start the day, as various aches were really starting to come through, but in hindsight I should have taken it a little earlier. Psychologically though, this was the easiest day to start. I knew that in 26 miles, the running would be done (on race day there’s obviously a further 16 miles to come) and there would be a pint and a hot meal to get my chops around.

Out of Thornton, you’re straight back into joyous farmland, but the field boundaries are a little closer together, and there are significantly fewer gullies to get lost in. Navigation is reasonably straightforward in the daytime, but I also feel that it’s going to be a little easier in the dark than the way into Thornton. I think I’m going to go through the whole area and insert bearing values for quick reference just in case.

Frustratingly I was about 10 minutes into running, heading down a hill, and one of the poles (which I’d borrowed from Lucy) managed to unscrew itself slightly, and then broke – dumping me on, and down, the hill. Hurray! Next set will have flick locks.

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For a period of time, you get the pleasure of joining the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The greatest highlight of this little stretch is a curious double-arched bridge with one arch built on top of another; apparently this happened because one canal bridge was built, then a road was built but the bridge was too low, so they built another bridge on top of the first one! Awesome!

Back into fields and Gargrave is just a short step away. As well as the excellent Dalesman Cafe – I’m hoping that they’ll be open when we’re passing through, to grab a brew and a butty of some description. I also popped another paracetamol to take the edge off the bruising – 70 miles of running gets pretty painful – and handed the broken pole over to Jim.

Back out of Gargrave, and the Pennine Way takes a road past a picturesque country estate before cutting North West back into more fields and dropping to join the river Aire. This is the river which will ultimately lead to Malham and the magnificent Malham Cove. The running beside the Aire is pleasant and quick, and the locals seemed really quite friendly.

Unfortunately, crossing a small footbridge, my legs had a slight mutiny, which resulted in me shouting at myself “F*** OFF!” I thought I was alone, but turning I saw a couple of walkers that had just appeared over the side of the hill to the left, a couple of hundred metres away. They then seemed to turn around quickly, and walk away again. Oops, sorry, it wasn’t you – if you’re reading this now, it was my legs, not you.

Just before Hanlith Hall, I stopped and had a chat for a while with a man who suggested that I have a look at the Dalesman race. He also mentioned that there was a lass up ahead moving at a fair pace; the chase for the mystery Speedcross stud marks was on!

Dropping into Malham, Jim presented me with a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot cup of tea. Just the ticket for the half way mark of the day. For me, psychologically this was the crux of the day; everything from here kind of felt like mentally going downhill, whilst ironically I had the bulk of the actual ascent and descent left to cover in the afternoon.

Back on the road, and heading north out of Malham a short incline is encountered which slows you down until a short drop to the bottom of Malham Cove gives you five minutes of shifting (whilst trying to dodge tourists who seem utterly bewildered by your outfit and pace). Malham Cove really is spectacular, and as a (currently) inactive climber, it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. There were only two climbers out which I found surprising considering the mild and dry conditions, but then again I was moving faster and generating more heat.

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The climb up the side of the cove is short and sharp, but enjoyable in a masochistic kind of way. One friendly guy remarked that “it’s easier going up than going down”, so I informed him that I didn’t plan on heading back down, but back down was definitely easier than my option of going to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Surprisingly, I didn’t really get a response to that…

Up on to the top, and it took a couple of minutes to work out where I was meant to be heading to get back on to the Pennine Way. Happily, it was necessary to head east across the top of the Cove on the famous limestone pavement, and having grown up in sunny Lancaster, limestone pavements feel like home. Its then a sharp left turn to head north again toward Malham Tarn, passing by a docile highland cow (not a permanent fixture I assume), and into the small rocky gorge at the very top of the shallow ravine.

I’d ended up having a chat with another guy moving fairly quickly. He wasn’t part of the Spine contingent however, and was heading down to Settle. I’d walked up with him, apparently slightly off the Pennine Way during our conversation, which meant that I’d exited the gorge earlier than I should have done, and missed Jim who was lying in wait for a photo opportunity after parking up at Malham Tarn.

As I passed through the car park, I saw Jim’s car, and wondered where he’d gone. Assuming that he’d probably gone up to the tarn for some photo opportunities, I pushed on, resolving to phone him if I couldn’t find him before peeling off the tarnside path. As it was, I couldn’t find him anywhere, so tried to phone him to let him know what was going on at the foot of Great Close Hill. Signal was patchy, and we had about five different calls where I think we managed to exchange about three words, before I gave up and just sent a couple of texts to explain what was going on.

No problems there; once the message got through I picked the pace back up and wolfed down a couple of shot blocks for good measure. Passing the Field Centre, and just about to head up the Way toward Fountains Fell, a couple stopped me and asked if I knew if they could walk all the way round the tarn. “I dunno guys, but I’ll have a look… Erm… well you can, but there’ll be a lot of road”. “Oh thank you very much, we think we’ll just go back the way we came then”. Righto! No bother, ‘but why didn’t you check your own map?’ I wondered internally. Nowt so queer as folk eh? But then again, most people would say that about anyone voluntarily running the best part of 100 miles over three days.

From here, for me, the Way takes on a friendly feeling. I just love limestone Pennine country; it feels like home, and I kept a good pace whilst enjoying the sights, smells and general ambiance of the area. I stopped briefly at the bottom of Fountains Fell for a Mars Bar and a couple of en-route photos, before ploughing on. I also noticed the re-appearance of what looked like Speedcross stud marks, and wondered how far ahead the wearer was.

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About 2/3rds of the way up the Fell I came across a couple hunkering down for a bit of scran, and asked if they were out having a look in preparation for the spine. The man said he wasn’t, but he was obviously aware of what the Spine Race was. “I’d take my hat off to you if it wasn’t so cold”. One of the aspects I most enjoyed about the whole recce was the random meetings with total strangers who were almost invariably good, friendly company.

Passing over the top of Fountains Fell, there’s a collection of cairns which almost look like some bizarre meeting of folk. I also noticed someone moving quickly, and thought “haha, got you at last!”

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A quick stop for a couple of photos of the excellent scenery, and it was time to pick the pace up. I could see the figure in the middle distance, moving fast, but stopping every now and again. So I took the breaks off as best you can at the end of 85 miles, and began a rapid descent to catch up.

I’ve become better at descending over the past couple of years, but this was a tough chase. Eventually Ella (she turned out to be an MRT member) stopped enough times, and moved slowly enough for me to catch up. We descended to the road together, but I then slowed to eat and Ella moved off. Shortly however, Ella bumped into Jim, and I caught up again. We all wandered along the road for half a click or so, discussing Spine Challenger strategy and kit before reaching Jim’s car. Ella dashed off, and I halted to have a quick water refill and brew before tackling the final obstacle – Pen-y-Ghent.

It would be a lie to say that Pen-y-Ghent was easy; it’s a sharp climb no matter how you look at it, but I kept the pace reasonable, and ate as much as I could before hitting the gritstone-festooned capping slopes. From here on in it becomes more of a scramble, albeit a really easy one, and eating is not an option. It also felt as though I’d almost caught Ella once more (I’m not competitive, honest), so I pushed for the top.

Arriving at Pen-y-Ghent summit, I could see that I’d almost caught up, but Ella was now descending with speed towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I was bonking a little, so crammed all the readily available food into my mouth, exchanged pleasantries with a couple of guys on the summit and began my own, somewhat slower descent.

I’m reasonably familiar with the northern/western descent off of Pen-y-Ghent, having walked the Three Peaks a couple of times, and the characteristic snow field was very much in residence. It was here that I was glad for a pole and almost thought about donning micro-spikes, but for a 200m traverse it wasn’t really worth it. Once the main steep section was passed, it became possible to ramp up the pace a little – less energy had to be used on preventing a runaway descent – and the final fingerpost towards Horton was a welcome sight.

The final track is fairly nice; a gentle descent without too rough a surface, although there are a couple of sections where an ankle could be turned if due care wasn’t taken. A most annoying prospect if the trip had been the race proper.

In the dimming pre-dusk, I met Jim just outside of Horton, and we ambled down to the car to finish at 4pm; 27 hours of moving time after starting on Thursday. A quick change in the car park (Brynje vests develop a very interesting aroma over three days), and we popped down to the pub to try and get some food. Unfortunately, food wasn’t on until 6pm, so we packed up and headed on to Hawes for a chippy tea. One of the best meals I’ve had for a long time, and I really hope they’re open for finishing on the race.

Eventually, it was time to head home; what a great “weekend” of running. I’d scoped out some of the more tricky sections on the route, gotten lost on some others, and generally got a handle on the distance and pace required for the race. I know I’ve said it before, but if I can pull this out of the bag again on the race, I’ll be a happy man!

So that’s it. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading. I hope my account has been as enjoyable to read as it has been to recall.

Once again, a huge thank you to Jim Imber who made this recce possible; thank you to Lucy who has been massively supportive with regards to my training and nerding out before the event; and thank you to Rhodri Lewis from Nordic Life for his excellent customer service and efforts to get the Brynje baselayers to me in time for the recce.

I’ll be posting another blog about my thoughts a week or so on (and possibly some GPS data if I can work out how to get it shared), so until then, take care and have fun :D.

Johan

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 2

After stopping for the night at the Carriage House, we made our way back up to where the Pennine Way crosses the A672 (SD 983 142 for any interested enough) to pick up where we left off. The mist had cleared overnight, giving us a good view of the surrounding landscape.  My legs were feeling stiff after day one but started to loosen up as I made my way over the M62, to join a trail of flagstones up and over (hurray) Robin Hood’s Bed.

Blackstone Edge Reservoir quickly hove into view, and the Pennine Way dropped down to meet the Roman Road (most of the stones actually date from Medieval Times) and the Aiggin Stone – an old way marker for travelers.

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For the next few miles it pretty much becomes reservoir central; this is no bad thing though, as the ground is flat and makes for rapid movement. It gets even better when Stoodley Pike appears on the horizon – having spent a couple of New Years at Mankinholes Youth Hostel, it’s like seeing an old friend. At this point I met a guy walking to Hebden Bridge, and spent a few minutes chatting away before speeding up and heading on.

For a while, Stoodley Pike seems to stand still in the distance. The drag across the moor side here isn’t too bad really, but the stationary monument both encourages you on whilst paradoxically grinding you down mentally (although I doubt this will be an issue in the dark). Eventually, upon reaching Stoodley Pike, the Pennine Way takes a sharp turn east before descending north through Callis Wood. The way down to Hebden Bridge is a nice quick bridleway, and gives a welcome boost of speed. Although to really enjoy it you have to put out of your mind that you’ve got the whole way to come back up the other side.

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Jim was waiting at the P.W./A646 crossing point just outside of Hebden Bridge, where we had a quick chat and a water refill. During the race, CP one is just up the hill from here (well, up and down and up the hill from here), so whilst the bank up through Charlestown is a proper grind, psychologically it isn’t too bad. There’ll be hot food and a warm dry spot not far away!

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Reaching Colden and heading onto the moorside above, I slowed down a little to really nail the nav through this section. As the field boundaries here are very close together it’s easy to become a little disorientated, and so I took a few minutes to double check my exact location with the GPS, and have a Boost chocolate bar. Mmmm…

Following a fairly well worn in track northish across the moor, I enjoyed a rolling descent towards Gorple Lower Reservoir. It’s nice to have these little sections of softer ground, and by this point my feet were starting to complain. 40 odd miles of running will do that I guess.

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Finally approaching the next rendezvous point, the path drops you into a small but incredibly picturesque gorge. A quick grind back up toward the metalled road, and I made my first tiny navigational mistake by taking the first path to the road rather than the second. I doubt this would result in penalisation on the event as it adds distance to the route, but you never know, and it’s been duly noted for next time around.

Meeting Jim at the layby under Clough Foot, I was rewarded with a cup of tea and a surprisingly good cheese and ham sandwich. My feet, and particularly my right foot, had been bothering me from just after Hebden Bridge, so we talked it through and I decided to take a paracetamol to try and take the edge off and allow me to move with my natural gait again. I have to add in here that I usually try to avoid using pain killers, and don’t think I’ve ever used them for an “athletic” endeavour in the past. However, the paracetamol did the trick, and as I continued on to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs my feet were feeling much more comfortable, allowing me to move more fluidly and thus more rapidly.

More moorside greeted me as I ascended and then descended over the excellently named Dick Delf Hill. Onward to Ponden, but stopping briefly on the downhill at the ruins to take in the open landscape. On blowy, clear, overcast days, there are few landscapes more atmospheric that the Pennines, and it’s always worth taking a moment or two to appreciate the wide-open valleys with their bleak but majestic appearance.

I reached the head of Ponden Reservoir at about half three, pausing for a short chat, before pushing on toward Ickornshaw Moor. As always with fell routes, what comes down must go up, and the bank out of Ponden is another good example of an uphill grind. I have a tendency, which I think is probably a legacy from my “short distance” fell running days, to push right up to the wire on uphills, and have to remind myself to dial it back. Getting up fast is no good if I burn out for everything later!

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Contouring round Crag Bottom, I met Harsharn – another chap obviously out on a recce for the Spine. We stopped for a few minutes, and it turned out that he was considering the full Spine Race having been unexpectedly timed out at Byrness last year, due to horrific conditions across the Border Ridge (the conditions had convinced the organisers to bump the cut-off forward). Harsharn seemed enthusiastic though, and I look forward to catching up with him in January. And of course, he knew Jim from last January’s Spine. The world of adventure racing is very small indeed.

Coming over Ickornshaw Moor the sun was beginning to set, providing a golden hue uncharacteristic of the rest of the trip. A typical moorland track then leads down Cowling which is distinct in the most part, but peters out slightly as you pass a building next to beck. I have to admit to having a slight panic here. In the dimming light, fine details on the map were less visible, and I began to doubt where I was. Pulling out the GPS, I confirmed where I was, and finally capitulating to use my headtorch, I noticed the details which would have kept me happy minutes before. Silly lad.

Descending quickly into Cowling though some bog which would thoroughly qualify as “goppin’”, the end felt in sight. I knew a couple more hills lay in wait, but I could almost smell Thornton-in-Craven and a pub meal.

A quick cheese and water refill, and it was time to get a shift on. Lothersdale was the next road crossing (although Jim would not be waiting here), but the way was full of fields which are notoriously difficult to deal with in the dark.

I had a serious low point around Low Windhill, having to stop, eat, and have a real talk to myself before getting on again. There was also a slightly odd, almost spicy scent around here which I found a little unsettling.

Another field and another mistake found me thrashing around in a small gully, trying to handrail my way along a fence line. Eventually giving up, I pulled out the GPS yet again to find that I was no more than 30 meters from where I should be. Dark fields, what a pain! However, I now know to stay a little right of the fence, and where the exit should be, so better on the recce than on the event.

Out of Lothersdale and over Thornton Moor progressed without any major hitches.

Until I hit more fields.

Thrashing around and worrying about timing out with regards to a pub meal, I stopped thinking properly and spent a good 10 minutes running up and down the same small stretch of field between Park House and Wood House.

GPS time again, and I finally realised my error. I’d stupidly assumed Park House was Wood House, and was getting more and more confused as my map and compass refused to match up with what I was seeing on the ground. Major lesson to be learnt here – and one I end up repeating in almost every write up: if things are going a little pear-shaped, take five, and trust the map and compass. I’m not a pigeon. My nose is not magnetic.

Finally sorting myself out, I hit the track through the fields, down past Spring Barn (who’s lights provided a useful navigational aid) and onto the final metalled road to Thornton. Setting a fair pace for the finish, Jim set his usual flashing light beacon when he saw me approach.

I found the car, but no Jim. Where was he? I ran up the road into Thornton, but found no Jim, so headed back to the car.

Still no Jim. What the hell?

A quick phone call (thank god there was signal) and Jim appeared from down the road, which was a little confusing. Discussing how we’d managed to pass each other, we got packed into the car and off to The Old Stone Trough for a well deserved pint and a rest for tomorrow’s final push.

I finished the day at 19:30, half an hour behind schedule, but never mind. Mistakes are better made on the recce, and I’ve picked up plenty of cues for navigation on the event.

As always, I’d like to thank any tenacious readers for making it this far; it’s a long write up, full of mundanities, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it non-the-less. I feel it would have been difficult to distil the experience down much further, which will always be problem with long distance running.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Jim Imber yet again; without his willingness to help, this would not have been possible – or orders of magnitude more difficult.

And if there are any tiny specifics you want to know, give us a shout, I’ll do what I can to help.

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 0

Wednesday the 30th November finds Jim and I travelling down the country from Newcastle to Edale, ready to begin a full recce of the Spine Challenger course. For those of you not in the know; Jim is my girlfriend’s father, and a well known marshall on the Montane Spine series, and the Montane Spine series is a pair of races which run North up the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District. The Spine Race covers the entire length of the Pennine Way (268 miles), whereas the shorter Spine Challenger “only” goes to Hawes (108 miles).

Jim, as always, seems thoroughly prepared and in control – I’m very lucky really. He’s sorted the accommodation, the meeting points on the route for support, the transport, and well, pretty much everything really. If you’re reading this Jim – thank you!

A fairly eventless journey down the A19, A1, and a variety of Peak District country roads deposited us in the car park of the Rambler’s Inn in Edale, where we’ve fed and watered ready for the morrow, and the start of the Recce (Glorious sunsets on the way through the Peak by the way). Plus, I can recommend the Robinson’s Trooper Stout – very tasty if you like your porters…

And now for the nerdy boring bit; we plan to cover the entire course, from Edale to Hawes, in three days. The first day will be from Edale to just shy of the M62 (32 miles), followed by kipping in the Carriage House. Day two will continue from the day one end point, up to Thornton in Craven (34 miles), and resting at the Stone Trough Inn. The final day will be from Thornton all the way to Hawes, tackling the (apparently) toughest section of navigation through Gargrave, and dealing with Malham and Pen-y-Ghent (41 miles).

So that’s all for now; I’ll leave you with some pictures of the sunset we saw, and see you on the other side.

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Cragside Christmas Cracker – High Fell Events

This Sunday saw us heading up into Northumberland to take part in the Cragside Christmas Cracker; a 10 mile race (actually a fun run) organised by High Fell Events which takes the competitors around the grounds of Cragside (the first building in the world to have lighting provided by hydro electricity).

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The morning began with unexpectedly clear weather, although as it was mid-November there was still a chill in the air. Getting to the car park with about 45 minutes to go before the start, we moseyed over to registration and hung around trying to suss out the competition. As well as a number of excellent Christmas-related fancy dress runners.

It has to be mentioned that many people were out to simply enjoy the route, and were not expecting to competitive in any way. I was just aiming to get round in the best time possible, expecting to manage it in about 1 and a half to 2 hours.

We set off from the visitor centre at 9:30, heading around the lake, and back up to the main house. Heading through the courtyard, we jumped onto the trails proper which were picky from the start, full of roots and wet stones. For anyone who hasn’t experienced wet sandstone, it isn’t too far from a skating rink. Obviously not as bad, but it’s definitely light thoughts and tread softly when you’re running on it; put down too much power and your feet are going to fly out from under you.

Up, round, and down through the estate, we sampled the delights of Cragside. If you haven’t been to Cragside, I can highly recommend it; around every corner it seems a new, excellent view. Twisting paths through rhododendron bushes, small lakes, and long sets of stone steps made for interesting running.

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I’d set off towards the front of the pack, and we’d strung out pretty quickly within the first mile or so. The fastest guys disappeared pretty quickly, but that wasn’t all that surprising due to the twisting nature of the course. As it was, I didn’t really have any idea of where I was in the pack, but there was a nice group lads shifting at about the same pace, so we stuck together for much of the race.

Over the last few miles we split up; a couple heading off ahead; a couple dropping back as the techy terrain and steep hills played to my advantage; leaving me to canter along at my own pace. Within the last couple of miles I was passed by a surprise racer, almost caught him on a sharp uphill, but then got left behind on the final stretch down the forest drive.

Crossing the finish line at a fairly leisurely pace, I received a Cragside Christmas Cracker medal (my first medal, woohoo!) and congratulated all the guys who had finished and were hanging about. I then headed off to sign out and get my race t-shirt. I’d come in 7th place, which is much better than I’d expected, and as a bonus I think I got around quicker than the anticipated 1h30.

All in all, a great day out, and finished off with a brew and a cracking bacon butty.

Great!

The Heaton Harriers

Just a brief post really.

I’ve recently joined the Heaton Harriers – one of the local running clubs in Newcastle – to try to add some structure and consistency to my running training.

I’ve found them to be a welcoming club, with a mixed range of runners from much faster to noticeably slower than myself. Good craic, hard training sessions, and a club meeting point only about a mile from our house adds up to an excellent option for improving my running.

All I can say really is so far, so good. The sessions completed with the Harriers focus on different aspects of running (i.e. speed) than I would naturally train on my own, which can only be beneficial.

Meets are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with members encouraged to race in many races locally and across the North East, even from their first or second attendance.

I’ve unfortunately missed the slot for the first cross-country run of the season, but I’m looking forward to sorting the paperwork and getting my first club colours so that I can get involved with the rest of the season.

Marmot Dark Mountains

With the memories of Marmot’s Dark Mountains race fresh in our minds and our legs, I thought it was time to write a short account of my experience, discussing my mistakes made and lessons learnt.

For those of you not in-the-know, Dark Mountains is a mountain marathon with one rather important difference; it’s held at night. This set up leads to two rather important differences when compared to the daylight variety. The first is fairly obvious – night navigation is compulsory, adding an extra level of difficulty. The second difference is that as the whole race is undertaken in one session, time on the hills is set up by the organisers to be about one and a half mountain marathon days. Both of these factors, plus the lack of sleep, add up to induce a mild confusion as the night grinds on. That’s where the challenge lies however, and if it was easy, everyone would do it.

I would be running with a new partner for this race, a lad I know through Imperial College Mountaineering Club by the name of Tim Seers. It would be our first time running together, but we were both confident that we would be a reasonable match. Of the two of us, I had slightly more mountain marathon experience, Tim having only ever competed in the 2015 Rab Mountain Marathon, and as such, the navigation fell to me.

Even before we set off to the event centre, our logistics were somewhat confused. Tim lives in London where he is finishing his medical degree, whilst I live in Newcastle studying for my PhD. It was decided that the easiest way for us both to get to the event was for Tim to catch the Megabus (I know) to Newcastle, and then for us to drive over to Mungrisdale together; sounds straightforward, but as ever, the Metro had other ideas. We finally met up at Four Lane Ends (my local Metro station), and began the drive across to the Lakes.

Throughout the drive across, Tim and I had an upbeat conversation, mixing how excited we were for this event with old tales of past stupidities. Whilst we both have connections to Imperial College Mountaineering Club, Tim is of a younger generation, and thus we had, until Dark Mountains, avoided any ridiculous situations in each others’ company. As we passed Penrith, then Reghed in the dark the excitement grew, but before heading to the event centre in Mungrisdale we were bound for Threlkeld and dinner with one of my old friends from planetFear.

It was excellent to catch back up with Chris and Rachel, I never manage to see as much of my friends in Keswick as I would like, and having been fed an enormous Bolognese followed by sticky toffee pudding it was all-too-soon time to depart and head to Mungrisdale. As we neared the event centre, the verges on the road were packed out! We couldn’t see anywhere possible to pull up and park, even in Lucy’s Fiat 500.

Fortunately there were still spots available on the road for the pub, and so we pulled up behind the closest car and quickly changed into our race kit. Tim had a bit of a faff, sorting out what he needed for running from the rest of his stuff, and we were soon on our way to the event centre, passing other runners who had already had the “privilege” to start.

Upon arrival, we were informed that registration was already closing down (oops), but they sorted us out very efficiently and with smiles all around. Happy, lucky smiles, knowing that they would get to sleep soon, but no sleep for us tonight! A quick kit-check and we were through into the waiting hall, warming ourselves up with some coffee and wondering where we were going to be sent on the course this time. I assured Tim that as we were in the B-Class, they wouldn’t send us that far; only the Elite Class and Long Score would be sent all the way round the map; how wrong I was! With only minutes to spare, the pre-race poo reared its ugly head, meaning we made it to the start line with only a minute to spare!

As with every mountain marathon, we cleared our dibber, received our map, and then punched in to the start box. Jogging out of the hall, we only made it a little up the road before I had to stop and re-fold the map. The course was a long one, taking us almost around the perimeter of the competition area, although in fairness we didn’t have to get over to the other side of Skiddaw which really would have been painful. Through another stroke of luck, having seen runners pass us previously, we had a rough idea of where to go for our first check-point, although we hadn’t known that until we received our maps.

The first check point was found and dispatched without any issue, and the Petzl Nao I had only uncovered that morning, after many months of searching, was performing magnificently. I’d passed it on to Tim, as I was unsure of how well it was likely to perform, opting to use my new Petzl Myo instead. As an aside, I can’t recommend the Myo enough, especially the new model. Since the inclusion of a regulator in ~2010, the Myo has gone from strength to strength, and the current incarnation does not disappoint. It provides a regulated beam which is more than sufficient to run by, and with a burn time of 10 hours or so, as required for these events it’s small wonder that the Myo is the torch the Spine Race suggest using for their event.

Doubling back on ourselves, we headed back up the road and followed a river towards control number two. Picking that up, it felt as though we were getting into our stride and we quickly moved on towards check point three. This was up a river, and as we were about to dib, Tim noticed that the number on the box didn’t match the description given on the map. Dilemma time, what to do? It looked like the right control, but if we dibbed the wrong control we would be automatically disqualified. I decided the best option was to run up the river another couple of hundred meters, and if no further control was found, bomb back down to the control and take it anyway. So up we went, until a fairly distinctive squiggle was found and no further controls.

Turn around, run back down, and as I was approaching the control box, the team who had set off after us were just leaving control three behind. A quick discussion ensued, wherein they said they’d just assumed it was the correct box, and I said yes, I couldn’t find anything else upstream. Having finally punched in at control three, it was time to move on and try and make up for the lost time faffing around at control three.

For the next few control points we were moving with the team who eventually came first in the B-Class. Navigationally, this section of the race was fairly straight-forward, and as we were fresh, no doubts ever crossed my mind. Upon reaching Lingy hut, Tim and I stopped briefly to put my hat on and have a quick bite to eat, at which point “Team Motor” disappeared into the gloom.

The next few hours/controls passed in a grinding fashion, Tim fighting to keep his tea down, whilst I tried to keep us moving fast enough so as not to cool down too much. I now have one criticism of the OMM Phantom Hoody which is that it is too ‘breathable’, allowing strong winds to carry body heat away. It’s not really a criticism in all honesty, I remained dry within throughout the whole event, and it just demonstrates the difference between Kamleika fabric, and other leading waterproof fabrics.

A real struggle arose as we ascended up the back of Little Calver. Tim’s dinner really wanted to make a repeat appearance, and his efforts to avoid that eventuality resulted in us having to stop once or twice to recover. We topped out onto the plateau near the top of Little Calver, and as I was starting to open the pace out again I turned to find Tim retching whilst trying his utmost to avoid any wind-borne delicacies. Soon after, he trotted up to me and simply said “I feel much better now, should have done that ages ago”. Excellent, let’s get shifting. We found our control just off the summit and made our heathery descent down to the Cumbrian Way. From here it was a swift run to Skiddaw house, and the subsequent control, just up the Western flank of Blencathra.

Suddenly, it all fell apart! We dropped round the South of Blencathra, and my brain decided that the best way to the next checkpoint was to cut up the hill, so we could drop back down it onto the checkpoint.

Not clever.

Not only was this plan slow-going on the uphill, it also started to snow as we climbed higher, obscuring the paths and confusing my already sluggish brain. The downwards cut wasn’t showing itself, so we dropped down a bit, contoured a bit, felt really confused, headed down the hill, then back up the hill a bit. A sheep trod made itself apparent, so we bombed down that for a period until it disappeared.

Oh cock!

Finally, we stopped, checked the map key (that bold red line was an impassable wall), so we dropped down the hill again to the wall and ran along until we could struggle straight up a bitch of a gradient to the control and return to the path at the bottom, broken men.

From here on in, it looked pretty simple; follow the wall across the foot of Blencathra, and head on to Suta Fell. Should be fine, it’s quick terrain plus I know this area fairly well, having lived in Keswick for two years.

Oh Vanity! Thy name is Johannes Gausden! With a mental state closely akin to that of an over-ripe turnip, a gate I didn’t expect threw me into a spiral of panic. Tim tried to reason out the navigation with me, but I was having none of it and ran off back the way we came for about a kilometre. I then forced us both to climb about 100 meters up the hillside by a fence before I came to my senses and realised what I’d done. Idiot! I couldn’t believe it. Tim was tired, and understandably annoyed by this, and I refused to get moving until I’d asked someone else (who was fortunately just coming our way) where they thought we were, just to check it matched up with what we were (correctly) thinking.

From here on in we didn’t suffer any more problems. Tim was tired and understandably quiet, whilst I descended into a world of self-annoyance and absolute conviction that Tim now hated me. All this was fixed as we came over Suta Fell, where, due to the time I’d added to our run by being confused and pig-headed, dawn broke and we were treated to a snow-covered fellside all to ourselves. Pure magic!

At the cairn and penultimate control, I apologised to Tim for the clusterfuck I had precipitated, and said that I hoped he didn’t now hate me. Fortunately this made him laugh, and he informed me that, no, of course he didn’t hate me, and after so many hours of running in the dark, he thought those mistakes could probably be forgiven. We wolfed down some much-needed trail mix and picked up the pace for the final push.

There’s not much left to say about our ordeal. The final section passed in good spirits, whilst legs complained bitterly about the abuse they’d been subjected to. Impressively, we were so excited to get back that we picked up the fastest time for the stretch between the final control and the event centre!

Sitting back down in the hall we were greeted by jovial marshals who all asked how it had been. Once we’d sorted ourselves out we were treated to an excellent breakfast and coffee, which I’m sure I didn’t appreciate as much as I should have done, and sat around to wait for the award ceremony. Finally, and for this I am incredibly thankful, we headed back to Threlkeld for a hot shower and a sleep in a quiet bed before driving back east.

Dropping Tim off at Penrith to catch a train back to London, I headed onto the M6 and began musing on the events just gone. What would I have done differently? What went wrong? I might discuss these in greater detail at a later date, but the take home messages, if you’ve read this far, are:

Marmot Dark Mountains is hard; excellent, but hard, and I’d thoroughly recommend it as long as you enjoy a good session of suffering.

If you start to panic, try to stop, even if it’s for five minutes. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort. As Tim said to me later, when you panic, think; tired, upset, stressed, hungry, (hungover); and hopefully you can pull yourself out of the panic spiral by identifying why you’re panicking.

Which leaves me to say, thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed my account, and I hope this inspires you to get out for a run in the dark. Running isn’t just a daylight activity!

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Johan and Tim coming into the finish
Marmot Dark Mountains
En route
Johan-Tim route
Their full route after the complete download

Post by Johan

A Run Round Kielder

As the Dark Mountains race looms on the dimly-lit horizon, we thought it would probably be a good idea to get out for a long run to get some miles in my legs, especially as I hadn’t been for a run since the 2nd day of the New Year. Conveniently, Northumberland hosts a fine array of potential running locations to head out to and get the legs moving again. After a little deliberation we settled on Kielder Water as the Lakeside way comes in at a satisfying 26(ish) miles, or more impressively – Marathon distance; a nice easy warm up before the main event.

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It was also decided to head out to start just before dusk, having been given a new head torch for Christmas (thank you Jim), and to get some night-miles covered in preparation for the Dark Mountains event.

Kielder Lakeside Way is mostly trail, with the odd bit of tarmac thrown in here and there where old roads still exist. It’s also fully signposted, so navigation was never going to be an issue which, as it turned out, was probably for the best.

Mid day saw us packing the essentials into my trusty Pete Bland bum-bag; wind smock, compass and whistle (why?), headtorch, gloves and buff, and two gels, one trek bar and 500ml of water. Looking back, I’m not sure what I was thinking, and I paid the price for my idiocy, but a lesson well learnt!

Starting from Leaplish at 16:24, the first half hour or so was run in daylight, at a pace which felt fairly rapid, but comfortable. I stopped off a couple of times to wet my feet in a small stream as they felt as though they were heating up just a little too much, and wetting them seemed to do the trick. At this point I was covering ground at about 6 to 7 minutes per mile – if I could keep this up then I should be able to hit my target of about 3h30.

About eight miles into the run I knocked back an energy gel, as I could feel my blood-sugars dropping and my thoughts beginning to get a little confused. That seemed to fix me for a while, and I managed to bash on for a while at about the same pace; all-in-all I was feeling pretty good, and the Lakeside markers for Kielder Dam were ticking by at a pleasant rate.

With five miles to the dam however, things got a bit wobbly. Thoughts got confused, doubts began to creep in, and a fine rain started to fall to accompany this sudden downwards change in feeling. Out came the Sonic Smock to keep the worst of the weather at bay, and the trek bar was munched down to perk me back up again. Having washed this down with my rapidly diminishing drink, my pace increased again, and it felt as though the target time may be back within reach.

I finally stumbled into the car park on the northern side of Kielder Dam and found a sign showing a map of the Water. Legs were wobbling and thoughts were a little scrambled again so the final gel went to meet its maker within the void of my stomach. It looked as though I was way past half way, possibly even two thirds or more round, and my spirits picked up – especially when I used the scale shown on the map to have a quick estimate of distance remaining; only five miles! Let’s go!

Oh how wrong I had been – an inaccurate map and scale had tricked me, and the next waymarker showed a depressing 8 ½ miles to go. At this point the only way out was onwards, a feeling I’m all too familiar with from my Lakeland climbing days, and fortunately the next couple of miles seemed to pass fairly quickly but then my legs started to seize up once again. I’d started my stop watch just as I’d hit the south bank to show me how many minutes over three hours I was, and with about six miles to go, it was obvious that the 3h30 benchmark would sail by. Ok, four hours was the next hopeful time – let’s get that.

It was not to be. As the miles trickled by like cold treacle, my legs progressively seized up more and more, and I had to switch to walking for sizeable sections. My thoughts turned to food and the hope that the Creme Egg was still sat in the car. Finally, after a serious grind, the Leaplish ½ mile post appeared and soon after the bright lights of Leaplish beckoned me home. Four hours had been and gone, as had 4h30, but 9 o’clock was just round the corner. Could I make it back to Lucy’s car by 9?

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I did, with 20 seconds to spare, but it’s these little victories that keep us coming back for more. Even better, the Creme Egg was still there, though not for long! In the end, my first marathon run had come in at a slightly sluggish 4h36. I feel I can console myself slightly with the fact that the Lakeside way, whilst not mountainous, does have some ups and downs, and that the run was done mostly in the night; plenty of room to improve however, watch this space.

Lastly, a few words of wisdom, as much to myself as to anyone else reading this account; take food, plenty of food. If you get hungry, you get slow; you get slow, you seize up; you seize up, you slow down, and so on. Clothing seemed about right for me, but I run hot; if you run cold, a fleece may have been a necessary accessory. Also, birds suddenly flying across the path in the middle of the night makes me jump.

I’d like to thank anyone who made it this far for reading, and I hope it’s been an entertaining read. I also hope this inspires a few to get out and go for a long run, but make sure you have enough food; you’ll regret it otherwise!

 

Post by Johan