“Welcome to Hell”
This is how a Mountain Rescue safety marshal described the race so I knew I was in for a real treat!
This was the third year of this race, but the rise in entries from 18, ~100 to 250 this year suggest its already becoming an infamous classic, sold as one of the most isolated and tough 55 mile races in England.
I’ve still not decided why i entered, I’d no experience of a solo, self-sufficient ultra, but it seemed like a good challenge to push myself as training for the Arc of Attrition next February, plus I’d completed the inaugural UTS50 in May with twice the elevation, so how hard could this be? Just a bit colder and soft underfoot?
I was very, very wrong.
The first marathon went well, I was actually enjoying it with the summer’s niggles not really bothering me (no more than I’d had before). Fuelled by pork pie and cheesy puffs, nav was easy on the unmarked course, only ever needing the map with good visibility making the compass and GPS unnecessary.
The course was nicely undulating with plenty of peat bogs and impeding barbed wire fences but still runnable sections to make good progress.
The only real issue was sore and ice cold, numb feet; I’d chosen to start in zero-cushioned Inov8’s, chosen for grip rather than comfort, and non-waterproof socks because I’d expected the bogs to come over the top and end up sloshing around. This was all tolerable, I knew I had waterproof socks and comfier shoes stashed in the drop bag waiting at the only aid station at the half-way.
So, 7:30 hrs and I was half-way, looking forward to warming up with a cuppa – this was the only proper aid station, otherwise there was a safety marshal approx every 5 miles, and water every 10.
The pit stop was in a remote farmhouse; and it was chaotic, bodies and kit everywhere, squeezing through the tiny kitchen area where volunteers were trying to dish out soup to us bedraggled runners. I was lucky and arrived in time to find one of the few sofa seats become available. I could hear lots of conversations from people dropping out and staff arranging transport. At the briefing the RD said this was the last spot for vehicle transport back, if you leave the farm you’re running, walking or crawling to the finish with no more access for 4X4’s onto the course.
I stuffed down a southern fried chicken wrap washed down with a large tea and some soup, so with changed socks and shoes, and the cheat sticks making their first appearance I headed back out fairly quickly – that was the end of the beginning.
It started to rain – a lot; visibility started to drop, I saw less and less competitors, and I’d heard the rumours about how much harder the second half would be – this was to be the start of the test i came here for!
I can’t remember much specific of the next few hours, apart for almost continuous sodden peat bogs, reed beds and grassy hills, it was a case of get my head down and make as much progress in daylight as I could. One of the marshal points had a fire pit, but a glaringly sad absence of sausages.
With reducing visibility the GPS became invaluable, saving significant time over map and compass.Mentally working out how much daylight was probably left in fast fading conditions I was hoping to make the only hut out on course so i could sort night-time kit out sheltered from the weather. As darkness descended this hope was fading, but just as i was preparing for a brief stop i could see the blinking beacon from the hut, hard to tell the distance in the drizzle and mist i pressed on and made it with just the last vestiges of twilight to light the way.
A quick set up of the headtorch, spare torch, batteries and powerpack moved to easier access I headed back out.
This was the start of the 3-yard stare, just the ground at my feet illuminated through the gloom.
The next few hours passed slowly in complete darkness and isolation – the sporadic glimpses of a feint glow from other lone runners giving some slight sense of security.
The route followed the pennine way for much of the night, with the benefit of mostly submerged flag stones – at least underfoot was firmer but the stones were slippy and at night a 12 min/mile jog was the best i could muster with any confidence of not tripping or slipping into the obsidium blackness of the bogs on both sides.
After a couple of wrong turns, quickly corrected with my new best friend the Garmin GPS64s, I ended up in a leap-frog contest with a fellow competitor (Russ) – he’d beat me uphill, I’d take him on the flat and down. At least now we could share navigation and check each others errors; and he was a veteran of the 108 mile, 60 hour Spine Challenger, recounting that the Goat was harder!
Next stop – the highest point of the route up the Cheviot; the first section of climb was steep, technical, and rather moist!
The rain had eased but with increasing elevation and dropping temperatures a return to a flagged path became much slippier so this became mostly a walk. I was tiring, weakened, and started to get dizzy spells from tiredness and reduced frequency of eating from being to engrossed in the technical terrain – this is a lesson I’ll take to the Arc, the priority is food over maintaining pace.
Russ pressed well ahead as I took on the cheesy puffs and snack bars, I quickly recovered and caught him after the decent to the next safety marshal where he was taking a brief rest.
The marshal advised we buddy up, indicating the next section was going to be hard going and difficult to navigate – can it really be that bad, harder than what we’d completed? yes, it was.
Somewhat indescribable, the next 10 miles of night-time hills were almost entirely flooded peat bogs, with zig-zag route finding becoming mentally tiring, scrambling up and down 6 foot trenches, traversing along fences, holding on to avoid falling into the unknown depths of the black water below. I’d avoided submerging deeper than knee height, but I’d had enough, this was the hell i’d read and heard tale of!
Taking it in turns with Russ to find the easiest route, with much backtracking this section took an age to complete even with the absence of rain pace was down to 30-45 mins/mile, it makes Bleaklow look like a sunday afternoon stroll.
With no choice but to grind out the miles finally the bogs subsided, transitioning into some technical rocky descents and the joy of runnable wet fields; it was all downhill mud from now on (apart from some minor bits of up, negotiating electric and barbed wire fences and some more bits of bog).
So that was it, the last section was on road before a short woodland trail; carrying the polish sisters it was a slow jog to the finish to be met by the RD shaking the hand of every finisher (he had a long day) and welcomed by a brief round of applause from the few competitors still recovering in the cafe at 1 a.m. and some soup.
Another life memory in the bag and a visit to a new part of the UK. Was it the hardest race I’ve done – yes; not the furthest, or the longest time on feet, but the mental battle with underfoot conditions puts it up there in my top 3 ultras along with TP100 and UTS50.
Next up is Arc of Attrition, with a 50% drop-out rate, I hope the Goat has been good enough training to avoid becoming another statistic; but I’ll see what happens…. watch this space! ?
Some final stats for those that like that sort of thing:
– pork pies 1 (family size) : gels 0
– entries 250 : starters 180 : finishers 154
– number 2’s = 0
– number 1’s = lost count
– shoes 2
– socks 4
– wrong directions 5
– cow attacks 0
– hallucinations 3 (big balls of moss looking like sheep rolling toward me, why haven’t they got any legs?!)
– winner 9:30 hrs (it’s easier in daylight if you’re quick enough)
– my time 18:30 hrs, 112 out of 140 men (better than my target of 20 hrs ? )