Saturday approx 3am Guisborough Woods, 49 miles covered, race time approx 10 hours
The darkness envelopes me as I run silently through the forest, only the beam from my headtorch illuminating the trail. It is cold but not uncomfortably so, five layers of clothing, two beanies and a pair of gloves are doing their job insulating me from the chilly temperature. The forest shelters me from the gale force winds that battered me over the moors and it is a welcome relief. As the clouds part , the moon shines and lights up the path ahead of me and at this moment I can think of no other place I’d rather be. I feel totally encapsulated in the moment, there is no before and after, only now, me, the forest , the trail ,the moon, nothing else exists or matters. The silence of the forest magnifies the effect particularly after the deafening howl of the wind only hours ago. Even the sound of my own breath is faint as although the pace is quickish (around 7 minutes per mile) it feels very comfortable. It is a wonderful state to be in and I revel in it for as long as I can because I know that in an ultra incredible highs are often followed by equally incredible lows.
Eventually a steep descent brings me out of my meditative state and forces me to focus on where I place my feet. It was nice while it lasted, now back to the job at hand. I was 25 minutes down at the last checkpoint and I have to make up time in this section if I am to have a chance of catching the leader. I know I must have made up some time over the last few miles the question was how much time. As I descend the last section I notice a pain in my left knee. It’s one I’ve had before but not for a long time and I know what it means. It will slowly get worse and worse until it makes bending my knee painful and running downhill impossible. Not good. I’m almost half way, will it hold out enough to get me to the finish. The problem is the finish is still another 62 miles away....
Friday 24 September 4.30pm Helmsley
As 29 ultrarunners stand around listening to race Organiser Jon Steele’s final instructions I look outside and notice it is raining, again. The weather forecast is showers and gale force winds of approx 40miles per hour gusting up to 70 miles per hour. Temperatures should just make double digits during the day and drop down to 5 degrees overnight minus the wind chill factor (which is quite a bit when its blowing 40 miles an hour) It will be colder going over the moors. Mind you if you are prepared to do a bit of looking around on the internet you can find a much better forecast, I managed to find one forecast that didn’t mention rain and another had no mention of gale force winds! Still it could be worse, the previous night it was similar except it rained almost non stop!
It’s the beginning of autumn in northern England and I am lining up to run the Hardmoors 110 ( now 114 miles as Jon decided that the 2009 version wasn’t hard enough and added another 4 miles to the route). The route departs from Helmsley just north of York and runs 58 miles across the Yorkshire moors to Saltburn-by-the-Sea and then a further 56 miles down the coast to Filey. I’ve got 36 hours to finish but am hoping do it in less than 24. Almost 4.5 marathons, back to back with over 6000m of ascent and descent , why would anyone want to do this? If you are asking that then you’ll probably never understand the answer.
Friday 5.00pm Helmsley
Jon counts down from ten and we set off in light rain through Helmsley. The initial miles are relatively gentle and I settle into a rhythm with last years winner Neil Risdale. The first few miles in an ultra are always the worse for me. You expect your legs to feel fresh as a daisy but they never do and then you start to wonder if you did too much training or not enough training, or it’s just not your day today. All these thoughts run through my head but Neil’s strategy last year was to set off quickly and try and lose the opposition so I figured if I was keeping up with him I must be doing ok.
There are two ways to run the Hardmoors – supported or unsupported. Supported runners have their own support crew who can meet them whenever they want supplying food and drink, unsupported are able to fill their water containers up every10-20 miles but must carry everything else. You are able place a drop bag at the 45 mile checkpoint and 75 mile checkpoint with spare clothes, food etc. I am running unsupported and Neil supported.
I run into the first checkpoint below the White horse just ahead of Neil who stopped for a quick top up from his support crew. Ascending from the checkpoint back up to the cliff top Neil catches me and we run together chatting. I discover Neil is a talkative type when he runs and I’m definitely not. I add a few words now and then to be polite but to be honest I prefer run lost in my own thoughts or lack thereof!
One of the attractions of ultras for me is spending hours lost inside my own head. It’s a strange place at the best of times and running an ultra drives almost all the other distractions out of it. All I tend to think about for 24 hours or so is monitoring my body for signs that tell me to slow down, speed up, drink water, consume calories, take salt tablets, watch where I put my feet , monitor how hot or cold I am and adjusting clothing to suit. Not much else goes on to be honest. I try and take in and enjoy as much of the scenery as possible but as soon as you start doing too much of that you’ll find yourself flat on your face having tripped over a rockr. In between all those thoughts there are wonderful periods of nothing, where no thought is going through my head and I am just running. I imagine its how it feels to meditate and although I’ve tried that I find it very hard to stem the constant avalanche of thoughts in my brain whilst sitting still. I don’t have that problem on a really long run.
Friday approx 6.30pm Sutton Bank 12 miles covered, race time approx 90 minutes
The route runs along the cliff top overlooking North Yorkshire. There is the occasional brief shower and the wind is starting to pick up but as the sun sets there is a moment of sublime beauty. The thick clouds part enough to allow a thin stream over sunlight through the centre. The cloud refract’s the light and creates numerous other beams of light around the edge of the clouds illuminating the fields below us in that golden glow of the setting sun. Moments like these make it all worthwhile. We follow the escarpment around and I notice that I am faster on the descents. Something to remember for later
As we leave the escarpment and head out onto the Moors it is getting dark and I stop to put my head torch on. The moors are a bleak place at night, particularly with a howling wind and driving horizontal rain. Thankfully the rain comes in brief bursts and doesn’t persist for too long. Neil drops back behind me sheltering from the wind, I should have thought of that. Descending from the moors, Neil drops behind, I’m not sure if he’s stopped to put on warmer clothing or not comfortable with the pace. As I leave the moors to briefly join a road there is a collection of cars waiting for their runners which I presume Neil will be stopping at. I leave the road and descend steeply , at the bottom of a descent I look back to see how far behind he is and cant see him. I now have the lead, the question is how long can I keep it for. I push on enjoying running by myself. I reccied the route a while back and am hoping I can remember the way without having to look at my map. Neil has run it at least 4 times before and lives locally so I know he wont have to stop and look at the map. For a few miles I am fine, recognising where to turn to follow the trail but I then come out onto a road and cant remember whether to turn left or right, I get the map out but before I can even find the right page I see a headlight in the distance, Neil will catch me before I figure it out so I wait for him.
Friday approx 8.30pm Osmotherly 24 miles covered, race time approx 3 hours 30 mins
We arrive into Checkpoint 2 together and I stop to fill my water bottle up whilst he continues. Neil has the advantage of a support crew which means he can replenish his supplies more often so doesn’t have to carry as much, I don’t have that luxury and as the checkpoints are infrequent I have to spend more time at them to make sure my water supplies are as full as possible. As I set off again I look for his head torch but he is no-where to be seen. The path follows a farm track to a gate where there is three options, turn right up the hill, go through the gate, or go straight ahead to the left of the gate, I’m not sure which way but am confident it’s not turning right, so I guess and open the gate and then realise it’s tied with rope and the way it’s tied Neil wouldn’t have tied it back like that so decide to follow the other path, it goes through two more gates then follows a fence line up to a small path into the woods. As I enter the woods there are several options none of which look like the main trail. Looking at my map it says to turn right so I do, the path I follow becomes narrower and narrower until eventually it opens out and beneath me is what looks like a 30 foot drop. Thats probably not the way to go – shit!
Ok Back track, I run the half mile back to the gate and reassess. Checking the notes again I definitely followed the right track , maybe there’s another entrance to the woods. I follow the path again checking the fence line for any other entrances. No, Shit, shit. What now. Dont panic. I run back to the gate again and get out my more detailed map and have a look. It tells me the same thing, I run back up to the woods entrance and decide to try a different approach. I know that very shortly I should come to some TV Masts right by a stone wall. There is a stone wall right next to me so I jump over it and start to run along it hoping to see the TV masts, I cant see anything and really don’t like running off piste so I jump back over the wall and go back to the gate again. Stopping for a second to fight off the rising panic about losing so much time due to a navigational error I calm myself and reread the instructions. Heading back up to the woods I enter the woods and this time instead of taking what looked like the main path follow a smaller track that is covered with foliage. As soon as I break through the foliage a larger track appears to the right just as the map says. Finally I am back on track.
I set off realising that I’ve probably lost 30 minutes plus run an extra couple of miles. I know I’m not going to make up that much time quickly but with 90 miles to go anything can happen and if I can make up even 20 seconds per mile I can catch him.
I settle back into a rythym as I run along a forest trail which eventual climbs back onto the moors. The course now ascends and descends very steeply a number of times before levelling off. I know the ascents are too steep to run and the descents are steep and on very slippery rocks which make it almost impossible to run. There is little chance of making up much time here, yet in the distance I see a headlight. I cant have made up the time already surely, but it is almost inconceivable that anyone else apart from runners in the race would be out on the moors on a night like this. Puzzled I continue on closing the gap quickly.
It is dark by now and the rain has picked up again, as I reach the top of the first climb the wind is driving the rain horizontally into my left side. One hand and one side of my face is feeling very cold. I have another thermal top and another beanie in my backpack which I may need soon. The trail levels out at the top which allows me to run which I hope will start to warm me up again. Unfortunately the wind increases making it feel even colder. Just before I start the descent I approach the runner in front, as I near him I recognise that it isn’t Neil but Martin who was running not far behind us. I am totally mystified by how he managed to pass me without me seeing him. Must have been when I was on the other side of the large brick wall I wonder.
Descending is not much fun , the rocks are very slippery and great care must be taken not to fall. As I descend I see some lights by a road, it must be the cars of the support crews of the other runners. Approaching the bottom I hear Jons voice call out in encouragement. I stop briefly to put on my extra thermal top and beanie. Another runners support crew asks me if I have any support crew to which I answer no, Jon informs her that I am hardcore! It is another 15 miles or so to the first drop bag where I have even more warm clothes if I need it. I hope what I have on is enough to get me there.
There are two more steep ascents and descents before I reach the plateau of Hasty Bank and Bloworth Crossing. Once I reach there it is around 7 miles of very runnable tracks all the way to the checkpoint at Kildale. If I can progess quickly over this I am hoping I might be able to see Neil’s head torch in the distance. (I find out later that when the Moon came out Neil turned his head torch off so I wouldn’t be able to see him!)
The extra clothing has helped and I set off briskly up the next climb. It is getting colder and my breath is condensing. This is actually a problem as the large clouds of water vapour obscure my view of the ground making it hard to see where to put my feet. I’ve never had this problem in an Ultra before!
The ascent is relatively straight forward, the descent not so. It is even more slippery than the previous one and I take great care almost slipping several times. This is followed by the final ascent to Wainstones and a checkpoint. There’s still no sign of Neil ahead. (I find out later that when the Moon came out Neil turned his head torch off so I wouldn’t be able to see him!)
Friday approx 11.30pm Wainstones Checkpoint 32 Miles covered, race time approx 6hours 30 mins
The route is relatively straight forward but I stop every now and then to make sure I am on the correct path. At the top of the rock pinnacles known as Wainstones there is a marshall all set up with a small tent and lots of warm clothes. It is a very cold, wet and windy place to camp for the night and I thank him for helping out with the race.
Finally I can settle into a good running pace again. The only danger is the route is regularly broken up by open drains just waiting to trip someone up. Spraining an ankle up here would not be good. My legs feel relatively good for having covered 40 miles and I am starting to feel confident I am having a good day.
All of a sudden a bright light appears and I wonder if someone is catching me, I turn around and see the clouds have opened up and the moon is making a very bright appearance. It is still very cold and windy but the rain has temporarily stopped and the presence of the moon makes it a beautiful and surreal place to be.
A few miles on and the path takes a sharp left and heads to Kildale, a small town nestled at the bottom of the embankment. At the turn is another checkpoint and another person camped overnight in the middle of nowhere, I say a quick hello and a thankyou and push on straining my eyes to try and pick up signs of a head torch in the distance but with no luck . The next 6 miles are basically flat and then steeply downhill along a road so I push hard trying to make up some time. There’s a fine line between pushing hard and pushing too hard and as it’s a long way to go I err on the side of caution keeping the pace sensible ( around 8 min mile pace). The rain competes with the moon for space in the sky and the wind is consistently deafening, it will be a relief to drop down into Kildale to escape it for a while.
Kildale approx 2am. 45 miles covered, race time approx 9 hours
Kildale eventually appears and I head into the bright lights of the Village Hall, the first of the checkpoints where I can pick up a drop bag. I don’t ask how far Neil is ahead as I don’t want to know, I am happy running my own race. I spend a few minutes sipping some coke, topping up my water and fuel supplies before heading out again.
The next section involves a steep climb up to a monument for Captain Cook, a steep runable descent then another steep climb. At the top of this is a one mile out and back section to the top of Roseberry Topping, a hill with panoramic views overlooking Yorkshire ( not at 2 am in the morning though). I am hoping to catch sight of Neil on this section. The out and back bit takes around 30 minutes so if I see him heading back as I head out I’ll have some idea. As I approach the start of the out and back I am nervous since if I don’t see him he’s put time on me and my chances of winning start to drop considerably. No sign of him yet as I turn left onto the trail towards Roseberry Topping, almost as soon as I do though Neil appears ahead of me making his way back up the climb. We exchange greetings then get back to the job at hand. I reach the top of Roseberry and check-in with the Marshalls who inform me I’m 25 minutes down. I’ve no real idea if i’ve made or lost time on Neil as I don’t know how much time I spent lost but guess it has to be around 30 mins. I know Neil finished the second half very strong last year so figure I need to make some headway over the next 10 miles.
The next section through Gainsborough woods and into Skelton and Saltburn is very runnable with some good downhill trails where it might be possible to make up a bit of time. I decide I need to push on a bit more and see if I can eat into that lead before we hit the coast. After a few miles I reach Guisborough woods and a potentially tricky navigational section. I’ve studied this part of the route in detail as it was mentioned that it is an area where people got lost in previous years. There is a checkpoint at the end of the tricky section which I reach without difficulty. The next part of the course through the forest is a place to let the legs stride out and make up some time.
Saturday approx 3.30am Slapewath race time approx 10 hours 30 minutes
My knee sends me a warning sign that it is not liking this steep descent, I ignore it and run down to the a main road, crossing it near the deserted Fox and Hounds Pub before ascending around the back of a quarry on the other side. At the top of this ascent is a farm track which runs all the way into Skelton. I run steadily down trying to preserve my knee but notice it feels better running faster so keep the pace up. Passing through the town of Skelton quickly, I follow the trail through a wooded area all the while on the lookout for Neil, still no sign, maybe I haven’t made any progress on him after all. Some of the very steep sections really bother my knee and I am starting to really worry. Upon a moments reflection I decide that worrying about how it might feel hours from now is pointless , at the moment I can still run ok albeit with a bit of pain, but it isn’t affecting my running yet, so I put any other thoughts out of my mind.
Saturday September 25 approx 4am Saltburn 58 Miles covered. Race time approx 11hours
Finally I arrive at Saltburn and make my way down to the seafront where some poor guy has been sitting in a car for god knows how many hours waiting for runners to come along. The town is deserted as you would expect for this time of the morning and the wind is whipping the sea into a frenzy of white-capped waves. The checkpoint is located in a carpark which overlooks all of this and is not a great place to spend a night.
I say hi and he checks me in. As he does I glance at his clipboard and notice that Neil checked in at 4.07. I watch as he writes my arrival time in as 4.11. I’ve made up 21 minutes in the last 10 miles! The race is well and truly back on. The Marshall warns me that the winds are forecasted to INCREASE as I approach Filey, great!
The race follows the cliff top coastal path for the whole 56 miles to Filey. It drops down into various small towns and gullies along the way before regaining the height on the other side. The descents and ascents are on the very steep side and are often very steep wooden stairs built into the gully walls, completely impossible to run down or up. There are plenty of good running trails but also plenty of hills that are just too steep to run with 60+ miles in the legs. It is essential to preserve your legs on the steep ascents and descents so you are able to run as much as possible on the other sections. The key to finishing an ultra quickly is having the ability to be able to run despite having covered 60 or more miles. Even running slowly you’ll cover 6 or more miles an hour ( 9km/hr) whereas as soon as you start walking the speed drops to 4 miles an hour at most. My goal was to run everything that was possible to run. Even the uphills that weren’t ridiculously steep I aimed to be able to use a run/walk strategy, running parts until the effort level increased then walking till I recovered and then commence running again. I was really hoping my knee would let me do that.
Forgetting all about my knee I climb the path south from Saltburn and head along the coastal path. Before long I see a torch light ahead and know it can only be Neil. This is a massive physcological boost and the pain in my knee dwindles to almost nothing. I make time on him quickly and as I reach him he stops to let me go through, he knows I’m running faster than him and lets me go on my way without trying to stay with me. I turn around every now and then to see where he is and find that the distance between the two of us is slowly increasing.
Despite what it might sound like my goal isn’t to win races, merely to get the best performance out of myself on the day(s) that is possible, I’m enough of a realist to know that there are plenty of better runners out there than me to not get carried away with myself. In this race in knew that if I had a good day I’d be competitive at the front end of the field but I’d rather come third and put in a great performance than come 1st with a substandard one. Having said that I’ll use whatever I can to motivate me to push myself as hard as possible and having Neil to race against was certainly helping me push myself along. Neil was obviously going through a bad patch when I was going through a good patch. I know in races this long that can change very quickly.
Saturday Skinningrove approx 5am 60 miles covered Race time approx 12 hours
I reached the first little town of Skinningrove , passing through it around 5 in the morning, the sea battering the jetty and winds whipping the sea into a frenzy, it was a deserted and forlorn little place. I notice my knee doesn’t like running on the flat road through the town ( I say town but it must have had half a dozen houses at most and a collection of fishing boats). The flat road means that every step loads my knee in the same way as opposed to the trails where every step is slightly different. Fortunately there isn’t much flat road for the next 50 miles!.
I continue on up out of Skinningrove and along the path, the sun is making an attempt to rise which is very welcome. It doesn’t bring any warmth but does mean I can take my head torch of. Progress is slow as there is much ascent and seemingly little descent, some of the ascent is runnable and I push on whenever possible. I’ve realised that a very slow run is significantly quicker than a walk except for very steep or long ascents. So I try and keep a shuffle going uphill for as long as possible. I pass through the town of Staithes, so pretty in the summer sun of my recce, now it is a windy cold deserted fishing village.
I feel like I am the only person alive at times, the whole world is asleep, and in conditions like this who could blame them. It is a very surreal feeling running as the sun rises knowing that you’ve run throughout the whole night. Seeing and feeling the gradual changes that occur as the earth spins around it’s axis you gain a different viewpoint of day and night. Normally night brings the end of the day, you sleep and wake up and it is a new day. Running throughout the night doesn’t give you that break between days, one day rolls into the next and you are still running, the earth is still turning, nothing has changed. You begin to lose a sense for what it feels like not to run, as if your life started when you started running , nothing before existed, there was only you, running and with so long to go all you can see in the future is you, running. I almost feel like the earth is a giant treadmill and I am an insignificant ant on its surface trying to keep up, when I jumped on this treadmill and when I can jump off nobody knows.
Saturday approx 7am Runswick Bay 70 miles covered , Race time approx 14 hours
The next checkpoint is at Runswick Bay and I leave the cliff top to ascend to a road where the checkpoint is located. The marshalls there inform me that the sea is looking at little rough and the beach may not be passable. The route goes along the beach for a short section before heading up through a small break in the cliffs. I run down to the beach to see the sea in a white water frenzy crashing heavily against the cliffs. If my life depended on getting through I think I could have made it but the thought of getting saturated by freezing cold seawater and then running another 44miles didn’t appeal to me at all. Upon discussion with the marshalls it was decided that I will wait until the tide turns and it is safe to cross. The race instructions did mention that this was a possibility , I just didn’t think it would actually happen.
Around 20 minutes later Neil appears and being a local he decided instead of waiting he’d try and find a way through. I wasn’t keen and neither were the marshalls so I remained in the car whilst Neil pushed on ahead. The time I would spend in the car would be deducted from my race time anyway. Every half an hour we check the tide until finally 1 hour and 40 minutes later it looks safe to go. Now you might think that the situation is now in my favour – a nice rest doing me the world of good. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was now very cold, even standing outside the car for a minute reduced me to a shivering wreck. The marshalls had in their kindness switched the car on to turn the heaters on to warm me up. I had enough warm clothes to stay warm when running but sitting around doing nothing is different. I gingerly set off along the beach and immediately noticed my other knee ( the right one) is very sore. Thats the other problem of sitting cramped up in a car for that long , everything starts to seize up. I try to run a bit then the pain gets too much and I walk again hoping that it will improve as I warm up again.
I make my way past the cliffs and head up the small break in the cliffs ascending via the staircase before resuming the cliff top path. Running is possible but it really does hurt, the left knee seems the least of my worries now. Once again I try not to think how this will feel after another 44 miles. It’s 9 miles to the second major checkpoint at Whitby. I resolve to get myself there and hope that the knee pain will have settled down a bit so I can run the remaining 35 miles to the finish. By alternating running with walking 5-10 strides I find I can keep the pain to a manageable level without losing much time. This strategy keeps me going to Sandsend. From Sandsend the route follows the road for a mile and a half before turning off and heading along the cliff top walk into Whitby. I am running along the road up a slight incline feeling pretty ordinary, it’s the worst I have felt the entire race. I know it’s just a low point and I will eventually feel better but that doesn’t make me feel any better now. I feel like I am running on the spot.
Just at this moment a car pulls up beside me, I look to my right and there is Jon , head out the window telling me I am looking great. It couldn’t come at a better time. I know Jon’s probably just saying that, I probably do look like shit but praise is one of those things that no matter how unlikely the compliment is it still makes you feel better. I reason that Jon is an ultra runner himself and if he says I am looking good I cant be doing too bad. I continue on running a little bit extra before the pain in my knee forces me to walk again. The walking breaks are literally only seconds long, just enough to relieve my mind from dealing with the pain.
My legs (apart from my knees) are still keen to run which is great after having covered more than 70 miles, so my mind is having this internal dialogue – just keep running – but it hurts – just keep running – but it really hurts – just keep running – but it really hurts and I’m making you walk – no you aren’t lets get running again- but it hurts – just keep running etc etc
I make my way along the cliff top path into Whitby central hoping that the swing bridge that allows you to cross from one side of Whitby to the other is not up. It happens every half an hour when the tide is in to allow fishing boats access to the upper harbour. If it’s down I lose time standing around waiting for it to open again. I’m in luck, the bridge is down allowing me to cross over then ascend the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey. Jon meets me at the top of the steps and guides me in to the checkpoint in the Youth Hostel.
Saturday approx 10.30am, 79 miles covered, race time approx 16 hours
I discover Neil passed through about an hour ago – which means I’ve made up around 40 minutes in the last 9 miles, despite feeling horrible. It is a comforting thought. I am ahead in the race but because Neil didn’t wait at the checkpoint he is ahead on the road. The first thing I ask Jon for is pain killers , I normally carry some nurofen with me for just this sort of thing but somehow forgot this time. He hands me a packet of prescription strength codeine , fantastic! With any luck this will deaden the knee pain and I’ll be back in business. My drop bag contains a bottle of Coke which I throw down in an effort to boost my flagging energy levels. That stop at Runswick bay really didn’t do me any favours at all. I don’t rush at the checkpoint, grateful to be out of the cold and wind for a few minutes and spend the time composing myself, getting my head back together after the last 9 horrible miles and get focussed on the remaining 35 to the finish. With the coke finished it is time to go and I set of again with renewed determination to finish in a good time. I was hoping for under 24 hours but with these conditions and losing 30 minutes getting lost I’m not so sure anymore. All I can do is my best I think and decide not to try any time calculations until I reach Scarborough approx 14 miles from the finish.
It is 11 miles to the next checkpoint at Ravenscar, I set off in hope that the pain killers will kick in and I’ll be able to run without having to stop every half a mile or so and walk a few strides. Gradually I notice that I am running both faster and for longer before my knee starts to bother me. It still hurts make no mistake but its a pain that you can ignore without it consuming you. My mood starts to pick up and I feel like I’m making good time for several miles. Every now and then the knee yells at me and I have to walk a few strides but it is happening less frequently and is not slowing me down much. The left knee is competing with the right knee for attention and I cant decide which is worse. Neither is enough to stop me running , yet but with over 30 miles to go I’m still worried if they’ll hold out till the finish.
The weather is still very windy and but that has meant that the frequent showers come and go quite quickly. It is still very cold and I’m still wearing five layers, I occasionally take 1 beanie off and in a few rare moments both only for the wind to pick up again necessitating putting both back on again.
I arrive at Robin Hoods Bay and head down the 30 degree decline down to the sea, it is far to steep for my left knee to cope with ( my right knee doesn’t mind it all surprisingly) and I walk the steepest sections wondering what the bemused tourist are thinking of the sight of me.
Saturday approx 12.30 am, Ravenscar, 90 miles covered, Race time approx 18 hours.
Ravenscar is the next checkpoint , I arrive and check in to be told Neil is only a minute ahead of me. Somehow I’ve made up almost an hour in the last 11 miles. It fills me with confidence. I only have 24 miles to go which if I can do in less than 6 hours will get me a sub 24 hour finish.
I set off looking for any sign of Neil in the distance but despite running a fairly steady pace I cant see him. It doesn’t really matter as I know my lead is around an hour and 40 minutes and I figure that I’d have to lose 4 minutes a mile for him to have any chance of catching me.
As long as I can keep running at any kind of pace that wont happen. The focus now is on finishing in a quick a time as possible. The time it took me to calculate this can be measured in miles not minutes! My brain although normally good at maths is struggling after 90 miles of running to think about anything other than running!
The path goes down and up a series of very steep stepped descents and ascents that are hell on the knees and the average speed. At the top of one of these I spy Scarborough in the distance, it looks such a long way away yet I know it can only be 6 or 7 miles.
Still no Neil in sight and I wonder if he’s suddenly found a new set of legs. Further along the path I spy a box containing sports drink and various foods just off the path. Looking up I see a red Car parked at the end of a nearby road, it’s Neils sons car. I must have passed Neil somewhere along the trail. All I can guess is he stepped off the path to relieve himself and thats when I passed him.
Scarborough approx 2.30pm 101 miles covered, Race time approx 20 hours.
Finally I descend to the Scarborough foreshore. Its 4 miles around the headland on the main road to reach the final checkpoint. The promenade isn’t that busy , the wet and windy conditions put paid to that but the road around headland is closed off for the Yorkshire Rally. There are people everywhere having a look at the Rally Cars and none of them want to make way for me. It is very frustrating and after the peacefulness of running across the Moors at night or along the coast at dawn it comes as a rude shock. Finally I reach the end and start heading up to the final checkpoint.
The phone rings and it is Jon, wondering where I am. I tell him and he says a few things which I cant hear as the howling wind drowns out the sound. I reach the final checkpoint and the Marshall tells me that Jon told him to tell me “ to run my legs off”. If I had the energy I would have told him that it’s taking all I’ve got just to keep running let alone go any faster.
Its only 14 miles to go and I have around 4 hours to go to break 24 hours. Unfortunately there are more steep descents and ascents to take up valuable time. I make a quick phonecall to Catherine to tell her where I am and start getting a bit emotional. I know I am going to win but I want more than that, I want a fast time. It wont be a race record, the conditions and getting lost put paid to that but anything under 23 hours will be good. Inspired by talking to Jon and Catherine I push the pace for a while as the next section is quite runnable. This comes to an end as I descend an endless series of steps. It’s the last one I think and I gingerly make my way down eventually reaching the bottom. No more steps. I know there will be a climb back up but going up is better than going down.
I know that once I climb back up it wont be long before Filey will come into view. The climb back up is steeper than I remember and goes on for longer than I remember , thankfully it isn’t stairs this time just a very steep path. Upon reaching the top I look for Filey but with no luck, it cant be much further though. I continue climbing past a caravan park noticing that the wind which was very strong has picked up and is starting to make running difficult, every now and then it blows from behind and pushes me along which is great but it is mainly a very strong cross wind.
Jon calls again to ask where I am, I tell him but wonder why he’s calling. Finally the path levels out and I start running again, I remember when I did the recce thinking that the last few miles are very slightly downhill and should make for good running. This is true except where the trail narrows to a single track the wind is so strong that I am blown sideways out of the track and towards a fence, I put my hand out to stop myself falling and just in time realise it is a barb wire fence! A quick stumble and I regain balance and continue on cautiously. I learn to time my running in between the big gusts of wind slowing to a walk when the wind gusts. It’s ok when the track widens as I have a bit of room to play with but on the narrow tracks with barb wire fence it’s not much fun.
Cliff top near Filey , approx 4.20pm approx 110 miles covered, Race Time approx 21 hours 40 minutes
Eventually the fence ends and FIley comes into view. Finally after 110 miles of running I can see my destination. I haven’t dared think about Filey for it has always seemed such a long long way away and the thought of covering that distance is almost too much for the mind to comprehend but now I could see it not that far into the distance. I am inspired and try to pick up the pace without much success it has to be said.
I meet a walker coming along the other way who seems a little surprised to see me. He asks where Neil is, I reply he’s a bit behind, not sure how far though. Obviously a friend of Neils who thought Neil was leading. He is nice enough though – suggesting I run in the fields instead of the trail so I have room to be blown sideways without worrying about being blown over. There are barren fields about a metre or two off the path that make for easier running. I follow his suggestion and although anybody watching me who didn’t know it was windy would think I was drunk with the amount of weaving too and fro I was doing , it did allow me to continue running without having to walk every now and then for fear of being blown over.
I can see the end of the headland now and know that the turn off into Filey can only be half a mile or so away. I see a figure standing on the trail in the distance and as I approach I see it is Jon. He’s come out here and waited for me to get there so he can run the last few miles in with me. I am thrilled to see him and give him a big high five. We turn from the cliff and with the wind at our backs head into Filey. I give Catherine a quick call as we run to tell her I am only a few miles from the finish, and then set about enjoying the last few miles with Jon.
It is starting to seem real now, I will finish, I’ll finish in less than 24 hours and I’ll finish first. I hurt all over, both knees are really sore, my legs in general are trashed, even my abdominals are sore from trying to stabilise myself against the wind but you wont find too many happier people around. There are two more lots of stairs to go, bugger I’d forgotten about those. I’m running what feels like a pretty good pace with Jon ( it probably isn’t!) but as soon as we hit the stairs I slow to a crawl. I don’t care anymore the euphoria is starting to overwhelm everything else. Finally we reach the seafront and then turn up the main street.
Ealier that day there was a 10km fun run in Filey and as we run past a family the Mum tells one of the kids to watch out or they’ll be swept up by the 10k runners. I laugh and think “if only you knew”, Jon takes it one step further and goes back and tells them exactly how far I’ve come. I don’t get to see or hear their reaction unfortunately.
I cross the railway line thankful that the boom didn’t suddenly come down and make me wait for a train All that remains is the run up the road to the School Gymnasium where the race finishes. It is a cruel finish as there is no sign of the school until just a hundred yards or so from it and then once at the school you have to run to the far gate to enter the gym but finally I see two figures standing at the entrance, an official and Catherine, I cant control my emotion any more and pump my fists in the air, tears welling up in my eyes. I run past them and then into the Gym where my race is done.
Filey 5.10 pm 114 miles
There are a few people in the gym who applaud me and say congrats. It all seems a bit surreal, Catherine makes it into the gym and I am very happy she is able to share the finish with me. We sit and chat, she has a goody bag of food she’s prepared for me including a home baked banana cake but unfortunately my stomach isn’t up to much. I try a few Pringles and a cup of tea which goes down ok.
Almost as an afterthought I look at my watch and realise I’ve finished in 22hours and 28 minutes. It was a time I thought might be possible in good conditions if I didn’t get lost, to achieve it in atrocious conditions and losing 30 minutes to getting lost I almost don’t believe.
The next morning I find out that of the 29 starters only 11 made it to the finish, last year there were 23 starters and 21 finished. The conditions really took their toll.
I’ve now won two of these types of races both in appalling conditions , particularly for an antipodean who loves the hot conditions, yet it’s not about winning for me. The whole experience is the attraction of it. The moments of sublime natural beauty, the short periods of blissful meditative running, the ability to rise above physical pain and continue to push yourself, the total application of the mind to one all consuming goal, being out in the elements be they good or bad and finding ways to keep going despite them and of course the indescribable joy and emotion of crossing the finish line these are some of the reasons why I do these races.
How is it possible to run that far? It is possible because some people dare believe it is possible. Why would you want to? To have an adventure, to challenge yourself to do something that to many is inconceivable, to enjoy being out in nature and the feeling of being part of it rather than just watching from the outside, to see the sun set and then rise again and knowing that you’ve run the whole time in between, to be able to focus the mind so intensely that it can block out the thought of running another 50,60,70 miles and just focuses on the next mile, the ability to control your body in such a way that you are able to tell it what to do rather than the other way around and for so many other reasons that are so hard to explain.
They say that you experience life the fullest when you live on the edge, for me running an Ultramarathon is my edge!
Whats next? I don’t know but I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of what is possible. I’m looking forward to the next challenge already whatever it may be.