Sunday, July 24, 2016

Holme Moss Fell Race

The stupidest start to a fell race day.

Saturday night: "Yesss, race starts at 11am, so I'm just going to leave this here and prepare in the morning". 

On Sunday morning, through the fog of pre-coffee brain, I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out the route description vs. published map, only to realise I was reading a route description for a race in October.  I found the right route and in doing so, discovered that the event I was about to undertake was my first "AL" event - ie. beastily long and beastily hilly. This was going to feel like a marathon.

Once I'd drafted the right route on to my map and put it into my Garmin course list to check the distance (18 miles not 15-16) I had to scramble everything together quick, sharp.  Unloaded the washing machine and put my race vest on wet to dry it out before packing most of my kit (we won't need hat and gloves, surely?) and jumping into the car.

I put the postcode in the satnav - shit! I was due to arrive 3 minutes before the start!  Me and my stupid faffing around.  Still, I had committed to doing this today so decided to still go in the hope of getting there a bit earlier and the start being delayed.

The roads were thankfully quiet and I only had to overtake one Rover driving at 35 mph on country lanes.  As I drew into Holme I suddenly realised that the post code I put into the Satnav was probably the one for the October race.  

Good news: I was no longer late, because at 10:40, I was almost there!

Bad news: I had no idea where I was going.  

I stopped and got out all the electronics - first my phone before realising that the route was on my Garmin and so I asked it to take me to the start of the course.  As the Garmin loaded satellites I realised I had the old-school version - a Map! and I had marked the course on that.  So I set about trying to figure out which of the tiny lanes out of Holme I should be driving on.

As I drove up the steep and cobbled Washpit lane, my fuel indicator light came on.  Cascade of bloody errors or what>???

My road navigation is useless so I reverted to following the Garmin directions.  To the frustration of other drivers, stopping regularly to get my next instruction.  Finally I pulled up at the end of a row of parked cars with people wearing brightly coloured vests jogging up the road.  I couldn't decide what to bring for a moment and half emptied my bag of stuff I didn't think the organisers would expect us to carry.  I took out my waterproof coat but then put it back in.  Not because I thought they'd make us carry it but because I'd rather have that than a base layer if we were hit by a torrential thunderstorm and high winds - even in July.

I jogged over to the registration point, happy to see that most other people were bringing rucsacs too.  Usually I am the only one when I do and mostly I had brought mine for the camelbak carrying rather than the kit in it.  

As I was second to last to register, I realised that they were doing kit checks for every runner. "Good", I thought... "oh no", I thought, "What have I forgotten?"  Panic set in.  I still registered - I had to in order to borrow some gloves.  I had a hat on my head, even though it was designed to keep the sun out of my eyes and off my fair head, rather than to keep my head warm.

Then I started to panic about my waterproof trousers and in the 30 seconds it took me to register, my brain changed its recollection of them being removed from my bag - not in the car 5 minutes ago but in my house over an hour ago.  Thankfully, the organiser ran over to his house (right next to my car parking space) to fetch me his waterproof trousers.  What an embarrassment!  My apologies to anyone from Dark Peak reading this!

Let me put it here and now that after the race, when I returned the trousers to the organiser, I not only thanked the man but I also explained to him that in my panic I forgot that I had left my pair in the car right there.  I am hoping that just made me sound batty, not an irresponsible numpty.

As I walked to the start chatting with my team mate, Alison Wainwright, she explained that all kit was compulsory for an AL race.  Now things are dawning on me and yes, I probably should have read the rules before setting out.  Perhaps committed to this race a few weeks earlier - rather than on the day, having noticed its existence on Tuesday this week.  Don't get me wrong, I was physically prepared.  Having run a marathon at Kielder a month ago and done a few fell runs since I had both the distance and power in my legs to complete this race (though potentially not one any longer or harder).

We talked to another lady doing her first AL race then all set off down the track at a lovely leisurely marathon-finishing pace.  So pleasant compared to the 5 and 10k races I've been doing recently.  A tractor followed us all of 1.5 miles to the end of the road before turning into a field, the weirdest broom wagon I have ever had the pleasure to be drafted by.

We were soon down the lane and on to open moorland for the first time - relief.  Everyone settled into a place before the wide path ran out and we started to descend like a conga line down an increasingly steep slope which eventually turned into a narrow rabbit warren run of a track through the bilberries.  It was runnable, but just, and only because it was dry.  A few runners stepped to the side to let faster descenders pass then it was goodbye to dry feet as we descended the easier yet sloppier path to the head of the watershed of Ramsden clough where we crossed over a (seemingly pointless by now) bridge.  At least the climb over the other side was not so bad though my neighbour reminded me the we had to retrace our steps on the way back - not a prospect I was looking forwards to!

The path gradually ascended the hillside now towards Holme Moss transmitter station so we could see the top of the hill for some time but most of my attention was focused on what I was doing with my feet through the grasses and heathers and occasional boulder.  One final climb to the road and the lady next to me (Mrs Tod from Todmorden) was complaining she felt rubbish and we'd only done 2 miles.  I corrected her to 3.5 miles so now I knew how far the final run back would be - about 4 by the time we had reached the summit.

In front of me, a lady and (what I presume was her dad) were running a little and walking a little and although I was gradually catching them up, they started running consistently and defensively every time I drew close to the point at which it was getting tedious but hey, that's racing.  A hardy bunch of marshalls and mountain rescuers were waiting to cheer us through, though there was no hardiness required on an ambient and lovely day.

Having started with a slightly less than full camelbak and drunk quite a lot getting to the top, I took on a 500ml top up of water into a small bottle that I keep easily accessible in my rucsac pocket and set off down the next gully into Heyden Brook before Mrs Tod and girlie and her dad. This was almost as steep but this time, merely lined with tussocks which bent under foot when we were least expecting it.  I warned Mrs Tod and she said she was already being careful, having turned an ankle last week.

We crossed the stream safely and let girlie and her dad go ahead yet again up the other side and now the payback started.  For all this hard climbing I realised that about 12 of the next 14 miles had to be flat-ish running to make up the mileage for all these short, sharp ups and downs we had to do.  So long as they weren't desperately hard bog-hopping bracken thrashing, heather slogging miles, I'd be OK.

We caught up a chap who was having a crise de confiance.  He was probably short-sighted and had lost visual on the massive field of runners ahead of us and suddenly couldn't see any flags on the hillside.  Alison had already warned me that sometimes this run wasn't clearly marked and anyway, I could see a massive group of people across the horizon in the distance, all running.  I don't think he believed me though but he had no choice but to follow me, asking if I did the route before, asking if the lady behind us did the route before.  He had so many doubts he was starting to make me wonder but I reassured him (us) that I could see all those runners over there and that there was definitely the crags above Crowden that I used to climb on all those years ago with Jo Simpson and Adam Whale.

Thankfully, we came across a big taped corner and set off from Westend Moss on the right direction and down towards Crowden car park.  As we descended,  Mrs Tod came by and shot off into the distance (clearly feeling better) then girlie and her dad came past me again, only for me to pass them back when she tripped and stumbled on the open path.  No-one laughed because we've all been there but she was fine except for being a bit winded and having a slightly bloody knee.  I checked she didn't need my one plaster and carried on, whereupon they passed me again before following my opinion on the correct route to descend to Crowden instead of carrying on across the hillside and ending up out of the way on the A57.  And so we descended into Crowden valley along with Mrs Tod and three in Orange.  Three in Orange being very fast descenders who passed everyone on the steeps to the carpark.

At Crowden I hadn't drunk enough water to warrant a stop so I continued past the others and on familiar territory of running routes I have taken on sneaky runs after business trips to Manchester.  So much more enjoyable in the daylight wearing shorts and vest than hauling head torch, fleece leggings and five layers around.  We followed a path up to the bottom of the Crowden Crags, girlie and her dad, gradually catching me up but then as I stopped to transfer the water from my bottle to my now, empty camelbak, they also decided to have a rest before the steep ascent and dad, who looked like he was more used to sprinting on roads, set about stretching out his very nice, wiry, strong legs.  For the first time, girlie was looking more relaxed although from her calls of "yay, half way" at 7 miles, I hoped she wasn't going to be disappointed to find out we still had 10 of the almost 10 miles to go.  We specifically, ascended the edge of Ladlow rocks, being glad that I've got long legs and used to be a rock climber.  As I made my way up the hillside I was really pleased to have caught up three of the people in front, feeling like we'd all closed a big gap to the next runners and were no longer a little splinter group at the back.

There were angels at the top.  Nope, just more marshals, mountain rescue and a lady runner with bags of water bottles.  I had plenty of my own but never say no to a free drink and I was quite thirsty enough to down quite a lot of water then more payback on the long path to Black Hill, the main summit at 582m AOD.

We were following flags - gritstone flagstones - across much of the moorland and so it wasn't at all challenging but after that much climbing, the slightest inclines were a bit hard.  I had a long gap to cross but could see that the threesome ahead were walking all the up hill bits.  I resolved to keep running no matter what.  At some times it seemed like I was running slower than their walk but that couldn't be true because it wasn't steep enough for that.  So I trudged on and eventually heard the chatter.  It was the lady I had met on the start line who was doing her first AL race.  I heard her chatter for quite some time as I ploughed on to get gradually closer and closer, eventually catching them up when the flagstones ran out and the boggy moorland began.  We were diverting off the Pennine Way at the request of the RSPB and following a dirt track through the peat bogs.  Not as bad as it sounds, given that the peak has had a few hot weeks to dry out a bit.

I caught up the group of three and had a brief exchange about how well we were doing and what we'd been eating to keep ourselves going.  By now I'd eaten an entire peanut butter sandwich and half an energy bar.  Having spent the morning reading about cases of hypothermia at last year's Edale Skyline from runners not eating enough, I was feeling particularly gifted at being able to run and eat at the same time.  I think it's an ironman thing, or maybe just a hippo thing and works particularly well when you can wash it down with lots of water.

We all got running together, much to my dismay as I like my moorland running quiet and peaceful and the chatter just went on and on. We all got to a water station together and I took a small cup of water as the three passed by.  However, my thirst quenching "Ahhh" must've inspired them and they also stopped for refreshments, giving me a chance to get slightly ahead and focused on chasing down Mrs Tod.  But, the three weren't stopped for long and the chattering followed.  It was a relief when, as I jumped across yet one more bog to hear the words, "I might have to have a little walk again or I won't make it back".  Gradually the words faded into the distance and I put in some effort.  And finally, that bloody transmitter mast was getting closer and closer.

So were other people.  I passed two men togther - one of which (White Boy - white man, white shorts, white hat) came with me.  A black man walking - particularly pleased with passing someone so fit and fast-looking, a pasty white wiry guy who complained he'd had cramp.  I still had a tail reaching Holme Moss for the second time and caught up Mrs Tod who had stopped for some time to drink.  I took a free glass of water (meaning one that I wasn't going to have to carry) and decided that what was left of the 500ml I'd added at the bottom of Ladlow rocks would be enough to get me back to the finish, 4 miles away.

Going across the road I caught a Mr Pennine who let me go ahead (this Dark Peak vest gets you favours I find!).  We slithered down the hill and Pennine was good enough to point out when I missed a flag and started to descend too early into the valley below.  Gratefully I clambered out before I'd lost too much height with him behind and Mrs Tod who had caught me up, ahead.  Whereas White Boy behind me continued someway down, refusing to believe that the three people above - me, Mr Penine and Mrs Tod knew something he didn't.  I guess he eventually made it out.

As we reached the clough again it was me, Wiry, Mr Pennine and Mrs Tod together.  Skirting around the watersheds, we kept getting an earful of chatter from the other side of valleys.  Mrs Tod flew down the hill behind me like a horse so I let her through and she laughed as we'd be back together in moments.  Sure enough as we picked our way through the bog on the climb, I caught and passed her back.  Then was the hellish climb out - back up the rabbit run and this time I felt like the rabbit.  The hill was so steep my nose was in the billberries and it was easier for me to semi-crawl up the hill.  After all my arms were working way better than my legs by now.  I pushed my fingers in to the bilberries and the ground and pushed forward.  The increased speed gained from using my arms forced my legs to move faster too but unfortunately the bizare position meant I couldn't get enough breath in to my lungs and I quickly expired into rasping, nearly asthmatic breathing more familiar with my zone 4 5km runs.  Calfs started to cramp and I realised I had to do something so I slowed down, stood up a bit, went slowly to regain my breath and then set about the technique again - this time slower and with deliberate yogic breaths, pushing all of the CO2 out before refilling my lungs as much as possible with the next breath in.

It felt brilliant, it felt fast, it was cathartic in the way that rhythmic breating is.  I felt expired at the top, red, fast.  Somehow, wiry white man was still with me but the others were well behind.  I took a drink from a very kind man at the top then set off on a run for that bloody road.

There were two ahead.  Wiry white man and another runner who could have been Dark Peak but wasn't, on closer inspection.  I tried to catch them briefly and was making gains on wiry until he heard me coming and sped up.  With my mind on whether I was doing any damage before next week's half Ironman, I backed off and jogged in.  Getting back in time for the prize presentation going ahead which meant I was getting cheered home regardless.

As I crossed the line someone put two drinks in my hand and i found the nearest concrete step to sit on whilst as small dog climbed onto my knee, licked my face and made himself comfy whilst I chatted to the little boy who patiently explained that they weren't his dogs, he was just looking after them.  They were very nice dogs and enjoyed their company until I was able to remove my shoes and socks and go in stearch of my free sandwich, tea and cake.  Ahhhh.

I sat in a cricket pavillion, listening to the prize presentation and looking out over Holmfirth.  It was a glorious day.  I finished my first AL race.  This is why I don't need to do a marathon.

4 hrs 28 minutes.  17.59 miles. 1285m climbing

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