Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Vasque series race 11 - High Peak Challenge 40mi. Sat 19/09/2009

High Peak 40
Never have I felt so unenthusiastic about a race, even life, as I felt before this one. Even though the fever had left my body and I had been to work all week, I’d had no desire to run there and all I could think about all week was bed. I’d felt drained ever since the previous weekend’s Pumlumon Challenge (and long before that). I was only sitting in that registration hall in Buxton Community School to keep my Grand Slam dream alive, not for the pleasure of running ultras. I couldn’t imagine running an ultra being very pleasurable at the moment, which was sad because I knew there was yet another warm, dry day in prospect for one of my favourite, most runnable ultras. More than that, it would be my tenth completion if I could just get round. Those prospects, and the sight of more familiar running and walking friends (there was another healthy turn-out from my running club Stockport Harriers) bucked me up somewhat, although it might not have been obvious at the time.

I was soon wandering down with the others to the start area on Broadwalk. The timekeeper stood there, wall clock in hand, ready to send us on our way at 8am. The first few miles felt painless as I jogged along, only slowing to a walk when the gradient steepened for the climb up to the first stile. I found myself further back in the pack than I was accustomed to, but I was quite happy to be queuing and resting for a few seconds. We were soon over the top and down onto the railway bed that contoured round to Checkpoint 1 (Bonsal Incline); then came the easy, gravity-assisted coasting run down the Bonsal Incline to the Goyt Valley and the bank of Fernilee Reservoir. I was already in the groove and enjoying myself.

All systems were go and feeling sustainable through Checkpoint 2 (Taxal layby), through the best jungle Derbyshire has to offer on the diversion around Cadster Farm to Checkpoint 3 (Digleach Farm) and Checkpoint 4 (Beet Farm). I was keeping the food and drink trickling in to keep the energy up, running the downs and walking the ups to keep things ticking over sustainably. On the descent from South Head down the rocky track I came across Marla with concerned friend in attendance. She had taken a bad tumble. After confirming that nothing was broken and she was just badly shaken, we helped her to her feet. I jogged on down the track to the stream-crossing and began the climb up the other side towards Checkpoint 5 (Rushup Edge). Energy was deserting me already and the digestion was showing the first signs of rebelling. I was just 13 miles into the event and my race number was 13. Is there something significant here? I’m not superstitious so I ignored the irrational number thing.

The plod had begun and I began to get overtaken quite comprehensively. I had entered survival mode ridiculously early. What damage was I doing to myself by continuing? Would whatever virus that may still be infesting my person be driven deeper into an organ to do serious damage if I battled on? I wanted to go to sleep and imagined the quickest route to my nice warm bed: drop out at CP5 and get transported to the finish. I could drive home in an hour; but what about the G.S.? How would I make my excuses about failing at the penultimate hurdle? Could I make them sound convincing enough or would I come across as a ‘wuss’? If I did drop out there would be no need to do the Grand Slam finale – the Longmynd Hike in two weeks’ time, which I couldn’t even contemplate doing at the moment. Would I regret dropping? Of course I would. Would I regret making myself even more ill by continuing in my wretchedness? Of course I would. My mind was a whir and preoccupied with constructing the most dramatic, convincing excuse for dropping out. Karen passed me and asked how I was doing. She was left in no doubt about my negative thoughts. “But you can’t drop out now. Just walk it. I’ve already got your T-shirt so you’ve got to finish.” It bucked me up a little but the negative thoughts continued to rage overwhelmingly. Marla passed me at a slow jog and soon disappeared on her way to CP5. That was great to see and bucked me up a little more, but the negative thoughts were still there.

I trudged up to CP5 and sat down. The thin layer of low cloud was receding, a straight line separating it ahead and a cloudless blue sky behind. The sun came out to provide some luxurious warmth and enhance the beautiful rolling Derbyshire countryside. It was another gorgeous day. I topped up my hand-held bottles and had another bite to eat. My stubborn streak was kicking in; I’d started a challenge that needed finishing and with as little further thought as possible I got up to begin the long trudge up Rushup Edge. Let’s see if I still wanted to drop out so much at the next checkpoint.

Trudge I did. Any attempt at running was a 10-second shuffle at best. Other runners continued to overtake me, though not as often as before, since most of them had most likely already passed. I had to sit down twice more on the top of Rushup Edge; first I gazed at the Edale valley below and took five portrait images for stitching together later to create a panorama through almost 180°, then I watched a parascender launch himself in the opposite direction off the ridge into the breeze.

The short sharp drag to the summit of Mam Tor went at a crawl with my heart rate at 178bpm. I don’t know what the members of the public must have thought of the sight of a so-called 'runner' (insofar as he was wearing a club vest and running shorts) dragging himself along at that pace. I couldn’t care. I was concentrating on surviving, not what others may be thinking. I continued down the ridge among the hikers, walkers and mountain bikers to Hollins Cross, which was like Piccadilly Circus it was so busy. The right fork down towards Castleton soon brought relative peace again (you can’t get mountain bikes down there). As I walk-shuffled my way down the lane towards Castleton and Checkpoint 6, another group of runners overtook me, asking how it was going. I replied honestly and mentioned something about being ill. As they pulled away to a few yards ahead I swear I heard one of them say something about getting some weight on, as if my weight has anything to do with contracting a virus and performing poorly in an ultra. Impudent baggage; I’ve not been ill for years, but what does he know, fatty!

Having been able to jog a little down to CP6 (19 miles) I realised that my digestion was not quite as rebellious as it had been feeling. My early drop in pace had just about saved the day. I had another bite to eat and drink before jogging down to the main road and walking up to the entrance to Cavedale. ‘You know, I think I might just finish this thing. I can envisage the highlights of the route all the way to the end and I really look forward to reaching them one-by-one. I’ll plod for as long as I have to and jog for as long as I’m able.’ On the approach to Cavedale, I and a couple of other runners gratefully accepted the offer of some electrolyte drink from a supporter at the side of the road, who was there to support her runner.

The drag up Cavedale was slow and steady but thankfully not too much of a chore. I had found equilibrium and was feeling considerably better than I had been feeling. As I emerged onto Old Moor, on the way retrieving a shiny new compass that someone had dropped, I began to close on other runners in the distance. I had targets to aim for and I found I was able to jog to get closer to them. Anyway I needed to find out who this compass belonged to! At CP7 (Bushy Heath) I still hadn’t found the owner of the compass, so I left it with the marshals for later return to base. Shortly afterwards on the long downhill jog (yes, I was still running!) towards Tideswell, the next runner I caught up to proved to be the compass’ owner. He didn’t realise he’d dropped it but at least he now knew that he had, and where to retrieve it.

It was like old times as I managed to run virtually every step to CP8 (Tideswell Dale). With continued careful fuelling I was able to sustain the catch-up-and-overtake strategy to the end, which invited a few comments from those who had overtaken me earlier and thought I was on my last legs. They couldn’t believe it and neither could I, but I was finally enjoying this event like I always have done. The fact that I was so much slower than normal is immaterial. It felt like PB fodder to me. I was eking the max out of what my body could manage at each moment, I was running again, I was catching up with other runners and conversing a little before moving on with the next one as my target. I was feeling like I usually feel as I’m pushing the limits yet still in control. What a turnaround. Thank goodness I didn’t wimp out after all. What a fraud I would have been and wouldn’t I have cheated myself, big time. The stubbornness got me through the low patch. It never ceases to amaze me how ultrarunners can come back relatively strongly from such low points. It’s just abnormal to get the low point so early on.

After Tideswell Dale I continued my pursuit through CP9 (Upper Dale on the Monsal Trail), CP10 (High Low) and CP11 (King Sterndale - always a lovely warm welcome there); and get this, I actually managed to run most of that never-ending road from High Low to Chelmorton. Things really were looking up.

I always look forward to the sight of the viaduct on the outskirts of Buxton, and the footpath we take on the raised terrace near the roof of the leftmost arch. It signifies a near finish and another personal victory. I so nearly never got to see it this year. As I walked up the final hill I saw Julie (another Grand Slammer and a very capable one at that) on her way home by bicycle after another blistering finish. I exchanged a few words with 'superwoman' across the roofs of the speeding cars before we continued on our separate ways.

I shuffled up the access road to the finish, pausing long enough to take the final picture. My time of 9:20 was not far off 2 hours slower than it should have been, but I was chuffed. Chuffed to have finished, chuffed to have completed my tenth HP40, chuffed that the Grand Slam was surviving by the skin of its teeth and chuffed to be feeling as well as I was feeling. My state of health continued to improve in the following week. I did not feel at all trashed or wasted like I did after Pumlumon. The enforced exercise seemed to kick the virus into touch finally, not allow it to take hold again (thank goodness). Bring on Race 12 and the Longmynd Hike in two weeks’ time!

11 down, 1 to go.

All the pictures are here.


  1. fantastic account nick, a triumph over adversity..lets hope karens still got the t shirt! well well done..woo hoo

  2. What a comeback! After your state at 13 miles I'm glad you found something to take you on and reward you with a recovery along the way.

  3. I'm running out of suitable words to describe you Nick! way to go my friend... what an epic adventure and so well written I felt like i was running right there along beside you! Good luck for the final installment... I'm quite sure that not a single negative thought should cross your mind in that one! but ultras are funny things that I'm only just starting to find out about. in fact from what I'm experienced so far it seems you can never quite be sure how you will feel even in the next few miles as things change! one thing is for certain though its definitely a case of mind over matter as you demonstrate time and time again! NICE ONE.

  4. Aw, thanks Stu. The fact that I'm waxing lyrical again means that I'm back to my usual self, which I haven't been since UTMB at least. Some of my reports (especially the UTMB one) have been indecently brief and don't do the event justice.
    You're so right about the mental thing. It's amazing how you can recover from serious lows in ultras (usually). UTMB and especially Western States were rare exceptions for me, where even now I know I couldn't have done anything else; I gave myself more than a fair chance to recover both times.