This event, most ably organised by West Lancashire Long Distance Walkers Association, marked a long overdue return to the type of event I know and love, the ones I cut my running teeth on after I took up walking thirteen years ago. It was a grand reunion of walking friends of many years’ standing whom I hadn’t seen in months. It was refreshing to return to the low-key, informal, no-pressure atmosphere after so many larger running and grand slamming events. That isn’t to say I didn’t still run this one, mind you. If there’s a chance for another PB I’ll always try as long as I’m not injured. I wasn’t injured, so I tried. My legs had already felt recovered straight after Snowdonia (unlike Round Rotherham) so I felt ready.
My last participation in ‘Bottoms Up’ was in 2005, but since 2006 I have always run the Snowdonia Marathon and the two events have clashed. However, a delay by one week this year due to a wedding booking at Hoghton Village Hall, where it is based, allowed me to take part again. In view of the 4-year gap and considering how well I was feeling after Snowdonia, I was only envisaging a PB. Anything less just wasn’t on the agenda. Such confidence was rather dangerous considering my previous finishing time of 4:05. (There weren’t many runners back then, so that time earned me an unaccustomed equal first place.) Nevertheless I felt a sub-4 could be on the cards this year, while a first place finish was absolutely out of the question in view of the larger and more capable field taking part.
After seeing the walkers off at 8am, we runners returned inside the Village Hall for a chat, a cup of tea and to await the arrival of the remaining runners while we waited for our 9am send-off. There had been some overnight rain to ensure the traditionally muddy course would live up to its reputation. However, the sun was shining again for us and the temperature was still unseasonably warm – mid to high teens Centigrade. Another brilliant day was in prospect.
Before we knew it we were outside and with “It’s about time, I suppose you’d better be on your way”, or words to that effect, we ambled out onto the A6061 and turned right up the hill towards the long straight approach drive to Hoghton Tower. With a left turn and another left off the drive at the gatehouse, we were out into fields. Within the first 3 miles or so we visited Samlesbury Bottoms and Hoghton Bottoms (hence the event name). I was running with Chris Brown and Geoff Holburt. I would use them as my pacers for as long as I could. They are faster than I am and I knew I would not be able to hold onto then until the end. We were soon overtaken by Ian Hill, who’s even faster and most definitely uncatchable by the likes of me.
We mopped our brows as we ran over Butler’s Delf and across the fields to the first food stop at 6.6 miles (the temperature and humidity were causing the perspiration to flow). The broken up lumps of caramel crumble might not have looked very appetising but they certainly hit the spot. With the fuel beginning to course through our veins we followed our noses through the woods to the top of the hill and the first tally clip. After that came a long, downhill run through the woods, across fields and through more woods to the playing fields of Witton Park. I love down-hills. I was in my element.
After a short canal stretch (I hate flat running; I was not in my element) we three arrived at Checkpoint 2 (9.9 miles). I had been noticing the sensation of something lightly touching the inside of my right ankle and it felt as though my right sock might be rucked up around my toes. I didn’t pay too much attention. I assumed the ankle sensation was a muscle twitch, but when I finally looked down I noticed the insole to my shoe was trying to escape up the side of my leg. A quick readjustment soon put that right and I ran in comfort again to catch up to Chris and Geoff. As we ran we caught up with and overtook the walkers, one-by-one. It was often a case of ‘long time no see’ and many brief but animated conversations took place.
I always remembered that uphill lane to Checkpoint 3 (11.9 miles) at Tockholes Village Hall to be a slog. It was no different this year. I struggled to keep up with Chris and Geoff as I shuffled my way up the hill. I had run virtually every step of the way so far and I felt a sub-4-hour time was almost in the bag. An egg sandwich went down very well at the checkpoint. I couldn’t quite stomach the hot dog like Geoff had.
On the descent from Winter Hill (not ‘THE’ Winter Hill), the track took us down past Darwen Golf Course. There were quite a lot of of walkers and runners on the track at that point. I noticed a group of golfers at the tee to the left. One was lining up and going through the motions of driving his projectile through the pedestrians, before petulantly throwing his club down onto the green, flailing his arms sideways and shouting at us to “Get out of the f…..g way”. We were appalled by the rude, self-centred outburst.
I just about clung onto my pacers' coat tales as the miles continued to pass. I was surprised at how little of the route I had remembered. Perhaps I'd pushed so hard in previous years I had not taken much in. Perhaps a sub-4 finish wasn't such a done deal after all. Not much was sinking in this year either. I was just trying to survive and keep my targets in sight, pouring all my energy into the running that was becoming a shuffle as I began to slow down. I desperately wanted to walk but I couldn't afford to. I closed my mind to everything apart from the essential activity of putting one foot in front of the other at a pace that was as far advanced from walking pace as I could muster. I felt myself rapidly failing in that endeavour, but I'd been here before, literally thousands of times.
I was bringing up the rear as I arrived at Checkpoint 4 (18 miles) in Brinscall. There was no time to get food or drink because Chris and Geoff were already on the way out and I had to give chase, with barely 5 miles left to go. It was a good thing I had enough drink left and more than enough food to keep me going for longer than I would ever need today.
Now was the time when I needed a boost. I took my first few slurps of Coke as I gave chase up the road to the right turn at the post office. The sugar-caffeine infusion just kept me in the game for a few more miles and I kept my targets in sight until the right turn onto the towpath of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. With just two miles to go I caught the last glimpse of Chris' fluorescent yellow-green top disappear around a bend. He was just too strong for me and we were back onto flat running and I don't do flat, especially when the legs are screaming for me to stop. However, Geoff was not keeping up either. Chris was too strong for him too.
I finally hauled Geoff in just after leaving the canal as he was taking a short walking break and my pained shuffle had been just sufficient to close the gap. I checked my watch and couldn't believe how much time had passed. We had been running for nearly 4 hours and a sub-4-hour finish was now impossible. Now all I could do was aim for a PB. Geoff provided great encouragement. “Come on, I'll pull you home to a PB”. The final climb across the fields was not steep but required supreme effort to countermand the screaming legs that were commanding me to stop, or at least WALK. “Not just yet” I kept telling them.
“Come on!”, Geoff kept calling back, as if I were his pet dog. I didn't mind. I was happy for any encouragement I could get. The four-hour mark passed as we descended to the long drive to Hoghton Tower. “Come on!” I chased Geoff down the drive and back out onto the A6061. He could so easily have raced ahead to a sprint finish (he always has more in reserve than I have), but he didn't this time. With only a minute left to get a PB, that village hall seemed too far away. “Come on!!” “OK, I'm trying. I'm very trying.” I ran down that road as fast as I could go, turning left carefully onto the footpath to the Hall to avoid slipping on the piles of fallen leaves, to finish in 4:04. I could not believe I had run so fast in 2005 to only be able to beat my PB by one minute this year, after forcing out all that running. Perhaps a little of the Snowdonia marathon (and the Round Rotherham) was still in my legs after all.
Many thanks to Geoff for his selfless encouragement to pull me to a 'sprint' finish.
Chris was able to make up around ten minutes in the final 2 miles to get a comfortable sub-4-hour finish.
Like the Snowdonia Marathon last week, this was an eyeballs out race with no opportunity for taking pictures on the way. I only took two at the beginning. Sorry for the boring show this time.