Half the race organisation Gerry (the other half being Julie) emphasised at the race briefing (aka mud warning) our good fortune in snaffling a brief window in the weather. How right he was. Although we had our very own low pressure system loitering over us for a week, the atmosphere was calm, humid and warm with 'cloud forest fog' lurking in the wings. The monsoon had now rotated anticlockwise to flood other parts of the country. Now the southwest was getting hit from the west after the east had been hit from the south and the north from the east.
I drove north eastwards from Stockport on Friday afternoon in the most hideous downpours as the north copped it from the east. Spray on the M62 cut visibility to virtually zero, that is when we were able to move, because for much of the time we were in a linear carpark or a stop-start conveyor. The journey to Osmotherley (with precious Runfurther sponsors' flags on board taken home on the train from the Classic Quarter two weeks earlier) took all of 3 hours while the return journey on Sunday took just two.
After erecting the Runfurther flags and getting registered first thing on Saturday, it was time to do some catching up - too many friends and not enough time as always. Brief words were grabbed with Dave Cumins (a fast 'b' who drives all the way from the south coast to do these races, including the Kinder Downfall fell race!), Helen Skelton (needs little introduction - a right live wire who wins most races she starts and will probably win the Runfurther series again), Henry Morris (personal trainer and conqueror (finally) of the Hardmoors 110), Jon Steele (Hardmoors race series organiser and weekly ultra marathon runner), Mick Plummer (the other Runfurther grand slammer this year), Jim Mann, David Cremins, Chris Webb, Simon Deakin and more. This event is a massive ultra runner's magnet that draws runners from far and wide. It sold out well in advance, which is not surprising. It is one of the best events in the calendar and one I hope will always be in the Runfurther series. If truth be told, the Runfurther series has turned what used to be a predominantly walking event into a predominantly running event, with some big names and fast times.
Mark Robinson searched me out to ask if he could run with me as he wasn't familiar with the route. Of course the answer was yes. I don't often get the chance to run whole events with anyone. This would be his longest run to date and his second ultra marathon. I told him a lie that it would be my 117th ultra marathon. In fact it was my 152nd.
I chatted at length with Garry Scott, whose first Hundred was last year's Lakeland 100, completed against the odds amidst great personal sacrifice and suffering. [He wrote a moving and personal account that captures perfectly the raw essence of such an undertaking, and which deserves to be in the public domain as testament to the toughness of that event and the human spirit. The Lakeland 100 organisers were not interested - too long / readers won't be interested/get bored, etc. Wanna bet? I wonder how interested they'd have been if he'd won the race?] Since then he's turned into a running machine who leaves me and many others for dead from the off.
At 9am we were sent on our way up the road out of the village and soon into the fog. It was calm, very warm and humid and we were soon sweating. The first mud hit within the first mile. We stumbled, slipped and slid our way across the hoof-pitted sod riddled with shoe skid marks towards the woods, but the scene had already been set for the day; puddles and mud were never far away. Every other time I have run this event the ground has been dry as you would expect for this time of year, yet already our legs were mud-spattered as if we were running a mid-winter fell race. It all added to the fun.
We dumped our wooden numbered tags at the bucket drop at 1.7 miles beside the communication masts as we headed out along the Cleveland Way. The first descent to the lane on wet, slippery rocks required a large dose of mince to avoid catastrophe. Then it was into the woods for another muddy run before we dropped out of the fog for a while as we descended Scugdale towards Scugdale Beck. A quick refuel at CP1 (Scugdale, 4.6mi.) saw us heading up towards Carlton Moor and back into the fog. There was to be a mystery self clip somewhere along the route. I was expecting it to be on the trig point at the summit as I've heard stories that some runners take a faster lower route to the left. The trig point was naked with not a day-glo jacket or piece of tape in sight. Where else could it be then? The plot thickened.
Checkpoint 1 @ 4.6 miles. It was a humid day.
As we ran along the undulating path with rocky intrusions, I recalled how the sun always beat down and how dry the ground was on the four previous times I ran this race. This year was so different. Mud and water invaded everything and our views faded to white within a few yards in all directions. It was still warm though, which was nice. The track through Broughton Plantation was an absolute shambles for summertime and deserved a stiff letter of complaint to those in charge of the Jet Stream. We gave up trying to dodge the mud and water and just enjoyed getting wet and dirty instead. I was having fun and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Suddenly, as we rounded White Hill we ran out of the fog bank and a beautifully sunlit vista opened up in front of us, with lush green rolling hills extending to the horizon. We minced for a third time to descend safely the rocky path to CP3 (Clay Bank, 11.2mi.). Not all of us minced, mind you. Dick sprinted in front down to the road with reckless abandon, ignoring the ice-like qualities of the terrain underfoot.
After another tasty morsel at CP3 (date slices this time) we began the long climb towards Round Hill in the hot sunshine. This felt more like it and what we are used to. The out and back to the self clip at the top (CP4, 13.0mi.) allowed quick exchanges of pleasantries with those just ahead and just behind, then came the long, gentle run down towards Chop Gate. The expansive sunlit views with scattered clouds were captivating (see top picture). The fog bank that we had been in earlier was still visible to our right. It looked like that mountain cloud that's a permanent feature on the peaks, and which dissipates on the leeward side, yet these were no mountains.
Mark and I ran into the carpark and CP5 (Chop Gate, 16.1mi.). Almost unbelievably, the chocolate fancies were melting in the sunshine. 'This is what we want', I thought to myself. 'Let it melt, and melt some more. Go on, prove it's really summertime.' I delayed longer than usual at this checkpoint. I'd been putting off answering the call of nature for a good few miles, so when Mark made a beeline for the conveniences for a comfort break I seized the opportunity to do the same. Perfect timing I thought, and a chance to wash sweat, mud and gel gunk from my hands.
The chocolate fancies @ CP5.
Suitably 'comforted' and with a fond farewell to the friendly marshals and a last longing look at the chocolate fancies (I denied myself this time like a good boy), we were off on the next steep climb upwards into the sky, past the first stile on the left to the second one which we had to cross. It was as hot and sweaty as it always is at this point. I had long since been using my Buff as a sweat band around my head to prevent the salted eyes syndrome. (It worked a treat to the the end, with not one single stinging moment.) We could see others snaking their way upwards to the Cleveland Hills on the horizon as we toiled our way upwards in their wake.
Down on the other side we arrived at CP6 (Wheat Beck, 20.7mi.). Mark handed to the marshal a blue coloured Buff he had picked up that someone had dropped. I'd already picked up a food bar or two to add to the wrappers that others had dropped. (This was a rare race where I finished with more food than I started with.) We didn't hang around for long. I was looking forward to the fiddly navigation through the fields. A sign warned us of the mystery self clip some time after Lower Locker Farm. They hadn't been bluffing after all, but why here? I can't guess where short-cutting could occur around these parts. We jogged our way along in the heat and humidity following the line left by the previous runners through the lush green sodden pastures. Navigation was so much easier than in previous dry years. I warned Mark not to loiter because giant man-eating ants live around these parts. There were hardly any this year. They were probably drowned.
We navigated our way without a hitch via the mystery self clip ("punch your tally anywhere at the bottom") to CP7 @ 24.4mi (described as Hawnby but much closer to and just below Coomb Hill). This, the last manned checkpoint always seems to be hot and sunny with little or no cooling breeze. This year was no exception. I know from experience that I need to refill all water and electrolyte supplies here, so I made sure I took care of business properly.
The mystery self clip.
As we topped out onto the open moor a large area of heavy cloud threatened to our right. Could this be our first shower of the day? Could we run fast enough to beat it to the finish? Wifey looked back, probably in vain hope and let out an exclamation of shocked surprise. "Is that my husband?" I looked back into the distance. His profile wasn't as familiar to me as it was to her, but it sure looked like it. He caught us up at the self clip and final water station on the top of the moor (26.9 miles if you're still interested). He had sprung to life alright and exceeded even my wildest expectations with how fast he caught back up. I offered him another swig of the elixir to keep him going to the end.
Mark Robinson, Andy Norman and Sarah Booth at self clip 1.
The long, undulating, gently climbing miles across the moor always seem to be a struggle and take forever before our left turn and descent back to Osmotherley. The ominous black mass had launched a few drops onto the breeze from afar which found their way to us, but the threat seemed to be receding to be replaced by sunshine once again as we neared the descent. Dick had been proving difficult to hold onto. We'd caught him on a few occasions only for him to pull away again because he never stopped anywhere for more than 30 seconds. He always seemed to be that un-catchable spec in the far distance, but now we seemed to be slowly gaining on him once again.
The overtaking manoeuvre finally occurred on the rocky stepped descent towards Osmotherley. I like this part of the route because it's where I usually seem to do some overtaking. No mince needed to be expended this time because the rocks were dry. Now it was my turn to exhibit some (not so) reckless abandon but I knew I'd be left wanting again as soon as the descent levelled off. Dick would be breathing down my neck. As I passed the reservoir in Oak Dale I was surprised by how empty it was. I had never seen it so low. The earlier drought in the East must have been serious before these monsoons set in. It was never that dry in the West.
Mark and I pushed ourselves over the final mile with its sting in the tail of short, sharp ups and downs that make you lightheaded in the heat. I could not believe how perfectly matched our paces had been. We had also caught up with Marie Mitton and Tracy Wilson, who were pushing a healthy pace to the finish line. We finished as a foursome in 7:21. Dick was indeed breathing down our necks because he finished just 1 minute later. If there'd been a little more flat he would have caught us again. One thing's for sure, I won't be able to do what he does when I'm an OAP.
The stricken one, later found out to be Marc Corner, got a successful finish in 7:35. I am dead chuffed. Well done Marc. I was feeling so sorry when I thought you might not finish when I knew you could with the right fuel. When you did in the end, justice was done.
The weather exceeded all expectations. We were able to lounge outside in the warm sunshine afterwards like we always do. It was good to see and chat with Runfurther Simon Berry at the finish. He was there to take charge of the sponsors' flags ready for the next event (Long Tour of Bradwell). The local fish and chip shop was doing its usual roaring trade fuelling the runners and the revellers at Osmotherley summer fair.
Talking of refuelling, mine consisted of a large cod and chips washed down by a pint of tea, then a selection of homemade cakes from the village fair washed down my another pint of tea. That was after the can of beer that took care of immediate post-race rehydration. I can't think of any better accompaniment to post-race conversation in a village hall with sunlight streaming through the windows and the sound of breakage lurching transiently through the open doors from the crockery-smashing stall outside.
Evening festivities in the Queen Catherine pub included a live band, which was so good I had to delay my retirement up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire to watch and listen. The young exhuberant locals were making merry and involved me in their jollity. I only wanted to admire the musicianship but that was soon supplemented by animated conversation, joking, talking through the desk fan on the bar (yes Duncan), laughter (from me because the fan speech was rather funny), dancing and chasers (a transparent pale green liquid that tasted pleasantly of apples but was probably quite dangerous). Some of the merrymakers were involved in the Phoenix. Duncan had marshalled in 2010, ran the 17 mile in 2011 (very fast it must be said) and ran the 26 mile this year. Unfortunately a knee niggle resulting from recent surgery forced him to stop at 18 miles, but he was blisteringly fast to that point. If he returns next year with a fully recovered knee he could win whatever distance he chooses to do, as long as it's not the 33 because the competition is a bit hot in that one, for obvious reasons (Runfurther talent an' all that).
Here are the pictures - a sunny Osmotherley Phoenix once again even in 'summer' 2012, with gorgeous views of gorgeous countryside. We are so lucky and life feels good.