To prepare myself for the afternoon shock I ran my local Woodbank Parkrun in the morning, to remind myself what fast running feels like. It's never pleasant, especially for one so unaccustomed. The 23:39 result was average, therefore good. Although it wasn't a PB (impossible under the circumstances) it was nowhere near a PW. Interestingly it was identical, to the second, to two years ago when I did the Woodbank Parkrun + Whaley Waltz double.
I took the midday train a few stations up the Buxton line to Whaley Bridge for early registration, to check out the river depth, to see if I could remember the out and finish route from two years earlier, to chill out in the sunshine in the park, to have a natter with all the familiar faces and to catch the start of the carnival. The arid heatwave of 2010 was replaced by pleasant coolness, saturated ground, brimming water tables and yet more rain waiting in the wings.
The first monsoon shower hit as we gathered for the start. This sent the hordes scuttling up the side road to the shelter of the railway bridge. By the start, the rain just oozed out of brightening cloud with patchy blue sky. Steam rose from cars and road as the warm sun began to re-emerge.
We were sent on our way along the main road through Whaley Bridge in the wake of the carnival procession before we turned right down a track, into the park and right uphill onto single paths. The mud-and-bog-laden field of cows was unnerving as we crowded in the top left corner, waiting for our turn to climb the stile onto the single path with overhanging branches and fences to weave under or around. Our rest break was welcome for us but unsettling for the agitated bovines, who tried to ram their way through the barbed wire fence in the direction of the footpath-restricted single line of runners after the stile.
We eventually emerged into open fields and onto open fell, when the next rain storm moved in. I was quite cool enough while running and already began to dread the water immersion at the end. Rest breaks while running in the single path queues allowed recovery and marginally energetic overtaking manoeuvres when the path widened a little, with a few places gained on the climb to Windgather Rocks. I had Daz Burns (my Old County Tops partner) in my sights on most of the climb and got within 10 yards of him at the top. Tom Snaith, who had been on his usual barcode timing duty at the Woodbank Parkrun in the morning, was on marshal duty at the top to direct us on the right turn around the cone. The familiar rock climbers' paraphernalia was on the ground as we traversed along the top before beginning our long descent. The big difference this year compared to 2010 was that the grass on top was green instead of brown.
I ran downhill as fast as I was able or dared, but my chosen target for the day (Daz) was already pulling away as his long legs covered the ground much more efficiently than mine. The wet, muddy paths with roots and rocks made me take more care and go more slowly than I was able to do two years ago. Another thing that made me hold back was the river plunge at the end, and the fact that I needed to be able to be composed and not gasping my last breath when unable to do so under water.
The runners I had overtaken on the climb soon overtook me on the descent, and some. We crossed the same road we had crossed on the outward leg. Paul Hunt (also at the Woodbank Parkrun in the morning) marshalled us across safely and offered encouragement for the final descent past Toddbrook Reservoir dam and that dreaded immersion. I could hear the cheers of the crowd as I got closer. I got overtaken some more as I made sure I could survive that high risk environment for air breathers. I waited on the muddy bank for a second or two to wait for the two women and a man who had just overtaken me to move out of the way before jumping as far as I could. I landed in deep water with the river bed sloping steeply upwards. I stumbled forwards and discovered that my hands were resting on the bottom. It didn't feel so bad after all, even for this non-swimmer. In fact it felt surprisingly non-frigid. I started to have fun as I kicked my feet wildly to clean the cow poo and mud off my shoes. I looked up and saw a camera lense in my face. Big Fat Jim's handywork can be found here; rather good it is too. I got overtaken some more by others wading around this lover of dry land whose race-long fear had suddenly evaporated.
I got up and dragged myself up the bank and onto the track. I got overtaken some more again as I ran up the final few yards to the finish line, just 34 seconds slower than two years ago, which sounds about right for the more conservative descent this year. What is it about this race that makes it so addictive? Why do I want to return immediately to do it all again?
Daz finished 1:29 in front of me, having made up most of that lead on the descent. Well done Daz. If I do more of these fell races I may be giving you a better run for your money next year! ;-)
An excellent three-part video of the finishing plunge has been uploaded to YouTube by Stephen Bull. Here's part two (the most important one of course). Daz is at 7:10. I'm at 8:30.
A few more pictures of the day are here, mostly courtesy of my dad.