Here we are again, familiar territory for the past 16 years, familiar faces and always some new faces too. I'd been looking forward to this with great anticipation since Long Tour of Bradwell, going over every inch of the route in my mind and even dreaming about it. In my dreams everything went perfectly for another PB like the last time I ran it in 2010. The weather forecast was perfect, positivity was high and I couldn't wait to get going on the long adventure once again to put it all into practice.
The rules and kit list are quite strict as you would expect with a scout-organised event, but their enforcement is refreshingly relaxed. We are credited with some intelligence and responsibility for ourselves – just the way I like it. For two or three years now the kit check has involved signing a piece of paper to confirm that we will have with us everything that's on the list. All my kit was safely stashed in my bum-bag, including the mapped route which I would not need because every twist and turn of the optimum 56.2 mile route is etched indelibly on my brain.
The computerisation of the proceedings is very evident, from initial registration where we now get a printed ticket to sign at the kit check and hand over to get our tally in the park, to the live results update projected onto the screen in the hut and broadcast live onto the website. It's a slick operation indeed – great credit to the IT experts.
We gathered in Devonshire Park in the warm sunshine to get our tallies and chat while we awaited the striking of the anvil at noon. The turn-out was big this year. The faint 'ting' (it's a small hammer and a very small anvil) sent the hoard scattering in three directions. There are more runners these days so a large chunk of the hoard took the main road option. That's the route I take now, past the garden centre and left into Towers Road before eventually veering left over a stile and across the fields to the golf course to join the 'old' route (the one I always used to take) at the bottom of Anson Road; then began the long gentle climb towards Lyme Park, through and out the other side up to Bow Stones (CP1, 4.7mi). I adopted what felt like a competitive yet comfortable pace shuffling along for most of the way apart from the steepest parts of the climb to Bow Stones, which we all walked. I was surprised to arrive at CP1 in 51 minutes, which was 3 minutes ahead of my 2010 schedule and an all-time record for me. I had wondered if I might be overdoing it, since Steve Temple was just behind me (Steve provides the amazing BSH results analysis and he's a fast BS Hiker). As we ran down the lane towards the road crossing at the Moorside Grange Hotel I felt fast and comfortable and sensed that my dreams might come true.
CP1 @ Bow Stones.
On the descent to Furness Vale I overtook a female runner. On the climb up the other side of the valley towards Shedyard Farm as I began to slow in the heat, I could hear her conversation. 'That tone of voice sounds just like Julie Gardner', I thought to myself. Shortly before the right turn up Laneside Road she caught me up. It WAS Julie. We exchanged a few words before she jogged effortlessly up the hill towards Chinley Churn, never to be seen again until the finish. I caught up with fellow Stockport Harrier Andy Fowler. He was just coming back from illness and was suffering as a result. It showed because he's normally much faster than I am and should have been well ahead.
CP2 @ Chinley Churn.
By Chinley Churn (CP2, 10.5mi) I was back level with 2010's time. The running was less effortless now but that's to be expected. I wasn't worried. It was still very early in the game. We carried on down the trail to the drinks station by Peep O Day for a quick refuel and drink top-up before continuing over the main road, up then down to Coldwell Clough. This marked the foot of the long haul up to Edale Cross; the weather was very warm and I had blown up. It happens every time to me and we are only 12 miles in at this point. I had been fuelling with gels and other food but fuel does nothing for me when I am pushing this sort of pace. I can push the pace relatively comfortably, with or without fuelling, for a little over two hours. After that I almost grind to a halt and commence the survival plod. On the Bullock Smithy Hike, that time comes at the commencement of the climb to Edale Cross.
As I dragged my sorry a**e up that rocky track in the blazing sunshine, streams of others overtook me as if I were standing still – Geoff Pettengell, Paul Hunt, Clare Griffin and the rest. I withdrew into my own world as I waited for my slower pace (2mph at best) to let my body recover and find an equilibrium where fuelling can sustain maximum forward motion. Things evolved as expected but I never would regain the speed of 2010. By Edale Cross (CP3, 13.8mi) I was 4 minutes behind 2010's time.
I walk-jogged down Jacob's Ladder and down into Edale (CP4, 17.3mi), where I was surprised to see Helen Skelton sitting. She had retired with asthma and breathing difficulties. That was sad because she would have won the women's category had she been able to continue. She was cool about it though. 'There's always another day, another race with less heat'. By Edale I was 9 minutes behind schedule. I dined on rice pudding and fruit and waited for the turbo charge to kick in to drag me back on track.
I set off on the climb to Hollins Cross, next stop Castleton. Considering the number of entrants this year I was surprised how spread out and increasingly lonely the route now was. With the exception of one or two still in sight, loads of 'Hikers' had disappeared ahead out of sight but there were still plenty more behind me, also out of sight. From Edale I would start to work my way up the field bit by bit all the way to the finish, overtaking one or two every so often as they slowed in the heat or, worse still, retired. There seemed to be a lot of suffering this year with nausea.
By Castleton (CP5, 19.8mi) I'd lost another 6 minutes and was now 15 minutes down. The sit-down and chin-wag with Helen at Edale may have accounted for some of those. I do enjoy a good chin-wag but I usually reserve it until after we've all finished.
I'd overtaken James Fairfield just before Castleton and he arrived as I refuelled with dilute squash and half a jam sandwich. He left before me. I grabbed a couple of biscuits to go and was stuffing them into my mouth as I set off across the car-park towards the alternative ascent to Cavedale (it is fiendishly steep but at least it's soft and grassy). I passed a group of cyclists at the car-park exit. One of them said “We've just heard what you're all doing and we think it's amazing.” An impromptu mutual admiration society was set up as I admired their fast 'wheels'. “It's all good fun” I replied before making haste up the passageway beside the stream.
I could see James and another chap ahead on the steep grassy climb. I caught up with the chap first. He was struggling with nausea and slowing dramatically. I empathised because 'been there, done that'. Fortunately it's a rarity for me these days since my discovery of electrolytes at the 2006 Western States 100. James was still going strongly and took a lot more catching; it wasn't until Oxlow Rake on the descent towards Peak Forest (CP6, 23.3mi). The orange segments at this checkpoint went down well. They seem to settle the digestion and keep things working, aiding energy absorption.
The remaining 33 miles of my journey would be very lonely, which suits me when I'm in the zone and conditions are perfect. Just like in 2010 I was feeling super competitive and pushing myself to the limit for the fastest possible time. When I'm alone I feel like the hunted and the hunter, not wanting to get caught from behind and wanting to catch others in front. It excites me and encourages me to try even harder. Times like these, when I hunt down without getting hunted down, provide my fondest ultra-running memories.
The run up the main road to the hop over the barrier went without incident, and then came the always memorable traverses of multiple green fields towards Wheston. I noticed smoke trails in the sky ahead to the left then saw the Red Arrows doing their display. I found out afterwards that they were displaying over Chatsworth. Shortly after that I noticed an interesting optical anomaly, where there seemed to be a second sun some way to the left of the real one. It was a very bright patch in the high cloud with its own rainbow.
The Red Arrows scribble in the sky over Chatsworth.
A sun dog (thanks to Bill S for enlightening me).
The evening sunshine showed up Miller's Dale beautifully on the approach to CP7 (27.7mi). From there after a more substantial refuel I took the direct route as usual straight up the road to the A6 crossing and footpath opposite. (It's not so bad doing it in the daylight but after dark it might be rather risky.) The track we join takes us to the entrance to what used to be a quarry, then a rubbish dump filled it in, then is was covered with soil and the methane harvested. Now it is restored to a hill again (Calton Hill). The transformation over the past decade or so from big rocky hole to big grassy hill has been amazing.
At CP8 near Chelmorton (31.3mi), Andy Howie was giving enthusiastic encouragement and taking photos. Something tells me he might be joining us to have a go next year. The evening was closing in and a cool wind had got up. I was still dressed in vest and shorts but I would remain comfortable if I kept moving. At least I didn't have salty sweat running into my eyes any more. This checkpoint always serves jam doughnuts. I had been looking forward to a jam doughnut for miles but there were none to be seen, so I asked. One opened pack was revealed. Perhaps the marshals were rationing them or saving them for themselves, who knows? ;-) Two Hikers were in the process of retiring here (not sure why). I heard the radio communications person say that they would be transported to the much better sheltered Earl Sterndale checkpoint to await transport to the finish. With thanks for the doughnut I set off running down the track towards Earl Sterndale.
The approach to Earl Sterndale contains another remarkably evolved part of the route. The track from the main road, once a muddy, rutted, overgrown mess has been a smooth white highway for many years now. The quarry on the right has expanded as far as it can right up to the track. Ten years ago there were still fields there. Back then it was difficult to separate the track from the entrance to the field, so some Hikers usually ended up continuing ahead through the gateway and floundering about in the field. If they were to do that now they would fall into the quarry, not that they would because the track is now very obvious and the old gateway with non-field on the other side is locked and festooned with 'DANGER – Keep out' warnings. Has anyone seen the contraption beside that gate? I have been intrigued by it for most of my BSH ‘career’. I think ET was there and tried to phone home.
The improved 'highway' to Earl Sterndale with expanded quarry in the distance.
ET woz 'ere.
Just past the brow of the hill I always take the footpath on the right that crosses several fields and joins the lane into Earl Sterndale. Some of those fields always contain cows and I am always on edge, especially since the sun was now below the horizon and light levels were falling. The first encounter after the copse was with young cows – frisky, inquisitive, prone to chase, therefore dangerous. The second encounter was with mature ones who couldn't give a toss. I felt safe with them.
The two retirees were already at CP9 at Earl Sterndale (34.5mi) when I arrived. Light was fading fast so I didn't hang about too long, just long enough for a quick top-up of drink and to don my head torch. Down the road I ran, across the crossroads and up the other side to the hand gate on the left. A diagonal descent to the bottom right of the field brought me to the track, which I climbed to the gate on the right. One more field of cows to cross and there was not much daylight left. Fortunately the cows were mature and chilled and only interested in chewing. As I exited the field to descend to Dowel Dale I looked behind and saw that the 'almost' full moon had just risen. (I say 'almost' because we were one day late.)
I stumbled a little clumsily down the grassy slope to the lane and began to trot up the dale. Sheltered from the wind I was feeling plenty warm enough once again, sweating even. As I neared the top I heard a small dog barking far off down to my right. I knew I'd been spotted but didn't think twice. Then I became aware of it getting closer. I looked across and saw that I was being pursued by a Jack Russell Terrier. Luckily the second cattle grid was just ahead so I trotted over it as the dog reached the lane. It stopped and sniffed the ground, unable to pursue me any further. I was safe.
Shortly afterwards a 4WD vehicle came up the lane and rattled over the cattle grid. I assumed the driver to be a farmer or resident and stood to one side to let him pass (the lane is very narrow). He stopped alongside me and asked if that was my dog. Then he said “You're Nick Ham, aren't you?” How on earth could a farmer know that? It turned out he wasn't a farmer; he was following a Hiker through the checkpoints and he'd read this 'ere blog. Fancy that.
With daylight all but gone but with head torch still turned off, I ran from memory across the fields through stiles in the two newly rebuilt dry stone walls, left on the lane and right over the stile. Head to left of power pole (easy to spot as a silhouette against the sky) to reach stile by water trough, right to next wall stile and left towards Booth Farm buildings. Turn right to follow fence down shallow valley, through two stiles and follow path to the right over wooden footbridge then turn left to the bottom. I was almost running by feel now. The dogs up the other side of the valley were already barking but they wouldn't be barking at me because I was still in stealth mode. I could see a head torch on the other side and I was closing in. I finally had to switch mine on to negotiate my way through the reeds at the bottom to the stile and stone slab footbridge. I would go steeply straight up the other side on the footpath to Brand Top – none of this climbing the waterlogged track through the shacks and barking dogs. [I remember when they were uninhabited ruins but there's been habitation for several years now.]
Moonrise before Dowel Dale.
The head torch I was now pursuing had already chosen the direct route I intended to take. As I caught up I offered compliments on the optimum route choice. The Hiker, who was now sitting on the stile halfway up the hill, complaining of extreme nausea and looking thoroughly wretched, turned out from the results to be Hazel Winder. I did feel sorry for her because I know what it's like to feel so wretched. Some more empathising was done and I tried to offer advice to combat the symptoms, but once it gets to that stage there's not a lot you can do apart from stop, rest, rehydrate and refuel properly. That's rather difficult to do while still trying to put one foot in front of the other. It was such a shame because she had made such good progress up to this point. From the results she was forced to retire at CP11 (Cumberland Cottage).
[Hazel, if you read this, try nuun electrolyte in moderation (a cupful every other checkpoint) and see how you go next year. Apart from that just drink water or very dilute squash and eat real food in moderation. Don't use energy drinks as a main source of fuelling and hydration. (In fact don't use energy drinks, full stop.) There has to be a way out of this suffering.]
I arrived at Brand Top (CP10, 38.1mi) and ordered the hot dog and cup of tea I'd been looking forward to for weeks. (I had a plan; it worked in 2010 so I was sticking to it.) The food went down a treat and set me up for the long haul to the next checkpoint, and beyond.
Upon exiting the checkpoint I was struck by the keenness of the wind. I needed more body cover so I removed the Runfurther Buff from my right wrist and slipped it over my head, smearing my glasses with grime in the process and nearly blinding myself. It had outlived its usefulness as a sweat 'n' snot wipe and was now required as a neck warmer. Shorts, vest and soiled Buff around neck were all I needed to keep the worst of the night chill at bay. I jogged down the rocky track to the lane and was soon out of the wind and toasty warm again. As I descended then climbed the lane towards the main road crossing, the farm workers beavered away under floodlights in the fields to my right, baling the cut grass for winter feed for the animals. What a hard life farmers lead, working night or day, whatever the weather dictates they must do. ”Make hay while it’s not raining” should be the phrase.
At the road crossing I noticed the pub, previously over-lit like a beacon in a sea of countryside darkness, had been re-equipped with lower power, more appropriate lighting (Geek alert - high pressure sodium vapour discharge lamps replaced by compact fluorescent lamps at one quarter the power, since you ask ;-)). I crossed diagonally right to the lane down towards Knotbury. Back in darkness again I could see the faint glow of the light pollution in the night sky and the silhouette of Shutlingsloe far off on the horizon. That was the next target, although our route would veer right just before it.
'Take third right to Knotbury'. As I climbed to the summit of the lane I looked ahead to the left towards the horizon and the climb to Sparbent and saw a lone head torch moving back and forth. It had disappeared after a few minutes.
The washed-out rocky track down to Three Shires Head gets worse by the year. In previous years I have been able to jog gingerly down this track without head torch. This year I was somewhat slower and my head torch, activated for the past hour, lit the way down the ankle-wrencher.
From Three Shires Head I walk-jogged my way up the rocky path, around the fields, right through the gate and left on 310 degrees towards the road sign reflecting back at me on the horizon (I know it all by heart). Now the crossing wall has been repaired (for three years now) it's over the wall stile once again and on to the metal ladder up to the main road. I crossed to the track and gate opposite and saw a movement, then a light. Someone was there! Through the gate I met Mick Plummer, fellow 2012 Runfurther Grand Slammer. Something must be wrong. He's much faster than I am. I'm slow this year. He should be miles ahead and well on his way to finishing. It turned out that he was another one who'd been suffering. He'd had to stop, sit down, eat food and 'have words with himself'. When I arrived he was about ready to set off again. Perhaps his was the head torch I had seen across the valley from Knotbury. We walk-jogged carefully down another rocky track, now on the final 16 miles of descent (with a few more minor ups) to the finish. It was good to have a running partner after so many lonely miles.
We arrived at Cumberland Cottage (CP11, 42.4mi) to a homely log fire (see top photo) and the glow of a gas mantle. Tea and fruit cake went down a treat and I was itching to go. Mick looked a bit reluctant but he rallied and we jogged down the final stretch of rocky track to the lane, with Shutlingsloe looming invisibly in front. We turned right to begin plenty of easy road-running towards the finish – just what we need at this late stage with only 13 miles remaining.
I chose the slightly longer but more runnable, therefore slightly quicker road route around to Walker Barn for only the second time in my BSH career (first time in 2010; I reckon it gains at least 2 minutes at my effort). Mick was going well in spite of his predicament. Unfortunately it didn't last. I was holding back a little, not wanting to leave him but eventually he said he needed to stop and 'give himself another good talking to'. “Are you sure?” “Yes, you go. I need to get some more food down.” I made sure he knew how to get to the next checkpoint (just keep bearing left and turn left towards Tegg's Nose) before setting off running along the lane. It felt amazing to be running alone at my own pace, pushing my own boundaries once again. After a couple of minutes I looked back and saw no sign of Mick's light. I felt guilty for leaving him, but he did tell me to go.....
When the A537 main road came into view below me I monitored the vehicle headlamps moving up from Macclesfield – usually one crawler afraid to go at the 50mph limit with a line of traffic stuck behind. As I descended closer I saw one pair of vehicles way down the hairpin bends climbing towards the junction where the lane I was running would join. I calculated that our paths would clash. I was wrong. The headlamps passed the junction before I arrived. With ears tuned and eyes scanning for headlamps, I ran out onto that main road as if I owned it. I ran all the way down the Tarmac to the turn-off to Tegg's Nose and CP12 without one vehicle passing me in either direction. There are some advantages to being slower and running down major A-roads at gone 11pm instead of before 10pm.
The chapel at Walker Barn (CP12, 46.7mi) provided a welcome mini refuel before the run back to and down the main road, down Bull Hill Lane, left across the fields, right then left up Lidgetts Lane. I caught up with a group of three here. After a quick 'ow do' and 'ow goes it' I left them to run down to the Endon Quarry entrance at the first street lamp (Geek alert - 35 Watt low pressure sodium vapour, monochromatic orange and the most efficient artificial light source in common use, since you asked ;-) ;-)) and fork left down the cobbled track. A bit of contouring jiggery-pokery behind dwellings along legitimate footpaths brought me to the road, still descending to join the canal towpath. Past the revamped mill buildings and under bridge 25, I veered left to CP13 (Whiteley Green, 50.9mi).
The last checkpoint.
Long since sheltered from the wind and long since sweating again, my Buff was already back to its original position around my wrist. With just enough time to get my tally clipped and top up my water bottle to dilute the rather strong mix from Walker Barn, I was off again, descending the road and turning left down the steps and left onto the Middlewood Way (read interminable trudge/drag). Only once have I been able to run all of this (yes, you guessed it, in 2010). I struggled to run (with frequent walking breaks) my way along the optimum route from bridge 12 to the top of Towers Road. The beginning of said road is uphill, but from there to the finish I ran every step to the main road, right past the garden centre once again and on to the finish at the scout hut. It felt like a strong finish (in fact a strong final two thirds) and it felt like a PB performance, yet my time was 13:29 (11:58 in 2010). I have run it faster on 5 other occasions.
This year's time differences compared to those of 2010 show that I was consistently slower, even when I’d recovered from the early meltdown and felt as though I was going well. Still, why should I worry? I gave it my all as always, it felt good, I enjoyed it as much as I always did and the camaraderie and post-race chats were as uplifting and entertaining as ever, and that’s all that matters.
Julie Gardner went on to win for the women in 11:21, while Chris Davies and Robin Houghton finished equal first in 9:43. Good efforts.
Andy (he with lurgy remnants) finished one minute ahead in 13:28. [I hope you didn’t set yourself back, Andy.]
James finished in 14:31 and Mick finished in 14:39. [Mick, I don't think you were the only one who suffered out there; there were 91 retirements in total.]
Many thanks once again to the organisers and marshals of this superbly executed and always memorable event. I am so glad it’s been brought back into the Runfurther series. Rest assured I shall return, but on the assumption I’ll be doing the UTMB it won’t be next year – not as a runner anyway.
Here are the pictures I took this time.