Pendle Fell Race 2013 – race report

It is the taking part that counts, isn’t it? Discounting the Box Hill Fell Race, it has been a while since I have run a proper hill or fell race. It showed. I was 66th at today’s Pendle Fell Race in Lancashire, a long way back from the action at the front. I should not be surprised. Sydenham Hill or South Norwood Hill in south London simply cannot prepare the runner for challenges of the ilk of Pendle.

I got a terrible start. The organisers were pushing runners back to a start sign, only to start the race from further up the road in Barley, leaving me stuck behind a couple of hundred of folk. After weaving my way through traffic up to and around Ogden Reservoir, we were soon on open hillside, running uphill. My thoughts turned to weakness: when can I walk? Soon, it turned out. The marked race route was runnable, but few were running, so I joined the procession of determined walkers. The summit was in sight when the route plunged down Pendle’s eastern face, before climbing very steeply to the trig pillar. A long, colourful single-file line stretched ahead and behind; it was beautiful in a masochistic kind of way.

Getting down was the easy part. The slope was moderate, the ground predominately dry. I did not time the ascent, but it cannot have lasted more than 12 minutes. I walked back to where I had parked my car, in a layby offering an uninterrupted view of Pendle and the track I had raced along to the finish. The photograph below is that vista. Runners were pouring in, racing downhill, geed on by muffled shouts. I could see some on the very top of Pendle, stick figures silhouetted against the sky. It was a sky that was a sensational blue, sharpening the green and brown edges of Pendle. Meanwhile, the hill’s crevices cradled the last of the winter snow. Not for the first time I could see only beauty. Beauty in this sport and beauty in the places this sport brings us.

Full results here.

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Ward’s Stone: the problem of finding the top

I’ve been running in the hills of the Forest of Bowland for about 45 minutes. I’m nearing the highest point of these hills, Ward’s Stone. Mist has swept in. Drizzle has turned to hail. The ground is sodden, sticky, sludgy. I touch the pillar on the western summit of Ward’s Stone, then huddle behind a nearby weather station to check the map.

This isn’t the summit. There’s another, higher-placed trig pillar some 700 metres to the east. I can see it, a lonely object amid a desert of mud and bog, despite the ever-intensifying mist. I run to it, following a weaving path past peat hags. As I run, I know this second pillar isn’t higher. I don’t need a scientific test to tell me; it’s so obvious I even feel like I’m running downhill. So where is the top? It could be a huge lump of rock, close to pillar two; it could be a wave in the peat, topped by a little cairn, in the opposite direction. I visit both, discovering later the latter is the higher – at 563 metres, a clear two metres taller than anything marked on my OS map.

The top of Ward’s Stone – the easternmost trig pillar and the wave of peat hag beyond that marks the zenith

As I descend Ward’s Stone, the mist has lifted. Lancaster appears, as does the Lancashire coast and the early hills of the Lake District. It is a remarkable view, even more so once I’ve reached Clougha Pike. I descend sharply, almost to Quernmore, then trudge up the road to the car park by the Jubilee Tower, a Victorian folly. The finish line is glorious – the top of the tower at the top of the pass – albeit seconds after nearly knocking out my teeth after tripping on the third step.

Walking across the car park, I sniff the same stench of tobacco that I’d smelt as I’d left some 90 minutes earlier. The same couple who were parked when I arrived are still there; they are still smoking. What a waste of time, I thought. But then I looked west to the view they were regarding – sea, coast, hills, a deep red sunset – and think there are worse places to be alive on a Monday afternoon in late-October.

 

The psychology of the long-distance run

I ran 33 miles on Monday. I have never walked or ran further on a single day before. The run was three miles longer than my Winter Tanners in January, but – taking 5 hours and 20 minutes – lasted an hour longer.

My transition to ultra-running hasn’t been seamless; it has required a whole new mindset. The further I run, the more I realise that my body can cope, but the longer I also have to persuade myself otherwise. These 33 miles were a classic example. Two of us had set off along a familiar track adjacent to the Caledonian Canal heading out of Inverness, before turning sharply up Craig Dunain, climbing and climbing until Loch Ness appeared beneath us. We crossed a minor road at Blackfold, following a forestry track that weaved up and down the hills immediately west of the loch.

We gained 501-metre Carn a’ Bhodaich via a sodden, pathless route, with some heather-bashing thrown in. A check of the watch revealed we had covered just 11 miles in two hours. The thought of at least 19 more (our aim was to run 30 miles) and the time that would take dampened any summit celebrations.

The Great Glen Way beckoned. Biscuits and nuts were consumed. We entered our fourth hour of running. The miles ticked over, with the 20-mile mark a welcome barrier. Yet we were beginning to flag. At mile 21 I ran on alone, contemplating the lonely miles ahead. I scampered up to the masts on Craig Dunain without breaking the motion of running. I drank the last of my water.

The view over Inverness and the Moray Firth was marvellous. The brilliance of the day reflected my mood. Running felt effortless. Weather and moods are changeable, however, and by the time I reached the Caledonian Canal with 25 miles under my belt, it was raining hard. I was now very weary. There were two options: run back to the start and end on 26 miles, or turn right along the canal and – with no crossing point until Dochgarroch – almost certainly exceed 30 miles. I turned right and regretted the decision for the next hour.

Passing the 26.2-mile mark was a momentary moment of pleasure, as it had been at the Winter Tanners, but soon after I was dizzy with dehydration, cursing myself again and again for not turning left. I knew it was the right decision to turn left, though. I thought of the Fellsman and I thought of the Bob Graham: tough, sadistic decisions had to be made.

By the time I reached Dochgarroch, my world had narrowed. I felt at peace, albeit a peace accompanied by a raging thirst. In such a state, little things have the power to transform. My little things were refilling my water bottle before consuming my last chocolate bar. Refuelling lifted my spirits – even making me laugh out loud – and I set off on the other side of the canal running eight-minute miles back to Inverness. I shuffled through 30 miles, but the miles thereafter seemed easier. Running again became the most natural thing in the world. What could be simpler than putting one foot in front of the other?

I couldn’t have gone any further, however: 33 miles, with close to 1000 metres of ascent, supported only by biscuits, chocolate and nuts, was my limit. And after running for hours and hours, there is nothing so wonderful as simply stopping and standing still. I was glad. Not just because I’d run 33 miles. But because despite being cold and wet, a little fed-up, very tired and very dehydrated, when I could have run one mile home, I committed myself to another eight instead. I recognised that I was still 30-plus miles and thousands of metres shy of Bob Graham proportions, but I also recognised that I had jumped a level in my understanding of the delicate psychology of the long-distance run.

North Berwick Law

Twice in the last few years I’ve cycled past North Berwick Law and resisted the temptation of what must be one Scotland’s most stupendous little hills, topped with a whale jawbone. It was a splendid day for it. A furious wind on the summit. Bass Rock as clear as a button across the sea. The whale bone remains, more than 300 years since one was first placed here, although it isn’t the original and nor is it a genuine jawbone. Fake or not, is there another summit in the world that sports such an adornment?

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The underrated hills of Bowland

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My Christmas mini-tour of Britain took me to Lancashire for the height of the festive season. I was on the Fylde coast, more famous for its illuminations and fairground attractions than its ranges of hills and mountains.

Immediately east of the M6 is the Forest of Bowland, however, a wild jumble of hills rising, in parts, above the 500-metre contour. I had been here only once before. That was to cycle. I remember passing through Longridge and crossing the Trough of Bowland, but that was about it. Even in the nine months I spent on a journalism course in Preston, I ignored these hills. The Lake District was a far more attractive proposition.

Fair Snape Fell was the objective on Christmas Eve, reached via a track that contoured Parlick, before an easy climb on a wide, muddy path, rising into mist, to a windswept plateau adorned by a trig pillar and cairn. ‘Beautiful,’ my companion remarked a couple of times. It was. This was wild, high country offering resplendent views of Lancashire. Years of preconceptions and underrating these hills had been smashed in minutes.

The half-mile tromp to the true summit of Fair Snape from the lower 510-metre top was a far greater navigational challenge than any I had faced in the Lakes the day before, following bearings in thick mist, crossing a terrain pockmarked by waves of peat hags. The highest point, close to a falling down fence demarcating Wolf Fell, was lonely and anonymous. The mist prevented any view.

We ran downhill, returning over Parlick, Fair Snape’s lower but shapely neighbour. There was a magnificent, very runnable descent from here. Grassy steep (but not dangerously steep) slopes bring the runner back to the road very quickly indeed.

Boxing Day was a more sedate affair, venturing over Longridge Fell. It was a family affair and we turned back before reaching the summit. The ground was saturated. I’d have happily continued. The others didn’t share my penchant for cold, wet feet, unfortunately.