“Dave, do you want to be in our team for the High Peak Marathon?”
Damn, I’d been avoiding that for a few years, I’d always had a niggling injury or something else in the diary but this year there was no excuse for saying no.
But what’s the big deal? you ask, everyone does marathons nowadays don’t they? Well this isn’t exactly a marathon, it’s actually 42 miles. Over some of the remotest, boggiest and most navigationally challenging parts of the Peak District. In February. Overnight.
And so the dialogue between the devil and the angel began:
“Yeah that would be great, who else is in the team?”
“Stu Walker! – 2nd in the Ultra Tour of the Peak District and he’s just set the record for 15 Trigs! He’s a monster!”
“Yeah it will be great, I’ve been secretly hoping someone would ask.”
“Jeez Dave are you mad, you’ve never run that distance before, you’re out of your depth.”
“Yeah put my name down, can’t wait”
“Jeez Dave you prefer short sharp stuff, this is going to be a night of pain.”
“Yeah, count me in 42 miles can’t be that bad.”
“Dave seriously, the other 3 guys have done it before, they’re good at this kind of thing, this will break you!”
Anyway the devil won and a few months of long training runs and recces of the tricky sections began. My anxiety wasn’t helped when it seemed that, not content with simply completing the race, my team mates were hoping for a top 3 finish. Too late to back down now!
After the wettest winter since Noah’s day the forecast suggested we might actually be lucky and get a clear night. Not that it would improve the man eating morass that is the section from Cut Gate to Swain’s Head but it would be nice to stay dry from the waist up.
And so to race day. We weren’t due to start until a quarter to midnight and as there’s no such thing as stocking up on sleep there was plenty of time to pack my bag, change my mind, repack my bag, change my mind…
Driving to Edale, stars shone bright. The clear night offered a faint hope of frozen conditions underfoot, a vain hope, the cold air merely resulted in fog on Bleaklow and Brown Knoll and some treacherously slippy flagstones on the Pennine Way.
I hate the hours before a race, I just want to get going and knowing that I wasn’t just racing for myself but had 3 team mates who were relying on me didn’t ease the nerves. 10.30 pm, all 4 of us present, time to register, sign in, no way out now! Into the back of John’s van to divide up the team kit and go over the route, last minute nerves and decisions: which gloves to take? “How much food are you carrying?” “Do you think I need this much water?”
“5 minutes boys.. where’s John? Come on we’re going” And off, into the night, an easy pace up through the fields towards Hollins Cross following a line of twinkling lights up onto the distant ridge.
Ten minutes in, damn I’m too hot, I’ve got too many layers on! I unzip my windproof and roll up my top, I knew I didn’t need two merinos! I’m sweating, I don’t normally sweat this much, I’ll dehydrate, I’ll get cramp, they’ll have to carry me!
Sheepfold Clough. No sign of the checkpoint, we run on then change our minds and turn back to have another look. It’s not there, we’ve dropped lower than we needed and are faced with a brutal climb up a near vertical slope. Wasted time, wasted energy.
Lost Lad. My batteries fail even though they were fully charged, thankfully the spare set are easily accessible.
Far Black Clough. A slight panic as we seem to be following a stream west when we should be going south. A quick check of the map gets us back on track – not the one we wanted to be on but in the right direction.
Bleaklow Stones. We emerge at the checkpoint into fog and slight snow, just what you need on the trickiest navigation section! We slow to a fast walk sticking to compass bearings. Not the quickest crossing of Bleaklow but we emerge bang on the cairn and know it’s only 200 metres to the checkpoint. We shouldn’t get lost now!
Snake Crossing. After Wain Stones we notice a lightening in the sky, dawn, and can turn torches off by the time we hit the road. Good job as my second set of batteries are spent!* We’re told there’s only 4 teams ahead of us. I scoff a jam butty and some Soreen (I’d love to take up the offer of a cup of tea but have to make do with a refill of water) and we’re off in pursuit.
Mill Hill. We catch and pass one team, reeling them in along the interminable flagstones and when we get to Kinder I suddenly realise that I’ve only got a medium distance fell race to do! Both the devil and the angel are in agreement now “You’re going to do it Dave”
Edale Cross. It looks a bit different in the fog, I know where I am but not where the checkpoint is. A quick check of the map to confirm, don’t want to cock up now.
Brown Knoll. We get a slightly bad line, missing a trod and Nicky Spinks under cuts us. She’s going strong: “encouraging” the men in her team and relieving one of them of their bag. “Simes, will you carry my bag?”
Hollins Cross. “All downhill now boys. Just the cow muck to negotiate and we’re home!”
Edale Village Hall: Nine hours and fourteen minutes, sixty nine kilometres, two thousand four hundred metres of ascent. 4th place overall – not a bad night out!
69km and 2,400m climb. A good night out!
N.B. GPS units are not allowed to be used but can be carried in a sealed bag to record your route. Ours is shown above.
Kit I used
Icebreaker merino short sleeved T
Planet X merino long sleeved cycling top (used rear pockets to carry food)
Lowe Alpine powerstretch tights
Montane Litespeed windproof jacket
Extremities windproof gloves
Buff round neck
Suunto Core watch
LED Lenser H7R head torch*
Inov-8 Mudclaw 300
* Six and a half hours and two fully charged sets of batteries. I wasn’t even using full beam. The torch (LED Lenser H7R) has been sent back!
Blizzard Bag (part of team kit)
Adventure Medical Kit survival bag
Montane Minimus waterproof smock
OMM Kamleika waterproof trousers
OMM Rotor Smock insulated jacket
Buffalo Mittens (these were stuffed up my jacket sleeves for the whole race!)
Laminated map sections
Small Silva compass and whistle
OMM Last Drop 10 litre rucksack
Food and Drink:
500ml electrolyte, topped up with 1 Nuun tablet at Moscar and Snake Summit feed stations
2 SiS gels
2 Ella’s Kitchen baby brekkie pouches
2 Clif Shot Blocks – 1 not eaten
2 Nakd bars – not eaten
1 Coconut bar – not eaten
Plus emergency food 1 Cliff Shot Blocks, 1 Cliff Bar (not eaten)
This was supplemented by a quick bit of cake / flapjack at each feed station.
You’re not taking all that are you!
Between Swain’s head and Bleaklow Stones I thought my torch was playing up as it appeared to be flickering. The others said it looked fine to them and it was actually my eyes! I was a bit worried by this and tried to run with the torch in my hand. (I have read about head torches being bad for your eyes). Holding the torch made running whilst keeping an eye on the compass particularly difficult and I put it back on my head after about 10 minutes. The drag up to the checkpoint was probably my lowest moment of the whole race.
The flagstone section to Mill Hill seemed to go on for ever but it was light by then and although there was still a long way to go, psychologically we were over the hardest bit.
foggy dawn – approaching Brown Knoll (photo Ian Winterburn)
Probably the hardest thing to get right was carrying just the right amount of kit. The forecast was for a cold, frosty night. It was accurate and quite calm which meant it didn’t feel cold. I wore too many layers (only needed one shirt). I didn’t need my Buffalo mittens but don’t regret taking them as the threat of 9 hours with cold hands is too much to suffer.
I took too much food. I didn’t want to run out but being able to grab stuff at the feed stations meant that I carried more than necessary.
A top 3 finish would have been good and was definitely achievable if we hadn’t faffed around in Sheepfold Clough. However just to get round in one piece and not let the side down is what I would have settled for when the devil said yes.
Finally, thanks to my team mates from Dark Peak Fell Runners: Simon, John and Stuart for a good night out.
Will I be doing the High Peak Marathon again next year? You’ll have to ask the devil!