High Peak Marathon

“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!

Significant Moments:

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!

High Peak Marathon statistics

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

I wore:
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
SealSkinz socks
Extremities windproof gloves
Windproof beanie
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!

I carried:
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.

High Peak Marathon equipment

You’re not taking all that are you!

Hardest Moments:

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

foggy dawn – approaching Brown Knoll (photo Ian Winterburn)

Final Thoughts:

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!

Sparkling Autumn Day

The weather forecast for the Peak District promised a “sparkling autumn day”.

And so it turned out, clear blue skies with just a hint of cumulus building on the western horizon – perfect weather for fell running.

fell running under blue skies

fell running under blue skies

I usually record my runs: distance, heart rate, average pace etc and upload the data for further analysis later.  Today however I wanted to be free from all that, untethered from technology, I simply wanted to run, to enjoy the crisp air, the warming sun and the beauty of this little part of the Peak District.

I trot across the short stretch of moor leading to Higger Tor and up the short, sharp climb to the summit – easy pace today focussing on short, fluid steps.  Then hop-scotching the gritstone and puddles I cross the plateau and drop down the well worn path to Carl Wark.

climbing Carl Wark, Higger Tor beyond

climbing Carl Wark, Higger Tor beyond

The flat summit of this once inhabited prominence is a mix of gritstone boulders, heather and sheep cropped grass and I work my way southwards, relishing the warm November sun on my face.

gritstone & grass on Carl Wark

gritstone & grass on Carl Wark

I drop steeply off Carl Wark finding a faint path, newly accessible as the bracken dies back for winter and head down to the wonderful old packhorse bridge crossing Burbage Brook.

Descending off Carl Wark

descending off Carl Wark

crossing the packhorse bridge

crossing the packhorse bridge

I love this spot and pause for a moment to take in the view, tracing the line of my descent back up to the rocky outcrop, proud against the blue autumn sky.  Refreshed, I press on upstream winding my way between the plantations and making the steep, short drop to cross the brook.  I notice the sudden drop in temperature as I enter the shade and reach the stream.

crossing Burbage brook

crossing Burbage brook

What goes down must go up and it’s time to climb back out of the valley into the sunlight and I take the rising path northwards then divert towards the isolated boulder high amidst the bracken,

climbing past the boulder

climbing past the boulder

A spot of “bracken bashing” brings me out on a vague rising path and I leave the valley behind and head back towards Higger Tor.

leaving the valley

leaving Burbage valley

A final steep few metres through the rough grass brings me out at the road where I began.

leaving Burbage valley

the final push

A sparkling autumn day, perfect for fell running in the Peak District.

What I wore:

Montane Litespeed windproof
Ashmei 2 in 1 shorts
Buff
Gloves (cheap fleece ones)
SealSkinz waterproof socks
Inov8 Race Pro 4 bumbag
Inov8 Roclite 285

Hill Reps Hurt

“I reach the crest of the steep hill oblivious to everything except the pounding in my temples and the battle between body and mind; one screaming “stop” the other willing a few more moments of effort.  Relief, when it comes is temporary; I grasp my knees, bent double and suck in great lungfuls of air waiting for the drum in my head to quieten.  A few moments later I begin jogging downhill, losing the hard won ascent, all the way down to where I began.  I glance at my watch – 15 seconds left.  All too soon it is time to turn and repeat the climb and I am once more enveloped in my own little bubble of pain.”

Hill Reps

Working hard during hill reps

I am half way through a hill rep session (In order to get good at running up hills you need to do some training which involves…. running up hills) playing mind games trying to block out the thought of another 10 minutes of hurt.

My favourite (can you have a favourite type of pain?) session involves four repetitions up an increasingly steep 750 metre hill with jog down recovery.  The aim is to be consistent, i.e. all reps should take the same time give or take a few seconds.

Details:

4 x 750m with 4 min 30 sec jog down recovery.
Splits: 4.55, 4.59, 4.59, 4.48 (I mustn’t have been working hard enough in the first three!)

Graph shows heart rate during each rep. Heart rate at the end of each climb is 97 – 99% max.  (Data collected with Garmin 910XT and uploaded onto SportTracks software.)

heart rate during hill reps

heart rate during hill reps

The bottom line? Hill reps hurt!

To join me for an off road training session please email me on;

info@fellrunningguide.co.uk

 fell running guide logo

Trail Running or Fell Running?

Trail running or fell running, what’s the difference?

When I tell people that I’m a fell runner I’m often asked what the difference is between fell running and trail running.  What is a fell? Are trail runs and fell runs actually the same thing?  Do some people do both?

Fell is a term mainly used in the Lake District to describe mountains or high moorland. Hence the sport of fell running which emerged from the old guide’s and shepherd’s races traditionally held alongside wrestling and other sports at the annual games events in rural Lakeland towns and villages.

fell running photograph

fells: hills or high land especially in Northwest England

A trail is a track or path predominantly in countryside areas and is often well signed and easy to follow.

trail running photograph

trail running

Fell running, although a minority sport, has been taking place in the UK for many years with the Fell Runners Association (FRA) set up in the 1970s to oversee the sport.  Trail running on the other hand is a relatively new sport having its roots in America and Europe and which has only emerged in the UK within the past 10 years but is showing a huge increase in popularity; the Lakeland Trails Series began in 2006 and now attracts over 10,000 runners.

The stereotypical image of the fell runner may be a stringy, bearded old man in a vest running up a rough hillside (and there may be some truth in that!) but the allure of the sport is its simplicity.

fell runners or trail runners?

stringy old men! – fell runners or trail runners?

In today’s commercial world trail running has attracted the attention of some big companies with Salomon sponsoring events in the UK and abroad and the image of a trail runner may be more compression clothing and sunglasses – a slightly more upmarket fell runner!  There is certainly more extrinsic value in winning a top trail race than a British or English championship fell race.

So fell running is harder than trail running right?

Er no!  Probably the most iconic trail run is the UTMB – The Ultra Tour of Mont Blanc which covers around 170 kilometers and over 9500 metres of ascent!  However, trail races in England mainly tend to follow valleys rather than heading for the mountains. Trail running also trends towards Ultra Distance, i.e. further than a marathon and races such as the Lakeland 100 are becoming increasingly popular.  Which is harder; a 10 mile race on remote moorland in winter with low cloud, strong wind, heavy rain and poor visibility or a 60 mile trail in the heat of mid summer?  They are different types of hard.  It could be argued that the more remote and hostile terrain of a fell race is potentially more dangerous – but harder?

winter fell running photograph

winter fell running – a different type of hard

The one big difference between  the two sports is that true fell running requires you to be able to navigate (although plenty of fell runners play follow the leader and hope that the person in front knows where they are going!)  Many fell races cross remote, open moorland often without paths and with route choice being left to the individual.  So in bad visibility map and compass skills are essential.  In trail races it is more a case of following a good path on a set route with any junctions being well marshalled and signed.

Is the definition between trail and fell running always that clear?

Definitely not!  In the FRA calendar there are probably 500 races to choose from some of which follow low level, well marked paths and which the organisers mark out so that runners can’t (shouldn’t!) get lost.  In summer, evening races may start at a local cricket ground or country pub and do a 4 or 5 mile loop around the fields and woods – certainly not fell races in the true sense of the word.  Ennerdale Trail Race however visits the remote Black Sail Hut at the eastern end of the valley, some 10km from the nearest metalled road, it is certainly more remote than many short fell races.

Some races combine both trail and fell; The Ultra Tour of the Peak District follows footpaths and trails before heading out onto more remote moorland.

Ultra Tour of the Peak District

mixed terrain; Ultra Tour of the Peak District

Others sit somewhere in between the two; The Snowdon Race climbs to 1085 metres above sea level, much higher than many fell races, but does so on a well defined track on which runners then reverse on their way down.

So are you a trail runner or a fell runner?

A bit like a meso / endo morph, probably somewhere between the two.  Some fell runners wear compression socks and fancy shades!  Some trail runners can navigate and don’t mind getting their expensive shoes muddy!  Does it really matter?  I suppose the important thing is that whatever you wear, whatever surface you run on, trail running, fell running or whatever you call it.. just enjoy it.

trail running, fell running or a bit of both? Borrowdale Fell Race

trail, fell or a bit of both? Borrowdale Fell Race

Happy trail running, I mean fell running!

fell running guide

It’s Not Always Hard Work

Some days I run hard.

Race training: maximum efforts, hurting, oblivious to everything except the pounding in my temples and the battle between body and mind; one screaming “stop” the other willing a few more moments of effort.  I am enveloped in my own little bubble of pain.

Thankfully I also like to run easy.  Long steady trots when I can appreciate the scenery around me, when I can stop to gaze at distant blue hills or focus in on the minute details close by.  As the seasons change so does the view and it is seldom the same even on the bleak moorland.  This summer a vast sea of cotton grass covered the moors transforming them into a shimmering silver sea.

Cotton Grass

Cotton Grass transforming the bleak moorland

The heather, turning purple under a summer sky shows different hues and closer inspection reveals subtle differences between Bell Heather, Cross Leaved Heath and Ling.

Purple Heather and Blue Skies

Purple Heather and Blue Skies

Hidden away on the moors other plants can be found; the tiny Tormentil with its four bright yellow leaves, delicate Heath Bedstraw with minute white flowers, slender pale blue Harebells, Bilberry its crimson globes beginning to form the Autumn’s bounty and Cladonia a tiny lichen fantastically named the Devil’s Matchstick.

Tiny Tormentil

Tiny Tormentil

Whilst the Grouse and Meadow Pipits are ever present some birds are less common and thus grab my attention.  The Curlew has arrived and circles me, crying.  A Skylark’s constant conversation makes me look upwards to spot a tiny hovering speck that suddenly silences and falls back to the ground, camouflaged, unseen.  The Kestrel hovering, wings working, tail twitching, head stock still seeking out its unwary prey and the Wheatear, startled into undulating flight from its ground nest, a flash of white in its tail as it goes.

I spy a lizard camouflaged on a mossy wall and stop to take a closer look at its intricate markings.  It stares back at me unflinching, unmoving save for a rapid pulsing in its neck.

Lizard Lounging

Lizard Lounging

A Peacock Butterfly flits by me as I run and settles in the path a few metres ahead.  In no rush today I slowly approach, getting close enough to inspect its delicate iridescent beauty.

Admirable Admiral

Proud Peacock

A damp path offers a rare treat, a Slow worm lies across my way.  I stop, wary at first until I see no diamond markings then creep closer and admire the shining, almost polished bronze beauty.

Slow run, Slow Worm

Slow run, Slow worm

And when the colour fades from the day I run lazily towards the sinking sun on the blazing western horizon, happy to appreciate the beauty of easy running.

Sunset Run

Sunset Run

Cumulus and Cotton Grass

One thing I love about fell running in the Peak District is how the scenery changes with the seasons.

The last couple of weeks has seen an explosion of Cotton Grass, turning parts of the moors into a shimmering, silver sea.

A sea of Cotton Grass

A sea of Cotton Grass

Although it is now fading, the cotton heads being blown away on the wind like huge dandelion seeds, there was still enough to provide a pretty backdrop for the recent Introduction to Fell Running course held in the Goyt Valley.

Cumulus Clouds and Cotton Grass

Cumulus Clouds and Cotton Grass

Four intrepid women wanted to improve their fell running skills and the varied terrain and hills was a great location giving lots of opportunity to practise running downhill…

Practising downhill technique

Practising downhill technique

and back up again!

Making the uphill look easy!

Making the uphill look easy!

Watching each other’s individual styles gave us chance to discuss running techniques, race strategy and fitness training; (I delivered the unwelcome news that the best way to get good at running uphill is to spend lots of time running uphill!)  Some map and compass work saw us leaving the path and heading across the moors on a bearing and tough running through the deep mix of bilberry and heather.  Smiles all round when we found the path we were aiming for.

Where's the path gone?

Where’s the path gone?

The grey cloud of the morning gradually gave way to fairer weather as we reached the valley bottom and the pretty stream but it was lunch time for the midges and so we didn’t linger!  Escaping the woods brought respite from the voracious little things and we spend some more time looking and listening as we took turns at playing “guess the runner”

Guess who it is?

Guess who it is?

The runners all had a go at estimating distance covered – a vital skill for navigating – by counting the number of paces they took.  Backing this up with map work; interpreting the contour lines and other features we ran through the Cotton Grass under high, Cumulus clouds until eventually we arrived back where we had started.

Fell Running in the Peak District

Fell Running in the Peak District

Happy runners, friendly faces, lovely scenery – another great day fell running in the Peak District.

Testing Conditions on Helvellyn

The Helvellyn Triathlon run route is tough at the best of times.

Add strong winds, low cloud, heavy rain, sleet and patches of lying snow and you’re in for a real challenge.

Tough conditions on Helvellyn

Tough conditions on Helvellyn

Mark and Scott were booked on to the triathlon in September and were keen to see what the route had in store and Mark wanted some advice and the opportunity to try out some kit.

Rain was falling as we left Gillside Farm on the steep, stepped path.  I was already wearing full waterproof cover; Kamleika smock and trousers whilst Mark chose inov8 Mistlite trousers and an old goretex top, saving his Raceshell waterproofs for later.  Mark opted to try a rucksack rather than bumbag and used the inov8 Race Pac 4 whilst I used the larger Race Pro 12 to carry some emergency kit.  Scott chose the bumbag option with an Osprey Talon although didn’t include water bottles as there was more chance of drowning than dehydrating!

taking in the view of Ullswater

Taking in the view of Ullswater

Conditions worsened as we ascended Birkhouse Moor with the wind picking up and the rain turning to sleet and so the stop to admire the view of Ullswater was a brief one.  Although it was the last week of April the long winter had get to relinquish its icy hold and Red Tarn still had a covering of ice.

An icy Red Tarn

An icy Red Tarn

The route is firm and rocky underfoot and both Mark and I wore inov8 Roclites; 315 and 285 respectively which performed well both up and down.  Scott wore Newton Momentum trail shoes, an American brand I hadn’t come across they brightened up the day!

We ascended Swirral Edge into the cloud and thankfully gained some respite, sheltered from the wind although wet snow was now falling.  High on the edge a large patch of compacted snow forced a slight detour requiring an exciting bit of hands on rock scrambling.

Scrambling on Swirral Edge

Scrambling on Swirral Edge

As we emerged onto the summit we left the lee and were met by strong, gusting winds. This was no place to linger so turning Northwest we made haste towards Lower Man. Visibility was around 50 metres and I was conscious not to miss the path to White Side, easily done in these conditions.

Knowing that there is a “sting in the tail” with the climb of White Side is important for race preparation and Mark and Scott were glad to see it if not glad to have to run up it!

Descending White Side

Descending White Side

Running off White Side we swung East and used the zig zags to practise downhill running; important to try to flow rather than put on the brakes and use up valuable energy – the legs are going to be tired by this point on race day.

Dropping to the Youth Hostel the wind eased although the rain continued to fall heavily as we discussed race nutrition; gels, energy bars and sweets and Mark told me his recipe for making Spirulina palatable!  Safe now, we scoffed my emergency Jaffa Cakes as we trotted down the track back to the farm.

Mark and Scott were happy with the outing, it’s given them a chance to test the kit they need and now know what the route has in store.  It was a grotty day but it’s sometimes more rewarding to put yourself through testing conditions and it gives you an idea of how hostile the mountains can be.

A quote from Mark “Was brilliant today Dave – thanks so much for safe and expert guidance and advice. Looking forward to the triathlon even more now.”

If you are considering running the Helvellyn Triathlon and would like a guided run prior to the race, contact me.  Next recce date;

 http://www.fellrunningguide.co.uk/events2/helvellyn-triathlon-training/