The Spine Challenger 2019

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Obsession is a strong word to use about a race. However, once this race has you in its grip, its pull is inexorable.

My first experience of this race was at the 2017 Challenger. That was a race that ended in abject failure; a crushing DNF amongst the mud, ice and rapidly thawing snow at Ponden reservoir just below Oakworth moor. I was left to rue a series of mistakes on my part that had contributed to the outcome but was more determined than ever to come back and compete the race. I got my opportunity just five months later at the inaugural Spine Flare (which is essentially an identical race to the Challenger just run in the summer rather than winter). You can read about my experiences at that race here too.

Having completed the Flare, I believed for a long-time that I now had closure on my 2017 DNF. However, dot watching the 2018 race online at home was enough to convince me that I still had unfinished business with the more brutal winter version of this race.

The Spine Challenger/Flare follows the first 108 miles of the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Hardraw in Yorkshire. It’s the “baby” sister of the Spine/Spine Fusion which follows the full Pennine way for its 268 mile length to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.

That was how I found myself on the start line of the Challenger race on a gloomy Saturday morning in Edale. Having caught up with some friends (Helen who I ran the majority of the 2017 Flare with and Rob who I’d met the previous autumn in Wales at the Snowdon 100) and said good bye to my wife, Caroline, telling her that I would see her in North Yorkshire at the finish.

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Start to Checkpoint 1

The first mile or so was fast as racers snaked through Edale to the Pennine Way trailhead by the Old Nags Head pub. The course goes over and down through some fields and past the tiny outpost of Upper Booth. Running through the valley towards Kinder Scout, the tops of the hills on my left were shrouded in cloud. Whilst conditions in Edale were relatively mild, I could see it was going to be a different story up on Kinder Scout.

The climb up Kinder Scout via Jacob’s Ladder was relatively uneventful on fresh legs. As I’d anticipated, the weather got worse the higher we went. Up on top, I put my hood up to protect my head from the howling winds. There’s little sign of the valley of Edale below, hidden by the fog and cloud.

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The plateau is a mixture of terrain; runnable in places but with enough rocks to negotiate to drop the pace. Kinder’s famous waterfall, Kinder Downfall was in full “Kinder Upfall” mode of operation today as I got soaked from the water being blown up the waterfall. Fortunately, as there hadn’t been huge amounts of rain the preceding weeks, the stream feeding the waterfall was negotiated with a simple jump and didn’t require fording. My feet were still dry and warm, and I was keen to keep them that way for a little longer!

A little further along, we began our descent from Kinder. I whooped and yelled with joy at a lovely runnable grass section. It did occur to me that I couldn’t remember such a runnable decent from Kinder. There was good reason I couldn’t remember this section as it dawned on me that I’d come off the Pennine Way and was now heading down towards Kinder reservoir and Hayfield beyond. I’d been blindly following some runners in front. We traversed the steep slope and climbed back up onto the Pennine Way. That was my first (though by no means last) mistake of the day but I’d learnt my lesson.

The Pennine Way is a waymarked for its 268 mile length. However, some of the finger posts are sporadic at best in places; Kinder Scout being a good example of a blackspot in markings where runners need to be mindful of navigation.

A Scottish lady stops to tell me that my race number (pinned to my pack) is about to be blown off by the howling wind. I stop to put my race number under the mesh of my pack; I’d later discover that many racers last their race numbers to the winds.

Down off Kinder, the wind has dropped a little and I decide to pick up the pace on the paving slabs over the moors. As I crossed Snake Pass, there isno sign of the snow that so often closes this road each winter.

The climb up towards Bleaklow Head is steady on a broad path at first and later through a narrow chasm cut out from the surrounding peat. It’s muddy and uneven underfoot slowing my pace. The weather has also picked up as I stop to put on my waterproof trousers – little did I realise these would now stay on for the duration of the race. The navigation here is straight forward, in contrast to two years ago where the path became lost under the snow.

After running across Kinder bunched up close to other runners, the field has begun to spread, and I found myself alone traversing the top of a steep valley above Torside clough.

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Having dropped down to Torside reservoir, a mountain rescue team as set up an impromptu gazebo. It’s around midday, so I decided to take advantage of the access to hot water and have the pot noddle that I’ve been carrying in my backpack. I chat a little to Jon, who’d I met at the Flare in 2017 and who is now volunteering on one of the Spine Safety teams.

Leaving Torside behind, the weather steadily got worse; the howling wind and driving rain would now be a constant companion until Sunday morning. The navigational here was again relatively straight forward. In an attempt to keep my feet dry, I hopped and jumped over the first couple of streams. However, the streams get progressively wider and deeper and eventually I resign myself to wet feet as I wade through the icy cold water.

The moors feel lonely and desolate at times and I shiver as I remember Saddleworth moor was the resting place for the moors murders victims.

From the top of Black Hill, it is a lovely runnable descent down before a short pull to reach the road at Wessenden Head. Along this section, I’d been reminiscing about my 2017 Flare race and how I was able to stop here for a bacon sandwich and a coke. I’m delighted to see the snack van is here again as I stop for a repeat order. Even stopping for two minutes in the icy wind as made me start to shiver uncontrollably so I take my bacon sarnie with me on the next section. Two years ago on the Challenger, it has begun to get dark at this point in the race. I look at my watch and am heartened to see that I have another two hours or so of daylight left.

The trail descends steeply to cross a stream before ascending equally steeply on the other say and continue across moorland, crossing a few roads. As I pick my way along Standedge in the failing light, I eventually give in and turn my headtorch on. I’m reminded of dusk during the UTMB race, where my headtorch did little to light my path, simply picking out the water particles in the air. As the remaining light disappears from the sky and darkness falls more completely, my vision improves as my headtorch now more effectively provides a contrast against the night.

Conditions got steadily worse as I crossed the M62, and I hope a gust of wind wouldn’t blow me of the bridge onto the motorway far below. Visibility dropped to a metre or so as I picked my way amongst the rocks at Blackstone edge. The path disappears amongst the rocks and so I team up with another competitor as we follow the GPS to ensure we stay on course. As we headed down of the hill towards the White House pub, the fog clears a little. There is another mountain rescue stop in the pub car park and I gratefully accepted a cup of coffee whilst helping myself from an absolutely giant sack of flap jacks that the mountain rescue team has brought along.

The trail next snakes past several reservoirs along mostly flat paths. On a clear day, Stoodley Pike would by visible from some distance away. However, I realised that in this weather and darkness, I wouldn’t see the famous monument until I was right on top of it.

A small group of us are now running close together, bunched up for safety. The wind is too loud to allow any real conversation beyond yelling at anyone who looks like they are heading off course (including me at one point). The lady in front of me gets blown off her feet on the approach to Stoodley Pike. We drop down again from the hills into the valley to reach Charle Town. At the bottom of the valley, the air is relatively still, protected from the winds by the steep sides of the valley.

My gloves are soaked through and my hands are beginning to get very cold. I peel the sodden gloves off my hands and replace them with my dry waterproof gloves from my pack. My thoughts now turn to Checkpoint 1 which is only a couple of miles away.

A stiff climb up the other side of the valley and a slog across some more fields brings me out at the village of Colden. This is the only real diversion off the Pennine Way as I head down the road initially and then down a steep muddy track to Hebden Hey Scout centre which serves as our first (and in fact only) Checkpoint on the race.

It’s around 9pm as I reach the checkpoint, safe in the knowledge that the cut off is 8am the following morning. Two years ago, I’d got here at 4am so I know I’m well ahead of where I was in that disastrous race. I’m shown to the kit room which is a giant stone room with a large wood fire burning away in the corner. I’m reunited with my drop bag and I gratefully take my wet cloths off and replace them with dry fresh clothes from my bag. The fire has become an impromptu glove drying appliance as lots of people have left their soaked gloves in front of it in the hope of drying them a little. One runner does, howver, find his glove has been melted by flying sparks from the fire.

There’s plenty of banter and chat in the dining room, but I’m happy to sit quietly, tuck into the rice and chicken and think about the next stage of the race. I realise that temperatures are likely to drop further overnight and that my pace will also fall. I decide to wear three layers on my legs (base layer, hiking trousers and waterproofs) and four on my upper body. I also decide to change my shoes. My Hoka Speedgoat 2s (my go-to mountain ultra shoes) have served me very well for the first 45 miles but are now soaked through. I elect to tackle the next portion of the course in Hoka Tors, which are a hiking boot/trail shoe hybrid. These still provide the cushioning synonymous with Hoka products but also give a bit more support and stability like a hiking boot. I’d tackled 25 miles of the Pennine Way on a recce run before Christmas in the Hoka Tors and so knew that I could also run in them. There are, however, 65 miles remaining and I’ve never done that distance in them before. It’s a bit of a risk given that there’s no further opportunities to change shoes before the finish, but I decide to take it.

There is also the possibility of sleeping here at Hebden Hey as they have bunk beds. I’d decided in advance that unless I arrived here in a terrible state, I would not stop to sleep and instead push on. As there are no real opportunities for sleep later on in the course (aside from a wild bivvy if you get desperate), this would undoubtedly mean two consecutive nights without sleep. I have done this before (at UTMB) though now in winter the nights are much longer.

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 1.5

Retracing my steps up the muddy track to the road, I soon get hot in my multiple layers. However, once I’m back on the wind-swept moorlands, I’m grateful for the extra layers. Heading up towards Top Withins, I start feeling the first effects of sleepiness. I wonder if I’m suffering from hallucinations already as I see footpath signs in Japanese – until I remember that there are actual Japanese signs here (presumably on account of Japanese visitors to Top Withins, which has slightly dubious connection with the Bronte sisters).

I pass Ponden reservoir, the site of my DNF two years ago. Whilst I’m tired, I’m nowhere close to the state I was in then. Next is a steep climb up to Oakworth moor. I recced this section in November 2016 at night when it was covered in knee deep snow. With the path covered by snow, I got hopelessly lost. Today, the path is reasonably clear, even in the dark. After a while I see the lights of the road at Cowling below me. I feel heartened at I must only be about 10 minutes away from Cowling. However, 10 minutes later, the road is no closer. Neither does another 10 minutes bring the road any closer. The path zig zags along, at one moment seemingly heading straight for the road and at other times turning away. Eventually the road comes closer before revealing a valley tin the way that must be descended and then ascended before I finally arrive at Cowling. I find a deserted bus shelter and rest for a couple of minutes.

Between here and Gargrave, the Pennine Way passes several villages. It’s not difficult or remote terrain but the navigation is fiddly in places and it’s not the most inspiring section of the trail. My plan is to try and reach Gargrave around dawn. I’d run the Gargrave to Horton section a few weeks previously and so felt that on arriving at Gargrave, I would be back on home turf.

The weather again takes a turn for the worse and a couple of other runners catch up with me as we head into Lothersdale. Here, there is another mountain rescue gazebo. They usher us in, close the flap and precede to ply us with hot drinks, soups and chocolates. This is an unexpected treat and I resist the temptation to overstay my welcome. The others surge on ahead and somewhere between Lothersdale and Thornton in Craven, I find myself on my own again. After a while, the path disappears below my feet and a quick check of my GPS shows that I’ve come off course again. The first light of morning appears in the sky and it’s dawn by the time I reach Thornton. I stop for a few minutes to chat to two Spine volunteers, who tell me I’m doing fantastically. I feel anything but fantastic but am thankful for the sentiment.

There’s a short section along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal as I pass the woods where I bivvied out on a recce in 2016. From here, it’s a series of fields to Garsdale. In the final field before Garsdale Jon, who had been stationed with the Spine Safety Team in the village centre, came out to meet me and we chat as we walk together into the village. Pyschologically, this is a turning point in the race. It’s around 25 miles from here to Horton in Ribblesdale, over terrain that I know well and enjoy. From Horton it’s then another 15 to the finish. Whilst 40 miles hardly classifies as “almost there”, this is the point where my mind slowly becomes to fathom how a finish might actually be possible.

I gratefully accept a few Haribo before continuing on my way. I’d ideally have liked to have arrived here when it was still dark; I’ve missed that deadline by a couple of hours but on the plus side I’m able to stop for some snacks at the local Co-op which is now open. I had a huge amount of spare batteries in my drop bag at Checkpoint 1 and I’d picked some up for my race pack but now have no idea where I’d put them. Back into the co-op I go to buy yet more batteries; I can’t afford to get caught out with lights or nav on Cam fell later tonight!

Initial progress is painfully slow across the fields immediately after Gargrave. I sit for a minute or two by a stream to try and regroup.

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The pep talk walks and I pick up the pace and soon drop down into Malham.

This is my favourite section of the race. Gone is the moorland of the Dark Peak and the fields of the Aire Gap. Malham marks the start of the Yorkshire Dales proper and the rolling green hills are replaced by dramatic limestone landscapes.

In the centre of Malham, I spy a tempting looking bench and sit down for a minute or two. As I’m sitting with my head in my hands trying to refocus, a lady approaches me. “Are you Christian?” she asks.

Initially, I think she’s another race volunteer but no, she is just a local Malham resident who’s been dot watching online and has watched my dot arrive into the village. She thought she would come and see if she could spot me in person! I imagine I’m distinguishable from the other walkers around the village being the only person who could pass for an extra from zombie apocalypse movie. I feel spurred on by this; as well as by friends and family at home, there are now random strangers watching my dot too.

I pick up the pace uphill towards Malham Cove. The weather has cleared, and I can even see the sun peeking through the sky. As a result, there are quite a few walkers and tourists out and about around the Cove.

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I must look a horrific sight with my dishevelled looks and mud splattered waterproofs charging up the hill with a slightly deranged smile on my face. Most of the visitors opt to give me a wide berth, understandably. “Not too close to the crazy man”, I can imagine the parents warning their children.

I slog my way up the steps alongside the limestone cliff. Rather than stopping at the limestone pavements itself, I opt to continue a little higher, thus avoiding having to bound across the gaps in the rock and bypassing the pavement itself.

There are three main factors that make this winter race far more challenging than the summer equivalent; the weather/ground conditions, the far more comprehensive kit list and the far more limited daylight hours. It is this last factor that is now occupying my thoughts.

It feels like it has only just got light, but I only really have another hour or two left of daylight. From my experiences on UTMB and the Snowdon 100, I know that it is the onset of the second night that is going to bring the real challenges. I pick up the pace towards Malham Tarn, location of Checkpoint 1.5.

This isn’t a full Checkpoint, just a monitoring station where you are permitted to stop for a maximum of 30 minutes. A medic comes out to me and we walk together into the checkpoint, located at the large country house which now serves as a field centre.

I opt for a coffee and some hot water for another pot noodle which I picked up at Checkpoint 1. I chat to two girls who were following a friend around in the race and a medic who I remember from the Spine Flare in 2017. Another medic asks if they can do anything for me. I ask about the availability of psychological trauma counselling. This suggestion is laughed off, which I take as a “no”.

Checkpoint 1.5 to the Finish

There is now very little light left in the day, so I start with a (relatively speaking) blistering pace, keen to at least get started on my ascent of Fountain’s Fell before nightfall.

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It is dusk as I reach the farm at the bottom which marks the start of the ascent of Fountain’s Fell. I pass a tractor with a trailer. I do a double take. In the back of the trailer, is sat a large-scale model of Danny de Vito as the Penguin from Batman Returns, compete with top hat, pale make up and a pointy nose! I stop and stare for about 30 seconds, initially unsure whether this is a hallucination or not. I’ve just concluded that as strange as it seems, it must be real, when before my eyes the image swirls, turning back into splashes of mud on the side of the trailer! I think this pips my hallucinated Stormtroopers from the Spine Flare! Little did I realise, this was only the start of the hallucinations; it was going to be a long night.

The ascent of Fountain’s Fell is long but gentle (at least compared to other climbs along the way) and so it suits the fast Nordic walking technique that I’ve now adopted with my walking poles. Although the top of Fountain’s Fell is not a classic mountain summit (unlike Pen y Ghent), it feels very exposed and there is a bracing wind all the way down the other side.

As I traverse the access road between Fountain’s Fell and Pen y Ghent, I visualise the next part of the course. I was told at Malham tarn by the volunteers that the organisers have put a diversion in place. We won’t ascend all the way to the summit of Pen y Ghent due to the high winds and danger of being blown off the mountain in the final rocky scramble. I don’t mind this, I’ve done Pen y Ghent many times and am happy to give it a miss.

We still do the bulk of the climb but just before the final scramble for the summit, we take the path off to the left dropping down into Horton in Ribblesdale. There’s now a few of us travelling together as we descend the mountainside guided by the lights of Horton in Ribblesdale below.

Horton has been the end point for many of my hikes and runs in these hills and it feels like I should be approaching the finish of my race. I try hard to shift this idea from my mind; reaching Horton does feel like the end but in reality, there are another 15 tough miles across the fells to go until the finish.

The Yorkshire stone walls catch in my headtorch and are turned by my sleep-deprived mind into hikers with backpacks staring out into the night. I know what I’m seeing isn’t real but it takes a monumental effort to turn the imaginary hikers back into stone walls.

At the bottom, it’s a fair trek along the road to Horton itself and the Pen y Ghent café that has opened for us especially. Some Spine volunteers are stationed at the café and are carrying out impromptu kit checks. I fish through my pack and show the volunteer the required items.

The Kit list for the Spine is extensive demanding that you carry a sleeping bag, roll mat, bivvy bag, stove, gas, pot, GPS, maps, goggles, ice spikes, knife as well as a host of clothing, medical kit and other assorted items. This is all needed for good reason, but my aching shoulders are testament to the fact that I’ve carried my heavy pack around for almost 100 miles and in reality, not touched 90% of the items in there. Of course, in an emergency, the kit in my pack could be the difference between life and death. Most of the people I’m with decide to stop for hot food at the café. I’m not particularly hungry having had my pot noodle at Malham Tarn. I force down a pork pie from my pack and decide to continue on with the next section of the course.

On fresh legs and in daylight, I could probably be at the finish inside of three hours. The reality is that this will probably take me twice as long, which is a bit of a depressing prospect. Nevertheless, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be finished.

These final 15 miles pass through remote fells and I find myself totally alone again for the next few miles. After a while, two runners power past me and I see their lights fade away into the night. In the distance, I can see them turn sharply left. As I get to the point they turned left, I realise that they have gone wrong as the correct path continues on as indicated by a PW fingerpost. For the next mile or so, I can see their headtorches attempting to course-correct across the fells rather than double back on themselves.

I am now under full assault from the sleep demons and stagger around the path like a drunk person. I sit down for a moment on a grassy verge, lean back on my rucksack and close my eyes just for a second…. I awake with a jolt. I have no idea how long I slept for, but it couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes or so. Regardless, I’m a bit shocked that I could have fallen asleep so easily and start running along the trail with a surge of adrenaline.

After a minute or so, I pass another runner coming the other way. She asks if I’m ok, which I reply yes to and continue on my way. Why would a runner be running in the opposite direction to me, I muse to myself? Until it dawned on me that perhaps I’m the one running in the wrong direction! I check my GPS and sure enough, in my sleep-deprived state, I got up from that verge and started heading back towards Horton in Ribblesdale. My senses tell me this is wrong, but the GPS can’t be lying can it? I change direction a few times to the point which I can’t even remember which direction I originally came from. I can feel the panic starting to rise up and force myself to stop and think logically. The GPS tells me to go in the opposite direction and my map and compass confirm this. Eventually, I cross the Lin Gill bridge. I’m certain I didn’t pass this way earlier and I can clearly see on the map that this is the right way to Cam End. Reassured that I’m back on track, I continue my slog upwards, eventually hitting the Cam High road. This in an old roman trading route through the fells.

 Eventually the trail splinters off onto another track circumventing Dodd Fell. Apparently, the views are lovely; not that I would know given that I’ve only ever passed this way in the dead of night. This section takes an age. I resort to checking my GPS, not to check that I’m on course as the nav is now fairly easy, but more so I can see how much progress I’ve made. My dot has barely moved at all from the last time I checked. Hint: if you zoom in on the screen, it makes it look like you’ve made more progress!

Finally, the path starts to trend downhill and I can see the lights of Wensleydale Creamery far below and in the distance. I catch up to another runner and we puzzle our way through a sequence of fields together trying to find our way off the mountains and towards civilisation. I’m alone again by the time I reach the village. I assume this is Hawes and begin trying to find the road out of town towards Hardraw and the finish. I go around in circles before I realise that I’m in Gayle and not Hawes yet.

I pass a bus stop where a family is waiting with suitcases for an early morning bus to take them on holiday. Oh no, there is no family, just another stone wall and crazy hallucinations. I sit down at the bus stop trying to regather my thoughts for this last section.

I’ve made an absolute pig’s ear of this last section, but eventually find the finger post directing me through the final fields and towards Hardraw. Of course, the race wouldn’t really be complete without one final nav error on my part and I find myself stuck in the field. I can see the lights of headtorches waiting for me at the finish but I can’t reach them as there is a dairy farm in my way. I’m so frustrated I want to scream. I just want this to be over now! I clamber over a gate and eventually find my way back on the Pennine Way. A gate brings me out on the road where Caroline is waiting for me with some volunteers at the finish. They are all slightly bemused as to how it’s taken me quite so long to travel the one mile or so from Hawes to here! I was imaging the outpouring of all kinds of emotions at the finish but in the event, it’s mostly just relief I feel.

45 hours and 44 minutes (of which over 30 hours were in darkness) after having left Edale in the Peak District, my journey is over.

I’m sometimes asked what the hardest race I’ve done is. There are many factors that contribute to a race’s difficulty; distance, terrain, weather, elevation, support, cut-offs etc. Whilst the cut-offs here are relatively generous (60 hours compared to c45 for UTMB), I would say the winter conditions, the terrain, the heavy pack and the self-supported nature of the race make this the hardest race I’ve done.

Even though the last part of this course has been an ordeal, I find myself captivated by the idea of what lies beyond Hardraw on the Pennine Way; Great Shunner Fell, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell, Hadrian’s wall and the Cheviots. Crossing the finish line at Hardraw has closed a chapter of my Pennine Way story, but a small part of me feels there is still a twist or two left in this particular tale; watch this space!

 

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Snowdon 100 2018

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It is the very early hours of Sunday morning and I’m following the woodland trails on the way to the 50 mile checkpoint at Betws-y-coed.

It’s been a tough 50 miles across the various mountain ranges of Snowdonia and my legs have taken a pounding. I always knew that if I was ever going to face the temptation of dropping from the race, it would be at the 50 mile checkpoint at Betws, which is conveniently located across the road from the Airbnb place we’re staying in. On my way through the woods, my mind begins to form possible excuses for dropping from the race. I do my best to slam the door shut on those unwanted thoughts and continue on my way.

In front of me is a small stream similar to many others that I’ve been crossing all day. In a bid to keep my feet as dry as possible, I hop across the small stones to stay out of the water. However, it’s dark and the light of my headtorch fails to illuminate the layer of slime on one of the stones. It’s like stepping on ice and my foot goes flying sending my body crashing into the stream. My left forearm smashes into a rock sending pain shooting up my arm and the left side of my body gets soaked. Initially I fear I’ve broken a bone but after a few mins the pain starts to subside. Again the little voice of negativity  starts; “now should you definitely drop as you have an actual injury”. I remind myself of Kilian Jornet (the greatest mountain runner of all time) winning the Hardrock 100 in the mountains of Colorado with a dislocated shoulder, crossing the finish line in a makeshift sling fashioned at a checkpoint. I have a bruised arm (and bruised ego to go with it) but can’t let that stop me.

The start to mile 22 – Tryfan and Snowdon

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Standing on the start line, there is a brief countdown. The Lakeland 100 starts with opera singing, Comrades runners are sent of with a rendition of ‘Shosholoza’ and UTMB opens to the haunting strains of Vangelis’ ‘Conquest of paradise’. Here, we set off to relatively little fanfare, just the cheers of the few spectators who have collected in the pre-dawn gloom. This is fine by me, I’d rather save the emotional energy for later in the race rather than get misty eyed at the start line music.

We start from the pretty tourist town of Betys-y-coed at the eastern border of the national park. We’ll return here again at the half-way point (the finish line for the 50 mile race) and then again for the 100 mile finish.

I had done a recce just two weeks previously and am very familiar with the woodland trails heading west from Betwys to the village of Capel Curig, the gateway to the big peaks. This section is straight forward and I arrive at checkpoint 1 (8 miles) ahead of my schedule feeling confident.

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From here, the course turns south up and over Tryfan, one of the most distinctive mountains in Snowdonia. We don’t summit Tryfan but head over the famous Heather Terrace, passing just below the summit. I start the climb using my poles to help me up the mountainside but soon pack them away when the scrambling requires my hands to be free.

This illustrates one of the biggest differences between this race and other mountain ultras such as UTMB; this is not purely trail running but requires scrambling too. Nothing too technical that you would want ropes for but there’s enough exposure in places to focus the mind.

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I would later learn of two racers getting into difficulties on Tryfan; one requiring airlifting off by the mountain rescue helicopter after a nasty fall. Thankfully his injuries didn’t prove to be too serious.

After a little while, I realise that I’ve been following the racers in front of me blindly and it occurs to me that we are heading down the mountain towards the wrong valley. Thankfully, we’ve only gone a few metres off course and a simple correction to the left brings us back on route.

This section across Tryfan is the only part of the first 50 miles that I haven’t previously recced and it lasts much longer than I was expecting. Eventually we reach the grassy ridge at the top. To our left is Y Foel Goch (which we are due to visit towards the end of the 100 mile race) and to our right the Glyders (that we’ll be visiting much sooner). For now though, we head down the mountainside towards checkpoint 2 at Llyn pen y Gwryd. The descent is initially rocky but nearer the bottom becomes marshy and boggy underfoot. I initially try to keep my feet dry by hopping from grassy clump to grassy clump like some sort of demented mountain goat. I soon drop this strategy and simply wade through the marshes, resigned to wet feet.

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At checkpoint 2, I see my wife Carrie (who is crewing for me) for the first time and stop to refuel. I’m right on my schedule now but the last section has taken me longer than expected meaning I’ve lost the buffer from the first section. Next comes what will no doubt be the highlight of the race for many and the biggest climb of the day; Snowdon itself. I set off, initially alongside the road and then following the miners’ path towards Pen y Pass. It’s a Saturday, so the car park at Pen y Pass is busy with hikers heading up the highest mountain in England and Wales. Our route up the mountain is via the Pyg track. Neither the easiest nor the most difficult route up the mountain, the Pyg track requires some very basic scrambling but without the sheer exposure of the Crib Goch ridge (which sits above the Pyg track). I have climbed Snowdon many times using all the major routes and some of the lesser known ones too. My confidence has been shaken a little by the last section but I’m on familiar ground here and determined to enjoy the climb up Snowdon. I pass several racers and a constant stream of hikers heading up. Most of the general public are extremely polite, helpfully standing to one side to let us racers pass and offering encouragement. Around three quarters of the way up, the Pyg track meets up with the Miners track (which also begins from Pen y Pass). This makes the route even more crowded as we merge in with the hikers who have come up the Miners track.

There are two race marshals at the top who inform us of a change to the course due to the weather forecast. On summiting the mountain, instead of beginning our descent on the Watkin path and completing the very technical Snowdon horseshoe over Y lliwedd, we are simply to return to Pen y pass via the Miners track. I have to admit that this is music to my ears. The Miners track is significantly easier and dropping the horseshoe will cut time from the race for me. At the top of the Pyg track, we hit the final summit ridge which merges in with the Llanberis path and the Snowdon ranger path causing a bottleneck of people heading for the summit. A hiker asks how much further I have left in the race. The truthful answer is “83 miles or so” but that isn’t a reality I’m ready to face up to, so I mumble something about it being ” a long way still”.

I jog along the ridge, dodging hikers, check in with the marshal (‘Checkpoint 3’) and head up the steps to the trig point (1,085m). As usual there is zero view from the top due to the clouds and I start my descent.  I pass lots of racers on the way up and offer encouragement before turning onto the slightly quieter Miners track. The Miners track is less of a constant slog; instead it’s a steeper scramble down followed by some long runnable flat and downhill sections. I make the most of this and run most of the whole way to Pen y Pass. From here, I return the same way I came towards Checkpoint 4 at Llyn pen y Gwryd (the same location as checkpoint 2).

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I’m starting to get hungry, I know Carrie has some pot noodles for me and my mind turns towards food. As I arrive at the checkpoint, there is no sign of Carrie, I wait a little but resign myself to no pot noddle just yet and instead have some food from the checkpoint. The rain which had started on the way down Snowdon has got heavier and I put my waterproof trousers on for the next section. 

Mile 22 to mile 35 – The Glyders and the Carneddau

The biggest climb of the race might be behind me, but over the next half-marathon comes two separate mountain ranges and no fewer than six summits, each of only slightly lower height than Snowdon.

The climb back up is the same as the route we took down earlier, through the boggy fields and later on the rocky track passing lots of waterfalls. I chat to Jasper, a Dutch runner, passing the time as we slog up to the summit of Glyder Fach. The great thing about the Glyders is that you get two-for-the-price-of-one. From Glyder Fach (994m), it’s only a short drop and climb to Glyder Fawr (999m) across the Bwlch Ddwy Glyder(literally ‘the gap of the two Glyders’) and past the rather romantically named rock formation, Castell y Gwent (‘Castle of the winds’).

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Originally the plan for the race course from here was to drop down to Nant Peris and then do an ascent of Y Garn. However, this loop had been dropped from the race a couple of weeks ago due to a fell race taking place on Y Garn that same afternoon. Again, I’m not crushed to lose the extra miles! Instead, I follow the route down through the appropriately named Devil’s Kitchen towards Pont Pen y Benglog. There are some marshalls here offering chocolate energy balls, which are delicious! The decent is initially tricky over lose scree before becoming rockier and finally ending up on the shores of Llyn Idwal.

Now I’m looking forward to my pot noodle and I really hope that Carrie has made it to the next Checkpoint. My heart drops as I reach the checkpoint and realise she isn’t there. I slump in a chair but she appears after a few minutes carrying my bag of goodies. As well as the pot noodle, I take the opportunity to have a complete change of kit; shoes, socks, shorts and t-shirt as they are all drenched.

Whilst I would have coped without crew if it came to it, it’s brilliant having Caroline and I’m very thankful for her support both today on the course and just generally in indulging this crazy obsession of mine.

I feel much better after some hot food and in dry clothes again as I begin the next section; a fairly involved scramble up Pen yr Ole Wen (‘The head of the white slope’). The climb is gruelling and I stop every few minutes to catch my breath and enjoy the views back towards Pont pen y Benglog and the Glyders.

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Again, I’m on familiar ground here having recced this section only two weeks previously. From the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen (978m), there is runnable (at least in places) ridge leading to the summit of Carnedd Dafydd (1,044m) and Carnedd Llewelyn (1,064m). As I approach Carnedd Llewelyn, it is beginning to get gloomy. There is a figure stopped in front of me. It is Jasper. he explains that he would rather not attempt the next section alone in the dark.

I tell him I am reasonably happy with the route and we begin following the easterly ridge towards the final Carneddau summit of Helgi Du. In the failing light and fog it is hard to pick out anything. Our head torches only serve to illuminate the water particles shining like fireflys in the air. I know to my left is a sheer drop but I try and stay as close to this ridgeline as possible. It’s so tempting to start heading down the mountain to my right but that will not bring us out in the correct place.

We meet up with another group and form a procession of headtorches, sticking together for safety through the poor visability. Eventually, we reach Helgi Du. Here the group disagrees about where to go next. A few of the group insist on taking a lower path avoiding the summit of Helgi Du (833m). I shine my torch; although there is a path, I can’t see where it leads. On my recce, I went over the summit of Helgi Du which leads to a grassy ridge which should take us all the way down to the A5 road and Checkpoint at the bottom of the valley far below. Since this is the route I am most comfortable with, I and a few others head up towards the summit; it’s a scramble but nothing too taxing. Sure enough at the top, the grassy ridge appears and we head down the mountain, picking up speed as the fog lifts.

I hit Checkpoint 6 at around 9.30pm. The toughest mountains are behind me now and I sit down to eat some cold pizza at the checkpoint. It looks like there’s a couple of people dropping out of the race here. I feel sorry that their race is over but that is their decision; I need to keep myself mentally strong. I start shivering after only a few minutes of sitting down and so decide to leave promptly for the next section.

Mile 35 to 50 – the lakes loop

The next few miles are straight forward enough along the Slate trail going back the way we came out this morning. My headtorch illuminates the eyes of the sheep in the fields around me creating a somewhat sinister effect. The trail drops back into Capel Curig and then climbs up into the hills above. After a small bridge, the main path continues onto Betws but the course turns left snaking up and over another ridge before dropping down into a stunning  valley. I say ‘stunning as I have seen it in daylight on my recce; at the moment it’s impossible to see much apart from the small beam of light in front of me. This valley feels isolated at the best of times but it is absolutely desolate now. I have no idea where the other racers I was with earlier are now; I can’t see any tell tail headtorch beams of light anywhere. The path continues alongside the western shore of Llyn Crafnant. As I reach the end of the lake, I continue along the country lane and before long I am at the checkpoint where Carrie is waiting.

I’m the only runner here and I sit in a camping chair enjoying another pot noodle whilst chatting to the volunteers about other races we’d done such as the Highland Fling and the Grand Tour of Skiddaw.

Has I signed up to the 50 mile rather than 100 mile race, I would now be on the home stretch. It’s a galling thought. The next 8 miles of the course loop back around south heading past another lake, Llyn Geirionydd , before picking up a forest track. Someone has left Haribo out on a table for racers to help themselves to and I gratefully take some. A couple of 50 mile racers catch me up at this point, spurred on by the proximity to the finish of their race. “Not too far to go” says one lady as she passes. Well not for her, I have another 50+ miles left to go. I don’t have the energy to explain.

I have my fall in the stream which leaves me feeling shaken. The pain in my arm is sharp and I have to resist the urge to vomit. Having kept the demons at bay, I’ve opened the door and let the doubts and negativity creep in. As I shuffle down the road at Betws towards the village green where the 50 mile point is located, I have to pass the flat that we have for rented for the weekend. I glance up and think longingly about the warm shower and cosy bed that would be waiting for me there.

Mile 50 to mile 64 – Trefriw and Llyn Colwyd

As I approach the finish gantry, the time keeper holds up two clipboards and asks which one he should record my name in. I tell him I have every intention of returning to the course for the second half. (I would later learn that several 100 mile runners chose to drop down to the 50 mile race and walk away with a 50 mile finisher’s medal – I am very thankful that I did not at the time realise this was an option. Had I realised, it would have been a near impossible decision to make and I honestly can’t say what I would have chosen in that moment).

Caroline is waiting for me and leads me into the checkpoint which is a marquee by the finish gantry. It is dark and cold in there. A couple of people are sleeping covered in layers of sleeping bags and blankets. Whether these are volunteers, 50 mile finishers or fallen runners, I can’t say. The place gives off waves of misery as I collapse into a camping chair. Carrie asks me several questions to which I offer only single syllable responses. I can she is very concerned about me. I would love to offer her some reassurance but I have none to give.

She asks me again if I want to continue. I think about the question. As much pain as I’m in currently, I know this will be nothing compared to the mental anguish I would experience in the coming days and weeks if I choose to drop here knowing that I could have continued. If I’m fated to crash out from this race, then it will be out there in the wilds having given absolutely everything, not shivering and cowering here in a cold tent in a field. Time to summon the most stirring Lord of the Rings battle imagery that I can think of to get moving from this chair….

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I see Jasper, the Dutch runner with whom I had shared some miles on the mountains earlier. I’m genuinely happy to see him finish his 50 mile race and congratulate him. I can see the pity in his eyes when I tell him of my plans to go back out for the second half of my race.

There is another bloke pottering around the tent, seeming far too cheerful. Seeing the state I’m in he offers me a hug. I accept as, quite frankly, I’m willing to try anything at this point.

I’m about to dig my map and GPS out to figure out where the start of the next forest trail is.  The cheerful Scouse bloke has his GPS already out and suggests we run the next section together. Now I have a rule which is to run my own race and not to get involved with anyone else’s race.  This is a rule, however,  that has been broken many, many times, possibly more times than it has been kept. Usually with very good reason and to good effect. In fact it’s not really a rule, more a voluntary guideline, and to be honest, even that is a stretch.

Having done the last two sections mostly alone in the dark, I gratefully accept. This can only be an act of altruism or charity on his part, as collapsed in a chair barely able to string two words together, I can’t believe that I represent too attractive a prospect as a running partner currently.

Dave, as I soon discover is his name, and I set off across the field back towards the woods. I glance wistfully one last time at my airbnb as we pass by but then put it out of mind. It’s 3.30am and we set ourselves a target of reaching the next Checkpoint, 7 miles away, by 5.30am. This pace does not sound fast, but in at this stage in mountain race in the state were in, it’s a reasonable clip.

The course markings on this next section are a little sporadic and it’s a part I haven’t recced but we use a combination of map, GPS, course markings and common sense to find the way without too much trouble. At one point we see two course markings leading down to a waterfall. This is definitely not on the route and it seems as though someone has deliberately moved the markings to catch runners out.

This section trends uphill through forests and fields. Eventually we come out on a country lane and we start to see signs of habitation again as we approach the mountain village of Trefriw. Spotting our headtorches, a volunteer comes out from the checkpoint to meet us. This is the first signs of life we’ve seen since the halfway point. It’s now 5.35am and we are pretty much on our target pace. We’d learnt that of the 65 starters in the 100 mile race, there are now only 15 left in it – all others have either dropped down to the 50 mile distance or dropped out all together.

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The volunteers at these latter checkpoints are hanging around for hours in the cold and dark waiting for only 15 runners to come through. They are understandably delighted to see us and offer us the full hospitality of the checkpoint. We stop to refill bottles, I have a coffee and we take some sandwiches to eat on the way.

Walking down the completely deserted streets of Trefriw, one of the volunteers points the way and we begin the next stage of the journey. After a few minutes it becomes obvious we are going the wrong way so we backtrack and eventually find the correct route alongside a stream through a field. After a while, we meet another runner coming the opposite way. He tells us he is heading back to the checkpoint to drop. We do our best to convince him to come with us at least until the next checkpoint, but he has made his mind up. We wish him well and continue on our way.

As the darkness begins to recede, there is no soul-stirring sunrise, just the grey gloom of an overcast dawn. Nevertheless, it’s nice to be rid of the headtorch and to be able to see our surroundings again. We’re now in the north of the national park, far from the big peaks further south. Despite this, the trail heads steadily up via a series of switch backs; nowhere near the gradient of Snowdon or the Gylders, but enough to slow our pace down further. We are now up on the Cefn Cyfarwydd (don’t ask me to pronounce it), a ridge between the mountain ranges to the south west (where we are about to return) and the greener more rolling countryside of the Conwy Valley.

From the map, I know we will soon approach a reservoir that we need to go around. Sure enough, the Llyn Cowlyd comes into view and we begin our descent towards it. I recall the map saying that we pass by the near side of the lake; Dave thinks it’s the far side. We bet a pint on it before checking the map; I’m wrong naturally!

It’s been raining off and on for the last few hours through the night, causing us to constantly put waterproofs on before taking them off when we get too hot. It is very exposed up on the ridge, however, and I’m happy to hunker down in my waterproof shell.

Dave’s GPS takes exception to the idea of showing us any more of the route so I retrieve my map and take over navigation duties. Beyond the reservoir, we need to head south west back down the same mountainside that I descended the previous night, towards the A5 and the checkpoint at the campsite (a checkpoint that we’ve visited twice already and will visit another two times before the race is over). As we descend, we can see the campsite in the far distance.
“How long will it take for us to get to there, do you reckon?” asks Dave.
“45 minutes?” I reply.
“No way, that’s an hour, an hour and a half at least”, replies Dave.
Sounds like another bet – double or nothing this time. With actual beer at stake, I lead the way and pick up the pace hammering down the mountainside with the checkpoint firmly in my sights. I realise of course, that this is most likely some reverse psychology from Dave to get us moving a bit quicker, but I don’t care, a bet’s a bet.
We arrive at the checkpoint with the second bet easily won.

Mile 64 to the finish – the Slate trail and the lakes loop (again!)

On the way down the mountainside, Dave had managed to convince us both that the next checkpoint would have bacon sandwiches. As unlikely as I thought this was, I so want to believe it’s true.

Sadly, this proves to be unfounded. However, we are presented with some much better news. The original course had called for another ascent of Pen y Ole wen (this time from the east) before repeating the Carneddau, going over Foel Garch before following the ridge down to Bethseda (the high route). Due to the weather closing in on the mountain tops, we are told to not to take this route but instead follow the “low route” to Bethseda, out and back along the Slate trail. A similar mileage but a significantly easier route, avoiding the mountains.

This next section along the slate trail is fairly easy going. On fresh legs, we could gobble up these miles but in our current state, it still takes a while. Every once in a while we glance up at the mountains to our right and share our relief at not having to go over the tops. An advantage of this “out and back” stretch is that we see the rest of the racers in front of us in the race, stopping briefly to share news when we see them.

At one point early in this section, we see a lady running at a fair pace towards us – the lead woman! We applaud and offer congratulations as she passes. It’s then we realise – she wasn’t wearing a race number or a pack, she was just out for a Sunday morning run. She probably thought we were a pair of idiots; perhaps not so very far from the truth. As it turns out, there are no women left in the race and we’ll need to wait till 2019 to see a female finisher of this 100 mile race.

Eventually we pass some huge piles of slate, evidence of the slate mining heritage of this area. Past this and down a hill is checkpoint 11 at Bethseda.

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Carrie arrives just as we leave, retracing our steps down the slate trail, this time passing by the racers behind us.

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We stop to chat with Chris Davies, who Dave and I had both separately shared some mountain miles with the previous day. (I was happy to later learn that he reached the finish line soon after us.)

On arriving back at the campsite (now Checkpoint 12), we elect to push on without stopping properly. At a previous checkpoint, Dave had commented to a volunteer that Jaffa cakes would be nice. At this checkpoint, we are presented with our very own pack of Jaffas! Amazing service from GB Ultras volunteers!

Just over a half marathon to go from here. The slowest half marathon of our lives, no doubt.

Again, the original course from here included a traverse of Heather terrace similar to day 1, but we are spared that by the race organisers and take a lower lying route beneath Tryfan to Capel Curig.

I take the chance to respond to some texts enquiring how I’m getting on. My running buddy, Amy, has sent a couple and (failing to get a response from me in the night) had also texted Carrie to check I was ok. Amy and I had been up to Yorkshire a few weeks previously to do the Yorkshire 3 peaks, which turned out to be excellent training for this.

The weather has been changeable all day. From rain earlier to bright sunshine and now massive hail stones.

For the second time in the race, we plod our way up and over the ridge before dropping down to Llyn Crafnant, this time in daylight.

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The checkpoint at the end of the lake is long gone and has been replaced by Wayne’s (the Race Director) mum in a van. She looks after us admirably, offering us drinks, soup, snacks and a seat in the back of the van. We feel really bad about wanting to push on quickly. Carrie has also arrived here to meet us for the last time before the finish.

It’s going to be dark again soon. With the plummeting night time temperatures and our slowing pace, I choose to put on an extra top before continuing on.

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We’re approaching our second consecutive night without sleep and the fatigue is starting to catch up with us both.
“Are those people on that bridge over there?” I ask as we traverse the shore of Llyn Geirionydd.
“No, mate, I think it’s a digger”, Dave replies.
As we get closer, I see it was simply a rock formation. No people, no diggers.
“Mate, where’s the bridge?” asks Dave. A fair question.

No bridge either. It’s a good job we didn’t attempt to walk across it, we’d have gotten quite wet!
So far, I’d managed to keep the hallucinations (caused by sleep deprivation) at bay, but now with dusk of the second night close by, they are making their presence known. As we traverse the forest trails in the failing light, every bush beside the trail becomes a child playing or a dog leaping. A small pile of branches on the ground somehow becomes a peacock with a magnificent plumage arching high into the air.

Hallucination level: LSD! I know none of what I’m seeing is real and it’s not dangerous in the slightest so I’m content to enjoy the show.

As dusk turns to night, our visibility drops again to the small circles of light from our headtorches and the hallucinations subside. We are back on very familiar territory now, crossing the final forest miles back towards Betws and the finish.
At the start of the race on Saturday morning, this section passed by in a flash. Now, travelling at a fraction of my earlier pace, it is going on and on. Everytime it feels like we’re almost there, another section of trail that I’d forgotten about somehow appears. How can it possibly be taking this long? I want to scream in frustration and hurl my poles at the ground. Had I been by myself, I probably would have.

After what seems like an age, we reach the final section beside a stream and then leave the woodland for the tarmac of Betws. We walk down the street and enter the village green. In the distance, we see various lights on the finish line. Someone rings an alpine-style cow bell as Wayne runs out to meet us. Neither of us fancies attempting to run across the line and we simply walk the last few metres. It’s 9.21 on Sunday evening.

39 hours and one minute after I left Betws fresh-faced and full of anticipation, I’ve returned. I’ve faced some of the darkest moments but I’ve prevailed against all odds. Of 65 100 mile starters, 13 would go on to finish. Dave and my efforts are good enough for joint 6th overall (beating my joint 7th in the Spine Flare the prior year). I’m grateful to Dave too. Had I been alone, I think I would still have reached the finish but it would have been much later in the night or even early on Monday morning.

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Mile 101 and beyond

This race is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In terms of difficulty, I would put it on a par with UTMB. Whilst it lacks the altitude of UTMB, here the terrain is far more technical and scrambling is required in many places. Whilst many races (UTMB, Lakeland) avoid the peaks themselves instead opting for the mountain passes, here the organisers have deliberately sent us to the summits.

This is the first year this race has been staged. Whilst there have been some teething issues (which I’m sure will be addressed by Wayne and the team next year), this race has the potential to be a classic on the UK ultra calendar. It is one of only a small handful that can call themselves true “mountain 100 milers” in the UK.  I can wholeheatedly recommend this race and GB Ultras as an organisation.

Post race, there have been comments made about the course markings (or perhaps lack thereof in places) and also suggestions that both races were “too difficult”. Anyone familiar with Snowdonia, or who had studied the route in detail, would have realised in advance the difficulties of fully marking a route like this through true mountain terrain. The course markings were as good as could have been expected given the circumstances. The fact is that in the dark and the fog, you could be metres away from a piece of tape or flag and still miss it. As long as you’re willing to supplement the course markings with your map, GPS (if that’s your thing), common sense and prior knowledge gained through recces (very helpful but probably not 100% essential), you will have no issues here.

This is undoutedly one of the hardest 50/100 mile races in the UK currently. Anyone looking to push themselves to their limits on a tough mountainous course need look no further. For a first 50/100 mile race with higher chances of success, then you may wish to look elsewhere; there’s a plethora of options available now.

Crossing the finish line is in one respect the end of jouney but also just the first steps in another. I have experienced highs and lows, views of breathtaking splendour, crushing doubts, elation, anxieties, frustrations and bonds of friendship forged through a shared experience. In truth, I only ever have one requirement from a race like this; that I would finish the race a stronger and more resilient person that when I began it, knowing that I can do all things through him who gives me strength. In that respect, it has been a success.

See you on a trail soon!

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The Highland Fling 2018

I have been blessed enough to have run and raced in many hilly and scenic areas of the UK – the Lake District, the Peak District, Cornwall, the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, the South Downs. However, I’d never done anything significant north of the border.

The Highland Fling follows the first 53 miles of the West Highland Way, from the official start in Milngavie (a small town just a few miles north of central Glasgow) up past Loch Lomond finishing in the mountain village of Tyndrum.

I’ve had my eye on this race for some time, but now finally have the chance to run it. It’s almost 6 o’clock on a cold Saturday morning. We are standing in the car park of Milngavie train station, waiting for the race to start. My flight up from London the previous night had been delayed and pre-race excitement meant that I hadn’t got very much sleep. Drop bags have been deposited in the relevant vehicles, a pre-race bacon roll and coffee consumed; now’s it just a case of waiting the last few minutes for the race start.

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This race began in 2006 with less than 20 runners as a training run for the 96 mile West Highland Way race. Today there are 800 runners nervously awaiting the start (making it certainly one of the largest ultras in the UK). Due to the number of runners, the race begins in three waves. I pick the middle pen and wait for our turn to start.

The mournful sound of bagpipes drifts out from the speakers. “Do you want something louder?” asks the guy controlling the music. Having got a positive response, the crowd is soon swaying to Avicii’s “levels”. As tributes to the late Swedish DJ go, several hundred lycra clad ultra runners bopping up and down in a Glaswegian car park must be fairly unique!

Having watched the first wave of elites and faster runners dash off, it’s now our turn to pass under the bridge, through the pedestrianized centre of Milngavie and turn onto the official trailhead of the West Highland Way. The trailhead is narrow and it’s evidently why the organisers don’t want all 800 runners descending on it at once.

These first few miles trend gently uphill initially through woodland, before later passing holiday cottages and opening out onto a wide track alongside Craigallian Loch.

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The early morning mist gently rises off the water creating an ethereal atmosphere. Here we are only a few miles north of Glasgow, yet this already feels so remote; the occasional electricity line the only real sign of civilisation.

The first checkpoint of the day is at Drymen after around 12 miles, which I hope to get to in around 2 hours. This first section is a mix of gently undulating trails and country lanes. It reminds me a little of the start of the North Downs Way back home; nothing too technical or challenging so far! It’s not long before the first mountains come into view in the distance, still capped in snow thanks to the long late finishing winter.

On the way into the village of Drymen, we’re sent through a field up a hill to a mid-race kit check. Unlike most of the races I run that have very comprehensive mandatory kit lists, this race only has two mandatory items; an emergency blanket and a mobile phone. Whilst these items could easily fit into a runner’s back pocket, all the runners have opted to carry significantly more items than this in their race vests and backpacks. As well as water and food, I’m carrying various items of clothing; enough to deal with whatever the Scottish climate decides to throw at us today!

Kit check is quickly negotiated and we descend into the first checkpoint of the day. There are five checkpoints along the way, at four of which we can access our own drop bags, which contain the food and drink (aside from water which is provided) that we might want during the race. There are no drop bags at this early check point; just water. As I get my bottles filled, one of the volunteers spots my UTMB t-shirt and we chat a little about that race.

“There isnay bag here, get oooooooout” declares the next volunteer. [Translation: “This is not a drop bag location, therefore please feel free to continue along the trail at your earliest convenience, my good sir”]. He has a point and I’m soon on my way.

This first section has been straight forward but much sterner tests lie ahead. First and foremost of which is the biggest climb of the race; Conic hill which comes in this next segment. The trail begins to trend uphill again as we approach the climb.

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These ascents are difficult to judge; they don’t feel steep up enough to justify walking but an attempt at running them leaves my legs objecting strongly. I settle on a run/walk strategy until Conic hill looms immediately ahead. The climb itself is a slog and reminds me of the many climbs on UTMB last summer. Thankfully the difference here is that this climb only takes a few minutes to reach the top (compared to the 2ish hours that many of the UTMB climbs were taking me). Race photographers are snapping away at the top and the views over Loch Lomond are simply breath taking.

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Having been overtaken by a few runners on the way up, I throw caution to the wind and pick up some speed for the descent, gaining a good few places. I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the descent starts to flatten out leading us directly into the next checkpoint at Balmaha.

This is the first drop bag location and as I enter the checkpoint I can see it operates like a finely tuned machine. A volunteer checks my number and shouts it along to the crew waiting by the drop bags. By the time I have progressed through, my bag is ready and waiting for me. I’ve packed the same items in each of my four bags, a can of coke plus a mix of savoury and sweet snacks. I gratefully drink the coke and although I’m not really hungry, eat a little and stash the rest in my race vest for later.

We are now on the south eastern corner of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s biggest loch. The race will follow the shore of the loch for the next 20+ miles, before heading off deep into the highlands. This next section through Rowardennan Forest is undulating again but relatively runnable. However, I’m unable to take full advantage of this as I hit a low patch. My body if feeling the effects of the South Downs Way 50 followed by a week of running in Snowdonia just two weeks before and my hips and legs object every time I try and get any kind of decent pace going. I know I’m struggling as I’m glancing at my Garmin every few moments, grumbling angrily to myself when I see only another 0.1 of a mile has passed. Again, I’m back to run/walk here and by the time I reach the next Rowardennan, I’m behind my schedule and feeling dispirited.

Retrieving my drop bag, I spend a few minutes sitting and lying on the grass by the loch as I refuel and try to refocus mentally. I’m approximately half-way through the race, with the significantly harder half still to come. I try not to think too much about that and just focus on the moment.

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After a fairly disappointing last section, the next few miles are a big improvement and pass by quickly. The trail alternates between hugging the shoreline closely at times and deviating some way inland at others. I’m struck by how much this lochside running reminds me of the South West Coast Path down in Cornwall; no large climbs, but many many short sharp ascents and descents with stunning views over the water.

Above us to the right looms Ben Lomond, the most southerly of Scotland’s famous Monros (Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet). In front of me a runner gets caught by a tree root and goes sprawling, but not before executing a near perfect stuntman roll. I help him to his feet and make a mental note to myself to watch my footing too.

Another forest section brings us to CP4 at Inversnaid. Here volunteers radio ahead runners’ numbers resulting in a massively slick and professional checkpoint process. I open my drop bag and immediately turn my nose up at the savoury items I’ve packed. The only issue with this drop bag format is that it relies on you being able to work out in advance what kind of food you are likely to want at various points in the race. Savoury snacks are normally a good bet for me from past experience but today my body is craving only sweet stuff. I take the chocolate from my drop bag and also visit the table at the checkpoint. Here the leftover contents of the drop bags of faster runners are put out for the others. Half the table consists of various gels. I remark to another runner that these always seem like a great choice at the start of the race but trying to force them down your throat when you’re 30+ miles into a race is another matter entirely. I help myself to a chocolate miniroll which really hits the spot and continue onwards, feeling upbeat again.

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As the saying goes “if you’re feeling good during an ultra, just wait a minute”. This next section comes as a massive shock and not an entirely pleasant one. My research of the course was limited to looking at maps and course profiles. Accordingly, I had a good idea of the climbing involved and where the big hills come during the race. What maps and course profiles can’t tell you is about the underfoot conditions. This section is massively more technical than I was expecting. A plethora of rocky scrambles, deadly tree roots, boulder hopping, stream crossings, ascents, descents and mud ensues. Any pre-race ambition I may have held with regard to a finishing time now dies a death on this brutal lochside terrain. Any attempt to get into a rhythm is hopeless as I’m invariably forced to walk. This is single track trail and I’ve now joined the back of a long procession of runners. It’s impossible to overtake anyone and, as it happens, I have no real desire to anyway. I accept that my time goals aren’t going to happen – but that’s ok. I’m nowhere near the cut offs and even a slow walk would get me to the finish within the 15 hours allowed. Having recently committed to adopting a more “mindful” approach to life, I put thoughts of finish line celebrations out of my mind and focus on the moment and the job in hand. Yes, the terrain is tough, but it’s also absolutely stunning and I do my best to take it all in.

Soon, we leave behind the loch for the last time and start heading uphill again. “Two easy miles to Beinglas Farm” declares a volunteer that we pass. I frown to myself, I’d counted on it being more like one mile….hopefully he has got it wrong as I’m now really ready for a cheeky sit down at the check point.

Turns out the volunteer was right about the two miles, but wrong about the easy part! Beinglas is the final full checkpoint with drop bag access. Red and white tape funnels us through the farm and towards the check point. For a moment I’m taken back to UTMB, and the mountainside checkpoints there. I’m really thankful that today is “only” 53 miles and not the 104 miles of UTMB.

Having retrieved my bag, I collapse into a camping chair with a groan of delight resulting in ripples of laughter from the other runners and volunteers. A volunteer confirms what I’d suspected – a slow walk would could comfortably get us into Tyndrum in time. From past experience, sitting for more than few short minutes will result in my legs stiffening up and making getting going again very difficult. I sit as long as I dare before slowly making my way down the farm track.

After a really technical few miles of single track, we are now on runnable double track again. The overall trend, however, is most certainly upwards as we head into more classic highland terrain. I run the flattish sections and walk the steeper ascents.

Soon we hit the notorious “cowpat alley”; a quagmire of mud and the afore mentioned cowpat. Here runners are frequently known to disappear to their knees in the stuff. Fortunately footprints in front of me mark a safe route taken by other runners through the danger.

Uphill slogs are met with lovely runnable downhill sections. Ordinarily I’d be pounding these downhills with joy, but today my body says otherwise. The sound of live music gently drifts from some trees; violins, bagpipes and accordions have been just some of the instruments that have encouraged us along the way during this race. It’s so lovely that people have taken the time to come out. As the afternoon has worn on, we’ve past many curious (if slightly bemused) WHW walkers who have all been encouraging and happy to stand aside as we passed by.

I pass the last minor check point at a road crossing and am immediately met by stunning views of the mountains ahead. I stop for a moment to take a picture and another runner notices my t-shirt declaring “this must be easy compared to UTMB”.

“In theory”, I reply, “though it doesn’t really feel like that at the moment”.

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Jess and I get chatting and run/walk the last 3 miles of the course together. Having not run with anyone else for a more than a few minutes all race, it’s nice to have some company. Incredibly these last 3 miles of the course pass by the quickest as we chat about running in Cornwall, races we’ve done and races on our bucket lists; UTMB, Western States, the Arc of Attrition, the Goat, the Spine. I even manage to gleam a few clues for how to enter the infamous Barkley marathons though I don’t really have any ambitions in that department.

Before long, we’re met by the sound of bagpipes and, as we turn a corner, we see the finish and the famous red carpet ahead. Another runner, who I’ve been leap frogging all day, is keen to entertain the crowd with a 3 person sprint for the finish line. Jess and I both decline as he sprints off and we jog over the line.

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12 hours 35 minutes definitely wasn’t the time I was envisaging at the start of the day, but I’m happy enough given this wasn’t an “A” race and it’s come hot on the heels of a PB at the SDW50. My next race in May is the North Downs Way 50 (which I’m treating largely as a training run) followed by the South Down Way 100 in June (which is an A race and I’m hoping for a good time on).

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As I sit by the road in Tyndrum waiting for the bus back to Glasgow, I look up at the snow capped mountains. The West Highland way has captured my imagination and I can’t help thinking about returning. Past Tyndrum, the WHW goes through Glen Coe before finishing at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William. I can definitely see either the “Devil o’ the Highlands” (a race starting here at Tyndrum and finishing at Fort William, ie the second half of the trail) or the West Highland Way race (the whole 96 miles) at some point in my future. But for now, the Fling has fully lived up to all expectations and left me enchanted.