Updated: Apr 11, 2022
2022 Silva Northern Traverse: 2-4 April 2022
There is something special about Coast-to-Coast races. Something about the fact that when you finish you physically cannot go any further without running into the sea. Something epic about running the breadth of a land mass. The first 100+ mile race that I completed was the Devon Coast-to-Coast ultra in 2019, a race I have really fond memories of as I managed to get a really decent time in it (31 hours) and I was supported during the race by my son James – sharing the finish with him there was a wonderful, unforgettable experience.
So, as I was thinking about my race schedule for 2022, and I saw a race-sized gap in April in between a couple of shorter races in Feb / Mar and the mighty 400km Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) in May, the attraction of the Northern Traverse Ultra (NT), which follows Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast path across northern England, was obvious. The only question in my mind was whether it would give me enough time to recover before CWU – at 300km in length and almost 9000m in elevation, NT is a formidable multi-day race in its own right, and 6 weeks is not a huge amount of time in between two such long races. But with all the work that I have been doing over the past year on optimising my training and recovery, I decided to give it a go, and so it was that on Friday 1 April, I found myself chugging along the coastal railway from Lancaster to the small Cumbrian village of St Bees, the start of Wainwright’s route.
Having already completed the Summer Spine and Winter Spine Challenger North, the distance and time was not unknown territory for me any more, and I had learned from my previous races, adapting and increasing the intensity of my training to specifically deal with the rigours of a multi-day hill race. However, every race is different and the NT route straddles three National Parks with very different terrain – the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorks Moors – as well as some lengthy road and farm track sections as well. Moreover, with the race taking place in early April, the weather was going to be a source of great uncertainty – we might encounter anything from blazing spring sunshine to sub-zero temperatures, sleet and snow. Unlike the Winter Spine, where you know the conditions are going to be bad, here you could easily get 4 seasons in one day.
The mandatory kit list itself was not that extensive, and after experimenting over the previous few months with various back pack options decided to go with a lighter and more versatile option, comprising the 12 litre Salomon Adv Skin 12 vest and the 6 litre Montane Featherlight waist pack, rather than putting everything into a single pack such as the OMM 15 litre. I found the ease of access of a waist pack, where I could put those things that I might need frequently during the race, combined with the comfort and familiarity of the Salomon vest, was a good combination that had served me well on my preparatory 100k and 50k races in February and March. For hydration, I used a pair of Salomon flasks in the front pockets of the vest, and then for the waist pack rather than using the built-in Montane hard flasks, I had a couple of soft flasks that could fold up when not being used but could be filled when I needed extra fluids for some of the longer stages. As it turned out, this approach worked really well, and is something I’ll now use going forward for other non-winter non-stop races such as the Summer Spine.
In terms of training, I put in place a far more structured approach in the preceding 3 months, with the most important discipline for me being starting to keep a training diary. I set myself targets for weekly mileage, weekly vertical, total average calories burned (an easy one to track), as well as number of hours on feet and equivalent proxies for the volume and intensity of strength and plyometric work that I was doing. By setting myself targets for each of these metrics, I could gradually see my training load increasing over time, along with my capacity to absorb that training load. By the end of March, I reckoned that my overall chronic training load was about 20% higher than it had been at the beginning of the year, which if I managed to taper correctly should mean big improvements in terms of performance. A slight complication in my preparations were some back spasms one week before the race, but if anything this forced me to do a proper taper, comprising a lot of rolling, stretching as well daily heat training sessions (which I have found to be a very low-impact way of maintaining / boosting cardio gains during the latter stage of a training cycle).
I was therefore coming into the race feeling reasonably confident that it would go well, and as opposed to simply finishing the race (which in the past has typically been my immediate priority), I had set myself a number of target times to achieve. At a minimum, I felt that I should be able to finish in less than 72 hours, as that would represent me running at a similar pace to what I had achieved in the Pennines in January, but with a lighter pack, spring conditions and more daylight. As an optimistic stretch target, I thought I might conceivably be able to finish in 60 hours, although this would require a combination of hyper-efficient checkpoint drill, no sleep and the ability to maintain a good pace on the runnable sections throughout the race. Knee and leg strength would be key to the latter. I made up a prompt sheet on waterproof paper with my key checkpoint checklist items and the target timings I would need for each checkpoint (and intermediate milestones) in order to hit 60 and 70 hour race times respectively. That should hopefully reduce the amount of time I spent in checkpoints getting my mind straight and deliberating over decision-making.
After checking into Lulu’s B&B right by St Bees Station and depositing my kit, I made my way up the high street to the Manor Pub / Restaurant for dinner, where I was lucky to meet a couple of other competitors – Kate Farley and Sarah Smith – and we chatted over dinner about the race ahead and more generally about our experiences of other races and how we had prepared for this particular race. Registration started that evening, so by 9pm I had already been through the mandatory kit check, picked up my race numbers and tracker and had my photo taken. All that remained was to get a good night’s sleep.
Start St Bees to CP 1 Rosthwaite (47km)
After waking up at 6am – just over 6 hours sleep so enough to feel that I had ‘banked’ sufficient to get me through the next 60 hours – I packed and repacked all my bags, applied K-tape to my toes, knees and all the other places that needed it, and proceeded down to St Bees School to drop off my 15kg drop bag and 5kg finish bag.
Following the safety briefing, we walked down to the beach at St Bees to follow the tradition of dipping one’s toes in the water of the Irish Sea and taking a pebble to carry all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea. The sky was fairly clear, but there was a slight chill in the air that prompted me to start the race with my hard shell jacket on top of my compression base layer. There were a couple of other runners at the start that I knew from the Winter Spine Challenger North back in January – John Murray and Jonny Ulett – so I took the opportunity to say hello to them and wish them luck on the race; I'd also bumped into Jim Allen, a fellow veteran of the UTMR race in Switzerland (we were both sporting our distinctive UTMR buffs) at the safety briefing, another race I have really happy memories of, even if the 2019 edition I had taken part in had been brought to a sudden end by heavy blizzards sweeping the course. None of us had done the course before so there was the usual mix of excitement and trepidation before the start. I had decided to take it really easy for the first few km and slowly ease myself into the race – on a long race like this you have plenty of opportunity to make up time later and I find that it takes my legs an hour or so to get fully warmed up such that I can run efficiently and with minimum effort.
The countdown started and at 10:30am we were underway. I pressed the start button on my GPS watch and already started to look forward to the regular buzzes as it notified me as each km passed by. With 140 starters and a narrow path, I stayed near the back and watched as the snake of runners in front of me gradually began to stretch out. The path north along the coast from St Bees is really picturesque, with cliffs, coves, the occasional lighthouse and the Irish Sea stretching into the distance on your left-hand side. I took the opportunity to enjoy the scenery, knowing that this would be the most relaxed and easy part of the whole race. Even at this relatively slow pace, the ups and downs of the coastal path meant that I soon warmed up, and after 30 minutes or so I decided that the weather would if anything only be getting warmer as the day went on, so took my outer jacket off and ran just in my compression base layer.
Before long, the path turned inland (we would not see the sea again for more than 2 days) and I fell into a small group of five runners – Jonathan Burnhams, Jackie Stretton, Sophie Littlefair and Greg Crowley – who were all running at a similar comfortable pace, comfortable enough for us to chat about the various races we had done or were planning to do. I found out that Jonathan and I had already chatted with each other on the FB group for the Cape Wrath Ultra, which we are both doing next month. I think we were all a bit intimidated by Jackie’s 2h47m marathon PB and her sub-10% body fat percentage! The diversion around Cleator Moor meant that the course stayed largely on flat roads and well-defined tracks, something that is a feature of large parts of the Coast-to-Coast route (more so than the Pennine Way), which in turn meant that were knocking out 7-8 min kilometres and making rapid headway. As the path rose towards Nannycatch Gate and then turned downhill towards Ennerdale, I decided to pick up the pace a little bit and get some practice running hard on the downhill sections, something I was hoping to do across the whole race. It was not long before I was passing through the village of Ennerdale Bridge, and then the woods that led down to the lake of Ennerdale Water itself. I glanced at my watch – 3 hours elapsed, 26km completed, so an average pace of over 8km/h. This was a good pace, particularly as I felt strong and relaxed and was breathing very easily without any signs of tightness in my ankles, knees or back at all, which was a good sign.
Ennerdale Water itself is a beautiful sight, with the path staying close to the lake’s edge but wandering up and down, the ground rocky enough to be interesting without ever getting so technical that it was overly hard work. By now I was passing quite a few of the Lakes Traverse runners, and there were also a lot of day trippers out enjoying the sunshine and exquisite views that Ennerdale offers.
It was less than 40 minutes before I came to the end of the lake, and the long, broad track that leads up to Black Sail Hut and the steep climb over to Honister and the first checkpoint at Rosthwaite. The track is flat enough, but has an undulating gentle upward slope to it, so I decided to power hike the upward parts, running the occasional flat or downward sections, while at the same time enjoying the tremendous views of the surrounding fells – the sharp spike of Pillar Rock, Pillar itself, Steeple, as well as the huge dome of Great Gable directly ahead. After about an hour I reached the (closed) Black Sail Youth Hostel building, where a small group of Lakes Traversers had stopped. I popped into the toilets to refill my water bottles and pushed on to the steep climb up towards Grey Knotts and the Honister Pass.
It was steep! I had done a lot of vertical work in my training – over 3,000m a week on treadmill, Stairmaster and trails – but still I found it hard going, and my lungs were doing overtime as I made my way up the slope. There were a lot of people in front of me, a mixture of Lakes and Northern Traversers, and I could see there were a few people slowly gaining on me from behind. It wasn’t long though before the slope flattened out and we made our way across a small grassy plateau towards the long descent down to Honister and Rosthwaite. Although my experience of hiking, scrambling and mountaineering means that I’m pretty confident on technical terrain, in the past I have found that leg fatigue quickly becomes a limiting factor on how quickly I can descend, so I was really eager to test out my leg strength on the descents following all the downhill, strength and plyometric training that I had been doing over the last 6 months. I wanted to see if I had further built on the improvements that I had noticed on the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Ultra last October and the Winter Spine Challenger North in January. I was really positively surprised with what I found – the technical path felt much easier to negotiate than I was expecting and I could feel the strength and stability in my knees and hips as I hopped from rock to rock. I pushed my pace even higher, taking advantage of the help from gravity and just using my muscles to control the pace – sort of like “controlled falling” or “skiing with my feet”. Of course, I hoped that this would not wreck my legs for later in the race, but at some point you have to trust the training that you have done and hope that it has prepared you for the impact you are imposing on your muscles and joints.
My Garmin was now ticking off the kms with regularity, at a pace that was consistently over 8km / h, very fast by my standards for trail running with a pack, particularly given the technical nature of the terrain. I must have overtaken 5 or 6 people on the descent, flew through Honister less than 30 minutes into the descent, and 40 minutes later was approaching the Rosthwaite checkpoint at the bottom of the valley alongside Nick Keen and Mark Lattanzi, unfortunately not without taking a wrong turn on the way and having to backtrack a couple of hundred metres.
CP 1 Rosthwaite to CP 2 Patterdale (71km)
The Rosthwaite checkpoint was bustling as I arrived, with several strong runners still there, which gave me plenty of encouragement that my pace was not only good compared to my plan but was also not too far behind what some of the 60-hour runners were managing. I’d resolved to spend no longer than 30 minutes in Rosthwaite, so gave myself just enough time to have some soup, rehydrate myself with orange squash, refill my bottles using a couple of my Tailwind sachets, and head out again, pausing for a brief stretch of quads, calves and hip flexors. It was just after 5pm, and I was well ahead of my 60 hour schedule.
The next stage comprised two large climbs and descents – over Greenup Edge and down to Grasmere, and then back up to Grizedale Hause Gap and down the Grizedale Valley to Patterdale. I was hoping that I would be able to continue to really hammer the downhill sections while not losing too much time on the uphills. In contrast to the steep climb up from Black Sail Hut, the Greenup Edge climb was longer and slightly gentler, but still hard work. I found myself behind a few people that I recognised – Jonathan Burnhams from earlier on and Jenny Yeo with her distinctive red rucksack were both a few hundred metres in front of me and provided me with a visual cue for me to follow. As the slope steepened, I then found myself being passed by Anna Troup (2021 Women’s Summer Spine winner) and Richard Staite, who flew past me at what seemed almost double my speed. It wasn’t long before Jackie and Sophie from earlier on had also caught up with me, right at the top of Greenup Edge. On the downhill stretch towards Grasmere I was again able to stretch my pace, recatching some of the people who had passed me on the uphill section, and as we passed through Grasmere onto the upward slope towards Grizedale Tarn, I found myself alongside Jonathan again, with Jenny, Jackie and Sophie all approaching from close behind.
Dusk fell and torches were switched on as we climbed up towards the pass and patches of snow started to appear besides the path. As we reached the top, we were greeted by a beautiful and quite moving sight – the Western sky, still glowing from a sun that had just dipped below the horizon, was reflected in the mirror-like stillness of Grizedale Tarn, the silver of the sky and the gold of the sunlit clouds mingling in the water. The trail started to descend again, and I would now have to test my downhill running skills in the dark, trusting that by wearing both a headtorch and a chest torch I would have plenty of illumination to light the way. The approach worked really well, aided by the lack of any mist or rain, and I was able to keep up a strong running pace all the way down the valley to Patterdale, surprising myself by arriving there at 9.30pm, 2 hours ahead of my target 60 hour pace. I had now built up a bit of a buffer for the rest of the race which meant that I could afford to be a little bit more conservative later on, particularly if the terrain or weather proved trickier, or if my own physical and mental state needed more careful management.
CP 2 Patterdale to CP 3 Shap (97km)
Patterdale was even more cramped and bustling than Rosthwaite as both Lakes and Northern Traversers were by now quite bunched together, and the checkpoint building itself was not huge. I put down my drop bag and poles, and found a seat at the back where I could quickly refill my bottles, have a bowl of soup, and run through my checklist – swap GPS watches and connect the previous one to the power bank, take on fresh snacks – and think about the clothing options for the coming night stage, particularly as the temperatures were forecast to drop below freezing, and the conditions at the top of Kidsty Pike apparently included a couple of inches of snow. I decided to wear my Montane Thermal zip top, which was midweight between the lighter Dart zipneck and the 300g plus Montane Protium fleece that I had also packed as part of the mandatory kit, and also put on my warmest pair of winter gloves. I was already wearing thermal tights, and given that I would be moving, I figured that I would be generating enough body heat to keep me warm without needing to wear the fleece as well, so kept that in my pack along with the extra zipneck in case I stopped at any point and needed additional insulation. I also kept my ice crampons in my waistpack in case the snow up top had refrozen into ice and would prove slippery.
I set out again at just after 10pm, keeping as close as possible to my half-hour budget for the first few checkpoints, and soon began the slow climb up towards the highest point of the race, the summit plateau of Kidsty Pike. The temperature had by now dropped substantially, although while it was definitely below freezing, the air was still and so it didn’t feel particularly cold. The climb itself is about 7km long with about 650m of vertical, with flattish sections in between more sustained climbing, which made the climb seem to take forever, as the darkness made it hard to gauge progress and every flat section raised hopes that we had reached the summit only for them to be dashed as the sloped increased again.
We passed a couple of small tarns, and snow became more prevalent as we climbed higher. By now a group of around 5 of us had formed, including some familiar faces from earlier in the race – Jackie and Sophie as well as Karen Nash (women’s winner in 2018) and Nicholas Rhys. Jonathan and Jenny had passed me earlier on the ascent and were a short distance ahead. As the snow thickened further to about 2-3 inches of depth, the ground flattened out and we reached the summit plateau shortly after midnight. Over 2 hours to cover 7km was slow going, but it was uphill and I still had plenty of time in the bank.
The descent to Haweswater was really hard work. Although thankfully there was no ice, so no need to wear crampons, the ground was steep, hard, and covered in grassy clumps, and with it being dark you had to be careful to avoid falling over while also putting a big load on your knees and joints with every step. I was certainly the slowest in our small group at negotiating this descent, and it was a big contrast to the previous downhills that I had been able to run at a fast pace.
Eventually we reached the small stream of Randale Beck and the footbridge that took us over it on to the path that followed the northern shore of Haweswater and out of the Lake District towards Shap. I breathed a sigh of relief as the largest climbs of the whole race were now out of the way, and, judging by the map, this coastal path would be a little like the path around Ennerdale, a flat and a pleasant rest after the rigours of the past few hours. I could not have been more wrong! Although it looks flat on paper, in practice the Haweswater path is horribly undulating and filled with tricky rocky sections, muddy parts and points where the path narrows and winds unpredictably. It was impossible to get into any kind of rhythm at all. At no point was I actually able to see the lake itself, except near the horizon in the reflection of lights on the far shore. My pace dropped in line with my spirits. I found myself stopping a couple of times to check on my watch exactly how far along the lake shore I had progressed, only to be disappointed each time with my snail-like progress. It took me eventually 1hr 20min to cover the 6km of the northern shore, a pace of only 4.5km/h, pitifully slow for what I was expecting to be a flat section. Those 80 minutes were definitely one of the low points of the whole race, made worse by the fact that I’d lost touch with the group in front of me and so felt in my own mind that I was the only one finding it hard, and that maybe my condition and form was not as strong as it had felt earlier in the race. By now it was 2.30am and while I was still within my 60 hour plan, I was pretty sure that I had used up a fair amount of the buffer that I had built up earlier.
It was with great relief when I saw on the map on my Garmin that I had reached the end of the lake, and almost immediately the ground became much easier – the path broadening out and the terrain genuinely flat this time. There were plenty of farm gates and stiles to negotiate, and it was still dark, but by jogging those sections that were runnable, my average pace lifted marginally to just over 5km/h and it did not feel like long at all before I was passing the signs for Shap Abbey and approaching the village of Shap itself. I jogged down the main road and finally came to the Ourea Events Northern and Lake Traverse banners outside the school that heralded the Shap checkpoint and the end of this stage.
CP 3 Shap to CP 4 Kirkby Stephen (130km)
Considering that Shap was the finish point of the Lakes Traverse race, the checkpoint was remarkably quiet. Jackie, Sophie, Karen and Nick Rhys were all still there when I arrived but there were only a couple of Lakes Traverse finishers arriving in the half hour or so that I stayed. I was still roughly an hour ahead of my schedule, but with the buffer having shrunk from 2 hours at Patterdale, I was keen to make sure that my pace did not slip any further, so kept tight control of my checkpoint discipline, which was somewhat easier as Shap was one of the checkpoints where we did not have access to our drop bags. So I took a couple of bowls of soup, refilled my flasks, again with Tailwind sachets, and had some salty popchips along with some orange squash to give my diet a little bit of a change from the relentless supply of Haribos, jelly babies and chocolate that I had been consuming for the past 18 hours.
It was still dark when I left, but I could occasionally see in the distance the headtorches of the small group in front of me. In my minds eye, I had pictured this stage as being one of the “easier” ones after the hills of the Lakes, with largely undulating farmland before the hills of the Yorkshire Dales started properly after the next checkpoint at Kirkby Stephen. As before, lack of on-the-ground experience recce-ing the terrain caused my expectations to be quite mismatched with the reality. Although there were not any big hills, the path wound across open moorland far more than sheltered farmland, and while the distinction may not seem particularly great, in the dark and the cold there is something particularly bleak, depressing and disorienting about making your way across featureless moorland, with no obvious features for your headtorch to pick out. The temperature had also started to drop again, and I started to feel the cold more keenly than ever before on the race. Despite wearing my winter thermal gloves, my hands felt painfully cold. More worryingly, I started to feel extremely tired and sleepy. My eyelids kept dropping, and I frequently found myself momentarily losing my balance and staggering to one side. All I wanted was to sit down and close my eyes, but I knew that if I did that I would fall asleep where I sat, which in this cold could be quite dangerous, over and above the impact that it would have on my race time. I simply had to keep going.
I forced myself to keep walking forwards, although my pace slowed significantly, and tried to use chocolate, jelly babies and fluids to boost my energy levels. As the darkness faded and dawn approached, I hoped that light would bring relief from these symptoms of what seemed to be severe sleep deprivation. I couldn’t understand why after less than 24 hours of racing I was having them as it is usually not until the second night and more than 36 hours of time awake that I start to experience the first signs of sleep deprivation – hallucinations, heavy eyelids and loss of balance and coordination – and these are always worse in the hours of darkness than they are in the light. However, sunrise did not appear to bring any relief. My hands continued to feel painfully cold, I could not seem to generate any energy in my legs or body, and I kept on tottering along the path, still struggling to keep my eyes open. It was at this point that I started to seriously consider whether I would be able to continue in the race; I really doubted whether I would be able to reach Kirkby Stephen in my current condition and started to think about whether this might be the occasion for using the SOS button on my GPS tracker.
Somehow I managed to put these thoughts to one side and carry on, until at around 7.30am, another runner, Adam Close, caught up with me and we exchanged a few words. I told him that I was struggling a bit, and then tried to tag along behind him, hoping that having someone else to follow would at least give me a focus for my efforts and would help me get to the next checkpoint. Almost miraculously, within half an hour the temperature started to lift again, my hands warmed up and I was able to even take my gloves off. One less problem to worry about. The moorland gave way to mixed farmland and on arriving at a road we were greeted by Adam’s brother who had been tracking him and had come to give him moral support. This also lifted my spirits. He mentioned that quite a few of the leading runners had retired, something that surprised me a lot but which at the same time reassured me that my own struggles were not solely down to my own shortcomings and that other runners, far stronger ones than me, had also faced some struggles as well.
As the warmth of the sun finally started to spread throughout my body, I was able to take off some layers and at the same time the fatigue and sleepiness also seemed to lift as well, and I was able to run the flat and downhill sections again, picking up speed from Sunbiggin onwards as the quality of the track even on the moorland seemed to improve, and I finally sloped into Kirkby Stephen at 11am. I had pretty much exhausted the 2 hour buffer I had built up, but was still on target for a 60hr race time as long as I could continue for the whole race without any sleep breaks, but the tiredness and sleep deprivation problems I had experienced earlier that morning had introduced a lot of uncertainty into my mind as to whether that would now be a viable strategy. Would I able to manage a second night out without sleep, or would that be a risk too far? At the same time, I was also very grateful for getting these past two stages out of the way and was looking forward to what I hoped would be an easier next stage across the Yorkshire Dales to Richmond. At any rate, it was a stage that would see me passing the half-way point of the course, as well as seeing familiar territory in the form of the Pennine Way, which I knew well from my Spine Race adventures, and which crosses the Coast-to-Coast Path at Keld. Races always somehow feel easier once you have passed the halfway mark.
CP 4 Kirkby Stephen to CP 5 Richmond (185km)
With the Kirkby Stephen checkpoint giving us access again to our drop bags, I took the opportunity to change socks and have a look at my feet. Although I didn’t have any major blisters as yet, a result of my decision to use waterproof socks from the start of the race was that the retained sweat had led to them become quite macerated, and I could feel a couple of hotspots developing under the arch behind my toes and on the side of one of the heels. Luckily I had some Moleskin dressings (think of it as furry K-tape) in my medicine bag, so I applied a couple of strips of these, covered them with K-tape to hold them in place, and then put on a fresh pair of waterproof socks, which I figured I would certainly need for the next stage given the notoriously boggy ground of Nine Standards Rigg. I’d also started to feel the first signs of chafing between my thighs and bum cheeks, so applied some Vaseline in the appropriate places, and put both a small jar in my waist pack as well as a tube of Lanacaine, just in case I needed any later on for some emergency chafing relief!
Sitting besides me in the checkpoint was Pavel Paloncy, a two-time Spine Race winner and one of the front-runners here until he had withdrawn. I also heard that Anna Troup, who had passed me earlier on, had withdrawn at the Shap checkpoint. It just shows how challenging these races can be, even for top-calibre experienced athletes such as these.
With my mood having been lifted by a couple of bowls of soup, some caffeine in the form of Coke, and more Popchips, I packed up my drop bag and set off at 12.30pm, hoping to arrive at Richmond by 10.30pm which would keep me roughly on my target of 60 hours. I’d stayed probably a little bit longer in the checkpoint than I originally anticipated, but fresh socks, a visit to the bathroom and some stretching again of my key tight spots were worthwhile investments in making the next stage more pleasant and hopefully more productive.
The climb out of Kirkby Stephen to the top of Nine Standards Rigg starts almost as soon as you have left the checkpoint, and as the slope slowly steepened, some of the strength that had appeared to elude me earlier in the race felt like it was returning. It was not long before I could spot the distinctive nine stone cairns on the horizon, and while there were a number of false summits, I soon found myself approaching the flat summit plateau. There were several other day trippers up there, some of them struggling in the muddy bogs that were increasingly prevalent on the approaches, and as I made my way to the cairns themselves, I spied the official photographer from No Limits Photography who kindly took some photos of me running alongside the Rigg (one of which made it into the Event Director’s Official Report!). The views from the top were truly spectacular, with clear blue skies and a 360-degree vista of the Dales – conditions much better than those confronted later on by the runners further back who faced heavy rain, wind storms and poor visibility during Sunday night.
I turned south from the summit following a barely-distinct path that led across the wild, boggy moorland towards Swale Dale, and the next two villages on the route, Keld and Reeth. I wasn’t feeling any aftereffects from my struggles with fatigue before dawn, and began to wonder whether it was just the lack of caffeine that had been the problem – maybe I needed to make sure from now on that I drank a couple of cups of coffee at each checkpoint, as well as an emergency ProPlus tablet if I ever started to feel sleepy on the trail itself. It was not long before I was surrounded by the greenery of Swale Dale and could see the River Swale itself down and to the right of the trail. Up ahead I could see the narrow valley that led towards the Tan Hill Inn and for the briefest moment I stopped at the signpost that read “Pennine Way”, reflecting on the fact that I was standing on this very spot in the Winter Spine Challenger North race 3 months earlier, and the Summer Spine Race 6 months before that as well; I certainly felt a lot fitter and stronger now than I was on either of those two previous races, and that gave me a lot of encouragement for the rest of the race. After all, I was now at the official halfway point by distance, and over halfway if one took into account elevation gain as well. 29 hours had passed, and while I was now ever so slightly behind my 60 hour plan, at the same time I felt more confident in my own abilities and was sure that I could make up some time in the second half of the race if I pushed myself.
The route from Keld to Reeth is completely different to anything else you encounter on the Coast-to-Coast path, as the trail passes through old lead mining country, with a couple of steep climbs and plenty of scree and rocky slopes, followed by long sloping descents along the disused mine roads. Although the ascents were hard work, they were fun, technical challenges that felt more like rock scrambling than trail running; equally, the descents were extremely runnable, and I found myself upping my pace considerably to see how fast I could run. For the first time in what felt like hours I started to catch up with some other runners again, first Jamie Hardman on the way into Keld and then Nick Rhys and Nick Keen on the descent towards Reeth. Shortly after Reeth, I caught up again with the earlier group I was with – Jonathan, Jackie, Sophie and Karen – and decided that rather than pressing on quickly towards Richmond, I would nurse my energy a little bit and stay with the group for a chat and some company. Ultra runners are a relatively small community and you’re likely to meet the same runners again at other races, so one of the joys is getting to know people and spending time talking to them during the long periods that you spend together on the trail or in checkpoints – particularly during long, multi-races such as this one.
The 15km from Marrick Priory to Richmond seemed to tick by painfully slowly. It was beginning to get dark when I caught up with the group, and soon our head torches went on, and we made our way across farmland and roads towards the outskirts of Richmond. Light rain began to fall, and as the number of road sections increased, I pushed ahead into a run in order to try and get to the checkpoint more quickly and get out of the rain. I had slightly naively assumed that the path would go through the town centre, but it skirted around the edge of Richmond, then crossed the river and appeared to pass between some derelict outbuildings before eventually reaching a side road that led up to the rugby club and the fifth checkpoint. By now the wind had really picked up and the weather was beginning to considerably worsen. It was 10.20pm and I’d arrived 10 mins ahead of schedule, encouraging as it meant that I had arrested the gradual slippage in my pace from earlier in the day.
CP 5 Richmond to CP 6 Lion Inn (254km)
There were half a dozen people in the checkpoint when I arrived, soon to be augmented by the rest of our small group as they trickled in over the course of the next 15 minutes or so. We had all been discussing whether or not to take a sleep break at Richmond before the final two sections and 110km stretch across the Vale of York and North Yorks Moors to the finish. The general consensus was that it was better to get a couple of hours sleep at Richmond, get some fresh energy back and reduce the risk of mentally and physically falling apart due to lack of sleep. I was in two minds – my race plan for 60 hours was to go without sleep, my experience from January was that I should be able to manage it without too many problems, and I felt very fresh as I arrived in Richmond; at the same time, I remembered my struggles in the morning, so knew that I would be taking a risk if I headed out now. It was a finely-balanced decision, but I eventually decided not to sleep but just take a short break, changing socks again, fuelling up properly, having a good stretch and then press on through the night, taking advantage of what was an extremely flat 35km of terrain between here and the Moors, with large parts of it on roads and the rest across non-technical farmland. I figured that with a head torch and chest torch, I would still be able to move quickly across such easy ground, and with the Shell service station on the A19 in Ingleby Arncliffe at the halfway point of the stage, I would be able to refuel again there before tackling the hills and more challenging terrain to come.
As the others curled up on various parts of the floor to get to sleep, I once again went through my checkpoint drill, refilling flasks, changing leggings from full-length thermals to 3/4 length compression leggings, taking on several bowls of soup and mugs of coke, and doing my hip, quad and calf stretches. Although the wind had by now really increased in strength, picking up and depositing one of the outside tents in a neighbouring house, it was coming from the West so gave me a comforting tailwind. The temperature had also noticeably increased, and it wasn’t long after leaving the checkpoint just after midnight that I was able to take my gloves and hat off and run with just my base layer and an unzipped hard shell.
My legs were still feeling remarkably strong, pain-free and without any tightness, so I found myself running almost all of the time between the various periodic obstacles – stiles, gates, footbridges etc. – that we had to negotiate. My watch vibrated with great regularity as the kms were ticked off, and I could see that I was managing roughly 7km/h pace – which would do wonders for my time if I could maintain this for the next few hours until the A19. By not sleeping at the checkpoint, I had managed to gain several places and left Richmond in 18th place, but soon found myself passing a couple of other runners – Jonathan (again) and Matt Neale – to move into 16th place, although there was then a 9km gap to the 15th place runner, Jenny Yeo. I checked my watch when 3 hours had elapsed and the distance was showing 22km covered – I was maintaining my 7km/h pace and finding that I could quite easily maintain a 75/25 run/walk mix on what were very runnable roads and tracks.
Not every good thing lasts forever though, and it was while negotiating a farm gate that I managed to catch the heavy metal latch on one of my fingers, which both hurt immensely and caused it to start bleeding profusely. With my first aid kit in the drop bag that was now on its way to the next checkpoint at the Lion Inn, I had to think of something that could stem the bleeding – luckily I had a couple of hair ties around my poles that I usually used to tie the poles together when they were not being used, as well as a short piece of K-tape above my knees. With the hair tie as a tourniquet, the K-tape as a makeshift plaster, and swallowing a co-codamol to dull the pain, I was able to stem the bleeding sufficiently to resume my progress. Just over 5 hours after leaving Richmond, the moving headlights of the traffic on the A19 came into view and at around 5.30am the fluorescent Shell sign appeared to the left of the trail. Thankfully, the convenience store in the service station was open, and I dashed in to get a couple of bottles of orange squash, one of which I used to refill a water flask, and a canned coffee to both rehydrate myself and give me some fresh energy for the next and more challenging part of this long stage.
As I walked back out across the forecourt, Matt Neale trudged in to take his pit stop, and I exchanged pleasantries with him before making my way towards the dual carriageway, which I was able to cross after a couple of minutes of judicious waiting for gaps in the traffic. Although it was still dark, a faint glow was now discernible on the horizon and I quietly breathed a sigh of relief that I had gotten through the night without any major sleep deprivation problems, and that if all went well I would not have to face any more nights in the open before the end of the race.
The climb up to the escarpment of the Cleveland Hills, the northwestern edge of the Moors, commences almost immediately after the A19, and it was not long before the light had improved sufficiently for me to switch off my head and chest torches, another psychological milestone that I could tick off. As the path runs along the crest, every few kilometres it plunges into one of the periodic valleys that cut into the escarpment, resulting in a number of steep, staircase-like descents via rocky steps followed shortly afterwards by an equally steep ascent back up again – exhausting and somewhat demoralising work, particularly as the wind at the top of the escarpment was extremely strong and no longer blowing from behind but appeared to have changed directions and was coming in from the north as a cross-wind. Its gusts were so strong that it threatened to blow you off your feet, and made forward progress increasingly hard. It had also started to rain, and the rain seemed to be accumulating to form a steady stream in the channel of the path itself – I was now regretting changing from waterproof to regular socks at the last checkpoint. After a couple of hours of fitful progress I stopped for a drink and a bite to eat, and had a quick look at the open tracking on my phone to see where I stood relative to the other competitors. It looked as though I had a established a 3km gap ahead of Matt Neale behind me, and was in turn about 2km behind Dave Beales and Jenny Yeo ahead of me. This gave me some reassurance that I was not alone in finding my progress slowed, and that I both had a bit of a gap now behind me and was gaining ground on those in front. Suitably encouraged, I redoubled my efforts to get through the challenging terrain, knowing that before too long the path would turn south along flatter moorland tracks towards the next checkpoint at the Lion Inn.
After negotiating the rocky outcrops of the Wainstones and one more down-and-up section, the path finally turned to the right, broadening and flattening out, with the added benefit that the wind was now behind me. I broke into a faster run, surprising myself with the pace that I was still able to maintain after almost 150 miles. There was about 13km to go until the next checkpoint, and it was just before 10am. I should be able to make it there by 12.30pm at the very latest, which would see me back ahead of schedule again, but given that I felt good and the ground was easy, I wanted to push it as hard as I possibly could. I tried to keep to a 75/25 run/walk mix as much as possible, and as the kms ticked by saw that my pace had picked up to around 6-7 km/h. Before long I caught up and overtook Dave Beales, and then tried to keep the same pace going right up to the checkpoint if possible. After about 90 minutes, the track rounded the bulge of High Blakey Moor, and on the opposite side of another long bend the silhouette of the Lion Inn was visible on the horizon, jutting up above the long outstretched finger of Blakey Ridge. With the wind now a crosswind again, and seemingly increasing in strength, my pace slowed, but it was at 11:50am that I made my way through the car park of the Lion Inn to the large tent and portaloos that made up Checkpoint 6 – an hour now ahead of schedule. Those efforts to maximise my pace on the flat, well-tracked sections had really paid off. I just had to make sure now that I had enough in the tank to get through the remaining 46km in 10 hours or less.
CP 6 Lion Inn to Finish Robin Hood’s Bay (300km)
The Lion Inn checkpoint was a desperate place! Gale force winds constantly buffeted the tent, with the sense that at any moment it might spontaneously take flight across the moors. With no indoor facilities, and limited refreshment options available, I decided to spend the bare minimum amount of time possible at the checkpoint before pressing on. Jenny was already in the checkpoint when I came in, and seemed to have very similar thoughts as she left shortly after I arrived. I followed my usual drill, accessing my drop bag once more to change my socks (back into waterproof socks, for which I was subsequently very grateful) and also stow away any additional kit that I would no longer need to carry with me. Into the drop bag went my spare power bank that had served so well in keeping my Garmin watches continuously powered, my chest torch (with only a couple of hours at most of darkness to negotiate, I figured that a head torch and spare battery would suffice) and one of my extra mid-layers. My packs felt curiously light when I put them on again and got ready to set off on the final stage.
With only 46km to go, and no hills that bore comparison to the terrain already covered in the race, I had imagined that this would be one of the easier stages, notwithstanding the cumulative fatigue that had built up. It certainly started out that way, with an easy couple of kms hike along the road before turning right onto another moors section. Unlike the escarpment, which although flooded had well-defined paths that were paved in many places, these moors were largely trackless and boggy, conditions very reminiscent of the northern sections of the Pennine Way, and so my progress was slowed as I picked my way through the marshy ground, closely following the GPS trail on my watch and keeping an eye out for any sign of where the ‘true’ path might be. As Danby High Moor gave way to Glaisdale Moor the ground started to descend slightly, which made progress quicker, and the bogs were interspersed with harder, stony ground where it was possible to run for short stretches. As I descended into the Esk Valley and the village of Glaisdale, it was possible to glimpse the North Sea in the distance, although it looked a lot closer than it was as there was still 30km left to run! Coming into Glaisdale, I caught up again with Jenny – astonishing really that we had first passed each other more than 200km earlier in the Lake District and were still matching each other for pace. We unconsciously paired up for the next few miles as we walked through first Glaisdale, then a seemingly endless wooded section at the bottom of the valley, and then the villages of Egton Bridge and Grosmont. They were all extremely picturesque, especially with the Esk Valley railway line and its picture-postcard railway stations. The main challenge was dealing with a recurrence of the symptoms of sleep deprivation, which seemed to be accentuated by the presence of trees (particularly dead trees) by the sides of the road. In my own mind, I imagined that there were groups of teenagers, small children and pet dogs gathering by the sides of the road, only to find out that these were simply the twisted shapes of bushes and trees. At one point, I was about to engage in conversation with what I thought was a group of local bystanders but managed to stop myself before I initiated conversation with a cluster of hawthorn trees.
As it leaves Grosmont, the road heads up a long, steep hill to the top of Sleight’s Moor. At this point I started to pull away from Jenny – although early in the race I had not had a lot of pace on the uphill sections, I still felt as strong as I had felt at the beginning so was able to maintain a reasonable uphill pace even this far into the race, while doing my best to ignore the ongoing visual tricks that my mind was playing on me. After resuming jogging on some more easy downhill sections, the path re-entered another seemingly endless wood at the bottom of the valley, with yet more weird and wonderful hallucinations to experience. I must have counted hundreds of imaginary dogs sniffing among the trees.
By the time I emerged from the woods it had just passed 6pm, and with 15km remaining I would only need to maintain a pace of less than 4km/h to beat my 60hr target. My spirits began to lift, but it was only after negotiating one final, extremely boggy moors section that I started to relax and believe that I was almost home and dry. As I left the moors behind and entered the village of Hawsker, I stopped to have a look at the open tracking on my phone – Jenny was over 1km behind me, but only 1km in front of me was Billy Reed in 12th place, and 1km in front of him was Graham Dawson in 11th. There was still 7km left to go, so while it was unlikely that I would be able to catch either of them, I decided I would give it a go.
I ran all the roaded sections as fast as I could – flat, downhill, uphill, it didn’t matter – pausing to walk only when I needed to gather my breath. The strength remaining in my legs continued to surprise me, and as darkness came down, I kept on expecting to spot a headlamp or red rear light in the distance that I could latch on to and pursue. However, sign of a headlamp never arrived, and as I passed through Northcliffe Holiday Park and the coastal path that led to the finish line, it started to rain, more heavily this time, and visibility with a headtorch shrank to no more than 10 or 20 metres. As the asphalt turned to mud, I found myself slipping and sliding, ending up on my back at the very first turning, and with the visibility so poor and a cliff on my left hand side, I decided that self-preservation was a higher priority than gaining any places, and so took my foot off the gas, sticking to a fast-ish hiking pace as I made my way carefully along the cliffside path. Occasionally I thought I caught a glimpse of a headtorch ahead of me, but it was hard to tell in the rain – it was only afterwards when I looked at the GPS tracks that I discovered I was only 400 metres or so behind Billy, but it was going to be too late to make up the ground now.
As the path descended into the village of Robin Hood’s Bay, the rain worsened, but I was greeted by an unexpected and really delightful sight. John Murray, who I had run the Spine Challenger North with back in January (finishing less than hour behind him) had retired from the race at Patterdale, but had been watching my dot on the screens in the school hall and made his way out to greet me and accompany me down the steep slopes towards the finish line by the sea. It was a wonderfully kind, touching gesture, and one that I hope to be able to reciprocate some day. And so we walked down the streets of Robin Hood’s Bay together to the finish line, where we stopped for some photos before heading back up to the school hall, where I was also delighted to find some of the other earlier finishers including Eoin Keith and Elaine Bisson.
My time? 58 hours 36 minutes, 13th place overall and 11th in the men’s race, a time that I was absolutely delighted with, especially as it had not at all been an easy race, and I had been forced to struggle through a few dark moments, as well as maxing out on effort and speed during those sections where things were going well.
A huge thank you to the organisers, who did a superb job at taking on the race from Open Adventures and delivering a superb overall experience, to the volunteers who coped admirably at all the checkpoints with the unpredictable influx of tired and weary runners, each with different needs and priorities, and to the other athletes, as it is the companionship and camaraderie that is forged by going on these adventures together that is such a large part of the enjoyment and attraction of ultra running. I can’t wait for the next adventure!
As a side note, this was my 15th Ultra and Number 7 of the races in my 1,000 mile challenge to run 1,000 miles in ultra races within 12 months to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity (see the below link to donate), with every £1 donated also being matched with a £1 donation to the Ukraine Emergency Appeal. £1,399 has already been donated, so I'm hoping now that we can get to £2,000 by the end of June. This race brought up 601 miles, so over 60% of the way there - with the 250 mile Cape Wrath Ultra next month and then the 268 mile Summer Spine in June the next two months are going to be hard work!
Salomon Adv Skin 12
Montane Featherlight (waist)
Shoes: Hoka Speedgoat 4 wide (Size 11)
Waterproofs: Montane Spine Jacket (Top), Inov8 Ultrashell (Bottom)
Non-waterproof: 1000 mile compression socks
Waterproof: Otter, 360Dry
Shorts: Montane Via Full-Length tights, 2XU 3/4 compression shorts
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck, Montane Thermal ZipNeck, Montane Protium Fleece
Underwear: Runderwear long boxer shorts
Fingerless gloves: COOLOO Cycling Gloves
Thin thermal gloves: Anquier Winter Touch Screen Running Gloves
Waterproof thermal gloves: LERWAY Winter Warm Gloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, Multiple buffs
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 (+ sp
Headtorch / Chest torch: LEDLenser Neo 10 x 2