Winter is Coming
2022 Montane Cheviot Goat: 3 December 2022
A happy Goat at the end of the race
The Cheviot Goat has been described as “deep bodied, with a square frame and broad shoulders and back … a rounded belly and loins that are broad and deep”. Hmmm. Not sure that describes me particularly, but it’s a pretty apt description of the Cheviot Goat Ultra, a single-day ultra across the Cheviot Hills in early December.
With last year’s edition cancelled due to the aftermath of Storm Arwen, and the 2020 edition cancelled due to Covid, this was the first “proper” Cheviot Goat race for 3 years (the race held in March this year for some of the 2021 entrants was not deemed “gnarly” enough to be a full Goat experience). The organisers, Cold Brew Events, had also made the course even tougher than those in previous years, adding about 7km to its length and 400m of vertical to make the overall race a 95km race across the wild, remote fells and bogs of the Cheviots, with around 4,000m of climbing.
They do things differently in the North. No checkpoints every 5km, stocked with foie gras, jacuzzis and massage beds, as us namby-pamby runners from the South East are used to having. Just a couple of aid stations across the whole 95km course, with stale bread and a cup of water if you’re lucky. And don’t even think of mentioning ‘DNF’, unless you’ve lost both legs to gangrene and have been impaled on a trekking pole, in which case you might be fortunate and get a lift back to HQ.
So, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I pulled into Ingram on the Friday night before the race, having caught the train to Newcastle and then rented a car from there to make the drive out to the Cheviots. It was dark. No reflected glow in the night sky from some nearby city or road. No streetlights. The houses there were seemed from the outside to be drawn more from a gothic novel than from a “Tourist Guide to Northumberland”. All that was missing was the Night’s Watch, White Walkers and an undead army.
I decided to first call in at Ingram Village Hall to take advantage of the evening slot for registration, and in no time at all had completed kit check (probably the quickest ever kit check for an ultra), picked up my T-shirt and buff, had my tracker fitted and photo taken. I’d been lucky enough to secure a room at Ingram House, a few minutes’ walk from the start, due to another runner unfortunately having to withdraw at the last minute, so by 8pm I was unpacking my bags and being treated to the wonderful hospitality of Adrian and Jane Levien (https://www.ingram-house.com/) as they had laid on a pasta supper for the guests, all of whom were either running or supporting someone in the Goat. After supper, I tried to complete all my pre-race preparations – backpack, water bottles / snacks, 2 drop bags, pre-cutting K-tape etc – so that all remained was to set my alarm for 4.30am to give me time for breakfast and get back to the village hall in time for the 6am start.
Start to CP 1 Barrowburn (35km)
5½ hours of sleep doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was enough to make me feel well-rested as I walked down towards the start. There was already quite a crowd of people there, not surprising with more than 200 starters, but I quickly found a few familiar faces from previous races – Michael Burke, who’d run a superb race in the Summer Spine earlier this year, overtaking me on the final Cheviots section while I slept in a Mountain Refuge, Peter Storey, the other half of Jenny Yeo with whom I’d shared much of the final section of the Northern Traverse back in April, Jim Allen, with whom I’d also done the Northern Traverse, and Vicky Savage, who’d come 2nd female in the Cape Wrath Ultra. Indeed, there was quite a strong elite presence in the field, with Sabrina Verjee fresh from her record-breaking win at Tor des Geants, Donnie Campbell (record holder for completing all the Munros) and Nicky Spinks who finished 3rd female in this year’s ultra-gnarly Tor des Glaciers, along with a number of other leading fell-runners and ultramarathoners.
With this year’s course being longer, having more vertical and with more challenging terrain than in previous years, it was difficult to set myself a target in terms of overall time. I reckoned 14 hours on the 2019 course would be a reasonable performance given the results I’d had earlier in the year, and the training that I’d been doing under the watchful coaching eye of Marcus Scotney since June. But with an extra 7km distance / 400m vert, more time in the darkness, and more bogs / heath to negotiate, perhaps 15-16hrs would be more reasonable on this year’s course – although the weather would no doubt also be a major consideration.
At 6am sharp, the race was underway and we jogged by headtorch in a giant conga-line under the illuminated Montane hoops onto the course itself. The weather was cool, but not cold, so I’d decided to start the race with just a compression base layer and a hard shell, figuring that I could use my hat, buffs, gloves and sleeves to warm up / cool down as needed. As the first few kms were a steady upward slope, my body soon warmed up, and I took my hat off and rolled up my sleeves to keep the body temperature nice and stable. A fine drizzle was falling which meant I had to keep wiping my glasses periodically as they misted up, something that always seems to be worse in the dark than during the daytime. But the track was good and progress was quite fast at around 8km/h, despite slowing to a power-hike on some of the steeper uphills and dealing with a large number of farm gates. For several kms I found myself behind Sabrina Verjee, and it was interesting to see how quickly she, along with some of the other elite runners, were able to run the descents even in the dark. There was a recent study done analysing the splits of different athletes on UTMB and it concluded that speed on downhills was the single greatest differentiator of overall performance on ultras, and moreover that the difference increased the further into the race, which reinforces my own somewhat anecdotal experience from the races that I have been in.
It wasn’t long before a grey glow appeared on the horizon and by 7.45am it was light enough to see the surrounding hills and take my headtorch off, just as we hit the turning off from Salters’ Road to head towards Kidland Forest. The drizzle had stopped but at the same time the temperature had also dropped and the good quality track had given way to a featureless bog. The field had also spread out somewhat, and I was in a group of 5 of 6 runners who picked our way through the treacherous terrain, our pace reduced to a slow trudge as we tried to avoid sinking waist-deep into one of the many pools that were hidden underneath the spaghnum moss. My hands and fingers started to get numb, and the joints began to ache as the damp cold seeped in – I do get periodic bouts of arthritis in my fingers, putting my gloves on didn’t seem to help much, so I resorted to sticking my fingers in my mouth in an attempt to warm them up and stimulate the blood flow. After a while they began to unstiffen, and I quickly put on both inner gloves and my super-warm Montane waterproof thermal over-gloves to ensure I didn’t have any repeat bouts of pain, which luckily seemed to do the trick as I didn’t have any problems with my fingers for the rest of the race. Around this time, I also realised that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything yet, which was definitely not part of my plan! I had intended to keep a steady flow of carbs and calories by alternating between flapjacks and Bounty bars throughout the race, along with the Mountain Fuel that I’d used in my drinks bottles, but the combination of fast pace and darkness had meant that I’d neglected to stick to this plan for the first couple of hours, so took advantage of this slower section to quickly consume a Bounty bar and start on the first of the flapjacks in an attempt to catch up with my nutrition needs.
First set of bogs
After about 30 minutes we hit the forest, turning sharp left across more bogs towards the top of Wether Cairn, after which the ground became much firmer and it was possible to start running again. The next 4km was wonderful – the sun had by now come out, and we were treated to some gorgeous views of the surrounding hills, whose round, vegetation-free tops bore an uncanny resemblance to a gathering of balding men. The track sloped gently downhill, and I picked up speed as I headed down towards The Dodd and another sharp turn at the River Alwin. The next 13km to the checkpoint at Barrowburn went by surprisingly quickly – 1h40m – which given there were a couple of sharp drops and climbs (around 600m of vertical over 13km) shows just how runnable the trail was on this section. I pulled into Barrowburn at 10.40am feeling strong and happy with how the race was going.
CP 1 Barrowburn to CP 2 High Bleakhope (67km)
I stopped only briefly at Barrowburn, pausing just long enough to refill my water bottles, take on some extra flapjacks and Bounty bars, and take advantage of the last time toilet facilities would be available before the finish. Within 10 minutes I was on my way again, and soon caught up with a Spanish runner, Antonio Codina, who had left the CP just before me. We ran together for an hour or so, chatting about the respective races that we had done. It turned out that we had pretty much done all the races on each other’s bucket lists – Antonio had done Dragon’s Back and this year had finished Tor des Geants – without us ever having raced together until today. Coincidentally we’ve both also entered the 165km Ultra Trail Snowdonia next May, so will no doubt meet up again then particularly as we seem to have quite a similar pace.
After Barrowburn, the route climbs steeply up onto a broad ridge that leads gently upwards towards Windy Gyle and the Pennine Way, which of course I knew very well from the three times I’ve encountered it on the final stage of the Spine Race. The trail continues to be quite good, with the flat and downward parts extremely runnable, and the added bonus of periodic flagstoned sections when you get to the Pennine Way. However, the weather was once again beginning to turn, as the temperature dropped and drizzle turned to sleet. By the time I got to Windy Gyle I’d pulled slightly ahead of Antonio, and as a malevolent deity had pressed the button marked “Scottish Weather”, as soon as I crossed the border into Scotland the sleet turned into a steadily intensifying snow shower. Luckily the track down to Cocklawfoot was easy, and so I just pulled my hood over and pressed on at a good jogging pace. By the time I pulled into the farms around Cocklawfoot, the snow had abated and the skies brightened again.
From Cocklawfoot, there was a small diversion to avoid a (grouse?) shoot that was going on, before hitting the Auchope ridge and the long climb up to rejoin the Pennine Way at the Auchope mountain refuge (aka Hut 2), which for those of us who’ve done the Spine Race before has a lot of resonance is it’s the last landmark (and chance of a cup of tea) before commencing the descent to the finish line in Kirk Yetholm. On the Spine of course you’re descending to Hut 2, so doing it in reverse – up to the summit of The Cheviot – was a new experience for me and one made much more challenging by another snow shower that started as soon as I’d passed the hut and which slowly intensified as I gained altitude. Once on the plateau of The Cheviot itself, the route does an out-and-back across flagstones, so it was a good opportunity to greet some of the runners who were 10-20 minutes ahead of me on the course as they returned from the summit. About 15 or so other runners had passed me by the time I reached the summit cairn itself, and another 10 on the way back, which suggested that the field was still quite compact, even if the terrain made it hard to see that many people in front of or behind you – everyone was running quite gingerly on the flagstones as the snow was continuing to fall and the ground was by now covered in a dusting of white powder with the flagstones getting slightly icy and slippery.
Mountain Rescue support on the way down The Cheviot
As I turned south on the descent, the flagstones ran out after a few hundred metres and the ground soon became gnarly, with bogs alternating with heathery clumps and occasional rocks, with no track or even a trod to speak of, making running extremely difficult despite the easy downhill gradient. It was very demotivating to move so slowly, and a sense of paranoia slowly crept over me that my race was beginning to fall apart. Oddly enough, looking at the splits after the race, this was (relatively-speaking) my fastest split compared to other runners with similar overall times, so it seems as though everyone found this section hard going. The tough ground continued 3km to the crossing at Salter’s Road, where a Mountain Rescue Team advised us to take the right-hand route up towards Bloodybush Edge, as while there was still no trod at all, “the bogs are less freezing on the right hand side”. Bloodybush Edge came and went, and after a sharp left turn the next 3km towards Cushat Law didn’t bring any improvement either. It took me an hour to cover the less than 5km distance from Salter’s Road to the top of Cushat Law.
From the turning point at Cushat Law, the trail gradually improved and a vague trod began to appear as the route gradually descended back towards Salter’s Road and the run down to CP2 at High Bleakhope. The sky was beginning to darken again, and I tried to up my pace so that I could get to the CP without the need for a headtorch when I saw a pair of bright lights coming towards me – just a Mountain Rescue quad bike as it turned out that appeared to be on its way to rescue a stricken runner somewhere behind me on the route. I pressed on, and after turning onto what was quite a stony Salter’s Road descended at a brisk trot towards the CP, passing the world-renowned star of Cheviot Goat recce videos, Lee Bowmaker of Northern Fell Runners, as he limped on with what turned out to be a knee injury that forced him retire at High Bleakhope.
CP 2 High Bleakhope to Ingleborough to Finish (95km)
As I arrived at the checkpoint, there were several runners sitting down on camping chairs eating, drinking and sorting out their kit for the next stage, and I decided that given that the light had pretty much completely faded and the temperature was dropping, now would be a good time to put on an extra mid-layer to avoid the risk of getting cold on what would be more challenging and therefore slower terrain, particularly given that I would be negotiating it in the darkness. I also took advantage of the 20 minute break to down some hot coffee and a handful of chocolate snacks, while again restocking my drinks bottles and my store of snacks.
Sorting kit at High Bleakhope
I had arrived at High Bleakhope just after Craig Wood, and departed just after he had left, so within a few minutes we had kind of unofficially paired up as we trudged up the first climb towards Coldlaw Cairn. While the first part of the climb up the valley was well-tracked, on the upper half of the climb the track completely disappeared and it was a case of just following the GPS traces through yet more bog and clumpy heather. Every time we felt we had found some kind of vague outline of a trod, it disappeared again and there was more undergrowth to traverse. After topping the climb, there was another 3km of boggy scrambling in the dark across featureless moor before the route started climbing again, this time towards Comb Fell. Snow starting falling again, and as we gained height, patches of snow became more widespread until the section between Comb Fell and the final high point of Hedgehope Hill which was covered in the same dusting as the top of The Cheviot. I would see a handful of headtorches ahead of us at various distances, and a few also coming up behind us too, but it felt extremely isolated, notwithstanding the occasional orange glowing tent that we passed, denoting a team of Northumberland MRT volunteers. I cannot praise them highly enough for their dedication and patience in staying out all day and night in such inhospitable terrain – massive kudos and grateful thanks to them.
From Hedgehope to the fire road was only 7km, and largely downhill, but if anything the terrain and navigation here was even harder than before, with forests of clumpy fern and hidden boulders underfoot added to the usual mix of bog and heather, not to mention random pieces of wood and coiled wire seemingly designed to trip you up. As Craig and I puzzled over yet another turning in the GPS tracks that didn’t appear to correspond to any path we could see on the ground, we were caught up by another group of three, including Antonio from earlier in the race. As Antonio had done the race before, lives in Newcastle, and had done some additional recceing of the course, he was our designated navigator from now on and we followed his lead as we grouped together and headed for the fire road that would mark the final 5km of the course.
The race organisers could have made it easy from here. The logical choice would have been to follow the road back to Ingram, a couple of kms of easy, flat jogging. But no, they thought it would be fun to add a horrible, boulder-strewn traverse across the lower slopes of Brough Law, followed by a muddy climb up a 20% gradient to Ewe Hill. The hard, shiny rubber cleats on my X-Talons were great at gripping mud but were useless on wet rock. They skipped on the stones and I slid further behind the other four as I slowed to try and avoid twisting an ankle on this final section. As the stones turned to a muddy climb, I caught up with and passed Craig, who was struggling up the slope with no poles to help get any purchase on the mud. His face bore the marks of an almost-broken man. His face looked how I felt. Eventually the slope flattened out, the heathery clumps gave way to grassy moorland and the route began to descend gently back towards the road. The lights of Ingram appeared, a couple of familiar voices rang out on the left of the road cheering me on – Adrian and Jane from Ingram House were following all of their guests on the tracking website and as a lovely gesture had come out to cheer me home. I finally came through the Montane hoops again to finish in a time of 15 hours 42 minutes, putting me in 48th place out of 236 starters. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel physically too tired, but it was one of those races that was perhaps more mentally than physically draining, with the constant need for concentration when crossing difficult ground and the general disorientation that comes from running / walking in the darkness.
Overall, I was quite happy with how the race went. On the positive side, I was pretty much right in the middle of the target range that I had set myself, and when I looked at the results of those runners who had done both the 2019 and 2022 editions, it did bear out my estimate that the 2022 race would take roughly 1.5 - 2.5 hours longer than that of 2019. The kit choices worked well, my pacing was solid, even if I was left with the feeling that I could have pushed harder on the final section if I’d felt really motivated and mentally up to doing so. The two areas where I felt I was under-par were the uphills, which felt slower and more laboured than they should given my increased speed and stamina on the flats and downhills, and nutrition, which in retrospect I mishandled quitter badly, eating not enough and too late. I think I was lucky to get away with it, as the slowing pace during the race meant that I ended up burning less carbs and more fat as the race went on, but I certainly didn’t stick to my original nutrition plan in terms of frequency and amount of carbs to ingest, and that may have exacerbated some of the mental fatigue that I felt later in the race. A big positive of course was spending over 15 hours, much of it in darkness, on a wild and remote course with lots of challenging terrain and weather – it’s great preparation for next month’s Spine Race and I’ll now be turning all my training attention towards that.
Huge thanks go to the race organisers, Cold Brew Events, to the volunteers and Mountain Rescue Teams who braved extremely challenging conditions with the weather and terrain to support the runners both on the course and at checkpoints, and to the intrepid duo of Lee and Graeme from Northern Fell Running, whose Recce videos of the Goat course must surely now have legendary status.
Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 + Montane Featherlite 6 waistpack
Shoes: Inov8 X-Talon 260 Ultra
Waterproofs: Montane Spine Jacket (Top), Montane Minimus (Bottom)
Socks: Waterproof: Dexshell kneelength compression (outer), 360Dry (inner)
Shorts: 2XU 3/4 tights
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck
Underwear: JustWears boxer shorts
Gloves: Montane VIA Trail Gloves, Montane Prism Dry Line Waterproof Gloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, 2 buffs, plus 2 spare
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945
Headtorch: LEDLenser Neo 10