After a 6 month hiatus from racing (and running to some extent) my return to the fold would be the High Peak Marathon. A 42 mile bogfest in the Peak District that attracts some of the best fell/ultra runners in the UK. In teams of 4 you must navigate overnight, over bleak and often featureless moorland, in the final throes of winter no less. A great challenge, and as my first team event a new dynamic on running and working together to achieve a common goal. I'm not going to lie, the prospect of compromising my usual reckless race style (go out fast, slow a little before a strong finish) to run at others pace was going to take some getting used to.
My team (Has anyone seen Tigger?) comprised Simon Mills; the other half of ultra trail, fell running phenom, Sally Fawcett. A strong runner in his own right, on 2 occasions he's finished a couple of minutes or so in front of me at the Highland Fling, and a fantastic orienteer that comfortably steered the team through the night. Next up is Charlie Elliot, currently running under the tutelage of Marcus Scotney with some great results at the Tour de Helvellyn. Finally we had Kristian Groom, a last minute entry who I'm reliably informed is the fastest of all of us - with the caveat that he'd never run an ultra so was untested over that distance. With him currently training for a BG attempt, I wasn't overly concerned about his strengths though. Our team name came about because our team Captain, Ian Winterburn was absent due to illness and injury.
Talking about concern, my biggest doubt was around my own ability to run the distance. 6 months out with over training syndrome has left me full of anxiety about my capacity to run for many hours without my energy systems giving out. Only time would tell.
Kit wise I opted for Salomon Sense Soft Grounds for the incredibly slippy terrain. And for warmth I went with a Salomon insulated long sleeve top and running tights with the Salomon Bonatti water proof. This proved a winning combination with it keeping me warm enough yet breathable as to prevent me from getting too wet through the effort.
Catching up with friends old and new
The team getting some pre-race nutrition
Setting off at 23:40, it was nice to emerge out into the night and find the rain had abated. In fact it was quite warm once we started moving. The initial road section allowed me to start moving easily and feel the comfort found in a movement practiced for hour upon hour. I already felt we were moving well as a team, my biggest anxiety being myself or someone else might be wanting to travel at such a different pace it would be uncomfortable. Not the case. It was good to drop into an easy rhythm before we hit the first climb up towards Hollins Cross. Just before we hit the top of the slippy ascent, the team comprising Nicky and Beth came cruising by on steady jog. However as we hit the summit they had to wait for one of their team so we leaped the stile and moved on with a purpose. The trail along here was an absolute mudfest, giving me the early indication we were in for a fun filled night of bog hopping. Soon after we overtook Jasmin Paris's team, who had a member with some kind of issue. But onwards we ran, easily climbing the final slope towards Lose Hill. In doing so we were overtaking lots of other teams, filling us with confidence.
We reached the base, and after a deep breath and a quick pray to God (choose your relevant deity you would like to thank accordingly) for sparing us - we moved on with a purpose. The easy climb along the road to the base of Win Hill felt great. I was really pleased to be back racing!
The next ascent up Win Hill was a mixture of anxiety and enjoyment. The mostly vertical climb can only be power hiked, a skill I know I lack the conviction to train to a truly competent level. However it was on this climb that I started to be concerned my OTS was returning. a feeling of weakness deep inside that usually precipitates total body failure. However this wasn't to be, as we hit the top and we started running again I felt alright and only got stronger as the night progressed.
The next steep descent was again a mad capped slip sliding sprint of insanity - which on the whole I enjoyed profusely. The recent storm had left many trees across the path meaning we had to divert to find an optimal line. We kept the pace brisk to prevent the teams behind us trying to copy our route & soon enough we were running across Ladybower Dam wall.
The metaphorical carrot was dangled on the next climb towards Stanage as we caught several glimpses of another team ahead. This helped on the never ending road into the darkness as we chased up the hill. The solid footing was quite welcome to up the pace a little, while still trying to be disciplined with our timings.
As we hit the check point at Stanage we were firmly back in slippy, muddy territory. It was here I really started to settle into the effort and the enjoyment factor increased tenfold. A short time later we hit the road at the top of Moscar. The aid ( only one of two in this race) had been moved from Moscar down to the lay-by near to Cutthroat Bridge. As we descended the road we upped the pace and started overtaking even more teams. The aid was a hive of activity, with loads of teams stood around frantically grabbing food and water. I quickly grabbed a sandwich and corralled the team to move on. No point hanging around when there's work/running to be done. I've never been one to hang about in aids, it just seems wasted time. I'd much rather grab some food and eat it while moving slowly from an aid.
We were soon back onto the rough stuff climbing the steep ascent towards Back Tor. The mist really came in and combined with the darkness it was hard to even see the rocky uneven ground at our feet. Me and Simon found this situation almost comical as we stumbled along the trail. When we hit the flagstones, that run out to the next check point at Cartledge Rocks, we were really able to pick up the pace again. And once again we found we were over taking others. It was always a lift to overtake other teams, showing that while the effort felt steady, we were moving at a decent pace.
We easily found the turn off the flags and I quickly resigned myself to spending the next 20 miles or so in anything up to knee and waist deep bogs. Having never raced an ultra in these sorts of conditions before it surprised me just how energy sapping it could be. I'm used to rocky trails and the like on the usual races I enter. But this was a different kettle of fish. I'm just glad Simon ably took up most of the navigational responsibilities, I had enough on trying to stay upright...
The next couple of hours saw us steadily move over the increasingly boggy terrain up towards Cutgate and beyond. The whole time, despite the clag and general darkness, Simon kept us on a good line, using a mixture of compass bearings and knowledge gleaned from recce's. On the run up and after Cutgate we overtook several teams to our right that seemed to be on inferior lines across the open moorland. Straight after Cutgate one of these teams dropped in behind us. They turned out to be the Polish quartet of 'Above 2000'. It very quickly became clear they were using our nav to follow on a good line. Despite trying to up the pace a little, they doggedly followed our line. We concluded we needed to stall with a comedy, fake shoelace tying incident. They took the hint and pressed on...on the wrong line...
After getting slightly left of the line on the steady run past the 1894 Stone, we got back on track and past and gapped a couple more teams. All this when I felt we were moving a little slow, which again was a good sign I was firmly back in the ultra running game.
Kristian and Charlie enjoying the snowy delights of Bleaklow
Kinder Summit with Charlie and Simon
If I'm brutally honest the speed we travelled around Kinder seemed a little pedestrian, but with me getting tired, I was more than content to cruise along at this lacksidaisical pace. I suppose this was very much like my unplanned Lakeland 100 group race - it's always easy to resign to a lighter pace when travelling as a team. Still I was just soaking up the journey and enjoying the new day as it warmed significantly. The ground around Kinder was my perfect terrain with technical rocky trails making things even rosier. Soon glad to feel like I'm back!
Traversing around Kinder
The start and the end of the race at Hollins Cross
The final descent
Literally the second we finished
Thanks as always for the support from Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel.
Most of the photo's in this report were courtesy of Jen Scotney, who kindly allowed me to use them, so a huge thanks to her.