Sometimes, for various reasons – I’ve been busy with work, or distracted by family, football and an ever-expanding list of Things To Do – I forget about fell racing. I still go out running most days, still love getting muddied, soaked and scratched up on the Chevin or wind-blown on Ilkley Moor, still love being out and about on fells and in forests. But racing somehow slips down the priorities, no matter that I love it. It feels like a luxury, especially since during the winter when there are no evening races and it’s a big chunk of the weekend.
This means that when I do turn up and run a race, I fall in love with it all over again. With the gathering and the chatting, the planning and the nervousness. Over in the start field at the Midgley Moor race, snuggling beneath the moortop Pennines, there’s a nervousness born of runners not really knowing where they might be going. I shrug this off; I’ve done this race several times and have an idea of the route. “Don’t follow anyone in a Calder Valley vest,” a Calder Valley runner tells me before the start. Calder Valley are the local team, the organisers, and it’s their patch.
From Pudsey & Bramley, Ian Nixon looks fit as a butcher’s dog and so easily shrugs off the burden of a new-born baby in the family that I’m half-wondering if he’ll strap on a papoose and pop the sleeping bairn into it at the start line. Neil Armitage is wearing his usual self-effacing smile. Neil, despite his credentials as a top runner, generally has the look of a novice. Big shorts, wide grin, one shoelace untied (alright, I made that bit up), like he’s just wandered into a field full of people in vests and shorts and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll have a go at that.’ Caroline Harding is smiling, as ever, ready for the off. She’ll be smiling at the finish, I don’t doubt. And in the middle, somewhere. It’s the first race of Pudsey & Bramley’s new fell Championship, with a pitifully low club turn-out (on the plus side, that means points-a-plenty for the four who toe the line).
We set off. The race heads straight up a steep incline, gets steeper, gets muddy, gets steeper still, and eventually finds itself on the weatherbeaten crest of the moor. And still it climbs. Runners string out into lines, attaching and detaching like phlegm. It’s windy up there. But there’s sun! Spring sunshine occasionally breaking through the clouds, telling lies about the oncoming storm. “There’ll be a thunderstorm by the time you get to checkpoint 6,” the organisers had warned us.
I latch on to Colin Moses from Bingley, whose bandy legs are great for climbing and who seems to know where he’s going. Halfway across the moortop, with runners in front of us stretching in a line, he falters and slows. We come to a halt and have an impromptu meeting. “They’re going too far,” he points to the group in front. The group includes some of the leaders, with Neil’s P&B vest somewhere among them. Ian is out of sight in second place. “We should be… over there, somewhere.” His hand waves across a rough-and-tumble moorland in the general direction of Yorkshire. Or Northumberland. I scrabble around in my bumbag for the photocopied map. As I’m looking at it, other runners catch up and join us. Colin is off, heading through knee-high heather tufts and swearing. The inclination to give up, to submit to failure and to jog back slowly would be overpowering, were it not for the hustle of other runners also desperately wondering where the front end of the field disappeared to.
I stick the map back and set off in a line somewhere between Colin and the group we think have gone the wrong way. I hit a sheep-trod and glance across as runners in various club vests realise there’s a navigational crisis going on and try to cut the corner, clambering and hopping over the unrunnable moor. My sheep-trod becomes a path. I’m off. Gradually we work our way across and through the shin-tearing stuff and onto the rock-strewn tripping stuff, and as I head down the rough descent I see Neil Armitage in front of me. He’s been out of his way, halfway to the moon and back, and his punishment is to suddenly find himself running with the also-rans.
One more big climb and then it’s a fast trek across the moor to return to the finish. Neil disappears, hands on knees, up the steep slope. Colin Moses catches me. The top, spectators, wind, the first wind-blown drops of rain. The storm’s coming. Quick! Colin seems to know where he’s going, and shoots off to the left. Everyone else heads straight. I go left. Who needs a map when you’ve got Colin to follow? Ten minutes’ running later, a scramble of a tussle through pathless heather and disappearing sheep-trods like headless chickens in search of their heads, and we re-join the rest of the field heading towards the final descent to the finish. They’re all on a well-trodden path and skipping lightly past us (“hullo birds, hullo sky”) and we quickly realise we took the very long way round. All the effort, the sweat and the mud and that stile that took the skin off my shin – it all comes down to error of judgement. I blame Colin. No I don’t, I blame me. I love fell racing. There’s no-one to blame but yourself.
In the end, Ian Nixon finishes about three days before I do. As I career down the final descent to the finish field he’s finishing a syrup sponge with custard in a pub three miles away. Neil Armitage finishes not far in front of me, but he admits that he ran the race in slippers, as he’d forgotten his fell shoes (I made that bit up, too). Caroline is just behind me, fuelled by the pie I’d won at a previous race and which, for various reasons, she’d gladly scoffed. As I finish, I wonder how I could have got so badly lost – twice – on a race route I thought I knew. And then I remind myself that this is fell running; landscapes change from day to day, the weather’s never the same, and being lost is part of the fun.
On the walk back to the car I hear someone say, “Good race that. It’d be better if they flagged the route.” And all I can think is, yes, and while they’re at it, why not pave it, too? And put traffic cones along it. And tape. And charge £30 to enter. And a roof would be nice…