Tour of Pendle – 19 November 2016 – 16.8 miles / 4833 ft
My First Fell Race — Emil Andrews
“Bet yer looking foid to this one eh?……..HHHahahahahahahahaaaaaaa!!!!”
I’ve just walked into Barley village hall and already I feel like I don’t belong. We’re gathered for the 33rd running of the Tour of Pendle, a 16.8 mile fell race with 1473 m of ascent in mid-November. Outside on the hill it’s been snowing for two days solid with temperatures down to minus 8. Surely this is insane. Why aren’t there safety notices up everywhere warning of the dangers and urging me not to do this? ….Oh…wait a minute, it did say something on the website……
Last month I got round the three peaks in 4 ½ hours in favourable conditions. On the basis of this and a handful of long winter walks I have entered this race, and in doing so declared myself to be an experienced and competent fell runner. Right now I just feel like a fraud. All the men around me (can’t see any women) look as though they’ve been doing this for years. All exceptionally fit looking and relaxed – and all clearly mad.
Registration consists of me picking up my race number (343), after which I retreat to the car to pin it on my new club vest with slightly shaky hands. There are five of us entered for this race:
- Joe Baxter – he won’t be coming, he’s racing somewhere in the lakes instead. GOOD LUCK TO HIM!!!!
- James Woodman – he won’t either, he still on the Isle of Skye, kept there by the prospect of glorious weather after days of mist and rain. Good on him.
- Neil Wallace – I know he’s coming. Don’t know what he looks like though. I’ll just have to look out for the P&B vest. He has form in this race; a previous time of 3 hours 40 odd. Probably faster than that now.
- David Anderson – not heard from him but he only entered recently, so he should be coming. Don’t know what he looks like either, but I think he’s fast.
- Emil Andrews – first timer! Joined P&B two weeks ago. Got round in 4 hours 9 mins on my practice run last week. Since then a lot of snow has fallen and so has my confidence.
I eat my porridge and banana which I barely taste, check I’ve got everything and head back towards the village hall. The sun has come out and for the next 20 minutes it’s quite a nice morning.
I warm up as best I know, wondering if there’s any point. In the end I’m glad I do, particularly the walking up and down a grassy bank to stretch my calves. Two Bingley Harriers jog by. I wonder if one of them is Ian Holmes.
“OI!! Get down to the start! We’re ready for the count! Is there anyone else up there?” (Eek!) I hot foot it back to where the crowd has now gathered and ‘scuse me my way to somewhere near the back.
“Hi, is it Emil? I’m Neil”. It’s Neil Wallace. Boy am I glad to see him. His girlfriend Rose is here too. She runs for Kirkstall Harriers. As we all stand there, waiting and chatting it clouds over again and begins snowing. Oh well…..
One by one we are clicked through the gate (so that’s how they know who’s started – duh!)
“No going back now,” smiles Neil as we pass through. Now then – I wonder how they’ll start us off – gun? Whistle? Horn? Rocket?… Shouting?………….oh, are we off? Righto then….
The first mile or so is along a road with three short climbs. I’d resolved not to stop running until we reach the end of it. This is pretty straightforward in the end as it’s a jostle – we’re almost running on the spot at times. Once through the gates and onto the hill everyone slows to a peculiar kind of fast walk, and we all fall into single file on the snow like a load of Nordic skiers. I learn very quickly that for large parts of this race my pace will be dictated by that of the person in front, since overtaking means going off-piste and expending extra energy trying to accelerate in deeper snow. It’s early days and I should be grateful that the pace is manageable. I guess everyone else feels pretty much the same way as there’s very little overtaking in general. Occasionally the gradient slackens for a bit and, one by one, we’ll break into a trot but not for very long. The conversation has now died out, and the only sounds are the squelch of feet and the rattle of Tyvek.
As we disappear into the mist approaching the trig point at Big End the running starts properly. The weather on the top is foul. The snow is about a foot deep and still falling. We’re all running along in a mucky trench that’s barely a foot wide. It must have been hell for the leading runners. There’s a queue at the ladder stile, so I fish the plastic specs out of my pack as we are about to turn into the wind and I know what’s coming next. Oof!
To be fair, the snow in the face isn’t so bad, it just creates a little extra confusion, but I don’t think I’ve ever in my life concentrated so hard on running. My eyes are constantly darting between the feet of the person in front and those three or four in front, watching for any stumbles, any muddy holes, sticky bits or deep puddles.
At checkpoint one the guy just waves us through – “not in this weather lads, you’re alright…”
The recommended route in poor visibility is to follow the wall now, but we all just plough on across the moor as that’s where the trench goes. As we head west, slowly losing height, the snow turns to sleet then to heavy rain then to hail and the terrain gets worse, much more up and down sploshing and stumbling. This is hell. My specs deflect about 50% of the hail, but then they steam up and I can’t see a thing. So I just have to take them off and keep my head down. At this moment I am considering bailing at the next checkpoint.
As we join up with the main track down to the Nick o’Pendle, it eases off and I see a bit further ahead. We seem to have lost touch. After the next few people in front of there’s quite a big gap. It’s gentle downhill now so I go for a bit of a gallop and I’m actually enjoying myself, until I go flying. But even that is fun in its way as I manage a professional looking roll.
Through checkpoint two and we head east towards Churn Clough. My form is lousy, but I’m impressed with the pace I make, joining up with a large group groping their way up the fence just after checkpoint three. “Phew, a nice rest,” says the guy in front and I agree.
On the way up Spence Moor we catch up with race organiser Kieran Carr who, unlike the rest of us who crossed the wall too early has stuck to the correct route and is being slowed down by the snow on his side of the wall.
“I ought to disqualify the lot of ‘em Kieran! You’re only one going the right way!” bellows the marshal. I remark that now I’ve caught him I’ll try and stick with him.
No chance. Once over the top and he’s off, darting out to the left to have a quick look, then back across to the right. He takes a high line, bounding over the snow with awesome power and agility. He must overtake about 30 people and that’s the last I see of him until the presentation. Neil can’t have been that far ahead of me at this point, as he also witnessed this.
The descent into Ogden Clough is utterly hilarious. Known as ‘Geronimo’ the ground just falls away. The further down, the steeper it gets. Last week it was slow, tentative steps for me. Today snow equals soft landing and I’m prepared to give actual fell running a try.
“Careful on the descent-the snow is very unstable” warns the marshal. Sorry marshal.
I go at it as hard as I can. I’m surprised that not everyone else is doing the same. Brain and legs are pretty rigid to begin with, and it’s tiring work, but great fun. I toboggan down the last bit on my backside at great speed. Woo! Splashing across Ogden Brook, I present myself triumphantly at checkpoint 4.
One hour 37 minutes. Four minutes faster than last week and well inside the cut off. Of course, this means that I now have to finish the race. I begin by clogging my mouth up with two flapjack bites and having a good swig of orange slush puppy as it now is. It’s hard to remember to eat and drink, and when I do it’s never the right time. It’d be logical to do it on the uphills, but this means breathing hard through my nose, which I find difficult. On the downhills, I’d have to stop running and lose ground on everyone. So here I just stop and accept it.
When I start up again my legs feel terrible. They can walk alright, but they really don’t fancy running. At first, I’m okay just ‘hurrying’ along the path, but soon the guy in front starts running properly and I realise I must try to do the same. Uurrrgh. Even my lungs are grumbling now. If I were on my own I would definitely be walking.
At least I’m not pulling up with cramp, as seems to be happening with a few people. On the way up out of Ogden Clough I do my bit by jamming my hands on a guy’s heels to stop him sliding backwards.
As we thread our way between the bogs on Black Hill I wonder again about retiring at the next checkpoint. I’ve had my fun. I’m labouring now, and this is still the easy bit.
The run down Apronfull Hill is not taken with the same joyful abandon as previous ones, not least because I turn my ankle and am reduced to a bit of a hobble as I nurse it. By the bottom however, I’ve decided not to give up and I signify this to the marshals at checkpoint five by clenching my fists and puffing my chest out. Might as well enjoy it.
Mearley Moor is probably the most enjoyable of the climbs. Decent visibility, hardly snowing at all, and the wind is behind us. There’s even a bit of chatter. My new shoes are performing really well. They seem to love this snow/mud combination. My gait is working okay too; a ’short, mincing stride’ (as described later by Rose), trying to keep my heels on the ground as much as possible. Anyone trying to haul themselves up with big strides seems to be slipping. It makes the backs of my legs ache just thinking about it.
At the top we stop and pay our respects to Judith Taylor and Alan Heywood. At checkpoint six I stop for fuel and another swig of ice lolly. My hands freeze in the wind and I manage to bust the zip on my bag. To add insult to injury everyone I passed on the climb comes flying past me again.
Two climbs to go, both far worse than anything happened upon so far. The long, steep descent to checkpoint seven (at the bottom of a spectacular valley) isn’t as fun as I’d hoped. My toboggan can’t get a decent speed up and I clearly bruised my coccyx on the last slide, so there’s an ’ouch’ every time I go over a bump and I have to try and favour one buttock or the other. At the bottom we scramble across the steep banks of the brook and join the long line of runners filing solemnly up ‘The Big Dipper’.
“Oh let me see thy footmarks and in them plant my own
My hope to follow duly is in thy strength alone.”
I know that this was an arduous climb but the discomfort has already faded from my memory. The next bit definitely hasn’t. As we near checkpoint eight at the top and the icy wind picks up once again, the real fun begins.
The snow starts coming down hard. Only small flakes, but plenty of them. All the tracks get covered up very quickly. There’s only one bloke in front of me and, like an idiot I go and overtake him. The next two runners are only shadows in the distance. I no longer have any idea whether I’m on the right track or not, but there’s no way I’m stopping to get my compass out, not even if my fingers were still working. I’m not letting them out of my sight.
This tactic works okay to begin with, and before too long we reach the stile. The wind is behind us, but it feels colder than before with a real bite to it. It’s now crunchy underfoot, rather than slushy.
A small line of us head along the edge of Downham Moor. I start looking out for the little cairn I made a couple of weeks ago to mark the point at which I should veer off down to the left, towards checkpoint nine. But either it’s not there anymore or it’s buried in snow. I’m sure we should have passed it by now. The tall guy a couple of runners ahead evidently thinks so too, as without warning he suddenly turns and dives off to the left just after we cross the first of the two narrow channels.
Suddenly I’m in a flap. I’m sure I should have gone off the edge after him, but I can’t see that anyone else has done that; there are no tracks. Everyone else in front of me seems perfectly happy to continue on along what, although now covered in snow, is undoubtedly a track. I feel much safer in their company, but I don’t want to miss a checkpoint. Maybe I’ll carry on until……oh, s*d it! I’m going down.
Before I know it I’m all alone in deep snow, wading, sliding, stumbling and falling as fast as I can, and I’m scared. I feel weak and tired and it’s very cold. If I grind to a halt now, nobody will know and nobody will find me until it’s too late. What an idiot. Then down below, I spot the tall guy. I flounder after him as fast as I possibly can, and eventually catch up with him. “Didn’t want to lose you!!” I shout.
“We wanna be on that track there!” He gasps. “Bloody hell, I feel p*ssed!”
I recognise the fragment of track. I can see that little footpath arrow on it too. Looking behind I can also see there’s another guy coming down after us. We’re not the only mad ones. I give him a wave and press on. It’s not obvious where the track goes, but here and there there are tell-tale footholes. The tall guy’s now up above somewhere. He’s taken a higher line than me. Then, up to the right I notice a load of runners flying down the hill to join us. I’m not sure right now which of us made the mistake. Who cares? We all ended up at the right place: checkpoint nine.
This is a more serious checkpoint. The man with the clipboard from the start is here taking down our numbers and there’s a very professional looking photographer (I was hid behind someone else as we approached so with any luck he’s not got me). “That’s it lad, get it down you.” He urges as I take a last few swigs of orange icicle before the final murderous climb.
Downham Moor and the line of runners above us stretches up… and up… and up… and into the cloud. I set off at an easy pace and I am quite prepared to stop for a rest. I imagine my legs won’t be very responsive, but bit by bit we eat up the ground. I’m not really concentrating on my line, just the feet and kit of the person in front (as I’ve already spent much of today doing.) The poor person stuck behind me will have had a view of loads of gaffer tape and a strange looking orange liquid.
For the final section, I revert to all fours. My feet are already numb and it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to feel my fingers. No one else seems to be in a hurry either. I even pick up a few places. There is talk of hot showers. And more cramp.
The familiar rush of icy wind tells us we’re getting near the top at last, and in another minute or two we spot the stone steps of the stile that’ll see us onto the summit plateau.
“Ooh! Those steps are well icy” warns the woman in front of me as she scrambles over.
On the other side she, and the others in front of her break into a run once again. Not me. I have nothing left. I march along gamely swinging my arms, but I can’t run. I can barely see. Once again our eyeballs are being pebbledashed with snow. The fact that the trig point (checkpoint 10) can’t be more than a quarter of a mile away keeps me going. When it finally appears in the mist it’s as beautiful as the smiling faces of the marshals offering flapjack (which I decline as I can’t articulate “please could you pop it in my mouth? – and by the way, how are you not yet dead from exposure?” (A little while back I even passed a family out for an afternoon stroll!! They breed them tough round these parts.))
I pass the checkpoint doing my Gordon the Big Engine impression-“I’ve DONE it – PSSSSHHH!..I’ve DONE it – PSSSSHHH!”
“Not yet, you haven’t.” warns a marshal.
Now I do manage to run. The tracks are all covered apart from the main one, but the people in front seem to know where they’re going , and another saintly marshal appears to be pointing me that way too. I really ought to have a compass in my hand, following a bearing of approx 195° but even if I could get the damn thing out of my bag I really can’t be bothered.
Just as I’m thinking that surely the downhill must begin soon, something magical happens. I look up and I see Spence Moor in the distance. Not only that, the wall that you can use to navigate by is pointing directly at where we are headed.
“And lo, there appeared a choir of angels singing – ‘Glory to God in the highest..’” etc.
I nudge the guy next to me and give a whoop of joy. (“LET’S BRING HOME THE HERD!!!”)
My joints acquire a new lease of life and before we know it we are skidding down into Ogden Clough for the final time. There is checkpoint 11 and there are the two marshals with a friendly “well done, keep going, you’re almost there.” To which I reply:
“Hankoo werry nutch. Gleshoo!”
“Are you alright?”
I check my watch. If I can get to the finish without stopping for a rest then I should make it home inside four hours!
The final mile is hard, but it’s the one I’m most proud of. I manage to keep running when normally I would stop. I catch and pass several more runners. I’m sure that they will pass me back, but they don’t. I almost feel I’m in a race (!!!). It’s the difference between “Phew, I made it. Didn’t pull up any trees but…you know, first race and all that” and “I reckon I gave it my best shot there”.
A few more “well done mate, keep going, you’re almost there”s, then down the last slope, round the corner, past the Old Waterworks and then I really am there. I can’t tell whether the finish line is at the start or the end of the funnel, so I punch the air in celebration at both just for good measure.
This time when I walk into Barley village hall it’s with a giddy smile on my face. I’m not sure what to do. I want to natter to people, but my brain is not thawed out enough yet. The early results have been pinned up on the wall. The big man, Jack Wood from Ilkley Harriers has won it with Karl Gray of Calder Valley second and Sam Watson, the Wharfedale Harrier in third. Times are well down on previous years – about 2 hours 39 for the winner. Hardly surprising, given that as well as being elite athletes the leaders have had to be expert navigators and human snowploughs for 17 miles. Incredible really.
As I’m scanning down the lists a guy in the queue turns to me and asks if I’m Emil. It’s David Anderson!
I forget to ask him how he did in fact I forget most things. He advises me to get some dry clothes on and then come back.
After 10 minutes in the car, trying in vain to get my shoes off, I lump all my gear into a bag and head back to the village hall. It’s my only hope of thawing out my fingers enough to use them.
Before long the prizegiving starts. “We got some snow for you, make it a bit Christmassy!” beams Kieran Carr, “we think we’ve got everybody in now….oh right, up to checkpoint nine. Yes, we’re just waiting for one or two.”
He calls for a resounding thank you to the marshals, which we give, (never more deserved). He then awards Jack Wood his winner’s shield. Jack barely smiles. Maybe he’s still in shock. Maybe his face hasn’t thawed out either. Or maybe he’s just not the sort of person who smiles a lot.
Clayton win the men’s team prize, Ian Holmes wins first male vet 50 for his ninth place finish and the other prizes fly by far too quickly for me to remember.
I sit down at the side and give my shoes another go, but try as I might I still can’t get them off. My fingers just won’t work. The guy next to me takes pity and loosens the laces. He has a huge graze on his knee. I tell him proudly that this is my first fell race. He laughs and says, “well, well done on finishing the hardest, most brutal fell race you will ever do in your life.”
To be honest, I think I was fishing for something along those lines, and unless I jack it all in tomorrow then I’m sure there’ll be harder ones. But right now I’m happy to take that.
And now I can’t get my socks off either.
Eventually, one way or another I get well wrapped up in some dry clothes and bump into Neil again in the queue for hot drinks. (It turns out I’ve just missed David. Neil says he’d told me David has a beard and David’s not got one, so he’s sorry if he misled me). A couple of minutes later we’re sat at a table in the super nice part of the village hall. Rose is still shivering and dissatisfied with the strength of the tea. I’ve brought along a four pack of Mackeson’s Stout, as I’m led to believe this is what all fell runners drink. Both of them decline politely and we get down to the business of comparing notes. When Rose got to the top of Mearley Moor it was whiteout conditions. I wasn’t sure I would have carried on. Neil finished in about 3 hours 48.
Most people have left by now and it’s beginning to get dark. I’m just starting to enjoy myself, but I know I ought to leave. They are already packing up. I say goodbye and I go and see Kieran and gush my gratitude at him. Finally I have a quick scan down the results to see if my name is on there yet. It doesn’t appear to be….. That’s because I’m NOT ON THE LAST SHEET!! I finished in 227th place in 3 hours 55 minutes and 40 seconds. 227th PLACE!!!!!
With a spring in my aching step, a bruised coccyx, painful knees, tender fingers and toes and a glow in my heart I make my way to the car, sling my gear onto the passenger seat and head off home.
Rose George finished 312th – 4:42:17
First woman Lorraine Slater (Barlick) – 3:15:07
Pudsey & Bramley
90th David Anderson – 3:22:52 (what a run!)
203rd Neil Wallace – 3:48:47
227th Emil Andrews – 3:55:40
There were 349 starters and 330 finishers.