Long Mynd Valleys – 5th Feb 2017 – 11.5 m / 4501 ft
– Emil Andrews
“No no no, let me explain something to you Emil. The minute that map comes out – that’s it. Forget it.”
This sounds like bravado from P&B’s fell racing captain Matt Lockyer. In a couple of hours though, I will understand perfectly.
For the one or two of you who don’t yet know this course intimately, it’s a circuit (roughly in the shape of a very drunken oblong) of the beautiful Long Mynd in Shropshire where you gallop in and out of about seven bracken-filled valleys (or hollows or batches), each one roughly equivalent to running down the Chevin and then back up again.
I woke very early on the morning of the race and couldn’t get back to sleep. Lots on my mind and also Stretton church clock chimes every quarter hour. So I got dressed and walked up onto the top. Sunrise was the most spectacular I’d ever seen. A temperature inversion in the Severn Valley meant that I was looking out on a vast sea of mist with the Caradoc as a rugged coastal headland, while the Wrekin looked like a huge volcanic island in the far distance. Sorry. Just had to share that. Now then……
About 45 minutes before the race starts, in the rather pokey (for today’s purposes anyway) back room of the Carding Mill Pavilion, I’m in search of Matt Lockyer whom I’ve spoken to on email but never met. He’s running this race steady as a recce before the special champs race next month. Yesterday he ran Titterstone Clee as well, finishing a creditable second.
Hello, there’s a familiar face! Claire Green has come down too. She introduces me to Matt and also to her friend Tom, who is running for Pennine. Mind you, most people seem to be Claire’s friends, including Wendy Dodds.
As they line up for the inaudible briefing and kit check I promise to meet them on Round Hill above checkpoint 3, and again checkpoint 7 (with luck).
This should have been my second fell race, but I’ve chickened out with injury, so today I’m cheering them on and handing out the jelly babies. I love the Mynd, and I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I perch excitedly on the first hill (choice of mud or crumbling slate underfoot), waiting for the off, and for the runners to emerge from behind the small row of houses.
The hundreds of walkers in Carding Mill valley barely notice that one of the great races of the fell running calendar has just got underway as the runners move almost silently up the road. Gracefully, the field splits in two and then re-forms as some cross the stream via the little bridge and others splash through the ford. Then they’re onto the Hill, tiptoeing confidently past where I’m stood as I clap politely.
A young guy in a Dark Peak vest leads the way by several metres. This is Tom Saville, the eventual winner. Claire and Matt pass me quite soon after and I cheer them on their way. Then I see another familiar face. I’ve no idea who he is, I just recognise him from a photo (Tour of Pendle article, very smiley man in foreground). He’s wearing the red and yellow Harrogate vest. Subsequent research reveals its probably Nick Andralojc. He gets a big shout out anyhow.
The field is past me very quickly with all but the last few taking the steep slope at a run, and I head off up the Burway towards my first rendezvous point.
In the end I barely make it to checkpoint 2. By the time I’m within sight of it, I’ve spotted a line of runners in the distance that I take to be the leading group. They are approaching at quite a lick.
The checkpoint is set a fair way back from the ‘road track junction’ described – not that you could miss it, but I get there just in time to see the chaos that ensues as everyone heads off in different directions and the marshals shout at them –
“This way! This way!.. OI! Where are you GOING!!!….. left!…Oi!! LEFT! LEEEEEEFT!!!!…. Here! This way!.. Tokens in the bucket!..IN THE BUCKET!!…Oi! Tokens! Tokens! Tokens (etc)”. The runners fumble frantically with the tear-off tabs on their race numbers. I spot Matt, who has attached himself to this leading group. The two runners immediately in front of him go the wrong way. He does a wild about-turn and double pirouettes in the heather, losing several places in the process.
“You mad fool Matt!” I shout, attempting and failing to press them jelly babies into his hand. He doesn’t even clock me. He’s breathing very hard, his whole body is a picture of determination as he shoots off in pursuit of his rivals who are now careering through the heather, and down towards Ashes hollow. Steady run is it, captain?
There is no nice path here. Maybe the odd sheep track if you’re lucky, but you probably just have to crash through it all.
Now, I’m willing Claire into view. She arrives looking moderately more composed than Matt, but with the same look of determination. She too refuses sustenance and bounds off over the heather. I’ve counted three women who came through in front of her, but she is not far off them.
No time to waste now – I grab my pack and fluster off towards checkpoint 7. Just as I’m approaching Nills summit the sea of mist decides to drift up onto the Mynd and envelop everything. Drat. It’s all deathly quiet. No sign of a checkpoint, no runners, no marshals. I begin to wonder if I’m even on the right bloody hill. Even if I am, they could all pass within about 50 metres of me and I wouldn’t have a clue. How long should I hang around before I give up and go home?
At that moment an angel arrives in the shape of one of the early starters. “Are you in the lead?” I ask.
“Second. And I won’t be that for long”.
He shows me to the checkpoint. Turns out I was more or less in the right spot, but it’s not the most obvious of checkpoints. It consists of two punches tied to 2 small sticks with a garnish of stripey tape.
I stand and wait in the eerie silence. I guess they could still all missed the checkpoint. I hear a shout from somewhere. A minute or two later I see two runners heading over the crest of the hill towards me, and at the same time out of the corner of my eye I see two others from further down the hill. Suddenly there are runners flying at me out of the mist from all directions – I reckon around a dozen in total, and among them, bloodied and muddied, is Matt Lockyer. I pass him a high-energy shake – “Gulp this!” and he flies off down the hill with the others. I reckon he’s in about sixth place. I feel all excited. He could go on and win this!
From then on the gaps between runners are much bigger. It seems to me that if you don’t know the way and you can’t tag onto a group then you’re stuffed. I think fell runners have a special sixth sense. They must have. How else do they find their way in the mist without using a map & compass?? A lot of them aren’t bothered about punching their numbers either. I find myself wondering if anybody will actually care? From what I’ve seen, if you disqualified everyone who hadn’t punched or hadn’t put the right number in the right bucket at the right point, then that should be half the field gone. Maybe it’s just for those people who are in line for a prize.
Claire comes through, still looking strong. I think she’s still in fourth, but close behind third. Maybe the jelly babies and water can make the difference!
The mist has started to clear now and the huge pyramid of Yearlet is now visible on the other side of the valley with some of the leading runners grinding up it. It’s quite a view. A group of runners stops dead as one to “wow” at the scenery. Then they remember that they’re supposed to be racing each other and shoot off down the hill.
I stick around to hand out the rest of the jelly babies and Nick (if it is him) from Harrogate Harriers gets the last of my water. I have it in mind to complete the course now, but by the time I get to Ashes I remember that my lunch is in the car in Church Stretton, so I head off over Ashlet instead.
On the way back to Carding Mill Valley, I meet the tall man in the bright green beret from checkpoint 2. I ask if he knows who won. He tells me of the boy Saville’s great victory (I try not to reveal my disappointment), in about 1 hour 45, which is “a good time”. But he feels that the calibre of athletes round him was strong enough to beat him. As well as Matt, those athletes included Simon Bailey and Adam Perry. It sounds like a pretty good performance to me. He’s destined for greatness.
By the time I reach the pavilion the presentation is nearly over, and there’s Claire with a bottle of wine in hand. She did it! She must have moved into third place on the final hill!
“I lost a place in the mist” she says, “Sharon Taylor won and Mel Price was second, but I’m sure I’ve seen Lou Roberts here too… Maybe I should make a run for it before they realise!”
Lou was running, but unlike Matt she genuinely was taking it steady. Third place belongs to Claire. Tom looks to have had a decent run too, with a sub-2 hour clocking.
As for Matt, he finished “about sixth. I had a nightmare last mile” he tells me in an email later, having already left by this point. From what Claire says he kept something in the tank for a sprint finish, but then the finish line came too quickly. It’s still not bad for a ‘steady’ run, and with his second-place at Titterstone Clee yesterday he’s finished second in the overall standings for the weekend.
It’s been a glorious day. Having now seen something of the sharp end of fell racing close-up I’m pretty awestruck by the strength and courage of those athletes, and how laid back they seem to be about it. I can’t really come back here in March, can I? I wonder how many packets of jelly babies I would need……
Matthew Lockyer 7th 01:45:33. Claire Green 56th (3rd Lady) 02:07:08. (Full Results)