19th March 2017 – Heptonstall – 15.4 miles / 3169 ft
– Emil Andrews
My listening material in the car is Bach’s St Matthew Passion: a story of betrayal, injustice, suffering, humiliation, crucifixion and horrible death. A portent for today’s Heptonstall race maybe? (I doubt I shall have the courage).
It’s a very wet and windy morning in Heptonstall when we arrive, and it stays like that until after we’ve all gone. Some of P&B’s top runners have turned out: Karen pickles certainly has a sniff of victory in this one, James Woodman and Neal Crampton are here as well. I ask James if he’s going to win today. He looks dubious and nods towards Neal, who’s looking a bit more confident.
Despite the horrendous forecast it’s a grand turnout of 260 at the start. I’m curious to see what the front of the race looks like. There’s Jack wood next to Neal at the front, there’s Karl Gray and Sam Watson. They all look disconcertingly relaxed. James is starting from further back.
In a wonderful touch the Rev’d Howard Pask, vicar of Heptonstall addresses us and reassures us that Jesus will sustain us on our way round the course (and indeed he does! But more on that later…). A blast on an air horn and we’re off up the wet cobbles to the cheers of spectators.
I look up briefly in time to see the leaders disappearing over the brow of the hill. I won’t have a clue what happens to any of them from now on, but I shall attempt to describe the race from my perspective, since our experiences of the course will have been similar.
After leaving the village behind it’s a left turn and a gallop down Lumb Bank to the river. On a quiet sunny morning when you’re on your own, this looks absolutely beautiful. You can see why it’s a perfect retreat for writers.
Today, I wouldn’t have a clue about the view. This slightly greasy tarmac descent doesn’t suit my crappy legs either, and I begin losing places. Caroline Harding glides past me fairly early on. She is surefooted on the downhill and I’m anything but, particularly when the road becomes an extremely uneven rocky path. There’s a queue to run along the millpond wall and more congestion as we all take different routes struggling back up the muddy bank and have to get back into line at the top. (Struggling up muddy banks is a definite theme of this race).
From last year’s results I’ve seen that Caroline has a sub three-hour time for this race, and my nominal target for today is three hours, so it makes sense to try and stick with her. When we emerge into the fields I can still see her in the distance, but I’m falling further behind. She has the strength to run up the hills, whereas I have to march and stomp. Another long queue at the stile and I’m starting to feel disheartened, but then as we cross the road at Knoll top there’s Jesus (looking very like Gary Bailey). “Well done Emil, keep going!”
The open moorland comes as blessed relief, but brings with it its own set of challenges – firstly the wind and rain smashing into the sides of our faces. Secondly, the sludge underfoot. The puddles are twice as sploshy, the mud twice as Shloupy and the bogs twice as deep as any previous visit. And by this point 200 other runners have churned it all up specially for us. A true Trog.
The top comes none too soon, then my favourite bit – the long run down to Blake Dean with the wind behind us. It’s soft grass and just the right gradient for me to kid myself that, hey, of course I’m good at running downhill really. I’m catching people with no effort at all! This is great. And to top it all, there’s Jesus again at the bottom with a bottle of water. Foolishly, I don’t drink any – preferring instead my own gruesome mixture. Ugh. I wonder if I’m going to be sick.
Shortly after crossing the Pennine Way at Alcomden, I sink up to my navel in the boggiest bog in Calderdale and curse the organisers for contriving a route that sends us right through the middle of it. They could at least have had a photographer there. For a few seconds I’m not sure I’m going to get out, my initial attempt resulting only in me sinking further. I emerge like the creature from the Black Lagoon, muddy water draining out of my sleeves shorts and pack. Vexing in a way, but absolutely piss funny. And thankfully, Gareth Hunt from Rochdale Harriers was there to witness it.
Around this time, somewhere up ahead Neil Wallace was face planting in the mud. Sadly I was far too far behind him to see that.
Still feeling okay. Keep pushing on. My inability to run up the hills doesn’t seem to be a problem and my stomping gains me several more places on the way up to Greave height. I’m so pleased with how I’m going that I forsake another drink at the stream in order not to lose ground. Fool!!
Crossing Walshaw Dean Reservoir the wind is at its most fierce and threatens to blow us over the dam wall. Thankfully, once we make it to the other side we then get a lovely, gentle climb with the wind behind us, up over Wadsworth Moor, then down to Walshaw, and I’m feeling great as I canter down through the field towards the steep wooded banks of Hebden Dale. From then on, it all starts to unravel.
The slippery mud does a splendid job on my legs, turning them rigid and useless. The group that I was trying to catch are soon out of sight, as are the guys who followed me down the hill. Half a km or so later, my comedy scramble back up the bank to Hardcastle Crags takes care of the bits of my legs that were still functioning. I’m still moving forward, but without much impetus. I’m also aware that I need fuel and drink. Probably quite urgently.
At Lady Royd farm Jesus appears once again, this time in the shape of a woman offering cups full of water and a car boot full of buns. I need one of those don’t I? I could really do with one. But the thought of all the physical and mental effort required to consume it is too much. I might as well withdraw from the race.
I refill my small bottle and gulp down about half a cup which in itself requires a bit of recovery time. The trudge up through the farm onto Turn Hill is definitely a low point. I console myself by forcing down a vile gel as I watch the people in front run off into the distance.
This hill should really be called Lapwing Hill. Last week there were hundreds of them flying about, all going “zzzzzooooweet!zzzzzooooweet!zzzzzooooweet!” like that middle bit in ‘Whole lotta love’by Led Zeppelin. Today, not one. The marshals are great though, and this lot are particularly hardcore. They’re having to stand facing directly into the wind and the rain whilst they try to decipher my filthy, crumpled, partially obscured excuse for a race number.
Another bog splosh back down to Walshaw now and a chance to scrabble back a bit of lost ground. My ankle won’t let me enjoy it. It keeps going “Hello! Hello! Do you miss me?”
More sickly fuel required. I hoped these gels would be the answer to everything, but I can’t get the top off except with my teeth and then the stuff jets everywhere. If the stars align and I actually manage to get some into my mouth then my body is just ungrateful: “(mooooan!) , You idiot, I’ve got to breathe through my nose now! That’s NEVER enough oxygen!!… Whaaaat??? You want me to swallow as well?? You think I have the strength to do that!? How’s that going to help move my legs backwards and forwards (etc)…” Sorry body, I can’t hang around waiting for you.
It’s quite a good road up to Shackleton Knoll, but the steep camber causes my feet to slide from underneath me and “UNGH!” onto the deck. Get up, stumble onward, trip, flail, stumble sideways into the wall.
“Number 23, are you alright?”
Blatantly I’m not. I’m a dyspraxic who’s 12 miles into a fell race. Am I likely to be alright?
“I’m fine, thank you!” (Hey, I’m still making progress). Besides, the alternative just seems far too complicated.
On the way up to the Knoll I’m catching people up, although I’m certain they’ll leave me for dead on the way down. And so it proves.
The run/traipse down Crimsworth Dean is a bit lonely really. No chance of catching anyone. Gareth comes speeding back past me quite early on, although he never fully disappears out of sight. I do catch up with a guy who’s walking and wants to know how many miles we’ve done. “About 13, near enough,” I say.
“But we’ve still got to get back up there.” I wave a hand in the direction of Lee Bank with Heptonstall perched above it on the side of the hill.
Ah yes, Lee Bank. “Make sure you keep something in reserve for the steps at the end!” was Graham Pilling’s advice. (Sigh). I wonder how you do that? I’ll have to ask the others how they managed it.
The marshals at the bottom certainly don’t stint on the smiles and encouragement. By the time I’m past the last of them (who happens to be Russell from Pudsey Pacers, I learn later) I’m totally convinced that I’m their very soul and inspiration, and set off up the bank with a song in my heart.
I’m at least a quarter of the way up before I start to feel the pull. Looking up through the jungle I can see Gareth and one or two others not far above me. Perhaps I can catch them…. I’m at the steps now and I’m starting to slow down.. mmm.. perhaps not… slower….slower….
A quick look back. I can’t see anyone behind me, although I’m still expecting Caroline to come past me at some point. I haul myself up the final few steps and into the field. I’ve no energy to do anything other than stroll. This really doesn’t feel like a race. I can’t see anyone… I’m not sure I can be bothered. Best finish I suppose.
Once across the road I make a token attempt to run. It’s very laboured and lasts all of 10 seconds. I’ll not catch anyone now. I walk on to the crest of the hill, through the gateway and clump down the last field to the finish. Done. I’m shattered. The ‘well done’s from the officials kind of wash over me, and one of them looks at me slightly concerned. “Are you okay?” Well, not really, but no worse than expected. I mean, this is normal, isn’t it? Besides, I always have this vacant expression. Clearly I’m looking a bit ‘iffy’ though. He ushers me towards the shelter of the big tent.
Neil’s there by the doorway with two of his Pacer colleagues, Ben Mason and Graeme Tiffany. He also asks if I’m alright. Graeme doesn’t wait to hear my reply, he’s already instructing the others to get me some tea, and pressing manageable lumps of flapjack into my hand. “Don’t you worry about that, you keep eating. Have you got an extra layer with you?” Between them, they help me on with my waterproof, hold everything for me and check I’m okay, and in between, the cups of tea and flapjack keep coming and Graeme tells me to keep eating and drinking. “Listen to him, because he knows” says Neil.
It’s difficult to put into words, but thanks. And I’ll try and look after myself better next time.
An hour or so later, back at the Cross Inn, the Pacers have commandeered a table. The presentation is about to start and Karen has won a prize. She finished second, a great performance. Gary is there too. He wasn’t running today as he’s just had a knee operation. You really wouldn’t know it. He insists on standing, so that the runners can have a rest.
Our MC apologises for the lateness of the presentation as it took a long time to verify the numbers from all the checkpoints, but good news, “NOBODY DIED!! YEEAH!!!!” He’s having to do everything a bit on the hoof and so confusion reigns at various points as he checks down the list to make sure he’s not given the prizes to the wrong people – “if there ARE any V70s here, then do stick around because you’ve probably won a prize!” (Half a dozen people are now nudging each other and pointing at Dave McGuire…).
Karen’s prize is a copy of Steve Chilton’s book in which her own name appears in the list of record holders for her run at Mytholmroyd in 2010. “I used to hold a few, but that’s the only one left.” Today, it’s Jo Buckley of Calder Valley who takes first place. She also collects the men’s team prize as none of the Calder Valley lads have stuck around. One man who has stuck around is Jack wood, the overall winner, who gets a really beautiful map of the route.
After the presentation we all crowd round the two little sheets of A4 to see the results that really matter. Neal Crampton has finished 11th and James Woodman 13th. Bliddy hell James, you weren’t far off! Starting from halfway back as well. Leigh Hinchcliffe was 45th, and the rest of us will have to wait to find out.
The afternoon ends with eight of us (in the absence of a photo, clockwise from the North: Karen, Rose, me, Gary, Sara, Leigh, Ben, Neil) sat round the table drinking and chatting. I really enjoyed it. See you next time.
Neal Crampton 11th 2:11:56. James Woodman 13th 2:13:10. Karen Pickles 81st (2nd Lady, 1st FV40) 2:37:46. Neil Wallace 135th 2:50:50. Emil Andrews 146th 2:56:08. Caroline Harding 178th 3:08:04. (FULL RESULTS)