Clambering up the side of Wensleydale on a Sunday morning under black clouds ready to drop a week’s worth of rain a thought played over in my mind with every heavy, plodded step: “This is all that Dave Johnson bloke’s fault! If it wasn’t for him and his pesky Facebook I’d not be ankle deep in cow sh*t and puddle, still an away hour from the finish line.”
Thus the mantra spun endlessly in my mind as the promised (and my god, delivered) first mile of gradient - mainly comprising cattle nibbled grass, half-laid rock paths and unexpected dips - stretched seemingly forever upwards.
For a pampered road-runner brought up on tarmac, paving slabs and sea level flatness, the impossibility of getting a decent foothold on this alien terrain was something akin to trying to run a sprint in a dream, paddling in a syrupy sort of nothingness going nowhere not very fast.
The James Herriot Country Trail run sounds innocent enough on paper - quaint even - and Fell runners knowledgeable of this particular course will be shaking their heads in pity at the very notion that this first mile ascent was anything more than a pleasant yomp ‘up a bit of a rise’, but for those of us tackling our very first trail run, this was almost bloody mountain climbing!
I’d asked a steward before the start of the race about the mile-ish long climb and he’d nonchalantly shrugged it off, much the same way our seasoned mountain running friends would have done. Now, a mere five minutes into the event I was on a soggy 45 degree incline wondering when this countryside hell was going to end. Daring to look up now and then brought little relief. The thin train of hardy souls picking their way up to the heavens stretched into the distance and scanning the landscape for clues as to the whereabouts of the summit only brought confirmation of a continuous climb as the front runners became now mere fluorescent dots of human effort.
On we toiled. Clumps of razor sharp grasses melted into hoof trodden mud. Hoof trodden mud blended with random paths of jagged rock that seemed to vanish as quickly as they appeared. Half way up someone stopped, hands on knees, head bent. Mercilessly passed by those behind, he eventually dragged himself back to the face of the hill and began the upwards stomp once again becoming part of the monotonous rasp of breathing and foot fall.
If there was an invisible rope to which each ‘runner’ clung whilst negotiating this ungodly angle, it came in the form of the sheer will to keep following the flexed calves, bent backs and effort filled grunts of the athlete right in front. Racing for most of us was probably the last idea we were willing to entertain at this point, way down the pecking order behind survival, achievement and bloody minded grit.
Running club vests took on a hypnotic fascination: Nidd Valley, Knavesmire Harriers, Swaledale Road Runners and a load from London. My mind drifted. “Wonder where cockneys do their fell running, not many hills in Camden. Camden Town, The Town of Camden in Camdenshire, sir…ah, I remember Camden, a swilled out hole by the lock with its endless stalls selling hot food of questionable hygiene. Every other shop offering Tattoos and piercings and god knows what else. Chic coffee shops next door to dodgy electronics stores, The World’s End pub and side streets stinking of ground in nightlife. Then there were the cool Jazz bars, the cooler Jazz shops and of course, the ice cool Jazz Cafe. I remember those nights: grungy soundsystems blasting out rare groove and acid jazz no-hitters while we sweated it out on the dancefloor as if working some kind of ritualistic night-shift…hot, sweaty and funky, the dancefloor sweaty and funky and flat…flat…flat and not steep like a hill…anyway, where was I again? Oh yes, scrammbling up a blustery incline in North Yorkshire, and there’s Teesdale AC, and Harrogate and Nidd again (and is that rain?)…and did he just pass me? Did I just pass him? Will I wake from this ascending nightmare and find myself running a personal best on the flattest, most windless Parkrun course in existence?” No, but at last I can see the end of this sainted field, though it’s still up, up and up again for the time being.
Thankfully, before too long, the grass and mud and hard climbing was done and it was now head on into the wind on a steady incline and a rough track on the moorland tops. I held onto the reigns of the guy in front and kept about 5 meters back, eager not to try to race him (just yet) as I was still in the realms of recovery. Apart from the metronomic breathing of the nearest runners and the thud of shoe on stone the only other sound was the papery flapping of numbers pinned to our vests. It told me how far ahead I was from the guy behind, who, no doubt, was sitting back and taking a breather, too. An awkward climb greeted us at around the 3 mile mark as the footing became looser and we headed up again to an even higher peak. Allowing myself a sideways glance across the stunning vista I made out the glistening waters of Locker Tarn and across the valley I could see Swaledale being swallowed up by a passing rainstorm: you realise this place has its own ideas about weather and any pre-race pouring over forecasts can pretty much be discarded. The weather will do as it wishes, when it wishes. As it happened, the rain held off for the duration of the race and the only downpour we saw was 30 minutes before the start when a heavy shower almost apologetically stayed for 5 minutes then crept on by.
After another steady rise the track seemed to level briefly before a sharp left turn signalled the first descent of the race. This was a long awaited chance to stretch out and run and surprisingly the legs seemed to agree. We’d earned the right to fly down this path of dusty, reddish earth and almost as soon as the foot hit the turn we were off, half hammering down, half trying not to end up rolling out of control like helpless human tumbleweed. Where before I was hunched tight against the wind and the gradient I now felt as if my stride was opened up and I could feel the hamstrings extending and the feet searching out the next piece of stable ground. Hurtling down a rocky path doesn’t come without its perils and there was a tension of forces at work as I tried to both run as hard as possible whilst also putting the brakes on slightly. If I were a car I’d probably have smelt of burning rubber by now.
The downhill sprint meant that I’d caught up with a few of the runners ahead who were now beginning the ascent of the 2nd climb: and this one WAS a climb. Having dropped the reigns and thundered past my moor top companion on a downwards bend 100 metres back I looked up and saw what can only be described as a path created by a masochistic native whose patience had run out from hoards of club vested runners yomping lustily across his land. If I thought the mountain I’d run for a week in Spain this summer was a gruesome son of a bitch here was its uglier English cousin smiling and beckoning us closer. Tiptoeing up the rough rock path a chant came into my head - “Don’t wake the hill, tread lightly, don’t wake the hill, tread lightly” - until, as we all did, I stopped and walked the last 50 feet, hands on knees for balance. Forget what Haruki Murakami said about ‘never walking’, running was out of the question and stopping meant falling over. There was a force field of gravity that brought each and everyone who passed through its invisible curtain to a grinding stagger. 10 metres from the peak, our Brains swilling with raw ozone, we started the engines again, picked up our feet and began the run once more. My moor top companion who’d been unshackled way back had caught up and was now over the top and charging down the hill at full pelt. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to treat the rest of the race as a 5k run and took off, passing one, then two, then three runners who must have been scoffing at my insanity. I gambled on the rest of the race being either flat or slightly downhill and prayed to the god of ‘not-tripping-on-loose-rocks’ for guidance. I passed my ‘unshackled’ man for the last time then disappeared ‘round a bend which I later understood to be part of a disused quarry. There was a sort of eeriness about the place as I galloped through alone: a path cut into the rocks banked on either side by steep cuttings of light brown earth and gravel that seemed to suck all sound into it. I glanced briefly over a shoulder to find no-one following as far as I could see. The fear of not seeing the pack seemed worse than the fear of hearing their footsteps ever closer and I ran harder and faster, as if I’d just nicked something large and expensive from PC World.
The route snaked on and on through the landscape and here the memory blurs the details a little (save for thinking that I must try to run the flat or downhill parts as hard as possible) and then picks out random lucid moments: seeing the 10k sign shining like a beacon of hope, a thumbs up to an encampment of marshals set hardy against the wind offering cups of water and encouragement, and the first sighting of the pack in front, maybe 200 metres ahead. Would I try to catch them? I’d made up ground on them but could the legs answer the call, and do I dare challenge them to a race? If I caught them, would they look behind in unison and angrily kick ahead, eager to shake off this new and bothersome interloper? Unsure of how far was left to run I decided I’d concentrate on keeping a steady pace: might gain on them slowly, anyway.
At around seven miles something odd happened. As I headed back into the wind (“How?”, I thought) the legs seemed to switch off. I looked down at the shock of leaf green and citron that were the Saucony Mirages attached to my feet and wondered why so much effort seemed to be yielding so little gain. Looking back for the first time I saw a head bobbing in the middle distance and knew ‘they’ were closing in. Crossing a small but annoying trickle of stream and heading up a totally unnecessary bank I could sense that the end was coming. Still unsure of the exact distance I guessed I had around 600 metres left to run as more civilians milled around offering their best wishes. Turning right then left I finally saw the white tent and flag of the finish line and, mustering all the power my hill heavy legs possessed, I threw myself down the home straight. Sixty-four minutes plus change. It was done. Someone put a flyer in my hand for an upcoming race as I reached the funnel end and, even though I’d just completed probably my toughest ever run, all I could think about was this new challenge, such is the perversity of the runner’s lot.
I expected the legs to be shot to bits for the rest of the day but they actually felt twice as strong as they had before I’d run. If there was one thing a Sunday morning hill scramble was good for, it was the conditioning it seemed to give the legs.
Later that afternoon, back in the cosy nest of the town, I found myself mucking around in a park with my 3 year old. Children’s play apparatus held no challenge for me as I threw myself across rope walks and monkey bars and log jumps. “Hey son” I called out in excitement, “look at daddy….urrgghhh”. Twisted ankle! I’d trudged, climbed, ambled, ran and sprinted across 8.75 miles of rugged Wensleydale trails and escaped unscathed. I’d spent 5 minutes down the local park in an area designated for under 5’s and proceeded to crook myself on a see-saw.
I don’t know how many times James Herriot actually walked this route or if he cursed and sweated and struggled at the parts where I cursed and sweated and struggled but I know I’ll probably be back on the start line at Castle Bolton the same time next year with another 250 hardy souls, all proud in our newly washed club vests and race numbers, ready to do it all over again!
- Type: Run
- Date: 07/29/2012
- Time: 11:00:00
- Total Time: 1:04:54.00
- Calories: 1124
- Distance: 8.75 miles
- Average Pace: 7:24.99/mile
Decent night for it, bit of a wind but nothing drastic. Didn’t feel up for this at all! Not my best run, lots of work to do!
- Type: Run
- Date: 07/18/2012
- Time: 19:15:00
- Total Time: 00:19:06.00
- Calories: 368
- Distance: 3.13 miles
- Average Pace: 6:06.23/mile
Was meant to be 13 miles - didn’t have the energy after a full-on weekend so trotted around a bit then back home. Achey. Please, not a cold!
- Type: Run
- Date: 07/02/2012
- Time: 19:30:00
- Total Time: 00:35:24.00
- Calories: 613
- Distance: 4.84 miles
- Average Pace: 7:19.02/mile
Felt nice and easy going out…then turned back into a 15mph+ head wind all the way back. 5k race tomorrow morning and we’ll have that wind for company again!
- Type: Run
- Date: 06/29/2012
- Time: 20:50:00
- Total Time: 00:36:14.00
- Calories: 628
- Distance: 4.97 miles
- Average Pace: 7:17.42/mile