I was trying not to look back too much. Just stay focussed on running forwards at a steady pace. The standard mantra… Control. Control. If the trail angle allowed it I would let myself take a sideways peek for head torches out of the corner of my eye. They were following of course, but I seemed to have opened a useful gap of at least a few minutes. It’s hard to judge at nighttime though. Just concentrate on steady progress. Control!
The run along Sleightholme moor went well. I held the path all the way without a problem or a hesitation. The trail then drops to a bridge across a small river, and a small roadway takes us out of the little valley and beyond. I remember this being a good long runnable road section from last year. At this time of night there are a lot of ice patches on the road though. I had to be careful with each foot placement as the chances of slipping and fracturing a bone were quite high, given that I was running along at a nice pace. A few small hollows along the way required stepping along the grass verge to be absolutely sure of not going flying. Control!
I knew that there was a left turn off the road onto track to take me towards a lone house on the other side of the small valley on my left. But I had been concentrating so hard on keeping my pace steady without slipping that I looked across and realised that I was coming too close to the lights of the house on a parallel course. Aaaaaaah feck! A new navigation mistake for my Spine collection. I double checked on the GPS, and sure enough that’s exactly what had happened. I had missed the turn-off and carried on down the road.
An instant decision was taken to just barrel straight across and rejoin the Pennine Way as quickly as possible. This turned into a little mini adventure. For the first hundred meters it was good running across grassy meadows. Then a dive down a steep bank and a quick wade across a river, before climbing the bank on the other side. Another hundred meters or so of nice meadow running led me to the top of a cliff edge… yes I had remembered this would be there from looking across at it last year. No time for niceties now though. A quick glance down towards where the Pennine way should be and I still couldn’t see headtorches. All is not lost yet. A peak over the edge of the cliff reveals a severely steep 10 or 20 meter drop to the grass-banked riverside.
I put my poles in one hand and try to make a controlled descent. Whooosh… there goes the control! I tumbled down 5 or 10 meters, but then regained control and stopped. Crap… I’ll have to climb back up to get the poles , which I had instinctively let go of (so that they wouldn’t cause any injuries to me in a fall. I had learned this from my Alpine Climbing instructor who had instructed a group of us for 2 weeks a broken thumb, thanks to having his pole strap around his arm when he took a tumble). But the poles had followed me. Good old gravity. So I just reached out and picked them up, and was off again. Another quick river wade was followed by a brief run along the riverbank on the other side. There were cliffs next to me now which needed to be climbed to get up to the Pennine Way, so I looked for a relatively safe spot to climb. I quickly came to a wall which provided that opportunity.
Sure enough, it was climbable here without too much of an issue and I quickly topped out with only a wall crossing left before finally getting back on the Pennine Way proper. Despite all this, and to my own surprise, there was still no sign of any following headtorches. Things are going well!
The Pennine way branches here. Everyone in the race was going to take the much shorter direct route bypassing the town of Bowes, of course. It was easy enough following this in daylight last year, but I was making a few minor deviations here and there, slowing me down as I worked through the rougher ground to get back on track. Still no sign of following headtorches though.
Approaching the tunnel crossing under the A66 road I could see across the valley behind me and finally caught sight of the chasing torches. I reckoned the gap was somewhere around 10 minutes, but it’s harder to judge at night. That was pretty good, considering I’d had a wander or two over the last few kilometers. But enough of that… control, just keep moving forward at a steady pace and let the dice roll.
The next section of undulating hills over the open moorland of Cotherstone Moor seemed to take an age last year. This year in comparison it seemed like I was just rolling along, even on the longest climb of this section. I was very happy to be able to take a large proportion of it at a relaxed running pace. I followed the GPS basemap track towards the end of this section, which in reality probably had me off the on-the-ground Pennine Way track, but from memory would have been drier terrain.
Hitting the roads taking my around Blackton Reservoir I was nicely tapping along, still running, still at a very steady controlled pace. I got a big surprise crossing the first cattle-grid I encountered on these roads. It turned out that it was much more icy than it looked. I had no traction on it whatsoever and ended up with both my feet and poles sunken into the cattle grid. No harm done, but a little bad luck could easily have caused a serious leg injury there. Every cattle grid from then on was crossed at the edge, holding onto the sides!
Climbing up the road here I again could see headtorches on the other side of the valley. I reckoned the gap was opening up though. I’ve been dangling out in front for quite a while now. If I could keep mistakes to a minimum then I should be able to make this gap stick all the way the CP at Middleton without a problem. That would give me an opportunity to turn this into a significant breakaway.
The pattern continued on. I was finding the going much easier than last year, even though I had covered this section in daylight then. Perhaps the familiarity with what lay ahead was having a good psychological impact. And again, anytime I caught site of the head torches behind the gap had, if anything, grown a little.
One of my personal favorite views on the race is rounding around Harter Fell and seeing Middleton in the valley below. At night time the view was even nicer, especially now that the weather was clear and there was a nice dusting of snow covering the ground. The descent down to Middleton is a truly joyous affair. It’s one of those descents that you just love as a trail-runner. A lovely moderate slope that is covered in fairway-esque grass. This could potentially be run at full-on 110% sprinting descent speed. I was happy to led gravity do the work of pulling me down the slope to effectively “float” down the hill at good but controlled speed.
Bruce from CP3 was waiting just after the bridge in Middleton and ran along side me for while and chatted. He asked what I wanted from the CP, then ran ahead to get it all ready. I trotted on through the deserted town and made my way into the CP building. After the sleep at Tan Hill Inn I wanted to make this a quick stop. I didn’t actually need to do much other than make my standard swaps of maps and batteries. I took up the offer of hot food and drinks, as I might as well get some in whilst doing my swap overs. My main aim here was to get out of the CP before the other 2 arrived in, thus ensuring I would maintain a gap. At that hour of the morning I wasn’t at my conversational best, but it was still good to chat with the volunteers in the CP, who as ever helped me in every way they could.
It wasn’t too long before I was heading out again. I’d achieved my main aim to get out before the chasers arrived in. Now lets see if we would meet in the next kilometer or so in Middleton as I make my way back to the Pennine Way proper (It’s another out and back trip to the CP in Middleton). I made my way steadily back through the town, anticipating the moment I’d crossover with the chasers, but to my delight I made it all the way back to the Pennine way. As I started heading out along the flat riverside track out from Middleton I could see the headtorches making their way down the hill above me to my left. It would seem that I had grown the gap again. I’ve a good chance of making this stick for quite a while. At the least, I’ve got control of the race from this point. Even with an instant check-in and turn around at CP3 they would still not be able to see me ahead through the next section along the river Tees.
The dawn light for a lovely run up alongside the Tees. I’d had a few mini-mistakes along this section last year, but went along flawlessly this time. On the farm track down to the bridge crossing over the river I did find a nice ice patch and landed on the track with a thud in a short blast of expletives. Last year we were diverted around Cauldron Snout due to the cold weather and high winds. At CP3 one of the Volunteers had asked how long it would take me to get to the diversion point, as he was going to go out to check if it was safe. There was no sign of a diversion when I arrived at the decision point, so onwards on a section I hadn’t seen before.
Even though it is shorter on paper than the diversion, the original route proved to significantly slower. For whatever reason I felt a wave of tired as I ran along the river-side track towards Falcon Clints. Every so often the cliffs almost merged into the river so that the track disappeared into huge boulder fields which were very hazardous to traverse, since the rocks were quite slippy. The views were undeniably stunning though. Cauldron Snout itself was roaring in spectacular fashion. Getting past it proved to be slightly easier than traversing the earlier boulder fields.
From there it was back to ice covered roads for a while. I carefully worked my way along those, before crossing Maize beck. A fast march uphill followed, going past red flags on adjacent flagpoles (presumably indicating an active firing range), and then working across the isolated landscape up towards High Cup Nick. This for me is where the best views of the race are to be had. The steep cliffs nearby make for exhilarating running around here. The earlier tiredness had gone away and I was back to steady paced running again. I hadn’t seen any sign of the chasers since back at Middleton.
The long descent down to Dufton from Dufton Fell eats through the kilometers, especially with the views down into High Nick Gill and beyond. The trail widens into rough road lower down, allowing an even faster comfort decent speed. Near Dufton one of the race safety teams were waiting to check that all was OK. I just slowed to walk to say hello, but quickly headed on into Dufton village, having a quick conversation with some cycling locals along the way. I was wishing for a shop in the village, but there was none… time to stop fantasizing about the various drinks I now couldn’t have, since it’s going to be water all the way from here.
Getting back onto the Pennine Way after Dufton I had memories of it being-unrunnably awful here, but more of it turned out to be runnable than I thought. There was still plenty of deep muddy section to squelch through though. Now begins the climb to the highest point of the race. Time to put the head down and churn out some power pole climbing. I had lost some time on this climb last year wandering across the mountain from track to track, so I made sure to nail the navigation this time. I felt like I was making good speed powering up. The weather was quite variable, with blue skies changing to grey murk at different altitudes. In the blue sky sunshine it was particularly beautiful, with light bouncing all over the place on the snowy ground.
As I climbed higher and higher the snow cover became more pronounced, with the trail correspondingly less so. I found the trail all the way to the first of the peaks, Knock Fell, without a problem. From here the snowdrifts made things a lot harder though. It took a little crunching about and sinking into the drifts before I was able to locate the trace of the underlying slabbed tracks again. Even at the the snow was thick enough that it was still slowing me down considerably moving down off Knock Fell towards the road leading to Great Dun Fell. I looked back once or twice here to see some stunning views. Temperature inversion had the snow-covered peaks emerging from the cloud banks in an alpine style vista.
I didn’t immediately find the Pennine Way track that heads directly off road to Great Dun Fell, so had to do a little cross country through the snow drifts to re-acquire it. Thankfully the trail itself wasn’t too deeply drifted and I made it up to the boundary fence of the huge Radomes at a good enough speed. Coming off Great Dun Fell was a different matter. The snow had built up quite deeply on this side, obliterating any trace of a track for the early line of sight. It was back to being closed misty weather now as well, so visibility was getting quite restricted. Boy was I glad to have moved fast enough to get this section in daylight. I didn’t have too much of that left either, so time to kick on and try to get across these peaks with that significant advantage.
The trip from Great Dun Fell to little Dun Fell should be a short little undulation, but it took a huge amount of concentration and track-hunting to the ground covered efficiently. Any time I lost the track I was quickly reminded of the advantage of having the slabs somewhere under my feet when I would sink beyond my knees into drifts. From Little Dun Fell to the flanks of the highest peak of the race, Cross Fell, upped that a notch again. There wasn’t much of a track to be found on most of the climb here, so it was a matter of learning to read the patterns of snow over grass and rock to find the lines of least resistance.
I was very happy to reach the huge stone construction that marks the peak of Cross Fell still having reasonable daylight, even though it was definitely very murky at this point. Descending from here is not as easy a task as it could. It’s vitally important to stick as closely to the official track as possible as there a huge number of hazardous features from abandoned mines to the left, and heading too far to the right is just going so far off course that it would all need to be reversed. To me the correct line off the top is an “unnatural” line which isn’t the direction you would instinctively run. So I paid good attention to navigation here. On the steeper upper slopes before the sharp right turn towards Greg’s Hut I was going so quickly that I ended up flying off and arse-skiing for a moment!
After the right turn the mountain road that headed past Greg’s hut (A small stone built mountain bothy) had a good snow covering, but I had enough light to hunt out the most efficient lines and was able to keep a good controlled running pace for most of the road. I ran straight past Greg’s hut. everything was good and I had nothing to gain, but plenty to lose, if I stopped. A couple of kilometers of steady running, with the occasional uphill walk took me to the end of the eastwards flatish section of the road to where it start to turn northwards. In my head this is the point where I’m leaving the high Fells and starting the long descent towards Alston and CP4. It was also the end of the usable daylight, so I turned my head torch on.
I hadn’t been doing much looking for chasers in the the last while, but the turn in the trail and the fact that head torch lights are easy to spot over long distances meant that I was taking the odd sideways glance. At first I thought I could see them in the distance coming down off Cross Fell. But I soon corrected myself to realise I had my angles wrong and that I was seeing the light of buildings or streetlights in the far distance.
On the next gentle uphill section I tried turning off my headtorch. I found that there was enough ambient light bouncing around the snow that I could trot along quite happily on the mountain road. So the headtorch stayed off. Approaching the Apex of another short climb in road I could see the beams of bright lights approach from the other side, which I guessed was a vehicle, and further guessed would be race staff heading up the hill, probably to Greg’s hut. All guesses proved correct, as they stopped in front of me, check all was OK and if I needed anything. After a brief chat we all set off again in our opposing directions.
It was noticeable that their four wheel drive had had quite an effect on the snow and ice covering the path, cracking the ice along its tracks and leaving a solid trail. It would definitely alter the characteristics of the descent for a while.
This is a very long descent, and all of it is on road from this point. Anyone who runs this too fast will fry their leg muscles. Anyone who has moved too fast to get here will have problems sustaining a downhill run on the continuous hard surface. My standard mantra was as important as ever here. Control. Keep the pace to a good steady run. Don’t run too fast, don’t give in and walk.
The descent down to the village of Garrigill was very long, but uneventful. The onset of the night was triggering my sleep instinct. I didn’t want to do too much to stop this, as I had every intention of taking a good length sleep in the comfort of CP4 at Alston, which was now getting very close. Just like last year, running through the village after the long descent is a bit of a drag, but the ultra-runner in me just keeps up the discipline and digs out the steady unspectacular run. Good metronomic instinctive ultra pacing.
Beyond the village is another turn onto a riverside (downriver thankfully) run towards CP4. Only a few kilometers to go. I had heard other runners before the race discussing this as being about an hour away. So I mentally put that time in my head, knowing I would probably beat that, but to prepare for the worst. The race crew had warned me that this section had been affected by the floods over christmas and to be careful of flood debris left on the riverside sections of trial. Such was the mental readiness I had that the reality moved along swiftly and easily. Within about half an hour I found the first of the race signs directing me up towards CP4.
On the steep road up towards the CP two of the CP staff had come out down the road to meet me. They checked if I wanted any food and drinks. I gladly accepted the offer of a hot meal, but then had to let them I actually don’t like pasta (which they had offered). The suggested alternative of scrambled eggs was perfect though!
Knowing that I was going to rest here, I could really start to feel myself slowing down approaching the CP. As ever, all the staff at this CP were super-helpful. I asked one of them (Phlip, I think) to dig out a jar of hot chocolate powder from my re-supply bag. That was a delicious treat. I was of course very interested indeed to see where Pavel and Eugeni were at this point. They were making their way down the track way beyond Greg’s hut, getting closer to Garrigill. I guessed there was maybe an hour’s gap there. I was still increasing the gap, but not by much, and given that I was going to sleep here it was likely to disappear shortly.
I let them know I was going to take a 2 hour sleep, so I was led up to a bedroom where I hit the sack, finished off my second mug of hot chocolate and went out like a light! My expectation was that when I awoke the other 2 would either well into a sleep themselves, or would have skipped sleep and be out on the trail ahead of me. That would be their call. I was happy that I was making the right long term decision in grabbing a relatively big sleep here, even if it meant surrendering a lead built over a complete day. Once again the stops CPs were the source of big tactical calls!