Hardmoors 110 1-3 June 2012
I have just returned from A & E. My efforts in the 2012 Hardmoors 110 ultra-marathon left me with a very painful, swollen and immobile left foot. The triage nurse offered me a stony ‘you’ll have to do more than that to impress me’ face when I described how I’d incurred the injury. The radiographer was mildly intrigued, but battling a bank holiday hangover and had more pressing concerns. The doctor was thoroughly impressed and asked if I’d be his personal trainer. My imminent move to London and the fact that he had just diagnosed cellulitus meant that I had to turn him down.
When I first heard about the Hardmoors 110 I was astounded that anyone would contemplate, let alone complete such an event – 110 miles with some 19,000 feet of cumulative ascent. I had read about the race and was fascinated by the fitness and resolve of the people who manage to propel themselves so far around this rugged part of the world. As I got better at running I started to enter distance races. The distances grew longer until in 2010 I somehow found myself at the start of the race I once thought you had to be insane to enter. Inexperience and a cattle-grid injury saw me DNF at 56 miles. In 2011 I tried again. At the top of Whitby steps, 78.5 miles in, with an excruciating knee injury and nothing left to give, once again I stopped.
So it was that on Friday June 1st 2012 I rocked up in Helmsley at the race HQ for my third attempt at the Hardmoors 110. I’d been watching Alan Partridge with my support team – Mez, Ol and Tim – and had set off late. We then got stuck in traffic, so I arrived at the start with only moments to spare before the race briefing. A glance around my fellow competitors revealed the usual cast of characters in varying degrees of compression clothing. The nerves are tangible; everyone is pumped and you can sense that they want to put the months of pre-race preparation to bed and get started. Setting off at 5pm on the dot, the tension lifts and the 55 starters of the 2012 race got under way.
I set off sensibly and let pretty much the entire field rush past me. Whilst there are certainly some very quick competitors in the field, I suspected that many of those running past me were fuelled by adreneline and excitement rather than race strategy. I presumed this because that is what I usually do.
The first 10 miles to Sutton Bank were steady and relaxed. Running through the Hambleton Hills on a calm summer evening is enjoyable and I savoured the scents and sights as I passed. All was well until I reached the Sutton Bank plateau, where my stomach began to feel ominously unsettled. I had a quick fuel stop and chat with my crew before pressing on to Sneck Yate where we met again, and then an hour later at Square Corner. By this point my digestion had become the source of serious discomfort which a couple of discreet visits behind dry stone walls (or as discreet as you can be in a fluorescent orange running top) did nothing to alleviate. Linking up with Tim, Mez and Ol, 22 miles in at Osmotherly I tried to maintain high spirits, but was finding it difficult. I ate a rice pudding and carried on. The discomfort ensured that I travelled slowly.
In the woodland between Osmotherly and Carlton Bank, the first big summit on the route, I again nipped into the undergrowth to see if I could reconcile the problem. Upon emerging I absently carried on running along the first track I came across. Unfortunately this was wrong – something which became clear when I arrived in a part of North Yorkshire I had not visited before. I carried on in what I guessed to be the correct direction, but after 200m, my sense of self-preservation ensured I stopped to get my map out just to double check. Sure enough, I was headed the wrong way. I about turned. I was annoyed with my mistake but relieved it had not been worse. I found my way back to the next support team rendezvous. I had only added another mile to the race; it could have been several. While going slowly had always been my game plan I did not want to be picked up by the race sweeper; by now, though, I was pretty sure if I was not last I was not far off. I thought about running the long drag up Carlton Bank to claw back some time, but I was doubling up with pain every time I tried to speed up.
Between Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping there are several big ascents. On the third of them, approaching 30 miles in, I was finding it hard to cope and I almost ground to a halt in frustration that of all the things that could go wrong, a stomach in bits was going to do for me. I did not see how I would reach the finish in this state. I was on the brink of tears as I thought about all the time, energy and training I had invested, all the people who I’d have to tell for the third time that I’d come up short, and not least, how much I wanted something I again was not going to be able to do. A few moments later a beautiful moon appeared. It was low and nearly full. With a sudden sense of how trivial my self-inflicted woes were, compared with something like, say, the universe, I got myself together and carried on.
I felt as though I had made some time up the hill and on the summit I found the illustrious Pat Mullin. He did his usual trick of raising my spirits with infectious enthusiasm and, in this instance, anecdotes about Ibiza opening parties. With a spring in my step and (whisper it) my internal strife easing, I made quick work of the descent. I also missed my support team at the bottom of the hill and had no option other than to push on up the Wainstones. In doing so I was fuelled by a Kit Kat donated by a kindly member of a midnight rambling troupe who had seen me looking for people who weren’t there and whose jaw dropped when I told them I’d done 30 miles and then fell still further when I told them I still had 80 left to go.
I made quick work of Wainstones. Since hitherto I had been travelling slowly I had lots of energy left in my legs. The cheerful marshals on the top raised my spirits still further and on the way back down I caught up with Flip Owen who was having a bad time of it. He seemed to be in a worse condition than I had been, but there was not a hint of negativity about him, just faith that things would get better. Hearing someone in obvious discomfort say ‘I hope I’ll have a good coastal section’, when the coastal section is 55 miles in its own right and doesn’t start for another 20 miles anyway, gave me the kick up the rear I needed. I knew this race would be tough and to think I would get around it without some real difficulties would have been fanciful. I carried on.
At the layby beneath Wainstones and before the ascent to Blowarth Crossing, I met again with my Mez, Tim and Ol. We had a laugh about something or other. I told them I was feeling better, they fed me, I went on my way again. Half way up the steep slope, having just finished the running battle I’d been having with my I-Pod headphones, I realised that in the process I had dropped a glove. This wouldn’t neccessarily have been a problem if the glove was cheap and I did not need it. But as it was waterproof, I was cold and had only bought the pair – for £30 – the day before. I swore very loudly, turned around and went back down the slope. After 400m I found Flip again being useful, this time carrying my glove saying ‘It looked like someone had just dropped it’. I thanked him gratefully, turned around and re-ascended the hill I had already climbed. As the slope levelled I got into a good pace and ran a good seven-mile stretch to just short of Kildale, via the bleak Blowarth Crossing. I walked down into Kildale checkpoint with another competitor, Leo, who was also a personal trainer. We talked business and ultras as we made our way into the warmth of the village hall.
Jon Steele was manning the checkpoint and raised my spirits further by saying I looked great. He then threatened to break my legs if I did not finish. I went outside to the van and was cheered even more by Mez,who said ‘Watch this’ as he opened the passenger door against which Ol was sleeping. I ate some food and arranged to meet them all at the top of Roseberry Topping, the last big individual hill.
I was in high spirits as I left the checkpoint and went up to Captain Cook’s monument. But then at forty-four miles in I realised my left foot was extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t put weight on the outside of it without feeling intense pain. I moved onwards, but the pain increased until it was horrible. Again thoughts of defeat began to gather. I could not contemplate running another 70 miles in such pain. Again I got distracted and wandered slightly off course. I carried on though, and after taking my roundabout route up to Captain Cook’s monument (I reckon I added only a quarter of a mile this time) I ran into Sarah Booth and Andy Norman, happily taking photos and looking like they were having a thoroughly pleasant time. I told Sarah about my foot. She gave me short shrift and told me it was in my head. I’ll go with that I thought and ran on towards Roseberry Topping. A combination of her words and, I suspect, the painkillers I’d ingested half an hour earlier put a new spring in my step. I found my 15th, possibly 16th wind.
Roseberry Topping was superb. By now it was light again, my support team were at the top and I could see all the hills I had just run across. The marshal gave me some jelly babies. Mez gave me a packet of sushi whilst Tim promised to eat the enclosed wasabi sachet in one go if I finished. A cracking way to start the day. And the coast was within reach. The marshal also strengthened my resolve, saying that as long as I could keep putting one foot in front of the other, I’d be fine. Of course he was right, I thought, and as I motored back down towards the moor and on towards Guisborough Woods, out of nowhere, I suddenly felt amazing. I raced over the final stretches of moorland and through the woods. My foot felt fine, my stomach troubles had gone and I was almost half-way. I texted my girlfriend Ele and ate a toffee crisp to celebrate.
At Slapewath, the next arranged link-up with the support team I dipped slightly again. Mez said he’d run with me. He escorted me to Saltburn where we checkpointed and re-met Pat Mullin, who was in the business if keeping everyone’s spirits up. As we left the checkpoint and wandered down to the van, Mez wondered aloud how much would be left of his van after letting Tim drive it. It was therefore amusing when one of the first things Tim announced upon our arrival was that he’d banged the wing mirror.
Getting to the coast was a psychological boost. We trotted along towards Skinningrove, but yet again, coming out of the other side and on towards Staithes I felt as low as I had done all race. The weather deteriorated to a cold, grey overcast; my foot was again excruciating. I felt light-headed and was having to pause every 200 metres or so to pull myself together. Mez kept me going, but my morale was on the slide. For the third time I thought I could not continue physically even if in my head this was all I wanted to do – I didn’t notice at the time, but this was a contrast to earlier low points when psychologically I had been all over the place.
As we left Staithes I was caught by the sweeper running with Andy Norman. I suprised myself by how cheerful I was. Andy said he felt fine physically, but mentally he wasn’t there. This was the opposite of my situation so we joked about having a trade off. I necked some more pain killers and Mez ran me down the last stretch into Runswick Bay, just short of 70 miles. The tide at Runswick can cut you off. I was concerned about this but we made it just in time. This boost, along with the friendly marshals from Wainstones manning the station and the arrival of my brother and dad really psyched me up. Setting off again with my brother Ed and his dog Jack, I was so grateful for Mez’s help over a seriously tough 17 miles, particularly as he had only initially volunteered to run a couple. I was back to running again. Forty miles to go; things were looking up.
We went past three or four more competitors on the way to Sandsend and I could feel something in me had changed. I was not countenancing defeat any more, just gritting my teeth and getting on with it. A constant stream of uplifiting messages from Ele was playing its part as Whitby came into sight at which point I began to sense the significance of surpassing last year’s effort. After five or six miles we passed Leo again. He was looking the worse for wear. My brother furnished him with some caffeine-based treat; I thought ‘If he’s still going looking like that, I have got no excuses’. Arriving at Sandsend I did a quick checkpoint with the by-now exhausted support crew. From what I could gather, Mez was busy being delirious in the back of the van, whilst Ol, Tim and my dad were being relentlessly positive: they fed me and sent me on my way again with cheerful banter ringing in my ears. Food, hydration and psychology are all big factors in these events; my friends’ ability to make me laugh every time I met them had played a large part in getting me so far too. I jogged into Whitby.
At this point in 2011, the black storm clouds had gathered: I knew I was about to quit. This year I could not wait to get to the top of Whitby steps and announce I was continuing. My brother nipped into an outdoors shop to buy a headtorch and some gloves while I carried on through the slow-moving throng of chip-eating tourists and pale, cape-wearing goths who are so attracted to Whitby. I even found the energy to bounce up the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey. As I waited for Ed I was given a cheese and onion pasty, the nicest thing that I had eaten for at least 24 hours, and drank my tenth bottle of powerade of the day. I had long since passed the point of caring how anything tasted, and was treating everything that passed my lips as fuel. (This said, although it did its job I shall be drinking a different brand of sports drink for the forseeable future.)
Ed’s Labrador Jack had been an entertaining companion, but by now he was exhausted so Ed swapped him for my parents’ dog, Mike. We set off to Robin Hood’s Bay. Mike is a challenging companion when you are running on cliff tops: he has an incessant desire to run in the opposite direction to the one in which you want to travel, and is unable to get over stiles without making a massive fuss. I am glad I can joke about it now, because as I was running on the amazingly beautiful cliff tops with 80+ miles in my legs, and as Mike tangled with my feet for what seemed like the thousandth time, I was deeply unimpressed. Maybe I should have been a triage nurse? The Hardmoors 30 race, run on New Years Day, takes in this stretch of coastline. It is tough; I ran it this year; I wondered how I was going to cope with this terrain after 80 miles when it had been hard after 20. Answer: I did not know. But some somehow I did it and again we ran the whole stretch. As we approached Robin Hood’s Bay, for the very first time in almost 24 hours of constant motion, for one second I thought to myself, ‘I am going to do it’.
First, though, I had to contend with the climb up to Ravenscar. Knowing how steep and unforgiving this is I had been dreading it for several hours. Ed had had started the day running on a bad foot and so asked permission to sit out the next stretch. Happily Tim said he’d do it with me. We were approaching 90 miles; knowing how difficult this whole bit was I decided to walk it so that I didn’t over extend myself. Aiming to tackle the stretch in under an hour, we moved briskly and caught up with a competitor I had been running with or close to throughout the day. Out of everyone I’d run next to he seemed to have an incredible focus. He was also running unsupported, so that while I was picking up food and supplies from my crew every 5-10 miles, he only had two supply stops, one at 42 miles and one at 75. I was deeply impressed by his self-sufficiency and determination.
We moved onwards, upwards and upwards towards Ravenscar. It took us just over an hour. On arrival at the checkpoint I changed my kit for some warm evening clothes and marvelled at how absolutely wrecked Mez and Ol looked. As I refuelled again the sweeper reappeared; I realised the last hour’s walking had lost me quite a bit of time. I collected Ed, and with 90 miles done we set off to Scarborough.
The reward of the long drag up to Ravenscar was the long downhill stretch towards Hayburn Wyke that followed. We ran it all, leaving behind a couple of other runners who left the checkpoint at the same time. The sky was clear. It was turning into a fine evening to run by the sea. My foot was getting worse, but I was managing to stay just on top of the pain with ibuprofen and parcetemol. And fluctuations of mood helped to distract from the discomfort. For example, when a group of picnickers asked how far I had come and where I was going to, the sight of their astonishment really lifted my spirits. Up until Runswick Bay the race had been a succession of deep troughs, some momentary, others unbearably long, interspersed with fantastic highs. But from Runswick Bay a sense of calm had descended; I was just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. Emerging from Hayburn Wyke and approaching Scarborough, I plucked up the courage to say to my brother ‘Ed, I think I might do it’. He immediately took the wind out of the sails of what I thought was an extraordinary revelation by replying ‘I know you are’. We slogged on to Scarborough seafront and for the first time, I could see Filey Brigg.
At the start of the Scarborough’s handsome marine drive the crew were assembled and looking spent. I was probably visibly disappointed when I heard Mez had to leave as he had to be at work at 7am in Leeds and it was now 9pm. This came as a bit of a blow. I thought this would mean Tim and Ol would go too - they looked horribly tired. But to my genuine amazement they both said they wanted to stay to the finish. I tried to thank Mez in as heartfelt a way as I could and set off around the seafront. My experience of running this long concrete drag in the past is that it seems endless. This time it was no different. I tried running but managed half a mile before reverting to striding on the legs that had now carried me almost 100 miles. I’d heard reports of Hardmoors competitors in the past being subjected to abuse from Scarborough’s burgeoning population of morons. Luckily I didn’t attract any unwarranted attention from them these locals, presumably because they were all busy speeding up and down the seafront in souped up hatchbacks, listening to music that was even worse than mine, beeping their horns every time they passed a parked campervan and shouting “wooooooooorrrrr” a lot out of their car windows. I kept moving and focused myself on the track in the distance that marked the final checkpoint of the race. Somehow I got there. Ol, Tim and dad produced warm pizza.
Ed had run 30 miles. He now withdrew. Tim, who had been up for two days, volunteered to travel with me for the final 13 miles. In the context of a 113 mile race, 13 miles is not very far. In real life it is half a marathon. While on one level I felt myself to be on the finishing stretch, in reality it was a distance that few people are actually fit enough to run. About a mile after setting off I became acutely aware of a blister just behind the toes on my right foot. Shortly after that, I realised I was not going any further unless I treated it. In the dark I balanced against a fence post, kicked off my shoe and tried to pinch a hole in a very swollen piece of skin. Despite a highly amusing commentary from Tim, after five minutes of sustained effort with no reward, I had to take off my watch and somehow hack a hole in the critter with the metal strap. The relief was immediate. Off we set again. Twelve miles to go.
I was beginning to feel faint and disorientated, so asked Tim if he would lead the way. It was getting chilly and starting to rain; my foot hurt, I’d never felt so exhausted. Dancing Queen by Abba came on my I-Pod and Tim and I had a sing song on the cliff top. The going was tough and punctuated by one of us saying in an unemotional, exhausted way ‘cliff edge’, before inelegantly staggering to the other side of the narrow path. We kept on going, occasionally kidding ourselves that we could see Filey Brigg. It was almost a surprise, therefore, when two hours later we saw some headlamps and realised that we actually could see it. When the lights revealed themselves we discovered two completely spaced out competitors who were heading back up the coast the way we had just come. I hope they listened to me when I told them this: if not they were in danger of adding on a further 10 miles to their route.
A short time later dad and Ol appeared, with Ol excitedly talking about his efforts to sleep under my dad’s car and dad pointing to the final self-clip checkpoint on Filey Brigg. This involves a dog-leg built onto the end of the course where, agonisingly close to the finish, you travel away from Filey to clip your race tally before at last being allowed to about turn into the finishing straight. Dad had tried to coach me on the route through Filey to the finish, but I hadn’t listened to a word of it, the finish being so far away. Tim said he knew, though, and for the very last time I set off, knowing that the next time I stopped I would not have to get up again. Leaving Filey Brigg I saw Sarah Booth who had unfortunately had to pull out at Saltburn. She was full of congratulations and praise which barely sunk in at the time, but which in hindsight, meant a lot. Tim and I stumbled into Filey.
Unfortunately, or perhaps – seeing how absolutely nothing about this race is easy – inevitably, 30 minutes later we were lost on a housing estate. We were so close to the finish, but the way I felt we might have been 113 miles away. I almost lost it, but bearing in mind Tim had spent two days of his life helping me do this, and I hadn’t even bothered to work out where the finish was, I thought better of it. I had, however, ground to a halt and was sitting hopelessly on a curb while Tim spoke to my brother on the phone and tried to work out where we were. When he hung up, I informed him that if we stopped again I wasn’t going to be restarting. He assured me he now knew where to go. In what I am now sure were the longest ten minutes of my life we eventually found Ed, Ol and dad who had come looking for us. Within fifteen, the finish came into sight.
So it was that at 2am on Sunday the 3rd of June 2012 I staggered into the sports hall of Filey Secondary school to find a room full of bleary eyed race marshals, competitors and supporters at the finish of the Hardmoors ultra marathon. I’d been running for 33 hours, covered at least 113 miles (70 of them, the doctor later told me, with a severe infection in my left foot) and climbed over 19000 feet. I sat down, and in a very subdued way managed to feel delighted.