This was an event I’d always wanted to have a go at – being local and in the dark, it had a different appeal and the Beyond Marathon guys always put on good well-respected events and look after their runners. It was all about beating the Grim Sweeper, we’d have from 1 hour before sunset at 4.45pm to sunrise the following day at 06:58 exactly to beat the grim sweeper otherwise it would all be over. It may seem a long time for those running sub 8 hours 50 milers but this is not to be sniffed at, with 9000ft of climb over fell and trail taking in Lose Hill, Cave Dale, Priestcliffe, Shining Tor, Mount Famine, Russup Edge and Mam Tor there is enough fun to keep you up all night. There’s a small part of me that has a paralysing fear, but you know what they say if it doesn’t scare you it’s not hard enough. Anyway, I can do these things and there are people out there that can’t. Not that they don’t want to but that they can’t.
The difficulty in it is what makes it more appealing.
So, of course, we have to first bag the excuses. Of course, we do, we are runners. The only excuse I could come up with would be working on a 7-2am shift that morning at the pool. Teaching is more exhausting than you may think, demonstrating ‘bend star snap’ for hours on end tires the legs you know….
Back home, I’d planned just enough time to grab some lunch and then I was off to the small village of Hope nested in the middle of the Hope Valley, to hope to run 50 miles in the dark around hilly (9000ft-ish) of Peak District fells, trails and tracks. With all my kit check items in a charity bag ready to be kit checked, (it saves time being in a plastic bag) I knew I’d probably overcooked the required items but also knew it would all fit into my little 10 litre pack and I’d rather be warm and happy for an extra 200g than be cold and sad and DNF.
Registration was slick, we were asked to show random items off the kit list and I was asked which shoes I was wearing as well. (My beloved Lone Peaks – fantastic trail shoe that I’ve been running in for a few years now). The kit list was comprehensive, with high vis a necessity, head torch, I had my newish Petzl Nao and my spare one – my LED Lenser with plenty of spare batteries after my incident up Whernside at the Pennine Barrier 100 in the summer I had learned my lesson. I had taken some of my own food, a few little bars, Kendal mint cake and 1 gel alongside enough tailwind to feed the whole population of Taxal.
However, the Kendal mint cake didn’t even last till race briefing as once I was kitted up with my tracker and been given my number I began to kit faff and eat my Kendal mint cake.
It had turned very cold that morning before the race. The car measured 1.5 degrees in the morning as I set off for work and 3.5 degrees as I approached Hope. From running in shorts and tee the previous Wednesday to now being about 4 or 5 degrees. Temperatures were forecasted for zero, feeling like -5 on top of the hills with the added wind chill.
Weather forecast for tonight: Dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning.
I’d, therefore, packed x2 gloves, (x1 high vis x1 montane Prism), x2 buffs, (x1 Aldi merino x1 proper buff merino) x1 merino hat, (all the way from New Zealand) x2 long-sleeved (x1 Helly and x1 rather fleecy thick winter running one). I was also wearing a thinner fleecy one, my Tarawera Ultra tee which is so comfy because it is slightly longer than your normal tees, long fleecy-like running trousers and my waterproof that had been re-waterproofed only a month ago. In addition, I had my little down gilet which I like for just about anything and my merino arm warmers – again from Aldi. On top of all this was the standard route directions – a few pages long, bivy bag, whistle and compass and I’d gone with waterproof trousers as well just in case I fell or the hail turned into snow you never know.
Overkill? Well not what I was wearing, maybe the overkill was taking x2 extra long-sleeved especially my fleecy one but better to be safe than sorry and what’s 200g anyway? It’s probably the amount of rice pudding that I had for my lunch.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear
There were half marathon, marathon and ultra runners all registering and meandering around the place. That rustic aroma of sweaty ultra running porn-filled the air as we all waited for the race briefing.
Richard, RD did a fine job of describing all three routes. Instructing us what to watch out for, including cows, sheep snow, wind, a few odd markers dotted about the course even though it was a self-navigating event and there may be a few small high vis flags as well if we were lucky.
The race started at 4.45pm dead on an hour before sunset. It used to start at sunset but Richard pointed out that this extra hour was called ‘Eddie’s Hour’ in memory of his father who passed away earlier this year and all donations would go to the Brain Tumour Charity.
Some of the runners looked far under-dressed, with shorts and vest and very little else. I was hoping for their own sanity that they weren’t doing the Ultra.
Stars cant shine without darkness
So 50 miles of darkness were lying in wait ahead. I wasn’t so much thinking how far it was or what my strategy was apart from aiming to beat the grim sweeper and finish happy in one piece. Neither was I in race mood or competitive mode but was using the event as an experience to run in the dark at times on somewhat challenging terrain, keeping a calm and controlled mind and most importantly to have fun and of course to beat the grim sweeper.
I set off mid-back down the road towards Castleton. A polite conversation with a few of the runners soon drifted as a chorus of slapping footsteps echoed down the valley.
I knew the first loop which would take us up Lose Hill, the same route as the ‘Half Tour of Bradwell‘. Not to be taken lightly, the climb up and over Back Tor is always challenging. The blustery and somewhat squally winds were blowing strong against us, making my muscles working all the more. As Richard pointed out at race briefing, the loop is there to give us a little taster of what may be to come.
Everyone looked so able, so energetic so full of running legs. I always question myself at the start of races, I question whether I am good enough, whether I deserve to be here, whether I should be here, whether I can do it. I am scared, I am not hard as nails like these people around me, I am not an athlete I am just someone who likes running in beautiful places, captivating my imagination and giving myself that warm radiant glow of achieving something that I never thought was possible. Until I have a go.
I felt destroyed only 2 or 3 miles in. Bedraggled and despondent. My lethargic legs had done too much bend star snap earlier in the morning. I heard a girl talk to someone else about being in the Ultra and then she stormed up Lose Hill certainty aiming not to lose. My spirits sank even more as people passed me one by one. I used to be able to run up here and today I could hardly drag my legs in front of each other. I felt destroyed already should I just call it a day and go back to Hope? No brain no, you will not give up in the first 3 miles.
How long should you try? Until. – Jim Rohn
I huffed and puffed my way up to the top of Lose Hill. In normal circumstances, I love this ridge but today I was just grateful to reach the top, and attempt to ‘fly’ down the other side. But even on the downhill I felt like I was dragging my body down. No one in sight now just me and my feet and my tired mind.
My wimpy body had a little chat with my persuasive mind and asked it if it should drop to the half or the marathon as it was still possible to change. My persuasive mind told my wimpy body to stop being so weak and childish and to grow up and run. So I began to run. Through Castleton and through the first checkpoint just as the light was draining fast barely enough for any running shadows. I began to catch up a group of 3 guys as I climbed up the rocky but not so slimy Cave Dale – for those that don’t know, Cave Dale is a spectacular valley riddled with limestone bedrock and often wet and slippery which is often slower coming down than going up.
The dusky light was turning into the moonlight, as the sun was to say goodnight to all the runners. The air was still and silent, as the light got thinner and thinner. At the top of Cave Dale, I switched on my first head-torch to give me that little bit of light that I may need to avoid face planting into some cowpat.
What a nice night for an evening.
My ‘torch’ plan was to use my LED Lenser at the beginning on low setting and then on low setting on the road sections. Then I would swap to my Nao on the fell sections and later on, when I was more tired I would have more pronounced light. I had x3 sets of spare batteries for my LED Lenser too so I could swap out the main battery when it ran out. So well prepared. So I thought.
At the top of Cave Dale the half marathoners’ would turn off and the marathoners and ultra’s would carry on all the way to Millers’ Dale on the Limestone Way Ultra route. I knew this section as I had run most of it (the other way around) on the Limestone Way Ultra. Tonight our route did divert off onto about a mile and a half of tarmac rather than through Peak Forest and into the Limestone valleys a la the Limestone Way Ultra.
I caught up with one guy who was using poles and we ran on silently together. At one of the main road junctions, there was a kind lady with her children handing out jelly babies and asking how we were. Very kind. Very dark, very fun.
However long the night the dawn will break
In daylight this road section would be excruciatingly dull, in the darkness there was an element of feeling connected to the world, pounding the dark winding road. We both caught up with a couple of marathon runners and a marathon runner then caught up with us, so I think there were about 5 of us running together at one point. The silent ultra company at its best.
Everyone who has run knows that its most important value is in…removing tension and allowing released from whatever other cares the day may bring. – President Jimmy Carter
At one point the boys were in front and they all turned off the wrong way. I took the lead as I whistled them back as I knew the drop-down to Millers’ Dale was straight on. It wasn’t long before the small lights of Millers’ Dale approached alongside the bright lights of flapjack, water, pork pies and mini scotch eggs.
I was straight in and out of the checkpoint as I was now feeling the love for the fresh night air and the legs were moving well. I was fantasising about running up Shining Tor some 30 miles in, just me and my head-torch, relishing in the glow of the near on full moon and the millions of bright stars dotted on the black canvas above. Me myself and I and the guy with poles who I found out was called James.
Negotiating the way to Priestcliffe a little hamlet wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined, I’d been up here before and despite being field after field each stile or the dry stone wall gaps were marked with yellow paint – permanent rather than from the race organisers.
We were back on the Limestone Way so again I was familiar with the next small section, last year so so muddy but this time rather dry, the head torch was doing good and I was trying to minimise battery by putting it on low as much as I could on the easy sections. Silently we ran on, the beautiful shapes of the monochrome hills in the distance beckoning us towards them. I was alive in the deep darkness of the evening light.
May the road rise up to greet you, and the wind always be at your back – Irish proverb
There was a little more road before joining up with a wide limestone track for a couple of miles, crunching over the gravel further into the emptiness of the night.
It was jelly baby time as I felt my body fade a little. That sugar rush did the trick and I was soon on my way my energy levels vanished, I continued to run through the endless night, my soul running free, my worries disappeared into the deep black hours. I think I run, I think even more. I am alive. I think about my best friend undeservingly cancer-ridden. I think, I run, I am alive, and I run towards the stars. I say nothing. I just think.
Off the wide limestone track and into some dark mysterious fields we ventured. Despite the other terrain that we’d had to negotiate these fields felt a maze of confusion. So samey, dark green grass after dark green grass reflecting in our head torchlight. Random limestone dry stone walls surrounding us everywhere. We were off track as I glanced at my watch, seeing the arrow move away from the little breadcrumb line. I was also nursing the map and route instructions just in case. We were on the wrong side of the wall. A little scramble over a broken wall put us back on track as we followed a grass trod and headed over to a dark cloudy clump of trees and finally rambling through more pastures and over more stiles to the next checkpoint at Earl Sterndale.
As we were coming into the indoor checkpoint, two ladies were just leaving, we said hi to them and wished them well. I wasn’t in race mode so left them to it. On other occasions, I may have chased but tonight was not my night for chasing. I was comfortable and enjoying where I was and the way my body was feeling. My aim was to enjoy, soak in the night-time atmosphere and finish before the grim sweeper, not to chase.
Some people dream of worthy accomplishments while others stay awake and do them.
From Earl Sterndale there was a bit of a climb through someone’s garden despite being a right of way, then across a few more dark fields and onto a shaggy footpath with rough undergrowth. We had been warned at race briefing to walk this section of unpredictability so I picked my way over with care, mindful of what a twisted ankle would mean to the rest of my journey.
The beams of the head torches of the two girls were now way in front as we hit the tarmac. Nigh time stretched ahead as long as the road, a 1 or 2 mile stretch of relentless concrete. It gave a good opportunity to simply switch off and run, think and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the dark Peak District countryside.
A rutted trod fed its way through the next section of damp tussocky terrain, leading to a confusion of ‘footpath’ signs pointing in every different direction. Thank goodness for the route map, instructions and GPX file. A hidden path was tucked away in the deep depths of a small forest as we bounded through the deep dark autumnal track.
Myself and James had a little chat about races we’d previously doing finding out that ‘James’ was a well-seasoned ultra runner having raced the weekend before and completed the Cotswold’s 100 only about a month before. Blimey, it took me longer than that to properly recover from the Pennine Barrier 100.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. – Robert Frost
I began to prepare myself for the climb off the A54 a bleak and ‘fast’ road bordering Derbyshire and Cheshire leading to the now unoccupied Cat and Fiddle and the panoramic beauty of Shining Tor. Although I knew there was a checkpoint at Derbyshire Bridge just before the major climb to the old Cat and Fiddle I’d prefer to faff climbing than at checkpoints. Once we arrived at the main road there was a high vis top, a human. I thought at first it was a marshal but an odd and secluded place to put a marshal on what would not be such a busy road at whatever time it was in the evening. It was instead one of the girls who was looking a bit lost, apparently, the other girl had gone down onto the trail next to the road and wasn’t sure if it was the correct route.
The three of us stuck together as we made our way up the road a little and then across the rutted footpath and onto a more mainstream but rocky path. A turning onto moorland trod led us into our first real boggy terrain, where if at any place we were going to get wet feet this was it. The small trod was just about visible in the full beam of my head torch.
Derbyshire Bridge was a welcoming sight as I stocked up on various goodies and popped them into my pocket, alongside some water fill-ups. They were also giving out pasties and other stuff which the other girl eagerly took. About 2 minutes after we’d left the checkpoint my head torch gave way so I used the hill to walk and change batteries preparing for later on if I needed it and change head torches to my Nao.
I re-caught up with the girl and James who had gone ahead whilst I faffed and we ran together past the rather bleak looking Cat and Fiddle. By this time it was somewhat perishing. I’d also put on my gilet and an extra buff whilst faffing on the hill. A wise move. Horizontal sleet began to get in our way, slicing past the beans of our head torches. It must have been below freezing but I was warm inside so I felt cuddly and cute. With the head down it was about as simple as running gets in cold blustery weather, just get on with it and plod up Shining Tor as quick as possible. I barely noticed I was climbing until I reached the top.
I don’t give a **** about looking cute in the cold, keeping warm is my mission
Evidence of temperatures was apparent as the peaty mud holes had turned into ice as I skidded across them the ice crunching beneath my feet. I glanced behind me, James was right behind but we’d dropped the other girl somewhere.
The 2 ish miles of pave-stones down Shining tor is a blissfully fun run especially on a gorgeous autumnal day in shorts and tee, which I had done a few weeks before. In the dark a slightly different experience. The wind still blowing, horizontal sleet not quite as vicious as at the top of Shining Tor but still enough to get in our way and gaps in paving stones enough to keep us on our toes. Ironically James took a tumble at almost the same time as I had taken a tumble a few weeks before on the same ground. I guess it was because of all that concentration that you lose your concentration and go splat. He was OK, and we continued together across Cats Tor and Shutlingsloe. There was no sign of cats, or cats eye thank goodness just sheep eyes dazzled in the beam of the head torches.
After winding our way around round some fell like terrain being careful not to get our feet stuck in hidden rabbit holes, the next section became quite runnable. However not to be too complacent, as we still had to keep a lookout for the gates and little gaps in the fields. The legs felt good and the body was toasty. In fact, the body was now too toasty so on the next incline I was to take off my gilet and gloves and faff about a bit more.
Once we were through the little village of Taxal which wasn’t really that taxing and had negotiated our way through some more farmers fields following a little trod across soggy ground and a couple of little wooden bridges we were back on the road section again to take us up towards a virtual checkpoint ‘Eccles Pike’. More faffing from me as we both walked the hill, stuffing things I didn’t think I would need into my rucksack, re-organising my food pockets, sorting out my bottles and trying to straighten out my random messy compartments. Little did I know at that point in time that whilst faffing I dropped my spare head torch.
Each time you run you will receive lessons. You have enrolled in the school of ultra running. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid. What you think makes no difference; the lessons will be presented until they are learned. – Keith Pippin
The route took us down a delightfully fun run drop to Chinely, the penultimate checkpoint at around 39 miles. There was a little out and back to the community centre on the main village road. Just as we were doing the ‘out’ bit on the road one guy and the leading lady were doing the ‘back’ bit. We said hi and exchanged our best wishes. Both myself and James seemed quite happy with our pace and company. After stocking up at the spooky checkpoint – not sure why it was spooky it just felt a bit spooky, we made our way out ready for the climb up Chinely Head, a hefty graft up fell-like bumpy trods intertwined with roots and spiky hawthorn bushes. A trembling gush of wind inaudibly drifted across the edge. It began to hail again, the bitter temperatures biting away at my body. I wrenched up my hood and put my head down desperate to get off the tops into some shelter. Mother nature was calling too which doesn’t help when your body is cold and you need a wee.
Down a steep banking, there was no defined pathway, small flagged markers had been placed to mark the way amongst the reeds and tree foliage. These markers were fantastic in the beam of a head torch showing the way down rather than being lost in the tall grasslands. Once down into more sheltered land I stopped for mother nature, too much tailwind, blame it on the tailwind! A quick wee and I was back on my way chasing James down narrow secluded pathways covered in autumnal foliage. At some points the paths and fields had little or no trods just the glimmer of horses, cows or sheep eyes glaring precariously at two head torch beams.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. – Edgar Allan Poe
Another climb, this time up to a place called Mount Famine, a mount in its own right and another virtual checkpoint. It was possibly what I would class as the second to last climb. But this second to last climb really took it out on me. My legs felt like stone, dragging each leg up one at a time through the squidgy grassy ground with the odd rock outlet amongst a non defined pathway up to a small stile. This led onto the Pennine Bridleway which meanders right around the tip of the blustery and exposed South Head. Now South Head can be a stunning location at its best, with views stretching in every direction over Kinder Scout. Tonight or was that today or tomorrow morning and what time was it again as the clocks changed tonight or was that tomorrow or today? So tonight, the fierce wind had got even angrier as it blew us side to side around the hillside. I was finally glad to get round to the other side and for the 2 miles or so run down to the Russup Edge checkpoint.
As I began to run down the bridleway my Nao began to flash. This was the torches’ way of telling me I had 30 minutes left on it, so I dimmed it to its lowest setting which was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. I was somewhat disappointed as It was supposed to last 6.5 hours on the brightest setting which I had programmed but had only last what 4 maybe 5 hours? What am I doing wrong with it? I had no spare battery for it either as its a rechargeable one and although it takes AAA ones they are fiddly to put in and only go into the emergency mode with AAA batteries. But clever me had prepared my other head torch with its new battery set in for this very moment. I wasn’t going to get caught out again. So I reached for my spare head torch…. apart from it wasn’t there, it wasn’t in my coat pocket where I had carefully put it, it wasn’t in my rucksack it wasn’t in my pocket, alas I had dropped it somewhere I had lost it….
There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see. – Malcolm Muggeridge
I swore, I sulked, I panicked, I was ready to DNF at the next checkpoint. I put my Nao on absolute minimum power and shone it ahead to try and use less battery I knew we had probably an hour to go with a couple more bumps up Russup Edge and Mam Tor to negotiate and you would not go up Russup Edge nor Mam Tor without light. I had a very little mini handheld torch with me too but that was about as useless as a chocolate teapot and I could really have done with a cuppa tea too. I was angrily frustrated with myself, as I was running so well, despite a few minor blips earlier the legs were now feeling remarkably like running and the body was feeling fuelled and exceedingly healthy. I’d had to slow down far too much for my own good on this 2 miles stretch just because of the lack of light and my stupidity of losing my back up head torch.
We arrived at the checkpoint and I explained I’d lost my head torch the very very very kind man at the checkpoint I think his name was Tom lent me his spare one, although only a little one, giving out a little light, it gave me the reassurance that I would be able to get ‘home’ with at least some light, and myself and James would stick together to get us both safely home.
So up Russup Edge we walked. I knew with better light I could have put more effort into this section as I knew it well, and in daylight thoroughly enjoy the run-up and across the edge. However, it was not meant to be. With strong crosswinds roaring around my tightly fitted buff and merino hat more sharp rain that once again turned into horizontal hail piercing the black skies, conditions were ‘fresh’ to say the least. With minimal light, it made it even more demanding.
God, I must be crazy.
A dead sheep in the middle of the pathway was a running joke with us all back at base for there is a race called the dead sheep too. Only a few metres on from the dead sheep was a random trainer on a pole, very random, this felt something out of Barkley Marathon or something similar, very surreal with all these props dotted about the edge. Dead sheep, minimal light, blazing gusts of wind, hail, snow, and random trainers heading to Lords’ Seat on Russup Edge at whatever time of the day I mean night it was. Let’s get the hell out of here and just get it done.
James then took a tumble, and went over on his ankle, I was rather concerned but he assured me he was ok as he hobbled on for a little while, finally he got back into his grove and we got the safety off the edge and headed down to the road at Mam Nick. Normally this is such a playful descent to the road, but tonight it was a little more challenging, to say the least. My Nao was on absolute minimum power and I used the borrowed head torch in my hand to find my way.
The last of the climbs was up Mam Tor which I knew like the back of my hand. The easy bit was going up, going down wasn’t as so as my light diminished even more. I am used to running the descent in much more favourable conditions, in daylight, in the bright sun, galloping down the edge, skipping over the paving stones, dancing through the gates, you know the type of run? However, we weren’t the only ones having battles with ourselves as another runner seemed to be finding the descent down a little difficult. We asked him to stick with us but we soon dropped him and continued down from Hollins Cross back to where we had climbed up to Lose Hill yesterday evening.
The village lights of Castleton twinkled below, as we negotiated one of the more technical parts of the course. With ingredients of tired legs after 48 miles, peat filled ditches, the rocky dusty rutted path was a recipe for a face plant but we both managed to stay vertical this time.
And we were then back on tarmac all the way down to Castleton and back round to Hope some 2 miles or so left on the course. We picked up the pace and we were both moving well now we were on more even ground. The head torches were still needed for the camber in the road, the odd pothole and dip in the road. At least we weren’t running down the broken road a mile or so away.
Back on the road to Hope, hope was just around the corner and pace was on the scale of comfortable. I was grateful for the company of James, to have that silent but encouraging companion to keep the pace and share the love of night running across the Peak District.
If at first, you don’t succeed, you can always become an ultramarathoner. – Bruce Fordyce
We arrived back through the blow-up finish at whatever time it was. The rest of the finishers were nursing pie and tea in the sports club – all 5 of them. yes all 5 of them. That meant that we’d come in joint 6th overall, myself 2nd Female, the first Female Amy putting in a great effort to arrive some 15 minutes before myself.
So total time was 11 hours and 1 minute, 50 miles, with 9000ish feet of climb, 10 hours or so of that in the dark. I will take that as a nifty way to spend the night that we turned back the clocks. (No Johny Hates Jazz in sight). That got me not only 6th place but what they call a ‘black’ medal for finishing top 10 or before 3am (or something like that) other medals were also available in gold silver and bronze for the times / positions that people came in.
Mistakes made were only really revolved around my head torch, despite having a really bad blip in the first 3 miles I picked it up and felt the love for the majority of the route. The climb to mount famine was somewhat ardours but overall my body responded well, my brain was well executed to tuning into the event. A fantastically varied route, an assortment of terrain, intermixed with some great climbs. Plentiful goodies at checkpoints and rather kind volunteers who lend you head torches must be mentioned too. Being offered pie, crisps and biscuits and cups of tea at some random time in the morning is all part of the Ultrarunning experience. Well, what more do you want after running 50 miles around the Peak District amongst the speckled darkness and deep velvety skies all for fun? For fun you said? For fun?
Time to dream up my next adventure.