2015 I turned up for the Oldham Way Ultra full of hel-flu and made the rather wise decision to not even start the race but to head back home at 7am in the morning and sulk for a whole 12 months. 12 months later I entered only 2 days before the event deliberating if I was fit enough / stupid enough to run 40 miles the week after a double at Grindleford Gallop and Edale Skyline. Yes, I was stupid enough. But actually I was not as stupid as a couple of runners who had just done Hardmoors 55 the day before, yes I said Hardmoors 55, and on 2.5 hours sleep. There is always someone more stupid than yourself.
So I found myself lined up with nearly 100 other runners on the start line at Castleshaw Centre near Diggle just outside of Oldham for the ‘Oldham Way Ultra’ (Also known as the ‘Red Rose Ultra’ but not… that’s a whole different story apparently).
And off we were at 7.30am on a crisp Sunday morning. There is never that much of a rush at the beginning of an Ultra, and I am one of them that just goes with the flow. Within less than half a mile a stream of runners were pacing it up around Castleshaw Reservoir, I counted them for the laugh, around 30 in front of me, and one girl who I found out went by the name Tracy.
We don’t need a reason we just need an ultra
I started with no gloves rather than starting with gloves but within half a mile as we hit a rocky incline my hands were getting cold, so I took the opportunity to warm my hands and fiddle about with my gear. Tracy – the leading lady was just one or two ahead at this point, she looked very strong and determined so I settled well behind her, in some cases too far behind. In my mind, this was going to be a good day, in the souls of my feet this was going to be a good day. What better way to spend a Sunday than to prance about some lush trails and Hillage for 40ish miles?
Let’s have a moment of silence for all those stuck on a treadmill in the gym.
Through some fields the runners ran, pounding the somewhat hard ground. The mud had disappeared which made it tip toeing challenging on the hard tufty surfaces. It seemed fairly flat to start with through farmers fields but with nearly 5000ft of the climb there were bound to be hills somewhere. Hills – where are my hills?
Running through more muddy fields, there were a stream of runners ahead looking like they knew where they were going. Tracy was well ahead initially then she decided to stop for a girly wee stop (behind a wall and all that), which put me in front position, but she soon caught me up and over took me on the little fieldy hills. We ran together for a while and came into Checkpoint 1 bang on together. Tracy took the quick route out of the checkpoint i.e not taking food or stocking up with water and got a great lead on me. Me on the other hand gazed at the ample supply of snacks; crisps, bars of chocolate, jelly beans, chocolate and the rest. I took on some water, taking a milky way and some jelly beans I walked out of the checkpoint and was back on route. Happy with my choice of chocolate I scoffed down the lovely milky way which became my main source of food throughout the 40 miles. Fuelled on cheap milky ways. Brilliant. Eat, run, eat, run, repeat.
Love every step of your run
Down some little lanes I ran, alongside another guy for a while. We got chatting which was the perfect way to spend a few miles along the Rochdale Canal, flat and full of fierceness, and maybe somewhat fast for an ultra. Of course not the most picturesque of sections but the conversation made up for that. The guy I was running with was well up on his Ultra’s. I found out he had done Spartathlon, millions of marathons, Comrades over 10 times, Thames Ring (250 miles) and JOGLE. I was not worthy! Here was a pro ultra runner. His chat made the miles along the canal feel like metres. An absolute privilege to run with such a guy.
Coming off the canal for a few minutes, we got a little lost as we went over a bridge instead of keeping to the canal side, but all was good as another bridge ahead allowed us to get back on track.
My new friend then decided to stop and get something to eat so I ventured on. This was all good timing as we were coming right to the end of the canal so I went into my own little world and followed the maps and the GPX to navigate myself around some housing estates / little pathways and parks. A couple of blokes in front had got a little lost in the park but I was too far away to whistle them back as I followed the ‘Oldham Way’ signs as well as my maps / GPX.
Down another pathway, I ran after a small section on road. I bumped into 4 or so other runners including Tracy who were running in the opposite direction. Was there a secret checkpoint down there or a pot of gold something? No, they had just gone a bit wrong. We ran in mass in one direction what we thought was the right direction, which it was. Let’s have a bit of a sing song….
This time I’m ready to run
Wherever you are is the place I belong
‘Cause I wanna be free, and I wanna be young
I will never look back now I’m ready to run
I’m ready to run – (1D)
Whilst there were a ‘gang’ of us together, one of the guys made a comment ‘are you, two girls, going to chase each other over a sprint for the next 20 miles?’ This made me smile, we’ll wait and see, anything can happen in an Ultra.
I think I took a bit of a lead on Tracy to enter the next checkpoint around 18 miles in, but only within seconds. I took on some coke and my staple diet of a milky way alongside some jelly beans. We left the checkpoint together commenting what a glamorous sport this is; indescribable noises coming out of both ends, scoffing down whatever food we wanted, and drinking cheap flat coke. The perfect ultra.
The route meandered upwards into some tricky narrow pathways, balancing in places, skipping over tree routes and jumping over holes in the way. I felt a surge on as I danced across the tight trails on my own, semi aware that Tracy was not too far behind.
Up into some boggy fields squelching through the mud and over the tuffs of grass and mole hills made it hard going. Across a few stiles I jumped, to face a really nice long hill. The pathway turned to a stream, with lots of mud to make it even more challenging. At this point I knew it was time to sort out my clothing as I had been wearing two top layers even though the sun was shining. I stripped off to my tee whilst I walked up the hill and juggled the mud wrestling trainers which were now soaked into the socks. That’s prancing about in the hills for you on a gorgeous spring Sunday morning.
Today hearts conquer hills – Nike
Pulling myself up the hill to the top I was now feeling more refreshed and stronger as I saw two of the guys in the distance up against another nice wide trail path. I said hi to a cameraman who commented on it being a lovely run then went on my way.
I was feeling good at this point 25 miles in, and time for another checkpoint. I ran towards the checkpoint being told I was 1st female, and 9th overall. I wasn’t sure of the 9th overall bit but I would take 1st Female for now. Tracy must not be too far behind so if I was to keep this position I would need to work hard by eating more food in the way of another milky way and some malt loaf for good luck. Amongst my eateries were some gummy bears and another 2 cups of coke. I also ensured my water was stocked up for the forthcoming miles.
I don’t run to see how fast I am. I run to see how far can I go.
Onwards and downwards to a small section of canal where I caught up with the guys in-front of me for a few minutes and then onto lovely woody trails. The shade was a godsend as it was getting rather warm and the heat was beginning to penetrate through me. However I was beginning to suffer a little, my body felt that it had run a marathon on trail, well that’s probably because it had run a marathon on trail. I popped a gel. Normally I don’t really like gels but sometimes they come in handy for a quick sugar burst and I didn’t want a repeat of the other week when I had gone into hypo.
The gel settled in and gave me the power I needed to continue through the trails. Jumping over little streams and splashing through muddy rock pools I got back into my stride, my run and my love for ultra running.
Give me strength, reserve control
Give me heart and give me soul ~ Coldplay
The route then meandered back on itself down an easy going gravel type path to Dove Stones reservoir, a very popular location with the locals. I was beginning to run out of water, even more so after the descent when I found myself running on flat pathways around the reservoir, dodging the Sunday families out for their afternoon walks. My head was beginning to spin, to ‘pant’ and I could feel the tension building up ready to explode. This was dehydration. I had drunk all of 500ml of water in two flasks pinned to my rucksack. ‘Don’t bonk just yet there isn’t time’ I told myself. Then remembered I was carrying some salt tabs with me, used only once last year in a run in the peaks, I rummaged into my rucksack pocket pulled one out and threw it down my throat with the very last drop of water. Would that do the trick?
The reservoir path seemed to go on forever. I was at 30 miles plus by now and desperate for the checkpoint. A guy up a head also looked like he was struggling a bit as I passed him asking where the next checkpoint was. A kind gentleman pointed up beyond yonder and told me it wasn’t far now. I had hope for water. The salt tab was kicking in but I still knew I needed water.
Just a little further, and just a few more steps – literally as I climbed some steepish steps to a car park and there was that Oasis in the middle of the car park – water, coke, water, coke, watermelon, coke, watermelon, coke and of course milky ways! Yes! I had made it without bonking.
The first thing I did was to down two cups of water. The kind marshals at the checkpoint filled up my water bottles, told me to take as much food as I wanted alongside the map for the next section. Maps were available at each checkpoint which I thought was a fantastic idea. A buffet of food was spread out in all its glory ready to be eaten but all I could face was watermelon after watermelon and a milky way.
It was time to leave the picnic behind and make a move. ‘Don’t waste too much time at the checkpoints’ I told myself, especially if I wanted to maintain this position. So off I went with my competitive head back on and ran.
Sometimes I need to just believe in me
Back into glorious moorland pathways, and up I went and up I went even further and still up as I climbed a rocky hill, power walking as much as I could. I was keeping an eye on the guy in-front who waited at the top unsure of the way to go. GPX says that way, as did the Oldham Way signage.
We were into real rough moorland territory now. The stony pathway routed off to proper fell-land – tussocks of heather to jump over with no real pathway markings, just a map and GPX to mark the way. Eventually I came to a fence and spotted a stile to jump over which lead to a fantastic descent all the way down some fields. Delightful.
I was feeling strong enough to power through the fields and onto a road section. 35 miles in , 36 miles in, I hit a little village – Diggle I would assume? Passing a pub, drinkers were cheering me on, ‘1st female’ they said ‘not far to go’ they said ‘one last hill’ they said. They were right. I glanced up to see a stony pathway go up and up and up right to the top where I could just about make out one of the main roads. This upness must have been a good mile or so if not longer.
Breath brings hope. Action brings possibility. Belief brings results.
Despite this being uphill of uphillness a surge of power overwhelmed me and I decided to run up most of it. I am not sure why as I was chasing no one. The guy in-front was near the top now, and no one was behind. I was just running for me, I had no concept of time just hearing the pattering of my trail shoes on the rocky ground. I was loving this.
Finally I made the top, a fantastic feeling of wellness overwhelming me. A short trot next to the main road which then joined the Pennine Way for a little way. I was in head mode and still following the ‘Oldham Way’ signage. This is where I went wrong. The Oldham Way meandered off to the right so I took the signage without looking at the route on my watch or the maps. Alas I realised my error within minutes as I glanced at the route watch and listened to something in my head telling me it was the wrong way. I had gone off course. I could have kicked myself, hard, very hard. So far I had managed to stay more or less on track, then 2 miles before the end I go wrong. Focus girl focus, don’t mess this up 38 miles in. Make a ‘U’ turn and go for it!
So that’s what I did, I stopped beating myself up, made that quick U turn and was back on track, following the signs to ‘Castleshaw’ – the start / finish. This last section on road was a magnificent downhill roll and soon all was forgotten with my re-routing as I watched the route on the watch – straight ahead, down, straight ahead, down and let my feet do the navigation straight ahead and down.
Let your legs do the running, your mind do the pacing, and your heart do the pushing
I didn’t know how fast I was running but it felt almighty good. Beep beep, 39 miles in, and as I turned the corner I could see Castleshaw Reservoir gleaming in the distance, with Castleshaw Centre nestled safely in the valley. Home was just a mile over yonder. I had to keep this up, running, dancing, skipping all the way down the hill, round the bends and down into the valley I kept pacing myself.
I was chasing no one but myself, no one was chasing me but my shadow, that was all. It was that simple. I felt invigorating. Finally I rejoined the road section that we had taken so early on this morning, past the carpark and down the driveway to a big cheer. I crossed the finish line to endless more greetings and clapping. 7 hrs 21 minutes and 59 sections. 1st Female, knocking off a good hour from the female course record. Boom!
Run + Mind + Heart = An amazing running journey
Ample amounts of food awaited, cups of tea, soup, more congratulations from the race organisers, pizza, crisps, cakes, chit chat and general friendliness all around. What a fantastic way to spend a Sunday running round Oldham. Don’t judge an ultra by it’s name, this is one for the diary for next year, its beautiful (minus the bit on the canal next to Tesco’s), just watch the video below created by one of the runners Allan Parkin. Will I be back? Of course I will.
Brilliant video below from Allan Parkin
Position: 9th overall out of 93 starters
Gender Position: 1st Female