- Edale Skyline 2007 (English Champs). Those who ran still bear the scars. This was an epic race with a capital E. 21 miles of fell running in utterly horrendous weather. People were literally blown off their feet at the top of the first climb (Ringing Roger) and most of the sensible fell runners dropped out at Hope village before the real drama began. Visibility was so bad on the tops I remember Lloyd Taggart running in ski goggles. That day I collapsed at the top of Jacob’s Ladder and woke up in a tent manned by the Mountain Rescue. A bad day on the fells, still my worst racing experience yet.
- The Great Lakes 2012 (English Champs). 13 miles of driving rain, mega wind and streams that turned into rivers. Never before have I seen that level of camaraderie amongst fell runners who both shared and survived the experience. You could have made a film about what happened that day and it would have been a blockbuster hit. All I remember about the finish is waking up in the back of a St John’s Ambulance whilst Karl Gray laughed his head off and took photos of me on his iPhone for future ransom.
- Lee Mill Relay 2015. A surprise new entry, straight in at Number 3! When I woke up yesterday morning I never expected this to enter into my Top 10 of ‘Epic Races’. After all it is only 6.2 miles with 1150ft of climbing on reasonably local fells- hardly anything to be scared of!? You’d certainly think not. But today was a learning curve, even for me, someone who claims to be an experienced fell runner. The truth is I got caught out and I paid the price.
A few weeks ago I entered two teams into the Lee Mill Relay to cap the end to a brilliant season of club running. It was supposed to be a bit of fun, some friendly competition between the CVFR ‘Golden Oldies’ and the CVFR ‘Ewe’th team. We purposely didn’t enter our strongest CVFR team, the plan was just to have a laugh and enjoy some pre-race banter in the build up. Others in the club had exactly the same idea. We’d entered about 12 teams in total and there was even beer money riding on some of the results. The battle between the ‘CVFR Shimmy Shakers’, the ‘CVFR Herbivores’ and the ‘CVFR Gladiators’ was billed as the biggest contest in club history. Some of the lads had gone nearly 10 days without a pint and Mark O’Connor hadn’t eaten a slice of cake for at least 24 hours prior to the start. Make no mistake, they were treating this race with some serious respect. Ben Frechette was also quoted as saying that ‘this was the biggest race of his life…everything he’d done before today had led him to this one moment. A victory would be even more memorable and important than his wedding day’ (his words, not mine Mrs Frechette). You could cut the tension with a knife. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.
The relay made it’s debut last year as a calendar replacement for the very popular Calderdale Way Relay, an end of season event that I’ve really enjoyed doing over the years. Richard (the Lee Mill Relay RO) also shares my love for the CWR and thankfully he’s stepped in to fill the missing gap in my life. Last year we entered a couple of teams and we really enjoyed the race. It was a good end to 2014 and it was nice to win too, despite a low turn out. Fast forward a year and the relay has swelled in popularity, over 100 teams had pre-entered and there were some strong teams on the start list. The perfect recipe for a classic race. It was just a shame that the unpredictable English weather had once again reared it’s ugly head as we were set to run in some pretty serious conditions.
Leg 1: The Welsh ‘Whizz’ard vs Mad Legs Mulholland
Math Roberts was first up for our ‘Ewe’th team but he’s been struggling to run for the last 7 days. Last week he injured his big toe and it swelled to the size of a peach. He showed it to me at the FRA presentation (last week) and I was nearly sick in my pint of Guinness. He’s been on antibiotics since Monday and it was good enough to race (just). The main problem however was his massive hangover. He went to see Judas Priest perform in Manchester on Saturday night and he was drinking and moshing till the early hours of Sunday morning. So when I saw him before the start of the race he was limping around like an extra from the Walking Dead and any expectation of us winning quickly disappeared. This was all but confirmed when we saw Tom Adams, Ian Holmes, Jack Smith and Sam Watson all skipping up the track to register their super-team, ‘The Green Head Monsters’. The bookies had stopped taken bets, this was a done deal.
Our ambition was to try and beat the CVFR ‘Golden Oldies’, a much more realistic aim and the main reason that we were running. All the Welsh ‘Whizz’ard had to do was beat the mighty midget Gav Mulholland (on Leg 1 for the ‘Oldies’) and try to give us a commanding lead for the remaining legs. Never an easy task but Gav’s not been running much or racing recently so he was expected to lose a few minutes to ‘Manky Toe Math’, with or without his injury and hangover.
Video of the race start (courtesy of Dan Biggs)…
The race began and the leg one runners set off in the howling wind and driving rain as we retired back to the warmth of the registration building to drink tea and eat cake. 40 minutes later we headed back to the start line to watch the changeover. I expected Math to be somewhere near the front but it was very much dependant on the scale of his hangover and the damage to his toe. Sure enough, the first signs of movement in the distance revealed a red and white vest with another runner tucked in right behind. ‘Manky Toe Math’ had done a top job, outsprinting Wharfedale’s Jack Smith to set us off on leg 2 in 1st place. A few minutes later Gav returned in 4th place but in a pretty poor state, he was a pale shade of blue at the finish so Karl (Gray) quickly led him inside to warm him up.
Leg 2: The Cliffe vs Logie Bear
Leg 2 was supposed to be the Painted Stallion (Johny Helliwell) vs James ‘Logie Bear’ Logue but unfortunately the former pulled out on Thursday night so we had little time to bring in a decent sub. Thankfully Martin Cliffe (Eryri Harriers) stepped in, after a little persuasion from Math, and we were back to having a solid team. All he had to do was try and hang on to the coat tails of the legend Ian Holmes, easier said than done!
When the first runner returned from leg two it was no great surprise to see Holmesy finish with a commanding lead. The only thing that would’ve prevented the Green Head Monsters from winning now was injury or poor navigation, both unlikely scenarios. So when Sam Watson set off on leg 3 he had plenty of time to spare, there was no catching him. The rest of the teams had to wait patiently to see who might be the next to emerge in the distance. A few minutes passed and still no sign of second place. Then ‘Mr Reliable’ James Logue appeared faintly in the distance, he’d had a great leg and moved up two places in the field. Daz Kay set off for the ‘Golden Oldies’ and we waited a bit longer for the next man to come through. Finally Martin appeared, much to our relief. He handed to Tim Ellis who sprinted up the track at pace in hot pursuit of Daz.
Leg 3: Timbo Baggins vs Special Kay
Both Timbo and Daz are running well at the moment so the stage was set for a real heavyweight clash, well more of a lightweight one really as Timbo only weighs about 7 stone wet through. Even so I was excited to see how both of them would get on, there was still time for us to challenge for second place.
I started my warm up with Karl Gray and we jogged up the first climb. The wind was strong and it was raining but we were both adamant it was still ‘vest’ weather. I’ve set off in similar conditions before and almost instantly regretted wearing too many layers because once I hit race pace I soon start to overheat. Also in heavy rain there is no such thing as a waterproof jacket, it’s always soaking wet after two minutes, it flaps about in the wind and ultimately weighs you down. Instead I decided to keep mine as dry as possible and pack it at the bottom of my bumbag just in case of an emergency. Karl agreed and we headed back to the start to wait for the changeover.
Leg 4: The Master vs The Apprentice
Leg 4 had all the makings of a classic race between myself and the master. Tom Adams had already set off a few minutes in the lead and Daz had ran a solid leg to hold on to second position. Karl headed out after the exchange and I waited nervously for Timbo to return. I’m not sure how long I had to wait, maybe a minute, but it felt like a long time. Timbo had done a brilliant job though and kept the team in contention for second place, it was obvious he’d ran one of the fastest legs of the day. All I had to do now was run a spectacular leg myself and try to reel Karl back in. I clearly had my work cut out.
I set off in trademark style, my intentions clear from the start. The headwind on the run out was seriously strong and I was having to work extremely hard to maintain a decent pace along the track. When I hit the first climb I could see Karl in the distance and it spurred me on. I love time trialling, which is essentially what relays are after the first leg. I also prefer to be chasing the race too, so I was happy to start in third place.
As we hit the first summit I quickly realised just how strong the wind actually was. The path thins out as you run above the quarry and there were some pretty big drops off either side. I was nearly being blown off my feet and I was struggling to keep my balance. I was relieved when the track opened out and there was a brief respite from the wind. As we hit the next climb I started to gain time on Karl, I was feeling pretty good, despite taking a massive battering from the wind and rain. As we climbed higher the weather worsened, the strength of the wind picked up and the rain turned to hail. I did think ‘why the hell am I running in this’ before I managed to talk myself round and continue to soldier on. Just before the summit I passed Karl and it was here that the weather was most intense. I wasn’t expecting this, I knew it was bad but this was serious stuff. I felt like I was running head on into a tornado, the wind must’ve been around 80mph. I was struggling to stay upright and no matter how hard I ran I wasn’t making any progress towards to top. It was a huge relief to turn at the summit and head back across the moor with the wind behind me (see race footage at the foot of the blog – 9:35 minutes into the video). For a brief moment Karl pulled up back alongside me and I knew I had to put in a big effort to try and drop him from my tail. I opened up my stride and ran as fast as I could, I didn’t want a sprint finish for second, instead I wanted to distance myself as much as possible before the final descent.
It was probably at this point that I realised how much I was beginning to suffer. The hail was battering me so hard it felt like I was being shot. I was like the guy on the front cover of ‘Platoon’, taking bullets from all angles. I didn’t want to stop and put on my jacket either because I didn’t want to lose any time. Most importantly I couldn’t afford to stop for even a brief moment because wrestling the wind whilst fumbling in my bumbag would’ve made me even colder. Plus I’d lost all feeling in my hands and I could barely even speak. Instead I ploughed on…tripping, falling, slipping…the ground was so wet it was hard to grip and the wind was so strong I was struggling to keep my balance. It was a massive relief to finally hit the descent and drop down to the lowest checkpoint. Up to here I’d made good time, I knew I was on for the fastest leg too because I’d caught Karl and also put some distance into him. Like a true Strava geek I created a segment after the race to see how I’d performed over the first 2/3 of the course…
Considering the conditions and the way I was feeling I was very happy with how I’d been running up to this point. Things however soon took a turn for the worse. As I began to climb steeply out of the valley I realised that I was quickly heading into a zombie like state. When I hit the top of the ascent the wind hit me like a head on collision with the Hogwart’s Express and literally took my breath away. I was well and truly battered. I felt dizzy, disorientated and I just wanted to stop and wait for Karl. I honestly stopped caring about the race, I just wanted to finish.
Pictured above: The face says it all.
Unfortunately for me there was still a long way to go. I kept looking back and Karl was closing in fast, I couldn’t respond. People reading this might think I’m over exaggerating but I was in a really bad way. I was freezing cold, delirious and I couldn’t speak. I remember crossing a small lake, except it wasn’t a lake, it was just excess rain that had filled an empty pocket of the quarry. I didn’t have the energy to turn round or find an alternative so I headed straight into the freezing cold water and it was up to my waist. Still it could’ve been worse I suppose – Gav, Karl and Tim must’ve been up to their necks!
The final stretch across the moor was a bit of a blur if I’m honest. I was stumbling around like Math Roberts at the end of a Judas Priest gig and I was desperate to stop. The thing is I just knew I needed to get back to the finish as fast as I could because if I did stop I would’ve been in some serious trouble. The last mile felt like a marathon, I was all over the place. When I hit the final track it was just sheer relief.
Pictured above: Photo of leg 4 courtesy of Darren Sargent (CVFR)
I ran straight through the finish line and back to the race registration to try and get warm and recover. Somehow I’d managed to beat Karl to second place but I couldn’t care less. I could barely even walk up the steps inside the building and when I finally managed to get to my bag I couldn’t get out of my wet clothes. I couldn’t stop shivering and I couldn’t speak. Thankfully Gav was there to get me out of my wet clothes and help get me dry (Phil Winskill will love reading this I’m sure!). I was like a zombie and I’d gone completely hypothermic. All I remember is a few people trying to dress me, make me drink hot tea and warm me up as best they could. A few others, including Karl Gray (shock horror), were taking pictures for future bribes, he must have a massive collection of me now! At one point I was the filling in the middle of a Claire Harris and Gav Mulholland sandwich, much to Karl’s amusement. Sinead Hayes was amazing too, she must’ve made me drink at least a pint of sugary tea and looked after me for ages. I was really grateful to everyone for bringing me round and if they’re reading this I want to say a HUGE thanks to you all. I also want to say a huge thanks to Richard (RO), the marshalls, the Mountain Rescue and all of the race team. On that day, in those conditions you all deserve a medal for your efforts. I also want to publicly apologise to them all for putting myself in the state I was in. In hindsight, I should’ve worn a merino base layer under my racing vest and I take full responsibility for my actions. It would’ve made a huge difference and who knows I might have even enjoyed the final few miles of the race. I only have myself to blame for underestimating the weather and I’ve learnt a valuable lesson. I’m just lucky that I made it back in one piece and that there were plenty of people at the finish kind enough to look after me. As an experienced fell runner I really should know better.
Apart from that, it was a bloody great race. Congrats to the Green Head Monsters and well done to everyone who took part, you all have my upmost respect. No doubt I’ll be back next year for this brilliant event…obviously wearing my inov8 merino baselayer 😉
Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iC7uipS-g0 (courtesy of Dave Lee)
Finally I’m sure you’re all wondering who won the ‘real race’ of the day. I can reveal that the ‘CVFR Shimmy Shakers’ were triumphant over the ‘CVFR Herbivores’ and the ‘CVFR Gladiators’ with captain Lee Shimwell the star man of the day. Thankfully for Mr and Mrs Frechette, their wedding day still remains the best day of Ben’s life…..well at least for another 364 days.
Pictured above: Mark O’Connor and Richard Ingram (CVFR Shimmy Shakers) proudly holding their winner’s trophy.