Bit of a biggie this, so you might want a cup of tea or something…(oh and i’ve not proofread it or anything, so i apologise in advance for awful grammer/spelling/random half finished sentences etc)
We made the “Clitheroe Today” newspaper and interweb site too!
Underneath a freshly designed canopy occupying the centre of Whitehaven harbour, against a bleakly cloudy backdrop of crashing waves, hundreds of legs, dressed in the finest outdoorsy athletic gear, jitter and bounce in an attempt to keep the chill of the air at bay. Amongst them, mine, feeling rather out of place, twitch nervously.
Amassed under the start/finish banner that would become so familiar over the next few days – sometimes revered, sometimes dismissed with a scornful face at some ungodly hour of the morning – the chosen runners of the teams and their soloist counterparts chatter, grin for team photos, stare distantly at the sea and try to keep from their mind the size of the challenge that a few have started chanting the countdown to.
As we hit ‘one’ and begin to charge across the harbour towards a flight of steps leading us up on to the cliffs towards St Bees, I should probably point out that, in the Grand Scheme of Things (according to our team anyway), I shouldn’t really be here. Right now, the hopes of both the organisers and those willing to take up their challenge were that we would be frantically paddling kayaks out past the harbour wall into the Irish Sea, but the Great British Summer saw paid to that by throwing wind and waves powerful enough to hurl the inexperienced against the kind of jagged rocks that festoon shipwreck novels and Rum Story tourist retreats in droves. Instead we are to run along the clifftops to the next cove along, some six or so miles away and pick up the planned route from there.
I wasn’t to be in the kayak for the sea paddle. My teammates Rich and Sarah, we had decided during that wonderful period before a race like this gets underway when everything is simple, logical and can be dismissed with a few ticks on a few pieces of paper, were to take on that particular task and I was to meet them at the first Transition. I wasn’t at all distressed with this. I was fine with it, in fact. My meagre time in a kayak had shown that, although I could stay right-side-up (and not immediately drown, should things suddenly turn not-right-side-up) and handle the basics of moving forward, left and right, our best chances of success lay with me kayaking the relatively easy lakes that come later in the race. When we discovered it had been cancelled, a hasty reordering of individual activities within the first day’s race stages left me charging up the steps thousands of local miners would have trudged up day after day towards the now closed coal pits lining the coast, in order to better spread the effort across the team.
So I really shouldn’t be running along the path hugging the worryingly eroding cliffs, in a perfect world non if us would be, but I’m convinced I shouldn’t be. I’ve not done any running for well over a year and as we thunder across the narrow track a few hundred feet above the waves it starts to become apparent. While alongside me Sarah is setting herself into a well practiced rhythm; calm breaths, gentle, percussive footsteps and a light, fluid motion I set about hacking at alternate ankles with the inside of my passing shoe. I jog with non of the grace or efficiency the rapidly disappearing front runners, I stumble and trip my way towards the first checkpoint of the day, but I am moving and to my great surprise and relief I seem to be able to keep it up. It’s not pretty but it’ll do.
By the time Sarah and I reach the mass of support teams and marshalls at St Bees the competitors have become spread out and, as I’m passed my helmet for the next stage – a bike ride over towards Crummock Water – by Rich I’m amazed to discover that we aren’t stone dead last already. Not that I would be worried even if we were, we are on bikes now and I’m back in my element. I ‘dib’ out of Transition and full of vigour Rich and I set about reeling back teams that opened up a gap on team Clitheroe Bike Club (for that is our name). Its not long before, as the streets of tightly packed houses begin to give way to more rural roads and hedgerows start to replace weatherbeaten windows, we’re passing team after team. We join the main Coast to Coast cycle path after a few miles and make short work of the smoothly surfaced route, heading straight for the looming mountains that appear to be gathering and mustering a heady mix of low cloud and rain for us. The impending weather holds off as we ride into transition where Sarah is ready and kitted up for the kayak along Crummock Water. I struggle to pull on drypants and buoyancy aid as Len, our support crew for the day gives us directions down to the waters edge a few hundred meters away. Once dressed, Sarah and I drag the kayak along on a little portable trolley (a godsend that saves us having to carry with weighty boat) along a grassy track to the shore, where we manage to make getting into the thing look almost infinitely harder than it should really be. With help from Sarah I just about manage to haul the elasticated spraydeck hanging round my waist onto the boats’ hull but it then takes us an absolute age to get hers on, with me now strapped into the back of the kayak and unable to really offer any assistance, as we wobble around in the shallows by the lakeside.
Somehow, we manage to both get sorted without capsizing the kayak and, now left far behind by the other teams that were starting their paddle at the same time as us, we set off across the lake just as the rain appears.
We soon discover that, out on the open water, a stiff breeze is making any sort of steering hard work, with what seem like big waves to me bashing against the side of the boat, pitching and rolling us quite alarmingly. Around us the water fizzes as the massive raindrops belt into the lake, the rain gets heavier and heavier and, just as I start to think that the weather is throwing everything at us already, the skies darken further overhead and the first rumble of thunder rolls across the hills surrounding us.
We are completely alone in the middle of the lake, fighting to keep in a straight line as I glance up and see lightening strike a hill to our left. We suddenly feel very small and exposed, maybe this isn’t such a good place to be right now. Sarah asks for reassurance that it’s OK to be out on the water in this weather, I have no idea if it’s safe or not, I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t, but try to sound confident that it is and get on with paddling us across towards Buttermere.
We beach the kayak in some long grass at the end of the lake and set about remounting the trolley underneath, to make the portage over to Buttermere a little easier. We don’t quite tighten the straps enough and, by the time we’ve dragged it across some open fields to a gate and a camping site the boat is listing across behind us at a crazy angle, not that we care at this point, we just want to get over to the next shore and get paddling again.
Unfortunately, between us and the next shore is a rammed full Lakeland car park, with some truly atrocious parking going on. Hauling the kayak over a gate (which in itself is a struggle) we nearly dent a few poorly parked cars and come close to a bit of road (or should that be boat) rage when some dopey fool in a 4×4 decides not to wait for us to leave the car park with our wonky kayak trailing along behind us, but just drive straight in and block the exit. The number of times my paddle accidentally smacks against the pristine paintwork of the car as we fight to get through the narrow gap left for us probably teaches the driver a lesson mind you.
We bemuse a few walkers braving the now torrential rain and thunderstorm by trotting past them with our boat swaying around behind us, asking if there’s a lake anywhere nearby and how we get to it, but most people seem helpful and we find another deserted shoreline a few minutes later, where we try to learn from our mistakes first time round by ensuring Sarah is set up in the kayak before I clamber in behind her and fight my spraydeck on. We away and paddling again in less time than previously as the rain refuses to abate and more lightening hits the surrounding mountains.
We cling close to the shoreline in the hope of avoiding the worse of the waves and wind out in the open water of the lake, but have little success in steering as we are buffeted by strong, gusting winds. Someone, somewhere, has decided we are to take the racing line down the middle of the lake and it’s all we can do to keep the kayak up right as waves seem to pummel us from every direction. We’re aiming for a bothy at the far end of the lake, that’s hidden from view by the downpour so, as the map we’re using to confirm our location becomes saturated with water and begins to dissolve, we try to pick up some speed to get out of the exposed part of the lake before disaster has us capsized.
Thankfully, after a few nervous minutes and some very close shaves the bothy pops into view ahead of us and we’re able to zig zag our way towards it, before beaching once more and – rather than try to reattach the trolley – we set about pulling the boat over a field to the next transition, where Rich and Len are waiting.
I dib in at the transition and breathe a sigh of relief. That’s it for me today, Rich and Sarah are to do the big, nasty looking run over those hills that I’ve just been watching lightening strike, before swimming across to the finish of today’s race in Keswick town centre, while I get to pull on some dry clothes and warm up again while driving the car over to tonight’s campsite. Joy!
Len and I cheer them off as they jog away from us towards a very steep looking incline before making our way over Honister pass (where I managed to get some wheelspin in the berlingo) to where the swim finishes, so we can leave some running shoes for Rich and Sarah to pull on for the final kilometre or so into town.
Upsettingly, the path down through some woods to the shoreline where they will exit the water is flooded and my lovely comfy dry shoes become utterly saturated as I wade through shin deep water to drop the trainers off and I spend the rest of the day squelching round with horribly uncomfortable feet.
As Rich and Sarah come into view in Keswick it becomes instantly obvious that something is wrong, Sarah is limping badly and as they cross under the finishing gantry to applause from tourists and marshals alike we discover she has seriously hurt her knee while trying to get down some of the descents, Rich agrees that she’s gone over on her ankle several times and the general consensus is that she’s unlikely to be able to do any more running. Eek. We’re down a runner after one day…what will the rest of the race be like?!
Over fish and chips, later that evening Sarah decides that she can continue the race, but probably not do any more running, so we bed down in our tents and set about trying to ignore the aches and pains we’ve already amassed.
A restless night’s sleep is brought to an abrupt halt by the sound of Sarah freaking out about a mouse popping it’s head into her tent. I have no idea what time it is, but it’s still dark and the idea of getting up and ready for the day’s first stage – a ride out from Keswick over to Thirlmere, is not very appealing. Despite the night’s rain managing to creep through the groundsheet and take up residence under my sleeping mat, I’m fairly comfortable tucked up in my sleeping bag. “Maybe I could just stay like this for a little while longer”, I think to myself as a distinct lack of help for Sarah’s cause suggests to me that everyone else around us is equally lacking in enthusiasm to get up.
Next to me, Rich sits up in his sleeping bag and begins the laborious process of pulling on kit for the day’s racing by the light of his headtorch. Bugger it, I’m going to have to get up. A quick shuffle of my legs suggests that yesterday’s run has left it’s mark on me, something inside my right thigh ‘just isn’t right’ and my calf muscles ache like mad, but on the whole I don’t feel too bad, so I try to focus on that as I squeltch my feet down into still sopping wet shoes and wrestle my way into the race bib worn by each competitor over their own kit.
Crawling out of the tent into the gloom of the early morning, I can see several figures by their support cars, fettling, eating and staring vacantly at the floor. This cheers me up somewhat, it’s not just me that seems to be finding this part of the event just as hard as the racing itself. Good.
I cram my kayaking kit into a spare plastic bag for the first transition and pass it to Mick, our support team for the day, before setting about fitting our Not So Secret Weapon to my bike – a tow rope device made by Rich to enable me to drag anyone holding onto it along at a faster speed (provided I’m the faster rider, obviously). It looks a tad Heath Robinson, hanging off the seatpost of what is essentially a stupidly expensive piece of kit, but I’m assured it’ll work…plus I should be going fast enough for people not to see it anyway…hopefully.
As dawn breaks over Keswick and the so far omni-present clouds break to allow a bit of sun through, Sarah and I roll down through a deserted town to the start/finish gantry set up just outside a park. For a few seconds I worry that the biggest problem of the day might be finding the start, rather than navigating the rest of the route, as we cruise past row after row of shops that will soon be smothered in tourists, but as we round a corner I spot a team with an earlier start time than us setting off from amongst some trees. Our mid pack finishing place yesterday means that as we arrive and pick up our GPS tracker for the day we get to watch the teams placed lower than us begin their day and share tales of woe from yesterday with them. The atmosphere at the start, although slightly subdued by the early hour and size of the task ahead of us, is nicely laid back and cheery – each team is ‘dibbed’ and sent on their way with a heartfelt good luck, which is greatly appreciated by me as I pedal off towards what I expect to be one hell of a day.
The first stage is only a few miles long, so as soon as we hit the main road Sarah grabs onto the tow rope dangling above my rear wheel and I start to put the hammer down. I know we’re going to suffer a bit on the kayak stage, time-wise due to my relative inexperience so I want to limit our loses as much as possible. For most of the route I keep my head down while I mash away at as big a gear as I can haul along in the cool morning air, glancing up only to confirm we are heading in the right direction and to make sure I don’t miss out on too much of the Lakeland scenery we seem to have to ourselves as it whizzes past.
Halfway through the route I spot the team that set off 4 minutes before us, which gives me enough reason to keep the pressure up until we catch them, exchange greetings and start to pull ahead. I’m sweating quite a lot with my waterproof still zipped up where I fitted it earlier while shivering at the start/finish gantry, but knowing that every second might well count I continue to keep the effort high until the final turning off the main road appears ahead of us, with glimpsed views through the trees over the lake that we’re about to paddle the length of. It looks big. It looks almost as big as Helvellyn, towering over it in the distance, which I have to run over with Rich immediately after. The size of it all is still running though my mind when I hear a panicked shout from behind me as Sarah tries to let go of the tow rope, we’re rounding a the corner still at flat out speed as the loop on the end of the tow rope hooks itself over her brake lever and flings her across the road, dumping her ungracefully on the tarmac.
Shock and a big dose of adrenaline have her leaping back up to her feet before I can even come to a halt in front of her and, although a bit shaken, she’s able to remount and ride the last few metres to the transition area with a freshly bloodied knee and a new tale to tell.
I dib in to finish the bike stage and discover that Mick’s done us proud, managing to get our kayak as close to the start of the second stage as would have been possible without him paddling it out onto the lake for us (which isn’t allowed apparently – part of this stage involves hauling it over a gate and down some steps before setting off across the water) directly across the road from where we’ll be heading. An ecstasy of fumbling sees me wrestle my way into some drypants, spraydeck and kag while Sarah dons her favourite skull cap and begins to pull the kayak over to the ‘suddenly very tall’ gate.
I grab the other end to her and with a bit of faffing we manage our way down to the waters edge, where we remember yesterday’s pre-paddling debacle and I help Sarah get set up in the front of the kayak before climbing in behind her and fighting my spraydeck into place.
A somewhat inelegant looking shuffle away from the shore gets us out onto the water and we’re soon cruising along nicely, flanked by deep, rich woodland on either shoreline, flowing over the wonderfully calm surface at what feels like warp speed to me. We stick quite close to the waters edge to avoid any wind that might be lurking further out into the middle of the lake and plot a course that should see us skirt round two small islands about halfway down the lake before turning slightly to take a direct line right to the next transition, a few hundred metres inland from the shore at the far end of Thirlmere. The very fact that we bother to plot a route shows just how much easier we’re finding the paddle today, unlike yesterday we seem to have much more of a choice over which direction we’re heading in and, amazingly, as we continue to row our way down the lake we start to reel in a few other teams.
It’s by no means a fast process, but as we thrash our paddles in the water in what is supposed to be a syncronised way (I’ll leave the final judgement on whether it was or not to any onlookers who happened to see us) we manage to catch up to the teams ahead of us and, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of lorries overtaking each other on the motorway, manage to eek ahead as we run out of lake and beach ourselves.
More fumbling ensues as we extricate ourselves from the boat and carry it along the lakeside path to the transition area, where I dib in before realising I’ve left my running shoes, not in Mick’s support car – as you would expect – but in the back of the berlingo which is parked about half a mile down the road so as to keep it out of the way of the competition. Without panicking (lie), I dive into Mick’s car and we rush, much to the confusion of the watching marshals, round to the berlingo where I grab all the kit I can think of needing for the rest of the day and rush back again without losing too much time. I stuff a couple of energy gels in the leg of my shorts and trot back out of transition with Rich down the road towards Helvellyn.
We’ve only got a few hundred metres down the road when I realise that running isn’t going to be on the cards much today. My legs generally don’t feel too bad – even being cooped up in the kayak doesn’t seem to have affected them too much – but whatever it is at the top of my right leg is making sure I’m reduced to a rather pathetic looking hobble as we reach a wide gravel track and start to climb upwards. After a few hundred metres and after a few teams bound past us on foot as I limp along, we reach the start of the bridleway and the climb proper up to the mountain summit. Thankfully it’s so steep that it’s just a set of stone steps seemingly reaching straight into the sky. The trees surrounding the gate where the trail starts can’t hide just how far upwards the path climbs, at an angle that I sincerely doubt any horse or bike could ride up or down. Good, I can cope with that, it doesn’t hurt as much as trying to make my way along flatter terrain and seems to slow everyone around us down enough for us to hold our place in the middle of the pack. It also makes for easy navigation, so with only the briefest of stops to pull on jackets as we reach the higher slopes where the temperature and wind chill factor demand extra layers (for us, the top teams and soloists charge over the top at such a pace they don’t seem to notice the hurricane blowing), we make good progress over the rocks up into the clouds towards the trig point that marks not only the top of the mountain but our next checkpoint.
The visibility at the top is so poor it would be easy to miss the summit completely, but we manage it, offering our heartfelt thanks and commiserations to the marshal cocooned in a bivvy bag, pressed against the trig point trying to hide from the gusting wind and rain, before heading back down from the summit plateau towards where Striding Edge should be. I say ‘should be’ because as we make our way back down past the stone shelter a few metres along the main path there’s no sign of it, or anything else for that matter, everything is totally immersed in cloud. We can barely see our feet scuffing across the uneven ground as Rich double checks the map, takes some compass bearings and confirms that this is definitely the middle of nowhere right now. We begin the scramble down onto the narrow ledge and I try to reassure him that we are going the right way – the rocky half trail-half climb down seems familiar, but then how many half trail-half climby bits look similar when there’s no point of reference around them?! Luckily, just before I decide to admit that it’s entirely possible that we’re not on striding edge at all the cloud lifts in such a way that causes me to listen out for some sort of fanfare. It’s almost a cliché how quickly the enveloping fog vanishes, leaving us staring down the ridge towards Ullswater and the next transition at Patterdale and leaving me greatly relieved that I’ve not directed us in totally the wrong direction.
The descent along the ridge is taken with a bit of care, we both agree that there’s no point tripping over on the technical trail and injuring ourselves just to make up a few seconds, however once through the ‘hole on the wall’ halfway down, past a photographer, fun takes over from sense and we start to trot, then jog down the widening path. It’s just about as enjoyable as running gets, bounding down from rock to rock past groups of impressed looking walkers, even catching a couple of teams back up as we thunder down the mountainside with barely an upwards glance to take in the views and it gets us down to the road in what feels like a decent time. Along the road and into the next transition I have just enough time to take the mickey out of Rich a few times about just how big Ullswater looks – he’s about to set off with Sarah and kayak the length of it, while I get this stage off and will meet them at Pooley Bridge in a couple of hours time – before he sets about wrestling his way into kayaking kit while I start the joyous task of shovelling my face full of food.
Mick and I wave Rich and Sarah off and take a few pics of them negotiating what appears to be a tight bend in the stream leading down to Ullswater itself (it didn’t look like a sharp corner to me, but then I wasn’t trying to paddle round it…and most competitors had trouble getting round it) before I wander over to the berlingo, crammed to the roof with our team gear and join the convoy of support vehicles driving along the shoreline road to the next transition.
I’m about halfway along when cramp sets in. Horribly painful cramp caused, I suddenly realise, by getting into and driving the car without moving the seat back from where Sarah’s moved it to, about a foot further forward than I would have it. That’s something else to remember then – make sure the car’s set up for me before driving it!
Sarah and Rich arrive at transition in a good time, full of stories of huge waves and heroic soloists helping them with their rudder issues just as I finish filling Rich’s drinks bladder with water for the next stage; a ride over from Pooley Bridge to Kirkby Stephen, using only minor roads and bridleways (a stipulation of the rules, making what should have been a nice simple route much more interesting). As Rich squeaks and creaks his way out of dry pants and kag that don’t seem to want to part company with him, we chant through the team routine that, so far, has meant that we’ve not made any real big mistakes like many of our competitors have. “I’ve got the dibber, you’ve got the tracker, who’s got the car keys?” ensures everything is where it needs to be and that no-one will be left stranded with a van full of sweaty kit in the middle of the countryside.
We hide the kayak down near the transition point for it to be collected later – this being the last kayak stage of the event it will be going back to Whitehaven later along with much of the kayaking kit, a fact we’re all grateful for as it frees up a tiny bit of space in the past-the-rafters-packed berlingo!
Rich and I ride away from Pooley Bridge along a track we’ve ridden many times before on trips up to the lakes, with the sun beating down on us, giving no hint of just how different it was at the other end of the lake, up on Helvellyn just a few miles away. It’s actually a great ride and at points as we whizz along the road the only thing that reminds me we’re in a race and not out for a pootle on a Sunday afternoon is the fact that I’m towing Rich up some of the climbs. There’s no mid race stress or anxiety, it’s just good fun in the countryside and the countryside itself seems to respond to this, in it’s own way.
We’re romping up a climb, past a soloist when Rich spots a sign for a bridleway half hidden at the side of the road, a quick check on the map reveals a nearly missed opportunity to cut out a few kilometres of tarmac. It’s a bit of a gamble, we’ve no idea what the red dashed line on the map is like on the ground, for all we know it could be a mossy, stodgy mess that can’t be ridden over, but it feels right to explore and push our luck a bit, so we roll up the double track away from the road full of hope. We’re not disappointed. The ground underneath the wheels is firm and fast and the further along the bridleway we travel the more fun it becomes – even the signs on the gateposts come with handy “you are here” maps, to alleviate any doubt. As we crest a small hill and begin to drop down towards the next road the track through the grass narrows into a ribbon of singletrack worthy of any magazine front cover. We swoop our way down to the next gate and follow another doubletrack completely devoid of any other tyre tracks through some trees, it appears we’re the only racers to have dared come this way, so far at least. As if to confirm this, the nettles sticking out of the undergrowth on either side of the path have most definitely not stung anyone else yet, full of venom they have my shins tingling madly by the time we exit the woods and find ourselves at the top of a corn field, with direction arrows sending us straight down through the middle of it! We decide to follow the indentations in the corn made by a tractor and by the time we reach the road at the bottom of the field my legs have been gently stroked and soothed by the crops to the point where the nettle stings can barely be felt, as if the bridleway wasn’t already good enough!
Back on the road and on a high after our lucky find, that had saved us a good 20 or so minutes, we make short work of flying through village after village. Rich and I are well practiced at using the towing technique to keep our speed up after perfecting it a few years back on the Transalp and along the undulating minor roads through the Eden Valley the system pays off in spades, with us finally arriving in Kirkby Stephen well ahead of schedule and in great spirits.
After a luke warm shower in a school commandeered for the event for me, but rather annoyingly a nice hot shower for both Rich and Sarah, we say our goodbyes to Mick and all our external support for the event and hobble our way into town in search of food. This isn’t easy at all, not just because neither Sarah or I can walk properly, with our various running related injuries, but also because nowhere seems open that would serve food. We make for a sorry site as we limp and hop from doorway to doorway almost begging for food. Sadly the one pub that does serve food has a wait of well over an hour for a table and there’s no way we can last that long without some sort of feast. Rather desperate pleas from Rich and Sarah to the barman (I was about ready to grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake him until he agreed to feed us) gain us some information about a Chinese restaurant that might be open, hidden down some back alley, off some back street, somewhere in the back end of beyond. We find it. We find it and set about ordering way too much food. We stuff ourselves to that happy point where you start to feel drowsy before making our way to the race briefing to check what awful time of the morning we have to get up for day 3. Our lowly overall position means that while the leaders get an almost delightful lie in, we have to be up early again for a start time not long after 6am. Uugh!
Surrounded by tall grass that gently wafts in the warm breeze¬, the gazelle slowly lifts it head, it’s ears twitching, firing off in every direction in the search for the slightest sound that might make it’s way across the shifting, sun bleached sands. It’s slender front legs shift slightly, redistributing what little weight is suspended above them as it’s hind legs lower and tense. Lean muscle builds up it’s elasticity under a pristine coat of perfectly camouflaged hide across the animal’s back. A heartbeat, no more than that, no louder than a pin drop, is caught by the gazelle’s still alert ears and without a sound it is airborne. Gone. Skipping so gracefully across the desert that it seems almost to hover above the ground, coming in to land with each footstep so lightly that the sand beneath it is barely disturbed at all. Nature at it’s most efficient and beautiful.
Several thousand miles north, I fail to match the grace and beauty of the gazelle in such a way as to almost defy possibility, as I thump and slap my way across the moors towards the Nine Standards. Rich bellows at me from behind that I’ve once again headed off in my own lumbering way on the wrong path, again, as I miss another semi buried piece of gritstone in the saturated boggy earth and nearly send myself sprawling across the moors.
Welcome to Day 3. A day most notable, in my opinion, for it’s massive 22 kilometre run right across the moors on the Coast to Coast route up past the Nine Standards, along a remote moor crossing road and back up over yet more moors before reaching the first transition. It is, as far as I am concerned, huge. Huge and terrifying. I’m no runner at the best of times, but I’ve been finding walking increasingly difficult over the past few days due to the amount of it I’ve had to do and this feels like the pain icing on a cake of discomfort. Scarily, I’m in better shape than Sarah, who’s knee is still knackered from Day 1’s monster run over 3 Lake District fells, so here I am tripping and stumbling my way further on foot than I’ve ever tripped and stumbled before.
Strangely, it’s actually going quite well. Rich and I haven’t yet been caught by any teams setting off after us from the staggered start and we’re almost halfway along the route. We’re actually running too. Well, jogging anyway. Sort of. We’re moving at much more than walking pace anyway and in those brief moments when I’m not flailing around like some sort of anti-gazelle we’re covering the ground quite skilfully. Right up to the moment when Rich misjudges the solidity of the ground on the far side of a stream crossing and goes sprawling on all fours. I can’t believe it’s not me that’s hit the ground first, but I resist saying anything to that effect knowing that it would undoubtedly come back to haunt me in the not too distant future. He’s up and running again swiftly and we make quick progress through the almost surreal scenery of a limestone pavement starting and finishing right in the middle of the almost featureless moors before arriving at a road lined with support crews and their vehicles, all of whom are cheering and clapping as we force ourselves to keep jogging.
As we pass though the support teams and numerous cameras I try to keep a smile going, while ignoring the sharp pain coming from my right thigh. It doesn’t quite work and Rich and I pass through the crowds (well, it felt like crowds after the isolation of the moors) with a strange grin/grimace plastered across my face.
We’re still moving well though, so well in fact that we completely miss Sarah cheering us on the first time around and it’s only when she slows as she drives past us further down the road on her way to the transition that we get to speak to her, albeit briefly. We head back off onto the moors and are forced to run again when we find a recently dropped waterproof jacket lying at the side of the track. Deciding that it must belong to the team in front of us we pick it up and set about catching them up to return it. Thankfully the team in question are walking this section and it only takes a few minutes of pushing ourselves to get up to them as they traipse over the rain soaked plains. Unfortunately this extra effort, as small as it may be, is enough to completely ruin my leg and I’m reduced to a limp not too dissimilar to the lolloping gate of a zombie, with the death face and moaning to match for the vast majority of the remainder of the route.
Nontheless, as we reach the transition and find Sarah waiting for us with our change of kit for the off road bike section we know we’ve made decent progress on what is now our weakest part of the race. We’ve held our own on the run, only getting caught and finally overtaken by what are normally much faster teams on foot than us and we ride away full of vigour on legs that, thankfully, seem unaffected by the fell running they’ve been subjected to.
I dib out of transition and Rich and I settle into the rhythm of towing/being towed quickly, within minutes are cruising past teams that bounded past us minutes before. It feels good, but we’re both wary of a steep section we know we’re going to have to get up, a section that, on the map, has contour lines so closely packed that you can barely distinguish one from the other and as we reach the bottom of the climb in question, our wariness is proved well founded. We pass through a gate and don’t even bother trying to remount the bikes, they’re simply hoisted onto our shoulders as we adopt a hunched over posture gazing at the ground just in front of our feet and set about hiking up the crazily steep slope. I pause halfway up the ascent to take a long look across the valley we’re climbing out of and marvel at just how much the scenery around us has changed since yesterday. Gone are the jagged, rocky peaks and troughs of the lakes, in their place long, rolling, green valleys are flanked with dense trees and topped with almost blank moorland as far as the eye can see. It’s stunning, but I’m almost sad to admit that, halfway up the slope, it’s just something that has to be gotten over.
After what feels like an eternity of scrabbling about in inappropriate shoes we reach a road and a flatter section where we set about making up some more time on the more specialist runners who flew past us earlier. After a few hundred metres of flat out hammering we’re back off the tarmac and onto freshly gravelled tracks taking us across moors that, without the new surface would be a nightmare to traverse. Joined together by the tow rope I stomp us up a dragging climb past team after team until the gradient eases off and begins to point downwards. Rich lets go of the rope and we fly back down the hills, tyres drifting over the loose ground, fully leant over in the corners, pushing the limits of traction, catching and dropping a few more teams in style before arriving at the last ascent over to Castle Bolton. Rich grabs back onto the tow rope and it’s dispatched with deep breaths and some full on stomping, leaving us with one fast, grassy descent to the transition that has everyone riding down it grinning. It’s so fast it gets a bit sketchy in places but we reach the field set aside for support vehicles with no offs and, bolstered by the knowledge that we have set a fast time in comparison to the teams surrounding us in the overall rankings, I quickly cram some energy food down my neck while Sarah finishes setting herself up for the final stage of the day, another ride, this time along minor roads over to Northallerton.
I’m navigating this stage and, despite it seeming easy on the map I’m paranoid about losing any time we’ve lost by making any wrong turns. As we head off from the transition I’m grateful of seeing a team ahead of us on the road ride through a gate and set off along a metalled track across some fields, I wasn’t totally sure it was the right way to go until I saw someone else heading in the same direction, but feeling more confident, I chase down the team ahead and arrive at the bottom of the stage’s biggest hill. Despite being just as out of breath as I am, Sarah, hanging on to the tow rope behind me, manages to call out encouragement to both me and each person we pass as I allow my legs a bit of freedom to put down some power up the climb and each person we pass smiles, or grins or cheers us on as we pass. As the road levels out we both know we’re making great time and, just as good, we’re heading n the right direction.
We fly through several small villages grinning and greeting everyone we see until we roll over the A1 near Catterick. Through the town centre we lose a bit of time at traffic lights and slowing for dozy/bloody minded pedestrians so desperate to get across the road to the horse racing taking place on the other side that the appearance of two speeding cyclists doesn’t seem to warrant them stopping and waiting, but we make it through easily enough and before long see the first signpost for Northallerton itself.
Sarah, still in pain from her gammy knee, cheers at the sight of the notice telling us the finish is only 10 miles away and I feel a little guilty when I tell her that the route we have to take to stay within the rules means it’s a few miles longer for us. By forcing us to stick to C roads, the organisers make the route we’ve chosen almost tortuously twisty but the quiet back roads we stick to enable us to stay attached by the tow rope for much of the journey and we cruise through more rural villages knowing that barring disaster, we should reach the end of the day’s racing in a good overall position.
Through the final few villages, Sarah’s knee begins to hurt more and more to the point where, as we reach the outskirts of Northallerton itself and we have to stop to check the directions, even unclipping her foot from the pedal nearly brings her to tears. I’m worried that she might not be able to ride to the finish line at all, but she soldiers on and makes it across the line, refusing even to slow down and compromise the good time we’ve ridden the stage in until we’ve finished, at which point she has to get Rich to help get her foot out of the bike. Tough stuff.
We’re camping outside a leisure centre tonight and this means decent, hot showers, which are an absolute joy. Too much of a joy for one of the soloists who goes a bit light headed in the heat changing room. Even he admits it’s nice though, as is a distinct lack of rain and wind for once, in fact it’s been dry now for long enough for my casual trainers to actually start dying out a bit, after their soaking on day 1 while taking spare shoes to the end of the swim.
We still have trouble finding somewhere to eat though as Northallerton, despite being several times the size of Kirkby Stephen, shows us that it can be just as unaccommodating as anywhere else! Eventually, after driving up and down the main road in search of anywhere with a menu in the window, so intent on fiding food that I may not have been paying full attention to where I was going, pity is taken on us by the waitress at a rammed full Pizza Express who allows us to sit in a corner on the proviso we are gone be 7pm. We gratefully accept and the waitress is treated to the sight of Rich demolishing a big bowl of pasta in world record time before we head over to the evening briefing 2 hours early, earlier even than the organisers and bar staff in the pub.
Our efforts during the day have moved us up 2 places in the overall rankings, destroying a one hour deficit from the morning and giving us a slender 12 minute advantage over 12th place. We may be over half a day behind the current leaders, but even this far down the results sheet we’re up for a race on the last day. We might not look like much of a threat, with Sarah and I limping feebly along and Rich half asleep with his head on the table as the briefing gets underway, but we are up for it, really.
Sleep isn’t a problem for us tonight, at all.
The alarm goes off at, yet again, some ungodly hour before even the sun bothers to raise it’s head and, in what is becoming quite a regularity, I ponder the possibility of just refusing to get up. Around me, my teammates begin to stir and, seemingly with less effort required than me, manage to get up and start to prepare for the final day’s racing.
I crawl out of my sleeping bag feeling very unlike someone about to finish off a multi day race in any sort of style. Sat in the drivers seat of the berlingo, which has gone from well packed, if overly full team vehicle a couple of days ago to a frightening mess on wheels, trying to enjoy a bowl of cereal while pouring over the days challenges I’m not sure if I look like an athlete or an escaped convict on the run. I know which I feel more like and an upward glance at Sarah hobbling her way across towards the car, clutching a packet of the strongest painkillers she could find outside of an A&E department, suggests she feels the same.
Rich, on the other hand, is looking surprisingly chipper. He seems full of last-day enthusiasm as he gets his kit ready for the day and attempts to find enough space in the car to wedge a badly packed sleeping bag. He’s very lucky not to get a half eaten bowl of Shreddies dumped over his head.
With our final sets of clean kit pulled on over aching muscles, Sarah and I roll up to the start line and, at our allotted minute, slowly creep off on the day’s first stage, a short bike ride over to Osmotherley. It may be a short stage, but I know what’s coming straight after it and I’m dreading it – a long run along the Cleveland Way, up and over several peaks, almost all off road and, according to the contour lines on the map, steep too.
Despite the suffering that’s quite blatantly heading my way and despite the protests of my still-half-asleep body as we ride out of the town centre and begin to be flanked by fields and trees, rather than houses and industrial units a sense of purpose begins to hit and I start to wonder if it’s possible to stay ahead of the team only 12 minutes behind us in the overall rankings. They’re undoubtedly much better runners than us ad with this in mind I turn round to Sarah, hanging onto the tow rope behind me, and quietly mention that I might try to go fast. I mutter it quietly enough to know that there’s no way she could hear it – to make sure there’ll be no complaints – but I needn’t have worried, as our pace picks up and we begin to push ourselves along the rolling roads towards the oncoming hills, lit up in the early morning sun, shouts of enthusiasm rain down on me. We catch the team one place behind us in the rankings before hitting the main climb of the stage and make short work of leaving them far behind, our progress only slowed by a group of errant sheep that decide to run across the road in front of us before we start to drop down a fast, hairpin bend covered descent down to the transition.
It’s still so early when we arrive at the support cars that we have to keep our voices down to save waking a slumbering village, so I moan as quietly as I can as I push my feet into my thoroughly soaked, gritty running shoes for one last time. Mud squelches out of the laces over my hands as I pull the shoes tight on my feet, hoping to not aggravate the massive blisters on my toes any further. This is grim, but it’s the last run of the race, so I take a deep breath and hobble my way over to the ‘out’ dibber with Rich.
We make a small effort to run out of transition and away from the marshals, more for effect than anything else before reducing our pace to a fast walk as we retrace part of the route Sarah and I have just ridden before turning off onto a gravel track leading us into some woods. The track begins to climb towards the first summit of the day at Carlton Bank and we make steady, if not spectacular progress along the stone slab footpath that emerges from the top of the treeline some half a mile further on. We stop for a few minutes as the team behind us catches up to us while Rich applies more plasters to the blisters on the backs of his heels and watch them bound off ahead of us. This stage is going to be tough, neither of us have any real motivation – or ability – to run or chase anyone that passes us down, so we simply get on with walking as best we can, trying not to look too far into the distance ahead of us and to offer some encouragement to the teams that pass us.
As we reach the halfway point of the stage, high up on another Yorkshire peak, I glance behind us and realise that chasing us down is not just another team, but some ominous looking black clouds, blotting out the landscape beneath them. The stone slabs and cobbles that make up the surprisingly steep descents are slippery enough already in the dry and I seriously start to worry about how long this stage is going to take if we’re reduced to creeping back down the hills as well as up them. So far we’ve been able to descend quite well, not as gracefully as some of the specialist fell runners of course, but we’ve managed to step from rock to stone to cobble to grassy tuft at a decent enough pace to re-catch a couple of teams that left us for dead on the uphills and flats, where our aching limbs and blistered feet slowed us down. If it rains, we’ll lose even more time and the small part of my brain that’s still interested in whether we can finish in the same position we started the day is doing cartwheels at the thought of the disadvantage we’ll be at.
I’d like to say that we picked up the pace at this point, pushed on through the pain barrier and made heroic efforts to bring our overall time down, but that simply wasn’t going to happen. We plod on though, willing the transition to arrive, which eventually it does, where we set about getting into cycling kit for the final two stages across the North York Moors.
I spot a banana poking out of the general melee that is our badly packed support vehicle and gobble it down as quickly as I can while Rich double checks the route we’re about to take on the map. The solemn look on his face tells me that, at some point in the very near future, we’re going to be hiking the bikes up an unrideable slope, just like we did yesterday. I’m right and with barely enough time to get aching legs used to being on the bike we’re once again trudging up a crazy steep bridleway, bikes on backs and blisters singing with disapproval as they rub against cycling shoes. Rich promises me that, after this section, it should all be fast and rideable and I really hope he’s right as I smack my toe against a stone slab I completely fail to notice.
The track eventually levels out and leads us down onto a road where a short section on the tarmac lets us build up a bit of speed before we once again turn off onto a gravel track across the moors. This bridleway is fast and wide, we stay looped together on the tow rope and I push my legs as hard as I can, we catch up a couple of teams off in the distance and I set the amount of effort I’m putting in by making sure we ride away from them in double quick time. I’m gasping for air but loving the feeling of speed as we thunder across the moor so fast we nearly miss a turning that leads us up a short climb to another road. It’s by no means a technical bridleway, but the pace at which we were able to belt across it was just what was needed and by the time we turn off the next road we’re flying.
The next bridleway is completely different to that last; this one being a ribbon of swoopy, rocky, moorland singletrack that demands constant shifting around n the bike to negotiate with any speed. I chase a soloist across the moor, both of us darting left and right as the track demands and we hit the next road crossing grinning from ear to ear. My spirits, that took a bit of a battering during the run stage earlier, are once again sky high as Rich grabs onto the tow rope and we make our way to the final off road descent before the final transition of the event. Not even a puncture on the flat-out-fast rocky descent can stop us grinning and after a brief stop at the transition to cram a couple of energy gels into my jersey pockets we head back out for the final leg to the finish.
It becomes immediately apparent that the organisers have a wicked sense of humour as we turn right out of transition only to be faced with a 1in5 climb. People are pushing their bikes up the slope on either side of the road, and Rich doesn’t look overly confident of getting to the top on the bike, but this is the last stage and I’m not having anything stop us now. I put my head down stand up on the pedal and mash the biggest gear I can with Rich in tow. Sweat pours down onto the road off me and my rasping, gasping breath as I hit my natural rev limiter gets some funny looks of those walking up the hill, but we grind our way over the top onto a flatter section where Rich announces he’s just been dragged to the top of the hill in his big ring. If I wasn’t so out of breath I would have screamed. The road continues to undulate for a few miles, where I keep the pace as high as I can before we clamber up a set of steps (on a National Cycle Route, which seems a bit daft to me, but hey ho) and start the very final part of the route along a sustrans trail that contours the coast, with views over the cliffs down to the sea that tease us into thinking that the finish can only be a few hundred metres away at most…surely. It seems to go on forever, though in reality it’s only a few kilometres and in my attempts to keep our pace up we very nearly miss the small, overgrown turning in the trees that surround the trail off the track to the finish line – if it hadn’t been for a team just in front of us sliding to a halt to get round the corner we might well have sailed past it, but make it we do and we dib in for the final time under the finishing gantry to a round of applause from the organisers, marshals, support teams and other finishers already there.
Draped with a finishers medal, we pose for a few photos under the finish banner before repacking the car, failing to get any fish and chips due to ridiculous queues at the chippy and checking the overall results as they come in. It turns out that not only did we hold on to our slender advantage over the team behind, but, despite them catching up to us on the run over Carlton Bank, we’ve been able to put nearly an hour into them on the bike sections. Flat out aceness! We finish in 11th place and feel like we earned it, even if it did take us some 13 hours more than the overall winner.
At the presentations and prizegivings the overall feel is that the event has been a complete success. All the finishers seem to have thoroughly enjoyed it – us included and apparently there’s not been a single complaint, which is testament to the effort the organisers, marshals and racers put in and the achievement (not to mention aches and pains) everyone leaves with. It’s been truly awesome, a massive event that’s run with barely a single hitch and, as we head off back towards Whitehaven in the car, Team Clitheroe Bike Club is wondering just how anyone could possibly top it…and where the Deep Heat is…