So what does it feel like to take part in the High Peak Marathon?
In a word…….exhausting.
The race starts at 11pm, with walkers having been allowed to set off an hour in advance. This time there was just one team of walkers, who got going after a very sporting round of applause from everybody else.
We went through a thorough kit check, which I found refreshing, since so many events explain the requirements for kit, but seem to assume that all will conform. This being such a potentially dangerous trip, I guess there was never any risk that they’d overlook the essentials.
Ready for action, we set off at 11.02pm, soon after the 11pm start. Better, more experienced teams would set off every few minutes until well after 11.30pm. We therefore expected to be overtaken by many teams, roughly by the time we crossed the second hill (Win Hill).
Walking was the tactic set by Team Leader Nick Smith. Also along were his friends Jennifer Adair and Andy Brightmore. We’d met a few times ahead of the race, recceing and preparing our kit. Somehow this particular evening, I ended up being the only member of the team who was carrying Microspikes. I’d also agreed to carry some of Nick’s water and was bringing the 4 person shelter along, as per the minimum kit requirements. But after comparing pack weights, I realised I wasn’t any worse off than the others where it came to baggage.
We walked up onto the ridge between Mam Tor and Lose Hill and headed toward the latter. We walked anything remotely uphill, which meant my running off ahead until shouted at on several occasions. I just couldn’t help myself. I expected to move a little quicker, though with only the regular run to/from work as training, I had no idea if my legs were really going to hold out for 42 miles of hard slog.
By the time we’d climbed the steep section onto Win Hill, we were being passed by many a team. Slow ‘n’ steady seemed to be keeping us fresh, with my commenting that it still didn’t feel like we’d really done very much. Direct descent from Win Hill via Parkin Clough was a test, but we all made good time and ventured onto the road section above Bamford, toward Stanage Edge.
Here is where, yet again – I was expecting to jog at least, with Nick firmly dictating that we should walk nonetheless. We had no designs on really racing this event, but when teams were jogging past us I felt a little frustrated. I consoled myself with the odd slice of Pizza that I had pre cooked and sliced, rolled in a food bag and tucked into one of my chest pouches. Delish.
As we made our way onto the trod that accesses the crags at Stanage Edge, yet more teams passed us by. Familiar faces and some hard to place voices greeted me on their way past and I have to admit, with the exception of Matt Heason, I didn’t really know exactly who I was saying hello and goodbye to.
At this point things were beginning to go awry. We stopped for Nick to make an ‘unscheduled toilet stop’ and found ourselves standing to one side as more teams passed at a steady rate.
Though there was lots of race left and I had every sympathy for Nick’s condition, we appeared to be heading into for an epic journey. Gulp.
Once down from High Neb and at the first major checkpoint at Moscar (A57), we began to approach things more as individuals than as a team, with Nick explaining that he was going to begin walking the road section ahead in order to stay active and to keep warm. I grabbed a top up of my 500ml water bottle and a couple of sandwiches (top nosh) before heading off with Jen and Andy.
It seemed to take forever to catch Nick, with a freezing headwind having come from nowhere, right in our faces as we followed the road downhill to Cutthroat Bridge. As soon as we’d hiked up the hillside on Nick’s bearing, we joined the Derwent Edge footpath and had now layered up due to the strong winds coming in from our left. I went so far as to put on my (borrowed) waterproof over-trousers at this point, for fear of getting any colder than necessary. It worked. Snug as a bug. Just as well.
Nick was suffering. He was stopping more and more for stomach trouble and Andy was remarking about his frustration at not being able to eat very well. I was fine. My only problem was that I was completely dependent on the others for any sense of direction. My navigation is pretty good, but once I’m settled in and following the heard, I’m lost for where we are. I was lucky then that the others has already spent a lot of time and effort in recceing the course, even at night and had a grasp, even despite the emerging issues.
We jogged along Howden Edge at a fair lick of speed and as it turns out, slightly more direct than we’d planned. We were trying to pass Wet Stones for reference, but soon enough realised that we’d already reached High Stones anyway and eventually we hit Cut Gate – which felt like it was moving away from me as I fought the bogs and puddles to finally arrive at the checkpoint in what was now thick mist and sideways rain.
Because the rest of the team were moving at different rates and I was rushing off ahead without any proper clue which line we were best to take, it was a little scrappy. Nick was struggling. He’s debated quitting at Cut Gate, but had opted to accept our invitation to try a bit more with the promise that we’d all quit with him the moment he said he was done.
As it turned out, he found a second wind and fought hard in order to steer us, in tandem with Andy – right the way round to Swains Head. This was a miserable and demanding trudge through endless bog, with rain and mist making it difficult to even see the ground at times (thanks to the reflection of light from our head torches).
Nick appeared jinxed as he became the only member of our team to fall victim to the ‘bog monster’ along Harden Moor, in to the waist with both legs. It took us all to pull him out. I think that kind of finished him off.
Once we’d scrapped our way between Bleaklow Stones and Wain Stones – the sun was up. We were giddy at the opportunity to switch off our head torches. Actually giddy. Daylight is under appreciated, let me tell you. We trudged to the second major Checkpoint – at the Snake Pass summit. Here was where I had set my sights on sitting down with a cup of tea, changing my socks and getting warm before facing the final 12 miles across Kinder Scout (still the highest peak in Derbyshire and almost a half Marathon from the finish line). No such luck. The tent at this point was open ended and not very deep. half full already, there weren’t any convincing seats and the floor was thick with wet mud. No getting changed. I downed a cup of tea and finally put away my head torch, that had been atop my head in broad daylight now for around 90mins at least. I’d have removed the over trousers too, but they were thick with dirt and would be a struggle to remove. Besides, I wasn’t sure I’d be moving quickly enough to warm up from this point on.
Nick had bailed at the Snake, knowing his race had been over since sunrise. He’d been dry heaving and in a bad way for hours. It was a heroic effort, while still navigating on our behalf. Andy had been doing the same and the two of them had given us a near faultless trip through some horrendous conditions.
Now that we were climbing once more to reach the Kinder edge path, I was all but broken. My enthusiasm for running was at an end. Andy was moving more quickly and Jen was forging the way at tremendous speed. The three of us marched double time around the whole of Kinder until reaching Kinder Low, or thereabouts, where I suggested what I knew to be a golden rule. Steer left at the trig point and join the edge path overlooking Jacobs Ladder, avoiding the flagstones that lead right onto the wrong spur and have you heading way too far in the wrong direction. Sadly, mere minutes afterward, we hit flagstones all the same and had to improvise with a left turn across open heather and onto the edge path almost by fluke.
Nevermind. We were still moving and onto the final section. Brown knoll and Rushup Edge were all that kept us from completion.
Thing is, I was knackered. Walking was all I could muster. Jen appeared to have bags of energy and Andy had the legs to keep up with her, so I had a lonely few miles of lagging behind while they waited for me at every electronic dib station, only because I had on the dibber (a plastic tag that has to be inserted into each station to prove we’d travelled the entire course). By the time I’d hobbled back down from Hollins Cross, some 13 odd hours since seeing it last, I was determined to run the last few 100 meters, but still had to be convinced to do so as we entered the car park outside race HQ.
Not a very strong performance then, with drop outs and reduced to a slow walk, but damned if I didn’t finish. 7.5 miles is about all I’ve run over the last few months and that’s normally broken into a couple of 3,75 milers.
With an ultra of this nature now under my belt for 2015, I’d like to think I might be off to a good start and see some slightly more successful efforts by next winter.
As far as the High Peak Marathon is concerned, I’d happily try it again, but would definitely be running anything that allowed it. Being awake for 30hrs and on my feet for so long is no joke. I didn’t really ache the day after the race. I even ran briefly with my dog Buster, wondering how come I found it so hard to move by the end of the race, if already I was bounding along on pavement without issue. Guess that’s endurance for you – you have to PRACTICE.
My thanks go out to my awesome teammates, for a cracking night out and their impressive attention to detail when preparing for this race. I had the luxury of not taking out my map/compass even once and wish I’d been able to move a little faster at the end, since Nick was waiting for us at HQ and I know Jen had hoped to beat her friend’s expectation that we’d take longer than 13hrs 30mins, which we did by only 8 minutes. Sorry Jen, tell them it was all my fault. You’d definitely have made it without my dawdling.
Tough event. Reputation deserved. I think partly down to the lack of information, photos or mapping available in advance. Having now completed my first attempt, it’s easy to see why. You wouldn’t waste your time pratting about with your camera. Nobody else would feel like doing it for you. The challenge is in navigating your way round. Revealing the course or any of the best lines would be to spoil the surprise.
I’d like to say a big thank you to the marsahlls on this event. THANK YOU. Most of them had to endure horrendous weather while posted on an open moor, exposed and battered by high winds and driving rain. All night. In support of a bunch of runners out for no good reason whatsoever. Incredible that they had a sense of humour when we reached them. Two girls on Rushup Edge even told me that my teammates and I looked ‘Godly’ with the sun rising behind our heads. Boy did I need that!