My track record at the Long Tour of Bradwell (a 33 mile trail/fell race in the Peak District) is a bit crap to say the least. In 2009, in the buildup to CCC, I finished last in 9.25. And then in 2011, in the run up to a failed attempt at UTMB I finished last again in 9.32, having officially missed the mid-way cut-off by 2 minutes (the marshals waved me through with the words ‘we know you, you’ll just keep plodding on’). And I haven’t been back since, even though it’s right on my door-step.
I didn’t ever consciously decided not to run it again, but finishing last (and in particular having marshals waiting for you at every checkpoint) isn’t much fun. While I love running in the hills, I’ve realised over the last few years that I’m much better at plodding away on the flat, and that’s what I’ve been doing mostly. This year I’ve been so focussed on Thames Ring 250 (TR) training that I’ve only been out into the Peak District to run a couple of times. But one of the ‘crazy future plans’ I came up with on a post Thames Ring high was going back to the LToB and not finishing last.
It was initially a joke but over the next couple of days it crystallised into a plan. How on Earth did I think I could run faster in the hills after a year of flat plodding than I did after months of focussed hill-training? By running (slowly) up the gentler, less-technical ascents. When I first starting running ultras I fell into the trap of walking all the hills. Which on hilly races like LToB meant I wasn’t actually doing much running. My plan was to transfer my flat 100+ mile shuffle into an up-hill shuffle.
A week after the TR we went on (a non-running friendly) holiday, leaving me with two and a bit weeks to prepare. The weekend before I did the first ~16 miles of the course, partly to make sure I could move at cut-off pace and partly to check out a fiddly bit of navigation. This went fairly well. I managed to shuffle up hills I’d always walked before. However I was also still in TR eating mode, and bought and ate a cheese & onion pasty which repeated badly. Nonetheless I was inside cut-off pace, so it was game on.
At the start of the race I was reassured to see a handful of other runners who didn’t look like fell running racing snakes. My first goal was to make the 5 hour cut-off at 17-ish miles. At the start the organisers said this would be strictly enforced, and with more slower looking runners entered I’d already realised they couldn’t wave it for just me this time. I was fairly confident that if I made the cut-off I could deploy my new found plodding skills on the flatter 2nd half of the route and not finish last.
I reached the 1st dibber, a mile and a bit in, just behind a group of 3 men, and looking quickly over my shoulder there was at least one person behind me. A good start. In 2011 the rest of the field were already out of sight by this point. Next came the 1st climb. I walked the initial steep rocky bits, but then started running, easing my way past half a dozen people who were walking and breathing heavily. I felt a bit silly. I expect they thought I was a clueless numpty who was going to crash and burn, but no-one said anything.
The slippy, rocky decent into Castleton is one of my least favourite parts of the route and as I inched my way down several people overtook me. I over-hauled them again on the flat through Castelton though.
Just before the climb to the Mam Tor ridge I caught a couple of blokes and an amusing conversation ensued:
Them: ‘How’s it going?’
Me: ‘This is a bit short & hilly for me.’
T: ’What sort of distances to you like to do?’
M: ‘Anything over a hundred miles’. ‘
T: You sound like my friend Kate’.
M: ‘Do you mean Kate Hayden?’
They then started talking about a race in which they’d run sub 7 min miles with Kate. I’ve never run a single sub 7 min mile in my life. But I managed to pull away from them on the climb up to the Mam Tor ridge.
At the top I could see the next 2 runners in the distance, however they pulled away as I minced my way down the rocky decent. I finally caught another pair on the top of the Kinder Scout plateau faffing around with a GPS. Not only a sub-optimal way of navigating this route, but also against the race rules... I led the way to the dibber at the Druid’s stone and then they charged past me on the steep, grassy decent. I caught them again at the farm at the beginning of the climb back onto the Mam Tor ridge, stopped for water and looking a bit the worst for wear. It was one of the few hot sunny days this Summer. But the Thames Ring (and our holiday in Laos) had left me fairly well acclimatised.
I managed to shuffle some of the shallower parts of the ridge before heading down towards Hope. I spotted the photographers from Sport Sunday and attempted to speed up a bit and suck in my tummy. Judging by the photo I wasn’t particularly successful on either front...
Heading through Hope and up onto the flank of Win Hill I realised I was going to be inside the cut-off. My focus then was to keep pushing on the next runnable section to see how much inside I could get. 22 mins, significantly better than 2011 and similar to 2009 (when I’d pushed hard to make it and then died on my arse). The marshals asked how I was. I said I was just getting warmed up. They weren’t amused. Or at least if they were, they concealed it well.
I overtook another runner at the checkpoint and headed through Bamford and along a detour (which I think lengthened the route slightly) towards Stanage Edge. For the first time I managed to run the shallower bits of the climb, and all of the rocky edge. I finally caught up with the two runners I’d spotted from the 1st climb of the Mam Tor ridge at the next checkpoint. In a rush to get out not too far behind them, I first spilt water all over a plate of sliced bananas (‘sorry I’m flooding your bananas’). Then, instead of going along the road, for some unfathomable reason I took the shorter but slower rocky route across the river and slipped and fell. It was pointless anyway. They pulled away again as they ran the path down towards Padley Gorge significantly faster than I could.
Padley George was (unsurprisingly given the weather) packed with people picnicking and having barbecues. But this year I wasn’t jealous of them. I was feeling good and I wasn’t last. After inching my way down the last technical descent, through the disused mines, I breathed a sigh of relief. And promptly tripped over a small stone...
I ran all the way into the next checkpoint, passing the pair just before sat having a snack. They repassed me and pulled away again though. I’d been wondering if I could sneak in inside 9 hours. However this last section was longer and not as flat as I’d remembered. I did manage to keep running the gentler ups though, driven on by voices I thought I heard behind me. I even managed to run almost all of the final steep track and the pair came into sight again.
I followed them down the steep decent to Bradwell. At a point where I expected to turn left the tape went right instead. I initially wondered whether it had been moved, but further pieces of tape appeared, so I assumed this bit of the route had been changed. I began to get suspicious as we steadily climbed back up, and past the finish. My suspicions were confirmed when a pack of disgruntled blokes appeared coming in the opposite direction. The path, and tape, apparently continued back onto the top of the hill.
We headed back down, and I stepped aside to let two guys who were moving faster on the off-road descent past me. Once we hit the road in Bradwell I was back on my terrain though. I repassed one of them straight away. A small boy told me I was doing really well. I said `thank you’, rather than ‘but I’m nearly last’. I ran with, and chatted to, the other bloke for a bit and then we gradually upped the pace (to nearly 10 minute miling!) through Bradwell. I’d been thinking that I’d let him dib in first, since he’d saved me from wasting even more time. But hitherto undiscovered competitive tendencies kicked in and (I’m ashamed to say) I just beat him to the line.
I wasn’t last. By the end there were a whole 18 (count them!) people behind me. This was largely because a lot more slower runners did the race this time. But I did also manage to run a bit faster/better. I finished in 9.15, 10 minutes faster than before on a longer course (with an added detour) with no real hill training. Realistically I’m unlikely to ever be anything other than ‘back of the pack’ at ‘short’, hilly races, but not being off the back of the pack is an improvement. And hopefully I can employ my plodding uphill tactic to finally (at the 9th time of asking) dip under 7 hours at Wuthering Hike next year.