After eight and a half hours of running, the end was closing in. Jayson ran next to me, spurring me on as the clock ticked. The shallow, steep steps onto the road slowed me to a tentative walk and I was off again, my other crew running alongside me as I grunted and grimaced my way to the end, into the hall and up to the timing table. Nine hours and 38 seconds. Could I have done more?
This was the last time I had run the Hardmoors 55 in 2017, in perfect dry and mild conditions but from South to North. Wanting to beat my previous time of 9.04, I had run well but still fallen just short. I was convinced that this year, with a change of direction putting all the big climbs in the first half, I would be able to break nine hours. My pattern tends to be that I can maintain a good chugging pace throughout and, as other people slow down, I can keep going, often seeming stronger in the back half of a race. Surely this year, with the runnable 20 miles after Osmotherley, it could be done. I also wanted to take part this year because it was a one off special edition: the Hardmoors 50, celebrating the races 10th birthday and the Cleveland Ways 50th. Race Director Jon also provided the icing on the birthday cake though, this time in the form of a double ascent of Roseberry Topping, and despite the race being shortened, it was still almost 53 miles long! After badly spraining my ankle in October, I also wanted to see how it would hold up on something this long, never having experienced an injury of that nature before.
As is often the way with ultras, the build up in training hadn’t been as I had hoped. My sprain meant that instead of a winter spent on strength and speed work, I had to rest and then put the focus purely on strength in the gym. Not disastrous by any stretch: I could still weight train and spin away on the elliptical trainer and bike but no running until December meant I didn’t have time to get that base of speed in that I wanted. But get strong I did, developing a thing for deadlifts and the like, which I think helped me a lot for what was to come. When I did start running again though, it was very cautiously. Building up the distance felt hard and I had very few training runs that gave me the confidence that I could hold a decent pace over 50 plus miles. I wasn’t shy about what my target was though. Putting a goal out there, whether it’s time related or not, really helps to make you believe that you can do it and makes it much more tangible. But, with that ambitious goal, comes the inevitable weight of expectation. It might sound odd, but competing is not my favourite. Winning is great, but having to race for it makes me feel a bit sick! So when people ask if you’re out to win, what can you say? Mostly, I just mumble something about trying for a time and not knowing who else is going for it. This time round though, the race was being followed by Orillo Films as part of their Passion Projects series, and I was being billed as the ‘competitive runner’. Another layer of perceived pressure meant that I had to go for it. Add to that the fact that I had started coaching full time in September and had several athletes in the race and I was definitely feeling like I had to perform.
It was an early start to get to Guisborough for registration and on the way, we listened to The Greatest Showman soundtrack, which became the soundtrack to my race. Two particular lines helped me through and I pretty much sang them over and over in my head for the majority of the day: ‘it’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after’ and ‘impossible’s coming true’ were kind of my mantras! I jumped out of the car at the traffic lights so Jayson could go and park, and walked down to the Sea Cadet’s hall. Registration was easy and quick – amazing with the amount of people there – and I took myself off to the first of two loo trips before the start. There was a lot of talk in the queue about whether to put waterproof trousers on or not, and all the usual anxious chatter. I felt much more nervous than usual, I think because of the thought of having to race hard and from the sheer volume of people in the place! Not having raced properly since last June didn’t help the butterflies either, so I decided to brave the weather and wait outside in the fresh air. Will from Orillo caught me and did a little pre race interview where I went pretty blank and was incredibly dull, then it was time to get going. I tucked in behind the front guys while Malcolm from the Cleveland Way folks said his bit and at about 8.20am, we were unleashed. It was a fast start at the front as per usual and I let it happen, not pushing too much but making sure I had plenty of room to get up the narrow footpath and over the early couple of stiles without getting stuck.
The first climb up to Highcliff Nab always sucks except when it’s bone dry and that happens, erm, never, but we were lucky as 400 runners hadn’t ploughed their way through before us. I plodded up to get the first taste of what was to come from Storm Hannah. The wind hit me in the face at the top and kept at it for about 40 miles. This sub nine dream was already starting to die. I felt good though and tootled through the standing water towards Little Roseberry where two marshals pointed us down the right hand track, a much nicer descent than the stony path. The first ascent of Roseberry was fine, completely uneventful as was the descent. It was around here that I had my first of several avocado and rice wraps, a discovery I was really pleased with. They’re bland enough that I didn’t get sick of them, soft enough that you don’t have to work hard to chew them but good and carby. The lady that was to have me running scared all day, Hardmoors marathon series winner, Hannah McMahon, was very close to me here, so much so that we had a couple of little chats. She told me that she had completed last years race and was looking to do the 110 this year. She was really chirpy despite the weather and I enjoyed seeing her going so well. I wasn’t so happy about it later on, but only because I was worried she would pip me! Taking slightly different lines off the second descent of Roseberry, we remained very close together for the morning, with me only slightly ahead. Like I said, racing gives me the willies!
The run down to Captain Cooks was pretty good too, with a decent flat stretch then a little downhill to Gribdale car park where I saw Jayson and the film crew. As Jayson swapped my empty bottles for full ones, he told me that my tracker wasn’t working and they might want to change it at Kildale. This was all I needed: with Hannah on my tail, every minute would count. It was great to know though as I think if I had gone into the checkpoint unprepared, I might have been less gracious than I would have liked! The path off Captain Cooks and down to Kildale gave us a brief respite from the wind and David from Sport Sunday got a great snap of me looking pretty happy. Probably because he shouts ‘Kim Caramel!’ every time he sees me! I decided that if they wanted my tracker, I would go to the loo and hopefully when I came out, it would be sorted. As I went in, Heather Mawrey took my number and told me I needed a new tracker so, I handed my pack over and went to the toilet. It was still being sorted when I came out and Hannah was in by this time too, so I started to worry again. I think it took three or four minutes and I was straight back out, eating a Chia Charge bar and on my way to what I had convinced myself was going to be the worst bit.
The road towards Blowarth Crossing literally goes on forever and, into a strong headwind that by now had needle like rain and hail in it, this section was very testing. I deliberately didn’t look behind me across here as I just knew I would get despondent if I saw Hannah close by. However, a few people caught me, including Hannah and so we all had a bit of a chat about the weather. How English. Seeing Chia Charge Tim and Lisa was also lovely and I got the useful tip from Tim to ‘run faster’ and a hug from Lisa. I had wanted to be with someone across this section to help share some of the load and as luck would have it, Joe Robinson, one of my athletes, caught me up after being trapped in the hall at the start. It was pretty funny as he and I had recced this section about a month prior to the race so to run with him again was a good boost. We took turns on the right hand side of the track, attempting to block one another from the gale and not be thrown into one another at the same time. I just kept telling myself that this was the worst section and once it was done, there would be more opportunities to get some relief from the wind. Turning right at the crossing didn’t improve things as the wind was now just blowing at us from the left. We had pulled away a little from Hannah and the other guys with her so I thought we could make even more of a gap over the Three Sisters.
Dropping into Clay Bank, Jayson and Indie were coming towards us and Tim was perched on the hill again, getting a little video that shows just how blowy it was. Jayson had all my stuff ready right at the roadside again and it was here that I changed my jacket and gloves. I never got cold all day but I was utterly sodden and knew that if I slowed at all over the next section, I might get too cold to warm up properly if I stayed wet. I changed from one Montane Minimus into another and took some Montane Via Trail gloves – thanks James Loftus for ordering the wrong size! Once again, I looked up and Hannah was right there. I got a bit grumpy here as I was convinced Joe and I must have gained more time. Lisa pinned my torn number back on as I wrestled my wet hands into the new gloves. Off we went up Clay Bank with another wrap where I overtook Hannah once more climbing up the Wainstones. Joe and I stayed together for a little while but I eventually got further away from him. I later learnt that he had gone pretty hard after getting stuck at the start to try and make some time back and started suffering for it. Running along the tops of the Three Sisters is usually good going, but the wind was still making it a battle, coupled with greasy flagstones, making it slower again. I was swept off my feet descending the second hill and this got me thinking about how it was actually pretty scary! All there was to do was to get your head down and push on, trying to stay upright above all else. Jayson was at Lordstones too, so we swapped bottles again – I drank a lot for such a wintery race – and I pushed on with another wrap. The robed drum guy was hidden away in the trees here which was awesome: it feels very special when he spots you and starts banging his drum and shouting. He had to peer into my hood to make sure, but he shouted ‘First lady through!’ and followed me along the path, chanting and banging away. Ace.
The hardy film crew were waiting for me at the trig point at the top of Carlton Bank, where they captured what I hope will make it into the final cut as it really showed how horrible the conditions were. I had turned away from the wind to put my hood back up and as I turned back, it took me surprise and I stumbled past them, nearly swept away again! This next section was probably my favourite part of a generally hard day. A gradual descent for the most part, towards Scugdale and Osmotherley beyond, I felt that I had pretty much cracked it and the worst was really over this time. The wind and rain hadn’t abated but the running was better. The woody path to Scugdale went by quickly and I ran through the checkpoint again, with shouts from my fellow running club teammate Philly Hare once she realised who it was under the hat and hood! Through more woods and I saw Jayson at the cattle grid where I got more supplies and on to the last indoor checkpoint.
It was obviously going to be Osmotherley where they did the kit check, so after running as well as I could past Will with his camera again, I took my pack off on my way through the door, determined to be out before Hannah got in so I was out of sight. Luckily, they asked for my headtorch which was right in the front and I was off. I temporarily forgot where the snicket was and going through, had a mini interview with the film crew, again, not thinking of anything interesting to say! Having Jayson at Square Corner a couple of miles out of the village was great, not least because my fingers were getting a bit fat, so I handed him my wedding and engagement rings, got topped up with food and drink and started the last long climb towards the Roman road. After having several ‘ this will be the worst bit’ bits, this was surely going to be easier wasn’t it? It turns out that no, the wind was still hanging around and insisting on pummelling us all. Back to the head down, just get on with it strategy. At least by now I had about a 12 minute gap on Hannah, certainly not enough to relax but I felt I was finally making some progress. I attempted to cheer a fellow runner up as I marched up the hill, telling him we were on the home straight, to which he replied, ‘It’s still 20 miles to go’. I tried to convince him that it was all easy going but he was having none of it. It’s at this stage in a race that I think I have an advantage as the chugging on continues where other folks seem to flag. He did have a point though as even here, where it should have all been runnable, I found myself walking as it was just as quick as trying to battle the headwind at a jog and not half as tiring. It was along here I had what must have been my fourth al fresco pee stop which just goes to show how well hydrated I was, and I think, despite having to stop being mildly annoying, it has helped me to feel recovered more quickly.
Finally turning down towards Sneck Yate, it felt easier. The hood came down, and I trotted to the disco checkpoint where I was hoping for my first cola of the day. Alas they had none, so I took two Jaffa Cakes and made my way along the field and single track to Sutton Bank. The hood had to go back up again as the wind reappeared once I was out of the trees, and I sang my mantras until I reached Jayson at the path near the road. He topped me up again and asked if I wanted him to wait and see when Hannah came through. I did, and we agreed to meet at the road crossing after the White Horse. I knew that I could actually get cracking once this bit was done, so got down there as quickly as I could without slipping in the mud – lord knows how it must have been after 400 runners went through there – and finally got my cup of cola to help me up the mountainous steps. I normally start on the sugar earlier into a race, so the avo and rice wraps did a grand job of keeping me going without having any energy lulls. I only started on the sweet stuff as I had no wraps left! So, with Kendal Mint Cake in my pocket and cola in my cup, I reached the top of the steps and with that, the glorious knowledge that I now had a tailwind. As I almost came level with the right hand turn to take me to the road, I saw Hannah. I made a conscious effort to look really comfortable – not sure it worked! – and as we passed one another, I gave her a thumbs up and she told me well done. She looked really good, and although I knew logically that I had a good gap now, it still made me nervous. My ankle had started to hurt and I was very aware of the fact that it might slow me down too. At the road, Jayson and Indie ran with me up to the gate into the gallops. Jayson told me I now had twenty minutes lead but not to slack off or make any silly mistakes. He said that some people, obviously tired, had taken wrong turns, so to do that now could spell disaster. Even though there was a giant pile of sawdust hiding the next gate, I knew I wasn’t going to get this wrong and I left Jayson behind for the final stretch.
With the race starting a little late and me taking longer than I thought, it was starting to get a tiny bit dusky, so not wanting to get the headtorch out, I really tried to get cracking. The slippery descent onto the last big track before the road to Rievaulx nearly took me out but I managed to correct myself (core work people) and ran the next flat section strongly, knocking off a couple of sub 8.45 minute miles. I called someone back as they were about to swerve off towards Rievaulx and we stayed together for a little while, chatting races as we walked up the last hill. It was here that Jayson and Indie appeared again, and where my new friend, Adam, picked up to a run again and ended up beating me by two minutes. A great run! As we came onto the path after the steps, I commented that it was funny how I was so intent on breaking nine hours at the start of the day and now I would be happy to break ten! Jayson told me I’d better get a move on then, so I did. Into the final field and I had a little shout at myself, then we hit the road. Jayson ran on ahead to make sure the film crew knew I was on my way and, as I shuffled up the road, there they were. Rounding the corner into the sports club car park, there were people milling around and I got some cheers as I ran into the doorway and finally, sat down on the floor. 9.57.19 and very satisfying. There was another quick interview before Roy McDougall hoisted me to my feet and went to get me a cup of tea. There was a blur of a medal and a t-shirt being handed to me, then a tea. It wasn’t the worst I have felt after a race but I was certainly more relieved to have finished than I have been for a long while. After a warm shower, fresh clothes, some food and a massage, everything was well again. Hannah finished in second around 34 minutes behind me so I was really pleased with how well I ran the last section and pleased for her on such a great run in grim conditions before the 110.
Jayson and I hung around for a while to see as many of our athletes in as we could. Jonny Milner and Andrew Bales finished next, one after the other in just over 12.15, fantastic running again from both of them. We decided to call it at about 9pm and as were turned the headlights of the car on, Hazel Marchant ran past. This was probably the highlight of my day to be honest. I dashed out of the car to congratulate her on probably her best ultra to date. After being coached by me for about 18 months, consistently putting the work in and building an awesome mental approach, she finished in 12.53.12, smiling and strong. Going from 33rd lady last time she ran this race, to 11th this time and taking time off, even though it was dire was a superb achievement. I was happier for her than I was for myself! It was also great to see Joe finishing just as we were driving away. We stopped and I jumped out to thank him for pulling me along on Blowarth. He had walked for the last 20 miles and was still laughing about it! Another super resilient performance despite it not going to plan! All of our athletes did amazing things on Saturday and hearing their stories put a very different spin on the couple of days post race for me. I am so proud of all of them for giving it some real beans.
Practical stuff that worked for me on the day:
- Kit was all great. I wore my Montane Minimus jacket, then I wore Jayson’s Montane Minimus stretch jacket after Clay Bank. Both were fab. I got wet but who wouldn’t have in that!? I was never cold which I think is a great testament to Montane. I just had a long sleeved top and a t shirt underneath and felt fine all day. My tights were 2XU and were perfect. They dried quickly in the few minutes when the rain stopped, and again, I never got cold. I also wore a Montane waterproof cap. Caps are the best thing for keeping rain out of your face I find and this sat very low, which worked well, even if it annoyed me a bit! With the hood pulled tight over it, I never felt it would blow off either. The UD Halo vest worked well, despite a bit of bounce when my bottles were full but I think that was the tracker placement as it hadn’t happened before. It was a bit faffy getting food in and out of the side pockets but that could have to do with me not being able to do anything when I wear gloves. I wore my Raidlight trail gloves until Clay Bank then swapped to Montane Via Trail ones. They both got wet, but again, I never got cold hands, just a bit puffy from the battering they took. My Injinji socks and Scott Supertrac RCs were spot on too. No blisters, hot spots, rubbing or lost nails at all. My feet were sodden but I had no problems with them. These shoes are hands down the best all rounders I have ever had.
2. Food worked brilliantly, probably better than ever before. I ate four avocado and rice mini wraps and two cheese mini wraps but could have had the avocado ones all day. I had three Chia Charge bars – chocolate orange that I saved from Christmas – and an hazelnut and chocolate one before the start, and a handful of Lidl jelly fruit sweets. A whole Kendal Mint cake was demolished in the last 9 miles too. Jayson tells me I got through about five litres of water, half of which was diluted PH sachets. I did pee more than I would have liked but I would rather feel hydrated than worry about that. I never once went off food and didn’t feel the need to eat sugary stuff really at all.
3. Running in the wind blows (see what I did there!)
So why did I call this ‘Chasing Rainbows’? Having a time goal is great: it gives you a focus and a purpose, something to strive for that you can be proud of and something that you can logically work out in the form of splits. But, it is easy to make it the most important element of your training and racing. Like the end of a rainbow, a time goal is not something you can reach and be completely content with. We might achieve the time we want but what comes next? After the initial, brief satisfaction, do you feel it fading and need to start chasing again? Does the end of a rainbow even really exist? That magical sub nine hours is something I have achieved, twice, in other 50 mile races, so what will change if I get it in this race? The most important thing I took from Saturday was that, to get the most from yourself, you have to be adaptable. I knew as soon as we set off that nine hours was not going to happen, so I forgot about it and focused on moving forward as well as I could. Getting to the end of that race was a huge accomplishment and one I am proud of, especially doing it with the attitude I did. So, instead of chasing the rainbows, why not slide down them instead? Take in the colours, ride the peaks and troughs and don’t expect to find the pot of gold at the end that will change your life forever. Sometimes, you need a day of rain to create your rainbow.