This story has a happy ending. I’ll tell you that now because it starts pretty miserably, on a grey New Year’s Day…
The Hardmoors Grand Slam is something that captured my interest about four years ago, when I was a wide-eyed admirer of those strange folks known as ‘ultra-runners’. Conceived in 2011 by Jon Steele, the series consists of four races: the 30 on New Year’s Day, the 55 in March, the 110 in May and the 60 in September. Covering the beautiful, varied and often brutal Cleveland Way National Trail, the races have boomed in popularity and status, with three of them carrying UTMB points and all of them attracting elite and international athletes. For me, however, the challenge was to finish the series in one piece and to claim the coveted Grand Slam hoody. As I sit here now, wearing said hoody, I can honestly say it was worth it. Rewind to the 1st of January though, and I wasn’t so sure.
30 miles. It should be the easiest of the lot right? Not when you’ve spent a few days with an horrendous chest infection that makes even breathing a chore. But, if the hoody was to be had, the race had to be done. Setting off from Robin Hood’s Bay as the majority of the country was probably still in bed, it promised to be a long day. With a fast first half on a cinder track disused railway down to Whitby, what felt like the whole field breezed by me as I wheezed my way towards the first checkpoint. Joining the Cleveland Way coastal path was a bit of a blessing as it meant I could walk a few uphills, hacking my lungs up and trying not to be sick. Despite passing a few people towards the end, I thought my hopes of doing well in the Grand Slam were over. I crawled into the village hall as 15th lady in 5.43.07, a disappointing result for me.
(I know I promised a happy ending, but it picks up from here really!)
In the past few years, March on the Cleveland hills has seen snowdrifts and blizzards, but this year, we had dream conditions of a crisp, dry day. Training had been going well: the focused strength work, slow marathon sweeping and recce days made me more confident of a decent outcome. On the day though, my confidence took a bit of a knock when I realised there were some fast ladies starting (the thought of racing hard turns my stomach a bit!) Charmaine Horsfall seemed untouchable and always showed utter determination; Shelli Gordon is a local ultra legend, winning every ridiculous race going, and Heather Mochrie had won the 30 in a fantastic time. Could I match up?! I resolved to set off fairly briskly but comfortably and, all the way through Guisborough Woods and up to Urra Moor, I couldn’t quite understand how Charmaine was behind me. We had a chat as I munched some bread and cheese climbing over the short, sharp three sisters – Wainstones, Cold Moor and Cringle Moor – when she told me she was taking it steady. Okay, this made more sense! I was going comfortably hard, she was feeling slow. In my head, this meant I wasn’t going too fast! Then, another miracle. I spotted Shelli’s bright pink calf guards climbing the hill in front of us. To be so close to these three women was astounding to me. We all came into the Lord Stones checkpoint together, and, as Shelli, Heather and I topped up our food and water, Charmaine took off over Carlton Bank. This was the last time we saw her and she went on to win in a phenomenal 8:39:43.
The leg to Osmotherley is lovely with some fast descents and rooty wooded trails. It was here Heather, feeling really poorly, decided to stop. Shelli had planned on running with Heather as she celebrated her 1000th Hardmoors mile. Now, it seemed I was her focus! She really helped keep me going at a good lick, running ahead but staying in sight and stopping with me at checkpoints to beg for cola. Coming into Rievaulx a few miles from the end, Jayson – my Slam support and other half – joined us and I could see the two of them hatching a plan.
“You could get under nine hours if we can just keep pushing you know”. This, as I’m having to walk slowly up a tiny gradient. I politely said I didn’t care about that, and just couldn’t believe I was on for less than ten! They patiently chivvied me along until, turning the corner where the town hall in Helmlsey appears, Shelli held out a hand to me. I instantly burst into tears as we finished in joint second in 9:04:10, a time I hadn’t even dreamt of. Not being one for having my photo taken, when Gail Smith asked if she could share one of me on Facebook that ‘showed my emotions’, I was slightly dubious. It’s now one of my favourite pictures, me clinging to Shelli, face screwed up, sobbing. It definitely does what Gail said!
May, and time for The Big One. 110 miles, the whole Cleveland Way, from Helmsley to Filey. Again, it was a beautiful day, too wam for some but dry and bright with no breeze. Heather and I, not too sure how to pace it, ran steadily together for the first few hours, chatting and enjoying the occasion. When she stopped to change her shoes, I carried on and found myself alone for the rest of the day.
On the way down to Slapewath where my support, Jayson and Garry, were due to meet me, I had a strange feeling Garry wouldn’t be there. But he appeared, jogging towards me with an uplifting grin. This though, was where it could have all gone wrong if not for the dedication and calm of my friends. The van had broken down. This scuppered the plan of Garry running with me while Jayson got some sleep. Garry took over, meeting me at Saltburn with chips, and Skinningrove with my torch as Jayson managed to get back home and return with the car. Seeing him at Staithes in the pitch dark gave me a boost as I now knew we were back on track and I could finally have some company.
Running all night was new but I had done a practice night run with Jon a month before and survived. On reaching Sandsend at somewhere around midnight, Garry went home and Steve Watson took over, intending to run with me until 6am. Support is crucial to get right on something like this and Steve and Garry should definitely turn pro! They both knew when to talk, when to shut up, when to get me to eat and when to keep plodding on. Apart from one tiny hiccup where I became obsessed with annihilating a tiny blister with a safety pin, we kept a pretty consistent pace and saw in the red dawn somewhere near Ravenscar. None of us could quite believe how well I was going and, with Scarborough around the bend, Steve decided to stay with me a while longer. We got into a robotic rhythm where he would say ‘left hand’ and I would take a minute piece of apple or sweet from him. My body had given up on food, and anything sweet made my teeth hurt, but he kept making sure I was taking something in. I felt like a machine now, with pit stops to refuel and reaffirm my progress.
Jayson’s brother-in-law, Russ Grayson, was waiting at Scalby Mils to run the last leg with me, and in his usual cheery way, couldn’t stop telling me how well I was doing. I managed a few grunts in return but when I realised I’d hit the 100 mile mark in 23.15, I perked up a bit. It was 3 miles around Scarborough sea front and the major motivation was the hope of a slushy at the other end. This was the hardest part for me: the Tarmac, the Spa checkpoint in sight but never getting any closer and the knowledge I’d almost finished seemed to make the time grind to a painfully slow pace. Because I’d reached Scarborough earlier than anticipated, Steve decided to see it through to the end with me, so we pushed on to the Spa complex, where Jayson gave me my much anticipated slushy; miraculous at 7am!
On the climb out of Scarborough, we passed Shelli who was on her way to winning the 160 outright, two hours ahead of her nearest rivals. After a quick hug and a little sob, we kept on. It was a very slow run in to Filey now, but with Russ and Steve chatting and Jayson coming out for the last couple of miles, it went by fairly quickly. I could hear the cheers from the finish for about 10 minutes before we got there, and Jon came out to ‘pretend’ to trip me up because I’d beaten his PB! There were tears again at the end, and some before it, as, on my first 100 mile race, I’d finished 11th overall and first lady in 25.22.
It was only when I had stopped that I felt strange: cold, dizzy and a bit sick! I had agreed with Katie and Heather that we would all go and sit in the sea at the end, but all I wanted to do was get home. We watched Shelli come in, got my shiny goodies and drove home, only for Jayson and I to fall asleep in the driveway for about an hour!
After the small matter of the Lakeland 50 in July, I started to focus on the 60 in September. Recovery went well and despite expecting to suffer after the 110 (apart from swollen feet) I felt good at the end of the summer. I didn’t feel that I needed to hammer out massive mileage as I’d done enough already, so just plugged away with the strength work, easy runs and cross training. I felt good, but never expected that I could make myself do what I did next…
Another good weather day dawned on the 19th and I set off with Katie, who had come second in the Lakeland 100 and taken an insane chunk out of her previous time. I was a bit worried about how well she seemed to be running! I entered the Grand Slam because to complete is an achievement in itself, but now I was gunning for a win. Katie was 6 places ahead of me in the Slam, more experienced and running well. I almost felt guilty for wanting to beat her but decided early on to really go for it. I was fairly sure she wouldn’t hold it against me! When she told me that her plan was to stick with us girls – me, Shelli and Heather – I knew that if I didn’t cane it, I would be running scared or chasing all day. My new tactic: go fast! I quickly got away from the other girls, thinking there was no way I could maintain it, but at least I would have a head start. Running into Saltburn, Jayson updated me: I was only a few minutes behind the leader! I felt okay, so kept going at that pace, still convinced I would suffer for it later.
The day started warming up and I knew that would slow people down, as it usually affects me too. My X-Bionic kit kept me fairly cool, even though it was baking by lunchtime. The halfway point at Saltwick Bay was a bit of a revelation. I’d done a marathon in 4.15 and reached the checkpoint in about 4.55. I must apologise to Paul Nelson for being gleeful when I passed him, as he had done so much and was suffering but I don’t think many people can say they’ve overtaken him! I started thinking that 11 hours was doable as I expected to lose a bit of time as I tired. Robin Hoods bay was the next point I was going to see Jayson and as we ran into the checkpoint together, there was a bit of a silence. I was so focused on getting a drink and getting going, that I didn’t realise everyone was in shock to see me! I was in 4th place at this point, not far behind third and still going well. I had asked Jayson not to tell me where the other girls were until after halfway, so decided to ask now. I knew I couldn’t do more to maintain my lead but was worried that they would come skipping past me, looking fresh and much more together than me any minute, so needed some warning or reassurance. He said that he didn’t know as he had to keep driving to the next point before they came through, but that I had a good lead. I had to promise not to slow down before he gave me any information though! This sparked mildly hysterical crying every time I realised how fast I was going and how I knew I could keep doing it until the end.
My music helped me keep the pace up from here and I was quite happy singing away and enjoying the day, still waiting for the inevitable running out of steam. I actually managed to be in third place coming out of the Ravenscar checkpoint, but Steven Lord quickly got by me again, bouncing along and looking nippy. I discovered some really helpful running tunes in this section: Bring me to Life by Evanescence, that one by The Bloodhound Gang about naughty stuff, Thanks for the Memories by Fall Out Boy and Flux by Bloc Party. Rocking out really takes your mind off racing!
When I got into Scalby Mills, I turned the music off and could hear the disturbing sounds I was making as I had an out of body experience, dodging tourists on Scarborough sea front. It’s hard to explain but, even though I was physically tired, I felt positive and energised. It was satisfying to know what I was doing was so different to the people I was seeing, eating their ice creams and dawdling along. We all enjoy our summers in very different ways! Jayson drove past me twice on this stretch as the traffic was so bad, I actually overtook him in the van! He ran out to meet me close to the Spa and set me off crying again when he told me Steve and his wife Cath were at a wedding reception in the Spa itself: seeing my ace support crew from the 110 and getting a quick hug and some words of encouragement really meant a lot. Some of the wedding guests even came out and gave me a little clap. Yep, more tears…
Not getting my head torch out on this last stretch was a fantastic feeling. It felt like the last leg whooshed by as I enjoyed the last remnants of the day and, when Filey brigg appeared round the corner, there was some actual giggling. When Jayson came out to meet me in the last couple of miles, the weird noises got weirder as tiredness fully kicked in. It’s strange how you can move forward for over 10 hours but when the end is in stumbling distance, it suddenly gets really hard. The final hill up to the church hall just defeated me and I had to walk up. Jayson didn’t think that was suprising! I walked into the hall, laid down on my front on the floor and had a bit of a sob for the hundredth time that day. When I finally got up, the first person I saw was Katie. She’d had an utter nightmare and had to drop out but had come to the end to see me finish. Ultras really are a different world from other races. Even someone that I was competing against was willing me on to the end and although it must have been hard for her, physically and mentally, she was so supportive. Plus, she does an awesome blog – Ultra Betty – that is very honest and well written ?
I ended up winning the ladies race by about an hour – Shelli and Heather finished joint second looking great as usual, although they did both have to borrow my towel and shower gel: Team Adhoc at its finest!
I was 4th overall, not too far behind the winner and won the ladies Grand Slam, coming 2nd overall. Finishing a race completely spent and knowing that I’d done everything I could was something I’d only really done once before. It’s taken a while to get over doing 60 miles in 10.35, a time I thought was impossible a few months ago. My body keeps telling me how hard I worked this year, so I’m trying my best to listen by having a break, doing some cross training and enjoying running without pressure. A few ideas for next year are rattling around my head but whatever I do, 2015 will have been the real start of it all. This year has been my running happy ever after but I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep.