It’s 5pm on Friday and I’ve just announced the winning name of the soft toy dog, at the school Christmas Fayre where I’m Headteacher, as Merry. Children and adults are drifting off after a pretty intense couple of hours of fundraising and fun. I check my watch, I’ve a 3 hour 12 minute drive (according to Google if I don’t stop) to Ingram ahead of me. My tea, a cheese ploughman’s sandwich, a bag of crisps and a Yorkie bar that I bought this morning, is in the van door and I’ll arrive just in time to register and then get some sleep before a 5:30 race start if I can set off soon. I wonder how Merry I’ll be feeling this time tomorrow.
Registration is quiet and I get my tracker, number, t-shirt and Montane Chief to wear. Slumbering in the corner next to the desk is The Czech Machine himself, Pavel Paloncy, twice winner of the Spine and Pennine Way record attempt challenger last year. One of the reasons I’ve been so excited to start this race is the chance to toe the line with some people who I have found inspirational but never met. I shake his hand and we chat about running, he’s a nice guy and a lot bigger in real life than I expected!
Adding to the feeling is my film crew. I’ve been followed and filmed in preparation for the race over the last few weeks after answering a call to talk about why I started running and Montane even sent me some kit to wear to help out. I shake their hands and give a quick interview on the start. I’m nervous and Kerr asks me how long I think it will take? 12 -14 hours I say but this is a real guess. My fastest Fellsman is 13:25 so that’s a ball park figure, although I’m not as fit as I was then and this is in winter. And I don’t know the way. And I’ll be starting and finishing in the dark. And likely on my own.
We count down and set off and here I am running with the eventual winners Jim Mann and Andy Berry and third placed Pavel and it feels ok. The pace is fine, I even run up a few hills and I’m coasting along. Then the pace picks up ever so slightly and we thin out in a line over rough ground that becomes increasingly snow covered. I haven’t reccied this part of the course but I have my map and Garmin Etrex so I’m not concerned and crack on at what I consider to be a reasonable speed. The tracks I’m following break off but the course goes straight on. My first real choice of the day and I follow the course (does this mean technically I’m in first place I wonder chuckling to myself?). This means I am breaking new ground and boy is that hard work! I can’t imagine how hard this must be to do for the whole race and later when I speak to Tim who has dropped back from the lead group he confirms that they were taking it in turns and he had to do a turn as well.
I’m going ok, well in fact, and inside the top 10 which is punching above my weight for a race like this. This is when I make an error of judgement and I only have myself to blame. Coming down off a hill I assume I am about to enter the bag drop checkpoint so finish my water and have a bit to eat. I’ve coasted down the hill with a spring in my step but as I turn the corner I realise I’ve forgotten about a hill, and it’s not a small one. My head goes and my legs follow. Several people pass me on the way up and down to the actual bag drop checkpoint and I have a word with myself when I’m there to not stop for too long. At least when I get out I’ll be on the hills again – it really is stunning.
Except that straight out of the checkpoint it’s on to a road for what seems like forever. Roger runs past me like I’m standing still saying at least it’s a chance to get the speed up and the overall time down. I watch him run off then have a little walk before starting to run again and turn the corner, eventually, to see a beautiful hill climbing in to the distance. There’s a skier half way up building a ramp so he can practice his jumps. He’s hoping he can get enough speed up now the snow is starting to lose the crispness of the early morning and he gives encouragement to me as I trudge off.
At the end of this section we join the Pennine Way – I know this bit – and then I remember and my heart sinks, I know this bit! This is a race for people with big hearts and strong minds – not only for the runners but also the support crew who seem to be at every turn and offering water and encouragement even if in the middle of nowhere. The section from Windy Gyle to The Cheviot is beyond hard.
Usually in a race at some point I’ll have a little cry about something and then pull myself together. I’m too cold and tired to even feel sorry for myself today. I can’t even muster the energy to give myself a talking to so I plod on and on with three people overtaking me before the summit. First Ben runs past and he’s looking and sounding pretty chipper, then Carol who motors on at the out and back and shares a cheery word on her way to victory in the women’s race. Big hearts and strong minds.
I know I’m in 13th place now and that I’ll not catch up ahead but I can defend 13th because there’s a real gap on the summit. Ben mentioned it was the next section he really wasn’t looking forward to and that fills me with dread – I don’t know this bit either!
Tracks appear and disappear seemingly at will, darkness falls with a sunset that still lingers in my memory now. There’s no photos from me for the day, I had all on to motivate myself to eat and drink – at one point I was having a battle of wills with myself to see how long I really could go without food because it was so much effort to sort out. Not a day for the faint hearted.
Snow covered iced bogs are the order of the day for the next hour and in the dark this is relentless. On and on and on. Choose a direction and trust the ice? Follow the tracks that disappear? Make your own path? Every second a deliberate choice has to be made and it is as mentally exhausting as physical. I get it wrong only once and my left leg disappears – I’m wearing shinpads since my fall so no damage done and I’m pleased they work and are comfy to run in.
I’ve been out for 12 hours at this point and I have to say the Montane Spine jacket and Cordillera tights have performed well. When I reccied in them to be sure they were right for the job I was impressed – more so today. I usually have to wear a pair of shorts over tights to keep my vital areas warm, not so today with a windproof layer part of the upper section of the tights. And the Spine jacket, I can’t even describe how good that has been over ‘just’ a base layer, merino layer and my club vest. My nickname is Arctic John due to the amount of layers I wear but today I haven’t even had to think about being cold or wet once, I might have to change my name!
On the top of the final climb I see Jacob from Montane who I meet for the first time having exchanged emails previously. I shake his hand and he enthuses positivity. It’s just what I need as I put a burst of (relative) speed on to widen the gap to a torchlight that has been closing in on me. The end is so near and yet so far, across the final field I can see a car so I head towards it in my excitement but then realise I’m going the wrong way and calm down and follow my map.
The end. Flags, cheers, a medal and the satisfaction of a job well done and even within my estimated time frame finishing the 55 miles and 9,500 feet of climb in 13 hours 33. I sit and chat to Carol, Pavel and Jim. That sentence alone is worth the day! I’m not really able to say much mind you and wolf down a plate of food and a couple of cans before I can contribute anything intelligible. Pavel needs a lift to the airport and I’m driving past on my way home so I offer a lift. I get changed and set off for home, stopping on the way for a short sleep so I arrive safely in time for Sally to go to work and I can take Louis to football.
As I left I shook the organisers hand and thanked him. "It’s not a race but an expedition," I said and I think that sums it up. I spent the whole day pitting myself against the course, most of it seen for the first time today and in full on winter ground conditions. My feet were hurting, then they stopped hurting because I couldn’t feel them because of the cold, then they started hurting again as they thawed out. My legs hurt, I didn’t eat or drink enough all day. My mind hurt from the concentration and my spirit was broken down and built up again many times throughout the day.
Just as I get in the van I catch a look at my reflection in the windows and I’m grinning, the thought flickers across my mind that I will be better prepared next year and now I also know the route. It’s a funny thing running events like these, for me it’s a microcosm of what life is about, a true test of who you are. It’s not about where you come relative to others it’s about whether you got the best out of yourself and challenged your perceptions of what is possible.
Montane Cheviot Goat Winter Ultra I salute you.
Arctic John Parkin