Running in the Dales; GB Ultras Pennine Barrier 50 (June 2017)

To set my story of this event in context, I first need to spend a moment or two back in the days of my youth long, long ago, when Mars Bars were a satisfying snack, milk shakes contained milk and you never gave a policeman any chelp.

I  first saw the Swiss Alps from twenty -odd thousand feet in the early seventies, on a plane bound for Italy. I looked down at the meringuey peaks, scattered with thin whispy cloud, and promised myself that one day, I would explore this landscape at ground level .

Looks cold, doesn’t it.

I experienced  similar feelings forty years later, standing in a car park in the Yorkshire Dales, admiring the hills all around me, but not knowing how to explore and experience them safely, away from the road. There were too many stories of ill-prepared and inexperienced people coming to grief in the wilderness for me to wander off , so I returned to the safety of the car and drove on, acutely aware that I was missing something good.

I saw the Alps as a teenager, and was at once drawn to them. I satisfied this need over the next few years by cycling many of the epic passes, sometimes riding between huge banks of snow as I neared the pass summits. The magnitude of the Alps meant that I was able to enjoy my wander-lust on two wheels. I knew I would never be a mountaineer and quite simply, would have been afraid to stray far away from the relative safety of the road. But there were road climbs that could last half a day, and each one was a whole world of experience the best of which, possibly, is available only to those enjoying such places under their own steam.

Thirty years or so later, my instincts took me to the trails when I started running, and although I use the lanes around home to do basic mileage, almost all of my longer runs are off road. In Lincolnshire, road runs often mean a flat straight road, on a flat, straight landscape.

Not the long and winding road.

When I saw Wayne Drinkwater’s post about a “recce run” for the GB Ultras Pennine Barrier 50, I replied immediately, with questions that would have made any hill runner smile. I did not have a clue; shoes, clothing, food and drink? Wayne answered my questions with kindness, and encouraged me to have a go. I took part in the recce, met a wonderful group of runners (whom I’m now proud to call friends), and having been guided through the basics, here I am a little while later, writing about the fifty mile race in the Yorkshire Dales.

Recce One, great day, great company.

This being my second race in my second season, I felt the need to develop my skills and knowledge. So I went all scientific. I researched calories, hydration, salt, carbohydrate, and about a hundred other things that would surely help me to get the best out of myself on race day. I read, noted, calculated,  and eventually devised a dietary and nutritional master plan for the race.

So race morning saw me devouring a breakfast that would have fazed Desperate Dan; four eggs, two large salami and cheese sandwiches, a litre of chocolate milk shake, a bucketful of cereals, a huge blackberry and apple pie, plus bars of chocolate and any other “essentials” I happened to find, including one of many tins of rice pudding. On arriving in Malham and waiting to start, another tin of rice pud was downed, together with a tin of peaches in syrrup, just for good measure. So I was ready… to burst.

Despite the mountain of food I had forced down during the early morning, I still felt the need to follow “The Plan”, so I squeezed pots of rice pudding and peaches, delicious fruit cake, fruit & sponge bars, a banana for good measure, and some caffeine tablets into my race vest. My drink bottles held a special concoction, which those of a sensitive nature may want to skip over; water (well that’s not very radical Malcolm), energy/electrolyte tablet (still normal), multi vitamin tablet (really?), lemon juice (erm…), caffeine tablet (no, stop), a good spoonful of health salts (omg. pass me the bowl!) This was my secret weapon. I would not merely fire this weapon into the Pacific Ocean, or as a futile gesture, over the heads of another country.  No, this stuff was headed straight for the heart of the Yorkshire Dales; The Three Peaks of Pen y ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. All three would succumb to this vile potion. I would fly up them all.

Pen y ghent, nearing the summit.
At 736m, Whernside is the highest of the three peaks.
The difficult approach to Ingleborough, then it becomes much more difficult!

Well that was the plan.  On race day, the forecast was sunny and hot, but Malham was cold and miserable at dawn. Even the midges that were pestering us were shivering. I dispensed with the sun hat and other hot weather gear, and started the run dressed and equipped for misty murk. Up Malham Cove and the next few miles over Ings Fell, this seemed to be the right decision. Shrouded in mist, the hills were chilly and haunting, with runners briefly appearing as distant ghosts, and then fading back into the gloom. One or two voices could be heard occasionally, but where were they from?

Predictably, my digestive system did not appreciate the early morning overloading, followed by running and walking up the hills, and I soon began to suffer “symptoms”.  Not nice. I could face no more food, and ate nothing for the next thirty miles or so. The sun appeared as advertised, and baked  us all. At CP2 Debra, a wonderful lady, plastered me with sun lotion as I tried, and failed, to come to terms with my energy filled goody bag that was begging to be devoured.

Debra at CP2

Pen y ghent had been negotiated through the early morning coolness, but Whernside was going to be hot, hot, hot. And it was.  Even the long plod to the summit did not clear my digestion problems, and the barrow load of breakfast just sat  there in my stomach, threatening to re-emerge at any time, weighing me down, but somehow providing me with little energy for the run.

Descending Whernside, carefully hopping from one boulder to another with all the finesse of an arthritic elephant, I found Ian, who was running the 100 mile version of the event…that’s two laps of the Three Peaks and two returns from Malham, the second lap in the dark! We shared a refreshing drink at the barn just before the beginnings of Ingleborough. Ian could see I was struggling, he could also see that I was carrying enough food for an elephant’s lunch box. Following his advice, I reluctantly binned my carefully measured pots of peaches  and rice pud. I dried my tears, and set off again, in the stifling heat.

Ian approaches CP2 on Lap 1.

Massively lightened, I ascended Ingleborough in my usual manner; breathing like a fog horn, on all fours in places, and light headed with the altitude ( a hump-backed bridge is a climb where I’m from.) I managed the little detour along The Ridge, part way up, and was then able to summit Ingleborough in one piece. The descent was good, no falls and I was allowing gravity to help me a little. At the CP before Horton in Ribblesdale I found Lainey’s son Kian, managing the station like a veteran. (I originally wrote “vet” here, but feared somebody might misunderstand; ” OK everyone, Bob Martins and Winalot over here. Anyone need worming?”) Adam had gone to collect more water, and so we had to go without his special afternoon tea! This was a blow, we were looking forward to sugar lumps, embroidered napkins and a nice drop of Earl Grey, together with Adam’s wonderful humour and wit. But there was enough food and drink for all the runners, and I braved a couple of nibbles. But nowhere near enough for the remaining climbs and miles.

Near the bottom of Ingleborough, on all fours already!

I continued the descent into Horton quite well, but we still faced climbing half way up Pen y ghent from Horton, then to turn right and head for Malham and home.  This should not have been a problem but suddenly, everything seemed to hit me at once; not eating, my stomach, nausea, the heat, and the miles and climbs already in my legs. I just came to a standstill, and lost the ability to make any meaningful progress. The last CP was only about a mile away, but the climbing had to be done first. I absolutely had to retire once/if I reached the CP.

Then along came Lainey. She would have none of it, “Of course you’re going to finish!” She fed me glucose tablets, and together with the lovely ladies at the final CP, filled me with food and drink that would fuel me to the finish. There was a price to pay for this though. Descending Whernside, Ian had urged me to jettison my rice pud and peaches, which I did. Secretly, I had carefully concealed my M&S fruit cake, even though I could not face eating it. But I couldn’t get this past Lainey, who conducted a full forensic search of my race vest pockets, donating anything that was still good to the food table, and disposing of the rest. Off went the cake to runners who would appreciate it, and I was further lightened for the final push for home.

Lainey, looking good on Ingleborough Ridge.

Lainey and I set off for Ings Fell and the last few, relatively easy, miles to the finish. She encouraged me and checked I was still moving. Later, when the food began to work into my system, she also checked my speed, telling me to run at a steady pace, rather than fast bursts followed by slowing and more exhaustion. It worked.

Just before Janet’s Foss, the very pretty finale to the course, before the paved run in to Malham, Lainey’s friend Ian caught us up, and shepherded us to the finish. He was superb; encouraging, and gently coaxing us onwards.

Ian, preparing for the GB Ultras 200 mile race

At the finish, I insisted Lainey, having sacrificed her run for me, should go in front of me. She refused, so we crossed the line like a pair of school kids, trying to push each other over. When we sat down, Ian appeared with very welcome drinks for the three of us. A fun finish to an amazing event.

“Ladies first!”

Wayne had organised two “all welcome” recce runs, that covered the whole course. He even led a steady run around the start and finish sections the night before the race. The course was magnificent, as were the support and organisation. On each of the recce runs, I had met a number of great people who were running in the event, and a big part of the enjoyment for me was the exchanging of good wishes before, during and after the race. It’s impossible to mention everyone, but some other memories that stand out include; Lisa and Louise doing planks at the top of each peak. Denise and Tara, looking so happy enroute to Malham Tarn. Robert and Mark working together like clockwork. Emma, disappearing up and over the climbs like she was rocket powered. Carolyn, with a lovely smile and wave on Ingleborough, and Wayne, encouraging and photographing runners fast and slow on the course.

Wayne; RD and runner extraordinaire.

Al of this made me feel more “at home” and amongst friends, and less alone than I would otherwise have done.

So, great memories, aching legs, a deeper sun tan and a fantastic medal were all taken back home to Lincolnshire that evening. But alas, no rice pud, cake, or peaches. The GB Ultras Pennine Barrier 50 was an event and a half, worth the many training runs I had put in on the course, and well worth the effort on the day.

But most of all, the day was made by the people involved; the amazing helpers, the caring organisers and the brave runners. Without fail, all involved in the event were dedicated, friendly and encouraging to everyone. Even an Ancient Briton from the Flatlands.