A summer of running in the Peak District
This year I have only managed one caving trip, the White Scar trip on the annual dinner weekend. However, I have been doing a fair bit of running. I have been dabbling for a while but last year joined the “Smiley Paces’, a women’s running club in Sheffield. I went along a few times and, it not being a very official sort of club, paid by £2 subs, signed up to the Facebook page and was in. I progressed from the beginners to the regular group, aided by lots of chat and cake and a fantastic group of friendly women. A winter of pounding the streets of southwest Sheffield (not so nice) and head-torch runs up Porter valley (much better) meant that by spring 2013 progress was good.
As cities go, Sheffield is just about the best place to be a runner (I may well be biased). Famously hilly, the Peak District national park comes into the city boundary and the western suburbs sit high up on the edge of the moors. The city parks are proper wild corridors of ancient woodland leading out to the moors, not bandstand and carpet bedding type places. All the local running clubs seem to put on at least one summer fell race, and the Peak District villages also hold races for their well dressing weeks. I had a look through the calendar and got tempted by the thought of doing a fell run. Oh no, I thought, I’m turning into my mother! However, I decided to bite the bullet, order my Smiley Paces vest, and enter my first race.
Burbage Skyline. Tuesday, 6th May. 5.8 miles, 1201ft ascent.
Over 300 people a year enter the Burbage skyline, which for a local midweek evening event is a pretty impressive. My friend Judith and I drove out to the Fox House pub on a beautiful clear May evening to join the back of a very long registration queue. Looking at the vests of the other competitors I was amazed to see people had come from a few counties away - not 15 minutes up the road like us. We were herded into an old quarry track and people checked their watches and GPS’s and hopped from foot to foot waiting until finally we were off. Everyone surged down the slope like a stampede of buffalo. Thundering down to Burbage Brook, the runner in front of me tripped and fell – almost getting foot prints across his back as I narrowly missed running straight over him. I wasn’t sure what the race etiquette is for when people fall, but judging by everyone else, the thing to do is to shout ‘alright mate?’ over your shoulder while running off. I had told myself beforehand to treat it just like a Sunday run, and take it steady, but finding I could actually keep up with people, and even overtake a few was very exciting and spurred me on. Struggling up to Mother Cap we could see the front runners already on their way up Higgar Tor – the difference between the average and the best is enormous (although the difference between the average and Joe Public is probably even greater). The pull up Higgar Tor was thigh burning, steepening to a hand over hand clamber up the rocks. I had been warned to take care on the ‘plummet’ off Higgar but I found this exhilarating –brakes off, trust your shoes and drop like a stone. Down through the woods then a long steady uphill to upper Burbage Bridge. This was hard – pick a boulder, run to it, walk till the next boulder, stagger to the next, walk, run, but just keep going. Once up on the top of Burbage north edge the way on was a steady undulating sheep track in the heather - small feet are really an advantage for scampering along the little tracks and hopping from stone to stone. I even managed to overtake a few people on this stretch including a couple of Dark Peak club vests (the hard men and women of the peak district running world).But the effort had taken its toll and by the final half mile along a wide flat bridleway I had slowed to a jog and a steady stream of people sprinted past me, including most of the people I had overtaken earlier. I was really exhilarated at the finish. I loved running in the club vest - complete strangers came up and clapped me on the back with a ‘well run, Smiley’ or just came over for a chat. The midges were hungry so we escaped the beautiful golden evening for a pint in the Fox House and watched the prizes being presented. Afterwards Sally Fawcett, also in Smiley Paces, and second lady overall came over and said ‘the mistake you’ve made is that you’ve done the nicest fell run in the calendar on the most beautiful evening of the year for your first race. It’s downhill all the way for you now!’
Around this time, an email pinged into my inbox one morning at work and I found myself entering the Nine Edges – a 21mile race across the Peak District that I’d been eyeing up for a while. I had only run 7 miles by this point but I reckoned that with over 4 months to train and a spectacular route traversing nine of the Peak’s gritstone edges it wasn’t impossible.
Totley Moor Fell Race, Tuesday 21st May, 5.2miles, 1444ft ascent
A fortnight on from Burbage and a very different evening saw a car full of us heading over to Totley, in southwest Sheffield, headlights on in thick drizzle and feeling cold. I used to live here and it’s a really interesting area where moorland with red deer and steep birch forest comes right down to meet suburbia. The race starts immediately with a killer hill, up to the top of Totley moor with views across to Hope Valley, before looping back down. The sting in the tail is just when you think you are on the home straight, the route goes halfway back up the hill again followed by a perilously steep downhill and then a short road section. Jelly legs all round. I narrowly beat one of the other Smiley girls in this race, but only because she had to stop to retrieve her shoe from a bog.
The Hallam Chase, Tuesday 28th May, 3.25 miles, 800 feet of ascent
There is a rule that you can only do this race if you are a member of a bona fide affiliated Sheffield running club, which the Smiley Paces isn’t. However there were a couple of reasons why I really wanted to do this one. Firstly it’s the oldest fell race in the world, or oldest continuously run fell race or oldest handicap fell race or some similar historical accolade that’s lost in the mists of time. Secondly, it starts from the Hallam cricket/& football ground, which is on the next road to our house and if I look out of our attic window I can see the starting line. How many people can say the world’s oldest fell race starts practically on their doorstep? Happily, a quick phone call the race organiser gave me the go ahead. Being a handicap race you submit some race times in advance then set off in reverse order –tortoises first, hares last - the idea being that you all finish together. In ye olden days this race must have been in moorland but now the route passes through housing estates, fields and a wood and crosses two busy A roads. Only 50 or so people enter the race each year and if it were a caving trip it would be described as ‘an esoteric gem’. The route is simple - from the cricket ground, nose dive straight down the side of Rivelin valley, clamber back up the other side to Stannington Church and then reverse the whole process. At 800ft of ascent in only 3 miles it packs quite a punch and was a real rollercoaster of a run. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged a sprint finish out of me as I staggered back into the cricket field. The race was sponsored by a local solicitors firm who had bought in a generous amount of alcohol for the prizes – so much so that the race organiser had to make up a few more categories to offload it all including ‘anyone who thinks they deserve a prize and hasn’t got one yet’. I was pleased to come home with a nice bottle of wine for first lady in the 35-40 category. I was less smug few days later and the results came out and I found that there were only 2 of us in that category, the other girl actually ran faster, I just had a better handicap, and that race category doesn’t normally exist. Anyway, it was nice to take part in some of our more obscure local history.
EdaleFell Race, Sunday 9th June. 4.7miles, 1319ft ascent.
Not a good start to this race, which took place in the first week of the July heatwave. I got stuck in heavy traffic heading to the Edale show and with barely time to register had to sprint to the start line, a good half mile uphill from registration, arriving gasping for a drink and boiling hot with less than a minute to spare. The initial climb is a steep rocky staircase to Ringing Roger, and the gritstone slabs of the path were spattered with splashes of sweat and froths of spit from overheating runners. I could barely wheeze, never mind reply to the encouraging ‘Go Smiley!’ from the marshall. Reaching the top we contoured along the edge of Kinder plateau in the brilliant sunshine, sweat running into my eyes and dust kicking up from the baked hard peat. The route traverses round to Grindlow Knoll, followed by the inevitable plunge to the village showground and the blissful sight of the water station. The heat and exertion must have addled my brain as I went into the show tent for a cup of tea and came out £20 quid lighter having purchased a yak wool blanket from a Nepalese fundraising stall. The day after this race I could hardly walk. The ‘hands on knees’ push uphill, combined with the rock hard ground didn’t do my back any good at all and I had to take a few weeks break.
With the Nine Edges at the back of my mind, and aware that I’d been getting sidetracked by short fast races instead of increasing my mileage, I did a few long slow training runs over the summer. My favourite route along the edge of Rivelin valley to Wyming Brook; resin scented pinewoods springy underfoot. An early morning run from Sheffield to Hathersage, thinking how lucky I was to be running through fields of buttercups in the sunshine with Hathersage church clock striking ten and the whole of the weekend still ahead of me. An evening run along Derwent Edge in low cloud with one working head torch between us, getting cramp, and losing all sense of distance in the mist and dark until finally staggering back to the car at 10pm. 2013 has been a summer with some good memories.
Totley Exterminator, Sunday 1st September. 16 miles., 4232ft ascent
Fortunately I didn’t know too much about this race before I entered it (although the clue is in the name) – I knew it was 16miles but when I downloaded my Garmin afterwards I was amazed I had managed the ascent; five big uphills, one after the other. This was five miles longer than I’d run before and the pace was faster than I would have liked – I was running with my friend, Ruth, who knew the route so it was worth keeping up. Despite the relentless climbing, it’s an interesting route - not that I saw much of the scenery as I had my work cut out trying to maintain the pace. The marshal’s handed out flapjacks at Higgar Tor - delicious but my mouth was too dry to swallow them. I got soaked and scratched bashing through the bracken under Stanage popular end, ran right through a group of ravers in Millstone Quarries, packing up after an all night party, and did most of the descent to Padley Gorge on my backside. What was good about this race was I struggled for the first 10 miles but then got into my stride, boding well for the Nine Edges. As I ran the last mile over Totley Moor, the Red Arrows flew overhead on their way to an event at Chatsworth House, which felt suitably celebratory. I was pleased with my time, although the winners came in a full hour ahead of me.
The Nine Edges, Saturday 14th September, 21 miles, 2930ft ascent
Time for the big one! I woke up feeling sick with nerves, and I wished I hadn’t built this up as the main event of the summer. After registering at Fairholmes, nearly 150 runners jostled under Derwent dam until the starting whistle put us out of midge-infested misery. Most of the route’s ascent takes place in the first few miles, steadily rising from the reservoir to the shoulder then a second push up onto Derwent Edge. I was still having niggling back pain since the Edale race so tried keep a good upright posture on the uphills (more like a Masai, less like Mrs Overall) but the peer pressure is there when everyone is beetling past you using that special hands on knees walk that fell runners use to power uphill. Derwent Edge is by far the most interesting edge of the route - high and dramatic with spacious views across the moors, and a dot-to-dot path linking a chain of rock tors. After crossing the A57 and the second checkpoint we pushed onto Stanage High Neb and had a lovely surprise as my friend Jayne had run out from Redmires to join us for a short stretch. The latter section of Stanage was the hardest bit of the whole run for me. Having passed the High Neb trig point, the edge dips and curves and you can see the entirety of the next few miles stretching out ahead of you, deceptively uphill. I had to stop and take some Ibuprofen for backache and I was aware that I was holding Judith back. I also realized that I had accidentally switched off my Garmin while taking off my rucksack at the first checkpoint; very annoying. Jelly babies and a fun size bounty bar at Burbage north didn’t help, and through Burbage valley I felt slow. Miraculously, after Burbage, the Bounty bars kicked in and friends were waiting at Longshaw to cheer us on, which also gave me a real lift. I felt really strong through Longshaw and we made good progress to the Grouse pub and along Froggatt Edge. We kept overtaking and then being over taken by another couple of competitors with a large rucksack – turns out they was doing the more hardcore option where you not only run the route but do a climb on each of the edges. For the early routes they just soloed a diff/v diff but top roped for the last few edges, aware they were tired and might easily peel off. Curbar edge had a niggling uphill section, which was disproportionately knackering for its size, and the route along Baslow edge is just a cart track but by now we had done over 18 miles and I knew we’d cracked it. Running through the trees under Birchens Edge I could suddenly hear the road - almost an anti-climax as I hadn’t expected it so soon. I did my best effort to sprint the last few hundred metres through the woods until the path spat me out onto the road, and to the finish at the Robin Hood pub.
The race is a fundraiser for Edale mountain rescue team and the organization of the whole event was excellent. The marshal’s were unfailing cheerful and encouraging, and finishers get a beer token for the pub and a coach back to the start. We sat around in the sun, drinking our pints and clapping home everyone we knew and most people we didn’t. Apart from getting severe cramp under my ribs bending down to untie my laces and everyone around thinking I was having a heart attack, I didn’t feel too bad considering how far we’d run.
I finished off the summer with the Stanage Struggle, a comparatively short and sweet six miler the following Sunday, and that’s about it for the fell racing year. I’ve done things I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of, discovered new areas of the Peaks and seen old ones from a different perspective, and made some good friends along the way. Most of all I’ve been overwhelmed by the friendliness and enthusiasm of fell runners and been welcomed into a sport I thought had the potential to be a bit snooty about beginners just turning up and having a go. So, what next? For next year I’d to explore more routes in the wilder Peak District. The upper reaches of Howden look intriguing, and I’ve barely touched Kinder. Roll on 2014.
Claire Haycock (Wilkinson)