Pendle Way in a Day: The story from the back
I love to run. I love the fells, the mountains and hills. So what could be better than to put all these things together in a test of mental and physical grit and run an ultra...can't be that hard, right? Try 45 miles round the Pendle Way starting and finishing in Barrowford.
Let me start by admitting that I was a late entry to this event and hadn't done the necessary milage required to make this a comfortable journey. Having only run a maximum of 13 miles in the last 7 months, what I did was stupid and not advisable. Having had near to zero motivation for a while I needed a quick injection and taking on such a challenge seemed right up my street. Excuses out of the way...we begin.
I got the email from Mr Mcllvenny: 'Somebody has dropped out, you're in!' "Brilliant!" I exclaimed, "I'm in!" Oh no wait...now I've got to run 45 miles. I get out the computer and look at the terrain and pacing strategies, something I am normally good at (if I'd have known then what I know now, I needn't have bothered). Let's pack the bag: waterproofs, food, blister packs, water, gels, all the necessities - I thought. It's heavy but surely everyone is running with this kit? I realised when I got there, I packed for mountaineering not ultra-running. I register and get my kit checked much to the amusement from the kit checkers and experienced runners. I was showing my naivety before we had even set off. I pick up my map and I'm off. Watch is set and pacing strategy firmly implanted in my mind: I take the first steps into what was to be one of the longest days of my life.
Checkpoint 1 was around 19 kilometres away and well within my comfort zone. Looking at my watch every now and again, I'd do my little self-check: heart rate, pace, all's good, I'm moving. One of the great things in this experience was the people. I'd find myself in little groups, chatting away and enjoying the experience, then I'd be on my own for a while, then another group. I was accelerating away from people but well within my capabilities for this event, I thought. Every now and again a more competent runner would run past and the competitor in me would think "I'm coming back to run this hard." Then I'd pack my ego back away and get back to enjoying the view.
The weather was glorious. Clear skies and a gentle breeze made for lovely conditions. The course itself consisted of hiking trails, hills, rivers and fields. If one was asked to picture the English countryside in all its glory on a lovely summer's day, that's exactly what we had for 45 miles. I arrive at CP1 an hour over where I thought I'd be but I thought It's better to be cautious early as I had a feeling I'd suffer in the back end. I quickly filled up with water and set off again. Checkpoint 2 is 12.5 kilometres away, 32 kilometres in total.
I was still moving and feeling comfortable. Enjoying the views and company of the odd runner here and there. Fellow club mates would come and go, and the moments of solitude were welcome at times as it seemed to highlight the gravity of the task. I was carrying on with my strategies: watch, heart rate, something to eat every 40 minutes. "I'm enjoying this," I thought to myself. After a good few fields and stiles, I found myself on the accent to the top of Wycoller for the for the second checkpoint. Still moving, feeling good and munching on beef jerky I sailed through joining a few more club mates for the next leg to CP3 which was 8 kilometres away bringing the total distance to 40 kilometres.
I arrived at CP3 with the teammates I'd set off from CP2 with. With them being quite experienced at ultra-running I thought I must be doing well. We had crossed rolling fields, climbed hills, traversed river crossings and I was still moving. Admittedly I was starting to feel my legs tighten at this point but that thought could not enter my mind as I was only halfway through. I arrived at the checkpoint and treated myself to a cup of tea, a use of the toilet and what I think was my next mistake, a sit down for around 3 minutes. I gathered myself together and began the next mission to checkpoint 4 another 12.4 kilometres away. That would bring the total distance to around 52 kilometres travelled.
I set off once again with teammates in sight, unfortunately for me this was short lived. I still remember the moment. It was kilometre number 44. I was crossing a ford and felt my knees enter a world of pain. There was no running pole invented that would take it away, I was on the precipice of what would later be hell. I started the accent on the other side of the ford. I jogged where I could but that was the last time I'd see my fellow teammates. From this moment on it was a case of get to the finish at all costs. People sailed by on that long journey offering the odd "hello" and "how you holding up?" Mentally I was fine, physically I was starting to break. In the drama of my body breaking down I'd stopped my regular food intake and every now and again was treated to a bout of dizziness. Luckily these episodes were short lived and I'd get straight back to enjoying the view. "It's a day out." I'd say to myself. "enjoy the experience."
I persevered, breaking the huge task down into more manageable bite-sized chunks. "Just another 5K" or "just up that hill" I'd say. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached CP4. I arrived a little worse for wear. The sole of my right shoe had all but come off and I was starting to enter a dip in mood. The cheerfulness of the manned checkpoint gave me a little boost and after a quick water fill I was off again, even managing a little jog out.
Checkpoint 5 was on the other side of Pendle Hill. A gruelling accent after so many miles and my major goal was to reach it. All I had to do was go another 11.5 kilometres. Bringing the total distance to 64 kilometres. This stretch of the race was my hell. My body had all but gone, I found I could still ascend but descending was incredibly painful. My feet were on fire and my stomach suddenly began to gargle. I was stuck in-between pain and defecation. The inevitable happened around five times in total, a harrowing experience as my body ejected everything it was carrying, losing vital fluids and salts. I'd stopped fuelling altogether and the sun was leaving, dropping the temperature. "This is what you signed up for!" I reminded myself as I slowly shuffled one foot Infront of the other practically crawling up the hill I usually run up. Somewhere on that hill I lost my optimism and it was replaced with what can only be described as sorrow. As I cried myself up another runner jogged past and gave some words of encouragement. "It's not just you, we're all suffering." Kind words, but I'm pretty sure he hadn't just sh*t himself five times.
I got to the trig and usually this is a happy occasion as the hard work is done. However, I knew what was coming. With my knees now ruined I had to face the decent of what looked like mount doom. Every single step down was hell, my knees were in agony and my stomach groaned at me. Those 500 or so steps down were the longest and most painful of the entire course for me in the state I was in. I had resigned mentally. I was sure I was going to get to the last checkpoint and resign myself to a DNF. I sorrowfully hobbled into Barley and was incredibly glad of the toilets there. I sat there on the loo nearly crying, in agony and was reminded of the documentaries I've watched where competitors of ultras enter their (pain cave) and (one person pity parties). I'd often wondered what that felt like when watching from the comfort of home drinking a hot cup of tea. Today I was experiencing it first hand. I picked myself up and thought, just walk to the checkpoint. I walked over and threw down my bag. I sat down and another fellow teammate that was manning the checkpoint came over to me. "No?" she said. "No!" I exclaimed. "I'm finishing this thing, I just don't want to right now." She left and came back with a sweet tea, slices of orange and Haribo. "Just three more miles," she said to me.
I sat there in my hole wondering how I was going to go another three miles on broken legs, no shoes and a bad stomach, but somehow I got up and took the first step. This was an odd experience. I don't know if it was the tea, orange, sit down or company but my mood had lifted. My stomach had stopped gurgling and after the first mile my legs had started moving again. I looked at the time then at the darkening sky. I put on my head torch and kept moving, it was slow but every step was progress.
Suddenly I heard a "Hi!" it was another teammate. She'd come up behind me in a wood and we plodded through the various woodland and fields. Eventually she managed a little run, but this was to much for me so again I was solo. "Can't be far now," I kept saying to myself. I crossed yet another field, down an embankment, over a river and up a hill. As I descended into Barrowford I knew I'd done it. I plodded to the finish to see Jamie, Roxanne and their daughter ready to give me my patch, beer and time card. Finally, 45 miles down, I could rest.
So in summary. This was a great day out on a beautiful course which is wonderfully manned and organised but please, for the love of god, train for it properly or you'll poo your pants.