I'll start at the start...
The inspiration to do this came in a pub. Not so much a drunken dare or bet, but a nudge from a fellow off-road runner on the fringes of Autumn 2009. She said "You should give this a go", and showed me a piece of paper. On it was the Hardmoors site address. Being between challenges - I'd just done the 3 Atlantic Coast marathons - I looked into this. A March ultra didn't seem unreasonable, but I knew this was a step up from my previous 30-something mile efforts.
Training proper commenced about Christmas time. Whilst the general public moaned about the weather I got out and ran around various snow-covered areas of Yorkshire clocking up over 15 most Saturdays in Jan, sometimes low twenties, with a Sunday run and good midweek mileage. When the LDWA calender "thawed out" in February I had a drip-feed of easy-going 20+'s to feast upon. I clocked up a record personal mileage in January and wasn't far off in February too. Training peaked in Feb with a good Rombalds Stride and then a 36m out and back hill-run just two days later. I survived.... confidence built.
This was to be my first experiance of an ultra without food stocked CP. It wasn't all out unsupported as it had two cosy village halls on route where drop bags would be distributed to and tea/coffee was provided. Sorting out in advance what I would carry, what would go in drop bags, preparing food, was more prep than I've ever done before and I'm glad I took a day off to get this sorted and mark up the map before I set off up North.
I've done some good running/walking/cycling in the North York Moors. Some good climbs, steep wooded-valleys and certainly many great views, are to be found - Langdale End area is good for starters. But compared to the Dales, Lakes and parts of Calderdale and the pennines they've often seemed slightly more tame, not so high, not so muddy. But they are still quite remote in places - inhabited just by tiny villages and hamlets - and have there own little weather patterns that can vary wildly from hour to hour and from the plains to north and west.
So then, could the Hardmoors 55, struggle to live up to its aggressive title? Well, for those who've done the Osmotherley Phoenix, the hilliest bit of that event - near the start - features after 22m of this.... and they've thrown in two extra climbs for good measure... and the sections either side aren't plain sailing either.
Due to the early start needed for this event I'd stayed over with Mark and family. So the early start to convoy to Guisborough - the end, dump a car and then travel back to Hemsley - the start, meant no rushing around following a 4am rise. Things were going well enough, well ahead of time, arriving about 50 minutes pre-start. I may have crippled a pheasent that tried to puncture my wheels near the White Horse, but life in the wild is harsh, which is appropriate for some sections of the days event along the exposed northern ridge paths of the Cleveland Way.
I faffed around at the start making last minute adjustments to my back pack contents and slinging some extra stuff into my drop bags and bag of warm gear for the finish. It was warm but raining so I added my best waterproof into my second drop kit bag, suspecting my starter might need a change by then if the rain kept up. It had been raining since the previous night so optimism off it stopping was outweighed by "gut feel" that it wouldn't. At least it wasn't windy. In contrast Mark seemed to be ready with half an hour to spare - I do envy those who can be so organised so quickly and without fuss. My tendency is to over-think, over-organise, over-pack and therefore end up muddling around last minute frantically checking the "small details" and often overlooking more important ones (more on that later).
With my warm clothes and drop bags safely stashed in the van for distribution along the route I was ready for the off. Jon Steele gave us an entertaining speel and then the manager/caretaker (?) of the Cleveland set us off -
and I want THAT job -
"Whats that.... a Cleveland way sign crooked near Sutton Bank..... I'll get my trainers on and I'll be there in 2 hours" :¬).
It was almost a dash through Helmsley to the official Cleveland Way start, it seems no matter the race length some people always blast off like its a 10k. Onwards and upwards along steady ascents and descents through fields and woodland. Scenic in a "parkland" sense, nothing hard or moor-like yet. The trend was upwards as we headed west, as I'd deduced in advance plotting the route on map. From Helmsley at about 250ft we undulated until we arrived at Sutton Bank at 9m and 980ft. Then followed a loop of the "White Horse" on the hillside which involved a descent down wet stone steps to the lower car park and first CP, some wooded trail and a step climb back up. A challenging little loop just to bring us back to the Sutton bank car park we'd just left. On the way out to the White Horse the leader had floated past in the opposite direction towards Sutton Bank, no long distance shuffler I can tell you!
Not sure why, but it was here it occured to me that I had not packed any footwear in to my dry clothes bag for Guidborough - DOH!!!! - an illustration of what I had said before about my tendency for organisational mishaps.
Thing started to get tougher out on the long northward stretch to Osmotherley. The Cleveland way sticks close to the high western escarpment edge of the North York Moors. On a clear day you'd have grand views over the lowlands towards the Yorkshire dales. Today, just mere snippets of this - like tree-lined Gormire lake visible beneath the murk as the path skirted the edge. We were surrounded by this low cloud for the whole section before Osmotherley. There was also a strengthening wind from the north-east gradually combining with precipitation to chill the left-hand side of my body. This section climbs very gradually towards Black Hambleton (1300ft) along about 10 miles of exposed moorland and often quite sloppy track. Mark and I had maintained a good pace, just slowing a little towards 20m, in truth we'd probably not taken enough food on in this early stage as we'd pushed on at sub 11-min/mile pace.
The turn off into Osmotherley was welcomed, dropping beneath the cloud and out of the wind raised our mood even before we got to the village hall and our first drop bag. I'd approached this as the first of three sections of the route. At 22m it was the longest, but also the first and had only really been made difficult by the weather. I dumped my wet t-shirt and sodden wind-proof top in the bag and changed for a long sleeved T and my lightweight "emergency" waterproof - my bulkyfull waterproof being at the Kildale drop, 20m away. It was nice to be dry again. I also gulped down the sandwiches and malt-loaf I'd planned to eat during the first section, washed down with tea and transferred drop bag food and drink top up into the backpack. We didn't hurry outside again, taking a luxurious 15mins indoors and heading back out with renewed optimism.
Section 2 - The climb out of Osmotherley mirrors the start of the Phoenix with a swift climb up to Beacon Hill (980ft) and then onto Scarth Wood moor - a return to no visibility, constant fine rain and wind. My early optimism that my thin waterproof would be upto constant "bombardment" was soon dashed. Following the drop to the start of Live Moor Plantation (456ft) there was an initial steep climb up onto an exposed Moorland ridge. This was a grim section. As it went on each flat section or minor drop would be followed by another climb. On the long north-easterly trek towards and then along Carlton Bank the wind was whipping over the ridge blowing masses of fine rain at us horizontally - like running through a carwash over and over again. It wasn't heavy rain, or strong wind, but it was constant and I was soaked by now. Is this what purgatory would feel like? Briefly I considered the possibility I may be forced to drop out, but I soon dispelled this, thinking "keep moving, keep warm". If I wasn't shivering I was ok, right? Others also fared badly here, some suffered so badly they dropped out later at Kildale. Towards the peak cairn (1340m) I pushed the pace for awhile as Mark had often been doing most of the lead running, but was possibly coping worse than me at this moment, not helped by having taken off his waterproof at Osmotherley. The steep descent towards Lords Cafe eventually came and gave us a little respite, chance to eat some food and for Mark to get his waterproof on away from the worst of the weather
An equally cold climb up to the Wainstones CP followed. We almost missed it in the gloom passing to the wrong side of the rocky outcrop, but were called back by the young lad of CP staffer. I felt for the guy stuck on this exposed, rocky outcrop. The Osmotherley to Kildale section was really packing in the climbs as the Cleveland way visited every ridge summit that it could. I did feel things could only get better, thankfully I was right. I'd mentally prepared myself for the Urra Moor crossing - the highest point on route and on the North York Moors with a trig at 1490ft - to be the worst. I was pleasently surprised, now away from the ridge there wasn't quite the same buffering by wind and rain. We reached another cold and single-manned CP at Bloworth crossing and turned north heading towards Kildale and off these damned hard moors.
It was a miserable uneven stoney track for a few miles, always a "pleasure" when you've done 20 miles, never mind nearly 40. I eagerly awaited reaching the tarmac road just for the smoothness and variety it would offer. When we did get to it I soon wished for softer ground as the descent started, the hard surface jarring my feet and knees. Things were soon better though, Kildale wasn't in cloud and the rain had ceased and the high moorlands were done with! 42.5m done.
There was a retiree at Kildale, she'd looked strong heading out of Osmotherley as we'd arrived, but now looked pale and cold sat down here, before she headed off to lay down. I believe there were several retiree's here. Though my lightweight waterproof had been inneffective on the moors it had dried quick, as had my T underneath - maybe it wasn't so bad up there? I had a warm tea, sorted my food for this stretch and had the luxury of a shoe and sock change. Mark and I left Kildale after about 20mins - a very long stop even by our standards on LDWA challenges. Increadibly the sun was out as we climbed from Kildale upto a hilltop woodland, now low in the sky it lit up the white buildings of Kildale a golden yellow. This meant for the first time today we were able to run in a single layer without discomfort. Climbing stiffly up to the Captain Cook monument I was tired but knew it was now a matter of "when" not "if" I would finish.
The sun had set as we made the last significent climb up to Roseberry topping, short but steep to another remote CP. Heading down the rough steps we knew it was time to don headtorches. Unfortunately my dithering changing batteries cost us a few more minutes and I got cold again. But now we were all systems go for Guisborough. Progress was a bit slow through wet and spongy moorlands, but the torch did its job and we had no navigational issues. Into Guisborough woods and it was warm and the surfaces were easier to run. The town was a sea of lights, still far below and I thought this would be quite a nice place to run around on fresher legs. Glowsticks and one further checkpoint marked the route out of the woods. Now it was just a mile along an old railway track and a turn to the finish at Guisborough Cricket club. We arrived in 12hrs 36mins, which is 14 minute mile pace, most of our early pace was lost between Osmotherley and Guisborough, which was the hardest section of the event by a distance.
It would be pretty sadistic not to have a feast after such a long run and the Indian restaraunt in Guisborough obliged. Starter, curry, rice and nan washed down with a large beer. I didn't eat every bite, my hunger not matching my endurance today. No bad thing as I intended to eat and eat and eat for the next few days (and I have).
Learning the hard way?
It really wasn't that bad, the slow pace after Osmotheley meant my energy levels never went flat, I just got gradually stiffer throughout as expected. I started to feel a bit naucious at about 35m so I need further practice eating on the run. I also need a proper waterproof for future events, one that will keep me dry all day and night if required. I also need to remember to make sure I have dry footwear at the end, on this occasion I was able to partially clean and dry the shoes I'd worn for the last 12m sufficiently to wear them to the restaraunt - not ideal!