On Friday the 19th or Sunday the 21st it would have been a cruise, but Jon being the man of Steele that he is had elected to organise his Hardmoors 55 on Saturday the 20th, to coincide with the band of low cloud, persistent rain and chill winds that settled over the North York Moors for the day. I arrived at the Premier Inn in Guisborough on Friday evening to find John K, Sharon, Tim and Brian Mc already in residence; the real runners soon went off for an early night leaving Tim and me with our beers contemplating a gloomy forecast.
The course covers the first half of the Cleveland Way, the second oldest long distance footpath in Britain, from Helmsley in the West to Guisborough at (almost) the coast, following the northern escarpment of the moors plateau for most of its length. The word is that there are stunning views throughout but after yesterday I can only claim personal acquaintance with a very small sample of them. The civilised start time of 8am was a bit dampened (yes I think that is the right word) by the need to get the bus from Guisborough to the start at 5.15am, but we couldn't hear any hammering on the roof and even by the time Jon was giving his final briefing at the start line the rain might have been described as "soft" rather than torrential, so I hoped we might somehow have got away with it.
So off we go and I can't get enough steam up to get involved in the 8 minute miling that seems to characterise the mass start of most ultras, so by the time we reach the first gate I'm in the last two or three, just ahead of the sweeper. I settle into a comfortable 10 minute mile pace over this early mostly flat stage and gradually start to overtake a few people. I have no fixed plan for timing but think that I should be able to do around 12 hours; I won't be distressed if it takes longer but I don't want to do too much in the dark after a day in the rain. The temperature is fine and the continuous but gentle drizzle seems almost pleasant. Three or four miles before the first checkpoint at Sutton Bank I catch up with Shirley who I've known since my first West Highland Way venture in 2007, and we go on together to the checkpoint. This is home ground for her so I don't have to think about navigation at all, follow the local expert, she points out the top of the white horse cut into the slope, hardly recognisable from above. The course doubles back from the checkpoint and we pass Ritchie coming in the opposite direction, looking cool as ever and full of running; as we pass he's just covered 10 miles in the time Shirley and I have taken to run 8 - he storms on to another podium finish. I tackle the climb back up to the escarpment alone and then catch up with Adrian, another veteran runner who beat me to the "over-60's" prize in last year's Highland Fling. He will go on to beat me again today by ten minutes or so, but I'm getting closer! We run and chat together for five miles or so, then I stop to walk for some food and he doesn't.
The first major stop is at Osmotherley 22 miles in, and in the final five miles the whole tenor of the race changes for me. I'm running alone across wet open moorland, the visibility is down to a hundred yards or so, the rain, still continuous, is now much heavier and the wind is noticeably fiercer. I'm getting cold, I stop to check the map a couple of times which gets it and me wetter and colder. Down off the moor the visibility improves but I'm now on sloping muddy fields where my trainers can't grip at all and I slide for a mile down to the road into Osmotherley not really generating any warmth. The inside checkpoint is the focus of my attention. I had planned to be here in under four hours, it's going to be five or ten minutes over but I'm not concerned about that just now, I just want to get warm.
Going into the warm hall is wonderful, and the hot tea provided by Mrs Mac even better. I sit down and prepare for how I now realise the day is going to work out. Wet vest off to be replaced with a dry one, lightweight fleece and waterproof on top, waterproof socks on feet - if you're going to get wet, you might as well be warm and wet. The readjustment has taken a while but I'm much happier as I hit the trail again. I've sort of resolved to run with someone from here on unless conditions improve, and going out of Osmotherley I pick up with Andy from Cirencester; we travel together to the second major stop at Kildale twenty miles further on. The first few ups and downs out of Osmotherley are innocuous enough, muddy tracks through forests and fields, but then we hit the rollercoaster of moorland ups and downs generally felt to be the toughest part of the Cleveland Way. Beautifully laid stone tracks for the most part, occasionally disappearing into misty boggy wasteland, we walk the steep ups and jog the rest. Getting a map out is almost too hard to contemplate so we rely mainly on the trail "acorn" signs when we can find them, and Andy has a GPS which is invaluable on one or two occasions. I get a phone message from Mike M marshalling at Kildale telling me how nice and warm it is in his checkpoint; he always manages to find me at low points, I'm flogging up a steep hill and he knows it's going to be some hours before I get to him - I switch the phone off! A wrapped up walker appears in the opposite direction and I'm shocked out of some sort of reverie when he says "Hi Andy" - it's Pirate Dave devoting his day to marshalling duties. We pass another lone walker - "How far to Wainstones?" we ask - "Up, down, up" is his unexpected but completely accurate and helpful reply. A marshal in a tent is right on the top to get our numbers - the marshals, always dedicated in ultra races, are really excelling themselves today in putting up with the conditions.
After Wainstones the undulations finally relent a bit, but we now have the highest and bleakest bit of the moor to cross to Kildale. In a strange sort of way I'm enjoying this now, can't get any wetter, religiously putting some more fuel in every 45 minutes, not going too fast for it to hurt. We come across another marshal in maybe the loneliest spot of all at Bloworth Crossing; he pokes his head out of his tent to take numbers but also offers us flapjack, what a hero. I mention him to Jon later in the evening, don't worry says Jon he's ex SAS, he likes those sort of places. Nice to know you're being looked after! We manage to run quite steadily from here to Kildale, the only sad part is what looks to be a lump of dirty white snow in the middle of the road turns out to be a dead lamb. I'm feeling much better going into Kildale than I was at Osmotherley so I tell Andy I'm getting in and out as quick as I can, he's going to stay a bit longer. We've pushed on to make the checkpoint in 9 hours, again we're a bit over but I think if I can hold it together until the end then 12 hours is still on. So after a quick cup of tea and a bit of banter with Mike I'm ready for off, and so is Steve W who came in a bit earlier, better still he did the whole Hardmoors 110 last year so he knows the way.
12 miles to go and two and three quarter hours to get under 12. A couple of steep climbs then the woods in the dark, but it should still be on. As we climb the hill out of Kildale we notice a strange change in our environment - it's stopped raining, and as we break out of the forest to Captain Cook's monument we can see that the sky is clearing. John K will be taking photos here I say to Steve, don't know how he does it, takes me all my efforts to get round the course without these extra-curricular activities. Then we're soon looking at the last bit of hard work for the day, the excursion out to Roseberry Topping. Steve sets a fine pace up the staircase and I concentrate on his heels and hang in. We thank the two young marshals on top for their efforts today, and take in for a few seconds what is now a wonderful view out across the plain in the fading light. Then it's down again and my turn to lead the staircase back up from the col. A bit more moor then we're up the boggy track leading to Guisborough woods, finally accepting that trying to avoid mud and water of any depth is by now a pointless exercise. We can't see where we're putting our feet any longer, so the lights go on. We see another light ahead, maybe it's a runner, but it turns out to be the marshal just before the woods - "number 3 and 24" - it only needs one of us to check in by now. Steve knows most of the turns, and Jon has marked the tricky ones so we're making good progress, then it's down the last hill, check in with the Pirate as we hit the disused railway line, just over a mile to go guys he says.
I've switched off now, think I'm home, so this last mile hurts more than it should, but we're both keen to press on, probably hitting 9 minute miles for the first time in the race, not bothering to look at watches in the dark, what will be will be. There's the road underneath, where's the path, where is it? Then the orange tape, down the steps, across the field and there's the cricket pavilion at the finish. Whats the time? Both our watches have run out of battery, the lady marshal noting the time says its just 8pm - relief, we started two or three minutes late so we'll be just under the twelve, magic.
Upstairs into the warm to watch the prizegiving and find out some of the stories of the day. Stuart Mills has won in just under 9 hours, an hour longer than I would have guessed for a winning time, must have been tough for everyone. John K's made it home, 10 or 15 minutes ahead of me, Adrian was with him at the finish. Some of the others had a hard time, Sharon, Brian, and Tim all deciding to stop and stay alive when being overtaken by exposure and hypothermia in the gruelling middle section. About 45 minutes after I finished I wandered downstairs to get changed and Shirley came in, tired but happy, a hug as she walked through the door. When I got to my car just down the road, I had to scrape ice from the windscreen, it had just been that sort of a day. Back at the Hotel the beer and chips went down just fine, topped off with John's birthday cake - what a way to spend a birthday.
The organisation of the event by Jon and his team was superb throughout, even more so in the prevailing conditions. I'll have to go back next year now to see where I was running, the weather can't be any worse.........can it?
I'm off for a week's ski-touring tomorrow morning - hope the Ecrins has better weather than Yorkshire.