The North York Moors are a bit too far away for a training venue for me, but I'm getting to know the Hardmoors 55 course reasonably well as this was the third time I've run the event. A rising but easily runnable opening nine miles lead from the start at Helmsley through farmland and woods to the northern scarp edge of the Moors at Sutton Bank, then a 300 ft drop down the side of the White Horse and a corresponding rise back up to the edge again. From here, nearly ten miles of fast, flat going along the edge followed by a long steady descent gets you to the first major checkpoint at Osmotherly, 22 miles in. The next twenty miles are the real meat of the route; five climbs and descents ranging from 400 to 1000ft over the roller coaster edge to Clay Bank, then another long climb to the highest point on the Moors followed by a remote and often bleak but very runnable section via Blowarth Crossing to Kildale, the second major base at 42 miles. There is still a sting in the tail for tiring legs and lungs, another five shorter but steep climbs, including the out-and-back to the well known summit of Roseberry Topping, then the final long descent through the woods, usually in the dark, to the finish at Guisborough.
Previously we had had two very different years for weather, the first cold and wet, the second sunny and warm. This year promised something in between the two. For me this event is very much a curtain opener for the year, see if 50 miles still feels a long way, finish in good shape but don't worry too much about the time, that sort of thing. Race Director Jon Steele had persuaded Martin Dietrich to take over his job for the day, allowing him to run in his own race, so after a quick briefing from Martin we were off from Helmsley on the dot of nine o'clock, a field of around 130, more than double that of the first running two years ago. I ran for a few miles with Alison, who had introduced herself earlier as one of the few other Brits signed up for the Tor des Geants in September, we agreed to stay in touch. It wasn't cold but a gentle drizzle appeared shortly after the start, the sort of thing where half the field puts a jacket on and the other half doesn't bother; I went with the latter group for now, which worked out OK because it fined up after an hour or two.
On the long flat section after Sutton Bank I was cruising comfortably, consciously keeping the speed down because it's easy to suffer later if you overcook it here, chatting on and off with various other runners. I felt the speed work I had been doing was making it seem easy. It was all going really well, then I had a moment of incompetence and caught my foot on something. One of the guys I was with said afterwards that it was just a slightly higher lump of peat because it had the gouge from my trainer on it. Anyway, we were going along fairly smartly, better than 10 minute miles I guess, and I came down quite heavily - second time in three races, I really must look where I'm putting my feet. No blood this time, but something, I suspect it was my fist trapped between my falling body and the ground, thumped solidly into my ribs. Concern form my companions but I collected myself for a few seconds then said I was OK, they should carry on, I'll walk a bit. The adrenalin usually carries you through for a while, I walked for five or ten minutes then got jogging again, ribs a bit painful to touch but I thought nothing to worry about. I was soon on the descent and arrived at Osmotherly in 3.53, about ten minutes slower than last year.
A quick cup of tea, restock the bag,then I was off up the hill out of the village. I gradually discovered that heavy breathing, coughing, and any real foot pounding were a bit painful, so I would have to get by without any of those. I ran all of the next section with Chris, who I'd chatted to for a while earlier on. A very competent performer (21 hour Bob Graham among other things), he was taking things easy as he had a head cold and didn't want to make it worse. We agreed to walk all the significant ups and jog everything else, and the roller coaster bit seemed to go past quite quickly. A lot more checkpoints than previous years, some marshalled, others self-clips, but all easy to spot and the weather was almost perfect for running on this section. But on the long climb up towards Blowarth I was struggling with Chris's pace a bit so I suggested he push on, which he declined to do initially but then did just after the checkpoint at the crossing.
By now it had clouded in again and started to rain. It didn't look too bad though so I put on a light Pertex top, not a great decision. Soon afterwards I caught a lady runner who was having trouble with her rucksack. The waist buckle had broken so she'd tied the ends together and now couldn't get it untied to get her jacket out. She said she was OK but these moors can be tough on even the smallest misfortunes at times, so we worked at the knot for a few minutes to get her waterproof liberated, then I carried on my way. It was raining pretty steadily now and I was starting to get cold. I also knew I was hurting a bit more so should take some painkillers, but I was now breaking one of my own rules, the one that says when you know something isn't right stop and fix it before it gets out of hand. I'd convinced myself that it wasn't far to Kildale and I would sort things out there, but it was actually still 6 or 7 miles further on. Still, I carried on and caught one or two other runners, one of whom was Jon himself going through a bit of a bad patch - not surprising really, he's running an ultra every week for a year and had had practically no sleep in the run-up to this one because of the organisation required. He perked up later though and went on to beat me by more than 20 minutes.
Eventually I got to Kildale, rather cold and wet, but surprisingly back exactly on last year's schedule - I'd covered the ground from Osmotherly ten minutes faster than ever before. I had been a bit concerned that my total lack of any hill training so far this year was going to bite me, but I think the speed work and Chris's pacing over the hillier bit got me through. Nevertheless, I needed a bit of TLC so I stayed for a couple of cups of tea, put on a clean dry top and proper waterproof, took a couple of paracetamols and sorted out supplies. I stayed there about 15 minutes, far too long for a stop in a fifty mile race but I felt it was necessary at the time.
I just about made my target of Roseberry Topping before the lights went out and gratefully accepted the jelly babies on offer from marshal Pat on the top. Then it was just on with the torch and off across the last bit of moor, up the last hill and down through the woods to the finish. In the three runnings of this event it has had three finishes - the cricket club, the rugby club, and now this year at the Sea Cadets hall. I think the Sea Cadets is two or three hundred yards further down the road than last year's Rugby Club finish, the significance of which was not apparent to me until I got to the bright lights and the finish line to discover that my time was 11 hours, 23 minutes and 1 second - just 1 minute and 49 seconds longer than last year! All things considered though, I can't complain.
I didn't feel great at the finish, but stayed around for an hour for some tea and chat and to luxuriate in a dry shirt. I stayed for the prizegiving. The winner came in with a time of just under eight and a half hours - these guys are amazing. I got the Vet 60 award, introduced by Jon as "the first old b...d to get home". Can't ask for more. I drove back to the hotel for a long shower, and just before crawling into bed reflected that Pat was by now just about finishing his stint on top of Roseberry Topping and packing up his tent to walk down. These guys are the real heroes of any event.
Two days later my legs are fine, I think must be in reasonable shape for the year. Only problem is I still can't cough or laugh without wincing!