Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Hardmoors 55 - A Winter's Tale

Those of us who ran the inaugural Hardmoors 55 race back in 2010 remember it well. The chilling cold, the persistent icy rain, the near-zero visibility for most of the distance. Well, the class of 2013 will remember their day out too. The forecast was for snow with temperatures just below freezing but taken down by another ten degrees or so by the chill from a strong south-easterly. Race Director Jon Steele's final email, a couple of days before the race, was along the lines of  "We won't cancel the race but you know what the weather's going to be like. Bring some warm stuff, take care and give it a good thrash."

On Friday evening I picked up Duncan Harris and we left Chester just before 7pm. We knew from the BBC  that there had been some uncertainties on the roads around Manchester and Leeds earlier in the day, but all appeared clear now and we were expecting an easy trip. An hour later we were sitting stationary in a queue on the hill leading to the highpoint of the M62. Another hour further on and we had progressed maybe a quarter of a mile. We couldn't understand it; there had been a crash near the top of the hill but it was showing as cleared some time ago. Then, as we inched to the head of the queue, and it became harder to establish traction each time we started, the problem became clear. In the hour or so that the traffic had been stationary after the crash, the road had re-frozen and some cars and most of the trucks were finding it it very hard to make any progress up the last bit of the hill. Some were stopped, others sliding around across the lanes. Gingerly we picked our way through the mess and out into the clear road ahead.  It was relatively easy from there, just thirty miles or so of refrozen slush being added to by the still falling snow. Beyond Leeds we were in the clear, my fears that the Sutton Bank road would be closed proved groundless and we arrived to our accommodations in Helmsley at around 11.15pm.

Jon had decided to run the event in the opposite direction this year, so we were at Hemsley sports club at 6am ready for the bus back to the start in Guisborough. The buses were half an hour late in departing as they waited for incoming competitors finding their way around Sutton Bank which was by now closed after overnight snow, but Jon's superb organisation at Guisborough soon had us back on schedule for the 9am start. Of around 190 on the start list, 135 turned up on the day to take on the North York Moors.

My times over the past three years have varied from 11hrs 21m to 11 hrs 53m, but this year it was to be run at "training pace" so I was expecting to take at least an hour longer. In the end the conditions turned that hour into two, but at the start I wasn't to know that. I just set out conservatively, walking the uphills and slowing down whenever I felt any heavy breathing coming on. The first section of 12 miles over to Kildale was a nice warm-up. The ground underfoot was solid rather than boggy as it normally is in places, there was very little snow on the ground, and the uphills felt easy on fresh legs compared with doing them in the opposite direction. A little warning of what might lie ahead came on the out-and-back to Roseberry Topping, where the marshal had placed the checkpoint below the summit on the lee side and we took a grassy track well away from the normal rocky staircase to help prevent either marshal or runners being blown off the hill. Long patches of ice on the final descent to Kildale had me thinking about my shoe choice. The tread on my Hoka Stinson Evos had worn completely flat after 1000 miles or so of use and I had been unable to get a new pair; they seemed to have been sold out throughout the country in my size. I had however been able to get a pair of the road version, Hoka Stinson Tarmacs, which seemed very comfy. Studded shoes were probably the obvious choice for the day but my Salomon Speedcross are a half size smaller for precision on technical ground, too small to get a Sealskinz sock inside, so always preferring comfort to performance (I'll never be a proper ultra-runner) I had gone with the Hokas on what I expected to be a long, cold day in the snow. I had brought Yaktrax in case things got really slippery, otherwise I would just have to cope. I picked my way carefully past the icy sections and sidled into Kildale half an hour faster than I had ever done the leg in the reverse direction.

The track out to Bloworth (photo by Flip Owen)
Tea and flapjack then out onto the toughest twenty miles of the course over to Osmotherly.  The couple of miles of tarmac up the hill were an easy start, but as soon as we got onto the track over the moor to Bloworth Crossing things got much trickier. The route swings round to east of south here, so the wind, instead of helping us along nicely, was directly ahead. The track is a sunken furrow between acres of unrunnable heather and it had filled with blown snow, varying in depth from three or four inches to a couple of feet in places. It was tough going, and I was pleased that I had taken my ski goggles along so I could actually see in the headwind. I was glad to reach the self-clip at the crossing, but less keen on having to remove gloves for a few seconds to use it. At this point though the course turns through about 150 degrees to the right, and the situation changed immediately. The track, no longer in a trough, became smooth, hard-packed snow and with the wind almost directly behind my speed went up by about a factor of two, easy running for a couple of miles. The final rocky staircase down to Clay Bank was very icy so I ran on the hillside to the side of it, but it gave some food for thought as I knew there were several of these over the next few miles.

From Clay Bank to Osmotherly is generally thought to be the most strenuous section of the whole Cleveland Way, a series of not enormous but steep and continuous ups and downs. Jon had warned us at the pre-start briefing that if the marshals considered it too dangerous in the conditions we would be re-routed along a lower track that skirts around the hills to the north. I think after the conditions that we had experienced across Bloworth, most of the runners were expecting to be directed to this alternative, so I was quite surprised when it was clear that we would be taking the normal route across the summits. As it turned out, on the day this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the course. The path was often icy so I stopped to put on the Yaktrax, but it was easy to follow, rarely troubled by any soft snow and the views were wintery but still beautiful. The wind was as fierce as ever but mostly over our left shoulders, so apart from its chill and occasional unbalancing effect, not really a problem.  The marshals were amazing over this section, standing out in the wild conditions at Lords Stone, Kirby Bank and Carlton Moor, what a performance.

Kirby Bank (photo by Flip Owen)
After walking the ups and jogging the rest I was still feeling pretty good on the final run down into Osmotherly, which I reached in around seven and a half hours from the start. In previous years in the opposite direction I have covered the distance from the start to Osmotherly in around 4 hours. It's not difficult ground so I guessed that this time with more downhill, even at the end of the run it should be possible in four and a half to five hours which would put me smack on my estimated time.

At Osmotherly I voted myself a change of shirt and fleece as the ones I had on were quite clammy by now. For the whole day I wore a thermal vest, light fleece and a proper mountain jacket, and felt just about the right temperature. I carried spares of the former two, heavy but reassuring. Although I had slithered around a bit in the soft snow, for me the Hoka/Sealsinz combination was right, I had nice toasty feet from start to finish with no hot spots or blisters. I probably stayed a bit too long in the warm at Os but a couple of cups of tea, some warming vegetable soup plus the normal restocking of food and drink and I was good to go.

My plan was to walk steadily the couple of miles of uphill to the high point of the moor, then run gently all the way down to the finish. The first part of the plan went well. As I crested the hill, Duncan was just about reaching the finish at Helmsley, winning the race in just over eight and a half hours, a superb performance in the conditions. But the hard part of my day was just beginning. The normally easy, runnable track was again covered in soft snow, ankle deep in places, drifting much higher in others; and the course had swung around again, first south-east then south, we battled the wind again for ten miles to Sutton Bank. The first four miles to the trees north of High Paradise were very tough, exposed and bleak, the section of the route that I enjoyed least on the day, probably because the conditions here were a surprise.  I thought we'd done the hard work and we hadn't. It was just a question of getting your head down into the wind, run when you can, walk when you can't. I was really glad to reach the shelter of the trees for the last mile or so to the checkpoint at High Paradise, where two determined marshals had got their four-wheel-drive up the deeply snow-covered track to beyond the farm, another great effort. From here on, either the wind became a bit less debilitating or I had attuned more to the conditions on this section, because I found a lot of enjoyment in battling on slowly through the snow from here to Sutton Bank.
North of Sutton Bank (photo by Brett Bennett)

The trail here goes through fields, along the scarp edge, then in and out of woods, a delightful section when you can see where it goes, only of course it was almost totally obliterated by snow. I was glad to have tracks of previous runners to follow, especially as it was now getting dark and time for the light to go on. Once or twice the wind still threatened to sweep you towards the scarp edge, but the footing in the snow was generally good, though hard work in the deeper bits.

I made a silly error at one point by following a track through the woods  that dropped down quite a way off the edge before I realised I was wrong - I know the right way sticks to the top  - so I had to retrace my steps for a quarter of a mile or so; the only consolation was that judging by the footprints a lot of others had made the same mistake!

But eventually the Sutton Bank checkpoint turned up and it was time to turn left and follow the more agricultural and forested trail down to the finish. Jon had spared us the out-and-back to the White Horse, knocking off a mile and a half or so (but I think mainly because the checkpoint was not easily accessible to marshal with the prevailing road conditions) but for me these final nine miles still took a while. I could have gone faster at this stage but I was sort of satisfied that the battle was now won and I could dribble on to the finish using as little additional energy as possible. I still managed to make a meal of it navigationally because always coming in the opposite direction previously (and very early in the race) I'd never paid much attention to the landmarks on this section. I had to look at the map carefully to find the less than obvious way out of Cold Kirby, and further on I went down the wrong side of a river and some fisheries by not paying attention, adding on another half mile or so to get back on track. But by now we had run out of the snow, and the wind was making a poor imitation of its showing on the higher ground, so progress was easy enough. Soon enough, the lights of Helmsley appeared, then it was just through the village and back up the gentle slope to the sports club that I had left by bus some sixteen hours earlier. 

53 miles and no mud!
Out of the cold night and into the warm, Race Controller Shirley at her laptop just inside the door  -  "What kept you then, you should have been back here hours ago!"  Ah, the rewards of ultra-running! 13hrs 21minutes for 76th place. But that wasn't important. Just doing it, as they say, was the whole point. A day when the journey was the star, and a bunch of runners thought it was worthwhile putting in a bit of effort to see it through.  Out of the 135 starters, 119 finished.

Apologies to Flip and Brett from whom I stole the photos above - brave men to fiddle with a camera on such a day. And of course huge thanks to Jon, Shirley, the brilliant marshals and all the organising team who stood firm when events all around were being cancelled to put on what was by any measure a grand day out.

Back for No 5 next year?  Wouldn't miss it.


Shirley Colquhoun said...

Well done, Andy! Normally I would have preferred to run rather than help Jon, but those conditions were brutal and for once I was glad to be indoors! You were all amazingly determined and it was wonderful to watch everyone finish in such good humour. See you soon!

Brett Bennett said...

A great overview of the day Andy and no problem pinching my photo! It took a moment of fumbling with my mobile phone to take the picture but I had to get some evidence of the struggles to help tell my tale to friends and family! Saturday was my 5th Ultra and certainly the most epic in terms of conditions I have ran in. Fantastic to see a race organiser with determination to keep the race on. Well done Jon.

UltraStu said...

Hi Andy

Thanks for a great write-up of this years Hardmoors 55. Having experienced the course during the extreme cold of 2010, it appears that this year conditions were even tougher. Well done on having run all four Hardmoor 55 events.

See you at Milngavie next month.


Subversive Runner said...

Another top performance mate. No cap this year?

Debs M-C said...

Fastastic as always, Andy.

Have you ever run with yaktrak on Hokas? I did once. They keep slipping to the side, so I ended up running like I'd lost my horse :-)

pat said...

just caught up with your "war story" Andy lad.

good effort and looking at your line up for this year this race should be a nice warm up!