After running round the Anglesey Coast Path (the "Ring of Fire" race) a couple of weeks ago, another few miles of navigating by sea should be easy, right?
I had never done the Hardmoors 60, which after knowing the Hardmoors "community" for five years or so now seemed a real omission, so Friday afternoon saw me fighting the traffic (Manchester, Leeds, York) over to a Scarborough packed with visitors thanks to the recent fine weather. I didn't see much of it as a 5am start was required to drive down to Filey to catch the bus to the race start in Guisborough. Author of the Hardmoors events Jon Steele has driven his series with great success from small beginnings to the significant feature of the UK ultra scene that it is now. I remember marshalling at one of the early Hardmoors 110 races when there were about 20 competitors - the start list for last Saturday's race was well over 200.
I had done the Hardmoors 55, over the inland and recognisably hillier "half" of the Cleveland Way a few times, so my initial thought was that the other "half" down the coast would be a somewhat easier proposition. Fortunately, I checked on the UTMB qualifying races list a week or two before the race; the distances and height gains on this list have to be supported by a GPS trace so I guess they have a reasonable chance of similar accuracy. I was a bit surprised to find that as well as being about 10 miles longer (I knew that already, after all the Harmoors 53 and 62 somehow don't sound quite as catchy), the "flat" 60 actually has, at something over 10,000ft, around 50% more climbing than the "hilly" 55, warranting 3 UTMB points to the 55's 2. So at least I was warned. The final cutoff is about 3 hours longer than the 55 so I guessed adding 3 hours to my typical 55 time (about 12 hours these days) would give me a reasonable target to plan with. 15 hours was the goal.
The weather forecast was not wrong, and even as we set out from Guisborough it was clear that it was going to be a stunning day. I was looking forward to the views.
The man of Steele being what he is, sidling up to the nearest point on the Cleveland way from Guisborough was clearly not considered man enough for a true Hardmoors 60 event; we accessed it at the highest local point on the North York Moors scarp edge (typically around the 1000ft contour) via a direct and muddy climb ("always like this, whatever the weather" was the local opinion) up to Highcliffe Nab, with a checkpoint on top to make sure no skullduggery was engaged in. The flip side was that we now had a gently descending 8 miles or so down through woods and fields to the coast at Saltburn and checkpoint No 2. The checkpoints were all great, friendly faces, nice food, lots of encouragement. An added bonus for me was that I've got to know quite a few of the Hardmoors "gang" over the years so there was almost always someone I knew (Dennis, Flip, JV, Pat....) to tell me to stp messing about and get a move on.
When we hit the sea at Saltburn and started up the first set of steps onto the cliff top under a cloudless blue sky I felt the run had really started - this is what I had come for - just keep the sea on your left down to Filey, 50 miles or so further south. I'll come back to the steps later.......
Once the clifftop levelled out it was great running. The path underfoot was excellent, grass or smooth gravel underfoot, and the topography and Cleveland Way "acorn" signs meant that the map could stay in the pack for 95% of the trip. It was hot but there was a gentle breeze coming off the sea. I found out later that a lot of people had suffered from the heat but I'm generally happy with it. Wear a hat, drink a lot, don't overdo things and it's fine by me, I'd much rather have that than running in the rain all day. I'd decided to keep to around a 12 minute mile average to halfway, allowing me to slow down over the second half as most people do. 15 hours needed a 14 and a half minute average throughout so there was plenty to play with. I wasn't even really too bothered about the 15 hours - the race started at 8am so 16 hours would get me in by midnight which was equally fine. I'm never going to set any records these days and these outings are too good spend suffering - you need to enjoy them.
Apart from the villages of Skinningrove and the delightful Staithes it was rural clifftop for the next 10 miles along to CP3 at Runswick Bay. The heat made itself felt on the descents into the villages but once back on the clifftops it was cool and beautiful. The route went along the beach briefly at Runswick. It's not possible at high tide and there is no inland alternative so you have to wait, but today the sea was well out and the run along the firm sand past all the holiday-makers was fine. Many people we passed throughout the day asked what was going on - were were normally dismissed in a friendly but rather Yorkshire way as "complete nutters" when we answered. At the far end of the beach the track climbed back up to the clifftop again.
The enduring memory of this territory for most of the way from Saltburn to Filey is the contrast between the flat, easily runnable clifftops and the regular diversions to sea level. The Yorkshire sea cliffs are continuous for the whole coastal section of the Cleveland Way, and are several hundred feet high at times, but interrupted by numerous gulleys where streams have found their way into the sea. Sometimes these are big enough to generate towns and villages such as Staithes, Whitby, and Robin Hood's Bay, but the majority exist just as narrow inlets into the cliffs. Known as Chines on the south coast, here they seem to be called Wykes. And of course when you come across one, the path goes down to sea level (or near it) and back up the other side - "the steps" known to everyone that passes this way. They are nearly always steps, very few simple steep paths, but they take all forms - wooden reinforced steps in the soil, wooden boardwalks, pitched stone steps, and even at one point a flight of a few hundred paving stones. I'm sure this is where the majority of the height gain on the course comes from. They are never more that a few hundred feet high, sometimes a hundred or less, but there are an awful lot of them! I was completely happy to take these philosophically, jog down, walk up and accept that for these few minutes your running average goes to pot - you just have to go a bit faster once back on the clifftops to compensate.
A few miles of clifftops and ups and downs led to beach level at the town of Sandsend. From here a long promenade then road led along the waters edge then gradually climbed to the cliff top gardens in Whitby. After the peace and quiet of the clifftops Whitby was a jarr to the senses. It was hot and packed. "Swim through the crowds" had been Jon's advice at the pre-race briefing, and that was about right. Down the steep maze of narrow streets to the harbour, fight your way across the bridge and along the narrow main street. A good walking pace, let alone running, just wasn't possible. But then we climbed the advertised "199 steps up to the Abbey" (one of the least demanding climbs on the course!), out the other side and calm reigned once more. A bit of cliff and a caravan park led to CP4 at 31 miles, half way. I hadn't made my 12 minute average, more like 12:15 but I hadn't pressed anywhere and felt good so I wasn't bothered.
More cliffs and wykes over a short 5 mile section took us to CP5 just above the picturesque little resort of Robin Hood's Bay. Flip Owen refilled my water bottle and I asked him what happened next. "straight down to the Smugglers pub, turn right and up the steps" - I love these coastal paths, where else could you get directions like that! But in the space of around a mile and a half it was down to Robin Hoods and back up, down to Boggle Hole and back up, down to Stoupe Beck and back up............well, I guess you're getting the picture. A bit more clifftop then we turned inland for the climb up to Ravenscar. A runner I had been sitting by on the bus that morning had said he thought the climb up to Ravenscar was the biggest on the coast; I'm not sure but the cliffs are well over 600ft here and the checkpoint was right at the high point of the village. This was the only inside checkpoint, in a church hall, so a very welcome cup of tea was available. But 41 miles done now, we were definitely starting to count down rather than up.
I was still happy to jog the flats and down hills, but I noticed that my speed on the level was a bit slower than the runners who I kept seeing at checkpoints. I found the answer when a group caught me up just before a descent/ascent; I seemed to be much quicker at going down and up the steps than those around me - life in Keswick must be starting to pay off a bit!
The first few miles out of Ravenscar were easy clifftop running, being, as we had plenty of height to lose, mostly gently down hill. The miles passed quickly. Then there was a very deep descent into Hayburn Wyke and the consequent climb back up. But from this point it was clear that the cliffs gradually descended into the distance, getting lower all the time. Although there would no doubt be a few more steps, we seemed to have cracked the last of the big ones. Knowing that there was a long run along the promenade to come I was really hoping to get to the start of Scarborough without having to get the torch out, but I failed by just a few hundred yards. But once on the sea front it soon went off again, even though long stretches of the near 3 mile promenade are very poorly lit. A steady jog soon demolished most of it. The tide was nearly in and patches of the prom were sporadically drenched by waves hitting the sea wall, but I escaped with only having to run through a few puddles. The last checkpoint before the finish was at the far end of the prom by the Spa. A chance for a last hit of Coke and a few peanuts, top up the water and go. "About ten to the finish?" I asked. The marshall said he thought it was only about eight; I should have kept quiet, it was ten, false hopes and all that.
Continuing along the prom I was unsure where the route went, even though I had been warned and read about it. People have got lost here in the past. A guy up near some beach huts above shouted down "That's the way, it's dark and a bit wet, but it's the way". Another runner had stopped to adjust some gear and he confirmed it. He'd done the race last year. Waves were still breaking occasionally over the dark path but we carried on and eventually came to the rising path up the hillside that signalled the escape. After not having spent much time with anyone all day I carried on with the other guy who was Steve for five or six miles. We had experience of the same races, knew some of the same people, it's still a small world in ultras. When we made it back to the clifftop we were directed back down by Marshalls to savour the "Cayton Bay option" - last chance for a sizeable descent down a wooded cliff and the consequent steep stone steps back up again. From here though it appeared that the track followed a more or less level course along the cliffs to Filey Brigg, where we would turn off for the finish. We were still going well enough, jogging where it was easy and walking the rest, it looked as though 15 hours was nicely on the cards.
Then three or four miles from the finish I felt I was getting a bit cold so I told Steve to go on while I put a long-sleeved top on. I expected to take seconds but I had earlier tied the top onto the top loop of my bag using the sleeves. It had worked itself into a knot which took a frustrating three or four minutes to free up. I was pretty annoyed but then as I restarted I found I'd lost all the go-forward momentum. I could still walk briskly but couldn't get going into a jog no matter how many times I tried. I don't know if it was the miles from the Ring of Fire finally catching up with me or the slight infection I'd been suffering from, it was just as if my system was saying "had enough for today".The track wasn't very helpful, it was quite narrow with longer grass on both sides so needed concentration to keep on the line of least resistance. The last couple of miles out to the turn on the Filey Brigg seemed to take a frustratingly long time. I passed and re-passed another runner just before the turn, then the way back into town which I expected to be straightforward wasn't. We wandered too far to the right, then we saw another runner back near the clifftop. She had reccied the route and said it was the right way. But then on the next bit she said she had reccied the beach option but it looked as though the tide was in now and we should take the higher path. This involved an initial climb up, and although it was really short I found it hard so the others got away quickly.
But then it was down the other side, along the promenade and up through Filey town, passing revellers spilling out of pubs, back to the bright lights. The finish wasn't far. Shirley welcomed me in, Dennis made me a cup of tea, I think I told him I was feeling a bit old at that particular moment. But tea is the reviver and I was soon good enough to realise that the quarter mile walk back to a crash-out in the car would be the most effective next step.
15 hours and 9 minutes. Not quite but no disappointment really, times are only stamp collecting after all. I'd had a wonderful day. But for the second time in two weeks I had to reflect - they're quite tough, these flat coastal paths.