Tuesday, 20 March 2018

2018 Hardmoors 55 - One Runner's View

I sat down to write my normal race report on last Saturday's HM55 but it occurred to me that I've probably done enough of those already, so instead I'll try to explain how I feel about this year's race and the events that developed during and after it. As always, my views, I don't expect everyone to agree.

My history with Hardmoors and the HM55

I first met Jon Steele, or rather he stopped to check if I was OK, when I was throwing up in a field in Switzerland during the 2009 UTMB race; he went on to finish, I didn't. I've known Shirley even longer, since we made our way fairly painfully over Rannoch Moor during what was for both of us our first West Highland Way race back in 2007. From the start I was interested in the Hardmoors 110 but somehow it always came too close to other things I wanted to do, so it was great for me when Jon decided that its first spinoff the Hardmoors 55 would be run in March 2010. I signed up straight away and was one of the 57 hopefuls setting out from Helmsley on a dull March day. My first experience of the North York Moors was the cold, the rain, the biting wind, the near zero visibility for much of the way and the enormous feeling of satisfaction on finally getting to (I think) the Rugby club in Guisborough just short of 12 hours later. I've been hooked on this event ever since, and although I've missed three due to illness or injury I've always come back whenever I can. I've still never got around to the 110 but I've done the 60 and for me it just doesn't compare; the 55 is by far the best part of the Cleveland Way.  Last Saturday was my sixth trip along the course.

My 2018 race in brief

I'm a more mature and steadier pedestrian nowadays than back in 2010 (some would say geriatric and extremely slow I dare say); furthermore I wanted a good day out rather than to prove anything, to finish in a state where recovery wouldn't take more than a day or two. I confessed to John and Katrina Kynaston in the pub the night before that I was happy to take the full time allowance if required, but would start conservatively and aim for around 15 hours. From previous experience I split this into 5 to Osmotherley, 6 to Kildale and 4 to the finish, to give me some mental yardsticks to work to.

It all went pretty well to plan. I got to Os in about 4 hours 45 mins and rewarded myself with a 15 minute stop for tea and sandwiches. The meat of the effort comes from here to Kildale; a few miles of undulation then a long steady climb up to the top of the Moors' northern escarpment, followed by some short sharp climbs over the "Three Sisters" to Clay Bank, then a long jeep track with gentle ups and downs out to the remote Bloworth Crossing and back to Kildale. I'll talk about the weather later but the only thing that really slowed progress was having to take the rocky descents cautiously as they were slippery from snow and ice build-up. In the 2013 event we knew there was going to be more snow about so I'd taken Yaktrax. I hadn't bothered this time; they would have been useful but it was no real disaster, just a bit more care required. I had a couple of slips but nothing painful  -  my heaviest fall was while jogging down the fairly steep snow-covered tarmac road about a mile out of Kildale. I hit Kildale around 6 hours after leaving Os, that is at just about 8pm. 

I was in good time and no hurry so I made the most of the facilities in the hall. Three or four cups of tea, two of soup, ginger biscuits and various other goodies; I then put on my spare warm layer and waterproof trousers as I expected colder temperatures and slower progress over the final section, and I was good to go. The hall was full of runners; some were looking cold and as if they were unlikely to continue, but the majority seemed to be making preparations for the final push, including the Kynastons who had come in sometime during my half hour R and R session. I left at around 8.30 pm, and going out of the door met two other runners just setting out; it seemed easy enough to agree to carry on together as we were all concerned with just getting it done now rather than chasing any particular times. The other two were Paul Burgum and Paul Hudson, who were great company as we made our way over to the finish. We had been told at Kildale that the short but steep out and back to Roseberry Topping was now to be omitted, so there was no technical ground to impede progress, and even though we walked the whole way we were home just before midnight. Allowing for the later than 9am start, my finishing time was 14:38:01.

And that would have been that.  Except when chatting to Shirley just after the finish she said only a couple more finishers were expected after us.  The explanation, which came as a bit of a surprise, was that the race had been stopped not long after we had set out, with no more runners being permitted onto the course beyond Kildale. During the time that we had been completing our last leg, everyone at Kildale had been evacuated back to Guisborough and the majority had now gone home. My immediate reaction was that I had been really lucky to leave Kildale in time to miss this stoppage. Beyond that I was tired enough to concentrate mainly on the 10 minute walk back to my car and the short drive over snow covered roads back to my hotel in Middlesborough.

What actually happened after we left Kildale

I have pieced this together from various text messages and Facebook posts from people I trust on day after the race. If it is not entirely right this is unintentional and I'm sure those with better knowledge will put me right.

A bit earlier in the evening Cleveland Mountain Rescue had gone to assist a vehicle stuck in a ditch near Kildale. Several inches of snow had built up on roads around the area and the CMR 4x4 vehicles were very helpful in the conditions. While they were there they looked into the Kildale checkpoint to see how things were going with the race; Jon's preparations always include keeping CMR appraised of all his race plans. This will have been sometime between 8.30 (when I left Kildale) and 9pm (which was the cutoff time for Kildale in any case). At that point they suggested to Jon that in the now deteriorating conditions, evacuating any runner who got into trouble on the last section of the course would not be easy, and that a safe option would be to not let any more runners leave Kildale.  Jon concurred and the race was stopped.

Again making use of their 4x4's, CMR were then extremely helpful in ensuring that all the runners stopped at Kildale were transported quickly and safely back to the finish in Guisborough, where they could resume with their own plans for getting away from the finish of the event.

So no runners were rescued from the course at any point, all made their way safely down to checkpoints, either on their own or escorted by fellow runners, under their own steam. The race organisation and runners had cleared the course competently to places of safety, and anyone not then at the finish was given a lift back to there. Some runners reached checkpoints hypothermic to some degree; they were warmed up on the spot and no-one was hospitalised.

Media Reaction

I'm mentioning this for any readers outside the circle involved in the race on the day, and anyone who may stumble on this post at some time in the future. Media reports soon started to circulate claiming any number from 30 to 100 runners brought down from the moors by mountain rescue teams. This generated all the normal on-line uninformed comment and criticism, whether the race should have started and so on. Jon received his share of hate mail. The national media were involved by Monday when a piece on the Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show covered the race. Thankfully, the opening comment was by a member of CMR who calmly related what had actually happened, praised the Hardmoors organisation, and said that CMR were quite happy that the race was been started, and equally happy when it was stopped at an appropriate time. This rather took the wind out of the sails of the "someone got it wrong" experts but they had a go anyway. I also heard a piece on BBC Teeside where both a CMR member and Paul Burgum (who I covered the last section with) did a good job in telling it like it was. It may not be quite dead yet but the media will move on to something else soon. 

General thoughts about the weather

Ever since it's first running Jon has stressed in the run-up to the HM55  that it's a race likely to be run under winter conditions. Runners need to have some idea of what that means and prepare accordingly. It seems to me that the weather forecast for the 2018 event, which had been consistent for at least a couple of days ahead of the race, was very accurate. The expectation was for near zero temperatures, a 40-50 miles per hour easterly wind and frequent snow and hail showers which the BBC said would feel "blizzard-like when you are in them". That's exactly what we got. We knew what was coming. Common sense would also tell you that conditions were likely to feel worse as the temperature dropped when darkness fell.

As one of the last finishers into Guisborough just before midnight, I was one of the runners out on the course longest on Saturday so feel that I'm in as good a position as anyone to comment on the weather.

First let's be clear. Whatever terminology you hear or see in the media, and ignoring the odd bit of hype you get from ultra runners and their mates, Saturday's conditions were challenging, but certainly not "extreme" or "brutal".   Many Spine or TdH competitors would regard them as a normal day at the office. Anyone who came into a checkpoint colder than was good for them had not experienced extreme weather; they had learned the valuable lesson that for them, in those conditions, they did not have enough clothes on. It is impossible to be prescriptive about this, I've heard or read about runners who went through the whole of the race with a base layer and a shell and were comfortable, and others who had multiple layers and were cold. It depends on how fast you go, how much heat you generate, how much fat you carry and many other factors, but the main point of learning that runners should take from this is that a mandatory equipment list can only ever be a suggestion of what might keep you alive; there are no guarantees because we are all different. You need to find out what works for you.

A lot of the vernacular surrounding ultra-running focuses on overcoming difficulties  -  finding your limits, pushing through the pain and so on. The only thing I would disagree with on Paul B's radio interview would be the description of ultra running as "an extreme sport". I'm a sixty-nine year old pensioner with dodgy knees; people like me don't do extreme sports. To keep themselves safe runners really have to get away from this sort of mindset. What we do is a hobby, accessible to almost anyone who wants to put a bit of time and effort into learning the game. It takes us to beautiful places, we meet like-minded people and derive great satisfaction at times. All we need is to do a diligent amount of training and learning, set ourselves a sensible game plan for each race that takes account of our current fitness, skills and knowledge, and then execute the plan, no drama, no heroics. The amount that you have in reserve is what keeps you out of trouble. 

Comparison with other poor weather 55's

The 2010 race was run in miserable cold conditions. No spectacular snow or gales but the continual near-zero wet cold that the British climate is good at providing, easy to misjudge from the relative warmth of a lower level starting venue. Under these conditions runners are always wet as well as cold and there's nothing like wet clothes for stepping up the heat transfer from your core to the outside world. There were several cases of hypothermia, runners were warmed up in blankets and sleeping bags at the indoor checkpoints, the finishers finished and I think everyone involved agreed it had been a great event.

In 2013 the temperatures were slightly lower than last Saturday and much of the country was covered in snow before the start. The easterly wind was similar. We never saw the sun. However, the race overall was probably slightly easier because that year it was run from East to West giving a tail wind for a lot of the distance, and safer because the final section headed to lower, more sheltered ground as the temperature dropped.  Some sections were definitely more trying than we found last Saturday however. The leg from Kildale out to Bloworth was directly into the gale and the track filled with deep powder snow. The path from Sneck Yate to the road before the White Horse was completely obliterated into a snow slope for most of the way and runners at my end of the field had it all in the dark. The loop to the White Horse was cut from the course but most regulars still took much longer than their normal times.

But the big difference between these years and 2018 is that there were far fewer runners on the course - 57 starters in 2010, 135 in 2013, 342 in 2018  -  far fewer to deal with if a percentage got into trouble or circumstances changed rapidly.  I'm not saying that this was good or bad, just that it's a fact.

So on Saturday evening, with (I'm estimating here) around 50 runners in Kildale potentially setting out over the last exposed section in dropping temperatures, and evidence that others had already found the preceding section too cold for their kit, it's clear that CMR and Jon made the only sensible call and that was to halt the race. I would suggest that the numbers in both these groups influenced the decision.

In Conclusion

I'll be back for more Hardmoors 55's, so long as I still have the legs and lungs to do them. It's a special event for me. I would understand completely if Jon decided to move it back a month or so to get warmer conditions; no-one needs the aggro he's had to put up with over the last day or two. But from my perspective, I hope not. Part of the beauty of these moors is their wildness, and it would be sad to lose that. Other races are available along these trails in summer, if that's your thing. Lots of runners have already said that they had a great time on Saturday so clearly got their decisions right; others will have gained invaluable lessons from their outing and their tales will swell the knowledge pool. I hope, maybe in vain, for times when there will be no need for a "mandatory kit list" for these events, that we will all have learned enough to understand what's required. A day or two before the 2013 Hardmoors 55, when much of the country was snowbound and events were being cancelled all over, the message from Jon to competitors was clear ".......we won't cancel the race but you all know what the weather is going to be like. Pack some warm stuff and give it a good thrash."  All you need to know, I think.


Anonymous said...

Excellent account. I totally agree with you that the race should not be moved. Part of the challenge is the elements and terrain.

Anonymous said...

Great write up, well done to all. A lot of the hype on Monday was from people who didn’t know the facts & didn’t want to know. I’m a runner, this is definitely not in my bucket list - big respect to you all & i’ll Continue to admire as I stick with enjoying my 5km & 10km runs!

Anonymous said...

This kind of media interest is a hazard for any race organiser. I am part of a committee for another race that was cut short a few years ago. Nobody was rescued or injured - it was a precaution, and everyone concerned was evacuated in a controlled manner. Luckily that didn't make the media.

Keep up the good work.

Ultras and a lttle bit more said...

Excellent, sad I missed it, I did the 2010 H55, and the epic Edale Skyline, and yes I was at the OMM where we all about to die ( if the media are to be believed). Hopefully they will move and so allow Jon and Shirley to do the same. I bet entries are up next year

Ultras and a lttle bit more said...

Oh and the Fellsman where as I dibbed the finish the stopped the race...

Anonymous said...

Great write up- you are an inspiration - big respect to Jon - never done one his events but I know he's much respected in the community