At the sharp right-hand bend in the metalled road a track runs straight on, south. The first couple of hundred metres are made up with packed hardcore as the track serves old farm buildings here, then an open field or two before it enters a tunnel of trees and runs south/south-easterly as a green lane for just over a kilometre until the path is spat out to cross an open field to Heath Road. Two small woods, coverts, border this stretch of lane. The second of these is older than the other and dates back to at least the early 1800s.
In the area where the green lane passes this second wood, Pye’s Covert, a tree has fallen across the path. The tree came down in the summer storms a couple of months ago; nobody has reached it with a chainsaw and so it continues to provide an obstacle for path users. Initially negotiating the tree was a struggle but, as the weeks have passed, the smaller branches have been snapped off and the tree—or is it two trees?—now present a more simple obstacle in two parts: a larger trunk to climb over (or possibly hurdle steeplechase style if feeling confident) and then smaller branches to duck under.
What does it mean to encounter (something)? Etymologically, encounter is a move in and against (something); it is a meeting. Running with/in the landscape performs a continuous series of encounters most of which are not as obvious as meeting a fallen tree: the feet repetitiously encounter the ground’s surface; the olfactory system encounters smells and odours; the lungs encounter cold air perhaps; and/or fauna or livestock are encountered. Where do the meetings of these encounters take place? As the foot strikes the ground and/or as the echo of the footfall and what it implies travels through the body? As the molecules of volatilized chemical compounds settle on and into the mucous membranes en route to the olfactory nerves? And so forth.
But there is a problem with these images … there are problems. At the very least they seem to be suggesting a world of relatively inert matter just hanging about waiting to be encountered and encountered by a sentient being no less. A sentient being that will ‘make sense’ of the data of the encounter, ‘make sense’ of the things it encounters. A simple exercise could be to reverse the encounter; but would this simply be a bungling, anthropomorphising attempt at empathy? To try to imagine how a chemical molecule might think an encounter with moist, pleated layers of epithelial cells? Even the suggestion that the molecule would ‘think’ is presumptuous … to imagine it not capable of thought, arrogant! But then, what is thinking?
Furthermore, the encounter ‘begins’ even before any obviously material connection has been made—the obstacle is seen ahead, and bodily preparations are made by the runner; speed is adjusted and the space beyond the obstacle of the fallen tree assessed for any subsequent problems.1 The space of the encounter becomes thicker and multi-sensory … at least as far as the runner is concerned. And …
When the tree(s) near Pye’s Covert fell it encountered surrounding trees; it crashed sideways, ripping through small branches, tearing off leaves to eventually be left leaning, supported by neighbouring trees and angled across the path. The wind that stormy night encountered many obstacles as it pushed across the landscape. ‘Part’ of that wind encountered that tree, the fallen tree, and the wind won the encounter, there was a violence to this confrontation. The storm force winds of that night were formed of shifts between zones of varying air pressure, the encounter is much more gradated here as gatherings of air molecules thicken and thin.
Within this notion of encounter lurks the question of difference. It would be easy to frame the discussion around the thought that the runner’s foot (during a supremely athletic steeplechase-style leap over the fallen tree;-]) encounters a different material thing in the form of the tree, difference that is between the human (foot) and the arborescent. Human and other. Human and more-than-human even. But, if the emphasis of thinking is shifted, it could be considered that the difference is formed by the encounter; the encountering is a differing. That is quite a leap to move from an encounter to a differing; and that is not a self-congratulatory observation, more of an awareness of a lot of thought terrain has been shifted across and needs addressing.
The turning off onto the track at the sharp right-hand bend was a turn into addressing—starting to (re)address—human engagement with the non-human world and specifically engagements played out via running. It could have been walking, it could have been sitting (so long as it was active sitting and not an attempt to fix landscape into a mute spectacle). It is (a) question(s) of how engagement(s) function with/in a moving world. And in this instance, it is questions of troubling undertaken through running. Running as troubling of so many assumptions; a troubling doomed to failure, a celebratory, violent and beautiful failing. The troublings sound with and against Baradian intra-action … this is not to assign a universal veracity to the concept of intra-action but to sense what the concept of intra-action can offer to the question of engagement with/in landscape.2 (As hinted at by the comment regarding difference) the scenario above of the fallen tree and the runner is herniated by the concept of intra-action … in this sense the interaction of encounter is turned against itself.
Getting moving again but something of ‘backward’ steps. Maybe a run-up to this obstacle, this twofold obstacle of the tree and engagement with/in the landscape. In ‘engagement’ there is the echo of a pledge; a binding oath or promise. The waves of this echo diffract with Foucauldian parrhesia and Barad’s cutting-together-apart.3 The run-up is rich with possibilities, hesitations and faux pas.
1. Obstacle in its etymology seems a suitable companion to encounter. Both reference a position ‘against’: in obstacle it is a ‘standing’ against whilst in encounter it is a perhaps more fundamental in and against.
2. Karen Barad, “Intra-actions.” Mousse, 34 (2012): 76–81.
3. Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1-19 and Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart,” Parallax, 20:3, (2014): 168-187. doi: 10.1080/13534645.2014.927623
A return to Edale and a return to The Pennines in January. There were no scores to settle necessarily—no major failings to amend—just a desire to improve on the result of last January and iron out a few creases along the way. All assuming that conditions were similar (last year was unseasonably benign—until the last quarter of my race at least).
The Montane Spine Challenger: Edale to Hardraw, 108 miles with 5,500m of ascent.
The weeks leading up to the race had seen me wracked by doubts and niggled by, well, niggles. My shins had decided to complain since late November and so I had drastically eased off with the training runs and so I was in a cycle of feeling under-trained and injured. Well, if not injured at the start then certain that my niggly shins would only allow me to reach halfway at best. But the pull of the Spine is strong and so I found myself (in a strangely wired/relaxed mood) on trains travelling to Edale; a five-hour journey which slowly accumulated fellow Spiners (LIz, Jonathan, Antonio, Darto). Tensions eased through chat.
A smooth (and friendly) process of registration, kit checks and briefing unrolled on arrival at Edale HQ and then free until 8am the following morning. A pleasant meal with other Spiners in the Ramblers pub before a short minibus ride to the Youth Hostel to do a final sort and check of kit ready for a 5:45am alarm call. Bed, lying down, if not asleep by 10pm. Sleep was patchy and some wild weather blew through in the night but at least it wasn’t raining too hard by breakfast time. The hostel staff had laid on a very welcome early breakfast for all the racers (who made up most of their clients)—well fed and watered and off to gather kit (and wits). Drop bags were left for collection later and all else dropped down the hill to the valley road and a coach to the start.
It was still mainly dry but there was wild wind whipping round the corner of hills and tearing holes in the cloud cover to offer something of a dawn light. The bustle of the HQ was visited for tracker fitting and then an anxious twenty minutes or so of kicking heels and worrying about layers (and shins) before being invited over to the start pen in an adjacent field. And still the wind tears at the clouds as the surrounding hills slowly find definition. The penned in buzz of anticipation, excitement and nerves is eventually released with an understated announcement and countdown. At the front they run and at the back a walk; somewhere in between I am among others who jog gently and/or walk speedily through the car park and out into the lane.
The drag up to the official start of the Pennine Way (PW) is an opportunity to adjust straps and zips. The temperature is ok but it isn’t long before the race is pushing into the headwind whipping down from and around the Kinder Scout plateau. Paved paths through fields and farm tracks form a gentle introduction to the race and a chance for a gently shuffling of the pack as runners find their pace/place. After a while, so soon, it is the climb up Jacob’s Ladder and a proper introduction to the wind (to be a constant, if a little variable, companion for the rest of the race). Up and along Swine’s Back and Kinderlow the pack thins until the plateau reveals a surprising solitude (exaggerated by mist and a wind-howl that drowns all other noises). Once more along braided paths amongst gritstone boulders, blown sideways, following instinctively the main way but failing to remember the precise distance along the plateau’s edge. A small sidestream fools me into thinking it is Kinder Downfall—why have I not turned more westerly? A kilometre on and the Downfall reveals itself, today (courtesy of the wind) as an Upfall and a soaking ensues although feet stay dry as the stream itself is just a trickle to be stepped across. Now westerly.
And eventually the drop down off the plateau and the slight climb to Mill Hill and its paved path across Featherbed Moss. Feeling fine although lacking in definite reference points. Runners distant ahead and eventually the voices of chasing runners catch me up followed shortly after by the runners themselves. A brief thought of following at their pace and then a remembering of the long game. At the road crossing I’m surprised to see several of the overtakees stops for water, etc. I plough on (ten minutes ahead of last year), across Old Woman and up Devil’s Dike, a little worried that visibility isn’t at its best but confident in the path with just enough waymarkers scattered pathside to stop me from getting my GPS out.
The angle of approach to Bleaklow leaves me 30˚ or so confused through the muddle of peat hags but enough visibility remains to see the way. There are one or two other runners near me and we thread our way over the top of Bleaklow and drop down towards the Torside Clough path. A reasonable run down on eroded but forgiving paths to the head of the Clough where the path gets a little more technical and also splits at one point—runners are equally split but I am happy with my choice of the lower path. And soon enough we are rolling down towards the checkpoint. I stop for a top-up of water but no more leaving others behind who want tea or a sit down. I can’t stop so soon.
Over the dam and into the band of pine trees alongside Torside Reservoir. A couple of other runners seem confident in my navigation and trail me as I cross the A628 and turn into the valley above Crowden. I take it very easy here remembering the climb up onto the moor’s edge. I remember well initially and curse it but move ok, past the photographer in his eerie and then into the forgotten part of the climb eventually to reach the path along the plateau’s edge. Then a little slippery down to the stream and up through Red Ratcher; beside and through the stream. Feet definitively wet now but that is to be expected although a little earlier than last year. Either I picked the wrong line a couple of times or the streams are wider.
The occasional day-walkers are passed and other competitors occasionally slide into and out of contact but there is a feeling of calm for now (and despite the insistent wind). My right knee is protesting on the sharper downhills and a debate ensues as to whether I am better trotting or walking the downs … the steepest descents like those into Dean Clough just have to be gritted out. And oh, even these steep ups are not good for the knee and I transfer sole responsibility to my left side on these occasions. No Haribo at Wessenden Head but a group of race crew checking on well-being and guarding the crossing of the hell that is the A635 (the detritus of RTAs and general rubbish do not cast this place in a good light and I am happy to be away from it). As per last year I still can’t seem to run down the hill away from Wessenden Head; at least this year I am aware that I am not running. Two or three runners leave me behind here and I begin to enter a bit of a low—exacerbated by the fact that it definitely isn’t going to get any brighter today.
The low is holistic and I seem to lack any get up and go as I grind my way up towards Black Moss in black mood. But looking forwards to hot drinks at one of the upcoming road crossings. The wind throws sizeable waves at the shore of Black Moss Reservoir—a visible record of the wind in case my hearing had switched off to its audible presence and my motion had given in to its presence and permanently adopted a lean. Towards the A62 and a lone race supporter wishes me luck. The car park at the road is apparently empty of race personnel and so I just get on with things recalling my hot chocolate/soup of last year. A quick check of the map to make sure I catch the turn of the PW path up onto Standedge and onwards. Mind and mist were beginning to coalesce here, a haziness entered my progress and the combined (cumulative) chill of the wind and damp were increasingly penetrating my clothes. Mitted hands remained warm but were definitely wet. Any stop, no matter how brief, was unpleasantly chilling. Movement as necessity as light and visibility dwindled to remove any distraction from the race-task.
The sense of loneliness became stronger with the dwindling of light and energy. Keep eating, keep moving. Cross the A640 and nod/wave to the race crew wisely sat in his car at the roadside. Not far to the M62 now and rumour of a Mountain Rescue Support point. These kilometres have mainly seeped from my memory. The car park held no apparent offers of food, anyway, I just wanted to keep moving. More affirmative nods to race/safety crew as I pick my way through the debris and detritus of another moorland road crossing and then brace myself. I hate the pedestrian bridge motorway crossing and in the diffused misty light it frightened me more. Vertigo levels cranked up. Face ahead and keep walking (far worse than any mountain climb … apart from maybe the Inn Pin!).
More merging of drab greys and browns and a final realisation that I must stop and excavate my headtorch. A low stone shelter on Blackstone Edge provided the protection from the wind but almost sapped every last degree of warmth. Get moving to get warm. Two runners caught me up here, one with a faulty/broken headtorch. We fall into step as the GPS-holder leads the way, I check with map and memory. The drop down the Roman Road is found but I help with a call back to the right turn for the White House. I then partially undo this helpful call by believing we stay high nearer the road. A minor mistake and soon mended. We are soon enough at the Mountain Rescue support point on the A58. I stopped for a while here last year but this year I need to keep warm so a cup of hot drink is poured and I use the team’s van to add an extra layer or two of clothing. The guy in the van is a little concerned at my shivering but I just need to get moving again and he seems convinced.
A short walk up the road and left onto water board tracks—fairly easy navigation although always good to keep checking. Accompanying headtorches to fore and aft seem to confirm right decisions. Last year there was a diversion into the moorland away from Warland reservoir; this year the track is followed. Waves on water. Onto Warland Drain and soon approaching Stoodley Pike. The paths here confound and confuse and of course it is dark by now so no view towards the Pike. And the wind. It has cranked up further and on the ridge towards the monument I am relentlessly buffeted and pushed over sideways. Not quite blown over but a steadying hand is placed to the ground often enough. At the monument the wind is ripping through the darkness; I turn right and am unceremoniously pushed along towards the descent.
Amongst the fields above Rough Head I reach a fellow Spiner, and another joins us soon after. We group up to navigate through the trees down to Charlestown. My memory of the way here is reassuringly intact and we are soon down near the road crossing and another check-in with race safety crew. Then the joltingly stiff climb up amongst houses and gardens and over the top before the smaller down and up to Colden where we gratefully turn towards the main Checkpoint of the race at Hebden Hey below Slack.
A slither down the muddy path to the welcoming lights of CP1 far below. Wonderfully helpful staff guide me to my kit and a warming room to get sorted in. Last year I stopped for four hours here but this year I was determined to stop for less time. After changing out of wet kit it is straight to food and warming drinks which fairly quickly improves my condition although I still feel quite tired (the wind has been all-consuming). I get my left eye checked out as it is cloudy, possibly the result of a scratch from a holly branch on the descent to the CP—I had removed my glasses several hours before as I could see better without them. I then decide on a brief sleep. There is already a runner dozing in the bunkroom I am allotted and his snooze alarms do a good job of not letting me drift into too deep a sleep. But then he gets up and leaves and I briefly sleep deeply; and awake with a dribble and ajolt. I leap to my feet and get back to my kit to get on my way again.
I leave soon after another runner and catch up with her (Milly) on my way up the climb out of the valley. We chat and agree to team up[ for a while through the dark hours although she worries that I may want to move a little quicker. The pace is good for now and on Heptonstall Moor we are joined by another runner. The Moor feels long and I’m keen for the right turn and suggest an option with an inviting looking gate but it proves too early. After what feels like too long (to me at least) we finally reach the fences/wall combination that signals to my companion that we are almost at the right turn. We then drop down to the valley and the point where I got a bit muddled last year—the crossing of two streams and a sharp turn or two confused me and I got my bearings 180˚ out (luckily last year my then companion had pointed out the error of my ways)—this year I remembered the junction and was happy with which way to turn.
We climbed up to the road and at the junction we were met by another member of the safety crew checking on our well-being. All good. Solid progress then along tarmac roads and then down to Lower Walshaw Reservoir and along its eastern side before transferring onto a narrow path between the Middle Reservoir and its leat—vertigo once more kicking in as the strong wind pushed me insistently towards the steep drop into the leat. I had pulled imperceptibly ahead of my companions here and developed a gap that never closed again. Leaving the Reservoir I was feeling good on the climb to Withins Height and I pushed a bit harder; renewed by the food and rest of CP1.
Top Withins seemed deserted as I passed by, conurbation lights glowing in the cloud towards the northern horizon provided a false sense of dawn. Strangely, it was easier to see in this darkness of cloud-reflected light at 1am in the morning than it was in the murky 4pm gloom of Blackstone Edge. I gathered up another runner or two here, monosyllabic greetings were exchanged but each of us in our own separate race. Round by Ponden Reservoir I felt a little low again; possibly daunted by the upcoming short sharp climb towards Crag Bottom and Bare Hill. Up from the road it’s actually a steady climb and once more I found a good rhythm. Down the other side and past the curious beeping sheds (what is in there) of Ickornshaw Moor.
Then into a new section for me. Last year we had been diverted via roads and tracks through Lumb to Cowling; this year we were to stick to the PW. Approaching the road I could see the headtorch of another runner moving uncertainly too and fro at a fence. There was a gate that seemed the obvious way but an advertising sign for a campsite seemingly suggested this to be a private path. We went through. All was fine. Then a wiggle through the village and onto another ‘new’ bit of path. A couple of runners had got the wrong side of a fence here and were correcting their error. At the lane at Gill another race crew member was checking on well-being; a few words exchanged and onwards. There is a draggy climb from the stream here that went on longer than it should have done; the map scale was playing tricks.
A little more lane then the drop down to Surgill Beck. I was looking forward to a bit of a break at Lothersdale and I managed to get a good line down to the stream and through the fields here before dropping sharply down to the village. A local triathlon club had set up an ad-hoc support point here in lieu of the pub that is closed due to building works. Last year I had been too early for the pub’s offerings (which started after daylight hours) but this year the Lothersdale crew had been in place since the early hours and I was presented with a very welcome offer of rice pudding and hot chocolate (and a seat! … a dangerous thing a seat, I perhaps stayed longer than I should have). I was feeling quite empty again and a bit shivery so this support was most welcome and the team here were so friendly and helpful. Stars. Other runners came and went and one was having a good power nap. For their efforts they were accepting donations towards Mountain Rescue.
I somewhat reluctantly got on my way again and got straight into the climb up towards Pinhaw Beacon. Like last year this felt hard work. I could see some headtorches in the distance and above me but these became more fleeting as the height gain pulled me into the mist. There was a good path to follow but it was beginning to feel a little too far. Surely I should have reached the trig point by now? Just as major doubts were setting in the bright white pillar appeared through the mist. With map in hand I set off a bit too confidently and was soon off piste in a short scrub of heather. Time for the GPS. Impatiently I waited for the satellites to be discovered and then headed back to the trail. That’s better. Down I go, away from the summit and on towards Cowling. But no. Another runner came towards me. We both wondered what was wrong with the other. But he assured me he knew this area very well and it was I who was going the wrong way.
I was in disbelief but he assured me once more and I tucked in behind him and started going ‘back’ the way I had come. Sure enough we passed the trig point again and then dropped down the south-west side of the hill towards the road. I have no idea what I did there but am so grateful to the other runner who saved me from going too far back towards Lothersdale! I wonder at what point I would have realised if he hadn’t come past?
We briefly carried on together, past another set of race crew at the road junction but he suggested I should go on ahead as he was taking it easy for a while. I didn’t feel like I had the energy to leave him but eventually a gap appeared and as I turned off the road onto the path I left the other runner behind. Down towards Brown House farm the boardwalk sections were treacherously wet and it really took quite an effort to stay upright. It was reluctantly starting to get light by now; perhaps that should be, starting to get less dark. Through the quagmire that defends the farm and into the farmyard. The farmer came out of a barn, we exchanged greetings and he held an electric fence down for me to step over. He asked how many runners were likely to come through in the next couple of hours as he had cows to move I think, and then I was on along the track to Thornton.
Crossing the main road and onto the lane to Langber. Once more a member of the race crew was monitoring progress. As last year there was as small diversion to avoid a couple of fields here and then up over the little hill to the canal and a well-earned firm and level kilometre of going … I couldn’t really bring myself to a run though. Leaving the canal for a road I then somehow decided that the wrong field looked like the way I had gone last year. It was a field horribly churned up by horses and I just could not find the stile that I knew should be there.
Back to the lane and another runner (Antonio) who was having some nav issues here. Sure enough, just round the corner was the obvious, signed, route of the PW. We ran together for a while through the horribly slippy grass/mud fields (that had been avoided last year with a diversion); his GPS insisted that we were on the wrong side of the little stream here but solved that little doubt and kept on through. Approaching the railway line I eased away and turned right to cross the last couple of fields before the village of Gargrave. Another race crew check and then onto the toilet facilities before a raid of the delights of the Co-Op.
I wasn’t feeling very hungry though but finally opted for a chicken pasty and a milkshake. I also had another requirement—at some point since CP1 I had realised that I had forgotten to pick up my map for the last section from Horton to the finish. My mind was going through a cycle of disqualification or getting lost. I had a few options to buy a new map and Gargrave was the first but I was too early for any shop apart from the Co-Op and they no longer sold maps. Hmmm, a little more stress before Malham gave me another opportunity to make amends. A quick phone call home to report on my condition and then off through the streets trying to eat a puff pastry pasty that just made me wretch. Not the best purchase. I struggled some down and put the rest in my bag for later.
I assumed that Antonio must be ahead of me by now and just kept pushing on although this next stretch to Malham village just felt like wading through treacle (in fact, I think some of the fields here were made of treacle). Like last year, I was feeling as though I was making little progress and the thought of how much further to the finish kept intruding. Countering this I kept thinking of the immediate route ahead, although the climb up Malham Cove was becoming difficult to budge from my thinking (as was the annoying little climb at Hanlith).
The wind was still blowing but the lower elevation had taken the edge off it for now and the day was even beginning to improve albeit through a cycle of heavy showers, rainbows and clear spells. Eventually the clear weather won out and the stretch near Airton was even type-2 pleasant. I hauled myself up the steep road at Hanlith and lurched back into the fields. I spotted another runner ahead and this gave me a little lift as did the fact that there was not another hill to go over before Malham village (I’m sure I remember one from last year). The light was beautiful here. The other runner was struggling with a low patch, he didn’t seem to be aware of the climb before the next CP either.
We dropped down to the craziness of Malham, the honeypot was buzzing today. Us Spine racers must have added a zombie tone to proceedings but nobody really seemed to take much notice. Along the main street and I diverted into the outdoor gear shop. My worries were to be settled as a rack of glossy local maps presented themselves. For some reason I bought the two OS 1:25,000 maps rather than check if they had the Harveys; anyway, my kit was back up to spec for the last section now. I forged on through the village and onto the Cove path before dragging myself up the steps; they went on for far too long but I knew that once up these it was not a bad stretch to the CP. I opted, like last year, to cross the pavement but immediately regretted it. This was madness and surely a broken ankle would result. Carefully I veered a little further north and found a more grassy line between the treacherous limestone.
More slipping and sliding up through Ing Scar and the short climb before the right turn. Reasonable path now and better progress. A large group out walking were coming the other way and one of them peeled away to ask me about the race as he had heard about it and was considering entering it in future. He wished me best of luck and I was on my way again. Some grassy running now for a kilometre or two now before the track up to Malham Tarn House and CP1.5. The wind was howling across the Tarn and throwing waves at the shore. I caught up with two further runners (one of whom was Carsten) just short of the CP and we entered the warmth and friendly air of the CP together. Last year the CP had been in a small, cold stable room around the back but this time we were in some sort of field studies room.
Carsten was really struggling with a knee problem and the medics got to work on him right away. I was having a few minor niggles with my toes and decided to get them checked out rather than let them get too bad. A medic kindly put some tape on some sore spots and generally checked my feet over while I ate some food and enjoyed a hot drink. My feet were definitely in much better condition than last year which was good to see. I also took the opportunity to put some dry socks on. During our stay we were informed that Pen-y-ghent was too dangerous to cross due to the wind and that it would be closed with a diversion west just before the steep section—I have to admit, I wasn’t too saddened by this as I was struggling on the steep climbs (besides, I had been over it last year before it was closed to racers). After a longer than expected stop I was on my way again. I had intended to get my poles out at the CP but forgot so seeing somebody out for a walk I asked if they could get them out from the side of my pack; which they kindly did.
There is a lovely grassy path for a couple of kilometres here and I made good progress pushing on with the poles. But soon enough I was on the track up to Tennant Gill farm. I got my line a little wide across the field here and as I traced the wall back for a hundred yards Carsten caught up with me although he then seemed to disappear as we entered into the scrubby section before the open ground proper of Fountains Fell. For my part, I felt like I was too far west and Carsten’s ‘disappearance’ added to this uncertainty. Eventually though, the path swung round and finally picked up the gravel path that continues most of the way over the Fell’s shoulder. The gradient isn’t too severe on the whole although steeper ramps kept me working hard and I was pleased to reach the summit plateau.
The light was gorgeous now though and over the top of Fountains Fell Pen-y-ghent could be seen in all its craggy, stepped ferocity. Talking of ferocity, the wind was once more in inconvenient mode and what should have been a good trundle down ended up being a bit of a fight. Then, once on the valley road the low winter light was bouncing blindingly off the tarmac. Such problems! There was nobody much around at Dale Head and I plodded on along the level of the valley before it morphed seamlessly into the drag up on the track and path towards P-y-g. From quite a distance the big yellow diversion arrow could be seen but my eyes were tricking me into thinking that it pointed on and up to the summit. I was ever so slowly catching another runner ahead of me and at the diversion I could see him fiddling with the gate for what seemed like an age. Once I was there I found out why. The wind was blowing so violently that it was almost impossible to open the gate to the diversion route!
The diversion path although downhill was a frustrating mix of slippery grass/mud and little (slippery) limestone steps. I was glad to get to the road at Bracken Bottom. Through the village and I finally caught up with the other runner (Doug) and we entered the support point at the Pen-y-ghent Café together. Cartsen appeared very soon after. I had been uncertain about stopping for long here but eventually decided to get some food and drink. We were also to have a mini kit check for goggles, bivvy bag, sleeping bag and mat. A necessary inconvenience. I found a quiet spot at the back of the café and ordered some food—it was very good and much-needed. The food would set me up for the longer term and a bottle of coke gave me a quicker hit of energy.
Cartsen, then Doug, left the café before me but I soon caught Doug as we headed up the rough track away from the road towards Birkwith Moor. After last year’s nav disasters over the coming terrain I entered this section with a sense of trepidation. And although I was well up on last year’s time it was a section still to be undertaken in the dark. I shared my worries with Doug! And I kept my GPS firmly in hand here. Sell Gill Hole was confidently navigated without a random loop up onto the fell. Result! But as I eased ahead of Doug I got muddled with my gates (eager, I think, to reach the distinct left turn towards Old Ing) and a gate just by a ford saw me heading bizarrely into the rough ground as I had been dissuaded from the gate by a no access to walkers sign (it in fact symbolised that this was not open access land). Returning to the track and to Doug I realised that we were one boundary wall too early for the left turn—no wonder it didn’t look right!
Once more I eased ahead of Doug but was once more a little hesitant; t hadn’t been a major error but was enough to unsettle me. The weather was also much clearer this year and a good strong moon was shining intermittently from between fast-moving clouds, lighting up the fells and revealing a lot of terrain new to my eyes. My confidence was rising again by now and I started to rattle on along the tracks towards Ling Gill. Details and features were so much more plentiful than last year; it was almost enjoyable! At Ling Gill I found Carsten coming back towards me, he was having trouble matching the GPS trail to the ground but I knew this section and confidently led him to and over the old stone bridge and onto the track up towards Cam End. Carsten was still struggling with his knee, despite the efforts of the medics at CP1.5, and he’d left his poles back at the P-y-g Café. I offered him my poles as by now I had grown tired of them and stowed them away but he didn’t want to be seen as taking outside assistance. I was too tired to summon any logic to argue and he insisted that I push on.
The chicken casserole/coke combo were working magic by now and I powered (all things are relative) up the track to Cam End and onto the High Road. I was desperate to observe the location of my second nav error last year but the road seemed to go on forever. Somewhere along here I passed another runner who seemed ok but was moving more cautiously than me. Apart from feeling unending this section passed without event; the gradient was gentle enough that I kept a good pace. Finally I passed the tricky gates and for a while thought another runner had made my mistake of last year as I saw a ‘headtorch’ moving around ahead and below me—it turned out to be lights from Cam House. The fell was offering some shelter from the wind here but once up onto the tarmac section conditions roughened up again.
Now just to find the left turn onto West Cam Road and avoid the final blunder of last year. I had passed three runners since I left Horton and was obsessed with keeping ahead of them. My mania was augmented by the wind up here. I think this was the worst section. I found the turn ok but the side/head-wind was phenomenal. At first the walls at the side of the track offered some shelter but further on these peeled away giving three kilometres of very exposed going. Underfoot the track was rutted and/or rocky and this combined with the wind meant that progress was made in a stumbling, leaning, 45˚ gait with the occasional hand down to stop a complete fall. This really was a cruel finale, although, in hindsight, it was good not to have the snow of last year … I could see more than a couple of feet in front of me!
I was still navigating by GPS here to make sure I picked up the path over Ten End which had been diverted around last year … a little more uncertainty to feed my wind-wracked and doubt-riddled mind-body. An eternity was taken to find the path and its slippery, muddy slope down towards Gaudy Lane and Gayle. I had given up worrying about boggy sections and just ploughed on in the most direct line I could, eventually reaching dry land and Gayle’s maze of lanes and paths. An initial field section threw me before I realised that we were still in last year’s diverted section.
Into Gayle and things started to look more familiar although a section around a sports field seemed unfamiliar and my direction of approach muddled me a little, enough to check with a passer-by where the PW was. Right there next to me of course. Then on through the alleys and across the flagged path by the creamery and into Hawes. Now there were event direction signs posted although I still kept a check of my GPS. Much more familiar now and onto the road out of Hawes but still not mustering anything more than a fast walk. Crossing the River Ure I could see a headtorch approaching me rapidly from behind. Damn, I was going to be overtaken so near the finish and I just didn’t have the energy to put up a fight (I mumbled apologies to my wife who was surely watching this dot-fight unfold).
As the runner passed me I wished him ‘well done’ but it turned out it was a local out for an evening run and he told me not to worry. Oh yeah, he didn’t have a big Spine pack—that should have been a clue! He easily left me standing as he ran smoothly up the little hill away from the river. I crept up it. And, oh so gratefully, turned off left into the field paths for the last kilometre to Hardraw. Although empty I was so much happier than last year—then I had been really annoyed with myself for all the nav errors and I was physically in a worse state. This year I would finish with a smile! The fields were a little tedious, mainly because it was difficult to see any distance and I couldn’t quite remember how many there were but finally the lights and voices of the finish came into view. Through the gate, a short stretch of track and left onto the road for a quick sprint (ha, ha) to the line and the congratulations of those present. I had arrived in a quiet spell and so was able to enjoy much unhurried help and care from the team (I’m sure they were always helpful and caring, but I had the attention undiluted!).
Once stopped I was rather dazed—maybe it was just strange not to have the raging wind blowing through my head—but felt so much better than twelve months previously and had finished so much quicker (about 6.5 hours quicker). The weather (mostly the wind) had been more continuously tough this year and the fight needed to push through and brace against the wind had been all-encompassing.
To flatter myself I can say I came 9th … out of 43 male finishers, but more precisely (we all raced the same course after all) I came 16th out of 67 finishers (115 starters)—this includes the ‘separate’ Mountain Rescue Team event that starts an hour later.
from 8am Saturday 12th January 2019
As I cursed the conditions on Cam Fell only two weeks ago I now curse conclusion and introduction (I swear loudly at and in their presence). The finish is (cartographically at least) proximate but it holds little current reality. Conditions are once again disorienting and deceptive. I am haunted by the shades to my sides that smother for my attention. The claustrophobia of the elements is uncanny. Awkwardly, and urgently, a pressure impels me forward as the wind did on Cam Fell; but this urging only forces me into wrong turns and faux pas. Briefly righted. Sgraffito word-steps suggest a way onwards; they lull with the knowledge that others have been this way recently and might be cautiously accepted as some form of guide. The steps are erased and Gates offer nothing but reflected light and a swirling influx of darkness. Slowly. The certainty of the one surface is found to be duplicitous, easing me into a world of reflected topography. I re-turn a place I do not know and try again.
The scenarios are deceptively analogous.
Analogy is deceptively scenic.