5th September; my brother and I ‘rise and shine’ far earlier than is sensible. Shuffling into his living room, two super light rucksacks lie on the floor, surrounded by maps, water proofs, flapjacks, gels, whistles and two hydration packs. Over the next hour we pack and re-pack, testing hydration packs for leaks and memorising the most suitable place for each piece of kit.
After a final fuss over whether my gels should be in my left or ride side pocket (selectively ambidextrous) we set off, our destination; 3rd Hazel Grove Scouts hut located in Stockport, sat just at the edge of the Peak District.
Hazel Grove – formally known as Bullock Smithy until residents became sick of being the butt of every joke – is the starting point for ‘The Bullock Smithy’ a 56 mile ultra marathon which is part of the UK ultra running race series runfurther.
Now. 56 miles is a long way. But the icing on the ridiculous ‘Bullock Smithy’ cake is that there’s a bit of a climb thrown in to the mix… 8,500 ft of gain to be precise. And, neatly aligned to the saying ‘what comes up, must go down’ that also means a knee aching 8,500ft of total decent too.
Whilst en-route to the start, we prepare sensibly, putting our maps somewhere safe where we can’t see them, eating as much food as possible and worrying about saving as much battery life in our running watches as humanl possible.
Upon arrival I conquer my fifth and final flapjack, and we make our way to the scout hut where registration (at £35), equipment checks and last minute poops take place. As 2015 marks the 40th birthday of this ridiculous feat, each runner/hiker is also presented with a mug!
The rules of this race are; you must pass through 14 checkpoints, receiving a confirmation stamp at each point by one of the many – invaluable and sickingly friendly/chirpy – volunteers. There is no single route stipulated to get from one to checkpoint to the next, and you won’t find any markings/arrows or marshals between checkpoints. You must reach the finish within 24 hours and during nightfall you cannot run alone.
It is also mandated that you carry – in the main – emergency food rations (gels and fruit loaf for me), drink (I used a Karrimor camel pack), a map of the area, whistle, spare socks, headtorch and a first aid kit. Food is available at almost all checkpoints, and, I can tell you now, no one will ever taste a better orange that those on offer at Checkpoint 9 (Earl Sterndale).
Just shy of 300 people make their way to the starting line on a nearby playing field as midday approaches. Final gear checks, sun cream, daft photos and some last minute jumper fussing before the pre-event speech is made by a man on a step ladder who thereafter whacks an anvil with a heavy stick and, with a priming of my XT920 running watch, away we go.
I thank my lucky stars the weather is clear and dry as we commence our modest trot across the field and out toward the big hills of the peaks and the aim to better a previous run of 12:46 with something close to sub 12 hours sings in my mind. Good things come to those who…
Even from the get go it’s clear that opinions on suitable route are divided as rucksack bearing men and women fragment in every direct, like goldfish when you tap their tank with your finger (we’ve all done it).
My brother leads us across some woody trails, flanked by houses, fields and after about half a mile, a golf course. Immediately I see at least two dozen people trotting across its fairway. I await the angry shouts of grumpy golfers but, sadly, they never come and my own emotions are torn between dismay of the runners’ audacity to flout etiquette and disappointment that I didn’t think up the same idea… For their route is slightly shorter.
A silence befalls my brother and I as we methodically trot across uneven ground broken only as we start to approach other runners: The Bullock Smithy breeds – on the most part – a community of friendly people, bonded by the effect such a feat has on the mind and body. Nervous conversation easily sparks up however my one track mind focuses on the task at hand, and I rudely cut my brother off – who is in mid flow explaining to our new companions the maximum velocity of the common European Swallow – and query what their target finish time is. As soon as I hear it commences 13, I pick up the pace – my brother in hot per suit – and seek out my next target where I’ll make an identical enquiry.
Within a mile, the first incline has commenced and I have already left my brother behind… In reality, he’s told me to “b*gger off”. He explains later that I reminded him of a restless bounding puppy, desperate to break free of his lead and run into the wilderness. So, a mile in, Mr Heron #2 unclips my chain, watches me scamper and bound into the distances and more than likely, insults me under his breath and curses my stupidity.
This is where I must fully admit he has every reason to label me stupid… I have no idea where I am going for the next 55 miles and confidently decide to rely on the power of hopes and dreams.
Continuing on my quest; over the next 4 miles I trot at a strong albeit steady pace ensuring I have at least one runner in front of me at all times. The incline does not relent until I’ve hit 1,300 feet where a young’in leads me to a questionable ladder which takes me over a stone wall before arriving at ‘Bowstones’, the first checkpoint of the race.
Here, my checkpoint card is marked, my number taken by a pleasantly quiet marshall and my brain scratches off the first of my 14 battles. Only 15 seconds have passed and I’m back on the move again pounding along a country lane which quickly descends by around 500ft. With 14 checkpoints in total I know how important it is not to give way to temptation and loiter for a lot of time can be lost this way.
7 miles done and I approach a group of around 5 runners led by a friendly, chatty lady who seems very keen to press on. She talks to anyone within earshot, giving words of encouragement whilst every now and then shouting behind her to Phil, as slightly roses cheeked chap who towers above me and clearly know the whole route by heart.
I can’t see anyone else in front of us and as we start to climb through some serious trails, I decide my ‘hopes and dreams’ plan could use a little rest and am led on with the group. We are shifting along at a good pace now, passing through hilly fields where we are greeted by the odd cow, sheep or electricity pylon. Finally the chatty lady draws breath – allowing me to get a word in – and I find out her name is Jayne Lawton, she’s the women’s record holder of this very race and she’s aiming to beat said record with a time under 10 hours 20.
10 second later I have gathered my senses and removed the dumbstruck expression from my face. ‘Hopes and dreams’ has a new focus. Hang on for dear life to this group.
Now hitting 1,400 feet I am approaching the most memorable checkpoint of Chinley Churn, where a handful of sickingly chirpy marshals are camped just over the summit of a hill. The views are breathtaking and as the day is clear, I can see for miles. Jayne has adopted a similar strategy to my own, allowing no time to be wasted at checkpoints… The difference is, my 15 seconds is 3 times more than her 5 seconds, and not for the first time in this race, I must catch up leaving a trail of biscuits and crisps in my wake
Again we must descend but this time across loose stone, rocks and mud. I later learn that my heart rate hits it’s highest during these descents. This is solely out of fear.
Over the next few miles our group reduces, with members not able to keep up with the pace Jayne is setting. These casualties include Phil, our main guide; a pretty disasterous blow as it transpires Jayne also is unsure of the route. With three of us left, it’s ok though as our third member is pretty savvy to where we are going.
Now from this stage onwards, hills, decents, bridges, checkpoints and Jayne’s constant talking/pushing/ordering all mould into one long slog. However, I’m pretty sure that it is around the 25 mile mark between the 6th checkpoint (Peak Forest) and the 7th (Millers Dale) that our group reduces to just Jayne and I…
Our situation now reduced to the blind leading the blind, we quickly divide duties. Jayne is instantly appointed lead motivator and I dig out my map and proceed to follow the red pen.
All goes well until we leave checkpoint 10 – named Brand Top. Jayne starts recalling the route and I switch off. Within half a mile we falter, neither of us sure where we are. Both tired and fighting back a growing sense of panic we desperately try to get our bearings. As we flag down a car the realisation dawns that any realistic hopes of breaking Jaynes 2014 record have slipped away; we’ve lost 30 minutes and after running 40 miles and climbing around 7000 feet, Jayne’s positive outlook starts to show signs of cracks. She’s bitterly disappointed but after 15 minutes she’s “had a word with herself” and is back to talking at me without drawing breath.
Once we are finally back on track, salt is poured on our wounds as 5th places catches us up. As a consolation, our new companion knows the route albeit without the tricky shortcuts that Jayne tries in desperation to recall.
We reach ‘Cumberland Cottage’ to the sound of whoops, cow bells and whistling just after nightfall and after strapping our head torches on and grabbing a handful of jelly babies each we crack on with the knowledge that although our last 9 miles will be run in pitch black, for the route boasts no street lights, it is downhill all the way from here.
At this stage of the race, my thought process is reduced to putting one foot in front of the other and chewing jelly babies. Despite the pain felt in most parts of my lower body, we won’t slow down now and 9 miles turns to 8, then 7 etc. With 4 miles left flanked by a canal, we arrive at our final checkpoint, Whitley Green, greeted by Jayne’s husband and two grown up sons. The younger, Ben, has arranged to run with us and we leave our final checkpoint as a group of four.
This last section is pancake flat, most suited to my training in the Fens, however it is the longest quartet of miles I have ever run. My thighs are on fire and the aching in my shins make me whince with each and every step. I focus on Ben’s faultless running form a few steps in front of me. At 18 he is already quite the runner, posting 10k times of 31 minutes and likely to start breaking in to the GB team…one to watch me thinks!
Back to the last couple of miles of the 2015 Bullock Smithy. Prior discussions in the group have concluded that we will stay together, finishing as a joint 4th placing. We got this far, each contributing to the effort of the team which remains, however our third member, who was fortunate to catch us back in mile 40 decides he wants 4th to himself and trots ahead, gradually disappearing into the darkness. Thankful both Jayne and I are familiar with the route back from here so keep on going carefree, albeit disappointed with effectively losing a place. Running that extra couple of miles through our own mishaps and inexperience of the route means we’ve no kick left in our legs. We press on, however our spirits are dampened.
Our final mile is run on road and looking up I am dazzled as my head torch reflects brightly off an approaching road sign. It reads ‘Hazel Grove’. Despite the pain in my legs, I feel my shoulders relax and I break into a grin. I smile at Jayne and Ben however they remain stony faced. It’s dark so either they don’t see this or think I’ve simply got wind.
Unphased we start to pick up the pace slightly, approaching the scout hut. This is as close to a ‘sprint finish’ as we could ever hope to manage and at 10:30pm we cross the scout hut car park, passing into the hut’s entrance where we are met by the timekeeper who notes our numbers and relieves us of our checkpoint cards.
We have completed the Bullock Smithy in joint 5th position and as we enter the main room of the scout hut, we are met with a light applause. Jayne and I exchange hugs and I set about stretching as much as possible before my body totally ceases up, mentally ticking off each muscle as I go.
This done, food is very much on the agenda and as part of the Bullock Smithy experience, volunteers knock me up a cracking fry up. I devour this alongside a steaming brew in no seconds flat, and in my greatest Mr Twist impression ask for “some more”. I promptly reduce this to some crusts.
One of the volunteer chefs has kindly charged my phone whilst I ate and I hobble to him to collect it. I start by calling ‘Wifey’ who, despite all the suffering I must cause through my nervous energy and unparrelelled neurosise, smiles brightly over the phone and congratulates me. Once done, I set about eating more whilst I await my brother’s arrival. I’ve found out from the timekeeper that he’s past checkpoint 12 and before long he’s finished too, beating his 12 hour target by a single minute. Regardless he couldn’t be more chuffed.
More stretching and a fry up later and we set off for home… Via a 24 hour burger house…
Facts and figures… Along with Jayne, I ran 56.7 miles for 10 hours 30 minutes, climbing 8,600 feet. My running watch lasted throughout, recording an average heart rate of 140 bpm whilst taking 100,000 steps. My heart rate was at its highest when going downhill. This was purely through fear. The morning after the Bullock Smithy, despite the ridiculous feeding frenzy, I weighed 5kg less.
‘Know oneself’ rolls easily off the tongue. It’s only now that I’m starting to lay claim to reaching such a state.