Race Date: Saturday 12th March 2016
4:45am, the alarm clock drags me reluctantly from my all-too-warm bed. A hurried breakfast of toast and strong coffee, yet another check of my kit, a final look at the weather forecast, and I’m heading off into what remains of the night, for the 90 minute drive to Haworth.
Six weeks previously I’d entered the Howarth Hobble (aka the Wuthering Hike), a fell race over the wiley, windy moors from Howarth to Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and back to Haworth with 5,500 feet of climbing over 32 miles. Now, as the skies lightened with the promise of a beautiful day, I was nervous. Not so much with the distance, but more at the target I’d set myself. As a sort of insurance, I’d told friends and family I’d be happy with six hours, but secretly the goal was 5hrs 30, and that was going to require some hard racing. I’d completed my one previous equally hilly, 35 mile ultra in 6hrs 25, so it was an achievable aim, but one that would require some significant improvement.
I arrived at race HQ in Haworth Primary School nice and early, so I could prepare unhurriedly, slathering on the vaseline and deep heat, pulling on the green and gold vest and getting a second breakfast inside me before some idle, nervous chit-chat with my fellow competitors. Soon it was time for the short walk to the start, at the bottom of Haworth’s cobbled Main Street. It was cold, but thankfully there wasn’t a hint of rain in the sky or the forecast. Suddenly we were off. There hadn’t been a countdown or a GO! or any indication at all that I’d heard, but the people in front were running and so was I. A bit of bobbing and weaving up the cobbled hill and the race settled down. “Nice and easy, not too fast, run your own race” I told myself. With iron discipline and steely resolve I managed to follow this strategy for at least the first mile, until two runners who I’d previously overtaken tried to get past me. I wasn’t having that, so I set off and, encouraged by the very runnable first half of the race, kept going, over the Brontë Bridge and upwards towards Top Withins, reputedly the inspiration for the eponymous farmhouse in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I was feeling good, the weather was good, the scenery was stunning and none of my occasional training niggles had put in an appearance. I was steadily moving up the placings, nothing spectacular, but pleasing all the same. The only downside was that I was wearing the wrong shoes; despite the wet winter we’ve had, there wasn’t nearly enough mud on the course, and a bit too much hard-pack trail and tarmac, to justify fell shoes.
Aid stations, hills and reservoirs all came and went, and as the course turned towards Todmorden I gradually stopped passing many people as the runners I was racing with coalesced into a loose group, overtaking here, getting passed there. My legs were starting to feel heavy, and my feet were protesting loudly at my shoe choice, developing some blisters to spite me. Approaching the 3rd aid station, I was starting to feel sorry for myself, but as it was only a few miles after the 2nd station, I didn’t need anything and was planning on powering through. “Do you want a hot dog and a cup of tea?”. I slammed on the brakes. A hot dog with onions and ketchup isn’t the easiest thing to eat while running, and isn’t what I would normally choose, but it was magnificent. If, as some say, that an ultra is a picnic with some running thrown in, then this was a garden party – later aid stations had jam doughnuts, scones, tea and coffee, more hot dogs and whisky!
We passed through Todmorden after 19 miles and started a brutal climb to Mankinholes. My quads and calves were burning with each step, but I focused on the top and a couple of flat fields I knew were waiting to offer some relief. Unfortunately, these fields were a quagmire of churned up gloopy mud, and sapped even more energy from my legs, which was a shame as this flat section was merely the precursor to the truly awful climb up Stoodley Pike to the 19th century monument at the top. The descent from there to Hebden Bridge was horribly runnable, which trashed my legs some more, and on hard-pack and tarmac, which trashed my feet. Another nasty climb to Hepstonstall was immediately followed by a steep descent, and, with ‘only’ 7 miles to go, we were on the finishing straight to Haworth. My legs were now in torment, my feet even more so, but we were down to the business end of the race and there were rivals to overtake or fend off. A few of my companions for the last 15 miles took off, on stronger legs than I had, but I was able to put some distance into others myself. The last two miles were hellish; my legs and feet were screaming at me to stop as I tried to run faster to make it end sooner. I caught two runners as we burst out from behind the Brontë Parsonage onto the now very busy Main Street and, dodging tourists, managed to gain an extra place in the final 200 yard ‘sprint’ to the finish back at the primary school. I finished in 5:31:35, in 50th place out of 310, and slumped down outside to slowly peel off my socks and tend to my blisters, congratulate and chat with my fellow sufferers, before finishing the day with a complimentary hot meal, my first served from a school canteen in 30+ years.
The race was open to solo runners or pairs. The first finishers were the pair of Ian Symington (Calder Valley Fell Runners) and Ken Sutor (Cheshire Hash House Harriers) in 4:16:01. The first female finisher was Lucy Colquhoun (Unattached) in 5:10:14.
Many thanks to Keighley and Craven Athletic Club for organising this race. At £13 for 32 miles, 7 aid stations and a hot meal, it’s got to be one of the best running bargains there is. There’s just the small matter of a day’s suffering to be factored in… Haworth Hobble, I hated you. I loved you too.