Race Date: Saturday/Sunday 20-21 September 2019
The Peak District Challenge by Wilderness Development is a choice of distances to run or hike in a self-navigated loop from Hathersage. The Gold (100km) and Silver (75km) groups left at 9pm on the Friday night, while the Bronze (50km) and Copper (25km), and “Back before dark” 10k started on the Saturday.
I had originally entered for the Gold event, but having DNF’d the St Cuthbert’s Way 100km in June, I had decided to drop down to the 75km route. This was a GOOD idea!
I’ve never started a race at 9pm before, and it was odd doing a day’s work in central Sheffield then eating pasta (thank you Andy!) and getting a lift out to Hathersage as the sun set. I watched the light fade, wondering where I’d be when the sun rose again. Usual pre-race nerves – “Whose idea was this? I’ve been up all day and NOW I’m going to start running HOW FAR? But I’ve never been to Stanage Edge in DAYLIGHT never mind in the middle of the night…”
Registered and kit checked easily – enjoyed a cup of coffee and munched my pre-race carbs. Then the fun started – I discovered that I couldn’t get my water bladder to close properly. New water bladder, I made the totally rookie error of trying it out for the first time in an event. I KNOW NOT TO DO THIS. I mean, I really know not to do this – it is very risky – do not do this! I only filled it half way, tried to make sure it stayed upright and patched it with tape, but wasn’t too convinced.
After a comprehensive race briefing we were set off individually or in teams every few minutes from 8:30pm. I was on my way at 8:45pm and promptly got lost leaving Hathersage… great start! We’d been supplied with pages of maps with recommended routes, and the occasional mandatory route section (like along Stanage Edge). The checkpoints were clearly marked on the map.
I had entered this overnight race to get some experience of running through the night – would I be able to keep going? Could I run the next day? Would I just fall asleep in a corner of a rock? I’d bought a new head/chest torch (Ledlenser) and brought my back red lights. I liked the chest torch option as I didn’t want something around my head ALL night. My Petzl Activ Core head torch never seems to hold the promised battery life, and I REALLY didn’t want any issues on this run. It was my backup though. I had hoped to get some running in overnight, but if I walked all the dark bits that would be fine too.
Not being familiar with the exact route, having your world reduced to a 6-foot circle of light in the dark led to some “interesting” experiences. Mud is really difficult to see. So are paths. You can see where they start, but there’s no way to see further to know if they’re the right ones. Out of Hathersage, climbing up to the north east and Higger Tor, and we ended up in a bog. Great! Wet feet already!! You could see the lights ahead and behind so knew you were heading in the right direction. I followed the recommended route up to Higger Tor, then around to the first checkpoint. The marshals were surprised to see me as I was the first person to come the recommended route – everyone else had (the sense to) come by the road instead of an insane path!
A marshal gave me a 500ml bottle of water which made my water bladder situation easier, and off I went into the dark again, and Stanage Edge. We’d been recommended to join up along here if we were running solo, but I was feeling confident, so hadn’t made plans. Oops. I got to the trig point and admired the view, then freaked out at the drop in the dark. Back on to the path and headed north, but there was always the concern about the drop to the west which was closer to the path than I might have preferred on occasion. I was beginning to get a bit freaked – really, how STUPID was this to go off by myself overnight in the Peaks on terrain I didn’t know, with large drops, tiny paths and boulders…
BUT – saved by meeting up with a team of three who were planning to hike the route rather than run it. One of them knew the route having done it the year before, and she could navigate REALLY well. So I stuck to them like glue for the rest of the night! It was lovely to have people to discuss the paths with, to blether to, and just not be all by myself in the dark in a strange place. In hindsight, it was probably recklessly naïve to assume I could do this all by myself first time, and Stanage Edge in the dark will probably haunt my nightmares for weeks.
By this point I was wearing everything I had with me as it was cold and damp – although no rain, there was enough dampness in the air and grass to get things wet. It was a lovely relief to see the road after Stanage Edge, and find the way onwards to the checkpoint. I think the checkpoint was the first place I saw my new team mates in other torch light too!
Fortified by coffee and a cereal bar, we went onwards – turning west and over the hills to Ladybower. We crossed the path on the edge which was one of the few bits I did know, then dropped down to the reservoir. I love trail runs, but it was such a relief to be on road and not have to think about every footstep in the dark. The mental load was heavier than I’d anticipated. I guess I could have attempted to run this part, but I was sticking to my new friends!
There were a couple of checkpoints on the way north up the reservoirs before heading west again towards Alport Castle. We left the road and were back climbing – think this felt like one of the steep sections. Finding the path down from the next edge was tricky, but there was a guided group behind us and they confirmed we were on the correct descent.
As we came down towards a farm I heard a very welcome sound – a blackbird singing! It had been so quiet overnight, our worlds reduced to patches of light in a dark, dangerous hillside – I’d almost forgotten what colour was, and I’d never even seen my new best friends. There was light in the sky – enough to distinguish the edge we’d just found our way off, and as we descended to Snake Road and the next checkpoint, the sun rose and the world opened right up – so glorious!!!
One of the other three was beginning to struggle, and I was keen to run a bit now that there was light. They were also planning a bacon roll in Hope, while the recommended route cut west above Hope towards Castleton, so we parted at the top of the next hill. I now knew that one of my new friends had purple and white hair, and they knew what I looked like too! After saying good-bye the first thing I did was to get lost. Again. Oops. I wasn’t VERY lost so I just climbed over a fence and found the road that I was due to join in a mile or so anyway.
And then the wonderful sight of my support team – Andy and 3-year-old son Max, who had come out to see how I was doing. Strava beacon being what it is, they’d found me even though I was lost! It was lovely to see someone I knew, and they made sure I found the right path towards Castleton, then headed off to meet me there. The sun was out and the day warming up, and a lovely run along the hillside above Castleton, before turning south and coming in to the town. Last time I’d been here was for the finish of the Limestone Way half ultra – almost at the finish in Hope – so I was back on slightly familiar territory. Castleton was a major checkpoint with food, hot drinks and a chance to sit and grab a rest, appreciating the 44k under our legs, before heading south and UP Cave Dale. Andy and Max had to head back in to Sheffield, but I was able to unload a few night things and take on some oranges from the checkpoint – they’d see me at the end.
I was happy that as I’d hoped, the new day had convinced my brain that I couldn’t possibly have been running for that long, so headed up our of Castleton in a good frame of mind – what 44km?. There were a surprising number of smiling people who couldn’t ALL have run all night, but it turned out that they were on the 50km route, so were only a few kms in. It was lovely to see some people again and enjoy the warming sun.
Up and out from Castleton, back up to the peaks along the Limestone Way – through beautiful valleys which didn’t seem as bad as when I’d come north this way last year. There was an absolute killer of a hill up a twisty road though, then over to Tideswell and the “half way” point. This was another major checkpoint where I was delighted to see my drop bag. By this point we were 50km in and I tucked in to my pasta and salmon, sorted out the tape on my feet and made use of the inside toilets! There were some people here doing the gold 100km, but most were on the 50km route. It was fun being able to say I’d already done 50km of my 75km. 😊 I did spend quite a bit of time here, getting all sorted out, eating lots of food, replenishing my little water bottle, and I’d left a bottle of cola here too. By now there was “just” a half marathon to go, the sun was shining and having had a holiday at Froggatt in July, I was on more familiar territory.
Next checkpoint was when we left the road to head up a beautiful gorge at Cressbrook. I managed to miss a path here and scrambled up steep hill, then the path just got steeper and steeper! So glad to spot the road at Wardlow and head back east towards Stoney Middleton. This is when I ran into a bit more trouble – the path crossed various fields with cows, and they’d obviously been unsettled by various people running through their field. As soon as I appeared they looked FAR too interested in me, and there were no other ways through except right through the middle of them!!! I walked around edges of fields looking for other alternatives, but ended up having to VERY CAREFULLY get over a dry stane dyke at a point where it was a lower. I could then walk around the edge of this field and back to the path. That took up quite a bit of time, but coming into Stoney Middleton was lovely as I got to chat with a family there who also refilled my little water bottle.
This was really my favourite kind of running – little paths, warm, but not too warm sunshine, undulating hills, going a long way (very) slowly. I’d done the Great North Run two weeks before and really didn’t like it – too many people and too much road for my taste – this really felt like a homecoming.
Next stop was Froggatt, and I was glad we’d done this walk in the summer – I knew the tiny paths and was just so delighted to see the Derwent at the foot of the hill, and just before the next checkpoint at Froggatt bridge. This had been our daily walk on our holiday, so I had to take photos for my husband, and then Andy and Max re-appeared to see how I was doing. Max was very pleased to learn that I had not met any scary dinosaurs on my run, but I had to ask him if he knew how to deal with scary cows. The checkpoint had all kinds of food and drink, but by this point it was straight north for us back up to Hathersage, and I just wanted it over with. The 100km and some other runners carried on and up Froggatt edge, but my route just took my up the Derwent valley, again on holiday walk routes.
It did seem as though I was NEVER getting back to Hathersage, and the running by this time was becoming a bit of a jog-trot-walk, but delighted to get back to the hall to see Andy and Max waiting to welcome me, and finish 79.4km in 21:44. I headed straight for the massage table – they even had to bring my goody-bag and medal over, and the very fab physio sorted out my back and legs before Andy and Max brought me back into Sheffield. I was so exhausted I forgot my drop bag, which Andy very kindly went back for later. He also managed to show me that my room key was in fact in my hand as I panicked about having left it behind. My brain was WELL gone by that point!
Shower and my saved chocolate, then dragged myself out for something to eat – came back to my room, fell asleep, then woke up and forced myself to eat. One good sleep later I walked through to church on Carver Street and spotted the 10k that was on. A good lunch and cocktails in a restaurant for lunch, and they gave me a free dessert when I told them about my (almost) 80km. Apparently they were offering all the 10km runners free desserts, and the figured I qualified 😊
So, lots of learning. Yes, I finished, which was all I’d set out to do. However, if ultra runners have nine lives, I think I lost a couple. Can’t believe I was so stupid as to bring along an untested water bladder, but grateful for the water bottle I was given, and the bottle of coke I was also carrying which became a water bottle too. Also in hindsight it was really stupid to try this route overnight myself for the first time. There were no markers and all self-navigated and the mental load of that overnight was horrendous. I was so glad to meet up with some people and share this.
It was a TOTALLY EPIC ADVENTURE though. It was my favourite kind of running and terrain – a bit more technical than I’d expected given previous trail ultras and their descriptions, probably because it was organised by such an outdoor expeditions-type group. They said it was on good paths, but those weren’t my idea of good paths in terms of running. Yes, there were paths, but some were really small, winding and overgrown, and I know that was the correct route path between Stoney Middleton and Froggatt. It was well organised and had a big kit list suitable for folk being out all night.
After the Speyside Way 36 mile four weeks before, and then the Great North Run, then this 80km, I did find that I’d burned out and didn’t run at all for the next few weeks. But, I’m back running now, and would love to do this again. Next year I’ll either find my new friends (who finished, but not within the 24 hour cut off) and hike with them overnight again, or drop to the 50k daytime route. While I’d originally been in for 100km, I’ll need rather more training before contemplating that. 50k might be my distance, with the occasional longer run.
Striders result: Fiona Tweedie, 75km (my Strava trace says 79.4km) in 21:45.06