Cockfield Chase 2023 report by Stuart Jones

Race date: 27 April 2023

Race distance: 7km

Race report by Stuart Jones

The Cockfield Chase – Unfenced Depressions

To the right, runners head away from the camera. To the left, an oddly shaped tree appears to have a head and two arms, making the "Y" shape as seen in the dance to the song "YMCA" by the Village People.

The ghost of a runner who did not listen to the briefing perhaps?

There are so many features to this race that I cannot write in detail about them all and keep a report to a sensible length. So, if you want to read about;

Field Reeves

The Cockfield Fell has never been ‘enclosed’, and it is not common land. It is instead, available to rent as ‘regulated pasture’, under the stewardship of the Field Reeves. This responsibility was originally held by one family (who lived in the fortified farm on the edge of the fell), but now is held by a committee elected by the stintholders. There is a charge for renting an unfenced portion of the fell, levied by the area needed to graze a sheep or a cow.

The Field Reeves are happy for the race to criss-cross the open fell, but not for there to be any use of markers, paint or tape. As this is billed as an introduction to fell running, and is only short, at 7km, it is not raced by self-navigation between check points. A different cunning plan is used.

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One lap good, two laps better

A selfie of former Steel City Striders Chair Stuart Jones. In the background, runners are running away from the camera. There are electricity pylons in the background.

As the route is totally unmarked (and unmarshalled!) there has to be a sure-fire way of keeping all the runners on the route, and safe.

The genius method deployed is to make lap one a social jog round the figure-of-eight course, and lap two the actual race itself on which placements, times and prizes are awarded.

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Safety first

A pre-race briefing. Runners are in the background, listening to a figure in hi-vis in the middleground. In the foreground, to the left, is a "Durham Fell Runners" banner.

Before the briefing was the counting. A ‘gate’ was made between the solitary Durham Fell Runners flag and a man with a clipboard. The runners stepped through the gate to be counted. This confirmed the number of runners present and would allow them all to be counted back in later.

The briefing then instructed anyone who withdrew to come back up the hill without crossing a stream or road and report their withdrawal so the numbers would add up / all would be safely accounted for.

We were warned about the ‘unfenced depressions’ – apparently a horse disappeared down one of the old bell pit depressions a couple of years back and the organisers wanted us all to stay above ground.

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Prizes or not

If you brought a prize you won a prize. If you came empty handed you left empty handed. The donated prizes were on display after the race and category winners had first pick, right through to the last placed runner. Those leaving without were gently mocked, but in a nice way. Prizes included the inevitable bottles of wine, four packs of Brew Dog and energy bar bundles, but also a half dozen free range eggs, an Easter egg, a mystery envelope and some scones. (I gave a dozen Anzac Biscuits, made locally, and took a large bottle of Leffe.)

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Like the Trunce

More fun than a serious competition. Utterly inclusive with first to finish taking under 13 minutes and last to finish nearer 40 for the racing lap. At least one hill you could not run up. Cheap (at £6.00). Midweek (on a Thursday evening). A regional draw with people coming quite some distance to take part. Cake after (from Butterknowle Sea Scouts). Nowhere to pee.

However, the route planners pass up the chance to cross any water, even though the River Gaunless is in at the bottom of the fell, and none of the handful of spectators had a football rattle. There were no gates or stiles requiring polite queueing.

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Cockfield Fell is the largest scheduled Ancient Monument site in England. It has traces of an iron age settlement, evidence of continuous mining for over 200 years, traces of at least 140 bell pits, the remnants of England’s first diagonally placed railway viaduct, a failed attempt at digging a canal, a quarry, free-running free-range chickens, cows, sheep and ponies…

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Local dialect

The area needed for one sheep is called a ‘stint’. A cow needs 10 ‘stints’.

Pigeon lofts are called ‘crees’.

The race was fantastic, or a ‘belta’ as they say roundabouts.

A ‘gadgie’ is an adult male – in this race there were more adult females than ‘gadgies’.

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The race itself

The first lap was as billed, a social run pretty much like a Striders outing and run at the speed of the slowest. There was a bit of doubling back when the stronger runners got a bit eager along the levels of the railway line. The setting is peculiar, with randomly spread sheds, circular depressions scattered all over, spoil heaps and tramways, a small river at the bottom and very poor vegetation with very few trees. It is not what we’d strictly think of as fell, with no exposed rock as on all our favourite Peak District edges, and does not have the scenic beauty of some of the moors to the west of Sheffield. However, a circuit of 3.5 km was possible without going near a road or getting our ankles wet. The ground allowed fast running and lots of variety.

The first half of the lap was downhill, and inevitably the second half took us back up. As we came in sight of the start / finish on the first lap, the race organiser let the group have its own way and the racing began. I think the raced lap was timed from when the first runner started their second circuit.

The second lap was, then, considerably quicker than the first for most runners – I went from 13 minutes for the first mile on lap one to under 8 minutes on lap two.

As in my previous two races I was tailed by a particular Teesdale Athletic Club runner, this time for all the first lap and 80% of the second. He took five places off me on the uphill finish. My excuse is age – he is at least 10 years more youthful than me.

There was a comradely atmosphere, with most runners staying at the finish line until the last runner completed the course. This surprised a novice, someone who had only completed a Couch to 5k course two weeks previously, but really impressed her and I am sure she’ll be back for more fell racing because of it.

The first to finish, Chris Alborough of Durham Fell Runners (12:37), holds a LOT of Strava segment crowns on the local area.

Joanna McNeill, of Saltwell Harriers, was first female (17:17).

I was first VM60, and not the only one either (21:15), and 49th overall. I could have done better and will aim to be much further forward at the end of the introductory lap next time.

There were 96 finishers and one DNF (who did walk back up the hill to report in).

Striders result

P Name Cat Time Cat P
49 Stuart Jones M60 21:15 1

Full results:

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