It was calm, sunny and warm in Hamsterley Forest as we milled restlessly around the start as the minutes ticked past 11am. I used the time to jab my finger at Shaun and tell him he was going to overheat if he ran with a base layer in this weather. He wisely stripped off with just a few seconds to spare. [ Dave Robson had decided not to run and had shrewdly put his running gear beyond use just in case he was tempted on this clear summer morning. After the pep talk from organiser Gerry Hehir we were shooed into the forest and the climbing began.
I kept Nigel in my sight for most of the climb and thinking I’d sussed his M.O. thought I might catch him somewhere on the ascent. It was not to be and he was just a distant purple splash by the time we reached the top. Feeling yesterday’s Harrier League heavy in my legs I settled for ticking over on the descent and lost quite a few places on the way down. On a fast downhill stretch just when I thought we were nearly home a discretely positioned arrow turned us right and up and the route took an unexpected meander over an extra hill. Many runners missed the arrow and therefore avoided this scenic detour, taking a more direct route back to the finish. Quite how many missed it, and how much time was saved or lost, will no doubt be discussed for decades to come.
This was my first time running this race and I was not disappointed. I like the variety and combination of open moorland, runnable forest track, twisty paths and a few fords. For my money it’s the most interesting Hamsterley Forest race, whatever route you choose.
The snow turned into hail as 45 runners huddled together outside
Kielder Castle for the race briefing. All checkpoints would be manned.
Fording the Kielder Burn after East Kielder farm would save about 5
minutes, we were told, and make finding the Kielder Head checkpoint more
straightforward. With a casual wave of his arm and a cheery ‘off you go
then’ the organiser bid us on our way and a kaleidoscopic collection of
rucksacks, bum bags, jackets and hats headed cheerfully into the trees.
The hail started to fall a bit harder but I wasn’t unduly concerned.
Naivety is a handy state of mind and I thought myself well-prepared for
most eventualities. I knew to expect remote and hostile conditions.
The first few miles were straightforward enough and it seemed no time
at all before we were heading back down to the valley to head up to
Kielder Head. Geoff and Susan’s red-clad NFR posse were a little ahead
of me until this point, but they seemed a bit jittery about the river
crossing. Like a hesitant straggle of blushing wildebeest they ran along
the bank looking for a suitable crossing point. I was having none of
this nonsense and plunged into the river with more bravado than brains.
Slow and Shallow became Fast and Deep, and within a metre from the
opposite bank I finally found myself up to (and including) my nadgers in
freezing water. This was shocking enough in itself, but not quite as
scary as suddenly being swept off my feet and only a frantic lunge for
the grassy bank prevented me getting a full body soaking. We all hit the
Kielder Head checkpoint around the same time, some of us with dryer
undergarments than others.
Through the forest and up the fell to Grey Mares Knowe with the race
sweeper never more than a few metres behind me. I was dried out and
warmed up by now, and even though things were beginning to feel a little
bit more grown-up, visibility was good and I was still pretty chirpy.
An exchange of photos with NFR’s Phil Green at the checkpoint, then on
to the border. With my GPS receiver, digital maps, and assortment of
geostationary satellites, I followed my pixels to my preprogrammed
waypoint that would put me smack on the trod. It doesn’t take much to
see that all the military satellites in the cosmos don’t amount to a
hill of beans in the crazy heather on the Kielder fells. A yell from the
sweeper and a bit of pointing (I think) and I got onto the real trod,
and started moving a bit faster, still with the red haze of Geoff and
Susan’s group a little ahead.
I stumbled as I crossed Carry Burn and plunged both hands in the icy
water to break my fall. It was here that my spirits began to drop. My
hands were freezing, and were to stay that way for the next two hours.
My Garmin was none too chuffed either and it decided to take no further
interest in the race. I’m glad visibility was good as I was in no mood
to fumble in my bum bag for my compass. Heading along the border fence
and an undone shoe lace nearly had me in tears as I tried to retie it
with numb hands. I must’ve looked pretty dejected as I crouched down in
the heather because the race sweeper appeared from nowhere to check I
was OK. Phil James was keeping an eye on all the stragglers like a good
shepherd with what appeared to be the contents of a small General Store
in his rucksack.
Around the Kielder Stone there’s a temptation to think you’re almost
home, but there’s the grim exposed haul up to Peel Fell. A brief nod to
the poor shivering marshall at the checkpoint and then a bit of runnable
ridgeway arcs round to the spikey Deadwater Fell. One last climb up to
the welcome sight of the Mountain Rescue crew at the final checkpoint,
then, downhill all the way.
Running properly again for the first time in two hours, and
whimpering a bit as circulation started to return to my hands, the last
few miles down to the finish were almost luxurious. Geoff and Susan who
had been a comfortable red glow ahead for the last four hours now leapt
ahead, and I focused on the yellow hi-vis glow of the NFR runner just in
front of me. After 17 miles and 3000 feet (plus VAT) I finished in a
time of 4:49:25. A little slower than my Edinburgh Marathon time! Into
the castle and endless cups of hot tea from a never emptying tea pot.
What devilish magic is this?
A highly recommended, strangely humbling fell race over remote terrain with great views. Despite all my homework, maps and gadgets I can understand why runners still prefer to get out and reccie the reality. The bewildering heather clad fells have no respect for the neatly arranged contours on the map. It seems a shame that this race won’t run again until March 2011 and so I’m very glad I decided to give it a go. I’m looking forward to running it again.