Doctor’s Gate Fell Race

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.

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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.

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Kielder Borderer

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.

Phil Green marshalling and taking my photo

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.

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High Cup Nick Fell Race

Dufton is quite a bit further from Durham than you might think, and if you don’t want to arrive 15 minutes before race start in a bit of tizz, it’s worth being a bit more organised than I was. I registered, relaxed and looked around. Hallo, what’s this, another Striders vest! Nigel was being interrogated by an earnest lady who wanted to know whether he was looking forward to the race. They were having a bizarre conversation on wind when I bounded up and said “Hello”. He wasn’t looking too good. A bit peely-wally it has to be said, recovering from a persistent cold. But more on that story later.

We wandered the few yards from registration to start and I couldn’t help notice the abundance of base layers underneath everyone’s racing vests. I looked down at my bare arms and legs and then up at the clouds and realised that I may have committed a rather serious and extremely chilly logistical error. It was warm in my house when got up, so it’d be warm at High Cup Nick. Or something.

As we waited at the start we got into a bit of a bidding war about who had run the least over the last few weeks, who was feeling the most wretched, and whether Nigel’s cold could outbid my over-enthusiasm for steak and red wine the previous evening. We would find out. My race plan was to run, ‘speculatively’, and if throwing-up looked unlikely, pick up the tempo.

Off we went and off he went. Nigel soon became a speck and I settled down. As with many fell races you have the rather humbling view of seeing exactly where you’re heading unfolding before you. High Cup Gill drifted into view and the cloud loitered around the valley with mischief on its mind. As we climbed steadily up the valley I began to feel better and passed a fair few runners. I was feeling pretty comfortable. Nigel kept appearing on radar, walking, then he would break into a run and disappear again.

It was on the climb up to High Cup Nick itself that I passed Nigel. Feeling pretty pleased with myself I gathered ample photographic evidence just in case challenged later in court. It’s a dramatic broody climb up to the top and I loved it. Over the top and a furtive glance back and I had made good gaps over many of the runners I’d passed and was feeling pretty smug.

There’s some fantastic descending in this race. It’s mostly runnable. Charging down through the cloud with glimpses of other runners ahead was an exhilarating experience. It couldn’t get any better. And it didn’t. A steady trail of familiar vests that I thought I’d seen the last of filed past and I just couldn’t match their speed. And then, a few miles from the finish, Nigel sailed past with a cheery nod, looking a million times better than he did on the ascent. Not for the first time the phrase “Nigel, you bastard!” was heard to utter from a Strider’s gob. [Nor the last time either, I expect. Ed]

It was a good run into the finish and then just a few short yards to soup and warmth. The day was nicely rounded off with a photo shoot by a student who wanted to build a portfolio of portraits of Fell Runners “looking tired”. No shortage of volunteers there.

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Simonside Cairns Fell Race

As an alternative to a certain long, muddy race further south in the country, Susan, Geoff and me ran a longish, muddy fell race in Northumberland. In contrast to the hard-packed ice of last week’s Hexham Shehobble, the Simonside Cairns fell race had a lot of freezing mud and slush. The snow lay round about, deep and squelchy and uneven.

This race was another first for me and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Navigation was straightforward as, running at the back, you simply follow the footsteps of those ahead who have thoughtfully pounded the trail into an ankle-deep mud-bath. Occasional spots of blood in the snow also helped mark the way, concentrate the mind and chill the soul. I had one Vicar of Dibley moment when the snow-packed boardwalk I thought I was running on veered playfully to the left and suddenly turned out not to be a boardwalk after all, a complete absence of boardwalk in fact, more like a nut-numbing pool of icy muddy water that insistently invited me in for some brief refreshment.

I was cold and bewildered when I crossed over the stile into the forest. A man appeared out of the shadows and waved me in with warm words of encouragement. I could hear Christmas carols playing and coloured lights lined the path. It was very soothing. All was calm. All was bright. Just as I was wondering whether this was the afterlife, I emerged from the forest, and there was Simonside Cairns. Ah yes, I’d forgotten about them. Unfortunately they were up there, mocking me, and I was down here, looking up. Oh well. Onward and upward.

The views from the top were astounding and set the mood for an exhilarating charge back down to Rothbury. Crossing the finish I didn’t think I’d done that well but was pleased to discover I was only a couple of minutes behind Susan, and on reflection I think I ran a better race than last week’s Hobble. Cosy chat, hot soup and Croutons washed down with a Deuchars IPA in the pub afterwards soon soothed away the cold toes.

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Top of the Forest Fell Race

  • Hamsterley Forest
  • BM / 12.1km / 381m

The DFR Top of the Forest race does pretty much what it says. Starting from the Grove car park the route meanders west then north, climbing steadily to around 427m (1440 feet). The surface is pretty much hard-packed forest drive and upon reflection I think I would’ve been better in road shoes than trail shoes. There are a couple of interesting stretches on footpaths and a jolly bit of descending amongst some tussocky heather, but for the most part, it’s all tracks.

I started at the back of the 30 or so field and passed a couple of runners in the first few hundred yards. Then a few minutes later I passed someone else. Then, well, that was about it. The remainder of the 8.5 mile course was a pretty lonely affair. I nearly caught someone just before the top but he deftly stayed away by the clever ploy of having very long legs, which he unfolded at the top and disappeared John-Cleese-like leaving me on my own again. I finished fourth (last) in a time of 76:10 – a result I was pretty happy with, and I believe Will Horsley was around somewhere (near the front). I was cheered on into the finish by Tom Reeves who suddenly appeared slightly surreally on a bicycle. The prize (a can of Caffreys) appeared to be very democratically awarded to all runners regardless of ability, a decision I have absolutely no problem with, and believe all race prizes should operate this way.

There was a certain satisfaction in the steady climb and feeling of being at the top of the forest but for me the handicap course is far more interesting. I mean, there wasn’t even any mud! How can you call it a fell race if there’s no mud?

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Durham Fell Runners Summer Handicap: Race 4

If it hadn’t been for Jan’s announcement on Wednesday’s club night I would’ve missed this steep and cheerful race. I was having second thoughts right up until the last minute about tackling something this tough, but the temptation was too strong and the weather too sunny to let it pass by.

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Around 10 minutes before the start, just as I was beginning to think I was the only Strider there, I saw a dash of purple as Debs bounded up to Registration. We gave our 10K times, which were processed through a random number generator and converted into start times.

At 13 minutes past something-or-other I set of in a group of four and settled into a steady pace. The weather was great and the scenery superb. I was enjoying this leap into the unknown, with little idea what lay ahead. Probably just as well. After a mile or two of steady climbing and following the arrows we had a steep descent. I gleefully charged down through the conifers to emerge on a forest road. Looking optimistically around for more arrows I was soon joined by other reckless descenders. In a matter of seconds there was soon a jolly little party of about a dozen head-scratchers, all vigorously agreeing that we didn’t know where we were, or which way to go. The seconds ticked by as we elected a foreman of the jury and started weighing up the evidence. Soon sub-committees formed as people became restless. I looked around and noticed we all had ‘big numbers’ on, which meant we were all new kids in the race (the old-timers get small numbers). It wasn’t long before people started wandering of in various directions and I decided to cautiously retrace the route back up the hill. Almost immediately I spotted someone with a small number – an old hand – and gave chase. I was back on course! (Debs said later that she had made the same wrong turning but someone had shouted after her before she got too far away).

This was fun! I’d lost a couple of minutes on the detour but who cared! I passed someone that I’d passed some time earlier, somewhat to his bewilderment, and charged on.

We dropped down the valley and started up the other side. I started walking up the steep slopes and the flies began to take an interest. I tried to run again to get away from the flies, but my lungs and legs didn’t like it. I settled for the flies and slogged up the hillside as they buzzed mockingly around my head.

A long, relaxing level bit then another arrow, left. Well, not so much left, as left and UP. Up the soul-sapping boggy moor to Doctors Gate Quarry. I could see specks of colour away in the distance of the runners ahead and this gave me something to go for.

Once on the tops there were fantastic views and few flies before the return to the valley floor. I was feeling quite reckless on the steep paths down to the finish and even enjoyed the rare, no, UNKNOWN experience of another runner stepping aside to let me past!

This was a great fun event. Like the handicap, but with more mud. Much more mud. (And a can of Carling).

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James Herriot Trail Run

What a stunning race. The route took us up high from the start and then left us on the tops until a few miles from the finish. For most of the race we had great views over the surrounding hills and valleys although it was difficult to appreciate them while being blasted by a fierce sun.

approaching the finish

In what is becoming a standard MO for me, I started well, and ran steadily and comfortably until about half-way. Thereafter I ran unsteadily and increasingly uncomfortably until shuffling across the finish line in a pretty disappointing time.

I loved the first brutal climb straight up the grassy hillside and didn’t feel too bad. However all the time my temperature gauge was creeping upwards, and at the half-way hill Phil and Dave cruised by with their Climate Control still apparently working well. By the time we’d crested the half-way hill the heat had gone from being mildly uncomfortable to slightly frightening. There was a palpable texture to the sunshine that I found quite unnerving and I took my foot right off the gas. I walked more of this run than any race I’ve done before. Even flat bits.

Water stations were a bit congested but that was hardly surprising given the weather. Overall it was a well organised straightforward event with an interesting and challenging route and I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year.

Shaun adds: special mentions to Barrie Evans whose new knee got him round a full fourteen minutes faster than last year, and to Alan Purvis who was the only Strider who actually ran the whole course! Good runs, too, for ex-Striders Stewart Gardner (74.42) and Charlotte Roberts (90.33), now running for Calder Valley.

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