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.
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