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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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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