Cronkley Fell

“Are you injured?” and “resting for a big event coming up?” were the typical questions that people asked me when I said I wasn’t racing today. It might, on reflection, have been easier just to lie than to say, truthfully, that I just couldn’t be bothered. I ran last year and enjoyed it but this year I wasn’t in the mood. Well not for the race anyway. I love the area and decided this year to have a gentle run out with the camera and see if I could settle down with a brew in a nice spot.

Logistically, helping, whether it be marshalling or just going out and taking some photos, is more complicated than racing. Racing involves turning up at least one minute before the race starts and being on the line on, or just after, the race starts. As I thought this through, I realised that if I wanted to get some decent photos, I had to be in my position before the fast guys went past, and, well, how do you work that one out? I started about 30 minutes before race start and when the little hand got to eleven found it the most unexpectedly weird feeling to know that somewhere behind me that some extremely fast runners would be closing down on me.

I’d chosen the ‘dip’ around Thistle Green a few miles from the turn to set up camp. It was exposed and I was glad I’d stuffed my rucksack with extra layers. On went the leggings and the waterproof. All in black. Still cold. I sighted the camera up the hill and found the wind kept buffeting my hold so decided to lie down in the heather and rest my elbows on a rock to get some stability. I also had to make sure that I wasn’t in the flight-path of the runners. The runners soon appeared over the top of the ridge like a scene from Zulu and for the next 20 minutes or so I was busy capturing the excitement. Paul was in the first ten in a tight cluster all negotiating the fast but technical grass and rock descent. Judging by the reaction of some of the runners I don’t think they knew I was there until they practically stood on me! I probably looked like some psychotic sniper as I lay in the cosy heather picking people off as they charged down the fell.

Then it all went quiet. The eye of the storm. It was just a matter of waiting until the leader got to the turn and headed back home. I collected my gear, and jogged further along the route before settling down at a promising looking beck for the action to begin again.

The beck crossing was interesting. Stepping stones or straight through? The stepping stones were dry, but uneven. Straight across was quick but involved getting wet feet. I could feel a spreadsheet coming on. Really, really surprised at the distribution of steppy stoners versus wet-feeters. You’d think it would be the fast guys that would favour straight through, and the slower runners would take the steps. But, in my considered analysis, there was no observable relationship between runner speed and route choice, although by my calculations you were anything between 5-15 seconds quicker running straight through the water rather than taking the stepping stones. If we let our x-axis be speed … you know, there’s a PHD in there I’m sure.

Anyway I got some nice action shots of the beck although no one fell over, which I thought was rather unsporting. One lady did fall when I wasn’t looking and when I ran over to ask if she was ok she gave me ever such a look that I was glad I hadn’t got a photo. I asked if she was ok and she said yes, which is just as well because one day someone is going to say ‘no’ and I’m going to be completely stumped. I’ve always just assumed it’s a rhetorical question. Paul was still around the same position but looking far stronger and more comfortable on the return leg compared to the outward run. Eventually the sweepers arrived with a runner who had taken a nasty fall on the way to the turn and had landed on a rock. A pointy one. Worst kind, the pointy ones. He wasn’t ok and was clearly in some discomfort as we all walked together back to the start, although it wasn’t clear whether he was more worried about his injury or what his wife was going to say when she realised she was driving home.

Nine Standards

Two years’ ago when I last ran this race I had an disturbingly exciting incident in the first mile and had found myself several minutes before the back marker and perilously close to retiring. This year I expected things to be less eventful. We were on holiday in the Lake District so it was an interesting experience to be driving east to get to Kirkby Stephen. Arriving with bags of time in hand I was a little unsettled to see runners clutching their numbers and wandering about with a good hour still to go before kick-off. I checked that the Start Time was indeed noon and headed for registration.

Registration was in the Sports and Social Club. How do you know that? Apparantly you just do. In 2011 when I turned up in the Market Square I found registration by trial and error and following people who looked like runners. Top tip to anyone trying this; don’t follow people who already have a number as they’ve already registered – and the first thing everyone does after registration is go for a pee. So you’ll find the toilets, or a rough approximation of them, but not registration.

Once I’d registered I was gently guided to a table festooned with t-shirts. What was going on? Apparently this was the 25th running of the race and free t-shirts were being issued on a first-come first-served basis. The t-shirts have a picture of the Nine Standards and an abstract representation of the route. It was a really nice touch. A little later as we gathered in the market square the organiser said that we’d be starting a few minutes late due to the large number of entries. No matter, as this fell race out of any race I’ve ever done must have the most convenient public conveniences I’ve ever known, and many runners took the opportunity to wander the 5 yards from the Start to the loos. Well, it’s something to do.

The organiser announced that we had a record-breaking field of 166 runners and a few seconds later 166 runners were trying to squeeze down a narrow staircase, through an alleyway then over a footbridge before things opened up. Roberta was here so I paused to put on my happy face, then started moving. I was feeling quite good and optimistic to doing a half-decent time. 166 runners; a lot of them would have hangovers and be once-a-year runners so maybe I’d get a decent position for once.

Shoe choice is tricky in this race. Half of it is on road, a bit is on trail, and a chunk is in on very squashy stuff. I’d opted for my mudrocs having read John Duff’s report from last year, and I think it was the right choice. The Nine Standards appear quite quickly, and appear to get close quite rapidly, but just when they seem to be tantalisingly close, the going gets very soft, and the last mile up to the summit is hard going, especially as by this time the Fast Guys are hurtling back down in your face. I ran hard and steady, out and back, and as I closed down the last few miles I remember thinking that this was an eight mile race, and the distance was beginning to make itself felt.

Over the bridge, up the steps, and the final squeeze through the alleyway to the finish. I leaned against a wall trying to get my breath back, before turning to watch what I’d hoped would be a gratifyingly large number of runners crossing the line behind me. I was in for a shock. This was a quality field – 10 more runners and not many more minutes later, everyone was home. I looked at my time in horrified astonishment; despite running hard and steady, I was almost three minutes slower than two years’ ago, when, much fitter, I’d managed to claw back more places and time after a scarily bumpy start. Must do better.

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Manor Water Hill Race


We tentatively drove into the muddy field before being flagged down by a marshall. “Sheep or Run?”, she asked, without preamble. “Run”, I replied, hoping I’d interpreted the question correctly, and she pointed us up to a bit of the field that was free from sheep and border collies. She also advised me to park ‘pointing downhill’ so that we at least had a sporting chance of escaping the muddy field later when it came time to leave.

As ready as I’ll ever be

I looked around and, seasoned fell runner that I am, quickly took stock. Registration was almost certainly in that horse box over there next to the portable loo, and so in fact, it turned out to be. Let X=X. There were a few runners filling in forms next to the horsebox so I clip-clopped up the ramp and asked the lady for a form. No, apparently that’s not how things worked, I was rather sternly told, and I first had to give a few particulars. Was I Carnethy? Nope. Was I local? Nope. Once I’d passed the entrance exam I was given a form which I took away to complete in my best handwriting before being allocated a number.

Stile Queue

It was a cold blustery day and the first time in months I was wearing hat, gloves and windbreaker. I made my way over to the start area bemused and slightly mystified by my iPad wielding wife until I realised (later) she was tweeting unflattering photos live from the action. As runners gathered for the start I thought again about the ‘local’ question on the entry form. I’d said ‘no’, but strictly speaking that wasn’t true. Here I was, standing in a field a few miles from where I was born, a ‘gutterbluid’, running for an English running club based over a hundred miles away. Strange to be standing here and not knowing a soul. Actually, that wasn’t strictly true. Wasn’t that an NFR vest over there? And another, and another, and another. All familiar faces from various fell and hill races, here and abroad. A few introductions and photos and it was time for the start.

This race is a straight out and back, the usual story. You run right up to the top of a hill, then you run back down again. One runner asked how many people were running to which the organiser, looking puzzled, gestured expansively to the gathered crowd and replied, “about this many”. We headed upwards into the chilly afternoon before pausing a few minutes later to form an orderly queue at a stile. Five miles later at the wild summit of The Scrape, I shuffled around the shivering marshall and headed back to base. In a straight out and back race like this you get the satisfaction of seeing the puggled faces of runners you’ve passed who are still on the way to the summit, and tick of the vests one by one. But there was a vest ahead I didn’t recognise or remember passing, and I always start fell races right at the back. The runner looked strangely familiar. What the deuce? It was Nigel! I paused my not very fast descending to find out the story, and it transpired that Nigel had arrived as we were starting and had started the race 7 minutes late. You can’t stand around chatting on the cold blustery shoulder of the Scrape so we high-fived, as you do, and I pushed on for home.

Patiently queuing for the stile

A few squelchy miles later I crossed the line and, as might be expected in a hill race sponsored by a brewery, was given a bottle of beer. Not bad for an entry fee of £4. Nigel was in just a minute or two later making impressive progress through the field after starting late. The rain then started in earnest and we all found shelter to change into something dry. Nigel got into his Darth Vadar costume in preparation for his drive back to Durham, and we convened in the tea tent for the prizes. I began to realise that today’s 10 miler was just a softener for another event running the next day, the Pentland Skyline. This is a 16 mile race with 6200 feet of climb, and many people do both both races with the combined race times being used to find out if they’re MAN(or) MOUSE. There’s an idea for next year.

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Two Breweries

Having got round the LDMT I had little worries about the Two Breweries. A mere 5000 feet and 16 miles, or 18, or thereabouts. Once again the devil was in the detail. The Checkpoints. But I was sure I’d be fine.

This is a race I’ve wanted to do for some time but it’s usually clashed with something or other. But this year it was going to happen. An elegant principle where you run from Traquair House Brewery to Broughton Brewery taking a fairly direct and exceedingly scenic if somewhat lumpy route. A nice start in cool sunshine saw as speed away from the front of Traquair House up the long drive towards the road. It had only occurred to me the night before that I had no idea which way to go and had luckily found a blog from last year’s with a route map. I’d hastily studied this but was still relying the runner in front knowing where they were going and not getting too far ahead.

I hit the Split button my Garmin at the second checkpoint as the marshall informed me I was “just inside” the cutoff. She wasn’t kidding. My Garmin can’t lie, and it said 1hr 49min 37.3 seconds. Full marks if you guessed that the cutoff for checkpoint two was 1hr 50 minutes! “You’ll have to keep moving!” she added, helpfully, as I struggled on through the heather.

The race crosses a couple of valleys where Retirement Points, drinks and Jelly Babies were on offer. Each time I was cheerfully told to help myself to Jelly Babies as there were plenty. I know this is just marshall-speak for “there’s practically no one else behind you so we don’t need to save them for anyone else”, but I was happy to grab a handful nonetheless. I hadn’t expected so much sugar and water to be on offer so frequently throughout the race and after last week’s unassisted LDMT I almost, bizarrely, resented it. Almost. But not quite.

Into the last 3rd of the race and something completely unexpected happened. I started catching people. Not, I should say, an experience I am familiar with in fell races but certainly a pleasant surprise. I stopped worrying about time-checking myself at the checkpoints, I was heading all the way to the brewery now. At some checkpoints I may even have had several minutes to spare! As the miles and hills counted down I perked up and started looking forward to the final challenge.

My anthropomorphism of hills continues apace. For many years the most malevolent hill of the year award was easily won by Grisedale Brow as you hit it towards the end of the Grisedale Horseshoe. However this year it had met its match. I caught up with Norham’s William Pikett who was zigzagging up Trahenna Hill using the same tactic as I was. As he paused for a bit of a stretch I offered the view that this was “a bit of a bastard”, an opinion that was met with pretty broad agreement. He warned me that there was usually a photographer at the top so I got my happy face ready was we crested a series of false summits before finally toppling over the top.

The final descent was a really annoying gradient – not steep enough for an efficient bum-slide, but a bit too steep to skelp down without braking. It was a relief to finally hit the road for a last, slightly incongruous, mile on roads before getting to the front door of the Broughton Brewery. Roberta, with touching optimism and a far greater opinion of my abilities than I have had been waiting for well over an hour for me to appear over the horizon.

Next year is the 30th running of this event so if you fancy it it’s probably a good one to go for. I’d finished in 4:51:59 – my first “AL” and a massive 8 minutes to spare before the final cutoff! If I’m going to hit the checkpoints with more than 20 seconds to spare I’d better do a bit more training. It’s no different in many ways to the Saltwell Harriers Fell Race in many ways; everyone runs over a few boggy hills and rivers and everyone who finishes gets a bottle of beer. It’s just a bit longer. And steeper.

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