The snow is coming down hard now. I am running down a path with large bushes on either side, head torch on. As I turn a corner, I slip down a small hill. Head torch comes flying off and I am sat in the snow chuckling to myself. Its 4.30pm on the 4thDecember in Northumberland and I am running in a blizzard and its pretty darn cold! How did I get here? It’s not even a race.
This is a tale of an adventure born out of covid and finished by a storm.
Flash back to August 2020, yeah that year! We were enjoying some freedom in the summer of low infection. I had the Maverick Peaks 50km coming up but desperately wanted another race to finish off the year. I remembered hearing about this rather unique event set in the wilds of The Cheviots in winter. 55miles, self-navigation, 1 aid station, plenty of climbs and whole lot of bogs. So of course, I signed up, after being persuaded by my friend Karol. I then even persuaded Dai to join in the fun as I heard it was on his bucket list. He does like to blame these things on me.
I then proceeded to go all in; buying kit, watching videos of the race, talking to people who had done it before. As Autumn took hold and the inevitable increase in infections happened, the race looked less likely to go ahead with additional restrictions put in place. Then two or three weeks before, it was of course postponed. Initially to Jan 2nd but then finally to December 2021, which was the right call. A pain for the organisers but we all thought it would definitely go ahead then.
2021 has had its ups and down for everyone but racing properly returned in spring on the trails which was brilliant. Thoughts for this race were put aside, away if you will until much later in the year as I had different fish to fry. For me like a scary task you know will be quite painful but also the sickness gets you excited started to creep back in to my head at the end of the summer. You see this race is mooted as one of the hardest you can do. The weather can be all kinds of crazy, the terrain crazier. You need to be serious about your personal safety and the kit you carry. So serious, I did get!
At the start of September, my mind was focused. I had some trips to the lakes and northern fells in the bag. All be it in summer, I was now getting closer to understanding the type of terrain we might face. Thoughts turned to the training plan, to what I would wear, and final training runs back on the Northern Pennines a few weeks before race day. Even though it was a bit warmer than I would have liked, we experienced our first bogs as I took on a couple of runs with Yvette across High Cup Nick and Cross Fell.
The excitement was growing in the FB group as the new route was released. The organisers planned to change things to help restoration work on some areas due to overuse. We were missing the massively boggy Combe Fell but venturing across the border to Scotland and up a very gnarly gully to then summit the Cheviot. This was exciting and daunting equally.
With one week go storm Arwen hit the north of England and Scotland hard. Snow and extreme winds caused so much damage. As you would have heard about on the news, many homes, and businesses lost power. The organisers had to move heaven and earth in the week up to the race to even have a chance of it starting. The Café where the race was due to finish didn’t have power and thus no water. The village lost its mobile mast, there were trees blocking roads and all manner of carnage. They had to bring in generators, sat phones and extra radios. The new route had to be modified as trees were now blocking certain sections. We were assured all was in place for the race to go ahead on Thursday. Even though snow was predicted for Saturday.
To drive from my house to the Air BnB in Wooler (about 15mins from the start) would be a 6hour drive plus stops. So call it 7.5 hours ish. I was giving a lift to Yvette and Dai. Another friend Paul was driving himself after deciding last minute to actually do the race, he was on the fence for a while. Other friends were supposed to be coming up too but had to pull out for various reasons over the course of the preceding few months. The early journey was full of nervous excitement, we pretty much agreed to run together as I would have the car key and as Dai put it, if he ran off ahead, he would only end up having to wait for me at the finish, probably a little cold. Safety in numbers for navigation and morale would be key. We were making good time and stopped for lunch about 1.30ish at a service station. We finished eating and visited the toilets. That’s when the message came through, how apt!
Cheviot Goat POSTPONED.
I was initially thinking this was some kind of mistake. Then I started getting DMs on IG and other messages. Dai and Yvette got the same. We were near Newcastle, about an hour away from the start/finish. How could it be cancelled?
I had a call from my coach to discuss. I was instantly gutted and confused. The three of us said straight away lets just get to the house, make a plan. So we got in the car and drove. The. Further details started coming in from the organisers. It appeared the council initially requested them to not hold the event as they were declaring a state of emergency because of the continuing power outages in the area. Later they would just tell them they couldn’t hold the event and the insurance would be invalidated. How frustrating and gutting for the organisers and us runners. This was nothing due to the safety of the event or the course at all.
As we continued driving we immediately made a plan to do some kind of run on the Cheviots the next day. The house was paid for, we were pretty much there, we might as well use this as some kind of recce/kit test. Dai started looking at routes and came across one from a local trail marathon that had been held just two weeks earlier. 45km starting and finishing right outside our front door. Later on we worked on extending it to 52km as I suggested we pop over the border to Scotland to visit the end of the Pennine way at Kick Yetholm. This would bring the route up to a punchy 2000m+ and give us a wild but safe ish experience. We couldn’t really do the remote parts of the course unsupported and get that kind of distance in. We also really wanted to go up The Cheviot, the highest point in the fells here at 815m. Paul was staying at a hotel not too far away and was up for a little adventure too! The new course was named “The Cheviot Mutton” it was ours to take on and enjoy.
Saturday morning was beautiful, at a crisp 4c. We were up and out the door by 8.30am for a briefing by race director Dai. We checked that we all had the right gear. Full WPs, spare warm layers, hats, gloves, foil bag, first aid kit, head torch, water (me 2l), food etc. Yvette and I also brought our poles!
We headed up the road out of Wooler ready to tackle the route counter clockwise. We were soon on the St. Cuthberts Way trail but also, soon seeing the damage from the storm up close and personal as our way through some pine woods was totally blocked. We tried a different path but that was also impassable. A little OS jiggery pokery, a corner cut and we were back on track, remembering that later we would have to avoid those woods on the loop back!. Up on the open fells it was glorious, the sun shining low, the frosty feel in the air. This we said, would be the perfect way to start race day. This route didn’t go over many of the surrounding hill tops at this point but the course was nicely undulating. It did give us the opportunity to witness dai pee many times, slip in into a few shallower bogs and learn about why some of the paint markings on sheep are on the Ewes backs! Google that as I genuinely thought Dai and Paul were making it up. The thing we were most excited about was crossing the border into Scotland. As we got closer, we took a little diversion up a hill to get a nice view across the border and to where we would be heading later! Life was good, it was getting a bit cooler, and hats were on before we crossed the famous fence and joined the Pennine way. Of course, Dai had to stop for a wee on the border line as we took photos of the sign.
The run down to the road leading into Kirk Yetholm was a delight, even with some rather large but mostly disinterested cows occupying the fields. We were all excited to visit this iconic village. The road section is a bit tedious tbh and must be a right pain in the ass when you are finishing the Spine race but the village green was a great place to stop for some food. We also popped into the pub to say hi and use the toilets. The Border Hotel owners were super lovely and it was very temptingly warm inside! We had places to be though and the toughest section of the route to come!
It was around midday and we had done 21km.
Back up the road again we went. This time though we took the alternative route on the Pennine way via Halterburn and Burnhead. It starts on road then soon became open fell again and is just up, up and up. The warm gloves and poles came out and it was time to get my power hike on as the sun was hidden by clouds now. We saw our first glimpse of snow remaining from the past week as the temperature got cooler and the path got boggier. We re-joined the Pennine way proper and started the climb up the Schill. At this point the mist turned into light rain, so as soon as we summited those that didn’t have jackets on (like me), soon put them on. The Sleet started turning to snow. This section of the Pennine way was pretty boggy and going was slow but we were enjoying it honestly. Knowing this is what the race would have been like was good for us mentally. Dai went in up to his knee once, I did some comedy jumps, Paul skipped around and Yvette did a mix of it all. A little while earlier we had run into Fergy and his friends who were supposed to have been in the race also but were now doing the marathon route in the opposite direction. They warned us that the weather up on The Cheviot was pretty wild and we should layer up. Just before the start of the climb there was a very handy hut offering shelter from the snow. I personally felt pretty good in my layers as they were. The Gore-Tex jacket doing its job well. The others all added another base layer, while I danced around, another non racer came past us and started heading straight up without stopping. I looked up at the climb thinking damn that steep, it was about avg 30-35% gradient. 250m+ in 1.2km, so yeah fairly punchy. After food we all started the ascent. It was tough going in the cold. Paul pushed on and I tried to keep up lol! 20mins later we were all super excited to have reached the Cheviot summit, we took photos and videos celebrating then headed off trying to keep warm.
It was then we realised that in fact it wasn’t THE summit. It was a summit but we were only 700m up, doh!! This was quite amusing but also annoying. That was Auchope Cairn and we saw a sign saying it was a couple of mile to The Cheviot summit!
The snow had started to settle on the last climb and up here it was getting deeper in places. The flag stones of the path were in pretty good shape though and it was quite runnable. You don’t want to step off the side stones on this section though as I accidentally did a couple of times into freezing bog water. Then about 20mins or so later we reached the actual summit, finally. The runner I saw earlier at the hut was there adding layers and mittens. He regretted not stopping at the hut to do this. It just goes to show that you should take the time to think about what’s ahead and plan your kit choices before you get into trouble. Dai was still in his shorts, even though snow was starting to freeze on his leg hairs! This summit we really didn’t stay long, a couple of quick photos and we were off. The plan was to get off the summit and this fell line before dark. It was also around -10 wind chill, which is not somewhere you want to be stuck in at night!
The path down was interesting! The snow was getting a bit deeper and more compact. The bogs were hidden but the footsteps of the other runner were easy to track. You drop 600m in 5km which should have been the most fun but this is where I had a kit fail! My trusty gaiters, which had kept the mud out of mud shoes for all this time started gathering ice balls on the string that runs across the sole. I have had this once before but forgot about it. Basically, the snow freezes on the string and then compacts as you run creating a ball of ice that grows and grows until you can’t run. I tried stopping to knock it off on the right foot with my poles but it just wouldn’t work so eventually I just sat in the snow and undid each string strap. Cursing the time it was taking and holding the others up. I couldn’t even get the ices balls off so just had to tuck them under the gaiters. Back on my feet though, I soon found the joy again but the blizzard was getting stronger and the light was failing fast.
We stopped at the bottom of the hill to put our torches on and eat. I realised I had also been close to bonking a bit for a while. I hadn’t eaten enough. My last waffle had frozen completely (that was a new one!) but I found a gel and some more chews, this I felt would get me through. We now had about 10km to go which would normally be easy right, how wrong we were! The blizzard intensified as we climbed up another hill, this time though it was right in our eyes, horizontal pellets in your face. It made the going really slow as we had to keep a hand up to protect our eyes. I was cursing not bringing my clear glasses and so was Yvette. She was also suffering from a kit issue on her jacket. It was giving her zero, side protection for her face and her neck buff was completely frozen. This was the toughest running conditions I have ever experienced weather wise. The Gore-Tex gloves were starting to buckle under the pressure. We all longed to have the wind behind us and every so often we would get little rest bites from dipping into a sheltered section where the snow running was fun. Even when I fell over it was pretty enjoyable but then we would be back out in the blizzard again.
As we were getting closer to the finish we remembered that we needed to avoid the woods just as we came up to them. We saw the foot prints of the runner ahead again and Dai found the path away to what we hoped would be the road back into town but the blizzard would give us one last treat! Ice rain. We were a bit lower down now, so that last path pelted us again in the face and bodies with painful ice. We could hear it hitting us and the ground around us, the weirdest thing ever. I will never forget that sound! We were mentally done right at that point I think but we knew it would soon be over.
The jog down the road was in freezing cold rain now, The road was flooding and like torrent down the hill into the village. My Semi WP socks finally gave up, as did Dai’s. The gloves were shot, my water and pack was frozen and we just wanted to get inside now. Time for a swift photo then quick showers all round before a takeaway from the chippy.
52.39km, 2071m+ in 9hrs 26mins elapsed time
We reflected on the day and how hard it was but also how much fun we had. It did us all the world of good to fully understand what the terrain and weather is like on those hills in December. We wondered if we might have DNF’d on the actual race if it had gone ahead, maybe, maybe not. We would have had a further 38km and another 1600m+ to do, but we would have had drop bags and more kit options. Who knows what would have happened, that’s the fun and games of the ultra puzzle.
Some key learnings from me that day were:
- Eat more
- Remove the stings on your gaiters when the snow gets heavy
- Carry your glasses
- Get some heavy duty Gore-Tex over mitts for that kind of snow
Otherwise, I was pretty happy with what I had. My phone still had 80% battery when I finished due to it being flight mode. Even with all the photos. I wouldn’t stop as much in the actual race as well so maybe 8.5 -9hrs for that distance is right.
The trip was 100% worthwhile as it seems we’ll all be doing this race in December 2022 now as we have things in the calendar for the rescheduled date of March 2022. It’s annoying as I didn’t really want to do 5 ultras next year, but it is what it is now. At least I will know what’s coming!
Salomon Short sleeve tee
Montane Primino half zip base layer
Montane Winter tights
Dexshell Light WP socks
Nike light gloves
Montane Goretex Vortex gloves (not available anymore)
Montane Fleet WP jacket (now a lighter version called spine)
Black Diamond poles
Salomon ADVskin 12 pack
Petzl Nao+ head torch
2 orange exped dry bags
First aid kit
Space long sleeve tee
Inov8 Thermal layer (not available anymore)
Salomon WP trousers
Spare Merino Socks
3 Gu Waffles
3 veloforte chew packs
1 cheese and pickle wrap
4 mini suages rolls