Life is a series of moments, which combine to be experiences. The same can be said about running, because after all running is life right 😉
There was a moment in the summer of 2020, when the hope that a longer race would happen entered my mind. That moment released thought patterns that formed to memories of a race that my friend Dai had on his bucket list. A race I had heard was probably the toughest of its distance in the UK. There were conversations about viability with Dai and another friend Karol. The race was booked. It was then cancelled due to covid a few weeks before.
The next moment was about midday just outside Newcastle in December 2021. Receiving the text that the race was again cancelled, but this time due to the mountain rescue being recalled by the council after storm Arwen. That moment did allow for an experience in the Cheviots. That experience allowed for some big learnings about the remoteness and terrain of the Cheviots in the winter. Something I would be thankful for.
Sunday 27th November 2022, just under a week before race day, take 3. My throat started hurting, I started to feel off. This was a moment I was also dreading. After the worst nights sleep, I tested positive for covid, again. How could this happen to me. Don’t panic though, if it’s like the last time, then I would be fine in a few days, always have hope. By Wednesday, the cloud had lifted, by Thursday, I was 95% and did a tester run for 30mins and felt good, breathing and HR fine. Friday, I was 98%, game on.
It was finally time to do The Montane Cheviot Goat, ultra no5 and the season closer of 2022.
This is a pretty serious race, not the kind you really should do as a first Ultra. It is set in the Cheviot hills, which are part of the Northumberland National Park, one of the remotest places in England. This year was a new/modified course from previous winter editions, running at 95km with over 4000m of elevation gain.
You have 24 hours to complete it, starting at 6am in the dark. There are only 2 aid stations, one at around 35km and the other at around 67km, where you have a drop bag at each for food and kit. You must be self-sufficient between, although there are regular points where Mountain rescue are positioned for your safety. And finally, the route is completely self navigation, by map and/or gps.
The weather is totally unpredictable and light is precious at this time of year as it starts getting dark at around 3.30pm. Basically, it’s a tough old race.
What follows is a series of moments from the 20 hours spent on those hills.
Heading through the light tunnel at the start, it is cold, but not freezing, there is moisture in the air as well as excitement and a hint of nervous energy. 238 runners (from the 400 signed up) head up into the darkness from safety of Ingram village. I have 4 layers on, I jostle for position, with some light chat going on with Dai and Yvette. It’s already muddy, finding the best line on the path saves energy, which will be needed later.
At the top of a hill, I turn round to see all the lights coming down the into the dip we have just climbed out of. I always love this sight. There is something special about the line of head torches, bobbing along, even more so in winter. Maybe it’s a Christmas feeling. Soon though light is creeping up from behind the hills, the sun is rising and it’s just beautiful, but we are all acutely aware that daylight is in short supply at this time of year, we must make the most of it, so we push on.
A while later I turn off the access road and head down a little hill and misjudge some water and go knee deep into my first bog of the day, I chuckle to myself that the others are not around to see this as I had got about 2mins ahead of them somehow, they soon catch me though where I explain my misfortune as we climb over a fence, because that’s where the path goes apparently. We are in our first real boggy section now and jumping is hard but better than going waste deep. We are prepared for this though, it’s what we experienced, last year. The sun is shining and the mood is good, when we reach the summit and tap the trig.
What followed was a serious of steep descents and ascents on pretty good trails, we ticked off the distance chatting away, excited about getting to the first check point. It didn’t disappoint. Hot soup and a roll in a warm building. A 20 minute rest bite from the elements, time to restock and refresh.
Heading up and up to Windy Gyle, excited me. We would be back on the Pennine way, even if it was only for a short time. I enjoyed the climb, although we could see the mighty Cheviot in the distance, covered in cloud, which we presumed meant snow, or at least rain! The sun was still shining on us, the ground was good. Then Running along the slabs of the Pennine way and turning left into Scotland we bounded down a rather marvelous hill and that‘s when the most amazing thing happened.
The rainbows came out to play. I think there was some localised rain as we saw multiple rainbows, the best being one that we were almost in and could see both ends. All three of us stopped to take in this amazing display of beauty. Then we got hailed on!
Our little trip into Scotland didn’t last too long, we climbed back up a long winding path and across a sodden field of bog to Hut 2 at the base of Auchope Cairn. We had agreed to stop in the hut, eat some food and add some layers. There are not many places out here where you can escape the elements. The 15 or 20mins we spent here was definitely worth it, as we stepped out into a blizzard, and it was straight up a steep and rough climb. I was glad of the extra layer and gloves. At some point the snow stopped, and the sun started to set, the light was just stunning over the hills. Another moment of wonder, the places we visit on these runs are truly wonderful.
We didn’t wait too long as the plan had always been to get off the Cheviot before darkness came again. We headed off towards the Cheviot summit, this is a fun section of flag stones on an out and back, we said hi to the mountain rescue who said “we’ll see you in 30 minutes”. On the run to the top, I noticed that my left knee/calf was tightening up. Similar to what happened in Madeira, I told the others and cursed my luck. We still had about 40km to go, this would be painful!
Reaching the rather large summit marker was a great feeling. We all stopped for a photo, kindly taken by a rather chirpy Polish chap, who we would end up running a fair bit of the race with.
And this ladies and gentleman is the last photo taken by any of us for the rest of the race. So I am just going to end it here, as no one needs to read about the pain an torture of the following eleven hours.
Ok, ok, I know that you want to hear all the gory details. I will have to summarise it as it’s a bit like a mental blur that I feel like I would need some regression therapy to bring it all back. I’ll start by saying that this was the hardest 40km I have ever run and I am using run very loosely as most of it was walked.
Coming of the Cheviot was rocks, then tussocks and bogs, not sure there was much of a path. Two thirds of the way down, the head torch was back on. At the road crossing, I asked Mountain rescue if there was a quicker way to the 2nd aid station, the answer “yes of course, you just need to give us your bib and tracker and we’ll drive you down the road”, I laughed and headed up the next unmarked bog riddled hill to Bloody bush edge. All three of us moaned about how slow the going was. The downs were harder for me with my left leg groaning, the climbs were easier, I had plenty of energy but the mind wondered to the quitting state frequently but I said to another random runner I got chatting to that, I would just soldier on.
From Bloody hell bush, was more crappy terrain along another ridge to Cushat Law, then more down urgh to Salters road, which is a track. I did find a bit of an ultra shuffle here though. We managed to run for the first time in hours, all the way up to the aid station. The mood was low.
There were plenty of snacks, hot drinks and our 2nd drop bags. We definitely took long here though, Dai was king of the faffing but it was ok as I had been slowing us down with my downhill groaning. We still had 24km ish to do and around 1000m. We had no idea of the time at this point, the motivation to finish and never come back was strong.
Something I forgot to mention, is that it they mostly don’t like stiles in the cheviots. It seems like you either have to go over a wooden slatted or wire fence to continue on the imaginary path, and it’s totally ok to do that. As the legs get even more tired, climbing these becomes more precarious/hilarious. Why!!! Also there are some very odd cattle grids, some are triangular and some go up and over. Have the farm animals worked out the standard ones? Anyway I digress…
We were soon back on the unrunnable non existent tracks and tussocks. I think I fell over a couple of times and def went knee deep again into some bogs. The weather was a real mixture of rain, sleet and snow, then nothing. At some point Dai’s laces came untied on his shoes but due to his glove, mit and Leki strap set up it was a faff for him to do them up, so I helped him, much to the amusement of other runners.
Navigation was becoming tricky, tired brains, darkness and a lack of local knowledge combined with some questionable lines taken, much to our annoyance. The onslaught of bogs and mud didn’t let up. Even when on a wide track with a few other runners around, it was still so uneven and waterlogged that it just sapped the energy. I had noticed my mood changing, I was getting highs and lows. The only thing keeping me high was the gels. Over the remaining hours I would have to stop to take a mit off and have a gel anytime I felt myself slip into the mental darkness. I even dropped a mit at one point whilst in a daze in a snow storm, which meant I had to back track and find it, much to my annoyance.
The worst blizzard was on the summit of Hedgehope Hill, the 2nd highest point on the course. It was biting and in our faces. The amazing MRT on the summit checked to make sure we were all ok. Physically we were, mentally, not so sure. On the descent, the blizzard got worse, I cursed myself for not having the goggles I purchased for this exact situation. Afterwards I found them in drop bag 1. I then lost Dai and Yvette in the white out and over some more rocks we went. My knee was pissing me off a lot. Bless them for waiting for me at the bottom.
After the climb to Dunmoor hill, we seemed to be around a lot more people, some were finding it tricky to navigate and others were just following. There were more fences and a bit more bushwhacking before we finally had some runnable paths on the way to a road section. I was able to run the less steep descents and the road. I think Dai had lost all sense of time though as when I told him it was 12.45, he swore a lot. We were close now but there was one more sting in the tail to the course of hell. A rocky/scree traverse round Brough Law and a steep climb up Ewe Hill, shortly followed by some more mud and boggy bits.
Just after 2am, we ran through the illuminated tunnel and up to the finish line of the Ingram Cafe. I have never felt so relieved in my life to finish a race and be in the warm. We thanked and cursed the course to Drew, one of the race directors. He explained that the course wasn’t his fault, so we apologised. We had a photo taken and then sat and ate soup.
Reflection is a funny thing. Pre race, we thought we could do this in about 15 hours. We were cocky and had no idea what lay ahead. The 1st man (Donald Campbell), did it in 10.5 hours, the 1st woman in 13.5 hours (Nicky Spinks). Some good runners that we know finished in around 16. So us finishing in 20 wasn’t that bad. As Antonio Codina said in a message to me post-race, “you did great for a soft Southerner” 😂. He’s right though. I think if my leg hadn’t been such a dick and we had been quicker at the 2nd aid station, then we could have finished in 19 hour’s but without some specific training on the off piste parts of the course there is no way we could have done much better. I’m cool with that too.
Kit wise I was pretty happy. I ran in a pretty new pair of La Sportiva mutants, which gripped really well. The Dexshell knee length socks did ace under my montane winter tights, zero blisters. I had 4 layers on top at all times, switching to a primaloft one from the Hut pit stop. The Montane gore text over mits were amazing, I had a warm pertex Montane glove underneath. The two mistakes I made were, not having my goggles in my pack and not putting my Montane fleet WP jacket in the 2nd drop bag. This wasn’t a major issue as the jacket I had on held up just but, I would have been more comfortable.
The other key learning I took from this race, was the fact that there were only 2 CPs. Eating on the go in such a remote and wild place with no cover is hard. Through the night I pretty much stuck to gels and one bag of sweets just for speed. If we had been going for much longer this could have been an issue I think. Have you tried to eat a wrap in a snowstorm?
The Cheviot Goat has left a lasting impression on me, for the good and bad. It was an experience like no other. A real adventure. Am I glad I did It? Certainly yes, am I glad I don’t have to do it again, most definitely. It has taught this soft southerner a lot about himself. A reminder that I can do hard things, that I can look after yourself and traverse a wild place with two amazing people. I am also glad we didn’t have snow like in 2021!
Thanks to Ben, for coming and seeing us finish after his race didn’t go to plan, to the team at Cold Brew events for putting on a solid event, the volunteers, and North of Tyne MRT. You are amazing!
These are moments I will never forget from an experience, like no other.