In August 1997, I felt I became a ‘runner’ when I took part in my first race, the Liverpool Half Marathon.
In April 2000, I became a marathon runner at London.
In 2013, I became an ultra-runner.
The most common reaction when I told anybody (seasoned ultra-runners aside) that I was preparing to run 40 miles around the Peak District was simply: “Why?”.
I didn’t have much of an answer.
Even my good wife thought I had finally taken leave of my senses and was now firmly part of the extreme #nutter brigade, willing to risk life and limb for a target that wasn’t just beyond most people we know, but even beyond their comprehension.
Looking back, the truth is that High Peak 40 didn’t feel in any way ‘extreme’. It felt like a nice day out with my mates – which, of course, is exactly what it was.
Given the chance to do whatever they choose for a full day, most people who go to the pub, have a hearty meal and watch some football. My wife would opt for a day shopping between glasses of wine. I chose a day catching up with friends in beautiful countryside … running.
Doesn’t sound so extreme, really, does it?
I don’t want to downplay the achievement of running 40 miles in one day, but it really did feel like a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a day. And that was the surprise.
As we lined up in Buxton at 8am, I was apprehensive to say the least. Forget how well I thought my training had gone in advance of Warrington Half. While this was only two weeks later, it was a whole different ball game. My longest run in training had been an accidental 23-miler in France, which was also the only week I’d only clocked more than 50 miles.
In contrast, among the many friends I was with on the start line (itself a misnoma – it was more of a start huddle with no ‘line’ in sight), Gia had rather casually done a 100-mile week, while Simon had seemingly spent a month charging around his section of the Peak District like a goat.
Let’s face it: I was hopelessly under-prepared.
What little running I had done (relatively speaking) had been around pancake-flat Altrincham. A hilly run was one with more than two bridges, and I hadn’t done many of those. I felt no better prepared to climb almost 5,500ft than I was to swim to the moon.
Fortunately, we had barely left Buxton when I learned my first lesson of off-road ultra marathon running: it is perfectly acceptable, if not positively encouraged, to walk up the hills. “Walking with purpose!” shouted Trevor. “Walking on purpose,” I muttered to myself.
Before I knew it, we were at the first checkpoint, just south of Fernilee Reservoir, and my second lesson about the world of ultra-marathons: Food.
Not gels, jelly babies or some synthetic-tasting sports drink. Actual, proper food. Cakes and flapjacks. Orange squash.
There was also the matter of checking our numbers as we passed through.
“69” shouted one of the female marshalls to a colleague as I approached. “Not right now, thanks,” I replied. How we laughed.
Still running in a decent-sized pack at this stage, the miles flew by. I paused briefly to tweet as we passed mile 11, which for me marked that I had run 1,000 miles in 2013. But at some point in the following few miles, and with visibility down to 50 metres or less, our group was down to three.
As Simon, Matt and I started the long climb up Rushup Edge towards Mam Tor, it didn’t feel like we’d just lost the rest of our crew, but all civilisation. It was hard to imagine we were still in a race as we couldn’t see anybody in front or behind. A school party was on the top of Mam Tor as we approached, but had it not been for them, I think we might have even missed the triangulation point. So much for the views of Edale I’d been hoping for.
Before we knew it, we were heading into Castleton, the 20 mile checkpoint and, most importantly, lunch. Our support crew had a car seemingly full to the headrests of flat coke, flapjacks and pork pies. We did what all well-intending passer-by would and lightened their load as much as we could.
Any concern I had about my stomach churning with so much food as I started running were misplaced. Our route out of Castleton was straight up and there wouldn’t be any running for a mile or so yet.
Before long we were motoring again: checkpoints seven and eight passed by and it didn’t seem like long before we were descending into Tideswell for our next rendezvous with our support crew. As we passed the marathon mark in a fraction under six hours, I was an ultra-runner. Cue high fives and, more importantly, a 10-minute pit stop for more tea and cake.
From here, a riverside path took us all the way onto the Monsal trail and to checkpoint nine. It was here that we found out we were in positions 98, 99 and 100. With 10 miles to go, it suddenly became important, if not essential, to finish in the top hundred. Although we were passed on the path, checkpoint 10 gave us the opportunity to retake our positions as we turned onto tarmac for the three mile slog to Chelmorton.
I actually didn’t mind the road, nor the long, featureless straight that others had christened the Road to Hell before we started. As we saw our support crew for one last stop, I even managed to put in a bit of faster running to arrive ahead of Matt and Simon.
Little did I know what lay in wait.
I’d spotted Deep Dale while studying the maps in advance (which I needn’t have done, the course being so well signposted throughout), and I’d read other people’s descriptions of The Abyss. But even that didn’t prepare me for the prospect of, having already run 37 miles, scrambling 100ft down a deep gorge only to promptly claw my way up the other side.
Mentally, that was the final nail in the coffin. My Garmin had long since given up – complaining of low battery from around 30 miles then going entirely blank around 34 miles – and I started wondering whether it had had the right idea.
Picking myself up for the final 5k into Buxton would have been impossible had it not been for the fact that we had to stay ahead of two women who, probably unwittingly, kept threatening to steal our places in the top 100. They shall not pass.
And so it was that, nine and a half hours after setting off, Simon, Matt and I ran up the driveway to the school that marked the finish. Having assumed that the rest of our crew would be at home by now nursing their own tired legs, I was overjoyed not only to see them waiting, but to hear them all clap and cheer as one as the last of their ‘team’ made it to the finish.
There are no medals on offer for completing HP40 – they go for a nice cloth badge instead – but that wasn’t going to stop Philip. Having already spent half the week in Tesco loading up our our support crew’s supplies for the day, he also bought and had engraved our own special medals for the day. Thanks again, Philip – someone else will have to pick up that baton next year.
That’s right: “next year”. This was very much my first ultra, and certainly not my last.
For the record, I ran in my Karrimors – full review coming soon.