Six weeks ago I’d pretty much resigned myself to not running this year’s Tour of Pendle, and just sharing a few tips instead. In fact, I’ve now got a second successful completion under my belt, but I did have to work pretty hard for it and learn a few sharp lessons on the way.
I work at a YHA and things have been so busy this year I’ve not got out running as much as I’d have liked. Finally though, a quieter period came just after October half-term, and a chance to recce the course and see if it was worth entering the race. I’d not been on Pendle since the previous time I’d raced – 2018 – so it was good to re-familiarise myself with things. I didn’t rush – checked some points of navigation, admired the views, took a few photos…. got through the cut-off point comfortably enough and fully round in 4 hours. So, 20 November booked off work and entry form & cheque in the post.
The hardest part of this was actually locating my chequebook, and it was amusing to find that the last time I had written a cheque was 3 years ago…. to enter the 2018 Tour of Pendle! As it says on the race website, “We don’t do electronic”. It did make me wonder, now that almost all races can be entered online, if it’s totally fair to limit entry to those that can pay by cheque. Surely not everyone has a chequebook these days? It turned out my experience of the race would have me slightly reconsidering this.
Three weeks to the race and I was hoping to get at least one additional long run in beforehand. Slightly depressingly, the lull at work turned out to be all too brief and I never got the chance. Also felt a bit under the weather in the week leading up to the race. It was only on the morning of the 20th that I knew for sure I was going to give it a crack. Not exactly ideal preparation.
At least the weather in Barley was decent, and it was great to be back on the start line in a big field – saying hello to a few familiar faces, including club-mates Tim, Mick & Mark (who’ve all done the race before) and Dinesh (here for the first time). At 10.30 we were underway and I felt pretty comfortable on the initial steady climb up to the trig. Just below the summit, I made a point of studying the ground closely for the crucial trod junction that you take on the return. I knew I’d missed it slightly on my recce, and even now in clear conditions it was barely discernable.
Descending from the trig towards CP1 a familiar voice is thanking me for acting as such an effective wind-break. It’s Mick, and we start chatting about the course ahead & is it tougher than the 3 Peaks even though it’s 8 miles shorter? (probably). CP1 has moved 100 yards from previous years to a new stile in the wall, and to my surprise the whole field is heading straight ahead rather than cutting across the moor as before. With about a second’s thought I rudely curtail the conversation with Mick and go for the short-cut on my own. It was quite good fun briefly running solo during a big race and dreaming that the rest were heading off in completely the wrong direction and that I was going to win the Tour of Pendle…. in fact I rejoin the main field about 15 minutes later (and the next I see of Mick is in the car park at the end to find he’s finished 10 minutes in front of me – so much for dreaming).
For the moment though things were continuing comfortably enough. Navigation not a problem early on as it’s such a large field. Approaching the Geronimo descent, I was happy to follow a line to the right – steep grass with a bit of bum-sliding, but so preferable to the diabolical stony gully that’s the main path. At the bottom, a gaggle of cowbell-ringing, jellybaby-chucking spectators that really lifts the spirits. And so on, briefly revisiting an earlier stretch of the course on this loosely figure-of-8 route, and down to the stream at the foot of Mearley Moor.
1hr 45min in. Two thirds of the race distance covered. The mind plays tricks on you that you are well in to this race. That the finish is within reach. You can almost smell the tea & flapjack in the village hall…..
But I well knew that everything up to this point had really just been a preamble. That the Tour of Pendle is in effect a 2-hour undulating jog from Barley to the real start line below Mearley Moor. That two thirds of the climbing come in this last third of the distance, in 3 big climbs – Mearley Moor, The Big Dipper and Big End. That it’s these 3 late climbs that make the Tour of Pendle the challenging race that it is.
I shove a muesli-bar down, take my first step up Mearley Moor and wait for the energy and adrenalin to kick in. Nothing. Plod on a bit. Still no reaction, in fact I can barely put one foot ahead of the other. Surely something must happen soon? People start getting stuck behind me. The path widens and they begin to drift past, making encouraging comments. Have I ever gone up a climb as slow as this? I stop thinking about the race ahead and switch to survival mode. Will I be able to get up this climb and back to Barley at all? This is getting embarrassing, I thought I was meant to be a fellrunner….
Then I remember another thing that’s meant to define fellrunners. Something about mental resilience and all that. Without really registering it, I’ve ignored the sensible direct route back to Barley and begun the descent towards The Big Dipper. Even though The Big Dipper is an even tougher climb than Mearley Moor. One look at it is enough to break anyone’s heart, even on a good day. I knowingly keep my eyes to the floor.
Somehow I got up that climb, even at snail’s pace, even though I knew I was causing a massive queue behind me (precious few overtaking opportunities here). Equally, the fifth and final climb, Big End, the top bit of which isn’t even blessed with steps cut in the turf, you just have to zig-zag/cling on to heather etc as best you can. There is a marshalling point either side of Big End, with biccies and jelly-babies laid out. These were an absolute godsend and bless the marshalls here (and elsewhere on the course), not least as the weather had now taken a turn for the worse. Clag down and the wind whipping up. Just need to get down now and off this bloody hill. At least the legs have started moving again. Am thankful I scrutinised the trod junction earlier as visibility is minimal, the field has thinned out and there are few other runners about. The trod widens into a path and feels right, leading me safely to the final CP. From here it’s a mile to the finish along the tarmac, which feels surprisingly comfortable after what I’ve gone through just 20 minutes earlier.
I’m back to the finish in just over 3hr 30, more than half an hour slower than 2018. “What kept you?” asks Tim, who’s been here 20 minutes and has kindly waited to hand me my race t-shirt. But all thoughts are on the spread laid out in the village hall – tea, cake, soup. After what we’ve just put ourselves through, this is our reward.
“Yes you do have to pay” I’m politely informed at the hatch, and no I don’t have any cash on me. I can’t really summon an answer and just head back to the car, half a mile away, where I have just frugal supplies of nuts & water to get me home. Why had I thought the spread would be free? It was only £9 to enter the race, including the t-shirt. And I’ve actually spent much of my career prior to YHA working with voluntary & community groups – if you hire a village hall for an event, they’re going to charge you a small amount for tea & cake whether you’re here to play dominoes or run a 16 mile fell race. And no, they probably don’t take contactless. We don’t do electronic.
It’s coming up to 20 years now since my first fell race, and I’ve done over 100 of them, but you never stop learning. Learning that if you come into a tough race underprepared then it’s going to be difficult. That just because you’re familiar with a course doesn’t mean it’s going to be straightforward. That fell races are organised by voluntary Race Organisers, often with the support and co-operation of other volunteers, so runners have to fit in with whatever the RO is willing and able to pull together.
The Tour of Pendle is a unique, knowingly-difficult event. It’s worth knowing that before you enter, so perhaps it’s for the best that it takes more than a few clicks to do so. If you don’t have a chequebook, perhaps find a friend or club-mate who does. Many thanks to Kieran and his team for the 37 Tours so far, and hopefully many more to come.