Hoofstones Fell Race

Another fell race, another write-up. Why don’t I think of something else to blog about? Perhaps it’s just a natural cycle with racing – you prepare, you race, you reflect – and particularly so in winter when conditions are so much tougher. Write-ups can be pretty therapeutic, and help you learn & move on to the next big idea…

This race – Hoofstones – usually takes place in mid-January and is a low-key event with a field of under 100. Low-key it may be but straightforward it is not. It’s the combination of a number of things – distance, climb, navigation, underfoot conditions, plus dealing with the January weather – that makes it appealing.

The race starts in the valley bottom just outside Todmorden and follows a lollipop-shaped route via the lonely summit of Hoof Stones Height (479m). This year’s race took place on the pleasingly-palindromic 22nd of January, 22.1.22.

This was 3 years since my one previous go at the race, 2019, and how that went was part of the reason I entered this year. In those pre-COVID times I was racing a lot and just thought here’s another local race to try. I remember being a bit tentative as the weather had been wintry in the lead-up…. but no matter I’ll rely on the classic fellrunning technique of following everyone else and trusting I’ll get round. Turned out to be something of a harsh lesson, as once on the tops we disappeared into full white-out conditions – snow on the ground and thick mist – and the only thing on my mind was sod this race, just get off this hill asap & back to safety. Others thought the same, so a gaggle of us headed straight down towards the road (which is out of bounds), then followed walls and fences through some pretty dire bogs until bumping into runners heading the other way – retracing their footsteps eventually led us to the final checkpoint and finish. Not very clever really – surely there’s a better, and much quicker, way round?

I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance this time, so for Jan 2022 I decided to recce the course beforehand. Plus conditions seemed OK so it would just be nice to see what it all looked like up there – I’d only ever seen white the previous time. So 11 Jan drove out to Tod and parked by the Staff of Life pub, where the race starts. Jogged up the course route, recognising little landmarks and the increasingly heavy underfoot conditions, until eventually reaching the trig pillar at Hoofstones. The view I’d missed out on last time turned out to be pretty bleak and wild, with not many obvious features. Time for some compass-navigation – took a bearing and headed off across the featureless moor directly towards the next checkpoint, a mile distant. Route finding was OK but underfoot things pretty atrocious. All heavy bogs and tussocks, not very runnable at all. Feet very cold by now so, once through the bogs, headed back down to the car to chew things over.

Back home, decided I’d need to go back out there again and try a Plan B. So a week later, 17 Jan, parked by the road halfway up and started sketching out an alternative line. This roughly followed the descent route I’d taken in 2019, but this time I found some trods which seemed to knock off a few minutes. It was more runnable as well than the slip-fest through the bogs. Overall, it felt like doing a second recce had been well worthwhile.

Race day, Sat 22 Jan. It’s been a dry week and it’s not too cold in the valley. Still, I reckon it will be Arctic on top, so get the full winter gear on. More local runners in just vest & shorts look at me with some disdain – fair enough. Once underway I get into a rhythm on the initially decent tracks and am in about 10th place 2 miles in. I find it much tougher going on the heavy ground up to the trig; still, am in about 15th at the top with a group of 3 or 4 just ahead. Would normally back myself to pick up a few places on the descent, so start wondering about a top 10 finish…… Shortly after, I see the main line of runners heading directly across the moor, where the bogs and tussocks await, while I stick to my longer, but hopefully quicker alternative.

About 15 minutes later I reconnect with the main field, hoping to recognise a few of the vests that overtook me earlier. Nope, it’s an entirely different bunch altogether. Now back on the quick descent I comfortably overtake a few and arrive at the finish to find it’s well populated by a fair crowd of tired but elated runners. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the race, keeping warm and on the move the whole time. On the watch I’ve finished 10 minutes quicker than in 2019, so some obvious improvement there. But I ask the finishing marshall where I’ve come and the answer is 32nd. Somehow in that crucial mile I lost about 20 places. Had the bogs miraculously dried out in less than a week? Is there a quicker line that I fractionally missed on my recce? Did the clear conditons and line of runners, removing the need to navigate, save so much time? Or does Hoofstones just attract the kind of runner that is particularly adept at getting across bogs, a lot better than me?

Always a few minutes or seconds to be gained, here and there, from accumulated experience in races and recces. I guess that’s why fellrunners keep going back to the same races, year after year. Many thanks to everyone involved in organising this one, and the spectators and photographers that braved the cold out on the course.