We don’t do electronic

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.

Tour of Pendle

I’m reluctantly accepting that due to a busy period at work I’m not going to run the Tour of Pendle on 20 November. Shame, because it’s a great AL (27km/1473m) at this time of year. Otherwise, I’d be preparing for it from about now, so here’s a few tips for anyone thinking of tackling it for the first time.

Conditions on Pendle in late November can be pretty interesting, so it’s worth being as prepared as possible. Before I raced it in 2018, I did a couple of recces – the first a half-circuit of around 10 miles, the second the full course. This helped me get familiar with the route and also made sure I could make the crucial cut-off (Checkpoint 4, in 2 hours). I was then able to complete the race successfully a few weeks later. From that experience, I’d say it’s worth knowing in advance that:

  • There are 5 significant climbs, each one progressively harder than the previous one. The penultimate one, The Big Dipper, is tough enough, but the final one up Big End is the real heartbreaker. Be warned.
  • Three quarters of the climbing comes in the second half of the race. Maybe don’t set off too fast.
  • The route is roughly a figure of 8, and it will almost certainly be windy on the day. So, if you get a backwind on some stretches, you’re going to get it in the face later on. I remember doing the Half Tour back in 2004 and the headwind being so strong on Spence Moor that I “ran” for about 5 minutes without making any progress at all.
  • You’ll probably be able to follow the field in the first half. However, there are some crucial trods and landmarks that are worth knowing in the second half when the field has thinned out. Particularly if it’s misty (likely). On my first (foggy) recce, I ended half a mile up Ogden Clough before realising I was heading in totally the wrong direction. Good to make these mistakes before race-day.

It’s a big field (600 max) so it takes a while for the field to sort itself out. Also, it means parking in Barley can be a bit of an issue, so be prepared for a long walk to registration, and take all your race kit with you.

Latest update (17 Oct) is 316 entries received so far, so still plenty of room. Time to dig out your chequebook (or find a friend who has one). Not bad for £9 – pre-enter here.

Descending Geronimo, 2018. Photo: Phil Donlan

He did it his way

Review of “Faster! Louder! How a punk rocker from Yorkshire became British champion fell runner”, by Boff Whalley

Fellrunners looking for 4 hours’ continual entertainment may look towards tomorrow’s 3 Peaks Race or Langdale Horseshoe; equally, they could just spend a tenner on this latest book by Boff Whalley. I picked it up and breezed through it in one sitting it was that good.

On the face of it, it’s a straight biography of one of the leading fellrunners of the late 80s/early 90s – Gary Devine, from Leeds. But the appeal of the book – in addition to how easy it is to read – is that Gary’s story gets to the heart of what fellrunning is really about. It’s not a tale of striving for athletic perfection, careful preparations, sensible training plans, healthy diets or early-to-bed. It’s about how a young guy worked out a lifestyle that suited him, of which fellrunning was an essential part. Despite the other elements of this lifestyle including ear-splitting punk records and gigs, the full-on punk look, excessive cider consumption, living in squats, police raids, fights and hospital visits – he still became British fellrunning champion. While this could easily be seen as a miracle, I was left with the impression that this overall “package” was in fact the key to Gary’s success on the fells.

A few years ago I read Boff’s previous book – the equally good Run Wild – which is structured around the contrast between his impulsive, thrill-seeking “wild” running and the plodding, corporate beast of the New York Marathon. Similarly, “Faster! Louder!” invited me to question just how much all the sensible running advice out there really applies in practice. Gary’s total embracing of the punk lifestyle in Leeds only really made sense because twice a day he quietly sneaked out the squat, shook off the hangover and headed out down the Meanwood Valley Trail….. but equally the running only really made sense if he did it sporting a pink mohican and if it didn’t stop him going out the night before. This isn’t a biography about a runner’s running, it’s about a runner’s overall life.

One of the more touching passages is when Gary has a bit of a Road to Damascus moment in a hospital bed, the morning after a fracas at a gig. He realises that the balance of his chosen lifestyle has to change slightly, and he will be better off getting into mischief with his fellow Pudsey & Bramley fellrunners than the Leeds punks. So, more piling into the van to some distant rain-lashed start line with smelly kit, a slab of tinnies and the rest of the P&B crew (the author included – part of what makes the book flow so easily is that it’s a knowingly first-hand, fly-on-the-wall account). Once fully immersed in the close-knit scene of the club, Gary’s running goes to the next level.

The “biography” ends in 1990 but in a footnote it’s good to see that Gary is still involved in fellrunning, organising his own race (and indeed supporting tomorrow’s 3 Peaks).

I suppose I could have saved my tenner and used it as 1% of the entry fee for the Spine or something (!) but in fact I was much better off just buying this book.

Scrambles in the Dark Peak

As well as running I quite like a rocky scramble, ie a route where you have to use your hands to progress. These can be fun during a dry spell in summer, so recently I’ve been exploring some lines new to me in the northern Peak District. For this, I’ve been grateful for Cicerone’s handy “Scrambles in the Dark Peak” book (from which the title of the blog is shamelessly taken):

Still working my way through the book, but here are a few reports/tips from what I’ve done so far. Obviously, scrambling has a few potential risks, so the routes in this book are helpfully graded 1, 2 and 3. Grade 1 are OK to do on your own. Grade 2 you might want to take a friend. Grade 3 you might want to take a rope and a friend. As I’ve been on my own so far I’ve stuck religiously to the Grade 1s and yes, generally they’ve been perfectly comfortable to tackle solo.

As most of these routes are actually up the beds of small rivers they are particularly suitable for dry periods. Nevertheless, accept the fact that you’re going to get wet feet sooner or later. I went in fell shoes and shorts and this worked well, although given the risk of ticks at this time of year leggings could be an option.

I’ve been exploring 3 main areas of the Dark Peak – Kinder, Bleaklow and the Chew Valley. Ideal parking spots as described, though note you will need to “get lucky” at some of the lay-bys:

Blackden Brook (Kinder)

Start: lay-by on A57 near Wood Cottage

This is an entry-level scramble up a narrowing valley rising to the plateau edge. There is a collapsing path of-sorts most of the way until you join the riverbed nearer the top. It feels like a hidden vale and the scenery is charming, so you could take your time with this one…. saying that I also found it fun to do as a “speed scramble” and race its Strava segment. Not so good as a descent, but there’s a fast way down The Wicken just adjacent.

Nether Red Brook / Upper Red Brook (Kinder)

Start: lay-by on A57 near Snake Inn

A little bit along from Blackden Brook are these adjacent scrambles, both a bit more taxing. For Nether Red Brook, you break off the Snake Path about a mile from the road and follow the stream bed up. Interest increases with height and there is a step at the top that requires a bit of thought but is in fact perfectly doable. I did a nice run east along the plateau edge from here, visiting some crazy rock formations on Fairbrook Naze before descending down Fairbrook itself, another fast descent. Upper Red Brook is just a few minutes further along, with a slightly more serious feel than its neighbour, and another “interesting” finish that requires a bit of thought.

Alport Castles (Bleaklow)

Start: lay-by on A57 at Alport Bridge

While in the area I thought I’d visit Alport Castles for the first time in years. There is parking for literally 1 car at Alport Bridge and seeing the lay-by unusually empty was too good an opportunity to miss! I’ve seen Alport Castles described as “the biggest landslip in the country” and as you approach from the bottom (ie Alport Farm) you get a sense of the massive geological forces at work. I picked my way up various folds in the landscape and headed for the central “Tower” which involves a minor scramble to sit on the top. From which you see how the surrounding shale cliff has collapsed in some previous era. Although it was all perfectly doable solo the overwhelming sense of nature’s power had me rather missing a companion. Good if you want to feel very, very insignificant in the overall scheme of the universe.

Torside Clough (Bleaklow)

Start: lay-by on B6105 near Reaps Farm

This was a real discovery. I’ve walked the Pennine Way to the top of Bleaklow along Clough Edge often enough without realising there was a hidden gem right below. As you begin the climb break off the main path and just follow the river. Much of the way you walk straight up the smooth rocky bed of the stream, the water never more than ankle deep. In places the rock is covered in a pleasant spongy moss; in fact going barefoot could be an option here! All around the soothing tinkle and crazy patterns of running water, and before long the mind has disappeared into fairyland. Occasionally there are boulders to circumvent which add to the interest. Numerous pools provide ample opportunities for a paddle or even a swim. Eventually the dream ends and you hit the Pennine Way which provides a fast descent route back.

Lawrence Edge (Bleaklow)

Start: car-park on B6105 by Woodhead Resevoir

This was a little different, but nothing wrong with a bit of variety. Very rough underfoot, firstly through an old quarry then though the heather & braken. Two gullies to choose from, one a little rockier than the other. A very quiet area, and good to see the world from a different angle. Again, a place to sit and feel immersed in nature.

Birchen Clough (Chew Valley)

Start: lay-by on A635 at SE 051 063

I don’t know the area around Saddleworth at all well, but this first excursion will have me back soon enough. I started by descending Rimmon Pit Clough and Holme Clough, which are decent enough scrambles in their own right. But the climb up Birchen Clough was even better, essentially a long gradual scramble alongside a waterfall. At the top it’s easy to visit the three-pronged rock tower known as The Trinnacle – apparently it’s possible to sit on top but I wasn’t getting that close on my own! My visit was made all the more memorable by coinciding with the England v Germany match which meant I had the hills to myself – all rather magical.

Crowden Clough (Kinder)

Start: lay-by between Barber Booth and Upper Booth

This popular route up the south side of Kinder is more a bouldery walk, but does have a couple of interesting scrambling sections near the top, one of which graces the front cover of the book above.

Red Brook (Kinder)

Start: Hayfield

This route alongside Kinder Downfall is the best pure scramble I’ve done so far, 30 minutes or so on smooth, dry rock. A bit of bracken-bashing to get to it but good stuff once you’re in the dried-out stream bed. It’s all so engaging that time just passes – it doesn’t really feel like you’re putting effort into climbing a mountain.

Charnel Clough (Chew Valley)

Start: car park at Dove Stones Reservoir

A straightforward but enjoyable boulder-hop up a stream-bed off the main Chew Valley.

Wilderness Gully West (Chew Valley)

Start: car park at Dove Stones Reservoir (alternatively Crowden, and approach via Laddow Rocks)

There are 5 Wilderness Gullies at the head of Chew Valley, and these north-facing slopes have a pretty serious feel. I tackled the most westerly of them and found it at the more challenging end of Grade 1. The entry to the gully is across tricky terrain with many hidden holes…. things improve once in the stream-bed itself, but some thought is still required to successfully exit at the top. I will leave its Grade 3 neighbour, Wilderness Gully East, to more serious scramblers!

Yellowslacks Brook (Bleaklow)

Start: top of Snake Pass, or Glossop, or lay-by on B6105 near Reaps Farm

This area has a remote feel, yet the skyscrapers of Manchester city centre are clearly visible to the west. The scramble initially skirts an attractive waterfall, then takes a smaller cascade more directly, before finally heading towards the summit of Bleaklow along the rocky bed of Dowstone Clough.

So, a fair few of the routes in the book done, but still many more to do. It’s amazing how much interest you can find within just an hour or so’s drive from home.

Jack Bloor Maprun Challenge

On Saturday I tried out a 5-mile virtual fell race on Ilkley Moor – the Jack Bloor Race 2021 Maprun Challenge. It turned out a fun circuit, with navigational choices over varied running terrain. So, definitely one to consider while the event is open during the month of May.

The Jack Bloor Races normally take place on a Tuesday evening in early May, attracting around 300 runners, both seniors and juniors. The race dates from 1985 and is named after a pioneering climber and fell runner. All monies raised support the work of the Jack Bloor Fund, which awards grants to young sportspeople from Yorkshire who want to improve their skills in an outdoor adventure sport. Past illustrious winners include Greg Hull, Victoria Wilkinson, Dave Woodhead and Boff Whalley.

Last year’s race was obviously cancelled, but this year there’s a virtual equivalent, using the MapRun orienteering app. I’ve posted previously about my positive impression of MapRun for virtual fell races. In particular, with the event open for a whole month, you get the chance to properly recce a course and attempt it as many times as you wish – trying different route options, times of day, conditions etc. This suits this course, which is semi-navigational anyway, with 6 checkpoints to be visited in order but by any line:

So, I started out with a slow 2-hour jog round last Monday, with the course map, OS map and compass to hand. The initial climb, from Darwin Gardens up to the Badger Stone (CP1), was a bit of a pull but straightforward enough. You then lose some of that height down to the Swastika Stone (CP2), but it’s a fun descent. It’s then a long, gradual climb up to Cowper Cross (CP3) – I plotted the direct line across the featureless moor, but found it pretty rough underfoot. I then stuck to the main paths to visit the trig at CP4 and the ruin at CP5, while noting that more direct lines were possible in these dry conditions. It was fun to discover the “poetry box” at CP5 and have time to read a few of the witty contributions (why not post your own?). It was then the exciting descent from the top of Ilkley Crags to the finish, via CP6 on the knoll near White Wells. There must be a million and one variations available here – I tried to be clever by going off-piste straightaway and ended up going down several blind alleys. Lesson learned perhaps…

Returned on Saturday, this time with the event now live on the new version of the app – MapRun6. The phone beeped successfully at the start point (the stone bridge), and indeed at all the checkpoints thereafter. I decided to stick to the main paths, rather than trying many fancy short cuts. So, I returned to Keighley Road along the path after CP2 and ran up the track to CP3. I took the main stone-flagged path between CP3 and CP4. And I ran around the back of White Wells before visiting CP6. Whether this made any difference I won’t know until I try out alternatives, which I hope to do before the end of the month.

I’d like to give it another go anyway as I was mildly disappointed with my time of 57 minutes. I could probably go under 50 at best, but have been out of the habit of running competitively over lockdown (a local adventure I took on a month ago may also have something to do with it…). Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable and varied circuit, mainly on the springy turf of the moor, a fast descent to the finish and all those route options to ponder. Back home, I was pleased to donate the usual race fee to the Fund and support this good cause.

Why not give it a try (or tries) anytime during May? All the details are at www.jackbloor.co.uk

Discovering Maprun

This piece first appeared in the January 2021 edition of the Airienteers newsletter.

I just wanted to say a thanks to Airienteers for all the local Maprun events they’ve uploaded to the app. I’m a fellrunner who normally does lots of fell races, but with the fell racing calendar suspended I’ve been looking for virtual alternatives. Maprun has been a great discovery over the last few months.

I started out with the virtual Harriers v Cyclists race, organised by Bingley Harriers with the help of AIRE. Normally, runners and riders race together on a varied off-road circuit through the woods of Shipley Glen and over Baildon Moor. In 2020, we had the whole of November to do it in our own time, with the course marked out by 12 Maprun controls. I gave it a few tries, which helped me get to grips with the app while getting increasingly familiar with the course.

This encouraged me to give the permanent courses on Danefield and Ilkley Moor a try. Both are on great running terrain, and I didn’t mind that Maprun didn’t work too well on the thickly wooden slopes of Danefield – it was still fun just to run round the posts. As with Virtual HvC, running a permanent course allows you to come back and make slight improvements to your route.

A couple of nice things about Maprun are that i. it’s free and ii. it automatically generates a leaderboard. Having shared my initial good impression with club-mates at Valley Striders AC, I thought about designing our own courses. With the help of AIRE, there is now a test event on the app – a simple 4km circuit of Woodhouse Ridge, with a Start/Finish on Meanwood Road + 3 controls. This seems to work well and opens up the opportunity of designing more complex courses in future. Why not give it a try during lockdown if you’re local? It’s on the app at Aire Valley > Valley Striders > Woodhouse Ridge Maprun, or more details on my blog.

More recently I’ve tried out the AIRE events in Chapel Allerton and Colton, and although I’m not a big fan of running on tarmac, it’s been good fun plotting the best routes between the controls.

Just to make some broader reflections from this. I mentioned that I’m in the habit of giving courses more than one try. I know that this contrasts with many orienteering events…. but in fell racing local knowledge and recce-ing the course are very much part of the game. It’s been interesting to find in Maprun a kind-of “halfway house” between fell racing and orienteering.

Also, during 2020 the Fell Runners Association (FRA) has clarified that using GPS to fix your location during FRA-licensed races is now banned. The FRA’s intention is to encourage runners to use map & compass and preserve the unique character of the sport. This may mean that fell races start looking a bit more like orienteering events…… saying that, it could go the other way, with Race Organisers nervous of banning an obvious safety mechanism choosing not to license their races with FRA. In which case it may be that FRA races end up being ones where map & compass isn’t really going to help you, such as short, flagged races, or ones over very complex terrain. All this assuming a return to “normal” racing, of course.

Indeed, while Maprun obviously has some potential to provide a virtual alternative to fell racing (it already has in parts of the Lakes and Wales), how far it’s worth pursuing this rather depends on COVID. I feel COVID has hit fell racing relatively hard, as social contact is such a big part of races – at registration, mass starts, bunching at stiles, finish-line refreshments, prizegiving… and with many taking place at village shows/fetes. Writing this during January lockdown, the return of racing feels very distant. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up doing a virtual Harriers v Cyclists in 2021 as well as 2020.

Leeds Country Way in a day

One of my bright ideas for 2020 was to run the Leeds Country Way (LCW) – an approx. 60 mile off-road circuit of the city – in a single day. Due to a combination of COVID, illness and simple fear, in 2020 I never quite attempted it. I did however do plenty of research and preparation, including running 2 full circuits in various stages. So, for the benefit of anyone else thinking of taking on this challenge, here are a few thoughts and experiences.

Route options

The first thing to decide is which of 2 route options to take. Runners conventionally follow the route of the annual LCW Relay, which uses the original line of the LCW, and clocks in around 64 miles. The advantages of this option are:

  • there are historical records going back some years
  • it is good preparation for the Relay.

However, due to local government reorganisation, in 2006 a 15-mile section of the Way was significantly re-routed. Rather than skirting the edge of Wakefield, the Way now takes in Carlton, Thorpe and East Ardsley. The advantages of taking this option are that it:

  • follows the official line of the Way, as it appears on current OS maps, and is better signposted accordingly
  • is more in keeping with the spirit of a “Leeds Country Way”, being closer to Leeds and more in the countryside
  • is arguably a more scenic, interesting run
  • is overall around 4 miles shorter (!)

The choice is up to you. I ran them both and found the revised line preferable, so my further comments below presume this is the route.

Solo or supported?

Any ultra run is potentially so much more doable if you have other people supporting you, whether running alongside, meeting you at road crossings, or both. You just run – your supporters find the way, pace you correctly, carry the food/drink/kit, keep you cheerful, take you to the pub/home at the end etc. And running “close to home” means it may be easier to organise these logistics than for challenges further afield.

This does mean though that going alone becomes more possible. There are refreshment stops en route, the terrain is gentle and navigation (while convoluted) is relatively straightforward. On a good day you wouldn’t have to carry too much kit. There are numerous opportunities to bail out if you’d had enough. Theoretically, you could save yourself the trouble of organising a support team, and of over-relying on it.

Start/finish point

You can start/finish the circuit at any convenient spot. Obviously, parking and distance from home are factors…. but also think about the location of refreshment stops. When doing my recceing I found good shops right on the Way only at East Ardsley, Thornbury, Barwick and (particularly) Garforth, so plan accordingly.

Clockwise or anticlockwise?

The Relay is run clockwise and somehow it seems intuitive to go in this direction. However, there is no reason not to go anticlockwise. Again, location of refreshment stops and the start/finish may influence your decision.

Time of year

Overall I found spring the best time to run on the Way. Over winter it can be a real mud bath, and obviously it’s cold and daylight is limited. Midsummer can be too hot for a long run, and in late summer/early autumn parts get overgrown. Late April to early June could be good. Historically, times of between 12 and 17 hours have been recorded, so factor in your likely pace (and how much you like the idea of running in the dark).

Training and recceing

Having broadly scoped out how you’re going to approach it, it’s time to put the hard work in. And perhaps the best way of building up your mileage is to do it on the Way itself. There is so much to learn from becoming familiar with the route – navigation, underfoot conditions, climbs & descents (total ascent is around 1400m), distances between landmarks, your likely pace, location of refreshment stops/support points etc etc. The route is divided into 4 sections on the Council website (the relay route 6) and – perhaps with the help of public transport – you could do each section first, then build up to 2 sections and so on.

Personally, I found doing 2 full circuits in preparation (one in winter, one in summer) extremely useful. Not least as it helped get the route “in my head”. I also felt better able to prepare for different scenarios on the day.


Postscript (May 2021)

Despite doing 2 circuits of the route in various stages, in 2020 I never completed the full circuit in a day. However, on 7 April 2021 I made another attempt, this time successful – see my write-up on my running club’s website. I took the current route anticlockwise, starting and finishing at Swillington Bridge. I was “Solo Self-Supported”, meaning I travelled alone, didn’t meet anyone pre-arranged, and carried all my kit and food (or purchased it en route). My time was 14 hours 12 minutes, meaning I just about got round in daylight! (For the record, the best time for the route is 10:41).

Woodhouse Ridge maprun

Here’s a new virtual racing idea for Leeds runners to try out. It’s a 4km circuit of Woodhouse Ridge and Sugarwell Hill, using a free app called MapRunF. You can run it at any time, and there are route options on different surfaces as you prefer. Once finished, your time gets uploaded to a results page, so you can see how you got on straight away.

To access the event, download the app to your phone and, once registered, go to Select Event > UK > Aire Valley > Valley Striders > Woodhouse Ridge Maprun. Info on how to get and use the app can be found on the Maprunners website

The Start (and Finish) point is the pelican crossing on Meanwood Road close to the junction with Buslingthorpe Lane. When you are ready to set off, press “Go to Start”, and shortly afterwards your phone should beep and the clock start ticking. You then have 3 “virtual checkpoints” to visit, in the following order:

1: Junction of Wood Lane and Shire Oak Road
2: Pelican crossing on Meanwood Road, close to junction with Boothroyd Drive
3: Stile at entrance to Sugarwell Hill, at the end of Sugarwell Mount

As you run through each checkpoint you should hear your phone beep (it can help if you turn the media volume on your phone up before setting off).

Once through the 3 checkpoints, you need to return to the starting point, where your phone should beep a final time and stop the clock. If your phone is connected to the internet, your time should be uploaded automatically to the results page. If not, you can use the Upload (Manual) function when you have a connection.

The route you take is up to you. There are both muddy-trail and firmer-underfoot options available, so select your footwear accordingly. You might want to recce your different options in advance.

Obviously, please take care when crossing roads (the pelicans on Meanwood Road have been used as checkpoints for good reason!).

The route is summarised on the map below. Happy maprunning!

Running through the field

Blog Tour Banner - All or Nothing at All

Preview of “All or Nothing at All – The Life of Billy Bland”, by Steve Chilton

You could be forgiven for asking whether a fellrunner, any fellrunner, merits a biography. Fellrunning is an obscure sport, largely unknown outside its mountainous heartlands. And despite a host of revered characters going back through the decades, no individual fellrunner has ever broken through to wider public awareness. As such, I’m not aware of a conventional, widely-read fellrunning biography.

Perhaps this is looking at things the wrong way. Previous fellrunning-themed books have communicated the essence of the sport by patching together its various elements – races, challenges, records, rivalries, personal experiences of the author and its humbler participants… as well as brief profiles of elite performers. So perhaps a fuller length biography of one-such elite performer can provide us with a refreshing new angle on the sport?

The signs are promising from my sneak preview of “All or Nothing at All”. Employing a technique successfully used in his previous book about the Bob Graham Round, the author faithfully records interviews with its former record holder – Billy Bland. And we get a pleasant surprise – in the one chapter I’ve seen, in this biography of a fellrunner, fellrunning isn’t mentioned.

The gist of Billy’s running career is already well-recorded. Now in his early 70s, he’s lived all his life in Borrowdale (one of the most dramatic, and visited, valleys in the Lake District), where he worked locally as a stonemason. His running on the local fells combined an obsessive training regime, meticulous knowledge of the landscape, an ability to move quickly over difficult terrain, and innovative race tactics (such as deliberately going the wrong way to elude trailing runners, or hanging back at the start line then running through the field to avoid being followed!). The reward was a decade of race wins, including some astonishing records. That his 1981 time for his local Borrowdale Fell Race still stands as the quickest today says it all.

So much, so good. But what does this biography reveal that we don’t already know?

If people want to come up here to walk then fine. But I would put a traffic barrier at the bottom end of Borrowdale….. and bus people in, or let them cycle in or walk in. It would work I am sure it would. People would still want to come up here, especially if it was different to other valleys. The locals could have a pass for the barrier.

A typical quote from the interviews with Billy. Apart from traffic, we hear his views on various topics of Borrowdale interest – wildlife, agriculture, tourism, second homes, fox-hunting, local services….. he’s got a strong opinion on all of them. But why should a former sportsman care about stuff like this?

This is perhaps the key to why this biography may be worth your attention. It is somehow dissatisfactory to describe fellrunning simply as a “sport”. Sport, as we generally experience it (whether as a participant or spectator), normally takes place in a separate, dedicated arena, designed for the purpose. By contrast, fellrunning takes place in a natural landscape, with races often organised by local communities. Its roots make it as much part of upland culture and tradition as a sport.

Agree or disagree with Billy’s views as you wish, but it’s just great to know that someone who made their name running through Borrowdale actually cares about the issues affecting it today. Well-publicised post-Lockdown scenes of overcrowding and littering have included Borrowdale, where the tension between dramatic scenery and relative accessibility has always been acute. For example, when I lived in Borrowdale in 2019, at the YHA, I would despair at the sight of the overwhelmed car park at weekends in summer. Cars parked on the verges and camping field, tyre tracks left behind…. soon to be followed by a drive skirting dozens of pedestrians and cyclists alongside Derwent Water (no fun for them either) and a long queue to get through Keswick. Billy’s suggestion of a traffic barrier may seem extreme, but it seems reasonable that the events of 2020 should at least allow radical ideas like this to be discussed.

As we emerge from Lockdown, we look for suitable ways forward in all aspects of life. For fellrunners, Billy’s story – the connection with his local patch during his running career, and his abiding interest in it after – seems like a good example to follow. If, like me, your local library is still shut, and you’re on the lookout for a decent book to buy, this new biography looks like a good bet.

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‘All or nothing at all’ will be published on Thursday 20th August and can be obtained from all good bookshops and online at Amazon. Live book launch, Thu 20 Aug 6.30pm

About the book

All or nothing at all: the life of Billy Bland. Sandstone Press. Format: Hardback. ISBN: 9781913207229. Publication Date: 20/08/2020 RRP: £19.99

All or Nothing At All is the life story of Billy Bland, fellrunner extraordinaire and holder of many records including that of the Bob Graham Round until it was broken by the foreword author of this book, Kilian Jornet. It is also the story of Borrowdale in the English Lake District, describing its people, their character and their lifestyle, into which fellrunning is unmistakably woven.

About the author

Steve Chilton is a runner and coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University as Lead Academic Developer. He has written three other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps; and Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. He has written articles for The Fellrunner, Compass Sport, Like the Wind and Cumbria magazines. He blogs at: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/

13 Pillars of Wisdom

In my last blog I mentioned I’d started “collecting” 13 local trig points (“pillars”, strictly speaking), as one of many ways of keeping running interesting during Lockdown. Well, all 13 are now in the bag. So, I thought I should “report back” on what I’ve found. Both to give a flavour of the current condition of these iconic (but sadly redundant) landmarks, and also to reflect on whether the act of searching for them was worth all the bother.

I list the pillars below in alphabetical order. All were visited on a run from home and appear on the 2000 edition of the OS 1:25000 map of Leeds South (slightly trimmed to fit into a frame).

img_20200330_183725I live somewhere near the centre of the map and, on average, it took around an hour to run to each pillar (well within my comfort zone). Of course, physical distancing was observed at all times. More information about the pillars – location, reference number, visits by others etc – can be found on the TrigpointingUK website.

  1. Barnbow Wood – Destroyed. Although I passed near the site of this one after searching for nearby Brown Moor (see below), I confess I didn’t actually go looking for it, as it was recently reported destroyed for agriculture.
  2. Brown Moor – Inaccessible. The obvious route to the pillar is blocked by ongoing works at the new Thorpe Park development. Plans do suggest though that a new path will be built that passes right next to the trig.
  3. Crow Nest – Good. You can’t actually touch it because it’s in school grounds, but it’s easily seen from the other side of a fence (probably best visited outside school hours then). It has the best view from these 13, perched over the city centre with the football ground prominent in the foreground.
  4. Field Head – Inaccessible. It’s in the grounds of a hospital. I got to the entrance but judged it not a good time to go beyond that point just now.
  5. Garforth Cliff – Good. Tucked out of sight behind a water tower. Saying that, the farmer couldn’t have ploughed any closer without damaging it.
  6. Halton Moor – Destroyed. Got to where the pillar should be to find it’s just the embankment of a road serving a new business park.
  7. Holywell Wood – Inaccessible. Quite a tricky one this. I had to go a little bit off-piste and after some searching saw it in thick undergrowth the other side of a barbed-wire fence. I wasn’t going any further than that.
  8. Hook Moor – Toppled. The pillar is located close to the junction of the M1 and A1(M) and was “unseated” as part of the road construction a few years ago. At least the roadbuilders left it close by (and in good condition) as it reveals the full “anatomy” of a pillar – ie that it is iceberg-like, with as much below the surface as above.
  9. Peter Lane – Good. Tucked into a hedge next to a quiet footpath.
  10. Robin Hood Hill – Inaccessible. It’s at the top of the embankment of a main road and separated from it by killer thorn bushes. All I got for my attempted visit was a shoe-full of spikes. I’ll take my machete next time.
  11. Scotthall – Good. The most visible of all the pillars, being in the central reservation of a main dual carriageway into Leeds. It’s almost possible, on a quiet day, to pull the car up alongside it, wind down the window, and touch it from the drivers’ seat (don’t ask me how I know this).
  12. Tingley Hill – Good. My favourite of the 13. It was actually recently re-located a few yards as part of a housing development. Bless them, the developers made it the central feature of a circular garden, giving it the air of a stone circle or some other ancient sacred site. The only shame is that, now it’s been relocated, it no longer appears on the current OS map.
  13. Thorpe – Good. Similar to Scotthall – right next to a road with distant views.

Well, the obvious sad fact is that only 6 of these 13 are in good condition and accessible. The remainder are either toppled, inaccessible or destroyed. And now that pillars no longer fulfil their original function – OS mapping has been done digitally since the 1990s – there is little that can be done, legally, to protect any under threat. Indeed nationally, there are only around 7,000 pillars left out of the original 10,000. A shame, because they have historic and educational as well as sentimental value. I guess the best suggestion is to continue logging visits on TrigpointingUK, sharing photos on social media etc, to at least keep their profile up. The COVID Trig Point Challenge! group on Facebook does this admirably.

On a more positive note – and while it’s of course disheartening to run several miles to visit a pillar only to find it’s disappeared under a bulldozer – the act of hunting down the trigs has been a real find under Lockdown. Mainly because, it’s made me visit places I would never otherwise have gone to. I don’t think I would have thought of going for a run around Castleford or Belle Isle, for instance, but I got to visit the birthplace of Henry Moore in the former, and the wide roadside verges of the latter were perfect for physical distancing. The abandoned golf course in Middleton Park was another good find for the same reason, plus I got to see the park’s famous carpet of bluebells. One of the more eccentric discoveries was the curved, pitch-black 100-yard tunnel by Parlington Hall, built by the rich nobs in the 19th Century to keep the hoi polloi out of sight as they passed the hall. Next time I’ll remember my head-torch!

Only problem now is – all 13 done, so what next? Lockdown looks likely to continue. Maybe Blue Plaques – there’s 171 of them in Leeds. Follow me on Strava to see my latest bright ideas.