Pennine Barrier ultra – 23rd June 2018
50 miles with 8500ft of elevation
Place: 14th out of 250 starters/199 finishers (13th male)
Time: 9 hours 52 minutes (first half in 4hrs 44)
This was my first ‘serious’ race in a whole year, since I did Chase the Train and the Damflask relays in June 2017 in fact. So this was the end of a very long and hard journey of getting back to my best, after completing my training for the York marathon in 2017 but falling ill at the last minute for a demoralising ‘Did Not Start’. I then felt crappy for a while. At that time, I wouldn’t have believed I’d be doing the Pennine Barrier in June 2018. So this was a dream come true.
Training went well, although I didn’t go nuts as didn’t want to fall ill again – paranoid! Still, I’d done some pretty serious hill work, with 4000 and 4500ft weeks in the run up. I’d also done a few ‘long’ runs over 20 miles, but not too many. So on the morning of the Pennine Barrier what lay ahead was very much an unknown. I thought it would probably work out like the Round Rotherham in 2016: feeling OK until about 35 miles, then rapidly going downhill.
Simon Jennings (DAC) had done some awesome training, and I thought it would be nice to stick with him for 15 or 20 miles, just for the company, then let him go. We’d had a good 22 mile training run a couple of weeks before the race, and the chatting helped the miles to tick over. But I did want to take the first half of the race slow and not get carried away. So, I was quite determined to let him go at some point!
Things didn’t start too great. The pace seemed a bit fast, and I had a slight niggle in my right ankle at about 4 miles in. I wondered whether I’d chosen the right shoes – I used Merrell trail crushers, and these are very light and quite insubstantial. Good for speed, but maybe not good for ankle support over rough ground. Anyway, I just hoped it wouldn’t get worse, but I did wonder whether I’d be a DNF with an injured ankle after, say, 30 miles.
Another worry was when I realised it was warming up, and I’d forgotten to put any suncream on. I was set to be out in the hot June sun for 12 hours (so I thought), and was going to be burnt to an absolute crisp! Simon said he had some in his pack I could use, which was a total god-send. I didn’t want to slow him up, and we agreed I’d put some on at the first checkpoint, which was about 11.5 miles. So I knew I had to stick with him until at least then. Which was a slight worry, because Martin James was with us at about 5 miles, and I could only see the pace quickening. I thought I’d have to run faster than I wanted to, just to stick with the two of them until the first checkpoint. But without the suncream I was screwed, so I’d have to do it.
Simon and Martin, about 8 miles in.
As it happened, the pace wasn’t too bad for me. We ran up inclines just a bit more than I wanted to, but it was fine. And it was a truly beautiful morning. The legs felt good, the ankle was just a niggle, and we were enjoying ourselves.
Things were ticking over nicely at about 15 miles. We’d done Pen-y-ghent now, and were jogging to the second checkpoint. I told Simon around here that I’d have to let him go soon, but he seemed happy to stick with me. Martin James was lagging behind us a bit now (he’d spent longer at checkpoint 1), but I was sure he’d catch up.
I was relieved to get to checkpoint 2 at about 20 miles in. I’d been saving my first tailwind for this checkpoint, managing on water and a peanut butter sandwich up to here. I was hungry, and had plenty of malt loaf at the checkpoint (which I was thrilled to see was on offer – I’d nearly brought my own!). Martin James caught us up at the checkpoint, but wasn’t having a great time – he’d fallen a couple of times coming off Pen-y-ghent. But he seemed OK. Simon and I set off for Whernside.
So far we seemed to be going too fast. We’d talked plenty about trying for 12 minute miling overall, which would be 5 miles per hour, and so 10 hours overall for the 50 miles. That seemed like a dream time (10 hours got 3rd place in 2017!). But so far we’d run plenty of 8, 9, and 10 minute miles, so we were well under 12 minute miling. Surely this was going to come back to bite us? I wondered about dropping off the pace, but checkpoint 2 had given me a new lease of life, and Simon was happy to walk all the way up Whernside anyway. So it was easy enough to stick together and enjoy the walk, sipping my caffeinated tailwind all the way.
The views from the top were amazing, but we didn’t stop. We’d been walking a long time, and this was an opportunity to do some running. I was also kinda buzzing now from all the caffeine. I set off quite fast down Whernside, and kept up the pace basically all the way to the road, and checkpoint 3. It just felt good, and I knew it would be really slow going up Ingleborough. I assumed Simon was just behind me, and I’d catch up with him at the checkpoint.
But as it turned out, Simon had slowed up a bit, and I’d got a bit ahead. I did all my stuff nice and slow at the checkpoint (more malt loaf – brilliant!) and was ready to go. Finally I saw Simon coming, and I waved then set off. I was still sure he’d catch me up, and pass me, and I’d let him go. The race was only just getting started, after all, with the really hard 20 miles still to come. I figured I had about 6 or 7 miles left, then the fatigue would really set in and I’d slow down loads.
It was all good up Ingleborough. I ascended nice and slow with a 23 minute mile for mile 30. Even walking up a steep incline seemed like a good rest from running, and helped me to take on lots of fluids. It was weird being on my own now, though. It was just starting to dawn on me that I had a chance of getting quite a bit ahead of Simon, with the long steady descent from the top of Ingleborough into Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I had been looking forward to this descent, as I could remember doing it with a friend a few years earlier. It was weird, though, as I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to leave Simon behind, and run on my own. This definitely hadn’t been the plan. I saw Simon briefly just as I was starting the descent, and he was on the way up to the top. So, he wasn’t that far behind. I’d surely see him again. But while I was feeling good, I figured I should run.
Looking back at the start of the long descent to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I’d just seen Simon on his way up. It was the last time I’d see him.
I kinda flew down the three-or-so miles to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, without seeing any other runners, reaching checkpoint 4 at 35 miles. Now I was flagging, and wondered about using my second caffeinated tailwind. But the checkpoint folk reminded me that it was only five miles to the next checkpoint. Then it was the hardest section of all – the final 10 miles, starting with a big hill, and with no further checkpoints or support. I had to save my tailwind for that. So I set off with about 400ml of water.
At this point I was in 16th place. I couldn’t believe that. Really I was supposed to just be going for sub-12 hours, and a top 50 position to get a gold medal. I was starting to realise that I was having a great race. I still felt pretty good, and I knew I was going to walk all the way up to the shoulder of Pen-y-ghent, which would be like a rest, really. I figured I could let 20 people past me, and it wouldn’t matter at all. And that seemed kinda unlikely, because I hadn’t seen anyone for ages, and didn’t see anyone at checkpoint 4. The pressure was off, and I could just go as slow as I wanted.
I took it really slow to checkpoint 5, with plenty of walking, but somehow still managed to pass somebody. So now I was in 15th position. And there was also somebody (Rob Lister, it turned out) right ahead. I caught Rob at the checkpoint, but then he set off and I took plenty of time eating some chocolate covered coffee beans (brilliant!) and sorting my last tailwind. I had no ambition to catch him up. 15th position was absolutely fine! More than fine. I couldn’t really believe what was happening.
Now I was at 40 miles, and should have been really, really flagging. But I didn’t feel too bad. I’d walked a lot up to the shoulder of Pen-y-ghent, then I walked all the way up the final big hill during miles 40-42. Rob was in clear sight, and kept looking back, but I really wasn’t chasing him. When I got to the top, I couldn’t see him, and that was fine. I started jogging down.
But then I did see him a couple of times. I was actually catching him a bit. It was weird, because it was like I was chasing him but I really wasn’t! I was just jogging the downhills, and walking every incline. The legs were starting to go to jelly now, but I only had about 6 miles left, so that seemed fine – I could push through 6 miles easily enough.
I reached Malham Tarn and suddenly Rob was right in front of me walking. I jogged past him and thought I might as well carry on running for a while, just to get some distance between us. Then I started to see two others ahead of me. Surely I couldn’t catch them as well? I was going so slow, but maybe they were going even slower.
Between Malham Tarn and Malham Cove Rob caught me up and passed me, and seemed very determined (he’d end up in 12th place). I was happy to let him go. And anyway, the other two guys were struggling and me and Rob passed them quite easily. I was quite surprised – I was really struggling myself now, but these other two guys were going even slower. One of them popped a blister as I passed him.
The technical bits down to Malham Cove were horrendous – sharp, warped rocks everywhere and every step hurt so much. I’d had enough now. I tried to think up some motivational songs (Moana!) and that helped a bit, but not too much. But then suddenly I could see the finish – the field with the finish line was there in the distance, visible from the top of Malham Cove. It was a fantastic moment. I checked my watch and the average pace had slowly been ticking down over the past 5 miles or so, since the top of the last hill. It had briefly gone over 12 minute miling average walking up that last hill, but now was below that again, on about 11.55 minute miling. It was clear I could go really slow for the last few miles and still get under 10 hours. I was absolutely amazed – it was a better result than I ever dreamed was possible.
Coming into the finish line was amazing. I was feeling pretty emotional to say the least. And the support from people in the final half mile was fantastic. It was my best ever result in any race. And even more special as a comeback following a bad year. An amazing and unforgettable day on the hills.
Simon came in about 20 minutes later, in 19th place. I felt awful beating him! He’d trained so very hard, and was stronger than me in many ways. But I’m sure he’ll get me back next time. He’d still got an amazing time, and a much deserved place in the top 20.
A big shout out to the other DAC runners. It was incredible to get nine Doncaster AC runners taking part in an event as crazy as this one. It meant there was a really nice team spirit. Chris Lawson came in 24th, with a time of 10.43. Martin Hookway was next, in 40th place with a time of 11.10. Allan Carson and Des Savage were next, in 89th place with a time of 12.46. Martin James was next, in 102nd place with a time of 13.03. Then Michelle Ward and Marie-Louise Taylor came in in 42nd and 43rd place in the women’s race, in a time of 15.58. Amazing performances all. Some great stories to tell, but I won’t try to tell anyone else’s story here.
Big bowl of porridge 90 minutes before the start.
Peanut butter sandwich and water for the first twenty miles.
Plenty of malt loaf, then a caffeinated tailwind for the next five miles.
More malt loaf, then just water for the next ten miles to take me to 35 miles.
Some cereal bar and water to get me to 40 miles.
Chocolate coffee beans, then a caffeinated tailwind in a lot of water (1300ml?) for the last ten miles.
Not much I would change here – everything felt right.
Was a lot colder than I thought, and I ended up wearing my waterproof jacket for about half of the race. The rest of the time I had it tied round my waist, which worked well.
Never needed my map.
My reservoir was quite hard to open at times. Some people at the checkpoints helped me. Maybe I can get some lubricant for it. Need to look into that.
Can’t believe I forgot to put suncream on. Huge error, and Simon totally saved me by taking some in his pack. Can’t forget that next time!
My watch worked brilliantly. 40% battery left at the end. I used it mainly for the average pace.
My Merrell trail crushers were great for performance, but a bit insubstantial and flimsy for some of the tough terrain. Not sure I’d recommend them. They’re more for easy trails. But they did feel comfy for the whole race.
My Salomon running pack was brilliant. Nothing to fault there. And I’d definitely use a water reservoir again for an event like this.
It was fine running it in a vest. The only thing is that the suncream on my shoulders got rubbed off, and I should have re-applied. Got a bit burnt.
Thoughts on training
I didn’t do crazy miles at all leading up to this event. But I did do some quite solid hill work. I think that paid off well, as I had no cramp issues on the day, and the hills felt easy (I was only walking them after all).
Weekly elevation gain in the weeks leading up to the race:
I also did a few 20+ mile runs, but not many. About four. It felt good to do 22 miles at a steady pace two weeks before the race. I’d definitely do that again.
I probably over-tapered, but given my performance it clearly didn’t matter much! I’m happy to believe that all the hard work should already be done four weeks before a race.