Chamonix Mountains

Chamonix Mountains

Monday, 11 December 2017

Surviving the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra

With 55 miles of the finest Northumberland fell and almost 10000ft of ascent, there were plenty of reasons not to enter the inaugral Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra on Sat 2 Dec 2017. Somehow, I still found myself in Ingram village hall at 0430 on that very day! The snow on the Thursday before the race had done nothing to ease my fears of how tough this race would be. As the volunteers at kit- check correctly said, I knew what to expect and that was part of the problem. I did know how bad this could be and it had worried me ever since I entered the race! It was a totally unmarked course with just one indoor checkpoint and no other feed stations en route. I couldn't work out how people would know the way if they had never been to the Cheviots before. There are not always paths and much of the race could be in bad weather or darkness - or both!

After joining in with an organised recce day, I realised that most people rely on GPS watches. In many ways, I don't agree with this but I felt that I might need some reassurance, particularly if I ended up totally alone during the race. I really did not want to end up tired, cold and lost, miles from anywhere on the Border ridge. Two kind Harriers friends lent me GPS devices and although I hadn't used them before, I felt reassured that I had an electronic route to refer to. I also had a waterproof OL16 map, marked up with the full route, my compass, lots of layers and a drop-bag full of kit, including a big coat in case the weather really came in. Obviously, I had everything on the kit list and more, especially gloves, hats and lots of thin layers.

As I ate my pre-race jam sandwich and chatted to Ben Rowley, who seemed likely to skip across the snow with his lopping strides, Pavel Paloncy slept nearby on the hall floor. Pavel is a highly respected endurance athlete and I was interested to meet him and see how he would fare in the race against the likes of local favourites Jim Mann and Andy Berry. When he finally got up, about 25 mins before the race start, I was amazed at how tall and strong he looked. I find it interesting how people of all sizes can be good endurance runners.

After a clear and informative safety briefing from Drew and a bit of panicking with the GPS watch, it was 0530 and time to start! My usual race plan is not to think about it all and to do whatever feels right at the time, trying not to be influenced by those around me, especially if they are people that I don't know. I felt that I had a good understanding of how (awfully!) this race could pan out and I knew that there was a loooonnng way to go. With that all in mind, I set off conservatively jogging a bit, but mostly walking as the start was snow-covered, uphill and into the wind. I could run it, but this is the time to conserve energy that you will surely need later, in my opinion. I got chatting to a couple who were making good progress with their poles and wondered why I wasn't using mine, so they kindly helped me get them out and I immediately felt that they were a good idea. I have only ever used poles in one other event (UTMB), but this race turned out to really need them and I used them throughout to help me keep my balance and also 'tap out' infront to identify icy spots. From the photos, it seems that most people did the same.

We were moving well along the track and fortunately didn't miss the first right turn. I was grateful of the watch at this point as I didn't know this section of the route, but footprints in the snow confirmed that it was the correct direction. As I went through the gate, I looked around me and saw Joe Faulkner striding along on one side and Peter Moralee scuttling along on the other. Little did I know that this would be how my day would pan out, but now I am so grateful that it did. Peter runs parts of the route regularly and he knew exactly where he was and we passed the first couple of hours until the sun eventually rose, chatting, taking care to get the correct paths and to stay upright on the melting slushy snow.

At the 10 mile marshal point, there was some water. Joe quickly filled up his drinks 'pouch', I took a cupful in my collapsible cup and Peter needed some faffing time so he told us to go on. I felt a bit bad leaving him, but he knew what he was doing. Joe and I pushed on over Bloodybush Edge and Cushat Law, with me chuntering on about being careful not to go too far to the right after the forest. As we dithered over path choice, Peter caught us up, dished out some kind of  "I can't leave you on your own for 5 minutes...." type of comments and we were three again. This was another common theme of the day! I still don't know how Peter kept catching us up as I was struggling to keep up with Joe most of the time. Maybe, like me, he would rather be together in this race than alone. Of all of us, he fully knew the extent of the challenge still to come. We kept each other company across miles of snow covered bogs and fells which started to feel like they lasted forever and only went uphill. Eventually, we started to drop down to Shillhope where some local spectators had come out onto the route to laugh at our suffering!

We then had one final 'up and over' Shillhope Law to the Barrowburn checkpoint which was billed as 'half way' but I suspect it to be more like 26 miles into a 55 mile race! Our drop bags were waiting and soup was being served. There was also a sofa and coal fire. This may sound lovely and in many respects it is, but there was nothing to be gained by resting here! I had planned to do a full change of clothes, but the weather wasn't too bad, my feet were comfortable and my dry shoes were less aggressive which I didn't think would benefit me much in the thawing conditions.  Allon kindly found my dry tops and I quicky changed all of my layers for fresh ones whilst trying to eat the rather chunky soup and replenish my food stocks ready for a long night. During this process, Joe shouted across the room that he was going in 5 minutes and to "beware the chairs" ! My best chance was to go with Joe and Allon quickly helped me get ready because he would know this too. I could see Peter still busy getting changed as he had fallen coming down the slippery hill into the checkpoint when he and Joe had whizzed on ahead of me. I called to him that Joe was ready and once again, he said to go on. Luckily in the busy checkpoint I remembered my to fill my water from the tap. That would have been a really bad mistake, but easy to do as there was so much going on. I was pleased to get out of the checkpoint as we had arrived at a busy time and it was too hot, crowded and chaotic for me and it was better just to keep going. We had about 4 miles along the road now and this is about the only place that I could have gone faster (or run!) but most other fell types don't like tarmac, so Joe and I marched along, probably as quick as I would have run! It was a pleasant surprise to see Peter catching us up again and by the time we headed up Deel Hill, we were three yet again!

I had hoped to try to get as much of the route done in daylight, but realistically knew that this would not be as far as Windy Gyle. We took the right fork and headed along to the border fence which we would now follow for most of the rest of the race. Joe was really pushing on and Peter and I kept exchanging weary mutterings and glances. We had planned to get layered up at the hut on Lamb's Hill where we could briefly go inside and shelter and Joe had realised that we could get there by 4pm if we pushed on for a couple of miles. It was lovely to have a brief chat with the marshals whilst we got organised for the rapidly approaching darkness. We heard that Jim Mann and Andy Berry were still close together at the front of the men's race and that they were on Cheviot whilst at the other end of the race, a large group had finally decided to move from in front of the fire at Barrowburn, just before the checkpoint closed. We carried on at a good pace, pleased to have made it to the hut in daylight and be well on the way to Windy Gyle. There seemed to be some discussion about how far away it was but ultimately it didn't matter as we were going there anyway!Darkness fell quickly as we continued our long snowy march onto some slightly more familiar ground, some of which forms part of the Windy Gyle fell race held in the much friendly month of June! As we passed through the gate and headed uphill, I knew that we were closing in on the aptly named top. We were greeted by the marshal's bouncy dogs and I wished that I felt as energetic as they were ! Peter wanted to sort out his various powders and potions and sent us on ahead once more. It was too cold to hang about so we took a handful of Haribo and headed onto the path towards Cheviot. I had done this section twice with different people and they had both taken different paths away from the summit, aiming for the fence and then crossing it. Joe was following the footsteps in the snow on the other side of the fence to what I thought. I also remembered a flag stone path but I wasn't certain and we couldn't see it. In the end, we crossed the wire fence and followed a snowy trod. I think this was the same route that I had reccied, but maybe the path was just disguised by the ice and snow. It was starting to get really windy and I decided that I should put my waterproof trousers on, just to prevent my legs getting really cold. There was a damp misty feel to the air and conditions were starting to deteriorate. Joe kindly waited for me and this allowed Peter's headtorch to come into view once more. I was pleased to have Peter back with us as I know that I wouldn't like to be alone as we headed up towards Cheviot along the Pennine Way (which is indeed an obvious flag stone path in daylight!). It seemed like forever as we marched along the snowy path into the icy mist. I struggled to keep up with the guys on the uphill sections and as the visibility deteriorated, their headtorches kept going out of sight. I really hoped that they wouldn't leave me, but I had no right to expect them to wait either. This section was probably one of the most mentally demanding for me and I think that psychologically I really just wanted to be at Cheviot as this was a symbolic point in the race, I felt. I did ask Peter whether we were anywhere near at one point, although I felt like asking a million times, but I feared the answer. As it was, the visibility and darkness were so bad that even Peter confessed to not really knowing exactly where we were. Anyway, it didn't matter we were just going to have to go however far it was. I do know that the ascent of Cheviot is not that steep from Windy Gyle and I also thought that it was a couple of miles or so to the 'out and back' point and thankfully we got there soon enough. We were greeted by a cheery marshal and a Union Jack flag and instructed to go to the summit and then come back to him. This bit was actually ok. I think the stone path had been icier in the Wooler Marathon a couple of weeks before. I was happy to get to the white cairn, recently re-painted by two of our friends. Joe and Peter put on another layer of mitts and we quickly turned around and headed back down at a good trotting pace, mindful of the ice and other runners coming up. It was nice to see some other competitors as we had felt like the only ones in the race for quite some time! I don't think we had met anyone else since Barrowburn. Peter was not looking forward to the section across to Hedgehope. On the recce weekend, this had been a particularly awful experience consisting of deep peat bogs which were crossed with caution on an indistinct path, often using the fence as a climbing frame in some obstacle race type of fashion. This had the potential to be the grimmest of grim sections and could take a very long time to cover a short distance.

As we turned away from Cheviot, the snow was knee deep and soft and difficult to descend on. I am always mindful of not getting injured during these events and this was certainly not a place to twist an ankle! I did think that my kids would love to see all of this fresh white snow and I also thought of Iain Twaddle and a conversation we had had a few weeks ago about thinking of being light on your feet. I also thought he would be much better at that than me and would make a nice video of it too! Peter stopped at some point to check his phone as he could hear a message which turned out to be from his son who wanted to let him know that his team had won their rugby match and to say well done to his Dad. This was a nice reminder that there were other people 'out there'. Joe asked if we were all warm enough which we were - the stress of the snowy descent certainly kept me warm!! We had about 4k (apparently) to follow the fence to Hedgehope and Peter led us confidently across the potentially boggy section which was now sheet ice in places and had three or four deep troughs, one of which I thought I might perish in and almost had to call the guys back to help me out of! They allege that they had seen my headtorch emerge!!

Soonish after this horribleness, we saw the light from the marshal's headtorch, probably running around to keep warm, close to Hedgehope summit. We arrived at this freezing cold, snowy place, exchanged a few words with the marshal and climbed the fences to enter the final section of the race. For me, this was the point of being 'nearly there', as most of the hard work was done and we had successfully negotiated Windy Gyle, Cheviot and Hedgehope. I think it was probably still about 5-6 miles to the finish and I knew this would take a while in the dark, slippery conditions. I remember coming this way in the recce and being amazed at how long it took to get to the crags eventhough we were running, so I knew that this was not going to be over quickly. There was a lot of snow on the descent again and we repeatedly fell and sank, but luckily the landings were soft. There is also one more climb which is not much really, but after 50 miles it feels much bigger than it is. We negotiated this and took the direct fence line through crags. Meanwhile, we filled Joe in on the details of the rest of the route so that he knew what to expect. He asked if there was anything of interest to look for and I struggled to think of anything, but in attempt to be positive, I suggested that there was maybe a gate at some point before the road ! I also remembered that there was a left fork to watch out for as we remarked on the recce that it would be easy to miss the indistinct path. Peter led us confidently along a quad track with the fence still in sight, but we didn't see the faint left fork and ended up questioning our route 'choice'. At this point, we caught up with another competitor who was using a hand held GPS but seemed not too confident of where the path was. In the darkness, Peter couldn't pick out his usual route. I knew to head towards the red light on a pylon of some kind but that was just a general direction towards Reavley Hill. Before the race, Ben and I had spoken about this section and how it was the most difficult navigationally. We didn't want to go too far off track, so Joe got his map (and glasses!) out and Peter got his GPS revved up. My watch had inconveniently died by now! We identified a path heading in the correct direction and Peter soon remembered the building that you pass infront of and the wall which you follow down to the road. This section is not obvious and there were no footprints to follow as we were now below the snow level. The road is not visible from the fell until you get quite close to it. For the final time, Joe opened the gate and our feet hit the tarmac. This was the moment that I had been waiting for. I have learnt that it is a good idea to know where the finish is (!) and I had reccied this bit, so started to run along the road. My fell running friends did not seem as happy as me with the change in surface and muttered unpleasantries ! It was at this point where my competitive head switched on and I really didn't want to be overtaken in the last mile, especially not by any women. We had last seen a group of ladies heading up Cheviot when we were coming down and I had no idea how quickly they would have covered the final challenging section. We had no idea where we were in the race field and in many ways, we didn't care as we were all glad that we were going to finish this amazing event. There had been a section much earlier on in the day where we had gradually overtaken people at a staeady rate, leading me to believe that we were doing ok as as none of these had caught us back up again and gone ahead. Most of the hours of darkness, we had only had each others company which I was so grateful for. I think I would have been much slower on my own and my morale would have been much lower. I know that we all had to push on when we probably didn't feel like it during the course of the race, but just having the companionship of the other two made it all more bearable. We walked miles in the snow, mist and dark silently pushing each other to the finish of the epic winter ultra.

And so we arrived back at Ingram and the much anticipated finish at the cafe doors. It was lovely to see Drew again and to recieve my hard earned medal from Jim and the kind applause of the volunteers who had awaited our arrival after monitoring our progress via the event trackers. We had hoped to be back by midnight and we were, all in basically one piece and glad to have survived. Joe was ready for a large pot of tea, but Peter and I both decided we would head home asap. I got changed and had a few slurps of coffee before packing up and starting my steady drive home. It is not something that I would really advise doing, but I needed to get home to my children as soon as I could and get to bed, ready for the next day (well, later that morning !)which would start with an early drive to Central Station as my eldest had a school trip. That is why there is ultimately only the choice of starting and finishing and doing my best to be in control and managing the middle bit, because in my head, I know that I have to get home.

Once I got home and showered and had a quick check on Facebook, I found out that some of my friends had kindly been 'dot-watching' most of the time. This has turned out to be almost a sport in itself and a great addition to races, allowing friends and famly to check on your progress and safety throughout the event. Most surprising of all, I found out from their reports, that I was actually 4th lady overall! I had been pleased to compete in and complete this race as it was an epic winter ultra and like nothing that I have done before. It doesn't really play to my strengths as there was not enough running and the rough snowy terrain isn't the best for little legs. Considering that it was won by Spine winner, Carol Morgan, I am absolutely delighted with that position and think that it was the best result that I could have hoped for on that day. I actually feel that I not only survived, but also that I succeeded, in the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra.

A massive "THANK YOU!" to -

  • Joe and Peter  - forever grateful for your company
  • Drew and all of the guys at Cold Brew Events who treat me like some kind of elite athlete and always go the extra mile - it is really appreciated
  • Andy and Darren (and holiday boy, Wayne) for a great recce weekend
  • the crazy locals who came out to support the even crazier runners, namely Kevin, Paul and Allon - your words were forever in my head, Kevin (& I followed your instructions, but it was really hard !)
  • Katy - for being my "Plan B"
  • Geoff - for being Geoff
  • Nina - for advice and race de-briefing - I love that you know more about my race than me
  • Dudley and Louise - for generously lending me their GPS devices
  • my 3 girls who are actually very nice young people and look out for each other whilst I roam around the Cheviots in the snow