All photos courtesy of Stuart Shipley and Stuart Holloway
Well that was the worst race I have ever done. The Hill Ultra aim is to complete fifty five times up and down a hill. I managed thirty times or ninety miles. Just a little over half way. The Race Director Mark Cockbain says that if he didn’t do extreme sports he would be a serial killer. Well he sent fifteen poor souls out on to the most horrendous course in atrocious conditions and he nearly got off to a good start.
But that is not really the place to begin. After failing Spartathlon for the second time, despite being trained by Cockbain, I wanted to try something as soon as possible to get my confidence back. Not long after Mark came up with The Hill Ultra. Fifty five times up and down a hill, in the Peak District, in winter, 160 miles long and 4 miles of elevation.
Training would be easy. I live in a village built on the side of the Taunus Mountains. Just run up and down there and I’d be sorted. In fact I did an overnight run, twelve hours up and down a one mile course covering forty six miles with one and half miles of elevation. Fit as a butcher’s dog me. But 12 hours & 45 miles and 26 hours & 90 miles are very different things.
My day started with a bus, train, tube and flight from Wehrheim to Manchester, then after renting a car I drove over the Peak District to Sheffield to pick up Jo Kilkenny. A bit of shopping for supplies later, back in the car to the other side of the Peak District to Macclesfield to pick up Nastsha Farid and Tom Foreman. Jo was pretty quiet in the car and I wasn’t sure if it was something I had said. But then Tom got into the car and I prayed for the silence to return. That man could talk all sixteen legs off an Arcturian MegaDonkey. He was talking so much he drowned out the voice of the sat nav. Great stories about Piece of Sting from Centurion Running though. It was amazing we made it to Buxton in time for supper at a nice little pasta place.
We drove up to the Cat and Fiddle. We were rather early, but it soon started to fill up with the idiots who were to be Mark’s guinea pigs. Seeing how dark it was and listening to the rain and wind lashing the building I have never felt more like a sacrificial lamb. I had bought tons of kit, but I still fretted about whether I had the right stuff. But then Drew Sheffield was sitting there in shorts...turned out he would run in them. Despite his protestations that skin is water proof and tights would soak up water and make a runner colder I still think he was mad. Nice chap, but mad.
Tom Foreman was still chatting away when I asked the barmaid for a pen.
“Are you going perform an emergency tracheotomy” he asked.
“Only if it would shut you up”
He then bought three Jack Daniels, not all for himself, although he did drink two as Natasha only wanted a sip.Some would say all his talking was nerves, but I reckon his is just naturally effusive and don’t forget he had done POS the previous week.
I finally decided on what to wear. A base layer of Craft Keep Warm top and shorts. Good to minus five according to the manufactures claims, and they were soon to be put to the test and passed admirably. I didn’t feel cold at all during the entire event.
Then Sealskinz, these are breathable double skin socks. They together my Asics GT Trail shoes from 21run.com kept my feet lovely and warm. In fact when my gloves were sodden after the half of the first night on the hill I put a spare pair of these on my hands and they were better than what I had on before.
My top layer was Montane Minimus Jacket and Trousers. In between was just a mixture of technical shirts, a fleece from TOG 24 that I use for snowboarding and bog standard adidas tights. I had an old builder’s high vis vest that I picked up on Deutschlandlauf and a Petzel torch.
Nutrition wise I had Sisgo bottles, Viper energy bars (they come loaded with 139mg of Caffine) for the night. Gu Gels and home made energy bars for the day.
The start was delayed due to some later arrivals and Drew and I hid in the pub while we waited for the slacker. At 8:15pm we set off with Richard Weremiuk guiding us down the A537 ( the most dangerous road in Britain) until the turn onto the trail. As we started up this I thought great it is going to be tarmac. After all Mark said it would be runnable and he loves tarmac to run on.
My hopes were soon dashed as the tarmac turned into a rain sodden slippy cobble field masquerading as a track. This angled upwards and turned sharply to the right at the top. Then we had a rutted track for the next half of the course. It was flattish; however the ruts so deep they filled with water and then a hump of grass in the middle that was so uneven you could not run on it. Half way along came a Gate that was shut and we had to negotiate a pool of ankle deep mud and water around the side of the gate. The track continued on for some way and then a couple of glow sticks indicated we turn left over a grass bank and down onto the Hill proper.The wind came up the hill so fast, Phil christened it Hurricane Alley. It buffeted you from one side to the other. At one stage I got blown into the electric fence, which was quite shocking.
At this point on the first lap Phil Smith and others missed the turn. To quote Tom Jones “getting lost on a single track, glow stick marked course, when following other runners who are going in the right direction is a skill set one can only admire.” Phil is a top bloke but does make silly mistakes. This is unfair as plenty of people even when the sun came up missed the turn. The wind blew so hard you lent over face down and your field of vision was a football sized circle of illumination cast by your head torch. Later in the night the rain stopped only to be replaced by freezing fog, which made your field of vision even smaller.
Then came the longest bit of the course, down a winding path made up of compacted gravel and mud this dropped down and for what seemed like an age and then climbed up again.
It was so dark and the path up the Hill so steep that it seemed as if we were heading for green stars in the sky. On several spots there was just mud and we had to skirt around them or risk losing our shoes. Finally when you got to the top is was another large area of shoe sucking mud to be avoided and then we could dip our key into one of two boxes to register that we had got to the top.
Then it was back down the route and a return to the Cat and Fiddle for refreshments and a second dip.Starting at 8:15pm meant we had a whole night of twelve hours to run before we saw day light. It was bloody awful. You couldn't see where you were going, if it wasn't raining and windy, it was foggy and even less visibility. Cockbain is an evil man for designing such a race. Remember to qualify for this race, the runner had to have completed at least one hundred mile race, so they are all tough cookies. However, by the morning of first day there were just eight left of the fifteen that started. It was horrendous.
The day was quite nice, the rain and windy let off a little and we could see where we were going. I kept trudging on mainly with Phil Smith. The windy meant we couldn’t converse a lot, but what we did do kept us entertained.
As we got closer to the evening dark clouds full of foreboding drew across the sky. Jo Kilkenny broke down and said she couldn't go through another night like the first one. I knew exactly what she meant and I thought as long as I got through the night I would be OK. It was a matter of being mentally strong enough to take the battering, as physically it wasn't too bad. OK the wind, the rain and the cold eat into you, but as long as you kept moving you stay warm.
I had an issue with my gloves getting wet. But after I put my Sealskinz,on my hands I was fine.
I was starting to lack energy but Stuart and Mark told me to keep eating and that would boost me back up again. “Remember the stomach is your furnace, keep it fed” one of them said.
Night fell around 5:30 and so that meant another fifteen hours of darkness. I kept plodding on and the field started to thin out again. After twenty or so hours on my feet nagging doubts started to creep in and I was then trying to fight them off. It was the same at Sparta,
“Why don’t you quit?” said the evil voice inside of me
“Because physically, I am fine” I reply
“But I am bored and we won’t finish, find a reason to stop”
“There is nothing wrong with us and what else would we do?”
“Sit in the cosy pub”
I find this the hardest thing to do on ultras. This internal voice that wants me to stop for no real reason.
It was about this time the hallucination started to kick in. They come gently at first. The green glow sticks seem to start moving towards me instead of me going to them. Especially on the steep bit they were flying out of the air at me. Then they started to spin and talk to me. They were evil bastards , although I have no idea what they said as I don’t speak glow stick.
I took a break in the camper van and started to talk to Stuart. Then I noticed somebody sitting next to him. I first asked Stuart if someone was sitting next to him. When he said yes, I then asked what colour jacket he was wearing. Stuart said blue and at that point I knew something was wrong. Because to me this guy had a big white beard and red jacket. It was Father Christmas.I couldn't work out if they were pulling my leg or not.
I set off again and as I reached the summit the wall behind the dipping boxes started to move up and down. I reached for the sign post beside of me, but that was moving as well. How the hell was I going to lean down and dip my key? I just collapsed on to my knees and crawled to it. As I left I explained my predicament to Bryan Rudd.
“Mate you need more food, here take some Haribo”
“Ok I don’t like Haribo “
“It does matter you need sugar”
I greedily stuffed them down my throat and felt a little better.
As I neared the Cat and fiddle, I first noticed the walls were breathing, slow in and out audible breaths.Then I noticed Jon Steele and Gavin Felton following me. I was starting to get paranoid and was convinced that Jon was trying to persuade Gavin to beat me up.
I got a bowl of pasta and went to the pub. As I sat trying to eat it the paranoia was getting the best of me. Phil Smith came over to talk to me. As he asked me if I was alright, his face started to melt in front of me. Like candle wax dripping down his face his forehead disappeared and then his eyeballs popped out.
Paranoia creep in
This was seriously weird and I thought get out again and get going and it will be alright. But I was frighten of Jon…so I went out with Riccardo Giussani who promised to protect me.
As we went over the first hill we came across Tom Jones, who was suffering. His quads were shot and after walking with him for some time he returned to base camp.
We crossed paths with Jon Steele and I went to shake his hand. I was trying to defeat my irrational thoughts. I only went out again when Riccardo offered to protect me. I defeated them by shaking his hand. I convinced my irrational mind that if Jon refused to shake my hand then I would chin him. My father always told me to get your retaliation in first.
The rest of the evening was a blur. I know now after twenty six and half hours it was enough. My evil voice got the better of me and gave up at around 11:45 on the second night.
I have spent a while chatting to people about why the defeatist voice conquers me. I can go down the steps in awful conditions and physically I am fine, but this voice keeps getting me to stop. Some very experienced runners I have talked to say they get the same thing. Praying for a dog to attack them, for example.
However I need to stop flopping around and know myself. I need to build a key to open the door to the way out. This year has been about building a base level of fitness. I got further than ever at Sparta and was one of the last few to drop out of a race that was created to be virtually unfinishable.
The Hill got me down the steps and put me face to face with the gatekeeper of the steps going up. The gatekeeper is me. Only I have the key....because no one else knows me, so no one else can help.