Ranger Ultras Pennine Bridleway 270km
Since the Spine Race I have had a bit of a void that needed filling. I spotted the PB270 as it is more commonly known that would fill the gap whilst still being a significant challenge. The Bridleway runs from Middleton Top, near to Matlock in Derbyshire through to Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria, running slightly West to the better known Pennine Way. The Bridleway runs along well defined tracks and roads and there is still some 6,500 metres of elevation to contend with, albeit there were no real individual ascents over 400 metres.
Start at Middleton Top
Start (Middleton Top) to Checkpoint 1 (Hayfield) - (37 miles)
The first 15 or so miles are along an old railway bed so were very flat and runnable. I knew this was going to play to my strength so the plan was to just go out at a pace that felt easy and expect to take an early lead. This was pretty much exactly what happened and despite there being some long straight sections I was out of sight. I always knew that I would eventually run out of steam as I transition from my marathon type background into a shuffle later on in the race. Despite this section working to my strength, the pacing was a challenge as there were no real sections to take a small breather. Normally, in races of this type there may be the odd hill that you are forced to walk but nothing of the sort here.
Feeling good early on.
After about 18 miles I entered a gorge that eventually crosses the River Wye. I was starting to feel it in the legs a little by this point and as I took a look back across the valley I could see second place. I guessed that I was therefore about 8 minutes or so ahead. I was quite impressed that someone was relatively close by considering how fast I had started. It therefore also told me, that in all likelihood as I slowed down into my natural pace for the long haul that I would be overtaken at some point later on in the day.
About half way to Hayfield.
The day started to get very warm and I started to struggle in the middle third of the course. I also ran out of water altogether a couple of miles before the aid station. In reality though, I started to ration my water beforehand so had been drinking far less than I had needed. My pace pretty much fell off a cliff and I was shuffle jogging for the most part. I got to Rushop in the early afternoon and was told that second was now only a few minutes behind. It didn't surprise me and I was expecting to be overtaken anytime soon. This eventually happened about 3km out from Hayfield and other than exchange pleasantries I made no attempt to hold on to Peter, the new leader. I eventually rocked into Hayfield at about 3.45pm, a couple of minutes behind.
At the second water station, about 9km from Hayfield.
Amazing scenery not far from the first checkpoint.
At the checkpoint I had a more meaningful conversation with Peter, it turned out he put in quite an effort to catch me than he was otherwise planning to and was slightly perturbed when I said that from this point onwards I would more or less be walking the majority! Due to the cold forecast overnight I decided to take a second mid-layer with me. After some food, I left about half an hour after arriving, still a couple of minutes down on the race lead, my legs now very tired but ready for a long overnight leg to Hebden Bridge.
Leaving the first checkpoint at Hayfield.
Checkpoint 1 (Hayfield) to Checkpoint 2 (Hebden Bridge) - 46 miles (83 total)
I set off towards Checkpoint 2 with my legs having considerably stiffened and I could do no more than walk for the first 20 mins or so. Eventually, although my legs were tired I managed to break into a slow jog as I was keen to make what progress I could in the daylight. Quite early on I bumped into a V70+ fell runner who was going at a cracking pace and we had a chat for a bit where I explained what I was up to. He told me that the Pennine Bridleway didn't really exist in this section due to land issues and it explained why it reverted more back to a classic footpath. The views were amazing in the late afternoon and this section had it all - clear views of high rises in the distance (Manchester?), rolling hills, small villages (including my only true stop during the trip to get a bottle of coke), past some reservoirs with amazing shadows from the setting sun. Eventually, near Uppermill the sun had set to the extent that I could no longer read my GPS and at about 8.45pm I decided I had to put my head torch on. This coincided with what was probably the most bizarre section of the Bridleway, a sort of disused railway line that passed through what was quite an urban environment and I remember passing through a car park for the local squash club.
As soon as the sun went it started to get very cold on the exposed moors and I was glad that I had opted for a second mid-layer. During the middle of the night I passed through Brun Clough and I seemed to have made a nav error by not taking the right diversion. I never realised and I certainly went where I intended so can only assume that I had not uploaded the latest GPX track into my GPS unit. Oops. At the water station just beyond I was told that the leader was now well ahead, much as I expected, but no one was near to me behind either so I expected to be by myself into Hebden Bridge. The rest of the night had fairly little to note, I was not feeling sleepy which was a good sign, I was continuing to move at a shuffle jog but had no more in the tank than this. I had long estimated that I would enter the checkpoint at or near to first light and so it proved. I reached Hebden Bridge at about 5.30am.
About 1 minute before entering the checkpoint I crossed paths with Peter who was leaving. I wasn't sure whether this was intentional, to ensure he left as I arrived but as it turned out he arrived about 2 hours before me and took a 1 hour sleep. I decided to carry on as I was still very alert and left after only 50 minutes, having had 3 slices of a small pizza and some apple pie with custard. I also made a few feet repairs, mainly caused by rubbing from my ankle brace.
It may seem like the race between the two of us was still on, having reduced the gap to just 50 minutes, but honestly this wasn't my thinking at all. It was just different sleep strategies in effect, Peter having banked an hour. As far as I was concerned I was more interested in what was happening behind than in front. Weirdly though, I was not interested in my final race position, I just wanted to finish having had 2 previous Spine Race DNF's to my name out of 3 attempts.
Checkpoint 2 (Hebden Bridge) to Checkpoint 3 (Settle) - 43 miles (126 total)
The exit out of Hebden Bridge involves a small section that overlaps with the way in. About 2/3rds of the way through this section, I passed third place and we had a brief chat. I reckon he was about 20 minutes from the checkpoint, so in effect I was 40 minutes ahead and he said that he aimed to be in and out in 20-30 minutes, so if correct it would give me a lead of about 1hr 15mins, but I suspected it would be difficult to do a turnaround in such a short space of time.
I knew at some point during the day there would be a strong chance that the runners from the PB137 race that were starting at 8am would catch me (I left the check point at about 6.35am so had a 1hr 25min head start). At around lunchtime my feet were now getting incredibly sore, simply due to the amount of hard paths and road having an accumulating effect and my shuffle was by this point so slow that for the first time I cracked open my walking poles. It just helped to take some of the pressure off my feet, but from this point onwards it was poles all the way to the finish. During the afternoon I got overtaken by a couple of the PB137 runners and in one or two places I had to stop, simply because I was so tired and needed to take the pressure off my feet. My plan was to take a nap, but truth be told I was just not sleepy tired enough.
Barnoldswick on the 2nd afternoon.
Towards the end of the day I was just getting slower and slower and my target of getting to Settle before last light was now looking unlikely. At Long Preston there was just the final long climb before an equally long descent into Settle. For some reason, I had enough dawdling and I started to march/run with purpose and it was only the last 2km or so into Settle where I needed to put the head torch on. I arrived into the checkpoint at about 9.15pm. I went in absolutely starving, but for some reason I could only manage a little over half the small pizza that had been rustled up for me. Despite feeling sleep deprived, I still felt alert enough to continue, but I knew this would make it harder on me than I needed it to be. I was not in a race position and I wasn't bothered about defending my 2nd position. This was all about just getting to the finish in one piece. I took 1hr 45min of very poor quality sleep as every time I moved my feet it resulted in lots of discomfort. Despite this, the time passed quickly so I must have had some sleep. By the time I started to get ready there were a 3 others asleep but it was difficult to tell who else was racing and whether they were in the PB137 or PB270. I was in and out of the checkpoint in about 2hrs 25mins.
Checkpoint 3 (Settle) to Finish (Kirkby Stephen) - 42 miles (168 total)
Heading back out there was an immediate climb and for some reason I drifted off the Bridleway. I later found out it seemed to be a common mistake so wasn't just me. I knew Peter, the leader was by now many hours ahead so it was just a case or getting to the finish at Kirkby Stephen and hopefully in the daylight. It was immediately clear that although the previous night was very windy, tonight was even worse. It was easily gale force and it coincided with advanced sleep deprivation issues I was starting to get. At no point was I ever into the stage of seeing things like in the Spine Race, but it was more of it just being an uncomfortable sensation. Balancing this somewhat though was the fight or flight mode of having to deal with the windy conditions. For a good couple of hours I was looking for a suitable place to have a brief snooze, but the upland moors were so exposed it wouldn't have been safe. I eventually found a dry stone wall next to a gate where it was just about shielded from the wind and I used the opportunity to put on an extra mid-layer whilst I was still relatively warm (a lesson from the Spine not to leave it to the point of when you actually need the layer) and I fell asleep on top of some nettles for about 8 mins.
I'm not sure the sleep totally refreshed me, but it was good enough for the next couple of hours as dawn broke. At times I could have really done with a third mid-layer, it was so cold overnight but as the morning sun gradually rose it warmed up a bit. Just after crossing the railway line near Selside, I decided to take a second snooze for 10 mins in a sink hole. I'm not sure I ever really needed the sleep, it was as much an excuse to just get out of the gale force wind for a bit. Following that it was the Cam High Road, which although has a fearsome reputation I have done twice before and never found it that bad (but is also where I lost the sensation in the tips of my fingers last January trying to put an extra layer on in -10c conditions). I have always done this section in the dark, but this time it was late morning and I can now see why it has the reputation it does. It just went on and on with loads of false peaks. Its just a case of grinding it out.
I reached the final water stop at Kidhow Gate to be told that third was 3 hours or so behind, so with about half of the stage left I could afford to dawdle a bit and that is exactly what I did. Again, not really needing a snooze, I took one anyway for another 10 mins by a pond on the other side of the main road that goes towards Hawes. There was then a section before Garsdale where the wind was off the scale bad. I couldn't put my walking poles on the ground, was unable to walk in a straight line and there was one field gate that I really struggled to close. It took about 6 attempts to get it latched, every time I got close there would be a gust that would push me forward and the gate would be wide open again. Any stronger and I suspect it would have blown me off my feet.
I had a bit of a low point on the long stretch towards Garsdale that includes a significant section of road. Along here I met my wife who walked with me for a bit with my son in the baby carrier rucksack. My feet were so sore I just wanted the road section to end. Dropping into Garsdale meant there was now just 11 or so miles left and I could literally count down the kilometres to the finish. It also meant a greater opportunity for faffing, once messing with my kit just outside the pub and then I had a lovely final 10 minutes kip before the final ascent of the Bridleway, out of the wind and in the warming sun. I was really taking the 'taking it easy' thing a bit too literally.
Trudge down to Garsdale - feet so sore, but just about 12 miles to go at this point.
With about 6 or so miles to go the Bridleway actually finishes (which happens to be at a road head in the middle of nowhere which is a bit bizarre) and we then take an extension into Kirkby Stephen. My wife saw me for the final time here and gave me a bit of a talking to. It was somewhere along the lines of I love you and everything, but just to let you know that 3rd is only about 5km behind (I thought she said 3km) and you really should try to finish 2nd after all this time.
About half a mile from the official finish of the Bridleway, but still 6 miles or so from the end of the race.
It was the spur I needed and I started to fly, or at least fly relative to having 260km already in your legs. Its amazing what you can dig out when needed and all of a sudden I had a pace that didn't exist in the last 36 hours. I now kept looking behind to see what was behind me and despite my injection of pace, with about 3km to go I could see someone with poles chasing me down about 1 minute behind. I couldn't believe it. I then just caned it quite frankly and didn't see him again. Deep down I was pretty sure that whoever I saw was not in the race, but I didn't want to leave it to chance.
Now onto the final stretch and an incentive to get moving!
In the end I reached Kirkby Stephen in second place in a time of 55hr 35min. The race organisers and volunteers like to welcome everyone home, but having run the final few km so quickly I was only 30 seconds or so away from having finished before they were ready! I was many hours behind the winner and about 1hr 15mins ahead of 3rd.
I clearly could have finished much quicker, but this was also a race to enjoy. I was also pleased to finish the way I did, at a good pace and still lucid, unlike the Spine in January where I was a total mess. It was a good little race, that is well run and has something there for everyone ranging from Elite through to those whose mission is just to finish. It was also still a challenge, some of the conditions out there were pretty brutal overnight with the wind and wind chill that went with it, but its those sorts of challenges that make the event 'fun' - type 2 fun as I think it can be called! As always, thanks for the volunteers who make the race what it is. Certainly, by the end we were all on first name terms.
Going forward, the plan is to rest up over the next week or two, gradually build up training and perhaps enter more of the Ranger Ultras events over shorter distances that are much more my forte from September onwards.