This is a write up for all the ultrarunners who don’t see themselves as ultrarunners!
Running has been that consistent hobby through my life that I’ve been able to take anywhere that I’ve lived. It usually costs so little anyone can do it. All you need is some cheapish trainers, a decent running bra (who knew Primark do a decent 2 for £8?), some running leggings and a T shirt, of which race T shirts I have plenty.
Having lived and worked in the Canadian Rockies, Lake District, Aberdeen and the North of England I’d been exposed to lots of outdoorsy activities; running, cycling, ski touring, walking and horse riding, so I am inclined to outdoor adventure.
Then, many years ago my husband showed me a write up on adventure racing, and then someone told me about ultras! Oops, well that was a mistake…
Not seeing myself as nearly fit enough for an ultra I thought I would volunteer. I’d done this for a while at Keswick Mountain Festival, watching in awe at the 50K ultra. Amazingly, although everyone was running what I thought was a phenomenal distance over some significant hills, they were all smiling and in a great mood. Sure, there was some exhausted looking people, but they still looked like they were having a good time.
The pandemic came along and with no exciting holidays to look forward to I decided to volunteer for a multistage ultra race, which is where I met Stu Westfield.
Volunteering at the back of the race in 2021 I met some kindred spirits. Not the elite athletes whom I’m in awe of, but the ‘normal’ people who are looking for a challenge and have some phenomenal stories which truly inspire me. Don’t get me wrong, these people are still proper athletes and are incredibly fit and disciplined. But I realised that maybe I could do what they were doing and have the amazing adventure that I could see them having. I was a bit envious and thought, I could do that!
So, in a foolish and rash moment, my new-found friend Viv and I signed up for a multi day ultra. Given I already knew Stu and what a safe pair of hands I’d be in, we signed up for the Peak District South and North 2 day ultra. Well, what an education. A fabulous 2 days of running, I learned so much about ultra running and it was the perfect lead into running other multi day events. The amazing thing about ultra running is that I’ve met some amazing sports women who are allowed to shine in this sport and be respected for their abilities. As a woman in my 50’s this hasn’t been so evident in other areas of my life.
At this event I met Hannah, with whom I raced this year’s PB270. Hannah was on a similar journey to me; we raced day 2 together and a solid friendship began.
Stu encouraged me to enter the inaugural Pennine Bridleway 270 km Ultra Challenge. Stu has always believed in me, I’m not sure I believed in myself so much. However, I kept going with the training, had the excitement of getting kit together (this is where the “cheap” sport of running goes out the window!) and I was there on the start line in 2022. I ended up being the only woman starting as the other female entry had withdrawn at the last minute. So, me and a wonderful group of 7 men started this inaugural race, backed by the RUSTies (Ranger Ultra Safety Team) crew, whom I was lucky to know and able to trust I was in safe hands.
Off we set, and I had the most amazing 24hrs of racing through some stunning scenery, the weather was incredible, well actually quite hot. I was at the back of the pack but this was okay, I knew I wasn’t going to be fast. Then an old shoulder injury began to niggle. I’d been out of circulation for well over a year with a work commute cycling accident which had taken a long time to heal, and I could feel the pain start from my pack. I had trained with this pack, but perhaps not so full and over such a long period. I was near Saddleworth and everything started to come crashing down. Had I reached Hebden Hay and got some sleep and rested my very sore feet and thought up a solution to my pack issue I perhaps could have kept going, but I think my lack of confidence in myself scuppered me and I DNF’d.
I went on to volunteer for the remainder of the race. This was a good thing to do as I saw runners I respected and had toed the start line finish, some through phenomenal challenge, and I also saw runners whom I also respected DNF too. The hot weather was a challenge and being out in it with such tough underfoot conditions was difficult. This gave me hope and inspired me that, despite the DNF I had achieved something and I did want to finish this race one day.
So, come the 19th April 2023, there I am toeing the start line again. I’m delighted to see some of my fellow DNF’ers Dave and Alan on the start line too, and I had a wonderful message from Sergio and wife Helen, our other fellow DNF’er. I’d had the most inspiring moment with Helen, watching Sergio finish the Winter full Spine race. Sergio didn’t need to slay this demon; he’d already done that in spectacular fashion.
My buddy Hannah and I are at the start, we are well prepared, we’d recced a lot of the route again in training. We reflect on there just being us 2 women starting, who will get the beautiful fastest lady trophy! To be honest, we’d both been on such personal journeys together racing and preparing for this race, neither of us could race ahead of the other. Both of us knew deep down we could complete without the other but it was never going to be as much fun as if we did this together. So, in my head, I was finishing with Hannah, though if she got up early at Settle and legged it without me, I’d have had to catch her!!
I knew I wanted company the first night. My imagination and love of watching murder mysteries (and perhaps because of my past job in the NHS) meant I liked the idea of having company around the Glossop loop. Why I worried I don’t know as in the 2 times I’ve completed this section at night the worst I met was 2 lovely young men hanging out chatting and a grumpy badger!
Off we go at the rear of the pack with our comrades, Ian, John, Craig, me and Hannah. I saw Bobby, last year’s winner run ahead and mentally wished him luck. Dave and Alan trotted ahead; in my mind I wanted them to finish as I knew of their disappointment with their DNF at Hebden last year. I knew they had it in them too; in safety team duties I’d also seen in Alan finish a gruelling race in January, so his legs would remember the job!
All went well the first day to Hayfield, such a nice section, the sun shone, and food supplies were good with lots to chat about…sorry serious racing to be done! We see Rob taking photos on the way. There is a lot of effort in looking out for him to make sure we are running as we pass him (on my part), as we can’t risk the possibility that he’ll take a shot of us walking and not looking majestic!
We had a good short break here in the official food stop at CP1. Thanks to Georgina and crew we had an amazing meal and added layers for the night. Less faffing for later!
The night came and we were joined by Ian. People matter so much to me, perhaps that’s lucky given my job, but meeting and journeying with others is such a pleasure. We chatted with Ian and heard much about what was important to him. The night was chilly but we were through efficiently thanks to recces and good map reading.
Here starts the Hannah and Lizzie PB270 guide to coffee and tea stops!!
It’s about 7am, we hadn’t yet needed to stop, however we were all beginning to get tired. The map wasn’t forthcoming with luxuriant possibilities for coffee and a toilet breaks as it was too early for most opening times. My brain had some roaring fire with comfy chairs and steaming delicacies being brought to me however, as a waft of chlorine passed us, we were over the moon to find Saddleworth Leisure centre. It was open as daft people were out early exercising just like us!
We hummed and hawed if it was a private gym, however it did turn out to be a public gym and the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming with their highly technical coffee and crisp/flapjack dispenser (with no sleep this was a test!!), a toilet and sink to wash hands and some comfy chairs to sit……. absolute luxury. I had a misty-eyed moment and I think the receptionist saw how desperate we were. I even got 2 mins sleep (if that) which I felt guilty about for the next few hours as it was so reviving. Hannah and Ian missed this.
As a sporty place people seemed to recognise our endeavours and even came out of their morning classes to congratulate us, marvellous!
Suitably revived we headed on. It’s fair to say this next section is gruelling and one I was worried about due to my DNF, if I could get to Hebden, all would be well.
Thankfully, this section is also replete with hostelries!
At about 8.30am we reached The Diggle Hotel. After an initial uncertainty if their kitchen was open due to them just having cleaned, these absolute gems served us coffee, sausage buns for Hannah and Ian (veggie me a tomato one), fruit, cake a fab bench to perch on and loos. What can I say, more misty-eyed moments and thanks to these lovely people.
Onwards as we were ahead of John and Craig! This section was long and tiring, required many loo stops and the highlight (or not) was the lack of a fried egg sandwich at an unofficial fuelling stop, Bank Top Farm, where we gratefully used their loo in exchange for a flapjack purchase.
Thankfully we knew that the next unofficial fuelling stop, the Summit pub, was coming and we collapsed into their warm arms at about 6pm. We must have been a sight. All of us drank, we ate (very good skin-on fries) and Hannah slept where she sat. We also met John here. Again, suitably revived we pulled ourselves together and headed for Hebden Hey.
I don’t want to put anyone off this section but, although the Hebden area is beautiful, as part of a multi-day ultra the less said about this section the better. However, we had a wonderful welcome by the CP2 RUSTies crew when we got there, they were fabulous and had a real bed to lie in!! We had made it! My relief was overwhelming and I almost skipped down the path to the Scout centre (not advisable as it’s quite steep and rocky). I had a good 3-4 hours sleep here and a good meal, shower etc. I woke up feeling pretty good and I knew I would finish now.
Don’t get me wrong the section from Hebden to Settle is tough, however this was my easiest section. Just Hannah, Craig and I set off together from Hebden as the 2 other racers in the check point DNF’d. Lack of sleep and health issues becoming too much, I had an idea how they felt, it’s so disappointing but there is always another day.
Onward to Wycoller, a pretty medieval village. We had a lovely picnic here but there was no food to buy. The loos and benches are a great spot to stop (collapse in a heap and be stared at by sightseers). My vegan Firepot meal was lacking in the flavour I wanted but along with the zillion other foodstuffs in my pack it filled me up and kept me fuelled. More homemade coffee here. There are some amazing stone bridges and fascinating history on this section, it’s a treat.
As we travelled along the next section in the rain, we became very wet and knew we had a water stop coming up at Paythorne. A very kind RUSTie met us at another unofficial fuelling stop, The Buck Inn. They kindly let us shelter in their conservatory and eat toast, sticky toffee pudding and drink caffeinated drinks and use their loos. We could have eaten more but they had stopped serving due to the time. However, they still tried their best to feed us, again so accommodating and kind. We had a good laugh with other customers as we looked a bit wet, but it was a great morale boost. Thank you to Mr RUSTie for asking the pub ahead of us arriving if they could accommodate us for a quick stop.
We had a sleep in a bus stop at Long Preston before the last push. I lay there in my bivvy just enjoying having my feet up as no sleep came.
The evening brought more rain, so we ‘ran’ into CP 3, Settle Scout hut absolutely soaked but over the moon to get there. Apparently my Strava looks quite good for this last hill into Settle as we were motoring on to get out of the rain and cold. We were greeted by Martin (who ran last year) and Eddy (from Spine and other running endeavours), I think I blubbed a bit. I was so grateful and pleased to see them both and it was so nice knowing them from other races. Ultra runners like to give back.
After emptying the water out of everything, we were able to put wet clothes on radiators. Hot showers and food were had and some more blessed sleep. I woke after 3 hrs and looked over to Hannah who looked to still be sleeping. Should I sneak out and pretend to have already left as we’d joked the day before? No, lie there a bit longer. Once awake the RUSTies again looked after us superbly. Craig wanted us out by 8.30 or 9am and I’d like to point out I was ready on time!
The Settle to Kirkby Stephen section is my favourite bit. I don’t live far from Kirkby Stephen and enjoy training in this area. I headed off looking forward to the fried egg sandwich I knew Elaine’s Café at Feizor could do. We had a lovely chat with a man walking his dog and landed in time for second breakfast. Here Hannah and Craig didn’t need much persuading to stop and in fact the sandwich changed to a full breakfast. I can completely recommend the vegan full breakfast here. The lovely Elaine dried our gloves and hats on her aga. After more coffee and some very kind comments from others in the café, we set off.
The final day is always hard, you know you are nearly there but it’s still so far. RUSTie Tony met us at Austwick (Not far from Clapham Bottoms!) and laughed with us about our well published antics (by Hannah) eating our way up the bridleway. It was so nice to see his smiling face and good humour.
Onwards to High Cam Road. We had an amazing mini bivvy sleep at Long Scar above Clapham Bottoms, it was dry for once, the skylarks were singing at full voice, curlews and plover were calling and the sun was out. Some cyclists came past and asked why we were sleeping, and we chatted easily with them about the race; they seemed genuinely impressed!
I don’t think I’m the only one, but the Cam High Road and I have had our struggles. As many will be aware, the Cam High Road can go on a bit! Desperation was just beginning to waver in me, would there be a RUSTie sanity stop coming up? Just as Hannah and Craig were contemplating taking an intervention out on me, we heard Kodi banging some pots. I think I blubbed again. I thought that Pete would be there, but it sounded so quiet initially, surely I’d hear Pete from miles away! Then the noisier clamouring began as Pete, Kodi and Martin were making the most amazing noise. I lay down in the road at Pete’s van, my feet were a bit sore, I drank and snacked, listened to the banter. Thank you guys, it always lifts the heart. Pete commented that I might get run over if a car came. I don’t think I cared.
So, the final section is in our sights, I’m feeling quite emotional, this has been such a journey and I’ve been so lucky to make a friend like Hannah along the way. You meet some amazing people doing this sport. Hannah and I had been so impressed with Craig and the challenge he’d set himself raising money for charity, and he was finishing successfully in style with 2 gorgeous chicks (ahem, wet, muddy, dubious things escaping from our noses and more knowledge of my digestive habits than anyone should really know). But we were doing it.
We had planned to stop at Garsdale Head train station (I got it right, not -stang or -grave!! Sorry private joke), RUSTie Sean met us here. I needed to keep it together as this RUSTie is my hubby. Stay strong, don’t cry, don’t ask for a lift home, accept the hug he gives to us all. We lie down in the warmth of the station waiting room and eat and rest for an hour and the loos are open too, thank heaven.
Onto the Mallerstang Valley. Craig kept us going this last section by chunking it into 10 or 5 k sections with bivvy stops. This really helped motivate us and rest our feet and bodies, which were really tired by now.
We passed a favourite point of mine at High Hall, an old wayside inn for travellers. This section is particularly interesting and steeped in history and has some pretty views…. well, it would be if it’s not dark and you aren’t on the final day of a multi-day ultra! Pendragon Castle and Lammerside Castle are ahead of us. I chatter about some of the history, but I think Craig and Hannah are now numbed to this, they are so tired. We may not be going fast but we are enduring for longer. The Water Cut comes into view, we are nearing the downward section, Hannah quietly says a prayer to her quads that are struggling now. Craig is quiet, I don’t know what he’s thinking but he drives on.
We have a fabulous bivvy at the road crossing in the Valley. Craig compliments us that not many people would just lie down in the wet in a bivvy bag as he asks, but it’s such a sensible idea, who wouldn’t. We are woken by my son Hamish calling; “Are you okay mum?”. I’m grateful for the call, I know he has been following me on the tracker as he’s been calling me on the phone and wishing me well along the way. My 3 boys have supported me on all my races, I just want to show them what is possible.
We stagger the last section, I have recently completed a night recce of this section, so I know more or less where I’m going, but I’m tired. It feels like goes on forever, much longer than my recce but that was a dry, bright night. I lead us along the valley past lambing sheds, farms and fields with horses galloping around. We’ve taken turns at leading the way, it’s been a blessing when you are tired as it’s nice to not have to think for a while.
We see Alan’s footsteps through the heavy dew, I know Alan lives locally so I know we must be okay. We follow his steps; we are getting closer to the end. I dream of collapsing into a nice warm bed and cuddling my hubby as I drift off to sleep. I’d seen him at Settle, and he’d been so cold watching over us, normally we’d have the van but it had broken down. I know how much all the RUSTies have to endure being part of the support crew and I know how much he wants to see me succeed.
We are at Naesby, the dawn is coming and we only have the sunken lanes to go. The lanes are bordered by spring flowers; celandines, wood anemones, primroses and catkins and lambs gambolling. It’s wet underfoot but we don’t care now, though I can feel a blister growing on my left foot. And then we are there, the road into Kirby Stephen and a light up ahead from someone’s torch, I think it’s Kodi. I flash my head torch and try not to cry. Hannah and I look at each other and we are both struggling to manage our emotions. We link arms and let Craig go ahead as we have a plan. Then there they all are, quietly cheering and raising their hands, Sean, Stu, Becky and the kids, my dog Millie, Pete, Kodi, Peter L and I’m overwhelmed. And then we are in the hall, thank goodness. Hugs and congratulations from everyone. Al and John F are just up from sleeping as they have been on duty for long hours.
I’m so grateful to my hubby Sean, I hope I can help him with his own ultra plans.
We sit, amazed at what we have done, grateful it’s finished but also grateful of the opportunity to test ourselves. Craig quietly sitting hugging his kids, Hannah and I chat with those around us. A cup of tea comes, thank you Peter L! I stroke my dog who I’m sure is thinking ‘thank goodness she didn’t drag me all that way on foot’!
We have a quick interview and presentation of medals, Hannah and I have been planning on sharing the trophy or paying for another one, but two lovely people have already offered to fund the second trophy. I know who you are, thank you, you are fabulous! Interviews fill me with dread, my brain goes bank but on listening back I don’t embarrass myself too much. I am taken to a dorm and I shower and fall into a bunk and sleep, it’s the most blessed sleep that takes no effort to drop off. Hannah comes in, I can barely speak to her to tell how much her company has meant to me, this lady is amazing.
And then I’m back at work.
My swollen feet have finally gone down and I have ankles again! I’m still sleeping like a log. I had a difficult week at work but in the final hour of my day I have an online meeting where we talk about how things are very stressful but I’m still smiling and feeling optimistic and I’m told I look younger. How am I doing this after months of work being challenging, well, it’s the race. I didn’t rest my body, but I think my mind was rested. I have a new perspective, and I’m reminded there are so many wonderful people in this world.
Although I DNF’d last year I learned so much; it wasn’t a failure, it was a growth moment.
Alan said something in our group, I’m holding onto his words “it’s not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit and you showed all the guts needed to finish any distance”. Thank you Alan, it’s true, I have seen this in you at races, I’m delighted neither of us DNF’d this time.
I’m leaving this to everyone else who took part, or who may do this race in the future. If we had the sense to listen to our bodies and reassess our ability to continue, don’t see this as a failure, your time will come, it was learning. However, you will want to try again, you have the strength to do it next time or the next, we must not give up. That’s where the strength lies.
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