Running the UK’s loneliest Ultra – The Montane Cheviot Goat
It was 5:15am, pitch black, and my dad had just dropped me off opposite the Ingram Cafe. The temperature read -8. Conditions were arctic like, but it was time to see how far I’d come.
Go back 11 months – the New Year celebrations. I made a resolution: Transfer my skills as a mountain leader/long distance hiker into ultra-running and push the limits of my body’s capabilities. I enlisted the trust of coach (Jacob Snochowski – TeamJSC) and I began training. After completing the Cumbria Way unsupported I needed a challenge that would test everything I had worked for over the last 11 months, and Jacob mentioned The Cheviot Goat. Fast forward, and there I am, standing on the start line of the UK’s loneliest winter ultra, feeling like a small fish amongst some big names.
Image: David Town
The breath of 202 hopeful runners plumed in the freezing air. The countdown began. 3 – 2 – 1, the cowbell rang, and we were off. I climbed towards the first top (Cochrane Pike), and was wary of pushing too hard so early, but I soon seemed to be leaving a trail of torches behind. Perhaps I was ready… or perhaps the early rush would come back to bite me.
On the way up the first track I passed three runners I’d watched on YouTube during preparations. I didn’t recce any of the route but watched The Trail Running Couple and Northern Fell Runners, who provided good information and detail on the route through their videos.
I reached Cochrane Pike feeling strong. It was a tad slippery underfoot due to the ice, but the ground was good and allowed a decent pace, which continued until joining Salters Road. The air was ice-cold with every breath, but the rising sun offered light – a welcome comfort after freezing darkness. My pace kept me warm while dawn softened the gloom. What was all the fuss about? Yep – I’d been lured into a false sense of, “You can beast this, Dave!”
Image: Eric Murphy
Soon, I turned off the track and headed over moorland, saying fond farewells to most of the easy stuff. Now, it was over grass tussocks heading down Dow Cleugh and back up Bier Clough to Wether Cairn. The views from Wether Cairn were spectacular, and the beauty of the sunrise over the snow was a truly special moment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop to enjoy it – still a long way to go.
On the way up to Wether Cairn I passed a group of around six. We spent some time talking, and I ran behind the legend that is Nicki Spinks who has completed BG 5 times and had other numerous big achievements under her belt. I knew I mustn’t be doing too bad, so I pushed on and overtook. Looking back, I should have stayed behind Nicki as her plan beat mine in the end. Experience pays off!
Leaving Wether Cairn behind we headed on quite a nice trail towards the descent of The Dodd. It was steep but lead to a decent track that lasted for around 500m before an incline back up to the Border County Ridge and along to Wholehope Knowe. After that, it dropped down again before climbing over Shillhope Law to the 1st aid station of the day at Barrowburn.
Image: David Town
What a welcome sight! By this point, my feet were wet through, with ice crusting around the laces, and I was more than happy to swap into the spare trainers and socks I’d packed in my bag. A quick coffee and protein bar, followed by a Mountain Fuel gel, and within ten minutes, I was on my way again. Nicki was just behind me now and we spent the section following Barrowburn switching places. A text from my family informed me I was about 18th. My goal before beginning was to finish in the top 20, so I was pleased with my progress at this point.
Heading out of Barrowburn, my newly warmed and dried feet gave me the push I needed to press on, passing a few more runners along the way, following the Border County Ridge towards Windy Gyle. There was a fair gap when I glanced back, and I was happy knowing I was doing well in the company of accomplished runners. Even though I’d dedicated everything to my training, I’d lacked the self-confidence that I would achieve what I’d dreamt of. Now, I was starting to believe.
Image David Town
After meeting the border at Windy Gyle, I headed along the ridge and we crossed the border into Scotland, heading down Cock Law to Cocklawfoot. Next, I would tackle the most challenging part of the whole run. From Cocklawfoot, we started to climb up to Auchope Rigg and the Mountain Refuge Hut. My strength is in climbing hills, and I managed to gain on the runners ahead of me, passing 2nd place female, Scotland’s Fiona Horsfield. We’d already passed each other a few times and traded places before. Just in front of us were Nicki and Giles Palmer (who I would spend a good 4/5 hrs with soon).
I kept climbing through bleak whiteness. Deep snow and thick cloud now engulfed me and hills, with temperatures plummeting. The conditions definitely added a whole new level of difficulty to what was already an incredibly challenging run. I was alone. Nicky and Giles had made a small gap in front, and Fiona was out of site behind. Just me and the hill. Eventually the contours on the map eased and Red MR jackets came into view. I was at the turn point to head down after completing the out and back to the Cheviot summit.
Image: Eric Murphy
I continued and hit Cairn Hill and continued onto the Cheviot. A few runners past me on their return from The Cheviot followed by Nicki but no Giles. As I got to the Summit, I noticed Giles having a minute, I gave the trig a touch and I was on my way. I had no intention of hanging about up there.
I left the Cheviot headed back past Cairn Hill, taking a left at the red jackets, down towards Bloodybush Edge and over the renowned boggy sections. I wasn’t sure how this would go. It would either be frozen over or it would be knee-deep icy bogs. In the end, it was an unforgiving mixture of both. Each step was a gamble – would the ice break or would it stay strong? It was about 50/50, and my shins took a few hits on the ones that gave way. This section seemed to drag on forever. I could see Giles behind all the way, and it wasn’t long until we joined forces.
I finally hit the boundary at Bloodybush Edge, had a quick look at the map, and realised I had another 3km to Cushat Law and then another 2km back to Salters Road (basically the spot I was in hrs ago). When I finally hit Salters Road with Giles, the elation was a much-needed boost. Giles and I were joined by Fiona again, and all 3 of us continued along to High Bleakhope – the 2nd aid station. Another quick coffee, packet of crisps and more gels. The combination of gels, blistering cold, and hours of running took its toll on my insides. A quick hop over the wall was inevitable as nature took its call.
Image: Eric Murphy
I had a quick chat with two lads who told me they were dropping out due to the cold. This can play havoc with your mental strength, making you question whether you should follow suit, but in the end, it only made me more determined to finish. I followed Giles out onto the track for the last section. We left Fiona behind at the station and began to climb off track to Shielcleugh Edge and High Cantle. Another big section of around 10/11km through freezing, boggy moorland around to Coldlaw Cairn and back up to Hedgehope Hill. From High Bleakhope to Hedgehop Hill was the longest between checkpoints – 3hr 55mins and on tired legs, in the dark, and bitterly cold. It was a tough, mentally challenging section. Running alongside Giles through this section helped massively, as we took turns in navigating and keeping each other in good spirits.
All we had to do now was stay awake, not get injured, survive, and continue over Dunmoor Hill, down over Cunyan Crags then make the last climb around Brough Law and over Ewe Hill. The route to Dunmoor felt painfully familiar by now – wet, cold, dark, and tough. Cunyan Crags offered a slightly tricker underfoot descent, but not that bad.
The sting in tale, however, was Brough Law. We had to hug the bottom – rocky with sharp, slippery rocks. It was icy and complex, especially when exhausted and 16.5 hrs into a run. As a mountain leader, I wouldn’t guide groups around that section, so all considered, we navigated it well. We finally managed to get to the forest boundary and began the steep climb up over Ewe Hill. The moment I’d waited for – The end was in sight.
Image David Town
I saw a headtorch disappear over the hill, so I knew we weren’t far from descending back towards Ingram. I hoped for a boost when I saw the lights of Ingram Village Hall from the top, but it never came. I had to dig deep and push myself to run back down the hill. Within 20 minutes, me and Giles hit the completely iced-over road. We followed it and ran through a wooded section. And then, like a beacon of success, we see the inflatable Montane arch finish line. I had made it!
14th Male, 59 miles, 16hrs 55min.
After 11 months of training and completing my first running Ultra in May I am marking this down as a success and look forward to seeing how far I can go in 2024 under TeamJSC.
2024 will see me take on:
- The Haworth Hobble 31mi
- The Fellsman 60th Anniversary 60mi
- GB Snowdon 100mi