tl;dr: I ran, I finished, I got a little something in my eye.
The Hell of a Hill event is now in its 7th year, and as of the completion on Sunday November 18 2018, that’s a total of (quick mental arithmetic) 35 very hilly marathons up and around Rivington Pike on the outskirts of Chorley (although being the right side of the motorway and reservoirs, it’s often thought of as being in Bolton – Horwich being the largest town within walking distance). One hardy soul, Colin Wood, has completed every single one of those 35 marathons, and as the race director told us at the presentation on Sunday evening, he himself even ran it once – and had to make sure he won as he was the sole marshal and time keeper on the finish line!
From what I can gather via bits of old Strava activities etc., the race was originally an 8-lap course. The route was then modified with a shorter loop and a small lead in and out for 2015 and 2016, and is currently 5 laps with a longer loop and out & back from 2017. It’s always been hilly, but now it’s traded a little of that elevation and some twisting steps for more runnable sections from what I can gather given my so-so knowledge of the Rivington paths and gardens, so the loss of some elevation isn’t so bad when it’s in the form of arduous steep steps that aren’t all that wide for passing in places. Fortunately all the current renovation work underway around the Rivington Terraced Gardens is on the old route, so the event wasn’t in danger of being cancelled.
I made a video walkthrough of the lap loop before the races this year, conditions on the race days were pretty similar bar the gales that blew particularly at the weekend.
Bibby’s Farm Scout Camp & Activity Centre is the current event HQ. The facilities here are excellent and go beyond what you might expect from a hard and hilly trail marathon set to punish and break you, it’s all quite pampered. There’s camping facilities (no hook-ups afaik), shower and toilet block (newly renovated) and some form of proper brick & mortar accommodation. The HQ itself is a decent set-up in a converted stone farm building. Here you sign in each day, receive your tracker/chip, and get to meet your fellow runners and supporters over hot drinks and breakfast, all part of the package. After the race there’s hot food (soup & beans/toast) and plenty of biscuits and the like to help recharge for the next day. this is one of the best aspects of the race, the social side with a room full of like-minded folk each with their own motivations and causes driving them to take on the challenge.
Round the back is the start/finish area – the time2run trailer blasting out upbeat music, the start/finish stanchion and timing mat, and currently a load of sticky mud thanks to contractors and their machines ploughing up the track as they completed works on the new outbuildings. Thankfully that was pretty much the last we saw of any real sloppy muck all week as the course was in as good a condition as we could have hoped for.
That’s the boring background stuff, on to my boring personal experiences over the 5 days:
I can’t do this… I feel rough.. I’ve had a chest cold since half way through my half-term holiday (missing out on a couple of days of lovely coastal Cornish running – bah!)… this is going to be horrible! My 7yo boy hugs me, wishes me luck on my first marathon (not my first ever, it’s my 5th, but the first of the week), and I instantly feel a bit less fragile and a lot more confident.
I get there way too early. I’m one of those annoying people who’d rather be 2 hours early than 2 minutes late. The marshals are surprised to see me, I’m surprised to be first, but glad when I go to sign in and there’s not actually a number and chip for my name. There’s two 26s and I’m 27. A bit of rummaging and some cross-checking and I’ve got my stuff. A few more people pop through the door and I feel less of an impatient dick sat on my own, but it’d given me a chance to get to know a couple of the marshals I’d be seeing through the week.
Mark from Burnden RR arrives and we have a chat about what we’re up against, nervous excitement, trepidation, confidence, doubt, a bit of everything. I suppose that’s healthy looking back. We’d been psyching each other up for the past few weeks, blocking out the negative thoughts and planning our way into the unknown. Mark ran 2 HoaH marathons back-to-back last year – the 2nd on a whim – so he’d at least got to experience consecutive races, but for me it was something I’d yet to experience… and after attempting to run distance over multiple days in training earlier in the year, then waking up unable to walk followed by 5 months out from running, there were definite dark thoughts in the back of my mind. I got to say hi to well known local Iron Man, Wonka, from Team Deane, who I’d met at the 6 hour challenge earlier in the year. He looked in good spirits as he set out to raise cash for Bolton Hospice by running all 5 marathons. Lots of smiles and banter around but also a few like myself who looked like they didn’t really know what to expect – phew! Of course I knew what was coming, I’d done one last year… but that was one… I had to do this and be ready to go again tomorrow. There’s a guy from BBC world service interviewing people about their epic endurance, ultra and multi-marathon running exploits… I hear someone say he should talk with the 100 marathon club people next, and there’s someone over from the USA who’s attempting to run the most marathons ever, he already holds a record for the most within a year or something… holy shit do I feel massively out of my depth right now.
Outside to stretch those feet, limber up and get a feel for the temperature. It’s a bit iffy, I’m going to play it safe and chose to wear a 2nd shirt and the heavier rain jacket, the one that doesn’t pack away to nothing – I could always stash them at the water station. Mooching around and wanting to take my mind off things I start making up some stupid rhyme that wouldn’t go away all week: rule number 1: discipline. keep it in check; reel it in. haha, wtf that was all about I don’t know, but it stuck with me whenever I felt the urge to tear off and have too much fun 🙂
It’s not a heavily attended event, especially on day 1 (face it, how many people are you going to find daft enough to come out mid-week in November to run up & around Rivington Pike?!). But 25 5-in-5ers and around 15 others make their way to the start line. Some local media are here and the RD gives us a briefing before hopping on his bike to lead us out and the compere gives us the count down 5…4…3…2…1… here we go!
OMFG, my legs feel like shit. Someone pass me a lump hammer I need to tenderise these calves. Everything from the knees down is screaming at me to stop. Masses of negative thoughts start flowing – forget finishing all 5, how can I even get around just one? Tapering to 5 miles and some dog walks might have been going too easy, WTF have I done?!
So easy out we go. The legs aren’t easing off yet, the weather is a bit grim, but the winding lanes and leafy trails between and around the reservoirs at least offer some pleasant autumnal sights. It’s easy to forget how stiff and steep a few of the little climbs are on the run out… I’ve got all week, I’m doing this another 4 times, I’m not too proud to walk already. I don’t run any of the climbs on the run out today or any other day… I’m happy to make it to the checkpoint feeling as fresh as I can. I don’t think you can win the race bombing off on that first section, but it’d be easy to throw it away burning yourself out because it all looks so easily runnable.
Half the field seems to be taking the same approach as myself – reassuring! As we cross the mat I’m at the front of a big bunch of runners and can see my friend Mark a minute or so ahead, so I’m feeling confident that he’s paced that out well so I should be OK, too. Now it’s the big old climb time. It’s hiking for me. Throughout the week I saw a few running just the one day throw themselves at this section on lap 1, only to often see them a few hours later as I bobbed past doing the same old thing of just putting the effort in where if felt good value. Of course, some did that each lap, but after my 1-off last year I knew it was best to save it for later, at least for me.
Hiking up the hill is good fun. The riverbed in the middle, when it’s dry/not raining, is nice to negotiate and gives a really good stretch to the calves and ankles. By the time I’ve wound around to almost see Pigeon Tower my legs have woken up – all I needed was a 5 mile warm-up, and considering it was a plan for 130+ miles in 5 days, that’s trivial – GO! Bouncing along towards the workers at the first tower feels really good, but I’m already getting a little warm. The workers have moved around a little from 2 weeks ago when I was last here, but it’s no big deal, I find a nice way past and along towards the pike climb.
Up to the top, feeling fresh, I’m all set for my favourite 1.5 miles anywhere – bring it! I say hi to the lovely marshal I’d met in the morning and it’s time to bomb the uff down! It’s technical, winding, has a few gates but is just pure running pleasure. Fast feet, fast thinking, some of the fastest trail running I’ll ever do, just as long as the wind plays nice! It’s the purest, most thrilling ride and I get to do it another 24 times this week – bliss! Thank God for Altra Olympus – without that 30mm of rubber under my feet I’d be feeling every one of those lumps and bumps, but I’m oblivious, I’ve learned to surf the bumps in these boaty platforms, my ankles are strong now and know how to deal with being thrown around in them… it’s just a complete shame they’re the most horrible boring clogs to pound out the miles in otherwise, but there’s no other shoe I’d rather have with me today for the 7.5 miles of this marathon I’ll be screaming dooooooown in.
Race Director on the switch back, a long straight lets you see who is ahead, but right now that’s unimportant. The next few kms are standard trail stuff, switch off and ease back in after the rush of the downhill. There’s sections along here I choose to walk pretty much every lap every day, not much, just a little here and there that’s very slightly uphill or too technical to risk with all the fallen leaves, but a couple of little breaks along here does everything for recovery. That little rhyme is coming in handy ’cause I just want to let rip, but that would be silly. Along to the last little climb that I affectionately call “the shitty bit”, and a bit more of a hiking stretch out leaves me feeling ready for anything. A brief bit of a fun downhill drops me back at the aid station. I think I dump the jacket now, I can’t afford to lose the fluids in sweat and it doesn’t look like the weather is going to be too bad at all.
The team at the van/aid station/timing mat are brilliant – really encouraging and helpful. Getting to know the crew over the week results in even more support and lots of reassuring relative position info. New lap, new fuel. Clif Bloks Shots – alternating between 2x black cherry with caffeine and 2x margarita citrus with extra salts each lap. Right now they’re yummy (a few days from now they’d less appealing, but manageable).
Hiking back up on lap two goes well and at the top I meet Gaz Ayl, a mate of my brother’s from school and fellow trail running fan. We do a pleasant chatty lap and I take a little more care on the downhill, talk about our race plans for next year, speak about food and ethics and generally get to realise we’re very much of the same mind when it comes to running, why we do it and what we get out of it. Gaz heads back to Moss Bank and I’m out on my own again, sticking to the plan of keeping it all feeling easy and pretty much just doing the same thing every lap. My mate and club-mate Paresh joins me and we do some miles together – he’s attempting to do 10k+ every day this month so miles with me is handy and local. I catch up to a few people ahead of me, mostly thanks to the fast downhills and steady climbs, not really concerning myself with what anyone else is doing, just obeying that rhyme.
My plan is to scoff a whole Banana Soreen loaf from the start of lap 4 before I reach the pike summit. It goes down well, the birdies get the last few crumbs as I tumble down. They sit surprisingly well on the stomach the first few days but later in the week are simply not doable – nothing is.
I check with Mark’s friend at the switchback – she’s told him in no uncertain terms to stop running fast and enjoying himself too much – he’s got 4 more days to go! He might slow down but he won’t stop enjoying it, anyone who knows him understands this (and everyone knows him, so…).
All the laps done consistently as they’ve all been completed to the exact same plan. Run the same bits, walk the same bits, hike the same bits. I could do this all day, it’s a shame I missed the days this race was 8 laps. Anyway, Paresh says he fancies a run back to the finish with me. I tell him I’m feeling really lively, I’ve been far too conservative, the sun is shining and that little rhyme is forgotten for the first and last time this week. Err and so is my mate – I leave him trailing as I bomb off back to finish, snagging the Strava CR for the segment on the way. Oooops! That wasn’t the plan, but wow did it feel good to be that up for it despite knowing I’ve got 4 more to do… I just run free and enjoy every second of it. I think only Gareth runs it faster all week as he sets the new course record, not even Matthew goes faster as he sets an even faster record the following day. It was worth it. I’d allowed myself a little indulgence and as my mate Mr. Ciderspiller says, and I quote regularly – you make a plan and stick to it! But more than anything it’s a huge psychological confidence boost and I think that does enough good to outweigh burning my legs a little. I now know in my mind I can get through these marathons in a fairly decent time with more in the bank. Well… one at least. I’ve got to get up and do it again tomorrow.
In the overall standings my 2nd place leaves me 13 minutes behind. The idea of being up there when doing all 5 never occurred to me. Very happy with 2nd place after day 1.
What am I going to do to recover? I don’t feel that I need to, but that’s just silly! I need some more cough medicine so have to pop out, I’ve seen some plastic tubs in a discount store, I’ll go get one and make a half-arse ice bath! I jog to the shops… I feel like I’ve done nothing today. All those hours dog walking and the longer slow runs have paid off… even if it was only for a few weeks 😉 The plastic tub I buy is actually small bin. I fill it with cold water and throw in some ice packs from the freezer. It’s hellish for 20 seconds, but I stick my phone on and forget about it. I manage about 30 or 40 minutes. Apparently 10 is good enough I learn the next morning.
Bring it! Briiiiiing. It. I’ve never been more up for a race in my life. Well, I’ve only been doing races for 2.5 years, but whatevs, you get my point – I’m firing! I chat with Mark and he’s also in a better place than he imagined, but I just cannot wait to get out there. I think it’s a Banana Soreen high. Or the cranberry juice was particularly sweet. Or the peppermint tea and Yorkshire Tea combo means I’ve invented running rocket fuel. I just wanna get gone!
So I obviously go out far too fast. It just feels great to be doing that section freely unlike yesterday. Would I pay for it later? Bah, maybe, but let’s just get to that van and see how things feel because this is good running and I’m not here for that, I’m here to be punished, so it’s time to bring the pain, lol.
I run a bit with Paresh again today, he’s keen to keep me moving efficiently and trying to do helpful stuff like shield the wind(?!) and pace me, but I’m only looking to keep it steady now and don’t want to work too hard at all. No value.
The laps are the same old fun, I know what I’m doing now, it’s just a matter of sticking with it. The RD comments about working my way through the field again. I’ve not looked at it that way, it’s not so much me passing them as them going slower than they were, ’cause I’m just doing the same old thing. Effectively it’s the same result.
I see Mark out on the course. He doesn’t look entirely happy and I’m feeling a bit shit about that… we were talking about fighting through this together over the week and I consider dropping in with him for a bit. But I think if that were me I’d not want some idiot in my ear when I’m fighting hard, and it was the right choice as when I see him after he’s more than recovered, it was either just one of those moments we get through or I’ve read it wrong.
I start to feel really icky… feel like I’m going to be sick everywhere. The shirt I’m wearing seems to very slightly strangle me every time my arms move forward. It’s got to come off! I get one arm past my Garmin, half my head out and the other arm I just lose the hand… what a sight! We’re half way up the “shitty bit” and Paresh is trying the most unusual ways to remove this thing from me, or maybe he’s trying to simply remove my head – both seem equally likely at this point. It’s off. I feel really self-conscious, but there’s no way past it and I feel a lot better for the cool air and lack of strangulation, but still feel iffy.
I make my excuses at the aid station, I’m not sure anyone believes me but I’ve hardly got an upper body worth showing off so they’d better, lol! Running half naked through Rivington in November that’s a first for me 😦
I know not to run back too fast, as I was only going to get that for free the first day. I already feel as tired as I did when finishing and I’ve got the run back to do. I know I’ve currently got a small lead on the day over John who won the previous day, his legs aren’t 100% after the previous day’s exertion, and Paresh offers to pace me back to see if I can extend it a little. I don’t honestly feel like I want to work for it this early in the week, but this was never meant to be all fun & easy, so I decide a little graft now to re-balance the standings might be a good plan. I’d never thought I’d be in this position, so attempting to at least keep in with a shout by Sunday wasn’t too much of a gamble.
The run back is hard. The bouncy free running of yesterday is replaced with some typical hard 20th+ mile marathon grind. Again, it’s not the plan, but the plan can’t be so rigid when I’m in with a shot. This is the hardest I’ll run all week.
Beaten by two one-day runners, I’m one position lower and one minute slower than the previous day, but overall I’m now in a tiny lead. Yesterday felt like an easy training run, today went up a little.
Somehow I’m convinced to have my photo taken, as crap as I feel and post-marathon tired, before a shirt goes back on. I know I’ll regret it but zero effs given at this point, lol.
Paresh has to get back to his car where he stashed my bag. I decide to jump on my single-speed MTB, flat tyres and all, and make my way back. Maybe it’ll help my legs giving them a little spin? Yeaaaah NOPE! It’s 3.5 miles and a little bit hilly and you’ve just run a hilly marathon… wtf are you thinking?! I have to get out of the saddle a lot. Bell end.
I realise I’ve forgotten to re-freeze the ice packs, I’ve faffed about doing lots of non-HoaH crap. I need to sort my kit… urgh, so unorganised.
Here’s a hot tip – don’t drink 1l of granny-spec lucozade at 10PM – it contains caffeine. That might not be a big deal for most, but I’m pretty sensitive to the stuff. I’d gone to bed at 10:30 and promptly woken up *PING* at 12:00 wide awake. The hours passed, the crap I watched on Netflix seemed worse by the minute. At around 4:something I felt like I could get my head down again. I adjusted my alarm clock to give myself an extra 20 minutes, and off to sleep I went. Not the best nights sleep, but lots of sugar at least.
Day 3 begins proper with me placing my head in the toilet. I throw up hard. Not sure if it’s the chest and throat thing or my body telling me how unimpressed it is with my activities and choice of fuelling. I get there feeling rough, such a low after the highs of the previous morning. Doubt sets in and dark thoughts everywhere. Urgh. I know this is a challenge event, but it shouldn’t feel this challenging when you’re not even on the course. But the coughing has really eased off so maybe things aren’t so bad.
Mark is buzzing again. Yay! He was fine the previous day, just one of those moments when I’d caught him. He’s got friends running laps with him and having the time of his life, and he’s getting stronger by the day if anything.
4 people have had to drop out from the 5-in-5 so far, but Friday being close to the weekend means we have a lot more one day runners with us today. With about 10 minutes to the start I’m not really doing my usual thing, I’m wandering around and not warming up properly. The RD’s wife, also a marshal, comes over and asks if I don’t want a time today? I don’t really follow. What do you mean? “You haven’t signed in and picked up your chip…”. FFS. It’s gonna be one of those days.
I set off from the start line today and after only a few strides someone comes flying past and is off down the lane – whoa! Then someone else rocks up, asks if he’s a one-dayer, and when we confirm he is he’s off after him – double whoa! Myself and John take it easy and don’t even consider keeping up and have a chance to talk about the race. We’re almost half way through the week but it still feels like there’s a lot left to do.
The day continues its gloomy start as I feel like I need the toilet for the fist 8 or 10 miles. I have to let John crack on and end the conversation, I can’t maintain the effort comfortably enough. And speaking of comfort – no, not a quick pee, I need the other one. I consider taking a tablet for it, but know that can wreck your body’s ability to manage fluids; I’d rather shit myself than balls this up right now! Not really, I’m just angry ’cause I don’t feel like it’s something I did wrong… just one of those things.
It passes as the laps tick over, luckily I don’t have to dive into the gorse and sacrifice my buff. Again, at the switch back, the RD comments on my plan of picking through the field – that all depends on everyone else, I’ll just keep it steady and keep doing what I’m doing, and if it pans out that way so be it 🙂
Paresh arrives surprisingly – he’s supposed to be on his way to Brighton for the club AGM, Brighton 10K and his own birthday celebrations. He’s only going to be around for a bit, though but it’s nice to see him if only briefly… I’ve never had as much company running ever before. After he goes, at the aid station I have to request help opening a Clif Blok pack – my fingers don’t want to work. The guy helping also struggles, he’s got a condition with his hand – I feel shit asking him now – d’oh! [EDIT, June 2019 – Having just received initial treatment for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I now know why I was having difficulty opening the Clif Bloks – daignosed a couple of months ago, both wrists have caused havoc both with work and running since an epic 17 day stint working away over Easter ].”Gelled up” and off. By mid-to-late race I’m feeling really good again, phew! I catch up with John on the hike. He’s struggling a little and effectively concedes the event to me which we go on to discuss is a bit premature given the nature of the terrain and distance we have yet to run. I point out that both he & I could yet pull out and whoever is in third would be in with a shout, too. I bob on a bit and head up the pike, I’ve not got my glasses on so can’t really see clearly but it seems he’s not keeping up and that feels conflicting: this isn’t a race, we’re all in it together, all doing the same challenge and testing ourselves over this nutty course day after day. Everyone out on the course is massively encouraging to one another. It’s hard to feel good about extending the lead, but it is what it is. I get back to the aid station and chat with the marshal I’ve got to know, tell him to give John a boost as he comes in and keep him on it.
And here we go… right on cue I have an issue. On the last lap I have to stop because it feels like the pack of gum I have tucked in my outer sock has made its way into my left shoe. So off comes the shoe and the sock and… no, it’s not that, it’s just a horrible pain on the top of my left foot. I’ve had it before during Equinox24, it’s a bitch and took a few days for the swelling and pain to go last time. It’s not huge, but it’s a bit more than just a niggle and these can do strange things to your head. I’ve also got a feeling a problematic toe nail is well on the way off – the little sharp jabs I’m getting remind me of the last time and I’m just going to have to put up with it for now.
Electrolytes might be low or my arms are just bored of being at right angles now as I’m shaking my arms out and getting electric shock pains down to my finger tips. I’ve had this at the end of long races before when I stop suddenly, but not during. But then this is 3 days in so it’s probably just one of those things. [EDIT, June 2019: as mentioned above, it’s not just one of those things, it’s Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and it’s thanks to my job – but distance running and endurance running brings on the symptoms just the same as working consecutive long days can]. But stopping is the worst, getting going again even after a brief pause is rubbish. Every time my left foot hits the floor I’m hurting. The fun downhill isn’t fun this time.
Bah, stop being a soft arse, ignore all that and just get it done.
Before the week started Friday had been my main worry – I had to be “fast” in order to get back to pick my son up from school at 3:30 – a 5:45 was the limit I’d have to live up to and I was hoping I’d still be good for it by the end of the 3rd run. As the week worked out, it was never an issue. I had time to relax in the HQ, get something to eat and have a nice chat with the other runners who were home and as they came in. I came in a distant 3rd place behind two lovely chaps Gareth and Colin. Gareth runs with Wimdledon Windmillers (try saying that fast three times) and sets a new course record. He looks very lively and could surely have smashed a good few more of them at good pace if not the whole 5 days if he’d entered, but he shakes his head at the idea. We play guessing games on 10k times and chat about his parents out on the course. Colin, from over Ilkley way, is a walker turned runner approaching 60, and has been running for just a couple of years. I’m sure he’s picked up a few vet prizes already though, he’s speedy. It’s unfortunate they both turned up on the same day, if Colin had come sooner he’d have won either of the first two days with that time of just a few seconds over the 4 hour mark – a full minute a mile quicker than myself, the sort of pace I think I’d have for a one-off if I were to run it right now instead of all 5. We’ll see next year!
John makes it back around 20 minutes behind me in 5th. The last couple of laps and the run back have been harder for him today and I’ve now got a good lead overall, but there’s still 2 days and 2 slightly long marathons to go.
I rip off the dangling toe nail, clean it up and treat the toe to a nice Savlon plaster. It feels surprisingly comfy to walk on. Check Runner’s World for advice what to do now and it says don’t rip them off in the first place. Ah well, whatevs.
I can barely stop coughing today, maybe I should have forced myself to be sick like yesterday? D: Nice thing is I feel like I know everyone today, it’s a big HoaH fam day! My brother is here for an expensive training run. He’s not keen on lapped races, but I’ve convinced him he has to give this one a crack. My cousin Louise and her other half Russ are running, Russ hasn’t got back to full fitness after injury yet so he’s going to see how it goes, Louise looks up for the challenge, very bright and on it and says she’s up for a best time on the course – BAM! Their mate Sweeney is here, I’ve seen him at loads of races now including this one last year. Louise points out her friend Matthew who she insists is going to smash the course record. I recognise the name from race results and do not disagree… the beard is also all the confirmation I need – a proper ultra beard to be feared that one 🙂 My wife’s best mate Kate is here, should be running with her husband but he’s out hurt, so it’s a solo run vs the hill, but she’s local, knows the terrain and isn’t new to marathon running. Paul from Bolton Tri Club is here, I stalk his Strava closely! Tim Green is here, I met him at parkrun recently but followed his progress at all 5 races here last year, as he’s a parkrun regular. Loads of faces I recognise. One of those spectating all week is running – it seems she’s the other half of a 5-in-5er and he’s surprised her with an entry for today – wow, that could have gone one of two ways! This really feels fun, Saturday is the best and busiest day, I have to make sure I’m here every Saturday. Lots of people here to smash it and the whole place has even more of a buzz about it.
We’re warned the wind has picked up yet again, it’s apparently ferocious up on the tops – oh dear!
So I feel meh, just real nauseous and I’m coughing regularly again, but it’s not affecting my breathing and my legs still work. I’ve not been able to use my inhaler all week (it actually makes the coughing worse), but luckily not had any issues. I use it as a prevention as it’s exercise-induced asthma I sometimes suffer with. Cold November days are usually the worst, but I’m lucky there’s no foggy mist as they are the very worst of the worst.
I set out steady, there’s a lot of people really going for it and most of those here for the 4th day sit back and watch them vanish into the distance. I settle in with a really nice bloke from Radcliffe AC and we have a good chat about the race and Radcliffe’s races. I can’t live with him for fear of going too hard, and I’m not risking running up any climbs on the way out, so he’s off and wished good luck.
As expected I’m way down the field – Saturday is when most people come to do a good one-off time and give themselves Sunday to recover before getting back to work on Monday. I’m going to just do what I’ve been doing all week, keep within myself and keep that rhyme ticking over in my head.
The wind at the top is insane. It had been tough enough running into a headwind all week up from Pigeon Tower, but today there’s a side wind going up the pike that’s almost able to have you off your feet… and the blast as you reach the top around the tower… that’s as wild as I’ve ever felt it up here. Running into it is almost impossible, it feels like you could literally let go, lean into it and not fall. The worst of it is the little switchback that winds back around the pike, once the angle is just right the wind picks you up and throws you down, just as you reach the worst of the loose stones. If nobody fell here all day then that was incredible luck.
On the second lap I don’t think I’ve made up a single place, but the downhill is here and I’m having fun with it. At the bottom the RD comments again about picking them off – it seems I’ve got plenty to go at anyway! Maybe I’ll get found out 4 days in, but this just feels routine now, I’m not being dismissive by saying so, but there’s no effort to this at all, it’s just like ultra plodding. I could do these laps like this all day every day. It’s the out & back getting out of the routine that messes with my head if anything. As I trot off I’m joined by the guy who was chatting with Phil. Oh! It’s Simon from Bolton Harriers & my club Vegan Runners, I hadn’t recognised him (I’ll blame the lack of glasses once again here). Yay, I’ve been joined by one of the best runners I’ve met so far, he’s done this before for Bolton Harriers club-mates and he’s taken the time to pop out and do a few laps with me… how cool is that?!
Over the next few laps I keep it steady, doing the same thing but not really feeling like I’m gaining places – but maybe that’s to be expected today. Simon and I talk about all kinds of fun stuff, I get some real good training advice and we generally enjoy a decent paced social training run away from the fast downhills and hiked climbs. Simon has on his Walsh fell shoes and I’ve got my house-sized Altras. Probably the only time in my life I’ll leave him behind, even just for those few seconds! We talk about the overall standings and how it’s looking good, despite John’s lead over me on the day at this point. After another fast downhill top section I catch up to John. He seems surprised to see me and thinks I’m a lap ahead, but this is the last lap. We figure out he must have mistaken my brother for me earlier on as he’s running in the black and green of Vegan Runners today, too. Can’t chat too long as the downhill is there to be eaten up. The pain on the top of my foot is ever present. I’ve not whinged about it so far, but it’s there constantly. The toe nail I lost has been fine so far, but suddenly I’m getting a weird pain as if it’s digging in a again… when it’s not actually there. Urgh, it has to be the plaster rubbing – that could be a problem. As Simon pops back to his car for a gel and leaves me alone I feel I need to take off my shoe & sock to check on my foot and toe. Bah, nothing worth stopping for, nothing can be done. Back on goes the outer sock and into the shoe and… wtf, I dropped my gum in the bottom on my sock, so off it comes and I reach down inside wasting time. Knob. I know silly stuff like this can really mess with your head, so I take a deep breath, call myself a few names but with a smile and a laugh, then pop on my shoe and get back to it. Simon gets some live stats from his phone. By the end of 5th lap I’m still good, only the top three in the race have put in a faster 5th lap – except a 5-in-5er who’s well behind but putting in phenomenal laps as good as the first place runner. Whoa.
The run back is straight forward stuff. Don’t feel tired and don’t want to get carried away, so it’s just a matter of getting it done once again. I catch up with the Radcliffe runner from earlier, we have a chat and discuss the route back. I offer to run with him but he’s good – it is well signed and as long as the light lasts and you remember it’s a long marathon, it shouldn’t be an issue. I make the back section in 30 minutes for 7th place on the day after being 17th after the first checkpoint. That’s the 2nd fastest return leg today, only Matthew’s course record-smashing run had a faster one. John and the other 5-in-5er, Richard, who had just been smashing laps also put in good return runs. I’m more than happy with 7th and the same kind of time once again.
My cousin gets her course PB, her OH gets back unhurt but the injury from earlier in the year and lack of training don’t help him beat his own, but he soon gets to work on the microphone, trying to out-compere the compere! My brother had slowed for later laps, wasn’t out to hurt himself before next weekend’s 80-miler. He really loved the course which was surprising in some ways but not others – I know he doesn’t get on well with lapped races but this one, with its varied terrain and many challenges, was right up his alley. Wife’s bestie got a great time she was well pleased with, but I never managed to say hi to her husband who was there cheering her on – the checkpoints are always a bit hectic. Had a nice chat with my uncle who was there to see my cuz, he was a great runner bitd and I think misses it dearly. He knows his stuff and the kind words he offered really meant a lot. He’s such a nice chap and a gentleman, love my uncle Eddie.
Overall I’ve got a lead of over half an hour now. That’s a lot going into the final day. I never imagined I could possibly be in this position but it weirdly makes me feel nervous. There’s almost an expectation now and a feeling of it being mine to throw away. I’ve won nothing this week – a second, two thirds and a seventh place… screw it up now and I’m going home with nowt, and I’ll never get this kind of opportunity again, so… yikes! Pressure!
I make some awesome brown rice, mixed veg and hot salsa wraps. It feels good to be eating nice proper food. I hit the foot massager hard then one final go in the ice bath? Can’t face that – noped out.
Sunday is the 2nd busiest day, so plenty of people out for one run when we’re on our last. Smooth Tri are out in force to support their friends. The sun is shining. It seems like the perfect day. Along comes news that it’s just as crazy out on the tops as yesterday, if not worse. Oh FFS!
Keep it sensible, another repeat of the same thing you’ve done every day and it’s job done. Two shirts today though, it’s going to be chilly.
The guy out in first disappears. It looks like John is going to go with him and they’re both soon out of sight. Suppose that’s the best plan for him with how things are. There’s a good bunch of us together as we near the aid station. A few that arrived after me set off up the climb at a pace I couldn’t live with, I just do the same old power hike thing and watch them slowly disappear, thinking there’s a good chance I’ll see at least some of them again as I have earlier in the week. By now these laps are like auto-pilot. They’re very low effort and not particularly exciting bar the screaming downhills, but they’re doing the only job that needs to be done and nothing more, to see this through. Simon joins up a little later than he’d planned thanks to Narcos and wine, hah. It’s not hurt his running, he’s all over me coming down the hills, I’m struggling to keep up with him – yesterday’s practise has paid off 😉 He knows these paths well, he’s local. I catch up with John after some laps and from then on he keeps his laps steady.
VRUK’s Kevin Dempsey at Hell of a Hill 2018
I think I can see people in front who passed at the first checkpoint and it’s not long until they’re in sight at “the shitty bit” and we pass on the climb. Last lap done, that long fun scream down for the 25th time this week, and it’s all plain sailing to the finish now. Simon checks the standings. I’m a distant second. He chooses not to tell me that Richard, a 5-in-5er, started steady and just got faster and faster making the most of it being the final day and nothing to save up for. He’s not that far behind, maybe 2 minutes by the time I set off home. I do faff about a bit but slip out of my Altras for the first time, and into my New Balance 1080s, the comfiest roads shoes I’ve had so far. It feels sublime. The run back feels every bit and free and fun as the first day’s. It’s not fast, but at about 28.5 minutes it’s around a minute quicker than the guy chasing me. If I’d known he was there I’d like to think I could have gone faster if needed, as I didn’t have Thursday’s tired legs, was fresh and raring to reach that finish line… but I really don’t know if that good feeling was all adrenaline and I was cruising on empty.
It always seems a long way back. That’s probably because it is! When the line was in sight I could finally celebrate something – I’d not allowed myself to show much emotion each day crossing the line as I didn’t want to get into the wrong mindset (no seriously, I had to keep it in check ’cause it’s all been such a lot of unknowns) but I jumped it, fist in the air, five digits held high and let out a roar! Next thing I get is an unexpected high-five from a fellow Vegan Runner – not Simon who was waiting there for me over the line, but Paul the photographer from Mick Hall – we’re everywhere! 🙂 I don’t remember much then, something about the microphone not working – I hadn’t heard anything anyway, I was in my own head 🙂
Time for BEANS! And bourbons! TBH I felt a bit icky again so didn’t have much. After a few more runners came in Simon got off, he’d been such a great help and just having someone along who knows so much about running and has such ability for support was awesome. I chatted outside with Paul as he captured the magic moments as people crossed the line, it was great to meet another club member so unexpectedly. I watched as Mark completed his 5 runs from a distance. Later I got a photo with him under the finish line stanchion.
We’d done it! It was starting to sink in a little. As the light faded I got a bit chilly and went inside to roast myself by the marvellous toaster machine.
The presentations came in reverse order. Oh no, people are saying things, wtf am I going to say? Crap. I’m so rubbish at public speaking! Seeing some of the people go up there, you could see the moment got to them, standing there taking the awards and watching as the emotions came out. Some took their trophies with a nod and a thanks, others such as a great guy I met called Craig from Smooth Tri were doing this with a reason beyond the challenge itself, and you could see how much it meant to them. Craig was the most supportive guy out on the course. *Everyone* was really supportive , friendly and urged you on, but with Craig it just seemed that bit more like he was really willing everyone else on as much as he was himself. Team effort thing. When a tough guy like him got up and said his words and his voice broke up a little, I knew I might be struggling myself.
Seeing Mark take his award was special. He had his family present and when he was eventually called up (he finished quite high so had a wait!) he said it had genuinely been the best 5 days of his life. I don’t know anyone who loves running as much as him and neither do I know of anyone who is as well thought of in the community as Mark, it was a genuine pleasure to see, I hope his OH filmed it 🙂
I remember John saying some words and mentioning his wife he’d asked out at HoaH 2 years ago, how they’re now married and have a kid, but the nerves were getting to me and it was nearly my time.
I knew I’d crack. When I went up there in my VR shirts I’d had on all day I felt grimy and tired, and my legs went to jelly. It was such a good feeling and also weirdly terrifying at the same time. I made some half-arse non-joke about making friends and losing toe nails, but when I went on to thank the marshals and all the other runners for their support (they had been incredibly supportive – high 5s, handshakes, words of support and compliments I didn’t feel I deserved) my voice cracked and my lips started trembling. I knocked that on the head and attempted to pose for the photo without crying – haha. I nervously stuck my tongue out, which prompted Paul to say “..and I thought I was the one that was going to mess this up” which made people laugh, made me smile, and somehow that made it possible to have a photo that didn’t look like I’d just been given bad news 😀
Holy shit I’d won it. Now it sunk in. I remembered back to when I started parkrunning 3 years ago, hearing about this crazy Rivington marathon people did – some people even did it 5 times! I looked on Strava and the zig-zagged graphs and it all looked incredible/impossible/idiotic! A year later I ran a marathon. Another year on I ran _that_ marathon. And now another year on and I’ve run all 5 and been lucky enough that nobody turned up to run them quicker this year.
After that ordeal, I sat and had a little chat as the beers came out. Colin Wood, the only person to have entered and completed every HoaH marathon since it started in 2012, came over and asked how long I’d been Vegan. Three years – a few months less than I’d been running. He’d gone Vegan 2 years ago. That didn’t just make my day, it made the week very special indeed.