Finishing this 110 mile non-stop footrace yesterday afternoon was the most satisfying of achievements. I did it once before, in 2012. In 2013 I tried again but was forced to withdraw by an injured foot. Last year, everything felt good until some rather uncompromising chafing put an end to my endeavours. Would I ever be able to run it again? I asked myself. Every day for a year.
While I approve of the Tour de Yorkshire (as well as every other opportunity for us Tykes to wave our flags around), the scheduling of the race on the same days and in some of the same places as this year’s Hardmoors meant that Team Steele had to make the race run in reverse. So at 8am on April 30th, over 100 very focused ultra runners lined up in Filey at what is usually the race finish, our sights set on a sports club in Helmsley 110 miles away.
A week of perishing weather in Yorkshire had subsided, giving way to clear blue skies broken only by the darting of swallows. The swallows helped to make the first 10 miles along the cliffs to Scarborough as pleasant a run as you are likely to experience, while the 10,000 mile journeys these birds had just made put my pleasure-seeking into context. Scarborough front looked lovely as I watched dog walkers, fruit machine operators, surfers and junk food samplers going about their leisurely tasks. My mum, Jane, was supporting us during the daytime; I grabbed a banana off her at Scalby Mills before pushing on.
I held a good pace over the incessant ups and downs of the coastal trail to Ravenscar, and despite feeling that I wasn’t pushing hard, covered the 22 miles in good time. I ate a sandwich at the car and had a stab at the crossword, failing to answer ‘A shade inexperienced, having courage at the front (6,5)’, then remembered I ought to be running and cracked on to Robin Hoods Bay and Whitby.
I passed the 26.2 first marathon mark in 5hrs 15, which for 800m of ascent (2,624 feet in old money) was respectable. By 33 miles at Whitby Abbey I was 15 minutes ahead of my ambitious schedule and in high spirits. Five minutes later and a conspiracy (their collective noun) of bank holiday trippers was grinding my progress to a halt as large families, goths and the elderly pretended to look in shop windows at Whitby jet, neon sweets and the reflections of seething ultra runners. Somehow I threaded my way around and through this rolling pleasure-seeking roadblock and made my way to Sandsend.
I used the public conveniences in Sandsend. The only time I used them previously was when I completed the Hardmoors 110 in 2012. I was thankful for their existence on both occasions. As I washed my hands I noticed a sign saying they were under threat of closure and to get into contact with a local pressure group if I cared. I will most certainly be getting in touch. This is one cause in which I have a vested interest, as do the people of Whitby if I do this race again and these facilities are no longer there.
I grabbed some more food from Mum at Sandsend, who made me laugh with stories of her disjointed day, and ran over the cliff tops to Runswick Bay where my wife Ele met us to take over support duties. At this point Ele, whilst keen on the traditional support tasks of nutrition, equipment management and motivational speaking, was also eager to make me prance around for some photos.
The long day was drawing to an end as I ran into Staithes; the day’s heat lingered. I found the climb out of this handsome village hard going and was reduced to a power walk on the long ascent. Mum met me for a final time, I said thank you, restocked and trundled on to Skinningrove for another social media photoshoot. Running 50 miles and then being told to pose for pictures is not my idea of fun, but as I was going to be completely reliant on Ele for the rest of the race it seemed wise to comply.
Skinningrove menswear shoot
The last stretch of coastline to Saltburn was idylic as the sun began to set. The abundant wildlife on the coast had been captivating – stoats, voles, hawks – and as someone concerned by the decline in the population of the UK’s premier pollinators I had also been counting bumble bees. I saw my last one just before entering Saltburn. As a result I can tell you, for a fact, that I there are eight bumble bees between Filey and Saltburn.
At Saltburn our friends Dan and George had come to help Ele crew for me overnight. It was uplifting to see their cheerful faces. I ate a sandwich, and took five minutes sitting in the boot of the car to enjoy having covered 53 miles, ahead of schedule. I’d been running for 12 hours and despite the obvious tiredness I felt pretty good.
To link the coast to the moors you have to traverse Saltburn pleasure gardens, some wasteland (where I got a bit lost), a housing estate, Skelton, Kev Borwell hanging around in a car park, some farmland and four kids on bikes shouting ‘Neeeeeyah why aren’t you running?’.
Before the long slog up through Guisborough woods, Highcliff Knabb and Roseberry Topping I reconnected with Ele, Dan and George at Slapewath. Here, untouched by the guilt a north London personal trainer would associate with such a diet, I ate a selection of roasted nuts, cheese sandwiches, crisps and chocolate. It was now dark and the reassuringly familiar ultra marathon sight of headtorches on the horizon looking like gloworms was in full effect. I consoled myself that the headlights I could see from the lucky (fitter) runners already at the top of Roseberry Topping, looked to me, like mine will soon look to the people further behind me. And as I reached the top and shouted my number ‘One nine five’ to the hardy marshal up there, I added ‘And if you’re interested it’s 430 steps from bottom to top.’ If anyone wants to verify this, you know where it is.
Coming down, the Roseberry Topping bottleneck offers the opportunity to talk to more runners than you would usually see when we’re spread out over the moors. The regular exchanges of ‘Well dones’ to people coming down and ‘Almost there’ to those on their way up were a pleasant reminder of the collective ‘We’re all in this together’ ethos of these colossal races.
I made my way off the moor to Cockshaw Hill carpark near Captain Cook’s monument, or as my support team had been unwittingly calling him, Captain Hook. George and Ele were hyperactively entertaining and motivating, while Dan was kitted out ready to run with me. Running 110 miles doesn’t work if all you think about is the finish, so you break the run down into its component parts. By concentrating on getting to the next town or landmark you deconstruct the challenge and make it less daunting. I knew Dan was going to run with me from this point, so for a long time I had been looking forward to the 66 mile point as a significant milestone in the odyssey. Dan usually runs 5k-10k a couple of times a week around York, so to psych himself up to run on the moors at 11pm on a freezing cold night must have been quite odd. It was probably even odder for him to then walk/run two miles only to stop at the next checkpoint at Kildale Village hall 20 minutes later. The Kildale checkpoint was really well run, with hot food and drinks being handed out to some, by now, battered looking runners. Kev was there too, bouncing around and keeping peoples spirits up. This was helpful because the next stretch was the dreaded 12 miles over the longest, highest and bleakest stretch of the route.
Dan, whose concerns about keeping up with me were finally laid to rest on a drawn out four-mile power march up to Blowarth Crossing, was superb company. Despite being tired and it being the middle of the night we had an enjoyable if slow crossing of the frost covered moor. At Blowarth Crossing you make an 80-degree turn back on yourself to head north into the Cleveland Hills. In a repetition of a mistake I made the first time I ran this route, we cut back too early and ended up taking a track which brought us back the way we had come. As it was dark and I was shattered, we did not notice. Only when it dawned on me that I should be looking at darkness, not Middlesbrough did I realise the mistake. We quickly retraced our steps back up the hill. It’s amazing how a bit of panic can make tired legs run fast. The accumulated experiences of the race were adding up and at this point a blood red moon made a cameo appearence. Dan explained several times why the moon looks that colour at low level, but at 75 miles it did not sink in to my addled head. Eventually we came down off the moor, to the sounds of stirring moorland birds. And the sun began to rise.
Sleepless Ele and George were attentive, and although I refused to believe it they explained that the next checkpoint at Lordstones was just two miles from where we were. I offered Dan the opportunity to climb Hasty Bank, Wainstones and Cringle Moor with me. For some reason, after 15 miles on the freezing hills at night, he declined.
From here it was 30 miles to go. The final stretch. In a 5k or 10k, or in a marathon, the final stretch is the final stretch and you don’t think about much else until you finish. In this context, however, the final stretch was at least another seven hours to go on top of 24 hours of non-stop running. I powered up the stiff ascents as best I could but a negativity was descending. Then I noticed the stone flags on the ground were almost red and looked over my shoulder to see the most spectacular sunrise I can remember. It put the spring back in my step.
I passed through Lordstones, had another disagreement with my tolerant supporters about whether it was only two miles, and set off back up the brutal Carlton Bank. I had two thoughts on Carlton Bank.
1: It’s the name of a character in a sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s Carlton Banks.
2: The theme tune from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is really hard to get out of your head once it’s in.
I also counted 710 steps from bottom to top. I used a hybrid heavy metal/90s rave playlist on my earphones to dislodge the Fresh Prince earworm; this, combined with the effect of two recently-consumed paracetamol meant that I shot off down the long bank towards Hollin Hill farm. I had been grumpy the last two times I’d seen the support team, but this time I was in high spirits, uplifted by my recent burst of pace and the knowledge that had covered 85 miles.
I manouvered through the woods and up over Scarth Wood Moor with its cracking vista back towards Roseberry Topping, now a spot in the distance. When I pottered into Osmotherley the dawn chorus was in full voice, a delightful antidote to the battering I’d just given my ears. In the village I said goodbye to a shattered-looking Dan and George, unable to convey properly how grateful I felt.
The short trip to Square Corner took forever and the familiar ultra running oscillation between good and bad moods was in full swing. I must have experienced three of each in the space of 40 minutes. Luckily, at Square Corner, mum and dad had reappeared. I had a quick refuel at the up-tempo checkpoint and walked up Black Hambleton with dad. At the top dad reckoned it was two miles, but being chastened by my recent debate about distances and hills, I said it was probably no more than one.
It started raining. The finish was 19 miles away and it was after 9am. Running over Black Hambleton, I adopted the step counting tactic I had been using on the hills on the flatter (I hesitate to say flat as there aren’t any) stretches. It was increasingly easy to start running, find it hurt too much and start walking again so I made sure that each time I started motoring, I did it in blocks of 1600 steps. The rationale was that as there are about 1600 metres in a mile, counting a metre a step would be roughly a mile. I’m sure it was not, but mental gymnastics and distraction techniques go a long way to staying on top of your state of mind in these circumstances.
Notably, as the race went on, my time perception became more elastic. Two hours run during the first stages really do feel like two hours, whereas 25 hours in, the two hours of running I did from Square Corner to High Paradise Farm and Sneck Yate felt as though it could have taken anything between two minutes and two days, depending on when I tuned in to how I felt.
It continued to rain. Dishevelled and shambling, I must have made a strange sight to well-equipped day trippers and cyclists making relatively short trips. Four tubby cyclists barged past me on the narrowest stretch of path, cycled 400 metres and then stopped to block the path for a drinks break. They did this about three times. One of them told me in a commanding way that I should pick my feet up more. His mate asked how far I’d run. ‘Ninety-five miles, 15 to go.’
I ran down to Sneck Yate where mum was cheering and Ele was geared up to run with me. I was increasingly hungry, but we found some cheese and marmite sandwiches buried in the supplies. Three monumental positives in a row. Ele and I moved out on to the exposed escarpment of the moors as the wind and rain continued. Ele ran around me, being cheerful, taking more photos in which I failed to present myself satisfactorily.
The Tour de Yorkshire meant that the route had been diverted away from Sutton Bank and we were looking for a left turn which never seemed to come. Eventually, to cheers from the cycling crowds in the distance, we found the path to Dialstones Farm and proceeded to the very last checkpoint. The chipper CP crew had a cracking buffet, including the nicest cheese and onion quiche I have ever eaten 100 miles into a run.
As we began the last stretch I was physically drained. I looked longingly down the direct route to Cold Kirby, but followed the race route dog-leg over the extra mile or so that took us back to the Cleveland Way. Three or four other runners came past as I slithered in the traction-free, ankle-high mud, temporarily losing the focus which had kept me going for the preceding 100 miles. Then, for some reason, ‘bottle green’ sprang into my head as the answer to the crossword clue I had been thinking about a day earlier. Which was a surprise as I had not thought about it since Ravenscar. Motivated by this miracle of neuroscience, I reconnected with Ele and mum in Cold Kirby, changed the rotten socks on what was left of my feet, drank some cranberry juice and set off into Ryedale. I death-marched the first few miles, and then, spurred on by gambolling lambs, Ele and I alternated walking and running once we hit the road into Rievaulx.
From there, after leaving the road, it was the very last stretch, five miles of pure, unadulterated mud and slopes. I somehow skidded my way up a hill where dad was waiting and Ele, me and the old man, ran over the final fields into the town and up the hill to the finish at the sports club. I ran until I was certain I had scored a sub 31 hour finish and stumbled over the finish line soon after 3pm with about 10 seconds to spare. There are many positives to take from events like this. The endless range of people, from marshals to support crews, who give their time to make them happen testify to their positive and reinforcing nature, in which ordinary people do extraordinary things. The race only happens because of Jon and Shirley, and the marshals, and without Ele, mum, dad, Dan and George I’d never have got to the finish. So abundant thanks where they’re due.
Lots of people ask ‘Why?’ Running over an extraordinary landscape under blue skies, grey skies, starlit skies, never certain if you will get to the end until you do; sun, wind, rain, mud, pushing your body to its limit, pushing your mind even further – why don’t you?