The first Hardmoors event I ever entered was the Hardmoors 55 in 2010. Two years before I had been unable to run a continuous mile without collapsing in a deoxygenated heap, because I was fat, and firmly believed that running a marathon was impossible. However, I somehow trained myself to run the Great North Run in September that year. The following May, somehow, my brother dragged me around the 33 miles of the Marlborough Downs Challenge. This fundamentally altered my understanding of what was and was not possible and I felt emboldened to step up the distance further. So there I was in March 2010, entered in the inaugural Hardmoors 55. As befitted someone who had only been running for two years, who’d only partially recce’d the route, and who saw that the weather forecast was for blanket rain, I was terrified. I arrived in Helmsley, had my kit checked, and registered. I returned to the car to put my running shoes on – and realised that I’d forgotten them. I went back to registration with my tail between my legs and explained, to some baffled faces, that I had failed to bring the most crucial part of my kit. They must have thought I was a right plum. Luckily, my pride recovered: I returned to the Cleveland Way two weeks later and ran the 55 mile route on my own, supported by my folks. All this has meant that at every race I’ve turned up to since, I’ve been asked at least five or six times ‘Have you got your trainers?’ As was the case in Helmsley on Saturday last when I was spotted in the market square by Jon Steele who gleefully strode over and congratulated me on remembering my shoes. I think this is part of the strong Hardmoors tradition of friendly people making other people’s lives as difficult as possible, like asking them to run 110-mile ultras with dog legs up Roseberry Topping, or 30-mile trail races advertised as marathons.
At the start I met my friend Robbie Dolan who conquered the Hardmoors 60 last year and was now having his first go at the Hardmoors 55. Robbie is a rugby league hooker who has ‘done a Pendleton’ by switching to an entirely different sport. He is well on his way to becoming a seasoned ultra runner. Next year, to coincide with the rugby league world cup, he is going to attempt to score ‘The Longest Try’ by running 3,800km across Australia from Perth to Sydney with a rugby ball under his arm. Check out his Facebook page here.
Jon gave an entertaining race briefing and shortly after 9am we were sent off on our 55 mile traverse of the hilly edge of the North York Moors. I ran with Robbie over the fields to Sutton Bank with its sublime views over the Vale of York. The weather was grey, but there was a hint of freshness in the air and spring felt slightly closer than winter. In these events it is odd how important is your mind-set. The previous weekend I’d run a flat ten miles in Hackney with the elite local running club, the Clapton Carrier Pigeons (we’re not elite or a running club, but we do live locally); it was the furthest I had run for three weeks and it felt like a bit of a slog. But up in Yorkshire, because I knew I was running 55 miles, my mind told me that the ten miles of rolling hills from Hemlsley to Sutton Bank were easy. Which, compared with the hills to come, they were.
We pushed on to High Paradise Farm, running along the western escarpment of the Hambleton Hills, taking the time to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. Flanking the upland, we turned north, running over long and exposed stretches of intensively managed grouse land. As we ran, we tried to work out what was so enjoyable about paying £750 a pop to shoot birds. (Please leave a comment below if that’s you and I’ll happily arrange for some fish in a barrel to be brought to your house for only £700.)
Robbie and I held a similar pace and we arrived 23 miles in at Osmotherley in good shape. I ate half a tuna sandwich. Robbie changed out of the brightest fluorescent yellow leggings I have ever seen into something more subtle. Then we were off again onto the most picturesque and toughest part of the route so far. We turned the corner out of Scarth Wood and saw the familiar sight of the Cleveland Hills stretched out ahead, with Roseberry Topping in the far distance. We’ll be there in several hours I thought. As we headed towards the long drag up to Carlton Bank, I turned my head and was surprised to see that Robbie was not there. We hadn’t planned to run all the way together and in the past I’ve usually pushed on ahead in the first few miles, but he’d seemed comfortable and I was thinking we’d do the whole thing together. It was not to be, so I put my foot down and hit the Cleveland Hills. The Helsmley – Gusiborough running is characterised by long stretches of uphill track, followed by very steep, difficult-to-negotiate rocky steps. I was pleasantly surprised to note that I was hitting the downhills better than I ever had before. I think, after years of avoiding it, finally getting around to doing some proper squats and deadlifts in the gym this year has made a big difference to my ability to run down a steep hill. I was also amused to meet a runner at the top of Cringle Moor who congratulated me on remembering my trainers – amused, because I don’t think I’d ever met him before.
I cracked the hills and it was pleasing to spend most of my time running past other people, rather than the other way around. I had started steadily and from about midway into the race, when other folks pace began to drop, I managed to keep mine constant. After the hills, my wife, who’s just passed her driving test and is currently keen to drive everywhere (long may this continue) and my mum, met me at Clay Bank. They armed me with a couple of pieces of homemade shortbread which gave necessary energy to take on the tough eight-mile mile stretch up to Blowarth Crossing and Urra Moor and back down into Kildale. I always steel myself for this stretch. It is long and bleak. It’s a great stretch to run when you’re fresh, but more challenging when you’re approaching 40 miles. The uphill is tough, but it is the long flat section once you’re on top of the moor that takes it out of you. Blowarth Crossing never seems to arrive, and even when it has it is a long five miles due north to Kildale. The route into Kildale crosses the bed of an old railway used for transporting minerals out of Rosedale, and a drove road along which cattle were taken on the hoof to London. It amazes me how much history you can run through without even realising it.
Eventually, I hit Kildale where supporters had been told to park well out of the village, which Ele and my mum had done. Mum, 70 years old in June, ran about 600 metres with me from the edge of the moorland, into the village. It was exciting to see. As was Ele, my wife, who fed me and told me to get warm. I was about to re-start when Robbie reappeared. He’d sped up, while I had slowed down coming off the hill. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to finish a race with him for the first time I hung around a bit longer and we set off together for the last stretch. We trudged up to Captain Cook’s monument (a Victorian phallus) and got our headtorches on. Despite the weather forecast predicting a ten per cent chance of rain it had been drizzling for much of the day and at this point it had become persistent. Combined with nightfall and a slightly slower pace, things got cold so we tried to pick up speed. Approaching Roseberry Topping we saw ultra-runners’ headlights moving slowly up and down the distinctive 1000ft hill in the dark. It was like watching a constellation of moving stars. We eventually reached Roseberry and joined in the procession ourselves, crested the summit and doubled back onto the final stretch, over Highcliff Knabb and through three miles of Guisborough Woods. We knew that the finish and hot food were less than an hour away, picked up the pace and trotted happily down to sea-level, where we switched back and ran down the railway line, into the finish.
Roseberry Topping (at a warmer time of year)
We finished in 12 hours and 37 minutes for 55 miles and 8000ft of climb, 156th out of 345 who started and 286 who finished. We covered the distance comfortably and efficiently without too much fuss. Which bodes well for the 62-mile Fellsman in a few weeks’ time and the Hardmoors 110-miler at the end of April. Running with Robbie made me think about how far I’d come since the days of being unable to run for 15 minutes without needing medical attention. Big up the Hardmoors team for putting on extraordinary events that push people far beyond their limits – with a bit of mickey-taking thrown in.