Saturday, October 4, 2008

110 miles --on foot--through Jolly Old England

Sometime last winter I had decided to run the legendary Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa with my friend Che in June of 2008. But in the midst of settling into our lives as expats in Amsterdam, I lost the motivation to get ready for a June race. So, when the itch to run a long race returned, I scanned the race calendars for something that looked good. In the back of Ultrarunning Magazine, I found it: The “Hardmoors 110-Mile Ultra” would be run for the first time in the North York Moors National Park of England (on the East Coast) in September. Perfect.

Training on the pancake-flat streets of Amsterdam for even a moderately hilly race is not an optimal situation. A friend remarked that it was kind of like training for the Tour de France in Holland. Now, 4 days after the Hardmoors, I know that it's actually like training on a skating rink to climb Mt. Everest. Other than a few various holiday trips to the Alps, I hadn't run much of a hill in almost one full year. For this, the Hardmoors race would make me pay, and pay dearly.

Despite preparation that was sorely lacking, I found myself on the starting line on Friday, 26 September. One of the unique aspects of this race is an evening start time of 5 p.m. This would mean that most competitors, yours truly included, would face the daunting task of running through two evenings.

With me at the start was my incredible crew: Mr. Masters, Mr. Masters, and Mr. Masters! My good buddy Steve, a former RAAM crew chief (his RAF cycling team won the race a few times), is one of the best on the planet when it comes to managing and organizing a race effort. Accompanying Steve were his father, Mick, and his brother (and my pacer/running companion) Richard. Not only are these three some of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but their attention to detail and selflessness would ensure that I'd make it to the finish line. All I would have to do was put one foot in front of the other.

For a lover of history—especially British history (and literature)--such as myself, this would be a race of superlatives. Along the route, medieval abbeys, ancient bridges, stone cross ruins, and historic literary references dotted the landscape. In one section, I would run down a centuries-old roadway once used by Scottish drovers as they herded cattle and sheep to markets in England. Old stone walls lined the route in many spots. The feet that had passed this way dated back to a time when modern running shoes were as futuristic sounding as men from Mars. There are over 3000 Bronze Age (2,000 B.C.) burial mounds in the moors. Going further back to around 5,000 B.C., the Neolithic people farmed the land here. And when you crank up the way-back machine to its highest setting, there is evidence that around 8,000 B.C. in the Mesolithic period, people hunted, gathered, and fished here.

Our first cultural scenery was adjacent to the starting line...the (relatively NEW--circa early 13th century) Norman castle ruins in Helmsley. With this magnificent castle in the background, we took off just minutes after 5 p.m. Early going, I felt the effects of a stomach bug that had plagued me earlier in the week. I had never fully recovered, and my overall energy level lagged considerably. For much of the first section, I ran with a French guy named Julian—one of the three other non-Brits running the race. After just 10 miles into the race, I had an inkling that it was going to be a long race. My initial goals were for a 28-hour finish, but by the 20-mile mark I knew that I would have to adjust. However, it's a 100+ mile race...ANYTHING can happen!

Richard ran with me from about mile 10 to 20 (Julian had run on ahead), and we enjoyed some of the most spectacular views as the sun set. As we ran to the north along a series of cliffs, we enjoyed the red evening sky, the frequent chattering of grouse and pheasant (saw a lot of the latter), and enjoyed the variety of trees, running through deciduous and evergreen forests alike. When darkness draped its blanket over us, the headlamp became our best friend as grassy pathways alternated with rocky trails. Descending the cliffs and running into the next checkpoint in Osmotherly at mile 20, I was feeling fair. To repeat: Anything can happen.

And anything did happen shortly after the checkpoint. Now on a short road segment, my stomach and energy levels took a turn for the worse. I tried to tell myself that it was a temporary thing, but it was a tough sell. Now on my own for a stretch, the darkness seemed to get darker. With no moonlight whatsoever, I relied only upon my headlamp and the series of maps that I had printed and laminated for the race (a set of almost 40 individual cards). Each segment was accompanied by a written course description that at times would prove very helpful. Navigation was a serious challenge in this race, with a number of competitors going off course at various points. I'm not sure whether it was dumb luck, experience, or a good sense of direction, but I only strayed off course for one very short (50 meter) segment. At one point, I had only sheep and a fenceline to guide me along the route.

Soon, the intense climbing began. The moors, not to be confused with the Muslims from North Africa who reigned in Spain centuries ago, feature a series of very steep and challenging hills. As a veteran of many mountain runs in the American West, it's easy to think that these mere “hills” are nothing tough. WRONG. These babies have incredibly steep paths carved into them. Upon climbing the first hill, I was thankful that the trail builders had placed stone steps to make the climbing easier. That thankfulness quickly turned to dread with each successive stone step up, and rapidly deteriorated to disgust at the entire world when I had to navigate the tricky stone paths that descended from each hilltop. To rub more salt in the wounds, ankle-width drainage gulleys cut diagonally across the path at 10 meter intervals, offering yet more leg-breaking treachery to the brutal path. For nearly 20 miles as I traversed across this section, there was very little runable terrain. Add the intense wind (whipping my jacket so hard at one point that I couldn't hear myself think), the foggy mist that had moved in, and the pitch black conditions...well, you get the point. At least there were no reports of werewolf attacks.

Into the next checkpoint, my stomach had recovered somewhat, but now I faced what would be the toughest part of the course from a navigational standpoint. Providence shined on me again in the form of a fellow runner and his pacer, the latter of whom was an exceptional navigator. The three of us managed to find our way without much trouble through the toughest hours of the night that included an ascent up the brutal steps of Roseberry Topping, a vista which during daylight must have offered exceptional views of the surrounding countryside. But in the darkness, there was nothing but black. Heads down, we moved forward.

As the morning sun peeked over the horizon, the next checkpoint came, and I again picked up Richard.The quiet of the dawn soothed my soul, but my legs still felt like lead. My saving grace was that the town of Saltburn-By-Sea was close, which meant that my race was nearly halfway done. Entering the checkpoint at the coast, 55 miles was in the bag...and just 55 remained.

Now, route finding would be “easy.” Simply head southward along the coast, and eventually I'd run into the finish line in the town of Filey. But along the way, there would be grueling ups and downs and more flagging energy levels. From Saltburn until the town of Robin Hood's Bay, I simply tried to enjoy the magnificent coastal scenery and focus on running whenever possible. At one point, Richard pointed out a Peregrine Falcon. Nice. At Robin Hood, I managed to pass another runner (who would eventually finish around 30 or 45 minutes behind me). I kept moving forward, trying desperately not to let the brutal climbing and descents mess with my mind. Whenever I thought there couldn't be more climbing, I'd be faced with another set of steps.

The beautiful weather conditions helped my mood considerably. Sunshine, paired with the gentle crash of the waves far below the clifftops, made for quite the serene setting. It was only in my legs that the boisterous revolt was taking place. My knees were staging a violent coup against my quadriceps, and my shins ached for a regime change.

Entering the beautiful town of Whitby, I read and re-read the course description, failing to see the bridge described. Certainly I wasn't supposed to descend into the bowels of this tourist town and run through the masses who were strolling the streets...or was I? Yes, the most direct path to the checkpoint at the medieval abbey was via the packed streets, so I ventured forth, fighting for real estate amidst baby carriages, tipsy holiday-makers, and rowdy teens. More than a few people gawked in amazement/curiosity/pity at this guy with crazy hair, knee-high black compression socks, and a double-bottle lumbar pack running through the streets. When I reached the base of the 199 steps leading to the abbey, the crowds let up and I continued unimpeded to the checkpoint at mile 76. The picturesque abbey was the inspiration/setting for Bram Stoker's famous novel “Dracula,” and it's not a stretch to see why. The gothic spires look haunting enough in the bright sunlight, to say nothing of how they might appear at night.

The next 11 miles to the next checkpoint went by in a rather uneventful way. At mile 87, Richard joined me again, where I made the dumb, dumb, dumb mistake of not checking for my headlamp. This would bite me in the ass as darkness soon fell again upon reaching the godforsaken town of Scarborough. Where I once was a fan of the popular Simon & Garfunkel song, I have vowed never to sing the song again after suffering the mental anguish of trying to find the Scarborough checkpoint, and suffering the catcalls and laughs of the town's tourists. All I could think to myself was, “Don't mess with me! I've just run almost 100 miles and I don't deserve your shit!” All the while, the going was made more challenging by the fact that Richard and I had no flashlights!

But...anything can happen. Rejoining Julian at the checkpoint, we continued on, passing the 100-mile point in the darkness along the coast—but this time with the advantage of headlamps! One out-and-back section along a rock promontory known as Filey Brig (outside of the finish town of Filey), and we would be “home free.” Finding the route past this out-and-back proved a bit challenging, but I could smell the barn, so to speak. Nothing would stop me now.

Since Julian and I were most likely going to reach the finish line together, I offered him that he should cross the line in front of me, as I had no pride attached to my finishing place. Showing his grace and gentlemanly nature, he suggested that we join hands and finish in a tie. And thus, the Hardmoors 110 came to a close for me, tied for 5th place with Julian in almost precisely 31 hours.

In the wake of the race, I'm humbled once again by my generous crew led by my good friend Steve Masters. Steve, Mick, and Richard's assistance was invaluable, and runners who crew for themselves (such as Julian!) have my never-ending respect for taking on the challenge in a true solo fashion. And the course itself was supremely challenging, eclipsing my expectations for how difficult I thought it would be. In a word, it was absolutely brutal.

Runners who might be considering an extremely tough 100+ mile race would do themselves a favor by considering this amazing event in a most amazing location. Additional kudos go out to the two-man race organizing duo of Jon Steele and Martin Hall for pulling off a logistical miracle, given the terrain and scope of the event.

With legs that haven't quite stopped aching, I thank all of you for your words of support in advance of the race, and humbly thank you for the plaudits that I've received since finishing.



mimi said...

Wow Greg! What an amazing race - congratulations on such a grueling feat! I loved reading this blog! I assume the beautiful scenery helped to get you thru this race! I'm going to keep reading about your summer. Sounds like you guys are really enjoying your time in Europe! Talk to you soon! mimi

Julien said...

Well done Greg! It was great to run the first and last sections with you. Many thanks to your support crew that was nice with me too.

John Kynaston said...

Great report Greg. Congratulations on completing a great race. I have run the whw race two times and I'm seriously considering adding this year to my goals for next year.

I'll be adding your blog to my list of favourites!


Stan Holman said...

Wow Press! You never stop amazing me. Good to see your doing well. Miss you in the NW.


Steve said...

I was one of the marshalls on this years hardmoors 110. Greg - Thank you for such an interesting account of the event. I have to add - it was a privilege to serve you and all of the competitors on the race. Your courage and commitment was inspirational. I remember your comment as I approached you when I manned the checkpoint at Runswick bay, I watched through binoculars as the runners came down the grueling descent into the car park. Faces racked with a multitude of expressions and emotions. I asked 'Are you OK?, 'Do you have all you need?' and you 'gingerly lowered yourself into the waiting chair and said 'I just need to close my eyes for a few minutes....' And it was exactly that, I think within 10 - 15 minutes you were gone, out onto the beach section and off towards Whitby.
It is quite difficult to express just how demanding this course is. The comments seem to be from a number of the competitors, that is was a tough one, and they run a few. If you know Jon Steele, then you know a man who with a wisp of humour, will create a challenge and raise the bar. Thank you to all who took part, and thank you Jon, for an outstanding event.

Roger Hupfauer said...

Wow - what an achievement, and great write up as well. I felt like I was there with you; made my legs hurt just reading it! I couldn't imagine running 110 miles, let alone 10 miles. Congrats on an incredible 5th place finish.

Rich said...

Greg, I'd like to feature your Hardmoors 110 review on the Hardmoors page on the website, which is being put together. If that's agreeable to you, I'll put your URL and name at the top of the post?