Hardmoors 55: 2018
As I begin typing this review I feel a sense of impending doom (a little like I did at the start line of this great event). I’m really disappointed that we didn’t finish the race but I feel we gave it our collective best shot. We were ultramarthon virgins and Hardmoors 55 was not going to be a gentle first lover!
For 16 weeks I had been training along with Stoney for our first ultra marathon. In the run up to the event we had met and recce’d most of the route. Each time we met we would discuss the scenarios in which we would find the event difficult to complete. As our training had been going well the conversation usually started with “I reckon we’ll be alright so long as it isn’t….” and frequently ended with “freezing, wet and windy”. Guess what?
The Hardmoors 55 is an ultra-marathon that covers 55 miles from Helmsley to Guisborough along the Cleveland Way (the nations favourite national trail) and is part of the Hardmoors Series of race events. If ever a title was well earned the Hard-moors is it. The event page for the Hardmoors 55 clearly states ‘Do not underestimate this race’.
From day one of the training we had decided to train for and run this race together. Stoney and I met frequently throughout the training to run together which was useful for motivation but especially useful in pacing. I had previously likened our training to Warren G’s classic tune ‘Regulate’. Having completed a few marathon distance trail runs I felt quite confident with pacing but I didn’t have the discipline to stick to it during training where as Stoney was keen to go by the book and took a much more technical approach to the training. Through each spell of injury or inactivity in busy schedules we kept on at each other and we used Garmin Connect to keep on eye on each others training, offering encouragement with each increase in distance run and the occasional scalding when one of us clearly didn’t stick to the pacing guidance. What is long pace anyway? 😉
Despite our reservations about the weather we had trained throughout the reign of the original (and best) ‘Beast from the East’ and had survived, so what could the event day throw at us that we hadn’t already experienced?
In the week before the race we kept a keen eye on the forecast. Everyday it got slightly worse. Snow flurries (not so bad), high winds (slightly worse), freezing temperatures (pretty bad) and wind chill (which horrifically got down to -12c) all as described but at 8.30AM we stood huddled near Helmsley’s open air pool awaiting our starting instructions from Jon. Right on time the instructions and motivational briefing were imparted and we approached the start line unaware of what lay ahead.
The first 9 miles are a steady uphill section taking in views of Helmsley Castle, Rievaulx Abbey and Kilburn White Horse. As we approached Sutton Bank we got our first true glimpse of the ‘Mini Beast from the East’ before it attempted to blind us with blizzard conditions. The first checkpoint was met with joy as we passed the druid, on the left hand side, to the sound of his mighty roar. We stocked up on jaffa cakes and ‘rolla cola’ in a very short stop before taking on the steps back up to the top of the bank.
As we ran back along past the gilder club we passed lots of runners who were yet to get to the checkpoint. In other races that I’ve competed in I occasionally had the benefit of feeling smug as I passed runners who were behind but that was not the case here. Instead it just felt like we were part of one big movement progressing through some challenging conditions and everyone was playing a part. The next 13 miles were torturous. Not because of the distance but because Mother Nature was about to become a huge tease. Every time we entered a sheltered area the sun came out. Every time we were exposed in the open a blizzard swept through. Our fantastic support crew met us at Sneck Yate to help us refuel before moving across Black Hambleton and on to Osmotherley. I had made it clear to Stoney for about 5 miles that when I got to the village hall it was neither food nor shelter that spurred me on but the thought of a sit down wee that was getting me through. I gorged myself on food and went for my dunny dividend. Reinvigorated we set off again up the hill out of Osmotherley. The food we had taken on wasn’t settling well and as we approached Beacon Hill the pace had slowed. Carlton Bank was looming and Lordstones was our next mental check point. In running an event as a team there are more considerations to make. We had trained together for 16 weeks. If either of us had been injured pre-event we would have acted as support crew for the other. Running as a pair means you go through similar thought processes. “Am I slowing him down?”, “Are we running to fast?”, “Have we taken on too much?”, “Why did those guys who told us they’ve done this before stop at Osmotherley? What do they know that we don’t?” and “Why were ski googles not on the kit list?”
After Lordstones the running became walking. Our pace had slowed and our water had frozen. Neither of us were new to winter conditions but we the combination of very challenging winter conditions and our first ultra was about to get the better of us. As we ascended the Wainstones we were feeling low. The scramble up the slope was completed in a near white out and by the top our extremities were (based on the slogan on our non finishers T-Shirts) #colderthanapenguinschuff. As we descended to Clay Bank check point we saw a number of people take a tumble and we took the decision that 34.5 miles would do us for the day. Our slow pace had left us bordering on hypothermic and whilst we had all the gear we certainly had no idea of how to run an ultra in those conditions, particularly as it was our first.
As our trackers were cut from our bags we both fell silent. It would be harsh to say we were ashamed of our efforts in those conditions and we managed to cover 34(.5) miles during the mini beast from East at it’s peak. We were disappointed not to finish and saddened not to reach Kilburn. I know that had we carried on we would have been part of the group that were stopped at that point anyway but at least then the decision would have been out of our hands and it would not have felt so much like a defeat.
The race was over, we’d completed an ultramarathon distance but not finished the race. In the following days a media storm surrounded the race following misunderstandings about what constitutes a rescue. A few days before the race I had signed up on Facebook to become part of the Hardmoors community. What I saw on that page through Jon and Shirley (the race organisers) communications over the next few days impressed me as much as the race itself.
The race itself was extremely safe and well organised. Jon gave a clear briefing at the start, Mountain Rescue were present at the start too and agreed to the event going ahead. I have never been given a GPS tracker for any event and whilst I may have joked in the run up to the event that it could be useful for my family to know where to go to remember me in future years it really impacted positively on my confidence about the organisation of the race and the considerations around competitor safety. The kit check was completed with no forgiveness. If you didn’t have the required equipment you weren’t allowed to race. The marshaling was absolutely impeccable and the support of those volunteers was hugely appreciated at every stage.
The rescue was a helpful (if glorified) taxi service from Kilburn to Great Ayton due to the road conditions being poor on the minor roads at the foot of the moors. Were some people mildly hypothermic? Yes. I say that I was one of those people but at no point were we in any immediate danger and the decisive action of the race organisers meant that no competitor was any worse than that. No-one was rescued from the hillsides, no-one was forced to run by event staff and every competitor was being watched by 100’s of ‘dot watchers’ who were fascinated by the opportunity to view the progress of their friends and family.
The Hardmoorians came out in force to support the race and the organisers even as Jeremy Vine and co. managed to wade in on the action and it was that united front that I found so special. In fact both Stoney and I felt extremely proud that we had been a part of it. As ultra runners the competitors will frequently be referred to as ‘nuts’. I know this because that was the response of a number of my friends and colleagues. The best thing is that, whilst this true, this community is nuts in the best way possible. Their response to the media interest was passionate and articulate. As the race organisers questioned their decisions following a tabloid press invasion, the community rallied round and left no doubt that the event was a success. The community raised over £4000 for the Cleveland Mountain Rescue team involved in the event but that is just a portion of the money that will have reached the team. We raised over £350 for the Scarborough and Ryedale Team that we were supporting through our Hardmoors 55 attempt alone and we will both sport a superb T-Shirt with the slogan #colderthanapenguineschuff to commemorate our attempt which was designed and produced by members of the community following the ‘rescue’ too.
As I didn’t set out to write an essay I shall finish with a final thought. Whilst we were both disappointed not to have completed the 55 mile course we are extremely proud of our attempt and even more proud to now be part of such a supportive, inspiring, enthusiastic and wonderfully eccentric Hardmoors’ community. Whilst we may not have done enough to be counted as fully fledged members you can be damn sure we will be back on that start line next year as well as sneaking our way into any other Hardmoors events we can in the process.