Heptonstall Fell Race

Sunday 22nd March

From cobbles to hobbles and cassocks to tussocks: this belting race has got lots and more. The start in Heptonstall village is iconic for many South Pennine fell runners; residents hanging out from first floor windows, brightly coloured running vests contrasting with the grey stone and the sun casting shadows down the cobbled main street. Perhaps the image of sunshine is somewhat skewed after being blessed on race day by the first warm rays of spring sunshine; that was after being blessed by a reverend who traditionally is invited to start the race. Prophetically, it would soon transpire, the reverend preached from on high – when I say on high, there wasn’t any divine intervention as the reverend was simply stood elevated above head height on top of a stone wall: The advice was for all runners to focus on nutrition and hydration.

Jokes, jostles and general early optimism were soon jettisoned, along with the uphill incline over the cobbles. A steep descent into woodland soon created a bottleneck where the adventurous skipped through wild garlic up the steep gyhll-sided banks. A zig-zag up country lanes then followed with the morning sun warm on backs and necks; the sweat was already dripping off my forehead and face. Fine views appeared to the north and east as the Woodentops snapped the rainbow of colours whizz passed. A steeper grass path turned all runners west up towards the first checkpoint.

More checkpoints were then ticked off: they each followed diversity in surface, ranging from tussocks with bog to heather and trods. Nearly all moorland ones were located on summit tops; some woodland checkpoints were adjacent to mystical streams with golden unicorns, glittering fairies and neon mushrooms, although the sun and dehydration may have been playing games with me by then.

I really enjoyed the race until approximately mile 11 when I fell off an energy cliff – coincidentally, the route here also dramatically cut away as we veered down the Calder/ Aire Link. These sharp descents and adverse camber footpaths then did not help; nor did technical steps between trees and over camouflaged roots set deep in black coated mud. Wooden stiles were awkward as I could feel the onset of both quad and hamstring cramps; both legs, so equal chance of falling from a height.

I tried to hang on to the waist pack tails of a Wharfedale woman and Todmorden man – I failed. Soon, they both skipped round a tranquil mill pond and down a rocky track. At a tarmac road I glanced ahead and beyond at the black wall rising up, and up further, towards the blue sky way above. The route descended a little more towards a group of marshals, one of whom firstly apologised, and then offered the most ineffective words of motivation: “I’ve no idea how you guys are going to manage to get up there…” Great!

The first section was rocky and I shuffled over. A short walk towards a perpendicular track then the land simply changed to – what was seemingly – vertical. The crisp azure sky and sunshine promptly disappeared; I’m sure orcs and evil goblins could be heard shrieking in the distance. This was ‘Stairway to Heaven’. I’d soon be thinking ‘oh hell’! My feet struggled up and over high wooden sleeper steps. I possessed almost zero energy – it felt much like (I’d imagine) wading through wet concrete in wellies. Runner after runner shuffled passed me; even a club mate tried to chivvy me along, but I was spent. Thankfully, before the large gritstone boulders where the sky reappears, a spectator couldn’t take anymore photographs as his batteries had ran out of power; I knew the feeling!

Back in the sunshine I soon returned to shuffling as I plodded over a lush grass field where spectators offered last words of encouragement, and the Woodentops captured grins and grimaces, likely in disproportionate measure. The rooftops of Heptonstall village came into view and an easy navigation through a gap in the dry stone wall, from one field to another, guided me down to the finish – and a lurch towards the water table and a few extra helpings of the complimentary baking!

This is a belting race and correctly suitable miles for those aiming at having a tilt at the Three Peaks. Also, the race manages to blend the characteristics of informal events with sound organisation and great value for money. Mind, on a wet and downright foul day I’d imagine more demons will come out to play, and the route would indeed take a devilish turn. But, this day was sunny. I got round. I was a tad dehydrated and my face sun lashed – I was almost broken. However after a field wash and clothing change, all was soon fine; especially with some rustic soup and bread at the pub. Miraculous recovery ingredients indeed! Perhaps it was the spiritual assistance – or maybe just the amazing flapjack!

2 thoughts on “Heptonstall Fell Race

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