Between the rock there’s a hard race

…two reccies, tired legs and testing endurance

Today was going to be fast. Fast and hilly. Fast, hilly and mostly misty. Like the weather, I suspected my memory of this reccie would pass in something of a blur. Yes, I would be running with my club’s Best Male and Female, In-House Competition Female Champ, and one of the quickest blokes in our club. I’ve learned that running in quicker paced company does indeed improve one’s own performance. Today, however, I was simply hoping to hang on and preserve some energy for the equally testing challenge of a Three Peaks reccie the following day.

This was a friendly, pre-arranged reccie of Calderdale Way leg 4 from near Heptonstall west-east to near Wainstalls, north of Halifax. Car drops were soon sorted, including the long circumnavigation of Halifax and Hebden Bridge: we arrived at Blackshaw Head and the leg start. Like most relay changeover points (CoPs), this one was fairly unimportant and unimpressive. Perhaps the misty grey weather was a contributing factor.

CWR legs are noted for one consistent, demonstrable characteristic: relentlessness. Either up or down; there is rarely an opportunity to relax and drift along. Indeed, the three other legs I’ve previously covered all demand attention and concentration. Even on the urban sections of Leg 6 there is a need to be aware of traffic at road crossings and also locating seemingly secretive snickets and unobtrusive back lanes.

After the initial repeated grazing field crossings the route unsurprisingly descended into a valley bottom with a beck, bridge, tree roots and uneven footpath. A brief flashback to the recent Heptonstall fell race and a short, shared route section the route rose gently along a cobbled footpath that had been worn in the centre, most likely from the elements.

What followed was a mix of technical, rocky descents, fast muddy declines and then the inevitable climbs up through small hamlets, heather covered moors and densely covered woodland. I did consider on a warm, sunny days the woodland would provide much needed shade and cool air. Today, the trees were largely bare and dripped with moisture from the mist and overnight rainfall.

The route description revealed regular opportunities of fine views, distant buildings as navigational landmarks and brief references to historical features. All we could see was shades of grey and opaque views that nulled senses and affected choices on obvious navigation. Needless to say, we took several wrong turns and stopped frequently to determine which correct permissive footpath to take.

Soon, we were descending sharply in the grazing field where, a few years before on race day, I’d watched high above from the CoP approximately a mile away. The route then offered the expected sting in the tail: a punishing, steep climb up a winding track around woodland and between stone houses and farms. Legs skipped away, higher and further into the landscape. I now understood why the faces reaching the CoP were blank and devoid of any joy or fulfillment – a real tough finish to a brute of a route. Driving home, my legs were indeed twitching with signals that communicated the run had been hilly, fast and shared with a quicker ability of runner. And I couldn’t remember much of the route. My head was as misty as the weather.

An early night, plenty of water and a good breakfast later: soon, it was the following day’s challenge. Almost immediately, after passing the impressive stone viaduct at Ribblehead, the walk up and over grassy clumps brought it all back: heaving a tired body up and over soft-sponge like terrain, and under the towering face of a hillside ahead. This was the first of several challenges today – this was the climb up Whernside. Last year during the Three Peaks race I had a nightmare ascending this hill.

Although not quite on the race route the gradient was similar; steeper than I remember, and more exposed. Mind, I was so delirious last year the land could’ve been painted yellow! DC was first up to the ridge and turned to give the thumbs up. Behind me, two others immediately followed and then the final two were a further 75 metres below. Everyone was focusing on the next step, there was no chat, and all were in pained concentration. Whilst this was hard on my already aching leg muscles, surprisingly I found this sortie easier than the previous year – relevant ammunition for the confidence and perhaps a good indicator at improved fitness. A brief shuffle up the 200 metres to the summit cairn then we started the descent out and away from the low cloud that skirted the top.

The sun broke out on the rocky path decent: below, fine views were revealed of Ribblehead viaduct, green landscapes and the large void across to the emerging mass of Ingleborough. Good race lines were identified to the side of the compact shale path. These might be needed on race day: conquering the demands of checkpoint cut-off times while preserving leg muscles.

Beyond the Hill Inn, lush green grass and tracks between limestone pavements, the route enters stone flags that slowly rise up to the peak above. I had forgotten how the flags are spaced more for the stride of walkers than the cadence of a runner. This is pivotal on race day as, again, even the more straight forward of terrains is complex and awkward.

Edging out from Humphrey’s Bottom we then clambered up the steep, man-made chimney of stone steps towards the saddle ridge. Blue sky framed the landscape ahead; the grey and green of stone and grass contrasted against the crispness of the sky. Everything seemed fresh, clean and untouched. On the ridge we gained our breath before making tracks up and over Swine Tail, then beyond to the summit plateau. The views all around were stunning. The wind however was cold and biting, so we shuffled back and retraced our steps for the final descent.

The final 4-5 miles are hard. My legs were rightly feeling tired, although I somehow felt stronger the closer to Horton we traveled. The rocky ground battered my feet and others began to suffer from blisters and bruised toes. The final undulating grazing fields would normally sap out all energy, but my legs enjoyed the soft ground over the hard impact of rock. Across the railway tracks then a brief detour at the stone bridge, down and knee-deep into the cool, clear water of the river. A soothing end to a steady and sometimes challenging reccie over two of the three peaks.

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