Against The Wind

Wharfedale Trail Half Marathon – Saturday 6th June

If it rains, a runner zips on a waterproof. When it’s cold a thermal layer, hat and gloves are always worn. Even if the sun does appear, a cap can cool the head until the next water station, while suncream may protect exposed skin. There is little that can be used to battle against the wind. And so it seemed, as I battled across the grass with sycamore trees creaking and buckling in the 30-40mph blasts – that was only to collect my number at registration; the weather forecast during the race and at higher levels was for even stronger gusts.

I’d no idea what the starter of the Wharfedale Trail Half Marathon had just announced. The wind and natural elements conspired to drown out any warning of pending biblical weather. From the calm, unresponsive body language that accompanied his scripted reading of rules and advisory notes, I assumed all would be fine. Mind, I’ve always thought that even if advance warning of the world’s end is given I’m sure most fellrunners would set-off regardless: one last hoorah out o’er the hills, best way to go, and all that. And so it was, with approximately 400 others, I set off from Threshfield rugby club, as I’d similarly done the two-years previous – this is one of my favourite running experiences.

The early support and Grassington village were soon behind, as lush, green trails and limestone outcrops stretched out before me. Ah, the Yorkshire Dales: ‘right grand’, as James Herriot would likely exclaim. Helpfully, the strong wind was partly behind and seemed to be ushering me towards each of the spring gate stiles, and over the dark-grey stone walls. Indeed, the final sharper climb leading to the first checkpoint required little effort at all; almost feeling like I was on a travelator in an airport terminal. Soon, the terrain transferred to gravel track and the gradient reversed to descent. More striking though, I quickly realised there was no real recovery and more effort than usual was needed to descend towards Kilnsey Bridge. This was the first encounter of the headwind strength and I consciously decided to conserve some energy for the inevitable struggle up and over Mastiles Lane.

I had hoped to run the entire 2.5 mile climb from the Kettlewell road up and along to the second checkpoint. Following the slow shuffle across the initial grass meadow – passed Woodentop Eileen Woodhead sat taking photos (of pain and sweaty anguish) then on to the gravel track – I soon revisted this target. The wind blasted dust and debris into legs and faces; I was thankful for sungalsses that doubled as protective eyewear, and likely saved my contact lenses. Other runners were not so fortunate, or indeed able to combat the conditions; many had slowed to a stumbling walk. I somehow managed to plod upward, prompted by sight of the lens of Dave Woodhead and thereafter trying to keep pace with other runners around. Only on the steeper section near the summit did I lose a few places as others bravely managed to shuffle faster than my walk.

Here, the wind was gusting very fiercely. I wiped my sweaty brow and it felt like sandpaper with all the grit and sediment blown up off the track. Spectators and walkers sat behind a stone wall and were shouting out words of encouragement – well, their mouths were moving and the wind immediately stole the words back down the lane. I soon began striding out down and across the moorland track towards the Mastiles Gate checkpoint. My legs felt strong and I quickly caught those who’d overtaken me on the recent tough climb. Wisely, I drafted into a group of blokes who sheltered some of the strong wind and helped me conserve energy for the second half of the race.

I gulped down some water then galloped across the adverse camber of grassy trail, away from the rocky Mastiles Lane. Shortly, the wooded clough passed on the right (and offered a brief moment of shelter) before the quick descent down to and through a farm with roaming chickens. A number of sharp climbs soon followed, but each was aided by the strong wind from behind. On the last one, I decided to walk and consume an energy gel for the final push.

The checkpoints at Higher Heights and Boss Moor were both something of a blur; possibly because I was feeling very warm in the deceptive sunshine above the bustling winds. I did manage to power passed at least 6 other runners although they again overtook as I paused to sip a last cup of water. Over the Threshfield Moor section, a snaking line of approximately 10 runners followed the lead runner around heather clumps and smelly dark bog. I adopted my own direction and quickly found the more direct line gained me more places. Likewise, rather than weaving round thick grass as the route descended towards the final road section, I risked a more direct route and gained a few more places. Again, only later I realised that the favourable tail wind was aiding the propulsion downwards.

Two runners immediately passed me as the route wound its way passed stone cottages that provided brief shade and some respite from the warm sun. As we spurted out on to the tarmac road – approximately one-mile from the end – I heard an enthusiastic cheer from Basher, a fellow Pacer. I may have given a thumbs up; unlikely a smile. It was all hard work from here. And, for the first time during the entire race, I glanced at my watch: I quickly computed that I needed to maintain a 7 minute/mile to finish head of the 2 hour milestone. Or in other words – the difference between a satisfying outcome and a frustrating racing experience.

The friction of pounding tarmac ached with every step. I targeted the next vest ahead of me. I’d soon overtaken three before the route crossed the Kettlewell Road for the second time. From behind mature trees, the tall H-shaped white posts at the rugby club then came into view. I focused again on the track beneath me. A Chapel Allerton runner in the familiar lime-green vest went passed. I had a final glance at my watch and suddenly thought the finish, beyond the 90 degree left turn, was longer than I remembered. Lots of spectators lined the finish straight and the collective cheers were smothered by the rustling trees and movement of wood and leaves. The dark shade of the trees slightly disorientated me as I tried to gauge distances. The bright-white finish marquee quickly appeared. One final swipe of the electronic dibber and watch stopped – the end. Stop. Breathe. Try to relax. Time: 1.59:15… in the severe conditions that were more suited to wind-surfing that trail running, I was especially chuffed! This was a 10-minute PB so has left me wondering what will be possible in 2016, when (hopefully) not battling against the wind.

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