I had no idea. No really, I just didn’t know. Friends couldn’t understand. Running friends simply wouldn’t believe me. No, it’s really NOT like running the London (or any other road) marathon. There is so much that needs to be right. And much more that could easily go wrong. Variables. Then for the best part of a fortnight prior to race day I’d had a really troubling injury. Niggles. I’d just have to follow a plan and hope for the best. Blagging. Predicting a finishing time for a long fell race is the work of the dark arts.
The 63rd Three Peaks race was my fourth attempt. I’d improved my time year on year. I had said that after three consecutive attempts that I’d do something different. But last year I was slightly disappointed with my race likely due to the wintry weather. I had started to get the handle on pacing though. For the average novice just getting beyond the cut-offs (after meeting the entry qualification criteria) can be something of an achievement. I really wanted to, at least, reach sub 4 hours 40 minutes and the status of 2nd class.
For me suitable weather conditions would be cool, overcast, maybe a bit blowy during which I’d need to correctly pace key sections and fuel at prescribed intervals. Eat when you walk. The weather leading to race day followed a familiar pattern to previous years: a cold, wintry blast with Arctic winds and snow on all the tops. Spring sun had quickly thawed away the snow cover and the 2017 race day initially promised ideal conditions for records to be broken and personal bests to be smashed.
I’d purposely decided to focus my training more on tempo running AFTER hills rather than just doing climb upon climb. My invented S-H-I-T-E* sessions were pivotal. I continued with hill reps and also lumpy training runs but focused more on technique and breathing during climbs then really forced the pace from the top. I probably did more speed work too, including intervals and also negative splits and fartlek. I reckon less than 5% of planned sessions were missed (or revised) and all scheduled races were completed, each with improved times regardless of weather conditions.
...the knowledge might generate unadvisable steps in an attempt to reach an unachievable target…
By ‘eck, the first hour or so was wa’m! Runners were soon removing base layers and opting for the vest only approach after the first peak. Huh, not me, what with my sensitive nipples! After the first climb I was a tad queasy on the schlep from Whitber Hill across to High Birkwith. My legs had felt excellent going up Pen-y-Ghent and there was no issues or concerns with my left leg ITB. My soles were seemingly on fire down the steep gravel path descent. I cursed the recent dry weather and could only find small puddles to bath my blazing feet.
Image: Sharon Hague
Beyond High Birkwith to Lodge Moor, as the temperature began to cool, the nausea thankfully started to subside as well. I ran strongly along the tarmac road and noted at Ribblehead that I was only marginally down on my best predicted time (BPT). I located my electrolyte drink and refilled the small bottles from my waist pack before drinking the residual 300ml.
At the Winterscales beck crossing I purposely again soaked ankle-deep as the soles of my feet were again on fire. The climb up Whernside wasn’t too bad – I even stopped to demand smiles and waves in a photo. I did start to feel a bit woozy on the steep section but looked forward to the descent. Legs were still tip-top and no emerging issues with the recent niggle.
I was very optimistic about gaining time down to Hill Inn as I’d twice reccied with specific routes in mind. I barely looked up, keeping focus on the technical rock and then flag stone steps. At Bruntscar Farm I slowed to gulp down some liquid. Then quickly back to technique, breathing and stride length over cattle grids and along the tarmac of Low Sleights Road. I reached Hill Inn ahead of my BPT. Then I promptly made my only real tactical error of the day.
As I took an available cup of water a checkpoint marshal directed me to a large, salt tub on the table**. For reasons unknown – like most other runners, I’d guess – adding salt to drinking water seemed to be just what my muscles needed. In a cartoon, the character would point to legs which would bubble ‘salt’ and then the head would reply ‘really?’ In approximately 20 minutes my stomach would lodge a bubble protest on its own.
Running up Ingleborough has never been a realistic proposition. Still, after Hill Inn – drink, fuel, photo stop – I returned to a steady shuffle through Souther Scales and up to the flag stones on Humphrey Bottom. The steep steps up to the summit plateau were made doubly difficult as I endured my second spell of nausea, likely due to the salty water. I somehow stumbled up to the moonscape summit, avoiding most floor hazards, and gladly snatched a large, soft fruit pastille from an enthusiastic spectator. I knew my section split would be slower than hoped. I decided not to time check here as considered the knowledge might generate unadvisable steps in an attempt to reach an unachievable target.
I easily located my preferred route off the summit plateau that avoids most of the jagged rocks. I soon developed into a good, solid stride and foot clips were minimal – toenails are overrated though. As a rough gauge I was catching and passing other runners and only one or two overtook me. Perhaps most impressive was not feeling apprehensive when reaching and crossing the sections of smooth limestone pavement – the dry weather likely helped.
About halfway down, at Sulber Nick, I stopped to alleviate dual adductor cramp and drink a bottle of electrolytes. A combination of hurriedness and failed coordination placed most of the contents across my face. This must’ve looked quite funny to any observer nearby – runner stops for stretch then pours weird bottle liquid over face.
The grey limestone soon gave way to the lush green grass of the lower grazing fields. I knew the finish is approximately 1 mile from the dividing FP gate. I glanced at my watch. It registered 4.22 and ‘some’ seconds. There was little chance of doing a 7-minute mile to finish. Arms still pumped hard mind and I’m sure that I bolted up the remaining inclines before hurdling that stone step under the railway tunnel. The finish field area looked inviting with soft green grass, the Inov8 flags rustling and spectators applauding – a really great end to a brilliant race.
I’d scribbled down targets a few weeks before race day – this would form my BPT:
PYG – 43.00/ HB – 34.00 (77.00)/ RIB – 29.00 (106.00)/ WH – 47.00 (153.00)/ HI – 26.00 (179.00)/ ING – 46.00 (234.00)/ HOR – 46.00 (FINISH 280.00)
Then compare with my race splits:
PYG – 43.06/ HB – 34.19 (77.25)/ RIB – 28.46 (106.11)/ WH – 46.33 (152.44)/ HI – 24.40 (177.24)/ ING – 49.12 (236.36)/ HOR – 43.59 (FINISH 280.35)
Shame that I’d missed sub 4.30 by less than a minute – should I have taken that photo on Whernside, stopped for a brief chat with friends at Hill Inn or gulped that cup of salty water? Maybe. There are so many variables to consider though. Much had gone well for me on the day. Personally, I had my strongest Three Peaks race to date and lopped off another 16 minutes for a shiny new PB.
Wider than this, the question I immediately asked running friends while clutching my finish printout: what about Rose and Sara…? I was really chuffed to learn that my girlfriend Rose had easily reached Hill Inn before the cut off and then later finished without too much pain or any fall injury. Also, Sara Demaine, a former club mate, had managed to burst through ahead of the cut-offs and successfully finish at the first attempt. I suspect both will return in 2018 to knobble another chunk from their respective PBs. I was sad to learn that both Leigh Hinchliffe and Ollie Roberts had to retire. But my race was extra enjoyable: I got to run various sections with friends and good acquaintances from many clubs based in Leeds, Yorkshire, Lancashire (shhh, keep that quiet) and Scotland. I was especially chuffed for my mate Ben Mason who was the first Pudsey Pacer to cross the finish line while claiming a massive PB.
Image: Jenny Cooper
Also, there were so many goodwill supporters on the course from the claret and golds to the clubs who were marshalling at checkpoints and key sections, including (but likely not limited to) Pudsey Pacers, Horsforth Fellandale, Bingley Harriers and Keighley and Craven AC. A particular nod and acknowledgement to Martin Bullock who stepped up to the (very demanding) volunteer role of Marshal Director and as a competitor the change was seamless. Bravo.
So, you won’t likely see my name on the entry list in 2018. Certainly not. Instead, I’m probably going to try something different next spring. Unlikely to be feeling nervous inside the marquee on race day. Probably not dropping labelled bottles into the two plastic tubs. Approximately 90% decided. But 10 months until entries open. Plenty of time to decide. And again be tempted. Glad there’s no early bird entry.
*Short Hills Into Tempo Efforts (copyright Coach FRB)
**Drinking the sodium chloride cocktail was in no way mandatory and the marshal did not influence my delirious decision-making