I like late race starts. Ideally around lunchtime, maybe 12 or 1 o’clock? This allows me time to wake, I mean properly wake, not just get up and go. A lunchtime start also introduces the concept of a second breakfast and more caffeine than is likely advisable. But a 3pm race start is just a bit beyond the agreeable time zone. For this reason final leg starts in team relays are awkward and I’m usually displacing way too much energy and fluttering around like a constipated starling. So the decision on Friday night to try out the Horton-in-Ribblesdale gala race (or loop up and down Pen-y-Ghent) provided a list of culinary and activity challenges… and opportunities.
“…this experience completely embodies why fellrunning trumps tarmac-thumping everyday and twice on race day.”
I calculated in my head that the drive to and from the Dales would be acceptable if I tacked on a few other activities during the day. It started with a parkjog around Aireville Park. Actually, it started with a big coffee and watering at the allotment. For this reason I arrived a tad late, swiftly bought a parking ticket, slapped the adhesive corner inside the passenger side window and bounded across to the start area in time for the announcements. On the multi-lap course I watched cousin Morv disappear further away on every out-and-back, while friend Pam encouraged and took photos at the finish line. A brief chat at the end then toilet stop in the leisure centre before I returned to the car. Alarmingly I’d received a dreaded yellow sticker penalty charge. On inspection it had been issued for non-display of a parking ticket. Seems my purchased and applied ticket had limply fallen into the footwell of doom. Bugger, this could prove a most expensive day out.
Suddenly the somewhat exurbant entry fee for the Wharfedale Trail half (a dirty thirty, pah) seemed like a snip compared to today’s emerging cash car crash. I drove the short distance towards Grassington, obviously frothing at the mouth, to give some cheer to friends who were ironically doing the race I’d decided to avoid – they’d do the same for me, right? This year was the first since 2011 that I haven’t trundled up Mastiles Lane. I thought that I’d be regretting not running. But on approach to all things limestone and green all that my Scottish brain could muster were images of mathematical equations that tried to justify not paying the bigcoin for a trail race and then being dealt an even larger penalty for parking to participate in parkrun. Seems the fell gods were somehow expressing their annoyance.
Light rain quickly greeted my first place of support. I managed to plonk myself under the big tree about a mile from the start where my girlfriend Rose had supported a few years previously. High winds had dislodged a branch that year and nearly delivered her with most severe (an innocuous) of running related injuries. All that I received was a fairly dry refuge, the darkest light for photos and a need to dance on the spot to avoid being eaten alive by midges. Next: a few miles along the road at Conistone I watched and cheered with another mate Darryl who was out to support his wife, Melissa. The light rain slightly intensified and soon I was wetter than a Charlie Dimmock garden feature (not an innuendo, honest).
Back in the dry of the car I was faced with an onward route choice: via Littondale and across the narrow road to Helwith Bridge or the slightly longer way round through Settle. Of course I incorrectly chose the latter and joined the slow progress behind a traveller’s caravan on the A65. After parking in Horton I suddenly felt less than motivated to drag myself up and over the smallest of the Three Peaks. Maybe it was the somewhat strange feeling to arrive in a place that is synonymous with an iconic race and the circus has long since moved on. Ok, the show may have left behind a few items for display. But the grass was long and there were no rows of portaloos. Perhaps most strikingly there wasn’t any sign of snow on the summit of the nearest high peak. In fact thick cloud obliterated all views above the lower grazing fields. Somewhere up there though, to the east, Pen-y-Ghent silently waited.
I’d inwardly decided to take the first half at a gentle pace as I was still recovering from a back injury; an opportunity to absorb the surroundings that I usually miss on the Three Peaks race. Beyond the tarmac start the gradient started to ramp up on a field lane and my watch vibrated to signal a mile complete: 10k pace wasn’t what I should have read. I felt ok though with no grumbles from the back. Soon tarmac transferred to footpath and the gradient steepened to reduce my shuffle to a walk. Mist enveloped us with drizzle and reduced visibility, but the humidity levels rose. As extra effort was required it wasn’t long before I had difficulty determining if I was sweating or pasted with fret from the mist.
False ridge led to false ridge as the race field stretched out. A final sharp grass bank dispatched us out on the south shoulder and the stone path upwards towards the rock scramble. Visibility was reduced even further down to approximately 50metres. There was an eerie quiet: no wind, but just the collective sound of heavy breathing and occasional clink of stone over rock. The scene wouldn’t have been out of place had a young Jeff Bridges skipped past explaining that he needed to save Jessica Lange from the hairy big ape.
The effort needed for the scramble was pretty much as I expected. Though I’d forgotten about the incline of flag stones that then lead up to the summit though; this seemed to go on for longer than was necessary. Every time I started to shuffle another ramp went up and I’d briefly walk. Repeat and repeat again. The trig point soon appeared and after nipping through the stone stile with the small wooden gate, my legs took a wobble before adjusting to the soft lumpy grass. This familiar descent – to the hairpin bend – always acts as something of a reward on Three Peaks day.
But then the second reward arrived. Instead of burning my soles and firing the quads down the gravel path, the gala race route heads across open moorland from the fingerpost. The next mile was shear childish delight: hardly any rock, a lush grassy carpet and a trod edged with bundles of spongy moss and heather should you decide to get a tad over-enthusiastic and go for a few forward rolls! My arms might have been wind-milling. The inner child was definitely screaming with joy. For me this experience completely embodies why fellrunning trumps tarmac-thumping everyday and twice on race day.
A further short climb up a grassy side to Whitber Hill was then followed by a flagged route across private farmland. This section would’ve been more enjoyable had my legs not decided to alert that they were tiring. Still, bouncing through the knee-high reeds and across tussocks was a fun challenge. The rocky Pennine Way back down to the village was less enjoyable. And the tarmac slog to the finish just served to remind me that – despite renewed enthusiasm – there was little left in the legs to catch the two runners only 20metres ahead.
The race route is excellent with much to offer. I was pleased with my time, a shade under 70mins. I finished with a smile on my face. And no back pain. Perhaps the sugar rush from the third and final reward at the finish numbed any nerve signal? A compliment from the organisers – and local bakers I suspect – I inhaled a wedge of chocolate cake that was almost the size of my bumbag! A fellow runner nearby looked on with scorn (or was it scone…) as he suggested that I’d only put back on whatever I’d lost during the race – my reply was bookended and interspersed with cream icing, general astonishment and handfuls of I don’t really care!
The day was packed with enjoyment and incident. Yes I’d driven far too much, got soaked twice, but I’d gone out to support running friends for the first time in eons. A ridiculously expensive calendar favourite race was substituted with a bargain-basement belter. The Pen-y-Ghent race provides both during and after: “Take on the challenge and you will be rewarded”, I’m sure the fell gods will have echoed through the Pen-y-Ghent mist. But I hear you ask, what about the parking ticket? Well a politely worded email to contest that highlighted my over-enthusiastic stupidity seemed to do the trick. My challenge was upheld. Phew! I can only conclude that the influence of the fell gods extends beyond misty mountain tops deep into the hierarchy of local government. And also into the baking ovens of Ribblesdale homes.