Visualisation is something I really advocate. Drip feeding helpful strategy, good experiences and crucial elements of a race into sharp, colour focus. I recognise this will not help me to leap from nowhere into the prizes, but up until now this approach has usually helped: (expected) pacing, advance identify where I really should consume some fuel and mentally prepare for tough route sections. Mind, when the Wadsworth Trog route comprises place names like: High Brown Knoll, Castle Carr, Halfpenny Hole and Sheepstones Edge, you have to wonder if this is fellrunning or an excerpt of locations from Game of Thrones. I tried to cease visualising place names when my mind’s eye skipped across the route map to Cock Hill. And by the time I reached the final mile Fearney Fields they nearly always read as ‘Fear ye Fields’.
The race start on an icy lane soon transferred up on to the heathery moor. Reaching Checkpoint 1 at High Brown Knoll was over in a white flash. All vegetation was of course hidden under a blanket of snow. Everything below was white and above blue. The views were breath-taking. Or maybe that was the Arctic air. Ahead, a generous wide path had already been prepared by the young and/ or enthusiastic. Needing to navigate was a non-starter. Even in mid-field each footstep into the white stuff delivered a delightful crunch and a comfortable inch or two sink into soft snow. Still, on these remarkable weather days, races like the Trog still take and take again.
And then there was a thread – seemingly spiraling up from the depths of hell – with chilling talk of something labelled ‘The Beast’.
The route down towards Castle Carr estate was lumpy, soft and peppered with hidden hazards. Quickly followed was the short freefall descent through frozen bracken and the steep climb up the other side. A combination of this sheltered ascent and the warm sunshine behind prompted many climbers to remove a layer or two of merino. I was already beginning to regret wearing long tights. Through the next few checkpoints the terrain would follow this pattern: crunchy snow, lumps with bog, track and then solid stretches of short tarmac. Although the conditions were biblically brilliant, focus was still needed as the route terrain (and gradient) constantly changed.
Changing at the cricket club earlier revealed familiar expectations: among many other claret and golds, each had a target for the day – Captain Baxter, buoyed by his recent County call-up, was still modestly speaking of ‘going steady’. He finished 3rd. New vests were slipped on and old ones reworn. Others were predicting slow outings due to candid reasons ranging from wintry illness to downright piss-poor-preparation. As usual, Charlie Mac was beaming, eager to get snowbound, much like Skittle-fuelled child on Christmas morning.
Delving into my rations I ripped open some jelly and ginger beer. After Checkpoint 5 the long road and track climb up to Stairs Lane is a right drag. Energy would be needed. And some positive thoughts. Back to visualisation and pacing strategies. Around 6-7 runners went passed me over the next mile. I reassured myself that they were going too fast. I’d tortoise past them later in the route. In the end they all mostly finished a few minutes either side of me.
Beside the conduit and across the moorland trod towards Harbour Lodge a stiff cold headwind emerged as I focused on strong technique. Indeed gaps between runners – or small groups of 2s and 3s – started to emerge at the outpost self-clip checkpoint. These gaps only increased as the route turned upwards and towards the familiar Withins Ruins. Again, sweat dripped from my face as warm sunshine radiated from the south and forced me to roll up my sleeves.
The traverse across and down the Pennine Way to Walshaw Dean Reservoirs was great fun. Fears of icy stone slabs were soon jettisoned. Every footstep was cushioned by compact snow. The only minor hazard was staying within the width of the solid path and not disappearing into the soft edges. The views across to Widdop and further south to Littleborough wind turbines were spectacular. I quickly stopped embracing the views when I missed a large step and almost went for a burton.
I’d previously raced and ran over this section many times. And in all weathers. The first time was during a balmy spring day for the Heptonstall race when a moorland fire blackened the sky and clogged my lungs. Looking at the white hills with blue skies in all directions the contrast was striking. Indeed every inhale of cold air generated a quiet, internal alarm as the lungs repeatedly paused and accepted that they could continue to function.
Two runners ahead of me were clearly in full Heptonstall mode as they failed to turn left at Walshaw Farm. I opened my mouth to holler but the marshals at Checkpoint 8 had already shouted. The slog up the sweeping track towards Shackleton Knott was slow and yet enjoyable. I had imagined that my energy levels would be declining here. Maybe the blanket of snow that replaced the soft green and brown experienced on my recce was pivotal. Whatever the reason, I quietly nudged past a few runners who – based on their glazed focus – were clearly struggling. Or maybe it was blinding from sun and snow?
Once again my rhythm was broken from changing terrains, gates and gradient shifts. The slippy, grassy, rocky descent from Checkpoint 9 to Lumb Falls was largely uneventful though. I didn’t quite skip up the cobbled pack-horse path, but I did feel in control. I even managed a joke with a few walkers on the trudge through the grassy tussocks towards the Keighley Road at Checkpoint 10. I glanced across the food offerings, but really didn’t fancy the stodge of a brownie, flapjack or parkin. Shortly after, the sweet and calorie-soaked adrenalin shout of ‘Hello Braveshorts’ from Eileen Woodhead was a great alternative. A spring in my step I was soon lodged behind three other runners through deeper snow on the path towards High Brown Knoll.
The moor that gives the race its name. Years ago, I remember searching the FRA forum for signposting and general agreement on the toughest races in the Pennine fringes. My thinking was I’d done a few short races so I should go long and dirty. Pendle was repeatedly mentioned and there were a few references to the Hobble and Holme Moss. And then there was a thread – seemingly spiraling up from the depths of hell – with chilling talk of something labelled ‘The Beast’.
The closing stages of the Trog are legendary and devilish: open moorland first with featureless heather, in clag, treacherous deep brown filth and howling gales from the slopes of Mordor. Today was easier. Grey skies had briefly edged out the blue, but visibility was still clear for miles and miles. Underfoot, towards the next checkpoint, trods seemed to branch off in all directions. The going was still covered with caution.
Visualisation again triggered into action. From Limer’s Gate I knew with no navigational numptiness I’d be finished in around 45-minutes. I was also aware that I was wearing the infamous claret and gold so anything could happen. I followed my moorland recce route to perfection. Although not direct, I was satisfied that I’d saved sufficient energy to tackle the remainder. After weaving my way past the (correct) shaft tower I powered upwards towards Sheepstones Edge. I remember glancing at my watch and reading 10-something minute miling. Proper zippy, huh?
The mill chimney at Chiserley acts as a beacon. First as a marker for driving and arrival. Then like an industrial oasis the nearer to the race end it doesn’t seem to get any closer. With 3 miles to complete the route skirts a mile to the east then loops round so the chimney is approached from the south. Uphill. And with a white moorland backdrop the blackened chimney towers higher and higher. The chimney is basically the finish. I really needed more fuel during the mile descent down to Checkpoint 13. I just couldn’t be bothered to unclip my pack and decided to get by on nothing more than electrolytes and positivity.
‘Fear ye Fields’ up to the finish were taken in a style the French like to call sans la va-va voom. Much earlier I’d imagined being here, skipping skywards with a sunshine smile on my face. Visualisation had long since fractured. Much like my positivity and any remaining energy. Down to the fumes. Running only on Yorkshire air and the thought of fresh clothes and a hot coffee. At the summit of the fearful fields I shuffled into action along the eerily cold walled track and round the beautifully serene white of the cricket field. Back but not broken. And definitely not beasted.
Later in the night I was asked if I thought that I could slice another chunk off my time in 2020. Whether it was the mention of those numbers at that point – or for some time having performed a breaststroke in beer – I was incapable of visualising anything. To be honest, I really couldn’t imagine a better day of weather, ground conditions and stunning views. For now, in my mind, the Wadsworth Trog is perfect.