Do you know where you keep your cheque book? Well you’ll need to if you want to enter the Tour of Pendle fell race in Lancashire. Having dug it out of a drawer back in September, I scrawled £9 onto a cheque, proceeded to hunt down an envelope, located a 2nd class stamp from Christmas 2001 and sent it off to a chap in Whalley. Days later it was confirmed I was in and all set to tick off my second FRA (fell running association) AL category race so ultimately I could enter the 2018 Yorkshire three peaks when it opens in February. Fell races are graded according to both their difficulty and distance covered. Here’s the breakdown:
The race itself is a fell running classic and the staple fell running season closer for many with it always being held in mid November. This years was the 34th running of the event simply referred to as “The Tour” and the first race back in 1982 was won by the legendary Kenny Stewart (in 2.19). With 16.8 miles and 4833ft (1473m in Euros) of climbing over unforgiving, boggy, rocky, steep terrain it’s easy to understand why your “Tour” time is a badge of honour in fell running circles. A quick chat, your “Tour” time and that’s all that’s needed to know what you’re made of.
I stayed in Newchurch in Pendle with my old school friend Chris Stuttard, who incidentally was the one who inspired me to take up cycling aged 15. The picture I’ve used as the featured image for this blog piece is the view of Pendle from the Newchurch direction and it’s a picture that hung in my parents house when I grew up in Accrington. It’s pained by a local artist called Keith Melling and Pendle dominates many a local ride in and round the Ribble valley. Chris’s house was literally only a mile or so from Barley where the start was so we drove over and arrived for about 9.45 with the race kicking off at 10.30 that was plenty of time. I was most chuffed to see the legendary Pete Bland van which Richard Askwith’s references numerous times in his book, Feet in the Clouds.
I registered and was amazed to receive a race t-shirt, which given the £9 entry was quite impressive. What wasn’t impressive was they only had small ones left. I wasn’t going to complain though, my daughter will probably love to mooch around in it. Bit of fell running cool. Well I think it’s cool.
Looming over us was “Old Pendle” as it’s affectionately known locally. It dominates the horizon round that area and I spent many hours as a teenager running, mountain biking, walking and have an epic tale of getting lost up there that is another few thousand words and a story for another time. The start was a narrow lane and 500 fidgety fell runners gathered up. Not a compression sock or branded vest in sight. The famous fell running clubs were all in attendance. Barlick, Pudsey, Dark Peak, Borrowdale, Clayton le Moors (who I once did a evening training run with in 1991), Horsley Shufflers (ok that’s a joke) and many more.
I can’t really remember how it was started but it was something like “alreeeeeeeeet, GO”. We were off and I’d made a plan to treat it just like a marathon as I was hoping to run a sub 3, so steady as she goes as the charge kicked off. Since taking up fell running I’ve also started working with heart rate as a gauge of effort. I was going to try and average 152 which I reckoned I could maintain and still have some umph left to finish strong. Clearly with the rush at the start and the excitement it was hard to keep it down below but I was fairly conservative as we started the long steep climb through Buttock and up to trig point at the top of Pendle. Up and over the top and then the long gradual downhill to the Nick o Pendle across peat bog, across streams, rocky valley sides but generally 5k of my kind of terrain i.e. not much uphill to worry about. In fact thinking about it, all this fell running really is all about tackling my relative weaknesses head on. At 6ft 7 and even though I’m down to 85kg (From 94kg), I’m still an unlikely fell runner when compared to the short chunky thighed whippets surrounding me. But surely being born in Manchester, living initially in Glossop in Derbyshire (Peak District) and finally growing up in Accrington in Lancashire, a stones throw from Pendle, qualified me for membership of the fell running community. That record only tarnished by nearly 20 years of southern softening in the mild, dry, flat lands of London living. I remember at uni meeting a southerner for the first time and him talking about the fact the south east having hills. “We’ve got Box Hill he said”. I never took him seriously.
I digress. Through the Nick and I reckon I was in about 40th at this point and going well. I knew the last half of the race had a nasty sting to it. You can see that in the profile below.
We descended fairly gently down to the Churn Clough reservoir then began the next climb which was steep and narrow so I spent this one staring at the legs of the person in front whilst more or less having my face in their bottom (it was steep). We crested the climb and then it was onto Geronimo, which I’d read about in other peoples race reports and seen pictures. On the approach I was passed by the lady in 2nd place. She gave me a “well done” and proceeded to punch on towards Geronimo. The picture below probably sums it up best.
As you approach the ground in front just disappears until you realise that it’s super super steep. Far, far below was a crowd of people who no doubt there for the sport of watching people fall over. I went down as fast as I dared knowing that my friend Chris would be there. Turned out he missed me but was quite chuffed to re-take the 2nd place lady only to immediately lose the place as we crossed the stream at the bottom. I was blowing as I’d gone down way to fast and my HR was in the 160s.I went through a rough patch at this point as we climbed back up to the spine of Pendle. My nutrition strategy was 750ml of water and 1 gel. On reflection I was probably two gels light but then light is the name of the game….until you feel weak! I asked Nicky Spinks what the top guys do and she said they take a soft flask and fill up on fluids at the streams.
Once back up to the ridge we immediately charged down to the check point near to “Ski Pendle”. To the right I could see runners snaking up the large hill to my right. It was at this point I remembered that there were three large climbs between miles 10 and the finish. You can see them in the profile above and you can see on the map below I was in the very bottom left of the map.
I lost ground. I was being overtaken and was really struggling to raise my heart rate on the steep steep climb. It went on forever and I was worried that I was going to fall off my 3 hour schedule (which I’d incorrectly calculated anyway). My average min per mile speed starting the climb was around 9mins40 which I knew was comfortably under 3. As we were grinding up the hill I heard the chap below me mumble “this is the easiest of the three”. It really got in my head. The wind was blowing hard from the left and although a beautifully clear and bright day it was cold and -3 in the windchill. We topped the climb, ran for no more than 3-4 mins on the flat at the top then immediately descended all the height we’d gained. Down a really steep descent which was an ankle turning affair. My quads were giving me grief now. Not as if you can even enjoy the descents in this bloody race. We hit the bottom then immediately turned into the next climb. This one was harder than the first which was to be expected I guess. More discomfort and I was passed by yet more people which highlighted again that leg strength is something I need to work on. I was unable to raise my heart rate below the low 140s. Later on in the bath I realise I’d rubbed the hair of my legs as I used my arms to press myself upwards. Left, right, left, right and up, up, up we went.
Same story again. We hit the top, were greeted by a freezing wind and staggered around on the boggy top before descending once more to the very bottom of “big end”. Now I knew at this point that there was only one final climb to go. But it was straight up the steep “big end” of Pendle (seen below).
This can only be described as purgatory, so steep that hands were needed. It seemed to go on forever. But nothing lasts forever, or so I told myself. We were at the top and I actually felt quite good. So I pushed on to the trig and happily continued up and over to start the 2.7 miles to the finish. It was all downhill from here. It was at this point I realised I was going to be tight for breaking 3 hours. I gave it my all and was caught by a Barlick fell runner who I held off to the finish. I crossed the line in 3.01 and 84th place. I’d lost around 40 places from around mile 8 so plenty of scope for improvement. I was still feeling strong at the finish and the last few miles were pretty decent. Splits below.
Results can be found at – http://tourofpendle.co.uk/results-2017/
A great day out and I had soup, cake and a cup of tea at the finish. Bliss.