Last weekend (21st March 2015) I took on my toughest running challenge yet, The Hardmoors 55. This is 55 mile ultra marathon, which follows The Cleveland Way along the westerly edge of The North Yorkshire Moors, from Guisborough to Helmsley, taking in a breathtaking 2,700 metres of vertical ascent.

Views along The Cleveland Way

Views along The Cleveland Way

As I did in my last race report, for those who don’t have the time or the inclination to wade through my full report, here are the potted highlights:

  1. Finished the race in 10:46:31
  2. Reached the final checkpoint at White Horse before it was dark and only needed head torch for the final few miles into the finish
  3. No return of the quad issues I experienced on the Peddars Way Ultra
  4. Started the race feeling pretty fresh, no sign of the sense of fatigue from previous races
  5. Started the race at a nice and easy pace and built into it. Was comfortably overtaking people from 15km onwards, and managed to real in 25 people in the last 30km to finish 77th overall
  6. Was able to run downhill pretty quickly and in many cases off the main path, useful as a method for overtaking on steeper descents
  7. Running surface was pretty hard throughout, did aggravate an old foot injury but didn’t seem to hold me back too much
  8. Could I have gone faster? Did I hold back too much early on?
  9. Wasted time at the Clay Bank checkpoint, confusing the revised bag drop location with checkpoint itself – doh!

So that is the high level summary, now onto the detail.

Build up to race

My entry to this race was pretty last minute for me (4-5 weeks out) and that, combined with a niggling hip injury, had meant that my build up wasn’t as thorough as I’d have hoped.

I managed no specific hill work, difficult enough in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, instead focussing on bodyweight strength exercises for the legs and aerobic endurance runs, hopefully keeping my fitness from my last ultra topped up.

Hardmoors Route Profile

Hardmoors Route Profile

I also wanted to try something a little different for my preparation for this race, in an attempt to reduce the fatigue I have felt at the start of my previous two ultra marathons.

Firstly I dropped my 40km+ long run 3-4 weeks out from the race, along with my series of back to back runs exceeding race distance. Instead I focussed on easy mid to long trail runs, with my weekly long run maxing out at 2.5-3 hours duration or 25-30km in total distance. My largest block was a few weeks out, where I had backed to back three runs, totally 50km of running. Other than that my training was pretty light and easy going.

Packing, packing and packing again!

My week leading into the race was pretty hectic and full of work travel, so I started trying to pack the weekend before. The Hardmoors 55 has a decent list of mandatory kit which we all needed to either wear or carry throughout the race. This combined with the fact I was racing for the first time in my new Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 3 12 Set Vest (full review coming soon), meant I was having to really sit and think about what I carried and how I packed it. Additionally we could also have two drop bags out on the course, another first for me.

So while there was a lot packing, unpacking and general navel gazing about kit that weekend, I headed away for work on the Monday with nothing really resolved. I tried again after I arrived home late on the Thursday night but got no further, other than scuppering my planned early night! In the end I left it until the following morning and with a clear head and reference to a lot of lists I’d created during the week, was squared away and ready to go pretty quickly.

On the road heading north

I was travelling to the race with Mark Turner, a club mate from Ely Triathlon Club and a very experienced multi-sport and endurance athlete, with loads of ultras under his belt.

We’d decided to camp at Helmsley for the weekend and drove up early on the Friday afternoon, chatting about the race and me picking Mark’s brain for tips on ultra running. Traffic was not too bad and just after 5pm we’d pitched our tents and were heading down into the town to find a pub and some pre-race nutrition/hydration – cough!

I was still unsure about some of my kit choices and what I should or should not carry. Mark was going super light and am sure found the size of my race vest pretty hilarious. Mark’s vest was tiny in comparison and I struggled to imagine getting my kit into something that small.

In my defence I had packed things like my waterproofs loose rather than compressed, which added to the bulk but I continued to chop and change items right up to the start, anxious about carrying too much but also not wanting to leave something behind which I might regret later in the race. 55 miles is a long way after all!

Note: for those interested, I have included a full list of the kit I eventually wore and carried at the end of the this race report, including comments on how useful it was.

We were both pretty knackered, so headed to bed at the ridiculously early time of 19:30. I fell asleep straight away and awoke again around 22:30 before having quite restless sleep through until 3am.

On reflection my tiny one man tent was probably not the best choice for the race and I wasn’t sure how I would cope the following night with tired legs, after hopefully finishing the race!

Race day!

The alarm woke me at 5am and despite a restless night I felt pretty refreshed. The previous night an hour had seemed like plenty of time to get ready for the bus, which was due to leave for the start at Guisborough at 6am sharp. As always time flew by and once I’d struggled into my race kit in the confines of my tent, put my contact lens in, sorted out my feet, socks and footwear, there was just ten minutes to quickly throw some luke warm watery porridge and a pot of custard down my neck and jump on the bus.

I think I already mentioned how I hate to be rushed before a race!

The bus journey was pretty uneventful and I had a nice chat with a guy from Bournemouth about his ultra racing history and aims for the race, sorry didn’t catch your name. Before we knew it we were at the Sea Cadet’s hut at Guisborough and joining the queue for kit check and registration.

There was some confusion in the queues about what should be going on and in which order but we eventually got it sorted and then had over an hour to kill before the start. I joined the queues for the toilets, which were enormous and despite the time available it was questionable if I’d make it to the front before the start. Fortunately one of the organisers rescued a handful of us and led us into the ladies toilet – sorry ladies!

I was still being indecisive about kit (are you seeing a pattern emerging here!) and had removed some personal bits from my race vest, opting to not carry a set of spare socks and also reduce the food I was carrying. As I was wearing tights and long sleeve merino top, this also meant I did not have to carry these in my vest. Even despite these changes my load still looked huge in comparison to Mark’s!

Eventually 9am arrived, Race Director Jon Steele delivered his race briefing and we all headed outside for the start. A few of us headed off for a last minute toilet pitstop and on walking down to the road I could hear Jon giving a countdown to the start. It was perfect timing and I walked up to the back of the pack just as Jon shouted “Go!”.

I hit start on my Suunto Ambit and we were off!

Leg 1: Guisborough to Kildale – 19km

After the long wait it was great to be running but all good things must come to an end and after just a hundred metres we all came to a halt for the climb up some stairs onto the railway line. This didn’t take long and before we knew it we were running again along the disused railway line to the first marshall point, before turning for the climb up onto The Moors.

Queue for the stairs

Queue for the stairs

My race plan was to ease into the run, finding my own pace and not getting sucked along by the crowd. It was going to be a long day and I knew regardless of how well it went I would be running in the dark at some point, the question was for how long?

I also had my watch set to show heart rate and was keen to try and keep it in and around 140bpm, my usual target for my easy endurance runs. With my previous background in mountaineering I know I can march uphill pretty quickly without blowing my heart rate and that proved to be the case as the day progressed.

As the race started to hit the hills the field started to stretch out and I soon found myself walking along with the majority of the rest of the field. Mark and I had started along the railway line together but he soon skipped ahead and as I knew he would finish way ahead of me I was happy to let him go.

At the next marshall point we were directed up through the trees and before I knew it we were up on the edge of The Moor heading west back above the start at Guisborough. The terrain was very runnable, along forest tracks with some easy up and downs and some steeper sections thrown in.

Heading Up Through The Trees

Heading Up Through The Trees

After feeling like I was overheating at the start of my last race, I had started running without my jacket on, wearing a short sleeve compression top and a long sleeve merino layer, with a windproof gilet on top. I had also started wearing a visor but as we broke through the top of the trees the strong northerly wind caught us and I quickly switched this for my buff to try and retain some warmth.

This was pretty much what I wore for the remainder of the day, only switching back to the visor after the Osmotherley checkpoint. When exposed to the wind I found I was verging on being too cold but running just about took the edge off and it also had the added bonus of ensuring I didn’t hang around in the checkpoints.

Another tactic I had set myself was to try and grab a few photos as I went along, even if that meant stopping for a few seconds to compose the shot. This not only meant I got some photos for this report but also meant I was injecting some random opportunities for my heart rate to drop a little, even if only for a moment.

As the race progressed I felt pretty good. No sign of the lethargy from the previous races and even with the uphills my quads seemed to be behaving – hurrah! I chatted with a few people but on the whole kept myself to the task in hand, focussing on the first major milestone on my personal tick-list, Roseberry Topping.

The route was well signposted and while I was carrying a full map and compass, as well as the GPS track on both my watch and my iPhone, I had no need to get any of them out during the early stages of the race. I have always possessed good map memory, so was mentally ticking off the twists and turns as we made our way along the edge, comfortable we were progressing in the right direction.

Roseberry Topping was just over 11km into the race and shortly before arriving I decided it was time to break out the iPod. Typically just as I was doing this the first official photograph point arrived. Fortunately a runner behind warned me with a shout and I was able to at least look like I was running for the shot from Sports Sunday below

Giles Running The Hardmoors 55

Giles Running The Hardmoors 55

Once passed the photographer, Roseberry Topping quickly appeared in all its glory and what a sight. This was the first out and back section of the route and the lead runners were already streaming back through the gate. I kept an eye open for Mark but as I had taken the first section so easy there was a possibility he would already have been out and back, as it was a mile round trip.

Approaching Roseberry Topping

Approaching Roseberry Topping

I made sure to give way to the return runners on their run back up to the main path and after taking a couple of photos was soon setting about the first major climb of the race. Everybody was down to walking pace and the climb was quite exposed to the wind but we soon reached the top to find the marshals checking off our numbers and the first jelly baby opportunity of the race. I grabbed a handful, took a quick photo and headed back down.

The majority of runners were taking a different path down to the left of the main ascent path to avoid the runners coming up. After some initial steps, the main path started to zig zag down but there was the option of running along the grass bank and taking a more direct route down. I decided to take the later option and flew past runners, soon getting to the bottom and the short climb back up to the main path.

Climbing Roseberry Topping

Climbing Roseberry Topping

I made sure to try and greet as many people as I could coming the other way with promises of jelly babies at the summit, I hope they hadn’t run out by the time they got there!

Once back at the main path, it was a fairly quick descent down to the first water stop of the race at the road crossing, where I took on another load of fluids and added Nuun tablets. I was using the Salomon soft flasks with my new vest and it was a reminder what a faff they are to fill and add Nuun to, due to their narrow necks. This would cost me some time across the race, so maybe in the future I will switch back to the Hyrdapak bottles which are easier to fill and will take a complete Nuun tablet through the top.

After leaving the checkpoint it was a long drag up onto Easby Moor and Captain Cook’s monument before dropping down into Kildale, checkpoint 4 and the first bag drop, arriving with 2h 6m on the clock.

There was food a plenty and water too but no drop bags. Apparently there had been a technical issue and we were assured they would be available further along the route, although it was not quite clear where that would be. I was happy with this as I always felt 19km was a little too early for the first drop bag and could comfortably wait.

My plan for this race was to eat in the checkpoints while I was filling bottles and then grab some food and get out of the checkpoint as quickly as possible, eating as I walked up the road. I drank a cup of coke, something else new for me and a bit of a risk but didn’t seem to have a negative impact on my race.

This was the only source of caffeine I had during the day and I took some at every checkpoint. Hopefully the caffeine and sugar gave me some sort of lift!

My bottles were pretty full, so I grabbed a handful of flapjack, gingerbread men, jelly babies and headed off!

Leg 2: Kildale to Lord Stones – 21km (40km in total)

The race had stretched out now, so much so that I was now continually overtaking people and only loosing places when I stopped to take photos or take a comfort break. Even then I would quickly make it back up again and over the next few miles there were a number of runners I was leap frogging back and forth with until I finally pulled away.

The next couple of sections are mostly a bit of a blur if I’m honest. On reflection I guess I was “in the zone” and focussing on moving forward as economically as possible, eating and drinking at regular intervals.

On the subject of food and as previously mentioned, I was making sure I was taking on food and fluid while in the checkpoints and carrying some food out with me to consume in the first mile after I left.

I was paranoid about backing off on the nutrition entirely between checkpoints, worried that I would pay later in the race with the dreaded bonk! I was therefore trying to get some additional nutrition down as well, typically a one or two Nakd bars, which are my current ultra running nutrition of choice.

I wasn’t following a particular nutrition strategy though and would eat as I thought about it. This seemed to work very well for me and I now question whether I could get away with just using the food in the checkpoints, maybe something to test in a future race or training.

I was also drinking regularly between the checkpoint. As they were pretty close together, I was making sure I drank at least a single bottle between each if possible but wasn’t overly anal about it.

Cleveland Way

Cleveland Way

There was a long drag up to Bloworth Crossing where we had our first self clip. The Race Director Jon Steele had joked during the briefing that he had placed this high on the sign post and he wasn’t wrong! I was fine as I had my number on my trusty race belt so could easily stretch it up and clip and go. Others weren’t so fortunate and I lingered at the post for a while helping some others clip, including one guy who pulled himself up onto the top of the post while I tried to clip the number on his shorts. It took a couple of attempts but we eventually got there.

Hills came and went and the weather remained overcast and chilly. By now I was no longer looking at my watch and was purely running by feel, soaking in the views and in the easy running zone I mentioned earlier.

Eventually we descended down to Clay Bank where the drops bags were lined up on the side of the path by the road. I only had spare food in mine, so quickly loaded this, opting to donate the single Clif Bar in my drop bag to a young spectator as I hadn’t eaten the one I was carrying. In fact I carried this all the way to the end, so will question whether I carry Clif Bars in future races.

I looked around for the food table and couldn’t see one or anybody who appeared to be in overall charge. There was a jerry can of water balanced on top of the wall so I set about refilling both of my flasks which were by now empty. This proved problematic as the can was nearly empty and whenever I tried to turn off the tap it would twist and start to fall off the wall.

This was frustrating and I was struggling to fill my bottles. Fortunately another runner with Salomon soft flasks turned up and together we managed to fill both our flasks. I dug out my Nuun tablets and got myself ready to go.

There was an abandoned pile of food by the jerry can and I spied a small orange that had been discarded. I had already downed a couple of mugs of water using the cup attached to can but still fancied more liquid. So I grabbed the orange, discarded the peel, crossed the road and began the climb up the steps opposite eating the orange.

I had wasted more time than I was happy with at this checkpoint, mainly due to the water issue. Imagine my surprise when I rounded the corner to find the official checkpoint half way up the hill!

Hardmoors Motivation

Hardmoors Motivation

This was totally my fault as the route description had clearly described it being on the other side of the road but in the surprise at finding the drop bags I had totally forgotten this and assumed I was at the checkpoint. With hindsight I should have just grabbed my drop bag and walked to the proper checkpoint, where I could then have got assistance with my bottles and probably saved myself a few minutes. Oh well, another lesson learned!

As it was I lingered a little longer here drinking some coke and enjoying a jam sandwich before grabbing some more flapjack, ginger bread men and sweets and continuing up the hill.

The run continued as before, hills coming and going, including a little boulder hoping coming off Wainstones, slowly passing people and generally soaking up the views. In my mind I was tracking my progress along the route, now heading along the second east to west section towards Lord Stones, after which we would eventually turn south and begin the long drag down through Osmotherley and onto Sutton Bank and The White Horse checkpoint.

Climbing on Cleveland Way

Climbing on Cleveland Way

I finally arrived at Lord Stones car park after 4h 46m of running. I had no idea of the time though as for some reason was now totally ignoring my watch and just running by feel. It was almost like I had accepted that the journey would take as long as it would take and as long as I was moving forward that was fine.

The next drop bag was at Osmotherley, which I knew was also over half way, so was my next mental goal. Once there is was a short hop (21km!) down to White Horse and then just 9-10 miles into the finish. Easy peasy!

I drank some more coke and water, had my half empty bottle topped up, grabbed some sweets and quickly headed out of at the checkpoint. Osmotherley here we come!

Leg 3: Lord Stones to Osmotherley – 11km (51km in total)

This leg included two of the four occasions where I ran with other competitors for a while during the race. I wasn’t being anti-social, I was just generally finding that my pace was different to those around me and although cheery exchanges would be had as we passed each other, we would soon move apart and back into our own races.

One lesson I learned from Peddars Way Ultra was to run at my own pace and not that of those around me. You may only be moving fractionally faster but over the course of an ultra this can add up to quite a long way, so better to push on if you feel you can rather than sitting in.

I should also take this opportunity to apologise, as for the life of me I cannot remember the names of anybody I spoke to. I struggle at the best of times to remember people’s names when I first meet them. Chuck in a 55 mile ultra and my brain has no chance! Apologise to all, no offence intended and I really valued the time we spent together on the trail!

I hooked up with another runner as we left the checkpoint and we chatted as we climbed up to Lord Stones, swapping stories of our ultra adventures and plans. Closer to the top we caught and passed another runner and I then started to pull away from them both.

On cresting the summit I was confronted by a prominent summit cairn and two paths heading off in totally different directions, with no other runners in sight. 50km+ in and I was finally having to make a proper route decision!

Now was not the time to get lost, so I pulled my map out and started to orientate myself. My two companions soon arrived, with the second confidently informing us it was straight on and duly headed off in that direction.

I was happy with this decision, so stowed my map and headed off on the westerly path, soon passing them both again and pulling away. Eventually other runners appeared in the distance and I settled back into my zone for the run across The Moor and down into the woods around Hollin Hill.

It was at this point that I switched my Suunto into navigation mode, so I could quickly double check I was heading in the right direction. A complete brain fog came over me and I was totally unable to view my time, distance or heart rate data while looking at the route. Turned out I was pressing the wrong button but it didn’t make any difference as I hadn’t looked at this data for ages, so pressed on in navigation mode.

The terrain had been far harder on the feet than I had expected, with quite a few tarmac stretches and also some pitched stone paths. This had started to aggravate an old injury in the ball of my right foot which was now quite sore but wasn’t getting any worse, so I just kept moving on.

That aside my feet were in a pretty good state, with no hot spots to mention and my double sock approach seemed to be working nicely. The Brooks Cascadia’s were also a great choice of shoe for these conditions, with decent support.

Once down in the woods and out of the wind the temperature started to pick up, with the sun even making an appearance. I kept moving forward, confident that we were closing in on Osmotherley and would drop a layer there if necessary.

I was walking an uphill drag across a field in the bottom of the valley when another runner appeared behind me. My right hamstring was feeling a little tight, so I decided to stop for a quick stretch just to be on the safe side. I did this a couple more times during the remainder of the race and didn’t have any further issues. Maybe being overly paranoid but better to be safe than sorry.

Long Long Steps on Cleveland Way

Long Long Steps on Cleveland Way

I caught the other runner who’d passed me as I stretched and as we moved through the woods we were leap frogging each other. I would pass him on the flat and downhills when we were running and he would then pass me back if I walked any steeper uphills. We hit the 300m uphill drag with a 20% gradient and by now we were both walking, so walked and then ran together and chatted away, again sharing race experiences, of which it turned out that my companion had quite a few. We eventually ran all the way into Osmotherley together and it was nice to have some company for a change.

We reached the self clip at the TV masts, which looked more like mobile phone masts to me but far be it for me to argue with those with local knowledge. From there is a was an easy run downhill into the village, still passing people and into the welcome warmth of the Village Hall and our final drop bag.

Total running time was now at 6h 9m.

Running into Osmotherley

Running into Osmotherley

It turned out that this checkpoint was the location for the spot check on kit and I quickly produced my jacket as instructed. At this point my companion and I headed to separate points of the hall to find our drop bags and sort out our kit.

The hall was lined with chairs but I avoided sitting on these, instead choosing to stay on my feet and use a chair as a table for my kit. I had included some spare socks in this bag, which I didn’t need but would carry them on with me. Call me tight but there was no way I was leaving £30 worth of socks behind for the sake of a few grams.

I had also packed a pot of rice pudding in my bag, something totally new for me in a race, so a risky choice but it went down nicely using the spoon I had also included. By now I was also craving savoury food, so grabbed a few sausage rolls and munched on these.

As it had been quite warm since coming off The Moor and looked like it was turning into a nice afternoon weather wise, I took the opportunity to switch my buff for my visor and also take my gilet off and place it in my race vest. A quick loo stop, refill of my bottles, I grabbed some more food and I was off.

My companion from the run in was still occupied and I was keen to move on, conscious I had already burned nearly 9 minutes in the hall. So with a quick farewell and thanks to all, I headed out of the door and in the general direction of Sutton Bank and The White Horse!

Leg 4: Osmotherley to White Horse – 21km (72km in total)

Within moments of leaving the checkpoint I had to stop to put my gilet back on, the sun had gone in and it was so cold! Once that was sorted I was on my way, heading across fields and along tracks back up onto The Moors above Osmotherley.

Having read the thoughts of previous runners and also looking at the topography for the route, it was clear that for the first 5km or so out of Osmotherley we would generally be heading upwards. However once this was over the remainder of the route would take on a more downward profile into the finish. Put simply, the worst of the climbing would hopefully be over shortly!

I soon got back into my rhythm and trotted along at a nice even pace. Once up on The Moor the sun even came out again, giving some breathtaking views and as before, some good excuses to quickly stop for a photo or two.

Sun comes out on The Cleveland Way

Sun comes out on The Cleveland Way

As before I was slowly moving through runners, catching and passing them with friendly words exchanged. As I still had my Suunto watch in navigation mode, I had no idea of the time or distance I had covered. What I did know was that we were now well into late afternoon, predominantly by the way the sun was sinking towards the horizon and from the fact I could hear football score alerts arriving on my phone – hopefully Norwich was having a good game – they beat Notts Forest 3-1 as it turned out!

I knew I would be finishing after dark but set myself the mental target of getting to White Horse before dusk and taking it from there.

We passed through the checkpoint at High Paradise Farm, run by the team from Chia Charge, at which another runner asked how many people had been through ahead of them. The answer was 99.

This pricked my ears, as it meant that if I continued as I had so far, slowly moving up the field, a top 100 place in a 300+ field was definitely in the offing. Something I would have gladly taken at the start of the race.

Although it was only 10km from High Paradise Farm along Sutton Bank to White Horse, I still topped my bottles up, grabbed some sweets and headed on my way.

We had driven up over Sutton Bank on our way to Helmsley the previous day and therefore knew I had to cross that road for the final run into The White Horse, which made a great visual marker for me as I progressed along the top of Sutton Bank.

There was a little bit of navigation uncertainty where a new mountain bike trail had been added alongside the Cleveland Way but this was quickly sorted and before I knew it I was running through the woods and down towards the road.

Once over the road I began the second out and back section of the race, which would take us down off Sutton Bank around to the car park under the White Horse, before returning up a steep flight of steps alongside it to the cliff top, then heading to the Helmsley.

Sunset over Sutton Bank

Sunset over Sutton Bank

I passed the turn off to Helmsley and mentally logged its location for the return leg. Only a mile to the car park now and I knew I would make not only the checkpoint in daylight but also some of the final leg into Helmsley.

Other runners were approaching from the final checkpoint and most people had that “I wish this was over now” look on their faces, which I totally agreed with. By now, although I was physically tired, I was able to keep running but mentally I wanted to be at the finish.

We had been told that the path cutting down the cliff face would be clearly marked, which it was and I plunged down the path through the trees. It was pretty steep in places so once or twice I had to stop and slowly walk or jump some steps to ensure I didn’t loose my footing in the growing gloom.

Once down I ran along the track at the bottom of the cliff and before I knew it the final checkpoint came into view, with The White Horse above it. 45 miles in the bag, in a time of 9 hours and 8 minutes. Only ten miles to go!

Leg 5: White Horse to Helmsley – 16km (88km in total)

While the checkpoint staff topped up my bottles (many thanks!) I took the opportunity to move my head torch out of the back of my race vest and into one of the expansion pockets, which I could easily access while running. There was still enough daylight to run without it for now but once I started I didn’t want to have to stop again to get it out.

As before I grabbed some food to take with me, chuffed to find they had pretzel’s and peanuts, as by now I was really graving savoury food.

There were two other runners at the checkpoint, one of which was on her first official ultra and happy to be so close to the end. The three of us left together with our thanks to the checkpoint staff, next stop Helmsley!

The steps up beside the White Horse were brutal, thank god we didn’t have to come down them! Munching on the peanuts and pretzel’s meant I kept the pace down and we chatted amongst ourselves moaning about how steep the stairs were.

On reaching the top I quickly finished the last of my food and I joined my companions as they broke into a gentle trot back along the path. It was nice to have the company but I was still keen to finish and aware I had more in my legs. We caught two other runners as we reached the turn off point and I moved to the front of the group. We crossed the main road one final time and headed down a small lane, eventually turning right through some horse paddocks.

I upped the pace slightly and the group started to fragment a little, with the two guys we caught coming with me. I just focussed on my own running and eventually pulled away from them. By now it was starting to get dark, so I reached around and got my head torch and buff out, placing my visor back in my race vest in their place.

I held my pace at a nice steady level and before I knew it I was out on my own.

As we entered a small hamlet the road forked, so I took the right one as it seemed the logical option and the GPS track said straight on. I didn’t want to have to start digging out my map at this stage but was also aware from the route description that this was the most complicated section navigation wise, with plenty of twists and turns.

Fortunately I spotted the path signpost pointing across the village green in the beam of my head torch and was on my way without breaking stride.

By now it was totally dark and I was pleased to have been able to hold off on the head torch until the final 7-8 miles. Maybe I should come back and race next year, with the aim to finish in daylight!?

The benefit of the darkness was that you could easily spot other runners ahead, although I was also aware that worked for those behind me. There was no way I was looking back, I couldn’t control what was going on behind me but I could focus on those up ahead and reeling them in.

We eventually dropped down through some trees into a valley floor, picking up the road along it. As I rounded the corner I was treated to the sight of around 8 people running about a hundred metres or so ahead of me. They were spread out over 30-40 metres, so weren’t running together but had obviously formed a pace train, similar to those you see formed by professional triathletes on the bike route of the Ironman World Championships.

I quickly moved up behind them and started to move through the group, exchanging a few words with people as I passed. Once I hit the front the guy who had been leading the way came with me as we pushed on down the road. Guess it was nice to have someone else to run with for a while.

I knew we were closing on the finish but had no idea how far we had left to go and with the tricky navigation and darkness, I was loathed to turn off the navigation mode on my watch to check.

We chatted as we ran and the guy (again sorry never got your name) mentioned that at our current pace we were on for a sub eleven hour finish. Fantastic!

Although I hadn’t set myself any pace targets at the start I had roughly calculated that on a good day 10.5-11 hours could be possible but unofficially hoped for sub 12 hours, with sub 11 hours being a bonus. What a boost to know I could finish in less than 11 hours!

While we chatted I asked my companion how far he felt we had to go. Due to some issues with his watch he wasn’t 100% sure but figured it was around 3-4 miles, which matched my thoughts based on how long we’d been running since the last checkpoint.

We left the road and headed up through the trees, climbing back out of the valley and as before I was pulling away on the ascents while we walked. Thinking back to the maps and the topography I had studied before the start, I knew that there would be one final kick upwards just outside Helmsley, followed by a short dog leg left and then right, after which it was all downhill into the town centre and the finish.

It was difficult to be sure but the current uphill stretch we were on went on and was the first significant climb for a while. As we were in the trees it was difficult to get any visual references so I continued to march along, desperate to finish now.

Once through the top the my companion closed up on me again as we ran and we continued to chat. We then came to a steep drop down some steps through the trees and sensing that the finish must be less than 2 miles away I decided to go for it and pushed it hard down the steps. At the bottom I ran straight into another set going up hill and conscious that I had dropped my companion pushed hard up the steps. At the top I burst out of the trees onto the edge of a field to be confronted by the lights of a small town in the valley below, it had to be Helmsley!

I shouted back, “I can see the lights” and was off!

Ahead I could see a runner heading left up the field, the dog leg I had been looking for. I upped the pace a little, aware the dog leg was slightly uphill. I wasn’t gaining on the runner in front but was happy with my days work and now was just keen to not be overtaken from behind.

At this point my mobile started to ring in my race vest. Was it Mark phoning to get my beer order? Had he seen where I was on the tracker? There was no way I was getting the phone out now though, I knew I was moments from the end and would check it there, there was work to be done!

At the second right turn I could see the track heading down into the town and into the street lights – almost there! I passed through the last gate and could see the runner I had been following passing two other runners a hundred metres or so ahead, could I catch them?

I started to push as hard as I could, making the most of the downhill section and knowing that from the junction it was only a couple of hundred metres around the church to the finish.

Giles at Finish of The Hardmoors 55

Giles at Finish of The Hardmoors 55

I passed the couple at the end of the track and with a quick “we’re almost there!” pushed on. Behind me I thought I head a quick discussion about one of them upping the pace – great that’s all I need, a sprint finish!

As before I just focussed on my own running and hit the main street crossing it to take the shortest line around the church. I knew I was now in the last one hundred metres and was so happy to be able to finish strongly.

A tractor was turning at the roundabout ahead, so I dived across the road in front of it, don’t want any hold-ups now. Spectators were applauding and wishing me well as I turned the corner into the market square and there was the finish in front of me!

I was directed into the door of the Town Hall, where my race number was taken and the race was over! I had finished in 77th place (out of 300 odd) in a time of 10:46:31, I couldn’t have been happier!

Post race thoughts

It was over and I had not only come under 11 hours but well under, what a great race! So much for thinking my estimates of 10.5-11 hours were a pipe dream, they were a reality now!

There had been no return of the quad issues from my last race and also none of the fatigue or general lethargy that had previously held me back. My plan of starting easy and building into the race had work perfectly, with me constantly making progress through the field from ten or so miles onwards.

Already my mind was turning to how I could go quicker. Less kit? I was quicker through the checkpoints but could I be even quicker? My nutrition had obviously worked as I never felt low on energy but had I carried and eaten too much food? Could I get away with just what they provide at the checkpoints, with a few top-ups here and there?

I sent a text message to my wife, letting her know I had finished and my time. I then walked back outside to check who had called and it was Mark. I called him straight back and was delighted to hear he had had a pretty good race too and had finished an hour ahead of me – well done Mark!

While waiting for me to finish Mark had decided sleeping in a tent was not going to be pleasant, so had managed to grab the car, track down a nice local B&B and checked us both in. That morning I had had concerns about how I would cope post race in a tiny tent and as the temperatures dropped after dark my enthusiasm hadn’t grown. I was delighted to hear the plan and the thought of a long hot shower put a bounce in my step as I headed upstairs to receive my medal and t-shirt.

I grabbed my drop bag and a slice of warm toast before heading back outside for the short walk to the B&B. It was only 500m but by the time I reached the front door I was shivering and desperate for the hot shower, definitely the right choice.

I won’t bother you with a blow by blow account of the rest of the day. Suffice to say that beer and celebratory food was consumed at the local pub. Another great job by Mark who went ahead of me and managed to order just as they closed for food at 20:30. I could enjoy my shower, walk down in clean warm clothes while chatting to my wife, to find a killer burger, chips and beer waiting – top man!

Needless to say even as the days have passed I remain very happy with how my race went. As outlined at the start, this was a journey into the unknown, with no idea how I would cope with the 2,700m of ascent across 55 miles. The answer was pretty well and to be able to finish in 10:46 was beyond my realistic expectations and gives me great confidence for ultra marathons in hilly or mountainous terrain in the future. Perhaps my mountaineering muscle memory does still exist after all!

The one interesting outcome of writing this report, as always apologies for its length, is how disjointed my recollections are from the day. I obviously slipped into the zone and the miles just drifted by, in a good rather than bad way and at no point did I ever wish to stop or throw in the towel.

Finish T-Shirt and Medal

Finish T-Shirt and Medal

A huge thanks to Jon and Shirley Steele for a superb race and to all the marshall’s and spectators for their support and enthusiasm throughout the race. I had always heard great things about the Hardmoors series of races and can now whole heartedly agree that they do put on a good event. Thanks all!

A massive congratulations to all those that finished, ranging from the winner – a whole 3 hours ahead of me with a new course record! – to those that finished around the cut off at midnight. Fabulous running one and all across a tough course, well done!

Finally a huge thanks to you for reading my inane ramblings. Hope you found it an interesting insight into the race? If you are interested in reading more about the lessons I learned and the kit I carried then read on.

For the rest of you, thanks for reading. Be sure to check back from time to time to read how my training goes in the run up to my next race, The North Downs 50 in May 2015.

Lessons learned

So as is usual, its time to quickly note the key lessons I learned during and after this race, which I can hopefully take forward into future races. This includes things I did right and also things I would change.

So the list is, in no particular order:

  1. Dropping one of my big blocks of training and having a more aggressive taper into the race obviously helped, as I didn’t have any of the sense of fatigue from my previous races.
  2. Getting a good nights sleep before the race, even if in a tent, makes a lot of difference too
  3. Double the amount of time you think you need before a race if you are staying away.
  4. No ill effects from drinking coke and eating rice pudding during the race, both new for me
  5. I really wanted more savoury foods, especially towards the end of the race. Maybe look to carry a sandwich or similar in future training runs or races? Checkpoints always have sweet options but savoury can be harder to come by
  6. Nakd bars are great as always!
  7. I didn’t touch my Clif bars so maybe drop those for future events?
  8. Starting easy and building through the race worked great and I was running strongly at the end, able to average 7:30 per km across the entire race
  9. Brooks Cascadia’s were super comfortable, as were my double socks as had no foot issues other than aggravating the existing injury.
  10. Better to be slightly cold than warm, pack and wear accordingly but don’t be stupid about it as weather can change!
  11. An orange was a great find and really refreshing, so maybe put those in future drop bags to.

Kit carried

For those that are interested, here is the kit I wore and carried for the race. Some minor changes in the final days, hours and minutes before the race, which you can compare against my original list published elsewhere on this site.

What I wore

  • Adidas sunglasses with orange lens – great for lifting mood but also protecting my contact lens
  • Salomon compression short sleeve top
  • Long sleeve Helly Hansen merino base layer. This was a compulsory item, so didn’t have to carry a spare
  • Montane windproof gilet with mesh back
  • X-bionic running tights, again compulsory item
  • Injinji liner socks
  • X-Socks Sky Run
  • Helly race number belt, with race number attached of course
  • Brooks Cascadia 9’s
  • My race vest – Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 3 12-set
  • Buff or Salomon running visor
  • Thin pair of liner gloves

What I carried

  • Waterproof layer for top and bottom
  • Map covering whole route, plus compass, laminated checkpoint card and route description
  • Petzl Nao Head torch plus two AAA spare batteries
  • Whistle (attached to bag)
  • Survival bag
  • Spare Hat and gloves
  • Food, with Clif bar and shot bloks as back-up emergency food
  • Tub of Nuun tablets
  • Minimum of one litre of fluid in Salomon soft flasks
  • Mobile phone (fully charged and on)
  • iPod nano and headphones
  • Personal emergency pack which contained some toilet roll, blister patches, antiseptic wipes, zinc tape, small tub of Vaseline, pain killers, Imodium, 2x£10 notes and emergency back-up light.

What would I change with hindsight? Well I only pulled out the full map once and didn’t touch the compass, so could have got away without these and just used the route descriptions and maps on them. That said the weather was good and in worse conditions I would probably have appreciated having both.

I could have also carried less food, as didn’t use it all and I may have been able to get away with what was at the checkpoints. Something to test in future races! I didn’t touch anything in my emergency pack but it weighs next to nothing and is there for emergencies after all!

Following the race I stumbled upon this

(, demonstrating how to fit all of the mandatory kit for ultra distance trail events into a 3 litre vest! I wish I’d seen this before the event and will be using this as a guide for my next race for sure. Super lightweight here I come!

Race statistics

For those that are interested, you can find the raw numbers for my race uploaded on Movescount and Strava.