It’s 4am on Saturday 23rd March 2015 and my alarm is going off. Time to put months of preparation into practice and face my biggest running challenge to date, the Hardmoors 55 Ultra Marathon which follows the Cleveland way 55 miles with 2700m of vertical ascent from Guisborough near Middlesborough to its conclusion in Helmsley.
Had I done enough training and would I make it to the end? The reality was I had only done a couple of 20mile+ runs since xmas and although I had increased my mileage over the previously two and a half months it mostly consisted of lots of shorts runs in between renovating the house and looking for a new job. The gentle road climbs of Harrogate are no comparison to the brutal steepness of the three sisters either. It wouldn’t be long before we found out anyway.
I made it to the pickup point in Helmsley in plenty of time, gathered my kit together and made my way over to the buses which arrived bang on time and which would whisk us to the start in Guisborough all those miles away.
The bus journey passed quickly enough and I had a nice chat with the guy sitting next to me. A Hardmoors veteran, I forget his name, who gave me some tips and pointed out a few of the landmarks such as the fearsome Roseberry Toping we would be summiting in the next few hours.
At Guisborough we went through the registration process, had our kit checked for all the mandatory items and gave our drop bags in. This is only my second Hardmoors events but this was done with the efficiency I had experienced previously at the Osmotherley Trail Marathon in February
I was a bit nervous before the start, not only thoughts of whether I can run 20 miles further than I had ever ran before, but would the untested items in my kit let me down or cause issues.
Yes I know an ultra marathon isn’t the best place to start trying new bits of kit but I made a late decision to change which gels and electrolytes I carried so didn’t really get chance to try them before the run but I thought it was worth the risk as I didn’t really get on with the High5 gels and electrolytes I had used previously and they both came recommended by Mr Hardmoors himself Jon Steele.
My shoe choice was another matter, in the week before race I noticed splits in the toe box on both pairs of my trails shoes – just my luck! My preferred shoe for the 55 was my trusty Brooks Cascadia 9.
There had been no rain for the weeks running up to the race so I expected dry conditions. Cascadias are brilliant in these conditions plus they offer a good amount of cushioning which I thought would help with the distance.
The Salomon Speedcross 3 had also split but as I had only worn them for around 130 miles the ever helpful Dylan at Harrogate Up & Running let me take them back and exchange them for a pair of Salomon Fellraisers. After much discussion and walking up and down the shop we agreed they would be better for my wider foot. They also felt much more stable due to the reduced drop although the lack of cushioning was a worry.
Anyway I took them for a test run around my local trails and they felt like they had been custom made for me, the fit was perfect so I relaxed a little knowing that the shoes were ok.
I smashed a few Strava records I had been after for a while on this last run before the race so I was happy with the replacements. I’ve got into the habit of doing this before the race as it gives me a little confidence boost knowing that I’m running well if I can get some Strava KOMs. I know it’s just the placebo effect but as the saying goes ‘every little helps’.
My new and untested kit comprised of:
- Hammer Nutrition – Hammer Gel Rapid Energy Fuel
- Suceed S!Caps Electrolyte Capsules
- Salomon Fell Raiser running shoes
In the end I was really happy with all 3 apart from a slight niggle with the shoes being a bit too aggressive for the dry conditions which caused me some pain in the bottom of my feet in the last 15-20 miles.
We had about an hour before the start so I had some breakfast and got chatting to a few people and before I knew it, it was time for the race brief from race director Jon Steele.
Shortly after the brief we were off with 55 miles and 2700m vertical ascent through the North York Moors in front of us.
I think I was the only one running in a t-shirt from the start due to the bitter wind that was howling around Guisborough. I don’t like running in too much as I tend to get very hot and uncomfortable which slows me down so I thought I would just stop and layer up if I needed to. In the end the only thing I suffered from was cold hands at various points but I always keep my gloves handy in one of the side pockets of my race vest so it didn’t lose me too much time when I needed to put them on or take them off.
Before the race I had decided that I wanted to try and finish the race in 9 hours 10 mins which would mean an average pace of 10 minutes per mile or 6mph. This seemed to be a reasonable target time for my first proper ultra and one I was fairly confident I could hit based on the few long runs I had done.
My big problem is going too fast, too soon and burning out before the end. I come from a background of downhill mountain biking which is all about going as fast as you can from the start but a race can be over in a matter of minutes so you don’t have time to relax. This long distance running is a whole new experience and one I’m slowly adapting too.
I started near the back of the field and as the pack bunched up to get onto the disused railway line I started to panic that I was losing valuable time and needed to make this back up in order to be in contention for a decent place at the end because, although I was mainly concerned about finishing in my target time I also wanted to get a decent placing. It’s the racer in me, I just can’t help it!
I decided on the steady climb up onto the Cleveland Way I would run slightly faster than I wanted to and catch up with the top 10 runners and then drop the pace down and just try and hold on until the end.
The first 5 or 6 miles flew by and I had settled into a nice rhythm and was enjoying myself. The trails were nice and gentle with no real technical bits and it wasn’t long before we reached Highcliff Nab and were heading towards the first test of the day with a climb up Roseberry Topping.
I had read about Roseberry Topping from other race reports so was a little nervous it would finish me off before we had got warmed up but in the end it was over a done with in a matter of minutes. I had decided to save energy on any steep climbs by walking, taking bigger steps and pumping my legs with my hands. I find this technique works best for me over continuing to run but taking shorter steps. I didn’t lose any ground to the runner in front who was running by adapting this technique so it seems to work.
I had a great time bounding back down picking a near straight line and just letting myself go, at one point having to jump off a 5 foot vertical bank. The Fellraisers really excelled on the steep downhill being low profile with huge lugs on the bottom for grip. So far I was happy with my new shoes.
The small climb up to little Roseberry saw us turn back onto the Cleveland Way and towards the next checkpoint at Gribdale and a small climb up towards Captain Cooks Monument. From here it was all downhill to the next checkpoint at Kildale where the first of the drop bags would be waiting for us, or would they?
At the Kildale checkpoint we were told the drop bags weren’t there but would be waiting for us at the next checkpoint so myself and the 2 other runners who had formed a little group ran straight past and started the long gradual climb up to the self-clip checkpoint at Bloworth Crossing.
To be honest I didn’t really miss the drop bad here as I had only had a couple of gels and some homemade chia flapjack so was still carrying enough food and water to last me.
I started to drop back slightly on the road climb but caught up with Neil Ridsdale who I recognised from the Osmotherley trail marathon. He was chasing me down towards the end and I only just managed to keep in front of him.
We had a bit of a chat and I tried to get some tips from the seasoned veteran which I hoped would help me throughout the day.
I decided to push on and try and bridge the gap between me and the group in front so I upped my pace and went after them, eventually catching them just before the checkpoint.
Taking it easy on a small climb allowed them to pull away again but there was a long way to go so I let them go and pushed on at my own pace. I was starting to get doubts about setting off too fast at this point but it was all downhill to the next checkpoint so I just decided to enjoy myself and have fun.
At the checkpoint I got my drop bag and put the extra gels and chia charge flapjack into the stuff pockets on my Salomon pack – it’s amazing how much they will hold, refilled my water bottles with the help of the fantastic marshalls and then set off with my savoury treats in my hands.
It turns out that Feta and Beetroot tart and baked sweet potatoes aren’t the easiest things to each when you’re frantically gasping for breath climbing up some steep steps so I ended up dropping them at the side of the track hoping that some of the local wildlife would enjoy them.
It’s a shame I couldn’t eat them as I was looking forward to them but this is one of the lessons I learnt on my first ultra. I saw a few runners with squeezy tubes of baby food which I think I will carry with me next time as they would allow proper food but in easy squeezy convenience.
Climbing up and down over the 3 sisters took it’s toll on me and I started to struggle a bit although coming into the next checkpoint I was told I was in 5th place, only about 12minutes off the lead at this point so that spurred me on a bit. I started to think I might do alright in the end but unfortunately it was all downhill from here.
I had a little issue with my music player dropping down into add name causing me to stop for a few minutes to get it sorted out. I had been happily running along in my own world listening to AC/DC, New Order and Andy C which were great for motivation so I didn’t want to cut the party short.
I never really recovered from my little stop and couldn’t get back into a decent rhythm. Not sure why but my legs just turned to lead but it wasn’t far to the next drop bag at Osmotherley so my plan was to reach the checkpoint, have a toilet stop, stock up on water and bits from my drop bag and hopefully start feeling a bit better.
My Osmotherley drop bag was stuffed full of sweet potatoes, flan, salted peanuts, chia charge flapjack, homemade flapjack, red bull, more gels and fresh socks. In hindsight it was enough to feed a small army so I ended up leaving a lot of it there so I hope someone else enjoyed what I left.
I pushed on from Osmotherley stuffing baked sweet potatoes into my mouth as quickly as I could and started the climb up and towards the next checkpoint. It was here where I was passed by eventual womans winner Charmaine Horsfell who was running well so I decided to try and keep her and a couple of other runners who had left Osmotherley a few minutes earlier than me in sight and not to drop too much time.
I got a bit of a second wind at this point and managed to keep them in sight for most of the way until the next checkpoint only dropping about 20-30 seconds per mile so I was happy that I could press on at a reasonable pace again.
It was along this stretch that I started to notice the soles of my feet were really starting to hurt caused by the unusually dry conditions and my choice of footwear. The path was bone dry and hard, you would never have guessed it was March. Up until this point the surfaces had been a lot softer so I hadn’t noticed my feet.
After leaving High Paradise Farm checkpoint I knew it was going to be a battle for survival so just pressed on as best I could and hoped I didn’t lose too many more places. I think I was hovering around the top 10 at this point which had turned into my goal for the race since Roseberry Topping.
I reached the White Horse checkpoint at the same time as thingy and thingy who was celebrating her 1000th Hardmoors mile so that was nice to witness. We set off from the White Horse up the steep steps back onto the embankment with only a gentle 10 mile downhill run to the finish in Helmsley ahead of us.
I tried to keep up but try as I might I just couldn’t settle into a comfortable pace and even the slightest incline seemed like a mountain so I had to settle into a walk/run strategy and make progress as best I could. I was wishing the miles away but it seemed like an age before the notification in my headphones pinged another one down.
My feet were really hurting by the point we were passing Rievelux and as I hit the bridge Neil Ridsdale was the first of about 6 or 7 people who overtook me in the last few miles. I was mortified that I had managed to hold them off for around 52 miles only to be passed in the last few miles. My hopes of a top 10 finish were now well and truly over.
I ran into Helmsley in a time of 9 hours 12 minutes, just 2 minutes off my target time so I was happy with that but still not too happy about dropping all those places in the last few miles. Still I’ve learnt a lot of valuable lessons for my next ultra and have decided that next year I’m going for a top 5 position. I’m not going to be happy otherwise.
My mum and dad met me at the finish line but I was mentally and physically shot by this point. I went upstairs and collected my finisher’s medal and t-shirt, congratulated some of the other runners but didn’t stay around for any food. To be honest I just wanted to get home and get cleaned and then pass out with my celebratory beer and a pizza.
All in all a great day out in the North York Moors with a great bunch of people and a real physical challenge. It certainly won’t be my last ultra marathon and now I know what to expect I can start looking at getting some good results. I’m not going to be happy until I start taking home some silverwear so the training starts now.
What did I learn from running my first ultra marathon
I’m planning on writing a more detailed blog post in the new future but here’s a few thoughts:
- There really aren’t many better ways to spend a Saturday than running through beautiful countryside with a load of other nutters
- When you think you are done and just want to stop you may surprise yourself if you ‘have a word’
- The Hardmoors family is a great bunch of people and the events are incredibly well organized
- Have a plan but be prepared to change it if you running better or worse than you expected
- Running on the road just isn’t enough to prepare yourself for a steep, uneven off road climb. Hill training is a must.
- Salomon Fellraiser running shoes
- Nike dryfit leggings
- Jack Wolfskin t-shirt
- Salomon s-lab
- North Face Gore text Active Jacket
Hardmoors 55 Checkpoints
- Race Start Guisborough Sea Cadets
- Checkpoint 1 Disused railway line (1 mile)
- Checkpoint 2 Roseberry Topping (OS 578 126) W (7 miles)
- Checkpoint 3 Pale End Plantation (OS 605 104) (11 miles)
- Checkpoint 4 Kildale Village Hall (OS 606 093) W/H/F/DB (12 miles) CUT OFF – 1300HRS (4hrs)
- Checkpoint 5 Bloworth Crossing Self-Clip (615 014) (18 miles)
- Checkpoint 6 Clay Bank W/F (21 miles)
- Checkpoint 7 Kirby Bank (22 miles)
- Checkpoint 8 Lord Stones W/F (before climb up to Carlton Bank) (25 miles)
- Checkpoint 9 TV Station (Self-Clip on Gate) (OS 456 972) (30.5 miles)
- Checkpoint 10 Osmotherley Village Hall (OS 456 971) W/H/F/DB (32 miles) CUT OFF – 1800HRS (9hrs)
- Checkpoint 11 High Paradise Farm W/F (39.5 miles)
- Checkpoint 12 White Horse (Sutton Bank) (OS 518 812) W/F (45 miles) CUT OFF – 2200HRS (13hrs)
- Race Finish Helmsley Town Hall (55 miles) CUT OFF – 0030HRS (15.30hrs)