The Witching Hour – Facing up to the Pendle Way

I’ve generally been regarded as a laid back runner. Don’t get too excited, don’t faff or flap, just get my stuff in order and chat to people at the starting line as the countdown nears. At the go signal I get into a comfortable pace to settle my heart rate to a sustainable tempo and then keep moving. People surge past, they always do. I’ll see many of them in 20 miles time. Most of the time.

Pendle Way in a Day have something else in store for me though. My kit prep for this one had been pretty extensive. A winter ultra over 44 miles of rural south west pennine hill terrain meant we had to carry a lot of kit. As the aid stations were advertised as water and biscuit stops, I took plenty of savoury food. It was windy, very windy. From a navigation viewpoint, I was carrying route notes, an organiser’s marked map and I had the GPS route downloaded onto my phone. I was also carrying the 1:25k OS map in my pack, but hadn’t traced the route out on this.

I tend to carry route notes and maps rolled up and held in my hand like a relay baton. For the first 3 or 4 miles I was running with people so cruised along in relaxed manner. A small entry field, it’s starting to thin out by now. I’m heating up too so I put notes and map on the floor, backpack on top of map and then proceed to remove my smock. By the time it’s cleared my eyes I see the info sheets and map in full flight over a barbed wire fence. By the time I’m over the fence it’s in a river, in speight, on the far side.

I’d caught half the notes but for now, and the next few hours, I’m relying on other visual clues. Runners in the distance and the Viewranger app on my phone. The aforementioned OS map remains in my pack, too risky getting that out in this wind and dammit, the course isn’t marked on it in any case!

OK breathe. It’s happened, nothing I can do about it, move on and don’t waste pointless mental energy on it. Easier said than done, the problem was the GPS feed wasn’t that accurate. I’d be following a path away from a junction and then 90 seconds later the screen would refresh and indicate I needed to be on another path, 200 metres away. This can really toy with your mind so I shelved any ideas of a good time and concentrated on exploration as well as running form and posture. That’s it, concentrate on the things you can influence. This wasn’t easy though as the course was probably the most muddy I have encountered in many years of ultra running. In part this helped as the mud could provide visual clues – stud marks in the trails and mud patches on the roads and pavements. All left by those ahead of me. I did catch a bloke and we ran together for 3 miles, but he climbed faster than me and on entering a churchyard I lost him. (later at the finish he admitted he went wrong at the churchyard). As mile 9 approached I believed I was close to the first checkpoint. The footpath crossed a field where people were setting up a course for husky racing. I gingerly started crossing but thought this can’t be right, they were taping across what I thought was the path. And they have lots of dogs! I gingerly retreated. They shouted…good or bad I don’t know, blasted wind was carrying the words away. I ventured back to them and explained my predicament, they were happy to show me the way and confirmed that people had been running through. Mind tricks again though, the mud was so prevalent and thin that any trace of previous runners had been erased. I’m now at 12 miles and still no checkpoint, at this rate I’m a DNF. There’s no point running around looking for something when I don’t know where it is so I’ll keep ploughing on and follow the occasional Pendle waymarks. I should find CP2 if nothing else and enjoy the course from there.

Entering the village of Earby I noticed signs for the YHA and that pricked the memory a little. Sure enough, at 13.8 miles, a few strides past the hostel was CP1. To say I was relieved was an understatement, it gave me a new lease of life. Better still, the remaining route notes actually picked up from here and I was to never let go off them again.

Noticing a group catching up I thanked the CP ladies and set off with renewed optimism and purpose, running became easier again without the mental weight and I was fully absorbed in the countryside. It’s very Bronte-esque. Rolling, barren, bleak hills cutting down into pleasant little village oases in the valley. Some of the villages would do the Cotswolds proud, very pretty and characterful. At Wycoller, CP 2 was in the Aisled Barn, Google it, mesmerising beauty for history fiends. From here a long steady climb up onto Dove Stones Moor. The wind is hitting us full on up here so it’s a case of walk into it some 45 degrees to the perpendicular. Swearing is optional. No one can hear it.

Through a couple of gloomy reservoirs and we’re at CP3. We can see the final climb of the day, Pendle Hill, way in the distance. But for now the mud remains our nemesis and even out of the wind people are slipping, some going quite a few metres down the bank before regaining themselves. When the going was firm we all made up for it, even briefly rejoicing on tarmac for a mile or 2. My best fall came on the banks above the River Calder. The speed with which my feet shot out from me surprised everyone. In retrospect I’m glad I landed in soft mud thus avoiding injury. Fortunately my muddy coating dried out just before I entered the village hall at Higham where the CP gave me a cuppa, a hotdog and home made flapjack.

This was super tasty but I had to remain mindful of the time, it’s dusk and instead of approaching the finish I still had Pendle Hill to climb. With that in mind I was finally impulsed to actually chase down someone ahead of me, and I struck gold. He was Tony from Burnley and Pendle Hill was his local training ground. Not a moment too soon because on the footslopes it went dark. By the time we traversed a summit ridge, in the gale force wind, our headlight beams were the only solace. Then we started descending, dropping in to a forest (brief respite) and spat out alongside a reservoir in the valley bottom. “Was that it?” I asked, Tony looked askance. “No, we’ve not started climbing yet”.

Oh heck. That was a demoralising answer, but no point moping, get on with it. We actually caught a group here who were somewhat bewildered by the terrain. They were on the 30 mile option but as we shared the same path to the finish I told them to tag along. I couldn’t slow my pace though, darkness, wind and altitude…it was cold up here. The views from the summit were expansive in so much as I could see the clusters of lights all around the horizon and I felt obliged to wait a couple of minutes for Tony to catch up before our somewhat reckless descent down the ‘runners path’ to Barley. Both of us fell 3 or 4 times and looked truly wretched by the time we entered the CP at Barley village hall. Fresh toast and a cuppa and the final section. A climb (there had to be) a muddy descent (ditto) stepping stones over a flooded surging river (nice, in the dark) and a final bit of countryside before heading gratefully down the tarmac in to Barrowford. Pace is good again now, we can see the park, we can see the HQ. We didn’t see the bike barriers that we both smacked in to. Still, smiling we entered the hall to handshakes, food and beer. I was relieved and reflective. For a course measuring 44 miles it took far longer than anticipated. Jamie the RD informed us that it had been brutal for all participants. One runner suffered wind blindness! Given the exposure I can well believe it. (Note she has fully recovered within a couple of days). Pendle Way in a Day – a very beautiful event, but one which will strip you to the bone with it’s capricious nature. Want to discover yourself and this corner of Lancashire at the same time? For an unbelievable £20 entry fee you get as much thrown at you as you can handle.

Published by Jamie Glazebrook

Fear of a flat planet.

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