What a difference a few days can make. Last Saturday I was sitting on top of Whernside in deep snow watching the 3 Peaks, wrapped up in every single piece of emergency kit I own. Four days later and I’m running in glorious sunshine wearing nothing but a pair of tiny shorts and a racing vest. Only in our country is the weather so varied and unpredictable – This is England.
As I stood watching the 3 Peaks I couldn’t help but feel jealous of those who were competing. I had entered the race but decided not to run a few weeks ago. After such a good result at Black Combe in March my priorities suddenly changed with my new focus being to win the English Fell Running Championship this season – a bold and ambitious dream I know, but if you want to win big then the first step has to be believing you can do it.
‘PREPARATION IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS’
Up The Nab – the 2nd race in the English Championship, was set to be a hotly contested race. In a ‘short’ race counter there is no margin for error where 30 seconds can often be the difference between 10 places or even more. I knew I’d have to be on top of my game if I was to pick up some serious championship points.
Preparation is the key to success and I was keen to take a look at the course despite the fact I knew the route would be flagged on the day. Even though navigation was never going to be an issue it’s always beneficial to complete a recce as you can see the severity of the climbs and, most importantly, judge where best to make your serious efforts on the day. So with this in mind I’d arranged to meet Des Gibbons (the race organiser) who’d very kindly agreed to take me round the route. Des is an absolute diamond of a bloke, a real character and a brilliant ambassador for the sport. To be honest I was looking forward to the recce just as much as the race itself.
Pictured above: A fantastic evening with fantastic company (Des, Caitlin and Joss the dog showing me the ‘Up The Nab’ race route)
I make my way patiently through rush hour traffic and arrange to meet Des at Glossop Rugby Club, the HQ for the race. As I sit in the car-park I’m greeted with a lovely surprise as Caitlin Rice, one of the country’s leading female fell runners, pulls up beside me. Apparently Des is worried that he won’t have the energy to talk to me on the way round so he’s invited her along to keep me distracted. I’m really pleased because Caitlin is a lovely woman and a very humble champion. It’s always a pleasure to share the fells with such good company.
We’re not waiting long. Des whizzes into the car-park like Lewis Hamilton and explains he’s only just got the train back from work and is working again tonight straight after this recce. It’s clear that he lives his life in the same way that he drives his car…very much in the fast lane! The fact he’s taken the time out of his busy day to meet me tells you exactly what kind of guy he is. I promise him a few pints on race day (afterwards of course!) and we enjoy the a fantastic recce in glorious sunshine.
‘IT’S ALL SET TO BE A CLASSIC BATTLE BETWEEN THE VERY BEST IN THE COUNTRY’
Pictured above: Perhaps the widest start line I’ve ever seen!
Race day finally arrives and field is stacked. There are very few of the top runners missing and it’s all set to be a classic battle between the very best in the country.
As I stand nervously on the start line I think clearly about my race tactics. The first climb is extremely runnable so I plan to attack early in my usual trademark fashion. I hit the front and work hard to try and build up an early lead. This is partly because I like to start fast and partly because I want to try and split the field early. As I approach the summit I glance back to see I’ve a few metres on the chasing group and I’m feeling strong. From here it’s a quick descent before another short climb which leads to a fast runnable track. I try and put in another effort but something’s not right – it feels like I’m missing an extra gear. I’m beginning to feel the heat already and it’s not long before I’m overtaken by all three of my main rivals – Sam Tosh, Simon Bailey and Steve Hebblethwaite. My tactic now is to try and stay with this elite group of athletes. I have to finish in the top 5 if I’m to have any chance of keeping my hopes of winning the championship alive.
Pictured above: Attacking early with my trademark start.
A couple of miles in and I’m desperate for a drink. I’m that thirsty I even contemplate licking the sweat from my arms but I don’t have time to do anything other than try and hang on to the leaders. I can hear another runner close behind and soon after I’m overtaken by none other than my good friend and fell running legend Rob Hope. My heart sinks. Rob finished 5th last weekend at the 3 Peaks and we joked about how funny it would be if he beat me a week later with ‘Peaks legs’. Well when I say ‘we joked’, what I really mean is that ‘he laughed’ and I just pretended to – it wasn’t funny then and it’s even less funny now. The trouble is it’s actually happening. I’m going backwards fast and I’ve another 3 climbs and almost 3 miles left to run. I need to save this race quickly or my dreams of becoming English champion are about to disappear before my very eyes. I’m at my limit, breathing hard, grafting like mad and desperate for a drink. Seriously, I could murder someone for just a mouthful of water. I can’t believe Des hasn’t put a water station at every mile! I mean, what kind of 4.5 mile fell race doesn’t have a water station at every mile?! Just wait ’til I finish – I’m gonna complain to the FRA.
‘THERE’S NO WAY I CAN LET ROB BEAT ME, I’LL NEVER HEAR THE BLOODY END OF IT’
It’s not often I’m praying for the end of a run but this one can’t come soon enough. Each time we hit a descent I try and claw back some time to keep myself in the mix but this race is slipping away fast. I’m in danger of dropping out of the top 10 if I’m not careful so I grit my teeth and hang in. There’s no way I can let Rob beat me – I’ll never hear the bloody end of it! He’ll be texting me all night to gloat so I’m just going to have to man up and tough it out.
Here comes the penultimate climb…..OUCH! This hurts bad. My lungs are on fire, my mouth is bone-dry and my heart is about to explode in my chest. Well that’s certainly how it feels. Remind me again why I do this to myself? We finally reach the top and I’m right behind Rob with the 3 leaders just in front.
Pictured above: Working hard on the penultimate climb.
The penultimate climb on video (courtesy of Simon Entwhistle)
I desperately try and catch my breath. The lads are already back in their stride after the climb and I have no choice but to follow suit. I make a bold move and jump in front of Rob. I worry I’ve gone too early. Thankfully he doesn’t respond – perhaps his ‘Peaks legs’ are finally kicking in. It’s about time surely? Just one more climb to go. I dig deep and hold onto 4th place until the summit. I’m blowing hard now and I can’t wait to start this final descent. I can see Simon and Steve in front battling for the lead but my eye is fixed firmly on Sam Tosh in 3rd. I throw myself down the hill as fast as I can. This is going to hurt.
Pictured above: Descending down the final field.
As I enter the final field I’m spent. I watch Simon take the win from Steve and see Sam hold on for 3rd. I haven’t got the energy for a sprint finish so I quickly glance behind. I’m relieved to see that I’ve done enough for 4th place and I’m pleased. It’s another 47 points in the bag and it’s my second best ever finish in an English Championship race.
‘I’M NOT MAKING ANY EXCUSES, I WAS BEATEN BY THREE BETTER ATHLETES ON THE DAY’
It takes me quite a few minutes to recover. I know I’ve worked seriously hard, I literally couldn’t have put any more into that race. This is by far the worst I’ve physically felt all season. A number of people ask me if I’m happy with 4th? To be honest it’s a question I never thought I’d ever be asked. Who wouldn’t be happy with 4th place in the English Champs? I suppose I should take it as a compliment. There’s an expectation on me to win every race now and I have to accept that it comes with the price of being a successful athlete. Obviously, I race to win but as I mentioned in my blog about Black Combe – to win a English Championship race absolutely everything has to go well. This was not my finest performance. Although I’m in form I didn’t get my tactics right at the start and I didn’t feel at my best. But I’m not making any excuses, I was beaten by three better athletes on the day and had Rob not raced at the 3 Peaks then I’m sure I would have been 5th. The main thing is I didn’t give up and I fought hard to earn a top place finish, so in many ways it’s one of my best results this year. Most importantly, this puts me in a very strong position with 4 races still to go.
It must’ve been a fantastic race to watch, it was an epic battle. I must also take this opportunity to praise the super talented Simon Bailey. He deserves huge credit for his win, as do Steve Hebblethwaite and Sam Tosh for their superb efforts. Before the race I predicted that all three men would be fighting for first place – they are my biggest rivals this season and it now looks likely that one of us will be crowned champion at the end of the year.
Congratulations also to Heidi Dent, Vic Wilkinson and Lou Roberts who were the top three women respectively. Heidi’s time and winning margin was unbelievable and she will be very hard to beat this season. Amazingly, Vic still finished 2nd despite racing hard at the 3 Peaks last weekend and based on this season’s results Lou really is back to her very best.
‘WE ALL RUN FOR THE SAME TEAM, WE JUST WEAR DIFFERENT VESTS‘
Despite an intense rivalry between all the top athletes, what makes fell running such a fantastic sport is the friendship and community spirit between all of the runners. My favourite part of every race is catching up with old friends, making new ones and planning our next adventures together. As I said to my good friend Carl Bell after the race…‘We all run for the same team, we just wear different vests’.
Other sports could learn a lot from fell running.
Pictured above: With Carl Bell (L) and Calvin Ferguson (R)
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