I’ve made no secret of my 2019 plans to be targeted towards hilly ultras. The training that I’ve done has all been very specific to that aim, with long recces to learn routes. And helping out with a new ultra-marathon to get a view from the organisation side as well as getting in a few more hilly miles.
When I was planning 2019, with Bullock Smithy being the primary race in September, I decided that it would be beneficial to run a shorter ultra race in my training to see how things were going. The Peak Skyline race appeared to fit the bill at just under 30 miles long and in the White Peak; The Bullock is split between the Dark Peak and White Peak so it gave me the opportunity to do some more running in an area I don’t know as well.
Race booked and largely forgotten about, except a growing nervousness about how much day-job work was coming in for race day. Last year the equivalent weekend was quiet. In 2019, 3 August has stuck out in the diary as something of a logistical nightmare.
As race day approached, my concern began to switch away from the logistics and instead look at what sort of monster I’d taken on for my ‘training ultra’. The event is now run by Raidlight and Beyond Marathon, so I knew that it was be well organised. But I also knew that if they say a race is tough, then you’d better believe it.
The Peak Skyline
The 29.7 mile route takes in 2000m of climb as the route takes the runners around ‘The Five Trigs Round’. With that information, the event logo will make a lot more sense. The five trigs in question are Axe Edge, The Roaches, Shutlingsloe, Shining Tor and Burbage Edge. That said, it’s not just 5 hills, this is the Peak District after all!
The race itself did not go to plan. At all. I’m not really sure what the problem was, although my gut feeling points to the heat and probably not enough salt intake. And whilst the race didn’t go that well, I completed it within the cut-off times and learned a bit more about myself and running such a demanding (for me!) event.
This is what the route and elevation profile looks like:
If the route isn’t tough enough, there are strict time limits for making the 3 staffed checkpoints (Newstone Farm, Forest Wood & Cat & Fiddle) as well as an 8 hour time limit for completion of the Round. In addition to the 3 staffed checkpoints there were 6 other checkpoints to punch-in at on the way around.
My day started very early so I could clear my ‘morning’ work jobs before getting over to Buxton for 7am to register and to pick up my race number, check-point punch card and tracker. The organisers normally offer tracking as a pay-for extra, but for this event they set everyone up with a tracking device. I suspect this was for 2 reasons; 1 – to keep a visual check as to where people are relative to the cut-offs (and the course if people go astray from the route) and 2 – to aid the checking that people have actually done the route. Whilst the punch cards ought to do this job, I collected several on the route that had been lost and handed them in at the next staffed check-point. So it’s possible they’ve struggled in the past with this although I am taking a guess!
We were walked over to the starting field and the race briefing was given by Richard (Beyond Marathon) and David (Raidlight) explaining how the route was marked, the importance of punching in at the checkpoints and that missing Shining Tor would mean disqualification! Again, the trackers would give an immediate electronic check on this. We did a Marple Runners & friends team photo. I find backpacks and running vests result in lots of chafing, so being a non-UKA event I went with my Lyme Runners top (partially covered by an emergency buff):
And with that done, the starting gantry was inflated and we were off!
Heading south: Axe Edge to Newstone Farm
The first section took us up to Grinlow Tower where we were piped past – I think that’s a first for me! We followed an undulating woodland path out of Buxton as we headed over to Axe Edge.
I was running reasonably well in the first sections and felt pretty comfortable. In all honesty, I can’t remember a huge amount about Axe Edge until reaching the first CP at Cut-Thorn. This was one of the sections highlighted by the organisers because of the hairpin turn immediately afterwards. And the fact we might come in contact with a bull…… If it was there, I didn’t notice!
As we headed south towards Newstone Farm I realised something wasn’t quite right and that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I chatted to a few people and generally lost a few places; perhaps I’d gone out too quick? But I was running within myself at the time so that didn’t seem to be the main problem. Anyway, it was a big relief getting to CP2 and refilling the water and eating lots of oranges, drinking some coke and having a few peanuts (most of the other items on the table appeared to be meat-based so I avoided them, perhaps I should have asked if they had anything veggie). Great to see Thomas (Marple Runners) on the desk there 🙂
Ramshaw Rocks to the Roaches
Setting off up the hill to the Edge things didn’t seem too bad, but then they weren’t great either. The group I had been hanging off the back of were stretching off ahead into the distance and beyond and spent too much time fighting with my running poles on Ramshaw Rocks. From my last Bullock recce I discovered the importance of only having them extended when they were going to be useful. But during the race I seemed to be less than able in the construction/deconstruction process. On the plus side, they did seem to offer a benefit on the climbs.
A steady descent followed by what felt like a convoluted trail towards Hen Cloud. This was the only bit where I worried I’d gone wrong, although I confirmed I was in the right place with a farmer and then immediately picked up a trail marker again.
Hen Cloud was the first really steep climb. Several people caught me which made me realise I couldn’t have been going that quickly! At least on the tops I could get going again, although it was a little bit technical underfoot. From here it was straight onto the Roaches. And roughly about now when the sun came out. It was so warm out there and it really began to sap me. Coupled with the onset of cramp in my calf I really wasn’t making great progress. Getting to the trig was a relief as at least there was a descent on the other side. Except the cramps weren’t helping. Nor was having forgotten my wallet for the ice-cream van at the bottom! Doh!
Checkpoint 5 and more climb
The section through Forest Wood was one of pain. The cramps were back under control but I wasn’t moving very well or very quickly. I was also getting worried that I was low on water and this was causing a bit of panic. I hadn’t realised that the next CP was staffed and as I approached the area and saw houses, I was going to knock on to get a refill. However, the CP came into view and so I knew I could top up.
In fact I drank about a litre of water there before getting topped up. Alex (Marple Runners) was covering that CP and asked if I was OK. I admitted that I really wasn’t that OK! He later commented that I had hung around the CP longer than many which probably sums up how I felt. A lad came in after me who had been stung in the mouth by a wasp. Ouch! That would have been race over for me (and probably a trip to hospital) but he amazingly seemed OK!
The next section was horrible. A long climb out of the valley and nothing seemed to be working. Despite all the fluids I’d taken on I felt thirsty. To the point I seriously considered turning back to the CP. Looking back I suspect I was low on salt. I did have another of my Chia Charge sea-salted flapjacks and kept moving. So perhaps that was the salt doing it’s thing. Psychologically I had a boost as I was passing people in this section. One of the lads I was talking to commented that he got timed-out last year and so was keen not to repeat the experience.
I think this was the first point that I actually considered that rather than running for a time, I might be running to meet the cut-off. I knew the final CP cut-off at the Cat & Fiddle was 6 hours and something and whilst I knew at the time I was ahead of this, it was a concern. It was so warm in this section and that was sapping all the energy I had. At least we went through a wooded section where we had some respite from the sun, although there were plenty of deep boggy bits to discover yourself up to your knees in! Thank goodness I had my Sealskinz boot socks that went up to my knees!
Shutlingsloe and Cumberland Clough
18 miles in and it was time for the first out-and-back section to get the checkpoint on the trig at Shutlingsloe. This is a steep climb and in direct sun it made it all the tougher. I don’t know how much benefit I got from using the poles, but I do know I was glad I had them! It wasn’t a fast climb by anyone’s standards; the wasp-sting man overtook me for one! I’d been following another runner up the higher section of the climb and we punched-in at the same time. I set off back down first and got back to the base somewhat faster than I ascended it.
The next section was torturous. I’ve run down Cumberland Clough a couple of times and it’s horrible underfoot and not quick at all. So to do the reserve and run up it, well you get the picture. It’s not nice. And that’s the easy bit before the real climb begins joining the Danebower Hollow Path. What I found interesting later was that this whole climbing section had more elevation gain than Shutlingsloe. Which will explain why it was such hard work. Not least due to the tricky ground under foot.
Eventually the Cat & Fiddle came into view and it was a relief getting to the checkpoint. I actually asked how far ahead of the cut-off we were and it turns out 25 minutes, which was a lot tighter than I would have imagined prior to starting the race! Again I made sure I topped up on water but this time consumed plenty of salted peanuts to replenish some sodium in my system.
As I arrived at the CP one runner had been picked up from here having retired from the race. I must say that seemed like a very good option at the time. But it was 6 miles to go and I wasn’t going to give up now.
Cat & Fiddle to Burbage Edge
A steady climb from the Cat & Fiddle took us back onto the trails as we headed for Trig 4 at Shining Tor. In fact this climb was short and not very steep. As I started the climb I saw Nadine running the other way having already done the trig. We exchanged hellos and I jogged with another runner to do the same. Final checkpoint met and in my head, it was all downhill to the finish.
Except it wasn’t.
The first bit was downhill, but very technical. A lady caught us on the descent and we ran together into the Goyt valley below. And then it really was the final climb, up and over Burbage Edge. I’m not sure exactly how hard this section is in reality, but at the back end of an ultra-marathon, I was fighting with my feet, my poles (which I occasionally thought might help) and a whole lot of chest-deep bracken. The other two left me behind on this section, I didn’t have anything left to give. On the plus side it looked like I’d be getting in nearer to 7 hours than the 8 hour cut-off. Not the finish time I wanted, but by now it was all about getting the job done.
And to the finish
Finally I hit the top of the climb and the edge of Burbage came into view. I ran as much as I could and even caught up the lady I’d been running with just before once we rejoined the tarmac. But by now I was on empty and she zoomed off out of view. Despite it being the last mile and it being tarmac, run/walk was the best I had. I actually caught up with another runner and jogged with him for a bit until the finish gantry came into view. He was more broken than I was, and I crossed the line a few seconds ahead of him. 7h15m42s and I’d completed the race. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t to plan, but despite that, I got around.
It was great to see Lars (6:15), Thomas (6:14) & Emma plus Alex & Thomas who had been at the checkpoints. Nadine had also run a superb race finishing in sub-7 hours but had to dash off. I was relieved of my punch card, timing chip and tracker and was handed my medal, which I felt I’d earned today! In the warmth of the afternoon the others were already tucking into beer! There’s not many times that I regret being unable to drink alcohol, but this was definitely one of them!
One fantastic aspect in the organisation today was the opportunity to get showered straight after finishing. Everything was hurting by this point but given my shoes and socks were full of Peak District bog and that I was going back to work, it was the best decision of the day. Especially having got changed and realising just how heavy my trail shoes and socks were with their frequent dips (sometimes very deep) in the boggy bits of the route.
So that was the Peak Skyline race. I think I learned a lot today. My food provision in future is going to include more salted items that are easy to swallow. I didn’t fancy any of the sweet items I brought with me, although I demolished the oranges at the checkpoints. 24 hours after finishing the race, I still feel like I’ve just run a hard race, which perhaps indicates just how much of a challenge it was.
Would I do it again? I might save answering that for a week or so yet, but I think given that places were available practically right up until the date I can at least assess what work I have on which I need to shoehorn an ultra into the midst of! Huge kudos to all the other finishers and also to Richard & David who organised a superb event.