If you want to just get into the review of the race itself, scroll down to the section “And we’re off“…….
It’s preamble time
The last time I put a race number on my t-shirt was back in February 2023. And whilst I completed the race, I ended up in A&E shortly afterwards as my body had decided enough was enough.
Whilst I was in hospital, various medical staff told me that I should stop running. It wasn’t good for me and the Rhabdo was a warning I shouldn’t ignore.
And whilst I shot straight back and told them I wasn’t going to stop, the whole experience had weighed heavily on me. It was true that my body was in a mess and it’s taken most of 2023 to get to a point where I can run *at all*. Which when you’re a coach and a leader for several clubs, is a big deal in itself. Not least because one should at least appear to be following health advice!
In many ways, whilst I was never going to quit running, I realised that actually doing the whole race thing was something that I might have to forego, in order to ensure that I could still get out and do the running that my mental health relied on.
Mass participation? No thanks!
I’ve long since grown tired of mass participation events, which I feel are more about extracting easy cash out of runners whilst neglecting the race experience. True, the days of me running fast times are well behind me, with the preparation to allow me to do that generally resulting in niggly injuries. And that’s ignoring the chronic situation with my heels which has led to long periods of being unable to even walk without pain, let alone run anywhere.
And whilst I didn’t really miss racing, what I realised was that I missed the ‘adventure’. That’s with a lower-case ‘a’. The events I enjoyed the most were small, out on the trails with nature. It’s unlikely I’d get eaten by a lion in the process and the routes are, of course, subject to risk assessments in order to satisfy the insurance requirements. But I see it as a mini-adventure, to go out and do something that is far beyond what “normal” people do.
It was clear when I was in hospital that the world I occupied, surrounded by people doing these adventures, flew totally in the face of the “normal” world that the medics occupied. Just the idea of running a marathon was surprisingly, beyond their frame of reference; something I was shocked by. But that said, we talk about being part of “the 1% club” as that’s the rough percentage of people who will ever run a marathon. It just happens that we have a bias within our world in that it’s more like “the 100% club”!!!
Anyway, I digress. But you’re not surprised; you’ve read my ramblings before!
Some slightly less off-topic preamble
September 2022 (that’s a year ago!) I had signed up for an event called “The Lancashireman” on recommendation from the Trawden AC runners I’d run the “Pendle Way on a Midsummer Night” with. Sadly, my heel had become inflamed in the July and I succumbed to Covid-19 in the September. Whilst I was ‘over it’ by race day, there was a requirement that 2 weeks had passed, and for me, they hadn’t.
In reality, seeing in February 2023 I was hospitalised, I believe as a consequence of the covid infection, running a 27 mile trail marathon immediately after the infection wouldn’t have been a good idea.
It popped up in my consciousness as “unfinished business”. Not that I started it last time, but it was something I’d wanted to do, but couldn’t. I saw that it was on September 24th 2023 and that my work calendar wasn’t too busy that day. So the idea that I could go (back?) to finish the business did appeal.
But I decided to stick to my (2023) plan of not booking anything in advance as I was fed up of wasting money on events I was unable to do. The closing date was 2 days before race day, so there was no rush.
I seem to have booked on to an event
And on the morning of the 22nd, I booked on.
I then saw the weather forecast for race day. And it was bad. Heavy rain and high winds. Two things you can do without whilst on the top of some big hills in the wilderness above Burnley.
A further complication was that I’d already arranged for my ‘flu vaccination for the day before. Ordinarily not a problem, but they also gave me my covid booster as well. The result was two very sore arms.
I went to bed on the Saturday night, unable to sleep due to soreness in both arms, and coupled with a forecast of a full day of torrential rain, I ultimately turned off my early morning alarm and abandoned any likelihood of going to the event.
But fate had other ideas and I woke up at 5.35am. This was probably the latest I could get round my jobs and head to the race. I looked at the weather forecast and it had improved to only 2 hours of torrential rain.
5 minutes later I was dressed in running attire with a plan to be on that start line!
7.25am and I was collecting my number and getting ready for the adventure. Jamie (RD) commented “ah, you made it”, in reference to my email where I cautioned my ability to thwart my own attendance previously! Again, the nice thing about smaller low-key events is that you’re treated as a person, not a punter.
I’d studied the route instructions and maps the day before. Whilst the majority of the route followed the way marked Burnley Way, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be quite as easy as that might suggest; the phrase “indistinct path through rushy pastures” was used, compass bearings were provided in the notes and it was definitely feeling more fell race than trail race (it was licensed under the Fell Running Association so I guess in many ways it was a long fell race!)
Speaking to others, most hadn’t run it before, but some had done recces of parts. And whilst the GPX was provided “for guidance only” it was clear that this was going to be the primary means for a lot of people to not get completely lost!!! (For reference, the FRA rules are that, for the most part, electronic devices aren’t allowed for navigation.)
But races can choose whether or not they want to enforce this. In this case it had been provided “as guidance” so very much the caveat emptor situation for relying on it. I had the written instructions laminated given the forecast, and I picked up a waterproof map for the same reason. But I also had my watch running the route because of the sketchy nature of some of the route.
And we’re off
Leg 1 – Burnley to Thursden
Jamie did the race briefing and a couple of minutes after 8am we were off.
The first section was easy canal towpath before we dropped off the canal and started winding our way through woodland trails. The trails were muddy, but not completely soup and whilst it wasn’t rapid progress it was decent. I saw another local runner who’d come out with my Lyme group before which was interesting as in previous events I was very much the outsider, with most runners being relatively local to the event. Conversation was regular as we wound through the valley.
To this point we weren’t that spread out, but as we started the first of the climbs this seemed to string people out. I was running with Brian and David for much of this period. And indeed, throughout the whole race as we seemed to drift apart and clump back again. Both were avid marathoners, each with several hundred marathons to their name.
I didn’t volunteer that my haul was only in double figures (10 ultras, 5 marathons). hahaha. We climbed up into Haggle on the outskirts of Brierfield, a place I remember staggering through during the PWIAD escapade in February, albeit the other side of the golf course.
Heading through the mud as we passed through Cockden Farm a couple of girls were trying to move their horses out of the way as they were apparently being a bit spooked by runners coming through. Whilst this is a way marked path, the one thing that became increasingly clear was that much of the route was out of bounds for most recreational hikers.
I managed to slip over at one of the stiles as the stones on the floor were extremely slippy. Well it wouldn’t be a fell run without me falling over! Anyway, nothing major, no damage done and I continued on within the small group of us running together at that point. We continued through Thurston Brook before we started climbing proper.
There are three major climbs on the route, which is itself, rather lumpy. The climb was on a tarmac road, but it’s the sort of road you wouldn’t really want to be driving up! Very steep and seemingly with no end in sight. Fortuitously Checkpoint 1 was part way up the hill where sweets and water were available.
In my usual setup I swapped out one finished tailwind drinks pouch with one ready to be filled up with water and the process would have been seamless had I not had a fight to get all the contents of my bag back into itself afterwards. I also retrieved a Snickers bar realising I definitely hadn’t eaten enough during this first 8.5 mile leg. I also grabbed a couple of fig rolls from the checkpoint and then realised I’d need a lot more to drink in order to dissolve them in my mouth!!!
The others had long since headed off further up the hill by the time I was repacked. But it was a long climb and nobody was going quick, so it was a case of one foot in front of the other.
Leg 2 – Thursden to Maiden Cross
Despite all the various illnesses, injuries and general wonkiness, I can still hold my own getting up hills. It might not be pretty, but it’s effective. The climb from the checkpoint was relentless but I’d actually caught up with the rest of the group by the top of the climb. We were a bit strung out but all in view of each other, whilst there was nobody else to be seen! It’s amazing how over only 9 miles a group of 80+ people could be so far apart.
Finally we started the descent, which was a welcome relief. We did our first border crossing into Yorkshire as we headed down towards Widdop Reservoir where we took a trail away from the tarmac and followed the broken up and frequently boggy trail above the reservoir. It was very slow progress as it was seemingly pot luck whether your foot would connect with something solid in the ground or if you’d disappear up to the top of your shin in bog.
The scenery was pretty bleak too, especially as we got onto the tops above Black Moor and back into Lancashire again. We were firmly in the cloud and as such it was soggy. Even with a peaked cap to attempt to keep my glasses clear, I was struggling to see out through the water droplets in front of my eyes. Thankfully as we reached the Gorple track junction the trail became stonier under foot and the drizzle eased, just as we began our descent towards the Hurstwood Reservoir.
We picked up the pace as at last it felt like an opportunity to make some progress after a couple of very slow miles. I was chatting to a lady (apologies, I didn’t get her name) who had only recently stepped up to longer distances and it was only when we were passing to the left of the reservoir I thought to check the navigation. And realised we’d missed the turning. Doh!
In fairness it was maybe only 250m beyond the turning but it was so annoying as I’d been pretty focused to that point on where I was going. Turning back it didn’t take too long to catch the others as they were walking through the woodland on the correct side of the reservoir but it was an extra chunk of distance I didn’t really want to have to take with me!
The next section seemed to be a collection of twists and turns through rural buildings as we climbed towards the Long Causeway. During this section we caught up with Alicia & Mark who were running as a pair. And the six of us (Me, David, Brian, Sharon, Alicia & Mark) broadly stayed together for the remainder of the race. We finally reached the road where Checkpoint 2 was set up in the car park.
Leg 3a – Maidens Cross to Holme Chapel
I was a lot more organised at this checkpoint despite the same basic routine swapping over tailwind flasks and acquiring fig rolls. David, Sharon & Brian zoomed off up the road along the Long Causeway whilst Alicia & Mark were taking their time. I set off with them but ended up walking ahead as I worked on consuming the fig rolls. I also had my next two Snickers bars ready and available as I didn’t want to run out of energy in the middle of nowhere.
The others disappeared down the road, missing the stile which took the Burnley Way through one of its “indistinct paths” through the next available bog. As it turns out, they had the right idea as they were able to cut back onto the trail further down and skip some of the bog snorkelling. Mark & Alicia caught me up and we navigated our way through the Clough with a lot of questioning exactly where the path had disappeared to. There were a few yellow-topped posts marking out the Burnley Way, but what happened in between the posts was a mystery known only to the Burnley Way!!!
After a steep technical climb followed a steep descent back down into civilisation where we had to cross the railway line in Portsmouth. Not “the” Portsmouth, as that would have been a very interesting nav error to suddenly find ourselves in Hampshire. But definitely a Portsmouth in Lancashire!
Despite this brief encounter with civilisation, we were soon back out of it again as we commenced the longest and biggest climb in the race. It was a very steep climb onto Heald Moor, and the three of us somehow took an incorrect footpath (we didn’t see the right one until we saw some other runners crossing up ahead of us as that path joined the one we were on). It probably didn’t add much distance thankfully but it was frustrating as I didn’t even see the start of the path that we should have taken. Oops.
The climb up onto the Moor was a real glute-buster with about 600ft of elevation in three-quarters of a mile. From there things were less steep as we followed the tops to the trig point on Thievely Pike for a further mile. But we were now in squidgy-town navigating a boggy wet landscape that had several attempts to take a shoe or two.
On the plus side, the steep descent from the trig down into Dodbottom Wood was surprisingly runnable. And whilst it didn’t make up the long period of time taken to make the climb, it was joyous to be able to cover the ground pretty quickly all the same.
We followed the lane at the bottom around to the final Checkpoint (which seemingly was only classed as a water point).
Leg 3b – Holme Chapel to Burnley
“Enjoy the last section” were the words from the checkpoint team as we left. I had somehow convinced myself that, following the big climb that the end was “mostly downhill”. I mean, we’re finishing on the canal, right? It wasn’t. At all.
Following the lane we immediately went past the left turn which started one of the many uphill trails in this final leg. Only tens of metres passed this time thankfully, but still more bonus miles I didn’t want to earn!
Trails became lanes before dropping back onto trails again. We were in the suburbs of the suburbs now so there were frequent roads that we had to cross to access more uphill fields with muddy tracks showing the way.
We had a joyous easy downhill that took us into the wonderful Townley Park, which was full of normal people walking around in the near-sunshine that was trying to break through. It was noticeably warmer too and I was regretting still having my raincoat on over my running kit. I was roasting!
Having got to the flat I realised my legs didn’t really want to play ball and so we joined the rest of the people walking through the Park. Coming out of the Park involved an uphill section of road. Followed by an uphill section of footpath. We still had a couple of miles to go and it seemed never ending. To be honest, had this section been at the start of the route, we’d have flown through it. But the reality was we were all pretty done for by this point in the race.
Walking up yet another hill on the road we finally departed from the Burnley Way (which heads off to the west for another dozen or so miles) and carried on uphill across more fields. Only at this point when we rejoined a road in a housing estate that the downhill finally appeared which took us down to the canal.
Alicia & Mark headed off in front and I followed with the other three not far behind. We were on the canal for only 100m or so before climbing up on to the road and dropping back into Finsley Gate Wharf where the finish line was.
The finish line
I’ve not paid any attention to the time I was out. Ultimately today was a case of getting around and having a day out on the trails. I covered 27.5 miles (compared to the route description of 26.7) and 4587ft of ascent in 6 hours 27 minutes and 55 seconds. Pretty much bang in the middle of all the finishers which I can’t complain about given my lack of ideal training for something like this.
I joked with Jamie that as long as I didn’t have to go to A&E I would be a happy person! I got a photo at the end of the race, holding the Red Rose flag, although due to the wind the flag is barely visible, making it a very strange photo indeed!
Well, it was a year in the making getting this event completed. To get around in one piece and have a good day out on unfamiliar trails was my goal for the day and it definitely delivered on that.
During the early part of the run someone commented that it was a tough race to do. For me I guess it depends what your experience is. In terms of a fell-based marathon it was what I anticipated, although I did study the map and the route beforehand so there wasn’t any nasty surprises for that. Navigation was mostly OK but sketchy in places as the trails were equally sketchy in places!
I’d certainly recommend it as a race providing you are confident (or at least comfortable) within the world of off-road running and not afraid of following navigation instructions covering paths which were sometimes rather indistinct. Great value for money, a lovely atmosphere, interesting route (albeit a bit bleak!) and well organised.