Chevy Chase Race Report by Matt Walker
Saturday, 1st July 2017
Those of you who read my race report for the Roseberry Topping Fell race a few weeks ago (or anyone who has had the misfortune to ask why I have been absent recently) will know that I had quite a spell of enforced inactivity. The upshot of this is that with the Chevy Chase looming upon me I managed my longest run of 11 miles a mere 7 days before race day. Not ideal when the race is 20 miles but at least it was on the same terrain.
The Chevy Chase is one of the longest fell races in Northumberland and this year was the 61st running. It starts and finishes in the town of Wooler and there is no set route. Competitors must reach each of the 8 checkpoints in order but have unrestrained freedom of the hills. There is less than a mile on the road at the very start (and the same stretch at the end) but the rest of the time is spent on tracks and rough fell.
The morning broke overcast but warm and calm in the city but after four days of heavy rain we were expecting a boggy run and the burns to be in full flow. The drive to Wooler takes around an hour which was long enough for the four of us in the car (Chris Sumsion, Charlotte Carpenter, Colin Dilks and I) to agree that we were all a bit nuts but at least it looked like we wouldn’t be struggling with low cloud playing with our collective lack of navigation.
The atmosphere at the race HQ (situated at the Wooler YHA) was one of warm anticipation as we registered and were fitted with our electronic dibbers for the checkpoints. Back out in the sun and people were applying sun cream, greeting old friends and discussing the finer points of some of the route options. A few eyes glanced enviously at people with much smaller and lighter looking kit bags to run with. Eventually the mass of around 225 runners and walkers started to make the short walk to the start line.
Having started as a hiking challenge before branching into 2 separate events for runners and walkers this year was to be the first with no separate walking event. Instead, hikers were invited to join the running race provided they could meet the overall cut off time of 6 hours and reach each checkpoint before staggered cut offs.
After a concise but thorough race briefing and a friendly reminder to eat lots of cake and sandwiches at the finish (like anybody needed to be told!) we were underway. The road wound and climbed out of the town and before we knew it we were wishing the tarmac a friendly goodbye and plunging into the brush. The next mile or so was a mix of narrow wooded paths, running free across sheep fields and jogging along gravel farm tracks. After crossing a few stiles the route reached the top of the ominously named “Hell’s Path”. I thought, as I enjoyed the early descent on the tree lined path “this was clearly named on the way up, it’s more like heaven coming down”. Alas that was to be the last significant descent for some time. Once next to the Carey Burn the climbing began, albeit gently and pleasantly. It was along this stretch that I managed a small early win when a bit of local knowledge from the recce a week before meant that gained a few places (and a slightly wet foot).
After passing through the first checkpoint in just under 40 minutes the terrain became more wild. A steady climb through the long grass and patches of heather brought us almost 2 miles and 600ft higher to checkpoint 2 at the cheviot knee. And shortly after that was when it really got steep. Checkpoint 3 was waiting at the highest point in Northumberland, next to trig point on top of the Cheviot at an altitude of 815m (2674ft). There was no running to be had on the way up but that allowed a little time to take in the sight of the rolling hills for miles around basking in the summer sun. The only downside perhaps being the excellent view of Hedgehope towering to the south east and threatening of climbs to come!
Eventually after countless false summits there was the ladder stile and the paving slabs heading across the flat top towards the trig point. I grabbed a jelly baby from a marshal at the checkpoint and then it was time for the part of the race I was the most unsure about going in. The advice I had been given for this point was “turn sharp left, over the stile and head for the rowan tree in the valley”. I was less concerned that I had no idea what a rowan tree looked like and more bothered by the very tight contour lines on the OS map. Colin described this section like running off the edge of the earth and just having to trust that there was solid ground out of sight.
After ploughing through the infamous peat bog mud away from the nice path the ground really did look like it ended. Mercifully there was a steep, long rolling descent hiding over the edge and even better, some competitors to follow so I didn’t need to worry about identifying a tree.
After picking my way down the steeper part of the descent and then letting the hill do the work (keeping an eye out for rocks kidding in the tussocks), before I knew it I was crossing the path in front of a slightly bemused looking hiker and plunging thigh deep into Harthope burn in the bottom of the valley.
Invigorated by the crisp clear water (which tasted fantastic, they should bottle that stuff!) I started the climb to Hedgehope by scrambling up what felt like a vertical wall of bracken and grass. The rest of the climb was much like the descent from the Cheviot, long grass, uneven under foot and steadily getting steeper. Once onto the ridge line the peat returned to add to the challenge for the final push to the final big summit of the day.
Unlike the wide flat top of the Cheviot, Hedgehope gave no rest-bite before the descent. After the Checkpoint that marks the completion of most of the major climbing – but only half distance – the way back down was tough. Ordinarily I enjoy letting gravity do work and building up good speed on the descents but after just over 10 miles and with such a steep drop I had to pick my way down with burning quads.
Once on the relative flat the terrain was still tough going and after athletically vaulting the fence I rounded Long Crags and saw another opportunity to gain on my competitors (or at this stage more likely lose less). Ahead of me I could see everyone following the wide burnt path through the heather but I chose a more direct, but less obvious path, making a near direct route to the next checkpoint at Langlee Crags.
But, as the saying goes, pride cometh before the fall, literally in this case. My direct route became suddenly marsh-like and before I knew it I was spread eagled in the mud. Quickly back on my feet, and with only a small piece of my dignity left swimming in the mire, I was moving forward again.
When my path joined the others I saw a friendly face. Chris was bounding over and looking strong. We went through the next checkpoint together and ran on for about another 2 miles before he powered away up the next climb. Descending down the rolling grassy hill to the next almost hidden checkpoint I could see Chris’ head in the distance.
That didn’t last, as I started to struggle with the endurance and sucked down my last gel as Chris sped away into the wild. The conditions became rough underfoot and wooded as the path neared the valley bottom. This time there was a footbridge to cross the burn and after a stop for some water and flapjack from the marshals I shuffled off towards Carey Burn. The Burn was in good flow and the sight of the waterfall lifted my spirits just enough to get me to the bottom of Hell’s Path.
Turns out it was named going up. Although with my legs as they were I would have been reduced to walking even on a much lesser gradient. Once at the top I knew the finish was close. Only a couple more miles of rolling hills and a few stiles between me and cake. The road section seemed to drag on for much longer than on the way out but eventually I was back in Wooler and bearing down on the youth hostel to be 75th person across the line after 4:29:35.
John Tollitt was the first ‘Tyne Bridge Harrier’ home in 25th place (3:50:18) representing Northumberland Fell Runners, Chris was the 54th finisher in a time of 4:12:51, a stunning effort for his first fell race! Colin Dilks was 86th in 4:35:35, and Charlotte Carpenter sneaked into the top 100, 99th in 4:40:20. Chairwoman Vicki Deritis beat the 6 hour cut off by just over 11 minutes and Emma Giles was not far behind. Unfortunately, Cath and Andy Eaton weren’t as lucky, just falling foul of the tight cut off time at the top of Hedgehope. Even though the cut off time was relaxed during the race it still seemed perhaps too tight as others had been consistently through the rest of the time checks but only got through that one with the extension. Cath vowed to return next year and set it right!
A grand day out in “The land of the far horizon” was rounded off with many cups of tea, lots of good cake and plenty of even better post-race chat in the sunshine. The race was well organised and with a friendly atmosphere throughout.
A huge thank you must go to everyone involved and to mountain rescue for their support of the race. I am looking forward to next year already!