Ian Pickett writes this race report.
Hexhamshire Hobble Fell Race: Sunday, 7th December 2014
Heading to the Christmas Party on Saturday night, I was explaining to Nick Varley and Rachel Griffiths that I was going to have a sensible night as I was taking part in the Hexhamshire Hobble on Sunday. Rachel was not convinced about the merits of fell running and Nick did a sterling job of trying to persuade her to give it a try before I depth-charged all his good intentions by mentioning that the weather can be pretty brutal at times. Anyway, after my elite nutrition of beer and sausage rolls I bumped in to John Tollitt as I left the party and he predicted I’d get 6th place in a moment of Mystic Meg like foresight.
On Sunday morning, the view from the A69 was a lovely blue vista but towards Allendale I could see some ominous grey clouds. By the time I arrived at the car park it was raining and there was even a suggestion of sleet. I had a quick chat with Jonathan Powell and we concluded that we were the only TBH’ers who had made the journey and before I knew it we’d had the safety briefing and were heading out to the start. The sleet had gone and it was back to blue sky. Within seconds we were underway and a group of about 8 of us formed a pack at the front. The first section is on road and there is a steep climb almost straight away. I knew that I had to be sensible on this section as it would be possible to try and stay with the lead guys and suffer later on so I eased back a little and hoped my speed on the flat sections would help out.
After a mile, as we turned on to the moor, the weather conditions worsened and it started to snow/sleet. We soon arrived at a gate and the runner ahead looked back and was about to hold it open but in a moment of sporting competitiveness let go. I tried to grab it but missed and it caught my race number and ripped it out of one of the safety pins. I now had a very flappy race number and was quite concerned that the wind might rip it off entirely. But, there wasn’t much I could do other than press on.
After five miles we started the technical decent (for those that have done it, the bit where the path becomes deep ruts) and by now the snow was coming in horizontally. Not only did this mean it was difficult to see but it meant my number was taking a hammering. These descents demand 100% attention but the combination of poor weather and a flappy race number meant I took my eye off the ball and the inevitable happened and I lost my balance. As I fell I expected a lot of pain but fortunately (or so I thought) I landed in a boggy puddle. As I stood up I was glad not to be injured but I realised that my top was soaking wet. Having recently read about hypothermia in fell running (http://everythingoutdoors.co.uk/hypothermia-facts-causes-treatment/) I knew that this was not a good situation and I felt the chill through my top immediately. Because of the fall a couple of people were now right behind me so I decided to get going but psychologically I was affected by this and it hadn’t helped that my number was now ripped on both the top right and bottom right corners.
I tried to get some rhythm going and get some warmth back in my body but I was still feeling the pressure from the runners behind. As my mind was distracted I lost my footing for a second time and fell. Fortunately this time I landed in some heather so had quite a soft landing but I was really cursing myself for not paying more attention when I had casually pinned my number on in the warmth of the car. This had also given the group behind me the chance to overtake. I decided that on the next flat section I was going to re-pin my number.
Fortunately there is a road section about 6 miles in to the race and I got the opportunity to sort my number. If pinning a race number in the car is hard enough I now discovered what felt like the 13th Labour of Hercules, trying to pin a race number with numb fingers, whilst running and with sleet in my eyes. Somehow I managed to get it back on and I thought I would now feel happier but unfortunately the cold was starting to get to me. One of the guys who had overtaken me was tall and I tucked in behind him in the hope of getting some respite from the wind. This gave me a chance to look ahead and I could see a few runners so I estimated I was in 10th place.
As we descended the road section the runner in front of us had been looking over his shoulder quite a lot and I guessed he wasn’t feeling too great. He was one of the hardy (foolish?) few who had set off in a vest. He now pulled out his waterproof jacket and I wondered whether I should do the same. My hands were freezing but I couldn’t feel anything on my chest, was I hot or cold? I couldn’t decide but I knew we had a steep section in front of us so I decided that I would get up there and then re-evaluate.
The uphill section starts with a very steep climb and running feels almost meaningless but I was determined to keep my legs turning over to maintain the warmth. Having got to the top of this section I now knew that it was just one mile of moor before the final mile of road descent. By this point I had managed to over-take tall-guy and was slowly reeling in vest-man but I was surprised to suddenly hear three other voices around me. One person overtook me and this was the kick-up the backside that I needed. I immediately took the place back and decided to get my head down and overhaul vest-man.
As we got to the final descent I knew that it was unlikely others would be as fast on the road. The voices behind me had now disappeared and I only had the runner in front in my mind. As we got to the last 400 metres I had managed to close the gap to about 10 metres. At the final turn in to the school playing field I gave it everything but he managed to beat me by a stride.
Congratulations over, I asked where he thought he’d finished and he said 6th. We headed over to the school hall and it was only then that I realised how cold I was. I started to shake and shiver uncontrollably but I didn’t care, I had a hot drink and the satisfaction of a tough race completed.
Now I have warmed up and had a chance to reflect on the race, I realise that it’s the battle against nature that I really enjoy, beating the runner in front is satisfying but for me, beating the elements is exhilarating. Rachel, you should give it a go!
Footnote: The results were published in the afternoon and I was surprised to see that I had actually got 6th place. If I hadn’t fallen then I’d have definitely had 5th place but clearly it just wasn’t to be, and anyway, the fell running God(s) had already assigned me 6th place the night before.