Simonside Fell Race
Saturday, 21st September 2019
Race Report by Matt Walker
Surprise on Simonside
I first did this brilliant race in 2015. Back then it was my first ever fell race. How things have changed in the last four years! Sitting here writing this, excluding relays, I can’t think what my last road race was! It isn’t that I dislike road racing but I have been increasingly drawn to fell and trail races, and with so many to choose from the calendar quickly fills up!
Like many good fell races, Simonside is part of a country show. £4 each got us entry to the show and all the prize worthy veg and baking we could want to look at, not to mention the stalls and entertainment in the main ring. There was even the opportunity to play hook-a-duck using a mini digger!
No time for that though, registration was already underway for what is also known as the Mark Webb memorial race. It is 6.5 miles of some of the finest and most varied terrain in Northumberland. Starting and finishing in the Thropton show field, just a few minutes from the famous Cragside estate, the route takes competitors to the top of the Simonside ridge and back on almost the same route. The 1200ft of elevation gain, twice through the river Coquet, wild woodland and rocky scrambling make it as tough as show races get and being the third Saturday in September it’s always a great outing ahead of the cross country season.
|A few of the gathered TBH and friends all smiles before the race
After a summer that has seen both scorching heat and country show cancelling high winds and heavy rain, Thropton struck lucky. We arrived in the early afternoon under a warm sun and a gentle breeze. The field was a happy and vibrant scene and there was a healthy crowd by the officials caravan for the race sign up. Chatting with the race organiser, Phil Green, I was delighted to hear that this year we would be going through the river again.
At around half a mile the route reaches the winding river Coquet and for the previous two instalments of the race a combination of high water level and the washing away of the bank has made it too deep to cross. The alternative is to run an extra quarter of a mile to the footbridge and back. This time the water level meant that at its deepest it was below waist height, the footbridge was optional! The gamble being whether the longer route to the bridge was quicker than being stuck in the bottleneck waiting to duck under the boughs of the tree on the water’s edge.
The easiest way to avoid being slowed too much by a bottleneck is to line yourself up close behind the cork. This is probably why, after the Rothbury Highland Pipe Band and the gathered show crowd got us underway, I found myself firmly parked in the front of the main pack, close behind small lead group. After the initial road section the river crossing was upon us…well some of us. It looked like the tight lead bunch had missed the freshly trodden passage through the wild rhubarb and were on their way to the footbridge.
This meant I was fourth into the river and watched with surprise as those ahead of me reached the far bank and set off in the right direction, by which I mean the wrong direction. The route was to the left over the open field heading for a just visible stile. Once I had hauled myself up the bank I made straight for it, hot on the heels of the only other runner who seemed to know where to go, but even he seemed to be losing confidence in his navigation and I overtook him quite quickly.
Que a peculiar feeling! I have only ever lead one other race before and that was in similar circumstances; inheriting it after the leaders take a wrong turn while I spot the marker, or in this case, use my experience of the route. It is a remarkable sensation. Thrill at being in the lead but the strong sense of being an impostor. Those blokes behind will quickly notice their error and now have a nice little black and white rabbit showing them where to go. They will chase me down and breeze past, never to be seen again as I assume my rightful place at the front of the mid-pack.
I reached the stile in the lead but didn’t bother looking back to see how close the chasers were, they would be on me at any moment. All I wanted to do was enjoy myself as long as I could so I made for the shortest route over the next two fields, across the grass straight for the gates instead of following the winding tracks. The grass meant I couldn’t hear the footsteps closing behind but we would soon be on the road with the thundering footsteps ringing in my ears.
Two high-vis heroes flanked the final gateway onto the road to control the tiny flow of traffic deep in rural Northumberland. They clapped and encouraged me as I went by. Then, to my surprise, instead of hearing footsteps, I heard the clapping stop. Was there nobody close enough behind for them to continue? By now I had been at the front for half a mile, could I hang on for another half as the road climbed steeply towards Great Tosson? It was certainly worth a try.
Putting in more effort than I usually would at this early stage of a fell race of this length I reached the village and was afforded my first view of the runners behind. As the road doubled back on itself I caught a quick glance of a few sparse figures between the high hedges. It seemed my efforts to delay the inevitable were being rewarded, nobody was breathing down my neck. On the way out of the farmyard that the route passes through is a kissing gate, normally a pinch point if you are running in a crowd, but not today! The hinges cried for oil as I swung it back and forth.
At this point the route hits the first slope that usually reduces me to a hike, I was tempted to try and power up and away but what was the point? Trashing my legs only to be overtaken anyway, time to get my hands on knees and drive. *squeeek-squaw* second place had hit the kissing gate… hold on, I have started running again! So much for saving the legs.
As I crested the hill I heard a familiar voice somewhere behind and knew that an ex-clubmate was about to finally close the gap. Kurt was a previous winner of this race and a sub 15min 5k runner. He had been in the front group that missed the river crossing and had a detour to the footbridge. He was now here to claim the lead, and in all likelihood, hold on to it. Sure enough, a few seconds later a pleasant greeting arrived at my shoulder. But at my shoulder he stayed…
As we entered the woodland and started to climb up the narrow rootey trail Kurt stayed behind me, he was clearly happy to save his legs and follow his new guide around the course. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying this, but Kurt hasn’t got the best track record for route finding in fell races. A sure fire way to not get lost is follow someone who knows where they are going, and if you have Kurt’s pace, burn past them once you can see the finish line. Unfortunately for him my pace was slowing and eventually I waved him through. As a past winner of this very race he must know where he was going from here anyway.
By the time we emerged from the trees I had let another runner come through in preference to having them on my heels. In the later part of the climb the path becomes a ravine in an area of cleared woodland; saplings, stumps and the beating sun. The open hillside also gives an opportunity to see the runners behind, I was surprised and cheered to see that there was still a good gap back to 4th.Concentration was needed though, somewhere along here there is a left turn that I have missed before, it’s not a big issue, but continuing straight on ads a few meters to your race. After some hesitation ahead over the turning they both took the path the left and I followed close behind.
There is a short spell on the main fire track to the staircase up to the summit of Simonside and there was a small crowd gathered where we joined it. Here, clearly confident in the route Kurt showed his class, and a clean pair of heels, on the open gravel road. It is over all too quickly though and onto the rough, steep stone staircase to the top. With a few words of encouragement from hikers out enjoying the sunny day I hit the top still in third. I think Vicki (Deritis) and Harry (Ransome), both from Tyne Bridge and marshalling at the top, were almost as surprised as me with my position in the race.
|Almost at the top! (Picture from Vicki)
No time to enjoy the view, the memorable descent is full body work as you crash down between the crags, heather and moss providing invaluable hand holds as you slide over the wet rock and mud. By the bottom of the scramble I had dropped another position to someone more confident on his feet and I opted for the left track through the heather. It was slightly longer than continuing straight but I was banking on hitting the fire track again earlier giving me a speed advantage. In the end it seemed to make no difference as the gap looked unchanged when the other runner reached joined me on the gravel but trying these things is all part of the fun of the fells!
Again the open stretch of gravel road is short lived and we are crashing through long grass and stiff heather and trying not to brush up against the sharp young pine trees. This section is a lot of weaving around trees and following a twisty path that you can only see if you are on it. Luck was with me and I got through it no problem. Some of the others weren’t so lucky. Not long after diving into the woodland I was back into 3rd after my newest friend went the wrong side of a tree and found some heavy going. It could have been worse though. After another slip and slide section on a steep drop in the woods where I dropped to 5th (having fallen here before I was probably over cautious) we were back on the road where, to our surprise, the leading pair came fighting their way out of the dense foliage to our right. Their route was more direct, but certainly not quicker!
Kurt was putting the work in again though and soon came past me again. A few more twists and turns in the forest and we were at the last of what I would consider the “missable turns”. Somewhere along the dark green passage there would be a lone piece of black and yellow tape hanging from a branch. Somewhere nearby was the point to pick your way through the trees and climb over the wall. There is no clear path here, or at least not one I have ever found, and people have been known to miss it and end up quite literally lost in the woods.
We five almost reach the wall together but there was no clear crossing point and those in front of me were briefly stalled, unsure what to do next. I shouted that they had to climb the wall and joined the queue trying gingerly to clear the barbed wire in one piece. I had taken the cat to the vets for his “special operation” a few days before and was keen to not join him in being a couple of stones lighter!
Setting off from the wall someone shouted “is it back the way we came?” …”yes”. If I was a dishonest type I might have lied …Still, I was sitting nicely in 5th place with no sign of anyone too close behind. After a good runnable descent on grass it was back along the road, over the fields then the final push to the finish. Time to press on and see what I could do.
Except my back had other ideas! For the last year or so I have occasionally been hit with pain near my left shoulder blade. Usually brought on by not warming up properly and if it comes on strong it’s like being hit in the back with a bat, and I struggle to get air back into my lungs. As I got close to the kissing gate, striding down the grassy knoll, I could feel the telltale twinge. I think I might have actually shouted “NO!”. I hope the guys in front didn’t think they were going the wrong way. The only way to guarantee I’d get to the finish was to relax my effort until the pain subsided. So much for pushing the pace.
I went as hard as I dared once back on the road and after a near miss with a car coming the other way on the narrow country road I settled into a rhythm, just fast enough to relax, and just slow enough that I was watching everyone get away. When we reached the fields my back pain was gone, but so I think was some of mental fight had gone with it. Looking back I wasn’t running as hard as I think I could have at this point. Maybe I was still protecting my back, but more likely I think easing off to protect it had changed my mental gear and I was now stuck feeling sorry for myself. I was almost the full length of the second field behind the leaders as they crossed the stile and, unbelievably, took off in a range of directions, none of them the right one. A weak path of shorter grass to the left went for the unseen concrete bridge over the dyke and none of them were on it. I hear myself shouting “LEFT”. I have no idea if any of them heard me but they had at least worked out the vague heading if not.
I was the first to cross the concrete bridge, after the 4 ahead vaulted the dyke that probably took them by surprise in a range of different positions. Their error brought me back to them and I eventually climbed back out of the cool, invigorating, life giving waters of the Coquet on the heels of 4th place, and clutching a slightly renewed fight.
Once back at the main road the race route in previous years has always been through a small gate after the bridge and along the bank of the Wreigh Burn instead of back the way we came. Ahead there was no sight of Kurt but second and third were both heading up the road having missed the gate. I shouted at the marshal asking if we were using the gate. I think he said yes and I told my new friend in front of me to turn through the gate and away down the narrow path we went. I confessed that I didn’t know if staying on the road might have been a quicker option but was promised a beer if our route proved the better.
As we rounded the back of the school I could see the finish and pressed on, taking 4th position as I watched Kurt entering the show field with the other two not far behind. Well it wasn’t quicker than the road, I just hoped it hadn’t been a lot slower.
An odd thought struck me as I went through the show field entrance, would my wife be watching for me coming in yet? I never finish this high in a race, and she was probably distracted by her puppy sitting duties so I would forgive her for being surprised to see me. She was surprised, but she did see me, I probably can’t repeat what she said…
|…but she did get a nice picture!
I am delighted with my fourth place finish, even if a few of the top Northumberland runners were in Cumbria for a club championship race. It was great to lead the race for a spell, sure it may have only been because others went the wrong way, but in fell running, route choice is part of it, and what makes the sport so special. Maybe one day I can hang on to it until the finish line…