So at 0730 we set off from the Castleshaw Centre into the fog, and I quickly found myself at the front with a couple of guys, and we had a bit of a chat as we plodded along. We broke away a bit from the rest of the pack, which was a bit worrying so early on, but the pace felt ok so I just went with it. Then after a couple of miles, we saw the rest of the runners cut across in front of us, having taken a different route, dumping us right at the back. I was certain we were on the correct route, and we worked our way back to the front again. Then, somehow, the three of us managed to take another wrong turn. We realised, and backtracked to meet the next group behind us, who swore blind we were going the right way as they’d recce’d the route. We trusted them and plodded on for half a mile in the wrong direction before turning back and re-joining the route we were heading back to anyway, and within a few minutes had caught up everyone else and were at the back again. At this point I gave up on the Garmin trace. I think it must’ve been done on an online map rather than on the ground, because it was so often really far out, and the turns on the trace weren’t even close to the actual trails. I also decided to stop listening to or following anyone else and just rely on the map.
The other two broke away a bit, so I hit CP1 on my own in third place, but shortly after met them again as they’d taken a wrong turn. There seemed to be a lot of that going on.
The three of us were back in front heading for Tandle Hill and CP2, when we noticed the pack behind of us disappear and go another way. I was sure we were going the right way, but shortly after that the other two broke off to the right, I think looking for a shorter route. I had a sense the CP was close so I just carried on, and just as I was starting to question whether it was even remotely possible that I was the only one going the right way, I spotted CP2 through the trees. While I was there getting my card stamped I spotted the other two passing about half a mile away to the right. I did the right thing, blowing my whistle and waving my arms to get their attention, but they didn’t hear me and just kept going.
I trotted on, and then a mile or so down the road they came up behind me. I asked if they’d gone through the CP and they hadn’t. One of them pretty much fell apart, deciding to drop, despite me trying to convince him an extra 15 mins running to the CP and back over 40 miles is sod all versus a DQ. The other guy, Dave, just decided to carry on anyway. Like me, he was doing this as a training run for something else, so he was happy to just run on. Dave and I were in front from that point on.
The going had been ok up to that point, a bit hilly, some moorland, farmland and muddy fields, and a few steep sections, but nothing so punishing that it had me worried for later on. Then we dropped down onto the canal for the flattish middle section of the race. I was feeling pretty good at this point, about 13 miles in, with a marathon or so to go. Being in front was a weird but nice experience, I doubted it would last though. I reckoned Dave and I had a good 2-3 minute lead at this point and we could only see the others when there was a really long straight behind us. I decided to make the most of feeling good and started banging out 4:50/kms along the canal, trying to put a little more distance between me and the rest of the pack behind, also hoping that if they stopped seeing me they’d assume I was gone and not worth chasing.
CP3 came and went, and I put some distance between myself and Dave until we hit Daisy Nook just after CP4. I’m pretty sure I went the “right” way, but all of a sudden, from not being able to see him behind me, we bumped into each other on the trail. This was about 20 miles in, and we ran a lot of the next 15 miles together. A couple of times I ran on ahead, only to take a slight wrong turn or stop to double check the map, and then we’d be running together again. At CP5/25 miles I was getting thirsty – it was warming up and one bottle wasn’t quite enough to get between the CPs. Dave was suffering too with cramp. We were still well in the lead at that point though, and hadn’t seen anyone for ages.
I was starting to think maybe I could win, but also that I could just as easily blow up and have to walk the last 10 miles watching everyone else come past. I was also starting to wonder what the deal with Dave’s missed CP would be. Officially, he should be DQd, and to be fair, he said at every aid station when he handed his card in that he’d missed CP2 but was carrying on. But I had a nagging feeling that they wouldn’t care at the finish, especially if a lot of other people were missing them.
At about 27 miles I decided to make a bit of a break for it. I could see from the map there was another good flat stretch around Dove Stone Reservoir, so I upped the pace through some woods and then onto the trail around the reservoir. I could see it was a big loop, and that I’d get a really good view of who was coming up behind once I was on the other side. As it was, there was no-one. I was about 5 minutes ahead of Dave at 30 miles, and when I got to CP6 they told me Dave and I had passed CP5 15 minutes ahead of a the group behind us. I was pretty sure no-one that far behind would have run as hard round the reservoir as I did, and since I made 5 minutes on Dave who was still going pretty well, I could have been as much as 20 minutes ahead. For the first time I really thought I could win, although I knew that either one wrong turn from me, or someone with local knowledge cutting the route could eat into that really easily.
I left CP6 with 7 miles to go feeling ok, and trotted up the first part of Alderman’s Hill (on left of picture above), before slowing to almost a crawl. It was really steep and seemed to go on for ever, but I was overtaking mountain bikers pushing their bikes up and cursing which I took as a good sign. I got the top of the hill and was totally wrecked. There was a bench at the war memorial which looked so inviting, but I didn’t dare sit down, so I plodded on, hoping that going down the other side would be easier. Instead, I was confronted with the aptly named Dick Hill. I trudged up to the top of that hill and immediately made my first navigational error in miles. At the top of the hill, there was only one recognisable trail, a steep rock strewn channel heading down the other side of the hill. I had a big smile on my face as I bounded down it, I felt great, like I was in some YouTube ultrarunning video, hopping from rock to rock like a pro. Then I looked ahead and saw the trail swing right which felt wrong. I stopped, checked my map, and realised I was on the wrong trail! I immediately felt awful, I noticed the pain in my legs for the first time, and I just felt sick for being so stupid. I was convinced I’d thrown away my best ever chance to win an ultra, and the thought of climbing back up the trail I’d just run down made me want to cry. Instead, I turned around, map in hand and started running as hard as I could back up, the whole time expecting to see Dave or someone else running along the top on the right path. It was like the Dukeries Ultra all over again.
At that point I tripped. I had my map in one hand and my water bottle in the other, both of which I instantly decided were more important than my face, so I kept hold of them, tucked my head in, and managed to go straight over onto my back, smashing my back, left hip and the back of my right hand on the rocks. I think it must’ve been the adrenaline from the fall, but I immediately felt better, got up, and clambered back up to where I’d missed the turn.
As it turned, out, there wasn’t a turn to miss. It was just open moorland, with no obvious trail anywhere, but I could see the road a mile or so away that I needed to cross, so trudged through the mud in that direction. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a group of about 4 people maybe a mile away. I couldn’t tell if they were in the race or just out hiking, but if I was 20 minutes ahead before I spent 10 minutes playing in the rocks, they were in the right place to be chasing me down. All of a sudden I thought I could get dumped into 5th place quite easily if I didn’t stop messing about.
I passed through the village of Diggle, and a REALLY nice looking pub, and shuffled on. Looking at the map there was one hill left to go. I doubt it was the biggest hill on the route, and it definitely wasn’t the steepest, but it went on forever. I couldn’t even run the occasional flat stretches on the way up I was that battered. I broke out my emergency Twix to cheer myself up which worked a bit, and drank the last drops of my water and steeled myself for the final stretch. At the top I could finally see the reservoir near where we started. It took a minute to get my legs working, and then I started trotting down the road towards the finish. I was willing the miles to just disappear, and then I passed the little fork where we’d turned left on the way out, and saw the finish. When I turned the corner into the finish straight and saw the finish tape still intact I nearly cried. I still had some doubts about whether anyone had plotted a quicker route, but to see the finish line there waiting for me was amazing. I broke the tape in 7 hours 50 mins, and went inside for the best bacon sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.
I hung around an hour or so to see some of the other runners in, eat some more food, and collect my medal and prize (a weird running light thing). There was no trophy which was disappointing, especially for my first ultra win, but never mind.
Overall, the race was ok. It’s the first time it’s been run, and there are a few things I’d probably change. In the race info they said navigational skills would be an advantage, but I think they should say essential. That I won largely due to my navigational skills and still ran an extra 3 miles says an awful lot. The last minute announcement of the navigational free-for-all was frustrating. I think they need to decide and either say follow the route (it is the Oldham Way Ultra after all), or navigate your own way between the checkpoints. Looking back there were loads of places where you could have gone a shorter route, and I reckon with a bit of planning you could get between the check points in around 35 miles, despite it ultimately taking me 43. If I was being fussy, one more CP in the second half of the race would be nice, and the medal was a bit crap consider it was £38 to enter, £49 if you entered in the last four weeks before the race. But ignoring all that, the route was amazing. I’ll definitely head out that way and run stretches of it again for training, especially the last ten miles or so, if only to find out where that rocky trail would’ve taken me if I’d carried on…