On Sunday I took part in my first Trigger Race a tough and demanding 21 mile fell race from Marsden to Edale over the Dark Peaks of the Peak District. This is my Trigger Race.
The day didn’t start great. It felt like I had, had hardly any sleep despite going to bed early on Saturday. I was thinking about the Trigger Race and wondering if I was up to it. If I should pull out and what could go wrong. In the end despite my reservations I got up at 3:30am and began to get ready for the biggest race of my life.
At 5:00am my mate Matt Fielding and me where off, travelling down to Edale to leave one car there before driving up to Marsden where the race started. The journey down the M62 to Edale wasn’t nice. Fog and rain on the roads just added to my already nervous state about what I was getting myself into.
We arrived at Edale in time to see the competitors getting ready to go in the Montane Spine Race http://thespinerace.com/. These runners were going the whole length of the Pennine Way, 268 miles over 7 days and I felt in awe of these amazing athletes who were pushing themselves to the limit mentally and physically in one of the most brutal and challenging races in the world.
On to Marsden and arriving at the cricket club we quickly got our kit checked and registered for the race. To my surprise I had race number 1! I did feel proud to be representing my club, Queensbury and wearing number 1.
Soon we were all outside having a last minute talk from the race organiser and then we were off! I quickly settled into a steady pace and felt good as we passed Butterley Reservoir and began to steadily climb towards our first trig point at Black Hill.
At this point it was terrain I was used to. We were on the Pennine Way and this part of it was one of the easier sections to run on and navigate. Then we turned off, left from memory, and began the first of our big climbs up Black Hill. I was feeling good, felt strong on the climbs and was passing people.
And then suddenly we were in the mist. The temperature dropped and the green grass was replaced by white snow. Now was the time to take care as the paths were wet, icy and dangerous. Care was needed as one slip could spell the end of my race.
And then the mud and bogs appeared. I went from running upright to slipping everywhere and falling into bogs. I’ve been very lucky avoiding most of the bogs where I run and not falling over. Today more than made up for my previous good luck.
It seemed to be my fate to fall into every single bog on the day. I lost count of how many times I ended up to my waist in a bog full of freezing cold mud and water or falling on my hands and knees onto the cold, wet ground. Within minutes I was wet through, wet mud clinging to my hands and legs making it difficult to keep warm.
I was still feeling focused and determined so put any thoughts of feeling cold and wet to one side ploughed on, upping my pace and passing more people as I raced to the summit of Black Hill.
And then I felt something hit my side. To my surprise one of my water bottles had come out from its pocket on my racing rucksack and was banging against my side. I tried to put it in on the move but it just kept popping out so I ended up carrying it in my hand.
This was far from ideal as it upset my rhythm and meant I was maintaining my balance with one hand. Around the same time I felt an ache develop in my right hand side. I wanted to stop and check everything was ok but there was no time. This was a race and I had two timed checkpoints to meet. Any delays could cost me meeting those times so I ploughed on as best as I could.
We made the snow covered checkpoint at Black Hill, the mountain rescue team standing out in their bright red jackets in the mist and began the descent towards Crowden the first timed checkpoint. We had caught up with some other runners and was making good progress. Despite carrying a water bottle in one hand I felt confident on the descent towards Crowden and made good time on it.
We arrived at Crowden in plenty of time but in my haste to sort out my water bottle issue I tripped over the entrance to the checkpoint tent and demolished the table the marshals were using! This was one of the talking points of the day as people where asking who the lunatic was who destroyed the table!
We checked in and carried on but to our dismay we had lost the group of runners in front of us due to me sorting out my water bottle problem. The two ladies we had been running with retired at Crowden and now we were on our own with only a map and a compass to get us to our next checkpoint at the top of Bleaklow.
We arrived at the bottom of our next climb thanks to Nicky Spinks pointing us in the right direction. We looked for an obvious trail to follow to get to the top but couldn’t see one and then I spotted what looked like a reasonable trail to follow to the top. How wrong I was.
We began to climb and everything was fine. Then the climb steepened sharply and I realised I was out of my depth but had no choice but to carry on to the top. Staying focused, looking up and grabbing bits of heather I worked my way up steadily.
Then I put my right leg out and felt my calf muscle go. I was 100ft up the side of a short but steep climb with my right leg at 90 degrees, my right calf cramping up and me holding onto a clump of heather.
I looked down and realised that I had no choice but to go up. The line from the Killers song, ‘All These Things I’ve Done’, ‘when you can’t hold on, hold on’ played in my mind. Matt was now at the top, only 20ft above me but far enough away. I looked for footholds and clumps of heather to grasp onto and got myself to the top. I’m not a climber and I’m scared of heights but I did it. In situations like this before I’ve froze but this time I stayed focused and made the climb.
At the top we worked out which we to go and began the ascent to Bleaklow and it was here that the weather here took a turn for the worse. From a pleasant winters day at Crowden we were enveloped by cold mist, deep snow and the only visible trails had ice cold water running down them. We had no choice but to follow these water trails and soon I had lost all feeling in my feet as they went numb from the cold water running over them.
We made steady progress and found the waterfall that meant we were on the right route. But somewhere between starting the climb and getting to the head of the waterfall I started to feel the onset of hypothermia. My hands and feet were numb with cold and had no feeling in them. My shoulders and chest were starting to go the same way, the cold cutting right through my body. I was sweating but it was cold and clammy and my clothing felt heavy because it was saturated in sweat and water.
I had no choice but to carry on. I could feel the onset of fatigue and each footstep was getting harder to make, both my legs cramping up as I moved through deep mud and cold water. Making Snake Pass was going to be very tough.
Then we heard voices behind us and saw the mountain rescue guys who were acting as sweepers for the runners. I felt relived knowing that if I got worse I was with the right people to help me. I was carrying an emergency sleeping bag but in these conditions with poor visibility it would make finding someone difficult and time is of the essence if you’re in trouble on the moors.
We carried on with the mountain rescue guys guiding us to our next checkpoint at Shelf Moor at the top of Bleaklow. The conditions were so poor that they had problems navigating and finding the right route but they got us to the checkpoint. Everything looked the same. Mounds of snow covered earth with streams flowing through them. It really was as if we were in a whole different world.
At Shelf Moor my condition had worsened. I could feel my body and mind slowing down, moving was difficult, thinking even more so as fatigue set in. I was beginning to feel punch drunk but without the pleasure of having had a couple of beers. I knew I had reached my physical limit and all I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep but that would make things much worse. My only option was to carry on to Snake Pass.
The mountain rescue guys knew what was happening too. There was no point in asking what was happening. It was obvious to everyone.
I didn’t have the energy to unclip my racing rucksack and get some food so the guys gave me a cookie and some hot Ribena. It seemed to take forever for me to eat the cookie but I needed immediate energy and eventually I finished it.
I knew I had to carry on and get to warmth. There was around 3 miles to go to Snake Pass and I focused on getting there and put thoughts of coldness, fatigue and hypothermia out of my mind. My only focus was to keep moving, keep talking and keep making progress.
We had some more minor navigational issues but eventually we found ourselves on the Pennine Way footpath and the gate to Snake Pass appeared out of the mist. Matt and the mountain rescue guys let me lead and dictate the pace but I felt myself get a little bit faster towards the end and the feeling was returning to my hands.
At Snake Pass I retired. I had made this decision at Shelf Moor and I knew it was the right one. This was not the time or place for being a hero and I do not regret retiring at that point. It was the right decision.
Matt carried on and finished in around 8 hours 10 minutes. I got a lift back to Edale village hall and warmth. After a couple of hours I began to feel warm and I could reflect on my performance.
I felt very proud of what I had achieved. I had done things I never thought I would do when I began my running journey two years ago and I had pushed myself beyond my limits and achieved more than I thought I ever would. Talking to other runners they said this was the worse conditions the race had been run in and this made me feel better knowing I had run in such brutal conditions and given it everything I had on the day.
My experience has not put me off the Trigger Race either. On the contrary it has strengthened my resolve to come back better and stronger in 2018 and finish the race.
Big thanks to the guys at Woodhead Mountain Rescue. Without them the day could have been much worse.