As an England and British Championship decider race, the ranks of those entering the Sedbergh Hills Race were swelled to heady levels, well in excess of 300 runners at the start line. For me Sedbergh Hills was my longest and only third race of the year so far and my first ever Championship race. Plenty of reasons to be apprehensive and plenty of reasons to be optimistic, so soon into my comeback to running it was never going to be an outstanding personal performance but with a steadily improving set of recce runs under my belt in the previous weeks, during which i had slashed half an hour off my time, there were reasons to be fairly happy on the long-road to being fast and competitive. And so, if asked at the start-line if I’d be happy with slashing another 30 minutes from my previous running time I would have unequivocally yes.
The weather was not quite as good as the forecast has hoped, the overnight rain and associated hill-fog was reluctant to clear the upper reaches of the Howgills, but at least the temperature was relatively cool for August and the winds light. Sat propped up against the boot of my car, I spent a good 15 minutes debating whether to wear my new club vest alone or throw on a base-layer, as the sun came and went. I remembered how humid it had been only a week earlier, being cool could always be overcome by running faster, the vest alone it was to be.
An overriding sense of urgency passed over me as mine and hundreds of other pairs of feet ran towards Lockbank Farm, by the time I passed through the field-gate, Morgan Donelly and the other leading runners had already eeked out a good 300 metres or more. I probably went off slightly too quickly, and struggled to settle into any sort of rhythym, reaching the summit of Arant Haw in 24 minutes. I resisted the urge to charge down the grassy slopes to Chapel Beck that lost all the height one had worked so hard to gain only moments earlier and made steady progress down to the valley bottom, already the leading runners were clawing their way up the far side of the valley, the stinging ascent of Castley Knotts, I dug-in and kept my head down.
From the summit of Castley Knotts the route takes a long and winding trod that gradually contours its way up and around the western fringes of the Howgills, even with the distant drone of the M6 that carves its way through this wild landscape it is still a special spot that not too many people choose to see. It was here where again my lack of out and out running conditioning took its toll, keeping pace with those around me felt distinctly like hard work and I gradually slipped back from some of those ahead of me as I worked hard to stay ahead of everyone else.
After checkpoint 3 I managed to give myself a little bit of breathing space, as the route struck out across rough moorland. For the previous half an hour I had been swapping places with 2 or 3 other runners, including Jackie Lee (who would eventually go on to win the Ladies race in a solid time of 2hrs 32mins) and this was to continue until the summit of the Calf, the highest point in the Howgills. If only this course was rougher and there were a few more steep bits I thought to myself, that was wishful thinking on my part, I always knew this was a ‘runners’ course with its swathes of relatively straightforward and fast trods and tracks. And by the time I began the long climb up to the Calf my running legs had gone. I ran and then walked, then ran again, knowing i was losing more and more time, knowing I had ran this whole section in training, but I was out of gas, it was only once I reached the summit that the spirit of finishing the race kicked in, it was now a damage limitation exercise for places and a sense of pride in beating my target time and I ran all the way to the finish line.
And so I stood at the finish line, slightly sorer and a little fatigued, not entirely sure what to make of my time. I had competed the race 15 minutes ahead of plan in 2 hours 34 minutes. Looking up the timesheet, there were some 80 or so other runners with faster times,the vast majority in the 2:20 to 2:30 time slot, looking down some 300 odd runners who were slower. Looking back at the past 2 years, it was an awesome result, looking ahead, there are some people to beat in the future!
Sedbergh Hills Race, 2hrs 34 minutes, Distance: 14 miles, Ascent: 6000ft
Winning Times: Men – Morgan Donelley 2hrs 02 minutes, Ladies – Jackie Lee 2hrs 32 minutes