It feels strange. I feel like I should be experiencing some form of runner’s high, but I’m not. I don’t quite know how to describe it, it almost feels like I’ve travelled back in time to a lesser experienced version of my running self…
I’m putting it down to a few things. Firstly, for a few years now I’ve been going from one race to another, month after month and often week after week. After breaking my ankle during the UTMB in September, I’ve not had a big running adventure for 3 months. I’ve barely run in that time. So my fitness has gone on a little holiday and I felt more like I did when I first started running ultras, things felt unfamiliar and hurt more than I am now used too. Add to that I’ve also not planned any further races for a while whilst I recover, so the mind and focus hasn’t immediately switched to the next challenge.
Secondly, The Cheviot Goat has been lingering on the horizon for quite sometime, almost 3 years since I first signed up early in 2020 it has been taunting me. Last year we got as far as going to the race location when it was cancelled (due to the aftermath of storm Arwen) and running our own (much shorter!) adventure around the Cheviots – the lesser ‘Cheviot Mutton’ as we dubbed it. So the Cheviot Goat has for a long time been on the ‘Ones that got away‘ list. Last year’s run, whilst great for experiencing the terrain and climate, kind of put me off doing the actual race a little.
So here I was, lining up for a race that I could no longer be bothered with, and really had limited confidence in how I’d physically cope. 9 weeks of rest and 4 weeks of short, easy running (most of which were on roads) was not the build up required to put me in a place where I was excited and looking forward to this run. Thankfully though I was fully prepared for it to be tough and knew I’d get through it somehow. I don’t give up, I won’t give up and I had Jon and Yvette to run with (assuming I could keep pace with them).
The logistics of the race were almost identical to the year before, we even stayed in the same AirBnB in Wooler (and ate in the same restaurant, possibly even the same order for me (minus the dessert!)). We registered the night before and felt the cold in the air as we checked in with the Mountain Rescue volunteers (showing our emergency kit – it is mandatory to have warm layers sealed in a waterproof bag for this event which you can’t use to run in, as well as a bivvy bag – foil blankets won’t do shit out here!) and received our bib numbers and trackers. 10 hours later we were back at the start and ready to go.
For 2022 the route had been changed from previous years. We’d benefit from two aid stations with drop bags (roughly at 20 miles and 40 miles), however as a trade off the route was slightly longer and with more elevation. It didn’t matter that much to me, I had everything I needed and even put a complete change of kit into each drop bag. I was covered for all eventualities. The weather forecast was good, surprisingly good. For a race usually taking place in minus temperatures and either snow or rain, we had sunny spells forecast pretty much throughout and the only minus temperatures were “feels like” temperatures on the higher summits like the Cheviot itself. So I started in shorts. I wasn’t alone in this, there were a few others like me who no doubt overheat quickly and don’t really feel the cold in the legs. I had tights and longer waterproof socks in my first aid station and my plan was to change into these when we arrived there. On top I had a t-shirt and a merino base layer on with my super lightweight OMM sonic smock to keep the wind off. I started questioning my decision a little looking around at the thick down jackets and long trousers and water proof bobble hats many others were sporting at the start line. But I was more distracted by judging people’s footwear choice. I’d opted for the Adidas Terrex Soft Ground. They have absolutely naff all cushioning or support but mega grip. I wore them last year for the 50km we did and they filled me with confidence. I’d hoped to get my cushioning from the soft, boggy terrain. I was surprised to see many runners in more ‘normal’ trail shoes, with plenty of Hokas and Salomon shoes to be seen. I even saw someone in a pair of Brooks road shoes. This I wasn’t expecting!
Anyway, enough people judging. We were directed under the orange glow of the Montane starting arch and soon set off. The route began with a slow steady climb over the first few km to Cochrane Pike. Way off in the distance we could see headlamps disappearing into the darkness as we walked steadily. For the first hour or so it drizzled on and off. This meant I was pulling my waterproof jacket out, then not long later stopping to take off the windproof from underneath as I was too hot. Then stopping again to remove it when the rain stopped. I was fussing. I couldn’t settle. So far so good though. The first 10km or so the terrain was delightful. It was wet, but firm underfoot with very few areas of concern and we were able to cover the undulating route with ease in the darkness until the sun started to break as we ran towards and along Wether Cairn, the highest point in the first section of the race. From here we had a lovely runnable section as we descended. The last part of the descent down to the road was rather steep, but caused no issues. From here we snaked along the road before starting an ascent on the other side.
Jon and Yvette were doing a sterling job of navigating (I was being selfish and hadn’t turned on my own navigation route) and kept us on track when some runners further ahead missed a turn. We all joined back up though pretty much straightaway. I think it was somewhere along this section that we first encountered the bogs. I recall a few sections of relatively flat routes (between the climbs/descents) where we hoping from bog to bog for a while. It wasn’t easy. We don’t train for jumping. Whilst you could easily navigate around the majority, some required a leap of faith. As a bang average height male, none of the jumps were particularly challenging for me, but I couldn’t do that continuously for the rest of the run! We managed to navigate them with nothing more than soggy feet, or rather soggy socks thanks to wearing waterproof socks! It made me think that the stories you hear are all a little bit exaggerated. You’d either have to completely mis-time a leap (feasible!) or be intentionally looking to go into a bog more than knee high. Unless you are running super quickly without time to think/adjust direction or are running with your eyes closed, the bogs aren’t anywhere near as bad as people like to make out. Either way, we’d survived the first bog section and soon completed a few more climbs and descents and were somewhere near Barrowburn, where the aid station would be.
As we were approaching Barrowburn, the day was glorious. It was cold, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as cold as I’d expected. I’d been running in two thin layers all morning and only put my liner gloves on when we were bog hoping. With a few more hours of daylight ahead, I felt I could get away without changing into the tights for a bit longer. So planned to just eat and change my socks at the aid station. Arriving at the aid station we headed inside and took the risk of sitting on the comfy sofa whilst the volunteers served us warm soup and bread rolls. Perfect. I struggled to get the fresh socks on and we probably stayed here a little longer than planned. With a long climb to Windy Gyle to follow though we weren’t concerned by the length of our rest and knew it was time well spent to set us up for the next section which, arguably, would be the longest and toughest of the course. Refreshed we headed back out. Despite the sunshine, I added the OMM layer back on top. We were heading towards Scotland after all!
The section to Windy Gyle was delightful too. Slow steady climbs, mostly dry tracks to follow with some undulations. The views here though were fantastic with clear skies showing the rolling hills for as far as the eyes could see. The best bits though were numerous rainbows of insane clarity and brightness. I feel like we passed through the end of rainbows several times. No need for pots of golds though with the fulfilling views we had!
From Windy Gyle, before the section in Scotland we had a short stint along the Pennine Way and the infamous slabs (or Flag Stones – I did get side tracked on the way home reading about the difference between slabs and flags and still don’t know which is the correct term to use). These aren’t too enjoyable to run on. I think some runners do like it, but I’m not one of them. Hard, slippery and uneven, they aren’t particularly fun to run along. Yet they serve a purpose (or many!) particularly on the section later on to the Cheviot Summit which really do keep you away from the bogs. Once we reached the end of the planned route along the slabs we were welcomed to Scotland by the Mountain Rescuer Team (there were numerous points marshalled by mountain rescue on this route. They were all so friendly and helpful and really did keep all runners safe out on the course) and directed off the Pennine way towards the Farm at Cocklawfoot. As we navigated through the farm we were a little confused as there were a few ways the route could go and some signage which we weren’t sure was for us or not. We followed the GPS route and were soon confident we were heading the right direction as the climb towards the Cheviot began.
The climb to the Cheviot summit is the only section of the route we covered on our adventure the year before. We were approaching from a different route this time, but would join up at the Mountain Rescue Hut (Auchope Rigg) for the actual ascent. Like last year, we stopped at the hut for a little break and opportunity to adjust our kit. We sat in the hut chatting to two local lads as we layered up (waterproof on now as it hard started raining as well as warmer waterproof gloves and mittens overtop!) and ate. Chicken and chorizo empanadas for me, wraps for Jon and Yvette (yep, I was keeping pace with them so far!). This is ultra running! As we pressed back on and began the climb it started to Snow, just like it did the previous year, only not as heavy. Annoyingly though it was head on which was a little awkward as it meant I was head down trying to climb. Still until this point we’d been absolutely spoilt with the weather. We were making decent time too and should be able to get off the Cheviot before the sun started to go down. As we overcame the bulk of the climb, the snow eased off and we were rewarded with incredible sunset views over the glistening white hills.
The one thing we learnt from last year was that, once the climb was over, you are still not at the summit! There is a section of a few kilometres along the slabs again before you reach the actual Cheviot summit. Last year it was frustrating. This year it was a known formality. We’d go out along the stones and ‘tag’ the summit before returning along the same track and then descending a different direction. So along we went, cheered on by the Mountain Rescue team who were manning the turning at the return point. The section was dull. There aren’t many things you can truthfully say about it in a greying December evening. Its like some parallel universe from a sci-fi film, just bleak and cold. To your left and right, as far as you can see in the clag are dark bogs broken up only by glistening white snow on the firm sections. Deviate from the slabs and it is likely you’ll get pretty wet. From time to time slabs were ‘missing’, presumably consumed by the bogs. We gingerly crossed them, hoping they were just covered by a layer of water rather than missing altogether. The traverse was slow as we’d stop and give way to runners coming in the other direction. Eventually we reached the summit Trig Point, grabbed a team photo and then set back off towards the marshals.
And here, a little over halfway through at 55 kilometres, things began to get hard…..
We were in good spirits and in pretty good condition. Yvette seemed completely fine, Jon was starting to experience some knee/calf pains and my biggest issue were my left metatarsals hurting, which I think was a shoe/laces issue (I was constantly having to stop and re-tie the laces on the Adidas SGs which kept coming loose – perhaps a design flaw with the flat lace design?). Mentally we were happy, but that all started to change as we descended. The initial part of the descent was rocky. Whhhyyy. Rocks are my nemesis, why I do mountain ultras I do not know. The rocks were small, loose and very slippery. We were very slow to cover this section and to reach more forgiving terrain. Here Jon realised that it was the descents that were aggravating his knee/calf. Whilst the descent ended pretty quickly, it was probably the last time we ran as the ‘flat’ section towards BloodyBush Edge was just wet, boggy and covered in tussocks. The lumpy grass meant we were slow, rolling our feet and angles, bobbing from side to side and trying to avoid ploughing straight into a bog. The headlamps were out by now and runners around us were complaining they couldn’t feel their feet they were so cold (post race there were murmurs that one runner finished with a single shoe and hadn’t realised he lost one because his feet were so cold!). Waterproof socks were proving to be wise choice though as our feet were only cold when fully submerged in water,
The trek felt like it went on for ages, passing the next set of Mountain Rescue marshals as we ascended the short climb to Bloodybush Edge. This was by far my least favourite section of the race so far. From here we headed along an ‘ok’ kind of track towards Cushat Law where we began to descend again towards the next aid station at High Bleakhope. We left the track at Cushat Law and were going ‘off piste’, wandering around in the darkness trying to roughly align with our gps route. We weren’t the only ones. Head torches seemed to face all directions in the darkness and every now and then another head torch would join up with us from somewhere else and say “not that direction”. ‘Bleak Hope’ is a rather apt name for the location were we found ourselves at this point in the race! There was one runner who’d done the March edition (a one off event) and kind of knew where he was going and said we should join up with a quad track somewhere, which we eventually did. From here it was a little jog into the second aid station.
This aid station was in an open barn. There was a fire pit outside and chairs inside. We sat down and went to work. I stuffed my face with crisps, mini eggs, biscuits and a warm cup of coffee. I then decided to swap my thin lioner gloves for a drier pair (hoping they’d add a little more warmth), add a buff to my neck and swap the one on my head for a thin merino hat. This along with refilling my bottles and adjusting my bag seemed to take an age and Jon and Yvette were patiently waiting for me. I first needed to re-tie my laces (again) and then warm my hands by the fire before putting the gloves back on. Which also took an age as my fingers seemed to have swelled and didn’t easily fit back in. We did eventually leave and I was lifted by the knowledge that from here we would finish. I joked that I always say if you get to the last check point/aid station then you can get to the end. It amused me that the second aid station was also the last one on this race. Admittedly there was still a very long way to go and more bogs and obstacles lay in wait!
We had another climb straight from the aid station and then a reasonable descent. I think my mind switched off at this point as all I remember is a section where we had to turn left, only there was no way through thick, knee height heather. So for what felt like a very long time we were bimbling along lifting our tired legs high and then sinking further down than expected as the ground below disappeared. It was energy sapping. Like much of the course since we left the Cheviot, it was difficult to generate any sort of momentum even when walking. The uneven ground meant your stride was constantly interrupted with a wobble to the side or a rocking backwards motion. It required a lot of concentration to try and keep moving forward! A little later, we descended alongside a fence line down to a river where we found two head torches in the darkness pacing back and forth trying to find a way across. They’d seen other runners come this way but couldn’t see where they crossed. A small committee formed as maybe 7 or 8 of us looked for a way. Another runner joined on the other side of the fence and I climbed over and we found a place to cross a littler further along. From this point it was a very, very wet and muddy climb as we started to make our way towards Hedgehope Hill (the second highest point on the route).
Underneath us was some semblance of a man made path, some honeycomb type carpet laid out to try and provide some protection from the bogs. For the most part it was ankle deep below the surface of the water/mud and I remember it bouncing as we walked. At this point I’d given up all desire to navigate around any bogs or attempt to leap over them and was playing roulette trudging straight through. It wasn’t that bad though and once more I never lost my legs to anything more than kneed high.
As we approached the last ‘big’ climb up to Hedgehope, the snow started to fall, again head on. We’d been lucky and it had only rained a few times for short periods, once it was sleet and a few more light dustings of snow. With each though I was looking down at my feet to see where I was going and now my shoulders and neck were starting to ache. I hoped it wouldn’t last long. Thankfully by the time we completed the climb it cleared up and we were able to begin the descent. Albeit slowly as it was yet another slow trek as we navigated the mud and random broken fence posts sticking up out of the ground. For a small deviation we somehow left the path and went off on a tangent and had to trudge along a lumpy section to find our way back on course. I’d realise we went wrong on this section because I’d been following the muddy foot prints of previous runners, where the snow had been melted, to navigate around the bogs. What I hadn’t realised was I was soon following a single set of foot prints belonging to the runner ahead who’d made the wrong turn!
Somewhere along this descent Yvette and Jon mentioned we still had about 10km to go. This broke me a little as I felt like it should have been a lot less by then. We started a climb (I assume somewhere around Dunmoor Hill) which we all assumed was the last climb towards the end of the race, it wasn’t. This was also very rocky and slowed us down somewhat. A few km later at the bottom of the long descent, we caught a bigger group of runners and all got lost together. In the darkness with our tiredness we were all struggling to identify the correct way and would stop every now and then to climb a fence (there was a lot of fence climbing on this route!) to get back on track. Sometimes we’d be leading, sometimes others would be leading. Progress was slow and our moans and groans were becoming more audible. We eventually emerged on a road section and were cheered on by some more marshals. I felt the finish was imminent, but it wasn’t. We were now at Brough Law. The last climb and still a few kilometres from the finish line. Here we were circumnavigating Brough Law and not climbing over it. Jon and another lady were leading the way and pointed out we needed to climb a little higher onto a rocky path. We were ever so slightly scrambling now. Bloody rocks. Most of the pack left us and bum-skidded down and onto some greener tracks. They powered ahead. We continued on the rocky track and eventually emerged behind them on the climb.
After the ascent, as we descended for the last time it dawned on us how long we’d been out there. Yvette pointed out we’d been going for over 19 hours. We were hoping to be finished sometime between 10pm and midnight. I was now nearing 2 am. Bugger, it was going to be an exhausting journey home the next day! Not too long after our whinge at the time, we were back onto a sealed road and Yvette powered on ahead and Jon started running. He could sense the finish. I couldn’t give a shit at this point. We’d been walking for hours, I had no desire to run and finish minutes sooner. I plodded on behind them, passed some parked cars, over Ingram Bridge and onto the gravel track that led around the back to the Café, the finish line. Jon and Yvette waited for me and we walked through the Montane arches, into the café to finish the race together. Ben was waiting for us (legend, coming out in the middle of the night to support us) and we were handed our medals and had a finishers picture taken. We then went inside where Ben brought us all hot soap and bread.
We stayed as long as we could before the risk of falling asleep on the table became real. We collected our drop bags and Jon drove us back to Wooler where a warm shower and a cosy bed was waiting…
Let’s start with the ankle. It hurt the next day. I wasn’t sure if I’d done more damage and needed to wait until the ‘pains’ of the run settled before confirming if it was actually a problem with the ankle again or just the exertion of running 95km. Thankfully I think it was the later.
I didn’t come out of it completely unscathed though. I think I might have pulled both hamstrings a little. A week later and I still have two fist sized black bruises, one on each hamstring. For a few days afterwards I was in pain trying to walk/bend my legs. No idea how I managed that.
Mentally all is good. I started off writing about how I wasn’t arsed about this race. I think that somewhere during the last 3 years I’d built this event into a monster in my head. Severe weather, difficult terrain etc. Don’t get me wrong, it is very tough, but this year I’ve done a few races that have been beyond tough in comparison. So overall it wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought it would be. Mostly mild weather throughout and no waist high bog incidents. So a winner! Having good kit certainly helped!
For comparison though, runners who’d done previous versions of the route were indicating there was maybe an hour or two extra duration this year in their times. I’d expected close to 18 hours (and last year was even thinking 15 hours!) and it took us 20 hours, so timewise it would suggest it was tougher than I’d planned. And, for further comparison, this year Jon did the Lakeland 50 (another notoriously hard 50 miler) in 13 hours. This was almost 50% longer in duration.
I think the think I struggled with most was the disorientation of the darkness. Whenever we looked up, in all directions you could see head torches coming and going. It was difficult to get a bearing and a sense of where you’d come from or where you were going. For me this made navigation that little bit harder.
So despite the ‘bla-ness’ I’m experiencing post race, I’m bloody happy. Happy to have finally done the Cheviot Goat, happy that my ankle might be ok, happy that I didn’t get frost bite or sink to a slow, cold death in a bog and very happy to have had the company of Jon and Yvette throughout. Running with likeminded friends always makes it easier and these are two of the best running buddies you could ask for on an adventure.
Huge thanks to Coldbrew Events for putting on this bastard and to the Mountain rescue Teams for supporting us throughout.
Cheviot Goat, I won’t be back again!