Having now completed two exploratory runs in the Peak District (you can read about these here), I decided it was time to enter my first official fell race. The Black Rock’s race, organised by Matlock AC, was recommended to me on Twitter so I contacted the organisers to advise them of my terrible sense of direction, lack of trail shoes, and general complete amateur status. They replied saying that it was relatively well marked and that the ground was so dry I’d most likely be safe running in my flip flops. This sounded ideal, I signed up straight away. Next step was trying to persuade my boyfriend to join me. The discussion went something like this: “Do you want to do a fell race with me? It has a 1000m elevation but it’s only uphill for the first three miles (of six). Oh, and it’s the same time as the England vs Croatia match”. Surprisingly, the answer was no.
Given the timing of the race I thought I might be the only entrant, which was both worrying (if there’s no-one else to follow will I get lost forever?) and exciting (if there are no other competitors this might be my once-in-a-lifetime chance of winning!). Although I’m not an avid football fan I was a bit disappointed to miss the match so I decided to embrace World Cup fever by attaching a pair of St. George’s flags to my hydration pack, like two little England-themed wings. This seemed like a great idea until I turned up, all on my own without knowing a single person, to do something I’d never done before, and my confidence waned slightly! I went in to register and was immediately met with “gosh, those are jazzy shorts” to which I quickly replied “If you think these are jazzy you should see what else I’m running in” – so from this moment I was committed.
I collected my race number: 666. This boded well. I considered turning it upside-down, but 999 felt even less concerting! In the end I reckoned 666 was actually quite fitting for a vicar’s daughter – we have a reputation for being a little devilish!
I was surprised how many competitors there were (a total field of 72) and a little nervous about the number of hardy looking runners in club vests (no other flag fancy dress). But within minutes people were chatting to me, offering support, encouragement and recommending more races I might like; I felt completely at ease. They reassured me that I definitely wouldn’t get lost – particularly as I probably wouldn’t be in the lead, and they were sure I wouldn’t come last meaning I’d always be able to see someone else. We lined up in a field and after a countdown which I’m consisted of “3 – GO!” we were off! I received lot of cheers, and from there-on became known as ‘Flag Girl’. The grass in the field was really long which tickled my legs – but I put these wimpy road-runners thoughts aside: this was the real thing, tickly-grass and all. We ran around the field and then off along a canal path, so fairly easy terrain initially. Within five minutes I realised I was already in the last four runners, and even more worryingly we were going a full minute per mile quicker than I’d been planning. I started to get a little worried. Cut forward another five minutes and I was officially last place.
Photo credit: Matlock AC
After the canal path we turned up a long track with a continuous steep incline. This lasted practically forever (about a mile) but thankfully I realised pretty quickly that I was much faster power-walking than trying to run; in fact, I actually managed to overtake two people which made up for feeling like I had failed at the first sign of an incline. Eventually an end seemed to be in-sight as I saw runners veering off to the left in front of me – thank goodness! When I got there, I realised the left turn was actually the beginning of a nearly vertical climb through the woods. But I appreciated the variety in terrain, and soon began to enjoy hopping over branches and up rocks, feeling like an adventurer. The two people I’d overtaken quickly caught me up and half a mile in I realised I had lost sight of any other runners.
Running alone by this point I came to a fork in the track: the left turn had red and white tape across the tree which I assumed must mean that the path was closed, so I opted for the right one. Up until this point I hadn’t paid much attention to navigation, just following the other people I could see and trying not to trip over anything too dangerous. If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll probably know that I have an appalling sense of direction, bordering on an actual clinical problem. I think a large part of this is that I pay no attention whatsoever to my surroundings unless I am completely responsible for them, which is a situation I tend to avoid. Luckily I realised fairly quickly why the tape seemed familiar- it had in fact been marking the route for the entire two miles I’d run so far. I managed to find my way back, take the correct turning and even catch up with a few other runners!
Photo credit: John Thorpe
We continued to climb until just after the 3rd mile mark when we finally broke out into open ground and a lovely marshal informed us we had officially reached the top – and gave us a football score update (still 1-0 England – all in all this was going well). I stopped to say hello to a baby cow and take a few photos of the incredible view before getting back to race tactics and tackling the downhill section. This was the bit I really loved: technical enough to take quite a bit of concentration and feel like the real deal, but easy enough to be fun rather than frightening. Once we reached the bottom we re-traced our steps down the long path back to the canal. Being downhill and flat I recovered my pace and began to feel positive about the finish and confident that I was probably going to make it! Along with plenty of cheers and support from the marshalls and spectators I speeded my way to the finish line – where I was met by one of my fellow runners a nice cold cup of water. We all enjoyed the last half of the football (well, apart from when Croatia scored), and I chatted to lots more friendly fell-runners who made me feel entirely welcome. I particularly enjoyed telling everyone that told me that I “definitely wouldn’t come last” that I had indeed come last!
I officially finished 72/72, the first time I have ever come last in a race. But I couldn’t have been more chuffed! I was delighted with my time of 1:10:37 for a six mile race given that I’d had to walk large sections and the terrain had been pretty challenging (it was a mere 18:46:8 off the fastest woman – if only I’d not stopped to admire the baby cows!). I’m sure lots of people will remember where they were for The Big Game; well I was halfway up a giant hill in Matlock, with a pair of England flags strapped to my backpack, running in my first ever fell race, all on my own. And I loved it.
Photo credit: Mark Pollak
As an aside, on telling my boyfriend just how great it was and how he should definitely come next time: “But I don’t really like running anyway, so going running but it being even harder doesn’t really appeal”. I’m working on him.