The race description on The High Peak Marathon website said it all for me:
'The High Peak Marathon is a 42 mile night-time navigation endurance challenge for teams of 4. The route traverses the Derwent Watershed, starting and finishing at Edale Village Hall, Derbyshire. The event is independently organised and run by members of the University of Sheffield High Peak Club, past and present.
The High Peak Marathon can test a competitor's fitness, endurance and navigational skills to their limit. The route is at least 40 miles long and, for much of its distance, the terrain is pathless peat bog. The dark, lack of sleep and winter weather add to the challenge. It has snowed in 4 of the last 10 events. All entrants should therefore be certain that they have the fitness and mountain experience necessary to make a safe passage.'
In an age where long distance racing is being hijacked by companies shamelessly plugging their own events for profit; where every race over 26 miles is seemingly billed as 'THE TOUGHEST RACE IN THE UK!'; where race organisers highlight the post-event goodie bag as much as the quality of the route; where entry fees can cost you almost as much as a Premier League football ticket - it's refreshing to find an event like the HPM. It's understated. It's run over a classic route in one of England's most beautiful areas. It's intimidating in terms of the fitness and skills needed to successfully complete it, yet doesn't need to stoop to hysterical marketing claims. In short, it's one of THE great mountain challenges.
Dave Swift had dropped it into a conversation in the Lakes during last summer.
'Fancy doing the High Peak Marathon, Chris?' he'd said, 'I could get a team together.'
'Love to,' I'd replied.
'Actually, I've something to tell you,' he'd gone on to confess, 'I put your name down in our team for last year's race, but we didn't get a place. Must have plain forgot to tell you.'
Good old Dave. I'd had to laugh.
Fast forward to November and Dave let me know he'd entered a team again. It's notoriously hard to secure a place in the HPM - the entry procedure changed a few years ago from 1st come/1st served to a new system where all entries have to be made during November, after which successful teams are selected by a system too complicated to go into here. To be honest, I held little hope of getting a place. However, good news arrived, via e-mail, just before Christmas. We were in.
Dave's not one for doing things in half-measures. By the time I managed to get up to the Peak District at the end of January to run over some of the route with him, he'd already been up countless times to recce parts of the route. As we'd spent the next month familiarising ourselves with the course, including a long night-time run to replicate the actual race conditions, I'd comforted myself with the thought that there were four of us in this together. The tough and unforgiving terrain of the Bleaklow area was amongst the most difficult I'd ever run in. The thought of being there at night, in winter, alone, was too much to take. There was a definite safety blanket in numbers.
But, as well as advantages, there were also disadvantages to competing in a team. All of these preyed on my mind at sometime before the event. Any foreseeable mishap would be multiplied by four. Falling, suffering an injury, hitting a bad spell - all of these and loads more would be four times more likely. And then there was one other thing. What if things went badly and I let everyone else down?
The night of Friday 2nd March approached with excitement, doubts and question marks.
It's 10.30 pm, Friday 2nd March, in Edale Village Hall. The small building is crammed full of runners and student helpers. A line of bodies wait at a table in one corner, waiting to register for the race. In another corner, teams are emptying out their sacks in front of a team of officials who check off items on a ticklist as part of the rigorous kit check. If ever anyone is inclined to under-estimate the challenge that awaits, the inclusion on the compulsory kit list of a sleeping bag and an emergency 4-man tent or shelter brings home the realisation that this is serious stuff.
By the canteen, providing free hot drinks, sandwiches and flapjacks, stand The Rainbow Warriers (we were supposed to be The Rainbow Worriers, but Dave's 'o's must look like 'a's), waiting for our start-time of 23.33. As far as conversations go, this one is either extremely tongue-in-cheek, or pretty worrying:
Dave: 'I've taken this week off. The pain in my groin and stomach's been getting worse for a while,
but I think the rest might have done it some good.'
Chris A: 'I'm a bit worried about this ankle ligament of mine. It's not really bad though - only hurts when I take a step. Just hope I don't go over on it too much. How's the rib, Ronnie?'
Ronnie: 'Dislocated it falling off a bloody ladder. It's not great, but it only hurts when I breathe. The doctor said no running, but as long as I don't tell him, I should be right.'
Dave: 'Best not breathe too much Ronnie. Try taking a really big one before we set off. What about you, Chris? What's your excuse?'
I have to think for a while. 'Everything seems to be ok at the minute,' I tell them, 'Mind you, hope the pacemaker keeps going.'
We all go quiet for a bit. All thinking the same thought. What the hell are we doing here?
At 23.33, our name gets called, we dib at the start table, leave through the side door and head into the night. The climb up to Hollins Cross is done at a ferocious pace. In the HPM, the 50 teams are allocated a start-time, all at one minute intervals, according to predicted finishing times. The first team leaves at 11.00, and the last at 11.50. This leads to a mad scenario in the early miles. You're eager to both catch the teams in front and avoid being caught by the faster teams behind. For us, and for many of the teams around us, I fear, this means going off far too fast.
By the time we're 4 miles in, I'm shedding layers and holding on. Ronnie's out of sight in front, and the rest of us are cursing him under our breath, and, occasionally, over it.
We're at Lose Hill and Win Hill in no time. A short road section towards the traverse of High Neb follows, and although one of us keeps mentioning that our pace is too fast, our actions ignore our own advice and the pace, if anything, picks up further still. Although things seem to be going well for me personally, I'm glad of a short rest at the Moscar food stop. We've done brilliantly so far. However, I'm cautious that we've almost certainly over-reached ourselves, and I know that the next section of the route - a gruelling 19 mile slog over featureless peat bog - will be the crux of this journey.
On the way from Moscar to Cutthroat Bridge, there's a quietness between us. Ronnie keeps disappearing into the distance and it appears that Dave is struggling with his groin and a dodgy stomach. We climb the heathery slope towards the Wheel Stones in a strung-out line, saying little, passing teams and getting passed. Then, at the Derwent Moor checkpoint, something happens that changes the race for us.
After dibbing, three of us walk off while Dave takes off his sack to grab some foodand put on more clothes. A few moments later, he's still not appeared. Chris calls over, 'You alright Dave?' And the answer comes back, 'No!'
When we go over, Dave tears us off a strip. Now Dave's a good friend and I've spent lots of long days in the hills with him, but I've never seen him so pissed off. He gets a few things off his chest and the rest of us stand, chastised, and all knowing that he's right in everything he's saying. In that moment, we go from being just four individuals running together to being a team. In that moment, a spirit is fostered between us that will see us reach the finish as a tight unit, listening to each other, helping each other through bad spells and working together.
We set off again at a steadier pace, but it's soon obvious that Dave's earlier frustrations have been pushed to the fore by the worsening of his injury. At Lost Lad, he raises the possibility of dropping out, but, aside from turning around, the next bail-out point is miles away. We decide to press on.
On the way to Sheepfold Clough I'm thinking of a conversation we'd had earlier in the night, after we'd all spent a tenner on a race t-shirt. 'That's it!' Ronnie had said. 'We've got to finish now. If we don't I'll have to cut this bloody t-shirt up!'
I can't help smiling as these words pass through my head. I fall into line with Dave as we start the trudge to Cut Gate and we walk and jog in silence together. Then Dave turns to me.
'You see it in boxing all the time,' he says.
'What?' I reply, non-plused.
'There's a point in boxers' careers when their heads go. They lose, and then they get used to the idea of losing. And then they're finished.'
'Right. I know what you're saying.'
'I'm not going to get used to failing,' Dave continues.
'You're not going to not do this, mate,' I tell him. And I'd no doubts at all that he wouldn't. 'Besides, what about those bloody t-shirts?'
We have a laugh and run on, moving well and passing teams again. Dave's worried about his injury, but I give him my take. I've no time for dropping out to prevent an injury from getting worse, even if the cost is a longer than necessary spell of recovery. I go on about my Viking Way run last year. I could have dropped out when the pain started, and it probably would have saved me from virtually writing off the rest of my running year. But I didn't. I finished and I'm proud that I did. This race is the same. One that we've looked forward to for so long and can look back on with pleasure when we're done for even longer. If it means a couple of months rest through injury afterwards, in my book it's worth it.
I don't know if it's the words of encouragement or the super-strength painkillers from Ronnie's medicine bag that do it, but from that moment on, Dave's a changed man. We struggle to keep up with him for the rest of the run.
Making our way ever closer towards Bleaklow, I have moments when the beauty of the journey hits hard. The sky's clear, the moon large and lazy, the temperature well below freezing. The sloppy snowdrifts and knee-deep bogs of our run two weeks ago over the same section are frozen solid. The ground's hard and uneven, but the running's good. The headtorches of teams in front of us gradually thin out, but turning back to face the way we've come reveals forlorn strings of lights stretched over countless miles. There's magic in the air.
Checkpoints come and go, the words of encouragement from the students camped out for the night in these remote outposts, all attired in fancy dress, never failing to lift spirits on the verge of flagging.
None of us have any idea of our position in the race, but we seem to have been drawn into a tussle with a team of four ladies that ebbs and flows incessantly. Over the miles of the Bleaklow section we pass this team, and they pass us, many, many times. Eventually, on the way from Swain's Head, they take a better line, get away, and that - we think - is that.
After a recent run with Dave, Chris A and Our Kid, I'd driven home with Our Kid ranting on about what a great day he'd had. Chris A had been singled out for special praise. 'Jesus,' he'd said, 'He never stops talking does he? You'd think it would be all bullshit, but it's not - everything he goes on about is interesting!' As dawn starts to creep upon us, I realise that I've not heard Chris' voice for a good while. Going quiet on a long run is always a good indication of a bad spell. Soon enough, Dave drops back to me and has a quiet word in my ear. 'Let's try and gee Chris up - he's not feeling great.' As the most experienced of us, I've never had anything but the ultimate respect for Chris, and when he mentions stopping at Snake Road, I don't take it seriously for a minute. All he needs is a half-hour's joking and talking rubbish from the rest of us and I'm confident he'll come good.
Talking crap on a long day in the hills is a skill as important as navigation. All the members of our team are experts at it. After a period of non-stop jolliness that would have driven any sane man crazy, the success of our plan becomes apparent on the run-in to the Wain Stones. Having said little for a couple of hours, Chris suddenly appears revived and launches into a long story involving Ironman Triathlons and jelly babies. He's back. We're on fire. Surely nothing can stop us now?
As we head off Bleaklow towards the Snake Road, we're greeted to a new day. An extra-ordinary dawn waves the night goodbye. The surroundings lose their menace and are sprinkled with light. We run along the Pennine Way, re-invigorated, looking forward to the food and hot drinks we know are waiting at the next checkpoint. Arriving there, we're one of four teams patiently waiting for refuelling. The ladies who we thought had got away earlier are one of them. It's game on.
We spend little time hanging about, and, as the ladies team takes off, we follow close behind. On the flag stones to Mill Hill, we alternate running and walking, catching the team in front and then falling behind. It's now my turn to hit the skids. I hope it will pass, and sure enough it does, but for a half-hour all I really want to do is lay down, curl into a ball and cry.
A little later, we're coming off Kinder and heading towards Brown Knoll. To the left the finish at Edale is now in view. We're almost there. Smelling the end of the race, we chase down three teams ahead of us, including our female rivals, and now I'm feeling full of running. Dave pushes the pace relentlessly and the rest of us follow in his tracks. Up to Rushup Edge and beyond. Less than a couple of miles to go. But misfortune hasn't finished with us yet.
There's a shout behind us, and Ronnie's down, falling heavily on the rough track. 'Arghh - it's gone!' he's muttering over and over, and gets to his feet very slowly, clutching his ribs. An injury like this would lay many a fine man low, but not Ronnie - he's determined that t-shirt he bought earlier remains in one piece. He swears a lot, takes a couple of painful, shallow breaths and he's off again.
Skirting round Mam Tor and onto Hollins Cross, we descend quickly to the road and then the Edale Village Hall's in view. Moments later we're done, dibbing in at 10 hours and 9 minutes - a time that betters the best we'd dare dream of. I'm emotional, I admit.
The sun's shining as we enjoy post-race drinks and stew in the car-park. It's a gorgeous morning in the Edale valley. The words we all uttered at some stage during the night - 'Fuck me, never again!' - seem long distant, and maybe a little hastily spoken. After saying goodbyes and climbing awkwardly into the fell-wagon, I can't help but feel an immense pride in what we - all four of us together - have achieved. There's another feeling too as we pull away on the road for home. Maybe, just maybe, the HPM hasn't seen the last of The Rainbow Warriers.
* * * * * *
The 2013 High Peak Marathon will, almost certainly, be remembered for many years. The almost perfect conditions meant that the records for fastest winning team, fastest ladies team and fastest mixed team were all broken. The full results can be found here.