The Hardmoors 55 was the second race of my attempt at the Hardmoors Grand Slam, having already completed the Hardmoors 30 on New Year’s Day. This race provided my first Hardmoors experience in 2016 and the wonderful atmosphere prompted me to take on all of the Hardmoors Ultras for the Grand Slam series this year.
The Hardmoors 55 covers roughly half of the beautiful Cleveland Way between Helmsley and Guisborough with over 2000 metres of ascent. Although it is sometimes run in different directions, this year’s race was (as last year) from Helmsley to Guisborough, so I knew the course and what to expect from the terrain.
At the start I felt strangely calm. This worried me a little; was I being overly complacent, was I not sufficiently motivated? Although I had run the race before and knew I could do it, I was also aware that it was not to be underestimated, so my lack of nerves concerned me a little. However, worrying about a lack of worry proved to be an impossibility, so I finished off my pre-race preparations and made my way out to the start outside Helmsley Sports Club. The weather was mild but windy and although I felt a bit warm with my long sleeved Helly Hansen top on, I knew that I would need it once we were exposed to the strong wind on the moors.
Helmsley to White Horse
We were set off promptly on the stroke of 9am and it was great fun to stream through Helmsley with the other runners and down to the start of the Cleveland Way. Everyone was going at quite a pace though in all the excitement, so I kept myself under control and settled into my own rhythm. This year I knew what was coming and sure enough soon came to the inevitable queues to negotiate several gates through the fields out of Helmsley, making previous speed pointless for any but the very fastest runners! We were soon through these though and onto the good tracks of the Cleveland Way, which allowed plenty of room for the field to spread out and settle down. I felt pretty awful for the first couple of miles, a combination of taper lethargy, a bumpy coach journey to the start and a lot of hanging around waiting to go all combined to give me leaden legs early on, but as we came down through the woods to the road near Rievaulx I started to warm up and was feeling good.
I was now feeling strong and starting to enjoy myself. This first section is quite a challenge for a mid-pack runner as it is almost all gently uphill, yet very few parts are really steep enough to justify walking! Today it was also directly into a fairly strong headwind and so I was pleased at the pace I was able to maintain, running all but the steepest climb up a gully before Cold Kirby. The early miles seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was heading past Hambleton House and looking forward to joining the edge of the moors at Sutton Bank. This would also be the first time I would see my parents who had come over from the Yorkshire Dales to be my support crew for the day. Although windy, it was quite a clear day and the views from Sutton Bank were fantastic. I enjoyed running along the out and back section to the White Horse, greeting the faster runners who were already on their way back, before cooing over the extremely cute puppy who was helping to marshal the turn down into the checkpoint.
White Horse to Sneck Yate Bank
I grabbed some coke and jelly babies from the checkpoint before setting off to tackle the steep steps up past the white horse, munching jelly babies as I went. I was entertained by the helpful sign as we left the checkpoint announcing “Not Far Now” (after only 9 miles) and there were plenty more examples of the race organisers’ humour along the way.
The steps here are steep, but thankfully short, so after a bit of heavy breathing I was soon at the top and getting my legs working again to run back past Sutton Bank. This section was glorious, with great views of the runners streaming along the edge of the escarpment, although we did need to stay alert to avoid being wiped out by the occasional mountain biker having great fun whizzing along the trails. A quick hello to the SportSunday photographers and then we were already descending to Sneck Yate Bank, with beautiful views across to the Dales. I was excited to discover that they had pick and mix “strawberry” sweets at the checkpoint, but sadly discovered that I couldn’t manage to chew them and breathe at the same time, so had to make do with some marshmallows instead.
Sneck Yate Bank to Osmotherley
I was still feeling great as I set off up the climb towards High Paradise Farm, although was slightly envious of the walkers sitting outside the tea room as we passed. I was not really looking forward to this section; although it has a certain bleak beauty, the exposed stony tracks over Black Hambleton seem to go on forever and are hard going on the feet and legs. Sure enough, I started to feel tired here and wondered if I had gone a bit too hard early on. To cap it all, we were now treated to the arrival of a particularly vindictive storm cloud, which managed to drench us with a sudden isolated heavy shower. It would appear that this was a Black Hambleton special, as the supporters waiting a mile further on at Square Corner had no idea there had been any rain and were confused by the drowned rats descending off the hill! Thankfully the run down off Black Hambleton got my legs going again and we were treated to a fantastic view of all the cars and supporters waiting at Square Corner. It was a real boost to feel all the support after 8 miles of lonely moorland. By the time I had taken off my waterproof jacket and set off on the descent to Osmotherley and the main checkpoint I was feeling much happier and was raring to go again.
Last year I had been taken aback by the length of time required to negotiate the descent to the village; this year I was mentally prepared and enjoyed the pretty path heading down off the moor and through the fields to the village. I started to think about what I wanted from my drop bag in Osmotherley and realised I was quite hungry at this stage. There was quite a spread on offer in Osmotherley, so I helped myself to a sandwich, plus cake and custard from my drop bag and quickly set off up the hill through the village swigging some coke.
Osmotherley to Scugdale
I might have slightly overdone the food in Osmotherley, so now felt very full and a bit nauseous as I headed up the climb through the woods and back onto the moors. I decided to forget any efforts to run and just continued plodding up and thankfully by the time I reached the top of the climb and had passed the TV station my stomach had settled down and I was able to break into a run again.
I love the view as you emerge onto the moors here, with the ominous sight of Carlton Bank and the three sisters (the three big hills between Lordstones and Clay Bank) looming and then the sight of Roseberry Topping, still a long way off at this point. I was therefore feeling cheerful as I came down to the cattle grid to cross the road and head towards Scugdale. The route before Scugdale descends a treacherous slope with wooden steps put in to help with grip and stop erosion. I had nearly wrecked my entire race here the year before, descending too fast and trashing my legs; this time I was much more cautious and took my time, so I was relieved to get to the bottom and still be feeling good. I was therefore very cheerful as I came into the Scugdale checkpoint, if slightly disappointed to discover that they didn’t have any coke! I knew I would need plenty of energy for the section to come…
Scugdale to Clay Bank
This leg is not only the most stunning, but also the most taxing of the whole course. I have had fond memories of this part of the North York Moors ever since walking it several years ago as part of the Coast to Coast walk, and it never fails to deliver. Four big climbs take you over Carlton Bank and the three sisters, but the really tricky aspect comes in the steep, stepped descents which deliver a real pounding on tired legs!
The first climb up to Carlton Bank went well and I was pleased to be passing people, not only on the climb (not bad for someone who trains in the flatlands of East Anglia), but also on the descents. I have worked hard on my descending and have come a long way from early tentative attempts (often involving a lot of sliding on my backside or four points of contact) when I first ventured into the hills; I still don’t have the descending abilities of a true fellrunner, but was at least managing the steps at something still resembling a run!
Through Lordstones, and I pushed on strongly up to Kirby Bank. I tried to keep working hard over the three hills and by the time I picked my way up through the Wainstones at the top of the last climb I was starting to feel quite tired. By the time I had made my way down the steep descent to Clay Bank my legs had started shaking and were feeling like jelly, but it was reassuring to see that everyone around me seemed to be in a similar state! I knew I needed to sit down for a moment, so sat in a heap on the verge at the side of the road and downed three cups of coke and several handfuls of jelly babies. The sugar rush seemed to have a suitable effect and miraculously within a couple of minutes the shakes had gone from my legs and I was ready to push on.
Clay Bank to Kildale
There is a slight sting in the tail as you leave Clay Bank… Having negotiated all those climbs, there is one further steep haul to manage up onto the top of the moors, before the going becomes much easier on the track to Bloworth Crossing.
I was amazed that I was back to feeling good again and was passing plenty of people on the climb, before managing a combination of run and shuffle for the 3 miles to Bloworth Crossing. The sun was starting to set, but I knew that it had been nearly dark when I left Bloworth the year before so I was clearly ahead of last year’s time. I wondered whether I would be able to cover the 4 miles to the road at Kildale before needing my headtorch…
The knowledge that I was making good progress gave me a mental boost and I just felt better and better as I ran towards Kildale. I was leapfrogging with some other runners here and we were all in good spirits, chatting and admiring the views back over the 40-ish miles we had already covered. I just made it to the road at Kildale before needing to get my headtorch out, which provided another mental lift, but the mile and a half of steep downhill to the village soon knocked that back out of me! I dislike running on tarmac at the best of times and the jarring effect of the steep hill was decidedly unpleasant! I had a last hug from my support team outside the village before they headed off for the evening and then made my way to the village hall checkpoint. Here there was a quick kit check of one item from the mandatory kit list, before I retrieved my drop bag and got myself sorted out. As so often in ultras, I was starting to have trouble eating and couldn’t face any of the delights that the lovely attentive marshals were offering. I felt very mean about my constant refusals! Thankfully I managed to eat the custard from my drop bag and drink a bit more coke.
Kildale to Gribdale Terrace
A persistent drizzle was now setting in and it felt cold emerging from the warmth of the indoor checkpoint. I considered putting on my waterproof, but concluded that I had been feeling warm before going inside so would see whether I still felt cold on the climb out of Kildale. Sure enough I had soon warmed up again and didn’t need my jacket for the rest of the race. As I headed up towards Captain Cook’s monument I was joined by another runner. He was anxious about finding the turn off through the woods to the monument and asked if he could stick with me for a bit. It was nice to have a bit of company, even though I was not very chatty at this stage and we shuffled our way up to the monument together, before he went on ahead. As I made my way down to the checkpoint at Gribdale Terrace I could hear the music from the self-appointed “party checkpoint” and I arrived to a fantastic atmosphere of cheers and ringing cowbells – such a boost at this stage.
Gribdale Terrace to Guisborough
I was feeling tired now though and starting to get into a mental battle with myself. Part of me knew that I was ahead of the previous year and if I pushed on could improve my time, while the tired part of my brain suggested that I could take things easier and still finish in a similar time to last year; you’ve got the 110 to think of it niggled, you don’t want to push yourself too hard…
The gate to Roseberry Topping seemed to take forever to appear and all the while this internal conflict raged on and I went slower and slower. Then, out of the blue, a headtorch emerged behind me and went past. This wasn’t right, I hadn’t been passed by anyone for ages… My competitive spirit kicked back in and I got going again – after putting in all the work to get up on the clock at this stage it would be foolish to waste it now. My spirits were further improved by the stunning sight of Roseberry Topping illuminated by runners’ headtorches and glow sticks; it was one of those moments that reminded me why I do ultras with a beautiful sight that few people will ever experience. I felt back in the zone and properly skipped up Roseberry Topping and back down, leaving a glow stick with the marshals at the top to add to the spectacle.
As I came back to the gate I was momentarily blinded by a very bright headtorch from a runner coming in the other direction; this left me very disorientated and I had to go and have a close look at the Cleveland Way signpost to make sure I took the right path. Now I felt properly on the home stretch as I made my way across to Highcliff Nab, getting my first wet foot of the day from a slight mis-step on a flagstone! Another exciting moment, the marshals at Highcliff Nab and later at the disused railway were still in place; I had expected these to be unmanned by the time I got there – another good sign that I was ahead of time. Now for the final push down through Guisborough Woods; I reminded myself to concentrate as it is so easy to make a mistake and miss a turn here if you allow yourself to relax too soon, but this section had been marked by the organisers to help us spot the Cleveland Way signs and it was easy to follow. My legs were feeling tired now but I kept plodding on and soon made it out of the woods and onto the concrete track. This was jarring on tired legs, but I successfully negotiated the steep downhill before picking up the mercifully flat disused railway which leads into Guisborough.
Just over a mile to go… My brain started to suggest that a mix of running and walking would be sufficient now, but I ignored it and counted up to 100 in my head over and over to prevent myself thinking about walking. A light ahead and a marshal, it must be the turn to the finish, but no, not quite yet, a few hundred metres further and there are the steps that lead down from the railway to the road and the finish. My legs were starting to feel a bit stiff as I headed down the steps, but as I reached the road the brakes came off and I felt as though I was sprinting down to the Sea Cadets and the finish. I made my way into the hall and was thrilled to discover that I had finished exactly half an hour faster than the previous year in 13 hours 23 minutes.
This race truly has a special atmosphere; the organisation is so smooth and slick that you barely notice it and the sense of camaraderie from fellow runners and supporters is fantastic. The challenge now for me is to manage my recovery ready for my third Hardmoors event of the year, the flagship 110, in only 7 weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the very special Hardmoors family, but perhaps not to tackling all those hills in the second half of a 100 miler!