Trailing the adventures of an ultra-marathon runner; Sheffield & the Peak District National Park, UK

Limestone Way Ultra

The Limestone Way Ultra is only in its second year but it ticked many boxes for me and some extra boxes thrown in for good measure.

☑ Takes place on a Sunday – some of us work on Saturdays and ‘most’ ultras tend to be Saturdays.

☑ It’s a ‘journey’ rather than just a ‘run route’. I like ‘journeys’ rather than just a standard or made up route. It gives a point to the run, point to point. I like the concept of being ‘dumped’ somewhere and to run back to the car. Because you just have to keep going.

☑ It’s local – spanning the gorgeous white Peak and dark Peak District landscapes which meant I didn’t need to spend a fortune on travel and accommodation.

☑ It’s a route I wouldn’t do alone despite being local. Many local ultras I could just run as training runs, so don’t tend to pay to run those.

☑ Its ‘Timing awards’ gives everyone a goal to aim for, gold, silver or bronze certificate based on time windows to how long it would take you to complete the course. Gold would be sub 9:30 for women which I would like to have achieved.

The secret to reaching your goals? START

In addition it was ‘fully marked’ and had 3 fully stocked checkpoints – not particularly tick box material for me but it would certainly attract those that are running scared of map/ compasses and those that like their picnics (that’s 99% of runners right?)

I didn’t want to tell anyone I was doing this apart from my cats Mia and Tia who got rudely awakened by the 4am alarm clock on Sunday 1st October. Why didn’t I want to tell anyone? Well for me it was a long run, rather than a race. I’ve not ‘raced’ properly for 18 months and I lacked a lot of confidence in my running ability, being plagued with injuries or niggles when I think I am constantly going to break my leg again. I don’t tell people when I am going out for a long run I just go, so on this occasion I just wanted to go, to run from Ashbourne in the White Peak to Hope in the Dark Peak, to have Hope. It was that simple, it was just me and the trails. Selfish yes, lacking confidence yes, afraid of failing, yes but only I care. But it was just about me and nothing else and it felt anonymously good. Unfortunately with the internet it’s sometimes hard to keep things low key especially as start lists are splattered all over the internet so it wasn’t entirely unknown. I was also captured right at the start dibbing in at 7am in the morning. There is no place to hide these days.

So I arrived at Hope Sports Club at around 5am. Milling around in the dark drizzle I bumped into my postman. Not the sort of place you expect to bump into your Postman, (aka Simon). We had a good chat about all things running and all things hilly especially around our neighbourhood. No parcels just solid good chit chat.

We were shipped (well driven) from the finish at Hope in the Dark Peak to Ashbourne in the White Peak passing through a multitude of shades of grey at 5am in the morning. I had taken some porridge in a flask and proceeded to eat that on the coach whilst chatting to Simon some more about all things running and all things hilly. I began to feel travel sick on the way, nauseous and dizzy, was it nerves, or was it the porridge. Cut the excuses and get on with it. I was glad after near an hour to arrive at Ashbourne, get off the coach and rush to the loo.

Registration was nice and easy. Disclaimer (are you fit enough? – who knows!), SI Dibber for the three checkpoints, x2 big maps and off you go.

Runners were to choose their start times within a 30 minute window, which meant you never really knew where you were in the field. I had chosen the 7am slot as I wanted to ensure I would make the cut offs and I knew the fast ‘guys’ (non gender specific) would go for the later slots and I didn’t want to get left behind or go out too fast.

It’s the pace that kills never the distance

We dibbed in, it was a low key affair, no mass start which was nice, very relaxed, dib in (little did I know I’d been snapped and posted on the Facebook page already) and off I went. First through a very dark tunnel where a girl took a bit of a tumble. Head torches came out for that moment. Then 5 or so miles on the very gentle gradients of the Tissington Trail. A couple of the boys shot off and a group of about 5 of us stuck together silently for around 3 or 4 miles. The two girls including myself left the boys and ran alone up the trail. The other girl then took a lead looking a lot stronger and more confident than myself. I let her go; I wasn’t in the headspace to chase her down at this stage in the game.

I was grateful to come off the Tissington Trail, for me it’s pretty but a little tedious, preferring a diversity of landscapes and undulations. Taking a turn off into some delightfully muddy fields brought my shoes to life, hoping over stiles and squeezing through little walled gaps.

I caught up the other girl somewhere after the little village of Parwich, but she soon escaped my sight across some fields and into the drizzly fog. It was forecasted rain but it was still warm and I stripped off my waterproof jacket and tied it around my waist ready for the rain showers later in the day.

Where the route left the traditional Limestone Way trail there were further signs to aid all runners. But it was here I had a blonde moment and I am not even blonde. I had the route GPX on my watch and the watch route looked like it said straight on but signage said go down the road, I ran down the road following the other girl but then ran back thinking I had gone the wrong way, then I ran down again then I stood there feeling lost in the middle of an f’ing road. I didn’t know which way to take, I had brain freeze, what was wrong with me? I was only 8 miles in and not even lost just a brain freeze. I shouted out to myself ‘idiot’ ‘just run’ and ran down the hill, following the proper route arrows. Why did I have brain freeze I do not know. There was indeed another sign only a few 100 metres down the road which took me onto the High Peak Trail. With anger now engrained in my body I ran on picking up speed and slapping myself for being so stupid. I still don’t know why my brain froze. It wasn’t even that freezing as I was still in shorts and tee.

Descending down to a crossroads called Grange Mill, I spotted the other girl merrily running at least 3 fields and 3 stiles in front. One of the crew had set up his van to direct us through Grange Mill which was kind and thoughtful of him. Up a little steep hill the girl in front began to walk, I walked behind contemplating which food I could eat. A nutty bar would do nicely. Round a corner and the official photographer was snapping away so we both ‘pretended’ to run up the hill with big grins on our faces. Round a smelly farm and then up through some more fields we went. The girl in front let me through the stile and I whizzed on waving at the highland Cows in the adjacent field glaring at me precautiously.

Run the mile you are in

Onto delightful easy running moorland, carefully dotted with yellow arrows. The moorland led down to the first checkpoint at Bonsall though it was actually up the village hill to the village hall. Dibbing in, filling up with water, taking on some juice, I was asked how it was going. Good good, yes good thank you very much. Good. The ‘tent’ area was amply stocked with bananas, cakes, flapjacks and gels. I took half a flapjack bar and went on my merry way. Good luck and enjoy they said. I did I said.

The next section contained more sloppy fields, muddy trails and more squeezing through limestone walled gaps as it climbed out of the valley and up again. It was at this point where one of the 7.30am runners came hurtling past looking very very strong, to be the eventual overall winner. I expected a plethora of other runners to come past me within the next half hour or so but in fact only one other came past another 5 minutes or so later (who consequently had to DNF at the last checkpoint).

I passed through some charming but sometimes tricky slippery descents, including greasy steps, cow pat infested grassy patches, and some dubious looking cows staring me out especially when I had to have a sneaky wee or two. Waterlogged grassy fields were tough going, swampy slushy sinking into every footstep. Weighted gates to push open and swing back, gaps in walls to squeeze through – large gates to open and shut, leaving nothing but footprints and fun.

The navigation was immaculate, at every conceivable point there seemed to be a bright arrows hanging from either the stiles, lampposts or other obscure objects apart from cows. In fact the cows looked less startled than the DOE (Duke of Edinburgh) groups who littered the trails with their immense gear and inability to ‘move out of the way’ on a polite ‘excuse me please’.

Pleasant forestry trails followed on from the limestone rocky ascends. The diversity of the route kept it easily interesting and certainly kept me on my toes. At certain junctions I saw the ‘van’ with crew checking we were all ok which was a nice touch.

The checkpoint at Monyash was even better stocked with a plethora of cakes, salty snacks, gels and bananas. It even had the ‘chair of doom’ – anyone for a sit down? No! Don’t do it. I looked longingly at all the cake but wasn’t sure if I wanted any. I am 90% gluten free for too much gluten upsets my insides (too much detail!) but on occasions I will have some cake, and it was one of those cake moments. I picked up some millionaires shortbread, I don’t really like millionaires shortbread to be honest it’s too sickly but you know when you are 26 miles into an ultra you don’t really care what you eat and that’s the time to try new things. All the rules of racing go out of the window when you’ve ran over 26 miles i.e. don’t try anything new on ‘race’ day. Well why not try something new on race day, it was just a long (long) run anyway so why not experiment? What could go wrong? I took one of their gels as well which I had never had before and they even offered me a SIS tablet. Brilliantly stocked up and organised. I like checkpoints because they contain food and I like food and I like a smile and sometimes a bit of positive banter also helps to keep the body moving. Checkpoints also give you something to aim for they help break down the route into manageable sections and have a plethora of treats at the end. Is that why I run?

Hungry for more miles

From Monyash to Peak Forest, the route took my footprints through some more delightfully grassfully swamped pathways. A group of older walkers told me I was first female and only 4 or so people were in front of me. However because we all set off at different times I didn’t really know where I was in the field and some of the girls especially had set off at later times than me. I wasn’t racing I was just running right? No competition head just yet, keep it simple keep it calm. I kept that in my mind at all times. This was not the ‘A’ race it was a ‘T’ race – test to see if the body can do the distance. Just run and enjoy. Right? Yes of course, I wasn’t getting competitive one bit. Ok then, only a tiny bit in my head.

More squelching through some boggy fields added to the challenge. I went nearly knee deep into a bog as I decided my feet were already wet so what the hell may as well get my knees wet as well. Let’s go for a swim instead?

Put on some running shoes and live a little

Just before the outcrop of Miller’s Dale I had some 100 or so sticky steps to negotiate. I counted the steps down, one two three, to keep the rhythm going on my feet and keep my concentration. It was near the bottom of the 100 or so steps that my outer left knee twanged. No not now not the dreaded twinge, aka ITB syndrome. NOOOOO… I talked to my knee and gave it some loving care, squeezed my glutes tight to remind myself to engage the right part of the body and squelched through the next section of woodland which then led onto the Monsal Trail for all of about 2 minutes. A further drop down a slippery limestone slope to Miller’s Dale itself and the knee began to behave again. Phew! Love thy glutes and your knee will thank you for it.

In front of me was a guy who had passed me earlier on. I passed him and said hi. After negotiating my way through a heard of an OAP walking group I bumped into another guy wandering around looking a bit lost. He must have had a brain freeze like I did earlier as there were no arrows pointing which way to go. I told him to go straight ahead and follow the trail straight up. It become even more muddy and slippery especially as we were on the route where 100 or so half Ultra guys had tramped through earlier, churning up the ground into a delightful mush of sticky paste.

Puddles galore, big puddles galore, more mud glorious mud, and more puddles galore created more slush to clad up the trail shoes even further. This was all part of the fun of the playground of this Ultra event. Splish splash crack as my trainers became even more sodden in the soaking ground. I think I loved this. Really.

Run until you fly

Despite the 5500ft of climb it never felt that hilly. Once off the Limestone Bridleway there was another ‘course diversion’ down to Hay Dale. One of the few tarmac sections about half a mile of steep road would lead to the delightful flat limestone valley giving way to some effortless running even 34 miles in. Just before the descent a new type of marshal was on the road side cheering us on – a goat, perhaps ensuring that we all followed the correct route?

Into Hay Dale, it’s a pretty flat (it’s also pretty and flat) concourse of grassy tracks sheltered by a few trees and many a sheep running away as I ran passed. Catch me if you can. Baaa…. as I ran and grinned effortlessly.

The next section was most tricky although flat it ran against a wall, outcrops of little limestone stones and plenty of mud meant most of became a hop skip and jump rather than a run. The narrow pathway went past a farm where I nearly slipped into a bit puddle of cow dung, and then through some more wet fields into the little village of Peak Forest. Getting the jist of this route?

Peak Forest was again very well stocked with all the goodies needed to feed the energy of crazy Ultra runners – a need for the final climb. I didn’t know what time it was but a clock in the church told me it was 1.40pm. Shhhiiittttt I thought…… its 1.40pm I can do this under 8 hours if I get it right. Although there were only 6 miles to go and 1hr 20 may seem a long time to 6 miles there was a good 2 miles of climb and then there was the negotiation of the tricky Cave Dale descent which takes longer to go down than up especially in these unstable conditions. Could I do 8 hours? Could I do it? Hell yes, the brain went into race mode. Three, two one, GO!

I was following the guy who had the brain freeze earlier, and who was to come second overall (5 minutes in front of me in the end). I was catching him on the tarmac’ed road out of Peak Forest as I felt positively stable. Taking on one of the events’ gels which I quite liked I was in my happy place. Over a stile at the top of the road led onto possibly one of the worst conditions of the route so far, sloppy trod down grass, mud clogging trenches; it was a case of one step forward two steps back. I’d run up here a few years ago with ease, but this was like running cross country on a muddy day. Finally at the top stunning views of the Dark Peak Skyline, with the notorious Kinder and Mam Tor shining in the distance made me smile. Win hill, Lose Hill I love a hill. I was home. I knew I was home even though I was 4 miles from home. I smiled. Unless I was to slip down Cave Dale I was home.

Those last 4 miles may be all downhill or flat but not that fast, hold on tight for Cave Dale. Tricky at its best and risky at its worst, with streams of water pouring down the slippery limestone, tip toeing down the polished rock cautiously was the nature of the game. Embrace the terrain and go with the flow.

The last two miles of flowing trails allowed for speedier running, but were not without the muddle and bustle of the previous 41 miles, especially as the ultra half runners had churned up the course even further. I began to overtake a few of the half route runners as I found my last 2 miles of energy. I am not one for using pace as a benchmark as pace is relative to the terrain and your own body, your slow is my fast, my fast is your slow. However I apparently ran the last 2 miles in around 9 minute miling as the body allowed me to surge on forward to the finish.

A sign saying 1km to go just before reaching the road and the village of Hope, gave me all hope that I would defiantly be having my cake (and eating it) when I got to the finish. The final little section on the main road required weaving in and out of the tourists. Just before entering the fields at Hope Sports Club a few children clapped me in; I thanked them as I reached the finish and dibbed in. Boom; 7 hours 42 minutes.

My current situation is not my final destination

Tea a hot meal and cake awaited the exhausted runners at the end. At this stage, I didn’t know where I had come in the field. So far I was 3rd (3rd I said – that’s 3rd overall) but anything could change in the next half hour or so. I composed myself got my downloaded timings, had some delightfully yummy vegetarian soupy stuff and tea and more tea and some cake and told my muscles to stop twitching. An excellent techy tee shirt made for a welcoming change as I whipped off my trail tee and changed into some less muddy and sweaty gear.

/runderful (adjective) – how you feel minutes after you finish your run

Nearly an hour had passed and no one else had come in so this meant that I had actually come 3rd overall (1st Female). I kind of couldn’t get my head around it as I was handed over a lovely engraved glass trophy and a brilliant Alpit Base layer top. Wicked!

The Limestone Way certainty contains the essential ingredients of a successful Ultra marathon in years to come.

Every finish line is a new beginning

Results

Time: 7 hrs 42 minutes

Position: 3rd overall

Gender Position: 1st Femal

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