And they say the camera never lies? Well, it’s not that I’m not grateful to generous George for being there, but really, it’s more complicated than you might at first fully appreciate …
So, let’s think about it a bit shall we? This candid action shot appears to show a moment of running ecstasy. A happy athlete approaching the finish tape (that red and white bit of plastic in the foreground is surely it). You might reasonably assume from her expression of ungoverned joy that she’s almost certainly in uncontested first place, romping home after a nigh-effortless gazelle-like sprint across the hills. You might think that… It would be wrong.
So dear reader, I cannot tell a lie, ’tis I myself in this shot! It is true, in that moment I am truly ecstatic, but it wasn’t so much joy at what I was experiencing, but the other sort of fun. You must know the kind? The sort of fun that is really only evident retrospectively, or, as in this case, the sort of joy that manifests itself when a moment of hell is about to end. You thought you were going to die (even actually rather wished you would but a moment earlier), but instead ‘hooray‘ you have survived this feat of endurance, the end is in sight. You can see relief and support ahead, all things come to an end and this will too.
This snap has captured the very moment of survivor’s euphoria as I came in not in fact first (try not to be too surprised) but last, at the Bamford Fell Race. You can possibly just make out the people in green in the background of the shot. They were the St John’s Ambulance crew at the ready at the finish, probably specially called in to place in case I didn’t quite make it. In truth, I am still processing this event, I think it does fall broadly into the category of ‘I’m not sure if I enjoyed myself but I’d have been dead pissed off to have missed it.‘ In case you are thinking of taking this challenge on for yourself, my highly subjective and slightly traumatized account follows… read on at your peril. First though, let’s calm it all down again with a nice sheep. Got to love a nice sheep, especially when there are no mallards handy, then sheep are a reasonable calming substitute.
So the basics, this was Bamford Sheep Dog Trials Fell Race, late May bank holiday monday 2016. Not to be confused with the Bamford Carnival Fell Race, which is mid July-ish. These are apparently COMPLETELY DIFFERENT events, even though they both start at the Thornhill Recreation Ground and go up to the top of Win Hill and back. They do take different routes though, so I am told. Though each take on just over 1000 feet of ascent, cover 4.5 miles and involve downwards bits that have been described as ‘death-defying descents‘, so maybe I should have done a bit more research in advance before rolling up on the day … Wise after the event, I can provide strava proof that it is actually like this, which is very steep indeed going up thank you for asking. I don’t understand why the elevation stats in my split thing doesn’t add up to 1014 feet, because that is the total on my strava summary and what the event is described as, it will have to be another mystery:
So, let’s rewind shall we, and try to bring about some chronology to this event.
It all started with an innocent enough post on the Smiley Paces Facebook page. Who fancies joining me for this little innocuous sounding fell race, said Fell Flying Smiley. Well, I think I was momentarily distracted by the prospect of going to a Sheepdog Trials, fond memories of ‘One Man and his Dog’ and my Aunt Elisabeth who, alone, ran a small sheep farm in Northumberland and could still vault a five bar gate at the age of seventy. Small country shows. Surely there would be hand carved sticks, a cake stall, maybe even a small hen show alongside? I took in the distance (4.5 miles is definitely manageable) but on reflection, I was a bit vague about the more critical details around ‘elevation’ and possibly the word ‘fell’ as precursor to the word ‘race’. Basically, I was expecting the sheep dogs to be subjected to trials not myself. A few other keenies piped up and before long ‘hooray’ we have a smiley outing. Some nay-sayers predicted torrential rain, but I was optimistic. It might well be a may bank-holiday monday fixture, but I was banking on benign weather on the day, and even if it did rain, it wasn’t going to be cold. Bring it on!
So, on the appointed morning, I cadged a lift from a fellow Smiley, who kindly scooped me up en route. We found our way to Bamford, and despite a brief dip in confidence as to whether or not we’d find the venue as we sailed through the village with not a scrap of bunting in sight, we eventually saw a painted sign directing us off to the right and to a hidden flat field and tennis club (bizarrely) which was the event venue. A smiling aide directed us to where to park, and another had to run after us to tell us ‘not there’ as we found we both failed to assimilate the original instructions and circled into the ‘presidential parking’ area as if we were born to it. A few spins round the grass later, and we came to a stop. It was a bit over-cast, not warm, and I was glad of my long-sleeved top.
It was a short stroll from the car parking area to the event entrance. It was £5 entry, but this includes FREE entry to the Fell Race as a given. A snip I felt. You could if you wished fork out an extra £1 for a programme, but I found it worked pretty well just to wait for my accompanying Smiley to purchase one, and just appropriate it for my own personal use at the first possible opportunity. It was a good programme actually, including details of entrants for the various Sheep Dog Trials, a picture of the obstacles sheep had to be guided through, and times of various classes – hand sheep shearing amongst others.
We got a raffle ticket by way of admission, and we were directed to go off and register for the fell race clutching this as proof of payment. There was already a little gathering of other runners (ooh, actually they did look like ‘proper runners’ not so much turning up in their jeans and wellies as ‘have a go runners’ which was what I’d imagined…). It was explained you just fill in a little form (name, categories, emergency contact) and then joined the queue to collect a number. We did join this queue, even though this was a tad optimistic as there was no-one staffing the table at the front of it. Just as we were contemplating coming back later, an elegantly coiffed and smartly turned out in tweed woman appeared and carefully took our forms and gave numbers in exchange. Yes there were safety pins. There was also a loo, with NO QUEUE. However, word of warning, the interior bolt appears to work but doesn’t. I managed to do a big reveal on one woman whilst she was enthroned (that made her precautionary pee more adventurous and fast flowing than she’d originally planned I bet) so good idea to have an exchange lookout system. I had to fight off at least one other trying to get in and surprise my Smiley soul mate. The problem was the loo was just a solitary cubicle but it was within what looked like a festival set of cubicles, so sort of invited others to climb on board. Anyway, you have been warned. We milled about a bit, watching others registering, and reviewing the map.
We got to have some chit-chat with other runners who had done it before. Belatedly the penny was dropping. This fell race would involve going up a lot of hill, it was going to be steep. ‘Will I need to navigate?’ I asked a runner who was back again for another year ‘oh no, not at all‘ she gushed reassuringly. Before adding ‘oh actually, one person did get lost one year, but they turned up after only a couple of hours so that was ok – gave the organisers a bit of a panic though!’ She skipped away contentedly, I stood blinking less enfolded with contentment, and more engulfed with a growing sense of I’d not really thought this through.
Oh well. Plenty of time (the race didn’t start til 1.00 p.m. and it wasn’t even noon). We pinned on our numbers and went for an explore. There was the obligatory cake stand; a poster competition – school children’s collages for the event; a honey related stand; a sheep related stall; ice cream; burgers; some hand hewn wooden furniture – usual suspects.
That was all background noise though, for the main event! There was a massive flat field with a gorgeous wild rural backdrop, which was the venue for the sheep dog trials. We settled ourselves on some handily vacant orange plastic seating, and watched the dogs being put through their paces. Not really understanding what was going on was probably a bonus. That way we could use our imagination to try to fathom what the objectives were. Also I managed to blag to some extent based on my childhood holidays in Northumberland which did involve local shows and sheep related activities. (We stayed in a tied cottage next to the resident shepherd on a larger farm, and he used to take me out on the moors with him from time to time, plus I’d ‘helped’ with sheep dipping on my aunt’s farm so that makes it practically genetically inherited knowledge surely? My aunt had a small holding with sheep that she ran on her own, she was an amazing woman, could still vault a five bar gate at the age of seventy. I’ve never been able to do that in my life!). Anyway, I could feign a marginally more authoritative tone than my knowledge strictly merited when my only audience was a total rookie to sheep keeping circles. It was great that, quite compulsive. The challenge for one dog to move three sheep through an assortment of gates was testing indeed. I don’t think any achieved this whilst we were watching, not within the allocated time. There was a shift for paired dogs to show off their skills, also hard. Amazing to watch, the dogs keenly tuned in to their herders, the sheep nowhere near as compliant as the film Babe would have you believe. The way the dogs crawled on their bellies or shot of rocket like across the field in response to mysterious dolphin whistles or clicks was astonishing. You can see the inner wolf though, those stalking dogs looked controlled, but still predatory.
I enjoyed this bit. Watching the sheep and the dogs and the people. It was fantastic for people watching all together. It was a snap shot of a very different way of life. The weather was gorgeous. After a while, other familiar faces appeared. Some more Smileys (Yay, can never have too many of them); pretty big turn out for other clubs too. I misjudged this event really. I thought it would be a bit of a laugh with yes, some people doing it seriously, but a large of tail of ‘just the once a year’ typr runners. Not so, this was a fell race that clearly features in some people’s annual racing calendar. That’s not to say it wasn’t welcoming, it was, but I had that sinking feeling early on, that I was not going to acquit myself with glory…
So inevitably, the hour drew near. All too soon, a commentator encouraged fell runners to assemble on a road adjacent to the recreation ground. I slotted myself in towards the back. The sun came out, and suddenly, I went from being just right, to knowing I was going to be waaaaaaaaaaaaaay to hot. I felt a moment of absolute empathy and communion with the heavily fleeced sheep who were romping around unshorn, in anticipation of the hand shearing contest later on. Except in my case, contributory negligence had me decked out in my long-sleeved top and smiley vest over it. There was some sort of briefing, nope, no idea what that comprised. There was the usual clapping, with which I joined in, clueless. Eventually, the cry for ‘awf’ went up and each and all set off their GPS devices and off we swarmed. It was a sort of Mexican wave, which was a race start variant new to me. We surged forward, then halted, then surged for again. It didn’t feel unsafe exactly, but it did feel strange. I wondered if someone had fallen over, but no sign of it. Within seconds I was overtaken by almost everyone (flashbacks to the start of Wingerworth wobble). On the plus side I was still in sight of the pack. On my shoulder was a friendly guy who identified himself as the tail marker. Oh well, at least I didn’t have to worry about getting lost, though I was a bit worried about maybe having to make conversation… on the way round.
The start of the race was flat pretty much, and on solid road, turning off onto a pretty permanent compacted path. It was very pretty actually, and there were some supporters at the send off, including our bespoke Smiley photographer Mr Carman. I’m happy to report he snapped me – and indeed other runners at this juncture. You might make out that I’m just ahead of the guy in the green shirt. Yup, he’s the tail marker, and, for your information, I maintained that position without deviation for the entire duration of the run. So, whatever else may not have been up to par on this occasion, running wise, you have to give me credit for the consistency of my pacing. How many other runners out there that day could make the same claim I wonder? Not many! There is also an incredibly rare shot of my back disappearing into the distance. Very, very few runners have ever seen the back of my Smiley vest as usually it is me bringing up the rear. One day when I get my fifteen minutes of fame this picture could be worth a bit to be honest. To be clear, the copyright is with Mr C, in the meantime you saw it here first.
So off we yomped, cheery enough to start. Cow parsley in abundance, shade of the woods, and easy under foot. The route was about 1 1/2 miles of gently undulating trail. I was in fear of the climb ahead. The sweeper behind me was very kind and supportive. I explained about not being able to talk and run at the same time and he was understanding about that. He was a local, and said he was happy to lope round slowly. He didn’t crowd and kept a bit behind which was good. I did wonder if he had either incredibly poor balance, or some issue with bladder control, as behind me at periodic intervals I could hear him randomly crashing into the bushes on either side of the path. Eventually, (rather later in the run than I like to admit here), I realised that he was simply deviating from the path to rip down and retrieve the red and white tape that was marking the route. This was good actually, as this meant it slowed him a bit behind me. There were a few marshals along the way too, the first of which appeared to completely block a rather charming path ahead instead directing runners by pointing menacingly up a near vertiginous slope towards Win Hill. Gulp. This is where it started.
This bit was seriously steep. It wasn’t much of a path, it was dry, so not too bad in that respect, but you did have to pick your way up, in my case hanging on to the odd protruding tree route to avoid sliding back. I really don’t know if or how lead runners navigated this. Surely everyone would have to walk? It was clambering territory. I might have enjoyed this on a hobbit yomp, but in the race context, right at the back, even though the tail marker was lovely, I did feel under pressure. To add to my predicament, at intervals there were walkers who politely gave way to runners – usually I’d bank on being able to use the old ‘no no, you first‘ ploy to bagsy a brief interlude when negotiating such challenging such steep terrain. I was way too hot, and quite thirsty too. The back marker did say I could strip off if I wanted and he’d carry anything which was incredibly kind, but a whole new area of angst to negotiate so I figured I’d just press on rather than disrobe whilst clinging on to what seemed to be essentially a cliff. In reality, I don’t think the other runners were all that far ahead, but they were out of sight. The climb went on for ever. Eventually we reached a point where it flattened out and a road crossed. ‘Well done, we’re nearly half way‘ said the tail marker cheerily. ‘Kill me now‘ said my inner voice, surely we had conquered more than that?
Eventually though, we did reach the end of the really steep bit. It levelled out, and it was beautiful. Towards the end of the path was another marshal calling encouragement. ‘You are nearly there, hurry up!‘ (I wasn’t altogether keen on the ‘hurry up‘ comment to be honest, but I accept the sentiment behind it…). You then emerge from a wooded path, and looking up to the left you could see a final steep haul to the summit of Win Hill. There were some runners still negotiating this, at a walk in some instance, (yay, these are my people) and I could make up at least one Smiley vest just ahead too. At the top of the hill were a trio of volunteers/ supporters furiously ringing cowbells, which they did for every runner, not stopping until I too had made it. That was pretty darned good to be honest, I think you for your efforts.
I tried to linger a bit as I wanted to turn around to take in the stunning view of Ladybower reservoir, but another marshal was now on my heels. However, I did manage a brief pause as a camera wielding ally called ‘go smiley’ and her companion golden retriever dog gazed at me adoringly. I paused for a doggy cuddle. On reflection, fell flying smiley has previously told me a tale of how mid run she was in need of a restorative hug, and unable to muster the confidence to demand one from a random marshal, she found instead a bouncing dog which showered her with ecstatic and boisterous affection at just the moment it was needed.
I haven’t found a photo of me at the top, but there are plenty of stunning shots of other people to give you an idea. It is a gorgeous route, no question. Actually, I wonder if I could find a way to Photoshop that other Smiley vest wearer to incorporate a black long-sleeved look and blag it as me in the light of a flattering filter? Or maybe I could persuade you I did disrobe on the way up and that’s actually me? It is certainly how I wished I looked at this point in the event, I have a feeling the camera might say otherwise… Also being ahead of other runners could call into question the legitimacy of my claim. Oh well next time maybe…
So I did a solitary lope to the marker at the peak of Win Hill, whilst the tail marker bounded from side to side gathering more markers which had (rather cleverly) been tied around various stones and rocks to guide the way. You’d think at this point the knowledge that it was now downhill all the way might have been restorative. In fact, the immediate challenge was to pick down the dusty, slippery and stony path, and I was not courageous enough to run that, though I’m sure some did. Then there was heather, with hidden knotted roots, and chasms in amongst the peat which I took carefully. It was fun though, it felt like ‘proper’ off road’. After not too much longer, another marshal pointed me towards a downward grassy path. That was my favourite bit. The tail marker was further back, chatting to the marshals, this was a steady surface where you could confidently run, and the down hill gradient gave me the illusion of being super-speedy. Plus you had fabulous views still, and a warm sense of relief that the upward bit was now truly behind. Here by way of illustration is an action shot of my chauffeur buddy smiley at this very juncture. Looks fun eh? (Thank you Jeffs for your shots, I’ve used them freely here, but I promise I did make a donation too 🙂 ).
I did at one point espy another photographer at a point I was definitely cautiously negotiating heather ‘I hope you know how to Photoshop to make me look like I’m running‘ I exclaimed ‘I do, but no need‘ she replied ‘you will be soon‘ and she waited for me to build up some momentum before taking her snap. Not the most flattering of shots perhaps, but as with the opening number in this post, it has the ring of authenticity catching me apparently screaming all the way down… In fact, I have a horrible feeling that if you put all the photos snapped of me en route in sequence, I would have apparently screamed continuously up, along the top, down and through the finish without pausing for breath. Thank goodness I didn’t get lost up there. Imagine having to have all these ‘last seen’ or ‘have you seen this woman’ images broadcast on Look North as people were asked to look out for a screaming banshee on the hillside in an attempt to find me before it was too late. What would my celebrity crush Harry Gration make of it? Doesn’t bear thinking about… I’d never be able to high-five him at the start of a half-marathon again – even if I did get rescued.
The downward route was lovely, grassy fields where other runners were made to look like they were recreating a timotei ad followed. Then, narrow woodland tracks that would be muddy in winter but on this day were dry so you could skip over the little streams of water which were guided across the path with some lovingly laid stone drainage systems.
After a bit you ended up rejoining the outward track, and probably it was just another half a mile or so on the flat to cover before you returned to the start.
The end was a sort of hobbit appropriate one. Have you ever seen any of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films? Well, I can’t remember which one it was. But there was one that went on and on and on, and then just when you thought you’d reach the climactic finish you realised it wasn’t yet, there was another climactic bit, and then another… endless apparently. To be fair, this Bamford Sheep Dog Trials fell race was way better as an experience overall, but, there was a false ending. As you got back to where you started there were a couple of marshals holding some tape across the road, and I took this to be the end point. WRONG. Epic fail. Instead you had to make a sharp right and rejoin the flat green field of the Thornhill recreation ground, sprinting (I use the term loosely) past some attending St John’s Ambulance people, who were sat in canvas chairs by their emblemed vehicle soaking up the rays and the scene. I was so relieved at this point I cornered (captured by the Divine David there especially to record the moment – Mr Carr I thank you):
.. and still screaming, and still maintaining that coveted last place, I espied a swarm of supporters. The great, the good, the curious and the just happened to be there, but it was fantastic. Even a not-seen-for-ages Wingerworth originating Smiley, so that was a nice and unexpected reuinion! Cheers went up, the camera clicked with that opening shot above, Established Squeeze was standing by to offer reviving water, and all the torments of half an hour before were entirely expunged from my memory. I did remember to breathlessly express my appreciation to the attentive tail marker before he disappeared into the crowd.
Maybe this is an opportune moment to say thanks to the whole organising team, all of them. The people who plotted it in advance, the marshals on the day, photographers, supporters, timers and finish line cheerers. The cake bakers, the planners, the route finders, the bell ringers – one and all! You are all awesome and worthy of recognition.
We joyfully regrouped, shared running tales, and made our way to the – well I was going to say pavilion, but really it was more of a shed, where awards were given. There were loads and loads of prizes. I do wish I’d taken a proper shot, as there was a table utterly laden with lavish home-made cakes each wrapped in colourful blue cellophane.
Prizes for fastest men and women runners in various age categories. Prize for fastest local runners. However, most excitingly for our gaggle, a spot prize for the runner whose race number corresponded with their finish position! Reader, it was one known to us.
The prize was a bottle of Rose, which put me in mind of an occassion when a friend and I went out for a meal. We were thinking of sharing a bottle, but then it emerged I only drank white wine and she only red. The waitress, trying to be helpful suggested rose as a compromise. We both glared at her like she was mad. ‘Why would we do that?’ So both of us were equally miserable with the choice of wine presumably. Anyway, good he got a prize for both awesome running and awesome counting too perhaps. On reflection, if I’d known about this I should have registered late and I’d have been a shoo-in for that award, still I don’t really like rose. I reckon the rule for that prize should be that you still have to try in order to gain the award, and although I was definitely last, I did genuinely do my best, which is a bit sad really, but also true. In the circumstances had I claimed it that would be legitimate. I also think if you deliberately got number one with the intention of winning and claiming that prize it would be well deserved too, so that covers both extremes of the continuum.
The sun was out, so we queued for and consumed ice creams. Whisky and ginger was one option, I went for more traditional rum and raison the blackberry having sold out. We had a bit more milling around, including watching some hand sheep shearing which was interesting if a bit rough around the edges at times.
It was good for people watching and run debrief. I am glad I did the event, but I wish I’d understood a bit more what I was taking on as it was more fun in retrospect than at the time, and I had way too many clothes on. Friendly though, very beautiful, and I absolutely lurrrrrrrved the surrounding sheep dog trials, even though I don’t know which of them were acquitted or otherwise, nor indeed why? Though I presume these ones were found guilty: (stole the joke, but it’s worth the rerun surely?)
Nor have I worked out if sheepdog is one word or two… who knows? Life would be dull if we knew all the answers though wouldn’t it? By the way, if you look at the photos that follow carefully, you will spot that the one with two be-vested Smileys in the foreground has a guy behind them who looks like he’s wearing the yang vest to go with the Smiley yin. No really, look carefully! Clue – juxtaposition of red, black and white stripes along the side…
Eventually, sated with ice cream we wended our way back to the car park, and dispersed our separate ways home. A succesful outing I’d say, and one to do again, but with a bit more respect for the fundamental concept of Fell running, which is that you will be required to run up, a lot, and then run down again. It really isn’t that hard an idea to grasp if you just open your mind to it. Actually, don’t listen to me, just believe the evidence of your own eyes! Through the wonders of veloviewer I bring you a graphical representation of each little detail of the gradient for the 2016 Bamford Sheepdog Trials. Hmm, impressive eh? No wonder I felt sick going up! I feel better now, for seeing that!
Learn from me… It was also pointed out to me that I might have finished a bit faster if I hadn’t stopped to greet dogs and look at the view on the way round. Worth thinking about I suppose. I’m also though wondering if I should just accept my fate, and see if I can go for a fell racing hat trick by coming last at my next race outing as well. Also, I have just found out that in cycling coming last is known as ‘lantern rouge’ which actually sounds classy. Plus being last is an important role which someone has to take on. In fact there is a website dedicated to the stories of runners who came last at various events. Unfortunately, I can’t find that right now, but I have found a Runners World forum for Last Finishers Lounge, which is a start. A fairly exclusive group I’d say…. Goals should be realistic after all, and that one is certainly teasingly within my grasp… Watch this space.
Photo credits to the The Jeffs who ask for donations in return for their photos to the Buxton Mountain Rescue. (Does anyone else remember Dougal and The Blue Cat? Wasn’t their a King Buxton The First in that). Their photos were put up on the Fell Runners Association Facebook page. Thanks also to the Mr Carr (or David the Divine as we like to call him) for sharing the sights seen down his telephoto lens at the Bamford Sheepdog Trials, our Generous George celebrity photographer Mr Carman for his offerings and anonymous others from whom I have borrowed or stolen with appreciation, if not always recognition. I do try and acknowledge photographers where I can, so apologies if you have been missed. You can tell some photos are even my own, they are the blurry ones with poor composition for ease of reference. Many other photos have ended up on the Bamford Sheep Dog Trials facebook page, but it seems a little visited resource. Go on, have a look, boost its visitor numbers, you may even see a snap of yourself if you were there!
If you are very lucky you may even have one with as much oomph and Chutzpah as me! Thanks Mr Carr…