Many years ago a friend told me about this race. He said I’d love it. It was called the High Peak Marathon but it wasn’t actually a marathon, it was quite a bit further than that. He said that it was nearly all pathless, crossed the bogs and hills of the Dark Peak and that it required a lot of navigation between checkpoints and that it was raced in teams of four. He also said that it took place in the middle of the night and that it happened during winter.
At the time, I was a cyclist and being a cyclist left little room for anything other than cycling. As much as I was enjoying the way that the sport can push you to your physical limits, being bound to the road made me feel like I was missing out on the real adventure. The High Peak Marathon sounded more like an adventure than a race. It really captured my imagination. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about running and assumed it would be really difficult. There was only one way to find out…
I went out for a little run around my house and it turns out that for a determined individual, running slowly isn’t that difficult at all. Before long I able to slowly run a half marathon, and not long after that I entered a nice short fell race, then a longer one and before I knew it, the High Peak Marathon 2016 seemed feasible. The tricky part was getting an entry – you have to prove you deserve the space on the starting line.
Assembling the team
I called round a few mates and using my best persuasion skills, managed to assemble the required four man team. The race is not a flashy corporate affair. Despite it’s incredible credentials, and its international following, it is a low key affair. They aren’t after your money, they’re after a jolly good race. We would have to convince them that our team would be able to make a worthy contribution. Whilst we’d not done much running, there were plenty of wintery trips to draw upon.
This was our team…
1. Me (29) Cyclist. Had a lot of ambitious days wearing big boots, wandering around in the mountains many of which have ended in failure. I’d just bought a pair of fell shoes and finished reading Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell Running and Obsession, I must have learned something?
2. Martyn (28) Runner. Been going on reckless trips and challenge weekends with Martyn since we were at school together. He is not the greatest communicator which is good in some ways – he doesn’t complain but bad in others. We argue a lot.
3. Will (28) Cyclist. Been riding bikes with him for years. He knows how to push himself and likes to turn himself inside out if there is a race on. Note the paramedic car and helicopter in the background.
4. Banjo (29) Banjo playing Londoner. Has fighting spirit and is easily inspired but has no idea what he is getting himself in for. He immediately got swept away by the craziness of the event. Note the shiny brand new gear.
Between us we’d done a winter ascent of Mulhacien in Sierra Nevada, Carneddau and Glyders in proper winter conditions, Pennine Way, road marathons, road cycling stage races, complete Welsh 3000’s in a day, Yorkshire 3 peaks fell race, won 24 hour cycling races, rowing races and even won the All Ireland Banjo Playing Championships. I suspect that the main strength of the CV was our enthusiasm and youth, I didn’t expect an invite…
It definitely came as a surprise to receive the Email saying that we had been successful and that in less than ten weeks we’d be leaving the safety of Edale Village Hall and setting off into the darkness at around 11pm on a Friday night in March.
The High Peak Marathon is 42 miles. If you don’t go wrong. It has long sections of trail-less tramping across rough heather, takes part at night time in winter and requires teams of four to navigate their way around an unmarked and frankly treacherous course in the dark.
We definitely wouldn’t be the fastest out there so we would really need to get the navigation right. I spent hours at a time looking at my Harveys Dark Peak map and using a permanent marker, I made a note of all the checkpoints complete with grid references. I split the course into sections and decided that we should practice the navigation around the whole course at least once, even though it would take a lot of separate trips. Then we would need to think about nutrition; the race has feed stops, but our reconnaissance missions wouldn’t. Another big consideration was what kit to take, the race requirements are there for obvious reasons, and hypothermia is a genuine risk (more on that later) but we wanted to be as light as we could safely get away with.
Banjo had next to nothing in the way of kit. After our first recce mission, I sent him this list. You might find it useful. Kit list for HPM
And so each free weekend was spend flying up the M1 towards Edale to practice different sections of the race route. In just a couple of months we saw deep snow, freakishly warm evenings; soft mud and cold puddles; ground that was frozen solid and and winds that knock you off your feet. We had clear nights with moonlight to guide you and dark nights in thick clag where you struggled to see a more than a few steps ahead of you. For the aspiring HPM contender I’d like to share some of the things I learned.
- The terrain is truly ridiculous, especially from Outer Edge to Bleaklow, it’s like nowhere else I’ve ever been. The groughs can be 15 feet deep and if you take the wrong line you will have to cross what feels like hundreds of them in a what feels like a confusing, thick, black, oozing assault course. The bogs at the bottom are genuinely dangerous. One moment the unsuspecting runner can be trotting along and then next he is in up to his hips. Or higher. On one training run, Martyn got bogged so deeply that he sank below his rucksack with only his head, neck and one arm protruding from the thick black slime. As he tried to move, he sank deeper. I think that if he had been alone, he’d have probably been stuck for good and frozen to death in the night. Using walking poles to help, it took two of us a slippery, icy eternity to fish him out and we all got covered in black muck in the process. We were over an hour from the nearest road, it was getting dark and we were lost. Take warm clothing!
- Take at least one spare head torch per group. When the battery unexpectedly runs out because the torch turned itself on in your bag you will start slowing down. Also no matter how bright your torch is, if your mates is brighter, yours will feel useless.
- Carrying water is stupid unless you drink it.
- When you are about to fall, don’t fight it, feel it and go with the flow. Usually there is a soft landing, fighting the fall can sometimes cause the dreaded twisted limb. This happened a lot to the guys who didn’t make it.
- You will fall over. Probably a lot.
- No matter how hard you are working, you will start to feel cold eventually. Be prepared.
- Even if you are feeling fit and strong, a struggling team mate with slow you down and chill you off. Banjo’s first outing really tested him. He went into warrior mode (think gritted teeth, grunting, breathing hard), then slipped into panic mode (“I don’t think I can do this, I need to get down, This is too much for me J” ) back to dying warrior mode, (which is like warrior mode but gently fading away) and finally into full ghost mode (white, unresponsive, shivery and speaking gibberish). When your mate goes into full ghost mode you’ll need a warm jumper to put on.
- Take spare gloves.
- Walking poles should be considered. Lightweight ones like the Alpkit or Black Diamond ones are worth carrying as a team of four is four times more likely to pick up an injury. Especially if you are new to this rough terrain running game. The poles make the limp back to the car more bearable.
- Don’t rely on your phone for navigation. On some nights mine got so cold it more or less stopped working.
- Tie your compass to something. If you find a compass up there it’s probably mine. I lost enough of them…
- Frozen limestone slabs are slippery as hell. And hard when you fall on them.
- Pray for cold weather. Warmer conditions are actually harder work. The ground becomes soft and extra wet. A good hard frost makes the ground freeze and therefor the going is much easier.
- Mountain hares are fast and beautiful and can scare the crap out of you in the middle of the night if you’ve never seen one before.
- Try not to be too hungover before you head up there. You’ll never know shivering like it!
As race day approached I was feeling intimidated. Each night I lay in bed sleeplessly visualising the route, the checkpoints, the distances. I checked multiple weather websites. The forecast didn’t look good, but we agreed snowy conditions were what the race was all about. Sarah started to pick up on how much this one meant to me and was cooking the most nutritious and delicious diet I’ve ever lived off. I was feeling pretty prepared.
On the afternoon of race day, the event was cancelled.
I didn’t know what to think. I was relieved that I didn’t have to put myself though what would certainly have been 42 miles of pain, but also devastated that I didn’t get the chance to see if I could do it. I understand that it was the only safe decision for the race organisers to take, and there would be another chance next year but it really upset me. I was lost for words. I looked for other events, but there was nothing that sounded remotely as good. I remembered that I didn’t even like running, I had just become obsessed with this HPM thing. I was bitter and in a childish sulk I put my running gear in the garage and tried to forget about the whole thing.
But I couldn’t forget. Despite trying my best to distract myself with other outdoor pursuits, by the time winter came around again I realised I would be petulant to refuse our place in the 2017 race. Martyn couldn’t wait, he’d been running more than ever. The problem was that Banjo and Will’s injuries from last time had not recovered much and either they were too traumatised by last year’s training or were more able to let go and move on. So we needed some more team members.
Second time lucky?
Martyn and I asked around. Quite a lot of tough guys came to try out but seemed to keep getting injured. And it turns out that no matter how persuasive I can be, I can’t turn someone into an ultra runner in two weeks. The bogs of Bleaklow are even more brutal than I thought.
It was pretty tight, but eventually we got two new (and I’m sure Banjo and Will won’t mind me saying, vastly improved) team members. This makes our 2017 line up,
- Jamie (30) Just need to get this over with.
- Martyn (29) Probably even more disappointed with the cancellation of last years race. Has been running faster and faster across the bogs ever since.
- Colin (40) It takes forty years to get this hard. Bob Graham Club, OMM runner, magical ability to never get lost and seems to have already been up every hill and crossed every bog in the UK.
- Colin’s mate Andy. (39). Ridiculously fit. Apparently he just got back from a mountain biking trip in the Himalayas where everyone else rode bikes and he ran along behind them. (!!!)
Not only did I need to worry about making it round at all I needed to worry about not slowing the rest of the team down!