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Race Review – Hardmoors 55 Ultramarathon 2020

The Hardmoors 55 is billed on its website as ‘one hell of a race’, and that’s no exaggeration! Following the Cleveland Way for 55 miles from Guisborough to Helmsley, it has over 2,000 metres of ascent (including some pretty brutal hills) and takes in the highest, most exposed section of the North York Moors. Because of this, and because it’s usually in March, the weather always plays its part in the proceedings. In 2018 the race took place as the Beast from the East swept the country and was officially stopped halfway through during a blizzard. Last year featured torrential rain, freezing gale force winds and horizontal hail, and many runners dropped out – including me! The wind was so strong we couldn’t even run on some flat sections. Soaked to the skin and dithering with cold, I’d had enough after a horrible 20 miles that took me six hours. It was the first time I’d ever DNF’d in a race, and afterwards I felt really annoyed about it, even though I know it was the right decision at the time.

This year coronavirus had postponed the event from March to October, and I was back to attend to some unfinished business! The race was run under Covid guidelines, with masked, socially distanced registration, a staggered start, and hygiene procedures in place at checkpoints. We also all had our temperature taken on arrival. The weather forecast was for wind in the morning and rain later on. I felt my training had gone pretty well, so felt reasonably confident I’d make the finish as our group of six set off at 8.48 am precisely.

The first part of the route climbs steadily upwards, and after six miles comes the first ‘peak’ of the day: Roseberry Topping, aka the Yorkshire Matterhorn. My poles came out for the first time here! It’s quite a technical climb/descent, and with runners going both ways on an out and back route quite close to the start, it was pretty busy. The wind was really howling up there, and as I got right to the top (there are marshals, so you can’t cheat) I was literally blown onto the trig point! So I was pretty glad to get down again.

The first checkpoint was at Gribdale, eight miles in. Runners had to sanitise their hands when entering each checkpoint. Masked and gloved marshals distributed all the drinks, so we didn’t have to touch any bottles, and all the snacks were individually wrapped; so it all felt quite safe. I had a drop bag here, so drank my chocolate milk and took my pain au chocolat and sausage roll with me for later! Usually some checkpoints are at indoor venues, such as village halls, and have hot food and drinks, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible this year.

After Gribdale there’s a climb up to the impressive Captain Cook’s monument, then a nice long descent to Kildale. From here there’s a road section that goes uphill for quite a long way and seems never-ending! The second checkpoint was along here at Warren Moor (12 miles), but I didn’t stop as I was well stocked up at this point. The next eight miles or so are some of the most exposed on the course, and there was a gale force wind blowing against us, so progress was a bit slow; but at least it wasn’t a freezing wind like last year. I tried to suck it up and enjoy the views, although I could see the rain clouds coming in! It was also a good opportunity to eat, which is really important in a race of this length. As somebody once said to me “If you can’t run, eat!”, which is excellent advice for a ultra.

The next checkpoint came up at Clay Bank, 20 miles in. I was really pleased to get here, as this is where I pulled out, had my tracker cut off and climbed into the marshal’s ‘car of shame’ last year! This was another drop bag point, where I had more chocolate milk and collected a couple of gels, as I knew eating would be difficult over the next section. The rain also started at this point. Straight after this is the hardest part of the course; the infamous Three Sisters. This is a roller coaster of three huge hills with steep climbs and descents, including a scramble through the spectacular Wainstones. Rocky, technical descents are not my forte, so it was just a matter of taking things steady and getting on with it. The views are amazing though!

Then follows a gentle descent to Lordstones, followed immediately by another huge climb up Carlton Bank. At least the wind had died down a bit by this point!

The next section of the course, towards Osmotherley, is one of the nicest parts, with some gentle descent and pretty woodland. There was another checkpoint at Scarth Nick, just before Osmotherley (28 miles in) where I picked up some peanuts and a chocolate Freddo – haven’t had one of those for a while! From Osmotherley there is another big climb. It was still raining steadily and the light was starting to fade by now. I was still only just over halfway, and felt a bit fed up for a while. As I passed Square Corner at 32 miles, many runners had supporters parked up in cars and vans waiting to meet them. For a moment I thought it would be nice to sit down in a warm van – but then realised it might be hard to get going again afterwards!

There’s another steady climb from Square Corner up to Black Hambleton. Yes, another one! I had to stop and retie one of my shoelaces along here, so thought I might as well put my head torch on at the same time. At the top of the climb, where the path flattened out, huge puddles had formed that were impossible to avoid, so it was cold and soaking feet for the last 20 miles! My gloves were also wet by now and my hands were getting a bit cold, but at least it was possible to run quite well on this stretch, so I just got on with it and managed to warm up. It was pitch black by now, but there were lots of people around so it wasn’t scary. It was nice to chat to a few folk en route. As we entered Boltby Forest I felt quite positive, as I knew Steve was waiting to see me at Sutton Bank not far ahead.

My last drop bag was at the Sneck Yate checkpoint at 39 miles. I had more chocolate milk (magic stuff!) and tried to eat some of my sausage roll, but couldn’t, so cracked on. Or tried to – this was where the ‘fun’ started! The day’s rain had turned all the grassy tracks from now onwards into a mud fest. Trails that I would happily trip along on a fine, dry day became really hard work; so there was quite a bit of walking from here! I was pretty pleased to get a hug and some chocolate from Steve when I saw him. The temptation to just stop and get into the car was huge, because I knew how hard the route would be from here to the end at Helmsley, but I was determined to finish. Steve ran with me from Sutton Bank to the final checkpoint at the White Horse (support runners are allowed later in the race), where a fab crowd of marshals, including my friend Mandy, were cheering people in. A great boost, and the rain had even stopped!

However, there were still about ten miles to go and conditions were so gloopy it took me nearly three hours to cover them. Apart from a few short road sections, everything was so wet and muddy, sapping energy from the legs – it was like wading through treacle in places. When I tried to use my poles to help on a steep, muddy downhill they just sank in and got stuck! I tried to comfort myself by thinking we were all in the same boat. At one point I took a wrong turn that probably added on about half a mile – that’ll teach me to blindly follow another runner! Despite the tough conditions, everyone seemed in good spirits, encouraging each other on and having a laugh at times. I was really pleased to get the last climb out of Rievaulx finished, because I knew it was then all downhill to Helmsley. But when I ran downhill my quads began to hurt! I was really pleased to finish and also happy that I’d made it to the end this time. Unfortunately Covid restrictions meant that we couldn’t wait around and chat to people as we usually would, but had to leave straight away. Our hard-earned goody bags contained a technical t-shirt featuring the all-important Hardmoors crossed swords, plus some heavy, high-quality bling.

My finish time was 14:48:05 – slower than I would have liked, but I think the conditions slowed everyone down. I was 181st out of 221 individual finishers (almost 40 people dropped out or didn’t make the time cuts along the way) and 4th out of the eight FV50s that finished. So not an easy day at the office! At the end I said “Never again!” but after a few days of recovery I’m thinking I could go faster in better conditions. Apparently good weather has been known at this race in the past! And I don’t have a major goal for next spring yet…

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