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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 35 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! At the end I was really pleased to finish, but also happy that I’d made it to the end this time. Unfortunately Covid restrictions meant that we couldn’t wait around and chat at the finish, 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…

As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader here, I’m a big fan of Hardmoors running events. The Princess Challenge isn’t a Hardmoors race as such (in as much as it isn’t organised by Hardmoors legends Jon and Shirley Steele), but is organised by a lovely visually-impaired runner and all-round good egg called Kelly Jackson. It’s a really fun occasion when everyone is encouraged to dress up to run (even the men) and many people get princessed to the max! I first became aware of it when last year’s event took place and thought it looked fab.

The Princess Challenge offers a choice of three distances: the Short & Sweet (8.5 miles), the One in the Middle (17.5 miles) and the Ultra (31 miles). As my Snowdonia Marathon training plan had my long run at 17 miles that weekend, the One in the Middle was the obvious route to try. All distances start and finish at the village hall in Ravenscar and, like the Ravenscar Half, the Princess is supported by, and in aid of, the Scarborough and Ryedale Mountain Rescue Team, who provide so much essential support at Hardmoors races.

Obviously an important part of my race preparation was planning my outfit! Most princesses were plumping for pink, but I wanted something that would match my running kit, so ordered a turquoise tutu costing £5 from Ebay and also managed to acquire an impressive plastic tiara with blue stones from Boyes for a bargain £1.49. I imagined both would become uncomfortably annoying at some point along the way, but could stuff them in my Camelbak when they did!

The weather on race day was gorgeous; bright and sunny with a refreshing sea breeze to keep things cool enough to enjoy. Kit check and number/chip pick-up was quick and efficient, although I had a bit of a panic when I realised I’d left my whistle attached to my Camelbak bladder at home. Luckily a lovely lady called Lauren was able to lend me a spare one. Panic over! Kit checks are very strict at Hardmoors events, and rightly so; although I did wonder if a head torch was really necessary for a 17 mile race in August. The Ultra and the One in the Middle started at 9.15, with the Short & Sweet setting off at 10 am. The Ultra and the OITM both consisted of figure of eight routes, passing back through Ravenscar in the middle, while the S&S was a circular route out to Robin Hood’s Bay and back.

We set off along the Cleveland way in the direction of Scarborough. The conditions were so perfect it was an absolute joy to be running. Unlike the Hardmoors marathon series, the Princess events aren’t fully marked or taped, but there were some marshals along the way, and princessy pink tape was placed at strategic points. The first part of the course was gently undulating along the coast, with the first checkpoint after about four miles. There were three checkpoints en route (more on the ultra), all well stocked with water, fizzy drinks and sweets. The lovely marshals helped us all to top up our bottles. At Hayburn Wyke the course looped back to Ravenscar along the cinder track, a former railway line that’s now a bike and footpath. This was mostly a slight incline, but nothing that wasn’t runnable.

At the halfway point we passed back through Ravenscar, and I took advantage of this to visit the portable loos outside the village hall – what a mid-race luxury! The route then went out along the cinder track on the other side of the village, towards Robin Hood’s Bay – in effect following the Short & Sweet circuit. This was a brilliant section; a gentle downhill with fabulous coastal views for pretty much five miles – the sort of running you dream about! I chatted to various people along the way and had a great time. My tutu and tiara turned out to be surprisingly comfortable and it was easy to forget I was wearing them. Sometimes I wondered why other path users were smiling at all the runners, then I’d suddenly remember we were princesses! Unfortunately on a circular route, what goes down must also go up, so from Robin Hood’s Bay the route was pretty much uphill all the way back to Ravenscar! Some of this was up steps, which I quite like because I think you seem to gain height more easily and quickly this way than walking up an incline.

The sea views were still amazing though, and there was lots of friendly camaraderie along the way. However, a couple of miles from the finish I found myself alone when I came to a junction in the path where the Cleveland Way went off to the left. Going straight on seemed a more direct way back to Ravenscar to me, but I’d asked a marshal at the Robin Hood’s Bay checkpoint if we just followed the Cleveland Way all the way to the end and he told me we did; so I merrily climbed over a stile and trotted off to the left across a grassy field. Just as I got to the other side I heard voices behind me, and saw two girls waving and shouting at me “You’ve gone the wrong way”! So back I went, very grateful that they’d spotted me. My instincts had been right after all, which is most unusual, as I’m usually pretty navigationally challenged. I think my little detour added over half a mile to the distance, but as I was just using this event as a training exercise I wasn’t really bothered.

After a few miles of climbing it was good to get to the end. The best thing about the Princess is the glitzy finisher’s medal and t-shirt – both are super sparkly!

The post-race refreshments were pretty good too, with chip butties, hot drinks and masses of cake available in the village hall. We also got a goody bag of sweeties!

I’m not sure what my official time was, but I timed myself at around 3:45. No results seem to be available yet, which seems a bit odd over a week later, as we were all wearing timing chips. But all in all the Princess was a top day out, and I’ll definitely come back next year if I can. I’m looking forward to returning to Ravenscar later this month for the North York Moors edition of the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series. I’m doing the marathon distance and it’s on my birthday, so what better excuse to eat All The Cake!