Peak Skyline Ultra
If 2018 was all about doing things for fun, 2019 has been all about rekindling my love for running. And so much credit goes to super coach and former triathlon pro Tom Lowe for getting the ball rolling.
At the end of November, Tom agreed to coach me for the 2019 London Marathon and he couldn’t have done a better job if he tried. He had a tricky job on his hands from the off because even when we started the first week of training in December, I wasn’t 100% fit; my achilles was still being annoying and then my right toe of all things started to give me trouble. But Tom kept me positive and always found another way; I had regular dates with the cross trainer and week-by-week he built up not only my running fitness, but my confidence too. By late January I had very much fallen back in love with running.
So what did I do? Of course, I searched for another race for the summer. The idea of going long again had been at the back of my mind for a while. I did my one and only Ultra in 2013 and loved it, but once the triathlon bug bit, it bit hard and trail running took a bit of a back seat.
The criteria was: Ultra, trail, hilly and not too far from home. The Peak Skyline ticked all of the boxes - it’s 48km, with 2,000m ascent and based in Buxton. Plus it was on one of the few summer weekends I had free and even better, it was a Saturday race. So that was it, I entered as soon as entries opened in February and then put it to the back of my mind as I continued to focus on London.
London 2019 was very different to London 2017 when I had far too much fun and felt amazing from start to finish. It was great to be able to share the weekend with Rich and my cousin Jo who were both running London for the first time, as well as Tom and Chrissie too.
But I honestly felt like a total fraud lining up in the Championship start (from my time in 2017). I know I didn’t do the pink stripes justice, but I did just about manage to sneak home in under 3hr30. Not my best, certainly not my worst. Times aside, I took a lot of confidence from the whole build up with Tom, because I had absolutely loved the process and I was injury free.
A month after London I did the Women Can Marathon in Devon which was such a special weekend. Devon is my happy place. Running in Devon is my even happier place. Spending a weekend in Devon doing fun stuff AND catching up with friends…Well in my books it doesn’t get much better. I was able to have some quality time with my dear University friend Ruth and her family. I reminisced with Hannah about our time in Mexico when we worked for the British Council. I chatted away to Jo Earlam, who not only founded the Women Can Marathon, but also helped me on my way into journalism, when I was at Exeter University and she was a reporter at BBC Radio Devon. And I caught up with the amazing Juliet McGrattan who has been so supportive of Fuelled by More Cake and my career change.
The run itself was challenging and beautiful and being a women-only even, there was a completely different, unique and rather lovely atmosphere. For the first time ever I had to stop mid-way through a race for something I would have preferred not to do in a field. I’ll leave that to your imagination. Lesson learnt. There is a good reason I usually give myself at least two hours between Breakfast and starting a race. I was happy to finish in 6th in 4.33 and take home…A plant! And a Fearless 261 prize - thanks Juliet!
A week of cycle touring in Sardinia soon followed with Rich and the wonderful Lozzertrain and Captain Matt. I found some sort of cycling legs by about day three. The pizza and gelato stops were once again frequent and fabulous, but the company was even better.
Next it was a few weeks of panic training for a middle distance triathlon at Cholmondeley Castle. I warmed up for it with The Mixed Team Relay the day before which is probably the most fun you can have doing triathlon. I just about got away with my training, but my lack of triathlon fitness showed and really came back to haunt me on the run! Ouch! 7th F, 5.44.
My attention then turned to the Peak Skyline Ultra. I had six weeks to get ready. First up, I headed up Snowdon with the ridiculously inspirational Louise Minchin, who was herself six weeks out from Norseman. We left early and ran/jog/walked/chatted our way to the top, beating the train and the crowds. It was an absolute corker of a morning weather-wise, and we were both grinning like mad at the top.
Great company - tick.
Stunning views - tick.
Wales highest mountain - tick.
Then it was time to go Peak-tastic. I spent three Saturdays in a row trying to get to know the Peak Skyline course. The first weekend I very quickly learned that the Peak Skyline was going to be a bit of a beast. I only managed to cover 20km in 3h30, and that was avoiding Shutlingsloe and Shining Tor. It was pissing wet, I didn’t have a decent waterproof, my phone ran out of battery (yes, it had the map on.) I got back to the car feeling relieved that I was in one piece, but I was so full of doubt. I didn’t think I had a chance of completing the race within the cut off times. When I got home I said to Rich that I really had bitten off more than I could chew.
Roll on seven days and I went back to the Peak armed with a new waterproof, a hard copy of the map and company in the form of the legend that is Mat Rushbrook (on his anniversary…Thanks Faye!!). We did the southern half of the course, taking in Ramshaw Rocks, Hen Cloud and The Roaches. Both the terrain and the navigation were more demanding than the previous week and while we spent a bit longer on our feet, we still covered a similar distance (20k in 3h45.) Although it was another confidence boost for my ability to read a map (…!) I went home questioning more and more if I would actually complete the race.
Seven days on and it was time for recce number three and a return to the northern half of the loop. This time I had fellow Knutter and 2018 Peak Skyline finisher Gordon Conway for company. We started at 0715 by going straight up Shutlingsloe. No excuses this time! Although it’s only 506m high, it is a steep climb, with some scrambling at the top. I found it tough which was reflected in my heavy breathing. Cue more doubts in my head for race day. But we cracked on, I kept eating, we kept talking. And we were soon at the trig point of Shining Tor. Gordon was not impressed with my shocking attempt at descending as we made our way down the other side into the Goyt Valley, before more ups and downs to get back to the car, just before the heavens opened. We ticked off just under 28km and for the first time, I finally felt like I might have a chance to finish the race within the 8 hour time limit.
Taper week came and went with the typical pre-race nerves and niggles. My hip was playing up, or was that my mind? I thought back to Tom’s coaching and did my final session on the cross trainer, just in case. Regardless, as long as my body played ball, I knew I was in for a long day out in the Peak District.
I arrived at registration and was reminded of why smaller trail running events are just ace. Pre-race faff is minimal, the atmosphere is relaxed, there’s that familiar whiff of Deep Heat in the air, beards and tattoos (not the M-Dot ones) are common place. Heck, you can even pin your number on your shorts.
There were 190 people on the start list. 60 of those would be starting at 0900 and taking on on the 14.5 mile Half Skyline with a 7 hour cut-off . Meanwhile, I lined up alongside 129 others on the school field for the Full Skyline race briefing just before 0800. Richard Weremiuk, the Race Director once again reiterated the tough nature of the course:
“The cut-offs are tight, but that’s part of the challenge. If you are planning on walking this, you won’t make it,” he said. “But if you run the sections you can run, you will be fine.”
He also mentioned a bull. I ignored that bit.
Gordon and I had a quick chat just before we started and he asked what time I was hoping for. I didn’t really have a clue, but thought seven hours might be achievable. Nothing was said about running together, but we went on to spend the next 6 hours and 50 minutes never too far apart. He was a complete and utter star and kept me going all day, so it was brilliant to cross the line together just before 2pm.
The bag piper playing us up the first climb, surrounded by cows - What a sight!
Managing to keep my feet dry for the first 90 minutes
The weather - somehow we didn’t get a drop of rain
Seeing for miles from the top of the Roaches and Shutlingsloe
Amazing volunteers who spurred me on at the manned checkpoints
Proving to myself that I could do it AND finish within the time limit
Not having to map read! The course was so well marked
Getting to the top of Burbage Edge knowing it was downhill to the finish
Rich and my wonderful parents getting to 3 points on the course to cheer on- LEGENDS
Sharing the finish line feeling and a big (post-shower) group hug with Rich, mum and dad
The practical side of things
I was in the minority and carried poles (Black Diamond Carbon Z)…and much to Gordon’s surprise I even used them! I got them out from the bottom of the Roaches (approx 25k in?) and used them on and off all the way to the finish. I was so glad of them up Shutlingsloe and they really helped to keep me moving when I was getting tired.
My fuelling strategy was pretty simple - I had some energy drink in the first litre of water I took on, I ate 3 Tribe bars and a Snickers that I carried with me and then topped up with water, banana and malt loaf at the checkpoints.
I used my Salomon Skin Pro race vest which I have had for yonks, but carried my liquids in squeezy Precision Hydration bottles. Having recced the course I opted to have less skin on show for nettles to enjoy, so went for 3/4 leggings. I’ve also had enough chaffing in my time to know that Helen, vest tops and rucksacks don’t go well together, so a T-Shirt it was.
What a race!
The Peak Skyline is brilliantly organised by passionate people. It’s gritty, it’s boggy, it can be harsh, it can be wild and horribly bleak. It’s lumpy, it’s technical and the tight the cut-offs really do make it a proper test. Take a look at the 2019 results and you will see there are only 83 people on the list! When it rains in the Peak it absolutely chucks it down, so you could be in for a soggy day. But when the weather Gods are onside, it’s an absolute gem.
Next up? The 40 mile Warrington Way in November…but I may well throw in an Olympic Distance triathlon in September, when I am a racehost at Ironman Italy with Sports Tours International. Well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?!