Should someone suggest getting up at 5:30am and running 40 miles before climbing Pendle Hill, I would tell them where they could stick their witchy fingerpost. However, sell it me as a nice bimble around witch country, with a whole day to do it, and I’m in! This should have been a winter ultra, should have been last year, so frankly any outing, with other people and a number pinned to my shorts was going to be a pleasure.
The Pendle Way snakes its way through lots of lovely little hamlets, Yorkshire Dales style living without the National Park price tag, twee cottages where you can picture 18th century women hunched over a loom, each door a shade from the Farrow and Ball paint chart, and quiet lanes, the only traffic the occasional Ocado van. It’s a world away from the terraced housing, mill chimneys and pound shops only a few miles away. The route is rolling farmland, churches that must do a roaring trade in picture perfect weddings, babbling brooks and charming stone bridges.
I run regularly on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The Nelson-Burnley stretch is a soup of fly tipped rubbish, angry geese and noisy industry. What a joy it is in the other direction! The canal stretch of the Pendle Way is somewhere you’d happily go on a barge holiday. There was even a cheery lock-keeper (surely one of the most desirable professions) who waved despite being busy rummaging in the Elsan unit.
In fact, on a sunny Bank Holiday weekend, everyone I came across was in good spirits. I asked a Nick Faldo lookalike if he was winning whilst crossing a green, “no” he chuckled “I never do; I only come for the fresh air.” Glancing at a line of runners disappearing into the treeline ahead I felt a sense of camaraderie. Even the fishermen we passed at Walverden reservoir were uncharacteristically chipper.
There were 5 checkpoints, all operating under strict covid guidelines. With all the food being individually wrapped, each table was like a free tuck shop of crisps and sweets. (The best thing I’ve ever been offered during an ultra was cold, boiled new potatoes. I would have enjoyed those yesterday just as I would have enjoyed them at an 80’s school disco tuck shop. This says more about my relationship with food than any shortcomings in organisation.)
Checkpoint 2 diverted us slightly off the Pendle Way, as race organisers like free car parks that intersect the trails and ascents where they can snap you looking like a huffing hippo. This took us to the Atom, part of the Panoptican art project which has placed hideous structures in local dogging sites. The Atom looks like a Teletubby bus stop, stinks of urine and is a prime spot for joy riders wanting somewhere to take nitrous oxide whilst admiring the view. Unfortunately, it meant we skirted the picturesque country park and ruins in the valley below.
The journey to checkpoint 3 is perhaps the bleakest part of the route. It is hard trail in the shadow of Boulsworth hill, a place I hate with a passion. I reminded myself, a 10 minute jog down to Trawden would put me on a Mainline bus to home, so it was hardly a wilderness. The checkpoint was a shed, with a kettle and a portaloo. Ultrarunning luxury!
Had this event taken place in February as planned it would, undoubtedly, have been a greyer, muddier affair. I’m sure no-one finished with dry feet, but the clocks changing saved my headtorch from coming out of my pack. After months of bog snorkeling on this route, it was uplifting to trot through fields of lambs, and the daffodil garden of Kelbrook deserves some sort of horticultural gold badge!
Apparently the checkpoint at Higham had whiskey and donuts. I say apparently because I had the blinkers on by this point in the proceedings. I had a vague impression of a Women’s Institute Coffee Morning as I thrust my bottles to be filled and scuttled off. I’d finally reeled in Pendle Hill.
Pendle Hill is one big cairn short of official mountain status. It basks like a whale in the landscape and anchors me to home. It’s one of my favourite places to run and I have cried in the clag enough to respect the beast. I had no desire to get to this point in the dark and wanted to have my wits about me. After several night sweats, it was a dream to arrive in glorious sunshine, slightly buzzy from a caffeine gel, and to find the hill chocka with happy families (though bit anticlimactic if I’m honest.) A dash along the top, a zip down the fell runners trod to bypass the crowds and it was up and over to the finish.
This race is a belter. A proper challenging ultra that just happens to be on my doorstep. I admit I underestimated it, then didn’t expect it to go ahead, so the last minute recces gave me both a wake up call and a few sleepless nights. Would I do it again? Well I am susceptible to both peer pressure and those naff montage videos that race organisers post with copyright-free music, so probably. Best of all though, I’ve a new found (and rather comprehensive) knowledge of this network of paths, and I can run them any time I want (ignoring the ones near Boulsworth and the Reedley Bottom bogs of course.) I don’t think I’ll run 40 miles before climbing Pendle any time soon though…