Yesterday I took part in an event that was brand new to me in terms of terrain and running ability.
The Hebden is an LDWA event and is billed on its website as: “routes of 22 and 15 miles, catering for both walkers and runners … a tough event with a substantial amount of climbing and … therefore unsuitable for beginners. Some navigational ability is required.”
Nick, our running club vice-chair and resident ultra runner has done The Hebden a few times and as our club – based in flat Lincolnshire – discovered an affection for hill running this year, he suggested we try the Hebden, which promises around 4000ft of climbing along its 22 mile route. I’ll admit at first I wasn’t interested, but after really enjoying cross country this year, and an outing to Mam Tor in the Peak District in November, my husband and I decided on a whim in December to join the group of our Witham Runners heading to the event and managed to get a place.
Although I really enjoy trail running, map reading is not in my skill set so the thought of getting lost in the Pennine hills was scaring me a bit. I was also unsure of what to wear to run in, so knowing the conditions would be close to freezing, I opted for some thin running tights, thin socks (which would dry out quickly when they got wet) with my Salomon Speedcross 3 trail shoes, a long sleeved base layer, vest, thin water/wind resistant Under Armour jacket, and a Brooks windproof top to wear if it got really cold which I carried in my Quechua backpack. I also wore a woolly hat, buff and gloves.
I was nervous as we arrived at the Mytholmroyd cricket pavilion around 7am – a change to the usual starting point of the church hall after the devastating flooding a few weeks ago (the route had also been shortened slightly to cut out the lower, flooded sections) – but after a cup of tea and some hot toast, we headed outside for the “mass” start of around 450 runners. The start was a bit chaotic as we headed down a very icy canal towpath, and then straight up a steep, icy hillside via some rocky steps. Along the tops, the pack spread out a little as we witnessed a magnificent sunrise, and then “splat” – my first fall of the day as I slipped on an icy patch of mud. I landed on my back and the shock was enough to make me cry. Luckily, 3 of my running club were there to help me as I hobbled along for a quarter of a mile or so, until I felt able to start running again.
That fall had shaken me up, and I was fearful of falling again, so every time we went downhill I slowed down to walking pace and would pick my way around the icy patches by standing on the grass at the edge. Gemma and I had agreed to stick together for this event, and as we headed up a track with a few runners following, we noticed a line of runners in the distance far below headed off to our left, and we realised we had missed a turning. After consulting our map, and discussing our predicament with the other runners who had followed us – oops! – we backtracked and headed back to find the right path. We had gone about 1.5 miles out of our way. As we headed down off the first hill, I noticed some walkers were starting to overtake me, and realised then I was way outside my comfort zone and that we had fallen quite a way behind. At that point I was seriously considering dropping out when I got to Check Point (CP) 1, and was in the middle of giving myself a stern talking to when I got to the bottom and saw Gem waiting for me, who had also just fallen. A big hug, and we headed to CP1 for some juice and a piece of tiffin with a vow we would get through this together.
By this point we had lost Sue and Mike after we had taken a wrong turn so our plan was to catch them up, and we headed towards CP2 across some fields a little quicker, meeting three ladies en route who had also set out running but were finding the terrain difficult. We headed down into Hardcastle Crags up a track, crossed a river, and headed back up the valley via the slipperiest, rockiest steps I have ever seen, with a sheer drop into the valley below. I’m not a fan of heights, and this fear combined with my fear of slipping on the ice took all my concentration. We made it to CP2 however and rang Mike and Sue who assured us we weren’t far behind them.
From CP2 we headed across more fields, up a hillside to the highest point so far with wonderful views of the snowy Pennines, and back down into a wooded valley, where we again missed a turning, but again soon righted ourselves and headed down a very icy track into CP3 at around 9.5 miles where there were toilets (hooray!), tea and coffee (amazing!), sandwiches and a vast array of home baked cakes. The best checkpoint ever!
From CP3, full of renewed vigour and (coffee) beans, we ran up the hill to the footbridge to cross a main road, and realised it was closed, so had to do another double back. We then started the long slow climb up to Studely Pike. It was here we realised Mike and Sue had got horribly lost between CP2 and CP3 and we felt helpless because we had no way of finding them. At this point we had been going for 4 hours and had covered little more than 11 miles. Progress was painfully slow; however the end was in sight. The snowy track up to the Pike was beautiful, but another spectacular slip over saw me land in an enormous puddle, much to the amusement of the people behind me. Luckily I was unharmed this time, and spent the next 10 minutes of climbing chortling to myself at what a fool I must have looked, soaking wet through and covered in mud. I caught Gem up at the top and we headed across an icy bog, trying to decide which ice puddles were strong enough to hold our body weight, and which ones may crack. I felt I was walking on a lava field. Coming down off this hill was torturous, with slippery ice, bogs amongst the heather, and huge rocks which could do serious damage if we fell, and it was here were heard the news that Sue had reached CP3 eventually, but was on her way to hospital with a suspected broken wrist.
At that point I seriously questioned my sanity. What was I doing up on the moors, a mother with responsibilities at home? If I broke an arm or leg, how would I look after my family? I made a vow to get down safely, however long it took me. I felt very alone up there. I couldn’t see anyone behind me, and the people in front seemed to be making much quicker progress than me and disappearing down the hillside. By this point I was sweating out loud, and just wanted to get down off the hill. I reached the rocky steps, and slid down them on my bottom, then reached the woodland and more wooden steps until finally we saw CP4 where I profusely thanked the marshall for the sweetest blackcurrant juice I had ever tasted!
Gem and I had already decided we would head straight back from here, rather than complete the full 20 mile distance. We had already done 15 miles after our wrong turns, so we headed down another icy track, and back into Mytholmroyd along the canal towpath to the pavilion where my husband was waiting with a high five for both of us. He’s been waiting so long he had started helping with the pot washing to pay rent.
Emotions washed over me; relief, pride, joy, tiredness, guilt at putting myself in danger. I changed into dry clothes, had two cups of tea and some pork pie and peas, and said my goodbyes to my teammates, and on heading out to the car with my husband he told me he’d had news earlier that my nan had died the night before. I sat in the car a while and cried tears of all these mixed emotions.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the event but I was completely out of my comfort zone, and had relied on others to help me find my way. Luckily, weather conditions, although icy, were clear so that we could see runners ahead and know we were on the right track. I feel like I had put myself in danger up there; I know I could have so easily fallen and broken something, as I now know a few did. I’d like to go back and run the route again in less slippery conditions. It’s a spectacular route with stunning views and incredibly tough hills, not for the faint hearted.
I’ve learnt that I CAN continue to push past my comfort zone and test myself, and for that I thank you, Hebden.
Total miles: 16.7
Total elevation: 2932 feet