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I knew this one was going to hurt and it didn't disappoint...
The classic Tour of Pendle fell race is generally acknowledged to be one of the hardest on the calendar at about 17 miles and nearly 5000ft of ascent with many boggy sections, very steep climbs and descents and the infamous drop that is "Geronimo" I knew this was going to be a very, very tough race.
Recently I've been running well, the last two weeks I've done 2 fell races and my climbing is the best it's ever been; finally I can run up hill for a good distance without wanting to vomit or finding religion, but unfortunately, 2 weeks ago I started with an achy left knee. After a decade of knee pain, I hadn't had any in about 5 years since I got some excellent physio treatment that corrected my mis-tracking knees, so to start suffering again came as a surprise.
I had done the Shepherd's Skyline race with no real issues on the Saturday and on Sunday I popped out for 10 miles on the road. Sure, my quads were a little sore, but nothing else. But later that evening my knee started to get achy. Nothing too dramatic, but enough to be a pain. I didn't do much running during the week then I headed out for the Burley Moor fell race last Saturday and I did pretty well. However, afterwards the ache turned painful, like a toothache, so I stopped running, trying to save myself for Pendle. By Saturday it felt ok, providing I didn't want to completely bend my knee or do any deep squats. I spend a lot of time at work on my knees (Bandaging patient's legs, get your mind out of the gutter) which didn't help. I considered pulling out of Pendle, but I'm nothing if not stupid and stubborn and I really wanted to do the race to make sure I had a qualifier in for the 3 peaks. Also, I desperately need to improve my climbing over 3000ft. As soon as I hit that magical 3k foot mark in a race, I tend to deflate like a football kicked into a garden owned by the neighbourhood grumpy old man with a hunting knife.
Anyways, Sophia and I arrived in Barley about 45 minutes before the race, thinking we would be very early, but in fact, the cars were already parking along the road probably a mile out of the village. Pendle attracts 500 runners in a sell-out making it one of the most popular fell races of the year.
A Bit of Shopping
I made my way to the Pete Bland stall and was relieved to find that they had a healthy supply of the waterproof race map. I really didn't fancy carrying around my laminated copy of the low-resolution map printed from the website and an OS map with the checkpoints pencilled in. If the clag came down and I got separated from other runners it could be very, very easy to go entirely the wrong way and end up in a shopping park in Burnley (a fate worse than death) I also grabbed some shot blocs as my emergency food to make sure I adhered to FRA rules along with the full body cover, hat, gloves, whistle, compass, sherpa, donkey and a helicopter.
In the village hall, there was no wait to pick up my number and I went about the laborious task of getting all my kit in my bag and on my person, stuffing flapjack in to various crevices. I spotted Paul and Simon from Fellandale as well as Amanda in her valley striders vest and Mike in his Kirkstall one. Unusually, we picked up our race t-shirts at this point. Again, I briefly considered going home. "No, I've no idea why I'm not on the results, I definitely did it though- look at my t-shirt"
My knee was feeling decidedly average, but my aim for today was just to get around, there would be no racing involved and I figured there would be a fair amount of walking and I wasn't wrong on that front.
Like all fell races, the start was low-key. We trotted along a mile or so of tarmac, then on to a hard packed trail before hitting the hills. Paul went off a little quicker than me and as my race tactic was all about preserving energy and getting around, I let him go and didn't see him again. Patrick was up front somewhere and I never did see him.
Off we went up the first hill, I settled in somewhere in between "power-hike" and "fast plod" And then to the first descent. I deliberately took it easy, the last thing I needed was to burn out my brakes early in the race as I would definitely regret it come the last couple of descents if I did. (By "brakes" I mean my quads) Throughout the race, I kept repeating to myself, "Don't burn out your brakes! Long way to go!"
Occasionally I caught up with Simon and each time he gave me helpful tips on what was coming up. The one that stuck was "The race doesn't start until Geronimo" So I needed to get there in good shape.
Early in the race, I began to get some odd feelings of discomfort in my thighs which really didn't bode well. My knee seemed to be holding up ok though, with only a mild discomfort on the way down.
Then total disaster- my Garmin watch alarmed low battery. Still- never mind, it's generally got a couple of hours before low battery becomes watch shutting down...but not this time, a few minutes later it turned off, dead to the world. Then I remembered that I had my phone on me. People looked concerned as I walked for a bit starting strava on my phone and even asked if I was ok. "If it's not on strava, it didn't happen!" I replied
Maybe because I'd heard all the horror stories but Geronimo didn't look half as bad as I'd been expecting when I stood at the top looking down. I snapped off a couple of photos before heading down.
I trotted down Geronimo not really going hard, but still overtaking a lot of other people. It's important to point your toes downwards rather than turning your foot sideways, which was the mistake a lot of people around me were making. You have to trust the grip on your fell shoes and my mudclaws were coping well, despite the lugs being quite warn down on them.
At some point between there and the next climb, I landed heavily in bog mud. My left leg disappeared straight down to the knee. I went to pull myself out and - Uh oh!- the shoes didn't want to come out with my foot. I curled my toes upwards and pulled again. On the third attempt it came out, but it had had the effect of pulling my heel out of the shoe which inevitably filled full of thick, smelly mud. I stopped to scrape the mud out, then stopped again to re-tie the shoelace as dragging myself out had loosened it.
I was moving well up the next climb and then we hit a long, grippy, grassy downhill. I was feeling strong so I decided to take it a little quicker. I overtook probably around 20 people, who were, admittedly moving pretty slowly as I was towards the back of the field. But then my knee started to hurt. The dull ache turned in to a stabbing pain on the outside of my knee. I tried to change my gait, the way I was landing, but to no avail. By the time I hit the bottom, I knew I was in serious trouble.
I spotted Amanda with a marshall, and she was standing still. "You ok?" "No, hurt my foot" Later I found out she'd had to go to A&E after her first ever DNF. No stress fracture showed up on the scans, but it's suspected. Hope it turns out to be something lesser and she gets well soon!
The quick descent meant I had caught up with Simon and we had a quick chat. "3 or 4 more hills from here," He said, "I can never remember how many" I was really hoping it was 3 (it was) To my relief I found that I could go upwards without pain and I was actually moving fairly quickly and overtaking quite a lot of people. Simon was slowly moving away from me in front.
Going down the next hill was agonising. More than once a very sharp pain stopped me in my tracks and I came to a halt. At the next checkpoint I seriously considering, dropping out. But like an idiot, I carried on up the next hill. I began to overtake all the people who had passed me coming down the hill, but now my knee was beginning to hurt even going up. How the hell was I going to finish this race?!
After the last climb, I had the incredible frustration of not being able to run on the last long, long downhill to the finish. I tried again and again to run but each time I was met with stabbing pain. I was passed again and again by dozens of runners.
Lots of people asked if I was ok, most thinking that I was having a spectacular blow-up, so I just answered "Nope, knee's gone" Most annoying is I still had plenty of energy, without the pain I would have been charging along to the finish.
I managed to find a way to move a little faster- I just needed to keep my knee fairly straight as I bimbled along. The path down the reservoirs seemed absolutely endless. I ran (walked) into Ted Mason. "Alright Ted, don't tell me you've already finished and are now walking it backwards"
"Nah, just off to find the missus. You bonked then?"
"I wish, my knee's gone"
Gone where though? Off to Painsville to the House of Agony, that's where.
The Pendle Hobble
I discovered that I could do a sort of double hop on my right, good leg as long as I landed with a straight leg on my left, so I managed to go a little faster in places. Eventually, mercifully, the finish line approached. By now my thighs and hips were beginning to cramp. I'm not sure whether this was due to the long slow trudge in the cold (I was now freezing, especially my hands in the wet gloves) or if it was inevitable due to a lack of suitable training.
I was in a world of my own, hopping along, so much that I nearly ran straight past Sophia until she said "I thought you must be injured"
"Yep, knee's gone"
Then I hopped through the finish line.
In the village hall, I chatted to JP and gave him the thrill of his life when I slowly stripped off the layers of wet clothing whilst scoffing the bag of midget gems, dolly mixtures, cola bottles and milk bottles that I hadn't touched during the race.
Mike came through the finish not long after me. His ankle had held up about as well as my knee but he was just pleased to have got round.
Later I undressed in the shower to prevent me from dropping mud all over the place. Taking off the socks that had stuck to the mud, that was stuck to my leg hairs was an interesting experience. Then I scrubbed like a man possessed to remove the rest of the mud that was not in my socks and settled into a long bath with a bottle of Desperado (Don't judge me)