by coach Mark Marchant
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything personally, during this mini break from writing I’ve competed at the Montane Cheviot Goat, and the Montane Spine Challenger. This blog is about the Cheviot Goat (thoughts on the Spine Challenger to follow) and may be a little bit more of a race report than normal, but if you are planning to do either of these epic events hopefully you can take something from my experience which will help your own race.
This strenuous race is a 55-mile Ultra marathon, covering the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. The race is held in December and starts at 6am, so your starting point will be in complete darkness, and unless you’re super speedy you are going to finish in darkness too. The race is named after the hardy feral Cheviot Goat which is the only animal left on the Northumberland hills during winter.
For me this race was part of a bigger plan to compete at the Spine Challenger in January, and whilst the Goat was certainly not a training run, neither was it my A race. Unexpectedly, leading up to the event my training had been going to plan, I had been fit and healthy for several months and could really feel that my strength was building. If you’ve read my other blogs you will know this was unexpected because I usually always have a niggle, or an underlying health issue.
My own coach Kim Cavill had me doing a decent amount of volume leading up to the Goat in preparation for the longer Spine which was only a month away. Because of her training I was feeling pretty confident going into The Goat. With my house not far from the Cheviots, I particularly enjoy taking advantage of the bigger Northumberland hills when I can.
As a competitive fellow by nature I always look at the course records/winning times and work out if they are achievable to me, and if not where I think I will finish in the race. This is one of the reasons I enjoy running and coaching: if you have committed to your training, looked after yourself in terms of nutrition and hydration, and remained injury free you should be able to roughly predict your finishing time through past record times. I was aiming to be racing at the front of the pack, by that I mean top 10% (with an under 15 hr worst case scenario). Having said this, it’s important to have a backup plan, maybe two, as despite being well prepared, fit and strong, you could easily pick up an injury on the day or encounter some horrid weather.
The race itself went according to plan. After breakfast at Ingram Cafe and the race briefing it was a swift start and jostle to find position but by halfway I was well up on my predicted times and feeling pretty good (although I did run out of water). A very quick bowl of soup and a bread roll, after topping up my bottles and I was facing the trail once again.
In the second half of the race I faced a couple of contrasting issues – tarmac and bogs.
Tarmac- I hate the stuff! Barrowburn Farm (which is the halfway point) is followed by 4-5 miles of tarmac until you turn off the road and head steeply up to the border ridge. The road section is gently uphill and really very runnable. But the soup in my belly and the hatred of the black stuff on the road before me had me power walking this section. This was the low point in the race for me and the only section of the route I had not recced. It seemed to take me an eternity to get back onto the trails, and Mark Caldwell and Mark Richardson got away from me here, but not to worry – still a marathon to go and plenty of time to claim those positions back.
The route is a slog from the border ridge, where it joins the Pennine Way paving stones and boggy sections. I was climbing for what seemed like days to Windy Gyle then up to the highest point at the Cheviot summit. Hooray! All down hill from here! Not quite. A swift descent down from Cheviot to the foot of Comb Fell.
Here I faced the second issue – bogs! Daylight was over so I tackled Comb Fell in the pitch dark, now for those of you that don’t know the Cheviots well, on a good day they are pretty boggy, but leading up to the race the weather had been unusually mild and wet. Comb Fell is the boggiest of realms in the Cheviots, and just my luck, on this particular day it was horrific. I think it took me around 2 hours to get from the foot of Comb fell, over it and up to Hedgehope Hill summit, which had me averaging 1mph.
With places waist deep in bog, it’s a strange place to be in in the dark: on a flat-topped hill in the pitch black, encountering bogs every few minutes, feeling desolate and exposed to the elements. At only 5pm it seemed like the dead of night, I was blinded by the darkness, and the fog was reflecting my headtorch light straight back to me. It had crossed my mind that if I got stuck in a bog, I’d have quite a wait until help arrived and could be dead before they ever found me (maybe a tad dramatic, but it feels so isolated up there).
With Hedgehope completed and under my belt, I was on to Dunmoor hill. Here I was searching for some friendly faces and a cup of tea as Team Marchant athlete Peter and clubmate Jenny were manning the checkpoint at the top. I got the friendly faces, one out of two isn’t bad! Once I had passed them it really was all a descent, but challenging still, navigationally. I had been passed on the top of Dunmoor hill by a couple of chaps who I’m sure had used stealth to catch me – headtorches off- but I told myself that I’d catch up to them on the descent (as I’m usually good going down steep technical land).
Sure enough I caught the lads who had previously passed me, who appeared to be having difficulty navigating, but myself being undeniably competitive, I didn’t stop to help them. Instead I scampered straight past and headed down the steep stuff to the farmers’ fields at the bottom. They attempted to follow me down, but after a quick battery change in my headtorch I decided to put my foot down for the last couple of miles. I was chased to the road section back towards Ingram, but once I was on the flat, I left them all behind. It turns out that I had overtaken Mark Richardson on the same section, who had also got lost. I had gained 3 places in the last 2 miles. Happy days. I crossed the finish line in 12.47 and in 12th place, with lots of big names behind me. Not a bad day at the office.
I needed all of my kit on the day, my Montane Spine jacket was worn from approx. 30 miles into the race, my heavyweight waterproof trousers were also called for heading up to Windy Gyle. As well as this I had a couple of base layers and mid layer on. Whilst I was ok, I can’t say I was toasty. The Cheviots at this time of year can be tricky and like all mountains the weather changes very quickly, so it’s best to come prepared for all forms of weather.
I tried my Spine Challenger shoe/sock combination out and despite the testing conditions they worked perfectly. Saucony Koa ST trail shoes with Arctic Dry Xtreme Ice waterproof socks worked a treat.
During the race, I was drinking a combination of Tailwind and Precision Hydration, both containing electrolytes and the Tailwind has some calories in it. I don’t rely on only Tailwind, I eat flapjacks and when possible, normal food such as wraps, cheese and whatever is available from the race organisers. This is something that I have only recently mastered- for the past 6 months or so whilst training and racing, I feel like I’ve never had a sugar bonk or low point in a race as a result of nutrition and I put that down to using Tailwind as a base of steady calories.
Like I said earlier, running is normally a pretty predictable sport. But if I were to do the race again, I would definitely commit to racing harder earlier on, and is one of the only times I would say banking time is a good plan. You aren’t only racing the other athletes, but also the daylight. If I had managed to get over Comb Fell in day time, I think I could have comfortably saved 1 hour off my finishing time.
The event was excellent. The two main organisers, Montane and Cold Brew Events, have got it down to a tee. Mountain rescue and all of the marshalls were brilliant, faultless in fact. In December 2019 I will be racing on warmer trails in Spain but this is an event I would highly recommend.