The Hardmoors 55 is an Ultra marathon event (Ultras being defined as any distance greater than the traditional 26.2 miles of a marathon) covering a route along part of the famous Cleveland Way, in the North York Moors National Park, with this specific event taking in 55 of the 109 miles of the trail including over 2000m of ascent within a 16 hours time limit. One of 16 recognised National Trails in England and Wales, the Cleveland Way is arguably one of the best, covering rolling hills, open moorland, historic sites, picturesque villages and dramatic coast line. The Hardmoors route, like the Cleveland Way itself, starts in the beautiful village of Helmsley, the route follows the Cleveland Way trail around the edge of the National Park finishing in Guisborough – where the Cleveland Way would continue on to the coast and follow the coastline south to right down past Whitby and Scarborough to Filey.
I have learned a lot about kit, particularly in the past year working here at Ultralight, and in training for this event which has allowed me to hone my kit in order to maximise my comfort (and minimise my suffering). The mandatory kit list is pretty extensive as this is an unsupported Ultra distance across some pretty inaccessible parts of the North York Moors in March so winter conditions can still be expected. The mandatory aspect of this list means that you will be refused entry to the race if you do not have these items at the initial registration and kit check. The mandatory kit list includes: Pack; ID; Hat and gloves; Waterproof jacket (with taped seams & hood); Waterproof trousers; Full running tights; Minimum of 1 litre water/sports drink; Torch; Map; Whistle; Survival bag (not just blanket); Emergency food supply; Spare warm layer; A fully charged mobile phone. At first this seems quite prescriptive but many events like this have pretty similar kit lists plus or minus the odd item. My kit list can be viewed here.
Much has been made of the conditions during the event, with many having no direct experience of the event or that day weighing in with uninformed opinions. The weather forecast in the week leading up to the event showed very cold conditions, with temperatures due to be around -2°C and wind chill making in feel more like -12°C. This would have been a shock but bearing in mind our training had taken place over one of the coldest winters I can remember, it was more of an inconvenience than anything. The real issue for us was the wind, with 40-50mph winds forecast from the middle of the day into the evening. Despite what people have said since, the only snow forecast (and I was checking the BBC and MetOffice forecast hourly for about a week!) was a light flurry of snow possible around early evening.
Cold Kirby - The first of many white outs
Descending Sutton Bank to the first checkpoint
A brief window to the beautiful views in between the snow and wind
The morning of the event was cold and breezy, nothing out of the ordinary for March. From the start point at Helmsley Sports Club the route gets straight onto the Cleveland Way, heading west along an undulating mixture of trail, road and tracks past Rievaulx Abbey, through Cold Kirby (which genuinely lives up to the name) and on to Sutton Bank, a distance of around 14.5km. Although the weather was cold and gusty it wasn’t until we got to Cold Kirby that the first icy blast hit us and we were introduced to our first full white out of the day. At this point it was behind us, pushing us along so it was manageable. This first test for many is Sutton Bank, where the route loops around by heading down to the bottom of the bank for the first checkpoint before turning back and heading straight up the hill around the famous White Horse. This is a brutal section for anyone as it is simply a steep 70m climb up the bank using the steps from the car park. It’s near impossible to run or get into a rhythm so you simply have to grind it out and get back into your stride once you’re back on the top. The route then heads north, following the edge of the hill, so you get pretty spectacular views for the next 7km or so to the next checkpoint at Sneck Yate. It was the final part of this when we were treated to another white out. Bitterly cold gale force winds and unbelievable amounts of snow meant hoods were up, buffs or scarves covered as much skin as possible and most were running with their right hand up trying in vain to stop the easterly wind blowing snow into their eyes. The one guy wearing ski goggles nailed it this time!
The next 14km were following the Cleveland Way north towards Osmotherly. Having run this section several times in training we knew how exposed it was with open moorland to the east (also the direction of all the wind, cold temps and snow). The white outs were broken up with patches of glorious sunshine but the winds and sub zero temperatures remained. It was at the start of this section when we left the last bit of shelter that I peeled the ice that had crusted solidly around the outside of my right knee and inside of my left knee to put my waterproof bottoms on. This section is actually pretty easy to run in terms of the terrain but it can feel difficult because it is flat and stretches out, seamlessly never ending. We arrived at Osmotherley Village Hall for the 22 mile/34km checkpoint, well under the time we had planned. It is without doubt that this was the nicest sit down and cup of tea (out of a polystyrene cup) I have ever encountered. Unfortunately for me this was the point I realised that I had messed up my food intake as I struggled in vain to get calories in. On departure I knew I’d have to work harder on eating and drinking during this next section to keep going.
The next 5m/8km section started with a pretty brutal 2km climb up out of Osmotherley. Again we were treated to snow and high winds but this time we had shelter all the way to the top before a short, exposed descent. From there to the Scugdale checkpoint you run through woodland which was a relief out of the weather. Passing the marathon distance in good time we were in good spirits despite what we knew was ahead. The next section to Clay Bank is immense. A steep and unforgiving climb up out of the woods after Scugdale puts you on top of another exposed section, this time crossing Carlton Moor. With a short descent to Lord Stones Country Park this is where things really get interesting. A brutal climb to the lookout on Cringle Moor then allows you to drop down before another short, sharp climb. Then you are faced with the run/walk/scramble up Wainstones. It was this ascent that broke me. Having struggled with food and hydration this was the point that it all caught me out. Lacking energy, hideously cold temperatures and battling the strong winds and blinding snow were compounded by realising that both drinks bottles were useless. The bite valves, tubes and tops of both drinks had frozen solid making it next to impossible to drink anything. I tried running with one shoved down my top but it wasn’t enough. Each ascent was slow and cold, each descent more so. The snow blowing in from the east meant that the rocks and steps on the way down were slippery and difficult to navigate safely. After watching several people slip and hit the floor, then helping one man up who had taken quite a bad fall we spoke about the situation, how we were feeling and the likelihood of finishing. The weather had taken a massive toll on us both and hadn’t actually enjoyed the last 4 miles or so. We weren’t doing this event just to suffer and wanted to look back and enjoy it but at that point neither of us was. With numb hands, and a feeling of cold like I’ve never experienced before we decided to call it at Clay Bank, where we could get straight into a car to warm up. The section from Clay Bank to Kildale started with a large climb then it was all on very exposed moorland and as the dark started to set in and more wind and snow whipped across we agreed that it was the right decision for us. It turned out to be so. By the time I arrived home, having driven through some genuinely treacherous road conditions I found out that the race had been called off for safety reasons and any runners at or arriving at Kildale were being stopped from continuing. This would have included us.
The last time I would feel warm...
Descending from Black Hambleton nearing Osmotherley
Heading across the very exposed Moors
After I had warmed up and managed to get some food and water into me I started to reflect. I swore this was a one off event rather than the start of an Ultra addiction/hobby but not finishing this one after training so hard, for so long, made me think about it again. Despite being proud of my efforts of covering over 33 miles (the furthest I’ve ever done in one run) in the worst conditions imaginable, there was very quickly a sense of disappointment at not actually finishing. Turns out my drive to succeed and complete things is much greater than my memory of cold, uncomfortable, tiring conditions… Hardmoors 55 in 2019 it is then!
A brief rest from the brutal weather
Cold doesn't get close to describing the day
The end of our race - Clay Bank