In December 2006 I was back in South Yorkshire for my eighth outing at the Rowbotham Round Rotherham Race; an event that was my first ultra back in 1998 and gave me my first ever race victory the following year. It was also the scene of my first ever DNF in 2001, so you can probably understand why I'd developed a love-hate relationship with the event.
My legs felt heavy as I slogged solemnly up a long gradual climb with the cold wind against me. Three hours of running were behind me and I knew it was time to start fending off the demons of doubt which were questioning my ability to reach the finish line.
Thirty minutes later I felt back in command as I trotted along chatting and joking with friends, knowing that I was past half way and moving up the field. But, as my friends bid me farewell (for now) at the edge of the village, I knew in my heart that I hadn’t seen the last of those demons. The honeymoon was over, the nice times finished. One battle may have been won but the war was far from over.
Feelings like those typify my love-hate relationship with this particular race; Rowbotham’s Round Rotherham. Over the years, this filthy muddy slog around the boundary of a South Yorkshire borough has given me perhaps the greatest high in my running escapades: overtaking the clear favourite with two miles to go in 1999 and, much to everyone’s astonishment (not least my own), recording my first ever race win. It’s also produced probably my lowest running low when I recorded my only ever DNF in a race (to date!) two years later.
But even on the good days I’ve had massive lows during the race - I won again in 2003 but had almost given up when highly talented Scotsman Les Hill sailed past me looking as fresh as a daisy while I was suffering from hitting the ‘wall’ with 16 miles still to go. And on the bad days I’ve had massive highs – in 2002 I’d entered with a cold and found the whole day a grind, but was thrilled to be able to muster a sprint finish at the end.
I was in two minds about placing myself on the start line for the 8th time in 2006. Having only been fit enough to run half the course while acting as navigator for Dave Thornton in 2005, and being injured in 2004, I felt that I had unfinished business with the event. But, with only limited training miles due to work commitments etc., I knew it would be hard and that I couldn’t expect to be too competitive. In the end I just thought ‘what the heck, I wont know if I can still do it if I don’t try’. So I found myself outside Dearne Valley College very early on Saturday 9th December, surrounded by a very large and apparently very strong field of other gluttons for punishment.
The change from separate slow and fast start times to a mass start for all runners this year had an inexplicable effect as we started out - the early pace was super fast! So I told myself to resist the temptation of competing with the front runners. The fable of the hare and tortoise is often proved in ultra-distance running, so I was confident I’d see at least a few of them later on.
One of the things I love about long distance fell and trail running is the camaraderie amongst those taking part. So for the first 2½ hours I partook in this, running along at an easy pace, chatting with a variety of old acquaintances and making a number of new ones. There was Martin, a past winner and close rival from my early Rotherham years. There was Kath, who I’d originally met at a run in outer Mongolia. There was a fell runner from Macclesfield who was planning to run the Tour de Mont Blanc in a day next summer. And there was Jenn, a recent immigrant from Canada, who I discovered was close friends with someone I’d met once in America.
Then having grabbed my bottle from my trusty support crew as I ran straight through the second check point, I found myself without company for the first time. So I began to take stock of how my body was bearing up. Apart from a slightly tight pelvis, not helped by two falls I’d suffered earlier, it wasn’t too bad and I certainly wasn’t ready to submit just yet.
A few moments later I came across a familiar figure on the trail. ‘Is there a left turn somewhere?’ he asked. ‘Yes’ I replied as I overtook him and pressed on. A bit curt, you may think. Perhaps so, but this was a guy who’d once stuck to me like glue and relied on my navigation for the last 30 miles, only to try and out sprint me at the finish. So maybe you’ll empathise with my reluctance to be too helpful. Anyway I hadn’t been dishonest; there was a left turn somewhere. There are quite a few left turns over a 50 mile route!
So, back to where this story came in. With the half way point behind me this section to the village hall at Woodsetts, which many use as a pit stop, is a struggle across a seemingly endless procession of very muddy and slippery fields. I was grateful that the weather conditions were near perfect though; cool but sunny and only a slight breeze. And I knew that I’d soon have company as one of my support crew, young Shaun Cooper, was planning to run the last 20 miles with me.
I think most runners will recognise the positive effect that a bit of friendly support on the course of race can have on your performance. But my belief is that this effect is magnified the longer an event is, and the worse you’re feeling. As I topped the steep hill on the approach to Woodsetts village Dave T and Sean were jogging up the road to meet me. All of a sudden I forgot about the increasing level of pain in my pelvis and tightening quads, as I chatted with Dave, getting an update on my (improving) position and discussing my drink and food requirements for the next section. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that my DNF was on the only year I had no support crew.)
I went straight past the check point again – it’s harder to get going again than to keep going in my opinion – overtaking a few more of the early front runners, and pressed on towards Firbeck (36 miles). As it was the point I dropped out in 2001, getting past Firbeck is always a psychological challenge for me. So I was glad of Shaun’s company, even though my ability to have much of a conversation was diminishing. I was also lifted when I overtook current day legend, Mark Hartell (read ‘Feet in the Clouds’ if you want to know about his legendary status), on a long trail through the woods. With Dave, who was driving between check points, reappearing again to run the last mile of the section, dropping at Firbeck slipped from my mind completely.
The cold wind was starting to bite and my quads were really starting to scream as I ran through the exposed fields at the beginning of the next section. The need to play mind games with myself and fend off those demons was increasing rapidly. Fortunately I knew the remainder of this section was relatively short and quite scenic as it threads its way past Roache Abbey. I was looking forward to reaching Maltby too, as I knew the miles remaining would then be in single figures, a definite psychological boost. The prolonged attention of a yappy dog and the delinquency of its owner, who seemed to find it amusing, was also a distraction, albeit unwanted. The pesky mutt was perhaps fortunate that 38 miles of running had dampened my kicking strength though.
With Dave there again to offer encouragement and take care of calorific needs, Maltby was soon in the past. Despite the ever increasing pain in my quads – emphasised by a stretch of road between the trails – there was no way I wasn’t going to finish this thing now, even if I had to walk or even crawl.
It was my mission to run a consistent pace that I could maintain, and try to keep any thoughts of times and positions out of my mind. It was satisfying though to slip past another competitor who was paying the price for an earlier pace. Especially as, according to Dave’s calculations I was now inside the top 10, having been 28th a few check points ago.
There was still plenty of digging in to do though. This penultimate section was perhaps the toughest of the whole course, with a number of tough climbs and steep quad busting descents. Conversation with Shaun had died completely now. I’d disappeared inside my own demon infested head a while ago and he, with the Luton Marathon only 6 days earlier, seemed to be getting increasingly weary too and was falling behind the pace. However, he probably didn’t realise how much benefit I was still getting from his presence. There seemed to be some perverse pleasure in motivating myself to lead the way up the hills.
The last checkpoint at Denaby is always a welcome sight, and probably more so this year because a new start point for the race meant it was closer to the finish line than previously. As Dave replenished my bottle and passed me a gel for the last time, I set off with a spring (albeit a rusty one) in my step in the knowledge that there were only three relatively flat miles to go.
As I ran down the lane out of the village I reflected on how glad I was about a past failure. At work ten years ago I had the task of closing a foot crossing over the busy railway line at the bottom of this lane, and make the situation safer by diverting people over a nearby footbridge. Due to objections from the local community the scheme failed. And with 48 miles of running in my legs, how glad was I that I didn’t have to climb those steps! Every cloud has a silver lining eh?
Running down the tow path of the canal at the far side I glanced at my watch. Each mile feels a long way at this stage but instead of counting miles or hours to go I was now counting minutes to go, and they would soon be in single figures. Although I didn’t have the adrenalin produced by the prospect of winning this year the feeling of knowing I was almost done was still swelling inside me.
With less than ½ mile to go I could see the finish at the college and without really making a conscious effort my pace quickened and I almost raced towards the finish. Although ninth position in 7hr 39m was 35 minutes off my best, I was still extremely pleased with it. There were some damn good athletes in front of me, but there were also some betters athletes than me still to come in!
As I enjoyed a long hot shower and a meal afterwards, while swapping experiences with others, I reflected on how much of the satisfaction in this sport comes from the battle you have with yourself and the course. Of course results are of interest but they’re not so important.
Will I go back next year? Probably not, I’ve nothing more to prove on the Round Rotherham. But there again, it is the 25th anniversary event!
Many thanks go to Dave and Shaun, who were a big help in making it all possible in 2006. And finally, if you think you couldn’t run 50 miles, remember it’s much more likely to be your head telling you that than your body.