Skyrunning UK – Peak Skyrace

After hearing Ian Corless getting excited about Skyrunning UK on TalkUltra, I decided to have a pop at it. Alas I missed the first round – the Welsh 3000s – due to work so went straight to round 2 instead. A 0400 drive up to Buxton led to a 0745 walk through the quiet town to the sports field where we were due to start. A field of less than 100 athletes frightened me somewhat – with a number of familiar hardcore UK names, plus some overseas pros involved, I had visions of getting sprinted off at the start and not seeing anyone all day. Worse, being timed out wasn’t out of the question – an 8-hour cutoff for this very hilly 30 miler was only barely achievable at my current poor levels of fitness.

a bad picture of beautiful hills
a bad picture of beautiful hills

A race brief, a little wait for some latecomers, and then we were off – a short lap of the field to reduce the bottleneck on the singletrack and we were on to the hill. So many of us all at once meant we were forced in to a very gentle pace, which frankly was welcome. Climbing through the woods and out on to the hill, we were greeted by the sound of a bekilted piper and the clack of Mick Kenyon’s Nikon capturing our breathless grimaces. At this point, less than 5 minutes in, I started to get quite severe pain in my shins. With stabbing pains on both the climb to and descent from Solomon’s Temple, I considered dropping straight away but a few stern words from the bloke running behind me sorted me out.

The long road climb out of Buxton turned in to boggy singletrack. This is where we first had trouble with the black and yellow minetape used to mark the course. Either some of it had been eaten by sheep, or it blended perfectly with the long grass we were running through, and suddenly 20 of us were standing in the middle of the moor with nowhere to go. I dug out my 1:25,000 for a sanity check and we ploughed on, picking up the marked route again half a mile further on.

At 5 miles, the pain in my legs eased just in time to attempt to breathe in and look like I was running for Mick’s camera again. After almost neglecting to clip my tally at the first control (race head was on, even if it’s a lot slower than it used to be), an undulating track led us in to CP2 and some more water, pepsi and crisps 😀 The day was deceptively hot, with a cooling wind masking the risk of dehydration, and I’d only gone through 1 flask in the first 10 miles so I stocked up and set off up the next rise. CP3 led us up on to the incredibly beautiful Roaches Ridge. I managed to keep a decent pace along the ridge while dodging climbers and walkers – everyone was cheerful and very supportive, stopping to let us past despite my less than terminal velocity at this point.

The ever-chirpy aid station guys at CP6 topped my flasks off and provided more crisps and Percy Pigs with an understated ‘only 3 hills to go’. These hills included Shining Tor and the ‘Peak District Matterhorn’, Shuttlingsloe. The Matterhorn is a triple whammy: a steep climb, including a near-scramble at the top, descending that same hill on tired legs, and the fact that you can see the hill coming for a couple of miles before you get to it! Sheltered from the wind on the climb, the true effect of the sun kicked in, to be replaced by 20 knots of wind coming over the ridge. A quick turn around the trig point and back down the steep sided ridge. My downhill skills failed me and I was down to a stagger – Kilian Jornet descended the whole of the real Matterhorn faster last year – but I made it in one piece. A little bit of route faff coming off the bottom of the descent led in to another long climb to the final manned CP at the Cat and Fiddle pub. The sun had finally taken its toll and this climb was a thirsty one – much pepsi, squash and cheerful conversation solved this problem (I wasn’t carrying any cash so a pint was out of the question) before the final trog up to Shining Tor. This being the second out and back hill section of the route, I passed all of the runners I’d been to-ing and fro-ing with all day. Pretty chuffed I was still in sight of some of them, this gave me the boost I needed to push on to the finish A gentle descent punished my shins a little more but my watch was showing less than 3 miles to the finish. One last long hot hill through the bracken and Buxton was in sight.

I was pretty comfortable descending back in to the town, overtaking the chap I’d climbed Shuttlingsloe with earlier, though I was pretty much out of willpower as I approached the finish for a handshake and a photo. While I’d posted a slow time, averaging barely above 4mph, 7h18 over 29.5 miles, I was happy that I’d run more of the flat than usual. However, there’s still plenty of work to do on the climbing side before back to back Lake District 80km runs in Oct. On the plus side, I got the feeding and chafe-management spot on, and kept all my toenails for the first time 😀

Despite the black and yellow minetape issues (difficult to see in the woods but there was no red and white tape left in the shop – sh1t happens), this was a very well organised event and met and exceeded my expectations in terms of my first Skyrace. While the Peaks aren’t the Alps, the route choice was a good one, including both vicious hills and challenging underfoot conditions. The 8 hour cutoff, while generous in theory, may have over-estimated back of the pack pace on this hilly course, but it seems all the volunteers stayed in place to the last runner – the mark of an RD who cares about his runners! Aid stations were well-stocked, marshals were ever friendly and helpful, and with a slightly shorter gap between water supplies towards the back end, things would have been spot on. Best of all, my ‘large’ race t shirt is actually a large I can wear, instead of the standard 6-8 years size issued at a lot of races. I’ll definitely be back next year with, I suspect, a much bigger field! More details at http://www.skyrunninguk.com

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