Mr Sparkle’s Dark ‘Un

Much like riding my bike at night, running in the dark is pretty normal for me. With very little opportunities for getting out in daylight, most of my exercise is done with the aid of lights – handlebar, helmet or head mounted. When Simon told me he was going to organise a night-time fell race, I knew it was going to be my kind of an event.

The weather could not have been any better. Under a completely clear sky, 60 or so runners lined up on a bridleway at the foot of a seemingly never-ending climb (mainly because nobody could see the top) somewhere near Darwen. Waiting for Simon to start the race, I looked around and gave myself a pat on the back for wearing full-length running tights and long sleeves – the lads who were wearing vests and shorts were starting to shiver in the not-quite-freezing-but-not-far-off temperatures. They’d soon warm up once we got on our way.

Some were wearing headtorches – some were expensive and very bright, some weren’t very bright at all. At least one runner was wearing his cycling helmet with a lamp attached, complete with battery stuffed in a rucksack. Most were ‘doing this sort of thing’ for the first time ever.

Simon’s novelty megaphone played a little ditty to signal the start and we were off. As usual, quite a few runners went off like a shot while I did my usual routine of spending the first mile or so warming up and waiting for my lungs to get used to the sudden rush of cold air. The route climbed up the rocky and often muddy track from Tockholes for two or three miles to the top of Darwen Moor where the mud and lack of drainage gave the race a whole new set of challenges – namely, how to spot the deep puddles, how to find a path around or over them in the darkness and how many leaps of faith you were prepared to take in order to take the most direct route.

I did ok, considering. Only stepping into thigh-deep bogs on two occasions I made up a few places. I was doing pretty well in fact – my experience of running offroad at night was paying off.

A quick hello to Will who was marshalling at the top of the moor, the route then started to descend. Normally, this is where I get my arsed kicked in a fell race. Often I’m a nervous descender, the result of a few too many ankle sprains in the past. In fact, shortly after beginning my descent I went over on my ankle – not quite a sprain and not quite enough to make me stop running but painful enough for me to let out a girly squeak.

Instead of getting my arse kicked though, many others in the race were evidently adjusting their speed downhill due to the darkness and nobody went past me for the full length of the rocky track back to the finish line.

pic: Sportsunday

I finished in a quite-good-for-me 18th place, almost 10 minutes behind the winner but a satisfying result all the same. More night time fell races please!

After some finish line banter, everyone was treated to free chip butties at the Royal Hotel in Tockholes, Simon held the presentation in the beer garden and everyone quite rightly thanked him for pulling this brilliant event together. It’ll be bigger next year – make sure you do it.

Winter Hill fell race

Each winter, I attempt to turn myself into a runner. I’m never going to be a ‘fast’ runner because I never completely focus on it and I’m not really the right shape for it either (this is an assumption based on the number of super-skinny blokes you see in fell races), but it does help me to avoid things getting monotonous in the darker months and helps me to keep my fitness.

When I realised that my chances of actually taking part in Hit the North were pretty much nil, I decided to enter a ‘big’ fell race so that I’d at least be motivated on my running. The Winter Hill race is ideal – long at 11-ish miles, very hilly, reasonably epic and local. Oh, and a fiver to enter.

At the start of this year’s Winter Hill fell race I was having a wee up against a fence. Obviously I hastily finished my business and joined the rapidly-moving pack towards the back. It wouldn’t matter, there’s plenty of uphill in this race so I’d be able to gain loads of places.

Unfortunately this plan was thwarted by the fact that many of the climbs were covered in ice, meaning that long periods of time were spent in a single-file procession. At times it was impossible (for me) to pass runners (and often, walkers) in front because a venture off the grass onto the main track would result in an instant slip onto one’s arse.

Constantly thinking about my pathetically-weak ankles on the descents, I negotiated the ice as best I could and tried to push it a bit on the climbs.

call me 'Bez' again and I'll be well peeved

I’d been worried about the ‘navigation skills required’ stipulation on the FRA website in the past week. I can’t find my way around on featureless moors at the best of times. ‘You’ll be reet as long as the clag doesn’t come down’, Simon tried to reassure me. The ‘clag’ did come down and visibility through the fog was down to a few metres at times. My plan was to follow someone else, basically.

Unfortunately the group I was following went the wrong way, realising the error some distance away from the go-wrong point. This meant a detour across another featureless moor, an extra climb and I reckon a bonus mile-and-a-bit. Fantastic.

Finally I reached the finish after 2 hours-something. I tucked into a couple of pretty waterlogged free sandwiches and spoke to Vince who told me I was 93rd  (yes, ninety-bloody-third!)…not spectacular at all but in reality pretty much where I expected to be, right in the middle. Looking at the results, a woman I passed with around 3 miles to go evidently didn’t go the wrong way and finished about 30 places ahead of me – doh!

So, I’ve done some running in the winter and I’ve done a race. Normally, that would be that. I’d go back to cycling and think about running again in the autumn….but we’re not quite done yet. ‘Mr Sparkle’s Dark Un’ is in a couple of weeks – Simon’s night time fell race. It’s going to be a humdinger, I tell thee…




Hit the North 3

pic: Sportsunday

Two 5am starts and a 14 hour ‘shift’ to set up the course on the day before the race is no way to look good for the cameras or deal with the constant, intense commotion and plate-spinning needed to run a successful event. But I arrived at Philips Park at 6am on Saturday morning almost completely worn-out. Hopefully today would be trouble-free, everyone would arrive, have a nice time, cheer and clap and then we’d clear up the mess in about an hour and I’d be home in time for tea. No problems. No mishaps.

Everything. Like. Clockwork.

Honk if you're knackered

pic: Jo Allen

One thing was a definite – the course was going to be amazing. The wet weather of recent weeks had been replaced with sub-zero temperatures and normally muddy sections, sometimes barely rideable, were lightning quick. I rode a swift lap before dawn and genuinely envied the people who would be riding this for a couple of hours at full-tilt in the daylight.

We were having a youth race this time. I’d arranged with a few mates that they’d arrive early-doors to dig me out of the shit and marshal it. So it came to pass that Lee, Dave, Wayne, Phil, Budge and others positioned themselves in the places marked with a smiley on the course map and marvelled at the youngsters ‘rip it up’. One or two of them really were ripping it up and were scarily quick. Brilliant to watch and a really nice bunch of guys and girls, youth racing will be a regular HTN feature from now on.

Other Friends Of Hit the North (my dad, the two Simons, Andrew the traffic cop, Tony, Deb, Jenny and others) showed up early to lend a hand with the rapidly-filling site.

The senior race this year was going to be our biggest in terms of numbers in our history (apart from that massive 12 hour race we did when we were quite a lot stupider) and the large number of people, bikes, cars and vans needed managing properly and was taking a great deal of concentration by all involved. We’d stepped things up this year, pushing the event into new territory and taking full advantage of our experience, contacts and know-how. Andrew and I are far from experts, but we can put on a hell of a show.

The hustle and bustle was all going on while the youth race was being started and was in progress. As usual, it felt like were walking the fine line between magnificent success and ‘a bit of a cock up’ but we were getting away with it.

Down the hill to the start of the main event. One of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done happened right then – and all I was doing was balancing on a wooden fence, shouting 3,2,1 and holding aloft a novelty airhorn. Almost 300 riders tore off up the hill (well, some of them did) and that was it. Me and Andrew had done our bit for now (well, apart from giving prizes to the youths who would christen our new podium).

The blue touchpaper had been lit on months of planning and preparation and now it was up to each individual to do their bit for the next 2-and-a-bit hours until the hectic period just before and after the end of the race….

pic: Mike Hulme

pic: Lee Green

I managed two or three enjoyable laps with my high-vis vest on, cheering friends and strangers on, chatting to marshals and trying not to get in the way, (mostly) resisting the urge not to chase riders down and get involved in little dogfights – I was wearing walking boots and jeans after all 😉

The brass band parped. The drum band drummed. The caterers catered. The lap counters counted. The marshals marshalled. Everyone did their thing and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE had a brilliant time. The course was fast, the most fun in a 4 mile loop anywhere? It’s up there with the best of them. Inside the M60, 4 miles from Manchester City Centre? Crackers. It’s the stuff of legends. I was even interviewed on live BBC radio.

"hello mum"

Things went a bit wobbly twenty minutes from the end of the race. The snow started to fall and people got cold. The lap counters became hypothermic and had to take breaks in warm cars. Despite preparing the presentations and prize goody bags a couple of days in advance, everyone finished and quite understandably scarpered. Then, cars couldn’t get out of the car park. Over 100 vehicles trapped at the bottom of a slippery, ice and snow-covered hill. We abandoned the presentations and left the snow to fall onto our brand new podium in favour of a couple of hours of pushing cars, shovelling snow and gathering road grit from a bin half a mile away in a broken wheelbarrow and some traffic cones. Some lessons learned and some ideas have hatched since then on how we can improve things and cope with typical winter conditions next time.

the postmen are bloody tough round ere

Some hours later, the car park was empty and the park once again fell silent….until we bring the place to life once more….

All media – videos, photographs, blog posts from riders – relating to Hit the North 3 can be found on our website, here. Enjoy.