COMPETE VS COMPLETE: REFLECTIONS FROM THE BACK OF THE FIRST MONTANE CHEVIOT GOAT WINTER ULTRA
The very first Montane Cheviot Goat Winter Ultra took place at 05:30 on Saturday 2 December 2017 in Northumberland. Wim Stevenson was on the start line and ultimately completed the course, finishing in 21:54:26. He gives us his unique perspective of this epic ultra endurance race.
Ultra-marathon running is a lot of things. It is also not a lot of things.
The premise is brutally simple; get from A to B without giving up. For a select few, giving up could equate to a matter of moments and mean the difference between finishing first and finishing well. To most, it can be the difference between finishing at all.
In between start and finish the world falls away, exposing the soft flesh of body, mind and heart to the cruelty of the elements, the acidity of self-doubt and erosive waves of pain. There is no room for ego. To stay the course is to master one’s self, to understand your place in the world and make peace with the parts of you which fail against it…and fail they will.
Ultra distance running is not glamorous or sexy, but it is most definitely romantic. In pushing yourself to breaking point you are remade stronger – effectively chasing your ideal self across a landscape of introspection purely to see what you are made of.
What appealed to me about the Montane Goat is that it is a love letter to one of my favourite places. I ache to be fully immersed in the beautiful unpopulated wilderness of Northumberland when it is at its best. The beast-churned ground frozen into nobbled crenulations, the trees bracing against a bitter wind and the heather dusted with hoar frost. In order to succeed in this event – and this environment – you must become the environment; as braced as the heather, yet stoic and at peace as the trees. The nobbling comes as a matter of course.
At the start line, I ruminated nervously on this as I stood amongst a throng of quivering bodies and watched the steam emanating from our hides dissipate into the ether. Relatively accustomed to endurance events in general, I had taken an alarmingly cavalier approach to voicing my performance predictions until a telephone conversation two days before stopped me mid-swagger. Specifically, six nervously spoken words: “…there’s quite a lot of snow”. They were uttered by a friend who farms along a stretch of the course and who is also a highly experience mountaineer and polar explorer. Needless to say, he is not easily intimidated by such conditions.
There was not much time to consider the delicate balance of success and failure (and my role as fulcrum), before the sleepy hamlet of Ingram was awoken by a cheer and we set off towards the Scottish border.
The first five miles were a whirlwind. Buoyed on by an incredible rush of adrenaline and the thrill of running through the dark in near-peloton formation made the going worryingly easy going. A sentiment shared by the hounds kept at Ewartly Shank, who voiced their encouragement with great enthusiasm as we passed at the seven mile mark.
Running at night towards the barks and howls of what at the time sounded A LOT like wolves awoke a primeval section of the brain and challenged any instinct for self-preservation. I found myself subconsciously slowing down, though this could also just as easily have been the beginnings of fatigue. I’m not sure what would be worse – admitting fear or lack of fitness.
The sun began to rise as I ascended Little Dod and was rewarded at its summit with commanding views of the valley below all the way to High Bleakhope. The steep banks of this aesthetic valley provided optimal conditions for running and good time was made towards the second marshal point. All of which was undone by a gratuitously long stop to natter with some other runners and the immensely entertaining marshals. A reoccurring theme of the event.
Mile 10 marked the beginning of a big climb towards Bloodybush Edge. Skirting snow dusted pine forests I felt plunged into a Scandinavian wonderland for the next 10 miles. These forests protected the trail from the biting prevailing winds and allowed the snow to lie deep and heavy. Mercifully, the Mann’s, Berry’s, Morgan’s and Paloncy’s of the world had ploughed a trench in the snow, creating an easy to follow trail for the rest of us which stretched most of the course. As someone who is not the most confident navigator this came as a great relief.
A particular highlight of the race occurred around this point when I was awarded the privilege of being overtaken by Pete Moralee, a local ultra running legend, whom I have known for years but never raced with. The moment only lasted long enough for him to mumble something unrepeatable before powering off into the distance; wiry body bent double under the strain and poles flailing at the snow, a totally unstoppable force of nature.
As the sun continued to rise, the freezing temperatures of the early morning became a distant memory and I skidded down Copper Snout towards the fifth marshal point dreaming of the cool air and wide starry skies, before taking another arduous climb up Shillhope Law towards the halfway house and aid station at Barrowburn Farm. I arrived three hours before the cut-off.
Heavenly Barrowburn! The bothy was intentionally made as cosy as possible and sported a full complement of volunteers dispensing hot drinks and soup. Here we could have a break and re-stock diminishing supplies. I could have stayed there forever, however my resolve was so weak I denied myself even the luxury of sitting down for fear of cracking, resigning instead to eating my weight in Jaffa Cakes.
Thirty minutes later I reluctantly left that oasis and continued west towards the Anglo-Scottish border. The undulating track led onto a flat valley road which skirted the Otterburn firing range for a few miles and was peppered with spent ammunition cartridges. The climb to Deel’s Hill was a race to the sunset, which proved to be spectacular and before I knew it I felt the cold flagstones of the Pennine Way underfoot.
This is where I began to struggle. The well defined, pristine snow tracks of earlier had given way to watery mush at best (knee deep bog at worst) and sheet ice in between. My feet began to ache and cardiovascular fatigue was really beginning to set in. At marshal point nine Windy Gyle lived up to its name and a ferocious wind bit through my clothes and clawed at me. With tiredness came a breakdown in self-management and I kept forgetting to eat, which affected physical and mental performance. My pace slowed, rest stops became more frequent and my mood dropped. The climb to marshal point ten at Cairn Hill was probably the hardest part of the race for me.
The poor marshal at this point seemed to be having a worse time than me. Seeing him shivering in his tent amidst the ferocious winds and arctic tundra-like conditions of The Cheviot made me feel instantly better and in many ways, this section was a highlight of the race. The wind had piled the snow into waist deep drifts and carved the ice into sastrugi reminiscent of true polar conditions. Nobody stayed long here, preferring instead to dash for the comparative shelter of Comb Fell and the knowledge that you were less than 10 miles away from finishing.
Hedgehope, much like the eastern face of The Cheviot, is a frustrating hill to climb at the best of times. It is an unrewarding slog full of awkward peat bogs and false summits, capped off by a truly underwhelming summit. However, once the descent begins you know you are on the home straight. My feet were bruised and aching at this stage and every step proved a trial. The final climb to Dunmoor Hill and subsequent navigation across the vast expanse of moorland to Reaveley Hill were a particularly cruel final test before a gentle descent back down to Ingram and a cheering crowd of tired onlookers.
I wasn’t overcome with relief it was over, or satisfaction with the accomplishment. Just a burning appreciation for the beautiful and varied wilderness I was privileged enough to pass through. Like all love it was hard won and something that will leave its mark indelibly for years to come. Am I thrilled to have completed it? Absolutely. Am I upset I didn’t finish in a competitive time? Absolutely not. I overcame enough of my own demons without worrying about other competitors. That self-knowledge is plenty.
To my mind the Montane Goat is well on its way to becoming a modern classic, but certainly not for the faint hearted or under-prepared. I was lucky that my newly-acquired Montane VIA Dragon 20 pack was large enough to carry enough food and layers (specifically a Gore-tex Pro hardshell and waterproof overtrousers) to withstand the biting cold from Windy Gyle to the finish, otherwise I believe my chances of finishing would have been significantly reduced.