4. (Wo)Man vs Barge aka How to Lose Your Way and Make Friends

This week marked a juncture in my training diary due to my entry into the race ‘(Wo)Man vs Barge’, a five mile trail race from Marsden in West Yorkshire to Diggle in Lancashire. Racing at the same time (well, sailing) through the Standedge Tunnel from one end to the other was a barge, which is what we were all looking to outrun. How hard can that be, you’d ask, given the top speed of a barge is about 4mph and would have to travel with care through the narrow tunnel.

The Standedge (that’s ‘Stan-ige’, to you and I) Canal Tunnel was constructed between 1794 and 1811, originally to link Huddersfield with the town of Ashton-Under-Lyne. It measures 5,000 metres across, 196 metres above sea level and at its deepest, 194 metres underground. It is the longest, deepest, highest canal tunnel in Britain, and was once featured on a series called ‘Great Canal Journeys‘ which told the story of the tunnel, its human cost and a fabulous trip down the tunnel with Timothy West and Prunella Scales (it was on Channel 4 – I don’t think the episode is on demand though). 

I had suffered a slight injury scare during the week – my foot felt bruised after doing, of all things, a speed run up and down hills, this after extolling the virtues of running slow! But oddly whatever I did vanished after some quick necessary foot and calf massage, and a run round the park two days later went absolutely fine, no problems at all. I even did the swim and gym session again. So I was well ready for the race. 

My wife and kids had gone away on a surprise weekend away, which left me to my own devices and so, I got myself up and out the door early. Not even the failure of the bus driver to stop at the right stop as I arrived in Marsden was too much of a stick in the mud, and it gave me a glimpse of the very road, and surrounding moors, I’ll be running on and past later this year. Well, not much later at all, but you’ll gather that as you read on.

Arriving at Standedge Visitor Centre, the rain began to fall as I got chatting to the organisers, Wane and his wife Katie of Team OA, and a couple of runners who also turned up. I was early. Too early. Oh well. For my eagerness I was rewarded with the race number ‘001’. Sure enough, the weather brightened up a little, the entrants turned up and soon Standedge Visitor Centre was very busy. Nearby, the very boat we would be racing was anchored, preparing to set sail.

Runners eventually arrived, emerging via the canal towpath, or from the Reddisher Road end. A lady called Sarah, who I’ve briefly met while she marshalled another race I was in, arrived and recognised me – we’re also part of the same Running The World group on Facebook. She had offered to put my backpack in her car but had to park some distance away from the race venue. But she did point me back towards Wane, who duly enough was happy for me to load it in the back of the Team OA van, so long as I was picking it up in Diggle. Problem solved, warm up carried out, I took up position near the front of the start line. The countdown began. Seconds before the off, a Knowsley runner asked me if I knew the route! I actually said I didn’t (I had viewed the route online in actual fact), but said it was all arrowed and flagged. And we were off. 

I should clarify before the next paragraph that I had looked at the route below, but felt clearer in the knowledge it was marked – I’m not too used to map reading outside of Google Maps or OpenStreet Map, so reading Explorer maps and so on is a learning curve right now. Before anyone judges my preparation! 

I wasn’t putting that much effort in to begin with – I was second and trying to dice it along the road in my Mudclaws, which initially felt like football boots on the concrete. The pace wasn’t that hard, even going uphill, I’d gone harder at this in training. I lead entering Manchester Road and followed the arrow to start climbing the hill. Here it became more like a walk, even a scramble, as I tried to maintain my position and follow the arrows. People behind me were stopping and looking out. Part of me wondered if they were admiring the view. I took a right and looked up the hill. It seemed to be the only path, leading up to a stone cross and a seat of some description. I scrambled up past a couple of walkers, past the structures, along the top of the moor. I was way out in front, and putting distance, real distance, in front of everyone. ‘Get over the hill, and you can potentially start putting daylight in‘, I pondered, scarcely believing I was in such a position this early on. Only, the race was actually disappearing from grasp. You see, wherever I had gone, I was headed towards Pule Hill. Well, the yellow flags and arrows weren’t in abundance here. In fact, it had been a short while since the last one. Unsure, I started running back. I came across the walkers again. They pointed where the other runners had gone. But it was too late. No one was around. I was up, on the moor, with only my mobile phone and, for some reason, my bank card. Survival instinct kicked in. Miraculously, I had a phone signal, and GPS. I didn’t think I would get a signal up here. I decided I had to get back onto the road. I had to get to Diggle and get my bag back. So there I was, taking in what for a short while was an introduction to the big 20 mile road/trail run I’m planning next month, much sooner than I anticipated. Manchester Road is wide, very wide, though not as much as the swathing expanse around me. Onward I went, periodically checking to see how much distance I had before reaching the Diggle Hotel.

Eventually, I passed by Redbrook Reservoir. I admired the view, deciding as I’m not racing I’ll start taking pictures. Heck, I’ve paid my race fee and I’ll do what I like! But it was shortly afterwards I spotted a walker in the distance. And other runners! I could get back! I got down off the kerb. Oof…my left achilles gave a bit of a jab. I was OK. I decided I had to get across. But how? Well, certainly not by swimming. I decided to go beside the right of the reservoir (or left, if looking north). The grass was very long. There were lots of mounds and ditches. Reeds. It was arduous. I had to cross a drain. But I made it! I was back on course. My achilles wasn’t fully in the game though. I trod carefully. I passed runners who were coming back to do their second route. Including some of those at the front. Well done, encouraged some. I explained to some that I’d got lost. The 001 on my vest felt somewhat ironic. Eventually, I descended into Diggle. Onto the road. Past the hotel. Over a bridge. Left, then finally towards the canal. I don’t remember seeing a finish line. Only Wane. Well, I was 5th from last. It had taken me over an hour. I don’t normally finish that far down in a race. But I still beat the barge comfortably, and I still got my chip butty. I bumped into Sarah again. She seemed surprised to have finished ahead of me. And unsurprisingly, the first to point out I’d got lost at a Team OA event. AGAIN. Well, I had no one to blame but myself for this one.

Take a look here at my race. The first image is my route on the day, about turns included. The second image is from the event page on Team OA’s website. 

My own race route…
The actual race route (follow the lower dotted pink line)

You can see where I went wrong and had I continued in that direction, I’d have had a healthy lead but may well have lost it later on, and if not perhaps come in a few minutes ahead, which may have raised a few eyebrows!

The Diggle Hotel do amazing chip butties. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Anyhow, a swift pint later, it was time to head back. I’d given consideration to getting the train, as I wasn’t sure about my achilles. But Sarah and her friend Nadine were heading back, and Sarah offered to show me to correct way back around the course. I agreed to stick to my original plan. So we walked up the hill, and at the top, we started running. Once we passed Redbrook Reservoir, we were on the track I should have been on. An auspicious introduction to the Pennine Way. Over Old Mount Road, offering incredible views of the Holme Valley, and then back through the moor section I should have come through on. It turned out it hadn’t taken me long to go wayward and where I went uphill, if memory serves me right, I should have gone left. In the end, all back safely to Standedge Visitor Centre, and we jogged one more time to Marsden rail station to head back into Huddersfield with all the real ale trailers, before parting ways to head back home, to have a hot bath, check on my achilles and make a stonking great sweet potato and black kale chicken curry from scratch with all natural ingredients. Oh yeah!

I refused to feel too negative about the race, accepting that, on this occasion, there can be no fault attributed to anyone bar myself. It did serve as ‘recce’ if nothing else, and after the palava of the race had finished, the run back was far more enjoyable. The race as an event itself – I can’t honestly give it my full appraisal because I didn’t take the correct route. From an organisational standpoint it was good, and the route was sufficiently flagged and waymarked. It seemed like a great event, maybe just a bit of an anti-climax after my personal race plan, if there was one, went belly up. I enjoy pushing myself – I wouldn’t race if I didn’t. Well, the race is back on next year. I’ve technically run this race once. Whether I want to again – that depends. I’ve nothing to prove. It would be easy to say ‘let’s go back and smash it’. I’m not that competitive. Its meant to be a fun race, though the fun is racing a barge that over 5 miles will always, even if I go the wrong way again, finish long after I’ve reached the end and started tucking into the chip butty. Beyond that, its actually a tough little race, though rewarding once you get over the big hill (the right way) and can marvel the scenery.

All in all, I felt in fine shape the day after, the achilles, the subject of a lot of stretching, massaging, icing, and the incredible anti-inflammatory curry, perhaps pushed me to go ahead and recce somewhere else. As in, completely away.

Looking back to Littleborough and Hollingworth Lake

After walking in the Yorkshire Dales the previous week, and with parental responsibility at home temporarily in stasis, I did what only my lunatic mindset could do. I did a recovery run/walk – mostly uphill – so I could catch a bus…4.3 miles later, I boarded the 590 bus to the village of Gale near Littleborough…and proceeded to walk another 11 plus miles! I decided I wanted to recce one of my forthcoming routes, The Pennine Way from Littleborough. I walked a steady pace, all the way to Stoodley Pike, where I sat down, ate my lunch, and enjoyed the view. Is there anywhere better?

Stoodley Pike

It felt incredible. Not quite alone, but as good as free of civilization as, well, the previous week, but this was truly out there for me. I hadn’t laid a foot on the Pennine Way until this weekend, and here I was, free to experience its views, its panoramas, its peaks, troughs, trails, landmarks and other features. It was good to learn what to expect when I run this route later in the year. It felt sufficiently hilly to get the relevant training under my belt from this one route. That said, it was quite a culture shock to suddenly return to a busy town centre once I completed my descent!
Going forward now, I recognise my need to rest. My achilles and my left knee both need a little attention and next Saturday is when my training goes up a gear, around a route for which ‘hilly’ is an understatement. Therefore I may drop my run on Tuesday just to allow for something else, like swimming perhaps, or maybe just rest and workout at home.

For the record, this past weekend marked four years since my mother passed away. I’d have loved to have given her a race win or a good result on Saturday. But forever I’ll be grateful for her gift in passing – running. Because what I experienced this weekend was a continuation of my evolution of running. Taking myself to places and heights I never imagined I could previously imagine on my own two feet (and a bus pass). To reinforce my resolve to never give in even when all has gone to pot, to open up my mind to new ideas, new challenges, and to go outside and actually live. To breathe the clean air, feel the earth beneath my feet, to get mud halfway up my legs and to occasionally get drenched in some horrid deluge just for the sake of going for a run or a walk. To sign up for steeper and tougher challenges even when the brain is shouting ‘you fool, don’t do it!’. It got me off my backside, fit again, mentally and physically stronger. And I’m still here despite the ups and downs. So thank you Mum, for inspiring the adventure, and continually sharing the journey, and the influence.