Snowdonia Marathon Training

10. Holme Moss

So, I spent my Sunday working my thumbs into my right foot…if there’s one thing I’ve learned about foot ailments like these, its that you can find out if its a knot, or if you’ve got a genuine problem. It certainly seemed like the former. Initially the discomfort was slightly below the ball of my foot, but after jamming right into it, the discomfort moved down the arch, and before long, it had finished up right about where my instep is. I had a problem like this in the top of my left foot a couple of months back – I ran a fartlek session too hard and felt discomfort in the top of my left foot below my middle toe. I jammed that one too and was rid of it within 48 hours. Knowledge is power – as is taking the necessary steps to counter the problem before it gets worse.

Still, even though I was kitted up for my swimming lesson/run home on Tuesday as normal, I had still spent the Monday and Tuesday doing cross friction, stretching, rolling the tennis ball, ice pack, ibuprofen gel, and it didn’t seem all there. I hugely contemplated not running at all on Tuesday until my hand was forced. My bus into Halifax hit severe delays as it came down from Northowram and Stone Chair. The reason? A man on the edge of North Bridge, Halifax, threatening to jump. 

Traffic was crawling, and after a quick discussion with the driver, he let me off the bus as I’d decided, perhaps against my better judgement, that running, or jogging, up the big hill and down New Bank into the town centre would be quicker. So off I went, down to the bottom, and then jogged up the road. No bother, and I was passing motorists at a canter. I actually felt pretty good, but when I arrived at North Bridge, police had closed the road above, and further on was the man in question, both hands gripping the rail behind him, and two other men on the correct side of the railing, possibly trying to talk to him. I didn’t engage – I honestly didn’t know what to say, and felt it better in that sense not to get involved when there were people up there who possibly knew him better. I don’t feel great doing nothing, but some way below, I wasn’t in the best position. I’m pleased to say that they managed to talk the man back and he was taken for medical assessment.

After swimming, I opted to try and run home. Take it easy, and follow the bus route, so at least if I had to stop, I had a ticket to ride all the way home. So I did precisely that, and it seemed the slow running was actually aggravating other parts of my body, like my knees and even my left achilles. So I just ran a little more freely and naturally, and made it a total of around three miles when I started to feel a murmur of discontent in my right foot. I walked a bit, then statted again. There was the discontent again. I looked behind and there was the bus. Mind made up, I hailed it and got on. Right call, no harm done, and I iced it once home.

Every time I feel like I should just rest though, I itch to carry on. I kept with recent routine and went to bed early on Wednesday, up early Thursday. Except I set off a little later (4:55am, if you can call that late), and took the decision to run in my normal road shoes, with my old orthotics. I hadn’t worn these since my last run in my now too narrow Salomon Speedcross. And they’re half a size smaller than my current shoes. Well, I decided to take the chance. It bothered my left foot, in my peroneal area, so I removed it and for the rest of the run had my one remaining orthotic in my right foot. This strangely didn’t irritate me and seemingly didn’t alter my gait. And lo and behold, I completed five flat miles pain or discomfort free! I’m not certain its a conventional solution, but the problem area had certainly reduced as I worked on it in the office. This was a good sign. I declared that the 22 miler was on. Daunting a step up as that seemed, especially in my current condition, I felt as though I’d be ready to go for it.

And so Saturday arrived. Despite a grand night watching MC Devvo on his retirement tour, I’d had a horrid Thursday caused by cancelled buses, congested traffic and missed connections that put a huge stress on my evening. I didn’t help myself by setting off too early on Saturday morning, thinking I had a bus at 6:00am when I didn’t, and then the next bus somehow arrives 5 minutes late, crucially causing me to miss the next connection from Huddersfield to Holmfirth. Basically, relying on shoddy public transport is a bastard at the best of times. Even if I was culpable for this slight misfortune on Saturday. Anyway, I’m digressing. I was fired up for this 22 miler, going up Holme Moss, down the other side, into the village of Crowden, through the campsite, onto the Pennine Way towards Wessenden Head, down into Meltham, through Wilshaw and Upperthong into Holmfirth once again. All meticulously planned, all absolutely detailed. Free of public transport.

I arrived into Holmfirth as they set up for their annual September Food & Drink Festival. I briefly regretted only carrying another £4 and not more, because I could easily have snaffled something at the end. But instead, I went through to a back alley and carried out my warm up there. Up onto the A6024, Woodhead Road, I set off towards the indomitable target. Holme Moss.

A view of Holme Moss from Holmfirth

Initially travelling via Holmbridge and then past Digley Reservoir, I made it to the village of Holme, where I would begin the long ascent up to Holme Moss. The transmitting tower was the beacon by which to measure my proximity to the top, or so it was until I observed the road markings, which read ‘1 1/4 MILES‘, counting down in quarter fractions as you ascend. This is probably intended more for cyclists, and indeed the road is still scarred/adorned with chalkings from when Tour de France came to ‘Col de Holme Moss‘.

I kept climbing and passed ‘3/4 MILES‘. I was giving this everything, taking the sweeping bends in the road wide so as to lessen the gradient at the bend. Despite the increasing sense of self torture, this was incredibly fun. When you channel your energy into it, it truly is an exercise of punishing enjoyment. It was getting feasibly close, but I was gritting more, the elevation reaching 11%. I continued to push, but then I felt a surge rising up my body and towards my chest. Having suffered a sharp chest pain from exerting myself far too hard years ago, I knew I just had to stop. So I did, took a deep breath, and assured myself I hadn’t failed. I then decided I’d better keep walking at least, being an hour behind schedule but also mindful that I don’t plan on stopping during Snowdonia, even for its scenery, so long as I respect my body and its limits. So I began to walk, and then ran again. I had to step aside for a car, walk, but then began running again. The wind noticeably picked up as I neared the summit. It was whistling in my ears, obscuring the sound of traffic, battering my face, but I suddenly felt more upright and strong. The road began to flatten out, and soon, I was there. I’d actually (pretty) much run up to Holme Moss. Or, simply conquered it on foot – as opposed to two wheels.

I felt incredible at this point, taking time to savour the relatively high air – even at 1719ft, its not exactly high altitude training – and soon it was time to restart and head down into Derbyshire. The road at this point really feels dangerous. Its a sweeping left bend and nothing much beyond the crash barrier than a sheer drop. Not only that, but speed and awareness were important – blind bends, dips and peaks in the road meant a lot of swiveling like an owl for traffic. It also meant being able to make up some time and to get some really good downhill running in ahead of Snowdonia – around mile 5 onwards, that race will experience a descent for a few miles, similar to what I was undergoing here.

Arriving at the bottom, you begin to see Crowden and Torside Reservoirs, which look resplendent against the backdrop of the Peak District. I didn’t get many photos though. The A6024 here adjoins with the A635, which I’d briefly visited en route to Dove Stone the week prior. This was another dangerous section in the sense that there was only one side of pavement – and that’s being generous. Cars and 7.5 ton lorries passed by what seemed like inches away. Nonetheless I kept going and was really in my stride. The last three miles were all sub-8 minutes, around 7:40 or less, and I was soon converging upon Crowden.
I did feel a little foolish having not brought a map, or indeed a compass, but I knew upon entering the Crowden Campsite it would be up past the car park and turn left. I next expected to take a right turn which would lead me onto the Pennine Way. I got so far along the road and then saw a gate beside some woodland which would lead to a path. Now none of this said the Pennine Way, but it seemed like the correct way to go, so initially I followed it. I was out on a open trail, which gradually became rockier and narrower as it meandered up the hill side. There was some steep climbing to come, that much I had expected from the elevation profile. But it was getting harder and harder, all do all things wild it seems. It was harder still to ignore the incredible valleys and hills rolling through Crowden and beyond.

Not the Pennine Way. Still…

Arriving at the top of one climb, all I could see was moorland, and I had a sinking feeling again, until I noticed a peak above. So I kept going, and soon found a bit of a rockier section. Amidst the moorland I could see gaps in the crowd, like some sort of underpass snaking through the moor. I tried to stick to this. I was facing north (ish) and soon came to a post. This was a good sign, I thought, and I soon arrived at another one. I kept going. There weren’t any more posts. I was looking for Black Hill. Well, I wasn’t seeing any monuments around here. All I could see was Holme Moss on my right, the hills beyond Crowden directly behind me, and little else. I had to turn back. I briefly felt lost, but I had no intention of becoming a search and rescue mission, and I did wonder if the worst happened, who in the blue hell would actually come this way? That’s right, me! Calm had to prevail. And it did. I found the posts and the rocky section, and next had to find a barbed wire fence I’d clambered past. Unfortunately for myself, I’d begun to descend down a different path to that which I’d travelled, and did find myself wading in bog at one point. No matter, I had to keep going and eventually found the fence. Taking the steep climb down, I eventually found my way back towards the campsite. Right then, as beautiful as the view had been, I had no intention of ever coming back here.
By now I’d clocked around 12 miles, the last three going very slowly, and so I had one option left, given I had no phone signal to call my friend who was ready to provide assistance, should I need it. I was going to have to run back down the A635, up the A6024 and up and over Holme Moss. Again.

I did run up, down, up and along the first segment, but soon it was onto the long ascent and sure as eggs is eggs, I was reduced to walking. At this point, I actually remembered a run-walk discussion on a podcast I’d heard a couple of days earlier. Now I don’t sneer at run-walk strategies, far from it. Just I never really employ them because I’ve generally a good endurance level. Well, I decided that a minute walking would help recharge and then I could go again. So I did.

A minute running, a minute walking, a minute running, a minute walking, a few minutes running, a minute walking. I was making it up the hill and with each step, or stride, it seemed more and more possible. I reached the final, precarious bend at the top, the wind at my ears, and ran it. I clenched my fists and shouted ‘yes!‘, almost in disbelief. I’d actually managed it. Holme Moss, on foot, twice in a day. Twice in the space of two hours!

I stopped again, to take it the magnificent view. I’d salvaged my run, and then some. Looking out into the distance, seeing Emley Moor Mast, some distance away, but as prominent as the ground on which I stood. And a rusty frame which acted as a window for the landscape. It said ‘Framing the Landscape; Many People Look But Few Actually See‘. It seemed poignant to capture a photo, through this rusty frame. Just as the chalk on the roads was fading, as forgotten as this frame appeared, it seemed apt in looking out over the Holme Valley, terrifically unspoilt, almost a picture in time, a portrait of calm, stillness, a magnificent corner of Yorkshire.

Just as I ran down the Derbyshire side, it was time to make the final run back to Holmfirth, through the Holme Valley. First, the run down the winding road into Holme, at 11% in places, is brilliant fun, snaking around with careful abandon, entering Holme, with a bit of small elevation, before running down into Holmbridge. 13% gradients! I was flying into sub-7 minute territory, aided by the drop, and finally plateaued at the bottom of Holmbridge, now taking the road into Holmfirth. I had one mile to go, but not enough road before the town centre! And so I ended up ticking the watch over running up and down the busy town centre, amidst the shoppers and festival goers.

Finally, I made it, and stopped the watch. I’d already phoned my friend by this point, and there was only enough time to carry out a few stretches and devour a mini Chia Charge flapjack before my friend, an ex-work colleague of mine, arrived in town to pick me up and drive me all the way back home, reminiscing about when we used to work in the same team and talking about how I was thinking about getting into running again. I have to agree, I’ve come a long way.

I got to look back at my watch data the following day and found that I’d taken the wrong turn off completely for the Pennine Way. I was never on the Pennine Way at all. And that actually means I have unfinished business with the route! But not for a while, not at all. That will depend on my next marathon, or even possibly an ultra marathon. I’m not someone who can just run 22 miles on a whim. Not yet, anyway!

That was the longest run of my training program. While it nearly went completely wrong, my calmness meant I was in a position to rectify. Not being too regretful or negative meant I could reset, count my blessings and with no other real alternative, take on the challenge I’d set myself not once, but twice, and within the same run. I saw so many cyclists, for whom Col de Holme Moss remains a dream climb, but as a runner, this is just as great a challenge. It would take some level of endurance, iron will and determination to actually get up that hill from either side. Its not just the gradient, but the winding nature of the road, sweeping left, then right, then left, and so on, really disrupts the rhythm. I recommend you take yourself up there one day, keep your eyes, ears and wits about you, and be prepared to lay it all on the line. 

But now, the hardest work is done. Next week is an easier week, which feels strange considering its only five weeks to the marathon. No Tuesday run, just a Thursday and Saturday run at shorter distances. It doesn’t feel right to taper that soon, but I’m going to stick to it and carry out an easy 17-18 miles three Saturdays from race day simply on the local canal towpath. That will keep things tidy. And with the hardest miles now in the bank, I can safely say that I’m feeling confident ahead of Snowdonia. And I’m so happy, and indeed lucky, thay my body, and mind, have held up and excelled. I couldn’t have asked for any more. I don’t think I could ask to be in a truly better position than this.

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