I signed up for the Goat in January of this year with the intention of building up to it over the next 11 months. I got off to a poor start when the Dartmoor Trail Marathon was cancelled due to heavy snow in February, then in March I headed to the moors outside of Burnley for the West Pennine Ultra only to have a panic attack before even reaching race HQ. That set the scene to me questioning my ability to race at all in 2019, let alone the Cheviot Goat. I was signed up for the South Downs Way and North Downs Way 50 milers but withdrew from both before the date arrived in April and May respectively and then decided I would switch my focus from trail and ultra, to road and marathons. My reasoning was simple, maybe I needed a change, maybe absence from trail and ultra would make the heart grow fonder. At this point I thought I probably wouldn’t run the Goat.
To cut a long story short, I struggled through 16 weeks of not very enjoyable road marathon training yearning for the trails again and then struggled through the Hull Marathon to finish in 3:33 – my slowest of the four road marathons I’ve done!
Immediately after finishing I began to think of the Goat. I calculated I had enough time, enthusiasm and energy to prepare for the race and the only goal I aimed for was to finish – I doubted I had enough trail time and time on feet over the year for any more than that! I put together a 10 week training plan, entered the White Rose Ultra 30 as a preparation race and threw myself into training with a smile. I kept a weekly log of my training on Instagram and you can see pictures and write ups for each week here: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10.
As race day approached I felt ready and I would say feeling as fit as I ever had for any previous ultra. I drove up to Alnwick on the Friday, registered and then settled in at the Youth Hostel for a pretty restless night – a few hours sleep at best, likely due to nerves and an alarm set for 0340hrs to enable me to eat a decent breakfast and drive to race HQ for the 0600hrs start.
On arrival at Race HQ I felt really calm which is unusual as I am usually a ball of nervous energy before a race. I accepted the calm and took to admiring the clear sky and the stars whilst lining up for the toilet! The course was to be run in reverse, meaning the highest fells would be covered first in the pre-dawn. I think the organisers made a great choice here as the other option they had considered was to shorten the course due to anticipated gale force winds, driving rain and low temperatures forecast for around 1800hrs on race day. I’m glad to say that I got over the line before the worst of the weather, but there was still plenty of that to contend with during my own race.
I will cut here to the fact that I far exceeded my goals and expectation of (a) just finishing, (b) covering the distance in 14 or 15 hours and (c) finishing in the top 100. I covered the 55 miles and 3000+m of ascent in 12 hours 36 minutes and was 18th man, 20th overall. The 10 weeks of focused training really paid off!
I am going to do my best to break this race report down into the map tiles from the course map provided at registration – I stopped looking at/using my watch after about 50km as it didn’t seem to be tracking the correct distance and kept veering away from the GPX track I was using. Because of that issue I found myself having to rely on my not too fantastic map reading skills for quite a bit of the route! Considering the terrain, weather and darkness I’m pleased to say I only got lost once and went off track by about 200m downhill which thankfully I noticed before continuing through a gate. I would also like to thank Max Wilkinson and Elaine Bisson for their help with navigating – both have completed the Bob Graham round, Max the Paddy Buckley too and Elaine is currently training for the Spine Challenger so good company to keep for most of the race.
As the course was run in reverse you will see that I will be going through the map tiles from 6 to 1.
TILE 1 (6)
I lined up at the start with a few guys from Bedfordshire. We had been following each other’s Goat training on Strava over the weeks and this was the first time we met. I’m pleased to say that Chris Caimino, Greg Baker and James Adams all finished the race.
We set off into the darkness and I didn’t realise I was quite near the front from the off. I got into a rhythm quickly as the first couple of kilometres were on pretty reasonable and runnable ground. The route started to climb shortly after and the ground became rougher and boggier as the kilometres ticked by. Climbing up to Cunyan Crags was great and I took a moment to look back at the lightening sky as the sun rose behind a trail of headtorches. We carried on from there along the top of Dunmoor Hill and was startled by a fairly large deer that darted in front of a group of us – the first fright of the day as it came from nowhere and disappeared into the darkness as quickly as it appeared.
Descending Dunmoor was interesting as it was the first real taste of very cold, watery bog. This continued pretty much to a greater or lesser degree of depth and cold throughout the route! Climbing up to Hedgehope Hill came next and this was the first real bite of the cold. The higher we went the more the fog closed in and the wind picked up. It was an eerie experience with the fog glowing in the sunset, softening the shapes of runners behind and in front. It was a welcome distraction from freezing cold, soaking wet feet so early in the race – I questioned my choice of GTX shoes at this point but on balance I’m glad I went with them as they drained quickly, and retained warmth.
TILE 2 (5)
This section of the course had plenty to offer. Descending from Hedgehope Hill with a bit of running rhythm was great but didn’t last long as we entered some of the deepest and stickiest bogs of the day towards the bottom and then up Comb Fell, across to Cairn Hill. It was towards the bottom of Hedgehope that I unexpectedly found myself catching up with Nicky Spinks! I knew I must be keeping a decent pace if Nicky was there and I had a brief thought that I might have gone off a bit too quick – it was the first and only time I thought that during the day and from this point onwards, until just before Barrowburn and the halfway point I was never too far from her. I think it really helped motivation wise to keep to the decent pace she was setting and feeling comfortable with it too.
It’s worth mentioning here the uniqueness of Comb Fell itself. I don’t think my description will do it justice but the place had its own feeling, a presence if you will. The vegetation seemed different to everything before it, and everything after it and the footing on the way up was also very different to anything else of the course – loose rock, not quite scree and if my memory serves well it was of a reddish colour (I could be wrong though). From the top of Cairn Hill and the marshall point there we hit the granite flagstones of the Pennine Way and were sent on an out and back jaunt over to the Trig Point that marks The Cheviot – the highest point in the surrounding hills. It was very windy, wet and cold up there and again I noticed that the runners coming back from the Trig looked pretty fast. My mind said ‘This bodes well, keep on keeping on!’. So I did. I didn’t hang around at the Trig, I did a lap of it and then headed back the way I came to a welcome downhill section onto the England/Scotland border ridge and some fine miles of running mostly on granite flag stones towards Windy Gyle and my first water refill of the day. The views along the Border Ridge, when the fog parted or lifted for a time were stunning – Scotland was calling but the route wouldn’t allow a visit. Approaching Windy Gyle I took note of the time and took stock of my food intake. I was pleased to see that it was around 0900/0930 and I had eaten a few Shot Bloks. By my reckoning it was time for my second breakfast climbing up to the water station, so I ate my first rice cake and marmite sandwich. I took a bit of time at the water butt to refill one bottle and then cracked on.
Worth a note here, I mentioned Max Wilkinson earlier in the post and I exchanged our first words of the day running along the flagstones and from this point onwards he was never too far away. This was also the section where Elaine Bisson came into view. Max was pretty much running on the shoulder of Nicky Spinks at this point with me about a hundred metres back and Elaine between 50 and 100 metres back from there. We didn’t really start running together as a proper group of three until after Barrowburn.
TILE 3 (4)
This section of the course was pretty tough for me. I started to lag behind the group in front but and this was the first time during the day where I felt like I was in danger of falling into no-man’s land with the group in front pulling away and nobody visible behind. Although the footing was pretty good thanks to the granite flagstones along the border ridge. I soaked my feet through again at some point which seemed to throw my mental game off slightly. I spent about an hour moaning at myself about wet, cold feet and how they wouldn’t get any better the later and colder it got. Thankfully this thought pattern didn’t resurface again and my feet did eventually warm up. Once we turned away from the border and off the flagstones my energy seemed to pick up and my mind quietened enough for me to focus on catching up with, and keeping up with the group in front that included Nicky Spinks, Max and Elaine.
I put in a surprisingly sustained surge over the rough ground of Black Halls and Deal’s Hill along Border County Ride past Blindburn and then onto the road section leading into Barrowburn. I ran most of the road section before slowing with about a kilometre to go to the aid station. It was definitely time for lunch so I got my piccalilli, lettuce and tomato roll from the front pouch of my pack and ate it slowly washing down each bite with a swig of water – this was a conscious decision as I wanted to eat and drink on the move, I was afraid of being lulled into the comfortable and warm surroundings of Barrowburn! I got into Barrowburn after 5 hours and 45 minutes or so which was well ahead of my very loose plan. I knew I was on for a decent second half as long as I didn’t faff about. I was handed my grab bag and went inside to get a quick cup of vegetable soup and a small cup of tea – before consuming those I restocked my pack with another rice cake and marmite sandwich, my second piccalilli roll and my second pack of Shot Bloks. Whilst I consumed my soup a very helpful volunteer refilled one of my water bottles and then it was time to go.
TILE 4 (3)
The climb out of Barrowburn was something of a shock. I wasn’t expecting such a steep and sustained effort after being lulled into mental quietude for about 15 minutes at Barrowburn. After about 5 minutes of hiking I began to enjoy myself again. I do love a good hill climb, after all which was a good thing because in relatively quick succession came Shillhope Law, Inner Hill, Shillmoor and then Copper Snout. It was during this section of climbing that Elaine, Max and I began to chat to each other a bit more and to share the navigation a bit. Coming off Copper Snout down to Wholehope Knowe I could see that a dirt road was leading in to the water station.
I have to say that I don’t really remember too much about this part of the route apart from I enjoyed the views into Kidland Forest. The ground was much firmer in this section and the climbs seemed to be gentler after the water station. What I know now, and didn’t notice at the time, was that the weather was starting to close in and some seriously dense fog was about to settle over this part of the route and the next. I know my mind started to wander into the ‘how far is there to go territory’ on the way up The Dodd – my watch was saying 20km remaining which was frustrating me as I knew that wasn’t true at all, Max confirmed it was more like 28 to 30km. Little did I know at this point but the run across Puncherton Hill to Wether Cairn would really start to test me as we headed into the penultimate section.
TILE 5 (2)
This section of the route, without doubt, was the hardest and most difficult for me. From Wether Cairn all the way to Bloodybush Edge I was running along with only a glimpse of Max and Elaine through the fog in front. At Cushat Law I switched my watch to the clock face and locked it, from here I did my best not to look at it unless absolutely necessary for navigation assistance – the distance was well off and that was irritating me and increasing my agitation at not being able to cover the ground as quickly as I wanted to!
The fog was extremely dense and the temperature dropped significantly. The ground underfoot was reminiscent of the early stages at Hedgehope and I could sense that rain wasn’t fair off. I began to feel real fear for the first time ever in a race. I was struggling to navigate properly in the fog, particularly off the back of Wether Cairn and up to Cushat Law – I lost sight of Max and Elaine and quickly realised I they had been my navigational reassurance. I could see nobody behind me. So, whenever the smallest opportunity to run presented itself I picked up the pace and brought the guys back into view. I didn’t get to within speaking distance of them until just before the marshal point at Bloodybush Edge and to do so I rolled each of my ankles once and went thigh deep into bog at one point before scrambling free and continuing apace. I am so glad I put in that effort instead of slowing down to hike it through the fog as I am not sure I’d have been able to find the motivation to keep slogging on past Bloodybush on my own!
After the marshal point we ran, hiked and waded downhill through more bog and into yet more bog. I think all of us were suffering at this point with the terrible footing, no rhythm and then the unwelcome arrival of cold rain. We slogged through and I sank again to my thigh and I have to say by this point I didn’t really care about cold, wet feet because everything was cold and wet. I started to tire as we approached the welcome respite of Salter’s Road so I dropped back a little and began to eat my second and final piccalilli roll – I didn’t care that the bread was damp and my gloves were covered in bog and I enjoyed every bite. Just as I finished it I looked up to see Max alight onto Salter’s road, throw his arms in the air and exclaim ‘A ROAD!’, I tried to start into a run and then fell almost flat on my face. I laughed at my misfortune, got straight up and waded/stomped to something akin to a road – a rock and gravel track was most welcome after the hell of the bogs!
Alas, it didn’t last long and we plunged off the ‘road’ and back into the bogs. No surprise there, I’m sure. I put my head down, hood up and mitts on and trudged up Nagshead Knowe. I remember this section quite vividly as it is one of the bleakest vistas I have ever seen; desolate is the best description for it. Deep bog, heavy fog, the patter of cold rain on cold skin and material and the knowledge there is still so far to go, still some hills to climb. I both loved it, and hated it but I knew I was about to turn onto the final tile of the map sheet. Towards the end of this section, just before the water station, my headtorch came back out and darkness quickly enveloped the surrounding fells.
It felt good to run on this section as we got off Nagshead Knowe and saw the lights of the water station ahead. We were all pretty knackered at this point and I think this is what led to a false hope taking over! As we approached the marshal point Max said ‘I reckon there’s only about 6 miles to go mate’ – this elicited a statement of love and joy from me. Alas, there was more like 16km to go but the three us picked up our pace!
TILE 6 (1)
The final section of the reverse course is definitely the most runnable – a mixture of farmland, gravel/rocky jeep track and the occasional bit of slightly boggy ground. I remember running and fast hiking uphill to Little Dod and feeling ecstatic that we were quite possibly not far from Ingram.
We stopped on the approach to the farm at Ewarty Shank so Elaine could change the power pack on her headtorch and then Max dropped the bombshell that he’d actually miscalculated back at the previous marshal point. It was now, at this point, we actually had 10km to go. Honestly, I surprised myself at how well I took this news! I just shrugged it off, laughed and said ‘Well at least we just had a decent section pushing on’. Then we pushed on some more!
This final section is a bit of a blur really. My most vivid memories of this section are climbing over gates – not the easiest thing to do after 50 miles of running. It was at some point over the last 5km that a person appeared from behind us, putting in a real effort. All I saw of the guy was his headtorch bobbing further and further away into the distance until he was gone. With around 4km to go I had to ask Elaine to repay the favour and stop to help me change my headtorch battery – this was much more difficult than I had expected as I realised I couldn’t feel my fingers, I got it done reasonably quickly and we carried on. Max dropped back here as his ITB was causing some difficulty and he encouraged Elaine and I to push on. We did so reluctantly but also, wholeheartedly – the finish was near! Somewhere around Lumsden Hill Elaine and I took a wrong turn and headed downhill to a gate for about 200m – thankfully we both had a realisation that we weren’t on course and quickly turned and headed back uphill. Then, bobbing towards us in the darkness came a headtorch – it rounded the corner in front of us and Elaine called out to see if it was Max. It was! It looked as though we might finish as a group. With 3km to go I began to feel pretty sleepy, Max was struggling with his ITB and so Elaine pushed on to finish ahead of us by about 6 minutes and as second lady, 18th overall.
Coming down the track towards the finish line with Max we had a chat and were running it in fairly sedately. Then Max asked if there was anybody behind us as we had both said we wouldn’t want to be overtaken with a mile to go. I took a quick look back and lo and behold two head torches appeared in the darkness – that was enough for us both to pick up the pace. We climbed the last gate with about 600m to go and I pushed on into the finish with Max not far behind.
It was great to get into Ingram Café to applause, warmth and friendly faces. I waited for Max and then we both went and sat with Elaine to catch up over soup, tea, coke and more tea! Also sitting with us was none other than John Kelly so I felt a bit out of my league to say the least. We all talked about racing and adventures and by the time I got up to go I had already set my mind on a Bob Graham Round in the near future!
It is certainly fair to say that the Cheviot Goat was the most difficult and challenging race I’ve taken in part in to date. It is also fair to say that it was extremely well run and the organisation was spot on – the marshal’s were great and they must be made of strong stuff to be camped out in tents on the highest parts of the course. Would I do this one again? No. Well, maybe. In fact, probably, at some point as I would like to see how I’d fair with traditional route.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, I exceeded my goals and I am proud of the effort. My description of the race on TrainingPeaks when I signed up read:
“A 55 mile hike, run and slog through the dark and blustery Cheviot hills in winter. Certainly my toughest ultra to date with only 1 checkpoint at half way and no course markings. I’ll be happy just to finish this one within the cut-off. Anything under 17 hours will be a massive achievement.”
55 Miles, 3000+m, 12h36m35s, 20th overall.