For those you in the UK that didn't know me yet, which is almost everyone, I’d just arrived in country a week before tackling the Blubberhouses Moor Challenge. I had lived in Germany some time before this, and had begun my long distance running career there by completing many, many German Volksmarches. I was already sniffing around to see if there were any local marches in my newly adopted country. A new acquaintance at an outdoor shop educated me a bit about fell running, which seemed quite close to volksmarching in theory, and yet quite different in practice. More about that in a bit.
When this same guy offered me a spot in the upcoming weekend fell (translation: fell = hill) run, saying “I have this entry all paid but I won’t be able to make it, do you want to run in my place?” I initially offered a few valid excuses, including “I’m out of shape after traveling around the world for the last year, haven’t run farther than 3 miles in a long time, I don’t have Gore-Tex shoes yet, and I’m still living out of my travel suitcase”. Keep in mind that the race was almost a marathon distance on rough trails. But I found myself coming back the next day and taking him up on the offer. So Steve loaned me the correct map, told me the kit I would need, and wished me luck. He also expressed the opinion that Gore-Tex shoes on fell trails are a mistake, as feet won’t dry out as well in them after a good soaking in a soggy, boggy moor.
I took this advice with a bit of skepticism (who actually runs through places where you could get your feet wet, after all?), and got my kit together. For you Americans reading this, kit is all the equipment participants are required to carry ‘round a course. The list varies between events, and generally includes but is not limited to: map, compass, drinking mug, spoon, waterproof jacket and pants, sweater or fleece, hat, gloves, emergency food, cell phone, first aid kit, whistle, emergency bag, race tally, and enough food and some water to get round the course safely. I managed to find most of the required kit by digging in my paragliding bag, which had flown with me directly from the States. Whistle (check), first aid (check), compass (check), jacket (check), etc, etc. A final trip downtown netted a mug and a bright orange emergency bag.
The bulk of the kit was quite a change from the bottle of water and a Ziploc baggie of gummy bears, which had been my packing list for most volksmarches. I stuffed it all in a handy backpack, bundled up in layers, and caught a ride to the start from a new coworker, as I didn’t even own a car yet. The day was overcast, very cool, but not rainy, with forecast winds of up to 20-30 mph. It seemed absurd to line up with a few hundred other people in this kind of weather, but as they say here, “Don’t let the weather change your plans”. Even if said plans include walking and running outdoors for over six hours. At the start they didn’t quibble over the name swap, handed me a tally to keep track of; and we were off.
The route, as I determined much later, was fairly straightforward with easy to follow route descriptions. I had also made a black and white copy of the map section I needed and highlighted the route on it (try pulling out a meter-square folding map in 25 mph wind). But all of this didn’t help me at all. The countryside, signs, trails, markings, and paths were all strange to my newly arrived brain, and without other people to follow around the course, I would still be lost out there somewhere. Oh, and there were no trail markings, just a checkpoint every so often in the middle of nowhere. After the wonderfully well-marked volksmarches in Germany it was quite a shock. So, I managed to keep someone in sight at all times, walking bent over into the wind on landscape the likes of which I had never experienced. It was often easy to do so, as the open moorland was expansive and made the runners ahead of me turn into ants in the distance.
And the moors…I loved them at first sight. Boggy brown slopes covered with heather, pools of water lurking ominously with no way to see their depth, and hilltop views for miles. Ankle-biting rocks, bogs and all, I knew that the moors would call out to me from now on, regardless of the weather. Luckily, my new house would be quite close to the Yorkshire Dales. The trail went up and over a few hills and valleys, and then turned back to the start with the wind. It was a relief to have the gale blowing me home. I managed to keep my feet dry through a ways of the course, carefully picking my way around muddy bits and making huge leaps across reflecting pools that could have been deep enough to hide a Loch Ness monster, I couldn’t tell. At each wet spot, as I slowed to reconnoiter the situation, I lost more ground to my fellow walkers. They seemed to stride through the wetness without stopping, probably relishing in the water now squishing through their toes. At some point on the way back, I came to a menacing bit of water that no amount of jumping would get me over. Precariously balanced on a tussock of grass, a Brit sloshed by unconcernedly, and I was forced at last to soak my shoes, almost losing one entirely to the sucking mud. With newly tightened shoelaces, and soon mud up to my knees, I made my way through a long stretch of very wet bogs, only to hear on the other side from another walker, that “in previous years this stretch was up to my thighs”. WHAT? And you do this for fun?
By the end of the route, though, my shoes were almost dry again, with various new freezing-cold soakings in between. I finished in 6 hours 15 minutes, which in my untrained state was mostly torture and the excitement of a totally new location. And I found myself wondering just how bad it would be to head into thigh-deep bogs, which meant that someday I would probably find out. Maybe next year, Blubberhouses!