19 Apr Long Mynd Valleys: English Champs Fell Race
I’d signed up for the Muddy Woody sometime in 2022. It had come recommended as something I’d very much enjoy. Woods, single track, mud, hills: Sounds great! Sunday 12th February 2023 sorted.
Then the Long Mynd Valleys popped up. Just 20 minutes up the road from home, a classic fell race. Not just a local race, something folks travel for. A bit too vertiginous for me to be competitive but some glorious descents and on home turf. Saturday 11th Feb. Ooh. 11.5 miles and 4500 feet, my legs will notice that at the Muddy Wood … maybe not then.
But it was announced that it would be the opening race in the ’23 English Fell Championships. Now, I was under no illusion that victory was attainable, or even that I could make top 20. But to pit myself against the best in the country, that’d be something. So, I waited for open entries as I was neither guaranteed nor FRA and as soon as they went live, I entered. A whole £18 of pain, positively expensive for a fell race but alongside a comparable trail or road race, a bargain. The Muddy Woody is more my strength, but this was an opportunity. I could always do the Woody next year.
And thus, I found myself in Cardingmill Valley a couple of times to recce the course. I know the Stretton Hills well, but not so intimately that I can find the fastest sheep trod to a little re-entrant! A few missed turns, some faffing about walking up and down to find the optimal line, and that infernal climb up Yearlet. Both outings took well over 2 hours, knocking on 3! I’ll be lucky to see top 100!
Race day arrived. I did a gentle warm up, light jogging, some strides and stretches, and I found myself in the general mingling of scrawny, scantily clad runners with the unmistakable parfum de fell runner permeating the air, sweat, Deep Heat and aged Helly Hansens. I remember a similar feeling at the Langdale race. The heat of the press keeping my bare shoulders warm, an odd comfort from the smell of locker room.
I don’t think anyone really knew where the start was, not even the organiser. A banner saying START, was midway down the pack, by me. I tried to edge forwards, but the crowd was too dense.
After a brief introduction we were off, over 300 pairs of studs drumming up the tarmac to the first climb. I move to the outside and start overtaking, tightening up my bumbag as it settles on my hips. Trusting it’ll come together on the day and bring me below 2 hours at the finish. I start the first climb up to the highest golf course in England, well out of the top 50. But I take my time, this is the first of many increasingly long and steep climbs. I overtake those eager few who climbed too hard and as it flattens, I gain 10 places or so.
Next I picked up a rapid single track down into Jonathon’s Hollow, and a gentle climb up the first eponymous valley, steadily ticking off places. Then a sudden sharp left up a stream. I hadn’t recced this, didn’t know it existed! But who am I to ignore the mob. I knew there was a corner to cut around here but never figured it out. A steep scrabble up, then it opens to about 4 km of very gentle climb over grass and track. Knowing my weakness is the stiff climbs, I decide to make hay and push on, trying to balance racing to my strengths with going too hard and having nothing for the final climbs. So, I see myself gain another bunch of places, as we make Ashes Hollow and the first check-point dibber.
Ashes Hollow is a fantastic descent. A relatively mild gradient but technical, right up my street. Time to show these tourists what I have! I gain a couple of spots, putting in effort to overtake on what little verge to the narrow path there is at the top. Then we come to a choice, cross the stream and take the softer route, or cut directly down the rocks, a metre of craggy drop. I choose the rocks and take two places, a kind fellow who took the easier path letting me have it as I burst out just ahead of them. It’s a committing route, and one I’ve never raced at speed, but as with any downhill it is confidence. Confidence in your footing, confidence in the ground, confidence in gravity, and don’t resist! A single held back step could easily see a nasty fall there, but this was racing at a national level. So, I carried on down the hollow, dancing over the rocks, bounding the stream, skipping round tussocks as another handful see the red flash of my bumbag.
I reach Narnell’s Rock and start the next climb. No easy overtaking as this is a steep sided bank up a stream. I use the opportunity to rest a bit, as long as I’m not taken. Then I notice a yellow vest, from Mercia. A top local fell runner in my sights. He’s a few minutes ahead. I am bewildered and reckon this must be the leading pack. The ground flattens, my legs roll into a run and we bash our way through the heather over the Round Hill col and into Callow Hollow, where the actual lead pack can be seen. Still, this is a good spot, top 20. Let’s keep it this way.
I’m overtaken on the climb over the col, but I work the descent hard. It is steep, real steep and the quads disagree, but I find the well-trodden, dare I even call it a path, more a gap in heather clinging to the vertiginous side of the valley. I gain on my overtaker and shadow them up to the northern flank of Minton Hill, hounding them as we both close on three others.
Then it’s down into Minton Batch. Another descent similar to Ashes, but a narrower path. I get frustrated, sat behind someone. We’re still tanking but I feel like I have more, and I know it’s the big climb coming so want to make the most of my strong descents. I go down a gear or two, the engine revs hard, and I leap past on a narrow strip of grass. One down. Then another as I take the high ground. The next is had when they veer too high themselves and I accelerate through a puddle to have them just before they drop back onto the path.
I work the valley hard, maybe too hard. The next climb up Windy Batch is tough but short. One goes past me, but they take a less direct route down to Callow Hollow. The group ahead veer around Wernshin, a path I reckon to be better going but less direct. I stick to my known route and the Ambleside runner ahead of me does the same. But they stay high, keeping out of the dead bracken. I barrel down the 57% gradient crashing through the bracken, no path, just straight line it, using the undergrowth to break my 500 foot fall, ignoring the dried stalks cutting into my shins. I come out 10 m ahead of Ambleside onto the track. Those that went the longer way round Wernshin probably had the better line, being further ahead now. I know for next time, but what a drop I had!
A brief single track gently up Callow Hollow then sharp right up Grindle Hollow and two overtake me on the climb. It’s soft underfoot going up past the stream, each step sucked into some mud: I’m really starting to struggle on the climbs now and at the top, take the longer but flatter route round Small Batch to Nils, only just maintaining a run on the milder gradient. I see two take the direct but hillier route down and out of the batch and they have me. I don’t gain anyone as we descend off Nils into Ashes Hollow. Maybe I got some time, but no places. That drop hurt, firm grass, losing 700 feet in half a mile. Dib at the bridge then up Ashes Hollow. A big easy track but my legs are really not happy now. And I know what is yet to come…Yearlet.
This is it, the steepest, longest climb. The direct route up the nose is 750 feet in under half a mile. Or you can go up the valley for about 1 km, all runnable. So ignoring the leaders going up the nose I risk the run up the valley, then realise it won’t be a run, certainly not on these legs and cut straight up the side after a few hundred metres. Possibly the worst route choice, afterwards a few people tell me the nose is quicker by maybe half a minute.
And so, I made it up the final climb, another two places lost and nearly broken but downhill from here. Utterly brutal, but I recover myself as my legs grind their way from a piston like motion and start rolling over. Trying not to fall on the sharp drop to the ridge above Devil’s Mouth. My legs slowly recover, and I retake into my final placing. It’s hard kept though, as we hare down the ridge, on the easy going grass before it drops off violently down some very soft and loose soil. The end is in sight, those at the finish line can see us, so I forget the pain and plummet. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s only dirt, any fall would be survivable. A rogue dog darts in the way, we just avoid it, and I reach a stream. I know it’s here, but I’m caught at an awkward stride, pretty much stop and unceremoniously bunny hop over. Aware of my pursuer, I scramble up the bank and sprint to the finish, just holding them off. Done it!
I download my time, 1.38. Blimey! Last year’s winning time was 1.41, the old record was 1.33. The top 6 this year broke it. The conditions were perfect for a fast time, firm ground, comfortable weather, though I’d prefer some more mud! The final results put me in 17th. Against the best in the country, I came 17th! I will confess, I had got my hopes up, and would be lying if I said I didn’t want to win. Of course, I do, I always do, even if it’s not realistic. But it was a good race, and I can’t win them all.
I can try though. The next day I drove down to Haugh Woods with Laura for the Muddy Woody, 6 miles, 700 odd feet of ascent. I was sore, and Laura wasn’t feeling great after a long run but we’d signed up. I got my excuses out of the way at the start and it was a painful race. But worth it, I’d take a victory with two minutes to second place any day, even on fresh legs.
I worked the downhills hard, really hard, knowing it was my only chance. The climbs would have me, but I dug and singlemindedly kept the legs going. The single track winding its way through the woods, a soothing balm compared to the thumping fire roads.
This was a great course, drier this year though and with more fire track apparently, but, the single track, the hills, the river, the little cliff, all truly fabulous. I can’t wait to have a crack when it’s properly muddy.
By Oliver Perratt