Surely, the best way to run an Ultra

If you’ve run for about four and half hours and covered nineteen miles with a couple of thousand feet of ascent, I reckon it’s okay to spend the afternoon watching footie with your feet up.  That’s where I am, now – Mbappe has just put his second into the net for France and the pundits are lamenting the end of Messi’s glory days. I’ve had a massive piece of cake, I’ve just brewed another pint of tea and the dodgy ankle is on ice. Everything should be rosy, but I feel something that’s akin to guilt. Some of the runners I set out with this morning are still completing an epic journey. 

The full Pendle Odyssey route is 60km, but it was never my plan to cover the whole distance. Half of it seemed perfect (actually, it seemed daunting, but my arm was subjected to a small amount of twisting and I agreed to give it a go). 30km is further than I’ve run for years. It was further than some of today’s runners had ever covered, and as we approached the 30km mark, I was happy to call it a day. But, still, there’s that feeling, that there was more running in the legs and that I could have managed more. 

I’ve never ventured into Ultra territory. To be frank, before today, I thought that running the longer distances was a tad masochistic, and although I’ve still to venture into Ultra territory, this morning’s run was enough to change my mind and show me that it could be both great fun and a rewarding experience. It was, apart from the last hundred yards or so, really very enjoyable.

But, if I was to give an Ultra a go, I’d insist on certain conditions.  I’d want the ambient temperatures to be lower than they were this morning. I would cancel the flies that plagued us as we ran past Fell Wood, and I’d lower all climb-over stiles by several inches, but I’d want the views to be every bit as incredible, the terrain to be as varied and the company to be just as good. And I’d want the LTR guides to be the organisers because they did a cracking job on this one. 

There was never a moment that I didn’t feel supported, and throughout there was real camaraderie. Nobody was trying to beat anybody because we weren’t competing. Unlike a race, we knew names, not numbers, and even though some of us were only going to cover half the distance, there was no sense of us and them. It was about respecting each person’s effort, not trying to do better than them.  Everyone was looking after everybody else, calling out hazards, offering helping hands, sharing sweets, salt tablets, sun block and anti-chafing cream. Every few miles, we’d round a corner, and there would be Sarah, waiting with a car full of goodies: icy cold water, fruit, cakes, savouries, and bags of encouragement. 

Later, when Beau stepped into the support role, he ferried those who’d chosen the short version of the event back to the start. As we sat nattering on the journey, it became very clear just how far we’d actually run – something that’s perhaps not so obvious on a circular route – and it was amazing and inspiring to think that some of our party were out there, completing the circuit. Half of me was envious. The other half was relieved. 

We’d already seen an awful lot of Lancashire, and despite the warmth, the clear blue skies were a treat. At one point, on Pendle Hill, we had views into the distance in every direction. Yorkshire’s Three Peaks were blue in the haze. White smoke billowed from Winter Hill’s burning peat. Wind turbines looked tiny, reservoirs shone like sapphires.  At lower levels, we’d passed through villages and farmland where cattle lazed in the sun and sheep had nabbed the shade of hedgerows. We’d dropped into shaded cloughs, crossed brooks and kicked up the dust on meandering sheep tracks. 

Our route took us roughly west from Barrowford. I say roughly because we started heading north-west, and then we did some zigging and zagging through Laund, Fence and Higham. That might sound as though I knew where I was. I didn’t, I was just having fun, watching the butterflies, feeling the swish of ryegrass, savouring the patches of shade. We took in cobbled lanes with iron turnstiles, we crossed newly shorn meadows and ran within inches of an unshorn ewe who wasn’t willing to give up her shady spot for anyone.  

After an easy 10k, we found Sarah, took a few minutes to top up on food and fluids and then heard the cheery news that the second 10k was much tougher, having the bulk of the route’s ascent. It was, however, just as stunning: more of the glorious weather, occasional welcome breezes. We took a trip up to Newchurch then headed out onto the moorland where the peat was turning to dust and the vegetation was dry as bone. Then, to everyone’s surprise, we discovered some still damp earth and remembered the joys of sinking into soft, black mud. The route wandered through tall rushes and climbed. And climbed. And climbed some more. 

At just after ten miles, we reached the high point, crossed Spence Moor and then followed a broad descent route down to the Nick of Pendle where, once again, Sarah was waiting with a cool-box full of water and piles of flapjack. Roughly 20k in the bag and feeling fine.

A long straight section followed, level and swift, but there was a short, sharp shock waiting and we headed uphill again, some runners taking in a quick scramble, whilst others bypassed the long disused quarry and admired the views of the Whalley viaduct dwarfed by the distance.

We headed to Wiswell, a gorgeous, manicured spot of fine houses and scruffed our way through. Then it was back across fields heading towards the southern side of Clitheroe. It was definitely getting warm, dropping into the shade was wonderful, emerging into the sunlight unavoidable. We passed under the railway line, then turned and passed under it again. We tested stepping stones. I found them too widely spaced and chose to paddle across a shallow stream, then we headed towards the Ribble and followed it north. 

We were very nearly at the halfway point. The river banks were filled with families celebrating summer. A miniature railway circuited a stand of trees, there were ice-cream vans and picnics, the sight of a fabulous stone-built bridge. This must be Edisford – our goal. We’d done it (or we’d done half of it). Except we hadn’t, quite, and whereas I’d stopped running, others hadn’t. Trying to talk the legs into starting again wasn’t easy, but it was only another hundred yards or so before we reached the support vehicles and Beau and Sarah who were waiting to feed and water us.

Into the shade, scoffing food, cooling down, realising that what I’d thought would finish me off, hadn’t. But while I was letting that sink in, others were sorting their feet, topping up water bladders, stretching and prepping to set off and run another 30km of trails back to Barrowford during the hottest part of the day.

Half of us piled into the LTR van. The others set out on foot. We passed them and waved and then we were gone, and they were en route. Sarah was, no doubt, already sorting things for the next pit stop. 

I’d love to tell you what happened next, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t, and that’s a regret. But I’m pleased with what I achieved, and I had a simply wonderful few hours. And if I was to have completed the second half of this superb Pendle Odyssey, I know it would have been amazing. Knackering, but amazing.   

If you’re going to run an Ultra, choose one like this.

Kate Woodward