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The Northern Traverse

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk from coast to coast, West to East? No? not for you? you are not alone there. But then ask yourself, would you consider running it? 190 miles in just under 88 hours? My answer would definitely still be no.

Not only running it, but racing against other like-minded adventurers, where physical strength and endurance, agile mental strength to carry on, un-supported, in terrain that is unfamiliar and in-hospitable is the norm.

To one member of our club, this was a challenge to be taken head on. I was asked to write up an article about his endeavours, but rather than have myself tell you the story second hand, here, in his own words, is the story of Matt Holt’s epic journey across the North of England – Andy Purll.

“Entries for the 2018 Northern Traverse race opened exactly one year before the race start, and so, on 12 May 2017 at 9am I completed the necessary online procedure to enter.

The Northern Traverse is a race that follows Wainwright’s coast to coast route from St Bees in Cumbria on the Irish Sea coast to Robin Hoods Bay on the North Sea coast. It is 190 miles long and has 28,000 feet of ascent.

The race is non-stop in the sense that once you start at 9am, the clock doesn’t stop until you reached Robin Hoods Bay. Four main support stops are provided at Patterdale (44 miles), Kirkby Stephen (83 miles), Richmond (110 miles) and The Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge (160 miles), where you can get a meal and sleep in a tent, while you are also reunited with your drop bag and a change of clothes.

Competitors have to carry their own kit at all times between checkpoints. They can meet supporters at feed stations and can have people meet them on the course but only for 1km and not meet them more than twice. Runners can’t be brought or passed anything from anyone, although you were allowed to buy food and drink from shops.

9am Saturday 12 May 2018

60 runners started the Northern Traverse at 9am on Saturday 12 May, with a further 45 runners competing in the Lakes Traverse (a course that covered the first 60 miles of the NT course, finishing in Shap) starting at 9.30am.

After 3 miles of heading north following the Irish Sea coastline, we headed east and in land towards the first climb of the race, Dent fell on the edge of Cleator Moor. Although Dent is only 1,167 feet above sea level, it offers exceptional views of the Lakeland mountains to the east, while to the west we could just make out the Isle of Man.

Dropping down through the beautiful Nannycatch Gate we entered Ennerdale and began our run along the South shore of Ennerdale Water. At the far end of the lake we picked up a track for 4 miles to Black Sail Youth Hostel, a most isolated and stunning location for a youth hostel. Just after the YH you ascend Loft Beck, a climb of almost 1,600 feet.

We then dropped steeply down past Honister slate mine and in to Borrowdale. This marked the halfway point on the Lakes Traverse race and we took advantage of the feed station here. Soup, sandwiches, coffee and fruit were consumed while topping up water bottles. After leaving, we had another steep climb of 1,700 feet, which seemed to last forever. Finally, we made it over the highest ground and began another ascent, this time in to Grasmere

From Grasmere we experienced the steepest and longest climb of the day, 1,600 feet of climb up to Grizedale Tarn. Quite a few times I stopped, turned around to take in the stunning views of the valley we had just left, all lit up in the evening sunset.

From Grizedale Tarn I looked up at the towering summits of the Helvellyn range to my left and thanked Wainwright for not adding theses peaks to his official coast to coast route. Another descent, this time 5 miles long, brought me to my first checkpoint of the route in Patterale. This marked 45 miles and over 8,000 feet of ascent, but meant we could eat, sleep and shower, I took advantage of all three.

This was my first ever time in a tent (personally, if someone has to go to the trouble of building an en-suite room with spa facility it is rude not to use it), but I surprised myself by getting about 2 hours sleep in between 2 hours of turning to get comfy, all while a completely un-forecast rain shower drenched Patterdale. Just as well I was under shelter, as the thought of being on the fells in the heavy rain wasn’t exactly tempting me out of sleeping bag.

Sunday 13 May 2018

I got up eventually and packed my drop bag while having some breakfast, then at dawn, as the rain slowed to a drizzle, I left Patterdale for the 5 mile and 2,200 feet climb to the top of Kidsty Pike, the highest point on the whole route. I was pleasantly surprised by how fresh my legs felt and I soon passed a few Lakes Traverse runners as I made it to the top. The most amazing sunrise brought the surrounding mountains to life as I looked down on the low mist in the valley bottom, a totally stunning view.

From here we descended steeply to the north shore of Haweswater, a huge reservoir made to look like a Lakeland water. An undulating path finally ended 4 miles later at the damn wall then across fields to Shap. Here again, we took full advantage of the feed station set up for this finishing the Lakes Traverse, with fried eggs on toast, coffee and pint of skimmed milk from the Co-op.

Refuelled, I set off across the M6 motorway and then ran quite strong across the limestone countryside for about 16 miles until I reached a point where I could see Nine Stanards Ring perched on the horizon. In the last few miles before Kirkby Stephen I met Jonothan and Claire Baker, who ran with me for 5 minutes, then finally reaching Kirkby Stephen I was met at the checkpoint with more words of encouragement from Alex Fawcett. With another 36 miles covered, I headed inside for a shower and change of kit. Jill arrived with sister Ruth shortly after I had started my meal and was great to spend half hour with them before heading to a tent to get some sleep.

Monday 14 May 2018

Although the weather had been sunny and hot with clear blue skies through the day, the clear skies meant temperatures plummeted at night. I woke up at midnight and went to get some breakfast in the warmth of the rugby club. Fried eggs on toast again with loads of coffee, I set off at 1.30am with another runner called Ben. Due to the darkness and cold, we didn’t hang around making the 5 mile climb out of town and up to Nine Standards Rigg. The giant stone monuments were quite a shock as we didn’t see them until the last minute, but on top of the hill in the pitch black darkness and more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life, we could see a thin line of bright orange sunlight starting to appear on the horizon.

The freezing temperatures meant the next few miles were definitely the toughest of the whole route. The peat bogs were covered with a thick frost that soaked and then chilled your feet to the bone, then every few strides, your feet would sink in to knee deep ice cold wet bogs. We had to keep moving as fast as possible to keep our body warmth but was really difficult in the dark to find the best path, then we started descending in to the next valley and it felt like the temperature dropped and ice on the ground thickened.

As the sun came up to light up the opposing hillside we took off our headtorches. Then we passed Keld, and I congratulated Ben (and myself) on reaching the halfway point, 95 miles down, 95 to go.

An undulating few miles around the old lead mine buildings of Gunnerside, I finally took off my OMM insulated jacket, and we descended to Surrender Bridge in the warm sunshine. From here the mile after mile of green fields in Swaledale looked unreal, far too green and perfect. The Swaledale Bike Centre in Reeth provided an official food stop, so Ben and I tucked into sandwiches and coffee (along with Jill who was in Reeth with Sharron to wish us good luck) before setting off for the last 10 miles to Richmond.

The bustling streets of Richmond in the mid afternoon sun were quite a shock to the system after 115 miles of almost deserted countryside. A chance to purchase more milk and rehydrate, we headed for Richmond Rugby Club where checkpoint 3 was housed. After having a meal and showering, Ben noticed his ankle starting to swell and became less able to walk on it, so made the hard but correct decision to withdraw. I went to a tent to sleep and get out of the sun, finally waking up a couple of hours later. Another meal, I got my kit together and headtorch ready as I headed out at 9.30pm. A real boost was Natalie Wood, Jane Grundy, John Grundy, Stuart Pender and Dave Allen coming to wave me off as I made my way towards the A1.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Again the rest had made my legs feel like new, and I made quick progress through Catterick (met there by Lena Conlin who had been stood out in the dark just to give me a hug and wish me all the best before disappearing into the dark). I continued across fields and roads, again the clear sky meaning a cold night, and again wet feet proved hard to get warm. Finally after 23 miles of moving well I reached the A19 and decided to use the petrol station there to grab a coffee. The rest was so good that I had another round on the Costa vending machine.

The morning sun was starting to rise as I crossed the A19 and headed up through the woods on the outskirts of Osmotherly. Marin Whipp popped up to spend a couple of minutes with me and wish me good luck, having made an early morning 50 mile detour on his way to work.

Although I knew the route quite well up to here, I was now on home ground, having run this next 20 miles many, many times. The constant rises and falls over this section of North Yorks Moors were quite enjoyable, and once again Claire Baker join me for another kilometre running and words of encouragement.

After Clay Bank Top is a long section of never ending dismantled railway line, flat and boring, each turn reveals another mile of the same. I decided to get this over as quickly as possible, and despite the blazing sun and soaring heat, I picked of the last 6 miles in pretty good time.

Finally, the Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge marked the end of this section. 14 hours after leaving Richmond I felt really good having covered this 44 mile section in better than expected time. I decided to stick to my new found winning formula of shower, meal, sleep, meal pack kit, run. A real boost came knowing Jill would be joining me for my meal before I left, I was so relaxed I almost didn’t want to leave our dining table in the garden of the pub.

A number of runners who I knew by name or sight had long left when I put my kit bag back on, but as I ran off from the Lion Inn, my legs again felt strong and I picked off a couple of them off in the 10 mile section to Glaisedale, running really well. Another 10 mile section included to climb out of Grosmont, a gruelling road section, but I still felt great and ready to tackle the last 10 miles through Littlebeck and Hawsker.

The last 9 miles needed the head torch and navigation was harder in the dark, with a few minor mistakes being made and progress now slower. Knowing Jill was allowed to run the last three miles with me kept me thinking positively and finally I dropped down to the caravan park where the route re-joins the Cleveland Way to Robin Hoods Bay.

A hug from Jill, we set off to complete the last section, but I was quite thirsty having run out of water. It wasn’t easy watching Jill drink from her bottle but as she was not allowed to pass me anything, I just kept my head down and pressed on. Jill ran just ahead of me allowing me to follow her feet in the head torch light and making the last section pass quickly. Finally, the terraced streets of Robin Hood Bay were there and all that was left was a knee crunching agonising steep drop to the North Sea.

Race organisor James Thurlow was there to hand me my medal, the first I had ever received in the dark at 12.53am. And that was it………..well nearly. James then announced that all finishers have the pleasure of running the half mile or so back up the steep bank and back to the village hall, the quickest winning a free entry to his 50 mile Lakes In A Day race in October. I managed 7 minutes 20 seconds, not a winning time, which at the time I was quite pleased about.

A great, unforgettable, brilliantly organised event by people who really want you to have the best experience. Many thanks from me to James and his team, to Jill for scooping me up at the end, and the countless number of RR members who supported me on the route.”

For the record, 60 runners set out to complete the event, 55 succeeded, Matt finished in 22nd place overall, in a stunning time of 87 hours and 53 mins. Congratulations Matt, and rest easy