I’ve long known what it’s like to have a home field advantage. At Barkley, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. The first time I ran it I was shocked to see how shocked people were by the terrain. In ultrarunning just the mential stress caused by misaligned expectations can often present a large problem, let alone the lack of proper preparation. Running in the cold is fine. Running in the heat is fine. Running in one when you expect the other (or both in one day) is often disastrous.
And so when Jim Rutherford picked me up to head to the Cheviot Goat Race, I thought I had an idea of what the race would be like. It would be wet, there would be some bogs, but I mean, it couldn’t be much worse than Paddy Buckley on the Grand Round, right? I’ve dealt with that stuff before. It would be fine. And with work having been overwhelmingly busy leading into the race, I just hadn’t been able to prioritize giving it any more thought than that.
Welcome, won’t you stay (stuck) awhile
We got started early in the morning, in what I’ve come to consider rather good conditions for English mountain weather. It was expected to get increasingly bad through the day, though, so the course had been reversed to get the higher more exposed section out of the way early. A group of 7 of us headed up the first climb together. Near the top I looked back down to see an incredible, beautiful trail of lights behind me leading all the way back down through the valley. I hadn’t realized there were so many people in the race and thought at first I was seeing a busy morning commute on a highway (except it was Saturday).
Our lead group started to split in half at the top. I was hanging off of the back of the first half when I took a slight miscalculation on the path and stepped on something that looked like ground just slightly to the right of where the others had gone.
Before I knew what had happened I was standing waist deep in a bog. I couldn’t move my legs. At all. I thought quicksand had been invented by Hollywood, but here I was. I looked behind me, wondering if I was going to have to wait on someone to pull me out. I reached out with my pole and found there was solid ground just a few feet in front of me. I lunged forward and grabbed it, slowly pulling myself out.
Shortly after, largely to my relief, the next group caught up to me. We stayed together up to the Cheviot and on the descent two of us broke away. It turned out to be Galen Reynolds, and I found myself running alongside a bearded, gluten-intolerant Canadian with initials GR. Why does this seem familiar? Galen was great company, and it was good to get to pick his brain a bit about Tor Des Geants, where he has had tremendous success.
We ended up getting a bit closer than intended, though. The Penine Way was actually laid with stones for that portion, with those stones occasionally being slightly covered with murky water. I stepped on what I assumed was one of those spots, only to subsequently find myself completely buried in mucky slop. Galen immediately came crashing on top of me. I hadn’t found myself thrashing about in the water like that since my last triathlon. When we climbed out we both enjoyed a good laugh, compeletely covered in mud. Two North Americans do Northumbria: a comedy.
We stayed together until the half way point, where we grabbed some food from our drop bags and continued on. He got out ahead of me a little, but I stayed close behind until taking another unintended excursion. There were no course markings, and in many places no discernible path, but there was a GPS track that I had loaded onto my watch.
Unfortunately it was not behaving as expected. I mention this only in case someone has had a similar experience and knows how to fix it. The watch wasn’t showing the exact route, it was showing straight lines between waypoints on the route. So where there were curves it differed quite significantly, and in one case I found myself going down through a sheep pasture, over a fence, and down and back up a steep overgrown ravine (hooray, Barkley terrain!). The strangest thing is that my watch seemed to know where the correct path was, telling me I was off course when I followed the displayed route if it diverged from the actual route. So it’s as if it just wasn’t displaying it correctly.
In any case, by the time I found my way back onto the course Galen was out of sight. He went on to have an incredible second half and came away with the win. Meanwhile I wouldn’t see another runner for the remainder of the race, not in front of or behind me. I repeatedly strayed from the best path and found myself wandering through fields of heather, where running seemed like a gauranteed way to break an ankle or end up in another bog, this time never to be seen again.
I did manage to make it to the finish before the weather got really bad, and I only needed to take my headlamp back out for the last few miles. I came in 4th, fortunately well behind 3rd place or otherwise the sting of finishing one spot off the podium would have hurt a bit more.
I got to hang around in the cafe at the end and chat for a while before heading out to completely destroy my hotel shower with peat bog filth. The race was put on by great people and was a wonderful event. I may not have gone home with any extra hardware but I did take away what was for me a truly unique experience.
Until we meet again
The Cheviot Goat was great preparation for The Spine, which I have in just a few weeks. Learning the terrain features, what to look out for, and how important it is to stick to the right path, will of course be a big help, but just as importantly my expectations will more closely align with reality. There won’t be another shocking moment from being waist deep in a bog and not knowing what to do. I’ve never been on the bad end of a course where local knowledge is so important, and I actually have a much greater appreciation now for the challenge faced by people who show up at Barkley having never been in the Tennessee mountains. I’m just glad I won’t have that introduction in January when I set out for 268 miles.
Gear and nutrition
Despite the conditions being pretty unusual for me, my gear was my pretty standard setup. Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.
I used a pair of La Sportiva Kaptiva GTX with winter running gaiters in hopes that my feet might stay somewhat dry. They actually did really well until I went waste deep in a bog, at which point nothing short of waders would have helped me.
I went with an Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest, which did very well carrying the rather extensive kit list (the weather can turn nasty quickly, and people can get stuck out there for a while).
My XOSKIN long sleeved shirt, calf sleeves, and socks (toe socks with normal socks over top) kept me comfortable, warm, and chafe-free, and my standard nutrtition plan did quite well at this race: Perpeteum to start and at mid-way, with Hammer gels and a bar distributed over the rest of the race.
I did have to enjoy my first Irn-Bru while I was up there, though. Speaking of unique experiences… that one hit the spot.