The Pennine Barrier 50

When I began my running journey back in 2015 I would have never have dreamt of covering 50 miles. 50 miles. 80km. This weekend however I did exactly that. I completed the Pennine Barrier 50. 50 miles taking in the Yorkshire 3 peaks and across 2 fells. This wasn't an ordinary ultra, this was the ultimate 50 miles and one which has been called the toughest in the UK.

My alarm sounded at 2am on Saturday morning and given my 2 hours of sleep I was rather tempted to hit the snooze button. I looked at the three sleeping children in my bed and whilst I wanted to stay and cuddle them a bit longer I climbed very quietly out of bed and began to get ready. I'd laid out my kit the night before so as to not cause too much noise, and quickly got myself dressed. My friend arrived outside to drive me to the race, it was a cool morning and the nerves began to creep in.

Breakfast was eaten in the car during the 2hour journey, although in truth I wasn't hungry instead knowing I would need the fuel later on I forced myself to eat. I tried to sleep but the nerves and excitement instead took over. The roads started to get narrower and the countryside began to unfold in front of us.

Before long we had arrived at the showground in Malham. A sea of tents and camper vans lay dotted in the field. I wish I had thought about doing this as I would have gotten a much better night sleep. It was too late to dwell on this now, I needed to get out the car and take my race kit ready for inspection.

I always feel anxious at kit inspection. Sometimes I feel a bit of a fraud, not having the latest in running tech but instead the very basics. With kit check passed, a disclaimer signed and my number in hand I walked out of the registration tent to be greeted by a dog who simply wanted to play fetch with this stick he had. I threw the stick for a while and in some way this seemed to ease my mind and make me forget about the enormity of the challenge ahead.

The sun had begun to appear over the mountains/hills in the distance and the fine mist over the tops was slowly beginning to burn away. The air was cold but with a real buzz around the showground. You got a sense that many of the other runners knew each other and this was a real community. I joined the start line, my mind still not comprehending what was about to happen and instead focusing on the first check point. I had 3 hours to get to the first check point. This was all I kept telling myself. Just three hours.

A 15 minute delay on the start line brought about extra pre race nerves. Runners nervously chatting to each other about previous ultras. Unlike road races no one mentioned pace, time was an approximation and most people seemed to have the game plan to walk all the up hills. Although nervous I felt at ease, I felt part of a community. Then the starting whistle went.

We were off, a nice steady pace out through Malham and up towards Malham cove. A nice run through the village and then a turn onto a limestone path towards the cove. A sea of runners ahead, I could see the front runner and I wasn't too far from them. It was all very relaxed. Runners all talking to their partners, discussing race strategies and plans for future races. Ahead the stairs leading up Malham cove. Limestone steps that we seemed to climb up forever. My legs were burning as I climbed up those steps. It gave comfort hearing even the runners at the front saying the same.

Hopping over the rocks at the top to make our way over the fell to Malham Tarn. I watched in awe as some of the faster runners simply skimmed the top of each rock. Almost dancing, they made it look effortless. The terrain became very rocky underfoot, a challenge to myself but not to others, before opening up to grass and finally the road. Here was a short out and back section, that in all honesty seemed to go on forever but I am so glad it was at the beginning of the race and not the end. Once that was out of the way it was onwards to Malham Tarn.

Malham Tarn was just beautiful. Stunning to run around. The path easy to run underfoot and with little incline it was just beautiful. I perhaps shouldn't have taken my time soaking in the views and ensuring I had energy for later in the race but I have no regrets in doing so, I did what was right on the day. Through the trees and a shaded path up towards the visitor centre. I regret not waiting for the ladies toilet at this point as it would be another 6 hours before the opportunity to go would present itself. However run past I did and down the road before turning right to head towards Malham moor.

The path became rocky again with some parts runnable and others needed a bigger skill set than I have at running to run through. I continued on regardless. Walking when I couldn't run but always moving forward. Eventually we appeared to be running through farmers fields and the farm track became visible in the distance, along with Fountains fell.

Through the farm and a sharp, sudden incline before some serious fell running. I rather enjoyed this part, crossing through mini streams, dodging rocks and off course bogs. The terrain kept changing and it really kept me on my toes. My watch beeped to say 10 mile and I now knew the checkpoint was getting closer. Round the bend and finally a downhill. I let gravity take over, disengaged my brain and went for it. Passing at least 6 runners, and a dog, before reaching the road at the bottom. The steep descent had given me a boost and I used it to continue up to the first check point. I had made it with time to spare and my friend was there waiting for me too.

I'd decided not to stay too long in each check point. I am not one of the fastest runners and time was never going to be on my side so to give myself a chance of finishing in time I had made the decision to spend as little time as possible at each one. I quickly grabbed a drink and a few bits to eat and pushed on towards the first of the three peaks, Pen-y-Ghent. As I left the check point I heard someone shout, 'this is where the real race begins' 

I knew what to expect, I have done the three peaks before and told myself I would never do them again, yet here I was scrambling up Pen-y-Ghent. I had hit traffic. Walkers everywhere. The steep climb was giving me bad vertigo and I just wanted to get to the top for that lovely run downhill. More walkers. They seemed to be everywhere. My vertigo was getting worse and I had to now use my hands to scramble up the rock face. Eventually I made it. I was at the top. Now the fun could begin.

Limestone steps are an absolute pain to run down. They mess with your natural stride length and cause pain in your legs. I opted to run down the grass at the side. I lost count of the amount of times I shouted 'Excuse me' as I tried to gain some speed on the down hill. There was myself and 2 other runners before 1 of them left us and ran ahead. We continued onwards together and the miles quickly ticked away.

Running, walking, chatting, all forward motion. Walkers starting to over crowd and get in the way slightly but we carried on the best we could. The long drag I remember from last time was over rather quickly and I was soon back on the road heading towards check point 2. I was in shock at how quick it seemed to go and was eager to get on to the second peak and also the half way point.

Whernside is my nemesis. The one I wasn't looking forward to. I continued with a run/walk on the way up. My legs were on fire and I had to keep stopping to let the pain disappear. Upwards I went, until we finally hit the bend and you see you are on the top. I seemed to get a sudden boost of energy and started running. I started running down Whernside. I was not going to let it beat me this time so I continued running. In all honesty I could not believe I was actually running down Whernside. I was passing walkers who were asking how I was doing it. The truth is I don't think. Completely disengage brain. My friend was once again waiting at the bottom for me and we ran into the cafe at the base. I used the facilities before eating a nice cold ice cream whilst walking to the next check point. 

I am not really sure what happened at this checkpoint, maybe I spent too long at it. Maybe it was the fact I knew I was about to climb Ingleborough. Whatever it was my body was filled with nausea. My legs did not want to run over the limestone path in front. I was overtaken by walkers, my legs felt like lead weights. My stomach churning. My mind lost to the soundtrack of Moana. I stared at Ingleborough in front of me. Watching people scrambling up the rock face. I knew what needed to be done. It made the sickness worse.

Ingleborough was a slow and steady scramble. I had to use my hands to steady myself, my legs had turned to jelly. I could not look to my right, the vertigo kept creeping in and I felt more and more light headed and nauseous. I felt tears rolling down my cheeks, exhaustion maybe?, or perhaps my fear of heights had got to me. One foot, then one hand, as I scrambled up the rock face. GB Ultras passing me on the way day, GoPro in hand. Nice I thought, I've been smiling up until this point and you catch me crying and clinging to a rock face. Onwards I went, then I could see it, that point in Ingleborough where you know you are nearly there. That last scramble before the long walk over the rocks to the top.

Turn around at the top to walk over the rocks and begin the descent. The paths made for a nice run/walk and I used the opportunity to ring my children and tell them I was almost there. It felt good talking to them and just listening to their voices. I was feeling good, but my legs had decided they had had enough. What should have been a lovely quick run off Ingleborough turned into a laborious mind game. Willing myself to move faster but the lead weights strapped to my legs refusing to. Every corner I turned I was looking for my friend, I knew once I saw him I would be nearly at the next check point.

The next check point was ahead and then I knew it was only four miles until the final point. I needed plain biscuits in an attempt to ease the nausea I was feeling. I knew it was down to exhaustion. Tiredness from only 2 hours sleep the night before and the previous 34 miles. I grab some biscuits and re filled my water bottles. Just 4 miles until the next and final check point. I could do that. A quick pit stop before I was on my way again. My friend by my side as I began the journey once again up Pen-Y-Ghent. 

The rolling fields of Pen-Y-Ghent lay ahead and the summit was getting closer with each step. I knew I was not going all the way to the top this time and could not wait to see the gate which meant I could turn right and head down the hill. It seemed to take forever, and I was starting to feel the cold but pushed on. Eventually it appeared in the distance and I knew then I could make up some lost time with a nice run down the track.

Through the gate I went and I seemed to gain some extra energy as I ran down that hill. The track passed by in no time and my friend was once again waiting for me at the bottom. The final check point. 11 miles to go.

I was still well within my desired time of 15 hours, in fact I knew if I really pushed I could get close to 14. I was feeling positive and didn't hang around at the checkpoint. I grabbed a drink in my cup and a biscuit and began walking the route towards Fountain fell. My friend accompanied me to the bottom of the fell and left me in good spirits. I was nearly there. 

At the start of the climb I was feeling good, it had only taken a matter of minutes to descend earlier and I didn't think it would take long to reach the top. Only it seemed to take forever. I was getting over taken. I began to feel a little down and just longed to reach the top. I began tripping over the rocks underfoot and the climb seemed to last forever. The wind kept picking up and with it a cold spell. It would disappear as quickly as it came and the warmth of the day would appear again. I didn't really think anything of it.

Finally the descent and all I can remember is thinking 'you need to get off this fell and out the wind' I was getting cold. I didn't seem to have the energy to run anymore. I began snacking on the food I had brought and longed to see the farm from earlier that day.

I don't really remember much more about the descent. I vaguely remember a lady trying to talk to me and the next thing I remember is a lady runner telling me to put my base layer on and a guy would be along soon. I have a vague memory of sitting at the side of a path and someone shoving clothes on me. T-shirts, base layers, coats, gloves, hat. I can remember shaking and feeling cold. No way I was stopping with 6 miles left. One foot in front of the other. That's exactly what I did.

With the aid of a fellow runner [I won't name as I don't know if they are happy for me to], I began to regain some kind of normality. I was warming up and started to notice where I was and knew there wasn't long left. The beautiful Malham Tarn was in front, perhaps more beautiful than earlier with the sun-setting behind it. 

I was nearly there. Nearly home. Nearly completing my first 50. My 15 hour had completely gone out the window and now I just wanted to get to that finish line. Once again navigating the rocks of Malham cove, perhaps trickier in some ways as we were now descending rather than ascending but slowly we made it.

It was time for a final loop. You could see the finish on your right as you looped through the fields passed it. I had a stone in my shoe and a large blister but I continued. Nearly there now. The fields ended and we had a forest path to navigate. The light fading, legs aching, knees no longer my own. There was confusion as to how long left, 3 miles, 5 miles, 2 miles and then we heard feet running behind us. Pounding the pavement and fast movement. Just under a mile they shouted at us. 

I tried with every fibre of my body to run again. Confused as to what to believe. Knowing I couldn't sustain any sort of pace for over 2 miles and scared to fail at the last hurdle. Scared my body would pack in given what it had been through. I tried. I put everything into that last run. It felt like an eternity.

The lights of the finish line appeared, I was on the opposite side of the road. Screw it I thought and I ran, slowly but I was moving. Down the canal path and over the bridge. The last bit of road lay ahead of me. I could smell home now and there was no way I was stopping or slowing down. Pushing the pain and tiredness to one side I ran down that road and into the field with the finish line. I crossed the line in just over 16 hours. I'd done it.

I stood at the finish line in shock. Pure shock and disbelief. I had done it. I'd just completed 50 miles. I stood and held my medal, I simply couldn't believe it. 50 miles. The best soup I had ever tasted followed soon after crossing the finish line and midges clearly like the taste of people who have just run 50 miles, I found this out whilst stretching. It was time to go home.

I won't lie, that was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Brutal in places, but it was incredible. I would do it again 100% and plan to sign up again in 2020, I have already signed up to another of GB Ultras races for 2019. There is always a part of you that wonders 'what if', but the achievement of what I did far out weighs this. In 2020 I will be back and I honestly can't wait. 

If you are thinking of doing your first ultra I cannot recommend GB Ultras high enough. I want to thank every volunteer and every single person who made the Pennine Barrier race such an incredible experience. The team are simply amazing. A special thank you to my amazing ultra running friend who covered over 30 miles simply running out and backs at check points and looking after me on the day. An absolute fantastic support, thank you.

Photos have been used with permission from GB Ultras

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  1. brilliant account.. I have just had a mauling at the GB24 Hour race in whinlatter and only completed 5 laps.. i managed to get through the M2L in april... but truth be known i was feeling sorry for myself till i read this...i,m scared of heights and have been pondering whether to press the button on this race for the 22 june in a couple of weeks. Reading your account has inspired me to go ahead and give it my best shot...thanks for this.. you have made my regards...Tom McAteer


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