I’m cold, very cold, I’m wet through, it’s the early hours of the morning and I haven’t seen another runner or even the glimpse of a head torch since I started running this section several hours ago. The rain is unrelenting and even the heavy goretex I’m wearing isn’t keeping it out.
I’ve spent hours already wading through torrential rain on flooded paths that now resemble raging streams hiding the uneven rocky surface below. Add to this that I’m off route and my head torch batteries have just died.
Oh shit! I’m scared…….I’m scared of being lost, scared of getting too cold, scared of being alone, scared of the dark, I’d be scared of my shadow except it was too black for one. For a brief moment my world has imploded with fear.
The day had started at a leisurely 10am. Overnight rain had softened the ground but the sun was out and it promised to be a stunning day in the Peak District, I had entered the 12 Labours of Hercules event which was put on this year by Peak Trails Ltd.
The 12 Labours of Hercules is a 24hr race based on 12 routes from one to 12 miles. Each route has a task to perform based on the Hercules legend. It sounded fun and with the Dark Peak as it’s backdrop it promised to be a super weekend. There were lots of friends old and new there and it was a pleasure to meet the race director Billy, his wife Zoe and their son who were to feed and superbly look after us runners during the event.
I’d planned on starting with the 12 mile leg and working my way down as I went. The briefing changed that idea as leg four had some tricky navigation requiring compass bearings, leg 8 had to be completed before 6pm and several of the routes were recommended in daylight.
So off I set with this new plan in mind and all was going really well. The views were amazing and early on there were lots of other runners about to chat and run along with. The sun blazed all afternoon and the 11 mile leg was a little uncomfortable in the heat but worth it for the views. As I wasn’t racing this one I could afford to take it easy and just appreciate being here.
With my new race strategy I had to work out the new order for completing the routes and mulling it over in my mind, decided to save the longest 12 mile leg for night time. Leg 12 started in Edale (Village hall and home to the Spine, how fitting!) and followed the Pennine Way up to Jacobs Ladder then branched off. It’s the start of the Spine route so very familiar to me even in the dark. It seemed a sensible plan and even when the route branched off the PW it didn’t look too tricky to navigate. I was happy with this plan.
Timing couldn’t have been better, I finished my last leg just as the light was really failing so a change into night time kit some food and head back out again ready for the night section. It had already started raining when I was getting ready to go and by pure luck I’d packed my heavier winter waterproofs as well as my summer ones. The rain at this point was persistent but nothing like what was to come. Something told me to play it safe and use the heavier kit, it was a wet and cool night so overheating wasn’t really going to be an issue.
Leaving the village hall and heading up to the start of the Pennine Way as I have done so many times on the Spine before brought back so many memories, both good and bad. The Spine really is a pinnacle event for me so being back on the PW, even just a small part of it was quite emotional.
Starting out crossing the fields on a flagstone path I bumped into my friend (Board short) Luke who was just finishing this leg and gave me some advice on route choice, wished each other luck and off we went. Little did I know he was the last person I was to see in a very long time.
The rain continued and as I started up the steep climb of Jacobs Ladder I realised I was in for an uncomfortable night. After Jacob’s I was going to be to navigating naked J I’d chosen to leave the GPS unit at home this time to concentrate on map and compass skills. Conditions weren’t ideal for this and even my laminated map was already giving up and becoming a soggy mess with all the rain……. but it was all good experience, right?
I’m not sure at what point the panic started to appear, I think it was rumbling unnoticed at the back of my mind for a while just waiting for a tipping point to unleash it. I think it was around Coldwell Clough (mile 5 ish) when I first started noticing how really cold I was. I’d already put on all the warm layers I had in my pack (four in total) topped off with Goretex jacket trousers and a pair of gloves, in July!
As I was steeply descending a very rough path which was already fast flowing with water thinking I had to face this as a climb on the return leg.
It was shortly after this that my head torch failed. I could have been battery related or more likely I suspect rain related. Now I was very cold, soaked through, alone and in the dark. Damn I cursed my stupidity, why hadn’t I left spare batteries in a pocket! Fumbling around in the dark trying to locate fresh batteries was when my head really went into meltdown. I was getting really cold, was I lost? how much further? what if I fell and injured myself? I can’t do this, I wish I was anywhere else!!….. It’s hard to describe what the panic felt like standing there alone and cold, the best I can describe it is that my mind was trying desperately to claw out of my own body and be somewhere, anywhere else.
‘Pull it together woman!!!’ I tell myself as soon as I managed to get the head torch working again. ‘You’re strong, experienced and capable, you can handle this’, as I remembered my mantras that have gotten me safely through harsh situations before (eyelashes and big girl pants) I start to relax. I’m right there’s nothing wrong. Yes it’s wet, I’m a little cold and I’ve spent a fair amount of time off route. Looking at the positives, I know where I am, I also know to keep moving to stay warm. I have food and water and even better I’m nearly at the turnaround point!
The return leg was equally horrible, if not worse. The rain was heavier and that steep path I’d descended on the way out was now raging with water and hard to climb. I think I went into sleep deprivation mode for a long while too on the way back and all I remember was very wet and hazy. I do remember descending Jacob’s Ladder which was easier said than done on the very slippery flooded rocks that loosely form a path.
Twisting an ankle out here in the wet night would mean real trouble, I really needed to concentrate despite struggling with sleep deprivation, my biggest nemesis. I’ve no idea what time it was but the first glimmers of daylight were starting to tease of their imminent arrival, just a few more miles and I’d be back at Olympus (Edale Village Hall) so things were getting exponentially better by the minute. Even the rain felt like it was losing its torrential grip on the night. Seeing that first glow of light lifted my soul more than I can say. I’d survived!
Arriving back on the flagstone path I’d left so many hours earlier I was elated, I greeted all the sheep along the way with a ‘Good Morning’ and I’m pretty sure several of them replied (it had really been a rough night!) but I was here, alive, the task completed and I was so thankful at that moment to be where I was. It was the most perfect place to be in that clearing dawn. This is what it feels like to be truly alive.
Finally hitting the road back to Edale for the 500m stretch back to HQ I meet Luke again. This time he’s a little less chatty and has a slightly dazed look. After I’d seen him the previous night he’d gone out to complete leg 10 and judging by the time and condition he was in he’d had an equally rough night!
We headed into the CP together glad to put the night behind us, refuel, dry out and decided what to do next. My feet were in a pretty poor state and I was developing a painful case of trench foot so I knew I needed to take some time to get them really dried out before running again. So sensibly I should do that asleep right?
The alarm rudely waking me an hour later was a huge disappointment (understatement!!). Did I *really* have to keep doing this????
The answer of course was no, I had every reason to stop after the night I’d gone through. I have Lakeland 100 only days away. I could allow myself the luxury of rolling over (in the car) and drifting off to the lovely sleepy place I’d just left, surely!
I tried, but sleep wouldn’t happen then. I pondered driving home early but something was urging me to keep running, not to let the night be the last thing I remember of the weekend.
I made the right choice to push myself out there again. What a delight the morning turned into! The Peak had taken off her dark cloak of the wildest night and was once again a beautiful playground. Sunday was as bright and clear as could be. The hills looked soft and draped with the earthiest of green velvets, what a joy to be out there and seeing her once again shows how beautiful the Peak District truly is and how it feels to be truly alive and living entirely free in the moment ❤