In most races we do, our friends and family offer encouragement and say things like “good on ya” for trying. The Cheviot Goat Ultra is not one of those races. In the lead up to this event, the few times I’d honestly explain what the Cheviot entailed I’d watch facial expressions turn from curiosity to horror. Then I’d get the exasperated follow up: “why would you do that to yourself?”
Well, the Cheviot Goat is billed as England’s Loneliest Winter Ultra. As the crow flys, it’s an unmarked course that traverses 54 miles along the hills and bogs near Scotland. By most standards, the individual mountains are fairly small but they collectively manage to gain 9,800 feet. The weather’s cold, the winds are strong, and the “Bogs of Eternal Misery” are truly awful. The exposure is so real that runners are required to carry a survival bag and GPS tracker with an SOS button. If people quit anywhere past the halfway point they’ll likely need both to make it long enough for Mountain Rescue to extract them.
After reading about this last year, I was so turned on that I flew in from Alaska to join 278 like-minded runners from across the globe last Saturday for the 2019 Cheviot. Despite jet lag, pre-race insomnia and daily panic attacks leading up to race, when the 3-2-1 start happened all the nerves went to zero. In almost all of the N+1 challenges I’ve done, once the safety of the starting corral is gone and the body has no other choice but to continue forward the near crippling anxiety and self-doubt invariably stops.
Shortly after the Start
Despite a bazillion false summits, the first five miles of climbing were amazing. The initial course was muddy and truly sucked (literally and figuratively), but the steady stream of headlamps snaking through the respective elevations was surreal. When the sun finally started to rise, the early morning lit up the multi-color hills so vividly that it felt like we were running within a work of art. I lost several places stopping to take in the morning vistas, but didn’t regret the decision one bit.
Views that Validate Months of Training
The first genuine ordeal along the course was navigating the fabled Bogs of Eternal Misery. They’re hilly and go on for miles! I’d only read about these bogs, but the descriptions usually involved expletives and fear. I can testify: the stories are true. Bogs are crap things to “run” through. There’s no straight path between them, they can be quite large and it’s anyone’s guess how deep you’ll sink if you fall into their water. They’re a simple but terrifying thing to negotiate: line up from a tenuous position on one side to a landing spot on the other side you hope is stable enough to support your weight, then jump across several feet of water with the aid of prayer or trekking poles and hope you won’t fall into something that swallows you whole. Screw it up and you’ll sink to your knees or worse.
The reward for graduating the bogs was climbing to the courses’s highest summit and namesake: The Cheviot. Since there were 80 MPH winds forecast for the evening, the race directors had us run the course in reverse so we’d hit this highest and most exposed peak early in the day. It was a smart call. Near the summit, the course marshals were supporting us in truly awful conditions. The tents they had for shelter were being blown around like rag dolls, it was misty and cold! I can’t adequately express how much I appreciate them for being out there in that weather to keep us safe.
From the start line to the Cheviot Summit, through to the halfway point at Barrowburn, navigation wasn’t really an issue. The terrain often sucked, but finding the right path was manageable. There were the treacherous stone slabs along the Pennine Way to guide us or clusters of people to follow. But once we reunited with our drop bag at the halfway point and night fell, it became a different race altogether.
Luckily for me, I started the back half with a fighting chance because I’d made a friend. Somewhere around mile 20, a group of us guys stopped to pee (#hydrateordie) and when we started running again I found myself pacing with a cool guy named Tim from Newcastle. We’d both watched beaucoup navigation tutorials on YouTube, but if our lives came down to orienteering via compass we were as good as dead. Continuing on like we did at night might have been more an act of faith than smart racing, but sometimes the dice are what you’ve got… At the very least, we felt safe having company. We went off course a lot, but somehow always managed to find our way back and avoided dying.
Once it got colder and dark, it also started to rain and my glasses (which I really, really need to see) became useless for several hours. The 80 MPH winds showed up a bit later and amplified the rain’s suck factor by a lot. I was able to follow Tim’s feet and check my GPS for bearings when need be, but only briefly. At its peak, the wind was so strong it ripped the glasses off my face so many times I had to secure them in my pack. If it hadn’t have been for Tim’s help here (and elsewhere), I would not have finished this race. Functional blindness wasn’t a contingency I’d planned for. Friends matter.
The back half took so long that I stopped looking a my watch. There were bogs, hills, bogs on hills, more bogs and more hills (with bogs). I got depressed, sleepy and started to hallucinate somewhere around mile 45. Coming down from a hill (through more bogs), there was an unusual amount of glistening green grass that was covering grave markers spaced out through the mud. I couldn’t figure out why they’d route us through a cemetery until I realized the gravestones I was seeing weren’t real. Apparently, the 12 hours of sleep (total) in the days leading up to the Cheviot was enough to induce my first ever race day hallucination. Despite this epiphany, the gravestones wouldn’t go away! For about another mile, I continued watching one gravestone after another pass underfoot without saying a word.
When I finally mentioned how sleepy I was feeling, one of the runners (aka Guardian Angel) pulled out a thermos of coffee and Tim handed me a caffeinated gel. Literally within minutes, I got my mind right. Over the remaining hours we’d get lost again, climb a bit more and muddle through more bogs, but after 19 hours and 21 minutes we finally ran through to the finish line. At the close, the staff and race director were waiting to shake our hands, pass out medals and make sure everyone got a finisher pic.
Technically and physically, the course was brutal. Including screw ups, our route spanned roughly 57 miles with 11,500 feet of gain. It also entailed a lot of time stopping to ask “where the hell are we?” and trying to find our way back to where we were supposed be. Of the 279 people that started, 237 finished. One of those finishers was John Kelly (last person to finish the Barkley Marathon) – who finished about 9 hours before we did. The others? I’m not sure what the profile was of a representative runner, but at my pace I was chatting with some fairly experienced people with big races under their belt like the Dragon’s Back. It was a super welcoming crowd, but definitely not the place to make a run at your first ultra distance.
I’m incredibly grateful to the race staff at Cold Brew Events and the North of Tyne Mountain Rescue Team for hosting a truly epic event. This thing was intense, but the objective dangers were managed so well that I had zero doubt if I needed to push my SOS button someone would have been there to save me. Happily that wasn’t needed. If you’re considering a race-cation like this or want to get in on the action for the challenge’s sake, I’d recommend not putting it off. This was year number 3 for their series and it sold out. My hunch is that it’ll become an increasingly popular event and progressively harder to get into as the years go by – rightly so.
Safety doesn’t Just Happen – They Worked Hard to Make Sure we were Okay
If you’re so inclined, I posted roughly 3 minutes of live footage from the event set to holiday music (from one of America’s great treasures) to my YouTube Channel.
Photo Credit: Mari-Ann Secker, Cold Brew Events, Course Marshals
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