Marsden Racers // Cycling and Running Club

Race Report: Pen-y-Ghent Ultra 2021

by Nathan Watson

Race: Pen Y Ghent Ultra 2021

Race Date: 16th October 2021

Distance: 50 km / ~1,300m ascent

Firstly, there’s a bit of a backstory to how I came to choose this race. Ranger Ultras’ PB57 (Pennine Bridleway 57km) was due to be my first ‘proper’ ultra (i.e., first ultra-distance race as opposed to just a long day out on the trails with friends or on my own) in April 2020. Obviously, that didn’t happen! Since then, I’ve been considering one of their multi-day events so wanted to enter the PYG 50km as a bit of a test. I’ve never done any of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, always being unavailable when a few club friends have headed up to run them, so at least I could tick one off.

Great Starting Photo

My wife (Charlotte) and daughter (Norah) had kindly offered to come and support so we spent a long weekend at YHA Hawes – our first trip back to a hostel for over 2 years, and our first with a toddler in tow. The afternoon before the race we went out for a walk to trace the first / last section of the race. The route follows the Pennine Way from Hawes to Horton in Ribblesdale, skirting Ten End and Dodd Fell and joining the Cam Road track. From HIR you head up the south side of Pen Y Ghent, down the west side and eventually re-join the Pennine Way, retracing your steps to head north back to Hawes. The navigation is straightforward but with a bit of a wiggly route through lanes, fields and alleys out of Hawes, I felt better having reccied it. After a detour to Aysgill Force, we headed back to the hostel to make dinner. A whole wall of the comfy lounge is dominated by a photo of Pen Y Ghent, so no chance of taking my mind of it!

I packed kit, went down to registration/kit check to save a job in the morning, and bored Charlotte with thinking out loud about what to wear the next day. It was due to be cloudy, cool and dry, which was perfect for me. But if you’ve run with me any time other than summer, you know my hands are rubbish in cool weather and get really cold. Clumsy at best, and numb / painful at worst.

Me with my Number 1 supporter, Norah

Saturday morning – early breakfast for me, then I settled on shorts, a long sleeve shirt and gloves. Charlotte and Norah came to see me off at from the Market Hall, and this was the first time I’ve run a race where the start and finish line is actually indoors! An hour earlier the 70 / 100 km Three Peaks Ultra had set off from the same place.

The atmosphere was great – Ranger Ultras advertise themselves as running low-key and friendly events, and it was certainly both. After getting out of Hawes it’s a few kilometres climb up onto the Pennine Way and it wasn’t quite the conditions I’d hoped for – mist, constant drizzle and cool. I was soaked through within an hour, and although my core and legs were fine, my head started to get cold. Heading into a long downhill section I didn’t want to stop to get a hat out of my bag, so went straight through CP1 and pulled a thin buff over my head to keep the wind off, which worked a treat. Some faster runners stopped for a while to get out waterproofs (and some had set off in them) but I knew I’d get far too warm in mine so just kept moving.

The time was flying by, and I ran for some time with a group from Malvern Buzzards who were very friendly and raised a few laughs. I’m not antisocial, but I am awkward and get anxious if I’m with people I don’t know and don’t have context for a conversation, so am used to running on my own. But they made me feel really welcome in their group.

Strava Screen Shot of the Day

After 2 hours 15 (About 22km) I arrived at CP2 in Horton, the only CP where I stopped, and had a great welcome from Norah and Charlotte. Norah kept saying her catchphrase of ‘good running Daddy!’ and gave me kisses, plastering me in sausage roll crumbs. Someone filled one of my soft flasks (and I squirted someone in water pistol fashion whilst squeezing it back into one of my chest pockets) and at the last minute I decided to take off my soaked gloves and get my dry mitts out of my pack. This gave me the chance to swap some food from the pack to a pocket I could reach whilst on the move. It felt like I was there far too long but, in hindsight, it was only a couple of minutes. I never rely on checkpoint food so like to get through as quick as possible.

I ran for a while, but as the climb to Pen Y Ghent got steeper, I took the chance to slow hike a while and get a good amount of food in - a couple of slices of malt loaf and some pretzels. Although steep and requiring hands for balance at some point, I didn’t find the climb up PYG too hard, and it went by pretty quick. There were a few tourists up there, but the weather had kept a lot away. The route up from the south ends in a steep rocky scramble – I’d much prefer to go up that way than down! The Malvern crew stopped for some selfies at the trig, so I peeled off and started the descent. Not an enjoyable one as it’s a lot of long steps – you know the ones that are too long for one footstep but too short for two steps on each?

The next section was undulating, rarely steep, and then a few kilometres uphill towards Dodd Fell. I ran most of this alone aside from quick chats as I passed other runners. By no means am I a fast runner, but I do find I do better on climbs, and I get passed on steep descents. I just kept myself fed, watered and had a few salt tablets. I felt really good on this section, and despite being generally uphill, I was surprised at the pace I was maintaining. When would it go wrong?? I passed a few more runners and then near CP3 (somewhere around the marathon mark) I caught up with a lad called Ben. It’s about 8km, generally downhill to Hawes, but my legs were feeling a bit heavy and my feet clumsy. Ben kept me going and confirmed my thoughts that we could make it back under 6 hours (more on that later). We had a good chat for that last hour, although I slowed on the descent to Hawes and let him stay a few meters ahead after I took bad line through a bog. The fog had cleared somewhat, and it had warmed a few degrees, so I took my mitts off and clipped them to a carabiner on my pack (they were wet inside as I didn’t dry my hands properly before putting them on at Horton). Once on the main street in Hawes, Ben ran a little ahead of my and deservedly finished before. After dodging people enjoying the high street and heading up the steps into the Market Hall I was done. A young lad offered me a brew and I said I needed a few minutes but might have one later, and to his credit he came and sought me out amongst the tired finishers 10 minutes later to make sure I got a cup of tea. A brew has never tasted so good – thanks Alfie!

Descent from Pen-y-Ghent : Photo Courtesy of Race Organisers

Charlotte and Norah were there to meet me, and Norah shared the pizza slices that had been put on for runners. Seeing them through the day had been a real boost, so thanks to my support team! They spent the day making sure they’d be in time to see me and were probably colder as at least running kept me warm! Despite only setting off an hour earlier, the first few 70km finishers were in, and one was just leaving for the optional 30km extension to complete the 100km. I was lucky to finish in the light, but I knew it would be dark long before he was back (I was carrying two headtorches but didn’t want the faff of having to fig one out if I was behind schedule). We stopped at the grocers on the walk back to the hostel for a few local beers before a much-welcome shower and pizza for dinner.

Performance – my only benchmark was the Heights Ultra Trail 50k in July this year, which I finished in a surprising 6:02. I didn’t think I was as fit for the PYG Ultra, my extensor tendon had been bothering me, and there was an extra 300m of ascent, so I expected to finish in about 7 hours. That’s why, when sub-6 seemed possible, I was delighted. In hindsight, most of the PYGU is on hard-packed trails with very little bog, which must have made up a lot of time. I finished in 5:51:53 and 11th out of 55 finishers. That’s way better than I expected, although I’ll always find something to knock myself down about (i.e., not as good as the 10th position I had until the results were updated a few days later). 

Fuelling – I got this spot on. One of my big fears on long runs is stomach issues, as I have had them in the past. I’ve found my stomach is OK with fairly natural foods and simple carbs so stuck to fruit and nut bars when I started running half marathons, but I tire of sweet food on longer runs. I got a bout of nausea on the last leg of the Heights Ultra Trail which stopped me eating, so really didn’t want a repeat of that. On the day of the PYGU I had one cashew bar, jelly babies, malt loaf, pretzels and dates, with a couple of pre-emptive salt tablets and 1 to 1.5 litres of water. No stomach issues, no real dehydration and no energy lulls.

Recovery – my legs weren’t trashed, and I managed to climb up and down from my top bunk for a bit of extra vert. For a couple of days afterwards my quads protested at any attempt to come downstairs, but what actually stopped me doing any exercise the following week was a stinking cold and a lot to do at work. By the following Saturday I felt well enough to ride down to the climbing wall and back.

Too Tired to keep eyes open! But the smile says it all!

Overall, a great race and a performance I’m happy with. I’m planning to do some of Ranger Ultras’ other events, as they did such a good job on this one. One of their races actually starts in Marsden (although registration is in Edale).

Oh, and back to that photo in the hostel. Some photos are taken from an angle to make them look more impressive, but I actually think Pen Y Ghent looked even more imposing in real life!