"To some people its just another challenge walk, to others its the most important date in the calender."
(Quentin Blagg in his piece - "One Man's Challenge. A History of the Bullock Smithy Hike")
On the first full weekend in September contenders gather in Devonshire Park for the annual foray across the Peak District. Many will have recced the route, debated kit choice and planned strategy ahead of the annual gathering in Hazel Grove. This year''s entry was almost a record with 300+ participants signing up for the 56 mile challenge, the aim being to propel themselves over 7,000ft of ascent and descent through a circular route across the dark and white peak district and all to be completed within 24 hours. This year the Bullock Smithy was part of the UK Ultra distance championships.
|Founder, John Corfield and I|
The sun shone occasionally through distant broken clouds as we arrived like lemmings at the Scout Hut in Hazel Grove. There is a balance to be struck between moving efficiently through registration and kit check but on the other hand, enjoying the atmosphere and renewing annual acquaintances with other serial contenders. It was good to see one of the founding fathers of the event, John Corfield at the start. Each year he travels from Shropshire to watch people suffer in the event that he devised in the mid 1970's. Kit check and registration went well and I returned to the car to grease the inner thighs and tape the nipples.
Over the years the Bullock Smithy has become a family affair in the extended Rushworth clan. Perhaps eight or so relations have completed the Bullock Smithy including my partner Tracy who went round in 22:40 in 2005. I was then thrilled when my fifteen year old nephew showed renewed interest this year. Seanie put in a summer's training shuttle running up Shutlinglsoe with his friends, romped round the Peaker's Stroll then signed up for "the Bullock".
|Nick & Mick - Grandslammers|
The anvil was struck at noon releasing the collective excitement from the the balloon of Devonshire Park as 300 outdoor people burst out to cross the Peaks. I ran down the A6 and watched Neil Thompson of Stockport Harriers disappear at pace. I caught up with Chris Davies who was surprised that there wasn't a bigger pack of runners at the front. He needn't have worried, I glanced behind and there were plenty of people in pursuit. The route took us up Towers Road, across the fields on through Higher Poynton before arriving in Lyme Park and on to the first checkpoint at Bow Stones. We were now out in open countryside. The intermittent sun had become more apparent. The thin clouds in the sky were high and not able to shield the rays. It became increasingly evident that we were in for a hot one this year.
We continued to the Moorside Hotel. I took a slightly different route across the moor which would have worked well if I had taken a better line. The climb to Chinley went well. I tried to conserve energy. I was concerned that I might have gone off a little fast. I knew the majority of the climb was in the first 30 miles and given that it was so hot, it made sense to run conservatively through the first half. I staggered up Chinley with a runner who had travelled from Brighton to take part, he reminded me to appreciate the view. From the top of Chinley Churn, the clear sunlight lit up the Peak District as far as the eye could see. The dark peaks and green valleys were inviting, they would be the playground for the next nine hours or so, fantastic!
At the drinks stop at Peep 'o' Day I guzzled half a litre of fluid and refilled my bottle to take with me. "the heat would take victims", I thought. I didn't want to be one of them. I drank lots this year, perhaps 500ml at each checkpoint and almost the same amount in between. The next climb is the longest, rising to Edale Cross at 541m. I met Nigel Aston (another repeat offender) and we negotiated the flagged steep embankment into the valley before the climb to Edale Cross. I was able to run sections of the climb to Edale Cross still accompanied in sorts by Nigel, Tony Audenshaw and one other. The stoney trail winds up around the side of the magnificent Kinder Scout. There was plenty of other folk using the path and enjoying the sunshine. I enjoyed the views of the fells to the my right and back towards where we had come from. I questioned where nephew Maguinness might be up to.
|Steve Holt gives final instructions|
There was a mass on spectators at the checkpoint at Edale Cross. I was grateful for the round of applause as I paused momentarily for the official to clip my tally card. I romped on towards the steep rugged stepped descent of Jacob's Ladder. This year I decided to take a few minor route changes, one of which was going straight ahead at the left turn mid way down Jacob's Ladder. I went through the gate and proceeded down the steep bank. Oh dear. The bank was too steep and there was no path, instead it was a scramble down all the way to the stream at the bottom. To make matters worse I had taken Nigel and another runner with me! At the bottom we were reunited with Tony. I was later to learn that we were all more or less together at the point where we diverted. At the finish I asked Nigel for his opinion on my route choice, he remained silent but the disapproving, slow shakes of his head and taught jaw, confirmed to me that the stepped path is the preferable option next year!
I managed to pull away from my compatriots on the way to Edale. The sun was beginning to take its toll. I felt thirsty for the first time and decided I was going to increase my fluid intake. I had been drinking lots but such a warm day required more. On arrival at Edale I was surprised to see Neil Thompson of Stockport Harriers sat down on a chair. As I ran down the road at Bow Stones I had watched Neil disappear round the moor after the Moorside far in the distance. Neil should have been the best part of a hour ahead but appeared to have come to grief. Sadly chaffing in the nether regions meant he had to retire. Edale is a welcome checkpoint, I always dwell a little longer to take on rice pudding and chat with volunteers Val and Brian Dooley who look after the checkpoint with their friends.
I left Edale feeling good, refuelled and well watered. There was no sign of Tony or Nigel and given Neil's untimely retirement I had moved up the field by default. I was however only 15 miles in with a long way left to run. The 3 mile trip to Castleton is short but includes a climb over the Great Ridge via Hollins Cross. The sun continued to batter down but the views and motivational value of the brightness made the difficulty of the heat well worth it. After descending Hollins Cross, I meandered my way through tourists and cars to the checkpoint. it was good to see Tracy out in support after lunch with friends. Jam sandwiches was the order of the weary runner ahead of the climb to Peak Forest at 24 miles.
|Approaching Brand top|
This was my 21st attempt at a Bullock Smithy and If I successfully got round it would be my 17th completion after failing on my first four attempts. Every other year I have taken the Cave Dale route to Peak Forest but I have always been tempted by the route via the side of Peveril Castle. I should have learnt my lesson at Jacob's Ladder but again I decided to do it differently this year. I had been told the route involved a runnable path at the summit. I never found the runnable path at the summit. Perhaps i did find it but I was too tired to run it. The hill up the side of the castle is steep. I decided to take a direct hit at it rather than extending the misery with a diagonal incline.That slope needs replacing! I really laboured up that bank. I alternated between hands on knees, hands behind my back and during moments of desperation hands on the ground on all fours. There were frequent amounts of fluid falling from my forehead and I hoped it was the water from my buff which I had drenched in a stream rather than pure sweat from my body. Eventually I reached the top and then of course there was another top and then another. Eventually I reached the summit where the path from Cave Dale merges with the route that I had chosen. I saw a familiar face, Steven Jackson (another repeat offender) emerging out of Cave Dale. We ran together to Peak Forest and noticed that a runner with a green top was chasing in pursuit across the moor.
I ran out of the check point at Peak Forest and took a banana with me. I had already stuffed lots of ready salted crisps down the hatch washed down with refreshing lemon cordial. I shuffled up the road and walked up the steep incline whilst eating the banana. I was still feeling surprisingly good at this point. I usually have at least one low point during a run of this distance but this year I escaped feeling relatively good throughout. The next checkpoint would be 28 miles, half way round the course. I calculated that I might get there by 5pm which was making my sub ten hour dream unrealistic. I was far from bothered, it was a hot day, I was enjoying the event and was running towards the top of the field. By Miller's Dale I think Stephen Watts, Chris Davies and Robin Houghton were the only people in front so it was a case of keeping the wheels turning and ploughing on.
Miller's Dale can be a difficult place. There is soup which will no doubt be appreciated by the walkers later on but soup doesn't sit well on a runners stomach. I am also aware of the impending stiff, horrible climb up the road towards Chelmorton which greets you after you leave the checkpoint. Contenders also have to block "half way" thoughts out of their minds. I retired twice at Miler's Dale when I was younger. The thought of turning round and running back the same distance you had come was terminal for me twice. It was only after I learnt to focus solely on the next six mile stretch that I was able to carry on. I wondered if my nephew would make it past Miller's Dale later in the day.
The climb up that road is grim. Every year I seem to get caught by other runners as I labour towards the junction at the top. This year was no different. As I approached the A6 Julian Brown caught up and it turned out, like last year, we would run on together to the finish. On the approach to Chelmorton the red arrows gave us a fly past. More honestly, the formation was entertaining crowds at Chatsworth House and we were unintended beneficiaries. We quaffed jam doughnuts at the checkpoint and ran to Earl Sterndale at 36 miles. This was great running, the sun was shining brightly affording extensive view across the rolling undulating pastures of the white peak. The smoke from the red arrows illustrated the blue sky in the distance. The increasing pains and strains of the event were forgotten as we ran steadily along the tracks and fields to Earl Sterndale.
|Julian Brown leaves Chelmorton|
On the approach to Earl Sterndale a pack of cows surrounded the stile that we had to negotiate. I've been in these fields and seen angry cows before. I was scared. If I'd have been by myself I would have diverted but Julian is a brave man. His direct line approach towards any type of cattle was a technique I would witness more than once. He ran straight towards the pack "come on they are only curious" he assured me as I tailed cautiously behind. The cows scattered as we approached then closed in behind us. Believe me, I was through that stile in no time. Julian followed unconcerned some seconds later.
We were caught on the way to Earl Sterndale by a Colin Lough. We later learnt that he had taken a slightly different route to us through the adjacent fields. Colin encountered some angryier cows on the way. The cows had charged him. It was clear from the way he relayed his story that he had been involved in a nasty encounter that had shaken him. At the finish a supporter confirmed that she had been watching the encounter from the summit of an adjacent hill and she too was worried for his safety.
We ran on to Earl Sterndale and were surprised to find Stephen Watts who was suffering with stomach issues. Stomach pain and sickness was a feature of many peoples events this year, perhaps caused by the hot weather or excessive amounts of potions consumed to cope with the hot weather? We walked out of Earl Sterndale, Stephen agonised over the decision to continue or retire. He continued and the four of us, Chris, Julian, Stephen and I ran on towards Brand Top. In the valley before the climb to the barking dogs I noticed a obstacle in our path. "A bull!" I cried. I am self confessed wimp when it comes to animals. For the second time in as many legs I had to participate in Julian's direct line approach as I took cover in his wake. The bull ran on away from us down the path. I guarantee that If I had tried the same technique, the opposite outcome would have happened.
The four of us got to Brand Top unscathed. Stephen had run a strong leg but his stomach issues remained and forced him to retire. , Julian, Chris and I ran on towards Cumberland Cottage at 43 miles. We took the fields from Brand Top as the sun began to come down and the relentless sunshine faded. I enjoy the stillness of the route to Cumberland Cottage, the shadow of the Roaches looms far in the early dusk distance and the peak of the the Macclesfield Matterhorn, Shutlingsloe stands grandly ahead. The impending close of the day adds an eeriness to the remote paths around three shires head before the next stiff climb to the A53. It is always good to get through Cumberland Cottage before dark so as to negotiate the rocky path in the last of the evening dusk. We surprise the checkpoint staff who are lighting a wood fire in the bare stone cottage. I consume two rounds of fruit cake, Julian takes a breather and Colin changes his top. After leaving Cumberland Cottage we encounter a runner coming up the path. It's Neil King, another previous finisher that has come out to support Stephen Watts, oh dear. We explain Stephen's woes as the four of us trundle on towards the grim road section to Walker Barn.
|The Red Arrows love the Bullock Smithy|
It was good to see Neil Thompson at the bottom of the path. Neil had come to grief at Edale earlier in the day but instead of staying at home licking his wounds he decided they were in too sensitive an area and instead came out to support, a good illustration of the camaraderie of the event. Neil (King) and Chris pulled away when we reached the road, leaving Julian and I to continue alone. It turned out Neil did Chris a good turn by navigating from Cumberland Cottage all the way to the disused railway track at Whitely Green. It enabled Colin to use his better strength to good effect rather than have to wait for Julian and I to navigate. Further supporters pulled alongside during the road to Walker Barn, the warmth of their cars looked inviting. It was clear that we were running back towards civilisation. As we ran over the brow of the hill before the descent to Walker Barn, the views of the rolling hills gave way to the lights of the Greater Manchester conurbation which twinkled softly in the distance.
I was hanging on at Walker Barn with about twelve miles to go. Agonisingly so close to the finish but yet so far. 47 miles in with 9 remaining seems comfortable but then, a run from Walker Barn to Hazel Grove would be a significant run on any day. Julian and I stealed through the streets of Bollington, on to the canal towpath and the checkpoint at Whitely Green. I thought we were in fourth position at this point which was great,.
|Nephew Magunniess congratulated by his sister, Erin.|
The final leg involves the Middlewood way. Miles of endless, straight, disused railway track, flanked by steep embankments at either side. The embankments obscure the view and restrict the moonlight, you might as as well be running in a tunnel. The bridge which marks the end of the nightmare never seems to arrive. Eventually it does and we climb up the steps to the road. More stealing through the residential streets of Higher Poynton bring us to the penultimate straight down Towers Road. Passing the occasional dog walker who looks bemused as we trundled past looking dishevelled and lighting our way with torches we arrive at the A6. Ye Ha! almost home. We pick up the pace to the finish and I feel relief mixed with a bit of sadness that such a great day is almost over. We enter the scout hut, 4th in 10 hour 36 minutes.
Finishers are rewarded with a cooked breakfast.The scout hut was quieter this year, the winners Chris Davies and Robin Houghton had already left for a well deserved rest. The pair ran in together in 9 hours 43 minutes. The previous weekend Robin Houghton won the 87 mile Ridgeway Challenge.While we ate other runners returned to rounds of applause. First lady was Julie Gardner in 11:21 and I understand that Julie will this week fly out to Italy to compete in another ultra race next weekend. Liveish results were being broadcast on a projector which we viewed as we ate. It was great to see that my nephew had gone through Earl Sterndale in good time, his sitser Erin had got to Miller's Dale. The next day after the presentation we watched my nephew somehow manage a sprint finish in 23:08, nice one Seanie, a fine achievement.
Many thanks to all the helpers who give up their time to make the event so enjoyable. Special thanks to Tracy for her support and photos which illustrate this post.