56 Miles In The Glorious Peak District
Nine months after optimistically filling in the online form and paying the entrance fee, the weekend of the Bullock Smithy was finally here. I’ll go into detail about my experience, but first a little background of the event.
The 2020 event was postponed making this year’s event the 45th edition of the Bullock Smithy Hike. Unlike many other ultra distance events which have become corporate machines with big sponsors and three figure entrance fees, the Bullock Smithy is organised by Third Hazel Grove Scouts, with profits from the event going to help support the scout group and their activities to help young people. Hazel Grove is the start and finish of the 56 mile route which roughly takes you in a huge circle with Buxton at its centre. There are fourteen checkpoints en route, but the route you take from one to the next is up to you. This year the race saw 249 entrants, from elite runners to walkers in their 70s.
I decided to raise money for the Stalybridge Celtic Juniors defib fund. The club is very close me after volunteering their for fifteen years. I set a target of £1,200, enough to buy a defibrillator for one of our youth teams. Using the race as a fundraiser also gave me added motivation to get out and put the training in in the weeks and months before the event.
Onto my experience running a distance twice as far as anything I’ve ever covered before. With nine months to prepare I felt strong going into the race. I’d recce’d the entire route in three sections so I was confident my navigation skills were up to the task and I’d followed my own training plan of long runs, hill reps, speed sessions and recovery for the past three months. What I wasn’t able to prepare for was being on my feet, continuously moving forward, for up to 24 hours (the cut off time to finish the race). I’d also neglected to practice navigating difficult terrain at night so although confident, I was very aware of the mammoth task ahead of me and the potential to mess it up big time.
In the days before race weekend I’d prepared my kit; the mandatory waterproofs, maps, extra warm layers and headtorch, as well as my own food and hydration in addition to what’s provided at the checkpoints. Waiting for the race to begin the weather as perfect and set to remain the same throughout the day and night. No rain was forecast, temperatures were mild, and in the days prior there had been little rain meaning that conditions under foot couldn’t have been better. The photos below were taken on my training runs, apart from the breakfast at the end.
Checkpoint 1 – Bowstones
An anvil is ceremonially bashed to signal the start of the race at midday and off everyone goes. There are seasoned ultra runners setting off at a pace, people like me running at a more, shall we say relaxed pace, and the majority of entrants aiming to walk the route and finish inside the 24 hour time limit. The route’s first checkpoint takes you through Lymm Park, the house made famous in Pride and Prejudice, and up to Bowstones where your race tally card gets its first stamp. Everyone is still quite close together at this point but from here on the pack starts to spread out as people find their own pace.
Checkpoint 2 – Chinley Churn
After passing through the village of Furness Vale it’s a long drag uphill to the checkpoint at Chinley Churn. The pack has spread out more now and, after passing a handful of people at the start of the climb, There is only one person visible ahead of me when the road stops and a footpath begins. Shout out to the family cheering everyone on and handing out wine gums here! I stamp my tally card at the summit then head down to the road between Hayfield and Chapel Milton where crisps and ets are on offer. Conscious of my salt intake to avoid cramps, I scoff a handful and carry on. Now the hard work starts…
Checkpoint 3 – Edale Cross
The longest, toughest, and roughest under foot section in my opinion, it’s a hell of a long drag up to Edale Cross. Anyone who goes out too fast at the start will certainly come unstuck here so I drop to a walk knowing I’ve got a hell of a lot further to go. Jellybabies at this checkpoint so I grab a handful.
Checkpoint 4 – Edale
The decent down Jacob’s Ladder is as challenging as the ascent, so I up my pace only slightly trying to be a fox-footed as possible to avoid taking a race-ending tumble. The path here, probably the most well-trodden in all of the Peak District, is a mix of fixed jagged sticky up rocks, loose stones, and dry sand. All death traps in their own right. After getting to the bridge at the bottom I I pick up my pace again, passing through a farm yard and fields, then a short stint on the road to the checkpoint at the main carpark in Edale village. A busy checkpoint this a people take the time to rest for a while. There’s a good selection of food too; malt loaf, fruit salad, and my first of many, many bananas. I stick to my checkpoint plan of eating a little, stretching out, topping up my water and setting off with a cup of tea in hand.
Checkpoint 5 – Castleton
A short distance between checkpoints but a seriously steep up and down over Hollins Cross. A walking section for me again saving my legs. The views from the top are stunning with Edale behind you and Castleton in front. Onto the checkpoint in the middle of the town at the old petrol station, the jam butties here are welcome. I’ve also got my first blister, on my right heel. A little concerning as I never normally suffer from feet problems, I expected them but not this early. I tape it up and carry on.
Checkpoint 6 – Peak Forrest
At this point the terrain changes quite dramatically. Gone is the dark peat and heather moorland of the Dark Peak, replaced by grassy fields separated by limestone drystone walls, instead of the odd hardy moorland sheep, there are cows and sheep in orderly fields and farmhouses dotted around the landscape. it’s a short sharp ascent out of Castleton to join the Limestone Way, a well-maintained footpath and a good opportunity to up my pace back to a run. It’s a gradual down hill into Peak Forrest where the checkpoint is in the village hall. I follow my routine of topping up my water, eating a little and leave with a banana in hand.
Checkpoint 7 – Millers Dale
Crossing fields and joining the Limestone Way again, this is an enjoyable section to run along. At this point there’s nobody in sight either in front or behind me but I’m happy moving along at a steady pace. I know I’ll have peaks and troughs and this section is peak so I take full advantage and move along nicely. Seeing the sun getting lower in the sky I arrive at Millers Dale. A barn serving with hot soup, bread, and a few other snacks. I take my time here. I’ve made to halfway, I’m about to enter the night section of the race. I stretch out, eat one of the the peanut butter wraps I packed along with two Peperamis, and put on my hi-viz vest and headtorch. I switch my phone off aeroplane mode to message home to let them know I’m fine. I leave, soup in one hand, bread in the other, and carry on.
Checkpoint 8 – Chelmorton
After leaving Millers Dale I join the Limestone Way again. The night is drawing in now and I flick on my headtorch. Navigation here is straightforward and I’m confident and feeling good. After a long climb I pick up running again. The sweeping views are replaced by the lights of the odd farmhouse in the distance and the glowing eyes of sheep in the fields reflecting back at me. Chelmorton is a favourite checkpoint, not being near any buildings, they play music and have disco lights which I can see from probably half a mile away. A nice boost in the darkness and it spurs me on to continue running. And… they have jam doughnuts. I demolish a doughnut and set off on my way once again with tea in hand.
Checkpoint 9 – Earl Stearndale
Picking up into a run again, the ground is easy going but the night has fully set in and with no other runners or lights in view in any direction I feel quite alone here. I embraced the feeling of solitude as I made my way to Earl Stearndale, this next section I seriously messed up the nav in practice, so bad that I doubled back to attempt it another day. On the second attempt I got it right but for the next several miles I know the nav is going to need a lot of concentration to get right, especially in the dark. I arrive at the checkpoint and do my usual eating and stretching and filling up my water which I’ve been adding electrolytes to each time to help absorption and keep cramp at bay. The mardhals tell me i can’t do the next section alone to I join a group of three who met on the route and have been running together since Castleton. Tea in hand we set off as a four.
Checkpoint 10 – Brand Top
We cover this difficult section across fields, a road section, and past the well documented ‘barking dogs’ farm (where I messed up in practice) and without any mishaps arrive at Brand Top. I was enjoying the solo experience so was a bit perturbed about being forced to join others, but I’d got a good group luckily. We each brought different skills; one had run the race before, one had ran some sections, another was using his gps watch, and I had map, compass, notes and the knowledge from recce’ing. We easily agreed on each turn to take and quietly got on with it. Brand Top is another highlight checkpoint as they serve hotdogs. I eat one with ketchup, grab a handful of jellybabies and this time finish my tea before leaving the door.
Checkpoint 11 – Cumberland Cottage
Without anything being said we dropped into an efficient march. This was a long stretch and after leaving the road and shortly after passing the famous Three Shire Heads waterfall we missed a turn, nothing major but it did mean heading up a steep bank to reach the road. Back on track but the distance was starting to take its toll. It’s a long descent from crossing the A54 on rocky ground and with tiredness kicking in I was starting to over-compensate trying not to trip and therefor was putting strain on my knees and hips. This was my lowest point of the race, my legs were hurting now and I knew I had plenty of blisters. Making it to the checkpoint was very welcome, with a firepit and a spread fit for any picnic; pork pies, crisps, soup, and even coke! It must be a tempting sight for anyone to bow out at this point with 13 miles still to go. I took two ibruprofen, stretched out and knowing the hardest sections underfoot and all the climbing was done I set off, mug of coke in hand this time and you guessed it, yet another banana.
Checkpoint 12 – Walker Barn
The ibruprofen did the trick and I was feeling good. After being on the road for a while we followed a track along the edge of Macclesfield forest, easy nav from here to the finish but still 13 miles to go, but with over 40 in the bag it felt like the end was in sight Walker Barn checkpoint is in an old chapel and is a beautiful building. Water filled for the final time, stretches and, yes, another banana as I left the chapel.
Checkpoint 13 – Whitely Green
One of the guys in the group had recce’d this section and found a route which followed the road for a mile or so instead of the trail route I had followed. The road it was and the good marching pace continued, followed by a footpath which contoured round a hill before dropping into Bollington and picking up the Macclesfield canal until lock 25. The final three sections of the route are very straight forward and flat, I was feeling good and wasn’t experiencing much pain or tiredness now, that was probably thanks to the finish line getting ever closer! A quick check-in and a couple of sweets and we cracked on to get to the finish before dawn.
Checkpoint 14 – Hazel Grove Scout HQ. THE FINISH LINE
This part of the route follows the Middlewood Way, a former railway line, so is flat as a pancake and couldn’t be kinder to my feet. After two and a half miles it’s a further two and a half through Pointon to the finish at the scout hut. We crossed the line at 05:26, seventeen and a half hours after starting, I’d finished before my 6am prediction.
I had expected to be dead on my feet at the finish but I was strangely awake and feeling okay, The three of us who covered the night and finished together sat down for an English breakfast then went our separate ways. Standing up after sitting down to eat was certainly a challenge.
It was hard, the biggest physical challenge I have ever faced, but I coped with it better than I imagined. My only target was to finish and I did. Will I do it next year? Ask me again when my blisters have healed and my legs will allow me to walk normally again!
Big thanks to everyone who makes the Bullock Smithy happen. This is what more ultra running events should be like, supporting community causes. The organisation and checkpoints were brilliant, especially the kids working through the night to feed the hungry runners and walkers passing through. Thanks also to my Dad who was also booked to race but was injured a couple of weeks before. Without him the practice recces wouldn’t have been possible. I’ll do it with you next year Dad.
At the time of writing (Tuesday) my feet are just about allowing me to walk, and the stiffness in my legs is making getting downstairs a challenge. I’ll do a recovery run on Thursday. I’m currently at 90% of my fundraising target, just £110 of my £1,200 target, so if you can chip in please do
Words | Liam Whitehead