Hands grapple my ankles, as my lungs scream for air, my quads are on fire, I’m amongst 150 elite runners, all trying to make a way up the same narrow path, if you can call the narrow band of trampled bracken in front of us, a path, up an almost vertical hillside, somewhere in the Peak District. I’m no longer even sure where we are anymore, we have climbed above the clouds, the hills are surrounded in a thick mist below us, in some magical inversion wonderland. Where am I? What am I doing? Why am I here? We’ve just climbed over 500 feet, straight up the side of Mam Tor, so this is the Red Bull Steeplechase! I sure could do with some wings now!
Now I remember, Sunday morning, saw the van door being slid open in a quiet corner of the Peak District, after the drive down from Newcastle the evening before. I was here to take on the inaugural Red Bull Steeplechase, a 21 mile race over the highs and lows of the Peak District from church steeple, to church steeple. A race with a twist, at each steeple only the fastest would get through to the next stage. With 250 starting, only 40 are allowed to make it to the finish line in Castleton. The knockout element changes everything in race strategy, suddenly you are looking over your shoulder, trying to work out your placing, trying to reel in the man in front, pitching yourself against both the hills and men around you, it sure sounded like my cup of tea! And now, my legs are screaming as I fly along the ridge, skipping over stones and splashing through puddles heading for the village of Bamford.
My sights are set on the finish line in Castleton, only the top 30 men will make it that for, and it’s still 18 miles away. Then, my stomach cramped and heaved, and I dropped to my knees to take a closer look at my morning’s porridge, not a good sign. Men who I have just passed, now easily overtake me again as I double up every few steps, I close my eyes and try to push through the nausea, try to re-engage the legs and claim back my placing. But now I’m struggling, each hill saps more strength, and there are plenty of hills in this race. Only on the descents do the legs really come alive and can I reclaim a few places. My focus shifts, not on the finish line in Castleton, but on making it to the first steeple in Bamford.
A long, grassy descent leads to the first water station. I’m 95th, I’ve dropped a sack of places, but I could still make the cut off in Bamford, as the top 90 males go through… its possible… I need to do a lot of work… but my legs are empty and I’m easy pickings now for the runners behind me…
I count down as I pass runners and up as I’m passed, I yo-yo up and down, 94th, 93rd, 94th, 92nd, back to 95th… so close yet seemingly so far… then I lose count and forget where I am… We cross a bridge over the River Derwent, and then some stepping stones, turning on to the main street we run past the Church, with the first steeple, down the road and on to the sports field, the gantry is closed my run today will end here.
I’ve just run 8 miles through the Peak District, 1,800 feet of climbing and its taken me too long. The hardest race of my life, I feel like I’ve run 20 miles, not 8, but its also been the best race! The views were truly stunning, the cloud inversion gave way to blue skies and a panoramic vista in all directions. Finishers around me relax in the sun and chat with others, who until a few moments ago had been competitors. Red Bull flows freely, we are presented with medals and a luxury hoodie each before buses take us back to the finish in Castleton.
We arrive just in time to watch those who have been strong enough to complete the whole 21 miles cross the line, to sit under the trees on giant bean bags and then to tuck in to the biggest BBQ you have seen, complete with a free bar, new best friends and straw bails.
For a first time event, the Red Bull Steeplechase was amazing! A totally brutal race, with an amazing atmosphere, incredible scenery, perfect organisation, supportive marshals, killer hills, hairy descents, scrumptious food, free beer, a smart hoodie I’m proud to wear… I can’t wait for next year, where do I sign up…?
Nil Gutsus, Nil Glorium!