Race review: Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra 2019

I entered this event back in July, when the sun was shining and Christmas seemed a lifetime away.  I love winter and the idea of a winter ultra in the hills massively appealed, as well as the isolation this ultra promised.  55 miles without seeing another soul, apart from the odd Cheviot goat apparently.

Team Runnerverse took a steady drive up from London on the Thursday before the event kicked off on Saturday 7th December, having booked a cosy cottage to stay for a few days before and after the event, just 20 minutes from Race HQ.  

Registration was incredibly slick – first up a kit check by Mountain Rescue (ensuring we had our emergency bivvy bag, waterproofing and emergency clothing), then we were provided with our race numbers, had a quick snap taken for the live tracking and then had our timing and SOS beacon attached to our packs.  We were in and out in less than 15 minutes, including a mini feast at the Mountain Fuel stand.  On an aside, I’d highly recommend their Double Ginger bar….delicious!

We had already been notified that there may be a diversion in place, as high winds were forecast for Saturday night and, sitting in our cosy cottage listening to the wind howling, we were starting to realise what we’d let ourselves in for.  I’d read online a quote from ‘Arctic John’ saying this race was more like an expedition, and how right he was!

An early bedtime preceded the usual sleepless night, and we were dragged into wakefulness by a 4am alarm.  Having opened my bleary eyes I was confronted by a text message and email from Cold Brew, the event organisers, letting us know the route was to be run in reverse due to the extreme weather forecast.  If we weren’t nervous before, we definitely were now.

Getting out of the car at Race HQ was a rude reminder of the weather we’d be facing.  A decidedly chilly breeze, but I decided to set off wearing t-shirt and long sleeve base layer, with hat and gloves regardless.  I tend to run hot, and know from past experience that being bold and starting cold is better for me than having to stop 10 minutes in and take off a load of layers.

Everyone was pretty cheerful at the start, despite many having camped in vans or even tents overnight.  I was reassured by a lovely Scottish Mountain Rescue chap, who was participating in his second Cheviot Goat, and who told me running the route in reverse would definitely be easier than going ‘the right way round’ and that he had maintained a consistent 4mph the previous year by mixing walking and yomping.  I felt strangely positive at that point – perhaps I just didn’t want to let myself think about what was really going to happen.

Before I knew it, we were off and trotting along the road.  A beautiful line of headtorches stretching off into the distance, the frontrunners already haring off.  I knew that navigation on this first section would be relatively easy – one of the advantages of being a tortoise is that you get to follow all the hares.

We turned into a field from the road and the first climb began.  It was horrendously muddy (although, from my YouTube research, I was pretty sure the worst of the bogs were yet to come) and the climb seemed to go on forever.  I can’t remember how long we climbed for, but we passed an unfortunate early retiree with an ankle injury then it was just us.  

The sun rose in an explosion of oranges, yellows and reds.  Sadly, the sunrise was behind us, but we allowed ourselves a brief pause to catch our breath and appreciate the views.  Up and up we climbed.  Then down and down through grouse-filled heather.  Then up and up again.  The hills were more like mountains and seemed never-ending.  

I must admit, I was not in the right headspace at this point.  So much of surviving an ultra, especially one like this, is about mental strength and I was lacking.  Halfway up a hill and the first mini-meltdown happened.  As with every mini-meltdown though, the usual prescription of a Snickers bar pulled me back out the other side and I trudged on.

I was waiting for the bogs – all my online and YouTube research had filled me with the bog fear.  Everyone was talking about those horrendous bogs at registration and at the start.  And I knew that Comb Fell was the renowned bog area – and it was in the first section before we summited the Cheviot.  So, all the while I was waiting….

Soon, they came!  And actually it really wasn’t that bad.  Or maybe that was just the Snickers talking!  Yes, it was very boggy and yes, horrendously muddy, and yes, sometimes our shoes nearly got sucked off or we were ankle deep in slop.  But, in a weird way I kind of enjoyed it.  It gave me something to focus on – my Scottish friend at the start had advised not to try and just blast through, but find a path through.  And that’s what we did, merrily skipping from one patch of firm ground to another, using fences to carry us over deep sections, probing with our hiking poles to avoid the softest patches.  I got into a rhythm and, dare I say it, actually smiled.

I didn’t dare believe this was the dreaded Comb Fell – I must be wrong, I told myself.  This really wasn’t that bad.

But suddenly we reached a checkpoint and the lovely marshalls (who, I have to say, were all absolutely fantastic considering they were out in a howling gale on top of a hill) pointed us towards the Cheviot summit.  What a relief!  And flagstones….never been so happy to see flagstones.

We passed a couple of runners coming back from the summit and then we knew we had a section along the Pennine Way.  Slightly flatter and with flagstones and the worst of the bogs were behind us.  I’d hoped to see the views but we were up in the clouds and so visibility was pretty poor.

At this point, we decided to put our waterproofs on.  The wind was really howling and, although it wasn’t raining, there was moisture in the air.  Immediately, I felt better.

The next section on the Penine Way was fairly steady, and interrupted only by a few hardy walkers and a runner who ended up going waste deep in bog in front of us – I later found out he was Spine training and was heading for Ingram, so I hope he made it safely.

Otherwise, we plugged on.  Now we were out of the way of the bogs, our average pace increased.  We passed more cheerful marshall points (honestly, a huge thanks to them for being out there in such grim conditions) and were warned of worse weather later on.  We also passed through Windy Gyle, where we struggled to stay upright with the strength of the wind.  I could see why Cold Brew had decided to run the route in reverse.

Soon, we were ticking off the miles and had the company of two lovely marshalls in the miles that led down to the road at Barrowburn.  It was really nice to have some company and someone to chat to.  And they helped us trot along at a fair clip.  By this point I was feeling fantastic, and once we hit the road to Barrowburn I was certain we would both finish the race.  I only say that because, earlier in the hills, I’d pretty much decided to call it at Barrowburn (28 miles) or thought we’d be timed out.  So to feel like I was flying and would continue to the finish was a brilliant feeling.

As we came into Barrowburn the light was fading rapidly, so I knew it must have been around 4.30pm.  This was much faster than expected and well inside the 14-hour cut off for Barrowburn, where we had to leave by 8pm.

Reaching Barrowburn was a great feeling and, again, the marshalls and Mountain Rescue there were superb.  We got a hot drink and some food, then set about getting changed into our dry kit ready for phase 2.  And that’s when the wheels fell off…..

I took off my Sealskinz and Injinji liners to find a horrendous blister in my left heel.  Well, actually it wasn’t really a blister it was more like 10 layers of skin had been scraped off.  And oddly, it hadn’t hurt up till that point but as soon as I saw it, it hurt!  I was gutted – I had made up my mind I was going to finish this race, and now this.  

I gritted my teeth, cleaned it up and dressed it.  Then put my fresh socks on and my running shoes.  Straight away it was agony and I knew I couldn’t continue.  So, that was me retired at Barrowburn, 11:31.  A lovely lady from Mountain Rescue drove me back to Ingram and I headed for home.

But, that wasn’t the end of Team Runnerverse’s medal hopes.  Rich carried on from Barrowburn, and free of his tortoise team mate, quickly moved up the field.  He finished in 19:52, which was a fantastic result considering we were at Barrowburn at 11:31.  He promptly said it was the hardest thing ever and how glad he was that we weren’t both still out there in the horrendous weather.  Temperatures were rumoured to drop with wind chill to -12 degrees Centigrade at 4am, so we were both glad he’d finished before then.  

Would I run the Montane Cheviot Goat again?  It was a brilliantly organised event – Cold Brew were fantastic and the Mountain Rescue team were beyond brilliant, as well as the marshalls being endlessly enthusiastic and helpful despite the weather.  The scenery, had I seen it, I’m sure would have been stunning and the Cheviots really are a beautiful part of the world.  If you like wild places and are happy being on your own for hours on end, and you like hills and bogs, this is the race for you.  

And whilst I have unfinished business, I think it will be a while before I return.  The thought of running the event ‘the right way round’ and dealing with those bogs and the worst of the hills in the dark, having already covered 35 odd miles is fairly unappealing.  I’d never say never though!

If you do decide to run the Montane Cheviot Goat, I would highly recommend using a good GPS device (with the route downloaded) for this event as navigation is hugely important and it’s tricky to navigate using the map alone.  Our Garmin Foretrex saved us some extra miles more than once.  Good waterproofs are also an absolute must as well as plenty of layers.  I know in previous years they’ve had snow, rain and high winds for the event so expect the worst weather.  A good headtorch is also a must to enable you to continue moving at a reasonable speed in the dark.

With the bogs, keeping your feet dry is important and so Sealskinz or Goretex or other waterproof socks, or waterproof shoes would be an advantage here.  We both used hiking poles, which we found reduced the attrition on our legs and feet as well as being useful for assessing bog depth.  

Keep eating – there were a lot of sad, dark moments on this event for me and, looking back, most of these were probably caused by not keeping my blood sugar levels up.  Have plenty of snacks you know you will enjoy for a little boost of happiness.  The cold and the hills sap your energy remarkably quickly.  And my final tip, never underestimate the number of pairs of gloves you’ll use.  Cold wet hands are an unnecessary misery.

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