Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bashing Boots in Derbyshire

Thanks to my parents, I’ve always had a love for the great outdoors and have spent many happy days both as a youngster and now as an adult (!) roaming the hills and mountains at weekends, come rain or shine. To make things more challenging, my dad taught me to map read and we frequently chose routes that were unfamiliar to us just to practice our navigation skills, relying on these immensely on numerous occasions when on our backpacking expeditions in low cloud and mist up in the fells.

Back then, I had also started running and I was often urged to take up orienteering to combine both my love of running and my obsession with maps and the outdoors. For one reason or another though, the closest I came to orienteering was when on work experience at Standon Bowers where I was teaching other young people about the sport as part of their geography field trips.

As time progressed, I became more of a road runner, where racing meant following the person in front rather than thinking about where you are going, and the only thing to check is whether the mile markers are in sync with the Garmin. If I hadn’t done so many road races in my time, I could almost say that this could be quite boring, but that would be hypocritical of me after all these years!

Whilst I do still enjoy competing on the roads, more recently I have found myself seeking new challenges and last Saturday was the perfect opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and try something different.

I needed to do a long run and as it’s much easier to do a 3 hour run as part of a race, I had scoured the internet for something suitable. I didn’t want to travel too far, so when I spotted the Baslow Boot Bash, it was ideal.

The Baslow Boot Bash is actually a Long Distance Walkers Association Event, starting in Baslow near to Bakewell in Derbyshire and just under an hour’s drive from home. It was advertised as a 26 mile walk in the Peak District with 7 checkpoints that had to be visited in order, and whilst there was a recommended route, it didn’t really matter which way you went. There would be no marshals, and only the occasional arrow where people had found it tricky in the past, but other than that, you were on your own.

A 9am start saw me leave home at just turned 7 on a lovely sunny Saturday morning. Unlike the Forest of Dean race last month, I was feeling excited and nervous about this one, so much so that the usual 3 Weetabix for breakfast was a struggle, and as I left Stoke behind and headed over to the moors, it was quite a scary thought that I was going to have to find my own way today without relying on anybody else to get me round.

The course started by the Kissing Gate in the grounds of Chatsworth House and with 15 minutes to go, a small crowd of runners and walkers had gathered. The difference between this and other events was that everybody had a map with them, along with food supplies and additional clothing just in case of bad weather. This was something I wasn’t used to doing, and already knew that the bag I was carrying would start to irritate me at some point and I would be ready to sling it off the nearest cliff or in to the nearest river.

Before long the race started and we commenced our journey down through Chatsworth Park and alongside the River Derwent. I managed to slot in with a group of about 5 men, all saying they had done the event before and were confident they knew where they were going. Stupidly, although holding onto my map, I wasn’t really paying attention to it, and figured all I need to do was stick with these blokes, something which I frustratingly began to regret later on in the day!

It wasn’t long before the climbs started as the path took us away from the Park and up towards some woods at the top of a hill. Crossing the field, a herd of deer appeared with the woods in the background, and it really was a magnificent sight watching them saunter across the open meadow.

Entering the wood, the path turned quite rocky as the climbing continued and the group I was with suddenly became just 3. A few tracks veered in the opposite direction, and the 3 of us broke away from the others and appeared to be leading. However, it soon became apparent that we had taken the wrong route – and we were only about 2 miles into the race! Spotting the other competitors some half mile or more away in the distance, it appeared that the only way to get back on track was to go up an extremely steep hill that was a good half mile long, and involved clambering over barbed wire fences and dry stone walls to get us back into the woods.

We managed to get back on the correct route again, at which point I figured that my best option would be to stick with these chaps until the first check point and then follow the route I had already marked on my map the previous day, rather than be too reliant on the other runners.

After a little more running through the woods, we approached the first check point close to Haddon Hall and having grabbed a drink of squash and checked in, I continued on my own.

Heading off over the fields to Over Haddon and towards the next checkpoint, it was easy to see how you could go wrong. Paths seemed to go in every direction but with no clear signposts, and with sheep also trundling across the grass and making their own paths, accuracy was important.

It’s amazing how much information maps hold when you really need to look at them. Phone boxes, pubs, churches, field boundaries and even derelict barns are all marked, and surprisingly, I was able to find my way.

The path was still gradually climbing and with some of the fields consisting of freshly mowed grass, it became very heavy going. Up ahead I could see the village of Over Haddon, so knew that the next checkpoint wasn’t too far and I started to feel more confident about getting round the course without any help.

More climbs, more fields and loads and loads of stiles eventually brought me to checkpoint number 3, and by this point, I really was running solo with nobody else in sight. I had my control card punched, and set off towards Deep Dale – somewhere I had never been before and really didn’t know what to expect. The map showed steep contours, so I knew that there would be a steep downhill into the valley, and that once in Deep Dale, it would be relatively easy for a few miles.

Running across the fields again, I found myself really enjoying the run, absorbing the fantastic scenery and thinking how lucky we are to have such beautiful places to visit within an hour of home. I was so busy having a nosy at my surroundings that I ran into a stone stile and seriously bruised my knee, and as the run progressed, I felt it stiffening up – but I’m no wimp!

Up until now, things had been very quiet with absolutely nobody about but as I approached the end of Deep Dale, the crowds of people walking increased and it became difficult dodging around them on the paths as they were completely oblivious to anybody around them.

Having ran the length of Deep Dale I joined Monsal Dale, and running up here alongside the river, things went quiet again. A few paths veering off up the valleys threw me a little, but with footbridges and weirs all marked on the map and being used as landmarks whilst running, I knew I was doing ok. Up ahead was the old viaduct that I would join shortly to take me part way along the Monsal Trail before heading down in to Cressbrook for the next checkpoint.

The Monsal Trail really was quite boring – an old railway line that was just flat and was full of so many people walking or cycling, you would have thought they were giving something away at the other end. I picked up the pace through here as I really didn’t enjoy the crowds, and having spotted what I thought was Cressbrook Mill, I left the trail to follow a steep and narrow footpath. A moment of panic struck me when I couldn’t seem to locate my position on the map, and I couldn’t figure out where the checkpoint should be. I asked an elderly couple if the pathway took me to the road, and although they didn’t know, they told me they had spotted runners heading in the other direction, so I gave chase.

A steep hill brought me to checkpoint 4, and having refuelled on chocolate biscuits, squash and an energy gel, I continued on my way into the lovely Cressbrook Dale. A narrow rocky winding path through a very pretty woodland, before opening out into a beautiful limestone valley with deep green fields either side, Cressbrook Dale was my favourite place on the entire route, and certainly somewhere I would like to go back to.

I actually passed a couple of runners at this stage, and found out that I was now in 3rd place overall. I was also on for a ladies course record, with about 12 miles still to go, I was feeling good and was so pleased that I had decided to do this run.

Cressbrook Dale came to an end, and things reverted back to farm tracks followed by field upon field up on field. The stiles were endless and prevented me from getting into any sort of running rhythm, and also sapped the energy every time I had to climb over them.

Shortly afterwards, I entered the village of Foolow, another typical English village with walled gardens full of flowers and narrow passageways between them, and approached checkpoint number 5.

It was at this point that my solo running came to an abrupt end. One of the chaps who had been in the lead had stopped here as he really was struggling but was desperate to finish whatever it took. He asked if he could run the rest of the way with me, and with just 8 miles still to go and targeting a 4.15 finish, I figured that a bit of company might actually help – besides, how could I say no?!

The route from here headed across yet more fields and stiles into the plague village of Eyam, before climbing quite sharply again followed by a rapid decent back down to the River Derwent in the valley below, and checkpoint 6 at Froggat Bridge.

My running companion (who told me he was from Sheffield and was named Simon) had by now started to struggle again and was starting to cramp up. We stayed at Froggat Bridge much longer than I would have liked as he took on board some fluids, and I offered him an energy gel to help out. I was conscious that the longer we stayed here, the slower my finishing time would be, but I would have felt really rotten leaving the poor chap when I said I would run to the finish with him.

Simon had apparently done the Bootbash a couple of years ago but as a walker back then. He said he remembered the route very well, and yet about 2 miles later we realised we had yet again taken a wrong turn into the village of Calver. Having gone 1 ½ miles off course, it was much easier to run back up the road to get back on track rather than backtrack to the path junction in the other direction.  It meant another climb up the road, but it was a much better option. Having already lost time at the last checkpoint, I was now frustrated that we had added extra time to our run by going the long way round to enter Bank Wood, but hey, I’m a good sport!

The climb up into the woods was horrendous – terribly steep, lots of tree roots and it went on for a good half a mile. Although we had tried to run pretty much most of the course, this hill stopped us in our tracks, and even walking up it was a struggle. At the top though, it was a lovely run along a woodland trail for a couple of miles, before we finally arrived at the last checkpoint. Running time was now on about 4 hours 20 and I had already missed my target time of 4.15, and there were still a couple of miles to go back into Baslow.

Simon was still struggling so he told me to just go, and I did. More fields, more stiles, and a final mile or so along the road back into the finish at the Village Hall in Baslow.

I finished strong, I finished feeling really good, I finished 1st lady (4th overall), and I’d also got a new course record.

The day had been absolutely brilliant and I was so glad that I had found this little gem of an event - very well organised, interesting and varied terrain and outstanding countryside. My greatest accomplishment for me though was actually remembering how to read a map after all these years, and to cover just under 29 miles without actually getting lost – ok, I took a couple of wrong turns, but at least I’ll know for next time. I certainly want to go back and do the Baslow Boot Bash again, and would certainly recommend it. With pie and peas, a cup of tea and fruit salad with cream provided afterwards, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

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