The very first Montane Cheviot Goat Winter Ultra took place at 05:30 on Saturday 2 December 2017. With 85 competitors on the start line at Ingram, Northumberland, the atmosphere was quiet, focused and tense.
In the darkness at 05:30 on Saturday 2 December, the remote village of Ingram in Northumberland finds itself playing host to 85 determined ultra runners.
With race registration opening the day before, runners have passed the stringent kit checks, safety briefing and have exchanged words of camaraderie with fellow participants. While shorter races centre on a competitive element, ultras like the Montane Goat are different. As competitor John Parkin puts it: “[The Montane Goat] is not a race but an expedition”.
Survival and course completion are key, over and above setting a new record or new personal best. Ultra running competitors look out for each other, sometimes even sacrificing their own races to ensure fellow athletes are safe. The ultra running community is tight knit and this shows in the inaugural Montane Goat with mutual respect radiating from all on the start line.
Eyes are on Czech Pavel Paloncy, Jim Mann and Carol Morgan. With a wealth of experience between them, expectations are high that they will be on the podium. But first they must tackle 55 miles, 9,500 ft of ascent and full winter conditions.
The runners set off towards the first marshal point at Northfieldhead, headtorches bobbing in the dark. The pace is steady and competitors are fairly tightly packed at this early stage. Mann is the first through, but swiftly followed by Paloncy and Andy Berry. As the sun rises and the race progresses, the lead group works together in turns to break a route through the snowy Cheviot conditions.
The frontrunners gradually become more strung out over the course. The ground conditions, sheer relentlessness and isolation of possibly one of the last wild places in England takes its toll:
“Snow covered iced bogs are the order of the day for the next hour and in the dark this is relentless. On and on and on. Choose a direction and trust the ice? Follow the tracks that disappear? Make your own path? Every second a deliberate choice has to be made and it is as mentally exhausting as physical. I get it wrong only once and my left leg disappears” comments Parkin.
Despite the mental and physical challenges, race organiser Andy Clark notes: “The weather was perfect throughout the race with an impeccable mix of sun, blue sky, cloud topped summits, wind and a small period of rain. The ground was tough going with heavy snowfall leading up to the event meaning the frozen peat bogs on the higher ground had a thick covering of snow and the slightly above zero daytime temperatures led to some interesting climbs and descents as some of the snow melted.”
By the time the first runners reach the single, cosy checkpoint at Barrowburn Farm, Berry and Mann are running together, with Paloncy in 3rd. From this point, Berry and Mann seem to make a concerted effort to pull away, taking advantage of every minute. Heading towards the Pennine Way, they cover some of the more challenging peat bog, snow and ice covered terrain. But they set the tone for the remainder of the race, crossing the finish line in 1st= back at Ingram in a total time of 11:33:43, just over 30 minutes ahead of Paloncy who takes 3rd with 12:10:53.
In the women’s race, Carol Morgan starts as she means to continue – in control. Establishing an early lead of 14 minutes by the first marshal point, her determination propels her not only to 1st lady, but 12th in the race overall, with a time of 13:12:25, over two hours ahead of the next lady, Becki Penrose.
Parkin recalls his encounter with Morgan: “This is a race for people with big hearts and strong minds…I’m too cold and tired to even feel sorry for myself today. I can’t even muster the energy to give myself a talking to so I plod on and on with three people overtaking me before the [Cheviot] summit. First Ben [Rowley] runs past and he’s looking and sounding pretty chipper, then Carol [Morgan] who motors on at the out and back and shares a cheery word”.
As well as the racers, the marshals and North of Tyne Mountain Rescue Team members also face a test of endurance during the Montane Goat. Heavy snowfall days earlier serves to make access to some of the marshal points challenging for those needing to set up safe haven tents. And as the 24 hours continues, the temperatures dip, visibility reduces and the winds pickup, delivering brand new hurdles to all involved.
Rather evilly, after the warmth of Barrowburn Farm, race organisers set the route to summit The Cheviot (2,674 ft), then promptly backtrack before crossing the worst of the mire. A further summit follows, before the final descent towards the finish at Ingram Village Café. Afterwards amongst competitors, there is the general sentiment that the Montane Goat is the hardest race they have ever run.
Parkin summarises his Montane Goat experience, remembering the prevailing exhilaration above the mental and physical pain:
“Just as I get in the van I catch a look at my reflection in the windows and I’m grinning, the thought flickers across my mind that I will be better prepared next year and now I also know the route. It’s a funny thing running events like these, for me it’s a microcosm of what life is about, a true test of who you are. It’s not about where you come relative to others it’s about whether you got the best out of yourself and challenged your perceptions of what is possible”.