There’s always a bit of extra pressure going into a race as defending champions. Having won the British Fell Running Relays last year at Llanberis, the Dark Peak team came into this year’s event at Middleton with big fat targets painted on their backs. With the cream of British fell running turning out for their clubs, we were always going to have our work cut out to come out on top.
Fellow inov-8 athlete Rhys Findlay-Robinson and I were assigned to run the second leg of four. Run in pairs, the second leg was always going to be the crux of the race; set our navigators out with a lead on leg three and we might just have the race sewn up. The only problem with that plan was the strength of competition facing us, from Mercia’s speed demons Simon Bailey and Andy Davies to Borrowdale stalwarts Morgan Donnelly and Phil Davies, Helm Hill’s super-cousins Tom Addison and Mark Addison and not forgetting Bingley’s team of 2012 Olympic triathlon bronze-medal winner Jonny Brownlee and Rob Jebb. We knew we would certainly be up against it.
We did what we could. Both tired from tough, long races the weekend before, we rested up and made sure we were prepared with a recce of the route. Our team’s leg one runner, Stuart Bond, set us up nicely, putting us out in second with a big chasing pack on our heels. We went out as hard as we dared, Rhys setting the pace. But we were being chased hard and as we slogged up the tough first climb, I was getting worried that those targets on our backs would turn us into cannon fodder. We soon overhauled the team from Pudsey and Bramley to take the lead, but it was a slender margin and I had my doubts that we could maintain it.
A steep and rough plummet down to a checkpoint off the back of the hill provided some respite from the rapid pace and we both relaxed into our comfort zone, before a severe hands-on-knees climb back up to the main summit. Clinging on to a whisker of a lead as we headed up into the mist, Rhys had a plan: leg it off the top and we might be able to get away! It was worth a shot, and although my needle was already pushing into the red, we put our inov-8 X-Talon 190s through their paces over a hard descent and emerged from the cloud with no sign of pursuit.
A long traverse into strong winds took us back to the changeover area with a decent lead ahead of our rivals. As it turned out, it was enough of a lead for our leg 3 navigators, Neil Northrop and Tom Saville, to capitalize on, leaving captain Rob Little to bring home the bacon on the anchor leg. Calder Valley and Borrowdale battled it out behind us to finish second and third respectively.
There have been plenty of ups and downs this season, as in any other, but a relay gold is, as ever, one of the highlights. This is my fifth time on top of the podium with Dark Peak at the British Fell Running Relays, with three wins coming in the last four years. There remains something very special about winning this event. It’s great to do it alongside your team-mates (or as it turned out this year, desperately hanging on to the back of them) and it makes for a great end (or near end…) to the season. Nice one to Howgill Harriers and Dallam AC for putting on such a slick event.
Now just the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon) this coming weekend to go. I will be running with Dark Peak club-mate Neil Northrop, before hanging up my racing shoes for a couple of months. We’ll do our best to finish it off on a high note.