I haven’t raced the Gallop since 2011, when I whipped round in fairly short order and bagged a top ten finish. It’s a super competitive hill race (and getting faster every year) with three big old climbs punctuating some lightning fast sections across the Peak District. At twenty one and a half miles and three and a half thousand feet of climb, I love it.
The decision to race this year was taken fairly late on. I had other longstanding plans for the day which had, as plans sometimes do, fallen away at the last minute. And so I found myself in Grindleford early Saturday morning with The Swizzler in tow (only five weeks on from her back surgery) lining up to start.
I was never going to hit the heights of 2011. Yet. My base levels of fitness and strength are increasing well, and I’m laying a more solid foundation at the moment than I’ve ever had. But that speedwork and sharpness at the front end still needs a lot of work. I’m healthier, stronger, and a more sustainable runner than ever. I just need to get some speed back. Three hours is considered the ‘fast’ benchmark at the Gallop. Keeping my expectations realistic, I was aiming for 2:50 and a spot in the top 30. That would represent a good day for now. I’ve run this route a dozen times, and I wanted to run a solid first half before easing off for an easier second and in theory ‘coast’ the final eleven miles.
The start, as ever, was manic. A very narrow stile about three quarters of a mile into the race means that unless you explode out of the blocks and get to the front of the pack you will be queueing to get through with 400 others once you hit that point. Consequently, it was a full on sprint across the first field. Elbows were flying.
I pushed into second place as we hit the other side of the field, entered woodland singletrack and headed for the stile clipping off five minute pace. Through the stile and over to Froggatt, a group of about eight of us broke at the front and started the first big climb up and over to Riley Graves. I was happy with the start, it was clearly too fast but I was holding my own.
The descent into Eyam was fast and I was fairly flying, even pinching a few places. Unexpectedly my split through CP1 was quicker than my 2011 run! I consciously eased off the pace a little (no records today!) and held steady all the way through to Long Rake and then on to the more technical fell section through to Longstone Edge. Always hard work but my favourite bit. I loved the big fast descent into Great Longstone village and couldn’t help but to run it very hard, then fell into a steady rhythm as I hopped on to the Monsal Trail. A couple of miles at a steady 6:30 pace brought us through to the Hassop checkpoint and the half way point of the race. By now I was only a couple of minutes down on 2011 and so part one of the plan, ‘a solid first half’, had been accomplished.
Even better (sort of) was that Nicola was waiting at Hassop. I had pleaded with her before the race not to drive around to meet me at CPs. It’s only five weeks since we got her out of hospital and she quite honestly isn’t up to it. But Nic most definitely knows her own mind, and her support crew efforts are fairly legendary for both me and her brother. There was no way she wasn’t going to crew if she was able. They breed them tough in Glasgow.
Bottle swapped, gels replenished, homemade energy bar downed, I continued on the Monsal Trail at a similar pace, even reeling in the guy in front. But when it came to the next big climb at Bakewell everything took a bit of a turn for the worse. A little bit of momentum carried me up the first section, but it wasn’t long before it was a hands on knees trudge up through the forest.
When I dibbed in at the CP at the top I was in quite a lot of pain. My feet had become incredibly painful, each forefoot feeling blistered and sore. I’d opted to run in Salomon Speedcross to go easier on my calves after I trashed them at Stockport a fortnight ago. But the increased heel drop (11mm?!?!) was putting too much pressure on the balls of my feet, I’m used to a much lower profile. Schoolboy error.
I hobbled through the fields above Chatsworth with my feet on fire. I slowed right down and found progress laborious. This is generally my least favourite section of the race even when I’m running OK. I made it through to Baslow and a waiting Nicola for another bottle swap.
I was losing positions fairly freely by now, but made a reasonable job of the final climb up on to the edges. Once up on top I lost all cohesion and the final four miles or so were a bit of a death march. It took a hefty dose of will power and the delight of finding half a Bounty in my supplies put there by Nic at Baslow to shuffle through the last section and get my sore carcass home. Which of course, I eventually did. The usual long fast and free flowing descent back down into Grindleford was more of a stunted hobble but I eventually got across the line in 2:58.
So sub three hours, which is a good thing. Way, way off target pace though. Not so good.
Two hard races in two weeks might have been too much, and the shoes on Saturday were a dreadful choice. Peeling them off after the race revealed quite a lot of blistering and damage. I won’t be wearing Speedcross on any long efforts again, ever. On the positive side it was another race in the bag, another long effort in the hills, I fulfilled my intentions of smashing the first half and I got to hang out with a bunch of mates that I haven’t seen for a long time. So I’m a touch disappointed in my performance but grateful for the experience. I’m still learning and that can only be a good thing. Learning more about running and being a runner even after all this time, but even more so learning about myself, the propensity to endure and how that could help me surpass what I might have achieved in the past.
Lots to do.