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56 Miles To Breakfast - The Bullock Smithy Hike

56 Miles To Breakfast - The Bullock Smithy Hike
29 September 2019

It was with honest intentions of putting in the miles and logging the hours of training that Nick and I (General Manager and Buyer at Outsiders HQ respectively by the way) signed up for the Bullock Smithy Hike. A 56 mile circular walk in the Peak District with a 24 hour time limit.

The ‘race’ starts and finishes at Hazel Grove Scout Hut, taking participants on a large loop of the Peak District via a series of checkpoints that need to be reached in chronological order – though there is no fixed route between them.

56 miles is more than your average walk in the park perhaps, but I, in my fitter days, had done something similar before. And I’d told Nick about all the biscuits you get to eat.

As the day crept closer, the obvious issue we’d encountered in our training was that, well, we’d not really done any. For my part it was a dangerous cocktail of struggling for time around work and family life, and denial. Our names were on the list though - so we were set for giving it a go.

On the morning of the event, I trimmed down my maps to save some weight out on the grass of the Scout Hut Race Headquarters, waiting for Nick to arrive.

We made it to the start field, where a crowd of variously well prepared looking people stood waiting. In traditional Bullock Smithy fashion, an anvil was repeatedly struck with hammers for the race start and we were off... the motley crowd of runners and walkers dispersed, surprisingly, in three different directions. Being roundly unprepared, Nick and I chose a group at random to follow and set off walking... We headed out of Hazel Grove, through Poynton and onwards and upwards into Lyme Park. Time and miles slowly ticked by, and spirits were high. We had lucked out with blue skies and decent, but not too hot temperatures. The perfect day for a long walk...

I had talked Nick into joining me in this hare-brained hike mainly by virtue of assuring him we’d be well fed. The first checkpoint with food had literally a big bowl of crisps and a big bowl of broken blocks of chocolate. Much as we like both those things, I was worried I’d built it up a little too much. They did have an enormous teapot though... we scoffed some of the food, and took our cups of tea onwards...

We’ve no proof, but we think we might have been in possession of both the largest and smallest cups in the event.

Heading up towards the pass above Jacobs Ladder, ready to descend into Edale, we almost fell victim to our plan of ‘follow people that look like they know where they’re going’ by following a trio of people that were out enjoying the Peak District, just not the Bullock Smithy…

In the end we managed to navigate our way over the pass and down into Edale. The weather and the views were stunning, and we were still enjoying ourselves, although the realisation of how far 56 miles is, and how long it was actually going to take us, was beginning to set in.

Cold rice pudding and fruit salad at the checkpoint, in truth, still didn’t cut the mustard when compared to the promises I’d made Nick… but they had tea, of course, so we filled our mugs and got going.

From the Edale checkpoint it was a straight rake up and over Hollins Cross and directly down to the next one in Castleton.

The jam sandwiches actually went down pretty well – the aid station attendants told us they had made 16 loaves worth for the day – but I forgot to drink my tea, and left Nick’s titanium mug I’d borrowed behind by mistake... he took it well, I think mainly because the pain of losing a mug was nothing to the pain he was already suffering in his legs and feet… and we were only just over a third of the way in.

The day was beginning to fall towards evening, and we hit a tough climb directly up the face of a steep grass slope, before pacing out over the rolling uplands of the perfect Peak farm land.

We got chatting with Neil – a 3 time finisher. He knew the way, and held a solid pace, so we tried to settle in with him for the duration... alas, we couldn’t match his steady march, but we kept up as long as we could and tailed him into the evening.

The dusk light, painting the landscape in the softest colours, grabbed a moment of our time for a few photos, and as we climbed over the next farm wall, Neil was out of sight. As we vaguely headed onwards, slowly, through a field with no path, wondering in which direction Neil had disappeared, we noticed a man catching up with us, map in hand. He put us back on the right bearing across the open country, and so we fell into step with Chris, a freshly retired teacher who, for the first time in 35 years, was not starting back at school in the first week of September. He too was a first timer of the Bullock Smithy, but seemed to have a darn sight more experience of similar stuff than us…

We followed him on into darkness, and to Miller’s Dale checkpoint, in a large farm barn. They had soup. And benches. We duly took a few minutes to eat some food, layer up and don our head torches… and then we left with Chris, and took an immediate wrong turn. Thankfully the man that seemed in charge at the checkpoint – I took it to be his barn, but don’t really know – gave us a shout and pointed us right…

A steady plod for a few hours took us through the next checkpoint (jam donuts and cups of tea) and on to Earl Sterndale. 35 miles done. We lingered there a few minutes to allow a two-man group that arrived after we did to join us – the strict checkpoint officials wouldn’t let anyone leave in less than a group of 3 at night and we didn’t want to force them to wait an unknown time for the next group. Anyway, they’d both done it before and one knew the next section – apparently tough to navigate – well, so we’d have lost more time not waiting no doubt.

We got moving again, and were led uphill out of the village, onto an easily missable path, through a couple of awkward to spot farm gates, down a slippery 45 degree slope and on, via a minor route error that took us through a sketchy farm with very loud dogs, up a steep climb to Brand Top checkpoint. Almost 40 miles done, and as we stepped into the village hall I looked at Nick, and he didn’t look so good… everyone along the way, all day, had been eagerly anticipating Brand Top. The long awaited Hot Dog checkpoint. But now none of us could really face eating them. Least of all Nick. Who had gone a bit green.

He took a moment outside to clear his head. And stomach. And then we sat inside to take a few minutes, and review our position.

We were at a checkpoint. So we could retire. A minibus would get us when it was available, and we’d be transported back to race HQ. With a DNF. But 39 miles was no mean feat. We could be proud of the effort at least.

We told Chris and the other men we arrived with to push on. And a few more groups came in and carried on without us. I ate jelly babies and chocolate. Someone had thrown their trainers in the bin. Maybe Brand Top had done for them too…

It might have been half an hour. Maybe it was more. But as a couple of guys were preparing to leave, Nick said he was up for having a go at carrying on. So we asked the guys if we could set off with them, to form a 4…I had heard them say they’d recce’d this section, so it sounded good. They said yes.

But, Nick and I had stiffened up so much from our longer rest that the guys, at only a modest pace, walked directly away from us as soon as we were out the building and round the corner. We were left, in the dark, in pain, with no idea where we were going beyond the line I’d drawn on my map (and a back-up GPS on low battery), to fend for ourselves for the first time… We were finally faced with the prospect of walking on, all the way through the night, without really knowing the way we should be going. It was an odd sensation…

We traipsed along, very slowly, blisters blistering and legs dying, through long wet grass, following the saviour of a trail left by those that had gone before us, keeping tabs on our location on the map. We walked our way to warmer legs and back into a steadier pace, deep into a valley and back up to the sound of a roaring waterfall invisible in the darkness. And to a navigational conundrum. I wasn’t sure whether we needed to follow one wall or another, head up hill or straight on. And the GPS battery icon flashed a couple of times, and turned off. We were on a rocky path and there was no longer clear enough signs of foot traffic in any direction.

We pushed on cautiously, according to our best guess, with no more for guidance than the faint beam of our head torches. Followed a wall. Turned at another. Cut across a field – things stacking up with the map – and landed right on the path we needed towards the Cumberland Cottage checkpoint. Which we heard before we saw it. They’d seen our head torches and were banging pots and pans, or something, in honour of our imminent arrival. We were welcomed warmly into a wonderful little bothy type building, with an open fire and the best spread of any checkpoint yet – quartered pork pies, mini sausage rolls, crisps, biscuits, cakes, jelly babies, orange slices, tea. And banter too. The handful of people manning the checkpoint took it as their duty to raise spirits and have a laugh. They were in for a full night shift themselves, but were committed to making it as upbeat as possible for the 43-mile-tired people they had arriving.

A large group turned up while we were there, and so we stepped outside, and left with the first few who were pushing on. It was the middle of the night, and there was a half marathon to go. We learned that the winner of the event had covered that distance in 1 hour and 45 minutes from that point. We were looking at slow march for 5 or 6, or more…

I settled in next to Alan. A middle aged man from Hazel Grove who was walking the Bullock Smithy for the 5th or 6th time. He was on target for his best ever time, estimating something like 20 hours total. Alan, to my surprise, was wearing only a short sleeve checked shirt and shorts. He didn’t add a single layer to his outfit the whole cold night through…

The rest of the group that Nick and I had fallen in with comprised of 4 people. Another Nick – Alan’s friend and self-nominated group leader – who covered additional distance to the basic 56 miles by moving forwards, and backwards, through our group checking in on people. And a father whose name I never caught and who was wearing tight stretchy jeans, with his two sons, 15 and 13 years old, apparently wearing their school rucksacks. They were beyond exhausted and holding hands to keep moving. The one son, at any momentary pause we took as a group, would slump to the floor and his eye lids would slowly droop closed. Before he’d be called back up to his feet to carry on.

We all ground our way forwards slowly. Climbing up along the edge of Macclesfield forest, and to a view out across the bright lights of Manchester’s urban sprawl. It came as something of a stark contrast to the entire experience to that point. Lights upon lights, as far as the eye could see.

From here, apparently, it was almost all downhill, and soon enough, almost all on roads or canal tow paths. The feeling of nearing the end belied the fact that we were still something like 4 or 5 hours from the finish, walking towards sunrise.

From checkpoint 12 to 13 – the final one before the finish back at the Scout hut – Nick and I seemed to move slower than everyone else. Groups from further back caught ours and passed by, and even our own group, as the sunlight slowly filtered into the sky and head torches were turned off, began to creep ahead of us. Including the boys, who I had been sure would have to retire. Our legs were in bits, and our spirits in tatters. We hardly talked. Just walked.

We reached that final checkpoint as everyone else there was set to leave, so we took no break beyond filling our bottles and grabbing crisps in one hand and jelly babies in the other. We still weren’t sure of the best way back, and preferred the thought of mindlessly following someone that did over navigating ourselves…

The morning had arrived in beautiful fashion. The crisp air of a clear autumn morning. That gentle mist hanging just above the ground. But we could barely care. There were 5 miles to go. Which would be about 2 hours at our painfully slow pace. We trudged. It hurt. The boys were still moving. We passed a man that almost wasn’t.

The final mile was a case of retracing our departure almost 21 hours earlier. As we turned into the Scout Hut entrance, a lady there said simply “Well done”, and I almost welled up. I was kind of a bit broken.

We handed in the cards we’d carried the whole way, stamped at each checkpoint. We found a seat. I went and ordered our full English breakfasts and got us a cup of tea each.

We’d clocked a time of 20 hours and 50 minutes. Joint 171st.

We both fell asleep where we sat.

It’s been three weeks now since the race. Thankfully the recurring numb thigh I had been suffering seems to have sorted itself, but Nick’s big toes may never be the same again… It wasn’t exactly fun, but maybe we’ll be back next year, if anyone fancies it?

Nick and I would both like to thank Hoka One One for fixing us up with Ultra-Distance ready footwear.

Thanks too to Patagonia for looking after us on the lightweight clothing front, keeping us cool in the day and toasty at night.

A special mention goes to Outdoor Provisions for the amazing energy bars that helped keep us moving too.

And finally, to all the event organisers and checkpoint volunteers that made the whole thing a very eccentric sort of affair. It was a long way to walk for a dozen cups of tea. But worth every minute. Maybe.

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