The Gritstone Trail is a national trail route that takes you from Kidsgrove in Staffordshire, to Disley in Cheshire; 35 miles of very green Peak District terrain and over 5,000 feet of elevation along the way.
Earlier this year, I discovered via the Welsh V3K and Snowdon Trail Marathon, that I am not quite the mountain goat I thought I might be… Running up a mountain is hard, running DOWN a mountain is crippling! It’s something I intend to work on, but mountains by nature are just that little bit more vertical than my body likes to work with.
This then, is more my thing! I can do ‘hills’. Plus this was about to be my third time running this route, so for a nice change I wouldn’t be getting lost… probably.
The race starts out down a stretch of the canal. Great! Nice and flat to ease in with, although this does cause a bit of a bottleneck for the first few miles and in previous years, I found myself frustrated trying to get past people. This year, I put my competitiveness to one side and just decided to chill out and enjoy myself.
I ran with my friend Helen for the first few miles, who was running in her first ever ultra-marathon. When I think about it; that is some feat! Dealing with a tough, 35 miler and my irritating company on the same day.
After four miles, we left the canal onto a wider road, and I took the opportunity here to go past a few people. This incidentally is also where the first hill kicks in, so a lot of people start walking here anyway to conserve energy for later.
Fast-forwarding a little bit to Mow Cop castle, I got chatting to a couple of guys here for a bit. I can’t remember their names now, but I remember one of them was from Disley, so this must have been the perfect race for him, essentially running back home.
Once you leave the trail here, there is a small stretch of road that goes downhill, so I thought it would be a good idea to run this bit fast! So put my head down and charged down at… I dunno, probably 50mph or something like that, before I heard a voice… “Dan?” This usually gets my attention, as it’s one of the nicer names that people call me. I turned around and it was a lady called Kirsty who I knew from Strava and social media, plus a very good runner I might add. I decided to scratch that ‘run fast’ idea for a bit in favour of another mile of casual chatting again. What’s life without whimsy?
Approaching the first check-point, I then ran into my mate Chris (Dunkers) Dunkerley. Not literally of course, that would be very careless of me, but it was at a point where the course goes flat again for a couple of miles, so thought it was a good excuse for another bit of a bit of a social. Eventually, Chris asked me what time I was going for, and I replied “probably around six hours if I pick my pace up a little…” “Oh right, well in that case, I’ll drop off a bit” – This is a well known ultra-runner’s expression, which means: I’ve enjoyed our chat, but please can you move on ahead now? I know this particular unwritten rule quite well from saying it myself enough times (well I say unwritten… I’ve now written it down, so we may have to change that now). So off I went again up to the foot of the Bosley Cloud.
The Bosley Cloud is probably the first of the major ascents of the course, and my race plan was to go easy on these, so I intermittently walked and jogged this bit. I felt good in my new role I had discovered for this race, which was helping to direct other runners not so familiar with the course. As you may have also probably worked out, I didn’t need much of an excuse to slow down and chat for a bit either.
The next few miles are extremely muddy and the Gritstone Trail signs start to thin out a bit also. I remember vividly a bit later on, trying to accurately describe over the phone how to navigate through these fields as Helen was passing through them and a little lost. It felt good that it wasn’t me for once!
Skipping ahead again, I then ran for a bit with another runner Rob, who I met at last year’s Gritstone race and a couple of weeks back at the Peaks Skyrace. He told me that there was actually only two runners up ahead of us now; one of them being Charlie Sharpe who isn’t really human; more of a hill running machine… and another guy who was running in his first ever ultra, but clearly a bit of a natural at it.
The next checkpoint at the Ryles Arms pub is a good one to get to, as it means you’re well past half way. Here was where my mum had come to find me and had somehow coerced the people around to cheer as I came running in.
Leaving the pub, I ran with another runner, Chris who had caught up with me a couple of miles back and we ‘think’ possibly have met before at a different race… anyway, Chris pressed on ahead here as I slowed up a bit and enjoyed running through home territory.
Next up was Teggs Nose; probably the steepest ascent of the entire race and I had already decided that even though I run up it all the time in training, there was little to be gained from running it now to then be dead for the final 10 miles. As I got to the top, I noticed another runner clearly struggling a bit. Just as I was getting close behind I saw his quads just go! You know when cramp is so bad the muscles just give way? It was like that! I stopped for a little while just to make sure he was alright, but he seemed pretty determined to make it to the finish regardless. Fair play!
The final 10 miles went quite quickly in all honesty. I wasn’t exactly running all guns blazing or anything, but I just felt in the zone, like I could run like this all day… and the sun was out. It was awesome!
I arrived at the finish and was greeted by the incredibly friendly organisers Billy and Richard, who once again did an incredible job at putting this race together. My mum was also there cheering in every single runner that came in… well I say “every” single runner… she wasn’t actually looking when I finished. Classic.
The next few hours were amazing! I reckon I’d probably spoken to about 80% of all the runners there at some point along the way, and a few others came and spoke to me after who knew of me from Strava or previous races. Talk about a great community!
I can’t possibly endorse this race enough really. It’s a tough course, but takes you through some amazing scenery. It’s immaculately organised by the Beyond Marathon team and not to mention great value at under £20! I think this was shown in abundance from the atmosphere and spirit of all the runners and supporters there, plus the great performances from everyone!
I myself, in fact knocked 20 minutes off my previous time, despite not being massively competitive for the most part. This also earned me a surprisingly respectable 3rd place in a pretty strong field of runners.
I’m already looking in earnest at the Beyond Marathon website and deciding which events to give a go to next year. The Gritstone is obviously a given now!