Staged in the cold, dark days of early December, the Montane Cheviot Goat is a testing 55-mile race around the wild hills of the English-Scottish border. What's it like to compete in a long distance hill running event like this? And why would anyone put themselves through it in winter? This account from runner Ben Wood captures the challenge and rewards of ultra running.
I first ran the Cheviot Goat in 2018. It was a tough, gruelling race. I managed to get it done in thirteen and a half hours through hills, mud and drizzle, and swore I would never do it again… But here I am after completing the 2019 edition.
What drew me back? What compels someone to drive six hours from their nice warm flat in London to the bleak desolate hills of the Cheviots in winter? Well the Cheviots for one. You really have to experience the landscape to appreciate just how remote it feels up there. The Cheviots are bleak but beautiful, there are no trees to block your view, the landscape rolls away to the horizon on all sides. In the winter you are well and truly alone, the livestock has been brought in and only the hardy Cheviot goat remains.
At the fifth 'swim' I lost my temper. I crawled out and shouted 'GIVE ME A BREAK!' then immediately slipped on a wooden footbridge and fell into a stream. The bog gods were angry
I didn't see any goats that day but lining up on the start line I saw plenty of hardy runners. The guys from Montane and Cold Brew Events don't try to sugar coat this race, it's sold as a tough winter ultra. Self-supported, self-navigated, no aid stations. The start line reflects this. To even contemplate running fifty-five miles over the Cheviots in December already narrows down the type of runner you will attract. To then do this unsupported and to navigate the route yourself, well only the very tough or the very foolish apply. I refrain from saying which camp I fall into. You really get the impression this is no normal ultra; behind the smiles and jokes of the runners you get the sense everyone is gearing up for a real test. The runners are kitted out accordingly, no one looks unprepared. This is partly thanks to the strict kit requirements and checks by the local mountain rescue teams, but also due to the standard of runners who have answered the call.
This year there was a twist, quite literally as the course was to be run in reverse. This was only decided the night before. Quite a twist. So as I stood on the start line I was trying to remember not only the course from last year but how to run it backwads. There was actually very good reason to change the course direction. Mountain rescue had warned of high winds and rain that would be battering the Cheviots. If they could get everyone through the more remote second half of the race before the winds hit, everyone would be safer.
At six am we were off, and we were climbing. I tailed the lead group. A car leads the way up the initial road section and then we were running up through muddy fields to the first summit of Reaveley Hill. Looking back all I could see was a line of headtorches stretching back to the start line below me. Dawn was just breaking on the horizon, it was an amazing sight. From there we kept going up, passing the summits of Dunmore Hill and Hedgehope Hill, then through Cairn Hill and a quick out and back to the top of the highest peak, at eight hundred and fifteen meters The Cheviot.
The up and back route saw us running up a slippery stone slab path; I passed the leaders running down the opposite direction and soon saw the summit. I touched the stone Ordnance Survey marker and began running back down. I passed runners coming back up but was now enjoying the feeling of running downhill. My hands started to feel the cold and I took out my new gloves. I then discovered my hands were too cold to get the tight-fitting gloves on. I had made one of the cardinal sins of ultra-running, using untested kit on a race. I was now running along trying to force my gloves on with my teeth and my free hand. I came up to a gate and carried on down the hill. Finally, I got the gloves on and looked at my route on my watch. I was way off course! In my mad frenzied glove fight I had totally missed a turning. I started running back uphill to see runners turning down the right path. This was a bit of a kick in the teeth so early on and I had dropped quite a few places. I sucked it up and cracked on with no one to blame but myself.
The ground started to get softer. If I could use one word to sum up the route this year it would be 'boggy'. I counted five times I went in well above my knees. The problem seemed to be the stone slabs laid down to get through the bogs. You would be running along them happy and content. Occasionally they would disappear under a puddle - no problem. But occasionally there would be no slab under the puddle. Bit of a problem, as you would sink in to your waist in freezing cold bog water, then have to crawl out on your belly wiping mud out of your eyes. At the fifth 'swim' I lost my temper. I crawled out and shouted 'GIVE ME A BREAK!'. I immediately slipped on a wooden footbridge and fell into a stream. The bog gods were angry.
The half way point and the only chance to re-supply was at Barrowburn farm. After a long descent from Deels Hill you hit a long stretch of flat road that goes on for four miles. It was one of those points where you know you really have to run, no excuses. I arrived at the farm pretty beat after pushing the road section - that and the bogs had really drained me. This was where my secret weapon came in, three packs of banana and oat baby food. I sat down on the floor and smashed them straight down my throat. I was back in the room.
The farm had the chance to go indoors and have hot soup by a fire. However, I knew if I went indoors there was a good chance I would get a bit too 'comfortable'. I grabbed my drop bag, resupplied my gels and filled my water bottles. Then I was gone.
The second half of the Goat was a bit more runnable. After climbing up from the farm the terrain became runnable grassy trails; this continued for a few peaceful hours, lulling me into a false sense of security before I was back again in bog country. It was now I felt the weather changing. It started with a mist blowing in beside me as I was climbing a typical boggy hill. By the time I had got to the summit I was being battered by winds and rain. Really battered, apparently the winds hit ninety miles an hour and I can believe it. I was glad I had opted to keep my smock on, it really kept me dry up there. This continued for a while as the route followed the high ground and hill tops around Bloodybush Edge.
I started to feel the cold as the wind hit me, so I was relieved when a kind gentleman from the mountain rescue team told me I would soon be coming off the hills at Bleakhope (I'm not making these names up). It was amazing how quickly you warmed up when you got out of the howling winds in the exposed hills.
Night started to fall, I kept my headtorch off for as long as I could as the mist was reflecting my light. In the end I bit the bullet and turned my headtorch on. The mist was now so thick I could only make out a few feet. I pressed on, and started to pass some runners. I was definitely getting a second wind, I could smell Ingram café and the hot food that awaited me. And then I was on the final descent, it seemed to last forever, but I was moving quickly. Then I was running up the ramp to the finish line. The finish was handily also the entrance to Ingram café, a very nice touch. I finished in twelve and a half hours, and a hot bowl of soup was pressed into my cold hands. I staggered to a seat and smiled to myself. What a fantastic day in the Cheviots. This time I swore I would definitely be back for more…