Review: The Pennine Bridleway 55 from @rangerultras, the grand slam begins #ultraboyruns #racereview

I remember my bum hole was burning like it had been dipped into molten lava and my testicles were glowing like a 3 bar electric radiator, I was in so much pain that I could barely contain myself – I was stood on the trail with my shorts round my ankles and my fingers fully immersed in Vaseline in a desperate bid to save my race. It was pitch black dark and as I slathered on the greasy evil all over my nether regions I knew that my race was well and truly over.

I was alone and broken.

I remember my feet were smashed to bits, I had blisters in every possible place and I just wanted to curl up and die, my guts had left me on a ridge somewhere and I’d spent hours lost in the middle of the most beautiful location it is possible to run. But no matter how hard I tried to give in and stop I simply couldn’t.

I wasn’t alone and I refused to be broken.

One of those races was the Ridgeway Challenge where I failed and the other was the Skye Trail Ultra where I refused to fail. The difference was that I had company at Skye and that made all the difference when my head would drop. Andy, one of the runners, would give me a firm but fair kick up the arse and tell me to get moving. Why am I telling you this? Well because this weekend I ran the Ranger Ultras Pennine Bridleway Ultra Challenge 55km and I was given an opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ and return the favour of support I received.

But before we get to that point we should roll back to about 1am on Saturday morning where the shower was just going on and I’d just filled a 2 litre thermos with the brown gold of coffee. I liberally applied Vosene to my head and beard, scrubbed my ball sack and chucked on an old pair of shorts and a lucky running top.

I’d packed most of the car the night before – race kit, second full set of race kit (in case I didn’t fancy the first set), warm clothes for after the race and a big bag of food that included a breakfast of chocolate milkshakes, chocolate filled brioche and an assortment of other deliciously sugary treats that would see me through the next 5-6hrs of driving. Before leaving I kissed the child and the GingaNinja goodbye and headed out with a fully fuelled car – hoping that the ‘fuel crisis’ didn’t become a factor to concern myself with.

The GPS pointed me away from the M6 for some reason so my journey was going to be longer than necessary but so be it – I’d decided to run and what would be would be.

Vroom, vroom I went thundering down the M74 to a soundtrack of 90s and early noughties dance classics and found myself blissfully singing along to the likes of Faithless and the Prodigy before settling into more gently vocal numbers from Jerry Reed, Blondie and James Blunt. I was making mostly good time and was managed to shave off a few minutes here and there but it was still going to be around a 7am arrival and with registration opening at 8am I wanted to make sure of a parking space, ample time to get changed and of course to have a bit of breakfast.

Well part one of the day was achieved. Parking secured, and I was glad to be there early as the car park was filled with caravans that looked like they’d been there a while – leaving only half a dozen usable spaces.

I sipped at my coffee as and looked around at a rather wet and dreary Hayfield but the forecast suggested a clear day so with daylight approaching I held out hope that this might clear and we’d get a good running day.

Seconds started to turn into minutes as I sat with the warm drink and I realised that I needed to hurry up in order to be at the race HQ in good time. I slapped on a bit of anti-chaff round the nether regions, jumped into my kit and then put on my new Salomon ADV Skin 12 vest for the first proper time. Now regular readers will know that my back has been giving me grief for years – the moment I put any weight on it and run I have pain right across my shoulders, middle and lower back and no amount of physiotherapy has ever cured it, so wearing an untested pack seemed like a ‘good’ idea. I was also wearing my Topo Athletic Ultraventure Pro for the first time, other than one short 3km run a few months back. What i know is that while my back is the main issue for concern my feet are my weak spot. So it was going to be an interesting day.

At about 7.55am I set off for the race HQ but as I did a chap pulled up next to me in a rather large Audi and asked about parking – I advised him where I had parked but he didn’t seem keen and set off in search of something else. This though would not be the last that I would see of the driver and he would become a very important part of my race.

So off I trotted, taking in all the delights of Hayfield as I went. It was one of those little villages that make you think of England as quaint or chocolate box, I very much enjoyed my saunter through the town – albeit a short one – perhaps I’ll visit again one day as there was a nice gallery that had lots of delightful pictures hanging in the window that I wouldn’t mind looking around.

I rolled up to the start to be greeted by the sight of the man I assumed was the RD, Stu Westfield and I was joined by fellow runners Richard and Hannah who also clearly assumed that getting to the start line early would be better than rolling up with minutes to spare. The Ranger Ultras team were just setting up but they offered the facilities of the cricket pavilion to us and a range of tasty beverages. Chat followed – mostly I think coming from me as the two litres of coffee and epic driving experiences worked their way through my system. I should apologise to most of the runners who came across me during the event as I’m pretty sure I just spouted nonsense at most people.

I found the experience of watching the pre-race setup rather pleasant, it wasn’t one of those slick affairs ‘bish-bash-bosh’ but more that intimate, friendly event that I have a very deep affection for. The team ambled around casually setting up, dealing with the runners and generally being lovely – I think I’ve seen these races described as ‘no-frills’ but from the outset I found this to be a rather inaccurate statement to make – I found it to be ‘wonderfully simple’.

Anyway I continued chatting to Richard while the other runners lined up to collect the number and the minutes rolled around closer and closer to the start time of 9.30am. Finally Richard and I decided to go and collect our numbers but before this we both needed to unpack our perfectly loaded race vests to show that we were carrying a map and a proper survival bag.

For me I had compartmentalised my kit into theee dry bags in the back of my ADV SKIN 12. Bag one had Harvey Maps Pennine Bridleway South in, bag two had the ‘other stuff’ including head torch and survival bag. It was reassuring to know that not only were we required to have a full set of kit with us but also that the Ranger Ultras team were keen to check off the most important of items.

With check done I adorned my front with my face number and then marvelled at Richard who struggled with getting pins through his shorts – saying that his wife would usually help out! I did offer to play the role of wife in this matter but he politely declined and eventually madd the 155 his own.

And so it was that at a few minutes before 9.30am we headed outside to the start line and with little fanfare but a lot of joy we gently jogged away from the cricket ground and to the trail.

Now the eagle eyed amongst you will notice I used the word ‘jogged’ about leaving the race HQ as it was clear that nobody wanted to lead the way. I most definitely did not want to lead the way as I have all the navigational ability of a wet fart in a swimming pool. And so I slowed to a near crawl until a couple of runners passed me and I could follow them but in typical fashion I found myself overtaking them and suddenly I was at the front of the race.

All of this back and forth had the effect of stopping me admiring the views and so those first couple of kilometres went by in a hurried blur that I could barely remember. As we started the first real climb though I was caught by a man named Kev who looked like a seasoned long distance runner and also one of those chaps that if you were caught out in some serious trouble you’d be glad he was with you.

I found great enjoyment in the chat we shared over the next few kilometres, it was proper chew the fat, running nonsense and it really gave the legs a bit of a lift as I found my race feet. Not only was I enjoying the chat though I was enjoying the route which was filled with lovely little hills, climbs, rocks and greenery. Having only ever run in the Peak District a few times I was keen to see what they really had to offer and so far it was so good.

In race distance terms this wasn’t a big one – at 55km it was at the shorter end of ultras and made shorter still in terms of new scenery by the fact it was a 27.5km out and back time trial. As a consequence we really were only getting a glimpse of the Peak District but it certainly seemed worthy of the six hour drive.

I digress, meanwhile out in the trail I realised that I was blasting through the kilometres far too quickly and so wished Kev well and began a slowing down process that would mean I should arrive back to the finish in good time but also not be too exhausted for the drive back to Scotland.

Within a few minutes a pair of young chaps bimbled past me just before the first checkpoint and I found myself alone for a little while but only until the checkpoint arrived where I met a lovely volunteer who had a big, genuine smile on his face and couldn’t be more helpful in filling up bottles.

The roadside stop had a few bits to eat, mostly chocolate or biscuits and importantly lots of water but I wasn’t particularly interested in food as I was using Active Root and find this to be excellent in the early stage of a race when I least want food.

I passed through the checkpoint reasonably quickly and even managed not to get tangled up in trying to stuff my water bottles in my new vest. Bonus.

The route now left the trails behind for a little while and took in some tarmac – not something I’m overly fond of but there’s always a bit of road to connect the trails. The road rolled for longer than I had thought it would but it was mostly a pleasant jaunt and the time on my feet through a beautiful part of the world was well worth doing.

Behind me I could here the sound of a couple of other runners chatting away as I prepared to cross a main road. It was here that there was a bit of confusion for me – my watch said right but that didn’t seem to be right as it was a main road and ahead was a long, long piece of road that also didn’t seem right. Then as the two runners, who had been behind me, caught me up I saw a large sign saying ‘PBW’ and a sense of relief came across my brow – nobody likes adding extra mileage if you don’t have to.

I briefly chatted with the ladies who were looking incredibly strong as they passed me on their first ultra marathon. I may have accidentally told them some poo stories, which for runners new to ultra marathons might have been a little too much but hey-ho, I don’t really have much of a filter at the bet of times and my exertions and caffeine consumption had really downed those filters completely.

The road back to the trail seemed unnecessarily long but eventually we made it to the turn and we were greeted by a delightful view or three and a climb out of the dip on the slippiest trail I have ever known. I had good grip on my Topo Athletic Ultraventure Prp and therefore once more overtook the ladies I had been chatting with, as they were taking this mildly treacherous section more sedately (they’d catch me again at the top).

I was mostly enjoying the variation of the trail and still enjoying the running, albeit at a reasonably slow pace as I watched the two ladies jauntily head off into the distance.

The thing that experience gives me though is an understanding of how ultra marathons work and after 56 finishes I knew that we had run a reasonable amount of downhill that was going to be tough on the return. I wasn’t exactly saving myself but I figured that a gentle outward pace was going to serve me better for a stronger second half when I could reel in some of the other runners.

More roads, more trails and more fun followed and at the bottom of a big downhill I found my watch crying out to me ‘off course’. I’d clearly missed something and so turned round to see a couple of guys behind me. Aha I thought – they’ll know the way – and they did, at which point my GPS also caught up to tell me I was back ‘on course’.

One of the runners was Richard that I’d met earlier in the day – he wasn’t looking like a very happy chap. It seemed he was having all sorts of stomach issues but despite this was making rather reasonable time. We started to run a bit together as we were at the back end of the outward section and I didn’t want to see a runner in trouble.

We pressed onward, chatting and chewing the fat, I was a bit worried about where his head was at but I tried to keep conversation light because it’s easy to give in to the temptation when your head starts telling your head that your body has had enough.

We’d get to the halfway point and then maybe see how he was. But before that there was the little matter of those couple of kilometres.

As we bimbled through the countryside we could hear the clatter of fast moving feet behind us and turned to see some a snake hipped mountain goat thunder (literally) past us. The eventual winner was moving like absolute lightning and watching him run was a genuine privilege. In my head I could hear myself, ‘I remember when I used to run that quickly’ – truth is I’ve never run that quickly at any distance.

Still an old man can dream.

We were still quite a way out when we could see our destination and checkpoint 2, our elevated position provided a rather scenic view and also our first opportunity to witness the routes sting in the tail, a steep up and down.

Now under normal circumstances I’d have battered down this trail like nobody’s business but Richard looked like he was just a single fart from death and so we ambled rather gently onwards because as I pointed out to him, ‘I really don’t want to have to drag your body up this hill’.

We briefly managed to get a bit lost around the tunnel and in the finding the route upwards to the checkpoint but it was a minor error and quickly corrected. The hill climb though wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and even with 17 miles in the legs it was quite a nice jaunt up to the jolly faces at the checkpoint.

Thanks to the Rangers Ultra team for this flattering photograph!

Richard ate as much as he could manage including a cheese sandwich which he’d mullered in his race pack on the journey and I downed a bottle of fresh orange juice (a real lifesaver actually) but I declined the food as I was still pretty happy in Active Root.

I’d made a bit of a kit error too that I could have rectified here but unlike my fellow runner I chose to keep my base layer shirt on which was something I was regret in hindsight as the muggy conditions made the PB55 a sweaty, smelly one. Still with all of our issues at least looked at, Richard and I headed back the way we came in search of the finish line.

It was here, as we departed, that we saw Hannah once more and despite this being her first ultra marathon she looked both happy and strong. I knew that if our pace didn’t pick up then Hannah would soon overtake us, and she would deserve it, she looked fantastic!

What was clear though was that the pitstop hadn’t resolved the underlying issues that my companion was facing and it would be tricky to up the pace much beyond where it was now but having decided that he wanted to continue I was happy to run with him. I did have something of an ace up my sleeve though in terms of our pace and that was that my ‘death march’ is actually pretty quick and as long as I could keep us both moving this wasn’t going to feel like an eternity for either of us. There is almost nothing worse than when you feel rough to know that you’ve got hours and hours left on your feet and so with a bit of a push we moved along the trail as quickly as we could.

It never felt like ambling back to the finish, to say that Richard was giving it all that he had would be a very fair assessment and the thing I noticed, as we ambled along the route, was that I had barely taken any notice of the beautiful views as we went out and so I began soaking it up.

I found myself repeatedly saying, ‘I don’t remember any of this…’ and I assumed this was because I had been so busy chatting away either to myself or the other runners.

A couple of kilometres from the checkpoint I heard the sound of running feet catching us up and turned to see Hannah a few hundred feet away and closing fast and as she approached I urged her on, however, it could have been that she just fancied a bit of a break and joined us.

More chitty chat, mostly from me and we had a lovely few minutes together until I insisted that she start running again. If she had left it much longer I thought she might have found it difficult to get started again and her performance thus far did not deserve for it to end badly. As she disappeared into the distance I knew we were looking at a great future ultra runner.

Richard and I continued through to the next checkpoint were we both restocked on water and had a few laughs with the wonderful checkpoint marshal who had clearly been there for the duration of the event. I asked if I might have enough water to soak my buff and he duly obliged.

Once soaked I took the buff and rubbed away the hours of muggy sweat that had been coated my skin like thick grime and now cleaned up I hurled my buff on top of my head like I was in a mountainside shampoo advert and left the checkpoint.

We crossed the road and into the final 9km or so but we stopped almost instantly when Richard finally managed to chuck his guts up instead of dry retching. Bloody hell he looked rough and there was a part of me wondered whether he might call it a day given we were so close to a potential escape route, but no.

We took a few minutes and Richard pulled himself together and the greyness about his face started to abate a little bit.

In better news we had returned to the trail and the tarmac was pretty much over and there was a feeling in the air that we were going to be okay. With Richard starting to look a bit better and the promise from his wife that there was a pint of lemonade and ice on offer we started to pick up the pace. It was amazing what a bit of vomit could do and despite having not done any running for a few hours we managed to raise our legs and get going.

I mean I’m not going to claim it was zoom, zoom but credit where it was due Richard really showed that he was made of the sternest stuff as we ran across the trail.

I maintained my position as primary conversationalist and as we approached a brief piece of road we saw some marshals waiting for us and offering us some delicious goodies to help make the last couple of miles easier – I glugged down some delicious mango drink and who knows if Richard tried to have anything I was too busy guzzling and joking with the marshals. But we didn’t stop long, I could sense we were in good form now and I didn’t want to lose that momentum.

The finish was now within touching distance with just a few miles left to go and I was feeling pretty good, which given that I haven’t been enjoying my running recently was a rather curious feeling, and better than that my legs actually felt like they could continue to run at a fair old lick. Richard was keeping up quite nicely and this was a really lovely section of the route which we could cut through like a hot knife in butter (but not a cold knife in hot butter).

Further and further we ran, noting landmarks such as the caravan site, the gate at the top of the hill and the little collection of cottages on the edge of Hayfield and all of this meant we were into the finishing stretch. I urged us forward with all the energy we could muster and once inside the cricket ground I started with a bit of tough love, I could see the finish line, I could see the Ranger Ultras team and I could see the small gathering of supporters. Richard hurtled to the finish and I followed just behind him.

What a day.

At the finish line was Richard wife and daughter armed with the aforementioned lemonade and ice and I caught sight of several of the finishers who had passed us earlier in the race including Hannah to whom I had to give congratulations! All I needed now was a medal and a quick exit and then I would be away to sunny Scotland – my work here was done, the grand slam was still on.

Overview

  • Distance: 55km
  • Ascent: 1479 metres
  • Date: September (usually April) 2021
  • Location: Hayfield, Peak District
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The Pennine Bridleway 55 Time Trial used to be the Pennine Bridleway 57 point to point and in a number of ways I am sorry I didn’t get the opportunity to run that race but with pandemic you can understand why having an out and back makes a lot more sense that ferrying runners to a start line.

I feel the point to point would have given a greater view of the Peak District because you’d have been covering more, different ground. However, there is little point crying over what might have been and look instead at what was, and the PB55 was a fun and, in places challenging route that tested the mettle of competitors. The mixed nature of the route will have appealed to many of the entrants and although I generally prefer more trail than tarmac I found the varied nature of the course to be very enjoyable, I also thoroughly enjoyed the views of The Peak District, it was so very different to say the Lakes or the Highlands or even the central belt of Scotland where I train and as somewhere that I have rarely run previously I am keen to return.

With nearly 1500 metres of climb over the course the PB55 actually had some significant challenge to it in terms of the elevation and although many runners were carrying and using running poles most of the climbs were perfectly runnable. Given my level of fitness on the day I would perhaps have benefitted from poles when I started to slow but you didn’t need them to get round in a good time and given the speediness of the first finisher it was clear the course could be considered a fast one if you are up to it.

The PB55 would suit first timers as much as it would suit the seasoned ultra runner and I enjoyed it very much with my favourite sections being that first 10km of trails and the midpoint mini valley climb – both were wonderful and a little bit cruel, just how I like my routes.

Organisation
I love a well organised race, simply because it means you, as the runner, can concentrate on the running you turned up to do. The good news is that Ranger Ultras were incredibly well organised and yet very easy going. What more can you ask for?

Stu Westfield the Race Director seemed a calm and sensible sort of chap who seemed concerned about 1. putting on an excellent running event and 2. making sure that the runners had a good and safe time.

Even when several runners rolled up to the race HQ door a bit early the team were good enough and thoughtful enough to make sure that we had access to everything that we might need. You really can’t fault the quality of the organisation and I’m very much looking forward to returning for the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra and the Peaks Double weekend of ultra running.

Additionally all the pre-race material was excellent and communication is top notch, there is also an abundance of social media material that although not obligatory is a base well covered if that is how you like your information.

Value for Money
What is your measure for good value? For many runners it remains the ‘pound per mile’ but I’m not sure that applies any longer as costs to put on events spiral like the rest of society. What I can say is that the £50 to enter the Pennine Bridleway 55 Time Trial is a bargain. I think I may have got some form of discount because I entered for the four races of the grand slam but even so you really can’t complain. We could mention the bespoke medal, we could mention that there is real food at the end of the race, we could mention that the race HQ had a roof on it and therefore you could start the race dry or get to the finish and dry off had it been raining, we could mention a tremendously well run event, we could mention a whole lots of things but the crux of it is; this was a really brilliant and incredibly inexpensive event.

Awards
Now I love a medal but Ranger Ultras are in the process of moving over from metal medals to wooden coasters. Now wooden coasters don’t fit very well around my post at home where I hang all my race awards but the truth is that the coasters appeal to my mild sense of eco-friendliness and also they are really, really well designed and beautiful.

As a runner who likes a race medal/award this is pretty much all I need and I was very happy.

However, in addition to coaster was some race photography and post race pizza at the end (I didn’t stop for pizza as time was against me) but ultimately the award is that coaster and its awesome but you can opt not to have the award and instead have the value of the coaster donated to a wildlife charity. It’s nice when a race looks at providing options to its runners, especially as we all become more aware of our environment and our impact on the planet.

Volunteers and support
I’ve already offered my praise for the work of the race director but that praise should extend to the whole Ranger Ultras team. The people who provided marshalling at the checkpoints on the route always had a smile and something fun to say and nothing was too much trouble. Thank you to each and every one of you because without your efforts the races simply couldn’t happen.

Runners
There were about 30 runners in the Pennine Bridleway 55 but more in the shorter PB18 which took place, (out and back) across the first 9km of the PB55 later on the same day. I feel the race deserves to have many more competitors because it is a wonderful running experience and if you decide to join Ranger Ultras at the next running of the event then you’ll have a wonderful time.

My Race
I had a race of two halves really, the first half was reasonably fast and furious with lots of fun going up and down and around with the second half a more speedy walking affair as I looked to support my fellow runner. In answer to the question, ‘why would you help another runner for half a race?‘. The answer to that is simple – I’ve needed help from time to time during an ultra marathon, I’ve needed someone to put their arm around me and tell me to ‘get it done‘ therefore I was paying it forward and supporting a wonderful runner get to the end.

It is important to note that the experience of running with Richard was also hugely rewarding but I’m sure there were times were he wished I would simply shut up because I am an irritating knobhead but I hope he won’t hold that against me too much.

The travel down from Scotland left me exhausted before I started and I was surprised that I finished with lots of energy remaining! I really enjoyed the trail sections of this race, even the very slippery stones and the tarmac, while harsh on my back and knees was mostly fine. Thankfully the weather was wonderful in that we had pretty much everything from sunshine through wind to rain and it felt like a lovely fresh day to go running in the Peaks. I do wish I had taken my poles as I had underestimated how the elevation would play out – I won’t make that mistake again but in better kit news the Topo Ultraventure Pro were amazing and I found the Salomon ADV Skin 12 a really good choice for the event, both would be perfectly suitable for significantly longer distances.

Ultimately I had a very enjoyable race.

My only real issue occurred after the race and that was the search for diesel… people of the Peak District and Manchester, please stop panic buying diesel or I might not be able to come down for the Yorkshire Three Peaks. My car with a full tank of fuel could make the round trip to The Peak District but it would be a close call requiring all my wits about me and no traffic issues and let me assure you after running an ultra marathon you just want to get home as quickly as you can and not be thinking too hard about fuel economy or whether some knobhead has crashed their Audi further up the M6.

Thanks to the Rangers Ultra team for this flattering photograph!

Conclusions
Great race, great organisation, lovely award and a very interesting start to the grand slam of races with Ranger Ultras. I’d be keen to try the original PB57 or take a stab at 270km version of the Pennine Bridleway in the future because the route had something really wonderful about it, to say it intrigued me would be an understatement.

I would highly recommend having a crack at one or many of the races on offer with Ranger Ultras and it is worth saying that having travelled from Scotland to be on the start line I have zero regrets about doing that as it was such a great event.

You can find out more about Rangers Ultras from their website or by visiting their Facebook group.

It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Rangers Ultra am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted).

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