Race Report

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In a lonely Northumberland field two flags were flying defiantly in the teeth of a cold brisk north westerly. Up above battleship grey stratus clouds that had been threatening rain all day, glowered down upon the lonely banners. In between the clouds and the field, a host of insect like specks could be seen slowly progressing along a distant ridge line. Standing sentinel around the two flags were several figures apparently busy with some form of arcane task, but now and again they were casting anxious eyes in the direction of the ridge.

As the day progressed,  the wind abated  but their animation became more pronounced and it seemed there was now an urgency to their tasks that had not been apparent before. It suggested that they suspected something was about to happen, but what was it, what could all of this signify? And then, suddenly, the silence was broken. A cry from a hitherto unseen watcher echoed eerily across the plain, the sentinels gazed intently into the murky mid distance. No, there was nothing, but wait! What was that? Was there movement in those trees? Then, even as the watcher yelled another cry of alarm, a black clad man raced into view travelling at a seemingly impossible speed towards the flags, just behind was another figure clad in vibrant purple was apparently in hot pursuit. The sentinels barked out short staccato phrases to one another, Then one final burst of speed and with an undoubted gleam of triumph in his eyes, the man reached the flags and collapsed, exhausted onto the greensward.

Scott Ellis had just crossed the finishing line to win the inaugural North Shields Poly Ingram Hills race to mark a momentous event in the annals of fell running.

This race was born out of an increasing feeling that as the club has a pretty active fell section it was high time we had our own fell race along the lines of Saltwell Harriers’ race. The question was where? Barry was the man for this with his extensive knowledge of the county and after a couple of false starts he came up with a route based on the  hills around  the village of Ingram in the Breamish valley. On February 19th Jon Heaney and I made the first recce of it and were very impressed. Then it was back over to Barry who did a lot of very important work getting the support of the local farmers. Barry was so persuasive ( or was it scary?) that two farmers also very generously allowed us to use their fields, one for a starting area and one for parking. On race day one farmer, Ross Wilson actually gave us the loan of his quad bike in case we needed it during the race!

So we had the basic route and permissions, but this was only the beginning. The next stage was the fine tuning and in this I had the invaluable help of Vaughan Hemy, Julie Guy-Johnson and Jon Heaney. Over the course of the winter and spring of 2019 we went around the course many, many times settling what was needed and where we would have marshals and perhaps tape to aid the typically navigationally challenged runner. Perhaps the most daunting of things was the huge number of gates that needed marshalling. I swear someone kept planting new ones because every time we reccied it there was always another of the damned things!

I suggested holding the race on September the 15th and so that was settled. Unfortunately my suggestion almost led to catastrophe when much later in the planning process it turned out that I’d been looking at an old calendar. The race now clashed with the Ingram Show, but just was I was about to retire to the library with a loaded service revolver, we realised our race was the day after the show. Although this wasn’t ideal it wasn’t a killer. We settled on a price of £6.00 which was slightly more than the average local race, but we were going to provide a little more in the way of luxuries than the average local race.  Barry arranged for soup from the Ingram Cafe and I arranged the hire of the village hall as race HQ.

Now came the bureaucratic work, which fell to me as an ex Civil Servant and a member of the FRA. Various forms had to be completed and questions had to be answered before the FRA would grant the all important race licence and provide insurance. I have to say that they were very helpful throughout, despite having to answer several no doubt imbecilic queries from yours truly.  Even so, the month spent waiting for a decision on the licence was a very anxious and very long month but on March 19th the Poly fell race was officially born.

Focus now turned to planning for the day of the race, For this Barry and I received invaluable help from Vaughan Hemy and Graham Lewis-Dale arranged to set up an on line entry system via the Poly Shop which worked flawlessly. It also helped to lower my anxiety levels as I saw the number of pre entries gradually climb throughout the summer.

Of course events like these need volunteers, lots of them but as usual club members responded marvellously to our plea for help. With the addition of a couple of my old rock climbing mates ,we soon had all the help we needed to make a success of the day.

With that out of the way, the rest of the summer progressed quite serenely with only a genteel media publicity campaign disturbing the placid waters on which the good ship Poly Fell Race was sailing. Then just as were about to enter harbour, (hyperbole alert), we were raked fore and aft by two devastating broadsides. First of all the wind was knocked out my sails by an email from the FRA. They were sending an official to observe, run the race and do an audit on it. Back up went the blood pressure. Then three days before the race whilst I was on a much needed a rest cure in the Highlands, Vaughan reported that two more gates had sprung up from out of nowhere. Thanks Vaughan, for ensuring that I had no sleep for the next 48 hours! You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you that until this race was formulated, I didn’t have a single grey hair.  Fortunately Mark, a friend of Viv Stapley’s volunteered to help out and he probably set a record by manning three gates in a single race!

The day of the race dawned cold but sunny, but by the time Julie and I had breakfasted at the nearby Ingram House, a most excellent characterful B&B (advt), the wind had got up and there were a few spots of rain in the air. We were first at the hall but very soon Vaughan and Pauline Hemy arrived to lend a hand setting things up. Then something previously unheard of happened, Barry Young arrived early! He immediately set about sorting out the parking field and even arranged some bacon sandwiches for people.. I have to say that seeing everyone arrive in good time, made the job so much easier. Jon and Danny arrived to carry out the onerous task of marking the course, with the latter barely managing to get to his distant marshalling point before the first runner reached it.☺

The FRA official duly arrived and dispelled my worst fears when I discovered he wasn’t Genghis Kahn reincarnated, just a member of Durham Fell Runners, so no more than an Attila the Hun figure really!! He had a few words with me and Barry to explain why he was here and seemed happy with things so far, in fact so far today things had gone well, ominously well in fact. As the time of the race approached I could be seen flitting from place to place but mainly I was checking with registration about the number of runners. I breathed one of my many sighs of relief of the day when we finally reached break even point.

Soon Vaughan was suggesting it was time I got the runners to the start and give them the pre race briefing. The idea of the briefing is to see how long you can get runners to stand in a freezing cold field before they either all go home or they threaten to lynch you. Today though I just gave votes of thanks to the farmers and issued dire warnings of the fire and brimstone awaiting anyone who retired without telling us or who tried climbing over any fences. Then the 61 runners, a number par for the course for a small local race, were off and I could relax for a while and try out the Ingram Cafe soup.

From the hall we could see the progress of the runners along the skyline. We also got reports from our  sweeper, Rich Fawcett, who reported in to Julie at each checkpoint, so I had an idea of how things were progressing. We reckoned the race would be won in a time of between 45 and 50 minutes and Scott Ellis validated our skilled judgement or lucky guess, when he won the race in 47 minutes.   The first lady back was Gemma Bradley (Saltwell) in 53 minutes, with Garry Robson (NSP) and Clare Bagness (Wooler) the first vets home in 50 and 58 minutes. Soon there was a continuous stream of finishers interspersed by caravans leaving the field which were ably controlled by Viv our point duty officer. If I didn’t realise it previously, I now know with absolute certainty what the worst part of a fell race is for an organiser. Without a doubt it’s the wait for the last runner to return. Why? Because in a fell race it’s easy to get lost and the ingenuity some runners employ to achieve this is a wonder to behold! Usually this just means there’s an embarrassing tale to be told in the pub afterwards, but occasionally it can have serious consequences. To put it bluntly, you can die. Thankfully this nail chewing, hair tearing out period of rising panic only lasted a few minutes until the last runner crossed the line in a time of about 90 minutes . I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Everyone was accounted for and as an added bonus they were all in more or less one piece.

More good news was swift to follow when the FRA official, Stuart, said he’d be telling the FRA that he was very happy with the organisation of the race. Now I felt I could totally relax and enjoy the prize giving and some more excellent soup. Best of all though was the response of the runners, everyone seemed full of praise for the race, with many actually coming up to me and other officials to say as much in person. It is so nice to know your efforts have been appreciated!

However, none of this would have been possible without the help of the very conscientious and adaptable volunteers that we were blessed with on race day and it’s only fitting that you should all be mentioned here. And so, in no particular order, a big thank you is due to: Helen Heaney, Rich Fawcett, Viv Stapley, Vaughan Hemy, Jenny Simpson, Ian Holland, Rachel Inman and dad, Michael Smout, Michael Scott,.Danny Richardson, Jon Heaney, Barry Young, Mark Lavery, Michael Kane, Sarah Clarke, Ivan Thorn, Jason Stirland, Pauline Hemy and Will Powis. Mentions in despatches for

James Thompson and Mark Smith who volunteered but weren’t needed on the day. Start Fitness kindly provided the race numbers and some other freebies. Finally, if you’d kindly permit me one small, 5′ 2” long indulgence, l would like to record my special thanks to my long suffering wife Julie, who like others, multi-tasked on the day but who also had to put up with 6 months worth of pre race angst and faffing about!

A month ago I’d vowed I’d never go through all the palaver of helping organise a race again, but now I’m not so sure.