I think it was when my foot disappeared up to my knee in peaty water for the third time within five minutes that I first accepted that this challenge wasn’t going to be achievable. I stopped and surveyed the scene- peat bogs and slippery mud as far as I could see. A hundred yards away Sue was having her own struggles, forging a path through tangled heather roots in an attempt to avoid the worst of it. It started raining again- heavy, persistent rain, and I began to wonder if we would ever make it off the fell let alone to the end…

In hindsight, it was always going to be ambitious- 100k (62 miles) over the fells of the Forest of Bowland in March. Persuaded by Sue to enter, I was slightly apprehensive as I have walked on these fells and know how boggy they can be.

I had arranged to stay with my sister and brother-in-law, who live fairly near to the start at Slaidburn, and they kindly drove me there. Prior to the event we had received very little information from the organisers, Pure Challenge, regarding the route, checkpoints etc. In response to several Facebook queries they had supplied a list of checkpoints with some rough distances between and assurances that there would be hot food at the ‘half way’ point at Dunsop Bridge. We were not given a map or route description but were assured that the route would be marked.

I met up with Sue, and Jo Kilkenny who intended to run the event, and we listened to the pre-race briefing in which we were told that there was likely to be very little phone signal coverage all day. My sister and brother-in-law agreed to meet us at Dunsop Bridge, where we calculated that we would arrive at around 6pm to 7pm. A procession of brightly garbed walkers set off into the gloom and started the long stretch of road walking towards Catlow Fell. Although this was easy terrain, the road rose in a series of long hills before bringing us out on exposed moorland.

Catlow Fell, although boggy was manageable, as was the next stretch- a track by Stocks Reservoir which had become muddy and wet in the persistent rain. The first checkpoint was at Stocks Fisheries café at around 11 miles, and although coffee was available the only food on offer appeared to be custard creams and sweets. Luckily Sue and I had made the decision to walk self-supported and so had all the food we would need with us.

Stocks Reservoir

I asked where the next checkpoint was, to be told that it was Dunsop Bridge, 15k (9 miles) away. Okay so it wasn’t the half way point then, which meant that we would be there a lot earlier than expected. Time to text my sister then… oh, no phone signal. I sent a text hoping she would receive it at some point if I walked into a better reception area (she didn’t actually receive it until much later that night).

Open moorland

The checkpoint volunteer pointed out that we had a river to cross, but added that there were ‘rocks to step on’. There weren’t. There was no way across the swollen water without getting at least one foot drenched up to the knee (unless you’re me and also manage to slip and soak a glove).

As we walked up a rough track onto the fells, we saw an empty car parked with a notice on the windscreen which advised that the next part was extremely tough and should only be attempted if we were confident, with a number to call for a lift back to Slaidburn if required.

We ignored this and followed the rocky path uphill, which quickly resembled a stream. This was energy sapping so we were eager to lose this path, but to our dismay we soon found ourselves mired in the peat on Dunsop Fell.

People were sinking into the bright green sphagnum bogs up to knees and waists and desperately seeking better ways around the worst bits. It became an art form trying to find a way through without getting too wet; bog soon gave way to slippery mud and tangled heather roots hiding chasms in the ground that threatened to twist ankles. We lost a lot of time here, trying to follow the markers and their promise of a slightly easier path through, and it was such a relief to finally see the road in the valley below.

Completely sapped and cold, Sue and I settled on a fallen log to eat sandwiches. We were told by a marshal at the base of the fell that it was another three miles to Dunsop Bridge along a road; luckily this easy walking helped us warm up and regain our spirits a little.

The views would have been lovely if it was clear; instead steady rain and mist blanketed the fells and swollen streams. On reaching Dunsop Bridge we passed a van where we were told hot food was available in the village. I asked how far the next checkpoint was, to be told it was Beacon Fell some 12 miles distant. Enquiring about the terrain, the volunteer informed me that ‘they say it’s much easier as there’s a flagged stone path’.

Armed with a coffee and pasta, we sat on a stone bench in the rain and realised we had a decision to make; if we were to carry on, we would be faced with walking 12 miles over one of the highest points in the Forest of Bowland before we saw another checkpoint. We had only an hour and a half at best before dark and I didn’t believe that the terrain would be as easy as implied so we would be walking into god knows what. To top it all it looked as though the weather was drawing in and I heard someone say that conditions on Beacon Fell were ‘atrocious’.

Although we both felt we could have kept going, we decided it was too risky to carry on in those conditions, especially as we were effectively walking blind between checkpoints. I suggested that we walk the six miles back to Slaidburn to get some more mileage in, so we announced our retirement to the officials and set off.

As we left Dunsop Bridge I managed to get a phone signal and rang my sister to tell her the news. I was slightly nervous about admitting giving up, but the first thing she said was ‘I don’t bloody blame you!’

They arrived just before we reached Slaidburn and took us back to the village hall as I had left a change of clothing there- the organisers had said that it would be manned all day. I was rather perturbed to find it locked and in darkness, so my brother-in-law drove us back to Dunsop Bridge to find a marshal. We found one in the car park, where an ambulance was parked treating a runner who had succumbed to hypothermia.

Luckily she was okay and we followed the marshal who took her back to Slaidburn, where she was alternatively gutted she didn’t finish and announcing ‘wasn’t that fun, guys!’ I looked at Sue and I am sure I could read her thoughts!

The marshal told us that there were two cars full of people deliberately moving signs off the road, which had taken most of their man power to deal with; I cannot understand the mentality of why people would do this. I guess to them it is a ‘laugh’ but there are real consequences to people becoming lost on those fells, particularly in the dark…

After a welcome cuppa we said goodbye to Sue and set off back to Dunsop Bridge, where we were greeted by the unusual sight of a procession of head torches heading down the road towards us. My sister asked one walker what had happened; he said that they had been turned back as it was ‘unsafe’ and they were to be transported from Dunsop Bridge to a later checkpoint. Reading about it afterwards, the event was actually cancelled shortly afterwards and they were taken back to Slaidburn instead. People were apparently waiting for up to 3 hours for a lift back from the Beacon Fell checkpoint, with one chap becoming hypothermic and needing hospital treatment. In the end, only 30 people finished, including Jo, who said that they ran the last 30 miles without seeing another checkpoint.

There was a fair few angry comments on Pure Challenge’s Facebook page afterwards, some of it justified, some of it rather over the top… okay, for me the main issue was the lack of information. Usually we receive a map or a route description, or at least there is a map on display at the start to look at. A proper list of the checkpoints would have been good, with information on what, if any, food would be available. Marshals could have been more knowledgeable (or honest) about the upcoming terrain and conditions.

Trouble is, a 62-mile event in the Forest of Bowland in March was always going to be hugely ambitious and I think a lot of people had underestimated the challenge. Also, if I don’t know what is available at checkpoints my strategy is to take enough food so it doesn’t matter, but I think a few folks were expecting to be completely supported, which again should perhaps have been made clearer before the event. I think that Pure Challenge possibly underestimated the conditions and were not equipped to deal with the logistics of a cancellation and subsequent mass evacuation.

My sister and brother-in-law have kindly offered to support Sue and I to complete the rest of the route from Dunsop Bridge, in the summer when it is less boggy and the nights are lighter- I just need to persuade Sue to take them up on this!

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