The Weardale Way
This year I was supposed to attempt 100 miles for the first time at the Lakeland 100 at the end of July. Training had been going well until lockdown. I spent the first 2 weeks running 3 miles a day around my garden due to having to self isolate. Even when I could get out and about again, I was only running 50% of my usual weekly mileage. I was starting to panic about the race but still hoped it would go ahead as it was something positive to look forward to. Inevitably, it was cancelled but the organisers put on a virtual event over a week. This gave my training some purpose again and I formulated an 8 week plan to build up to a 100 mile week, something I had never done before. Event week was fantastic…..I loved it and felt positive and really strong throughout.
On the back of this, I felt I needed a challenge.
The kids and I were heading North to stay with my folks in Weardale in August. They live beside the River Wear and the 80 mile Weardale Way runs right past their house. Coming from the area, it was a route I always hoped to be able to do “one day” but never felt it was within my capabilities.
Now was probably my best chance of having a crack at it. However, it was marathon distance further than I’d ever run before but I thought if I started in Sunderland and ran “home”, it would make it easier for someone to pick me up if I needed to duck out. I also decided that whatever happened, it would be a good learning experience for the Lakeland 100 next year.
So that was it…..mind made up!
I hired a tracker so my family could see if I was abducted by aliens and my brother agreed to drop me off at the start. As is normal for me, I only told a couple of people I was doing this….way less pressure.
It was pointed out to me that there was no female Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the route. I always thought FKT attempts were for elite athletes and on well known trails. The Weardale Way certainly isn’t the Bob Graham Round, Pennine Way or SWCP. I’m in no way competitive with anyone other than myself, but I thought that if I could complete it, it would be a nice bonus to set the Female FKT.
I had elected to do the route self supported as I didn’t want my folks to have to spend the day/night driving around trying to meet me places (they would have their work cut out entertaining my kids anyway!).
This posed some problems as the only place to pick up supplies directly on the route was in Durham at around 22 miles. I decided to carry 4 litres of mountain fuel, top everything up in Durham and then have bottles stashed in Wolsingham (around 52 miles) where I could replenish supplies for the last section. I would carry all food and sports jellys that I thought I would need for the entire journey. This meant that I was running with a much heavier pack than I ever had before!
So at 6.45am on Saturday 22nd August, I stood at the Bede Memorial, Sunderland, about to start my adventure. A quick “start” photo taken and my brother waved me off.
As soon as I started running, I knew that my pack would cause me problems down the line…..it felt so heavy compared to what I was used to so I put buffs under each bra strap to try to prevent rubbing. I was also trialling wearing a waist belt for extra storage of things I wanted to access quickly; tissues, lube (squirrels nut butter), sports jellys, Percy Pigs and my phone. It didn’t seem to sit well on my lower back, mainly because I think the heavier pack was hanging down further than it would normally.
Navigation was fairly straightforward to Durham which I reached around lunchtime. I popped into Poundland to buy bottled water and refilled all my bottles and bladder and headed off again.
The footpath was closed further along the river so I had to find an alternative way round.
By 30 miles, I was feeling quite overwhelmed that I still had 50 miles to go so I had to try really hard to just focus on the next few miles.
I found miles 36-44 very frustrating. This section is obviously not a well walked part of the route and was very overgrown making running extremely difficult. I also had to double back at one point because of a footpath closure.
There was a section of woodland that I hoped to complete in daylight and I realised this wasn’t going to be possible now.
I hit Wolsingham at around 10pm. Fortunately, the water bottles I stashed were where I left them and I refilled everything for the final 30 miles. I felt pretty broken and wondered how I was going to keep moving. It would be easy to ring my folks to collect me from here but I didn’t like to call them out in the dark!
The route from here goes up to moorland and away from the Wear. In daylight, I’m sure there are fabulous views of Weardale.
Navigation wasn’t too bad until around 60 miles but then I started making mistakes and had to crawl under barbed wire fences a couple of times. It was pitch black, I was tired (I had been going for 18 hours at this point) and I was struggling to orientate myself. Looking at the map since then, it doesn’t look too bad.
I eventually made it into Stanhope and then a flat but very overgrown section along the river.
From here the route takes you away from the Wear, up beside one of the subsidiaries, the Rookhope Burn. All seemed to be going well until I came across fallen trees and a barbed wire fence blocking where I thought the route should be. I was convinced I could see a “Weardale Way” marker on a post beyond the fence and after going forwards and backwards along the fence line a few times, I decided (please bear in mind how tired I was at this point), to put myself in the water and hanging onto trees, waded up just far enough to get beyond the fence and into the next field. It turned out that what I thought was a marker was only white paint in a pole but I did manage to find the route from there.
The sun rose as I descended back towards the River Wear which helped but I really wasn’t sure where the last 10 miles were going to come from. I didn’t really know how my legs were still moving as I didn’t seem to have much control over them!
Upper Weardale is full of stiles and when it started to take minutes rather than seconds to get over them, I decided that doing the route in the opposite direction would have been a wiser option!
With 6 miles to go, I passed my folks’ house and they and the kids were all waving and cheering me on from the garden. They said they would see me at the finish.
Wow, things were really really tough now. I just felt like I had nothing left at all. I was eating and drinking regularly, but felt empty.
I really did have a sense of humour bypass when, with 4 miles to go, a footbridge was closed and I had to find another detour. It was a reasonably simple alternative route on the map but it started to chuck it down as well and I got cold very quickly. I stopped to put my waterproofs on but spat my dummy out a bit at this point.. I messaged a mate who was tracking me and asked if I could stop because I couldn’t be arsed any more. His response was to tell me to hoist up my big girl pants and get it done!! I wouldn’t have expected anything else!
So on I went and in the final few miles, I hit good forest track where I could run/walk at a reasonable pace. There was a lovely downhill finish and there were my kids and folks to see me. I was knackered but absolutely buzzing and the kids giving me loads of hugs and telling me how proud they were of me was the best thing ever!!
So a finish time of 30:21:27 (and actually 85 miles with detours and nav errors). This was 30 miles further and 12 hours longer than I’d ever run/walked/crawled before.
Setting a mark for a self supported female FKT is a massive achievement for me and something I will always be incredibly proud of, especially as this was very much a personal challenge.
This was a route I’d always wanted to attempt in the area I grew up. I wanted to see how far I could push myself, how I would deal with loneliness and tiredness and how I would cope mentally when physically I was spent.
I’ve learned such a lot from the experience and proven much to myself and more to learn moving forwards to the Lakeland 100 next year.