Tom Wheatley takes on the Peak District in one of the Uk's toughest trail events
When I was invited to take part in a steeplechase I was somewhat apprehensive. My only knowledge being a loose understanding gained from watching Trans World Sport at the age of 11, and that was only because I was waiting for the cartoons to start. Since then I've managed to bypass the event on the occasions that it may or may not have been happening. The only memory surviving being a slightly confused vision of people running around a track and stumbling into pools of water. As a kid I always assumed it was some sort of Comic Relief race.
Luckily, largely due to the fact I agreed to do it before I'd even Googled it, the Red Bull Steeplechase isn't a track event. The name itself, if Wikipedia is to be believed, is taken from a form of thoroughbred horse racing originating in Ireland in the 18th century. These cross country races would see riders racing between church steeples instead of a track. The Red Bull race is the same, only without any horses.
Taking place in the Peak District, this is the third year the event has been held. In that short time it has gained a fair amount of notoriety for being one of the toughest races in the UK. With 21 miles of trail to cover and 1,400m of elevation across the route it is by no means one for the faint hearted, or indeed someone who hasn't really done a lot of trail training.
There is however a twist to the race. The 21 miles is broken down into four sections, the final three of which are preceded by a checkpoint. At each of these a percentage of slowest runners are knocked out from continuing through to the next section. The final stage leaving only thirty runners to compete for the win.
Now, there are a lot of races that have appeared over the last few years that claim to be difficult. I've tried quite a few of them and always resolved myself to the idea that any bold statements are largely a result of the marketing team and not the views of the athletes taking part. It's for this reason that I grossly underestimated the Red Bull Steeplechase.
As I stared up at the Brontë-esque scenery surrounding the start line of the race I was overcome by two feelings. Firstly a poignant serenity as the morning mist lay gently across the valley; the crisp morning air beginning to warm as the sun rose into the azure sky. My second feeling was focussed more on the enormous hill that marked the first 500 metres of the race and resulted in the kind of profanity that would likely ruin any scene in Wuthering Heights.
After a few minutes the horn finally sounded and we set off towards the impending hill. The first few metres felt good; an awakening of the muscles as the effort kicked in and the blood started pumping. Then within a matter of seconds the hill suddenly felt like it was straightening up; everyone begins to lean further forward until eventually we're on all fours making are way to the still distant peak.
By the time we reached the top it felt like a lot longer than the five minutes it actually took, however with it came a relief that it was the last one for the foreseeable future. As I began to make my way across the ridge I looked across at the valley below and realised that I'd never actually taken part in a race that was quite visibly pleasing. The previous pain already seemed like a distant memory.
The first segment of the race was the longest. Spanning eight miles and taking us up and down hills, through various woodland and the occasional glistening wet fields. As the group continued we began to spread out as the faster pack disappeared into the distance. The majority of trail runs I'd taken part in previously had taken place in nondescript forests in winter so the enjoyable sight of greenery and sunshine created a strange contrast to the increasing aches and pains throughout my legs. So much so that I had almost no idea where I was in the pack until we hit a mid checkpoint where I realised I was almost forty places under what I needed to continue to the second section.
After seeing the level of the majority of the field I knew I was far from prepared to aim for the later miles however I knew I wouldn't be content with falling at the first hurdle. For the next four miles I upped my speed as much as possible, overtaking as many people as I could. By the time I came up to the final couple of miles however I'd only managed to make up around twenty five places. At this point I just decided to retain my pace and enjoy the rest of what was likely to be my experience of the race.
As I ran through Bamford and heard the cheers of the first checkpoint crowds I felt a sense of relief. I was ill prepared for the hills in the event and was already working out in my head what I was going to eat first on entering the pub. However upon passing the line and beginning to slow down a marshal looked across and told me to keep going. Surprisingly I was still in it. I quickly grabbed a water and shot off up the next hill; my pride enlivened.
Coming in at the back of the first checkpoint meant that I knew I had no hope of making it past the second. Instead I decided to enjoy the rest of the scenery as up until this point I'd done little but stare fixated at the ground in front of me to avoid injury. After reaching the top of the next peak I looked down and saw the descent ran all the way to the next checkpoint in Hope. With my lack of trail knowledge I assumed this would be easy, however upon reaching halfway I suddenly began to understand the pain of running downhill for an extended period. By the end I was shuffling along like something from The Dark Crystal.
For the remainder of the race I was a spectator, something I was more than happy to do. I watched in awe as the final set of runners made their way through the last few miles of the race. To anyone who hadn't taken part it would probably appear like they'd found it easy; as if the course was an enjoyable morning's run. However after attempting to tackle the hills myself I couldn't quite believe the level that they were running at.
First place was taken by Andy Greenleaf with a time of 2:37 and Emily Collinge was the fastest woman, coming in fourth overall with a time of 2:48 (she was also fourth overall). In Andy’s own words (in case you wanted to hear from someone who actually finished the course):“I’m shattered but Red Bull Steeplechase was really, really good fun and the whole way through there was a competition going on and it was only towards the end of the race that I started to pull away from the guy who came second. It was a cracking course, absolutely stunning scenery and a perfect day for it!"
At a time where bold claims on difficulty are almost the standard for any race, the Red Bull Steeplechase is the real deal. Any trail run that takes in multiple climbs across the Peak District is going to be tough, but add to that a knockout element which means speed is as important as endurance and you have one of the most challenging events in the UK today.
Add to that the minuscule entry fee of £25, a hoody, a medal, the free food and drink afterwards and transport around the race, not to mention the fact you’re doing it in one of the country’s most idyllic settings, and you have one of the year’s stand-out running events.
Images: Simon Freeman, Red Bull