Tom Hollins sounds like he’s describing the after-effects of taking mind-altering drugs when he says: “I was hallucinating, having déjà vu. It was night and it was misty so all you could see were the flagstones, and in every single flagstone I’d see a different face...”. In fact he was remembering the last section of the Spine, a non-stop 268-mile foot race along the Pennine Way held each January.
Carol Morgan, is a little more matter-of-fact about that last stretch, but she still points to the Cheviots as the hardest part of an event that organisers describe as ‘Britain’s most brutal race’.
“Only 27 miles to go and the last lot of hills felt insurmountable, “ she says. But surmount it they both did. Carol, an Irish runner now based in Otley, took a massive 43 hours off the ladies’ course record with a time of 109 hours and 54 minutes, winning the ladies’ field and coming sixth overall. Tom, who lives in Ilkley, upset the rankings with a late-race surge to win the gents’ category in 99 hours and 26 minutes.
Running ultramarathons (technically any race distance over a marathon, though typically starting at 50km) might sound insane, but the sport has a long tradition and participation is growing.
“I run because I love it,” says Carol, 43, who is a nurse working as an advanced practitioner. “I love the freedom of easy movement, building up a steady easy tempo or challenging myself to push as hard as I can up the hill ahead of me through beautiful countryside. I love the feeling of being totally alone in wild and untamed places, and experiencing nature changing and growing.
“Some days the mountains and the weather beat me back and that’s a gentle, if wet, windy and cold reminder, that really we are not as hard as we think we are. I like ultras because they usually involve being outside in places that are beautiful and remote for long periods of time, challenging myself to keep going, sometimes pushing myself beyond my wildest expectations, questioning my personal and inner strength and resolve, overcoming the demons in my head that tell me I can’t, to achieve that which I never thought that I would.”
Tom, an anaesthetist in his day job, points to 21st century living as a factor, too. “We live in an increasingly high-pressure environment and running is the most beautiful form of escapism, especially on the fells.”
The backgrounds of even top-level ultra-runners like Tom and Carol are often surprisingly modest. “I started running when I was approaching 30 and wanted to give up smoking,” says Carol. “So I joined a gym and the training plan had something along the lines of build up slowly to 20 minutes’. I think I managed about two in the beginning. But being tenacious, I gradually got up to 20.
Tom came to the sport from a different angle. “I had no interest in running whatsoever until probably around 10 years ago, “ he says. “I quite liked walking in the hills, liked being outdoors. And then once the kids were born there wasn’t enough time to get out for long walks. So I started taking a bit of time to run up on the moors, see the view and then run back down again.
“I never entered any races. Wouldn’t have called myself a runner, wouldn’t have called myself a fell runner because to me fell runners were insane people who were insanely fit.” But he took part in a charity walk around the Yorkshire Three Peaks and decided to run it. That lack of elitism carries through to Carol and Tom’s approaches to the Spine.
While running 268 miles sounds like a superhuman feat, Tom insists that it’s more accessible than people think. “Ultra-running is totally about mind over matter. I totally believe that anyone could do a 100-mile event.
“So long as you can get fit enough that you can keep moving and eating, anyone can do it depending on the timescale.
Carol wants to encourage more women. “The nurturing of misrepresentation of girls and women in sport starts at home, school, work and wider society where looking good and wearing the right clothes is valued over being strong, powerful, skilful and competitive. The characteristics needed to be good at sports are not fostered at home and in our society for females, but they are for men.
“If you look at women who’ve excelled in running, either road or off, they tend to be people who don’t take no for an answer.”
But, still, the physical steps towards running an ultramarathon are simple. “The vast majority of ultrarunners I know generally have a very similar ethos to me,” says Tom. “They’ll get out when they can for as long as they can in the hills and just try and enjoy the views.”
Carol puts it simply. “The preparation for this event started years ago on a treadmill in a gym, doing run one minute, walk one minute. It’s just been a very slow gradual build up to stuff this big, with lots of other lovely challenges along the way.”
Upcoming Yorkshire ultramarathons include the Pennine Barrier Ultra on June 17 and the 100-mile White Rose Ultra on November 4.