The Chop Gate Chiller Night Race is a night race put on by Hardmoors to compliment their October training day which provides trail running tuition, navigation exercises, running techniques (ascending and descending skills) and body conditioning.

The idea being that you spend a day learning to run off-road and navigate then put it all into practice later on.

I marshalled last years event and promised myself I’d do this one if I could.

Last week I was chatting to a cycling friend of mine, Lee Douglas and jokingly suggested he have a go, to his credit he agreed.  So on Saturday night I picked him up at 5pm and we headed down the road to Chop Gate.

When we arrived we ummed and ahhed about the weather, or rather I did, Lee had pretty much made his clothes selection, I was trying to avoid a repeat of my HM60 weather misjudgment.  However, with the temperature before sunset at 7 degrees, a clear sky and breath already producing plumes of mist I plumped for the trusty fleece jacket and made sure I had my warm hat and a couple of buffs.

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We saw Rosie from Drinks Stop before the race and grabbed a coffee and went inside to register.

At this point I’d assumed Lee was signing up for the 9 mile race but he’d already made his mind up to do the 5 mile event, we discussed how long he’d be waiting for me to finish and I’d guessed that I’d be done in 2 hours or so and he’d be done in around 1 hour.  The next dilemma was that one of us had drawn the number 13, thankfully Lee picked that one up and even wore it the right way round.

We passed the time chatting with other runners before checking out the race route on a map before the race brief.  Lee’s route was a straightforward out and back route but the first half was around 300m of ascending from Chop Gate, up Cold Moor Lane, over the summit of Cold Moor and on to the Cleveland Way, the path at this time of the year is always boggy and strewn with slippery rocks, meaning that the descent back down was going to be fun.

My route turned left when it hit the Cleveland Way and dropped down some 70 metres or so to the valley floor before climbing up to the summit of Cringle Moor and descending down to the Lord Stones country park.  From there the route headed along Barkers Ridge undulating across som of the highest ground on the western side of Raisdale towards Bilsdale and Cock Howe, where the route descended steeply back to Chop Gate.

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After the race brief, we trooped outside, most people lighting up their head torches, but I decided not to bother, not that I was worried about battery life (I knew my batteries were brand new) but it’s just a good habit I’ve developed about not using artificial light of my own until I actually need it.  At the start line I bumped into Denise Benvin and we had a quick chat before we were off jogging up the road through the village.

The initial pace was nothing special and my plan was to try to stick with Lee until he turned back and then go as fast as I could for the finish.  My illusions of sticking with Lee were quickly shattered as we left the road and hit the muddy trail.  The trail started to go immediately uphill and as he does on the bike when the road goes up, Lee shot off ahead with minimal effort leaving me at my usual steady pace. I tried to gauge where Lee was against the faster runners in the pack and I had the feeling he was going well.

At this point the crowd thinned out a little and I turned my head torch on as I tried to pick my way along the trail without standing in anything too boggy or wet. once up above the village, the going got a bit too hard for me to keep a constant jog pace so adopted a run-walk approach as much as possible.  When running because impossible I just walked.

There were two runners ahead, who I aimed to keep within 100m or so of, not out of any competitiveness, just to give myself a mental benchmark against, as it’s easy to allow your pace to drop off in the dark without much in the way of visual points of reference.  While I worked to keep these two runners in sight, I was caught by Joe Williams and we exchanged a few words before I got another run going up to the summit.  As I hit the summit I realised there was a cold wind on the tops and dug my warm hat out of my pocket before performing the tricky manoeuvres required to remove my head torch and cap to put it on and replace both while running.  I’d just got the head torch sat back on my head, when I realised my left shoe lace was undone so I stopped to tie it and got quickly going again.

I’d only just got started when the lead two 5 mile runners were heading back past me, there was a short gap before the 3rd runner flew past, followed about 50m behind by Lee.  We exchanged a greeting then I cracked on to the Cleveland Way.  I thanked the marshall there before putting in a burst of speed to get to th top of the descent.

I whipped out my hand torch and used the zoom to have a quick look at the path down, then switched it off and tore at the descent as fast as I could.  Having run this part of the Cleveland Way numerous times, I was confident I knew the fastest way down and being a big lad, I knew that gravity was my friend here. It wasn’t long before I was passing the two runners I’d used as my benchmark, then another, which turned out to be Dave Toth whom I’d met at various other Hardmoors races then as we got to the bottom of the hill, another three runners who courteously gave way to let me pass.  As I passed, I told them they’d be passing me again on the next climb.

I tried to run more of the bottom section of the Cringle Moor climb than I normally would and when I was forced to walk by the steepness of the grade (somewhere between 35% and 40% for most of the climb) I pushed my walking pace as hard as I could.  Nevertheless I was caught by Dave and the other three runners just before the false summit that leads to the real summit.

Once at the top we all got running again and the path was relatively safe enough to steal the odd glance across to the lights of Teesside and Co. Durham, which from 410m above sea level look stunning at night. As the path tilted down again I turned on the pace again, commenting as I passed Dave that confidence in descending has a gradual rising curve, followed by a sharp drop off after your first mistake.  I continued to bound down the side of the hill and as I approached the Lord Stones country park, I looked over my shoulder to see that I’d made maybe 50 or 60 metres on the group descending the hill.

I pushed the pace hard through the country park and passed the checkpoint on Raisdale Road before slowing to a walk to catch my breath as the path rose up towards Carlton Bank.

As the path levelled and followed the side of the hill, the cold wind made me realise I’d been sweating a lot so I put into practice, the lesson learned from HM60 and took a salt tablet. I also set my Suunto into map mode so that I didn’t make the mistake of taking one of the many possible wrong turns along the various paths that criss cross the hill. I needn’t have worried, since the path had plenty of glow sticks dropped along the route and you could see some of them from quite a distance, certainly enough to make route planning easy.

I chanced another look over my shoulder and saw a mass of head torches approaching, maybe 10 or 11 people running in a group.  Although I wasn’t being competitive, I was wearing a race number and that does do something to the psyche when you see a group behind you.  I decided to push harder up the grind towards Cock Howe and to try not to be caught, very conscious that I was wearing a red strobe light on my back and presented a very easy target to follow.

I was moving along at what I felt was a very strong pace, passing a couple of marshalls who’d been stood in the middle of nowhere to ensure we didn’t take the wrong path before I has another look over my shoulder and saw that two head torches had detached themselves from the group and were slowly reeling me in.

I continued to crack on and was probably pushing a little too hard as I felt my left foot come into awkward contact with a rock, this didn’t hurt too much, but it served as a reminder to be more careful.

Before long, the path began to rise steeply again, from memory of running the route the opposite way round I realised that this was the final steep bit before I’d crest the ridgeline and be able to run along the top of the plateau before a sharp turn left down the hill.  I took another walk break and was overhauled by two runners (Mark Hendry and David Evans I think).  I jogged on keeping pace with them for a bit before feeling my left lace flapping against my leg again.  I stopped to tie it tight, looked behind to get some comfort that the large group of head torches were still a decent distance behind and put a big effort in to latch back onto the two runners in front of me.

As we turned left down the hill I switched my brain off and allowed gravity to pull me forward, the only real changes of direction my brain participated in were those required to avoid deep puddles or anything that looked slippy, other than that, I let myself follow the route that gravity dictated.  Over the last year or so I’ve tried to verbalise this to myself as water flowing down a hill, taking the path of least resistance and stick to this method of descending as much as possible.

Tonight this method was working well again.  The three of us thinned into a single file and as the descent got steeper, gaps appeared between us, with one of the two runners in front of me and another behind me.  A bit further down the trail I could see another head torch too, then after a couple of minutes that torch seemed to gain a huge amount of distance on us just as it seemed we were gaining.

As we descended further, the path got slippier and muddier, evidence of the passage of runners ahead of us and all those who’d been running up and down the hill all day during the course.  Soon, the mud, combined with the steep grade, made staying upright a challenge, I managed it but only just.

Soon I felt I was flying along the path again and I could now see the lights of the village hall ahead.  I picked up the pace again, digging deep to pull out a fast finish.  I burst into the village hall for a finish time of 2h:02m.  Almost bang on my estimate of 2 hours.

After I finished, I found out over a cup of hot soup, that Lee had finished his race in 4th place, an impressive result for someone who’s only run 2 or 3 times this year. He seemed quite happy with that and I reckon he could well be back for more soon.

Overall, the night was hugely enjoyable, as always with Hardmoors races, well organised and well marshalled by very generous and brave marshalls who spent the thick end of 3 hours sat up in the middle of nowhere in temperatures of only a couple of degrees.  The banter and company at the village hall was great and I look forward to seeing everyone at Goathland Marathon in a couple of weeks time.

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