Chevy Chase: report

Report from race winner Lee Roe:

Chevy Chase 2019

6th July marked the 63rd Chevy Chase and my second attempt at this iconic event. My earliest memory of the Chevy goes back just over a decade when, during a Heaton Harrier’s Rising Sun hill session, Phil Green mentioned the event to me as something that I might do well at. It would take a long time for his prophecy to come to fruition.

The 2018 Chevy Chase was a real eye-opener for me. I was feeling fit and I ran hard, out in first place through Broadstruther but had lost half a dozen places by the summit of Cheviot. Like many before me, Hedgehope all but finished me off and it was a humbled man who hobbled back into Wooler – I’m still convinced the only reason I didn’t DNF is because a convenient opportunity to do so didn’t present itself. My final position of 6th was respectable but probably flattered me as it would have been 8th if not for the misadventures of Messrs Hetherington and Briggs who were leading me by some distance but neglected to visit Brand’s Corner. 3.33.22 was my time, some 23 minutes behind the victorious Will Robson. Picking up the prize for first male team along with Roger and Garry Owens helped to soothe my battered ego somewhat. My mind was now in that post Chevy state that I’m sure so many of you have experienced of ‘that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I am never doing it again’ interspersed paradoxically with ‘that was bloody fantastic and I can’t wait to come back.’ The former thought quickly faded as the latter intensified and I resolved to be better prepared next time around.

The year that followed was a transformative one for me in running terms as a Winter of disciplined training moved me from a relative unknown to something of a contender. A strong showing at the Coledale Horseshoe earned me an Intercounties call-up, I finished 4th at the highly competitive Helvellyn and the Dodds and picked up a win at the Roman Wall Show. The 2019 Chevy Chase was fast approaching now and I was feeling good.

This year boasted a very open field – 2-time winner and Chevy icon Iain Twaddle was returning for another crack, Matt Hetherington was looking fit and doubtlessly buoyed on by last year’s heartbreak, former 3-time British Fell-running champion Colin Donnelly was running, 2014 Chevy winner Bruce Crombie was here and there was some buzz around a local Wooler lad, Hamish Murray, who was apparently one to watch. And in spite of all this, there were people – knowledgable people – who were looking at me as an odds-on favourite. I rejected this each time I heard it – didn’t they see what happened at the 2018 Chevy…?

On the morning of the race I sat with a coffee at the Doddington Milk Bar trying to calm my nerves and musing with myself over race tactics. Regrettably I had not put in enough long runs this season, with my exploits at Helvellyn (15 miles) being the only time I’d ran anywhere near Chevy distance. I expected this lack of distance training to cost me and decided my best shot at winning was to go off like a stabbed rabbit and hope that nobody followed. It would be a gamble but if I allowed the race to go into the latter stages, I knew I wouldn’t have the legs. I knew that blowing up was a real possibility but I could not theorise a better option. So that would be my plan. Do or die.

As ever for the Chevy there was a fantastic NFR turn-out. I was joined by Matt H, John Duff, Matthew Pearce, Roger Sillito, Steve Haswell, Richard Garland, Adam Malloy, Paul Appleby, Fraser Brown, Jane Briggs, Mike Steven, Michael Bell, Alan Langford, Jon Punshon, Phil Green, Allon Welsh, James Torbett, Tom Pitman, David Ailano, David Legg and Thomas Green. Congratulations to all who ran and thank you to those who spoke to me on the day. Whether it was advice, encouragement, congratulations or just a brief distraction from the nerves, it was appreciated.

There were 197 runners today and conditions were as favourable as could be hoped for. I made my way to the start line and edged to the front of the crowds, finding a spot just behind Iain Twaddle. I wasted no time in enacting my plan and had already opened up a 50 metre lead by the end of the road section. My first mile, from the start up to Wooler Common Farm, was 6.13. I vaulted both gates on the way out and threw myself down the descent of Hell Path. This felt fast. I reached Broadstruther in 28.05 and was greeted by some very surprised marshalls – they knew this was quick.

As I made my way towards Cheviot Knee I allowed myself a glance over the shoulder to admire my handiwork and see just how big of a lead I’d opened up. The sight of Iain Twaddle, barely 100 metres behind me and moving well, hit me like a punch to the stomach. Despair began to creep in. My gambit had failed. I was exhausted, with 15 miles and nearly 4000ft of climb ahead of me, being chased down by one of the finest runners in Chevy history. It was too late to re-strategise now so I pushed on. I climbed Cheviot well, running almost every step with only a few brief power-walking interludes. Frustratingly, Twaddle appeared to be climbing it a little bit better than I was. I reached the summit in 1.09.03 and as I banked left to the stile I glanced back – Iain was just climbing the big stile at the far end of the paved path. I swore under my breath.

I’m always a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to catching the trod on the Cheviot descent but luckily I caught it for the most part on this day. I dropped down quickly and upon hitting Harthope I glanced back again, expecting to see Twaddle relentlessly following me like some sort of fell-running Terminator. It may have just been the folds of the hill or my failing vision – blurred by sweat and pain – but I couldn’t see him. No time to investigate further, Hedgehope awaits.

If there’s a good line up Hedgehope can somebody please show me it sometime? I kicked my way through the undergrowth, dragging myself up on hands and knees in places (remember to check yourself for ticks!). I couldn’t see anybody around me but this was more of a worry than a comfort – what if Iain is on a better line? What if he’s already summited? I eventually reached Hedgehope summit after what felt like an eternity, 33 minutes and 57 seconds after leaving Cheviot summit. ‘What position am I in?’ I blurted to the marshalls who dutifully replied with ‘You’re first!’ Relief! And for the first time since just past Broadstruther the despair began to fade and was replaced with the realisation that maybe – just maybe – I can pull this off.

I dropped off Hedgehope quickly but in a controlled fashion, knowing that trashing my legs here would be suicide. By Langley Crags the elation I felt on Hedgehope had faded. My adductors were cramping up and I couldn’t get full range of running motion. My usual strong running style had become a shuffle. I was walking in places where I had no business walking. Wooler suddenly felt a long, long way away. My mind turned to Twaddle (where was Twaddle by the way?)’s blog on his earlier Chevy exploits where he was overtaken right at the end of the race – I could see myself suffering the same fate. I hit Brand’s Corner and made my way down to the road but absolutely stacked it in the short forest section beforehand. My tired legs failed to clear a small rock and I went down hard on my back, my race vest cushioning most of the blow, sustaining only a few cuts to my arms. More worryingly though, as I lay on the ground contemplating all the bad decisions I’d made in my life that had led me to this specific moment, my calf had completely seized up and I had to frantically poke at it and punch it for a few agonising moments before it eventually relaxed and I was able to carry on.

Carey Burn was hard work as I dealt with worsening cramp in my adductors and now my calf. Again, I walked more than I would have liked. I suspected I was probably doing some damage to my body that might require some lengthy time-off but a decision had long since been made – there was no way I was stopping now. By Hell Path my anti-chafe had completely worn off my legs and my thighs were rubbing together and beginning to bleed, burning horribly with every step. At first I welcomed the pain as it distracted me from my other issues but that optimistic outlook soon faded. I had to open the gates to Wooler Common farm – the same gates I vaulted a few hours previous – as I could no longer bend my leg into the position necessary to climb the stile.

Another mile or so of purgatory and I’d made it home. 3.02.39, 31 minutes faster than I’d managed one year previous. Evergreen Phillip Pearson came in next, 3 minutes and 5 seconds later – I understand this man is 59 years old? Absolutely incredible! And he was 4th in 2018 and 2017 – a Chevy legend in his own right and an inspiration to all older runners (and younger runners for that matter!). Colin Donnelly, also a V50, was 4th. Matthew Hetherington was next NFR in 6th place (but only 90 seconds separated 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th!) banishing his demons in a cracking time of 3.09.53. John Duff had a great race to finish 13th in 3.29.45 ensuring that NFR took the coveted men’s team prize for a successive year. I later learned that Twaddle had retired at Langley Crags…a shame but he really took the race to me in the early stages and it was an honour to run with him at this event. It’s like racing Billy Bland at Borrowdale. I was pleased to see my old club, Heaton Harriers, take the ladies team prize to round off a fab day of racing.

In closing, I just want to thank and commend all the organisers, marshalls and the Northumberland Mountain Rescue team (who had a busy day with 4 separate incidents). They are all a credit to the Wooler community. Special mention to Karl and Cindy Wait – I’ve spent a lot of time at YHA Wooler over the past few years and I’ve marvelled at just how much hard work, time, passion and sacrifice goes into this event. It’s future is in safe hands. The Chevy Chase is a jewel in the crown of North-east Fell-running and a noteworthy race in the wider history of Fell-running – it predates the iconic Borrowdale Fell-race by almost 2 decades, it permitted women entrants as early as 1957 (the rest of the Fell-running world would not catch up until the 1970’s), it has been won by Olympians, international runners and British Fell-running champions. And despite it’s iconic stature and fanfare, it has somehow always managed to hang on to the feeling of being a local race for local people – the race simply has a unique and almost magical quality to it. It is a great honour to have left my mark on this most hallowed of Northumbrian sporting institutions. See you all next year – July 4th..

Lee Roe

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