race reports

Norman Matthews Winter Hill Fell Race (18.9km/840m, BM) – 10th Feb 2013

Or, “How to run up a hill as many times as possible from different angles in the snow”

by Richard Foster

Dragons teeth or Elevation Profile?

What do you when the weather forecast is for heavy snow, cold winds and generally miserable weather? Well, quite obviously, you drive to deepest darkest Lancashire to run up the same hill six times from six different directions in the snow. Two hundred other nutters (or is that Fellrunners?) seem to have also had the same idea.

This was a day where Winter Hill definitely lived up to its name. I don’t think it stopped snowing/sleeting until about the last mile or so and although not excessively strong, the wind definitely had a nasty bite to it, making it chilly. Even us tough, hardy fellrunners were resorting to full body cover and jackets!

Winter Hill is probably most famous for its 315.4m high TV mast on the summit, which dominates the local skyline, and is the seventh tallest structure in the United Kingdom (although 15.1m shorter than Yorkshire’s Emley Moor mast, which is the fourth highest and tallest freestanding structure in the UK), but I digress….

At 456m high, it really isn’t much more than a boggy lump in the West Pennines, but this race certainly makes the most of every single bit of the moorland, with six individual ascents and five descents of varying technical difficulty, steepness and bogginess (more on this later), and there really is only two flattish sections on the race, and even these are difficult (more on this later as well). The elevation profile below should give a good indication of what the race is like….

Grey and overcast as I left Leeds, this soon turned to relatively heavy snow and poor visibility as I passed over the M62 summit (highest motorway in UK at 372m above sea level), but although the snow continued as I dropped down to Manchester, it was obvious that it wouldn’t settle at lower levels. This didn’t mean that it wasn’t bitterly cold as I picked up my number from registration and full body cover was most definitely was the order of the day.

The race starts with a steadyish climb of a mile and a half up a track from Rivington top barn towards Rivington Pike and since my legs were feeling heavy after another 60mile week in the bank and a game of hockey on Saturday that largely consisted of doing 60m shuttle sprints for the second half, I decided to keep my effort steady. Once at the top, the route flattens out for a bit and you get the only real “flat bit” of the race. Unfortunately this largely consists of 1.5miles of strength-sapping bogs to negotiate and with the weather having been so recently wet, the bogmonster was out in full force.

A short drop down to the shooting hut before you start the second climb up and over Smithills Moor, where there was more icy bog to wade through before the steep, slippy descent over Folds Pasture to the bottom of the ramp. I tweaked my ankle just before the shooting hut and this combined with numb feet from the ice-cold bogs sucked all the confidence from my descending and I minced my way down. It was extremely slippy and skiddy and I don’t think anyone had any more grip than I did – just a bit more confidence, but it was frustrating to lose so many places on the downs where I am normally quite strong.

The next mile is a long slog up “the ramp” – a bridleway track from the Belmont side of the hill and climbs 130m in the mile. It’s not difficult, just a long slog and with the visibility down to about 100m in the mist and fog, it was just a matter of keeping going. Once at the top, you are just below the summit, and you traverse about 50m around the edge, before plunging down another steep, slippy descent, losing all the height you’ve just gained and more.

Waiting at the bottom of this descent is the bogmonster’s big brother and I’ve yet to do this race without ending up thigh deep in one bog or another. This time was no different. There then follows the most sadistic part of the race. A 30m climb up a small knoll at the side of Rivington road to the CP, before straight back down to begin the long climb back up to the summit. This climb is just about keeping going as fast as you can – walking the lower reaches through the bogs before a run across Winter Hill Flats and then walk again up the steep section up to the trig point. This is nearly, but not quite, as steep as the face of Whernside on the 3P race route, but much shorter (good training then!!).

Once at the top, you’re just over halfway in the race and you’ve now broken the back of the race and done most of the hard work. At this point though, with the cold wind into my face and wet from the bogs, I was starting to get cold and had to more clothing on and get off the top as quick as possible. Fortunately, there follows a nice descent out of the wind and I quickly warmed up as I skidded down towards Belmont Road. Over the road and around the new fenced section from UU (much boggier than the old route here – adds about 2mins on your time I reckon) and then down to the bridge for CP7.

Next up was climb number 5, a shortish affair back onto the top of the moor and into the wind, then it’s across the top where the bogmonster was back again and I could see people in front of me struggling their way along the trod to the stream crossing. I actually like this next section, because once over the stream, it’s just a short section through the bogs, over Brown Hill and then a fast grassy descent. Unfortunately, my feet were so numb from the bogs again downhill was difficult and I had to fight to keep myself from skidding on the wet grass. Still I outpaced those around me down the hill, so I was pleased with that.

The final climb is another mile-long horrendous slog up a track through Rivington Country before the final descent down the track to the finish the way you start. The first time I did this race, I hated this section. I didn’t know it was there and it went on forever. Now I know it’s there, I use it to my advantage, since it’s just a case of head-down and keep going, and I reeled in at least two or three people as I climbed up. Then it’s the fast down and another scalp over the bumpy, stony track to the finish.

This was my slowest time of my three attempts, but the slightly longer section between CP 6 and 7 certainly adds a few minutes to the time and the general bogginess certainly added time! The front end was 10-15mins down on the usual winning time, so I am relatively satisfied with my result.

At the front, things were incredibly close, with the leading four being separated by only 40s, with Ricky Lightfoot winning out over Tim Ellis (Calder Valley) and Rob Hope (P&B). Jo Waites of Calder Valley was first lady for the second week in a row!

I highly recommend this race to all fellrunners, it’s definitely a tough challenging race, despite “only” being a BM and the likely weather at this time of the year makes it even more so. It’s certainly not a race for novices or the faint-hearted!

Finally thanks to all the marshals from Horwich RMI and all the members of Bolton MRT who braved the conditions to marshal – they must have been cold on the top!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people stood on top of a hill in that weather before!


Pos Name Cat Club Time
1. Ricky Lightfoot M Ellenborough AC 1:40:48
2. Tim Ellis M Calder Valley 1:40:11
3. Rob Hope M P&B 1:40:16
4. Tom Brunt M Dark Peak 1:40:49
24. Jo Waites F40 Calder Valley 2:02:20
78. Richard Foster M Abbey Runners 2:15:40

189 finished


2 thoughts on “Norman Matthews Winter Hill Fell Race (18.9km/840m, BM) – 10th Feb 2013”

  1. Great write up thanks Richard and a good race by the sound of it!
    ….although you’re not selling the fell running lark to me with all this “full body cover” and “thigh deep in mud” stuff! 😉
    Clearly all fell runners are nutters!

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