Gritstone Grind: the power of the phalanx
Events, particularly endurance events, can be approached either as a race where you're aiming for a time, or as a challenge, where you’re simply aiming to finish. High on the Sandstone Trail Challenge experience in May, a mass of Spartans had entered the Gritstone Grind, filling the remaining places and causing Richard, the organiser at Beyond Marathon, to get a bigger bus! September 8 rolled around and after registration, 11 bleary Spartans climbed aboard the bus at Disley at 7am for the shuttle down to the event start at Kidsgrove. The challenge: to complete the entire 35 miles of the Gritstone Trail in under 12 hours. The Gritstone is the Sandstone Trail's big brother; a couple of miles longer but with 1600m (5300 feet) of ascent compared with little bro's 1000m (3400 feet) and with a lot of the trail over the 1000 foot contour.
"5-4.-3-2-1-good luck everyone!" And we're off, running along the canal out of Kidsgrove on a beautiful autumn morning. The first few miles and the family resemblance to the Sandstone is striking- lovely easy running out of town along the canal. It's clear that some of the Spartans are in race mode today, but a group of us (Alan, Ged, Rob, Shaun, Simon and me) start to form a phalanx to complete the challenge as Andy, Nick, Gareth and Tom pull away and JK runs his own race. After the easy warm up miles, we turn east towards the hills, a steady climb up to Mow Cop castle, the sun silhouetting the 18th century folly against a clear blue sky. We then hit a good pace along the ridge with awesome views across the Cheshire Plain to the Gritstone's smaller sibling, the distinctive bump of Beeston castle clearly visible. Soon we're clipping at the first checkpoint, and then cranking up the pace along the disused railway track of the Biddulph valley way. In fact we're going so well here we run past a right turn where the trail goes, before being called back by Alan who has the route loaded on his Garmin - phew! We later learned that JK had done the same but had kept on a bit longer than us before realising his mistake. Running in a phalanx saved us a lengthy detour, and at about this stage in the event we became aware of a non-Spartan lady in our midst; Lynne had also realised the power of the phalanx and stayed with us for the rest of the way, and was great company.
We were soon at the first manned CP, where a familiar face was helping out with the cola and flapjack - our very own (well we like to think so!) Charlie offering his own top tips ('how is it?" "Yeah good thanks Charlies, all dials in the green" "It's no fun unless they're in the red!" - cheers Charlie!). Next stop Bosley Cloud, and I was now on familiar ground as the route followed some of the Cloud 9 race course. A bit of a breather and photo opportunity on the summit before the phalanx headed downhill ("this is fantastic!'), overshot another cunningly hidden path by 100m or so ("curses!') and discovered that Hoka soles are in fact made of the same substance as those foam banana sweets ("yum...thanks Alan"). The event organisers had obviously cut back the foliage that JK amd Steve had encountered on their recce along the next section, the conduit along the Dane Valley Way. I’d also recce’d this section in the summer, so no nav errors here, and as we ticked off the CPs, there was an unspoken understanding that we all take a turn leading the phalanx, and pretty soon we were at the transmitter on Sutton Common, the pivot of the route at 18 miles. The next manned CP at the Ryles Arms we took in fuel and water, and said hi to Charlie again before heading up the short and not-so-sweet climb up towards the reservoirs, a taste of things to come - the slog up Teggs Nose. This was heads-down-push-on ground, but once the gradient relented at the top, some nice running. We hit the marathon point at White Nancy, the bizarre memorial to Waterloo that dominates the skyline above Rainow and Bollington. The descent line from White Nancy is brutal and we all felt our quads screaming. Still, not far to the last manned CP heading out of Bollingfon, and here’s Charlie's again. "Easy running now" said one of the marshals - clearly this was for our psychological benefit, as the gradient ticked upwards again to the wonderfully named Pott Shrigley! No more nav errors, and the phalanx still supporting each and sticking together, with honorary Spartan Lynne running strong on Spond hill towards Lyme Park. The descent into the park was a joy, with expansive views towards Manchester. Legs complaining now, we weaved between the Lyme Park day trippers visiting the largest house in Cheshire, getting bemused puzzled looks as we passed.
With a couple of miles to go the phalanx started to stretch and finally broke, with Alan, Ged, Rob and Simon getting a second wind as they could sense the finish. Me and Shaun plodded on, running and walking, but we overtook one guy and caught up with another who we'd played cat and mouse with all day. In the end, after we'd pointed him in the right direction for the last few hundred meters, we finished in 7 hours 48 minutes and 16 seconds, in joint 26th place, about 5 minutes behind the rest of the phalanx.
A fantastic event, low key but well organised, great route, perfect weather and a challenge achieved with the power of the Spartan phalanx!