A real Howler of a weekend!

West Pennine - Darwen Tower

The Howler Series

Running friends, Angela and Dan, first brought the Jackal Half Marathon in the West Pennine from The Howler Series to my attention in March last year. Tales of hills, mud and deep bogs over a 13.1 mile route on which it seemed easy to get lost (they both did!). Sounds right up my street, and in fact being in the West Pennine Moors of Lancashire it wasn’t far from old stomping grounds.

West Pennine weekend - Dan and Angela
2017 Howlers – Angela and Dan

Fast forward a few month and entries are open for the 2018 edition. Angela and Dan jump back in with both feet and hurriedly sign up. I wasn’t convinced. I can practically get onto the continent for a race for what it can cost me to go ‘home’ for a weekend, and only a half marathon? Race entry, accommodation, food and of course the drink soon adds up!!

Having enjoyed my Wooler adventure so much, I once again started to look around for something similar. The Jackal caught my eye again. But better still I discovered the race organiser also hosted a marathon the same weekend over similar terrain. And not just one marathon, but two! One on Saturday, and a second on the Sunday. Perfect!


With some gentle encouragement, my ever patient sidekick signed up for the Jackal on Sunday, and agreed to another early morning road trip to ferry me to the start of a double marathon weekend! I had tempted her with the added bonus of meeting some crazy Preston based friends of mine – surely a selling point for any adventurous sidekick – especially now with the addition of Blackie the Adventure Cat!


West Pennine Double Marathon

Race organisers were kindly encouraging use of the OS Maps app, and giving free access to it for duration of the weekend. Not wanting to be relying on using a new app, and my phone battery, I trusted to old fashioned maps, downloaded the GPX, and printed them out.

One thing of note became apparent during the paper route recce – these were no marathons! Day 1 and 2 were both longer at 27.3 and 28 miles respectively! Elevation for the weekend would be in excess of 8000ft.

My knowledge of the area also give me some insight to underfoot conditions. This promised to be the mud and bog mentioned by my friends from 2017 Jackal – and possibly then some!

The routes though, despite offering up a real tough event, also showcase some of Lancashire’s often hidden and forgotten beauty.

Day 1

An early morning, bleary eyed and multiple caffeine stop journey saw us arrive in Darwen with plenty time to spare. Not something I’m used to! But i was feeling good about this weekend, and didn’t want a repeat of the Paris fiasco.

Runners mustered to the start line, and it was clear not many people are crazy enough for this challenge, or word has yet to leak out of this secluded Lancashire mill town of what delights lay in store! Garry and I being (ex-)locals, we’re all too aware.

Howler weekend Scottish clubs
Westerlands CCC, North Ayrshire AC, and Bellahouston RR AKA the Scottish contingent

A fantastic hill start up towards Jubilee Tower, more commonly referred to as Darwen Tower – built in 1898, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and celebrate the working class’ right to access the moorland being restored. Certainly cleared the cobwebs and chased away any vestiges of sleepiness that may have been lingering.

I’d decided already to run this one with my training buddy, Angela. We work well together over long distances. She stops me going off too quick and dying, and I drag her towards the finish later when she is dying! She been complaining off early onset cold symptoms, and going up the hill it sounded like a geriatric walrus was chasing me!

Howler weekend with Angela

The moors and views were obscured with low cloud and slight damp conditions – for me perfect running weather. We pushed on, enjoying some early banter with the guys from Trawden Athletic Club (TAC), who would become regulars in our company over the weekend. TAC is my brother’s club – along with the superior Osborne runners in the family, my niece and nephew.

Howler weekend TAC lads

As promised by the race director Stu, this course offers some very varied terrain and we experienced it all before heading into CP1. Angela was already at this stage sporting the obligatory bloodied knee look, which has become a regular feature of her racing.

I was welcomed into CP1 by my smiling faced sidekick – a really pleasant surprise, unexpected as she was meant to be away buying cheese!

After CP1 it got tough! We swapped well marked trails for bogs, small hills and inclines, mud, long grass, anything that could hide the wee trail markers resulting in some regular map checking, multiple conversations with other runners and the odd minor diversion.

One minor deviation saw us miss CP2, which lay just off the main route, resulting in back tracking – we were not the only victims of the hidden CP!

Ticking by…

The miles were ticking along nicely, jaffa cakes and vegetarian fruit pastilles (what a great find these were by the Sidekick!) fuelling the run nicely.

A short but brief fight with some grassy tussocks just after Great Hill (it’s not!) and passed the half way mark; all down hill from here. Ha ha. Metaphorically only.

Good news at CP3, we’re both top 10 and Angela is first lady – a term I scoff at, having heard the language she comes out with 40 miles into a race!!

Nice flat section along the tree clad banks of Entwistle Reservoir, I upped the pace to cement the top ten, and hopefully catch the TAC lads who had pushed on earlier in the day. This is the point at which our roles reverse, and it’s time for me to keep pushing all the way to the finish.

Howler weekend selfie

Not far after the reservoir as we climbed the hill onto the moor we squeezed passed a group of guys who had taken advantage of our mis-direction at CP2. Slightly satisfied to be back in front despite the “extra miles”!

Next up was a return to the Tower. The views had cleared nicely but tired minds and legs kept us from fully appreaciating them.

With my brother and nephew kicking about the hillside somewhere, and four of their club-mates within site, I set off to chase them down, with mis-placed confidence in Angela’s navigation ability to head straight down the hill to the finish!

I thundered down the hill, black and white humbugs in my eye-line. Swung left at the pub, and they’ve gone. Race signage was all for tomorrow at this point, so I had to hastily dig out the map and confirm what I already knew in my head. Precious seconds wasted I set off again. My nephew and brother at the hill bottom urged me on. TAC lads had slowed to gather the troops for their choreographed photo finish, but they heard the shouts too and it was a race to the line. A race I lost by a few seconds. Still, there was always tomorrow…..

What a day! Smiles all round, and a quick scoot back to Preston to catch the rugby and a few drinks with old friends. Carb loading!

Howler weekend Day 1 results

Day 2

A recurring morning theme for me is the bleary eyed,pre-caffeinated feeling. I can often be grumpy and incoherent at this point. Today was no different!

Today’s running would also feature the Jackals Half Marathon (and 10k), which my sidekick would be taking part in along with Dan. Garry wouldn’t appear for today’s race. Day 1 had seen him run his furthest ever completing 30 miles after taking a few diversions, then taking a nasty tumble coming down the hill with the finish line practically in sight. He was officially a broken man! Amazing achievement nonetheless – dead proud of his finishing.

A few new faces were scattered throughout the starting pack, with single day runners making up the numbers. The pace up the hill back to the Tower, noticeably slower today than the previous day. Legs and heads screaming and complaining at their runners for putting them through the torture again.

Climb to the Tower Day 2. Photo: Paul Brown (TAC)

The climb done, we had some relatively flat running across the moors picking up fresh mud and washing it back off in the bogs as we heading for the reservoir, along the east bank before tracking further east. An hours running gone before we knew it!

‘Easy’ day

Today’s event was a longer route, but allegedly easier! Winding through some small villages and outlying farms, before the big tarmac slog up to CP1. Angela and I walked the hill(!!) with the TAC lads and joined in their complaints about the tarmac! Trail runners to the core. CP1 in sight we all put a little jog on just in case there was a lurking photographer!

Howler weekend CP1

Shortly afterwards we were back on open moorland. Very open. Thankfully not windy or it would have been hellish. All we had to deal with is hundreds of metres of bog in all directions, and a random burnt out car! We were running across a MOD training ground, so can only assume this had been used for target practice.

Now heading over Bull Hill towards the next tower, this time Peel Tower. Named after Robert Peel, founder of the modern police force who was born locally.

The weather had cleared nicely and the view at this point across Lancashire and the Rossendale moorland was awesome.

Quickly past the tower and descending the hill back into the MOD area, past some guys working, probably suppressing a chuckle that we choose to run these silly distances for fun!

Target TAC

Still tracking along with the TAC lads, down a steep muddy slope. I kindly requested no one fell until i had my camera ready! No one fell! Ruined my fun!

The pace is good, and we’re heading down into the next CP, joined with a day runner – Lee Vaudry (folk could enter each day as a separate event as well as the Double dafties). TAC lad comments that the running order and positions seem to be similar to yesterday as we’ve been ‘counted by a farmer’!! To which his teammate replies ‘until Osborne comes in with the sprint finiah again!’ I smiled inwardly – i had no intention of leaving it so late today. With just a few seconds separating us on the leader board, Team TAC unknowingly were my targets! And Angela and Lee unwittingly my accomplices!

Angela and I left CP2 slightly in front of them, and I decided to myself now was a good a time as any to put a move on TAC! Time to push.

It worked, we moved ahead taking our new pal with us. Navigation a mix of my old fashioned map, and his OS app. Down towards Last Drop and the complete bog alley back onto the fell. A few curses were muttered towards the race director at this point! Obviously thinks he’s funny! The mud was almost as deep as Angela 😂😂

Across the hill top and a slight nav error saw us climbing barb wire to come back on ourselves onto the track! A tough mud cloying section down to the road and familiar ground from yesterday’s run.

Turn it up

Roughing through some tough ground, I saw the TAC lads take a wrong line, I whistled and shouted but they continued. I checked the map, and realised they’d come out at the same point as us anyway via the farm track.

We picked up the ‘highway’ here down towards CP3, and my legs felt great. I turned up the gas and left Angela with Lee and thundered down into the CP about 700m in front of them. I passed them on my way out as they headed in. With best wishes, I said I’d see them at the finish. I felt great. Really good. Surprised at myself, but let’s see where I can go.

I’m fifth and working hard but feeling good, and can only wonder in my head how far in front the next guy is. But equally  can’t stop looking over my shoulder. Another day runner had crossed me at the CP looking fresh, and the TAC guys were on the trail in as I climbed the hill. No time to rest on my laurels.

Fished out the earphones, and for the first time over the weekend I cranked on the tunes. Between the sounds of the hills – wind, sheep, crows and general lack of city noise mixed with some great playlist, the finish line was just a formality!

Heading north always feels right – a mix of my northern and Scottish blood, and as the Darwen Tower comes into sight once again I can see my beloved Bowland Fells ahead and Pendle looking resplendent to the right. I enjoyed the views with a fellow runner out on the hills. Brief chat about the daft event I was taking part in and onwards!!

Howler weekend Tower selfie

A quick SMS update to the sidekick and a wee selfie at the Tower and it’s all downhill from here. My descent to the finish was definitely quicker today than yesterday – no unnecessary map check – but Strava begs to differ. I must have tripped the segment start whilst fannying about with the camera!

A fantastic cheer squad of random supports replaced my brother amd nephew at the hill bottom. Over the bridge, cross the finish line to a well earned hug and kiss. Then across to the girlfriend…

Friendly these race directors!

Awesome race. Awesome day. Awesome event. Awesome sidekick.

I’ll be back – and if i can I’ll bring others.

Thanks Stu and your team.