As we glide into the starting line in Ingram, Northumberland at 5:55am, five minutes before the Montane Cheviot Goat Race kicks off, the temperature is -8°C and the gamine forms of runners in cold weather tights and light waterproof jackets shift like a herd of antelope to make room for the Citroen C4 we’ve rented. The vehicle’s wheels chew through six inches of snow, and the cold is that bitter, penetrating type you can feel in your bone marrow. We snatch our running packs and head torches from the car and arrive at the line just as everyone’s taking off through the murk, steam emanating from bodies briefly before dissipating into the pitch-black air. We start the race in dead last.

I’m with Alan Li, whom I met at the Walthamstow Montessori School six months ago, where both of our children are enrolled. I was drawn to Li for two reasons: the fact that he was father to a mixed-race Asian child as I am, and the calf muscle definition that announces an obsessive runner; in his case, a semi-professional. Li has been a sponsored brand ambassador for many companies over the years and a long-time Asics Frontrunner, helping to champion diversity in trail running alongside the sport’s mental health benefits. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Tottenham, Li has raced most of the big-ticket ultramarathons, from the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc (UTMB) in the Alps, the biggest event of the sport, to the Marathon des Sables in Morocco, nicknamed the world’s toughest race.

Alan Li

When he mentions that he’s running the Cheviot Goat, I jump at the chance to run with a veteran and reach out to Montane. The outdoor apparel brand sponsors the race and works closely with the organisers to create one of the most challenging ultramarathons in the British Isles. The unmarked course snakes over 60 miles of rugged terrain, with racers mostly relying on GPS watches to navigate their way through a procession of snow-covered peat bogs and mountains that seem to unfurl interminably.

Montane has created a special kit build – a set of equipment curated for a specific activity, event or climate – for the Cheviot Goat, and sent it across to test. The Newcastle-based manufacturer has outfitted me in everything from thermal tights to a waterproof jacket and hybrid mitten/gloves. I firmly believe in the Scandinavian adage that ‘there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing’, even if I blanch a bit at the subzero temperatures. The clothing only arrived two days before the race, and I hadn’t had time to test it – one of the cardinal rules of ultra running is never race in new equipment – so I’ve entrusted myself entirely to Montane’s judgement and expertise.

The first five miles of the Cheviot Goat go quickly, and there’s a lot of conversation between runners as we depart Ingram. Later in the race, there will not be so much. Body temps heat up as we navigate rolling hills and cross wooded becks, following Salter’s Road beyond South Pike, Greene Know and Little Dod. Behind us, in the east, the horizon smears lox pink as the sun begins to bleed through cirrus clouds. The UK has been wracked by a cold weather front and a series of snowstorms over the past week. The chill is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in England; the landscape utterly subarctic. I hit my stride on the uphills, then find myself foundering on the descents and especially the bogs, where British runners seem to have a natural advantage at quickly navigating them.

The start of the race

At fifteen miles into the race, as we skirt Kidland Forest, I stagger when I attempt to retrieve a gel wrapper from the ground. “Leave no trace,” laughs a man named Elliot Taylor. “I like it.” Over the next hour, we chat ultramarathons while speed-hiking icy inclines and concentrating on not losing footing on the downhills. Long-distance runners are repeatedly asked why they run long distances. When it’s particularly painful, it’s often a question an ultra runner asks themselves. The sport has taken off in popularity in recent years, with athletes setting new records for both distances achieved and the pace at which they are achieved. In the United States alone, 86,901 racers finished ultramarathons in 2023.

There’s a lot of conjecture about why it has catapulted in popularity. On a personal level, Elliot Taylor touts moments akin to enlightenment, such as one he experienced when wrapping up the 96th mile of the West Highland Way to the ethereal voice of Kate Bush played over a loudspeaker. Alan Li feels that it’s the natural progression from marathons – 26.2 miles sometimes aren’t enough – and events like the UTMB are promoted so effectively that they find themselves on many people’s bucket lists.

Running writer Christopher MacDougall references evolution as a factor, citing the research of two scientists, Lieberman and Bramble, who set out to prove that homo sapiens survived over other hominins because we were adept persistence hunters that were able to run longer distances than the prey we stalked. We have the ability to lose heat by sweating while running, something that few other species can do, which allows us to go further. Adharanand Finn writes in his book The Rise of the Ultra Runners that “Most of the time we exist in a constructed world where everything is designed to keep us comfortable, keep us away from the rawness of life. But we evolved to exist in an environment that would often be tough, difficult, dangerous, and deep down I think we long for a connection to that ancestral existence.”

A fence crossing on a decline

At an aid station in Barrowburn I thaw my feet by a woodstove before putting on a dry pair of socks and heading back out into the rime and snow. The section from Barrowburn to High Bleakhope is the most remote of the race and the organisers recommend that anyone feeling less confident about making the 21 miles should refrain from attempting it, as it will take at least a couple of hours for the mountain rescue team to get to you on the narrow, rough smugglers’ lanes that thread the landscape. Conditions are particularly baltic as we coast up and down the rolling, rangy hills around Sourhope. I meet Roger Montgomery here along a stretch of the Pennine Way, running parallel to a fence separating Northumbria from the Scottish Borders.

Montgomery is 56 years old and recently completed one of the most exacting races in the world: The Spine Race. Comprising 268 miles of non-stop expedition racing in which competitors are required to be almost wholly self-sufficient, it stretches along the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Montgomery completed it earlier this year, sleeping only a handful of hours over five days and hallucinating visions of cats wearing fezes. His train from London to Ingram was cancelled yesterday, and he only made it to the start line of the race minutes before it began this morning without having slept. It’s clear that he’s tough as nails.

The route arrives at a hulking prominence, steep at its base and progressively more gentle towards the peak. The mountain is The Cheviot, named for the goats reared in the region, the only domestic animal hardy enough to survive the winters out in the hills, which aren’t brought down to lower, more hospitable ground when the weather turns. There’s a flagstone walkway at its plateau-like peak, and the snow aggregates around it in deep drifts, sculpted by the wind into polar sastrugi. There’s an impressive cairn and trig point at the summit where other runners are taking photos. However, I don’t waste any time dallying in the brisk, enervating wind. Amid whiteout conditions on the descent, the sun shines abnormally large through atomised snow.

Approaching the summit of The Cheviot

We say goodbye to daylight around 4pm in a heather bog named Bloodybush and steel ourselves for another nine hours in the dark. There’s something vaguely Arthurian about shuffling through the gloaming at this time of the night. When racers fire up their head torches it brings to mind will-o’-the-wisps, the atmospheric ghost lights of European folklore that would lure travellers off the pathways of swamps and marshes to ignominious ends. This feeling is enhanced by the moon, waxing enormous and orange like an immense jack-o’-lantern.

There’s a barnyard fug in the unheated outbuilding that serves as the final aid station at the perfectly named High Bleakhope. A group of runners who have decided to drop out of the race warm their hands around a 55-gallon drum stoked with woodfire. A nervous gundog, tail wagging briskly, looks to filch food from racers’ drop bags. A volunteer manning the hob pours lukewarm water into a cup with miso and chilli, which I slake down quickly for salt and electrolytes, hoping to fend off muscle cramps. I chat with Shirhaan Hameed, surprised to encounter a runner from the Indian Ocean archipelago of The Maldives. We end up finishing out the majority of the final 19 miles of the race together. When you’re moving for this long your brain starts firing endorphins on a mass level, chemicals that help to mask pain and reduce stress, but also make you less reserved and inhibited, so that you might be chatting to someone you’ve met 15 minutes before as if you’re ten beers down and friends for a decade. Hameed and I have a wide-roving conversation that touches on his former life as a scuba instructor back in The Maldives and his current one working in the dementia ward of a care home in Northern Ireland. He tells me that his entire family thinks he’s crazy for running ultra-long distances in the Irish moors.

At this point, the course’s unmarked nature really hits home. It’s easy to get off track in general but especially so in the dark. Hameed and I cut through treacherous moorland to get back to the route, pitching over peat hags and catching our feet in cavities between the heather, pot-holing through thin ice that deceptively resembles firm ground. We startle grouse from their nests. To a fatigue-addled brain, the powerful beat of their wings thunders like high-calibre machine gun fire.

Shirhaan Hameed

A lot of the time is spent speechless, breathing through pain. There’s a stretch near the end where you’re running along a nice firm paved road and can see the lights of the finish line, but in a sadistic turn, you’re rerouted through a rolling decline of tallus, scree and ice before climbing over a mountain. I find myself off-route and alone. It’s well after midnight and I keep snaring my feet among briars and dead ferns. Misery swells into a crescendo. Every molecule of my body wants to get this over with.

That question of ‘Why?’ reappears. During the lockdowns of the pandemic, I was suddenly in the situation of being a travel writer unable to travel. Taken together with the discovery that my wife was pregnant and I was going to be a father, the anxiety was often overwhelming. I purchased a backpack and tent, then walked and wild camped thousands of miles across the United Kingdom. When parenthood and added work responsibilities curtailed the free time I had to spend outside, I looked for ways to distil and compress those experiences. Running sixty miles over the course of a calendar day is a multi-day trek in .zip format.

I’ve always found that moving through open, ancient landscapes helps to short-circuit circular thoughts and illuminate how insignificant these sometimes all-consuming problems are in the grand scheme of things. When training, the act of getting outside and running on an almost daily basis improves mental hygiene. On race day, it can feel transcendent staring down the barrel of something that viscerally frightens you, such as running the majority of 60 miles in subzero temps in the dark, not knowing whether you’re capable of it, and prevailing.

I cross the finish line in 43rd place with a time of 19 hours and 37 minutes. As I sit over a bowl of beef stew at 2am and wait for the blood to return to my extremities, there’s a bit of the wistfulness that you get at the tail end of a rave or a festival – like in the film Dazed and Confused – where everyone’s shared this strange and special moment before heading back to the reality of their separate lives and futures. It’s a unique community. As Shirhaan Hameed says, “We’re people that spend all of our time preparing to go on a holiday where we pay to suffer. And it’s not cheap!” To my mind, mental health is worth the price of missing toenails and delayed onset muscle soreness. It’s why I run ultramarathons. But spending time with a set of fellow travellers out here in the cold pursuing it for their own purposes is reason enough.