Mow Cop Killer Mile – 11 May 2023

by Brad Wight

I had a midweek work meeting to attend in Congleton in Cheshire last Thursday so had a look on the Runbritain site to see if there were any races in that neck of the woods. Top of the list and only a three mile drive from my hotel was:
“The Killer Mile – 25% gradient road race”.
Well that sounds interesting!
It’s a very popular race which has been held annually since 1982 and was originally intended to be the opposite to New York’s famous, slightly downhill, 5th Avenue Mile. It’s exactly a mile in distance and boasts 575 feet of elevation straight up a prominent hill called Mow Cop at the southern end of the Pennines. It’s known amongst fell runners as “the Road Runners Revenge”.

The course record of 6:12 has stood for over 30 years and belongs to a GB international runner. The female record is 7:54. Looking at last year’s results I thought I’d be lucky to get somewhere near 10 minutes. I noticed Runbritain had rated the difficulty as 10.0 which gives an indication of how tough it is.
Almost 600 runners took part, split into several races, I saved myself £2 and entered the Affiliated Club Runners race. Looking at the vests it was obvious that the race was popular with fell runners as well as road runners. I tried to scout the course out on my warm-up but could only go 1/3rd of the way up the hill as I wasn’t allowed to cross the Junior’s starting line with my timing chip. That little glimpse was enough to make me wonder what on earth I was doing!
Our race got under way at ten past seven, start times being dictated by the West Coast mainline train timetable as the level crossing is on the start line. The first quarter mile takes you from the start straight in to a steep gradient that I’d compare with Newton Cap Bank. That’s where it starts getting bad. The way the gradient ramped up was just unrelenting, my heart rate went through the roof quite early on and I found myself unable to run at the halfway stage. I had no choice but to start power hiking which actually proved faster than running in steeper parts.

From the halfway point you looked up and saw the really daft steep bit where all the crowds and photographers chose to stand. It was horrible, both legs were already flooded with lactic acid, my heart rate was nearing 200bpm and I was faced with this seemingly vertical road in front of me, marked with a 25% signpost and a sudden kink in elevation which took it from unbearable to just plain stupid.
I physically couldn’t run that 25% bit, it was impossible. As much as I wanted to run, my legs just couldn’t do it and even hiking with any pace was a challenge. I could see my watch clicking up from 8 minute miles to 9, then 10… The only relief in the entire race was at the top of that worst bit there was a sign saying ‘200m to go’. That mentally spurred me on, I shouted at my legs to start working and eventually got moving a bit better. I heard someone shout 50 metres to go and I was able to put in something resembling a sprint finish although I’m pretty sure it was still quite slow.
I crossed the finish line in 10:02 feeling worse than I’ve ever done after a race. It’s a good job I hadn’t had anything to eat beforehand. To put it in to perspective that’s one second slower than I ran the Neptune Relays and they were 1.7 miles in distance! It’s almost double the time I can run a mile at the track. What goes up must come down and my slow, painful, cool down jog back to the car was 20 seconds faster than the race!
The winner, Matthew Craen of Cannock & Stafford Harriers, ran 7:46 and the first lady, Caroline Brock, of Steel City Striders got to the top in 8:51. I was 39th out of 191 in the club race and 59th out of 423 in total (not including the 170 juniors who ran a shorter ¾ mile course).
It was an absolutely horrific race but it was a unique experience and I think I’d do it again if I’m in the area.
Next week’s midweek work trip race is the Kirkby Stephen 10K which has 600ft elevation and will hopefully be a doddle after that!