The Montane Cheviot Goat is often referred to as the ‘loneliest ultra’ - a brutal 55-mile winter challenge traversing one of the remotest regions of England, the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. Located in the far north of the county, these lesser-visited peaks border Scotland and feel totally off the beaten track.
Combine this remoteness with extremely variable weather, from high winds to sub-zero temperatures and snow, as well as limited daylight hours, this isn’t a race for the faint-hearted! Eager to find out more, we caught up with race co-founder Drew Swinburne who shares the origins of this 24-hour ultra, unpacking some of his favourite route highlights…
“This area of the country is just not well known at all. Racers often comment that they hadn’t seen another car or person in over 20 miles. You’d really struggle to find anywhere else in the country like this.” Drew Swinburne, Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra Co-Founder
Where it began
The Cheviot Goat race is the brainchild of 3 northerners: Drew, Barry and Andy. Born and bred in the North East, they were drawn together in 2016 by a love of the great outdoors and a desire to create a classic race based here. Significantly, both Drew and Barry volunteer for the North of Tyne Mountain Rescue Team, with Drew having taken part in endurance triathlons in the past and Barry a keen mountain biker. Andy is also a keen runner.
Consolidating their passion and extensive knowledge of the region proved to be a winning formula when conjuring up a race fit for ultra runners. Whilst many locals and visitors prefer to stick to the coastline of Northumberland, Drew, Barry and Andy set their sights a little further inland. Home to a vast network of varied terrain relatively unknown to many, the Cheviots appeared to be untapped potential.
Working with local landowners, they plotted the ultimate route through the remote rolling hills, forests, and peat bogs of the Cheviot Hills. All that was left was a suitably inspiring name. What better inspiration than some hardy local residents, the feral Cheviot goats. Having been around for thousands of years (dating beyond the Ancient Roman era) these tough hill-dwellers have weathered every storm. In short, you have to channel your inner goat to get around the course.
“Andy wanted to create the gnarliest, craziest race possible. So I jokingly suggested doing it in the winter as the conditions in the Cheviots would be brutal and extremely tough. To my shock …they loved the idea and the Cheviot Ultra seeds were sown.”
How the race has evolved
With the race conceived and a website up and running, it wasn’t long before the Cheviot Ultra caught the eye of the fast and light experts over at Montane HQ. At this time, Montane was already supporting some of the most legendary ultras in the UK, including The Montane Spine Race and the Lakeland 50 & 100.
The 24-hour Cheviot Goat not only sounded equally as tough, it handily filled a gap in the Montane race roster and it was conveniently on the doorstep of the HQ office - win-win! The Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra was subsequently born. Several successful events subsequently took place, growing in popularity each year, attracting racers from as far as Alaska to take on the challenge. Then, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic landed, cancelling the planned 4th edition.
In 2021, a week prior to the much-anticipated return of the Cheviot Goat Ultra, the UK was struck by the powerful Storm Arwen. This wreaked widespread damage, particularly across the north of the country. The impact on local north east communities was huge and a major incident in Northumberland was declared, just 1 day before the race was due to take place. This effectively shut down the race for another year and had huge financial repercussions for the race organisers who had already committed lots of their spend.
Despite this, the Cheviot was able to return in March of 2022 with a special spring edition, albeit with balmy warm weather not seen previously on the race! #TeamMontane’s very own Simon Roberts crossed the finish line first, confirming his status as one of the best rising ultra-run stars in the country. The good news is that 2022 will see the welcome return of the December winter addition, after a long 3-year hiatus.
“The first year attracted decent numbers with 100 people attending. The following year went to 250 and, the year after, 350. We knew we could go higher, but we wanted to manage it carefully. So we patiently grew it. Now the Cheviot Ultra has a capacity of up to 500 racers.”
Set in the depths of winter, this 24-hour race starts and finishes in the dark. The hub of the race is Ingram Cafe & Visitors Centre in the Breamish Valley. It is from here where the brave runners set off, head torches on, with the aim of returning 55-miles later. In between, they take on some of England’s wildest landscapes…
Owing to the remoteness of the course, racers will only find 2 aid stations en route. The first sits at Barrowburn, 20-miles in and is a big highlight for many, mainly owing to its cosy, warm stove and tactfully placed chair beside this! Racers will also find their kit bags here as well the safety team on hand to help them should they need it.
From the first aid station, racers will head up to the top of Windy Gyle, before descending into Cocklawfoot in Scotland. Significantly, 2022 is the first year the race dips north of the border. This section of the route is also quite challenging and seemingly never-ending so is sure to be memorable for everyone taking part.
Hopping back across the border, the next challenge to tackle is the biggest climb of the race, the Cheviot itself, standing at 2,674 ft. For those speedy (and lucky) enough to make it to the top before sunset, they’ll be treated to great views of Hen Hole, a stunning craggy waterfall which Cheviot overlooks. The challenges don’t stop here though! That’s because the racers still have to face Hedgehope Hill. Although smaller than Cheviot, it’s a far more challenging and dramatic climb, owing to its steeper slopes.
The second aid station at High Bleakhope Barn sits at 40 miles and, although a little rough and ready, this is always a welcome sight for racers passing through. This is always a welcome chance to pause and grab a much-needed cuppa, before taking on the last stretch of the course.
For the brave few who make it back to Ingram Cafe, they’ll not find huge fanfare. Instead, race co-founder Drew should be waiting on the door to welcome them back with a handshake. A hearty bowl of soup will also be ready to help refuel and warm up!
“The race is so dynamic; you never quite know what it will throw at you. Each time we run it, we’ve had very different conditions. The variable weather makes a huge difference. Racers must be prepared for whatever the Cheviots decide to throw at them.”
Protecting the Peat Bogs
Other than the allusive Cheviot goats, one of the other iconic features of the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra is the notoriously challenging peat bogs. These natural features are every racer's nemesis, swallowing up many who dare to take on the Cheviots, sometimes all the way up to their waist.
Whilst these tricky peat bogs are the stuff of nightmares for those taking part, these wetlands play a pivotal role in the UK’s fight against climate change. That’s because they absorb CO2 from the environment. In fact, they’re so good at it that peatlands store more carbon than all the trees in the world combined.
Knowing peat bogs’ significant role in helping to protect the planet, the race organisers of the Montane Cheviot Goat work closely with locals to ensure the race is run as sustainably as possible. It’s one of the reasons the route regularly changes year-on-year to help protect these peat bogs and ensure they have adequate rest so that they can continue to thrive.
The Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra takes place on 03 December at 6am, 2022. We’ll have several #TeamMontane hopefuls taking part this year, including Howard Dracup and Montana Hull. Head over to our dedicated event hub for more information or stay tuned on our Instagram for updates during the race.
For those eager to learn more about our other iconic ultra runs, don’t miss our story behind the Winter Spine Race, known as the UK’s most brutal race, or the legendary Lakeland 50 & 100.