WORDS BY TOM REYNOLDS – PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELLIOTT WARING
“I am not sure I can quite put into words what the weekend meant to me,” muses Callie Cuffy of Black Trail Runners. “It was hard, tough… without a doubt the toughest thing I have ever done – and I’ve given birth three times, so that’s really saying something. But it really was like a spiritual pilgrimage and a chance to really grow.”
Does that sound like a race report? Not really, but then Peak Divide is resolutely not a race. It’s a deliberately pared-back 76km trail run (the terrain is 90 percent off-road) between Manchester and Sheffield, cutting straight through the Peak District, the UK’s first National Park. Peak Divide is obviously a huge challenge (the best part of two marathons, back-to- back), but it is primarily a journey, not a race. There’s no clock, for one thing. With bikepacking as its inspiration, the inaugural event took place on 1 and 2 April 2023 and included overnight camping. Runners were encouraged to stop and savour the food… and (ahem) drink, perhaps notably on “Malibu Mountain”, 40km into day one. “Malibu makes you downhill faster, it’s now proven,” says participant Samuel Cichuta.
“The idea of a ‘casual ultra’ sounds like a contradiction on paper, but that’s exactly what the Peak Divide is,” says Xander Munro, who also took part in the 2023 event.
Only a couple of years ago, Peak Divide’s three co-founders – Luke Douglas, Stefan Amato and I – were ultra-curious, but unmoved by the idea of racing such distances. But, two pints down in a Manchester pub in January 2022, we started a conversation about running from Manchester to Sheffield. Two weeks later, we had planned a route and crossed the Peak District on foot, at our own pace and including beer and curry at our overnight stop. From there, the idea of a more relaxed approach to ultra running emerged and, after a couple more recce runs, we were ready to stage Peak Divide “proper” in April 2023.
There’s a Vimto statue in the middle of Manchester, only a few hundred yards from Piccadilly Station. It stands on the site of the original Vimto factory. Vimto – originally called Vim Tonic – was invented in 1908 as a medicinal drink. The statue hails Vimto as the “Ideal Beverage”.
On 1 April 2023, 76 Peak Divide runners set off from the Vimto statue. With no clock, there were no pacers – the idea of pacers felt anathema. Instead, nominated runners were “beacons”. Mind you, that’s not to say there wasn’t pace among the beacons. One of them was Julia Davis, who will be representing Great Britain in the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships. Another was Martin Johnson, an original member of Black Trail Runners and 2021 FKT-holder along the Thames Path.
And there wasn’t a “runaway leader” – perhaps “bunch” is the best word to describe the runners. Peak Divide leans more into cycling’s idea of peloton-style safety in numbers, rather than a race-for-yourself mentality. “Times, places and grimaces don’t matter here,” says Xander Munro. “Instead it’s views, bog-hopping, camaraderie and smiles.”
Peak Divide’s new approach will hopefully open up ultra running to those who may not normally consider taking part. “The obvious difference with Peak Divide is that it is not a race,” says Martin Johnson. “So much focus in the trail and ultra scenes is on racing. But in my role in Black Trail Runners, I’m trying to introduce Black and brown people to the trails, which can be an intimidating space. Peak Divide made something that can feel inaccessible much more welcoming.”
Henry Taysom, another participant, concurs. “The non-race thing meant people chatted away, and all-round just exceptional people too. Beacons were just the most incredible people – especially Julia on day one.” Henry wasn’t only blown away by the friendliness. He was pretty impressed by the non-traditional approach to aid stations, too: not exactly wall-to-wall energy gels and jelly babies. “I mean – gnocchi?!” He says. “Just as the temperature dipped on day one, when I was questioning my life choices. Filled me right up and got me to Edale, that did. It also tasted fantastic.” At that main feed station, we also overheard: “I’ve never seen fresh basil at an aid station.”
For me, Peak Divide beautifully embraces the light and shade of the varying landscapes in the 76km. There is an incredible freedom in being out running in the wilderness with only a six- litre backpack. For others, it was all about the camaraderie.
The idea of togetherness was keenly felt by runner Logan Ditondo. “There was a really great sense of community coming together for a cool shared experience,” he explains. And, yeah, he liked the aid stations, too. “The food was so good as well,” he says. “I think I’ve told everyone I know about the gnocchi at the feed stop.”
Part of our aim to create a “not a race” atmosphere was that we wanted to make sure everyone felt welcomed and supported. “Starting as a slow group each day worked really well and helped reinforce the ‘not a race’ vibe,” says Peak Divide participant Rebecca Illingworth. “It made it feel more like a team effort to get everyone round.
Fellow runner Karen Hayley Corbett agrees. “I’ve never done an event like this before, and I think this was the perfect one to choose. Loved the team support mentality,” she says.
Samuel Cichuta felt that the camaraderie that built up between runners was “life- affirming stuff” and reflected the spirit of the event. “The work behind the scenes that kept things running smoothly and meant all I had to think about was putting one foot in front of the other,” he adds. “Thank you for creating an environment that allowed me to do that; 46 miles doesn’t seem as scary now.”
Samuel also believes Peak Divide’s new approach to ultras opens up the sport to a wider cross-section of participants. “From the ace feed stops to the mint route, the Peak Divide crew have really created something special here, regardless of if this is your first proper big run or 50th,” he says. “The support from the organisers was very different from what I’m used to,” adds Martin Johnson.
If I had to sum up the ethos of Peak Divide, it boils down to a conversation with a dog-walker around 10km into day one. As we crossed paths on the canalside on the outskirts of Manchester, I stopped to tie my shoelace and he asked where we were heading.
“Sheffield,” I said. He was incredulous.
In that moment I felt that same sense of daunted, intimidated, excited and exhilarated the other runners were probably also feeling. Those feelings to me encapsulate Peak Divide’s point of difference from other running events. It’s not a big city marathon. It’s resolutely not a race. There definitely aren’t any winners or losers and we will never be recording anybody’s time. It’s a city-city break on foot.
A mild-to-wild trail running adventure that leans into the joy found in being part of something bigger. A collective goal. Running in a convoy with a friend, old or new, alongside you and journeying further than you perhaps previously thought possible.
Finding safety, and strength, in numbers. And alongside those numbers, enjoying and sharing a slightly daft two days on two feet. Journeying between two northern cities while celebrating the beauty between.
“What an absolute vibe,” says Julia Davis. “Not a race, it’s a journey. So much heart and soul in this. Unlike any other running event I’ve ever done and blazing the way for many more… best aid station I’ve ever arrived at. Maybe next time I can be the mobile Mount Malibu?”
Perhaps the last word is best left to Callie Cuffy. “The encouragement and support of every part of the team helped a first timer like me get it done. The social side was amazing. The environment and set up encouraged conversation. I came knowing no-one, but didn’t have a second where I was alone or without someone to talk to,” she says. “Life-changing.”
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