PEAK DIVIDE – Manchester to Sheffield race report – Runner’s World, Oct 2023

Everyone’s talking about the gnocchi. We were expecting grand views, sticky bogs and dizzying drops, but nobody saw these pillowy Italian dumplings coming, steaming from the back of event co-organiser Stef Amato’s van as Manchester gives way to moorland.

It’s the first time I’ve ever had hot food in the middle of a run, and it’s a revelation. In fact, the Peak Divide is full of firsts for me. It’s the first edition of a planned annual outing from central Manchester to central Sheffield – 41km on day one to the Peak District village of Edale, 35km on day two – with a night’s camping in between. It’s the first time I’ve entered a race which, well, isn’t a race. It’s a “convoy”, they say, with no numbers or timing and the 70 or so participants forging new friendships, not rivalries, as they find their way together across the hills. I’m not sure it counts as my first ultra, as two marathon-ish distances with about 18 hours of rest in between, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve done big runs back to back and that feels a touch intimidating despite the welcoming, encouraging atmosphere.

The idea was conceived by three friends, who tried the trail together in the winter and were sure that the “ultra-curious” could cope. Luke Douglas makes energy bars and nut butters with his company Outdoor Provisions, for which this event serves as an unobtrusive promotion; Tom Reynolds is a journalist who makes sport documentaries for the BBC; Stef Amato organises bikepacking trips as the founder of This is a similar concept without the wheels.

Runners start to drift into Manchester’s Track Brewing taproom at 8am on Saturday morning, where we register, collect a goodie bag containing complimentary Stance socks and a souvenir bandana, and thankfully ditch our bulky camping equipment in a hired van. Everyone’s introducing themselves and chatting, instead of what I usually do at the start of a race: glare silently at people wearing faster shoes than mine and worry.

At nine we all walk to the official starting point, an unlikely monument to a fizzy drink, the Manchester-born former health tonic Vimto. For the first 3km from the giant bottle to Manchester City’s stadium we all jog together, Tom leading the way wielding a large purple flag. ‘Charge!’ shouts a passer by when he sees us all.

After that, you’re on your own – except you’re not. A handful of “beacon runners”, including seriously fast ultrarunner Julia Davis and 184-mile Thames Path FKT holder Martin “MJ” Johnson, are there as guides. GPX files of the routes have been shared. Everyone’s cruising along the canal path out of the city, dodging resting Canada geese, talking about our love for an activity that means we immediately have lots in common. This is the kind of group where someone can say: ‘My preferred distance is 100-milers,’ and others will nod sagely rather than spluttering with disbelief.

It takes quite a while for the city to fizzle out and the terrain to become more interesting. After some muddy farmland and the magical oasis that is Stef’s food van, we start to climb Kinder Scout, the Peak District’s highest point at 636m. The day is grey but dry and the local runners say they’re amazed to be able to see the Welsh mountains from the top, when apparently you’re usually lucky if you can see your own knees.

The rest of the first day’s route stays high and spectacular, though you’re risking your neck if you look up from the constant rock hopping to check the views. We pass above the 30m waterfall Kinder Downfall and endless abstract gritstone rock formations. When we least expect it, a friend of the event materialises offering sweets and, for the truly reckless, a shot of Malibu. My legs are aching. My toenails are painful on the downhills. Finally the sight of various ill-prepared teenagers in white trainers and thin coats reassures me that the civilisation of Edale can’t be far.

At the campsite there’s pasta arrabiata and focaccia around firepits. Looking around, you’d never guess that most of these people met this morning. It’s a noisy, chatty, single unit of tired runners.

I’m really sore and starting to plan my excuses for skipping day two, especially after barely sleeping at all in the early April chill. But somehow, after a sourdough and nut butter breakfast, coffee and a long slow initial group hike up the Nab, my legs have loosened and I’m elated enough by the lofty weaving trail to rediscover my mislaid mojo. I’m so glad I did because day two is a cracker, glorious sunshine making Ladybower Reservoir twinkle and illuminating the long escarpment of Stanage Edge.

An interminable boggy section feels like a grim slog after the rock running, and then it’s gently down into a string of pristine parks leading towards central Sheffield. Among the Sunday strollers we feel like we’ve just landed from Mars, with our plastered legs and ultrarunner’s shuffle.

We started in a taproom and finish in another, Sheffield’s Perch, which appears to sell every beer ever invented. Everyone whoops and claps every time new runners appear in the courtyard. It feels like we’re all rooting for one another. Somebody presumably got back first but nobody won. Actually, I think we all did.

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