The chat in the queue for the carpark ticket machine was about how many hours to buy. Most people were playing safe and ticket sales were probably surprisingly high that day given the weather. The detailed forecast included phrases such as “Significant buffeting likely on higher areas”, and gave the chance of cloud free summits as “less than 10%”.
After kit checks and registration I wandered over to a gloomy corner of the village hall and to the reason why this is my favourite fell race. On the wall there was a list of checkpoints and their grid-references. On an unlit OS map the five check-points had been circled in blue-biro. That was it. No more clues.
Start was delayed due to an irregularity in one of the entries and the cry went out for a runner who should not be running. He was not in the start group. Or at least, not admitting it. All very mysterious. We shuffled off and I settled in at the back knowing that my form was a bit rubbish and I’d be happy to finish at the back of the field as long as it wasn’t by an embarrassing margin. After a few minutes I passed two runners with big bouncy rucksacks and then up into the cloud there wasn’t much to see until over an hour later where, on Swirral Edge, things started getting interesting. A runner was standing at an fork in the paths looking a bit puzzled. This happened to me last year. Faster runner waits for slower runner because faster runner doesn’t know which way to go! I briefed him on the way ahead but he was content to tuck in behind me and we hit Helvellyn together.
This year I’d done masses of homework for the race. I had the route pretty much memorised with every twist marked on maps. There are several points where it’s easy to go wrong, but I’d uploaded my planned route to my Garmin and the salt-trail display showing the way was making life a lot easier. On the map the long southerly run along the Helvellyn Ridge looks simple but in the dense cloud it was a different story. Those who say relying on a GPS is dangerous may be onto something as I found when, starting intently at the display, I tripped on a boulder and crash-landed in an inelegant heap. With a slightly hurty knee I got over onto the grass where the running was easier and safer. Slightly Faster Runner was still with me so I updated him on the course, and my plan for the descent to Grisedale Tarn. On a clear day, the descent from Dollywaggon Pike to Grisedale Tarn is simplicity itself. Grisedale Tarn lies below with St Sunday Crag clearly visible beyond. You can see the checkpoint, and you just aim for it. Today would be different. I told SFR the safe bet was to follow the path down to the checkpoint, but I was going to trust the Garmin and take a direct line. As we descended he decided to stick to the scary wet stony path and I took to the much friendlier grass. It was incredibly disorientating in the gloom and I was finding it difficult to trust the Garmin. I rejoined the path and crossed it, trying to keep to the straight line I had in my head. Rejoining the path once more I was now so disorientated I decided to stick to the stones. Although the GPS is a handy safety net in poor visibility I think for certain sections, such as the long stretch along Helvellyn Ridge and this corner-cutting descent to Grisedale Tarn a bearing on a hand-held compass is probably easier to follow.
I almost missed the path off to the right for the Grisedale Tarn checkpoint. It would have been easy to go wrong here and I suspect many did. Through the checkpoint and up St Sunday Crag, taking a longer, shallower line this year that I thought would suit be better. It turned out to be a poor route choice as I abruptly found my path blocked by sheets of scree and I had to turn sharp right and climb straight up to the high-level path, and onto some good easy surface up to St Sunday Crag.
Through the gloom a tent emerged flapping noisily in the wind and the poor bedraggled marshalls appeared to encourage me onwards over the penultimate checkpoint. Resisting the temptation to veer left I kept my line and started to descend. Flying on instruments once more I could see a couple of runners away to my left, the first I’d seen for 50 minutes, and it occurred to me that I might actually catch someone. How cool would that be? However my line seemed to be taking me too far east and for a few moments I thought I’d have to change direction. But no, my line took me onto a North-Westerly trod that contoured elegantly to the crag and I found myself bumping into an Achille Ratti runner who was consulting a map. I introduced myself to him with, “This year I’m finding it. I’m going to find it. I’m going to find this bloody scree if it’s the last thing I do. Hello by the way.”.
He’d done the race three times before and he’d never found the scree. But I had every twist of this section memorised and I was going to go for it. Plus my Garmin was telling me it was around here, and it wouldn’t tell me to walk off a cliff, would it? I jogged determinedly towards the cloudy precipice and wondered if I’d step out into a generous expanse of empty space, or if this year, I would find the mythical scree. If I should die, I thought, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign fell, where Dougie turned left a bit too early.
And there it was. I must confess, I whooped a little, and I’m not normally one given to whooping. The AP runner was following me and as he apologised for dislodging a boulder that whistled past my left ear, we chatted about the race while stumbling down the scree. When we hit the bracken he was still following me and I suggested his guess was as good as mine as to the best descent route. Taking the hint, he veered of to the right to cross the Blind Cove beck and avoid the bracken. Brilliant! I veered right and started following him. On the other side of the beck the descending was much easier and we followed it right down to the checkpoint.
Through the checkpoint and down to Grisedale Beck, which was looking decidedly gutsy after all the rain. The AP runner, who was a bit taller than me, had got half-way across but seemed to have suddenly stopped, lost in contemplation. I’ve had my share of nadger-numbing becks and I wasn’t afraid of a little water so I waded confidently into the spate. About half-way across I began to appreciate the problem; it wasn’t the depth (just above knee-height) it was the sheer speed and force of the water that was so impressive. We ended up having to turn sideways, feet pointing upriver, and slowly shuffle-crablike through the frisky torrent to the other side where the marshalls were holding sticks out for us to grab. Quite unnerving.
Things got a little busier as I headed for the final climb up Grisedale Brow as runners appeared who’d gone off-course and missed the Grisedale Tarn checkpoint. I was still elated at nailing the St Sunday Crag descent and was crowing about it to anyone who I could persuade to listen. Soon I found myself alone again as I struggled up to the final checkpoint. Over the stile “Watch out for the dead sheep!”, then straight ahead to pick up the descent to the finish.
Three hours and forty minutes after starting it was still raining as I crossed the finish line to find Roberta waiting patiently, looking wet and bedraggled. Into the village hall for a cup of tea and a look at the results board and the large number of “Retired” stickers gave an indication of just how tough and confusing it had been out there. An outstanding race from the Achille Ratti Climbing Club where the real heroes of the day were the marshalls who were unbelievably encouraging to back-markers such as me when they’d obviously been hanging around in the wind and rain for hours.