Tour de Helvellyn, Helvellyn, Saturday, December 17, 2016

38 miles

Aaron Gourley

I’d had my eye on the TdH for a while having been inspired by Geoff and Tom’s race reports over previous years but never thought I’d be capable of running.

This race, a self supporting, self navigation 38 mile race around Helvellyn, is held on the weekend closest to the shortest day of the year and is a bit of a beast to say the least and as their website suggests – it’s not one for novices!

So with that in the back of my mind I’d stayed away from it until this year when I threw caution to the wind and decided to enter, on the basis that there were a good number of other Striders taking it on. But alas, I was too late, the entry limit had been reached. I placed my name on the waiting list but didn’t expect to get in, in fact, I was quite relieved in one sense as I still wasn’t sure if I was capable of running it.

But then I got an email inviting me to take a place and I was in.

Race day was Saturday 17th December, but I’d chosen to stay over the night before at Askham community centre, the race HQ. £5 for a place on the floor with around 100 other runners – not for the faint hearted either it seems.  I’d even forgone my works xmas night out in Newcastle, I must be mad.

In Askham I met up with Mandy, Juliet and Scott Watson who were also running, in the pub for a really nice meal. If anybody thinks Scott is not eating enough then you would have been surprised to see him tackle the most amazing array of desserts that were on offer.

Scott and I were both staying at the hall, Mandy and Juliet had opted for the comfort of a hotel, although not the one they’d thought. I slept ok but it was punctuated by snoring and someone having nightmares and shouting out in his sleep.

At 5am, we were pretty much all woken by the race organisers (Nav4) getting ready to open the registration and cook breakfast.

I got ready as more and more people arrived and the hall got fuller, busier and louder. Striders for the day were Geoff Davies, David Gibson, Mike Hughes, Mandy, Juliet, and Scott.

This race is more of a time trial and runners can start anytime between 7am and 9am. I’d decided to set off around 7:30am but so had most of the other runners so getting through the thorough kit check took a while.

I was going to run with Mike and David for a long as possible and thought they’d already gone through check so I dashed out and caught up with Geoff who’d left just ahead of me, but turned out Mike and David were still not out of the hall so I stopped and waited for them.

The morning light was just breaking and a bright moon shone as we set off over Askham Moor, the conditions were cold but as good as you could wish for.

Mike and David set the pace, I followed on behind trying to maintain a good pace but not get left too far behind.

The first few miles breezed by across the moor as I kept check on my map to ensure I had an idea of where I was going on the return leg later in the evening.

The race allows you to make your own route choices so long as they’re legal, and you get to the next checkpoint within the timeframes. Our first decision was to take a low route through Howtown to the first self clip checkpoint at Martindale Church. It seemed to work as people who were ahead were now behind. From here it was a long slog up Boardale Hause before a steep but thrilling decent down into Patterdale and the next checkpoint at Side Farm.

We stopped here for a quick refuel and refill of water bottles before setting off for the run to Glenridding. Just as we were heading out on to the road side, Scott caught us up, looking very cheery. He’d left Askham some time after us but had made good progress in the first 10 miles and looked strong as he took off into the distance.

This section marks the start of the long climb up to Sticks Pass just under Helvellyn. There’s a long zig-zag path up to the old mines, some chose to follow it, we decided to cut straight up.

Before long, we were at the quarry and had caught Mandy and Juliet who had set off around 30 mins ahead of us. We ran with them up to Sticks Pass when we were joined by Geoff who we must have passed at some point on the way up. We all ran down the steep valley side to the next checkpoint 4 near Stannah Beck. I particularly liked this decent as it had long, grassy sweeps that were good for running on.

At the bottom we made our way to the next checkpoint at Swirls Car Park where we could top up water bottles and get some food. We didn’t hang around long as we set off on the long meandering path towards Dumnail Raise. The run along the valley was brilliant and the conditions made for a stunning cloud  inversion in the distance.

As we reached the foot of Dumnail Raise, we turned and made our way up the steep sides of the beck that was flowing. I started to suffer a bit here and was powerless to keep up as Geoff, David and Mike pulled away. I decided there was no point in trying to keep their pace as cramp took hold making it difficult for me to run across the mix of bog and rocky ground as we skirted Grizedale Tarn to make the long decent back to Patterdale.

With Mike and co, now out of sight, I resigned myself to finishing the race on my own, but still hoped to get back before dark. I reached Side Farm for the to find them still there so quickly grabbed a cup of tea and a light snack before following them out for the tough ascent back up Boardale Hause. But I should really have stayed longer at the checkpoint and recovered a bit more as I found the climb difficult and just couldn’t keep up with them.

Out of sight again, I pressed on at my own pace which was a mix of walking and shuffling. I wasn’t too worried as I was still moving at a good pace but was conscious it was soon to get dark. My main worry about this race had been getting lost in the dark going back over Askham Moor.

I pressed on reversing the route I’d ran earlier that day. Dusk was falling as I reached the stone circle known as the Cockpit. This was significant as it’s here that many runners often go astray. With still enough day light I was able to pick the right line just as Mandy and Juliet came running past. They were looking strong and focused, so much so that they didn’t even notice me.

I maintained my own pace and my own line. Soon it was dark and I had no choice but to put on my head torch for the final mile and a half. across the rough ground I’d chosen.

Before long the lights of Askham appeared and after what seemed an eternity I made it back to the warmth of the Community Centre for the finish.

There was a lively buzz in the room as I walked in. I was exhausted but elated to have finished such a fantastic race. I’ll definitely be back next year but hopefully finish feeling stronger although I doubt conditions will be as favourable.

Aaron Gourley

Results 

Nav4 Website

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