Wasdale ‘Horseshoe’, Lake District, Saturday, July 14, 2018

AL / 34km / 2750m

Elaine Bisson

Courtesy of Stephen Wilson

The Wasdale Fell Race claims to be one of the toughest fell races and I was soon to realise just how tough.

Since my BGR I’d tried not to lose fitness but unfortunately, recovery has taken its time and it was only last week that my body and my knees were feeling anywhere near as strong. I was eager to get a fell race under my belt though, having hardly raced all year.

I had planned to recce the whole route a few weeks ago, but parking at Seathwaite and meeting the race route at Esk Hause at a steady pace had only got me as far as Greendale. With 6 hours already on the clock and a fair way to go, I’d sensibly headed back to the car. This did mean that the only section I hadn’t recced was that between Greendale, on up to Seatallan and then onto Scoat Fell. Unfortunately, it was also the part I was most likely to lose my way, as there are very few paths/trods.

It’s a 3-hour drive; thankfully it doesn’t start until 11 am. Parking is in a field behind the National Trust car park at Wasdale. I arrived at a field packed with camper vans and extremely lean, mean and fit runners, mostly male…there were a handful of female runners. A board stood beside the registration HQ (a van) declaring that this race was not for novices. GPS devices should not be needed (you should be confident with map and compass). Cut off times were strict. Now, this was something I’d never factored in. The cut-off times were pretty tight. I knew for a fact on my recce I hadn’t even reached the first checkpoint within cut off, let alone the others. The weather forecast was for fog early on, then sunshine from 4. I could already see that Pillar, Gable and the Scafells were hiding in the clouds. Too late to worry; I was here now. Time to test myself.

I got my number; my dibber was tied to my wrist. We were assembled for a quick race briefing. Standing there, swallowed up by my fear, a female runner congratulated me, ‘well done’ she said. As I looked at her puzzled, she started chuntering on about how she was impressed. I looked so glamorous for a fell race. She loved my skort and thought my attire was very well put together. She then started garbling on about how she loves red lipstick and that’s she’s never found one that stays put during races. This is when I switched off entirely and resolved to run as fast and as far away from this lady as possible!

And then it was on. Through the gate and up, up, up and up some more. I was keen to keep as much in the tank as I could. There is little let-up in the whole race. The last 4 miles are just as hard if not harder than the first four and all the bits in the middle.

Finally hitting the top of Illgill Head there’s a lovely runnable section towards Whin Rigg. I kept a good pace along here enjoying the cloud cover and the views. I reached the first checkpoint with only 10 minutes to spare. Not as much as I’d hoped. As I started to descend to Greendale, the initial bit is nice and grassy. My poor trainer choice already had me skidding on the dry trod, then it steepened and I was really like Bambi on ice. I couldn’t believe I’d left my Innov8s at home. Runners streamed past and I cursed myself for my poor preparation. On this part alone, I fell on my bum at least 5 times.

At Greendale there’s a very short trail leading across the valley bottom, the route here was taped. I nearly took myself out on a gate whose hinges had stuck fast, leaving a tiny gap to squeeze through. Then there’s a path along the river before it winds through fields. I passed a man lounging in the shade of a tree only to realise that it was Joss Naylor ‘ well-done lass’ he calls as I run past, the biggest grin appearing on my face.

Then it’s onto unknown territory as we make the climb up the base of Middle Fell, through waist-high bracken, across the stream and on up the unending grassy slopes of Seatallan. Geoff hates this hill, I can see why. It’s so monotonous, made even worse by the fog that is closing in as we rise. I listen intently to the men behind, consumed with their splits, they start me worrying again about cut-offs and one says he missed it last year. Scared I’m in bad company I push on a bit faster. I want to finish comfortably.

Eventually, I reach the top, 20 minutes within time. I pause briefly to check my bearing and then head off towards Scoat Fell. By now I seem to have joined a group who are running at a similar pace. It doesn’t change until the climb to Great Gable. They descend again faster than me. I’m still worried about my knees, which took one hell of a battering on my BGR, and my slippy trainers are not helping matters. I work hard to catch them up on the relatively flat grass (its known as Pots of Ashness) and I’m relieved this usually boggy section is today, as dry as a bone. Then it’s a climb again on an unholy uncomfortable camber where I find my ankles are bending at a ridiculous angle. Through some rocks, at the base of Gowder Crag, until we hit Scoat Fell.

I know the route now and am happy to have reached familiar territory again. I’ve been running with another woman since the start. Its quite foggy, visibility is down to at most 5 metres. It’s comforting running alongside someone else. We encourage each other on and share our supplies of sweets. There’s again a climb onto Pillar. I know it well and can take myself directly to the cairn. We pause at the checkpoint then I quickly get my bearings for the descent. It’s not long really until the path becomes visible and it’s easy going, sometimes across rocks/ boulders but it soon breaks into a lovely little trod onto Black Sail Pass. I trip far too many times, not used to my wide cushioned trainers on this uneven surface. Again the group pulls away and I am chasing again until we start the ascent to Gable. I drop down off the side of Kirk Fell. I haven’t gone on this route but I know where it should be. I must look confident as a man following asks me the way. I’m pleased, as now the clouds have cleared; we can see the little line of runners leading the way. I start to chat and I’m with this man virtually until the end. It’s really getting hot now and my pack is much lighter since I’ve been drinking most of my supplies.

I don’t like Gable, it’s a great big mound of rock and I’ve never been up or down it the same time twice. It’s here I start to pass a few runners. I’m definitely stronger on the ascents. I quite enjoy the climb; I’ve taken a daft route and end up needing to use my hands to pull myself up over the huge boulders. It’s a pleasant change from running.

Quite soon we’ve reached the top (now only 15minutes to spare) and my companion tells me that this is now the home straight, no more cutoffs…woohoo I can finish after all! The man persuades me to follow him on his quicker route, which turns into a nice scree run where I can let my legs recover. We reach the stretcher box then it’s on up past Sprinkling Tarn. All the inflows and outflows are pretty dry today. Runners are starting to slow, the heat making it hard work and all those miles/hills taking their toll.

I start to pass quite a few. A lovely change from the rest of the race where I’ve felt like the last, desperately hanging on. I tuck into my last Snickers, grab a handful of jelly sweets at Esk Hause checkpoint and I feel pretty strong now. The views are stunning, I know I can complete it and I’m slowly picking off other runners.

I like the huge boulder hopping near Ill Crag and make reasonable progress up to Scafell Pike. Then it’s downhill at last, although I’m not looking forward to it. It’s steep with rocky sections. We both smile as we hit the soft grass of Lingmell and it’s a nice flattish grassy run until we hit the corner and it steepens again. It’s also very slippy with small sections of gravel. We pass two walkers heading down on their bums, I’m pleased… it’s not long ago since that would have been my preferred choice of descent. Today, however, I’m attempting to run as fast as my knees and trainers will allow. My companion falls on his bum a few times. I somehow stay upright but am far slower than I’d have liked.

Relieved not to be last, I skip through the field, through the gate and am encouraged to the finish line by fresh-faced finishers (they’ve probably been there for hours).

I chat with a few other runners who have shared some of my journey. The overriding feeling is that it was tough…I’m surprised just how tough. Without a doubt its the toughest race I’ve done. My friend, who I met from the DT series, a really good trail runner, failed to reach Seatallan checkpoint.

I’m proud to have finished. I know it wasn’t my best run, but it’s one hell of a race attracting some of the best fell runners the country has to offer (Jasmin Paris is, yet again, first lady). I try not to be too disappointed but I know I’ll really have to up my game before my next attempt.

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