Newlands Memorial Fell Race, Stair, Newlands Valley, Lake District, Saturday, April 20, 2019

AM / 18.5km / 1100 m

Aaron Gourley

Formally known as the Anniversary Waltz, this race is now hosted by Cumberland Fell Runners following the sad passing of former organiser, Steve Cliff in 2018 who set up the race to commemorate his wedding to wife Wynn at Newlands Church in 1996.

This race, along with its angry sibling, Teenager With Altitude (TWA) is firmly established in the Lake District’s fell racing calendar so it would have been a great shame for them both to disappear following Wynn’s decision not to host them anymore.

Taking on the race organisation Cumberland Fell Runners (CFR) have stayed true to the original race format with both Newlands and TWA held on the same day in mid-April.

TWA being a longer and more challenging fell race sets off an hour earlier than Newlands, at 10:30 am, taking runners out across Causey Pike, Outerside, Grassmoor and Whiteless Pike before making its way up the back of Robinson whereupon the route joins up with the Newlands race to the finish. I ran TWA back in 2015 and came 3rd from last. To say the course is one of the toughest around is an understatement, so this year I opted for the slightly shorter and less extreme run of the Newlands race.

But Newlands is no fluffy bunny either, at 11.5 miles and 3500ft of climb it packs a real punch – anyone familiar with Bob Graham Round leg 1 or 5, depending on which way you go, will know part of this route which heads out from the village of Stair up the valley to Robinson, across to Hindscarth and Dale Head then across the ridge towards the final peak of Cat Bells before a steep drop off back to the village.

Standing on the start line I was feeling nervous, not for the race itself, but to the fact that the day was turning out to be one of the hottest of the year. The sun was blazing in the sky and the fells were beautifully clear giving fantastic views of the surrounding peaks. I was among nearly 300 other runners for this race as we waited for the 11:30 am start, TWA runners already an hour into their race.

We were walked through a timing rig similar to that used in cross-country which would track who and how many people were running, to the official start line. Then, after a brief announcement from the organiser, we were off.

The route up to the base of Robinson was along a hard and dry stone track which gently climbed up the valley. Then after approx 3 miles we were at its base and faced with the first big climb of the day. I made my way up, but the heat made for slow progress, and as I looked up I could see the line of runners split in their route choices. One line went steadily up on a gentler angle but through a very rocky patch, the other took a more direct but steeper climb to the ridge. I opted to the latter hoping to make quicker progress to the top once on the ridge.

The heat was making what is already a tough climb more difficult and people were clearly suffering. I made my way slowly up the rocky sides of Robinson, sometimes having to use all fours to make progress. Eventually, the summit came into view and it was nice getting running again.

From here we followed the well-worn path around to Hindscarth for the second climb of the day. By now some of the leading TWA runners were beginning to catch up. It’s an awesome and inspiring sight to see how seemingly effortless they make it look as I huffed and puffed my way to the top of peak two before doubling back to peak three in the distance, Dale Head.

The last time I was on Dale Head I was chasing Scott Walton on his BGR attempt. This time, although I was in a race, I took it at a much gentler pace, the heat really starting to bother me by now. At the top of Dale Head, there were a number of people supporting and clapping runners and it was a great surprise to see Stuart Scott and his family up here. His offer of drinks and supplies was politely declined to my later regret. I did stop for a moment to chat before moving on for the steep descent off the peak.

The descent from Dale Head is, in the main, pathless but there are a number of ‘lines’ you can take. As with the ascent of Robinson, runners were split into the lines they took. At the foot of the valley are Dale Head Tarn and a small beck to target. I chose to head directly down on a centre line as others headed out left and right. I knew it was a good line when half way down, feeling the presence of another runner, I glanced to see Nicky Spinks come flying past.

To be passed by Nicky Spinks in a fell race is not a bad thing, but to put it into some perspective, she passed me at my 7-mile point, she was running the TWA, so she was at over 11 miles at this stage and with far more peaks in her legs than me. It was great to see such a legend in the sport in action as she made ease the climb out of the valley up towards High Spy for the final stretch to Cat Bells.

If only I could have absorbed some of her energy as I followed in her wake. The heat was intense and had slowed me right down. I had only a little water left so had to take only occasional sips. I had another energy gel and a couple of Shot Bloks but I was slowing badly on the climbs. I resigned to just making it back to the finish but not in the last place.

Finally, Cat Bells came into view as I shuffled over the final rocky climb before making my way down its steep sides and back to the finish for a very welcome break in the shade from the sun, a good gulp of water and then, the ultimate prize in fell running, a nice free cold beer.

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