Old County Tops Fell Race, Lake District, Saturday, May 18, 2019

Nina Mason

Feeling Ok on Helvellyn (top 1)

I would never have even considered this race – it’s well beyond anything I have previously attempted in terms of distance, climb, and time on feet. But a few weeks prior to the event Elaine got in touch and asked if I would pair up with her. Immensely flattered and yet terrified at the same time, I did a bit of reading, studied the map, and received a couple of encouraging messages suggesting I could do it (thanks – you know who you are) ….and said yes. Elaine said she was happy doing it my pace, she just wanted to complete it and have ‘a good day on the hills’.

The race starts and finishes in Langdale near the New Dungeon Ghyll. You must run in pairs, finish in 12 hours, and there are 8 checkpoints – three of which are the old county ‘tops’ Helvellyn, Scafell Pike, and the Old Man of Coniston. I shared with Elaine a timing plan which would get us to the CPs within the cut offs (one recommended, one mandatory), and see us finish in about 11hr 15.

I was pretty anxious beforehand – I have never recorded a ‘DNF’ and I didn’t want this to be my first. For the first time I was starting a race with no idea whether or not I would get round.

Caption: All competitors get a Harvey course map – I’ve added the big red arrows showing the ‘tops’. Looks easy in 2D!

We had each recce’d a half of the course, and we were fairly confident we would be ok if we needed to navigate (though this might cost us time). On the day we were incredibly lucky with the weather. The forecast rain never appeared, there was no wind, the sun came out a couple of times, but it never got too hot, and the tops were pretty much clear, except for Helvellyn.

I found this event (not unexpectedly!) very tough, and I had a couple of bad patches. The first 15 or so miles (and Helvellyn – top 1 – in the bag) felt ok. But then heading up to Angle Tarn (CP4 and about half way) I was starting to struggle to eat, and psychologically I felt there were a lot of miles in front of me. But, with a bit of internal ‘get a grip Nina, just get to the next checkpoint’ and Elaine telling me quite firmly that my sandwich wouldn’t get eaten if it was still wrapped up, I plodded on.

Heading up to Scafell Pike (top 2) and down the other side over Great Moss and Mosedale I got a second wind, which lasted to the climb up Grey Friar (on our way to Coniston Old Man). My head was ok, my legs were tired but moving (slowly), but my stomach needed a lie down and some kind words. Eating was really difficult here (I know, hard to believe!) so I was nibbling tiny pieces of flapjack and washing it down with water. Elaine, again coming to the rescue, also forced a couple of pieces of mint cake down me. It worked. One of my highlights of the day was getting up to Coniston Old Man (top 3) and knowing we were on the home stretch.

So 30 miles in, and with a good mouthful of a popular brand of tangy, sugar-coated jelly sweets (I have discovered my race food!) I started to feel ‘good’. Even Elaine asked if I was excited as I bounded down the hill (ok, ok, it felt like I was bounding) to the final CP. From there, a ‘victory lap’ of the last 3 or so downhill miles to the finish (catching a couple of pairs on the way!) where I cried like a baby out of sheer relief and thankfulness.

I reckon Elaine had a secret race plan – we obviously travelled my pace, but finished an hour inside my planned time (and I’ll take the extra effort to be finished an hour sooner any day).

Elaine and I starting to believe we have got this – on Coniston Old Man (top 3) – Home stretch!

Elaine was an amazing running partner – for asking me to do this, and for being utterly unselfish – if she ever got frustrated with my pace she never, ever showed it. Most of the race I was following her (though I led a couple of sections and pointed out the odd trod on the bits I’d recce’d) – but she was always checking where I was and checking her pace accordingly. She also offered no ‘sympathy’ (on my instruction, as I wouldn’t have reacted well to this) but just good common sense, pragmatic support all the way round. I don’t think I would have made it round without her, and I feel incredibly thankful that I got the opportunity to do this event with her.

We were both ‘well-chuffed’ for completing this, and also with the additional reward of winning the LV80 category (that’s two lady vet 40s in a pairs event in case you’re thinking we both look really good for our age. Obviously, we do anyway).

Would I do this again? Possibly yes, with more training! It is a fantastic, well-organised event, an excellent (tough!) course, and for £20 per person you get a map, a lot of miles, brilliant support at the CPs, mountains of food at two of them, and food at the finish. Oh, and the famous t-shirt…. only for those that finish the race. A truly limited edition, and Elaine and I are very proud of ours!
Photo Caption: Elaine and I at the finish – Age group prize mugs

The famous t-shirt – only 246 given out this year 🙂
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