For a while I’ve had it in my mind that I wanted to do a big challenge – either running or biking or a combination of the two. I love running in the fells and my new passion is my bike, particularly on hilly roads, so the Lakes seemed the place to go. But there didn’t seem to be any obvious event and anyway I fancied devising something myself. However, I didn’t really know where to begin and sadly the idea faded as I embarked on a new job which involved up to 5 hours a day of commuting and less and less time to train. My personal situation also changed and I lost the drive I’d had previously. I kept running and biking but with no kind of direction, no racing and no goals.
Then things changed and I decided I wanted to do something not for myself but for Beat. They’re not a huge charity but one who are doing great work to help people struggling with eating disorders. I had also resigned from my commuter hell and given myself a summer of being unemployed and therefore a few full days to train (when I wasn’t occupied with childcare).
At first I thought I’d do a long run and then a long bike ride but I couldn’t work out any routes that worked. I considered known routes for the run such as the Cumbrian Traverse and then just doing an out and back on the bike but it didn’t feel very natural or neat as a plan. I spoke to Tom about it who suggested a run up the Scafells followed by a ride to Keswick through Hardknott and Wrynose and maybe stopping off at Thirlmere to run up Helvellyn. I quite liked the idea of doing big hills on my feet and big passes on the bike and it felt like a plan was beginning to come together. It just didn’t feel enough. I decided to add on Skiddaw – if I’m doing the three biggest peaks why not add on the fourth? But I still felt like it could be a neater plan. Starting in Wasdale seemed a bit tricky…and wouldn’t it be cool to make it a round beginning and ending in Keswick? When I suggested this Tom seemed to think I was maybe a bit mad – to get from Keswick to Wasdale is a long old ride as you have to go all the way round to the west and it would add on a lot of mileage. But we agreed there was no point in doing it if it wasn’t a challenge…
So the route was planned and the motivation to raise money for Beat was there. As this was a new challenge there were no training plans to follow or even recommendations from friends. So I figured the key things were to get to know the route and also practice mixing riding and running. It seemed to be the right plan. Getting used to the feeling of transitioning from cycling to running took a few goes but I loved being back in the lakes for a few days of hill-climbing. We managed to get a couple of days to recce the bike ride and it was then that I began to worry. After a full day of riding I was aching and ready for my bed – and this was only half of the full ride. The second half of the ride was harder and due to bad weather very slow – getting up and down Hardknott pass is not fun on a bike (or any form of transport) and seeing a car which had failed to make it up in the rain didn’t help. Tom kept telling me this was a massive challenge and I did start to think I might be mad…
I didn’t have much more time to train after this with a holiday to France with the kids and my new job starting soon. But I’d told everyone I was doing it, recruited some amazing folk to support me and set the date so I had to do what I could to prepare myself. Fortunately, the holiday was an active one in a hilly area so I got some hill reps in and some nice sociable bike rides. Then once I started the new job it was time for a good taper…
Right from the start I’d known that my biggest enemy would be the weather. I’m useless when I’m cold and riding a bike with no feeling in your fingers is more than a little dangerous. So I obsessed about the weather forecast for the week leading up to the big day and was amazed to see it was really quite good. And as the day got closer it stayed quite good – unheard of for the lakes! As we drove over on the Friday evening the scenery was absolutely stunning. I had no excuse for failing – the weather was on my side, the team were ready, I had an endless supply of food, drink and clothing. And a lot of people had given their money towards the cause. I’d even invested in a tracker so the team and supporters could see how I was doing. The problem with it being an unknown was I really had no idea how long I would take to do everything. I assumed each section would be a bit slower than when we recce’d but beyond that I wasn’t really sure….
So the morning arrived (or is 4am still the night?) and after a somewhat disturbed night and two bowls of porridge consumed I was ready to go…
Most of the biking was just Tom and me – we had hoped to have road support between the changeovers but sadly our support wasn’t well so it was just the two of us from Keswick along the 45 miles to Wasdale Head. When we started it was still dark and cold. And when I say cold I mean really cold. I knew there was promise of a nice day ahead but it doesn’t help when you feel like you’re in a fridge. Fortunately, (?) we were soon heading up Whinlatter pass which woke and warmed us up a bit but dropping back into the valley it seemed to get colder and colder. I was desperate for the sun to come out and start warming us up… Eventually it did and we both began to feel more human. This section of the bike ride was the only bit with some tricky navigation but other than one point when wishful thinking made us turn a bit early Tom did a grand job leading us in the right direction and at a comfortable pace. It was a beautiful morning and although hilly, the roads were empty and a pleasure to ride along. I started to feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I was doing. Life can be so complex and hard to navigate – having the strength to enjoy our beautiful country in this way is a real blessing. I had just one point of terror when my chain came off. I’ve only had cleats for a few months and poor Tom has had to endure several occasions where I’ve yelped as I toppled over before managing to unclip. This looked like happening again and we had an interesting discussion in crescendo where he said “unclip” and I said “I can’t” repeatedly until eventually I managed to free myself. I must admit I didn’t feel very professional at that point…
I’d assumed this first section would take 4.5 hours but as we cycled along the absolutely beautiful Wastwater in the morning light I was chuffed to see it was around 9am, just 4 hours since we set off. Tom told me to go into the car park first so I could be cheered in but when we got there we couldn’t see any of the team! Nina and Fiona quickly appeared from Nina’s campervan (the star of the day!) and Alex wandered down from the other end of the car park so all was not lost. But unfortunately the combination of a rubbish tracker (it failed from about 20 miles in) and a misjudgement of timings to drive from Keswick to Wasdale, the car with my kit and food was nowhere to be seen. Nina and Fiona calmly established that I could do the Scafells in Nina’s clothes (fortunately she’s pretty mini like me!). I tried not to stress but it felt all wrong – I had my food and my clothes planned and now everything had been thrown into disarray. Tom went off in search of Nick and my kit and after the others had fed me a cup of tea and some food I realised it would all be fine. Then just as I finished putting Nina’s running kit on Nick and Mel appeared with the car!
I quickly changed my shoes and then we set off up Scafell pike. I’d had a longer break than planned but in a lot of ways that was good – I was ready to go and it was fun to chat to Nina, Alex and Fiona. The thing that makes this challenge very different from most Lakeland running challenges (apart from the fact there’s much less running and more cycling!) is that I’d decided the easiest way to do the peaks was up the tourist routes. Scafell pike is a popular hill any day but on a lovely late summer Saturday it was particularly hectic. It was quite a novelty passing people who exclaimed at our speed (which was not actually very fast…) or helping people out who weren’t sure of the way. Whilst the weather was still lovely down in the valley the tops were pretty cloudy so before long we were into murk. But navigation is very straightforward and before long I was touching my first peak of the day. The next bit was the most exciting of the running element of the day. There’s no easy way between Scafell pike and Scafell but between Fiona, Alex and myself we were pretty confident of our route and enjoyed introducing Nina to Lord’s Rake which is a quite exciting scramble. Once you’re up through the gully it’s a short climb up to the top of Scafell. The cloud was pretty thick at this point and it was a little confusing not being able to see where the peak was! After a bit of dithering we agreed where we were going and spotted some rocks which seemed to go uphill so headed up. Second peak done it was a fairly easy descent back to Wasdale. It was good to get out of the clouds and though I’m not a fan of scree it was quite exhilarating “skiing” down it
Back to Wasdale and we were met by Tom who looked at
his watch and asked what we were doing back so soon. The 3-3.5 hours expected
for this leg had been an over-estimate and we were down in 2.5. Tom was
obviously worried I was going to crash and burn because I’d gone too fast but I
assured him I was fine. After a good feed and change back to cycling clothes I
was all set for the next leg – the hard(knott) one. Nick was joining us for the
first part of this ride and I thought that would mean a nice leisurely chatty
pace. To be honest I think that’s what it was but as soon as I got on the bike
I started to feel the miles I’d already covered and had a slight mental wobble.
I’d still got the big passes to navigate as well as two more big peaks and several
hours of Lakeland undulations on the bike. I focused on the beautiful scenery,
had a drink and before long was happily pedalling along and enjoying the Tom
and Nick banter. After a few miles we passed the pub where we’d stayed on our
recce and I marvelled at how much better I felt today than I had the night we’d
stopped there for the night.
A few miles from there was the big one… Nick chose to catch a lift as Hardknott approached and after a quick cup of tea it was time to get our heads down and start the climb. If I’m honest I had no intention of cycling it – on the recce I’d had to push almost the entire thing because it was so wet. So once we hit the steep road I jumped off and started pushing and up we went. And up. And up. The steepness lessens about half way up so we managed to cycle a decent section before jumping off again to get to the top. Then the fun bit starts… As I said the recce had been wet and there was no way I was cycling down it in that weather but today was perfect conditions so I decided to give it a go. The sensation when your bike is facing downhill on a 30% gradient and there are tight bends to negotiate is a bizarre one. Somehow I got down but there was a fair bit of cursing whenever we met cars… When I finally got off the brakes in the valley I had the weird sensation that my fingers no longer knew how to bend. All that clinging on to the brakes for dear life seemed to have sent them into permanent cramp.
We tootled along the valley (which was stunning), fingers gradually becoming normal and then inevitably had to start the next big climb up Wrynose. I managed to stay on the bike a bit longer on this one but after about two thirds I had to get off and push again… On the way down I felt a tiny bit more confident but the hands were getting another battering. At one-point Tom passed me and as he said his brakes were about to fail I got a distinct whiff of burning rubber. We stopped and his brakes appeared to be almost on fire. Water sizzled on them and we waited a few minutes for them to cool down. Once we were down into the Langdales I knew we were past the worst and started to feel pretty happy and confident. I could see we were well ahead of time and I rethought my timings and decided my aim should be a midnight finish. The ride to Ambleside seemed to fly by and then we were onto the main road all the way back. Somehow I always have it in my mind that more major roads are easier and flatter. They’re not. This one goes up Dunmail raise and when you’ve been going for 12 hours or more that’s not much fun. I found myself longing to get off and have the relief of climbing Helvellyn!
Eventually we reached Thirlmere and the car park and again Tom told me to ride in first for the cheers. But again we were early so Nina and Adrian were the sole supporters! We realised Geoff and Gibbo (set to do Helvellyn) probably had no idea I was ahead of schedule and with no reception there wasn’t much we could do about it.
I tucked into some much needed food and got changed into running gear and now I had my new target I didn’t really want to wait too long for the guys to arrive. So Nina and I set off on our next little adventure. The route up Helvellyn from Thirlmere is straightforward and it was an absolute pleasure climbing up in the evening light. The views were just stunning and again I was able to enjoy myself rather than worry about what I was doing. As we admired the view we spotted two familiar figures climbing behind us. We kept going as we could see they were going faster than us but as the wind picked up we decided to shelter behind a rock so Geoff and Gibbo could join us. It turned out they’d arrived just a couple of minutes after we’d set off. As we continued the climb the wind gradually got stronger and it was reminiscent of Elaine’s Bob Graham when Gibbo had been responsible for sheltering her from the wind!
Once we reached the top Nina took a couple of quick windswept photos and we were off back down again. The legs were starting to complain but the wind died down and the sunset was spectacular and it started to feel like I was on the homeward straight. Once down in Thirlmere there was just a short final bike ride into Keswick and Skiddaw to deal with.
Thirlmere changeover was fairly short – it was getting dark and we knew it wasn’t far to ride so we wanted to get going. Riding along quite a busy road in the dark wasn’t the most fun but it was a great feeling to know we were doing the last few miles and I knew I had it in me to finish the job!
Back into Keswick it was great to see the spot where we’d set off about 15 hours earlier… we’d done it – or almost! For the final climb I had the dream team – Nina, Tom, Geoff and Susan. Head torches on we set off chatting and enjoying being the only ones out on the hills at this time. I figured it was likely to be windy since Helvellyn had been pretty bad but as we climbed higher it seemed like this was going to be a different scale of windy. At first Susan tried to shelter me (despite me pointing out there isn’t very much of her to shelter me!). Then we all started to struggle to stay upright and Geoff grabbed hold of me – speaking to each other wasn’t an option through the noise of the wind so we all just clung together as we fought our way up. I’ve never experienced anything like it. If I hadn’t had Geoff and Tom to hold onto I’m fairly sure I would have taken off…
The climb seemed longer than usual (and Skiddaw is always long!) but eventually we were there. Nina loyally tried to get photos on the top whilst we all did our best not to fly off and then we turned round for the final descent. We wanted to move a bit quicker but not being able to hear, see or stand up properly were hindrances… It was a relief to get to normal levels of wind where we could actually speak to each other. My legs were really not that happy now but as it started to drizzle we broke into a jog. I assumed we’d lost loads of time trying to fight the wind to the summit but I was delighted when Tom said it was only 11.30 and I knew the end was in sight.
Finally we made it back to the bottom at 11.45pm and my challenge was done. Over 100 miles and over 17,000 feet done in 18hours and 45 minutes It’s a weird feeling when something like this is over…exhaustion, elation, emotion…it was all there. Tom and I waved everyone off and then had the simple matter of riding back to our holiday home (less than a mile away). I looked at my bike and looked at the road and thought I can’t do this! Challenge done I knew it was time to relax and sleep….
Congratulations to anyone who has read this far – I know it’s a long one but this really was a most amazing and important day for me. The money it raised for Beat far surpassed my expectations and I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who donated. Beyond that there are some people I owe huge thanks to – this was an odd adventure for all of us and you all made it so special. So big thanks to Geoff, Susan, Fiona, Alex, Nick, Mel and Gibbo. Extra big thanks to Nina who was with me for every step on the hills and whose campervan was an absolute lifesaver! Biggest thanks of all to Tom for encouraging and supporting me every step and wheel turn of the way from the very first seed of an idea through the training, all of the organisation and right to the final pedal and peak.
Now what’s next….Bike and Ben Nevis??
Click here to donate to Penny’s fundraising page