My favourite domestic event of 2019 was the inaugural Brathay Ambleside Trail 60. It was a route of some 37.5 miles made up of three distinct sections. A fast, flowing trail up and over Loughrigg from Ambleside to Coniston was followed by a series of steep ups and downs for the next 20 miles to the foot of Grasmere Common. The final section was made up largely of road and hardpack to the finishing line in Rothay Park.
After so many cancellations, it was great to receive the news that the 2020 event was going ahead, despite the return to work from furlough of many of the Brathay staff just a month earlier. The weather this time around was very different to last year’s ‘Indian summer’ race. Registration was at Brathay Hall under a heavy and brooding sky. Ambleside Parish Council had ruled out the use of Rothay Park as a start and finish area which resulted in the longest and most technical walk to a start line I’ve ever encountered, at Lily Tarn, a ‘mere’ 20 minutes away up on Loughrigg Fell. I thought I had plenty of time to meander and take a couple of photographs. I made it to the line with a minute to spare!
The line was a three-square socially distanced grid to enable runners to start in groups of six at five minute intervals. Runners who expected to take longer than 10 hours had been asked to book a starting time between 7 and 8am. I had selected an 8.35am start, having completed the dry weather route in just over 8 hours in 2019. It was wet and very greasy underfoot on the rocky walk to the start so I now doubted my thinking after seeing only a handful of runners with later starting times including the likes of Ben Abdelnoor. There were four of us in the grid when the starting signal was given by the marshal and two of my fellow ‘competitors’ sped off into the distance as though they were in a 10k fell race and wanted to be back in time to shower and change before the pubs opened. Suffice to say I didn’t see them again.
The early flowing trails of 2019 were once again evident this year. I never recovered my form after last year’s event when I ran the last 5 miles hard but I went on to suffer with problems that a chest examination and thoracic X-ray didn’t clarify. A long October day out at Lakes In A Day – some 3 hours longer than planned – had been followed by a DNF at the Tour de Helvellyn in December. I resolved to take it easy this year and run well within myself, especially as my training plans for August were stymied by a hectic return to work since the end of lockdown. My pace of 10 minute miles during this lightly rolling opening section was comfortable and I felt pretty good. I had overtaken two runners in the first 10k but Ben Abdelnoor and a few others had floated past me. Running through the Tongue Intake Plantation, I guessed that I must be close to the back of the field.
The weather had actually done little to change the opening miles of the challenge although I did my best to make it harder by turning into some woods with fallen trees after a large route marker had shifted direction at a forest road intersection. I retraced and stopped to replace the tilting marker to prevent others from going the same way. My mind had been distracted by information coming from my Garmin. I’d put it in UltraTrac mode for the first time, to conserve battery life. It had suggested that I had clocked a couple of 6 to 7 minute miles, impossible for me at the best of times! I also began to doubt the distance information as I went on my way towards the beautiful balcony section of trail that overlooks Tarn Hows from the east.
The wind picked up and the rain started just as I followed the broad and elevated path. A glimmer of sun suggested it would ease so I kept the waterproofs stowed but it worsened dramatically as I began the first steep ascent of the day intersecting Coniston and Yewdale Fells. Another, brighter shaft of sunlight offered hope but it only brought a worsening in the weather – the mild start had also given way to some wind chill – so I donned the waterproof and moved on. Seconds later I ran into John and Gemma Wandless, a warm welcoming distraction from the hoolie. I was more than happy to chat for a minute, a natural break from the effort of the climb. I moved well to the high point and descended into Little Langdale where I made the first of numerous stumbles that were to become quite common during the next few miles. When my feet stop moving well, it’s usually a sign that I’m not at my best and I began to feel tired as I headed towards Blea Tarn.
The promise of the feed station at 30km helped my spirits even though I knew that it would be a limited affair with water, electrolyte drink and energy bars. The wonderful food that was on offer last year was a casualty of running a ‘Covid-secure’ event. The feed station at Skelwith Bridge had been dropped completely and the first one was much later at Great Langdale. A brief exchange with another runner – I was being overtaken again – confirmed that my watch was deceiving me. I had thought it was a kilometre to the feed station and it was more like five. The next three miles were a grind.
I was awful on the relatively flat section of The Cumbria Way to the foot of Stake Pass. Offering some salt to another runner suffering with adductor cramp, he recovered well enough to overhaul me soon afterwards. I was walk-jogging at this point. One heavy stumble, recovered just before a face plant beckoned, had tweaked my unreliable back and I popped a couple of paracetamol with a handful of plain chocolate coated ginger bonbons, a jam sandwich and a generous swig of electrolyte. As I began to ascend Stake Pass, a double equipment fail of my waterproof zip opening from the bottom and my pole belt detaching itself into a puddle around my ankles had me ready to throw the rattle, toys, cheating sticks and everything out of the pram. Right on cue, the wind and rain returned with a vengeance to scatter my frail state of mind across the fellside. A few minutes of faffing ensued and I gave myself a proper telling off. For goodness sake, the hardest part of the event was still to come, and then some.
Whether it was the energy rush or paracetamols (or both at the same time) I found a really good hiking rhythm up the unrunnable Stake Pass and crested the top completely rejuvenated. I overtook perhaps a dozen runners, en route to the next feed stop at Langstrath (40km/25 miles). Cold roast potatoes were an unexpected treat and the hiked ascent to Grasmere Common was a joy, especially so as I took time to look around back to the beautiful Langstrath Valley. Even a treacherously wet section of hand to rock adjacent to Lining Crag was enjoyable. This is the stuff that focuses the mind on efficiency and safety of movement rather than time and distance. Brownrigg Moss and the ridge to Gibson Knott was a fun-packed bogfest full of hamstring stretching leaps which tested my short legs to their limits. Although this section felt much rougher than last year, I enjoyed it more. After passing Gibson Knott, the clag remained high enough to see the approaching shape of The Howitzer atop Helm Crag. I remembered this as a key moment last year as the zigzagging, runnable descent of the Bracken Hause sits a few hundred metres before the summit of the crag where the transition from boggy fell back to trail begins and the final hardpack/road section of the Trail 60 beckons.
Happily running down the Hause, I arrived at a simple wooden footbridge next to the road which I promptly tripped over and almost went down again. No worse for wear, I happily jogged through Grasmere Village to the final feed station at 32.5 miles (52km). The hardpacked trail provides picture postcard views of the lake and is followed by a beautiful section along Rydal Water. I’m not known for my love of road running but I was more than happy to move on easier ground on the run in to Ambleside by the quiet lane under Loughrigg. I had called Sue from the feed point to say that I hoped to be at Brathay Hall within the hour. Just over 47 minutes later, I rolled in some 8 hours and 50 minutes after setting off, 35th out of 108 finishers. I was surprised to be 1st MV55 home out of 12 (3rd over 50/22). I was some 15 minutes behind the first overall vet 55, Catherine Musetti from Ambleside AC, who was also – rather wonderfully – 1st female.
Thanks to Sue and to John and Gemma for being at the finishing line supporting the runners coming home. John and Gemma had already put in a decent shift on the fells. Sue, as always, was at the finish and ready with my favourite post-race treat, two blocks of a plain chocolate Bounty!
The Ambleside Trail 60 is a super event which I can heartily recommend to anyone looking for a tough challenge that is shorter than the Lakeland 50. What it lacks in distance, it more than makes up for with a series of hard ascents and rough terrain amongst some of the most beautiful valleys and fells of The Lake District. Whether you are thinking of your first Lakeland ultramarathon or your umpteenth, this one is a great choice.