A small group of Striders (Paul, Geoff, Mike and myself, with Mum (Jan) supporting) headed over to Sedbergh for this GP race. The forecast was for rain/drizzle, with very poor visibility. I hadn’t run this before, so I’d recced the route a couple of times in similar conditions, and had my checkpoint split times and bearings prepared so I didn’t have to think too hard mid-race.
After the usual pre-race warning about kit, compass and a cut-off time at check 3, we were off. The race has a gruelling start climbing up to Arant Haw (check 1), and to spice things up the cloud base was very low – at times reducing visibility to a few yards (except for the finish, I think we only emerged from it once).
After check 1, a lot more climbing, descending….repeat. The last few miles is a glorious descent from the Calf (via the ‘bump’ that is Winder) which in good visibility is fabulous running. In the race, I was just focussed on staying on the grassy path in this section, aware of wraith-like runners around me in the mist.
I felt like I executed my race plan well – I used my bearings, checked my map, stuck to the route (from what I could tell) and finished just within planned time. It was great to see Mum at checks 1 and 5, peering through the mist looking out for us all – and joking aside, the mist was so dense we really could hear her before we saw her, chatting to the hardy souls at the checkpoints.
Paul had a great run – as well as his fitness, I think his experience of the course showed. Despite the three of them sprinting away from me at the start, Mike then caught and passed me at check 2, and Geoff caught and passed me twice (yes, twice) at check 2 and check 5. It seems they both ‘strayed’ from the optimum race route and I suspect ran more miles than the race advertises! Perhaps at 57p/mile they didn’t think they were getting VFM. Different conditions on the day and this would be an entirely different race. As well as a number of DNF, there were a few tumbles – with poor Mike cracking his ribs (and then having to drive us home too….thank you, get well soon!)
This is without doubt one of the toughest races I have done up to now – brutal climbs, steep (some un-runnable) descents, sections with no ‘escape route’, ankle-straining gradient on what look like flatter sections, and pathless wilderness between checks 3 and 4. Not to mention the weather conditions. For me, this was much harder than Swaledale or the Yomp – I’m not used to so much climbing, and I know I need to get stronger on the hills.
The pluses – all of the above 🙂! And a well organised race, the beauty of the Howgills (weather permitting), and plenty of friendly, like-minded folks to enjoy it with. Oh, and hot showers at the end at the People’s Hall – what more do you need?
Despite it being tough (or because it was?)….I loved it. Even when my legs were screaming at me to stop. Fabulous race and strongly recommended.
If you are thinking about giving this one a go, I suggest do your homework, test yourself (legs and navigation), recce, recce, recce, and be prepared for anything the weather can throw at you.
So the previous Saturday I’d timed out at Borrowdale Fell Race. On Tuesday, after a few days of rest (I was on holiday after all) and cursing my:
a) navigation mistake; and,
b) my climbing ability,
I decided to go out for a run-up and down Skiddaw – as you do.
On Wednesday evening, after a day exploring Ambleside and Grasmere, I dropped my wife and daughter off at the Kings Head Inn at Thirlspot and headed back to Steel Head Farm for the Steel Fell Race.
This is a tough little 3-mile race which takes you up to the summit of Steel Fell turn around and run back to the finish. I parked up, registered, then went back to the car to get changed. It was then that I realised I’d forgotten my Striders vest, and more importantly, my fell shoes!
If there’s a race where you need grip, this is it. I had my Adidas Kanidia’s which have a fairly aggressive sole but nothing in the way of the Walshes or Inov-8’s. And I had a tech t-shirt but, as you can imagine, I looked a bit like a fish out of water surrounded, once again, by the fell running skeletons of the Lake District’s clubs.
This is a peculiar race. There’s no entry fee, no kit check and there are no prizes, but it’s seriously competitive with just over 100 runners taking part. On the stroke of 7:30 pm, we were off, up the path for a gentle warm-up run before turning sharply onto the slopes of Steel Fell.
Once more my I found myself head down, hands on knees marching upwards. This time though, I was holding my place, breathing well and seemingly feeling good, but 1.5 miles of solid climbing takes its time.
Eventually, the climb starts to shallow a little but as I look up, I see the first placed runner, Keswick’s Carl Bell, making his way back down. He’s phenomenally quick. I look at my watch which confirms this. I’ve been climbing for over 12 minutes; he’s on his way back down. This is why he was one of Killian Jornet’s pacers for his record-breaking Bob Graham Round, although he narrowly missed out on a win at Borrowdale Fell Race, being beaten, by only 5 seconds, in a sprint finish from a rejuvenated Ricky Lightfoot.
Anyway, back to my race, and with the vertical now shallow enough to stand up straight and run, I made my way to the summit turn-around point. I managed to grab a few places from those that were still recovering from the climb whilst trying not to get in the way of the returning front-runners.
Once at the summit, it was all-systems-go to get back to the finish as quickly as possible. The runoff across the plateau is just shy of half a mile, climb a fence then onto the steep slope back to the finish field. It is here that makes or breaks the race, and my usual confidence and exuberance on the downhills was gone with the worry of the grip of my replacement shoes.
A heavy downpour earlier in the day had made the slopes greasy, so I was worried that if I let fly, I’d end up coming down in a very unconventional manner but one that’s not uncommon – on my arse!
Normally, I’d take places on a downhill, but today I was losing them which was really annoying but I kept going as fast as I could and eventually reached the gate to the road for the final few hundred metres of running to the finish. With legs of jelly, I put in everything I had to hold my place and not get caught in the final straight.
I finished in 87th place, in 34:20mins, just shy of a minute slower than last year but feeling much better and considering my exertions the previous days, I was very happy with that time. Looking at my Strava data I was also surprised to find that I’d actually descended faster than the previous year despite the lack of proper footwear, so I just need to work on getting up the hills faster and I’ll probably become a better fell runner.
I never really got into running to be fast or win races – I’m far too slow for that. What I do love is an adventure which is why I very rarely venture out onto the roads. I love the trails and the freedom you have to explore and go at your own pace and often your own way. But it’s this freedom to choose your own way that got me into a bit of a pickle within the last few miles of Borrowdale Fell Race.
Borrowdale is one of the classic long Lake District fell races and the race that inspired me to take up fell and trail running. In the start field just off the main road in the village of Rosthwaite deep in the Borrowdale valley, I stood waiting patiently for the start of the race. Around me, as per usual, are the skeleton-like bodies of the local fell runners. There’s also the stars of the genre gathered – Ricky Lightfoot, Carl Bell, Nicky Spinks and Jasmine Paris to name but a few.
The route is approximately 17 miles and totals around 2000 metres of climbing across some of England’s roughest terrain and its highest peak, Scafell Pike. With kit checked, the 250 plus runners shuffled forward, and following a short word from the race director, we were off.
I took up my place towards the back of the field, keen to take it easy along the valley and through the farms before the tough climbs begin. The field stretched out before me in a long line, the front runners making the most of the shallow incline and single-track to make progress on the rest of the pack.
Before long the route takes a sudden and sharp turn beyond a gate which is, once again, being held open by fell running legend and Borrowdale resident, Billy Bland. From here it’s a head down, hands on knees march up the incredibly steep slope to the first peak and checkpoint at BessyBoot.
I take my time as my biggest weakness is climbing; I just haven’t got the lungs for it. But this is a race and there’s a balance to be had between taking your time and beating the cut-offs which are strictly enforced.
Although my progress is slow, I’m still moving well but I’ve lost a lot of ground on other runners who I’ve come to recognise in these races. The summit of BessyBoot seems to take an age to reach, but once there I check-in then make my way off to try and catch up some of the ground lost on the climb.
The next section is a roller coaster of ups and downs. It’s surprisingly boggy in parts given how dry it’s been but nothing like in previous years where there was a real danger of being sucked in up to your waist. The route skirts around the back of Rosthwaite Fell and under the peak of Glaramara, the steep slopes of Stonethwaite Fell add to the jeopardy of a misplaced step to my left.
I’d forgotten just how long and tough this section can be, my breathing is heavy and legs are working hard to keep up any kind of pace. The sun is beating down but over to the north across the summits of the Gables, there’s a thick mist hanging ominously.
Soon, I reach the col around Allen Crag and pick up the path to the second checkpoint at Esk Hause. From here you join the hoards of walkers making their way to the summit of Scafell Pike. But fell running is about efficiency and direct lines so the most direct route took me off the well-worn path and straight up across more rocky ground that cuts out a more commonly used path from Great End to Broad Crag.
The previous weekend I’d been here supporting a Bob Graham round. The weather was foul and with almost no visibility and winds that forced us to stop and sit for moments, it had been a tough slog. Today was the total opposite, with blue skies, warm temperatures and good visibility all around.
I made the most of this and was happy to be making my way over the boulder field towards Scafell. There’s a steep drop then a solid climb to the summit but I was moving well and was relieved to finally reach the summit checkpoint which was teaming with walkers. There were glorious views to be had but that mist still hung ominously over the Gables. From here the real fun part of the race begins – the direct drop down the scree slope to the Corridor route.
As fun as it is, it’s still incredibly tough and quite dangerous, not so much to me, but to those below and the danger of dislodging rocks that could roll down onto them. Once at the bottom, I took the time to empty my shoes which had filled with stones on the descent. Whilst doing so, I was struck with cramp in my right calf trying to get my shoe back on. This was not good and set me back a little.
Once I’d recovered I began my quest to get to the next checkpoint at Styhead Tarn as quickly as possible. Here is the first point where you can be timed out. The problem with this one is that you’re still at around 500 metres above sea level and around 2 miles of rough ground from the nearest road so it’s not a good place to be dragged off the course.
Taking the runners line off the Corridor route, I eventually made it to the checkpoint, grabbed a few jelly babies form the marshal and set off for the steep and unrelenting climb to the summit of Great Gable. I was still moving well but fully aware that I was pressed for time.
I was now in the cloud that had been hanging over the Gables for most of the day. It was cold and damp and a stark contrast to the warmth and sun I’d enjoyed in the start of the race. Once again my weakness in climbing was laid bare as runners around me started to pull away but I knew that if I just kept going I’d be ok.
Eventually, after what seemed an age, I reached the summit and the checkpoint, dibbed my dabber and made off. The mist was thick and visibility was very low. My glasses were covered in dew which made seeing quite difficult. I was on my own now, I couldn’t see anyone else, runners or walkers, but knew where I was heading, down and back up Windy Gap and skirting below Green Gable and on towards Brandreth. From here it’s across open ground to Grey Knotts to cut through for a direct descent to Honister Slate mine.
Sounds easy, it is easy, but the thick mist and my increasing fatigue played a trick on me and instead of taking the path that would have led to the right of Grey Knott, I took the line that swung me out left. As I ran I got the feeling something wasn’t right. I stopped and checked the map but because of the lack of visibility, I was unsure as to exactly where I was so I pressed on.
Descending out of the mist it became apparent I was on the wrong side of the peak. I’d gone too far to turn back and knew that I had to keep moving forward as I was now seriously under pressure to reach the last checkpoint before the cut-off.
Cursing my mistake, I made the descent off the high ground down the grassy slopes. To my left, there was the path that led back down to the slate mine, but I choose to keep moving right and try and get back on to the more direct line that I should have been on. Eventually, I made it back on track but knew that I was probably too late to continue beyond the checkpoint.
Once at Honister, I marched up to the marshal who informed me that my race was over. I’d missed the cut-off by 5 minutes. I was gutted but not surprised. I’d been running tight to the cut-offs and my navigation mistake cost me what time I did have. After around five minutes I was given a lift back to the finish where I handing in my race number and dibber.
I’ve never been timed out in a race before so it was a strange feeling but one that I have to accept. Had it not been for that simple mistake I’d have gotten around, probably last, but finished none the less. But this is why I love the trails, there’s a sense of adventure and jeopardy. Part of the race was bathed in sunshine and glorious views, the other half thick mist and cold temperatures. I’ll be back next year with the aim of being more competitive – but then again, I said that that last time I ran this race and ended up doing worse!
I’ve long been an armchair fell racer. I’ve done bits-and-bobs here and there (Swaledale Marathon being my biggest and favourite). I’ve also been a member of the Fell Runners Association for 2 years to try to motivate myself to get out there… They send out amazing magazines and a yearly calendar of events. But…. children, work, travel and laziness have prevented me from getting out onto the fells until I saw DFR offering the Roof of England Fell race. All the planets were in their right zodiac signs and I discovered that I was able to make it!
Weardale is one of, if not my favourite, of the dales…. maybe only beaten by Borrowdale and Swaledale. The drive over to St. John’s Chapel was stunning. Nobody was on the road and I thoroughly enjoyed the sweeping roads and views over the fells. I pulled up outside the public loos after driving past a couple of dozen chaps and lasses in their respective club vests. I saw Geoff in an alien vest and realised tonight he was one of the enemy. Geoff Davis (aka Yoda) has long been the club’s bastion of Fell running and puts on some great up and downhill training sessions. The plan for the night was to finish with Yoda in sight. I knew I’d been off the boil over the last few weeks so this was more about testing myself and seeing if my armchair love for fell running would develop into true love, as I suspected it might.
Much humming and haa’ing ensued and I decided to go full Mudclaw. It rained very heavily the night before but until then, we’d had a month or so of now’t but sun. The kit list was downgraded too from full FRA requirements to map, compass and whistle. Thank goodness, as I didn’t fancy carrying the full body cover, hat, gloves and water – a tad excessive for a 7km race.
I wandered across the road after a 200m warm-up through the village to meet the race director for our pre-race briefing. In total there were 46 of us from a wide range of clubs on the rocky start line. The fast lads (and lasses) had made their way to the front under the flags but the atmosphere was jovial and people were nattering away in the gorgeous summer’s evening light.
The race started at quite a pace but slowed slightly as it became almost single file up between stone walls moving very much in an upwards direction. After 1 mile I’d passed quite a number of my fellow fell runners (I think I can say that now) and we passed the first set of Marshalls wishing us well. After this, it was every man and woman for themselves. There was no route. Only point upward to Chapel Fell Top. Competitors could go any route their heart desired (imagine that at the GNR!) as long as they made the summit. This was much like the Durham three peaks challenge but no ladders would be of help here…
The terrain quickly became very steep. I was about 10m behind Yoda and I decided that this would be a good classroom to learn the ways of the force. Where he walked I walked. Where he picked up the pace, I picked up the pace. My legs were feeling good, I was loving the surroundings, but the grass and moss were getting higher and squishier respectively. There was no clear route and people were spread out across the Fell trying to find a route of least resistance. I kept swapping places with a Keswick AC and Derwent Valley runner over the next gruelling mile. It was great. I loved it but, my word, it hurt my calves. All of a sudden I thought I saw a “different” more direct route to Geoff’s and went off on my own…. sod the lesson plan, this was a race! It seemed to be the bed of peat bog (one which Elaine would probably try drink out of if the stories are true) but was now dried to a powdery black mush. We both rounded the Cairn together and turned back to decent down (down deeper and down) to the village once again.
Here it became a bit crazy in a very good way!! I’ve always loved going up hills (but they hurt)…. but LOVE running down…. it seems to play to my strengths. It sounds stupid writing it but I find it’s like a super fast game of chess. My brain works at 100mph working out where to place my feet. What’s safe? What’s not? Where will require a little jump and where will cause a bit of a squelch. I love this side of downhill running on trails (and now fells). It makes me feel very alive and following Geoff was certainly that.
He is obviously very good at this and I savoured the challenge of keeping up. I passed a couple of people with a, “you alright mate?”, who’d twisted and ankle (or 2) and flew down some sections with the grass whipping at my knees. It was hard work but on the thighs now. I loved it.
We passed the 1-mile left marshal and picked up the pace. My Strava said 6:30m/m over the next very rocky section. I’m really pleased about this as it was tough underfoot but was great fun. We went down with the dry stone walls blurring past us. My plan was to wait until 200m or so before the end and to kick on and pass. All was going well and I spotted my chance…. but stupidly I hesitated. I have no idea why, as I had more in my legs to give… Then the track changed and became single file only. I couldn’t pass. I debated going through the nettles but it seemed a bit silly as I’d already proved to myself that I was okay at this AS grading of Fell runs. (Fell races are all graded. Simply put, the first letter A-B-C, is for the grade in terms of steepness/complexity. The second letter, S-M-L is the length and I’ll let you work out what they stand for). This was an AS. Under 10km and carried a fair bit of elevation gain (400m).
We rounded the last corner with the flags in sight. I passed the finish line on the heels of Yoda and was met by an “oh I didn’t realise it was you chasing me!”
We cheered/clapped in the remaining runners and chatted about the race.
After a quick Lucozade in the Chatterbox cafe (apt name), we moved outside for the prizes. Andy the Race Director had put on a great spread of wine, beer and chocolate for the lucky winners. Strangely I got a spot prize for it being my first proper fell race.
Many then returned to the cafe for a treat… My chosen indulgence was a freshly cooked scone (rhymes with gone!), jam and cream. I sat with runners from other local clubs and just nattered. It was the perfect after race party in that respect.
The drive home was stunning. The sunset behind me made it look like the Gods were happy and putting on a show especially for us runners. Reds, oranges, yellows and amazingly, purples. This little Elvet Strider was one happy bunny after bounding down Chapel Fell Top at sun 7mins/mile.
I’d love to see many more Elvet Striders join me next year. It’s a fantastic race and at £5 on the day, what is there to lose?
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.
It was hot when I arrived at Keswick football club on Sunday morning – the type of heat you expect when you step off the plane upon arriving at your summer holiday destination. Stepping out of the air-conditioned car made it feel even more intense.
I’d arrived with the family in tow so they set off for a wander around Keswick while I made my way over to register for the race. The usual fell club vests were on display, hanging loosely from the skinny bodies of those whose playground the high fells of Cumbria belong.
I paid my £7 and went back to the car to get changed. I’d last run this race in 2015, in cooler conditions and had had a blast. For the unknowing, this is a fast out and back race up to the summit of Skiddaw, starting and finishing on the field between the football and cricket club of Keswick’s Fitz Park.
The race was due to start at 12:30 pm with around 100 runners gathered awaiting entry to the start pen following a very thorough kit check. It may have been hot with no chance of conditions changing but the organisers were fastidious in ensuring everyone was carrying the required kit set out in FRA rules.
Once everyone was checked in the start area and following a quick brief from the race organiser, we were off.
The pack spread quickly as the route snaked its way out of the park and up the lane towards the bridge crossing the A66. From here the gradient begins to steepen up through the woods. It was also nicely shaded here.
The path winds its way up out of the tree line to a car park at the foot of Skiddaw. From here the route hits the wide path that leads directly to the summit. A few little ups and downs the bang – straight on to the slope. The path steepens sharply as it zigzags its way up and mine, and everyone else’s pace drops dramatically.
It’s now hands on knees for the long slog to the top. There is no air; it’s hard to catch a breath. Sweat begins to pour off my head, into my eyes and off the end of my nose. I look up; I’ve not gone very far. Ahead of me, there are just headless bodies, everyone is doubled over marching their way up the hill with hands on their knees.
My breathing is swallowing, my legs are trembling and I’m having negative thoughts. I’m pretty sure I can’t make it to the top. The last time I was here was with Stuart Scott in November training for his BGR. It was cold, windy and covered in snow that time. What I’d have given for those conditions right now.
I pass two walkers (turns out it was Steph Piper) who shout encouragement and it gives me a temporary boost. Onward I march until eventually the gradient levels out enough to stand upright, catch a breath and break out into some kind of run once again.
Just as I’m approaching the gate at the foot of Skiddaw Little Man, the lead runner comes hurtling past on his way back down. He’s got a huge lead on the second place runner who also beats me to the gate.
Eventually, more runners come past on their way back down as I make my way to the final short sharp climb towards the summit plateau. It’s still hot but there’s a mild breeze blowing behind me, which helps a little as I make my way over the rocky path to the summit and turnaround point.
I’m greeted by two marshals, directed around the summit cairn and then it’s back the way I came off the mountain. The views are stunning and it’s hard not to gaze, but full concentration is needed to get back off quickly and safely – those rocks ready top trip you over at any time.
Slap, slap, slap go my feet as I try to make my way down the steep slopes quickly and efficiently. There’s a skill to downhill fell running, one that I think I’m fairly good at, but it takes a lot of concentration and nerves of steel to trust yourself and your foot placements. If only I could get up these hills quicker I’d have a fighting chance of being competitive.
The heat and my breathless assault to the top have left me exhausted so coming down is not done with my usual vigour. My thighs are burning and I’m struggling for breath. I pass some of the more cautious downhillers whilst those with more energy fly past me.
Eventually, I reach the bottom of the slope and have the run back through the car park and into the woods. This should be a relatively straightforward run back but I just haven’t got any energy left and the heat has taken its toll so my pace is slow as I make my way back to Fitz Park.
Finally, the finish field is in site and I cross the line and slump to the floor under the shade of the trees.
I check my watch for the first time during the whole race – 1hr59mins – 19 minutes slower than my previous effort. I knew this was going to be slow, given the heat, but I was disappointed at just how much slower it was. And so my struggles continue as I try and find some kind of form but I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I can take in a race with some real effort.
“You know the bag with your running shoes it,” asked my wife over the phone as I pulled up at the lights near the Duke of Wellington on my way to pick up Paul Evans.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are they supposed to be outside the front door?” she said knowing all too well what the answer was going to be!
I’d forgotten to pick up my shoes so I had to make a decision on whether I had enough time to drive back and get them? I was already running late but thought I’d better go back. I picked up Paul and off we sped back to Wingate to get the shoes before hurtling up the A19 and onto the A1 hoping we’d make it to Alwinton, just north of Rothbury, in time to change and register for the race.
It was cut fine but we made it with at least 14 minutes to spare, a quick change and dash to the pub to register and we were ready.
Geoff and Jack were already there looking relaxed having had a more sedate journey north.
The conditions were about perfect for running a fell race with good visibility and a light wind to keep the temperature down as around 51 runners gathered for this annual fundraiser for the North of Tyne Mountain Rescue Team.
After a short brief and a “3,2,1 – off you go”, from the race director and race was on. I was feeling a little leggy still from my Hardmoors 110 exploits and still suffering from tight muscles around my left knee so the plan was to just take it easy and enjoy the route.
The first mile or so is a steady climb but I immediately fell behind most of the pack as I watched Paul, Jack and Geoff shoot off into the distance.
The trail, whilst not particularly steep, was a drag and I found myself really struggling before it eventually levelled off ahead of a long descent and double back on the roadside ready the first really significant climb of the day.
As I approached I looked up and knew this is going to be a tough day. And so it proved, my knee hurt but even worse, I just didn’t seem to have any energy at all. The next few miles were torturous as the hills rolled up and down.
The tussocks made for uneven running and with my knee hurting, I found that I was struggling on the downhill where I would normally have had fun and been able to claw back some of my lost time. It was fair to say I wasn’t really enjoying this race for the majority of it. But I stuck in; I knew this was my first real race of this type for a long time so it was a case of sucking it up and getting on with it.
The checkpoints along the way were marshalled by Mountain Rescue staff who were very cheery, which made for light relief and before long, the route dropped onto the forest track where the gradient shallowed and the path levelled enough to actually find some sort of rhythm when running. I was starting to feel much better now, as I was able to maintain a relatively even pace.
Up ahead I could see a few runners that had gone past me as I struggled on the hills, and as the trail continued I began to slowly draw them in. One by one I began to make a bit of progress, and eventually, I’d clawed back at least four lost places as we hit the final checkpoint before the long descent back to the finish.
After what seemed an eternity, I finally dropped back onto the road we’d run up at the start of the race, before turning the corner to see the finish up ahead.
Paul was stood waiting at the finish, having had a blistering run coming in first Strider and 8th overall and Geoff had a beaten Jack who’d admitted to having had a pretty miserable time out on the course himself.
This is a weekday evening social run organised by local club Derwentside AC in memory of John Donneky.
The weather was brilliantly clear and warm for the run; views for absolute miles from the tops.
It was a bit of a pull to begin with, straight up the Boltslaw incline, 600ft climb in just over 1 mile, but this meant the pack naturally split into 3 pace groups with one leader each, 8-10 runners per group.
I thought I’d not been up Bolt’s Law before but part way round I recognised a tree, the only tree for miles, that I had seen one winter on a social run from Colin Blackburn’s house. It stuck in my mind because it was fully decorated with Christmas baubles, etc –
Rumour has it that Colin revisited the tree and left some anonymous mince pies for the undressing on 12th Night.
Evidently, we ran 7.8miles and came back to Rookhope Village Hall where there was a good spread of savouries and cakes, tea coffee, etc.
A brief mention of John Donneky and acknowledgement from his widow; evidently he used to enjoy taking road runners up onto the fells for ‘strengthening’ sessions; and an invitation to do it all again next year.
This is not just a report about a race. This is a love story. With a race central to it.
I’d first heard of the Anniversary Waltz when, around 14 years ago, a striking photo of a runner approaching the summit of, I think, Robinson, the lush green of the Newlands valley in the background, graced the front cover of The Fellrunner. Over the years, I’d wondered at the unusual name and had got as far as entering a few years ago, only for life to make other plans. This year was different, as it was announced that the race would be run for the final time, due to the death of one of the married couple who have for two decades organised the race; if not now, never.
Race day dawned bright, with the skies over Keswick clear and the road out to Stair village busy with running traffic – it appeared that Jack, Fiona and I were not alone in taking the last opportunity to race here, and we were informed that c600 runners were here for the Waltz, and c300 for the Teenager (the 15m extended version), many north-eastern vests amongst them, as well as a smattering of national-level talent; to all intents and purposes, this felt very much like an unofficial extension to the English Championships.
Registration was busy though efficient, and after watching the Teenager competitors walk up their first hill from the start (Causey Pike), we had a pleasant half-mile or so to the start, an old mining track that cuts below Catbells. A brief, eloquent speech was made about the life and legacy of Steve Cliff, whose marriage to Wynn this commemorated and in whose name the proceeds would be donated to MND research (I presume the pollen count was high, as there was a lot of eye-rubbing going on), and then we were off, shuffling from a position too close to the rear of the pack, slowly picking up speed as we dodged around runners, descending into the valley bottom with Jack on my shoulder and Fiona not far behind.
The first 3 miles were rapid, and felt it, my watch recording the second mile as sub-7min/mile pace, and I quickly began to realise that if we’d lost height in the first three of nearly twelve miles, and the last mile was downhill, then ALL of the 3600′ height gain would have to take place in the next eight miles. This thought occurred as the track turned to grass, Robinson loomed on the right-hand side and it was decision time – take the pain of climbing Robinson now, in order to get it out of the way, or keep up the speed on the gentle track up the valley and then brace for a sharp final ascent? I went for the former, Jack, just ahead of me, for the latter, and we saw each other again at the top, both hurting a little from the quad-straining gradient and the short section of scrambling. From this first summit, Jack loped ahead of me at speed down the grassy flank of Robinson to the path that leads up to Hindscarth, the next peak of the horseshoe. I tailed as rapidly as I could and rather enjoyed the shallow gradient and springy, forgiving ground, not losing him to sight, then slowly regaining on both he and an NFR runner as we climbed again, passing them near the top, along with another 15 or so runners. Hindscarth summited, it was down again to Dale Head, another nice runnable section with a final rocky drag, passing Tim Skelton en route (not in the race, so a rather surprising sighting) before the section I’d been fearing.
I am a terrible descender in rocky terrain. My balance is not great and my eyes water so much that often I can barely see as I go downhill at speed, leading to a lot of falls. My intention had been to come off Dale Head to the south, using the tourist path. However, having realised I was a reasonable way up the field by now and, more importantly, actually a little ahead of Jack, I could not bring myself to be sensible and therefore attempted the direct route to the stream leaving the tarn at the bottom. If memory serves me, the descent was not enjoyable, was faster than I thought possible, still lost me a dozen or two places, probably accounted for the bruised bits I felt the next day and had me at one point on the verge of having to stop to ‘do a Paula.’ Let us move on; love stories do not include that kind of mess.
The hard bit over, and feet refreshed in the clear waters of the rocky stream crossing, the rest of the race passed well, with places regained on the climb to High Spy, no more lost on the gentle descent before Catbells, another handful gained on the steady run up to Catbells and then a grassy descent that hurt the feet as it got steeper and steeper (I was looking forward to running down the natural curve of the hill, only to be pointed sharp left, down the steep bit, by marshals), but gave enough traction to maintain pace sufficient that only a handful of runners came past me again – none of them Jack, who I was convinced was on my shoulder. Down onto the track where we had started, through a farm, onto tarmac and back to the village where the finishing funnel, a stream for foot-washing and a chap with a hosepipe awaited. At the time of writing, results are unpublished, but I think I took around 2:10 and Jack came in a few minutes later, not helped by one of his shoes disintegrating on Catbells and a touch of heat illness. Fiona? She’d started the race as a ‘nice, steady run’ and then felt competitive halfway round, so had spent the back half picking people off one by one, and seemed fairly upbeat.
It has been said that the deaths of those who will be missed deeply, by many, lead to the most enjoyable wakes; this was such a day – a massive field of people who love the hills gathered together for a day simultaneously about life, death and running. The world moves on. This race does not, though was a fitting tribute to a man who loved the area and the sport and a reminder that a day spent in the hills, with friends, is never a day wasted.
Plan for 2018, after the running horrors of Jan 16-Oct 17: train hard, do XC and hit the ground running with the long races of Marsden-Edale, Wadsworth and the Skyline, with a view to longer stuff later.
Reality: pick up an Achilles injury after Christmas, miss Capt Cook, run/limp a stinker at Herrington XC when injured (worst performance at HL I can recall), exacerbate injury in the process, miss races and become limited to running no faster than 8min/mile without the troublesome tendon swelling and hurting. Up to this point, with the possible exception of the English XC Championships in London, where I ran slowly but at least got round somehow, 2018 has not been a great deal of fun.
So, expectations set to ‘low, just get round,’ I found myself being counted into the starting field at the bottom of the Nab, looking up to the dark edges of Kinder scout, seeing snowy streaks and a sky with a few hopeful-looking patches of blue. It was probably best to look upwards, rather than to my sides, as this was an English Championship race, and the quality at ground level was intimidatingly-good. The usual brief pre-amble over, we ran to and then ascended at a shuffle the familiar zig-zags of the Nab then, just for this one year, turned left on summiting Ringing Roger, one of the many high points of the Kinder plateau; yes, reader, this year the Skyline went backwards, thus making it even more unmissable! In practise, this meant that we hit the clart sooner than usual, and spent the first couple of miles round to Grindslow Knoll undulating, bouncing off rocks, getting our feet soaked in the frequent streams and occasional snowdrifts trapped in sheltered cloughs, and generally spreading out a little; for this section and, as it turned out, much of the race I hung onto the familiar vest of a Sunderland Stroller, catching him on every little climb and watching him bounce past me on the downhills.
‘Brown Knoll’ used to be words that sent an involuntary shudder down the spine of many a fell-runner: a relatively featureless morass of peat, sphagnum, trods leading to uncertain places and, crucially in this race, an area in the final third of the traditional Skyline route, thus hitting the unsuspecting runner precisely when they least needed it (see report from 2015). Not without controversy, a route over it has now been paved due to erosion concerns, which meant this was a faster-than-expected, albeit quite dull section, though I remained cautious and gained fewer places than I could have done with a more aggressive approach here, instead starting to attack a little as we left it and began the long succession of ridge-running that would take us all the way to Lose Hill, that Strollers’ vest remaining an aiming point as we passed a few runners beginning to tire. Half-way along we dropped into Mam Nick, our first encounter with tarmac all race, then reduced pace to a hands-on-thighs walk until hitting the top of Mam Tor, start of the section of the race with ALL the views – this year we could see for miles to both north and south. Lose Hill came, was climbed at a plod, and went again in an exhilarating, wet run/slide combination, one done less well than the dozen or so runners I’d beaten on the climb, all of them repaying the favour with interest on the way down; Hope village at the bottom presented our second encounter with tarmac, a second jelly baby and the start of the real test.
Memory: an unreliable thing. I remember from 2015 the entire section from start to Hope, via Whin Hill, as being fairly easy running and likely to present a nice final few miles the other way round. I still remember 2015’s course this way, though the evidence of my split times and recent nociceptor experience disproves it utterly – once I’d trotted over the railway bridge out of Hope the ascent was severe, on wet, bracken-covered peat with little purchase, the Mars bar nauseated me and I was able to manage a shuffling run when the incline slackened towards the top, through the heather and then on the shooting track. That said, the strung-out line of runners ahead did not look healthy and I was able to gain a lot of places, finally leaving behind the Stroller, passing him again after touching the trig and heading the final 5 miles for home. Mystery solved: I remembered little of this stretch as it was relatively dull, 2 miles of an easy trudge along farm tracks, 3 of a steady uphill back to Ringing Roger, livening up as we left grass and got back onto rock and peat, sore feet and knackered proprioception not helping, though more places gained before dibbing for the last time and heading downhill…where 15-20 runners I’d led, slowly, uphill flew past me and hit the finish line just ahead.
Number cut off and water being taken from the jerrycans stacked against the wall, I watched as both the Stroller I’d raced for hours (Adnan Khan, though we did not know it yet, to show me a clean pair of heels one week later at Alnwick’s Harrier League fixture) and another (Ken Maynard) came in, amongst a steady flow of battered bodies; blood both fresh and dried was prominent on many. An hour later, washed in the stream, fed with chilli, rehydrated with tea (Victoria Wilkinson, having just smashed the female record for the race, queuing patiently behind me) and having gained a new injury (thigh strain) to go with the pre-existing one, life felt better.
It would have been better yet had a hundred Kurds not blockaded a railway line and caused a 3-hour wait for the train back to Sheffield but that, reader, is another story…