I’ve had a gentle few months in terms of training, an injury picked up in early November, not helped by a fall in the Wooler Marathon (two months later, the bruising is still there and hurting!). Cross-country proved doable, but running in, or walking in the fells was impossible for a few months, as I could go up fine – but not down!
After a rather sedentary week in Somerset for Christmas, and a number of get-togethers and office parties in the weeks before, the short and not horrendously steep Guisborough Woods race was a good way to get back into fell races, if not actually onto the top of any fells. It is a course of 3 laps around the quarry in Guisborough woods, each lap with around 130m of climb and descent – so after the first, you know exactly what you have to do again, and again… In terms of distance, it is close to cross-country, but requires rather more effort – a worthwhile training exercise for both the up and downhills! It might not be the most scenic of fell races – it’s not a bad view, you just see the same one three times – but is a marked, marshalled course with no exposed summits or kit requirements (on the day I did it – in bad weather this would likely change!) so a good options for anyone off work and looking for something to do between Christmas and New Year (there are junior races too). The lapped course may not be the most exciting, but it does mean that no runner is ever far from the start or help if needed. A bumper turnout of around 200 runners showed lots had this idea!
My time off and reduced training definitely showed, I was significantly slower and in more discomfort in the climbs than usual, but made it round all the same being beaten by sometime Strider Danny Lim – that hasn’t happened before! Well done Danny, I’ll need to work harder next time… At least the weather was kind and sunny, and my knee didn’t show any signs of pain on the descent, which meant I was able to claw back some time and places careering down through the mud, nearly taking out a poor man from DFR on one lap (running down steep mud is easy – stopping quickly is not!). Not long after I finished, Mike Bennett ran in, soon followed by Nina, arms out and clearly enjoying flying down the hill for a final time. We lined up along the finish to cheer Jan in, the final of our ladies team (we came 3rd!) as she let us all know that she had managed to stay on her feet this time, no broken bones!
A trundle back to base at the Rugby Club for the prize giving – including winter series winners from last year, the year before, top 3 male and female finishers in this years race, veteran finishers, junior prizes – I kept asking Nina what the current prize was for, eventually we both lost count – Esk Valley are very generous with their prizes! A final shout of ‘anyone who hasn’t got a prize, and thinks they should have – come and see me!’ and time to go home and wash the mud (and in Nina’s case – blood) off our legs and rest up ready for the Captain Cooks NYD race.
I love running and I love mountains but for some reason, I rarely combine the two, so when Paul Evans put a call out for an Elvet Striders team for the ‘British Fell and Hill Relay Championships‘ in the Lakes, it seemed like an opportunity to combine the two. I had put myself forward for the first leg, as I had to be back in Durham for work later in the day. More experienced members of our team helped check I had the right kit to carry around with me, gave me a map and some last minute fell running tips and before I knew it, we were being herded into the starting pen.
Without having considered a race plan, the gun went off and on a spur of the moment decision; I thought it might be fun to ‘blast’ the first field. Zoom, I was off! Head of the pack – Elvet Striders leading the race! But crikey, before I knew it, I had lactic burning like I’d just raced an 800m on the track. Then we started going up – I’ve never run on anything like it; about 3 miles up – getting steeper all the way. The everlasting incline was no place to be trying to clear the lactic acid, my heart and lungs were on fire. This was not running, as I know it; folks were pulling themselves up the mountain on tufts of grass, or rocks – whatever you could grasp. As the race got higher we entered the clouds and visibility was very poor – I was just trying to keep someone close by as I hadn’t really entertained trying to navigate too, but at some point, I reached the summit and then we were heading down.
Through reading, and some of Geoff’s off-road sessions, I know the theory of running downhill (switch off brain, lean forward, don’t brake) but can I put it into practice? – err, no! The whole way down the mountain, despite trying to relax, I was clearly thinking too much and leaning back and braking – my quads were taking such a hammering (5 days after the race, writing this, I still can’t walk properly) but it certainly was exhilarating. After 3 miles of heart and lung burning going up, this was 2 miles of slipping and sliding my way down.
Back to the starting field after handing over to Jack and Fiona, I managed a brief catch up with the rest of the team and used my token for some hot food and drink before heading home. I had a great day – I love the variety of running, but I always seem to enjoy the day more when it’s a team event or relay, it really brings you together.
Leg 2, Jack Lee and Fiona Brannan, paired, 6,7 miles, 2800 ft
Jack: “So that’s what you call dibbing!”
I have never understood fair weather running. Heat makes me overheat while I find a drizzly, windy and generally just a bit crap day brings out my best. I was probably at close to my best at the relays and still I had no chance of keeping up with Fiona on the downs. (Fiona: I’m not a great fan of the ‘up’ part, but I really, really like the ‘down’…)
Our leg of the relays started with some shouts that Mark had been spotted and a fast run away from the line, only to be quickly assaulted by the fells. Usually, the ascent tires me out but today I just plodded on surprised by how easy it was going. (Fiona: it’s true, I’m not much good at ‘up’) Leg 2 started with the ascent of Great Rigg and then Fairfield from Grasmere, and after that it becomes a bit of a blur.
Fiona and I spent 50 minutes trudging up Fairfield with the occasional jog on the flatter section; it was a bit damp but the effort kept us warm, however, when we got to the top the cold wind cut through my clothing. You could get cold very fast if you stayed still but fortunately after a slower start Fiona had found her legs (Fiona: have I mentioned I don’t like the ‘up’ parts?!) and it was all I could do to keep up with her. The next half an hour was one of the most frenetic (Fiona: I think he means fun and exciting!) of my life. I leapt over rocky escarpments, slid down bog on my backside and waded streams all at a frenzied pace just to keep up. I have never descended so fast and was pushing my limits; quite a few times I placed my foot on muddy paths of steep slopes for my footing to go. I was, after all, in a pair of borrowed shoes, as I had forgotten mine. I owe Nigel my eternal thanks and a beer sometime for the loan of shoes. (Fiona; our split times on this section are somewhat more impressive than the ascent, and we managed to gain around 30 places here so must have been doing something right!)
Eventually, as must happen, the slope became shallower but this just encouraged Fiona to up the pace, so I dug deep and used all the pace I had left just to keep up and after a treacherous descent over the final muddy field (onlookers hoping for exciting slips and falls!) we sprinted in just ahead of fell running legend Angela Mudge and her partner from Carnethy. We tagged Paul and Geoff and our job was done.
Leg 3; Geoff Davis and Paul Evans; paired ca. 6-7 miles, 3000 ft, navigation leg
Having done the fell relays a couple of times before, both times leg 2, 2018 saw me decide to push out of my comfort zone a little and take on leg 3 with the guiding hand of the veteran Geoff D to keep me right and deflect my natural inclination to take route alpha at all opportunities; essentially, I was there to push the pace and to learn, he there to ensure sanity and to guide me in the subtle art of efficient hill running. This played out as follows on a leg of 7 miles and c3000 feet:
Start – CP1: fast start along a lane away from the event field, having been tagged by Fiona and Jack. Easy running on tarmac, then sharp bend upwards to a pair of marshals who hand us our maps of the control locations. A quick glance at the map and it becomes apparent that Geoff’s talents will be of use, as my urges are to go up and over, whilst he takes us nicely up the side of a fast-flowing beck, twisting up the valley over slippery rocks and through bracken to arrive at a stream junction and CP1, other teams arriving and departing rapidly.
CP1-2: the fun starts here, as we exit northeast, traversing up a hill into the low cloud. We follow a sheep trod, and other teams also, then it all becomes very puzzling as we arrive at a tarn that isn’t on the map, but with a saddle that definitely is. We know we’re somewhere around Heron Pike and then, Eureka! Unsurprisingly, the only such body of water on the map is, we realise, where we must be even if we’d been further up the hill, as we’d assumed, and therefore closer to our destination. We lose a good few minutes pondering this, though it turns out, race leaders Keswick lose even more (and, in the process, the overall race). Upwards, over the ridge, downwards, aiming for another stream junction with a sheepfold beyond; I suggest we simply follow the stream to our left and make up for my error with the tarn to an extent by this proving correct, albeit with an element of luck. Dibbed, and done.
CP2-3: easy – take a bearing and follow it, climb gently, descend gently onto a Land-Rover track and the next control, with marshals huddled in a tent.
CP3-4-5-end: easy navigation, but straight up and over, a long line of ant-like figures ascending into the heavens/cloud above us. This gets chilly, and I push the pace fairly hard as we use all limbs to get us up to the very runnable ridgeline, where we make up a few places before contouring around a valley head and then dropping sharply through endless greasy bracken, broken earth and unseen rocks. There are now teams to our left and right, some of them last seen on the climb, some not seen previously. We hit the stream, cross it and then have a choice – up and over or veer round to our left then back right again, adding 300m but taking out the climb. Geoff prefers the latter, so we do it and meet at the next control the teams who entered the water with us: no advantage either way until we then race them downhill on a firm track and realise we have more in our legs, taking out 4-5 further teams. By now the back of the leg is broken and we’re heading home, a little climb taken with aggression and then the final run-in down churned, slippery tracks, CP5 hit, then fields, control on the descent limited and Geoff slipping ahead as I’m just rubbish on this terrain. We re-enter the final field and Geoff’s driving hard and not looking back, knowing I’ll go all-in to catch him again, which I do before we hit the line and tag Nigel. Job done, baton not lost, lessons in the art of navigation on the move gained. Here goes Nigel…
Leg 4; Nigel Heppell, solo, 4.3 miles, 2000 ft
Leg 4 – known as the ‘glory’ leg; also suitable for 16yr olds – I’m well
Standing for several hours in a field on a wet Lakes day while legs 1,2
and 3 take place, I try to keep as much clothing on as possible before
getting down to race kit and entering the holding pen in what I think
should be a reasonably short time before Geoff and Paul appear for the
handover at the end of their navigation leg. Such is the calibre of the
superstars of the fell running world that the loudspeakers let us all
know the relay has actually been won before half the field even set off
on the last leg and there is a 5min call for the mass start. Peering
into the distant murk, I spot the unmistakable gait of an HH top leading
Paul down the final slope and into the funnel and then it’s my turn to go
off up the lane with a grateful lead on the pack behind.
The official route description says it all; narrow lane; cross beck;
path up to tarn; big zig- zags on climb; scenic dash
around tarn; cross wall; stiff ascent of Heron Pike; nothing to see now
as we enter the cloud base shrouding the tops; onto Fairfield Horseshoe
race line; contour below summit of Great Rigg; speedy contouring descent
onto summit of Stone Arthur; exit cloud cover; hair-raising descent down
leg 2 ascent path; and back into the event field.
On the climb up I very soon hear the sounds of the pack gaining
on me; one or two lanky types begin to lope past; then a whole bundle go
through – I guess the fitter club runners who were held back by the late
arrival of their leg3 runners – then I seem to hold my position; ascent
of Heron Pike is just plain hard work; a bit chastened to be steadily
overtaken by what appears to be a classrooms-worth of school children
but then things level off and we get running again. A few of us trade
places once or twice along the contour and then the fun starts as
gravity kicks in. It always amazes me how timid some become on a descent
over rough ground and now it’s my turn to overtake; beyond Stone Arthur
the slope increases dramatically and keeping a foothold is marginal at
best; no way of slowing down without a fall so go for it, trying not to
wipe out runners caught in front; through hole in wall and into final
descent of event field; others say this is really steep and slippery but
it feels quite relaxed after what went before and I again have to expend
energy running into the finish.
For the road runners amongst you, I ran this at a pace of 15min/mile –
For the fell runners, my rate of ascent was a lowly, but fairly steady
60’/min; and my rate of descent was largely 200-220’/min.
[Footnote – The photograph of Jack and Fiona was generously provided by Beau Dog Photography. There is no oblligation but if you would like to make a donation to the Phabkids then please follow the link and give from as little as £2. Thank you https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Lee-and-Sarah ]
After a spring of chasing Elaine Bisson around the fells in preparation for her Bob Graham Round, pacing on her and Stuart’s rounds and completing a few local fell races, I thought I might move up to the big league and try a Lake District Race. The Grisedale horseshoe starts in Glenridding and takes in Catstycam, Helvellyn and St Sunday crag; by far not the biggest, longest or hardest route the Lakes has to offer but a sure step up from the North York Moors and the Esk Valley Summer Series.
It is not a difficult route to navigate and I know the area quite well, but I like to be confident of the route and what to expect on race day, as generally, by the time the map comes out, chances of a good placing are gone. I took Jack and headed over a few weeks before; whilst he had a fantastic time I complained all the way to the top of Catstycam about how steep, or grassy, or hilly, or hard work it was… just about anything I could think of, I moaned about. We took a map and loaded the route on to my fancy new Garmin watch and found that we used the map plenty, and the GPS track not much!
On race day, I picked up Geoff and Stuart who were also taking part, and Sam who fancied a day out in the fells. Registration and kit check took place in the village hall, before nervously hanging around outside watching lots of tough looking, mostly male, runners warming up along the track where the race started.
Off we went, the first half-mile or so is a fairly flat track past the campsite which helped to settle into a decent position for the climb, and being faster on the flat bits, I found a decent place and expected to be overtaken on the climb, so didn’t worry too much when people passed me. Nearing the top of Birkhouse Moor, Stuart and two ladies overtook; I kept the same pace, knowing that there was a nice runnable section coming up before the next ascent to Catstycam. I caught one lady and had Stuart in view as we started on up Catstycam on what seemed to be the worst way up to me – straight up the side through the long grass. Is the path a hundred feet away really that much slower? I saw Stuart ahead using his hands as well as his feet on the ground – that’s how steep it was! I kept reminding myself that I was here voluntarily (why??) and that the climbing would have to stop eventually. The top was in cloud and rather windy, I shouted my number at the marshals and headed off to Swirral edge, to the lovely rocks that are much easier to negotiate!
Up and over the top of Helvellyn, then follow the BG route to Grisedale Tarn, easy enough – except coming off Dollywaggon I decided that the people ahead of me heading down sooner than I expected must have known something I didn’t and followed them for a while. Turns out they came off too soon and I was once again negotiating that boggy tufty grass that makes up most of the fells, while Stuart sped past over to the left on the actual descent, laughing at my poor route choice (I had caught him up somewhere along the top). Past the marshals at the tarn and I overtook Stuart once again as with a shout he fell waist deep into a bog/stream/river.
I had caught the lady in front on the descent and having warmed up nicely by now, stuck on her shoulder on the run-up to St Sunday Crag. The climb was much less steep and therefore more enjoyable than the previous climbs. I thought she might be fading a little so didn’t worry too much about overtaking yet and waited until the summit checkpoint before heading off down a nice rocky path. She and a few others followed – I’m not sure they thought much of my route choice as they dropped back quite quickly. The long descent through Blind Cove into Patterdale is lovely and a few runners commented that I seemed to be having too much fun as I slid down through scree, mud, bog and plenty sheep muck. Through a field at the bottom to an audience of huge cows, a splash through the river at the bottom and onwards towards the last hill, nearly home!
I think Patterdale is one of my favourite dales, it’s very pretty and apart from race day, always appears to be deserted. I commented as much to the man running next to me and he just looked at me like I was mad, perhaps I am.
The final climb back up to the Helvellyn tourist path is brutal, and not so short – a definite ‘hands-on-floor’ ascent. I counted the steps until I got to around 700 before losing count, and was still nowhere near the top. However, I didn’t seem to be losing any places and everybody else was struggling in a similar fashion. One man cried out when he realised we had only reached a false summit; I reassured him that it really wasn’t far now!
Trying to muster up a run along the easier parts, we finally reached the last checkpoint and the start of the descent. Some friendly runners told me to enjoy the run back down; there was no need to rush as the next lady was still back in Patterdale somewhere. Someone opened a gate for me when I couldn’t work out what side the hinges were on and ushered me through. When we got to the bottom track there was a shout along the lines of ‘go on lass, go get the rest of them!’, and back to the village hall, sweaty handshakes all round and lots of tea and sandwiches.
Stuart came in sometime later, followed by Geoff and we waited around for the prizes – wine and chocolate (Aldi special!) for the category winners, first fell race, a lady whose birthday it was and the children of some runners! It’s a generous sport, and a challenging few hours out for the grand price of £5 and on the day entry.
A long race report feels inappropriate for what is a short sharp and largely chaotic race. For these reasons, it has earned its place as one of my favourites. More expensive per mile than GNR and London but home cooked flapjacks at the end and almost as many spot prizes as runners.
I drove down from Durham and turned up at just after 6 pm (an hour before the start) and met up with Fiona. We then hiked up Roseberry Topping scoping out the route and trying “the Shoot” on the way down and deciding that if we were being competitive then a nearly vertical slope of mud and grass was not the way to go.
Pretty soon after we were lined up for the start of the race amiably chatting with some Eskvalley Runners. When the race began we sprinted for the hill but this soon turned into trudging up the steep slopes with hikers looking bemused as we passed. My face was red and my heart hammering. I could still feel my circuit training from Monday in my legs.
Fiona was constantly taking time out of me, building a lead of probably 30 seconds by the top.
The top is a surreal moment; the edge of the North York Moors laid out in front of me but I had to get myself together in a second and chuck myself back off the precipice.
On the downhill, all hell broke loose with runners still ascending, other descending and hikers caught in the middle. I threw caution to the wind and started to make time on Fiona. Second by second I reeled her in. I thought if I could get within the striking on the final straight, I would have a chance. She, however, didn’t comply and sprinted off beating me comfortably coming just ahead of the second lady.
Afterwards, I ate flapjacks and got a spot prize (my first ever!), when the organisers asked: “who hasn’t got a prize?” I was tired and hurting but happy.
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.
Sometimes, words are not necessary, and numbers will suffice. The pertinent numbers here are, as above, 14 and 6000. That is, 6000 ft of ascent and descent in 14 miles or, to be precise, 483 ft of ascent for every mile run. For perspective, to be category ‘A,’ a fell race must have 250ft ascent per mile, so the Sedbergh race effectively is basically meeting the grade, then sticking 233 ft/mile on you for fun. Why? Because.
Unsurprisingly, both times this race has been in the club GP it has only attracted a handful of Striders, despite its relative proximity to Durham and the ease of entry; I suspect the numbers above are relevant to this. That said, it is as pure a fell race as can be found, in that the tarmac content is a couple of hundred yards at the start and finish, navigational skills have to be deployed and the scenery, whilst not Lake-district spectacular, bears witness only in fits and starts to the hand of mankind. When one can see it, of course, which wasn’t really the case for Geoff D, Mike B, Nina M and I, Mike and Nina having merely to get round to wrap up the fell category in the GP for the season, having found the time to run enough of the other races, and the form to run them hard, to be certain of their victories as long as DNFs were avoided.
The race this year had a field of c120 runners, and due to conditions we were advised that the two cut offs, at Arant Haw (2m in) and Black Force (7m) had been extended to 45 minutes and 1hr55m respectively; clearly the organisers expected some navigational mishaps. A quick 3-count set us off, the first stretch on slightly uphill tarmac, bending right, into a farmyard, then onto the slopes of Winder, skirting the peak to the east, climbing on gradients that permitted stretches of slow running between stints of walking as fast as grip and incline permitted. Already, within 10 minutes, I was sweating and had lost sight of the leaders, visibility limited by the low cloud which seemingly sat at around 350m throughout the race. Having missed the top of Winder, the course drops briefly into a saddle, from where the fairly runnable southern slope of Arant Haw takes you to CP1, the marshals well-wrapped and with tent and flasks evident. This leads to a nice grassy descent where the legs can be let rip, as there is a good trod and nothing technical for a mile or so; I let fly here and gained a couple of places, feeling ever so pleased with myself until it occurred to me that I now had to try to remember where exactly to break off the trod and veer north-west to hit Chapel Beck where it forms at a Y-junction of streams. Reader, I guessed, and the lack of knowledge of 5 or 6 others showed in that they went with me too, even though it transpired I’d gone a little too early and the first water I saw on breaking through the clouds was one of the feeder streams. That said, it acted as a nice visual marker in that I just had to keep going downhill and left to know I’d be back on track, the other confirmation coming from the stream of more accurate runners descending slightly to the west. The beck this year was not the trickle of 2 years ago, and the force of it swept a leg from me as I crossed, resulting in a face-plant into the water, so it was probably a good thing that the climb out, to CP2 at Castley Knotts is a hands-on-knees beast; strictly no running here. From the control comes a section that should be fairly quick, and started so this year until the visibility meant that I lost the path that largely contours round to Black Force, descending sooner than I should and having to pull myself back up wet slopes, through temporary springs erupting from the hillside, runners above me who’d kept to the trod, runners below who’d miscalculated worse than I – at one point, a runner glimpsed in the valley bottom, seemingly intent on working his way back up the stream bed of Black Force. I regained the trod, dropped at speed into the stream junction that forms CP3, stopping to take the waters deliberately this time (cold, with the delicious sweet tinge of peat that you never get from the tap) before moving on to the section that broke me 2 years ago.
Between CP3 and CP4, which is at the confluence of Hazel Gill and Bowderdale Beck, is a mere 2.5-3 miles of eastwards running. The sting is that it is pathless, and takes 3 climbs and descents to get there. The first, Docker Knott, was relatively simple and permitted a bit of a run with only a little walking before a fairly easy descent and a climb out to the south of Simon’s Seat, hand-railing a stream in a re-entrant up to a saddle then dropping again, the handful of runners in sight providing no clues as they were all taking different lines to each other. from the saddle a trod seemed to lead the way, but my compass said otherwise, so I trusted it and dropped on a bearing due east, down a steep, wet, grassy and uneven fellside, to be met by the welcome sight of 2 more streams in spate, again meeting. This was my marker, and I aimed directly at it, went through them both, the water thigh-high in places, then up and out to climb/traverse Hazelgill Knott, aiming not for the summit but to cut around the northern slopes and then SE to CP4. Here, I picked up on a couple of runners as we hit the cloud again, and tailed them as I walked the last few hundred yards of climbing, reasoning that at about 9 miles in it was not unreasonable to break out the sugar, in the form of Kendal Mint Cake (brown). Shoving this, and the map and compass back into my bum-bag, it was with relief that I crested the slope and started to descend to CP4, life just getting better when it appeared exactly where expected and the marshals had thought to strew a handful of plastic beakers next to the beck for refreshment purposes. Two cups duly drunk, it was with enthusiasm that I laid into the next section to CP5 (The Calf), which the PB Sports map describes as ‘all runnable,’ a statement that doubtless applies to the elite but which, I had to accept was not true for me; the first mile, heading due south with the beck I managed, the second, climbing steadily to the calf I confess to having slipped a couple of little walks into before resuming a run as things started to flatten towards the top of The Calf; that said, I managed to overhaul the pair I’d tailed to Bowderdale Beck and got another couple of runners into my sights, intermittently. From here, navigation was easy and the gradients kind, progress from CP5 (where Jan Young had emerged from the mist, as always heard before she was seen) to 6 being relatively rapid along rough but clear tracks and relatively shallow rises and falls; it was another 2.5-3 miles to Winder, but they did not compare to the CP3-4 section in any way. Winder trig, CP6 came, the post being touched and the descent commenced with glee, all the more so when I broke out of the cloud to see Sedbergh below and DPFR and Bingley vests to chase down. The former was caught, only to evade me as the greasy wet slope got steeper and steeper, leaving me on my bottom too often and sliding a good 100m in one go at one point. I got him back in sight on the road, but he was too far ahead to catch, and I had to settle for 25th (3hrs, 2mins), admittedly a big improvement on 2 years ago, when an ankle had gone at 8 miles and the remainder had been limped, slowly.
A quick shower, a bottomless teapot in return for a donation to the MRT, and life was good again, all the more so when Mike, holding ribs cracked on the final descent, Geoff and Nina all arrived in short order, all sub-4hrs. Similar tannin therapy and they were vaguely restored also. As races go, this is a bit of a beast, and the numbers act as fair warning that this is probably not a first fell race for anyone. However, like so many things, and people, in life, treat with respect and the rewards are immense; although, with no Striders being in the prizes, said rewards were not, on this day, financial.
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’d not planned to race Holme Moss, having trained with an eye on Wasdale, the week before. However, having being unable to get transport over to the Lakes and ‘chomping at the bit’ for a chance to race again, I scanned the FRA calendar for anything marked ‘AL’ that could feasibly be reached by public transport. This SW Yorks classic ticked all the boxes. The early Sunday train to Manchester dropping me at Huddersfield and a directionally-challenged taxi driver (we had to dismantle then replace a Yorkshire Water barrier due to route choice), running me the last few miles to Cartworth Moor Cricket Club, which sat sun-baked above Holmfirth. It was clear that it was going to be warm and little of the mandatory kit was likely to be needed. Sun-cream and Vaseline were of more use in the conditions. It was also apparent that there was a fair amount of talent from the Yorkshire clubs, with the sharp end of the field assembled on the farm track for the start looking distinctly lean and focused.
The first mile was exactly what you’d expect when the race begins on a hard, straight track, falling initially then rising steadily towards a road, with a hard pace being set by the frontrunners and everyone else hanging on, slowly falling away, in the white dust kicked up by their heels. As is all too often the case for someone who likes a steady start but is aware that after a short time, paths will narrow and overtaking become more difficult, this felt unpleasantly quick all the way along the track, over 100m of road (CP1) and then upwards onto the moor. It was also worrying that in a race of 17 miles, it appeared that little of the 4000′ ascent had taken place in the first mile and would not take place in the last, leaving less distance to squeeze all that climbing into; the reason became apparent as we crested the moor and dropped hard and fast down a dry path cut through the heather to Riding Wood reservoir.
I was conscious that overtaking was impossible here, so needed not to annoy the runners behind by my usual cautious descending, and was therefore relieved that conditions were dry and I reached the metal bridge over the stream feeding the reservoir intact and un-bruised. From here, things steadied a little, and the next two miles were a steady climb up to Holme Moss summit, traversing on fairly good paths the flank of Twizzle Head Moss, ascending at a gradient that increased slowly but permitted running until the final 300m before hitting the road, and the 4-mile point.
We were greeted with cowbells and a blanket of low cloud; less welcome for me was the realisation that on hard ground my shoe choice had been poor, both heels having just enough room to achieve lateral movement sufficient to start stripping the skin from them. I felt I was running well, and estimated I was around 30th, but also knew that every mile from here on out was going to hurt.
Had my feet been in good nick, the fun would truly have begun here, as the meat of the race is in this middle segment, with a rapid descent through tussocks to Heyden Brook, a sharp climb then gradual rise to Westend Moss, mostly on peat that was firm but with just enough spring in it to be fun, then a long descent to Crowden (CP3), the only cut-off at 7.5 miles. Writing this report nearly three months later I cannot really recall how this felt, as the human mind is notoriously bad at recollection of pain, but objectively I lost at least half a dozen places and had a good think about ‘Doffing’, in order to JUST MAKE IT STOP.
Looking back, knowing that I made the cut-off by only 15 minutes whilst still in the top third of the field, it strikes me that this is a race not generous with its timings. Anyway, had I been sensible, the report would end here except for maybe a sentence or two of regret for the wise decision to spare my feet, which by now had blistered, burst and were working on deeper blisters. I didn’t, so on we go – to the farm track that crossed Crowden Little Brook then hand-railed Crowden Great Brook, then to the long haul up Bareholme Moss, ascending back into the clouds (and picking off a few runners also), to CP4 and the inevitable comment of ‘got your number, 118,’ (accompanied by salacious wink) from a Holmfirth Harriers’ marshal; she gave me a jelly baby also, so this was tolerated a lot better than when the same words escape the mouths of a posse of chavs in a Micra on the A167.
From here it was straight back down again through pathless heather, splashing in Crowden Great Brook and stopping to take the waters, then up the other side through rocks and bracken that obscured all vision. It was here that I made my first and only nav. error of the day, staying too far north to pick up the path that led out of the bracken to the base of Laddow Rocks; with visibility of about 0.5 metres in all direction, the compass had to come out to point me through the ‘forest’ and into the light (I shall worry about the carcinogen exposure another day). The rocks were a three-points-of-contact affair, though dry sandstone is as good a surface as one could get for this, with water waiting at the top courtesy of marshals and a quad bike (CP5). This last mile had taken nearly 20 minutes.
Interestingly, memory tells me the next 4 miles (to Black Hill, CP6, and then down to Holme Moss) were fairly easy running along the Pennine Way then a good, twisting track over more firm peat, and it appears that I averaged 9.30min/mile for this chunk of the race, though the map tells me I climbed around 500′ to reach Black Hill, then descended off it again back to the road. I also know that by now my feet were feeling pretty dreadful, but that I’d broken the back of the race and others were definitely flagging even faster than I, so pushed as hard as I could and regained further places.
Road crossed again (at around 13.5m), the next four miles were a re-tracing of the first four, the traverse down Twizzle Head being pretty dreadful on the feet but offering tantalising glimpses of the reservoirs and conifer plantations near the start.
Finally I hit the metal bridge again and set off uphill, determined to run for as long as possible and to overhaul at least a couple of the line of runners strung out up the last hill – the GPS at one point seemed to think I’d stopped moving, but I made up two places when others stopped to gasp in air, and then another two on very wobbly legs on the shooting track back down to the road.
The last 0.9 miles, deathly dull, back along the roasting, dusty farm track, were hard work but also somehow the fastest of the day at 7.17 min/mile pace, gaining me another three places and seeing me finish in 26th place of 126 starters (my 3:18 finish some way behind winner Karl Gray’s 2:33). In other words, all the hard work of the last 8 miles had brought me back to where I’d been at the 4-mile point; such is the glorious futility of fell-running, and tea rarely tastes as good as when provided in vast volumes whilst watching other runners struggling up the finishing field, all various shades of lobster.
In summary: good race, hard but not too technical, bad shoe choice (my flayed heels made walking rather sore for the next week), rather glad I did it even if not originally planned; I’m also rather taken by the fact that entry, 2x advance rail tickets bought the week before and taxi there/bus back came to almost exactly this year’s GNR entry fee.