I had been really excited about this race for a couple of weeks. The race is organised by Northern Fells Running Club, starting and finishing at the Old Crown pub in Hesket Newmarket, with five checkpoints – the summits of some of the fells after which the brewery (based at the pub) has named its beers.
I’d done one recce a few weeks ago, and found some route choices I was happy with, and some that needed improving. A second planned recce was thwarted by my post-Skiddaw Fell Race feet (now healed) but I was still relatively confident with my chosen route. After my disagreement with eating in the Old County Tops, I’d also carefully planned my snacks, and had them stashed where I could grab them easily. I was aiming on getting round (in 6hrs perhaps) and having a good day out.
I saw Geoff at the start, who rolled his eyes at the fact I’d put my number on my bag (rather than my chest…not enough room with rucksack straps). Anyway, you think that’s bad, wait till you read about my compass.
Kit check and registration complete, 43 runners gathered on the green outside the pub for the pre-race briefing. The sun was shining, and it was fairly warm, though there were a smattering of raindrops as we set off.
There is a mile of road, then from Wood Hall set/flagged routes over fields and then out on to the open fell. A fair amount of running, then a hands on knees climb to CP1 – Carrock Fell. I was quite near the back, but happy to watch a stream of runners ascend ahead of me. Weather still good.
From Carrock the organisers had strongly suggested a route heading towards Round Knott before dropping down to the stream, to avoid the gorse. I’d recced this and knew my way, though the shoulder high bracken near the stream made things fun! Weather and visibility good.
There were three stream crossings to choose from; I had already decided on the first (with a rope) as I wanted to head straight up Bowscale here, rather than nearer Blackhazel Beck (where I had not enjoyed my recce…too tussocky, contoured ground). Again, hands on knees on the steep section, then trudge up, up, up. Check the time – first snack – flapjack.
And then the clouds start to blow over, cutting the visibility to maybe 50yds, and the rain starts. Jacket straight on as I don’t want to get wet and cold. I know I am most of the way up Bowscale, but it’s pathless here so I check the map and do a swift bearing check (compass seemed fine here…. read on). I’d been following a guy in a blue jacket, and now caught him, and we ran together over the pathless ground. We hit the trod coming off Bowscale, and its flatter here, so we both started running towards Blencathra.
Then the steep stony path up to Blencathra. I want to run when I start coming off the top, so I eat again here on the way up – snack two, mini cheese sausage roll. Drink water to help it down. The rain is coming and going, it’s pretty windy, and the clag is thick. I focus on the path in front. Blue jacket is just behind me.
CP2 Blencathra – the marshalls huddled in a tent, and Susan is there too! It’s wonderful to see her, and we have a quick hug and then I’m off, back down to the little pool which for me indicates a left turn down to Cloven Stone. I’ve taken a bearing, and have my compass out to follow….and this is where it goes wrong. My compass needle is swinging around, despite me tapping it, shaking it, and using some rather unladylike harsh language. Every now and then it would settle, and I would confidently start running down the common, and then off it would go again and I’d be reduced to a walk while trying to get it to ‘work’. Blue is still near me in the mist. My compass has become my trusted friend on runs like this – always there, reliable, never lying. I felt lost (emotionally) and let down. What had I done for it to desert me like this, just when I need it? Anyway, I lost track of how long I thought I’d been running downhill, and ended up descending down the valley too early, to the end of Sinen Gill rather than a kilometre or so further north.
So I hit the main track towards Skiddaw House, angry with myself. Blue was with me again, and I explained my error, trying not to sound cross or like I was blaming my tools. Clearly time for snack three – more flapjack.
From Skiddaw House (water available) an easy-to-follow track up Sale How and then Skiddaw. I started to feel pretty weary up here, sick of the mist, and the wind, and my aching legs. I want some proper downhill! It could be hunger. On the final stony climb up to Skiddaw I tucked into snack four – another cheesy sausage roll. It sticks in my throat, but I force it down, knowing how bad I will feel if I don’t eat.
CP3 – Skiddaw. Marshalls sheltering again (it’s pretty wild), pat the trig, and stick with the route I’ve chosen, heading north, and over Bakestall, and follow the fence line to Dash falls. Blue is with me again and I tell him my plan. One alternative (and recommended) route is to follow the BG route over Hare Crag and then up Great Calva, but from my recce I know the path up Little Calva so had already decided to go that way. I tell Blue he’s fine to follow, but not to blame if anything goes wrong, like my descent off Blencathra.
It was pretty good running down here, and then it happened – we dropped out of the cloud, and our whole view ahead was perfectly clear. I love that moment, going from that slightly unpleasant, (but kinda fun), restricted world where visibility is a few yards and sometimes confidence wavers, to suddenly, in a few seconds, having everything visible, the sun shining on the hills ahead, and your route perfectly clear in front. So I shout my wonder and joy to Blue, and filled with energy and confidence I bound down to Dash falls, leaving Blue behind.
From there, a steep and rough trudge up a fence line to Little Calva, then to a pool just north of this, then it’s a good trod up to Knott. My solid food used up (as planned) I have a caffeine gel (it is already past my afternoon coffee time). I’m feeling pretty good.
CP4 – Knott. The going is good from here, runnable grassy trods and a section along the Cumbrian Way. I even manage a slow jog on the uphill’s and pass a couple of guys, stripping my jacket off – it’s warm again. I check behind but I can’t see Blue. On the final climb to High Pike it’s the moment I’ve been waiting for all day – cracking open the tangy, sour, sugar-covered jelly sweets (non-branded today). I eat a handful, smiling at the memory of them saving me on the OCT race, feeling good. I will carry my compass back home, I will apologise to it for swearing, and somehow we will sort out our issues and be besties again.
CP5 – High Pike. Pleased that all of the ‘up’ is behind me, I set off back downhill to Wood Hall, through the intake wall, across a cow-filled field (I shout at a few when they start to look vaguely interested). From Wood Hall I retrace the first mile on the road, but this time it’s all downhill and I race along, and back to the finish on the green at Hesket Newmarket. Brilliant support again from Susan (who had managed to drive to Threlkeld, get up and down Blencathra, and drive back).
The winner finished in an eye-watering sub-4hrs. Geoff had another strong performance finishing in 5.27 (despite a fall – I know, mountain goat Geoff! – and a bout of cramp). I just missed the target 6hr mark (a minute and a half over) but happy with that. I had a cracking day out. I’d like to try this one again, perhaps taking some different (probably faster) lines.
This was a tough race that needs experience and navigation skills (even when clear), and certainly benefits from knowing these hills or a thorough recce. The organisers provided some suggested routes, and cake and tea I think at the end (though I didn’t partake, not up for it…. I just needed cool liquids in the immediate aftermath). I would definitely recommend this one.
Anyway….cut to the evening. Sitting at home, clean and warm, with a glass of wine and access to the internet. Searching for ‘compass not working’. And there it is – compass deflection. I think I’ve heard of this. Underwired bra? Errrrrr……no. I wrack my brains. And then I read ‘magnets that fix a water bladder tube to your rucksack’. What an idiot! I’ve only used the bladder a few times, and only when I haven’t had to use my compass. Compass is stored in a pocket, a few inches away from the end of my bladder tube and that pesky magnet. What have I done?? I can only imagine the tutting and shaking of heads of fellow fell-runners. How I have made it this far??
I will, therefore, bow my head in shame, revert to drinking from muddy puddles, and also share my stupidity with you all if it means that someone else benefits…and can find their way when the clag descends. My compass and I are on good terms again, and I’ve promised to look after it well in the future.
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