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.
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