Nowadays I never second guess races. I never trust the way I feel the night before, the morning of, or even several miles in. Things have a way of sorting themselves out. So my heart went out to Phil as he tried to recall if the last thing he ate were some lamb chops he’d found at the back of the fridge, although he was quite particular about the number of pints.
Unless I’m very sure of my form or expected finish position I tend to start pretty much all races at the back treating the starting whistle a bit like the bell you get in the theatre telling you it’s time to get back to your seat. Something that you should probably pay some attention to, but there’s still plenty of time to chat, finish your drink and say your farewells. When I did eventually start moving under a clear(ish) blue(ish) sky, I soon became hot and acutely aware of being overdressed. The forecast had been quite explicit about sunshine and showers, cloud and rain, heaven and hell, and the village hall had a few posters on the subject too. But any decent fell runner with any sense will only pay a passing nod to the mandatory kit requirements anyway, and concentrate on taking what they think they might need for any particular race on any particular day. So as well as the mandatory kit I also brought more wet-weather gear than usual but hadn’t bothered with water. No point. I did this race last year in zero visibility and hydration had not been an issue. I’d started the race with 500ml of water and it was untouched at the finish. With cloud and rain forecast, I would definitely not be bothered with thirst today … (I think you can see where I’m going with this).
The first few miles are pretty much an excellent pleasant warm-up despite the guff on the Pete Bland map saying how terrible it is. Flatish along lanes and trails on good surfaces. By the time we got to Newlands Church I’d joined up with Phil and was attempting unsuccessfully to reminisce about last year’s race. “Do you remember we ran up here and we got that lass Julie to take our photo?”. Phil shook his head and looked blank. I thought he was winding me up, but he was serious and couldn’t remember a thing about the last year’s race. Perhaps it was the beer or the lamb chops, but whether it was the route, photos, or chalk hearts melting on a playground wall, Phil was having a big CRAFT moment.
At the start of our first major climb to Robinson I gradually (like last year) made some distance ahead of Phil. It was only 6 days since Phil had finished well ahead of me at Guis. Moors so I wasn’t convinced I’d seen the last of him. Approaching the summit of Robinson I started spotting another Striders shirt and a distinctive pink headband. And although it’s difficult to read the backs of distant runners, this Strider was clearly not in a happy place. It was to be another few miles, at the top of Hindscarth, before I finally caught Andrew up as his fast descent from Robinson had opened up the gap again. This was Andrew’s first ‘proper’ fell race, and I opined/ventured that it was a bit like Swaledale. I was told, in rather robust tones, that it was nothing like Swaledale. This was hard, the climbing was horrible, and he was never going to run again. I nodded sympathetically, as I recalled the last Kielder Borderer in which I’d had a massive amount of time to ponder on the relative merits of struggling across remote fells against that of drinking tea and watching old movies on tv. I didn’t make any real attempt to overtake Andrew as I knew I’d probably burn a lot of energy to make a few yards that he’d probably leap back on the next descent. In fact we did alternate position quite a bit for the next mile or two, carrying on our conversation, sometimes unaware that the other party was not actually there.
Not that that mattered. Other fell runners were happy to fill in the gaps. One runner was bemoaning leaving her gels at home so I introduced her to shotbloks. Leaving the Dale Head checkpoint I lost sight of Andrew on the descent and guessed he’d perked up. The descent from Dalehead offers one of the few route choices and I took a similar line as 2011, but with clear visibility this year it was easier to take a direct line toward the tarn. Once or twice I noticed Andrew away to the right taking the Pete Bland recommended route, and since he’d been descending faster than me from Robinson I was a bit surprised to overtake him somewhere on the way down. Whether this means Andrew had slowed down, I’d speeded up, or Pete Bland is wrong about the fastest descent route, is an interesting question (or three). Shotblok lady informed me that we were approaching the only drinks station on the course. This was good news; I could not recall a drinks station in 2011 but perhaps I’d missed it in the murk, and hadn’t needed it anyway. But this year the promised rain and cloud hadn’t come and I was hot and thirsty. When we got beyond the tarn and she started filling her water bottle in the beck I realised at once what she meant. I was now getting dodgily dehydrated in the unexpectedly dry and mild weather and I gratefully offered her offer of a drink from her bottle although I’d have happily dunked my head in the beck if need be. As we left the waterhole she started muttering “Theresjoss!” over and over again and I just nodded happily and politely although I had no idea what she was saying. When she exchanged greetings with Joss Naylor who was spectating, as you do, at Dale Head Tarn, I realised what she’d been saying. With two walking sticks and his dog he was nodding to all runners as they passed and it was a nice way to start the penultimate climb of the day, High Spy.
I was prepared this year for the least few miles along the High Spy ridge knowing not to forget that Cat Bells was still at the end. Just when you’ve enjoyed a sustained fast descent from High Spy and think it’s time to go home Cat Bells appears from nowhere and stretches out its claws in a luxurious yawn to remind you there’s one more climb left. Taking a longer line this year of Cat Bells I nearly literally bumped into Roberta and paused to get my photo taken (I have my priorities) before giving my new Mudclaws their last burst of the day as I ran down a few feet wide of the path where the running was easier and faster and passed a few runners in the final few yards.
I crossed the line then turned round to walk back up the hill to meet Roberta and look out for Phil and Andrew. I bumped into a DWT chum Laura who was out supporting Nicola (currently chasing (literally) Nina in the Harrier League) and had a chat with them. I excused myself (“gotta milk this one!”) when I saw Andrew appear, looking pleased to be at journey’s end. Phil appeared a bit later running in with NFR’s Andrew Russell.
Last year had taught me that it’s not the distance that makes this race a toughie, it’s the climbing. This year I was not caught out by the 3600 feet although I was very nearly caught out by the unexpectedly mild and dry weather, and if it hadn’t been for the fortuitous appearance of the beck at Dale Head Tarn I might have been in real trouble.
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