Tag Archives: Borrowdale Fell Race

Borrowdale Fell Race, Saturday, August 4, 2018

AL / 17 miles / 2000 m

Aaron Gourley

Timed Out

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.

Blue line is my route, the red line is where I should have gone.

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!

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Borrowdale Fell Race, Saturday, August 6, 2016

AL / 16.8m / 6562ft

Danny Lim

 

Photo of Danny Lim traversing boulder field. I was stood in a field in Rosthwaite, a tranquil village nestled amongst the central fells of the Lake District. “Hello Danny!”. I looked up to see a familiar face, it was Trevor Matty from Dark Peak. Last year, we hobbled together, cramping up in agony as we made our way to the final checkpoint. We never made it in time for the cut-off and rode the “bus of shame” to the finish. This year, we were back with a score. I was apprehensive as I left home, but had a bit of a morale boost when I bumped into Striders Geoff, Susan, Jules, Steph & Mike H at Penrith service station.

The first mile of the race resembled the Great North Run with jostling and walking as the horde crammed through narrow gates. But it wasn’t long before track became footpath then trod. As we passed the final gate, Billy Bland (the record holder of 35 years) was stood there holding it open for us. What a treat it was to see a legend in the flesh albeit it briefly.

As we climbed up Bessyboot, there was lots of enthusiastic overtaking, but I was wiser from last year. This was a race you didn’t want to overcook. I held myself back and followed a runner who was keeping a sensible pace.

First checkpoint reached and it was just the start. It was only 4 miles to the next checkpoint, but it was across the boggiest terrain I had encountered, every step you took, your foot sank into the ground anywhere from an inch to a few of feet! It was energy-sapping work. And all this was going on whilst having to mind steep drops to the side and climbing uphill much of the way.

An hour later, we crossed Bogistan (I made that up) and started the climb to Scafell Pike. The terrain was entirely different, as we climbed scree then a giant boulder field. None of this was runnable as you had to carefully pick your way with each step. As we climbed higher, we became enshrouded in cloud and the wind-chill effect was more noticeable. Once the summit was reached, the best part was to follow, the scree run!

I was too terrified last year to enjoy this, but once you got the knack it was really fun, sliding your way down. Each step you took threatened to set off a mini avalanche and once in a while, there would be a shout of “watch out” as a boulder would loosen and roll downhill. Thanks to Aaron Gourley’s tip, I had a pair of gaiters which saved me from picking rocks out of my shoes.

It was over too soon and now I had to traverse the “corridor route” which was really scenic but there were a few bits where you had to be careful with a few precipitous drops. Before long I was at the foot of Great Gable, her intimidating profile looming overhead. I made the climb up at a steady pace. It seemed to go on forever but it was only 30 minutes before reaching the top. Here, I passed Trevor who seemed to be good spirits, I wished him well and pushed on ahead.

The climb down was equally steep and rocky as we scrambled down. The next few miles contoured around Brandreth & Grey Knotts and it was quite fiddly. Unnervingly, I seemed to have a small group of runners following me. I gave up on the finding the best line and used the fence as a handrail with my pack in tow.

Throughout the race, I had been monitoring my time constantly. Last year, I was cramping up almost every few minutes after Great Gable and made the Honister checkpoint 50 minutes after the cut-off. As Honister came into view below, I glanced at my watch, I had over 20 minutes to spare; I knew barring a calamity, I was going to finish and celebrated inside.

The final climb up Dalehead wasn’t as bad as I thought and my legs though tired still had energy. After tagging the summit & was a steep grassy drop into the valley with no definite path. I disagreed with the line a Calder Valley runner took and thought I’d be clever by taking a direct but insanely steep approach down. So here I was trampling downhill like an arse (and landing on it a few times too!) whilst everyone else followed her whilst staying upright. In the end, there was little difference (minus my dignity) as we reached Dalehead Tarn at the same time.

After navigating a slate quarry, the Rosthwaite finally came into view below. What a welcome sight! The final mile was all downhill and I mustered enough energy to go on the offensive, picking off several runners before crossing the finish line. What a race! If you’re into fells, I’d strongly recommend it as it is has everything; distance, terrain, technicality and pace to challenge you. But if you’re not familiar with this part of the Lakes, make sure you recce it.

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Borrowdale Fell Race, Saturday, August 1, 2015

AL / 16.8m / 6562ft

Aaron Gourley

The scree is calling.For a moment I feel on top of the world. I’m certainly at the top of England as for a brief second I stop to savour the moment. I’m 2hrs21mins into the race making slow, but steady progress, but I’m not here to break records, and certainly not Billy Bland’s record of 2hrs34mins set some 30 years ago. That being the fell running legend that has, back at the foot of the first peak of Bessy Boot, held the gate open to allow us through unimpeded – I feel privileged.

I’d longed to run this race since my very first hike to the summit of Scafell Pike and subsequent celebratory pint in the Scafell Hotel bar where, engraved on a wooden tablet hanging on the wall, are the names of all the winners of this classic fell race.

Standing on the start line I felt a mix of excitement, nervousness and awe. I was now part of this race. I’d made the cut having ran the requisite qualifying races but I still felt a little out of place. Danny Lim has made the grade too and briefly joins me on the start line. The weather is kind as we set off.

The field quickly spreads as we make our way along the Borrowdale valley floor before turning off for the steep ascent of Bessy Boot. My heart rate hits 91% so try to slow the pace but I also need to ensure I will be going fast enough to meet the cut offs.

Checking in at the summit of Bessy Boot the race swings west along the ridge heading towards Esk Hause. It’s undulating and following a period of heavy rain, the ground under foot is soft and boggy, so much so that guy in front sinks to his waist. This makes for hard running as we contour the ridge around Glaramara and Allen Crags.

Eventually, Esk Hause is reached and we can make our way to Scafell Pike. The ground changes from soft, wet bog to hard, uneven boulder fields. This section requires a high level of agility and concentration to make it safely across.

The summit of Scafell Pike is as busy as a local park and a thick mist briefly obscures the view but my main concern is the infamous scree shute that leads us back onto the corridor route towards Styhead Tarn. At the top I look down and there’s a line of runners tentatively making there way down which restricts my desire to bound down wildly for fear of dislodging rocks that could potentially do significant damage to anyone in the way.

Despite my reserve it’s still a fantastically adrenaline filled descent but my shoes are filled with debris so I join the many others who’ve taken a moment to empty their footwear at the bottom. Once I’ve laced back up I head off down the corridor route which, can be treacherous in all conditions before cutting off and following a faint runners line towards the Styhead checkpoint.

From here starts the solid climb up to Great Gable. The race line is straight up as we pass walkers zigzagging up the path. It’s here I start to feel the strain and realise that I need to get more fuel and water into me. Checking in at the summit the route swings East towards Green Gable and across to Honister Hause. This section is a real struggle and a group of runners pass me as I begin to slow down. Thankfully as I reach the head of the ridge before the steep drop down to the slate mine at Honister I pick up but it’s still painful.

Honister Hause has a 3:30pm cut off, I get there with 10mins to spare. I’m happy to have made it but now have to tackle the 1mile uphill climb to the summit of Dalehead. I have issues with Dalehead after my visit here during the Teenager with Altitude fell race earlier in the year. The climb zaps me but my main concern is how my legs will hold up on the near vertical drop off the side to the tarn for the final run in.

As expected, the descent is painful and I can only watch as those in front of me seem to glide away into the distance. But before long I’m back on level ground as the race snakes its way back through the farm at Rothswaite and into the finish field. As I turn the corner Danny is walking in the opposite direction which confuses me but then I realise he’s not made the cutoff at Honister.

I’m cheered in by quite a reasonable amount of people and it’s only when I’m handed my race time print out that I realise just how long it’s taken me to complete the race. I was thrilled to have got round, my body was battered, every muscle ached and I was covered in mud but I’ll never forget the pleasure I got from having been part of a truly classic race.

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