If you haven’t read Charlie Spedding’s book (From Last to First: How I Became a Marathon Champion), I can heartily recommend it. One of the ideas he touches on (and I apologise for the terrible paraphrasing) is that your subconscious brain will hold you physically accountable for any deals you make with it.
My deal wasn’t anywhere near as grand as holding out for an Olympic marathon medal. I’d been fending off a cold all week, somehow managing to keep it to a light tickle at the back of my throat. We had a family celebration weekend planned in the Lakes (I wouldn’t be able to make it to the XC at Aykley Heads) and I was desperate to make the most of it, not have a cold spoil things at the last minute. As with any of these weekends, we had walks planned and I also really wanted to get out on the high fells for a run. Did I make a deal with myself? I don’t remember thinking the words, but maybe the underlying desire was enough.
Come Sunday morning, I was still holding the cold at bay so my run was on. My original plan had been a loop from where we were staying in Hartsop up to Hayeswater, climb The Knott and then head clockwise to High Street, Thornthwaite Crag and Gray Crag before the steep descent back into Hartsop. As the week had progressed I was getting more uncertain of this route – not my ability to do it under normal circumstances, more whether it might be pushing a little too hard if I wasn’t 100%. I had picked out a couple of alternatives and after a final planning session the night before with my (considerably) better half, I decided to dial it back to something slightly shorter with a little less climb; I’ll be back another day and the other route will still be there waiting for me.
I was running this solo. I’ve done this plenty of times before, but I never take the fells for granted. I know from first-hand experience how the weather in the Lakes can change in a moment and how a simple problem can become much more serious because of the remoteness. I treated it like a race, making sure I had FRA minimum mandatory kit, so I was carrying full waterproofs, map, compass, whistle, emergency food, gloves, hat and buff plus a head-torch (yes, I’m a real pessimist) and thermal blanket. In addition, I had my mobile phone (not expecting any signal, mainly for taking photos) and was running with a GPS watch, which could provide me with a grid reference if I really needed it. I left my route back at base with an ETA in case something happened to me. The final factor to consider was the weather forecast (mwis.org.uk is the only source I trust) and this was distinctly favourable – relatively mild for the time of year, light wind and most importantly no cloud cover.
It was chilly and clear as I set off, immediately donning my gloves. I headed through Hartsop village, and then almost immediately made a potentially disastrous navigation error. I knew I needed to turn right and cross a bridge, but I took the first one I came to and nearly went off up Pasture Beck – completely the wrong valley! As a junior orienteer, I was always told that the first rule of relocation is accepting you might be in the wrong place. Luckily all that experience came in handy and I quickly backtracked to the main path.
Immediately after crossing Wath Bridge, the track started to climb steeply over the lower slopes of Gray Crag. I dropped to a fast walking pace – this was a substitute for a long run, not a race, and I didn’t want to trash my legs and spoil the ridge section or descent. In the end, I only managed to run a very short section of the total climb after the bridge.
Before long I’d climbed above the Filter House, a leftover from when Hayeswater was an operational reservoir and was crossing Hayeswater Gill just below where the dam used to be. I followed the obvious path a little way up the fell before a quick stop to take a few photos. Then it was upwards; I intended to follow the bridleway marked on the OS map, but the paths on the ground made following the northernmost wall a more logical choice. Before I knew it, I’d reached the Coast-to-Coast path and was surprised at how short the climb had been, overall 40 minutes from setting off – 2.5 miles and 420m of climb. Could I have kept climbing? Probably. Would I have had the same experience? Definitely not. And besides which, it was too late, I wasn’t going to deviate from the route plan I’d left behind.
After a few more photos, I turned my back on The Knott and High Street, heading northwest towards Satura Crag. The sun was out, the breeze on my back (when does that ever happen?) and the views were just amazing. In between sections where I had to carefully watch my foot placement, there were some clear stretches of path where I could drink in the views, especially towards Fairfield and the Helvellyn ridge. I carefully picked my way across Satura Crag, where the path wasn’t always distinct – the walls and a compass were my friends here and it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a great place to be caught in low cloud – before dropping down to Angle Tarn. This is such a beautiful place, a high tarn with views across the valley. I felt I had to add some balance, so stuck my mug in the way of it for a selfie.
Below Angletarn Pikes the path splits and I kept to the westernmost one, with clear views down across the fields of Patterdale and into Deepdale. As I ran I was thinking how fortunate I was to be there and to be able to do what I was doing. Sadly, it was over all too soon and I was on the descent to Boredale Hause. I passed a pair of runners heading up the steep section, cheerfully telling them that I’d already done my penance for the morning as I bounded gracefully (at least, in my head) down the rocky path past them. Within a couple of minutes, I was standing on the great plateau of the Hause. Before descending, I sent a quick text to my family since I had a signal; pointless, it turned out because they didn’t!
The descent was steep and I could feel my quads protesting at me braking but I didn’t have the confidence to let go until I reached the more friendly gradients lower down. Then it was just a case of following the bridleway south down the valley back to Hartsop.
The total bill was 6.4 miles and 500m climb, according to my Garmin. Kit used: gloves, map and compass. Experience: priceless.
For the record, the cold finally kicked in about two hours after I got back…there could well be something in that theory.