I’d first heard of the Anniversary Waltz when, around 14 years ago, a striking photo of a runner approaching the summit of, I think, Robinson, the lush green of the Newlands valley in the background, graced the front cover of The Fellrunner. Over the years, I’d wondered at the unusual name and had got as far as entering a few years ago, only for life to make other plans. This year was different, as it was announced that the race would be run for the final time, due to the death of one of the married couple who have for two decades organised the race; if not now, never.
Race day dawned bright, with the skies over Keswick clear and the road out to Stair village busy with running traffic – it appeared that Jack, Fiona and I were not alone in taking the last opportunity to race here, and we were informed that c600 runners were here for the Waltz, and c300 for the Teenager (the 15m extended version), many north-eastern vests amongst them, as well as a smattering of national-level talent; to all intents and purposes, this felt very much like an unofficial extension to the English Championships.
Registration was busy though efficient, and after watching the Teenager competitors walk up their first hill from the start (Causey Pike), we had a pleasant half-mile or so to the start, an old mining track that cuts below Catbells. A brief, eloquent speech was made about the life and legacy of Steve Cliff, whose marriage to Wynn this commemorated and in whose name the proceeds would be donated to MND research (I presume the pollen count was high, as there was a lot of eye-rubbing going on), and then we were off, shuffling from a position too close to the rear of the pack, slowly picking up speed as we dodged around runners, descending into the valley bottom with Jack on my shoulder and Fiona not far behind.
The first 3 miles were rapid, and felt it, my watch recording the second mile as sub-7min/mile pace, and I quickly began to realise that if we’d lost height in the first three of nearly twelve miles, and the last mile was downhill, then ALL of the 3600′ height gain would have to take place in the next eight miles. This thought occurred as the track turned to grass, Robinson loomed on the right-hand side and it was decision time – take the pain of climbing Robinson now, in order to get it out of the way, or keep up the speed on the gentle track up the valley and then brace for a sharp final ascent? I went for the former, Jack, just ahead of me, for the latter, and we saw each other again at the top, both hurting a little from the quad-straining gradient and the short section of scrambling. From this first summit, Jack loped ahead of me at speed down the grassy flank of Robinson to the path that leads up to Hindscarth, the next peak of the horseshoe. I tailed as rapidly as I could and rather enjoyed the shallow gradient and springy, forgiving ground, not losing him to sight, then slowly regaining on both he and an NFR runner as we climbed again, passing them near the top, along with another 15 or so runners. Hindscarth summited, it was down again to Dale Head, another nice runnable section with a final rocky drag, passing Tim Skelton en route (not in the race, so a rather surprising sighting) before the section I’d been fearing.
I am a terrible descender in rocky terrain. My balance is not great and my eyes water so much that often I can barely see as I go downhill at speed, leading to a lot of falls. My intention had been to come off Dale Head to the south, using the tourist path. However, having realised I was a reasonable way up the field by now and, more importantly, actually a little ahead of Jack, I could not bring myself to be sensible and therefore attempted the direct route to the stream leaving the tarn at the bottom. If memory serves me, the descent was not enjoyable, was faster than I thought possible, still lost me a dozen or two places, probably accounted for the bruised bits I felt the next day and had me at one point on the verge of having to stop to ‘do a Paula.’ Let us move on; love stories do not include that kind of mess.
The hard bit over, and feet refreshed in the clear waters of the rocky stream crossing, the rest of the race passed well, with places regained on the climb to High Spy, no more lost on the gentle descent before Catbells, another handful gained on the steady run up to Catbells and then a grassy descent that hurt the feet as it got steeper and steeper (I was looking forward to running down the natural curve of the hill, only to be pointed sharp left, down the steep bit, by marshals), but gave enough traction to maintain pace sufficient that only a handful of runners came past me again – none of them Jack, who I was convinced was on my shoulder. Down onto the track where we had started, through a farm, onto tarmac and back to the village where the finishing funnel, a stream for foot-washing and a chap with a hosepipe awaited. At the time of writing, results are unpublished, but I think I took around 2:10 and Jack came in a few minutes later, not helped by one of his shoes disintegrating on Catbells and a touch of heat illness. Fiona? She’d started the race as a ‘nice, steady run’ and then felt competitive halfway round, so had spent the back half picking people off one by one, and seemed fairly upbeat.
It has been said that the deaths of those who will be missed deeply, by many, lead to the most enjoyable wakes; this was such a day – a massive field of people who love the hills gathered together for a day simultaneously about life, death and running. The world moves on. This race does not, though was a fitting tribute to a man who loved the area and the sport and a reminder that a day spent in the hills, with friends, is never a day wasted.