Tag Archives: Wasdale Horseshoe Fell Race

Wasdale ‘Horseshoe’, Lake District, Saturday, July 14, 2018

AL / 34km / 2750m

Elaine Bisson

Courtesy of Stephen Wilson

The Wasdale Fell Race claims to be one of the toughest fell races and I was soon to realise just how tough.

Since my BGR I’d tried not to lose fitness but unfortunately, recovery has taken its time and it was only last week that my body and my knees were feeling anywhere near as strong. I was eager to get a fell race under my belt though, having hardly raced all year.

I had planned to recce the whole route a few weeks ago, but parking at Seathwaite and meeting the race route at Esk Hause at a steady pace had only got me as far as Greendale. With 6 hours already on the clock and a fair way to go, I’d sensibly headed back to the car. This did mean that the only section I hadn’t recced was that between Greendale, on up to Seatallan and then onto Scoat Fell. Unfortunately, it was also the part I was most likely to lose my way, as there are very few paths/trods.

It’s a 3-hour drive; thankfully it doesn’t start until 11 am. Parking is in a field behind the National Trust car park at Wasdale. I arrived at a field packed with camper vans and extremely lean, mean and fit runners, mostly male…there were a handful of female runners. A board stood beside the registration HQ (a van) declaring that this race was not for novices. GPS devices should not be needed (you should be confident with map and compass). Cut off times were strict. Now, this was something I’d never factored in. The cut-off times were pretty tight. I knew for a fact on my recce I hadn’t even reached the first checkpoint within cut off, let alone the others. The weather forecast was for fog early on, then sunshine from 4. I could already see that Pillar, Gable and the Scafells were hiding in the clouds. Too late to worry; I was here now. Time to test myself.

I got my number; my dibber was tied to my wrist. We were assembled for a quick race briefing. Standing there, swallowed up by my fear, a female runner congratulated me, ‘well done’ she said. As I looked at her puzzled, she started chuntering on about how she was impressed. I looked so glamorous for a fell race. She loved my skort and thought my attire was very well put together. She then started garbling on about how she loves red lipstick and that’s she’s never found one that stays put during races. This is when I switched off entirely and resolved to run as fast and as far away from this lady as possible!

And then it was on. Through the gate and up, up, up and up some more. I was keen to keep as much in the tank as I could. There is little let-up in the whole race. The last 4 miles are just as hard if not harder than the first four and all the bits in the middle.

Finally hitting the top of Illgill Head there’s a lovely runnable section towards Whin Rigg. I kept a good pace along here enjoying the cloud cover and the views. I reached the first checkpoint with only 10 minutes to spare. Not as much as I’d hoped. As I started to descend to Greendale, the initial bit is nice and grassy. My poor trainer choice already had me skidding on the dry trod, then it steepened and I was really like Bambi on ice. I couldn’t believe I’d left my Innov8s at home. Runners streamed past and I cursed myself for my poor preparation. On this part alone, I fell on my bum at least 5 times.

At Greendale there’s a very short trail leading across the valley bottom, the route here was taped. I nearly took myself out on a gate whose hinges had stuck fast, leaving a tiny gap to squeeze through. Then there’s a path along the river before it winds through fields. I passed a man lounging in the shade of a tree only to realise that it was Joss Naylor ‘ well-done lass’ he calls as I run past, the biggest grin appearing on my face.

Then it’s onto unknown territory as we make the climb up the base of Middle Fell, through waist-high bracken, across the stream and on up the unending grassy slopes of Seatallan. Geoff hates this hill, I can see why. It’s so monotonous, made even worse by the fog that is closing in as we rise. I listen intently to the men behind, consumed with their splits, they start me worrying again about cut-offs and one says he missed it last year. Scared I’m in bad company I push on a bit faster. I want to finish comfortably.

Eventually, I reach the top, 20 minutes within time. I pause briefly to check my bearing and then head off towards Scoat Fell. By now I seem to have joined a group who are running at a similar pace. It doesn’t change until the climb to Great Gable. They descend again faster than me. I’m still worried about my knees, which took one hell of a battering on my BGR, and my slippy trainers are not helping matters. I work hard to catch them up on the relatively flat grass (its known as Pots of Ashness) and I’m relieved this usually boggy section is today, as dry as a bone. Then it’s a climb again on an unholy uncomfortable camber where I find my ankles are bending at a ridiculous angle. Through some rocks, at the base of Gowder Crag, until we hit Scoat Fell.

I know the route now and am happy to have reached familiar territory again. I’ve been running with another woman since the start. Its quite foggy, visibility is down to at most 5 metres. It’s comforting running alongside someone else. We encourage each other on and share our supplies of sweets. There’s again a climb onto Pillar. I know it well and can take myself directly to the cairn. We pause at the checkpoint then I quickly get my bearings for the descent. It’s not long really until the path becomes visible and it’s easy going, sometimes across rocks/ boulders but it soon breaks into a lovely little trod onto Black Sail Pass. I trip far too many times, not used to my wide cushioned trainers on this uneven surface. Again the group pulls away and I am chasing again until we start the ascent to Gable. I drop down off the side of Kirk Fell. I haven’t gone on this route but I know where it should be. I must look confident as a man following asks me the way. I’m pleased, as now the clouds have cleared; we can see the little line of runners leading the way. I start to chat and I’m with this man virtually until the end. It’s really getting hot now and my pack is much lighter since I’ve been drinking most of my supplies.

I don’t like Gable, it’s a great big mound of rock and I’ve never been up or down it the same time twice. It’s here I start to pass a few runners. I’m definitely stronger on the ascents. I quite enjoy the climb; I’ve taken a daft route and end up needing to use my hands to pull myself up over the huge boulders. It’s a pleasant change from running.

Quite soon we’ve reached the top (now only 15minutes to spare) and my companion tells me that this is now the home straight, no more cutoffs…woohoo I can finish after all! The man persuades me to follow him on his quicker route, which turns into a nice scree run where I can let my legs recover. We reach the stretcher box then it’s on up past Sprinkling Tarn. All the inflows and outflows are pretty dry today. Runners are starting to slow, the heat making it hard work and all those miles/hills taking their toll.

I start to pass quite a few. A lovely change from the rest of the race where I’ve felt like the last, desperately hanging on. I tuck into my last Snickers, grab a handful of jelly sweets at Esk Hause checkpoint and I feel pretty strong now. The views are stunning, I know I can complete it and I’m slowly picking off other runners.

I like the huge boulder hopping near Ill Crag and make reasonable progress up to Scafell Pike. Then it’s downhill at last, although I’m not looking forward to it. It’s steep with rocky sections. We both smile as we hit the soft grass of Lingmell and it’s a nice flattish grassy run until we hit the corner and it steepens again. It’s also very slippy with small sections of gravel. We pass two walkers heading down on their bums, I’m pleased… it’s not long ago since that would have been my preferred choice of descent. Today, however, I’m attempting to run as fast as my knees and trainers will allow. My companion falls on his bum a few times. I somehow stay upright but am far slower than I’d have liked.

Relieved not to be last, I skip through the field, through the gate and am encouraged to the finish line by fresh-faced finishers (they’ve probably been there for hours).

I chat with a few other runners who have shared some of my journey. The overriding feeling is that it was tough…I’m surprised just how tough. Without a doubt its the toughest race I’ve done. My friend, who I met from the DT series, a really good trail runner, failed to reach Seatallan checkpoint.

I’m proud to have finished. I know it wasn’t my best run, but it’s one hell of a race attracting some of the best fell runners the country has to offer (Jasmin Paris is, yet again, first lady). I try not to be too disappointed but I know I’ll really have to up my game before my next attempt.

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Wasdale Horseshoe Fell Race, Saturday, July 9, 2016

AL / 21.1 miles, 9022ft

Geoff Davis

A Challenging Day!

Event Organisers Whiteboard showing race terms and conditions.

On your marks, get set, GO!

Come with me across the 21 miles and 9,000ft of the Wasdale Horseshoe Fell Race traversing the roughest and most famous fell country in England. It’s raining, windy and the mist is down to about 1,000ft. The race starts along a runable stony track before switching uphill onto the steep, grassy, tusocky and boggy fell side of Illgill Head. We’re all walking now, because of the steep gradient, and we quickly enter a world of mist and rain. The gradient eases near the summit and a ‘sheep trod’ takes us left of the top and on to the first check point atop of the next fell: Whinn Rigg. Visibility is down to about 20 metres and so there is no possibility of seeing the wonderful view down to Wast Water and across the fells of Lakeland. The first checkpoint is reached after about 45 mins (cut off time 1 hour) and the steep descent begins back to valley level. I start well on the thick grass underfoot but lose places on the steeper, stony, eroded path through the bracken. My well worn knees only allow a certain speed and I’ve no desire to take a fall on a day like this.

We’re now on the only ‘easy’ section of the race which takes us through fields and woods across the wet Wasdale Valley to Greendale – the home of fell running legend Joss Naylor and his wife Mary. They are both there on the bridge giving out orange juice. “Well done lad, how was that?” says Joss to me. “Not too bad” I reply “do you think it’ll fair up today Joss?” He scowls “oh, there’s a lot of low stuff still due to come in”. I thank him and Mary and head off. He’s dead right about the weather of course!

Nonetheless it’s mild as I begin the upward plod back onto the fells and to the next checkpoint of Seatallan (2266ft). I think of taking off the ‘cag’ I’ve been wearing from the start. As if on cue, the rain peps up and the wind increases by a few knots so the cag stays on – for the rest of the race. I cross a stream that’s now in semi-spate. It matters little as I’m already soaked to the skin. The occasional runner comes and goes in the mist although a lady runner stays nearby all the way to the summit of the steep, grassy and boggy hill of Seatallan. Two marshals huddle around the exposed trig point with the wind and rain howling around them (this is why they have cut off times!) I pass over my token, tell them that number 25 has dropped out (as requested to do so by the Greendale marshals), thank them and head off towards Pillar; the next check point and some 4 miles distant.

An easy, grassy descent takes me into a boggy area glorying in the name of ‘Pots of Ashness’. Navigation now becomes a real challenge. With a few other runners I pick up a trod through the thick mist and mire. With careful route finding I know I can avoid climbing the hill of Haycock, and even Scoat Fell, if I get it spot on. Ignoring others that climb up to my left I head onwards on a bearing. I do mange to miss out Haycock but the steep ground pulls me up to Scoat Fell and onto familiar and easily navigable terrain so no matter. Rocky ground is now the norm causing my foot placement to become more measured and my pace to slow. Two runners ahead of me veer off onto a narrow rocky trod that I know avoids a bit of climb so I follow. One of them is uncertain: he turns & shouts his doubts to me. I give the thumbs up and he carries on.

photograph of mass start

The narrow col between Scoat Fell and Pillar is extremely windy and it’s hard to keep one’s feet. I hold onto the wet rock as I begin yet another steep climb. Other runners are struggling with the conditions and the navigation but I’m confident of the route and just battle on against the elements – at least it’s not cold! The summit of Pillar (2’7ft), the next check point, arrives and I’m around 15 minutes inside the cut off. The marshals have some shelter here so are fairly cheery. I hand over a token, they glance at me, establish I’m fit to carry on and off I go.

It’s a wet, rocky descent from Pillar down to Black Sail Pass and, because of the conditions; I can’t see the easier lines that I know are there. Descending becomes slow, laborious and frustrating. Two runners pass me and I vent my frustrations into the screaming wind! Finally I arrive at the pass and look around in the mist for Susan, who I know should be there, and there she is! She gives a little jump as she’s been waiting for some time and is pleased to see me! I take a drink, tell her I’m ok and head off on the traverse of Kirk Fell. This is one top we don’t have to go over. Some of the runners around me though are unsure of where they are and whether they’re on the correct path (or trod). I re-assure them that they are indeed at Black Sail and that this narrow, rocky trod; on this steep fell side running with water is exactly where they should be!

The traverse is out of the teeth of the gale and gives a little respite although the wet and the rock continue. I calculate that I have 55 minutes to reach the next checkpoint on the top of Great Gable and conclude, as I’m still feeling ok, that it is just about doable. The familiar ground of Beck Head is reached (the col between Gable and Kirk Fell) and the steepest, wettest, rockiest, crapiest climb of the day begins. The route finding through the rock however takes my mind off the conditions and I pass a couple of guys before reaching the top of Gable (2949ft). I’m very pleased on my arrival as I’m 13 minutes inside the cut off and, although there’s still a long way to go, there are no more cut off times to contend with and I’m reasonably confident I’m going to finish!

Geoff Davis. A couple of other guys are faffing around with bearings but I know the way off and I don’t want to hang around in this gale. Off I go down across the boulders onto the paved bits of path with the wind getting even stronger! On a rare grassy bit, where I’m going reasonably quickly, a big gust nearly sends me crashing into the surrounding rocks. I manage to keep my feet and crouch down until the wind subsides a little and I’m able to move again. I finally reach Sty Head pass where the wind is being funnelled between the massive mountains of Scafell and Gable. I can barely hear myself think let alone hear the comments of one or two walkers who have ventured out today – they just get the thumbs up instead! I seem to be on my own now as I head upwards to Esk Hause the next checkpoint. There are a few streams to cross and they are all raging with white water although I’m never in above my knees so there’re no bother and it’s still fairly mild. Because I can’t be bothered with the faff of extracting map from bum bag I add a couple of hundred meters to the route in finding Esk Hause. No matter, I’m still ok. I force a bar down my neck and press on to Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain!

No runners around me now but I’m happy with that. I know the route well so the mist is no problem. The wet rocks are a different matter though and I have a few slips and a few scrapes. Nearing the top I catch a few runners up and a couple more appear behind me so, at the summit (3210ft), there’s a queue at the checkpoint! I follow a bearing off the top and descend the rocky, boulder strewn path. The rain and wind continue as I hit the grassy slopes of Lingmell. My foot goes down a hole and I just about stay upright – I curse the conditions. There are a few runners around so it’s a race down the final steep descent. I overtake a couple but a searing pain from cramp grips my leg and they overtake me again. Further down I recover and take a few scalps in the last half mile. I’m feeling ok and the relief on approaching the finish is tangible. Susan’s there to cheer me in and take my photo. I’m moving quickly as I cross the line and have a great sense of achievement on finally finishing.

What a day! 6 hours 27 minutes – a bit slower than 12 years ago but conditions are so much more challenging today. The Wasdale Horseshoe is a race many fell runners aspire to do. It tests your fitness, experience and fell craft to the maximum. Have a go by all means but please, as the FRA requires “you must be confident you are capable of completing any race you enter”!

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Wasdale Fell Race, Lake District, Saturday, July 13, 2013

AL / 21m / 9,000'

Tom Reeves

A month after Ennerdale and I was at the start of another classic fell race on an even warmer day! God it was hot. Although shorter than Ennerdale this is reputed to be even tougher due to the terrain and the fact the last climb is “only” up Scafell Pike, Englands highest mountain.

It was uphill from the start and very quickly downhill for me! The start takes you up Illgill head and the ridge along the top of Wasdale Screes to Whin Rigg. There follows a steep decent into Greendale and the stifling heat of the valley. If my wife Joan had been at Greendale I am pretty certain I would have stopped after only 6 miles. The race goes past Joss Naylors house and he was there with buckets of water and drinks. My head went straight into a bucket of water. There were fell runners lying all over the grass looking very poorly they had obviously not taken notice of the race notes not to go to quick at the start.

Tom before the off ...

Well I joined the queue up to Seatallan a very very long climb but at least there was a bit of breeze higher up. There were also plenty of streams to dip your head in and drink from which I duly did at every opportunity. From Seatallan the route takes you round to Pillar and a long decent then brutal climb up Great Gable. The climb up GG was physically my lowest point on the race I had eaten two gels that’s how bad it was! And I still had nothing in the legs or tank. The run down to Styhead Tarn really battered the quads and the pull up to Esk Hause strained the lungs to bursting point.

I passed a chap on the final climb up to Scafell Pike and I asked him how he was doing at which point he projectile vomited across the fell side. Needless to say he wasn’t having a great time. The run down from the summit to the finish I’m sure on any other day would be such fun but after 20 leg battering miles I struggled all the way to the end.

Both these races totally humbled me. I’ve done a few ultras and a lot of fell, but these are in a totally different league. If you ever fancy doing them you have been warned 😉

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