Tour De Helvellyn, Askham, Lake District, Saturday, December 16, 2017

38 miles

Elaine Bisson

This was my big one; I’d been building up to it for months. The Tour of Edinburgh (55km) had been a practise run. Nothing really could prepare me for this day. It was just unbelievable. I’ve been going to the Lakes since I was tiny; it was our only summer holiday destination. We would stay in Glenridding, so I knew a lot of the route. I had also recced it in two parts, Askham to Patterdale once with Geoff and the rest by myself. However, reports of good navigators getting lost on Askham Moor concerned me.

I’d packed my bag and checked it twice (mandatory kit and lots more layers just in case), charged my head torch, marked my map, set my compass for the all-important Askham fell crossing…even borrowed a watch from Stuart who had added the GPS route just in case it went horribly wrong.

I woke at 4 am, ate my breakfast, prepared a few snacks and then sat in my car while it defrosted, wondering when on earth this behaviour became normal. I arrived at Geoff and Susan’s at 5:15. Susan had offered to drive.

We arrived just past 7 to find the hall teaming with runners filling up on breakfast (a lot had camped out on the community centre floor). We registered and were given a race tag that would be scanned at all 8 checkpoints. We had to arrive at Side Farm, Patterdale from 9:30; we weren’t allowed to pass through any earlier. From my last and only recce I’d worked out I should be able to arrive in 1hr50, so wanted to leave at 7:45. Hopefully, the sun would be coming out and if I was lucky, dusk wouldn’t have fallen on my return. This seemed to be Geoff’s plan as well. After a thorough kit check, we scanned our tags and the race was on.

We opened the door to see the sun just kissing the sky, visibility was good, Susan was waiting to cheer us on and we were off up the icy road onto the track, through the gate and onto Askham Moor. It was an amazing morning, you could see over Ullswater, the mist just rising in places, the far-off fells white. There was no wind and weather conditions, apart from the temperature, seemed reasonable.

I kept to a comfortable pace. A sheet of ice covered most of the paths and I had to go pretty slowly to work my way across anyway. On the safer gravel bridleway, I could pick up my speed. I was disappointed as most of this section is on good runnable trails or road so I had wanted to make sure I got these easier miles under my belt, however, the ice slowed progress.

CP1, Martindale Church. There were a lot more runners than I expected. With the staggered start, I’d thought it would be quiet but the trails were relatively busy. On up to Boredale Hause and I passed quite a few as I tucked into my first flapjack of the day.

Running down the hill to Side Farm I grew really frustrated as I slowed on the uneven surface and a few men flew past. With a concerted effort I caught the lady in front only to realise it was Ros, the organiser of the DT series, we exchanged a few greetings and I finally reached CP2, Side Farm, perfectly timed…1hr46!

My card was scanned and the Marshall told me this is where I should look happy as he pointed/directed me towards all the food and drinks set up inside the warm tea room. I was slightly confused, the day had only just begun and I had a considerable amount of miles to cover yet.

I continued on over the cattle grid and into Patterdale, I knew these little valleys so well, I felt happy coming back. I made a sneaky detour up through the Glenridding car park as most runners took the longer route (by a few 100m…every metre counts) up the main road; it gave me such pleasure to arrive on the road ahead of them.

As I started the climb up to Sticks Pass the scenery became increasingly whiter as the ground was covered in more snow. The valley bottom was shrouded in mist and a light rain hung in the air. I stopped to put on my jacket knowing it would get colder as we climbed. I looked up and considered taking a more direct line to the top, but unsure I followed the majority along the zigzag path.

CP3, Trolls Bridge. I’d looked forward to the pass, it’s got a lovely undulating path, which isn’t too strewn with rocks and isn’t so steep that you can’t run most of it. However, today it was covered with a thick layer of snow, in places going up past my knees. I tripped and fell into it quite a few times. It was amusing to try to ‘run’ past people who were out for the day on their skis.

This is obviously a big race day; quite a lot of the well-known fell runners were there. I was bewildered to see a woman pass me then stop to the side of the footprints to pull down her leggings and knickers and happily wee in front of all.

Despite packing all but my kitchen sink I’d forgotten my sunglasses, which would have come in handy. The glare off all the snow was so blinding. I was pleased by the proximity of the other runners and that snow wasn’t still falling, although the mist clung to the valley making visibility quite poor. It would be really easy to go off track and get lost in this unforgiving white landscape.

Finally, I reached the top. Next came the descent down to Thirlspot and CP4. Not as quick as I’d hoped, as the snow was really thick, as I struggled on the steep slippy descent. Katie (2nd fastest female BGR) and Nicky Spinks flew past.
The views down this valley were just beautiful. Snow dusted the lower slopes, the tops were white, the low sun had a reddish glow and a mist danced along Thirlmere. I like the path here that winds along the stone walls, across little becks, the high fells flanking either side.
At Swirls carpark I was feeling tired and cold so stopped briefly at CP5 to fill my mug with hot sweet tea and sipped it as I made my way up onto the forest tracks, pleased to make use of my early Christmas present, a foldable mug!

This is my least favourite stretch, on my recce. I’d found it monotonous and was surprised by the roads that still twisted up the valley. The snow and views were beautiful today though, so I was happily distracted. I was busy following the trainer footprints trying to work out how many people may have passed this way before me. There didn’t seem to be too many, and here and there were the distinct prints of reindeer!

Down to CP6 and then on up Raise Beck. I somehow managed to sink knee-deep in mud…about the only muddy square metre on the whole route, then hauled myself out to immediately skid on ice and land on my bum making my leggings v cold and wet and soaking my gloves. Thank goodness I had also packed my buffalo mitts! This knocked my confidence, as I now had to find a safe route over the beck without falling in. The rocks were either covered in ice or just very slippy. As I floundered about and skidded, nearly landing in the beck, some men who had followed my lead skipped past on the same route and headed on up the hill. I cursed them under my breath for their speed and sure-footedness. It wasn’t long before my spirits were lifted, seeing Santa sitting on a rock wishing us a Merry Christmas, just as Jules had said (I promise I wasn’t hallucinating).

Much to my surprise, Susan was here too, hoping to spot us on route. She laughed when I told her how tough it had been and said Nicky wasn’t too far in front. I found it difficult getting the right line around the tarn, the snow was really thick. I tried to follow the trainer prints but it was slow going. Where it lay thinner I could run but most was a hard slog through thick, thick snow. The stunning views made up for it.

On down the Grisedale valley and I was relieved to see the green slopes now not so far away. I chose completely the wrong route; coming down slowly on the path…I know time and places were lost. But again I found myself in familiar territory. I’d spent one summer trying to get fit with my brother, run-walking between these valleys. I’d gone on my tiny dinghy down the little beck and had been chased by feisty cows through a field. I’d been one of very few who had come here when foot and mouth disease had wiped out tourism and remember dipping my trainers at all the gates. I love this place, so while I was beginning to feel very tired my memories kept me going. The road did feel very hard going despite being predominantly downhill until CP7, back at Side Farm. A supporter gave me a massive cheer and told me to keep going, ‘just keep putting one foot in front of the next’…so that’s exactly what I did and I kept repeating it to myself all the way back.
So now to retrace my steps. I felt quite daunted; I’d already been on my feet far longer than I ever had in a race. I wasn’t looking forward to the trudge up to Boredale Hause. I was flagging. I stopped again, filled my bottles with juice and took another cup of sugary tea up the path.

I’d only been to the top of the Hause once with Geoff. I’d thought there was only one path to follow, unfortunately, it branches and I missed the quicker route, ending up circling around and back on myself. Panic rose as I didn’t remember the path; I was so relieved to find the ruined wall that marked the right route.

Annoyed at myself and tiredness drifting in, I pushed on as hard as I could. I started having to make deals with myself, to run to certain markers and then walk, to set regular snack intervals.

It’s still about 10 miles back; a long way after already completing 28miles. I was keen to reach the moor before sunset though, so this kept me pushing forward.

Martindale CP8 done and only one left to go. I started to keep in time with two men who’d been running together. When they ran I ran, when they walked I did the same. It felt comfortable and it distracted me from my negative thoughts. I kept up with them until the cockpit stone circle. I was determined to keep on Geoff’s shortcut after that.

The paths here scatter crazily across the moor. I knew I could go wrong. However, it wasn’t dark, the fog hadn’t fallen and I could see the trees that marked my way home (this was one of my major fears, getting lost in poor visibility on the moor, so the relief was quite something)!

The men in front took a different line but I fixed on bearings and made my way across the moor until I hit the path I knew well from running up as a kid. I realised I’d picked up quite a few places trusting in his directions.

It was pretty much downhill from now and my legs really ached but the thought of finally being able to stop and sit. I speeded up as much as I could, between the ice, only to have to stop to wait for a tractor to cross the road. Then I saw the sign for the finish and stopped for a second, before turning the handle and opening the door to the community centre, final CP, the journey’s end.

I could barely smile and was close to tears; sheer exhaustion had taken over, what a day. It’s strange how you can keep moving forward but once you stop that’s it, and that was certainly it for me.

I must have looked a state. When changed and cleaned up, I arrived at the small canteen and the lady insisted that I sit down and she would bring me all the soup and tea I fancied. I pulled out my phone to tell John ‘your wife is still alive’! He’d had reservations about my adventure. There was no signal though, so I sat and watched as all the weary runners entered.

It’s quite a sight, seeing all the relief and pride flood through the doors. Most wobbled, not quite in the present; a few grinned from ear to ear. The overriding feelings were of pride, exhaustion and gratitude to arrive safely home after what was quite an epic adventure.

I watched the minutes pass waiting for sight of Susan or Geoff; I was relieved to see Geoff arrive safely back. He’d managed a 15-minute PB in conditions that were tougher than some of his previous 6 races; he was also first in v60 group, by a huge margin of 1 hour 15 minutes.

We shared our stories over our tea and soup until refilled and rehydrated, Susan took us back home.

Can’t quite express my deep satisfaction having raced this event. Even last year I wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting anything like it. My hardest, most memorable race yet, can’t wait to do it again!

[Photographs courtesy of John Bamber, Piers and Hillary Barber and Jim Tinnion]

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