22/6/24, 20.8km, 1518m (AL)

Preparation for this race began in 2022. I’d pre-entered that year but had to pull out with COVID. I’d obviously done a bit of research: when I dug my OS map out last week it still had the checkpoints dimly marked in pencil.

My vague plan for the summer is to be fit enough to run Borrowdale in August, which I’ve done three times before. I’d done Fairfield (AM) in May and needed a step up to an AL. The distance and elevation of this course felt right, so those pencil marks weren’t going to be wasted after all.

Much of the story of any race is the build-up the week before. Having entered on Monday, I was faced with a whole new problem on Tuesday. A bunion appeared at the base of my big toe and was rubbing painfully. On Wednesday I went out for a jog and managed 50 yards of intense discomfort before returning to the car. Fortunately I found a knackered old pair of shoes with a convenient hole in the side which made running tolerable, although less so on the technical descents. So not looking promising for Saturday. A scour of the aisles in Boots on Thursday revealed a “bunion guard” which fits over your foot like a bandage. A final test of this on Friday was encouraging, enough to make the trip a goer.  

I’d wondered about staying over in the Lakes the night before and/or after but eventually decided to make it a long day trip. A 5am start sounds early but it’s less of an issue when it’s already daylight. I’ve also recently acquired a highly neurotic cat (Mona) who, due to neglect from a previous owner, begs for attention and food at any opportunity. I didn’t mind the feline alarm clock today.

A 6.30am departure from Bradford had me pulling into the parking field in Loweswater at 9.45am, in good time for the 11am start. This is an idyllic corner of the Lakes, all the scenery but without the crowds. It felt quiet even with 150 fellrunners trickling in.

I had nice chats with a few familiar faces: Tanya from Fellandale, Dave from St Theresa’s, Joe from Dark Peak. All three though were facing a different prospect to me, as I had entered the “short” version of the course, whereas they were doing the real thing, a 36km monster all the way to Honister and back. Beyond my comprehension at present, I was just hoping to get back before their winner did (both races start together, then the courses diverge at Whiteless Pike).

One of the appealing aspects of fellrunning is how life’s worries drift away as start time approaches, as you focus entirely on the race. I’d forgotten about the bunion now (the guard was comfortably in place) and the final decision was whether to wear a t-shirt under the vest. I’d got uncomfortably sunburnt at Fairfield and didn’t fancy a repeat. However, the sun was out and the temperature rising. Eventually, I plumped for the t-shirt, despite being the only runner in 2 layers. Maybe I should invest in an NLFR t-shirt, if available.

The start was half a mile on the road downhill, which spread the field nicely. A jog through some woods then onto the open fell up Whiteside. We were all soon down to a walk, and it stayed that way for the next 30 minutes. You could probably become a good fellrunner just by doing lots of fellwalking. Near the top, a noticeable cool breeze came in and I felt a bit smug about the t-shirt, it was nice to have it for the rest of the race.

From Whiteside, it was a jog along the ridge to Hopegill Head, with scenic views to both sides. We then took a dive down to Coledale Hause and crossed a lively beck, the first water on the route. I took the precaution of filling my fancy filtration water bottle, to complement the 500ml I’d packed at the start. Then a long drag up to the flat, grassy top of Grasmoor, the highest point on the course. A double-back for half a mile then another descent to Whiteless Pike. The way off the top seemed intuitive and I followed the obvious line towards Buttermere; however this is a potential trap for the full course which deviates here on a less obvious line towards Newlands Hause – take note.

After a long grassy descent we dibbed in Buttermere village. A couple of hours on the watch, a free jelly baby and the bulk of the course done. It had been relatively straightforward up to now and I hadn’t needed to get the map out, following the field ahead had been OK. Actually though, the race was about to change character and, on reflection, I now see it as a race of two halves.

I continued following runners on the main path out of the village, arrived at the foot of Sour Milk Gill and turned right. Only afterwards did I realise that I’d missed a different path which would have saved half a mile. Equally, as the path bent left towards Scale Force I missed a trod to the right and ended up doubling-back through tussocks and bracken, wasting another few minutes. This kind of thing can happen well into a long race.

Then the real sting in the tail: Mellbreak. An impressive and attractive fell from many angles, but this way up via Scale Knott was just a grind, very steep, no trod, just head down, put one foot in front of the other and eventually you’ll get there (I was grateful for the fill-up from the stream earlier to get up the climb). Equally the descent off the col between the two tops. I just followed the runner in front and ended up on a narrow descending trod which felt a bit too technical three hours into a race. A better line may have been to have gone straight down and run in on the level track below. Either way, a recce of Mellbreak is recommended!

Mellbreak. Photo by Tim Haynes used under Creative Commons

Eventually though, I arrived at the finish in Loweswater in a time of 3:21:33, a not unrespectable 26th of 48 finishers on the short course. A massive free spread of veggie chilli, cakes and beverages was waiting as our reward, which made the £15 entry fee (with free parking) a real bargain. Having tucked in and begun to feel human again, a short while later James Harris of Ambleside sprinted in, the winner of the full course in just over 4 hours. We really hadn’t been in the same race.

Results: https://www.sportident.co.uk/results/CFR/2024/ButtermereFR/

Dave Middlemas