‘‘Twas a few days before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse….
When suddenly on my phone there arose such a clatter (whatsapp) I sprang from my chair to read what was the matter
And away to my phone and keyed in the pass(code)
The screen gave the list of objects we need
When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh complete with Santa, and eight tiny reindeer
Messages of tights, t-shirts, tutu’s and antlers abound
We knew in a moment it must be our kit
More rapid than eagles our clothes we obtained
Race day was looming and prizes to gain
As we whistled and shouted our new reindeer names
On comet, on Cupid, on donner and blitzen!
As dry leaves before the hurricane fly
When we meet with obstacles we mount to the sky’s
Over fallen trees and through rivers we flew
Santa sprang in her sleigh and to her team gave a whistle
And away we flew over hillside and moor
We heard people exclaim as we had the finish in sight
“Eeh they did well them lasses staying together”
With much applause we ended our plight
Got first prize for giving such a sight
All bottles of beer to enjoy one night‘
Happy new year to all, and to all good running…
The ladies of NLFR got first prize for fancy dress and I know I am not page three material so I was very pleased we got page four in The Times. A great team effort from Meg, Rose, Ruth, Caroline, Emma, Ann, Hilary, Hannah and me (or Santa, Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Prancer, Comet, Cupid and Vixen). Next year’s outfit is already in our thoughts….
We are excited to be welcoming you all to Kettlewell on Thursday.
Please take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the pre-race briefing before arriving. We’ll all need to adapt out usual routine slightly to ensure the COVID measures are adhered to so these events can continue to be run.
A race. An actual race. A race with real numbers that you pin to your club vest with actual pins. Real checkpoints. Real marshals. Everything real. Everything vivid. Everything I have not done for six months, since FRB and I did the 30-mile Haworth Hobble in March, in the last weekend before lockdown. For this race, timing was important. A week before it was due to be run, we still hadn’t entered and the entry list – it had only 100 runners – was full. Oh. I wrote to Jamie, a fell-running mate of ours who organizes it, and congratulated him on the race selling out and cursing my lateness at entering. It’s not a passive aggressive message request for places, I wrote, meaning it. Anyway, the dodgy knee that I have had since a month into lockdown would be thankful that I was not going to be running the 28 miles of the Lancashireman off-road “marathon” (they are generous in Lancashire) on very imperfect training.
Jamie wrote back. He had a couple of places and would Neil and I like them?
The reasons against accepting:
The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
The Lancashireman is 28 miles long.
I had spent hours on my feet during a week in Scotland, but before that I’d not run beyond 15 miles for months, since the Fellsman was one of the first races to be cancelled. But I have form at running long runs unprepared. I said yes please to Jamie, and started eating everything. I was worried about my knee, as although my physio had decided my knee pain was due to inactive glutes, and finished with “go forth and run,” it was not getting better and sitting and lying both made it hurt. The only time it seemed OK was running, but not steeply downhill. But I accepted the places, hoped my knee would behave, and got quite excited.
I did a training session of mile efforts on the Wednesday, then no more running. I had a seriously crappy week for work/book reasons, and began to think that running for six or so hours across Lancashire countryside was exactly what I needed. We headed to Burnley on Saturday night, had a night at the Premier Inn for £33 (pandemic price), then up at 6.30 to eat our DIY breakfasts: Weetabix in Tupperware and an M&S baguette. Elite fuelling.
I was going to try Mountain Fuel again for this. I’ve used it once before and liked it and thought I needed all the help I could get. So I downed half a packet with my baguette, and filled my soft flasks with the other half. As usual I packed a full picnic: chocolate bars, sweets, flapjacks, Quorn sausages, Mountain Fuel sports jellies. The weather forecast was perfect, predicting single figure temperatures but outbreaks of sunshine. It would be cool on the tops though, and there would be a lot of tops, so I put on a merino long-sleeve with my vest.
The race had been allowed to go ahead because it was going to be Covid-secure. That meant only turning up to get your race number 15 minutes before your designated start time, designated start times that set people off in groups of no more than six, only packaged food at checkpoints, and no milling. Everyone was conforming to this when we turned up, ready for our 8.21 start, and with little faffing time, we were set off. We had a plan: 10 minute-miling to start with, and steady steady all the way. That way, Neil thought, we could comfortably finish in six hours and beat our time of last year (just over 6.30). He also thought we could win the mixed pair category, but I tried to put that out of my head. Steady, think of your knee, steady, steady, steady.
Image by Neil Wallace
I thought I knew the route. I’d recced most of it last year, and we’d run it of course, though partly in pouring rain. The weather this year was so far beautiful, with clear sunny skies. Maybe that’s why I realised I couldn’t remember much of the second mile through woodland. This was going to be a theme for the whole route, as it turned out that once again, I knew sections but not necessarily in the right order.
The route mostly follows the Burnley Way, a path that Visit Lancashire describes with odd grammar as “a 40-mile adventure from industrial heritage, along waterways, through fields, parks, old farms, and Forest of Burnley woodlands to the wild South Pennine Moors.” The route “has been recently updated and revised into six easy sections.” Easy? I knew there were more than 4,000 feet of climb over the 28 miles and that the biggest climb of all was at mile 20. At least, deep inside I knew but I was refusing to think about it.
Seven miles in, we reached the part that had caused chaos last year, with runners all over the place trying to find an elusive footbridge. So this year I had studied it online, calculating that we had to turn south a third of a mile after Shore Hey farm. Neil had also worked out when to turn, and this year we mostly got it right. On the hill ahead of us, runners appeared like Scottish warriors in an epic film; they had gone too far and were on their way back. If you don’t accidentally detour at least once on the Lancashireman, you’ve probably done it wrong. Jamie & crew do their best, with the odd chalked LORM and arrow, and the Burnley Way is waymarked now and then with a sunny B, but there are plenty of miles where it isn’t.
By now the runners who had gone the right way and runners who had gone the wrong way were all converging, so that up the hill on the far side of the bridge, the narrow singletrack path of stone steps — known as the Ogglty-Cogglty — became bottlenecked. This is a usual situation in fell running, but not in fell running during a pandemic. I turned and courteously asked the man behind me to back off, and he did. Neil meanwhile had a man behind him so close, it was clear he’d had garlic the day before. Asked to Ogglty-Cogglty off, politely, he didn’t, so it couldn’t be dismissed as thoughtlessness. It’s not like anyone was going anywhere fast: the climb was steep, no-one was running it, and it was packed solid. I really try to dampen my judginess in life these days, else I would spend my life internally fuming at people getting too close, wearing masks wrong, just being wrong. But this was unsettling.
Out of the woods, the sun was warmer than forecast, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. We reached the first checkpoint, staffed by cheery marshals in green t-shirts. This was my first experience of a Covid-secure checkpoint and as advertised, all food was packaged – biscuits, chocolate bars, crisps – and water was dispensed from jugs. There could have been improvements such as a one-way funnel, but there was plenty of hand sanitizer and it was being done as safely as possible. You can never eliminate risk, just reduce it as best you can. A young woman who was pouring me water looked behind me and said, “well done Mum!”.
I was surprised, I think because I immediately pictured my own mother arriving behind me in a race. She is 80, and fabulous, and has been walking 12 miles a week during the pandemic, but she’s never going to be a fellrunner.
I asked the girl, stupidly, “your mother is running?”
“Yes, that’s her in the red.”
I turned to look. “How old is she?”
I said “oh shit,” and people laughed and I’m still not sure why I said that. There were no age categories in the mixed pair category and anyway, I wasn’t being competitive, remember? Still I kept an eye on her for a while until we drew away from her. Habit.
Soon we stopped to strip down to vest-only. Then onwards, up horrible tarmac, some fake-running for the photographer, who managed to make my short Welsh legs look even shorter.
My brain was busy calculating what was coming next. It was like that animation of a human brain using mechanical wheels and whirring. Finally the whirring stopped and I knew: Widdop reservoir and moorland. More whirring: A couple of miles across the tops of the moors, past Gorple Stones, down to Hurstwood reservoir and that would be halfway.
Far off in front of us was a young woman who I thought we would never catch. Then, as we turned off the road to boggy paths around Widdop reservoir, she slowed, and we passed her easily. I don’t know if the Lancashireman counts as a fell race but if you don’t have fell experience, obviously that will show in the boggy bits. Not that I didn’t fall. I did, but I made sure to fall on a soft bit.
The view from Gorple Stones was beautiful, as it always is. Later, we learned that a runner had fallen here and dislocated his shoulder. He’d been content to run on, until the marshals pointed out that his bone was several centimetres forward from where it should have been.
Hurstwood. I couldn’t have sped up, but I didn’t need to slow down or stop. I felt quite good, and we made sure to run harmoniously for Jamie’s camera.
Along the way we encountered two men running ahead of us. One had a very bloodied head. He had fallen, also after Gorple Stones. He was OK to go on, and said he would wash off in a beck, then didn’t. Finally I offered him a wet wipe, then had to dig around in my pack for it as of course my first aid kit was at the bottom of my copious dry bag of kit. “Sorry lass,” said David, of the bloodied head. “Sorry to hold you back.” Oh, we’re not competitive said Rose (the same Rose who knows exactly by how many minutes they came second eventually in the mixed pair category and calculates that this was probably the same amount of minutes lost helping David but that’s fine).
We ran on together, past the next checkpoint, along the thankless Long Causeway tarmac road, past cloughs and gullies. Before dropping down into the hamlet of Portsmouth, we passed through fields that had a powerful stink. We passed a tractor approaching with a trailer full of more fragrant manure, then reached the path, turned and saw him spraying it exactly where we’d just been. Lucky escape.
By now something strange was happening. I was running more. My legs would run when my brain didn’t want to. I felt stronger. It was very odd. Maybe it was the Mountain Fuel? It was useful though as the hardest climb was coming up, to Heald Moor and Thievley Pike. At this point, my poor memory was an advantage, because I had forgotten how long and steep the climb was, so I just put my head down and climbed. Behind me, two women were telling two other runners what was coming up. “Horrendous! The worst climb ever! It’s awful!” I wondered at this. It wasn’t horrendous, it definitely wasn’t the worst climb ever, and if it was that awful, why were you doing the race? It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the views back to the other side of the valley were lovely. Perhaps that negativity got them up the hill more easily. Whatever works.
Image by Neil Wallace
Me, I was enjoying it. I was running easily and not tiring. My knee was sore but not disabling. And we only had a few miles left. Down into the grandiose Townley Hall, where we ran past a footballer lying on the ground and I thought, I bet a fell-runner would run through whatever injury he has. Past families with ice-cream, and a young girl who looked at me and asked her mother what I was doing. “She’s running!” But I wasn’t at that point, so then I had to.
There was only one short real climb to go, but it was uphill to Todmorden Road before that. Then along above the railway, with runners around us clearly tiring but enduring, as we were. Through the Kilns, where I directed a chatty pair from Accrington. At least, she was chatty. He wasn’t, and had to be chivvied, if chivvying consists of “COME ON MICK.” I’ve never seen a man running with clingfilm wrapped around his leg before, and I won’t forget Mick’s. They were both doing the relay, which you could do in pairs or threes or more. Mick made it to the end, clingfilm and all.
Finally, after we had run away from Burnley to run back to it, we were running down into town, past someone getting their Morrison’s delivery, and a smile from the young woman driving the van, to the canal where of course I wanted to go to the wrong way and almost set off on the route again. The last bit seemed such a long stretch though it was probably only half a mile. Then, eventually, the sound of clapping and cheering and there was Sandygate plaza, and some steps to run up that were nothing as bad as Butt Lane at the end of the Yorkshireman, but also not flat. We got to Jamie at the top and then: where was the finish line? Stop, said Jamie, stop! You’ve finished. This is it. He was it.
28 miles on little training and through niggles and cramp, but it was fun. It was good to be out racing again amongst beautiful scenery and the like-minded. It was good to pin a number on my race vest again, and pull out the rainbow race socks. It was good to stop and eat the two Quorn sausages that I had been carrying for six hours. It was good to be out, away from bad news and more bad news, to run past a man with binoculars and think, what a lovely smile he has, to be greeted with good cheer by everyone, to have my sinuses cleared by fresh cow shit.
Six hours. Actually it was 6.07. That was fine, and 25 minutes quicker than we had done the year before. Better weather this time, but worse training. Though last year I had run the Yorkshireman a week earlier. We placed second mixed pair after a couple from Clayton-le-Moors. We will do better next year, because I will definitely be back to the dark side, if the pandemic allows.
The Frog Graham Round FGR) is a swim and run challenge that crosses 18 fell tops and four lakes in the Lake District. The route begins and ends in Keswick and covers a distance of approximately 40 miles with more than 15,000ft of ascent.
My FGR was a rather spontaneous event. As the pools were closed during lockdown we had taken to swimming in our local lake so I had an unexpected summer of open water practice behind me (and a bit of swim run practice when the police turned up and we had to scarper into the woods). Then the easing of the restrictions had taken me up to the Lakes for a couple of reccies. “I definitely want to try this next year,” I thought. However, when the nights started coming earlier I had a yearning for one adventure to get me through the winter. “Why don’t you just have a go?” said Linda. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I had a quick message round of the usual suspects who could help out and I could get someone with me on every leg and a swimmer for Thursday 13th of August. (“The 13th?” said Allison ominously. “Well, it might be lucky for some people.”) However Thursday 13th looked unlikely as the longterm forecast the week before had predicted thunder, lightning and torrential rain for the end of the week and all weekend.
The forecast took a dramatic change as late as Wednesday. It looked it was going to be a bit hot and humid, but clear and no storms. One of the team couldn’t make it for leg 3, but it looked like an FGR would still be possible if I did a leg on my own. The preparation wasn’t as much as I would have liked as I hadn’t spent the summer in the lakes climbing and descending and was short on training runs over 20 miles. Also I hadn’t reccied the whole route, none of my supporters had reccied. But what the hell… let’s have a go! I managed to get Wednesday afternoon off work to do the prep, and it turns out that one afternoon isn’t long to prep for a round…who knew? I decided an 18-hour schedule should mean I did all the swims in daylight, but I had no idea if it was achievable. At 7.30pm Wednesday evening, after an organising and baking frenzy, I left my house in chaos and I jumped into the van with Eleanor and we headed up to the Lakes.
We met up with Linda and Andy and found a spot to sleep for a couple of hours, but an irate local moved us on. People who had been there recently hadn’t been very well behaved. We found another spot over Whinlatter Pass and tried to get some sleep. After an hour and a half of sleep the 2 am alarm went off and we headed for Keswick. I got dressed and ready to set off but then…where were my fell shoes? We emptied out the van with a feeling of dread rising in me. “Are you sure you brought them?” asked Eleanor. “Absolutely sure,” I said, but my inner voice asked, “are you?” We headed back to Whinlatter Pass by which point I had decided they were sitting in my hall in Leeds. Suddenly we saw a carrier bag in the middle of the road. My shoes! What a relief. How did that happen?
After a few more minor disasters involving headbands and headtorches our 3am start turned out to be a 3.28am start, but I told myself that the route to the Frog Graham never ran smoothly and that at least we had started! Keswick was deserted as we jogged towards Skiddaw. The night was oppressively hot. “How will I get through the day if the night is like this?” I thought, but tried to stay positive and reminded myself that I had cycled across France through the heatwave the summer before. As we climbed higher we got a lovely breeze and it got light earlier than we expected. I had a great leg with Eleanor and arrived at Church Bay a few minutes up on my schedule. Bassenthwaite Lake looked really inviting and Mike was there to meet me for the swim. I had opted for a shortie wetsuit so that it would be lighter to carry and I had borrowed a friend’s for this swim to avoid any contamination later on. The swim was lovely and I arrived at the other side to Linda looking fit and ready and a lovely cup of tea made by Andy.
I set off with Linda on leg 2. This is such a beautiful leg and my memory of this is having a great time, chatting away. There was cloud cover keeping the temperature a bit lower and we were making good progress. I met a fell runner on Lord’s Seat who I bumped into later in Keswick, which felt about two weeks later for me. At this point I didn’t have anyone to accompany me on leg 3. “Maybe I’ll do it with you,” said Linda. “It’s only a short leg.” But I had done a reccie of leg 3, and I remembered it being tough. “The distance isn’t the only factor,” I said. “The terrain is difficult, the first climb is really steep, the nav is difficult through the bracken and last descent.” None of this put Linda off and I phoned Allison on the way up Hopegill Head to tell of the change of plan. She later told me that I sounded so relaxed and happy on the phone that she knew then that I had it in the bag. After Whiteless Pike, Linda trotted off into Buttermere to get around the lake while I turned right towards Rannerdale Knotts.
Again the swim was so inviting because of the heat, and I crossed Crummock Water with Mike and set off up Mellbreck with Linda. Reccieing hadn’t really helped me. I didn’t get a good line (is there one?). Even Linda, who is well known for her ability to do any distance or amount of climbing with no obvious sign of discomfort, was finding it hard as we dragged ourselves up over heather and bracken. “I did warn you,” I said. “I thought you were exaggerating!” she replied. It was so good to have her with me though. Massive kudos to the people who do this as a solo unsupported event. I carried my own gear, food and water, but the people who were with me on the route were undoubtably a huge help to me and I picked food up in between the legs. We struggled through the bracken towards Scale Beck and I started to have a low moment on the climb up to Red Pike. I managed to bounce back a bit though, and by the time I reached Buttermere I was in good spirits. Buttermere was the perfect temperature, it was a really lovely swim and I got out the other side thinking the worst was behind me. Could I start to believe?
Allison was waiting for me at the other side for the home leg. She had spent most of the day getting Mike, pasta and water (in that order) into the right places. I hadn’t been up Robinson this way before and I had been warned that it was a tough climb. “After what I’ve been through on leg 3?” I said chirpily. “Don’t worry, nothing can be as bad as that!” Hmmm. It started off OK and I was feeling good but the sun was out and it was uncomfortably warm and as it steepened it started to take its toll on me. Allison led the way and kept shouting at me to eat and drink. It was soft stuff only now. I had a lot of trouble trying to eat a flapjack. I knew there was a danger that I might not be able to eat soon so kept trying to eat while I could.
I was slightly over my predicted time at the top and felt a bit crestfallen. Were the wheels coming off? Dale Head looked so far away. However, I reached Dale Head a couple of minutes ahead of time, and my spirits were raised again. Neither me or Allison had reccied the route but we had done Teenager with Altitude a few years previously. So although I was struggling to navigate in my depleted and dehydrated state, Allison didn’t have any trouble. I was now having trouble jogging and feeling very tired. The bottom of my feet felt like I was walking on broken glass but I kept pushing on with Allison’s encouragement, I was so close now!
When I reached Derwentwater Mike was waiting for me again and there was Andy in a kayak. The water was very choppy and there was a headwind so I really glad to have Andy there. It made me feel safe. When we reached the third island I asked Andy “Can I believe now?” He certainly thought so and I swam the last bit where I met up with Allison again and we all started running back to Keswick. All my aches and pains were going, even my feet didn’t hurt anymore. We had a slight navigational discussion at the roundabout and a guardian angel turned up from nowhere and shouted “Frog Graham – this way!” It is a great feeling running to the Moot Hall and I felt a little bit emotional. We celebrated by eating chips and mushy peas on the steps, and telling interested passers-by about the route.
I have so many people to be grateful to: Peter Hayes who invented the fantastic route, the people who do the admin for the event, Lisa and Vernon for introducing me to the delights of the local swim spots and training me up and, of course, the people who supported me on the round. I’m not sure who sorted the weather out, but thanks for that too! This was my first experience of a challenge that you do with support, and I am so grateful for their company. I had such a fantastic day out, and it was made better because it was a fairly impulsive decision, but maybe that’s the better way to do it.
So what next? Well I have a few debts to pay on the supporting front and I am told that I have inspired a couple of people to have a go. And as for me; I have a few ideas…So I’ll wait till I’ve stopped walking down stairs sideways and I can wear something other than slippers and then I will start planning.
Apologies for the delay in publishing the results. We had some issues with the timing device and despite considerable effort to retrieve the results involving many random computer cables, they seem to have vanished. Mike has spent a number of hours trawling through Strava to try to piece together the times, but we are fairly confident the order of runners is correct. For any queries, please get in touch.
First completed as a recorded route in 1887 by three teachers from Giggleswick in 10 hours, and run competitively from 1954 [ed: but only opened to women in 1979], the Three Peaks race is definitely not a new kid on the block. It’s one of those races that comes up enough in conversation that I felt obliged as a Yorkshire resident to give it a shot, perhaps just to appease those who ask if I’ve done it when the subject comes up. The weeks before the race had the typical British micro season of Fool’s Summer: a burst of unseasonal heat that tricks everyone into thinking that winter is over before winter roars back with a vengeance. I decided to plod my way round the course as a training run, as my weekly mileage hadn’t been fitting for someone hoping to fit plenty of ALs in this summer, and my holiday to Texas for a friend’s wedding was still evident when I stood on the scales each morning.
Two weeks before the race, which is the minimum time-frame for adaptation and recovery according to some vague memory of something I read (a highly scientific method I’m sure you’ll agree), I set off to Horton in Ribblesdale. Any hopes of catching the cool morning air were long gone as I faffed my way to a 1pm start. I was baked by the sun from start to finish and having to take the long way up Whernside didn’t help either (the direct route up is reserved for race day only) (ed’s note: there is a permissive walkers’ path up though which is a better approximation of the race route). 26.2 miles in total gave me a marathon tick for the day, but the heat had cooked me out of making the race cutoff times (2 hours 10 minutes at Ribblehead and 3 hours 30 at Hill Inn). It wasn’t really the reassuring recce that I’d hoped for. My legs had cramped and faltered, and I felt like I’d taken a beating far beyond what the numbers suggested. These three mountains were merely half of what I was used to in the Lake District, yet I was a hobbling mess upon my return to the car. Too late to fix anything now though, nothing left to do but rest up and hope for cooler weather. And cooler weather we got. A cold front came sweeping across the country, bringing torrential rain and high winds. Fool’s Summer had ended and the cold chill of True British Summer had arrived. I’d always posited that I performed better in cold weather, citing my unfailing ability to produce gallons of sweat in anything but the dreichest of conditions, and the 65th Yorkshire Three Peaks was looking to be the control test.
I felt awful in the week leading up to the race. I woke up with a stirring in my stomach every day, followed by a dash to the bog to complete my morning ablutions. Better an empty house than an angry tenant, I guess. Race day was to be no different. I could barely touch my muesli, my stomach in knots as I ran around the flat packing my bags. Grabbing gels, clean socks and any other random items that popped into my mind, before stuffing them into an array of plastic bags in a pile by the door. I was planning to drive on from the race to Haweswater to hike up to Mosedale Cottage Bothy for the night, so a rucksack of overnight gear had to be assembled as well. The packing of which had to be slightly more stringent, accounting for my tattered post-race legs on the steep trudge up to the cottage. Spirits were decanted from glass into plastic bottles, mixers and low strength beverages left behind. Bang for your buck in terms of weight vs toxicity was the order of the day. Finally, sleeping bag and mat were wrestled into place atop the makeshift cocktail bar, the rucksack clearly too small for its already spartan kit-list, and with that I threw it all in the boot of my trusty Astra and sped off to the race.
My extra packing and taking the wrong exit on a roundabout had eaten into my already slim amount of spare time. I arrived and parked up in the field, sprinting to the tent to collect my number and race pack, then straight to the queue for the bogs. With the clock ticking and the announcers directing the runners to attend the safety briefing on the tannoy, I was starting to worry about being late to the start line. With barely a moment to spare I finally arrived at the front of the queue and dashed into the first available cubicle. The otherworldly relief of reaching the plastic throne was soon marred by the predicament of the distinct lack of paper consumables. All of a sudden the slow movement of the queue had been explained, as I found myself in the same dilemma that all those in front of me had just minutes before. Tiny scraps of bog roll tube strewn across the floor told the story clearly enough. Fortunately for me, the Y3P organisers are an eco-friendly bunch, and had doled out the race packs in paper bags. Andrex triple-ply quilted luxury it is not, but a bag is better than sacrificing a fancy running sock.
Liberated of my demons, there’s just enough time for a kit check before merging into the horde heading for the start. I join my mate Bill Beckett and we exchange our lists of woes: he’s nursing a sore calf and my guts feel like they’re on strike. Perfect partners really, both just hoping to get round without major mishap and relishing the opportunity of some mutual encouragement in the less than favourable conditions. The start gun fires almost abruptly, and the sea of bobbing heads drags out the field and onto the road. The usual enthusiastic pace of the pack builds as we snake through the village towards the path. “I don’t fancy keeping this up,” I confess to Bill, and thankfully he agrees. Things begin to settle as the terrain roughens and the angle steepens. The expected jostling and shuffling happens as the pack finds its natural order heading up to Pen y Ghent, something I always find interesting that even at this early stage the order won’t change that drastically over the next 20 miles, everyone knows their place I guess. As the climb begins in earnest, the wind and rain come to meet us, no longer sheltered by the landscape that falls around the mountain, we’re exposed to its meteorological charms. Calls of “Runner!” bounce down to meet us as the race leaders shoot past, Bill offering a who’s who of elite fell runners, encouraging most of them by name. As we gain height, the elements build in ferocity, and passing the summit, Bill politely questions if I’d like to stop and put my jacket on. He’s far too nice to tell me I’m being an idiot and that I NEED to put my jacket on. Pulling down onto the grassy slopes, I concede and awkwardly wriggle into my smock, but without stopping running. This is completely stupid and a fine way to break an ankle, but what can I say? There’s a reason I’m not a rocket scientist .
We regain the main path and pass the remaining runners heading up to the summit. Back over the junction and onto the path towards Whernside. We’ve got a couple of cut-offs to make before the next climb and I’m glad to have Bill pacing us over this flat section. I haven’t done any road miles at all recently and I can feel it. Bill tells me that according to Darren Fishwick, the key is to get a couple of decent 8-10 mile road runs a week when training for the race, a strategy he used to run himself into a PB on the course. Good knowledge to have, albeit a bit late now! It’s a funny bit of the race really; I found it probably the most uncomfortable section on the hard and flat ground and without Bill keeping us going steady I could have easily drifted into missing the cut-off. It seems daft that the hard bit of a race that goes up three mountains is on the flats between them!
At least the weather is more favourable down here, with even an occasional, if momentary, bit of sunlight breaking through the clouds. We pass through High Birkwith, dibbing in, chucking down a cup of water, scoffing some food, and hitting the track again. We’re 15 minutes ahead of cut-off, closer than I’d like but through nonetheless. The Ribblehead Viaduct appears in the distance where our next checkpoint and cut-off is located. The one advantage of the flat terrain is the miles fall by a bit quicker, the mental tally of remaining distance happily diminishing as we go. However, when we hit the road before Ribblehead, it seems to arrive with a thump. My studded fell shoes seem to whack the tarmac with every stride. But grinding as we go, we sweep round below the mighty viaduct and dib into safety ahead of the cut-off. Some familiar faces in the crowd offer energetic encouragement, and I try to mask my withering state, both for their benefit and my own. Fortunately it isn’t long before the angle starts to increase again, and although my calves start to creak from the miles on the flat, my quads are soon back in familiar territory heading up Whernside. On race day the route takes a highly direct line to the summit, rather than the wide arc of the tourist path. During my recce, I’d become a bit unstuck on this variation. The lower angle and increased distance make it a lot more runnable, but after the previous flat miles on the recce my legs were having none of it and had cramped with a vengeance. No such problem today though, the plod-plod-plod of slugging it uphill was a much needed return to familiar territory.
Blustery winds and smiling marshals greet us at the top, as we swiftly turn and drop onto the descent. I briefly lose Bill as he liberates a stone from inside his shoe, smashing down the erosion-preventative but knee-smashing limestone paving. I try not to speed ahead, but gravity’s natural velocity has other thoughts. The route flattens again and my exuberant descent makes its effects known in my legs, as I jump and click my ankles together for a photographer, instantly almost crippling myself with cramp. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Trundling into the checkpoint at the Hill Inn, Bill reappears and we make sure to properly replenish ourselves, the warning shots of cramp ever present as I try and smash some nutrients and fluid back into my body.
The last one is in sight now. Only Ingleborough left to go. I try not to think about the much longer way back down on the other side. The landscape looks weirdly filmic as we head past Pot Holes, the rain has cleared any humidity from the air and coated the rock in a thin reflective sheen. Everything looks crystal clear. It’s a bit of a romp as the gradient increases, the thick limestone slabs grey and slippery, before we reach the rougher and steeper final climb. Tiny steps and consistent cadence are key, any big steps threaten the cramp that many runners around me are falling victim to. Their groans, pained faces and halted progress painting an all too familiar picture. As we reach the summit plateau, we’re absolutely smashed by the headwind. The chill is instant, muscles clenching to try and stave off the bite of the wind. I try and gain momentum with my arms, no doubt looking like some ridiculous power walker as my elbows oscillate in such an unnatural fashion. I’m hoping that the extra movement will generate the slightest extra bit of warmth. In my haste to keep warm I pull ahead of Bill but he gallantly tells me just to go on ahead. From there it’s a quick dib on the summit, before I turn round and hammer it back to town. The fierce wind is now thankfully at my back as I do my best to holler a raspy salute of encouragement as I pass Bill coming up on the other side of the tape. Running down, it’s off the plateau, over some rougher rocky sections before getting back on hard flat track. Feet pounding down, trying to keep speed to save energy, while simultaneously trying to avoid overstepping into cramp. More thick limestone pavement to stomp down, and I even manage to pass some runners. It’s all going well until it flattens out again and my legs seem to lose the enthusiasm they had while descending. The slightly uneven, rocky and muddy ground seems to rob me of what tiny energy is left. I see a couple of runners in front taking tumbles (both regaining their feet and continuing unbothered, fortunately), making the need to stay focused ever more pertinent. After what seems like an age dragging my feet over the flat, the village reappears and the path becomes a descent once more. Last burn now. I can feel a big smile across my face as the last kilometer ticks by. Through the garden, over the road and into the field. I even had the beans for a sprint finish. A final dib and we’re done.
A quick change, a fantastic bowl of chili, a sugary cup of tea and a fat slab of cake later, and I’m back on the road. The race is over, but the next had just begun because I had to get to Mosedale Cottage Bothy before nightfall. Fortunately I was parked up at Haweswater, armed with my rucksack and walking poles, and on my way up with plenty time. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t be keen on having to hike anther 1500 feet in the rain to get to their bed for the night, but with some good tunes in my ears, and walking poles in my hands to share the load for my legs, I couldn’t have been happier.
An incredible day, in incredible places. I’m just glad to live in a place with such a rich environment. As always, a monumental thanks to all the marshals and helpers out in such minging conditions. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a sport that is supported by such willing and giving individuals. Cheers!
I write this report nearly 10 days after the race and my quads have just about recovered from the beasting they took on the descent. I know many others with a similar story. Why was this one so bad, even worse than the Ben, which is twice as far and steeper? No idea, perhaps the combination of speed, length and gradient, but it hurt!
This was the second English Champs counter of the season and a one-off AS race created by Keswick starting from by a small quarry near Threkeld. I was the only NLFR entered and bagged a lift with Wharfedale’s Nick Charlesworth and Dave McGuire.
We arrived at race HQ at Threkeld Cricket Club in the predicted glorious sunshine at just after midday with temperatures already in the mid-20s. The women’s race had already started. A few lazy saunters around the cricket pitch was about all I could muster before making my way to the start/finish area to see some of the women come in.
Already sitting in the grass was former black n’ blue, Katie Kaars Sijpstein, looking remarkably fresh in her new Keswick vest after finishing in 16th place with a fast time of 48 minutes. In response to my request for route tips, she helpfully advised that I go up to the top and come back down again. Cheers Katie…but well done for coming 24th in a British vest in the World Trail Champs just a week later in Spain. Better quads than mine, but I don’t think anyone would argue against that..
Katie’s sage route advice proved accurate and for two and bit miles I hauled myself up to the top of Clough Head, with a couple of unwelcome false summits on the way. The field was, as you would expect with a champs race, stellar, with most of the usual suspects. I focussed on my usual mid-pack battles and fairly well held my own on the ascent. But then we reached the top.
The descent was grassy, steep and runnable. For two and half miles it was all disengaged brains and eyeballs out madness as runners tried every possible line to gain some advantage. My descending skill are moderate at best and I lost at least 30 places from the top. I don’t know how some of them do it.
Hitting the road at the bottom, my legs had had enough. It was all I could do to jog to the finish and keep Harrogate’s rapidly approaching Ben Grant from besting me. The finish line was next to a cool river and the next 30 minutes were spent cooling off in there and avoiding Katie asking me for my time (2 minutes slower than her).
Despite the quads, fell running doesn’t get much better than days like this. Up and down the nearest hill in glorious sunshine, cooling off in a river afterwards and some post-race banter sitting outside with a pie and a pint.
The women’s race was won by Hannah Horsburgh and the men’s by Mark Lamb, both of Keswick. I didn’t witness it, but local knowledge apparently gave them the best lines on the descent.
The next champs race is Buttermere Horseshoe. At 23 miles and over 9000’ ascent I am praying for cooler conditions.