AL, 23 miles, 5000+ft
“The Marathon with Mountains”.
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!