Further isn’t always better

The rain intensified.  Again and again.  The falling skywater created a thunderous drum-roll on the roof surface of my tent.  This was definitely more Cozy Powell than Ringo Starr.  The sound was deafening.   Unsurprisingly I’d been awake since the first deluge probably half an hour earlier.  It was ages until the start of the race.  I pulled in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.  I began wishing for a miraculous break in the weather and a unicorn to bring me a mug of piping hot coffee.  With eyes squeezed shut I wondered if the elite ever get a whiff of doubt on race day or they too have questions of self-believe when they peer out into the gloom?

Fast-forward 7-8 hours.  I’d already been to hell and back; well Helvellyn at least.  I was now returning north in the clag, compass and map in each hand.  Cloud and fine moisture completely enveloped me as a stood on the grassy upturned saucer gradient.  I knew where I was, but not exactly.  Watson’s Dodd was behind and I’d climbed north-east towards Great Dodd, the race’s penultimate checkpoint.  I’d already got giddy at the scale of my personal best.  Just over 4-miles to the finish, maybe only 45-mins or so?  Things then went wrong.

“The clag evaporated at the click of nature’s fingers”

Helvellyn and the Dodds is described as an out and back route.  Ostensibly, this is true.  In reality, it’s so much more.  Many variables contribute to this: following those in front, avoiding awkward rocky obstacles or with some knowledge taking advantage of obvious corner-cutting shortcuts.  In good visibility the route is almost problem-free, although not every summit needs to be climbed and you might end up going a bit further and climbing more than needed.  The broad ridge runs north to south and, on paper, seems fairly easy to follow.   The route snakes across this spine though.  Like so many other races, when the clag comes down, accurate route finding and navigation can be pivotal.

Marshalled checkpoints need to be reached.  There are 7 spread across the course.  Not including the finish.  Runners twice pass Clough Head, Great Dodd and Raise with a single – insert appropriate expletive – turnaround at the highest point of Helvellyn.  Unlike most other Lakeland ridges this is relatively more grass than rock.  Only from Raise towards Helvellyn does the ground become craggy and paths turn into scree.  Many other parts of the route are tufty, heathery or sometimes muddy and boggy.

The initial 2-mile climb up to Clough Head is a slog.  There is no escape; no short-cut to ease the leg-burn and the best thing to do is go steady.  I did.  And felt ok nearing the crest leading towards the summit trig point.  Folk tackling a Bob Graham Round must be chuffed to get this climb out of the way.  At least in the dark you can’t see the wall of earth in front of you.  The strong wind blasted fine, pin-sized rain projectiles from half-right at the trig point.  Weather like this always gets you moving a bit more swiftly.  I headed down the well-defined footpath towards Calfhow Pike.  On the trudge up to Great Dodd I’d quickly glanced at my map for direction after the summit.  Again the wind jostled and buffeted from behind.  Visibility was reduced to less than 50-metres.

From Great Dodd summit I’d followed a small group of 3-4 runners for less than a minute.  The continued direction felt wrong.  I stopped.  With compass and map in back in hand I smartly turned, to my right, a full 90-degrees from south-east to south-west.  First across tufts of grass and quickly reached the main footpath.  <see image below A-B> The clag soon disappeared and the rise upwards to Watson’s Dodd was revealed with runners contouring around to the left.  Back in the clag, again. This in-out would be disorientating feature throughout the next few hours.

I remembered the contour here around the west side of Stybarrow Dodd from 2018.  Disappointingly though, I didn’t trust my map, compass and instinct to immediately follow south, off the main footpath.  I soon veered left though, away from runners ahead, to avoid climbing up to the unnecessary lower summit of Stybarrow.

Beyond Sticks Pass navigation is less problematic.  More rock and obvious contour edge to use as handrails.  Reaching the craggy sections of Raise, the leaders passed on their return.  Brennan Townshend was only 20-seconds or so ahead of Ricky Lightfoot.  The former’s yellow Elbra vest looked like it was about to be blown off his chest.  I think Carl Bell and his Keswick teammates scuttled passed me here in 2018.  I placed a few cautious plods over the greasy rocks after the checkpoint then started bearing south west, through the mist, to find a better grass route towards the emerging short climb up to and over Whiteside.  Visibility was again reduced to a stone-throw.

I scoffed down some fuel between the sharp up and over at Whiteside and the rocky climb up Lower Man.  Slowly I edged passed a few other runners.  A really strong, biting wind struck from the right at the rock-splattered top of Lower Man.  Runners returning from the turnaround were steely-faced and clearly working hard against the elements.  I managed to run up the last incline to the summit and circled around the trig point with glimpses of Red Tarn way down below.  Faint views were on offer and I remember seeing Coniston Water to the south west.

Runners were now stretched out on the reverse.  I kept one or two in sight all the way back over Raise.  The obvious grass trod cutting out the lower summit of Stybarrow Dodd soon came into view.  A line of perhaps 5-6 runners trudged ahead and maybe the same behind.  Nearing the end of the climb low cloud again blew over the tufty grass.  Trudging transferred into something of a shuffle then steady running.  Visibility returned to a less than 25-metres.

I stopped following and again paused to look at the compass and map.  Rain again swept through from my left.  The runners ahead continued out of sight off into the gloom.  We were following a north-east bearing and likely across the summit of Stybarrow Dodd.  I reckoned we’d missed the west contour around the summit so turned north hoping to find the main path from the summit towards the next peak.  Almost immediately a muddy path appeared and the clag lifted to reveal the contour to the east of the Watson’s Dodd.  It’s a fine line between success and relief.

Stepping across the saddle I remembered peat shelves and areas of bog as the main path started to rise back into the clag.  A few runners ahead and voices behind.  I still felt quite strong.  Continue on the main path then cut the corner to the left <see image C>  I briefly began to mentally prepare for the last push up to Clough Head, likely in about 10-minutes.  Numbers started crunching and estimated durations between here, there and the finish.  I looked at my watch.  Wow, I could be on for a massive improvement on my 2018 time.  And in these conditions.  Visibility rapidly decreased to less than 25-metres.  And things instantly went wrong.

Two runners just ahead veered left, around the contour, and were quickly followed by a Helm Hill runner from behind me.  I stopped to look at my compass <see image D>  These runners were heading north-west.  A further runner appeared from further right, on slightly higher ground, and followed the first two to the left.  I concluded they were contouring around the plateau to the summit beyond.  I followed.  In the mist.  I quickly reached a solid brown footpath.  The clag evaporated at the click of nature’s fingers <see image E>  I knew instantly I’d missed the penultimate checkpoint.  Bugger.

Calfhow Pike featured less than 500m away and somewhere, further round to the north, Clough Head waited in the clag.  Behind me, approximately 800’ up in similar clag, Great Dodd was laughing.  I wasn’t laughing.  And neither were the half dozen who’d followed me.  Almost in unison we shrugged shoulders, turned around and started the unwanted shuffle of shame.  Runners appeared from the mist having reached Great Dodd and now headed towards Clough Head.  As we each passed there was a knowing glance between the separate groups.  Really miffed and glad that wasn’t me.  I reckon before I turned around there were at least 2-3 runners who continued ahead, missing out checkpoint 6.  I wonder how many others before them?

I tried to convince myself this was sterling stuff for mental strength.  The reality though was I’d not long since mentally prepared for just one more climb.  Now there was this needless return and also THAT climb.  The lads around me were quite chipper about the whole episode.  Jovial comments were shared about getting our value for money and proving that the weather actually wasn’t that bad.  Strava would later display that I’d only missed the checkpoint by 50-75 metres or so.  Mind, the Fly-by function from the race provides some hilarious route choices from across the entire race field.

HD4

My energy levels soon started to really fracture.  I was buckling.  I hadn’t factored for an additional climb.  The long rise back towards Clough Head was pretty grim.  The weather really closed in at the last summit too.  I caressed my hand over the cold, wet trig and shuffled passed the immense checkpoint marshals.  Truly remarkable effort, for hours, by every one of them.

Wind and rain now relentlessly battered from the west.  The little flag markers remained steadfast.  The route directed downwards.  At the edge of the plateau only clag lay beneath.  An actual step of courage into the unknown.  No bravado or altering the facts.  It was truly grim up there.  I really couldn’t get off the high ground quickly enough.  I would’ve happily leapt into fiery depths of hell.

The freefall from Clough Head isn’t easy either.  Your toes are constantly in danger of bursting through the front of your shoes, leg muscles operate independently from your control and each step sends lightning bolts of pain from nerve ends to the brain.  Remember, we do this for fun.  After a handful of minutes the grassy cliff face gives way beyond a gravel vehicle track to a weaving path.  Now you’re forced to manoeuvre left and right through grassy reeds, while avoiding the odd rock and trip hazard.  Soon, if you haven’t stumbled or fallen into a rogue boggy spot then a final half mile stretch of tarmac greets your feet much like Tommy Robinson would be welcome in Bradford.

A quarter of hour later I sat in warm clothes, drinking another hot tea and eating a second round of cake from the table display in the clubhouse.  The flapjack really did need several helpings to decide which was best.  Across the soggy cricket field blue sky now had the temerity to appear above Clough Head.  Funny old game, ain’t it?

A whole weather season later and half a day after waking to the drum-roll of rain, I walked into Threlkeld for a pint in The Sally pub.  Sunshine filtered through the low windows as I ordered a drink at the bar.  Cramp fired into my left hamstring like an unexpected explosion.  I was about wince in pain then realised the man to my right was no other than Kenny Stuart.  My need to scream was suddenly thwarted.  My pain was overtaken by a greater urge to ask two questions to the famous fellrunner: was he was ever tempted to miss a race due to crap weather AND what was his biggest navigation error?  I didn’t bother Kenny Stuart with matters of triviality or irrelevance.  Instead I followed my instincts to shuffle off, navigate to a soft seat and savour the moment of quiet contemplation.

2018 – 3.47 (15-miles)

2019 – 3.23 (16.25-miles)

Maybe 2020 will be over 17-miles in nearly 3 hours?

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A Beastly Vision – Wadsworth Trog

Visualisation is something I really advocate.  Drip feeding helpful strategy, good experiences and crucial elements of a race into sharp, colour focus.  I recognise this will not help me to leap from nowhere into the prizes, but up until now this approach has usually helped: (expected) pacing, advance identify where I really should consume some fuel and mentally prepare for tough route sections.  Mind, when the Wadsworth Trog route comprises place names like: High Brown Knoll, Castle Carr, Halfpenny Hole and Sheepstones Edge, you have to wonder if this is fellrunning or an excerpt of locations from Game of Thrones.  I tried to cease visualising place names when my mind’s eye skipped across the route map to Cock Hill.  And by the time I reached the final mile Fearney Fields they nearly always read as ‘Fear ye Fields’.

The race start on an icy lane soon transferred up on to the heathery moor.  Reaching Checkpoint 1 at High Brown Knoll was over in a white flash.  All vegetation  was of course hidden under a blanket of snow.  Everything below was white and above blue.  The views were breath-taking.  Or maybe that was the Arctic air.  Ahead, a generous wide path had already been prepared by the young and/ or enthusiastic.  Needing to navigate was a non-starter.  Even in mid-field each footstep into the white stuff delivered a delightful crunch and a comfortable inch or two sink into soft snow. Still, on these remarkable weather days, races like the Trog still take and take again.

And then there was a thread – seemingly spiraling up from the depths of hell – with chilling talk of something labelled ‘The Beast’.

 

The route down towards Castle Carr estate was lumpy, soft and peppered with hidden hazards.  Quickly followed was the short freefall descent through frozen bracken and the steep climb up the other side.  A combination of this sheltered ascent and the warm sunshine behind prompted many climbers to remove a layer or two of merino.  I was already beginning to regret wearing long tights.  Through the next few checkpoints the terrain would follow this pattern: crunchy snow, lumps with bog, track and then solid stretches of short tarmac.  Although the conditions were biblically brilliant, focus was still needed as the route terrain (and gradient) constantly changed.

Changing at the cricket club earlier revealed familiar expectations: among many other claret and golds, each had a target for the day – Captain Baxter, buoyed by his recent County call-up, was still modestly speaking of ‘going steady’.  He finished 3rd.  New vests were slipped on and old ones reworn.  Others were predicting slow outings due to candid reasons ranging from wintry illness to downright piss-poor-preparation.  As usual, Charlie Mac was beaming, eager to get snowbound, much like Skittle-fuelled child on Christmas morning.

Delving into my rations I ripped open some jelly and ginger beer.  After Checkpoint 5 the long road and track climb up to Stairs Lane is a right drag.  Energy would be needed.  And some positive thoughts.  Back to visualisation and pacing strategies.  Around 6-7 runners went passed me over the next mile.  I reassured myself that they were going too fast.  I’d tortoise past them later in the route.  In the end they all mostly finished a few minutes either side of me.

Beside the conduit and across the moorland trod towards Harbour Lodge a stiff cold headwind emerged as I focused on strong technique.  Indeed gaps between runners – or small groups of 2s and 3s – started to emerge at the outpost self-clip checkpoint.  These gaps only increased as the route turned upwards and towards the familiar Withins Ruins.  Again, sweat dripped from my face as warm sunshine radiated from the south and forced me to roll up my sleeves.

The traverse across and down the Pennine Way to Walshaw Dean Reservoirs was great fun.  Fears of icy stone slabs were soon jettisoned.  Every footstep was cushioned by compact snow.  The only minor hazard was staying within the width of the solid path and not disappearing into the soft edges.  The views across to Widdop and further south to Littleborough wind turbines were spectacular.  I quickly stopped embracing the views when I missed a large step and almost went for a burton.

I’d previously raced and ran over this section many times.  And in all weathers.  The first time was during a balmy spring day for the Heptonstall race when a moorland fire blackened the sky and clogged my lungs.  Looking at the white hills with blue skies in all directions the contrast was striking. Indeed every inhale of cold air generated a quiet, internal alarm as the lungs repeatedly paused and accepted that they could continue to function.

Two runners ahead of me were clearly in full Heptonstall mode as they failed to turn left at Walshaw Farm.  I opened my mouth to holler but the marshals at Checkpoint 8 had already shouted.  The slog up the sweeping track towards Shackleton Knott was slow and yet enjoyable.  I had imagined that my energy levels would be declining here.  Maybe the blanket of snow that replaced the soft green and brown experienced on my recce was pivotal.  Whatever the reason, I quietly nudged past a few runners who – based on their glazed focus – were clearly struggling.  Or maybe it was blinding from sun and snow?

Once again my rhythm was broken from changing terrains, gates and gradient shifts.  The slippy, grassy, rocky descent from Checkpoint 9 to Lumb Falls was largely uneventful though.  I didn’t quite skip up the cobbled pack-horse path, but I did feel in control.  I even managed a joke with a few walkers on the trudge through the grassy tussocks towards the Keighley Road at Checkpoint 10.  I glanced across the food offerings, but really didn’t fancy the stodge of a brownie, flapjack or parkin.  Shortly after, the sweet and calorie-soaked adrenalin shout of ‘Hello Braveshorts’ from Eileen Woodhead was a great alternative.  A spring in my step I was soon lodged behind three other runners through deeper snow on the path towards High Brown Knoll.

Always smiling for Mrs W

The moor that gives the race its name.  Years ago, I remember searching the FRA forum for signposting and general agreement on the toughest races in the Pennine fringes. My thinking was I’d done a few short races so I should go long and dirty.  Pendle was repeatedly mentioned and there were a few references to the Hobble and Holme Moss.  And then there was a thread – seemingly spiraling up from the depths of hell – with chilling talk of something labelled ‘The Beast’.

The closing stages of the Trog are legendary and devilish: open moorland first with featureless heather, in clag, treacherous deep brown filth and howling gales from the slopes of Mordor.  Today was easier.  Grey skies had briefly edged out the blue, but visibility was still clear for miles and miles.  Underfoot, towards the next checkpoint, trods seemed to branch off in all directions.  The going was still covered with caution.

Visualisation again triggered into action. From Limer’s Gate I knew with no navigational numptiness I’d be finished in around 45-minutes.  I was also aware that I was wearing the infamous claret and gold so anything could happen.  I followed my moorland recce route to perfection.  Although not direct, I was satisfied that I’d saved sufficient energy to tackle the remainder.  After weaving my way past the (correct) shaft tower I powered upwards towards Sheepstones Edge.  I remember glancing at my watch and reading 10-something minute miling.  Proper zippy, huh?

The mill chimney at Chiserley acts as a beacon.  First as a marker for driving and arrival.  Then like an industrial oasis the nearer to the race end it doesn’t seem to get any closer.    With 3 miles to complete the route skirts a mile to the east then loops round so the chimney is approached from the south.  Uphill.  And with a white moorland backdrop the blackened chimney towers higher and higher.  The chimney is basically the finish.  I really needed more fuel during the mile descent down to Checkpoint 13.  I just couldn’t be bothered to unclip my pack and decided to get by on nothing more than electrolytes and positivity.

‘Fear ye Fields’ up to the finish were taken in a style the French like to call sans la va-va voom.  Much earlier I’d imagined being here, skipping skywards with a sunshine smile on my face.  Visualisation had long since fractured.  Much like my positivity and any remaining energy.  Down to the fumes.  Running only on Yorkshire air and the thought of fresh clothes and a hot coffee.  At the summit of the fearful fields I shuffled into action along the eerily cold walled track and round the beautifully serene white of the cricket field.  Back but not broken.  And definitely not beasted.

Later in the night I was asked if I thought that I could slice another chunk off my time in 2020.  Whether it was the mention of those numbers at that point – or for some time having performed a breaststroke in beer – I was incapable of visualising anything.  To be honest, I really couldn’t imagine a better day of weather, ground conditions and stunning views.  For now, in my mind, the Wadsworth Trog is perfect.

Turning the corner at Caussou

For years I had a visceral loathing of tinned rice pudding.  I didn’t even need to see the contents.  Just a discussion and mere mention of creamed rice could turn me all queasy.  Extend this to actually eating then the thought of the soft, squidgy texture would render me speechless, dry-mouthed and preparing for immediate fainting.  I blame a short scene from The Empire Strikes Back on the planet Hoth.  I’ve adapted somewhat since then.  Some say grown up.  I now occasionally enjoy some home prepared versions.  Still, it’s probably best not to waffle away about some corner pot desserts.

A similar feeling washed over me in mid-July when Rose emailed me a link to a race, Trail de Caussou – a mountain ‘trail’ race in the Pyrenees near to her house where we were staying for 3 weeks from early August.  She highlighted that the route was only 13km and if I wasn’t feeling up to it there was also a hike option.  I’d been laid low you see. Unsure if it was the mention of the relatively short distance or the offer of a walk, but each worked as click bait.  After the briefest of scans I suggested that I’d wait until I’d tried a few runs before deciding.

A week or so later the same queasiness erupted as I stood on the start line at Turnslack in late July.  This was my first race for over 6-weeks: the pelvic tendonopathy was swiftly joined by a recurring virus, seemingly battery-powered by some annoying bunny.  I’d function for a day only to be floored for the next two.  Indeed, the heatwave of 2018 wasn’t my finest spell for mental wellbeing, healthy diet or impressive Strava stats.  My living room rug was my friend and I easily segwayed between coverage of the World Cup, Wimbledon and Tour de France.  I think my segment crown for 9 hours of sport over 5 channels remains firmly intact.  I also devoured litres of ice-cream.  No rice pudding in sight.

Less than two minutes into the Turnslack race and any anxiety about health or fitness was quickly jettisoned.  Marble-sized hail peppered the entire race field.  I joined most other competitors who’d sharply ducked under high bracken or behind stone walls to perform the fellrunner’s equivalent of a F1 pit-stop, and fight into their cag.  8-miles of Pennine lumps and bumps – drier than ever, but still soft in places – provided a good test.  My threshold was reached much sooner than expected and yet I was pleased to finish only a few minutes down on previous attempts.  Unsurprisingly though, I ended miles away from winning either the family pack of toilet rolls or any of the plastic beach toys. Thankfully, I finished in fairly good shape with no illness issues and only slight hamstring grumbles.

Precisely a week later I once more felt nauseous. Similar again to my childhood internal summersault at all things rice and creamy.  The first was that immediate stomach flip when the pre-dawn alarm triggered.  I knew instantly this was international race day.  Next was trying to convince my body, despite the signals of biological anxiety, that forcing down some cereal was really important.  This was followed over an hour or so later that one of only two access roads to the remote start was permanently closed, route barre, due to flood erosion.  I philosophically read this as spiritual intervention.  After all the stress and worry I gratefully accepted that, in the end, the mountain gods only wanted us to enjoy a social run.  Still, with SatNav brain engaged I half-heartedly agreed to follow the best diversion route and see if we’d still make time for entries on the day.

Unsure what the French is for oodles of time, but we arrived with plenty in the small village of Caussou (pronounced Coo-soo). I didn’t need to know what the exact translation is for fearful, as upon handing over our entry forms, medical certificates and euros, I was again full of it.  While I was busy masking my anxiety Rose was mildly concerned about beating the generous cut-off times and obviously not getting lost.  In my head (and guts) I was worried about blowing up or bowing out somewhere remote and unfamiliar.  I even had visions of having to try – through actions and a below par ‘Allo ‘Allo accent – to awkwardly explain to an isolated route marshal that my glutes were shot and I needed assistance.  Carry On Fellrunning?  With a jolt I returned to reality as Rose reinforced that we do this for fun and reminded me the route was only 13km.  I knew that once my feet cross the start line it still becomes a race, even against myself.  And I then reminded her that this race had over 1000m of climb in less than 4km.  This was like Ben Nevis really.

After the first tarmac climb out of the village I never regained my breathing.  My fellow clubmates – holidaying nearby at Pyrenees Haven – were already out of sight, immediately fighting with French compression sock wearing grunters, holding trekking poles and screeching out allez, allez.  I focused on more personal goals.  I tried to control my heart rate and absorb the stunning surroundings.  Small steps and good inhales and slow exhales.  But bloody hell this climb goes on forever!

During the first 2000 feet or so I stayed with a quiet, shuffling group of approximately 10 people.  The route here was mostly on a clearly taped, leafy footpath up through a thick forest.  This group was an even mix of men and women, including one woman whose red shorts had less material than my buff.  Once on the open mountain – grassy and full of tussocks – I fell back slightly.  I was really struggling, probably a combination of virus recovery and altitude.  Equally worrying was that I quickly lost sight of those red shorts.

Caussou race 2018

I relaxed a little at the summit checkpoint that peaked out at roughly 6500’.  I soon discovered that my legs had relaxed a lot.  No amount of dried apricots or fruit shot blocks could boost me back into a strong descent.  It quickly emerged that my fitness was almost blown and now the race was just about enjoyment and survival.  Somehow my jelly legs managed to pass many of the trail runners who’d climbed better to the summit.  The downhill section and along an uneven grass saddle was good fun and easy to follow with regular little red flags.  In every direction the views were amazing.  I also self-administered a bonus adrenalin shot as I bounded past those red shorts.

My initial fears and apprehensions rapidly returned though even before the penultimate checkpoint.  Worries of lung capacity and pelvic weakness were uncomfortably replaced by the radioactive glow of my burning soles.  In particular, I spent the final 5km technical downhill section, again through the forest, entirely on my forefeet.  Any accidental or essential heel drop posted an image in my brain of a cartoon blister that throbbed through footwear towards a climatic explosion.  Bit of shame really as normally I would have really thrown my vast gravitational weight at this section.  Still, I trundled back into the village and was glad to finish upright, albeit very leg-wobbly and – likely due to oxygen-depletion – smiling like the French village idiot.

In return for your bib number un bière pression was secured and there was a four-chambered lavoir nearby in which to soak all aching limbs and blistered soles.  One chamber was bizarrely occupied by a giant 4ft long catfish.  A few of my clubmates claimed category prizes, along with Rose, who’d safely navigated her way round and on to the podium as third quickest auld lass.  She seemed dazed by the announcement, mind.  Maybe this was a combination of too many dried apricots or the stiff exertion in the haute montagnes.  Or perhaps it was the frothy beers for lunch?  Her prizes included an array of luxury items such as bandage on a roll, boiled bonbons, a hairbrush and foot deodorant.  Chapeau to her.  Turnslack prize awards seem to have a rival.  Thankfully, there was no rice pudding or a corner pot equivalent.

A Proper French Adventure

Plotting a running route on an IGN map, high in the French mountains, was much like my holiday reading of Andrew Marr’s EU referendum themed ‘Head of State’: from a distance each promised thrills and some escapism, but in practice the plot gets lost in the thick of it.  I had to keep going on both counts.  I was almost at the end you see.  Still the frustration led to anger, and the anger to the dark side.

If anyone can tell me of a greater physical obstacle than navigating through a mature forest then I’ll whip my naked, hairy backside with an ash sapling.  Spread open – the map, not my backside – dotted footpath lines follow contours and white cart tracks snake their way through large shaded areas of deep green and mint-coloured woodland.  Helpfully, these obvious route ways follow or cross major waters at seemingly clear junctions as they fall from large tarns, e’tangs, or swimming pool sized bodies of water. Between mountains and woodland, clearings are well marked and sometimes these correspond with boundary features, such as fencing or walls. All ticketyboo then.

On the ground, though, the terrain only seems to correspond to contours and the area of woodland. Depending on the area or density of the latter, the former is almost always impossible to determine.  You might descend from an open mountain side via a col or exact point of physical note, such as a mountain hut, or refuge.  Quickly, in the thickest of deep woodland, the track you planned to follow abruptly ends and the huge conifers and deciduous friends block out nearly all daylight.  The forest comes alive with crickets and rustling.  With the map now in hand and several head scratches later you begin to lose your bearings.  You also remember the Pyrenees host both bears and wolves.  You might even wonder if the French play the banjo.

My proposed 5 hour, approximately 10 miles/ 3000 feet route spiralled out of control at the 9 mile mark.  My Human SatNav thrown was creaking.  Or maybe it was Treebeard and the Ents.  We were heading north when I knew the car was somewhere south east or south.  After descending on a dotted line from the refuge there was a clearly marked, white forest track that we’d reach – it was simply a case of turning right.  Earlier, on a mountain summit, a hiker had even confirmed that this was a good loop, or boucle, and described the easy to follow route more or less as I had pre-planned.  He even agreed that the route finished at the ski resort tennis court.

I ran my finger over the map again.  Sweat dripped on to the paper.  I proposed a brief adventure, off piste, over streams and through woodland.  I was convinced this more acceptable compass direction, towards the distant sound of timber machinery, would place us back on the correct track.  For Pierre’s sake we were only a few miles from the finish!  I joked we’d be drinking a cold beverage within 30 minutes, 40 tops. Easy.

We found the forest track. Tick. Turned right. Tick. Following contours and bends that – almost – corresponded with the map we headed in the direction of the finish. Tick.  Check for ticks.  Tick.  Damn it – again the track unexpectedly turned north. And descended.  We needed to be south and follow the contours without losing elevation.  I proposed reversing and following a visible ski run, overgrown with saplings, shrubs and long grass.  This pointed us towards the finish area and, at a guess, less than a mile from that cold drink.  Again Rose trustingly agreed.  I knew where we were.  That would soon change.

The ski run ended after 5 minutes of leisurely plodding between ash and birch new growth.  Several steep climbs later.  Through ferns bigger than parasols.  Over boulders like washing machines.  And between ground shrubbery that shredded the bare legs of the unprepared.  We were now well off piste and very pissed off.  Our check for ticks had long since ceased.  I was more worried about stepping on a hunter’s trap or starting a sparring session with a startled bear.  I was snappy and Rose well meaning.  We were both running very low on water.  Neither of us had a torch.  I surrendered and suggested to reverse – somehow – to the forest track at the start of the overgrown ski run then follow down to the surfaced road.  This I navigated successfully.  Woop-woop, one small achievement versus nature.

French rose forest 2018

Almost 1000 feet descending down the forest track and we both cooled off in a nearby pool of fresh water.  This was only a brief respite for the inevitable climb back up to the finish.  Ironically, I sustained my worst cut here on my shin from a bramble.  Nature scrapes back.  We soon reached the tarmac road.  I guessed there would be 2 miles and maybe 1500 feet of climb back up to the car.  We trudged upwards, the walk of shame.  Cars flew passed.  Neither of us resigned to sticking out a thumb.  Nearly 40 minutes later we arrived between the silent wooden ski lodges into the ski resort of Mont d’Olmes.  We shuffled annoyingly passed the sign for the tennis courts.  It was almost 7pm.  Almost 3 hours ago we’d been less than a mile away.

The entire route ended at nearly 17 miles/ 5000 feet.  Rose did say she wanted time on her feet for Yorkshireman training.  We’d been on our feet for over 8 hours.  Both our Garmin watches had long since died.  Along with my SatNav pride.  We no longer fancied a coke and departed with tails between legs.  Like an oasis, though, the day ended with oven-baked pizza, from a van, at the bottom of the mountains.  Munching on molten cheese I was itching to return and discover the correct route.  Later we were both itching with shin scrapes and hand splinters.

A hiking blog later confirmed that we were only metres, YES METRES, from the best route on that overgrown ski run.  We will just need to return next year to complete the final chapter.  The descent from Mount Fourcat to Mont d’Olmes will be revisited.  As for the outcome of ‘Head of State’, I hear you ask?  The result of the actual EU referendum was more entertaining.  Riveting read, my derriere.

The Best Lakeland Tribute Act

I’d suggested Helvellyn and the Dodds to my girlfriend earlier in 2018 as a suitable route for a long challenge in the Lakes, without the likely need for extensive navigation.  Closer to race day I  prepared route maps with key notes to aid Rose from checkpoint to false summit and trod to key rocky outcrop.  I hoped visibility would be fine and this desktop assistance might reduce stress.  In the end I simply increased her worry and the macro-assistance would prove largely meaningless in a micro setting.  Welcome to Lakeland fellrunning where local knowledge is everything.

In short: we both crossed everything for fine weather and good views.

Arriving the day before we took advantage of staying nearby to walk part way up Clough Head.  I’d rightly assessed that this monster could be pivotal both at the start and towards the end of the race when tired.  In clear visibility, looking up at the huge monolith of a mountain, I pointed to hill features and correlated these to the map and Wainright book.  I needn’t have worried about route choice as the way had already been marked with red tape by organisers from the tarmac end to the summit of Clough Head.  Still, under the warm afternoon sun the steep north face provided moments of trepidation.

In short: we both wished for cooler temperatures plus fine weather/ good views.

Race day was warm, mid-20s and Lakeland dripping in sunshine.  Like many others I was also soon dripping but in sweat.  The first two miles are tough; runnable at first and then WHACK – the green wall of Clough Head seemingly grows higher and steeper.  Behind, Blencathra towered dark, high and mighty under a cobalt blue sky.  Across the gravel coach road beyond the reeds the race route immediately rises to nothing short of a grassy staircase.  Little wonder folk attempting the Bob Graham do this bit almost blind, in darkness, powered only by torchlight or the stars.

And then the devilish wind suddenly emerged.

Any meaningful attempt to resume effective running beyond the crest towards the summit was thwarted by gale force gusts.  Essentially this wind from the east (or the left on the way out, Helvellyn, then the right on return) remained strong and gusted at intervals when you lease wanted it.  Only on a few short occasions did it completely disappear.  When it did, the fells immediately became a furnace and it felt like my vest was melting to my skin, much like a crisp packet in an open fire.

Dodds1 with text

Checkpoint 1-2

The legs soon found some energy as I passed through the Clough Head checkpoint and on to the uneven grass path down to and then skirting left of Calfhow Pike.  Veering from a southerly to more easterly bearing, the route slowly rises, arcing round towards the next summit of Great Dodd.  The wind had thankfully reduced to only a gentle breeze here, but as I trudged towards the bald summit it again intensified to buffeting gusts that drowned out the words of summit marshals.  They could’ve been saying dib here, scan to sign your life away or only death awaits out there.  Despite this audible confusion and alerts of potential doom the views were brilliant over Ullswater and beyond to the Eden Valley.

Ramblers occupied the smoothest lines on the next descent.  I remember thinking  a few things here: first, Helvellyn looked a long, long way away; second, why was running downhill seemingly requiring more energy than usual; and third, Rose will probably kill me for describing this ridge as undulating.  I battled down to the next shallow col and tried to saturate any bad thoughts for hikers with walking poles, effortless laughter and tightly-fastened wide-brimmed sun hats.

Checkpoint 2-3

I’d long since removed my running cap for fear an imminent gust would removed it from my sweaty head and transport it through the air towards Keswick.  My tartan buff now acted in dual purpose: (hopefully) preventing my forehead from turning crimson while absorbing the trickly tap of sweat from the top of my head.  The contour trod to the west of Stybarrow Dodd was found and negotiated with ease, albeit leaning into the fierce wind that tried to blow all runners down the open gradient to the right.  Runners ahead then incorrectly navigated directly ahead towards the summit cairn of Watson’s Dodd.  I knew there was a trod off to left sooner that cut out the corner and removed the need to do a little extra climbing.   As I bore left across open grass I observed another runner further left still.  As Sticks Pass emerged over the ridge I realised that by some distance even I’d missed the ‘obvious’ trod.  On the return the line is abundantly obvious, in clear visibility anyway.

Beyond the crossroads at Sticks Pass I was making steady progress up over the rocks and crags towards Raise when a yellow thunderbolt whizzed by.  The first three runners, all from Keswick AC, were already on their return.  A bit like witnessing Finlay Wild descending at Ben Nevis, the grace and elegance of elite fellrunners – especially over rocky, technical terrain – is just as majestic as a ballerina on a floodlit stage.  Only later would I learn that as I reached the Helvellyn halfway Carl Bell would cross the finish line Bck in Threlkeld.  In the moment I returned upwards in my own unique elegance and reached the cut-off with 15minutes to spare.

In short: I was tiring and with some confidence hoped that Rose would also reach the target.

Checkpoint 3-4

A steady stream of runners quickly fizzed past.  The struggle up from Whiteside to Lower Man was arguably the hardest and hottest of the day.  The wind had decided to bugger off and annoy someone else when I would quite gladly have accepted a refreshing blast to exposed skin.  The unrestricted views down the ridges to the left and towards the shimmering Ullswater were breathtaking.  I started to dream of being in the water.  To the right, westwards, the higher peaks shimmered under the sweltering sun.  More hikers appeared which signalled the summit of Helvellyn was nearing.

The Return

I was pleased to see Rose, now beyond the cut off, and we shared an embrace between Lower Man and Whiteside. She blurted out ‘A22’ and, slightly perplexed maybe with the early onset of heatstroke, I replied with the more obvious ‘keep going, about 15mins to the summit’.  Later, she reminded me that we’d had a top-dollar conversation at the campsite the night before.  Subjects included Munros and Corbetts, egg fertility and also the roads of England that traverse coast to coast.  Who says that nights under canvas don’t get crazy, eh?  She’d promised to offer a suggestion when we met on the out-and-back.  I’d forgotten or was more concerned with survival.  Bravo to her for evading heat stroke and remembering the important things, mind.  Pity the A22 isn’t a contender though.

Back to all roads returning to the finish which quickly introduced fresh challenges: (i) severe abdominal cramps, likely induced from dehydration; (ii) an overwhelming urge to scream ‘feck off’ at the now annoyingly gusty wind that never provided any assistance up any of the 10 climbs; (iii) miserably failing to alleviate nausea after taking an energy gel (increased the sickly feeling); and (iv) consuming an electrolyte drink (poured over face due to wind sweeping my arm).  I even resorted to internally plotting the coastal countries and capitals around Africa; this was abandoned while in the armpit of the continent when I tried to recall the capital of French Guiana (I later acknowledged that this was in fact in South America).

Even uphill marching was now a struggle.  The rises over Watson’s and by Stybarrow Dodds were hot and humid.  I nearly lost the will up towards Great Dodd and concluded that in recent weeks the results of my reduced running was now being displayed.  Worse was to follow.  I was startled into life at the summit as a fellow runner almost commenced a direct race line – without a recognised path and significantly more ascent – from Great Dodd to Clough Head (understandable in poor weather maybe, but unforgivable in clear visibility).  I bellowed in the gale force wind and flapped my arm to the left.  She seemed to acknowledge my instruction and altered her direction of travel.  Had she continued this would’ve been much like attempting the straight side from the top of a capital letter D, when the curve is the greatly preferred route.

In short: she would most likely have blown up, plus her inability to say thanks when I passed suggested she was already wilting.

The strong wind then blew hard, from behind, on the descent back to Calfhow Pike.  As Darren Fishwick said later, even more energy was needed to brake as the wind pushed you downhill at a speed you didn’t want and at a time in the race when your body wasn’t in an ideal condition to respond.  On the final climb up to Clough Head, I actually felt ok – I even managed to run-shuffle upwards and offered some words of encouragement as I passed another runner.  Without warning though all my fuses suddenly blew and the grass carpet beneath me was replaced with a channel of thick treacle.

A few minutes later, only walking mind, I was heavily out of breath at the summit checkpoint.  I recall the delight as I approached the cliff edge to see the outline of cricket ground a few miles below.  The steep zig-zagging descent was surprisingly welcome relief.  My legs were shocked to be moving again and both quads didn’t grumble or groan.  The flatter grassy slopes beyond the coach road were a different matter.  Sudden waves of extreme nausea washed through me like being on a small ship in high swells.  Before I reached Newsham cottage I passed a runner who’d bonked to a walk.  He said that he was fine, but could now only muster a walk.  I plodded with deep inhales down the tarmac lane, across the wooden sleeper bridge and almost crawled over the finish line.

In short: I was elated to survive and just get round – yes I’d underestimated the challenge and was very much undercooked in preparation and over-baked in the conditions.

Overall

A belting route and is no substitute or lesser the test if compared to the classic horseshoe routes that traverse the craggy fells of the western lakes – but it offers a stiff challenge, nonetheless.

For some time I’d joked that the race name sounded like a tribute act. If Lakeland races did tribute acts then Helvellyn and the Dodds would certainly be just as good as the real thing.

A Grand Dales Day Out

I like late race starts.  Ideally around lunchtime, maybe 12 or 1 o’clock?  This allows me time to wake, I mean properly wake, not just get up and go.  A lunchtime start also introduces the concept of a second breakfast and more caffeine than is likely advisable.  But a 3pm race start is just a bit beyond the agreeable time zone.  For this reason final leg starts in team relays are awkward and I’m usually displacing way too much energy and fluttering around like a constipated starling.  So the decision on Friday night to try out the Horton-in-Ribblesdale gala race (or loop up and down Pen-y-Ghent) provided a list of culinary and activity challenges… and opportunities.

“…this experience completely embodies why fellrunning trumps tarmac-thumping everyday and twice on race day.”

I calculated in my head that the drive to and from the Dales would be acceptable if I tacked on a few other activities during the day.  It started with a parkjog around Aireville Park.  Actually, it started with a big coffee and watering at the allotment.  For this reason I arrived a tad late, swiftly bought a parking ticket, slapped the adhesive corner inside the passenger side window and bounded across to the start area in time for the announcements.  On the multi-lap course I watched cousin Morv disappear further away on every out-and-back, while friend Pam encouraged and took photos at the finish line.  A brief chat at the end then toilet stop in the leisure centre before I returned to the car.  Alarmingly I’d received a dreaded yellow sticker penalty charge.  On inspection it had been issued for non-display of a parking ticket.  Seems my purchased and applied ticket had limply fallen into the footwell of doom.  Bugger, this could prove a most expensive day out.

Suddenly the somewhat exurbant entry fee for the Wharfedale Trail half (a dirty thirty, pah) seemed like a snip compared to today’s emerging cash car crash.  I drove the short distance towards Grassington, obviously frothing at the mouth, to give some cheer to friends who were ironically doing the race I’d decided to avoid – they’d do the same for me, right?  This year was the first since 2011 that I haven’t trundled up Mastiles Lane.  I thought that I’d be regretting not running.  But on approach to all things limestone and green all that my Scottish brain could muster were images of mathematical equations that tried to justify not paying the bigcoin for a trail race and then being dealt an even larger penalty for parking to participate in parkrun.  Seems the fell gods were somehow expressing their annoyance.

god hope_LI

Light rain quickly greeted my first place of support.  I managed to plonk myself under the big tree about a mile from the start where my girlfriend Rose had supported a few years previously.  High winds had dislodged a branch that year and nearly delivered her with most severe (an innocuous) of running related injuries.  All that I received was a fairly dry refuge, the darkest light for photos and a need to dance on the spot to avoid being eaten alive by midges.  Next: a few miles along the road at Conistone I watched and cheered with another mate Darryl who was out to support his wife, Melissa.  The light rain slightly intensified and soon I was wetter than a Charlie Dimmock garden feature (not an innuendo, honest).

Back in the dry of the car I was faced with an onward route choice: via Littondale and across the narrow road to Helwith Bridge or the slightly longer way round through Settle.  Of course I incorrectly chose the latter and joined the slow progress behind a traveller’s caravan on the A65.  After parking in Horton I suddenly felt less than motivated to drag myself up and over the smallest of the Three Peaks.  Maybe it was the somewhat strange feeling to arrive in a place that is synonymous with an iconic race and the circus has long since moved on.  Ok, the show may have left behind a few items for display. But the grass was long and there were no rows of portaloos.  Perhaps most strikingly there wasn’t any sign of snow on the summit of the nearest high peak.  In fact thick cloud obliterated all views above the lower grazing fields.  Somewhere up there though, to the east, Pen-y-Ghent silently waited.

I’d inwardly decided to take the first half at a gentle pace as I was still recovering from a back injury; an opportunity to absorb the surroundings that I usually miss on the Three Peaks race.  Beyond the tarmac start the gradient started to ramp up on a field lane and my watch vibrated to signal a mile complete: 10k pace wasn’t what I should have read.  I felt ok though with no grumbles from the back.  Soon tarmac transferred to footpath and the gradient steepened to reduce my shuffle to a walk.  Mist enveloped us with drizzle and reduced visibility, but the humidity levels rose.  As extra effort was required it wasn’t long before I had difficulty determining if I was sweating or pasted with fret from the mist.

False ridge led to false ridge as the race field stretched out.  A final sharp grass bank dispatched us out on the south shoulder and the stone path upwards towards the rock scramble.  Visibility was reduced even further down to approximately 50metres.  There was an eerie quiet: no wind, but just the collective sound of heavy breathing and occasional clink of stone over rock.  The scene wouldn’t have been out of place had a young Jeff Bridges skipped past explaining that he needed to save Jessica Lange from the hairy big ape.

The effort needed for the scramble was pretty much as I expected.  Though I’d forgotten about the incline of flag stones that then lead up to the summit though; this seemed to go on for longer than was necessary.  Every time I started to shuffle another ramp went up and I’d briefly walk.  Repeat and repeat again.  The trig point soon appeared and after nipping through the stone stile with the small wooden gate, my legs took a wobble before adjusting to the soft lumpy grass.  This familiar descent – to the hairpin bend – always acts as something of a reward on Three Peaks day.

But then the second reward arrived.  Instead of burning my soles and firing the quads down the gravel path, the gala race route heads across open moorland from the fingerpost.  The next mile was shear childish delight: hardly any rock, a lush grassy carpet and a trod edged with bundles of spongy moss and heather should you decide to get a tad over-enthusiastic and go for a few forward rolls!  My arms might have been wind-milling. The inner child was definitely screaming with joy.  For me this experience completely embodies why fellrunning trumps tarmac-thumping everyday and twice on race day.

A further short climb up a grassy side to Whitber Hill was then followed by a flagged route across private farmland.  This section would’ve been more enjoyable had my legs not decided to alert that they were tiring.  Still, bouncing through the knee-high reeds and across tussocks was a fun challenge.  The rocky Pennine Way back down to the village was less enjoyable.  And the tarmac slog to the finish just served to remind me that – despite renewed enthusiasm – there was little left in the legs to catch the two runners only 20metres ahead.

The race route is excellent with much to offer.  I was pleased with my time, a shade under 70mins.  I finished with a smile on my face.  And no back pain.  Perhaps the sugar rush from the third and final reward at the finish numbed any nerve signal?  A compliment from the organisers – and local bakers I suspect – I inhaled a wedge of chocolate cake that was almost the size of my bumbag!  A fellow runner nearby looked on with scorn (or was it scone…) as he suggested that I’d only put back on whatever I’d lost during the race – my reply was bookended and interspersed with cream icing, general astonishment and handfuls of I don’t really care!

The day was packed with enjoyment and incident.  Yes I’d driven far too much, got soaked twice, but I’d gone out to support running friends for the first time in eons.  A ridiculously expensive calendar favourite race was substituted with a bargain-basement belter. The Pen-y-Ghent race provides both during and after: “Take on the challenge and you will be rewarded”, I’m sure the fell gods will have echoed through the Pen-y-Ghent mist.  But I hear you ask, what about the parking ticket?  Well a politely worded email to contest that highlighted my over-enthusiastic stupidity seemed to do the trick.  My challenge was upheld.  Phew! I can only conclude that the influence of the fell gods extends beyond misty mountain tops deep into the hierarchy of local government.  And also into the baking ovens of Ribblesdale homes.

10 Step Evolution Of A First Time Three Peaker

Ribblehead

1. Where’s Ben Nevis?
– if you’re thinking national summits, night time driving or even sailing up the west coast then tack away aff, my salty seadog…this be the three Yorkshire peaks, lad…

2. Acting on impulse
– you’ve decided to take on the challenge probably having already completed a range of shorter fell or hill races, maybe even including at least one long ‘un.  More likely, you’ve heard other club mates have recently entered (even superslow Mr. Shufflefeet) and you don’t want to miss out…

3. Quality control
– bugger!  You suddenly realise that there is some baffling qualifying criteria, apparently to ensure that you won’t be making a complete tit of yourself or unnecessarily wasting the time of volunteer marshals…

4. Diary management
– the FRA fixture diary is immediately thumbed opened and ALL available AL and BL races are circled with a black marker pen.  At this point your partner (or perhaps a smug club mate) rather unhelpfully points out that a super fast road marathon might be good enough?  Great, thanks.  You also establish that there aren’t that many suitable races during February-April that meet the entry requirements: you’ve already missed Trigger, your partner doesn’t fancy a blustery February weekend returning the ring to Mordor on the Isle of Man, so you’re left with the prospect of at least one that is nicknamed ‘the Beast’…

5. Crossroads
– despite the lack of the necessary entry requirements you perform a weird, silent deal with the devil, where you start to hill train like a bastard and, in return, he’ll make sure you’ll be all ticketyboo at your selected qualifying races.  If your surname is Johnson then fate will have it that you’ll already be acquainted. NB carrying a battered acoustic guitar OR displaying an ability to play the blues isn’t pivotal

6. Flat out
– slightly scuppering your wall-mounted schedule is the inescapable fact that (a) you live nowhere near any decent hills, while (b) the devil confuses your superhero plans as he reckons you’d be better placed to focus on tempo running.  You opt for a familiar mix of speedwork and efforts…

7. Bonked
– you abruptly discover at the Trog that your applied tempo running really wasn’t conducive to the sodden bogs and challenging tussocks of the Pennines. “Feckin’ devil!“, you mutter as you crawl with yet more cramp to a stop at the cricket ground finish.  Still, as you struggle to change from your wet clothes, club mates massage your busted confidence by suggesting that the ‘Peaks’ will be much easier: for starters there’s hardly any squelchy stuff and in the main the route is hard ground that weather-permitting you can probably do in road shoes.  Bad luck that you’ve just used the pricey Inov8 Bog-Dog-Bs that you bought on recommendation by Ben Mounsey.

8. Go long or go home… in shame
– after successfully completing your second qualifying event you start to up the miles.  You join club mates on a recce run up to Pen-y-Ghent followed by the swift sweep across to Ribblehead.   In glorious April sunshine your mates laugh and joke all the way round, including some abstract sniggers about a minibus or summat or other.  All briskly head straight to the Station Inn for a pint and some pork scratchings.  With little energy left, and almost in tears, you slink off to the toilet wondering how the hell you will manage another two peaks…

9. Panic attack
– a week before race day you awake from a fitful sleep during which the devil was pissing himself with laughter because he’d convinced you that almost zero hill training would be fine.  You proceed to cram in as much hill work as possible, largely on THAT incline leading out of the village, plus each day climbing the stairs to the office (sometimes two at a time) instead of taking the lift up the 6 levels.  You sit at your desk, sweating, ignoring your colleagues’ laughter and waiting for the devil to agree that the chuckling is just envy…

10. Uncertainty
– race day: you shelter from yet another wintry shower wondering how did it come to this – you have little idea what the race will be like?  In something of a trance you find yourself placing pre-labelled bottles into plastic tubs, each marked for seemingly mythical places, but they’re actually only Ribblehead and Hill Inn.  Inside the big white tent bile rises in your throat as an electronic dibber is fixed to your wrist amidst the fog of deep heat and grilled bacon.  Adrenaline reaches eruption levels as your kit is checked by diligent officials, establishing if you’ve done this before?  Then you march towards the start pen, somewhat bizarrely facing away from the first peak that (like the other two) you know is covered in a dusting of snow.  Nearby your club mates fist pump and holler away, proclaiming statements to each other, like “…it’s going to be bloody epic!”  The devil has long since buggered off.  He’ll reappear though, likely when you least want it: to suggest that you’ve not done enough training, a reminder perhaps that the knee niggle is back, or alarming you with nightmares of expected cramp and pending doom.  He’ll definitely be there while you’re on all fours, in a hail storm, going up THAT grassy bank towards Whernside.

Braveshorts

(Coach FRB)

Photo rights: Jim Tyson

Better The Devil You Know

All good things must come to an end, right?  Notice had been given that the 2017 Stoop fell race would be the penultimate event organised by Dave and Eileen Woodhead; perhaps known more widely by their collective pseudonym, The Woodentops.  For eons they have jointly hosted and organised a range of friendly, no frills fell races on t’moors above Haworth.  Beyond this, the Woodentops regularly head out to other races and selfishly take action shots of runners in full flow – I was tipped early in my fell forays to be cautious if you see them during a race as there’s likely a unsuspecting hazard nearby!

Unable to attend the Auld Lang Syne race on Hogmany, the 2017 Stoop fell race would be my final Woodentops’ race.  Worryingly, reports the day before of compacted ice suggested the race might need to be cancelled.  On race day though access was possible for organisers, marshals and runners and only small sections of the senior race route were considered dangerous.  The route was suitably revised to a simple out and back with a lollipop turn at the Stoop Stone.  The bogs would still be there, most likely hidden under a camouflage of ice and heathery frost.  Thankfully Dave with his camera wouldn’t be anywhere near!

Nonetheless, Mester W. was soon spotted making final arrangements for both the junior and senior races.  He was observed hand-spreading grit salt around the entrance to the portaloos and providing a safe passage to the finish line for runners; the glamour of a Race Organiser, eh?!  I complimented Dave for his kindness and suggested that his place in heaven was likely sealed:

Heaven, HEAVEN?  I’d rather be with the devil down below – at least it’d be bloody wa’m!”

Once again, as always, there was little point in disagreeing with the main man. Or maybe he and Eileen had already been promised greater things when they were recognised by Queen Betty?

Eileen, as is usual, was probably working with others inside or near the cricket club; like a ninja to Dave’s samurai – to me Eileen always displayed a quiet, effortlessness as demonstrated during the delivery of the prize awards in t’pub.  Mind, Eileen always did seem to perk up during a race when about to capture me on camera:

C’mon Braveshorts…
(usually followed by a wee giggle)

Fishy Stoop 2017

The wave of Santa hats soon dispersed out from the cold quarry after the now familiar cries of ‘Get Back’.  As warned the moorland access track was indeed sheet ice and the entire race field was self-guided to the verge on the right.  Underfoot conditions were manageable once out on the moorland paths and bogs, although perhaps a tad tricky in spots.  As some runners disappeared thigh deep into icy bleakness, those following took diverted routes left and right.  But at least we were running and kind of racing.  And sort of getting warmer.

The mist intensified with the elevation, and soon two claret and gold vests from my club hurtled past.  At best, I was reduced to a shuffle here so was quite happy to encourage all by name who flew by.  Amidst the cold slush I looped round the Stoop Stone – manned by Mick Fryer, who must’ve been colder than a polar bear’s unspeakables – and started my return to (relative) warmth.  The descent was generally good fun and with modest care could mostly still be approached with some adventure, if not the usual reckless abandon or foolhardiness.

Carefully edging down the icy track and up the finish incline from the toilet block, where juniors enthusiastically cheered and clapped the seniors to the finish.  Dave was in familiar territory with camera in hand, instructing runners where to stand and commanding them to look happy.  I happily obliged with the obligatory ‘kilt flash’ as this was my final appearance at a Woodentops’ masterclass.

Huge thanks to them both for many memories ranging from fun on the fell to being hurt by Haribo! There is something of irony in being warned pre-race not to do anything silly, only later to be injured by confectionery thrown by same, said person.

The races in 2018 – and beyond – won’t be the same but, while no longer organised by Dave and Eileen, I’m sure there will still be some devil in them somewhere!

Lakeland c1983, almost

Lakeland stranger things

Dawn light filtered through the green curtains as the bleating intensified in both volume and pitch.  Just one of those things about staying in the Lake District; being woken by a bleating sheep.  Feeling concerned I eventually slunk out from my bunk – my girlfriend was wearing earplugs – and inspected from the window the scene outside. Somehow a sheep had navigated down and was now imprisoned inside a walled garden courtyard.  Futile attempts were soon made to leap up a 4-foot stone wall and escape via a grass bank.  Then the bleating would start again, after eating more greenery, naturally.   I showered, dressed and promptly walked down to the hostel reception to alert of the sheep stramash. “Oh bloody hell, the edible plants….” the staff member blurted out as he leapt from the building as though it was on fire.  No really, you don’t need to enquire if our sleep was interrupted, we’re fine thanks.  I silently kept this thought to myself.

Actually the sheep incident was just one of many things about the Lake District.  I counted a few.  To start with, the individual weirdness of many fellow hostel dwellers was somehow mirrored by the catatonic atmosphere inside one of the two local pubs.  In fact, the pub and the hostel lounge area were clearly competing for an award to best resemble an undertaker’s waiting room.   In my sombre opinion the latter would’ve quietly won, aided by the crimson-red, velvet upholstery and superb extras from [insert name of a zombie film].

There was also a major traffic incident that caused chaos on a narrow Western Lakes’ road.  Typically, this occured on the morning when we’d erroneously decided to support local public transport.  ‘Highway Hedge Hairdressers’ had deployed a tractor with supplementary cutter to provide the necessary agricultural version of a short, back and sides.  The seasonal hedge cutting created significant vehicle queues in both directions.  Honestly, we were delayed by what seemed like most of the morning.  On another day we were almost forced due to persistent rain to head outdoors wearing waterproofs.  Thankfully, the pitter-patter stopped as we were otherwise occupied with an early lunch so found no need to inform social media.  Ha, social media, there was another thing – intermittent wifi connectivity that could only have been bettered had I climbed to the nearest high point and bashed two rocks together.

Oh, and the ridgeline views, just where do I start?

Upwards, labouring hard towards Skiddaw, many descending ramblers nodded a greeting. But each looked at us, up and down, with a sense of bewilderment.  Seems their head to toe waterproof attire was somewhat in conflict with our more minimal shorts and T-shirts.  Each time I smiled in return and waited until they passed before turning around.  Immediately I was drawn away from their confused state and slapped in the face with unique landscape views that whisked the breath away.  This scene was repeated day after day: on Grasmoor, Causey Pike, Brandreth, Great Gable and around Haweswater; it almost even happened at Castlerigg Stone circle.

The mountain views were also frustratingly peppered by wispy cloud and, here and there, an occasional flash of September sunshine.  Annoyingly this offered no real consistency for taking photos so each time was different to before, and some images displayed vibrant valley colours while others contrasted ridge against rocky summits.  All this before I even mention the challenge of having to navigate.  Just as well I carried a map, unlike the unfortunate rambler on Skiddaw who was rightly annoyed that there were no installed signposts to offer the most direct route to the summit.   Call me paranoid, but sometimes I even supplemented the relevant Wainwright walk book with the map.

Perhaps the only time we weren’t sartorially inspected was during a solo blast up and down Robinson.  I received a dignified and almost salutatory cap-tap from an elderly shepherd in wellies, holding a crook and escorted by a trustful collie; a bit like the Lakeland equivalent of Gandalf, perhaps.  After navigating across the treacherous plateau of Buttermere Moss, I turned around to see if he too was now inspecting with disdain.  But the shepherd and his dog had disappeared.  Maybe he was transported away on the back of a giant eagle?  More likely the Moss had claimed another victim?  I even questioned if I’d imagined the brief encounter.  No matter, the blinking low cloud blew hither and enveloped man, beast and moss so we were all soon hidden from view.

In summary, if you want a Lakeland break while retaining some thread of modern life then I’d strongly recommend staying in Keswick, Ambleside or Windermere.  You’ll get pizza, internet and your usual imported lager at a broadly similar, inflated price.  Maybe plan your excursions around travelling only on principal A-roads, especially if you want to keep to a schedule.  I wouldn’t bother supporting the rural bus service as when delayed the drivers will likely offer no solution and probably only smile.  Take extreme care if out running.  The fleeting glimpse of views might lead to an unexpected stumble and unwanted fall.  Other fell enthusiasts may not observe your sense of adventure and quite rightly question why you are moving swiftly – and at risk – over rock and boulder, while in clothing best suited for a Pilates class at Pure Gym.  They may even froth at the mouth when it is pointed out that you are in fact not even wearing Scarpa hiking boots.  It would be shear recklessness to consider anything like wild swimming or scrambling.

Should you book into a hostel – with two village pubs nearby – then I’d suggest avoiding Room 4 (and possibly 5).  While dozing here there’s a high probability that you could be woken by either the bleat of a sheep or from the regular ping of the self-catering kitchen microwave directly below.  Similarly, best to only visit the pub that isn’t fishy about its atmosphere.  While you’re at it avoid the hostel lounge completely unless planning a death by bare walls and muffled whispers.   And if trudging through spongy bog is your idea of adventure, keep eyes peeled at Buttermere Moss for a mystical Lakeland shepherd – he could still be searching for a lost sheep, maybe the one last seen being escorted from a nearby hostel by an irate vegetarian.

Postscript:

We really did enjoy ourselves – honest.  The escape to the fells was just what was needed, although maybe my girlfriend (for months prior a desk-bound writer) hadn’t seen the memo outlining 30+ miles and over 11,000 feet of climb.  We’d strongly recommend catching the bus from Buttermere to Braithwaite then discovering a ridgeline route back – possibly via Grizedale Pike, Grasmoor, Sail etc.  And there’s an amazing AirBnB (Goodcroft) near Shap from where you can run directly to the fells above Haweswater.  We can endorse that the Lakes are open, we embraced a spot of wild swimming and supported local businesses where possible – rum butter was purchased, I ate Cumberland sausage and ONLY sipped Hawkshead ales.  Who knows, we might even return to the hostel life one day?  But if in Buttermere, we’ll likely eat out at The Bridge.

Three Little Words

This was new territory for me.  I’d never before failed to finish a race, either through injury or from missing cut-off times.  Yes I’d come close – nearly withdrawing from the Edinburgh-North Berwick road race after 14 miles, and almost not reaching the checkpoints in early attempts at longer fell races.  Three little words:  DID-NOT-FINISH.

Wasdale race no

The 2017 Wasdale Horseshoe was selected as an English Championship race.  An opportunity to race with the best.  Well, to stand on the start line with them anyway.   There would be at least twice the number of competitors compared to the previous ‘standard’ year.  Just follow a local vest and rely on my instincts as a human satnav.  Ignorantly, perhaps, I thought navigating would be less of an issue due to increased number of participants.  Yes, I could easily navigate, if needed, with a compass and a map.  Despite this, I also knew the route would still be my biggest challenge to date.  But I honestly didn’t think the advertised cut-off times would be something to worry about.  Unless of course the weather was most foul.  I truly thought my legs would fail first.  In hindsight, this was very naive.

The summit checkpoints of Whin Rigg and Seatallan had already been reached and passed.  Then the marshal at the Pillar summit checkpoint confirmed what I already knew: I’d been timed-out.  In the moment I just paused; numb, a bit speechless and to some degree no longer functioning as a contestant.  There was no exploding bomb, unsavoury outburst or a McEnroe-esque challenge.  Maybe my emotions were  anesthetised by the stunning views of glorious Lakeland.  I was soon joined by a dozen others, a few of whom were more audibly disappointed and remarking that it seemed ridiculous in the fine weather.  Any marshal from the 2016 event would likely argue the cut-off times are spot-on.

Pillar moody

After a few minutes I descended to Black Sail Pass (still on the race route), down Mosedale and swiftly passed the Wasdale Inn, then back along the valley floor to race HQ.  At the finish I smiled and cheered other Yorkshire running friends as they completed the race, making sure they were ok and providing them with much needed water.  I was pleased for them – genuinely.  But behind the veneer of my support I was starting to boil inside.  As Marcellus Wallace advises Butch in Pulp Fiction: “…you may feel a slight sting.  That’s pride fucking with you….”  The damaged ego was indeed beginning to fissure.

Where did it go wrong?

(Piss Poor) Preparation: in short I underestimated the challenge.  I definitely feel it is possible from West Yorkshire to prepare for 21 hilly miles.  However, I now acknowledge that almost nothing, other than running in the Lakes (or BIG hills), can satisfactorily condition the body – and mind – for a long day up and across the mighty fells.  Hill repeats on Keeper Lane or lumpy runs over Ilkley Moor really don’t substitute for either the climbs out of Wasdale or the sharp descents between checkpoints.

Weather: even on short-to-medium races I rarely fare well in hot, sunny conditions.  The 2017 Wasdale race didn’t offer any respite, especially over a long route with significant climbs and minimal shade.  Despite taking sufficient liquids – there were many unexpected water crossings with fresh, cool top-ups – and wearing my tail-cap the weather did sap my energy.  Had I negotiated beyond Pillar, and somehow then Great Gable, I wonder in what state my leg muscles would’ve been either on the climb up to Scafell Pike or worse coming down Lingmell?

Nav Know-How:  regardless of the expected weather conditions, familiarity with key route sections is fundamental.  I had two fairly minor errors.  Together, these cost me maybe 4-5 minutes in time, while further depreciating overall energy levels, sooner than I’d expected.  The first was during the steep descent from Whin Rigg, very innocuous down grass into bracken and suddenly into a very technical gully.  A more conservative route would’ve followed a zig-zag path through the bracken.  Secondly, I chose not to follow other runners on the lower skirting of Black Crag just before Pillar.  Stupidly, I knew the cut-off time was in the balance.  Rather than pause, quickly look at the map – which would’ve have confirmed following as the correct route – I instead adopted instinct and retreated higher to the boulder-strewn plateau.  Schlepping across the large obstacles I viewed the runners, with whom I’d been following, beyond Windy Gap almost halfway up the Pillar scramble and likely 4-5 minutes ahead.  In that moment my heart sank – I knew that I’d missed the cut-off and my race was over.

Ironically, had the weather been worse then I’d likely have followed the runners without question.  Here, clear visibility worked against me.  Actually, the excellent visibility had worked against me for some time.  At every high junction I could see ALL of the peaks still to come.  Psychologically, this did have a negative impact.  The devil on the shoulder was increasingly whispering words of fatigue and failure.  Ultimately, a better understanding of the route would’ve allowed me to mentally prepare for certain sections and to anticipate where I could easily refuel, recover and regroup.

For example, I had no prior knowledge or gave any real respect to the fell of Seatallan.  Indeed, had I consulted Wainwright’s Western Fells I would’ve learned the following: “When the organisers of a recent mountain race selected Seatallan as a checkpoint, some of the contestants confessed that they had never before heard of the fell…”  Like most of the surrounding peaks I (incorrectly) concluded that the terrain would be rocky or gravel based.  I hadn’t factored that the climb up to (and across from) Seatallan, especially after a few days heavy rain, would instead be marshy and in places downright boggy.

So three little words.  Did-Not-Finish.

Still hurting?  Actually, not really.  After all it’s only a recreational hobby eh?  As my namesake in Pulp Fiction goes on to say: “…Fuck pride.  Pride only hurts, it never helps.” Including the return to race HQ I still covered approximately 18 miles and a similar climb to that reached in the Three Peaks.  On reflection, I now wish on the day that I’d carried on from Black Sail Pass to also climb and descend Great Gable – plenty of time to take some photos and absorb views which are usually obscured by clag and drizzle.  More clinically, this would’ve been excellent knowledge for a future attempt.  A future attempt?  Of course.  Those three little words are no longer D-N-F.  The words already represent something more positive and strategic.