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.
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?