It is also called the ‘Marathon With Mountains‘. A proper fell running challenge. The gnarly say easier now that bog sections have been flagged and tape marks the way. It’s still a long way, lots of up and down. A race where the winner even has to bash out sub 7 minute mile averages. I’d witnessed this all before, though – while marshaling on the double ladder stile approximately a mile down from Ingleborough (or Inglebugger as other fell runners refer to it). The year before to be precise; I remember the glazed looks, staggering approaches and then chronic cramp during the up and over traverse. Yep, I stood and witnessed hours of runners pass in differing stages of elation and muscle depletion. Dried salt on face, saliva down chins and for a few bog up to the oxters. So, why then would I decide to enter and attempt the Three Peaks Fell Race myself?
Well, firstly it was the event’s 60th anniversary. Second, 2014 was a milestone birthday year for me. Third, I thought it would be a ‘fun’ day out in the Dales – if you consider evolving aches, reoccurring pains and constant expletive swearing as fun. And lastly, I was naively stupid! Yes, the longer (and more technical or severe) the race then there are more variables to consider. Footwear, footfalls and fuel or weather, water and weakness. On reflection I’d not really prepared effectively and almost came up short. Scrambling up the side of a mountain in a condition best described as ‘run-drunk’ is not how I’d imagined chalking off Whernside.
The race can simplistically be broken down into 6 stages: three mountains, two in-betweens and a long finish. I hoped to complete somewhere around 5 hours – later I was ecstatic just to say I’d done it! This is the account of a 3 Peaks novice.
Start…Pen-y-ghent summit (approx 4 miles) Est time: 48.30 Actual: 49.23
Stepping out and into the zones for the predicted finish times felt good. No more waiting; the transfer of apprehension into physical excursion. I was glad to hear the siren. And we were off. Initial bustle of start stop across the sodden field then the rapturous street applause through Horton village. Soon, we’d turned sharp left and upward on the rocky bridlepath up towards Tarn Bar. The conversations and laughter had ceased; game faces were on. Only the collective thud of rubber on rock. The easterly turn on to the gravel path increased the burning in my calf muscles. The mountain was still shrouded in cloud although the rain had stopped. It was now a bit humid. Rain jackets were removed all around me. Before the cave turn the leaders descended past; effortless, almost balletic. I managed a few short run bursts but this section was mostly walking. In the mist the first dibber point was a welcome sight. And great shot of adrenalin was the confirmation high five from Jim Wheldon.
Pyg…Ribblehead (approx 7 miles) Est time: 1:10 Actual: 1:12.26
I’d read on forums that the temptation here was to hammer off on the descent and pummel the legs across the boggy paths to High Birkwith. Although I’m normally fast and confident at descending (mass weight plus gravity…) I took it steady – forced to twice stopping to lace up shoes. The undulation of the gravel path soon gave way to soft, muddy track. Legs felt good and mind was strong. Sips of water, powered across sticky mud path and down grassy banks. Beyond the new checkpoint at High Birkwith the route soon transferred on to a vehicle track and then up to Ingham Lodge and the surfaced road. Out of the wind the temperature was warm with the sun now out. I briefly walked to consume an energy gel. Then, back to the steady pacing along the Gauber Road towards Ribblehead viaduct with the mass of Whernside rising up behind.
Ribblehead…Whernside summit (approx 2 miles) Est time: 52.30 Actual: 59.13
Bottles of pre-arranged deposited runner drinks (labeled with race numbers) were laid out on the grass much like fatalities after a natural disaster. I found mine, gulped down the electrolyte liquid then waddled off in the direction of Ribblehead viaduct. Ramblers passing applauded with a look of awe or maybe just disbelief? A set of steps sapped the legs and then under the Settle-Carlisle rail line to cross Winterscales Beck – a dozen safe steps sees you across but still dark and knee deep in places. The boggy, reed filled slopes of Whernside followed. I recall keeping place for the first half. Then, something changed, a switch flicked and without warning my body (and mind) transferred to safe mode. Other runners – well, fell shufflers and scramblers on this section – passed me with alarming frequency. Pacer Shaun Denham rightly suggested I should get some food or energy down; I could only respond with random, incoherent words. Jenny Cooper then followed. When asked was I ok my only response would not have been out of place at a drunken game of charades. Worse was to follow. Simon Beverley passed me going vertical on all fours. The dizziness prevented me from answering. Worst two miles EVER. The concerned look of Sharon Hague and Mark Pawson at the summit said it all.
Whernside…Hill Inn (approx 3 miles) Est time: 29.00 Actual time: 29.41
The task was now simple. Less than thirty minutes to get passed the next checkpoint. Obstacles included steep flag steps, walkers (with poles) and the rising view of Inglebugger in the distance. As I dibbed at the summit checkpoint though I can only remember two things: Sharon telling me to run like the wind and the wind preventing me from running. Bearing south west from the summit the wind was fierce, almost resisting any attempt to descend quickly. Walkers were scattered across the rocky path, poles held out at 45 degree angles, like the sharpened wheel hubs from the chariot race in Ben Hur. Red tape encouraged runners to stay on the constructed path. The steep descent, walkers and pressing timescales forced me on to the grass banks – my leg muscles almost shrieked with relief as there was less braking and forced impact. As I crossed a cattle grid another runner informed that we had less than 9 minutes and exactly a mile to the Hill Inn checkpoint. Longest mile of the day. Made worse by the laughing ramblers outside the farm shop, licking their ice cream cones. I was just over the recommended time and my body wanted to stop. Other Pacers cajoled me into continuing. Biggest dilemma of the day. I was worried that I’d feel worse than Whernside.
Hill Inn…Ingleborough summit (approx 3 miles) Est time: 52.30 Actual: 1:03.04
But, I ploughed on. When I caught up with the three other Pacers we agreed at that point to share the journey (and challenge) up to and down from Ingleborough. Not ashamed to say that I walked the next mile across lovely grass between limestone pavements. My legs started to feel ok and more importantly the food and drink taken on at the checkpoint provided much need fuel. I shuffled off and up over the flags as the steep rise from Humphrey Bottom loomed ahead. The sharp steps instantly hurt the leg muscles, once again. Abductors sent out warning pulses of potential cramp. Quads and calves were burning from the intense and repeated stretch upward towards the summit. Other runners joked and tried to mask the shared pain. Great camaraderie fuelled depleted bodies and somehow the final summit was soon in sight. That said, the jagged plateau of the summit caught every foot lift and jarred toe caps and heel strikes. Likely cold and weather buffeted marshals greeted us with modest welcome as we dibbed in for the penultimate time.
Ingleborough…Horton (approx 6 miles) Est time: 55.30 Actual: 1:02.36
When runners complete a road marathon the final 6 miles are difficult. What is made easier is the relative smooth, flat tarmac surface on which to place a cushioned shoe. You can do this almost without thought and focus all other matters to aching leg muscles, mental fatigue and the loud cheers of the crowd. On the fell there is no crowd. Every foot placement is critical. Looking beyond 2-3 metres ahead is not advisable. And so the merry band of four Pacers descended from the rocky summit, down to the footpath and over the ladder stile from where I’d observed others suffer a year before. We progressed down muddy channels at the side of the rocky path and then between the grykes of limestone pavements. Stile gates were opened for others, when one fell quiet or stopped for a stitch we rallied and motivated round. I even sneaked a view over Ribblesdale at one point. My legs felt good and mind was again strong; both feet were battered though ached from hard impacts and the onset of what I suspected were blisters. The lush green event field soon came into view. A polite thanks again to the marshals as we crossed the road and towards the grass finish. In the warm Yorkshire sunshine a group of PudseyPacers and many other spectators cheered us home. We crossed the line as a team of four; ALL smiling, proud and achievers.
Some random things that will stay with me from the day:
(1) Awesome Pacer performance both in the yellow vest and in support on the course – thanks to Shaun, Simon and above all JC;
(2) Inside the registration marquee – the slightly nauseating combination smell of deep heat and displaced ‘pre-race nerves’
(3) Considering picking up and eating dropped jelly babies from the ground;
(4) Overwhelming elation on hearing the muffled tones of the tannoy a half mile from the finish.
Thoughts for 2015?
Yes, I will be back. Footwear is paramount. So is fueling – more effective fuel is definitely required between PYG and Ribblehead. Adequate hill training must be completed. Then some more; not just the bare minimum. And as always: explore, dream, discover…