61st Three Peaks Race

10.30 – 25th April 2015

The runner collapsed on his haunches; he’d just openly expressed his surprise – with the aid of a few expletives – that the boggy ground under our feet seemed to be flowing uphill. And this wasn’t even the worst bit. No, that was still to come; somewhere ahead, up in the freezing clag. All feet were wet, thick with brown bog and frozen to the bone. Most feet had lost all warmth after wading through the dark, fast-slowing beck with grey, rounded boulders like gargoyles just under the surface. I wondered if the evil faces appeared to warn of the pending danger ahead. I certainly missed and didn’t heed the signals in 2014 when I bonked on the steep climb. This was arguably the hardest climb of the race. The ascent of Whernside, in my opinion, is the toughest section of the Three Peaks Race.

I know many dislike the gradual climb, from tarmac to rocky trail, up Pen-y-Ghent. Perhaps too many head off too fast; pulled along by the elites who then skip downwards before many, including me, have reached the fingerpost corner. I enjoyed the brief tarmac section with the electric support and wash of vest colours up and over the road bridge. The rocky, cobbled bridlepath was the familiar mix of polite jostling and nervous laughter. On the shale path the friendliness soon evaporated along with the visibility. Steady rain cut in at a 45o angle and the single file approach shuffled through the clag like zombies in B-horror movie. I hugged and kissed a marshal at the summit; not a regular performance or acting out of euphoria – my girlfriend was one of the many wonderful, resilient volunteers, many of whom stood out longer than us runners in the most foul of weather.

The feeling of normality had yet to return to my legs when I slipped on greasy, wet grass; both feet slid out in front of me and my left forearm managed to make ground contact with the only nearby rock – crunch! Throbbing, and throbbing some more, continued all the way down and across to High Birkwith. I recall thanking some club support, particularly as it was raining fairly heavily. Further sections of the route had been improved with compacted shale which aided my task of repairing a waist belt malfunction while running: multi-tasking,eh?

The slog between the second and third checkpoints, for me, remains the least enjoyable section of the race route. Once across the wooden God’s Bridge the track weaves ahead and I could see runners winding up to and around the dark-grey farmhouse. Unlike road running there’s no lamp-posts to count so I just followed a distinctive club vest, worn by a fella with whom I shared a comparable pace to my own. At this point I also reminded myself this was a key fuelling section: I removed two balls of prior prepared fruit cake, mixed and rolled with cheese – I slowly nibbled away, washing down with water when the solid became a bit gaggy. A mile further on, at a steeper section beyond the farmhouse which meets the main road, I gulped down my first energy gel – later on, this would surprisingly emerge as the only energy gel I’d consume.

When passing a lay-by shortly after – and also at Ribblehead checkpoint – the rain was very heavy: spectators were fully covered in soaked waterproofs and some cowered under large umbrellas; others simply beeped horns and gave thumbs up from inside their cars. I knew on departure from Ribblehead that I’d gained PBs on each section so far, and yet the race was really only about to begin. More solid Pacer support propelled me upwards, though, on those killer steps adjacent to the gloomy, dark stone of the viaduct.RibbleheadImage rights: Jim Tyson

The final, steep section of Whernside was a thing of nightmares. I remember the feeling only too well. There was hardly any visibility so looking up in hope was pointless; the clag was thick and the air temperature was truly freezing. Perhaps this would be ok if one was running at a steady pace. However, most runners here were barely crawling on all fours. Indeed, I met a friend from another club, approximately 50 metres from the summit and, despite my limited attempt at motivation, he was struggling to continue climbing up. Even when I eventually stumbled on the summit at the cliff top I couldn’t manage to unzip my dibber from my shorts.

I decided just to get moving while many around me fumbled with packs in an attempt to put on jackets or hats – again, simple tasks become confusing when disorientated and tired. I shuffled along and down the ridge spine, dreaming of warm air or even sunshine. Walkers spread out across the path which was really frustrating for tired, cold runners. I basically slowed to a shuffle descent on the steeper rock and grass sections – the disconnect between mind and legs unable to operate any faster, or maybe the previous slip still fresh in memory? I safely navigated over cattle grids and tried to stride out on the tarmac track. The gradual incline and Hill Inn checkpoint thankfully soon came into view. And a modicum of warmth returned to my legs. Perhaps the warmth had filtered from the enthusiastic support of spectators from both Pudsey clubs.

A massive thanks here goes to Graham Pilling who suggested trying flat coke as an energy drink. No sooner had I gulped down my bottle – topped up with water and a Nuun recovery tablet – the results were truly impressive. I could readily feel a power surge and managed to plod across the grass fields and then up through the smooth, polished cutting in the limestone pavement. The wet slippery slabs of Yorkshire flag rose up towards the hidden summit of the final peak. Likewise, over each Humphrey Bottom plateau another false ‘mini’ summit would appear. The steep staircase of rocky steps shortly came into view. A collective sigh exhaled from a few runners around me as walkers looked on a little perplexed or maybe with admiration?

Stone stepsImage rights: Jim Tyson

The climb passed without me pausing to evaluate pain and suffering, although with each step both legs felt like lifting a heavy bag of gravel. Beyond the wooden kissing gate I briefly stopped on the shoulder to slip on gloves and a hat. Sleet was piercing down at a violent angle; looking up at the path ahead was painful. Equally painful and somewhat dispiriting was passing fellow Pacer Darryl Stead who’d already been to the summit and was on his way homebound – I calculated almost immediately that he was approximately 10 minutes ahead and I would unlikely catch him. Later, on the descent, I evolved from a position of self-pity and selfishness to be pleased for Darryl as he’d been through a big recovery and endured a condensed, crash course in Three Peaks training. Carefully, I tip-toed across the rocky summit plateau through heavy falling snow towards the chirpy marshals at the most exposed of checkpoints: again, mahoosive thanks to these guys.

Every steep descent was taken with caution; more because tired legs can lead to falls and add unnecessary minutes to the clock. I seemed to stride out and passed other runners on the wide footpath. Still, there were hazards upon which to focus: jagged rocks sticking vertically out from the path or loose stones, the size of dinner plates, which moved or oscillated when stood upon. Then came the smooth limestone cobbles and some sticky brown mud. I thought about taking another energy gel, or even stopping at the Sulber Nick water stop: my body just wanted to continue forward. I even managed to shuffle up and over the final few grazing fields before negotiating the railway tunnel and into the finish field. I briefly looked at the faces of spectators, including the resilient support from my girlfriend and club mates: all seemed equally tired and just as wet.

I finished in 4.48 and on every section achieved better times than those of 2014. Yes, I’d seen bog flow uphill, survived the arctic temperatures and battled through wintry showers when feeling most battered. But I wasn’t broken and didn’t cramp. I’d fuelled so much better, actually enjoyed some of the tough sections, and successfully addressed my landscape nemesis of Whernside. Next year I may even become 2nd class…maybe.

2015 Three peaks route profile  Image rights: Neil Wallace

2 thoughts on “61st Three Peaks Race

  1. Great post. But you forgot one small point: YOU SMASHED IT. Nearly an hour off your 2014 time!! In truly difficult conditions. Well done.

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