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.

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