Old County Tops

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After getting home from the OMM Lite and turning on my phone, I discovered that I’d received a missed call from the one, the only, Chris Swanepoel. Chris was the manager of planetFear (now Kong Adventure) in Keswick while I was working for them, and we’ve stayed in contact ever since I left to do my MSc in 2014. I’d been thinking of calling him and asking if he’d be interested in doing the OMM with me this year anyway, so I was interested to find out what the craic was. To cut a long story short, Chris wanted to know whether I’d come and race the Old County Tops with him, and I wanted to know if he’d come along for the OMM. We both said “yes of course”, but I had to warn Chris that I was basically confined to barracks due to a foot injury which only seemed to be getting worse, and wouldn’t be able to get any training runs in beforehand.

Skip forward a month, and the Old County Tops were looming (both literally, and figuratively in my mind). For those unaware, the Old County Tops is a fell race which summits each of the highest peaks in the old counties of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire (Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and the Old Man of Coniston respectively). Each peak on its own is usually considered a reasonable day out by sensible folk, so to summit all three, adding on the distance between to start and finish at the New Dungeon Gill in Langdale, was going to be an interesting endeavour.

Interesting proved to be a fairly accurate assessment. The race is around 37 miles long, with somewhere around 10000 feet of ascent (or 3000ish metres), and we’d decided to set our sites high and aim to get round in 8 hours, although not entirely expecting to achieve this.

It’s a good job we weren’t too tied to our expectations as we ended up coming in at around 10 and a half hours! I hold my hand up to say that this was really my fault. Chris was running much more strongly than I was, and whilst we had a nice strong start up and down Helvellyn I began to suffer a little on our way up to Scafell. I just couldn’t get my legs to start firing properly again after a steep descent off the front of Helvellyn, and was starting to feel better when the rain set in.

Despite the race being held in mid May this was a true Lakeland hoolie, and to compound matters it seemed that my waterproof top was all but that. Hypothermia reared its ugly (but somewhat too familiar head – I should probably do something about that), and Chris mistaking my odd behaviour for hunger tried to feed me through the cold. Eventually, I just sat down and put on my waterproof trousers to try and trap a bit more warmth, and by the time we were at Angle Tarn I was almost back to “normal”. Some legend of a race marshal had a cup of tea, and after a couple of biscuits we were back on our way.

I’m actually quite proud of our descent off Scafell Pike. Visibility was low, and the rocks are magnetic, so the original plan of using a bearing to get us down past Esk Buttress wasn’t entirely possible. At this point, the entire reason Chris had invited me along – my navigation skills – came in useful. We’d joined a couple of other pairs trying to take the direct line down to the Great Moss, but with clouds swirling it was proving difficult. It was a case of taking half a minute to have a look at the features available, and I managed to drop us down through a small saddle onto a trod down. We did end up just a little further round than I’d hoped, but that was ok as it actually ended up giving us a better line to the path down to Cockley Beck.

From Cockley Beck onwards it was just a pure slog up Coniston Old Man and back to the Three Shires Stones. I had to sit down once or twice on the way up, which really isn’t typical for me, but we could all but taste home. I ate as much as Chris would allow on the road down from Three Shires Stones, but my legs were suffering. Chris was as well, but at the moment he’s just a much better athlete than I am, and was in much better form. Unsurprising considering the two months off I’d taken due to injury after my Byrness – Alwinton run.

As the New Dungeon Gill came into site, and we could see some guys who had split off from us just after Blea Tarn crossing a field in front of us, but not ahead. Chris urged me to start shifting “we can’t let those guys with the poles beat us on the last stretch”, and so we dug deep, and for the first time I left him behind with nothing he could do about it. Always save those last beans for the finish!

All in all, it was an excellent experience! Thank you Chris for inviting me along, and I’m already excited to try again next year. Hopefully, I’ll have trained a bit more for the next one, and my clothing will not produce any surprises!

The Old County Tops is an excellent day out, and I have a lot of respect to the top boys and girls, as well as all who completed or even entered. Definitely my hardest day out yet, but with the Spine Challenger lurking in January, it’s going to be far from my hardest outing ever…

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