Happy New Year – The Four Passes

First and foremost – Happy New Year to everyone reading this! (And to everyone not reading this.)

Now on to business.

I’ll start with a bit of background – January is set to be a busy month with The Spine Challenger as the main event of the month, and possibly even the year. Added on to this, Chris (of Kong Adventure fame) and I were thinking of running the Marmot Dark Mountains at the end of the month, but a little more on that later.

After a number of communication problems (Chris just moved over the valley and changed his landline, which I didn’t have), we managed to finally organise a training run with Chris suggesting The Four Passes as a good day route. The Four Passes is a round, traditionally started from the Rosthwaite Hotel in Borrowdale, which takes in four Lakeland valleys by crossing over four iconic passes.

Briefly, (we elected to shave off a couple of road miles and start in the Seathwaite valley) the route heads up Styhead Gill to Styhead Tarn before skirting round Great Gable down to Wasdale Head. From Wasdale Head, the route turns immediately north and uphill over Black Sail Pass, depositing you at the famous Blacksail Hut. You then get to enjoy all of about 100 meters of flat running before heading over the most gentle (haha!) pass of the day – Scarth Gap – which drops you down at the head of picturesque Buttermere. Finally, the longest climb of the day brings you up and around the southern flank of Fleetwith Pike, depositing you at the Honister Slate Mines before a final rolling descent back down to Seatoller and then on to Seathwaite.

The day started out for me with a windy, but reasonably rapid drive from Newcastle to Threlkeld, depositing Lucy just outside work on the way. Arriving at Chris’ at about 10, we embarked on the usual catching up and faffing; coffee, toast, exciting developments and packing kit, before hitting the road just before 11am.

The run started much as it was to continue; grey and drizzly, but mild on the valley floor. I’d elected to go for full sex mesh (Brynje string) base layers to double check them before The Spine, layering the tights with OMM ¾ tights and the top with my trusty Arc’teryx Alpha SL pull-on (no longer made which is a shame as it’s one of the best bits of outdoor kit I’ve ever seen or used in my opinion). Starting out, I felt a bit Christmassy if you know what I mean. Chris said that he was also a little unfit, but I’m not sure Chris knows what unfit means.

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Heading uphill, my poles gave me a bit of an advantage, pretty much the only one I’d get all day. Styhead Tarn soon hove into view and we pressed on into the cold and wind round the side of Gable. The path down to Wasdale gave a “nice” picky descent, with faster sections of loose rocky path. Hitting the bottom, we got one of maybe three flat km of running on the whole loop before pausing briefly for a cheese before heading up Black Sail Pass.

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As we were ascending, it felt as though the weather was starting to clear, and Mosedale opened out below us. It’s often all too easy for me to forget the beauty and drama of Lakeland scenery, and heading up towards Ennerdale (along with most of the rest of the run) made me wish that there was a decent physics department in the Lake District, but you can’t have it all now can you.

 

Dropping to Black Sail Hut, the weather remained almost clement, although the wind became a little more noticeable. We both agreed at this point that it was lunch time, and so we nestled behind the hostel to enjoy our “Huw Special” sandwiches – jam and marmite – which were surprisingly good, or I was surprisingly hungry.

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Heading back out into the wind, and body temperatures dropped quickly. On this round that’s not much of an issue however, as you’re pretty much always going either up or down, and we were just about to start the 3rd of our four passes, thus raising both our elevation and body temperature again.

The ascent over Scarth Gap was probably the wettest of the day. In all fairness, we had it easy for January, but it was a bit claggy and damp up there. The path also petered out slightly, or I just stopped paying attention and blindly followed Chris, until he met with the only serious bog of the whole round, at which point I danced off to the left to avoid a good calf-wetting.

Coming over the crest of Scarth Gap, we began the penultimate descent to Buttermere down another picky, rocky track. My lack of recent fell running was definitely becoming apparent, and I was a little disappointed with how slowly I descended. This wasn’t helped by my periodic musing, which caused me to basically stop in my tracks, but being out in the hills tends to do that to me once I’ve settled in a little. Where better to contemplate ones thoughts and plans other than surrounded by some of the best scenery to be had?

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Finally, we dropped past the High Crag wall into Buttermere, and cruised along to the start of our final climb by Warnscale Beck. It’s up this climb that the Warnscale Bothy (or the Room With a View) is found, and Chris casually pointed it out as we made our ascent. It looks like a lovely spot to spend the night, although, as with many of these things, I’d be surprised to find it vacant other than in the low season; one for this new year perhaps?

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We’d also spotted a couple of walkers making their way up the pass, and as it is with fell runners our first comment was “right, lets catch them”. And catch them we did, although at this point my right calf decided that it was time to start cramping. Chris was adamant that it was due to the cold on my muscles, but I’m still more inclined to go with I needed to eat more. I’ll happily raise my hand and admit that I’m not in my best shape right now, and that I need to re-fat-adapt rather quickly for The Spine.

Finally passing Honister Mine, with Buckstone How to our left (oh it feels like home!), we took the rolling C2C bridleway down to Seatoller and turned right up the lane to Seathwaite. That final km back to the car was the hardest of the day, but arriving back at the car, my dreams of food which had been plaguing me since the top of Scarth Gap were almost fulfilled. A quick drive back up Borrowdale and out to Chris’ new house (which is amazing), and we were tucking into fried eggs, coffee, tea, flapjack and crumpets to round off an excellent day.

So now I sit back at home, writing, with sore quads from all the ascent and descent; a happy man, feeling just a little more prepared, but also a little more scared for the race ahead. We also had a quick chat about the Dark Mountains, and decided that ultimately, if we were going to enter we wanted to be competitive, which isn’t going to happen with 108 miles of Pennine Way recently put into my legs. No Dark Mountains this year…

I also have to attest, once again, to the incredible performance of Brynje baselayers. Just incredible. Not too warm, not cold, kept my skin almost dry the whole way around. All you have to do is wear something which looks a little bondagey/hillbilly, but if you’re running, who cares?

So thank you once again for reading. I’d thoroughly recommend the four passes as a day out, either for running or walking, and until next time, take care.

Cragside Christmas Cracker – High Fell Events

This Sunday saw us heading up into Northumberland to take part in the Cragside Christmas Cracker; a 10 mile race (actually a fun run) organised by High Fell Events which takes the competitors around the grounds of Cragside (the first building in the world to have lighting provided by hydro electricity).

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The morning began with unexpectedly clear weather, although as it was mid-November there was still a chill in the air. Getting to the car park with about 45 minutes to go before the start, we moseyed over to registration and hung around trying to suss out the competition. As well as a number of excellent Christmas-related fancy dress runners.

It has to be mentioned that many people were out to simply enjoy the route, and were not expecting to competitive in any way. I was just aiming to get round in the best time possible, expecting to manage it in about 1 and a half to 2 hours.

We set off from the visitor centre at 9:30, heading around the lake, and back up to the main house. Heading through the courtyard, we jumped onto the trails proper which were picky from the start, full of roots and wet stones. For anyone who hasn’t experienced wet sandstone, it isn’t too far from a skating rink. Obviously not as bad, but it’s definitely light thoughts and tread softly when you’re running on it; put down too much power and your feet are going to fly out from under you.

Up, round, and down through the estate, we sampled the delights of Cragside. If you haven’t been to Cragside, I can highly recommend it; around every corner it seems a new, excellent view. Twisting paths through rhododendron bushes, small lakes, and long sets of stone steps made for interesting running.

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I’d set off towards the front of the pack, and we’d strung out pretty quickly within the first mile or so. The fastest guys disappeared pretty quickly, but that wasn’t all that surprising due to the twisting nature of the course. As it was, I didn’t really have any idea of where I was in the pack, but there was a nice group lads shifting at about the same pace, so we stuck together for much of the race.

Over the last few miles we split up; a couple heading off ahead; a couple dropping back as the techy terrain and steep hills played to my advantage; leaving me to canter along at my own pace. Within the last couple of miles I was passed by a surprise racer, almost caught him on a sharp uphill, but then got left behind on the final stretch down the forest drive.

Crossing the finish line at a fairly leisurely pace, I received a Cragside Christmas Cracker medal (my first medal, woohoo!) and congratulated all the guys who had finished and were hanging about. I then headed off to sign out and get my race t-shirt. I’d come in 7th place, which is much better than I’d expected, and as a bonus I think I got around quicker than the anticipated 1h30.

All in all, a great day out, and finished off with a brew and a cracking bacon butty.

Great!

OMM 2016 – Glentrool

Another October; another OMM. This year saw me pairing up with Chris Swanepoel of Kong Adventure in Keswick. I had already competed with Chris at the Autumn OMM Lite earlier this year, and our previous outing had seen us over-cook the run slightly, covering more than 100km over the weekend. We’d subsequently picked up some fairly hefty penalty points, but overall our performance had left us feeling positive about our teamwork and decision making, or at least that we knew what not to do.

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Rocking up to Glentrool in the late afternoon on Friday; having taken Friday and Monday off for the OMM; we headed straight up the event HQ so that Lucy could receive her briefing for the weekend. This left me hanging around until Chris arrived which wasn’t too much of an issue; there are always plenty of people to catch up with, and the setting sun lit up the surrounding landscape in a way we could only hope for over the next couple of days.

Chris arrived just as the evening light was going, and we spent a few minutes chatting on before coming up with a plan for the evening. Setting up our base-camp tent, we headed back to the event HQ for our pasta party, which was followed by a burger and chased down with a couple of pints – only the healthiest scran for elite athletes such as ourselves *ahem*.

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(For those of you who haven’t competed in the OMM, you have to carry a tent for the overnight camp on Saturday, but it’s a huge advantage to have a larger, more comfortable tent for the Friday – and possibly Sunday – night, as you then don’t have to pack up a tent on Saturday morning which is probably damp and heavy.)

Getting up on the Saturday we got our chops round double bacon butties for breakfast, a big mug of coffee, and started our long walk to the start point. We discussed possible plans, agreed again on tactics, and I tried to keep myself calm; after placing 3rd last year, I’d put a lot of pressure on myself  to do well this time round – possibly a counter-productive way of thinking…

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Getting our maps, we (I) dibbed the starting box, and we moved to the side to look at check point values, and estimate our route with Chris’ pre-prepared knotted string. Linking the 50-pointers through as many 40- and 30-pointers, we decided on a route quickly and set off up the hill.

I’ll try to avoid boring the socks off of everyone here with tedious route descriptions, and go for a nice snappy summary of Saturday’s running: tussocky and claggy. Most of the day was spent in a 200m wide dome of grey, but when the cloud did lift the views were second to none!

Taking some conservative navigation around Loch Enoch set us back a little, but was better than getting lost in the mist. We’d also forgotten to eat enough, so at about this point I started to bonk; setting us back even further.

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But then good fortune; the clouds lifted a little and we were running on some of the faster tracks of the weekend. This allowed us to quickly tick off a couple of big-pointers on the way to the overnight camp.

With just under an hour to go we were getting close to camp, and were presented with a navigational decision. The String told us that we only had enough time to pick up one of two checkpoints – either a 40 or a 30 – plus a 20 on the way back in, and so we plumped for the 40-pointer. The route to this check point was straight up the side of “Nick of the Gulley”, which after 5 hours of running was not a pleasant option, but manageable. We blasted up the hill to the level at which we had to traverse, overtaking many parties in the process, with one chap asking if he could hold onto our bags or stay in our slipstream. Chris kindly informed said chap that his slipstream smelt a bit of peanuts, not something I’d noticed fortunately, and we were on our way.

Traversing into the gully to find the 40-pointer, we checked the map and description as we descended, but failed to spot the control and kept descending.

Ooops – error.

We arrived at a boulder at the bottom of the gully just above the treeline which was accompanied by an excited “ah, here’s the checkpoint!” from Chris, only to be followed by a “er, that’s not the right checkpoint” from me.

Both our hearts sank. Shit. What do we do?

I had a little scout up another trod coming in along the bottom of the line of crags, but saw nothing. Chris had started reading the description again and was up for having a search of the area for the control.

I made my worst mistake of the weekend here by insisting that we leave and just get home. After the penalties of the OMM Lite I was twitchy about timings, and had failed to take into account the fact that the final 3km were going to be very fast going, being metalled road and hard trail.

Looking back, it’s obvious that we should have spent 10 minutes checking the area. Talking to other competitors at the overnight camp, we realised that we must have passed within about 20m of the control point, but there were also comments that it was a little difficult to spot.

Sitting at home, writing this piece with the benefit of hindsight, I find it all too easy to kick myself for a rash decision to move on. At the same time I have to recognise that I was worried that we would never find the control, and waste precious minutes; in different circumstances, leaving would have been the correct call. But making the correct choice under pressure is what separates the cream from the crop, and I made it wrong in this instance. Annoyingly, it was these 40 points which ultimately dropped us 6 places in the rankings. Lesson very much learnt – if you’ve gone to the trouble to get to a 40- or 50-pointer, spend a few minutes searching around if it’s not immediately obvious!

Back on track, and cursing the illusive control point (point AI if anyone has a copy of the map and is interested), we blasted down the road and onto the final trail. To soothe our sorrows, the race organisers had kindly placed a booby-prize 20-pointer on the way home, and picking it up about 5 minutes after landing on the road confirmed that we were going to be back with time to spare.

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Happy days. Arriving at the camp site in the worst rain of the weekend (which was pretty innocuous in reality) we dibbed in to be shocked with a 9th place ticket. Hmm. Not the start we wanted, but checking the score board, there wasn’t too much in it between 9th and 3rd… By the end of the evening we were down in 11th place, but ready for a fight on the second day.

Putting the tent up under some trees provided a little respite from the prevailing conditions, and we proceeded to stuff as much Extreme Food down our faces as possible, before retiring to our surprisingly comfy, X-Frame supported beds.

Sunday started with the mandatory bagpiper for OMM events held north of the border. A nice wake up call for 6am, but as we weren’t due to start running until 9am we stayed in “bed” for another hour until restlessness forced us into action.

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Wriggling back into yesterdays damp, but slightly warmed clothes (we’d put them in our sleeping bags overnight to try and get them to dry) we emerged from our polyester cocoon to begin eating, packing up and getting ready to go. As 9am rolled round to greet us, we found ourselves on the start line, picking up our map and getting ready to attack day two.

Making our plans fairly quickly through the use of the string, we set off at a brisk pace. The start of day two flew by without any major hitches, and as we were on a later start, many of the popular paths had been trodden in, making the going a little easier.

Not for long though. The way to the 3rd 50-point control was either via a circuitous climb up by a river followed by some hefty bog-bashing, or via an incredibly steep climb directly up a gully which would drop us almost directly onto the control. We opted for the steep gully option, and I’m happy to say that it worked pretty much perfectly! Bonus.

From here, more tussocky joy awaited us whilst we whipped (alright, stumbled) round to gather the next few controls and begin heading home for the final time.

Handrailing along a fence, the clag descended just as we were about to begin our final climb. This was particularly bad timing for us, as the grey and muffled atmosphere made our ascent into the cloud feel almost never ending. Step, step, step; check bearing; check vague hillside; step, step…

We finally arrived at the saddle point between Lamachan Hill and Larg Hill, still in the clag, followed closely by; “Looks like the saddle point Chris, there should be a track somewhere around… oh, here it is. Excellent!” Time was starting to run out though, and we had just over an hour to get back to the event centre which was about 10km away – but all downhill, thankfully.

With time pressing, we flew down the hill from Nick of the Brushy, taking a “short cut” to the gravelled forest track through a firebreak. It was definitely shorter distance wise, but I really do hate firebreaks!

Both Chris and I went into surprise bogs multiple times, often to the knee, or both knees, or even both knees and an elbow. Exciting stuff! Plus all the branches invariably spearing you as you shift from the main firebreak to the narrow rows between the trees when a large fallen pine invariably blocks your path. It’s never fast, but it is an adventure, and cursing under my breath as a write this, I know I also have a smile on my face recalling that adventure within an adventure race. It was fairly obvious that a few other parties had suffered similar fates, and bursting out onto the forest track we were greeted by a number of teams jogging almost casually back to HQ, who fortunately seemed quite entertained by our expletive-laden arrival.

From here on in it was just rapid descending, stopping only to pick up the final two 50-point controls on our way back. Crossing over Water of Trool with about 15 minutes spare, we suspected we may have just gotten away with it! There was a 20-pointer to pick up in the penultimate field, but by this point I’d given up caring and just wanted to finish, so we made a bee-line for the finish instead and crossed the line with 2 minutes to spare, tired, muddy, but extremely happy with the day’s running.

In hindsight, we could have easily picked up the 20-pointer, and we’d only have lost a couple of points for being late. We could have also taken a better line up on to Lamachan Hill, heading up between Scars of Milldown and Scars of Lamachan, which would have also added another 10 points onto our score, but these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-executed piece of navigation.

Interestingly (or at least for me), my PhD supervisor used to compete in mountain marathon events, and his interpretation of the available route pretty much matched my own decisions; a vast improvement over a year ago where virtually every decision I had taken was torn apart mercilessly. But I digress…

I’d like to thank all of you who made it this far for reading. I hope it hasn’t been too waffley, as I feel events like these need a little fleshing out for proper armchair appreciation, and I hope a few may be inspired to come and join in with the suffering fun on later events.

I’d also like to thank the OMM team who make these events possible; once again it’s been an excellent event.

And that’s that

Until next time

Ta Ra!

Harlow Hill round

A few weeks ago, we decided to take ourselves out to an area of Northumberland that we hadn’t been to before, and found ourselves exploring the area around Harlow Hill. I’ve driven past this place countless times on my way up to Kielder, but never actually stopped to explore.

After checking out the OS maps, Johan stumbled upon a disused airfield which looked worth exploring, so off we went.

The walk itself was eerily quiet, with barely anyone around. And most of the footpaths were disused and overgrown, which made it feel like a proper little adventure. We made our way to the airfield, to find that it is now being used as a MOD base and is inaccessible. But it was still pretty cool to wander around the outside and have a peak.