Old County Tops ’17

The Old County Tops.

What a race! What an experience!

Well, after this year, one I’m not sure I’m going to repeat for a while…

Last year, Chris (of Kong Adventure fame) and I ran in the Old County Tops (OCT). We managed to get round in one piece, which seems to be considered an achievement of sorts, but much slower than we would have liked. This was mostly due to the fact that I was mid-injury, and unable to do any real training (or even running for that matter). So, hoping for a better time for the round, I managed to persuade Chris to try the OCT again this year.

The Old County Tops is a classic long distance fell race which summits the three highest peaks of the old counties of the Lake District – that is Helvellyn (Westmorland), Scafell Pike (Cumberland) and Coniston Old Man (Lancashire). The route starts from the New Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale and summits each hill in the order given above, creating a round of (nominally) 37 miles, and an ascent/descent of about 10000 feet (or about 3000 meters).

On the Friday evening before hand, I headed over to Keswick, met up with Chris and Rachael for a pint, and we then headed on back to their house for a pasta chili to fuel up for Saturdays trials. After a quick post-tea bag pack and map study, we headed off to our respective beds, ready for a 6:15 start on Saturday.

Waking up on Saturday morning, hopes were up for good weather. At Chris’s house, opposite Threlkeld, it was sunny and fine, with a few clouds passing by. No real hint of rain so to speak, but oh how little we knew! Flailing around, we scraped a breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast together, plus some other things on toast, abluted, and threw ourselves into the car a little later than we’d hoped.

Time was tight, and so we opted to take the back road from Grasmere, over the tops, to drop into Chapel Stile – twisty as hell, but quicker than the Ambleside road. Just as we were dropping into Langdale the heavens opened, but just as quickly closed again, and we hoped that would be the worst of the weather over for the day.

Hahahahaha!

As soon as we pulled into the Stickle Barn car park, it really started to hammer down – massive raindrops soaking everyone caught out in the open, whilst everyone still getting out of their cars stopped momentarily or hid under their tailgates, struggling into waterproofs. Not the best start to 30-odd miles in the Lakes…

Running over to registration, I found Chris inside the marquee set up by the Achille Ratti Club (the race organisers) mid-way through kit check. Joining him, I dropped my bag on the table and struggled to get everything out and back in again to satisfy the marshals, before heading over to get our race numbers from a different table and flail around, yet again, trying to safety pin my number to my front. One of the race organisers announced that it was time to head out to the start, raising a collective grown from the gently milling masses. Oh well, here we go again!

Setting off, we kept the pace slow in the knowledge that there was an awfully long way to go. It was hard not to get caught up in the early excitement and get dragged along faster than we wanted to go. Everything was feeling good on the way over to Grasmere and the weather lifted a little – waterproofs off!

Running past the Traveler’s Rest we turned up onto Great Tongue to skirt Seat Sandal and Grizedale Tarn on our way up Dollywagon Pike. As we passed the pub, the heavens opened again (waterproofs back on) and we ran by Lucy and Jim just as I was grappling with a zip malfunction; an excellent photo opportunity.

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The way up Great Tongue went fairly well, a nice run/walk allowed ground to be made relatively quickly without burning out. We even reeled in a fair few people who had passed us on the way through Grasmere. As soon as we started heading up the flank of Dollywagon the clag set in. There was a charity walk of some description heading down from Fairfield, and they all seemed fairly cheery in view of the damp weather.

The temptation was to push as hard as possible up Dollywagon to try and gain a few places, but again Chris dispensed some words of wisdom and pointed out that even with our slower pace, we were actually only about 2 minutes behind last year’s time. This was to prove important about half an hour later on when we left the first food station.

The track from Dollywagon to Helvellyn passed without incident – nice and fast with mostly running, walking only when our calves complained. The walking group had set up a couple of tents just shy of the summit, so that in the clag you got an exciting “Ooh, we’re there – ah crap, no we’re not!” Fortunately, the summit proper really wasn’t very far away, but in the clag it wasn’t visible from the walker’s tents, eliciting a brief moment of despair followed quickly by a moment of relief and elation.

At the summit we unzipped jackets and shouted “108!” at the marshals (thank you marshals for sitting up there in the shitty shitty weather) and about-turned to drop South off of Helvellyn to the Wythburn car park, and some well-deserved sandwiches. It’s a steep descent, and I find it pretty tough. However, we managed it better than last year, and I was able to switch my legs back on pretty much straight away. Hitting the car park, we de-bagged, de-jacketed (and re-jacketed with windshirts), grabbed a couple of sandwiches, refilled water bottles and got shifting – much better than last year where I ended up standing around for 10 minutes trying to get my legs back awake and to force a couple of sandwiches down.

We trotted up a little forest track to the road crossing for the Wythburn, feeling pretty fresh – at this point last year I was struggling to run at all. Crossing over the A591, all was well, and as we came across the first field next to Steel End Chris commented on how much better we were moving compared with last year’s attempt. Lucy and Jim had picked an excellent spot again, and shouted encouragement whilst taking a couple of photos as we plodded past.

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Oh dear! At this point, nature called and I had to answer. I won’t go into any details here, but we lost about 10 minutes and a lot of positions.

Feeling lighter, we got moving again on possibly the most horrendous stretch of running in any race, anywhere. The Wythburn might be glorious in sunshine, but I’m yet to experience it! We managed to get to The Bog before the rain decided to make a reappearance, and by the time we hit Greenup Edge it was jackets back on.

It’s bloody grim up there.

From Greenup Edge you skirt the northern flank of High Raise and aim for Stake Pass. Chris was moving quickly here, but my left ankle was starting to cause me problems. The weather had also come in again, and we were subjected to a wet cold wind, whipping into our faces. This was where I became somewhat hypothermic last year, and we were both conscious that we were cooling down with the worst yet to come. I kept telling Chris to keep moving, but of course he couldn’t get too far ahead, so we were locked in a battle of Chris trying to keep warm enough, and myself trying to move fast enough to allow it.

Just on from Stake Pass, we met a group of runners with a lovely collie who encouraged us on. “Well done lads, keep it going!” “Thank you, where are you off to?” “We’re out supporting!”

It was nice to see a few friendly faces, and even better considering the gopping weather we were experiencing. So whoever you were mysterious supporters – thank you!

Eventually, Angle Tarn appeared, and we skipped across the stepping stones to the marshals and a welcome mouth full of soggy liquorice allsorts. Again, the difference in how we were moving when compared with last year was remarkable. This time was a quick “108” “right off you go”; last year was a good ten minutes spent drinking tea and then a deathly shuffle away from the check point.

Off up to Esk Hause we went, moving reasonably well, but Chris still commenting on feeling cold. Just after the fork in the path to go to Great End or Scafell Pike, I suggested that it might finally be time to put our waterproof trousers on. A quick sit down and a problem with cold hands and zips later, we set off, slightly warmer and a lot more waterproof.

The grind up to Scafell Pike seemed much worse this year – that’s probably because I remember it this time round. Last year I definitely wasn’t entirely lucid! We passed a couple of large groups of walkers, obviously really “enjoying” the weather, and who helpfully failed to move aside at all.

At one point on the way down Ill Crag I sat down for a second on a stone block (naughty naughty). I was starting to cool down a little too much, and unusually Chris seemed to be succumbing to the effects of the weather as well. Nearing the top of Scafell Pike, I slipped over on the wet rocks, precipitating a pretty impressive side-slam accompanied by some rather strong language. I don’t really remember a whole lot about this section other than a lot of slow moving across greasy rocks, and awful, awful weather.

Eventually, we hit the top of Scafell Pike, although how Chris managed to recognise it I have no idea! It may have been the marshal huddling in the clag (thank you marshals), but again, I have very vague recollections of this whole section.

As with last year, we plumped for the direct descent from Scafell Pike down to Great Moss, heading down steeply just right of Esk Buttress (excellent climbing on Esk Buttress by the way, sampled during a previous life). Chris was definitely moving much faster that I was at this point; the lack of training on my part was starting to show. Chris managed to stop for a second just before we bottomed out to Great Moss and pull his water proof trousers off, whereas my slow pace left me with my trousers flapping around my legs.

By the time we were at Great Moss and heading toward Moasdale the weather had cleared a little bit. The worst was finally over weather wise, but mistakes loomed on the horizon (quite literally).

Moasdale passed without any particular incident – fairly rapid downhill running. We reeled in a few people, were passed by a couple of teams and started looking forward to more sandwiches at Cockley Beck.

Reaching the food station, we started loading up on cakes, sandwiches, tea and juice. I have to put in a huge mention for the volunteers here – they were awesome. Cheery, a bit of banter, and they all seemed quite happy to help out tired runners despite (presumably) having been stuck outside in the rain and wind for quite a while. So Cockley Beck food station people – thank you, you’re awesome. One of the ladies offered to refill my flasks, and as I was packing them back into the race vest I was struggling a little.

“Get in there you… Flange!”

It’s good to make people laugh, and to have her respond with “brilliant! That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day!” was a delight. I meant it as a throw away comment at an inanimate object, but I’m glad it made someone laugh. It’s for the running commentary that a few of my friends used to go climbing with me.

Trousers off, sun shining, and refuelled, Chris and I headed off on our last leg – The Old Man of Coniston.

We were still moving better than last year but knew we hadn’t done enough to hit our 8 and a half hour target. Never mind – push on.

The way to the Old Man is pretty mundane although the views are fantastic. Up the side of Grey Friar, heading for the saddle point between Grey Friar and Great Carrs. A reasonable track is then picked up which skirts Swirl How and hits Levers Hawse. Greavesy appeared above us at this point which was encouraging – he was on the way home with his partner, but it felt as though we weren’t too far behind at least.

But oh how little we knew. We picked up the start of the racing line to the top of Old Man, which avoids the summit of Brim Fell and kept moving at a reasonable pace. We really should have been paying a little more attention here. A few silly mistakes all compounded together and ended with us heading half way up Dow Crag – oops.

On the way over from Grey Friar, I had pointed at the mass hiding Old Man and asked “that’s Old Man isn’t it?”. “No, that’s Old Man” Chris had replied, pointing at Dow Crag. “Ok” I said, whilst a tiny alarm in the back of my head went “that doesn’t look like Old Man”, but I just went along with it. Usually, I run with a map in my hand, but in our fatigued state, and with my navigating mind switched off, I let it roll.

So down into Goat’s Hawse we went, rather than taking the cunning line up and around to the summit of the Old Man. And then up onto the flanks of Dow Crag. Annoyingly, I felt like I was moving pretty well here, and we’d have been on top of Dow Crag pretty quickly had it not been for Chris going – er, this isn’t Coniston – and then a walker cheerily informing us that we were on the way up Dow Crag.

Ah, bollocky cock wombles!

Well, back we go.

As we hit the bottom of Goat’s Hawse, two more runners appeared and we waved them back. “Oh no, have we gone the wrong way?” “Yep.” So as a four we headed up the undesired extra climb – woohoo!

After not too long, we hit the summit, shouted our numbers to the marshals and took the correct line back down toward Black Spouts from whence we would descent to Three Shire Stone.

From the Old Man of Coniston there was a group of about four teams all moving roughly together. In the final stages of the race, it felt as though there may be a little race on! One lad was obviously suffering, and we quickly passed him and his team mate, passing on our commiserations. I believe he made it back though, so that’s good; fair play to the lad!

After a quick traverse and a slippy descent down to Three Shire Stone the race was one. A team of a couple of ladies had nearly caught us on the way down, whilst a couple of lads had dropped behind. Not wanting to be caught, we pushed on down the road – lovely jarring road – before turning left towards Blea Tarn. Keeping the pace up, we managed to keep and even slightly extend our lead. It’s been said that the Old County Tops, unless you’re a proper racing snake, is a race against yourself and is more of an adventure than a race, but now it was a race!

We passed Blea Tarn, trying to keep the pace up and slowly reeling in a pair ahead of us. The few we dropped at the Three Shire Stone we could often hear, but not see. All good, and we dropped down the final hill to the campsite with what felt like a bit of breathing room.

Again, we took the road option, having failed yet again to recce the shorter routes through the fields. It adds a couple of hundred meters, but at least it’s fast and easy. Coming passed the first lane on our right, the pair of women runners appeared from the lane and we kicked the pace up a gear.

“Oh, burn us off now then!” we heard them comment as we almost bounded off. Well, er, yeah, sorry.

Then, just as a bonus, the pair of lads we’d be chasing around Blea Tarn emerged just ahead of us, coming down the next lane on the right.

It’s on!

One more gear notched up and we practically sprinted into the finish, ahead of both our micro-race competitors. I just need to learn to run at that intensity for more of the time, it felt great!

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Well, until we stopped at least. Then I collapsed, lay down on the floor, and Chris mooched off to find himself some grub. After a few minutes I managed to get back up and start moving – Lucy kindly fettled me with some soup (which was excellent) and a piece of cake. Dom appeared, which confused me – last time we’d seen him, he was coming down Scafell as we were heading up. Turns out he’d taken the path back down to drop by Chambers Crag to Great Moss, which had taken ages. The direct route is faster after all.

Eventually, I scraped myself off of the floor. Chris, Lucy and I all gathered to head back to Chris’, and we said our goodbyes to Jim who was heading back to Newcastle. I fell asleep for much of the journey home – apparently I was just flopping about in the front seat – and after a shower and a brew at Chris’, we all headed over to the Horse and Farrier in Threlkeld for a much deserved pub dinner.

A grand day out, despite the Wythburn.

In the immediate aftermath, I was pretty sure this year was the last time around. Chris, I’m sure, is done with the OCT, but I’ve redeveloped a desire to give it another crack. We’ll see how we’re feeling in the New Year…

As always, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading; I hope it wasn’t too much of a rambling tale.

Check out Racing Snakes for more photos of the event:

https://racingsnakes.com/store/index.php

https://racingsnakes.com/store/gallery/Old-County-Tops-2017-%E2%80%93-Lucy-Imber/214/page1/

https://racingsnakes.com/store/gallery/The-Old-County-Tops—Jim-Imber/215/page1/

 

 

 

Scafell and Slightside via Burnmoor Tarn

Another Mother’s birthday, another trip to Eskdale with the family, and therefore another run up from Boot to Scafell. Only this time, I actually managed to get to Scafell.

It’s been a goal of mine for a year or so, particularly as I enjoy the tops between Eskdale and Wasdale a lot – possibly one of my favourite little bits of the Lakes, and an area which usually remains relatively quiet despite its close proximity to Wasdale – arguably one of the more popular valleys.

As a bit of background; we were staying with family friends – Peter and Fionna. Peter especially, is very familiar with the hills surrounding Eskdale, having walked a huge variety of routes from the valley, and as such, is always worth consulting before a run. In this instance I’d planned to head up Slightside, as of last year’s foray, before heading on up to Scafell and dropping back down to Burnmoor Tarn, but Peter suggested running the other way around as the descent from Scafell to Burnmoor Tarn is incredibly rocky. It was excellent advice, as the scree I encountered was just the wrong size for descending quickly; too big to surf, too picky to get through rapidly.

As it was a family weekend, I wanted to get out early to avoid taking over the daytime. A friend of a friend was attempting the Bob Graham (he managed it with time to spare), and it was suggested that I meet them at Rossett Pike to have a look at the route up Bowfell in preparation for my attempt (hopefully in late June/early July this year). However, without a lift up Hardknott, it was going to be a serious day out just for me as well, and I felt would take too much out of the day, so elected for a shorter, albeit awesome, route.

Setting off just after 9am, the sun was out, a light frost was hanging around in the shade from the night before, and there was a slight breeze. In a word, it was perfect.

The first stretch takes you up from Christcliff (which lies pretty much half way between Boot and the Woolpack Inn) to Eel tarn, and is characterised by gorse and bog-myrtle, resulting in a lovely fragrant first ascent. I’d decided to try and run as much uphill as possible, as my performance at the Causey Pike fell race had left a little to be desired for someone with my uphill pedigree.

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As it was, I managed to run all the way up to Eel tarn where I stopped to take in the surroundings. I can never get bored of that area, it’s just fantastic – wide open Lakeland tops, basking in sunshine; Eel tarn is small, but perfectly situated, and you get the hulking mass of Scafell lowering in the background, with all the famous tops around Wasdale thrown in for good measure. Brilliant!

Moving on, I tried to keep the pace up on the flatish section to Burnmoor Tarn. This whole stretch is rapid running on soft, even ground, rising slightly from Eel tarn before dropping you onto Lambford Bridge. Here, the bridge gate was stuck shut – not a problem for me as I just vaulted the gate – and I spent a few minutes trying to un-stick the latch. The chain had twisted around and moved to the far side of its tethering ring, and I just couldn’t budge it.

Giving up on the gate as a lost cause (or something which would take far too long to fix on my schedule), I pushed on towards Burnmoor Tarn. Losing the path, I ended up thrashing my way through some boggy long grass for about five minutes, until the path revealed itself to me, and I could yomp on to Burnmoor.

Burnmoor hove into view, with the shooting lodge peeping over the hillside; “ah, it’s good to be back”. Running up the length of the tarn, I double checked the path up to Scafell, had a quick drink and got shifting again, trying to keep my pace down below 5min/mile.

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It was time for the big ascent up to Scafell summit, and I decided to try and run as much as possible. I managed pretty much the whole way up Hard Rigg, but eventually had to slow down and stomp my way up. Hitting the boulder field which characterises the entire top of Scafell, I slowed right down and followed a narrow path which switch-backed its way up and up. I wouldn’t like to come down this unless I had to, nice local knowledge there Peter, cheers!

After a good 15 minutes of stomping and scrambling, I arrived at the top of England’s second highest peak. At 964m, Scafell summit stands 13m below the summit of its better known Pike. In the clear bluebird April sunshine this was an unexpected blessing; I looked over to Scafell Pike, and could clearly see a number of people hanging out on its summit. In comparison, I was on my own, on my own little piece of heaven.

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If you’ve never been, the views from Scafell are stunning (given that it’s a clear day that is), and I’d even go as far as to suggest the peak itself has more to offer than Scafell Pike. After drinking in the views for five minutes I consulted my map again, had a sip of my dwindling water, and set off picking my way down toward Slightside. I met the only person I saw on my run at this point, a young shepherd by the looks of him, and exchanging a brief “hello” we were both on our respective ways, him heading up, me heading down.

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From Scafell to Slightside, the terrain varies from picky and rocky, to a lovely sweeping grass slope, and back to picky and rocky as you hit Slightside summit. Another stop for reflection and to enjoy the views, and I was back on my way, dropping off the southern end of Slightside and contouring around toward Stony Tarn.

I managed to pick the wrong track between Slightside and Stony Tarn, but realised when Cat Crag and Dawsonground Crags appeared on my right instead of my left. More tramping across boggy ground ensued, and I managed to drop myself onto the track which skirts around the north of Stony Tarn.

The pace picked up again, and I bombed downhill past Eel Tarn and down toward Christcliff, clock watching the whole while. I’d said that I could do it in 2h30 before heading out; Peter had hedged at 3 hours, and my watch was showing 2h11 as I hit the top of the final slope where paths part ways to Christcliff or the Woolpack.

I can get under 2h15, come on.

Belting down the hill, I ignored the gorse and brambles as much as possible, and hit the track up to the house at about 2h12.

Go go go!

Sprinting up the track, I finally made it into their car space and stopped my watch. 2h13, get in!

All in all, including photo stops and gate fixing attempts it had taken 2h31, which was pretty much bang on. I’d managed to get a little sunburnt as well (always happens in the Lakes in April), and arrived home to a big mug of tea and some biscuits. Perfect.

Thrunton Thriller – High Fell Events

The day after the Daffodil Run, I had another half marathon ish race – The Thrunton Thriller. For those of you in the know, good, you can probably stop reading in all honesty; for those of you not, I can sum up to whole experience in seven words:

Bloody hard work; well worth the effort.

However, I shall try to elucidate a little more about the experience.

As with most trail/fell runs (this definitely falls more toward the fell side of affairs in my opinion), it was an early start at about 9am, meaning we had to be out of the house and moving to get to deepest, darkest Northumberland at an unholy 7.30am (to allow for registration). I know that’s not really that bad, I just like to complain here and there about non issues, and who doesn’t? Even on the car journey up, and the wander to registration I could tell that my legs were feeling a little tired, and that more importantly, my left ankle was still suffering from the day before. Oh well, I kind of expected this, and mentally prepared myself for a grind rather than a race.

Eventually, everyone was registered and milling around at the start line, waiting for one of Barry’s almost enigmatic safety talks. Tension was building a little, I couldn’t really wait to be on the way, and eventually we were off!

The Thriller starts fairly innocuously at first; a gentle drag up the forest track lulls you into a false sense of security. Already though, my left ankle was complaining from the hammering the day before, but I elected to keep shifting in the hopes that it would loosen up as we kept moving.

Fairly shortly, you’re funnelled off down a smaller woodland trail. Here, I managed to pick up a few places, skipping around people and enjoying the softer ground, but still my leg and ankle felt wooden and pushing was not on the cards. We popped back out onto another section of forest drive, and I decided to give the uphill a bit of an attack.

Nope, no joy there. Legs feeling like sandbags, I made the difficult decision and decided to reel it back and just keep moving with the intention of finishing.

A couple of miles passed without much excitement, but as I was starting to settle into a rapid plod, the course dropped us over a calf-deep burn and then up one of the muddiest, slipperiest slopes I’ve ever had the “pleasure” of ascending. However, my familiarity with gopping moorsides started to produce an advantage, and I started to move faster than many folk around me.

You’d hope that this short slippery bank would be the end of it, but no. Of course, it was just the beginning, and the race now spent a good while ascending up the top of Thrunton Crags. However, the angle was way too steep to run, so my hill-stomping expertise started clawing back places, passing quite a number of lads who had overtaken me on the much more trail-y forest track.

The top of the crags presented the field with typical sandstone moorland peat – dark, sloppy, slippery, or heather bashing for a little more security. Great! Again, a few more spots clawed back. Passing Jim at one end of the crags I informed him

“my legs feel like flappy meat tubes”

They really did. Two hard half marathons back to back after pretty much nothing meant that I was suffering, but enjoying myself immensely as I did it! The sun was out as we crossed along the crags, and the ominous clouds hanging over the Cheviot hills refracted the sunlight from behind us, producing a stunning rainbow.

Incidentally, it is because of the need for total internal refraction of sunlight by rain droplets that you will only ever see a rainbow with the sun behind you, and clouds in front. Fun fact of the day…

Eventually, dropping off the end of the crags, we were subjected to a lovely steep descent into a small valley. Immediately climbing back out along the side of the woodland, another “enjoyable” section of heather/bog presented itself. And once again, my ankle kept my speed down – annoyingly I knew that I should be able to move much faster, but a continually collapsing left ankle left me treading gingerly and allowing people past whom I would usually spend the second half of the race reeling back in.

Arriving at the aid station, Lucy took some quick photos, and I downed a couple of cups of water. Mmm, hydration. All the volunteers at the aid station were excellent, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention and thank them at this point – so thank you excellent volunteers, the events wouldn’t be the same/work without you.

From the aid station, the route funnels you down into another steeper, larger valley, and then snakes you around for a while. I don’t remember a whole lot about this section, apart from it was sunny, I kept playing leap-frog with one of the lads I’d been running with/passed/then passed by earlier on in the race. Eventually, another uphill kicked in, and confusingly lead us passed the aid station again? What the hell? Okydoky.

Lucy shouted something as I stumbled past again, not sure what, and away we were, back into the forest. We ran by a couple of guys presumably marshalling in the woods who asked how the course was.

“pretty hard really”

Followed by a short, sharp kick up onto a long shallow drag up more forest drive. At this point I’m ashamed to say I was reduced to a run/walk, and the lad from Heaton Harriers who I’d been to and froing with managed to pull away slightly. I was passed by a few more relatively fresh looking souls, but as we started turning off the main track again, I found the same lad again, stopped in his tracks.

“You alright mate?”

“Yeah, just cramping”

“I can offer you a shotblock, but’s that’s about it”

“No it’ll be alright, I’ve had a little drink”

Shifting on at what can only be described as a shuffle, I awaited the inevitable overtake. About five minutes later, it happened, but truth be told I wasn’t too fussed. It had been a good outing, and the craic had been excellent.

We dropped down a long steep woodland bank, back onto forest drive, and I thought “this must be it, home stretch”. However, we’d just passed Barry, and after commenting on how evil the course was, he had told us the best was yet to come. So at least in that way, the sting in the tail didn’t present as too much of surprise, but what the jiminy!

Back up into woodland, on what can only be described as one step worse than a trod, full of scratchy pine branches, along and back down to the real finish. I couldn’t entirely believe it was over, and I almost head-dived down the final bank (not intentionally) and flailed my way across the finishing line.

What an excellent outing!

Milling around at the finish, I had a little chat with various people, and it seemed that the general consensus was that it was a hard course. I’d agree with that.

Eventually, Lucy reappeared with the car keys, and I hobbled back to the car, goody bag in hand, to get changed and sit down. It was about 1pm, so we went back home and had a nice relaxed afternoon. Cracking.

After the sub 2hr race the day before, this came in at a somewhat slower 2h46mins. Not too bad really, all things considered, and we’ll be back again next year to improve on that badger!

And finally – thank you Barry for organising the event; it’s an excellent race, and well deserving of its fierce reputation.

If there’s one half marathon race to run in Northumberland, this is it! (Although it may be a little longer than 13 miles, as I heard some of the 10k runners mention that they’d done somewhere around 8 miles/13km).

**For more photos of the event, go to Lucy’s Flickr page here**

Daffy Do ‘17

Another year gone, another slog along the side of Ullswater with a short, sharp trip up and down Hallin Fell in the middle for good measure. Slog may not quite be fair, as it’s one of my favourite runs on the calendar, but the Daffodil Run, put on by Joe Faulkner of Nav4, is a little tougher than its approximately half marathon distance may suggest. It’s not the hardest half marathon I’ve ever done, but it’s a fair stretch further than a nice flat road half…

Lucy, Brenda (Lucy’s mum), and myself all set off from Newcastle to reach Pooley Bridge for about half 10 on Saturday 18th March, which should have, in theory, given me a nice half hour or so to get registered, and final checks sorted before setting off in the mass start at 11. Once we got into the village hall for registration however, we were told that everyone was just heading out as and when, so once I was good to go, I could get shifting if I fancied.

Nipping back to the car (we’ve got a shiny new car – woohoo!) I changed into my trusty Fellraisers, got into my running shorts, and made sure I had everything I needed in my bumbag, before popping back into the village hall to let Joe and co know that I was setting off, and to record my start time. Last year, when I ran the Daffodil Run with Kip, we came in at 1h59min, so I was keen to get a faster time, and was secretly hoping for sub-1h50min.

Image uploaded from iOS

The start of the daffodil run is a long drag up from Pooley Bridge, onto the Ullswater Way and up to The Cockpit. Initially running on metalled roads, this soon gives way to the characteristic rocky track which makes up the majority of the run, but there’s still a little way to go before hitting The Cockpit. From The Cockpit, you’re treated to a lovely rolling descent all the way down to Howtown. Whilst you have to keep half an eye on the track, the views are spectacular! Ullswater isn’t a lake I usually head to, but with the clouds sitting high and the Helvellyn range in the background, it’s hard to beat.

Due to the non-mass-start, the running started to get really quite fun; it became a game of spotting someone in the distance and then trying to reel them in. Admittedly, I only managed to pass one quick runner on the way out, but whilst approaching the top of Hallin Fell another chap passed me on the way back down, and I knew the chase was on!

It was also a race of mixed weather; mild to start, passing to pretty damn brutal on the way from Howtown to Martindale (although the rain felt like it would pass quickly so I decided on keeping my windshirt on rather than switching to a waterproof), then to gloriously sunny pretty much as I hit the top of Hallin Fell, where I found the legendary John Bamber – a pleasant surprise to say the least. After a quick chat, and a summit photo, I said goodbye and got shifting once again, happy in the knowledge that I had a runner to chase on the way back.

A quick sip of water on the rolling top flank of Hallin Fell, and I was on my way. Descending isn’t really my forte, but this felt good – steep grassy hillside allowed for reasonable relaxation, and I arrived back at Martindale Church just as a group of walkers I had passed on the way to the church were leaving. “You’ve been all the way up and down already?” Yep, and it’s time to crack on.

Stopping for a minute or so with Jim at the food station, I downed a cup of water, inhaled a Jaffa Cake, adjusted my shoes – my foot-beds had folded up on the way downhill – and skipped off up the bank out of Martindale. I met a couple who were walking the Daffodil Run, informing them that they were almost half way through, which was met with great ‘enthusiasm’ by the lass. On the way to the main path again, I took the right-hand trod, decided that was wrong, crossed to the left hand one, and then found out that the right hand one was, in fact, the better option. Never mind! I dropped straight down to the path proper and got on my way.

I could see the guy I from the top of Hallin Fell in the distance, so I got a pace on as best as possible. You’d think that on the way back all the hard work was over – not so. The nice long rolling descent from the way out becomes a gradual uphill all the way back to the Cockpit.

Slowly, slowly, I reeled in various runners, pushing to catch up. The distance between the other runner and myself seemed to be reducing, but the uphill was making it hard to get a real pace on. Eventually, I had to accept settling into a walk/run progression, but still, ground was being gained.

Eventually, Stu Smith hove back into sight – the Cockpit, and thus the final descent, wasn’t much further. Push. Push. Push. Pass the marshal at the Cockpit (ensconced in a Nordisk Telemark II; nice tent), to hit the track and descent. My quarry had made enough ground to get away for good, but I managed to reel in a couple more people as I made my way down the hill into Pooley Bridge.

Finally, I ran by Lucy and Brenda, returning from their short outing, but kept shifting as fast as possible as the end was quite literally in sight. Trotting into the village hall, my time was recorded, and I was pointed towards tea and cake. The cake is always good on Nav4 events, it really must be said, and this time round I enjoyed and excellent fig slice.

My final time was 1h52, a 7-minute improvement on last year’s effort, but still just shy of the sub-1h50 I was aiming for. Maybe next time? I’d definitely like to run it again – it’s certainly a very well organised event, along a very enjoyable route, and with an atmosphere that I find promotes taking it at your own pace – be that full race pace, or as many families were doing, a relatively leisurely stroll. And just because it bares mentioning again, the food is cracking! Soup, cake; some of the best I’ve ever had, and what more could you want?

After a quick chat with the other runners, we headed off back to Newcastle to recover for the next day’s race (The Thrunton Thriller). My left ankle was feeling a little stiff, but overall I was happy with how it had gone, and looking forward to the next race and the rest of the season.

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The Spine Challenger

I hurt. Mostly my right lower leg, but I hurt. And I only made it to Malham Tarn.

It’s difficult to sum up the Challenger because there’s so much of it, but I’ll do my best.

First and foremost, a huge thank you must be extended to the MRT members, safety teams, doctors, check point teams, HQ team and any other volunteers and staff involved who make the race as enjoyable as a long run up the Pennines could ever be! Wherever we pitched up, there was a smile, banter, and the ever important hot tea ready and waiting. Especially the teams we ran into late at night; I can’t imagine dealing with a group of tired, wet, barely coherent runners is the greatest thrill in the world, but from our point of view I can guarantee it’s very much appreciated!

I was lucky enough this year to have a lift down to Edale, plus accommodation for the night before, with Jim. Due to Jim’s marshalling duties however, that also meant that we were in Edale by mid Friday morning which meant that I managed to get registered and kit-checked nice and early, leaving me the rest of Friday to chill out. Usually this would be great, but The Challenger was such a large undertaking that sitting still with my thoughts was pretty much the least relaxing thing I could do.

I therefore elected to go for a run along the edge between Mam Tor and Lose Hill – from the event centre this would be an ovoid loop of about 10km – which actually did wonders for my mood. However, and I would seriously feel the ramifications of this later on, I found a nice gritstone shelf which I thought would provide a small amount of safe rock climbing (in the form of a single mantel shelf manoeuvre). It did, but I banged my right shin on the way up whilst using it as a counterweight.

This kind of injury was fairly common when I used to rock climb, and after a minute of swearing and rubbing my shin, I thought nothing of it, so continued my run back to the event centre, enjoying the sun and crisp air.

The rest of Friday passed in restless anticipation. Much of it was spent back up in the room reading either my bible of the last couple of months – Damian Hall’s Pennine Way guide (it’s excellent by the way) – or “A day to die for”, an account of the ’96 Everest disaster. My friends Ali and Lisa also popped over for a visit in the evening, which was a very welcome distraction; it was helpful to spend a couple of hours chatting about physics, cats and climbing, rather than the 108 miles ahead.

All too soon it was time to head back up to the room to prepare my sandwiches for the next couple of days. Listening to Genesis, AC/DC and Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, whilst making cheese/marmite and jam/peanut butter sandwiches at a small desk in a hotel room, was one of my more bizarre experiences of the weekend. A quick shower followed and it was time to do a final bag check and get into bed. Sleep was broken but reasonable and all too soon it was time to get up and start metaphorically shuffling towards the start line.

Saturday started dim and grey, in stark contrast to the blue skies forecast. Standing on the start line, it was a little nippy and I couldn’t wait to get shifting and raise my body temperature. En-route to Kinder Scout it started to snow, and by the time we were up to about 400m, there was a decent blanket of snow across pretty much everything. At this point I was moving in a group of about 6. A slight detour from the track left us checking GPS units quickly, but it didn’t take long to get back on track, floundering through snow-covered rocks towards Snake Pass.

Pretty quickly, the group strung out, and I ended up moving at the back at my own pace. Coming down Mill Hill, it looked obvious where the flags of the path were, but this was not entirely the case. I ventured about 20cm to the right at one point and was rewarded with an exciting trip to knee deep bog. Such fun!

An MRT van was waiting at the Snake Pass with tea, cake and sweets, and I stopped briefly to add a fleece to my layering before heading out onto Bleaklow (possibly the worst section of the Challenger).

Almost as soon as I stepped off of the Snake Pass, the weather changed from grey and snowy to glorious blue skies and sunshine. This was one of the high points of the entire race and I really don’t have words to describe it. Pretty soon though, I was at a standstill; if you’ve ever been over Bleaklow, you’ll know that it’s practically featureless, or rather, far too feature-full; another chap turned up pretty quickly however who had a nice GPS trace, and I ran out with him to Torside Reservoir.

From here it’s an uphill slog onto Black Hill. I’m going to try and avoid tedious route description here; if you want that, I covered it reasonably well in my recce write-ups. On the way up to Laddow Rocks, I was feeling far from 100%. But what was going on? I’d been moving at a nice pace, I’d been eating, what the hell?

Finally, it clicked.

Dehydration.

I stopped for a couple of minutes, drained both my bottles, and immediately felt better. Shifting on, I passed a couple of lads who were looking a little worse for wear, probably needing to eat and drink as well.

Approaching Wessenden Head, I started to bump into guys I didn’t expect to see again. In particular, I ended up chatting to Iain on the way from the final river up to the road and giving a little encouragement as he seemed on a low ebb. As it was, we ended up running together all the way to Lothersdale, where Iain stopped for a nap. Thanks for your company Iain, it was good craic, and it helped a lot with the dark and the cold which is really the best help you can get on the Challenger.

All the way to the M62 passed without incident, and more importantly, in the daylight. Another brew-stop just before White Hill provided welcome hydration, and the butty van at the M62 provided a welcome bacon butty. From here, it was onwards along the blowy moor side of Robin Hood’s Seat down to the next stretch of reservoirs (more tea here). Reservoir paths gave rapid way to the lumpy ground before Stoodley Pike, followed by a pleasant descent into Charlestown. Those of us who had recce’d the route knew the climb back up that was waiting… Hurray!

Eventually , CP1 hove into view, for a sit-down, a sock change and a hot meal. We spent about an hour ensconced at CP1 before deciding it was time to get a shift on. Erik had been running with Iain and myself since somewhere around Standedge, but was taking a little longer to get everything pulled together so we set off without. As it was, he would catch us back up with us just after Withins Top and stay with us until Lothersdale.

Coming out of CP1, my right shin started to feel a little tight, but I thought nothing of it. By the time we were at Walshaw Dean reservoirs however, it was starting to feel pretty sharp, so I removed my right calf-warmer to try and take strain off it. I was also starting to move a little more slowly as high impact steps were getting painful.

The next few hours pass in a dark, painful blur. Leaving Cowling was especially painful – I almost quit at the MRT van there. We stopped briefly on Ickornshaw Moor at the stone hut to layer up a little more,  before dropping into Lothersdale where Iain stopped for a sleep. Erik and I continued on for a couple of miles together, but he was obviously becoming frustrated with my reduced pace. On the way up to Elslack Moor he pulled away, and I decided to drop back a little to run with Sarah Davies into Thornton in Craven.

The weather over Elslack Moor was awful, and I was glad to see the trig point appear, followed shortly by the road. Heading downhill towards Thornton, I was keeping my eye out for the track off to the left which the Pennine Way follows. Oddly, Sarah’s Harvey’s map didn’t show the road and track split; in fact the road didn’t show anywhere beyond the track, and so Sarah almost head off down the road rather than down the track. I have wondered whether this was the source of Pavel and Eugeni’s misadventure, although I would have thought that Pav at least would know the route by now.

By this time, running was becoming really quite painful. A diet of paracetamol and ibuprofen managed to get me through to Gargrave without any serious issue. It had become light again around the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and although the morning had turned up grim and grey yet again, it was nice to be able to see.

Sarah stopped with our other running companion, Oriol, (who we’d met heading back up onto Elslack Moor from the wrong side) in Gargrave for food and a toilet break, and I decided to press on at a rapid hobble, worrying that a stop would mean seizing and dropping out. I’m fairly certain I spied Erik on the horizon as I entered the joyous fields North of Gargrave, but he was well away, and I was moving slowly.

The journey to Malham became an exercise in coordinated hobbling. Will Green positively bounded past me just prior to Hanlith Hall, but despite my obvious slow pace I was feeling almost upbeat when I arrived in the town. On the journey through Malham Cove however, Sarah and Oriol passed me again, and even commented on how it looked as though I was hurting. My right shin and ankle were just sucking all the joy out of the experience at this point, but I staggered up the side of the cove, had a slip on the limestone pavement, and made my way through the gorge before dropping to the tarn car park.

Perching on a rock in the car park, one of the MRT guys ran past to his car before spotting me and asking how things were going. “Aye, not so bad, but my right shin is really painful, I think I bruised it.” “Yeah, it won’t like that. Get on up to the Field Centre and John will sort you out with teas and stories”. Cool. A resting point was in site. At this point I was just looking forward to a sit down, but I think the idea of stopping was in the back of my mind.

The path around Malham Tarn seemed to last forever; it was with mixed feelings that I hobbled into CP 1.5 to be ordered to take a seat, and to be instantly plied with hot drinks and questions.

As soon as I sat down, I knew it was over. The fun had gone from the event, and I knew another 25 miles of running would do nothing more than hurt me further. Sarah and Oriol were still having a brew as I arrived, but left shortly after. I wished them all the best, and as far as I can tell, all went smoothly for them to the end. I hope this is the case. It was a pleasure to have shared their company for at least part of the journey.

The staff at Malham were excellent, and I have to extend a special thanks for their help and hospitality. The medic had a look at my leg, and she was fairly certain that it was soft tissue damage only. Teas, coffees and hot chocolates were provided in a near-constant flow, and my “emergency” dehydrated food was put to good use. All in all it was a very pleasurable couple of hours. Many familiar faces passed through and I was able to wish them all safe journeys. I think John Bamber got a photo of me falling asleep in my chair; I’d like to see that one!

Eventually, Christian and Christina arrived to pick me up and take me up to Hawes. Christian had unfortunately dropped out at Ponden and the drive round to Hawes was complete with pleasant conversation about the race and prior races.

Landing in Hawes, Lucy was waiting for me at the CP along with Brenda and Jim (Jim was in charge of running Hawes CP). Getting sat down, I was plied with more tea and soup and asked by other medics if I was alright. I replied in the affirmative; it was just a bruise turned nasty (it’s still pretty nasty now, over one week on!).

Wouter appeared pretty shortly after (or at least I think it was shortly after; forget travelling near the speed of light, running the Spine has weird time-dilating properties) which let me congratulate him on his excellent 4th place. I also chatted with a few familiar faces, although I was starting to struggle with where I knew folk from. If I see you out and about in the future and I look a little confused, that’s probably why.

Eventually, we piled into Brenda’s car, and set off on the journey back to the Toon. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that tired before, and I don’t think it was long until I was asleep in the back of the car. The rest of the evening is a bit of a confused blur, as well as the next day in honesty – all I know is I spent most of it either on the sofa, or hobbling slowly around our flat and swearing at my leg. Standard.

So final thoughts:

I really enjoyed the Challenger (until my leg really started hurting). I’ll be back to finish it off, and most likely graduate to the full Spine in time. The camaraderie is excellent, and I hope to see many of the folks I spent time with again.

Brynje base layers are awesome.

Cold malt loaf is bad – so is cold Pepperami, and cheese sandwiches. Next time, I’m going for peanut butter and jam and the odd, but effective, marmite and jam sandwiches. Oh, and nice fatty salami.

I need a decent GPS trace to get over Bleaklow and Elslack Moor.

Fair play to all who finished – now rest!

Once again, thank you for reading if you got this far. It got a little rambling towards the end, but I hope it gave an impression of the “run”. For now, I’ve got to rest and sort this damn leg out – if only I could apply a sensibility filter to my activities, but then I guess I wouldn’t have entered in the first place if I worked that way.

So ‘til next time… Take care!

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.

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 3

The final day of the recce dawned, and after a tasty full English breakfast at The Old Stone Trough, we headed straight up to Thornton in Craven to pick up the trail where we left off. I’ll admit that we drove a small way up Cam Lane before getting out of the car; after running up and down the final lane the night before, I didn’t feel too bad about it.

I also popped a paracetamol to start the day, as various aches were really starting to come through, but in hindsight I should have taken it a little earlier. Psychologically though, this was the easiest day to start. I knew that in 26 miles, the running would be done (on race day there’s obviously a further 16 miles to come) and there would be a pint and a hot meal to get my chops around.

Out of Thornton, you’re straight back into joyous farmland, but the field boundaries are a little closer together, and there are significantly fewer gullies to get lost in. Navigation is reasonably straightforward in the daytime, but I also feel that it’s going to be a little easier in the dark than the way into Thornton. I think I’m going to go through the whole area and insert bearing values for quick reference just in case.

Frustratingly I was about 10 minutes into running, heading down a hill, and one of the poles (which I’d borrowed from Lucy) managed to unscrew itself slightly, and then broke – dumping me on, and down, the hill. Hurray! Next set will have flick locks.

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For a period of time, you get the pleasure of joining the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The greatest highlight of this little stretch is a curious double-arched bridge with one arch built on top of another; apparently this happened because one canal bridge was built, then a road was built but the bridge was too low, so they built another bridge on top of the first one! Awesome!

Back into fields and Gargrave is just a short step away. As well as the excellent Dalesman Cafe – I’m hoping that they’ll be open when we’re passing through, to grab a brew and a butty of some description. I also popped another paracetamol to take the edge off the bruising – 70 miles of running gets pretty painful – and handed the broken pole over to Jim.

Back out of Gargrave, and the Pennine Way takes a road past a picturesque country estate before cutting North West back into more fields and dropping to join the river Aire. This is the river which will ultimately lead to Malham and the magnificent Malham Cove. The running beside the Aire is pleasant and quick, and the locals seemed really quite friendly.

Unfortunately, crossing a small footbridge, my legs had a slight mutiny, which resulted in me shouting at myself “F*** OFF!” I thought I was alone, but turning I saw a couple of walkers that had just appeared over the side of the hill to the left, a couple of hundred metres away. They then seemed to turn around quickly, and walk away again. Oops, sorry, it wasn’t you – if you’re reading this now, it was my legs, not you.

Just before Hanlith Hall, I stopped and had a chat for a while with a man who suggested that I have a look at the Dalesman race. He also mentioned that there was a lass up ahead moving at a fair pace; the chase for the mystery Speedcross stud marks was on!

Dropping into Malham, Jim presented me with a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot cup of tea. Just the ticket for the half way mark of the day. For me, psychologically this was the crux of the day; everything from here kind of felt like mentally going downhill, whilst ironically I had the bulk of the actual ascent and descent left to cover in the afternoon.

Back on the road, and heading north out of Malham a short incline is encountered which slows you down until a short drop to the bottom of Malham Cove gives you five minutes of shifting (whilst trying to dodge tourists who seem utterly bewildered by your outfit and pace). Malham Cove really is spectacular, and as a (currently) inactive climber, it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. There were only two climbers out which I found surprising considering the mild and dry conditions, but then again I was moving faster and generating more heat.

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The climb up the side of the cove is short and sharp, but enjoyable in a masochistic kind of way. One friendly guy remarked that “it’s easier going up than going down”, so I informed him that I didn’t plan on heading back down, but back down was definitely easier than my option of going to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Surprisingly, I didn’t really get a response to that…

Up on to the top, and it took a couple of minutes to work out where I was meant to be heading to get back on to the Pennine Way. Happily, it was necessary to head east across the top of the Cove on the famous limestone pavement, and having grown up in sunny Lancaster, limestone pavements feel like home. Its then a sharp left turn to head north again toward Malham Tarn, passing by a docile highland cow (not a permanent fixture I assume), and into the small rocky gorge at the very top of the shallow ravine.

I’d ended up having a chat with another guy moving fairly quickly. He wasn’t part of the Spine contingent however, and was heading down to Settle. I’d walked up with him, apparently slightly off the Pennine Way during our conversation, which meant that I’d exited the gorge earlier than I should have done, and missed Jim who was lying in wait for a photo opportunity after parking up at Malham Tarn.

As I passed through the car park, I saw Jim’s car, and wondered where he’d gone. Assuming that he’d probably gone up to the tarn for some photo opportunities, I pushed on, resolving to phone him if I couldn’t find him before peeling off the tarnside path. As it was, I couldn’t find him anywhere, so tried to phone him to let him know what was going on at the foot of Great Close Hill. Signal was patchy, and we had about five different calls where I think we managed to exchange about three words, before I gave up and just sent a couple of texts to explain what was going on.

No problems there; once the message got through I picked the pace back up and wolfed down a couple of shot blocks for good measure. Passing the Field Centre, and just about to head up the Way toward Fountains Fell, a couple stopped me and asked if I knew if they could walk all the way round the tarn. “I dunno guys, but I’ll have a look… Erm… well you can, but there’ll be a lot of road”. “Oh thank you very much, we think we’ll just go back the way we came then”. Righto! No bother, ‘but why didn’t you check your own map?’ I wondered internally. Nowt so queer as folk eh? But then again, most people would say that about anyone voluntarily running the best part of 100 miles over three days.

From here, for me, the Way takes on a friendly feeling. I just love limestone Pennine country; it feels like home, and I kept a good pace whilst enjoying the sights, smells and general ambiance of the area. I stopped briefly at the bottom of Fountains Fell for a Mars Bar and a couple of en-route photos, before ploughing on. I also noticed the re-appearance of what looked like Speedcross stud marks, and wondered how far ahead the wearer was.

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About 2/3rds of the way up the Fell I came across a couple hunkering down for a bit of scran, and asked if they were out having a look in preparation for the spine. The man said he wasn’t, but he was obviously aware of what the Spine Race was. “I’d take my hat off to you if it wasn’t so cold”. One of the aspects I most enjoyed about the whole recce was the random meetings with total strangers who were almost invariably good, friendly company.

Passing over the top of Fountains Fell, there’s a collection of cairns which almost look like some bizarre meeting of folk. I also noticed someone moving quickly, and thought “haha, got you at last!”

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A quick stop for a couple of photos of the excellent scenery, and it was time to pick the pace up. I could see the figure in the middle distance, moving fast, but stopping every now and again. So I took the breaks off as best you can at the end of 85 miles, and began a rapid descent to catch up.

I’ve become better at descending over the past couple of years, but this was a tough chase. Eventually Ella (she turned out to be an MRT member) stopped enough times, and moved slowly enough for me to catch up. We descended to the road together, but I then slowed to eat and Ella moved off. Shortly however, Ella bumped into Jim, and I caught up again. We all wandered along the road for half a click or so, discussing Spine Challenger strategy and kit before reaching Jim’s car. Ella dashed off, and I halted to have a quick water refill and brew before tackling the final obstacle – Pen-y-Ghent.

It would be a lie to say that Pen-y-Ghent was easy; it’s a sharp climb no matter how you look at it, but I kept the pace reasonable, and ate as much as I could before hitting the gritstone-festooned capping slopes. From here on in it becomes more of a scramble, albeit a really easy one, and eating is not an option. It also felt as though I’d almost caught Ella once more (I’m not competitive, honest), so I pushed for the top.

Arriving at Pen-y-Ghent summit, I could see that I’d almost caught up, but Ella was now descending with speed towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I was bonking a little, so crammed all the readily available food into my mouth, exchanged pleasantries with a couple of guys on the summit and began my own, somewhat slower descent.

I’m reasonably familiar with the northern/western descent off of Pen-y-Ghent, having walked the Three Peaks a couple of times, and the characteristic snow field was very much in residence. It was here that I was glad for a pole and almost thought about donning micro-spikes, but for a 200m traverse it wasn’t really worth it. Once the main steep section was passed, it became possible to ramp up the pace a little – less energy had to be used on preventing a runaway descent – and the final fingerpost towards Horton was a welcome sight.

The final track is fairly nice; a gentle descent without too rough a surface, although there are a couple of sections where an ankle could be turned if due care wasn’t taken. A most annoying prospect if the trip had been the race proper.

In the dimming pre-dusk, I met Jim just outside of Horton, and we ambled down to the car to finish at 4pm; 27 hours of moving time after starting on Thursday. A quick change in the car park (Brynje vests develop a very interesting aroma over three days), and we popped down to the pub to try and get some food. Unfortunately, food wasn’t on until 6pm, so we packed up and headed on to Hawes for a chippy tea. One of the best meals I’ve had for a long time, and I really hope they’re open for finishing on the race.

Eventually, it was time to head home; what a great “weekend” of running. I’d scoped out some of the more tricky sections on the route, gotten lost on some others, and generally got a handle on the distance and pace required for the race. I know I’ve said it before, but if I can pull this out of the bag again on the race, I’ll be a happy man!

So that’s it. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading. I hope my account has been as enjoyable to read as it has been to recall.

Once again, a huge thank you to Jim Imber who made this recce possible; thank you to Lucy who has been massively supportive with regards to my training and nerding out before the event; and thank you to Rhodri Lewis from Nordic Life for his excellent customer service and efforts to get the Brynje baselayers to me in time for the recce.

I’ll be posting another blog about my thoughts a week or so on (and possibly some GPS data if I can work out how to get it shared), so until then, take care and have fun :D.

Johan