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.

A mini birthday escape

It was my birthday last Saturday, and so Johan and I escaped up to Scotland for a long weekend of relaxed celebrations. Due to his competing in the OMM 2015, Johan was entered into a prize draw to win a stay at the Hearthstanes Estate  self catering cottages. Luckily, his name was drawn out of the hat (so to speak), he’s so jammy! And so, we used the opportunity for a birthday getaway.

We had planned on getting out as much as possible and exploring the local area in more detail, rather than running around the place as Johan had previously done. We bought the relevant maps and packed an assortment of outdoor gear, ready to hit the surrounding hills and trails. However, I soon learnt that I was in dire need of a rest and so my mind and body decided to shut down and demand that I take things easy. Patchy internet access and lack of a TV allowed us to embrace the peace and quiet, and so we read and chilled out in our lovely little 1-bed cottage. It was so cosy and comfortable, and I found myself drifting off into naps periodically – I must have needed it!

We did go for a couple of wanders around the valley surrounding the estate and enjoyed a nighttime romp up a hill opposite our accommodation.

On the way home, we took a drive through the Tweedsmuir Hills and gawped at the snow-capped mountains; it was truly beautiful. I would definitely recommend staying in the cottages at Hearthstanes, especially if you are looking for a ‘getting away from it all’ break.

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

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 2

After stopping for the night at the Carriage House, we made our way back up to where the Pennine Way crosses the A672 (SD 983 142 for any interested enough) to pick up where we left off. The mist had cleared overnight, giving us a good view of the surrounding landscape.  My legs were feeling stiff after day one but started to loosen up as I made my way over the M62, to join a trail of flagstones up and over (hurray) Robin Hood’s Bed.

Blackstone Edge Reservoir quickly hove into view, and the Pennine Way dropped down to meet the Roman Road (most of the stones actually date from Medieval Times) and the Aiggin Stone – an old way marker for travelers.

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For the next few miles it pretty much becomes reservoir central; this is no bad thing though, as the ground is flat and makes for rapid movement. It gets even better when Stoodley Pike appears on the horizon – having spent a couple of New Years at Mankinholes Youth Hostel, it’s like seeing an old friend. At this point I met a guy walking to Hebden Bridge, and spent a few minutes chatting away before speeding up and heading on.

For a while, Stoodley Pike seems to stand still in the distance. The drag across the moor side here isn’t too bad really, but the stationary monument both encourages you on whilst paradoxically grinding you down mentally (although I doubt this will be an issue in the dark). Eventually, upon reaching Stoodley Pike, the Pennine Way takes a sharp turn east before descending north through Callis Wood. The way down to Hebden Bridge is a nice quick bridleway, and gives a welcome boost of speed. Although to really enjoy it you have to put out of your mind that you’ve got the whole way to come back up the other side.

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Jim was waiting at the P.W./A646 crossing point just outside of Hebden Bridge, where we had a quick chat and a water refill. During the race, CP one is just up the hill from here (well, up and down and up the hill from here), so whilst the bank up through Charlestown is a proper grind, psychologically it isn’t too bad. There’ll be hot food and a warm dry spot not far away!

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Reaching Colden and heading onto the moorside above, I slowed down a little to really nail the nav through this section. As the field boundaries here are very close together it’s easy to become a little disorientated, and so I took a few minutes to double check my exact location with the GPS, and have a Boost chocolate bar. Mmmm…

Following a fairly well worn in track northish across the moor, I enjoyed a rolling descent towards Gorple Lower Reservoir. It’s nice to have these little sections of softer ground, and by this point my feet were starting to complain. 40 odd miles of running will do that I guess.

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Finally approaching the next rendezvous point, the path drops you into a small but incredibly picturesque gorge. A quick grind back up toward the metalled road, and I made my first tiny navigational mistake by taking the first path to the road rather than the second. I doubt this would result in penalisation on the event as it adds distance to the route, but you never know, and it’s been duly noted for next time around.

Meeting Jim at the layby under Clough Foot, I was rewarded with a cup of tea and a surprisingly good cheese and ham sandwich. My feet, and particularly my right foot, had been bothering me from just after Hebden Bridge, so we talked it through and I decided to take a paracetamol to try and take the edge off and allow me to move with my natural gait again. I have to add in here that I usually try to avoid using pain killers, and don’t think I’ve ever used them for an “athletic” endeavour in the past. However, the paracetamol did the trick, and as I continued on to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs my feet were feeling much more comfortable, allowing me to move more fluidly and thus more rapidly.

More moorside greeted me as I ascended and then descended over the excellently named Dick Delf Hill. Onward to Ponden, but stopping briefly on the downhill at the ruins to take in the open landscape. On blowy, clear, overcast days, there are few landscapes more atmospheric that the Pennines, and it’s always worth taking a moment or two to appreciate the wide-open valleys with their bleak but majestic appearance.

I reached the head of Ponden Reservoir at about half three, pausing for a short chat, before pushing on toward Ickornshaw Moor. As always with fell routes, what comes down must go up, and the bank out of Ponden is another good example of an uphill grind. I have a tendency, which I think is probably a legacy from my “short distance” fell running days, to push right up to the wire on uphills, and have to remind myself to dial it back. Getting up fast is no good if I burn out for everything later!

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Contouring round Crag Bottom, I met Harsharn – another chap obviously out on a recce for the Spine. We stopped for a few minutes, and it turned out that he was considering the full Spine Race having been unexpectedly timed out at Byrness last year, due to horrific conditions across the Border Ridge (the conditions had convinced the organisers to bump the cut-off forward). Harsharn seemed enthusiastic though, and I look forward to catching up with him in January. And of course, he knew Jim from last January’s Spine. The world of adventure racing is very small indeed.

Coming over Ickornshaw Moor the sun was beginning to set, providing a golden hue uncharacteristic of the rest of the trip. A typical moorland track then leads down Cowling which is distinct in the most part, but peters out slightly as you pass a building next to beck. I have to admit to having a slight panic here. In the dimming light, fine details on the map were less visible, and I began to doubt where I was. Pulling out the GPS, I confirmed where I was, and finally capitulating to use my headtorch, I noticed the details which would have kept me happy minutes before. Silly lad.

Descending quickly into Cowling though some bog which would thoroughly qualify as “goppin’”, the end felt in sight. I knew a couple more hills lay in wait, but I could almost smell Thornton-in-Craven and a pub meal.

A quick cheese and water refill, and it was time to get a shift on. Lothersdale was the next road crossing (although Jim would not be waiting here), but the way was full of fields which are notoriously difficult to deal with in the dark.

I had a serious low point around Low Windhill, having to stop, eat, and have a real talk to myself before getting on again. There was also a slightly odd, almost spicy scent around here which I found a little unsettling.

Another field and another mistake found me thrashing around in a small gully, trying to handrail my way along a fence line. Eventually giving up, I pulled out the GPS yet again to find that I was no more than 30 meters from where I should be. Dark fields, what a pain! However, I now know to stay a little right of the fence, and where the exit should be, so better on the recce than on the event.

Out of Lothersdale and over Thornton Moor progressed without any major hitches.

Until I hit more fields.

Thrashing around and worrying about timing out with regards to a pub meal, I stopped thinking properly and spent a good 10 minutes running up and down the same small stretch of field between Park House and Wood House.

GPS time again, and I finally realised my error. I’d stupidly assumed Park House was Wood House, and was getting more and more confused as my map and compass refused to match up with what I was seeing on the ground. Major lesson to be learnt here – and one I end up repeating in almost every write up: if things are going a little pear-shaped, take five, and trust the map and compass. I’m not a pigeon. My nose is not magnetic.

Finally sorting myself out, I hit the track through the fields, down past Spring Barn (who’s lights provided a useful navigational aid) and onto the final metalled road to Thornton. Setting a fair pace for the finish, Jim set his usual flashing light beacon when he saw me approach.

I found the car, but no Jim. Where was he? I ran up the road into Thornton, but found no Jim, so headed back to the car.

Still no Jim. What the hell?

A quick phone call (thank god there was signal) and Jim appeared from down the road, which was a little confusing. Discussing how we’d managed to pass each other, we got packed into the car and off to The Old Stone Trough for a well deserved pint and a rest for tomorrow’s final push.

I finished the day at 19:30, half an hour behind schedule, but never mind. Mistakes are better made on the recce, and I’ve picked up plenty of cues for navigation on the event.

As always, I’d like to thank any tenacious readers for making it this far; it’s a long write up, full of mundanities, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it non-the-less. I feel it would have been difficult to distil the experience down much further, which will always be problem with long distance running.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Jim Imber yet again; without his willingness to help, this would not have been possible – or orders of magnitude more difficult.

And if there are any tiny specifics you want to know, give us a shout, I’ll do what I can to help.