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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: