Almost four hours into Wasdale Fell Race. To be precise 3:48:24 to do these 15 miles. The last mile alone has taken me over 25 minutes but I am now 2816ft above sea level at the summit of Great Gable. The weather is vile, horrendous, hideous and debilitating. Gail force winds drive sharp rain into my face even though my head is lowered. The rain is coming upwards, wind blowing from the Irish Sea a few miles away along the valley then towards me at a ferocious speed for 2816 feet until it smashes into my face, but I’m at the top.
A group of three people are sat trying to get some shelter behind the summit and they ask for my race number, obscured by my waterproof, although how much good it is now doing is questionable. “40”, I shout through the wind and as I stoop to hand in my check point token there is a respite from the frontal assault of the wind. “Are you ok?” I ask them, as I half expected someone to be saying the race is abandoned and to get down off the mountain as fast as you can before we all die, “Save yourself man!!!” – in my head this is what they were going to shout. But this is fell running. Fell running in the most beautiful and terrifying mountains in England and the race is not cancelled, the marshals are content and I must continue.
I had climbed behind another runner and as he had checked in before me he was already disappearing into the mist and rain to begin his descent. Split second decision. Stay here exposed and take my own compass bearing while taking a thrashing from the rain or follow the man disappearing quickly. I lifted my head back up and immediately a wall of water smashed into me and I stepped forward after the vanishing man, this was the wrong decision…
Some Time Earlier
Rewind to February and whilst planning races for this year I wanted to ensure I completed enough ‘Lakeland Classics’ to qualify for the the ‘Lakeland Classic Trophy’. Not, you understand, to compete with regards to winning anything but just to look back on it and tell the kids/grandkids in years to come that I qualified in scoring points and getting a place in the overall standings of this trophy at least once.
The history of the trophy does not go back that far. Devised in 2002 as a way to help to keep some of these very long, very tough races alive as attendances were dwindling, it is not everyone’s idea of a good day out. Thankfully the introduction of this trophy, for which you need to complete two super long and one long category race in a season and also the ‘Feet in the Clouds’ affect (you’ll have to look this up if you don’t know what I’m talking about) have helped to drive the numbers back up.
So planning my races I had decided that I would do Ennerdale and Wasdale as my super long races and Borrowdale as my long race, with an option on The Three Shires too in September if not on holiday. Having done Borrowdale last year and a couple of Bob Graham leg recces I knew running in the Lakes was tough but it wasn’t until I’d signed up that people started saying things like ‘Wasdale? You’re doing Wasdale?’. These were people who knew fell running, knew it’s history and just how tough it can be and now they were looking at me, I like to think, with a sense of admiration but realistically they were thinking “this fool has no idea!”
Wasdale, at 21 miles long and a leg wobbling 9000ft of climbing, was going to be the most I had climbed in a day. Ever. It was not without a little trepidation, therefore, that I had an eye on the weather forecast all week, but after tales of the year where people were getting serious heat stroke (2014?) a bit of light rain and slight breeze looked favourable.
Wasdale is a real bugger to get to, but this is probably what keeps it so beautiful and unspoilt. The crowds that come to walk up England’s highest mountain (Scafell Pike) tend to do so from the other side, from Seathwaite and via Keswick. So once again my plan for the day was roughly 3 hours drive, 1 hour pre-race, 5 to 6 hours running, quick cuppa and piece of cake and 3 hours painful drive home. This in itself is a challenging plan.
Once I’d crossed the M6 the rain had really started and I knew the day was going to be a wet one but at least with a temperature of around 16C it might not get too cold, although it would be a good few degrees lower at altitude. Race registration was a tent in a field with a separate tent next to it where you could remain dry but most of the runners were still sat in their cars at this point. Thirty minutes before start time I had an energy gel and got out and got my kit together and went over to the tent to see what was happening. The main topic of conversation was what to wear, more akin to a girls night out than a fell race but this wasn’t about having matching accessories it was going to be a strategy for staying warmest for longest and having a plan B. I decided that if I wore my waterproof jacket it would be soaked from the inside anyway by mile two and that as the temperature was ok for now I would run in my Under Armour compression top and my club vest and keep my waterproof for emergencies or if it got cold on the tops. I knew I was going to be soaked to the skin within 5 minutes and that this would be the situation for the next how ever many hours. Most runners had decided to wear their waterproofs from the off but I wanted to be a trend setter not a follower.
The race started and we headed off up into the clag (term for cloudy, foggy, horribleness with little visibility). The clag was hovering low so we were soon down to about 20 metres visibility but we were still bunched together enough to do this first section without the need for map and compass. I tried to take it slow, thinking about my breathing, if I was out of breath I was working too hard at this early stage and burning too much fuel. Keep with the flow but don’t push it. I was happy to get on the back of a bunch containing Leigh Hinchcliffe of Pudsey Pacers – my Ennderdale ‘getting lost’ partner (see report 11th June). I knew we had both prepared navigationally better for this race but the clag was going to be another dimension.
The running over to CP1 at Illgill Head, high above Wast Water Englands deepest lake, was good. Grassy on good tracks before a very steep descent down to Greendale that let the quads know you were in the mountains. A few positions swapped on the descent and across the valley bottom where it felt sheltered and warm, ‘a nice gentle trail race this’, I thought but I knew it wasn’t to last. A quick water stop at CP2 manned by the legend Joss Naylor before we crossed to the bottom of Seatallon and began to climb.
Up through the bracken and across a stream, which was now a raging waterfall, then up, up and up. I had ended up at the front of a group, too far behind the next runner to follow their route due to the clag but I was happy with my line and kept plodding away at it towards the unseen summit. A group just behind me confirmed I was on the right track and I kept checking over my shoulder but by now I could sense we were near the top even though we couldn’t see it. I ate some buttered malt loaf, my favourite energy food, while taking it relatively easy as I knew the next section would be hard over to CP3 at Pillar.
On The Tops
On reaching the summit of Seatallon the pace picked up and I was happy to see Nicky Spinks set off with purpose across the boggy tundra. I had spoken with Nicky on our way to the starting field and asked about her Double Bob Graham feat and although I see her regularly at races I am always a little star struck. (If you are reading this but not a fell runner then chances are you will not have heard of this remarkable lady so please Google her!). If anyone was a good bet for knowing the way in what was now driving rain and no visibility then Nicky was it.
There is a train of thought, not unmerited, that says if you are not a confident navigator and do not have the skills to complete a race like this, then you should not be there. I, for the most part, agree with this and at no point during this or any other race have I felt I could not navigate myself out of danger and back to civilisation even if this means being in the wrong place and leaving the race for safety’s sake. However, I also feel that if you are cold, wet and becoming exhausted then there is safety in numbers and following someone you trust the navigation of is no bad thing and certainly not cheating.
So I was following Nicky Spinks. I had my compass handy and I had some course notes with me that I had written and knew we should be heading in a North Easterly direction which I did keep checking. The weather was getting worse, and keeping up with Nicky meant I was working hard. The rain felt like thousands of tiny needles all across my exposed legs, arms and face, I knew my core temperature was still good and I kept fuelling to maintain that. This was the area where Leigh and I had got lost at Ennerdale and I had been looking forward to surveying the area and assessing where we had gone wrong but I couldn’t, not with visibility down to under 20 metres. As we neared Pillar, Nicky was pulling away and I knew I wasn’t going to stay with her but there was a good group behind me, even if I couldn’t see them, and the path from Pillar should be fairly straight forward.
“This is where the race starts proper” say the encouraging notes of the reverse on my map “You’ve just been playing at it up to now”. Deep joy.
I knew this already but still it felt good to be at Pillar and on the opposite side of the loop to the start/finish so technically on the way back. I had no illusions though, with Great Gable and Scafell Pike still to climb and descend the race was far from over. CP3 – 2hr 45min
The weather was now in full on ‘trying to kill you’ mode. The wind, although constant, also had blasts so strong they either blew you over or stopped you in your tracks unable to move forward. Gravity was trying to help me down the greasy, sharp, rocky track with the enthusiasm of Hendrix my Springer Spaniel chasing a squirrel. My foot/eye co-ordination was severely hampered by the continuous deluge of water being thrown into my face and my general levels of exhaustion along with the buffeting by the wind. It was only a matter of time before I fell. Gravity, wind and slippery wet rock all conspiring to up-end me. I smacked my right leg hard into the rough rock and ended up flat on my front. Ouch. Get back on your feet. Survey the damage. Blood was running from a gash in my knee and my pain sensors were certainly aware of my right shin that had taken most of the impact. Other than that fine. Nothing broken. Keep moving or you will get very cold very quickly.
I was running alone on this section for what seemed like an age although there must be runners behind me … providing I was still on course. I stopped, checked my bearing and looked at the map. My line was good. I knew I needed to skirt around Kirk Fell on its left hand flank and I wasn’t going to get this wrong, not after Ennerdale. As I began to question if I had gone too far or taken a detour, a small group of people were ahead and although this was not a check point they showed the correct path and offered up some jelly babies. I was half way through eating an energy bar so didn’t accept the kind offer of the jelly babies but the confirmation I was going the right way was more motivational than a sweet at this point so thanks to whoever you were!
The path was quite clear and easy to follow. Although I wasn’t running fast I was moving and being on the North Eastern side of the mountain meant a certain level of protection from the gales for a time. The footpaths were streams, the streams that needed crossing were waterfalls and the rain was still falling. Now remember at this point I am still in shorts and a t-shirt with my Idle AC club vest on top. My body is splitting the energy I am feeding it into keeping me moving and keeping my core warm but it will always prioritise keeping the core warm, even at the expense of shutting down other functions – like the ability to move your arms and legs. I was tired and needed to evaluate my situation and take some action to improve it or I would be in trouble.
I reached the end of the path and was going to have to stop and get my map out as I couldn’t see Great Gable. What is a hulking Goliath of a mountain was somewhere directly in front of me but I didn’t know where. Exposed again the wind was smashing into me and I stood behind a large rock for some shelter. I took out my waterproof which was surprisingly still dry and battled with the wind to put it on. I also put my hat on and my buff around my neck. This made me instantly warmer and offered protection. I took a bearing and realising I had continued my line too far I adjusted and found the base of something which must be Gable and began to climb. After 2 minutes I saw another runner in the mist heading upwards too, then another and another. These must have been the group just behind me that had now bypassed me but I was happy we were going the same way and I continued upwards, overtaking a couple of runners as we climbed.
CP4 – Great Gable 3:48:24
…and so I started following the runner ahead down Gable. At this point the wind was at its worst and I wanted to lose altitude quickly to get some respite. Last August on a lovely summers day I had completed Borrowdale fell race which did the reverse of this section and I knew there should be a decent and clear path down to Sty Head although the usual tourists were not going to be here today. There was no path, just sharp slippery rock, and I took another slip and bashed my left thigh. We hit patches of scree which were luxurious compared with the rock but I knew this was not the correct route and we agreed to skirt left while still descending. I was feeling cross with myself for not deciding to make my own way down but we were here now and I was determined that if I kept veering left I would find the path. After coming up against a bit of a cliff I went a bit higher to continue on but my companion decided to change direction and head lower and right. I had conviction in my decision and continued and found the path within the next minute. What happened to the other runner I do not know but everyone was accounted for at the end so he must have found his own way. After all we are Fell Runners!
I was on the path and in no time at all I was at the bottom of Gable as most of the descent had been done ‘off piste’. At this point you can jog down from Sty Head to Wasdale Head and be back in warm clothes eating cake in a relatively short amount of time or you can continue and now climb the highest mountain in England! I would be lying if I hadn’t hoped that this decision would not be mine to make and I would be told the race had been shortened and to get back for cake but this wasn’t the case. So it was my choice to make and I was only going to do one thing. I set off up towards CP5 at Esk Hause Shelter.
I caught another runner and chatted a little. He was very experienced and had done the route several times before although I didn’t ask how many. He was happy and calm and plodding along in a composed manner which gave me comfort. I knew that the route off Scafell Pike was not the clearest and most obvious, coming down Lingmell Nose and the wrong route would mean missing CP7 and I was not going to let that happen.
The climb up to CP6 at the summit of Scafell Pike was fairly straight forward although there is a false summit and slight descent which I had forgotten about as while last here in Borrowdale I was enjoying the views at this point. The calm runner reassured me and another “We’ve not missed the top, we’re just not there yet”. I only had one plan now. Stay with Mr Calm and get the right line off the top and into some warm clothes asap.
The summit check point came in 5:08:33 but there were still 2.5 miles to go before tea and cake could become a reality. It dragged on and on and I wanted to stop but I was so close. Mr Calm was getting further ahead, dancing away towards warmth but I kept him within sight and down we came, out of the cloud, the wind dropped and the temperature rose.
A couple of Todmorden runners passed me going for PB’s, running with renewed vigor and I didn’t have the fight left in me so I lost two places in the last one hundred yards but I was happy to relinquish them.
I crossed the line and gave in my last token and my race number so the organisers could ensure everyone is accounted for. There were lots of runners looking relaxed and changed. Some of them I knew would have been back a long time but some of them I had thought I was close to or even ahead of. How long had I lost on Gable? I then saw the finishing list and my place of 39th (since amended to 38th). It turns out lots of runners, 40 in total, had dropped out at various points so that accounted for many of these cheery looking clean people who were in stark contrast to the wet mess that I was as I crossed the line.
My Strava Link https://www.strava.com/activities/635628020
Gerry Springer Reflection Moment – So what have I learnt since last Saturday?
Only by testing ourselves do we truly find out what we are capable of. There were times on the mountains that I felt slightly desperate and in some amount of danger but I had faith in my own ability to survive and endure what Mother Nature could throw at me.
It’s now 5 days since the race and I almost feel like I shouldn’t post this as the memories and feelings described have waned and I don’t want to sound like a whinger or a novice to my contemporaries and heroes. I’ve read Nicky’s report of the race this week which is a lot less dramatic and basically says it was a bit wet and navigation could be tricky but this is why these people are my heroes. If I put 99% of my Facebook friends in the place I was on Saturday I wonder how many of them, when faced with those conditions, would have got back alive? And so I am proud of my achievement and the stories I can pass on to the kids and hopefully they can be proud of their dad too.