I entered the inaugural running last year but failed to make the start line, grinding to a halt on the M6 somewhere north of Preston behind several hundred trucks stuck in the snow. This year the weather was marginally better as I left home just after 5am; I was treated to continuous icy rain for most of the journey which had reduced to a chilly "is this rain or snow?" drizzle by the time I got to Askham Village Hall just after 7am. Welcoming hot tea put a better face on things and there were a few familiar faces - Jon Steele, Nick Ham, and to my surprise that pillar of the West Highland Way and Scottish Athletics, Adrian Stott, slotting in a run during his journey home from Cornwall to Edinburgh, as you do I suppose.
The course itself describes a 38 mile "lollipop" shape, taking runners across the moor (Askham Fell) from Askham to Howtown, then up Boredale to Boredale Hause and down to Patterdale. From here, you go over Sticks Pass to the northern end of Thirlmere, along the hillside above the lake to Dunmail Raise then back over to Patterdale via Grisedale Tarn, from where you retrace your earlier steps back to Askam. There are half a dozen or so checkpoints, some of which are manned and some self-clips; the event is run as a sort of loose time trial - you can start at any time between 7 and 9am, but the checkpoint in Patterdale at 10 miles doesn't open until 10am and the maximum time allowed for the trip is 12 hours.
I had decided I was going to have a comfortable day. Warm walking trousers instead of running tights, a fleece under the jacket right from the start and plenty of food. I wasn't going to be fast but would be happy to get round, near the back of the field but quick enough not to get concerned about the cutoffs. I had intended to start at 7.30 but there was a bit of a queue to pick up numbers and tallies so it was just after 7.45 when I stumbled out of the hall with Adrian, to find it just about light enough to do without a torch and that the precipitation had for the time being stopped. We slid off down the icy streets of Askham then up onto the moor.
|First few miles across Askham Fell|
On the first real climb over Boredale Hause to Patterdale the weather seemed to be improving, though the steepish descent was quite slippery. I had brought Yaktrax and had them on and off during the day, but the regulars knew that the proper footwear for the event was fell shoes. I saw the stud marks everywhere. I felt a bit like a foreigner driving in the Alps, stopping for chains on and off all the time while the locals cruise by with their snow tyres.
In Patterdale I made a rather embarrassing mistake. I hadn't bothered to look at the map, I just knew I would turn left at the bridge and follow the stream. Two other runners did the same. After a while it was clear that we weren't seeing what we were expecting. A too late look at the map revealed that I had come up Grisedale rather than Glenridding. In an event whose only real instructions were that you had to be able to navigate competently over open fells in winter conditions, I had managed to take the wrong road out of a village up completely the wrong valley. Such is life occasionally. It may have cost twenty minutes or so, and pushed the total distance closer to a nice round 40 miles but it wasn't going to spoil my day. I retreated chastened and got back on track, going up what was now a rather gloomy looking Glenridding.
|Up into Glenridding|
|Marshal at Swart Beck footbridge|
I had thrown the goggles into my bag almost as an afterthought, but they were really helpful over the next stretch over Sticks Pass. The visibility deteriorated quite quickly and the wind was blowing around both the odd snow shower and already fallen snow, although with quite a few people having been through before me it wasn't too difficult to pick out the track. Higher up as the pass started to plateau out the wind was covering the tracks rather more and we were approaching near whiteout. I hadn't seen any other runners since just above the Youth Hostel, so it was quite comforting in this white wilderness to catch up with a group of three just before the top of the pass. Up here it was quite eerie to hear a dog barking quite nearby but out of sight, until we were met by a couple of walkers following the Helvellyn ridge; they wandered off to the left and were quickly out of sight again.
|Near whiteout on Sticks Pass|
|Approaching Swirls checkpoint|
|Up Raise beck towards Grisedale Tarn|
The descent of Grisedale was tricky at first, slippery snow over a rocky track, but soon eased and I was able to run the last couple of miles down to the main road in Patterdale, and from there round to the checkpoint. By now the clouds had almost gone and it was shaping up to be a beautiful clear evening
|Down Grisedale in improving weather|
|Tea at Patterdale|
The steady pull up from Howtown to the top of the moor could have been tedious, but with people to chat to now and then it passed quickly enough. I had it solidly covered in my GPS as on the face of it it's pretty featureless territory, but my local companions seemed to know every path junction like it was the end of their street; I was definitely getting a free ride. Along the top of the moor both in front and behind you could see spaced sequences of headlights; it felt like we were coming into Heathrow. But we're not on the final approach yet said Tony, more like just past the outer beacon. Then the ground angle changed and we really were on the final approach, wonderfully easy running all the way down to the finish, bright lights, dry clothes and hot soup. All that remained was to spend 10 minutes de-icing the car for the drive back to Chester.
I finished in just over 11 hours. Quite near the back but that was the plan. Apart from my senior moment in Patterdale in the morning, I had negotiated the course competently enough, met some nice people along the way, and had an enjoyable and very satisfying day out. An early Christmas present.