Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas Cracker

The "Tour de Helvellyn en Hiver" is a brilliant event. Low key almost to the extreme, it is organised by a very able and enthusiastic crowd led by Joe Faulkner and based in Askham in the North East corner of the Lake District. There are no dire warnings, no pre-race briefings, just an understanding that whatever Cumbria chooses to provide in the way of weather on the shortest Saturday of the year, the race will not be called off so just make sure you're up for it. In Joe's words in the single email you receive when you've asked to be let in, "now let's be safe but have some fun".

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

Spits of showers were coming and going, the ground underfoot was a mixture of ice, snow and bog, but it was good to be out in the hills and I made steady progress across to Howtown, always in sight of other runners as about 100 of us would set out during the two hour start window.  Three of us arrived together at the first checkpoint at Martindale Church, spotted the clipper, and after a bit of a struggle because it was on a very short cord, clipped our tallies. We then carried on round the church to find on the other side a marshal and a completely different clip - the one we had used was an old one, could have been there since last year!

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
Beyond the Youth Hostel the track rises steeply for a while, and as these Eastern valleys of the Helvellyn range hold any snow that's going, it was soon getting deep. Skiers were making their way up the track too, and going off the side into the soft stuff to get past them was quite hard work. A runner came past me at a cracking pace, really impressive in the conditions. I didn't see many of the fast guys go past, I suspect a lot of that happened while I was making my little diversion. The next checkpoint was at the footbridge over Swart Beck, and when I got there I was amazed to find a marshal - what a hero!

Marshal at Swart Beck footbridge
I asked him how much longer he expected to be there and he said there were about 15 people behind me. We chatted a minute or two and he offered to take a photo - I don't get many photos of me so I took up his offer.

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
Once we were heading down the going became very easy in the softish snow, a gentle trundle allowing us to keep up quite a good pace. We popped out of the mist a few hundred feet above the next checkpoint at Stanah Gill footbridge directly below us. No marshal here but below the main snowline and the clip easy to find, I let the others get ahead again as I stopped to find some more food out of my bag - I definitely wasn't going hungry on this trip.
Approaching Swirls checkpoint
A fairly horizontal track just above the fell wall seemed to lead in no time to the next checkpoint at Swirls car park just above the northern end of Thirlmere, this one complete with marshal in Santa outfit offering......... mince pies! Never had one of these on an ultra before, must remember that they do go down well. From here to Dunmail raise the route follows a broad forest track above the lake. On the map it looked fairly flat, but it turned out to have a number of quite testing rises. Apart from these it was all runnable so I felt I should probably get a bit of time in hand while the going was easy. Along here I caught up with Tony, a local from near Askham, and who I was really encouraged to find out was about five years older than me - there's clearly some hope for the future! He and I passed and repassed each other, then eventually I ran with him to the finish. We found the next unmanned clip at Homesdale Green Bridge, then after a short distance headed back up towards the snow, climbing alongside Raise Beck up to Grisedale Tarn. The northwest wind was still quite keen but the movement kept us warm enough.
Up Raise beck towards Grisedale Tarn
I found the short stretch contouring the hillside above Grisedale Tarn to be the most trying ground on the whole trip  - fairly deep soft snow over occasionally very deep soft bog, a couple of above the knee incursions couldn't be avoided. On the plus side it was quite dramatically beautiful up there as visibility had improved and the clouds were lifting and parting. I was disappointed not to get a photo but I had been carrying my camera in a waist pocket and the battery was having a hard time in the cold.

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
Another welcome surprise at the checkpoint, they were offering hot drinks so a big cup of tea just couldn't be refused. Joe himself was at the checkpoint and I told him I'd had a great day out. It's not quite over yet he remarked, ah yes, just the stumbling around in the dark to get home I agreed.
Tea at Patterdale
10 miles to go. The climb back up to Boredale Hause was steep enough but the last real uphill. Near the top I met up again with Tony and two of his friends also running, another Tony and Claire. Once off the first rocky bit we picked up a bit of speed and jogged most of the way to the final checkpoint back at Martindale church. There was probably some mild game of chicken in play, as lights didn't go on until we needed them to find the clip. The compensation for this was that we had a great view of the now completely cloudless starry night.

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.

1 comment:

John Kynaston said...

Well done Andy

Sounds a great day out.

Have a great Christmas and all the best for 2012 as you attempt to set some new pb's!!