For the first couple of years that I was involved in ultras, I ran the 50 mile Rotherham Round. It was in December; it was usually cold and wet, you started and finished in the dark and for half the course you were in mud above your ankles. But the organisers and marshals at every checkpoint were wonderful and the competitors loved it. I still remember the classic comment of the starter in the dark at 7am in the 2008 race - "Don't believe the weather forecast, it's going to be a lovely day" - of course it rained steadily from start to finish. But that's the thing about events in the winter, the conditions are an essential element in the plot; almost as if everyone's saying "OK England, we know you can do a bit of weather, so just bring it on!" Then Rotherham was moved from December to October. I asked what the reason was and apparently the organisers were spending too much time trying to find lost runners all over South Yorkshire once darkness had fallen (navigation on the course can be tricky in places). I've run it once since, in its new place in the calendar, and it's still a good outing, but a bit less problematic and so a bit less "special", if you know what I mean.
But when one door closes another usually opens and the excuse to avoid Christmas shopping and such distractions is now provided brilliantly by the "Tour de Helvellyn", which does exactly what it says on the tin on the shortest Saturday of the year. 2012 was the 3rd running of the event. I had entered in 2010 but was unable to make the start on account the whole west side of the country, including the M6, being under a foot of snow. Last year, the roads were OK but the Lake District was still completely snow covered, up to a couple of feet on the higher parts of the course, and we were treated to temperatures which varied from zero to minus quite a lot. This year would be different; flood warnings seemed to be out for half the country and the Met Office forecast for the Lakes included continuous heavy rain, winds up to gale force, wind chill and poor visibility. Yes, the TdH generally has weather.
The course is 38 miles long and by my reckoning has about 6200ft of ascent. It starts from Askham and first crosses Askham Moor to Howtown. On the moor there are tracks easy to follow which don't go where you want to go, and tracks difficult to follow which do - this becomes significant later in the day. In a normal year all this ground is boggy. From Howtown, briefly up to the first unmanned checkpoint at Martindale Church, then up Boredale for the first warm-up climb to Boredale Hause and down the other side to a manned checkpoint in Patterdale at the 10 mile point, where the actual circumnavigation of Helvellyn begins. A bit of narrow road up Glenridding then a steady climb over rough ground to Sticks Pass, the highest point on the course at about 2400ft, then a long descent, at first gentle but with a final quad-sapping few hundred feet down to Stannah Footbridge just above Thirlmere. A bouldery track for a couple of miles to a manned checkpoint at Swirls Car Park, then forest trails with numerous small ascents and descents lead southward above the lake to Dunmail Raise. The route turns for home here, ascending alongside Raise Beck to the col above Grisedale Tarn at around 1900ft, then down the long bouldery Grisedale track back to the Patterdale checkpoint. All you have then is the final 10 miles home, retracing your tracks of earlier in the day to the finish back in Askham.
After a five o'clock alarm and a quiet drive up to the Lakes through continuous heavy rain, I arrived at Asham village hall, checked in, and chatted to one or two people that I knew. We were all unreasonably cheerful, knowing how wet we were going to get over the next few hours, but that's the nature of the game I suppose. An unusual feature of the TdH is that there is no massed start - you start any time you choose between 7am and 9am and everyone's elapsed time is calculated at the end. Figuring that it will be light before I have to make any directional decisions, I wander out into the rainy darkness at about 7.45am. After half a mile a runner in the gloom ahead holds a gate for me and it turns out to be John Vernon - "no mistaking that hat" is his comment - so we walk and jog across the moor together. I'm not out to push myself today, just a satisfying completion in good shape is the target; half a stone too heavy and with not much real running in the past few weeks, I'm unlikely to break any records anyway. When it feels tough I slow down, when it feels good I speed up, that will do for today. The ground across the moor is very wet, and difficult to get the best track even in daylight. Just beyond the Cockpit there's a shout from behind we're passed by Dave Troman; he's having a storming year which will continue today as he goes on to a 5th place finish. A mile or so before Howtown I decide I want to go a bit quicker so I wish John well and leave him to the rest of his day. He finishes OK, he always does.
The staggered start works well. I guess if you're a real competitor it might be frustrating not to know exactly where you are in the field, but for most runners it means you pass and are passed by a lot of people so there is plenty of contact. We hit a bit of mist and wind over Boredale Hause but soon warm up on the nice descent down to Patterdale, tricky enough to keep you thinking but not tortuous. A quick top up of water bottle at the checkpoint then it's into the real meat of the race. The ascent of Sticks Pass goes well for me, this year there is no snow and you can see where the path is, and the uphill effort keeps you warm. I guess the temperature is about 6 or 7 degrees in the valleys, dropping as you climb but with freezing level just above the tops. The rain and wind make it feel colder though, and in conditions like these you are always wet, however good you think your gear is - it just varies from warm and wet to cold and wet. The first part of the descent is probably the most unpleasant part of the course today; the track is a continuous stream, and while everyone's feet have been wet since the first mile or so out of Askham, up here it's cold and wet so your feet slowly start to go numb and there's the feeling that they're not completely connected to the rest of you. It's good to get down to the checkpoint above Thirlmere where things are much warmer. The marshals are doing an amazing job today; continuous rain in temperatures not much above freezing must be about the worst to stand around in, and apart from the porch at Patterdale all the checkpoints are outside.
The section through the forest above the lake is a pleasant interlude, we seem to be a bit protected from the rain and wind, and I'm taking things easy and enjoying the day. Just at the point where the route swings up Raise Beck there is a photographer, another stalwart contribution to the day. I turn up the hill but he warns me that other runners doing this have had difficulty getting across the beck, so I detour a few yards down hill to the bridge to be on the safe side. The track up the beck is bouldery and quite steep, most people will use a hand on the rocks here and there, but deep in the gulley it is sheltered and calm and again I enjoy the ascent. Then we're out onto the very boggy traverse around the north side of Grisedale Tarn so it's cold feet again. The long track down Grisedale is bouldery with occasional rocky steps so difficult to get a good rhythm going, but halfway down it improves and then it's a nice downhill run all the way to Patterdale. There is a 4.30pm cutoff here but I arrive at 2.30 so plenty in hand.
For the climb back up to Boredale Hause the rain starts to slacken off for the first time, and maybe even stops for a while, but by the time we're back to Howtown it's back and will stay with us until the finish. From around Thirlmere until now I've been passing and repassing another runner, exchanging the odd word or two. We haven't run together because he is running faster than me but walking more often so our overall progress is about the same. He has stopped to check his map just ahead of me and I tell him to just keep going straight on. I show him the easiest way through Howtown from the church because there is an option here and we chat a bit. It turns out he is Phil Humphries from Edinburgh, who will be doing his first West Highland Way next year. Once we get on to the track on the moor I tell Phil to go on, because I will still take it easily on the uphills even though they're not steep on this section.
Just before the Cockpit I have to get my torch out, then I plot what I hope is my best way across the moor. The deeper bits of bog which were avoidable in the daylight are now undistinguishable from any other ground so I get pretty muddy in this final couple of miles. It's fascinating to see lights converging on the top of the final track down to Askham from slightly different directions all over the moor. Then it's a quick jog down the track and into the finish, the warmth, the tea, the soup and the cake.
My time was 9hrs 32mins. An hour and a half quicker than last year but conditions underfoot were definitely easier, although the weather was probably a bit less pleasant overall. 87th place out of 147 starters and 128 finishers, well down the field but it doesn't matter for this one. The satisfaction comes from getting out there in whatever conditions you face on the day and getting round safely and in good order. A super event, I'll be back to see what weather Lake District serves up next year.
One final comment. Having heard one or two people recommend Drymax socks, I bought a couple of pairs recently. They claim to look after your feet and prevent sore spots or blisters and I had tried them out but not yet in a race. The step of faith you have to make is to resist the temptation to put any grease or tape or anything else on your feet, just rely on the socks. On the TdH my feet were completely saturated for over 9 hours. The course covered surfaces including shallow mud, deep bog, continuous water, stoney trails, bouldery tracks and some road. At the end, my feet were as good as they were at the start. The socks seem to work.