Four weeks until the West Highland Way race; time for a solid back-to-back to check there are enough miles in the legs, then easing off a bit and trying to avoid pulling or catching things before the annual gathering in Milngavie Station yard. But where to go? I'd done a lot on my local trails this year, no enthusiasm for more repeats. I thought about joining John Kynaston and friends on the Balmaha to Fort William trip but the logistics didn't work for me over the Bank Holiday weekend, plus it's always £100 plus in fuel up to Scotland, a lot for a couple of days training.
Then an interesting thought came up. I'd first heard about the Ultimate Trails 100k when Gaynor Prior talked me through the proposed route as we were chatting after the Fling; she assured me that it was destined to become a classic. It sounded good but coming just two weeks after the UTMB I wasn't sure what shape I was likely to be in when it came around. Since then I had forgotten about it, then remembered again, got on the website to find that places were running out fast and signed up anyway. After this a lot more places suddenly became available - whether this was a fast response to an unexpectedly high interest or just a cute marketing move I'm not sure, but it looks like it will be a popular event. And it would clearly make a nice two day training outing. I copied the course from the website onto the map - it's all covered by Landranger 90 (Penrith and Keswick) so that's all you need. I booked accommodation for Friday night and was all set.
Now what follows is quite a lengthy ramble about my two days, but it might be of interest to anyone contemplating the 100k event and who is not yet familiar with the ground.
A 6am alarm saw me up the M6 via my normal breakfast stop (latte and chocolate twist at Burton-in-Kendal Services), parked up and jogging out of Ambleside by 8.30. The route describes a rough circle to the north of Ambleside; start and finish on the actual event is at Brockhole, about a mile off the circular route just south of Ambleside but I wasn't really bothered about this bit and decided I would just do the circle. The forecast promised sunshine and showers with a fresh northerly breeze for Friday, and a nice day Saturday.
The first section is part of the Lakeland 100 course in reverse, over Skelgyll to Troutbeck, then the Garburn Pass to Kentmere. Nice going on good tracks to warm up. The only problem was the weather didn't know what to do, the showers were getting frequent, cold and quite heavy. In the end I got fed up with the on-off regime and left hat, gloves and waterproof top on for most of the day. Going up the Garburn Road was a bit of a surprise, someone had spread a few hundred tons of gravel and small stones up there to make the old rocky defile into quite a smooth surface - a lot of Lakeland 50/100 runners will be very grateful for this in July! Hopes that it might continue down the far side were in vain however, it's still as stony as ever down to Kentmere. The Institute, a mega checkpoint in the July events, looked rather lonely and deserted.
|Kentmere Insitute with the Garburn Pass behind|
From Kentmere, the route takes Nan Bield Pass over to Mardale head, a tougher but I think much finer way than the rather scruffy jeep track used by the Lakeland 100 over Gatescarth. A runnable bridleway followed by a steep, grassy climb finds a nice contouring path above Kentmere reservoir and into the upper valley. From here a steep but short final climb gets to the pass.
|Heading for Nan Bield (centre skyline)|
As I crested the pass I was hit by the full force of the wind head on, accompanied by a rather painful hailstorm, so losing height rapidly was in order. It's a rocky and fairly technical descent all the way down to Mardale head, passing the lonely Small Water en route.
|Small Water on the descent from Nan Bield|
I'd seen no-one since setting out from Ambleside but the car par at Mardale Head was a hive of activity with walkers setting out in all directions. The 100k course now follows a long gentle section with very little climbing and mostly good ground underfoot for 15 miles or so - a chance to work on the average mins/mile battered by the past couple of miles maybe! The track along the West shore of Haweswater seems endless in the Lakeland 100 when you're 70 miles or so in, but this early on in the 100k it's a delight.
A true singletrack in many places, where passing anyone in either direction requires co-operation of both parties, it winds its way along the margin of the lake with changing scenery and continual interest all the way.
The Lakeland 100 course is left at Measand Beck after 3 or 4 miles, and the 100k carries on along the lake on a track which gets much wider then leads to a surfaced road at the dam; this is followed along to Bampton, where I was able to top up supplies at the village store for the first time since leaving Ambleside. The course follows the road for another mile or so past Beckfoot, then up a short hill to a junction where a bridleway is followed leftwards towards Askham Fell. After a gate, two tracks are visible on the grass ahead, the right hand one leads to another road crossing by a fingerpost and you carry straight on on a good and easily runnable bridleway, slightly rising onto the open fell.
|Bridleway onto Askham Fell|
Now as anyone who has done the Tour de Helvellyn (TdeH) race in December will tell you, what you see on the map may not actually help you in getting across Askham Fell (although to be fair, tackling it in the dark when it's covered in snow does make it a bit harder). In the 100k, the bridleway you come in on is fairly easy to follow in good visibility, and in a mile or less gets you to a standing stone at a crossroads. A left turn takes you directly to the Cockpit along a path that is very boggy in places and not great to follow in mist, whereas overshooting by going straight on will get you to a better track which comes up from Pooley Bridge and is taken by the Lakeland 100, and turning left along it gets you to the Cockpit with the penalty of a couple of hundred yards at most. On Friday it was clear, easy running, with the added bonus that on turning left the headwind that I'd been battling for twenty miles or so then became a great tailwind for the rest of the day.
I always enjoy the section from the Cockpit to Howtown. The track now becomes easy to follow and it's gently descending most of the way with a reasonable surface, great running. TdeH regulars normally drop down onto the road before Howtown and take the track cutting the road zigzags up to Martindale Church,
|From Howtown towards Martindale Church|
but the 100k map tells you to carry on along the track to its end at Mellguards. From there another track leads immediately onto the grass on the left, over the Fusedale road, then follows a really nice ascending track up to the back of the church, avoiding Howtown completely (unless there's a checkpoint there).
A short section of road leads from the church, down then slightly up and round into Boredale. The road carries on a mile or so up the valley, but there's only a farm and no parking up there so there's never any traffic and it's still pleasant running. I was pleased that I was still going easily and managed to put in a ten minute mile up here (that's good for me if you don't know me!). I didn't know it at the time, but Boredale is the last really easy running for a long way on the 100k course, so if you do the event, make the most of it!
|Boredale (Boredale Hause mid skyline)|
Boredale Hause looks quite daunting in the distance, but as it gets closer you realise that the final steep bit which you can't run is very short, and the top comes quite quickly, then it's a steepish but cruisy run down into Patterdale. At this point the showers seemed to have stopped for good, the sun was out, and it was looking like we might get a nice evening.
My Garmin had clicked 32 miles (50k) coming over Boredale Hause, so Patterdale's not far off the halfway point of the trip. It was early enough to get a bus back to Ambleside from here but I thought it would be nice to have a bit more in the bag on day one, so I continued over the next section. This goes up Grisedale to the tarn then down to Dunmail Raise. This is another section taken in reverse on the TdeH so I knew the ground well. After a steep hundred yards or so of road, the first two thirds of Grisedale is a nice runnable road then track. I saw my first deer of the trip, running fast over the fellside to my left. A mile or so short of the tarn the track crosses to the right of the valley and climbs more steeply over rocky ground to the tarn outlet, tedious in descent but not so bad going up. Still a fierce cold wind from behind as I reached the tarn, and clouding over again making it a fairly gloomy place this evening.
|A gloomy Grisedale Tarn|
The TdeH links the Raise Beck track to the tarn outlet via the boggy ground to the North of the tarn, but the 100k course map takes you to the South up to Grisedale Hause, then back along the third side of the triangle to Raise Beck - twice as far and with more height gain, but it is the route.
|Descent to Dunmail Raise|
The descent track alongside Raise Beck down to Dunmail Raise is steep and rocky, difficult to take quickly unless you have some real skill and nerve (neither for me!) but it's not too long and I was soon down to the busy main road. A good enough shift for one day as was now 5,30pm, and I was lucky enough to catch the bus back to Ambleside within 10 minutes or so.
A shower, a chilli and a couple of beers and the evening passed nicely. Next morning, after a good sleep and a full English, I stepped out into a completely cloudless Lake District day, in time for the 9.30 bus back up to Dunmail. An easy start, downhill on the track above the fell wall towards Thirlmere, over Birkside Gill footbridge then the easy, sweeping track down to the main road. Immediately opposite, the route follows the minor road round the West side of the lake for a mile to Dob Gill.
|Start of the track by Dob Gill|
Wainwright has nothing good at all to say about the track that goes up the hillside from here, but that was at least 50 years ago and it's not too bad now. It starts pretty steeply alongside the plantation then eases as it turns into where trees have now been felled. This area would be very boggy in bad weather, but there are decaying boardwalks over the deepest hollows, and you soon reach the outflow of the badly overgrown Harrop Tarn.
The track improves here and signposts to Watendlath at junctions avoid any map-reading as you wind up through the trees to the top of the plantation.
Once through the deer gate and out onto the open fell above however, the situation changes. All of this high ground between the Thirlmere and Borrowdale valleys is notorious for being not only a tricky place in mist, but also one of the boggiest areas in the whole of the Lake District. If you do the 100k and have managed to keep your feet dry so far, this is where it will end! In clear weather, the track up to the high point is reasonably easy to follow, and the gate in the summit fence confirms that you're in the right place.
|Summit gate between Dob Gill and Watendlath|
Straight on from here for a short distance and Blea Tarn comes into view. The route skirts the North-East side of the tarn and then heads for Watendlath. It's just about visible on the ground if you're sharp, but the key is to keep to the cusp of the high ground on the right of Bleatarn Gill, if you lose too much height to the left you're in trouble as the gill goes into quite a deep ravine lower down. It felt quite bizarre covering this ground on Saturday, squelching along with completely soaked feet under a cloudless blue sky in the hot sunshine. Eventually you reach a wall above Watendlath which defines the direction better, but ironically the path also becomes much easier to see on the ground from here.
Eventually the wall turns downhill and the track follows it, and after a few hundred yards of newly maintained path the hamlet is reached. The track out on the other side is uphill and looks arduous, but the up turns out to be very short and leads to an easy runnable track, level for a little way then descending all the way down to Rosthwaite. This is a busy path, especially on a Saturday because the short walk from Rosthwaite to Watlendath is a popular excursion; running to the side of the track to avoid traffic I managed a crowd-pleasing fall which resulted in a plastering of mud from shin to cheek; I stopped by the stream just before Rosthwaite to get off as much as I could.
Turning left just before Rosthwaite, the route follows the left side of the beck so you miss both Rosthwaite and Stonethwaite by a pleasant runnable bridleway, then you turn right up Langstrath. The route now follows the left side of Langstrath for several miles, along a track marked as the "Cumbria Way" on the map. It gains almost no height but it's very bouldery so you can't get into any sort of rhythm - it's slow going and hard work - frustrating as there is a much easier path on the other side of the beck used my most of the walkers I saw!
The two tracks meet at a footbridge below the final ascent up to Stake Pass. This goes up a steep but excellent newly rebuilt path, making the climb really easy, especially as you know that it's the last major climb on the round. Some nice level ground across the top, then a rocky but fairly easy descent leads down into Mickleden at the head of Langdale, from where a wonderfully runnable track takes you all the way to the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel. With the hot day I was tempted to have a break here, but decided to carry on to the New Hotel instead. I faffed around here trying to find the track marked on the 100k route map, eventually realising that you have to turn off up the fellside before going through the gate at the back of the ODG. Now to jog along the level road between the two hotels takes maybe 5 minutes, following the track takes maybe three times that as it gains and loses height along its boulder-strewn way. Makes you wonder whether Gaynor has deliberately searched out every rocky track in the district to follow!
|Stickle Barn at the NDG in the sunshine|
A stop at the NDG was definitely needed after this. I had originally thought of a cold Coke, but when I saw the Cornish Doom Bar pump on the bar I couldn't resist it, with crisps and nuts to go with it. Perhaps not the best way to rehydrate but it was a lovely day and I was getting near the end of the trip now.
Across the road from the bar, the 100k now follows the Lakeland 100 route again down Langdale, rocky for a bit then smooth and easy to run as far as Elterwater. But here, where the Lakeland 100 comes along the flat path by the river, the 100k leaves it again to go in search of Loughrigg Tarn.
|Up the hill out of Elterwater|
A minor road leads out of Elterwater, then as it reaches the main valley road a footpath is indicated straight ahead up the fellside. There are a lot of paths here, and it's probably best to follow the one nearest to the wall on the right, which eventually leads out onto a minor road again. The route turns right onto the road, then after a short distance dives off into the National Trust property High Close. A pleasant run down through the gardens leads to another minor road, and another few yards down this to a private road leading off left towards Loughrigg Tarn.
|Road past Loughrigg Tarn|
From here back to Ambleside is part of a walk that my wife and I do quite often. The road past the tarn is in a beautiful setting, and lovely to run along. At its end you pass through a gate and turn sharp left at the track crossroads. All that is left is to climb over the flank of Loughrigg Fell, now once again back on the Lakeland 100 track. A short up, a horizontal section alongside a wall, then the final climb comes into view. I know from many trips that it looks steep but isn't when you get there and the top comes soon enough. All that was left of my day was to jog down the easy slope on the far side and up through the park back to Ambleside.
It was a really enjoyable two days. I think the Ultimate Trails 100k is a beautiful route, very varied, offering a bit of everything that the Lake District has to offer. Balanced difficulty throughout, with the second half maybe a little tougher than the first. I think my strategy in September will be to not sweat too much over the climbs and technical ground, but take them at a comfortable pace. There is enough runnable stuff spaced out through the course to go a bit faster on that if you have the legs. For interest, my Garmin made the distance of the loop 63 miles (remember I didn't do the start/finish "leg"), and the total height gain just short of 11,000 ft. It took me fifteen and a half hours over the two days to complete the loop, and was an ideal choice for my back-to-back weekend. The Lake District rarely lets you down.
|Last ascent over Loughrigg|