Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Scafell Pike Marathon

A view from Scafell Pike.......

 Two recent results from my wanderings:

13 April 2013, Exmoor Coast Ultra, 34 miles, 6100 ft ascent, time 6:35:29
19 May 2013, Scafell Pike Marathon, 28 miles, 5000 ft ascent, time 6:30:26

Am I going backwards or what? 

Well no actually, these figures just reinforce a point that I have made a few times over the years, that even if you take distance and height gain into account, all events are by no means equal. The Exmoor race has tough climbs and big descents but follows good runnable paths and tracks throughout; the Scafell Pike jaunt on the other hand is in the mountains, where the concept of a trail is more that of a line where it is possible to go, rather than a thoroughfare which has been improved in any way to facilitate easy progress. Stones, boulders on stones, boulders on boulders are the order of many Lakeland paths. Ascent is interesting even if it is sometimes difficult to maintain an easy rhythm, but to cover the descents or even the flattish sections of such terrain at any speed requires skill, boldness, fierce concentration and a phlegmatic acceptance of the consequences if you get it wrong, qualities which few of us have in any great measure. I'm rather pleased that I mis-spent my own younger days rock climbing rather than fell running  -  I'm not sure what sort of a state my lower limb joints would be in after nearly half a century of the latter pursuit........

But back to the race. The inaugural Scafell Pike Marathon was an addition to the already established Keswick Mountain Festival; it sounded like it would be a good do, and that's just how it turned out. The route is logical and elegant; starting from Nichol End near Portinscale, it first follows easy undulating tracks along the West side of Derwentwater to Grange, a nice warm up as this is the only easily runnable section. From Grange, it goes over the little col behind Castle Crag, then on a fine contouring path before dropping down to Seatoller. A short section of road up to Seathwaite gives a bit of respite before the real meat of the course, up via Stockley Bridge to Sty Head, the Corridor Route to Scafell Pike summit, along the summit ridge towards Great End then down via Esk Hause and Sprinkling Tarn back to Sty Head and Seathwaite. Stoney and rocky tracks along the valley floor take you to Rosthwaite, then a steep climb up and over to Watendlath. From here there is a long and still technical home stretch alongside Watendlath Beck to Ashness Bridge, then contouring singletrack beneath Falcon Crags and down to a final mile or two along the East side of Derwentwater back to Keswick. It was posted as a genuine 42km marathon but most people I talked to made it nearer 28 miles, 13 up and 15 down.

I drove up early from Chester, checked in at the registration in Crow Park (where the finish was sited), then walked the couple of miles round to the start at Nichol End. We were away pretty promptly at 8,30am and I sidled along near the back of the field for the first two or three miles. This was going to be a training day for me, I wanted to enjoy the event and not come back too tired. For the reasons obvious from my comments at the start of this post, I decided to work at the ascents and take it easy on everything else - no training benefit in hammering your knees on the downhills all day! Coming into Grange I caught up with the Hardmoors Man of Steele  -  we would go on to see each other quite a few times over the course of the run, with Jon getting away from me on all the downhills and me eventually catching him again if there was a long enough uphill section.

The weather in the valley was very pleasant, no wind and a perfect temperature for running. It was however overcast, a factor which would play a part later on. By Seatoller the 150-strong field had spread out and I jogged the short road section to Seathwaite on my own,  but beyond here I could see runners on the track leading up to Stockley Bridge so there were some targets to aim for, and I was able to pick people off steadily up the hill to Sty Head. At Sty Head the conditions changed abruptly as we went into fairly thick mist; this was to accompany us until we got back down to the same point, which increased dramatically the potential for not knowing where you were or where you were going. The first electronic checkpoint was at the Sty Head stretcher box, then we headed off up into the clag. I was with maybe 6 or 8 other runners at this point, including Jon Steele who I had just caught up with again, and I didn't bother to check the Corridor start point but just turned right and followed the others along a track in what I knew was in the right direction. I chatted with Jon for a while then we reached a hold-up as the runners ahead slowed to scramble across a tricky ravine. I mentioned to Jon that I didn't remember this as part of the Corridor, and it soon became clear that wherever we were, we weren't on route. The track we were following became intermittent then disappeared. A deep ravine appeared ahead, forcing us upward. The others carried on up, but I do like to know where I am so I stopped to get out the map and GPS. It wasn't a disaster, we had just turned off too early and our disappearing track had contoured a hundred feet or so below the Corridor across the hillside. A quick scramble upwards into the mist brought me back onto the correct route in a few minutes, but the mistake had cost some time because I now found myself re-passing runners who I had overtaken before Sty Head. The price of a moment or two of incompetence.

The correct route soon led round and up to Scafell Pike top, where the stalwart Joe Faulkener was manning the summit checkpoint. Visibility up here was pretty low. Joe said he had taped the route down to the col before Broad Crag, but spotting the first bit of tape was difficult so compasses were got out to get the right direction to start off with. This whole area from Scafell Pike summit to Great End is a bouldery wasteland, difficult to progress quickly on in dry, clear conditions; the thick, drizzly mist making all the boulders greasy and the need to continually check direction made for slow going on the day. By the time we were out of the boulders and onto the stony ground leading towards Esk Pike, a lady runner and I had got fairly well ahead of the group we had left the summit with, and we enjoyed finally being able to up the pace a bit on the easier ground. A quick check of the GPS (now permanently in my hand) helped us locate the correct turning for Esk Hause, and also to predict when the shelter, which was the next checkpoint, was likely to turn up. Eventually we saw it emerge from the gloom when we were no more than 20 yards away.

From here, the track down past Sprinkling Tarn becomes much more obvious on the ground, so were able to carry on with no more navigational concerns and concentrate on the ground underfoot again. Jon caught us and hammered on past at a fine rate, then we were back to the gallant marshal at Sty Head and out of the mist. I ran on my own from there down to Seathwaite where there was a feed station; I needed a water top-up and they also had sausage rolls which were an unexpected treat. From here to the end I sort of expected the ground to be as runnable as the lakeside on the outward trip, but after a field or two it got bouldery again to Rosthwaite. The climb from here to Watendlath involves an ascent of about a thousand feet and I was pleased that I was still climbing fairly well and was able to overtake a few other runners up here. However, the long and still fairly technical track down to the final checkpoint just above Ashness Bridge put paid to any thoughts I had at the start of maybe getting under 6 hours for the trip; at the checkpoint it was clear that this had been unrealistic anyway, because I arrived with over 24 miles on my Garmin, and the marshal said it was still 4 miles to the finish.

From the bridge we followed a wonderful undulating and contouring track through the sparse woodland beneath Falcon Crags for a mile or so. I saw a red shirt ahead and worked towards it; it turned out to be Jon again. I told him I'd had my day out now and was happy to cruise in to the finish, so we stayed together until the end, a  nice finale being cheered by holidaymakers along the road past the landing stages and into the park. We finished in 57th and 58th place, just nicely in the top half of the field.

It was a super day out. The course is challenging but perfect and the event was very well organised; it deserves to become a classic.

1 comment:

NTBlade said...

Great account of the day! Thanks. I too was a lost soul en route to the summit on my first mountain run. A really good day though.