I entered this event way back in the year, I can't really remember what the attraction was, other than that it was in the Lake District, a beautiful area not far from where I live. However I only cottoned on to what the "Skyrunning" series was all about fairly recently; basically they are ultras that go to the tops of hills rather than around them and need to have some technical content along the way. Had I realised this earlier I might have gone for one or two of the others, the Lakes being the third of this year's UK four race series. No matter, now we know. The Lakes 3 x 3000 does what it says. Starting and finishing at Keswick it visits three of the four 3000ft peaks in the area, Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw using a logical off-road course - 50 miles, about 13,500ft of climb (including a number of subsidiary peaks) and less than a mile of tarmac in total. The other 3000ft peak Sca Fell is omitted because it was felt to be "a bit too technical" for a running race; not quite sure about that one, other events go there, but overall it looked like a good day out.
I've been training "properly" again for a month or so now but still have nowhere near enough fuel back in the tank to have a good blast at an ultra, so this was to be another event to be taken gently in my year of running very slowly. Actually, participating in races over this summer without really having the fitness to do them justice has taught me quite a lot about alternative completion strategies, so every cloud and all that, but I'm still hoping to be back in action better next year. Losing the extra half stone or so that I've put on this year might help a bit too. Anyway that's all a bit peripheral so back to the events of last weekend.
I met Carrie Craig as I checked in at the race HQ in Keswick on Friday evening. Come down to sample our part of the world I enquired, yes but I've brought some Scottish weather with me she said. She wasn't wrong, although the Lakes can do weather quite well too. The forecast had been stunningly accurate. Heavy continuous rain started as I drove into Cumbria on Friday afternoon and eventually stopped mid morning on Saturday. The 3 x 3000 course starts up the wettest valley in England and then descends the boggiest one in the district. I wondered if any of the overseas competitors knew what was going to happen.
Back at the hotel I sorted through my stuff. All OK except the shoe choice. For all this year I've been using Skechers Gorun Ultras, a great shoe from a rather unlikely manufacturer. Lots of cushioning, light and manouverable and with a nice grippy sole, "Hokas with attitude" if you like. I had brought two pairs with me, the old ones had done about 600 miles and the heel tread was almost gone; the new ones were identical but unworn, straight out of the box, I hadn't had time since getting them to go on a checkout run to make sure the manufacturing, sizing and so on was all as it said on the tin. I thought about the course and one or two of the steep grassy descents; it would have to be the new one, I hoped they would be OK (they were).
Some suitors clearly feared the worst because of the 300 entered for the race, just 200 turned up at Crow Park for the 5am start on Saturday. Nearly everyone was wearing full waterproofs already as we huddled under the canopy of Keswick theatre for the briefing from Race Director Ian Mulvey. He told us that due to the conditions we wouldn't be going to the top of Scafell Pike but would be going directly from Sty Head up to Esk Hause. It was difficult to judge whether disappointment or relief was the predominant reaction to this, mostly everyone just looked wet. There was one guy dressed only in a vest and shorts, it's nice to see that the odd example of the traditional (crazy?) Lakeland fell runner is still around. But we all knew it would seem better once we got going, and we were off into the darkness on the dot of 5am.
Any illusions we might have harboured about conditions not being as bad as they looked were dispelled in the first half mile before we had crossed the Borrowdale road. A hundred yards of the track was just over ankle deep in water; everyone's feet got wet at that point and stayed wet for the rest of the day. But there is always a perverse sort of enjoyment in this sort of stuff, and anyway we'd probably had it far too easy for most of the summer, time to start paying some dues. Crossing the road into Great Wood the narrow single track started to meander and rise and fall through the trees, crossing a number of streams that aren't normally there, to come out onto the narrow Watendlath road at Ashness Bridge. The water was pretty well up to the arch but the old stones have seen it many times before and didn't seem too worried. A few hundred yards up the road then off onto the footpath that follows the edge of Watendlath Beck up to the village of the same name.
Now this path is a popular afternoon stroll for families and casual walkers, pleasant easy walking and picnic spots. When the race was planned it was clearly seen as the easy warm-up bit. Early Saturday morning it was interesting. Long sections had been overrun by the now fast-flowing beck, guessing where the submerged track was or taking avoiding action on the steeper grassy banks further out was the choice. As the track crossed several tributary steams the decks of the wooden plank bridges could just about be made out by head torch, a foot or so beneath water level. Knee and even thigh deep sections had to be negotiated carefully, I suspect watching what actually happened to the runner ahead was a tactic adopted by most. I think we were all fairly glad to gain a bit of height in the last few yards before Watendlath, taking us clear of what was referred to later by most competitors and marshals as "the swimming section".
I was settling down near the back of a fairly strung out field as we made our way over the few hundred feet of rise up and down to Rosthwaite. Hitting the village it was just about light enough for the torch to go out, seven o'clock on a rainy, claggy day. An easy track through the fields led to Seathwaite and the first feed station. Just before crossing the road near Seatoller I passed a guy walking his dog in the fields. Not great weather for you today he remarked. I had to agree. He looked remarkably like Billy Bland, probably because that's who it was.
Progress got a lot easier from Seathwaite up to Sty Head, the good track not affected by the rain although Stockley Bridge was impressive; the normally placid rock pools so perfect for bathing on a summer's afternoon had been replaced by a continuous raging cataract. On the climb up to Sty Head I caught up with John Vernon. I hadn't seen him at the start, he said he'd only made it with a minute or two to spare, so hadn't heard about the intention to miss out Scafell Pike. Mountain man that he is, he wasn't too happy about that. We chatted most of the way to Sty Head about the summer and future plans (John's up for the Spine in January, not my cup of tea thanks!). When we got to Sty Head the clouds had lifted quite a bit and the rain was starting to slacken off, so it would have been quite possible to take in the Pike, but I guess conditions would have been far worse for the leaders an hour and a half or so earlier, so we did as we were told by the marshal and set off up the track to Esk Hause. This short-cut took about three miles and nearly a thousand feet off the course, but at the prize-giving on Sunday Ian Mulvey said that the overall times taken by runners were pretty well spot on what had been predicted for the full course in normal conditions, so it seems that the course modification just cancelled out the conditions on the day.
I pulled away from John on the final bit of uphill to Esk Hause, then was on my own down past Angle Tarn and over to the top of Stake Pass. The route from here goes up to the top of High Raise, a climb of around a thousand feet over tussocky trackless grass. I had hoped to use a bit of local knowledge here, using a developing trod that I had discovered while doing the Lakes 10 Peaks back in June, but a feature of the Skyrunning series is that the courses are fully marked in all places where any navigational decisions had to be made, so the flags led straight from Stake Pass to the start of the trod! I'm not sure about course marking. I'm sure it makes life a bit less nervous for the organisers, it makes the events more accessible to overseas competitors less used to navigation, and it does take away any local knowledge advantage, but I do think that navigation is part of the deal for mountain races and I'm a bit sad if it's not required. I did a longish ultra in the Brecon Beacons a month ago and I have to say that part of the satisfaction of finishing in good order was navigating around an area that I had no previous knowledge of.
I caught a few runners on the way up to High Raise, so there were always a few in sight on the next section from there down to Greenup Edge then the Wythburn valley to Thirlmere. Wythburn is generally acknowledged as the boggiest valley in Lakeland. On previous trips I have taken a wide route to the south of the higher bog, but the flags led straight down the middle today, so I followed everyone else. It was ankle deep most of the way down with occasional knee-deep stretches. Deeper bits often came up unexpectedly and on one of these my momentum carried me on as one leg got stuck; I think this is where I picked up a slight quad tweak which I felt for the rest of the day. It was pretty unpleasant all the way down but you can't have the Lakes without a bog or two and eventually I was out into the final fields before Thirlmere. By now the rain had stopped and there was even a patch or two of blue sky appearing. It looked like it might turn out to be a game of two halves as they say, things were looking up. I trotted round to Wythburn Church where the second feed station and dry socks were waiting.
Just over six and a half hours from the start, not quite half way and most of the climbing still to do, but things were going to get better now. The weather was definitely on the up and I knew the ground conditions would be much better from now on, getting progressively easier to the finish. I encouraged one or two runners at the checkpoint to carry on for this reason, they said they didn't fancy a lot more of what they had just encountered and had been thinking of dropping out.
The steady climb up Helvellyn took just an hour, then it was off across the Dodds, one of the easiest sections of the day, especially as in this race you didn't have to go to any of the Dodd summits but just take the contouring path that finds the easiest way along the ridge. Apart from a sharp hailstorm near the top of Raise it was fine, a chilly wind but great views and some easy progress at last. There was a checkpoint on top of Clough Head, the only unmanned one on the course, then flags again showed the easiest way to pick up the steep trod leading to the Old Coach Road. I had a a bit of a fall down here, probably going a bit too fast due to over-confidence and managed to twist slightly the knee-that-should-not-be-twisted, but I sat still for a few seconds before trying to get up and it seemed that no damage had been done. Pay more attention!
I have normally climbed up the short but tedious section from the Coach Road down to Newsham House, either on the Lakeland 100 course when it gets you early on after the first night and you're at a bit of a low ebb, or in helping or recceing for Bob Graham Rounds, so it was a real pleasure to take it in reverse, easy running on soft grass down a nice gradient. There was an unexpected extra feed station near the start of the old railway track below Newsham, so I stopped a few minutes for a cup of tea, very welcome. After that the course again follows the Lakeland 100 in reverse, along the railway then up the hill towards Brundhome, but then branching off along a bridleway that climbs gently up to the Latrigg Carpark and the next feed station/ checkpoint.
From Latrigg the course goes up round the Glederaterra valley to Skiddaw House, on to Dash Falls then steeply up over Bakestall to Skiddaw summit and back down the tourist track to Latrigg again before finally dropping down to the finish in Keswick. Latrigg was a good place to see how the race was going. I arrived there just over 11 hours from the start, by which time the winner had finished two and a half hours previously and there was a steady flow of runners coming down from Skiddaw having already completed their "loop". A bit daunting maybe. Still, on the plus side it was a nice early evening and I had a chance now, which I couldn't have envisaged at the start of the race, of getting to Skiddaw summit in daylight.
I had decided that if I was still going OK by here I would have a go at jogging some of the gentler uphills - over most of the summer I have not run any uphill gradients at all in events - so the track up and round to Skiddaw house went quite quickly. I caught and passed two or three other runners along the way, but every time I chanced to look round I could see two more some distance behind me. I had been aware of this pair, who I had in my mind as "red jacket and blue jacket" since running over the Dodds and we seemed to have kept up a similar pace ever since. They (a man and a woman) eventually caught me on the final few yards of the downhill into the checkpoint at Dash falls. I was beginning to feel a bit like Butch Cassidy, I said to them, ah you'll get away again on the climb they said, that seems to be how it works. But I had already decided to take five at the checkpoint to get ready for Skiddaw so they set out ahead of me. I chatted to the marshal, she'd been there for hours, it was now about a quarter to six and she wouldn't leave until nine she said, although you're not really on your own with nearly 200 runners going past! All the marshals did a great job in conditions varying from nippy to very unpleasant, they all deserved our thanks. But the weather was not great again now, we'd had quite a long chilly shower around Skiddaw House, the wind was getting up and I knew it would be much colder on top. I put on another layer on top and my waterproof trousers to keep out the wind, and had a bit to eat and drink. I was tiring but going well enough and quite happy.
I finally caught red jacket and blue jacket just as we reached Skiddaw summit, but then they got away again on the downhill and I never saw them again. On Skiddaw there were grey clouds overhead but it was still clear out to sea and we were treated to a spectacular sunset. The summit marshal, huddled in his bothy inside the shelter ring wasn't bothered, he was looking the other way out of the wind. He still had a long shift to finish, another hero. My quad tweak was hurting a bit on the descents now so I kept the pace down to minimise any potential damage, jogging rather than the easy running which is normally possible on this descent. The lamp had to go on again before the final steeper descent down Jenkin Hill to Latrigg. No cup of tea this time with the finish so close, just a quick swig of coke and off. Before leaving I looked back up, there was still a succession of lights coming down the long track.
Descending a track that I've covered many times both up and down, round Latrigg then down Spooney Green Lane to the outskirts of Keswick, I was able to reflect that it had all worked out well enough. It was a far from spectacular performance but I had got round another ultra in a reasonable time, in good shape and with no major damage. Recovery seems to be progressing OK. Then I was across the park, through the town and at the end. I finished in 15 hours 10 minutes. That's OK, I would have taken that at the start. A day when we had seen and coped with a range of what the Lakes has to offer, in places and climate; a satisfying day out.
This was the first running of this event. I'm sure it will prosper, maybe become a classic, it has all the ingredients. Will I do it again? Maybe, but I'm not sure. I've made three or four trips up and down the Wythburn Valley now - maybe that's enough for a sane person.