Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Keswick Festival Ultra

Two years ago I had run the Scafell Pike Marathon as part of the Keswick Mountain Festival celebrations and found it an enjoyable and well-run event. Last year I was out of the game, just about starting to run again, so I was keen to take part in an event at the festival this year and the "50km Trail Race" looked like it was going to be good. An added attraction since we bought a holiday lodge in Keswick earlier this year was the opportunity to fall out of bed and walk a quarter of a mile to the start line.

It was a chilly and very blustery morning when I turned up in Crow Park for the 6,30am start, but the forecast gave the hope that the expected significant band of rain would not turn up until mid afternoon, time enough even for me to get around without getting wet. Keswick-based  Dave Troman was at the start looking suitably fit and confident, another runner not wanting to miss out on his  local event; we wished each other well and wandered over to the start. I didn't check the start list but I think we were around 150 setting off at spot on 6.30.

We were told we must have a map but the course was fully marked so it stayed in the back of the rucksack the whole way round. I'm really in two minds about this sort of course marking. In events in fairly benign locations on well-established footpaths (for example the Endurancelife Coastal series) I think marking is fine. Navigation isn't part of the event and you don't need to take a map (or know how to use one) any more than you do in a city marathon. For events on the open fells I may be a bit too old-school but I think marking is wrong. The Skyrunning Lakes 3 x 3000 race last October was fully marked, I think possibly to attract more overseas competitors, and it just didn't feel right following a line of yellow flags across the hillside (especially in places like from Stake Pass to the summit of High Raise, where there are trods but no established paths). I think up there navigation goes with the territory, if you can't do it you really shouldn't be there. A trail race like the Keswick Festival event falls somewhere between these two; I can see that it gives organisers a bit more peace of mind but I would still rather that the flags weren't there.

Anyway, enough of this rambling digression. A mile or so of easy running took us southwards along the East shore of Derwentwater, from where we doubled back around Castle Head and started the fairly steady first climb up to Walla Crag, about a thousand feet above the lake. I'm sure the leaders ran all this ascent but I was happy to walk the steeper bits and not get too pressed this early on. We had a brief shower as we crested the summit, but that's the only rain I can remember all the way round. A fast easy-angled descent goes from Walla down to Ashness Bridge, from where the course followed the road uphill  for half a mile, then the path alongside the beck all the way up to Watendlath. I was remembering this path from the Lakes 3 x 3000, when we tackled it in the dark after 24 hours continuous heavy rain, knee-deep water nearly all the way. Today couldn't have been more different, a great track, rising very slowly, just difficult enough to keep you interested but not enough to slow you down, lovely running. By now the field had thinned out enough for everyone to find their own comfortable pace and the run seemed well under way.

From Watendlath a short ascent, some traversing on a nice track, and a steep but easy descent led down to Rosthwaite where there was a water point. With 3 checkpoints and 2 other water points in just over 30 miles this was a well-supplied run, and knowing this in advance I only needed to carry one 500ml water bottle; compared with the normal 2 this seemed to make an appreciable difference to the pack load.

A meandering track leads through fields and along the rocky  riverbank from Rosthwaite to Seatoller. It's used to avoid the road in a number of races so I knew it quite well by now, and then we were onto the Cumbria Way track which parallels the road to the top of Honister Pass. After the first steep bit it's at a gentle angle and quite runnable, the only problem this morning being a fierce wind coming right into our faces at this point which made it pretty hard work. Checkpoint 1 proper was just beyond the buildings at Honister slate mines; the marshals there (one of whom was Tour of Skiddaw RD Gaynor Prior) were doing a great job in a very chilly spot. The event's only cutoff time was here, but as it was 3hrs45min and I arrived in just under the two and a half hours it was never going to be a problem. I had decided before the start to treat the event as training but not to make it too easy; I wanted to run as much as I could but not to finish feeling too tired - I wouldn't put as much effort in as I had into the recent Highland Fling, for example.

Above Honister the route followed the straight old tramway track, a relic from the days when the mines were a huge enterprise. Steeper than the track up to Honister but with still the same strong headwind, it was too much for me and I stopped trying to run and walked steadily to the top. Over the crest, paths lead up to Haystacks (reputedly A W Wainwright's favourite hill) on the left and Fleetwith Pike on the right, but our way went straight on down between the two, on a track that was steep and quite rocky  -  "technical" as they tend to say nowadays!  We soon lost the wind going down here and I must have been doing something right as I overtook quite a few runners down here.

Once at the bottom, we were faced with several miles of flat running which I wasn't really looking forward to - on these sort of events I prefer the ups and downs. The first couple of miles along the Western shoreline of Buttermere were familiar ground on an easy track taken (normally in the dark) by runners in the Lakeland 100 race. From there it continued all around two thirds of the Crummock Water shoreline.  I knew the first bit as far as Scale Beck, having been that way to climb Mellbreak and the fells beyond, but after that it was new territory. Much narrower than the Buttermere track and with lots of both rocky and boggy sections,it was nevertheless really interesting with a particularly charming section through woods along the Northeastern side. I passed a few more runners along here, though slowly enough to have a bit of conversation along the way. It was quite surprising how many were on their first trail run and a number said they had never been further than a marathon before.  They could have picked an easier way to start I mused, but everyone that I saw was still really impressed with the quality of the route. Just rounding the Northern tip of the lake I had a pleasant surprise. I hadn't looked at my watch since the rocky descent from Honister and I had guessed that by now we must be around  halfway, say 15 or 16 miles. The Garmin showed well over 19; on the run-in already..........well, sort of.

Checkpoint 2 turned up at Rannerdale Bridge, along with a nice patch of sunshine. I remarked to one of the marshals that I was ready for a nice long hill to walk up, after all the preceding level ground with no excuse not to run. She said I wasn't the first to voice the thought that morning.

But the gradually rising track up to Rannerdale, through the famous bluebell fields and on up the valley offered no guilt-free rest so had to be done at a (rather slow) jog. The last few hundred yards to the top steepened up though so I got my walk eventually. Over the Rannerdale col we sidled down and round,along a narrow path across some open grassy hillside, after which I found myself on well-known ground again, the long steady climb from Buttermere village to Sail Pass, also part of the Lakeland 100 route. I've been up this path several times but always walked it; on the L100 it comes after 25 miles of already tough ground, and with the best part of 80 miles still to go energy conservation seems a better strategy than speed. I was here fresh and in daylight a few weeks ago, but on that occasion I was playing sweeper on one of the organised recce days, so even then it was at a walking pace. So I was quite surprised today that with not too much effort having gone before and the knowledge that this was the last significant climb of the day, the majority could again be done at a steady jog with just a few sections of walking on the steep exits from the 3 stream re-entrants crossed along the way. Another bonus was that on reaching the junction where the L100 steepens up for the final pull to the pass, today's route carried on at the same gentle angle to its own col just a few hundred yards further on.

I'd never been down the other side of this col before and it was another great surprise. The track down above Rigg Beck was superb; never more than a couple of feet wide through the heather, a good surface with no nasty surprises, and at an angle which encouraged a fast pace all the way down; the best part of two miles of fun. Checkpoint 3 was at the bottom, then it was a bit of road through Newlands and a short climb to the easy jeep track skirting Cat Bells to Hawse End.

I got to Hawse End in just over six and a half hours. I had said to Jan earlier that I was hoping to get around in about seven and a half, but I know from having run it many times that it's only about three miles from here back to Keswick, so it looked as though with a bit of application a sub-seven might be on (also though, it was clear from the mileage already covered to this point that we were being treated to an extra mile or so on the "50km"). I pushed on feeling pretty good for this stage of the game; a tiny sting in the tale was that the flags routed us over the little hill before Nichol End, where the track round the hill via the boatyard is almost the same distance and with no climbing, but the game was nearly done now. Through Portinscale, over the wobbly bridge and across the fields, the finishing straight enjoyed by so many Bob Graham finishers over the years.

It looked in the bag hitting the edge of town with several minutes to spare, but I'd forgotten just how far it is down to the lake and around the park, but I just squeezed under the seven hours with 6:58:07 at the finish, for 33rd place. Dave T was at the finish, having secured second place with a terrific run in just over 5 hours. On my Garmin I made the course 32,5 miles with 6500ft of ascent. It probably won't be run again as the trail run for the festival seems to vary from year to year, but it was a great morning out, offering a real variety of what the Lakes has to offer. We were lucky with the weather, the promised rain came in mid afternoon and continued pretty well without pause until the following lunchtime, but then that's the Lakes.

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