The Pennine 39 is the latest event to be added to Joe Faulkner and his Nav4 team's portfolio of challenging but ultimately laid-back days out. If you've done the Tour de Helvellyn or one of the others you'll know the form; turn up, register with a minimum of fuss, get out in the hills for a day and finish at a nice indoor venue with some good food and chat to round things off.
The idea of this particular event is to run one of the most spectacular sections of the Pennine Way from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Alston. This takes in the upper Tees valley with Low Force, High Force and Cauldron Snout waterfalls, then goes west over the watershed to High Cup, down to Dufton, then back over Knock, Great Dun and Cross Fells, down to Garrigill and finally along the South Tyne back to Alston. I had at least two reasons for going along; firstly, every time we drive up to Keswick I look over to Cross Fell with the thought ''must get up there one of these days'', and secondly, having signed up for next year's Spine race, the opportunity to cover even a little bit of the ground with no logistical problems was too good to miss.
The inaugural running was last Saturday and with the event base at Alston YHA, less than an hour's drive from Keswick, not much of an early start was required to get over there for a 7.30 check-in and 8.00 bus down to the start. Joe had arranged for the start to be a couple of miles upstream from Middleton, just below Low Force, so it was actually more like the Pennine 37, but as that doesn't really have the same ring to it we'll forgive him that. There were I think 27 of us there for the day; the majority were taking the route described above, but a few had opted for an easier day out on the ''Pennine 26'' option which was to take a route northwards from Cauldron Snout direct to Garrigill, missing out High Cup, Dufton, and the Cross Fell sections - this was the ''escape route'' taken by the later Spine competitors this year in the face of some fairly extreme weather on the day. For us however the forecast was for a dry day, dull at first but improving later, but still with the strong westerly winds that had been with us for a day or two (driving out of Keswick early Saturday morning there were bits of trees over most of the roads, though nothing major had come down).
We were away at 9.00 and although runners were visible ahead and behind for the first three or four miles, with such a small field we rapidly spread out and I'm sure that unless people stayed together by design, most of us will have spent the day out of sight of anyone else in the event. My plan was to run conservatively but to run as much ground as I could, even if this meant running quite slowly at times. I had decided that I had spent too much time over the past year or so walking all the uphills, and in these shorter events there's really no reason for it.
It was an easy track along the Tees, gradually uphill but with no severe gradients, all run/joggable and plenty to look at so it seemed to go quite quickly. High Force was heard rather than seen because of the trees along the riverbank, but not so Cauldron Snout which requires a steep but easy scramble up a rocky hillside not far above the water. At the top, by the bridge which would see us say goodbye to the Tees and about 8 miles or so from the start, was the first checkpoint manned by Joe himself. Behind him was the substantial dam wall of Cow Green reservoir, but that's all you can see from here as the water is way above you. We'd only really started so I didn't need any supplies, I just thanked him for a couple of sweets and carried on.
From Cauldron Snout to Dufton the route goes due west for 8 or 9 miles, and as there is virtually no shelter as you cross the ''spine'' of England we had a headwind all the way, probably around 25/30 miles an hour with gusts up to 40 or so. It was hard work but I managed to keep running (''you call that running?!'') for most of the way. The route initially follows a farm road to Birkdale Farm, about which my Pennine Way guidebook (purchased shortly after the Spine entry!) says ''.....you can't help but be struck by the homestead's strikingly remote location. Said to be the highest occupied farmhouse in England it makes Emily Bronte's Withins Heights (further south on the Pennine Way) look like a shed at the back of the garden''. Shortly after here I caught up with another runner who was walking the uphills. We chatted a bit then as I was trying to keep running I pressed on. The route followed a gravelled shooting road climbing gradually for quite a long way, then cut off left onto a grassy track across the moor. The key to the next bit is apparently to find the footbridge across Maize Beck which is a reasonable barrier at this point; easily done in clear daylight, I wondered how how it would feel in the dark with maybe a foot of snow on the ground.
After the bridge the grassy track kept climbing gently and easily but the wind was still a bit debilitating, then the spectacular valley of High Cup suddenly appeared on the left. Around the rim then it was downhill all the way to Dufton and Checkpoint 2. Warm sunshine greeted me in the village, almost no wind, a different world from twenty minutes earlier. A welcome cup of tea, some nice flapjacks, thanks to the marshalls then off we go again. The checkpoint was a street or two off the Pennine Way so first job was to get back on it. At the bottom end of the village I caught another runner with the same problem. After a minute or two we found the access track but it was a bit of food for thought - the Pennine Way is relatively easy to follow over the open ground on the hills, but in the agricultural areas with a wealth of sturdy drystone walls and in and around the villages it is much less obvious.
From Dufton over to Garrigill is fifteen miles or so and the only buildings en route are the radar tracking station on Great Dun Fell and Gregs Hut just beyond the summit of Cross Fell - a fairly lonely stretch. It starts with a steady four miles of uphill to the summit of Knock Fell. Not steep but continuous. As we left Dufton the runner I'd met leaving the village was going a bit faster than me so got ahead, but I just kept jogging steadily and after a while he came back into sight, now walking. I was trying to run as long as possible but eventually the ground was just a bit too steep for me. I was walking a bit faster than the other guy though, so I passed him, telling him he'd catch me up again when the ground got more runnable. In fact though I never saw him or any other runners again until the finish back in Alston.
As we gained height the strong wind started making itself felt again, but this time from behind so much less unpleasant. But as soon as the route turned northwards at the top of Knock Fell it hit you from the side and I soon got pretty cold. I hid behind a big cairn to put on jacket, hat and gloves. This three mile northerly stretch over the summits and up to Cross Fell were fairly bleak even in daylight in July. The gusting wind needed balancing against, at one point the track went suddenly behind the leeward side of a rocky outcrop and in the unexpected shelter I immediately fell over. But the ground underfoot was mostly very good, with occasional sections of huge gritstone slabs across the potentially boggy bits. Cross Fell soon turned up, the highest point in the Pennines, with its trig point and rather magnificent cruciform shelter.
Joe had warned us not to head directly down to Gregs Hut (maybe a half mile beyond the summit) as there are "some pretty scary holes up there" so I took the northward line marked on the map with occasional cairns down to a track known as the Corpse Road then followed this east for a few hundred yards to the hut. Gregs Hut is a mountain bothy like you get in Scotland but very well appointed and no doubt a real haven for anyone coming off Cross Fell in bad weather feeling a bit pressed.
From the hut, the Corpse Road goes all the way down to Garrigill, a distance of maybe seven miles. I'd seen various reports of its mind-taxing tediousness, but it's mostly down hill with no navigation required, so if you're used to tracks like the Lairig Mor and the Old Coach Road it's really no problem, and I was able to run continuously all the way down to Garrigill and the last checkpoint where two heroic marshalls were looking a bit chilly at their lonely post.
From here the route on the map looks like a pleasant finale along the banks of the South Tyne down to Alston. It started off that way, a nice track along a tree-lined riverbank, but after a couple of miles it crossed the river and wandered off up the hillside opposite through fields, often overgrown and with lots of stiles to cross, all of the type where you have to go up a couple of steps on one side of the wall, squeeze through a gap on the top and then down the steps on the other side, all a bit tiring at this stage of the game.
But it wasn't many miles back to the finish at Alston YHA, for tea, cake, lasagne and red wine - always well supplied these Nav4 events!
My watch made it just over eight and a half hours for thirty seven miles and around seven thousand feet of ascent (though I suspect quite an over-estimate in the height gain as the Suunto algorithm doesn't deal with long flat sections very well and there were a number of these on the route). If I can cover the same ground in double that time in January I'll be more than happy. All round, a grand day out.