This time last year I ran in two Lakeland events a week apart; not very sensible maybe but they both looked tempting and I couldn't choose. This year it was an easier decision. Last year the 3 x 3000 Ultra Trail, a 48 mile off-road round of Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw was an excellent event, very wet at first but turning to a nice day on a fine challenging course. The two things that put me off a little however were the use of full course marking which I know some people like but doesn't really seem right to me - a line of flags across the open fells - and the fact that the course descends the Wythburn valley; this is generally acknowledged to be one of the boggiest areas in Lakeland and having done three or four trips up and down it I felt that I'd served my time here and didn't need to go again.
I'd found the Open Adventure "Lakes in a Day" an even better event; a slightly longer and tougher course but a real journey through Lakeland from Caldbeck in the North to Cartmel in the South, superbly well organised and with a bit of everything the District has to offer. So that was the one for me this year. It seemed that I wasn't alone in this thinking because the start list had gone up from something under 200 last year to nearly 300 this time.
An early bus ride from the event base in the school at Cartmel deposited us in Caldbeck in time for the 8am start on what was clearly going to be a beautiful day. A quick briefing from RD James Thurlow then the field was jogging its way up gently rising tracks and lanes to Nether Row before spilling out onto the area of open fells generally referred to in these parts as the "Back o' Skidda". Route choice from here to Blencathra summit was open (I guess on the basis that there aren't really many tracks anyway!) with the proviso that you had to visit High Pike summit on the way, and the organisation knew where you had been because each runner carried a GPS tracker.
The first climb up to High Pike, fairly long but at a gentle angle, saw the field spreading out and by the time we hit the trackless ground beyond the Lingy hut a number of line choices were being pursued. I carried straight on over Coomb Height hoping to hit the track leading down to the Caldew at the bottom of Burdell Gill. I found it by navigating carefully in the mist last year but paying less attention in the clear conditions this time, overshot the start of it (bit of a lesson here!) and ended up thrashing through the heather all the way down to the river. On the flip side, the river was very low this year so a crossing via the boulders with dry feet was possible, an unusual state of affairs.
Whatever way you tackle it, the climb from here to Blencathra summit is hard work up the tussocky slope, just get your head down and get on with it sort of thing. It gets easier for the last few hundred feet once the Bob Graham trod is joined, and I was happy to reach the top about two and a half hours after leaving Caldbeck. A good trundle down Hall's Fell ridge followed, nice ground for me and I was able to overtake numerous runners on the way down. I had a pang of regret as I ran out into the fields at the bottom though, my quads reminding me that I hadn't had many hilly outings for a couple of months or so. Never mind, soon down to Threlkeld village hall and the first feed station.
Only three feed stations on this event (no need for conventional checkpoints because of the trackers), but what they lack in number they definitely make up for in quality. I had decided that I was mainly here for a good day out rather than any finish time aspirations, so my strategy was to eat well when it was available and rely on drinks only in between. So it was time for brunch now, with a couple of sandwiches, some pastries, crisps and a couple of cups of coffee (and fifteen minutes generally enjoyable sitting around). The result of course is that you can't run for a while after this sort of indulgence, so I decided I would walk all the way to the top of Clough Head from here.
I was passed by a dozen or more runners along the easy track from Threlkeld to Newsham, but managed to repass them on the climb up to Clough Head because that's more my thing. I was a bit surprised at the state of the ground on this climb. Once just a grassy slope, the rising number of Bob Graham attempts in recent years had turned it into a reasonable stepped trod, but it is now degenerating into a muddy slide, maybe as a result of this event and the 3 x 3000. A bit concerning.
Once on the top it was great to stretch out in the wonderful weather (perfect temperature and high clouds preventing it from getting too hot) along the Dodds to Helvellyn. You can't get tired of this ridge in either direction, although by the time you crest the final rise over Dollywagon Pike, you know you've ascended a foot or two. We had been instructed to use the pitched path down to Grisedale Tarn rather than heading straight down the grass (to minimise the erosion contribution of the event, a sound policy I think), I don't think it really takes much longer for the average runner.
I needed to top up with water at the tarn outlet (it's 18 hilly miles from Threlkeld to Ambleside and this is the only water possibility), then on up Fairfield for the last significant climb of the day.
|Climb up Fairfield from Grisedale Tarn|
Not too huge this one though, then a couple of little ups and downs over Hart Crag and Dove Crag to High Pike (the second one of these of the day!) leads to a brilliant long run down a gradually descending grassy ridge all the way to Ambleside. For the first time my average speed for the day actually started to climb climb above 3 miles an hour!
Ambleside was the second feed station, providing more diversion in the form of pizza, cake, fruit and tea. No drop bags were allowed on the event, but you could send a change of shoes to Ambleside on the premise that from here the ground underfoot changes from mainly fell to trail. I wasn't bothered about the shoe type, but the chance to change in to dry footwear after the inevitable soaking you get over the fells whatever the basic weather conditions was too good to miss. So with a bit of general faffing another 15 minutes went by before I set out on the second "half" of the course (29 miles done, 21 to go). The course from Ambleside southwards definitely gets easier, less climbing and much less technical under foot, but it's still 21 miles, about 4000ft of climbing, and for runners in my bit of the field over half would be done in the dark.
The first few miles follow an easy off-road cycle track then a bit of country lane to High Wray, I jogged to here then walked the mile or two of steady climb through the Claife Heights plantation to its high point. A half mile or so before the top I caught up with Jim, a runner I had been passing and repassing for most of the day. This was his first ultra and his work locations meant that he was only able to train on a treadmill, so he was doing a pretty sound job so far. As an ex marine though he was obviously quite tough. We made it through the tree line without having to put on torches and started running down the open jeep track on the other side. Just past Moss-Eccles Tarn I was finding my eyesight not good enough to make out the ground underfoot so I said I would stop to get out my torch and put another layer on. I hadn't needed anything other than a vest all day but the temperature was dropping in the fine evening so I pulled on a light windproof top. Jim already had his torch ready so he carried on. I didn't really expect to catch him for a while at least, but when I reached the road at Sawtrey he was stopped there, convinced he was off route. I reassured him that we were fine and we carried on together down the short stretch of lane to the Windermere shore.
What had unnerved Jim was that he had run out of signs. From High Wray all the way to the finish the route follows a series of footpaths, tracks and occasional country lanes. Apart from a short section around High Dam at the southern end of Windermere, all these are marked on the OS map. A potential problem though is that there are many other tracks and lanes in the area, some on the map, some not, and you have to navigate carefully to get the right ones. In last year's event, the area around High Dam was marked, but only that section. The result was that many runners got lost, took different lines, and so on. I think principally to keep competitors from running along busier roads in the dark, the organisers had decided this year to put arrows on all the key non-obvious turnings between High Wray and the finish. But it was is not full course marking, it was an aid to navigation not a replacement of it, and you still had to know where you were. I think for this event it's a good compromise for this section of the course, but I often find that I navigate better when I concentrate knowing that it's tricky, rather than when I think I'm being helped and forget to plot where I am on the map from time to time.
The route along Windermere follows two sections of shoreline tracks that wander up and down, sometimes on the beach, sometimes a way up the steepish banks, normally through trees and often a bit overgrown, split by a short road section. Along here Jim and I made good progress, walking the ups and jogging the rest, and passed several runners including Abby who I had first chatted to coming out of Ambleside but who had come storming past us a few miles back. We finally left the lake shore and started the aggressive little climb up to High Dam. I really must come round here in daylight one day, it always looks as though it might be an attractive spot but I've only ever seen it in the dark. A descent through the woods then across a field or two led us to the final feed station at Finsthwaite village hall.
Soup, sausage rolls, cake, tea, coke.........and another 15 minutes passed. I wasn't being particularly checkpoint efficient on this event, but it was nevertheless most enjoyable. We set out again over the little up and down through the wood to Levens Bridge. Only a mile but this bit always seems to take longer than it should. Abby came past again on the downhill, more sure-footed on the leaf-strewn rocky steps than we were. Across the main road then a couple of miles of open moorland and a lane or two led to Bigland Tarn, and we were on the last section of plantation before the finish. Tricky navigating last year, this time the fluorescent arrows made life very simple. Then up and over the last bit of moor, following the "Cumbria Coastal Way" and we were then on the last two miles of country road to Cartmel. I warned Jim there was a final up in the road which we walked, from where it was a steady jog all the way down to the finish. We passed several competitors walking, content that they had cracked it and the end was near. With a mile to go we caught Abby, now walking, and persuaded her to carry on with us. Through the village to the warm applause of people exiting the pubs (it was now after 11pm) and on to the finish at the school. With a couple of hundred yards to go, Jim said he just had to walk, his blisters were too painful - he hadn't mentioned them at all up to this point, stoical types, these ex-military men, so Abby and I said we would wait for him at the finish and jogged on. He came in about a minute behind us, to mutual congratulations and thanks for the company. Oddly, the results showed Abby about a minute ahead of Jim, but me about a minute behind him! Must be some inaccuracy in the way the trackers work, but of no significance in the overall scale of the event.
Food, tea and medals were available in the school hall at the finish. I was about an hour faster than last year. Officially 15hrs 38min (actually 15:36!), about 100th place from 274 starters. At this stage of my career I think I'll take that as some sort of success.
A great event, certainly one of the best outings in the Lakes, spot-on 50 miles and just under 13000ft of ascent. I'm sure I'll be back.
(photos courtesy of Lakes in a Day)