The ‘Lakeland Classics’ are a series of long and super long fell races around the Lake District and most adopt the traditional ‘Horseshoe’ shape, in that from the start you climb up to the top of a mountain then run around the tops of various peaks in a horseshoe shape and descend at the end. Sounds straight forward right?
Ennerdale Fell Race is the longest of the super long races at 23 miles, so it’s just shy of a marathon and with 7500ft of climbing it wasn’t going to be a gentle run out, nor was it going to be just one big climb at the start. For anyone not used to running up hills or struggling to comprehend what 7500ft of ascent means then here’s a couple of pointers.
- Firstly 7500ft ascent obviously means there is also 7500ft descent too which can be just as hard on the legs.
- Secondly if you’ve ever walked up Snowdon from Pen Y Pass car park that is an 2378ft ascent, meaning it is over 3 of those or 5.5 times up Whernside from Ribblehead (Yorkshire’s highest mountain) at 1338ft ascent.
An 11 a.m. race start means a 6 a.m. alarm clock to get myself fuelled and ready for a 3 hour drive up to Ennerdale. Situated at the far Western side of the Lakes it is a bit of a journey to get there! As the race clashed with the Welsh counter in the British Fell Running Championships many of the big names of fell running, most of them from The Lakes, had gone the opposite direction down the M6 to Pedol Cwm Pennant in Snowdonia. These two factors, along with it being an absolute beast of a race, mean it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and only 64 lined up, getting bitten by the lakeside midges when 11 a.m. came.
A gentle first mile around the lake on a decent track and nobody had been tempted to shoot off ahead so we all comfortably jogged along. I considered getting to the front just to say that I had led a Lakeland Classic Fell Race but that would have been a bit far from reality, especially given what was to come. Come it did, with the first climb up Great Bourne at 2020ft above sea level. A steep energy-sapping scramble up mainly grassy terrain took us into the clouds and mist, and all of a sudden the prospect of a nice day out evaporated like the sweat on my face. The mist cleared as we got above it and the first of the day’s 9 check points came into view. All these races use an electronic dibbing system where you carry a little ‘key’ that you insert into a box at each check point. This records your time and also ensures all runners are accounted for. The man, or rather legend, with the dibbing box was none other than Joss Naylor (If you don’t know ‘Iron Joss Naylor’ then do yourself a favour and Google him!). After feeling a little in awe and saying it was an honour to meet him he told me to have a good run and I continued on my way. [CP1 – 43:53]
During the first climb I had been passed by two Pudsey Pacer lads (Zagi and Leigh) who were not unknown to me but I’d only actually met them that morning before the start. I could see them up ahead and I wanted to stay within a minute or two of their yellow vests and hopefully catch them back up. We traversed Starling Dodd and headed up Red Pike (There’s 2 Red Pikes in the Lakes and both feature in this race report… although one shouldn’t have!) and I started to gain some ground on them, feeling good.
[CP2 1:12:23] 2473ft above sea level (ASL). I passed Zagi and ran along with Leigh for a bit having our first navigation problems with the line around High Stile but got back on course and I was now following a couple of Bowland Fellrunners. Some great running, especially down the steep scree slopes where the hikers we were passing just looked bemused at these middle aged men and ladies hurtling down a mountain past them.
[CP3 – 2:01:05] Black Beck Tarn. We’d dropped down to 1578ft so I knew there was lots more climbing ahead. This started with Green Gable at 2627ft ASL where check point 4 was, and I was thankful on this occasion that we weren’t going up Great Gable (we’ll save that for Wasdale and Borrowdale later this year).
[CP4 – 2:32:01]. This is the furthest point you get from the start but this isn’t a road race, there is no option to throw in the towel and jump on a bus back to race HQ. Quit now and you’ve still got to haul your ass back to the start so time to dig in, eat some more food and push on.
The climb up Kirk Fell (2632ft ASL) is steep and rocky and at the summit is check point 5 [CP5 – 3:00:00] where we turn right and descend rapidly to Black Sail Pass and begin the ascent of Pillar. At 2818ft ASL Pillar is the highest point in this race and once the summit is reached it is a relatively steady and mainly downhill run for the final 6 miles or so. So – get to the top of this around the 3:45:00 mark, and an hour or just over to get back for a 5 hour finish. Simple.
This is where things went wrong. The climb up Pillar itself was straight forward. Difficult? Yes. Never ending? Yes. Cramp in both thighs with each step upwards? Yes. Massive relief when we reached the top? Yes. Up here was the race organiser who gave us some water and told us (myself and Leigh) that we were in the top 30 and doing well. Hurray. [CP6 – 3:42:44]
Now we both had a ‘Harvey Map’ of the route with it’s valuable notes on. Notes like – ‘Pillar to Haycock, Checkpoint 7, likewise is obvious (referring to the tourist path up Pillar) but care must be taken whilst traversing Scoat Fell, to the south, not to end up on Red Pike. A wall is a good handrail’. Good advice that we failed to take as we took the wrong path and trundled off to Red Pike (this being the second Red Pike as mentioned earlier). I wasn’t sure we were on the right path but then suddenly up ahead were 3 runners spaced out along the trail and going the direction we were heading. It’s easy to say “stop and get out the compass” and “don’t assume the others are in your race” but by now your body is in agony and your mind is just on a basic survival mode to get you back to your car and so you follow. You see a tarn to the right which rings alarm bells as that doesn’t fit with what you’re expecting to see, but still you follow. Down below looks a bit like Wasdale really, not where you should be going, but still you follow. So I caught up with the lady ahead and as I had suspected, but didn’t want to believe, she had no race number on her top. We had a little chat while she told us just how far off course we were and that she had seen some of our fellow racers going the other way. Thank you – whoever you are!
Demoralised as well as outright knackered we looked at our maps and tried to figure out what to do. Firstly we needed to get back to the top of what was now obviously Red Pike, in order to get a bearing and make a plan. The plan we had was to head north-west skirting the edge of the tarn we had seen, and then the path and the wall that we should be following, would be just behind the crag we could see. There was nothing even resembling a path and the going was boggy, rocky and even the sheep looked puzzled as we trudged across to the crag, stopping at the tarn to fill our now empty water bottles. At the crag the view I expected, was to look down into Ennerdale valley, see a prominent wall, a bunch of fell runners running along and a herd of unicorns skipping across the hillside. Alas it was not to be. A bleak empty valley with no Ennerdale Water
As mentioned before, there is no “get out” at this point. No “sit down and wait to be rescued”. You have to dig deep, search your soul and soldier on. As if in a dark comedy about two middle aged Yorkshiremen in a spot of bother on a bleak hill, the heavens opened and the clag came down. Cags donned, we skirted round an annoyingly placed mountain which happened to be the one we should have been on top of! It’s while desperate, tired and hungry that you really appreciate not being on your own, so I’m glad Leigh was at least suffering with me. Fell running is all about ups and downs, mainly physically but also metaphorically, and things can change quickly. The sight of the “wall” that we should have seen over an hour earlier lifts the spirits, especially as there are people running by it, people actually in our race! We join their line and ask where check point 7 is, which we find out is back up the mountain we’ve skirted around. We decide we will still dib in and head up to the summit passing, runners coming the other way. [CP7 – 5:25:56]. What should have been a 30 minute check point has taken 1:43:12.
Now on the right path and having not missed any check points we set off towards the finish with a spring in our cramping step – although we were now at the back of the field and any plans of getting a good time were gone – but the experience is priceless. Iron Crag was check point 8 and it came and went without incident, with lots of grassy downhill running which should be a joy, but was still tough given my legs were trashed by this point! [CP 8 – 5:53:01].
More downhill, although I was flagging quickly. I hadn’t eaten anything for a while as I thought I’d have enough in the tank to see me to the finish but I was now running on empty and feeling dizzy. I’d edged a way in front of Leigh but he was now catching me up again which was fine as any idea of this still being a “race” was long gone and I was hoping he had some warm lake water left! I got down to the plantation I’d been looking at for a while and started on the last climb up Crag Fell, a nasty little sting in the Ennerdale tail. I stopped for a moment and ate about 10 jelly babies hoping these mighty little jelly beings would see me the last couple of miles. Leigh caught, and then stayed with, me as I think he could see I was struggling. I just needed the sugar to kick in and I’d be okay, but I could just as easily have curled up and drifted into a sleep from which I might never have woken. “Soldier on”, “keep going”, you told Mrs Britton you’d be setting off home around 4 p.m. and it must be almost half five already! Get your ass in gear up this hill, down the other side, and it will all be over. [CP 9 – 6:23:03]. I think they were as happy to see us as we were them, the two blokes on top of Crag Fell who, by now, must have been stood up there over three hours already and there were still at least a few more to come. “Ten minutes and you’re back” they said. They lied. It was all downhill through a forest and eventually to the edge of Ennerdale Water. These last beautiful yards should be joyous, but they were painful and seemingly endless, like someone was purposely extending my agony by having the finish as far away as possible. Of course that was not the actual truth.
Through the finish and the last dibber. No sprint from Leigh. I think he let me cross first through pity, but it had truly been a team performance today and poor Zagi had been back ages and couldn’t get in Leigh’s car to change. [Finish 6:43:19].
Total distance run 25.8 miles with 7971ft of ascent. An unplanned extra 3 miles and almost 500ft ascent.
In retrospect – Another amazing day in The Lakes. The people it takes to put on a race like this and stand at the top of many inhospitable mountains for hours on end, purely so we can do the race, is very much appreciated. There’s no medal, no technical t-shirt, no certificate and no need. Nobody running this race wanted any of that. For them it was a battle, for some a battle to win (1st place male Ben Abdelnoor – 4:03:27 and 1st place female Judith Jepson (legend) – 4:58:54 a and 16th overall). For most of us it was a battle just to complete it.
You can learn a lot about yourself when tired, hungry, exhausted and clinging to the side of some godforsaken mountain with horizontal rain pummelling your face and zero visibility, but then the clag can lift, the sun can shine and the view makes you happy to be right here, right now and doing what you love.
Andrew Britton – 13th June 2016