It isn’t often that you can enter a race that can trace an almost unbroken history dating back over 150 years. The Senior Guides Race at Grasmere has been part of the iconic Lakeland Sports Day since the mid 1800’s, and may even have existed in other formats earlier than that. The 1.4 mile course involves a ridiculously steep ascent of Rydal Fell from the main Sports Field at Grasmere, before it rounds a couple of marker flags and plunges back down the grassy fell side by the most direct route possible back to the beginning. Having stood and watched last year my misplaced optimism had suckered me into signing up for this years race, and a chance to take part in a bit of Cumbrian history.
After a bit of a warm up on the fell side I’d decided to abandon my usual tactic of going off way too fast and blowing up, and adopt a more measured approach. This was a mistake. If there is any race where a headlong charge to oxygen debt is a good tactic its this one. When the starter dropped his white hanky and shouted “Go”, a record 180 runners charged across the field and threw themselves up the mountain side at full sprint pace.
About 300 metres up the hill the course passes through a dry stone wall via a gap wide enough for only about 3 people at a time. The key to success in this race is to get to that gap ahead of the masses as chances to overtake are few on the other side. All but the superhuman fell runners at the front end of the race are forced into the classic fell runners “hands on knees” slog up the majority of the remaining hill side. Overtaking opportunities are limited from this point as any deviation from the narrow path through the bracken to make a pass means moving out onto decidedly rougher and tougher ground. Once through the wall I glanced back to check my position to discover my sensibly paced assault on the initial inclines had left only 20 or 30 so runners behind me.
I did manage to make a few places back on the way up before concluding that the extra energy needed to pass the person in front wasn’t worth it. The ascent is so steep that its full lactic levels and maximum heart rate all the way to top. The last 20 foot or so actually involves some had over hand scrambling to reach the marker flag before a moderate descent across the ridge to flag 2 finally allows a bit of proper running. I quickly overtook the guy in front and rounded the second flag to begin the descent, hell bent on salvaging some pride via my downhill running skills.
“You can go for it now!” said the cheery Marshall, a split second before my feet shot from beneath me on the slippy wet grass and I began my return with a 15 foot slide on my backside “Yeah – Just like that!” he added with a chuckle.
The view back down the fell to the event field was dizzying. This isn’t the sort of gradient I would ever attempt to walk down, let alone run. In places it is only a few degrees away from being a sheer drop. The birds eye view of the sports field below gave a clue as to the severity of the route back down, and provided a quite dishearteningly glimpse of the elite runners who had already finished! I fell about 5 or 6 times with each episode resulting in a terrifying slither down the hill on my backside. At one point I picked up such speed that only crashing into the thicker bracken stopped my forward progress, (and narrowly avoided taking out a group of spectators).
On the way up the fell I’d been telling myself this really would be my last attempt at a fell race given how brutally hard they are and how apparently bad I am at them. Overtaking another runner on the way down, whilst simultaneously sat on my arse gathering bracken in my shorts, I changed my mind and began to laugh at the absurdity of the event. I actually managed to pick up a good dozen or so places by the time I crossed the finish and stood with everyone else to watch the remaining runners slip, slide, tumble and run their way down.
141st place from 181 starters is possibly one of my worst placings, and my time of 25 minutes gives you an idea of how fast the winners are in about 13 minutes. Despite this I did still manage to come home ahead of one my all time heroes. Not a sporting hero sadly but Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson who gamely had a go too.
It is amazing how much greenery you can harvest with your nether regions when you turn yourself into a lawn mover with legs. I was still picking bits of bracken and assorted greenery from my “shorts” several hours later. Bumps and grazes included it was still a hugely fun event and now I’ve worked out the tactics I may be back next year for a more respectable finish.