Although I run a lot of trails in the Lake District, my competitive outings in full on fell events amounts to no more than a quick 1.5 miles in the Grasmere Senior Guides Race, (which involved more sliding downhill on my bum than actual running), and an ill-fated Two Lads event at Rivington which ended in A&E and 3 broken ribs! With that level of experience behind me I should maybe have resisted Dave Waddingtons beer fuelled suggestion that we make a late entry to the 2013 Anniversary Waltz fell race near Keswick. If common sense and caution were our watchwords we probably wouldn’t run at all, so despite Dave sobering up and trying to retract his suggestion we found ourselves lining up last Saturday in a muddy field in the Newlands Valley looking up at huge and intimidating mountains.
The Anniversary Waltz takes place over a mere 11 miles of Lakeland scenery, but takes in 6 individual mountain summits along with 3,600 foot of climb. To give that some perspective; Sca Fell Pike is the highest mountain in England and weighs in at 3,209 foot. If heart-rates hadn’t already risen at the £5 to park in a farmers field, the panoramic view of every one of those 3,600 feet did the trick!
Conditions couldn’t have been much better with a chilly start gradually warming in the first of the Spring sunshine. Despite this we both agreed to forgo machismo and donned a baselayer given the prospect of sharper conditions up on the summits. The chiselled looking regulars all seemed to have done the same so we were in good company
A word about those regulars: its not often these days that I get intimidated on the start line but a glance at my fellow competitors revealed possibly the toughest, leanest looking bunch of runners I’ve ever seen. Some of them appeared to have been made purely of tanned leather and weathered oak, whilst others had odd muscle growths on their legs which defied anatomical explanation. Most unnerving of all were the sideburns. I have seen photographs of fell runners from back in the 70s showing a mean looking bunch of hardy men and women with sideburns like Teenwolf. These are a different species of runner that belong in black and white photographs, not let loose in full colour to frighten soft “Townie” trail runners like me. Needless to say there wasn’t a fancy dress or a pink tutu to be seen….
Dave Waddington quickly abandoned his plan to “..take it steady and run with you Graham” and bolted off in pursuit of the chaps with sideburns when we finally set off. On paper the first few miles of the route look like a steady run along some comparatively flat trails up the valley towards Littletown before the serious business of the first climb up Robinson begins. Unfortunately fell races aren’t run on paper and I was at my lactic threshold within a few hundred yards of the uphill start. By the time we reached the foot of the mountain I was looking forward to marching uphill as a rest from trying to keep running.
At this point the path turns at a right angle and heads straight up the hill in a near vertical ascent and provides anything but a rest. Hands are needed as well as legs to make progress up the grassy flanks or Robinson, with one lady overtaking me virtually on her hands and knees crawling quickly. Running here is impossible, even for the elite, yet Dave Waddington reports that a lady runner in her late fifties suddenly decided to shame the entire field by breaking into a light, tippy toe run and gradually pulled away from him up the mountain. Having been on that mountain that day I quite frankly don’t believe it!
After finally reaching the ridge the route then turns right and defies all decency to become even steeper. It is so steep in fact that the path has worn away to bare rock and involves a proper bit of mountaineering to clamber up. Whilst it doesn’t quite qualify as outright rock climbing, it definitely falls into the ‘downright scary scrambling up rocks using hands to …erm…climb’ category!
This bit over and we finally reach a section of ground that it would be possible to jog across were it not for levels of lactic pain that I have never known in my life. My legs were each a solid, unfeeling lump and my glutes had turned to stone. I was looking forward to just walking a little on this stony ground and admiring the stunning views out to sea, but those around me suddenly broke into a run and some deeply ingrained competitive instinct kicked in and I was once more in a running race.
Dave nearly came a cropper on this unforgiving terrain, tripping on the rock formations that protrude from the ground and seem purpose made to catch unwary runners. As he said afterwards, if he hadn’t saved himself it would almost certainly given him the DNF he was secretly beginning to hope for by then!
I passed the first marshal point at the summit in a biting wind that had me blessing my baselayer and then turned to the descent. In a matter of minutes I had plunged down the hill side losing all the altitude I had fought so hard to gain in a flurry of wind-milling arms and flat out sprinting as gravity proved just how powerful it is. A glance backwards had me amazed that I had been stood on top of the towering peak behind me only minutes before; a glance forward at the trudge back uphill towards Hindscarth had me deciding there and then, “never again”. Jelly legged and thinking up excuses to drop out I slogged up hill to the second marshal point, quickly downing a handful of nuts and raisins for energy. Once past the summit it was a more manageable section of downhill running and across the hause towards Dale Head.
This is a delightful section of pathway that clings to the steep mountainside and affords a birdseye view of the Honister slate mine way below like a set from a model village. A slip here could be end up with an impromptu vertical visit to said slate mine so I concentrated on my footwork along the twisty path to the peak. From here the descent is sudden, severe and pathless down towards a tarn at the bottom. With no distinct route the runners scattered in various directions making use of local knowledge and experience to find the best way to batter their quads to oblivion. Without the benefit of either I followed the runner I judged to look the most “fell-runnerish” and miraculously found my way down without breaking any bones.
Even photographs can’t quite convey just how steep the ground is here. Think of slightly less steep than a sheer cliff and you are nearly there. Now think of running down that “nearly cliff” and the pressure on ankles, knees and all the tortured connective tissue in-between… and then its best not to think about it all but just get on with it!
Once at the bottom I seemed to have lost all the people I had been with for the first half of the race. It was difficult to know if I had hitched a ride on a better route and come out ahead, or if they all went a better way and had left me behind! This was to become a familiar pattern once we had climbed up to High Spy and finally hit the best running section of the event. The path here is level enough to be runnable as it meanders across gorse and moorland towards Maiden Moor and then downhill to Catbells.
Runners would vanish off the main route on some line of their own that probably meant a shortcut or faster diversion leaving the following runner with the dilema “to follow or not”. I chose to shamelessly follow a lady runner I later found to be called Wendy Dodds as she really did seem to have some cracking routes known only to herself. She would peel off the path and find a nice, firm route hidden in the heather that would give us a few yards lead over runners previously ahead. By taking advantage of her skills I found myself making up a few places and enjoying my best spell of speedy running, (thanks Wendy!). I even had time to steal the odd glance at the awesome scenery and vaguely regretted not being up there with time to spare for the view on such a glorious day.
The thrill of speed came to a sudden halt as we hit the final climb up Catbells and my legs refused to co-operate with any suggestion that I run up it. Once over the top it’s a short scramble over bare rock and past irritated walkers waiting for an opportunity to climb up amongst the steady flow of runners streaming over the summit! From here the finish is in view – albeit almost 1500 feet vertically below. In true fell race style the route ignored all the sensible and safe paths to take the most direct route possible over the side of the mountain and towards that postage stamp field way below.
That final, insane dash down the hill had ankles squirming on the adverse camber and knees and quads protesting painfully at the agony of such a steep descent. If I had paused to consider for a moment what I was doing there is no way I would have attempted to even crawl down an incline as steep as that. I’d have told you it was impossible borderng on suicidal. With the thrill of the race my mind simply closed to possibilities of a tumble and I threw myself down with the same daft urgency as everyon else. A sprint down the road saw me take another couple of runners and charge to the finish just in time to beat a growing calf cramp.
Dave had already finished and was there to greet me along with Jacqui. For the first few minutes I could find no words to express the trauma of what we had just done, and we simply exchanged looks and shook our heads. A mouthful of antiseptic tasting orange juice, (with nidentified solid bits), had us heading swiftly for the village hall and the very welcome free post-race beer.
Our target had been to finish in under 2hours 30. A target which I had re-assessed as a bit unrealistic once I got a good look at the mountains and had adjusted to ”happy to finish under 3 hours”. In the end Dave managed a spectacular 2:09:40 for 75th whilst I was surprised and delighted with 2:23:48 for 152nd. The winner finished in 1:35 which I am struggling to accept is humanly possible, (I didn’t get to see if he had sideburns though). Apparently 269 runners finished so we were both a lot further down the field than we would be in a road or cross country race which gives some guide to just how hard these fell races are.
I can honestly conclude that was the toughest, most brutal yet exhilarating event I have ever taken part in, and it has given me an even greater respect for fell runners in general. My pulverised quads haven’t been so painful since I finished my last marathon, and 2 days later I’m still having difficulty walking. ..and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
Many thanks to Rob of Northumberland Fell Runners for permission to use his fabulous pics. More stunning images of the 2008 event here: Anniversary Waltz