> The 34th Ennerdale Horseshoe Fell Race - 8th June 2002 - Geoff Davis

(Or the loneliness of the long distance fell racer)

I decided sometime in 2001 that there was a gap in my fell running experience. I had not taken part in any of the classic long distance fell races in the Lake District such as the Borrowdale, Wasdale, Langdale, Dunnerdale and last but certainly not least the Ennerdale.

I thought the Ennerdale in early June 2002 would be good preparation for pacing and navigating on Stewart Gardener’s Bob Graham Round later in the month. So with the intention of having a weeks holiday in the Lakes Susan and I set off on the Friday night from Durham, camped at Bassenthwaite and made our way round to Ennerdale early on the Saturday morning for the race.

The day was quite warm, not windy but very overcast with mist down to about 800 feet. The start area at the scout camp on the western edge of the lake was swarming with midges when we arrived. We couldn’t see any other NFR people but there were our friends Dave and Val Atkinson who we hadn’t seen for a while. Dave, an Ironman Triathlete, had decided to concentrate on fell running this year and he too wanted to do the classic long distance races in the Lakes. The Ennerdale race is certainly long (23 miles) and there is also the little matter of 7,500 feet of ascent over peaks such as High Stile, Haystacks, Kirk Fell and Pillar.

Susan and Val were not running the race but intended to walk round the lake and see us when we crossed Black Sail Pass. Forty five runners assembled at the start to be (mis-)informed that the mist was starting to lift from the first check point on Great Bourne. However, I felt fairly confident after having a good run at Alwinton a week or so before. We set off at a fairly easy pace with Dave and I catching up on what we had been doing since we had last seen each other. The conversation petered out as we ascended the steep slopes of Great Bourne following the runners just in front into the thick mist. Dave and I were in a group of about six runners at the first check point where our ‘leader’ set off north instead of east, with the rest of us following, to be corrected (fortunately) by the check point marshal.

I managed to stay with this little group till the next check point at Red Pike. Visibility was still down to about 5 -10 metres and it was very humid – everything I was wearing was soaked in sweat although this was soon to get a good rinsing from a couple of heavy showers. On leaving Red Pike I became detached from my little group, however, not wanting to lose time by getting my map and compass out I decided to navigate from memory. I had been on that ridge many times before and I knew I could contour round High Stile on the right, which I did, and although I blundered about a bit on High Crag I quickly re-gained the main path.

Two or three runners appeared on the descent of Gamelin End and they passed me as I was starting to feel the pace. We then came briefly out of the mist and I could see they were contouring around the next hill, called Seat, to the left so I followed them. This proved to be a good move as the traverse bought us right out onto Scarth Gap and I then picked out a good line towards the next check point on Haystacks.

A few more runners appeared as I approached the Haystacks check point and I followed them back into the thick mist as we pressed on to Green Gable. I soon lost them and it was at this point that I decided I could no longer rely on memory or following other runners for navigation, particularly as there were none. I would have to get my map and compass out, forget about competing and concentrate on navigating myself safely around the rest of the course of which there was still a lot to go. I looked at the map, decided on roughly where I was, took a bearing and plodded off up hill. A few minutes later the mist cleared for a brief moment revealing the top of Gillercomb and conforming where I thought I was.

On reaching the Green Gable check point the marshal said “you’re doing well, only about 20 runners have gone through and there’s still about 20 minutes before this check point closes.” Only 20 minutes! Before the race I thought I’d be through here with well over an hour to spare – I might struggle now to get through the other check points on time.

Kirk Fell was the next one so I decided to skirt around Great Gable on the Girdle route to Beck Head. As I began this greasy traverse I could hear a runner descending the scree to my right to join the lower ‘Moses Trod’ route to Beck Head. I though smugly at the time that I was on the better route only to learn later that the runner was Jos Naylor and he finished 22 minutes before me!

Anyway, the Girdle route got me to Beck Head eventually where the mist seemed thicker than ever. I took a bearing and followed it to what I hoped would be the path onto Kirk Fell. The careful navigation paid off and I slogged up the steep slope to the summit where the lone marshal said there were 15 minutes left before his check point closed.

I trotted off over very rough ground to begin the descent of Kirk Fell crags where another runner passed me. He turned out to be the last runner I saw for the rest of the race. At the bottom of the crags (Black Sail Pass) Susan was waiting with some water and wanted to know where I had been as I was over an hour down on my estimated time! She said Dave Atkinson hadn’t been through and neither had Angela Brand-Barker whose husband Tony was also waiting at the pass. Still I pressed on up the long haul to Pillar surrounded by thick mist all the way and now developing a pain in my shoulder and the beginnings of a stitch. The top of Pillar was totally desolate and the marshal was huddled into a corner of the wind shelter with his lower half in a plastic bivi bag. He said I was 10 minutes inside the cut off time and gave me a bearing for the descent off Pillar.

The rocks on Pillar and over Black Crag were now very greasy. I tried to contour round to the left of Scoat Fell making sure I didn’t go too far and end up in Wasdale although a bowl of soup in the pub seemed very tempting. The mist finally started to lift as I began a very painful ascent of Haycock. The checkpoint here, and those remaining, did not have time limits on them and I thanked the marshal for giving up his afternoon so we could run the race. The going now started to get a bit easier; more grass than rock and less steep. I passed through the Iron Crags check point and through the forested area below Crag Fell where I had to follow the Walsh prints to find the route.

Crag Fell was the last check point by which time my stitch had developed into a severe abdominal pain and I just prayed that I wasn’t going to have to race anyone over the last couple of miles. Every step was painful now particularly along the short section of road approaching the finish. As I crossed the line the expected fanfare did not materialise – a couple of people raised their heads and I think one person clapped. (It’s a very low key race!) Dave Atkinson was at the finish. He had got lost after Haystacks and ended up on Great Gable (not part of the course) and decided to retire. In all, 15 of the 45 starters retired. I finished 26th of the remaining 30 in 6 hours 15 minutes. Nonetheless I was quite proud to have got round. The winner, Jonny Bland, finished in 4 hours 3 minutes.

I’m looking forward to next spring and summer when, injuries permitting, I hope to complete one or two of the other long distance classics perhaps in better weather. Hope to see you there!

Geoff Davis

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