> 2010 race reports
22/05/10 Old County Tops - from John Telfer

May 22, 2010 – 37 miles 10,000 feet of ascent

It is not too often that one is able to say the biggest negative factor in a Lakeland fell race was the unremitting heat from start to finish especially when the race starts at 8am. However, the sun did shine down and the wind did not blow, being a major contributor to a third of the field having to retire and no shame in that as personal welfare rightfully took precedence over all other considerations.

84 teams of two gathered in the car park opposite the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel ready for the 8am start, with the temperature nudging 20 degrees, liberally dosed with the Factor 30. Teaming up with Stewart Barrie of Hunters Bog Trotters I was placed under strict instructions to take it very easy at the start on the basis we had 37 miles to catch people up.

Whilst happy to take this advice I was a little perturbed to find that after the first mile on the road out of Langdale we were in precisely 83rd position. The wise old sage (actually 6 years my junior) just gave me a knowing look when sensing my obvious anxiety and trundled happily on in almost slow motion.

The narrow entrance onto the fell which would have us skirt round Silver Howe led to a real bottleneck which resulted in half the field bunching up. As we began to climb not only did we manage to gain a few places but were also rewarded, not for the last time that day, with some stunning vistas, this one of the Langdale valley. Without too much effort we soon began our descent into Grasmere with Stewart still having me very firmly on a tight lead.

Having avoided the legions of elderly folk in Grasmere village who clearly buy their morning paper at around 8.45am to coincide with a torrent of 170 odd runners coming by there hen follows the rather uninspiring section along the main Keswick road before we turn off onto the fell with Grizedale Tarn being our next mini target. By this stage it was abundantly clear that taking on plenty liquid and keeping body temperatures down was going to be a critical necessity. Whilst our decision to wear (unintentionally) almost matching caps made us look like an early incarnation of Wham or the Pet Shop Boys it sure saved us a bit of grief as the sun really got to work.

The joy of the slight breeze that greeted us at Grizedale Tarn was soon dispelled by the hand on knees slog up towards the main Helvellyn ridge. It was here that Stewart seemed to showing more spring in his step than me (i.e. he was going faster). This particular dog could now be let off his lead and was quite unlikely to go anywhere in a big hurry.

After what seemed like an eternity we eventually hit the ridge and enjoyed a sensible pace up to Helvellyn’s summit and the first checkpoint. Unfortunately we were greeted by John Duff whose partner, Graham, was bent double with a technicolour yawn in full flow. Probably too early for the sun to have caused Graham’s distress but sadly it marked the end of their participation. Ten hours later, and after several pints of hop induced liquid refreshment, John was philosophical about the situation. Even up on the Helvellyn ridge in the heat of battle it was clear John’s concern had been for his partner’s wellbeing rather than for his own objectives.

The natural descent to Wythburn draws you into Whelpside Gill, but acting on John’s previous views and the sight of another pair going way off the left led us to believe “they know something everyone else doesn’t” and with a mixture of curiosity and instinct we pelted off in their wake. Longer but quicker was our conclusion and we arrived at the second checkpoint in 42nd position, slightly incredulous as neither of us had that much recollection of passing too many people.

Fortified by this we set off on the slog through the bog that is the Wythburn valley, with Stewart taking on and coming off second best with a tree root. However, by exceeding the recommended dosage of Ibruprofen no long term damage appeared to have been done and the feared for knee swelling never appeared.

The trek up to the head of Wythburn was unremittingly long and I began to struggle big time both physically and mentally as the heat of the day, now just after 11am, began to take vicious hold. Various detours into streams and taking plenty liquid on board helped to keep the darkest demons at bay as I reproached myself for even daring to work out how much ground we still had to cover. Now was not the time for thinking we had only another 23 miles to go.

The ability of being able to run again as we traversed round High White Stones and onward to Stake Pass lifted the spirits as we bashed on to the third checkpoint at Angle Tarn taking in the wonderful views down into the Langstrath valley and down the other side into Mickleden. We took a few minutes out to cool off, take on more liquid and generally contemplate the meaning of life in all its varied glory.

On the path up to Esk Hause Stewart forced some vegemite concoction into my hand extolling its salt laden virtues. Whilst it seemed to give me a bit of a gee up it left a taste in my mouth which would have made two day old vomit a more palatable choice and which no amount of water would shift. Bashing on over the rocks and avoiding the masses making their way to and from Scafell Pike summit we were at least blessed with a gentle breeze to caress our sun baked bodies.

Reaching the summit we were then faced with the dilemma of attempting to find the kamikaze descent over the south summit where on one hand you could save precious time and on the other face certain death. Despite John Duff’s copious maps and explanations of navigating a safe course the fact that there were no takers amongst the other groups arriving at the summit around the same time made my mind up and in one of my more assertive moments of the day I declared “Little Narrowcove” and was off to the longer but safer route. Stewart shot off down the initial scree path like a whippet on heat and then found an excellent line off over Pen and down onto the valley floor driving me on to keep something that could loosely be termed “momentum” going.

The long trek across Great Moss, with it magnificent panorama of high peaks stretching from Slight Side round to Hard Knott, led to the top of the Moasdale valley where the flanks of Hard Knott and Crinkle Crags meet. Although the direction of travel is almost all downhill down to Cockley Beck some of the terrain didn’t make for easy running and one particularly sore big toe seemed to detract a little from the joy of the occasion.

At this point with Stewart seemingly sauntering effortlessly ahead with a Pennine runner who had appeared from nowhere having declared his partner was “a couple of miles back there somewhere” I began to feel distinctly tired and emotional. This is usually all very well when fuelled with at least 6 pints of some frothing ale but having drunk nothing stronger than water all day I felt a little cheated to say the least to have arrived at such an enfeebled state without at least having been able to have enjoyed the liquid journey on the way.

Arriving at the Cockley Beck checkpoint obviously suffering from a little hormonal imbalance I had a little bit of a diva moment and was led away by the marshals in white coats, sat down in the stream whilst Stewart stood guard to ensure that I ate some proper food suggesting that my recent pace and delusional behaviour may have had something to do with a bit of a carbo deficit. At this stage had a moustachioed Liverpudlian appeared from behind a rock shouting “Calm down , calm down” he wouldn’t have been out of place. Come to think of it maybe he did!

The inquest into my eating habits (or lack of) that took place in the bar at the New Dungeon Ghyll some 5 hours later found me guilty on all counts with presiding judges Duff and Hayle on the bench. By this time I was happily gurgling into my third stoop of ale getting accustomed to the type of “tired and emotional” that I am altogether more familiar with. As such I was happy to plead guilty to all charges. Sentenced to a life sentence of porridge (geddit?), bananas and peanut butter sandwiches it was, as they say, a lesson hard learned.

Anyway back to Cockley Beck and having put all my toys back into the pram and nibbled on a rusk or two we started upon the seemingly never ending ascent to the Grey Friars col, a climb of over 1,500 feet which after 7 hours on the go and with no sign of the heat abating is not a lot of fun. The climb is typical Lakeland. You set off thinking one set of crags is your summit only to discover it isn’t. This scenario was played out about three times before the col was reached. Whilst the food did seem to have partially girded my loins it also made me feel very sick. Despite the nausea I managed to overtake about three pairs and I just about managed to keep Stewart in sight.

The run over to the Old Man of Coniston witnessed a dramatic upturn in fortunes as I began to run, well trot anyway, with quite a bit of renewed energy. Arriving at the summit we were slightly surprised, nay utterly gobsmacked, to learn we were in 30th position. How so I do not know and laughed out loud when the marshall asked if that was good or bad news. With the wind on our backs I actually managed a plausible impersonation of a fellrunner as we headed back over to the ridge to Great Carrs stopping to check on the wellbeing of a fellow runner who did not have the benefit of a Pet Shop Boys hat and gave him some water and some cool words of encouragement. Believe you me it was not the day for warm words.

Despite a slight detour to avoid gaining too much height the ridge down to the Three Shires Stone was easily found and we arrived at the last checkpoint with some vague notion of a sub 10 hour round if we got our skates on. However, the descent down the unforgiving road of Wrynose Pass put paid to that for me whilst Stewart zipped off down and was merrily engaged in conversation with a couple of bikers at the bottom of the pass whilst a deep and dark cloud had descended over my day. Once again I was running on empty, three miles from the finish. The dog that had been straining on the leash 9 hours ago now wanted nothing more than to crawl into his kennel and curl up.

The mile and a bit along Blea Tarn was executed at nothing more than a dawdle made worse when a couple of runners from Congleton who had been about 5 minutes behind us at the Old Man of Coniston breezed passed me looking as fresh as the proverbial bellis perennis.

The final descent down into Langdale and along the road to the finish at the New Dungeon Ghyll was trod more in relief rather than joy being the chief emotion. Cheered in by John Duff, pint in hand, I could only mouth the words “I’m knackered” or some other Anglo Saxon derivative that ends in “ed” and has a “k” somewhere in it.

An amazing day where you find out a lot about yourself, some good and some not so good. A day not without its humour but also its darker side, where more of the race is run in the head (and the stomach) than in your legs.  However, whatever way you look at it, it is still a hell of a long way to go to build up a thirst for a few beers. The wicked irony of the matter was that it took about an hour and a half before the nausea that had ebbed and flowed inside of me for the last three hours of the race subsided enough to permit me to enjoy a quiet drink followed by several more noisy ones.

The post race chat was mainly about the conditions and those who had suffered in them. Although John’s partner Graham was still not feeling great he still looked a good deal better than he had eight hours ago on the summit of Helvellyn. Peter Hayle and his partner John (who lives in Holland – great place to train for this race) although having officially retired covered 32 miles and about 95% of the climbing which was still a great effort having achieved more than many would care to contemplate. One other NFR, Jeff Ross had made it as far as Cockley Beck (25 miles) before calling it a day, a sterling effort.

It was a day that will live long in the memory and I should finish by paying tribute to my partner Stewart who was supremely fitter than me and had properly fuelled his body for the demands of the day and who had to put up with my frailties, both mental and physical, for over 10 hours. Just think what my wife has had to ensure for nigh on 22 years ! Whilst I now contemplate re-arranging my collection of cheese labels he’s off to do Jura next week…what is it about mad dogs and Dundonians out in the midday sun?

Finally one should pay tribute to the organisers of the Achille Ratti Running Club without whose superb organisation, encouragement and sustenance provided by them and their legions of helpers there would still be one very deranged soul wandering around Cockley Beck smelling of vegemite. Happy days and now less than a year to the next event.

John Telfer

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