At the beginning of the week the forecast was looking ominous and I wasn't even sure if I'd complete the car journey to Askham. Come Friday 16th, the low pressure was tracking a few hundred miles further south and the predicted hurricane force winds and rain had given way to snow on a light breeze. Fortunately the roads remained mainly clear. Even though it had snowed virtually all day in Stockport, by the time I arrived in Askham with daylight to spare there had been no snow or rain and the fields were green. It felt positively balmy compared to a year earlier.
After an excellent dinner and good night's sleep in the Queen's Head, I popped next door to the village hall to get registered. I had the essential survival rations and kit for a winter's day in the Lake District hills, ready for the kit check. I reckoned on a 07:30 departure to get me to the 10am opening of the checkpoint at Patterdale, 10 miles in. That plan disappeared out the window. It was a grand reunion of familiar ultra running faces plus a few new ones to get acquainted with, so there was plenty of chatting to be done. Time slipped by before I got to ask the kit checker what he wanted to see. “You're alright”, came the reply. “I saw you pack your rucksack earlier.” I suppose it was looking well fed. (Previous form may also have given some 'benefit of the doubt’.) This is one aspect of the low-key nature of this event, which is why I like it so much. We are treated like responsible adults who know how to take care of ourselves in bleak winter wilderness. We know the score when we read the entry requirements before we put pen to cheque.
At 07:49, I and a few others skidded our way outside onto the lane out of Askham towards Askham Moor. It was just cold enough to freeze and the icy roads were lethal, requiring us to seek out any bit of grass, frozen mud or verge in order to remain upright. As we crunched through the frozen puddles onto Askham Moor, the horses, which appeared only as black silhouettes in the dark blue frigid early dawn, seemed to get excited and joined us running in the same direction. I noticed how they also trod carefully around the big icy skins that gave way noisily under their hooves.
The low level running below the snow line past Ullswater to CP1 at Martindale church (6mi.) was easy compared to last year. Last year's sheet ice hidden by fresh snow was replaced by flowing water and mud. The climb over Boredale Hause to CP2 at Patterdale (10mi.) introduced us to the first snow, but nothing to cause any problems. I was amazed to arrive at CP2 on the dot of the 10am opening time. I couldn't have timed it better if I'd tried.
Matt Neale arrives at CP2 @ Patterdale.
CP3 @ Swart Beck.
Sometimes we had to traverse deep snowfields. It was fun to tread as lightly as possible while trying to run. Usually my feet would sink a couple of inches and hold. Sometimes the 'hold' suddenly let go and I descended on a one-legged elevator to compaction, which fortunately had a dry extremity every time. Sometimes we had to descend into a clough and climb a snow cliff on the other side. At times like that I was thankful that I wasn't a front runner and I was able to use the foot holds that had already been kicked into the snow wall. I don't know how the leaders managed to break trail and remain in the lead without going off course or burning themselves out with the increased effort.
Just like last year, the effort to get me this far had left me feeling wasted. Just like last year I trudged the 'easy' flat section around the back of Helvellyn towards Dunmail Raise as my battery (a clapped-out relic with a couple of dead cells from the chuffing 2CV that almost powers me) slowly recharged. I passed though CP5 at The Swirls carpark (17.5 miles). I enjoyed the scenic permissive footpath that took us off the boring forestry track. Photograph-taking was getting out of control as I grabbed any excuse to rest for just a few more seconds. This year I found CP6 at the bridge at Homesdale Green (20.5mi.) before Dunmail Raise. Just like last year, other runners continued to overtake me, but the torrent had now become a trickle.
Runner and Thirlmere.
Grisedale Tarn was much warmer this year.
By CP 7 at Patterdale (27mi.) the sky had cleared and it seemed just like last year. The one difference was that the water containers were not freezing. I refilled my water bottles, downed a cup of sweet tea and pulled out a cremated Chicken Kiev left over from a few days earlier to power me on the last major climb. With head torch fitted in readiness for the impending darkness I set off at just before 4pm. I stopped, stared and photographed as I climbed to Boredale Hause to survey the cold, dimly blue lit winter scene before me. I made use of every last photon from the long-since set sun behind me. Once over the top and with daylight all but gone, I put the camera away and got on with the job of running. There was just enough light remaining for me to run incognito down Boredale without turning on my head torch, to catch and overtake the group I'd seen ahead. It's an ultra runner thing, not to get one over on others but to eke the best out of ourselves with our own little competition ‘mind games’.
Boredale Hause in the last remnants of dusk light. The sun had long set behind me.
I had another pair of lights in sight ahead when there was a slight hiccup at the track junction beside “The Cockpit” and “Pile of stones” shown on the OS map. I had dithered then decided that I needed to continue ahead, when the two lights ran back in the opposite direction to meet me. During further dithering, my pursuers drew closer again. We had to get moving. I set off to lead the way along the path that the other two had just run back. It went on approximately the right heading, as long as it veered left before too long. It did, and I recalled the watery underfoot conditions I had traversed in the opposite direction nearly ten hours earlier.
Nigel, Steve and I ran as a threesome up the moor to stay ahead of the chasing lights. We missed the minor footpath that cut the corner to the right (no footprints in the snow to follow this year like there were last year). The horses were now on the top of the moor, eyes glowing in our torch light and nostrils blowing water vapour. They trotted back and forth as excitedly as ever as we passed. Finally we hit the right turn after our slightly longer way round for the long gentle descent back to Askham. I glanced behind to check that our pursuers were not getting any closer.
There was no breeze and the temperature was barely freezing point. I knew from previous experience that the,
Remove Sealskinz waterproof mittens and hold in right hand.
Unzip waterproof jacket as far as rucksack waist strap allows.
Remove Buff from around neck, which required both hands to ease them past my glasses.
Drape Buff around right wrist (the clobber I was now carrying prevented it falling off).
Remove head torch.
Remove second Buff from head (tied pirate stylie) and add it to the collection gathering in right hand.
Replace head torch (a two-handed job, or at the least one hand plus a spare finger or two).
All of this was done on the hoof in the dark while carrying my printed Tracklogs maps and I didn’t drop a thing. Years of running ultras have given me plenty of juggling practice.
I was expecting the roads in Askham to be icy once again, but thankfully the water had dissipated during the day and we enjoyed an accident-free final run in to the village hall and an urgent appointment with the timekeeper at 18:47. Congratulatory handshakes were exchanged with Nigel and Steve before we took our choice of substantial home-made soup, bread, tea and cake. What an amazing day. Below is the essence of the note of thanks I sent to Joe, because the appreciation for what he gives us deserves wider publicity:
“Many thanks once again to Joe and the NAV4 team for providing this opportunity to play in the Lake District hills in winter and enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded people. It was even better than last year. In particular I noticed the enthusiastic support of the marshals at all of the checkpoints. The enthusiasm communicated the empathy between marshal and runner. The empathy may have been tinged with a bit of jealousy because they'd been there, done that and were probably wishing they were doing it again, with us.
The conditions above Grizedale Tarn were much less life-threatening in the temperature department but the conditions over Sticks Pass were definitely more onerous. Because I was in survival mode in the whiteout conditions, my picture-taking stopped until I had descended to sanctuary. I enjoyed trying out the Kahtoolas I bought after last year's event for the first time, though. What confidence that additional grip suddenly gave me after the youth hostel before the climb to CP3 and Sticks Pass.
The post-event soup was superb. I enjoyed the leek and potato. It was like a meal in its own right. I did not need another dinner. You may have noticed afterwards in the Queen's Head that I only needed a bag of dry roasted to soak up the wine ;-)”
I’d knocked all of seven minutes off last year’s time. I had expected more, but I am getting older and I did take 174 photos, all told. The most presentable ones are here.
To put some finishing times into context, mine was 10:58. I might possibly have got that down to 10:30-odd if I'd pushed myself to the brink all the way and taken no photographs. The winning time was 6:05, by Kim Collison, who also won the Roaches Rell Race in November (seen here on his return from Shutlingloe). First woman and 4th overall was Shona Robertson in an equally impressive 6:57.