Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Tour de Helvellyn 38mi. 17/12/2011.

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.

Leaving Glenridding and climbing past the youth hostel brought us to the snow line and the first deep, un-melted snow. I'd been dying to try on my Kahtoola microspikes since buying them after last year's T de H, so time to transfer some weight from my rucksack to my Walsh Spirit Peaks. The vastly improved grip gave me instant confidence. I was able to sprint up the icy hill for a brief instant until the exertion caught up with me (I had just rested to put them on so I had 5 seconds-worth of half decent effort at my disposal). As I was passed by the later-starting speedsters, I in turn passed others who were climbing to indulge in their own winter sporting activities. Skis, ski poles and a snow board were in evidence. The sun tried to shine but as we climbed, the weather seemed to be closing in and the wind was rising. The route up ahead disappeared into whiteout conditions as we approached CP3 at Swart Beck (13.3mi.).

CP3 @ Swart Beck.

Route choices varied as we climbed from CP3. The correct path was invisible so you took your choice, reading the terrain and following contours that took you in the general direction you needed to go. It was advisable to avoid low-lying, concave expanses of pristine snow. These signified potential deep snow drifts that hid invisible traps of indeterminate depth. Higher, convex ground, possibly with bits of exposed rock blown clear by the wind, offered firmer footing with little chance of getting lost without trace. (OK, I exaggerate a little, but not much. Afterwards I heard of one who took a low level luxuriantly soft route, which happened to be hiding a waterlogged bog. He went in up to his waist with his feet in water.)

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.

As we ascended into thick cloud and micro ice pellets driven on gale force wind, I realised that I was recognising nothing from last year. My photograph-taking stopped in the interests of concentration and survival. We had chosen a lower level route closer to the valley on our left that required a later steep climb to the right back onto higher ground. Once there I still didn't recognise anything, probably because I couldn't see much. Wiping the ice pellets off my glasses helped marginally, but it was still a struggle to follow the trodden path visually. The best indication of straying from the path was finding myself trudging through deep stuff. A brief pause and survey of the ground brought me back to the trodden path that I trusted would lead me to safety. Topping out at the pass between Raise and Stybarrow Dodd (I could hardly see 10 yards ahead, let alone those peaks) I was being overtaken by other runners but I could not keep up with them as they vanished into the white featureless murk. Some skiers walking up in the opposite direction reassured me that I was on the right path. Asking one if she had passed other runners and getting the reply: “Yes, loads”, provided the ultimate reassurance. The descent finally brought me out of the cloud and wind and back in sight of others, with whom I was catching up again. Descending from the snow line, my micro spikes gripped the wet grass and mud better than their shoes were doing. They involuntarily sat down repeatedly while I let gravity take me to CP4 at Stanah (16mi.). The ice pellets melted from my cap and clothing and the water dripped off me as if I had just run through a rain storm.

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.

By the time I turned left up the right-hand side of Raise Beck with Steel Fell looming behind me, I felt more energised for the climb to Grisedale Tarn. Passing the snow line brought out the Kahtoolas for the second time. I felt a lot warmer than I did last year, probably because it was 10 deg C warmer, more than that if last year's wind chill is taken into account. Topping out at the pass between Dollywaggon Pike and Seat Sandal finally brought Grisedale Tarn into view. It looked a lot bigger this year because it was all liquid and not snow covered. I gawped in wonderment at the view and worked out where to go next. My trod through the snow had petered out and the path shown on the map beside the tarn was a long way below. Deep snow drifts separated me from it. I let myself go with gravity-assisted reckless abandon. It was like running down firm sand dunes, where every step would be cushioned. I kept stopping and looking around to take in (and photograph) unique views I hardly ever get to see. I felt warm and contented compared to last year's run-for-survival at this point, so warm were these sub-zero temperatures in comparison.

Grisedale Tarn was much warmer this year.

As I approached the top of Grisedale, a patch of colour opened up in front of me in an otherwise monochromatic world (see top photo). The cloud ahead was breaking to reveal a patch of blue sky, green hills and golden sunlight upon them. As I stopped repeatedly to stuff more megabytes onto a memory card already creaking under the strain, my next pursuer, seen since the pass, drew ever closer. He finally overtook me on the run in towards Patterdale.

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.

They began to catch me again as I fumbled with the paperwork through thickly gloved hands at CP8 at Martindale Church (31mi.). I'd caught up with another couple of runners here but they set off on the higher, less undulating, longer-way-round route while I set off down the lane. As I jogged along in the bottom of the valley with head torch switched off, I glanced across to my right and saw their lights behind me up the hill. I'd definitely gained on them. I entered the field to climb the path past the outdoor centre to regain the path that my latest pursuers were already on. I was well fuelled and kept the run going, even uphill, would you believe. I eventually plucked up the courage to look behind me (after first turning off my head torch). There were no lights. This spurred me on to try even harder to make sure it stayed that way. A small pocket of orange sodium vapour civilisation twinkled across Ullswater to my left and shimmered in the water as I jogged on with continued vigour towards Askham Moor in pursuit of more runners to catch, without getting caught myself.

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, , downhill ‘sprint’ to the finish would have me burning up and forced to a walk in no time. To pre-empt this undesirable state of affairs I proceeded to juggle with my accoutrements:

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.


  1. Winter in the Lakes sounds like quite an experience. Hopefully there will be a little bit of white stuff (but not too much) for my run at this weekends Nav4 Old Crown Round. I'll have to put this race on the calendar for next year, looks like a great challenge. Happy running in 2012!

  2. A PB is a PB, not to be sniffed at even if it is only 7 minutes!

  3. Now that's a report with pictures!!! wondered when it was coming. A great end to a proper 12 months of ultras. Best Wishes for 2012 Nick and thanks again for your help this year ;-. If not before, see you at the Hobble

  4. Thank you for another great report Nick. Hope to meet up soon.

  5. Brilliant Nick! Loving the battles at the end. This race has been calling to me for a couple of years and thanks to this write up and photos that calling just got louder.

  6. Hey up! and happy new year.

    Just noticed your grand slam gets a mention in the winter edition of The Fellruner.

    Cool(pun intended)

  7. Dawn, pencil it into your diary Sat 22nd Dec. Good luck on your Old Crown Round.

    You're right Dave. Unfortunately I'm doing a lot of sniffing right now though with my first cold in well over a year.

    Thanks Mike. 2011 certainly was a grand year. Here's to 2012.

    It was good to meet you there, Will. I now regard you as one of the elites.

    Steve M, the battles add a frisson of spice and encourage me to try harder. It's why all my running is done on events. Now put it in your diary otherwise you'll have to put on earmuffs.

    Steve B, Happy New Year to you too. It's the only mention I'll ever get. I certainly won't get one for speeding.

  8. Thanks for a great write-up and set of pictures Nick. It was great to finish with you and Nigel, the final mile or so off that moor was fantastic.

  9. Awesome stuff Nick. That is something I have to get to do one day.

    Battling foot problems the past month but now on the mend (see latest blog). Looking forward to 2012.

    I won't ask if you have much planned :0) take care

  10. Nice one Nick. Sorry to have missed it again. Know how tough the conditions were. Me, Mark and Danny were up around those parts the week before. Love it this time of year. See you at T'Hobble if your doing it

  11. Hi Nick, great run and report. It's looks like a great event - maybe I'll get there next year.

    I'm going to be in Stockport for work for a few days in February - can you recommend any good places for a run in the evening? I'll have a headtorch with me. My e-mail address is if you have any top tips, or fancy going for a run / beer.

  12. Thanks Steve. It was a pleasure to run those last few miles with you and Nigel.
    Glad you're on the mend Richard. Ease back gently.
    Simon, I'll see you a-Hobbling. Are you not at the Hebden this weekend?
    Ali, I'm sure I can find something for you. Stand by....

  13. 1,573 miles in 2011 amazing.. Good luck with this years runs, I am sure you will surprise yourself in the L50 in July..

    1. Thank you Nathan. These days I take whatever I can get. I still get surprises but they are not necessarily nice ones. We'll see what happens on the L50. Are you doing it?

  14. Hi Nick,

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