Saturday, 26 May 2012

Old County Tops. 19/05/2012.


A 37-mile Lake District fell race over Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man for teams of two, with tough cut-offs. Proper runners only need apply.

I was on short notice to accompany Daz Burns on this one. I've wanted to do this race for a few years but this year would not have been my first choice, given that it was sandwiched between the Brecon Beacons 40 and Northants Ultra 35 in a long run of Ultras. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, when the call came through just before the Brecon 40 that my services would definitely be required in a week's time, I grabbed the opportunity, assuming that I'd be able to wing it as usual. Our entry was despatched post-haste.

After a stressful week with insufficient rest, I joined Daz early on Saturday morning for the drive up to the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel in Great Langdale. We arrived in cool, damp, breezy conditions, but the forecast predicted an improvement.

After pre-race instructions the biggest ever field was sent off along the valley bottom track a few minutes late due to the registration overload. I soon became too hot and had to stop at the end of the track to remove my windproof top. A spectator / supporter was ringing a cow bell by way of encouragement. I was already near the back of the field and the ringing soon stopped. I requested a continuation of the jangling to encourage me as my running vest and spectacles came off in a tangled, inside-out mess with the windproof. My request fell on deaf ears since all the runners had passed, so I was left to grapple with my attire in shamed, observed silence. Once I'd got myself sorted out and ready to jog on, Daz was way ahead and waiting and I was off the back of the field. That set the tone nicely for the day.

We caught a few backmarkers up on the first climb over the shoulder of the hill but lost those places again on our alternative route into Grasmere that avoided the main road. Our second climb took us up into the strong cold wind, which required the donning of the windproof top once again. Our first proper peak would be Helvellyn via Grisedale Tarn. This was the third time I'd been up here and the first time I'd seen it unfrozen and without a thick coating of snow. Nevertheless the wind was strong and cold on Helvellyn and the ground was dusted with wind-blown snow if you looked downwind into the clag to see where it had lain.

Hardy marshals on Helvellyn summit.

Our descent SSW from the trig point went well initially, if slow (thanks to me), but a premature veer right took us down Middle Tongue instead of to the left of it like I'd intended. That slowed me down even more as lack of confidence in my footwear added to absence of athletic ability. We were reminded at the checkpoint at the bottom that we were near to the back of the field.

I was still waiting for the energy to kick in as we made our way along the permissive path to Wythburn. I continued to wait in vain as we began the climb in the direction of High Raise, next target Angle Tarn. The wind had suddenly dropped and it was getting quite warm, but I wasn't going to waste more time taking off the windproof again. Angle Tarn cut-off would be at 5:30 elapsed for those 18 miles, and it was looking tight. I had come to the realisation much earlier that I was struggling far more than I should have been. I was finding it difficult to run the bits I should have been able to run, but I could cope with hiking. However, hiking is incompatible with this event. My shoes didn't help my confidence (Walsh Spirit Peak in case you were wondering). Their clown-like pointed length was a constant  trip hazard over the rocks, boulders and tussocks, while their (slightly worn) studs offered no grip on wet rock, mud or wet grass. I lost count of the number of times I slipped over. I minced and plodded my way onwards as fast as my gutless powerplant allowed. I was forever left wanting and had become the big fly in the ointment, the monkeywrench in Daz' OCT works as he repeatedly had to wait for me to catch up on the climbs and the descents. All I could do was apologise and remark how shocked I was, not so much with the terrain but my inability to traverse it at anything other than hiking speed. It made me realise more than ever that a Bob Graham Round is way beyond my capability.

The outcome was inevitable; I got us timed out at Angle Tarn, where we arrived 5:38 after starting for an average speed of 3.2mph. This would have been my 149th Ultra Marathon. Instead it turned out to be my first ever time-out or DNF without injury. Daz, I am sorry for wrecking it for you. I'll return to where I started 16 years ago - shuffling my way around the LDWA events. I have no business with these proper fell races for proper runners. I'll get me coat.

Timed out at Angle Tarn.

After a bit of a sit-down picnic we began the 4-mile walk of shame down Mickleden to Great Langdale and the finish. I even walked most of that with only the occasional jog. Quite simply, I was good for nothing that day.

The good things about the day were the amazing sights in places I'd never been before, and the chance to hang around in the warm sunshine at the finish at a time I would never normally be there, when the sharp end runners were finishing. Now if only I were blessed with their speed ........

....... I'd probably get more injured?

The sad thing about the day was that I never got to pay my first visits to Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man.

Thanks to Achille Ratti for a superbly organised challenge, which I'd like to be able to complete someday.

Judith Jepson and Digby Harris just finished in 7:54:50.

I took pictures.


  1. Come back next year rested up and with decent shoes, and you'll get round. :)

  2. A bit of humiliation won't do you any harm, Nick.
    Turning up with the Fellsman and the Brecon 40 in your legs was always going to be a big ask.
    A good effort, though.

  3. Nice write up and photos as usual Nick. Just finished mine which reads very similarly to yours (until Angle Tarn anyway. We snuck under the cut-off). Glad it wasn't just me with rubbish shoe choice. Don't let it put you off, it's a very satisfying route. There's always next year. Cheers, Mick.

  4. Sorry to hear your troubles Nick - you have nothing to worry about though. Just an off day - happens to us all.

  5. Well, that's put paid to any involvement for me then :-) ... I'd best be sticking to the long .. flat ... trails, I'll keep my coat on! And stick to my solitary trail explorations!!!

  6. You Will be fine next year Nick. Those cut offs are not as tight as you think, as long as you run the downhills. Maybe a bit more rest before the next OCT race.

  7. brutal but nothing you cant do nick

  8. Oh dear Nick - a very negative write up. We all have off days - you've just got the determination to turn up, whereas I probably wouldn't have started ! You've been hammering the Ultras, so rest and you will no doubt come back stronger than before. I'd love to do this race.

  9. Thanks all for your encouraging words. I will be back in more ideal circumstances (if anyone will have me!).

    Alan B, you're right but it's how I felt. Not just an off 'day' either. I have detected a downward trend that seems to be steepening. I think I need a few months' rest. No, that would never work; I'd turn to seed. A few months at a runners' boot camp would be better to turn me into a proper runner.

    Alan L, next time I won't have a Runfurther Grand Slam on the go and this will be a target race instead of a filler. (Filler? Wash my mouth out. How dare I show such lack of respect. No wonder I failed.)

    Mike, don't dismiss it. You were already faster than I was before this latest slowing of mine. You'll do it for sure. Fancy joining me next year for a proper crack at it?