Friday, 4 January 2013

Tour de Helvellyn 38mi. 22/12/2012.

I left it rather late entering this year due to a certain lack of enthusiasm. However when long range weather forecast predictions began of another cold repeat of the previous two years, thoughts of breaking out the Kahtoolas flooded my mind and my enthusiasm suddenly rose. If there was still accommodation available at the Queen's Head in Askham, I'd enter. There was, so my 100% attendance record would remain intact. (As it turned out, the weather did the opposite of what it was supposed to do: it returned to normal. We were to expect a day of rain and wind, with no snow or ice.)

I chatted to a couple of other runners over Friday evening dinner in the pub. One of them was Mick Cooper, who would be loaded down by a big rucksack in training for The Spine multi-day race in January. The other was a ‘young pretender’ called Edward from London, who was asking about suitable attire for the event. I was mildly concerned over his leanings towards minimalism. I may have offered sage advice with a sprinkling of dire warnings on survival strategies on the fells in winter. (This is one event where my sense of self preservation would not let me venture out without being covered from head to toe like a hiker for a day's survival unless the forecast was for dry, calm, mild conditions, and the chances of that are virtually zero. It’s probably why I’m always so slow on this one.) After dinner we popped next door to the village hall to get registration out of the way before retiring for a good night's sleep.

By Saturday morning the rain had already started when I toddled next door once again. However it was only drizzle on the gentlest of breezes, while the temperature felt almost tropical compared to what we'd grown accustomed to on this event, and it was set to rise further. The micro-spikes would not be leaving their box this time. It was 06:30 and the last sleepyheads were stirring (it had been possible to sleep overnight in the village hall). Runners began to mill around in the gloaming, silhouetted by the single pair of lights that had been switched on so far.

I planned to leave earlier than had been possible previously thanks to the bringing forward by half an hour of the opening time of the first manned checkpoint at 10.1 miles. Patterdale would now open at 09:30, which made a great deal of sense. Previously, if we departed at the earliest start time of 07:00, even the slower runners would have arrived at Patterdale well before checkpoint opening. It always struck me as crazy for runners like me, who were among the last to finish, having to delay our start because of this. Thankfully that anomaly was now gone.

With kit check complete and the time at 07:15, I joined the trickle of runners emerging into the night – a first time for starting with head torch. I was banking on a PB performance getting me to Patterdale within 2hrs 15mins this time. I looked forward to having more daylight at the end of the day before having to use the torch once again. I would still be out from dark 'til dark, whatever. I jogged up the lane and track towards Askham Fell, soon entering the low cloud base. The rain was light and drizzly at worst and it wasn’t windy, which was a bonus. I was soon toasty warm, done up as I was like a dog’s dinner in full body cover and waterproofs, and rucksack with extra chest pouch for easy accessibility of the day’s survival rations. It wasn’t conducive to speed, that’s for sure. My one acknowledgement of the warmer conditions was that I wasn’t wearing gloves – yet.

There was no ice to skate around on this year, just big puddles and bogs to soak the feet. A few head torch beams were visible ahead and a few more behind. The atmosphere was beginning to take on a dim blue hue just sufficient to make out silhouettes in the distance, but daylight proper was a long time coming. We looked out for the fork left at the top of the fell. We crossed the cross-track and continued on the same heading on the path (linear bog) that was so easy to lose in the dark. We paddled and sloshed our way past The Cockpit (ancient stone circle) on our left. Another runner shone his head torch at the stones to highlight them (my aged Mk1 version Myo XP was too dim for such activity). I looked forward to the end of the day and the successful navigation (hopefully) back in the opposite direction.

At The Cockpit we joined the Lakeland 50/100 route up from Pooley Bridge (to where I understand runners have strayed on their return leg in the past. OUCH!). Head torches finally got switched off on the undulating technical trail to the first unmanned checkpoint at Martindale Church (5.9 miles). The cloud base was lifting to give decent visibility in all directions. However the rain was beginning to increase in fits and starts and the wind was making its presence known at times as it turbulated around the mountains.

This year we were using Sportident electronic timing for the first time, so the dibber had to be easily accessible among the layers of body cover. On the inside of my right wrist pointing downwards worked well, as proven by the first ‘dib’ at Martindale Church.

From CP1 we ran down the lane and up the valley towards Boredale Hause. There was a steady stream of later-starting, faster runners overtaking me. Strong gusts of wind hit us at times as we climbed higher. The wind seemed to be waxing and waning, as was the rain, which never became as heavy as I had feared. Near the top of the col was StuStod taking pictures. He frequently had to wipe his lens as the easterly wind drove the rain onto it. (Sporting injury and surgery had forced Stu out of running and into photography for the time being.) Stu, it was great to see you out there and to ‘ave a bit of a chat. Get well soon, buddy.

Over the top and down to the right into Patterdale we went, running like mountain goats. At least I did whenever there wasn’t bare rock, since my LaSportiva Crosslites mistake wet rock for ice. In such cases I have to mince instead. Much of the Lake District is rocky, so I had a mincing good day.

A location change for CP2 to the George Starkey Hut meant we were back to a right turn at the kissing gate at the bottom instead of a left turn onto the lane like we did last year. I was looking forward to the opportunity to get inside to swap head torch for cap to keep the increasing rain off my glasses, to get some food out and to put my gloves on in readiness for the more exposed section over Sticks Pass. I timed it perfectly to arrive virtually on the dot of 09:30, to what can best be described as a broom cupboard that opened to the outside. “There go any ideas of ‘getting inside’”, I thought to myself. I shouldn’t have expected such decadence, such frivolous mollycoddling on the TdeH, should I? ;-)

Said broom cupboard was just big enough to serve drinks, which were flooding all over after the tap on the barrel had jammed in. I gave it a few stabs with my thumb to see if it would pop out, but all that achieved was a bruised thumb and broken nail. I dumped my junk on the wet ground to get myself sorted out: torch, cap, drinks bottles and food taken care of. The rain fell and I was getting rapidly chilled. I took my waterproof lobster gloves out, only used on special occasions like this, and tried to put them on. There was nowhere for my fingers and thumbs to go. They looked like proper gloves on the outside, yet the lining obviously had other ideas. I don’t think I’d worn them since last year’s Tour de Helvellyn and the lining was misaligned. I ran off down the road with my fingers twisted in all directions in their restricted palm-sized cocoon. The linings refused to cooperate so I took them off again and stuffed them in my front rucksack pouch. They were bulky and there was hardly room for them alongside the pork pies and Soreen. The zip was under considerable tension and I feared it might be torn asunder at any moment.

I was getting overtaken quite comprehensively as our route took us past Glenridding, past the Yoof ‘ostel and up into the disused mine workings. I had never seen it without snow. The cloud was above the hill tops and we could see where the paths went (usually). For some reason while playing ‘follow the leader’ we ended up having to climb up the fell-side to regain the path. We never made that mistake when it was covered with snow.

As the path began to level out before CP3 at Swart Beck footbridge (13.3mi.) and I continued to walk as I recovered from the steep climb, a minimally clad runner ran past as if he was on a short autumn fell race. “Bit reckless”, I thought. “It’s raining and cold and not even a Pertex?” “Anyway how can he be running, right here, right now?” He was soon gone and forgotten as we got our heads down to survive the heaviest bursts of rain of the day on the climb up to Sticks Pass. I was thankful it was blowing onto our backs. I was also glad to be able to see where the path went this time. I could see where we were off-path last year in the thick snow, and where we climbed the snow wall out of the stream gully. We had only been a few yards to the left of the proper path!

We topped out at Sticks Pass then began our descent towards CP4 at Stanah footbridge (16.0 miles). I had forgotten how long and steep the descent was. A few more runners overtook me on the steep grass next to the fence as I did some more mincing down the rocky path that zigzagged its way downwards.

The rocky path back from CP4 above the fell wall forbids running by those weakened by the crossing of Sticks Pass. Every year this is a low point for me, and time to get some food down to get energy back into the enfeebled body. I may have cracked out a Marmite and cucumber sandwich to add to the gels I’d already been eating. I tottered my way along to CP5 at Swirls car park (17.6 miles), where Garry Scott caught up and soon left me for dead.

I’d finally emptied my drinks bottle of Chia Charge by combining squeezing with various industrial suction pump techniques, so that could be consigned to the rucksack. The bottle of water could go in the bottle holder, which would leave two free hands. I decided to give the gloves another go as I continued my totter along the forest track. After much manipulation and finger-writhing, they just about felt right. I marvelled at their warmth, which lasted until they’d soaked up water like a sponge. (What’s the point of putting a sponge on the outside of the waterproof membrane? Where’s the manufacturer's common sense? Would they do the same for a waterproof jacket?)

I was surprised how strongly the wind was gusting through the trees. I had expected to be in shelter here. I began to brace myself for our return over the watershed, but not before I’d ‘dibbed’ at CP6 (Birkside Gill footbridge, 20.6mi.).

By the time we turned left to begin our climb up Raise Beck from Dunmail Raise, the wind and rain seemed to have died out. With the exception of the occasional frigid feet as we once again sloshed along a path that had become a stream, the experience was generally quite pleasurable. I enjoyed seeing the cloud-free, snow-free terrain for the first time as we topped out at the pass with Grisedale Tarn below to the right. The fell-side was a pleasure to run down but as soon as we hit the rocks once again down to Grisedale Beck, pace dropped dramatically in the interests of survival. I got overtaken plenty once again, including by Chris Davies (his running fitness amazes me).

On arriving back in Patterdale, with my gaze fixed further down the road I ran merrily past CP7 at the George Starkey broom cupboard (26.5mi.). Fortunately someone called me across. It had taken me just over 7 hours to complete just over marathon distance. I was on for an emphatic PB at this rate (yes, really). This time I forced my way in (shame it wasn't the Tardis) to sit cross-legged in the corner to drink a mug of sweet tea (pure nectar), sort out some more food and the head torch for later. The door to Narnia in the rear wall opened a couple of times and banged into my left knee, but I don't think I caused too much of an impediment to free passage.

With renewed energy from tea and pork pie and with just over 10 miles to go, I was up and off back up that hill to Boredale Hause with one or two other runners. I luxuriated in the amount of daylight left despite it being very overcast. Last year it was well on the way to getting dark and the skies were much clearer. I also marvelled at how the wind had dropped and the rain had stopped. The running conditions now were nigh on perfect. My clobber would do an even better job at speed regulation via the overheating effect. On the rocky descent where StuStod had sat 6 hours earlier, I got left for dead once more. Further down when it became runnable again, Fraser Hirst caught up with me and remarked that it was around this point that we first met two years ago. We continued together to the end that time. He's upped his game since then, and so he became the next runner to leave me for dead.

I jogged on in my own contented world of blissful solitude, in daylight and without snow cover (how novel) towards Martindale. I allowed myself to be mildly entertained (with a tinge of pity) at the sight and sound of a car trying in vain to drive up a track to a house on the hill. The mud and water were too much and it kept sliding back into the gate at the bottom. CP8 at Martindale Church (30.7mi.) soon arrived. I was alone as I took the quicker low road to the Outdoor Centre to take the footpath up the field. My overheating condition meant that my water bottle was well on the way to being empty, so I refilled it within a millisecond from the torrent that raged along the culvert across the field.

I climbed to the kissing gate to join the high path. Another runner was just coming along, who turned out to be Geoff Pettengell. He must have overtaken me at his faster pace earlier on and I'd caught up with him again. He seemed to be on a bit of a downer. I had just ingested yet another gel and had a second fourth seventh wind. I was raring to go to make the maximum use of the remaining daylight. I hung back for a chat (I always enjoy a good chin-wag). This was his first time, so we agreed to run together to the finish. Since I was already on for a guaranteed PB I welcomed the company and the removal of self-imposed pressure. We picked up another runner around this point whose name I have forgotten. (Forgotten runner, if you read this, please speak up via the comment.)

We jogged up the ascending trail back towards The Cockpit. We had to switch on our head torches shortly before we got there. I knew we had to continue ahead past The Cockpit but I was fooled into following a linear bog (assumed to be the correct path) a little to the left. Unknown runner, who really knew where he was going, pulled me back to the right and we continued on the perfect heading that eventually veered left, across the cross-track and uphill towards the copse on the horizon. I knew we had to veer right before the copse. The grassy path was clear to see by our torchlight and we descended from the top of Askham Fell back down to the village hall in the warmest, darkest (most moonless and snow-free) conditions I have ever known.

My finishing time of 9:52:11 was over an hour faster than last year's previous PB. I make the distance 37 miles, tops, which gives a speed of 3.75mph. That might sound slow to you. It sounds dreadfully slow to me considering the amount of 'running' I was trying to do, but this is a tough event with self-imposed clobber to impede progress. Even so I never guessed I would achieve under 10 hours. 5th PB in December and counting?

Geoff started later than I did. His off-the-boil time was 9:07:23. He would have got an easy sub-9 finish if he'd been as fit as I was. Next year, Geoff.

I found out afterwards that the minimally attired racing snake who overtook me just before Swart Beck footbridge was none other than Edward Catmur, to whom I had imparted my considered advice on attire on Friday evening. He finished second in 6:05:04. It was a good job he didn't take my advice to venture out dressed as a hiker otherwise his athletic performance might have been somewhat inhibited. (Even if he'd been dressed in a gorilla suit as a fun runner I bet he still would have beaten me, though.) Well done Edward. You are certainly no pretender.

The fastest time went to Kim Collison once again with a time of 5:59:53. Third went to Stuart Walker in 6:13:26. Well done all three, and to everyone else who took this on. It is an amazing event at the right time of year. As long as I am alive and able, I shall return. Many thanks to Joe and team from NAV4 for making it all possible. I luv ya for it.

Because of the rainy forecast my camera never left the village hall, so I only have a few before and after pictures.

StuStod took some good shots up Boredale Hause in spite of the rain driving into him.

Official photographers SportSunday were roving about in a few places. Unfortunately, poor light conditions meant that not all the photos were published. I'm missing from the Raise Beck pictures. The ones that were published are here.

One of the marshals took another good crop here.

Finally, here's one of my closing shots from the stage.


  1. Excellent report Nick, and well done on the PB. I must have passed you out on the course somewhere, either running the fenceline on the descent from Sticks Pass or possibly on the climb to Grisedale Tarn where I got bored with all the lovely runnable path and went off on a fell running suicide mission to cut the corner which probably cost me 10 minutes. I missed you at the end too but it was nice to catch up beforehand. Any plans for 2013 then?

    1. Thanks Jim. I didn't realise there was a corner to cut up to Grisedale Tarn, but what would I know. I've only been up that way three times and seen the ground once. :-)
      Plans for 2013? Loads. Try to get faster for one, for when I hit V50. You'll have to wait for the official announcement for the rest. ;-)

  2. Hi Nick Good report of the event quite blow by blow. It was me that kit checked and took the pictures at chk3, thanks for the link to the blog and shouted you while on your amble down the road at starkey hut. Hope to see you again soon.


    1. Thanks Stuart for your enthusiastic support for us all. I can tell you enjoy it, just like we do. Also thanks for calling me across the road when I had my blinkers on.
      See you same time next year, or before if you do any other events.

  3. Hi Nick, nice meeting you at the end - we were sitting by you in the Village Hall at the end of the table, you may recall that my wife (Helen) was struggling a bit with the after-effects and trying to cure it by eating cake!

    Like Jim I did that daft "corner cut" up Willie Wife Moor instead of going up Raise Beck, it easily cost 10 - 15 minutes. Not recommended. Good write-up, maybe see you there next year.