Helvellyn and the Dodds Fell Race

Sat 27.5.23, AL, 24km, 1337m

In preparation for a forthcoming club Bob Graham weekend I’ve been trying to get to know the BGR route better, both my own allocated leg (Leg 3) and, in case of last minute changes of plan, other sections not previously visited. A couple of weekends ago this had me and pal Simon recceing Leg 3. The good news – we got round the full leg; the bad news – it completely exposed how poorly prepared I was for taking on a challenge like this. Most obviously I just didn’t get the food and drink right, both out on the fell and in between. I was struggling by the end, so lessons to be learned!

With fresh resolve I decided to have a look at Leg 2 this weekend, a leg I’ve not done before. After the Leg 3 debacle I thought it was sensible to break it down into sections rather than tackle it all at once. By happy coincidence, my old club Keswick AC were putting on their annual Helvellyn and the Dodds race on Saturday, which covers the first half of the leg. This would then give me the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend to look at the remainder.

The race starts at Threlkeld Cricket Club, traditional handover point between Legs 1 and 2 on the BGR. Please note they’ve just put in a parking meter – £3 in coins or by parking app. Parking apps give me a nosebleed, particularly in remote areas with poor coverage, and I didn’t have any coins; fortunately a friendly face was on registration, my old colleague Catherine. She didn’t have a lot of change but we struck a deal of 3 pound coins in return for my £20 note; with entry being £14 that put Keswick AC £3 to the good, but it seemed a small price to pay for a technophobe like me!

Cat also gave me the top tip of watch out for the climbs on the way back. This was helpful as it seemed difficult in advance to work out this race. In one way it seemed pretty straightforward – climb up onto the ridge, run along it for 5 miles, come back the same way. But it’s still an AL fell race which means it must be hard, one way or another.

The other useful bit of intelligence was that there was no water on the route. This meant that my new filtration water bottle (ref. Leg 3 debacle, above) wasn’t going to be much help, so how much to take? Conditions were fine, but blissfully cooler than forecast earlier in the week. With the course record being 2 hours I reckoned I’d do well to get in under 3, so took about a litre, along with an apple, a piece of flapjack and some almonds. Full kit was enforced which meant quite a heavy rucksack but I was happy to err on the cautious side, this was just about getting more experienced at negotiating a long run. Meanwhile I looked at those with seemingly tiny loads with some wonder.

Race start at 11am and a jog along the tarmac for the first half mile, before hitting the open fell. Before long, we were walking up the steep grass steps of Clough Head. Already I was beginning to factor in how it would be coming back – this is a tough climb, but the descent in 3 hours’ time will be worse! This climb must be hard when you’re doing the BGR for real – Yewbarrow I guess is the only one that compares for continual steepness and height?

Eventually we topped out to the first checkpoint, followed by a long downhill to a depression (but yes, we will have to climb this on the way back). Up to the second checkpoint at Great Dodd; with an hour gone I had my first food and water stop. I was fine with taking a minute or two here, I don’t much like eating and drinking on the go and the views across to the central Lakes were stunning. In fact with the ground underfoot not too technical it was possible to take in the views much more today than other races I’ve done, where a quick scan of the horizon can so easily be followed by a trip.

From here the next checkpoint is Raise, which means the best line skirts the BG tops of Watson’s Dodd and Stybarrow Dodd. Mental note to navigate carefully here on a BG day, particularly at night/in mist. Just before the summit of Raise the mildly depressing sight of the leaders returning the other way. Some more ups and downs via White Side and Helvellyn Lower Man until eventually reaching the cheerful marshals on top of Helvellyn, celebrated with my piece of flapjack. 8 BG tops visited in less than 2 hours, if it was all like that we’d be doing it in 10 hours!

Still, it seemed a long way back, but fortunately my legs were still moving OK on the descents and the climbs, although long, were manageable. I got a lesson in proper fellrunning though from an older guy from Keswick – while I kept overtaking him on the climbs he was coming past on every descent, having picked the perfect line. Eventually, back to the top of Clough Head. I finished off my food and water, took a complimentary sweet balanced on top of the trigpoint and began tentatively descending the steps. Several proper fellrunners stormed past as I tiptoed down, but as long as I was moving I was fine about it. Eventually back to the tarmac and a more comfortable run in, feeling more like a closet road runner than a fellrunner. Back in just under 3hrs 15mins, 49th of 102.

If I’d had a niggly sense that £14 (£17) was a bit steep for a low-key fell race I soon found out it was an absolute bargain. A huge spread of free sandwiches, cake, juice and tea was laid out, and I didn’t miss out. In fact, many of us were still there an hour or two later, enjoying the sunshine, shared experience and hospitality – thank you Keswick AC!

As a postscript, seemingly well fed and recovered I returned the day after to have a look at the rest of the leg. The plan was to go up Helvellyn from Dunmail then return via the BG route. But the climb was surprisingly hard work, and while admiring the view of Striding Edge the apple I was eating almost slipped out of my hand; good job it didn’t as it would have ended up in Red Tarn 1000 feet below! I took that as a sign that maybe Fairfield and Seat Sandal were best left for another day. It’s one thing to do short/medium fell races, but this longer and multi-day stuff is a whole different order. Still more to learn, I’ll be pondering that while watching the footie with my feet up this afternoon!

The Race Against Time

Review of “The Race Against Time – Adventures in Late-Life Running” by Richard Askwith

Once a decade it seems Richard Askwith writes the definitive guide to keeping running interesting as you grow older. 2004’s “Feet in the Clouds” saw him escape from chasing PBs on suburban pavements to finding the freedom of the fells. A decade later, in the rural Midlands, 2014’s “Running Free” thought even more laterally about how to connect running to nature, whether it was by inventing running games in which you got deliberately lost or were voluntarily chased by a pack of hounds. And now in 2023 he has completed a trinity – “The Race Against Time” is a hugely upbeat and positive presentation of what running can do for you in even-later life, right up to the age of 100+ (if you’re lucky enough to get that far).

The book sticks to a trusted formula of generally surveying the so-called “Masters” scene (interviews with some of its leading figures, exploring the science of ageing etc) alongside the author’s own experiences. As someone who’s just turned “the wrong side of 50” there is much to be optimistic about here, not least how running can significantly improve your quality of life and independence in your later decades.

A recurring theme in the book is that you need to train smarter as you get older, with a greater focus on fewer, more intense workouts with greater recovery…. rather than just daily steady running. Not least to slow the rate of inevitable decline in muscles, the nervous system etc as you age. I particularly liked the analogy on p.220 in conversation with coach Pete Magill about how to avoid injury by varying your training:

“It’s like having a garden and you only water a third of it. And then the next day you only water the same third, and then the next day, and the next. And then you say – why is two thirds of my garden dead, when I water it every day?”

This sounds encouraging to me, as a fellrunner. My average “fell run” at the moment has unconsciously evolved into a walk/scramble up a hill to start, a jog along the top with several stops to take in views, have a chat/bite to eat, have a swim etc…. then an eyeballs-out descent back to the start. In other words, during a 3-hour “run”, I might only be running fast for half an hour. Meanwhile, running on the uneven terrain of the fells builds up strength all over your body. Mixing this with regular (and generally shorter) races and touch wood, I’m in reasonable shape at the moment and more importantly, really enjoying my running. (And ironically, since ditching a deliberately “competitive” mindset, I’ve been going a bit faster, and certainly getting injured less).

In fact if there’s one obvious gap in the book it’s that our fellrunning guru doesn’t focus more on the exploits of older runners on the fells. There are inspiring achievements by fellrunning “Masters”, whether the more obvious ones like Ken Taylor (first Bob Graham completion by a V70) or the evergreen Wendy Dodds, to more humble figures like Trevor Metcalfe (only V70 completer of this year’s BOFRA series of short-but-tough races) or my club-mate Steve, still entering AL Fell Races as a V70. We will all know similarly inspiring role-models.

You would have thought that a new running book by Richard Askwith would have been preceded by a bit more of a splash, but this one has sneaked out at quite short notice. Nonetheless, with the wind howling as I type it’s come at a good time – we need all the motivation we can to get out there, and once again this will do the trick. £18.99 well spent.

Available here

Podcast review

Wasdale Show Fell Race

8 October 2022

I’ve never done one of those VK (Vertical Kilometre) races, where you have to climb 1000 metres in 5k. However, the grassroots fellrunning calendar does have the Wasdale Show Race, 700m of climb in 2k. And unlike a VK, you have to come back down as well. I’d not run this race before either, but having been up & down Kirk Fell a few times I knew exactly what tomfoolery I’d be letting myself in for. Yesterday, a chance to tick another one off the bucket-list.

I was up near Ambleside for work this week anyway, so with a 2pm race start tried to make the most of the day. For a bit of a warm-up, knowing that the Langdale race started at 11am, I parked at the New Dungeon Ghyll at 10.30 and walked up Stickle Ghyll to the tarn to catch the runners coming through. 607 of them entered, according to the list online. It was quite a profound sight to glimpse the pack from far above, advancing up the ghyll like a colony of ants escaping from a disturbed nest. Soon enough, the cream of English fellrunning zipped past, followed in time by the more familiar midpack. Although it was a big field for a fell race, it didn’t feel like 600…. and in fact the results show that 421 started, which seems a pretty high drop-out rate, particularly as conditions were good.

Back to the car for midday, with a couple of hours to get to Wasdale. It’s only a few miles over the fells as the crow flies but the drive is way longer, and as I’d never been over Wrynose & Hardknott before I thought I should give myself plenty of time. Good job I did, Hardknott in particular is a crazy road and combined with a lot of pulling into passing places I didn’t get to the showfield until half 1. Well, at least no hanging around getting cold….

Weather still OK but this is Wasdale Head and it looked like it could change at any moment. A full rainbow cast across the fell and I started wondering about kit. It was warm enough down here so thought just a t-shirt under the vest would be sufficient, plus the obligatory waterproof.

Race underway, a 50 yard dash across the field to a mass stile-crossing, and that’s the last bit of flat until you get back to the same place in an hour’s time, and the last bit of running until you get almost to the top. A running race in which 90% of the climb is a walk….. The first half is up grass steps; seems tough enough until you hit scree further up. The scree was diabolical, one step up, two down. I started scratching around for anywhere with grip, and took an off-piste traverse to the right. Sure enough, an easier line, and a mental note to return the same way. Two thirds up and the race leader runs past me on the way back down; he’ll be done and on the way home by the time I get back. A nasty squall comes over so it’s waterproof on as we pick our way over easier ground to the top. Respect to the MRT guy who is stationed at the cairn, checking us through.

And now the descent. I’d tried to pace things on the climb so that I’d have something in the legs for coming down. It’s not so much about getting out of breath on this race, more whether your legs are still functioning by the finish! The first bit OK, but there was no avoiding a stretch of steep scree, some of it runnable but much badly eroded and just a slide. All about keeping your balance and getting down in one piece. Eventually, back to the grassy steps…. potentially quicker lines were available to the side but the squall had left them awkwardly greasy, so I kept to the steps for better grip, even though this was much more quad-destroying. At last, the stile again and an undignified jelly-legged waddle across the field to the finish. Straight to the river for nature’s own ice-bath treatment, hopefully the stiffness won’t be too bad this week.

There probably aren’t too many 4k races where it feels an achievement just to finish, but I was pleased to get round & do so in under an hour. And then just the small matter of the 3 and a half hour drive home. The late afternoon sun was out and it felt dreamy and other-worldly on the narrow West Cumbrian roads around Black Combe – never been up there before so one to return to. 3 and a half hours to drive to a 1 hour fell race, sounds daft…. promise I won’t do it again for, er, at least a week – Fell Relays in the Scottish Borders on Saturday!


Bradford Millennium Way – full circuit

13 September 2022

aka How to run for 9 & a half hours and miss an FKT by 1 minute

I’ve never been too bothered by records and Fastest Known Times (FKTs) before. Mainly because I’ve never been anywhere near them. And running’s meant to be about process not goals, right? It’s about enjoying the scenery, the exploring, the adventure….. if faster times come your way that’s just a bonus, surely.

Still, in planning a full round of the Bradford Millennium Way over the last few weeks, I thought it would be useful to get some idea of how long it might take. Was it already too late in the year? – I don’t fancy getting the headtorch out quite yet. So, a quick look at the FKT site…. turns out a lad from Ilkley called Matthew had done 9hrs 34mins a few weeks ago. OK, so an early-enough start would give me 13 hours daylight, sounds doable. Better get a wriggle on though before those days start drawing in….

This had me at the bottom of Shipley Glen at 6.40am on Tuesday. It was a little misty but not too cold, and the forecast was great, 19-20 degrees max later on. Perfect running conditions.

I’d decided to travel clockwise, to get the fiddly sections up to Penistone Hill out of the way first, rather than having to worry about map-reading and micro-nav at the end when I’d be knackered. This helped as I didn’t set off too fast…. saying that when I finally reached the more runnable sections it felt right to push things a bit, just to keep the legs moving.

To my surprise, reached the obvious half-way point, Eastburn Stores, at 11.30 feeling pretty good. Hadn’t touched any of the grub I’d packed so just bought juice and water at the shop (the only one directly on route) and pressed on.

Could have guessed this is where the bad patch would kick in. Slowed to a walk for several miles around Silsden, just concentrating on getting the food & water down while I could. Downhills for some reason seemed particularly difficult and it was actually a relief to start the climb from Addingham up onto the moor. Things were improving… and reached the top just after 2pm, 7 and a half hours in. Felt pretty upbeat, just that familiar skirting of Ilkley Moor to go. Made the mistake of thinking about the FKT for the first time….

Cue wheels fell off a bit. Should be a lovely descent down into Ilkley but just couldn’t get things going. Got to the stream at Keighley Road, shoes & socks came off & just sat in the water until feeling returned to the legs. Shuffled along Rocky Valley and realised I’d need another boost pdq, this time a slug of Coke from the Cow & Calf cafe, just off route. The sugar & caffeine kicked in straight away which got me back up Burley Moor….. then dissolved equally quickly, so it was back to walking to the shooting cabin. The one remaining snack went in there and again was able to pick it up down to Bingley Road before really hitting a wall at the tarmac. Just over a mile to go and you’re seriously wondering if you’re going to make it round at all! Eventually, out of the woods above Shipley Glen, just that nice wide path and back down to the Coach Road left. Finally, a genuine belief that you’re going to get round, everything relaxes and miraculously a sprint finish comes from nowhere.

Back to the car, stop watch. Collapse on grass. 4.15pm – 9hrs 35mins. A minute outside the FKT. Could I have found that extra minute from somewhere? Nope, I went as fast as I could and was just glad to keep going and finish. Did it matter? No, it really had been about another memorable day’s adventure after all.


Borrowdale Fell Race 2022

Long races in the Lakes are very challenging for lots of reasons, not least length, ascent/descent, the terrain underfoot, weather + the need for detailed route knowledge. I’ve only ever got my head around doing one – Borrowdale – and then only because I spent a recent summer living there and getting to know the fells well. This came in handy during last week’s race.

The other challenge I’ve been grappling with of late is getting my eating & drinking (sorry, “fuelling strategy”) right. I’m bad enough in day-to-day life, let alone a long fell race. The day started with breakfast at 6am, and the plan was for that to be it until after the race. (Pleased to say this worked pretty well, and all that passed my lips during the race was the bottle of water I carried, 4 jelly babies handed out by spectators + some extra juice/water from the “trough” at Honister).

Conditions seemed ideal at the start line at 11am. About 18 degrees, dry, no wind, tops clear. In traditional last-minute-kit-change fashion, I ditched the base layer and just ran in the Striders vest the whole way round (cag in bag of course), and this turned out fine.

The previous time I ran the race (2019) I’d set off quite fast, not least to avoid the bottleneck onto the Cumbria Way, just a couple of minutes in. The plan yesterday, by comparison, was to start slowly and hope I always had something left in the tank for the later climbs & descents. It’s a bit odd standing around for a minute or two 200 yards into a race but I tried to see it as a positive.

After a gentle mile or two from the start in Rosthwaite we passed through the fell wall (saying hi to Billy Bland, who is always stationed there) & immediately the race began in earnest with the direct 1500ft climb of Bessyboot, straight up. A reminder that Borrowdale is not a conventional running race – you spend as much time walking, scrambling, boulder-hopping & scree-running as you do running.

With Bessyboot boxed off it was a relief to get onto the trod that skirts round Glaramara. It was a little damp underfoot on this section due to recent rain but this helped keep me in check and not go too fast. Esk Hause is checkpoint 2, then we joined the tourist path up to the top of Scafell Pike, finding a few minor variations to the side. At this point, as befits the highest mountain in the country, the drizzle started falling and the nature of the race changed; initially, hopping the boulders on the way up to the summit needed extra care. Still, got to the top at 1pm, 2 hours in, which felt about right.

Rarely on Borrowdale do you get the chance to get into any kind of rhythm, due to the ever-changing nature of the terrain. After the climb of the Pike, it’s straight onto the (in)famous scree-run to join the Corridor Route. I actually found this a little easier than last time, I think because I was further down the field – it meant that the zig-zag line through the scree was a bit clearer, also fewer faster scree-runners coming hurtling past. Still, it was as much as I could do to stay on my feet and I did have to let one rolling boulder pass harmlessly by. I did get overtaken a few times & I can only marvel at those that turn scree-running into an effortless art. It took me over 3 minutes to complete the segment, the CR is 1:04!

I got to the bottom of the scree and decided it was worth the time to empty my shoes of rubble. Always a bit frustrating to see loads of people overtake but I think it was worth it overall.

It was then back to more conventional running down the Corridor Route to Sty Head. However, it was pretty greasy underfoot by now and extra care was needed. There are some faster, grassier lines to the left and at some point you need to decide where to short-cut across to the checkpoint. I played it safe and stayed on the path longer than most.

Sty Head is the first of 2 cut-offs, you need to be there in 3 and a half hours. I was there in 2:26 so no worries; saying that, it’s galling to think that after going up and halfway down the highest mountain in the country you’ve still got the business part of the race in front of you. Initially, it was the long slog up to the top of Great Gable, helped by a few jelly babies handed out at Sty Head. The climb, of course, seemed to go on forever. On top, the clag had really come down thick. I trusted previous knowledge, headed right, followed a few cairns and fortunately came in sight of a few runners making the awkward descent down to Windy Gap.

At this point, I followed the trod around to the right, which saves the short climb up Green Gable. In clear conditions, it pretty obviously brings you round to the path up Brandreth and saves you a couple of minutes. But right now it was misty and I soon realised I was heading downhill too soon and must have veered too far to the right. Others around seemed to agree and by some instinct we swung left and back uphill, finding the Brandreth path with some relief a couple of minutes later. Someone mentioned that in clag it’s your best bet just to go over the top of Green Gable and this seems sensible advice.

Fortunately, we came out of the mist at this point making the run down to Honister more straightforward. Legs were getting pretty achy by now though and still the thought of one more climb and descent to go….

The best that can be said about the climb up Dale Head is that it’s not difficult, just long, you get juice & jelly babies before it at Honister, you know you’re through the second cut-off and there are no more climbs to do after it! I’ve done this climb loads, but never has it felt more drawn-out than this time.

Eventually got to the top, dibbed the final checkpoint…. and then the sting in the tail. You’ve done 15 miles over rough terrain, climbed 2000 metres, only 2 miles to go….. but it’s the steep and rough 2000ft descent of Dale Head, a challenge in itself. I always take a curved line off the top here to avoid the worst steepness and rocks; yesterday, my curve was even more exaggerated than usual, but by this point all thought of times and positions were out of the window, it was just about finishing. Once over the stile halfway down I took the slightly quicker line to the left avoiding the main path through the quarries, but either way it was pretty awkward over those damp rocks.

Finally, I got to the bottom and just the flat-half mile along the track back to the finish to go. Legs pretty much gave up at this point and it ended up a pretty undignified shuffle. Fortunately, others were the same and I didn’t lose any places. Part of the folklore of Borrowdale is that this half-mile is the toughest of all! Some nice encouragement from other runners and spectators coming through Rosthwaite got me over the line.

I came in 104th out of 228 finishers + 27 DNFs. Time was 4hr 22mins, 3 minutes slower than my previous time in 2019. But really it’s just about getting round, finishing is winning. Got back to the car and a bit gutted to find I hadn’t packed the camping chair; I did have a picnic rug though so just laid it out on the grass, collapsed onto it for 10 minutes & waited to feel human again.

A thought for future years – the car parking field doubles as a camping field where (I believe) you can camp the night before & after the race. A large flat field with loads of space to spread out. An idea for a future Striders camping weekend perhaps. Many say Borrowdale is the best race on the calendar and who’d disagree?


In the Trespassers’ footsteps

In the Trespassers’ footsteps

The campaign for access to fells and moors has been ongoing since the 19th Century and, thanks to a combination of direct actions and more formal negotiations, we now enjoy much-improved rights than before. But it’s the Kinder Mass Trespass of 24 April 1932, when 400 ramblers gathered outside Hayfield in the Peak District and marched on the then-forbidden land of Kinder Scout, that stands out as the most symbolic event in the campaign for the right to roam. Its 90th anniversary is coming up later this month.

Today, it seems unthinkable that you couldn’t just go for a walk or run on Kinder. A magnificent sweep of upland territory, so close to major conurbations, just begging to be explored. Particularly for us fellrunners, who don’t just stick to the main paths but like to wander and stravaig off-piste at will. So I thought it would be fitting to pay a small tribute to the Trespassers’ legacy by having a run on Kinder sometime this April – yesterday, I got the chance.

I drove round to Hayfield and parked at the Bowden Bridge car park. How convenient that back in 1932 this was the quarry where the Trespassers gathered and began their walk, recognised now by a memorial plaque.

From here, I went along the road and then beside Kinder Reservoir to the bottom of William Clough, as had the Trespassers. They then headed up the clough, where they were confronted by a dozen of the landowner’s men, arrayed on the slopes of Sandy Heys above. After a brief skirmish, they continued to the top of the clough, where they met up with other groups arriving from Edale and the Snake, before returning to Hayfield.

William Clough is a decent little vale to explore, but I chose a slightly different route yesterday, more in keeping with my current tastes. Last year I spent much time in the Peaks doing some simple Grade 1 scrambling; I’m also quite partial to fast-but-not-too-technical descents, so here was a chance to do one of my favorite circuits. First though, I had time to have a short dart up the ravine towards Kinder Downfall, which I’d not visited before. As you progress upwards, you feel increasingly hemmed-in by the spectacular rocky amphitheatre – an awesome and overpowering place. Amazing to think Manchester city centre is only 20 miles away! I got to a point where three difficult Grade 3 scrambles prong out in front of you like a fork. To the left Square Chimney, straight ahead the Downfall itself, to the right Arpeggio Gully. All three looked terrifying and there was no chance I was going to progress further on my own – you need to be experienced, well-equipped and in company to give these a crack.

I was happy to head back down the ravine and instead ascend by one of my favourite Grade 1 scrambles from last year, Red Brook. In late summer it’s quite difficult to access the stream bed due to bracken; no such problems yesterday, plus from halfway up it was dry as a bone. Often I’m happy to take plenty of time over scrambles and savour them, but given good conditions I occasionally do a “speed-scramble”, mimicking a fell race. Well, 13:36 yesterday, third on the Strava segment, maybe I can improve on that later in the summer.

Red Brook

Once on top the wind kicked in big time. Great views on the jog around the Downfall but I made sure I didn’t get too close to the edge. Once at Sandy Heys I was literally leaning into the wind. I thought this might give me a jet-propelled advantage on the fast descent off here. In fact, I was buffeted from all directions so it turned out the slowest of my 3 efforts on the segment so far. Still, dropping almost 1000 feet in a mile is a pretty lively way of spending 6 minutes. There’s much more fun to be had on Sandy Heys than facing men with sticks. At the bottom I rejoined the outward route and retraced my steps back to the car.

Unlike the leaders of the Trespass, when I got back to Hayfield I didn’t get dibbed into the cops, locked up for months and then sentenced to prison. It’s easy to take the way things are now – like our access to fells and moors – so much for granted. But we are where we are thanks to the actions and campaigning of folk in the past, and I was glad to have made a simple acknowledgement of the Trespassers of 1932. Why not take a walk or run on Kinder sometime this April?


Hoofstones Fell Race

Another fell race, another write-up. Why don’t I think of something else to blog about? Perhaps it’s just a natural cycle with racing – you prepare, you race, you reflect – and particularly so in winter when conditions are so much tougher. Write-ups can be pretty therapeutic, and help you learn & move on to the next big idea…

This race – Hoofstones – usually takes place in mid-January and is a low-key event with a field of under 100. Low-key it may be but straightforward it is not. It’s the combination of a number of things – distance, climb, navigation, underfoot conditions, plus dealing with the January weather – that makes it appealing.

The race starts in the valley bottom just outside Todmorden and follows a lollipop-shaped route via the lonely summit of Hoof Stones Height (479m). This year’s race took place on the pleasingly-palindromic 22nd of January, 22.1.22.

This was 3 years since my one previous go at the race, 2019, and how that went was part of the reason I entered this year. In those pre-COVID times I was racing a lot and just thought here’s another local race to try. I remember being a bit tentative as the weather had been wintry in the lead-up…. but no matter I’ll rely on the classic fellrunning technique of following everyone else and trusting I’ll get round. Turned out to be something of a harsh lesson, as once on the tops we disappeared into full white-out conditions – snow on the ground and thick mist – and the only thing on my mind was sod this race, just get off this hill asap & back to safety. Others thought the same, so a gaggle of us headed straight down towards the road (which is out of bounds), then followed walls and fences through some pretty dire bogs until bumping into runners heading the other way – retracing their footsteps eventually led us to the final checkpoint and finish. Not very clever really – surely there’s a better, and much quicker, way round?

I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance this time, so for Jan 2022 I decided to recce the course beforehand. Plus conditions seemed OK so it would just be nice to see what it all looked like up there – I’d only ever seen white the previous time. So 11 Jan drove out to Tod and parked by the Staff of Life pub, where the race starts. Jogged up the course route, recognising little landmarks and the increasingly heavy underfoot conditions, until eventually reaching the trig pillar at Hoofstones. The view I’d missed out on last time turned out to be pretty bleak and wild, with not many obvious features. Time for some compass-navigation – took a bearing and headed off across the featureless moor directly towards the next checkpoint, a mile distant. Route finding was OK but underfoot things pretty atrocious. All heavy bogs and tussocks, not very runnable at all. Feet very cold by now so, once through the bogs, headed back down to the car to chew things over.

Back home, decided I’d need to go back out there again and try a Plan B. So a week later, 17 Jan, parked by the road halfway up and started sketching out an alternative line. This roughly followed the descent route I’d taken in 2019, but this time I found some trods which seemed to knock off a few minutes. It was more runnable as well than the slip-fest through the bogs. Overall, it felt like doing a second recce had been well worthwhile.

Race day, Sat 22 Jan. It’s been a dry week and it’s not too cold in the valley. Still, I reckon it will be Arctic on top, so get the full winter gear on. More local runners in just vest & shorts look at me with some disdain – fair enough. Once underway I get into a rhythm on the initially decent tracks and am in about 10th place 2 miles in. I find it much tougher going on the heavy ground up to the trig; still, am in about 15th at the top with a group of 3 or 4 just ahead. Would normally back myself to pick up a few places on the descent, so start wondering about a top 10 finish…… Shortly after, I see the main line of runners heading directly across the moor, where the bogs and tussocks await, while I stick to my longer, but hopefully quicker alternative.

About 15 minutes later I reconnect with the main field, hoping to recognise a few of the vests that overtook me earlier. Nope, it’s an entirely different bunch altogether. Now back on the quick descent I comfortably overtake a few and arrive at the finish to find it’s well populated by a fair crowd of tired but elated runners. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the race, keeping warm and on the move the whole time. On the watch I’ve finished 10 minutes quicker than in 2019, so some obvious improvement there. But I ask the finishing marshall where I’ve come and the answer is 32nd. Somehow in that crucial mile I lost about 20 places. Had the bogs miraculously dried out in less than a week? Is there a quicker line that I fractionally missed on my recce? Did the clear conditons and line of runners, removing the need to navigate, save so much time? Or does Hoofstones just attract the kind of runner that is particularly adept at getting across bogs, a lot better than me?

Always a few minutes or seconds to be gained, here and there, from accumulated experience in races and recces. I guess that’s why fellrunners keep going back to the same races, year after year. Many thanks to everyone involved in organising this one, and the spectators and photographers that braved the cold out on the course.

We don’t do electronic

Six weeks ago I’d pretty much resigned myself to not running this year’s Tour of Pendle, and just sharing a few tips instead. In fact, I’ve now got a second successful completion under my belt, but I did have to work pretty hard for it and learn a few sharp lessons on the way.

I work at a YHA and things have been so busy this year I’ve not got out running as much as I’d have liked. Finally though, a quieter period came just after October half-term, and a chance to recce the course and see if it was worth entering the race. I’d not been on Pendle since the previous time I’d raced – 2018 – so it was good to re-familiarise myself with things. I didn’t rush – checked some points of navigation, admired the views, took a few photos…. got through the cut-off point comfortably enough and fully round in 4 hours. So, 20 November booked off work and entry form & cheque in the post.

The hardest part of this was actually locating my chequebook, and it was amusing to find that the last time I had written a cheque was 3 years ago…. to enter the 2018 Tour of Pendle! As it says on the race website, “We don’t do electronic”. It did make me wonder, now that almost all races can be entered online, if it’s totally fair to limit entry to those that can pay by cheque. Surely not everyone has a chequebook these days? It turned out my experience of the race would have me slightly reconsidering this.

Three weeks to the race and I was hoping to get at least one additional long run in beforehand. Slightly depressingly, the lull at work turned out to be all too brief and I never got the chance. Also felt a bit under the weather in the week leading up to the race. It was only on the morning of the 20th that I knew for sure I was going to give it a crack. Not exactly ideal preparation.

At least the weather in Barley was decent, and it was great to be back on the start line in a big field – saying hello to a few familiar faces, including club-mates Tim, Mick & Mark (who’ve all done the race before) and Dinesh (here for the first time). At 10.30 we were underway and I felt pretty comfortable on the initial steady climb up to the trig. Just below the summit, I made a point of studying the ground closely for the crucial trod junction that you take on the return. I knew I’d missed it slightly on my recce, and even now in clear conditions it was barely discernable.

Descending from the trig towards CP1 a familiar voice is thanking me for acting as such an effective wind-break. It’s Mick, and we start chatting about the course ahead & is it tougher than the 3 Peaks even though it’s 8 miles shorter? (probably). CP1 has moved 100 yards from previous years to a new stile in the wall, and to my surprise the whole field is heading straight ahead rather than cutting across the moor as before. With about a second’s thought I rudely curtail the conversation with Mick and go for the short-cut on my own. It was quite good fun briefly running solo during a big race and dreaming that the rest were heading off in completely the wrong direction and that I was going to win the Tour of Pendle…. in fact I rejoin the main field about 15 minutes later (and the next I see of Mick is in the car park at the end to find he’s finished 10 minutes in front of me – so much for dreaming).

For the moment though things were continuing comfortably enough. Navigation not a problem early on as it’s such a large field. Approaching the Geronimo descent, I was happy to follow a line to the right – steep grass with a bit of bum-sliding, but so preferable to the diabolical stony gully that’s the main path. At the bottom, a gaggle of cowbell-ringing, jellybaby-chucking spectators that really lifts the spirits. And so on, briefly revisiting an earlier stretch of the course on this loosely figure-of-8 route, and down to the stream at the foot of Mearley Moor.

1hr 45min in. Two thirds of the race distance covered. The mind plays tricks on you that you are well in to this race. That the finish is within reach. You can almost smell the tea & flapjack in the village hall…..

But I well knew that everything up to this point had really just been a preamble. That the Tour of Pendle is in effect a 2-hour undulating jog from Barley to the real start line below Mearley Moor. That two thirds of the climbing come in this last third of the distance, in 3 big climbs – Mearley Moor, The Big Dipper and Big End. That it’s these 3 late climbs that make the Tour of Pendle the challenging race that it is.

I shove a muesli-bar down, take my first step up Mearley Moor and wait for the energy and adrenalin to kick in. Nothing. Plod on a bit. Still no reaction, in fact I can barely put one foot ahead of the other. Surely something must happen soon? People start getting stuck behind me. The path widens and they begin to drift past, making encouraging comments. Have I ever gone up a climb as slow as this? I stop thinking about the race ahead and switch to survival mode. Will I be able to get up this climb and back to Barley at all? This is getting embarrassing, I thought I was meant to be a fellrunner….

Then I remember another thing that’s meant to define fellrunners. Something about mental resilience and all that. Without really registering it, I’ve ignored the sensible direct route back to Barley and begun the descent towards The Big Dipper. Even though The Big Dipper is an even tougher climb than Mearley Moor. One look at it is enough to break anyone’s heart, even on a good day. I knowingly keep my eyes to the floor.

Somehow I got up that climb, even at snail’s pace, even though I knew I was causing a massive queue behind me (precious few overtaking opportunities here). Equally, the fifth and final climb, Big End, the top bit of which isn’t even blessed with steps cut in the turf, you just have to zig-zag/cling on to heather etc as best you can. There is a marshalling point either side of Big End, with biccies and jelly-babies laid out. These were an absolute godsend and bless the marshalls here (and elsewhere on the course), not least as the weather had now taken a turn for the worse. Clag down and the wind whipping up. Just need to get down now and off this bloody hill. At least the legs have started moving again. Am thankful I scrutinised the trod junction earlier as visibility is minimal, the field has thinned out and there are few other runners about. The trod widens into a path and feels right, leading me safely to the final CP. From here it’s a mile to the finish along the tarmac, which feels surprisingly comfortable after what I’ve gone through just 20 minutes earlier.

I’m back to the finish in just over 3hr 30, more than half an hour slower than 2018. “What kept you?” asks Tim, who’s been here 20 minutes and has kindly waited to hand me my race t-shirt. But all thoughts are on the spread laid out in the village hall – tea, cake, soup. After what we’ve just put ourselves through, this is our reward.

“Yes you do have to pay” I’m politely informed at the hatch, and no I don’t have any cash on me. I can’t really summon an answer and just head back to the car, half a mile away, where I have just frugal supplies of nuts & water to get me home. Why had I thought the spread would be free? It was only £9 to enter the race, including the t-shirt. And I’ve actually spent much of my career prior to YHA working with voluntary & community groups – if you hire a village hall for an event, they’re going to charge you a small amount for tea & cake whether you’re here to play dominoes or run a 16 mile fell race. And no, they probably don’t take contactless. We don’t do electronic.

It’s coming up to 20 years now since my first fell race, and I’ve done over 100 of them, but you never stop learning. Learning that if you come into a tough race underprepared then it’s going to be difficult. That just because you’re familiar with a course doesn’t mean it’s going to be straightforward. That fell races are organised by voluntary Race Organisers, often with the support and co-operation of other volunteers, so runners have to fit in with whatever the RO is willing and able to pull together.

The Tour of Pendle is a unique, knowingly-difficult event. It’s worth knowing that before you enter, so perhaps it’s for the best that it takes more than a few clicks to do so. If you don’t have a chequebook, perhaps find a friend or club-mate who does. Many thanks to Kieran and his team for the 37 Tours so far, and hopefully many more to come.

Tour of Pendle

I’m reluctantly accepting that due to a busy period at work I’m not going to run the Tour of Pendle on 20 November. Shame, because it’s a great AL (27km/1473m) at this time of year. Otherwise, I’d be preparing for it from about now, so here’s a few tips for anyone thinking of tackling it for the first time.

Conditions on Pendle in late November can be pretty interesting, so it’s worth being as prepared as possible. Before I raced it in 2018, I did a couple of recces – the first a half-circuit of around 10 miles, the second the full course. This helped me get familiar with the route and also made sure I could make the crucial cut-off (Checkpoint 4, in 2 hours). I was then able to complete the race successfully a few weeks later. From that experience, I’d say it’s worth knowing in advance that:

  • There are 5 significant climbs, each one progressively harder than the previous one. The penultimate one, The Big Dipper, is tough enough, but the final one up Big End is the real heartbreaker. Be warned.
  • Three quarters of the climbing comes in the second half of the race. Maybe don’t set off too fast.
  • The route is roughly a figure of 8, and it will almost certainly be windy on the day. So, if you get a backwind on some stretches, you’re going to get it in the face later on. I remember doing the Half Tour back in 2004 and the headwind being so strong on Spence Moor that I “ran” for about 5 minutes without making any progress at all.
  • You’ll probably be able to follow the field in the first half. However, there are some crucial trods and landmarks that are worth knowing in the second half when the field has thinned out. Particularly if it’s misty (likely). On my first (foggy) recce, I ended half a mile up Ogden Clough before realising I was heading in totally the wrong direction. Good to make these mistakes before race-day.

It’s a big field (600 max) so it takes a while for the field to sort itself out. Also, it means parking in Barley can be a bit of an issue, so be prepared for a long walk to registration, and take all your race kit with you.

Latest update (17 Oct) is 316 entries received so far, so still plenty of room. Time to dig out your chequebook (or find a friend who has one). Not bad for £9 – pre-enter here.

Descending Geronimo, 2018. Photo: Phil Donlan

He did it his way

Review of “Faster! Louder! How a punk rocker from Yorkshire became British champion fell runner”, by Boff Whalley

Fellrunners looking for 4 hours’ continual entertainment may look towards tomorrow’s 3 Peaks Race or Langdale Horseshoe; equally, they could just spend a tenner on this latest book by Boff Whalley. I picked it up and breezed through it in one sitting it was that good.

On the face of it, it’s a straight biography of one of the leading fellrunners of the late 80s/early 90s – Gary Devine, from Leeds. But the appeal of the book – in addition to how easy it is to read – is that Gary’s story gets to the heart of what fellrunning is really about. It’s not a tale of striving for athletic perfection, careful preparations, sensible training plans, healthy diets or early-to-bed. It’s about how a young guy worked out a lifestyle that suited him, of which fellrunning was an essential part. Despite the other elements of this lifestyle including ear-splitting punk records and gigs, the full-on punk look, excessive cider consumption, living in squats, police raids, fights and hospital visits – he still became British fellrunning champion. While this could easily be seen as a miracle, I was left with the impression that this overall “package” was in fact the key to Gary’s success on the fells.

A few years ago I read Boff’s previous book – the equally good Run Wild – which is structured around the contrast between his impulsive, thrill-seeking “wild” running and the plodding, corporate beast of the New York Marathon. Similarly, “Faster! Louder!” invited me to question just how much all the sensible running advice out there really applies in practice. Gary’s total embracing of the punk lifestyle in Leeds only really made sense because twice a day he quietly sneaked out the squat, shook off the hangover and headed out down the Meanwood Valley Trail….. but equally the running only really made sense if he did it sporting a pink mohican and if it didn’t stop him going out the night before. This isn’t a biography about a runner’s running, it’s about a runner’s overall life.

One of the more touching passages is when Gary has a bit of a Road to Damascus moment in a hospital bed, the morning after a fracas at a gig. He realises that the balance of his chosen lifestyle has to change slightly, and he will be better off getting into mischief with his fellow Pudsey & Bramley fellrunners than the Leeds punks. So, more piling into the van to some distant rain-lashed start line with smelly kit, a slab of tinnies and the rest of the P&B crew (the author included – part of what makes the book flow so easily is that it’s a knowingly first-hand, fly-on-the-wall account). Once fully immersed in the close-knit scene of the club, Gary’s running goes to the next level.

The “biography” ends in 1990 but in a footnote it’s good to see that Gary is still involved in fellrunning, organising his own race (and indeed supporting tomorrow’s 3 Peaks).

I suppose I could have saved my tenner and used it as 1% of the entry fee for the Spine or something (!) but in fact I was much better off just buying this book.