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?