I knew it was going to be my lucky day when the front seats were free on the top of the double decker 555. I’d left home in darkness, dressed in yesterday’s smelly, damp running gear. Jogging down the slippery cobbled lanes, bright with rain, to catch the early morning bus to Ambleside.
As dawn approached, I could make out snow on the tops in the distance. Shafts of sunlight greeted us at Ambleside, and I hopped off the bus, looking up at the white hills and huge dark clouds.
First stop, Esquires Cafe in town, for a perfectly presented flat white coffee, a ten out of ten, a great start to my day. It was still early, there were only two other people in the cafe, a tourist couple, I think. They were eyeing me suspiciously. I got my map and compass out and took a safety bearing off Hart Crag. If it’s thick with cloud up there, finding the ridge off would be difficult. “Enjoy your run” said Mr Barista on my way out.
Leaving Ambleside behind, I ran along to Lower Sweden Bridge, the sun was up now, with clear blue sky above, and I soon reached the snow line. The sight ahead simply took my breath away. The fells white with fresh snow, untouched by footsteps. I was the first.
This kind of snow was perfect for running, only a few inches deep, already melting in the sunshine, with no ice underneath. There was hardly any wind and I could feel a spring in my step, the climb to my first Wainwright summit, Low Pike, was effortless.
Every few minutes I had to stop and take in the views, capturing the memories with my camera. On up to High Pike, and then to Dove Crag.
It felt surreal. I seemed to be floating over the snowy ground, totally immersed in the environment. Thermal cloud built up and subsided, constantly changing the shadows and contours. Every step a different view.
Hart Crag was next. The cloud seemed to disperse as I neared, as though opening her curtains just for my benefit. When I reached the summit, it was basked in sunshine.
Running down the snowy ridge to Hartsop above Howe, feeling dwarfed by the bulk of St Sunday’s Crag. From here, a steep descent through melting snow to the valley floor, at Dovedale, the battered remains of a washed out footbridge jammed between rocks in the beck below.
Across flat, green fields feeling the heat of the sunshine on my face. A wade across Hartsop Beck, then a steep climb back up to the snow line, and the summit cairn of High Hartsop Dodd. The views everywhere were simply stupendous.
I always follow a clear route when I’m in the hills. I hate “dog legs”, the out and backs to summits from the main ridge line.
I much prefer my running journeys to embrace vertical descents, river crossings and steep climbs over rough terrain.
For me, it makes for a more fulfilling journey. There’s more of a sense of adventure, a brush with running on the wild side.
Deeper, soft snow on Little Hart Crag, and at Scandale Pass I pick out a lovely contouring line, gradually climbing to the summit of Middle Dodd.
Hoof prints of Herdwick sheep in the snow confirming this as the best route.
Before I knew it, I was almost at my final summit, Red Screes.
I stopped, and spent some minutes taking it all in, genuinely saddened that I was coming to the end of my run on this special, special day. What a great day to be alive!
I picked my way down the steep rock, slippery with ice and melting snow, streams in the distant valley sparkling white with sunshine, down to the Kirkstone Pass car park.
“Patch” the van was where I’d left it yesterday afternoon. I jumped in, turned on the radio, and joined Gary Barlow singing one of his cheesy songs, getting home in time for lunch with Claire.
I just love it when a plan comes together.
Another 9 Wainwright summits today, that’s 29 down, 185 to go.
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I’ve got Joss Naylor to thank for the inspiration. I was flicking through his biography “Joss” and came across a piece about his acute back pain that gnawed away at me all day on Sunday. I suddenly felt pathetic. Reading about Joss and his own severe back troubles made me make some decisions about my own recent shoulder injury. Sod it, I’ll just have to live with the pain.
We still had our old van “Max” parked up in the Kentmere valley, after I’d abandoned a planned run over the tops from Ambleside. I checked the mountain forecast for the next day : 70mph gales, wind chill -20’C, white out snow showers. Perfect! Tomorrow afternoon I’d go and fetch it.
An early morning start, getting up at 5am to get some work done, making time for a long run later. Walking Ash to school, I was surprised that it was now cold and dry after so much rain. I had an early lunch, and Claire came back from a run on the Scars – “it’s looking very black where you’re going!”
I changed into my running gear, leaving my poles behind for once. I’ll wait until the soreness in my shoulder has gone before using them again. At the car park on Kirkstone Pass, I had some doubts about what I was planning to do. There were no other cars in the car park. As I stepped outside the wind nearly took the door off our “new” van Patch, so named, as it’s a 5 yr old Citroen Dispatch. It was freezing cold, and hail stung my face. I set off up the climb above the Inn, the ground soaked, some patches white with hailstones. My shoulder was sore but bearable, although I couldn’t push down on my knees, fell runner style.
Reaching the ridge brought a change underfoot, with frozen ground and ice. A red deer looked up, startled by my presence, and loped gracefully off. I was enjoying myself. I realised I would much rather be up here with a sore shoulder, in the freezing cold, than back home in a warm living room.
The wind was strengthening. With no poles I realised I could run with a map, so stopped to get it out of my bag. I then found I’d already slightly over shot the first summit, Caudale Moor. I doubled back into wind, my first Wainwright summit down in 28mins. The westerly wind was gale force by the second summit, Hartsop Middle Dodd, reached in 43mins. In the distance, the bulk of Helvellyn loomed white with snow against a backdrop of soot black cloud. I fought against the wind along the ridge before veering into the lee side and shelter. My route took me vertically down the steep, grassy slope, sodden with rain water. I took it very easy, not wanting to slip and fall.
In the valley, I waded through the river, then climbed steeply up, past a small stone barn with it’s new corrugated iron roof ripped off on the windward side, a single bent sheet flapping wildly. I had a bit of trouble pulling myself up onto a large boulder to climb the main intake wall. Then it was a steep climb up the ridge itself, back into the strong wind. The path was in the compression zone, the wind too strong for me. I took shelter off the path in the leeward side, putting up with long tussock grass and an awkward camber. Strangely, the wind was much less on the summit of Gray Crag, my third, reached in 1hr 20mins. A break in the clouds, shafts of sunlight and superb views in the distance to the shining levels of Lake Windermere.
I contoured round Thornthwaite Crag. Behind me, dark, menacing looking storm clouds were brewing in the west. I could see big, recent landslides on the steep western slope of High Street. The ground was now frozen again, all the rocks had a veneer of hard black ice. It was impossible to run on the main path. Then it came. I heard it first, and seconds later the gust front nearly bowled me over. Suddenly it was a white out. Hailstones hammering on the left side of my face, buffeting me with ice cold wind. It was a relief to see High Street cairn, my fourth summit, reached in 1hr 59mins. Now the wind was more from behind as I ran down to Mardale Ill Bell, the tarns frozen near the summit. As suddenly as it came, the storm had passed on, and sunshine gave spectacular views towards Ill Bell and Froswick.
Another dark storm was coming my way, enveloping Ill Bell. A pair of Ravens wheeled overhead in the turbulence. My fifth summit reached in 2hr 10mins. I had to avoid the treacherous, icy rock down to Nan Bield pass, with hailstones for company again on the climb to Harter Fell. By the time I’d reached this windswept sixth summit, in 2hrs 23mins, the sun was coming out again, and the views all around were spectacular.
Now I’m on very familiar territory, my “backyard”. The ground wasn’t quite frozen on the descent to Kentmere Pike, my shoulder painful as I pulled my leg out of a deep peat bog. Another hail shower, then the sun coming out as I climbed the stone wall to the cairn, my seventh summit, in 2hrs 40mins. Downhill now towards Shipman Knotts, another white out hail storm. The final summit, my eighth, in 2hr 59mins. I celebrated by eating one of the two muesli bars I’d brought with me.
Tired legs now on the final descent to the valley, running past the church, Kentmere Hall, then along the Kentmere Trail bridleway to the Hollingworth and Vose factory. It was now just going dark. My old van started first time, and I drove the short distance back home to Kendal.
8 Wainwrights today, 194 to go.
Tuesday 2nd February 2016
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Here in the Lake District, the weather has been absolutely shit for the last week. Heavy rain, gales and even more rain. Last night the weather maps suddenly looked a bit more promising. Maybe even a window of good weather for late morning. I made plans to make good use of it.
The great thing about working for yourself is being able to work when you want. So this morning I was up at 5am. I did question my faith in the forecast. It was lashing down. Then as if by magic, walking my son Ash to school, it started to look a bit more promising. By 10.30am, I was changed into my running gear and heading off to Longsleddale.
My run started by the bridge at Sadgill, and then up the ancient, rocky drover’s road to Gatesgarth Pass. The sun had now come out and grey clouds were streaking across the sky. I was getting buffeted by strong gusts of wind. At the pass, I branched off right towards Branstree, the ground frozen solid. Except for the top couple of centimetres, which were as greasy as crude oil. Nearing the summit, the wind was phenomenal. I could hardly stand up and took refuge crouching behind a dry stone wall. I put on my cagoule, as I was freezing cold, the wind whistling through gaps between the stones. Feeling better equipped, I left my shelter and battled to the summit.
From here the wind was more or less behind me. Yet it was so strong it made me feel like I was running like a drunk, totally out of control, pushing me this way and that. It only took 10 minutes to get to the next summit, Selside Pike, and I rested in the stone shelter at the summit.
Returning back the way I’d just run was a battle of perseverance, right into the teeth of the wind. The noise from my cagoule and hat was incredible. When I bent into the wind, some of my steps didn’t even penetrate, I was running on the spot. It was exhausting work, and half an hour later, I made the stone wall near the summit of Branstree and shelter. I ran down along the wall, in the lee of the wind, with old snow drifts for company. To think that last year I ran these hills in the height of summer and struggled with heat and dehydration…
Another battering on the summit of Tarn Crag, then a reprieve on the downhill towards Grey Crag. A moment of doubt at the bottom of the hill crossing a bog. It was only as I was half way across and committed, that I recognised danger. The moss a vivid pea green colour. It sucked at my legs like a man eater, the moss visibly sinking a metre around me. Making myself as light as possible, I somehow managed to get across.
If anything, the wind was picking up. As I left my final summit, Grey Crag, I was literally crouching down with my hands on the ground trying to pull myself along through the compression zone. Further down, the wind eased for a second, then came at me in a powerful gust that lifted me off my feet, blowing my legs sideways. I landed awkwardly, bending my fingers of my right hand backwards and skidding downhill on the sodden grass. As I picked myself up, I shouted out “YES!”
Isn’t it a humbling experience to be reminded of nature’s power?
It was a gorgeous sunny morning, with blue skies. I started thinking about a Wainwright run for this afternoon, after work. I packed my running gear and left home for another adventure. The distant fells were white, bright with snow.
First stop, Staveley. I wanted to see what state the bridge was in by the Eagle & Child after December’s Storm Desmond. It’s in a sorry state. Completely knackered, with a big hole in one end and visibly collapsing in the middle. What’s surprising is that the river Gowan is a tributary of the Kent. It seemed inconceivable that the small stream today could have been the raging torrent that could wreck a bridge and spill over the walls flooding the nearby homes.
I wondered why as I walked over the footbridge and into the More? Bakery in the Mill Yard, for an early lunch of haloumi, jalapeno, hummous and rocket ciabatta, with a flat white coffee. The bakery seemed quiet and there wasn’t a lot of stock on the shelves. Sitting on a stool by the big window, I watched a pied wagtail paddling in circles in a small puddle outside. After lunch, I drove to Troutbeck for the start of my run, parking next to the church.
The first person I met was Phil Clarke. He’d just been for a run on Sallows and Sour Howes.
“It’s magical up there”, he said, “but hard work. The snow’s hard on top, then collapses into dinner plates”.
I had a short climb out of the valley floor, then a gradual descent along the bridleway going towards Troutbeck Tongue. There’s a lot of new tree planting either side of the trail, and I’d not been down this path before. As I got nearer to the Tongue, there were a few small land slides, and a farmer on a quad bike gathering his sheep from the fell with his dogs. I enjoyed the scramble climb up the rocky spur, and made the summit in good time.
There was soft snow along the path towards Thornthwaite Beacon, and this quickly became hard work on the climb itself out of the valley. Deep, “post holing” snow, where the sun had softened it. Harder in other places, so there was a mixture of easy steps, not so easy steps when the snow gave way, and really hard steps when my foot went down through the snow to my knee. It was fun, but slow work, and very, very tiring.
I thought back to last year and how these snowy runs really toughened me up during my Bob Graham training. It took an age to get to Thornthwaite Crag. It was impossible to get any momentum going. I tried to run properly a few times. Once, my foot went down so far, I fell forward, then my arms disappeared into the snow too. I was lying flat, my face pressed against the cold snow and I could hardly push myself out!
I decided at Thornthwaite Crag that it would make the most sense to return via Froswick rather than head on to Gray Crag (and High Street, then Mardale Ill Bell) as I’d originally planned. I was taking probably twice as long as I thought I’d be, just to get here. The huge cairn on the summit was a spectacular display of ice sculpture, and someone had built an igloo next to it for shelter.
More fun and games on the way down towards Froswick, more face plants in the snow when I tried running too fast. It was easier going on the main path, where other people had compressed the snow. So I made good time to the summit at Froswick, and then Ill Bell and Yoke.
The views all around were tremendous. White, snowy summits. Blue sky, with clouds of every shade of grey, and shadows of each contour. My achilles were now getting sore. I was wearing Walsh PB’s with a number 3 written in magic marker on the heel tab. The last time I wore these shoes was on Leg 3 of my BG round in May last year! It probably wasn’t the best idea to try and run in them after so long in these conditions whilst still under the effects of jet lag with swollen ankles from the long haul flights.
The sun was now sinking, with the light becoming even more wonderful, sparkling off the snow. It was very hard going on the ascent of Sallows from Garburn Pass, no-one else had been up here so I was making new steps in the deep snow, and I was really tired.
By the time I reached Sour Howes, the skies turned into a spectacular red, orange and pink sunset. I jogged back down the lovely rocky ridge towards Troutbeck, satisfied with 7 more Wainwrights.
A couple of years ago, in 2016, I came up with an idea for a personal challenge. To run all 214 Wainwright summits in the Lake District within 214 days, that’s by 1st August.
It would become my third successive year completing all the Wainwrights and since then, I ran the lot again last year, to make it four years on the trot.
Looking back, one of the real pleasures I took from the year was in writing short reports about my Wainwright journeys and posting these on my Facebook page. I got a lot of encouragement from fellow running and walking enthusiasts who seemed to enjoy my writing and photo memories.
Now I’ve started this trail running blog, I thought it would help bring these articles to life, especially the photos. They may also help inspire others to get out into the beautiful hills and mountains of the Lake District. So I intend to republish each and every one, throughout this year, and try to match the actual dates from 2016.
This was my first piece, published on 20th January 2016. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy remembering each one of these magical journeys.
What’s the point?
So, what is the point?
I’ve asked myself this question a number of times. It all boils down to the sheer enjoyment the whole enterprise gives me. I love planning new routes, linking Wainwright summits up in different ways. It entices me to visit places in the Lake District that I just wouldn’t go to otherwise. Trying to fit these mini adventures in with family and work life often means either early morning starts running with a head torch, or late afternoon / evening runs after work or a family day out.
Of course, this also means I’m often high in the hills for spectacular sunrises or sunsets. Venturing out bagging Wainwrights also helps me to get hill fit, and as I’m planning an attempt at the Joss Naylor Challenge in May later this year, I’ll need plenty of miles in the bank to succeed.
My first Wainwright of the year was Wansfell late yesterday afternoon. It only took around 20 minutes to run through the snow from Troutbeck village to the summit. Yet the views from the top simply took my breath away. The sun was setting in the west behind the Coniston fells, and the light, with the cloud and snow capped peaks, was totally captivating. I spent over twenty minutes at the summit, mesmerised by the views and taking photos. On the run back down, slipping in the soft snow, I smiled to myself for deciding to run all the Wainwrights again this year. This is the first of many, many fantastic experiences I’ll enjoy over the coming months. One down, 213 to go …
So, the whole point is really explained by this photo!
Over the last fourteen years, I have had the good fortune to hear some incredible life stories from ordinary people taking part in the Lakeland Trails events. This one was right under my nose. Nicky has been helping with the Lakeland Trails for the last few years, progressing from marshalling, to event crew, even running in most of them. Recently, I came across some old photos that Nicky had posted on her Facebook page. They made my jaw drop. It was hard to believe this was the same woman I had come to know. I wanted to find out more about her life story, leading to this interview with Nicky.
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Nicky : My name is Nicky Ridley, I am 39 years old and live in Milnthorpe, Cumbria. I am a Support Worker for elderly adults and those with dementia
Nicky, I first met you (and husband Chris) as volunteers at the Lakeland Trails in Staveley – was it really only two years ago? What brought you there?
Nicky : Yes it was two years ago. How time has flown!! We were introduced to Lakeland Trails by Laura Ruxton, who told us they needed marshals and what fantastic events they were. We were not up to the distance of running them yet, but we thought if we could help out it would give us an insight into what trail running is all about. Laura introduced us to the other marshals, explained where we would be and off we went. I was inspired by all the runners there, coming in at different speeds, how muddy they were. It made me smile. All the cheering that went on and how all the runners thanked all the marshals. It was just such an amazing atmosphere. I knew then I wanted to be on the trails. I felt part of the Lakeland Trails team
So, at the time, you’d just started running?
Nicky : Yes. We had just completed the Couch to 5K, so we were moving up to 10K distance. Our running had all been on the road unfortunately. I had never ventured on to the trails as the thought never entered my head that I could do it. I watched videos of all these fit people running marathons and running in the fells but always said to myself I could never do it. These people were my heroes
Nicky – ‘before’
Why did you start running?
Nicky : I had lost 8 stones in weight and I’d tried all sorts of different fitness activities, like going to the gym, Pilates Zumba and many other things. However, I was getting bored as it was being stuck inside. One day my husband Chris said he wanted to run a marathon before he was 40. So that is when the Couch to 5K training programme came in. At first I hated it. I don’t know why, I just did! But now I can say I love running it’s my stress reliever from my job.
I’d never really appreciated what you’d achieved already by just running until I saw some photos of a bigger version of you a week or so ago. Could you tell me what you and your life was like then and how long ago this was?
Nicky : Well my life back then, a whole nine years ago, was so different. I was never small, I was about a size 16. Then I started to exercise. I used to go for walks but not as much as I do now! I lost a little weight for my wedding in 2005, only to gain it all again, and some more, pushing me to 18 1/2 stone and a size 20/22. But the worst was yet to come!
Nicky eight years ago
I was driving back from Lancaster and had what we thought was a blackout at the wheel of the car. After many test and scans I was diagnosed with epilepsy and my world fell apart. I struggled to deal with this, and had many seizures. After a while and talking to the right people things started to change. I began to gain a positive attitude. I decided epilepsy wasn’t going to beat me.
How difficult was all of this lifestyle change at first?
Nicky : If I am honest, it was very difficult. I had to change what I ate and drank due to the medication I was on. I had to introduce gentle exercise and meditation to relax me. I still had lots of seizures, but I was determined not to give in to IT.
What or who helped you?
Nicky : I have a fantastic GP who is a runner and he also runs the Lakeland Trails. He has been a great support, although I get the odd telling off every now and then, if I overdo things. My Neurologist is in Blackpool and he told me everything I needed to do to get my epilepsy under control. So I did what I was told and he has backed me 110% with my running and is amazed with what I have achieved. I did join Weight Watchers and I would totally recommend it if you are someone who needs help and support with weight loss. I am not ashamed to say I did and I would definitely go back should I need to. I actually help out sometimes too, because some people think if you exercise you shouldn’t eat. Of course, you can and you should! Then there’s my husband Chris, who has been fantastic. He has helped me through everything – epileptic seizures, running races with me and generally in life.
Did you have any relapses on your journey to getting fitter?
Nicky : The only relapse I had was when we went on one holiday where there was nowhere to exercise. It was an “all you can eat and drink” holiday. As soon as I returned home I was back running again. Now I always try to make sure there are places I can go running before we book (crazy I know)
Nicky running in the Lakeland Trails in Staveley
Any funny moments?
Nicky : Many times when I have ended up sliding down grass bankings on my bum or falling in bogs up to my knees. I think my best moment was when I did my first Lakeland Trails with the ‘Sting in the Tail’ and I lost my shoe in the mud. A really nice man helped me get it out, but as I got mine back on, he got stuck and lost his. Then two marshals had to help him get out. It was only when he saw me marshalling at the next event he said he won’t be helping another woman stuck in the mud again, bless him.
Did getting fitter have any other positive impacts on your life?
Nicky : Most definitely, since losing all the weight and starting running it has certainly helped to get my seizures under control. I have a much more positive outlook on life. I have met so many new friends who I now run with and I love it, I would never have done this eight years ago. Trail running has opened up a whole new world for me
After volunteering at Staveley back in 2015, what happened next?
Nicky : I started looking for trail races to train for as I wanted to increase my mileage. I also wanted to do the Lakeland Trails in Staveley as that was the first one I had been to. I ran it and got the T-shirt !
Running the Lakeland Trails Marathon with husband Chris
Last year, in 2016, you first completed the Lakeland Trails Marathon. Then a month later the Ultimate Trails 55km Ultra Marathon. What did you think during and after these experiences?
Nicky : The Lakeland Trails Marathon in 2016 was my first ever marathon. I chose that one because it’s Lakeland Trails and it’s a stunning route in the lakes. If I’m honest, I was terrified. I was running for the Alzheimer’s charity, so I didn’t want to fail. On the day it was 30’C heat, and I’d never run that far before, yet I felt determined. Seeing happy marshals all the way round was brilliant.
Nicky nearing the finish of the UT55 ultra marathon in 2016
Then came my biggest challenge ever – the Ultimate Trails 55K Ultra Marathon, a month after the Marathon. Everything was going through my head! Would I start? Could I finish? Would I even get to Glenridding? Will I have enough water? Enough food? Will my legs make it? Yet what an experience! Every runner on that course was cheering everyone else on, asking if they were OK. The Marshals were fantastic and couldn’t do enough to help me.
I ran my first marathon in 5 hours 20 minutes, I think, and the UT55 in 9hours 1minute. Now I say to myself – girl just enjoy it! I have learned a lot from running them both. I am never going to be first, I just want to get round and enjoy the experience of running with amazing people.
And your next challenges?
Nicky : I have a few races booked for next year, the Grizedale marathon and then I am doing the Lakeland 50 again. I am really looking forward to running Lakeland Trails Coniston Marathon with my friend Emma Atkinson as she does a lot of the Lakeland Trails, although she has never completed the marathon. She is so nervous and we are running it together.
What advice would you give to someone in your shoes from eight years ago?
Nicky : You don’t have to do a massive number of miles all at once. A mile is a mile and you’re moving more than the person on the couch. Just believe in yourself and don’t let people sabotage your dreams. My mantra is “Be Strong – I Am Strong”. Make the right choices in life and you will succeed
Thanks Nicky, I am sure your story will help inspire many others!
Have you got a story to share? If you have and think it may help others, please drop me a line and I thank you in advance.
Recently I returned from a run in the woods in a state of high euphoria. I was buzzing. The light was perfect with intense late autumn colours. I captured some of these images with my camera. I wondered if others experience this heightened sense of self that comes after a brush with nature? What is it that makes a run in the woods so special?
As I thought about it, there was a sudden realisation that this is where my own running journey really started. Maybe that’s the reason I always feel this way. Is it as simple as that?
The spark that ignited my love of running hit me when I was fifteen years old.
Memories of cycling along quiet back lanes with a couple of school friends from my family home in Clitheroe, nestled in the damp, yet beautiful Ribble Valley. Half an hour and a handful of miles to the north, to a small mixed woodland, called Bashal Eaves. A low key orienteering event was taking place there, and my mates Gary and Mike were keen to come along too. It was the first time I’d gone to an event under my own steam, although I had been orienteering a few times before with my dad. Almost all of these events took place on dreary open moorland or in dense man-made plantation forest. Neither were that inspiring.
Now I clearly remember that special moment. Even thirty years later, I’m smiling at the memory of it. I was running through dense, dark conifer trees, concentrating hard, trying to read my map. Almost impossible to keep any momentum on the rough ground underfoot. Staggering around, fighting over rotten tree trunks, stepping knee deep into hidden ditches full of black stinking mud.
Then I came out into an area of mixed deciduous trees. Shafts of sunlight streaming through the leaf canopy. My feet felt lighter, I had a spring in my step. I could run more quickly. Moving through the trees gave a real sensation of speed, perceived or otherwise.
That was it. I was hooked. That was the moment I suddenly appreciated the sheer, exhilarating joy of running. I’d fallen in love and I’ve been under it’s spell ever since.
Without fail, every time I run in the woods, I come back gushing with enthusiasm and inspiration. If I’m feeling in good shape and want to run really hard and test myself, I’ll go to run in the woods. Nothing beats a tough fartlek session through the forest, playing at speed, a return to being human.
On the other end of the scale, whenever I feel jaded and in need of a pick-me-up, I go and find some trees to run through.
Once I ran barefoot in a pine forest in Norway, where the ground was covered in deep moss.
Another memory of my first orienteering international in Sweden, when I saw a huge moose antler lying amongst the bilberry bushes. I stopped in my tracks and carried the thing nearly a kilometre to the next checkpoint, hiding it close by. It weighed two or three kilos. As soon as I finished the course, I doubled back into the forest to retrieve my trophy. I can’t remember my result from the event.
Standing mesmerised for a few minutes during another big event in Scotland, my first encounter with a Hawfinch.
In late summer, or autumn, I’ll often come back from a run in the woods with a bag full of wild mushrooms. Apricot yellow chanterelles perhaps, or a big, slug eaten cep. Occasionally I’ll discover something exotic, like a cauliflower fungus or the delicate purple of an amethyst deceiver. Year after year, I return to these ‘hot spots’ when the time feels right, my running turning into foraging missions.
I never tire of taking photos of all the simple things. Leaves against the sky. Light and shade. Or the graceful shape of a tree trunk. I get inspired by winding trails just inviting you to run and explore.
Silent, secret places
Woods are silent places. Full of secrets.
Stepping off the trails, you can soon be in another, primeval world. All your senses become razor sharp, attuned to every nuance. A loud, rustling amongst the leaves turns out to be simply a blackbird. An angry bark from a stray dog, a roe deer buck, calling out a warning.
A strong, almost sweet, musky smell of a fox in spring. Heavy, earthy aromas of organic matter slowly decomposing in the rains of late summer.
Often I’ll stop and stand completely still for a few minutes. Letting the woodland life slowly return back to normal. The deathly quiet starts to change. Animals and birds busy themselves again. So much can happen. The distant incessant chittering call from woodpecker chicks in a rotten old silver birch tree. The rounded silhouette of a tawny owl, big black vacant eyes following you, then silently taking off.
Before you know it, the minutes have flown by and an equilibrium has been restored, a nature cure.
For inspiration, I just go for a run in the woods.
Sign up before 22nd December and have a chance to win one of three FREE places along the beautiful woodland trails of the 2018 Hawkshead Trail (10K or 17K). These free places are for you or a friend. Think Beatrix Potter country, red squirrels, spring leaves on the oak trees and bluebells everywhere.
Back in September, I finally realise an ambition that has been more than thirteen years in the making. Turning up to the recent Lakeland Trails in Keswick and seeing it all through the eyes of a competitor.
When I started the Lakeland Trails in 2004, I never for one moment thought that it would take over every waking moment of my life. Back then, I was at a loose end with time on my hands. Frustrated and bored by the repetition of my work as an Optometrist, stuck indoors in a dark room when the sun shone brightly outside.
Why don’t we have events like this back home?
It was in 2002, in Switzerland, in Zermatt, in the North Face bar, after the Matterhornlauf. There were quite a few Brits doing the race and afterwards we were all drunk from the views, the crisp Alpine air, the party atmosphere in town and of course, too much beer.
“Why don’t we have events like this back home?” I remember saying to Phil Winskill and Tim Austin, who at the time were running for Dark Peak. As the evening wore on the idea had firmly lodged in my mind.
Running has always been a big part of my life, yet when I did reach veteran status a year or so later, I knew chasing masters titles wasn’t for me. Instead, I wanted to put my energies into putting something back into the sport that has given me so much life experience and pleasure. So in September 2004, in the village of Staveley, near my home time of Kendal, I organised the first Lakeland Trails event for just 80 hardy souls to test out the idea of a trail running event in the Lake District.
In a way, I always thought that the Lakeland Trails events had chosen me, not the other way around.
A decent night’s sleep
Now, all these years later, I finally get to have a decent night’s sleep before an event for the first time, knowing everything is in the capable hands of our new event manager Phil Blaylock. Phil’s been involved with the Lakeland Trails now for four years, gradually taking on more and more responsibility. I know how hard he’s been working on this event, and also know he’s got a fantastic, experienced team of people around him. Some have been involved for a decade or more.
I was a little nervous driving up to Keswick, wanting the event to go well for Phil. He couldn’t have picked a better day’s weather forecast. It was glorious.
Lakeland Trails in Keswick
Lakeland Trails in Keswick
As soon as I arrived at Fitz Park, I was blown away by the atmosphere Phil and his team had created. I could finally totally relax and enjoy the day from the other side of the fence. I forget how many people I chat with at the event. So many people. So many heart warming stories. I could properly listen too, without my mind being always somewhere else.
Jeff McCarthy, recalling his first ever race at Helvellyn many years ago, now an award winning blogger with Runeatrepeat. Paul Larkins, sub 4 minute miler in the eighties, the new editor of Trail Running Magazine. He remembers writing articles about the Lakeland Trails for a different running magazine, Running Fitness (now Running), a decade ago. I even bump into Phil Winskill, who lives in Keswick now and still remembers that night in Zermatt.
The drums from Batala Lancaster
In all this time, I’ve never managed to run the event at Keswick, only ever imagining what it must be like. Now I was really looking forward to taking part in the afternoon’s 15km Derwentwater Trail Challenge to experience it first hand. For now I could sit back, enjoy a coffee, watch the spectacle of the 10km and 5km events set off in the morning, loving the drums from Batala Lancaster, looking around at so many smiles in the sunshine. The boundless energy of the kids sprinting round their lap with Gerry Giraffe, making me realise that as human beings, we are born to run.
Setting off at the back
Then it’s my turn and I join the masses in the 15K Challenge towards the back, chatting with familiar faces, Pete Lashley, Darren Gilman, Katie and Viv Samuelson. Many others taking a double take when they see it was me, everyone so friendly. The drums beat out the countdown and we are off. A long, colourful, mass of humanity moving slowly forward and gaining momentum as we cross the timing mat and through the wall of sound from the drums.
Friends old and new
Runners were all talking to each other, friends old and new. Already the head of the snake was circling the cricket pavilion, speeding away on our mini lap of Fitz Park. Back through the start and crowds of people cheering, taking photos. My name gets mentioned and I wave to Matt our MC.
I’m taking photos myself, loving every step. My legs are loosening up after a three hour Wainwright run the day before, when normally I’d be tired out from a busy day setting up. I gradually start overtaking people, encouraging them on. A group of runners celebrating a 50th birthday, laughing and joking. I have a big advantage over everyone else, knowing every step of the route, every incline. Most are now walking as the gradient steepens in the woods. Yet smiles were everywhere, people enjoying themselves.
Along the course walkers were clapping and cheering as we run past. I thank them for their support. Ahead the field had thinned out. Many of the people I pass are running in pairs, sharing the pleasure, helping each other through the pain. For a while I ran with Niven, a youngster, I guess in his early twenties. This was his first time on the course and as we run together. I point high up above us on the purple flanks of Lonscale Fell.
“See the bright yellow? That’s one of our safety marshals, we’ll be running past there after three kilometres or so of uphill.”
The bottomless bogs
We reach the “bottomless bogs” and many are struggling, paying the price for their speedy start. As I pass each one we exchange compliments. “You’re doing well” “You’re doing great yourself, keep working hard”. Now I can only count ten people in front of me, the leader in black miles ahead, already making his way back round Lonscale Fell.
Never look back
This was the section I was looking forward to the most. The trail here is spectacular. It winds round the steep fell, heather in full bloom, distant peaks making a perfect backdrop. The gradient is a gentle downhill, inviting you to run flat out. I couldn’t help myself. I went past our photographer James Kirby, gaining on the runners in front, easing past them until there were only two ahead of me. The leader in black, a taller, fresher looking runner in red.
Lakeland Trails Event Director, Graham Patten
As we double back over the stream, I can see the leader is in trouble. The wheels are falling off and red is rapidly gaining on him up the gradual climb. Soon we are flying past the feed station at Latrigg car park. Red is now in the lead and as I pass black I see the pain in his eyes. He is going to have to work hard to maintain his position to the finish.
Not far to go
“Not far now mate, well done”.
I gain a bit on red and he looks back over his shoulder and sees me. I guess I am 20 or 30m behind him. Never look back when you’re in the lead, I thought. He speeds up and I let him get further ahead down the steep section of Spooney Green Lane. I was happy enough in second, loving the descent. Red looks back again, this time a bit more anxiously. Now we are on the tarmac road, turning up the short, steep path to the old railway line. Red is now treading water.
“How much further” he asks. “You’re almost back, less than a kilometre, maybe 800m” I find myself in the lead.
Writer Robert MacFarlane
Meeting the writer Robert MacFarlane
I keep my momentum to the finish and wait to shake hands with everyone as they cross the line. I hear Matt the MC announce the arrival of someone I want to meet, a famous writer, Robert MacFarlane. He’s one of my favourite authors. Because of seeing his name on the start list, I’d brought along a copy of one of his books ‘The Old Ways’. Not only did Robert kindly sign it for me, he introduces me to his brother Jim, who he’d crossed the line with, the rest of his family, along with a running poet, Helen Mort.
A sea of purple at the prize giving
Lakeland Trails Prize Giving
I proudly change into my purple finisher’s T shirt, soaking up the party atmosphere. Tom Adams sprints into the finish, winning the race in a very fast time. Before long runners were coming in thick and fast. I say a few words at the prize giving and afterwards give Phil a big well deserved hug of congratulations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Roll on the next one in six weeks time, the Dirty Double. Maybe I’ll have to enter the race for this one!
I couldn’t see a thing. Like a blind man, my arms outstretched trying to feel in the darkness, making contact with a wooden gate. I climb over into deep, wet grass. Where the hell is the path? Not the best start to the biggest ultra run of my life.
Minutes before I’d set off from the Moot Hall in Keswick, just after 6am on Thursday 5th October. A kiss for both Claire and Ash, then I jog through the square, weaving around people busy setting up their market stalls. I wore my half eye orienteering reading spectacles with a map in my hand. Over the bridge, turn left, then … pitch black.
I didn’t have my head torch, thinking the dawn light was good enough to see by. I waited in the field for a couple of minutes, letting my eyes adjust to the dark, retracing my steps. More by luck I found the footpath. I started running through the puddles, laughing to myself at such a ridiculous start to this big ultra challenge. Suddenly I get the fright of my life. I’d almost run into another person walking the other way, silent like a ghost. He hadn’t a torch either.
55@55 – Leg 1
Along the tarmac road I realise I need to change my plan. It was far too dark to run through the paths in the woods. My only option was to keep to the lane. I was wearing fell running studs. Not ideal on this hard surface. Originally I’d planned to wear trail shoes for this section, then remembered the steep grassy descent from Dale Head. With all the rain it would be suicidal in anything other than studs. Another decision had been made for me.
Gradually the light improved and I could see my map. The dark bulk of Robinson lay ahead. A relief to finally get off road and hit the trails, water oozing everywhere. Hands on knees, relaxing into the steep climb. A compass bearing through low cloud, a strong north westerly cross wind to the summit cairn.
With the first one of my fifty-five peaks ticked off, I start to find my rhythm to Hindscarth then Dale Head. The first shafts of sunlight appear, some blue sky through the summit clouds. I couldn’t believe I was finally on my way. I’d almost given up hope. The weather had been bad for weeks. It was now or never. I thought back to where the idea had come from. How a freak accident many months ago brought me to where I am now.
The Ski Trip
One moment I’m skiing fast nearing the coffee shops and terraces at the bottom of the ski run. The next, I’m flat on my face, winded, out cold. I could vaguely hear a cheer and hands clapping from the cafes. I thought I’d been shot. Then I realised what had happened as my boots were still hooked over a thick rope that was still moving, my skis scattered. I’d skied under the beginners drag tow rope. With no-one on it, the rope was lying on the rock hard snow and I hadn’t seen it as we were racing down the slope. Claire was laughing her head off, tears were rolling down her cheeks. I could hardly move, the pain in my chest was unbearable and I still couldn’t get any air into my lungs. I wriggled on the ground like the hunted prey that I was, got my boots free and kneeled down first until I could breathe again. I put my skis back on and slowly skied down to a sunny terrace. Claire couldn’t look at me without laughing. The shame of it!
It was February earlier this year and we were out in the Pyrenees for half term holiday, and had found the quiet, friendly, very French ski resort of Mont D’Olmes to be cheap with no queues for lifts and wide slopes perfect for families. As I sipped my expresso, the feelings were coming back to my body and I remembered watching someone else a couple of days before perform exactly the same face plant trick as I’d just done. We skied the rest of the day, although I started suffering more and more as the bruising in my ribs built up. By the time we arrived home three days later the pain was excruciating and Claire drove me to A&E for a thorough check up. Cracked ribs. Strong painkillers, take it easy and I’ll be unable to run for 5-6 weeks.
To think the morning before the ‘Ski Trip’ I’d set off in darkness with my head torch to run up the 2000m summit of Mont Fourcat for sunrise. I ran using micro spikes to negotiate the final exposed ridge on hard, icy neve, feeling euphoric surrounded by spectacular Alpine views. The run was effortless, I was enjoying my current fitness levels, looking forward to running a fast ‘solo’ Bob Graham Round in May.
Now I was grounded. Literally. Even breathing was painful. All winter I’d also been training for night orienteering, after nearly 20 years away from the sport. The British Night Championships were on my doorstep at Great Tower Woods. I would’t be doing them now. Nor the Northern Championships at Bigland the next day. I was gutted.
Positive from negative
I needed to search for something positive to come out of such an unfortunate negative. For the life of me I couldn’t think of anything. Despondency overwhelmed me. I’d been training hard through the cold, dark months, and it had been going very, very well. I’d been knocking off Wainwright summits again in batches of ten or more, and had run more than 80 of them before the ‘Ski Trip’, all at a good pace.
With so much wasted time looming over the next month and a half, it would be an impossible task to then get myself back into a similar shape by May. There was only one solution, abandon the idea of a fast ‘solo’ Bob, and think of something else.
Suddenly the idea came to mind. I switched on my laptop to do some research. As far as I could gather, only three other people have run this round within 24 hours : Paul Murray (23.24) in 1997; George Brass (23.44) in 1998 and Dennis Lucas (23.36) also in 1998.
The thing that really swung it for me was seeing the name of George Brass. He was my godfather, one of my dad’s best friend’s, although he’s sadly no longer with us.
I decided I’d attempt to solo run the 55@55 within 24hrs, in George’s memory, when I reach the ripe old age of 55 myself in late September. This would take in around 75 miles of arduous Lake District terrain, 55 summits, ascending more than the height of Everest from sea level. Now I was happy. I could accept my immobility and get on with recovering from my battered ribs. I’d found a much more difficult and fulfilling challenge to get my teeth stuck into, when I do get back running again. The very idea of running a Bob Graham Round and adding an extra 13 summits along the way had an immediate, audacious appeal. All that night orienteering will come in useful too, as I would plan to start at midnight. The number of hours of daylight would be shortening. I checked which extra summits the other three had done, making outline plans of my own.
Now I’ll have the whole of the rest of spring and summer to fine tune those plans and get myself in shape. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad ski trip after all …
It was a last minute decision to go anti-clockwise. I’d heard the River Caldew between Great Calva and Blencathra was in flood. Going the opposite way round would hopefully give water levels a chance to subside. The knock on affect would be my starting time. I didn’t want to be running the ‘gnarly section’ over the Scafells at night. Leave early, get these peaks out of the way during the daylight hours. It was another forced choice.
Going round the route anti-clockwise was an unknown. My preference has always been clockwise, with Skiddaw and Blencathra at night, early on, whilst I’m fresh. I was confident enough about my orienteering skills. Running solo made it easy to be super flexible too.
For now, I was just happy enough that I had a weather window. I’d trained hard for the last four months with this target in mind. The opportunity was a chance I had to take.
55@55 – Leg 2
I was going well. Taking it easy from Dale Head down the steep wet grass, wondering if Claire would be at Honister Pass. My ‘schedule’ had three hours for this first section and I was an hour ahead already. My tracker, the size of a small matchbox, used OpenTracking software to create a moving dot on a map for her to follow my progress on her mobile phone. The wonders of technology.
They were ready and waiting.
Shoes off, socks off, towel my feet dry. Claire has everything laid out in the van. Clean dry socks, fell running shoes, thermal top, my running pack, a new map. I drink strong fresh coffee answering her questions from our check list. Ash is helping too. Excited at seeing his dad so soon. Running after me to collect the empty water bottle once I’d drained it of the rehydrating drink he’d prepared. Munching on a bacon butty as the climb steepened. Picking out raised patches of ground. My feet getting stuck in anything soft.
I was soon slithering over greasy rocks marking the summit of Grey Knotts. Then another compass bearing to Brandreth. The cloud thinning now, more like a hazy mist. Wind cooling my right cheek. Legs feeling strong. In control.
Alone in the hills. I was enjoying my day out. A pattern was emerging. Between summits, the sky was clear, the cloud broken. I slowed down taking in the majesty of the views all around. On the climbs I’d enter cloud, sometimes thick as pea soup, using a compass bearing, keeping close contact with my map. Another bearing for the descent, coming out of the murk into another world of sunshine.
From Great Gable, I was on familiar territory from my ‘Joss’ run last year, although the ‘scree run’ descent back fired. This morning the scree is solidified from all the recent rain. More like an ice slope than a scree slope. I stop at the col to re-fill my water bottle, adding half a Nuun tablet. I’m eating a sandwich or a muesli bar every hour or so, a mix of jelly babies, cashew nuts and raisins in between.
My new found orienteering skills came into their own going to Kirk Fell. A route I would never have taken a year ago. Contouring round open fell and scree, coming out perfectly near the little tarn with only a small climb to the summit left. I wondered how much time I saved going this way.
Looking Stead was a completely new summit for me, my first ‘extra’ summit from a usual Bob Graham Round. I’d been told by my dad, Alistair, that this was one of the summits Bob included in his original round. No one knows why it got removed, replaced with another. It was a nice feeling, looking down towards Ennerdale, thinking Bob Graham had once stood here too on that iconic first round.
Pillar, bleak as ever, visibility down to a few metres, windy as hell. Greasy rock on the climb to Black Fell, another ‘extra’, taking care descending. The wind blowing me off balance, using my hands for support. Steeple, Scoat Fell then Red Pike. Ticking them all off, feeling my spirits lift along with the cloud.
I glanced up to look for the route up Stirrup Crags. Vertical rock kept my gaze for a moment. The next thing I was spread eagled on the rocky path, twisting my ankle, banging my left knee hard. I got to my feet and looked back. Just one of the stone steps was wet and greasy. I hadn’t seen it, being distracted and paid for my inattention. I thought I’d got away with it. I was a bit sore that’s all. It will be OK.
All 214 Wainwright summits for 4th successive year
The climb was a rock scramble, made more difficult being in shade, a black mould like a veneer over wet surfaces. At the summit, I realised I could have avoided this steep, slow climb. I could have gone my ‘usual’ BG way around, doubling back along the ridge. It was extra summit number four, another first for me. My legs loosened up along the wet ridge run to Yewbarrow. I remember this was my final Wainwright summit of the year. My fourth successive year completing all 214 summits. I shouted out a yay, pumped my arm in the air, although it was anti-climatic. Originally I’d left ten Wainwright summits for this section going clockwise, so I could count them down as the going got tough nearing the end of the 55@55.
Now I just felt a bit foolish. I still had a long way to go. Finishing all the Wainwrights again didn’t seem so important now.
My left achilles felt strange on the steep, stepped descent. Hard to describe, like a tightness as my foot landed. I struggled to make sense of it, took it easy, decided it would just sort itself out.
Running into the National Trust car park in Wasdale, Ash was on the lane taking photos, smiling happily. I gave him a hug, went through the routine, changing socks and shoes, running gear, pack, food. I’d been going only six hours and was way ahead of my schedule. Despite the wet underfoot conditions I was feeling strong and in control. Claire read through my check list. When she read out ‘painkillers?’, I remembered my achilles. I took some ibuprofen, just in case. My pit stops were taking less than ten minutes. We’re a well oiled team. I was soon away, Ash chasing after my empty water bottle.
55@55 – Leg 3
The sun was out now, it was warm climbing Scafell. A long, long drag. Bog and wet tussock taking it’s toll. Behind me, a darkening sky. I could see a rain shower coming my way. It was ferocious when it hit, strong gusts picking me off my feet. Hail stones hammering the side of my face. I’d already got my cagoule on in preparation and kept going into the maelstrom. Two walkers were sheltering behind a boulder. “You’re mad. Why don’t you wait for it to blow over”. I pushed on. If anything the storm built up even more. Leaving the summit I could hardly penetrate into the wind. It was a relief to drop down steeply towards Foxes Tarn and warm up. I stopped to re-fuel and drink, then started down the narrow gorge.
It was like climbing down a waterfall. I faced the slope, trying to pick out hand and foot holds through the fast, cold running water. Every now and again water would find it’s way inside my cagoule, freezing my back, my chest. It was slow work and at the bottom, I took off my cagoule, shaking the water out from inside.
Picking my way through the climb on rubble and rocks to Mickeldore, I warmed up again, the sky now blue, the sun shining. Cold and cloudy amongst crowds sheltering in the lee of the memorial on Scafell Pike. Relief to get to the lower peaks, scrambling over boulders, out of the cloud, down to Esk Hause.
I could run again now and the big climb out of Wasdale had obviously stretched out my achilles. Esk Pike then on towards Bowfell. Another hailstorm, as vicious and sudden as the last one. I get battered and disorientated coming off the summit, trying to find shelter to put on my soaked cagoule. I struggled taking a proper compass bearing and get pushed by the wind, finding myself overlooking some big crags. At least I can get my cagoule on, make sense of the map, running along the ridge in thick cloud, looking for the ‘ramp’, my route down to Hanging Knotts.
I could’t find it. I thought I’d overshot it, so set off down a steep rocky slope, contouring round, looking below. Where is it? The going was tough. Slow work. Scrambling and climbing over rocks, edging round small cliffs. Only when I reach Hanging Knotts, I realised I’d descended too early. I could now clearly see the ramp above me. I’d wasted time, maybe twenty minutes or more. I stopped and ate the last of my sandwiches. I had been eating steadily just to keep up my body temperature. Now I had one muesli bar left. I decided to keep it for emergency only.
The sun tried to come out again. The view down from Rossett Pike was unbelievable. Low light bringing out contours into sharp relief. I was back in a magic wonderland and felt inspired.
A good route through Black Crags, a drink at the stream. Then a long, bog sapping drag up to the Langdale Pikes. This section is a peak bagger’s dream. With my ‘extra’ summits of Loft Crag and Pavey Ark, I was quickly knocking them off my list. Neil Burnett had come to see me and missed me by minutes. He took a photo of me running in the distance. Some very wet, peat bog to pull myself through, then the gentle climb to Thunacor Knotts. More thick cloud, a compass bearing to High Raise, another on the short, soggy downhill run to Sargeant’s Crag. I stopped to eat the last of my food, the emergency muesli bar. I’d worked out I’d now run 30 summits and had only 25 left. I wanted to celebrate.
Only 25 summits left
A wild run on a compass bearing off Sargeant’s Crag, keeping to grass, away from lethal wet rocks. I fell a couple of times. Skidded with my feet flipping high in the air, landing on my bottom. I just rolled over in the grass, my backside a bit wetter, laughing like a child.
Soft conditions slowed me down between Calf Crag and Steel Fell, it was a relief to start descending down to Dunmail Raise. I took it easy, concentrating, looking forward to hot drink and food. I could see our van and there was a welcome party waiting for me too. Ash had company. My friends Chewy, Macca and Nick had all come to see me. Their enthusiasm a welcome distraction after six hours of solitude. Claire was busy plying me with food, pizza, chocolate, hot tea. I changed into warmer gear, dry shoes and socks. Ash was in the van, smiling and ‘helping’. “Is that hat warm enough?” I remember Claire saying. My pack felt much heavier with two sets of head torches and all the extra food.
I’d decided not to take my running poles – the Helvellyn ridge was thick with cloud and I knew I’d be map reading, needing both hands for compass bearings. After ten minutes or so, I set off up Seat Sandal. “Smash it Graham” shouted someone. I’d now been going twelve hours. I thought to myself, “All I needed to do now was keep going. Relax, just enjoy it”.
55@55 – Leg 4
I felt strong going up the climb. Evening light was fading when I reached the summit. On with my head torch. Full power, they don’t come any better than my brother’s AyUp Lights.
A twinge in my left knee as I start descending and I slow to a walk, trying to work out what’s going on. I jog again and the twinge returns, more of an ache than anything. I dismiss it. It’ll work loose.
The climb up Fairfield feels endless in the dark. There’s thick cloud too with a very strong northerly wind. The forecast was for the wind to die down, a clear night with a full moon. I guess that’s not to be and now I’m enjoying the challenge of navigation in the dark. Grateful for all those night orienteering events I’d been to, organised by my Lakeland Orienteering Club.
Surprises in store
Some surprises were in store for me as I turn around at the summit. The wind is so strong I can hardly make headway. It’s freezing cold too. What’s bothering me though is my left knee. It’s now very sore. Painful. I’m unable to run properly, yet I want to run to stay warm. I console myself that I’m moving steadily though, just not as quickly as I’d like.
I slow down, taking it easy on the looser, rocky sections. Using the path, rather than cutting down the steeper grass, as I usually would. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on my knee until it had sorted itself out.
Around Grisedale Tarn I found a fresh spring amongst all the surface water and stopped to get my water bottle out. I knew this was the last place for water on the Helvellyn ridge. I’d planned to drink, then take a full bottle with me.
Shit. It wasn’t there. I must have left it behind in the van when I repacked my running pack at Dunmail.
I quickly thought through scenarios, deciding to drink as much as I can, using my hands to scoop up the ice cold water.
A few minutes later I started off again, my knee if anything feeling worse for the short rest in the cold. I struggled up the steep climb of Dollywagon Pike, although it was sheltered, so I started warming up a little. My knee felt much better going up than down. I was still moving well, feeling strong.
Cresting the summit the full power of the wind took over, penetrating through my clothing, my hat, my gloves, my cagoule. I had maybe one or two metres of visibility in front of me in the thick swirling cloud, the glare from my head torch bouncing back. I love nothing more than challenging conditions for navigating in the mountains. This ticked all those boxes. I kept on my bearing and reached the summit cairn bang on. Two silver plovers took off, flashing away into the dark. I wondered what they might be. Dotterel? Golden Plover? It didn’t matter, they were a welcome sight amongst the gloom and I took seeing them as a good omen.
Right, I told myself. Climb over. Now you can get running, get warmed up.
This is my favourite ridge line in the Lakes, a real runner’s roller coaster, with easy climbs and gradual grassy descents.
I set off and immediately realised running wasn’t going to be an option. A sharp pain seared through my left knee every time I landed my foot. I was only able to painfully limp and shuffle along. I knew I had a lot of time in hand though, so wasn’t unduly concerned at this point. I’ll just keep limping along at a fast walk. Put up with the pain, get the job done.
No problem. Or so I thought.
An ultra run too far?
Gradually, I started to get cold. Very cold. Freezing cold. Hand numbing, feet numbing, head numbing cold. I was still on compass bearings, battling into the teeth of the northerly wind. Despite this, the summits were getting ticked off nicely. High Crags, then Nethermost Pike.
By Helvellyn, I could’t really even walk properly downhill, it was more of a hop and an ouch. The wind was 40-50 mph, thick cloud, hail at times, and pitch dark – the full moon hidden. I was dressed for running, not walking. I was getting hypothermic and making some unconsidered judgements, such as ignoring my compass in zero visibility, thinking it was wrong and going off in a different direction. This wasn’t a good move, and I found myself wandering around in circles trying to find the summit cairn of Stybarrow Dodd, even though at the time I knew I was going downhill!
All I wanted to do was get out of the cold wind. Shelter behind the summit cairn, maybe have a little rest, a recharge, a sleep. That’s when I realised I was suffering from the early stages of hypothermia. The reality of the situation struck home. I had some strong words with myself about survival, took a compass bearing and climbed back up to the summit. From then on I slowed down even more. I still knew I had time to finish, yet the risks were stacking up against me. By Calfhow Pike, I decided it just wasn’t worth it. On Clough Head, my 48th summit, I turned my mobile on and told Claire I was calling it a day, even though I still had seven hours to spare. I just thought it foolish to carry on solo in darkness in such a state and in appalling weather – there will be other times.
It then took me an hour and twenty minutes to hobble down to meet her and Rich Walker, who were looking out for me.
I’ll live to fight another day
So it was a real adventure and I’ve learnt a lot more about myself and my limitations. Many, many lessons that will help with future successes. I’ve no doubt it was the best decision. I’m happy with that, enjoyed every step and gave it my best shot – even testing myself to the outer limits.
I would like to thank everyone for supporting my adventure, and to all those who contributed to the amazing total raised of £1138 for the charity Cancer Care North Lancashire and South Lakeland, via my Justgiving page :
I have included these personal details as they may help others with planning for similar adventures, Bob Graham Rounds or indeed, the 55@55. After all my big personal challenges, including every Lakeland Trails event, I go through all the good, the bad and the ugly from the experience. I find it all helps for the next time.
Fitness – Couldn’t be better, perfectly peaked, 4 months of injury free hard training
Taper – Maybe too much ‘active rest’ waiting for a weather window- nearly 3 weeks
Local Knowledge – Poor, no recce routes of any legs, no extra peaks checked & going ‘blind’
Conditions – Unfavourable, very wet underfoot, flooded River Caldew
Forecast – Too small a weather window, high NW winds Thursday, easing Friday night with clear skies, little wind Friday, weather front in the evening bringing rain
Full Moon – Thursday 5th October plus a couple of days either side
Focus – Not 100%, too busy orienteering at weekends, bagging Wainwrights for training runs instead of recceing legs, insufficient time to do both, switching off, almost having already decided that I would not be able to do it with the poor weather and forecast
Psychology – I didn’t respect the toughness of the challenge enough, thinking a sub 24hrs would be achievable. My mind was on a fast time
Time of year – less daylight hours (11hrs) than nighttime hours (13hrs) = one tough challenge
Not enough attention to detail with course planning, meaning too much time lost finding local knowledge routes ie Bowfell, 20-30mins, Stirrup Edge climb, 5-10mins
Plans changed last minute without consideration of knock on effects of an anti-clockwise round, the main ones being these five :
a) Night stages at the end when most tired, needing to carry the most weight of food & kit
b) Totally unfamiliar with some of the local knowledge routes anti-clockwise (Bowfell)
c) Easy running for the first hour – setting too fast an early pace to avoid the gnarly peaks in darkness, then the Scafell climb a real ball breaker out of Wasdale, poles would have helped enormously on this section
d) The psychological benefits of seeing the sun rise and the day getting easier because of daylight and warmth, along with a lighter pack, not harder and heavier
e) The lack of water on the Dodds, meaning water was only available near Grisedale Tarn and carrying a water bottle would be ESSENTIAL
Insufficient thought about anti-clockwise timings, consideration given to the more convenient timings for my support crew
Inadequate clothing – very cold in the wind from Wasdale, eating everything just to stay warm, then real winter conditions from Dunmail, early stages of hypothermia on Stybarrow Dodd, too cold as not generating heat as unable to run
Kit – Unconsidered kit – poles, water bottle and winter hat were all essential from Dunmail, none of them were brought, I did consider the poles, although with cloud covering the tops, I knew I’d be on compass bearings and therefore unable to use the poles, they’d just be extra weight to carry
Water – The water bottle may have been another factor. I only had some water by Grisedale Tarn on the way to Dollywagon, four cupped hand fulls. As I slowed down because of my knee, I didn’t have another drink for around 4-5 hours. I had no option but to completely forget the importance of it, as I couldn’t carry any water with me. I must have been extremely dehydrated
Poles – would these have helped take some of the weight off my knee BEFORE the injury? Should I have used them for such a long distance regardless?
Wind – Forecasted wind stronger than expected on Thursday, lasted until 3-4am on Friday
Cloud cover until 2-3am on Friday when full moon finally made an appearance
My psychology – at Dunmail, I thought it was already a done deal, with 12 hours to spare, although aware I had to just keep going
Date – Wrong time of year – Apr-May being the preferred dates, October date only if stable Indian summer conditions
Worse Case Scenarios – No consideration of dealing with problems, a laissez faire attitude to : first aid, medications, muscle injury, endurance related trauma (blisters, damaged nails, skin); no back-up plan for failures – massages, pep talks etc
Decision – Final decision was the correct one in the circumstances – too much risk in carrying on, I was an accident waiting to happen
A better decision would have been not to have started in the first place, accepting the conditions, weather forecast, time of year and lack of recceing would all contribute to the potential outcome
I would be dead if I’d taken off paragliding with a similar attitude to this level of circumstances
Lots of lessons learnt from this ultra run. However, despite all these, I thoroughly enjoyed testing myself and was pleased I tried, even more pleased I had the strength of character to make the decision I did. I may have slipped into bad habits, it’s not really my style to do something and set off without making sure the odds are stacked in my favour first. I’ve been doing this with orienteering over the last few months too – no specific training, just taking part. With the 55@55 I was too complacent and the main lesson learnt here is not to allow this to happen again.
I’d planned today’s Wainwright bagging adventure at the end of last week. Second guessing weather maps that showed band after band of fronts passing over the north of England, hoping to hit a possible ridge of high pressure.
I knew it was going to be a lucky one when I stepped outside first thing this morning, feeling the cold air, seeing stars high in the dark sky. It wasn’t 6am yet, and I was on my way to the west coast, peering through fog, the air clearing quickly, then suddenly misting over once again.
Sunrise on the approach to Wasdale, a majestic vista exaggerated by pink and orange early morning light. I kept stopping to take photo after photo.
I parked up near Joss Naylor’s house at Greendale bridge, then set off in the gathering light, past huge round bales of brown bracken, which I guess will be used as animal bedding. On up the trail threading through bracken tinged with gold, taking it easy, enjoying the views opening up. The sun breaks the horizon, reflecting off the underside of dark cloud. Running in paradise.
Views down towards Wast Water from the summit of Middle Fell, and memories come flooding back from the last time I was here, during my Joss Naylor Challenge run in May 2016. On that day I literally threw everything I had into the descent I’d just run up. Happy days.
It’s pretty wet underfoot and a well worn trod takes me through leg sapping bog to the Pots of Ashness, steepening through boulders to the summit plateau, a cairn marking the top of Haycock. Lifting cloud revealing the lonely spire of Steeple with the rounded bulk of Scoat Fell as a backdrop. Ennerdale Water in the far distance glinting silver, as I ran on towards Caw Fell.
A steep downhill and I almost twist my ankle on an unseen rock hidden amongst tussock, then picking my way over mossy boulder scree. I find a faint trod, contouring round the lower slopes of Haycock, joining with the main trail to Seatallan. Again, memories from last year’s ‘Joss’ when I worked hard up this climb, knowing once I reached the top, I would only have one more summit to go. This morning, I was taking things much more leisurely, enjoying my solitude, the views, holding myself back.
With another personal challenge looming I’ve been training hard for the last few months. Now I’m in active rest mode, hoping for another weather window next week, to coincide with a full moon on October 5th. With the Dirty Double Lakeland Trails event shortly afterwards, I don’t have the luxury of time on my side. If anything, I’m fitter than last year, although I’ll need to be, as the 55@55 has only ever been completed by three people before. One of them, my own late godfather, George Brass in 1997. It’s a full Bob Graham Round, with an additional 13 peaks, one for every year of life. Throw in around 75 miles of very wet Lake District terrain climbing and descending nearly 30,000 feet, with more than half the day now in darkness. It will take everything I’ve got to get around in under 24 hours.
Once again, I’ll be running solo with support at the road crossings from my ‘dream team’ Claire and Ash. I’ve been improving my orienteering skills throughout the year in preparation. I’m now comfortable with night navigation, confident map reading on the run.
The descent off Seatallan to the distant small lumps of Buckbarrow, an invitation to run fast. A gentle gradient on soft, grassy trails, winding around knolls and small hills. Today though, I’m having none of it, holding back as much as I can, jogging along in second gear. I reach the top, then down one of my favourite routes, plunging straight off the steep rocky spur, heading straight for Joss’s farmhouse next to Greendale bridge.
The sun has come out and it’s warm by my van. After changing, I call into Joss’s house to say hello. Mary Naylor invites me in, although Joss is out somewhere on the fell. ‘He’s never in’ Mary tells me. The living room is full of photographs, paintings and awards, testament to the living legend of Joss. I leave the house feeling inspired.
Another 5 Wainwright summits today leaving only 10 to go.
I’ve saved these last ten summits as they’re all on Leg 4 of my 55@55 round, so I can count them down as an extra incentive when the going, no doubt, will be getting tough. On Yewbarrow, I’ll have nine to go. Red Crags, eight to go and so on until Grey Knotts, my final Wainwright. That will complete all 214 summits within a year, the fourth successive year that I’ve run them. Of course, after that final summit on Grey Knotts, I’ll still have to three more hours of running to get back to Moot Hall in Keswick via Dale Head, Hindscarth and Robinson.
There are 214 Wainwright summits in the Lake District, as featured by writer Alfred Wainwright, in his popular Lakeland Guides. In 2014, I ran all 214 Wainwright summits, for the first time, within a calendar year. I enjoyed these running journeys so much, I ran them all again the following year. In 2016, I completed the lot again within 214 days. This will be my fourth consecutive year running all the Wainwright summits and I’m already looking forward to the fifth!
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