21 February 2011

The Worst Fell Race

Here's John's race report and link to a photoset

With a meeting time at Dallam School of 6:45, it looked like this race should live up to its name. The stats are nothing, a mere 17 miles and only 3000 of climb - both comfortably less than last week’s Trog - but the clue is in the winning times. It was predicted that the winners would take over 3 hours, that’s 20 minutes longer than the record for the 20 mile, 4000ft trog.

Four Dallamites, me, Stuart, Dave D, Jarv travelled up in good time with lots of banter regarding the unknown. The race is only run every other year and isn’t the most popular on the calendar, very little info to go on. Low cloud, snow, this was going to be a toughie. Thankfully, we were spared the wind and horizontal sleet of the previous running!

With well over an hour to spare we stepped out of the car into a good 4 inches of snow (well, it was actually 1.357 inches, but most people would call that 4). At this point I discovered I’d forgotten my trousers, thankfully I had packed an extra pair of running tights so would have something dry to wear for the journey home - and Dave was on hand to lend me the entry fee!

The organisation was low key. We didn’t even notice the caravan parked near the Kielder Castle entrance. Stuart had left a phone message order for route maps - but the message hadn’t been heard! Fortunately, with all 37 entrants registered the organiser did have a couple of spares. The race brief was one of the best. In summary - no marshals will be on the route as its grim out there and they don’t want people standing round endangering themselves (quite sensible). Route - it will be flagged on the way out, a guy was pointed out who would run the suggested line, a woman pointed out who would be running a totally different line - but we’re free to run whatever line we fancy. The final descent through the woods isn’t marked but will be by the time we get there! Compulsory kit was the usual plus at least 500 calories of food.

So off we went, the start being a 20 min forest trail grind steadily upwards before a sharp turn into the unknown. The guy pointed out went off like a whippet, so of no use to me. I ran with Stuart briefly, then Dave for a few seconds as he passed me, then alongside Jarv for quite a way, Dave having dropped back a bit. Once off the forest track the Walsh school of nav seemed the obvious choice until we came to a fork in the footprints. Not good! Jarv and I followed the left trod, which soon looped back into the other one... a look at the map told me nothing, I should have been looking at it sooner. After some tough climbing through the snow covered tussocks we hit a good track which lead to a set of masts. I dropped back a bit to eat a rocky bar and take a look at the map. Stuart and Jarv soon vanished in the mist with two others - thankfully I put in some extra effort in time to see them fork off the path sharply.

This trod effectively cut off a big bend on the main track, a service road to some radio masts which were covered in the most spectacular horizontal icicles - a shame I don’t have my big camera and tripod with me. Runners were coming towards me - including Stuart and Jarv. There must have been a more effective route to checkpoint 1. On my retrace I crossed with Dave, then the silhouette of Stuart loomed. He saw me then continued, most of the rest of the circuit was going to be a mix of snow, peat bog, tussocks and heather, usually three of these at any one time, often all 4. We ran as a three for a while, then Stuart faded into the mist behind. I pushed on to try to keep with Stuart, wary that the pace would sap me for the second half.

Easy nav to the next checkpoint which, again people back tracking to the main trod. That seemed a bit daft as the trod was no pavement, so we cut the corner, picking up other runners tracks on the way to Kielder Stone. I was expecting something similar to the Three Shires Stone at the top of Wrynose Pass - but this thing was a huge three storey cube of rock. From there the tracks divided again. After a stream crossing which didn’t feel at all cold, likely as my feet couldn’t get colder, there were no trods to follow. A runner close by was convinced we were too far right - but the whole climb was a lottery. The fastest route would be that with the best footing, not necessarily the most direct. Three of us topped out together to find a huddle of runners debating the next step. They soon departed leaving us to ponder whatever they may have been pondering or risk a blind following. The cairn wasn’t the checkpoint, but we’d been told this was 50m further north. Nobody had run due north - so in the end we followed the huddle. Sure enough, they were at the true cairn punching their cards - then huddled again for more debate. We pushed straight through past them with the intention of picking up a marked path with the hope of some easier running. Maybe possible in summer, but snow masked any clear path on the ground so we swung across our bearing to aim towards the next checkpoint. This one was going to prove a testing line. Not 100% confident of the bearing, and knowing the trig point was on the end of a long plateau. Stuart and I trudged on together. Despite being relatively level, there was very little running, and frequent steep sided dips to small streams punctuated progress. Other runners were going roughly the same direction, though the field was spread wide almost like a police search party. Eventually a shape loomed, so we corrected out line to head straight for it.

It turned out to be a style over a fence. 5 of us arrived together. Stuart and I checked the bearing of the fence then followed its line, which would then take us to the trig. Two seemed to dither, another guy agreed and rushed in front of us, which was great. He had a real knack for finding the knee deep bits, allowing us to step neatly round them. Cards punched - and some real running at last down through a wind break into forest.

When we eventually bottomed out we’d opened up some good space, then made what proved to be a nav cock up by taking the suggested red line on the map - the more subtly marked blue line followed a farm road. We ended up with a bit of a climb before finding a bit of a trod then ending up dropping low again before more climb. Suddenly Dave was on our tail. We generously kept moving just a bit ahead of him to help keep his motivation high - I expected him to draw level at any stage, but it didn’t quite happen. There was supposed to be a path up there somewhere, but nowhere to be seen. As we made slow progress on heavy ground it was frustrating to see others making good speed on the road. They eventually had to climb up to our line, but the lead girl and dog just passed us. Stuart stated positively that we made similar time by walking so should be fresher, but I know which way I’d go a second time!

Girl and dog climbed well up the last ascent of the route, I was going to whistle in the hope the hound would drag me up too, but had to settle for seeing her disappearing, Stuart close behind her. I was steadily flagging from the cumulative effort and took the chance to eat and drink, but resisted the temptation to look round for fear of seeing Dave tucking into one of his pots of fruit in syrup or juice. At least if I didn’t see him eating it I could pretend he wasn’t enjoying it. Once on the top the route was clear, but far from easy - and surprisingly long. The girl and dog continued to pull away - a guy appeared from nowhere and pushed through to join her and were soon out of sight.

Then the start of the descent. Stuart and I were quickly back on their tails... though a short climb had me struggling to keep up. The now flagged route took us into some trees which were so dense I couldn’t to see anything at all, it was just like stepping into the night. We eventually popped out onto a forest road - the flags went one way, the other couple went the other. We gambled on the flags, but I was obviously holding Stuart back so told him to push on - he vanished in seconds. More forest track - there was no escaping that my feet were no longer part of me but just numb blocks of inanimate weight on the ends of my legs. They were too cold to hurt, and did seem to function! Then a guy called me back, I’d missed a tape leading to a path down through the trees. With the end in sight the guy was on his way. Grateful for the correction I followed but knew I had no chance of closing.

The girl and dog party obviously took the better line at the end. Stuart was running way better than them, but they already finished along with another runner before Stuart’s respectable 18th place. That’s all part of fell running where a little local knowledge can go a long way. It was one of those outings where there was a satisfaction gained from finishing at all - 3 of the 37 starters had dropped out at various stages. I was two places back from Stuart, Dave finished shortly after. Jarv was further back, but got his full money’s worth by adding an extra couple of miles in the forest at the end having missed one of the tapes, quite possibly the one I’d initially run past.

We were rewarded with a unique trophy - a pile of flat stones which had been glued together to make a small pyramid, lovingly and individually prepared for each and every finisher!

It has to be my fave trophy from any event. Stuart broke out a flask of tea which an ungrateful Deasy couldn’t handle due to a lack of sugar. We stood discussing the event while peeling off the muddy sodden layers, comparing ankle scratches from the heather and displaying some pretty ugly toes. Kit choice worked out pretty well other than gloves, we were all agreed that some kind of waterproof glove would have been worthwhile for the frequent stumbles into frozen water. I think I finally got sensation back into mine around Carlisle. My toes didn’t recover until some time in the night, today the big one on the left feels quite bruised and awkward to walk on. I can only think I stubbed it on the final descent but certainly felt nowt at the time!

So that’s the worst fell race done. I think it says a lot about our sport when the worst race was actually a strangely enjoyable experience. Its not one which you’d want to do every week, but once every two years feels about right.

Sent from my new bilberry.