Thursday, 16 July 2015


With Arrochar Alps under our belts, it was time to focus on the main running event of our summer, the Wasdale Horsehoe: 21 miles with approx 2750 metres of ascent, including Scafell. I reckoned I would find it easier than Arrochar, as it's not much more climb but over a longer distance. Applying Lye-reasoning to these stats, I decided that the ups and downs must be less ferociously steep, and as it was in Englandshire rather than the darkest depths of Caledonia, would probably be hoaching with well-trodden paths. Fast-running, thought I. I set myself a public target of 6 hours, and a private one of 5.30. Ahahahaha!! AHahahaHAHAhahaha! <wipes tears of mirth>

We drove down to the Premier Inn at Kendal on Friday to rendezvous with my peerless in-laws who had treated the kids to a week at Centre Parcs. We settled into our room, and tried to have a quick nap before the rellies arrived. The room pulsated with a deep, throbbing hum. I wondered if there was some sort of juggernaut parked outside. Nope. It sounded/felt just like the engine on a ferry. Perhaps it was the air-conditioning. We turned it off and opened the windows, flooding the room with the vomitty/cheesy stench of nearby muck-spreading. The rumbling continued.

Fretting that there was no way I was going to sleep through the noise, I complained at reception (which was suffused with an even denser odour of pig-poo). They were fully booked, and although they acknowledged the noise apologetically, were unable to move us. They reckoned it was probably the kitchen extractor fans directly below us, and that they would probably be turned off by 11pm. They were right! Unfortunately, due to a night of musical beds caused by the kids wanting to consolidate our reunion by sleeping on top of us, followed by the fans re-starting at 5.30am, I had a lousy night's sleep.

We stoked up on a hearty cooked breakfast, double checked the journey time to Wasdale (1.5 hours) and waddled to the car. Google Maps failed us horribly. The most direct route from Kendal to Wasdale goes via Wrynose and Harknott passes, "Britain's most outrageous roads". Words simply can't do justice to the experience. All I can say is that as well as the route options of "avoid tolls" and "avoid motorways", Google Maps should add "avoid abject terror", sparing unsuspecting drivers of 1 in 3 gradients and preposterous hairpin bends. Astonishingly, we managed to reach the start of the race with a minute or two to spare, albeit wild-eyed, dishevelled, and strung-out on adrenaline. Jasmin wandered past the car and I waved and shouted at her like a deranged groupie, but she was totally "in the zone" gazing out towards them thar hills. My God they were big. I had something like the opposite of vertigo, where the sheer scale of their up-ness seemed to loom and extend above me.

Now, I had been feeling totally eye-of-the-tiger for the last week, tiptoe jogging in my dressing-gown, throwing the occasional mock-punch at myself in the mirror. Despite all recent evidence to the contrary, I reckoned I might possibly be faster than Matt over 21 miles (he occasionally goes a bit, well, limp after four hours or so on the go). I was in some sort of denial about my infrequent training and, more worryingly, my dodgy hip/back which has consistently packed in at 10 miles of running for the last few months. So, should I run with M, enjoying his company and taking advantage of his nav skills or should I go it alone, galloping freely over the last few miles when Matt might be flagging? Feeling I'd had enough adventure for one day already, I resoundingly opted for spousal company. It was a good choice (for me...Matt may feel quite differently about it).

The climb up Whin Rigg is a great start to the race: a gently inclining track to warm up with, leading onto a well-trodden, grassy climb. The hill forms a spectacular ridge on the East side of Wast Water, its scree slopes plunging dramatically into the lake. The top was beautifully runnable, but I was perturbed to find myself going slightly over on my ankle several times within a few minutes. I've never had ankle problems before, and felt alarmed that this was happening so early on when my legs weren't even tired. I wondered if it was due to my sock choice: I'd opted for Injinji ankle socks, figuring that they might minimise toe blisters over a longer distance, rather than my usual knee-high compression socks. As I reflected on the situation, I realised that the knee socks probably act as a supportive tubi-grip, and my poor ankle muscles have probably been wasting away. I had been foresighted enough to bring my usual socks in my rucksack, but felt reluctant to take the time out for a pit-stop as everyone hurtled by, so I hoped for the best, descending even more gingerly than usual.
Heading towards Seatallan

The two-ish miles across Nether Wasdale were flat, in both senses of the word. Distracted by my flip-flopping ankle, I felt downcast and tired. Matt was romping along looking very fresh and I struggled to keep up with him. I looked forward to the climb up Seatallan offering some respite from the hideous business of running. The route up was hard work, but if you took time out for a breather or two, the views back down to Wast Water were stunning.

The descent off Seatallan was Tellytubby-land smooth, but I was too hesitant about my ankle to really enjoy it. I stopped for a minute to give some Paracetamol to a guy who was having worse problems than me, and hoofed it over "Pots of Ashes" to catch up with Matt. My hip/back started complaining with clockwork predictability at ten miles, and as we traversed around Haycock I surrendered to the inevitability of a sock change. It was no mean feat cramming my damp trotters into the snug confines of Decathlon's finest hosiery, and the straining and writhing caused some raised eyebrows in the passers-by. It was worth it though, as my ankle felt noticeably more stable. I downed a can of Scheckter's Organic Energy drink (like caffeinated, fizzy Ribena...big thumbs up!), bosched some painkillers, and regained a glimmer of optimism.

Pots of Ashes

Eyeballing Scoat Tarn on the right, we started heading up towards Pillar, and were making good progress until a herd of runners approached us from the opposite direction. They reckoned they'd gone the wrong way, heading round to Red Pike. There was some confusion as to whether we were on the right route, or would have to backtrack. The visibility wasn't great, but Matt managed to make sense of the situation, and we had to head back a few hundred metres to continue skirting around Scoat Fell to Pillar. I think quite a few folk had gone awry at this point, including Ricky Lightfoot (the winner), which was interesting as the low visibility meant that people were independently misnavigating rather than mindlessly following the people in front.

View down to Ennerdale

View down to Mosedale

The approach to Pillar was rocky and (perhaps due to sub-optimal route choice) a bit scrambly in places. We had only just made the cut-off, and I was feeling increasingly sheepish about holding Matt back. I seriously considered bailing out at the next opportunity down to Wasdale Head, but Matt wasn't having any of it. It was a long nobbly descent off Pillar, and at this point we started oscillating with a Lostock runner, who we dubbed the Mountain Goat. The pattern from this point on was for us to get slightly ahead of him, take the wrong path, get back on track and find him ahead of us again.
Grim Great Gable

Mountain Goat.
 Great Gable looked seriously ominous as we traversed Kirk Fell. The clouds were thick around its summit, casting deep shadows onto its craggy North face. At the race briefing, we'd been told that the route avoided anything too tricky or sheer, apart maybe from Great Gable. Yikes. The climb was very steep, very rocky, and very long. I'm totally paranoid about climbing over huge piles of rocks, as it seems all too likely that I'll dislodge something and end up squished to a pulp under a car-sized boulder. I don't remember much of it, apart from tremulously asking Matt "Are you sure this is the right way?" every few minutes.

Are you sure this is the right way?

I was sorely disappointed to find that we hadn't been timed out at the top, and resigned myself to tackling Scafell. It's a bit of a psychological bummer knowing you have to finish with England's highest hill. So, we headed off Great Gable, pausing to choose between the path (which led apparently in the wrong direction) or the rubble-strewn correct bearing. Mountain Goat passed by along the path, so we followed (and overtook) him.

Heading down to that path all the bloody way over there.

Pebble removal
A long schlepp between Seathwaite Fell and Great End, took us past some particularly adorable lambs. Their tightly curled black fleece looked irresistibly cuddly and warm. My Garmin was showing 17 miles by this point, which was demoralising, as we'd earmarked the next check point, Esk Hause, to be at 16 miles. Eventually we hit the Esk Hause junction. There was no sign of a check point. We scratched our heads. There was a tent with a marshally-looking guy further up the path so we jogged to him only to be told he was part of another even (the 24 Peaks Challenge), but he pointed us back down to our check-point. We'd been on the go for about 5 hours 45 by this point, and had completely lost all racing impetus. We trudged down, passing Mountain Goat. And back up again, passing Mountain Goat.


Up in the clouds, the top of Scafell was rocky, bleak, and uninspiring. The rain had set in and we paused to get jackets out before continuing our stumble over endless boulders, finding "paths" only for them to peter into a confusion of rubble. Eventually we hit the top, and I felt immensely grateful to the marshals who had been waiting around for us for hours in the dismal clag. The clock was now at 6 hours 30, which meant we were unlikely to get to the finish in under 7 hours. I had reached the outer limits of my running/walking enthusiasm and just felt bored. If there had been a shorter route back for a DNF I'd have jumped at it.

Sheep hanging out on top of Scafell, probably just to prove some sort of point. Pricks.

Lovely marshal.
Not being able to see more than a few metres ahead made navigating off Scafell hellish. There were more false-promising paths that dwindled into nothing. Matt carefully checked our bearings again and again, and we were sure that there must be a well-trodden route very near by, if only we could see it. A couple of walkers appeared out of the murk. They were also trying to get down, but were retracing their steps having found themselves by some dangerously steep crags. Matt was studying the map and the compass, and although it didn't make sense to our internal sense of direction, it was saying that we should be heading back up and towards the way the walkers had come from. I felt quite overwhelmed with despair, and was beginning to feel cold from hanging about.

I just want to be at home.

Suddenly Mountain Goat appeared. Hooray! He must know the way. We had a quick chat and he seemed confident that we should be heading down. Matt stood his ground. I swithered. Mountain Goat had run down a bit, but was now hesitating, looking doubtfully out into the clag. Matt checked my compass, just to make sure his hadn't become polarised in the wrong direction. We definitely needed to head back up and round. "The compass doesn't lie," said Matt. Fair enough. The walkers and MG started following us back up, but were soon out of visibility. We hit upon a proper path at last. Matt put up a bit of resistance saying that it wasn't quite the right route, but I refused to budge. It was a path. It headed down. We could even see Wasdale Head. It was a stepped rock path, slick with rain, which made for slow-going. I realised we probably wouldn't make it back in under 7.5 hours.
Path down to Wasdale with the final checkpoint, unfortunately, at the top of that wall on the ridge.

We were on the look out for the final check-point on Lingmell Nose. It must be near by. My heart sank as Matt pointed out a couple of runners heading off the track, bearing up and right towards a wall. I toyed with the idea of foregoing this final checkpoint, but Matt zoomed off, and zombie-like I followed him. Again, I felt hugely thankful to the marshals who surely must have expected to be back at home with a nice cup of tea by this point. At long bloody last we ran down to the finish, only to find Mountain Goat warming his hands with a cuppa. He was surprised to see us coming in after him, as he'd assumed we'd have found the fast grassy descent down Lingmell Nose. Sigh.

Our finishing time was 7:44ish, which is possibly a course record for slowness. I think I was the last finisher, if the one person behind us ended up withdrawing. (NB Matt with superfluous gallantry asked the race organiser to time him in after me, even though he'd have been waaaay quicker if he'd raced alone). Jasmin was the winning bookend of the ladies' race, coming in 7th overall - can't wait to see the results and boggle over our comparative times!

E.T.A.: apparently four people actually finished after us! Results here, and my Strava trace here.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Arrochar Ow-ps

In 2013 Matt set off in chipper form to give this race a go, and returned shuffling and broken after a six hour trudge in the rain. I'd had no desire to put myself through the same Arroch-horror until this year, when Matt convinced me it would make a good "training run" for the Wasdale horseshoe in July. I've had very little time recently to think about what I was in for (or, for that matter, do much training), but Matt has been limbering up with early nights and a disconcerting reduction in beer consumption. We'd managed to persuade Helen W to join us, and she too had been uncharacteristically angsty about the event, having reccied it a couple of years ago (and this is someone who *enjoys* the Jura Fell Race). Anyway, I was feeling reasonably okay about it, having devolved all neurotic preparation to Matt. He'd also agreed to trot round with me (I think he genuinely feared for my safety if I was left to my own devices).

However, as we drove into Arrochar and saw Beinn Narnain swathed in cloud, the butterflies kicked in. Munros are quite big, aren't they? <gulp> But wait, what's that I see? Stewart Whitlie is wearing the same socks as me! A favourable auspice if ever I saw one.

The stroll/brisk walk/slightly panicky jog to the start at Succoth got me warm enough to remove my long-sleeved top (first time this year, I think?), and as the midgies descended the race briefing looked a bit like this.

"Helen, wait up!"

Warm and moist.

Matt had advised setting off slowly, rather than burning along the flattish trail to Ben Vorlich, and so we pattered along at the back of the field. It was warm and steamy, and I looked forward to the refreshing breezes higher in the hills. Helen motored ahead, and by the time we hit the turn-off up the steep bank to Ben Vorlich she was a distant red-vested figure yomping up the soggy tussocks. We got chatting to some guy who was going Arrochar as his first ever hill race. Brave? Nuts? You decide. I breathed in the Scottish air appreciatively. The breeze was warm and sweet, slightly spicy...maybe with a touch of peat. I realised the small tumbler of Balvenie we'd brought to pep us up in the latter stages of the race had leaked and was dribbling down my leg.

Yup, it's thataway.

"Helen! Yoohoo!"

Matt helpfully broke down the ascent with 100m updates from his altimeter, and actually it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. The descent was another matter though. Steep and grassy with scattered rocks/boulders to keep you on your toes (or arse, in my case). I negotiated most of it in the reverse spider position, feeling despondent as runners stampeded past. At one point we had to wend our way past a little gully, and my vertigo kicked in. All rationality deserts me at the merest hint of "exposure". Space becomes elastic, with the drop swimming away from me, and I imagine my Mudclaws to be as gripless as bowling shoes. I clutched the moss and heather and whimpered my way onto safer ground.
Fasties coming down as we go up.

"Helen! Helen!!"

Herds of over-takers.

Having dreaded Ben Vorlich in the run-up to the race, I was elated to reach Sloy Dam. I knew Ben Vane was going to be a horrible slog, but once you're up there, you've officially broken the back of the race. We climbed and clambered for an age, and Matt miscalculated his altimeter reading, falsely promising the top to be within about 200m. One Mars Bar and an eternity later and the top still wasn't in sight. We were making reasonable progress though, passing people who'd overtaken us on the Vorlich descent. Aha, a snowy patch. This *must* mean we're nearly there. A final scramble up the rocks to the top, and we'd done it. We had a slight false start finding the best line off the top, and galumphed our way down to Bealach Lag Uaine.

Ascent to Beinn Ime.

Feeling done in.

The race elevation profile is misleadingly reassuring at this point. It looks like once you've nailed the long climbs up Bens Vorlich and Vane, Beinns Ime and Narnain will seem easy peasy in comparison. Obviously though, your legs are weary by this point and Beinn Ime in particular loomed imposingly. I thought I could maybe see Helen far, far away in the distance. Several runners were coming unstuck. There was shaking of heads and grumbling. One guy had seized up completely with cramp. I swigged on my electrolytey water (Torq, orange flavour...thumbs up!) an had another Mars Bar. Matt was looking a bit green around the gills, and even the deliciously runnable descent off Ime didn't perk him up. He couldn't face the remains of the Balvenie or our trump-card snack: a couple of samosas.

The ascent up Narnain was quite tolerable, although my niggling hip pain was an irritation. I hesitated at the top, remembering Helen's advice to keep right to avoid a nasty craggy down-climb. Or was it left? Hmm. Matt headed seemingly straight on, and I queried if he knew this way was safe. He shrugged; it had been such bad visibility the first time he did Arrochar that he didn't know which way he'd gone. Desperately wanting to be sitting down with a cup of tea in my hand, I threw caution to the wind and just headed generally down. There were rocky scrambles and slippery boulders, but I was too tired to be scared. Plus, it looked like we were going to make it back to base in under 6 hours, which would be a PB for Matt. Amazingly, no one overtook us on this bit.

The nobbly Cobbler in the background.

I hadn't bothered to examine the last stretch of road on the map, and was dismayed to realise it was about a mile and a half long, in a cruel detour around Succoth. We shuffled though the finish in 5:37:29 knocking at least 20 minutes off Matt's previous time. Helen had been cooling her boots, quite literally, in the burn for a good 10 minutes before us, which made her third lady! <doffs cap> With Matt still feeling a bit peelywally, Helen and I tackled the well-travelled samosas and dribble of whisky.

I was really happy to have made it round Arrochar, albeit slowly (Joe Symonds won in an unfathomable 3:21, and Stewart was 4th overall in a mind-boggling 3:40), and felt it would stand me in good stead for Wasdale. I may possibly have been a teeny bit optimistic about that....