Scafell was the last major run I had planned before my number 1 race for 2019; Lavaredo Ultra Trail.
Although very different races in their own right, they are both an exciting step in an entirely new direction for me. I also believed Scafell would set me up nicely for Italy as it was the only opportunity I would have to get some longer ascents in.
I can honestly say I loved it and this long planned weekend far exceeded the expectations I had of it. Whilst I’d seen video shots of runners skipping along boulder fields and down scree slopes, nothing can prepare you for the real thing and I realised I found this sort of running so much more exciting and engrossing than some of the ultras I had done recently.
I planned a long weekend for this event. As I had at the Lakeland 50, I booked a room at the Sun in Coniston for a luxurious 3 nights. I anticipated some major leg pain and didn’t want the prospect of a long drive on the Sunday to prevent me from running my best. While I didn’t plan on racing Scafell hard, I did want to push myself to a certain degree to make it work for Lavaredo.
The race is well organised by Race Director Charlie Sproson and registration, with a full mountain kit check, was done on the Friday evening. It was pouring with rain then and it wasn’t expected to be any different the next day.
Having done registration I rocked up a bit casually the next morning at 7.05 to find there was no room where the race briefing was being held. Lots of people were standing on the stairs, or trying to go round to other entrances of Sticklebarn, to no avail.
We had all been keeping a weather eye on the forecast (😬) during the week and it was looking pretty grim with heavy rain and wind but Charlie had kept everyone up to date via Facebook and email and it was decided the full course would be run, to the relief of all the competitors. After all, we’re there to test ourselves on the route and terrain, not cruise down the valley bottoms keeping out of the weather.
I met a lady waiting outside who said all she knew of the course was that the Great Slab would be taken out. Great Slab? I felt completely clueless but decided ignorance was bliss and I would charge on regardless and hope that any course changes would be clearly signed posted. Otherwise, I assumed the safety briefing was like any other; take care of yourself and take care of others.
My one mistake on the kit list was where I thought the mandatory long sleeved top could be worn or carried: turned out it had to be carried as an emergency layer. This meant I was faced with wearing a t shirt for the start as I hadn’t brought a spare long sleeved top. Bugger. It was cold!
So I started in a t shirt (merino though of course) but also put my waterproof top and leggings straight on too, because not only was it raining but they kept the wind off too. However we felt down at the bottom, it was only going to be windier and colder at the top.
We were dibbed into the starting area and after a brief word from Charlie, we were waved off.
I started roughly in the middle of the pack which streamed out of the yard and into the fields behind the venue. Straight up of course. Unfortunately, when you are a middle of the pack runner, it does tend to mean you get caught up in all the pinch points and there was a particularly bad one going over a ladder on a wall that seemed to take ages.
So far, so normal. Like most hills I had done. A bit of a path, a bit of grass, people popping round each other as they settled into their ascent pace.
The higher up, the harder it got to overtake. The path either narrowed or disappeared completely. People tended to follow each other in a line but although I tried to follow my own line up, I noticed at the switchbacks people crowded together and didn’t want to you to squeeze in if you hadn’t queued as politely as they had. So British 🙄.
Of course, being the Lake District this ascent was longer than usual for me but I was feeling fresh and full of energy and happily ploughed onwards and upwards, eyeing up my next prey to overtake.
As I’m going up I realise it wasn’t just colder but very cold. I’m going to have to work hard to stay warm and cursed my error roundly. I suffer the cold a lot and am normally much better prepared but as I was moving house it meant I’d taken my eye off the ball for this weekend slightly.
We get to the top, and almost immediately descend. Two things become apparent. My leggings are billowing in the wind and causing my feet to catch and my shoes aren’t tight enough. I run on for a bit, enjoying passing people going down hill for a bit but reluctantly come to the conclusion I must see to both problems sooner rather than later.
Gritting my teeth as all the people I’d just passed streamed by me, I bent down and whipped off my leggings, gaiters and hauled at my laces. I got running again fairly quickly and while that wind on my legs was sharp, I was able to descend with much more confidence.
We go round Stickle Tarn (or rather round it then through it – the first of many shin-deep river fords) and then up again on the next ascent towards High Raise. The wind and rain are almost exactly the same now as they were at Hardmoors 50 in March. Visibility is much worse and although the course is beautifully marked with flags, sometimes it was really hard to see from one flag to the next; barely 100 meters.
I’m not good at converting kilometres to miles but I was sure that the main checkpoint that had food and drink, CP5, was about 6 miles in. My watch screen was permanently on the gpx of the route so I had no idea of time or distance; made all the worse by the weather and the terrain slowing things up.
I don’t remember much about coming down from Greenup Edge into Stonethwaite but I do remember being surprised by a dibbing checkpoint at “ground level” So to speak. There was a bit of roadwork here which immediately took it’s toll on my legs and a long stream of vintage souped-up Ford Escorts going by before I crossed a road.
I’m pretty sure I went past an area I recognised where I did a recovery run with Johnny and Sarah after Four Passes in 2017. My mind was already going a bit foggy! Another couple of miles and I finally reach CP5 and food. To my surprise (and joy) I rotated my screen round to show distance to see I had gone over 10 miles. This is great news to me – only a few more and I’m more than halfway. I have barely touched my two bottles so I grab a piece of soreen loaf and fly on through the dibber.
Now I am feeling tired and I am starting to be concerned about the cold again. Out of CP5 we went straight up again on another big climb next to a waterfall.
It was got quite technical and it reminded me of the last climb in the Lakeland 50 in the pitch black, headtorch lighting our way as we climbed a small technical bit but listening to a huge roar of a river, and clearly a big drop off the side, as we went.
I knew if I was tired I would be slower and if I was slower I would get colder. As I was already on the edge of being cold, I had to do something then before I hit the top. Where the land sloped more gently after the main waterfall, I stopped and took out the waterproof leggings and the long sleeved top. I wasn’t sure if putting it on would disqualify me but I needed it and would accept the consequences if so.
Onwards again, trying to make up the places I had just lost. We are now getting to one of the most technical bits of the course as we approach Great Gable and circle it underneath the summit. May I just remind you, patient reader, that the weather is still doing it’s best to power wash us off the mountain.
Here the sides of the hill slope steeply away to our right. There are smooth boulder fields which are actually giant ice cubes; each foot placed immediately starts sliding unless you can wedge your foot between two of them.
There are scree slopes to traverse, along which a faint line has been trodden down to make a path. There are medium size rocks of random sharp shapes, with no discernible path of flat rock to tread on at all.
The focus needed here was absolute. There was no looking up, around or sideways to enjoy the view (well, I did but only briefly and you must stop; don’t try to look whilst moving forward!).
This actually helped me greatly. My attention was on everything but the chill factor and my legs were getting a sort of rest as I hopped around, over and through rocks. I promised myself a cheese and pickle sarnie and a can of red bull at the next checkpoint so I was really looking forward to that.
At this point I’m in front of a couple of other runners; no idea who they were as I didn’t dare look behind me. We’re crossing a (thankfully rough not ice cube-style) boulder field and as I stepped from one rock to another, my left leg got caught between two boulders. This made me topple forward, pivoting on the ankle, my right leg tried to find purchase but couldn’t so I went splat.
I slammed into a large rock and gripped it tightly as this large rock happened to hang out into open space. I was literally clinging on for dear life as if I was sliding down the neck of a bolting horse, on which I’d lost my stirrups.
I carefully wriggle my left foot free of the rocks, highly aware of the two runners behind me who had stopped to watch with interest, gripped the rock I was hugging tighter, remounted it and moved on. “Mind that one” I said in a slightly shakey voice.
The next challenge was just after another scree field where there was a scramble. But the rock was so slippery, and the ledge so high, that there was a volunteer there hauling people up to the ledge he was on by grabbing their vests. I’m sure the Health & Safety Executive would have kittens if they saw that.
Onwards and round; I suddenly appear to reach a ledge with a drop away to nothing below it, where I must hug a boulder to inch round it. No. Surely not…. please no. The runner behind said “up” and I look slightly left and up and thankfully the path goes a different way. I’m so aware of the drop to my right and focus fiercely on my hand and foot placement but daren’t stop to admire/grimace at the view because of the runners behind and the CP ahead luring me on.
Finally, we are out of the worst of it and I can see a runner ahead actually running. The lady behind me said she thought the CP wasn’t far away. Thank goodness. I look down and see my beloved inov-8 trousers are ripped beyond repair from my fall. My merino gloves are in a similar state. This rock hopping is an expensive business!
With huge relief I get to the checkpoint point at the Sty Head Stretcher Box and I am told Scafell Pike has been taken out of the course for safety reasons. It does seem somewhat ironic that the one part of the course removed was the mountain the race is named after but I was also relieved. I ate my sandwich as I walked but it was still very cold. I drank a can of redbull as quickly as I could and with spirits much lighter I run on – only 6 miles left!
The course now went straight across to Esk Hause. From there we climbed more boulders up to Esk Pike then on to Bowfell but these reminded me more of climbing in the Cairngorms and bothered me less. The weather had also calmed down greatly and I was climbing strongly again so it was with a loud “Wahoo!” I summited Bowfell, much to the amusement of the checkpoint volunteers.
Now it was all downhill. There was some tricky rocks at first which slowed me down, to my great frustration. But faster and faster, as the boulder fields dropped to more occasional boulders here and there and finally to the path, which although filled with tourists, I flew past. All the while thinking the finish was at the bottom of this bloody great mountain and what a relief it would be to finish.
The stone path was still wet, so I avoided it where possible by going down the grassy bits on the edges. Focusing fiercely again on foot placement, glancing up occasionally to see people ahead that I would pass, walkers and runners. I was loving it and letting myself go, knowing this was nearly the end and I didn’t have to save my quads for anything more.
Down and down, the path changing from gravel to stone and back again, always hunting the grassy slopes either side. I passed a guy I’d exchanged a few words with coming into CP4 much earlier, his race over judging from his limp. A quick check to see he was ok and onwards – I’ve been in that position so many times I simultaneously sympathised and determined to make the most of the fact my body was still working.
Down and down, there’s a crest and I see the farm finally at the bottom. I increase my speed even more, relishing the feeling of being at the end. I race through the farmyard and pop straight out onto a road, with a runner I’d just passed now hanging on to me, giving me pressure.
Wait, what….. road….? I glance down at my watch and see the line continuing on, off the screen, no sign of the finish. I look up and see the bobbing heads of other runners ahead over the tops of the walls and hedged lining the road.
I quail but it can’t be that far. Now I must dig in even more and use that endurance I’ve spent all year building up. The road is still slightly sloping downwards and I use it to my full advantage.
It hurts. My legs are screaming but my focus is entirely on finishing as fast as possible. We come to a zig zag in the road, up through another farm. I finally remember from pouring over the map that we return along the Cumbria Way. As I go through the farmyard and get back on a footpath, I finally see the finish on my watch. Probably not much more than a mile to go. The path is painful, rocky with steep little slopes in places but the end is in sight at last.
I get to the finish, dib in and bend over desperately trying to get in air. I’d finished and what a relief. My tracker and dibber were removed without me even noticing.
Although the weather, or more honestly, my lack of preparedness, made the first half of this race hard, looking back within 5 minutes of finishing I knew I had loved it. As a newby to this sort of terrain I was also slightly star-struck…. “did you SEE that scree slope??” but I am sure the next time I run down or across a scree slope I’ll be waaaay cooler about it.
I’ve suspected for a while now this type of running suits me. I have huge admiration for those who are able to run, get in a rhythm and keep running all day. They are the 100 mile vets, the ones who can grit it out no matter what.
But I am not like that. More than a marathon of running in one go and I get bored. My body feels like it’s run out of oil and I’m forcing metal against metal when I run. I love terrain variety. I’m happy with heights and happiest going up hill, knowing there’ll be a flat bit or a downhill after that. It lets the different muscle groups rest as I rotate through between quads and hams and glutes.
I didn’t discover what the Great Slab was until home after the race when I googled it. It was pretty much as described and certainly in that rain it would have been lethal. I’m not sure where it was though because my watch didn’t show a deviation off the route again.
By the way scree slopes are much easier than you think – dig your heels in and keep your body over your feet and you’ll be fine. Give it a go! It was such FUN!