Tour de Helvellyn

I loved this race. I think it helped that I went into it with no expectations and relaxed about my ability to do it. Despite the first and last 10 miles being an out and back – something I am loathe to do generally, I loved this course.

Put on by Nav4 Adventure I really enjoyed the lack of mollycoddling. You were expected to know what you were doing up in the mountains and look after yourself. More and more events, dare I say down south, have become so safety conscious that many aspects that appeal to me personally about running have disappeared.

For this race, however, you needed to carry everything you needed for a day in the unpredictable mountains of the Lake District. And know how to navigate. There was no long winded RD lecture reminding you to look before you crossed a road – just a kit check at the start and you were off.

There was a rolling start between 7 and 9.30am but we planned to start early to allow as much daylight as possible. We knew it was going to be a slow run although Chris reckoned it would take 10 hours, I was leaning more towards 12 hours. He was carrying his full Spine kit and I wasn’t cutting any corners on kit, knowing how cold I get in the mountains.

Kit I carried:

  • Waterproof jacket and trousers – full winter weight
  • Micro fleece
  • Down jacket/gilet
  • Spare hat and buff
  • Waterproof mittens
  • Headtorch
  • Emergency food
  • Cheese and pickle sarnie, Dairy Milk and a Kendal mint cake
  • Compass and whistle
  • Survival Bag
  • First Aid kit
  • Map
  • Mug
  • Drink

Just as we finished our kit check, the guy at the door ready to scan our cards as we left announced it was raining.  Everyone did an immediate dither, reluctant to step out and start the timer by being scanned until coats had been put on.  I decided to put my waterproof on and Chris didn’t.

Off we set, in the pitch black still, just a few minutes after 7am.  I had the gpx on my watch and Chris had the map in a case round his neck – we felt very secure on the navigation and started marching up the first gentle climb to Askham Fell.

Still using headtorches, heading down towards Hallin Fell in the distance

Once past The Cockpit (don’t ask, it was dark), it was then a lovely downhill amble towards Ullswater where we soon joined a path familiar to us both – part of the route of Lakeland 50. I remembered bombing down this path but this time we went down with more decorum as I was already struggling with the weight of my backpack.

In fact I did a rather splendid face plant coming down the track on a rock that I tripped over but then in doing so moved it nicely in line with the foot that would have saved my fall and down I went. A couple of grazed palms and a sore knee already!

We went on, down towards Hallin Fell and split from the L50 route to go through a field and down onto the road. As we entered the field, which was grassy, wet and steep, I started to say “watch it here as you might sli….” just as I heard Chris land on his arse, sliding on the grass.  1-1 so far then. His shoes really were rubbish! We continued along the road to Martindale church and our first checkpoint. Here we removed our headtorches and my waterproof as the rain had settled into a fine mist and we kept going down the hill heading towards Boredale.

Climbing up to Martindale in the drizzle

This was a long lane that turned into a track and then into a path up the fell side to a narrow cut through the top of the dale. Sadly, we were in the cloud so the stunning views had to be imagined rather than seen.

Having met an old mate Gary in the village hall at the start who I knew was running, I was pleasantly surprised to see another old mate Dennis as he caught us going up Boredale. A quick catch up and then Gary too passed us – I knew we wouldn’t see either of them again as they are both fast and strong runners.

Up and over Boredale Hause, we then began the descent into Patterdale and the one and only checkpoint that had food. I was annoyed with myself for forgetting my small flask as I was planning to bring it so I had tea on tap, but I made do with a collapsible cup of tea that I had to drink quickly before it grew cold.

Both of us being old hands at this game we didn’t linger long here and were straight out, me slurping tea and grasping a couple of ginger nuts as we walked away from the checkpoint towards the start of the monster climb of the day up to Sticks Pass.

I recently read the blog of someone who had done the Spine Challenger and in it he recounted how it was his routine to take a painkiller at regular intervals to stave off any aches and pains. This was something I had never considered before – taking painkillers before the pain. But it made sense to me – so often by the time I accept that perhaps a paracetamol might help me, I’m usually way beyond it helping me!

In all honesty I think it took me those first 10 miles to that 2nd checkpoint to get my head in the game. But then as we wove out of Patterdale into Glenridding we both decided to take a paracetamol and I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. The general back and knee aches fell away and we were ready for the next climb.

We could see far ahead of us, up to the old mine and the seemingly sheer face of the fell we were to climb and the tiny blobs of people moving up it. Chris was cheerfully pointing out that if we looked at the size of the people relative to the mountain around them it didn’t look so bad did it? Hmm…..

We left the gentle slope of the road and once we hit the old mine the climb got much steeper. There was a clear, rocky path that zigged zagged up the mountain but I spied a grassy track (much preferred on the feet) that looked like it cut a couple of the zigs out. I checked with Chris he was ok going steeper, but shorter and up we went.

Now this is what I really enjoyed. It’s as if you are climbing the stairs two at a time – except instead of solid stairs the footing is slippery grass/moss/loose rocks. A few people followed us and eventually we found ourselves back on the track and we had definitely made a few places! I like this game.

Back on the main path again we quickly disappeared into the cloud and I began to be concerned that we had missed a footbridge we were supposed to cross that had a checkpoint on it. Surely having climbed so much we must be near the summit by now? But the footbridge eventually emerged in the gloom with some very cheerful volunteers to greet us and scan us through.

A strange and bleak landscape cheered up by friendly volunteers

Sticks Pass turned out to be a very pretty valley between Stybarrow Dodd and Raise. Having seen lots of exciting photos of thick snow up on Helvellyn and Grisedale Tarn, we were slightly disappointed to see only patches of snow here and there but it still lifted the spirits and even in the gloomy mist it brightened the day slightly.

We trotted on until the land suddenly dropped away sharply and my granny knees immediately winced at what was to come. We slowed to a walk initially as it was so steep but when the checkpoint at the bottom came into view, and there was a split in the path; the main one continued in a traditional hairpin but the other cut straight down I couldn’t resist a little race with Chris who I knew would stick to the main path with his lack of grippy shoes. It was a tie!

At the bottom, we turned sharp left and started paralleling the road through the fields for a couple of miles to the next checkpoint. This, I have to say, I found hard to get any speed on. It was muddy and very rocky in places and with an extra 4kgs on my back I simply didn’t have the agility or fitness at this stage to enjoy running over this. I know I held Chris up here but I wasn’t in a position to force myself when I still had so far to go.

A teeny bit of snow

So it was a bit of a trudge for us along here but eventually we arrived at the welcome sight of the checkpoint that had tea and biscuits. Such simple pleasures are so appreciated. Again, I walked away holding my tea and biscuits and after a quick consultation with the map, as my gpx trail was going in a different direction, we set off down a wide forest road.

Having finished the latest snack, we started jogging. We had travelled 17.5 miles with serious elevation and I was starting to tire. If you read my last blog you’ll know I had been unable to train properly through ankle sprains and general life getting in the way plus the loss of the motivation to do so once I was able to.

I had managed a very slow 19 miler the previous week and before that a 20 miler back at the beginning of October. Are you getting the picture here? I have very little endurance at the moment.

So luckily, I had packed a can of Redbull. I was going to take it at the next checkpoint, just before we started the climb up to Grisedale Tarn but Chris suggested I take it straight away as for him it takes a good 20 minutes to kick in. So I gulped it down, burped out the bubbles and continued our jog through the wood.

The amazing Inn on the Lake in Glenridding

Jogging along the forest road Chris started doing sums in his head and suddenly announced concern at how much time we had to get back to Side Farm before the 4.30pm cut off. This added a sense of urgency to our pace and it was nice to feel we were getting through the miles a bit quicker now we could run properly.

Eventually we came to the end of the track and cut across some fields to the base of Raise Beck. After crossing the roaring river at the base, we started up the steep climb, keeping the river on our left.  Up and up and up!

There had been a small group we had been leapfrogging which, at the bottom, were just ahead of us. I was determined to get past them and keep them behind us this time so I steamed up the path being relentless in my stride and soon over took them and left them behind.

I heard Chris call me and I stopped to turn and he called out “See Santa!”. I looked back up the path and indeed, there was Santa looking down at us. By now my brain was definitely losing priority on the oxygen intake and it took several steps before it dawned on me he was a photographer. I then lost sight of him behind some rocks before he reappeared ahead of me. I waited for Chris to join me and shared a laugh with the photographer who was, I think, John Bamber.

It was interesting watching the river shrink as we climbed up and by the time we reached the top it had disappeared into the general moistness of bog. Now we had to find our way to the track that led around the tarn.

Unfortunately we could barely see the tarn a few meters away in the gloom so at this point we were relying on the line on my watch to stay on track. Which worked fine so long as I was zoomed in – on the default setting we could be several feet off track but it would look like we were on track – something that would catch me out later on.

Sticks Pass

We waded across the bog, correcting the slight deviation we made and soon found the track. Finally, we could run again. We came down the steep head then followed the path down and down, passing a man, running easily and well. Was the Redbull still working? I’m not sure but I was happy as anything and the additional urge of wanting to get back to the checkpoint with plenty of time was spurring us on.

Down and down we went, looking for signs of habitation and Glenridding. Finally on my watch I saw the junction of the road we were on with the road we had taken out. Now, we would be retracing our steps the whole way home.

We stopped for a brief rest at the checkpoint – more tea and biscuits and to put our headtorches on. I decided to put on a warm and dry hat and buff – gosh what a difference that makes! I instantly felt snuggly and warm and I also put my waterproof back on. As the darkness fell I knew it would get colder and despite the last sharp climb ahead of us, I’d still get cold.

Off we set, buoyed up by the knowledge we would make it regardless. I was really happy considering the lack of training and I still felt strong, albeit slow. Up we went again, climbing and climbing. I considered what had happened to the woman who, just a couple of years ago, would have been crying going up here. Now I seemed to relish going up, and the steeper the better. However, that pleasure had replaced the speed I used to have so I guess it’s not in me to have both right now.

Here I went wrong following the line. And I even knew to look out for the turn off just after one of the trees on the side of the path and still missed it. But because the path was just a few feet away, but a few feet above us, not to the left or right, I missed it following the trace on my watch and we had to retrace our steps.

We made it up and over and scrambled down the difficult rocks at Boredale Hause and made our way down the valley again. This path was easier than the one leading to Glenridding and pretty soon we could trot the whole time. But by now we were tiring and the trotting started to be interspersed with walk breaks. The soles of my feet started killing me on the road.

Looking back towards Ullswater on the way out

I was wearing a new pair of Hoke Torrents and they really were brilliant. Great grip, comfortable and enough cushioning for the distance over trails. However, even they struggled to give me the cushioning I needed on the road after being on my feet for several hours but I could bear it knowing we’d be back on the trail soon.

We made it to the last checkpoint back at Martindale Church and cracked on, now only 6 miles left. All we had to do was go along the road, up through the slippery field, on to the L50 track, up to The Cockpit (still dark, still don’t know), then down the hill to Askham. Job done.

There had been a caution to make sure you took the right path from the Cockpit back to Askham, but although by this stage some heavy fog came in, we had no problem finding the route. As always in these situations when you are looking out for landmarks, they seemed to take forever to appear out of the fog.

Finally, however, we crested the last hill and we managed to raise a tired jog down the hill, through the gate and into the village hall to finish.

I was so happy. One of those races where I was positive mentally the whole way round. For me, to finish was such an achievement after a really rubbish autumn. I think my positivity came from so many elements; a lack of expectation; a goal of just being out to enjoy a day in the Lakes; reaching the couple of cut offs with plenty of time to spare and then being able to relax over how long it took to get home.

I do feel my poles and shoes gave me a huge advantage and paired with Chris’s heavy Spine pack, I don’t think I held him back too much. Taking a paracetamol twice throughout, plus the redbull halfway round, I’m sure contributed to keeping me positive. I was able to run whenever the path allowed, even at the end. I’m really happy with the overall average pace which remained surprisingly consistent. For me anyway.

We got back just in time to make dinner in the local pub. Much pasta and coke was consumed (as well as a wee Drambuie for me) but by that time I was starting to fade badly. Have you ever noticed how recovery food is the same as hangover food?

It’s a great course and if you are happy navigating I’d definitely recommend it.  Add to that the fact it’s held on the shortest day of the year and you have a great run where you are treated like a responsible adult who knows what they are doing. Not sure how I got in then 😬


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