This weekend’s Skyrunning UK 3×3000 in Keswick started badly. Leaving Oxford with 2 hours in hand to get to registration by the cutoff turned in to arriving at Crow Park 45 minutes after it closed, having traveled via the M6 car park. Happily, the organisers’ flexibility and can-do outlook became evident, and a couple of (handsfree) phonecalls later I had arranged to check in ‘before 0430’ in the morning. A quick RV with my Dad just off the M6 to drop off all my camera kit before leaving my car for the day, and I was pulling in by Keswick theatre. Badly missing my VW Transporter, I settled in in the boot of my Golf for a few hours of kip before the start.
I should’ve known it was going to be a bad day when, after 4 hours of broken sleep, I stepped out of my car at 0345 in to an ankle deep puddle. This pretty much set the scene for the rest of the day. Of the 299 entrants, 110 saw the weather forecast and did not start. The rest of us set off in the dark towards Scafell Pike along the lakeside, to discover that the first 5 miles was ankle to knee-deep flowing water. Even by Northern standards, conditions were pretty gnarly (compounded by the first 2 hours being pitch black). On the plus side, concentrating on not drowning did a lot to help the first 10 miles fly by. I narrowly avoided falling in the raging torrent that used to be a beck a couple of times, but took an entertaining 2 feet in the air tumble down a slab of rock. Happily, my fat ass broke my fall so cracked onwards! 6 weeks off running due to work/achilles problems in the run up, plus some poor lifestyle choices (the little known Dominos diet) suggested that this event would always be about survival, but apparently even my balance had deserted me.
The organisers made the decision to miss out Scafell Pike due to the weather – given the conditions in the valley, the exposed nature of the mountain and the fact that the first runners would be there in the dark, this seemed a sensible call, and there weren’t too many grumbles about it. I for one wasn’t gutted to miss the extra climb! A damp(!) descent to Thirlmere via High Raise was pretty enjoyable aside from the occasional muddy faceplant, though 1 lady took a very rough knees and hands first crash on to the stone path. She sucked it up but was obviously suffering, and dropped at the next CP.
I pootled in to the CP at Wythburn Car Park to find James from Castleberg Outdoors manning the aid station. Unfortunately I was too busy chatting to him and tucking in to doritos and the awesome caramel slice to realize that one of my freshly filled soft flasks had fallen out of my vest. When I finally noticed 10 minutes up Helvellyn, I planned to crack on. I asked the friendly photographer coming down the track to give it to James if he found it, but he suggested that the next CP was a long way off. After a moment of reflection, I realised he was right and headed back to the CP. As I snaffled another chunk of caramel shortbread and aimed for the hill, it clicked that the friendly phot was Ian Corless, loquacious host of TalkUltra, Director of Skyrunning UK and recently named one of URP’s most influential figures in ultra. Good first impression Ben. You just looked daft in front of the man that brings Emelie Forsberg to our ears every fortnight. Oh well.
By the time I’d cleared the treeline, the mildly bruised buttock from my earlier fall had migrated in to a very stiff hip and knee which started complaining at the slightest incline. Helvellyn is not a slight incline. After slowing to 33 minutes a mile on the climb, I was greeted by a very cold marshal and photographer coping with 30mph winds on the already cold summit. Thinking how glad I’d be to be off the top and out of the wind, I set off down the ridge towards Clough Head. FYI, this is the longest bit of hill in the UK. Fact.
After the nigh on vertical descent from the CP and a steady walk along a disused railway line past the cool paragliding shop in Threlkeld, I finally made it to CP 5/8 at Latrigg. With a geriatric-style hip and expecting 30mph of wind, temperature hovering just around zero on the tops, and persistent rain, it would have been very easy to pack it in and go to the pub at this point. Especially as the sadistic course planner had brought us within 3km of the finish and given the option of a shortened course, the bugger. But, I was well ahead of the cutoffs and had all my toenails, so ate the aid station out of doritos, stuffed some more caramel slice down me and hobbled off around the bloody big mountain.
4 hours later, I made it back to CP5/8. The less said about those 12km the better, but if it hadn’t been for the risk of hypothermia from the sub-zero wind chill on the climb I think I’d have stayed up there and cried. I had to dig deep just to keep moving at a snail’s pace. Everything changed though when I made the summit. The sun was just setting, highlighting the clouds over the horizon – it was simply stunning. Finding the marshal cocooned in a blue binbag trying to find some shelter by the trig point was also oddly chuckle-provoking. The moon was already up, so after checking he was still alive, I set off trudging down towards Keswick without my headtorch on, enjoying the night. I stopped to look up at the stars, but nearly toppled over backwards, so I figured it was time to get on with it, head to the finish and then the chippy.
By the last CP, the guy behind me had caught up, so we descended together, the random chat taking much of the pain away. The signs through town were nice and clear, and after checking the chippy’s closing time, we crossed the finish line, 16 hours and 2 minutes after starting. To call this event epic doesn’t quite cover it. The lows of the weather, the falls and the ascent were balanced as ever by the other runners, the friendly marshals, the caramel shortbread at the aid stations, and the scenery when the cloud lifted/rain stopped/wind dropped. The organisation by High Terrain Events was first rate, and the marshals awesome as ever (even from inside a bin bag!). Best of all, the best caramel shortbread I’ve ever had (does anyone have the recipe?).
Another race spent towards the rear of the field, but each time I run I’m reminded that not competing for a place allows me more freedom to take in the astonishing scenery we have on our doorstep in conditions that most folk won’t experience. Summiting Skiddaw just as the sun set, I realised that while the fast blokes had finished 7 hours earlier and were no doubt gutted to miss out on such an awesome view while nice and warm in the pub 😉