Last Saturday, I had a go at the Lakes Sky Ultra. I took Friday off to drive up to Ambleside; after stopping at Pete Bland for some new Salomon Speed Cross 4s (all my shoes are 2 sizes too big for running long distances; it’s not workable to be slopping around for something this technical), I reached registration. With a full kit check done, sportident dibber attached to my wrist, Open Tracking box attached to my pack, I was good to go…with 14 hours until the start. Hmm. A lap of the shops led to a bit more kit purchased (new Body Glide required), and to the healthy salad shop (chippy) for pre-race feeding, before an hour’s comprehensive and useful pre-race briefing.
Although I’m used to friendly ultra runners, I’ve forgotten (since emigrating from North Yorkshire to Down South) how friendly fell runners are, so I made lots of new van friends in the car park, bonding mainly over fear of falling off big cliffs, and avoiding car parking charges. A good night’s sleep in the car, and 0600 arrived.
After a last minute met update (foggy, rainy, 40mph winds), the 10 second countdown started. The ‘go’ was punctuated by a loud fart from the mid-pack, which meant we (or at least the childish among us) set off giggling up the hill. After juggling 2 GoPros and my poles falling out everywhere, I got in to a rhythm, settling in behind a predominantly female pack as we headed in to the fog. Bimbling along trying to keep in touch with Jeni, Jen, Fran, Sarah, Victoria and a guy whose name I didn’t catch but came to think of as ‘Mr Naturally Pessimistic’ turned out to be quite good fun, listening to their banter/polite chat/rude chat (and occasionally thinking “i’d better mute that bit on the video”), we were soon up on to Dove Crag to dib in, then following the flags over Fairfield and down to CP2 at Grisedale Tarn. Nature called half way up the climb towards Dollywagon, so I abandoned the Awful Gang (I don’t know why everyone had names today, but Awesome Fell Running Ladies – AwFRL/AWFUL – seemed appropriate) traversed far enough in to the fog that I wasn’t likely to cause any dramas, got squared away, and banged back to the path to try and catch up to the Gang. Half an hour alone with my thoughts and a couple of flags lost in the fog saw me up on to the summit of Helvellyn; Mick from Racing Snakes was trying to keep his camera kit dry while snapping away at the top of Swirral Edge, so I paused to say hi before dropping down the ridge. Some random chat to the guys on video, and off down the slippery rock. As we hit the technical section, I started catching up with the Gang, one by one.
The descent was more sporting than I remember from my last trip up 15 years ago, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Passing Bare Foot Aleks at the CP on the arete, I was soon clomping down the hill as Jen and Sarah seemed to float along, annoyingly effortlessly. A top up with water and some ‘red’ at the CP, a super soft traverse, a nod to Damo who seemed to be going in the opposite direction, and it was up towards Striding Edge. Jen passed me after the next CP, and we climbed the Edge in to the fog within easy earshot of each other. We’d been briefed that, while there were lots of granny paths off either side, the flags followed the ridge, so I took this as literally as possible. It was awesome (mostly because the cloud meant not seeing the long drop, therefore preventing my vertigo kicking in). Having watched the Kenny Loggins episode of Archer in the car the night before, I was soon torturing the local sheep with ‘Highway to the Danger Zone’, off-key and Archer stylee. Passing a slightly less confident bloke who was wrapped up and still cold (I was sweating in shorts and t shirt, being naturally well insulated), we topped out on Helvellyn and, with a quick flag hunt, headed to Nethermost Pike for the descent in to the valley.
Starting off rocky, then grassy, then some scree, we hit a manned gully with a rope, which meant a nice fast (by my standards) descent to the river. A hello to the smiley marshal, and a top up of flasks from the river, and it was up the biggest steepest hill in the world. Actual fact. I watched Jen and Malcolm disappear up the hill, and saw those behind me quickly gaining. Jeni reached Charlotte the medical marshal at the same time as I did, having lost a lot of ground earlier on during the technical section. Seemingly she’s not a fan of heights, and the one thing that stops me being a blubbering wreck is having someone else to keep an eye on, so with a couple of motivational words, we set off up the base of Pinnacle Ridge together. Theft of the ropes the night before meant that we wouldn’t be doing the full cliffy route, but this bit was fun enough. We made it up together; the most traumatising bit by far was watching Angus (“even my wife thinks these shorts are a bit short”), having slipped off an overhanging boulder he was climbing, spread eagled above me while trying not to fall to his doom, with his shorts leaving nothing to the imagination.
Dibbing in after passing a succession of awesome safety folks at the difficult/exposed bits, it was on to what should have been the most runnable section, down in to Patterdale. Unfortunately my knee, bruised in a fall when running off the Cuillin a couple of weeks ago, chose to make itself known. I caught up with a few folk at the feed station in Patterdale; a quick stop to replace cereal bars and grab a salt and vinegar crisp sandwich and I was off again…slowly. I was 30 minutes inside the cutoff leaving the CP, but I was confident I’d be able to stay just inside the limit to Kirkstone. I felt I was making good progress; as I was caught by Angus, then Jen and Sarah, I found some motivation to run along with them for a couple of miles, before having a severe moment and having to stop for a couple of minutes.
Having used the route profile transfer on my arm as a guide throughout the run, it being too windy to use a map sensibly, I believed I would be close to the cutoff at Kirkstone Pass. As 1915 came and went however, I’d only just started the descent in to the fog. The RD had said that there would be a little flexibility with the cutoffs, but as 1930 ticked by, I eased off with the familiar mixed feeling of knowing I would DNF with knowing I wouldn’t have to climb Red Screes. Annoyingly, I was still feeling pretty good by ultra standards. I didn’t feel I had slowed down much; missing out was frustrating, as I could easily have cracked on…but it is what it is. Coming down to the car park just before 1945, I found the tent, the marshal apologised for having to cut me off, but made up for it by giving me the remainder of a bowl of crisps. Having left home without any electrolytes, I clearly needed salt as I scoffed the lot, grabbed an extra bag and still had space for more. One of the guys kindly came up from the finish to collect us in his car, meaning we were back before the last of the official finishers came in.
With a quick goodbye and thanks, and sadly without seeing most of The Awful Gang, I popped in to Ambleside for some food and headed back to my folks’ for a kip. Although feeling a little meh, I’d met some cracking new friends, had fun not getting lost in the fog and not dying by cliffy death, and not been too hot or too cold all day in my t shirt. Happy.
Part of the Skyrunning series (www.lakesskyultra.uk), the race is a 56km 4500m vert loop from Ambleside, in the English Lake District. Due to the very technical nature of the course, there are (in my view necessary) pre-requisites in terms of climbing and scrambling experience. Some elements are gnarly. At £75 entry, not cheap, but Skyrunning events are a known quantity in that sense – if you’ve entered, don’t complain about the price.
The cons then. I’m not a fast runner (any more), and am very much back of the pack. However, having been inside the cutoff by half an hour at Patterdale, I was outside it by half an hour at Kirkstone without being aware of slowing significantly. Now, cutoffs are there for good reason – the marshals had been out all day, and dusk was approaching…but an hour earlier start (or 30 mins added at either end) would allow more flexibility for the curvier among us. Charlie…pretty please.
The second con was the race brief and some of the website details. This seems like a very minor point (and it really is), but some of the details were from last year. With multiple races a year, keeping on top of it can be difficult – I get it – but still…with my picky work head on, I always wonder that if there’s a lack of attention to detail in one element, might other things be wrong too. In this case…not at all.
Everything else about the race was expertly done. Good detail was provided in advance, a comprehensive compulsory race brief was held the night before, where Charlie Sproson (RD) gave us all the various constraints and regulations and, as importantly, explained why they were in place. Nice one.
Good kit check, friendly approach by all at registration, weather brief on the start line, happy. Despite being cold and wet, the marshals were awesome throughout, on the technical sections and (importantly for me) at the point at which I dropped. At that point they had just dealt with some runners who had missed the cutoff but wanted to continue outside of the race; given that difficult situation, I believe the marshals managed it as well as possible. The food at the feed stations was just what I needed (though Patterdale was a long way to go to earn it). The safety cover was very reassuring; everyone gave off an air of confidence and competence. The course was superbly selected, and superbly marked, with only a couple of places where flags had blown away over the entire course – well done and thanks.
The key question then…will I go back. Even though I need to get a bit fitter, it’s a definite yes from me. If you’re hill-inclined, don’t mind it being a bit cliffy and are happy to get some cuts and bruises, give this race a go.