Friday, 27 May 2016

Old County Tops

My original plan for the weekend was to take part in the Keswick Mountain Festival 25K trail run on Saturday and then support some friends in the 50K run on Sunday. However, a last minute change of plans saw myself and Neil gaining a last minute entry into the Old County Tops to make the field up to 130 pairs.

The "Old County Tops" is a classic Lake District fell race run in pairs and held every May dating back to 1988. The race is a circular route, starting in Great Langdale and taking in the three highest points of the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire (being Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston respectively) before returning to finish in Great Langdale.

The exact distance and amount of ascent are dependant on the route you choose, but the general consensus is about 38miles and 10,000 feet of ascent.

Neil isn't a "fan" of running so said that he doubted he'd keep up with me on any flat bits (somehow I doubted that) but I was really worried about letting him down with my poor descending skills....and my legs that were tired from having run/raced so much in the previous fortnight. We agreed that we'd just treat it as a fun day out in the hills without any pressure but I still hardly slept on the Friday night through a combination of worrying about being rubbish, and by listening to the wind and rain beating down on the skylights!

Although we only had a 2 mile drive to the start line, we still managed to leave registering and having our kit checked until the last minute (that sausage butty was important!!), joining the huddle of other runners sheltering in the marquee away from the rain. It was nice to catch up with a couple of familiar faces, but people aren't always the easiest to recognise when wrapped up in their waterproofs and it's still before 8am!!

So much for the "easy" start - people seemed to hare off down the rough lane along Langdale from the word go (Neil included), though it's probably just that I'm a slow starter. As soon as we crossed over the main road and started to climb up and over to Grasmere, things settled down and became more relaxed. I imagined that most of the field would be more at home on the fells than me, so was surprised to pass several on that first short ascent. The difference between road and off road events was no more obvious than on these climbs as people chatted and laughed as they passed each other (with a couple of people recognising me, much to my surprise!).

Unsurprisingly, several guys shot past on the downhill stretch, but I was not going to let this put me off - no way was I going to go crazy and injure myself early on in the day by trying to keep up. As it turned out, we then had a short stretch of road through Grasmere and out the otherside, which meant that I could actually have a section where I didn't feel like the "weak link". It was amazing how much of a gap we opened up on many of those quicker descenders on that short stretch so that we were alone as we headed off up Helvellyn. Having worried about finding the correct point to turn off the road and head up the hillside, you couldn't exactly miss the supporters with their cowbells!!

I am very glad that Neil was confident of his navigation up towards Dollywagon Pike as I felt rather disorientated in the low cloud, but once we reached the ridge it was easy running along what I would call the "reverse of the Bob Graham route" to the top of Helvellyn. As we neared the top we spotted other pairs leaving and starting their descent, but as we headed off we noticed how many more pairs there were behind us. Everybody takes a slightly different route off the hill aiming for the checkpoint at the Wythburn carpark, but I tried to follow Neil's line while repeatedly telling myself to concentrate and not to be rubbish. Hopefully it worked, as only 2 pairs appeared to catch us on that descent (having appeared from a slightly different direction at the bottom). Still, at least I could reassure myself that I'd managed at least 1 of the "Tops" if I had to plead defeat after that!

I hadn't really been drinking much up to that point so took on cups of both water and squash at the checkpoint. Rather than stopping to eat the lovely jam sandwiches and maltloaf, we grabbed some to take with us and eat on the next leg, but unfortunately left them on the table when picking up drinks....schoolboy error, but at least we were still carrying some of our own food.

The next stretch was a long one up the Wythburn valley - there was a poor quality path for some of it, some boggy ground for other parts and some general rough ground to climb up to a col by High Raise. Somewhere along this valley we realised we'd covered at least 1/3 of the distance and 1/3 of the ascent.....another milestone ticked off! Neil thankfully set a precedent by helping me whenever we had to cross a deep or wide stream so no major accidents were had there.

The weather really hit us after we'd crested the col.....and I can't say that the next section was especially enjoyable. The ground was very rough and chossy underfoot, and the wind was driving huge painful raindrops into our eyes, faces and bare legs (earlier I'd been glad I opted to wear I wasn't so sure). I started to wonder why on earth I hadn't stuck with the 25k trail run plan.....

A brief section of lull (apparently Bowfell was sheltering us from the wind and rain even though I couldn't actually see it) after Angle Tarn gave us a chance to eat some food and prepare for the wind on the ridge (i.e. getting our overmits on) and then we were back in the brunt of it.

We'd caught up to the guys ahead of us by the time we reached Angle Tarn and pulled away from them as we climbed, soon losing sight of them in the cloud. Neil picked a route to avoid the worst of the boulder fields and tried to keep me informed of what lay ahead on each short section.

Suddenly I realised that we'd made it....Scafell Pike and the second of the "Tops"....but oh no, that meant there was another steep descent coming up!!!!

Luckily there was only one moment when I came close to tears on the way down......and that may actually have had more relation to my lack of gymnastic ability. Wet rocks are rather slippery, even more so when covered in moss, yet when my feet skidded in opposite directions, I don't think they'd remembered the fact that I've never been able to do the splits.....owwwwww!!!

Still, all too soon we were down in the waterlogged valley below and heading towards the next checkpoint at Cockley Beck. Although relatively runnable (in a fashion) this section was rather long, undulating and "splashy". We were starting to flag a bit and so finished off all the food and drink we were carrying (this was actually the only water I took in all day apart from what was at the checkpoints, due to the weather conditions).

A tiny road section into Cockley Beck enabled us to flash our numbers at the marshals so the time at the actual checkpoint was spent eating malt loaf (me) and drinking tea (Neil). We found out that (much to my surprise) we were still the leading mixed pair, as it had been impossible to work out where we were in the field due to the variety of routes taken in the cloud off the various tops.

It was a long slog up to the col between Grey Friar and Swirl How and I definitely felt my tired legs slowing down. However, it appeared that others were feeling it more, as we again overtook a couple of pairs on the ascent. Once reaching the ridge (well, it appeared to flatten out ,but that was all I could really make out in the cloud) there were a couple of miles to run out to Coniston Old Man and back). We got to see a few of the faster male pairs returning as we neared the "Top" and as a total surprise, my friend Beth and her boyfriend appeared out of the clag to give me a hug!

Unfortunately, the out and back section showed us that the second mixed pair (Steve Pyke and Judith Jepson) was only a matter of seconds behind us. I knew that this would spur Neil on as he's a competitive soul, but my legs protested at me that I couldn't give much more, and it was all they could do to keep running, whilst trying to think about foot placement and not falling. We were caught just as we got down to the road at Three Shires Stone (the Wrynose Pass), and if truth be told, I was actually thigh deep in a muddy hole at the time!

It became quite a battle to the finish after that....we managed to run away from them to a certain extent as we headed down the road, but then they passed us as we had to cut across rougher, wetter ground towards Blea Tarn. Neil was urging me to keep pushing as "it's not over yet" but although I desperately didn't want to let him down, I could give no more than I was.

It came down to a couple of small navigation choices in the end, such as the other pair taking a path that cut through the campsite, while we went out of the gate and round via the road. Still, I was delighted to finish in one piece, never mind in the top 10 overall in 8 hours and 10 minutes. We'd exceeded all my pre-run expectations as not only had we been competitive all day, we'd made them (in their words) work hard for the mixed pair prize - after over 8 hours of running, we were only separated by a mere 90 seconds. There's no shame in that as both Jude and Steve are former event winners, whereas it was our first outing. We maybe had a touch more speed, but their nav was spot on.

All in all, it was a great day out - I'm glad we did it (and that Neil put up with me and my tired legs) and I learnt a lot......though I'm amazed that I still managed to get up at 4:30 am to go and cheer on my friends at the 6am start of their 50k on Sunday!

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