Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Borrowdale Fell Race – Unplanned!

On Friday (6th Aug) I decided I needed to get some miles and some climb in my legs with the Ben Nevis race only around 4 weeks away. Tony Varley and Albert Sunter were entered in the Borrowdale fell race and I had a plan to catch a lift up with them and go for a run around some part of the route maybe from Styhead to the finish and watch the runner pass me along the way.

If you have never heard of the Borrowdale race before, it is a race covering 17 miles and 6500ft of climb around the northern lake district. The route starts in Rosthwaite in the Borrowdale Valley and has checkpoints at Bessyboot, Esk Hause Shelter, Scafell Pike, Styhead Tarn, Great Gable & Honister Slate Mine with the last point having a timed cut-off of 4 1/2 hours. It’s a tough race and I haven’t seen the race run in anything but wet weather. For about 3 years now I have watched Chris do the race and met him at Styhead to cheer him on and give out food and had no inclination to attempt the race myself, until earlier this year when I decided to myself I would possibly attempt it NEXT year!

So, Albert replied to my query of a lift with “Why don’t you do the race? There are a couple of numbers going spare!”. I couldn’t really think of any good reason why I shouldn’t have a go (other than I hadn’t trained for it, and didn’t know the route) as I could always drop out at Styhead. And so the plan was forged. Saturday morning I grabbed my kit, rucsac and bumbag, a few gels and a flapjack and off I set to Tony’s, with a little nervousness.

By the time we arrived in Rosthwaite I was pretty relaxed. I registered to sub Colin's number and went to buy a map from Pete Blands van. I was AMAZED they had run out of race maps though, bit of poor planning there on Mr Blands side! Anyway I had an Ordnance Survey map with me so that would have to do. I packed my rucsac and put my food in my bumbag then headed to the start.

At 11AM the race started and it was a gentle trot through the village to the bridge where 400 people all try to fit down a narrow track. Eventually the group now spread out heads off down the valley towards Bessyboot. I always find that at the start of any race I am out of breath in no time and seriously wonder what the hell I am doing. Billy Bland was stood at the at the foot of the climb to Bessyboot giving us some encouragement and then I looked up to see the stream of bodies heading up this steep first climb. At this point I was about 5th from last!! After about 3/4 hour (I think) I reached the first checkpoint with a small gap to the people in front of me and a lady very close behind me.

I descended from the checkpoint and tried to play catch-up with the runners in front of me. I was a little worried about the route and would rather follow someone who knew the route than be left alone to navigate it myself. After 25 mins running behind Glaramara I eventually caught up to the guy in front (Colin) from Long Eaton. I had noticed though that for the last 25 mins I had not seen ANYBODY behind me and I think the lady had retired. Keeping a steady pace we plodded on to Esk Hause shelter (Checkpoint 2) which is as far as I had ever made it on a previous recce with Chris (I had an abscess and was on strong medication at the time so I can be excused!)

On the ascent up towards Scafell Pike, not knowing the route and not wanting to stop to get my map out I chose to stay with Colin. Had I known the route I probably would have pulled ahead a little but I wasn’t bothered about that. I hadn’t studied the route up here at all and was surprised when we started to descend having not yet made it to the top. Eventually though we made it to the top and out of the mist appeared about 30 people sat right on the peak having their photo taken. I recall Chris saying the path up from Wasdale is like a motorway sometimes and i can imagine it is now.

Now off the Pike and heading for the scree run and the corridor route down to Styhead tarn. Colin started to pull ahead of me here as I tried to negotiate the scree. Once onto a path I tried a couple of short cuts and at one point fell over as my left leg slid from underneath me and my right stayed where it was. Luckily I managed to avoid the rocks and carry on. Further down though I passed a large rock on the path and caught my knee. Then further along still my weak ankle (been problematic for a few weeks now) stopped me for about a minute or so after stepping funny on a small rock in the ground. At this point I had made my mind up to retire at Styhead which was getting ever so close. Taking a trod across the grass I managed to shave a couple of minute from two runners in front who stuck to the path and on arriving at Styhead Colin was there with some friends getting refreshments. Stubbornly I headed on for the climb up to Great Gable followed by Colin.

The climb up Great Gable is a tough one and after the previous climbs my energy levels were low. At one point I was feeling so low that when a woman on her way down told me I was doing well, I nearly burst into a flood of tears. Slowly I plodded up and up this huge lump of rock which still had its head buried in the mist. But then through the mist I managed to pick out the shapes of the mountain rescue guys manning the checkpoint. After a minute or so rest on the summit I headed off, following the cairns on the descent to Windy Gap.

I’d never been on this side of Great Gable and was surprised when I saw the steep descent (just hadn’t expected it). The path was rocky and steep(ish) and a couple of times I worried about the wet rock and my useless Mudrock shoes. It was at this point too that I notice 6 million teeny tiny flies buzzing around my head. After much wafting of my hat I realised that it wasn’t going to make much difference and just proceeded to eat them as I moved through them. At one point, as I came down from the mist I wondered if I had taken the right line (Not that I knew is there was a wrong path to follow) as I saw the path heading down to Styhead Tarn and wondered if I was somehow going too low. I passed a couple of walkers stood browsing the OS map and they confirmed that this was Windy Gap and I was in the right place.

Rough guide to the route I tookTaking a minute I took on water and ate a sweet and heard someone descending from above. It was Colin, who had made the climb up Great gable look harder than I had. Anyway it turned out that he had retired at the top of Great Gable. I looked up towards Green Gable and into the mist, then looked at my watch… 4hr 23min meant I had only 7 mins to make the cut-off at Honister. Knowing I wouldn’t make it and with the thought of wandering round Green Gable in the mist somehow not seeming the least bit appealing, I decided to take the descent down to Styhead Tarn.

I know I could have made it over to Honister OK, but as I hadn’t planned to do this race and already making it about 11 miles and 4000ft I was happy I had done enough for the day anyway. It certainly made an impact on me and I’ll make sure I’m more prepared for the next time I may attempt it.

Despite retiring at Windy Gap and with tired legs you still have a good way to head back to the start making the total distance covered around 15 miles and I was out around 6 hours. When I got back to the car Albert was asleep on the back seat, he hadn’t run well and said he was all over the place but still finished in 4hr 29mins. I couldn’t though see Tony. After washing my clothes and legs in the stream I saw Tony enter the parking field. It turned out that he was only about 20 mins ahead of me at Windy Gap and after Green Gable decided to retire. He then made a bit of a hash of coming down off the mountain first heading for Seatoller, then deciding to carry on to Honister and actually coming out at Seatoller. He even managed to catch the bus back to the start. I however had to walk (running wasn’t really an option) all the way to the main road and every time a car came passed I tried to look more tired than I was in the hope that somebody would give me a lift. Fortunately somebody stopped and it turned out to be the  people who were supporting Colin at Styhead. Colin was no longer with me at this point as he had run ahead to the finish when I could run no more.

Overall I was quite happy with the day although part of me thinks I should have tried to make it to Honister to get timed out. The aim of getting some more miles and climb in my legs was achieved and after 3 1/2 years of running I finally made it to the top of Scafell Pike.


  1. Good effort. I must have been in roughly the same place as you all the way round. I missed the cut off by about 4 minutes. Agrrrr ! I'm going to AV IT ! next year now I know what to expect.
    I'll be at the nevis too. Maybe see you there.
    John ;-)

  2. Nice report. I admire you for undertaking such an enormous challenge in such circumstances - I'd need months to psyche up to this one.

    It should do you well for the Ben race. Good luck.

  3. Cheers fellas! Still woried about the Ben though!