I mentionned to a friend earlier in the week that the trouble with blogging about ultras is that they take so much longer to write up. It turns out that writing the post about the longest ultra you have ever run, and then accidentally deleting it without saving takes considerably longer.
So here I am starting again.
For the last few years the Clifbar 10 Peaks have been my main summer race: its always the main event that I’m training for and the last twelve months have been no different. This year I was signed up for the Xtreme, 100k and 8000m of ascent. The challenge was to complete it within 30 hours. There are two other races as well on the same day: a long route and a short route.
Initially my post included a step by step narrative of all 21 peaks and checkpoints but then I thought: maybe fate deleted that post so as not to inflict tedious suffering on all the poor innocent people who are going to read this.
Instead there is going to be a condensed version. (And even now its pretty long. Sorry.)
04:00 start at keswick
29 people started on the Xtreme route according to the results. My friend Annie and I took up residence at the back and began the easy run walk up to Blencathra.
Blencathra had been a steady, easy climb. We took Halls Fell down to the valley and the next checkpoint which involved some scrambling at the top. At the bottom we saw two guys coming down another part of the hill.’which way did they go?’ I wondered, little realising that this was going to be a common theme for the rest of the day. We made our way through Threlkeld with the two lads pulling away from us again. Checkpoint 2 was made at 06:21 and we set off toward Clough Head.
07:21 Clough Head
It’s a steepish climb upto Clough Head but we were still fresh so we were OK. We could see the two guys from before ahead of us and another man as well. Annie and I were running comfortably between the peaks. Stupidly I was running a little too fast. Annie asked me if I wanted to go on but I slowed down instead. I knew it was going to be a long day and I trusted her greater experience more in setting the pace.
There were a couple of peaks along this ridge that we didn’t have to visit. As Annie knew this part very well we overtook the two lads a couple of times (we nicknamed them the Amigos) since they often chose a slightly longer route but they would then overtake as they were faster and stronger. Likewise we bumped into the other man (who we referred to as DJ since he was listening to music) but again he would quickly pull away. There were a couple of people behind us but we couldn’t see them.
We had cleared Raise easily and then began the steeper and longer climb up to Hellvellyn. The clouds were parting slightly and every now and then we would get flashes of view down to the valley floor below. As always I though we had reached the peak before we actually had- oops! After the peak there was a great little run down to Grisedale Tarn where we saw the Amigos climbing straight up the scree slopes of Fairfield opposite us. Amazing, but there was no way I was taking that route since I’m such a coward. Annie pointed out how we could cut diagonally across the slope and then we could join onto the path that led to the top.
The path up to Fairfield was rocky, step and harder than I expected. There was no sign of the Amigos up there, although we had met DJ on his way down. For a while we had thought we had beaten the Amigos to the top but then on the way back down we saw them scooting along the bottom to the start of the climb up to Seat Sandal. They must have been fast going up the side of that hill. I would have still been floundering around clinging to pieces of scree.
I had been snacking on fruit, nuts and cereal bars so far but now I ate one of my sandwiches, ham and cheese, and felt instantly revived. We reached Grisedale Tarn again and looked up toward Seat Sandal. We could see DJ but no sign of the Amigos who had zoomed off again.
10:44 Seat Sandal
The path up to Seat Sandal was rocky and steep but seemed easy after Fairfield. At the peak we caught up with DJ who wasn’t having a great time. He told us he was in training for the UTMB but hadn’t done much recently on this sort of terrain. He had decided to pull out at the next checkpoint, which was a real shame. He was out of water so Annie gave him some of hers, and she asked him to consider changing to the long or short route instead. We pulled away from him before the next checkpoint so I don’t know what his decision was.
On the way down from Seat Sandal we spotted the Amigos again at the bottom of the hill and wondered if we would catch up with them before the next checkpoint but it was not to be. We rolled into checkpoint 2 at 11:34 with no sign of them, and began our journey up the valley toward Greenup Edge and High Raise.
13:17 High Raise
It’s a long old trek from the checkpoint at Steel End car park to High Raise, but its very scenic and I like it a lot on this part of the route. It starts as a long winding path following a river (with waterfalls!) up between steep, enclosing hills, and then opens out onto a large basin with the peak of High Raise ahead of you. Crossing the basin reminds me of Telly Tubby land due to the small green mounds dotted here and there. If you’ve never seen this children’s program you won’t know what I mean but its very similar.
The map refers to this area, with an amazing degree of accuracy, as simply The Bog. There is no set path across and up to Greenup Edge, its just a case of accepting that your feet are going to get wet and there’s nothing you can do about this. On the plus side I didn’t go in up to my waist, like I did last year, and also I thought I saw a panther. Since panthers don’t exist in the UK Annie was able to convince me that it was just a black sheep that I had seen. I’m sure she was right but it didn’t stop me looking back hopefully over my shoulder to check. Unfortunately it had quickly disappeared from view behind a mound but it took me tripping up to convince me to keep my gaze pointing forward.
The view ahead was quite extensive but there was no sign of the Amigos anywhere. Gosh those boys could move fast. We gradually started the climb up to Greenup Edge (with Annie stopping to give directions to an American school party out hiking) and then trotted along the edge to the peak of High Raise.
I won’t say much about the route to Bowfell except that I may have led us slightly off course on our way to Angle Tarn. This is what happens when you get cocky. We adjusted our route and arrived at Angle Tarn without too much harm done (sorry, Annie!) and then we started the climb up Ore Gap towards the peak of Bowfell. Now we were moving into the higher peaks we were coming across a lot of walkers and daytrippers. At the top of Ore Gap its a left turn to Bowfell before doubling back to climb Esk Pike.
On our way up to Bowfell we ran into the Amigos (yay!) who were on their way down and we exchanged hellos and how are you feelings etc etc. Further up we found more Xtremers. After being on our own for so long it was starting to feel very sociable.
15:25 Esk Pike
I’ve done this a few times but for some reason the path to the top seemed to take longer than usual, and it felt longer climbing down as well. From Bowfell onwards the terrain had become very rocky, not possible to run on. All you can do is jump from rock to rock. Still, I didn’t feel tired yet and my legs still felt strong so I was quite happy. At the bottom we reached Esk Hause, checkpoint 3, where a marshall told us we had competed half the distance. This would have been something to celebrate except I know we still had the majority of elevation ahead of us so really we would be lucky if we were a third of the way into the race.
It didn’t matter though. We were still feeling chirpy and besides, the Amigos had gotten ahead of us again so it was time to press on.
16:03 Great End
We’re now 12 hours in. The next few peaks sit close together so we knew we’d tick through them pretty quickly, and focussed on skipping as quickly as we could across the rocks.
16:25 Ill Crag
…but no matter how quickly we skipped…
16:39 Broad Crag
…no matter how smart our route choices were…
16:56 Scafell Pike
…those Amigos pipped us to every peak each time. The only reason we just about kept up was due to their illogical route choices. On the way down from Scafell Pike to Mickledore we finally joined up with them for a while. We told them about their nickname Amigos (turns out we were simply ‘the girls’) and they confessed that their death defying routes had been by accident…they were simply following the point to point route on GPS.
17:56 Sca Fell
Our intention was to turn down from Mickledore and go up to Sca Fell via Foxes Tarn. The Amigos had gone via Lord’s Rake on a previous event and decided to take Foxes Tarn as well today for a change to see what it was like. I knew they would get ahead of us so I pointed out the gully entrance that marked the started of the climb and told them to bear right at the top of the gully, going up a scree slope which would then be an easy climb to the peak.
I had developed a hot spot on my big toe so sat down to tape it up and change my sock. After that I scooted down the hill to the gully and began the Foxes Tarn route: climbing up the stream that ran down through the gully. I caught up with Annie at the base of the scree, where we stared for a moment at the Amigos who, for some reason, hadn’t turned right but were now directly ahead of us climbing straight up an almost vertical slope to the peak. ‘those guys are amazing’ was all we could say.
That wasn’t the path for us though. We turned right and quickly scrambled up to the higher ground, where it was easy to then turn left and make our way to the peak.
After that it was a case of making our way down over the stones and rocks to the green grassy slope of Green How which would take us down to Wasdale in the valley floor. I’ll be frank: we were getting a little bored of the rocks and stones by now, and it was slow going picking our way down the side. I’m afraid poor old Sca Fell had some abuse thrown at it here. We passed one of the Amigos sat down with his head in his hands. I knew how he felt. Bloody rocks. Normally I really like Sca Fell but I was just bored of all the rockiness that had preceeded it; I was ready for a change.
Fortunately, a change was not long coming. We had finally reached the steep grass slope of Green How where Annie had a stroke of genius. She sat down and bumped down the grass like a child going down a slide. I was quick to follow; a slightly unconventional approach to fell running but one that was entirely successful. I’m sure we got down faster than if we had carried on by foot, plus we saved our poor old knees. Another advantage was the nice massage our glutes got on the way down.
Still, it must have been a sight for the confused sheep watching us silently as we bounced past them, laughing like crazy people.
And so we turned up at the 4th checkpoint in Wasdale where -joy! They had sliced soreen malt loaf. I took two slices and asked if I could have another two. The lovely angel in human form said yes so I took them. One good thing about being an Xtremer is that being one of the last through the checkpoints meant that the marshalls weren’t so worried about giving all their food away.
One of the other marshalls asked if we had seen anyone else still to come, -yes, the Amigos coming down the hill, and then they told us that they were still waiting on 11 people to come through. God knows who they were. The only people Annie and I knew of were the Amigos, and two others that had fallen behind us nearer the start.
But it was time to press on. The sweeper was at wasdale and he told us he would be starting out in 3 hours…we didn’t want him to catch us. Our next peak was Red Pike, but first we had Yewbarrow to climb.
21:17 Red Pike
We came out of Wasdale just after 7pm as we wanted to climb as much as possible in daylight. Ironically, as it wasn’t a mandatory peak, Yewbarrow was the climb Annie and I had been dreading all day. It rises straight up from the lake, and from the bottom it looks almost vertical and very difficult to climb, but when you looked carefully you could just make out the route to the top which wouldn’t involve much scrambling. Annie and I started to make our way up, and then voices below signified the arrival of the Amigos who had been joined by another man. They caught us up and we stoicly plodded upwards in silence. I was singing my hill climbing song, with a lyric for each step: ‘And. On. That. Hill. (Gasp, puff) There. Was. A. Bog. (Wheeze)’ until I reached the top. Singing in my head, I mean. I wasn’t so delirious yet that I was singing aloud.
We all crested the hill and then began the next climb up to Red Pike. The Amigos dropped back and it was just me, Annie and the other chap, Jon, who Annie knew already. When we were on our way up to Red Pike a group of fell runners ran past us at an astonishing rate, one of whom was stripped to the waist just zooming on. One of the others told us it was a Bob Graham record attempt, although I can’t remember the name of it now. They had two dogs lolloping alongside them making it look easy. You gotta love dogs and their ability to make a human feat of endurance look like a walk in the park!
I really like the section between Red Pike and Pillar. Its nicely runable and it didn’t seem that long before we reached the peak. We stopped to put more warm clothing on as the wind was picking up now, and it was likely to feel much colder as night wore on.
23:14 Kirk Fell
I was still with Annie and Jon when we started the climb up Kirk Fell. In the fading light and increasing wind we mistakenly took the wrong route up: climbing a steep gully. It was a struggle, and slightly dangerous but we all survived so no harm done. Jon apologised later for pointing us in that direction but it wasn’t his fault really, we’re all responsible for navigation.
At the top we had to switch on our head torches. It was much windier now, I hadn’t noticed on the way up becuase I was concentrating on the climbing. We had to use GPS to find the peak. Annie told me to switch my GPS off and we would just use hers in order to save the batteries. Physically I still felt fine but I was feeling increasingly sleepy, as though my eyelids had weights on them. We dropped down to the 5 th checkpoint at Beck Head and the marshall invited us into his little one man tent for a few minutes to get out of the wind and have some hot tea.
I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for four adults with packs to fit in that tent…it was like a start of a joke- how many nuns can you fit in a phone box? But instead, how many runners can you fit in a tent? We could have got more in, I’m sure.
We had lots of nice hot tea and sweets (and chocolate!) and we promised to stick together until we got to the checkpoint at Honister. He also told us that a severe weather warning had been issued for Dale Head, but that was too far away for me to think about then. And with that we set off into the night (and wind).
00:19 Great Gable
The climb up to Great Gable was easier than expected, although the overwhelming sleepiness hadn’t left me. I told myself that if this was the only thing I was suffering with then I was getting off easy. We reached the peak and Annie checked her GPS for the path down to Windy Gap. We climbed down together and then picked up the bearing for Moses Trodd and onto Honister. I’ve done this route a lot in daylight but it looked different in the dark and I asked Annie a couple of times if we had the right bearing. She assured me we were going in the right direction but I still checked my GPS. We were going in the right direction. So much for my gut instinct! We reached checkpoint 6 at Honister at 01:55: the first indoor checkpoint! The guys manning it were fantastic, rushing around refilling our water bottles, making us coffee and sitting us down with hot jacket potatos, chilli and cheese. Bliss. This was our chance to to recover a little, rest and refuel. It was the first time I had sat down in over 22 hours. I’m not counting taping my toe as ‘sitting down’. Or the three minutes inside the tent!
With the coffee the sleepiness finally started to leave me. Another man came in that we hadn’t seen before, he was an Xtremer that had come down the wrong way off Great Gable and had had to climb back up to re-start the descent to Honister. He had developed a hacking cough and said he couldn’t go on. The marshalls asked him to rest a bit before making the descision but even after something to eat and a rest he still felt he couldn’t continue. His cough was bad so I think he made the right decision.
Then the door opened…the Amigos! Annie and I were pleased to see they had made it…but sadly one of them had picked up a knee injury and so they had made the decision to pull out. I felt gutted for them, no one could say they hadn’t approached the course with spirit and with all their random routes they had probably covered more ground than any of us. Hopefully they’ll give it another go next year.
03:22 Dale Head
Annie and I left Honister at just after 2:30, with Jon saying he would catch us up in a bit. The severe weather we had been warned about wasn’t there, and the climb up to Dale Head was eerily calm and quiet. I thought of my friend Julia who would have come down this track the week before as part of a Bob Graham relay, and said a ‘hello’ to her in my head. There was some cloud cover on the peak which meant that the light was reflecting back from our headtorches making everything seem surreal. The path down from Dale Head to Dale Tarn was a pain, steep and slippy with the dew and I was glad to reach the bottom. In the east the sky was turning pink. We ran around the tarn and started the climb upto High Spy and our next peak on Maiden Moor.
04:29 Maiden Moor
Climbing up to High Spy it became clear that I was struggling to keep up with Annie. I didn’t want to feel like I was holding her back so I told her to press on. She seemed unsure at first but I convinced her I didn’t mind.
Once she had pulled ahead I started to feel stronger; it was as though my worry about keeping up with her eclipsed any postive focus I had, now on my own I was able to start pushing the pace again. I still wasn’t as fast but I felt happy that I was covering the ground. At Maiden Moor I realised I was 5 and a half hours from the 30 hour cut off. Throughout the whole race my aim was just to finish: now I suddenly realised that I could actually do this within the challenge limit.
I would need to get my ass in gear though. I pushed forward and decided to try and get to the checkpoint on the lake for 05:30. I made it for 05:33. ‘How long ago did my friend come through?’ I asked and was told it was just minutes ago. I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch Annie up but, well, it seemed like a fun thing to try.
The final peak, the killer, was Skiddaw, looming ahead. The base was two or three miles away and I was determined to reach it by 06:15.
Well, I got to the base at 6:20 so not too bad. I could see Annie about 200 metres above me but I wasn’t fussed about catching her now. All my attention was on reaching the top: then I would know that I would complete the challenge.
I broke the climb up Skiddaw into three stages: an initial steep grassy stage, the stony path, and then the scree slope path up to the top. I paced myself by taking 500 steps and then allowing a break for 30 seconds. About half way up I stopped to eat an orange and to send Vince my first text of the race: that I was planning to finish before 10 am.
I scrambled to the top of Skiddaw at just before 8am. I was very pleased, I had climbed it much easier this year: last year I found Skiddaw difficult and a struggle when pressing 20 hours. It was closer to 30 hours this time and it was OK. I mean, I didn’t skip up it or anything, but it was OK.
I said hello to the marshall who was camped out at the peak and he wished me luck for the downhill section to the finish. ‘I’ve done it!’ I thought as I dibbed in.
It was as though that thought flicked a switch. Suddenly my feet were really sore and the strength went from my legs. I broke into a stumbling run, but there was no speed there. Every step down from that hill hurt bad. I knew it was psychological, I had spent so long telling myself that once I had reached the top of Skiddaw I had as good as finished. As far as my body was concerned, the job was done.
I spent the remainder of the route mentally backtracking, telling myself to keep it together until the end. I ran when I could, but even with it being downhill it took me well over an hour to reach the bottom.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I found myself running into Keswick and into the park where the finish was at the football club. Ironically I managed to get lost on the grass bank above the club house; I could see the white building below me but couldn’t figure out how to get down. I could hear someone shouting but it was only once I made it onto the path I could see it was Vince!
I’d made it. I jogged along the path and into the clubhouse, waving at Annie who was sat looking fresh and apparently unscathed by a day and night in the hills.
So I completed it in 29 hours and 17 minutes. My goal was just to finish the thing, so to do it in under the 30 hours was pretty good. Annie came in at 28 hours 24, she just kept getting faster toward the end, hence her super speedy ascent and descent over Skiddaw. At the end only 14 people completed the Xtreme event and, even better, it was won overall by a lady! Nicky Spinks did the whole lot in just 18 hours 26 minutes, nearly two hours ahead of second place. That just blows my mind. What an inspiration.
So that’s that. I was crazy stiff for a couple of days but managed to squeeze out a few more hill walks- albeit aided by walking poles. I’m taking a week off from running now before resuming my training for the Plague next month and the Cotswold Century in September.
The Clifbar 10 Peaks was a great event, as always. This is certainly my favourite race, even though its harder than any of the others I’ve done due to the ascent, terrain and the need for navigation. The climbing and varying weather conditions make it feel more dangerous. I think that’s why I like it: it’s a real challenge, a proper adventure.
As always, the marshalls were wonderful and heroic, hanging around on the peaks dishing out water and food, smiling into the wind. We love you.
Anyway, I’m going back to the giant cake I was eating…have fun on the trails everyone!