Testing Times

By Andy Mouncey, June 20, 2018

The weather’s back.

After weeks of unseasonally warm almost wall-to-wall sunshine the wet and windy stuff is back with a vengeance. I have 33miles and 10,000’ of Lakeland mountains to travel and for damn sure I’m going to get my head kicked in by the weather gods. One small consolation is that this will be a shared experience as around 150 other souls are lining up for the start of the inaugral Five Passes Ultra (the clue’s in the title) organised by Ascend Events Photos Results

Except I’m the only one in a T-shirt while everyone else is nice and cosy in a waterproof. Clearly I’m putting my faith in my internal heat generation and natural external waterproofing – though I know damn well full shields will be called on before too long as low cloud has covered the mountains and the wind is already ruffling my long flowing locks as we wait in the valley bottom.

My last race was back in Feb with this lot – and that was a win. I was flippin’ flying – well, to me I was – but since then my lower legs have thrown in the towel on a couple of occasions that has punched big holes in my much sought-after training consistency. In the end I threw the towel back at them and downed tools for two weeks while my calves got used to the idea that I wasn’t quite done with them yet. Two and a half weeks of radically different training later and I’m back in a good place and keen to see how it plays out. Today is to be a test and a confidence boost: I’ve had a word with Competitive Bloke and the deal is that he stays bound and gagged till the final third. I just hope the gaffer tape holds…

I jog off somewhere in the middle of the splashing horde as we meander through Grasmere and head for the first climb up Loughrigg. The plan is to control the first third and the first three climbs – I guess around two hours but I really don’t know – so I embrace Goldilocks and concentrate on trying to float my way upwards while trying very hard not to notice what is happening around me:

Who’s climbing strongly

Who’s blowing

Who’s all over the place with their footwork

Competitive Bloke has clearly got a drone up (sigh) so I pretend disinterest and file under No Further Action At This Time.

Up into the clouds for the first time and over the top at 335m already soaked to the skin. I’m now in the front few and then it’s my first chance to benchmark the descending skills of those around me. Okayyy…but still No Further Action...

Into the valley and still trying very hard to project the ‘I’m Not Really Trying Hard At All’ front. Except I’m actually really not: Trying very hard, that is. We’re straight into the next 480m haul up Wansfell and even quicker into the clouds. Still no drama and it’s a longer, faster more runnable descent this time so I let go just a little more to see what happens. My descending has been one of my consistent strengths and I’ve been deliberately working on it some more recently – so I’m pleased to see folks ahead who disappeared into the clouds on the climb emerge ahead somewhat closer.

Into a valley bottom for the second time and the front few suddenly cross me ahead. Ah! It’s a first sign of the navigationally-challenged and this definitely goes in the file. So we’re all together at the start of the long steady pull up Garburn Pass but by the time we top out at 450m the elastic has definitely stretched. I’m still pretending indifference and going my level best to keep it all under wraps as I chug ever upwards into the clouds for the third time…but I really will have to put another layer on once we hit the bottom again.

The eastern side of Garburn is shorter, steeper, rockier and once again I let the brakes off to test the dancing skills. Sure-footed equals smooth and smooth equals speed so I focus on the former knowing that this is a route to the rest.

Kentmere village at the bottom of the pass and one third distance. I am somewhat chilled around the edges but figure will warm up on the climb out. I plan to speed that process by stuffing my face here and adding a jacket. It’s not exactly a faff-free transition but I get the tasks done and walk out with hands and face full of jam butty. Then realize my bottle is only half full and the next aid could be three hours and change away. I’d unscrewed the top, put it on the table by the water in the CP assuming it would be filled. Except I hadn’t explicitly asked. I silently award myself a Certificate Of Muppetry and console myself with the realization that it’s (still) bucketing down, the streams are torrents – so it’s not as though I’ll be short of drinking options.

Hiking and munching means I’m caught by a group on the climb out but only the leader comes passed as I cue normal service. I ease past on the short steep drop to the bottom of the crux section and now I’m getting On Task: ‘So he climbs strong, he’s fluid on the flat but he hesitates on the descents…’ I can feel Competitive Bloke straining: Not yet, ole son…

We run together as we start the crux section of the whole race: The long long pull north up to the high point of Gatesgarth Pass at 600m and then up again to the high point of the whole route on Harter Fell at 780m. After that we have a difficult up-down traverse west across classic Lakeland exposed rocky terrain that will be made even more fun in these conditions before the drop down to Kirskstone Pass at around two thirds distance.

I play the silence game: I like silence – I’m comfortable in it – and I’ve learned over the years that most people don’t and aren’t. Sure enough, the inane chat starts and I chalk up another little victory to go with the descending pass earlier.

The elastic stretches as we get into the climb. He looks back and I chalk up another little victory. That makes it 3-0 to me – which would make me Mr Smug except he’s the one in front and slowly disappearing into the cloud. 

Oh well. I am hiking strongly – that’s the second thing I’ve been working on – but to peg him will mean upping the effort to a level I’m not ready to go to just yet.

As he disappears upward I become aware that I’ve acquired a passenger who seems to be yo-yoing on and off my shoulder: He drops off then pulls back up – and as the cloud thickens he stays pinned. A glance across confirms it: No map or route instructions are in evidence.

Ah. I have a Freeloader.

Not much I can do about it as this stage because as we turn to head onto the exposed slopes of Harter Fell the full fury of the wind hits us. Bent almost double over the map as visibility drops to 10-20yards my focus is on staying upright and on track. To make matters even more interesting I really am starting to get cold again as the effort level drops below that needed to heat the soaking layer I’m wearing under my jacket.

Get cold – speed up’ reminds Competitive Bloke through the gag.

‘Working on it…

Except I can’t just yet ‘cos I need the summit cairn ‘cos that means a direct line off on a compass bearing down to the ridge path that will take us through the rock minefield ahead. I get the cairn, nail the bearing and head off down the slick rock strewn mountain side and mercifully out of the gale.

Except it doesn’t feel right. 

Now I’ve learned the hard way to trust the compass at times like these and f**k the feelings as it were, but as the yards pass it doesn’t look right either on the ground. I stop, check and slither on again. And again. Finally a full stop – and Freeloader is right there. I dare him to say something so I can rip his head off for abdicating responsibility for his own whereabouts but nothing comes – and I have my head and hands full anyway trying to figure this one. 

Wrong, wrong wrong! screams my brain and I have to agree: It’s a full 180 degree turn and retreat to the origin point back up the mountain. I’m briefly tempted to just turn and blast back up through the mist and leave Freeloader stranded but my humanity wins out: ‘I’m re-tracing’ and point back up. Competitive Bloke is disgusted.

Hauling ass back up and I briefly register that I’m moving well and thinking coherently despite the f**k up. Eventually back to the cairn and okayyyy…Start Again: Check, orientate, line it up and off we go…then through the mist there is shouting and pointing ahead – then figures on a line slightly above us. We come together and after a few more yards we hit another cairn identical size and shape to the first – except this one has a small tent pitched beside it that is sheltering the safety check marshals.

TWO summits? No – one summit and two similar cairns close together. And I’d gone off the wrong one. For the second time in a few short hours I find myself at the Muppetry Award Ceremony which raises a wry smile as I do a fast inventory: I’m cold but everything else is good – and I need to get rid of this group and get moving again.

So as the wind tries to rip us all off the mountain I page Mountain Goat setting and drop down through the rocks trying to find a balance between safety, staying on course and speedy enough to generate enough heat to keep me from freezing. The rocky route demands total concentration: The rocks are slick, wind howling and visibility marginal. ‘You’ll see Thornythwaite Beacon in the distance’, say the route notes: ‘You can’t miss it.’ The enormous slate obelisk on the ridge line is indeed normally visible for miles. Normally. When I finally get there I pretty much have to stand next to it to see any of it – and even then I can’t see the top! The good news is that I’ve dropped the group with Mr Freeloader. The bad news is that they all emerge out of the mist again as I’m stuffing sweets into my mouth thoughtfully offered by the valiant safety check team at the beacon.

Tagged again, huh? Oh well.

Coming next is a pretty hideous drop through slick scree and then a steep scramble-haul up the other side. I push on through the climb and emerge with a smile very much on my own at the top. Now there’s just the final section linking to Kirkstone Pass – and while it is broken and difficult in places I know it is runnable. I let Competitive Bloke have some air for the first time and nudge the needles up a few notches to catch and pass a few more folks before arriving at the Pass and two thirds distance somewhat later than hoped for but very much still ready to play. Conditions are still pants but we’re lower so at least the wind is less of a factor and remarkably I’m even starting to thaw.

A 300m steep stepped climb up Red Screes starts this section and my plan has been to hit this hard and then run all the way off the top to the finish. I’ve looked at this section last week and my recent training has all been geared to kicking on in the final bit – so it’s time to find out.

The extra gear is indeed there and I climb solidly. Voices float back and I catch the owners at the start of the long and final descent of the day down the other side. Another couple get reeled in as I keep the accelerator pinned and do my best to stay honest and committed to the task: ‘Keep the intensity high and run the whole damn thing.’ What’s gone before becomes irrelevant: This is the test of the day and what matters is now.

I rediscover warmth once again in the final half hour as the sun makes a welcome breakthrough as I head back to Grasmere. It’s been a significant 7 hour test and while I fluffed one question – many runners will be spread all over that part of the mountain and many will DNF in the conditions – I scored on a bundle of others and I did successfully work my plan.

Perspective comes later as I sort myself out and eat back in the village hall HQ with some of the first finishers and some early DNFs. One face stands out among the gnarly running blokes and crew: I’m sitting opposite a young Asian lady who is clearly on her own and finishing her food. I lazily assume she is waiting for someone partly because she looks clean and fresh…

‘I started with the walkers early but decided to retire at Kentmere’ she tells me. ‘It got a bit too much…’

Had she travelled far?

‘I live in Norwich’ she replies. ‘This is my first ultra…’

Bloody hell. I curse my assumptions and give her my full attention.

Turns out she has her sights on a 50mile event in the Lakes in October and wanted to get a first experience here. She’s staying in a hostel – it’s quite a trip by train to get here – getting to the Peak District is much easier but the hills are less than here…

You get the idea: Young Asian female living in a flat city has her sights on a 50mile challenge through the Lakeland mountains. ‘Kinda trumps the big scary stretchy goals contest, dontcha think?

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Copyright Andy Mouncey 2017 - 2022
Photo Credits: Phil Coates.tv   Summit Fever  and  Racing Snakes