A personal experience of the Borrowdale Fell Race – by Chris Curtis

A personal experience of the Borrowdale Fell Race – by Chris Curtis

It is with some trepidation that I post my entry off for the Borrowdale and a mixture of happiness and dismay when it comes back as accepted.  Do they really think I can do it or are they desperate for numbers and happy to see me fall flat on my face (repeatedly)?  I think I’m fit enough but this is the Borrowdale: something I’ve been in awe off for many years, a Serious race for Serious fell runners.

Rose – another Borrowdale newbie – and I go out for a recce which is partially successful and we learn a lot by where we go wrong as much as where we go right, but disconcertingly it take 7.5 hours to complete, admittedly with a stop at Honister for an ice cream.

On the day of the race I feel surprisingly relaxed and after deliberately holding off from any decent running for a week after the deluge that was the Kentmere Horseshoe I’m gagging to get going again.  The weather is mild and rain has held off. Scafell is in cloud in the distance but it looks like it’s going to clear by the time we get to it.  Having some friendly faces from other club members helps and there are a few jokey/worried comments about how almost everyone there looks super fit.  Low expectations help calm the nerves as I have 3 main goals which I’m reasonably confident about: 1) finish the race without timeouts, 2) try to get under 5 hours, 3) try to avoid any serious injury.  This last goal is not a joke, if the stone is wet up on Scafell then a slip and fall trying to run over the blocky stones could be nasty. I’m wearing mudclaws in the hope they will grip those rocks better.

 

Start to Bessyboot

I’m a bit too far down in the crowd at the start so hampered by the numbers but we all get of to a decent jogging pace soon enough. I’m happy to keep rough pace with others and only take out a few obvious slow runners at this stage.  That turns out to be a mistake as the bottleneck of the lane appears after a mere few minutes and we all grind to a halt.  Its like a motorway where the traffic stops even though you suspect there is no hold-up at the front.  As it’s Carl, Rickie, RFR and Mark Lamb at the front it’s a fair analogy. It’s a good opportunity to calm the nerves again, and the breathing, but I’m keen to get moving.  The thin path soon opens out onto wide tarmac and we all weave past some slightly bemused cyclists.  It’s time to move up to a fast jog but still not open the taps too far – it’s a long race awaiting ahead.

Once on the grassy stuff the path thins again and I’m delayed a little by a few slower runners who prove tricky to get around on the winding sections, but it seems like no time before we are suddenly on the way up to Bessyboot.  On  the recce we managed to get this bit very wrong somehow but now it seems obvious which way to go. It’s a slow trudge up a steep and rocky bank and I’m heartened to see that most people are taking their time.  It’s a taster of the climbs to come so I’m not about to try and be clever and clamber past as many as possible but there are a very rocky bits when all-fours seems to help and I overtake a few and a few overtake me.  So far I’m working up the field gradually and settling in and I’m still feeling strong.  Near the top I glance back and there is a trail of vests behind me that makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere.

Bessyboot to Esk Hause

Probably best described as a pleasant trail run up to and around Glaramara.  Once you are on the tops there are a few boggy bits, a few ups and a few downs, but mainly its grass on reasonable trods so easy on the legs and feet.  It’s easy to see how a compass would be handy if the clag was down. I stop to refill my water as it’s a warm day and I want to keep hydrated and manage to squirt half a pint up my nose: it’s a bit of light relief which makes me realise I’ve been tensing up again.  There is a bit of back and forth for positioning up to the ‘bunny ears’ and then we bend round and down to approach Allen Crags. A small navigation error rewards me with a slip and a minute lost but then traversing round to the right of the crags me and a CFR runner get a good line on grass lower than the rocky path most are on and take out a group of 4 or 5 runners in one go. I must remember that line for next time.

Esk Hause to Scafell Pike

It’s still warm and I’m feeling slightly less bouncy now so it’s a mixture of run and fast walk up the path towards Broad Crag.  The field is stretched out but less competition is both good and bad news as there is nothing to push me on.  The cloud has moved off the pike so its clear all the way which is a good thing as I’m not all that familiar with the route, having only ever been up once before and that was on the recce.  I can see the top of the pike which is covered in people so much it looks like a massive hedgehog. I avoid going up Broad Crag but the group I left behind have caught me by taking a sneaky shortcut. I missed what they did so am not best pleased as I can’t file it away for the future but now I’ve got some competition and the rocks are dry so I jump along the rough ground with renewed vigour.  I actually like jumping over rocks quickly and feel confident my feet know what to do so make may way to the front of the pack again.  It’s a short down into the col at breakneck speed then the last climb up hits.  This is not quick and there are a few walkers about so I concede a couple of places but so what, I made it to Scafell Pike and in my head it’s an important milestone passed.  My last thoughts are that this section needs work as small errors and allowing myself to take my foot of the mental gas for a while have cost time.

Scafell Pike to Sty Head

The screes. Everyone talks about the screes. ‘Are you going down  the scree route’ seems to be the most common question I was asked.  Old hands are wearing gaiters over their shoes just for this section. On the recce the stones were medium sized and jagged and not good for getting down a steep slope at all.  After half a dozen painful ankle knocks and a few falls I had bailed out and taken a zig-zag path down to the col, just to the side of the path up. Rose had persevered but had a nasty bruise from a fall.  The zig-zag path had therefore become my plan A as it was fast enough, but on the day I found myself following others straight to the screes – and it was the right choice. All the bigger stones had gone and there was a thick layer of small, damp shale stones which were perfect for gliding down on heels, it was like slow motion skiing and genuinely great fun.  If it wasn’t a race you would go round and do it again.  On to the corridor route and a chance to stretch the legs out with some downhill flat-ish stuff.  The main path was uneventful, although the weather had heated up even more so another water stop was required.  Walkers kindly stepped out of the way (unfortunately sometimes onto the nice grassy bit leaving the knobbly path for us).  One place gained here by a bit more confidence downhill but it wasn’t until the cut over the to the trod to sty head that I caught up with the next lot of stragglers. I should mention that everyone is a target to someone else and few caught up with me too!  Time for another slip over whilst wrestling a jelly baby from the bag and a knee bruise to show for it.  Disconcertingly the last mile had a trail of bright blood drops from someone up ahead.  Sty head and well within the cut-off so goal one looked promising.

Sty Head to Great Gable

Anyone who has been up this route knows it’s a slog.  There is nothing to be done but hands on knees and pump the legs up what seems like an endless path. It’s a trudge, all rock path and no fun, and I’m really feeling it in the legs but I manage not to stop aided by a short gasp of cooler breeze.  Some runners who I’ve been watching because they clearly know this race well go directly over rough ground the top whilst the rest of us bend round on the walking path to the right.  It looks like a tough climb the direct way and I’m not in the mood.  A runner with good uphill strength who I have been back-and-forth with all day overtakes me and I tell myself semi-grumpily that she is an easy 25 years younger but I still don’t like it. As it happens she does sports massage so I think of the work she will get from this race, next week.

Great Gable to Honister

The route off the top of Great Gable seems strange, it feels like you are almost going back on yourself rather than the more intuitive 90 degree turn from the checkpoint and straight on the walking path to Green Gable that you would think was better.  You can go that more direct way but it’s not as fast, involving slow scrambling and walker avoidance.  I find the grassy section I’m looking for and traverse round left on rocky trods and although not perfect it works out ok and I get to the col.  Suddenly the cloud is getting thicker and just at the wrong moment.  There is a runner on a trod traversing right and although I know it’s probably the best way but they disappear immediately and I can’t risk a route I’ve never tried before in cloud and no company so it’s up Green Gable on the main path for me.  I tag on to a group of runners and we all miss the summit ok but as we run down what I think is the way to Brandreth the runner at the back says ‘don’t follow us, we aren’t in the race’.  Damn, I’m on my own in the clag and probably off course.  I slow and fumble for my compass but a walker appears from the mist and says ‘too far left’ so off I go again and find the tarns at the base of Brandreth without too much more difficulty.  This is all decent enough running underfoot but the legs are tiring now and it’s difficult to get running at any speed when you aren’t 100% sure where you are going and can’t see much. The cloud clears and looking back I can see a lot of runners off course so it’s not only me.  A good 5 minutes lost so far with dithering on this section and now the way past Brandreth is slow again with too much walking whilst picking around rocks.  I know what’s ahead and my legs and feet are starting to feel a bit battered.   On to Grey Knotts and plenty of people seem to be going quite high but I do what I think is the right thing and drop left and circle round to the fast path down. Still not the bust line but not too bad and interestingly I’ve caught a few people who left me ages ago so they must have been caught in the cloud too.

Honister to the Finish

Dale Head, it’s easy under foot but a punishing climb when tired.  It’s the hill that keeps on giving with at least three, cruel, false summits.  Now it really is a slog up and no-one is going even close to fast.  Half-way up someone trying to catch me starts to dry retch continuously just over my shoulder and I stand to one side to let them past, nervous of the alternative. Multiple cramps are trying to start so I swill down a water and salt tablets mix and that seems to stave them off. Some very short jogging on the flatter bits and when I see Joss at the top and think I had better show willing, but essentially it’s a long and drawn-out walk.  At the checkpoint I know which way to go – follow the anniversary waltz route – but for some reason I cock it up and follow others aiming directly for the tarn which involves a steep and unrunnably rocky decent. With wobbly knees I can’t go fast and have to resort to a sort of hop and walk, cursing my stupidity when a much faster line is so near yet so far.  This is a lesson to pay attention at all times and do not follow others blindly. I easily lose 5 minutes, probably much more.  A quick drink in the stream by the tarn and it’s a soft, grassy path to the gate to the slate quarry.

A careful run down the slate path to the point where it splits and I’ve got a choice to follow a gaggle of runners on past the old buildings and on to the Tongue or drop down left to the gill. Before the start of the race I asked about this and was told the gill was best so I dropped down, and this was my last mistake.  It may be quicker on paper (or if you are a good runner) but when your feet feel like they have been beaten with sticks for a few hours its impossible to get any speed up on the rocky path.  Every boulder hits a sore bit. Whilst I am picking my way along as best I think about those other runners sailing down a grassy bank, and  later, at the end, I can see they did all get in a few minutes before I did.  The last section is flagged and an easy if exhausted trot in.  Its hot, I’m knackered and can’t defend losing a position in the last few hundred meters, but I’m elated to have got to the end at all.

I don’t wear a watch and my eyes are full of sweat.  I have no idea how I’ve done. Lying in the grass at the end with legs out straight in front of me to stop the cramps that are trying to hit me I ask a stranger to read out my results which are middle-of-the-pack time but well under 5 hours and make me extremely happy. I might have cried some manly tears if I had enough water left in me.

The Verdict

I’m immensely proud to have done the Borrowdale.  It’s always been an unattainable ideal: a classic race that only ‘real’ fell runners do.  To feel like I’ve joined that group is probably passé to most who have been knocking these tough races out for years, but to me it’s a major achievement, a massive milestone in my running career.

Even before leaving the field after the awards I was calculating where I could save time and do better next year.

 

  • Nic Ward                              03:37
  • Adam Jackson                   03:52
  • Philip Pearson                   04:04
  • Chris Curtis                         04:37
  • Rose Singleton                  04:43
  • John Messenger               04:51

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