What is the most appropriate thing to do on the shortest Saturday of the year, in torrential rain and a howling gale? Is it to sit beside a roaring log fire planning next year’s races with a nice cup of tea? Or is it running 38 miles round the recently flooded and devastated Lake District with 180 other fools? Well, Mike Rosher and I chose the latter, running the Tour de Helvellyn on the 19th December. This race was definitely in doubt following Storm Desmond, but thanks to the dedication of the team at Nav4 who carefully assessed the viability of the route and to the people of Cumbria who were keen to encourage ‘business as normal’, the race went ahead.
The Tour de Helvellyn is advertised as a race for experienced ultra-runners with mountain skills, and this year it was definitely essential, with choice of kit and navigation skills essential. I just about scraped into this category, more from my mountaineering background than running pedigree. However, I still felt a bit of a novice amongst some seriously hard-core and fast ultra-runners, such as Spine and Dragons Back finishers.
I travelled over to Askham, near Shap, on the Friday evening, choosing to sleep in the van rather than have a probably sleepless night in the Community Hall with other competitors. The next morning I prepared to leave at 7.15 and discovered that Mike was planning the same time. Rather than a mass start, competitors choose their own start time based on their anticipated speed, with the aim of getting to the first manned checkpoint at Patterdale at 9.30 when it opens. This meant that slower runners started earlier in the dark and finished in the dark, with faster runners attempting to get round the route in the daylight.
But before ‘dibbing’ to start my clock, there was the small matter of the stringent gear check. The art of balancing safety and weight was challenging for this race. With few checkpoints and difficult access, runners have to be responsible for their own safety, which basically means carrying and wearing clothing/equipment that will save your life in the event of an injury or getting lost. There was no question about what to wear to start though, it was full waterproofs as the rain was pouring down with high winds. Mike got held up in the gear check so I started a few minutes before him and therefore didn’t seem him again for about 9 miles.
I ran out into the dark, wet and windy Askham streets and headed up onto Askham Common. Once through the intake wall I knew I had to keep my wits about me to identify the turn off which would set me up correctly for the crossing of the bleak moor. I knew I was looking for some low gorse bushes, but what I hadn’t banked on was hardly being able to see 5ft ahead of me because of the horizontal rain, which was being picked out in my head torch light. Luckily I found what I was looking for and confidently set off towards the Cockpit Stone, despite seeing torch lights taking a variety of different routes across the moor. Much relieved I passed the Cockpit Stone and picked up the track towards Ullswater. This next section was supposed to be easy, a steady downhill on which I could make up some time, but unfortunately the headwind was so strong that on occasions I was forced to walk. The first major landslip had to be crossed, a huge muddy gash in the landscape which had taken out the dry stone walls. By the time I reached the first checkpoint at 6 miles at Martindale Church it was daylight and I had used far more energy than I had hoped. A road section made a pleasant change from the slippery mud, leading us up towards Boardale Hause. What had been a steep, rocky path up to the pass on my recce was now a torrent which we had to pick our way up the sides of. Mike caught me up on rocky footpath down to Side Farm in Patterdale, beginning the story of our race, with us ‘leap frogging’ each other throughout, and running together in between.
Entering the sudden warmth and dryness of the checkpoint was a shock, but after ‘dibbing’ to register my arrival, I was supplied with a nice cup of tea. Picking up a few nibbles such as cheese, cherry tomatoes and salty biscuits, Mike and I were quickly on our way. Unfortunately a detour was necessary as the fields at the head of Ullswater were completely flooded, adding extra distance to our route. The road section through Patterdale and Glenridding passed easily enough, but I was conscious of the heartache that people were suffering due to flooded homes and businesses.
From Glenridding the route heads uphill, past the Youth Hostel then up Greenside to Sticks Pass. We struggled up the steep track, then followed other runners up beside a waterfall to cut the corner. It was at the point that the first of the racing snakes passed me, making me feel extremely slow, but I knew I just needed to keep moving steadily onwards. The eternally cheerful Stu Smith and Liz from Nav4 were waiting to see us through the checkpoint at a bridge. The rain was still falling steadily, I was pretty sodden at this point but was hopeful that things would improve after Stick Pass. I caught up with Mike again just before the pass, but he left me on the long descent towards Thirlmere. After having to put up with a stiff headwind all of the way up until this point, it was unfortunate that I now had to cope with a strong wind pushing me down the most technical descent of the route so far, which was a bit scary. The rain had stopped however and it was good to run with my hood down. I arrived at Swirl Hows checkpoint just after Mike and I managed to eat a few more snacks, have a cup of tea and refill my Camelbak . We set off together along the forestry track, straightforward but undulating running at first, until we met the first stream crossing. This was previously a straightforward walk across a bridge, but with the bridge swept away in the floods, it was slightly more problematic now. First we had to climb over rubble, mud and trees, then drop down into the fast flowing stream, then up over the rubble again to get out. Unfortunately I lost my footing in the stream and went in up to my waist. Not an unusual occurrence for me, but it gave Mike a good laugh. The dunking didn’t make me much wetter than I already was so we carried on. A marshal then told us the bad news that a key bridge was unpassable so we had to make a route choice; either drop down to the road and follow this for half a mile until the footpath could be re-gained (longer) or cut up the hillside and cross the swollen Raise Beck higher up (harder). I went for the road option and Mike took the hillside, but we met again at Grisedale Tarn, proving that there wasn’t much difference. Once again the rocky technical descent from Grisedale was marred by a very strong wind from behind. At one point I was blown forwards and just managed not to go head first down a rocky step. We quickly recognised that this was a dangerous spot and took off down the grassy hillside instead, following some other runners. We caught up with a couple of chaps who were walking and it was evident that one of them had been injured, so he borrowed my sticks to get him back to the road at Patterdale. It was good to run without the sticks for a bit, but I was worried how I would manage later on when I got tired. It was about 3 miles of track and road running down the valley and Mike and I ran well, overtaking several other groups. By the time I was heading back through Glenridding however I was feeling a bit queasy and was alternating walking and running. Once at the Side Farm checkpoint again I just managed to eat a handful of chocolate raisins and drink a cup of tea, before heading out of the door again with Mike. A tough uphill section was taken slowly, but we were keen to get down the other side before darkness fell. I didn’t want to put my head torch on during the steep technical descent as it changes my depth perception, so I hurried on into the gloaming, just getting to the road in time. It was just a case of getting our heads down and running as often as we felt able, which precluded running up any hills! We finally reached Martindale Church, pleased to see the long-suffering marshals. I knew it was about 6 miles from here, but still with a long, steady ascent. First however we had to negotiate the steep hairpin bends down into Howtown, quite tricky with water flowing down the road with us. The road was completely flooded at the bottom, along the side of Ullswater. Once back on the track, it was slowly, slowly up the hill, with the rain hammering at our backs. Totally soaked through, but knowing this was the last leg, I kept moving as fast as I could. At some point Mike and I separated going uphill, so I was on my own with the tricky navigation section back across Askham Common. In the event though, I caught up with a chap called Max and we confirmed the route choice together, passing the Cockpit Stone and finding the way back to the intake wall. The final descent into Askham was longer than I remembered and I saw 11 hours slip out of my grasp. As I had hoped to complete the route in 12 hours, I was still very pleased with my final finishing time of 11.08. A few minutes later Mike arrived in 11.14, as sodden and bedraggled as me, but both pleased to be off the hillside and in the dry.
Once showered and warm, eating Nav4's lovely soup, I could reflect on the race. It had been a tough day in epic conditions, but on a great route in the mountains. The organisation by Nav4 was flawless and it was great to have this opportunity to run this winter ultra.