In the last 10 minutes a hundred runners have passed me by as I've hobbled along the ridge and stood stretching my calves against this dry-stone wall pleading with them to start functioning again. They have good reason to complain after 450 meters of near vertical climbing 2 hours into the 3 Peaks Fell Race. I have to confess that as a southerner without the ability to train on hills like these the east face of Whernside appears like a dark shadow in my dreams; and so despite the pain, with that shadow behind me now I am actually feeling a bit chuffed.
Back in 2008 the 3 Peaks hosted the World Mountain Running Championships and this climb took me 42 minutes from the Ribblehead checkpoint, over half of which was sheer hell. This year as planned it took 40. Dad was there after the railway bridge at the bottom of the hill with a warm handshake and a smile as I passed by and after crossing the river the hill was relentless again. Bog turned to bank and the occasionally runnable slope was followed by greater steepness in turn. At first pumping our fists to drive upwards, then hands on hips, then hands on on knees until there we all were on all-fours, scrambling up the last two hundred meters to the flag that blows on the top marking the route up this pathless slope. It’s just 2 steps ahead to the checkpoint on the ridge, where I look up, pop my dibber into the timer, stand up straight and my calves explode with pain.
|The last few meters up Whearnside|
I have tried to train for this moment. But the hills of Sussex have nothing to compare with it. The nearest I could find was a 100 meter 55% scramble to the ridge of the South Downs Way 2 miles from home. Racing up and down this field to the bemusement of sheep and walkers has been my great pleasure on Wednesday lunchtimes this spring. But this is a sad comparison of the training ascents made by the proper fell runners who now stream past me with their polite rather-you-than-me smiles.
Do not give up on me now! I am imploring to my legs. And they do not give up just yet; they simply remind me again that it is not often that they are asked to behave in this way.
But I understand these things, I have been here before; and as I see my mate Dave cruising past me down the ridge in his Bingley Harriers vest I remind myself that this is all part of the plan. This is the point where the plan comes alive. I am on the ridge of Whernside, 14 miles into perhaps the most famous fell race there is, over half-way and just one mountain, Ingleborough, to go.
If you can be here easing the cramps against this dry stone wall at 13:20 on an April afternoon, then you can run the 3 peaks in 4 hours - the target that I set myself after finishing in 4 hours and 12 minutes 3 years ago. The target that has dominated all of my training and racing for the last 12 months.
So I let them run by. I will see most of them again before the end; right now drink, stretch and take in that view.
|Nice view of Ingleborough from the ridge|
I take a moment to wonder on which nearby rock Dave’s mate Mick might have cracked his head open last year before being air-lifted to Manchester Infirmary for a brain scan. I take another moment to judge the wind – it was actually making life easier on that ascent! And as forecast it will be full in my face on the final descent to the finish. So let’s get going. Steady at first, knees high and ride the bumps on the ridge for half a mile before we dive sideways off Whernside and into the breeze.
I am descending now, every step still a half-controlled form of agony; if I were to leap to the wrong stone on the path below I might twist an ankle, but to hold back would unwise, the cramps in my calves are starting to fade but they will be replaced by a slow death to my knees if I tread too carefully. And so with brain-off I am leaping, sliding, at times hopping with mogul ski-turns down the face of the hill and my faith is returning. The calves have remembered their place and I have regained my pace. I’m sweeping down through fields of sheep and spectators towards Chaple-le-Dale and my second drink bottle and I am still on target.
|Passing Dad at the foot of Whearnside in 2008|
It is my clear understanding that I can do this now. I know the course, I know this hill in front of me and I know the ragged decent to the finish – so fast 3 years ago that I overtook 89 runners on the way down - but today there is a strong easterly and it will be hell to keep going. But I know I can do this.
Four hours was the target. Ambitious for a 45-year old southerner with a love of mountains but no great experience of hard running in them; ambitious yes, but achievable. My meticulous training tells me that I am about 15 minutes faster than last time.
So, one mountain; a beauty it looks from here as I take in the lower grassy slopes and limestone paths with a growing sense of relief that the worst is behind me and the knowledge I have 5 minutes in the bag, for cramps or a fall or that wind.
|Heading up Ingleborough with the route down Whearnside in the background.|
The pastures turn into bogs and the path has been upholstered with wooden pathways and granite steps to aid the runner and ease the erosion of this, Yorkshire’s highest Hill. Overtaking is hard on these pathways, a fall could be ugly here; but fell runners are a kindly breed who will step aside and cheer you on if you are going at a good pace. The last of the energy drink goes down my front and I am a sticky pink mess, but no one cares about the state of your shirt now, just the look in your face: do you believe that you are going up that mountain in just 36 minutes?
The bog abruptly turns to steep grass and rock and we are climbing now, hands steadying as we wobble and race up a stairway that seems to be cut into the rocks. And racing is still the right word for it, even at this shortened pace; every handhold is an advantage that might propel us faster, perhaps fast enough to overtake another runner over that next buttress. It’s not so gut-wrenching as Whernside despite being 3 hours into the race, but Ingleborough has a nasty surprise all of its own as you reach the crest of the main climb and meet the final ridge of boulders. There is no path! No easy way up to and off the top of the hill. We hop and skip our way over a mine-field of limestone rocks to the checkpoint; picking our legs up over the stones to avoid tripping requires new strength and concentration. Finally the summit comes and then it is the turn of our thighs to feel the agony of dancing down the upper slopes, and time to dis-engage the brain one more time for the descent.
Apparently there is a fine view from the top of this hill, I have been here twice and I couldn’t tell you about it. I can tell you about having cramp in possibly every part of both of my legs at the same time as I descend with improvisations over rocks, clints, grikes and some stuff that should only really be attempted with ropes and a belay; and miraculously unscathed I reach the path below and the end is almost in sight.
I check the watch. The path to Horton in-Ribblesdale is over four more miles of rough work and I have 35 minutes and a 25 mile-an-hour head-wind. No one said this was going to be easy!
Now I am sat in the sunshine at the finish having a beer with Dave and some of his Bingley mates. We are joined by Andy Peace the course record holder and they are sharing their memories of the last 25 years of the race. My dad comes by with Anne and shakes my hand once more. He knew what I was trying to achieve but he doesn’t ask if I made it or not. He has spent the last 20 years challenging himself in the mountains and for him it is the beauty and wildness that brings him back, not just a time on a slip of paper. And besides, he can see it in my face.