They say gin is mother’s ruin. Well I don’t know about my mother, but it has certainly been mine on too many occasions. This time it was a bottle of Monkey 47, bought for us by some well meaning friends, which did the damage.
My first glass - botanical heaven on ice with a slosh of tonic and a slice of lime – coincided with the arrival in my inbox of an email from Steph about the Lakes 10 peaks race. “Yeah right” I thought as the gin went down. By the end of my second glass, I was feeling a bit more gung-ho about the prospect of a Lakeland ultra. Two more G&Ts and an easy online booking later, the deed was done. “Hey, 48K, 3,200 metres of climb. How hard can it be? I have plenty of time to train. Cheers!”
The next morning I was woken by my partner tapping me on my shoulder. I could just about make out what he was saying through my hangover.
“I forgot to do something really important last night.”
“You said if you ever tried to sign up for another ultra, I was to remind you how awful you felt during the OCC and stop you.”
I swore I would never drink gin again.
I don’t know what happened to all that training I promised myself I would do. Steph was in fine form but I was bricking it as we registered at Keswick Rugby Club on the evening of 23 June and were issued with a map, dibber, GPS tracker and a race T shirt (extra small so it fitted me for a change, but grey? Really?).
At 4.30am the next morning we were delivered to Swirl How car park by the event coaches. It was cold and yet the midges were out. The marshals, equipped with netting head covers, were on good form. All the runners could do was to bounce up and down, scratching and slapping away the bloodthirsty little blighters. Whether I was still in shock from getting up so early in the morning, or because I knew that my pack was filled with enough mint cake to rebuild Kendal, I felt much more chipper than I had the night before. Ten peaks? Bring it on!
5am and we were off, up the first of the ten – Helvellyn. The sun was already up but there was still a pink gold tinge in the sky which made the morning seem magical. 6am on the top of Helvellyn and I felt like the luckiest person alive. The view of the Scafell range across the valley was spectacular (in fact that would be the only time we saw the Scafell range that day) although we didn’t hang about to enjoy it for more than a couple of seconds as the first cut off deadline spurred us on over the ridge and back down to the road at Steel End. We managed to take a wrong turn near the bottom but it turned out OK as we found a nice broad forest track which zig zagged us down (eventually) to where we were supposed to be.
“Happy with your choice of route?” asked the marshal as we approached the checkpoint from the wrong direction.
“Absolutely” I said with as much dignity as I could muster.
Having reached the checkpoint a good hour before the cut off we knew we could take the foot off the gas a bit however the next section of the route – a path rising gently up the valley following the course of the Wyth Burn towards High Raise - looked eminently runnable on the map so we scurried off hoping to make good time. Alas on the ground it was a very different story. The path started out a bit wet and muddy and before long became a bog and then a series of swamps. As Steph and I edged cautiously around the evil looking swamps, a number of people in front of us obviously thought they could adopt the approach you would take in a local fell race of running straight through. They soon realised this was a big mistake as shoes and limbs disappeared without trace.
As we climbed up the path, we came upon two men without any trousers on. It was a bit early in the morning for that sort of excitement so I was minded to ignore them and keep going, but Steph insisted on stopping to ask why they were undressing in the middle of the path. They explained they had fallen into one of the swamps up to the chest and so were changing out of their wet and evil smelling running kit into their waterproofs for the rest of the day. It also turned out they did not know each other but spent the rest of the day together having bonded as a result of the hideous experience they had shared.
We left the bog men to finish their toilette and continued up the path to High Raise (peak number 2) and then on to Angle Tarn. The weather had come in and above us, Bowfell and its neighbouring peaks were shrouded in a thick clag. As we started the steep climb up to Ore Gap I remember looking down at my hands and thinking that I would not be able to see much else for the foreseeable future.
Bowfell is my favourite peak in the Lakes because you can see the whole of the national park around you. On this occasion however it was nothing more than a pile of rocks jutting out of the mist and peak three of ten. Esk Pike followed and then Great End and Ill Crag. They all seemed horribly similar. The wind was gusting now, the sky was full of drizzle and we could see nothing but mist (and my hands). I was aware that we were going really slowly but it was impossible to move quickly as the rocks were treacherously slippery.
We bumped into the bog men again as we came down off Ill Crag. They were in much better spirits now and were making good progress thanks to a rather nifty GPS watch belonging to the younger of the two. He seemed to be having more luck with his GPS than I was with my iPhone app. At that moment, we were approached by a group of three runners who were relying on map and compass. Having swapped devices, we realised that we were all lost.
“We need to stick with him” I said, pointing to the younger bog man. “His GPS is better than mine!”
So we all teamed up and followed GPS man (re-named in honour of his watch) through the mist.
And now, a word of advice. Never blindly follow a man you have never met before in the mist, even if he is wearing a bright yellow waterproof and sporting a fancy watch! GPS man led us along a path (in the loosest sense of the word) which went underneath Broad Crag rather than to its summit. By the time we realised we had gone wrong (again), we had spent so much time negotiating the slippery rocks that we were loath to go back. One of our party headed off into the mist and soon came back to say that he had found a chimney we could scramble up which led directly to the summit. Everyone decided this was a good idea and headed off to climb up the rocky face of Broad Crag. I am terrified of scrambling up wet slippery rock, particularly when I can’t see what is coming next, but there was no option so I started to climb behind the others, feeling very shaky. I soon got stuck because my legs would not reach far enough and I started to panic. Then a hand came down out of the mist to pull me up, and a voice told me not to worry, to take it easy, and talked me up the climb.
I cannot thank the lovely man from Eskdale enough for his kindness and support on Broad Crag. I am not sure I would have made it without him.
From Broad Crag it was a short sharp pull up to the top of Scafell Pike, which was busier than Piccadilly station at rush hour notwithstanding the evil weather. We had done seven peaks and I felt that if we could only get down to Styhead, the worst would be over.
It was such a relief to come down out of the mist as we approached Styhead tarn. The world was still there in glorious technicolour and we allowed ourselves a quick breather and a look around before we headed up Great Gable and back into the mist again. We met a lovely young man on Great Gable who was doing the long route (did I mention there was a long route, presumably for people who had drunk even more gin than I had?) and who showed us a cunning route off the side to avoid the worst of the scree down to Windy Gap. From there it was a lovely run down to Honister Pass and the next check point, where I was looking forward to (nay hallucinating about) a large piece of Wilf’s fruit cake.
It seemed we were the only runners who had not dropped a bag with a dry pair of shoes at the check point.
“You’re very hardy” a marshal commented.
“I only have the one pair” I pointed out, “I’m not hardy, just hard up.”
There were sandwiches, soup and cake at the checkpoint. We filled our water bottles and sorted out our kit, I drank a cup of soup and Steph ate some cake, then we set off again. There was only one more peak to go but that peak was Dale Head – a tedious pull with one false summit after another. Halfway up the climb I realised that I had left my cake on the table at the checkpoint.
“You could always go back for it” Steph offered helpfully.
Coming off Dale Head, we felt almost euphoric but perhaps that was because we almost flew off the summit, so strong was the wind by this stage. There was a long steep descent past a spectacular waterfall. We then picked up a lovely windy path down the Newlands valley which led in turn down to a landrover track which took us out of the valley to the road at the foot of Catbells. From there it was an easy run to the last checkpoint at Nichol End and then into Keswick. There was a moment of confusion as we ran into the field next to the rugby club and Steph kept on running, past the rugby club towards an open air concert which was being staged at the other end of the park.
“Stop” I yelled but my mouth was dry and nothing came out, and I had no hope of catching her. One of the marshals went after her and directed her to the finish.
We were out for 15 hours and 15 minutes give or take. I was mortified at how slow we had been until I realised that out of 104 starters on the short course, only 84 finished and we came in at 40 and 41 overall, and 7th and 8th ladies. It was a great day out and never has a cup of coffee tasted better than the flat white I had from Joey’s van at the end of the race, but please, next time I drink too much gin and try to sign up for another ultra will someone remind me how awful I felt for much of the day and tell me not to!
— Fiona Hamor
For more information on the 10 Peaks races and to enter next year's races, visit http://www.10peaks.com/