Lakeland Classics

by Rick Ansell

At the beginning of the year I set myself two targets.  Firstly to get a coveted (by me anyway) Super Randonneur Audax award and secondly to get the Joss Naylor Traverse completed.

The Audax award involves doing a long, very long, ridiculously long and finally an amazingly stupidly long bicycle ride.  I managed to do these in April and May and now have an enamel brooch to prove it.  Of course I would never wear this but I keep it in a small plastic bag of treasured items I have which includes things like the first toenail I lost in a fell race and my son’s first milk tooth.

In June it was time to turn my attention to running.  In 2020 I turned 60 and I had a big plan to do most/some/at least one of the Lakeland Classic fell races and do the Joss Naylor off the back of it/them.  Of course those plans along with many other much more trivial plans that we all had went down the pan. 

All the cycling meant I could keep going for long periods of time but basically only if sitting down so I needed some way to prepare for taking my exercise upright. It struck me that resurrecting the 2020 plan might be an idea so I sent off entries for the four Super Long Lakeland  Classics races.  These are Duddon, Ennerdale, Buttermere and Wasdale.  Four big races over five weeks.  If I could do those I should be OK for the Joss Naylor, I reckoned.

A few days after the last of my Audax rides I set out for my first run in two months.  I managed just less than two miles before crumpling up in a heap.  My legs had forgotten how to run.  In a panic I set myself a seven-day training schedule: one run a day followed by a two day rest before the first race, Duddon.  I managed the seven runs in seven days regime and chalked up an impressive total of 28 miles, fully ten miles further than I would need to do to complete Duddon.

While I have been very much looking forward to doing the Joss Naylor, I found myself full of dread at the thought of doing these Long Lakeland races.  I spent some time wondering why this was and realised that on the Joss Naylor I would be able to travel at my own pace, hopefully without too much time pressure and basically to be able to just have a nice day out in the hills,  with a few good friends.  I have 18 hours for it and there doesn’t seem any real point in doing it in much less.  (It’s like the BG.  You have 24 hours for that.  I can’t think what possessed Hugh to do it in 17.  He didn’t even have the adventure of running in the dark.)    The races, though, were a different matter altogether.  Once, long ago in the early stages of a race I used to look ahead and try and count the number of vests in front.  Now as the field streams away from the start I find myself looking over my shoulder to see how many there are behind me.  Usually there are a lot fewer behind me than there ever were in front of me. 

A bit like the red ball reset of the English Cricket team I decided to have a mental reset of my racing.  No longer would I consider the event a race.  It was just a training day for the Joss Naylor.  It wouldn’t matter where I finished as long as I finished.  (Well, obviously I wanted to finish at the finish but I mean it didn’t mater what position I was in when I got there).  Unlike with the English Cricket team this new mental approach didn’t of course mean that I was going to beat the World Champions 3-0 but it did mean that I approached the races in a more positive frame of mind.

DUDDON

Arriving on the start field it was comforting to see plenty of venerable members of the fell running community among the lean and mean youngsters.  I wasn’t out of place.  I still belonged here.  An old mate, Dave Tait, now 75 reaffirmed my new attitude.  “Rick”, he said as if reading my mind, “The important thing is to be here and to be out on the hills, nothing else matters.”  Dave and I used to do battle when he was English V50 champion and I was a callow youth.  Despite giving me almost 15 years he usually came off best.  Dave had opted for the Short race, just 9 miles and of course he took the V70 prize.

As we left the start field I found myself in the company of the legend that is Wendy Dodds, ‘fresh’ or rather still tired, from running the Jura Race the weekend before.  “It’s going to be a great day. We just need to make sure we make the cut offs.  Should be OK in these conditions”.  The first miles in any long event are always the hardest as you work to close your mind off from the thought of the end and just concentrate on being in the beginning, of enjoying the day.

There’s a long run out to the bottom of the first hill, Harter Fell and I settled into my pace; settled into the day.  I really didn’t mind when I saw the line of colored vests stretch away in front of me.  They were doing their thing and I was doing mine.  As I made my way up to Hard Knott a walker passed coming down: “Glad I’m not doing what you’re doing” he said as he passed. I pondered on this as I climbed the last few metres to the marshal on the summit.  “Do you know?” I thought. “I don’t think there is anything I would rather be doing today” The northerly wind had made the air super clear, the views of the Scafell range were better than any postcard, the warm sun brought out the familiar scent of the mat grass and the drying bogs.  I romped (well in my mind I did) down the grassy slopes to Cockley Beck and set about the next big climb to Little Stand.

I caught a little posse at the Three Shires Stone as they syphoned water into their bladder systems.  “ How close are we to the cut off?” Asked one guy?  “Oh you’re miles inside, over 45 minutes” said the marshal.  I quickly filled my bottle and set off ahead of the group with a spring in my step.  All day so far I had been tracking a lady from Keswick.  I pulled her back on the climbs but she danced away from me down the hills.  It was only afterward I realised it was Julie Carter whose book, Running the Red Line, I had got from Father Christmas.  We arrived at the final summit, Caw, together and away she went with an exuberant yell in celebration of making it round a big day out.

I had hoped to break five hours but as I started the long descent to the finish I knew it wasn’t on  my time, though, was still a few minutes faster than I did five years ago.  Not that it mattered it had been a great day as Julie’s yell had told the world.  The only thing that spoilt it was having to jump into the car and head back down the M6 to organise the Coombe Hill Race next day instead of lazing about in the field outside the pub in the sunshine.

RESULTS

1   Harry Bolton Keswick AC  2.57

41 John Millen (ex Tring)        3.50

105 Rick Ansell                       5.09

123 ran

ENNERDALE

On Thursday the forecast for the Lakes looked bad.  50 mph winds, zero visibility and a persistent drizzle.  I know what persistent drizzle feels like on a 50 mph wind,,,I didn’t reckon we would be doing the Ennerdale. You can’t ask a marshal to sit on top of a hill for three plus hours in that.  All Friday I checked my emails expecting an announcement that the race was off or that we would do a bad weather route.  I checked again at 3.30 just before getting in the car to drive north.  Nothing.  I stopped for dinner and checked again, rang home.  No word.  I must have just left the Services when Simon rang to give me the news but of course my phone was off and I didn’t get the message till I got to the campsite.

I lay in the tent wondering what to do.  Just pack up and drive home again in the morning?  Surely not.  I was doing this for the training.  I knew Claire and Jerome were up in the Lakes for the race too.  Had they heard in time or like me had they arrived?  Over breakfast I decided I would drive round to the start.  There were bound to be some people who would gather there and we could go out together and if not I could do a low level run on my own.

I was just driving out of the campsite and there was Claire bouncing about on the road coming to find me.  “What shall we do?” She asked.  “Go for a run?” I suggested.  There was a bit of signal at Reception so I messaged Jerome on the off chance and we drove round to Ennerdale.  There was Jerome with mug of tea in his hand waiting for us as the organisers shovelled boxes of bananas and cakes into the back of a car to take to a food bank.  It looked like they were struggling to get them past Jerome and he certainly had the appearance of a man who had had a second breakfast and was eyeing a third.  He offered to make us a brew and asked if we had a plan.  I suggested a run round to Buttermere, over Scarth Gap to the Black Sail Hut, thence over Black Sail pass to Wasdale and back over Windy Gap to Ennerdale.  It would probably be more or less the same distance as the race with just brief moments exposed to any bad weather as we crossed the passes.  Not that the weather seemed too bad.  The wind was blustery but the day was dry and the clouds mostly off the hills.

We set off and the others chatted along as I gasped and wheezed and failed to keep up.  We exchanged plans for the summer.  Jerome talked about preparing for The Spine Race in January.  “I want to race it this time”  he said.  I wondered how different a race speed would be from a completion speed  I mean you aren’t going to be doing six minute miles over the Pennines in the dark in winter for 280 miles.  I guess you just stop a bit less; sleep less.  Claire talked about some ultra in Austria.  Claire tends to talk about fifty mile runs like I talk about having a second pint.  She is the only member of Tring to hold a record for a fell race and so get her name in the FRA Race Calendar.  She is very depressing to run with as she dances effortlessly along on her toes leaving me lumbering behind   How far was this one?  “It’s a 100”. 

“Have you done a 100 before?” 

“No, not exactly but I have done the Grand Union Canal Race.  That’s 142 miles”

“Oh, right, how did that go”

“It was lovely I really enjoyed it.  I won”.

I quietly withdrew to the rear of the group.  This was running royalty I was with.

When we got to Scarth Gap Jerome was getting anxious about the time as we were a lot slower than he had expected and I was getting worried about my legs which had clearly not recovered from Duddon.  The weather seemed to be on the mend so a decision was made to abandon Wasdale and return along the High Stile Ridge to recce the Buttermere race.  Years ago I had found a trod that obviated the need to descend to Scale Force saving climb and distance.  I wanted to know if it was still there.  We thrashed about in the heather and rocks for a while and failed to find the trod or the tree that marked its line.  I suppose after 40 years things change.  We floundered down to the path we had run over in the morning and made our way back to the cars at the Scout Camp.  We had been out for about five hours done 18 miles and saved the day.  Jerome and Claire set off for home and I went back to the campsite with the prospect of a couple of pints in the pub that evening.

BUTTERMERE

I have history with this race.  I did the first ever one back in 1983.  The results from this along with some other early iterations were posted in the village hall.  The first running caused quite a stir in fell running circles at the time, I remember.  It was held in October to benefit from autumnal weather and the route was somewhat longer and harder.  Billy Bland famously announced: “No bugger’ll get round that”.  He proved himself wrong by turning out and winning but in a time well over four hours which compares with his record for the other big Lakeland races, Ennerdale and Wasdale which were under 3.30.  I finished 10= that day, being dragged in along the final track by Len I’Anson who told me that if you were knackered, as I was, you should run faster to get it over quicker.  We did 5.44.  I had travelled there with club mates from Dark Peak and the rest of my team retired to the pub in Buttermere to escape the incessant wind and rain

That version of the race started by climbing Grassmor head on.  It behoved you to be near the front of the field as inevitably the leading runners would dislodge loose rock onto those further down the hill.  It was generally agreed that the route needed a different start and various options were tried.  The race lasted a few years but never really attracted the big fields that were needed to justify getting so many helpers out.  It was resurrected again about ten years ago and was taken on by Pennine as a memorial event for Darren Holloway who died suddenly on Fairfield during the Hodgson Relay.  Nowadays the route is less severe but people will still debate hotly as to whether Wasdale or Buttermere is the hardest race in the Calendar.  Buttermere at 22 miles is a mile longer but has about 500’ less climb.

It was one of those mornings when you just couldn’t decide what to wear.  There was a blustery wind that drove the clouds across the sky.  In the clear spaces between them the sun shone hotly but when the sun was covered the wind quickly gained bite.  For the first half I was pulling my long-sleeved top on and off in concert with the cloud cover. At one point we had a brief shower and the rain was so cold it literally took my breath away but soon the sun was out again and I had to peel off my waterproof.

There is a short race that runs in conjunction with the long.  The short is still categorised as an AL and runners in both events start together.  I looked back briefly as we got stuck into the first climb.  There were not many behind and I wondered how many of them would peel off and descend to Buttermere from Whiteless Pike for the short race.  When I crossed the road at Newlands I didn’t see anyone behind.  I was enjoying myself, though and the cut offs are generous on this race.  I got three people behind me on the climb to Robinson’s Moss and then found the traversing line below Robinson and gained at least one more place.  It’s great being near the back of the field as you get loads more encouragement from passing walkers than you do further up the field.  People have, by now, seen enough runners with numbers on to realise what is happening and start to engage. 

I trotted happily down to Honister from Dale Head and passed the time of day with the old boys marshalling there.  Heading through the quarries towards Blackbeck Tarn I was surprised to find myself following flags.  Had the organisers gone soft?  Then I saw a big sign saying ‘Kong Ultra Long Course’ and continued, ruminating on the sort of people who organise races in the mountains and feel a need to disfigure the environment with makers and the sort of people that take part in races in the mountains and need the route to be flagged.

I had definitely turned for home now, though the view all the way down the Buttermere Valley made home still seem a long way off.  I got the right line round Haystacks and then toiled up High Crag.  I was pleased to meet two others runners having even more of a toil than me.  Apart from two distant specks of black I had seen nobody for some time.  I managed the run off Red Pike without my knees getting too sore, though I missed the right line here and descended all the way to Scale Force.  Then it was just the final drag up to Mellbreak.  It was a drag but it was the final one and at last I was back down on that track where Len had picked me up and pulled me along all those years ago.

RESULTS

1    Philip Rutter                      3.59.54

79  Rick Ansell                       7.04.04

95 started, 87 finished