Wasdale 'Horseshoe' Fell Race

For many, racing is ultimately what fell running is all about. It is a position that has been markedly at odds with my approach for many years, fell running being something which I have done simply for the joy of being in the mountains. Quite often as something that can be done when the weather is too poor for other things. In company at times, often solo, I have run on the fells for the same reason I have climbed, scrambled, walked and biked among them. And for the same reasons I enjoy sea kayaking for that matter. A sense of freedom - perhaps, the exhilaration of being in and exploring wild, remote places - yes, the many beautiful scenes I have seen as a result - of course. The suffering - that too.
The long knee jarring walk-ins in the Cairngorms, rucksacks loaded with winter kit, tents, ropes, gear and food, the load heavy enough simply to make breathing at rest difficult. Slogging into cruel headwinds, salt spray stinging, every inch hard won as wind and waves batter the kayak and threaten to rip the paddle from my grasp. Carrying the bike across sore shoulders up interminable ascents, only to have to carry it once more on descents to rocky, boggy or both, to ride. And clawing up boulder fields, ploughing through soft snow, feet bruised and frozen, any sense of how it feels to run fluidly on such ground long since forgotten. You have to enjoy the suffering. It's just part of the deal.
Very often this suffering must be done alone, if not in silence. Freezing on an exposed stance on icy cliffs, belaying with numb fingers. At sea, ones companions too far away to be heard across wind and waves. But in a fell race, though long sections may well be run alone in the clag, there will be many others who have also chosen to suffer on the same day, in the same way. They are ahead of you somewhere, behind you somehow, and then suddenly with you. And there is something quite special about being part of this collective madness, a part of something that only those who have been there can understand, and being one of many who have chosen to suffer again. And in the end, I am still there for the same reason. I love being on the fells. And so, after a gap of more than twenty years, I am racing again.
I tried to remember all of this, gripped with stomach cramps, dehydrated and struggling to maintain any sense of speed as I clawed up the boulder strewn ascent of Great Gable, losing places, time and energy. It wasn't a surprise to be feeling a little low. It was never going to be easy. In fact 'The Wasdale' is often billed as the hardest of the Longs (AL category races*) which at 21 miles, with 9,000 feet of ascent, the last climb being Scafell Pike, is also not a great surprise.
I had started well enough, moving through the pack from a poor starting position on the climb of Illgill Head and passed a few more runners on the fast stretch to the first checkpoint, and then a couple more on the steep descent back to the valley floor. Climbing Seatallan felt a good deal easier than the last time I ran this way and my line from the summit, checkpoint 2, to the col between Red Pike and Scoat Fell was good.
From here it was in the clag until the descent of Pillar but it is a section I know well and managed to gain another couple of places. I lost them on Gable. But from Styhead to the end, the route becomes increasingly rocky - I like this type of ground - and overtaking three runners who had passed me on Gable, found I still had a little left and even enjoyed the rubble strewn descent of Scafell Pike to Lingmell. After which it was back to suffering. 
But the end was in sight, the starting field clearly visible in the valley below and I let gravity do the rest, controlling my legs as best I could, somehow missing the taped finish inside the field from which I started a little over 5 hours previously. I turned promptly enough, happily surprised to note this as my only route finding error on the race, others I spoke with having made the classic mistake of heading towards Red Pike instead of Pillar or going wrong on the rough ground that follows Seatallan.
I have a slip of paper which notes my time at each summit and the time elapsed between checkpoints. It says I finished in 5hrs 16mins 28secs. It also says that I finished in 35th place. It says nothing of what this race is really about, and why I will choose to suffer again next year. I love being on the fells - the Wasdale fells perhaps more than any others.
Though I'd like to knock a few minutes off my finishing time, of course, maybe even slip inside the 5hr barrier.
And I'm quite sure I'm not alone in any of this.
*Races are categorised as A (hardest) to C (milder) on the basis of the amount of climb, and long (L), medium (M) or short (S) on the basis of distance.
Photo credit: All images by Grand Day Out Photography

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