Pacing Tour de Helvellyn Ultra – #GetOutside @Nav4Adventure @OrdnanceSurvey

The forecast was for a warm day with good visibility and that’s what everyone got.  Along with this unexpected winter weather package was the copious amounts of rain and gales that would peak at around 40mph.  Still, when you enter an Ultra, in the Lakes district, in winter, you kind of expect the worse and dress appropriately.  The combination of wind and rain meant that if you moved too slowly you got cold as the wind evaporated the rain on your skin.  It also meant that in the out bound sections of the course, you would be running into the wind, making progress a little soul destroying in parts.  Still, people got registered, got their kit ready, had some breakfast and took the firs steps out of Askham hall and out to complete the 38 mile loop around Helvellyn.

Before the race, the hall was filling up with people and a great atmosphere.  There was a feeling of urgency, nervousness and keen anticipation in the air, but the Nav4adventure guys and gals added a real sense of friendliness and fun to it.  Out of the few races I’ve taken part in, this was by far the most friendly atmosphere.

The plan was to pace a friend, Lucy, around the course and to start with stick to an  hour pace.  The thing with setting a pace is that you can end up feeling like you are chasing your own tale around during the race, so I said I would be in charge of the pacing, wouldn’t mention anything about the actual pace, and having played in the Lakes, new that it was going to be a tough course.  A bit of faffing later, we dibbed out dibbers and were off.  the navigation at the start of the race was fairly easy but the head on gales made progress a little tricky.  The pace was just about right for an 8 hour finish, but it was kind of obvious that we would be hard pushed to get round that quickly.  To keep warm, I’d run ahead and then turn back or wait in a sheltered spot while Lucy caught up, and before we knew it, CP1 was ahead, dubbers were dubbed again, numbers were shouted out and we were off towards the first major climb.

This climb was truly epic!  The rain fall had created a rocky stream that meandered up the hillside and since I had sandals on, it seemed the only way up should be up the stream.  It was great fun bouncing on the rocks and weaving my way up the hill and Lucy had picked up her pace too, so we were just about on track for 8 hours.  Then the long descent to CP2 started!  It was absolutely tremendous to run along.  Rocky and technical, with a few landslides of mud that quickly put you in your place.  We reached checkpoint to between 2 and 3 hours in, behind schedule, but it was early on and pace can always be picked up.  It was still raining but at least we were sheltered from the wind in the Patterdale valley.  I was a bit amazed at the amount of flooding and when you realised that actually, the river that is around 5 feet below the bridge, was flowing happily above the bridge not so long ago.  The roads, paths and fields had the tell tale patches of silt that marked the passing of the river.  A slight pause for navigation and we started the ascent up to CP3 and after a zig zagging climb we arrived.  Lucy was tired and you could see it in the way she moved.  8 hours was ditched and it was a case of get Lucy round to the finish before the cut off at the penultimate checkpoint.  The rain had just about stopped too, which meant we could dry off.

At CP3 after some laughing and a little bit of patting around, we set off again through some truly amazing terrain, past tarns and streams and along rocky footpaths, up and then over a saddle to CP4.  Here we had a choice…  we could take the road, or follow the footpath to the next checkpoint and it was time for a little mental break, so we headed down to the road, I slipped on to my arse in comedic fashion and a steady pace was set to CP5.  Up to this point I’d only had a bottle of tailwind, so I grabbed some cheese, heckled Lucy to make her get out of the checkpoint faster and we followed the footpath that skirts the base of the Helvellyn range.  This was close to apocalyptic in parts!  The bridges had all washed away and crossing the streams that had developed serious delusions of grander and were closer to rivers added to the challenge.  Landslide after landslide was crossed and then we were met by Tom, who advised us of the missing footbridge ahead and our potential path choice.  We decided to contour up and around to the footpath leading to Grizedale Tarn, and had yet another raging torrent to cross.  Lucy was waning, and need a little helping hand across the stream.  In the end, I crossed over, wedged myself in the stream using some of the rocks under the water and gave her a helping hand as she jumped a few feet across the water.  The thing that was great to see was that she was tired and in pain but despite the odd moan, groan and swearing, she kept putting one foot in front of the other.  I made sure she was ok and gave her tips on how to manage her progress and after a while she worked out how to move so she had the minimal amount of pain.  Then we met Santa!! Finally she smiled a genuine smile, and her pace picked up.  I didn’t say anything to her but she was close to not making to cut off at that point, struggling to lift her legs as we made out way up the climb to Grizedale Tarn.

Santa must have handed her some kind of rocket fuel though!!  she picked up her pace, shortened her steps, picked up her cadence and started to use her shoulders more as she trudged up the hill.  The view at Geizedale tarn was awesome, with the valley that leads to Patterdale ahead of us.  We picked the shorter, but more boggy, route and headed to the descent to Patterdale.  Downhills tend to hurt when your tired, but to have ITB pain and have to tab on long downhills only add to the pain.  “If it hurts to walk, run.”  I repeated to her and she picked up her pace again.  We were making good progress and from being close to the cut off point and having to dib and run at the Penultimate checkpoint, she potentially had a 30-40 min break ahead of her, but only if she could maintain her new pace and not give in to her brain.

This is were I lied!!  “We’ve got 35 minutes before we are timed out.  I’m happy to be timed out, but you need to make the call.  We move faster and we’ll be there in about 20 minutes or you give up now.”  Not my exact words but it was something along those lines.  She did tell me to run off as we were heading down from Grizedale, but I’d said I would stick with her and get her to the end, and that was what was going to happen.  Eventually, we made it to the road section, bumped into Kirsty and Clare (fellow Derbyshire based ultra runners) and I managed to get Lucy a couple of pain killers.  She reached the checkpoint with around 40 minutes to spare, grabbed a tea, ate some food (I went a bit mad for the crisps and tomatoes!) and we set off again, up the last major climb of the route with only 10 miles left.  It was silly to assume any running would take place, so it was a steady walk all the way.  I made a slight navigation and missed the right turning that would lead us back down to the last checkpoint, but I got my head switched back on and we doubled back for a 100yrds to pick up the right path again.

We were the last people at the last checkpoint and got joined by the sweeper.  Lucy managed to pick up her pace and all was going swimmingly on a section of the course that causes lots of people to go astray.  I made mistake number two and followed a group of other runners as soon as I saw their head torches.  Here’s a tip…   Use your compass and dont follow others, especially when you know that the navigation at that point is tricky and easy to get wrong.  I missed a right turn towards the gate back onto the track leading to Askham, but luckily I know how to use a map so we followed a wall that would eventually lead us to the gate we needed and it was comforting to see that the right navigation decision had been made after the mistake as we popped around a corner to see the head torch of the sweeper.  It was somewhat biblical!

I ran off as soon as we joined the sweeper with the plan of locating beer then running back to hand it to Lucy for her Herculean efforts.  Here’s where I ended up remembering that I can’t navigate streets, even with a map!  I ran passed the beer and finish twice, Lucy and the others got to the end before me and people started to get worried about my whereabouts.  I planned on dibbing the finish line after Lucy.  It was the only right thing to do since she put in far more effort than I did, battling with herself, overcoming what people call ‘the dark place’ and changing her body into a perpetual motion machine regardless of the terrain, mental or physical fatigue.  I ended up finishing last and around 7 minutes behind her, didn’t find the beer but it was great to see her finish.  The route and race aren’t going anywhere and next year, I’ll have a crack at it solo.

It’s one hell of a route, the Nav4 crew are unbelievable and made the whole race (despite what most are calling horrendous conditions) a joy to run.  If you’re looking for a tough challenge, would prefer to do it with the safety of a well oiled support crew and you want to see some spectacular examples of Lake District views then you should sign up the Tour de Helvellyn next year.


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