The Great Lakeland Three Day, 2005
He had a dream. This was its eighth incarnation.
Day One dawned bright and sunny but with a strong, bitter, north-easterly wind. The bad weather route was to be used, not so much due to the day being particularly extreme but more because this was the easiest day to shortcut and would make it easier to survive the subsequent ones, whatever the weather.
Bryan and I set off up the Old Man from Coniston with a mixture of brisk walking and easy jogging. (Bryan: "I need to jog to keep up with your brisk walk with your longer legs!") First checkpoint is at the top where the wind is arctic, giving an instant headache when it hits a bare forehead, just like eating ice cream too quickly. 'Tis no place to dally so straight off to skirt round Swirl How with the wind dropping as we descend. The run's nice albeit not so easy today while watching for icy rocks and being buffetted by the wind. But by the time we reach Three Shires Stone it's remarkably still and even rather balmy in the sun.
Quick stop to refill water bottles then pegging it madly to catch Bryan who's disappeared on ahead. Can't see him - he must be shifting some. But then again ... A quick look behind and there's Bryan trying to catch me up after a few minutes' pause to answer the call of nature! Back together again and on up to the Crinkles. Windy once more, but distinctly less extreme than on the Old Man. Jogging 'n' scrambling, up 'n' down, in 'n' out, round 'n' about - does a proper runnable route exist through here?.
Then we're at Three Tarns, the third checkpoint, and decision time. Follow the bad-weather route or go for the full one? Conditions are actually quite nice when the wind drops and the sun comes out, not so good when vice versa but perfectly runnable, and Round How's the only top in the Scafells that I've never visited. It's gotta be done, hasn't it? Bryan's up for it so off we go. Stiff climb up Bowfell then the rocky, snowy, icy run to Esk Pike. The views behind are absolutely stunning (best of the day) and worth every bit of the exhaustion to come. The air is so clear and the wintry sun really brings out the colours and contrast.
Over Great End col, pausing briefly to draw a Bean on the snow slope, before dropping straight down to the fourth checkpoint. It's a wonderful location surrounded by big peaks with some imposing buttresses, but a squall comes over so we crack on up the Corridor Route to another wonderful view as we crest Lingmell Col - the Isle of Man over the sea and even Sellafield's colours looking quite amazing in the sun. On down t'other side to the scree up beside Black Crag. Pause to remove a layer before scrabbling our way up the none-too-stable rock onto the flanks of Scafell. Then the long, grassy, descending contour across to the fifth checkpoint on Great How, with a brief pause to replace the previously removed layer!
Nearly home now with only one climb ahead but we're both feeling pretty tired so the ascent of Illgill Head takes a while and even requires a few rests. (That's one of the big differences between the GL3D and typical mountain marathons - there's no way I would feel comfortable stopping so close to the finish on the latter.) Last checkpoint in the bag and Bryan suggests that I push on ahead. I think I've exhausted the poor old man! But when you're knackered on a run-in like this it's far more pleasant to go at your own pace rather than struggling to keep at someone else's, be it faster or slower. So off I trundle, over the lovely turf to Whin Rigg with a bit of walking over its summit before dropping straight off the fellside into Wasdale. Then a mile of tracks and road bring me into the campsite to finish a most excellent day's outing.
Tent up, shower (the KIMM this ain't - there was even a laundry!), brew, food, more brews, more food. The sun goes down, taking the temperature with it, so we take the next day's route to the pub where a group of us spend a convivial hour or two discussing the pros and cons of the various route choices (the second leg's likely fastest option includes a couple of miles road running but have we come all this way to run on tarmac?) and generally enjoying being in the warm.
Apparently there's a short fell race tomorrow afternoon, starting from the pub and going up to our first checkpoint. Wonder if I could get back in time for the 2:30 start?
Day Two dawns with low cloud and rain. It looks pretty manky up there so the fell race is definitely out!
Bryan finds a partner who isn't going to run him into the ground so I set off on my own and promptly get disoriented twice within half a mile. (I really don't like Harveys maps for lowland navigation. Actually I'm not wild on them for mountain navigation either, but I use them a lot 'cos they're so much smaller than the OS 25K series.) Finally get out onto Middle Fell and start the climb into the wind, rain, sleet and whatever else is up there.
I pass a few earlier starters including Martin, who had been as adamant that he would go over the top to Looking Stead as I had been that I would go via the Wasdale road, before reaching the first checkpoint at the summit. The scenic route via Scoat Fell and Pillar is hardly worth it (except in a masochistic sort of way) 'cos there ain't a lot to be scene (sic!) so I take a quick gander at the steep, rocky, snow-covered east slope of the hill disappearing down into the gloom, think "Oh, what the hell?" and go for it. Very steady descending here - it really is no place to turn an ankle, especially if no one else is coming this way, but Martin passes me. So much for going over the top, eh? We make our own ways down but meet on the road and jog along together.
Being stronger at climbing than Martin I push on ahead up the path to the second checkpoint at Looking Stead, through nice snow higher up and with the wind behind me. The second scenic route of the day would be the climber's traverse under Pillar Rock but the scenery's still entirely unscene (sic) so it's not worth it. A quick gander at the steeper, rockier, snowier-covered (?!) slope of Green Cove disappearing into the gloom, think "Oh, what the hell?" once more and go for it.
Begin by slipping and sliding down powdery snow in the steep upper section before picking my way carefully over slushy, mucky stuff in the rocky, lower section while looking forward to reaching the forest below. Which in due course materialises from the gloom, revealing itself to be an ex-forest and looking rather like it's recently been bombed. Oh bugger! The going's just as bad, only over a knee- to waist-high desolation of slippery tree trucks, branches, brashings and other such stuff instead of snow-covered rocks. Martin passes me again and happens upon a clearance trail taking us down the last hundred yards or so to the track. Pity we didn't find it at the top!
At least we've got a decent bit of running ahead of us, down three miles of forestry track to the third checkpoint, the Perfect Picnic Place. At least it would be in decent weather, but today the marshalls are huddling under a dripping tree looking bedraggled. Press on again for a couple more miles alongside Ennerdale Water which we thought should be nice but isn't. It's a rough, rocky path with many roots and puddles, like someone's taken a jackhammer to a pavement and made the biggest mess they possibly could.
We see Bryan and Eryk beginning a diagonal climb up to the next checkpoint on Crag Fell. We continue along the path and they follow, assuming that I know a better route. And I do know a better route, for me at least. Diagonal climbs are for wusses, and unpleasant to boot. Real Southern Softy Fellbashers hammer along the flat then tackle the climb head-on, angled to the max. Martin: "See you on the descent off the other side". I slowly pull away, my line initially following a vague path before passing into a seasonal watercourse, a broad gully of steep, dripping grass and steeper, dripping rocks interspersed with odd patches of non-dripping, but not entirely stable, muck and scree.
The wind gets stronger - I must be nearing the top. The slope turns grassy and eases off. The wind really picks up and I'm there. Quick check of the compass before heading off into the gloom and the fourth checkpoint. The next leg's really nice with runnable paths most of the way, even including a little bit of forestry. (Gawd knows what that's doing up here at fifteen hundred feet.) No probs finding the fifth checkpoint on Lank Rigg but then I make a mistake.
The next leg has three route options: a left curve around the top of a moderate valley (longest but least climb), direct (shortest but maximum climb), or somewhere left of direct for a compromise (theoretically the optimum, assuming that 500 vertical feet take as long as a horizontal mile) - I chose the latter. I'm not sure whether it really is the fastest without having anyone else's splits to compare with mine but it was not aesthetically pleasing and didn't feel right. Lots of rocks in the bottom of the long re-entrant of Bleaberry Gill so I switch to a direct ascent of its sides to get away from the damned things. Nice and slippery here; don't s'pose anyone else is going to come this way so turning an ankle is not an option. But this is part of why I'm here, and once on top I can enjoy the run along the plateau of Caw Fell in the virgin snow to the final checkpoint.
From which leads a set of stud marks. "Who the bloody 'ell made those?" I ponder, but only briefly before following them off the edge of my map into the gloom below. As I drop the vis goes up until I can see the valley below and make out some features on t'other side (which is back on my map). All the way down and across the stream to pick up the footpath which will lead back to the road just before the campsite.
Did I say "path"? More like a vague impression that someone may once have passed this way. Including the owner of the previously-mentioned studs - Chris who had very sensibly implemented his own bad-weather walking route. I walk with him for a while and we chat our way along the non-path, after a while realising that "non" appears to be short for "not on"! So compass out, a quick semi-sprint across the tussocky grass, heather or whatever stuff was there and finally back on the non-path.
Off my map once again then parallel to a wall for a bit - "Back on my map so soon? Hang on though. It's supposed to be running east-west, not north-south. Oh well, keep going south - bound to get somewhere sooner or later." Now walled fields on both sides, funnelling the fell down. "Oh bugger. Must've lost the path again." Back up out of the funnel, head east and re-discover the non-path. "Hurrah! Back on my map again!" Down to the road and along a bit before heading over the fields back to the campsite.
Same procedure as last night except that the tent's already up and the pub's busy (for 'tis Saturday night) so the only free table we can find is in the porch. But tomorrow's route looks like a real cracker.
Day Three dawns with low cloud but at least it's not raining. The fastest five of us have been given late starts so that we don't get to checkpoints before the marshalls but that just means we have to lie in our tents listening to the rain start! What to wear?!? It's really a bit warm for waterproofs down low and we're not going very high today but after two hard days I won't exactly be steaming along, will I? And if I wear a windproof I'll have to carry a waterproof so I might as well just wear that latter and save some weight.
Give myself half an hour to strike camp which isn't as long as it takes so Martin has to wait a while for me to gear up, by which time Paul's also ready to go we set off together, the last to go, five minutes behind the other speedies. I pull away from Martin and Paul on the stiff climb to the first checkpoint then leg it down a rough path through some woods. A thought comes to me: If I had to give an answer to the question "Why were you created?" it would be "For this". And then I see Andy ahead - I must be making good time! (Andy had the fastest time of Day One and would probably have repeated that on Day Two had he not gone over the top to Looking Stead. He had also come third in the 30-mile Manx Mountain Marathon a fortnight ago so I was well-pleased to be running him down so soon.)
I catch Andy near the end of the woods and we chat our way along road section to the second checkpoint. The couple of miles of flat tarmac are a change from the fells but not particularly comfortable in PBs. Talking makes the time to the second checkpoint pass quickly but I still think that we're running rather faster than I would have chosen had I been alone. (Andy later told me that he had been thinking exactly the same!)
We're soon on the hill again, cutting the corners off the zig-zag path up towards the third checkpoint on Water Crag, and then on to Devoke Water where we have to make a decision - straight ahead through some lumpy, rocky bits or keep left of them on a slightly longer but hopefully more runnable line. We settle upon the latter but find the nearly-flat, featureless tussocks to actually be rather slow in the poor vis since we have to keep a close eye on the map and compass to stop drifting off course. We stop far too often but eventually find the last of the lumpy, rocky bits, continue on across a major stream on the map which doesn't appear to exist on the ground (!) to the col which leads us directly up to the fourth checkpoint on Whitfell.
Then it's due east off the top, stop part-way down to check the compass and find that we're actually going southeast, correct our heading and eventually cross the wall to find the path which becomes the road which leads us to Ulpha Bridge, the fifth checkpoint. We're making good time, having passed a lot of people on the road, and I'm feeling comfortable although I get the feeling that Andy's beginning to struggle a bit. (Well, this is his third hard weekend's running on the trot. Mind you, it's my third hard weekend's running on the trot too, but I've done bugger all running during the weeks!)
Anyway, we don't hang around at the bridge but press on up a series of bridleways leading to the west foot of Caw. A good, stiff climb follows during which I pull away from Andy, feeling strong. I can't find the fifth checkpoint on the trig so assume that it's been nicked. (Bad assumption - I hadn't read the description properly so was looking in the wrong place! But I didn't learn this until after I'd finished.) While waiting for Andy to come up with another chap I mull over the three route options to the finish once we have descended to the east of Caw.
The longest route, with a lot of climb, keeps left of White Maiden & Walna Scar, following the Walna Scar Road all the way to the col beyond the hills and then on down into Coniston. It's easy to follow and theoretically runnable but I suspect that I don't have the energy left to run the steeper bit as it climbs to the pass. The shortest, and with negligible climb, is to keep east of the hill (which is where Coniston lies) but it could be very trossy with lots of streams to cross, and maybe rocky in places; that's no way to finish such a wonderful day as this. Which leaves what I reckon is possibly the least obvious (I doubt whether anyone else took it), probably the fastest, and definitely the most interesting, fulfilling and rewarding option - straight up the nose of White Pike, run along the top of White Maiden and Walna Scar to the col, then hammer down the Walna Scar road.
So Andy and I split up, he to go right and me to take the interesting option. An easy run down off Caw and through the lumpy bits to the foot of White Fell. The four-points ascent (i.e. I definitely need hands as well as feet) is a mixture of grass, rock and fine scree, and distinctly entertaining in places. This is what I was made for! It's hard work running along the top with a strong side wind and no view but it feels good.
The descent of the Walna Scar road is seriously 'orrible to begin with until the gradient eases and the fell either side becomes runnable as a welcome relief from the very rough, stony track. I eventually reach the metalled part of the Road which is hard to the feet and presents its own challenges in the two places where it nearly levels out - I have been relying so much upon gravity that I nearly come to a halt on the flattish bits and have to remind myself to keep running! But I eventually reach Coniston and return whence I began two days, seventy miles and twenty thousand feet earlier.
This is what I was made for.
Thanks Joe, all the helpers and the runners. What a weekend!
© Garry Perratt, 2005