The Old Counties Tops 2005  

The Old Counties Tops 2005

Garry Perratt and John Smallwood

In which John and I give it some welly, crash, recover, crash, burn, go the wrong way and stagger while visiting the highest points in the old counties of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland.

Note that John and I remember Mike/Dave's name differently! When we get the results I will edit as appropriate!

Ultra 1 - Getting There.

[Garry] My plan was perfect - a leisurely start to miss the rush-hour traffic around Bristol, arrive in the Lakes for lunch, mooch around Ambleside trying not to spend money on gear, pitch the tent in Langdale, return to Ambleside to see the new Star Wars movie and get some supper, then meet John's train at Oxenholme. What could go wrong? (Hint: Last time I did a pairs event in the Lakes my partner had let the train take the strain while I spent a fraught eight hours driving what should have taken five.)

[Garry] The M5 was clear all the way and I didn't even have to stop at the M6 interchange. Then signs began to warn of long delays ahead and I could see the tail-end of the jam as I approached a service station. "OK," I thought, "time for an early lunch and hopefully it will have cleared by the time I come back on." Bad move! Half an hour later I pulled out of my parking space, drove ten yards and stopped ... for half an hour or so! An hour later I finally got back onto the motorway, having spent most of the time with the engine off and reading a magazine. Half an hour after that I had crawled to the next junction and followed the rest of the traffic off the closed M6. Most of the vehicles were taking the obvious diversion so I went the other way and another half-hour got me up to the next junction and back onto a now-clear motorway. And it remained pretty clear all the way up until Junction 37 where, with the limestone outcrop above J36 (which I wanted) in full view, I hit another jam and spent the next half hour crawling along with the car's heating on full to augment its somewhat ineffective engine cooling system. After eight hours' driving from Axminster I finally got into the Lakes. Deja vu!

[Garry] I got sorted at the campsite and had some supper before driving to Oxenholme to discover that all trains from the south were delayed with John's advertised as running half an hour behind schedule. So I drove up to Underbarrow Scar overlooking Kendal for a stroll during which I received a message from John advising that he'd be arriving in 15 minutes, only five minutes late! So it was a mad rush back to the car and I arrived at the station as the train was pulling out. I found John and arrived back at the campsite about 10pm, 13 hours after leaving home ... what a day!

Ultra 2 - The OCTs.

[Garry] Race day dawned with uncertain weather - cloud on the tops in the central Lakes but some patches of blue sky - it could have gone either way so what to wear? Oh decisions, decisions! I eventually settled upon full thermals and windproof, carrying a spare jumper and t-shirt. (37 miles is a long way if the conditions turn really foul and you get cold.) The rucsack's extra capacity was taken by large amounts of food despite the entry form's promise of sustenance at three points on the route. (Remember Connemara?) Anyway, no need to worry overly about minimising weight - we're going to take it easy and enjoy the day, aren't we?

[John] The Old County Tops started at the New Dungeon Ghyll car park at 8 am. I was glad of the drive along to the start from the campsite - no need for extra walking on what would be along day already. Difficult to gauge the dress code from looking round - the keener-looking runners were in shorts and long-sleeves and carrying bum bags only, while others were kitted out for a day's spring or autumn walking. We judged it about right with Garry periodically too hot in leggings & pertex top and me sometimes too cold in shorts and long sleeve. We both carried small rucksacks - and felt over-kitted compared to those around us for most of the race.

[John] Off along the Langdale bridleway and the start consisted of watching John Hunt & Scoffer disappearing into the distance, followed by Tim Higginbottom & partner after a brief chat with us. We briefly overshot the path off the Langdale road - a sign of novices on the course - which would become more apparent later. The first climb passed quickly. "They're running" (J, looking at Tim & partner in front). "I guess that means we have to" (G).

[Garry] We were caught by Mike and Ben on the descent into the village but pulled away on the road. We were going a bit faster than I thought entirely sensible and I didn't feel entirely comfortable but hoped that it would pass once we start climbing properly. We passed through the first checkpoint before beginning the ascent up to Grisedale Tarn and could see Tim & partner way ahead but there was no sign of John & Scoffer - they must have been seriously shifting. The path was largely runnable and I began to feel much better as Mike & Ben caught us again.

[John] We cut round left and up the wall up Dollywagon Pike (should have gone a little further left as stone scree wasn't that bad) but joined the path to the col quite nicely for the approach to Helvellyn. Felt good up to the top but caught on the direct descent, which wasn't bad, and we joined a less-forgiving stone path to the Wythburn checkpoint at a sharp corner. Jam sandwiches and malt loaf proffered - excellent support.

[Garry] We had a few hundreds yards of tarmac with John keeping the pace up before turning onto the path up beside Wyth Burn. A couple of slippery stiles endeavoured to take out both John and Ben. John minded my jam sarny while I switched maps between rucsack and pocket but returned an amorphous white lump with a bit of red stuff oozing out. I always find it difficult to eat solid food at this pace but forced myself to nibble at the mass.

[John] Long, mostly walking climb up Wyth Burn - I suspect this relatively gentle climb would provide an opportunity for a fit team to make up a lot of time ([Garry] particularly if you could find a good line along the edge of the moss in places rather than sticking to the path all the way). We headed direct to Stakes Pass and were pleasantly surprised by good running terrain around the back of High Raise. I took a line left to avoid dropping too early. Jury is still out, as Garry favoured a shorter more direct line with possible extra climb but time saving. Nice line around back of Rossett Pike into Angle Tarn, starting to feel a bit tired now.

[John] Ben & Dave started to open a bit of a gap as the pain of the climb from Esk Hause kicked in. We met a BGR-er on Ill Crag who was going as fast as us - not bad for what was 12 hours in for him. The picking across the boulder field seemed to take ages up to Scafell and equally the descent back to and down the top part of Little Narrowcove was painfully slow. We should have probably kept close to the gill until 450m altitude on the descent as we were lured right and into a couple of slow downclimbing moves through the crags trying to cut right into Upper Eskdale.

[Garry] I was really suffering by Esk Hause and began to feel quite emotional; good job John was a little way ahead! But a chat with the BGer, who was disgustingly perky, restored my spirits and I pushed on feeling much better. I actually found the final climb up the Pike pretty good and felt that we'd more or less cracked it upon touching the summit cairn. (Alarm bells should be ringing here!)

[John] All well so far in the muscles although the knees started to feel the descents a bit for me. Dave & Ben looked about two minutes ahead and we slowly closed them in across upper Eskdale and round into Mosedale. I thought we'd have them by saving descent at the head of Mosedale but the path after the col was a little unkind - we should have headed further right to a gate, not gone over the stile, in order to avoid reclimbing back to the path once in the valley.

[Garry] Upper Eskdale is a lovely place to run. I thought that John was again losing a bit of time by staying high to the col at the head of Mosedale but he was generally doing such a great job of navigating, while I was only capable of running and occasionally stuffing some sustenance down my throat, that I gratefully let him get on with it.

[John] Good path down, apart from the rocky bottom section, and soon round to Cockley Beck bridge where more flapjacks and bananas (and Mike & Ben) were waiting. Checkpoint marshall to Garry, seeing his pallor: "Are you OK?" John: "He's fine".

[Garry] I did feel fine but obviously wasn't. In retrospect I think that we should have taken a bit of a break here - a bit of food and plenty of drink taken at rest would have done me a world of good, but having caught Mike & Ben we were once again in contention so the right decision was to push on.

[John] After a quick drink and bite (NB rewater well here, apart from a couple of small becks high on Grey Friar, there's little water for the rest of the course) we set off again. We regained our 3rd place briefly but were overhauled again by Dave & Ben as they moved up ahead of us to the col at Calf Cove. Grassy ascent possible - head eventually for the right of a small knoll and it's flat from there around to Brim Fell. Another team overtook us as Garry went Very Quiet.

[Garry] After an initial burst of energy from Cockley Beck I crashed again. I stopped for a breather every few minutes but was still moving at a tolerable rate. I felt sorry for John - for someone whose training had been even less adequate than mine he was really going some and I was disappointed that I just couldn't keep up his pace any more. I wanted to throw up but couldn't. I wondered whether I should resort to fingers down the throat but ... well, I just couldn't be bothered. I was well gone. One of the winning pair later said "we lost a few minutes whilst I needed to be sick but wasn't and kept trying to run, then I ate some more and that did the trick - the whole lot came back and we were back to running again." The technique of champions! Next time I won't hold back.)

[John] A couple of jelly babies and a swig of water saw us heroically back on the move. Over Brim Fell to the Old Man, I thought, and put my map away ... We ended up on a slightly diverging path to the right, though, and were nearly at the top of Dow Crag when I remembered the commentary I'd read beforehand about being able to watch climbers on Dow Crag from Coniston Old Man. I thought "If this is Coniston Old Man, where's Dow Crag ...?" Garry said a word he'd be ashamed of in front of the children. We went back down and swept up two teams who'd followed us.

[Garry] The word was uttered in a rather resigned manner rather than emphatically. I certainly wasn't annotyed with John for having taken me up the wrong hill. It is difficult to explain how partnerships work in mountain marathons, and different pairings work (or not!) in different ways, but I was not relying upon John to get the navigation right - I was merely assuming that he would do so. By not bothering to keep an eye on the map to make sure that silly mistakes weren't made, I was implicitly absolving him from all responsibility for leading me into oblivion. I should have been performing sanity checks on his navigation and failed when it really mattered.

[John] Slightly demoralised we eventually reached the final Old County Top and turned for home. Six measly miles to go, mostly down hill, but it did seem an Awfully Long Way, particularly the run down the road from the Three Shires Stone, as everything seemed to be hurting.

[Garry] We had lost a good few places by the time we reached the Old Man so were right out of contention. It was a real pity that I was suffering so badly as the run off could have been really nice. Once we were descending it was easy enough, even in my state, but we were now racing against the clock to make John's train. Bringing on the pain in order to beat a fellow runner, to make a position or to break a time is something I can do and enjoy. But keeping the pressure on to meet a condition outside the race seemed so pointless. And yet it had more real meaning than an arbitrary time or position since John wanted to get that last train to meet other commitments at home. And so I kept pushing. If only we had known ...

[John] Over the stile to the path down to Langdale, although an early cut right to the valley path to a small stile in the field corner would have been viable. On getting to the finish we only stopped long enough to grab our T shirts and then straight to the car and hot-foot to Oxenholme where I missed my replacement bus link by three minutes. So we played Race The Train and got back to London 20 minutes sooner by car (thanks to Garry for the detour) than I would have done by train.

[John] Worryingly (and very soon after waking up in the car), he was already talking about "Next Year..."

[Garry] And I still am. Well, it's got to be done, hasn't it?

© Garry Perratt, 2005