Three days of running in the Lakes while someone else carries my stuff from camp to camp? Yes please!
This year’s Great Lakeland 3 Day was my first, and would be a test of whether I can run for three hill days in a row. I’ve been looking back through my training log (which makes it sound far more structured than it actually is) and I’ve never done that before. You can also count the number of days I’ve done over 20 miles on two hands as well. However, the beauty of GL3D is that you can change course whenever you like – I therefore signed up for solo B class in the knowledge that I could drop down to C if needed.
I was still a little worried on Friday night about just getting around, and this was before I saw the race director’s snow report or actually witnessed the white stuff for myself on the drive across to Bassenthwaite from the M6.
Day One – 33km / 1450m ascent
Saturday dawned cold, and with the realisation that I hadn’t brought any breakfast: professional. Anyway, I got ready in time for the 09:00 bus which ferried us up to the edge of the Northern Fells. The running began in quite a low-key manner, and the small group was soon spread out between Great Calva and Skiddaw.
I always think that I don’t know the Lake District, but this first section was familiar from Dark Mountains earlier in the year, and MPS late last. As I passed Skiddaw House and grazed the edge of Blencathra through Threlkeld, the end of Helvellyn and the Dodds sprung to mind from an older MPS walk. The climb up was as steep as I remembered, but from 750m the snow cover started and I perked up!
My relatively late start meant that I began catching up with lots of people here, and the true friendliness of the event started to show itself. Most of the courses went this way, so I passed a stream of happy faces on the way up to Helvellyn (well, there were a couple of grimaces!). The summit plateau flew by, and the descent from Dollywaggon Pike was the most fun I’ve had in ages (and possibly the closest I’ve ever come to skiing).
From there it was a short hop, although on tired legs now, down Tongue Gill to camp number one at Brimmer Head Farm in Easedale. A stunning day, made slightly perplexing at the end by the fact that I arrived to see only five or six tents up, and subsequently found myself in second place because lots of people were still out. It wasn’t long before people started streaming in though, and the afternoon passed in a lovely sunny haze. I did more chatting than I ever have on a mountain marathon before; the marquee is a great focal point for getting people together, and everyone’s incredibly relaxed.
Day Two – 36km / 2370m ascent
Sunday’s forecast was awful, and Sunday’s actual weather was awful. When I woke at 05:00 and 06:00 everything was silent, but by 07:00 there was a familiar pitter-patter of rain on the tent. The trip to the first control at Greenup Edge wasn’t too miserable, but after that things got a bit fruity. By High Raise the wind and rain were quite severe, and I had a bit of a navigational wiggle just prior to a crossing of Stake Beck which – since it was in full spate after all the rain – had the potential to go horribly wrong. At Esk Hause I saw Mark looking miserable on the A course, and didn’t envy him having to get up to Ill Crag almost 150m higher than I had to go that day. Esk Hause to Windy Gap wasn’t too bad, but I was being blown around a bit over the top of Green Gable and Brandreth. From here I needed to get to Red Pike, and rejected the high-level route over Haystacks and High Stile in favour of dropping down to Buttermere.
Of course, the advantage of dropping out of the wind and gaining more runnable terrain was balanced out by a rather brutal 650m climb back to the summit. My main problem on arriving there was the lack of a visible control. After five minutes of searching two other runners appeared out of the mist; I explained my predicament and they promptly pointed out the dibber behind a rock; how embarrassing. Dropping as quickly as possible out of the breezy weather up high, I trotted / teetered / bounced awkwardly down the gorge past Scale Force, pushed hard up Mellbreak to avoid the embarassement of overtaking people and then grinding to a halt, and then had an awful couple of kilometres on tarmac and track to the finish. A tough day, no doubt, but fortunately never cold or needing to stop. Plenty of other people struggled in the conditions though, with only 17 people finishing the course out of 53 starters; there were a lot of folks understandably dropping out of the wild weather for a coffee and a cake. I got second place again for the day, and was leading overall by just seven minutes. No pressure!
Sunday night was bolstered in a similar manner to Saturday, i.e. with a “fully loaded” hot chocolate from Joey’s cafe, and this time served from the new coffee cabin too. Amazing! Chatting in the marquee it turned out that the pair I’d seen on top of Red Pike are actually also members of the Bowline Climbing Club which I only joined a couple of week ago – trust me to embarrass myself in front of the only people I’m likely to actually see again on a regular basis!
Day Three – 24km / 1080m ascent
The rain continued on Monday morning, but not before some wind had destroyed a couple of tents. Mine was fine, but only because I was awake from 04:00 and propping up the pole with both feet during the worst gusts. I had the tent down by 06:00 and satisfied my unexpected craving for super noodles whilst the marshals tried to stop the marquee from blowing away. The exciting news was that, given the awful forecast and accompanying weather, courses had been downgraded not only to bad weather but to a newly-devised “even badder” weather version. This meant cutting out the high ground of Grisedale Pike (791m) and instead navigating around to Lord’s Seat and back to Bassenthwaite.
This was both great and rubbish – great because we spent less time on the hill in awful weather, but rubbish because I’m not a very fast runner and have to rely more on good mountaincraft than pure pace. Mark and I established that the A course was the same as the B, and decided to team up for this final day. We both did a great job of not wanting to look weak on the first road section, each pushing the other much harder than they really wanted in the process! We saw Michelle and Suzie on their way to fourth place overall, and they provided encouragement by heckling us for not running all of the uphills! Lord’s Seat, even sitting low at less than 500m, was still pretty grim in the wind and rain, and by the time we approaching the last climb of the day I was suffering. The descent was OK, but the last few kilometres along the road nearly did me in. Mark did a fantastic job of coaxing me on by simply not giving me the option to stop. In the last couple of km I could tell I was slowing him up so I let him go and he quickly made up over 90 seconds on me in the last mile or so. Unfortunately my earlier slowness meant that he missed out on his desired sub-three-hours time by 54 seconds – sorry Mark!
Anyway, the results are now in and I’m pleased to report that I was first overall in B class with a 40-minute buffer over second place. This is the first race I’ve ever won, and on reflection I think it was down to an ability to move at a reasonable pace consistently in a variety of conditions, rather than being a finely-honed race-snake (it definitely wasn’t that!). My previous best mountain marathon result was something like 12th at an OMM in the Howgills a few years ago, in similarly foul conditions. However, I should also point out that there are no prizes and no big ceremony at the end of the GL3D, which is cool. I’m really chuffed that I was the fastest on the B course, but the whole vibe is clearly about having a good time on the hill and is the polar opposite of something like the OMM which I’ve always found a bit too competitive and adversarial. Next year I’ll definitely be returning for the simple pleasure of enjoying three days of running with a bunch of friendly people rather than because I think anyone will be overly concerned about me ‘defending my crown’. I”m already looking forward to it. Mega-thanks go to Mark for his company and encouragement on day three, and also to Phil Davies for piecing me back together.