Back in January I was searching for a long foot race to do in the summer, to fill the gap between the adventure races I had planned. I wanted a serious challenge that would involve hills and navigation, so when I came across the 10 Peaks Challenge website and read that no-one had managed to complete the full course in under the 24 hour time limit in 2010, my interest was sparked and I immediately entered.
The 10 Peaks challenge is a navigational race in the Lake District, taking in the 10 highest peaks, close to 6000 metres of ascent, 73 km of distance and in a time limit of 24 hours. A route is suggested, and the 10 peaks do have to be tackled in a set order, but the actual route that you take is your decision.
Race day arrived a little sooner than I would have liked – it would have been nice to recce a little bit more of the course beforehand. Too late now! I left my B&B in Keswick at 3am Saturday morning to walk to the Keswick Country House Hotel (race HQ) and it was like stepping into a Michael Jackson Thriller Movie. It was the middle of the night yet there were people advancing on race HQ from all directions, as though their bodies had been possessed and some alien force was pulling them in.
I arrived at the Hotel and dropped off a small kit bag with the organisers, which they would forward to Honister Pass (check point 4). In it were spare trail shoes and socks, a spare top and some Clif bars, gels and powders (I would not see this again for some 8 hours or more). I then boarded one of the many coaches that were to drop us at Swirls car park for the 4am start. Spirits were high as we had been promised some decent weather but there was still lot of nervous laughter to be heard. It was a great atmosphere, a real sense of “We are all in this together”. The first question we all seemed to ask the person sitting next to us on the coach was “……have you done this before?” It was as though we were seeking reassurance that the challenge that lay ahead was actually possible.
The start point is at 200m above sea level and our first climb would take us to the top of Helvellyn, at 950m – a 750 meter climb within the space of 3 kilometres of distance, a cruel way to warm up! After a quick race briefing we were on the move. After a while I glanced back to see what effect a few hundred meters of height gain had had. The whole field were stretched out in a long line of head torches, like ants on the move. I did my best to run past people at every possible opportunity and was soon close behind the leader, Dan. I managed to reach the peak within a few seconds of him, but with a number of other racers in close pursuit. We were all rewarded with an incredible view at the top and we shared a few brief words about how lucky we were. It would have been nice to stop and watch the sun rise, but we all had a job to do!
Dan and I set off first down towards checkpoint 1, the car park at the southern tip of Thilrmere. Even though our route choices were slightly different, we did find time to chat a little on the way down each time we came together. We ran into check point 1 believing that we were the first two to arrive, but were very surprised to hear that Adam Jackson, last years winner, had already been through nearly 5 minutes earlier. He had somehow managed to overtake us on the descent – local knowledge or just good navigation? Either way, we now had to chase him over the next 12 km up the long boggy valley, past High Raise, and on to peak number 2, Bowfell.
The three of us all took slightly different routes up the valley and by the time we reached High Raise there was little more than 400 meters separating us. Dan and I came together approaching Bowfell and we bagged our second peak and set off for checkpoint 2 at Esk Hause.
Arriving at check point 2 first, I raced on through and continued at pace, zig-zagging towards Scafell Pike (peak 6), visiting peaks 3, 4 and 5 (Great End, Ill Crag and Broad Crag) along the way. It felt good to be knocking off these peaks in quick succession, especially after the big time lag between ticking off peaks one and two. I made sure that I took time to appreciate the views as often as possible, I had been to the Lakes only a few times before and the Peaks had mostly been in cloud. Today they were spectacular!
It was starting to warm up by now and so I rolled down my arm warmers and unzipped my Gilet. I had planned on not stopping during the race, except to fill my water bottles, so I had dressed in the most versatile way possible – A technical t-shirt, a Montane Featherlite Ultra Gilet and a pair of arm warmers. This would ensure that I would not need to stop to stow clothes in my rucksack, or to get additional items out. I had a buff and hat in my waist pocket just incase it was really chilly on the peaks, although these ended up being surplus to requirements.
The weather so far had been incredible – clear blue skies with no mist or fog. With this in mind, I left Scafell Pike to approach Scafell via the West Wall Traverse. It can be a slightly daunting route in harsh weather (or any weather, if you do not have a head for heights!) but conditions today were perfect. Having completed the traverse, I ran to the top of Scafell and back to start my descent down the same way. On my way down I passed Dan on his ascent, he wasn’t too far behind which gave me a kick up the backside.
The second route decision that I had left to make during the race was whether I use the corridor route to get to the foot of Great Gable, climb to the peak and then run to Pillar and back, or whether I run off the top of Scafell, down to Wasdale Head, and visit Pillar first via Wind Gap, to then grab Great Gable afterwards. I was sure that I could run all the way to the foot of Wind Gap but didn’t know how much the climb up the Gap would take out of me. I decided that, even though I felt quite good at that stage, I didn’t want to destroy myself when I already had a slight lead (if I had been in second or third place my decision may have been a different one) so I would use the Corridor Route.
I ran every bit possible on my way to join the Corridor, and once I was on it I entered my own private race with a trio of fell runners heading the same way. They even ascended Great Gable, which helped to keep me focused on maintaining some sort of speed. Whilst climbing the 450 meters from Styhead Pass to the top of Great Gable, I thanked myself that I had decided not to climb Wind Gap. I was finding the climb up Great Gable a hard slog, yet Wind Gap would have been a lot more height gain and far worse underfoot which would have been very punishing.
After checking in at cp 3 at Beck Head, the run to Pillar was a chance to put the map away, switch off the mind and enjoy the scenery. I was still feeling good and was continually fuelling myself. I had a brief chat with a very nice marshal at Pillar before turning to retrace my steps back to cp 3. I noted the time on my stopwatch and set off back the way I had come. It was mostly downhill on the way back, and it took 18 minutes to pass Dan going the other way. I estimated that he would take twice that amount of time to travel uphill to Pillar, plus the 18 minutes back again, which meant I had about an hours lead. A few minutes further on I passed the 3rd placed runner, Simon Martland (who eventually came second overall).
After passing back through Beck Head I ran off towards checkpoint 4 at Honister, where I would gain access to my kit bag. I was getting low on energy food, having been taking a gel, half a bar or a few Clif Shots every 20 to 30 minutes, I was therefore keen to restock for the journey to the finish. Halfway to Honister I came across a friendly spectator who ran alongside me for a few minutes before we both suddenly realised that I had met him the weekend before whilst on a recce. I was grateful for his company at this stage (even though it was only for a couple of minutes) as it took my mind off my very sore big toes. A couple more Kilometres and I would be able to stop and take some pain relief.
I reached the Honister checkpoint and was overwhelmed by the spread that had been laid on – hot drinks, hot food, all manor of bars, gels and other energy food and a host of very friendly and supportive marshalls and spectators. I could have spent a long time there getting very comfortable, but I decided that was far too dangerous. Instead I accepted the offer of a cup of tea, which I allowed to cool as I raided my kit bag, and took some pain relief. Some very lovely marshals filled my water bottles for me and added some energy powder that I was carrying, after which I expressed my gratitude to everyone and ran off across the road. One more peak to go!
A reasonably flat 12 k section took me to checkpoint 5, where again I was greeted by some very friendly and supportive marshalls. As before, I chose not to hang around, grabbing a banana and downing a very much needed can of coke, before setting off for the final 800 meter climb up Skiddaw.
I must admit that I had to grab the ipod out of my waist pocket for this one and sing my way up the slope. It was a relentless climb and my legs were not offering much at all, so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and singing loudly.
Once at the top I knew that there were only 7 final kilometres to the finish, and all of these were downhill. This would ordinarily be a nice run in, but the pain killers had worn off and my toes were throbbing somewhat.
The sight of the Keswick Country House Hotel was very welcome! A few unsuspecting guests must have wondered what on earth was going on, as I ran through reception and past the entrance to the dining hall, looking like I was at deaths door and wearing a head torch at 5.30 pm. My original aim had been to try and finish the race in daylight, so I was delighted to have done that successfully. It was also very pleasing to have beaten the course record set by Adam in 2011, but I had experienced near perfect conditions!….and as 2010 had proved, the weather will always be a big part of this race!
This year saw 202 competitors start, 79 finish, 66 within the 24 hour time limit. The course is so great, the scenery so spectacular and the marshals so friendly that I know most of those that didn’t quite manage to meet the time limit this year will be back to try again next year.
Thanks to Paul Smith for organising such a great event, and even more thanks to his faithful bunch of cheerful volunteers. I look forward to seeing you all again next year!
Written by Mark Bottomley, Team Endurancelife.