Steve Smedley and Samantha McGrady take on the Satmap 10 Peaks

Steve Smedley and Samantha McGrady (both finishing together within the 24 hour time limit, Sam being the 7th woman home) write about their experience on the day, give a few hints and tips for future 10 Peakers, and generally enthuse about the whole thing!

After six months of fairly constant training, the big day finally arrived – our attempt to complete the 10 Peaks Challenge on 21 July 2012. We had hoped to give it a go in 2011 but injury intervened. This year, we’d changed our approach to training and it seemed to have paid off – no injuries and reasonably fresh legs. Our training comprised a combination of as many short (5-8) mile hilly runs during the week that work and family commitments would allow, and a big run/walk most weekends (we probably took 1 weekend in 5 off) – all cross country in rolling Derbyshire where we live. The big run/walk we built up from around 10 to a maximum of 33 miles three weeks before the event. We also threw in a 40 mile ultramarathon at the end of May (the Dukeries – highly recommended). Our big run/walk was based on running all the flats and downs, and speed-walking the uphills. This was pretty much what we thought we’d be doing on the day (turned out we were right). What we didn’t manage to do is have as many training weekends in the big mountains as we’d planned – largely due to appalling weather. This meant that although in the couple of months before the event we’d incorporated “hill drills” into our training, we didn’t have quite as good hill fitness on the day as we’d have liked. As a result, we found a couple of the very steep ascents very draining, specifically the last third/half of Pillar and first bit of Skiddaw.

So – after only about 2 hours sleep in the little studio apartment we’d rented in Keswick, we were up in the middle of the night, along with 200 other mad people, to take the coach to the foot of Helvellyn. Thankfully we were expecting a brilliant day weather-wise, which meant we had to carry less gear. We know the Lakes well and had already done most of the route in stages at various times before – another bonus as it meant the map stayed in the rucsac most of the day. Because we had done this recceing, we had set ourselves a rough schedule of what time we expected we should hit each checkpoint, to enable us to do it within 24 hours. Again, it turned out we were right most of the way (we reached Honister one minute ahead of our schedule!). Where we went wrong was we allowed ourselves too much time for the last leg – we were clearly fitter than we thought, and instead of 6 hours to get up and down Skiddaw, we did it in 3.5!

We were probably in the front third of the pack at the top of Helvellyn, which we ascended in 50 minutes. Lots of people overtook us on the way down – Sam has a bad left knee caused by tight ITB, so she’s slow downhill. However, as the day progressed we went on to overtake many of those early hares! After CP1 we took an alternative route over Steel Fell and Calf Crag, instead of going through ‘the bog’. On our recce, we thought this was quicker and drier than the recommended route. Turned out, on the day, we were wrong on both counts. We now think if we’d just braved the bog we’d have knocked at least 30-45 minutes off our time. Hindsight! But it was nice to have Steel Fell and Calf Crag to ourselves and bag two bonus mountains.

What’s worth mentioning at this point is wet feet. We run in approach/trail trainers (not boots) and we’d realised only a few weeks before the event the consequences of having soaking wet feet all day (on our longest pre-event big run/walk which was 12 hours). Steve found out he is particularly prone to maceration, which is very painful and could have been a show-stopper, and so we had to think carefully about how we handled this on the day. As well as smearing our feet in very expensive waterproofing cream (like Vaseline only 10 times the price), we each took 3 pairs of spare socks and changed them regularly during the day, allowing the wet ones to dry on the back of our rucsacs (or in Steve’s case, losing one on Esk Pike!). The dry socks soaked up the wetness in the shoes and by the time we were up on Great End our feet were pretty dry, despite extremely wet conditions between CP1 and CP2.

We really enjoyed hitting peaks 3 to 7 (Great End to Scafell) – all close together and high up with great views. We struck up conversation with some fellow 10 Peakers which helped distract us from tiring muscles. Lord’s Rake was great fun (we love scrambling anyway) and not a problem if you just take your time and find good foot and hand-holds. At Scafell, the marshal told us we were “borderline” to make it within 24 hours which certainly spurred us on! From Scafell we had decided to take the alternative route down to Wasdale Head (virtually sea level) and then go up 3000 ft to Pillar from there. Now, you need to know that at Wasdale there are pubs, the sun was shining, it was early afternoon and there were people drinking beer…..oh, the temptation! Fortunately we managed to resist and headed up the indistinct path towards Wind Gap. What a slog! But we made it to the top and headed off the traverse to CP3 at Beckhead. Lots of other racers were going the other way, having taken the Corridor Route, done Great Gable first and then had to head out to Pillar and back. We were very pleased at this point that we’d taken the route we had – psychologically, we think it was right for us.

After CP3 we quickly ascended Great Gable then headed off towards Honister. Arriving at 7.30pm, we felt pretty good, had cups of tea and Sam had some bean goulash. We actually stopped and sat down for 30 minutes, changing socks again and chatting with the guys we met at Great End. A lot of people dropped out at this point. The long rest paid off and we set off for Nichol End feeling strong. We managed to run at least half of this leg which we were pleased with, given we’d been on our feet for 16 hours by this time. However note that once again we diverted from the recommended route. Rather than slog up to Dale Head our cunning plan was to contour round to the east and pick up the path that passes Castle Crag and on to Grange. It was a brilliant plan marred only by our completely messing it up by going too far east and nearly getting to Rosthwaite, costing us a good half an hour wandering around in bracken. From Grange we simply ran along the road to Portinscale. It was dark when we got to Nichol End at 10.30pm; we lingered for a quick cuppa then headed off on the final leg. Having recced this leg before, we had no problems with navigation despite the dark, and managed to overtake six other people en route.

However, the steep ascent of Skiddaw was no fun, and it was only the chocolate Kendal mint cake that got us up (more about food below). On the top it was extremely windy and very cold – we didn’t linger but finding our way off the flat plateau onto the right path wasn’t easy. Steve stopped to help someone changing the batteries in his headtorch, then thankfully we found ourselves on the right path and off we went down to Keswick. We completed the event in 22 hours 54 minutes which we were incredibly pleased with.
A note on food – neither of us can stomach gels as they make us nauseous. We usually train on long runs with muesli bars and sometimes rye bread and marmite sandwiches or oatcakes – eating a little every half hour or so. We adopted this approach for the 10 Peaks and it worked – apart from the fact that there came a point where neither of us could actually eat very much at all (for Steve, around Honister; for Sam a little later) because our digestive systems had gone into stasis, all the blood being in our legs! This didn’t hold us back, however, it’s just something to be aware of. You do need to eat little and often (note that Mark Bottomley, the winner, was munching something every 20-30 mins), as bonking on an event like this would probably see you out of the race. We carried too many sandwiches (a pound in weight for the two of us!), so a lesson for us there next time (can’t believe I just said “next time”!).

So – as two of the 66 successful 10 Peakers – what would we do differently next time?

  • Route – go up the bog, but then stick to the route which puts Pillar in before Great Gable. We’d consider doing Dale Head next time because, in the end, we had the time – but contouring the way we did will make sense to those who can’t face any more ascent. If you do this, don’t be complacent – we made a gormless navigational error on an easy stretch (one of the few we hadn’t recced)
  • Food – take fewer sandwiches, but otherwise stick to what we did. Do eat the fantastic raw fruit bars. They are lovely and full of carbs.
  • Shoes – worked brilliantly, no blisters or sore, pounded feet
  • Training – do more steep, sustained hills (the 10 Peaks was the first time Steve has ever ground to a halt on an ascent), but otherwise the long run/walk which we maxed out at 12 hours seemed to be perfect.
  • Sleep – try to get more of it the night before. We both felt slightly nauseous most of the day (and night) as a result of sleep deprivation. No fun.
  • Walking aides – seriously consider poles (we’ve never used them but that might have to change).

What we can say is that we thoroughly enjoyed it, although we both agreed it was the hardest thing we’d ever done. And that we’re really grateful to Paul and the volunteers who put the race on and made it all possible. We’ll be back!