Tour de Helvellyn 2011

Joe Faulkner, the experienced leader of Nav4 events, puts it very simply on his website: "The Tour is a very tough 38mile Winter Trail run on wild, unmarked Lakeland Trails over open terrain. Good navigation skills and self reliance are required. It has a strict 12 hour time limit with a cut-off around 25 miles. Please think very carefully before you apply - are you 'up for this'.... can you cope with 38miles in winter, on this type of terrain, can you navigate safely in poor weather and complete The Tour within 12hours?"

There are not many ultra distance races held in mid winter. The vagaries of the weather are often given as a reason for this from an organisational point of view. However hundreds of like minded souls are regularly out on the hills, moors and fells in mid winter seeking enjoyment and challenges every weekend. These are the committed, who have usually learnt from courses, friends or their own experiences how to look after themselves and while respecting the elements, and acknowledging any risks, are also happy to stray out of their comfort zone, and have some fun too!

The tour is run as a time trial and not a race. You can start any time between 7am and 9am and just clip your card at the checkpoints as you go round the course. You also have to time things right, so you don't arrive at the first checkpoint before10am, for it won't be open and you will have to either wait, or risk disqualification if you continue without clipping your card!

It is just after 7am as I slide the short distance from my B&B up the icy lane to Askham village hall, race HQ. That doesn't exactly bode well for what could lie ahead, but as little of the route is actually on tarmac, it doesn't faze me too much. Inside the hall, friendly faces greet and issue my number, and I chat with some familiar faces from other events, Andy Cole who has driven up this morning from Chester, and John Steel from Yorkshire who organises the Hardmoor's series amongst them.

I have tried to pack my backpack as light as possible for a good day in the hills in December and all it might throw at you, but as I add the huge cheese salad baguette and packet of crisps that my B&B kindly provided in lieu of breakfast, it seems ridiculously heavy but no larger than most of the others I see preparing to head off Then again, in my current fitness I am not exactly planning to travel "Fast n Lite" so when at check in time the marshall, without actually looking inside declares, "looks like you have a good bag of gear for the day there. Fine off you go, enjoy yourself"

Tour de Helvellyn 2011This sums up the spirit of the event. The organisers, although obviously having vetted everyone on entry for experience, and have given a suggested minimum kit list of event essentials, seem to trust you, the runner, to ensure you actually have the needful. It is something that seems to be appreciated by other entrants, There is a faint glint of light in the sky as by chance Andy is in the group who leave the hall at 7.45am and we tread warily up the first icy mile of road, till we reach the cattle grid beyond the last cottage in the village that signals the start of the trail that will take us up and on to the first stretch over Askham Moor.

We are climbing gently and in the growing light it is now possible to see where the icy patches are. As the full expanse of the moor opens up one can also observe there is a little network of paths criss crossing the moor, and aware it could well be dark on our return several hours later, I am intuitively looking for little landmarks like the clump of trees at the crest etc.

Approaching the descent down to Howtown below Barton Fell, we get our first view of the vast expanse of Ullswater, with the beckoning Lakeland peaks getting ever closer. There is now a few kilometres of country road taking you through the first checkpoint at Martindale Church. It is now fully light and the place names and contour lines peered at in the days before the race are now coming to life. Boardale (where there boar's here in olden times?); Raven Cragg (I didn't see any ravens!) After the road section we are now getting muddy again and the first steep climb beckons up to Boardale Hause. Loose rock means the going is slow and steep but we are rewarded at the top of the climb with a snow covered moor and a superb vista across to the Helvellyn Ridge, with what looks like much more pristine snow from yesterdays falls, and a cloud base that is skimming the summits.

On the short sharp descent down to the Patterdale checkpoint, I take my time to take in all the views wondering what does await us up on Hellvellyn. The checkpoint at the lay by alongside the Patterdale Stores is a relative hive of activity, some runners heading straight through after punchng their card, some, myself included, lingering a while to get a good drink down and my first good piece of the cheese baguette! It is a wonderful wee snack to set me up for what I perceive will be a tough climb up over the Helvellyn ridge. Along the road to Glenridding, the pier for the Ullswater steamers comes into view but we are not heading for a leisurely relaxing trip today. Heading away from the lake, as we ascend the lane past the aptly named Travellers Rest Inn, the full reality of the climb ahead comes into view as I look up and see some matchstick figures up on the crest and we begin the climb up the zig zag path to Sticks Pass at 750metres .

Tour de Helvellyn 2011Most of the runners around me elect to walk, though we are passed by some of the fit later starters, who are starting to catch us up and they are seriously impressive as they run up the ever deepening snow. At the first "Landing" two snowboarders having taken the effort to walk up here are preparing to launch themselves over the side of the hill almost vertically back down in the general direction of the youth hostel!

The higher we climb the deeper the snow, and now up on the higher ground approaching the Sticks pass bridge checkpoint, we are "entering the cloud line and visibility is drawing in as it starts to sleet and we are ankle to calf deep in snow. The checkpoint marshalls, all well wrapped up, greet all of us with a smile and the picture I take of them is returned as one of them takes my camera and snaps me in return. Onwards and upwards and it is now seriously heavy going, although the ground has levelled from the steep climb, the snow depth is preventing any real running for now and accepting our fate, we trudge merrily on and although we are not exactly in polar white out conditions , the sleet is swirling around and visibility is down to 50-100metres.

On a few occasions I pause and although there is a well trodden procession of footprints, there is no one visible in front or behind, and I am seemingly alone in my temporary snow filled universe. Then figures are spotted ahead and voices, but they are coming towards me and it is a group of cross country skiers, out on their own little adventure. The cloud is temporarily blown higher to momentarily reveal rocky crags across to what I assume is the Raise and Keppel Grove, but they are lost in the cloud again. Then after climbing for what seems like a while, I realise, with my senses momentarily impaired by the lack of visibility that we are descending, and surely enough as the descent quickens, the cloud line is discernable and slowly I can make out green fields and the water of Thirlmere below.

It is a slippery descent down through the deep snow and I end up on my backside more than once, but deep snow makes for a soft landing. Much quicker than the ascent, we seem to drop below the snow line, very soon and the soft snow changes to soft mud and stones as the group of us continue to pick our way down to the next checkpoint at Stybeck farm. A rocky track takes us on low ground below the western edge of the ridge the few miles to the Swirls car park where a Santa clad marshall, has water to top up our bottles. More of my cheese baguette, and a gel, are finished off with a small slice of Christmas cake, courtesy of Santa, and I continue on what is a good runnable stretch towards Dunmail rise. Simply put, just past the Rise, having ensured it is the right burn, you turn left. Rather less simply, looking up, you realise that you now have to cajole and inspire your body through the first glimpses of fatigue and face 20-30 minutes and a very steep 1,000 foot climb up to Grisedale Tarn. I haven't really done many long climbs in the last two years and progress is slow as I just focus on the next horizon line. Once the crest is reached, the Tarn, is a black expanse of water in an ocean of white snow. Although we are not as high as at Sticks, the snow is again deep up here and although the stud marks on the snow of those who have passed before make it easy to pick out the trail, the going is hard and the ground often falls away quickly leading one to stumble.

Tour de Helvellyn 2011Slowly the trail becomes more discernable, and the snow is manageable, enabling us all to regain a good rhythm as we descend below the snow and onto the land rover track down lower Grisedale which in turn evolves into a small tarmac road that takes you back down to Patterdale and the penultimate checkpoint. The last of my cheese salad baguette is washed down by a gel and water before the hot sweet tea proffered to me by the marshall tastes like a drop of "nectar from the gods".

Having now completed the circuit of Helvellyn, there is just the 9-10mile stretch back over to Martindale and on to journey's goal at Askham. Glad I took the time to feed well, the seemingly short climb back up to Boardale Hause, goes quickly and is shared chatting with a small group of runners who all seemed to leave the checkpoint together. Tired legs gingerly tackle the short rocky descent, but as the path levels, we get into a good rhythm in the now fading light all the way back through Martindale to Howton.

Climbing the gentle ascent back up to Ashkam moor it is "headtorch time " and as we reach the open expanse of the moor there are intermittent lights all across the landscape as runners home in on the trail to Askham. After stopping for a last drink, I become separated from my companions, but the trail is easy to follow even if in the darkness you are not sure in the white moorland what is snow and what is ice, which leads to some impromptu skating at times. We are lucky to have a starry sky. Then I reach the little copse which I took as my landmark so long ago this morning, and am momentarily confused as expecting the two lights about 400metres ahead of me to veer to the right, they continue on in the direction of the large cluster of lights which have appeared in the distance, which I take to be Penrith ! I am having a wee giggle to myself, "here I am 2 miles from home, having got around 36 Lakeland miles by personal memory/following my nose and other runners" and about to reach in my pack for map to check position when I spot two more approaching lights close behind.

I take the easy option and pick out a few stars as I wait for them. Sure enough they confirm that Askham is the small cluster of lights down to the right but in the dark the path is barely discernable and easy to miss, after a few hundred metres the path becomes a trail and we are able to pick our way through the icy patches across the last mile of the moor and over the cattle grid. The lights of the first cottages in the village, and the barking of a dog we disturb, are very welcoming.

The village road is still icy, and we slide down to the village hall and "check in" some ten hours after I left this morning. It has been a hard but interesting day, and after changing out of damp gear, the homemade soup is absolutely fabulous! As is often the case in time trials, the last to leave was also the first home, Kim Collinson from local club Eden runners in 6 hours 7 minutes. And the last finisher is just inside the 12-hour deadline. All in all, certainly don't underestimate what this event involves, but I would highly recommend it, if you are fond of interesting days out in the hills.

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