The 3 Peaks Fell Race, now in it’s 62nd year, is one of the oldest and most significant races of its kind. Until a few weeks ago however, fell running rookie that I am, I hadn’t even heard of it. Now, via a chance conversation, an optimistic sign up, some luck and a good deal of effort, I’ve run it. Here’s the story:
In it to win it:
No, I am not talking about winning the race. I’m not troubling anyone on that front. This is simply a mantra I apply to many things in life, in this case, race entry:
Having heard about the race when I met some Team Salomon athletes during their recent stay in Keswick, I felt motivated to enter.
Growing in popularity, these events get booked up well ahead of time. This was no different. But what’s to be lost from filling in the application and going on the wait list? In it to win it.
A week or so later I get an email linking me to Saul, an entrant who can no longer take his place. I am subbed in. He waives the £25 entry fee and tells me to have a good race. Welcome to fell running: great people everywhere you look.
(Saul’s race fee has gone to the Dzi Foundation who are doing invaluable long term post-earthquake recovery and development work in Nepal. Thanks Saul)
(Check out http://www.dzi.org)
So that’s it. I’m in.
The race covers nearly 38km and demands 1600+m of ascent. I’ve never done anything quite like it so I’ll have to be careful not to go too hard and blow up. The strategy is to chunk it. Avoid getting ahead of yourself. Break it down: first peak, transition, aid station, next peak and so on.
Peak One – Pen-y-Ghent
It’s pretty awesome being in a mass start of nearly a thousand athletes. In spite of the excitement though, I run within myself and ease into the race. The sun is warm. I break into a sweat and de-buff. After a bit of road we break off onto a rolling, climbing farm track that leads to the Pennine Way. From here we turn hard right and run straight at the wall ahead.
I enjoy the steep climbs and easily make up places on the more technical ground. Emerging onto the top we squint into the glare of sunlit snow and head along to the summit. This is the first check-point. I reach it in 39 minutes, insert my ‘dibber’ (a device worn on a string round the neck which registers your presence and your splits) and then turn my attention to the snowy descent.
It’s fun letting the legs spin out over the soft terrain. Across the rolling summit plateau we go and then steeply off the side. A marshal spots me slipping and sliding at a rate of knots past some more hesitant descenders:
“Eh up, here comes a chancer”
he remarks in a thick Yorkshire accent.
It feels good to have got the first peak under our belts but now comes the long, long transition to peak two: Whernside. I am not feeling great and a number of runners go past me on the somewhat dull, rolling trail. The trick is to concentrate on your own race, focus on your own strengths. Encourage yourself. Maybe these people are going too fast too early. Maybe by going slowly now, I’ll go fast later. The other trick is to avoid looking too far ahead. Whernside is a truly distant feature on the horizon. Best not to look at it, or your watch. Just run.
I take a cup of water at the High Birkwith aid station. There’s a slight boost to morale but it goes as quickly as it came and I settle back into a steady rhythm. The second part of this transition is duller than the first. We are running along a vehicle track and then, worse yet, a road. There’s a head wind and we fight painstakingly against it, tiny dots moving slowly through a very big, open landscape.
On the road my morale sags further, along with my energy. A diminutive lady passes me and I envy her her light frame. I feel bulky and heavy by comparison. We pass parked cars and I smile at my reflection: a little trick to harness some positive energy and change the mood (and make yourself look like a nutter).
The road section gives way to a lively aid station: road accessible and next to The Station Inn, there are crowds of people here and a lady on a PA system announces my name and number. I take on two cups of water and feel lifted by the crowd.
Whernside lies just beyond the viaduct, not far from us now. Its summit is obscured by stormy skies. The heavens open, firing ice pellets on us and people stop to put on a layer. I don’t. My mood becomes markedly more cheerful. I love the fact that all these people are out running about in this weather!
We pass the viaduct, go through a tunnel under the railway and then cross a river. I get across with dry feet, jumping stone to stone but they don’t stay that way for long. Over the next crest is an unavoidable bog. I take a gel in readiness for the climb.
Peak Two: Whernside
I’m at the back of line of traffic, moving at a march up the steep, boggy ground. The bog is now topped by snow and mushed by the passage of hundreds. Our feet sink in, getting a fresh rinse of icy bog water with every step. My circulation is poor and my feet become numb. It’s unpleasant. I wonder if everyone is feeling the same. There’s nothing for it but to keep going.
As the climb steepens I realise that my body wants to go faster than the ones in front so I break trail and start moving past. The climb steepens. People ahead are climbing it with their hands as well as their feet. Keeping my own body upright and balanced, I move past them, focusing solely on the efficiency of each step. I don’t at any point look up. A marshal’s voice from up in the cloud tells us to have our dibbers ready. The summit can’t be far now but still I don’t look up.
Suddenly there’s no more up. My dibber bleeps in the slot and I’m away, descending from the summit along a windswept crest. I’m in my element now. Hail is whipping down on us. Life is suddenly beautifully simple. All decision-making is lifted from me. The only thing to do is go down as fast as possible.
As I start the descent, my body has other ideas. My hamstrings are threatening to cramp and I have to stop to stretch them out. This isn’t normal. I figure it’s predominantly the work of the cold, combined with poor feeding and the 6 hours of driving to arrive late at the campsite the evening before.
The stretching works. I relax and flow. The fast turnover brings feeling back to my feet, despite the fact we are splashing through inches of freshly melted snow. I ski one or two of the steep sections and am having a lot of fun. I fly down, making up a ton of places, some of which are then returned as the climb bottoms out and we start the next rolling transition.
After the adrenalin rush and all-consuming concentration of the descent, the transition is again a dull battle to keep the legs turning over. I reach the Hill Inn check-point in 2:48 and have another cup of water. Although I’m now weaker, this transition is psychologically easier than the first. It’s much shorter for one thing but there’s also something reassuring about having reached the furthest point and being on the home leg.
As we get onto the grassy rolling climb towards the base of the final peak, another runner and I leapfrog a few times. He moves faster than me, then cramps, allowing me to plod steadily past. He congratulates and encourages me and I him in return. I don’t see him again but hope that he was able to manage his cramps and finish.
We’re on the gently undulating paving stones now. A handful of runners pass me. Damn these gentle inclines! I use my second gel as we approach the wall. It’s with a sense of relief that we hit its base and climb the flank of Ingleborough. One measured step after another I regain places and enjoy the steep technical climb. My legs feel weaker than on the other two peaks yet still I prefer this steep climbing to the rolling running sections.
We soon top out, onto the crest and a gentle incline, runnable to the summit. I can really feel the tank running low now.
At the check point a marshal tells us that a 4:15 finish is still on. I doubt him very much and for a while am motivated only to finish in the least painful manner. I trot weakly and stiffly down the summit plateau. The ground is rock-strewn and difficult to run on but it gives way to an easier trail and I re-establish a rhythm.
I’m still just chugging along though – running for pride more than a 4:15 finish. Several steady kilometres pass and then at a junction someone shouts out:
“Only 2km left!”
A look at my wrist tells me this isn’t quite true. It’s more like 3. But we’re close enough now that I can start doing some time/distance calcs and realise that 4:15 might actually be possible.
I start to become driven by that. The terrain has other ideas though and refuses to yield an easy run-in. Angular limestone pokes up through the soil and we have to navigate on tired legs through the maize of myriad angles. There’s still plenty of mud and rough ground too.
We crest a fold and the finish marquee down on the valley floor comes into view. We drop into the next fold and lose it again. Over the next crest must be the run in to the finish; to the end of this pain. But there’s a gentle ascent to drive up first. A marshal at the top of it promises us it’s the last climb. I’m now really fixing on that 4:15 target which is very much in doubt. My body wants to walk the incline, as it has been allowed to do on some earlier ones.
“Shut up body. Not this time.”
I drive it on, keeping the legs turning over.
At the crest we pass through a gateway and into a lush grassy field. The finish marquee is closer now; so too is 4:15. A glance at my wrist shows me I have two minutes. It’s now or never time. Ignoring all protest from my body, I let gravity go to work and hurtle down the glassy slope. I close fast on two runners ahead. We go through a tunnel, up the tiniest incline, wiggle through someone’s back garden, cross the road and are into the finish field. There’s a gentle bend and I run it like I’m on the track, leaning into the bend in a 200m race. Quite where this surge has come from I don’t understand. It’s pure magic; better than anything money can buy. The seconds are ticking by and the only thing to is to give everything.
Suddenly I can’t run any further. There’s a marquee in front of me. I grab for my dibber and insert it one last time and in doing so, glance once more at my wrist. 4:14:45! After more than 4 hours, 37km and 1600m ascent, after so many mental battles, it’s done. And it’s sub 4:15.
I drop into a squat and take a moment: a moment to savour, a moment to reflect. The harder it is, the deeper you go, the greater the feeling that washes over you when its done. Maybe that’s it. Whatever it is, right now I am just happy happy happy.
More on Mira
Nepal’s Mira Rai is an amazing young lady with an amazing spirit and an amazing story (yes, I know, lots of ‘amazings’)
To find out how amazing she is you can watch a beautiful film about her journey from hard working hill girl to Maoist child-soldier to world class mountain runner and Team Salomon athlete.
All proceeds from the film go back to Nepal.
You can follow her progress via Facebook as she races all over Europe this summer.
Last week it was the snow and bog of the 3 Peaks, today it’s the the brutally arid rockscapes of Spain’s Transvulcania!
Thanks to Sheila Bull for her support and the images in this blog – all of which are hers.
And to Richard Marsden for his support and his great company post-race.
Thanks again to Saul for giving me his place in the race.