To quote the website:
"Increasingly regarded as an old man’s Bob Graham, this route has become the benchmark challenge for the mature runner. It was inaugurated by Joss Naylor in 1990 as a fund-raising challenge to the over 50’s. In addition to completing the route, successful contenders must raise at least £100 for a charity of their choice. Joss’s challenge involves climbing 30 tops, crossing some 48 miles of mountain terrain and ascending nearly 17000 feet. The route starts in Pooley Bridge, Ullswater and finishes at Greendale Bridge, Wasdale. Each age group has a specific time limit varying between 12 and 24 hours with different times for men and women. There is no emphasis on record times and pacers are mandatory for safety reasons."
I'd agreed to have an attempt with my usual mountain marathon partner Dave Stephenson. My plan to do an ultra marathon a month leading up to the UTMB meant that this should have been my June ultra but as fate would have it we couldn't find a mutually convenient date in June so settled on Saturday the 6th July. This was very fortunate as I had my 55th birthday on 28th June. This meant that I was in a higher age category for the event and was allowed an extra 3 hours to complete, giving me a total of 15 hours. Those 3 hours came in very handy.
With 17,000 ft of ascent I knew this was really going to be a challenge for me.
|JNLC Profile - all 17,000 feet of it|
So, it was soon time to drive up to the Lakes and set up camp on Friday 5th July. We'd decided to set up base camp in the Park Foot campsite. I arrived first and set up my big 8-person tent and was busy preparing my drinks for the next day when Aly Raw of Bingley Harriers (along with Stan the world's quietest dog) turned up in her campervan which she parked by the tent for the weekend. Dave and two more Bingley runners Phil Knight and Brendon Georgeson turned up later. Phil was being 'loaned' to me to support on Leg 1 as he had recce'd it with Dave.
Looking at various blogs and forums the general consensus about the first mile or so of the route seems to be that cutting up through Park Foot is the way to go. I'd originally decided, thinking that the start was in the middle of the village, that the better route would be to follow the Lakeland 100 route through Pooley Bridge then up the road out onto the moor. When I realised that the start was actually on the bridge it looked that the Park Foot route was slightly shorter so decided to take that. However, after checking out the route through and out of the campsite I reverted to my original plan. The road route maybe a hundred yards or so longer but it is far simpler with only one gate and a consistent and smooth gradient, much more suited to my running style.
Leg 1 - Pooley Bridge to Kirkstone Pass (14 miles)
My support on this leg was Phil and Paul. Waking up at 4:00 I took advantage of the camp showers, taped up my left hip which had been giving me some pain after a couple of hours on recent runs and dressed for the day. I wore a lightweight white t-shirt, Salomon twin-skin shorts, smartwool socks, calf compressions, Inov8 debris gaiters and my Salomon Speedcross 3 shoes.
|Chilling on Pooley Bridge bridge|
The rest of this ridge to High Street was fairly straight forward and there was also a very welcome cool breeze.The view from Kidsty Pike over to wards Mardale Head was brief but spectacular. I'd be down there in three weeks time on the Lakeland 50. Apart from a solitary hiker near High Street we had the fells to ourselves at this early hour.
Thornthwaite Beacon with it's massive stone tower was next. Through the gap in the wall Phil and I turned right to follow the wall rather than take the more obvious path down which Paul opted to go. This had been kindly recced the day before by Aly. The grassy descent by the wall was clearly faster as Paul was a few minutes behind us as we started the ascent up to Stoney Cove Pike. We followed the wall after the Stoney Cove Pike summit cairn but I was beginning to think it couldn't be the right way as there was no sign of a track when Paul arrived and called us back to the right wall. It was then a simple case of following it until I could see Pike Howe when I cut across. Coming down off Pike Howe there were three people waving at us. I first thought it was my team but soon recognised Andy Nicoll, Steve Fry and another Bingley supporter who I didn't know. It was Dave's team out looking for him. From here, rather than follow the path over St Raven's Edge we cut round the back of it and dropped diagonally down to a gate on the pass road where Mark and Al were waiting. Into the car park where Steve was waiting to take over on the next leg I was 15 minutes up on the 14:40 schedule.
Leg 2 - Kirkstone Pass to Dunmail Raise (8 miles)
|So which direction is Mecca from Kirkstone Pass?|
We reached Hart Crag and had just come down off the cairn to log the time when a Bingley clad runner appeared. This was John Parkin, closely followed by Andy Nicoll. Dave then came straight over the cairn and onwards totally oblivious to my shouts of abuse about him catching me so soon. This was Dave in the zone. His world consists of the three yards in front of him.
Back in 2010 he did this on the 3 Peaks Race when he came alongside me going up Whernside. I had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention on that occasion. (Five minutes after that I was laid out waiting for a rescue helicopter having tripped, while trying to chase down Dave, and smashed my face on a rock resulting in a triple fracture of my cheekbone.)
Back to the Joss. A hundred yards after Hart Crag we were following Dave and co up some rocks when he looked back and finally realised it was us. That was pretty much the last we saw of him apart from three dots groping their way up Seat Sandall as we were coming off Fairfield. He went on to finish in a brilliant 11:39, one minute inside his schedule.
Fairfield was looking very different from my previous two visits which were both in howling storms at some ungodly hour in the morning supporting Bob Graham attempts. The summit cairn on those occasions was extremely difficult to find unlike now when it was surrounded by a ring of resting hikers in the bright sunshine. I kept going here while Steve jotted down the time, as I intuitively knew the way off but Steve called me back and got his compass out which duly pointed us about half a degree off my original direction. Better safe than sorry. The descent was also a pleasant surprise as I had vivid memories of sliding my way down this in my headtorch beam but now it was easy to choose the best route down. The Bingley boys up on Seat Sandall looked like they were hardly moving.
This was the third time I'd been alongside Grisedale Tarn in less than three months. Dave and I had been past it both in the Lakeland Mountain 40 in April and the Old County Tops in May. It was looking glorious now. Seat Sandall was a steady steep drag but we were soon up on the top and heading down to Dunmail. I was still feeling good. Steve had been plying me with water and food along the way.
About a week before the attempt I received a phone call from Monica Shone, the recently retired JNLC secretary. She was checking up on our details as she couldn't get hold of her replacement Ian Charters. After bring her up to date on our times she said she'd be at Dunmail Raise around 11:00 to see us through. At the time I was clearly deluded as I thought we might have gone through long before that. As it turned out it was gone 11:30 as we came off Seat Sandall. As promised Monica and her husband were there to greet us. Apparently while waiting she'd got the name, rank and serial number (so to speak) off all of the supporters, maybe looking for the next batch of JNLC attempters. She'd have to wait a while for some of them to reach 50.
At Dunmail I changed into a clean shirt and had the strange experience of having two blokes (who shall remain nameless but it wasn't Steve or Paul) fighting over who was going to tape up my nipples as they had started bleeding. That's what I call service but they could have shaved the hair off first.
Leg 3 - Dunmail Raise to Sty Head (11 miles)
This leg is perhaps the hardest of the four with the steep ascent to Steel Fell then the long trudge to Rossett Pike via High Raise and the ascent up Bowfell and descent off Great End. Al was to support me on this leg and I did feel for him as he had all my kit and 3 litres of drink as well as his own stuff. He'd come out of semi-retirement from running as he is concentrating on swimming these days. Neither of us had recced this section up to High Raise so we relied on my GPS for this bit.
So we set off up the very steep climb onto the Steel Fell ridge. I had hoped to do a diagonal ascent but that was impractical due to the bracken so it was straight up for us. This was hot but we kept a steady pace as Al informed me that he had arranged for four naked Swedish masseuse to be waiting at Sty Head as well as a keg of real ale. As I suspected they weren't there when I finally arrived so he owes me one, well at least a beer (compared to the several I owe him for his help).
One of my most vivid memories of the whole day was the views from Steel Fell. Located as it is in the middle of the Lake District and with no other nearby hills to block the view there is a 360 degree feast of Lakeland panoramas, especially on a day like we had. Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop and take it all in but I'll be back.
The next section to High Raise was a mixture of tracks and grassy meadow as we contoured round Calf Crag before taking the climb up Birks Gill. Al had made sure that I was fully hydrated by regularly handing me a bottle and refusing to take it back until I'd finished it. He also pointed out the spot where clubmate Mark Richards' stomach had rebelled on his successful 50 @ 50 attempt. Between the top of Birks Gill and the High Raise summit the terrain is a gentle slope but not runnable due to tussocks. In retrospect it might have been worth checking out the alternative and only slightly less direct route up Deep Slack. There seemed to be a decent path in that direction towards Sergeant Man.
Over High Raise we ran down to and over the Stake Pass path picking up the path Dave and I had followed for a while in the Old County Tops towards Rossett Pike. My route took us over the rocky rise on Rossett Crag. With hindsight we should have contoured north of this before ascending Rosset Pike. From the Pike we had a cracking view of the route up Bow Fell, a double dogleg onto a rising terrace.
I'd recced the rest of this leg with my dog (who then suffered from sore pads after all the rock work) a few weeks before. It had been low cloud then but we had full visibility now. It always amazes me how routes seem shorter when you're familiar with them. This was no exception as we made our way to the top and picked up the path three quarters of the way up. I really must follow that path back down sometime to see where it starts.
Bow Fell summit was like Piccadilly Circus, covered in hikers. Some pre-teenage youths found my attire most amusing. "Do you think he a fell runner?" one of them asked. Bright lad.
The rest of the ridge over Esk Pike and onto Great End went fairly well. I was amazed that I was still feeling fairly fresh considering what I'd just done. The anticipated bone tiredness and empty legs didn't appear. I even ran some of the path up Great End. I later learned from Dave that there is a nice grassy alternative to the left of the rocky path off Bow Fell.
The descent off the north side of Great End was as expected, rocky, screey, and steep. We even had to do some rock climbing (which thankfully I'd not had to do with the dog). Three quarters of the way down we found Paul who had come up to meet us. He guided us down the final section and we were soon at Sty Head where Mark and Steve (ready for his second leg) were waiting.
|Al approaching Sty Head (Paul and me in the background)|
|Paul and me at Sty Head (I'm still running!)|
Leg 4 - Sty Head to Greendale Bridge ( 13 miles)
The pattern for the rest of the run was set going up here. Steve would lead the way so I had someone to focus on and Mark would trail behind me giving me encouraging words (and food and drink) and letting me know how much ascent was left as we reached the tops.
|Start of climb up Great Gable|
|Over the top of Great Gable looking down into Ennerdale and over to Crummock Water|
|Heading to Kirk Fell over Kirk Fell Tarn|
|Approaching Pillar (Great Gable in the background)|
|Steve leading the way off Pillar to Wind Gap (Photo Mark Whelan)|
As we came alongside the wonderfully named Pots of Ashness I looked at my watch then looked at the massive upturned boat that is Seatallan and, thought for the first time that I was going to run out of time. I had 1:05 to get inside 15 hours and, looking at the relentless slope up to the summit, thought it would take me half an hour to get up there. (It's actually just under 200 metres to the summit from the Pots but looks bigger at the end of a long day.) So I started plugging away at the grassy path up this beast staring at the next few steps seemingly in front of my face and occasionally looking up hoping in vain to see Steve disappear over the top. Mark was behind giving me the run down on how far the summit was. 100 metres became 70 and Steve finally disappeared, the top flattened out and I was up in a surprising 15 minutes. Hope came rushing back as Steve handed my a final bottle and a few jelly babies and I dashed off down the side towards Middle Fell, which looked a damn sight tamer than Seatallan had done. It was on the way down Seatallan that I realised that the bottle Steve had given me wasn't mine. He had donated his last bottle to me.
As we approached the summit Paul was there once again to meet us and guide us down. I had plenty of time but got frustrated with myself as I struggled to keep up with Paul and Steve when I'd normally be shooting down such a runnable slope. Joss' house, Low Greendale, came into view and we were soon approaching the bridge to be clapped in by Joss and Mary Naylor and their friend, mountain guide and JNLC dinner organiser, David Powell-Thompson, 14 hours and 49 minutes after setting off. (Thanks for waiting David, I know your wife had put your dinner in the dog due to my slow pace.) What a cracking day! What a team!
|The icing on the cake, a handshake from the great man.|
Planned and Actual Times
Leg 5 Greendale Bridge to Pooley Bridge (by car).
As some of you will know I already know Joss and Mary from selling copies of my painting of Joss for charity, with certificates of authenticity signed by Joss (see www.mickwren.com). Joss bought the original painting the last time I'd seen him so Mary kindly invited us in to see it on the wall. It was looking good up there (but I am biased).
|Me and Paul in the Naylor Art Gallery.|
Postscript - DOMS? What DOMS?
So, despite my worries about not being able to manage the hills I'd managed them with surprising ease, if not speed. At 17,000ft of ascent over something like 46 miles the ascent/mile ratio is higher than the UTMB so I'm very happy with my performance.
After something like this I typically have a very bad case of DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) a day or two later. Going up or down stairs with DOMS is agony but apart from slightly sore muscles I had no problems at all. Instead of screaming in agony I was able to run up the stairs. Amazing. Apart from wearing a pair of full length compression stockings the first night I did nothing to try and alleviate the onset of DOMS.
The whole day was a revelation to me in terms of keeping energy levels high and later not suffering from DOMS. I put this down largely to the level of hydration I sustained. I have never taken on so much fluid, largely I think due to having to carry the weight, but it certainly appears to have made a great difference in minimising the muscle damage. I will be making major differences to my fluid intake on future events. I might give the peparamis a miss though as my support were so impressed with my managing to eat two that they now call me the Peparami Kid (but not for too long I hope).
One condition of this challenge is to raise £100 for your charity of your choice. I chose the North West Air Ambulance who'd rescued me from the 3 Peak Race. At the time of writing I've raised over £200 pounds (including Gift Aid). See http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MickWren. Thanks to all of my sponsors.
Dave and I can now look forward to the JNLC Annual dinner in October to receive our tankards.