Lakes District Sky Trails: At the Peaks of the Lakes!

Από 04 Σεπ 2018

It has taken me more than month to make up my mind that it’s okay to write an article about my failure;  a month in which this country has been hit by one of the greatest tragedies in peace-time, in which my petty concerns have been eclipsed by the pain and fear and horror of an all-consuming blaze… So here goes, the story of my not-so-epic Sca-fail:

I spent the weekend of July 14th and 15th in the UK’s Lake District, covering the Lake District Sky Trails weekend for Advendure, as a guest of Race Director, Charles Sproson. This was my first-ever visit to the Lake District and, true to form, I had avoided doing too much research into the area, wanting to be surprised - either pleasantly or unpleasantly. 

 

The plan was that I would spend Saturday following Charlie around, as he oversaw Lakes Sky Ultra, the strictly vetted 50k ultra race that requires not only ultra-running but also mountaineering and climbing experience. Then, on the Sunday, I would run the 40k Scafell Sky Race, climbing to the top of England’s highest mountain and gaining first-hand experience of Lakes racing.

 

I arrived in Ambleside, the race weekend’s HQ, on the Friday, a beautiful warm and sunny day, and was provided with a room in the University of Cumbria’s student campus. I wandered down to the shores of Lake Windermere, and was utterly charmed by my first glimpse of Lakes life: ducks, cruise boats, rowing boats, soft ice cream and scones! 

 

Charlie had told me that he would be spending the day at the race start & finish area, and that I was welcome to follow Damian Hall around - he would be covering the races for all media and social media aspects and had a car, so he could take me with him. I readily agreed to this, not wanting to miss any of the action… What I should perhaps have given some thought to, was how on earth I would be able to keep up with Damian (who has placed 12th in the UTMB, among other achievements) outside of the car! 

 

The Elusive Frontrunner


Come Saturday morning, we were at the start line at 6.30, waiting to see the runners off at 7.00 and then go off in the car to two or three different checkpoints, catching up with the frontrunners and eventually returning to the finish line. We drove to Charlie’s home in a gorgeous little valley and left the car, taking a trail that would lead us to an area close to two different parts of the Ultra race route, where we hoped to catch the first few runners. Damian set off and disclosed the vital fact that he was in training to run the UTMB again, i.e. I would probably die if I tried to keep up! He was nice about it though, dashing off ahead and turning around to check if I was still visible in the distance every now and then. Meanwhile, I was panting away but spellbound by the beauty of the area, rolling green hills alternating with rock faces, gurgling creeks, sheep, such English-ness combined with non-British bright blue skies and fluffy clouds.

 

We found the race signposting and realized that we would be leaving the wide hikers’ trail and heading up through the fields, completely off-track. I loved it - wading through shallow mud and soft clods of grass on an incredibly steep ascent, that would probably not seem as pleasant 15 kilometres into the race! Once we got to the top, Damian rushed off to the right, hoping to catch the frontrunner coming off Striding Edge (he didn’t).

 

 

I followed at my more leisurely pace, taking pictures of the lake at the bottom of the valley, and reaching the ridge just in time to cheer Sophie Grant, first woman in the race and a lovely lady!

 

 

Damian had headed off again, taking a shortcut up a steep-as-anything hill to rejoin the race route and catch the frontrunner at a different spot (he did). Once again, I followed at my own pace, chatting to the marshalls, cheering people on, being mistaken for the first woman and embracing the incredible scenery and the fact that you could see for MILES! The setting was spectacular, a seemingly endless alternation of mountains and lakes made unique by the fact that although the Lake District is at sub-alpine altitude, there is no forest to obscure your view, just endless green grass broken at the top by rock faces, scree, sharp peaks and breathtaking ridges.

 

 

On our way back down to the car, to move on to our next spot, I met up with Michael Vourakis, the only Greek in the ultra race; we took a couple of pictures and I wished him well and promised to wait for him elsewhere. Luck would have it that, although I missed the elusive Rob Sinclair at the main aid station in Patterdale, I did get to see Michael and give him a big hug and a bag of potatoes to see him through the second - and faster - half of the race!

 

 

From the aid station, Damian and I rejoined the race course for a bit, him running on and me taking pictures of various runners and enjoying the lush greenery and views. I always take so much pleasure out of encouraging fellow runners, and this lot was pretty hungry at this point – so the catch-phrase was “food at the bottom”!

 

 

Our last stop before returning to base was Kirkstone Pass, just before the race’s final ascent. Guess what? No Rob to be seen! I was rather awestruck by the sight of the climb to Red Screes Summit and decided to go backwards, where I was fortunate enough to see Ian Corless at work with his camera, and Sophie Grant and her big smile powering by!

 

My Lakes Sky Ultra day: 25 kilometres, about 1000 metres of ascent, tons of admiration for the tough men and women of the race, stars in my eyes from the beautiful scenery…

 

Early to bed for me – I was racing the next day!

 

For the record:

 

Men’s race:

1st Rob Sinclair 07:40:27

2nd Tim Campion-Smith 08:01:07

3rd Andy Berry 08:22:52

 

Women’s race:

1st Sophie Grant 10:14:41

2nd Kate Simpson 12:37:38

3rd Jenny Yate 12:51:35

 

My (not-so) Epic Sca-fail

 

 

I woke at 6 on Sunday morning, with plenty of time to prepare my racing gear, have a leisurely coffee and catch the bus that would take us to the start line at 7.00. I felt slightly tired, but very excited at the prospect of seeing some more of the spectacular Lake District scenery, especially the tiny lakes appearing every now and then from behind hills, tempting you to take a quick dip. 

 

The bus ride to Glaramara was very scenic, more lakes and mountains in the background, all of which looked inviting and sun-drenched. We arrived at half-past eight, which gave me just enough time to take a pre-race picture with the rest of the cheerful Greeks who travelled to the Lakes from the island of Crete especially for the race, talk to my son and run around the little paddock for a warm-up. We set off promptly at 9 and right from the beginning I was at the very back of the race. This is not unusual for me, I always give myself time to start off slow, and usually gain a few positions on the first downhill bit - which puts me at the back of the middle, where I usually stay until the end. And that was exactly how it went, only that the first descent was about 6 kilometres into the race… Still, I was enjoying myself, loving the technical sections of the first steep ascent, admiring the scenery towards the first peak - rolling, green hills melting away into the background - and not even minding the little bit of mist at Windy Gap.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the scree descent, and hurtled my way to the bottom of the valley, overtaking a few people, while also thinking about how narrowly making the cut-off would make a good story.

 

The technical traverse leading to the ascent to Scafell Pike was tough, very tough, but so exhilarating, with the ground falling away into a valley far below, and the clouds parting to reveal a snaking river feeding into the lake.

 

 

At this time, the weather was starting to close in a bit, but I could still see where I was going, the temperature was not too cold, the ground was dry, and everything was well. Now, a little aside about me, mountains and weather: I race for the scenery and the signposting, i.e. my reward is getting to see beautiful places, and I can’t find my way around a mountain to save my life! Also, I am afraid of fog. I once got lost for several hours in it, I get disoriented, and feel extremely lonely and frightened.

 

So, to Scafell, and that endless ascent, almost three hours into the race. I had been on my own for some time, but there were people going up and down the mountain, the signposting was excellent, and there was no cause for concern. But when the weather closed in completely, all I could see was grey - grey fog, grey stone, only interrupted by those hopeful red flags and looming figures of well-dressed hikers who all seemed to be going faster than I was in my snazzy neon skirt and sleeveless top. My spirit was completely broken; all I could think about was getting to the peak where my friends Gary and Joe were waiting for me.

 

I got there eventually, and broke down in tears as soon as I saw them, shivering in the cold air - thankfully the kind marshals had lent them a bivvy bag to keep warm in, their wait had been longer than anticipated!  

 

 

I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to see anyone in my life! At this time my only thought was that I wanted to get off the mountain as fast as possible. I told the marshals I was quitting the race, but to get to Joe’s car at the race’s main aid station in Langdale Valley, we still had to cover about 10 kilometres and scale the race’s second highest peak, Bowfell Summit, at 902 metres. Under normal circumstances, I would have LOVED this part of the race, really technical terrain with huge rocks jutting out, scrambling like a goat all over the place, just my thing! As it was, I had to stop and have a good cry every ten minutes or so… The most memorable bit was the steep descent down the Great Slab after Bowfell, just a ginormous slab of rock whose beginning and end were obscured by the mist, making it seem just endless - terrifying and thrilling at once!

 

 

Gary and Joe were complete angels all this time, waiting for me, giving me hugs when I got all disappointed, leaping off ahead to help other runners in distress, coming back to crack jokes and make me laugh - what would I have done without them? Thinking back, I think the combination of a tiring pre-race day and my fear of fog, combined with narrow cut-off times, caused my meltdown - I could have handled one or two, but not all three together…

 

At long last we got below the cloud, and at long last I got a glimpse of the magical scenery that would have kept me going. A beautiful descent would have brought me to the valley and the main aid station and 5:30 hour cut-off. Of course, by the time I got there, the station was long closed…

 

 

I briefly considered pressing on, together with the few other runners I had seen along the way, including the incredible Imran Ali, a familiar face from TAUR who I had the great pleasure of meeting during SSR; but I just could not work up the courage or energy. I got into Joe’s car feeling like a complete and utter failure, a feeling that I was unable to shake for a several days after the race. It was my first DNF, made that much more painful by the fact that I had travelled abroad for it, as a guest, as a journalist - so many levels of failure!!

 

 

I have come to terms with it now, and made a promise to myself - I will go back next year and finish in style! To that effect, I have had the altitude profile tattooed onto my arm - but only up to Langdale Valley, the rest will have to wait until I deserve it!

 

For the record:

 

Men’s race:

1st Jonathan Albon 04:26:50

2nd Tom Evans 04:39:57

3rd Sebastian Bachelor 04:59:50

 

Women’s race:

1st Henriette Albon 05:59:27

2nd Sally Fawcett 06:26:16

3rd Catherine Slater 06:47:48

 

46 runners failed to complete the SSR course.

 

- Special thanks to Charlie for his hospitality, to Damian for putting up with me,  and to Gary & Joe for being race angels!

 

 

Sofia Vlavianou

Photos copyright: Ian Corless, writer’s own

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