Skyrunning has arrived in the Lake District. With a whopping 4,300 metres of ascent, we were too sensible to do the Lakes Sky Ultra, so we sent foolhardy Damian Hall along instead…
Pictures: Andy Jackson
What is Skyrunning? I knew the theory: that it’s both a brand and a sport that’s some kind of fusion between mountaineering and running. But what did that really mean? Do you have to carry a rope around with you? Do you only get a race entry if you’ve read all of Sir Chris Bonington’s books? One damp Saturday in the Lake District I found out. My quads have never been the same since.
Lakes Sky Ultra (LSU) debuted in 2015, bringing the UK’s Skyrunning race portfolio to six. This one had great appeal because it was in the Lake District, England’s most dramatic, atmospheric and mythologised landscape. And it sounded nails.
“Make no mistake — this is an event with inherent risks involved,” states the race website. “There are several sections where exposure will be high. You will need to be able to confidently move across technical and demanding mountain terrain… If your knees wobble, you fear exposure at height or are uncomfortable with using your hands on rock, this race is not for you.”
Maybe some people read that and think “Yeah, this race isn’t for me”. I admire those people and sometimes wish I was one of them. But when I read something like that, part of my mind that I wish would shut-up more often goes “Psst, you’re not really man enough are you?” Just like when Marty McFly gets called chicken. There’s no other option for Marty and me. We have to do it.
Experience of the mountains, including scrambling, is required to enter the Lakes Sky Ultra and entries are vetted. This isn’t a race to jump straight into after your first parkrun®. That said, the course promised to be thoroughly marked and the distance of 54km is challenging without being too frightening.
Rocky – and as it turns out, very wet – knife-edge ridges, however, are. As is a whopping 4,300m of ascent. It sounded like a thorough test of my big boy pants.
Glancing around the briefing room in Ambleside, race competitors do look different here, more muscular perhaps, some mountaineering types at a guess. There are a surprising amount of foreign runners too, mostly from Europe. Not many UK ultra races attract runners from abroad.
After 10 days of solid sunshine it’s rained hard all night and the forecast isn’t friendly. Thick clouds swirl around the looming fells. They mask how high the peaks are and how rugged the ridges are. They also make me think the course might be perfectly benign after all…
The race is being filmed for local television and there’s a definite sense of pioneering in the air. Waterproof jacket-clad starters huddle to hear final instructions from race director Charlie Sproson, a well-known mountain athlete himself.
I’ve been lecturing myself all week that this will be the race where I’ll finally perfect a consistent, sustainable pace and strong finish. As opposed to shooting out the blocks and hanging on desperately at the end in a wobbly, swaying mess style. Yet on the long run-able climb to Fairfield, via Low Pike, High Pike and Dove Crag, I’m unable to stop myself moving up the field, ensuring I’m comfortably in the top ten.
Facing the elements
As runners string out and we get higher, the wind and rain attack me like I’ve insulted their mothers. I stuff back some CLIF Shot Bloks and cower under my hood. We’re soon in total whiteout. I can’t see anyone in front or behind. The weather has given the whole event a grungy, gritty, authentic atmosphere. Which is the more poetic way of saying it’s effing wet and unfriendly.
Through the clag I follow a never-ending row of little red flags. I consider them to be my friends, but unexpectedly they turn against me. Instead of letting me go along a clear if narrow footpath, they send me up onto the top of a wet, grey, rocky ridge. Soon I’m scrambling over big bits of rock and lowering myself down gingerly. For once my hands are playing a crucial part in a running race (though they’re pretty grumpy with me for yet again sticking my gloves in the bottom of my pack), as I often need three points of contact on the treacherous surface. It takes concentration and keeps me in the moment. It’s mountain travel at just the right level of hairy and thrilling.
Some bits are runnable. Some bits definitely aren’t. It’s much more than a running race, more like a solo mountain adventure. I rarely see anyone else and I forgot it’s a race. I love the sense of pretend solitude. When the clag occasionally, clears, I see the land of Wainwright and Wordsworth, of huge lakes and bigger mountains spreading out underneath me, and feel so lucky to be up here.
Marshals are in the most inhospitable places imaginable, battered by weather, understandably cowering under bothy bags, ponchos and tents. Yet almost always cheery as hell as they hand me the dibber and occasionally a welcome snack. Some summits have lone supporters clanging cowbells.
Knife edge ridges
I’m soon heading up Helvellyn, our fourth summit, and remembering I’ve experienced some severely unfriendly weather up here before (there is a clue it might be unfriendly in the name) and today it’s the same. However, notorious Striding Edge doesn’t seem nearly so bad in the clag, as I can’t see drop-offs or what’s ahead and find myself dealing exclusively with the here and now. Lower down, running on green wet moss and grass, I tell myself I still feel strong. Then slip and go flying, plastering myself in mud and wetness.
After I’ve dried off a bit, markers lead straight to a river and disappear. Time to get wet again. As the rain gradually drops away, I’m caught unawares as 2015 Lakeland 100 winner Paul Tierney emerges from the mist behind me. I forgot we were racing. It’s good to have like-minded company and we chat away merrily about various races. A marshal tells us that infamous Pinnacle Ridge has been removed from the race, due to the foul weather. It isn’t disappointing. I’ve had all the clinging to wet rock and whimpering I need for the year.
The main checkpoint at Patterdale is approximately half way and it’s hugely tempting to sit down and stay, as I’m offered soup, cakes and a smorgasbord of treats. But I must get going. After grabbing a flapjack, banana and a fist full of crisps I tumble out the door, just as the next runner comes in. Despite the weather, yet again there’s a gaggle of supporters, cheering and clanging cowbells.
The bright side
The second half of the race is less technical and much more run-able, with good trails and grassy ridge running. I can still spy Paul ahead and I catch him eventually – those Patterdale flapjacks have worked their magic. It’s good to have company again, even if neither of us are sure how many summits are left. But Paul’s much better at descending than me and I’m forced to let him go again. I’m pooped.
The weather is clearing, revealing teasing glimpses of Lake District oil paintings. The classic Lakeland weather has probably added 15 percent to my effort levels and my food has run out. Luckily I always keep an emergency gel stuffed somewhere in my Salomon pack.
But is it enough to get me to the next aid station? Nope. Suddenly my legs are powerless and heavy, my body feels empty and my mind floods with negative thoughts. The option of a good sit or lie down is so very appealing. I’m bonking. And not in the more appealing way I used to understand that word as a teenager.
I can spy the checkpoint way below though and I let gravity take me there. I’ve slowed and there’s no chance of re-catching Paul. Post refuelling, there’s a horrible climb up and I cling to tussocks and drink from a waterfall.
Despite feeling utterly battered – I’ve paced it all wrong again – the final descent is wonderful. Long grassy slopes to tumble down, with the huge Lake Windermere below, calling me on. Annoyingly one more person overtakes me, relegating me to sixth. But I care little by now. I’m broken.
But I’m soon beaming from ear to ear, as I scoff down tasty and nutritious nosh in the post-event cafe, exchanging stories and laughter with fellow runners. The race has been properly brutal, but properly exhilarating too, the perfect mix of fell running, ultra running and mountain travel, on what must normally be a deeply beautiful course. It’s destined to be a classic race. I can’t wait to see how good it all looks without the clag.
So what is Skyrunning? I learned it’s this: up in the mountains there’ll be a rocky knife-edge ridge and a perfectly good path nearby. You’re not allowed to take the path. You must instead go directly along the rocky, knife-edge ridge that will shortly have you whimpering and wanting your mum. And whenever you’re clinging desperately to a bit of rock like you’re drowning and trying not to cry too openly, up pops a photographer to take your photo. Skyrunning is awful and brilliant. I want more.
Notes on entering the Lakes Sky Ultra
The Lakes Sky Ultra takes place on some testing mountain terrain and entries are vetted for participant safety. Organisers ask that you’ve completed a race or run of a similar distance and severity to LSU in the last three years. “For example Lakeland 50, Keswick Mountain Festival 50km, 3×3 80km, V3K, Glencoe Skyline.” You’re also expected to have experience of scrambling in the mountains. If your experience level doesn’t quite stretch to that yet, fear not because the race has training weekends in May and June. For more information visit their Facebook page.