The Three Peaks Fell race is a classic. It might be more like three fell races with a 10k trail race in-between, and I don’t know anyone who says it is their favourite route, but it has that certain feel of a race steeped in history that marks it out for me as the highlight of the fell racing year. 2017 was its 63rd edition, with 23 ish miles and with 4500 feet ascent/descent topping the three highest peaks in Yorkshire its certainly not a race to underestimate.
For the first time in as far as I can remember the weather this year was perfect, it hadn’t rained for weeks, it was mild without being too hot and very little wind except a helpful cooling breeze on the tops. Some fast times were expected by the elite runners…. (mens record before the race was 2.46, women’s was 3.14. Bear in mind the challenge for walkers is to complete in under 12 hours!).
I was feeling surprisingly good at the start, hanging on to the coat-tails of fellow Valley Strider Jon Pownall in a fast recce two weeks earlier had set me up. However six days after the London Marathon I was expecting to feel a bit sluggish, but it wasn’t the case and at the first checkpoint on the top of Pen-y-ghent I was a minute up on my split from two years ago when I last ran the race (in my PB of 3.39). And this small gap continued on the descent through to High Birkwith and the long flat mix of trails and road to Ribblehead. At this point you can pick up one of your drinks from the earlier bottle drop, which is unusual in a fell race but very handy with a pathless boggy slog up the highest peak in Yorkshire, Whernside approaching.
I took my time on the climb, having done this race three times before I know for me now is not the time to push the pace ridiculously, far better to get properly fuelled up with an energy gel, finish your drink and then get ready to hammer the last 9 miles. Mick Wrench had passed me and fellow London/Three Peaks “doubler” Tim Straughan was fast approaching, so on the top of Whernside I was a couple of minutes down on my 2015 splits, but I felt absolutely great, full of energy and ready for my usual forte of descending quickly, especially given how unusually dry it was. It started well and I was flying down and caught up with Mick, but didn’t progress much further. Halfway down the descent having negotiated the very steep and technical stuff I twisted my ankle on a really innocuous section. Usually when you wear low profile fell running shoes there is a certain amount of ankle roll that allows your foot to move naturally without causing any damage (unlike say a stiff walking boot). Unfortunately for me I rolled with my full weight on it, the first time it has ever happened to me in five years of fell running.
When that happens there is nothing you can do, it is game over and you can’t continue, so a 50 minute painful hobble back down to the checkpoint at the Hill Inn followed. Testament to the fell running ethos is the fact that nearly everyone who passed me as I hobbled back (probably about 400 runners!) asked or stopped to check if I was ok. I was able to cheer on the rest of the Valley Striders as they came past, and in those beautiful surroundings, with a cracking race going on, even in pain, I still couldn’t fail to enjoy it.
And so having finally reached and retired at the checkpoint by the road, I limped on board what all runners will face in their lives, but for me was the first time, “the bus of shame”. A mixture of torn bodies, dented egos, tales of what “might have been” and a rather unpleasant mix of smells for the return journey to the start at Horton in Ribblesdale. Although the journey starts after the cut-off passes at the checkpoint, so you have plenty of time to sit back on the bus and enjoy the pungent smell of failure……
Back at the finish and the mens winner was Murray Strain in 2hrs49m, somewhat of a surprise although past-winner Tom Owens went the wrong way whilst leading, and fellow Salomon international, previous champion and all-round nice guy Ricky Lightfoot had to retire at the Hill Inn too (at least I was in esteemed company!). In the women’s field the phenomenal Victoria Wilkinson broke the record with 3hrs09m and picked up a cool £500 extra in prize money. Some great performances from the Valley Striders too, in particular Ronan Loftus beating his dad Mick, and Tim breaking sub 4 hours little under a week after a sub 3 hour road marathon.
But for me it was a first ever DNF in a race, which is a shame as I felt I was on for a PB (if you don’t know what DNF or PB is, I am not sure we should be friends).
There is always next year though, and I for one am counting down the days…..