Last weekend saw the now annual Valley Striders AC fell runners trip to a classic fell race. Last year it was a few nights camping in Rydal for the Fairfield Horseshoe, and this time a bunk barn excursion for one of the newer classics, the Duddon Valley fell race. Set in a quiet corner of the Lake District, it is also one of the most beautiful, or so I am told…as on race day there was heavy clag down to the valley floor. Having read the Pete Bland map description of the route there was a lot of reference to how tricky it can be to navigate in bad weather, cue some apprehension from fellow runners at the start…
The race started easily enough with winding trails through the forest and up onto Harter Fell and the first checkpoint. At this point things started to get tricky, with trackless terrain and zero visibility. I was with a group of 5 other runners fairly near the front of the field, who were going at a good pace and were confident of where they were heading. We descended down to Hardknott pass and on the road for a few metres (where the visibility was still terrible), then headed up to Hard Knott fell. I was starting to lag behind a bit and I knew if I was to get my compass and map out to take a bearing at this point I would lose them and be left on my own, so I took the decision to stay with them and try and keep up, after all they had done a good job of navigating us to that point. It was at this point our race unravelled! We took a trod track (what we thought was east) towards Mosedale Beck, but in actual fact traversed all the way around in a westerly direction and ended up in Eskdale, the wrong valley! Cue some discussion and a long slog back up the hill to try and retrace steps, but really with nothing to sight we could only set a rough easterly direction and head up and over.
Eventually we did descend down to Mosedale and only a few hundred metres short of the stile to take you up and over the beck and up to Little Stand. The section that should really have taken 30 minutes took an hour and a half, and we knew we were dead last by this point in the race! Tricky navigation continued to the summit and down to Wrynose road junction, with about 10 minutes to spare for the cut-off. Some of the other guys we were with decided to pull out there, which was understandable as we had done a lot of unnecessary miles and climbing, used up a lot of energy, still had over half the race to go and the visibility was still terrible. So that left myself and a chap from Scotland to run the rest of the race together, and we set off firmly with map and compass in our hands, taking far more time over our bearings and map reading.
The second half of the race was far less dramatic than the first, I enjoyed some good lengthy chats with David about races to do in Scotland, and was genuinely really enjoying the (now lengthy!) day out. That was until we struggled to find White Pike and the final checkpoint Caw, literally only 1 or 2 miles from the finish but still invisible. We felt like we had taken some accurate bearings but still took us an age to find them. Finally down into the finish and we crossed the line together in 6 hrs 07 minutes, well over two hours more than I was hoping for, 21 miles down (instead of 18!) and a hell of a lot of extra effort and ascent!
Its an obvious thing to say that you shouldn’t just follow the people in front of you, and you should always be responsible for your own navigation, which is absolutely right. If I was recceing a route I would always navigate myself, take my time and be confident in my ability to get where I needed to be. In a race situation that logic seems to go out of the window though and you make poor decisions like I did following other people, for which you absolutely only have yourself to blame when it goes wrong.
Despite coming in what is by far my lowest ever race position I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out and I keep telling myself those extra few hours on my feet are probably ideal training for some of the long races I have coming up soon (whatever!). I have a real determination to come back and run the route or race again as I imagine the views on a clear day would be spectacular, and I have always talked about trying to do the Lakelands Classic trophy (complete 3 of the 6 races in the series) so if not this year maybe in the next few years.
The next day it was bright sunshine and blue skies (always the way!) so most of the Striders took a walk up to Seathwaite tarn and a few of us donned wetsuits and went for a spectacular swim in a clear lake. A cracking end to a great weekend.