Running events are awesome. They give you a goal to work towards, a route to follow, a chance to share an experience with like minded runners and the possibility of achieving something you weren’t sure you could. If you’re lucky, you might even get some bling to take home at the end of the day. Sometimes, though, it’s refreshing to go back to basics and taste the sense of adventure that you can only truly get from going it alone. As I am currently dwelling on the fact that I’m injured, I realised that it was this time last year that I planned and ran my own route across the Lake District. Here’s the story….
THE SCHOOL RUN
Some things were just made to go together. Like tea and biscuits, fish and chips, meat and potatoes, gin and tonic. Those perfect marriages that no-one can deny. Then you have the unlikeliest of combinations that, against all of the odds, just seem to work. Like Ice and coffee, carrot and cake, chips and curry, Richard and Judy.
Running the gauntlet of a morning school run in Kent combined with the full on assault of a ‘Spider’ run in the depths of a Lake District winter all in the same day had the potential to fall into the latter category. Although, of course, it could quite easily slip rapidly into a third. The one I haven’t mentioned yet. The combinations that just don’t work at all.
And so it began. The usual morning madness, trying to fit several hours of toddler preparation into a half an hour window, I once again entered the fray of the early school run, racing to nursery, dropping off my daughter and skidding into the station car park with just enough time to launch myself onto a London bound train. Only, instead of heading to the office, I swapped that train for another one bound for Penrith.
Nearly four hours to reflect on what the hell I was doing later, I jumped into a taxi at the station. By this point, I had almost become detached from the enormity of the challenge ahead – kidding myself that it would just happen naturally, that it would all be fine.
I asked the cab driver to head towards Sockbridge and, using my GPS, directed her to stop in the middle of a country road near the tip of Ullswater. One strange look later, I left the car to stunning blue sky and a bitter winter chill, wading through deep banks of snow on the roadside to find a spot to get ready. I was in the middle of nowhere, stranded on the National Park boundary.
The logic to my actions becomes clearer when you understand the rules of the challenge I was undertaking. Called the Spider because it encourages participants to create a route and add it to a web of existing adventures (www.runthespider.com), the instructions were simple: start somewhere on the National Park boundary, pass through the centre (which is known to most people as Grasmere but to Spider fans as the “Fly”) and finish somewhere on the National Park boundary. The rest was entirely up to me.
After some final preparations, I stripped off my extra layers and crammed them into my now well stuffed pack, wishing I had done all of this from the warmth of the train. My cold numb hands reminded me that I needed to move.
My route for the day was a big one. I was running the length of Ullswater before skirting under Place Fell to Patterdale and heading through the valley of Grisedale and a final descent to Grasmere. It promised to be a tough 20 miles over ice and snow. It was the end of January and the 2.15pm start gave me a very small window of remaining daylight. For the sake of my sanity, I’d broken the challenge down into chunks and had convinced myself that it was just a case of getting to Patterdale. That was about 10 miles and I could take stock there.
The first few steps always feel strange – the reality of engaging in real physical effort to achieve something that has, up until this point, been purely hypothetical. My spikes gripped the icy road as I shot through Pooley Bridge and left the road behind to take in a section of path that skirted the upper banks of Ullswater.
I found my rhythm a few miles in and started to really enjoy the views of glorious snow covered mountains set against a brilliant blue sky. The road sections were mixed with some off road paths. Many times I thought (and hoped) I’d reached Hallin Fell and was left disappointed by the realisation that I still hadn’t. When I finally did, it felt like the first true achievement. I refuelled on an energy bar and some water and cracked on along the shore, taking an undulating track that skirted the fell on the lake side.
Just as I was entertaining some negative thoughts about my ability to get to Patterdale let alone Grasmere, Place Fell emerged on the horizon and I took flight on a second wind. It wasn’t long before I skirted underneath that welcome mountain and emerged in the calm of Patterdale.
Rejuvenated by a quick stop at the local shop to top up on liquids and trying to avoid the now less than tiny voice in my head advising me to call my friend Andrew (who was waiting in Grasmere and had a car), I pressed on, heading out onto open fellside.
As cramp kicked in on the wade through deep snow and some navigational issues halted my progress, I was clutched by a sense that I should turn back. An earlier text from Andrew suggested that the Kirkstone Pass was closed making me question his ability to collect me and I couldn’t quite decide what to do. I hesitated in the fading light until I was too cold to stand still any longer. I instinctively picked a direction. I chose the long way to Grasmere!
I found myself wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew as the running turned into wading through deep snow and I lost site of the main path that climbed to Grisedale Tarn. The light of my headtorch replaced daylight as a cold night gripped the landscape. I had to dig deep, switching off the senses and focusing only on one objective – to keep going.
The elation that came with reaching the tarn was replaced with a frustration of further climbing. Eventually, I emerged at the top of the col above the tarn and the bright and warm lights of Grasmere appeared on the horizon. I had a signal for the first time in hours and called Andrew. “I reckon another hour and I’ll be with you”, I guessed before setting off on the exhilarating downhill, allowing nothing to hold me back and throwing my frustrations of the climb into every step, skid and lunge as I used the snow to break and ploughed on. Half an hour had me in Grasmere and I trotted into the grounds of the hotel, exhausted but full of adrenaline from the descent and excitement at finishing. After 20 miles of tough Lakeland winter terrain, I’d landed on The Fly.
Day two started early. I was planning a late lunchtime departure from Oxenholme station and so needed to be efficient with my timings. I repacked my gear, checked out of the warm comfort of the Dale Lodge and started to run gingerly out of Grasmere in the bitterly cold light of morning. I made steady progress, shaking off the early aches and climbing to Loughrigg Terrace before negotiating the glass like ice that covered the steps on the ascent of Loughrigg itself. The ice was soon replaced by deep snow and I had a familiar feeling as I trudged, any chance of a running rhythm being lost by a constant drop and climb over the white stuff.
After a brief stop on the summit, I made quick work of the descent to Ambleside and crossed the town, joining the undulating track that runs under Jenkins Crag. The woodland path was a welcome change to snow and I tackled it with purpose before ghosting through Troutbeck. I was soon crossing fields on my way to a series of winding country roads that would ultimately take me to the National Park boundary just beyond Staveley.
It was soon a relentless struggle. Pounding the tar mac gave no room for distractions as I ran, wishing Staveley to appear. Eventually, I broke away onto small farm tracks that were ladened with ice and skidded my way onto the cold solidified mud that creaked and cracked as I crossed nearby fields. Then it was road again and the last section alongside the river, over the bridge at Staveley and onto the final push that took me to the National Park boundary.
Sheer elation was replaced with a satisfied tiredness that allowed me to dwell in a real sense of achievement as I strolled back to Wilf’s for some lunch. Particularly given the conditions, it had been a two day run of epic proportions. A true adventure that I would never forget.
I had to get home, though – I had the school run in the morning. Perhaps not something you would ordinarily try to combine with an endurance running challenge but, in the juggling act of life, when you have family commitments to uphold, sometimes you have to improvise. And let’s face it, it’s often out of necessity that we find something truly brilliant – that we are forced to put together one of those unlikely combinations that, against all odds, just seems to work.