Lakes Sky Ultra
Saturday 12th September 2015
Why does it always rain on me? Or at least it does whenever I have a race in the Lake District. Saturday 12th September was the inaugural Lakes Sky Ultra, over 50km of highly technical mountain running and climbing - and definitely the best race route Iíve ever seen. After 2 weeks of dry weather in the Lakes, the day of the race was heavy rain and gusty winds over 50mph. Given that the route includes exposed scrambling sections like Striding Edge, the organisers were seriously considering changing to a bad weather course, but eventually let us run the full route (except for the grade 3 scramble of Pinnacle Ridge that was bypassed for safety reasons). My GPS stats show 35 miles with 15,000ft of vertical - a bit more vert per mile than the Bob Graham Round, and much of it significantly more technical. If anything, I found it even harder than the Bob Graham Round, perhaps because I hadnít expected it to be quite so extreme.
Below is a blow-by-blow description for those interested in all the gory details:
The route started in Ambleside at 7am, climbing for the first 5 miles to Fairfield (just under 3000ft), followed by a sharp 1000ft scree descent to Grizedale Tarn and then climbing back up to Helvellyn (3100ft). Then the fun really started: scrambling down Swirral Edge, over Catstyecam, and then another 1000ft scree descent to Glenridding Beck. A rough cross-country traverse was followed by a steep climb up to Hold-in-the-wall and then back up to Helvellyn along Striding Edge - and not by the easy route, it was right over the pointy bits. Scrambling and leaping over knife-edge rocks (with a near vertical descent on each side) is interesting at the best of times, but adding heavy rain and strong gusty winds makes it rather hairy!
After traversing the ridgeline to Nethermost Pike was a pummelling 2000ft descent down steep scree & heather interspersed with more runnable grassy sections. The 1000ft ascent up the side of St Sunday Crag started very steep, but then eased off a bit before following undulating terrain over Birks before descending 1500ft via Arnison Crag to Patterdale. Almost 20 miles and 6 hours in, this was the first feed station!
The route then climbed more gradually (2,200ft over 5 miles) past Angletarn Pikes to High Raise. In theory this bit was much more runnable - except for the legs being somewhat knackered by this point! Another spectacular 1000ft descent down Riggindale Crag to Blea Water, then steep heathery scrambling back up over Piot Crag to Mardale Ill Bell. About a mile of blessedly flat-ish running to Thornthwaite beacon, before another steep scree descent (only 500ft this time!) and then a bouldery scramble back up to Stony Cove Pike, and a relatively easy 1000ft descent to Kirkstone Pass. There was a second feed station here, but being so close to the finish I didnít stop for long.
The final ascent was 1000ft straight up the side of Red Screes. Although insanely steep on tired legs, the scramble up through Kilnshaw Chimney was a highlight of the day, and definitely somewhere Iíll go back to (on a nice day with fresh legs). The sun finally made an appearance just at I reached the summit (at 5pm), and the final 3.5 mile 2500ft descent into Ambleside was gloriously runnable.
So what went well? Planning a full day in the mountains in variable weather can be a bit tricky, but my kit choices turned out to be perfect. Just as with the BGR, my OMM Aether smock was brilliant - incredibly light, totally waterproof and windproof, and amazingly breathable - please forgive the advert! I ran the whole day in this with just a long sleeve T-shirt underneath, and never got too cold or too hot. I was also quite pleased with my split for the section to Patterdale - 5hrs44 for 19.4 miles with 9200ft of very technical vert (which definitely compares well to 6hrs for leg 3 of the BGR/BB, only around 16.5 miles and 7000ft vert).
And what went badly? Several thingsÖ Expectations, for a start. I knew Swirral and Striding Edges well, and although I was a bit nervous about Pinnacle Ridge, I thought the rest of the course would be ďeasyĒ after these. Definitely not the case! Much of the ascent and descent was incredibly steep (even compared with BGR climbs such as Clough Head and Yewbarrow) and extremely technical. I also misjudged my nutrition, starting with only 500mL of water, 1 chia bar and 1 pack of shot bloks. I assumed that there would be an opportunity to restock at the checkpoints, but most of these consisted of just a person with a dibber! It was obviously possible to rehydrate at stream crossings, but I definitely felt down on energy from lack of food for much of the race.
Finally, would I do it again? Definitely! Itís fair to say I went through more low periods than any other ultra Iíve done, but Iíll be better prepared (both mentally and nutritionally) next time, and the course is absolutely superb. Just hoping for better weather...