The Scafell Skyrace comprises of 42km (ish) with 3000m (ish) of ascent and descent, following a point to point course that traverses some of the very best landscapes of the English Lake District, including England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike. It is a beautiful and truly tough test of endurance, and it came close to breaking me.
I drove up to the Lakes, leaving home early on the Saturday morning and arrived at the University of Cumbria in Ambleside at lunchtime. The race headquarters were situated on the small campus, and I had booked accommodation in the student halls of residence there. I got there early enough to get out for a short hike/run, and went up the fells to see the early finishers of the Lakes Sky Ultra come in. Their exhausted faces told a tale that I should probably have listened to more closely.
Kit checked and race briefed (warnings of limited water on the course, and an agreement to waive the waterproof trousers and headtorch from the required kit), I had an early night in the tiny bedroom, which was sweltering in the heat as the window would only crack open.
The morning saw us loaded onto buses in Ambleside to be taken to the race start in Borrowdale. I was lucky to sit next to a very friendly woman who chatted easily the whole trip and took my mind off the race ahead. The start of the race was quick, out onto the road and then along a track, before starting the climb that would lead to Windy Gap and eventually the start of the ascent to Scafell Pike. Very soon after starting, I didn’t feel great. My legs ached and my feet felt numb, and in my head I didn’t want to be there. I had started towards the front of the women but quite soon I had to slow down a lot and try to get myself in a place where I could find a rhythm and relax into the race. I felt worse watching so many people pass me, but it was either that or drop out completely and I wasn’t ready for the self-hatred that would bring! I knew there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me, I just, for some reason, was in a bad mind-set at that moment in time.
As often happens during long races, as time passed the sensations changed. I love climbing, and the ascent to Scafell suited me and allowed me to relax a bit and start to feel better. The clag had come in and it was misty and cool, obscuring the views but keeping us from struggling too much with our limited water supplies. The boulder fields on the traverse to Bowfell were tricky and, for me at least, totally unrunnable. Over Bowfell, the so-called Climbers traverse was an extremely daunting prospect, including a dizzying descent down the Great Slab, around 200m of sheer granite. I got down, and finally found my feet on the less technical descent the rest of the way into Langdale.
I was shocked to see that nearly five hours had passed, and the intermediate checkpoint cut off was tight – I had to be there in 5:45. I have never in any race before had to worry about not making cut off times. I had completely run out of water before getting there, but I got in with over ten minutes to spare. It was a huge relief to refill my bottles and stuff some malt loaf and almond butter down my throat; until then I’d had one gel and one home-made date and coconut ball, plus a bottle of quite strong Tailwind. Energy-wise I actually felt OK but I knew I was heading towards being dehydrated and my two bottles were unlikely to be enough.
The next section was a steep climb back up to the summit of Harrison Stickle, and despite having felt so unequivocally awful at the start of the race, suddenly after nearly six hours, I felt great. I got up quickly, pushing hard. The sun had come through and the summit was beautiful, with views across the lakes. I knew I had to hustle to make the final cut off, which was nine hours or 6pm. The last truly technical section of descent negotiated, and I was able to run. I had around ten miles left, and two hours on the clock. The beautiful, rolling, grassy tracks suited me, as the trail skirted past shining tarns, and climbed up again to the top of Silver Howe. The volunteers there told me I looked good and that if I ran well I could make the cut off. Dropping down again over scree and then eventually through a ferny labyrinth, I was still hopeful. Hitting a road crossing where there was water was a huge relief as I had run dry, and had a pounding headache from dehydration. The volunteer there told me that the cut off had been extended by 30 mins (a wise decision, as otherwise only around 10 women would have finished), giving me exactly an hour to cover 8 kilometers. The race was on!
Running as hard as I could for someone who had been out there for eight and a half hours, I hustled myself up the very final hill of the day. I tried to fold my poles away but found my hands had no strength to press the button that released them. I had to carry them. Never mind. Through the final checkpoint at Lily Tarn and I was close, so close! I hit the tarmac with around 6 minutes to spare and about a mile of downhill running to do. I went as hard as I could, and finally got to the entrance of the campus, where cruelly the finish was situated, up a few hundred metres of steps. Up I went, and made it in exactly 9 hours and 30 minutes.
It was a truly brutal race, and I struggled far more than I thought I would. But I am probably more proud of this finish, for all its mediocrity in time and placings, than I am of any win, because I truly had to fight for it, and I didn’t give up, even when the cut off looked impossible to make. We do these races to test our bodies in extremity, and this race did that and more. A day in the mountains changes you, and this day tested me and for once I was not found wanting. I wish I could figure out why I felt so bad at the start, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact of the finish and the process of moving through the landscape to get there. Everything else is just details.