Borrowdale Fell Race

Saturday 3 August 2019.

The final race of my Summer of Fell Running project - My task for the day is to get through what is possibly one of the toughest English fell races on burnt out legs, lack of sleep and an unusual illness from the start of the week. Small disclaimer - this video may contain unnecessary details of personal health that non runners may find disgusting, but has been left in for context.

The Borrowdale Fell Race is an annual fell race held in August, starting and finishing in Rosthwaite. It is considered to be one of the "classic" Lakeland races and the route initially heads over Bessyboot before climbing England’s highest summit, Scafell Pike. Great Gable is then scaled before a descent to Honister Pass and the final climb up Dale Head. The distance is approximately 27km / 17 miles and the route has around 2000 metres / 6,500 feet of ascent.

Wadsworth Trog

The Wadsworth Trog is a 19-mile category BL (hilly and long) fell race over Wadsworth Moor near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. It is known for its energy-sapping boggy and muddy terrain. The only thing sapping my energy on this occasion was the snow covering the frozen ground, with the occasional surprise foot-in-bog. 

Most people start the year with the intentions of making a fresh start. Upon reflection 2018 was the most successful running year ever, over 2280km (+62000m elevation) compared to 2017’s 1466km (+29000m elevation). For some reason, rather than feeling ultra-pumped for another year of mileage I found coming into 2019 a rather daunting affair. So much so that I pretty much relapsed from the off with plenty of high mileage in terms of drinking and eating but very low running mileage and very little interest in going outside.

I guess it’s hard to explain but this lack of belief and diluted fitness turned into quite lacklustre performances in both PECO cross country races I took part in, followed by a slightly disappointing Stanbury Splash, a race I had been looking forward to for two years. I guess it’s easy to blame the cold spell, the weather or whatever, but in any other race I would have embraced everything that was put in front of me, I just wasn’t really enjoying my running. 

This may come to a shock to a few people as on the surface I’m generally a positive and sociable chap who generally won’t shut up.

Looking back, if January was there to serve one purpose that would have been to be to set the bar low, the absolute lowest. I was determined to take it as the stand-out worst month of the coming year, I couldn’t let it get worse than that.

Being invited to take part in the Wadsworth Trog after being on the waiting list was a huge relief for me. Judging by the popularity of that weekend’s three local sold-out races (the other two were Rombald Stride and Mickleden Straddle) I’m guessing this “get the hell out of January with a tough race” attitude is the same for many other people.

So here we are, on the second day of February. On Friday night I’m packed up and tucked away ready for an early drive over to the Happy Valley. Punxsutawney Phil must have predicted an early spring, the weather is absolutely amazing. Despite being around freezing I can feel the heat of the sun through the car window and the sky is blue and almost cloudless.

So we’re two happy campers driving over for the 10:30am start, except, well it’s a 10am start and the runners are lined up and ready to go as my co-pilot Jonathan of Kirkstall Harriers and I are waltzing into the cricket club getting our kit out for inspection and registration. Note: I swear I checked the website and saw 10am the previous evening, but considering I was the only one, that may have not happened! Not only that but I soon discover I am lacking a pair of waterproof trousers. That’s my first ever kit check fail. (To be clear as soon as I found out that I was missing kit I knew I wasn’t racing, no arguing: Dom can you have a look in the back of your car please?)

Jonathan is all ready to go and runs over to the start as the runners are setting off whilst I’ve pretty much given up the idea of racing and I’m thinking now I have time to go to the toilet and will go for a little jaunt. On my way back from the toilet the race director hands me a race number saying that one of the tail runners has a spare pair on him. How awesome is that?

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So I set off, it’s 10:15 and I have a 6-minute handicap, I’m following the footprints of the 186 runners in front of me. How many can I overtake? That is the new goal for the day. Up the first hill around 2km is where I first see the pack, black dots on a white canvas, the tops look like a big white cake; it is such a nice day, and at a few points in the race I wish I’d brought sunglasses.

Another excellent thing about this race and its marshals is that when I catch the tail runners who are unmarking the course ahead of me, they have clearly been informed, and before I know it, the trousers are in my pack. As slick as an Olympic relay. Race on, I’m legal! 

I hit the first steep descent which is where I catch the rest of the field, not the ideal situation but I carefully (and politely) overtake the back group of around five runners. Soon after the trails become narrow so pretty much all the overtaking can only be done at opportune moments, usually requiring me to go off piste in the six-inch-deep sapping snow.

The first 10km goes by and all is good. I have had problems with my hips and hamstrings recently due to transitioning from heel strike to forefoot style, but the constant buzz from overtaking the field is driving me at this point. So much so that an hour and a half has flown by and I had more or less found my place in the field with the first instance of being overtaken at around the halfway mark, oops, I have been overdoing it!

Once I find my feet the field around me starts to see-saw, some people overtaking me on the uphill, then slowing on the downs and vice versa and at one point a large group of us get lost after checkpoint 11 and have to heather-hop back on course. At this point I slow a hell of a lot and my left hamstring isn’t feeling too good, I think it’s gone and I am reduced to hobbling.

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The thought of having to walk the final 5k of a fell race in freezing conditions doesn’t sound appealing, and the irony of having to put on the emergency trousers enters my mind. No, this is only a bit of pain, I can carry on, maybe I’ll do a big stretch later, come on!

Fast forward to the final few kilometres and I’m back in the game, not sure what happened there, and after a few near falls on treacherous trail I finally take a fall, on the road. A two-metre power slide followed by a lovely cramp in my left calf bites me hard, I let out a ridiculous scream that startles a couple of nearby runners.

“You OK?”

 “Yes I’m fine, keep going, sorry I’m a very vocal runner.”My fuelling strategy for this race was to use Tailwind power/water mix with a single Torq Bakewell-tart-flavoured gel halfway. It was my first time using Tailwind and through the entire race I felt pretty good, and it was only really muscle fatigue that slowed me down towards the end. I think using this in longer distance runs is preferable to gels, though in very long trail/ultra-distance real food will always win. Jelly babies count too, and thank you to the marshal who left the Jellybaby box out, it was well received!

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Speaking of tail wind, I feel like I have one on the final climb, I am still able to run up that last hill overtaking a few chaps before entering the cricket ground for the victory lap. Maybe that burst came from was knowing I was close, although the marshal who told me we had a mile to go should be punished, it was at least two!  

Official time 3 hours and 55 minutes, 118th place. Had I been on time I’d have done 3 hours 48 minutes, that would have got me in the top 100. There’s always next year.

I’m absolutely knackered and so relieved to have completed the course. I feel like this event really helped me exercise those January daemons and I am so thankful to the organisers and volunteers for making it happen.

—Adam Nodwell

—all images by Woodentops