The Old County Tops has been a feature of the year for my friends and me since we first completed it in 2004. It’s a classic long fell race taking in most of the central Lakes and visiting the highest peaks in the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. At 36 miles and 10,000ft it’s a proper challenge but with 12hrs to complete it the skill is pacing and route finding as much as running speed.
We generally run a bit over the winter then build through the spring, moving out to running at Rothbury when the clocks change – all training geared to completing the OCTs, preferably faster than ever. Our high water mark was in 2008 when we got round in 9hrs 30min, although I’m prouder of the mug we won in 2011 as second fastest V80 team (the veteran category being determined by the combined age of the team). The race must be run in a pair so the choice of partner is important – inevitably one is weaker although that may swap as the race progresses.
For various reasons we (Nick, my team mate) haven’t done the race since 2013. I couldn’t in 2014 because of a family wedding and then broke my wrist in any case; in 2015 we were both injured or ill and in 2016 I just thought it was too soon after my neck surgery to be doing that amount of effort – we’re normally pretty broken at the best of times when it’s all over! Frustratingly we were going well in 2013, despite poor weather, but then got lost coming off Coniston Old Man and lost all the advantage and impetus we’d had. So would this year be the best ever?
Conditions should have been very favourable – dry underfoot, cool, clear. There were forecast showers and it was going to be cold but nothing that should be a problem. Since we last did this Nick has become quite obsessive about training and is much fitter than me at the moment. He also analyses all the data relating to the race and had come up with a schedule that he hoped we could follow and which would give us a good finishing time. This was also our last time as V90s – if the race was one day later we’d have been V100s!
It’s 9 miles to the top of Helvellyn and Nick knew exactly how long each mile should take. I was constantly being updated on our progress and despite being the rate limiting factor and feeling I was holding him back we got to Helvellyn bang on schedule. I wasn’t feeling so great though, not bad, just not great. We’d both done the Yorkshire Three Peaks fell race three weeks earlier and I began to wonder if my legs had fully recovered. Also, I’d been ill after the 3 peaks and I wasn’t sure I was fully recovered.
The run down off Helvellyn is brilliant – 2,500ft in 1.5miles it is straight down. Our years of experience has taught us the best route and sure enough we picked up a few places with our tested shortcuts. The checkpoint at the Wythburn car park offers welcome food and drink and we re-fuelled gladly. We were on schedule – 4.15 at Angle Tarn said Nick. One of my insoles had got a bit scrunched up on the descent so I stopped and sorted it out for a couple of minutes.
The next section is not fun – the Wythburn grinds on up but at least this time it wasn’t too boggy. We took a good line down and round from Greenup Edge and then over the hills to Angle Tarn. Often the focus is to get to the next checkpoint and I had made an effort to do it in good time but when we got there Nick looked at me and I could tell from his expression he was concerned about me. I thought I needed to eat so gradually fed myself as we trudged up towards Esk Hause. Trouble was I’d slowed right down and now it was really wet and getting colder as we went up. There’s a shelter just below Esk Hause and we stopped to put more clothes on. As we set off I suggested we wouldn’t be breaking any records today…..
Conditions worsened. That section up behind Great End is high and exposed and often unpleasant if the weather is poor. This day was cold too, really cold. With our slow pace we weren’t getting any warmer and then my legs cramped up. By the time we’d put our waterproof trousers both of us were shivering uncontrollably and my legs were so cramped I could barely walk. And that was it. After a brief discussion we bailed out. In the space of maybe 20 minutes we’d gone from being pleased with our progress to being seriously concerned about our well-being and although it was hard it was definitely the right decision. We weren’t the only ones either – I wouldn’t be surprised if a third of the field dropped out too.
As soon as we turned round and started heading downhill we felt better but it was still a long walk of shame and a long time until we warmed up again. Amazingly we didn’t get back to the finish before the winners but we did get to see the second finishers and Nicky Spinks break her own record for the women’s team. We don’t normally see the presentation either! At least we got home in good time and were still able to walk the next day.