Race Report – Scafell Pike Trail Marathon
“Do you reckon you could run to the top of Scafell Pike”?” my brother asked? “Well it would be tough and would probably involve some walking but sure why not. Why do you ask?” I replied.
It was Christmas Day 2013 and the after dinner talk turned to challenges and difficult things to do.
“Well I have signed up to do the Scafell Pike marathon and, I need someone to keep me company”.
So the challenge was set, I went home that night and still slightly tipsy I signed up to do it. 27 (ish) miles and 6000 feet of ascent, what could possibly go wrong? It turns out my brother hadn’t signed up after all. Its alright he did a couple of weeks later!
Forward-wind a few months and its time for training to start. First some questions.
How do you train for a marathon with 6000 feet of ascent when there are not many hills around? You find the biggest one you can and then you run up and down it ALOT! Well that’s that sorted then.
Next question was how do you train for the un-relenting rough ground that the Lake District is famous for when you live in Berkshire? Answer you cannot.
So I went for the next best solution which is to go running a lot. That was great and I started to feel reallyu strong and fast and was pretty pleased with my training and then I started to get a niggly injury so backd off the training slightly. Then, 3 weeks before the race, that niggly injury got worse and 3 days before the race I suddenly couldn’t run half a mile, this may be a slight problem. The physio’s professional opinion “Well I can get you around but it will probably hurt”
What could possibly go wrong?
So onto the race.
If you have ever been to Keswick and the Borrowdale Valley you will know that from Keswick you can see up the length of Derwentwater and see the high mountains of the Scafell range in the distance. From Keswick you can basically see almost all of the outward leg and the inward leg stretched out before you.
The image below shows the route (faint red line) going out on the right of the image and coming back on the left.
Driving up from the South Lakes on the Sunday morning we left the house and the cloud was down over the Howgills with a heavy persistent drizzle coming down. This had the makings of a wet day out.
To get to the start there is a leg warming two mile walk or a jog if you are feeling like you need some more exercise for the day, which is just an added bonus for you. We joined the groups walking to the start line and got talking to various people hoping to get some insight into what the next few hours would be like. The general consensus was hard.
Once we got to the start line, there was a quick safety briefing, telling us what we could expect on the course, how it was marked and where it wasn’t marked and how to approach the final summit ascent and then we were wished good luck and off we set.
The race starts along perfect trail running tracks along the Western shore of Derwentwater with the classic family favorite hill of Cat Bells flanking the woods to the right. The next 4 miles passed by in a delight, the pack was quite compressed at this point and it felt like we were pulling each other along at a perfect pace. The track alternates through trees, through gates and down along the lake shore before emerging at the end of the Lake. At this point it strikes out across Water meadows towards the village of Grange. Just outside of Grange you hit one of the few road sections and this leads along an undulating route road into the little village of Grange which is where the first of the uphill sections starts. There was also a tri race going on as part of the festival of events and every so often one of the leaders on their bikes would come flying past us on their bike.
The route winds its way along a rocky farm track towards the little Wainwright of Castle Crag nestling in the jaws of Borrowdale with a fairly steep pull up onto the coll between it and High Spy. As the gradient increased and the track became rougher I had to ask myself an important question. “do I start walking already or do we continue to run at a slower pace”. Answer? Walk of course. This was the decision that the majority of the pack also decided upon apart from some of the knarly runners who continued to slog up the hill, well done to them!
At this point sweat was starting to pour into my eyes so a quick stop and I grabbed the buff that I had at the last minute stuffed into my bladder pack, bandana time. Yes I may look stupid but at least I could see.
We were soon at the top of the hill and the niggling injury started to signal its presence so a quick stretch and off I hobbled trying to regain a decent pace. The nice thing about this race was the friendly nature of it. If anyone is seen to be in any trouble, the pack looks after them, a couple of people as they passed asked if I was alright or made a joke about the stretches I was doing.
The route goes along a rocky path, over streams (or through them), and bridges, up and down drops before heading onto a velvety soft grass footpath heading steeply downhill. All the precious height we had just gained was lost as we descended onto the road that heads over Honister Pass.
The second long road section of the day then took us for a couple of miles into Seathwaite where the mountains started to rise up around us eventually culminating in Scafell Pike although this was still hidden from view with the tops of the mountains shrouded in cloud. Seathwaite is where the first feed station is and we took a moment to top up on water and grab some food that was on offer before heading along the farmtrack that leads out and up to the hills.
The next section follows the path gradually up until it reaches Stockley Beck bridge and the path becomes un-runnable to mere running mortals so a 1 mile slog of one foot in front of the other until the gradient starts to ease and the path along the river bed becomes largely run-able. I fell into conversation with someone along here which always helps and we were soon rounding the corner and onto the flatter section following the riverbed. The route then goes across a planked footbridge before the last section up to the Coll at Styhead.
I got talking to another runner around this point and the usual question, “have you done this before” was met with a slight laugh and a “no but I marshalled last year, didn’t mean to but they roped me in whilst I was spectating for my wife!”. This sums up this marathon perfectly, friendly with a slight feeling of lets go with it and see what happens. Of course I am sure that it isn’t really like that and I dont mean to do dis justice to the organisers who must have a hell of a task on their hands not only running a mountain marathon in some of Englands suggest terrains with a real risk of death but, they also put on a 10k and a half marathon event at the same time. They get the balance just right!
All of a sudden out of the mist and clag, Styhead tarn came into view and I knew from the map that at this point the stretcher box should be at the top of a brief rise.
At the check point, I dibbed into the check point and the very friendly marshall said “dont go down that way as thats downhill to Wasdale, run in that direction till you get to a flag and then take a right and you will be on the corridor route”. Right, that sounds sensible. The corridor route is a narrow path that runs beneath the flanks of Great End and Broad Crag and with only a few sections where you can run, in fact one part you have to down climb whilst taking care not to fall into the ravine of Piers Gill. So off we set across the flat land of Styhead till we reached the first red flag and then a quick turn to the right and we were on the corridor route. Turning round it looked like I was the pied piper of Hamilton with a group of people following me. I suddenly felt responsible, what if we were on the wrong route and I was leading them down into Wasdale? Turns out we were on the correct route but the path started to increase in angle so I dropped to a walk again.
This section was amazing, no other words for it, apart from knackering. Amazing and knackering that about sums it up!
From here the route is up hill (of course) to Lingmell coll before the final assault on the flanks of Scafell Pike, where you climb 800 feet in just under a mile before topping out at the summit of Scafell Pike marking the half way point (ish). All I could think of at this point with the mist swirling around bringing cairns in and out of view and patches of blue sky skidding across revealing sunshine and then hiding it again, was that it was like the final scenes of Lord of the Rings, you know the bit where they climb up onto Mount doom just without the Eye of Sauron chasing me.
At the top now, the summit cairn, I dibbed into the checkpoint, took an opportunity for a quick photo stop and then start running in the direction the Marshall pointed us in. Now I say run but what I mean is a bouldery hop as the top of Scafell Pike is not a place you can run unless you want to break your leg.
The route then drops like a stone to the col between Scafell pike and Broad Crag before heading back up again. At this point, my Right leg started to cramp up, funny it was my right leg and not my injured left leg but at least the left one was holding up (ish).
The next section can only be described as bouldery rock hopping until the path swings around to the right to avoid Great End is reached and the path becomes runable down to Esk Hause where another check point is situated. From here, the path turns back under the impressive crags of Great End and down down down past Sprinkling Tarn to return to the first check point at Sty head. I had now run out of water and my mouth was parched. The feed station was 1000 feet below me in the valley so streams would have to do. It seems others had the same problem as there was quite a crowd of us filling water bottles and drinking out of cupped hands.
The route then goes back down the way it went up, and my mind was beginning to get tired now. I needed food and I needed water! The feed station at Seathwaite had been handing out Cola on the way up and I was fantasizing of a nice drink of Cola but when I got down there they had run out, oh well never mind. I filled myself up on lots of water, peanuts and chocolate shortbread, nice.
Now the real hardwork began, the mental race.
Mentally, I had been focusing on just getting to the top of Scafell Pike but I also knew in my mind that we had another thousand or so feet of climbing to do between now and the finish at least and it was pretty much all concentrated in one section, the climb up to Watendlath Tarn.
Trying to get going again after stopping for food and water and with my mind not straight meant that the next few miles were a combination of setting myself small goals like “run to the gate on the other-side of the field and then you can walk for ten paces”, “you see that white house? Run to that then have a break”. This worked to a point before I started to feel sick and needed to sit down and compose myself. After a mental slap I was off along the beautiful tracks along the bottom of the valley including one section which skirted a river bank and had a chain which was supposed to be used to aid progression across a small rocky slab. this is definitely not your usual race!. We passed by a small coffee shop and the people all sitting outside were all giving their encouragement as was a man standing in a carpark just opposite it, this is always something that cheers you up and gets you going again. We rounded a corner and the marshall said that we need to turn left and then immediately right and climb the hill, great! This was the sting in the tail, over 800 feet of climbing in a mile along a gravelly track with the sun beginning to shine again. There was no way was I going to try and run up it actually, there was no way I could run up it, so 20 minutes of steep walking found me at the top.
The next section was a dream to run, with a nice downhill section towards the remote hamlet of Watendlath (an excellent tea shop is located here by the way, not that we stopped in there) and the path then followed along by a stream and rose up steep ascents on rock slabs before plunging down again to continue across small bridges over streams. It wound its way in and out of trees, before finally settling down along a river and took us over more small bridges and board walks before finally treating us to a cheeky rocky section before the final feed station just over a footbridge over the river. During this section I managed to get a fairly decent rhythm going, it wasn’t fast but it was a running rhythm which is something that I hadn’t experienced in what seemed like hours.
The last checkpoint was situated next to a bridge and on offer they had an assortment of the usual calorie packed chocolate, nuts, bananas and erm, pork pies. Needless to say at this point my stomach did not like the thought of eating a pork pie and it was only 3 miles to go, heck I could run this in 30 minutes at a slow pace. So off we set again. straight away the track began to rise slightly and my pace slowed to a fast walk. It felt like any incline at all was impossible or maybe it was the restarting of running I didn’t like? The route then followed another stunningly run-able route through a wood before emerging out on the last section of road that we would have to run on and this took us all the way down to Ashness Bridge and beyond before quite possibly the most perfect track I have ever run on was presented to us. We ran on an undulating path through Gorse bushes, bracken and trees with the sun on our faces and, the scenery of Derwentwater to our right. From this vantage point you could see all of the first lake section of the route which seemed like an eternity ago.
The final mile and a bit seemed to go on and on but in reality we were only just around the corner from the finish. Turning the second to last corner we found ourselves on the road that leads past the jetties for the boats and the crowds there were still cheering us on which is always nice to hear at the end of a race just to get you through those last few moments.
One last slight incline a turn left through the gates with some more lovely cheering people and there was the finish line, 27.6 miles on the GPS and lots of hills under the belt and we had made it. What a day. Our time just under 7 hours twenty minutes) was never going to be a fast one but that wasn’t the aim for me of this race, it was more of an experience. Would I like to have run more rather than walking large sections? of course I would but on reflection given that I couldn’t run half a mile 2 days before the race due to my injury I was very pleased to just finish it.
I know this review has many passages and phrases such as the “best running trail” or the “most beautiful path” but to be honest the whole route is a series of amazing running trails connected together that make you feel privileged to be able to run them. from the lake shore running alongside Derwent Water to the iconic Corridor Route and from the path down from Esk Hause under Great End to the beautiful riverside path from Watendlath and the final path through the heather and bracken, each is stunning and as amazing to run on as the next. I definitely plan on returning next year and if I beat my time, great if not then I will have had another great day out.