The Great Lakes
“Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle...glug glug,” cried Mandy as she was mercilessly “laundered” by the River Esk. She later described it as “...like being in a washing machine”. How she would know I’m not sure but I think a washing machine experience would be far preferable to being bounced off rocks and rolled over and over like a rag doll. You should see her bruises! Fiona, who suffered a similar raging torrent experience, can match them.
The Great Lakes Run, a Lakeland Classic in the making, will be talked about for many years to come. It had been raining for days and was still hammering down when we registered in the barn at Stool End Farm. Clag obscured the peaks and hung in the valleys. It was definitely going to provide a navigational challenge. We joked about the river crossings. Race Organiser, Ian Barnes, didn’t. In a rousing do or die briefing he made it clear, with sergeant majorly gravity, that unless we knew how to look after ourselves in the mountains in dire weather we should hand in our dibbers and go home. “You’re responsible for your safety”, he barked, “you’ve got to look after yourself and look after each other. That’s what fell running is all about”. A round of applause followed. He captured the spirit of fellrunning, the essence of our sport which, many will argue, has been eroded by the risk averse claims culture which pervades our society. He warned us that the rivers would require great care. “It’s down to you to find a safe crossing place”, he chided, “even if that means climbing back up to Esk Hause”.
It didn’t feel too bad once we were running. Slippery rocks were the main hazard with the potential to get lost coming a close second. Many did. I’ve heard tales of runners ending up in Borrowdale and our own Dan Taylor was eventually “rescued” by a passing motorist from somewhere between Wrynose and Hardknott passes. One runner (later disqualified) managed to mistakenly miss out Scafell altogether. Even I was temporarily mislocated when descending off Slight Side and losing 15 minutes wandering around below Silverybield Crag, a kilometre south of where I should have been. The rocks were the cause of a good many injuries. One runner with an injured leg was escorted off Slight Side by a fellow club member (Colin Moses) down to the Woolpack Inn in Eskdale and deposited there to warm up by the fire while hero Colin ran back to the finish via the checkpoint on Pike a Blisco to complete the race. (and then drove back to Eskdale to pick up his team mate – who was by now no doubt completely inebriated).
The highlight of the race was the flagged route up a gully to Scafell. You could be forgiven for thinking, “What, up there!”, when looking up. A tumbling cascade of water engulfed the scramble. The easy hands on rock climb became an exhilarating 100m long shower. You just had to open your mouth to get a drink. The main river crossings of the Esk, Lingcove Beck and Oxendale Beck proved far more daunting. As I approached the River Esk with a group of five other runners it presented a formidable barrier. We had to cross to pursue our route towards the Crinkles. The brown swirling water looked deep and powerful. We saw two ahead of us cross together, nearly getting washed away as they lunged for the far bank. We formed a huddle of six and edged our way across like a 12 legged crab. It was nearly waist deep with the water piling up against us with the force of the current. Slippery boulders made for cautious progress. Suddenly the chap on my right lost his footing but we managed to hold onto him as, legs flailing, the river tried to propel him downstream. Then I slipped. I was under water but still grasping tight onto my compatriots. We somehow made the far side without losing someone and emerged dripping and breathless. I remember thinking, “Mandy won’t like that”.
Lingcove Beck, again in crab formation, fortunately proved slightly easier as, 100m downstream, impending death in the form of a raging waterfall waited any impromptu swimmers. After a nervous bumslide down the steep wet grass below Blisco wondering whether I could stop before hitting the rapidly approaching rocks the final river crossing near the finish was pretty tame. Avoiding the detour to a rope slung across the river upstream, I crossed by the dam in relatively slack water.
Tales of epic river crossings and rescues abounded at the finish. Dwayne recalled how he had dived in, Bondi lifeguard fashion, to rescue someone in distress. Despite the hardships of the race most were wearing big grins as they recounted their adventures. Some however wore a haunted expression; the thousand yard stare. Mandy and Fiona for instance. They'd arrived at the Esk together and had joined forces with another runner. The river had prevailed more or less straight away and swept them downstream tumbling them in its swirls and eddies. The chap made it to the far side and ran down the bank to try and help. Fiona was next out after a few hundred metres forging her way across in an unorthodox swimming style. Mandy continued to be pummelled for another hundered metres, doing her best to avoid the bigger rocks and a watery fate. Somehow the river pushed her towards the far bank and after several desparate lunges she managed to grab the grassy bank. Her new hat, best buff and all the food from her rucksack pockets were by now heading for the Irish Sea. Battered and bruised, and well hydrated, the two of them bravely pushed on to finish the race well ahead of many less navigationally astute runners.
What a race. What an adventure. I’ve heard debates about whether the race should have started, or the route altered. Was it a courageous or a foolish decision to stick with the full course? Opinions differ; I’m still not sure one way or another but I am glad I had the opportunity to pit myself against the mountains and the weather in truly tough conditions. There were a few “high risks” involved but everyone did look after each other, or at least tried to, and everyone returned in one piece... the spirit of fellrunning was seen in abundance.