It’s 10pm. We have been listening to the rain get heavier for the past half hour, growing in volume on the car roof as we try to catch a paltry bit of rest before the long night ahead. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never wanted to do anything less than this race, and I’m pretty sure that Louisa feels the same way. Despite the fact that we’ve managed to go on a grand total of one training run together, and get completely lost in a part of the Peak District we’ve both been for probably over a hundred runs in, it isn’t the running fitness, or the navigational challenge ahead, that is really worrying me. It isn’t even the weather, forecast to feel like around minus ten with windchill, and be a pleasant mix of heavy snow and forty mile an hour winds all night. Nor is it really the challenge of staying up for the next eight-plus hours without any aid from artificial stimulants, or the headcold I woke up with that morning. If the truth be told, the main reason I don’t want to start is because Ben’s car feels unreasonably comfy and I don’t want to make myself uncomfortable.
Since that’s never really been a good excuse we somehow manage to convince ourselves to dress – buff, hat, another buff, baselayer, merino layer, other warm layer, waterproof, thermal leggings, waterproof trousers, waterproof socks that the man in the running shop in Sheffield somehow convinced me were worth £28, running shoes, headtorch, and the desperation measure of my winter climbing gloves rather than the winter running gloves I’ve discarded as not really up to the job tonight. Then to make sure our bags are packed: sleeping bag, emergency bivi bag, storm shelter, sleeping bag, roll mat (hoping not to have to use any of these items, which essentially means you’re carrying a fun amount of extra weight around the hills all night). Also: spare layer, another spare layer, spare headtorch batteries, stove, gas, spoon, water bottles, jelly babies, mini pork pies, pepperami, and a token sports gel to make it feel slightly more like I have the diet of an athlete. Compass, whistle. Some spare gloves. Is that about it? Hope so. Sainsbury’s Max Strength Cold and Flu Tablets – one last piece of the puzzle.
We manage to arrive at the start line a couple of minutes late for our 10.30 set-off time, so the whole process of moving through the HQ tent, getting to the start, being handed our map for the night and starting off into the increasingly heavy downpour goes by in a slight blur. Before we know it we are sheltering (having not quite committed to being drenched just yet) under the archway at the entrance to Lowther Castle attempting to formulate a vague plan of where we are going to run over the next eight hours.
In standard mountain marathon format, there are more checkpoints scattered over the map than our unprofessional fellrunning legs could hope to carry us to within the time limit, and our conversation becomes a discussion about how to at least make sure we don’t end up with negative points at the end of the night. We decide to ignore the checkpoints on the east of the map for now, hoping those alongside Ullswater will be easier to navigate around considering the presence of a huge lake on one side of the path, which if we find ourselves in, we have probably gone the wrong way. The lower level checkpoints sound more tempting for the first half of the night as well, as the forecast shows the heavy rain/sleet/snow combination easing off as the night goes on, and so we retain some hope of running the higher ridge lines in slightly better than whiteout conditions later on in the night.
The run begins out of Lowther Castle through the village of Askham, heading onto the slopes of Askham Fell to enter the Lake District proper and the terrain of the higher mountains. Our map is scattered with names I grew up on during family holidays at Ullswater, in Patterdale – Hallin Fell, Beda Fell, Place Fell and High Street have long memories for me and the location of this particular Dark Mountains was one of the reasons I chose to do it this year. The other main reason was that the race is taking place on my birthday, and I tend to think that if you start the year by doing something pretty unpleasant, the only way is up. At any rate, a January’s night is a completely new way to experience this landscape that I love, and I am excited in a sceptical kind of way.
The night could start better. We manage to make a navigation error straight out of the first checkpoint and find ourselves in driving sleet on a hillside not entirely sure where we are, but entirely sure that we should be on quite a large path and we have no large path in sight. We think we are somewhere near checkpoint 207 (later we realise we were quite a lot further north than that), backtrack, spot some headtorch lights in the distance, have a discussion about how we aren’t really sure where they are going, backtrack a bit more, and eventually hit the path we apparently ran over without realising half an hour before. It’s a bit demoralising to go so wrong so quickly but now we’re back on track we joke about it – it’s a good job we aren’t trying to win this thing – and come across the next checkpoint we are aiming for (a stone circle) relatively quickly. This is a bonus for Louisa, who recently decided that she’s going to try and visit every stone circle in the UK. One more off the ticklist.
The hours pass quicker than predicted and we have to keep reminding ourselves to eat and (in my case) take my flu medication, which seems to be working quite well. There are a lot of things to think about apart from my sinuses, after all. We make our way down to the shores of Ullswater via some checkpoints, wind around Hallin Fell and on to Martindale, and start climbing as the rain begins to ease off. Navigational errors seem pleasantly thin on the ground, and the atmosphere is incredible – as we look back towards the mountains from the lakeshore, beams from headtorches speckle the landscape at all elevations, making us feel slightly less like we are alone on the hills on this dark January night. We run with some other women from our score class for a while until we realise just how experienced they are, get a bit intimidated, and successfully give them the slip around the Howtown checkpoint so we don’t have to feel like we are holding them back any longer.
From Martindale we begin to climb to spend the second half of the night on the tops. The rain turns to snow, albeit lighter now, and the sky has started to clear as the forecast promised – we spend a long time waiting for the welcome sight of the moon to emerge from behind clouds. It lights the fresh snow on the ground and everything feels suddenly a bit less intense. We are over halfway round, we have been getting our navigation spot on, and it’s all not really quite as grim as we were expecting it to be, despite the terrible conditions. We might actually be having fun.
We make it up onto the High Street ridge that leads to Loadpot Hill after bumping into a fellow Sheffield friend at a checkpoint at a ruined barn. The climb feels pretty long and tiring through tussocky snow-covered grass as we’ve managed to lose the path again, and once on the ridge as we stop to put on extra layers to cope with the windchill I realise that my bag has pretty much frozen shut – a testament to the number of layers I’m wearing that I didn’t really notice it being quite that cold enough for that to happen!
By now we’re quite tired, it’s around 3.30am and we’ve been out in the hills running and walking for five hours. We jog and walk along the ridge looking at the headtorches shining in the surrounding landscape and visit a second stone circle of the night for another checkpoint. All in all, we are on track to be back at Lowther Castle bang on our eight hour time limit, and feeling relatively positive. Of course, that’s when we stop paying attention to the navigation again, and soon we realise that whilst we’ve been pretty happily convinced for a while that we were going north east, our compasses prove we’re actually going south east, and probably have been doing so for a while. Later on looking at the GPS trace of where we went we realise that this error brought us within probably a hundred metres of another checkpoint we could have ticked, but we had no idea at the time. Probably should have been paying a bit more attention to the compass and a bit less attention to the self-congratulatory talk about how well we’d done with our navigation over the course of the night.
Trying to get back on track at the end of an eight hour romp through the dark in the mountains in wintery conditions proves to be relatively tiring as the clock ticks round to half past five and we find ourselves thigh deep in bog following a compass bearing towards what we hope will be our path back to the finish line. I think at some point during this section of the race I tell Louisa that I am quitting running, and she helpfully reminds me that I had actually said that before without following through, so she probably wasn’t going to take it too seriously. After a big of a slog, where the fatigue threatened to hit until I discovered that my jelly babies had turned into frozen sugar sweets and managed to shock myself awake by eating most of the packet in one go, we manage to get ourselves back on track and it turns out that we actually had completely nailed the timing. After a bit of a tiresome run down the road through Askham back to the castle (where we suddenly remembered we’d been planning to sing Les Misérables through in its entirety over the night, and had to cram it into the last five minutes), we cross the finish line with four minutes to spare. Not bad over the course of eight hours.
Everyone at the end is very friendly and we manage to meet up with some friends who had also run in our score class (and done considerably better than we had done) and amongst the standard chat of comparing route choices and talking about how good a night it had been, we make it to breakfast then back to Ben’s car for an hour’s sleep whilst we wait for him to return.
Overall, it’s probably not an experience I would want to repeat every weekend, but it was utterly special, surprisingly enjoyable, and I’ll be attending again for sure. Everyone at Marmot and on the organising team put on an absolutely incredible event, really well organised, friendly and utterly bonkers – basically everything that a fell race should be. Louisa and I left with slightly more confidence in our abilities to be in the mountains in ridiculous conditions, one more mountain marathon under our belt, and a vow to improve on our ranking next year.