Wednesday, August 8, 2012

UK Fell Racing


When I lived in the UK over 12 years ago, there were a clutch of fell races I would try to run every year. These were generally longer and more challenging events ("Category A") over the highest mountains with plenty of feet of total ascent. They covered beautiful terrain. They included...

Stuc a Chroin - Callendar, Scotland
The Welsh 1000m Peaks - Wales
Llanberis Horseshoe - Wales
Sedbergh Hills - English Howgills
Three Shires - English Lake District
Borrowdale - English Lake District
Ennerdale - English Lake District
Wasdale - English Lake District

If there was a way I could coordinate a business trip back to the UK with one of these fell races I would do everything possible to make that happen. Of course, there were many more outstanding races, but these held a special appeal to me.

I recall running the Ennerdale Horseshoe in the mid 1990's. At 23 miles and with almost 8000ft of ascent, this is a serious "Category A" fell race.

There are serious reasons for me particularly recalling this race, which will soon become apparent. The mountain summits of High Stile, Haystacks, Green Gable, Kirkfell, Pillar and Scoat Fell likely don't mean that much to my US readers, but these are names that inspire and motivate whole generations of walkers, runners and climbers. As single day destinations these mountains represent a great day out. As part of a single race they represent one of the most challenging events on the UK fell running calendar.

Starting at Ennerdale Bridge the race takes a clockwise direction in the above photo and crosses all the mountain tops that are visible...and a few that aren't...before returning back to the bridge. It is a stunning race. The photos at the following link provide a good idea of the terrain.

This view from Pillar Rock (of great significance in the account that follows) shows the trail along the mountain tops on the final stretch of the race leading back to the lake in the distance.

The Ennerdale race takes place in late June. There is a good reason for this - earlier or later in the year and weather conditions would make this a very dangerous event. Most of the Category A events take place from May through least in the high mountains. For this particular race I showed up at the start on a cool and cloudy day. There were about 70-80 runners in the field, smaller than I expected, but given the weather it was no surprise.

I knew quite a few of the runners. By "know" I mean that I knew some of their names and had seen many of them before at other races. It was a familiar feel. There were others I had no clue about...individuals that I had probably competed against before but never recognized...or our paths had never crossed. It was the usual mixture of individuals brought here by similar passions and motivations.

Although there are exceptions, the UK fell runner is predominantly thin, wiry and hardy. With the smell of joint linament and embrocation cream thick in the air, we all huddled against the cold wind at the start line for the customary warnings about safety in the hills and then we were off. A small group of elite runners usually stretch away quickly and I knew that today I would be spending most of my time running on my own. With low cloud cover navigation (my strong point) would definitely come into play and I knew a lot of runners would make mistakes and that I would make up time.

The rain started before the first climb and the small group I was running with all pulled out their rain jackets, hats and gloves and tried to make the best of the English mid-summer weather. These first few miles were miserable and it was definitely going to get worse.

I won't describe all the gory details. There were radio checkpoints on some of the key summits and it was clear that some runners were "missing" having taken wrong turns. It was understandable. Visibility was really poor and there were so many sheep trails that looked like walking trails that it would be easy to miss a junction and end up at the bottom of the wrong valley or the top of the wrong mountain - mistakes that could add hours in time to correct.

But I want to describe my crossing of Pillar Mountain.

Pillar requires care in fine weather. It isn't especially dangerous if you keep on track, but it is extremely rocky. I don't know whether the sleet and snow started earlier in the race, but I do recall encountering ground cover as I ascended Pillar. I had been running on my own since the very first summit - I had neither caught anyone, nor been passed - yet I knew I was making reasonable progress. I had about 6 miles to go. It was cold and the icy rain/snow was stinging my bare legs and face. I just needed to get over Pillar and I knew I could pick up the pace back to the finish on slightly lower ground.

There were three race marshalls at the summit with radios. I had to admire these volunteers for braving these awful conditions. I tagged the summit and started picking my way carefully down the rocky switchbacks. I was slipping and sliding and it was slow going. I couldn't see any footprints, which was a little disconcerting. The race marshalls had told me the last runner passed by about 20 minutes earlier and that no more than 10 runners has passed in total. Wow, a potential top 10 finish on what was a fairly short race distance for me.

It was the bright red color against the patchy white snow that first caught my attention. Having spent so long in dense cloud and rain, a momentary separation in the clouds was a big event and, for a few seconds, I got a view of a few hundred yards and could pick out my route before the cloud closed in again. The bright red was to one side of my line of sight and it was about 30 feet below the trail in a rocky gulch. Instinctively I knew there was a problem but the cloud closed in and I wasn't able to see any detail. I carefully worked my way down to the gulch.

"It" was a fallen runner. An 8 inch shard of shin bone had ripped through the skin and this poor runners lower leg was at right angles to the remainder. It was, without doubt, life threatening. There was blood everywhere. The runner was drifting in and out of consciousness. I couldn't tell whether he had fallen ascending or descending. He was definitely off trail and if any runners had passed by they wouldn't have seen him through the dense cloud. It was difficult to tell how long he had been there.

I'd been in similar situations before. As an 18 year old, mountaineering in the French Alps, I tended to a German climber who had fallen a few thousand feet down a rock wall, seeing him die before help could be brought. A year later, in the same mountain range, I had carried an Italian climber 2 miles across a glacier after he had been struck by rockfall. He survived.

I took off my waterproof jacket and wrapped it around his torso. I then ripped off my teeshirt, found a medium sized stone and tied it across his groin to stem the artery. The short pulses of blood oozing from his gaping wound seemed to slow. I left his leg alone - if I messed with that the pain could cause fatal shock. He was in a terrible state. The radio checkpoint was about 400ft above us on the summit. Calling out was useless in the high wind. There was no option but to leave him and scramble back to the race marshalls and summon help on the radio.

I covered the ground at a frenetic pace. All the time I kept telling myself that I would be no help if I also became injured. It must have been a shocking sight on the summit. I was wearing a pair of shorts and nothing else. I hadn't realized that blood had spurted from the wound and across my chest, but the marshalls, after initially thinking it was me that was injured, reacted quickly. One began the radio transmission and the other two followed me back down the mountain. There was little any of us could do other than comfort the runner and try and keep him warm.

I don't know how long it took, but an RAF rescue helicopter arrived and lowered a team on the summit.   They arrived next to the runner and efficiently packaged him into a protective blanket and strapped him to a rescue stretcher. We helped escort him back to the summit and the chopper circled back and lifted him away. That was it.

I had no concept of lapsed time. I do remember rationally assessing my situation and thinking I could be in trouble myself. I had expended a lot of physical, emotional and psychological energy on top of about 18 miles of extreme running in appalling conditions. My clothing and spare gear had disappeared with the airlifted runner. I needed to get back to the valley quickly. Just as I began the descent again from Pillar, a small group of runners arrived at the summit. They were quickly appraised of the situation by the marshalls and added me to their group. One of them loaned me his jacket. They would pace me to the finish.

At first I could barely keep up with them. I was shivering with cold and finding it hard to concentrate...both signs of exposure. They kept talking, kept encouraging me and, to be honest, were the only reason I made it back in a decent shape. I can barely remember any of it. The final, steep descent down mud and grass was largely done prostrate and I was filthy and caked in mud at the end. By now the rain had stopped, the cloud base had lifted a little and it was no longer as cold. What snow had fallen on the mountain slopes had either melted or turned into rain.

I remember being checked out at the hospital in Egremont, but I don't remember how I got there. I had mild exposure, was warmed in a bath, given some refreshments and after a few hours was free to go.

I found out the name of the injured runner and was told he was recovering in the hospital. He needed an operation to save his lower leg, (which was successful). I spoke with his running party and left them my name and number and I also called the hospital when I got home and each day for the next few days. The updates were encouraging. He was released the following weekend although it took him a full year before he was able to run  again. He never called me once to either talk to me or to thank me for saving his life. I didn't help him with that in mind - it was purely instinctive on my part - but I found his behavior strange. By way of contrast, I bought drinks and offered profuse and genuine thanks to the runners who helped me - I knew only too well that they saved me from a potentially difficult situation and I was extremely grateful.

I was back the following year at Ennerdale to experience again this magnificent event. I really miss it.

No comments:

Post a Comment