I've done a fair stock of racing and fell walking in my time. Dozens of marathons, 10Ks, fell races, cross country, the Fellsman and Lakeland 50, I've even ticked off all 214 of Wainwright's fells. I rarely feel a flutter of pre-race nerves, so why was I completely on pins in the days and hours leading up to the Old County Tops?
Well for a start this event is epic. At 37 miles with 10,000 feet ascent the stats speak for themselves. It may not be the longest race I've done, but when you realise the Three Peaks has a mere 4,700ft ascent, the Lakeland 50 around 9,000ft, and the Fellsman 11,000ft (but an extra 34 miles to ease out the gradients) it throws the amount of climbing on the OCT into stark relief. It's literally like doing two-and-a-half laps of the full Tour of Pendle but up some proper mountains!
The route itself is scarcely imaginable and the fact that it straddles all four standard OS Lake District maps says it all. If you were thinking of having a day on the fells, either running or walking, you wouldn't even contemplate linking up the old county tops of Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Coniston Old Man. Throw in miles of bogs, tussocks and boulder-strewn summits for good measure and you get the picture. The Old County Tops is like the twisted bad big brother of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.
As with most of these silly events, entry hinged on an alcohol-infused conversation with my running buddy Chris Campbell back in February. I was very slowly coming back from a cycling injury and conscious I needed to start planning some hilly miles ahead of the Lakeland 100 later in the year. Meanwhile, Chris had been bashing out long events pretty much throughout winter and was in great form. I think I should have smelled a rat right there and then! But with the Dutch courage of a few ales, the plan was hatched and within the week Mr C had sent off our entry (the OCT is a pairs only event for safety reasons).
Fast forward a few months and it's the eve of the OCT. I'd gradually been building back some fitness having done Darwen Half Marathon, Pendle Cloughs, London Marathon and Three Peaks in April, but knew I hadn't been putting in anywhere near as many miles as last year. Chris had been getting even more long runs under his belt was feeling grand. I'd been in planning mode for a while, tracing out the best route on a map, getting all the mandatory kit sorted, and reading as many reports as possible including Chris and Jim's from last year – I don't think any of these helped calm my nerves!
I had become obsessed with weather forecasts in the build-up that all seemed to change dramatically on a daily basis. BBC Weather, Scafell Pike forecast, Lake District Mountain Weather Information Service, I was hogging all these websites constantly hitting refresh. It was clear that it would be windy and wet, the only question was how wet. In the 48 hours before race day it absolutely dogged it down in the Lakes and the previously fairly dry ground was now surely saturated.
I drove up after work on Friday evening arriving at Langdale YHA around 8pm. At a mere £7 per night this was a bargain, despite having to share a dorm with 10 other blokes snoring and farting half the night. I dropped off my clothes and kit then headed down to Old Dungeon Ghyll to meet up with Chris, the rain and clouds still shrouding even the lowest fell-tops. We had a jovial hour or so in the pub sipping our way through a compulsory couple of pints of Old Peculier as we pored over our maps and discussed the route. Chris had done the OCT last year with our legendary fell guy Pete Stobbs so was pretty familiar with it all, whereas I only recalled a few sections from my fell walking days.
I dropped Chris off at the campsite and went back to the hostel for supper feeling buoyed by the beer but still somewhat nervy. I wasn't tired so read for a while before hitting the sack after midnight. I woke around 4.30am and couldn't get back to sleep, my alarm was set for 6am so I just lay there resting until it went off, the butterflies starting to flutter again. After getting up and dressed, I ventured downstairs and a mere glance out of a corridor window told me all I needed to know: it was wet and the clag was down almost to valley level. Great…
The hostel seemed dead as I weaved through the mazy rooms and hallways to dump my extra gear and race kit in the car. It was an old Victorian mansion and felt eerily quiet in the gloomy light filtering through the windows. When I found the kitchen to make porridge there were four other guys in there, all fellow OCT-ers and the only people daft enough to be up at this ungodly hour. Unusually for me, I couldn't stomach all my breakfast so gave my kit a final once over before making my way in the murk to the start at New Dungeon Ghyll already wearing all my wet weather gear.
A few short miles down the valley the light rain had eased off, so I parked up and jogged to the start field for kit check. Chris was already waiting outside the large race tent, not sure if he was pleased to see me or thinking I wouldn't show up (I had been secretly hoping I'd either sleep in or have my race gear pilfered during the night!). Kit check passed without incident and as a reward we were given raffle tickets to hand over in exchange for our race numbers. No turning back now!
I stashed my waterproof pants but left on the jacket as it looked as though the rain would start again any moment. After a few more minutes we were ushered to the starting car park to catch the barely audible race instructions. All hopes of us running the bad weather route were dashed when the announcer said it was "just a bit damp and breezy" on the tops. Hmmm! A countdown from ten began and then we were off on our way along the old original valley road.
The nerves had largely dissipated by this point as we settled into mid-pack and a bit of banter. The opening mile was largely tarmac before we hit the relatively small but nonetheless exceedingly steep initial climb over the flanks of Silver How before the long drop down to Grasmere. As we trudged over this section the rain returned and our feet got a soaking on the very soggy descent.
Passing through an unusually quiet Grasmere village centre (it was still only 8.40am) we briefly joined the main A591 before veering right for the long climb past Grisedale Tarn and over Dollywaggon Pike to the first county top, Helvellyn. The rain had eased once more but the clag was down to around 1500ft everywhere. It felt very humid so off came the jacket as we got into a run-walk rhythm up the track, passing pockets of people ringing cowbells in support.
We were having a good chinwag and it didn't seem to take long to reach the tarn. The wind started to pick up a little here and just ahead we could see people taking two lines up the very steep southern slope of Dollywaggon. A quick glance at the map revealed neither line was any shorter so we stuck to our plan of following the old wall.
Chris was motoring up the hill and pulled further ahead when I stopped to don my jacket as protection from the increasingly strong wind. We were now well and truly in the cloud with visibility down to 50ft or so. I caught up with Chris and we made good progress along the relatively flat fell top. We soon saw people emerging from the gloom to our left, those who had taken the other line, and recognised the same faces we'd seen at the bottom confirming there was really nothing in it.
The wind was gusting significantly to the point where we could feel our packs being blown across our backs and we were pushed a little off line whenever both feet left the floor! We soon reached the checkpoint at the shelter and the marshals took our number. Everyone else was heading straight off but not us - we weren't coming this far to fall short of the summit by a few metres! We went past the shelter to the sprawling cairn marking the true top of Helvellyn and shared a swig of Chris's Glenlivet whisky.
No need to linger any longer. We took a bearing and commenced our descent straight down the steep and grassy western flank of the mountain. We were now running directly into the wind and it was ferocious! I held out my arms at one point in sheer boyhood amusement, pretending to be a plane, and could hardly move! Thankfully as we dropped the wind eased proportionately.
We emerged from the cloud base to a truly magical moment. Over the Thirlmere valley most of the higher fells were still in cloud but shafts of sunlight shone through sparkling on the countless streams, rivers and tarns, turning the whole vista into a living, breathing, beautiful patchwork of nature. We were still at least 2500 feet up and felt as though we were flying as all around us pairs of runners were pouring down the fell-side. A truly surreal and unforgettable sight!
By the time we reached the next checkpoint and first food station at Wythburn car park the wind had gone completely and we were seriously sweating. Off came the jackets, in went jam or egg sandwiches, malt loaf and liquid. Then we were off again, initially through muddy woodland before crossing the main road and starting the very long and tedious climb up the Wythburn Valley.
The clouds were gathering once more and I said to Chris "I don't think we've seen the last of the rain yet." Boy, I wasn't wrong, within ten minutes the pitter-patter started. Initially I ploughed on in my T-shirt until the rain pepped up then I threw my jacket on as best I could in the growing breeze, over the top of my rucksack and everything. By the time we crested the first section of the climb the wind and rain were in full force.
The upper Wythburn Valley is normally very wet underfoot – in fact it's even labelled The Bog on OS maps – but after two days of virtually constant rain every step was like running through a thick wet sponge. Even normally stone-covered paths were essentially streams of running water. Half way across we had our first immersive river crossing of the day – good job we were already wet and cold! Another stiff climb took us up and over Greenup Edge and as the gradient eased off so too did the rain. We settled into a steady run across trackless grassy terrain, contouring the western flank of High Raise towards Stake Pass.
We were only 17 miles in but I was feeling drained. Not only that, my hands were cold, not my usual Raynaud's syndrome, genuinely cold. I knew I needed to eat something else as I'd probably only had 700 calories all morning, hardly enough to fuel what we'd already done. I couldn't grip the zip to undo my jacket, so eventually heaved it over my head, then off came my pack as I rummaged around for the honey and peanut butter bagel I'd brought. Taking the foil off this was another chore but I finally got it out and put my jacket back on underneath the bag where it should have been in the first place.
Around here we were only a couple of thousand feet up, well below the main cloud base, and could see the Skiddaw range down the length of Langstrath in the distance to the north. As I looked around OCT runners were spread out like ants for what seemed like miles in front and behind. Despite the countless hours I've spent amongst these fells, I have never felt so small and insignificant, truly humbled by the scale of the mountains.
Back on track it took me another 15 minutes to get all of the bagel down just before we reached Angle Tarn checkpoint, all the while the dark, foreboding and grey cloud-shrouded Scafell massif looming ahead. We enjoyed a brief stop here as Chris needed to sort out his insoles and nature came calling for me. Then it was onwards and upwards, initially on decent stone-built or gravelly paths. Thankfully the bagel had worked its magic and I found a second wind, climbing strongly back up into the clag.
Turning left at Esk Hause, the path grew ever more stony and less obvious with visibility back down to tens of feet at best. A few other pairs were around us as we reached the tumultuous heap of boulders and rocks over Broad Crag and beyond to Scafell Pike. I said to one chap "This isn't exactly runnable ground!" to which he replied "It's nothing like the South Downs Way!" Briefly dipping down to the top of Little Narrowcove, we then made our way up the steep and shaly path to the summit of England and second county top of Scafell Pike. Once again we had a nip of whisky in celebration!
As we nonchalantly started our descent in the thick cloud, I soon realised I didn't recognise where we were. Several pairs of people, who admittedly weren't using a map, were hereabouts and pressing on with little confidence, soon disappearing into the mist. We double-checked the map, took a bearing, and sure enough we had been heading in completely the opposite direction straight off the eastern flank of Scafell Pike! Thankful we had spotted our mistake early enough to rectify, we picked up the proper path and retraced our steps, veering right down the steep, stony and scree-filled descent of Little Narrowcove.
We took our time down here, the terrain making it tough going for fell fairies like us, but the path finally petered out into a grassy slope. I glanced back up into the gloom and saw half a dozen teams way up above following us down. We could see the ground up ahead dropping away quite steeply but Chris seemed to recall coming this way with Pete last year so we continued on our line. Eventually this led us to a series of rock outcrops we had to scramble and shuffle down, not a pleasant ten minutes. And to rub salt in the wounds, just as we emerged unscathed from our rocky encounter, the runners I'd seen behind us earlier suddenly all came steaming past on a good path to our right which we'd clearly missed!
Not to worry, a few minutes here or there is nothing to bother about on a long day out like this, so we pressed on skirting Great Moss, hot on the heels of the people who had just passed us by. This section seemed an interminable mix of false summits, bogs, grass, tussocks and finally stony paths, with two thigh-deep river crossings along the way. I was feeling hungry again by now and exclaimed to Chris "I hope they have tuna butties at Cockley Beck, I could murder one!"
Sure enough, the tuna butties were at the checkpoint and I've never tasted anything as good in my life! I wolfed down four in a row then set to work emptying my shoes of stones and grass while donning a fresh pair of socks. We'd arrived at Cockley Beck 55 minutes inside the final cut-off so could afford a little breather. Chris supped some tea and we were ready to go.
The sun finally came out for a few fleeting minutes as we began the relentless ascent of Grey Friar. It was warm and very slow progress, and I soon wished I'd only eaten three sandwiches as I felt suddenly bloated with the exertion. Rather than heading towards the summit, we took a diagonal path over trackless grassy ground to bring us out at the wide col with Great Carrs. From here an obvious trod contoured around Swirl How towards the ominous dome of Brim Fell smothered in grey cloud.
Our legs were really starting to tire by now to the point where we were jog-walking what would normally be a good runnable part of the route. By the time we reached Brim Fell the cloud had lifted enough to clear the summits hereabouts, though peering back the Scafells still looked like deepest Mordor, and the now almost inconceivably distant Helvellyn still had its head in the clag. As I gazed south-west towards Black Combe, another spectacular panorama had opened up over the lower Duddon Valley. Simply breathtaking!
We checked in with the marshals just before the summit of Coniston Old Man who said "You don't have to go to the top you know!" as we pressed past. "Oh yes we do," I said, "we haven't come this far to miss the top!" I could have stayed for hours at the highest point in old Lancashire, basking in the glorious sunshine and taking in the mouth-watering view over Coniston and the South Lakes. However, we still had seven miles to go so we made do with the rest of the Glenlivet.
More run-walking brought us back over Brim Fell to skirt Swirl How and Great Carrs, and once again the clag engulfed the Old Man as we went – we'd clearly been very lucky to grasp the fleeting view when we were there! Our quads protested as we dropped steeply down Wet Side Edge to the Three Shires Stone, a very fitting place to have the final checkpoint on the course, neatly tying up our journey over the old counties that were once united at this spot alone.
As we headed down the unforgiving tarmac of Wrynose Pass, Chris had one of his tummy episodes, not bad going considering he had started suffering 17 miles in last time around. I was thankful for a few minutes' walk myself as he gave his stomach a good talking to, then we pressed on, not far to go.
Turning left halfway down Wrynose we picked up a path to Blea Tarn that was very familiar. Our final few miles followed the reverse Lakeland 50 route which I've done for the past couple of years, usually as it's getting dark. No chance of darkness enveloping us this time though as we part walked, part jogged and part ran along with several other teams, passing through idyllic wooded paths by the tarn before the final steep drop into Great Langdale.
A few fields later and we turned left past a farm and on to the road to run the final few hundred yards in to the finish. Sandra was ready and waiting with the camera and home-made goody bags for us both, and the terrific marshals and supporters gave us a warm welcome back. We were immediately handed our well-earned T-shirts – prize possessions these and not just bottom drawer fodder. We had conquered the Old County Tops (and touched each summit unlike the majority of corner-cutters)!
The OCT is very well organised and a testament to the time and passion invested by Achille Ratti Climbing Club that such an epic event is so perennially popular. As with more or less all fell races it's a bargain to enter and the support and provision are second to none.
But this race is a serious undertaking with strict entry requirements in terms of past fell running experience. It's also probably the toughest race I've done to date, especially given the weather and conditions underfoot on the day.
As we trudged over the final few miles I swore I'd never do anything like this again, and all thoughts of a potential future Bob Graham Round attempt were well out the window. But even as I sank my teeth into heavenly fish and chips back in Ambleside the fires of future plans and adventures were flickering to life.
It only remains for me to say many thanks to my partner Mr Campbell for his company and good humour, whisky and ale, and (in hindsight) a grand day out on the fells! But he obviously took it far too easy as the next day he did Windermere Marathon in 3h 48m...