UK Athlete Ben Abdelnoor writes about his victory, alongside inov-8 team-mate Paul Tierney, in the 59km Old County Tops mountain race.
Runners, climbers and walkers talk of a ‘weather window’ – a spell of decent weather sandwiched between unsettled conditions. The Old County Tops race was held in a ‘reverse weather window’, if such a thing exists! It was wet and windy, with misty and low cloud conditions, sandwiched between perfect weather both the day before and after.
It’s not particularly inspiring or heart-warming to line up at the start of a 59km race wearing a waterproof jacket (inov-8 raceshell 220) with the hood pulled up but that’s what myself and team-mate, Paul Tierney, found ourselves doing.
The Old County Tops race – an event run in pairs – starts in the Great Langdale valley in the Lake District. The route heads over to Grasmere and a climb onto the summit of Helvellyn, before tracing a line around the back of the Langdale fells and onto the highest peak in England, Scafell Pike.
There follows a long valley descent and a punishing climb onto the Coniston fells, an out-and-back visit to the summit of the Old Man of Coniston, before returning to the finish in the Great Langdale valley.
The route involves 3,000 metres of ascent and visits what were the highest points in the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland respectively -now merged to give Cumbria – and a rejigged boundary that saw Coniston once belonging to the county of Lancashire.
Before the race we’d joked to people about how mis-matched me and Paul were. Paul competes in ultra-distance races. “It’ll take me about three or four hours to get going,” he said. I, on the other hand, enjoy competing in ‘long’ Lakeland races. “I don’t race over three or four hours,” came my reply!
We set off at a steady pace, leading the field of runners into Grasmere, onto Helvellyn and into the thick mist.
A quick descent off the summit saw us open up a lead of a couple of minutes on the chasing pairs by the time we reached the Wythburn Church checkpoint.
From here it’s an energy-sapping and joyless trudge up, what must surely be, one of the boggiest and wettest valleys (Wythburn) in the Lake District. This was made worse by the realisiation that we weren’t where I thought we were…
Before the race Paul had told me he didn’t know the course, and that he wasn’t the best at reading a map or using a compass! I told him that wasn’t a problem as I knew the way. Plus, it would lead to less arguments over route choice! The only problem was, I only knew the way if it was clear of mist!
So, that was how we found ourselves standing on a boggy section of the upper Wythburn valley, with a wet map in hand and clueless looks on our faces. Our disorientation was, thankfully, short-lived as our Ambleside AC club-mates, Gary Thorpe and Jamie Luxmoore, who were in second-place, came round the corner and gave us a cheeky wave! I’m not sure they quite knew where they were either, but there’s confidence in numbers and all together we soon found our way up to Greenup Edge.
From the checkpoint at Angle Tarn, roughly three-and-a-half hours into the race, me and Paul started to open up a gap on Gary and Jamie. It was a lead we extended as we climbed past Esk Hause and onto Scafell Pike.
I’d made a decision before the race that, given the underfoot-conditions, poor visibility and my lack of route-finding confidence, we’d decend from Scafell Pike back to Little Narrow Cove col and down into Great Moss. The alternative is a challenging direct route that drops straight from the summit into the valley below.
The map came out again, but once sure we were on the right track we made light work of the run into Cockley Beck. We grabbed a quick sandwich and swig of water before tackling the massive climb up to the col between Grey Friar and Swirl How.
Behind us we could see a chasing pair, who we estimated were around ten minutes behind us. I took another look at the map and a compass bearing as we again headed into the mist -it would have been a big disappointment to mess anything up at this point.
But once onto the Coniston fells I was confident we’d make it. We reached the summit of the Old Man and began retracing over Brim Fell where we once again met the chasing pair of Jamie and Gary, who were on their way to the top of the Old Man. After a quick shake of hands and words of encouragement we set off again.
All that was left was a descent to the Three Shires Stone, a run down Wrynose Pass and a contour path back into Great Langdale valley.
Whilst our finishing time of 7 hours and 11 minutes isn’t the fastest recorded, it was a good in such tough conditions. A sub seven-hour time would have been comfortable had we not had navigational issues, and both the weather and underfoot conditions been better.
It will be great to see what we can achieve in 2014…
We both wore our inov-8 raceshell 220 jackets for almost the entire 59km. Paul tested a new race ultra vest pack, which inov-8 will launch in spring/summer next year and was hugely impressed.