Athlete Ben Abdelnoor reflects on winning the gruelling 21-mile Wasdale mountain race for a third time in four years.
The Wasdale race has a special place in my heart.
I first ran it ten years ago, in 2003. I had just graduated and was working at Black Sail Youth Hostel. I’d only taken up fell running earlier that year and had no real idea what the Wasdale race involved, except that it was near to where I was working!
I served breakfast to those staying in the hostel and set off to walk over Black Sail Pass down into Wasdale for the start of the race.
I struggled around the 21-mile route over England’s highest mountains -on a warm day if I remember rightly -in a time of 5 hours and 17 minutes.
I then walked back over Black Sail Pass and helped serve dinner in the hostel. Had I been told that evening that 10 years on I would have won the race three times, I’d have laughed!
Fast forward a decade to last Saturday (July 13, 2013) and the perfect hot day for sitting in the shade or swimming in a lake. Instead, 200 of us lined up on the start line to run Wasdale – a 2013 English Championship event.
I usually look forward to these tough, long Lake District races, enjoying the build-up and taking a positive attitude onto the start line. On this occasion, however, I was lacking in confidence and questioning my capability, following disappointing runs at Duddon and Ennerdale, both of which are also long Lake District races.
On Saturday I changed tack slightly – relying not on taking water with me, but instead drinking at every stream I could find. I also switched to wearing a bumbag and vest, rather than a T-shirt and backpack, in the hope I would stay cooler in the oppressive heat.
Most importantly, I told myself to stick to my plan of running the split times I did when winning the race in 2011 (3 hours and 46 minutes). That day I ran a slow first half and got stronger as the race progressed.
With the start imminent I took a final look at the inside of my arm – where I’d written those 2011 splits – and reminded myself to stick to the plan.
And that’s exactly what I did. I’m not going to lie, it did cause me to panic as we set off up the first climb towards Whin Rigg and I watched other runners dash off into the distance, but I held back, and on reaching the first checkpoint was only one minute down on my 2011 split.
Across Greendale, we then climbed Seatallan. I took comfort at having Simon Booth alongside me – a man who knows exactly how to pace a race. We were probably placed around 12th-15th at that stage – in truth I had no idea what position I was.
By the summit of Seatallan I was three minutes down on my 2011 time but, accounting for the heat of the day, I figured I was still running well.
Skirting Scoat Fell, I caught up to Lloyd Taggart and Rhys Findlay-Robinson. ‘Any idea how many are ahead of us?’ I asked. ‘Just Oli Johnson,’ was the reply, much to my utter surprise. Only then did I realise how well my tactics were paying off – and I was still feeling fresh!
Descending from Black Sail Pass, I stopped at a beck to pour water on my head and shoulders, down my back and over my chest. It didn’t quite sizzle, but I could feel the cooling effect on my skin. After a long drink of water, and with a buzz of adrenaline running through my body, I set off in pursuit of the race leader, and fellow inov-8 athlete, Oli.
It’s wasn’t long before Oli came into sight. I caught him on the traverse around the back of Kirk Fell and we had a quick word before tackling the beast of a climb that is Great Gable.
As I climbed up towards the summit I looked back down to see I had put good time between myself and Oli, Rhys and Lloyd. It’s Simon, however, I knew I needed to keep an eye on. I could see him scrambling upwards a little way off to my left, and, given he can descend like a falling stone, I began to worry a bit about the big downhill off Great Gable that we were about to tackle.
I scampered off the summit – six minutes behind my 2011 time – and pushed hard; my lightweight x-talon 212 shoes gripping superbly, as always. I was determined to have a good time cushion over Simon before the final big descent off Scafell Pike to the finish. My mind filled with time calculations – but it helped take my thoughts away from the pain and suffering!
Then cramp started to kick in. Climbing towards Scafell Pike, my inner thigh began to seize up. I tried to relax and shake it off. It didn’t work. In the end, I found the only way to prevent the cramp was to keep running, which meant no walking on the final ascent!
I looked back just once on that last climb and saw my pursuer, Simon, was close. I was fearful. I knew the last descent was a long one – possibly the longest in the English fell running calendar – and that Simon remained one of the fastest descenders in the sport.
I had no option but to commit absolutely everything I had on that last descent, especially over the rough, rocky section near the summit.
I pushed and pushed all the way into the valley bottom, and was delighted to cross the finish line as the winner.
Simon finished second, with Oli, who was wearing x-talon 190 shoes, third.
After the race, I found a hot Simon lying face-down in a stream, attempting to submerge his entire body in about three inches of water. I pointed out that I was going for a swim in Wast Water, which is a lot deeper, and he joined me.
I confessed to him that I had feared he would catch me on the final descent. It turned out he had a sore toe and couldn’t descend at full speed. If only he had told me that an hour earlier!