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The Three (Yorkshire) Peaks

A Fell Run by Richard Lumb & Finlay Smith - May 1996

In the week leading up to the London Marathon, Nidd Valley Road Runner's resident marathon guru stressed the need before such a major run to taper our training runs; to carbo-load; to drink plenty of water; and to REST totally the day before, not spending too long on our feet.

So imagine my surprise when, at 9.30 on Monday morning, just 8 days after a searingly hot London, this same guru rang me up and casually said "What are you doing today?". "Working." I replied cautiously, but obviously not convincingly. "Fancy doing the Three Peaks?" he countered smoothly. "No!" I replied emphatically. "OK, I'll go all on my own......By myself.....Just me." he said playing the sympathy card. "Oh go on then." I said, momentarily feeling sorry for the poor old soul, and then immediately sensing the trap closing around me.

So, my preparation for this major run had entailed a week of gorging on pure protein; spending Sunday up a stepladder bending backwards papering the kitchen ceiling; several beers on Sunday evening to ease the pain of my neck and back which were stiff and rigid from gazing up at the kitchen ceiling; and forty minutes notice!

The weather, which had been sunny and clear blue skies in Harrogate when Richard phoned, settled to dark grey and overcast by Skipton, rolling black clouds by Settle, and constant rain by the car park in Horton in Ribblesdale. Despite the weather, we elected to run in shorts, Pertex tops and a thermal plus a T-shirt, carrying water; Mars bar; sandwich; space blanket; bin liners; chocolate raisins; glucose tablets; camera; toilet paper; and money for my taxi! Richard had his kit in a bum bag, and I took my new, never previously worn back pack.

Clean, Lean & Mean
Clean, Lean & Mean

So, off we set from the car park, and immediately stopped after 200 yards. My kind of running! Unfortunately, it was just to nip into the café to register as being on the trail by punching out at 12:00 on the old time card machine, so someone knew we were out on the mountains and could check us back in. Off again on the flat for another 600 yards, through the churchyard, and up the road towards the looming silhouette that was Pen-y-Ghent (2,277'). Up and into the fields following the path over the slippery limestone, Richard pulled away even though we were already walking in places. Exchanging gasped greetings with walkers on the route, we ploughed up and up in the rain towards the brooding clouds around the shoulder of the mountain. I was rapidly realising that this was going to be tough. Within the first mile I was thinking my pack was too heavy, and considered dumping it to collect later, but discounted this option as there was no way I was going to climb back up this bloody hill to fetch it afterwards! I'd have to lighten the load by getting rid of some of the supplies, so I drank some water; ate a glucose tab; and took a photo of Richard's pert bottom disappearing upwards through the stepped slabs of sheer rock. Lighter already, I kidded myself.

Up, up and away
Up, up and away

Richard was out of sight now as I crested the shoulder, and hit the boardwalk path towards the summit. Only partly joking, I asked two ladies if they'd seen another runner passing this way, and they confirmed that my partner was still up ahead. A fact confirmed when I broke through the cloud to spot Richard waiting behind a wall by the trig point talking to two walkers. "Not bad. Thirty five minutes to the trig point." he shouted, so we were on schedule, but all I could think of was one down two to go. "This is the steepest and highest isn't it?" I pleaded. "No" came the witty and encouraging response as he plunged off the side of the mountain, moving rapidly in the direction of away (as in 'away in the distance is Whernside'). The downhill was very enjoyable, but very windy and cold.

Richard pulled away again, splashing through the peat bogs and streams whilst I tried to tiptoe and leap over and around the wet and boggy bits to keep my feet dry. Stupid idea, as I was using up far too much energy gambolling around like a demented lamb. Oh well, a straight, but very wet and boggy, line was the answer.

The slightly damp 7 miles between Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside
The slightly damp 7 miles between Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside

We trogged on through the constant rain, with Richard normally ahead by up to a hundred yards on an undulating route along footpaths and through farmyards. Just past one farm, Richard stopped for a drink from a spring fed farmyard trough offering "free water", so I grabbed another photo before we climbed onto the road to the Ribblehead Viaduct.

And a pint of Tetleys please
And a pint of Tetleys please

I remember thinking if he'd only stuck his tongue out and lifted his head, he'd have been able to get a drink from the constant downpour, although there was also an inherent risk of drowning by rain! Under the Viaduct, and through the fields we headed inexorably towards a wet and bleak Whernside (2,415').

The long and winding road
The long and winding road

Being a purist, Richard intended to follow the old traditional route up Whernside. That really meant going straight up the steepest bit, and not around and up the sloping sides! So up we trotted; walked; scrambled and clawed our way through the lower levels, until we were faced with a sheer scree slope. It was so steep and slippy in places that we had to drag ourselves up hand-over-hand along well used a chain link fence on the left. I started to close on Richard here, and began to feel reasonably confident (they say altitude sickness can affect you like that!).

Where's the top gone?
Where's the top gone?

We hit the summit, and then the summit hit back! Although he was only twenty yards ahead, I had to shout out to ask where he'd gone as the mist and cloud rolled over us, bringing horizontal hail and snow. I called out for a break, and squatted down to pull on an extra T-shirt; hat and gloves. Down to a thermal with my Pertex top off, a passing walker asked if I was overheating. My blunt Anglo-Saxon response was ripped from my mouth and rode the gale back over the valley towards Pen-y-Ghent. Moments later I was off again, only to find Richard bent double sheltering from the hail behind a wall just next to the trig point. Two down, one to go and I was feeling good.

To quote Status Quo, "Down, down, deeper and down" we sped, yes sped past the walkers with me in the lead for once. Given that I hadn't an idea where we were going next (towards another bloody big hill was Richard's clue), I soon spotted the fatal flaw in that plan and we ran side by side for almost the first time in nearly three hours. Past more walkers on the descent, I asked one of them to take our photo with my daughter's wet, plastic tiger shaped camera. "And I thought we were bloody stupid" came the parting rejoinder as we vaulted another boulder and continued our semi-controlled plunge into the valley below. "You are stupid", was my thought "we're just more stupid".

Two down, and feeling confident
Two down, and feeling confident

Feeling confident now, I asked when we were having our sarnies, as I was hungry, but somewhat worried about running with something in my stomach possibly causing stitch. So as we enjoyed the brief smoothness of black tarmac, we wolfed the sarnies and gulped down the water, and headed past a pub towards to start of the climb to Ingleborough (2,375'). In the pub car park we passed a cruel reminder of home, as we again saw a Readydrive minibus from Harrogate which had passed us on the road to Whernside.

Anyway, I felt good now, and headed off up the track and over the stiles, over the lethally slippy limestone outcrops, and towards the snaking black boardwalk heading back into the clouds.

Ahead at last
Ahead at last

Splashing up the bitumined boardwalk we were dwarfed by the sheer semi-circular flank of Ingleborough, to the extent that I called out to Richard that there was no possible path up the face where we were heading.

Surely, there's a Ski-lift? Ingelborough
Surely, there's a Ski-lift? Ingelborough

Fortunately, or not, I was wrong and as we drew close I spotted a zig-zag track made of upended stone slabs forcing it's way up to a small waterfall alongside the beckoning fingerlike silhouette of a post on the horizon. Hands on knees, we defied gravity for the last time, up and over the false summit, with a caution from Richard about there being more to come. Into the mist we slogged upwards, across desperately treacherous ground, strewn with broken rocks and stones - a minefield for tired legs and wobbling ankles. We were back into the driving wind and hail, and the ground was white over with snow, adding to the danger. At last, I saw the wall, and the trig point beyond. What a feeling of elation knowing it was, like my running career, all downhill from here.

Wanna hug?
Wanna hug?

Where am I?
Where am I?

Richard had pointed out that we were to descend by a slightly different route, so we had to find another path. In these conditions, we had to find it fast, but we quickly got disorientated and ended up running around the summit in circles for about ten minutes looking for another path. I was ready to break out the bin liners, and became frighteningly aware of how easy it can be to get into real difficulties caused by the sudden onset of snow and really bad weather.

Actually, we were to descend 200 yards down the same path we came up, and then branch to the right downhill towards home, pausing only, as is the right of conquering heroes, to pee on the flanks of our defeated enemy.

Four easy, but slippery and rocky miles later we reached the car park, passing the Readydrive minibus from Harrogate for the last time, before hitting the café to punch back in at 17:14.

Will these socks wash?
Will these socks wash?

A quick clean and rub down saw us back in the café for a huge steaming mug of coffee and a fragrant chin-dripper of a bacon and sausage sandwich drenched in HP sauce.

All told, the anti-clockwise route is probably 22 - 24 miles, and took us 5 hours 14 minutes actual clock time, but probably about 5 hours 5 minutes running time, with a sub five hours on the cards if we hadn't lost time on Ingleborough. Richard led us up one and a half, and I led us down a half and up one, so we evened out as a team pretty well.

Now I know the way, and feel confident, having really got the taste for this route and type of running (must be too much British beef!), I feel at some stage on a chosen day we're going to press Richard's best of just over four hours. Meanwhile, Richard and I are going to try to run it on a monthly basis at the pace of the slowest runner, purely as a stamina builder, and an enjoyable day out. So, anyone who fancies joining us, don't be put off by the above; all in all, it was easier than papering the ceiling!

Everyone knows I prefer the flat, and can't run hills (witness the James Herriott half marathon out of Hawes), but this was undoubtedly the most enjoyable and immensely satisfying run of my career to date.

(We ultimately got the time down to a respectable 4 hours 16 minutes.)

Finlay Smith

Copyright © 2000 The Running Club. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.


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