A trail of runners winding up to Stickle Tarn in the Langdale Horseshoe 2019

Langdale Horseshoe 2019

I’ve often wondered what happens if it’s race day and your body just doesn’t turn up; today, I found out. I left work on Tuesday morning ice cold and aching all over. Having spent two days in bed and one on the sofa, I decided I should return on Friday – not least to prove that I was well enough to run on Saturday.

Several people told me this was a silly idea. “You’re not well,” they said, “have a rest day and recover.” I listened and understood that what they were saying was wise. So, needless to say I woke up on Saturday morning and drove to the Lakes for Ambleside AC’s brilliant Langdale Horseshoe.

It’s an AL fell race, which means it’s pretty much the best kind, if by best you mean hilliest and longest. It’s known for being brutal underfoot and attracts a good crowd of fell runners.

It’s an AL fell race, which means it’s pretty much the best kind, if by best you mean hilliest and longest

I was really cold at the start and dithered about changing up layers and popping things in my pack. With all that done I started slowly along the narrow path. I ploughed up the climb to the first checkpoint at Stickle Tarn, as beautiful a climb as you’ll find, then clambered up the rocks to the east of Pavey Arc.

From there it’s straight across the bogs to Thunacar Knott and on for three miles across clagged-in moorland to the next checkpoint. There was a comic moment when the guy next to me and I disappeared up to our waists in the freezing cold bog. It was just that kind of day. I tried to fuel with a gel but couldn’t swallow anything. My muscles started to ache and, while I was still making progress, I could tell that I wasn’t right.

There was a comic moment when the guy next to me and I disappeared up to our waists in the freezing cold bog. It was just that kind of day.

I grimaced and shivered as I dibbed my timing chip at the checkpoint at Esk Hause Shelter.

“Are you okay?” asked the marshal. Credit to her for noticing the grim reaper was trying to dib.

“-ish,” I replied, and stubbornly turned my head towards the cloud covered summit of Bowfell. I was done. As we pushed into the clouds, I lost track of the runners in front and had to follow the line of cairns in the mist to the summit.

I paused for a moment at the checkpoint to dig out a buff and was engulfed in runners. A group of around twenty had arrived all at once and I was left to take off down the rock field after them.

The next checkpoint is at the summit of Crinkle Crags, followed by the notorious Bad Step. By this point I’d slipped several times on the rocks and my legs were shaky. I clambered half way down to find another runner almost crag fast, unable to see a route down the last part. A couple down climbed while some others jumped off a different step and still more peered down the breech before finding another way.

I clambered half way down to find another runner almost crag fast, unable to see a route down the last part. A couple down climbed while some others jumped off a different step and still more peered down the breech before finding another way.

On the day I just didn’t feel it. I’ve done scrambling plenty of times, but my legs weren’t behaving and the rock was greasy. I climbed back up and skirted the side of the hill instead - it’s more exposed but much easier going. Everyone in the race has the experience to handle these things. You have to prove experience to enter, but sometimes your legs just won’t cooperate.

There’s a downhill towards Red Tarn and you’re finally out of the clouds but I still couldn’t find any energy. The only food I could keep down were occasional haribo and I stumbled my way to the foot of the last climb; Pike o’ Blisco.

I felt a bit better on my way up and made up some time on the lads in front, a group of four of us hitting the summit together. We dibbed in, identified the trod off the summit and away we went. As we descended I decided it was time to lose the waterproof, I’d had a terrible race but I was going to finish in our club colours.

The strangest thing happened next: with the valley breeze brushing my arms for the first time and the club crest on my chest, I found a bit more pace. It hurt but I caught the runners in front and passed them, finding a good line in the bracken. I pushed on to the final checkpoint and then gave it all the beans I had left back to the finish.

with the valley breeze brushing my arms for the first time and the club crest on my chest, I found a bit more pace.

In terms of how I felt and ran, it was the worst race day I can remember. Attempting a long, technical, fell race while fighting the flu is a daft thing to do. I didn’t have the energy or focus and, with my confidence knocked by a few slips on greasy rocks, finishing was all I could manage.

It’s not hard to see why the Langdale Horsehoe is a classic race, the terrain was technical from the start and the route was breathtaking. I finished swearing that the route wasn’t my scene and I’d not be back. Now, having sulked and drank lots of tea, I’m planning to train on it next spring to improve on technical terrain. It’s added to the list of unfinished business.

And there was a silver lining to the day when I added the final three summits to my hill list app and saw my total of Wainwrights click over to fifty-one. There’s plenty left to go, but fifty feels like a landmark.