The South West Coast Path - 2. South Cornwall

So I crossed the border. Foreigners. These heathens put the jam on first, if you can believe that? By the time I arrived at Plymouth, the idea of running the whole path had fully formed in my mind. Having linked all of South Devon I was pretty excited to do the same thing across southern Cornwall and continue my journey, gradually adding to the little, but ever growing red line I was drawing on my home-printed map. The miles from Plymouth to Lands End were not plain sailing though, they taught me a few lessons, and forced me into new strategies and techniques. This section made me look much more closely at training, nutrition, and rehab, and this part of the blog will reflect that, so for anyone who is curious about the basic logistics of kit and training - read on, for those that aren't - there was still a huge amount of beauty (eventually) to continue the inspiration as well. Ultimately, Cornwall did not disappoint.

Today's soundtrack:

Plymouth to Looe was the first leg. I was pretty confident of doing 20+ miles each time by now. Blasé perhaps, maybe even complacent? From a scenic point of view I was a tad - just sayin' - disappointed after the constantly beautiful South Hams. But physically I felt more able to take some big bites out of the overall distance. That's not to say that these first two or three runs weren't pretty:

Freathy. Spot the lone SUP'er

Freathy. Spot the lone SUP'er

Long Sands

Long Sands

Long glorious stretches of near endless golden sand. Surfers strolling from their vans, boards under arms, wetsuits rolled to their waists, barefoot on tarmac. There was quite a nice relaxed atmosphere, and some lovely easier running, just not the drama of the hills of South Devon. It wasn't as punch you in the face spectacular, so for some reason I was disappointed. But maybe that's just me.

Lantivet Bay. Been a grey old morning until the cloud past by and the world turned from black and white to colour. So beautiful I stopped chewing my sandwich.

Lantivet Bay. Been a grey old morning until the cloud past by and the world turned from black and white to colour. So beautiful I stopped chewing my sandwich.

I'm not going to go into too much detail about the rest of the route here, because I want to talk mostly about training and gear in this chapter; but suffice to say I found a long stretch - Plymouth to Lizard almost, fairly samey and relatively - relatively - bland. Plymouth to Looe, Looe to Charlestown, Charlestown to Falmouth, they all had their moments and highlights, and none of them were ugly runs, by any means. I just found this to be a bit like a treadmill. I was hankering a bit for more of the iconic stuff: more Kynance Cove, more Bedruthan Steps, more Porthcurno. Might have just been me, spoiled by Devon and the South Hams maybe, but in my head I was ticking these stages off. And then at Helford Passage; a mini disaster, an injury - and now with hindsight I wonder if this lack of inspiration and motivation was a contributory factor? Like I was grinding through the miles rather than flying along, and the body didn't like that.

Falmouth to Lizard Point looked great on paper. I was using my retired Dad as a drop off and pick up taxi; allowing me to do a long linear section without the time consuming chore of having to park my car and get public transport back to my start point (a tactic I had used once or twice successfully). Falmouth to Helford is only 10 miles, so I left my bag in the car and arranged to collect it at Helford and then carry it for miles 10-30. The Helford Passage is a huge estuary. Big and complex and as the pedestrian ferry wasn't running (out of season), having a car to drive me around the river-mouth was very welcome (it still took 40minutes to give you an idea of how far the diversion is without the ferry). I got in the car, sat down, plugged my phone in to charge, and drank and ate while Dad drove. Then when I got out of the car at the other side of the estuary I could barely stand. A shooting pain in my heel that was both agonising and puzzling. Had I whacked it on a rock? I hadn't felt any bumps or twinges? But I could literally hardly stand to walk, really painful limping and wincing and drawing sharp gasps of breath. Briefly considering waving down the car before Dad drove off, I managed to force a jog - hoping it would warm up, and it did, eventually. I managed to get through the next 20 miles to Lizard in fairly acceptable discomfort. But once home, and over the next few days, it was clear I'd significantly hurt myself. I contacted a friend who'd done a PhD in Podiatry. After lots of questions she diagnosed Traction of the Achilles. This was largely self inflicted too: suffering from tight calves and tender Achilles since summer 2016, I'd been doing a lot - too much it turns out - of stretching and yoga. Trying to alleviate a problem I'd made it worse; "you're essentially pulling the Achilles insertion off the heel". Bugger. My podiatrist friend prescribed a diet of conditioning exercises to replace the aggressive stretching (I'd not really been doing any training for these runs: Just doing a 25-35mile run once every week then recovering then doing it again. She said my legs needed more strength to cope with the hills, otherwise I was just beating them up repeatedly. So squats, lunges, box step-ups, and calf raises were on the menu, and yoga and stretching were left alone for now. She also said I could keep running, just flat miles and no steep hills while my Achilles recovered. Phew. The final piece of advice was to run 'doubles': which is 2 'long' runs on consecutive days, to try and improve my max long run capacity.

Whereas I'd just been steeling myself to simply run a bit further each time I went out, the new advice was to train: don't underestimate the recovery 5k's, or the standard 10k miles in the bank, and use the 'doubles' to build that single run max stamina. So rather than a diet of one 30mile run each week or so, instead for the time being, the Double would be two 15-17 mile runs on consecutive days, to better equip me to cope with 30+ miles. So for an injured man - the advice was to run a little bit more, but more wisely, and to add conditioning into the bargain to turn my twiglet legs into more sturdy tools to carry me along.

I followed this advice religiously for the next 6 weeks, conditioning twice a week, doubles once a week, recovery 5ks and normal 10ks interspersed around that. Lo and behold I gradually felt better. Life even seemed to help in an organic way: I had some mountain trips for work that meant I was walking a lot up big hills, so my nerves about heading back to the SWCP were eased by the coincidental reintroduction to steep stuff.

I paid more attention to my equipment and nutrition too.

My normal day pack, winter version: The sandwich is PB, banana, and honey. There's a windproof, and an additional insulation layer, first aid kit and whistle. Bars, and a gel. Battery. Tripod. Buff, hat, gloves (windstopper), and 2.5L water in my brilliant Osprey Rev 6 pack.

My normal day pack, winter version: The sandwich is PB, banana, and honey. There's a windproof, and an additional insulation layer, first aid kit and whistle. Bars, and a gel. Battery. Tripod. Buff, hat, gloves (windstopper), and 2.5L water in my brilliant Osprey Rev 6 pack.

Upgrade. Osprey dipped their toe in the water of ultra-running packs with the excellent Rev 6 (left); so when I got my hot little hands on the race-vest style Duro 6 (right) I was pretty excited and the difference is massive. The balance changes, it's snugger - reminds me of one of their old slogans: 'clings to your back like a frightened monkey'! The accessibility of the soft bottles on the chest is fantastic and allowed me to carry 3.5L fluid. The chest harness is improved and the functionality has been thought through so well - the usability is fantastic. Get one.

Upgrade. Osprey dipped their toe in the water of ultra-running packs with the excellent Rev 6 (left); so when I got my hot little hands on the race-vest style Duro 6 (right) I was pretty excited and the difference is massive. The balance changes, it's snugger - reminds me of one of their old slogans: 'clings to your back like a frightened monkey'! The accessibility of the soft bottles on the chest is fantastic and allowed me to carry 3.5L fluid. The chest harness is improved and the functionality has been thought through so well - the usability is fantastic. Get one.

These chest mounted soft flasks are a brilliant addition to Osprey's running pack. They allow you to front load (forgive the pun) fluids because there's an extra litre of overall fluid capacity in the pack; and drinking more, early on in your run, is something I've sort of had to force myself to do, but is so effective in offsetting cramp and fatigue. Don't get me wrong, I know fluid is heavy, and it's a balancing act of time/distance as to how much you take, or maybe you have places on your own routes and races where you can refill easily enough; but the design means the extra weight is almost negated because of the excellent balance of the pack. The accessibility of gels and phone in the elasticated chest pouches is brilliant on both bags but the feel of the vest style Duro is a huge win.

These chest mounted soft flasks are a brilliant addition to Osprey's running pack. They allow you to front load (forgive the pun) fluids because there's an extra litre of overall fluid capacity in the pack; and drinking more, early on in your run, is something I've sort of had to force myself to do, but is so effective in offsetting cramp and fatigue. Don't get me wrong, I know fluid is heavy, and it's a balancing act of time/distance as to how much you take, or maybe you have places on your own routes and races where you can refill easily enough; but the design means the extra weight is almost negated because of the excellent balance of the pack. The accessibility of gels and phone in the elasticated chest pouches is brilliant on both bags but the feel of the vest style Duro is a huge win.

A necessary replacement due to wear and tear. My faithful Terra Claws had taken me on some amazing adventures: The Cuillin Ridge, the Camille de Cavalls lap of Menorca, Dartmoor in a Day (twice), a Snowdon Horseshoe PB, a Bob Graham Round solo attempt, plus 200 or so South West Coast Path miles. The Mud Claws are surely the best fell running shoe available worldwide? Look at the lugs - you can imagine how great it was to stop wheel spinning on wet grass and muddy sections. I just adore them; they're dextrous and feel sensitive, but I still seem to cope on relatively long runs in them without feeling that they're not offering enough support or cushioning. Cheesy corny thing to say, but you lace them up and just feel at one with them. There's a trust element to this that's hard to quantify. But I can't think of a better shoe on the market.

A necessary replacement due to wear and tear. My faithful Terra Claws had taken me on some amazing adventures: The Cuillin Ridge, the Camille de Cavalls lap of Menorca, Dartmoor in a Day (twice), a Snowdon Horseshoe PB, a Bob Graham Round solo attempt, plus 200 or so South West Coast Path miles.

The Mud Claws are surely the best fell running shoe available worldwide? Look at the lugs - you can imagine how great it was to stop wheel spinning on wet grass and muddy sections. I just adore them; they're dextrous and feel sensitive, but I still seem to cope on relatively long runs in them without feeling that they're not offering enough support or cushioning. Cheesy corny thing to say, but you lace them up and just feel at one with them. There's a trust element to this that's hard to quantify. But I can't think of a better shoe on the market.

I was also lucky enough to get some nutritional support from two wonderful companies: Chia Charge and Science in Sport (SIS). Both of these teams sent me little parcels and I gladly devoured them over the next few stages. Very much hand in hand with the extra training and better attention to equipment, eating and supplementing your diet properly adds in those extra few percentage points of strength, endurance, recovery and therefore overall comfort and enjoyment. Obviously I'm not running at a Dave Brailsford 'marginal gains' standard here, but I went from being whacked, and breaking myself on 20-25mile runs; to being okay after 30-35mile runs and walking like a normal human being the following day. How you fuel for these type of days out is - I think - something quite personal that can take years of trial and error to work out what works best for you. There are loads of variables to factor into your equation as well: how hydrated are you, how stressed are you, how much sleep have you had, when was your last day on/how rested are you, what time did you have your pre-run meal, how hot is it, and so on. So many factors effect performance - and I did an Exercise Science degree, so really ought to be in a position to know - that I'm still making it up as I go.

But I can say hand on heart: check out these products: Chia Charge bars are the tastiest I have ever come across, loads of bars just get stodgy and samey after prolonged and repeated use, whereas I could eat these every day. The seed packets make a brilliant addition to a morning smoothie as well, giving a controlled energy release, improving hydration and aiding recovery. The bars have electrolytes in too, which gives you back some of what you're losing, but in a 'real' food way, not the chemically yuckiness you can get from some sugary stuff. #chiacharge #plantpower

SIS gave me 2 products to test and both are of the excellent standard I've come to expect from them. The Overnight Protein recovery shake (Cookies and Cream) is one of those where you won't notice it working. You take it before sleep, get up the next day, feel fine, and carry on. The sort of thing where you'll only notice the next day stiffness when you forget to take it! The 60ml GO Caffeine Shots though... my word... you can't help but notice them! BAM! Next time you get that 'woah. Flagging' depth of tiredness and fatigue where you suddenly feel like you could close your eyes for a really slow blink (I ran through the night working on a brilliant event called Jurrasic Coast 100 and at 8am had one of these mega-lulls), wow! Neck one of these and it's like a super-charged triple espresso. I've found I only need to take one of these with me on a long run. #fuelledbyscience

So by the time I'd trained, recovered, and upgraded all my gear and food, I guess I was more than ready to press on. It felt like the path itself was giving me a little 'stop' sign. Teaching me a few life lessons. Gently saying 'listen up little man, this is a long way, over steep ground, you can't just rock up and do this, you need to be taking it more seriously. Or you'll break'. With the help from everyone, I went back to it with renewed vigour and hope, and was rewarded in spades. It seems funny to me, that it took me 200-300 miles of running this behemoth before I started to 'get it'. And that is what it felt like. After the hard yards from Plymouth to Falmouth (they weren't that bad, I must stress that, but just compared to what surrounds them they're less spectacular), going away for a short hiatus, training, rehabbing and preparing, and coming back to it, it wasn't so much reaquanting myself with an old friend, it was more like just being in tune with the land. For example, there are sections where the path undulates, and now I was riding them rather than running them. Coasting down the hills and using the momentum to roll back up the next hill, cresting the top and rolling down the next one - it felt like I was on a bike. Often I have thought it's important to really listen to nature, and really listen to your body. Now it felt like the message was loud and clear. Now I was covering ground without the sweat dripping off my nose and my brow furrowed. Now I had my eyes wide open with awe and the miles sped by effortlessly. It was a privilege now.

Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove

Mullion

Mullion

Porthleven Sands

Porthleven Sands

St Michael's Mount

St Michael's Mount

With the next leg starting from Lizard Point, I was tempted to run the 'Classic Quarter', which takes in all the ground from Great Britains most southerly point to its most westerly (Lands End) - a quarter of the compass. But instead I settled for doing this over 2 consecutive days, being able to better relish the scenery, take lots of photos and really enjoy it. Still, this is very nearly back to back marathons on hilly ground, so it was still a great feeling to be back to full fitness, and really starting to think I'm getting to grips with it now. I know what I'm doing and I know how to handle it, preparing and recovering better, enjoying it more and being in the zone more. What beautiful land there is in Cornwall. Next time out I'll be heading past Sennen and turning East. Hopefully with the Gulf Stream and El Nino behind me more often than not as well!

Treen

Treen

No map no compass

No map no compass

Porthcurno

Porthcurno

The back of Chair Ladder, just past Porthgwarra

The back of Chair Ladder, just past Porthgwarra

Nanjizal

Nanjizal

The South West Coast Path - 1. South Devon Section

"It's good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end" Hemingway

I'm nearly two hundred miles into this odyssey already, so I'll try and catch you up. I've started running around the South West Coast Path (SWCP), it's a long way - 630 miles in total, from Poole to Minehead, and covers some incredible scenery. I'm doing it in bite sized chunks and that tactic lends itself quite well to a blog, with a few pictures and some words, coupled with a growing passion for it, and maybe some lessons learned about kit, training, logistics and nutrition, that perhaps this might be a useful resource for anyone else who has it on their to do list.

Todays soundtrack:

So I started from Beer, near Seaton in Devon. Having bivvied out on Beer Head itself to watch the Perseids with George, getting up the next day and running along a very hilly section to Budleigh Salterton was the 'start' for me. At first about half of my motivation for running along the often brutal hills was as training for mountain days. I've used the SWCP successfully before for training towards holidays in the Alps, or domestic trips to the mountains. But the rest of the motivation, sorry to say, but I'll put it out there: was Distraction Aversion therapy. A way of getting some head space away from thinking about a relationship, or maybe to think about it, both probably. Time alone to be processing stuff. Running as meditation, but also just making it less easy to text her, or call, or mope. Like a rubbish Forrest Gump, only with no one following me.

Beer Head

So having got to Budleigh, with transport home from George, I'd sown a seed. Some of the hills along this stretch are outrageous. I was painfully naïve. Around Sidmouth and Weston, I swear I had to put my hand down on the grass more than once, it was that steep.

The ups and downs from Beer to Budleigh. More savage than they look.

Then a few days later, I ran from Budleigh via Ladram Bay and Exmouth, then along the Exe Estuary to 'home', in Exeter. A week later again, I ran with my Dad (riding a bike) along the other side of the Exe to a nice pub at Cockwood called The Anchor Inn, and then I'd stitched together about 30-35 miles or so, and it felt significant enough to build on. But still not a concrete plan, just thinking I'd cover a big section and see if I felt like doing more. Or if I still needed more therapy. But once I had a little completed stretch to build on, the urge to build on it was there, for sure. I really wanted to go further, and see more. I printed out a little map of South West England and drew a bright red line along the little stretch of coast that I'd run along. I started to look at the map and see the next bit, and the next, and really wanted to make that line longer.

The next leg was another very steep one. Running from Cockwood to Berry Head was about 32 miles (my last training run before an amateurish Bob Graham Round attempt), and it included vertiginous sections between Teignmouth and Babbacombe that made even walking hard. Quite a lot of time spent in the woods here - lovely and atmospheric, but not much view of the sea or the coast. The woods were punctuated by a few glorious coves with crystal waters and small beaches. Beaches with pubs on. People sitting and enjoying their days. Envy. Why wasn't I normal? This leg was very chastening, physically. It also covered some of the least beautiful ground so far: running the sea front streets of Torquay, Paignton and Goodrington, dodging seagulls and dozens of holidaying families - I must admit to being in a grump, and hating human-beings. Chavvy, Monster drinking families with screaming kids, dogs on long leads, pushing baby-buggies while texting - not only made running a zig-zagging hazard, but were a stark contrast to the serenity and solitude I'd been experiencing for the previous 3-4 hours.

Hidden cove near Maidencombe

My times were demoralizingly slow too. Warts and all (taking photos, having a wee in the hedge, scoffing a squashed sandwich, adding and removing jackets, and walking up hills) I was doing about 10 minutes a mile. This felt embarrassing. But I don't think sweat stopped dripping from my nose from the moment I started to the moment I stopped, so I couldn't have pushed much harder really. I wasn't doing this for self-flagellation, just meditation, and I wanted to enjoy it as well. In late September I was lucky enough to fly to Menorca for Trail Running Magazine and complete a 3 day Ultra around the Menorca coastline. Without meaning to sound arrogant - this was an absolute breeze by comparison. Hearing other participants confessing their intimidation of - and then seeing them struggle on - the hilly sections, and then actually tackling them thinking 'that's not a real hill!' gave me a confidence boost that the SWCP certainly wasn't easy, and it had got me fitter, and I wasn't as weak as I'd thought.

Leaving Berry Head and seeing Start Point looking frighteningly far away.

The next leg I started with Justin - how he likes to conduct his business meetings. He set off from Berry Head like a bloody whippet, and I immediately struggled to maintain conversation and resorted to asking lots of open questions. He turned around at the Kingswear - Dartmouth ferry and I carried on - excited to be heading into what must be one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire track: The South Hams. Then: Cramp. The heck? What do you mean, cramp? Shut up legs. This was pretty annoying. I'd taken my fitness for granted a little bit and just assumed I'd muddle through, but in hindsight, I'd been too big for my boots. Neglecting any actual 'training' and getting by just winging it on one long 20+ mile leg every 7-10 days. Consequently each leg would leave me battered for a day or two, and each leg I'd be conking out by the end, gradually tightening up, shortening my gait, settling into a sort of death trudge, and muttering darkly as I inched towards the days end point.

Blackpool Sands. Devon in November!

Slapton Sands - seeing that much flat ground is a blessed relief!

Bullock Cove!

So that got me as far as Torcross. I hobbled into the village along the gorgeously aesthetic sweep of Slapton Sands, pretty much spent truth be told, when my actual aim for the day had been Salcombe! Ha. Eyes bigger than belly again. It's pretty easy to sit at home and look at the map and think 'right, I'll just run from there to there'; and then the reality of the terrain slaps you painfully back into your place.

It was also at this stage, that the time on my own started to make a real impact on me. Hours and hours and hours alone. Hardly passing anyone. Lots of time admiring the ever changing sky. Starting to feel slightly mazed by it all. I lost track of the amount of 'moments' I had, where I might startle an entire field of partridges into noisy flight, or see a peregrine chasing seagulls, or catch a starling murmuration, or notice a seal in the cove. What had started off as a tick-list exercise, had become something more existential. I thought of her a lot. Running over conversations in my head. Thinking of cleverer replies that I wish I'd used at the time. Never managing to get my camera out fast enough to share with her a picture of a dolphin pod breaching in the bay, or a herd of horses briefly galloping alongside me. I never run with music and instead listen to the rhythm of my breathing and footsteps, and try to soak up the elements, but all that time in ones own head, constantly exposed to natures ways... I know how it sounds. I saw so much amazing light, sea and rocks, and really felt like beauty is out there every single day. You just need to put yourself in the way of it.

How can you not want to run along a path like that!?

Code red God-beam situation in the South Hams

If you miss the Salcombe ferry, be prepared for a 45 minute taxi ride to the other side, or an icy swim across a tidal estuary

My first logistical near miss was at Salcombe. Turning up tired, wet with sweat, and quickly chilly in the December gloaming; I realised with dread that I might have taken the ferry for granted. East Portlemouth was a ghost town, and after a mild panic I saw that there was timetabled to be one more crossing on this day, at this time of year. It was still a long anxious wait, 'what if he knocks off early?'. The estuary cuts deeply into the surrounding land, complex, tidal, and frankly a long bloody detour. I asked the ferryman "So how long is it to get around without your help?" He said "Well, it's a 45 minute car ride". Gulp. That would have been a long, cold walk in the dark. I would have considered swimming.

The next leg from Salcombe to Noss Mayo was the best yet. I was getting the hang of it now. A dream of a run where every corner turned seemed to present a new jaw-dropping deserted cove. Past iconic little landmarks like The Bantham Hand and Burgh Island, and even a waded river crossing in the Erme Estuary that felt like getting stuck in to a mini-adventure. With the tide on it's way in, this got as deep as that area of inner thigh that makes you do an involuntary high pitched yelp. I've got a friend who ran this stretch and swam all 3 river estuaries. That's hardy (and admirably pure), but she's a legend, this is December, and I'm not made of such stern stuff.

Leaving Salcombe

Bantham Hand (bottom left) and Burgh Island

Crossing The Erme, thankful it wasn't a December swim

Noss Mayo and "The Best Chips in the West Country"

Finishing that leg at Noss Mayo, empty of energy, but high in spirits was really nice. I was close to Plymouth now, and close to having done all of the South Devon path. Noss Mayo was a real hidden gem as well. Salcombe, Dartmouth, and numerous other coastal towns and villages here are very beautiful, and wonderful places to live or visit. But Noss Mayo made me say 'wow', out loud. Wonderful. One of many places I'd dearly like to spend some time with her.

My last South Devon stage from Wembury to Plymouth was physically much easier, and scenically, not as spectacular. It starts wild and windswept at Wembury with great views of Mew Rock.

Wembury beach and Mew Rock

Geographically not as hilly either - the bus driver said, 'as flat as a witches tit, boy', and shorter too at only 13 miles, this leg was akin to tying up a loose end. Plymouth Sound is impressive to see, and with more time you could explore the various historically significant Naval sites. But beyond that the path winds through some very urban ground. Housing estates, docks, industrial estates - all a bit grotty, some litter and graffiti and a culture shock after what's passed before in the South Hams. Then Plymouth Hoe and into the City Centre and then suddenly that was South Devon done.

Plymouth Sound

A spring in my step as I 'finish' South Devon

Sunset from the Plymouth Hoe

It felt very satisfying to have run the whole of the South Devon coast. Very rewarding to have made a large linear journey. I was excited to cross the border into Cornwall and see how it compared. It had a lot to live up to, but thoughts of the iconic sites I'd pass: Bedruthan Steps, Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Lands End, Sennen and Bosigran, Porthcurno, the aesthetic arc of Mounts Bay... my appetite was well and truly whetted, and besides, my contemplation wasn't over yet.

Mark.

 

 

The Bob Graham Round. Okay, some of it.

I first found out about 'The Bob Graham' when I was 35. After an epiphany where I fell in love with mountains aged 29, I spent the next few years basically throwing myself at them in all ways, hiking, scrambling, running, climbing, winter climbing. At that stage my passion far outstripped my knowledge, and it was a case of following that, and seeing what I enjoyed most. At first it was scrambling, I loved moving over steep rock using my hands and whole body, it felt like such a childishly fun way to climb a mountain, much preferable to me than walking up, which often feels like a slog to me. Then on occasion I'd find myself running, sort of out of excitement. I used the word childish above, and the urge to run was borne out of that as well. I did a day trip to Snowdonia from Devon once. My girlfriend at the time thought I'd gone mad and I probably had a little bit. Got up at 4, drove without stopping, parked in Ogwen by 9.30, had a full day on the Glyders then drove home in time for Match of the Day. It honestly felt like a 'fix' to a drug addict. I remember breaking into a run from an almost greedy motivation, to gobble up as many peaks and views as I could. When I started buying proper gear (I shudder now but my first scamper up Tryfan was like the archetypal tourist: jeans, t-shirt, running trainers), I knew I wanted to buy lightweight shoes and steadfastly not boots. But I didn't, at that stage, know what scrambling was, or that fell running even existed as a pastime.
My brother gave me the amazing and now iconic book Feet in the Clouds (Richard Askwith) not long after this. A tale of fell running and obsession, it chronicles the authors pursuit of completing the infamous Bob Graham Round: A Lakeland challenge set in the 1930's by Bob Graham, covering 42 Peaks, ~70miles, starting and finishing in Keswick. Still devouring classic mountaineering literature as fast as my eyes could Johnny 5 scan it, I finished this book and then moved onto the next. Then a year or two later I met someone who dropped it into conversation about footwear. "I wore Inov8's for my Bob Graham". I was stunned: "Woah, wait, you've done a Bob Graham Round?" I thought it was reserved for immortals. But soon I was involved on supporting people attempting their own Rounds, and learning fast about mountain running. However, the idea to pursue my own attempt seemed farcical and I never entertained it. I knew enough to know that a part of the significance of the 42 Peaks was to do with Bob Graham's age, and I sort of decided that I'd put it off until my 42nd birthday. Also, I was too keen on climbing at that stage to run as much as was necessary to be in that sort of shape.
Suddenly of course, I was 41. Having put it off for a few years, but having it in my mind any time I'd run an OMM, Yorkshire 3 Peaks, Race the Train or any mountain run, now the year was here to run, to train, and to get Ultra fit. Urgh. It seemed like such a bind. A hugely time consuming chore. But slowly some running happened. At first just getting 10k fit, then 20k fit. Then, as detailed earlier in the year on this blog, I trained with James to run across Dartmoor (31mi). That was March. In June I 'ran' along the Cuillin Ridge on Skye with Libby, and did the Snowdon Horseshoe - 'getting some hills in my legs'. And by July I didn't really have any more excuses left. But the BG would be more than twice as far as the Dartmoor crossing, and more than twice the accumulated ascent of Skye. I started using the South West Coast path to train on, basically because it's the steepest hills Devon has to offer, and running increasingly long stages of that. Even so, there is still a huge gulf between 30+miles along the coast path, accumulating something like 5000ft of ascent, and ~70 miles around the Lake District, supposedly including ~28,000feet of ascent. Of all the mini-challenges I've taken on this year, I was fairly certain this would be the one I'd ultimately fail at. I'd bitten off more than I could chew this time.
Just to further stack the odds, I opted not to ask a bunch of friends to give up their time and run Legs for me as support & pacers. I just felt too guilty to do it, and told myself that doing it unsupported meant less pressure. If I fail, which I probably will, at least I'm not letting anyone else down. Pacers typically will carry all food and drink, providing the runner with a steady stream of jelly babies and gels and bars, and passing drinks - so the runner doesn't have the burden of carrying that extra weight. Plus, they do all the navigating, and keep spirits up with conversation and jokes and generally distracting the runner when things get hard. Forgoing pacers was a bit silly really, not naive exactly, but far too idealistic. But there we go, that's what I did. I also didn't help myself with travel and accommodation. I got so nervous about actually doing it, I hedged my bets with travelling (in case my actual birthday (I wanted it to be the 24hours of my actual birthday) was full of thunderstorms or heavy rain), and didn't book any accommodation local to Keswick. So on the morning of the day I was due to start at midnight, I checked the forecast - iffy - and asked my retired Dad if he'd drive up with me, explained about the road crossings, told him he could sleep in the car and wouldn't have to do anything other than essentially ferry some food around for me (which would save me a day spent caching it around the Lakes in hedgerows or behind rocks).
We drove up to Keswick, I got half an hour snooze in the car. I packed my bag, and was ready to go. I was ridiculously nervous. Scared even. Not really sure why. The dark? It was certainly more intimidating but I'm a bit old to be scared of the dark. Loneliness? Maybe a bit. That's a lot of time in your own head. Getting lost? My nav should be okay if the weather holds up. Hard to say. Impending pain? Failure? Genuinely not sure but must admit, nerves bordering on fear were fluttering for the afternoon and evening before I set off. So I sat in the car with my bag packed for ages. Dad told me to stop procrastinating and get on with it. He was right. "Okay, see you at Threlkeld about 2.30am then?" "Do you want a picture of you at the Moot Hall?" "God no. The street is full of people getting drunk on a Bank Holiday weekend, I want to tag the front door, push Record on Strava and get out of there as soon as possible".
And just like that I was running. Forcing myself to go super slow, repeating a friends mantra 'light and easy', I found my way out of Keswick and onto the lane that leads up hill to Latrigg. As soon as it started to get stiff, I walked. Acutely conscious there was a long way to go, I was going to walk up all hills, and gently jog any flats and down-hills, broadly speaking. So basically its then quite a slow start, as Skiddaw summit is quite a way back from the A66, and more or less a uniformly sloggy uphill trudge. Quickly, things started to go wrong.
'Some patchy mist above 700m overnight', was much more like 'blanket fog'. In the dark with my head-torch bouncing back off the clag, I could only see about 2-3m in front of my feet and to either side. I started using the grass verge at the side of the path as a handrail. As the path grew wider, and more rocky, I lost the verge, so then it was a matter of using contours and shape, and continuing on the same bearing. I was hoping not to have the map out really, but it was suddenly essential. Finding the Trig point on the top was a big relief, but it was fairly windy now, slightly damp, and I was cold, and a bit annoyed. The prospect of heading on over the top onto less travelled ground, path free, shooting bearings and pace counting, unable to run because of the limited vision, did not appeal. Very quickly, considering this was the 1st top, I decided to retreat to Keswick. Immediately relieved at not heading into the back of beyond, and the mires and becks around Great Calva, I still realised I'd need to use the map to pick up the track down. I decided on a compromise, I was unlikely to do the Round anyway, the pea soup was just the nail in the coffin, but I didn't want to retreat back to Devon without some sort of long day in the mountains having come all this way. I'd run to Threlkeld, still meaning about a 14mi leg, and hopefully by then the fog would be clearer and the Helvellyn range would be better. A nice consolation would be to run 42 miles, and maybe I could still string all the 3000ers together on foot (Skiddaw, Helvellyn, Scafell Pike and Scafell), by doing the first 3 Legs, maybe I'd manage that?

Skiddaw Trig Point.

Turning round and heading down, I saw 3 head-torches approaching. In the 5-10 seconds it took for them to run past me, my thought processes went like this: I'm saved! - Hey, if they stop and say Hello perhaps I could ask to tag along? - They seem to be actually running up this hill - Why the heck didn't I get support to do all this nav and carry my bag? - Crikey they're going fast - "Hello!" "Hi!" [they didn't stop] - [I watched them disappear, quickly] - Even if I followed them I'd lose them before Great Calva and I'd still be out there navving on my Todd anyway - Ah well, back to Keswick.
I picked up the path quite easily, and started zig zagging down. The rock was wet from the fog and I walked gingerly to avoid a slip. One of the 3 runners caught me up, he was heading down. We chatted, I told him the above thought processes and general plan for the day. He very kindly said 'you've been unlucky with that fog, it wasn't supposed to be that bad; but you should give yourself a huge pat on the back for having the balls to set off from the Moot Hall on your own. I couldn't have done that. The reason I caught you up was because I didn't fancy getting off here in these conditions on my own'. We said goodbye at the A66 and I headed East. Glad to be out of the fog, I jogged along fairly easily, until arriving in Threlkeld and finding Dad, awake, around 2.20am, having saved myself climbing two mountains but not saved much mileage. I told him the new plan, replenished a few bars and fluid, and set off for Clough Head with my fingers crossed for better conditions on the tops for this Leg.
I was to be disappointed! Picking up the paths low down easily enough, this approach stretch was still demoralising, with some heavy boggy sections that saw me in up to my knees, soaking wet feet, and a sloggy, up hill stomp that was seriously uninspiring. But I knew that was going to be the case, and only hoped that once on the tops this undulating range should be some of the most runnable terrain of the day. I found the Clough Head Trig' in yet more thick pea soup.

Cloud Head. Annoying.

Worse than Skiddaw. Annoying. Map out, bearing taken, pace counting and walking - it would have been like running blind folded - I set off for the Dodds exasperated, a bit chilly, questioning WTF I was doing with my birthday, feeling lonely, and hoping my nav continued to hold up. Days before I'd told myself that if I did twist an ankle or worse, I'd be on well travelled terrain, on Bank Holiday Monday, and passers by would never be more than a safety whistle blast away. Right at that moment that was plainly not the case. I found the next peaks cairn with another sigh of relief, and pushed on.

Bleak, bleak boggy times.

At the next top I was admittedly fairly grumpy. 4.30am perhaps? Awake for 20 hours now and scurrying up and down mountains for the last 6, this all felt very futile and very, very silly. I thought about bailing off to the road and throwing the towel in. The map showed the next decent descent path to do that from was 2 more tops away, so I grit my teeth, put my hat and gloves on, hood up, scoffed a cereal bar, and set off for one more miserable hour of this micro-nav walking. Either the fog would clear, or I'd reach the exit point. It might be a grim hour, but it's only an hour, and I could grind that out.
Approaching Helvellyn Low Man the clouds parted. I could see a thin crescent moon and the tops of the clouds, like you do sometimes in an aeroplane after take off. For 5 seconds I could see. It was beautiful. I grabbed a quick view of what was ahead (in case I lost it again), and took a photo of the parting clouds.

It occurred to me that a full moon and a clear sky would be really bloody nice to run in. Then over the next 5 minutes the fog/clouds basically blew away. Right away, like re-setting an Etch-A-Sketch. Suddenly I was standing on a wide ridge in a sea of clouds, seeing the other tops around Thirlmere, Patterdale and beyond above the clouds like islands in the sea, it was hypnotically beautiful and I took photos and stared, almost open-mouthed. I have never, ever, been so glad to see a view, and not just any view, this wasn't a multi-storey carpark in Luton. The sun wasn't up yet, but light was improving and the colours in the sky were vivid and amazing. I ran. Everything out the window: No tactics, no pacing, no plan no thought, just running along almost deliriously I floated along the rest of that range at a decent bloody pace and it didn't even feel hard, it felt like a privilege, even to run up the hills and slopes of Helvellyn and Nethermost Pike. Somehow I felt light, rejuvenated, it felt like flying. Pure joy of running for half an hour, an hour. I found myself saying 'morning!' to sheep as I passed them at a helter skelter down hill pace. They look a lot less threatening when their eyes aren't reflecting a head-torch beam back at you in the pitch dark.

Sheep.

All runners have those experiences when running feels effortless, you flow along able to run fast, striding out seemingly without trying. This was like that, only on gorgeous mountain terrain, as the sun rose, above the clouds, even on the up hill bits I was scampering up them without even breaking a sweat, no lactic in my legs, just covering the ground so effortlessly it felt natural and right. All of that, with these amazing views, after 5 or 6 hours of being in a 2-3metre head torch bubble of fog. I felt like I could run and run, go as fast as I wanted and never fatigue, like I was a part of the wind almost. Weightless.
The sun actually came up just before Seat Sandal.

I could see the road and skipped my way down to meet Dad at Dunmail Raise.
Dad was cold, I was on a high, I used a baby wipe to semi-clean my filthy feet (there is still black bog gunk under my toenails over 10 days later and I've nail brushed them to within an inch of their lives), dried them, then Vaselined them, and change my socks. I ate. This more substantial road stop was basically breakfast, so I had one of those cold Frappy coffee things, some rice pudding, re-stocked my bag; and all the time jabbering to Dad about that leg being 'a game of two halves', he only seemed amazed that I wasn't cold. Steel Fell looked steep. It is steep. A hands on knees march, straight up.
Keen to get stuck into Leg 3, telling Dad I'd see him in Wasdale, I sent a text to a dear friend who was checking up on me having survived the night, and set off. Dad headed for a cafe breakfast, gloating about a full English and a hot brew. Steel Fell did not feel effortless and weightless and like the wind. Steel Fell felt like a bastard. I slogged. Quickly reminded what lactic feels like. At the top I slurped some fluid between gasping lung-fulls of air, and looked across to Calf Crag, Sergeant Man, High Raise and the Langdale Pikes. This looked wide and open and frankly, bloody far, but it was clear and sunny, not hot yet, at maybe 8am, and I set off trying to trot at a more sustainable pace. These were lovely miles. Basically a large plateau, admittedly with some damp boggy bits, I cared less about wet feet now, I was getting stuck in and just devouring the ground, I was headed for Wasdale with no real escape plan (Langdale potentially, but that would involve a grovelling phone call to Dad, if he even had signal). There was no one there, for acres and acres. Feet in the Clouds says something about the feeling of running in The Lakes, alongside crowds of walkers until you reach the first top, where they stop and break open their packed lunches, and you then carry on able to explore huge expanses of wide open mountains in total solitude. It's one of the joys of running in this landscape, simply to cover and see so much more landscape. On Thunacar Knott a couple kissing and cuddling on one of the peaks shouted across to me "Willyou take our picture?". They were approximately 100m away and I thought: that means run to you, get your camera, run back, take the photo, run and return your camera, then run on... So I shouted back "Sure" and took their photo on my camera and ran away. Giggling to myself at my own mean spirited joke.

Canoodling couple. I showed them.

I went up Loft Crag by mistake. Adding in a peak was never part of the plan, but somewhere around this stage Strava announed "35 miles, 11 hours and 20minutes", and I briefly considered that I was half way in distance terms, in less than half the time. Even allowing for missing out Great Calva and Blencathra, perhaps I could still complete a 'lap' of sorts, and make it back to Keswick within 24 hours?

Stickle Tarn, Langdale, Windermere in the distance.

Slightly amazed that I seemed to be on some sort of schedule even after the infuriatingly slow going of the night nav, I carried on around the head of Mickleden towards Rossett Pike and Bowfell. It was getting warm now.

Mickleden.


Around Angle Tarn - people. Lots of people. Felt like a culture shock. Then at Esk Hause I started to fade. Great End and Ill Crag felt like very annoying diversions on rocky, boulder hopping terrain, I was walking, and gulping as much fluid as I could. Getting through the gels and bars now too, I was acutely aware of the need to on-board as much fuel as I could. Then, seemingly instantaneously, just before Scafell Pike I was done. Finished. Walking up towards the hoards of folk on the summit platform I started to see stars, and my left arm started to tingle with pins and needles. Worried it might be a heart attack I sat down and took off my pack. I lolled and nearly fell asleep sitting up/keeling over. A passing walker asked "Are you okay mate?" and when I focussed on his face I could see he looked shocked at my appearance. Slightly worrying. I said "yea I'm fine, thanks", and he said "okay" in a tone that suggested 'I don't believe you' and walked on. I ate a bar, slurped a gel, scoffed some sweets, drank some drink, and sat there, simultaneously telling myself 'It's just a slump, you were always going to have some slumps, take 5, and then get to Wasdale and regroup' and 'Nope, that's me, I'm done'. Coming into this thing, I always knew there'd be a time when I had to ask myself 'how much do you want this?' - aware that it would hurt, and carrying on would seem impossible. And I always thought my answer would be 'Not that much'. This wasn't quite like that. I had a sore toe from kicking a rock, and a blister, and I could feel my knees on the down hills, but I was so tired, so so tired, it felt like sleep deprivation way more than pure physical exhaustion. And I was done. Utterly.

At this stage I've done all the tops in this photo, about 15 visible I think.

At this stage I've done all the tops in this photo, about 15 visible I think.


I didn't even stop on Scafell Pike, walked straight past the hundred or so people swarming the top, in a grump chuntering to myself, I stumbled down to Mickledore and Broad Stand (I'd forgotten I'd need to use my hands), which was scary in my woozy state, then from Scafell to Wasdale Head I just dragged arse. I'd given up. I'd get to Dad, and we'd get a pint and a pie then drive home. Could not wait to get my shoes off, and eat something other than pure sugar. Strava kept telling me how slow I was. "Previous mile in 31 minutes". Fuck off Strava. The only silver lining of the tracking app at this stage was that I knew I was close to ticking over 42 miles (which was a pretty bloody good guess) and would do so by the valley floor. Finally, after the longest, interminable descent, I could see the National Trust Campsite and my car. I looked across to Yewbarrow and the 'straight up' start to Leg 4. Laughed out loud. Not for a million pounds could I get up there. If I was ever crazy enough to try this again, that would be cruxy. Get your teeth stuck into Leg 4 and then surely from Honnister you can crawl to Keswick. Three Legs would do me today, I was satisfied with that. On my own apart from Dad, with silly weather on the night Legs, and sub standard prep and fitness, and stupidly thinking I would just drive up, do it, drive back (Like a sort of crap Goran Kropp!). Amateur Hour. I was done in, but satisfied that I'd given everything I could on this occasion. It had been a memorable birthday.
Dad didn't have any words of wisdom or carefully premeditated psychological encouragement. "I'm done Dad" "Okay, let's go home then". Didn't even mention a pint or a meal. Probably for the best. Driving home swapping driving duties every hour was hard enough as it was, borderline dangerous as I twice opened my eyes in the middle lane. Bad drills really. Should have stopped at a hotel somewhere, but we were close enough to getting home by just after midnight so we forced on; made it home and I collapsed into my bed where I stayed for 11 hours.

It took me about a week to recover. Blisters were dressed, toe nails were clipped, legs were stretched. It was Day 3 when I was able to go 'bannister free', but the lasting issue was a deep fatigue. I had afternoon sleeps that felt unstoppable, unconsciousness washing over me like a tsunami, and slept 10 deep hours every night for the following week. That was a nice feeling, deeply, deeply tired. I was 42. I wondered what the next year would bring.

Here are the some other pictures of sunrise...

And just like that, they blew away.

Catstycam.

Helvellyn Trig showing Skiddaw and Clough Head Trig's how to do it.

Towards Patterdale.

Striding Edge at dawn.

Snowdonia and Skye, digging deep in the mountains and rapture.

A long rambling essay about a long rambling day out.

I wanted to write something about a day on the Cuillin Ridge, from just a couple of weeks ago, but it’s still settling down in my mind and I’m not totally sure how to really shape and express my thoughts on it yet. At the same time it seems silly to write about it in a month or more’s time, then it just becomes ‘this thing I did once’. It sort of needs to be current to a degree, I want to capture my thoughts on it, even if they’re somewhat incoherent or unformulated. So this post may turn into a rambling stream of consciousness. Or I may delete it. But at least it’s a start to getting some words down. Because the reality related to those thoughts isn't matched by the profound feeling they're generating. They're disproportionate to what actually happened.

From Glen Brittle looking in to Coire na Banachdich.

Libby and I had been planning a Skye trip for well over 18 months. We’d both discovered that neither of us had ever done the full Black Cuillin Traverse, and agreed to try it together. Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth I panicked. Gulp. Libby is fitter than me (think The Tortoise and the Hare), a vastly better climber than me, has way more experience of soloing than me, and basically I knew I’d have to step up considerably to not embarrass myself, or let her down. So I started training around Christmas time, for a May holiday and attempt. Libby was injured, and as cruel as it sounds I relished the chance to steal a march on her while she stagnated. I ran and ran, got as much rock mileage in as I could, and went to North Wales to pick her up in pretty good, confident spirits, but then it snowed on Skye. All week. We’d planned to do a summer crossing, so had to console ourselves with a week of Welsh trad. It simply wasn’t worth wasting the fuel costs and journey time when the ridge was covered in snow and the weather was so wet and volatile.

We agreed to try again. A year later, and this time Libby wasn’t injured, but she’d still managed to lay down some ground rules, in her humble way, about our tactics: an old shoulder injury would really not tolerate a heavy pack, and she was keen to go as light (and ergo, as fast) as we could. Fast and light was fine by me, having done the Dartmoor crossing in March, my cardio fitness was pretty good.

I spent a few days in North Wales getting some mountains in my legs and doing some easy soloing to get my head in gear as well. But actually I only had a 50% strike rate with the solo’s I'd tried, finding 3 big multi-pitch Classic Rock ticks 'fine', but then backing off 3 as well. I ran the Snowdon Horseshoe in 2h 19m, just about beating Libby’s PB. This wasn’t even much consolation though, as I know full well Libby didn’t dig anywhere near as deep as I did, to run it in only 10 minutes more. Taking a quick summit picture on Snowdon, the solitary woman on top had looked at me in a funny way, and when I said "Hello" she replied, “I think you have, erm… dried energy gel?... matted in your beard?” I was a state, and coming down off Lliwedd I even stumbled and fell, like a drunk, as my legs were jelly. I had to console myself with it being good training, some really useful mileage, a stern reminder that going uphill is hard, and a need to focus on that aspect of running for the remaining month before Skye.

Half way round the Horseshoe, with gel in my beard, realising that Devon isn't that steep.

Half way round the Horseshoe, with gel in my beard, realising that Devon isn't that steep.

So Wales was a really worthwhile trip. With solo’s of Flying Buttress, Gashed Crag, and the outrageously exposed Spiral Stairs under my belt, plus the Horseshoe run, plus running up to Heather Terrace and down from the top of Tryfan. And another day getting beasted up and down both sides of the Pass with Libby, I was definitely on the right track. On the downside, I’d backed off both the Classic Rock ticks on Carreg Wastad (Crackstone Rib felt as loose as Rob’s Mum, and by the time we got to Wrinkle I think my brittle confidence was gone anyway), and also down-climbing from over half height on the incredible California Arete, in the slate quarries. That one remains as an itch I will go back and scratch. So yea, getting there, but work still to be done.

California Arete. Photo: Charlie Woodburn.

Collecting Libby to head to Skye we had a decent forecast. Overcast with sunny spells, it seemed to look the same all week. That will do.  We arrived late, and wrote off an attempt the very next day, even given a favourable forecast, because of car weariness. We instead used that day as a recce of the middle section that’s got the most concentrated section of route finding and harder climbing in it. It was glorious, but even 'only' walking, I came down exhausted and chastened. The climbs had felt go-y enough even on a rope! Libby sagely told me "don’t be despondent, we’re tired, carrying heavy packs, and it will feel much easier in running gear with just hydration packs".

Ruling out helmets, gear and heavier packs.

The next day it rained. And got what the Met Office technically refer to as really bloody windy. Decent forecasts turned very poor. Grey, wet and windy became the theme and we wondered if we’d foolishly missed our only good weather day. I became borderline desperate: “The winds die down by midnight, maybe we could run it by moonlight?” I wondered if Libby was rethinking her offer of running with such a total punter? We filled our days with seeing the other crags on the island. Gorgeous Neist Point is one to head back to for sure, away from the crowds of tourists at the Lighthouse the atmosphere of the other parts of the crag was other worldly. The Old Man of Storr no less so, it's easy to see why it’s appeared in Sci-Fi films. Kilt Rock has one of the most tempting looking Extreme Rock lines I’ve ever seen, and wonderful Elgol also provided some fun distraction from the elephant in the room: we might miss out, again.

Messing around at Elgol. Photo: Libby Peter.

Giving the weather every chance, we resisted the urge to head south a day early and try to get something done on The Ben or in The Lakes. Instead delaying our departure until as late as practicably possible, taking the chance that a 15 hour drive Sunday and straight back to work on Monday would be worth sticking around for. It really, really was. The little weather window we saw on Saturday morning turned out to be the prime slot for one of the best days in the hills either of us had ever had. Good things come to those who wait.

Our weather window.

Our weather window.

The day started with a 4am alarm, it was already light, midsummers day this far North sees only a strange twilight between midnight and 3ish. I ate as much granola as I could poke down, drank a litre of water, wishing I could force more in, and scoffed a banana. Bags were already packed so a quick scrub of my teeth and a wee and suddenly we were walking away from Glen Brittle campsite, in fairly sombre silence (mostly fatigue, but also probably gathering our thoughts for what was to come).

Packing. Light, is very much right. Photo: Libby Peter.

After 2 hours of deliberately slow energy conserving ambling, we turned left and began the slog up Gars Bheinn that the guidebook calls “an early test of character”. I can say without melodrama, that by the top, all that jibber jabber from Libby that we’d cruise in, sit around chatting and eating, maybe have a stretch and then go for it, was utter guff - I was knackered. By 8am. A Danish pastry partially picked me up. I applied all my spare layers, and added 'Cold' to 'Knackered'.

"An early test of character". Guidebook understatement is my favourite. Photo: Libby Peter.

Hastened by the chill, we suddenly set off, after over 18 months of waiting and preparing, training and researching, dreaming and yearning, and suddenly we were running.

“We’re running!” Libby shouted.

“We’re running!” I shouted back.

I was nervous and jerky, stumbling a little, so I overtook Libby to try and find some sort of rhythm and get warmed into it. That stopped abruptly at basically the first inclines of Sgurr nan Eag, where I also abruptly stopped being cold. Libby had revised the route description, consigning it to memory - left here, right there, pass this pinnacle on that side, pick up this contour path here, so it would have been wiser (obvious, you might think) to keep her within earshot rather than hare off following my nose. Fortunately, the hills slapped that spaniel-esque over-enthusiasm out of me, and she caught up, looking decidedly less sweaty and gaspy.

The windproof layer was stashed in the bag somewhere before Sgurr Dubh Mor, and the 'route finding' (for me) was still a very loose term. Despite Libby’s being an uber-experienced Mountain Guide, and me a bumbling ML, and her having revised the route while I only revised scenarios about falling to my doom, I still seemed to be saying "I think it’s this way" far too often. I took us up a gully to the wrong top, and she did well not to slap me.

Libby says go left here. But is she sure? Really? Zoiks. Photo: Libby Peter.

Still vaguely surprised that we were actually doing it, we pressed on with controlled urgency. Libby was scribbling down our split times between tops, so we knew we were roughly doubling Finlay Wild's times, our arbitrary gauge of respectability. Approaching the infamous TD Gap I started to have quiet words with myself. You’ve had nearly 2 years waiting for this chance sonny Jim, it would be a great shame to bottle it now because you’re too timid to climb a short V Diff without a rope. As an extra precaution to give me no excuse for the fear sobs, I’d carried my climbing shoes, and a small amount of liquid chalk, as I sat and put these on I still really hadn’t made up my mind whether I could/would do each climb. The down climb went fine. I got started before I had a chance to hesitate. Then sitting and watching Libby half way up the climb out of the Gap - some cause for concern. She didn’t like it. That wasn't in the script. Doing it in trainers, and not as tall as me, she’d found the other day that she needed to do 2 more moves than me to reach a jug rail, and these involved insecure hands and small shiny edges for feet, in running trainers, so I could hardly blame her for hesitating. I didn’t like it either, and I could lank it to the jugs. As she came back and made noises (for my benefit?) about us maybe taking the gully, I offered to make her feel better by reminding her what a really bad climber looks like. Ignoring the sequence I’d used on the recce (literally no idea what I was doing, hadn't even made up my mind to go for it, just being caught up in the moment, my conscious brain silently chastising: 'woah! What the hell are you doing? This hasn't been signed off?'), I made a thuggy move on jugs - dragging my feet up and locking off , then throwing my foot back on, and suddenly was stood up with easier ground to come to finish. Libby’s head appeared soon after while I was reapplying my running shoes. “Interesting decision to go feet off on that move”. Funny! My plan to inspire her with my own incompetence had worked like a charm.

TD Gap to Sgurr Alisdair, then Thearlaich, and Mhic Chionnich, these past quickly and easily. Confidence and energy were high. Kings Chimney. I loved Kings Chimney. I suddenly felt in the zone. Soloing was just an extended form of scrambling and there was no way I was going to fall off. I was able to laugh and joke around with Libby, and then with 3 of the graded climbs behind us all of a sudden it felt like we were basically half way.

When your friend gets a photo of you soloing on a big mountain route, you want to look like a hero, but you're wearing tights, and white socks. Photo: Libby Peter

The weather was still glorious, we were both smiling, relatively fresh and making good progress, at around double Finlay Wild’s splits pace. Following on from this mild euphoria the In Pinn turned into a cruisy bask. No one at the bottom (we’d said we wouldn’t queue) meant we got straight on and started up the improbable blade, casually chatting and joking. I’d done this before, years ago, but had no actual memory of the views out to the right – on account of it being mind-bendingly exposed. This time it was a romp. Temporarily time pressures were irrelevant and we were both beaming as we topped out. Libby briefly headed for the West Ridge down-climb, while I retraced the East Ridge.

Like being out for a stroll. Libby accessing the Inaccessible.

She soon shouted that the queue’s for abseils were too much and she would catch me up. We chatted to some guys roping up at the bottom who cautioned us by asking how we planned to tackle An Dorus later in our crossing. With no ropes we only had one choice or tactic, which seemed mildly alarming to them, and these eye-brow raises again added to my confidence. But somehow here, we started to lose urgency. Over the top of Sgurr Dearg and on towards Banachdich, physically half way, I started to fatigue. Eating some gels and bars, and drinking more than I’d rationed myself. The climb back to the summit from the Bealach dragged, and it was the first time I’d put my hands on my knees to aid upward progress.

Waving goodbye to my knees. Photo: Libby Peter.

The guidebook says the next section is ‘the mind numbing middle section’, and calls it ‘interminable’. Not far wrong. Sans recce this all felt very slow and exploratory. Greadaidh, “May Day” and Bidein Druim nan Ramh were confusing. The Three Tops, Three Teeth and Three Pinnacles - these landmark names didn’t help either. We were sure the guidebook sent us left when we should have gone right, right when we should have gone left. I twice questioned Libby (wrong again, both times. Learning curve?!), and we once crawled a horizontal cleft above a void that was so off route it would probably have made for funny viewing from across the Coire. “Lib? Just for the record, do we actually know which mountain we’re on?” She just laughed an admission back at me and kept going. There was the one notable zig-zagged down climb at An Dorus that certainly refocused the mind, but the rest of that section is a blur. I remember thinking to say "My knees hurt" or "My legs are tired" and then thinking 'Be quiet. What's she going to do? Say "Aww, you poor poppet"?' I managed to keep those thoughts to myself for all of about twenty minutes. 

"My knees hurt. And my legs are tired."

"Yep."

Probably in hindsight we need to admit that we'd lost concentration a little. By Bruach na Frithe I was done in. I had about 200ml of water left and was very thirsty, only a couple of gels. We stopped and Libby said “We could just stop here couldn’t we? I mean, that will do, won’t it?” I was drenched in sweat, had been for hours, and my knees had aged 20 years.

Cannot wait for 2 more Munro's. Photo: Libby Peter

To add to our general malaise we were now half an hour slower than our hoped for finish time, and still had 2 major Munro’s to go. Finlay Wild took 20minutes for this final section, looking across to Gillean, I thought we might take 3 or 4 times that.

Looking very serious about getting the last gels in. Photo: Libby Peter.

Am Basteir was disgusting, but by the time we were slogging up to Gillean I was starting to feel happy, we’d done it, no more difficulties, not as fast as we wanted - sure - but an utterly perfect weather day and no mishaps, and then out of the blue Libby went all direttissima on me (yes it is unfair of me to criticise the only person to do any actual route-finding all day) and took us up some dark, wet, exposed and bottomless gully that provided an unexpected sting in the tale. I confess to cursing [her name] under my breath after she’d disappeared out of eye sight and ear shot. Too tired to be frightened by now, but I did suddenly need to really concentrate and get my head back on. Even though this felt like another semi-serious and ad hoc solo, and even in my fatigued state, I still felt a surge of confidence that at this stage I could basically climb anything. I was more annoyed than scared. No idea what the grade was, but it didn't really matter, by now we were sort of 'at one' with it all.

Topping out to see her smiling on the summit made those negative thoughts evaporate instantly and I dumped my bag and we hugged, elated and giggly. I stopped the stopwatch on my Apps (NB: word of warning to anyone thinking to attempt and record a crossing; they didn’t work, either of them, and it surely can’t be a coincidence that both Strava and Suunto Apps failed on the same run – having neither of them ever failed me before; so I wondered about the Gabbro (known to mess with compasses) maybe interfering with them in some way?).

Finished (in more ways than one) on Gillean. If I hadn't carried that whisky I wouldn't have been so tired. Gars Bheinn is the starting peak, right of shot.

There were 2 middle aged (older than us) and stout Geordies on the top of Gillean. “What have youse two done?”

“The Ridge” Libby said modestly.

“Aye but what part of it? Where from like?”

“All of it”

[Astonished look] “But it’s only half past 3 youse must be Ninjas?!”

We both laughed while they surveyed our packs…

“Have youse not carried ropes or gear?! Did youse solo all the climbs n abseils? Jeeezus! Pair o' Space Cadets yuz are!”

We laughed and offered them a tot of our summit Talisker. Kicking off our shoes and sitting in the warm sun, we chatted and they told us about their day.

“Will you be in the Slighachan later, you must let us buy you both beers?”

“Clachaig hopefully, I think we might make a start to our journey South tonight”

“CLACHAIG!?! What are you driving man, a Delorean?!”

The walk out was predictably a bit of a trudge. From the road by the Fairy Pools, we cadged a lift back to the car, got changed, and had dinner and a Talisker in the Sligachan (he was right about the over ambitious nature of making last orders in Glen Coe).  A gloriously clichéd end to our perfect day.

Less than 15k's. But full value, "Scottish K's".

The days that followed were introspective and surreal. I knew I’d be exhausted, after a long day like that (around 14 full value hours from tent to tent), with all the ascent and descent and mileage, the emotional intensity of the soloing, the constant and near endless concentration of just not putting a foot wrong when scampering along above potential death falls, I knew that would take it’s toll. A 15 hour drive home wouldn’t help, and nor would a 12 hour day back at work on Monday (including 6 hours back in the car!) before even unpacking a bag. But the rest of that week, and some of the next, I spent in some sort of bizarre reverie.

If the legs weren’t coping well with the workload I’d given them, the mind really was struggling to digest it all. It felt like a cross between being in some sort of hard fought life preserving battle, and a state of rapture. A joy so deep I struggled to describe it to friends and family. Do people want to know that stuff anyway? I think they just want you to say 'Yea it was amazing', maybe show them a photo or two and then move on. We live in an age where hyperbole and overblown adjectives are so common anyway; words like awesome and amazing are used so frequently they lose their impact. I regard myself as a relatively eloquent guy, but I still can’t fully articulate it. Going along that Ridge seemed to touch every nerve and involve every emotion and trait. Frightening, taxing, tiring, joyous, serious, fun, beautiful, savage… almost every aspect of my character was somehow moved. Changed? I felt like I’d poured myself into it physically, mentally and emotionally and was utterly emptied. But what it had given me in return was a timeless gift, not just the memories, or the confidence boosting thrill of successfully ‘stepping up’, not just the loveliness of sharing a day that special with a dear friend, or the privilege to be soaking up the grandeur and majesty of these make-believe mountains, but somehow like an affirmation of self. Like I was born to do that; But more, in a duplicitous way where I was simultaneously taking and giving, expending myself and improving myself with a sum greater than the parts, some magical ingredient was being added and it had fundamentally changed me. We both felt like our little weather window had appeared in such a fated way, and it was so perfect, that we were sort of ‘looked after’. Neither of us are religious, but there was an evangelical nature about it. The statistics associated with the journey don’t help me justify my hippy feelings on it either. They’re only V Diffs. It’s only 7 miles. It was only half a day in the sunshine. But it felt like something way beyond what often gets called ‘an epic’. It wasn’t an epic. Nothing ever went wrong. We dug deep, but even before we got back to the car we’d worked out how we could go an hour faster if we did it again. I wasn’t terrified on any of the climbs like I have been on others. Nothing remotely added up to the impact it made on me. 

Definitely gone soft.

Weeks later I'm still torn about what to think of it. Should we go back? Would our slowing down towards the end eventually leave a sad taste that needs addressing? Or would a future crossing pale in comparison and nullify some of the perfect beauty of this day? So should we leave it alone? And if we leave it alone, what on Earth comes next? What else can come close to a day this good? Should I stop climbing altogether? Go out on a high? I've never been into it for thrills and ratcheting up the stakes and ambition, but having a day like this - a raison d'etre, and then some - it's stopped me in my tracks. There's a blank canvas for the future and I'm nervous to touch it. I came down from the Ridge totally spent. At work on Monday I had to wear a long sleeved shirt to hide the cuts and scratches on my arms - I looked like a self harmer, my legs were bruised and scraped, my feet were battered and disgusting, and I couldn't use the finger-print recognition log-in to my phone and online banking apps for over a week! Although I already miss it like a grief (Libby confessed to still looking at weather forecasts (ha!)), and ache to be there, I also don't want to sully this day in any way. Yet.

Mark.

Soloing at Hound Tor

Soloing is a bit of a taboo subject, even amongst climbers. A bit of an eye-brow raiser. It's something I've done precious little of, and anyone who's ever climbed with me will tell you I'm one of the most cautious, timid climbers going. But some of the things I wanted to do this summer involved [some easy] soloing, chief amongst them was the Black Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye.

The Cuillin is ~11 kilometres long end to end, and renowned as one of the ultimate mountaineering challenges in the UK. Most first time attempts fail. Lots are caught out by the sun going down, and missing last orders at the Sligachan pub at the end. Plenty of people attempt it over 2 days with a bivvy, and the vast majority carry ropes and rack for the various technical climbs and a few abseils. I've done quite a bit of running this year, and even given the 4000 metres of ascent and descent involved, I'm pretty happy with my cardio fitness for a long day in the hills, but I've not done enough climbing mileage, and have resolved over the last month or so, to try and get out more, and try and practice soloing to get my head as fit as my heart and lungs are!

A good friend of mine suggested we run the Cuillin Ridge (and solo all the climbs, and down-climb all the abseils), as that would mean carrying a lighter bag, no bivvy equipment, no ropes, no rack, move fast - need less; Solid logic, and truth be told - I was immediately seduced by that idea. Moving swiftly and easily over rock in the mountains is my greatest joy, and from the comfort of my armchair it's easy to imagine how amazing this would be. The reality of actually doing it though is that I'll need to practice. The hardest graded climb on the Cuillin Ridge is about HS (Hard Severe), which is a grade I wouldn't think twice about on a normal climbing day. But when you factor in that I'd be climbing that in trainers, without chalk, or ropes & protection, possibly tired (probably tired!), down-climbing and onsighting, with mountain exposure, carrying a small hydration pack (which will still weight ~5kg)... it all adds up to make that feel like more than HS, and to do that I'd want to be totally cruising, so practice was definitely needed.

So far I've not done that much, a few of the longer easy routes at the the Dewerstone (Mucky Gully, Colonel's Arete, Reverse Cleft) on a gusty Sunday, which all felt fine, easy even. Moving slowly and deliberately, always in balance, statically and being careful to be able to reverse any moves - it felt deeply satisfying and fulfilling. Quiet, peaceful and mellow, and far from the adrenaline rush non-climbers might imagine it to be. With plenty of time to wallow in your thoughts, calm any fluttery breathing, being methodical but also relaxed and enjoying the moment, I was really thrilled with how enriching it felt. I drove home wondering if I'd cracked it already. But next day out I backed off a bunch of super easy sport climbs at Portland that were not as high, or as hard, but just, well... I wasn't feeling it... and it's really not the right genre of climbing to force it. At a loose end one night, I went to Dartmoor and did a circuit of easy highball stuff I've done before (note to pedants: I know climbing above pads isn't really soloing, but it's still high enough to have some spice!), but actually this doesn't really feel like soloing. These type of micro-routes which Dartmoor is so rich in - they're not really high enough or long enough to have time to practice, or to dwell, to accept and deal with the head games. They're not the exact sort of soloing I need anyway. Chudleigh's polish and occasional loose blocks doesn't inspire me to venture there either really. DWS (Deep Water Soloing) also doesn't really feel quite right. It just doesn't 'fit'. In truth, Devon doesn't seem to have a wealth of the right style of routes for my own very personal preparations.

Anyway, I'll post more as I get around to it, in the meantime, this is the utterly delicious Aerobic Wall on Hound Tor. A friend of mine badly broke his ankle falling off this some years ago, he had to have it pinned and limped for a long time afterwards. Having only done it myself once or twice prior to his accident, I hadn't done it since. I'd longed to have it as a part of my regular circuit, something I could enjoy time and again, but been intimidated. On my first time, I'd top-roped it as practice, and then tried to solo it, but on reaching the top I realised that while I'd been top roping and rehearsing moves, I hadn't actually practiced topping out. So with my hands sliding on the slopers and slapping to replace them while I searched for a Thank God hold, I was starting to panic as I heard a small boy somewhere below and behind me (they hadn't been there when I'd set off, but must have stopped to watch) say, "Daddy, is that man about to die?". For the record it's graded E2 5c, but with a pad, and having done it before (years ago), the grade doesn't really apply - it was just easy to balance my phone against my chalk bucket on a boulder nearby, and hopefully capture some of the lovely solitude of having the Tor to myself on a spring evening! 

Mark.

 

Blood Sweat and Tors

Blood Sweat and Tors

Two middle aged mid-lifers take their average crises to do something moderately challenging

The way I recall it is James saying, “Can you help me get fit for some Ultra’s I’m toying with? Maybe write me a training plan?” James’s version of events is more along the lines of “You’ve been bullying me for months now. Let’s just get this over and done with and move on. Hopefully with our friendship still intact.”