RACES: Three-Peaks

I'll be posting my usual rock-by-rock review of Three-Peaks during the week as today was taken up mostly by hospital, eating, and sleeping.

The race didn't go as I had planned either time-wise or position-wise, but given the many many mishaps I had during the day, particularly the fall and the injuries I carried into the race, I'm a very happy completer. And spare a thought for the 69 runners who didn't finish on the day and most of all for the cross-country runner, who went out, like we did, to run the Three-Peaks in 1978, but never came home again.

It's been 30 years, but on the 4th of May, when we Danes light a candle in our windows to commemorate those who disappeared in the night never to return, I'll be lighting mine for Ted Pepper of Blackheath Harriers.

I can say now though, that I underestimated the race in every way, the profile doesn't do it justice, neither does it account for the often gruelling underfooting. I also showed a distinct lack of respect for the race and for the competition. That being said, on a good day, I could have pulled out a better result. After two peaks I was in 292th position, a few kilometres earlier I was probably about 250th and moving upwards. I finished 409th.

WMRA Long Distance Challenge 2008 – Three Peaks

Where: 54th Three-Peaks race, Horton-on-Ribblesdale, England

When: Saturday 26th

The Brave Band

The Favourites

As the Yorkshire Times wrote “The Yorkshire Dales will play host to some of the world's finest athletes”, and “UK runners who take part will be joined on the starting line in Horton-in-Ribblesdale by elite athletes from as far away as the US and Australia.”

Indeed, athletes from 20 countries descended on Yorkshire to challenge the British in their up-and-down version of hill running. The style preferred in Ireland as well.

Among them was Rob Jebb, who has won 3-Peaks on three consecutive occasions, Rob Hope, and Ian Holmes, recently voted the “Greatest Fell Runner of All Times.” From America he must fend off Zachary Freudenburg who won Bronze in 2007 and Toni Vencelj who won Silver in 2006.

Ireland too, could lay some claim to fame, with Des Woods who would finish an amazing 31st in the time 3:14, and then there was Simon Fairmaner, who has set many fine records in Ireland’s, brother Bill, who finished 79th in 3:29.

The women’s field was equally competitive pitching current world champion (over the short distance) Anna Pichtrova against Anita Evertsen, the European Champion, and the legendary long distance expert Angela Mudge of Scotland.

And the outsider? None other than Lizzy Hawker the World Ultra Distance Champion. By all accounts an amazing field. Add to that, Helene Diamantides, whose legend is described in “Feet in the Clouds,” and who would, unbeknownst to me at the time, aid me during the race at a few occasions.


Moire, Mick, and I had lined up in the 3:30-4:00 area, hopeful of hitting our optimistic targets (Mick below 4 if possible, myself the elusive 3:45 that would give an Elite finish time).

It was optimistic, but I had said that if it proved impossible, a First Class finish, especially under 4:30 would also be acceptable. My preparations had been dire, I had forgotten some gear (my Skinz compression tee), and generally stressed up to the trip. I had a good sheet of time splits, though, but this counted for naught, as I forgot it in the Bed and Breakfeast.

My ForeRunner had also turned itself on overnight leaving it with only a few hours of battery, so I knew I’d run blind for the majority of the race.

We had all studied the weather forecast and the heavy rain promised meant we didn’t forget to bring any thing for the mandatory kit check (in England: whistle, compass, food, wind and waterproof leggings and jacket). I also borrowed a suitably red-and-white Helly Hansen to wear underneath my singlet.

So at the finish, I was more or less ready. The ankle wasn’t fully healed, so I knew I’d have to be careful on the descents. Still, the route was described as ideal for cross-country and road runner, so surely the underfoot would be decent. To that effect I had taken the Trailfoxes. I knew they didn’t offer much cushioning, but they had a decent grip, so should do me through the race.

I remembered the rudimentary components of my plan: eat every hour, drink plenty, and hit Pen-y-Ghent at 34 minutes (whose name translates as pen=Hill, y=the, while “Ghent” has defied linguistic analysis). Mick was going more by feeling, while Joe had solid plan to make it inside the two cut-offs that would mean disqualification from the race.

The race was already elite as it started out, to be in the starting field, you need to be a 3:20 marathon runner or equivalent. For those considering to do it next year: There’s a reason for that. As we stood at the start, all smiles and full of hope, we had no idea of the horror that lay ahead...

Start to 1st Checkpoint – Horton to Pen-y-Ghent (5.9k, 485m elevation)

As Moire so well-described, the flat road leading out of Horton onto open mountain invited the 758 strong field to go off like clappers. I found a speed I thought was nice and solid and slowly worked my way up the field.

The Sun was coming out in full force as we hit the wide rocky trail leading up towards the day’s first challenge and a nice lady helped hold my bag as I ran and tried to dispose of my shirt. Little did I know that the helpful tanned woman with her Southern looks was none other than Helene Diamantides, the first woman to beat men outright in competition as she and Martin Stone won the Dragon’s Back race. A race so hard that it has never been repeated.

Relieved of the suppressive kit, I tried to find a good uphill trot, but couldn’t find a rhythm. I had a strange pain in my lower back and while I was moving up alright, I didn’t feel quite right. Pen-y-Ghent proved a fairly standard mountain, rock-hard, but nothing that the many IMRA races hadn’t prepared us for. As I registered my summit time at the top with the dipper, I had reached the peak in just below 40 minutes. One peak down, and already 5 minutes down on my splits.

Mick had gone off magnificently and reached the peak about 30 seconds before me. My arrival was not bad, 39 minutes, but I was 3 minutes behind my schedule and eager to get on with taking that back.

Pen-y-Ghent to Ribblehead(12.21km, 185m elevation)

Coming off the peak my descent started sluggish as I tried to (no pun intended) “find my feet” but soon I was accelerating well, passing by what appeared to be good descenders even without being able to run myself out 100%. The descent was hard underfoot but easy and I recorded my fastest split of 3:59min/km at this stage.

Then the “cross-country stuff” started, what felt like several kilometres of grass of varying height and mushiness. At times it was easy, at times a real slog and a few very steep small descent that had to be navigated with care were thrown in.

Again and again my inability to move quickly on difficult terrain meant losing places, and just as surely as I lost them, I would regain the places on the short ascents. I know felt good and as I passed a man with a purple Belfast club jersey on the ups, I knew I was going well. When had ascents become a strength of mine?

We were about 12km out now, and the hour had passed so, on schedule, I gulped down a gel. As I was packing it down, the world suddenly swung around my eyes and next thing I remember I was lying on the ground, my right leg stiffened by pain and blood streaming down my shins.

“Tough luck,” or some such thing, yelled a passer’s by. The nice lady who had helped me get rid of my shirt earlier was among a group of 20 or so runners who ran past as I got back on my feet and tried to hobble on. Leg wasn’t responding. I struggled to regain composure.

C’mon leg. C’mon. I started hitting the leg with my right arm as I hobbled along the flat rocky trail. It couldn’t be long to the road bit, if only I could make it. Or perhaps DNF. Didn’t feel so good right now?

Ribblehead arrived and despite my fall I was now several minutes in front of my schedule and only a few minutes away from 3:30 speed. I didn’t know this at the time, perhaps it would have excited me, or perhaps it would have warned me that I was verging on pushing it and my body wasn’t sending the correct warning signals.

Still, I was in a better stage than some, 20 runners had already pulled out, among the American star Zachary Freudenberg, who had flown up Pen-y-Ghent in 1st place and 27:29, and ruling European Champion Anita Evertsen of Norway.

Martin Cox lead the field in through Ribbleshead, but would retire after Whernside leaving Slovak Mita Kosovelj in charge. A non-British runner winning a classical fell-race? Unthinkable, but it was about to happen...

Ribblehead to Whernside (3.92km, 458m elevation)

Eventually, the leg loosened, but still my stride was distorted. The kilometres passed and I emerged on the road leading towards Whernside. Here I upped my pace and did a few strong mid-4min/km splits. I must have passed by 60 or so runners again and wasn’t feeling laboured at all in doing so. The pain had receded momentarily. I couldn’t see the extent of the injury as my legs were covered in muck.

I was somewhat spurred on by the loudspeaker that had announced and here is “René Borg of Denmark” in Ribblehead and the first gulps of the electrolyte drink I had left there with help of the organisers. As the volunteers shouted “here, here, no. 7”, I could only marvel at the level of support and organisation. All I had to do was show up and run, marvellous...

At this stage I would have been closing in on the 200th spot quickly, and as I passed Mick on the flat grassy slope leading to Whernside proper, shortly after crossing one of many small streams of the day, I was feeling good.

“Don’t let me slow you down, Mick said.”

In hindsight, i was probably still running on the adrenaline generated from the fall for only had I hit the steeper bit of the climb, where most were forced to walking pace, that it started to hurt. Then Whernside appeared, and boy was my nickname “Sternside” appropriate.

I had heard many stories of Knockdhu, but certainly it couldn’t be worse than this: A wall of grass and rock gazed down upon us and soon the hill side was full of scrambling runners. Calves and Achilles screamed and I cracked my last jokes of the day with runners around me. The going was about to get tough, and I wasn’t...

“The surest proof that men and apes are related is watching hill runners ascend a really steep slope,” said Larry who had travelled with us, and looking at the miserable hunched figures making their way up, who could argue with him?

Mick looked up at this stage and saw what the rest of us say: A huge swaying flag marking the next checkpoint. “It’s the first time I’ve been glad to see a Union Jack,” he later commented, surely not meaning any offense to our English hosts.

As we reached the top, 22 more runners had left the race, and Jethro Lennox of Scotland was now the closest local pursuer of Mita Kosovelj with record-holder Andy Peace, Rob Jebb and Rob Hope in hot pursuit.

I had lost positions going up, as expected, and was 292. Was what worse, my Garmin had run out of batteries (having turned itself on overnight), and I was now running blind. This didn’t seem to matter, though, loads of descent that would suit me I reckoned, but as I took my first steps down, awful cramps, as I had been warned, struck my calves.

Whernside to Chapel le Dale (4.1km, 20m of ascent)

The ascent was surprisingly rough, with several near vertical parts and masses of huge sharp boulders. My cramps locked my stride and my feet, one plantar-struck, one sprained, were starting to have enough of the punishment.

I had no choice but to stop, apply some Ibuprofen crème to both my legs and as I did runners flew by. For the next 2 hours, it felt like all of London passed me by, and there was nothing I could do. My heart and was doing fine, but my legs weren’t responding properly and my injuries constrained my options.

What I didn’t know was that I had run 10k with fatty tissue hanging out my knee and a one-centimetre puncture wound to my knee. The overall pain seemed to drown it, and again thoughts of DNFing came to the fore.

Mick crawled past me on the steep descent, but wasn’t feeling to good himself “every mile marker was just another nail in the coffin at this stage,” he would later tell me, as he sat, white as a ghost and cold as the Nordic Hel after the race.

More refreshments awaited in Chapel le Dale, and on the flatter bit I regained a modicum of pace, but still I was struggling.

Chapel le Dale to Ingleborough(4.04km, 443m of ascent)

“Inglebugger” is the local nickname of the third and final mountain of the race, and you understand why as you run from hard rocky road to soft grass and then onto the hard slabs of stone dotting the bog leading to the foot of the next steep climb of the day.

Where Whernside is a wall of grass, Ingleborough is a wall of stone, with big crude man-made steps marking the side. Helene Diamantides and Northern Ireland’s Alwynne Shannon passed me by at this stage, but at this stage the best response to the “well dones” I could muster was a faint “best of luck” and grunts.

Mick was visible somewhere up the mountain, but I soon looked down, rather than up, to hide from the awful magnitude of the ascent. I must have been getting delusional at this point, as I was just looking at the next rock and silly thought such as “ah, pretty rock”, started to manifest in my mind!

I was getting cold now for the first time this day, no doubt because of the decrease in speed, and as I finally made it to the long flat plateau that characterises the top of Ingleborough, I was trying to get by long-sleeved back on, all the while dodging the hundreds of treacherous pointy rocks strewn over the summit.

Ingleborough to Finish (7.13km, 17m of ascent)
This went badly wrong, and it took the help of two marshal to disentangle me from my shirt, and more runners flew past as I was being "liberated". Hobbling more than running down, the first part of the ascent is an almost vertical descent that requires some crawling until you hit more mercilessly hard fast descending. At this time I realised what a mistake it had been to bring the Trailfoxes. Speed and lightness of the shoes should not have been my priority, protection should have been, and the ASICS Morikos would have been a much better choice on the day.

At this stage I had no idea what kept me going, energy-levels were still fine, but my legs just weren't picking up the signals from my brain, my feet howled for mercy with each foot stride, and I felt sorry for myself. As several more runners passed me by, including Moire, who flew down the descent like she'd just started her run, one depressed thought filled my head after the other "they're all home", "when will the blind runner overtake me", "have I been here 5 hours?", and "I'm a disgrace to the shirt and to my country."

I thought Mick was well at home at this stage, and apparently so did he, "I thought you were resting at the finish with your feet up", he'd tell me later.

I kept gazing nervously behind me now, just to check that there was any runners left. Each time I saw a runner I was surprised, certainly I had to be last by now? I couldn't move...

These thoughts did me no good, and suddenly my left hand started cramping as it had done on the night of the panic attack. "Ok, that's it, DNF", I thought, then: "You can't DNF now after all this!"

Why's this happening? "Positive thoughts," I told myself, and focused on breathing in deeply with my nose as the nurse at the hospital had taught me earlier. it helped, and suddenly, I felt fresher. Apparently I was breathing in too much oxygen. One of the disadvantages of having a very high VO2 max and efficient breathing, is a tendency to keep "over-breathing" once your speed drops and if you don't mind how you breathe out, CO2 starts to form in your blood.

Perhaps this has caused the sluggishness, I picked up the pace a bit and instead of being constantly overtaken got stuck to a group and took a few back. Then a man, looking every bit 50 or 60 years my senior, overtook me on a small grassy descent and I thought: "That's it, I'm not having any more of this!!!"

Somehow going off, it was now enough of the being passed by, I ran away from my group, and then, to my great surprise, Mick appeared on the final little grassy hill into Horton. The white tents had been in the distance, seemingly never moving closer, but now the finish was tangible.

I sneaked up past Mick, not daring to say hello out of fear he may have a sprint in him, then turned a corner and ran a deliciously soft and fast descent over some farmer's field before the quick-thinking marshal's waved me over the trafficked street. I seemed to fly past them, a great contrast to the pain-staking slowness of the last 2 hours. Then I saw the finish, two runners in front of me, they were catchable, but somehow I just didn't care, or dare, to have a go.

Instead I found a good strong pace and ran to the finish, but as the snapshot taken of me there shows, there was no triumph on my pace only pain and utter relief to have finished. Mick followed me about 30 seconds later, looking slightly less worse for wear on his photo.

I collapsed on the grass outside the finishing tent, with my "receipt" in hand, showing all my splits. 4:27:22. Well off my target, but after the suffering of the day, I was more than happy with this time, which is enough to earn a "First Class" finish label. It was not quite the best result set by a Dane in a long-distance championship, but it did leave me with the feeling that under optimal conditions and with proper training and preparation, I will come back some day and deliver that result.

I had more immediate worries, though, as I knew my leg was banged up. So I hobbled to first aid, and told the lady I seemed to have a graze. She cleaned the knee, my leg were dried mud-gaiters at this stage, and as I saw some nasty white tissue hanging out of the knee, I couldn't help say calmly: "Is that stuff supposed to be on the outside?"

Then I recognised it as fat, I remember seeing it as a kid when I cut my knee open on a glass shard. Nasty looking substance and you wouldn't want to have a breakfast conversation about it.

"It's a bit more than a graze alright," the nurse said and asked a doctor for a second opinion on treatment. "Can I steal that chocolate brownie," I replied. It was her's but without much persuasion I secured the tasty prize.

I cracked a few more jokes, and weirdly didn't feel any pain at all. It was like my pain receptors had been overloaded and didn't have enough energy left to send signals to my brain. A few guys lying half comatose on beds at the other end of the room didn't seem to find it amusing, but at this stage nothing could stop my good mood. It was over, and there was no way I was doing that again...

Joe would come in around 4:50, having gained ground for the later half of the race, and seemed in better shape than the rest of us. That night was celebration in a local Ingleton pub, even though I had to lay off the pints as a strange tingle started in my legs whenever I attempted to drink the local brew.

Anyone who finishes the Three-Peaks three times gets a framed photo. "I wouldn't go as far as running it 20 more times for that," Joe and Mick agreed. And so did I. Normally we runners bounce back a few days after a big challenge, the pain all forgotten, we leave girlfriends, wives, and others that we have promised a sane future behind, to throw ourselves at some monstrosity that almost broke us again. Not so for the Three-Peaks, neither Mick, Joe, or myself enjoyed the route particularly.

"What were the enjoyable moments," someone asked Mick, "Enjoyble moments?" I've never seen Mick look so earnest: "There weren't any enjoyable moments."

It is a worthy challenge, however, and a great location. It was just not for us.

My long distance days are now over for the time being. Fun as it was, Gerry Brady is right: "First you run fast, then you run long." I know I'm genetically designed for the long distance, and my best results will lie in that discipline, but for now I'm looking forward to developing more speed and racing the shorter (6-25k) races. For training runs, you'll still see me doing endless hours in the hills, but that'll be the extent of it for the next few years.

For those who can't wait WMRA have arranged a full marathon in Switzerland next year, with 1800m of ascent (and a good 400m of descent to "give the English fell-runners a chance to make up places). Mick took one look at the profile, decided not to do it, and send the event organiser on their way with unmistakable Irish commentary: "God Bless their little hearts."