We left off yesterday at the Dunmail Raise, just South of Thirlmere, one of the few lakes in the National Park that doesn't have a town or village next to it. Here the runner crosses a short stream of civilisation: The A591 to Grasmere, Rydal, Ambleside, Windermere, and, eventually, Kendal, before you drive out of Cumbria and into Yorkshire.
Here the triangular Steel Fell (553m) and Calf Crag (537m) provide the stepping stones to the area known as the "Central Fells" whose highest fell, High Raise (762m), is next on the peak-bagger list, but also one of the most spectacular summits in the Lake District, offering views of all the 3000-footers (Scafell, Scafell Pike, Skiddaw and Helvellyn) and the Three-Peaks (Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough, Whernside) in Yorkshire, 60km away. The names of the Yorkshire peaks still give me shudders (I know them only as Pain-a-gain, Inglebugger and Sternside).
Borrowdale and the Cumbria Way
Just North of High Raise lies a valley that has played a central part in fell-running history: Borrowdale. The tiny hamlet of Rosthwaite, the launching point of many expeditions to Scafell, is intersected by the Cumbria Way, one of England's many long distance foot paths, mirroring our own Wicklow Way.
While the Wicklow Way is 127km and features 3200m of ascent, the Cumbria way snakes its way for only 112km and is traditionally divided into 6 sections starting in Ulverston before moving over Coniston, Langdale to Keswick and then onto Caldbeck, home of famous professional guides racer Bill Teasdale before finally terminating in Carlisle. Interestingly, just like the Wicklow Way, you finish with a significant flat stretch.
It's not the presence of the Cumbria Way that gives Borrowdale its claim to fame, however, its more likely the well-known fell-running club, Borrowdale Fell Runners founded by Billy Bland in a controversial split with parent club Keswick AC, and the challenging Borrowdale Fell Race that starts and finishes in Rosthwaite. During this race you must take two of the "Bob Graham Peaks": Great Gable, a mountain that presumably attracts its own clouds, and Scafell Pike.
Now this is not a race that is long and tough in the sense that the Circle of Glenmacnass and Aughavannagh are in Ireland: No, this race covers 17 miles (27.4km) and features 1981m of ascent (Billy Bland, in usual locomotive style, could cover this in 2:34:38).
This is but one of many traditional races that intersect the Bob Graham, earlier in during the round, crossing Fairfield, the runner trods over the main peak of the Fairfield Horseshoe, a 9 mile race with 1000m of ascent. This race also takes in the Heron Pike (612), Great Rigg (767m), Hart Crag (822m), High Pike (656m) and Low Pike (506m) before finishing back in Rydal Park between the fair villages of Grasmere and Ambleside. If you're starting to get a feeling that there's endless runnable fells in the Lake District, you're not far wrong. After all Joss Naylor ran at least 214 of them, in a week!
Back on the Raise
When we last left off our Bob Graham attempt we were admiring the panorama from High Raise (something Bob Graham would never have done, as he said "if you spend one minute admiring the view on every peak, you lose 42 minutes).
So we continue to the colourfully named Sergeant Man (734m) whose rocky summit mirrors the grassy dome of High Raise, of which it is probably an outlier. Despite this the Sergeant has great prominence in store for the runner before the small track leads on to Thunacar Knott (723m), another of the Langdale Pikes, as the Central Pikes are also known, followed by Harrison Stickle (736m), Pike of Stickle (708m), Rossett Pike (651m) before reaching the highest fell of the range: Bowfell which at 903m is only a wee bit short of claiming membership of the 3000-footer peak. Rosset Pike deserves special mention: Although on the standard Bob Graham Round it was left out of all attempts to raise the number of peaks run in 24 hours until Joss Naylor brought it back for his 72 peak run in 1975, a record that stood unbroken for 13 years.
The actual Langdale Fell Race, founded in 1973, incidentally only takes in a few of the standard Bob Graham peaks: Bowfell and Thunacar Knott, adding instead Crinkle Crags (815m) and Pike O'Blisco (705m). The omission of the latter can probably be explained by its relative isolation from nearby fells. Anyone out for a casual run can take advantage of this to get some of the best views of Great Langdale and the Langdale Pikes.
If this sounds like a race for you, all you need cover is 25.7km and climb 1524m. It's a good thing there's a few easy races in the Lakelands.
Leaving the Langdale Pikes behind us we find ourselves on Esk Pike (885m) and we move over the extremely rocky ground here, we find ourselves very much on the Scafell masiff.
As we drop down to the small depression of Esk Hause, not every runner will realise that they have now moved onto hallowed ground, we stand on the stepping stone of the pivotal part of what Bill Smith did not hesitate to call "the toughest fell race run under AAA Laws".
Forget for a moment the toughness of the Fairfield Horseshoe, and the Borrowdale and Langdale Fell Races, for they are but preparation to the Wasdale Fell Race. Here only the best will thrive as you are taken over 21 of the roughest miles in England (33.8km) with a monstrous ascent of 2743m. Yes, you get the point now, we are a long way from Latrigg where we began our journey!
The Wasdale Fell Race starts at the carpark at Brackenclose just at the Northern tip of Wast Water (England's deepest lake, but its 79m maximum depth pales in comparison to the Scottish lochs many of which are more than 200m deep).
From Brackenclose competitors must run South-East towards first Illgill Head (609) and Whin Rigg (536m), the screes at the Eastern slopes of these hills form what is generally called the Wast Water screes.
Running of Whin Rigg, you run around the Southern tip of the Wast Water, out on the main road and past the Wasdale Hall before starting the long ascent to grassy unassuming Seatallan (693m), another fairly isolated peak, from where you venture around (not up!) Haycock (798m) then over Scoat Fell (843m) before re-entering Bob Graham territory on Pillar (853m).
Scoat Fell is quickly passed due to its low prominence, but for fell walkers and runners, it's an important junction linking together five ridges: you can cross over Steeple (819m) or Black Crags (829m) along two parallel spurs to Ennerdale, over Red Pike (828m) to Yewbarrow and Wast Water, or head back to Haycock or continue the race route to Pillar.
Pillar is the centre of a group of fells named after it and is considered the birthplace of rock climbing in the Lakes (and probably takes its name from it), indeed there are steep drops on both its North and South side as you move East towards Great Gable. If in trouble there's a wind shelter here as well, which may be useful information!
It is from your descent of Great Gable that we rejoin our journey at Esk Hause. All, yes all!, that is left of this race, is the ascent of Scafell Pike before the final descent via the northern path of Scafell Pike leading to Lingmell Col (Lingmell Fell, at 749m lies just beyond). Spectators have a great view of the reckless descent on rocky ground where competitors follow a spur known as the Brown Tongue and the the Lingmell Gill stream back down to Brackenclose.
I almost lost my breath typing up this race, imagine how the hard men who have forged the history of this race would have felt: Joss Naylor, Billy Bland, Colin Donnolly, Ian Roberts, Andy Styan, Mike Short, and more. Danny Hughes, the late WMRA president, was one of the competitors and had helped design the course.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, many runners are deterred from this race by the tough cut-off times. Still, if you have a moment, ponder this history as you pass over Esk Hause on your way to completing a Bob Graham, for beyond lies four mighty peaks: Great End (885m), Ill Crag (930m), Broad Crag (934m) and then, finally, Scafell Pike (977m), and you've hit the roof of your journey.
The toughest choice lies ahead, however: between you and the twin peaks of Scafell (964m) stands a tough decision. As you run over the connecting ridge of Mickledore you face the Broadstand, 300 feet of very challenging climb (indeed on many cases fatal). Or, you can steer South down South following a path to the tiny mountain lake Foxes Tarn. The Mickledore Ridge stands at around 860m and the drop down to Foxes Tarn (at around 680m) combined with the extra distance has been estimated, by Richard Askwith, to cost you around 15 minutes.
Yet, it could, without exaggaration, save you your life. Join me in the third instalment as we face tough decisions towards Scafell...