Here was the highlight of our Ambleside Sports Fair: At 12:05 the first event of the day kicked off and we were part of it. The Rydal Rounds covers the same ground as the Fairfield Horseshoe, both the name of a famous walk and a standard FRA race, but there are a few notable differences. First of all, you can avoid the summits as the only enforced checkpoint is the summit of Fairfield – the central and highest mountain of the horseshoe.
Most of the Fairfield Horseshoe has a runnable dirt track covering it apart from a rockier section from Fairfield to Hart Crag and a messier part until you have put High Pike behind you where the terrains offer big rock slabs, long grass and a quick jump over a broken-down wall to return to a reasonable dirt track.
From the field out…
Like at Snowdon, we started in centre of a grassy sports pitch and ran from there onto a reasonable flat first section on rocky fire-road. A short spell of tarmac was quickly replaced by steep rocky steps that normally form the tourist path to the first peak of the day lowly, but rugged, Nab Scar.
I started out very easy, not knowing what I had in my after my Snowdon debacle, but quickly felt good about myself and my climbing. Thus when we all had to stop and queue to get over a stile, it was an unwelcome break.
Several runners broke my momentum here as they slowed on the narrow zig-zags up through ferns, but I kept a cool head safe in the knowledge that whoever was stronger would emerge so once we got more space en-route to Fairfield on the ridge after Nab Scar summit was gained.
Aoife fought it out behind me at this stage passing out the second lady at the time and went on to hold this position for the entire race, making for a very successful comeback to proper hill-racing! The 30 sterling voucher she won saw good use at dinner too!
Nab Scar to Fairfield
I kept running uphill with only short bursts of walking when the slope turned exceedingly steep or when a runner slowed down ahead of me. I couldn’t believe the tirelessness of my legs and with every step my confidence grew. I had set out to break 100-minutes reckoning that the route would be slightly slower than Snowdon with almost the same climb and distance but rougher terrain.
In memory sat also the feebleness at Mt. Leinster last year when I had no energy left after Snowdon. There were no such ill-effects today, which perhaps speak volume of what I managed to extract in 2009 as opposed to 2010 or of my recuperative abilities.
I felt ready to attack when I crested the 455m summit of Nab Scar in just under 26-minutes for the 390m ascent over less than 3k. Heartening to know the steepest section was now done. I followed the path for the 1.2km to the two twin summits of the Heron Pike (612m) noticing how some locals had taken the grassy contour below the summit. I felt confident staying on the track was faster and it was unexplainable what happened next: I had been picking off runners like sweets on the ridge and had just arrived at two battling determined contestants.
Instead of staying on the path to the summit of Great Rigg, I followed the runner in blue around the summit into high grass. Many followed, but this running did not suit me at all and quickly drained while I cursed myself for not staying on the path. I just about hung on to the runner in blue and we arrived back on the path just in time for me to start a new assault.
There was still a bit of climbing to do before the peak of Great Rigg at 766m and I had, by now, started to pray for more climbing as it was clearly yielding me places by the minute. At the summit I had brought three more runners behind me and was surprised how quickly and how easily Fairfield summit (873m) drew nearer.
I managed a quick look at the beautiful grassy horseshoe that is the route: These fells show their friendly side towards Ambleside while spectacular grey crags face north, as if to deceive us of their true hostile nature. As my eye ran over I noted the full route back but in fairness, I had limited need for I had bought Pete Bland’s map and studied it well and then Wainwright’s book of the “Eastern Fells” where I had poured over the details of each of the seven summits to see what I needed to pay attention to.
The summit of Fairfield can be confusing with its big flat rock-strewn plateau but you will run straight towards a shelter after which you have to take a very sharp South-East turn. In the end, I caught up with another runner just as the summit came (it felt like out of nowhere) and a nice lady-marshal turned me in the right direction.
My watch had died on a few occasions but only for a few seconds at a time and the time showed well below 59 minutes for the 7.5km climb with: The size of Snowdon but with about 100m less ascent.
Fairfield to Hart Crag
Hikers are warned not to stray too far North on the ridge between Fairfield and Hart Crag. The going is much rougher here, but the locals knew some very fast grassy paths around the worst rocky outcroppings. I took advantage of the first but foolishly ignored following the local man for the second.
A bit further north, you face steep dangerous drops, so this race would be tricky enough in the mist. My descending started well, but then I seemed to lose touch of my feet as several trick rocky sections had to be descended. I lost a good 4-5 places almost immediately before sprinting at full force up Hart Crag and making them all up again. Unfortunately I knew it would be my last chance (“Darn it, I’m the stronger my inner voice said, but I’m running out of climb”).
Hart Crag summit (822m) went by without me really seeing it, all left in my recollection that it was by far the trickiest and rockiest of the fells on the route. No clear path materialised coming off the summit, instead some rock-slab hoping and then into thick grass. I had read in Wainwright’s book that scaling the sheep-fold wall and staying on the right for the descent was quicker so I promptly found a low part of the wall and within a few minutes reunited with a good trail.
I chased like a madman on the flatter bits, my batteries full of power, but I couldn’t make up much ground: The English were too accomplished ascenders to be caught by a dilettante from Denmark even if I felt I had the physical upper hand over my immediate rivals.
While I had lost a few more positions at this time, I managed to catch back a few and generally was going well until High Pike (656m) where a few very steep drops forced me to slow down a bit to manoeuvre properly. I have a lot to learn about steep soft descents.
Once I overran a left-turn in the path trying to focus on my legs, but two gentlemanly English hill-runners yelled me back while taking the opportunity to pass me out for good.
The big trap of the Fairfield Horseshoe comes just after you have left the last peak of Low Pike (508m). You are running down following the trail next to the wall but have to take care to take a sharp left turn in the path (which seems unintuitive as the straight path looks better and leads straight down).
If you do not you’ll suddenly feel yourself face-to-face with “The Step”, a big stone-face from which there is no easy way down except a slightly nervy crawl. I was desperate to avoid such a slowdown, and simply took the first path left after Low Pike and hoped it was it (after all I was running full pelt at this stage!).
Sure enough, my path swerved back without incident. Aoife was not so lucky despite having been warned and had a slow crawl off the stone step to delay her. For myself, the final sheep fold came and went and only fast grass remained now.
At full gallop I had to near misses with my feet hitting uneven grass so fast and hard that it felt for a second like the whole lower leg would simply snap but the speed of my foot lift averted the danger and I tried to shake off the scare.
A painful short climb had to be done on the fire-road before running downhill back into the Ambleside sports field. No runners lingered close enough to take a kick, and then someone yelled “37th” at me which sounded like a good position in an English race especially given I had been much further up at the summit, always the greater accomplishment to my mind (the words of a man who rates strength over skill, but alas so is my mind).
I had a good conversation with an older English runner who recognised my Crusaders kit as being “Irish”. He had run a few races in Ireland year’s back (Carrauntoohil and Mt. Brandon) and asked me to say hello to Douglas Barry. It’s a small world…
After a few refreshing cups of water and some time to catch my breath, Aoife arrived almost outsprinting a runner who had clearly had a face-first encounter with the mountain on the way down. “Second woman”, they yelled, and handed her a voucher as she crossed the line. That’s a direct way of doing it.
She came in around 1:44 and while I couldn’t precisely predict my time it looks like it was 1:35:39 using the Garmin’s moving time. A time I came away feeling very happy with just as Aoife was delighted to see herself still able to race well despite the long injury lay-off. No wonder we were both buzzing for the rest of the sports day!
I measured the Horseshoe at 15.5km with 890m ascent while Wikipedia has it as 16km with 1100m ascent. Skirting the top of Great Rigg may have reduced the overall ascent some but otherwise it’s hard to see where the large difference would come from.
English racing – worth the trip!
English fell-racing can’t be recommended heartily enough, having been over without racing, both myself and Aoife are of the clear opinion now that there’s no reason to schedule a trip to the Lakes without planning in a race. Another good route for non-locals is to stay in Coniston and do the Coniston Old Man. There are plenty of good fells around the town.