Though it was the Black Combe Fell Race, it was White Combe that was the problem. Or rather that I was running around on White Combe but not exactly sure where I was running…
First English Champs fell race, first ‘A’ fell race, first Lakes fell race. In at the deep end then. And thick mist from fairly low down on the hill was only going to add to the difficulty.
The start took me aback – it felt so fast. I had it in my head that we’d all roll out like a nice straightforward race up at Pendle Hill and things would hot up at the front as people got warmed up. But this was more like a 45min Vets cyclocross race. Flat out, and bang, straight into one of the steepest climbs I’ve done in a good long while. I should have realised that with most of fell running royalty at the front it was never going to be sedate. First mistake.
With a sore knee to fret about due to the severity of the climb and not really being warmed up properly, we grunted our way into the clag and onto the first couple of checkpoints. Nearly 2000ft straight up. As the gradient eased a little and became more runnable, I got going and picked off runner after runner. So far so good.
Black Combe summit, some cheerful marshals, nearly forgetting to dib (new tech for me in a fell race) and we dashed off into the clag on some fast, though not distinct paths. Follow the shadows in the mist and the footprints. Second mistake.
Dibbing at Checkpoint 3, I followed the guys in front, one of whom suddenly stopped, swore and ran off randomly to the left, checked his GPS, map, or something. A group of us followed dutifully. More moaning from him, stop/start running from us and then the start of a more purposeful effort from those at the front to get back on track for Checkpoint 4. After a bit of this, I got my map out and tried to make sense of what I could (vaguely) see around me. It wasn’t much help, though I assumed we had dropped off too far to the right of the racing line and were contouring round to pick up the Checkpoint. The others in front seemed convinced of what had happened and were heading off fast to rectify the error. I followed again. Third mistake.
After some faffing and the realisation that we were all lost, all 20 or so of us in small loosely affliated groups, I got the compass out and tried to make sense of the map and our direction of travel allied to what I thought I could see in the mist. Another runner admitted to having a breadcrumb trail on her iPhone and set off purposefully to find the route nearby. It didn’t feel right and taking a bearing, I surmised we were heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction, now along the race route. About turn and it was a relief to finally run through Checkpoint 3 again. But, the damage had been done, to the tune of 25 mins or so lost and an extra mile and a half including several hundred feet of climbing.
From then on, I took bearings, visualised timings for distance travelled in advance, stormed the huge 2nd climb and navigated perfectly to the finish, including finding the tricky racing line down through the heather off the last Checkpoint to find the main track perfectly.
Lesson learned. Don’t wait till you, or someone else in front of you gets lost. Know where you are at all time, have the map and compass out if the visibility is bad and above all, ignore the other idiots who like me, were blindly following someone else they thought would know where they were going.
The extra time out on the fell and the extremely steep climbs combined to mash my legs into a reasonably complete state of disrepair in the following days, so much so that even with gentle riding they have only come round quite late in the week and I have stopped feeling shattered.
Here’s an excellent account from winner Ben Mounsey who didn’t get lost: