Someone Can't Count: The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra

Ribblehead Viaduct from the slopes of Whernside

On Saturday morning, far too early, Dave and I bundled into his car and drove through the dark Yorkshire Dales to Hawes, for the start of the Y3P Ultra. I did the race last year, but this was the first time for Dave to run something this long, though he has completed a couple of ultra races in the past. This year the race had a nice twist, if you finished the 70km course in under fifteen hours, you could then do an out and back track over Great Shunner Fell and round the whole effort up to 100km. We weren't sure that we wanted to do the extra miles, but we reckoned that we'd be able to make that choice when we got back. Last year I finished a minute after midnight, so finishing before should be easy enough.

Dave sorting his kit out at the start.

The route starts by rising steeply out of Hawes up towards Dodd Fell and then picking up a track around the west of the fell that eventually joins a road/farm track that drops down to Ribblehead. After five miles, at the junction of the tracks, we stopped for a couple of minutes at the first checkpoint. We were already near the back, but we were feeling strong and in good spirits. We made good time on the long drop down to Ribblehead, but were overtaken by another couple who were steaming ahead at a great pace.

Dave crossing Dodd Fell
After the second checkpoint at Ribblehead, (bearing in mind we'd just crossed Dodd Fell) we started our way up the first of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, Whernside. We walked fairly fast, not pausing at all on the way up the mountain. We met up with the couple who'd overtaken us an hour or so earlier, only to see them vanish off down the path when we stopped at the summit to get some stuff out of our backpacks.

The appalling track down Whernside has been repaired and while it wasn't a pleasure dropping down the steep stones at the top, it was a lot better than it was the last time I was there. I didn't fall on my bum at all! Previously, I've been so traumatised coming down the top of that path that I couldn't even dream of running lower down, but this time I managed a moderately respectable (if not elegant) shuffle.

An ungainly old man descends Whernside

We jogged down into the valley and made our way to the road, where the next checkpoint awaited. We'd already been told by family member's that Dave's satellite tracker wasn't working and at the checkpoint, we discovered that mine had failed, too. We wasted a bit of time while the marshalls poked and prodded the boxes that were taped to our pack straps, but they couldn't get them working. The team weren't particularly worried about our safety as we were running together, so they allowed us to carry on, even though - technically - no one would know where we were.

The climb up Ingleborough is deceptive; it starts slow and gentle a nice meander over grass between some attractive limestone pavement, then boom! It turns into a beast, heading uphill at a most unnecessary gradient. Somewhere on the lower slopes, we leapfrogged the couple we'd already seen a few times - they overtook us at the next checkpoint. On the really steep bit, we had to step off the path to allow a couple of guys to overtake us, they were walkers doing the three peaks challenge and were moving very fast indeed.
Halfway in and looking good.

The summit of Ingleborough, at about 21 miles in more or less marks the halfway point of the route. We paused for a photo and then headed off down to Horton in Ribblesdale. I don't know what it is about this bit, but it always seems far longer than it should. It's all downhill, but the path was alternately rocky and muddy and always wet, so it was hard to run much of it at any pace. There were points where locomotion was more akin to ice-skating than anything else. Mud on top of limestone isn't fun. On the way down, we overtook the two guys that we'd seen steaming ahead of us on the ascent. They were celebrating finishing their three peaks challenge by swigging from a bottle of champagne. Way to go!

It was drizzling fairly hard by the time we reached the checkpoint at Horton in Ribblesdale. We were very grateful for the marshalls who provided us with hot coffee (four sugars, please) and cold pizza while we dug out hats, gloves and head torches.

Off we headed up Pen Y Ghent, the last of the three peaks. I really like this one, it feels like a real mountain with some serious scrambling just as you reach the top. The scrambling is even more exciting if you reach it just as daylight fails and you have to do it by torchlight. On the top, we were caught up by the couple we'd been seeing all day and we made our way down into the valley together, where we caught up with another participant in our race who was having some navigation problems.

Sunset from Pen Y Ghent
I've no idea what the stretch of the Pennine Way from Horton to Cam End looks like. I've covered it twice, but both times were in the dark. The path was very damp in parts, but we made fairly good progress. For about four miles or so, we went along as a group of five, with Dave and I setting the pace at the front. However, with about ten miles to go, we realised that the others were falling back and by the time we had climbed back up to the checkpoint at Cam End (peak number five of three) they were out of sight behind us.

This is the point that I really start to enjoy ultras. At about forty miles in, when my body is very tired, but I can set a tempo and walk hard or jog for miles. It's hard to describe the feeling - stupid might be a good word - but it is immensely satisfying. Admittedly, it is harder to move fast in the dark, on rocky and muddy terrain, but the satisfaction was there. Dave, on the other hand, didn't enjoy this bit very much. For most of the day, he had been much stronger than me and could have moved a lot quicker, but he was merciful to the old man. In the latter stages, he struggled. Whether it is just that, being older, I'm better at coping with aches and pains, I don't know. Overall, I think we got the balance of pace about right, for the two of us and our different strengths.

The descent down into Hawes was a bit miserable; the ground was wetter and slippier than either of us remembered from the way out and I spent a significant part of it on my rear end. Dropping through the village of Gayle, I pointed out to Dave where a friend (and ex-boss) of mine lived, serendipitously, that friend drove past a couple of minutes later and stopped to say hello. We were too tired to be very sociable, so I made a hasty goodbye and we headed back to Hawes, running a defiant last hundred meters in the syle of Eliud Kipchoge.

Disappointingly, we arrived back well after midnight, which ruled out the possibility of us doing the extra 30km, had we been so inclined (we weren't).

Some Thoughts:

  • OK, I can do the distances and I was still feeling strong(ish) at the end, but I have a couple of big concerns related to my fall earlier in the year. I was wearing insulated mitts and I wasn't particularly cold, but my damaged finger was not happy. Partly it is the effect of moving for that long, fluid collects at your extremities and makes them swell - sausage fingers. I wore a compression glove to counteract that, but it got wet and made my hand very cold. For the last hour or so, the tip of my finger was completely numb and when I took my mitt off it was bright blue - two days later, my finger is still not as mobile as it was before I started. Secondly, my confidence is still not what it was. I was very unsure on rocky ground, walking gingerly in places that I would have been happy to run over six months ago. The thing is, moving with confidence is far less tiring than going slowly and more hesitantly. Also, when you fear that you will lose your balance, it saps your strength and then you do stumble. 
  • My shoes, which are not particularly old, weren't up to the mud! I do have some shoes that might have been better, but I'm not sure about wearing them for that length of time.
  • I quite enjoyed playing Lego with my kids when they were small, but it's nowhere near as good as spending a hard day on the hills with them. 
  • This is a terrific event; Ranger Ultras do a great job of organising a low-key, low-impact, but highly professional event. If you want inflatable arches and marching bands, this probably isn't for you, but if you are just looking for a really friendly, well-organised event (and more pizza than you can eat) you should check them out.