Borrowdale Fell Race

Borrowdale fell race. Where do we start? This race is steeped in history, and is one of, if not, the most famous fell races in the calendar. I have heard numerous runners say that this is the “best race of the year”. I first came across this race a number of years ago when I was wild camping in the Lakes with my brother. Whilst we were passing over the summit of Dale Head, we noticed a number of marshalls, and then suddenly runners starting pouring up from the Honister side, and then descended staright off again back down towards Borrowdale valley. From that point, I said that one day I had to do the race. Fast forward a few years, and it has now happened. I had hoped to do the race last year, but due to not having the sufficient qualifying races under my belt, I was unable to enter. However, 12 months later, there I was stood on the start line ready and raring to go.

Lily and I had decided to have a long weekend in the Lakes, going up Thursday night after work, camping in Seatoller, just down the road from Rosthwaite where the race was due to start. Come race day on the Saturday, I wandered down the road towards Rosthwaite to register, a bit aprehensive and not quite sure what to expect. I had previously walked or run some of the route, so knew predominantly where I was going, however there were sections that I had not yet seen. After the first mile or so, the race is not signposted, so any line goes as long as you visit the mandatory checkpoints. These were at Bessyboot summit, Esk Hause, Scafell Pike summit, Styhead Tarn, Great Gable summit, Honister, Dale Head.

To add to the scale of the event, the race was a counter in the English Fell Championships, which ultimately meant that the biggest and best names in the UK fell scene turned out to race. When running against these great runners, you realise how good and how fast some of these guys are, and it is a great way to compare yourself and see how you stand in comparison to them.

After the low key mingling in the start field at the Scafell Hotel in Rosthwaite, off we went. Initially on a track looping around Rosthwaite before we headed towards the first significant climb of the day, Bessyboot. It was at this point as we were starting the climb that I ran past the fell legend that is Billy Bland, and it was great that he was cheering the runners by. The climb up Bessyboot was a drag – steep, which lead to a hands on knees walk, and off-path and it seemed to go on forever, but after an intentionally steady start, I was able to maintain my position as we climbed. Once summited, you continue off-path for about 5 miles, over underdulating terrain, through bogs and tussocky grass, continually climbing towards Esk Hause. Again this was tough, but at least runnable, and since we were quite fortunate with the weather (predominantly high cloud, sunshine and light wind), I was able to follow the line of runners and pick the quickest and most direct route.

Photo: Norman Berry

Rather than race, Lily had decided to run from the campsite at Seatoller up to Styhead Tarn, over Scafell and meet me at Esk Hause, and it was here that I saw her for the first time. From this point on I decided to push on, and on the climb up to Scafell Pike I caught, and then picked off a number of runners and I felt really comfortable and was pleased with how I was running. Again I followed some runners ahead, and they took me on a great line through the rocks avoiding the main tourist path for some sections. The summit of Scafell was in thick cloud, and we received a number of strange looks from the walkers up there was we immediately took a direct line off the summit towards the Corridor Route. This was the toughest part of the race in my opinion as it was a lethal descent – about a mile of scree, with a gradient of over 45% in places. It was great fun, but scarey at the same time as one false move could have proved disasterous with severe drops all around. Once we reached the Corridor Route, we continued to descend swiftly towards Styhead Tarn and I continued to gain places. At one point I decided to follow 2 guys ahead of me as they left the path and took a direct line towards the checkpoint – despite crossing a number of bogs, and narrowly missing a cliff, I think this line worked as I didn’t lose any places.

I saw Lily briefly again at Styhead Tarn before we began the climb up Great Gable. Again, this was a long climb, but not too painful and once we summited in the cloud I followed another runner as we took a direct line off the summit down towards Green Gable. This descent was initially quite slow as it was so rocky, but the speed soon picked up. It was at this point that I started to pull away from the guys around me, but thankfully I was familiar with this section from Great Gable to Honister as I had recently ran it in a recce for the BGR – although this time I didnt’t take in the summits en-route.

Photo: Grand Day Out Photography

Once at Honister, one final challenge lay ahead – Dale Head. I had heard a number of runners talking before the race how this was the worst part of the race, so I had made sure I had saved some energy for the climb and steep descent. Again, it was long and fairly steep, but once in a rhythm it wasn’t too painful. On the climb I caught another 5 runners, and on the technical descent down to the finish back in Rosthwaite, I overtook another 4.

I had hoped to finish under 4 hours and within the top 100, and was delighted to finish in a time of 3:49.22, in 94th place. It was a fantastic event, and one that any fell runner must experience at some point in their life.