The Yorkshire Three Peaks is a well-known challenge. The aim is to cover 23 miles over Pen Y Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in less than 12 hours. Every year, thousands of people tread these well-worn paths, earning money for charity and having a grand day on the hills in the process. On Saturday, a group of us did something similar, only we added on another two hills and twenty miles.
The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra is organised by Ranger Ultras and starts in Hawes in Wensleydale, climbs over Dodd Fell to join the normal three peaks track up Whernside and then heads back the same way after descending from Pen Y Ghent. It’s a long way, but an absolutely cracking day out.
I arrived at the village hall in Hawes on Friday evening, where the friendly staff checked my kit. Running on the hills in Yorkshire in late October is a serious business and they wanted to make sure that everyone was carrying appropriate equipment, food and clothing. Everything being in order, I wolfed down a plate of pasta and settled down for a fitful nights sleep on the floor of the hall. Early on Saturday morning, the hall started to fill up with people who had stayed in more comfortable surroundings in Hawes, or who had driven in that morning. As always, I was struck by the fact that everyone in the race was either younger or much slimmer than me – and in most cases both. I had a breakfast of tea and toast, changed into my running kit and waited for the start. It might be nerves, but in the hour before a long race, I need to make an awful lot of pit stops!
Hawes to Check Point One: 5 Miles
The race started by climbing up out of Hawes onto Dodd Fell. The early parts of a race like this serve two purposes; the first is to get everyone warmed up. It’s hard climbing up a steep hill first thing in the morning, but the climbing got easier as muscles started getting into shape. The second thing that happens is that small groups of runners start to form. The fast ones disappeared up the road and by the time we hit the first checkpoint at Cam Road End, I was in a loose group of four runners.
I’m not sure what the front of an ultra-marathon is like, I’ve never been there. However, at the back of the pack, things are very friendly and people run together, chat and help one another. It’s a very sociable sport.
I gave the marshalls at the checkpoint my race number (for safety purposes), had a few crisps and a bit of chocolate and we headed off after a two minute stop.
Cam Road End to Ribblehead: 7 Miles
This was a long, descent on good tracks and our group of four split into two. Jo, from Manchester and I, were moving faster than the other two, who were training for the Spine race and carrying VERY heavy packs (though they caught us up again a couple of times). From this point on, Jo and I ran together, sometimes catching in a larger group, sometimes just the two of us.
This was probably the fastest bit of the course and we got down to Ribblehead in good time. Checked in at the checkpoint, and carried straight on.
RIbblehead to the Old Hill Inn: 5 Miles
We ran alongside the RIbblehead Viaduct and followed the Settle-Carlisle railway for a couple of miles before turning up onto the slopes of Whernside. By now it was becoming obvious that my visions of sunny weather and glorious views were not to be realised and I put on my waterproof as we slogged up the slope and on to the summit. At the top of Whernside I took a couple of celebratory cheese rolls out of my pack and ate them as we jogged off the summit and down to the shoulder of the hill. The last drop of Whernside is absolutely awful, the path is in a dreadful state and desperately needs some work. If you like the hills, you might like to donate here. Even on a rather grotty autumn day, the number of people walking the three peaks was astonishing and it’s no wonder that the paths are under severe pressure. From the foot of Whernside, it was a long jog along a farm track to the next checkpoint – a camper van parked on the roadside near the Old Hill Inn. Wonder of wonders, they had a kettle going and I was able to get a cup of coffee! “Milk and sugar?” “Yes, at least four sugars please!”. We were a long way into the race at this point and took a ten-minute break here. It was a chance to move things from inside my backpack to more convenient pockets. In this sort of event you eat more or less constantly, so you need to have food available. I also recharged my GPS watch, which involved a series of contortions running a lead from my watch up my sleeve and down inside my jacket to a battery pack in my bumbag.
Old Hill Inn To Horton in Ribblesdale: 7 Miles
The climb from the road up on to Ingleborough starts fairly gently, meandering upwards between fields of limestone pavement before all of a sudden shooting up vertically in a most unfriendly manner. “It’s steep, but it’s short”, Jo kept telling me and thankfully she was right. Up onto the ridge of Ingleborough, the climb to the summit plateau was easy enough – but the thick mist or clag made it more than a little entertaining. Ingleborough has a very big, flat and rocky summit and it was hard work trying to find the marshalls who were running a safety check and the trig-point on the summit. At this point, there were a group of six of us together, along with a few people doing the traditional three peaks race who were looking forward to a beer and a warm fire in Horton.
The long slog down from Ingleborough to Horton was hard work. The ground was muddy and slippy and it was hard to run at all – even walking was precarious at times. Then again, the limestone pavement scenery was spectacular.
Somewhere on the drop down from Ingleborough we passed the half-way mark in terms of distance – well over half-way in terms of climbing.
We had been promised soup and rolls at the checkpoint in Horton in Ribblesdale, and I had visions of a tureen of hot vegetable broth bubbling away. What we got, in a rainy carpark was mugs of cuppa-soup. Quite frankly, at that point, it was one of the best things I’d ever eaten.
Horton in Ribblesdale to Cam Road End: 14 Miles
Jo and I left Horton at about 5:20, knowing that it would get dark in about an hour and that Pen Y Ghent was ahead of us. We made good time up onto the ridge, crossing a number of parties who were heading down into the valley having completed their 3 Peaks day out. The path up Pen Y Ghent is basically a long slow trudge, up to a wall where it turns left and becomes very steep for a wee while. We just about got to the steep bit before we had to put on our head torches. The top of the fell was “interesting”; pitch black and desperately foggy. Running with a head torch is fine; you just need to project the beam far enough ahead of you to allow you to see your path and avoid running into things or falling into holes. However, when it is foggy, you have to point the beam down at your feet as otherwise, you see nothing but glare from the fog. Progress was slow down the first step slopes of the hill. However, when we got below the clag and onto some nice gravel paths, we were able to pick up speed and run really well for a while.
From the foot of Pen Y Ghent, we hit the Pennine Way, headed north and eventually joined our outward path and revisited the first check-point. To be honest, I don’t remember much of this bit, it was dark and it was long – and kept getting longer! Both Jo and I struggled at various points on this long slog – I was very glad to have company.
Cam End Road to Hawes: 5 Miles
This was the reverse of our way out, but in the dark and fog, it looked very different. After about 2 miles, we had to take a sharp right turn which was marked by a signpost. It seemed to take ages before we actually saw the sign looming out of the fog, but it was good to know that we were on the right lines. The next half mile or so was frustrating, we were almost home, but we had to cross a boggy moor with a very indistinct path. It was difficult enough finding the route out in daylight, but finding it in the dark in thick fog was a bundle of laughs. Eventually, we found ourselves back on firmer ground, with good paths heading downwards and the first lights of the village in sight. We didn’t exactly bound down the hill, but we settled into a slow shuffling run, enlivened only by the battery in my torch dying – a quick scramble to find my spare torch and everything was fine.
We dropped into Hawes, through an archway and into the main street, and after a couple of hundred yards, we got to the village hall at around almost exactly midnight. Fifteen hours after setting off. We were given a round of applause, which was nice, a cup of tea, which was even better and bowls of hot water to wash our feet, which was fantastic!
One of my aims in life is to get my training for an ultra-marathon right. A couple of injuries and general business meant that I really wasn’t prepared for this one. However, by pitching my speed right, running and walking as appropriate – and thanks to meeting up with someone moving at a similar pace, I had a fantastic day.