Old County Tops (it's a fell race and a half...)

OCT (Old County Tops) 18th May 2019.

I write my notes and thoughts as to the Old County Tops fell race, organised and laid on by Achille Ratti club (And the race “laid” a number of us out, especially my quads.)

Gareth on the way to Scafell Pike summit.

The race has been established for a number of years (since 1988) and is legendary in the fell running calendar. It is 37 miles long as you run the highest peaks in the current and old counties of Lancashire, Cumberland, and Westmorland. The peaks are Helvellyn first, the Scafell Pike, and lastly the Old Man of Coniston. There is a cumulative climb of 10k feet across the race. It is not just the distance, or the climb, it is the fact it is the Lakes where the sport originated from and the climbing is of a different kind altogether; steep, off road, challenging, ongoing, relentless. The descent is worse (for me anyway) especially as your legs grow more and more tired. But is an amazing experience, and my second time running it.

We arrived at Baysbrown Farm to stay at a wonderful campsite in the Langdale Valley at Chapel Stile, with the Langdale range looming over us. Cracking. It was Minty’s second big trip out and we were getting the hang of being campervan enthusiasts (“Perverts” as I used to call them. Oh well I am in my 40’s and now own one.) Minty the VW T6 campervan is bright green, hence the name. Full name is Minty McMint Face in homage to Claire’s Scottish roots. And it is brilliant (no gender is ascribed to Minty.)

Anyway back to the race… Actually 37 mile ordeal. My running partner is the solid and reliable Mr Gareth Evans. This is one of the challenges of the race, you run with a partner as a pair. You have to pace each other, push each other on, make navigational decisions together, and ultimately not get timed out and finish the race.

So we met up at Old Dungeon Gill around 7.30am, Gareth having driven up that morning after a 4am get up. I felt sorry for him. But this is Gareth Evans aka “Ginger Ninja”. I felt somewhat sorry for “Metal Dick” (Richard Mackey) who’d driven up that morning as well, but hey he’s a teacher and as hard as nails. (Both drove the two hours back after the race.) It was an 8am start and I was not nervous, in fact relaxed. What was going on? Other people were nervous. Minty and the support crew were on standby (Claire yakking away, Ted licking his privates.) We were summoned to the start, but prior to that nerves arose due to needing a number 2. I was in the queue for the four portaloos having realised that I did not fancy running 37 miles with something on Gas Mark 8 slow baking. Panic was setting in and it did not help that “Chatterbox” (Alice Mclean) was squealing behind me that she needed a number 1. The race organiser reassured us he would not start the race whilst we were on the throne.

Start and finish.

And so we were off… Also running from the club were Andy Poole with a friend, as was Sandrine Fraisse. It was pleasant running toward Helvellyn but we did notice that it was a bit humid and this was to play a factor in the race, sapping strength and making the running uncomfortable. The climb to Helvellyn was straightforward even on the steep climb up to Dollywaggon Pike; from there to the summit, where the first cheerful summit photo was taken. Little did we know that it was all going to get interesting from this point onward. At this point we had climbed 1,176 metres, and were 9 miles in of the 37 total. You’ll note from the photo that the summit was clag bound and it was quite chilly.

The “happy couple”.

Descending off Helvellyn is a swine, it is steep and ongoing and hard on the quads. It was here that Sandrine and Lisa, Alice and Richard all bumped into each other. All heading to the second checkpoint where food and drink was laid on.

After hitting the second checkpoint at Wythburn (southern end of Thirlmere) we had a drink but did not hang around and shot off, leaving the others at the checkpoint. However we ground to a halt when my partner need to “drop the kids off at the pool” before we hit the road crossing for the climb to Angle Tarn. So, I stood there with runners passing explaining I was waiting for my partner and yes I knew the route. After 5 minutes I got bored and started to use all the variations in my vocabulary: “my partner’s having a poo, It’s okay I am waiting for a bus, he’s dropping the kids off at the pool, he’s dropping his shopping, I’m holding the gate open for you all...” After a while Grizzly Adams popped out of the pine forest looking pleased. Off we went, by now Alice and Richard, Sandrine and Lisa had got ahead. We caught up with Lisa and Sandrine and we ran with them for a while, with Alice’s bright red backpack followed by The Mackey not too far ahead.

It is a long slog as you aim for High Raise, but skirt around it en route to Angle Tarn. It is 7-8 miles climb from the road crossing on the A591 and it goes on and on and on with some of the climb steep especially the Greenup Edge part where we hit droves of charity walkers.

It was hot and humid in the valley and this wore runners down, so close that I took my long sleeved top off and ran with my club vest. On reaching Angle Tarn the temperature dropped and the top had to go back on; it was quite variable weather on the day.

The climb to Greenup Edge beneath High Raise.

As we closed down on Angle Tarn Gareth was struggling and had nothing in his legs. Not too long ago Gareth had lost a month of training to shin splints, which completely upset his progress. He’d recently crammed in a lot of running and climbing so he could make the race, and I think he certainly did not want to let me down. I honestly think others would have bailed by Angle Tarn at a manned checkpoint. He didn’t. After a rest he set off for the climb up. From Angle it is a long section to Esk Hause, then Broad Crag, and then Scafell Pike. It is hot at this point, dry and hard underfoot, with lots of charity walkers looking at you, and Gareth plodded on. I was concerned as he did not look great.

(At Angle Tarn Claire had arranged to meet us with Ted as support. No wife, no dog. Worry shifted to memories of the Trigger - see previous blog. Was Gareth a jinx?)

We headed up past Esk Hause and saw Sandrine chatting with someone. My initial reaction was she’d picked upon some hapless charity walker. But on seeing a little four legged fur ball head for me lead dragging behind him, I knew we’d reached support. We both plonked down on stones to munch cocktail sausages, cheese blocks, tomatoes, and beef butties, plus water.

It was at this point that we had a failure of the “entente cordiale” as Sandrine cuddled Ted whilst he had a close eye on the beef butties. Ted being distracted by this, decided to take “Brexit” action and chomped on Sandrine. Our French colleague was fine and brushed it off. Ted brushed with near certain death under a steely Scottish glare.

Big thanks to the support team as the food went down a treat

Off we trudged to Scafell Pike to arrive on the top to a proverbial party or rave or gathering. Boy, it was busy with walkers, charity walkers. It is hard going across the rocky landscape of Broad Crag and Scafell Pike. But we made the summit and had a rest whilst figuring out the descent into Great Moss and the river crossing. The route off Scafell Pike is notorious as there are sheer drops from crags, and you are advised to recce the route and if not to retrace your steps to between the Pike and Broad Crag and take the safer if longer option down. Gareth and I took a breath and went for it and we reckon planned a near perfect route down through the crags, with some scrambling, to look back and see other runners stuck and having to retrace steps, costly.

At Scafell Pike summit we were 20 miles in of the 37 miles and had climber 2,321 metres.

Yet again the descent is a quad buster and you hit the river plateau somewhat broken and tired. We stopped at a beck had a drink and refilled the bottles and made our way for Moasdale Beck for the checkpoint at Cockley Beck. The route is long, undulates, and boggy in places, wearing down tired legs. It was at this point Gareth got stuck in a bog. I photographed him for a laugh thinking he could get out. He could not and I had to use my full force to help him get his submerged and stuck left leg out.

Leg deep in a bog.

We got to Cockley Beck around 3.30pm, so roughly 45 minutes before the cut off where you will be pulled from the race for safety reasons. The next cut off is the finish where you have to complete the race before 8pm. So you have 12 hours to run the 37 miles and climb the 10,000 feet.

We plonked on the side of the road at the excellent checkpoint where there is hot tea and cake. I gorged myself on fruit cake and tea, and you do this as you have an absolute ball breaker and shocker of a climb to the last peak Coniston, via Grey Friar.

A brew and a sit down at Cockley Beck, junction of Wrynose and Hardknott Passes.

Gareth again could have bailed but did not. I was seeing the Ginger Ninja legend in action. A brute, a fell runner, a nutter setting off up a big hill will awful false summits. It was 4pm when we set off and we reached just below the summit ready for the trot to Coniston at roughly 4.45pm. We’d not stopped once. We were on a mission.

You then plod to the Old Man of Coniston summit and what’s nice is you pass faster runners on their way back to where you are at Grey Friar as they head for the Three Shires Stone on the Wrynose Pass. We exchanged cheerful hellos with all runners, everyone grinning and encouraging each other.

We made the summit and checkpoint, exchanging conversation with the marshals, whilst having sweets and water. We’d nailed it, we knew so, as it is all (sort of) downhill from Coniston. It’s a long drag back round the back of Swirl How and the Carrs, but worth it as you are rewarded with beautiful twilight views. Team morale was at a high and more so after Coniston when we hit 30 miles!

At Coniston we had made 29 miles of the 37 and climbed 3,081 metres.

We now made the run back, about 6-7 miles, down to the Wrynose Pass to meet the last checkpoint at the Three Shires Stone. It is a hard descent on tired, quad poor legs, but Me Evans excelled again spotting a runners trod that nicely contoured us down to the road. I looked back to see other runners high above us. We had some water and sweets at the checkpoint and then began the two or so mile steep run down the pass. It was at this point that Gareth suddenly stopped as the sweets literally came back up and he honked his guts up; nothing I could do. I genuinely felt for him. But he recovered and carried on!!!

Off we toddled, chatting away. And the last stretch on bridleway past Blea Tarn was wonderful; quiet, the smell of pine forest and cool.

Blea Tarn bridleway.

We hit the road into Old Dungeon Gill, then cutting through the fields to exit via the Great Langdale National Trust campsite much to the bemused look of non-runners. From there is about a mile up to the road to the finish. We were buzzing.

National Trust campsite in the forest below.

And thus we finished!

STRAVA: https://www.strava.com/activities/2381533737

FLICKR: https://www.flickr.com/gp/petercobley/2Y9tx2

We were greeted to big smiles and cheers by runners, helpers, spectators, and fellow Saddleworth Runners; all cheering and exclaiming. We were glad to have finished, big grins from Wifey and jumps of joy from Ted.

The finish!


It is a tough race, but highly recommended. The route is tough but rewarding, the atmosphere among runners excellent, and great fun running with a partner in crime,

But do train for it.