Helvellyn and The Dodds

There are many Dodds. Watson’s, Great, Little, Stybarrow. I know their names because I learned them, and I learned them because getting them in the right order seemed necessary, when my nerves were skyrocketing in the days before the race. I had entered us — me and FRB — just after the Three Peaks, in a fit of ambition. Of course I then got a cold, something that apparently happens after you do something like running for 5 and a half hours up and down three peaks without giving your body fair warning. So once again (this is getting old) my training was substandard. I also had to fly to Denver and back in a three-day period. Dante’s Inferno is remarkably inventive: I won’t forget the people with their heads on backwards. But he didn’t include the particular frustration of being on the 31st floor of a hotel room in Denver with a beautiful view of the Rockies, and having no time or means to go to them. Instead, I managed an urban run along Denver’s inner-city rivers and creeks, which was fine but not much more scenic than the Leeds-Liverpool canal, though with friendlier homeless people. I wanted a flat run as Denver is known as the Mile-High City because it is exactly a mile above sea-level. Altitude training was enough without adding hills. I felt OK until three miles in when suddenly everything felt harder. Anyway, all good training, but not quite enough to ascend a very large hill and then get myself all the way to Helvellyn and back.

“It’s undulating,” said FRB. You just need to get up Clough Head, and then it’s….he didn’t say a doddle, but he didn’t make it sound hellish.

We decided to camp at Threlkeld, and found a site with a perfect view: Clough Head in front, Blencathra behind. We got there in good time and decided to have a leg-stretch and walk up to Clough Head. That does not mean we walked up Clough Head, that would be a leg-deadener. FRB was wondering about lines. These are what fell runners wonder about a lot: which line is best down or up a hill. The Clough Head fell race had taken place not long before, and there was a clear path, whether made by fell runners or there all along, going up the steepest part of the climb. We also had Alfred Wainwright’s book with us, and I had studied it carefully. It was my first proper reading of a Wainwright and I concluded that his writing is very good, and very grumpy, and quite funny. I can’t remember whether it was Wainwright or the wisdom of the internet (that is, fell runners who have run the race before), but there seemed to be an alternative way up and down. We walked up and had a look, and it didn’t seem to give much advantage. A runner passed us, quite slowly — it was getting steep — and with very little clue of the route. He said he was planning to run up Clough Head and along, the day before the race, and we nodded and wished him well, and thought, “lunatic.”

I don’t sleep well in tents and I didn’t hold much hope for this night, but I slept OK. We were up and away early the next morning, walking to the race HQ at Threlkeld under a mile away. The weather was fine, but the forecast promised wind on the tops. That was true, but not all the truth.

I did my usual race prep of milling and faffing. I remember the sun being so hot that we found one of the few bits of shade and sat under it, next to a man who had come from London only to run this race.

I was nervous. This was to be my first proper Lakeland race, and I didn’t think I was up to much. It’s boring to be perpetually worried about coming last, but I knew this wasn’t a huge field, which lessens my chances considerably. It was mostly local Lakes clubs, also known as the fast&thin&quick lot, though bolstered by an unexpected half-dozen of Hyde Park Harriers of Leeds, and the man from London. I also knew there were cut-offs, a fact always guaranteed to churn my brain.

I had tried to learn the peaks in order, but I’m not one of those northerners who came regularly to the Lake District in my youth, and I can’t rattle off Wainwrights and put them in the right position, unlike plenty of my Yorkshire friends. The Lakes are a mystery to me. So, repeat after me: Clough Head, Calfhow Pike, Great Dodd, round Watson’s Dodd, Stybarrow Dodd, Raise, Whiteside, Helvellyn. Then back again. The final cut-off was on Raise, so I had to keep my mind on the route and count checkpoints and cut-offs.

We were told there was no water on the course, and it was hot, so I carried my usual amount: enough for a Lilliputian army. There were still people who were carrying no water though for 15 miles and 4500 feet of climb on a hot day. : kit checks were done, but water wasn’t a requirement.

We set off along a tarmac road, then up Clough Head. By “up,” I mean we climbed 1800 feet in about a mile and a half. I immediately abandoned all thought of good lines, and just followed the person in front, and got very very used to the sight of the back aspect of the person in front. I can’t remember how I got up, probably resorting to French as usual, but I do recall that at the top the forecast of “a bit breezy” became clear. And it became clear that “a bit breezy” meant “you will struggle to stay upright sometimes and the wind will never ever let up for the next 12 miles until you get back to Clough Head.”

And so it came to pass. I ran, I lost my map twice and recovered it twice from the pincers of the 40 mph winds. I gawped in astonishment at the eye-watering beauty of the views. I tried to do as instructed, and to put my thumb on the checkpoint on the map once I had got through the checkpoint, so I knew what was coming. This was slightly ruined by the wind nicking my map. At Stybarrow Dodd, I saw Graham, a friend from P&B, on his way back. Like many others, he had not gone up and over, but cut across a narrow grass trod along the contour. He recommended I go that way, so I did, without remembering that I am very bad with heights that are exposed: the slope was grass, but sheer, and a little nerve-wracking. This though was fine: as long as I can see what’s below and it’s not a sheer drop, I’m OK. The wind though was punishing and a little scary in its intensity. Also the noise of it: it’s only when it stopped that I noticed it had been shouting in my head all the way round.

At one point, of course, I lost track of where I was. I also thought I may be last. I’d seen some of the Hyde Park Harriers behind me, three or four, but they disappeared. I felt quite alone, and I was worried I’d be timed out. For a while I was convinced I’d gone the wrong way and missed a checkpoint and a whole bloody peak. But eventually I got to Raise, and I was in time, and then it was down to Sticks Pass, and soon up the rocky tricky climb to Helvellyn, where I saw FRB coming down on his way back. 

You’d think there was a let-up in the wind, when I turned round for the return. No. On and on it blew. But I kept going, encountering a few other runners, including one lad from Hyde Park who said the others had disappeared because they were going to be timed out so he had left them. I don’t remember much of the way back, except that suddenly there was the checkpoint at Clough Head, and now I knew I had to find my way to a certain point on the ridge to get the best descent down, but everyone else was just heading straight down and I was so tired I thought, sod it, how bad can it be, and followed them. It was not the most relaxing of descents. Hard on the knees, hard on tired feet. But it was downhill.

Then to the tarmac road, where somehow my legs sped up, and around a bend and over a bridge where two women were cheering (thank you) and back to the cricket club where there was even some food left. Never has an egg sandwich tasted so fine.

I came 138th out of the 147 who got through the cut-offs. It took me 4 hours and 18 minutes, nearly two hours more than the first woman finisher, Hannah Horsburgh of Keswick. Bravo, Hannah.

I wasn’t last. Despite the best efforts of the wind, I loved it. See you again, Lakes.

A run in a city after dark

A run in a city after dark

I run frequently in the dark, unafraid, over moorland and hills, but always in company and with a torch on my head. I run more rarely in my city, on urban streets, in the dark. This afternoon I lay on my sofa in a gloom that I cannot explain, and I knew that it could be softened by running, but I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to lie under a thick blanket with a cat on my legs, and stare into space.

I got up. I walked upstairs. I put on my running kit. I put on my shoes. I took a house key off my keyring. I forgot to take my phone, or any water, or my safety wristband that lists my name and contact details, my emergency contact details and my blood group: A+. No known allergies.

I just had to get out and run. It was urgent.

But I am a woman, and it was dark, and I was going to run along the streets of my city, and all these things mean that this run would always be different for me than for a man. Don’t protest. I have run with men in dark woods with headtorches, where I would never dare run on my own — and no would any woman I know — and asked them whether they would run here alone, and they have answered with heartbreaking thoughtlessness, “yes, why not?”

I have run along a canal and a man has looked at me and his gaze has lingered for just a little too long, and I have thought about him and his whereabouts and whether he is following, and where might he be waiting, for the next several miles of my run and he has ruined them. 

I am not anxious or scared as a rule. I’ve been to dangerous places, in war and post-war, and I have been very afraid in risky situations. I don’t think I am oversensitive about safety. But I think all women runners must think like this. A couple of days ago on Twitter a woman posted a question: what would you do, women, if men were absent for 24 hours? And so many answered that they would run, or walk, or be free, without thought of risk of what-might-happens. that it was heartbreaking (and of course got the “not-all-men” brigade out in force). (It’s not all men.) (Men are perpetrators of 80% of violent crime.) (Many victims of violent crime are men.) (Many victims of violent crime are women.)

So here is an example of how my brain worked, on an ordinary four-mile run around ordinary streets in an ordinary city, on a winter’s day after dark.

Which way shall I go

Which way is the safest

Shall I go up the main road which has more cars or the residential street with a wider pavement but fewer cars

Should I go at 4 or at 5 when more people are coming home from work and there will be more people around

Which street has the most lights

Which street has the most lights and houses that are not set too far back from the street because if something happens I don’t want them to be too far back that I can’t get help

I’ll go up the main road because though I dislike running near traffic, but it will have the most people around so it will be safe and then I’ll  turn along another main road but then I have to run past restaurants and bars though what if someone bothers me there, a drunk, or a pack of men or anyone

Never mind I’ll risk it, it’s early, maybe people aren’t drunk yet. I’ll go on the main road with the most lights even though the pavements there are bad and I could trip

I want to run down the road past the park but I know it has no street lights. I think it’s too risky

But maybe I can anyway because it’s rush hour and there are lots of cars and it’s not too long, about half a mile

But that’s half a mile in darkness

But there are grass playing fields on both sides so someone could easily drag me off the pavement

But they wouldn’t do that in sight of passing traffic

Would they?

Would they?

Which side of the road should I run on: if I run on the left, traffic can see my reflective jacket better but someone could stop and grab me or heckle

If I run on the right it would be hard for a car to stop wouldn’t it because it would hold up traffic

I’m not going to go down by the park

But if I go down the residential road on the far side of the park instead, how light is it and how many people will there be walking about and how posh are the houses and how far back from the road because remember when that man followed me when I was running on the posh street and no-one would have heard

I’ll go down to just above the park and turn right and run along roads that are quiet but well-lit and hope they’re OK

But hang on that man has just come out of that ginnel and it’s not very long and it has two street lights so I’ll take that instead even though it’s a ginnel and all my instincts tell me to avoid ginnels

But sod that why should I be scared of running around my own city

I take the ginnel and turn left onto a dark residential street. There are lights but not many and they are not bright

On the other side of the road are two people walking and a person walking a dog. I think, do they feel safe because there are two of them

And

Why won’t my brain shut up about risk all the bloody time

I run past a young man and notice him because I notice everyone because I have to. What might he do, what will he do, should I be worried, should I cross the road, no it’s fine, he’s walking on

I run on. I run fast. I pass the grammar school, set back off the road. I have run these streets many times, but always in daylight or company. Tonight I am angry: why should I be scared of my own city. Why can’t I run on the streets without worrying about everything, everyone, every possibility

I run fast enough for my purposes, not so fast that I might trip. I turn into another residential street, split by a grass bank of vegetation in the middle. This street is so familiar, I feel safer here, for no reason at all.

I know there is a good mile of flattish street, and then I could turn down my steep training hill

But the path that goes down my steep training hill is narrow and so is the road, and it goes under a bridge where cars must slow down, a perfect pinch point. I shouldn’t go down this road, because even after the bridge the road hugs dark woods where anyone could be, dark woods that I love but which I don’t run in on my own at night. So stupid: who can tell a woman from a man when she is in dark clothing with a blinding headtorch?

I have no headtorch. I am pinned to the roads

I should not go down this road. It’s not safe.

Fuck that.
I turn left down the narrow path, under the bridge, fast, fast, fast down the hill, next to the woods, the fast of the unsafe combined with the fuck-it-ness I also feel. Cars coming up the hill, rushing home. They could stop. They don’t stop.

I get to the bottom and have two routes choices: a good flat run along the valley road, but the path is dark and badly lit and again hugs the woods.

I choose the hill instead: a residential one with lights.

No people on the streets. No-one is walking.

I run up the hill, turn right up another hill, turn right into my street. I stop at the wall outside the park and stretch.

I am home safe.

I was never scared.

I was never not thinking about my safety. Because that is what I have been taught to do, by life.