Aly and I are getting married next year, so you’d like to think I’d be well accustomed to the early morning pre-race at the other side of the UK alarm. Well, I was! Sort of. The drive to Braithwaite in the Lakes was approximately two and a half hours from Wallyford, which was just enough time to notice that the breakfast wrap I’d bought actually needed to be microwaved. Quickly looking at the options, I faked a toilet stop near Lockerbie (Aly holds no food-related prisoners – but draws the line at someone weeing in the car) and panic-bought the entirety of WHSmith before we cracked onwards to the promised land. “Three climbs. That sounds fine, right? A couple of aid stations, rain not forecast before 3pm” – this was going to be lovely.
The Derwentwater Dawdle is a challenge put on by Ascend Events, taking in three sizable climbs around Derwentwater Reservoir. The route starts at the Memorial Hall in Braithwaite, not far from Keswick and begins by taking you south from the village to the first climb up Cat Bells. You then drop down, moving over technical terrain for a few miles towards CP1 at a hall in Rothswaite. Out of Rothswaite you are warned ‘the worst climb in the lakes’ awaits, as you take on gradients of up to 50%, climbing towards Dock Tarn. You then move over another few miles of what the hell even is this terrain which eventually leads to CP2. Finally, you take in the final climb of the day (sort of), finishing with a long descent into Keswick and some flat-ish trail/road miles all the way back to the finish.
This was to be my last big outing before the West Highland Way Challenge Race so I spent the car journey, the little time I wasn’t eating, wondering whether I should take it easy or push myself. While I felt a little tired, my body seemed to have coped well with the back-to-back days earlier in the week and feeling pretty good about my legs, I decided to take Craig’s advice from Wednesday’s session and push when I felt strong, targeting sub-4:40, a time based on a flawed calculation worked out at the height of a caffeine buzz about 20 minutes before we got there.
The challenge is open to both walkers and runners with a final cut-off time of 6.30pm back at the hall, which we arrived at shortly after the walkers set off on their 8.30am start. After a great run at the Highland Fling Aly opted to run with Rocco, which might sound like the easier option but you try being towed by a mischievous sheep-loving JCB and tell me it’s an easy life. Poor would-be sheepdog Rocco tends to get a little bit of separation anxiety when either of us walks away from him, so Aly walked him to the start in a different direction from me and started at the back, keeping me out of sight and allowing everyone to get away until the trail opened up enough to overtake. I started a few rows back from the front, not really sure how I’d stack up. The previous Ascend event had Kim Collison place second. Like, the position behind first. So when the RD casually counted us down to GO and a 60KG mountain goat set off up the road at 6-minute mile pace, our eyes collectively darted towards one another wondering whether we should follow him and without even speaking decided no. To give you an idea of how quickly Jarlath McKenna set off, by the time we got to the first road crossing, a mere 150 meters from the start, we had to pull out our maps to confirm the direction of the trail because he was already gone.
Thankfully, Jarlath’s pace didn’t kill the mood and we settled into groups of two and three, chatting about the lakes and our race plans for the future. Namedrops of Lakeland 100 and Scafell Sky Race caught my attention as a group of three runners broke away from the peloton and made a move towards Cat Bells. Now, to make some sense of what was happening, this was a challenge and not so much a race. Over the course of the next few hours, everyone verbally acknowledged this, rejoiced in it even but still made moves to leave each other for dead at the slightest sign of weakness. Jarlath was gone, probably in the bath by now but the non-race for second place was very much on.
Out at the front nice and early, we’ll call second the front because Jarlath has probably finished, was a guy I later discovered to be attempting a Bob Graham. He set off on his own following the descent from Cat Bells but a wrong turn regrouped us before he got away again, leading into CP1. CP1 was indoors so it was difficult to see anyone as I made the call to pass through it altogether. A few of us had shared a bit of banter on the route to CP1 and it was expected that we’d meet again throughout the day. One of the guys had run around 26 hours at Lakeland 100 in the past, which is in the ballpark of the time I’m looking for this July, so I figured as the elevation built up he’d reappear for a strong finish. Out of CP1 I tackled the second climb, a hands-on-knees lung buster that wouldn’t look out of place at Alien Rock, and passed the photographer for the second time of the day. It’s funny how faking a smile for the race photographer can lead to a proper warm feeling that if not handled with care can then sink you into a drowning pit of despair all within the same stride. Anyway, I made good progress up and past the tarn, where one of the early start walkers advised that 2nd place was only 2 minutes ahead. This was the moment I found out I wasn’t 7th. In fairness, there was the SILVA Great Lakeland 3-Day on at the same time, adding to the walkers and ascend runners. A lot of moving parts and goings on for Al to comprehend. “Keep eating, keep moving and push when the goings good.” – repeated Craig, in my head.
Two minutes ahead the walker said, do-able. Not caring about his accuracy, I used this extremely motivating information to ask a little bit more out of the sandbags I had for legs. The descent from this point to CP2 was typical Lakeland spicy. Very little flat running, with lots of angled rock-hopping, “How have I not broken an ankle yet?” “These shoes are absolutely class for this” to “These shoes are shite for this” in the same stretch of trail. Breaking off the trail I hit a section of road which looped round to the final CP of the day.
Knowing 2nd wasn’t far ahead but also wary of the strong group behind me, I quickly topped up double coke and grabbed a handful of sweets. That’s when I caught sight of second running up a road climb about a quarter mile away. Buoyed that I was feeling good with the final climb in sight, I ran up past the photographer and pulled up alongside the runner to gauge where he was at. After a little bit of chat, I got the impression he’d laid out most of his efforts on the climbs and with a long descent coming up I fancied my chances and set-off running the final section of the climb, which switched to an incredible long winding descent, mixed with trail, road and rooted-woodland paths all the way to Keswick. Only punctured by one final stupid hill which shouldn’t be there, doesn’t even appear as a proper blip on the elevation chart but feels like it goes on forever. I mentioned this at the end and the RD laughed at me, “haha, yeah. That’s a nice surprise for you.” Playing loosely with the word nice there, aren’t you Mr RD.
The final part is a ‘take it all in’ kind of section. You’re on a well-groomed gravel track from Keswick back towards Braithwaite, taking in a mixture of trails, fields and then landrover track until you’re back at the hall. All the while surrounded by beautiful wainwrights and fresh from a long day out on the hills. Knowing how far behind first I was, I didn’t experience total elation at the end but I felt like I’d put together a good effort, pushing at the right times, leaving just enough in the tank to maintain my position in the field. More than that, I felt like Aly would be proud of me. My earlier joke that Jarlath would be home and bathed turned out to be true and he was long gone by the time I reached the hall. I enjoyed a moment to myself with a cup of tea before the other runners came in and we all chatted about the wonderful day we’d enjoyed. Before long, I had the urge to get back out on the trail to meet Aly & Rocco and duly did so in Keswick. Joining them for the run back to the finish in Braithwaite.
It’s not often you get such a good day but I’ll take them when they come. Ascend put on a simple yet wholesome event, willing you back for more. Rocco doesn’t need much encouragement to be back, we can’t wait for the next one