This weekend I was in Ambleside helping out at the Lakes Sky Ultra, a mountain race of 56km (34.8 miles) with 4,500 metres of “vertical grind, grade III scrambles, rock chimneys, super fast descents and knife edge arêtes”.
The Lakes Sky Ultra was first held last year, although skyrunning began in the Italian Alps in the early 1990s and it’s now governed by the International Skyrunning Federation. According to Wikipedia, Skyrunning is an extreme sport of mountain running above 2,000m where the incline exceeds 30 per cent and the climbing difficulty does not exceed grade II.
The Lakes race was held under the banner of Skyrunning National Series and attracted 105 homegrown athletes along with several others from across Europe, as well as the USA, Canada and New Zealand.
Starting in Ambleside at 7am on the Saturday it took in Fairfield, Helvellyn, Swirral Edge, Striding Edge, Pinnacle Ridge, High Street and Red Screes, and is very much a race of two halves; highly technical running and graded rock scrambling up until Pinnacle and then faster and easier running after that.
My work started the day before the race, at just after 9.30am from race director Charlie Sproson’s house next to YHA Helvellyn. Working alongside recently retired ex-RAF man and mountain goat Colin Harding we were both equipped with 40 litre backpacks filled with small red marker flags, wooden stakes and pointer signs for setting out the section from Keppel Cove to Striding Edge; Nethermost Pike; Eagle Crag, including the descent to Grisedale Beck that had been specially roped for the event; and then up to Pinnacle Ridge.
There fatigue and an ongoing ankle injury got the better of me and I took a short cut just below the ridge to meet Colin near Birks Fell, where I finished the last of my energy drink and ate my final Eccles Cake while I waited for him.
From there we headed to Trough Head and Arniston Crag, and on the descent to Patterdale my IT bands started to play up (yet another injury) despite using walking poles since Birks, and then back to Charlie’s house for 8pm. It had been a walk of around 12 miles with 1,300m of ascent, meaning I’d pretty much done Ben Nevis.
We then headed to the University of Cumbria in Ambleside where the race headquarters was, and where we were both staying in student accommodation. After a bag of chips in town we made our way back to the HQ for a marshal’s meeting at 9:30 and then for a couple of pints in the Golden Rule pub.
The next morning I was up at 5:30, Colin even earlier as he was on the Swirral Edge checkpoint, and my first duty of the day was checking the kit of the runners that hadn’t registered the previous evening. The start was at 7am and despite 105 people having entered, 91 turned up on the start line.
I then drove to Patterdale Primary School, which was the first feed station on the course and had breakfast (corn flakes and a double fried egg sandwich) and then walked along Grisedale Beck to marshal at the bridge in the valley bottom that had taken me between Eagle Crag and Pinnacle Ridge the previous day.
The walk was about 45 minutes and I’d aimed to be there for 10am in time for the first runner at 10:15. I got there five minutes early just as Donnie Campbell (the eventual winner) came bounding through. It took two hours for everyone to pass over the bridge, with many taking advantage of the beck to clean the debris out of their shoes (Eagle Crag is part scree and part soil/slag from the old mine workings) and, to refill their water bottles and pour water over their heads.
When the sweep arrived I then returned along the valley to Patterdale and helped out at the school until the final competitor was through (although they’d been timed out) and then took an injured runner to Ambleside, one of his IT bands had gone so I had lots of sympathy. While I was there I grabbed a fleece from my room and then took up my next post at a breezy Kirkstone Pass.
By then the runners only had about 5 or 6km left, and Red Screes to go up with an optional timed ascent; and even though some at the end of the field could have been timed out Charlie made the decision to allow then to continue. The final runner was through just after 8pm and the checkpoint was dismantled and packed into a van.
Back at the HQ, there was still a crowd waiting to cheer on the final runners as they somehow found a last bit of energy to take them up the steps (very cruel) and through the finishers’ arch.
For me it was an eye opening, lung bursting, adrenaline fuelled, exhausting but truly magnificent weekend. Hats off to Charlie and the rest of the team of around 45 volunteers (many of whom had travelled from far and wide) for what, I think, was a smoothly run event which was greatly aided by sponsorship from Salewa, Leki, Mountain Run, Team Nutrition, Wild Country, Climbers’ Shop (Ambleside).
If you’re reading this and you fancy and eye opening, lung bursting, adrenaline fuelled, exhausting but truly magnificent weekend then how about getting involved next year?
Richard Hamer is a social media consultant working online since 1999, and based in Otley, West Yorkshire. Get in touch if you’re a running, cycling or hiking brand; I might be able to help you.