Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Muncaster Fell Race, 11 Mile 2,000ft, 7th/50

Last March I'd just bought my first Fuji - the XE-1 and what better way to test it out but with a trip to the Lakes in spring. Of course, you can't go to the Lakes without running or racing - so last year I entered the Middle Fell race from Wasdale and had beers with Graham before sleeping out next to the Lake.
The Muncaster Fell Race Route, 10.7mile 2,000ft
So, January turns to February and I'm itching to get a weekend in the diary which combines running and photography again - but the diary was pretty busy with Easter being in March this year. Thankfully, Teresa agreed to me heading off on our free weekend so a quick scan of the fell race calendar revealed quite a few options ;

  • Carrock Fell (NE lakes, a totally new race but only 5 miles)
  • Middle Fell (did it last year and wanted to expand my race repertoire!), 
  • Causey Pike (did it years ago - straight up and down so a classic lakes fell race but a little short considering this was going to be my only running all weekend, which left
  • Muncaster (called Muncaster Luck for some reason?).
Muncaster had all the right ingredients;
  • 11 miles so worth getting your walshes on for
  • Many small peaks I'd not run over before so new terrain
  • Running near to Devoke Water - I love it over there - very quiet and wild and anything from grassy to tussocky depending on where you are
  • It covered the circumference of lower eskdale so the route was 'logical' and included both sides of the valley so was a decent 'round' and certainly not contrived.
  • And finally - It had the all important river crossing - 2 of them ! The River Esk twice in this case with it being Eskdale.

Breakfast next to Buttermere. Absolutely glorious! #iPhone
Brimmed full of excitement after seeing a reasonable weather forecast I headed up Saturday morning and chose to go down Borrowdale for a few hours with my camera. The area at the bottom of Borrowdale around Grange fell looked good and it didn't disappoint. I did about a 3 mile photo ramble (without paths!) over Brown Dodd, Caffell Side, Ether Knott, Brund Fell and finally Kings Howe all without seeing a single person in what is one of the busiest valleys in the Lakes. This is what I really love - wild terrain, almost no paths, stunning views and no one around. I'll definitely be heading round those fells again.
I kipped in the car next to Buttermere - nice and quiet and handy for any early photo shoots and breakfast next to the lake. And what a breakfast it was ! 
The Buttermere Pines taken with my Fuji XT10
There was certainly no rush to leave this stunning lakeside spot. Again – no one about. In the end, I left a bit late and it was a mad dash to get to Muncaster Castle – I like to have a minimum of 45mins before the race starts for faffing and warming up. Registration was a nice informal affair – a table at the side of the car park being very understated. Lake District races are so low key, but yet Rob Jebb (just won the National opener last weekend) was milling around with his family and fell legend Jim Davies was competing.

It was only when I got to the start line with 1 min to spare that I noticed all other runners (about 50 of us) had bumbags on apart from 1 or 2. Oh god? I’d not brought mine - I think I’d assumed it would be like a peak district summer race where they are not required apart from some longer or higher ones. It was certainly summer and the race never went high, so at least I felt that I wasn’t taking any undue risks in setting off. I did however say to myself on the first climb that I would approach the organiser at the end to point out I’d forgotten my bumbag, just in case anybody did say anything.

I started slow (right at the back) and moved through the field as we got onto the open fells of Muncaster Fell. Stunning stuff – so stunning in fact that I couldn’t resist taking photo’s (about 6 in all – how non competitive am I !) plus I didn’t expect anyone else to be posting photo’s of this low key event on the web – blogs always look better with photos !
Great running early on Muncaster Fell
The running over Muncaster fell was sublime – never too tough, but the indistinct trods took us over numerous small tops (around 230m altitude) and managed to squeeze in bracken (plenty of), bogs (some) rocks (even less thankfully) and if you had time to admire them – views! The whole of Eskdale was laid out before us but sadly I didn’t have time to work out the individual peaks which I knew so well – it was just concentrate on not falling over and maintain the pace down to the River Esk before the second half of the race the other side of the valley.
Descending Muncaster Fell with Lower Eskdale ahead
The other side of the valley is an area I’d explored on a few occasions, most recently on my 50 mile MTB ride last August. That ride was made memorable for the bogs / tussocks and hike-a-bike around this part of Eskdale around Devoke Water. It was also a memorable area for me due to it’s wild,  grassy and tussocky nature – perfect running from my perspective.
Ascending the Other Side of the Valley - towards Devoke Water
Rocky Terrain on the 2nd Half
Racing through this area certainly didn’t disappoint – it was perfect fell running – never easy, plenty of ups and downs, very very remote and wild and not too many rocks! To make it even better I was starting to catch the runners in front of me although doubts were emerging in my head as I’d already had a tiny twinge of cramp and I knew I was only just over half way round.

Running Towards Raven Crag
I think this section of the race from Raven Crag to The Pepperpot (marked Twr 169m on OS maps) surprised all runners. The fact that this was all now flagged certainly didn’t make it easy. With hindsight I think the organiser felt so guilty about the terrain that he put the flags up so that he wasn’t attacked when we got to the finish! The bogs got worse, the tussocks got bigger until we actually ran through the field that was so ingrained in my memory from last August – the boggiest tussocks I’d ever seen. So much so that myself and Tim Ripper who I was running with were thigh deep on almost every step at one point. We just couldn’t even walk. Other runners took a higher line and made time up on us (they took a non flagged line).

Even after the pepperpot where we could see Muncaster Castle not far below us, the route took us back inland on a big detour that I didn’t have prepped in my head adding further to our woes! Yet more tussocks and bogs followed but we’d passed the critical point now and they were just “bad”. Nothing worse than that. Good running all the way to the finish was punctuated by my first ever running through salt marshes and across what appeared to be an estuary complete with what I feared was runner-eating mud across the River Esk!! Thankfully, it was a lot easier than I’d feared and it was just the cruel climb up to the castle itself to cross the finish line. 
Andy Schofield on the Cruel Climb to the Finish Line
A well paced race saw me overtake both Tim and fell legend Scoffer (Andy Schofield) on the final few fields and climb. I felt great – as good as I’d ever felt and sprinted the last climb to overtake Andy and finish about 7th.

Sadly, carrying no kit counted me out of the formal results but that didn’t detract from what was yet another of my favourite lakes fell races along with Black Combe, Buttermere Horseshoe, Long Duddon and The Mountain Trial.

This is what running is all about. Low key but yet thoroughly liberating. Roll on next March !!!

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