The Three Rings of Shap offers a clover-leaf course on the edge of the Lake District, with three very different loops out and back from the HQ at Shap Memorial Hall. Ring 1, to the west, takes in some proper fell terrain and two Wainwright peaks with stunning views of Haweswater. Ring 2, to the north, takes an almost marathon length undulating tour alongside three local rivers. Ring 3 takes in the beautiful limestone country to the south east.
RING 1 – 18 miles 900m of ascent
With the option of starting between 8am and 9am, I decided to hang back, along with several other runners, until around 8.20 to avoid bottlenecks at the 6 stiles and stepping stones within the first mile. In the event, I got chatting to Ken Sutor, hot favourite to win the race, and winner of last year’s UTPD. We were so busy chatting that before I knew it, it was 8.30 and I’d not seen most of the others leave. I quickly said goodbye to Ken, who wasn’t planning to start until 8.45, and left by myself.
This allowed me to set my own pace and I felt comfortable and fresh for the first few flattish miles, walking the first of the steeper climbs up the valley. Despite the chilly feel before the start, it was humid and I was soon sweating. That continued for the rest of the day and I had to make sure I was drinking plenty and taking on salt tabs. I was quickly overtaking walkers and other runners, but a bit disappointed at how quickly Ken passed me, well before Mosedale. Still, I was running well and comfortably. The climb up from Mosedale to the summit of Branstree was tougher than expected but it was soon over and the descent to the col before Selside was a real pleasure to run at speed. I passed a lot of runners along this section and all the way down to the valley bottom, despite cutting left too early, missing the waterfalls and having to pick my way down a very steep and trackless descent to the footbridge.
I’d left my paper map at base and relied on my phone (with 1:25000 mapping) for the relatively straightforward Ring 1. But the humidity and sweat meant that I found it difficult to read and use the touchscreen, so I ended up relying on memory for much of the way. I only made one minor error, running to the wrong corner of a field below Rayside farm and that was easily corrected.
On the way back into Shap I passed Nick Ham, who said he was finding it tough going this morning. It gave me a bit of a boost to realise I still felt quite fresh.
The SI system was brilliant, telling me that I’d finished Ring 1 in 5th place, another fantastic boost, given that I’d had no idea how I was doing up to that point.
All the same, I didn’t rush out of base but changed my wet socks and T-shirt and had a bowl of soup and an attempt (1 bite) at an gg sandwich. I put my annotated paper map into my pack but planned to continue using my phone as long as the battery lasted (down to 60% at this point), now unwrapped and useable again.
RING 2 – 24 miles – 700m of ascent
I set off onto ring 2 feeling fresher and overtook a number of runners on the climb up to the motorway crossing then over the fields which followed. When I hit the track, I speeded up on the gentle downhill, running 8 min miles and pulling away from another guy. The rest of this loop – apart from a horrible section through a felled wood – was pleasant and generally pretty flat with only minor undulations by the river banks or through fields. I was running comfortably again, with reduced weight from carrying limited water and food due to putting my own food drops out on this loop. Water was available every 10k or so, so I didn’t need to carry much. At the first water stop, I went to the river and completely doused myself from head to toe. That really stopped me overheating for a good couple of hours. I overtook another runner, Tanya Coates, before arriving at the checkpoint at Great Strickland. Phil Musson was ready to leave just as I arrived, the first of several encounters we had over the rest of the day. I had 5 minutes sitting, eating and drinking, heading out just as Tanya arrived in.
After a speedy downhill road section, and a short trudge across several fields, I caught Phil on the way through Hackthorpe village. We ran together and chatted for a short way before he kindly gave me some directions and encouraged me to press on as we headed through Lowther deer park. I was still running some uphills and pulled away, not seeing him again on this ring. From the suspension bridge along the river then the climb back up from Rosgill, I was starting to tire. But I felt I’d run a good leg and I was spurred on by the thought of finding out my position back at base. When I did, I was chuffed – I was still in 6th place – and not only that, positions right up to 3rd were no more than 15 minutes ahead of me. This was the most exciting position I’ve ever been in and my confidence and determination swelled.
42 Miles – 9 hrs 6 mins
RING 3 – 20 miles 750m ascent
I knew that the rest had done me good after ring 1, so again I took my time and had two bowls of soup which went down easily, along with a sausage roll and a good glug of flat coke. I also filled my bottle with coke before heading out again.
To reduce weight and increase speed I took a couple of rash decisions at this point. Decisions that were to prove very costly. First, I ditched my now dead phone – rather than “waste time” putting in the spare battery. Second, I ditched my compass. Navigation on this section is simple, I thought, after completing the much more complex nav on ring 2 without a hitch.
Spurred on by the very real possibility of a top 5 finish, I set off on ring 3, once again feeling a little fresher. On the gentle climb up to the motorway, I really noticed the effects of the coke. It definitely felt like an injection of instant energy. I wondered if I was imagining it (as I’d already been taking on caffeine in my shot blocks for much of the day anyway) but then thought – who cares? Even a placebo effect is a real effect. For the next 5 miles, every time I took I swig of coke I told myself I was drinking rocket fuel.
The running was good for much of this section and I began to feel increasingly confident I could catch someone up ahead. I really focused mentally during this period and every time my mind wanted me to walk a runnable uphill section, I tried using some mindfulness tricks to get unhooked – “I’m having the thought that I need to walk”. That really helped. And it was even more powerful to tune in to my body, listening to what it was saying, rather than believing my mind. I particularly noticed temperature on my skin. When I walked, my skin felt warm and sweaty, when I ran I really noticed the cooling effect of the early evening air. So I had another mental tool – focusing on the fact that something felt better when I ran.
Starting the descent down through Great Asby Nature reserve I really started to push harder to make use of a couple of miles of continuous descent.
And at that point, when I was completely focused on speed, that’s when things went wrong.
A few hundred yards into the reserve I missed a small signpost indicating a right turn and instead followed what seemed a much clearer track uphill and to the left. I continued for another few minutes before sensing I was going wrong. I stopped and checked the map, thought I knew where I was and headed off to the right across some tussocky grass to correct things. But a few minutes later I could still see no sign of the correct path and I was no longer sure where I was. Stupidly, I had no compass and no phone for GPS. All I knew was that I was stuck in the middle of a field of limestone boulders travelling at less than walking pace.
I stood stock still for two minutes studying the map and the landscape then headed off again, this time to the left. After another 10-15 minutes, I finally found the path, now way below me to the left and picked my way down a steep bank. Back on the path I found myself heading uphill. This should have rung warning bells, but in my fatigued state, it didn’t. And that’s when I met Phil Musson coming the other way. Phil whom I should have been at least 30 minutes ahead of by now.
“Where are you going?” he said.
Somehow I’d managed to lose all sense of direction and do a complete loop of around 2 miles back to the very spot I’d passed 30 minutes earlier.
I turned round and started running with Phil, berating myself, and complaining that I had no chance of catching the guys in front of me now.
“Rubbish”, he said, “they might have done the same as you”.
He had a point. I thought it was unlikely, but he had a point. And what about injury or simply running out of steam? Anything could be happening up ahead.
When we reached the point where I’d gone wrong, he gave me some clear directions down to the checkpoint and said he was going to ease off so he didn’t blow up later. I pressed on, trying to hold onto the encouragement that Phil had given me, but if I’m honest, I didn’t believe I’d catch anyone else now. By the checkpoint I was a couple of minutes ahead of him and knowing that we’d started at roughly the same time, I decided I needed to pull away as much as I could so he didn’t catch me on the run in. I pounded down the road to Great Asby and then really powerwalked the climbs over to Gaythorne Hall until I was absolutely sure that there was at least 5 minutes between us. When I’d seen no sign of him for a while, I convinced myself that was enough – and then my work rate really dropped. Apart from the downhill sections – that I ran well – I walked pretty much 2/3 of the last 5 miles, with just occasional short bursts of running for 30 seconds or so.
Even reaching the summit above Shap didn’t speed me up that much, because by now I needed my torch and it was too uneven underfoot to do more than jog.
Once I was over the motorway, though, my central governor finally released me and I ran through the few fields, over the railway line and back along the main road to the memorial hall, the flashing lights of the zebra crossing just outside guiding me in like runway lights.
A warm welcome awaited, race officials Neil and Steve seeming as fresh and enthusiastic as they had 14 hours earlier.
The Si system printed my ticket and told me I’d finished in 7th in 14hrs 25minutes, my best ever position in any race.
I felt fantastic, even if my body didn’t.
The leaderboard told me I’d finished 8 minutes behind Andy Robinson and about 30 behind David Wilson. If only, I thought. If only.
Then I thought about how well I’d done physically and mentally in the last 20 miles, with a generous bit of help from Phil, in spite of adversity.
And I was chuffed.
65 miles – 14 hrs 25 mins
7th Place Overall
A shower, some great food and a 1 am sports massage helped me wind down nicely. Then it was back to the car for some ibuprofen and a couple of glasses of Jura.
When it eventually came, the sleep was good.
1. I now know my body is capable of more. In Ring 3, I overcame the central governor. I was tired and my mind wanted me to walk but I could run. Being just 15 minutes away from 3rd place at that point really showed me that it’s all in the mind.
2. Phil taught me a vital lesson. Never make assumptions about what’s happening up ahead. Always believe that you can catch people. With hindsight, I now know that Andy was slowing all the time and finished just 8 minutes ahead of me, despite my nav error. If I’d known that 6 miles out, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that I could have pushed and caught him. IT’S ALL IN THE MIND. NEXT TIME, TELL MYSELF “ANYTHING COULD BE HAPPENING UP AHEAD”.
3. Flat coke is rocket fuel. Even if it’s placebo rocket fuel. It’s all in the mind.
4. Meticulous preparation really pays off. My anotated map was superb for 99.9% of the way and helped me run as if I’d recce’d the route. BUT don’t get complacent if you haven’t been able to recce. There is always the chance of something unexpected.
5. NEVER EVER EVER go anywhere without a compass. Complacency might cost you something more than just a couple of places. Stop thinking you know how to navigate and go on a nav course.
6. If You’re going to make a nav error, it’s probably more likely towards the end when you’re mentally and physically fatigued. Be even MORE METICULOUS in planning the last third of your route.
7. Great event. And one that’s really worth doing again.