It was a long drive up from the south of the country for the Tri-Adventure team, as we appeared to encounter most of the country’s roadworks, traffic jams and idiots towing caravans along the way, but eventually we arrived in Settle on a sunny Friday evening, spotted the Terrex banners outside the old theatre, and popped in for registration and a chat. The race wasn’t starting until 9.30am on Sat, but ahead of that there was a mountain of kit to sort out, bikes to box up, and maps to mark up.
The team was made up of regular Tri-Adventure teammates Tom Davies, James Brown and George Neville-Jones, along with Rob Smart who had kindly agreed to step in at short notice to replace Nicki Adams, who sadly had to step aside due to an ongoing back injury problem. Not wanting to miss out however, Nicki came along anyway and volunteered to marshal, and ended up running two of the transition areas, so we saw her at regular intervals throughout the race.
At 9pm the theatre filled with racers to hear James Thurlow and Dave Johnson run through the course, explaining the rules and safety measures in place and answering any questions about the route. Teams were listening intently, with many choosing to take the opportunity to eat dinner at the same time – the local chippy did a roaring trade in cod ‘n chips that night! Some teams came better prepared than others, with one in particular deserving bonus points for bringing glasses of red wine to accompany their dinner!
James and Dave were followed by the canoe safety officer, whose information was a little more direct – along the lines of “follow the direction of the safety staff on the river – or you’ll get swept over the weir and you’ll die.” OK, point made! Briefing over, we retired to the football pitch which was to be our home for the night to finalise our kit packing, waterproof our maps with sticky-back plastic and eventually to get a few hours sleep ahead of the 6am wake-up call.
Down the Lune and Back Again
Predictably, 6am rolled round all too soon, but it was a beautiful sunny morning and the field was soon full of racers rushing about carrying bags, boxes and searching cars for elusive bits of kit that “must be in here somewhere”. Transition bags were weighed and handed in (a 20kg weight limit meaning that several had to hurriedly lose some weight from the bag – although usually the cake stayed in there!), bikes were packed in boxes and loaded onto a lorry for transport to a later transition, and finally the racers boarded a coach after the usual team photos were taken.
The coach took everyone from Settle to Kirkby Lonsdale, where the race start was held in the village square. There was a large crowd present, which we all assumed was there to watch the start of the race, until we found out that they were in fact assembled to have a Jubilee photo taken, and that we had gate-crashed their celebration due to a double-booking of the village square! With this in mind, the start was moved forward a bit and after a few words from Race Director James Thurlow, the race was started at 9am and we were off at a run on the first of 6 stages of the race, with the slightly bemused locals cheering us on.
The race format was linear, with the stages set out as follows: Stage 1 – 12km run, Stage 2 – 30km canoe (including a 2km portage), Stage 3 – 78km MTB (plus an optional 16km MTB-O section in Gisburn Forest), Stage 4 – 16km trail run, Stage 5 – 110km MTB, Stage 6 – 65km trek. Several short-course options were available, but we set out with the intent to try to finish the entire course.
A sunny run around Kirby Lonsdale saw us sitting comfortably mid-pack, jogging along chatting to our friends in the other Tri-Adventure team, as well as exchanging a bit of banter with the CamRacers crew. The run was predominantly flat, but had a number of narrow sections that spread out the field, including a swim/wade under a bridge, at which one racer was heard to exclaim “bloody hell, I should have known I’d be getting wet within 5 minutes of the start – it’s an Open Adventure race!”. By the time we arrived at the first transition atNewton, the field was already well spread out with Teams adidas Terrex and Mountain Hardware battling it out at the front – a situation that was to continue for the rest of the race.
A short portage across the field got us to the water, and we were off paddling down the River Lune towardsLancaster. Special permissions had been negotiated to gain the use of the river, and it proved to be an entertaining paddle, especially when Rob and James decided to capsize their boat in front of a bridge full of spectators – which should possibly have given them a clue that the rapids there were rather tricky!
Although the river levels were so low that the bottom of the boats were scraping on the river bed at times, the paddle passed fairly quickly and after a couple of hours we arrived at the portage section, hauled boats up the bank and assembled the portage trolleys for the 2km diversion around a dangerous weir. The portage went fairly well, we overtook a number of teams who were struggling with their trolleys and were soon back on the water passing through Lancaster and towards Glasson Dock for the next transition.
Finally arriving at Glasson after a rather tedious end to the paddling (heading into the wind for what seemed like ages), we carried the boats up the slipway, although they mysteriously seemed to have got a LOT heavier by this point, and got on with assembling the bikes. After a quick update on our position from Nicki (about 8th), we set out on Stage 3. We biked back throughLancaster, moving quickly in peloton style along the Lune cycleway and then turned east and climbed up and over theForestofBowland. The climb was pretty tough, but eventually we ended up on theHornby Road, an ancient track across Salter Fell.
Deserted and slightly spooky in the mist, it was here we had our first race disaster when James’ seatpost sheared a bolt and his saddle fell off. Not wanting him to have to stand up for the next 165km of riding, and ignoring several ribald suggestions about just using the seatpost, we improvised an inspired engineering solution (ok, a bodge!) involving bits of light brackets and bolts from map boards. During this MacGyver episode we were passed by several teams, and we were getting pretty cold, so as soon as the fix was done we pushed on pretty hard to get down off the fells and intoGisburnForestfor the MTB-O, wanting to complete this in the daylight.
Gisburn was reached after a short road section which passing through villages decorated for the Jubilee celebrations, although one appeared to be a bit confused and had set out nicely decorated Christmas trees – too much of the local cider? We picked up the MTB-O map, and set off armed with my new twisty-turny DIY map-board (cost £2, made from a soup pot, several cable ties, a bit of estate agents sign and a nut and bolt. Who said engineering degrees are a waste of time?!). The MTB-O was a line course, but with lots of route choice to pick up 6 controls in order. After about an hour of fun riding, some good singletrack and a couple of surprisingly steep hills, we successfully found all of the controls, left the forest, and continued in pursuit of the other Tri-Adventure team, whom we knew to be about 10 minutes ahead.
Fright Night & Hike-a-Bike
We arrived at transition in Malham just as it got dark, just after the other Tri-Adventure team, and on the way into transition we exchanged greetings with Team adidas Terrex, who were just leaving having already completed the trail run! After a quick change into trail shoes, a bite to eat and a protein shake, we set off into the dark, intent on collecting all six of the controls on this section, which was Stage 4. I had spent last winter competing in a night orienteering league, so the navigation posed no problems as we swiftly progressed through the dark, collecting controls at a variety of scenic locations. Well, we’re assured they are scenic – it was pitch black as we were climbing Goredale Scar alongside the waterfall!
From Goredale there was a long open moorland section to Malham Tarn before heading back south via Malham Cove to collect the final control in Malham, then climbing back up to the farm hosting the transition. It looked as though we had gained on the other teams during this section, so we hurried through transition, scoffing some food and a protein shake before setting out on the bikes once more, passing a tired looking team who were just finishing the run.
Feeling surprisingly alert for 3am, we set off on Stage 5 for what we knew would be a long, hard stage – there were a lot more contours on this map than there were on the previous bike leg, and the distance looked to be about 110km! Happy after what we knew was a good run stage, we’d also had a chance to have something to eat, so we were making reasonable time as we sped down the massive hill from transition, through Kirby Malham and up and over Kilnsey Moor, where the inevitable happened, and it started raining.
Heading towards the first bike control (which also happened to be the abseil location) in the drizzle, we were soon accosted by a soggy looking marshal who directed us to drop the bikes, put on our climbing kit and follow a route up the side of a steep hill that was marked by the occasional bit of stripy tape. After a small panic when we lost the tape trail we eventually located the top of the abseil, after tripping over what we thought was a corpse, but which actually turned out to be an off-duty climbing marshal having a kip in a bivvy bag – err, sorry for disturbing your sleep!
Clipping onto the ropes, which disappeared off the edge of a dark precipice, we inched backwards until we were dangling in mid-air, when testosterone took over and it was time to see how fast you dared descend Kilnsey Crag, a 100ft overhanging pitch.
Still pitch black and the middle of the night, this little bout of adrenaline sustained us through the next road section until the light lifted and we saw what was next – the only mandatory control on the bike route, located at the top of a miserable hike-a-bike ascent of what had to be one of the steepest hills in Wharfedale. The less said about this section the better – it was horrid. To add to the misery, most of the descent was unridable as well. The only good thing was that we caught up with the other Tri-Adventure team at the top, where they had made a small nav error (involving a bridleway sign and a gate being hidden by a herd of cows!), so we enjoyed a bit of a chat for a few minutes before slowly pulling away from them on the road climb that followed.
The light was improving by now, but the rain got heavier, and the dawn of a drizzly, gray morning saw us climbing up and over Stake Moss on bleak, exposed moorland. It was pretty miserable and cold up there, with high winds, horizontal rain and mist, and after a long drag along slow soggy grass tracks a shout of “Puncture” had us all hiding behind a (not-so)dry stone wall taking James’ wheel off.
Tri-Adventure 2 again caught us at this point, and miserable though we felt, it looked like they were suffering more, with both Piers and Ed shivering so much they could barely speak. They headed off quickly to get down off the moor, followed by us a few minutes later, chilled to the bone by the enforced stop. A long descent into Aysgarth did nothing but make us colder, and having seen evidence of several teams taking shelter (about £10k worth of bikes abandoned on the roadside outside a shed!) we decided to stop and warm up in a convenient barn. An hour in the bothy bag and some food was enough to thaw us out a little, so we set out once again in search of a hot drink, which we found after a few miles on the road, at a pub/hotel that had just started serving breakfast.
Castles and Coffee
Although they understandably treated us a bit like aliens and asked us to remain outside (god knows how awful we looked at that point, but it must have been pretty bad!), at least the staff were kind enough to sell us some coffees. Powered once more by caffeine and sugar (6 sugars in a cup of coffee is not healthy and tastes awful, but it did the trick), we passed the amazing castle in Castle Bolton (it could have been a sleepmonster, but the name of the village suggests it probably wasn’t!), and climbed to CP18 on top of Greets Hill, then descended steeply to Reeth.
In Reeth we had probably the most uplifting experience of the whole race – the discovery of a cafe that was not only open, but that welcomed muddy racers, sold bacon sandwiches, had a drying room, and was attached to a bike shop. All thoughts of the race were temporarily abandoned as we piled in for a happy hour of warmth, food, caffeine and some banter with team PlanetFear, who had found the same haven from the rain. In the cafe, we made the difficult decision to skip CP19. The conversation went something like “It’s bloody miles away, in the opposite direction to the transition, up a bloody big hill. Anyone want to do it? No? OK then!”, and we headed off towards CP20. The rain had stopped, we were fed and watered, and suddenly things were looking up a bit.
CP20 as it turned out was also bloody miles away, and up a bloody big hill, but at least we were heading in the general direction of Hawes and the next transition, hoping that our decision to drop CP19 would give us time to do the entire trek. This was a tricky one, because we had no real idea of how long the trek would take, but our estimates were in the order of 16 hours, including the caving, meaning we’d need to be out of transition at Hawes by 5pm. The remaining controls on the bike were knocked off one by one, with a vicious 1 in 4 road climb towards the end of the stage testing the team’s climbing legs. (We failed, and walked.) Up a short hike a bike section to the final bike control, it was then downhill to Hawes, transition at the old Railway Museum and some well-deserved hot food.
On checking in to transition, we received the bad news that the other Tri-Adventure team had pulled out of the race that morning, suffering from cold and fatigue, which wasn’t what we wanted to hear. Hoping that our friends were OK, we prepared some hot food for the first time in the race. We’d been pretty swift in transitions up to this point, but the 32 hours we’d spent racing so far were starting to take their toll. After half an hour in transition when 5pm ticked round, George was sat on the field surrounded by what looked like every single item out of his transition bag. Rob was packing a bag, James was still eating (no surprise there), and I was ready and waiting for them.
Well, I thought I was ready anyway, until it was pointed out by the rest of the team (who were in hysterics) that I may have forgotten to pack something, pointing at what looked suspiciously like my bike wheels, which were sitting on the grass next to my taped-up bike box. Bugger! I thought the bike had gone into the box surprisingly easily…
Two of the 3 Peaks
5 minutes later, after a little swearing, much mockery and several more meters of packing tape, we were actually ready to go. Only 65km and 3 of Yorkshires biggest peaks separated us from the finish, although as we found out as we climbed the first hill out of Hawes, there are other hills on the route as well as the 3 famous peaks! After 3 hours of trekking, we popped out onto a road heading towards Whernside, our first of the peaks, where we were surprised to see Nicki waiting for us in a car. She’d been watching our progress on the tracker, was on a break from marshalling duties and had decided to come and have a chat.
She’d also brought Piers along from our other team, who had finally thawed out and was now looking much better after some hot food and a rest. Spirits lifted by this encounter, the climb up Whernside passed quickly and after finding both the control and Team Endurancelife at the same time on the summit, we headed south with them down a long and boggy track to the Stepping Stones over the River Doe. From here a path led more or less straight up Ingleborough. I went through a period of sleepiness here, starting to see some odd hallucinations (all of which turned out to be rocks!), and Rob was really struggling with tiredness too. A couple of pro-plus sorted me out by the time we reached the top, but Rob was still having a hard time and looked dead on his feet.
Summiting Ingleborough at 3am we found ourselves in thick fog and howling wind – the cloud was low, visibility was awful, and things started to go wrong very rapidly indeed. It took us a while to find the trig point where the control was located (we literally bumped into it after 5 minutes looking in the fog), but then we couldn’t find the path leading down the mountain to the north-east, despite taking a bearing from the trig point several times. We were getting very cold by this point, as well as frustrated and snappy with each other. Going back wasn’t really an option as it would have incurred a massive detour, so we ended up sheltering for half an hour until the dawn broke and we were finally able to locate a route down the NE side of the mountain.
It was no wonder we’d not been able to find the path in the fog – the top section was a massive rock garden with no indication it was a footpath. The wait on top had chilled Rob to a dangerous point, so after bundling him up in a down jacket we lost height as quickly as we could. Realising that he had little chance of completing the route in his state, and with James’ feet now in painful tatters after 44 hours in wet socks (he assures us he won’t be making that mistake again!),it was a quiet and introspective group of racers who slowly made our way to Horton station, the nearest place of habitation.
We made the dreaded phone call at Horton, after checking with the boys once more that they absolutely definitely wanted to pull out, although seeing as Rob looked like a zombie and James could barely put any weight on his feet at all, this was probably an unnecessary question! Presently the smiley face of Nicki turned up in a car to collect the boys, and after a quick chat with her she left, with Rob having fallen asleep as soon as he sat down in the car!
George and I were determined to cross the finish line under our own steam, so we picked up our bags and trudged towards the finish in Settle, following the riverside path on what was rapidly turning out to be a beautiful morning. Encountering the cheerful faces of the Trail Running Magazine team along the way (does Claire ever stop smiling?), a couple of hours of alternately jogging and walking brought us to the outskirts of Settle. With a mile left to go, nothing was said but we both broke into a run, passing through the town, up to the town square, and we crossed the finish line just before 10am after 49 hours of constant racing.
It was an amazing experience, and a great course. Everyone in the team gave absolutely everything that they had, and my only regret was that we didn’t all get to finish together. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the weekend, and learned a lot about ourselves in the process, all of which will come in very useful for the Sting in Sterling in a few months time.
We’d like to thank: Tri-Adventure for their continued sponsorship, Rob Smart for stepping in at only 4 days notice, James Thurlow and all at Open Adventure for organising a great race, all the marshals for generously giving up their time, and especially Nicki Adams for all the encouragement, support and for driving 2 very sleepy racers home!
See you all at the Sting in Stirling.