Ever since I started fell running almost exactly 3 years ago it had been an ambition of mine to run the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Fell Race – the ‘Marathon in the Mountains’ and the blue-riband event of the fell running calendar. The races takes on three highest mountains in Yorkshire – Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough over 23.3miles and over 1600m of ascent, quite a daunting prospect!
As I climbed into my car on a wet Saturday morning at the end of April 2019 for the 2.5 hour drive North to the Yorkshire Dales village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, from where the race starts, that ambition was about to become reality.
I had intended to stay in an independent hostel and there are plenty to choose from within a 10 mile radius of the start, but family commitments meant I had to be at home Friday and Saturday evening, so I had to drive there and back on the day instead. If you are interested you can find accommodation in the Three Peaks area on Hostels bunkbarns and bunkhouses in the Yorkshire Three Peaks.
On arrival I registered and then hung around soaking up the festival atmosphere as more runners arrived and the throng in the main marquee grew ever louder. As the start time drew ever closer the pre-race briefing took place and we made our way to start line.
I optimistically placed myself in the ‘4 to 5 hour finishers’ start gate. My training over the preceding 2 months looked nothing like that of someone about to take on such a tough race, my longest run being just 13 miles, well short of the distance I would hopefully be covering today. The usual story of life getting in the way of best-laid training plans.
And then the gun fired and we were off, almost immediately heading up hill to the summit of Pen-y-Ghent. I took this leg steady as my only real goal was to get around and I did not want to kill my legs by going too fast, too soon. There wasn’t much chatting on the way up, I think everyone was just coming to terms with the challenge upon which they were now embarked. The relatively gentle gradient soon ramped up and the running turned to walking as we trudged ever upwards. Towards the top we got to see the leading runners piling back down the path, how they keep their footing while going at those speeds I’ll never know! For the last 100m we were in the clouds and no sooner were we at the summit than we were heading back out of the clouds and down to the brighter and warmer valley bottom.
The heavy rain, which the forecast promised would be our constant companion, had so far not materialised, but it was looking a bit “black over Bill’s mother’s”. And so came the first of the many soakings that were to come, along with associated deliberations of whether it was worth putting your waterproof on or not.
The route stayed in the valley for the next 10km of relatively easy running on good paths and fields and then onto the quiet road, right past the doorstep of Gauber Bunk Barn. Soon after the spectacular Ribblehead viaduct came into view which marked the next checkpoint and also the start of the steep climb up the intimidating, and seemingly vertical, Whernside.
At the base there was a river crossing, luckily I followed another runner who knew a route that would avoid getting your feet wet. My smugness at still having dry feet didn’t last for long as the route immediately entered boggy marshland where I found myself regularly ankle deep in bog water! The gradient again ramped up and were back to a walking trudge. The last 100m or so were a near-vertical scramble where hands came to the help of the quickly-tiring legs as runners hauled their way up to the second summit. Again close to the top we entered the clouds, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up, as did the rain and it was back on with the waterproof jacket as I cantered along the ridge to the summit checkpoint only to turn around and head straight back down to the valley floor once again.
The descent from Whernside was hard-going with lots of slippy, wet and loose limestone, steep, slippery grassy sections and surprisingly tricky paved flag-stones to negotiate – trip and slip hazards abound! My strategy here was more to stay upright and not risk an accident than to trying to push on for a faster time.
At the valley bottom the descent immediately became ascent as we made a bee-line for the final climb of the day – Ingleborough. This started with skipping over flagstones, watching that you didn’t trip on a raised edge, or hit one of the wobbly ones at the wrong angle. The flagstone path seemed to go on forever, all the time with a view of ‘the wall’ that you knew you would soon be ascending. This was similarly steep to Whernside and again all limbs were employed in the quest to gain altitude. As we hit the ridge, the world around was again enveloped by thick cloud and the most bitter wind that I have ever experienced sliced through my skull giving me brain-freeze as we contoured around on loose rocky terrain – every boulder and stone out to trip you, on to the checkpoint.
After running along the top for a short while the route dropped down a steep scramble and with it went the inhospitable bitter wind. With just over a 5km descent to the finish, my legs felt good so I pushed on as much as the terrain would allow, which in the valley was slippy, muddy limestone so caution took precedence to a degree! A number runners pulled up with cramp or had slowed greatly with fatigue – this race was starting to take it’s toll on many.
The run in to the finish line went up a short banking and the down along someone’s back garden path, who had kindly allowed access for the race! It was then over the road, onto the finishing straight and a sprint for the line! I was so elated at the finish and really pleased to have completed the course in 4:36:45. I’ve done a few long races in the past but there’s something about the history of this race and the dramatic landscape in which it’s set that made it feel that extra bit special and even more of an achievement to have made it around. As I later found out, 10% of the entrants didn’t make it to the finish, it’s a race that takes no prisoners.
If you have even the slightest inclination to run it I would strongly recommend that you start training and seeking out the qualifying races now! I have a feeling I may well be back next year, hopefully with rather more training in my legs this time around! Victoria Wilkinson, winner of the ladies race for the past 5 years and holder of 2 course records recommends that you get a group of your running friends to come for a weekend as part of your training, recce the route and stay in a bunkbarn.
For those slightly less ambitious (or some could say less crazy!) you can always walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks. I would recommend starting in Horton-in-Ribblesdale (BD24 0HE), there’s plenty of parking at £4 a day. The first day you could walk for slightly less than half the approx 24 miles and stay in one of three independent hostels, namely The Old School Bunkhouse, in Weathercote near Chapel-le-Dale (please note this is for only groups of 20-30), Broadrake Bunkbarn, in Broadrake or Gauber Bunkbarn, near Ribblehead. Then on the second day you can return to your car. If you would rather used public transport Horton-in-Ribblesdale has its own station on the iconic Settle to Carlisle line.