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Black Combe race report

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Ben is back with another gripping race report! Grab yourself a brew and enjoy:

Black Combe Fell Race, 5th March 2022

It began when we moved north across ‘the Raise’, an historical delineation and supposed burial place of the last king of Cumberland, King Dunmail. It is a boundary that separates the northern Keswick people from the Ambleside folk. The move happened some 18 months ago. I promised my Ambleside AC brethren that I would have absolutely nothing to do with Keswick AC. No sooner had we moved than I accidentally made friends with a couple of them and found them to be ‘okay people’. I reported this back to the Ambleside boys and told them it’d go no further. Then I began to go to the occasional training night with Keswick, which at first was awkward and not a little uncomfortable; sort of like breaking in a new pair of underpants. I reluctantly relayed this development back to Ambleside; the training with Keswick bit, not about wearing new underpants. The downward spiral continued as I handed over cash to become a ‘social member’. I reiterated my promise to my beloved Ambleside AC that it’d definitely go no further.

So I’m in the back of a car driving down the west coast to the Black Combe race with my best buddies Mark Lamb and Matt Atkinson, both of whom happen to run for Keswick AC. Mark and Matt are pretty handy athletes and one day they’ll be really good fell runners. Neither have done this race before. Well Mark has, once, but he might as well have not, given the zero visibility conditions he found himself in. As we drive they quiz me about the route. Mark just wants the basic outline of the course: a long, runnable climb; fast running around the head of the valley; a short, steep descent followed by a very long steep climb; finishing with a long galloping descent. Matt starts to talk about heat maps, studying Strava segments from championship races and plotting various route profiles using GPS. I’m out of my depth by the time he starts explaining how he’s going to apply torque vectoring differentials between the front and back parts of his fell shoes on the first climb.

Britta tells me that I spend a lot of time “engaging in ineffectual activity” between arriving at a race venue and the start of the race, resulting in me cutting it quite fine to get to the startline in time. I think she means I faff a lot. Personally I think I make effective use of my time. Today is a good example, where I take myself off for a warm-up run before registering as the queue to get our race numbers is long and slow-moving. I get back to the village hall to see the queue has gone down. In fact there is no queue at all because everyone, including Will Ross the race organiser, has headed to the start field. If Britta was here I’d try and argue I wasn’t cutting it fine but when you receive race number 221 and there are only 221 competitors, I’d have to concede. Not only that but I am looking into an empty safety pin tub, except for just one comical two-inch long safety pin staring up at me. I kick myself for having forgotten to bring my Winnie-the-Pooh travel tin of safety pins. That tin contains over 200 really nice safety pins from fell races over the last fifteen years or so. Some of those pins hold some fond memories for me.

Jogging to the start I pass Mark running in the opposite direction, back to the village hall. We’ve parked by the entrance to the start field and I ask Matt where Mark was rushing to. Matt, pointing to Mark’s dibber sitting on the roof of the car, suggests Mark probably can’t find his dibber and has rushed back to the village hall. Matt, realising a situation is developing with just minutes to the start, promptly scoops the dibber up and runs off, away from the start field, to try and find Mark. “Perfect,” I think, “that’s two less people ahead of me in the race and they both run for Keswick.” It turns out Mark just needed the loo.

Of course they do make it to the start in time, and are way ahead by the time I reach the summit of Black Combe. They, along with their team-mate Tom Day, Ambleside AC’s Jack Wright, Buxton’s Finlay Grant, Orran Smith of Manx Fell Runners and CFR’s Sam Holding make up the lead group. It’s a hard, sustained climb. I know how hard it is when I am acutely aware that I have spat on my crotch instead of the floor, there’s snot dribbling onto my vest and spit dangling from my ear but I haven’t spare energy to deal with the mess I’ve made. It’ll have to wait.

The leading woman, Black Combe’s Kate Maltby, whom I’ve been climbing all the way with, pulls away from me as we head off from the summit cairn. I hope she hadn’t spotted my messy face. I follow her around the head of the valley and we descend to the crossing of Whitecombe Beck. I’m languishing in the beck having a drink as Hannah Russell skips by. I mumble some encouragement as I realise these two women have a serious race on their hands. Hannah has been steadily reeling Kate in since we left Black Combe and looks to have plenty of fight left in her as she begins the final climb.

Now I don’t know whether it was the transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), or Sam Elliot in The Big Lebowski (1998) who first said, “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.” Well, today it’s the Black Combe bear that is destroying me. I’ve not enjoyed my race so far and I’ll continue to not enjoy it. I fumble in my bumbag for my emergency gel. Why is it only for emergencies? Because it has a best before date of December 2014. I’ve slowly been working through a box of these gels and chocolate raspberry isn’t my favourite flavour. I ate the box of salted caramel gels long before their expiry date approached.

The climb gets steeper and I’m beginning to drag my heels (not literally, that’d be counter-productive) as Kenny Richmond and Michael Ainsworth, both from a Kendal-based club come past, along with Danny Hope of Horwich. Danny won Black Combe in 2007 which was the first year I ran this race. I came third that year and Scoffer was 2nd. I wonder where Scoffer is nowadays and whether the paint would ever come off his hands if he scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. I think I’ll try and make ramen for dinner tonight, using soba noodles and teriyaki tofu. I wonder how the neighbour’s dog is; we’re looking after her for the weekend. All these distractions go through my head but it’s really not helping at all. There’s nothing left to do but get to the top of this hill and go down the other side.

Tom Day and Sam Holding are first to dib at the south summit of Black Combe and head down the final descent. Matt and Mark are seconds behind, with Jack Wright a further twenty seconds back. Just seven seconds separates Kate from Hannah in 10th and 11th places overall as they chase Black Combe’s Josh Hartley down to the finish.

Black Combe feels to many like the opening race of the season. It usually gathers a big field and often with a depth of quality. Having changed after the race I’m leaning against the wall outside the village hall chatting with clubmates and catching up with folk I haven’t seen in a while. It’s pleasant enough outdoors in a jacket with gentle rays of warm spring sunshine balanced by a cold coastal breeze blowing in from the west. We stand, gazing up the fell, all big mountain and clear blue skies, savouring the post-race pasties and supping mugs of tea. It certainly feels like a great race to start the season.

It turns out there certainly was some quality at Black Combe today. Hannah Russell caught Kate Maltby on the final run in through the fields, and managed to take Victoria Wilkinson’s 2016 record by just eight seconds. Truly the performance of the day and possibly one of Hannah’s best ever results. Mark Lamb managed a narrow victory, leading in a Keswick trio with Matt Atkinson and Tom Day close behind. A special mention should go to Wendy Dodds who, in winning the V70 category, took thirty two minutes off the previous V70 record. I hope she treated herself to a third pasty for that superb performance.

Ben Abdelnoor