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Ben’s Buttermere Sailbeck Race Report

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Buttermere Sailbeck Fell Race, 7th May 2022


As a child I was an enthusiastic collector. Generally my tastes were fairly traditional for a child my age: Panini football stickers, which were traded in the school yard; yo-yos and conkers, battled and fought over on the school playing field; Corgi cars, played with for hours in the playroom at home. But I had another, more eclectic, taste too. I had a little jewellery box in which I collected lipsalves. I carried a lipsalve in my pocket and used it religiously, for around 30 years. Truth be told I only weaned myself off it in the last couple of years. I used to collect empty crisp packets; I had plastic carrier bags, literally overflowing, of different flavours and brands, stored under my bunk-bed, out of sight from playmates who might come to visit. Even at a young age I was conscious that it perhaps wasn’t the coolest hobby to admit to.


Peculiar collections ran in the family; my brother had a drinks can collection that ran into the hundreds. Each can was different and every one of them lined his shelves, walls and cupboards, occasionally tumbling to the floor in a middle-of-the-night clatter. As I grew older my tastes became more ‘refined’, moving on to the classic collection of odd and unusual beer bottles, gin bottles and so on.


My latest collection sits on a ‘nature shelf’; animal skulls that I’ve picked up off the fells or in the local woods. Sheep, deer, fox, badger and even a cow’s skull carried down from the head of Scandale valley one hot summer’s afternoon. The skulls sit alongside a range of bird’s nests, fascinatingly detailed and true works of art. A relatively spacious-looking blackbird’s nest, all twiggy and open-cupped; two bird-box square shapes of the blue tit and tree sparrow, the former sadly complete with eight unhatched eggs; an intricate and diminutive goldcrest’s nest; and a truly wonderful, mossy cocoon, complete with thumb-sized entrance hole at the top, of the long-tailed tit. The latest addition to the nature shelf is the ‘shell’ of a hedgehog, most likely devoured by a badger, who leaves behind the skin and spines.


Gathering my kit together before my lift arrives I realise that my Ambleside vest is still in the laundry basket. Damp from sweaty exertions around Coniston the previous weekend there is no chance I am pulling that vest back on. Inevitably this leads to a number of comments before the race as to whether wearing a ‘neutral vest’ is the start of a slippery slope to leaving one club and joining another. I strenuously deny this, because it’s untrue, but I sound like a desperate MP who just wants to be left alone to look at tractor websites. The matter isn’t helped by the fact my clubmate Paul Tierney has dropped out of partnering me at the Old County Tops in a few weeks time and his replacement hails from the ‘green and yellow brigade’.


Walking back into the field where we’ve parked up for the race I spot a perfect specimen of a sheep skull, complete with a short pair of horns. Picking it up I say to myself “This is going straight to the nature shelf.” As we set off onto the fell, not quite out of the start field, I spot another skull. I make a mental note to collect it on my return to the finish. Unless some other enthusiast gets there before me.


George Foster (Matlock) pushes the pace up Knott Rigg, with Rob Jebb (Helm Hill) on his shoulder. George opens up a small gap on Rob as the two descend off Ard Crags but Rob shows his climbing strength to pull away from George on the trod up Causey Pike.


Despite being a minute behind Rob as he reaches Eel Crag, George knows he’s got it in him to catch Rob on the descent. By Whiteless Pike the gap is down to half a minute, and by the finish George takes the victory by twenty seconds.


Buttermere Sailbeck is a hard race with over 4,000 feet of climbing in nine miles. George reckons it’s the toughest middle distance race in the calendar. Foolishly I didn’t consider bringing anything to eat, not even a gel. As a result I am struggling on the final climb onto Whiteless Pike. Just as I’m lamenting the fact I don’t have two jelly babies to rub together, I remember my emergency food and begin wolfing down my Mars bar. Jack Walton (Keighley) passes me as we crest the summit and, trying not to choke on my nougat and caramel, I plunge down the descent after him. Approaching the turn-off to Rannerdale Knotts John Kelly is coming up the hill with a small entourage, about 300 miles in to setting a new Wainwright’s Round record. I don’t envy him. It looks grim.


In the women’s race Catrin Smith leads from start to finish, although Lou Osborn (Ambleside) gives good chase around the course, thirty seconds behind Catrin as she heads over Causey Pike. Lou, recently turned 50, holds off a trio of Keswick women who come over the finish line less than two minutes behind her.


As I arrive in the finish field, to my delight the sheep skull is still lying in the grass where I last saw it. In one splendidly graceful movement I lean over and sweep my arm down to draw it into my clutches. Except what actually happens is I over-balance, tumble forward and go sprawling into the grass. I hear a few guffaws and jeers from folk on the finish line but it matters not: “This,” I say to nobody, “Is going straight to the nature shelf.”


Ben Abdelnoor