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Wasdale Fell Race 2010 by Ben Abdelnoor

As I sit writing at the kitchen table, there sits in front of me a trophy that has brought me great satisfaction. Sitting proudly on the table is the hallowed Wasdale Fell Race Trophy, etched with the names of past victors: Billy Bland, Joss Naylor, Gavin & Jonny Bland, Andy Styan and Rob Jebb to name a few. But with that satisfaction comes an element of embarrassment. I won Wasdale in 2010 and my name is on the trophy to prove it; but I won it in the slowest winning time of the race’s 30-year history.

To win, what is often claimed to be the toughest race in England was a great feeling. It is, without doubt, my favourite race and one I have completed more than any other (five times). But it was so nearly not to be.

Everyone talks of tough races with difficult conditions and terrible weather, but that Saturday saw the clag down to a few dozen feet for much of the race and near-zero visibility on the summits. What scant knowledge and experience I had of using a map and compass was put to use in “navigating” through 20-plus miles of fells. Hearing so many tales and stories after the race I was obviously not alone in suffering many trials and tribulations.

Within minutes of the start I was in thick clag and pushing through waist high braken, battling to get back onto a path I’d left too early. I was on the wrong side of the wall climbing up Illgill Head and had already stopped to take out my map and compass. Failing to find the path I headed upwards, following a trod alongside a wall which looked like taking me in the right direction. Glancing behind I could see that one other competitor had followed me; I couldn’t see anyone else in sight. Not ten minutes in, I’d lost the path, seen the last of any competitors until I arrived at Great Gable some three and a half hours later. I felt very alone and a little apprehensive.

A non too accurate decent off Whin Rigg brought me to the path down into the valley; steep and slippery, but out of the mist. By now my lead was over three minutes and a confidence sped me through the fields and along to Greendale. The trudge up Seatallen is draining and unrelenting at the best of times, but not knowing when the summit will appear, nor where exactly, makes it even more exhausting. Two marshals, braving the wind, were crouched by the summit trig point of Seatallen. I stopped and took a bearing before moving off, never entirely convinced of my navigational ability. Off I went, into the mist but heading, I hoped, for Pots of Ashness. A few minutes later and after a short descent I felt something wasn’t quite right; I’d descended scree and rough ground to where I thought I should be. But the ground rose up to my right and I’d expected to be on the level. I thought I knew where I was, but I was a great one for convincing myself of anything. I took a bearing for where I wanted to eventually be – skirting around Haycock and Scoat Fell – and jogged cautiously into the gloom. Good fortune brought me to two boggy features that I recognised from past years. Relief consumed me; I’d been weighted down by an impending fear not just of getting lost, but of not winning. Standing on the start line this year I’d realised a genuine opportunity to win this race would not come often, if ever again.

I gained the col between Scoat Fell and Red Pike without too much difficulty and set off to find the traverse under Little Scoat Fell. This was where I had a frightener. I knew I had to descend down to a trod. I’ve traversed this path many time before, and in both directions. I knew also that, for me, this little path and it’s steep drop off was a little scary but that I could do it. So I convinced myself as I slipped down steep grass and rock that I was headed for the trod. But after descending 50 feet I realised I was in trouble. There was no trod. I’d picked up foolish courage and descended an ever-steepening gully. I turned and looked up. I couldn’t work out how to get back. It looked a long way up, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. Trying not to panic I grabbed at tussocks of grass, rocks and crag, pulling myself up and cursing my stupidity. I will go over the summit, forget the traverse, I told myself. No more risks. But how quick I can forget the promises I make to myself. Eyeing what I thought looked a more promising trod, I took it. It was the right trod.

But I had learnt a lesson, and from Pillar to Black Sail Pass I followed the footpath every step of the way. No shortcuts. No being clever. I was surprised to find out from the marshals at Pillar that I was still in the lead.

At Black Sail Pass I was on more familiar terrain and confident that, if I played it safe, I shouldn’t go wrong. Contouring below Kirk Fell, and concentrating on the path in front of me, I crossed a beck. One moment I was on the path, the next moment – pathless. Why I didn’t retrace my steps I will never know, but on I ploughed, sure I’d pick it up again. Hopelessly wandering I headed upwards, then angled downwards – clueless as to where I was going and quickly disorientating myself. It was as if I’d been spun round half a dozen times. My compass pointed north but that didn’t tally with the direction I expected north to be, nor the angle of the slope. At one point I thought I was heading up Kirk Fell – I thought a reddish path headed up there on the Ennerdale Race? Big rocks, the size of small cars dotted the landscape – weren’t these the rocks that are at Beck Head? I stood for a few minutes, my head spinning. Earlier, in the mists on Pillar, Seatallen and Whin Rigg, I’d had at least some idea of which direction to run in. This time I was utterly confused and really in a panic. I stood and waited for another minute. It felt like an age. I looked at the map. Then I waited for another minute. I don’t know what I was waiting for. I looked again at the compass. This is stupid, I muttered to myself. Pick a direction and run in it. I did, then stopped. This didn’t feel right. OK, I said to myself, find a stream and follow it upwards!

A couple appeared ahead of me from out of the mist and gloom; they were slowly trudging upwards alongside the stream. Excuse me, I said, I’m in a race, but lost. We were lost as well, they replied, but now we’re heading up to Windy Gap… ah ha! The reddish path made sense now, yes, yes. This was OK. Admittedly I was hopelessly off course, but at least I knew where I was. So on I pushed, berating myself for throwing away the only chance I’d get to win this race. Why hadn’t I hung back and ran with everyone else? Sensibly, together in a pack and working as a team? Why, oh why, had I run off the front?

Arriving at Great Gable summit and seeing some familiar faces came as a relief. Hearing I was second and only a few minutes behind the leader was an even greater relief. Who’s leading the race? I asked the advancing pack of runners. Could be anyone they replied. People having been coming and going, disappearing and reappearing all race. It sounded like some sort of farcical comedy.

By Esk Hause myself and Paul Thompson (Clayton-le-Moor) had caught race leader John Hunt (Dark Peak), and had been pushing the pace hard up from Styhead Tarn. Paul set the pace, running every step with short gasps of breath, John with his short stride and quick march up the steep steps, unusually silent and very determined. Me, with a longer stride, grimly hanging on, not wanting to give away the fact I was exhausted from extra miles, extra climb, spent nervous energy and the fear of defeat.

By the summit of Scafell Pike it was clear that no one was giving in easily. We each knew that we’d given everything to hang on to one another and the finish was so close. And so it came down to the final mile. From Lingmell nose to the finish a last gasp stretch and hell-for-leather descent. Not wanting to look behind I gave everything; gasping, panting, grimmacing and in agony. Just 30 seconds separated first and second place. Despite so much going wrong, and seeming to have thrown all chances of victory away, I’d done it.

And, as always, there was Joss Naylor at the finish line to offer congratulations. A rather slow winning time I commented to him, rather embarrassed by his congratulation.

“Aye lad, but it’s a winning time.”