Simonside Cairns Fell Race
At the Christmas Party on Saturday evening, fell racing came up in conversation when I mentioned I was intending to do the Simonside Cairns race the following day. Kevin Freeman was most enthusiastic about the idea and said that we need to do more to promote fell races within the club, so with this in mind I should do a race report.
What follows may not be very encouraging to most people, except perhaps the more masochistic characters within the club.
Race registration was at the Newcastle Hotel pub, with an entry price of only £5. The race was a medium ‘B’ race, approximately 11 miles with around 1500 feet of ascent.
The race start was near the pub, just north of the river. The route took us south over the footbridge then steeply up on road through Whitton, quickly turning into a farm track.
After about 1.5 miles we hit open fell. This was the small hump we had to cross to reach Lordenshaws car park. This was a steep short ascent of around 300 feet in only half a mile. In summer the surface would have been pleasant to run on, being grassy, but wet conditions had turned it into something reminiscent of our cross-country events, but hillier, and it was here I realised that my trail shoes just can’t cut it in fell races. My grip was so poor that I considered withdrawing at Lordenshaws, but decided to soldier on.
Once at the top of the hill there was a short pleasant descent on grass to the car park, a brief respite before the proper climbing started.
Once past the car park, we started up the steep rock path up onto the Simonside ridge, heading south-west. I caught and passed a couple of people, including an older chap from Esk Valley Fell Club, whom we’d been talking to briefly before the race. Due to the relatively mild temperatures in comparison the previous days, there was a lot of water pouring down this path from the melting snow up top. I took the opportunity to stop and look behind and could see a string of runners still coming over the little hill, so was relieved that I was nowhere near last.
After this initial steep climb, the land levelled off to a more gradual climb, but the surface deteriorated. I had never seen so much mud. Essentially the fell was just one big bog. To make it worse, we were running into a very strong headwind, though so far the rain had held off. Despite the flatter terrain my pace was a lot slower than when I’d been climbing on a better surface.
I was just looking forward to reaching the southernmost point of the route, so I could turn around and have the wind behind me! I thought things couldn’t get any worse. Silly me!
After just under 5 miles, I reached some woods. The route took us on a short loop through here, over a couple of felled trees, but nothing too taxing. Popping back out of the woods again I finally had the wind slightly behind me, though the large crosswind component made it less easy than I’d hoped. The route was now going north, to approach Simonside Crag from the rear.
Despite the slight tailwind component, my pace deteriorated even more as the surface became even more difficult to run on. Rather than the mud I’d experienced until that point, there was know snow, partially melted snow, and patches of standing water shin deep. It was on this section that I was caught and passed by a group of around 6 people.
We ran down into a dip where there was a traumatising obstacle involving a deep stream, a plank and a barbed wire fence. After surviving this, we began the last big climb up onto the Simonside Ridge.
I had the opportunity to see a large proportion of the route behind during this climb, and realised there was only one person in view behind – Mr Esk Valley. I was second last!
As we climbed up to the ridge and curved round the western edge of it, the poor weather that had been forecast decided to sweep in. This meant rain and stronger winds – strong enough to blow a little lass like me over at one point. The temperature took a dive and the driving rain felt like little icicles hitting the side of my face.
I’d lost touch with the group of half a dozen who’d passed me by the time I reached the highest point of the course. I started eastbound along the ridge. There is a good path along the top and this was runnable in places, but wherever there was a dip, there was lots of snow and ice, so my progress was very slow. I came to the conclusion that I’m a crap descender.
The ridge would be a lovely run in drier, clearer conditions, with beautiful views over the valley to the north.
I could see the group ahead of me receding into the distance, and whenever I looked behind, Mr Esk Valley was closer. I started to get upset about the idea of being caught, not just because I would finish last, but because I would be the last person on the fell in such horrible conditions.
Finally Lordenshaws car park came into view. I cannot describe how relieved I was. Mr Esk Valley had caught me by now and was running close by. This final steep descent that I’d been dreading was actually much better than I expected, as it was wet but no longer icy. During the descent I looked ahead at the hill between Lordenshaws and Rothbury, but the runners in front must have already passed over the brow – the gap had become insurmountable.
Dave was spectating at the car park, so I greeted him with a “Shit! We’re miles behind the rest of the field!”
I took off up the short final climb, gaining an advantage on Mr Esk Valley, but he caught me on the mudslide down the other side. However, I suspected that once I reached a decent surface I would have the advantage. So once I hit the farm track again I just went for it – no way was I coming last!
After just less than a mile on farm track I reached the road down into Rothbury, and as I came down the hill I could see a man walking ahead. I assumed he was a hiker, but then he turned, saw me, and started running. He was a competitor! I had an opportunity to come 3rd last!
I was determined to catch him, but didn’t quite get there before the narrow footbridge. To my surprise, however, once over the bridge, he stepped aside and proceeded to walk again, so I continued at a run to the finish line, followed by Mr Walking Man then Mr Esk Valley.
It was then we learned that there was still a runner out there, and were a bit concerned as we had not seen her behind us, but were then reassured she had a tail runner with her. So it turns out I was 4th last.
So if you haven’t been put off by my report and are interested in giving fell racing a go, I have some advice: