Lake District Mountain Trial 2022

Race date: Sun 11 September 2022

Report by Louis Wood

This was my second year taking on the Lake District Mountain Trial (LDMT). There are three courses you can take on – the short, medium and classic. In 2021 I completed the Medium Trial. This year I decided to take on the Classic course.

For those not in the know, the LDMT describes itself as: “a severe test of fellrunners’ mountaineering ability and stamina. Competitors are required to traverse difficult and often dangerous terrain, rapidly but safely. Navigational skills and route choice have a direct bearing on each competitor’s safety. Evolving from a race organised by the YHA in 1952, it is run on orienteering principles and is the longest established event of its kind in Great Britain.

Classic Trial: around 18 miles and 7500ft climb (29 km and 2300m)

The distances…are as the crow flies. Actual distances covered may be up to 50% further.”

The location of the trial changes each year and you don’t get to find out where you are going until you collect your map after starting the race. That said, I had a fair idea already: for 2022 the start and registration was based in St Johns-in-the-Vale and the pre-race information included warnings that the highest mountain the locality – Helvellyn – was likely to be busy with walkers and that a triathlon on the same day would be ascending one of the key ridges.

Start field and the first of many climbs in the background.

It felt like poetic justice: as a penance for not supporting Nick Burns on leg 2 of his Bob Graham attempt in the summer (I had Covid, not just laziness!), I was being sent over many of the same Lake District Eastern Fells. Only this time it wouldn’t be the dark and lashing rain that slowed me down, it would be my own navigational errors.

I had travelled up to the Lakes the night before and stayed with my uncle, who was registered for the short course. However he was feeling under the weather in the morning and decided not to run, so I headed off early by myself to the race HQ in time to register ahead of my 9:00am start time. Before starting I chatted to sometime-Strider and long distance fell running supremo Amy Duck (she was running the short course in a pair), then it was time to go.

Apprehension before the start

After dibbing in at the first control point, we were sent immediately upwards to collect the map. A quick glance confirmed my suspicions – I would be travelling across most of the Bob Graham fells, from Clough Head in north to Dollywagon PIke in the south, but via a much more circuitous route.

But before all that, I trotted diagonally upwards to the top of a minor crag for the first of the day’s 10 checkpoints.

From there I turned north in search of a sheepfold just below the summit of Clough Head. The weather was blustery but dry for now and without any of the dreaded clag – that was my real fear, not rain and cold, as navigation on unfamiliar terrain would far harder if I couldn’t see where I was going. Or so I thought.

After finding the sheepfold without mishap – runners were still fairly closely bunched at this point, I had the first major decision of the day to make. The next checkpoint was on a hilltop, 3 or 4 kilometres east. I could either follow the direct line involving decent to a river crossing and a climb up the other side or take the longer route by curving south, but not losing so much height. This was where I made my worst choice of the day and the good visibility was partly responsible,

Instead of stopping and thinking about it and looking properly at my map, I stared out across the grassy slopes of Clough Head and saw a hilltop in the distance that I decided was my target (spoiler: it wasn’t). So while most other runners around me ran off southeast (which should have been another clue), I stuck out directly east. I made good progress, soon crossed the river and started across the other side. The hilltop still looked a long way away. I checked my map. And again. Something wasn’t right. I looked around. I could see only one other runner. He had also crossed the river but had immediately head back up another hill close by.

There was an unpaved road nearby. Why couldn’t I see it on my map?! I was getting confused a little panicky now – in my eagerness I’d forgotten to take stock and actually check where I was going. I stopped and started checking my position compared to the features on the map. Suddenly it all became clear – I was much closer to the checkpoint than I’d realised but had wasted a good half an hour or more by taking a foolish route. I scrambled up the extremely steep and rocky hillside and managed to find the checkpoint, with a stream of runners approaching it much more quickly and easily from the opposite direction.

Cursing my stupidity, I vowed to take more time thinking about my route choices for the rest of the event. Unfortunately, the next checkpoint was another 5km away as the crow flies and I faced a number of options over my route – I could stick to the path and climb over some summits or avoid the ascent and extra distance by heading direct once again. I took time to assess the options and decided a direct route across Rush Gill to towards the summit of Hart Side before contouring round to the next checkpoint was the best option.

With the cloud lifting, I had a clear view of where I was going and made decent progress. The ground was tussocky and boggy but at least I wasn’t lost. The loop beneath the peaks of Stybarrow Dodd and Raise was equally slow going but I found the next checkpoint at the old chimney without any problems.

Reaching checkpoint 4

Feeling more confident I assessed options for the next checkpoint. Initially I planned to head east and drop down to the Glenridding valley before taking the ridge path up the other side to the fifth checkpoint, but a very vocal and persuasive Geordie convinced me his route – directly south and up the other side – was the way to go. It was my second mistake of the day. Not as costly as the first, but I should have stuck to my guns. In my defence, when you’ve already made one bad error, it’s easy to be persuaded that others know best.

The decent was ridiculously steep, full of thistles and football sized rocks and included several fences to climb. Once over the knee-deep river at the bottom I worked my way up and around toward where I thought the next checkpoint was. I ended up on a crag and faced a few hairy moments scrambling up through loose rock above big-enough-to-be-scary drops. Eventually I made it to firmer ground, but as a result had climbed too high. I found the track and descended gingerly, not wanting to miss the checkpoint. Dozens of triathletes plodded up the path, many looking as weary and fed up as I felt.

Checkpoint 5 ticked off, I faced the longest leg of the day: the next checkpoint was around 7km away, south of Dollywagon Pike. This meant either descending into to Grisdale Beck and climbing up to Grisedale Tarn and then up again, or a more dramatic route up to Helvellyn via Striding Edge. Most runners seemed to be opting for the latter and as the navigation seemed easier, I too opted for that route.

First came a long plod up to the Hole in the Wall to tire me out even more. Then I faced Striding Edge. It can be a nerve-wracking walk when it’s windy, but I didn’t have time to think about the big drops on either side. I was too concerned with keeping up with the group just in front. By the time I was clambering the rockface between the edge and summit I’d all but lost them, but at least I had 20 mins or so of easy running now, dropping steadily from Helvellyn, past Nethermost Pike and down to the checkpoint. It felt further than it should have done and I was getting pretty tired. I wasn’t as fit as I’d been the year before and the navigation errors had knocked my confidence. Plus, knowing I was probably going to finish an hour or so behind what I had hoped, it made the getting to the last few checkpoints a tough effort physically, mentally and emotionally.

The final section started with a long steady run back the way I’d come, skirting beneath the tops of Nethermost Pike, Helvellyn and White Side as I engaged in a slow-motion battle with a couple of other runners. The rain was falling steadily at this point and I was glad to not have to worry about working out where I was going. I could probably have taken a shorter line, but it was easier to stick to the main path and not have to think. When I finally dropped off it to find the control for point 7 it again felt far further from the path than it looked on the map – damn those big Lakeland fells!

Checkpoint 8 was the last that required any real brain work. It was hidden at the top of a reentrant, buried amongst the reeds. I searched fruitlessly for 10 minutes, sharing my frustration with a couple of others also flailing around in the gloom. The run from 7 to 8 had been awful – an undulating, pathless slog over the tough terrain on the slopes below Watson’s Dodd – and the hidden control was close to the final straw. I was on the verge of giving up looking for the control when one of the others found it and hollered.

From there it was a steady jog back to the start, but even this felt interminable. I’d been out for over 6 hours and was physically and mentally broken. The final descent to the finish was a rocky, twisting path that jarred the quads and ankles. I all but collapsed over the line.

Route map – the checkpoints and straight lines between them are marked in pink. My route is marked in blue:

There was no joy at finishing – just relief. I covered 36km with 2,500m of climbing, probably a fair chunk of it unnecessary, and was about 45 mins later than the slower end of what I’d hoped for.

Maybe I overperformed in 2021, or maybe I did badly in 2022 – but either way, it was humbling. I probably underestimated the scale of the challenge and paid the price. Will I be back? Probably – and it would super to see more Striders take it on – but I learned a valuable lesson in hubris.

I’m aware this report makes it seem like a terrible day, but really it wasn’t! Despite my errors and the exhaustion and disappointment, there were loads of positives: I got to run in an incredible event in an amazing location, the support and camaraderie at the finish and on the course are fantastic and – regardless of performance – there is always the ‘type 2 fun’ satisfaction of having completed an event once it’s over!

The winner of the Classic Trial was Philip Rutter (Helm Hill Runners) in 4:13:21. First lady and 20th overall was Catherine Evans (Keswick AC) in 5:53:00. There were 54 starters and 44 finishers.

I finished in 35th place in 6:42:32. (Amy finished 31 of 62 in the short course)

Full results on the Sportident website

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