Old County Tops – a memorable fell race ultra report

Race Date: Saturday 20th May 2023

This was to be my third successive OCT having completed 2019 in 10.07 and 2022 in 10.17. My third different partner had good pedigree with a BGR time of just over 21 hours, albeit 10 years ago, as she kept reminding me, so we thought we’d target sub 10 hours. I thought 9.57 had a good ring to it. I also had my eye on one of the mugs as we might have a chance in the mixed 100 category.

Race entries opened and I excitedly got my cheque book out and brushed off the dust. The last stub said Tour of Pendle £10, another absolute bargain. Entry sent off and think we were the fifth team to enter. For £22 each I can’t understand why this race does not sell out. For £22, we get a buff, a Harvey’s map, a t-shirt, a 37 mile race, two very well stocked aid stations, mugs for category winners and unlimited lentil soup and cakes at the end – surely a no brainer – but obviously not as there were only 100 teams out of a maximum 160 at this year’s race. I always make a full weekend of it so the National Trust campsite at Langdale was booked for £38 for 2 nights making it a £60 weekend.

The race weekend arrived and the forecast looked amazing. I pack, pack and repack my stuff. Must have forgotten something but can’t think what. Three of us drive up, put up our tents and drink too much beer in the Old Dungeon Ghyll on Friday night.

Race day and it’s a warm one. Lots of people hanging around at kit check. Pre-race chatter and discussions are always fun. Race kicks off in a very uncomplicated 3,2,1, go. Again lots of friendly chatter along the route early on.

For my partner and I everything is going very well until the top of Scafell Pike.  We’ve easily beaten the 1.30pm advisory cut off at Angle Tarn, dodged the army of holiday makers sauntering up and hanging around Scafell Pike and we’re starting the descent off Scafell Pike. This is where the fun begins. As we descend the scree, my right shoe feels loose, bloody shoelaces again, schoolboy error. However, instead I see my toes stick out of a 4 inch gash in the side of the shoe. Oh dear! I rearrange my shoe so my toes are in the right place and 5 steps later have to do the same thing. I pretty much have to do this every few steps on the descent to the River Esk. It’s a very long descent!

By the time I reach the bottom, my shoe has catastrophically failed and the upper has completed separately from the sole, right along the whole shoe. Nothing for it but to run with one shoe on and one shoe off. I thought if I got to Cockley Beck, I could reassess the situation. My Injinji sock had also not survived the trauma of the shoe catastrophe either so my big toe was now protruding out of the sock. Fortunately, the ground was soft but boggy. The water was cooling on my foot but the pebbles and stones later on were not quite so accommodating to my heel.

We had lots of teams check on us as they came past, teams that we had seen earlier on but we’d beasted them up Scafell Pike. As we approached Cockley Beck, after almost 5 miles of running with only one shoe on, we had to make a decision. Running on with only one shoe didn’t seem very advisable. Options were now thrown at us by the lovely marshals including take your sock off and pull it over the shoe to hold the sole and upper in place. Harder with a pair of Injinjis and the thought of 12 miles sockless didn’t appeal. The duct tape came out and this was really tempting but my paranoia of causing a bad foot injury meant I decided to play safe and withdraw. The marshals also checked to see if any of them were a size 10.The next words made it even harder, ‘that’s a shame as you’re 54th and first mixed 100’. Bugger! Should I or shouldn’t I have carried on. Was I being a wimp?

So, we’re stuck at Cockley Beck and it’s about 3.15pm. The aid station closes at 4.30pm and they’d have taken us back to Langdale if we wanted to hang around. We decided to try to hitch a ride. Off I trotted up the road, one shoe on, one shoe off. What a dishevelled pair we looked. We must have walked about a quarter of a mile before a nice, shiny white BMW came along the road. My partner was having none of it and basically stood in the road. I gave my best impression of a person in desperate need of help showing off my destroyed shoe. They had two choices, stop or run us over. Thankfully they chose the former. They were lovely and seemed happy to help, well they helped anyway. Not sure they were too happy to have 2 bedraggled, sweaty bog monsters sitting in the back of their immaculate car. I looked at my shoes and my toe sticking out of my injinjis, I could smell the bog water on my socks and the sweat on my shirt. I looked at my partner and we just laughed. I couldn’t put the seat belt on as I didn’t want to sit back in the seat and have my sweaty shirt make contact with their lovely clean car seat.

However, we chatted away as they drove us to Langdale. I admired the passenger’s immaculate fingernails then looked at mine – what different lives we lead. After expressing our eternal gratitude, we left that haven of cleanliness and exited back into the hot and sweaty finishing field. There were already about 5 sets of exhausted teams that had finished and we plonked ourselves on the grass next to them. My partner and I looked longingly at the prize mugs on display and realised one pair of those could have been ours.

Over the next 2 hours we watched and cheered all the runners coming in and observed so many people getting mugs. In came my car sharing buddy, he got a mug, in came my BGR partner from last year, he got a mug. In came all the people who had passed us and checked on us on the approach to Cockley Beck and still no Mixed V100 – we would have won mugs – it was torturous!

Thankfully, the race director had taken pity on our situation and awarded us a discretionary finishing t-shirt as I think I would have cried it I hadn’t got one.

All in all, a really good weekend, we laughed a lot and it was certainly memorable.

I ended up running 19 miles with 2 shoes and 5 miles with one shoe. I’ll be back to claim the mug next year. Find a partner and come join the fun.

Strider Result

Nick Burns (DNF, my first ever) 24.3 miles, 7710 feet of climb, 6.34.35.


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