Scafell Sky Race Report by Lee Kenton

“Why am I doing this?”

Whilst the enervating heat from the sun blistered upon my back at mile 13, and my ankles repeatedly failed beneath me amidst the loose scree and shale, this question pounded in my head as a perpetual pulse.

In amongst the din of arguments being played out in my mind, there was a chasm formed by the want of an answer, and it was an absence I was to feel profoundly for the rest of my time in the race. Sunburn was beginning to prick the backs of my arms where I had neglected to apply sunscreen, and I paused on one of the many peaks to look deep into the Alice blue horizon, without so much as a solitary cloud in the sky. Before me was a visage that I can lazily describe as Eden, being as it was a rare clear and hot day in the Lake District with the whisper of unseen bird calls in the far-off. The air was crisp and smelled of parched grass and metallic dust, and the water of the distant lakes reflected sunbursts of light in a way I thought only liquid mercury could. I struggled to remember if I have ever beheld a panorama as beautiful as what lay before me. And I didn’t want to be there.

One of my few flaws is that I am disposed to overestimating my abilities, relying on hubris and luck to do the heavy lifting when lack of training and fitness fail me in the challenges I set myself. I was to holiday in the Lakes at the end of May with the last day being coinciding with the hosting of the Scafell Sky Race. I’d never heard of this race before, but a brief look at the website informed me that it was 40km and had 2800m of climbing. Below this description was a quote from a participant: “The most technical race I’ve ever done… even tougher than Tromso.”

“What the hell is a Tromso?” I muttered to myself as I sipped Dubonnet in the glare of my laptop screen. It doesn’t sound much harder than doing Win Hill or Cobnar a couple of times. And 40km is not something that easily intimidates me (as some of you will know, I do run several marathons a year). Still, it is good to bend the ear of someone who has done it before, as I did have some reservations that the terrain might be troublesome for me after viewing a brief video of the route. I met up with Marie, one of the team members organising the race, who also seemed to share my overconfidence in my skills. She didn’t shy away from the fact that it was tough but was sure that I should be able to get round it within the 10 hours. I listened attentively to her sage advice about pacing and preparation, before ignoring it in its entirety and planning to be comfortably finished within 7 hours.

With only 2 weeks left to go until the event, I paid the rather exorbitant fee to officially commit. A happy consequence of a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the impromptu booking of races is that you don’t have to plan any of that tedious training which turns so many of us into frightful bores. In fact, if you book it late enough, you are immediately in the tapering stage of most training plans, giving you an unusual window to reduce mileage and eat more.

Most of my usual training partners are unfamiliar with Scafell and the surrounding areas, so were not showing any alarm upon learning that I had entered, with the exception of my friend Hannah who had completed some training there a few weeks before. She seemed almost appalled that I had enlisted myself to do this and proceeded to regale me with anecdotes of paths with sheer drops, tortuous terrain, and something called “The Great Slab”, which she had unintentionally made sound quite exciting. I quietly decided that she was being overly dramatic so flippantly reassured I would just take it easy after she asked if I could bequeath my new Garmin to her in my Last Will and Testament. I agreed, despite already promising it to another mate, Rob.

The race starts at 8am in Langdale in the Lake District and covers several of the bigger peaks in the area, including Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. The forecasted weather was for low wind, high temperatures, and clear skies all day which made the thought of carrying all the mandatory waterproof kit feel idiotic to the point of it being insulting. There was an induction video on Zoom (urgh!) that we had to watch before the day of the race. I skipped through the dull and repetitive parts to absorb the full 39 seconds of useful information regarding which streams were going to be best to drink from. There was only to be one water station on the day of the race, so filling up water bladders from natural sources was going to be a necessity. As is my wont I had left the watching of the video too late, and there were no shops open to buy any water purifying tablets at 8pm on the eve of the event. Luckily this race was all about embracing new experiences, and I’d never had dysentery before.

The morning of the race had arrived and carried with it the promised good weather. I parked up and bumped into Marie from the organising team almost immediately. I’m always glad to see the infectiously peppy Marie, not least because she usually has her little dog Millie with her who is one of the best running companions I have encountered. Sadly, the dog was having a rest day, so after a brief exchange of pleasantries Marie pointed me to the registration tent where kit “may be checked”, and GPS trackers fixed to our backpacks. Part of the mandatory kit was a navigation map that is given to each of us at registration. This map supposedly labelled the tougher and easier parts of the route with a respective red or a green line. Being as I am distinctly Red Green colourblind, this rendered this addition practically useless to me. I screwed up the map and plunged it deep into the recesses of my kit bag, knowing that I’d be unlikely to ever find any use for it.

We congregated in a field at the starting point only to be instantaneously bothered by midges, and people promoting energy bars. I’d bought a newspaper on the way, so sat reading this whilst drinking an overpriced coffee with some sort of vegan excuse for milk until the time came to attend to the race briefing. Poor hydration and heat exhaustion were rightly highlighted as the main dangers of the day as it was already 18 degrees at 8am and was forecast to be at least 24 degrees for much of the race. A large hill called the Harrison Stickle loomed directly ahead of the start line, representing the first 700m of climb for the day. The nerves of the crowd were palpable as we each felt isolated by the immediate labour that dominated the first section. The fog of midges sat above the starting crowd in the haze of the morning, without a sigh of wind or any other natural sound save for the gentle breathing of the patient participants.

We had started, leaving the midges to feast on the volunteers, and I was positioned right at the back which was a severe impediment due to each of the 200 entrants having to negotiate 2 stiles at the foot of the hill. A ripple of polite exchanges passed along the waiting queue as we mentally readied ourselves for the task of summiting the first hill. The path upwards was uncivilised and relentless, but I gained ground by overtaking many of the crowd, occasionally glancing behind me to see the views of the valley and the ant-like runners further down the hill. I felt I had to overtake as many as possible up the hill, as downhill racing is not my milieu, especially in mountainous regions. My speed was already suffering but faring better than most as we continued to the apex and the first checkpoint. After the summit, people had already started overtaking me again as I was faced with the hideous downhill track. It was akin to running down loose Lego blocks littered with unstable boulders. Each step was completely free of traction and large tracks of stones gave way beneath my feet with each step. This was easily the worst terrain I had ever encountered as I tentatively ankled down the slope at a speed so slowly that my Garmin had threatened to go into energy saving mode. Looking up momentarily, you are hit with the sight of Stickle Tarn, a large pool of water at the base of the hill. The temperature was climbing towards uncomfortable levels already as I stopped and drank tepid plastic-tasting water from my backpack. The sun beat down on the vista below and was reflected in the Tarn, like fire dancing on polished lapis lazuli. The inertia of the breezeless air felt oppressive alongside the heat.

After another few heady climbs and descents, I was beginning to feel disheartened by my poor performance on the technical downhill sections. Whilst most others were walking the ascents and running the descents, I was doing the opposite and losing much ground as a result.

After most people had comfortably overtaken me, there was a few miles of flat road before the sole water station and the next big summit of Green Gable. This was the only section where I managed to excel, being as I was full of energy and subsequently overtook around 50 participants. I felt like I was back in with a chance of a decent finish.

On arriving at the food and water station, there was a curious selection of water, cola, “Zoom bars”, and a rather wide platter of slices of meat. I topped up with water and declined the bon vivant cold meat buffet, opting for an orange Zoom bar which I started eating as I made my way to the foot of the next ascent. The taste was alarmingly reminiscent of earwax with a hint of urinal-cake so naturally brought on a wave of nausea. I put the rest of the abomination away in my backpack and dry-heaved at the side of the path as I pondered which particular cocktail of drugs was being smoked in the boardroom when this was given the OK to be produced. I wish I’d had the meat slices.

After summiting yet another godforsaken mountain there is a plummet that can only be described as a hellscape. In 2011, despite not being much of a fan of religious works, I was a guest at the opening of a John Martin exhibition at the Millennium Galleries, which showcased much of the 19th century painter’s apocalyptic art. The painting “Great Day of His Wrath” was displayed that day and depicts the earth crashing in on itself amongst the horrors described in the book of Revelation. This steep slope was how I imagine the aftermath to this would be, with large granite-like jagged scree forming most of the path down, broken only by the occasional wobbling boulder and bordered by hostile and lifeless eruptions from the bowels of the Earth. There was no safer alternative route down save for this volatile surface which took my feet away from beneath me with every step. I’d come to the realisation that this route could only be navigated with any speed by those who were members of 2 select groups: the greatly skilled and the terminally stupid. I will never profess to being a member of the former group and have only a visitor’s pass for the latter, so continued to stagger down like a new-born giraffe learning how to walk. The early effects of fatigue or heat exhaustion were starting to show, as I succumbed to gentle trips over the rocks and my ankles occasionally gave way beneath me. In desperation I even attempted to slide down on my backside at one point, a decision I would come to regret immediately for reasons I will leave to the reader’s imagination.

After this was a technical track around the waist of another mountain. Again, the terrain was hideous, with sections of boulders that had to be scrambled over and sheer drops on one side, so the consequences of wrong-footedness were potentially dire.

It was at around this point that the realisation had hit home that I had no reason to be doing this. I didn’t want to be there. The sun was high and brutal, and the shadows were short and offered no shelter from its relentless beating. I fantasised about finding a shady spot somewhere to just sit and watch the race pass me by. A gentle breath of breeze would be sufficient poultice for the noisy heat, but none was forthcoming. I was sick of the unmanageable terrain and felt foolish that I had entered the race purely because I was in the area at the time. England’s highest mountain was still another summit on the route that I had yet to overcome, as well as a few more peaks and most likely some more abysmal paths.

A cliché becomes a cliché because it is pregnant with truth. The cliché that was apposite for this day originated from Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How”. It is assuredly true for each of us that we attain our heady goals because we have a deep reason to do so. We have a “Why”. That “Why” is often sentimental and clandestine, and richly varied. But I was without a drive or impetus. This wasn’t some race that I had coveted for years, I wasn’t raising money for a cause, or supporting someone. I had signed up on a whim and the race meant nothing to me. Was this the reason that I struggled so, and why my thoughts were littered with expletive tirades and a longing to give up? Because I had no meaningful “why”?

There was only one reason that I could conjure to force me put one foot in front of the other: I had no alternative. I had to get back to the start line somehow. “If you’re going through Hell, keep going” – Churchill. Another cliché. With aching knees I crouched by a stream to top up my pack with water along with annoying clumps of moss after nonchalantly checking there were no dead sheep or signs of people relieving themselves upstream.

The route up Scafell Pike was predictably a long and monotonous slog up dusty, rocky paths in the midday heat, but crowded with hikers and reluctant teenagers who looked even more miserable than I did. Groups of walkers gave way for me on the ascent, occasionally clapping and giving shouts of encouragement, which was met with a hollow “Thanks” as I kept my head down from the glare of the sun.

I optimistically deduced that the route can’t possibly be along such treacherous paths for its entirety, so we were due a good easy stretch for at least a few miles after this peak. My shoulders sank on seeing the boulder fields ahead of me when looking on from the top of the mountain. I hopscotched and stumbled across the boulders at a tectonic speed for what felt like hours, my legs continuously failing beneath me as I went. The throb of dehydration and exhaustion caused me to stop repeatedly and drink in the views of the dusty mountains and pale England’s meadows beneath me. On looking around, I found that I was alone for the first time and I whispered lines of Paradise Lost to myself as I trudged on “With wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way”.

After even more peaks were summited, the technical scree descents continued, and the Lake District gifted us further with a vast and unyielding gradient of the marble-like Great Slab. I was astounded that the route could keep surprising me with worsening ground at each stage as I took tiny steps down the frictionless plate of rock, my knees complaining from the constant braking force hammering through my bones.

After the few remaining miles, I crossed the finish line to be greeted by marshals spraying me with what I hoped was water, and handing over a tissue-like substance that I was informed was my medal. It was apparently a biodegradable medal containing wildflower seeds, which was quite fortunate as I was going to bury it in the garden regardless of what it was made of. The relief of finishing was markedly different to what I’d normally experience. On every other race you are relieved that you were able to do it, and this time I was just relieved that I didn’t have to run any more.

I retired to the registration tent to get some shelter from the sun and lay on the floor like a salted slug as I tried to process the Hell I’d just subjected myself to. I delicately sipped fresh water that I was delighted to find was refreshingly free of insects and moss, as Marie grilled me with questions and attempted to force feed me an unwelcome slice of pizza.

“Will you be doing it next year?” she asked.

I gazed up at the mountains again and thought for a moment. I didn’t say anything.

Link to original results post here.

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