2021 Yorkshire 3 Peaks Ultra 70km: 16 October 2021
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
I signed up for the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Ultra while I was still feeling flush after finishing the Summer Spine Race at the end of June. The Spine course covers one of the 3 Peaks, Pen-y-Ghent, but the 3 Peaks Ultra also includes the hills of Whernside and Ingleborough as you complete a loop of the classic “3 peaks” itinerary, in between a 15km run in and run out along the Cam High Road from Hawes. Having really struggled on this section during the Summer Spine – due to a combination of chafing, lack of sleep and knee pain, it would be a good opportunity to exorcise some of the demons.
The race also has both the main 70km course, and an “extra” 30km section to Thwaite and back over Great Shunner Fell that you can choose to do if you finish the main race within 15 hours. I originally had the intention of doing both legs, but a few weeks before the race Young Sil offered to come up with me for the weekend, and so we decided to make a holiday weekend of the whole thing, driving up with Sun Hee to see a mutual friend Tracey who conveniently lived just across the M6 in Kendal before heading to Hawes on Friday evening to stay in a B&B before the race itself, which meant that rather than running an extra 30km during the darkness hours and getting back to Hawes at around 1 or 2am, I decided to stick with the 70km race and look forward to having dinner with Young Sil on Saturday evening (assuming I could get back by 9pm).
In the run-up to the race, having Covid in early September was not the best preparation. That said, I had done a lot of work strengthening my knees and legs (mainly single-leg lunge and squat variations) and playing badminton regularly again has also improved my footwork and balance. I was planning on running my local 50k race, the Eden Valley Ultra, on Sep 11th, and had trained hard in the weeks before that, but a positive PCR test put paid to that and also made it hard for me to train at full capacity, as every session left me feeling quite asthmatic and breathless afterwards. I’d also managed to pick up some niggles in my right knee and groin / hip area that forced me to rest completely for the 2 weeks before the race, which in retrospect may not have been a bad thing as at least I came into the race fresh and with a proper taper.
The difficulties continued the day before the race – heading up there on Friday, we were making good progress up the M6 when we suddenly hit a column of stationary traffic around Stoke. 4 hours later the traffic was still stationary. Fortunately, we were only a few hundred yards from the service station so had been able to park there and have a leisurely lunch while waiting for the traffic to clear. It was 6.30pm before we arrived in Kendal to have dinner with Tracey and drop off Sun Hee, and 8.30pm by the time we arrived in Hawes. This caused an additional panic, as by this time I’d realised that I was missing a physical map of the route, which was part of the mandatory kit requirement. I was banking on arriving early enough to buy one from a local outdoor store / bookshop, but everything was closed when we arrived. Luckily the B&B owners had a copy of the Ordnance Survey map covering the 3 peaks, so by 8am the following morning, I was finally clearing the kit check and spending a last few minutes stretching and chatting to Young Sil before the race started.
Start Hawes to CP 1 Ribblehead (17km)
The first section largely involved retracing my steps from the Summer Spine, following the Cam High Road in reverse from Hawes for about 12km before turning off towards Ribblehead. It’s a long, steady climb, followed by a relatively flat section along the old Roman Road, so plenty of chance to run and find a comfortable pace. Although it was overcast, and the clouds were pretty dark, there was no rain (yet) and temperatures of 13-14o made it quite comfortable to run in, so I was soon down to running with just a single base layer on.
There were 74 starters to the race, and while a few of the elite racers had already pulled away, and about 25 had dropped back, there was a middle of the pack group of about 40 who were all within a kilometre or so of each other. I had started to chatting to another runner, who had run a lot of 5k, 10k, HM and marathon races, but was relatively new to ultras, but his times were pretty formidable – 19 minute park runs, 40 minute 10k pace, and 1hr 30 min HM times suggested that he would be a lot faster than me, so it was somewhat reassuring that I was keeping pace with him for the first couple of hours. He was targeting 10 hrs for the race, which gave me some confidence that my own sub-12 hour target was in the realms of feasibility.
CP 1 Ribblehead to Whernside to CP 2 Chapel-le-Dale (28km)
As we came up the road towards CP 1, the impressive Ribblehead Viaduct loomed behind it. It was bang on 11am, so 2 hours to cover 17km and a fair amount of elevation – I was very happy with my pace, felt strong and still had plenty of water and snacks, so decided to not stop at the check point but just press on. As the path wound beside the viaduct and then the railway track, it started to curve to the left and slowly ascend the northern slopes of Whernside, the first of the three peaks. The mist and clouds thickened, and soon it started to drizzle, not strongly enough to warrant putting on waterproofs, but enough to cover my glasses and slow me down. I was also now beginning to feel both the after-effects of Covid, and the lack of intense cardio interval training, and found myself getting passed by quite a few runners as I struggled to maintain even 75% of my normal uphill pace.
The summit of Whernside came and went largely unnoticed, as visibility was minimal by this time, but as the trail turned into gentle descent I found my energy levels returning and was able to run downhill at some speed, without my knees hurting at all! All that strength work and badminton seemed to have paid off. So it was that around 12.45pm I approached CP 2, to be greeted by the wonderful surprise of Young Sil walking down the path, cheering me on and videoing me as I ran past. Luckily there was a small café right before the checkpoint, so we took 15 mins to have a coffee and some chocolate together, before pressing on for the next peak of Ingleborough.
CP 2 Chapel-le-Dale to Ingleborough to CP 3 Horton-in-Ribblesdale (40km)
I’d been told that the climb to Ingleborough was pretty steep and treacherous, particularly in wet weather. So as I set off on the path to Ingleborough, being overtaken by a young fell runner out for a training run, the rain almost inevitably worsened and I decided to put on my rain jacket. The approach to Ingleborough is across flat, grassy fields until you come to what appears to be a steep section to get onto a ridge that leads to the summit. In practice, this turned out to be relatively easy scrambling (not even Grade 1, maybe Grade 0.5?) and I found that while I was still puffing a bit, my improved leg strength and balance enabled me to negotiate it pretty quickly and I caught up with quite a few people who had been forced to slow down over the slippery rocks.
The summit itself was flat and misty, and it took a while to locate the summit trig pillar that was the turnaround point before the long descent to Horton. I felt very sorry for the race marshal who had been posted up there with only a tent for shelter, whose job it was to check off the race numbers of everyone to make sure that they didn’t take any shortcuts and missed the summit.
As with Whernside, the descent was exhilarating and I found myself bouncing along the rocky but not particularly technical path quite quickly, overtaking several people along the way, and it took less than hour from the summit of Ingleborough for me to reach Horton-in-Ribblesdale and CP 3, where there was a cluster of around 10 people all filling their water bottles and stocking up on snacks.
CP 3 Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Pen-y-Ghent to CP 4 Kidhow Gate (58km)
Horton was the last major checkpoint of the race, and by this time I had pretty much finished my two 500ml water bottles, so refilled them, adding extra Tailwind into each, and also took the opportunity to refuel, eating a couple of chocolate bars, some jelly babies and gels, while also readjusting my pack to stow the rain jacket in one of the front pockets for easier access. Passing out of the “blink-and-you-miss-it” village of Horton towards the stony bulk of Pen-y-Ghent I found myself alongside a couple of other middle-of-the-pack runners, Sara and David. At 70 years old, David was the oldest runner in the race and managed to finish only 40 minutes behind me – I can only hope that I’m as fit as him at that age!
The climb up Pen-y-Ghent was fun – a rocky scramble with the sun gradually beginning to peep through the clouds, and a safety marshal halfway up taking photos of all the competitors. By the time we reached the summit, Sara and I were treated to 10 minutes of glorious sunshine before the clouds closed in again and we hit the descent trail, which had caused me such excruciating knee pain 4 months ago. This time round, while I was beginning to feel a bit tired by now, my knees were still OK so I was able to jog down the steep western slopes, although Sara shot off ahead of me at a blistering pace. Once off the hill itself, the path flattened out and meandered North for another 6km back towards the Cam High Road. Although I wasn’t in any real pain, I could certainly feel my hips, groin and ankles getting quite tight again, as well as my stomach cramping up, and when I went for a pee, the dark yellow colour of my urine suggested that I was pretty dehydrated. All of these things caused me to slow quite a bit on these flat trails, and I found myself having to alternate between jogging and walking to conserve my energy, and by the time we rejoined the Cam High Road I had been overtaken by a couple of other athletes and caught up by another runner, Sarah, who coincidentally had also done the Summer Spine Race this year (finishing along with her husband just behind me on the Friday evening) – she had an 18-month old baby that she had been breast feeding at the Spine checkpoints, which is just incredible when you think about it.
By now it had started to get dark and I stopped to put my headtorch on while Sarah pressed on up the slope ahead (she had the foresight to put her headtorch in a front pocket at the last check point), and it was 7pm by the time I reached Kidhow Gate and the final check point – a remote, lonely posting for the 2 guys who were manning it, particularly with the fog that was now enveloping this relatively high ground.
CP 4 Kidhow Gate to Finish Hawes (70km)
The run down from Kidhow Gate to the finish was relatively pleasant – when I had done this same trail in June, it was in freezing winds that turned my feet into blocks of ice, so the only real hazards this time round were due to the “tunnel vision” that one gets from running by head torch alone, occasionally causing me to trip over stray rocks. After 45 minutes or so, the lights of Hawes village began to appear and the trail cut across farmland, which by now was a lot muddier than on the way up, causing me to slip and lose my footing several times. Eventually the trail ran out onto the back roads approach Hawes and I was able to maintain a good jogging pace through the village, finishing in a time of 11h 30, inside my 12h target and well inside the 15h cut-off for proceeding to the “extra 30km” if that is something that I wanted to do. With Young Sil and I both hungry having not eaten properly, we decided to head out for dinner, and found that the local curry restaurant was still open, a godsend as all the pubs had stopped serving food by this point.
In terms of placing, I finished in 43rd place out of 74, very much in the middle of the pack, but rather to my surprise in 4th place out of 13 in the over-50s category, and only an hour behind the 2nd placed runner in the over 50s, who finished 24th overall. Given that I lost about 40 minutes due to my slow post-Covid uphills and another 15 minutes for my coffee break with Young Sil, I was really quite happy with the result. 10h or 10h 30 feels like a target time I can aspire to if I do the race again.
Overall, it’s a really enjoyable race and certainly one that I would recommend, both to experienced ultra runners and to those who are just starting out. The cut-offs are generous (18 hours is the final cut-off for the 70km race), it’s a well-organised race with good variety in terrain, beautiful views and friendly, helpful marshals at the check points. I’ll definitely do the race again in the future.
What went well … and what didn’t
Since the Spine Race, I spent a lot of time strengthening my knees and making them as bullet-proof as possible, so that I wouldn’t have to endure the agonising pain in my quads and knees on the downhill sections.
At the same time, while I had done a lot of running in August to prepare for the Eden Valley Ultra in early September, catching Covid had caused me to both miss the ultra, which at 50K was a good training event for this, and also miss out on a lot of cardio / interval training as my breathing was quite laboured throughout that period. As a result, I found the uphill sections on the 3 Peaks really quite challenging – normally I’d consider myself as ‘above average’ for uphills, with flats and downhills the areas I usually struggle, but in this case I was very much a laggard on all the “long slog” uphill sections – the only ones where I found myself keeping a good pace were the more technical ones where scrambling experience and good balance made up for my lack of puff.
Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 + Flipbelt
Shoes: Hoka OneOne Speedgoat
Waterproofs: Inov8 Stormshell (Top), Inov8 ultrashell (Bottom)
Socks: 1000 Mile compression socks
Shorts: 2XU 3/4 tights
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck + technical T-shirts
Underwear: Runderwear long boxer shorts
Gloves: Leather cycling gloves
Hat / Buff: 2 buffs, plus 2 spare
GPS: Suunto Ambit3 Peak (+spare)
Headtorch: Sofirn SP40 Led Headlamp Super Bright Head Led Torch 1200 Lumen
Overall the kit strategy worked very well – some people had even smaller packs than me (not sure how they fitted everything in). The layering approach was fine, and I stayed with just a base layer and sleeves for the whole race, only donning a waterproof top for a couple of hours on the way up and down Ingleborough. I debated whether or not to take some spare waterproof socks, but as it happened, I didn’t really need them in the end, and my socks and shoes stayed pretty dry despite the rain and slightly muddy conditions. In retrospect, I was probably a bit lucky that the course and trails were so stony and if I did the race again, I would take a pair of waterproof socks as a precautionary measure. Shoe selection also worked well – I used Hoka Speedgoat 4’s for this race, and the thick midsole made a big difference in protecting my feet against the rocky, stony ground, with the Vibram soles also giving me good grip on wet rock. The only time I had any difficulties was in the mud towards the end, but this was only a minor problem and I was very happy with the way the shoe / sock / gaiters combination worked.
I had upgraded my headtorch to the Sofirn SP40 with 1200 Lumen which made a big difference – putting it on turbo made was almost like running in daylight, at least for the patch of ground in front of me and as long as there was no fog.
Lastly, I took the decision to take a couple of precautionary measures at the start of the race. One was to pre-apply Compeed blister plasters to those sensitive parts where I normally get chafing after long distances. Without going into any further details, it DID THE JOB! No chafing and no waddling like a duck after 50k … Another was to wear knee supports for the whole race. I’ve only ever done that once before (Hardwolds 80 three years ago) and was hesitant as they can become uncomfortable over time, particularly for the hamstrings. I’m glad I did in the end, as although I didn’t have any problems with my knees, the peace of mind from having them on enabled me to tackle the downhills with a lot more energy than I otherwise would have done, and I’d definitely do it again when faced with a hilly course. With some multi-day hill races coming up next year (Winter Spine, Coast-to-Coast, Cape Wrath Ultra), this will certainly extend the length of time into the race that I can run pain-free.
Navigation / Pacing / Fuelling
Although maps of the course were compulsory, navigation was extremely straightforward, and for the first four hours I barely even needed to look at my GPS watch. Probably the only time I really needed GPS was to find the summit of Ingleborough!
Pacing also was relatively easy, with the uphills effectively forcing me to walk / hike, and the downhills and flats almost always being very runnable – the only time I really felt like I needed to concentrate on my pace was when I became tired and tight later on and had to force myself to jog / run even though my legs felt pretty heavy.
Fuelling was a little bit more challenging. For a 50k race I would normally just rely on Tailwind, jelly babies, gels and chocolate to get me round, but the extra 20k and the hills meant that I probably needed a little bit more salty solid food in the mix – I was certainly suffering from a mild stitch / stomach cramps in the last 3-4 hours that was probably due to digesting too much sweet gunge. I also should have forced myself to drink more in the first 4-6 hours of the race (and refilled my bottles at the checkpoints) as I was still passing dark yellow urine the morning after, suggesting that I was far more dehydrated than I realised in the latter stages of the race. It’s an easy mistake to make when it’s drizzling and the temperature is not that hot – you think you are far more hydrated than you really are.
It was great to tick off this race, Number 2 in my 1,000 mile challenge to run 1,000 miles in ultra races within 12 months to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity (see the below link to donate).