12th March saw my 8th consecutive attempt at the Black Combe race. This year was to be a little different to usual as it was the opening counter in the English Championship. Usually around 150 runners turn up on the day. This year 750 places had sold out well in advance and the expectation was for around 500 to turn up. Silecroft village hall feels crammed with the usual turnout, so marquees had been erected on the start field to deal with the numbers.
I have some previous with this race. In 2009, in thick clag, I went wrong after the first checkpoint, got hopelessly lost and ended up finishing in last place. I always stay a couple of miles away in Millom (my hometown) the night before race and the Combe looms over the town like a benign behemoth. This year it was invisible – completely covered by Irish Sea fog. A bad sign. Checking my kit I also realised I’d left my shorts back in Richmond. Frustrating, but nothing that an early morning visit to Pete Bland’s van couldn’t fix.
The race begins with an absurdly steep climb to Seaness (CP1). It’s a good idea to take this section steadily knowing what is to come later in the race. This year the number of runners meant there was no alternative. Then begins the long climb to the summit (CP2). I was feeling strong and met Ripon Runners’ Gary Bastow on this section. A brief chat and I pressed on ahead (he’s coming back from injury) and I also got an unexpected shout from a school friend who was spectating. It’s at the top, though, that the fun begins. This was where I made my mistake in 2009, and this year the clag, if anything, was worse. However, I’ve learnt my lesson, stayed high and was even able to keep a couple of others in the right direction. It’s a longish drag to CP3 (White Combe) a quick descent and then an awkward contour down to the river crossing (CP4). At this point I heard the sound of fast approaching runners behind me. The ladies race had started 10 minutes earlier and I’d spent the race up to this point gradually overtaking the back-markers, so I was taken aback. I was amazed when a group containing Rob Jebb, Rob Hope and two or three other elite runners whizzed past. It turned out they’d got lost after CP2 – not just me then!
Now begins the hardest part of the race – a long , hard, steep, hands-on-knees slog back to the top (the South Summit this time), the last check-point. I was still feeling pretty good, and wanted to keep at least something in reserve for the final descent, which I just about managed.
Now comes the rub. Last year I had my fastest descent to the finish, picking a cracking race line low to the main path until near the bottom. Of course in a Championship year I had to try this again. However last year visibility was fine and I could see where I was and where I was going all the way. This year the sensible option was to head for the main path as soon as possible. As it was I started to drop, and, drop, and drop with no sign of any path. Another runner had followed and soon enough we both realised something was wrong. A quick look at the map confirmed that we were way too low and were the wrong side of a craggy ravine that I didn’t even know existed. The only option was to climb back out and then head across to where we had to meet the main path, an operation that I knew had lost a lot of time. I stayed ahead of my partner in crime to the finish, and found myself overtaking runners I felt like I had already gone past about half an hour previously.
At the finish, then, I was 1.57.06 – 368th from 490 starters, not actually that bad in a Champs race. The beauty of Black Combe, though, is that because you use an electronic dibber you get your split times for all the checkpoints. I realise I’d lost about 10 minutes and about 60 places on the runners who had been near at the last checkpoint. If I’d descended as quickly as last year I’d have actually finished in the top half. So – frustrating, but I guess that’s fell running. Conditions, and the ability to navigate, can play a massive part and should never, ever be underestimated. There was one positive though – the shorts fitted a treat.