The Tour de Helvellyn takes place every year on the Saturday closest to the winter solstice. It’s a 39 mile race that goes around rather than over Helvellyn. There is no set route, just a series of seven checkpoints that you need to visit. Here’s how it looks on a 1:25k OS map with the checkpoints marked:
Sitting in the pub the evening before the race, we were notified that ice meant that the event would be shortened this year and would be an out-and-back to checkpoint 3, missing out Sticks Pass, the western side of Helvellyn along Thirlmere and the return past Grisedale Tarn. This was quite disappointing to hear as that meant the best parts of the route were going to be missed. The event was also going to start an hour later, so that plus the disappointment lead to far too many pints in the pub that night and I was rewarded with a headache the following morning – not the best race prep!
Setting off over Askham Fell there were some excellent sections of running through snow, something that I always enjoy.
Descending a bit, it soon became clear why the route had been shortened as in areas where over the previous week there had been repeated freezing and thawing the paths had become sheets of ice that were impossible to run on; the only way to safely make progress was to run off-trail until the icy sections were over.
Bar these icy bits the route was easy to the first checkpoint at Martindale Church and then followed an uninspiring stretch mainly on road up Boredale (an apt name it seems). The fells on either side looked amazing in the snow and an idea took hold that it might be worth taking a different route on the way back to bag a couple of Wainwrights and enjoy the snow higher up. At this point I was running with Mark, who I regularly train with in the Surrey Hills, and it sounded like he might be up for a diversion too. No need to decide now as we’d get a better idea of conditions higher up after reaching the turnaround point on the way up Sticks Pass.
In to checkpoint 2, at which stage some of the faster runners started flying past, Damian Hall, Paul Tierney, …, one chap who I didn’t recognise didn’t even slow down for a cattle grid and leapt all the way over in a single stride. At the time I remember thinking “that could have gone spectacularly wrong!”
A bit more road to Glenridding and then up past the Youth Hostel to start the climb up Sticks Pass. Not to the top though as we would be turned back at checkpoint 3 about halfway up. Whilst still on the way up we got to see the fast runners a second time as they came hurtling back down.
Reaching checkpoint 3, at a little over 13 miles, we still felt fresh and conditions didn’t seem that bad, so we were definitely up for more of a challenge and thus the more interesting return route was on the cards. The best option looked to be to head north at Boredale Hause to take in Round How and Place Fell. It did feel a bit weird deliberately heading off the route that everyone else was taking, but this is a self-navigation event with no set route so, apart from being a slow option, this was completely valid as it still visited all the checkpoints.
Once up on the tops the decision proved sound, with loads of snow, great views and the trail to ourselves.
We rejoined the standard route just before the final checkpoint at Martindale Church and then an easy run over Askham Fell took to us to the finish for a bowl of Joe’s legendary soup.
All-in-all a cracking day out on the winter fells, even if it wasn’t the full route. I’ll be back again for sure and can certainly recommend this event as an antidote to the stresses of Christmas shopping.