A Hot Winter Challenge On The Lakeland Fells

Conditions proving irresistible for Lake District Superstars
December 18, 2022

While the nation collectively shivered and retreated indoors to keep the log-burner fired up,  runners in the Lake District were taking advantage of some perfect fell-top conditions. There had been only a little snow on the higher tops, but a week of below-freezing temperatures hardened the previously boggy ground, while the sun shone to give outstanding visibility under clear blue skies.

So although it was a bitterly cold minus six degrees even at mid-day, the tough got going, strapping micro-spikes onto running shoes, and the record has been tumbling  for a fell-running challenge based at a Lakes hostel. The route known as 23 Before Tea starts and finishes at the Elterwater Independent Hostel and already this month there have been at least six attempts, with the record falling twice in three days.

Taking in 23 of the Wainwright fell-tops, the route has 4109m (13,481ft) of climbing in the 56k/35 miles. First completed in 2020, the record stood at 11 hours 23 minutes, set by Pete Faulkner in October, as reported here at Mag North. That stood only until Sunday (Dec 11) when Penrith’s Jack Oliver ran round in 10 hours 10 minutes. “I just fancied a long day in the mountains to see if all my training was paying off. This ticked the boxes,” he said.

Three days later, on Dec 14, that record itself was smashed when Kendal’s Josh Wade galloped round in 7 hours 43 minutes. “It was the best day out in the Lakes ever,” he said at the finish, looking remarkably fresh and not remotely out of breath. “Conditions and visibility were perfect. There were 35 mph winds forecast, but it was only about 15.”  Only. “The temperature on the summits was around minus 6C, but the ground was frozen solid so there were no bogs to negotiate.” Josh also included a rock climb up Middlefell Buttress as the shortest way to the summit of Loft Crag in the Langdale Pikes; the challenge lets runners chart their own path between the peaks.

Josh Wade

A day later (Dec 15) Ambleside’s Gavin Dale made an attempt on the record, and finished in an impressive 8 hours 28 minutes. He admitted later: “I had a great first half but ran out of food and suffered massively in the second half, the pace went out of the window. But most importantly, it was a beautiful day out in sublime surroundings.”

Meanwhile, on Dec 2, Angela Wilson and her husband Paul had established what was to be a short-lived winter record of 11 hours 52 minutes, with Angela becoming the first woman to complete the round. Just four days later, Carol Morgan running with Steve Rhodes bettered that by four minutes (11 hours 48 minutes).

Angela Wilson

Paul Wilson had done the route himself back in October 2021; after accompanying Angela at the beginning of this month, he too was out on the fells on Dec 15, completing a solo unsupported winter Bob Graham round, in 22 hours 54 minutes. The Bob Graham is a 66 mile, 27,000 ft circuit of 42 of the highest peaks in the English Lake District within a 24 hour time limit. But that time was beaten by his friend James Gibson who, on the same day, was doing the Bob Graham round anti-clockwise, and setting a new winter solo record of 21 hrs 12 mins! The two runners passed one another on Yewbarrow and stopped for a selfie. Only two runners had ever completed a solo unsupported BG before, Martin Stone in 1987 and Shane Ohly in 2020.

James said: “What a day! The conditions were perfect for winter running with lots of hard frosted ground. I didn’t have a schedule, I just went with the flow and enjoyed it. I ran strongly and passed Paul on Yewbarrow, stopping for a selfie before both pushing on in our opposite directions.

“Temperatures fell to about -10C and my bottles froze in the night. With all the high becks frozen over too, it made getting water pretty hard. My legs tired over the last section but I was happy to keep going and get back to Keswick in the time I did. I really enjoyed the challenge of keeping a pace throughout and being totally self sufficient by carrying everything I needed. It has to be up therewith the best days I’ve ever spent in the hills.”

The Elterwater challenge developed in the aftermath of Paul Tierney’s record-breaking run around all 214 Wainwright tops in 2019, and hostel owner Christine Thomas asked me how they might pay tribute to his achievement. I had been ground support manager for Paul’s effort, and I had a large scale map of his entire route on my office wall. I took a close-up photo of the map, with Elterwater at its centre, and then counted the number of summits within the frame of that picture. There were 23.

Paul Tierney's Vital Statistics

Christine’s son Adrian then made the first attempt at completing all 23 within a day, but injury proved a barrier – along with the fact that those particular 23 involved four valley-floor-to-summit ascents and descents. The route was then modified by Dave Cumins, known to everyone in the running world as Little Dave. That altered and more efficient route, with a slightly different list of 23 tops, was tested by Dave and James Harris in September 2020, and they got back in time for a rather late tea in 14 hours 50. “I’m not the fastest of runners, and I didn’t have the distance, or the climbing, in my legs after a six-month lay-off from the mountains. But I did reckon decent Lakes runners could do it in eight hours.”

The route has been modified again since, with some fells taken off the list and others added, to create a more coherent circuit. “We’re thrilled that this is taking off now,” Christine said. “Everyone who has a go tells us what a terrific route it is. It took a little while to capture the imagination of the running world, but now it’s really exciting to see so many enjoying it.”

Josh Wade, a gardener by profession,  who is also an experienced rock climber, was this year’s winner of the 100k Ultra Trail Snowdonia race, and was first in the 100 mile Spine Challenger event. He has raced throughout Europe including the Ultra Tour of Mont Blanc, and the100k La Palma island ultra-marathon.

The hostel team also hope that walkers and “mere mortal” runners might tackle the route over two days, two slices of cake, as Christine calls it.

Jack Oliver's Lakeland Sunset

Header Image: Langdale Summit