Back in October 2020 I was unashamedly badgering Jocky Sanderson to register on next year’s X-Lakes Hike and Fly race. I was only months away from finishing the previous race in August and still buzzing from the whole experience.

After a few weeks of no response I eventually received an email stating that he had other business interests abroad and couldn’t organise the event for 2021. I almost felt for one horrible moment that it would be cancelled. However, a string of emails then started to circulate with the names James Allcock, Richard Bungay and Rod Welford. It wasn’t long before James was asking me for thoughts and views on next year’s race and how it could be improved. Flattered that he would ask me I soon offered my services in the “tech” side of things and suggested that a website for the race would be a good start.

Pre-race brief

Long story short, I soon found myself on the organisation committee of the next X-Lakes Hike and Fly Challenge 2021. This was a dream for me. To be able to get involved in my passion on one of the premier Hike and Fly races in the country and actually contribute to its creation was something that I was only too happy to take on.

Fast forward 6 months (and after many Zoom meetings, emails and phone calls), there we all were, standing in a field in Loweswater on a slightly overcast and damp morning on the 26th June 2021 ready to take on the Challenge of “tagging” as many Wainwright Hills as possible over the weekend.

I had a plan, as did most people, and I casually quizzed a few to see if they had the same idea as me. Soon I would find out as everyone shot off in different directions to “collect” their Wainwrights when the starter’s klaxon went off.

My strategy was to head along Crummock Water, then up towards Rannerdale Knott and begin picking off a straight line of hills finishing with Barrow before heading into Keswick. Others had similar ideas and I met up with Dougie Swanson-Lowe and his supporter Nathan on my way up Whiteless Pike. I could just about see other competitors below me as we pushed on through thick cloud and frequently checked our phones for navigational assistance. ViewRanger and the Open Tracking website were the tools we needed to find our way along this maze of hilltops and, fortunately, the 4g reception wasn’t too bad.

12km in and Dougie and I caught up with Daniel Starsmore on Barrow. By this time we had broken out below the cloud and the wind wasn’t too strong so the two Welsh pilots were keen to fly down to the main road and push on from there. Personally I was less keen, mostly because I knew I could run the distance in the same time it would take me to unpack, kit-up, fly, land and repack.

Having access to the X-Lakes Facebook page, I decided to do a Live video feed of the guys getting ready before I started my run down Barrow. It wasn’t long before the two of them glided overhead and glided towards the A66 for a landing.

There was certainly no thermal activity yet and the overcast conditions didn’t look likely to change anytime soon. I carried on running in the direction of Keswick and met Dougie on the main road. The plan was to meet my Support Team (my long suffering and occasionally understanding wife, and my two slightly bored teenage kids) at the Castlerigg Stone Circle for lunch and a change of socks and t-shirt. To be fair to my Team they were great and arrived at the car park exactly as I got there and began loading me with food and chocolate milk.

By this time I was nearly 25km in and actually arrived earlier than expected at about 11:00. I took about 20 minutes to eat as much as possible before setting off again. The next leg of the day was to climb Clough Head and tackle the Helvellyn Ridge taking in more than a dozen Wainwrights.

I was keenly watching the Open Tracking map to see where the other competitors were and very aware of the Welsh boys (Dougie and Daniel) who were tailing me and seemed to be gaining with every minute. Eventually I had to stop for a few minutes somewhere before Helvellyn itself to take in some water and and energy bar and hid behind a rock in the Lee of the strong wind.

We were all using Airspace files in the XCTrack app to mark when we crossed into the 400m radius cylinder of the scoring Wainwright, and a sharp “ding, ding, ding” would confirm that we had bagged the points.

Once setting off again in the thick cloud I began running to the next peak and I was sure I heard in the distance a faint “ding, ding, ding” of XCTrack. Sure enough I caught up with the guys moments later and we hiked together for the next few hours.

Both Dougie and Daniel are strong competitors with a relentless urge to give the their 100% effort to the race, but also very gracious in offering ideas and suggestions for how we could best navigate the fells on this rather dreary Saturday afternoon. I can honestly say they kept me focussed for much of the day and helped me keep a clear head when otherwise I might have just drifted around randomly as I got progressively more exhausted.

Cumbria can be a torturous place to hike and run. Add on 12-15kg of weight and bad weather and it then becomes a real challenge. When we eventually summited Helvellyn Daniel suggested diverting to the adjacent (and bizarrely named) Catstye Cam for the additional 20 points. A short conversation between the three of us, driven mostly by bravado, and we decided to go for it thinking the diversion would be quick and easy.

The Cumbrian Fells, sometimes like another world?

With no prior experience of Catstye Cam we ventured into what can only he described as a 1960’s Star Trek Alien Planet set, except the rocks were real and actually very sharp. Any one of these upturned slate slabs could have easily taken our kneecaps off if one was unfortunate enough to slip on the wet surface. After about 20 minutes of scrambling we were relieved to hear the “ding, ding, ding” confirming the cylinder had been crossed and points acquired.

Now heading back over Helvellyn we progressed steadily south along the ridge tagging further hills; Nethermost Pike, Dollywagon and Seat Sandal. Somehow Dougie and I had lost Daniel in the cloud and with limited mobile data we couldn’t locate him on the Open Tracking. We didn’t know it at the time, but he seemed to be following his own route in the direction of Patterdale and appeared to have a plan to get in to position for a 25 point multi hill run for Sunday morning.

By this time Dougie and I had covered close to 50km and we were beginning to feel the strain. We sat next to Grisedale Tarn and shared a packet of Ibuprofen as we filled our water bags and considered the next route. When I get to this level of fatigue my logical mind starts to wither, so I was glad when he suggested a modified route which would take us over another 5 Wainwrights to the Kirkstone Pass (A952) where, hopefully, my Support Team were waiting.

Like old time explorers in the Antarctic we trudged on silently up Fairfield. The conversation had long since ran dry and all we could do was put one foot in front of the other waiting for the next summit cairn to appear. Hart Crag and Dove Crag were next as we pushed towards Little Hart Crag.

I’ve done marathons before but this long distance endurance style of hiking was a different thing. Dougie had admitted earlier that he wasn’t a really runner and I could tell that he was in some pain when I saw him walking backwards down a steep descent trying to save his calves from any additional strain.

It’s at this point when you really need some type of mental and emotional boost, and we got in the form of Nathan Pictor!

Appearing out of the cloud like a cross between a gymnast and a Court Jester, Nathan is the type of Supporter we all want. Boundless energy and enthusiasm and also a firm grasp on the tactics and strategies required for a successful Hike and Fly race. He had ran all the way up from the Kirkstone Pass to meet us.

“Oi, Oi, Oi Lads!!” he shouted from above us high on the hill, silhouetted like a Brocken Spectre.

You couldn’t help but smile as he ran down with his GoPro and videoed us on our final ascent up Little Hart Crag.

The Plan was now to tag High Hartsop Dodd from the air since we had moved to a point below the cloud base and a quick soar would give us the extra 20 points. I managed to get a 4g signal and knew that my Wife and kids were waiting at a car park along the Kirkstone Pass with food and a change of socks. Strategically I should have carried on further North but hunger got the better of me.

Once passing around the front of the ridge I turned down wind and flew along the valley and about 60kph. The valley winds were obviously strong and I knew I had to turn soon to land safely. I could see the car at the car park in the distance and at about 50m hooked my paraglider round 180 degrees but, rather worryingly, I was going backwards at a steady rate. I grabbed hold of the front risers and, as soon as my feet touched down, buried them to collapse the wing. Unfortunately my feet didn’t touch the ground but instead sunk waist deep into a bog of rotting vegetation! Struggling to regain my balance I ended up being dragged our of this watery pit and, after a short fight, got the wing under control as my kids arrived to greet me. Apparently they were really impressed with landing skills!?!

After a quick 20 minute dinner of pasta, chicken and more chocolate milk, I was determined to make the most of the day and get into a good position for Sunday. The Welsh boys had landed further North close to Patterdale and I knew I needed to be up there too. There was a feast of 25 point Eastern Fells to be bagged on Sunday and getting into the best re-start point by 9pm that evening would be critical.

To my absolute amazement I could see Dougie on the Open Tracking climbing Hartsop Dodd at around 8pm. How he had found the energy to do an extra Wainwright at this time was incredible!

I decided that it was best to end the day at the car park at the bottom and start thinking about tomorrow’s plan.

Back in Keswick at the Self Catering apartment on Saturday evening I sat with my pizza and considered what my plan should be for the next day. I had taken a huge strategic risk by being so far out in the Eastern Fells and wondered if I had bitten off more that I could chew. Even running back along a main road would still be a marathon distance to get to Eskdale by the cut-off of 4pm.

However, I felt the risk was worth taking and it was literally the only way to get the points I needed for a good score. My plan was to climb Hartsop Dodd as Dougie had done the previous night and begin tagging the 25 pointers.

On Sunday morning I wasted no time in getting back to my restart position near the lake called Brothers Water for 7am. Needless to say, my wife wasn’t impressed at being woken up a 6am to drive me there, but this is what hike and fly is! It’s not meant to be easy and the pain and fatigue of the race is what makes it special. The suffering, sleep deprivation and mental challenge of it all is the price we pay for the privilege of doing this niche sport, and that goes for the Supporters too.

Despite the marathon and a half I had covered the previous day, I didn’t feel too bad as I climbed slowly up the first hill and the now familiar “ding, ding, ding” chimed out for my first 25 points of the day 400m from the top. A quick look at the Open Tracking map confirmed that Dougie and Daniel had gone ever further into the Far Eastern Fells than me and were not only hiking but also flying some of the ridges tagging Wainwrights from the air.

As I progressed along the ridge from Thornthwaite Crag to Froswick, Ill Bell and Yoke I considered flying, but just felt that the wind was too strong and in the wrong direction since it was now blowing from the North East and at more than 15ktns. I also wanted to fly down to Troutbeck to save my legs and be in a good frame of mind for the long slog to Eskdale, but again it just didn’t feel right.

By 11am I had reached the bottom of Sour Howes and suddenly realised that I had eaten nothing but an energy bar all morning. One of the things I often love about Hike and Fly races is the unexpected places it takes you and, luckily, in my hunger I happened upon a small shop in Troutbeck that had a chalkboard sign out the front saying “Bacon Buttys”. This was heaven! I quickly fumbled around in my bag looking for cash and a Mask (!) and went in and ordered one bacon roll, a can of Diet Coke and a Dairy Milk. I don’t know what the lady serving me thought I was doing with such a large bag with a smart phone, GPS and GoPro velcro-ed to the front, but she seemed unperturbed! Maybe they get all sorts of random racing people in Troutbeck?

So off I went along a narrow country road in the direction of Ambleside at my usual speed-march pace, paraglider bag swinging on my back, bacon roll in one hand and Diet Coke in the other, eating and drinking both alternately as I passed folks having their relaxing Sunday morning stroll with the dog. Some nodded pleasantly at me and some just stared like I was the worst Deliveroo they’d ever seen.

At around 12 noon I had arrived at Ambleside and this was when I started getting really worried. The chances of getting any further Wainwrights was far from my mind, the only thing I needed now was to get to the finish in Eskdale 25km away. Had I genuinely gone too far into the Eastern Fells? I had already covered 22km and bagged 8 of the 25 point hills and it would be heart breaking to lose a single point just because I couldn’t finish the race in time.

I started to do mental arithmetic in my head and work out if it really was possible to cover the distance in less than 4 hours considering I had travelled 67km the previous day and only 4km of that was flying my paraglider! I have ran half marathons before but this was altogether a different thing and I knew the road was anything but straight and flat considering I had to cross the appropriately named Hardknott Pass.

Navigation was also crucial and if I accidentally took the wrong road to Coniston, for example, it could cost me dearly. So I spent much of the time using Google maps and Viewranger to make sure I was on the right road. Unfortunately, as is often the case in the Lake District, the mobile signal was patchy once you leave any built up areas.

Occasional texts from my Support Team informed me that they were filling up with diesel in Ambleside and fighting their way through the traffic to get to me with supplies. With about 8 miles to go they eventually caught up with me on the Wrynose Pass and I took the opportunity to stop, eat and drink whilst checking my watch and do more mental arithmetic for some assurance that the finish line was still achievable. I refused to let myself relax, but with just under 3 hours left I felt my calculations and pace were correct.

Close to the finish now, with only about 3km left I headed down the extremely steep Hardknot Pass and I fell into step with Rob Anderson who was also on the 2 Day Hardcore event and we chatted for the remaining time before the finish field was in sight.

Relief! I had arrived there with 30 minutes to spare. The strategic risk had been worth it and no points were lost!

As I approached the finish field I had just enough energy to sprint to the flags where I was warmly greeted by Bud, Dougie and Tony who promptly planted a bottle of Wainwright beer in my hand! I don’t usually drink alcohol at all but on this day I just about downed the whole bottle in a one-er! It’s amazing what warm weather and 100km of hiking does to someone.

It had been an epic adventure, as all Hike and Fly races should be. Mixed weather, lots of hiking, running and a little flying made it the highlight of my paragliding year.

I felt like I had the unique experience of seeing the race both and a competitor and a member of the organisation team, and I can honestly say that the view from both angles was extremely positive. I can’t begin to describe the amount of work that James, Rod and Richard put in to this event and it somewhat took over our lives for the best part of 6 months. We should also be thanking our wives and families for their patience and understanding given the distraction that the X-Lakes imposed on us.

The X-Lakes Challenge was created for the purposes of showing off the beauty of the Lake District, challenging pilots, but also helping the Lake District Mountain Rescue for their amazing work. We spent a lot of time making sure that the race was a safe as it possibly could be both from a COVID point of view and from the perspective of navigating the fells responsibly, but also maintaining the competitive element that we all crave. Judging by the initial feedback we have had on social media, I think we succeeded.

and some Stats…

Distance hiked/run102km
Distance flown4km
Total Race time22 hours 30 minutes
Number of Wainwrights bagged34
Race position overall8th
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