The hottest challenge on the Lakeland fells this winter

THE record has been tumbling this month for a fell-running challenge based at a Lake District 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, until Sunday (Dec 11) when Penrith’s Jack Oliver ran round in 10hrs10 mins. “I just fancied a long day in the mountains to see if all my training was paying off. This ticked the boxes,” he said.

Jack Oliver

Three days later on Dec 14, that record was smashed when Kendal’s Josh Wade galloped round in 7hrs 43. “It was the best day out in the Lakes ever,” he said at the finish. “Conditions and visibility were perfect. There were 35mph winds forecast, but it was only about 15.” 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 amazing 8hrs 28: “Had a great first half but ran out of food and suffered massively in the second half, pace went out the window. Most importantly – a beautiful day out in sublime surroundings.”

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

Angela Wilson, first woman to complete the round

The challenge developed in the aftermath of Paul Tierney’s record-breaking run around all 214 Wainwright tops in 2019, and hostel owner Christine Thomas wondered how they might pay tribute to his achievement. A friend who was a member of Paul’s support team, Eileen Jones, had a large scale map of his entire route on her wall. “Eileen 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.”

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. An altered and more efficient route, with a slightly different list of 23 tops, was researched during 2020 when Dave couldn’t get to the Lakes (he lives in Brighton). He and James Harris tested that route in September 2020, and 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.”

Lakeland sunset, pic by Jack Oliver

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, 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 the 100k 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.

The leader board at the moment looks like this:

Josh Wade: 7hrs 44 (winter)

Gavin Dale: 8hyrs 28 (winter)

Jack Oliver: 10hrs 10 (winter)

Pete Faulkner: 11hrs 23

Carol Morgan and Steve Rhodes (winter) 11hrs 48

Paul and Angela Wilson (winter round) 11hrs 52

Richard Bolton: 12hrs 18

Paul Wilson: 12hrs 41

Little Dave Cumins and James Harris: 14hrs 50

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