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Thunderstorms hit the north of England for the Rab Helvellyn Sky Ultra weekend

Generally, I ignore the weather until the Wednesday pre-event weekend, but keeping an eye on it all the same, as being local to the Lake District for the whole of my life, its given me a distinct feel for what the weather has in store and if it can change, it will change, day by day.

in Race News / Skyrunning

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Fresh back from a hot weekend on the Gower Peninsular for the Love Trails Festival and course directing for their marked routes, I found myself looking at a weather pattern that no RD wants to see for a weekend of delivering 5 races.

Generally, I ignore the weather until the Wednesday pre-event weekend, but keeping an eye on it all the same, as being local to the Lake District for the whole of my life, its given me a distinct feel for what the weather has in store and if it can change, it will change, day by day.

Thunderstorms were forecast all week, but daily and sometimes hourly the forecast shifted from good to bad, bad to good and so it went on until Thursday evening. Final decisions on course changes were to be made Friday morning, when we could actually ‘trust’ the forecast or at least we had to take real cognition of it for the safety of all.

Race plans are written down in advance, a race handbook document is followed and it’s been in place since the start of the race back in 2015. In all the years since then we have dealt with serious weather conditions, for first event in 2015 being one such year, but never have we had to deal with a weekend forecasting thunder and lightening all day and possibly all weekend.

Reading and checking our race delivery documents, we hatched a plan with the core and safety team, within in the stipulations of our race delivery, to be able to re-work the race route from a ‘Bad Weather’ route to a ‘Thunder and Lightning’ route. The thing with bad weather is we can manage to run on the tops, limiting the time all skyrunners, race marshals and safety teams are up there, bringing the risks in to a safe and manageable window, allowing summits to be run and the nature of the event to continue in the vein of true skyrunning, however with ‘Thunder and Lightning’ forecast, we cannot, for the safety of everyone concerned, deliver a race over the summits of mountains. We were on the edge of a full cancelation of the Helvellyn Sky Ultra, but knowing the weather is fickle in the UK, especially the Lakes and forecasts are only forecasts and not exact, we had a good feeling the weather would not hit in the way it was forecast to, so we made the decision to run a race route, low in the valleys and only passing high through 2 mountain passes, with summits above. The course we re-worked was not the Helvellyn Sky Race, but a 42km with 1950m of vert, lower level skyrace that allowed us to deliver at least a race. All this happened Friday morning and the route marking team set off late morning, in really tough weather conditions to mark up the route.

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Emma Bramley on her way to a 1st place in the SG850 revised route ©Andy Milton Photography

Friday evening saw the inaugural SG850, a new concept to the LDST team, of racing up hill only, similar to a VK, without the VK as its just not possible to get 1000m of pure ascent in a mountain range of fells less than 1000m in height. Again the weather was very problematic with 60+mph winds forecast to be sweeping sideways across Swirral Edge on Helvellyn, making the ascent of Swirral Edge not possible for us to run. The decision was taken to change the route on this race as well, running from the KGV Playing Fields in Patterdale to the Hole in the Wall and back down again, keeping a good safety margin for all. All entrants, when back at the finish, confirmed the right decision was made and there was no way they could have got onto Swirral Edge in the conditions present.

As we delivered the SG850, route marking marshals came back in to confirm also they could not have marked the summits for the ‘full’ HSU route and the right decision had been made to mark low.

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Ben Mounsey on his way to win the Swirral Grind 850 ©Andy Milton Photography

Saturday morning came and the weather was heavy, thunder rolling in the distance for the later start of the Helvellyn Sky Ultra Thunder and Lightning race route, setting off at 09:00 rather than 07:00. Lightning sparking the sky in the south of the county, made me feel happy we had changed the route and wild weather on the summits confirmed it again.

101 runners arrived to brave the conditions out of the 147 entered, the weather was to change hourly and sometimes by the minute with biblical downpours, super strong winds and the threat of thunder and lightening present all day, but thankfully the storm tracked underneath the county hitting Lancashire, Yorkshire and eventually Newcastle and Northumberland hard.

Whilst the HSU was in process, we set off the inaugural St Sunday Mountain Race, unfortunately on the Thunder and Lightening course as well, but it was the only way we could make it happen.

33 skyrunners out of the 47 entered stood on the start line. With checkpoints, marshals and safety teams in place for the HSU, the SSMR race took place on the loop around Helvellyn, based on the cracking Tour De Helvellyn route by the Nav4 Adventure team [The TdH is hosted in December, as close to the shortest day of the year as possible – enter here]

Racing was fast and furious, with the ‘trail’ strong runners dominating the day over the ‘skyrunning’ strong runners, with the race routes being ‘fast’ rather than ‘technical’ as the overall feel.

In the Helvellyn Sky Ultra, the race was dominated by a group of 5 men and 5 women, all pushing hard. The leading pack in the men’s race containing Calum Scullion, Luke Roberts, Hugh Chatfield, George Fisher and James Wilkins with the ladies leading pack containing Alicia Schawarzenbach, Keri Wallace, Amelia Balfour, Maddie Brunt and Robyn Cassidy. Futher back in the field, the leading groups of the St Sunday Mountain Race started to mix into the back end of the HSU.

Checkout the race report from Skyrunning UK for more details:

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Skyrunners on route: Rab HSU Thunder and Lightning Route ©Xtreme Exposures

At the front end of the St Sunday Mountain Race local skyrunner, Dave Thorp, dominated the race, crossing the line in a fast 02:54:56 to take the win. Andy Eades taking the second position and Dan Fitzgerald completing the trio for the first 3 males.

In the Ladies race, Emma Bullock-Lynch crossed the line to take the win, in a time of 03:38:48 and 11th overall; Skye Storrie crossed the line in 2nd with Rachel Hollins completing the trio for the leading 3 ladies.

As runners kept flowing across the finish line, the winds increased to such a level in the events field that we were forced to start tying down the marquee as the winds tried to lift it from the ground. The right decisions had ben made for the delivery of the race, keeping it low and finishing early.

Emma Bullock-Lynch in the leading women's place - SSMR 2023 ©Route North Photography

Into the evening and overnight, the storm battered the events field and whilst our marquee survived the night, a marquee for the Chill Swim in Ullswater was ripped to pieces and completely destroyed.

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Marquee braced with a race gantry to hold it down ©LDST Images

Sunday morning saw the final parts of the Pinnacle Ridge Extreme route marked and full-on discussions were in process between the core and safety team as to what would be possible to deliver. 50+mph winds forecast, rivers and becks in spate, heavy rain and generally wild weather was the outlook for the day. Minor re-routes to remove river crossings were decided on, which had been accounted for and marked up the previous day. The Rab Pinnacle Ridge Extreme would run in almost its entirety, however on the start line we were waiting for final information about the first scramble of the morning on Brown Cove Crags, namely Stepped Ridge. The safety team routed the safest line of ascent and the race was in progress. Pinnacle Ridge itself, grade III, was marked in its entirety and extra safety team members were added to add an extra level of safety.

Rob Brown, local runner and Mountain Run guide, led the front of the race, never really being challenged for first place. Craig Lowe ran a consistent race, again never really being challenged and crossing the line in 2nd place with Jeremy Sawinson crossing the line in 3rd to complete the men’s trio and Colin Brearly crossing the line for 4th place, Sara Willhoit coming 5th overall and taking the win for the women’s race and completing the top 5 runners across the line.

Rob Brown leading the race through Eagle Crags screes ©Route North Photography

Sara Willhoit dominated the women’s race from the start and finished in the top 5 overall, setting a new Ladies Course record in full on weather conditions in a time of 04:45:17. Running for Rab and Scarpa, Sara showed true style and grit over the grueling 27km course, that with adjustments was closer to 30km with the usual 2800m of vert. Karolina Woloszczyk pushed hard throughout to chase Sara down, finishing overall in 11th place and taking the 2nd place just outside of the old record held by Rab’s Georgina Tindley from 2022. Completing the women’s trio for podium slots, Tanya Rabb had a cracking race, crossing the line in 3rd, with Alicia Schwarzenbach coming only 10 minutes behind to take 4th after racing the Rab Helvellyn Sky Ultra the previous day. To complete the female top 5, Alice Walton crossed the line in a time of 06:28:59.

Sara Willhoit on her way to 5th overall and the women's CR ©Route North Photography

Whilst the PRE skyrunners were being battered on the summits, ridges and scrambles, the LDST team set off the inaugural version of the new Place Fell 15k, with a field of 61 runners. The weather was better lower down, the winds coming from the west on Sunday and the Helvellyn Massif protecting the valley of Patterdale. 5 refugee’s stood on the start line for Coopah Running, alongside a full mix of trail runners from all over the UK. It was the first time some of the refugee’s had ever set foot on UK trails and they ran like the wind displaying perfect running form with Hamzah Hazah taking 5th place.

Paul Bowyer entered on the day and had an awesome run, making it look super easy, to cross the line in a cracking time of 01:19:14. Conor Rodwell and Jahan Swaine battled it out for 2nd and 3rd, with Conor crossing the line in 2nd, Jahan taking the 3rd podium spot.

In the women’s race, Cathy Park had a fantastic race, flying round the course to take the win and premium podium spot in a time of 01:37:56, Lauren Wilson after a minor course error taking the 2nd place and Madeleine Stewart crossing the line to complete the women’s trio.

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Rawand R and Daniel Strang crossing the line on the Place Fell 15k ©Gilly Photography
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Team Coopah Running


The overall feeling from the weekend was one of stress and relief. We had a super tough time delivering 3 full on skyraces, one full on mountain race and a low level trail race with some pretty big ascent in it, through the teeth of a storm that the Lakes has not seen this year.

We had a few complaints from skyrunners who didn’t some to race, that the routes we re-worked for the Rab Helvellyn Sky Race and St Sunday Mountain Race were not skyraces and they were not happy with our decisions. I feel I need to answer this, as we were extremely close to not delivering any races at all on Friday night and Saturday.

Weather is weather and we cannot control it from our events centre down in the valley. Our safety team is employed to keep skyrunners as safe as we can on the mountains whilst we deliver our races, they are also employed to make the right decisions with regards to what courses we can run, with prevailing weather conditions. We participants are sat at home looking at the weather forecasts, it is impossible for them to say whether our decisions are right or wrong, even sitting in the valleys of the Lakes you would not know what the conditions are like on the mountains, it takes year of experience and knowledge to start to understand the mountain weather patterns, local nuances, what each wind direction will bring and how this will and can effect the safety of not only the skyrunners in the races, but the volunteer marshals team and employed safety team.

We must and have to take into account, all of the above. Our team has over 70+ years experience between us, working in and on the mountains we delivery these races through. We also work on many races around the UK in some of the harshest mountain environments in the UK and further afield into Europe. We take our assessments, decision making and safety of the competitors, volunteer marshals and safety team as paramount and if we feel it is ‘not safe’ to delivery our races in their entirety, then we have the duty to all to either deliver a ‘bad-weather’ route, adjust the course as necessary to deliver a race or cancel the race and event in its entirety. This is the stance we take and if some runners were not happy with our decisions, then we can do nothing about that, it is the way it is, as weather is weather and we must take it into account.

Of all the runners who came to race, we had no complaints on our decision making, all we had were compliments on our re-routing, safety measures and delivery of the races. What we did have were smiling faces, grins from ear to ear, as sky and trail runners crossed the line after a battering day on the trails.

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PF15k Trail Race finisher ©Gilly Photography
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Finishers beers from Clean Break - Alcohol Free and refreshing! ©Gilly Photography

So that almost wraps up the events from LDST for 2023, all that remains for me to say is;

A massive thank you to all the marshals, safety team, core team, sponsoring brands, land owners and governing bodies that allow us to and make it possible to host and deliver such awesome mountain and skyraces. Without these people, who are committed to the core, none of this would be possible.

Looking forward to seeing you at Skyline Scotland in a couple of months,

Yours in Skyrunning,

Charlie Sproson

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Sara Willhoit sets a new CR on the Rab Pinnacle Ridge Extreme 2023 ©Gilly Photography
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A Race Directors feet.... ©Gilly Photography
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