Three Peaks Race: Mountain marathon

Carl Bell from Howgill Harriers leading the Three Peaks race  up past Ribblehead viaduct.
Carl Bell from Howgill Harriers leading the Three Peaks race up past Ribblehead viaduct.
Have your say

It has the reputation of being one of the UK’s toughest fell races. Ahead of this year’s event Victoria Benn catches up with British fell running champions Rob Jebb and Victoria Wilkinson to discover why anyone would sign up to such a gruelling race.

The Three Peaks Race has been called many things over the years, the most befitting perhaps being simply, “the marathon with mountains”. For a 24-mile race which includes over 1600m of ascents and descents traversing three of the highest summits in Yorkshire, the description sounds apt as well as formidable.

Runners let gravity take over as they descend from Pen-y-ghent

Runners let gravity take over as they descend from Pen-y-ghent

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the race has grown from a “six runners and three finishers” race in 1954, to one which receives thousands of entry applications every year.

In the early years of the race and until 1974, the race started and finished in Chapel le Dale. Although it was slightly shorter at 23 miles, it was a different sort of race to what it is now, as it was a navigation exercise as well as a fell race. Runners had to plan their own route between the race checkpoints, and, as anybody who knows the fells will appreciate, it would have been very easy to go wrong, especially in severe weather conditions and low visibility.

The record holder on this old course was Jeff Norman from Altrincham, who won the race six times in total, and set the record of two hours, 29 minutes and 53 seconds. Norman’s record set in 1974, is still acknowledged as the fastest ever traverse of the Three Peaks.

The change of race route in 1975 was precipitated by a need to have a course which could cope with a larger entry field, while having less of an impact on the surrounding environment. As a result, the race now starts at Horton in Ribblesdale, and runs the peaks in a different order to the earlier race.

The current female British, English and Yorkshire fell running champion is Victoria Wilkinson from Skipton. Victoria was the second woman back in 2010, and is the favourite to win this year’s women’s race. Despite being a world class mountain runner, Victoria is frank about the challenges posed by the race.

“The first ascent is Pen-y-ghent, which is the less steep and less high of the Three Peaks at 694m, but it will be lung bursting all the same. To be in with a chance of winning I will need to run at a good pace all the way to the top.

“Next comes the toughest climb of all the peaks. Whernside is a brutal slog from its base at Ribblehead, with a long steep ascent topping out at 736m. Keeping my pace right will be crucial, as going too fast over Whernside will mean that I ‘blow-up’, or run out of energy for the last peak, which is precisely what I did in 2010, and which cost me first place. It’s an easy mistake to make as coming down it’s almost perpendicular in places.

“Ingleborough with its distinctive summit ridge and plateau, is the third peak. This isn’t such a steep climb, but it’s the toughest because you’ve already run 16 miles by then and your legs are starting to feel like jelly. This is when you find out if you’ve kept your pace right and kept your energy levels topped up enough, as the run off Ingleborough back to the finish line is still another six or seven miles, with about half a dozen stiles to cross. The stop-start of the stiles can be a real problem if your salts have dropped too low, bringing on cramps. That last six miles can make a huge difference to your finishing position depending on how you’ve paced yourself earlier in the race.”

Rob Jebb who runs for Bingley Harriers, is the current British and Yorkshire fell running champion, and has won the race four times, most latterly in 2009, agrees with Victoria, “If you get your pace wrong in this race it’s game over. It has to be spot on, as unusually for a race like this, there aren’t any walking bits – in places it’s incredibly steep and challenging, but you can technically run it all, which means you never get that chance to get your breath back.”

The record for the current course is a breathtaking two hours, 46 minutes and three seconds, set in 1996 by Rob Jebb’s team mate at Bingley Harriers, Andy Peace. It is widely acknowledged by all the runners I speak to that Andy’s 1996 record will be difficult to break.

“Over the last 10 years so much of the route has become flagged to prevent erosion,” explains Wendy Dodds who will be running her 31st Three Peaks Race this year, at the age of 63. “In earlier years you could take more of a direct line coming down off the peaks, but now you have to keep to the paths which zig zag a little and which therefore takes that little bit more time. Also you meet walkers on the path, and because you can’t leave the path it makes the race a bit slower in places. It’s more of a mountainous road race or a trail race these days because of the paving flags, as opposed to a typical fell race. They are just subtle changes to the route, but they do mean that Andy’s 1996 record will be hard to beat.”

In 2008 the World Mountain Running Association selected the Three Peaks Race as the host for the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge. With elite mountain runners and world long distance champions from 21 countries present, this most certainly sealed the race’s reputation as a world class event.

The event saw a new record set for the ladies by Anna Pichrtova, from the Czech Republic of three hours, 14 minutes and 43 seconds, but interestingly no-one got close to breaking Peace’s 1996 record, which certainly adds credence to Wendy’s theory.

It seems that spectators are treated to something very special and unique at the race too, “I run in races all over the UK and Europe and this is one of the few races where spectators can watch a lot more than just the runners setting off and coming back in.” explains Rob.

“Obviously I would always recommend watching the start of the race at Horton, but another good spot is Ribblehead, as the runners have run Pen-y-ghent, which thins them out a little. There’s also parking, refreshments and a live commentary there.

“Spectators can then just drive or cycle the six miles back to Horton to catch the finish. Another good place to watch is up Pen-y-ghent. If spectators can walk up there for 11am, they can watch most of the runners pass, and then descend back to Horton to catch the finish at around 1pm.”

Victoria is equally passionate about the spectators, “The more spectators the better as far as I’m concerned. I run so many races where you never see anyone or hear any encouragement until you’ve virtually finished the race. Last time I ran this event I loved the fact that I was being cheered on, not exactly the whole way, but definitely for a good proportion of it.”

Sixty years is a significant milestone for a race which started from such humble beginnings. Running attire, health and safety, and race times may have improved over the intervening years, yet there is one thing that has stoically remained unchanged – and that is the epic challenge laid down by the peaks themselves.

“The Three Peaks is one of the toughest races on the fell racing calendar, hence it is the most prestigious, and so winning it is a huge honour,” says Rob with a smile. “There is definitely no better race to win than this one – especially for a Yorkshireman.”

• The Three Peaks Race, April 26, Horton in Ribblesdale playing fields, 10.30am start.