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The 3 Peaks Fell Race: The Marathon with Mountains

16:20 28th March 2013 By Andrew Cremin

Most people in Britain would associate the idea of a 3 Peaks challenge and the idea of taking on England, Scotland and Wales’ tallest peaks in one hit. Well, more like three hits linked together with quite a lot of driving and sleeping in a van.

Anyway, for those not willing to put in the motorway miles, looking for a bit of build-up training in preparation for the National 3 Peaks, or just looking for something else there is another hilly option. It’s not where you might first think either.

Passing through limestone pavements within site of the finish. Photo: Peter Hartley

Passing through limestone pavements within site of the finish.
Photo: Peter Hartley

The Yorkshire 3 Peaks challenge takes in the three highest summits in ‘God’s own country’ (as natives of the White Rose county will tell you it’s called) in a single helping. It’s not exactly alpine in nature and does lack some of the mountainous drama of it’s Cumbrian cousin, but the 3 summits on the route do tot up to a decent amount of climbing- nearly 1600 metres in total in around 34 miles of walking.

The tradition of circumnavigating the three mountains goes back to 1887 with the first recorded trip by two local teachers J.R. Wynne-Edwards and D.R. Smith taking a time of 10 hours. Over the course of the 1920s times for the walk began to fall, with some 5-6 hour rounds being recorded.

All fresh on the first climb of the day on Pen-Y-Ghent. Photo: Peter Hartley

All fresh on the first climb of the day on Pen-Y-Ghent.
Photo: Peter Hartley

10 hours is actually still a respectable time to clear the 24-mile+ walk today. For official accreditation (and the option of a (paid for) certificate and (paid for) membership of the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Society) walkers need to complete the round in 12 hours or less and register the trip with the Pen-Y-Ghent café in Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Any half fit walker should easily clear the route in that time. Whether you have enough change on you to sign up for membership of the society is another matter.

Since 1954, however, the peaks have been opened up to a whole different kind of madness. Each year at he end of April, the fells are opened up to the 3 Peaks Fell Race. It’s described as the ‘Marathon with Mountains’, so that should probably give you some sort of clue about what to expect. That and a fair amount of mud in places. And variable conditions. Some years have been run in sunshine and soaring temperatures, others (possibly including 2013) will involve slightly more wintery conditions. The race plots a very similar path to the walk although in a much more direct fashion, cutting cross-country at various points. Since it’s early beginnings starting at different point with only 6 starters and 3 finishers, the race has grown in stature and popularity. In 2008 the race was even incorporated in the 5th World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge. This growth in popularity has led to a strict cap of 550 runners taking part. Entry for the event sells out within a couple of weeks of registration opening.

Ignoring the historic railway viaduct at the head of the valley. Photo: Peter Hartley

Ignoring the historic railway viaduct at the head of the valley, through a fog of sweat.
Photo: Peter Hartley


The Route

On a clear day route finding is pretty straightforward, with the three mountains being the most prominent features in the vicinity, hugging the edge of the Ribblesdale as they do. What can be more daunting though are the sheer distances involved, especially if you take time to stop and look around from your first summit. Traditionally the first peak challengers’ top out on is Pen-Y-Ghent, with its steep ascent from the South normally knocking the wind out of most sails a bit.

From topping out on Pen-Y-Ghent it’s all downhill into the valley across what has up until very recently been a boggy mess of mud more than capable of sucking shoes off feet. The route has been diverted by the National Park authority to more substantial ground.

If you’re walking the route, the stretch up towards Whernside can be something of a meandering slog as the network of footpaths sends you foot-achingly around the houses before clomping along the roadside. The race takes a much more direct approach. As it does on the ascent of Whernside itself, shooing away the longer, but much, much shallower footpath to the top in exchange for a thigh-tearing climb up the fields to the top.

It’s a bit of an unnerving sight catching breath at the top of Whernside after walking the shallower ridgeline to top to see a fell runner bound up across the moorland from nowhere, touch the summit trig point and skip off down towards Ingleborough, with its table-flat summit plateau across a valley dotted with limestone pavement.

The final climb of the day is undoubtedly the most severe; the final leg to the summit plateau consisting of sharp staircase of uneven natural stone construction.

The final summit out of the way, all that’s left is to drop back to the start at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. It’s often this part that catches out the more casual challenger. Despite having ticked off that final summit there is still an undulating descent of around 6 miles to conquer before the challenge is done. This is the point at which you need to hope the knees have enough left in them to take on one final battering.

Footpaths? Where we're going we don't need footpaths. Straight up the side of Whernside. Photo: Peter Hartley

Footpaths? Where we’re going we don’t need footpaths.
Straight up the side of Whernside.
Photo: Peter Hartley


The Peaks

  • Pen-Y-Ghent: 694 metres
  • Whernside: 736 metres
  • Ingleborough: 723 metres

View The Yorkshire 3 Peaks Fell Race in a larger map

The Facts:

Name: Yorkshire 3 Peaks Race
24-miles (approx.)
Ascent :
1600 metres (5250 feet)
Record time: 
Running: 2 hours 46 minutes (current route) set in 1996

Typical/average time: walking 10-11 hours

How Hard: Walking 4/10 Running 7/10 Score Overview: A pleasant walk around Yorkshire’s tallest peaks that can easily be ramped up into a beast of a day. When to go: The challenge can be taken on at any time. The race happens on the last weekend of April each year.

What do I need?

For the walking option you will need general hill fitness and basic navigation skills and preparation. For the run, experience in fell and mountain running.
And cake for the finish.

How to prepare:

General mountain fitness is required, so work on running up and down things. Learn how to read a map and use a compass for when the weather is less than perfect.

Similar Events:

The Welsh 3000ers: A longer, more mountainous route in the same vein in Snowdonia.
The Derwent Watershed: 42 mile circumnavigation of the (Dark) Peak District – and if you do this in the form of the High Peak Marathon you do it in winter and overnight too!
The Bob Graham Round: More men have walked on the moon than completed this Lake District circuit … (well not really, but it’s truly hallowed ground for skinny runners who think a layer of Lycra is enough to equip them to the top of Everest and back).
Paddy Buckley Round: Similar to the Bob Graham, but in Wales. The 61 mile route takes in 47 peaks on the Carneddau, the Glyderau and the Moelwynion ranges and 28000 feet of ascent. 

Further info:

www.threepeaksrace.co.uk. The official home of the race. Head there for entry and more information.
www.3peakswalks.co.uk: More detailed information on walking the route independently.


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