23 Before Tea – a case for the long slow run!


The 23 Before Tea has taken on a life of its own over the past few years, what started as an idea in the pub has spawned into a widely known challenge, attracting some really top runners.

Stats from an early version of the 23 Before Tea Route

In the three and a bit years since Dave Cumins and James Harris completed the first round, not only as the fastest known time dropped from nearly 15 hours to under 6, the “pick your peaks” nature of the challenge that has allowed runners pick the most optimum route and change out the peaks means the total distance required has now dropped from around 60km (37 miles) to closer to 50km (or 31 miles), and the total ascent from 4000m to 2600m or so.  

Stats from the latest version of the route, showing the drop in both distance and elevation

Having run an abortive first attempt back in 2019, where a lack of training and some injuries got the better of my friend and I and we bailed out after just 14 peaks, I’ve been watching on in awe as the records tumble, and the route changes.

Fortunate enough to be spending Christmas at Elterwater Hostel again this year, I thought I might have another go – though by now I knew my chance of setting a record time was long gone, and this was all just for the experience. 

Sunrise on the tops

Unfortunately the only clear weather day was boxing day, and as I left the hostel in the dark early morning, I reflected that once again I could have been better prepared, and maybe I hadn’t needed the second helping of turkey, the last glass(es) of wine, or quite so much Christmas pudding! 

22km in, enjoying myself now!

Watching the sun rise from Harrison Stickle the Christmas excess was starting to wear off and I was getting into my stride, and I really enjoyed the section from there on to Helm Crag – particularly Tarn Crag, Calf Crag and Gibson Knott, all Wainwrights which I hadn’t tagged previously. With the early start and it being Boxing Day, it felt like I had the world to myself, and was nearly 5 hours in before I met anyone else!

Then the steep climb up out of Grasmere brought me back to the land of the living, and the memory of how unprepared my legs were! Nothing quite like slogging up the hill knowing that the top runners would be almost finished at this point in their runs! I set myself a goal then to make sure I came round in under 12 hours, knowing the top times was a little under 6 hours, and slogged on up the hill.

The second half of the run focusses on Fairfield and much better trodden paths (despite one demoralising off path cut down hill to bag Stone Arthur en route to Great Rigg), and the navigation became much easier.

Still it was dark again by the time I was tumbling down Loughrigg and through the village back to the Hostel gate, where I was handed the beer I’d been dreaming about for at least 20km!

Tired but happy, at the finish

Despite being nowhere near fit enough, and full of Christmas dinner from the day before, I got round in 11hrs 34, somehow covering 2.5km more than that GPX route of Mark Burley which I followed, and proved that the 23 Before Tea is not just for the top top runners.

Having been around the course, I’m keen to go even slower, perhaps doing it backwards and taking a tent to camp out in one of the more remote spots I ran through. Alternatively, it would make a great 2 day hike with a stop in Grasmere on the way round.

Hikers, and even mere mortal fell runners, will find that purely following the top runners’ GPX routes might not be ideal due to the steep descents and willingness to cut a corner through the mud to save time – but if you plan it right, the 23 Before Tea opens up a world of possibilities for hikers and runners of all abilities!