Ullswater shimmered in the late afternoon sun, silver flashing across its black depths. Ahead of our steamer's prow towered the mountains that would be my home for the next two nights. Slate-grey clouds gathered ominously around their snowy summits. It looked a tough training ground, but I needed to acclimatise. In 48 hours I was going to try to convince my legs that I was a fell runner.
The route of the annual Gummer's How Fell Race links the sort of extremes that make the Lake District landscape so special. The start and finish lines are drawn across the manicured lawns of the Lakeside Hotel and Spa in Windermere, but, in between, lies a physical challenge involving rowing boat and running shoe over 400m of cold lake and 321m of sheer fell.
With this year's race scheduled for 16 June, it seemed the perfect time to preview the contrasting worlds spanned by this Cumbrian tradition. My plan was to earn an evening of lavish pampering at the Lakeside by first blazing a more temperate trail: two nights of wild camping among the mountains, topped off with a dizzying attempt to master Gummer's How.
Blinking away the image of a post-race Jacuzzi and G&T, I turned my attention to matters in hand on the steamer's deck. A British ensign flapped on a brass pole, just like the start of some great Victorian expedition, a feeling enhanced in no small part by my army officer friend, Major Alex Price, double-checking his rucksack's contents. "GPS, waterproof layer, stove, thermals. Have you got the OS map?" I patted my pocket and busied myself with my own bag audit.
Wild camping is tolerated in the Lake District National Park provided walkers pitch above 500m, away from farmland, and abide by the etiquette of arriving late, leaving early, never lighting fires and leaving no trace. So, contrary to its name, wild camping is an ordered affair where food, waterproofing and warmth take packing priority. Nevertheless, the ratio of one pair of underpants to three cans of chicken curry troubled me.
Halfway down the lake, the steamer nudged Howtown's pier and I lifted what felt like a ton of equipment and food on to my back. Fusedale valley lay under a bruising sky and we set a good pace up its rapidly inclining side. At High Street, an 800m-high Roman road that once linked forts at Penrith and Ambleside, the track levelled. We watched in awe as the sun sank behind distant fells, before receiving a quick reminder of this region's wild mood swings. Cloud gathered in seconds and a driving snow shower had us throwing on extra layers.
Following in the footsteps of ancient centurions, we walked west along the summit path, with Ullswater below. The black mass of hills at night was like a rolling sea and after cresting High Raise we dived into it, dropping 200m in altitude until the light of our head torches picked out some flat, dry ground on the lee side of the aptly named Rest Dodd.
After a hot curry cooked in our tent's porch, sleep came quickly. Rain lashed us all night, but it was only the golden glow of dawn that flooded the tent.
Brewing up tea and porridge we enjoyed a full 360-degree panorama: Place Fell, Angletarn Pikes, Ramps Gill valley and the mirror-glass surface of Brotherswater were revealed as the morning mist lifted. Red deer trotted along a ridge behind us, the descendants of William the Conqueror's herd and a legacy of a Norman hunting ground stretching west to the foothills of Helvellyn, our next destination.
We clambered down into the Patterdale valley and wolfed bacon-and-egg butties at St Patrick's Boat Landing café in Glenridding. The excuse to gorge is a perk of testing yourself physically, and testing ourselves was next on the menu. Helvellyn is England's third-highest mountain. Crunching through snow at 945m, after heaving our tired knees up its eastern flank, our bodies coursing with endorphins, we were granted a rare perspective; the Lakeland landscape in all its glory under a cobalt sky. Traversing down Swirral Edge we chanced upon the perfect camping spot, among pines, high above Glenridding.
I woke ready to give Gummer's How my best. So we picked up the car at the village below and drove 30 minutes south to Windermere, and the Victorian grandeur of the Lakeside Hotel. Its wood-panelled lounges, log fires and deep sofas were instantly soporific. As if to tease us, the trip to our rooms took us past the glass walls of the spa where people wrapped in bathrobes wandered from pool to steam room.
After dumping our rucksacks, we jogged to the starting line. The staff must be well used to watching lunatics amassing on their lawns, for no one seemed concerned as we took our starting positions and dashed for the hotel rowing boat. Despite the odd dousing, we made good time over a choppy Windermere and began the climb up to the fell. But at 30 minutes, we still hadn't reached the top and were lagging a good four minutes behind the race record. It didn't matter. The views from Gummer's How were worth conceding time: the southern Lakeland fells and forested hills stretching all the way to the sea.
We crossed the finish line at 55 minutes, and as the sun set we were easing our aching muscles into the Lakeside's Jacuzzi. Our tired legs could barely navigate the hotel's lovely firelit nooks and crannies to find the restaurant, but the smell of roasted food and the sound of a piano led us to the dining room, where we feasted on sea bass, local pigeon and chateaubriand – without a can of curry in sight.
Lakeside Hotel and Spa (015395 30001; lakesidehotel.co.uk) has doubles from £199, including breakfast.
Ullswater Steamers (017684 82229; ullswater-steamers.co.uk) run between Glenridding, Howtown and Pooley Bridge.
The Gummer's How Fell Race is on 16 June 2012; for details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.