Nearly 9 months in the offing, this was going to be my first race of any sort in the Lake District since the 2009 Great Langdale Marathon. This would be something like my 6th ultra, having run a few marathons too, but the first time I’d ever had anything like a Training Diary leading up to a race so I was feeling confident and had been running well in the local midweek races back in the Peak District.
The day before the race was pretty uneventful but I took the chance to sit in the 100 mile briefing and watch the 6PM start of their event. Thinking of them running through the night and morning before we started at Dalemain really brought home to me the scale of what they were doing. As I write this after the race, I think I could do the distance but running through 2 nights would really play with my mind.
On the morning of the race I bumped into Col Wilshaw from Pennine who told me our other clubmate Paul Booth was running the 50 as his car broke down Friday evening en route to the 100 – so he’d been let on the 50 instead. We ended up running together up until Haweswater and I was glad of the early company. Topics discussed included stalkers and private email addresses, I wonder what another 10 hours on the trail would have thrown up?!
There are plenty of other descriptions of the route so I’ll leave most of that to others. The main factor in the early stages, in fact through to the early evening, was the heat – in turns sunshine and humidity – so keeping a lid on things and not flying off too fast, aside from the normal ultra pacing, was going to be key.
We did a 4 mile loop round Dalemain estate then we hit Pooley Bridge and the first few crowds cheering us on. I wondered if 12:30 was too early for a Pepperami but Col suggested I get one down me. The 60 grams of carbohydrate that Paul reckoned I’d burnt off by now were replaced in one helping of processed salty crap.
CP1 at Howtown (11 miles) came and went. Back up the road to tackle the second climb and for me the start of the toughest section of the course.
The ascent up Fusedale is around 3 miles and the best part of 2,500’. The heat was coming up from Martindale in waves that sapped all energy and breath. I’d take a drink of water and my mouth would be immediately dry again. However, we were still picking people off and some were laid down by the path, trying to gather their energy to get to the top. False summits came and went until finally we were there. I tried to break into something faster than a walk and managed to shuffle onwards.
Thinking it might help replace some lost salt, I tried to get another Pepperami down but this wasn’t advisable whilst trying to run, and I ended up coughing most of it out over the moorland. The dogs would have been happy.
Down through the bracken towards Haweswater, Colin and Paul are still picking people off on the path. I knew I could keep it up for a while but not for the rest of the day, so I let them push on whilst I got myself together. This would prove to be my quickest section overall but interestingly even though I slowed down, I only lost 30 or so places to the end of the day, so everyone must have maintained a similar pace from then on in.
It was around this time that the wheels started to fall off – nothing specific just a general tiredness (I could feel my eyes closing) and a feeling of wanting to sit down by the path and have a rest. I was 17 miles into the race and couldn’t image running another step that day, let alone covering another 33 miles. I kept dunking my cup into the streams but no sooner had I drank it than I was thirsty again. I dipped my hat into another stream and put it on my head, and in my disorientated state I put the peak into my mouth and sucked out the stream water along with years of accumulated sweat. I stumbled along, gagging, and tried to pull myself together.
The CP at Mardale Head (20 miles) loomed into view like a mirage, a navy blue gazebo at the top of the lake. This was make or break time. I stocked up on everything – flat Coke, butternut squash soup, jam sandwich (dipped in the soup) and some ibuprofen, for no reason other than things couldn’t get any worse so might as well take some drugs. People were in bits by this stage and 28 people would drop out here. Weather wise, this was the hottest part of the day but another 96 would retire before the race was over – 482 runners crossing the finish line at Coniston from the 587 that started at Dalemain. What kept me going was imagining having to tell people I’d not finished the race, what I would say to them and how I would feel doing that. No T shirt, no medal, better luck next year son.
(There’s a great write up of the power of the mind and how someone applied it to the Lakeland 100 here.)
Something worked anyway – the road book said it was 6.5 miles to Kentmere and it would be a poor state of affairs if I couldn’t cover that distance. I was fully fuelled and had plenty of daylight left so there was no reason not to push on. I had the bright idea to put some sports drink into my water bladder so I could have a steady flow of energy on the next leg – anything was worth a try.
The climb up Gatesgarth started immediately after the checkpoint, I attacked it with renewed vigour and a brew in my hand. I was making the same pace up here as I was with Col and Paul earlier, so I knew things were good again. The climb lasted around 15 minutes I think, then we started the long drop down the other side. The going here (like most of the rest of the day) was very rocky and bouldery, I had a couple of soft ankle turns on the way down but nothing serious. I remember thinking how painful this section must have been for the 100 milers, after 70 miles of their race. There was another cheeky climb before we dropped down into Kentmere, at this point the sun came out from behind the clouds and we were sweating buckets.
Kentmere (27 miles) was soon upon us, with the help of some guidance through the final twists and turns we came across the Institute and the next checkpoint. Outside there was a washing up bowl with a sign saying ‘Wash Your Face Here!’ Me and another lad got stuck in, much to the concern of another runner ‘Isn’t that a bit unhygienic?’ she asked. Deciding we had bigger problems at hand (like running 50 miles!) we carried on.
The checkpoint was an oasis of bad dance music, pasta and smoothies. It somehow felt quite normal to be eating an evening meal at 6pm, except I wouldn’t usually have my tea whilst wearing so much Lycra.
There was also a big clock on the wall which ticked round at alarming speed – a link back to reality – 15 minutes passed in no time and it was time to leave.
It was set to be climbing for the next mile or two out of Kentmere so I unclipped my trusty plastic cup and got a coffee for the journey. Walking up the road I chatted to a 100 miler for a while – I was always a bit unsure what to say to them, didn’t want a slip of the tongue to demoralise them by mistake – and carried on up the hill.
(I saw Nick Ham just before Howtown and he was struggling after drinking too much electrolyte. There wasn’t anything I could do or say, but he would go on to finish in a 33-hour PB)
Prior to the race, the aspect I was worried most about was the ascent, about 9,700’ in total. But I felt really strong throughout and managed to catch a group that was half a mile ahead of me as I started up the hill from Kentmere. A thunderstorm combined with a Mountain Rescue helicopter provided a reminder on a few levels of the dangers of hanging around in exposed places and I cracked on down the hill. A short section of road out of Troutbeck preceded a nice runnable section of trail as we headed down into Ambleside (34 miles).
There were lots of crowds on the streets and outside the pubs cheering us on and I felt a bit emotional as we got to the checkpoint! Unfortunately the indoor CP here was more akin to a sauna so a quick tomato soup, cheese sandwich and ginger cake, flat coke and the usual coffee were all I had time for. As a Yorkshireman I hate turning my back on free food but I needed to keep moving whilst I felt good.
It was on the climb out of Ambleside that I met a couple of Wigan Harriers that I ended up finishing the race with – Julie and Graham. They knew the route inside out and we were running at a similar speed, taking it in turns to lead. We made the Chapel Stile CP (40 miles) at 10pm as it was starting to turn dark. A 50 runner was crashed on the sofa having run an additional 9 miles the wrong way out of the Mardale Head checkpoint and the marshals made him stay until the medical team had checked him out. I saw him the next day in the canteen looking right as rain so the checkpoint staff had done their job. They were keeping a close eye on everyone here and for good reason – we’d done 40 miles of the race but the 100 mile competitors had done 95 – the 100 mile course is actually 105 miles in length. It’s funny to think how we viewed the last 10 miles as us being ‘nearly there’ when we had another 20% of the race to do, but these events are about chipping away and ticking each checkpoint off again and again until you get to the finish.
The long sleeve base layer went on here underneath my jacket and it was headtorch time. It was here I had my first toilet break in nearly 12 hours, a sign of how hot the day had been. Even in the light of my headtorch I could see my urine was a dark yellow colour, but the thirstiness of earlier in the day had luckily passed.
We made good progress along the valley, slowly rising up the hillside to cross the road at Wrynose Pass. The progress on this last section was pretty good, with some rocky ground but a good few stretches of runnable trail. Running was surprisingly easy, I had no discomfort apart from my feet feeling a bit snug in my shoes. We passed Blea Tarn and skirted around the top of Blea Moss, a boggy section of lower ground we’d been advised to keep out of. We saw a few headtorches bobbing around in the lower ground and they hopefully weren’t stuck in there too long.
I was feeling ok at this point but the cold was just starting to creep in a little, which helped keep me moving so I could stay warm. Nothing was dry any more so I’d played my last card on the kit front. Had to get my head down and make progress as quick as I could to the last checkpoint and on to the end.
The checkpoint at Tilberthwaite had a beach theme as far as I can remember! The marshalls had flowers round their necks and I’m sure the Beach Boys were playing. The staff here were fantastic, really had their heads screwed on as they made us put our waterproof trousers on to conserve as much energy as possible and keep us warm over the last climb and the exposed top of the quarry. One of our group was shivering but the CP staff sorted them out with a warm drink and some more clothes and he was good to go. Another runner came in behind us and the marshalls took one look at him before plonking him into a chair, wrapping him up in foil blankets and rugs and rubbing him to get the heat back into him. I think this CP could have gone either way for many runners and the staff will have played a vital role in some people finishing the race.
Up the steps to Tilberthwaite we went and I’d like to say I can remember the rest – but it was pitch black and driving rain so we all had our heads down trying to get to shelter in the valley bottom. What I do remember is finally hitting the tarmac road that runs in the gully between the hills above Coniston, and seeing the faint orange glow of the streetlights in the distance.
We were soon in the village and there were still some people outside the pubs cheering us on (it was 1am) and we crossed the line together back at the school. The whole canteen applauded us as we came in which was a pretty emotional experience in my tired state!
I finished the race wearing every piece of emergency kit (apart from my gloves) and it later turned out I’d lost 6lbs during the race despite eating like a king all day – the ultimate crash diet?