During Lakeland 100 weekend in the run up to the start, one phrase you will hear repeatedly is “Oh, I’m just doing the 50”. As if participants have entered some kind of fun run. This is of course to pay respect to the ones who are embarking on the 105 miles of the Lakeland 100. But this is to detract from the event that is the 50. Make no mistake, this is not a fun run, or even an elongated park run. It’s an incredibly hard 50 miles of Lake District Fells, from Dalemain estate to Coniston. Underestimate this kiddie at your peril.
Having completed the 100 in 2014, after three attempts (yeah, don’t underestimate that one either) I was returning to the lakes to support friends who were running in both events. Knowing how my mind works my wife suggested I enter the 50, to which I agreed. I’m pretty sure it was a ploy to stop me signing straight back up for the 100. So at 9:00 am on the morning of September 1st last year I was sat, finger poised over the mouse button to get in as soon as entries opened.
I had planned to build on the momentum of a L100 finish and train steadily through the winter then pick it up in the New Year. That plan failed as a few niggling injuries wouldn’t play ball and in the end it was a pretty lacklustre winter and far from what I had envisaged. Recces had gone well and a sub 14 hour would be a nice steady outing for me ahead of CCC in Chamonix at the end of August. Nope, three weeks before race day, a tweaked Achilles sent me into paranoia and I flatly refused to do anything more strenuous than walk the dog. Two weeks of hard resting wouldn’t have been too bad, but three and I was losing my edge. A finish with 14 hours would be my ‘A’ goal but if the wheels were coming off then I’d settle for 16. I wasn’t going to go mad and risk my CCC entry.
So with that in mind I set off to Coniston with wife Bev, daughter Emma and her boyfriend, John, in tow. Arriving Thursday allowed us to catch up with the early arrivals. Particularly my mate Mike churchyard who, if you’ve read previous blogs by me, was my pacer at the SDW100. Which he blogged about! Worth a read. We met up with Mike and his family in the Bull for a few quiet beers. Mike was up for the 100 and would be setting off on Friday evening at 6:00pm to begin his event.
Friday dawned and we met up with Centurion race director James Elson who was also racing the 100, and Centurion crew member Drew Sheffield, who would be marshalling at a checkpoint out at Boot. We all piled over to race headquarters at John Ruskin school hall, to check in. Having satisfied kit check, been issued with race number, map, road book and Chief neck tube (Buff) and finally the SportIdent electronic ‘dibber’ attached to the wrist to be ‘dibbed’ at each checkpoint. A quick test ‘dib’ into the electronic timer to check it’s working and on to the last stage, weigh in. And you’re in! This whole process takes minutes. If you have your kit ready to be checked (i.e. in a box) then it really is fast. Because everything is checked. I met up with Drew and James at the end of the ‘tunnel’ and we had a browse around the Endurance Store. I needed some BodyGlide and they duly supplied me. I also took some time to catch up with Angela Bardon from the Endurance store. Ultra races are places where you meet friends that you never see anywhere else. But now there was nothing to do but wait for the 100 start.
We rocked up to the 100 start to see James and Mike off. It was a bit strange as for the past three years this is where my race had started and for the first time since watching my son Paul set off in 2011, I was again watching and not running. I had a further task though, and that was to video Mike’s son and daughter in the kids 1 mile race that takes place immediately after the start of the 100. Make no mistake, this is a keenly contested race. No doubt a few future 100 runners in that pack judging by the way they streamed out from under the gantry. But instead of grinding my way up Walna Sca this year, Bev, Emma, John and I headed over to Ambleside for dinner at Luigi’s. Followed by a few drinks at the Bull before bed.
Saturday and a fairly leisurely breakfast before wandering over to the morning race briefing Where I met up with verbal sparring partner and former Royal Marine officer James John Street. We had originally planned to race against each other but each of us had a pretty naff year so we canned it as it wasn’t going to be a competition. It turns out we had both been planning equally nefarious ways of achieving a win by foul means alone. Fair hadn’t entered into it.
Enough of the social aspect, on to the race. We’d awoken to some bad news, James had taken a bad fall whilst leading the 100 and was out at Pooley Bridge. Just over 60 miles in. He was mad and I think is already planning next year’s revenge.
Rather than take the bus Bev drove me to the start at Dalemain. We picked up Debbie Martin-Consani , Nici Griffin (who was quietly having a mid-life crisis in the back pre-start) and Kat Ganly, who was going to keep Nici company around the route having just come from Dragon’s Back. Which meant the trip flew by in a blizzard of cut-throat banter. We met up with the Mills’s at Dalemain, more vicious verbal interplay, then into the start pen. Hugs all round and that was the last we saw of Debs as she headed off to the front in what would see her be second lady home only minutes behind Sally Fawcett, who I’d been lucky enough have for company up Fusedale a few weeks before the race while we were out on private recces.
As the hooter went Chris and I stayed together as the field flooded through the gantry on what is a four mile loop around Dalemain estate. Gentle hills and grass. I was longing to get out on to the Fells as I wasn’t relaxing into it. Chris and I jogged around, and headed out towards Pooley Bridge. Chris’s early pace was looking to be too hot for me so I let him go. It was a good choice as he burned his way to a 12 hour 20 finish. Not shabby on the L50 course by any means! Into Pooley Bridge at a steady jog, family and friends by the bridge shouting encouragement, out of the village and up to the first of the Fells.
The first leg over to Howtown is not strenuous at all. Once out of Pooley Bridge the trail undulates along the side of the Fell. It’s a long section, 11 miles with the Dalemain loop. But it passed quickly, as did the first aid station, just water and a grab bag of jelly babies and flapjack, then away towards Fusedale.
The climb up Fusedale always throws up conversations with the runners. Which is worse? The long drag up the highest climb of the course, or the steep rocky 24 carat bitch otherwise known as Gatesgarth Pass? For me it’s Gatesgarth. Fusedale is long, yes. High, yes. But not particularly steep until near the end. It also has an excellent stream to full up on if needed. It was quite warm but I had two full bottles when I left Howtown so didn’t need it. However, when I got over the ridge line at the top and began to jog up to High Kop the three weeks of hard resting suddenly made themselves known. I’d gone at Fusedale with my normal enthusiasm, as soon as the pressure eased, my quads seized! This was the third time in two months I’d been up here, with a 100 miler over the South Downs in between and never a problem, ’til now. Ok, hike over High Kop and shake it out down to Low Kop.
That didn’t work, shake it out down the hill to Haweswater then. Bollocks! This is going to be a long day. Well, I’ve been here before and it’s come back to me so crack on as best I can and tick the miles off. To be fair the miles were ticking off reasonably well despite all. So I hiked, ran, stumbled along the side of Hawewater, filling a bottle at a stream along the way as I was getting through the fluid quite rapidly in the warmth of the afternoon. It wasn’t cracking the flags like it was in last year’s races, but it was warm enough thanks.
Into Mardale Head and a piece of grit had lodged under my foot. A slightly longer stop as I carried out some foot admin. Which took a bit longer as I was struggling with seizing muscles. Definitely not what I was expecting this early into the race. Leaving the aid station I saw Delyth Wright with Yogi looking strong as she came down to Mardale, big smile plastered across her face. We exchanged a quick greeting and I went at 24 carat bitch hill, AKA Gatesgarth Pass. Oddly enough I was actually looking forward to it as my climbing was actually going quite well. So I decided to make the best of it and pushed on. Knowing that the steep, winding, rocky trail was going to be matched in every way be the never ending descent on the far side. Which was going to hurt. It didn’t disappoint. As a result of the early demise of my quads, I had no confidence running on the loose, downhill trail. Which took a big weapon out of the armoury for me. I used my poles to compensate and that at least kept me descending at an acceptable rate.
Through Sadgill, up onto the open Fell towards Kentmere, this isn’t a challenging stretch, except today. Today it was challenging. I began to analyse what was going on and why. Energy wise, I felt fine. The engine room was chucking out the power, but it wasn’t turning into traction. The niggling injury, which actually was just about the only thing below my hips that wasn’t bothering me at all, could have been managed far better in the run (did I say run? Ha!) up to what should have been a straightforward event for me. I was getting pretty annoyed, something in my control was the problem. I had the torque, but the gears were stripped. Thanks Christ I wasn’t racing James else this would have been a nightmare.
On the approach to Kentmere I ended up in a small group and was chatting to a Scots lady, we were discussing other events and found we both had an acquaintance doing the Spine race, we both knew Jon and Otto and, wait a minute? Elaine (Wilde)? Yep. I was with Jon and Otto on the run in to Braithwaite two years ago, Elaine and two of her friends met up with us on the same descent. We didn’t have separate friends in the Spine race we knew the same person, who was one of the three, Sarah Fuller. This sport is incestuous.
I sat down at Kentmere, it hadn’t been the plan, but the plan was now out the window. Plan B; finish. It’s a good plan B. It doesn’t take much to implement and is easy to understand. Whilst I was sat surrounding a bowl of pasta the lovely Jacqui made sure I had everything I needed to get going again. Which as soon as I’d eaten is exactly what I did. I might have sat down but that didn’t mean I was going to hang around. I wanted to get over Garburn Road and into Ambleside. Garburn was the only really significant climb to do and I wanted it behind me. So fed and watered, Garburn, here I come.
Take a rocky stream, remove the water and tip in up at a steep angle. You’ve got Garburn Road. It was horrific last year in the dark during the 100 but in daylight, it wasn’t so bad. Except I wasn’t in the greatest shape. Cramp was setting in and that’s not something I’ve suffered from for some time. Over the top of the pass and the descent down to Troutbeck. My stride length was pitiful, so I decided to do something about it. If I could stretch my legs a little and maybe loosen things up a bit I could get some traction going. Stumble, trip, cramp. Ok, that went well, try again. Same results. So, about this pitiful stride length…….It’ll just have to do I guess.
And it did, it got got me pitifully through Troutbeck and over the hill to Ambleside. In fact it got me pitifully jogging, but jogging nonetheless, through Ambleside and the first real positive of the day. When I set out I had wanted to come through Ambleside in daylight and enjoy some of that Tour de France atmosphere. Well I’d made it. Sure enough, people were out by the side of the road and the White Lion pub terrace was full with people cheering on each runner to come through. Bev was waiting across the road from the White Lion and as I passed the chip shop just ahead of the aid station, John and Emma caught up with me. I wasn’t rushing now so I passed through the aid station stocking up what I needed and went out to rejoin the others in the park on the far side. It was turning cold so I stopped and put my waterproof on and set my head torch up while I had my pack off. A bit of a photo op and I was on my way to Loughrigg and the home section.
Part way up Loughrigg Rob Harrison and Bernd Tast pulled up next to me and asked if I was familiar with the route. I assured them I was and they asked if they could tag along through the night. I’d slowed quite a bit but they were happy with the pace and we continued as a three over the fell towards Skelwith Bridge. Running down to Skelwith I saw Bev, Emma and John waiting to give me my last bit of support through the night. Just ahead of me I saw John’s quads give out and he stumbled a little. Mine gave out about 3 seconds later. After a quick chat with my fan club I jogged off to catch the others who were hiking through the hotel buildings towards the river. As I caught up we agreed that running wasn’t really much of a goer, and we resolved to death march it to the end. Just under 14 miles from home. It wasn’t ideal but we were now decided that a finish was what we wanted and if if had to be ugly then ugly it was going to be.
The lights and music of Chapel Stile greeted us out of the dark, a quick sit down and grab something to eat and drink. I gave the sofa of doom a baleful glare and plonked myself down on a plastic chair. At this point during the 100 last year it was all business. Water, grab jelly babies, leave. But it was a different day today. Before we got too comfortable Rob gave us a nudge and we creaked out into the darkness as the rain began to come down.
As we passed the barns on the way over Langdale I had one of those moments that you get in the darkness. Now that my world had shrunk into what I could see in my head torch beam, it all looked wrong. I didn’t recognise the ground. running this in daylight I can see across Langdale and this bit didn’t even register. A few moments of road book checking and we were reasonably happy we were actually correct. Two minutes later and the first of the high stiles came up and I was 100% happy I knew where I was. Now it was just the slog over to Tilberthwaite. Slippery rock (nothing sticks to wet rock). Wet grass and peat of various liquid consistency and depth. You aren’t getting over here with dry feet. But at least the rain had passed over. Then we were tracking over Blea Moss and could almost smell the end. A crash behind us and another runner had stepped off of the trail. Not a great move as we are passing along a ledge at this point and it’s a bit of a drop into the stream below. A rocky one at that. Fortunately he hadn’t fallen far and was tangled in the bracken. Bernd and Rob had grabbed him and hauled him back onto the trail non the worse for wear. Shaken, but not stirred.
Tilberthwaite was a quick pit stop. It had been a bit of a trial getting going after Chapel Stile so we stayed stood. Quickly grabbed something from the buffet and set off up the steps out of the car park. Rob was a few metres ahead of me as we climbed up out of Tilberthwaite and suddenly pulled up. I had a quiet chuckle to myself. He’d just come up against the ‘wall of death’, a near vertical stretch of slate that has been weathered into what can only be described as a scarifier. This is a monkey run job to scramble over. But we were almost there.
Then, suddenly, we could see lights on the far horizon instead of the black sides of fells. The path took a distinct downward turn and we were on the descent to Coniston! The mood, which to be fair wasn’t bad, lifted instantly. I called back to Bernd, who was hidden in the gloom behind us, that it was all down hill now. A reassuringly close, cheerful response satisfied me that he was right with us as we began clambering down that last descent.
Into the village and pride took over, we broke into a shambling jog/run. The early birds (or all nighters?) were there waiting for their runners to come in and cheering others on. My own little support crew were there waiting with hugs and photo ops. The guys at the finish tried to get us all identical times. But Bernd got 3 seconds on Rob and I. Nice try lads and the thought really was appreciated. But we won’t quibble about 3 seconds. Into the school hall for medals, tee shirts and the cry of “Fifty finisher!” And it was all over bar the shouting.
There was just one more job to do. Back to the B&B, shower, grab a hour’s kip and then back up to Miner’s Bridge to see Mike Churchyard in to finish his 100. Which he did in fine style and was mere minutes off of his plan. Whereas I’d been over 2 hours off of mine. Crossing the line in 16:44.
In retrospect, panicking over an injury and sitting on one’s backside for three weeks before a race like the Lakeland 50 is quite possibly the dumbest preparation. What I should have done is seen a physio and and worked out how to train around it. I went at Fusedale the same rate I had on previous visits, but on previous visits I hadn’t taken three weeks off. No wonder my quads went on strike at the top! 20:20 hindsight, I know. But I did achieve my ‘B’ goals; get to Ambleside in daylight and get to Coniston before daylight broke again. So yes, disappointing because I know I can do much better. But not a failure, you can only run the race that presents itself on the day. Will I be back next year? No. Well, yes and no. I won’t be running but I have volunteered and will be marshalling. I’ll be marshalling for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t want to miss out on the weekend and want to give something back to the event. Secondly, to get a race entry assured for 2017. I have a big year in the diary for 2016, all preparation for a real assault on the 100 in 2017. I’m setting myself a big goal for that one and want to make sure I’m in.
Until then, it’s just a few short weeks until CCC and half a lap of Mont Blanc. see you soon.