"One day, these will be the good old days"
Race organiser Marc Laithwaite's words at the race briefing on Saturday morning really resonated with me. He spoke about how it’s all too easy to get your head down and plod on, especially during the inevitable low points during a 50 mile race, and not appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. Whinges and moans during the race quickly get forgotten afterwards and replaced with conversations about how great it was, yet when you’re actually there on the course and in the thick of it, it’s all too easy to ignore your surroundings. Let’s not forget that the Lakeland 50 weaves through some of the most beautiful and remote parts of the Lake District. You could spend a week hiking and still not see it all.
Marc’s advice was to “live in the moment”, to take the time to appreciate where you are and what you’re doing, to stop and take pictures, to soak it all in. I thought about this a lot during the 16 and a half hours that I was on the course and I lost count of the number of times I stopped to simply admire the view. Sometimes I even backtracked a few steps to look again or take a picture. Two moments in particular stick in my mind; the first was at the top of High Kop, the highest point on the route at over 2,000 feet, where you can look back to catch a last glimpse of Ullswater and in the opposite direction you start to take in the serenity of the Haweswater valley. The second abiding memory is from after the ascent out of the Langdale valley, somewhere around Blea Tarn. It was dark, I was alone and it was completely silent, so I stopped for a minute. It was sometime between 2-3am and I’d only just noticed that the sky had cleared and the stars were out. In the far distance behind me I could see a couple of other runner’s head torches bobbing around and in front of me was completely dark. It was so tranquil that I was loathed to disrupt the peace and quiet by moving again. In the handful of long races I’ve done that have extended into or through the night, it’s always the lonesome night-time moments that stick in my mind. The simple pleasure of being somewhere unexpected at a time when everyone else is sound asleep!
I tried pretty hard to follow Marc’s advice, after all, this was by far my biggest race to-date and certainly the most iconic – “one the greatest ultra running and walking challenges in Europe, perhaps the world” according to the race description. It was made easier by the fact that I genuinely had absolutely no expectations from this race, other than to try and get to the finish one way or another. This was because I didn’t train for the Lakeland 50. I mean I REALLY didn’t train. I ran the 34 miles of the Sandstone trail back in early May in a very relaxed 7 hours, again on little preparation. In the 11 weeks since, the furthest I’d run was 11.5 miles and there were periods where I hadn’t run for 2-3 weeks at a time. Was this intentional? Not at all. I’d intended to train hard but family, work, home renovation, campervan restoration and a myriad of other things all more important than running just got in the way. In the last few weeks leading up to the L50 I actually found this quite liberating. The usual pressures and stresses leading up to a big race simply evaporated. On race day this allowed me to fully indulge in “tourist mode” and focus on the incredible surroundings and the humbling feats of endurance being performed by people all around me.
On race day I woke in my makeshift sleeping quarters (the back of the car) at about 4:30am as the sun came up. I lazed about until 6:30 when most people were getting up and I started the usual routine of unpacking and repacking my race pack and checking I had everything I needed. It was a beautiful morning with bright blue skies. The race briefing was at 8:30 and then we were ushered onto coaches for the 1 hour journey to the start at the Dalemain estate. An hour crammed into coaches seemingly designed for children isn’t the best way to loosen up before a race, but we had an hour or so at Dalemain to unfurl ourselves in the sunshine before the off. As the time approached the 11:30 start my nerves returned with a vengeance. I was asking myself what on earth I was doing here with 600 other runners about to embark on an epic journey across the fells and I texted Natasha with the words “I’m petrified”.
The race got underway and I took up a position in the second half of the field, running a comfortable pace with Spartan Nigel. It was warm and there were 11 miles to go to the first checkpoint at How(dy)town. Western-themed Howtown checkpoint (complete with cowboys and Indians) came and went after a couple of hours and we headed onto the most testing leg, 9.5 miles and over 2,500 feet of ascent to Mardale Head, in the heat of the early afternoon. The climb up through Fusedale is long and my lack of training quickly started to show as Nigel peeled away and others started to pass me. I plodded on and finally reached the summit at High Kop but my legs were hurting and the enormity of the event struck home again. As I meandered down the other side past Low Kop and through Bampton Common I met up with Spartan Mich. We ran together for around 10 minutes but Mich was running well and I was uncomfortable, so we parted company and aimed to catch up again at Mardale. Onto the 3+ mile stretch along the edge of Haweswater, which I’d been warned was a long slog over technical terrain. It certainly lived up to it and whist I tried to enjoy the scenery, the reality was that I was hot and feeling lightheaded and all I wanted was to get to Mardale Head for soup and a cheese & pickle sandwich! 3 hours after leaving Howtown I finally stumbled into Mardale, very tired. As always though, the Spartan army soon lifted my spirits! Water bottles filled and a big fuss made, I sat on the floor and scoffed soup and sandwiches (thanks Fay for improvising with crisp & pickle sandwiches – no cheese, I almost wept!)
After 20 minutes or so I prized myself off the floor and prepared to leave for Kentmere. Quick thanks to the marshals and I set off walking up Gatescarth Pass. I was feeling much better but it was still hot and I didn’t want to feel like I did on the way into Mardale again. Kentmere is just over 27 miles in, so it was a great mental boost to think that reaching it would mean less than half of the distance remained and the worst climbs were over and done with. I stopped at the top of Gatescarth to take a couple of pictures and then started to pick up the pace, meeting up and running with a couple of separate groups on the way down to Kentmere. At the checkpoint the “rock” theme was in full swing with music blaring and the marshals suitably dressed up. I was feeling good but was really hungry again so sat down with a bowl of pasta, cup of coke and a much needed brew. The Kentmere checkpoint is famed for fruit smoothies, so I indulged in a delightful mixture of banana and berries before heading out alone on the 7 mile leg to Ambleside.
At this point I felt fantastic, I had food in my stomach and a good rest at Kentmere, plus there was the mental boost of being past half way. Dusk was setting in, so knowing that I had a couple of hours until it went properly dark, I set myself the loose goal of reaching Ambleside before nightfall. I’d recce’d the last 16 miles of the course from Ambleside to Coniston (the only section of the entire course I had actually been on!) twice in the dark, so I was pretty confident with navigating that section again at night. As it happened, navigation on the rest of the route was pretty straightforward. Most of the time it was a case of following the people in front, and during the times when I was on my own I quite enjoyed following the road book instructions rather than relying on GPS, probably because it helped to break the distances down into step-by-step chunks. On the long trek up Garburn Pass I joined with a L100 runner who was making strong uphill progress and we travelled together to the top, only stopping briefly whilst I took a picture of the moon hanging in the sky above Windermere. We started running downhill but the additional 50 miles in my companion’s legs proved too much so he slowed to walk again and I trotted off, feeling fresher than I did at the start! I blasted (well, at least it felt like I was blasting) past a dozen or so runners spread out over the next couple of miles. The chart showing my race position at each checkpoint doesn’t do me justice here, but this was because I’d spent so long stuffing my face at Kentmere, honest! I really enjoyed the section through Skelghyll Wood, just outside Ambleside. It was beautiful and incredibly peaceful but the fading light and tricky underfoot conditions meant I had to slow my pace again. Out of the woods and onto one of the rare sections of tarmac into Ambleside I picked up some speed again, revelling in encouragement from people out for the evening. I arrived at the Ambleside checkpoint at 10pm to a surreal scene with all the marshals dressed as clowns.
Hunger had set in again (surprise, surprise) so my first task was to get to the FOOD. The checkpoint is a warren of corridors and rooms and it was absolutely boiling, so I guzzled down 3 cups of cold coke and grabbed some crisps and sandwiches before finding somewhere to sit down and get my jacket off. I was on a high after finally enjoying some good running on the last leg following the struggles of the earlier stages, so I messaged Natasha saying there was no question of not finishing now. My languishing at checkpoints (I spent nearly half an hour at Ambleside) cost me lots of lost positions, but my main priority was fuelling up and making sure I got to the next checkpoint in one piece. If eating a lot at Kentmere was responsible for me feeling so good on the way to Ambleside then I was determined to try and replicate it for the leg to Chapel Stile!
Fearing how cold it would be outside after the sweltering heat of the checkpoint, I put on both of my jackets as well as a buff to cover my head. Headtorch on and out into the night I went, and sure enough it felt absolutely freezing! I warmed up by walking briskly up the hill and out onto the open fells around Loughrigg, still feeling great. I’d probably lost another 20-30 positions whilst I was at Ambleside but I started reeling people in again as the energy levels remained high and I ran across the fell tops. Down into the Langdale valley and along the riverside – this is a nice flat section and relatively featureless at night so I focussed on getting to Chapel Stile and chowing down some more food, only stopping briefly to put on my waterproof trousers as the rain which had started half an hour earlier got heavier. Eventually Chapel Stile checkpoint emerged like an oasis gleaming in the night; another photo opportunity. A quick picture outside of the checkpoint too, to try and capture the energy and warmth of this strange little tent in the middle of a field and in I went to be greeted with an offer of “meat or vegetable stew?”. I didn’t fancy anything overly meaty so opted for veg, with a piece of bread to soak up the goodness. 3 bowls later (apparently a record at the time, nobody else had gone beyond 2 bowls, so at least I stayed true to form on the eating front), followed by a massive chunk of homemade chocolate cake, some jelly babies and a couple of cups of tea and I was ready to head back out into the cold, wet night.
Buoyed on by my most recent refuel and the fact that only 10 miles remained between me and Coniston, I set out again at what felt like a quick pace. I got stuck behind a couple of groups of half a dozen runners who were taking things pretty steadily. Most people in this event are very polite and will stand aside on sections of single track to let faster runners through, but this was the only section where I had to resort to a frustrated “excuse me” in order to get past. I stomped up the hill past another 7-8 runners to emerge alone at the top, now on the section past Blea Tarn. I felt much stronger now than I did when I last recce’d this section back in January, despite the fact that I’d got 30+ more miles in my legs. Further on there was another slow-moving group trying to navigate their way through the boggy section at Blea Moss just before the trail emerges onto the Wrynose Pass road, so I went higher up the hillside to pass them and ran to the unmanned checkpoint on the roadside. Once dibbed-in I legged it down the road wanting to put some distance between me and group I’d just passed, and to see if I could catch anyone else. Past Fell Foot farm at the bottom of the hill I turned right too soon and ended up running through a field for a few hundred metres before common sense kicked in and I realised none of the grass had been trampled by runners ahead of me and I must have taken a wrong turn! A quick u-turn back to the road to find the correct turning another hundred metres or so further on – still no sign of the runners I passed half a mile ago so all was good. I ran from here pretty much the whole way to the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite, picking off a couple more solo runners along the way.
Tilberthwaite is the final checkpoint with just 3.5 miles to the finish and it was the one where I spent the least amount of time, not just because the food wasn’t to my liking (too much sweet stuff) but because I wanted to keep going whilst the going was good. I gulped down a couple of cups of coke and then headed straight up the steep steps appropriately nicknamed the “stairway to heaven”, which had been delightfully marked with little lanterns for the first couple of hundred metres. I got mixed up in a bigger group who were taking it steady and mistook me for one of their own before realising that I was moving quicker than them and they swiftly moved aside so that I could pass through. I reached the top quicker than I expected to and broke out into a steady run across Coniston Moor, only stopping to point a L100 runner in the right direction just before the waterfall crossing.
I passed another small group just before the ankle-twisting descent towards the youth hostel at Coppermines. Half way down the descent I spotted a headtorch that had separated from the group I’d passed and was following me at speed down the hill. This was probably the only time during the whole event where I actually felt in full on race mode, and given that nobody had passed me (apart from whilst I was eating my own bodyweight at the checkpoints) since Kentmere, I was absolutely determined to make sure it didn’t happen in the final mile before the finish (he finished 5 minutes behind me)! Finally onto the main track/road towards the village, it was downhill to the finish. I gave it everything I had and absolutely flew past a couple more small groups who were both good spirited enough to clap and cheer me on. Past the pub and onto the main road through Coniston, a broad smile emerged across my face as I finally accepted that I had made it. A minute later I crossed the finish line, still beaming.
I knew nothing about the finish “ritual”, so it was the most amazing surprise to be personally escorted into the school hall and announced as a “50 finisher!” to rapturous applause from everyone inside. Medal donned, obligatory selfie taken and sent to Natasha, wet clothes taken off and replaced with the “50 miles” finisher t-shirt, I finally sat down for my well-earned prize – more food.
My Lakeland 50 experience was not what I thought it would be when I entered it, all those months before. I learnt some great lessons though:
- A severe lack of preparation doesn’t mean you won’t have an amazing experience. In the lead-up to the race I remained very blasé about it, with an attitude of “what will be will be”. It was the biggest running event of my life and apart from the start line nerves I was totally relaxed. The lens through which I viewed the race was not one of getting to the finish by a certain time or targeting a certain number of hours between checkpoints, it was one of enjoying the adventure and focussing on keeping moving towards Coniston. My lack of preparation meant I suffered during some of the most difficult parts of the course, but it also allowed me to find my own groove later on, once I’d figured out a good fuelling strategy. I’m not really one for quotes but there is one that has stuck in my mind over the past few years as my race distances have increased: “running is 90% mental, the rest is physical”. It’s so very true, if your mind is in the right place then your body will keep going – I know this better than ever now, after such little physical preparation.
Focus the mind, be positive and stay relaxed.
- On the fuelling front, I started feeling much better after eating basically as much food as I dared, along with plenty of sugary coke and the odd cup of tea with a slice of cake. Ultra races are sometimes described as rolling all-day buffets with a bit of running thrown in – I certainly made the most of it and felt all the better for it! I also wasn’t afraid to take my time at the checkpoints. I probably spent an hour and a half in total at the 6 checkpoints along the course and it cost me a lot of positions, but there’s no way I’d have felt as good as I did over the second half of the course if I’d not taken the time to recover and prepare for each individual leg.
Don’t be afraid to take the time to recover, and listen to your stomach.
- I think that not knowing the route, with the exception of the final 16 miles, actually helped a great deal. Around every corner and over every hill were trails that I’d never set foot on before. This made it more of an adventure and focussed my attention on the next few hundred metres as opposed to thinking about everything that lay between my current position and the finish, many miles away.
Not knowing the route can have as many advantages as knowing it inside-out.
- In previous ultra races I’ve usually relied on GPS directions, but in the L50 I didn’t use my GPS once and didn’t even bother starting my stopwatch. I only looked at the time on a couple of occasions and any sense of minutes-per-mile or other targets never entered my head, meaning one less thing to stress about.
Ditch the technology and live in the moment.
The Lakeland 50 is an incredible event. I will definitely be back for more.