Ultimate Trails 110: a Spartan Odyssey
I must admit that the race had kind of crept up on me, despite it being my 2015 ‘A’ race. The 53-mile (85k) Highland Fling in April was good preparation and since then I’d had a couple of recces of the route, plus I was familiar with some sections which followed the same trails as the Lakeland 50. I was pretty comfortable that I’d done enough preparation with five 60k and nine 50k weeks logged, interspersed with weeks when I backed off a bit – average weekly mileage was about 35. As a big fan of Lakeland trails events since my first race in 2007 I knew what to expect in terms of organisation and atmosphere, and I also knew how technical those trails are - I didn’t want to be complacent, or underestimate how tough it might be.
I’d used the calculator on Climbers.net (http://climbers.net/race) to get an idea of split times at the different checkpoints for an 18-hour time – although the site only had details of the old 100k route, it still helped to figure out a projected time based on when I arrived at the checkpoints.
I kept an eye on the weather forecast and towards the end of the week it was starting to shape up as being almost perfect – rain petering out on Friday afternoon, followed by a dry night and a dry day with little wind, light cloud and about 16 degrees.
We drove up Friday afternoon, checked into our lovely accommodation at the Apple Pie cafe in Ambleside and went to register and get kit checked. Andree was doing the 55k event on the Saturday, although was apprehensive about a recent niggling injury and was going to see how it felt in the morning before her race started at 11am. Registered with numbers and timing chips, it suddenly felt a lot more real and my nerves started jangling. We headed off to find Nick in the Wishart trailer tent, and after a chat and a brew, leaving a drop bag containing spare socks and food to be taken to the halfway point at Glenridding, and the safety briefing from Graham, we headed out to grab something to eat. A quick pizza at Zefferelli’s did the job and then back to see if I could grab an hour’s sleep – it was going to be a long night!
It felt weird getting kitted up and ready at 11pm, but the adrenaline and caffeine kicked in and off we went to the start on a lovely clear and cool night. With the compulsory kit, a bit of food (a Chia charge flapjack, some M&S flapjack bites, trail mix pepperami, a fruit pouch, and gels for the later stages) and 500ml of water, my pack felt heavy to lug around for 110k!
I met up with Nick and there was a real buzz as we waited for the gun at 12.15am, people doing last minute gear adjustments, stretches and wishing each other luck.
Off we went through Ambleside like a ninja army, startling people coming out of the pubs, a throng of head torches, everyone now in their own space and their element, being in the moment and not thinking too much about what lay ahead. Nick and I ran together out of Ambleside up Old Lake Road, walking where we needed even at this stage and looking across at the moon and stars reflected on Windermere. I was conscious, as always, of running my own race, and Nick pulled away on the descent into Troutbeck. I looked back to see a snaking line of headtorches – it felt awesome to be part of this amazing event, and I had to be careful not to get carried away and head off too quickly. I fell in step with a couple of runners heading up Garburn pass: Lucja who had recently completed the Transvulcania, and Michael who had done 50 milers before but like me, nothing of this distance. I agreed to Michael’s suggestion to run together, but made it clear that he should feel free to crack on if he wanted – after all, he was nearly 30 years my junior! He was good company and we made good time to reach CP1 at Kentmere at 1:45am. The head torches snaked down Garburn Pass, an amazing sight.
The next section I’d recce’d with Nick and Andy Spartans in early January. The good runnable trail up towards Nan Bield Pass steepened and the pace slackened off. I felt a tug on my vest, and it was Terry, the other Spartan in the event. We kept within eyesight until the top, and he hit the technical descent and pulled away as I took my time in my Hokas which I’d selected for their overall quad-sparing effects – the trade off was the lack of ground feel, especially on those descents. Big respect to the marshals on the top of Nan Bield Pass, who had a long night and day ahead of them. Still they had the spectacular view to keep them occupied.
Soon a very special place came into view – Mardale, where since 2012 the Spartans have hosted the checkpoint in the Lakeland 50/100. I reached Mardale at 3:20am, as Terry headed out.
By now the sky was getting lighter, with breath taking views of dawn over Haweswater. It was light enough to pack the head torch just before 4am. The trail was familiar, it’s the Lakeland 50 route in reverse, undulating along the shores of the lake. We caught up with Terry and ran into CP3 at Bampton after a bit of road running at 4:52am. Great checkpoint, crammed a bacon butty, a porridge pot and a cup of tea. Terry had said we should just head off, but I was keen to find him before we left the checkpoint – no sign – oh well, off we go. More tarmac, as a result of a last minute route change, which wasn’t great. We ran for a while with an American guy who had flown in only 2 days before – respect!
The tarmac ended as a lane petered out into a bridle path up onto Askham Moor. Ow! A twinge in the adductors which I needed to walk off. I ran it off, and we were back on familiar Lakeland 50 territory, chatting to Michael on the lovely trail to Howtown, amazing views across Ullswater to the Helvellyn range. Where else would you rather be on a morning like this!
Somewhere on this section we went over the marathon distance. On ultras I tend not to wear a GPS, and just have a watch to keep an eye on the time. At 6:27am we dropped into Howtown and physiology kicked in and I needed to sit down for the first time in the race ...
The sun was up now it was a beautiful sunny morning, I just hoped it wouldn’t get too hot. The next section was a black hole for me as we headed around Hallin Fell and up Boardale. A stunning valley, that had a nasty little kick at its crest before the long descent into the halfway (60k) point, Glenridding, CP 5, reached at 7:57am. I collected my drop bag from the efficient and helpful CP crew, fuelled up on pepperami, peanuts, fruit pouch and more flat coke, and stashed another bag of homemade trail mix (dates, cashews and crystallised ginger) and marzipan balls studded with apricots and chocolate. I decided against changing my socks as it would take too long to get one pair of Injini socks off and another pair on, and my feet felt OK. I was also pleased with pace, and looking at a sub-18 hour time. But this is where it was going to get tougher, with a whole day ahead. In ultras, it’s not necessarily how fast you go, but how much you slow down.
The run out of Glenridding up Grisedale is part of the Lakeland Trails Helvellyn route, again familiar territory, and recently refreshed on our recce 3 weeks earlier. The clouds gathered on the way up, much to my relief. We also passed Lucja as she refuelled and soon reached the tarn and Grisedale Hause. Up ahead I could see a marshal aabout 50m up the climb onto Seat Sandal – why were we going up there? Oh OK, he’s a marshal for the runners doing the Clif 10 Peaks – the fells are busy today! Michael pulled away on the technical descent down to Dunmail Raise, and although I went more slowly I caught my wedding ring on a rock, nearly degloving my ring finger – ouch, luckily just bruised. A couple of guys came past us and up Steel Fell, their supporters telling us it was a BG attempt – a busy day on the fells as I said! Reached CP6 at Dunmail Raise at 10:16am, more flapjacks, Michael waiting patiently. We tried to blag some rice pudding at a Clif 10 Peaks CP at Wythburn – nice try! From our recce I knew there was a long climb coming up and with over 70k in my legs it was time to get the poles out. For the second (and last) time in the race I ended up sitting down after slipping on the ascent. I’d lost Michael on the climb and after dodging around some groups of girls on their DofE, over to Watendlath, passed by several runners. I wish I’d brought money for an ice cream, but had to make do with another fruit pouch.
It was short up and down over to CP7 at Rosthwaite, 12:35pm. The marshal gave me a huge boost by telling me I was in 60th position – what?! I couldn’t believe it. Nick had been through 25 min before me in 45th. That gave me a massive mental positive and I left Rosthwaite running steadily, nice and flat up to path up Langstrath, Stake Pass ahead. This is one of the biggest climbs on the trail, winding up the switchbacks – my poles and the marzipan energy cluster bombs helping me over the crest. A marshal at the top optimistically said it only a couple of miles to the next, and last, CP – hmmm...
From the top I could clearly see the trail down Mickleden leading into Langdale, but it seemed to take ages to get down to it. At last, and I could jog along to Stickle Barn, CP8, coming in at 3:44pm. The welcome here was fantastic, with great ‘proper’ food – no more flapjacks! I crammed down an egg sandwich, pizza and more flat coke, and headed off for the last leg. Back on familiar ground, I knew now that I was going to finish, such a good feeling. This section is pretty straightforward so it’s just a case of one foot in front of the other, relentless forward progress. I got to Elterwater about 5pm – a sub-18 hour was on the cards! I wasn’t looking forward to the steep descent off Loughrigg into Ambleside, but perhaps by now it didn’t matter and I could hear the rhythmic drumming of the Battala band at the finish in Rothay Park. Into the park, people clapping and cheering and across the line at 5:49pm, with a time of 17h 34 min in 66th position, 70 min after Nick. I’m absolutely elated!
Despite the extra distance and the midnight start I felt much better at the finish that I had after the Lakeland 50 a couple of years earlier. This was a tough, technical race. Maybe it was a bit better preparation, mental confidence, chunking goals, good kit (Hokas and poles especially), the energy and support of the marshals and other runners, or probably a combination. Whatever it was, it seemed to work.
Andree wasn’t at the finish which I took to be a good sign. The niggling injury hadn’t stopped her and sure enough, she finished her event a few hours later, in 11h 37min.
It certainly lived up the definition of ultimate:
Being or happening at the end of a process; final