“Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, over civilized people are beginning to find out that wilderness is necessity… going to the mountains is going home.”
This was my second time doing the Lakeland 50 after I completed it in 2015 as my first 50 mile race. If you’ve already read my review of that event you’ll know that I arrived KNOWING that I was woefully under-prepared. I don’t mean the usual paranoia like niggly knees & achy ankles but rather that I genuinely hadn’t trained for it. Despite my lack of preparation I found ‘flow’ late in the race & in a dusk revelation fell in love with the event & ultra-running, recognising that although I would never be good at it I was at home plodding along isolated trails for a long time.
Fast forward to this years event & I am in a very different position, I have been more committed to training this year although after moving to Malta just 4 weeks earlier I hadn’t managed to get in any long distance runs since my failed attempt to complete the SDW100 six weeks before. I had however been running more consistently, my times had been creeping down and I was feeling stronger so despite demons dwelling following my first DNF, race weekend arrived with me confident of a better performance.
Preparation for race day wasn’t ideal. I flew into the country a couple days before, spent Thursday packing and lugging heavy furniture around before joining the entire country in a queue heading north towards The Lake District for 9 hours on Friday. I thought I was going to arrive too late to sign on but thankfully the traffic eased enough for me to arrive in Coniston at 9.15. After quickly and efficiently signing on (IE passing kit check first time this year) I headed back to my Dad’s for a bit to eat and some sleep before the big day.
I arrived back in Coniston at about 8am & met Kate, Con & Gav (@borleyrose, @conwild, @Firman_77_) who had commandeered a spot in front of the door. It was great to meet people I knew as the unusually witty conversation kept my mind off the upcoming endeavors, particularly as the increasing nervousness had caused GI issues in 2015. We were soon ushered in to listen to the mandatory race briefing delivered by Marc Laithwaite, who clearly wants to be a stand-up comedian (and could probably do it well too) and Terry Gilpin. As with last year Marc had put together a very funny, but thought provoking speech that gave much to consider over the coming hours. The key take away, was that we’re all a bit weird, but at least we don’t work in IT.
We then piled onto those dreaded coaches for the loooonnng drive to Dalemain, again I was grateful for the company which kept me entertained and although we appeared to have the slowest bus in the North West which almost required assistance up the slightest of inclines and was in desperate need of a new fan-belt we did arrive just in time to relieve ourselves & stash our (unused) drop bags before entering the starting pen. We had just a few minutes to wait with tensions starting to build, obligatory hopping from one foot to the other, repeated tying of shoe laces and the dawning realization I needed a poo but it was too late as long the race countdown began… and we were off.
The first 4 miles is a pretty uninspiring loop around the Dalemain Estate but possibly because it was noticeably cooler or maybe because I was better prepared, I dispatched it far easier than I remember last year leaving us to take the lovely single track towards Pooley Bridge. The endless procession of runners made their way through the village quickly with less traffic held up on the eponymous new wider, but far less lovely, bridge before passing through the village centre. I said a brief hello to Wayne ‘SpecialHorn’ Singleton (@SingletonWayne) then we turned uphill towards the first climb of the race towards the Cockpit, I plodded uphill when Jane, the lady I was chatting to spotted #LakelandLegend John Kynaston, famous for sharing numerous recce videos of the 100 route which have become somewhat of a visual bible for the entrants. Nice to see people like this out supporting enroute and it shows the affection so many have for this event.
I remember vividly being in a lot of pain already on the long descent along Ullswater towards Howtown in 2015 and I was relieved to still feel fresh & strong following in my footsteps 12 months later. I felt myself tiring a little by the time we finally reached the end of the trail, dropping down the steep section of road I passed Kate, then just behind Con & Gav who had just left the first CP. I downed a couple cokes, grabbed a bag filled with a selection of their pick & mix, then sat down to top up my bottles, leaving without wasting any more time than necessary as I wanted to get the next stage out of the way as quickly as possible.
We were now entering Fusedale…
You will often hear entrants talking in hushed tones about their varied experiences ascending Fusedale to the highest point on both the 50 & 100.
Most commonly it has scarred their very being in some way, a scar so deep it will never truly heal.
I am one of those people.
Marc had described in the briefing how for many people their race ends when they attack the ascent too hard and they break. This is exactly what I did when I cracked last year, it almost finished me then and this time I feared it would do the same but I was determined to avoid the same mistake so took it really steady. In retrospect I was too deferent, too steady but at least this year I had the legs to run down the grassy descent from High Kop to Low Kop & the steep drop to the banks of Death Valley, known on OS maps as Haweswater.
This final 4 miles to CP2 at Mardale Head, is hard going. Again I have terrible memories of it from 2015 and these effected how I approached it this year, taking my time, going slowly and losing places. The jumbled, jagged and unstable rocks were causing me a shooting pain in my right ankle but although I was fading when I finally wobbled into the CP at least I knew I wasn’t going to be withdrawing here this year. I gave myself 15 mins, taking on some soup, coke & water and topping up my bottles again before taking some painkillers to ward off increasing ankle pain and sitting down for a few minutes to let the blood drain from my legs. Although I could easily have whiled away the afternoon dozing in the afternoon sun, I knew ‘The Mother in Law’ was waiting for us ahead, so started my slow plod up the switch backs that ‘go on & on & on…’
I carried over the same technique that got me to the top of Gatescarth with enough energy to run down the other side before and ascended slowly, literally placing one foot in front of the other continuously and although it did seem to take forever I finally passed the gate that for me symbolizes not just the start of a great descent but also that the hardest parts are now behind me… so I started running.
And I kept running, only this time I kept on running all the way to the bottom and we turned right to start the shorter but sharp climb up the Col, once we’d got over this it was the simple task of finding our way through the warren of stiles into Kentmere for CP3 and some pasta. One of my only regrets of the day was forgetting the fruit smoothies here, but I polished off a bowl of pasta, couple cokes & a couple waters quickly and left after just a few minutes to take on Garburn Pass, the last ‘big’ ascent before the Stairway to Heaven. I ran down the road before it and started to climb uphill steadily. When I first recce’d this I did it on tired legs and found it difficult, oddly in both races I’ve got to the top comparatively easily and have plummeted down the prolonged decline with aplomb. Nearing the bottom I caught sight of Kate walking, so obviously having some problem. I slowed to speak to her for a little while and discovered she’d had a fall earlier but as I was feeling OK (and we were still heading down) I selfishly pressed on. Con & Gav where just ahead having stayed with Kate for a while and they now tracked ahead of me as we passed through Troutbeck onto Robin Lane before pulling away into the distance.
I wasn’t feeling quite so upbeat heading towards Ambleside, but the knowledge I was 1.5hours ahead of my 2015 time helped keep me positive on the approach. Even this was forgotten as we made our way through the town, the groundswell of support was incredible. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was greatest passing the White Lion but it was a wall of noise throughout, made even more noticeable following our relative isolation for the preceding hours. It was such a buzz, I can’t help but imagine how amazing it must be running into Chamonix at the end of the UTMB.
Arriving at the CP, they’d set up tables at the base of the steps this year so I was thankful for not having to climb those extra steps to dib in. I was surprised to find Con & Gav still there but as I was feeling a bit run down I took a few minutes longer here & they’d long gone before I started walking through the park with my second cup of soup. Looking back I spotted Kate hammering her way towards me at some pace & she caught me just past the bridge leading towards the next ascent. We chatted as we ascended but she was determined to arrive at Chapel Stile before dark and took every opportunity to make progress & she soon started to pull away from me. I was still feeling fatigued so didn’t think I’d make the next CP before dark but was happy to be moving forward, I then caught up with Kate again at a T junction in the path, a pattern that would become quite common in the next few miles.
We dropped down towards Skelwith Bridge descending along the road where I had my twilight epiphany last year, passing the hotel and following the river as the sky started to change colour with stunning reds & pinks coming through. Up ahead an unknown woman left her family to run over and open a gate for me, a small gesture that meant so much & clearly demonstrated how many people respect and support this race.
After this, we continued to follow a good (and flat) tarmac path and shadowing Kate I dropped in a sub 12min mile… which at 38 miles is unheard of for me and I even managed to maintain a reasonable pace as we passed the carpark and another gratefully received pocket of supporters, slowing to a walk for the incline towards the quarry.
I ran through the campsite down to the Chapel Stile CP meeting up with Kate, Con & Gav. It was nice, if unexpected that we would all be at a CP so late in the race together. I inhaled the beef soup on offer before having a cup of tea, not really necessary but I felt the need to use the plastic cup that I had carried with me all day. I donned my jacket and readied my headtorch for action as the light was now starting to fade and as I was starting to get chilled I told the others I was going to start walking and would see them when they caught me.
I walked for a while, only speeding up to a run for the steeper descents (DON’T cross the bridge) and there were no sign of the others. Eventually as I clambered over one of the ladder stiles I heard Gav saying my name, happy they were behind me I trotted off at a run again but it took me a while to realize nobody was following me. I continued on my way, ascending Side Pike Pass & taking the now pitch dark trails past the unseen Blea Tarn, I spent the majority of this section completely alone and realized that the extra light provided by company was missed, particularly when I almost passed the gate down to the boggy open fell. But as I was now 2 hours ahead of my previous time and I hadn’t actually got lost I was happy I’d tackled it solo this year.
As seems to be common on this next part a few of us congregated along the indistinct paths as we searched for the best passage through the bogs and after dibbing in we all started to run down the road together. I continued to maintain a reasonable pace downhill despite my quads protesting but the next climb did take a toll and I was starting to tire quickly & I feel nauseous. These few miles seemed to go on forever but I eventually passed the farm, ensuring I didn’t point my headtorch at the bedroom windows shuffled along the road to the waiting final CP with the candles lighting the Stairway to Heaven above.
I waited a few minutes and had a coke, hoping the others would come in behind but a combination of the desire to get it finished and a chill the minute I stopped moving meant I soon made my way up the steps signifying the start of the final 1.5 miles of ascent. I hadn’t got a lot left in the tank and was feeling sick, particularly when exerting myself more and I got up on willpower alone, but I was more concerned about the descent as I had enjoyed slipping and sliding down the slate last year but my legs were not behaving anymore and coordination was lacking. Reaching the high point of the ascent I started to trot downhill, but upon arriving at the more technical sections I couldn’t throw myself down them as I couldn’t trust my legs to hold me anymore. I struggled feeling much slower than previous descents here and although initially relieved at reaching the switchbacks on the quarry tracks I still couldn’t get a rhythm as I was now wobbling around uncontrollably.
I eventually reached the road and can honestly say I have never been so grateful for tarmac in my life, finally making progress again… although not as much as Kate, Con and Gav who all swarmed past me with a mile left to go. I managed to pick up my own pace a little as I settled in on the flat surface and weaving through the final few streets into Coniston the end couldn’t arrive soon enough.
There were a lot more people around finishing at this time and there were still a good number out on the road as I ran down the road towards the school, arriving to rapturous applause I turned under the finishers arch and I had completed the Lakeland 50 in 13 hours 32 mins, a cool 2 hours faster than my previous attempt.
No two ways about it, this is an exceptional event.
The camaraderie out on the route is second to none, on most events competitors start talking late in the race but on this we are talking before we leave Dalemain. The marshals are superb, they genuinely can’t do enough for you and act like silver service waiters bringing whatever you need at the CP’s. The quality of fayre available is also great, the hot food and soup in particular go down well.
The real star of the show (nope, not Marc on the mic) is the location. The climbs are brutally hard and go on for a long time but the views you are treated to provide inspiration to continue and lift your spirits when you’re struggling. And in the evening as the light softens and the shadows lengthen it becomes even more magical, I struggle to believe it can be beaten.
Kit I used –
Shoes: On Running Cloudventure. Comfortable and reasonably good grip, exceptional over many varied surfaces but not particularly inspiring on wet rock… squeaked annoyingly throughout.
Socks: Injinji. I remained blister free AGAIN, won’t run long distances in anything else now.
Gaiters: Outdoor Research, do the job but look a bit silly
Underwear: Chaffree Boxers, I have never chaffed when wearing them and won’t do a long race without them.
Shorts: Skins DNAmic Superpose Half Tights, these are my preferred shorts for race day. They a comfortable but have the best level of compression I’ve found.
Shirt: Salomon Fast Wings, extremely light and breathable but shows off my pot belly a little more than I’m comfortable with. Just superstitious but I have been wearing this in my 2 best races …
Vest: Inov8 Race Ultra 10, this vest is SO comfortable and the stretchy side pockets swallow everything you need at hand for the race. Downside is the soft flasks are a real pain to refill.
Waterproofs: Jacket – Montane Minimus, my second Minimus jacket and I love them. Fit well function brilliantly and have decent pockets. Trousers – Salomon Bonatti, bought them when I failed L50 kit check last year and still never used in anger but they’re light & pack down small.
Headtorch: Unilite H8, heavy & bulky but good value, bright and the batteries have lasted several events.
As a final amusing addendum to my 2016 Lakeland experience, a post was added to facebook where some supporters were looking for a ‘hot guy akin to a Viking’ they had spotted running through Ambleside… it turned out the ‘Hot Viking’ was indeed me. So not only did my race go as well as I’d dare dream I was also received the hotly contested ‘Lakeland Viking Award 2016’ too. There’s one for Marc’s routine next year.