Four years ago exactly I ran my first marathon at Kielder. It didn’t end well – yes I got the sub 4 I wanted but due to poor clothing and fueling I ended up needing medical attention as soon as I crossed the finishing line. When I finally came round I swore to myself never to attempt such a stupid distance again…
So this weekend I find myself embarking on Lakes in a Day, a 50 mile race from the North to South of the Lake District wondering how I got here. I’m not an ultra runner. Indeed I still haven’t learnt how to pace a marathon properly. But I do love the Lake District and as soon as I saw this race advertised I knew I had to give it a shot.
The week of the race arrived and the forecast was terrible. Rain, gales, more rain, no visibility… the optimist in me was sure the met office would change their mind. They did – by Friday they were saying bits of rain, maybe some wind on the peaks but not as bad as it could have been. Saturday morning at 430am my alarm woke me and I was happy not to hear rain outside the window of my quirky airbnb in Cartmel. Maybe we were going to be ok….
The race started at 8 from Oddfellows Pub in Caldbeck. Everything about this race is impeccably organised – the pub staff were amazing providing teas, coffees and bacon sandwiches and we all chatted excitedly before James Thurlow, the fabulous race organizer sent us on our way. As we set off to the first climb we discussed how lucky we were with the weather in comparison with the forecasts earlier in the week… we would live to regret these comments!
It is very much a race of two halves. The first half tough fell racing – a lot of it open fell and on difficult terrain, the second half less mountainous and more on tracks or moorland. This was its fourth year and on every previous occasion it has been dry and clear – within a mile or two of leaving Caldbeck it became obvious this year wouldn’t be the same. The waterproofs were coming out as we entered the cloud and began the climb up High Pike. Visibility was getting worse, winds were increasing and the rain was coming at us horizontally. This was to be the theme throughout all of the fell section. No views, no grip on either slippy rocks or slippy grass/mud and for me no feeling in my fingers so no access to drink, food or maps! In spite of this I loved it. The route takes you up Blencathra at which point there is a decision between Halls Fell Ridge (hard in any conditions) and Blease Fell (easier but 2 miles longer). Coming up Mungrisdale Common was so bad with winds apparently up to 50 mph, I decided I should probably put my kids first and try to avoid death but when I saw others taking Halls Fell I couldn’t resist. This was the only place on the route with event support. They advised us to take it easy – I’m not sure anyone could go anything other than easy on this. It was terrifying but brilliant. From race reports I’ve read I now know quite a few people got stuck and needed help. And quite a few were more sensible and took Blease Fell… Somehow I got through it and by 11am was back down in Threlkeld at the first of three truly amazing feed stations. The crew were incredible – couldn’t do enough to help us and the food was definitely chosen by fell runners. Anything you could possibly want was there. As I was only 3 hours in I stuck to tea, coke, fruit and a few crisps.
The next section was without doubt going to be the hardest and longest as it took us from Threlkeld to Ambleside via amazing peaks such as Helvellyn and Fairfield. I’ve run most of this section at least a couple of times so I knew how hard it was even on a good day but also felt fairly confident of knowing the route. Unfortunately the mountains don’t look the same in cloud and rain so I did have a few mishaps route-wise firstly after Helvellyn where a few of us started heading off down to Thirlmere but fortunately realized our mistake fairly quickly. The descent to Grisedale tarn was tough – the rock path was way too slippy to contemplate so most of us took the grass option which although better in some ways did mean more concentrating to avoid accidents on hidden rocks or losing a foot into bog. On the positive side it was a bit clearer and calmer down at the tarn but I knew the worst bit was coming. I don’t like climbing Fairfield. It’s a long drag and after 23 miles and nearly 7 hours it was never going to be fun. The battering rain didn’t help and I was really getting quite cold and hungry but with numb fingers and no wish to stop there was no way I was going to get anything out of my bag to eat. So up I plodded…. And plodded…
When I eventually reached the top I was so happy I broke into a little run and immediately fell flat on my face. I was slightly winded and lost my companions and headed off following someone without really thinking about where I should be going. Climbing down some tough rocks I fell again, slid down on my bum and ended up sitting at the bottom of a rock quite nicely sheltered. I decided it was time to give my body a break, grabbed a bag of crisps out of the side of my bag and quite happily chomped on them waiting for the next runner to come by so I could pair up with them. Sadly the next runner didn’t come.. and didn’t come.. and it became obvious I wasn’t actually on the race route. No worries, I had a GPS tracker safely tucked away in my bag so I could use that to get me back on course. Out of the plastic bag, click it on and it happily told me I was still in Caldbeck. No matter what I did or said to it, it just didn’t believe that I had left the start… [You can get a tracker replay on the Opentracking website. ^DN]
I was just starting to get a tad worried when a runner appeared. Possibly not a bright runner (he’d gone wrong too) but someone to tag onto. He was convinced we were on the right route but I managed to persuade him we probably needed to head up and left to meet up with the other racers. Eventually we were back on track. The run down into Ambleside (over several peaks on the way) was very boggy and much slower than when I’d recce’d it but seeing the town gradually get closer spurred us all on.
So feed station two and I was about 9.5 hours in. The longest I’d ever been out running and the furthest I’d ever run in the Lakes (and not far off my distance PB of 50k prior to today).Before the start I’d told myself I could stop here but there was no way that was happening. The sun was finally creeping through and I’d been fed pasta and flat coke and was ready to face the world. This was the also the point where we were allowed to change shoes so my sodden x-talons came off and were replaced with nice dry trail shoes. I felt ready to set off on the second half…
So off we went on the next leg. This section is mainly along the coast of Windermere but with a few climbs including Claife Heights and Rawlinson Nab. Leaving Ambleside the horrors of the first half seemed like a bad dream. The sun was breaking through and the views were lovely as we followed the road down to the lakeside. So this half was actually definitely going to be fine… Once we were off-road it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as I’d hoped. Knee deep mud and puddles the size of a swimming pool faced us to ensure there was no rhythm to be gained. But it was fun – the views along the lakeside were stunning and although there were climbs there was nothing too difficult and the route was now easy to follow with arrows provided for the entire second half. As we went through the village of Sowry I realized the sun was about to disappear and there was still a way to go before the last feed station. I stopped to get my headtorch out only to discover the batteries had died. Thankfully Alex, a much more organized and experienced runner, was with me and kindly lent me his spare torch. Being a spare it was pretty weak so visbility was going to be poor for the next section. I stuck with Alex and his much more powerful torch to Finsthwaite. As the sun went down an enormous moon emerged and in spite of the mud, roots and other hazards I really enjoyed this section.
At the final feed station we were met with soup, rice pudding and more coke and tea. Looking back on the day I suspect I was high on caffeine for a lot of it! We watched a big screen which showed the trackers and we were impressed to see that several runners had already finished. But even more impressed to see that some were still going on Fairfield. It was now 930pm and they were doing that impossible open fell section in pitch dark. Many of them went on to finish in the early hours of Sunday. Massive respect to them.
After 15 minutes or so and with my headtorch now fixed it became apparent the last 8 miles were not going to run themselves so I left the warmth of the hall and set off, commenting to my fellow runners that this was likely to be quite a long 8 miles. It certainly was. The route for this section was across boggy fields and up and down woodland paths. Although it was hard I was actually enjoying myself – it was a lovely night and I now knew I was going to succeed.
The race finishes with a couple of miles of road. By the time this finally appeared I had passed a few people since Finsthwaite and running up and down the road to Cartmel I somehow found a bit of pace and managed to overtake a few more. Looking back I have no idea what was going on. I was finishing this race fresher and less tired than most marathons or half marathons!
Cartmel Priory School finally appeared and I crossed the line in 15 hours and 7 minutes. 53 miles done, over 4000 metres of climbing, 9th lady and a day I would never forget. I grabbed the race director and gushed about what a great race it was. He thought I was mad – the conditions had been awful how had I enjoyed it?! I don’t know but all I can say was that as I sat eating a baked potato with cheese and beans and talked to other fellow ultra runners I felt absolutely on top of the world. After a year with more than its fair share of lows this race meant so much to me for so many reasons. I will definitely be back. But next year I’m ordering better weather…