Sitting poised at my computer on September 1st last year waiting for online entries to open for the L100 2018, I browsed the website with a few minutes to go …
The Lakeland 100 ‘Ultra Tour of the Lake District’ is a circular route that encompasses the whole of the Lakeland fells and includes in the region of 6856m/22,493ft of ascent. The event is continuous in nature, the overall time available for the route is 40 hours but time is not on your side. The climb, descent, rugged terrain, darkness and tricky navigation generally ensure a 40-50% failure rate over the 100 mile course. Seasoned ultra runners have tried and many have failed, a finisher’s medal in the Lakeland 100 is possibly one of the most treasured possessions you will ever receive.
At 9am on the dot I rushed to enter online. In just three and a half minutes, all the places had gone, and to my amazement I had bagged one of them. A few months off due to injury meant I had recently missed out on some special events, so I was chuffed to have a new training focus and the prospect of lots of Lakes adventures in 2018.
I put a shout out to some folk for help, and started planning Lakes trips towards the end of last year. The race organisers put on a series of organised recces ahead of the event, splitting the route into x4 chunks (you are left to your own devices, using the map and written description to navigate around the course, with cut off times in place). The buses that run you from the finish to the start make travel logistics MUCH easier, and these recces gave me the chance to see if I could run the route quickly enough. My first reality check came mid November when Elaine Bisson kindly accompanied me on the first recce (Coniston to Buttermere) as part of her Bob Graham preparation. Allocated 9.5 hrs, we completed it with only 30 minutes to spare…and I struggled. Blaming my relatively unfit state on my recent injury, I just hoped that by next year I would be fitter, and it would feel easier … if I felt that tired after just 26 miles, how would I cope with 100?
I drew up a training plan, and over the next months gradually built up my mileage … incorporating multiples of a 15m off road local loop and shorter tempo runs into my week (thanks Geoff Davis) … a painful contrast to the hours spent plodding.
With the help of Joan and Mandy from the club, I ran routes on the N York Moors, visited the Lakes over New Year, and in February ran the Yomp and Howgills marathon routes on consecutive days. The idea was to run long miles on tired legs, and as Spring approached, the back to back weekends became more frequent and included memorable adventures … an autumn pie pit-stop in the bracken above The Rigg at Haweswater, ploughing through thigh-high snow in Durham and Ostmotherly, sitting by Lake Windermere in the evening warm sun, eating mid marathon giant hotdogs in Wensleydale, or re-fuelling on mid run chips at the Wasdale Inn, to name just a few.
I signed up for more official recces in late March and May, and upon each of these and other visits to the Lakes and events elsewhere, did two back to back days running 25-30 miles each day. The LDWA Yorkshire 50 on July 7th was my longest single training run, and during the 3 week taper I did a couple of shorter days in the Lakes to check the navigation on a couple of the route sections.
As event weekend approached I had mixed feelings … at times it seemed ridiculous to have signed up for a race in the Lakes that relied on others providing transport for the training and event itself. I knew that no amount of plodding around Durham and doing reps up and down Redhills like a loonie would alone be suitable preparation for Lakes terrain, but hoped that combined with the training trips I’d had, would be just enough. By mid July I felt as fit as I had ever been, I had trained to the best of my ability, so I knew that it was now or never.
But what about things I couldn’t control … would sleep deprivation get the better of me? Or a dodgy tum? Blisters? The weather?!
Dry heatwave conditions had engulfed the country for most of the summer so I had run long miles in ridiculous heat, become acclimatised to it and much preferred it to cooler wetter conditions. Although having stamina for long distances, the thought of nervously picking my way down muddy slippy wet rocks for hour after hour was my worst nightmare.
I watched the weather forecasts unfold during the final taper week with disbelief. After weeks of calm warm conditions, it looked like all hell was about to break loose in the heavens above the fells. Feeling increasingly panicked, I stopped looking at the forecasts. There was nothing I could do to change it, so made sure my kit included enough suitable layers, and tried to get an early night the day before the event. It felt odd … getting into bed on Thursday night thinking “this is the last sleep I’m going to get until Sunday …”.
Joan and I arrived in Coniston by lunchtime on Friday, and pitched the tent on a well-organised camping field on the John Ruskin School site. Registration was in main marquee, involving detailed kit checks, signing forms, being photographed, weighed, and having two trackers attached to me and my pack. I decided to skip the pasta party in the main HQ…it was becoming hot and crowded, and I wanted a few hours to get myself calm away from seeing other runners which I knew would crank up my nerves.
Away from the hectic marquee, the campsite was eerily quiet … on the walk back to our tent I spied lots of folk trying to sleep … crashed out on inflatable mattresses, feet sticking out of tent flaps, and lying in the shade of their cars. It was 28 degrees, no wind and blue skies … hard to imagine how much it was forecast to change a few hours later.
After our own pasta feast, I lounged in a deckchair, sipped on pints of Ribena, and did a fair amount of nervous faffage until Mandy and Annie (my twin) arrived just before 4pm. I left them pitching their tent and walked up to the main school building for the pre-race safety briefing. Sitting in an extremely stuffy and dark hall surrounded by sweaty lycra-clad ultra runners sizing each other up, I could hardly believe that after months of waiting and training, the start was just a couple of hours away.
During the meeting my nerve started to waver. We were instructed what to do if/when the lightening started (stay inside the nearest checkpoint and don’t stick your poles poles in the air). A big show of hands demonstrated how many people were back for a second attempt after previously failing, and we were asked to shake the hand of the person on our left … as it was announced “only one of you is going to make it”. I didn’t see the funny side … and walked back to the tent (after a nervous trip to the loo!) feeling resigned to the fact that this might be my first DNF.
The girls did a fantastic job of jollying me along, as I nervously got changed into my race gear and we headed up to the busy start area. After some final goodbye hugs the girls headed off up the course, and I stood in the starting pen, trying to block out the crowd and loudspeaker noises. As the 10 second countdown began, I reminded myself that no matter if I finished or not, I was determined to ENJOY IT. And then … we were off! The cheers from the crowds of supporters were unbelievable, and despite my usual dislike of being shouted at from the side lines, I couldn’t help but feel a slight tingling of excitement. These weren’t folk shouting at me to go faster or pick off opponents ahead of me … they were celebrating the fact we had all made it to the start line, giving us a tremendous send off. Just as I left the village I spied Annie, Mandy and Joan cheering by the road side, then as quickly as the noise had started, all was quiet again, apart from the patter of fell shoes and pole tips on concrete as we all approached our first ascent in convoy …
Leg 1: Coniston to Buttermere 26.3 miles
This is the hardest section. The time cutoffs are relatively tight, and getting the navigation slightly wrong and losing time during the night was my main worry. Looking to my right as we started our first climb, I could see the path on the other side of the valley that would hopefully be my final descent back into Coniston on Sunday morning. Trying not think ahead, I tried to calm my thoughts and fell into a steady pace in a long single file line of runners making our way the few km up to Walna Scar Pass. Progress over the rocky path felt slow … it was ridiculously warm and humid (I was dripping with sweat) and people were bunching up at gates/stiles. I tried not to worry about cutoff times, well aware that starting slow was by no means a bad thing. At the top after pausing briefly to enjoy the view in the evening sun, I tucked away my poles and enjoyed a steady descent to Seathwaite. Faster folk sped off downhill so the field thinned out a bit, but the checkpoint (outside the village hall) had a busy air about it…people were nervy and keen to keep moving, so after quickly devouring 3 pieces of cake and some salty crisps washed down with coke, I set off again.
The second section to Boot is relatively fiddly, but only has half the climb … passing through a wood, a few farms, up and around Low Crag, a large plantation, a long path that skirts to the left of Harter Fell and then a convoluted and rocky descent to Penny Hill Farm, before a picturesque riverside path eventually skirts round into Boot. I knew the route from memory, and arriving at the Boot checkpoint ahead of time, I decided to treat myself to a longer pause. After more snacking (cake and a pile of custard creams), I sat down to don my head torch, cap and waterproof jacket. The first few blobs of rain were starting to fall, and although it was still spookily warm, I suspected the storms were approaching. I switched my head torch on as I left Boot (the clock said 10pm), and headed out into the darkness.
The next stint was relatively straightforward…up and over Eskdale Moor for 3.2km, past Burnmoor Tarn, then follow a well cairned path down to a track heading towards a car park at the head of Wastwater, and along the road to Wasdale Head. Crossing the moor I was reassured by clumps of head torches twinkling ahead and behind me, and in the light of mine I could just make out the indistinct path as I headed in the direction of where the tarn was. I cursed the weather … clear skies would have revealed a beautiful lunar eclipse blood moon, but instead of moonlight reflecting on tarn water, the heavy cloud meant that I couldn’t even see the horizon line, let alone the tarn. I overtook a group of runners that were walking … we had hit the gentle descent as you approach the tarn, and I knew that – in order to meet the cutoffs – I had to try and run whenever possible. But a few minutes later the heavens opened and there was an almighty downpour. As the rain bounced off my head, all I could see was a wall of illuminated water as my head torch lit up the deluge from above. I slowed to a walk, and repeatedly turned off my torch to try and locate the line of slow moving lights in the distance. As the rain eased and I got my bearings, I caught up and ran with a couple of runners who seemed as keen to get down off the moor as I was! After the descent once we hit the road up to Wasdale Head and were plodging along through puddles with the checkpoint in sight, my spirits lifted. I was feeling fit, rather soggy but not cold, and if that was the worst the weather was going to chuck my way, I’d be okay.
The Wasdale checkpoint in a barn had volunteers dressed up as superheros, loud 70’s pop music and flashing disco lights. I’m so thankful to all the marshalls and volunteers that looked after us so well, but this approach just wasn’t for me … at checkpoints I just wanted a bit of calm time out. After having a swift cup of coffee (the first one! It was bliss) shoving in some more crisps and grabbing a little stack of peanut butter and jam sandwiches, I left and ate my little hoard of provisions on the hoof as I walked back out into the darkness in search of some headspace.
Next: Wasdale Head to Buttermere. With 2336ft of climb in 6.9 miles, it was one of the toughest night sections. It was still raining, and I had twice previously taken the wrong line coming down off Black Sail Pass. I set off along Mosedale at a determined pace, and as the climb grew steeper heading up towards the Gatherstone Beck crossing, I was glad to have poles. It felt significantly lonelier as the field of runners had thinned out a lot. From the top I could just make out some features around me in the very dim moonlight, and with hope that the skies were clearing slightly, I took my time going down towards Black Sail Hut far below … veering right until I could hear Sail Beck on my right and just following the rocky descent down. Everything was slippy, and I got a stark reminder to be careful when a guy who had overtaken me and taken a steeper line down, slipped and broke a pole.
Once down (PHEW! immense relief), I sped up to jog past Blacksail YHA, and felt strong climbing up to Scarth Gap. The descent down to Buttermere from here is a long rocky slog, but after picking my way down, the thought of being on the home straight (for this bit) lifted my spirits, and I ran the last couple of km along the Buttermere lakeside, until I reached checkpoint 4 at Buttermere Village Hall.
I was up on schedule, and the race info had promised hot dogs on offer. But upon entering the hot and stuffy cramped hall packed full of bodies on seats, I left as quickly as I’d arrived. I sat on the grass outside, listening to the faint sounds of Christmas carols (checkpoint was festive themed) which usually would have made me smile, but as the only food on offer was the by now familiar crisps, biscuits and sandwiches, I felt a bit deflated. I’d been on the go for 9 hours and was craving something more substantial, so decided to go back in. I spied a big jug of strawberry milkshake and downed a hearty glassfull, before forcing in some custard creams and flapjack and going on my way again.
Leg 2: Buttermere to Dalemain 32.8 miles
Going through Ghyll Wood, I cheered up a bit. After all, the worst bit was behind me?! It had finally stopped raining, I was feeling good, no unforeseen problems, and upon passing a runner whose belching and vomiting could be heard reverberating around the wood, I counted myself lucky that I’d managed to cram lots of food in without it coming back.
After the wood, the low level path was relatively easy to follow and I contoured around Whiteless Breast and crossed Third Gill, Addecombe Beck and the scree slopes. I knew the km ascent up to Sail Pass was a stinker, but I’d done it in training, so just dug my poles in and took the narrow path diagonally up through the heather. Near the top I glanced back to look at the valley below in the faint light, but it was slowly being engulfed in rather ominous heavy clouds, heading our way. I’d just started the steep rocky descent under scar crags when the cloud came down. As Geoff comment earlier in the week along the lines of “when the clag comes down at night you can’t see your arse from your elbow” rang extremely true … my head torch light reflected off the mist, and I slowed right down as visibility was about 1-2m. Luckily the rocky path was well defined, but I decided to switch on my GPS too (if I missed a crucial path on the left, I’d end up way off course down in the Newlands Valley). With the left fork located, and the cloud lifting, I continued up to Barrow Door col, and then once again folded up my poles and enjoyed the blissful grassy descent all the way down to Braithewaite.
Checkpoint 5 was heaven; warmth, space, peace and quiet, and the smell of COOKED FOOD! Hooray! After bagging an empty chair and stripping off my soggy layers, I scoffed x2 bowls of veggie pasta followed by my fave running treat … rice pudding and peaches. I took off my shoes, gingerly peeled off my socks and hurriedly put on a dry pair before the ominous wafts felled any nearby runners. It was 4.45am, so I fetched myself a second cup of coffee and decided to indulge myself with an extended pitstop. I was relieved to see friendly faces after the hours of just seeing silhouettes caught in head torches … most folk looked a bit bleary-eyed, some less jolly than others, but all relieved to have night one done and dusted.
Leaving Braithewaite at 5am with the village totally still in the mist is one of the memories that sticks in my mind. I headed out feeling re-fuelled and happy to be an hour ahead of schedule. As I jogged alongside a car free A66, a voice behind me commented on the “lovely English weather” and I spent the next few km chatting to Michael, who had come over from Hamburg for the race. The route gets a bit fiddly, but once again the written description (and previous recce) meant we found our way along the old railway track and crossed the A66 to head up Spooney Green Lane. By the time I entered Latrigg woods and continued along the Cumbria Way I was alone again, it was raining … again … and my previous good mood wavered a bit as I remembered the next bit of the route; you run roughly 6km north along one side of the Glenderaterra Beck valley, cross a wooden bridge at the end and then run back south, finishing off at the Blencathra Centre. It was relentlessly rocky underfoot, and all the time you realise you are running one way…only to then run back again. Jogging where I could, I passed a few familiar faces (including Ghyll Woods ‘Vomit Man … whose tummy had thankfully settled) and a common topic for discussion seemed to centre around why – when the race actually measured 105 instead of 100 miles long – could we not do away with this bit?!
I reached the Blencathra Centre (checkpoint 6) but didn’t really fancy stopping (nothing to do with the heavy loud rock music, honest!) so after the obligatory crunch on a few crisps, munch on a few custard creams, swig of coffee and then a last minute piece of hot buttered toast (wonderful) I was off again. The next few miles were relatively flat, much was on road and the old railway line (through Brundholme, skirting Threlkeld and on to Newsham) so I settled into an easy paced jog and enjoyed listening to the banter of some friendly runners nearby. But by the time we passed Newsham and headed out onto the boggy open fell, it was raining heavily and starting to feel a bit grim. On my route description notes where it described the 6km Old Coach Road track from Clough Fold I had scribbled “very long and boring” in the margin. With hindsight I should have added “soul-sucking” and a few choice expletives. The rain hammered down and the side wind nearly blew me over. I started to hear ominous rumbles of thunder, and realised that if lightening started, my shelter options were nil. To top it all it was getting bloody cold. I still only had on shorts and vest under my jacket, so I stopped to put on my waterproof trousers. Getting out my warm long sleeved top would have to wait until the next checkpoint, as here it would have been instantly sodden before I’d got my jacket back on. Instead to warm up I started to jog … and then jog faster … and basically kept up a steady stagger until – what seemed like an eternity later – I turned the corner to spy the checkpoint 7 marquee in the distance. Hooray!
Relief turned into dismay when at the entrance I was faced with a wall of bodies tightly squeezed into the inadequately sized tent. Realizing I had to elbow my way in (note to Susan: HL has taught me something!) I approached the opening at the exact moment when a gust of wind sent a bath load of water cascading down from the canopy, directly over me and down the neck of my hood. Brilliant. Through gritted teeth I managed to squeeze my way into the tent corner, and crouching down behind someone’s chair, I changed as many of my clothes as decency in such a public place would allow. I could feel I was starting to shiver, so once kitted up again, I glugged a hot coffee, and reluctantly nibbled on some more jam sandwiches and biscuits. The marquee was cold, overcrowded, and being buffeted by the gales, so it was with a little sigh of relief that I squeezed myself back out through the mass of soggy bodies, and set off on the last 10 miles to Dalemain.
It had stopped raining! I jogged the 1.6km road to Dockray and then through the woods, before contouring around Gowbarrow Fell (not for those with a fear of heights!), stopping to savour the gorgeous view down over Ullswater, which is one of my fave Lakes. The couple of km through Swinburn’s Park was a welcome green contrast to what came later on … after crossing a few fields/stiles/gates, it was back onto tarmac, following roads and a footpath for the last 7 km to Dalemain. It was a relief to be able to jog at a steady pace on the flat, and I stripped off my waterproofs (that had thankfully dried out) as the sun was peeping through the occasional bit of blue sky. For a tantalisingly short time, I wondered if the weather was set to improve? With less layers protecting my back I realised how much it was chafed from carrying all the heavy soggy kit … but it failed to dampen my spirits as I knew the next checkpoint was almost in reach.
I glanced at my watch as I approached Dalemain House … almost 12.30pm. After hardly seeing a soul since I left the tent huddle at Dockray, running past the throngs of supporters and 50m runners felt slightly surreal. I was funnelled into the marquee, ushered onto a chair, and sat down with a huge sigh of relief. I was half way!!! Yay!!
I quickly devoured a bowl of veggie stew then sorted out my pack (swapping in head torches, dry warm clothes and food bits) before looking around for somewhere to get changed. There wasn’t anywhere … so I nipped into the back of the drop bag van. Huddled there in the darkness having stripped everything off, I tried not to think about what would happen if someone decided to open the door … ? … but a few minutes later I emerged fully clad and feeling much better. With just 5 minutes of my planned half hour break to go (how did that happen?!) I texted Annie to let her and the girls know I was okay, and then quickly read a lovely note that she had stashed into my drop bag. She was right – the worst half was over. And being 3 hours ahead of schedule meant I could relax for the second half. I changed my shoes and socks … having dry feet felt absolutely blissful, and after seeing runners whose feet had split and blistered, realised how lucky I was to be injury free so far. The second I left the marquee, the heavens opened again. But I didn’t care! I was warm, dry (fully waterproofed again) and every step I took meant that the distance covered became greater than the miles I had left to run.
Leg 3: Dalemain – Ambleside 30.3 miles
The next bit was one of the flatter sections of the route, so with poles tucked away I set off at a slow jog across the fields and then through the wood along the river to Pooley Bridge. I took a path to the right of St Paul’s Church and followed the road up, marching up for about a mile across open fell, then navigating past a couple of landmark cairns and becks before seeing the trees of Barton Park on my right. From here it was a steady straightforward descent for a few km all the way to Howtown, on a path I knew as part of the winter Tour de Helvellyn. As I approached the gate at Mellguards I was already grinning … because I knew that at any moment I was going to bump into the girls. As I opened the gate I came across the amusing scene of Annie, Joan and Mandy, kitted out in sodden waterproofs, mouths full of picnic, each with a sticker I had been given at registration saying “I’m supporting number 338” plastered onto their foreheads! They spotted me and let out hysterical whoops, nearly choked on their food, and then ushered me to head on into the checkpoint while they packed up and waited outside. Annie jogged with me for a minute or so until I reached Bobbin Mill … she was staring hard at me, trying to gauge if I really was OK, and seemed relieved that I was. I nipped into the checkpoint to dib my tracker, grabbed a custard cream, filled my cup with coffee and then headed straight back out (quickest checkpoint visit ever!). We rejoined the others for few minutes … relishing their company, I sipped my cuppa and listened while they recounted tales of what adventures they had been up to in the last 24 hours. Mindful of the race rules (no external help/provisions, penalty being immediate disqualification) I reluctantly waved cheerio, and started on my ascent up Fusedale.
It’d given me such a boost to see them, and I tried to quell a little flutter of nerves about what lay ahead. The next section was one of my least faves … in the race info it stated:
The stretch from Howtown to Mardale includes the climb up Fusedale (known as the cauldron) and then the long section of Haweswater (known as the killer). This is where we have the biggest percentage of 50 drop outs. The Spartans of Delamere once held back an army of 45,000 at this narrow pass, piling up the bodies of wilting ultra runners and using it as a barricade. Don’t be one of them. Runners in the 100, if you’re going to stop, do so here (Howtown) and don’t set off for Mardale, it’s the toughest leg of the route.
With roughly an hour’s ascent ahead of me, and 2510ft to climb before the next checkpoint in 9.4 miles, I pulled out my poles and thought positive thoughts: I’d seen the girls as planned, the sun was (almost) shining, and I was still roughly 3 hours up time wise. But as I climbed, the wind became increasingly stronger, to the point where at times I was struggling to move forward. As I was buffeted over High Kop, I spotted the little wooden post on the horizon that signified the start of the descent, and was just staggering towards that, when the steady rain turned into hail. HAIL!!?. Even through my waterproofs I could feel the pellets stinging, and as I tightened the string in my hood to around my eyes and nose, I spied a few runners staggering along in T short and shorts, legs bright red where they were being hammered by the hail. I slowed right down, focussed on my breathing and tried to calm the sense of rising panic as I heard the occasional rumble of thunder. Why did this weather always strike when I was up high and exposed?! I began descending on the wide grassy track across Bampton Common, and a tentative jog sped up to a steady run. Keen to get down to lower ground, I kept jogging down the the winding descent to Fordingdale Bottom, and carried on down past the waterfall through the new tree plantation to the side of Haweswater. Once there I knew I was roughly an hour’s steady walk/jog away from the next checkpoint, and it was just a case of contouring on a rocky path along the Lake for roughly 6km, going up and over The Rigg, and heading to the car park at Mardale Head.
I arrived there at 6.41pm … and realised that my panic-induced jog had gained me more time (3hrs 40 up) so once again decided to have a breather. The stormy winds threatened to carry the tent away (causing intermittent cries of “BRACE!!” as marshals rushed to hang off the cross poles) but the checkpoint was a much jollier place than the soggy huddle at Dockray. With space to sit down, I accepted some soup and a bag of crisps (not a custard cream in sight, hooray) and then drank another coffee. It had been around 36 hours since I’d had any sleep, but I think being constantly on the go, plus the prospect of finishing (plus the coffee?!) was keeping me relatively alert. It dawned on me that at this point I had run further than ever before (Lakes 110km in 2016 and 2017) and this spurred me on too. I glanced around and recognised a few folk that I had been yoyo-ing with since the start although with the continued rain and failing light, people were disappearing under multiple layers of hats and waterproofs. I wistfully thought back to this time yesterday, when the temperature had been at least 10 degrees warmer and we were all in shorts and vest tops … now here I was putting on gloves and another long sleeved merino top under my jacket (in July?! It seemed insane …). Five minutes later I decided it was time to go. With poles at the ready, my next goal was to arrive at Kentmere before it got dark, fingers crossed.
After the 2km slog up to Gatesgarth Pass, I picked my way carefully down the 2.5km descent to Sadgill Farm. The track was wide and clear, but the tightly packed rocks were smooth and slippy. I only passed one other runner, but shortly before reaching the farm I could hear the tap of poles behind me, and a few minutes later, Michael appeared. He joked about having been unable to catch me earlier, but from then on – I think both relieved to see a friendly face – we fell into a steady pace together going up through Sadgill Wood, the rocky climb up to the col, and then descending back through the farm and along the road and fields down to Kentmere, reaching the Institute at 9.20pm. I knew that by the time I left again, the last remaining daylight would be gone.
The checkpoint was great; lovely and warm, and plenty of seats (although it was hard to find a puddle-free one, and the room had that subtle whiff of wet dog about it). I had some more pasta … and biscuits … and coffee …), changed my socks, and with a little wave of apprehension, put my head torch on. I knew there would be no chance of a clear moonlit sky (Joan’s face back at Howtown when I asked her if the forecast had improved said it all …) but hoped that my recent recce would help my navigation. Just I was leaving, Michael asked me if I wanted to consider running together while it was dark. Hugely relieved, I gratefully accepted! The majority of remaining runners seemed to be running in pairs (maybe having signed up together, or having met along the way?) and heading into the second night, it seemed like a much safer option to have company.
The best way to ward off any sleep deprivation induced hallucinations is to keep talking, and as Michael was a seasoned ultra-runner and keen to hear about UK challenges, there was plenty to chinwag about. Between glancing at his GPX track and following my memorised snippets of directions, the rain-free journey to Ambleside seemed more straight forward than expected … a 2km climb up to Garburn pass, 3.7km descent on rocky paths to Troutbeck, up the Robin lane bridleway, down through High Skelghyll Farm, and then carrying on down through Skelghyll Woods. As we approached the lights of the town I couldn’t help the little flutters of excitement in my tummy … reaching Ambleside 3hrs 30mins ahead of the cut off, it felt like the start of the home straight.
Running through the almost deserted town at half midnight, I suddenly heard a scream of IT’S JUUUUULES!! and saw Annie, Mandy and Joan waiting on a corner. I couldn’t believe it, they should have been tucked up in their tents at Coniston! It felt fantastic to be cheered on by such a happy and excited bunch (Annie was literally hopping up and down!), and as they chatted away with Michael too, I suspected it had been a nice surprise for him to feel supported during a race that he had travelled to on his own. A second lovely surprise was to be greeted by fellow Striders Marc and Louise Warner at the Parish Centre … after marshalling there all day, they decided to stay on when they saw I was getting close. I was thrilled to see them! They escorted me into the checkpoint, made sure I had plenty of grub and hot drinks, and remarked on how ok I looked. Louise explained there’d been a high drop out rate (I later found out it was 50%) with 15 runners currently at the centre who had decided to call it quits. The busy fun atmosphere at the checkpoint (circus theme) with music and lights – instead of being a bit much – helped give it all a sense of occasion, and while I waited for Michael to reappear outside, I chatted happily with the others. The girls were relieved I had a running buddy and I think seeing that I was ok, after seeing a lot of folk who were NOT, had put their minds at rest.
Leg 4: Ambleside – Coniston 15.6 miles
Michael and I left Ambleside together and after taking the path uphill through the houses, we were soon on Loughrigg Fell. After that the route became a bit faffy, negotiating around buildings and various T junctions, passing the Skelwith Bridge Hotel and Chesters by the River Café, but we found the riverside footpath that took us 2.3km through fields and woods (passing the right side of Elterwater) to the NT Elterwater car park. We jogged where we could, but I could feel that our pace was slowing down. By the time we had climbed up the quarry road, crossed the river, and passed Baysbrown campsite, when I spied the lights of checkpoint 13 in the distance it felt like it had been a long time coming. When I checked my watch I realised that a section which had taken me 1hr 15 in training, had just taken us 2hrs 17 … but then I remembered that this included the stop we’d had at Ambleside. It was 2.50am, we had only lost 20 minutes of our advantage (still had 3hrs 10 in the bag) and for goodness sake, last time I had done a recce, it wasn’t after already having run nearly 90 miles!! I told myself to GET A GRIP, and decided to stop clock watching … my brain was becoming a bit too fuddled to do the maths, and I hoped there was still enough of a cushion for us to make it with oodles of time to spare.
After the dizzy heights of Ambleside, the practically empty Chapel Stile marquee was a bit depressing … so we decided to keep moving. With only 10 miles ago, there seemed little point lingering here, so on we went …
The rain was still holding off, and the next couple of km felt familiar, as the route overlapped with that of the Lakes 110 that I had done last year. Instead of passing through Side Pike Farm, we followed the faint track with Great Langdale Beck on our right, through fields and over stiles (thankfully no cows), and then uphill to Side Pike Pass summit. Michael had become rather quiet, and admitted he was worried about the onset of cramp, so we slowed the pace a little, and for the next few miles did a steady jog/walk passing Blea Tarn, over a rocky fellside, and clambered along a convoluted rocky path through bracken, avoiding boggy Bleamoss. I realised that the path I had taken in my recce had been the wrong one … so was glad that a huddle of runners ahead of us and the route Michael had on his GPX had kept us right. By the time we reached a compulsory check on a nearby wooden gate, it was finally starting to get light … much to my relief. Perhaps it was due to tiredness, or the hours of darkness , or both (?) but I was finding it increasingly hard to gauge distances, and this relatively short section felt like it was dragging on and on … I had recce’d this part in June, but was struggling to remember what came next.
We picked up speed again on the road, jogging past Fell Foot farm to the white NT cottage. As we started the next ascent and 1.6km path towards High Tilberthwaite Farm, the rain started again, and the large rocky slabs underfoot made the going slow. My memory of having been here before was sketchy, but we eventually came upon Tilberthwaite car park at 5.50am … so it had taken us 3 hours, an hour longer than allocated (yes I know I’d agreed not to clock watch …). We were getting slower, but it was okay … we had time to spare (still just over 4 hours until the final cut off), so as long as nothing disastrous happened, we’d still be ok.
We had a final drink at the last checkpoint before setting out on the last 3.5 miles. The end seemed SO CLOSE! But as I looked up into the quarry, the steep steps disappeared into mist. We started the climb, the rain got heaver, and to be honest the next couple of miles are a blur … I remembered small landmarks (cairns, stream crossings, small waterfalls) but across open fell “on a sometimes indistinct path” we used Michael’s Garmin to guide our way through the mist. We were mainly silent, a combination of having heads down to battle the wind and rain (which was making me too exhausted to chat), and also for my part, thoughts about what we had almost accomplished were beginning to dawn on me. A speaker during Friday’s briefing had said “you choose to make yourselves suffer and you can withdraw at any time. Some people just don’t have that option.” I was thinking about folk – some close to me – for whom every day is a struggle. Yes I was knackered, but it was self-inflicted, temporary, and I felt so privileged to have had an amazing couple of days, thanks to the generosity of friends who had helped me train and who were waiting to celebrate with me at the end. I really had nothing to complain about.
On the ascent up Crook Beck Valley I regained my bearings, and realised it was THE LAST CLIMB!! I focussed back on the route, grinned to myself, and at the summit turned to Michael and said “last descent!!”. Behind the water pouring off his cap I could just make out a relieved smile. We picked our way very slowly down the slippy and muddy rocky descent … the same path that I had spotted from the other side of the valley on Friday. There was no rush, and once we got down to the Miner’s Bridge, with only just over a mile to the finish, I wanted to savour the last bit. When we hit the tarmac, a brief nod of agreement from Michael signified it was time to jog again, and as we entered Coniston any thoughts of how my legs felt were forgotten. As we approached the BP garage I saw a familiar figure jumping up and down…and then the other two in my loyal welcoming party, all whooping with excitement and running off ahead to get some photos at the finish. As we dibbed in for the final time, recording a total of 37hrs 33minutes, cries of “You’ve DONE IT!!” were followed by multiple hugs. From what I can remember we just stood for minute, feeling a bit dazed and not quite believing we had reached the end. After gently being guided into the tent, to receive a hearty round of applause and a medal, we sat down for a little pause before returning to the others. I was lost for words, and had a feeling my running buddy was too. After the quiet long hours of running, the tent felt a bit crazy, but I didn’t mind … we made our way through to the spectators, the girls fussed over us (which was lovely) and within minutes we had hot drinks and the promise of a bacon buttie. Michael left us, but in later correspondence about the run, he wrote “To see the excitement and joy in the faces of your girls when we approached the finish line was wonderful. That was my best finish without my own family and friends ever!”.
My one small regret from the weekend, is that I wish I could have displayed the same level of excitement at the end as was reflected on the faces of my lovely support team. During months of training, I had pictured the finish, and imagined being ecstatic and an emotional wreck as I crossed the line. In reality, although there was an immense sense of relief, I felt quite dazed. It was only in the days that followed (after sleeping LOTS, and receiving so many lovely congratulations messages), that things sunk in. The rest of Sunday is a bit hazy, apart from the moment I sat down at my parent’s dinner table that evening, wearing my medal. I had decided not to tell them what I had been up to until after the run … and the look on their faces when I did was priceless, and worth every mile.
I’m still grinning whenever I think about the weekend. Other than some soreness from carrying the heavy pack, and weird puffy feet for a day or so afterwards, I escaped any other ill-effects from the run. After a couple of weeks rest I was back out there plodding, and it probably won’t be long before the mileage creeps up again. For me, taking part in this race was a perfect example of what motivates me to run: the training gave me a focus and provided a way to de-stress when other things in life were worrying me, and it took me around areas in the Lakes (new and familiar) that I absolutely love. Most importantly, the training and event weekend itself showed me how my favourite running experiences are the ones I share with friends.
This report wouldn’t be complete without a proper thanks to the folk who helped get me to the start and finish line, so here goes:
Thanks to the Waldridge Warriors (for providing a light at the end of the tunnel on my Saturday long runs. Setting out at 5am, it was a comfort to know I would be finishing amongst friends on the fell), Nigel Heppell (for the recce and driving help, and still talking to me after nearly being roasted alive on Harter Fell), Tim Matthews (for being fun-bus driver extraordinaire and stepping in for last minute recce transport), and Geoff and Susan (for introducing me to the Lakes, and previous adventures without which I would never have been in a position to do this challenge).
Thanks also to Michael Freitag, for being a fabulous unexpected teammate. In his own words: “Teaming up with a stranger can be fabulous or getting more and more tense – you will know when it is becoming quiet late in a 100-mile-race. Or when you are to exhausted to chat but the other one is constantly talking to stay awake and expecting reactions. I think we were quite a good team because becoming more and more quiet still felt like fighting together to finish the race”.
And most importantly, to my fabulous support crew of three:
I couldn’t change the weather, but the help and encouragement from some very special people became my focus for an unforgettable couple of days. The three ladies with me in the Lakes were amazing: Joan Hanson and Mandy Dawson, for transporting and accompanying me on so so many training miles in all weathers since last September, and Anja Percival for being a constant moral support and always with me in spirit. All three of you deserve a medal for camping in those conditions! And quite frankly the weekend wouldn’t have been possible without you guys. I signed up to the L100 as something I wanted to train for together with a very special bunch of folk, and so it was mission accomplished before I’d reached the start line. Completing the event was the icing on the cake, but very much a team effort. Thank you! Xx