Lakeland 100, Friday, July 26, 2019

105 miles/24000 ft climb

Elaine Bisson

My Lakeland 100 journey started at 4am on a Saturday morning in November 2017 as I travelled to the Lakes with Jules to accompany her on her first recce from Coniston to Buttermere. I was quite taken with the excitement and camaraderie surrounding the event. The route, 105miles of Lakeland trails, what’s not to like?! So when a big empty hole appeared after my BG there seemed nothing better to fill it with.

At 9am one September morning I was ready to enter when low and behold the system crashed and my chances faded. Cajoled by friends and my husband who knew I’d had my heart set on it, I got a charity place a week later.

Training consisted mainly of BG recces/support for both Tricia and Mark. I had a few notable long distance events thrown in to get some good training miles (Old County Tops with Nina and the roasting St Cuthberts Way) .

I had done all of the section recces put on by the event organisers and was confident navigating round and knew the road book was fool proof if I needed it. So St Cuthberts was my final long run, a massive learning curve where all that I had thought I’d learnt and mastered, failed. It was good and bad in equal measures. The bad weighed on my shoulders, what if something else happened? I took all steps I could to remedy my mistakes, I picked everyone’s brains for advice…thanks to Sam and Stuart, a foot hardening spray was bought and I doused my feet with it every night, a nut butter was bought, not a sign of chafing after 105m, some glove like socks that threw my kids into hysterics…not a blister on either foot, some rocker bottom shoes that I’d giggled at Stuart every time he wore and my kids laughed at me for “Are you trying to look taller mum??” .. I take my cynicism back, 105miles later and my feet still couldn’t feel the stones. Compression half tights were bought, black and a bit boring they were upgraded to some funkier ones (thanks Natalie, a fantastic recommendation).

My kit choices were laid out a week in advance, apologies to my husband there was no bedroom carpet visible between the bed and the walls! Kit was weighed, packed, weighed again, repacked…and then I stumbled across zip lock bags. For a bit of an OCD packing person these were heaven. Kit was now compartmentalised into thin, light and clearly visible sections, my emergency bag (base layers, space blanket, hat. Gloves, money) not to be touched (hopefully). First aid kit, likely to be raided, extra nut butter (not for eating) vaseline, sudocrem, plasters, bandages, needle to pop those blisters, tape – lots of paper tape. Then my head torches and spare battery packs and finally my warm layers (one primaloft top, waterproofs, buff). This all seemed reasonable and light.

Now onto picnic choices, I’d been warned the checkpoints were not good. I’d gone through the checkpoint menu and had scheduled in food I would have/take and then added in my own ensuring I’d have enough calories every hour. I’d packed 10 extra food items. Then my fluids. It all weighed 6.8kg. And then there was my drop bag to sort, equally heavy with a full change of clothing from head to toe, to make me feel like I’d just started (haha at 59miles) and in case the lakes decided on its usual rainy weather, fluids and lots more food in case the checkpoints were no good!

We’d booked in a caravan site and stayed there on Thursday night. Unfortunately rain and thunderstorms meant a noisy night under our tin roof and then we were awoken early by the farmers up shearing 100 odd sheep! A good start to the day. We had a lazy morning round the campsite then headed off to Coniston so that I could register and attend the pre race briefing and then start at 1800 yikes!

Early Morning Alarm Call

Myself and my two girls lugged my kit bag and drop bag through the queues and thorough check of ID, kit (which was annoyingly pulled out and examined despite being in clear packs), weight, dibber, GPS tracker and finally the wide eyed panicked 100m virgin photo!

With half an hour before the briefing I quickly changed into my kit, raided the crepe stall and sat driving my eldest bonkers as I panicked over my kit and food choices. Then onto the briefing in the packed school hall. I sat next to a lovely Lakeland 100 veteran (Dominic) he gave me lots of advice…change my socks at Buttermere, look after my feet, don’t give in to your mental demons and the most important one of all…doing your first 100m event is magic, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, don’t stop moving forward until you reach that finish line.

The briefing was light hearted and fun until a photo, a friend of Dominic appeared on screen. He’d had a heart attack and had died whilst helping a friend on his BG a week before he was also to do this event. He had been obsessed with the 100 and had run or volunteered most events since its beginnings. This stuck in my head throughout, whenever I had doubts or felt sorry for myself I gave myself a kick and reminded myself just how lucky I was to be able to run. Then we were asked to shake hands with a person we didn’t know, there followed a story of how half of us wouldn’t make it so look at the person you shook hands with and decide which one of you it would be… Dominic didn’t shake my hand, he told me he’d heard the story before and knew just by looking at me that I’d be at the finish line.

With half an hour to go I settled into many toilet stops as panic reached a magnitude I hadn’t felt since my pacing before the moot hall a year ago. Gathering before the start I got an unexpected hug only to be greeted by Ros (the Dales trails organiser who seems to share a passion for all of the races I choose!)

Photo Credit: No Limits Photography

And then there was waiting, waiting until the gun would go and we’d be set free on our journey. I started off near the back, there was no need to charge ahead. Steady up the steep road to cross the bridge and onto the trails towards Walna Scar. On the descent I was caught up by another Dales Trails friend, Ian who was running in a pair. He was going pretty fast and I’d told him I was trying to be sensible, my quads would not be happy if I started charging down the hills so early on…he obviously heeded my warning and settled in to run at my pace. We chatted about BGs and Dragon’s Back and other races…we both love the hills! Quite soon we were welcomed by unicorns at the first checkpoint. As per my plan, I ate one cake, took one cake! And off again through bracken, along riverbanks and fields towards Checkpoint 2,Christmas land! I stopped here for a tea (they served copious amounts of milky sweet tea at every checkpoint … heaven!) and took it with me as I started my climb up to Burn Moor Tarn and into the darkening sky towards my favourite section.

I held off putting  my headtorch on for as long as possible until the small wooded area near Brackenclose carpark when I couldn’t make out the floor. Then it was along the valley to ‘Strollerfest’ at Wasdale.

I’d not looked forward to the checkpoints but I actually found them a welcome site. They were fun, all checkpoints had their own theme and the marshals embraced the dressing up as they did the support. All too happy to help. Again tea and sarnie in hand I began my climb up Black Sail pass. At the top of the climb a runner in front stopped to take a photo, I turned to see the most beautiful string of lights weaving along the pathways. It was quite stunning.

Photo Credit: No Limits Photography

Then it was down into the valley, picking my way between rocks and bog to climb up again to Scarth Gap Pass. Then down to follow the undulating path round the lake and into Buttermere. Here they were all dressed up in Halloween garb. I tucked into a lovely hot dog and changed my socks, just as the L100 vet had advised. I’m used to what I laugh and call, ‘bog feet’. Long days on the fells I’m used to peeling off my socks and screwing up my face. However these were something else.

A little shocked at the rapid deterioration I quickly dried them, smeared them in nut butter and put more socks on, determined now to stop my puddle splashing and try to keep them as dry as possible. Coming out of the checkpoint I had a brief moment where I had no clue where to go then sense returned and I followed the tiny trail through the woods and up along open fell. It climbs steadily at an awkward camber and onto sail pass then drops suddenly along larger trails to reach Braithwaite. Here I’d scheduled in rice pudding but the tables were fully laden with a huge range of food. I grabbed a yogurt and a chocolate milk, quickly gobbled them up and again was on my way. I hadn’t looked forward to this stretch as it follows the bypass to briefly go onto an old railway line before turning up Spooney Green Lane. Today however I was accompanied by my very own Tom Jones (his voice was exactly alike and in the darkness it kept me quite amused) he was to be my companion through most of the run… Not always close but we passed each other a lot. My headtorch started to flash its warning before the unmanned dibber at Glendeterra and I asked a runner to stop and help so I could see. He kindly helped only to sniff the air, point his working headtorch near me and ask….how on earth did you choose to change your headtorch next to a dead sheep?!

Then along the lanes towards Blencathra centre. Here they were dressed as rock stars. I stopped briefly for a tea and dunked lots of custard creams then again on my way with my mate Tom. We crossed the A66 (a route diversion), back along the old railway line until we hit the path towards Clough Head. The sky was lightening now and I could see the trees that hid the caravan site where my family would be nestled snug in their beds. How I would love to swap, the rain had started to fall heavily making this monotonous rolling gravel track even more tedious than normal. Not too long and I dived into Dockray checkpoint shelter. I stayed here longer to hide from the downpour and to have some soup before the longer road section to Dalemain.

Dalemain

It is predominantly road but there is a lovely trail that winds its way from Aira Force to Bennethead. The hillside drops quite suddenly revealing one of the best views of Ullswater, the slopes covered in small trees, bracken, heather and lots of other flowers I can’t name! Then it’s through a forest … my kids call the fairy forest as the trees are coated in green moss which dangles like tinsel. Back through some cow fields (much to my delight) before it’s on the road to Dalemain. I reach the courtyard spotting my daughter jumping up and down clapping and my husband with the dog. I know I’ll take longer here. I want to check my feet, change my clothes … eat and sort my fluids and food (a lot less than I’d planned to carry as the checkpoints were so good). I park myself near the door so that I can chat to my family.

My feet look even worse now. My husband reassures me they look much like everyone else’s. So I quickly get myself sorted and march out towards the field. It’s with a heavy heart that I trudge through a grassy field and feel the dampness seeping into my socks. I start to worry about my feet, I know after St Cuthberts it’s quite often the things that start small that have the most detrimental impact.

My family have driven to Pooley Bridge and greet me again on the bridge. I’m really not happy anymore. I know the forecast is for rain. And where before I’d been happy enough, it would be cooler, I’m now so worried that my feet will continue to disintegrate that I feel really glum. My husband tries his best to chivvy me on as I start to wonder why on earth I’m doing this.

Pooley Bridge

A final kiss and I’m sent off up to Askham fell and on to the stone circle, again I know this route well. We camped near here and I spent a lot of time running the trails. I know it’s not too long now until Howtown so I keep myself focused, keeping pace with a man in front. I stop at Howtown to top up my tea, eat some salted potatoes (I know I’ve not been eating enough salt) and pop to a nice indoor loo … sometimes it’s the small comforts that perk you up. Then I’m off again up to whether Hill. It’s boggy here and slippy, the rain is coming down heavily, I have to stop to add layers and put full waterproofs on. My feet now feel as if I’m walking on glass.

I keep a slow but steady pace, struggling anyway to find the path around Hawes water, the bracken is so high and even despite the runners already going through it, it’s still pretty concealed. I battle through the bracken jungle and weave my way slowly round until Mardale Head checkpoint. The heavens have really opened up, I’m cold now despite all my layers. I stop again briefly for tea to warm up and reluctantly force myself up and away. The marshals can see me struggle, they are far too kind for my own good, fussing over me and exchanging looks. They pack me off with a cereal bar and a bag of sweets. I might have lost the plot a bit but I haven’t yet lost my fight so I’m up and up Gatesgarth pass…I forgot about the blind summit and curse most of the way up then curse most of the way down as I’m now worried that below the rotten soggy skin I’m making huge blisters that will make all of my skin and then possibly both feet fall off.

By Kentmere I’ve had enough and when I spot a medic I ask him if he could help sort my feet. He takes a long time (30mins), he says they’re moderately macerated, particularly on the toes. He’s concerned where I had blisters from St Cuthbert’s that the v fragile skin will be destroyed so he tapes them up and talcs them before I put on fresh socks. A man I’d met on the recces asks if I’m OK, he’s seen the state of them and asks if I’m stopping, a firm no way! comes out. And after I check that my feet won’t actually fall off if I keep running I happily leave determined to ignore the pain and try to run as I would normally.

My fight is back, I’m charging up the hill. The now steady stream of 50 mile runners are struggling to keep up. Then I charge down the hill happy to try to regain my lost time from the stop and the slow last leg. Up the next climb my calf starts to pull then on the descent it gradually worsens to the point where I just can’t run. I stop and massage it and stretch it to no avail.  So heartbroken I trudge into Ambleside, 89miles in and then this. Hopeful I stop again, perhaps the medic can wave some more magic but after a massage it actually feels worse. I limp down the steps to see Marc Laithwaite, the organiser of the L100. His face falls as he asks what’s happened. He tells me in no uncertain terms that I’d have to walk it in, that I had plenty of time to finish (he’s right I have 15hours to cover 16miles) that if I wanted to ensure I did no more damage and that I actually did finish I’d have to walk. But I still want that sub 30, that’s all I can think. How can I get that sub 30?

Ambleside

I then see John, Stuart and Sam. They all will me on, they know I’d never stop but are worried now by my decline, they can see I’m struggling. Sam stays with me until the bridge to give me a pep talk … don’t ever give up, you won’t forgive yourself, you know what you’re like. Use your poles. Save your leg as much as possible, keep moving, you’ll do it. And so I do, going up Loughrigg I’m still kidding myself that maybe it’s just a glitch, that if I walk in a certain way it’ll  stretch it out again and I’ll still be able to run. By the top of the climb, after many variations of walk/attempts to run to optimise my speed without putting anymore stress on my calf, I realise I really will have to walk it in. I calculate my distance, my time. Perhaps that sub 30 is still possible? So I move as fast as I can, another 100 runner catches me and laughs at what he calls my fancy footwork, he’s a little shocked when I tell him I’m saving my calf.

And so it is, nothing else matters anymore.  I am purely focused on that finish line. It’s a race to get to there, I no longer stop at checkpoints. I get my head down determined to move as fast as I can. By Chapel Stile after the relatively flat terrain I’ve managed in quite good time. Is it still possible? But as the terrain becomes more uneven, more boggy and with more climbs I realise the target is slipping away. Stiles, why so many dangerous stiles at this point in the game?? So my time target is lost my next comes into play, keep all other female 100 runners at bay… And somehow, I do.

The only thing that brightens this time is my increasing visual hallucinations. They’re quite mesmerising and really funny. I see dogs wagging their tails, playing on the path only to disappear as I approach. I see whole hillsides covered in sheep and butterflies. Dogs, lots more happy dogs…

Then I cross the boggy section after Blea Tarn, there’s no chance I can keep my feet dry or away from the mud. I somehow keep up with the 50s, then there’s a trail of ribbons leading us to a gorgeous man at the unmanned dibber. Is he real?? He reminds me of my granddad . I later find that his name is Tony, he’s not an official part of the marshalling team but has turned up every year to lead people across the bog and wish them well on their journey. He asks me how I am, I say I’m fine. He grabs my hand and looks at me and tells me he knows I’m not, he knows I’m tired, he knows I can do it, I’m so close now, keep going! And that’s what I do, one foot in front of the other, keep moving forward, never stopping.

And somehow, because of not stopping I seem to be keeping ahead, 50s pass me, they must stop at checkpoints and then it’s nearing the next checkpoint that they appear again.

And finally there is a light in the darkness as I near the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. Again I dib my dibber, swap my headtorch battery and am quickly on my way, attempting badly to climb up the steps. I pass a 50 runner who is crawling and howling in pain, this gives me a lift, I’ve now run 102 miles, my calf is knackered but I still haven’t resorted to that and so with the encouragement of other 50 runners I’m climbing strongly again. I’m so close but still such a long way off.

Finally, at long last I’m off the uneven rocks which are torture and I’ve reached the road. It feels like it’s been stretched, like someone has come out and remade it over the last day. How long to that gate, how long to the bend in the road, how long to the pub, the garage, the chip shop. And then I’m at the top of the street, I’ve sprinted down this stretch on the Coniston 14, not today, I’m hobbling, tears welling in my eyes as I spot my lovely family and Stuart and then I spot the finish. They don’t see me as I have my headtorch on and I’m obscured. I’m so fixed on finishing I don’t even say a word. I just keep limping past them. It’s Stuart that shouts at me and then my family bewildered that I’ve somehow sneaked past but I need to dib my dibber one final time before I’ll stop.

Then I know I can stop. A lady congratulates me and hugs me and leads me away. I’m confused, all I want to do now is stop and get a hug from John but she is insistent and my family race off. I don’t know what’s happening, I assume it’s to remove me from the finish line, she leads me through a tunnel lit by pretty fairy lights then she rings her bell and calls out ‘Lakeland 100 legend coming through’ and I turn a bend and the place erupts with cheers and clapping. It’s quite overwhelming and so special. Tears tumble down my cheeks, I got there, it wasn’t how I’d planned but I did it.

Lakeland Legend

John goes to the car to pick up my bag so I can shower before we head home. He’s worried about my feet … and possibly doesn’t relish the thought of sharing the car journey with my stench!

Stuart stays with me and my kids fussing over me and getting me tea and offering gin … which I strangely decline worried I’ll knock myself out. I warm up with the tea and some veggie chilli before using the portable showers. It’s gorgeous and warm and I struggle to remove myself from the cubicle. Then John gives me a piggyback to the car as I haven’t brought spare shoes and he doesn’t want my feet to get dirty again. I nod off in the car until we’re back and John hauls me out and drops me onto our bed. He shoves my feet in a tupper ware box filled with soapy water and carefully removes all trace of dirt. It’s a fretful night, my calf is sore as are my feet.

The next day, whilst packing up (not me I can’t move) I realise by default I’ve won v40 and as my vet friend had said, if anything don’t miss the awards, it’s amazing. So I coerce my family to drive back to Coniston. I think John is used to subdued awards and he’s a bit annoyed by the delay to get home. But this is something else and he’s so pleased he didn’t. The atmosphere is celebratory. I’m told to wait at the back once my name is called we have to walk through to the stage. It’s amazing, if a little embarrassing. I forgo using my poles and hobble as best and as fast as I can (it’s mind numbingling slow) I walk through the ‘tunnel of legends’ as all the marshals and runners cheer and clap along to crazy music, finally I reach the front and I haul myself up the steps. And for the first time during the whole thing, despite all those 50 runners passing me and telling me I was a legend, for the first time I feel like one. I’ve just run my very first 100m, not  in a month of Sundays would I ever have imagined I would be doing anything so silly and yet so special. It’s a day I’ll never forget.

John asks me afterwards what I told myself when it got tough. First I thought of my family … Soph had made me a friendship bracelet to wear for luck and I kept it in sight. My friends who were willing me on every step of the way. I thought how lucky I was to be able to attempt it. The thought of that next cup of sweet milky tea. Then it was the Rocky ‘it’s not how many times you get hit, it’s how many times you get hit and keep moving forward just keep moving forward’. Later, when it got really bad, I think it was sheer bloody mindedness that got me through. That and an incredible amount of swearing. When it’s tough and you pull through that’s what makes the end so much sweeter. However, if fate allows, I know I can do better, and I’ll be back stronger and fitter and ready to give the demons a good kicking!

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