Journey to Lakeland 100 2023

Coniston, Lake District, Friday, July 28, 2023

105 miles, 22,493 feet ascent (169km, 6856m)

Aaron Gourley

Lakeland 100 was my target race for this year. I had nothing on my mind but to do well in what would be my 3rd running of this brutally beautiful race.

I had a vague plan for how I wanted to approach my training this time round and it involved a lot more time in the Lakes getting as much distance and elevation into my legs as possible, but I also wanted to try and get some more races or challenges completed to try and sharpen up over the terrain.

Why? I felt that after my first Lakeland 100 in 2021, I could improve my time significantly. I now knew what it took to complete the full race and was more confident of the route. So in 2022, I had another attempt. I did improve my time but by nowhere near what I thought I could, in fact it was by only around 40 minutes. Whilst I was happy with that, I was still sure I could do much better. Mind, I did also say I was never doing it again because it was so tough on my body.

Nonetheless, in September 2022 when the ballot opened, I put my name in the hat and was successful. 3rd time lucky! And with that I embarked on my journey to Lakeland 100 2023, via the following highlights.

Tour de Helvellyn – 17th Dec 2022

A classic in the long-distance / fell running calendar, I entered the Tour de Helvellyn as my last long race of 2022. I’ve run this many times and was looking forward to the whole weekend which involved a stay over in a shared caravan with some great friends, some of whom had raced it before, and a few that were taking part for the first time.

Unfortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and left the course covered in ice making some parts of the route incredibly dangerous. The race organisers decided to enact the ‘Bad Weather’ route which would see the loop around Helvellyn taken out of the race, making it just an out and back race to Stanna Bridge, some 26 miles instead of the 38 it should be. Easy right? Probably if you had ice-spikes for your shoes, which I didn’t. The conditions were unlike anything I’d ever seen or run on before and made for an exhausting run with many moments of slipping, sliding and cursing across the ice. Note to self: buy ice-spikes for next winter. The highlight, finally beating Geoff Davis (just) in the race after many years of trying. I came 56th in a time of 5 hours 29 minutes.

North Lakes Half Marathon – 2nd Jan 2023

What better way to start the year off than with a race. This New Year was spent with family and friends in Cockermouth and there just happened to be a half marathon taking place on the 2nd Jan, the perfect way to blow off the Christmas and New Year excesses and it was literally minutes away from where I was staying. So up I rocked to the start line on a crisp, January morning, not feeling particularly sharp and lacking any real road racing training. The route is an ‘undulating’ loop up into the Lorton Valley with some stunning views of the high fells in the distance. Whilst some parts were quite icy, it wasn’t too bad overall and was able to finish in a respectable time of 1 hour 42 minutes and 71st place out of over 250 starters.

Teenager With Altitude – 22nd April 2023

With a decent amount of time spent in the Lakes over the winter months running with friends, the first ‘proper’ fell race on my calendar was Teenager with Altitude. This is a brute of a race starting and finishing in Stair in the Newlands Valley, and at 16 miles and over 7,000ft of ascent, it’s certainly one of the Lake District’s toughest. I’d run this before in 2015 and finished 3rd from last, totally beaten up. This time I felt much more prepared and ready for the challenge, plus I now knew what was to come. From the off this race makes itself known to you with a huge 1,500ft climb up to Causey Pike for starters. Taking it slow and steady I worked my way round the course nailing some of the best lines I knew and managing to keep my heart rate down enough to not burn out too early. Before I knew it, I was on the final stretch and able to up the effort across the last few peaks before the final descent off Catbells and back to the finish in a very satisfying 4 hours 14 minutes and absolutely nowhere near last place like last time!

Lunar Round – 5th May 2023

By now I was feeling pretty strong and had some decent running under my belt with plenty of time in the Lakes, so when Stuart Scott (who else!?) suggested an attempt of the newly created challenge, the Lunar Round, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. What’s the Lunar Round, I hear you ask? Well, it’s a collaboration between the Climbers Shop in Ambleside and Petzl. The challenge is a loop, in either direction, from the Climbers Shop doors around a stated number of fells, all between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Sounds straightforward, right? Well with this being a challenge undertaken after sunset it does make navigation quite tough, especially since we (Stuart, Graeme Watt and I) were, other than its creators, the first to take on the route. Some excellent online mapping from Tricia gave us at least an outline to follow on our watches and off we set at 8:54 pm – 2 mins after the official sunset time that day. We had until 05:24 am to get back to the shop. Darkness and a thick mist on the high tops made it far more difficult than expected, and I faltered on the final climb to Loughrigg but we pushed and made it back well in time to complete the challenge in 7 hours 46 minutes.

Bob Graham Round – 9th June 2023

This was it; I’d had a really good winter and early spring of running, I had felt strong so decided to have a go at the Bob Graham Round. June was to be stacked with crewing other Striders’ attempts, (Tamsin Imber, Penny Browell and James Garland), but Penny had withdrawn from her attempt which left a weekend window open and a good group of support runners willing to help out, all I had to do was fill the gaps with my own pacers.

The Bob is an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for such a long time and so I decided there was no better time than now, so I went for it. However, it’s a challenge that commands total respect, and with hindsight, I don’t think I was fully respectful of it. Also, my body seems to be pretty useless when it comes to putting it through something like this. I had some of my best friends to help me on the course, a top crew of Striders and others I’ve helped complete the route before, Nina Mason whose experience of this challenge was unbeatable at each road crossing, and Eric Green who was a total legend as road crew. However, that weekend, like Tamsin’s attempt the weekend before, it was super-hot. That, coupled with my anxiousness, just seemed to send my heartrate into overdrive. Standing on the steps of the Moot Hall in Keswick will always be a great memory, and Leg 1 will always be one of my favourite ever running memories, but by mid-leg two, it all went wrong with sickness pretty much telling me it wasn’t going to be my day already. I pushed on hoping it would pass and I’d recover but I never did.

As the day broke and the temperature rose, Leg 3 became a slog, and I eventually called time on my attempt at Rossett Pike. Barrie Kirtley, who’d come out from Great Langdale to run a small section, became an unintended legend as he gave us a quick(er) route off the high hills and a lift back to Keswick. Despite the failure, I still completed 40 miles and nearly 15,000ft of elevation in over 14 hours 35 minutes. I took that as a good Lakeland 100 training run.

Lakeland 100 – 28th July 2023

Finally, it was Lakeland 100 weekend. All the training was done and I felt confident of my ability to complete the course quicker than my previous two attempts. The family was dispatched to the lodge in Lowther Park whilst I headed to Coniston(e) with my tent, picking up Gary from the Tea & Trails Podcast on the way to the race HQ at John Ruskin School in the village. We set up our tents, donned our cowboy hats and went to register for the race.

Registration done, we had a few hours to kill before the race brief at 4.30pm then the start at 6pm. I tried to do as little as possible. The order of the day was to relax, even sleep if possible. At 1pm I had a massage booked, that was a great decision, my legs had been feeling knotted and tight and it was a great way to relieve the stress from them.

As the hours rolled on, more friends arrived and the race HQ got busier, you could feel the excitement and nervousness in the air.

Just before the start, I met up with Neil and Lisa Robinson, good friends from East Durham. I was going to run this race with Lisa, who was running this for the second time. We’d made the decision that we would stick together and use our combined strengths to try and get a good finish time. We both had our eyes on sub 34 hours, possibly even quicker.

If you’ve never run Lakeland 100 or been at the start of it as a spectator, I say you should. It’s without doubt one of the best experiences in trail/ultra running. What a buzz and at 6pm we were off. Lisa and I had snuck our way to the top of the starting pen so we could get a quick start up to the Miners’ Bridge which is a notorious pinch point for this race. We got through and out onto Walna Scar Road with no problems. We could now wind back the pace and enjoy the climb.

Seathwaite checkpoint (CP) comes after 7 miles and is a mere pitstop for a small fluid top up and a piece of cake then off to the next cp at Boot,14 miles in. So far so good – on schedule, no dramas. Boot is again a quick stop to refill bottles and grab some treats.

The next section is a bit trickier, it’s not particularly long but does take you over what turned out to be an incredibly boggy and wet section of open moor, plus it was getting dark so our headtorches were donned here. There’s lots of jumping and leaping and sinking; one girl in front of us mis-judged her leap and the depth of the pool of water she was crossing and fell waist deep into it. Probably with shock and embarrassment, she was up and away in an instant before we could ask if she was ok. The next few minutes we spent laughing about what we had just seen.

We arrived in Wasdale 5 hours 3 minutes after starting the race, as part of the long line of headtorch lights that snaked across the valley in front and behind us. Another Lakeland magical moment that needs to be seen to be appreciated. What also needs to be appreciated is the effort Sunderland Strollers put into this CP. Grease was the word this year, and the Pink Ladies, T-Birds and rock ‘n’ roll music makes you want to stay and party. It’s such a great atmosphere, you hardly want to leave. But on we went.

The next section to Buttermere is tough with a climb up Black Sail Pass and down into the Ennerdale valley before heading back up and over into Buttermere. It was now raining, and the ground was quite technical on this stretch. By the time we reached the CP, around 27 miles in, I was feeling it. Lisa was in good spirits and did what I hoped she’d do, make me push on.

The route from Buttermere to Braithwaite involves a climb up Sail Pass. It’s long and laborious. It’s pitch black and incredibly slippy. Overall, not much fun! But once at the top of Sail Pass, there’s a lovely long downhill all the way to Braithwaite cp. Only at the top, my body had decided it’d had enough of the food I’d been eating and I was sick. Here we go again! I slowly caught up with Lisa who ran on unaware I’d stopped. I felt a bit better by the time we reached the CP but not particularly great. After a short break and a feeble effort to eat, we pressed on again.

The next section is an easy run along the A66 to Keswick then a long shallow climb to the compulsory CP at Glenderterra and another nice run down to Blencathra Centre CP. This is normally a section I lose loads of time on but with Lisa forcing the pace we ran all the way to Keswick and quick-marched up towards the car park below Latrigg. The rain was coming down hard now, it got windy and cold. The water pouring down the path was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, especially here. My mood was dropping too. I still didn’t feel well and as we marched onwards and upwards, I couldn’t stop being sick. My frustration was at boiling point. I even contemplated short-cutting to the CP at Blencathra Centre. But I pushed on and recovered enough to catch back up with Lisa who had pressed on. The CP couldn’t come quick enough and once inside it was time to take stock, get warm and try and get some food in. After a short sit I managed to go get some tea and toast which I was so happy to be able to consume before we headed back out for the next section, which is my least favourite part of the whole course. Whilst not difficult or technical, it’s just a long boring slog along old railway lines up onto the Old Coach Road that leads to Dockray CP. It turned out to not be too bad this time round. I felt much better after the stop at Blencathra Centre and was ‘running’ again so it didn’t take too long to reach the CP which Hardmoors were operating.

Soup and tea were my choices here in what ended up being a tightly packed tent station as the weather took a turn and we, along with many others, decided to take shelter and wait for the mini-storm to pass. Once clear we set off with the aim of getting to Dalemain before the 50 mile race started at 11:30am. This stretch is the longest, but probably most beautiful part of the 100 race. Moving well but not quite quick enough, we arrived in Dalemain, just after the 50 race had started, which was a shame but we did manage to see them on their way out of the estate after their loop of the grounds.

Here, we took the opportunity to change tops and socks, recharge watches and headtorches, get some food and replenish our personal nutrition items from our drop bags. We also stayed here for far too long. The last three years I’ve said I want to move through this CP as quickly as possible and every time I’ve spent upwards of 45 minutes here. But on this occasion, it didn’t matter. Lisa and I had now decided to just take it easy for the rest of the race. Deep down we now knew our ambitions of a quick race were over.

Leaving Dalemain we felt refreshed, I felt refreshed after such a tough night. The sun was shining and by the time I met my family at Pooley Bridge, we were moving nicely again. I love running through here and it was great to see my daughter and wife for a quick kiss and power-up cuddle for the task ahead.

Howtown CP comes next, another overly long stay which included being handed a paper bag full of salted boiled potatoes (power-up to the max!) before tackling the next section to Mardale Head via Fusdale. This is a long, long climb to the highest point of the race, High Kop. The weather took another turn for the worse here and with strong wind and driving rain coming at us head on, it was a deeply unpleasant experience. At the top Lisa stopped to put her full waterproofs on. I couldn’t stop to wait, I had to get running and out of the wind so pressed on. This was the first time we separated by any great distance but I was so cold the only way I thought I could get warm was to run as hard as I could to get to the shelter of the lakeside path. The weather was just rubbish all along this section, and my mood dipped again as I worried I’d made a bad decision to leave Lisa but I knew she’d catch up if I waited at the next CP.

At Mardale Head, I had more soup and coffee to warm up and put on a few extra layers to protect me from the elements. It wasn’t too long before Lisa arrived.

The next section to Kentmere isn’t particularly long but it is quite tough. We were still moving well and passing lots of the slower 50 runners who continued to sing our praises. It was all quite flattering and great for pulling you out of a low patch.

At Kentmere we again took stock and sheltered for far too long, but the race was now becoming a far more enjoyable experience and at our next target, Ambleside, we both were feeling great – despite Lisa somehow taking a wrong turn in the woods and getting lost for about 5 minutes – and it being nearly midnight. One day I will get to Ambleside in the light!

Ambleside done, we now had the last two CPs and the finish on our minds. With renewed vigour we made great time to Chapel Stile with a mix of fast walking and ‘mild’ paced running. Following another overly long stay we were now motoring towards the last CP at Tilberthwaite and the finish. It was starting to get light again and despite what seemed a never-ending road to Tilberthwaite, we finally made it. I love Tilberthwaite, not because it means you’re only 3 miles from the end, but because the cheese toasties they make over an open fire here are just incredible. Now fed and tea’d up, we made our move for the finish. Only Jacob’s Ladder and the traverse over the Copper Mines stood between us and the finish. Yes, it was slow going up but once we were on the descent, we found new momentum, Lisa and I passed loads of people on the way down. I set mini-targets to keep the pace going – “blue numbers ahead walking, let’s catch them” (blue numbers mean 100 runners – orange numbers for the 50 runners).

Eventually, we made it into Coniston, and made the final ‘dash’ for the finish. It felt amazing to finish and despite it being much slower than expected and both my previous and Lisa’s finish times, it felt so much more rewarding. It had been a proper battle against the elements and receiving that Buckle at the end endorsed the accomplishment.

Never again? Well, I only need two more completions to get my 500 mile slate…

Result: 37 hours 11 minutes – 261st out of 380 finishers from a start field of over 600.

External Links

Full results on Open Tracking.
Race website at Lakeland 100.

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