Lakeland 50, 2019: a lock-down inspired race report of my first ultra
“Do these paracetamols belong to anyone?”. Blank stares all round. I pop a couple. It’s cheating a bit, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to podium, so it’s probably okay.
I’m at the second check point (Mardale Head, 20 miles in) and, as well as cheating, I have just sat down ignoring some advice I had read in a Strider race report: ‘Beware the chair’. It’s lashing it down and windy, so the checkpoint makeshift ‘shelter’ isn’t really doing its job (think market stall with a few seats under the canopy). Still, the biscuits and sandwiches are a welcome distraction and the marshals have had to drive out to the middle of nowhere to set this up, so I think myself lucky.
I’m starting this report at check point two because it’s where the challenge began for me – it’s when the endurance bit of the race started. It hadn’t really been necessary to stop at the first check point in Howtown (10 miles in) but it was nice to use the loo and get out of the rain. Here, Ash and I were in pretty good shape. Ash is good friend since university days and we were doing the race as a pair. After this stop, the tallest climb on the route (about 2,000 ft at 11 miles) had taken us up into the hills away from the familiar sight of Ullswater and it wasn’t too bad at all. We had hiked up in mud and trotted down the other side without any drama. We were chatting to friendly, soggy competitors, all in good spirits, but it wouldn’t be long before things started getting difficult, for me at least.
It was between 18 and 20 miles that I had grown uncomfortable jogging and when leaving check point 2 even my walking was limited by increasingly tight knees. I didn’t say anything to Ash but when we began the next 1000ft climb it became obvious I was struggling. While he maintained our normal pace, I started to fall behind quite quickly. I was hoping I could just ‘walk it off’ but doubt set in as I carried on with small steps, zig-zagging up a normally unchallenging rubble path. I caught up with Ash who was waiting for me periodically and then he would head off up again. As my legs didn’t improve and I inched up the slope, I started to mull things over. We had clocked less than 25 miles. Not even half done and my knees were sore to the point of wincing with each lift. I was asking myself whether I should be just realistic and call it a day? With all the preparation and excitement that would spell a small, personal disaster.
What I needed at this point was someone to convincingly say: ‘this isn’t the end of your race, it’s the start of the next bit’ and that ‘to finish you need to accept sore legs and crap weather, move forward and do not stop, it’s going to be worth it’. I have now read books that tell you that it is the last third or the last quarter of your big challenge where you have to rely on your determination more than your body. I didn’t really understand this at the time, and perhaps you can’t until you have done something like this already.
It’s doesn’t make for a good story, but I didn’t make a single, determined decision – there was no ‘I’m going to do this!’ moment, I just carried on as best as I could. A big consideration was that if you start Lakeland 50 as a pair then you need to finish as a pair. Alternatively, you both DNF. I didn’t want to balls-up Ash’s race, too, so I plodded on aware I was eating into our 16hr target time. To make things worse Ash was, at times, literally skipping along.
We eventually reached the top of the big climb and, as the landscape levelled, I realised that I was relatively comfortable on the flattening path. This changed my outlook: it was mountainous terrain but parts of it were going to be flat, and perhaps downhill would be okay, too? I now figured that the event was, possibly, doable.
Pushing through the next few miles, I wondered why my knees went so early on given that our pacing had been very sensible; I was expecting a recurrent calf problem to be the issue if anything. During my training in months prior, I had been running half marathons off-road at weekends and shorter runs in the week. Not ideal in terms of distance, but I had at least included quite a lot of steep hills and step-up workouts. Maybe I should have ran with my full pack more, or perhaps my knees were always going to be a problem without better training? I’m none the wiser now. Anyway, we managed to make it to the next check point at Kentmere (mile 27) without pausing.
All the check points have small stories in their own right, for which there isn’t time. For example, at Kentmere I realised I had left our hard cups at the last checkpoint. Ash took the news well and was distracted anyway as he thought he had forgotten to dib his electronic dibber and was stressing about DNF’ing as a result (#newbies).
At each point, Lakeland 50/100 marshals and volunteers do a great job; some are even in themed fancy dress (what is it about runners and costumes?). A key thing for checkpoint for me was that, even though most were indoors, I started to lose body temperature and shiver whilst in them (drying out a bit, resting and eating). After leaving Kentmere, a concerned marshal even asked me if I was okay because I had full on body shivers and was setting off in slightly the wrong direction. I said I was fine – I knew that I just had to get moving again to warm up, and because of this I was actually looking forward to cracking on with the next looming hill.
Up and up again, we were now heading to Ambleside. The rain had been patchy all day, but the cloud hadn’t spoiled all of the elevated views. The weather was deteriorating now though, as was the daylight, and some of the paths had turned to total mush.
As night fell, we trapesed through flooded steep hillside fields, slanting rain, up to our ankles in mud, the only head torches in the darkness. Such places made me appreciate just how much harder it must be to do the race solo at 50miles and particularly at 100miles. We had passed quite a few of the tail-end Lakeland 100 competitors a number of whom, in all honesty, seemed like broken, shuffling phantoms in the night. I’m not being derogatory: they had already completed our distance and were cracking on to do the same again in pretty horrid conditions. Some were happy to exchange a few words, where others just grunted in recognition, or pain, as we passed.
We descended down into Ambleside and I was happy for the pavement, well-wishing people out on a Saturday night, and the camaraderie, salty veg soup and boxes of crisps in the parish centre. Out of town, we sploshed our way through some more miles. Occasionally disembodied sheep eyes reflected our torches in the distance; some waited, unspotted in the darkness and then bleated loudly as we passed. (‘Mint Sauce – you little buggers!’) It wasn’t all tough: there were sizeable flattish sections where I was able to lead because my energy levels were pretty good (it was just my stupid knees on the climbs). In fact, I distinctly remember thinking on some level single track that my shadow, cast by Ashes torch, showed how I was power walking rather than limping along, but I might have been a bit delusional at this point.
Next up was Chapel Stile (40 miles in). This was a brilliant checkpoint. An open fire heated the Marquee where some kind marshals provided us with quality brownies. We exited the tent and Ash pointed out there was only 10k until the last check point which was Tilberthwaite (46.5 miles). We were both rested and in a good place. It sounded very doable and we strode off enthusiastically. At the time we probably both could run 10k in around 52-54min. It took us 2 hours 15min. There had been a steep 500ft climb though and we were having to dig deeper now being weaker at the business end of the race.
There is only one unmanned, open check point in the 50 mile event at Blea Moss. We had to do quite a lot of bog trotting, but navigation was aided by small ribbon flags some kind soul had set out to show the way where the path wasn’t clear. Approaching the dibber area, we saw a man in his 60/70s standing in the rain dressed in country walking clothes. I remember reading that the organisers had tracked him down – it turns out he is a local widower who likes to guide people in and provide support at this point each year. What a legend!
We approached Tilberthwaite, quickly grabbed an odd cheese toasty, which had been cooked using an outdoor log burning stove. We then headed straight off as we had agreed not to stop ‘so close to the end’. We had no illusions about how tough the last 3.5miles would be. Jacobs Ladder is no secret and it begins the final proper climb of around 800ft. At the beginning there are nicely defined steps with lanterns highlighting each one trailing up into the hillside. But at some point, god knows when, it got steep (think easiest grade rock climbing at times), muddy and endless. This was the only stretch of the route where at one point I was on all fours.
We found our way to the last summit and started to wind our way down to Coniston. We were ambling and chatting now. The weather had cleared, and we had realised some time ago we were going to miss our 16-hour target, so we were content just to finish. The clouds above and below us were starting to lighten with the dawn and, a bit later on, looking back up the mountain I could see a string of tiny head torches tracing the way we had descended. It was a nice view and also good to know that there were a lot of competitors behind us.
Coniston at dawn was very quiet and we strolled up to the finish and had a hug and a selfie. We were led back into the main marquee where the calmness was shattered by light and noise as we were announced by someone banging a pot and lots of people (those who had finished) cheering. We got our finisher’s medals and a picture taken and met Mark our friend who had completed hours before us and who was sporting a big grin. He had drank lots of coffee and was our designated driver. We swapped a few war stories on the way back in the car, but Ash and I lasted about 20min into the drive before we both snoring.
Will I try another ultra? I am not sure. It’s a lot of time to train and a big ask of the family. I am sure about this though, as a result of signing up for this event, I found a new hobby in off-road running and I also found a great running club. Both of which will have to tolerate me for years to come.
Result: 50miles; 9533ft; 17hrs 44min. Pos: 630 of 824. DNF: 57.