For my first Ultra out with the scope of the SUMS series I’d opted to have a crack at the increasingly popular Montane Lakeland 50. When I signed up last autumn I was full of great intentions of fully recceing the route multiple times, after all I had 10 months to do so. I signed up for the organised group recce runs and failed to make any of them. I eventually managed a grand total of 3 route runs, two covering the stretch from Pooley Bridge to Fusedale, the first of which in February turned out to be a near death experience.
Eventually managing to run from Chapel Stile to Coniston only the weekend before the actual event, on the plus side at least that section would be fresh in my mind!
Notwithstanding my lack of route experience, I’ve trained well this year, with a good basic mileage, a PB at the Highland Fling 53 mile Ultra and a couple of good marathon times, I’d even bagged a 3 minute PB on the Moffat Gala Hill Race 2 weeks previously. In fact I cannot ever remember going into an Ultra event feeling quite so laid back and relaxed.
Driving down from Dumfries on the Friday I listened to the Commonwealth Games on the radio, the really upbeat vibe adding to my general mood of “I’m up for this”.
You’re race entry includes camping at the race HQ at the John Ruskin School in Coniston and by the time I arrived the playing field was already a sea of cars and tents and runners in various states of preparation and panic.
I quickly pitched my tent and headed over to register, with my fully packed and bulging race back pack. Now I’ve ran the Fling three times and the full West Highland Way race once and with no disrespect to either of these fantastic events, it was quickly obvious that the scale and degree of organisation of the L50/L100 is of a completely different magnitude altogether, with nearly 1000 runners over both events.
Registration comprised kit check; race pack collection; timing chip and weigh station with every participant having to show each and every item of compulsory kit, quite the most thorough process I’ve ever seen , including demonstrating you had a working whistle. I was just thankful that the girl checking my kit didn’t ask me to remove my spare base layers and waterproofs from their plastic bags as I’m not sure I could have a- got them back in the bags and b- got all the bags back in my back pack. By the time I was done I was positively shaking with excitement, in truth I was shaking from lack of food so I headed straight through to grab some excellent nosh from the Busy Lizzies charity that were providing catering over the weekend.
My plan was to watch the 100 mile start at 6pm grab an evening meal and generally chill out and not spend too much time on my feet. I wandered round the field saying a quick hello to Andy Johns who was tackling the L100 and to Debbie who was attending to her pre-race foot care regime and Marco, OK I didn’t actually talk to Marco as he was sleeping, but I’m sure you get the idea.
The L100 runners set off in temperature which must have been over 25C and the campus felt strangely quiet when they’d gone. I headed up to the chip shop for a suitably inappropriate pre-race fish supper a lovely warm shower and then spent the remainder of the evening lying reading and relaxing and avoiding the temptations of the pub. I love people watching and It amused me to see the curious mix of “I’m all ready and packed and I don’t need to panic” runners with the “I need to fret, panic and re-pack my bag 10 times” types, still I suppose it takes all sorts?
I got a surprisingly good night’s sleep and waking at 7am headed over to get some breakfast before heading in for RD Mark’s pre-race briefing. The hall was wall to wall with runners, Mark gave an excellent briefing emphasising that we were not “just” running the 50, but that we were about to tackle a very big thing indeed, then it was onto the fleet of coaches to take us to the 50 start at Dalemain. I made sure of an early seat as there was one ancient coach in the fleet which looked like it had been specially taken out of the vintage museum for the day and I didn’t fancy its chances of even making it to the start.
We were deposited at the start with around 45 minutes to go before the “off”, and that's when it hit me just how flaming hot it actually was, rather stupidly I’d not put on sun cream, so 1000 thanks to the lady supporting Delamere Spartans who allowed me to steal a generous helping of her toddlers factor 50 cream…lifesaver. A quick hello to Susan Gallagher and Jo Rae and with the obligatory pre-race poo attended to I lay in the shade until the hoard moved off to the start line.
Without preamble we were off. The first 4 miles loop around the fields of the Dalemain estate partly to make up the distance and partly to thin out the 600 or so starters so by the time we started the route proper through Pooley Bridge it wasn’t too congested. I’d chatted with Jo Rae for a mile or so on this section, Jo had a rough WHW race and was looking to banish those particular demons with a good 50, she must have got fed up with my sparkling chat as she rapidly sped off, finishing in a well-deserved 43rd place overall in 10 hours 45 minutes, a top 10 ladies finish, outstanding.
I adopted a run walk mix on the climb up from Pooley Bridge and then ran all the way down to CP 1 at Howton mill, it was already apparent that the heat was going to be a major factor and I stopped to soak my buff to keep my head cool en route. I knew I could potentially waste a lot of time at check points so confined myself to a quick bottle refill and straight back out for the climb up Fusedale.
|L50 race route|
Dalemain to Howton 11.2 miles 1 hour 47 minutes
Despite it being the biggest single climb on the route, at just over 1600 feet the climb up Fusedale was uneventful, I gave a shout out to every one of the L100 runners I passed (having their names on the race numbers is a great idea), I soaked my buff at every possible opportunity and gave myself a good sloshing down with water where ever possible, boy was it hot!. Reaching the top of the climb I was in the company of Julie from Wigan and was overcome with a desire to sing “Climb every mountain” from sound of music as we headed onto the more open moorland, well people do say you have to be mad to run Ultra’s.
From here on I was in terra incognito, and would be until Chapel Stile, navigation was not an issue though as there were still plenty of runners around who all seemed to know exactly where to go, on the descent to Haweswater I passed 100 miler Andy John’s, who was having a tough time but still smiling and still moving well. Andy went on to finish in the top half of the 100 field in 35 hours 9 minutes; I’m in awe of his endurance and perseverance!
The run alongside Haweswater was airless and oppressing, but I ran with an informal pace bus of 5 or 6 people and we maintained a strong trot down to Mardale Head, only dropping out to avail myself of any available impromptu bathing opportunities. The sign at the checkpoint said WELCOME TO SPARTA, so I even managed an ah ooh; ah ooh; ah ooh (watch the movie if you don’t know).
Howton to Mardale Head 9.4 miles 4 hours 10 minutes
The Spartans checkpoint crew here were great, bottles filled, cup of soup, cup of coffee, cup of coke and on my way. I must confess that as I looked up at the comic book steepness of the track up Gatesgarth Pass I though “someone is taking the piss here”.
I didn’t enjoy the climb up, although it’s only 1090 feet it’s brutally steep, I felt a deep sense of jealously for those people with lightweight poles, they were consistently able to maintain a better rate of climb than I was. Never again will I call them cheat sticks, if it’s within the rules to use them, use them, I’m a convert.
By the time I hit the descent the field was really thinning out and I ran solo all the way down, except I didn’t run, I was finding the underfoot terrain awful, I’m not the best of descenders anyway and I was frankly terrified of either taking a tumble or turning an ankle or God forbid both.
Mardale Head to Kentmere 6.5 miles 5 hours 56 minutes
I probably had my low point at Kentmere, I was feeling mildly queasy, I’d cramped up a couple of times en route, resorting a large pinch of rock salt each time (no scientific reason that it should work, but it does). I was desperate for something really cold to drink, I grabbed a fruit smoothie and nearly hurled it back up, fruity it was, but cold it wasn’t. The Explorer Scouts manning this checkpoint were amazing; coping with every need of the broken wrecks of humanity sitting and staggering around. Another coke another coffee, nothing solid though and I was out the door, I’d pulled out my road book by now as frankly I had no idea where to go and it looked like being another solo effort.
I have virtually no recollection of the section to Ambleside other than once I get there it’s only 16 miles to the finish, but I did manage to milk the crowd in Ambleside for all the applause I could.. ….well you have to don’t you?
I felt really strong running down to the checkpoint in the parish centre although I didn’t appreciate the flight of steps up to it!
Another outstanding checkpoint crew, another coffee and they managed to find me half a cup of cold milk, pure heaven; I also managed my first pee of the day.
Kentmere to Ambleside 7.3 miles 7 hours 58 minutes
I was now running with another two 50 runners, which was good fortune for me as even with the road book I was struggling to interpret the route to Skelwith Bridge. Throughout the race so far I’d been adopting the “run when you can run” and “walk when you have to principle”, sadly there was no hiding on the flat section to Chapel Stile and although I maintained a run it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty, past the huge campsite at Chapel Stile with the smell of disposable barbeque and scorched sausage alternately tempting and revolting me.
Ambleside to Langdale (Chapel Stile) 5.6 miles 9 hours 5 minutes
Despite the presence of two proper couches in the marquee, I resisted the temptation to sit down; I probably had my longest checkpoint stop here. As darkness was looming I decided to change my soaked t-shirt for a dry one and as the days broiling heat had now swapped places with a persistent drizzle, the lightweight OMM shower proof made its first appearance, but I still couldn't face solid food. I also donned my head torch, deciding I’d rather run with it on than be fumbling around in the dark for it.
|Still smiling at Chapel Stile - photo courtesy of Vicky Hart|
On my recce run the weekend before I covered this section (to the finish) in 2 hour 15 minutes, taking it methodically to memorize the exact route, I knew this time it would be much slower, with the added complication of darkness. Just before the climb up to Side Pike Pass the heavens opened and I swapped the lightweight jacket for an OMM Kamelika proper waterproof, I've learned the hard way about leaving it too late to don the proper kit, once bitten twice shy. It was proper dark by the time I crested the pass and with high bracken obscuring my footfall what was runnable last week in daylight was reduced to a steady yomp in the gloom.
I’d got my line across Bleamoss wrong last weekend getting my feet soaked, so was able to get it right this time making a bee-line for the light on the unmanned timing dibber. I even managed a good strong running pace on the downhill and the farm track to the NT cottage, but thereafter the climb up and over to High Tilberthwaite Farm was mostly a steady yomp.
Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite 6.5 miles 11 hours 4 minutes
Under any normal set of circumstances 3.5 miles in 55 minutes would be a dawdle, not today. The climb up the “stairway to heaven” and the equally torturous descent down to Coniston were always going to be a walk. I sat down at the checkpoint, more coffee, more coke and thank the Lord, rice pudding and jam, proper running food, that and a good handful of nuts set me up for the last leg. I’m so glad this section was fresh in my mind, I’d have had major misgivings about tackling it in the dark without foreknowledge and the rain had all but abated into the bargain. I neither passed anyone nor was passed on this entire section, right to through to the slate cottages where two runners with more confidence on the downhill section overtook me.
I knew that no matter how tired I was I could run from here to the finish, so I kicked off a steady 8 minute mile pace (although in my head it felt faster) I was closing down the 2 guys who’d passed me until just after Miners Bridge when a stab of cramp lanced my right quad, knowing it was too far too run through it, I pulled up and wolfed down the last of my salt, washed it down gave it a quick stretch and headed off again. I felt really strong now running down into Coniston and through a near deserted main street, past the garage, left turn only 150 metres and BANG, job done, I even managed a Johnny Fling heel kick as I went over the line.
Tilberthwaite to Coniston 3.5 mile 12 hours 10 minutes 40 seconds, 111th place
Very slick marshals guided me into the school hall, with a cry of “50 finisher” and a huge round of applause, timing chip of, medal on, t-shirt collected, sweaty hug from a delighted Jo and a stagger over to collect my post-race meal of shepherd’s pie and an ice cold diet coke, lovely.
Without a doubt the toughest race I've done, the brain boiling heat adding an entirely new degree of challenge and the sheer steepness of the climbs, never again!
I headed back to my tent with every intention of collapsing straight into an exhaustion induced coma, sadly the stench when I took my shoes off forced me to head to the showers first. Duly cleaned up I snuggled down but sleep evaded me, remember all that coffee and coke that kept me going during the day, well it kept me going till 4am too, than my tent neighbour decided that 6am was a great time to get up noisily and talk to everyone they could, 50 miles; 10,000 feet 28C and 2 hours sleep should have made for a grumpy Keith, but post-race adrenalin and euphoria won out and after a lovely breakfast sitting in the sun outside the village pub I hung around for the prize giving where Debbie and Marco made it a family double by winning their respective L100 races.
There were some fabulous race tales and then to cap it all an Ultra “wedding” following a finish line proposal.
My mind-set at this time was still firmly in the never again camp, but with the dust having settled I've now switched into the fabulous experience I want to do it again category, I’ll be back for more.