Lakeland 50 – Trails and Teamwork

The Lakeland 50 (or “Ultra Tour Lake District 50”) was always going to be the most demanding of my five 50-milers this year, particularly in terms of the terrain (more than 3,000 metres of ascent and descent, a lot of stony trails with easy-to-trip-on rocks), but also due to the need for navigation and the strong probability of this being compounded by finishing the last miles in the dark. All of these were definite challenges on the day.

This was also, however, the route most likely to provide outstanding views (weather permitting), it was in a location – the Lake District – which I love, and it’s the race which lured me into ultra running, when I first heard about it and thought “I want to do that!”

On the day, all of the above, and more, were incorporated into an amazing experience.

Like many competitors, I suspect, I spent the weeks before the race scanning the weather forecast daily, rejoicing when it appeared we would not be running in temperatures up in the high 20s, and then shrugging philosophically when it became apparent that it would probably rain: this IS the Lake District; rain is expected.

As recommended, we (my husband came with me) arrived in Coniston on Friday evening, booked into our B & B – a lucky find online three weeks before the race (“I suppose I ought to find somewhere for us to stay”) due to someone else cancelling, and went to register. This involved being weighed (and acquisition of a lime green wristband with my weight written on it in indelible marker), identification/registration, kit check (at which I was advised to actually carry a back-up bottle of water, if possible, not just always intend to have extra in my drinks bladder), hand-over of goodie bag (including UTLD buff, bottle, and SIS energy products in a black drawstring bag), and finally acquisition of another band round my wrist, this one attaching the SportsID dibber which would be used to check me into each of the aid stations. With everyone wearing these wristbands, wandering around Coniston in the evening it was easy to spot fellow runners – not so much a “Band of Brothers” as a “Brotherhood of Bands.”

We considered having supper in the Black Bull, but they were quoting a 45-60 minute wait for food, so we went over the road and had a very nice pizza before going back to the Bull for a beer and a natter with one of the other runners. Back in our room, I did my usual obsessive double-check that I’d got everything ready for the next day, including last moment realisation that I’d not yet put my phone into its waterproof pouch and into the backpack, before we settled down to sleep at about midnight.

Heading down to breakfast – officially started 08.15 but the owners kindly fed us at 7.30 – I ran into Susan, who I met previously when we were both staying in the same Ambleside B&B on one of the recce weekends. She was going to be walking the 50. Her husband thought her crazy but was supportive – rather like mine, really!

Morning briefing, including a reminder that the compulsory kit was carried for our own safety, not to satisfy the sadistic impulses of the organisers and slow us all down, then onto the coaches for the long trip to Dalemain. I ended up sitting next to Sue (not the same as the Susan mentioned earlier) whom I’d also met on the recce weekends. She was wearing her Hokas, which she’d first tried out on the final recce five weeks ago. It was during this ride that I realised I really should have put more fluid in my drinks bladder – I’d calculated for Dalemain to Howtown and not considered the two hours of coach ride and standing about before the start…

At Dalemain, while standing in the inevitable queues for the Portaloos, we cheered on each 100-mile runner as they came into the checkpoint. Finally, with 10 minutes to go, some sort of signal passed and we drifted towards the start, “dibbing in” as we entered the roped-off holding area. A few runners tried to duck in half way down the pen and had to be sent back to the top to the dibbers. By this time I’d also met up with Emiko (who I first met at the 2012 London Ultra, and had seen on the recces), and we set off together. I clutched my route  book and map, but I have to say I didn’t use the map at all on the day and didn’t really use the route book until the later stages.

The loop round the Dalemain estate was hot, my left foot was aching, as it had been on the bus, and my pace was slow. We were running across fields, with some rutted ground, hidden in grass, to trip the unwary, and some stiles to hold everyone up. Emiko soon started to pull ahead of me. Across the fields, through Pooley Bridge and then up the long incline onto the fell. The sun was quite hot in the first few hours and I was very glad I’d chosen to wear my Halo headband (I didn’t get any sweat in my eyes) and my Rohan baseball cap with a cloth section which drapes over the back of the neck. Several times when we passed a stream I dunked the hat in the stream and put it back on soaking wet, which did help to cool me a bit.

In the Dalemain-to-Howtown section I was just following other runners, which made for ease of navigation, but I would have no idea where I was going if I tried to recce that section alone! The inside of my left foot really was aching on this section (although no more than it had been doing in the bus) and I started to worry whether it would hold up for the rest of the race. Also in the last mile or so the pad on my right foot (I’d put pads over both Achilles’s tendons, to prevent any problems with pressure points or “invisible blisters”) started to rub on the inside of the ankle. However, I got to Howtown with a few mouthfuls of fluid still in my drinks bladder, saw Emiko, grabbed drinks, filled the bladder (adding my Elete electrolytes), ate a flapjack, and Vaselined the sore area on the right ankle to reduce the rubbing, which stung worse initially but then seemed to help. The crew at Howtown had put up a mixture of inspirational and funny slogans on the route in and out, including “It seemed like a good idea in September…”

Out of Howtown and into the first real climb over High Kop and the highest point of the course at 670 m, then into the descent, first gradual, then after the right turn (vaguely marked by a few stones, not really a cairn) more steeply descending towards Haweswater. At this point I was very glad I’d done the recce five weeks ago, as this all looked familiar and I definitely remembered bits like the gate through the deer fencing, and the scramble down the boulders near the waterfall, so I was sure I was on the correct path, although it looked very different with five extra weeks of luxuriant growth by the bracken, which was high enough that there was increased risk of tripping over stones in the trail, as you couldn’t see the actual ground ahead of your feet.

Onto the flat section alongside Haweswater, 6 km (nearly four miles) where you’d think you could get a decent run, but keep losing your rhythm to climb over boulders. Had my first bad trip-and-nearly-fall, but managed to run out of it. Also had an amazing experience: a lizard, only about six inches long, crossed the track ahead of me and I had to pause for a second to let it finish crossing. This section is single-track, making passing people difficult, but everyone was very good about squeezing to one side if a faster-moving person came up behind. I felt somewhat guilty when this was 100-mile runners giving way to me, particularly when I knocked against someone’s green walking pole (really sorry about that!) but I made sure to thank each person as well as calling extra encouragement to the 100-milers. One woman I passed had run out of water, with still a couple of miles to go to Mardale Head, so I gave her my emergency 300 mL bottle; the fluid in my drinks bladder lasted me fine and it wasn’t empty when we reached the checkpoint. I saw Emiko here (just about ready to leave the checkpoint as I arrived), for the last time before the finish.

After drinking water and soup and filling my drinks bladder (and refilling my emergency water bottle), I grabbed a cheese sandwich and headed back out – on another long climb up Gatesgarth Pass, before a descent and another climb – lots of those on this course! It was somewhere along here that I had to drive away some freshly-shorn sheep which were getting much too interested in the gate that runners were passing through. Kentmere Institute had some good food, including fruit smoothies, but some awful music, which drove me back out as quickly as I could grab the food and refill my fluids – this was where I first met Sheila, who also didn’t like the music. Then it was up again to Garburn Pass before the long gentle descent to Troutbeck – along this section I was able to call ahead and assist one of the 100-mile runners not to take a wrong turning. The rain came down very hard for a while and I put my jacket on while the rain lasted, despite the heat, to avoid the risk of being soaked through and having the temperature drop a bit later (I’ve skirted hypothermia before and it’s no fun). Up again then down through Skelghyll Woods, where a runner called from behind that I was taking the wrong path but I yelled back what I’d been taught on the last recce: the right path after Jenkins Crag is a longer route but less steep and a lot easier to descend. He thanked me as he passed: “this path is much easier!”. Then into Ambleside, running through and being cheered by lots of people, and to the checkpoint, first being met by my husband, then up the steps (!) into the Parish Centre, which had some good food but was hot and again filled with loud music, so I didn’t linger.  A quick kiss from Aidan and I was off again, telling him to expect me in Coniston about 90 minutes or so after I left Tilberthwaite.

Through the park and up the track to Loughrigg, a path very familiar to me from lots of walks, then after the stepping stones diverting left alongside the wall. I was determined to keep Sheila in sight on this bit because on the last recce I’d got confused by the lefts and rights at the end and I didn’t want to be alone when I met the junctions again. In the end we were both hesitating but another runner said “this way!” and we followed him – and I think I’ve got that bit mentally sorted now. Sheila dropped back for a while due to a call from her seven-year-old daughter, and I ran alone for most of the section alongside the river, although with some other runners a little way ahead for most of it. I was pleased to discover I knew this part of the route well by now. Sheila caught up with me towards the end and spurted ahead in the last couple of hundred yards to the checkpoint at Chapel Stile.

Here Sheila and I decided that as were travelling about the same speed, and it was getting dark, and two heads would be better than one for navigation, we’d buddy up. We were shortly joined by another woman (and forgive me, but I’m having real problems remembering everyone’s names) and climbed up to the summit of Side Pike Pass together. The rain picked up again and I paused to get my jacket on. This was a section where I was very grateful for my previous recces, as at the pass I remembered exactly where the route went so we crossed the road with confidence and turned off at the footpath sign sure we were on the correct path. We were even able to jog some sections! At the far end of Blea Tarn I’d somehow forgotten about the woods (Sheila remembered them) but did remember not to continue on the path over the bridge but rather to veer right through the gate for the interesting bit contouring around the hill and through the bracken, making sure to stay above the bog. Horrible footing of boulder-strewn path overhung by concealing bracken, but we navigated it well, through the final bit of impossible-to-avoid boggy ground and straight over the road to the dibber point, hitting it dead on. Looking back, we could see lots of headtorches of other runners traversing the hillside behind us. By now we were in a group of about six and we ran down the road and over the stone bridge to head up the track towards Tilberthwaite. It was along here, I think, while passing the National Trust Cottage, that I helped a toad across the road so it didn’t get squished by all the feet. (Sue told me that later there were lots of them).

Into Tilberthwaite aid station and we didn’t hang around very long before setting off up the steps. We nearly went wrong at the “where the path splits into three” as Sheila was moving well and didn’t notice the path junction but thankfully I saw it, called Sheila back, checked that yes, there was a third path heading to a quarry, so we took the middle path onwards and (what else!) upwards. As we climbed we were joined by several more runners until there was a group of six to eight of us again, all very pleased not to be up there in the dark alone. Sheila out in front found the little “lone tree” and we crossed over the beck and continued, jogging where the path was clearer, walking where it was more broken. Some runners were much more confident on the broken terrain than I was, particularly as we headed down the far side, and they pulled ahead. Pausing a moment and looking around, there was an amazing broken line of gleaming head torches winding down the hillside both above and below us. As we reached the clear trail and I looked at the roadbook one last time to double-check that we were headed in the right direction, one of the others said “this way!” and everyone else went pelting after him. By the time I’d closed the roadbook and looked around they were well in front. It was a bit surreal running down the track, with occasional glimpses of reflective bits on the backs of packs, and lots of twin reflections from the eyes of sheep sheltering against the wall by the side of the road – they had obviously worked out that the mad humans were mostly harmless, and barely bothered to look at us as we passed.

Finally I was on the last bit of road, running past the Black Bull, over the road bridge (thank you to the people quietly supporting from the shelter of the garage), down the road to the school and under the finish gantry, dibbing in before looking round for my husband. On into the hall, to the applause that was given to each finishing runner, wrist bands cut off, I collected my timing report (finished in 13.23.37, 188th out of 587 starters), medal and T-shirt, and looked for Aidan again. Still no sign, inside or out, so I called and found he was just leaving the B&B – I’d been faster than I’d expected over the last hill, taking only 75 not 90 minutes.

The next hour or so was spent having my photo taken by my husband, greeting people  – Sheila, whose husband was stll out on the course somewhere; Emiko, who had got a bit lost but got back on route; the hundred-mile runner I’d helped with directions on the path down towards Troutbeck –  cheering each runner as they came in, eating a yummy baked potato with cheese, followed by ice cream with tinned mandarins, and generally unwinding before we walked back out into the rain and slowly up the road to the B&B, where I stumbled into the shower before heading for bed and – well, I wish I could say sleep, but my feet ached (less after Aidan gave them a bit of massage), and my left knee ached, and I barely dozed between 3.30 and 7.30 when I finally gave up trying, got dressed, and went down to ask for some newspaper to stuff my shoes!

Best bits: the views, the amazing lizard, the companionship and cameraderie.

Worst bits: the sapping heat at the start, the final dark descent  over the rocks – I hate that path even in the light.

Will I do it again? Probably – I’d like to tackle it when fully fit and properly trained, see if I can come in at under 12 hours.

Next: Ladybower 50 – just eight weeks to go!

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