Where to start? This was such a tough day out, I think the hardest ultra of the nine that I’ve completed now. It ultimately became a bit of a zombie death march, but let’s not rush straight to the gory details…
I entered this race because I failed to get into Lakeland 50. Looking for a consolation prize, this race fit the bill, with similar terrain, just a bit longer for bonus miles. The Lake District is a 5 or 6 hour drive away, too far for a recce, or so I told myself. I did get some hill training done in the Brecon Beacons so considered myself well prepared. I had a pace plan, meticulously prepared with forensic attention paid to the terrain in each section of the race. “A” goal roughly 15 hrs, “B” goal roughly 17hrs, leaving a “C” goal of ‘just bloody finish’. In the lead up to the race I checked the results from last year – the median result was 18 hours. I usually finish mid-table, so this ought to have been a little clue as to which goal I was most likely to achieve.
The route is a lopsided figure of eight, with a little loop round Langdale to finish off which looks like it should only take an hour or two, right? Mmm, not so much.
Having registered, been through kit-check earlier in the day and suitably wired on Red Bull, I rocked up at 11:30pm for the 12:01am start. It was a bit strange, milling about in the dark past bedtime, but off we went into the night.
Straight out the blocks we were up a hill, me hiking with intent, passing numerous others, same for the second hill, clickety clack, hikety hike. The downs off these hills were mostly nice and runnable too, lulling me into false sense of security early doors. I got to Kentmere (12.1km, 1h36, excellent flapjacks) in good order, 7 minutes ahead of the “A” plan. I whipped through that first aid station in under a minute, places to be, people to see. Game, as it very much were, on.
The big hill in section two, heading round the back of Harter Fell was a harbinger, a warning from the future. Based on my day out in the Brecons, I’d planned for it taking a while to get up and a similar while to get back down again, what with rocks and shit. I do think it should be a rule that all hills must include a payoff. If you clamber up em, you should be expect to be able to run down em. Not this hill, and not several others to come. Careful foot placement coming down, all the people I overtook on the earlier, easier hills now skipping past me like mountain goats. Still, I got to Mardale Head (21.0km, 3h18, flat cola) in good time, more or less bang on the “A” plan. There was the faintest hint of dawn in the sky by this point, which was both a relief and a worry as the weather was suddenly predicted to be hot, damn hot, in contrast to the forecast all week.
The next section was alongside Haweswater Reservoir, which was probably quite pretty in daylight, but it was still mostly dark. The path was quite flat, but a bit lumpety bumpety, annoying and often concealed rocks impeding my progress, in flagrant breach of my rights as a runner under section 4, clause 3 of, erm, my rules. There was a section with quite a sharp drop on the right side of the path, cunningly hidden by very lush fern growth. Several folks I was running with lost a foot down there, soon followed by the rest of them hitting the path. Smugly I continued on, congratulating myself on staying upright, which as you might predict was the cue for me doing the exact same thing, bashing my knee in the process. Once we approached the dam the path evened out, soon turning to a lovely section of flattish tarmac. I was moving well, possibly a little too well, hitting the Bampton checkpoint (32.6km, 4h52, bacon butties!) on track to stay ahead of the “A” plan. I needed to hit the lavs here and there was a queue, so it wasn’t a quick pitstop, 18 minutes in total. Fortified by bacon sarnies I left Bampton about 10 minutes behind the “A” plan but feeling good.
Roads featured quite heavily for a while, with nice, long, not terribly steep, hike-able hills that I was able to power up. It was properly morning now, with dog-walkers and the occasional supporter issuing well dones and keep goings. I wended my way across the moors (fells?) towards Ullswater, still feeling quite chipper. I got to Howtown (49.5km, 7h26, cup-a-soup) and by the time I’d had a chat and got round a soup, I was very much in “B” goal territory. Well OK then, “B” it is.
I don’t remember much about the next section. Maybe I was a bit spaced out after running through the night, maybe I was underfuelled. Both, perhaps. I arrived at Glenridding (61.0km, 09h30, crisp butty) still about on the money for the “B” goal. With access to a drop bag, I faffed quite a bit at this checkpoint, taking a little longer than the 15 minutes I’d allowed on the plan. What I did NOT do, and really, really should have done, is sort out my feet. I’d even gone to the trouble of planning foot admin into this checkpoint stop. I had a flannel to clean my feet, pre-cut tape for blister prevention and a dry pair of socks. This is the sliding doors moment where my race could have ended very differently. But, instead of sorting out my feet, which weren’t really bothering me at that point, I chatted to other folks, got a custom made crisp sandwich (awesome, btw) and stared into space for a bit.
The next section was a doozy. I was feeling tired coming out of that aid station, and getting a bit annoyed by the slightest obstruction that might impede my ultra-shuffle. I decided to hike for a while, this section being in any case dominated by a bloody big hill up to Grisedale Tarn. I got chatting to a similarly weary runner, James, who remarked on my strong hiking pace – he was having to walk/run to keep up with me. On and on we went, gradually climbing and taking in the impressive views. By this time it was getting hot and that was adding to the general sense of weariness. We eventually got to the top, and it was with some joy that we found that the path down was relatively runnable, at least once the initial rocky parts were negotiated. We both rediscovered our running legs, and had an enjoyable run down into Grasmere (73.4km,12h27, banana). I was dimly aware of my feet being sore. I put this down to them generally getting a battering on the never ending river of rocks that pass for paths up there, anything really, so long as it meant I didn’t have to go through the faff of sorting them out.
Still, at this point I’m thinking I’ve broken the back of it, and whilst it’s very hot out, I seem to be on top of hydration, drinking a tonne of water, coke, Tailwind, whatever was going. Just that daft little loop at the end which, let’s remember, looks like it ought to only take an hour or two. I was having mental battles with my watch, which insisted it was going to take a lot longer than that. Longer and longer and longer still, as time went on. Over the next 20km, my forward progress was slowed right to a crawl by my sore feet. It was weird, like having an out-of-body experience. Look at him, I would think, he should sort his feet out, they’re obviously bothering him. Yes, yes, I’d reply to myself, but they’re all the way down there, and the shoes are wet and they’ll be difficult to get back on, and where will I sit to do it and blah blah blah whine whine whine. Perhaps this is where a crew comes in, someone to give you a slap and tell you to sort your shit out and do it pronto. Greatly compromised, it took me the best part of 5 hours to get around that loop and out the other side to Langdale School (93km, 16h54, epic cheese and onion sandwich).
Just 8km to go now. At some point in this final section I did very belatedly sort out my feet, although the damage was done, both to my feet and to my rate of progress. I put some padding in place and while this did take a little bit of the edge off, my feet were still compromised by very sore blisters on the balls of my feet, all 14+ stone of me going through that point with every step, and with every bit of uneven ground (so, all of it) causing me some misery. In this last section I was really questioning my life choices, I was mentally going through next year’s races and cancelling any that might be similarly difficult. Arc 50 was definitely gone and the Centurion 100 slam seemed like a very bad idea. At no point did it occur to me I might drop out of this one. One small, rather painful step at a time I made my way to the finish line back in Ambleside, taking almost 2hrs to do that final 8km. For want of 15 minutes of foot admin at 61km, I probably added several hours to my day out. Stoopid or what!? Well, whatever, I got it done, taking 18h45 minutes to do so.
I shan’t be back in the Lake District again until someone irons the big hills out, or at a minimum removes all the rocks from the footpaths. All. Of. Them. Until then, I shall be taking my ultramarathon business to locations with a more sensible hill policy. Norfolk, say, or the Netherlands.
I’ll be back in a couple of months with tales of multi-day adventures on Ynys Môn.