Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Lakeland 205

The Lakeland 50 - it's more than just a race
Spoiler - I got this (pimped) medal
The Lakeland 50/100 is something you need to experience in order to understand. The whole event is just immense. For many, it’s a chance to push their limits by completing 50 miles through the finest scenery in England, whether by running or walking. For others, it’s a chance to test themselves at high speed over a hilly route, or to push their limits by completing 105 miles in one outing (but let’s just round this down to 100 from here on, it seems to be the done thing).

The standard approach is to have a go at the 50 mile race, maybe more than once, and finally pluck up the courage to have a go at the 100. Until the last couple of years this has had a completion rate averaging just 56% - it really is that brutal a race, giving so many good reasons to not continue when things get tough and/or breaking the body to the extent that continuing is genuinely not an option.

Not wanting to do things in the normal way, I started with the 100 route, back in 2014, the year of the heatwave. Since this is meant to be a few notes about my 2016 L50 race, I will not digress for too long, but since I never got round to writing anything about the L100 a couple of years ago, I had better put a paragraph or two in place.  In a nutshell, I had a race of two halves.

Love this early morning pic I captured above Ullswater
The first half was epic, with a warm and starlit night, perfect navigation and everything generally going well. I climbed steadily through the field, topping out at 55th by Dockray but then slowed as the Saturday morning rolled on and the temperature climbed well above 30oC. I had blisters for the first time in a race, chafing in multiple places that shouldn’t be mentioned so early in this tale, and leg issues that seemed insurmountable.  Watching the L50 leaders bounce past on their way up Fusedale was fun, but a huge energy crash and being unable to run anymore at High Kop left me battling my inner demons and resigning myself to having to stop at the most inconvenient place on the course, at Mardale Head.
Hot, hot, hot conditions

The L50 Leaders bouncing up Fusedale in 2014 
I fell in with a couple of hikers as the L50 field streamed past and they put me on the spot by saying that they were parked just a mile away at the north end of Haweswater and could drive me around to Dalemain so I could get a lift back to Coniston from there. This was just what I needed – instead of a gradual descent into retiring, I had to make a forced decision. I said that I would have a go at jogging very slowly for a bit and when they caught me up I’d go with them. And, would you believe it, that pace turned into a fast jog and then a run – soon I was dropping down to Haweswater with the L50 runners. I spent the next four miles feeling superb, swapping places with surprised L50 runners. I’d hoped that was me sorted to the end – something similar had happened to me during the West Highland Way Race in 2012 – but, alas, the double climb over to Kentmere sucked the energy out of me and despite getting there in 24 hours (82 miles covered), that was the end of any running for me.

It’s not all bad though. I could still walk and with the resolve of simple maths telling me that 16 hours and 23 miles could fit if I could somehow keep moving, on I went, now with Andy Bristow, with whom I had run some of the previous night section, for company.  Dreams of a sub-30 hour finished now seemed quite irrelevant and finishing was all that mattered. 11 hours later, with no profound emotion and just a weary feeling of getting the job done, we crossed the line in Coniston together. No tears, no elation, just relief. Much to my surprise we were still in the top 100, a sign of how utterly brutal the L100 is.

Wind on to 2015 and I secured my L50 entry (but only just!) and enjoyed a great day out at the event. Tackling the L100 certainly gives one the perspective to focus on just enjoying the L50. In spite of being told not to, it is reasonable to describe it as “only” the 50 mile race if your benchmark is the 100 mile race; it’s a totally different beast.  If you ran the L50 and said positive things to all the L100 runners that you passed, I hope that you meant it: they really are doing a truly amazing thing.

Now to the present and a tale of my 2016 L50 race. Or rather, the whole event, since that is just as important as the running bit in the middle.  I’d easily rate it as the best in England, no doubt about that. Admittedly, of the three dozen ultras I’ve done, they’ve all been in Scotland barring the Lakeland ones, but it’s still a quite superb set-up. The time and effort that goes into giving the runners the very best experience is quite something. So maybe here is as good a place as any to thank Marc and Terry, and the huge team of helpers and marshals who gave us such a good weekend party; there were just so many little touches that many will have missed, but will have taken so much planning to get right – thank you.

Let’s skip the lovely day chilling out at race HQ on Friday, the excellent morning briefing and the coach journey to Dalemain. We’ll jump into the start pen with a few minutes to go if that’s alright with you, ok?

I’m standing there near the front (actually, at the front – I’m sure most of the field are nervously hanging back) and not feeling nervous at all. There must be something to do expectations and preparation and experience, and I’m sure a good psychologist could tell me why. I am just looking forward to a good day out over a lovely route – living in the moment and hoping to enjoy as much of it as possible.  For the first time ever in a race I will be running with someone else and I hope that this works out during the day. No, I’d not managed to click quickly enough back on entry day the previous September to get a pairs entry. Instead, an old university friend had been persuaded to enter the event and had said that this would be a good way to catch up on a couple of decades of news.  We’ve not met up for 17 years so Dan and I have loads to chat about. More on that later, but for now, we are heading off with the mass start to a cheering crowd and a noisy stampede on our heels.

My brother spotted me loitering near the front (from official race video)

I’m not near the front for long. I’m too wise to follow others’ pace and actively try to slow things down for the first few miles. It works and I am more than happy to see plenty of other runners race past up the hills; there’s a long way to go yet. I am hoping to get to Howtown about five minutes slower than last year – all part of a better pacing strategy that will leave more in the tank later in the race. Also, my training mileage hasn’t been anything to write home about this year (not even hitting 30 miles a week, and that’s including races) and I’m carrying more weight than I should be doing, so it all makes sense to slow things down. A PB would be nice, but anything close to the 2015 time, combined with a memorable day out, will suit me fine.
Men in Black (pic: Susan Gallagher)
Leaving Dalemain is always a positive – the journey properly starts now – and the path to Pooley Bridge is a joy. And so is the support in town, where there are just so many people clapping and cheering. I go for a couple of tactical walk/drink breaks on the climb beyond town and then it’s just fun, fun, fun on that descending path to Howtown, which is always that little bit further round the corner than you first expect.
Farewell Howtown (pic: Gerry Hughes)

A very quick pause here for a chia bar (eaten on the following climb) and then it’s off for a stroll up Fusedale. A couple of heel-clicks for the waiting photographers and then it’s a mixture of running where sensible and walking when more appropriate.

Sometimes you get stuck behind a crowd and just have to relax for several minutes knowing that a few seconds here or there will amount to nothing over the course of the day. Over the top and we hit the highest point of the route, which is very run-able, as is the ensuing descent down to Haweswater – what a contrast to a couple of years ago up here.

Apparently, you gain a lot of height in Fusedale (pic from 2015, but the 2016 ones look similar)
This is where the first problem of the day hits – a combination of my bad communication, tummy issues and my descending. I mention to Dan that I might need to grab some moss and head into the bracken once we’re off the hill and then I let my legs go as we plummet downwards. Descending is something that I can do pretty well. With no real effort, I somehow pick up my stride length and cadence and just fall more quickly than most other runners – Dan has acknowledged that he does not descend so fast but he is such a strong runner in every other way that I know that this is no problem and he can easily catch up. I’m not kidding here – he has quite a pedigree, having won three of the six ultras that he ran in last year, and having come in the top ten at the infamous Spine race back in January. He has said that he is content to amble round the route this year to get a feel for it, with numbers not mattering at all. I’m pretty sure that he’ll be in the top ten for L100 next year.

Once we (sorry, I) hit the path alongside Haweswater, my insides feel a bit more normal and I wonder if I can make it to the hallowed portaloos at Mardale Head. Let’s find out – I’m feeling good and love the next four miles of interesting trail (if you don’t like this section, you don’t get trail running!) and Dan will be catching up any moment soon. Except that he doesn’t.

The four miles tick by but even when the view opens up around Riggindale Beck, I still cannot see him. I cling to the logical answer that he must have waited for me after the descent and will soon be along – please, please, let this be so.  I pass a good friend Keith who is having “technical issues” with his shoes – we’ve run together before in races, and I’ve always finished in front, but he has been improving considerably this year and his positive start to the day underlines that – I’m expecting a big PB from him today.

I bounce into the checkpoint, full of optimism, and quickly grab a couple of drinks and a big cup of tea to take up the path with me (not sure if this strategy was better than just downing it in the checkpoint, especially for later checkpoints with no immediate ascent). A few minutes in the portaloo, pack left outside so that Dan could see the name and number, with an awkward moment of washing my hands from outside so I could see Dan and then I spot him, coming into the checkpoint as I leave – what a sense of relief.  I know that he’ll catch up on the climb up Gatescarth and indeed he does, running halfway up until he gets to me – no harm done, thankfully.

We catch up with Keith at the top and share the descent together; it’s much better than last year thanks to the Inov8 RaceUltras that I am wearing. That extra cushioning does make such a difference on this tough route. Even the climb up from Sadgill feels quite short and before we know it, we’re in a big queue for the crazy Kentmere stiles – which is a bit of unfortunate timing.  Into the (Hogwarts) checkpoint at 5:10 – exactly the same time as a year ago, but feeling much better (or so I hope) – maybe there’s a chance to get a PB?
You're doing this for fun - might as well enjoy it (pic: Dan Robson)

The Garburn pass is the last really big climb and it does go on for longer than most people expect.  I leave Kentmere with my big mug of tea, plus half a banana and a biscuit. The road is initially very runnable and I question the wisdom of walking it while eating and drinking, but hope this will help long-term. In any case, it’s a long ascent and is soon all about walking as fast as possible. Keith has gone through the checkpoint like greased lightning and is a minute or two ahead, but I know there is a long descent down to Troutbeck and look forward to letting the legs go on that. And so it proves – I can descend at a good nick and we are again running as a trio through Troutbeck (great support here!) and climbing up to the path for Ambleside.
Keith leading the way through Troutbeck (pic:Ann Brown)

I mention something about the pace being close to that ten hour mark and after Dan makes a comment, have a go at running uphill – which I promptly regret since both Keith and Dan immediately head past me with more speed in their legs. Not to worry though, since the undulations and downhills towards Ambleside bring us all together, roused by Keith's recitation of Tam o’Shanter (he’s really quite good at it). He moves ahead as we pass the crowds and I faff with a drink, having decided that there’s no point in getting to a checkpoint with fluid still in the bottle.

The crowds are quite fantastic and provide a real high point of the day. Much cheering and clapping and I’m in a frame of mind to lap it all up, working the crowds with big hand gestures, which is a lot of fun. Big grins abound as this continues at the checkpoint, with the unexpected bonus of not having to clamber up the stairs and go inside this year.  I’m sorted out quickly and shout to Dan that I’m pressing on across the park. Again, big cup of tea in hand, plus a sarnie and again thinking that this is the wrong approach for the flat bit of tarmac here, where I should be running.  Keith has shot through here very efficiently and is out of sight already.

Up to Loughrigg and there is no running during most of this climb for me – I am still working on trying to keep my heart-rate even and not dig too deep on the ascents. This seems to be working and the descent to Skelwith Bridge feels that it is at a decent pace and we arrive here before I was expecting.

One of my race targets had been for the next couple of flat miles, with hopes of running these at a half-decent pace. Alas, this is not to be. I feel ponderously slow and although we close on runners ahead, I had hoped that this would be a little faster. Superb support from the crowd in the beer garden in Chapel Stile, then that nasty concrete path through the campsite (too hard on the feet after 40 miles) and, exactly the same as last year, I had to stop at the Portaloo just before the checkpoint marquee. A sorry six minutes was lost here, before even dibbing in, but Dan was later very sanguine about it – when you have to go, you have to go. I hope that would see me through to the end.

A hurried bowl of veg stew, a panic of my cup being missing from my bag (it’s on the table in front of me where I had just made a cup of tea – brain not thinking so clearly now, eh?) and then off for the final ten miles. And yet again, I walk to the next house to drink that cup of tea – maybe embracing the idea of having your own cup and “one for the road” a little too much. 

Things pick up through the Langdales and I push the pace along the trail, although the climb at the end of the valley, and the sneaky extra rise after crossing the road (remember that one?) are hard work now.  The technical trail is good for the concentration and I don’t care too much about getting wet feet as we head to the unmanned dibber point since we are now closing in the finish.

The road descent goes well, but the climb over the crazy, rocky path over to Tilberthwaite is tough, as might be expected after 44 miles. There is a lot of walking and lot of mental effort needed to break into a run on the flatter sections. I know that a ten hour finish went out of the window at the Chapel Stile checkpoint, but a PB is certainly on the cards, so it’s all to play for.  And there’s no doubt about finishing without needing to use a head-torch, which is a huge advantage.

The final checkpoint! I get real munchies at Tilberthwaite – four jam sandwiches (minus crust, seriously, that’s a step too far) are scoffed and I head off with the cup of tea, which is a good plan for the steep climb that follows (note to self for 2017). Three minutes exactly at the checkpoint had vanished in the blink of an eye – I used to be much better at checkpoint discipline, but have become overly relaxed these days.

The climb is good and I really enjoy it. I think it’s close enough to the end with that feeling of “this is the last climb!” so that there is no need to hold anything back anymore. I run everything I can and speed-walk the rest – it helps that there are no issues with cramp or blisters, etc. On the horizon ahead there are three or four runners and I use these targets to help me dig deep; the gap between us closes.

Dan had earlier suggested that he should maybe go a couple of minutes ahead of me on this final climb over the corner of Wetherlam but such thoughts had been forgotten. That was a real shame since disaster almost struck on the final mile and a half. With legs in good working order, I threw myself down that final descent, with a “on your left” here and an “on your right” there as I bounced past four other runners (plus a couple of L100, but with only words of awe and respect for them) like I’d been out for a short fell race. It was a real treat to be able to finish at such speed. Eight minute miles on the technical stuff, became seven minute miles on easier road down into Coniston.  And here’s the potential disaster – after our day out together, I had to dib in with Dan at the finish – it had to be together. Looking a hundred metres back up the road, he wasn’t in sight at all.

What a dilemma – what would I do if I got to the finish, with a PB time, and then stood around waiting for him? What if I’d just passed a bunch of other runners (race mode now engaged) and then stood at the finish waiting? What if he had had a fall behind me? And a whole bunch of others similar daft ideas in rapid succession.
Dan working very hard in Coniston (photo: Ann Brown)
In the end, it all worked out though, as the huge cheers from the crowds in Coniston hinted as I passed the main garage. Dan finished at an even more ridiculous pace than me once he’d hit the better road through Coniston and had sprinted flat out in order to catch up (I said he was fast). I arrived, a little panicked, at the finish line with worried shouts of needing two dibbers, not one, and he arrived a second or two later so we could finish together, 44 minutes after leaving Tilberthwaite. Anything else would have simply been wrong. What a fantastic way to end the day!
Stats: The Garmin says I spent 18 minutes not moving, so that needs improving

Going into the hall I was still buzzing and bouncing – 11 minutes quicker than last year was a bonus, on top of great company throughout the day. Keith had powered through the last sections and finished four minutes ahead of us for a huge PB. Pasta, ice-cream, lots of cheering and clapping for any finishing runners, a splash in the showers (why do they always flood?) and then a good night’s sleep – so much easier than what the 100 mile runners have to do.

All in all, a great weekend away, with a lovely bit of running in the middle of it. Huge thanks (again) to all those that made it happen.  I hope I wasn’t the only one with tears rolling down my cheeks during the closing presentation (Congrats and best wishes to Marc Laithwaite and Natasha!)

See you in 2017 to do it all again.

P.S. And if you haven't watched this yet, turn up the volume and be inspired: