Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Lakeland 50 - The Orange One

Orange all the way
Hats off to Marc Laithwaite and his team - the 2018 Lakeland 50/100 event was another truly epic weekend of running, weather and orange. Any Dutch meteorologists visiting Coniston on Sunday would have been impressed.

I'm turning into something of a frequent flyer at this event: this was my fifth year in row in Coniston and it didn't disappoint. It was also a different experience to the previous events from my point of view and I'll have a go at explaining how in this blog. 

If you're in a hurry, or the boss/partner/kids is/are on the prowl, the synopsis (spoiler alert) is that I jogged 40 miles through the Lake District following a nasty injury last winter, then was able to push a bit for the final ten miles, nailed a solid PW (and was more than happy with that) and got a shiny medal and T-shirt at the end. 

As anyone who was there will tell you, that barely scratches the surface of what really happened over the weekend, so here's some thoughts with a little extra detail, maybe something to read over while the race is still fresh in your mind, or to add to your collective race-info-gathering if you're contemplating this one in the future.

Back to before the start

This is the preamble bit before getting to Coniston for the weekend. Feel free to skip ahead or make use of your speed-reading skills here. The end of January featured winter snow in Scotland (home), which quickly melted shortly after in readiness for a bit of proper winter weather (a.k.a. "Beast from the East") in February. Whilst running through big puddle of meltwater on a trail on an idle Tuesday afternoon my legs went in opposite directions due to some hidden ice submerged just out of site. I knew it was bad straight away and even heard the crack as I went over on my ankle.

That canned the weekend's big race (a new, local 8 hour race) and pretty much the whole season. The mileage plummeted to zero for some weeks and as soon as any sort of recovery looked possible the ankle swelled up again. Finally, in April, I spent time with a physio (note to self: don't wait next time) and explained that I was wanting to run the Highland Fling at the end of April (53 miles, and the best race in Scotland). The time it took didn't matter this year, I just wanted a chance of getting to the start line. It worked, with an acceptance that it would delay my recovery for 2018, and I did the physio exercises religiously for a few weeks. Hence my fairly insane mileage record for early 2018: 

Don't try this at home kids - not the usual race prep mileage for a 50 mile race (from fetcheveryone.com)
Looking at the training miles for May and June doesn't inspire much confidence either does it? In my defense, I should say that I have run 40 ultras over the past 8 years, including the Lakeland 100, so hope you will forgive my pitching up for the Lakeland 50 with so little training. Add to that the effect that the lack of training had on my already larger-than-the-average-runner frame and I was over a stone heavier than I had previously been (which is, apparently, worth an extra 25 minutes in race terms, going with the accepted  two seconds per pound per mile). 

It goes without saying that I was not looking at beating any of my previous Lakeland 50 times. For the record, these were all a bit over ten hours and had been steadily improving over the past three years with the huge advantage of finishing before it gets dark and so without needing a headtorch, a huge asset on that final descent into Coniston if you are lucky enough to get there in time.  No, the mission this time was to focus on enjoying the experience, walk anything uphill, and look after the recovering left ankle with every step.

Lakeland weekend arrives

I'd agreed to give a lift down to Coniston to friends Iain and Vikki Shanks. They had to drive all the way from Stonehaven (near Aberdeen) and were planning on being out all night so would be tired for the return drive. I fancied some company for the drive and they're great people so I was more than happy to be driver, especially since I was planning to drive down anyway. Poor Iain had to work on the Friday morning, so it was approaching the L100 start time when we eventually got to Coniston. 

Unfortunately, we missed the L100 start but did get to hear a bit of Nessun Dorma from a distance and ended up pitching in the more distant (and huge!) camping field. After lots of care in recent years about only allowing small tents in the main field, this now looked pretty chaotic with many enormous tents scattered between the cars; maybe it's time to make another push for only competitors with small tents for the main field. 

We had a fascinating chat to a runner who looked in really good shape as we put our tents up. He was doing the event for the first time, was a strong sub-three-hour marathoner and asked for advice from me after Vikki said that I'd done it for the previous few years. I was about to suggest the usual first-timer advice of walking each hill, not working hard until somewhere beyond half-way and trying to enjoy the experience, until he said that he was looking for a sub-9 hour time and targeting the MSV category. Hoping that he knew what that would mean, I added that he'd have to run pretty much every uphill in order to produce that sort of time and wished him luck with his pre-race drinking regime... we wondered how that would pan out as we exchanged incredulous glances after he headed off. But you never know - fortune favours the brave after all.

Everyone else had the same idea about registering around 6:30pm and there was a huge queue snaking out of the marque and off towards the main school building, so after a nice chat with Flip, we headed off into town in the warm evening air for a pint or two and a good feed at the Black Bull.

Beside the extensive registration queue - me, Flip and Vikki (photo: Iain Shanks)

Dinner was great and we crowded round a table with an old friend (plus her husband) of Vikki's  and were joined by Keith Ainslie (with whom I ran quite a bit of the 2016 race) and Gillian. Weather great, company superb and a lovely evening, made even better by a chance meeting with David Mould who was as charming and positive as ever (he was marshaling all weekend this year).

Back at the race marquee and there was no queue at all at 9pm, so we quickly registered (it helps to just empty it all out on the table and read the marshals' list so you can just show everything on cue). David was at the weight watchers' scales and then the third wrist band was added with the timing device. I've always put a buff on this before to stop it flapping around during the race (and to cover the bright pink thing with a worrying "92.3" written on it since I wouldn't want anyone to see that!) but didn't bother this year and it was just fine.

A pretty good night's sleep in the tent and an instant breakfast of useless things like a couple of almond croissants (serious athlete food here) and a pot of custard slurped and eaten with a finger since Iain had pinched my spoon for his porridge (oi!) and then we headed off nice and early for the race briefing.  That was a bit of a fail since it wasn't in the marquee this year but back inside the school hall and by the time I worked this out the place was mobbed and we had to hang around outside the main hall, at the back (no wonder it was so quiet in the marquee).  Not a big deal and Marc and Terry gave a thorough and excellent briefing about the race.

I was all for getting on the first bus and getting up to Dalemain with time to spare and this worked out well, except for being on a nightmare bus with three seats on one side of aisle. It's a sad fact that those seats might be great for small children but were impossibly small for me. Never mind.

After an hour of chatting with Iain and Vikki about all sorts, whilst trying to look out of the windows on the particularly bumpy bits, we got to a peaceful Dalemain, which seemed to have more cars than I can ever remember seeing before, a reflection on the success and popularity of the event.

After the usual waiting and chatting, filled with much cheering of the amazing 100 runners, we dibbed into the start pen and waited nervously. About five minutes before the start I left Vikki and Iain at the back of the pen and headed about a third of the way down the field, which felt about right for the slow(ish) start I wanted to make.

All smiles at zero miles (photo: David Mould)

As usual, almost everyone went off too fast. Apart from the eight or nine hour runners at the front and those walking wisely at the back that is. I moved to the right of the field and tried to walk, with a bit of jogging when there was space. I walked every bit of uphill around Dalemain and tried to soak up the atmosphere, loving the mass of other runners spreading out in front and behind; the sun was shining, it was pretty warm and everything was good.

After the first descent there was a bit of a queue at a gate/stile which was held shut with a bit of string - there were no marshals at all around Dalemain (apart from the main checkpoint itself of course) which was a bit odd, since several minutes stuck at a gate within the first mile was a bit frustrating.  The downhill was fun and there was now plenty of space to move so I relaxed and tried a zero-effort bit of running.

Excellent marshals helped us across the road and I was worried about not having put any sun-cream on my arms as trotted along by the river towards Pooley Bridge (not to be a concern later on as the weather turned) but glad that I'd bothered to apply factor back in the grey gloom of Coniston in the tent much earlier.

Keith and Gillian were in Pooley Bridge and it was lovely to get a shout from them - little bits of support like this are such a good mental boost. On the climb out of Pooley Bridge I was careful to run slowly without effort when I wanted to and just walk if I felt like it; it's an approach that makes the whole thing a lot more fun. Easy running across the top (rain squalls! jacket on!) and the long descending traverse towards Howtown and checkpoint one for the 50 mile runners followed. I felt that I might be a good twenty minutes slower than last year to here and was amazed to be only five minutes slower, despite all my efforts to chill out and take my time. And best of all the dodgy ankle was feeling ok.

Rain above Ullswater - looking all serious for once
Instead of eating much at the checkpoint, I filled a small plastic bag with a few bits and pieces. Much better to munch this on the climb after the checkpoint instead of all at once whilst not moving. This strategy worked pretty well for every checkpoint - there's so many climbs that you will always find one soon after a checkpoint. The marshals were as wonderful as ever and helped with filling bottles and pointing out more food.

A quick exit and then a nice climb to walk up and eat a very random mixture of food. It turns out that flapjack and dorritos mixed with jelly babies are a perfect combination after 12 miles. Who'd have thought it? 

Fusedale was so much easier than I remembered it from previous years. Simply taking the foot off the gas a tiny bit and not stressing at all about walking any steeper bits made such a difference. The trick is remember that you're not racing anyone at this point - you're all just sharing the trail and the journey. By the end of it all someone will finish ahead or behind someone else, but that's not a concern after only a couple of hours.  "The race is long and, int he end, it's only with yourself."

There was a bit of weather after the 2,000ft climb. My right side felt distinctly chilled when the gales and hail hit and I was pleased to drop down to Haweswater for some shelter. Luckily, the wind (south-westerly all day long, almost always straight at us) drove the clouds through and it did stop raining for the section to Mardale Head.

Gotta love a bit of psychedelic colour for an elevation graph! Bonus points if you can name each climb.
This is one of the flatter sections (although it's not flat) of the route and it comes before glycogen depletion and that sort of stuff, so I bounced merrily along here, passing our neighbour from the campsite who had now found out that this was a bit tougher than a road marathon and that he wasn't going to manage to average ten minute miles after all. Glad that he finished and hope he'll get some more trail miles in his legs to have another go next year.

The Mardale Head checkpoint arrived at almost 20 miles and I did spend a bit of time here, having a jam sandwich or two and a nice cup of tea. And then it was off up the long Gatescarth pass, probably my least favourite bit of the whole route. It does just go on and on and on. Anyone that doesn't realise beforehand that it has two halves will be in for a huge surprise when they get to the "top" and find out that that was only half-way up and it gets even steeper in the upper section. 

Again, I chilled out and lost quite a few places to those with more energy or more bounce and didn't worry myself about that. Still too early in the journey for such things. The descent down the other side is a sting in the tail too - much too steep for any "free-wheeling" as far as that goes for runners. For me this was about stepping carefully and nursing the left ankle, trying to take any bigger drops with the right foot and avoid wobbly rocks with their risk of twisting the ankle in a nasty way.

The upper section of the Gatescarth Path (photo credit: Rosanna Kuit)
For the L50 runners this is the only section with two separate climbs between checkpoints and that makes it, in my book, one of the tougher sections. Add to that the heavens opening with a serious hailstorm towards the bottom of Longsleddale and the next checkpoint at Kentmere felt just a bit too distant.

On the bright side, I got a chance to run with Andy Bristow on this descent. Four years earlier I had shared a bit of the first night of the L100 with him (leaving Buttermere at midnight in a heatwave and navigating carefully above Sail Beck) and then all of the second night when I couldn't get my legs working after Kentmere and having a long slow death-march through the second night (11 hours for 23 miles with not one step run). Sharing a journey like that with someone makes a lasting impression and I was delighted to be able to share some of his journey this year. He finished around 30 hours which is a fantastic achievement.

I learnt about pasture clipping on the climb over to Kentmere (thanks Liz, who said she was a farmer's daughter) and then relaxed on the descent down the other side which is at a lovely gradient for good running. Along the tarmac and over the ginormous stone steps, three times over, to get to the checkpoint.

Now portaloos shouldn't get a full paragraph of their own, but a quick visit before the Kentmere checkpoint was on the cards. It's a stressful thing being inside that plastic box hearing the cheers as seemingly dozens of runners head past you and into the checkpoint. Maybe it's the mind playing tricks after all that continuous motion and then the sudden stop that follows since it was probably only half a dozen runners heading past.

Mountain Fuel did a wonderful job here and the double refill of my bottles was much appreciated. Again, a small bag was filled with a couple of biscuits, a few crisps and (best of all by a million miles) a few grapes. Oh! these were just the best. I did pause for a small bowl of pasta and another cup of tea, which gave a chance to catch up with Neil MacNicol who was doing the L100 as a gentle recovery from surgery (he was a top ten finisher a couple of years ago - a true race champion and a gentleman).

That was the warm-up done, 27 miles in, now in the right valley system in case things go wrong and a taxi for Coniston is needed. Don't take that the wrong way, but those first 27 miles should be seen as merely a warm-up for what's coming along next; it has to be that way if you pace this thing right. And I just mentioned how tough those final 23 miles can be if things go wrong.

The climb out of Kentmere is the final really big climb. Well, maybe the 900ft ascent from Tilberthwaite could me worth a mention, but that ascent is so close to the end and comes in two distinct sections that I don't think it compares in the same way. The top of the Garburn pass gets a bit too steep for my liking but before I think anything negative about it I'd better say how wonderful the descent on the other side is - a good surface underfoot and a perfect gradient.

Troutbeck had some good supporters and the section to Ambleside was a bit lonely for me, with only two speedy L50 runners bouncing past me here but otherwise I didn't see any other runners. That was more than made up for in Ambleside where the support was simply magical. Both in the streets where I must have hit happy hour and also the checkpoint which was full of lots of amazing friends - hugs all round!  Flip even took a picture of me at the banquet.

Ambleside was indeed the Greatest Show (Photo: Phil Owen)

A look at that picture makes me feel that it's time for some words on kit (non-runners skip ahead to the next paragraph).  I had finally got round to getting a Montane Jaws running vest (I'm a sucker for a 50% off bargain) which performed very well except for some of the stitching pulling through and rear bungee clip snapping off. Not great for a first-time use in a race and I'll hope it's a one-off and try to get it replaced.  The two soft bottles were great - no more hard bottle ever again. The Skins shorts are an anti-chaffing device, the shin guards just make sense to reduce calf muscle bounce (the jury's out on that one based on anecdotal evidence) and the jacket is a Montane Minimus (fairly effective but delaminating after monly a couple of years of infrequent use; might need to speak to their customer support about that too). The old Garmin 310XT did a great job of getting through 12 hours with 25% charge still remaining.

Another wee bag of nibbles taken and scoffed on the climb up Loughrigg where I quickly warmed up and needed to remove the jacket. As usual I lost a couple of places on the climb (resolutely dialling my pace and sticking to it) but then took these back on the descent where I tend to go much faster. That descent to Elterwater, almost surprisingly, is where my race went from good to even better. I felt great, well-fueled, body coping well, especially the ankle which was just a wee big of a niggle but nothing more. I was in a genuinely happy place, despite the inevitable aches and pains of the previous 37 miles.

Along the flat path towards the Langdale valley I caught up with a good friend Tony, running his fifth L100, with another local runner Graeme Reid. A good chat was well worth slowing down for and I walked with them for a while but they alternated this with some seriously speedy running at a pace that I was more than happy with. As we approached the village, a runner overtook us and I used this as cue to head off and leave them to finish (which they did in 29:30 - more legends). I was still in a good place and chatted to Honor as we headed through the almost deserted Elterwater where the rain had driven people inside - a shame because the pub normally gives great support. Honor was running really well (and climbing fast too) but she said that her longest race was 40 miles until today, so this was now pushing her limits (she got to the checkpoint before me though!)

There's one thing that has to be said about the Chapel Stile checkpoint and it is the brownies. Wow, just wow. Thank you so much to whoever made these and cut them into perfect sized chunks. The lumps of white chocolate in them were simply the best ever. The orange segments were also right up there too and I took a few sweets, crisps and another couple of brownies to eat at the end of the valley (the next climb after the checkpoint, making this pretty much the only checkpoint not followed immediately by a big climb).

There's a really nasty rocky bit of path a little after Chapel Stile where it's awkward no matter which way you go but it doesn't last for too long. A quick descent on good steps was followed by those huge slippery wooden stiles. I was feeling good (still), moving well and overtaking others here (a mixture of L100 and L50 runners). Quite a few of the L50 runners were those that I recognised from much earlier in the day. The decent to Blea Moss was great fun - having that tiny extra bit of bounce to move round the boulders and step/jump over rocks makes such a difference at this stage.

Previously, I've always suffered on the climb from the bottom of the Wrynose pass over to Langdale. This year was different. Since the ankle seemed to be holding up (still barely a niggle rather than searing white-hot pain with every step) I ran pretty much the whole section and speed-hiked the really steep bits such as where the path turns into a rocky cliff in places. The descent was easy than expected (there really is something to pacing it easy early in the day) and Tilberthwaite was soon approaching fast. I'd been starting to get a bit a bit competitive on this section (mostly with myself) and had set my sights on beating 11 hours, which was about the best sort of time that I had contemplated. I was just ahead of 10 hours at the checkpoint so had an hour to play with for the 3.5 miles ahead (oh, and the 900ft of ascent...)

Water and a bit of banana from the lovely marshals and I was heading off up those steep, steep steps... at a snail's pace. I had a huge worry about my legs cramping up, which has happened a couple of times before in races with steps, where my inner quads cramp horribly, leaving me unable to move either or down. Very painful and not nice, plus a disaster in terms of any race aspirations.  

The climb therefore had a very steady start to it, the rocky bit was fun and then the path flattened before I was expecting, so I ran again with a yellow t-shirted runner up ahead as a target to aim for. As I rounded the corner onto the high section of this final leg, I got my headtorch out and put away the jacket - it was a bit windy but I was moving fast enough to balance this. 

The climb up to 1400ft involved reeling four L100 runners who were all hiking at a phenomenal speed - so impressive, and I tried to tell them as much. As the wind got even stronger the ground finally flattened out and I put the headtorch on at last for the final descent.  I've not had to do this bit in the dark before, either being early on the Sunday morning after 104 miles, or just beating the evening twilight, so was a bit more careful for the upper section, but was grateful that my legs let me plummet at a reasonable speed.  I love the way the underfoot conditions just get better and better all the way down and let myself speed up all the way to the village.

There was wonderful support in the centre of Coniston (bonus shout from Dave and Alix - thanks!) and everything was good - this was one of those moments to treasure, when a plan comes together (A-team quote needed, please add the voice).  As an added bonus, another friend, Gavin, was at the finish line and I appreciated him heading over for few words (thanks Gavin!)

The obligatory numbers
What happened next - After the Race

The finish area was magic and that entrance into the marquee is a genuine bit of magic of the event, added to by Keith and Gillian being right there as I went in, and Vicky Hart being there too (husband Paul had finished some time earlier).  The finish area was poetry - a gem of a race production line. Cheers and whoops were followed by a medal, then a surprise finisher picture (nice touch), timing dibber removal, t-shirt presentation and then a massage.

I had a bit of a debate about an immediate massage, but knew it was worth it a.s.a.p. and the guys there were fine with runners not having showered (I did ask several times). Since no-one else was getting a massage, I had a good twenty minute pummeling, which I'm sure did help lots (since I could walk normally the next day, that's a yes to it helping lots).

A dinner of lovely veg chilli followed (getting a bit cold now) and chance meeting with Howard (he's very fast, but had just been out for a 27 mile run today instead of doing the race). A stroll to the tent to collect things for the shower (so glad that I'd bothered to get this ready beforehand - towel, soap, beer, crocs, etc.) and I was lucky enough that there was no queue. Someone next door had a torrid time with their shower (language!) but mine was fine and did the job it was meant to.

A good sleep, despite being woken by torrential rain at 4am, and noisy neighbours who forgot that there might be others sleeping in tents in the middle of the night, but no real complaints. After all, I was clean and in a comfy sleeping bag rather than still out there...

Iain and Vikki finish! (photo: Vicky Hart)
I was very relieved to be there when Iain and Vicki finished around 9am (thanks for the heads up Donna!) since their tracker had not recorded at the final checkpoint (it did appear later on though). They were, of course, a wee bit tired - Vikki made perfect used of the word "zombiefied" to describe it.  I was able to help out by looking after them and taking down their tent and bringing kit/towels for them.  What they did is so, so much more difficult than running this in a day and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone undertaken this sort of thing knowing that they will be out there for so long. Well done guys!

After a zombified version of getting sorted (i.e. just taking plenty of time for everything), we headed to the final presentation event nice and early having learnt from the race registration error, so we were at the front of the queue. Just as well since the place ended up being absolutely packed.

Presentation event, before it got super busy (photo: David Mould)
I'm so glad that we went to this. Marc was as brilliant as ever and his huge efforts to make the entire event and this final piece of it run so smoothly were admired and appreciated. It was a great way to close the event. There was even another (biennial) video of the event - it's pretty inspirational if you've not seen it yet. I have a doppelganger who ran the L100 (see 21 seconds in) anyone know who this is? A bit spooky that there is such a likeness.

And that was pretty much it. Another great Lakeland event and more lessons learnt in terms of race pace and approach and injury recovery. See you all next July!

The Orange One


  1. Nice report, totally agreed on the brownies filled with white chocolate, they were amazing! However, the rocky but right after that was my favourite bit :-)

    1. Thanks Cees and well done on your awesome race - some really eye-watering splits from you. Hope you enjoyed the day out at the sharp end as well as nailing such a great performance.

  2. Great report Andy and congratulations on your race. Very impressive given the build up!