“Did you do the 50 or the 100?” I was asked by the friendly volunteer in Coniston, the HQ of the Montane Lakeland 50/100 Mile Challenge. "I just did the 50,” I replied. “There’s no just in that,” he said, knowingly. As I learned yesterday, over the course of more than thirteen hours, fifty miles (80.5km) is a long way to go, no matter what you compare it against. When it involves 3000m of climb over five mountain passes, treacherous terrain at every twist and turn, and navigation at night-time, it is longer.
I am not sure what possessed me to believe that the Lakeland 50 would be in any way comparable to the Wicklow Way. Paul Tierney, who did us all proud with a joint third-place finish in the 100 miles, will be sure to agree. Apart from patches of good grass and tarmac, endless rocky ascents and descents featured strongest on the journey, and the final twist in the tail was particularly cruel: A marshy wet traverse in the dark over the Yewdale fells back into Coniston by an old miner’s road in worse condition than the traditional descent into the Glendalough miner’s village.
Nowhere on route did you catch even a glimpse of a fire-road and, apart from the early grassy path from the starting point in the Dalemain Estate in the Northern Lake District, continuous runnable paths that one may be tempted to term “lovely” stood out as a sore thumb, notably the relaxing picturesque pebble-trail along the Great Langdale Beck to the Chapel Stile checkpoint late on.
The organiser’s must be commended for really putting out all the stops for this event which was run as smoothly as a military operation (well most) by a huge volunteer/marshal brigade who just could not do enough for us at the various checkpoints en-route. I was glad to retain my civility and courtesy throughout as these people really deserved it.
John Ruskin School in Coniston had been turned into an Ultra-Running HQ with stations for everything from comprehensive kit checks to post-race weigh-ins with a booming ultra-tenting village cropped up next to it. Smartly, the organisers had ensured that the pre-race briefing on Saturday morning featured a certain Joss Naylor, almost assuring dutiful attendance.
While my chances of an interview were probably ruined when Aoife almost knocked the old fell-giant over by accident (he was unimpressed allegedly), I took plenty from seeing him in the flesh. The old shepherd cuts an impressive figure, towering above most everyone else despite a slight hunch in his back. His skin is still dark and leathery, despite having given up the farm, and he carries an aura of raw strength that would be the envy of any 74-year-old.
As our Wasdale landlord had told us earlier in the week: “aye, he’s a good lad Joss”. Clarity of mind and purpose was still there to see even if we couldn’t understand most of the talk. I did understand one line that stuck: “Today you're the luckiest people in the world, because you can be out in these fells on a day likes this.”
Out of Dalemain
What he referred to, apart from his beloved fells, was the almost freakish heat-wave lingering over the Lakelands this last week. This heat almost exacted a heavy price, however, as both the Lakeland 100 competitors suffered in the warm day and night Friday before we joined in (belatedly) at High Noon Saturday.
Again my expectations were disappointed when the expected 4 mile stroll around lovely estate tracks turned into hard toil through heavy grass, practically starting up a climb that would be the prize-possession of any proper cross-country course. Aoife, allowed to join me for this section, admitted this nearly killed her. Luckily, I felt somewhat better, the first few miles were hard on the calves, especially as I was caught behind hundreds of other competitors and with a strong urge to free myself from the masses had made a point of working myself further up front. The most runnable section was early on and I wanted to be able to take advantage of my strengths.
Leaving Dalemain behind, the underfoot improved as we produced fine splits on a gentle grassy path swiftly followed with some reasonable tarmac. Any hint of a steep climb and I employed the “walk early, walk often” routine oft trumpeted by experienced ultra-runners.
After the initial 6km in Dalemain, the next twelve came closest to the traditional racing I would be use to and recognise. The first modest climb quickly behind us, we had fast flats and descents on a trail contouring below Arthur’s Pike and Bonscale fell towards the first checkpoint at Howtown. I just let myself float the descents here but it felt like racing as I passed out many runners who in turn were often moving at fair pace. Hitting the checkpoint, the average pace was over 10kph or a eight hour finish. Yet, despite analysis, I did not truly appreciate what lay ahead.
The First Pass
One thing I did know: The next leg looked on paper to be the hardest (it wasn’t) with the greatest ascent as you follow a trail up through a re-entrant to the highest point on both the 50 and 100 miler: Kesgill Head at about 650m just below the peak of Wether Hill.
I climbed extremely well at this stage, gaining very serious ground and eventually hooking up with a strong local man, whom I learned was the owner of www.athletesinaction.co.uk . He did admit to have gone wrong coming off this pass where you have to leave the main track behind for a short bit to join up with another track running along the Haweswater to the next checkpoint at Mardale Head.
A bit too pleased with ourselves perhaps, thinking us in the top-30 at this point, and spurred on by a fast grassy descent, we went wrong again, overshooting the descent point and once we realised our mistake we decided to take the straight route down through the ferns. This proved a bit of a nightmare with slope, thistles, rocks, and nettles making for an altogether forgettable experience (and a lot of itching on my legs today). With 29km past, my leg got caught awkwardly in the rocky gully and I yelped as a bad cramp shot up through my left leg. I managed to trot it out and while I had serious worries of an early pull-out in the middle of nowhere, that particular calf didn’t complain again for the remainder of the event.
We had bigger worries: Our little detour had put us on the path a good 800m too far north and by the time we recouped the disadvantage we had plummeted through the field. Morale sagged as much as the levels in my water bottle. The sun burned ferociously and as I started to constantly stumble against rocks I knew that my salts were running low. I hit the first mental and physical dip of the day now, and just tried to focus on getting to Mardale Head, get food and refreshments and hopefully regroup myself.
With my recent nine weeks of injury problems and limited training, part of my felt I could be proud if I could just make it to the 54km point in Ambleside where Aoife would be. Once I had filled myself with salt-tanked tomato soup, two glasses of coke, and thickened my Orbana mixture with Diarolyte for heavier salt content (something I interestingly found preserved the flavour longer!), defeatist notions quickly perished and I joined up with a team of three Londoners for the long slog up to Gatescarth Pass. My earlier companion had moved on, I assume, to bigger and better things.
Most of the banter at this stage surrounded the Kentmere checkpoints, the best on route allegedly, with plenty of food, masseurs, shade and chairs! The combination of sun and eating meant I struggled with stomach cramps for the next two descents, having to resort to nose-breathing and trying to minimise my “bumpiness”. In either case, progress was measured with 511m climbing to do up rocky zig-zags before a long and testing descent on terrain reminiscent of the upper parts of Snowdon. We passed a Landrover parked alone in the middle of nowhere as the path improved which didn’t stop me asking: “Who’s got the keys?”
Apart from the car, the most dangerous encounter came from a sheep deciding to stand its ground and rake it’s hoofs at me. Reckoning that a head-butt to the hips from an upset yew would dampen my finishing chances, I stopped eyeballing the sheep and discreetly veered further away on the path. Clearly our local friend had had enough runners disturb it, turning even this docile animal into an aggressive threat.
My London compatriots left me for dead here before I returned the favour to a few other fellow travellers and after what felt like an awful long time, I arrived in Kentmere to be greeted by smiles, home-made smoothies, juice, and rice-pudding with jam. The real food proved a blessing as all the bars I had bought turned out to be dead-weight. I opened three different bars but with no saliva to speak off, I needed take only one bite before realising I had no choice than to return the unfinished bar to the ever stickier side-pockets of my backpack.
Apart from the Orbana drink, HI5 energy gels and a few salted cashew nuts were the only pieces of my pre-purchased foods that I could stomach and I relied increasingly on getting proper food at each checkpoint.
To my mind, Ambleside had been turned into the promised land. Get here and I had achieved my first major objective. Being 55km through and the largest town on the course, it seemed the place where you would know whether you’d make it or not. Little did I know that, in fact, it represented no such thing. It would have been the easiest place to drop-out but with easy roads leading out, only the most despairing would likely use this option.
To get there required me and my new co-traveller, a nameless runner in a red singlet with one (road) 50 miler to his name (in nine hours five minutes) pass over Garburn Pass. Officially the worst climbing was over. In reality, there was no easy climbing left.
Coming off the pass, a group of eight of us, including a man clad in Union Jack gear, showcased the art of effective descent-shuffling over rocky (!) path to gain some ground. Arriving on the final open fells in 8 to 9 hours still seemed a very real possibility and with it the advantage of not having to navigate the section by torchlight.
Myself and the runner in red were left behind by the group late on this descent (I should say that throughout the event, we found ourselves passing the brave 100 milers, easily spotted with their yellow numbers, as they patiently moving along their way) but paired up for the road section, fancying a chat navigated Robin Lane with great efficiency. More disappointment followed when parts of the expected easy run-in to Ambleside offered more concentration-sapping rocks.
As we entered the streets, all ills were forgotten for a while as we received a rapturous reception from the crowds in the street and another royal treatment in the Lake Runner’s Shop. I shuffled along well through the streets at this stage and Aoife cheered me on for a brief spell as we made our way further West. “The hardships are over,” I thought, “I’ll make it now, easy going from now on”.
Part 2 to follow…