I had the gift of familiarity with the tarmac path leading out of Ambleside as Aoife and I walked it often while BnBing in Rydal last year. The man in the red singlet and I had now joined up with a strong group, moving well over the short climb coming out of town. So strong that by the short time we hit Skelwith Bridge, only three of us were left. As a blessing one had a GPS which allowed two of us to switch off for a while and just follow. This perhaps proved precarious later.
We joined with the Cumbria Way now, the type of terrain I had been expecting to run for most of the day, fairly flat path through a gorgeous meadow with the pink fading light of the day emanating from the fells ahead of us. I began to set the pace as we put together one of our longest consecutive spells of running now yet with only three miles to the next village, and checkpoint, Chapel Stile, time dragged now. At 60km, for the first time, one of my niggles came to the surface when the irritation in my right first metatarsal made that foot very difficult to drag along for a while. Secondly, my right calf had been a in a state of semi-cramp since Ambleside.
After stopping in Chapel Stile for some more soup and a quick sit-down (and egging on by a pair of nice old ladies to “come back for the 100 next year”), I told my two travel companions that I’d walk up ahead a bit to ease the body back into it as they’d be sure to catch up soon. It dawned on my now that a final surge seemed unlikely and my climbing legs were largely gone.
We joined up again making our way through a large campsite. Our GPS navigator explained that the next section to Tilberthwaite would be a killer with a long contouring section around Lingmoor Fell and a very steep climb to Blea Tarn before another bout of fell-contouring. Only there, he said, could you really be sure to finish.
Things take a turn for the worse
“Don’t lose him before the two last fells, whatever you do,” I had promised myself about our GPS navigator. Having him there would nullify the disadvantage of having to cross two more sections of open fell at night-time. Sadly, my earlier resurgence came with a cost and I eventually lost contact at a crucial time.
Failing to switch my head back on in time, I first found myself drawn too far off the fell-side track and all the way down to main Langdale Road. The setting here was bizarre: A female singer and guitarist sounded out the whole valley from the New Dungeon Ghyll hotel which lit up the dark night lighthouse and I remember hearing at least seven songs as I bumbled about losing another good kilometre getting lost. Head torches on the fell-side snapped me out of it but even my correction proved wrong as I wondered into a farmer’s field, closed to all sides by a tall stone wall. My light drew in another competitor and together we scaled over the wall to get the quickest way back to the mountain path. Some soft going followed until we could start the climb. Here again, I fell behind my new friend, and my poorest climb of the day followed. I stumbled around and could barely move properly against the punishing incline.
Hitting some tarmac, I got distracted by a man in a jeep and oriented myself two squares too far south on the map. This led me to run down the tarmac road and I lost about a mile once I realised I had gone wrong and could see more ghostly lights. They looked depressingly far away but I didn’t dare take a shortcut and strangely found a second wind, determined to work myself back to where I had left off. Sensing my predicament two friendly competitors emerged with an offer to follow them for a while. Three became many as we joined with more and more groups trying to make their way across often sloppy and indistinct paths.
When Tilberthwaite finally became apparently, I started to run again. No checkpoint had felt this far away and as elusive. It just went on and on and I was lucky to snap out of my increasing depression of losing further ground between here and home by my mistakes. Luckier to have made no worse mistakes.
The checkpoint itself was Spartan in food yet the most spectacular with a torch at the foot of the last climb of the day and a set of blue lights leading you up the first parts. Any remaining competitiveness had long been exorcised from the majority of competitors here. Our group, now up to ten strong, dutifully waited until everyone felt set to proceed and our guide led the way. I tugged in behind him, positively surprised to be climbing as fast as everyone else now and even able to get up on my toes without the expected cramping although I employed this sparingly. I felt I learned a whole new rule-book of energy-efficient movement patterns and rarely took my hands to my knees going up (if at all) because I knew this would bring the quadriceps and hamstring into play rather than the stronger glutes.
Lost in the marshes
Throughout the day, competitors warned me about the final section: On paper it is only 5km but the first 3km is a dreary uphill drag with a section through marshland followed by a very messy descent on what is practically scree before you can enjoy an easy tarmac finish into Coniston’s dark streets.
Our guide led us to a major waypoint at the marshes prime river but from here on our now huge group were swallowed up by the marshes by a simple error despite a team with local knowledge, plentiful maps and road-books, basic Garmin GPS and my basic heading readings from the 310XT. One small error led to more and we wandered the best part of half an hour through thick wet grass in the dark. You could say I have a history of navigational errors, and when not, hooking up with poor navigators, but I was lucky to be with this group as I was out of my depth doing night navigation in a marshland on open fell-side.
Eventually we dug out the long-hidden path and could start thinking off moving towards the finish again. We’d lost another bit of ground here and I would end up running close to 85km on the day rather than the expected 80km.
Once the rocky descent started, my patience stretched to its limits. Both I and many others could be heard stumbling clumsily against rocks and one 100 mile competitors astounded us by pelting past our merry band of 50 milers as if he carried the lesser load in his legs. Certainly he carried the greater skill. Seeing the Garmin split flash “Lap 83” was both bizarre and a depressing reminder that I could have had my feet up by now!
Finally, finally, it relented and the path turned from scree to mainly rocky. I started running. I wanted to go home now. So I ran some more and kept hoping to see the beginning of the tarmac road into Coniston. When it came, I ran harder and passed out two runners. My breathing almost felt anaerobic now but I kept shuffling, even the short uphill over the bridge and then past the petrol station and down to the left. Applause started to lift from the dark streets were family and supporters had been patiently waiting with the scores of volunteers all day (and would be throughout the night).
Finish line: And one final dip of the dipper. A man practically escorts you from here to the main hall were all finished competitors hang out and eat, as you walk in you are met with rapturous applause from people that started out as competitors but settle in your mind merely as a brotherhood during the traverse. It’s an emotional moment, but instead of the expected jubilation and emotional outburst, what I felt walking those steps could more be described as a quiet, contented pride.
Some quick stats: 471 set out on the Lakeland 50 Mile and I finished 79th having been 23rd at Howtown, then dropping to 40th because of my first detour by Mardale. I held this position, losing a few, dropping a few until Kentmere. I was 46th by Ambleside and feeling strong which helped me to 44th by Chapel Stile. Taking our time and increasing tiredness dropped me quickly and the navigational errors on top meant I reached Tilberthwaite in 63rd after a desperate 2:37 split for the 12km.
Our long wanderings of the marshes lost me another 16 spots despite me passing out a good few runners in the end. Verdict: Without errors I would have probably have nailed a top-50 but I’m pleased with the result.
The last long while was not an athletic contest in the way I know and recognise it, but that did not detract, it merely gave birth to a different sense of achievement. To keep saying yes, when everything, and perhaps the majority of people, would say no, gives you a lot. To learn entire new horizons of fatigue, which should, if the mind and body does not forget as easily as it is want, redefine what leaving a training run tired should feel like, is an experience you cannot put a price on. To have left the 2011 season, which seemed gone into the dregs by injury, with something as tangible as completing a very hard ultra-run and join the ranks of those who call themselves ultra-runners, if only as a novice, provides reward for all the winter training.
But neither of these reasons were the root of the greatest satisfaction: It was much simpler – to do something you have set out to do. To say you’ll do something and then not quit on it. I think that is a character trait most of us would like to associate to ourselves. I know I do. I left yesterday evening with a greater sense that I will do what I set out to do, even when seems very difficult at the time and when many obstacles, most unexpected, are put in my way. When I sat down and gorged myself on lasagne, apple-crumble (with jugs of cream) and luscious tea, it was this quiet satisfaction that loomed around the entire room as more and more competitors were clapped in by the crowds. This was the extent of it, as Aoife said to me, surprised: “It seems to attract a different type, there’s less fuzzing by supporters and finishers than those completing the mini-marathon. People think the marathon is such a big thing, and then there’s all sorts out here, quietly doing something like this.”
Before I could relax with my post-midnight meal, however, I had to walk in for the obligatory weighing. The scales showed I had lost 3 kilos which the volunteer deemed to be “pretty good”. I agree but have a feeling it will return! I took advantage of a light massage after although little did it help as I almost didn’t sleep a wink. Small cramps and electric charges pulsated through feet, calves, and hips the entire night no matter what position I tried to adopt. Still today, I am surprisingly fresh and clear-minded (by my own standards), so I await the inevitable dip in energy levels.
My walking is comical to say the least, I struggle even with the simplest of movements such as standing up and stepping out of bed. I have to pull myself up stairs by the side-railings and Aoife supports my going up inclines. While normally I wouldn’t post this language on the blog, I think my colleague Marco will be satisfied when he sees me next week for he predicted that I’d be walking like I had “been gang-raped by bears”. (I think the bears come into it because of the mountainous terrain).
A few ice-cold baths have sorted me out somewhat so we’ll see how the body fields after two weeks of rest now before the autumn season.
Next up ultra-learning…