Well, the dust has settled on the weekend, and I’m just about over my post-Lakeland blues. I thought I’d try to see how much of the race I could actually remember, and also document my enormous gratitude to Lily, Alex, Ian and Nelson, who came up to the Lakes to support me. First up, this is hands down the most amazing race I’ve ever been involved with. I didn’t think I’d be saying that so soon after Boston, but even if it’s a bit like comparing apples with pears, Lakeland is incredible. I’ll apologise now for the length of this race report – I can’t help recounting it all in ridiculous detail.
Race weekend proper started at kit check on Friday morning when I erroneously drove into the camping field to register. It transpired that there wasn’t really a way back out, and I was wondering if I’d just have to beg a spot in a tent, but a very kind and totally unflappable marshal let me park up while I went to get checked. Even though this was only ultra number two, I felt so much better about my kit than at Lakeland Trails last year (55k, my first ultra) – I didn’t realise then that I didn’t need to actually pack all my kit into my vest for kit check, so took an age pulling it all out and stuffing it back in, and I totally didn’t appreciate the importance of packing light. This time, with the aid of a washing up bowl borrowed from my AirBnB (thanks, Brenda!) and a much more considered approach to kit choices (no full-on orange bivvy bag for me this time!) I made it through easily, and proceeded on to get multiple different wristbands, trackers and tags attached. The photo below caused more than one person to think that I’d DNF-d and was in the hospital with a cannula. Sorry for the false alarm, folks.
I then spent Friday doing as much sitting down as possible, and so took the crew on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway and on the steamer up to Bowness. Highly recommended as a soothing pre-race activity – I managed at times to distract myself from the nerves, and hopefully I didn’t drive everyone bonkers overthinking everything six million times. My worries showed most in the number of times I asked someone to go over the compulsory kit list with me again to check that I really did have everything. We did all get much enjoyment from the dry humour evident throughout Lakeland’s list. I particularly enjoy the requirement for my foil blanket to be bigger than that which would roast a small mouse. I have to confess that at this point I was starting to feel a bit of a muppet. I really didn’t know whether I’d bitten off far more than I could chew in entering one of the most prestigious ultras in the UK, and one in which I knew I’d be covering some reasonably technical descent (not my strength, more on that to come!) and spending several hours in the dark. I was scared that I’d hold everyone up, get lost, panic in the dark, and generally be a nuisance to all of the ‘real’ ultra runners. Here’s me pretending I’m fine.
On Saturday morning, Alex drove me to Coniston for a very relaxed feeling time of 8am, and I headed into briefing, having chosen to do this on Saturday morning rather than Friday night. I wasn’t expecting the stand-up comedy that ensued (although of course with a very serious race safety section included!) and it did a lot to make me feel more relaxed. I particularly liked the North vs South shout-off, and was happy to discover that when the question is put, despite fifteen years now in Oxford and London, I still proudly identify as a Northerner!
We then jumped on a fleet of coaches, and set off for Dalemain. I should explain, for those not familiar with the race, that the Lakeland 100 is a full loop race starting and ending in Coniston (it had set off at 6pm the previous evening), and so the 50 runners are driven to the north end of the course to complete approximately the latter half of it. On arrival, I found myself in an extremely long (even by normal race standards) portaloo queue with a group of very cheerful ladies. We collectively looked around at the large number of men relieving themselves into trees, bushes, long grass and assorted agricultural machinery, and decided en masse to go and squat behind the row of loos. I love what a bonding experience a collective wee can be! Wishing good luck to my new wee friends, I headed off to find my support crew by the start.
Ian was later complimented by a marshal on being the best-dressed spectator he’d seen all day.
With superb Lake District timing, the heavens (which had been threatening to descend all morning) finally opened pretty much simultaneously with the start. I’d optimistically put my waterproof away just before going into the start pen, so it was annoyingly anticlimactic to have to stop 400m in to the race to take my vest off to get it out. The whole of the first 4 miles was quite underwhelming – the course takes a loop around the Dalemain estate to make up the distance to the full 50 miles, and as someone else described it, felt like ‘a bit of a crap, crowded parkrun’. When we finally left the estate and set off towards Pooley Bridge, things started to spread out, and I felt like I’d finally started the race.
My main aim for the first section was not to get over-excited and go off like a rocket – I knew that the first few miles would be either flattish or on good surface, and didn’t want to waste a load of energy. Most of the first few kms started with a 6, so I was happy with that. Although Pooley Bridge isn’t an actual check point, it was the first time I saw my support crew again, and was also packed with other supporters. You can see I’m pretty happy to see them all!
I ran past thinking how strange it was that I wouldn’t see them again until 8 or 9pm that evening, as the next point they were allowed to spectate was Ambleside.
We then headed up onto the Ullswater way to Howtown, the first check point. I was confident on this section – I’d covered it twice in recce, and knew that there were no nasty surprises in terrain or navigation. I always prefer to keep running on gentler slopes, as I find it easier on my legs than walking, and so I overtook quite a lot of people on the small ascent onto the fell. Once up there I found to my delight that I was happier on the rough, rocky surface than ever before. Fear of falling has been my biggest demon in fell running, and I really enjoyed the race adrenaline helping me to cover the terrain much more confidently than in the past, including as we started to descend into the check point at the Bobbin Mill. I did keep in the back of my mind that there would be much, much trickier ground to cover later in the race, and so tried not to get over-confident. The checkpoint was pretty crowded, and I hadn’t used much of the water from my flasks, so I just had a couple of speed cups and took a packet of crisps for the climb up Fusedale.
By this point, I’d already begun my metronomic fuelling strategy, which is to take on roughly 100 calories every half hour. It’s difficult to remember, but I think I’d started with a couple of quarters of peanut butter and jelly bagel, which I wrap individually in tin foil. The crisps were calling to me, so I took that as a sign I could do with a tad more salt – I find that what my body wants is usually a good indicator of what I need, and this hasn’t seen me wrong yet. I took it steady on the climb, which is the longest of the whole course. It’s also deceptive – the first time I recce’d it I only got half way up before I had to sprint back down to catch a lake steamer, and I had no idea that there was a similar elevation still to come! This was the first point that I was really grateful to my past self for having been diligent in my recce runs – the route up to the top of the fell and across down towards Haweswater is not obvious, and although the runners were still very close together at this stage, knowing that I was following the correct route rather than just the person in front felt really good.
I was nervous again as we came off the top of High and Low Kop – on my recce I had made the mistake of thinking that the path along Haweswater to the Mardale Head checkpoint would be a nice, easy lakeshore stroll. In fact, it’s a rocky, muddy, off-camber single track along the fellside. By the time we reached the initial descent, the still-falling rain and the volume of runners already through had turned the path into a mud-based slip’n’slide. This would normally be my worst nightmare (fear of slipping, fear of falling), but I was still flying high on adrenaline and my newly-improved descending skills, and just went skidding down. This gained me a bit of space on the trickier lake path, and it was quite a way before I heard runners coming up behind me, and called back to ask if they’d like to pass. We were also passing plenty of 100 runners by this stage – it was inspiring seeing them moving so well, given that they’d been running since 6pm the previous evening. At briefing, we had been asked to ‘adopt a 100 runner’ (complete with schmaltzy soundtrack in the manner of a donkey sanctuary advert!) and so the majority of 50 competitors tried to call encouragement to the 100s as we passed. Reading some of their write ups later, I’m not certain how welcome this was, but I’m not sure where my head would be after nearly 24 hours of running, either!
Finally the tricky section was over, and I reached Mardale checkpoint. A slightly longer stop here, as my flasks needed refilling, which entails a bit of annoying fiddling with my vest. I’m getting quicker at doing this, and the volunteers were also really helpful in taking and filling everyone’s bottles. No more than five minutes, and I was on my way, this time with a peanut butter sandwich to keep me company up the next climb. I knew that the next section to Kentmere wouldn’t be too bad, although I would need to keep my newfound nerve to tackle the stony descents. On the climb, I fell into step with a chap who was on his fifth 100, a feat I can’t quite imagine. You get a special award for doing this, and Lakeland send out an email in advance listing everyone who is up for it, so he was feeling extra pressure this year to finish. We happily passed the climb (frankly) bitching about our shared dislike of too much attention before and during races, and between that and the sandwich, I barely noticed the metres mounting up.
I didn’t tackle the descent to Kentmere as well as I would have liked – it’s a bit steeper than those which go before, and I reverted to a bit of anxious braking, which I knew would hammer my quads, rather than going down confidently. A lot of runners sailed past me at this point, which is always disheartening, but I had tried to prepare myself mentally for this by reminding myself that we all have different strengths – I make up a lot of time by having higher flat speed. I also remembered the ‘low mood – eat food’ mantra, and at the couple of times I started to feel a bit weepy, made sure to get some more calories in, even if it wasn’t a ‘scheduled’ feed time. I was also feeling very soggy – the rain had carried on falling, and I’d managed to let some in at the neck of my waterproof, which meant it was running down both my arms in an uncomfortable trickly way. It all generally amounted to suddenly feeling quite unsure as to whether I could go all the way.
Despite this, coming into Kentmere I had already decided to have another really short stop – I needed a portaloo trip, and wanted to grab a bit of food (and, of course, to ‘dib’ in, which you have to do at each checkpoint to make sure the race team knows where everyone is. Failure to dib in would mean a DQ), but wanted to press on to Ambleside where I could have a longer stop. The Kentmere checkpoint is small, and was as crowded as I’d expected, so I was happy with this decision as I hiked off up the next hill.
The Kentmere to Ambleside leg was probably my lowest point of the whole race. It’s more or less the mid-point, so excitement and adrenaline is fading, and awareness of how far there is to go is mounting. I knew though that if I could get to Ambleside, I would be two thirds done, and from there I could even walk to the finish if I needed to. As it got later in the day, the temperature started to drop, and I started to feel chilled and shivery. I was worried that if I couldn’t get warm, or if the rain (which had temporarily stopped!) started up again, I’d be in trouble. I got through it by focusing on my total time to Ambleside, which was only fifteen minutes longer than my Pooley Bridge to Ambleside recce, despite being six miles longer on the day. I was also massively helped by falling in with a little pack as I came down into Troutbeck, in particular a lovely Sale Harrier called Timothy. We walked together up the hill to the Post Office, and on over towards Ambleside, and again the chat helped distract me from the climb, the weather and the temperature. It was also somewhere around here that I chatted for a while to a lovely lady from inov8’s social media team. She was cursing her (inov8!) waterproof for letting the rain in, and I was (slightly shamefacedly!) cheered that it wasn’t just my cheap Decathlon apparel that was struggling.
Once I came out onto the road above Ambleside and could see the distinctive roof of Hayes garden centre, I started for the first time to feel confident that I could actually complete the course. I trotted down the hill, and tried to really soak in all of the cheers and encouragement from the wonderful people standing outside in the rain. I was also trying in my mind to go over my checkpoint plan (dib, wee, hot drink, cold drink, change clothes, food, get more food out of my vest into the outside pockets), when I suddenly saw my support crew shouting like loons on the corner by Zeffirellis. It’s really hard to describe the feeling you get when you see a supporter in a race, but it was multiplied up many times! I just felt so overwhelmingly grateful for friends who will spend hours standing outside in the rain just to give you a quick cheer, and once again you can see my happiness in the photo!
Ambleside parish hall was like paradise! Warm, cosy, full of helpful people, and most importantly with a toasty hot ladies’ bathroom which was doubling up as a changing room. I tipped my vest out onto the floor and started sorting out a fresh set of kit, making the decision to go from shorts into full length tights plus my waterproof trousers. I knew I might get warm, but reasoned that I could always slow down, whereas if I got the tights wet and then got cold, I didn’t have any more clothes. With half a cup of sugary coffee inside me, I felt like a new woman, and trotted back out to find that I’d spent so long in the checkpoint that my crew thought they’d missed me. We said goodbye again, but knowing that I’d see them very soon for the final time at Skelwith Bridge.
I was on such a high at having made it this far that I hardly noticed the climb out of Ambleside again, and before I knew it was on the road down towards Skelwith. I had my only food-based error at this point – I felt like I needed a bit of a kick of energy, so had some gel (I use Gu gels from their big-serve pouches in a reusable Hydrapak flask), but it hit my stomach really hard, and I had to spend a mile or so thinking I was going to vom before it settled. It was a little bit emotional seeing Lily and co for the final time, as we all knew that when they saw me again it would be at the finish line, and I would have covered a good 3-4 hours in full darkness.
The Langdale section of the course was completely magical for me. It’s an area I know really well, and who could not love the nice wide, flat section of the Cumbria Way that takes you through from Skelwith to Elterwater? The time of day, with the sun just thinking about setting, made it all the more wonderful, and I set a gentle pace, enjoying the opportunity to look around me and take everything in while the ground underfoot was safe enough that I could take my eyes off it! I even managed to rescue a pair who had missed the footpath off to Chapel Stile in the growing darkness, and saved them from a bonus few hundred metres.
I just about got to Chapel Stile without needing to dig out my headtorch, and somewhat staggered into my favourite checkpoint so far. It had passed me by up until this point that all the checkpoints had themes (with many apologies to the wonderful volunteers who had made a lot of effort with costumes!), but you couldn’t miss the Chapel Stile International Airport. They had a landing strip which guided you in to the dibber, passport control, baggage reclaim, arrivals and departures, and cheery volunteers kitted out in flight suits and Biggles goggles. This was also the first point that I fully realised just how helpful they were being in asking each runner what they needed/wanted, and then going off to fill up bottles, put soup in mugs, fetch snacks, all while we were able just to sit and rest. I tried not to spend too long, as I didn’t want to build up any fear over the next section.
I managed to set off on the leg to Tilberthwaite as part of a small group of runners. It was now gone 10pm, fully dark, I had my headtorch on, and I knew I was setting off on what for me would be the most difficult section. Full disclosure, my mostly meticulous race preparation had fallen down in one rather key area. I had not, as instructed, practised running in the dark, or with my headtorch. So while I knew that it worked, I had no idea whether it would sit comfortably while running, or whether its batteries would last, or how bright the light would be. In hindsight, this was bloody stupid! I was lucky, in that it worked perfectly and was more than comfortable, but I quickly found that I couldn’t run anything except the smoothest and flattest surfaces in the dark. I’m sure I’ll get better at this, but for this race I’d mentally prepared myself to be mainly walking the night legs, and that was how it turned out. I’d also prepared for the fact that I might panic if left alone, but fortunately this didn’t materialise. Every time I found myself a little adrift of a group, it was barely any time before another runner came along to reassure me that I was on the right track. I dug out the ‘foldie’ for the first time, which is a waterproof copy of the route instructions, just to check that at the various turnings and stiles I was still on the correct route.
It seemed a very long way to Tilberthwaite! In particular, Blea Moss is a notably unpleasant combination of single track rocky trail, mud, slippy rocks to clamber over and (as the name suggests) peaty, soggy ground. We knew that we had to make our way to an ‘unmanned’ dibber, placed as we came out onto the road, in order to ensure that we hadn’t cut the corner off the route. It was the most enormous relief to come off the nasty section of rocks to discover that some kind soul had placed little sticks with white, sparkly ribbon attached to them, along the last few hundred metres towards the dibber. This didn’t help everyone – one man I was with insisted that these had nothing to do with the race, and headed off at a right angle to the course! I couldn’t persuade him otherwise, but decided myself to follow the ribbon. This decision was borne out when I emerged onto the road exactly opposite the dibber, to find it not unmanned at all. An elderly chap with an enormous rain coat and a tiny dog was guiding everyone in, chatting to the runners, and generally lifting spirits. I discovered later that very little is known about this man beyond that his name is Tony. He’s been turning up to man the dibber for a few years now, but isn’t connected to the race officially, and nobody knows who he is! The next few miles were sprinkled with more examples of this – kindly local runners who had committed themselves to spending the night in a remote field, usually with a dog and a headtorch, just to make sure that the runners didn’t miss any vital turnings. I got quite emotional about these people, as I just couldn’t get my head around the selflessness required to do this – to my mind far more taxing than actually running the race!
The final few hundred metres to the Tilberthwaite checkpoint are on tarmac, so I jogged in, keeping to my ultra rule of ‘run whenever you can’. Again I only made a short stop here – I knew I only had three miles to the finish in Ambleside, but also that they are a tricky few miles which would probably take me more than another hour to complete. This was the section I was most grateful to have recce’d. My sister and I walked it way back last summer, in daylight. I knew, therefore, that some of the scarier route instructions which suggested that one might fall into a quarry if insufficiently careful, really only applied to people straying metres from the route. I also was prepared for the hands-on-rock scramble over a little waterfall, and knew the exact location and appearance of the ‘single tree’ at which we had to cross a river. It didn’t really feel very long before we were beginning the descent into Coppermines. I had somehow found myself back in a group with Timothy the Sale Harrier, a 100 runner whose name I never learned, and a couple of others. I was in the lead, picking my way down the steep and rocky path. I’d been trying not to think about this section (it’s Hole Rake, for those familiar with the area), as I knew it would be tough at this stage, in the dark and with very grumpy quads. In some ways, I actually enjoyed it! The group was lovely and chatty, and reassured me that they were all happy to proceed at my pace. I asked several times if anyone wanted to pass, as I really didn’t want to be holding anyone up at this stage! They were all very happy to stick together, though, and eventually we made it down. I loved the final jog down the track and then the road into Coniston – I kept welling up at the realisation that I would actually be crossing the finish line and had made it all the way!
Lily and Nelson were at the finish to meet me, and spirited me off into the car (which Nelson had somehow parked directly opposite the finish line) and back to the cottage. I was greeted by balloons, champagne and a massive cheese scone, although to my shame it took me quite a long time to notice these as I was so preoccupied with getting out of my clothes and into the shower.
To conclude, I’m so happy to have completed the race of my life to date. I feel like I faced down my fears of the terrain, the navigation and the dark, and did it in style. I finished in 14 hours 27 minutes, in the top half of the field and well inside the top 100 women. To say that’s beyond what I thought I could do is the understatement of the year. Finally, another mahoosive thank you to Lily, Alex, Ian and Nelson for coming on this mad adventure with me, and thank you to the Lakeland team for a magical race.