Last year, while waiting in queue for the burger van at the finish of the Coniston Trail Marathon, a few people suggested I do the Lakeland 50 if I enjoyed the marathon. Similar views and terrain, just twice as long, but with a 24 hour time limit, you could walk the entire thing. An ultra was a natural progression from the marathon and I did want to eventually do one but three weeks after a tough trail run was pushing it. The thought of carrying a lot of kit also put me off; I don’t even like doing long runs with a water bottle. However, Paul Hughes had entered for the second time and I thought I’d be recovered by then so I put my name down. The race was full but I was placed on a waiting list in case anyone dropped out. Thankfully no one did, but I was given a guaranteed place for this year.
Since then, I got a few more marathons under my belt but I still wasn’t confident I’d be able to finish the 50. A couple of 5 to 6 hour runs with a backpack and a few 20 milers was all the training I bothered to do. Nothing on the hills, which in hindsight is something I probably should have practiced. As for kit, I left that till the last minute, so a bit of panic buying of cheap waterproofs, safety kit, trail shoes and headtorch at the market and I was set. A £5 headtorch wasn’t the best idea when I would be running around in the dark for a good five hours but it actually served me quite well. The shoes I had been using for cross country were just too heavy (I’ve gotten too used to minimal shoes) but I found a nice pair of lightweight trail shoes which I only tested out a few days before the event. Yes, my preparation wasn’t exactly ideal but I’ve run marathons in brand new shoes before so it wouldn’t be a problem.
The race takes place in the same weekend as the 100 (only for complete maniacs). The 100 course is a loop from Coniston to Dalemain and back while the 50 is the second half of the 100. You camp overnight in Coniston and are bussed to Dalemain for the 11:30am start. Most of it is on very rough trails and there’s a total of 10,000 feet of ascent. With a generous time limit of 24 hours (40 for the 100), it’s possible to walk the entire route. Obviously for a race that goes on for two days, the route is not marshaled but there are six mandatory checkpoints with food and water and you are expected to navigate using a map and turn by turn guidebook. I’m absolutely hopeless at map reading so I was relying on Paul to get around. Unfortunately, he injured his calf a few weeks before the race and was doubtful about running, but after a lot of physiotherapy, decided to give it a shot.
He was nice enough to give me a lift to Coniston and lend me some camping gear for the overnight stay. We got there at 6pm, just as the 100 milers were setting off. Raceday weather was perfect, 23 degrees and sunny. The forecast was for heavy rain starting at around midnight so we had to get as much of the route done as possible before then. After a short pre-race briefing which stressed the importance of carrying the mandatory kit, we were loaded up on the coaches and taken to Dalemain. There, we saw some of the 100 milers coming into the checkpoint still looking fresh despite having run for 16 hours!
At 11:30am, the 600 strong field set off to the tune of Last of the Mohicans. The first 4 miles was a loop of the Dalemain estate before crossing the start again for our journey to Coniston. Sadly, Paul felt a twinge in his calf after a couple of miles and decided not to go on. I was on my own now, without a navigator, but with such a big field there was always going to be people in front or behind that I could stick to. The sun was out and I was already sweating buckets because of the heavy pack. I had only trained with it a couple of times and even then, without the full 5kg of kit and water. On the plus side, it kept me from going too fast. I didn’t bother to wear a Garmin because the battery would only last for 8 hours and it was probably best I didn’t know how much distance I had left to cover.
The 11 miles to the first checkpoint at Howtown were relatively easy, with only 1000ft of ascent. Right from the start, I walked the hills (even the slightest ones) and ran the downhill and flat sections which apart from the elites, almost everyone did. My biggest worry about doing an ultra was nutrition. I don’t like eating on the run and with the advice of taking in at least 200 calories an hour, I wasn’t looking forward to running with a full stomach. At the first checkpoint I just had a few biscuits and flapjack, refilled the water in my pack and took off immediately. The next checkpoint wasn’t for another 9.5 miles and the only food in my pack was a bag of trail mix and emergency rations (which I wasn’t allowed to eat) but I had had a good breakfast and the distance between checkpoints would get shorter as the race went on, so if I got hungry I could always load up later. Big mistake.
The hilliest section of the race is the 16 miles between checkpoint 1 and 3. There was a steep, long climb right out of Howtown and it was a real shock. I was expecting long gradual ascents, but nothing like this. It was mostly hands on knees stuff. The race director had said at the pre-race briefing that this wasn’t a fell race and the route was on clear paths and bridleways. No, the 2500ft climb out of Howtown was something from a fell race! And it went on and on. I haven’t breathed that hard in even my fastest 5k. I had to stop many times to stretch my legs and back. There were a few false summits and then more climbing. I passed a few 100 milers (their race number is yellow while ours is white) and thought that if they could manage to keep going, I shouldn’t be complaining after 11 miles! Every time I saw a yellow number, I would say “well done” but most of the time I got no reply, just a grunt or a very soft “cheers”. A lot of them looked like zombies but who can blame them. They’d already covered 60 miles on a brutal course.
When I finally got to the top, it was mostly downhill to Haweswater but my quads were burning up everytime I tried to run. The lack of food was also making me very lightheaded and I was really considering giving up at checkpoint 2. When I mentioned this to some people, I was told that if I did quit, the nearest pickup point was at checkpoint 3 so I would have to find my own way back to Coniston. This is the only thing that kept me going. If there was a pickup at CP 2, I’m 100% sure my race would have been over.
At CP 2, I made sure to eat well. I struggled to down some peanut butter and jam sandwiches, had some biscuits, and coke. I’m not usually a fan of soft drinks, but on a long run, coke is liquid gold. I hate those disgusting energy gels and sports drinks so coke was a lifesaver. I was also using Nuun coke flavoured electrolyte tablets in my racepack water bladder. If you too don’t like gels, I recommend Nuun. They provide electrolytes without the nasty sugary taste.
The next checkpoint at Kentmere, which had a pickup, was only 6.5 miles away but there was another 1700ft to climb. I thought if I could slog my way there and call it quits, I would have covered 27 miles, more than a marathon. I’d be satisfied with that. Another fell race type climb and more painful rocky downhills followed. Along the way, I again mentioned to a woman running with her dog that I was most likely going to give up at CP 3 but she urged me to keep going. I think I kept telling people this so they would do just that. I still wasn’t sure I could go on but I would make it to Kentmere and see how I felt there.
As I approached CP 3, I was feeling a little better, the lightheadedness had gone away and I felt I might be able to go on for a bit longer. Kentmere to CP 4 at Ambleside was 7.3 miles, the longest section between checkpoints from here on out. People around me who’d done the course before were telling me that there was another sharp, long climb straight out of Kentmere but the remaining hills were much easier. I couldn’t stand sandwiches anymore so at the checkpoint, I had some soup, a banana smoothie, some biscuits and of course more coke, the nectar of the gods.
More than halfway done.
It was a 1600ft climb out of CP3 but I was finally getting some energy back and felt a lot better on the downhills. My quads were still burning but it was tolerable. I was finally starting to get a good rhythm going on the downhill runs, even if it was only 9-10min/mile pace. I hate running that slow but if I was to finish this race, I convinced myself that I just had to keep plodding and not think about how many miles I had left. Halfway through this section, I thought I just might be able to finish the race. The next two sections were only 5.5 and 6.5 miles and the final bit was only 3.5 miles, just over a parkrun! When I broke it down into small chunks like that, it seemed very doable.
I noticed the same people around me at this point. They would pass me on the hills but I would catch up with them when I got running again. The woman with the dog was very pleased that I chose to keep going. One guy, Peter, had been going at my pace for the last few hours so we chatted a lot and it took my mind off the pain. It turns out that he had done the 100 last year so he knew the route very well. I would have to find people to buddy up with once it got dark so I asked if I could just stick with him. He was ok with it so that made me feel a lot more confident of finishing.
Believe it or not, I was actually starting to enjoy myself now. My energy levels were up, most of the hard ascents were done, and while the burning quads were still a problem, I was running a lot more comfortably and didn’t have to stop unless I got to another hill. I think I finally understand why so many people do ultras. You push yourself towards breaking point and then just keep going. There will be a time when you feel like just crawling into a hole to die, but if you keep slogging it out, whether that’s a few miles or even a few hours, eventually you get a second or third wind, call it what you will, but you find that you can go on somehow. That’s exactly how I felt. There was no question in my mind now that I wouldn’t finish this race.
When we reached Ambleside, I was surprised to find Paul there with his camera. I let him know that I felt great and then headed to the checkpoint for more food. Peter’s family was waiting for him so we spent about 10 mins there. I had some soup, the all-important coke, and even a sandwich. It was twilight, so I got out my headtorch (I wasn’t even sure if it was waterproof!), got a photo taken by Paul, and headed off with Peter.
Ambleside to CP 5 at Chapel Stile was only 5.6 miles, the shortest section so far. By now, there were very few runners around. Someone joined us halfway through this bit and decided he’d stick with us till the end as his poor eyesight meant he couldn’t navigate with the guidebook in the dark. There were some short steep climbs but also a lot of tarmac for once. Maybe it was the endorphins, or the fact that we were so close to the finish now, but I was feeling fantastic. Apart from the climbs, I felt like I could run all the way and maybe even get in under 13 hours but the others had to walk now and then. It didn’t matter. There was no point in thinking about time; finishing this when I could so easily have DNF’d only 11 miles into it was the only priority.
At CP5, I felt like I really didn’t need any more food as we only had another 10 miles to go but had some soup, biscuits and coke anyway. We bumped into two guys who were camped next door to Paul and me and someone who was on for a 10 hour finish but had passed out at one of the checkpoints and was only given the all clear after 2 hours. They decided to tag along with us.
6.5 miles to the last checkpoint and on any given day, it would have taken me about 50 mins on the flat but this is where the route got very rocky. This was the slowest section of the race for me even though it was only a 1200ft climb. It was pitch dark and we were navigating by headtorches so it was impossible to run even the downhills for fear of slipping on a rock. The rain, as forecast, had started and it was gradually getting heavier. But time seemed to fly as we kept chatting and grinding it out. I could only think about the last 3.5 mile section (a parkrun!) to the finish. The others were telling me the terrain on that last section to come was going to be a nightmare compared to this but however long it took, finishing was a certainty.
We finally hit the last checkpoint at Tilberthwaite and the marshals there had put out all the stops. It was like a circus tent with lights over the top and little fires on either side of the track to guide us in. Inside, there were two huge sofas! What were they trying to do? Tempt us into just sinking in and falling asleep right there when we were so close to the finish?? It was now a torrential downpour outside and I was getting quite cold even under the waterproofs. I didn’t think I’d need to eat for a simple 3.5 mile section but if what the others were saying was true and it did take us 90 mins to get through it, it was safer to have something. So, a few biscuits, flapjack and coke and we were off.
Straight away, we had to climb stairs! And then, it was uphill out of a slate quarry. The going was treacherous. A few feet away to one side, there was a shear drop. I could hear a waterfall down there. One misstep and it was either a broken ankle or a tumble down the side. I tried to keep my headtorch focused on the path ahead and not think about the drop. The rain was also bucketing down now with some strong gusts of wind. When we got to the top, it was a switchback downhill over more slate and sharp rock. And now the trail was a boggy mess. So it was a slow walk all the way. The people who finished in 7 hours did this bit in daylight so it would have been way easier but I still don’t know how anyone could have run that section; it was a deathtrap. After three of the most treacherous and agonizingly slow miles ever, we finally made it to Coniston and tarmac for the last half mile to the school. It wasn’t exactly a sprint but I did run to the line for a 14hr 51min finish at 2:20am.
Inside race HQ, we were greeted to cheers and applause from spectators. After collecting my t-shirt and medal and getting my free bowl of pasta, I just sat there watching finishers being cheered in. A marshal would shout “50” or “100 miler” every time someone came in and the cheer they received was awesome. A few of the 100s broke down and started crying. 50 miles is an achievement but to do 100 miles on that horrific course is just phenomenal. I wasn’t that hungry and because of all the coke, wasn’t particularly sleepy either. It was pouring down outside so I just sat there till about 7am watching the finishers come in.
The 50 winner did it in 7:39. It took me twice as long. The 100 winner did it in 22:17. Absolutely mental.
Earlier this year, I was hesitant about doing this not only because I didn’t think I could finish but also because it would just ruin my legs. Then I thought I might as well, just to say I’ve done an ultra. That would be it and I could stick to 26.2 and less. But now, I’m already thinking about the next one. It certainly won’t be Lakeland, at least not next year. Something more runable.