I’m not a fell runner

As I ran up alongside a fellow competitor I noticed a Lakeland 100 tattoo on his ankle. We got to talking as is traditional on the trails. It turned out he had run this race a couple of years ago and had also done the Lakeland 50, 4 times. For those that don’t know, these are pretty dam tough races. He asked me where I was from, I said “South London”. “How do you train for a race like this down there” was his response. It wasn’t said in a mean way but more bemused. When I said this was only my 2nd trip to the Lakes, it dawned on me that I really was totally out of place here. How had I found myself running a 122km Ultra, traversing the entire Lake District from Ulverston to Carlisle?

Map
Seeing the route on a map puts the distance into perspective

 Jump back to January of this year. I was working away, anxiously waiting for the UTMB ballot results. I had applied for the CCC, my dream race. When I got the email that I had been unsuccessful I was totally gutted, but after a day, I jumped on the ITRA site to find another race, early to mid-September. I initially decided on the Centurion Chiltern Wonderland. 50 miles with some hills but nothing too crazy. A friend Tom was running it and they had spaces. I left it a day to make the final decision and when I clicked back on the site, it was sold out! What an idiot! I had no idea that these events were selling out so quickly. Back to the drawing board I went and it pretty much came down to two events.

A new Maverick 90km event in the West Country, north coast. It looked fun and Maverick events are really well run.

Or

This race called the Cumbria Way Ultra. Listed as 72 mile traverse of the lakes with 3000m elevation. In 2018 it was given 5 ITRA/UTMB points, this should have flagged its difficulty!

Elevation chart
Elevation map

I asked my friend Ann who lives in the lakes about the race. It turned out she happened to know the organiser and said her races get really great reviews. I also put a post on IG to see if anyone in the community had heard about or ran the race. Jen Scotney said she had also heard really good things about it and knew the route. Plus, Becca said she would come and cheer as she lives not too far away. I was sold, but I hadn’t really thought it through too much, just that it would be nice to go back to the Lakes again.

Flash forward to a week before race day and I wake up with a sore throat and thought NOOOOO. Please don’t let me be sick for race day. I had just completed an intense 6 week training plan to get me ready for this race. It was never going to be perfect but I was feeling pretty strong physically. It had taken a fair bit of planning to get the logistics sorted and I wasn’t about to let a cold ruin it!

During the week, the cold didn’t get any worse but also no better, so I just got stuck into my planning. I obsessed over the route, the check point distances and fueling strategy. I didn’t think too much about the actual emotional attachment to the race. I guess this is because I didn’t have one. I did think about the distance though. I was a little worried, as the last time I ran 100k it didn’t go quite as planned and this was much more of a “real” race. Not to put down the Threshold series but they are set up for ultimate safety and comfort. In this one I would be on my own in the wilds of the Lakes. I wasn’t worried about time either as this race has very generous cut offs, but I did want to see where a steady pace would get me. So my only goals were finishing and enjoying the experience.

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The fullest my pack has every been

After a fairly straight forward journey to the starting town of Ulverston on the Friday, I passed mandatory kit check, collected my bib, tracker and Dib card. Went to my lodgings, prepared some of my gear, grabbed some food and a beer in a local pub and then got an early night. The alarm was set for 3.50am with a 5.20am bag drop, race briefing, and 6am start ahead. Alas, I really didn’t sleep very well. The standard pre-race nerves, being in a new bed and the added joy of the bloody cold. I got up ate my porridge, did my business, had a shower and was out the door by 5am.

The meeting point was in a car park near the start of the national trail. There were only 83 people doing the main ultra. There is also a 30 mile option which starts in Keswick at 12.00pm and I think just over 100 were doing that. So a nice small field which felt really nice. After the race briefing, we all walked down to “The Gill”, which is the official start for the trail. It’s a residential street, so there was no big announcement and before I knew it we were off on our adventure.

I planned to break up the race into the 5 sections between the check points.  By not thinking any further than the next check point I could focus on the now and be present for each small goal.  Just get to the CP!

 Part 1: Ulverston to Coniston, 26kms

Heading up through farmland into the low hills this was a truly stunning section. Mainly due to the sunrise mixed with the mist. It was quite runnable. I hadn’t really thought about where to stand at the start so I found myself overtaking a few people, but also stopping to take in the glory of the start of the day. I was happy, the ground was easy.  I had said to Becca that I would be probably be at the first CP around 8.30 – 9.00am. 3 hours might seem a long time but there were a few hills in this section, nothing crazy but I wanted to run a consistent pace. Soon we entered the Lake District National Park. The scenery changed, the distinctive fells came into view and the ground changed underfoot, becoming more technical in parts. Before I knew it I was on the edge of Coniston Water, except I couldn’t see it as it was cloaked in mist and felt very eerie. The run round the lake was nice and easy, I had noticed that my nose had become a fairly constant stream of snot though. I usually have an issue with “runners nose” as it’s called BUT this was next level, yay. This was going to be a long snotty day!

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Soon the CP came into view and I was very excited to see Becca. She said she would come and cheer/crew me at every check point plus the finish and even drive me back to a station on Sunday which was amazing. I had sent her a package of gels, Longhaul fuel pouches and asked her to make some salted potatoes for me as I was worried about carrying all that I needed. I also just felt having some moral support would be crucial on this adventure. When I saw her as I rounded the corner to the hall screaming my name, my face lit up. Hugs were had. I wanted to be in and out of this one quickly though so she straight away went into crew mode, refilling my bottles and asking how I was. I grabbed a couple of gels before hitting the snack table for fruit and getting back out on the route feeling great.

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Superstar Becca

Part 2: Coniston to Sticklebarn, 17.2km

The terrain became more technical during this section. I noticed more rocks and water underfoot. There would be streams of water on the path; well the paths would be streams. My feet had got a little damp in the dew filled fields of the first section but now I noticed that at times my shoes were pretty wet, they would drain out and dry a bit before getting wet again. This was something I wasn’t particularly experienced with but accepted it as part for the territory. Lake District says water to me, so I guess there must be plenty of if here and of course it’s going to be on the paths.

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It was during this section that I had a chat with a lady from Norway. It was amusing to me as she had bib no1 which meant her surname began with an A. The organisers had done them in alphabetical order. I was last, (obvs), with 83. So first and last were hanging out. We swapped places a bit during this section with knowing smiles.  This was also the part where I got talking with the Lakeland 100 tattoo man. I was finding the technical paths hard to run on and his comments hit home. I realised then that I was way out of my comfort zone here.

The CP came soon though and I was happy to see Becca again. After using the facilities, I made sure to get some extra food in me; eating some of the yummy potatoes she had made, a few bits from the snack table and again making sure I was stocked up. I knew this next section would be hard; it had the first of the main climbs and I knew it would be some time before I would get to the next CP.

 Part 3: Sticklebarn to Keswick, 26.9km

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Heading towards Stake Pass

Straight away it was up but that was to just get us out of the village. Then we were on the open land with nothing but fells in front. I now know that off to the left and in the distance was Scafell Pike and some other big fells. We were going up to a pass on the right called Stake Pass. As I trundled along the rocky path I got chatting to another lady.  This time a local fell runner, who jokingly dissed me for having the route on my watch saying she was old school and liked a map and compass. I know she was only joking but it also made me feel more out of place. I didn’t take it to heart too much though as I was determined to do my own thing. As we got to the main climb she sped on ahead like a true mountain goat. I decided it was poles time, stopped to get them out. Then the Norwegian lady came bounding past in full goat mode too. As I made my way up I watched in awe at the strength and experience of these two ladies. Both so agile and strong on this pretty dam steep hill. I carried on at my own pace, pushing pretty hard as I hate slow climbs myself, occasionally stopping to take in the views though, as that’s why I was here. It was definitely hard going and I noticed I was starting to take on more fluid as the sun was out now and it was warm…for the Lakes in September. Reaching the pass summit was a nice victory. A lovely 360° view lay before me. Then there was the descent, a tight path but with switch backs. It was quite runnable but you had to be careful not to fall off the side. I caught a guy who warned me not to let my quads blow as it would hurt me later. I took his advice and eased back a little but I felt really good and this path wasn’t too technical, I felt like I was gliding down, which was a dream. Unlike the next part! The trails got rugged and technical with more water and bogs. It was tough going even though it was flat and I would normally be running solidly. I had to pick my battles, try not to fall over until I reached Derwent Water. It was around this section that I joined up with a couple of runners, an experienced Lakeland runner Jools and an Irish guy from London called Beatle. We were all enjoying the race but had noticed this section had taken a bit out of us and were concerned about our water supplies. The next CP was in the centre of Keswick. I thought it was only a few KMs away but Jools was convinced it was further. We had started a little run/walk strategy to conserve some energy as we got to know each other a bit more. The route around the lake was nice and easy. The woodland trails were a welcome relief. There were plenty of people around enjoying the sunshine and asking what we were doing. Most were bemused, some just completely shocked. After a while Jools ran on ahead. I then re-did the maths and realised we were still about 5km away. At this point I made the decision that we needed to get water ASAP. We came across a cottage in the woods and I decided to knock. A lovely lady came to the door and very kindly filled a bottle up for us each. I am pretty sure this saved our races! I had gone through 500ml of tailwind and 1ltr of water on this section. I was so glad I decided to carry the extra bottle, although I did discover that it had ripped and was leaking! We carried on though and at 15.51 we entered Keswick CP. That section had taken 4.5hrs and we were both feeling it. We were over half way though and decided to take a longer break. I sat with Becca, she got me some hot pasta which was amazing. She fixed the broken bottle with a Compeed and I explained how hard that section was. She listened to me ramble on with the patience of a saint. I don’t know what I really said but it was nice to just sit and chill for 20mins. When I left the hall I felt refreshed and refocused on the task ahead. I think sometimes I have been guilty of being too quick at CPs. Sometimes you just need that little extra time and I am so glad I did here.

 

Part 4: Keswick to Caldbeck, 23.9km

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The climb out of Keswick

Getting out of Keswick was a bit of a pain and I messed up my mapping on my watch a bit but after that little moment I was on my way. This was going to be the hardest section as it was the bulk of the climbing. I came up with a strategy on the first climb. I had my poles out and was making really good progress so I decided I was going power walk off the top of this climb along the mostly flat to the next 2 climbs. Then kick ass running down. The first climb was awesome and I felt great off the top of it. The paths were again making my feet sodden with more rocks and streams than I can remember. Jumping through bogs was draining but by now I was just like “whatever, I’m used to this shit now”.  The scenery was stunning and we passed Skidaw to the left and Mungrisdale Dale Common and Blencathra to the right. Then Beatle came bounding past me. I asked how he was and he said, “man I feel awesome, that rest was just what I needed”, and off he went. At that point I decided, you know what I feel pretty dam good too. So I started to run/walk again. I nearly caught up with him but his technical running was a bit better than mine so I was about 100-200m behind when we got to what I will now call Hell on a hill!

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Lots of these on route

 

The organisers had said this section would be marked by white stakes as well as signs and I soon found out why. It was super steep and followed a wide stream up a gully. The path was pretty much non-existent. It was mostly bog, stream, waterfall, rock and more bog. I almost lost my shoes several times. One stream with a waterfall we had to cross was really slippery and it took me a bit of time to get over and up the rocks on the other side. One thing was for sure though, I was glad I had poles on this section, as I used them to lever myself up and around some of the deepest parts powering on to the top. There was a lot of swearing and “fuck this shit” may have been repeated many times. Once at the top though, I was pretty happy until another runner said, just one more climb to go!

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Ahead would be much wetness

I swapped over to my back up bottle and headed onward toward the bothy where a nice marshal gave me some encouragement and said, “do you know a tall lady wearing running gear?, as she was asking after you”. I was a little confused but carried on. It turned out my friend Gemma had come up onto the course a little earlier to cheer me on but didn’t have any phone reception so was unable to check the tracker!

After jumping over a few more streams, it was time to start the final climb, up to High Pike. The sun was setting fast by now and I definitely wanted to be off the fells by nightfall. At the summit it was pretty dam windy. Predictions were 20mph but it was more like 50-60mph. I didn’t stay long, although I noticed there was a marshal wrapped up in a sleeping bag taking shelter behind the summit stones. He gave me the thumbs up and I ran on.

The run down was awesome, steep but totally runnable. I found my goat legs and bounded my way to catching up with Beatle, which was great. Not long after with headtorches on, we also caught up with Jools, which was lovely; “The 3 Amigos”. Then I heard a voice shout, “is one of those torches Jon”, to which I cracked up and shouted back “Yes Becca”.  We entered the CP together, which was awesome, knowing the worst was behind us, but there was still about 25-26km to go!

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Headtorch on and ready to go!

Part 5: Caldbeck to Dalston, 16.1km

I think Beatle and I spent about 10mins in this aid station, Jools needed a bit longer. I was done with my poles, I filled my 2ndbottle with flat Coke as I felt a little caffeine would be helpful right now, plus I thought I had run out of Tailwind, which of course I hadn’t, it was just in a different pocket, doh! I had some yummy tomato soup to warm me up, then we headed out ready to take on the final two sections. It was now pitch black and we were basically running through fields, woodland and at times alongside a river. I only know that it was a river because of the sound. Beatle and I talked about the possibility of us finishing under 18 hours. His coach had suggested this would be a time to aim for. I felt it would be close, the issue though is we had run further than the route suggested. I had us finishing just over 120km rather than the 117km that was advertised. I wasn’t bothered but I said to Beatle, “you know what?, what will be will be”. He was struggling at this point, so I put us on a good run/walk pace where we hit 8min Kms on average and we trucked along nicely. My feet were hurting a bit but it wasn’t too bad. I was pretty sure I had a couple of blisters on the tops of my toes but had decided not to deal with them as it was almost over and taking my socks off at the last aid station could have led to more complications! It was a nice section though as we talked a lot and got to know each other much better, talking about our families, jobs, running/fitness careers etc. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again, this is one of the main reasons I love these races. The camaraderie on the courses is second to none, it’s just something you don’t get on road running often.

Soon we were running into the village of Dalston, feeling alright actually. So much so we would have run past the CP if it wasn’t for Becca and Jools’ partner shouting at us! It was the last CP and we were in and out pretty damn quickly, just grabbing some water, jaffa cakes and more flat Coke. As we left, Jools came in, which was great to see. I felt a little bad for not waiting but our legs were feeling great and we just wanted to keep moving.

 Part 6: Dalston to Carlisle, 8.7km

This would be our victory lap…apart from it started raining 5mins out of the CP, so we had to stop and get our jackets out as we didn’t fancy 1 hour of run/walking in the rain. Wise choice, as it started to pelt it down. It didn’t dampen our spirits though. In fact our pace increased during this section. Even if we did have to dodge all the little frogs that came out to play! The section was all tarmac through some parks into the city but we didn’t really care, we just kept pushing, dropping some sub 7min kms in too, which was funny as I have never negative splitted the end to an Ultra! Soon we were in the city, saying “is that a castle”, “oh no that’s a church”, “oh that must be the castle, oh no it just a building”, I think the darkness was finally getting to us. Soon we rounded a corner onto a main road to see the walls of the castle, with just the cruel steps of a foot bridge standing in our way. This wouldn’t sway us from the goal though and soon we ran over the moat, through the gates, to cheers from Becca, across the line and into the finishers tent. Beatle insisted I dib in first to get 19thplace, which was very kind. We got our medal and beer before being shown into the warmth of the finishers area.

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Finishing with Beatle

 Jools came in about 13mins after us. I also met Rachel, the amazing local fell runner who came 3rdlady here too. We all shared knowing looks and smiles. There were some hugs but mostly I just wanted to sleep, which I soon did, kinda, no thanks to a loud drunken Glaswegian in the hotel hallway.

Final Thoughts

122kms in 18hrs and 10mins. My furthest run but also one I am very proud of because it actually went pretty dam well. I fueled well, I was mostly well hydrated but it took me far outside my comfort zone and I did it. The running, at times, was really hard because the terrain was so alien to me. Having my feet get so wet all the time was a real pain in the ass but I coped.

I finished 75 miles with only about 6 weeks hard training, knowing I could go further. I have a 100 mile race next year on easier terrain, this experience has given me confidence that with the right attitude, training and execution I have a shot at a sub 24hours.

 I would like to thank the race organisers, marshals, CP crews, walkers who cheered, Gemma for trying to see me and Becca for being the best crew! I highly recommend this event if you are looking for something different in the UK.

 Thank you lakes, you were brutally beautiful. I will be back for more bogs but maybe not for a couple of years.

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