Running for the pies

Running for the pies

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

30th July: My Lakeland 50 cents

Ah the Lakeland 50, how I have been looking forward to thee with a mix of hope, fear and trepidation… The race in itself is in 2 parts: getting in to it, then getting to the start line some 9 months later. When entry for this year’s event opened back in October ’15 the 650 places in the ’50 sold out in a little over 5 minutes, the 250 for ’100 in 20!.. For the unlucky but determined there were a further 250 charity places released a week later making a combined race field of 1300. The 100 doesn’t just let anyone in though; it has vetted entry on ability - so you have to meet the criteria of finishing over the last 2 years: the ’50 in under 16 hours, another mountainous 50 in under the same time, or successfully finished a 60-100 mile mountain ultra… So for this race to sell-out in that time shows the huge demand out there to take-on this notorious of challenges.

What lies before us!
Some might say the Lakeland 50 & 100 are THE races of their respective distances in the UK held each year - to the point they are considered a British equivalent of the UTMB & CCC. As such the organisers of the Lakeland refuse to pay the UTMB to have the race carry their qualifier points as the Lakeland’s ethos is akin to the the ‘Field of Dreams’: Build it and they will come,  where people will want to race for the challenge the course offers, not as a stepping-stone to something else. At the start line of both races the cream of the UK’s distance trail runners can be found (their schedules permitting of course) along with faces from around the world drawn like moths to the flame of the challenge that running in the Lake District presents.

The event is a weekend long festival of running in Coniston. Based in the grounds of the village’s school with pretty-much everyone competing camping on the playing-fields, it turns them in to a sea of tents and camper-vans full of excitable outdoorsy types, their families and supporters as only a lucky handful manage to snap-up the few b&b/ hotel rooms in Coniston village itself!

Being briefed, where we were told we are not 'only' doing the 50, we're doing a tough 50 mile race!
I knew a few other people running alongside me in the ’50, so I was sure of at least bumping in to a friendly face in the starter’s enclosure and all 3 of the ‘Leek-y Ladies’ were going to be there for the weekend, one running and 2 supporting their other competing friends thanks to a sizeable contingent of the hardcore trail runners from the Peak District racing over both distances. With this knowledge and through her love of Coniston, LSS decided to accompany me (along with Spud for some company during the day), as she knew there would be friendly faces with whom to socialise when us loons hoon around in the wilderness for a few hours.

The compulsory kit list for the race is quite a comprehensive one and this year there had been an addition with all runners required to carry a cup on top of everything else (First aid kit, waterproof top and bottoms, spare base layer top and bottom, head torch, phone, whistle, hat, gloves, foil blanket, map, road book, compass & emergency food - 2 mars bars or 400kcal equivalent to remain uneaten at race end). This addition of the cup had proved to be a bit of a debating point on the race’s Facebook page (not all of it serious I may add) which made a change from people banging-on about whether ‘cheating sticks’ should be allowed (walking poles to the uninitiated) and if they are any good and whether Hoka’s really are just expensive ‘clown shoes’.

Ubiquitous Starting pen shot!
For the second journey in a row this month, the drive up to the lakes was crap with heavy traffic and jams from the A417 north of Swindon to beyond Manchester. Rather than arriving in plenty of time as planned and able to cheer-off the 100 racers on their 6pm start, we arrived at dusk with barely enough time to get the tent pitched in the remaining light and for me to get in to register for the race. LSS had not travelled well and having to rush around was not agreeing with her… Having managed to squeak in to registration by 5 minutes I was very efficiently processed by virtue of being pretty-much the only one doing so at that time. Part of the registration process was a weigh-in. You are encouraged to register with your race pack and wearing what you will race in for them to get the most accurate reading. I asked if it was to see if people lost too much weight on the run to be told that they expect us to lose weight, it is more for establishing if people have put-on or maintained weight, as then there is a high risk of them suffering from potentially fatal hyponatremia through water retention.

Now all registered I was on a quest for something to eat. I rushed up the hill from the school to the main road through Coniston to get to the chippy around the corner, which caused LSS to have a melt-down at me walking too quickly for her, only to get in the door just as they went to lock it and secure the only thing they had: a final half portion of solid crunchy dark coloured chips off the bottom of the fryer that were about to be binned as they cleaned-up for the night. Emerging with this paltry prize from the now closed chippy (which the bastards had the gall to charge me full price for) LSS appeared around the corner, so we did the only thing we could do which was head to a pub for some liquid dinner.

Suzanne & the Carthorse
Passing the village petrol station, LSS noticed they had not locked the door even though it was 5 past their 10pm closing time and she dived in and grabbed a couple of sausage rolls, so that was our dinner: half a bag of crap chips and a cold sausage roll each!.. We retired to the Bull, grabbed a drink and sat outside to eat a pretty miserable looking supper, now able to laugh at our rubbish day stuck in traffic with us having a place set to sleep in and something to line our bellies without an added worry of early emergency registration the next morning.

Having slept well after drifting-off to the symphony of tent dwelling snorers, I awoke to a lot of buzzing people all very eager to get going. After breakfasting I made my way in to the school for the briefing. The event is tracked so on a projector screen in the hall there was a chart showing where the 100 runners had reached - with amazing distances already covered by the front-runners and predictions of it being a record-breaking year… I had suggested to organisers that when people drop-out of the race they should show their pictures on the screen and have the sound of a canon firing just like in the ‘Hunger Games’, but it seemed they had not adopted this idea.

The first tentative steps on the course.
All briefed and it was time to get on the buses for the trip to the start. As I said goodbye to LSS & Spud I saw the Leek-y lady who was running today and went to say hello.

The drive to the start of the 50 at Dalemain was a slow and boring affair. We were dropped-off in the middle of the Dalemain estate that serves as the notional ‘halfway’ aid-station for the 100 with all the racer’s drop-bags there for them to access. In reality for the 100 milers there are only 46 miles left at this point. For us runners of the 50 we have to complete a 4 mile circuit of part of the estate before we are let-loose on the course for real.

On the lap of the fields of the Dalemain Estate.

Awaiting in the pen for the start I bumped into fellow Farnborough fan ‘Carthorse’ and his better half Suzanne. About a year ago, Carthorse left his old life in Farnborough behind to start afresh with Suzanne up here in the lakes and it really seems to have lifted his spirits no end; certainly proving a very good decision for him. It also means he has all these wonderful hills and fells to scamper over in his free time to practice, unlike back down in our part of Hampshire.

11:30 came and we were off, lumbering en-masse across the unremarkable fields of the estate like a migratory herd of wildebeest before being unleashed onto the course proper and the first leg down to Pooley Bridge, or just ‘Pooley’ as it was after the winter’s storms when the bridge was swept away in the floods. Fortunately there’s a new bridge now, although completely lacking in the character of its lovely stone predecessor.

The stretching 'field' amongst the fields
From Pooley we properly headed-out into the wilderness for the first time. At this stage I was running with a chap living about 5 miles down the road from me which was one of those ‘small world’ moments. As we we jogging and chatting at one point we went through an open gate and my headphone cable snagged on the latch snapping it clean off from the jack… So around a tenth of the way in to the race in I was now faced with the inevitability of just the company of my own wandering mind in the harder parts of the race without the ability to listen to any podcasts or music to help with some escapism. Once we had climbed on to the trail, It seemed to be downhill all the way to the first of the day’s aid stations and 7 miles of the 50 completed at Howtown.

Everyone just wants the lap over and to head out on to the route!
All the aid stations on the Lakeland are themed and this one, manned by ‘Chia Charge’ with plenty of their tasty product to be scoffed, had the theme of Cowboys & Indians! With it not being too far in to the race and my energy levels still being high, I decided to crack-on almost immediately to hit the trail after grabbing a couple of their excellent sea salt flap jacks to nosh along the way.

The 14th Century Dacre Castle.
Back on to the course and we now hit the hardest part (or the first half of the hardest part) of the day: Fusedale… or to give it its proper name: ‘Effing Fusedale’. This stretch is renowned for being the graveyard of Lakeland runners. It is a 2 mile 1500ft climb pretty-much from the waters edge of the lake to the top of the moor, but its geography is brutal… This year we were lucky as the sky was overcast, but other years were not so when the sun has been out. You are essentially walking through a bowl so the ground slopes up either side and in front of you and consequently the humidity is choking as it is just held there like a soup through which to cut a way through… When the sun is out in a Lakeland its normal on Fusedale to find runners bent over puking their guts on the trail’s edge, others lying down by the path side trying to recover some breath with the sapping heat and humidity sucking all their energy out of them. At this point I was with Carthorse and Suzanne, who I was struggling to keep-up with, although Carthorse was suffering on this climb as much as I was: we kept yo-yoing past each other as we could only make about 20m at a time before having to rest and recover for about a minute, gasping for breath in the atmosphere.

Nearly done!
Around halfway-up there was a small squad of supporters cheering us onwards who had put motivational slogans onto balloons staked to the ground - with one slogan particularly catching my eye: ‘Don’t be shit’!.. One can but hope I thought. This was a lovely gesture from some people who obviously had experienced the suffer-fest of this climb themselves and were there to help us through what I found for me to be the most taxing part of the whole course.

The new Pooley Bridge
At the start of the climb I had passed a group of walkers coming down Fusedale - one of the group had a bag of Werthers Originals that she was offering to all us runners with a cheery smile. Her face looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place it, I politely declined the offer of the sweets having not long been out of the aid station, put the encounter to the back of my mind and carried-on going.

The further I ascended Fusedale the more the sun seemed to emerge from behind clouds, and by the time I had overcome the plethora of false summits to arrive at the top, it was out in full, so at least I had missed the worst of the humidity during the climb. Up on the plateau of the fell there was a welcome cooling breeze, but soon we were descending off the other side towards Haweswater and back in to the humidity. The path here was overgrown with ferns so you could not see where you were putting your feet and with it rocky underfoot it was not long before I tripped on one, fortunately regaining my balance, but my instinct to make good time on the descent was put paid to, and when the section was finished we hit the stony path around the lake as the sun began to bake us, reflecting off the light coloured stones under foot. Combined with the rising humidity it became stifling and uncomfortable. Fortunately there were a few streams crossing the path so I was able to wash my face and fill my cap with water to cool-down.

Finally into the wilds.
Round the headland of the lake and we reached the next aid station at Mardale - where I was told-off for trying to get some water for my cap, then when I asked for a cup of water they refused to give me one as they said I would just pour it over my head and suggested I just leave and find a stream… Seeing there was nothing of note I wanted to eat from the fare on offer, now in a proper ‘fuck you’ mood I stomped-off out the aid station before I said anything abusive that I might regret and come-across as a complete ‘see you next Tuesday’.

On our way to CP1 at the 'Bobbin Mill'.
Back on the path I climbed half way up the immediate ascent of Gatescarth and sat down to have something to eat, looking back down on the aid station to see if Carthorse and Suzanne were approaching… Eventually I saw them rounding the corner for their descent to the aid station before I turned and carried-on the trudge the rest of the way up to the top.

Ullswater once more.
Once summitted, the descent towards Kentmere was something that kept you awake and paying attention: the path was loose stone, so to get any speed required total concentration in picking your path over the rocks so as not to stumble and fall, making your knees and quads ache like crazy the whole time. Fortunately what awaited at the bottom was a Harry Potter themed village hall of Kentmere, where some jelly beans in a bag were given to everyone who entered as well as a bowl of hot spicy pasta, which I eagerly ate seeing as we were now in the realms of dinner time, with the heat beginning ease a little and the shadows lengthening. One of the people manning the aid-station was none other than Marcus Scotney, the ultra runner of some renown who would be chasing the win if he was running but was instead just giving something back today by helping-out.

Still plenty of runners around.
Mentally I knew what time I wanted to be in Ambleside: any time before darkness! so I was confident in getting there in time, although the climb up towards Troutbeck was challenging me, forcing me to sit on a wall for a few minutes break at one point… Eventually I was able to get up and enjoy the sight of Windermere down below in front of me as the light began to noticeably fade. Seeing the lake meant I was not far off Ambleside which nestles at its northerly tip and I knew that a fair chunk of the route to the next checkpoint in the town was downhill, so I attempted to make as good a time as I could to the town and the awaiting aid station.

The start of 'effing Fusedale'.
There are very strict rules enforced at the Lakeland - you are not allowed any outside assistance, nor are you allowed to stop along the route to take food and drink from anywhere other than the official aid stations or you risk disqualification… This is not really an issue, except in Ambleside as you run through the town passing all the restaurants and take-away joints and the first sight you see entering the centre is a pub… A pub with everyone sitting outside drinking beer and cheering you on that looks unbelievably inviting to stop in for a cold-one, the cheering acting as a siren’s call, but the race rules make a good mast to mentally lash yourself to and push-on through savouring the cheering as you continue to the next aid station at the parish hall.

Nearing one of the false summits on Fusedale.
Arriving safely as the light began to drop I took a seat at the circus themed stop outside the hall and had a brief snack and a rest whilst attempting to fight-off the swarming midges that were gathering to chew on our sweaty flesh… From here onwards I was on territory that was familiar having recce’d it a couple of months before with LSS & Spud. From hereon even in the darkness I would be familiar with the terrain I would be covering, including going up the bit I fell down on the UT55 a few weeks back splitting my knee apart!

Cracking view from up high.
My challenge now leaving the aid station was to try and get as far as I could before it properly got dark and I would be forced to put my head torch on… The steep climb out of the town on the valley bottom on to Loughrigg Fell put me back in to light once more, which I made as good a use of as I could - descending towards Skelwith Bridge where I finally succumbed to the inevitable and put my head torch on to light the way from this point.

Finally topping-out on the moor.
I had been uber prepared for a change and took 3 head torches with me to the race, choosing one of them as the most suitable on the morning and putting it in my pack with 2 spare batteries - it had been a while since I had run with it on so I was looking forward to having an extended session with it. Putting it on it sat comfortably, so I switched it on and thought nothing more until about 5 minutes later it turned itself off, so I turned it back on, which lasted a few minutes more. Cursing my luck I changed the battery (already a fully charged one or so I thought) for one of the 2 spares I had packed, and turned the torch on again - which worked for all of about half a dozen paces before it turned off once more! Soon I was having to run continually trying to turn it on as it was refusing to work for anything more than a few seconds… I was properly fucked!

Fortunately the trail to the next aid station from Skelwith Bridge through Elterwater to the next aid station at Chapel Stile was pancake flat and mostly on the wide mettled surface of the Cumbrian Way, so I was able to carry-on in the last of the light as it reflected off the river and the tarn at not too slower a pace as I would otherwise have run, staying close to other runners whenever I could to use their lights as they jogged on when we disappeared under the tree canopy.

Sun's out!
Reaching Chapel Stile it was now proper darkness as I stopped for a welcome break after my attempt at metronomic running from Skelwith Bridge till I reached here. Once here I took the opportunity to use the cup from my compulsory kit for a cup of tea and some soup (not at the same time), as what’s the point in carrying it if you don’t use it, and realised that whilst the collapsible silicon thing I was carrying complied with the rules of the race it was completely effing useless for holding anything hot as it burnt your fingers, was unstable so could not be put on the floor and held such a small amount it was an exercise in pointlessness more than anything. The upshot was managing a thimbleful of tea and mercifully I was able to blag something bigger for the soup.

The next vicious climb away from Mardale Head.
The aid station here was themed as the wild west with a camp fire to sit around and warm-up by and an old sofa on which to lounge around!.. It was very inviting to settle there for a while, but I forced myself to carry-on. Leaving the aid station I began to shiver uncontrollably with my renewed movement in the colder night, so I was forced to stop as soon as I had started and put my waterproof on, which soon increased my core temperature back to comfortable levels and allowed me to continue as unhindered as I could, whilst reduced to a shuffle with the darkness struggling not to trip over anything.

A last look at Haweswater.
I was relieved to have recce’d this section before so at least I knew what was underfoot: loose rock and boulders, followed by some stiles and crossing boggy fields covered in sheep-shit, so at least I knew what I was going to be tripping, stumbling on and falling over for the next few miles. All I could do was to follow as close to people as I could to use the light from their head-torches, concentrating hard on everything they were lighting so I could hopefully pick my way through the minefield of obstacles - although this was not always successful with a couple of trips and falls mercifully landing on soft grass… This was pretty soul destroying. I was essentially reduced to walking slowly trying to pick my way along the path when there was no light to ‘borrow’. It seemed to be taking forever to get through this section and I knew full well that I had another 9 miles left on the route, 9 slow ponderous miles that could be reduced to a 2 mile per hour shuffle.

Ascending to the wilderness once more.
On the hill up towards the self-clip checkpoint on the way to Tilberthwaite, the hill I busted my knee on coming down it a few weeks back at the UT55, I decided just to sit down and have a rest, to take-in the night sky and try to forget the shitty situation I was in with no torch. In the middle of nowhere there is no light pollution so looking up you could just see the limitless stars in the cloudless sky. There was no moon at all today with the lunar cycle so there was no light shed from that to help with the visibility. It was just inky blackness and nothing else, but hey you could properly see the Milky Way so not all bad.

Having recovered some of my scattered faculties I continued the ascent to the top. It was along here I bumped in to Joanne & Chris from across the other side of the Penines on the Yorkshire coast - both ultra running vets with extensive palmares, who took pity on me and allowed me to tag along, picking our way through the bracken covered rocky path, where after one stumble too many Joanne took pity upon me and lent me her spare hand-torch, so I was able to see once more!

Rolling hills.
Just after the self-clip the path veers off the road once more and a group of spectators had parked-up around this turning, all of their cars with their headlights-on illuminating the turn, cheering us onwards as we arrived. It was like they were a bunch of crap doggers, all meeting-up somewhere remote, turning the lights on and watching the action unfold before them!

Through a hillside field of highland cattle, with their bemused faces above us and below us on the slope lit-up by torches as we ventured onwards in the darkness, down through a farmyard trying to keep our voices low past the houses and we made the last aid-station.

Joanne & Chris pushed-on through the stop much quicker than me - I just felt like having a final rest before climbing the ‘stairway to heaven’ up in to the quarry being careful all the way not to stray off the wide grassy path with its plummet into a gorge on one side and the quarry on the other and a small scramble over some of the rocks on the path to boot.

This final leg was a mere 4 miles - albeit commencing with a sharp climb, crossing the moor and descending down through the treacherous terrain of a slate quarry to Coniston and from there to the finish.

One of the many inviting waterfalls for dipping the cap to cool-off.
Fair to say at this point I was pretty wiped-out so after climbing the steps I decided to sit on the grass and enjoy the stars above me once more, trying to make out the shapes of the hills over which we have traversed or passed-by seeing the few lights of houses here and there… Realising this was not really achieving much and not with not being too far off topping-out on to Coniston Moor I climbed to my feet one final time and mooched onwards. As the climb levelled-out, I was aware of how still and quiet everything was. The only sound to be heard was that of the breeze in your ears, the cascading water of the stream and its waterfalls alongside the trail and the laboured breaths I was taking. Soon I caught back up with Joanne & Chris and carried-on to the finish with the pair of them, which also meant there would be no grief tomorrow of trying to find Joanne to give her torch back to her.

Still had some people behind me!
Slowly the knee jarring descent over the loose slate of the path down through the quarry was negotiated and we had something even and flattish under foot, so the three of us picked-up our pace and shuffled down the slope into the ghost-town of early AM Coniston, past the closed pubs and down to the school.

The three of us crossed the line together (me placing 430/672), and personally delighted to have had made it in a qualifier time for the 100, albeit by just a half hour, but a qualifier time nonetheless - especially after my head-torch failure had cost me I think around 2 hours… Walking around the corner I found LSS & Spud, a very tired duo who had waited-up for me to finish, which for me was as unexpected as it was lovely as any sensible person would have been in bed hours before, so I had a big hug from LSS and a welcome kick in the nards from Spud!..

The long uneven descent to Kentmere.
During the race I mentally made all of these plans of cracking-open a bottle of something fizzy in celebration as soon as I had finished, but having done so at 2:30 in the morning I really did not feel like it - it was now a time where it was so late it was early, so the sensible thing really would be to bed-down and worry about tomorrow when I awoke… I made my way to the showers - still mercifully warm - and washed-off the day’s grime before putting on loads of clothes to ward-off the shivers as my body went in to shock now it was no longer moving after 2/3 of a day doing so, and I slept well under canvas for the few remaining hours of darkness before sunrise.

The next morning I was not walking well to say the least!.. As well as the onset of DOMS I found the soles of my feet were agony with every step!.. Taking advantage of the warm sunny conditions, LSS & Spud slowly shuffled with me to the cafe by the lakeside where we settled for some lunch before the 90 minute drive back to Chorley & LSS’s parent’s house.

The valley opening-up before us.
They say on races you should never wear anything new, something that one of my Leek-y lady friends could probably have heeded. Over the previous week she had been going-on about this lovely new top she had bought specifically for the race and how she was looking forward to wearing it… Let’s just say the material was probably not as thick as she expected it to be as a couple of things caught your eye when you saw her and the morning was certainly not that cold, nor was it later in the race when I passed her leaving an aid station as I entered it and she was still smuggling peanuts!.. After the race I told her about it to which the reply of ‘trust you to notice’ came back, but sure enough when all the photos from the event came-out she was mortified!

Sunlight now waning.
Will I be back? yes I will in a heartbeat. I’m pleased to have finished the race in a qualifier time for the 100 which was my goal, but at the same time I’m a bit frustrated about the whole head-torch issue which really hampered me so meant I was not able to record as good a time as I could have… I now know the course and have a healthy respect for ‘effin Fusedale’ - it will always be a case of managing my heart rate on the ascent and knowing that once on top its a good run down the other side and not to get too despondent going round Haweswater. Once I get over Gatescarth I know that all the real hard work is behind me so can concentrate on getting to the finish… The qualifier time for the 100 is good for 2 years, but I’d be very wary of throwing myself in to a run of that distance just yet, so what my plan will be is to run the 50 again in a qualifier time, then I will have 2 bites at the 100 cherry in subsequent years to have a crack at it with the drop-out rate on it pretty high!

Lake Windermere in front in the lengthening shadows.
From talking to people it turned out the familiar face of the walker on Fusedale was none other than Mel Giedroyc who was out hiking with friends!

I don’t do races for the swag or the bling - its not important to me and I have a collection of more tech tees from races than you can shake a big stick at these days, but I love the tee they gave us for this race - its never going to be run in, only worn with immense pride.

Speaking of tees, the ‘Eat Pies’ got plenty of love from marshals and passing walkers alike. I love the way the shirt makes a lot of people smile and helps to brighten their day.

Eat pies.
Drink beer.
Run far.

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