Thursday, 16 March 2017

Haworth Hobble 32mi. 11/03/2017.

Race 1 of 12 in the 2017 Runfurther ultra-running championships.

‘The Hobble’ always has a fast and competitive attendance but this year’s depth of field was exceptional. In addition to its familiar status as the first Runfurther race of the year and the first (arguably the largest) annual gathering of quality trail and fell ultra-runners, it was also a qualifying race for an international ultra-running championship. For the first time ever, entries had to be closed in advance at 500. The size of the entry was reflected by the registration queue, which wound its way out of the school, up the path, up the steps and onto the road, while the queue for the eight Portaloos snaked back and forth around the school grounds. A late start was certain. I was amazed when we were only barely 15 minutes late in shuffling our way up the Haworth cobbles towards Cemetery Road. Race organiser Brett, out of sight and earshot up the hill at the head of the throng, must have given the sign. Hundreds of conversations were suddenly cut short as we got on with the day’s task.

Gassing until the G of the silent BANG.

Bronte Bridge was soon reached. My shoelaces were already coming undone. The first climb to the stile queue provided the ideal opportunity to get them sorted out with double knots. We snaked our way via the first photographers of the day to Top Withins and down to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs. The flagstones, which thankfully were dry (apart from the submerged ones, obviously) made for easy running, while the runner at the front of the queue prevented overdoing of the effort early on.

Climbing from Bronte Bridge.

I was feeling good as we approached the first checkpoint at Widdop Reservoir (7.6 miles). Rick Ansell, a familiar face for many years on these events, overtook me for the final time as we climbed away from the reservoir. He slowly disappeared ahead on the long crossing to Hurstwood Reservoir. A steady stream of runners was now overtaking me. True to form, my slowdown had already begun. The leader over Top Withins must have been too fast after all. I’d probably need to set off walking to avoid a slowdown.

Rick follows me out of CP1. He would finish 53 minutes ahead.

The turbines on steroids (they’re much bigger than they used to be) loomed into view as we approached Checkpoint 2 at Long Causeway (13.3 miles). The aerofoils disappeared into the cloud base at the top of their rotation but the day was already shaping up to be warm. What little breeze there was had disappeared, and humidity was high. I grabbed a quick biscuit in the hope that its energy would somehow find its way into my legs and keep me going until Checkpoint 3 at Mount Cross (15 miles).

HOT DOGS, with cooked onions! I stumbled away from CP3 down the washed-out, freely swilling footpath-cum-stream bed in scoffing heaven. Ketchup smeared my chops. This would keep me going for a bit.

Sustenance at CP3.

For the first time ever we had to queue at the stile at the bottom in Todmorden. The event really was busy. The climb up the other side was laboured, to say the least. The hot dog didn’t quite have the effect I’d been wanting. The legs were emptying fast. Perhaps the whisky at Checkpoint 4 at Mankinholes (19.2 miles) would sort me out, if there’s any left.

TWO BOTTLES! AMERICAN OAK CASKS!! A snifter was dispensed and a fairy cake was downed to put out the fire.

A cheeky little snifter at CP4.

I set off running along the path to the foot of Stoodley Pike with renewed vigour. That’s as far as it lasted. The haul up to the Pike wasn’t pretty. The run/walk down the other side towards Hebden Bridge wasn’t much better. Andy and Sarah Norman caught me up on the descent down the road. Comments to the effect of “what are you doing back here?” were made. On the steep climb up the steps towards Heptonstall I virtually ground to a halt with no energy, jelly legs and feeling faint. I held onto the hand rails like some unfit thing who hardly ventures out of the house. Andy and Sarah said I should be speeding on miles ahead as they left me for dead in their wake. “Something’s not right”, I thought. “Perhaps I should go to the doctor for a full service and MOT”. Walking as fast as I could go up the road to Heptonstall I was still getting overtaken, but all the overtakers were walking too. I looked forward to the next food infusion at Checkpoint 5, New Bridge (24.5 miles).

Descending to Hebden Bridge before the haul up to Heptonstall.

JAM DOUGHNUTS! I sank my teeth into a soft, moist, luxuriously juicy example as I shuffled my way onwards and upwards. I was still getting overtaken by others whose walking was more energetic than mine.

I had just about missed my previous PB finish time (5:58) by the time I arrived at Checkpoint 6 at Grain Water Bridge (27 miles). Another refill of my water bottle and I was off up the road without wasting a second, in pursuit of anyone in my sights. I was overheating in the humid, stagnant air so I removed my long-sleeved running top. I felt an energy return as my sweat began to evaporate and cool me down. Running vest was far more appropriate right now. I walked and shuffled my way to Top of Stairs (yes, really), picking off one or two along the way. However, the group I was really targeting pulled away on the descent of the treacherous rocky track towards Lower Laithe Reservoir. I didn’t trust my clumsy jelly legs down that so clumsy bimble it was for me. I downed my second gel of the day to get me over Penistone Hill without getting caught. It must have worked because I continued to be the one doing the catching. However, it wasn’t quite enough to avoid another PW. I ran in to the finish in 6:51, equalling my PW of 2015, nicely in the bottom 29% of finishers. The good thing was, I didn’t feel wasted afterwards so I was fit for a productive first Runfurther committee meeting of the year and late return home. Being unable to run fast (or run at all) can have its advantages.

Seconds to finish.

Now if we look to the front end of the race, Thomas Payne was the first in 3:54:18 and first woman was Julie Briscoe in 4:31:54. Astonishingly, the first eight finished in under 4 hours. Furthermore, the previous record (I have no idea) was broken by the first few finishers (can anyone fill me in on the details?). I can image less what it must be like to cover that distance on foot over that terrain in that time than it must be to teleport, shape-shift, levitate or penetrate a wormhole through the space-time continuum to the finishing desk.

I took some pictures, which tend to concentrate around checkpoints when I wasn’t exerting my supreme efforts, or dying on a climb and seizing an opportunity for a few seconds' rest.

SportSunday's pictures are here.

Here are the the WoodenTops pictures:

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

So what happened after Lakeland 100 2016?

Even though I imagined otherwise, running races proved to be out of the question while the knee recovered from overuse. Both of them had been complaining for years, it has to be said. The increase in shorter faster races (mostly fell) over the past 3 or more years at the expense of some of the Ultras brought me to the brink and the Lakeland 100 was the final nail in the coffin

Up The Nab English Champs fell race, 07/05/2016, courtesy Over Yonder Photography.

The year became one of DNFs (Did Not Finish), DNSs (Did Not Start) and DNEs (Did Not Enter). Races that I did complete rewarded me with PWs.

One month after Lakeland 100 at the end of August I was booked to do the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I knew it was an impossible ask with my dreadful state of fitness and knee trying to recover, but since everything was already booked with my brother due to join me for the 10-day holiday in Chamonix, I went anyway. I was unsure about even starting but the weather was perfect, if rather warm, so I found myself among the crowd at the start ready to rumble but expecting to crash out on the first descent. Shockingly, as we waited through the announcements with music pounding our bodies, I found myself thinking: "I really don't want to do this".

Aw do I 'ave to? Can't make me.

Once underway I couldn't believe how tough the first climb felt. I didn't remember it like this. By the time we descended towards Saint Gervais it got dark. In previous years, darkness hadn't descended until miles past Saint Gervais. Runners were already falling by the wayside with the heat, lying down, vomiting. Fortunately I had no such problems. I had emptied two bottles of drink with electrolytes on that first section. My only problem was weakness and lack of any semblance of pace. Amazingly, the knee was holding out, so I had no excuse but to carry on in spite of my mind telling me otherwise. I departed the checkpoint less than half an hour ahead of the cutoff.

A little further along as I attended to a loose shoe lace I was caught up by the familiar forms of Martin Thomerson and Brandon Webb. Just when I was so desperate to throw in the towel I had the distraction of a couple of good running friends to snap me out of it and keep me on the running straight and narrow. Martin had almost finished writing a book about his ultra-running experiences and this event would provide the material for the final chapter. I have the book and it's a brilliant read I couldn't put down until I'd finished it. It Kept Me Off The Streets.

We ran through the warm night and into the next day, kicking up the dust from the dry trails. With each long, tortuous descent I was prepared for the knee to bring me to a halt, but no. I was able to plod on, checkpoint by widely-spaced checkpoint, to see how I went. As time progressed, my ultimate aim became to reach Courmayeur at 50 miles. This would be way beyond my initial assumption of not starting at all.

The first warning signs began to appear after dawn on the descent from Col de la Seigne towards Lac Combal, which was hidden beneath a blanket of valley fog.

Descent from Col de la Seigne.

The descent was steep and rocky and the knee finally began to 'talk' to me. It wouldn't have been so bad if we could have continued down the track to Lac Combal like in previous years, but a new gratuitous detour redirected us left, back upwards over boulder fields and snow fields to Col des Pyramides. A marshal blocked our passage down the original logical route. When I jokingly pretended to go that way he wagged his finger at me and said: "No no no, it's forbidden." We both had a good laugh before I dutifully turned left, upwards and off-piste with everyone else on the wild goose chase. I could see why the organisers did it. The views were stupendous. However with energy deserting my legs I had to take multiple sit-downs on boulders to eat yet another energy bar, admire the views and watch the stream of walkers plod slowly and wretchedly by, poles-a-clicking. (At least my hand-held bottles were silent.)

The detour via Col des Pyramides Calcaires.

I wasted so much time resting I was certain I'd miss the cutoff at Lac Combal. Partly to save the knee, partly through weakness but mostly because I'd given up, I ambled lazily down to Lac Combal ready for an interesting ride down from the mountains to sanctuary, so imagine my surprise to discover that cutoff was still an hour away. Oh bum. I needed rest so I laid down for a shut-eye. The sun warmed me nicely. In previous attempts it has still been in the middle of the night at this point.

After 20 minutes of listening to goings-on around me, including the departure of a 'retirement bus', feelings of guilt dragged me up to continue my journey along the glaciated valley and to the next climb to Arete du Mont Favre. The sun was high in the sky and it was hot. As we dragged ourselves upwards, the paparazzi helicopter buzzed us repeatedly before landing at the top behind a hillock.

On the long descending traverse to Col Checrouit I kept a lookout for the mountain top on the left and the Helbronner cable car station. My brother and I had surveyed our route from there a few days before after travelling across from the French side by cable car.

The checkpoint at Col Checrouit was not far off shutting down when I arrived. Previous times when I've been here we barely had the first signs of dawn in the sky over Courmayeur. Now we were basking in blazing sunshine. A live band was playing. I sat, listened and watched and applauded their skill. I had time to kill. I knew Courmayeur would be my ultimate destination and cutoff my saviour. Guilt finally forced me on my way when the Italian waiter from this mountainside restaurant that formed the checkpoint began to return his tables to normal service (cutlery wrapped in napkins and glass tumblers for water).

Approaching Col Checrouit.

I teetered / tottered / bimbled / ambled / whatever-other-slow-adjective-you-can-think-of my way down in the direction of Courmayeur, stopping along the way to take photos of the scenery and overtaking competitors. The temperature was baking so I was content to not be giving a toss and keeping my knee merely talking to me gently instead of screaming in violent protest. By the time I arrived at the bottom in the early afternoon, sunlight flooded the valley with the temperature pushing 30 deg C. In previous years, dawn has only just broken and it would be a long time before sunlight would reach the valley.

Steep dusty descent to Courmayeur - just what the knees ordered (not).

The Courmayeur checkpoint seemed strangely dead as I approached. There were no drop-bag monitors looking out for incoming runners and shouting race numbers back to the drop-bag crew. All we got now were the last remaining drop bags left hanging on racks for collection, without fanfare. I grabbed mine and climbed the stairs to the inner sanctum with 12 minutes to spare for a sit-down meal of pasta. My race was over - 50 miles in over 19 hours with some climbing involved.

Courmayeur - dead upon arrival.

For 50 miles I took a ton of pictures. It's the scenery.

Conclusion

Backing off on the speed and volume of running has done nothing for the fitness but it's allowed the knees to recover from the weekly hammering I'd been giving them. They feel better than they've done in years.

Some statistics for 2016:
Total distance                   >1,523 miles
Number of Ultras               11
Total Ultras (1996 - 2016) 200*
Number of races                74
Number of PBs                  3
Number of PWs                 17

* The Round Rotherham 50-miler in October (where I got a PW, naturally) was my 200th ultra-marathon.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Two more Lakeland 100s came and went

Lakeland 100 2015 rolled on by, where I ran in a pink tutu in honour of LittleDave Cumins, checkpoint captain extraordinaire at the Blencathra Centre. It was a strangely liberating and comfortable experience - despite the normal running attire underneath. ;-) It also served to mark the special occasion of my 500 mile award (five Lakeland 100s completed). Finishing time was 35:25:02 but that was after going backwards after Ambleside. After being on PB pace through the pub-goers of Ambleside with daylight to spare, the wheels well and truly fell off and the last 15 miles took me 8 hours to grind out. Night fell and sunrise returned during those 15 miles.

LittleDave appears right, resplendent in pink at Blencathra.

Dressing up by the checkpoint marshals has become a theme to add levity to the proceedings when the going gets tough. They compete to outdo each other. One or two runners give them a good 'run' for their money. L50 runner James Harris caught up with me as I left the Mardale Head checkpoint.

The full photo album can be found here.

Nick and James at Mardale Head.

The coveted 500 mile award in 2015.

Then Lakeland 100 2016 was soon upon us alarmingly quickly, with a few PBs and PWs in between (more PWs of late as the year marches on). This would be my 50th race, 9th Ultra and 2nd Hundred of the year. I was set up for an easier pace with Stuart Blofeld. Stu had recently completed the Wild Atlantic Way Audax on his ElliptiGO bike, an awesome achievement, so he wasn't planning on going fast. I would tag along with him in an orange tutu this time (less of a clash with the running club colours, don't you know). The weather was perfect - not too hot and it didn't rain. We jogged along through a warm and sweaty night (a familiar scenario on the L100) into a new dawn on Saturday at Braithwaite. The diversion after Blencathra due to the washed-out bridge had us bypassing the perfectly safe road crossing via the bicycle/pedestrian refuge to go 'round the houses' via the additional self clip to arrive back to where we could have been quite safely 10 minutes earlier. Jenni Cox, who was in our running group at that point, had her ear bent about 'elf an'safety nanny state gawn maird'.

Shuffling our way along the wrecked coach road to Dockray (those floods really did do some damage), the midges were mercifully scarce this year. I can't imagine why. The long section to Dalemain saw us enter the estate just after the L50 runners had been released. They would be on their circuit of the estate. I felt compelled to run as fast as I could to reach checkpoint and drop bag sanctuary before the first L50 runner caught us. This was the best time to arrive at Dalemain because the support from all the L50 supporters was so uplifting. I think they were cheering the tutu though. We all made it with time to spare. As we sat in the tent and the L50 runners streamed past, a streak of pink signalled the passage of LittleDave Cumins. He had managed the Blencathra checkpoint once again through the night before shutting up shop and getting himself to the L50 start to run it in a blistering 11 hours.

(Fairies reunite and clash colours at Blencathra.)

Suitably refreshed and re-socked to stave off trench foot and blisters, Stu and I were on our way to Howtown and beyond. As we ran through Pooley Bridge I was greeted by Mark Willet, who just happened to be walking along. I'm sure it must have had something to do with this most auspicious weekend. Great to see you, Mark.

(Pooley Bridge photo courtesy of Mark Willet.)

We mostly walked to Howtown in the afternoon heat. I tried to run a few times but soon gave up. Walking was definitely on the menu.

The hillbillies and cowboys at Howtown were really uplifting. This is essential at this stage, where we L100 runners are experiencing the suffer-fest. It's probably the heat of the afternoon taking its toll. When we arrived I was taken aback by ".... is all we've got left" ending the description of available comestibles. Surely we're not that far back down the field? Nevertheless, suitably refreshed (I would never have known), Stu and I plodded our way up Fusedale past the false summit to the ultimate high point at High Kop. From there we should have been able to run down to Low Kop but the legs were having none of it. I plodded, bringing up the rear.

The descent to Haweswater continued in the same vein until my left knee began to protest with alarming ferocity (strange, since it's always been the right one that's niggled the most for the past 7 years or more). By the time we reached the interminable 'path' beside Haweswater I couldn't load the knee at all. I'd already downed some Ibuprofen, which had done nothing for the pain. Stu offered a couple of Paracetamol. I'd not tried those before under such dire circumstances but I was willing to try anything. As I struggled along the minor descents over the next hour, standing and wondering how I could negotiate them and manage the pain, I realised that the Paracetamol were doing nothing either. The pain just got worse. I was crippled to a standstill. Tears of anger and screaming frustration welled up. There was no way I'd be able to manage the final 29 miles of ascents and DESCENTS after Mardale Head if a simple step down caused so much pain. Even walking on the flat and uphill was getting painful as I dragged in to Mardale Head at 75 miles, the most remote checkpoint where I would never choose to withdraw, no matter how bad things were. Trouble is, I couldn't walk any more.

Mardale Head: Stu would continue, I would stop.

I asked for a medic to give me a once over. She tested for quad tightness, leg flexibility, any signs of pain with passive bending of the leg. Nothing. I was in good shape. Yeah, right. Try active bending of the leg. Get me to walk down a step, a gentle slope and you'll soon know about it. My Sportident dibber was unceremoniously hacked from my right wrist and I was officially retired from my 6th Lakeland 100. Stu had stuck with me dutifully as I dragged in to Mardale but he was now free to continue without external impediment to his first L100 finish. Thanks Stu for your company and support while I wallowed in self pity.

I realised afterwards that I should have offered him the tutu to continue its journey to the end. Perhaps I saved him from embarrassment by not 'thinking on' and foisting it upon him. I sat in the checkpoint drinking tea and soup and eating sandwiches provided by the caring marshals. I'd been cooking a load for a good few hours by now so I seized the opportunity of my retirement to have a relaxing sit-down and add to the pile in one of the two well-used Portaloos, still toasty from the day's unbroken sunshine. Flies tickled my bottom as I relaxed and pondered my ignominious situation. The fact that I have to use such facilities these days on a Hundred tells me how well I eat compared to years ago, when the need never arose until well after the finish.

After returning to the checkpoint I soon began to shiver in the rapidly cooling evening air. A frigid night was in store. A marshal suggested I board the retirement bus ready for the next departure after dark. Very soon I couldn't bear to sit in a seat with legs screaming with pain as they began their recovery process. I had to get out and walk around to get some relief. I was shivering uncontrollably. A kindly marshal offered me a place in her car as she was about to return to Coniston. Another needy retiree joined us. Oh the joy: I could sit with legs outstretched. On the way we did a circuit of Ambleside in the last remnants of dusk to cheer the runners on. I should have been right there right then, getting cheered at myself.

I made my first ever premature return to the school without announcement or fanfare, sidling my way in sideways hoping to go unnoticed; no medal, no T-shirt. I'm not used to this. The good thing was that Stu went on to finish successfully on Sunday morning after 38 hours and 15 minutes out there.

Saturday night recovery positions at Coniston.

Stu completes in 38hrs 15mins.

Stu took a video record of the event.

My full photo album is here.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Montane Lakeland 100 (105mi.) Fri 25 - Sun 27/07/2014.

Nearly 2 years overdue but I thought it was about time I finished this report with L100 2016 nearly upon us.

I wasn’t in tip-top condition for this. From being fighting fit a week earlier with 4 PBs for the month, infection, fever and a strong course of antibiotics that would end as the race began had left me feeling less than energetic.

The long hot summer of 2014 was continuing very nicely when I arrived in Coniston on Thursday afternoon. A notice on the door of the B&B asked guests to check their shoes for contamination before entering. A recent cheapskate cosmetic tarting-up of the local roads, combined with the hot sunshine, was resulting in tar and gravel being trodden in. Friday was forecast to be equally hot. If it was hot enough to be melting tar I feared melting ultra-runners as well. It was going to be tough.

Before dinner I wandered around to the school to begin to soak up the atmosphere. They were beavering away getting things ready. A major delivery of provisions had just arrived. I joined many others with the unloading, carrying and storing while Marc ticked things off his long list. Many hands made light work but even so, dinner was severely delayed. There was LOADS of stuff. The ‘Rola Cola’ alone was at risk of creating its own gravitational disturbance. I marvelled at the logistical enormity of the whole operation.

A hearty breakfast on Friday continued my strength build-up. I drove around to the school to park up for the weekend. Registration was slicker than ever:
Follow the barriers through kit check;
Race pack collection;
SPORTident timing dibber fitting to wrist;
Weighing – 62.9kg – I’d lost 2kg.

The rest of the day was mine to relax, chat with new arrivals, doze in the car (I needed the doors open for cooling even though I was parked under the shade of a tree), eat lunch. Mmmm, fish and chips. Stephen McAllister knows what’s good for him.

Pre-race fuelling.

The race briefing at 16:30 was as informative and entertaining as ever. Race Organiser Marc Laithwaite hit the nail on the head with his analysis of the reason people give for running an Ultra:
“Why?”
“To challenge myself.”
But it only becomes a challenge when it becomes difficult, when the suffering really sets in. When you’re sitting at a checkpoint feeling bad, you have a choice. You can decide to call it a day and end your suffering early or you can decide to get up, walk out and continue your journey to the end. Barring physical injury (forget superficial tissue damage like blisters) it all depends on mental fortitude to keep going. Then you’re challenging yourself.

I would try to keep those thoughts in my mind and hope that they would get me through to the end. This might have been my 19th Hundred and 4th Lakeland 100 but nothing’s guaranteed and I certainly wasn’t feeling invincible. To add an extra minor uncertainty I would be trying a brand new pair of Scarpa trail shoes just picked up on Thursday morning. They felt very comfortable so I wasn’t too worried.

I had another lie-down in the cool of the school before the start, delaying until the last minute my exit to deposit my drop bag in the heat. It contained precious ham rolls that had to last another 3 days. As we waited to funnel into the starting pen, Charlie Sharpe came up to say ‘ow do. Although I’d followed his impressive exploits on Facebook (he’s a bit of an animal is Charlie), the last time we’d spoken in person was after the Tour de Helvellyn last December. My money was on him as a possible winner. Garry Scott was another good running acquaintance that was remade. The Lakeland 100 is good for bringing us together like that.

Finally we filed into the pen, dibbing to register our participation as we went. I immediately took up position trespassing near the front line to mix it with the big boys. Crowds lined the barriers inside the school grounds and out onto the streets. Former L100 winner Stuart Mills called across from the other side of the barriers. He’d be running the L50. He wished me luck. I suspect he was thankful not to be setting off in this oven we were experiencing. It was in the high twenties and the sun baked us, aided and abetted by high humidity and zero breeze.

Just before the start the adopted L100 theme song (or dirge if it's not your cup of coffee; I prefer tea), Nessun Dorma, was belted out over the PA by professional tenor Alexander Wall. He coped amazingly well despite the dodgy PA with blown tweeters (just like the old Peaveys in the school hall) and DJ mode which shut off the orchestra backing whenever he sang. Like a true professional he kept perfect time and tune while having to sing from memory, audible cues only appearing when he paused and the orchestra burst forth once again. Come on Marc, get it sorted for 2016. I offered my services on your blog post but the comment failed to appear.

Good singer, shame about the equipment.

Coniston to CP1 Seathwaite (7.0 miles)

We were off, running at conservative pace through Coniston to the cheer of the crowds. We joined the stony track that climbed out of Coniston, where those with any sense and those without superhuman tendencies slowed to a walk. I welcomed the break already. It was hot. Ben Abdelnoor was cheering from the side lines. I assumed he’d be doing the L50 again and wished him luck, but he wasn’t this year.

The SportSunday photographers were in their usual place near the start of the Walna Scar Road, capturing some superb images in the strong evening sunshine.

I sensed right from the start that my fitness was lacking. Where I ran last year, I jogged. Where I jogged last year, I walked. Where last year I ran from the summit of the Walna Scar Road as if on a fell race overtaking all before me, this year I tottered clumsily and weakly while everyone else overtook me instead. I was already 8 minutes behind last year’s time at CP1 but the thought of not finishing never entered my head. I’d emptied my drink bottles and needed a major refill plus electrolyte infusion. That first checkpoint was manic with water all over the kitchen floor and severely overloaded marshals.

Seathwaite to CP2 Boot (14.0 miles)

I was doing so much walking as our journey continued in the sultry evening with the setting sun glaring in our faces. I was 28 minutes down by the time I arrived at CP2 in fading light, resigned to my slower pace. I’d enjoyed some more banter with the SportSunday photographers before the checkpoint, to which a fellow runner remarked: “Would you mind curbing your fan club, Nick.” I laughed some more.

The steep descent to Eskdale before CP2 @ Boot.

Boot to CP3 Wasdale Head (19.4 miles)

Sun shade cap got swapped for head torch before leaving CP2. It was virtually dark by the time I reached Burnmoor Tarn. Last year I’d have been at Wasdale Head by now. I’d resisted switching my head torch on. I took the obligatory photo of the tarn in the gloaming, this time having to rest the back of the camera on the footbridge cross-member to steady it for the 1.5 second exposure time.

We were made to feel loved as we passed through the gate onto the grassy footpath before CP3. An arrow pointed the way and the notice read: “Beautiful people this way”. The marshals on this event are second to none with their encouragement. They all wore marshal T shirts with “Supporting the legends” printed on the back. Cheering and bell-ringing led us to CP3 in the barn, which was as colourful as ever with its disco lights and hippy personnel. I was 45 minutes down here but did I care?

I’d swapped back and forth with Fredelina Yong. We’d done battle on a couple of local fell races earlier this year, me beating her once and her beating me once. We were good competition for each other. She came in to the checkpoint just as I was about to leave. I’d be seeing more of her I was sure.

Wasdale Head to CP4 Buttermere (26.3 miles)

I left CP3 with renewed vigour, overtaking others on the climb to Black Sail Pass. The steep descent to the River Liza and Black Sail Yoof ‘ostel is rough and treacherous at the best of times, but in the dark it’s something else. Head torches spread out below me as I descended in their general direction. I soon realised that I was on a pleasant though very steep grassy descent that was better than I recalled, and it was dry. A prominence of land loomed to my right. The closer runners I’d been chasing were no longer in view. I must have inadvertently drifted off the path to the left and they must have been over the other side on my right. I wasn’t concerned because I was still descending in the right direction, and underfoot conditions couldn’t have been better. Further down at the end of the prominence, the other runners appeared and our paths merged onto the final boggy descent to the footbridge. (That bit is never dry, even in dry conditions like now.) At the bottom I looked back up at the pursuing head torches scattered across the fell side.

I’d forgotten how tough the next climb and descent to Buttermere is. On the climb a runner was bent over by the side of the path, vomiting repeatedly. He must have emptied the contents of his stomach, and some. We asked after his welfare. I asked if he wanted a message relaying to the next checkpoint. He said yes. I memorised No. 17. I feared it would be a long delay because I wasn’t moving fast at all. I walked most of it, taking the right fork and lakeside path for the first time on the approach to Buttermere (it’s much better with fewer undulations than keeping straight on).

I was 1hr 5mins down at CP4 and it had taken me nearly 8 hours to run a marathon. We were still legends though. I informed a marshal about stricken number 17. I was genuinely concerned about him and wondered how he’d make it all that way to sanctuary when so incapacitated. Only afterwards when I checked the results to see what became of him did I discover that not only did he finish, he actually caught me up at that checkpoint!

I enjoyed my first ham roll to get me fuelled and on my way to Braithwaite. So far my fuelling and hydration had been going well, with no nausea and no extreme lows, but it was still early days.

Wasdale Head to CP5 Braithwaite (32.8 miles)

I always look forward to this section. It’s challenging and interesting even in the dark – ascend around three inlets, fork left, climb some more to the top then navigate and descend very carefully; it’s steep. We moved under a clear, moonless, starry sky. The air remained warm and sultry and I was sweating still in the shorts and sleeveless base layer I started with. I began to dread sunrise and the heat that would come with it.

The first signs of dawn were already starting to appear as we descended towards Braithwaite. I would have left Braithwaite by this point last year. I was pleased though to see more of my surroundings than I’m used to at this point.

It’s a long descent before we finally fork left through Barrow Door just before Barrow hill. A couple of head torches could be seen wandering about on the top. They’d failed to take the fork. They set off in pursuit when they saw my head torch on the correct path. They soon overtook me.

As we enter Braithwaite and the sharp right turn that zigzags down to the bottom, it’s surprising how others continue straight on to take the long way round. This year was no exception. I called them back but they knew best. I’d gained on them and a few more as we arrived at the church hall. I was now 1hr 6mins down – just about ‘holding my own’.

Every year, Braithwaite provides the first scene of proper suffering, with runners trying to nurse themselves back to health with the right amounts of the right food and the right drink to allow them to carry on. I didn’t feel too bad considering. I felt like an impostor in an institution of wretchedness. Tony and Giselle Dudley and helpers do a grand job every year, helping us back to health here.

Images of wretchedness abound at Braithwaite.

Braithwaite to CP6 Blencathra Centre (41.3 miles)

As always, the air felt frigid upon exiting the church hall even though it was well after daybreak. It is because this is a low point and the cold air always gathers in the valleys. It would get much warmer again as we gained altitude.

On the gradual climb to the first self-dib point I caught up with Raj Madhas, who was taping his feet. They were not in a good way. Raj was another runner I’d swapped back and forth with over the miles. As I plodded onward it wasn’t long before he came running past. He must have some magic tape. As for my own feet, everything felt fine apart from pressure points making themselves felt on the tops.

The sun rose unbroken and unobscured in clear sky as we approached the self-dib. I wanted shelter from it. We got that when we crossed to the other side of the valley for our descent towards the Blencathra Centre. I walked most of the way. I tried to run but the legs were having none of it. I got overtaken aplenty.

I knew that CP6 had a new crew – Team Little Dave – but I did not expect to be greeted by a pink fairy. Even the Union Jack was colour coordinated. Little Dave, a top bloke if ever there was one, had excelled himself to lift our spirits and lighten our early morning Lakeland 100 misery (well, this is a common low point). However I wasn’t feeling too bad, still managing to avoid any major lows. I was now 1hr 7mins down so still just about ‘holding my own’. Second ham roll got scoffed here for the next long stage.

CP6 had improved under its new leadership – less sterile and more homely. The camouflage ‘modesty screens’ probably added that extra feeling of intimacy / cosiness / homeliness. If you want to know how that works you’ll have to do the event next year. Little Dave knows what he’s doing.

The fairy flits around his domain at Blencathra.

Blencathra Centre to CP7 Dockray (49.0 miles)

We negotiated the fallen tree just after CP6 that we’d been warned about. On the descent of the lane and right turn through the gate to the railway track bed, three open air campers were sleeping on the left. Either they were pretending to sleep or they were inebriated, because the regular clanging of that gate since dark o’clock would surely have prevented any normal sleep.

The climb to the old coach road was completely dry and bog-free. The sun was higher in the sky than I’m used to at this point, but thankfully the intensity I’d been fearing overnight was now being slightly tempered by some high level cloud.

The coach road dragged on interminably, especially when mostly walked. As we approached CP7 we were greeted by cheering, bell-ringing marshals. Such encouragement is priceless on an event like this. One of them commented to me: “I’m glad I didn’t have to come out to meet you this year.” Quite, and what a memory. No fuelling problems this year. J I was now back to 48 minutes down, due mainly to the multiple sit-downs I had to take last year until the digestion came back to life.

I tried to recapture some of last year’s fuelling magic at Dockray. I finished the third ham roll I’d started on the coach road and washed it down with the first strong coffee of the event to really kick the digestion into action like it did last year.

Dockray to CP8 Dalemain (59.1 miles)

The fuelling worked to a degree. I was running and catching people again for a few miles. On the path around Gowbarrow Park overlooking Ullswater it was as hot as ever. 2014 was right up there with the hottest of them.

By the time we reached the lanes into Dacre I was reduced once more to a walk. Those I’d caught and been running with disappeared into the distance. I needed a bottle refill to mix some electrolytes and started to scan buildings for outside taps. Soon I passed a farm with someone working outside. I walked up to beg for water. He already seemed to know what we were doing and was happy to oblige. He led me into a dingy barn and switched on the 60W bulb. It made no difference. We could just about make out two taps on the wall, one hot and one cold. He tried both. “I’m not sure which one’s the cold one. I think it’s this one.” He left it running for me to fill my bottle. It was tepid but I put that down to the exceptionally warm summer we were enjoying. I thanked him and wandered up the road to sit cross-legged to get the electrolyte tablet to pop in. I thought about the taps, their plumbing arrangement and the sound the water had made as it came out. A horrible thought began to dawn on me. There had been an absence of hiss, which suggested an absence of pressure:
“That was the hot tap he made me fill my bottle from!”
Images of a polluted header tank with unmentionable dead things in it flooded my mind. This might provide the tipping point to hospitalisation on top of the sweating and gently festering ham rolls that were keeping me going.

Due to my slower pace and the half-hour earlier start time of the Lakeland 50 (11:30 instead of 12:00) I had not expected to see any L50 runners, so I was delighted to see streams of runners circling the perimeter of the Dalemain Estate as I entered. I found their encouragement to be really uplifting when they saw the L100 race number on my backpack and broke out into spontaneous applause. This event really has got every detail covered to create the best possible ultra-running family of mutual understanding and respect. Name, number and event on backpack inform following runners, allowing them to pass comment or whatever, should they so wish.

Applauding 50-milers leave me standing at Dalemain.

I was ready for a sit-down upon my arrival at CP8. I was back to 1 hour down but I couldn’t give a whatsit. I was doing the best I could and I was resigned to it taking longer. I was still moving forward and feeling as contented as it was possible to feel at 59 miles of the Lakeland 100. I sat cross-legged on the grass in the marquee. A marshal brought my drop bag in double quick time and I gave my camera lens its first proper clean (rather than a smearing on my shorts) using a fresh sock. Ultra-running animals and legends Jon Steele and John Vernon gave their encouragement from outside (penetration of our inner sanctum was forbidden). I was waited on with meat stew and bread, Swiss roll and custard, and tea. Raj Madhas sat in the corner tending to his feet again. This would be the last time I’d see him before the finish (and finish he did). With a fresh pair of socks and a restocking of supplies including three more ham rolls, nicely warmed and humming quietly to themselves, I gave my thanks and departed.

The Dalemain sanctuary.

Jon and John look in from beyond the threshold.

Dalemain to CP9 Howtown (66.2 miles)

The early afternoon sunshine was at full strength again as I walked away feeling contentedly fuelled. I was alone again but it wasn’t long before I caught up with a lone 100-miler followed by the 50-mile back marker. It was nice to chat in passing. On the climb out of Pooley Bridge the suffering really began to set in. Digestion was showing the first signs of rebellion and I was not able to drink as much as I should. I walked virtually every step to Howtown, by which point I was in serious drink deficit.

Little Dave was on his way back up the hill as I descended to CP9. He was doing the L50 with his brother. Mutual encouragement flowed freely. He told me afterwards that I’d looked rough.

I wandered into the checkpoint 1hr 17mins down, worried at the state I’d suddenly found myself in and genuinely fearful for the next long, tough, hot, exposed stage to Mardale Head. It would be foolhardy to start it. Garry Scott reminded me afterwards that he spoke to me and helped while he was waiting for the bus transport back to base. He had retired a few hours earlier. I had little recollection of this. Was I really that far gone?

What I do remember is struggling to find level ground for the chair I was sitting on and a marshal expressing concern for the runner who’d been lying down to recover before going off for a swim in the lake to cool off. She’d given him strict instructions to paddle, not swim (for obvious safety reasons) and he still wasn’t back. A short while later, Brian ‘Stolly’ Stallwood appeared looking very wet.
“Did you swim?” she asked.
“Yes”.
“Naughty boy. I’ll confiscate your strawberries for disobeying orders.”

Stolly had decided to call it a day. He was burning up in the heat and could not imagine embarking on the next stage up Fusedale. This reinforced my own fears. I downed the remainder of the electrolyte drink made with the header tank water at Dacre plus another bottle with the last of the checkpoint’s orange squash. I began to feel a bit more lucid.

With drink bottles topped up (water in right hand and Cola in left as usual) I stood up with Marc Laithwaite’s words ringing in my ears. I chose to walk out and continue on my way despite the voice of sense and rationality in my head telling me to stop. A sign at the exit that said “Just get on with it” helped to galvanise me into action.

Venturing forth into the unknown.

Howtown to CP10 Mardale Head (75.6 miles)

I knew I was doing everything in my power not to fail as I walked up that lane in ‘the oven’. I had as much drink as I could carry and I knew the streams where I could top up when (not if) it ran out. I had more than enough food to keep me going for hours. I had my sun cap to keep the worst of the sun’s heat off my head. I had the emergency survival gear we must take on events of this nature. I’d just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If it went really pear shaped on the climb I could turn around and go back to the checkpoint.

I crossed the footbridge that led us back onto the fell. A female runner was in distress by the side of the path with a male runner giving advice and spelling out her options, one of which was to return to Howtown. It was sobering. As we ascended Fusedale I realised that I was catching and overtaking both L50 and L100 runners (don’t know why but that always seems to happen here, no matter how slowly I think I’m going). I arrived at the oasis where the stream passed underneath the path and a weather-beaten tree provided shade. Runners were sitting in recovery, drinking from the stream or cooling themselves in it, dipping caps and refilling water bottles. I felt no need for any of that and walked on through.

Resting in the shadow by the oasis.

As I climbed, people in varying states of disrepair rested by the side of the path, sitting, bent over looking quite ill, vomiting, or lying down trying to grab 40 winks in the blazing sunshine. As the path became rather steep a woman was sitting by the side in tears. I asked what was wrong. She was having a panic attack over the enormity of what she had taken on. I could understand because I hadn’t been far off that myself. I tried to help her to rationalise her thoughts:
Did she have plenty of drink with her? Check.
Did she have plenty of food? Check.
Sun protection, cap, etc.? Check.
I explained that there are streams where she can refill her bottles if her supplies ran out. If she carried on putting one foot in front of the other, looking after herself along the way, she’d get there no problem. If she really didn’t think she could go on, the best would be to walk back down to Howtown. I don’t know if she continued. I hope she did.

I began to realise that the sun wasn’t as intense as it could have been. A high layer of thin cloud had moved in to take the heat off. In addition, a cooling breeze kept blowing from over the hill. By the time I reached the high point of the event at High Kop, conditions were quite pleasant and bearable. However the oomph was deserting my legs once again and the runners I’d overtaken on the climb now began to overtake me on the descent.

By the descent towards Haweswater I had to sit down to eat ham roll number 4 (the first of the ones that had stewed in my drop bag). I washed it down with the remainder of the Cola I’d carried from Howtown. At the big footbridge I refilled the freshly emptied bottle in the stream. I found the new improved path to the right that joined the narrow, undulating rocky path beside Haweswater, by which point I was feeling surprisingly energetic again. I ran most of that path (at least the parts that are runnable) to Mardale Head, overtaking many L50 and a few L100 runners in the process. Even so, the checkpoint took much longer to appear than I thought it would. That path really does drag on.

I was 1hr 37mins down by the time I arrived. Steve Mee was a familiar friendly face helping out on the checkpoint. I asked for a Cola top-up. “Sorry, none left.” The checkpoint looked rather depleted as if I was Tail End Charlie, but cut-off was still a long way off yet and there were still plenty of runners behind me. This was the only checkpoint that appeared prematurely run-down like this. I know it’s remote but I hope it can be better supplied in future.

Arriving at Mardale Head. The Rola Cola wasn't the only thing in drought.

Mardale Head to CP11 Kentmere (82.1 miles)

I set off climbing to the next pass and soon forgot about the Cola denial. As in previous years, the clouds were beginning to thicken. The descent of the other side down that rocky, treacherous track was even more interminable and unrunnable than ever. I couldn’t do anything other than walk. As Kentmere gradually drew closer, true to form the first rain started to fall. I just avoided having to put waterproofs on before arriving at the Institute. Does it ever not rain at Kentmere? I was now 1hr 43mins down.

Jenn Gaskell provided a warm welcome and waited on me admirably with tea, smoothie and savoury pasta. They really hit the spot. Jenn has taken on some serious Ultra challenges in recent years so she instinctively knew what we needed. I took my time emptying my shoes of stones and letting my increasingly sore feet dry out a little. All this walking was tugging at the soles, causing them to break down. That’s normal. What wasn’t normal was the pressure point that had definitely developed on the 5th metatarsal on my right foot. The shoe uppers seemed to be less than ideal.

Jenn provides a nice welcome at Kentmere.

The rain was still coming down so on went the waterproof top and bottoms. It was also well on the way to getting dark so camera got put away and sun cap got swapped for head torch once more in readiness for the second night. I felt in no mood to venture out again but “I’ve started so I’ll finish”.

Kentmere to CP12 Ambleside (89.4 miles)

I left the checkpoint with freshly filled Cola and water bottles. Within 30 seconds there was an explosion to my left and something hit the side of my face before landing on the grass verge. The Cola gas pressure had blown the top off my drink bottle. I made sure I released the pressure more regularly after that.

I resumed my walk-cum-shuffle and immediately began to overheat. Typical. Unzipping jacket and rolling up sleeves wasn’t enough. I was burning up. I stopped to take the jacket off and put it back in my rucksack. A minute later, big rain drops started to hammer down. TYPICAL. I carried on for a few more seconds to see if it would stop but it only got heavier. I hurled verbal abuse at the sky as I took rucksack off again to retrieve jacket, during which time I got soaked and nicely cooled down. After that I was able to move in comfort through the deluge even with the jacket on. Bonus!

I wasn’t used to doing this in the dark without the visual cues to jog my memory. I caught up and tagged along with runners ahead, moving forwards to join other runners whenever I felt able. Running was off limits; we just walked or shuffled as fast as we were able. The rain was mercifully short-lived and soon died out to reveal another moonless starlit sky. As we approached Skelghyll Woods I was moving ahead but there were no more head torches in sight. I knew not to descend left too early like I did last year. Navigation went perfectly into Ambleside then went awry just before the checkpoint when I turned left too early. I and another runner who’d followed me floundered about in the church yard trying to get to the checkpoint building which we could see, before realising that we had to exit the way we’d gone in and follow the road round to reach it.

We entered the sauna that is CP12 (it’s always too hot in there). I was now 2hrs 13mins down. Ham roll number 5 got washed down by another cup of tea to set me up for what I always feel is the homeward stretch: only 15 miles to go.

Ambleside to CP13 Chapel Stile (95.0 miles)

I tried not to linger too long before heading out across the park to hit that steep track upwards and chase down the next head torch beams. I was feeling much less alert than I usually do. In fact I felt as if my brain was shut down and just functioning enough for survival. What was strange was that, even though I was so tired there were no visual anomalies in my peripheral vision, no hallucinations, nothing. I was just a brain-dead zombie in pursuit of head torch beams ahead.

I soon tagged onto another group. By the time we reached the flat, oh-so-runnable riverside path to Elterwater I could only walk at 2mph. The others went ahead. When I reached the other end I went around the car-park in circles trying to find my way out to the road. My brain was frazzled. At that point the others came back down the road, having turned right by mistake. We found our way to the track on the left hand side of the river up to the quarry. I caused a bit more off-route floundering in Chapel Stile before we found the track to the camp site then CP13 with the aid of someone’s GPS. (2hrs 33mins down.)

The Langdale checkpoint was big, spacious and an oasis of calm. The meat stew has always worked wonders here, restoring energy to tired legs, so I had some with bread, and coffee for that extra caffeine kick. I was ready to go but the people I’d entered the checkpoint with weren’t, so I jumped up to join another group that was just leaving.

Chapel Stile to CP14 Tilberthwaite (101.5 miles)

Unlike last year when I led a group of 50-milers from CP13 in unbelievably energetic haste, this time I was following, dragging my sorry a*se and trying to stay awake. We came to the high ladder stile with Conservative tendencies (pronounced leaning to the right). I made a hash of descending the other side on my uncharacteristically tired legs, missing the bottom rung and landing in haste on all fours between and astride rocks. No damage was done but the top popped off my drink bottle again. The Cola I’d carried from Kentmere soaked into the ground. There’d be no more after that.

In stark contrast to last year I trudged weakly up the steep climb after the left turn, always bringing up the rear. The first hint of daylight just allowed us to glimpse Blea Tarn on our left as we headed towards the dreaded rocky then boggy navigation to the second and final self-dib at the lane. I’m not used to having daylight to navigate by at this point. We walked down the lane to turn right onto the interminable track up and over to Tilberthwaite. ‘Interminable’ becomes a lifetime when you can hardly walk. I was utterly spent with nothing left in the legs. Those I’d been shuffling with quickly disappeared into the distance and over the horizon, leaving me to trudge in self-pity and utter wretchedness. My legs were dead and my feet were sore. The Scarpas weren’t doing me any favours after all. I eventually trudged into the final checkpoint 3hrs 12mins down.

Tilberthwaite to FINISH Coniston (105.0 miles)

I spent as little time as possible sitting down at Tilberthwaite, just enough for a bit of food and another coffee in the hopes that the caffeine might kick-start something, anything, into action. I walked up the steps and paused at the top to look back down onto the checkpoint. I rarely get to see it in daylight. I wished I had my camera out. As I walked slowly to the final high point I got overtaken by another 100-miler who was also walking, but not as slowly as I was. Then I was alone again for the steep, rocky descent, which I took painfully slowly and clumsily.

Once onto the runnable track down into Coniston I was too weak to take advantage. I tried to run and failed. I could only trudge at barely 2mph. As I did so, “Huge Guy” came bounding past me at speed to finish 3 places and 9 minutes ahead. I had run with him and swapped back and forth for most of the event. His name was Hugh-Guy but his rucksack strap covered the label to leave “Hug Guy”, so he effectively became “Huge Guy” for the duration of that event until his rucksack was unbuckled.

When I hit the tarmac at the bottom of the track I took my shoes off to ease the foot pain and walk the final half mile to the finish in socks only. The relief was immense. The strappy uppers of the shoes (part of the lacing system) had pressed into the tops of my feet and bruised the metatarsals. Someone who was walking up the track must have taken pity on me. He turned around and walked with me to the school, offering words of encouragement. My final dib in 37:21 was 3hrs 43mins behind last year’s time. I was led into the hall to an announcement and a round of applause, draping of medal, issuing of finisher’s T-shirt, surgical removal of dibber and printout of split times. I was elated to have finally finished so the recovery process could commence – drying out, mug of tea, large bacon and 2 egg barm and crash-out on the crash mat with distant sounds of finishers and applause ringing in my subconscious.

It was hard won this year.


Photo album is here.