On Friday I drove up to Coniston to register for the third running of this event, my second attendance and first attempt at the 'full monty'. It was to be the biggest field by a long way with over 500 runners registered across the 100-mile and 50-mile events. It was great to meet up with so many friends and forumites from home and abroad. It helped to take my mind off what we were about to endure. I was impressed by the enthusiasm and attention to detail afforded by Marc Laithwaite and team to ensure that everything went as smoothly as possible. It inspired confidence. At the briefing we were honoured to have fell-racing legend Joss Naylor give us a few tips, then before we knew it we were outside the John Ruskin School in the warm afternoon sunshine dipping our SportIdent timing 'dibbers' to activate our race numbers in the timing system and awaiting Joss' official send-off at 5:30pm. Our time at each checkpoint would be recorded electronically by the timing system and uploaded live to the website so friends and family could follow our progress.
It goes without saying that the race commenced with a climb out of Coniston – 'The only way is up' – and so began our 104 miles with 23,000 feet of ascent and descent. Given the recent sudden and dramatic end to our 7-month dry period, the conditions could not have been better. Warm evening sunshine graced our journey around The Old Man of Coniston along the Walna Scar Road (rocky track) to checkpoint 1 at Seathwaite Village Hall. The next section around Harter Fell to checkpoint 2 at Eskdale Corn Mill in Boot went equally well. The same can be said for the third section past Burnmoor Tarn to Wasdale Head. Burnmoor Tarn was steaming gently in the cool, calm dusk air, which must have cooled below the water temperature. A watery orange moon was struggling to shine through thin cloud behind us as the light was fading. The time must have been around 10pm.
It was an unexpected bonus to reach the third checkpoint in the barn at Wasdale Head with just enough light to run by. Wasdale Head at 19 miles signified the start of the first serious climbs and descents on the inevitable rough boulder tracks. Fortunately I had reconnoitred from here early in 2009 on the guided reconnoitres, so I had a good idea of where I was going. Not only that but there were still plenty of other runners around to provide guiding lights. We climbed to Black Sail Pass before descending steeply to the River Liza and the Black Sail Hut Youth Hostel. Next came another climb up through Scarth Gap past Hay Stacks before descending to Lake Buttermere and checkpoint 4 at Buttermere Village Hall around the other side. I had now done a marathon and pushed the pace to the limits of reasonableness. It had taken me 7 hours 37 minutes. My pace could only slow from here.
I had been looking forward to the next section over Sail Pass to Braithwaite. The instructions I'd noted from our reconnoitre of over a year ago were etched in my mind and on my Tracklogs printout I was carrying – lots of forking left and forever climbing, cross three inlets, fork left up steep scree path at cairn + sheep scoop in soil, etc. It went like a dream and I descended to checkpoint 5, Braithwaite Church Hall 2 hours 17 minutes later for our first pasta meal. That section was 6.4 miles and there had been no slacking.
Next followed a brief flat section around the outskirts of Keswick and past Fitz Park before emerging back onto the fells as daylight returned. With over 32 miles now completed and my inevitable slowing being true to form, most of the runners I had been running with had now disappeared out of sight ahead and I found myself alone. Strangely yet familiarly from other ultras, after a more substantial feed I found my energy levels plummeting and negative 'can't go on' thoughts flooding my head. I could not trudge uphill any longer. I sat down on the next dry rock that came along and scoffed a Kellogg's Elevenses bar (the one with the subtle cinnamon flavour). It always works. I was on my feet within 5 minutes. I soon caught and overtook a chap who had passed me as I fell by the wayside. Ultras are filled with such highs and lows and swapping of places with other runners.
A lonely out and back along both sides of a big steep valley (where had the other runners gone?) eventually brought me to checkpoint 6 at the Blencathra Centre (40.8 miles). It had taken me 12:32 to get here. Compare that with last year when I needed only 12:16 to complete the whole 50-miler. Mark Dalton and Daniel Aldus were already at Blencathra, Danny tending to his blistered feet. I left before them but it wouldn't be long before they overtook me. This had been the pattern for a few sections now.
The Saturday morning sun was almost too warming as I climbed the old coach road to checkpoint 7 near Dockray (48.5 miles). Mark and Danny had been in sight but I was too slow to hold onto them, so I found myself alone again. After Dockray the route around Gowbarrow Fell was spectacular, with precipitous drops to my right. The sunlit views across Ullswater were captivating. I was alone for most of this 10-mile section to checkpoint 8, Dalemain, 58.5 miles, location of our drop bags and the 50-mile start. The marquee was set aside for we hundred-milers. I made good use of the facilities – pasta, rice pudding, Coke and a change of socks and replenishment of my supplies from my drop bag. Mark and Danny were there again, Danny tending to his feet. I took a picture of the 50-mile runners getting ready for their start before setting off on a route that was now more familiar from last year's 50. It still didn't prevent me getting lost in the fields of the Dalemain Estate, though. I was soon called back on course before too much damage was done to my slipping time.
Pooley Bridge had a few spectators giving their encouragement as we trudged past. Ben Abdelnoor, sitting on the steps of the church beside his bike, offered me words of encouragement as I passed by. Thanks Ben. I was tired and it did me good. As we climbed towards Askham Fell and turned right at the cairn, we kept glancing back for the first 50-milers. It wasn't long before a group of three racing snakes went steaming past with not a word uttered. I wasn't quick enough with the camera, but I was for the second pair, the two Martins. They did utter words of encouragement, and so it continued for the remainder of the event. The encouragement, camaraderie, positive vibes, even respect and awe, that we received from the 50-milers meant a great deal to us as we trudged and dragged our sorry backsides towards the impossibly distant finish. Thank you!
A quick fuelling at checkpoint 9, Howtown Bobbin Mill, 65.6 miles, was to set me up for the tough 9.2 mile section to Mardale Head. The climb up Fusedale to the highest point on the route is rather slow with nearly 70 miles in the legs. I was recalling how fast I did this last year and it felt as though I must have been superhuman. Hoards of 50-milers streamed past. I was happy to see many familiar faces and exchange a few words. Notable was Dave with his gorgeous Border Collie 'Charlie'. I'd heard the tinkle of a dog tag closing from behind and I knew it could be only one pooch. I wasn't wrong. Dave overtook me as I descended from High Kop (highest point). We exchanged a few words before he and his sidekick rapidly vanished towards 'that' descent to Haweswater.
Cloud, wind and intermittent drizzle were becoming more persistent as I picked my way perilously and vertiginously to the banks of Haweswater. The rocky, undulating path beside the reservoir to Mardale Head (checkpoint 10, 74.8 miles) seemed never-ending. I could not believe I ran most of it last year. By the time I'd arrived, the filth (i.e. wind and rain, Lake District style) had set in, so it was time to put on the serious coat. I still had 29 miles to go. I wondered how long it would take me at the speed I was going. Luckily I did not realise that it would be longer than in my worst nightmare.
The minimal facilities at Mardale Head encouraged me to get going quickly up Gatescarth Pass to get warm. I soon was as I overtook several others on the climb. As we descended the other side towards Sadgill, the rain began to show signs of abating. Things were looking promising by checkpoint 11, Kentmere, 81 miles. Ahh, Kentmere Institute. What a checkpoint. Fairy lights, music on an amazing-sounding iPod docking station, pasta, pudding, smoothies, friendly service. I didn't want to leave, but I did. The wind had dropped and the evening had turned warm and very humid, so the coat had to come off before the climb up the Garburn Pass.
The remainder became a blur of pain and tiredness. My feet, wet for so long, had become very painful with friction points and raw skin all over, apart from the blisters. Sometimes the pain would suddenly ratchet to a higher, sharper plain as a blister burst. Continuing to walk on the damage soon dulled it back to the background level. The second night had descended and serious tiredness began to kick in. I recall trudging up the lane to Troutbeck to a pounding bass beat and the sound of an engine. The village was in total darkness except for coloured flashing lights from the Village Hall. There must have been a power cut. A generator was providing the only power, which was being put to good use. I sat down on the seat on the village green and ate another pork pie to keep me going. I imagined stretching out and sinking into a blissful slumber, but I soon came to my senses and carried on as I felt the pork pie do its good work. I climbed Robin Lane out of Troutbeck as “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers started to pound out through the open doors. I swear the DJ must have seen my head torch through the doorway and decided to help me on my journey. By the time I arrived at checkpoint 12, the Lakes Runner shop in Ambleside (88.2 miles), where Mark and Danny were already ensconced, I had to have a nap. I curled up under the table for 30 seconds before my complaining knee forced me to stand up. What's the use. I'll just plod on.
With 'only' 15 miles left to do (little did I know it would take me another 7.5 hours) I set off on the familiar reconnoitred route to Chapel Stile. I was desperate for sleep. I looked out for any dry spot where I could curl up for half an hour. Conifer trees seemed to provide the best shelter. I imagined stretching out on the trail and being awoken within minutes by the next runner checking to see if I was still alive. I didn't want to be rudely awakened so I carried on. True to form, Mark and Danny overtook me again. I plodded on through Elterwater and arrived at checkpoint 13, Langdale School porch (93.1 miles) to a delightful beef stew and bread roll. Fantastic.
From here, quite a group of us including Mark got together. (Unfortunately Danny had to stay back to tend to his feet.) I was happy to tag along and let Mark navigate. I knew where we were going to beyond Blea Tarn but that water + bracken-infested section to the road seemed impossible. We were into our second dawn as we hit the road for the left turn downhill. For hours I had been mistaking boulders for sheep and vegetation & shadows cast by my head torch for various other creatures, people and objects, but as daylight increased I really saw things that weren't there. Mark was jogging along in front. I saw a sheep, which metamorphosed into a horse, which shook its head up and down and swished its tail. It disintegrated as Mark ran through it. Then I saw a big cow, a particularly butch specimen facing away from the track. It flicked its tail. It was a rocky outcrop. At one point I saw a car parked neatly in the most impossible place. It remained convincing and became a Mini as I got closer. Then suddenly those smart wheels were a couple of unimpressive rocky patches spaced well apart in a grassy bank. I needed sleep, NOW. I was almost crying I wanted it so much.
We hoisted ourselves into the last checkpoint at Tilberthwaite (CP 14, 100 miles). My feet were impossibly sore and forward motion, especially downhill, almost felt impossible. We didn't loiter long and it was 'every man for himself'. Mark and another chap from our group had disappeared up the steps up the disused quarry. I set off in pursuit, happy to have daylight to show where I was going (not that I had a problem last year in the dark). I climbed up the rock face (yes, really, it is a hands-and-feet job with precipitous drop to the right – not what you would want to be doing in a weakened state while falling asleep). Eventually the route brought me to the top to view the dramatic scene down below of the (functioning) quarry and mine workings. I sat down on a rock and nearly fell asleep. The feelings of foreboding that overwhelmed me are allude to at the beginning of this indulgent missive.
After picking my way down the final boulder field masquerading as a path, I hit the final track down into Coniston. Even down that runnable track I could only plod painfully at 2mph. Another 100-mile runner overtook me at this point, the first in a VERY long time. 50-mile finishers Jenny and Ken Wyles, informed by the live timing updates, knew of my imminent arrival and walked up to meet me. What a pleasant surprise. They accompanied me to the finish (103.5 miles) and did a fantastic job fetching and carrying for me in my weakened state. Thank you both! Now in the sanctuary of my sleeping bag and staring towards the lights on the hall ceiling, I slumbered luxuriously to the sound of applause for each subsequent finisher.
My final time was 38:16. Would I do it again? Would I??
I only took a few pictures, not enough along the route, unfortunately.
Postscript – Thurs 29/07.
I have just run the third of the series of four Manchester Sizzler 5k races. I managed 00:21:59, which is only 15 seconds short of my best for this year. My feet are much improved, while my gutless engine made my L100 slow enough to avoid trashing my legs. The way I feel now I could never imagine what I finished only four days ago. Bring on Dovedale Dipper on Sunday!