It was 07:59 and I was standing at the start line for the Lakes in a Day 2019 ultramarathon.
Everyone around me looked nervous, it felt unnervingly quiet and I felt sick to the stomach. What lay ahead was a 50 mile race from Caldbeck to Cartmel covering the length of the Lake District from north to south. With over 12,000 feet of elevation and self navigation, I was way out of my comfort zone but nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead...
We'd picked the kids up from school on Friday and headed straight to Bolton-upon-Dearne in Barnsley, North Yorkshire. The plan was to drop the boys off at the in-laws for the weekend then Ruth and I would drive straight to Darlington, spending the night with Ian and Naomi before heading to registration at Caldbeck the following morning.
A combination of Friday afternoon traffic and heavy downpours meant that the journey up north had been slow, frustratingly slow. We arrived at the in-laws later than planned, had some dinner, sorted the boys out then drove straight to Darlington, arriving just before 10pm. We got the pleasantries out the way then headed straight to bed. The alarm was set for 4am so it wasn't the best pre night preparation.
My kit was all packed and ready to go. I'd been monitoring the weather conditions intently all week and was becoming increasingly concerned by the forecast; with high winds and torrential rain forecast for the majority of the day. Not ideal to say the least but I was confident I'd packed accordingly to cope with the extreme conditions. With my OCD taking over, I'd ticked off the mandatory kit list, plus extra kit, on numerous occasions to ensure I hadn't forgotten anything.
|Checking the kit off against the mandatory kit list|
Training had gone well despite a couple of injury scares. In a 21 week training cycle, I'd managed to fit in 538 miles, or the equivalent of running direct from Birmingham UK to Odense in Denmark. I'd also completed the Teesdale Way from it's source in Cumbria to the sea at Redcar, covering a distance of 92 miles over 3 days. I'd tried to replicate the elevation gain in training, although living in the Midlands this proved to be challenging. I knew I had the distance in my legs but the elevation gain, weather conditions and technical terrain were always going to be the biggest challenge.
The alarm went off at 4am. I hadn't slept well but strangely wasn't tired. I'd been awake for a while thinking about the challenge ahead. I jumped in the shower then headed downstairs for breakfast. I managed to force down a cup of tea and a jam bagel, my usual pre race breakfast and nervously joked about the task in hand with Ian, who was also entered into the race. Ian had previous with LiaD, DNF'ing at Ambleside last year due to a combination of Storm Callum and pre-existing injuries so he had his own incentive to finish. We'd discussed previously about starting the race together but agreed that we'd run our own race dependant upon how we felt as the race progressed. Ian is a much better runner than I am so I had no issues with that strategy; the last thing I wanted was to feel pressurised into running too fast to keep up with him, or worse still, slowing him down. 50 miles is a long way, add to that the elevation, terrain and your mood on the day, a lot can happen so it's best to concentrate on your own race.
I'd read a lot about race strategies and setting yourself finish target times. Whether they help motivate or act as a burden I don't know but I'd set myself a gold, silver and bronze target regardless. Gold would be sub 16 hours (so finishing before midnight), silver would be to simply finish within the cut-off time of 24 hours and bronze would be to get to Ambleside, which in it's own right would be my greatest achievement; with 30 miles and approximately 10,000 feet of ascent covered by that stage of the race. Looking back through previous years race results, silver or bronze was more realistic, this wasn't your average flat ultramarathon.
We picked up Dave, a friend of Ian's at 5.15am then headed straight to Caldbeck, arriving just after 7am. Registration was straight forward. Upon presenting some photo ID, they handed you your race number, a laminated map, a t-shirt and a clear drop bag to place a spare pair of trainers and socks in which you had the option to change into at Ambleside. They also taped a GPS tracker onto your race pack so you could be tracked by friends, family and the race organisers throughout the race. There was some slight confusion with Dave's race pack however, with him originally being told it was still in Cartmel, only for them to find it ten minutes later. Apparently they'd used his race pack in the marshal briefing prior to registration opening and put it to one side rather than back in with the rest of the race packs. They apologised profusely so no harm done, other than a little bit of unnecessary stress caused I suppose.
The start line was a few minutes walk away from registration and we arrived just as the race brief started. I had been monitoring the weather forecast religiously for the last couple of weeks and the forecast up until a couple of days prior to race day had been wet, very wet for which I'd packed accordingly.. Then on Thursday, the weather forecast changed and the Met Office reported dry conditions with zero chance of rain. Perfect! Needless to say, as we walked to the start line the heavens opened and there was a torrential downpour - that's the Lake District for you I suppose!
The race started bang on 8am, something James Thurlow - Race Director, is very strict on. We all moved forward and before I knew it, I'd crossed the start line; shit, this was really happening!
Caldbeck to Threlkeld - 11 miles
I made sure I started at my own pace as we left Caldbeck. It would have been easy to get carried away and go with the flow; something I knew would come back and haunt me later in the race. I was running with Ian for the first mile or so at a leisurely pace. It wasn't long until we reached our first main climb; High Pike. At 2,158 feet it's a good old climb but on fresh legs it wasn't too challenging. The rain had stopped by now and we were greeted with sunshine and a rainbow in the distance. I remember smiling to myself and just taking in the occasion. I was actually doing this! It didn't take too long to reach the summit. I'd lost Ian by this stage, he'd made good progress up ahead as I'd settled into my own rhythm.
|Heading up High Pike with a rainbow behind us|
Once over the summit, we made our way across a boggy heather section before descending down to Caldew River. Unlike last year where they'd installed a temporary rope to help runners cross safely, the river was only at knee high level so we had the option to cross it at any point. Despite the 'low water levels' you still felt the force of the current and a few people in front of me nearly got swept over. It was a fun section and splashing around in water would soon become a common theme throughout the day. Once across the river, we made our way up Mungrisdale Common, at 2,076 feet it was hard work. It wasn't necessarily the elevation but more the conditions underfoot. There was no distinct path and it was very wet and muddy. I found myself being overtaken quite a lot on this section, mainly by people using poles; it definitely seemed to give them an advantage and something I'd consider using on my next adventure. I grit my teeth and kept moving forward. About three quarters of the way up, the line of people in front of me had split up. Some headed straight to the summit whilst others cut under the scree then summitted further to the right. I'd had a conversation in the car with Ian and Dave about navigation and they'd advised me to trust the GPS on my watch rather than the person in front of me. I did just that and cut in under the scree. It did seem faster and a slightly easier route up to Blencathra.
|Caldew River Crossing|
I eventually reached the summit of Blancathra after over two hours of climbing on that section. At 2,848 feet, the views instantly made up for the climb. It was stunning. I'd recce'd Blencathra (and the infamous Halls Fell Ridge) prior to race day so I knew what to expect from here. Halls Fell Ridge is definitely the most technical and challenging part of the route. Due to it's technicality, you're given the option to either descend via Halls Fell Ridge or take an alternative route down Blease Fell, which is slightly longer but easier underfoot.
I chose to descend down Halls Fell Ridge. I'm not the best with vertigo and scrambling down wet rock at over 2,800 feet is not really my idea of fun but I took my time and got it done. To be fair, I was overtaken a lot on this section and whilst I would let people pass where possible, some sections were single file scrambles and I knew I was holding some people back. No-one complained, rushed me or made me feel uncomfortable however, which is a detriment to the friendly nature of the race and ultra runners in general. There were sections where I'd scramble down rocks on my backside in fear of falling off the ridge; probably not the most elegant look on the mountains!
|The scramble down Halls Fell Ridge to Threlkeld|
Once off Halls Fell Ridge I made it into Threlkeld and checkpoint 1. I didn't hang around at this checkpoint. I grabbed a cheese baguette, some water melon and refilled my water bottles with Tailwind and went on my way.
Threlkeld to Ambleside - 19 miles
Upon leaving Threlkeld there was a mile of easy running before we reached the foot of Clough Head. I'd caught up with a couple of runners by then and we were chatting about the new route - apparently the old route has become popular for runners attempting the Bob Graham round and is fast becoming eroded. As a result, we were to take an alternative route up a track before joining Clough Head later on. I had no issues with this, it added distance but meant the start of the climb wasn't so steep, plus we were having less impact on the terrain. I started the climb comfortably and soon got into a rhythm. I'd left the people I'd been talking to behind and powered on ahead. I hadn't recce'd Clough Head before and massively underestimated it! At 2,381 feet it was the toughest climb of the route by far and straight up! My quads weren't used to that much elevation in such a short distance and I felt my legs cramping on almost every step. I made slow progress but eventually reached what I thought was the summit only to find it curved around and continued to climb. I was probably three quarters of the way up when I was overtaken by the same group that I'd left at the bottom - obviously they'd paced it much better! We chatted for a few minutes and they gave me some words of encouragement before they powered off into the distance. I continued to dig in but felt it was a losing battle. I'd take a few steps, stop for a second, then continue, one foot in front of the other. I used this method until I reached the summit. I took a few minutes here to rest, compose myself and take in some fluids. I wasn't alone. I think that section had taken it out of a few others too. Once at the summit, the next section is across the Dodds; three fells between Clough Head and Helvellyn. They are undulating but runnable with firm ground underfoot. I made my way down the first fell which was a nice steady downhill section. Perfect, I thought. I think I ran about 100 metres when I suddenly pulled up with cramp in both quads. I was forced to stop, stretch it out and ate some salted peanuts which I'd packed. It eventually subsided only for it to start cramping again not long after I'd started running again. I must admit, at this stage I started to have negative thoughts. Could I do this? I was about 15 miles in to a 50 mile run and my legs were already cramping. I knew it was the climbing. I had the distance in me but the hills I'd trained on were much shorter than the hills I was tackling today so weren't as punishing on the quads. There was no respite. I stopped again, stretched and waited for it to subside. I ran a little, cramped up, stretched. I seemed to be stuck in a loop. I ate more salted peanuts, hydrated and eventually the cramping stopped. Maybe I hadn't hydrated enough? Either way, I made my way over the Dodds until I reached Helvellyn.
|The climb up to Helvellyn|
At 3,116 feet, Helvellyn is the third-highest point in England and this proved to be another tough climb. My quads felt better, they were still screaming at me after every step but they weren't cramping so I made steady progress. About half way up I saw a ridge off to the left with the silhouette of people scrambling across the top. It looked technical and similar to that of Halls Fell Ridge. My heart sank again. I knew about Halls Fell so I had prepared myself mentally for the challenge. Helvellyn was new so I didn't know what to expect. I continued to climb and it took an age to reach the summit. To my relief, the route veered off to the right and didn't descend down the ridge. Panic over!
|Views from the top of Helvellyn|
The descent down Helvellyn to Grisedale Tarn was just as tough on the quads as the ascents I'd climbed earlier. The terrain was mostly rock and I found myself bouncing from one rock to another. It was hard work. I tried to move fast but at the same time being mindful of every foot placement. The 'path' zigzagged down the mountain before reaching the tarn at the foot of Fairfield. It was here that I think I went wrong. Ignoring my GPS, I followed a path which seemed to loop around before heading back to Fairfield. I noticed a couple of runners who I'd overtaken earlier, come out in front of me. Oh well, that's why I did 53.4 miles instead of 50 miles I suppose!
I knew Fairfield was the last main climb of the day and once at the summit I'd have broken the back of the elevation. I dug in and started the climb. It was horrendous! Loose scree and rock made it hard going and at 2,864 feet it was brutal on tired legs. There were several times when I stopped, took a minute to recoup and just appreciated the view. My mindset had changed again and although I was finding it tough, I was thankful to be on the fell with the chance to do what I was doing. One foot in front of the other (my mantra for most of the run) and I'd soon be at the top.
Once I reached the top of Fairfield I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew what followed was a steady downhill section into Ambleside and then I'd recce'd the last 20 miles so knew what was to come. The route between Fairfield and Ambleside however seemed to take an age. You could see the lights of Ambleside in the distance but there was still about 5 miles to run. The terrain was a mixture of rock, swamps and thick mud and I found myself running, scrambling or dodging the mud which in some parts, was knee deep. It was an enjoyable section though, if a little slow.
|Descending down towards Ambleside|
Once off the mountain there was a short section of road into Ambleside. I'd never been so thankful to hit the tarmac. My legs had taken a beating, my muscles were screaming but I was in a good place. I knew I could recoup at Ambleside, take some food on board and change my shoes and socks - my feet were soaking wet and caked in mud. Changing footwear would feel like a luxury. Approaching the Parish Centre in Ambleside I noticed Ruth and Naomi waiting for me. It was such a massive boost! I briefly stopped for a few minutes, traded hugs and kisses, enquired about how Ian was doing then went in to refuel. Upon walking through the door I was asked whether I wanted to change my footwear to which I replied with a thankful nod. The marshal then directed me to a seat and went off to fetch my drop bag. The marshals were fantastic throughout and so helpful, nothing was too much trouble.
|Coming into Ambleside - exhausted but still smiling|
One of the biggest mistakes I made, (and it did make me chuckle) was choosing Injinji socks in my drop bag. For anyone that doesn't know what injinji socks are they have individual toe sleeves, (similar to a glove) which reduce skin-to-skin friction and reduce blisters. I swear by them and use them on all my long runs. However, my quads were on fire and the prospect of sitting down in a chair was a struggle, let alone reaching down to take my shoes and socks off. The realisation then hit me that I'd have to individually place each toe in its own sleeve which proved to be as great a challenge as I had faced all morning. I hadn't really thought this through. I even laughed to myself as the bloke sitting next to me gave me that 'concerned' look. He knew the struggle.
Shoes and socks replaced, I grabbed some coke, refilled my water bottles and quickly shoved some pizza down my throat. I also changed my top (I had to carry replacement clothes as only shoes and socks were allowed in the drop bag) and strapped my head-torch on. It would be dark within the hour so best to be prepared. Refuelled and dry I met up with Ruth and Naomi again outside (as it's a self supported race friends and family aren't allowed in the feed station) and had a brief chat before heading on my way. It was 6pm when I left Ambleside. Up until now I hadn't looked at my watch, other than to follow the GPS route, so had no idea of the time. I left feeling positive. There was 20 miles left with 6 hours to complete it before midnight. That would be my gold target achieved - easy I thought! How wrong was I!
Ambleside to Finsthwaite - 14 miles
The first few miles out of Ambleside are mainly tarmac and bicycle paths. Although undulating, they were a dream to run on considering what had come before it. I overtook countless number of runners on this section and although I wasn't going at any considerable pace, it did make me question why everyone was walking. Before long we reached a wooded section and by now the sun had set and the night was drawing in. Under the shelter of the tree canopy it was getting dark. I enjoy night running but it does slow you down considerably. You have to focus more on your surroundings, skimming the ground for tree roots, debris and rocks whilst ducking low hanging branches. It's fun but you have to be switched on all the time. In the build up to the race, the weather had been pretty horrendous with heavy rainfall. This made the ground saturated and for most of the trail sections in the last 20 miles, it was like running though a bog. Heavy mud and puddles to dodge. Fun but energy sapping.
Just past Claife Heights I caught up with a bloke who appeared to be struggling. I'd spoken to him earlier in the day up on the fells and it was good to chat with him. I offered him some food which he politely declined and asked if there was anything he needed. He mentioned his head-torch was fading and didn't have a back-up. Luckily I had packed spare batteries so replaced them in his head-torch, for which he was grateful. Looking back, he still had approximately four hours of running to go and I wouldn't have fancied running any of that without a torch. We ran together for a short while before we split up as we reached High Damn.
High Damn reduced me to a brisk walk. On normal legs you could probably run that section but my legs were heavy, I was starting to struggle and any sign of a hill gave me a reason to walk. I was with a couple of blokes through this section and without saying a word we all automatically jogged the flats and walked the hills. It was like a silent code. The trails were often single file so we took it in turns to lead and the miles ticked off.
I felt good as we approached Finsthwaite and the last check point. I'd checked my watch and it was showing that I'd covered 46 miles. For some reason, which I can only put down to fatigue, I'd completely forgot about the 3 mile diversion I'd took at the base of Fairfield and convinced myself that there was only 4 miles left. I even considered not going into the last checkpoint and heading straight for the finish. It was only 4 miles after all. I felt like I could walk it and still finish before midnight.
However, outside the Village Hall there was a marshal who greeted us as we arrived. She then congratulated us on our achievement so far and said that there was only 8 miles to go. Wait! What! - 8 miles??? There was only 4 miles to go, or so I thought! I checked with her again and she confirmed just shy of 8 miles. My mood instantly changed! I felt broken. I went from running the last 4 miles in my head to now thinking I didn't have the energy to walk 4 miles, let alone run another 8. Feeling broken, I went into the Village Hall.
I must admit this was my lowest point of the day. I was broken. I knew that finishing before midnight was never going to happen but even worse, the prospect of another 8 miles filled me with dread. Its funny how the mind works. I'd gone from easily running 4 miles to not being able to put one foot in front of the other at the prospect of another 4 miles added on. I'd already covered 46 mile across much tougher terrain, it was just another 8 miles, single figures yet I was mentally beaten.
Despite how I was feeling, the marshals in the village hall were amazing. And I mean amazing! On entering any of the feed stations you were required to put on shoe covers and use antibacterial hand gel (which all races should use in my opinion). As soon as I walked in a marshal was at hand to place the shoe covers on for you and offered to fetch hot drinks or food whilst you sat down. Being the last feed station I think they appreciate how tired you are and are so attentive and supportive. Everyone in the hall looked broken. There were a couple of guys at the back wrapped in blankets who had obviously DNF'd and a few guys asleep with their head in their hands. It was hard to motivate yourself. I had no intention of going anywhere fast. I drank about a litre of coke, 2 cups of tea and ate everything on offer; from sausage rolls, chicken and leek soup, pastries, crisps and sweets. I closed my eyes and was woken by my elbow slipping off the table. I needed to leave...
I filled my flask with tea and left Finsthwaite.
Finsthwaite to Cartmel - 7.8 miles
Upon leaving Finsthwaite you head across a field into a wood which had a steady incline. I'd met up with a couple of runners across the field and we walked up through the wood together. We got talking as I finished off my tea. I was still exhausted and was struggling to find the energy to walk.
Before long the lady had fallen behind and I was left chatting to a bloke as we plodded on. I later found out his name was Peter and we stuck together until the finish. Peter had been in Finsthwaite for over an hour and was very close to pulling himself out of the race despite the marshals best effort to get him refuelled and rested up. I think we spurred each other on and the more we spoke the more energised we became. We continued to walk the hills but jog the flats and downhill sections. Without Peter and that psychological lift I honestly think that last 8 miles would have been a death march!
A couple of miles after leaving Finsthwaite Peter had told me he had some supporters waiting for him outside a pub. As we approached the pub I told him I'd carry on and wished him all the best in case I never saw him before the finish. I think I'd secretly hoped he'd catch me up as I was appreciating the company at that stage. As he veered off to greet his supporters I heard someone call my name and to my surprise Ruth was standing there waiting for me as well. What a boost! It was amazing to see her and I became a bit overwhelmed with it all. She told me she was proud of me and that I was so close to the finish line. She later told me that she had been there for a while and was worried watching my GPS; worried that I'd either DNF'd at the village hall, my GPS had failed or I was collapsed in a ditch somewhere! Ooops. If I had known she'd have been there I would have left the village hall sooner.
I'm not exactly sure of where we were but at one stage we found ourselves running adjacent to Lake Windermere through a wooded section. There was a full moon to our left, a house party playing some bad 00's dance music in the distance to our right and we found ourself wading though water at knee height level - Windermere had flooded. After all we'd been through, it lifted our moods and we thought it was the final obstacle to overcome. Wrong again. Amongst the flood there was a low hanging tree which we had to limbo under. Peter went first, no problem. I followed only to get my backpack caught on a branch and I was left attached to a tree, in full limbo whilst stood in knee high water. We both saw the funny side.
The final mile and a half is on tarmac as you leave the woods and farmland into Cartmel. What's even better is that it's all downhill. I don't know how but both Peter and I picked up the pace and recorded our fastest miles of the day. Anything to get to the finish line I suppose.
As you enter Cartmel you run straight though the village before reaching the finish line at Cartmel school. I was filled with emotion as I crossed that finish line, just a few seconds after Peter.
I'd done it!
53.4 miles, 12,831 feet of elevation in 17:25.
Ruth was there at the finish line to see me come though under the gantry which was amazing! She immediately gave me a massive hug before I was presented with a medal, a food token and a printed display of my finish time and splits.
It was by far the hardest thing I've ever done - brutal in fact. I think I use the term 'brutal' too much to describe tough races but in all honesty Lakes in a Day holds that mantra. It truly was the hardest thing I've ever done or most likely will ever do. I was broken but massively proud of what I had achieved. I learnt a lot about myself up on those mountains, what the human body can endure when you're at your lowest - it was true character building.
Ian finished in 14:52 which was incredible and smashed his target time by over an hour!
The race winner, Ricky Lightfoot smashed the course record coming in at an astonishing time of 8:47, some 25 minutes faster than Kim Collison in 2015. He was in work straight after just as I was arriving into Ambleside. Madness