Bogs, bracken and the night of a thousand steps

I had lost count of the number of times I wanted to abandon this race.

In fact, I could hardly believe, after suffering exhaustion in the early hours of Saturday morning, such that I was falling asleep as I was running (not advisable) and also after later in the afternoon lying down on my own in the middle of an exposed fellside for forty winks as it was starting to rain (definitely not advisable!), that I had actually made it to the final major checkpoint at Ambleside, 88 miles into the race.

[singlepic id=339 w=400 h=300 float=right]The Lakeland 100, Ultra Tour Lake District (UTLD) was always going to be a tough one – any ‘100’ mile event is likely to be for sure, but it is the distance I have trained for, so it was not that that was intimidating.  Not really…

The Cotswolds 100 Ultrarace I completed a mere four weeks ago, although the same distance, was a flat, dry, forgiving, tow-path in comparison.  Although the cumulative ascent of 6,971m (22,871ft) is short of the total for Mont Blanc, the vagaries of the Lake District micro climate and the self-navigation aspects around unmarked trails all added to the challenge.

As a result of this, I was stressed at the start.  Seriously stressed.

We had travelled up the day before to have a relaxed time in Coniston, where the race began, and although the journey, arrival and registration were easy affairs, there were nonetheless constant undercurrents in my mind regarding the forthcoming trial.

The start was planned for 5:30pm Friday, 23 July and after a mandatory safety talk from the organisers and a motivational speech from the legendary fell runner Joss Naylor, we were left to our own devices for a further hour, but there is only so much time you can spend packing and repacking a rucksack  so as the children played I tried to collect my thoughts.

Start to CP1 – Seathwaite

5:30 duly arrived and after ‘dibbing in’ with the timing chips we had had secured to our wrists at registration earlier, we lined up and the race was on.

[singlepic id=260 w=320 h=240 float=left]Up a tarmac road, 123 of us ran with the customary exuberance always displayed in the first few minutes of an endurance race.  The pace soon slowed though, and I found myself running past a few competitors as the field quickly spread out. My fears about the weight of my pack, even though I had stripped practically all out of it but the compulsory equipment, were immediately realised and I sweated my way along up the first ascent in the early evening heat.

We were all soon rewarded with the first of some glorious views of the environment around the lakes, and although it was rather warm for running, the clear skies afforded expansive views to the distant horizons.

The route at this stage was mostly undulating trails and some road and the rest of the competitors and myself spent most of our time plodding up and down and although the first hill was a tough one, while it was still light and we were fresh it was easy enough and navigation at this stage merely involved following the line of people in front.

Before I knew it though, we had traversed 642m (2106ft) of ascent and were down the other side on a tarmac road heading for the first checkpoint. Suddenly I was glad of checkpoints every 10km or so – it had taken me 1:23 to complete the first stage.

CP1 to CP2 – Boot

I didn’t really stop at the first checkpoint as I wanted to minimize my early stops, so except for a quick water I was on my way, but even after only 1:30 I was already running alone much of the time.

I had been warned that the second stage had been very boggy last year and it did not disappoint this year either after the deluge of rain the area had experienced during the week. So as well as my feet slipping about inside my shoes on the uneven terrain, they were also now getting soaked as I tried in vain to keep them dry by running across the damp surfaces, trying to distinguish the firm ground from the shoe sucking alternative.

Following the trail on my own, I got lost for the first time at Grassguards Farm, irritatingly after having negotiated a ford without getting my shoes any wetter but then realising I had nowhere to go! Following my GPS I found my path and had confirmation seconds later as I joined another couple of runners coming from behind.

[singlepic id=265 w=320 h=240 float=right]By the time I arrived at CP2, my feet were soaked, but I took the time to change my socks and also to put on the waterproof ‘sealskinz‘ socks I had nearly left behind, but was suddenly very glad of, and which remained on my feet for the remainder of the race.

CP2 to CP3 – Wasdale Head

Up to this point we had been travelling predominantly west away from Coniston, but the route took a distinct turn north now for the long haul to Keswick and contouring Skiddaw.  The trails had also settled down a bit and the short 9km to the next CP was a pleasure as we skirted along the east banks of Burnmoor Tarn with rising mist illuminated by the late evening sun and then to the west of England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike with the nearly full moon rising as the sun was setting behind the fells opposite.

I ran with a group of others going down into Wasdale Head and had more of less caught and passed those that had left me behind at the previous checkpoint when I was changing my socks – a necessary delay, which was proving to have been a good decision.

CP3 was a bigger affair than the previous checkpoint and my sentiments at the feast they had laid on were echoed by all subsequent arrivals.  I eagerly devoured the hot minestrone soup on offer as I got my head torch ready for it’s first evening of use.

CP3 to CP4 – Buttermere

The next couple of stages were both going to be tough ones.  The first sections in the night and well over 740m (2400ft) of ascent each.  With headtorch at the ready I started up the stepped path up to the ominously named Black Sail Pass. The steps were short and uneven and although it was difficult to maintain any sort of rhythm, I nevertheless preferred this terrain to the steep grassy descent which followed on the other side, down which I lost the track and had to traverse gingerly with another runner as we scrabbled our way back to the required route.

[singlepic id=342 w=320 h=240 float=left]To all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere, we passed a youth hostel and greeted a group sitting comfortably outside.

I made my way up and over another pass (Scarth Gap) before reaching the Buttermere lakeside path for a pleasant run down into the next CP.  I had been on my own for most of the stage but I was starting to feel like I was making good progress.

CP4 to CP5 – Braithwaite

After another brief stop at the CP to have a rest, I was off again on my own and up through Ghyll wood, a dense and heavy thicket.  Easy enough to follow, or so I thought until the path disappeared and I had to climb my way back up to the path.  After that there was a relatively open fern and bracken ascent, but again I somehow lost the path and then had to make my way up through a tough bracken ascent.  To finish my set of three mistrack errors I missed the instructions to avoid an eroded gulley and had to climb precariously round the loose scree to get to the other side.

After another undulating rise up through Sail Pass I then had a glorious long, gradual, even, grassy, smooth, downhill slope into Braithwaite and I ran all the way to the next checkpoint and again I had been on my own for the whole stage.

The next checkpoint had the luxury of the first hot food and I lapped up the hot pasta with coke provided.

CP5 to CP6 – Blencathra

The route out of Braithwaite included an unexpectedly long period on first the ‘busy’ A66 road – I saw at least 3 cars at 2am in the morning 🙂 – and then a stretch of disused railway track skirting to the north of Keswick before turning uphill along a gravel track once more to ascend up and round Latrigg to the well trodden Cumbria way from Keswick.

The route here was an easy ascent on a good trail crossing occasional waterfalls, gills and becks and I was feeling good after catching and passing a few other runners who, at this stage were obviously suffering more than me.  The trail we followed contoured Lonscale Fell, part of the Skiddaw group, on the level and then after a couple of kilometres north, crossed to the other side of the valley in a hairpin and tracked south towards Blencathra.

After the southward  turn, it was fantastic to see the headtorches of my fellow runners on the trail on the opposite site of the ravine I had just traversed but although the full 2km was probably visible in the pre-dawn sky, only 5-6 lights were evident.

All in all this was a pleasant section as it was starting to get light already along the way with the dawn to the east and where I made relatively good time.

It was fairly light by the time I reached the checkpoint on my own and I sat and changed my socks again with a nice warm, sweet tea while a couple of other runners arrived.

CP6 to CP7 – Dockray

It was after this that things started to go wrong.

I left ahead of all the other runners stopped in the Church Hall at Blencathra, but missed the directions at bottom of the first hill and had to backtrack. Craig Anderton, #4, who came into the last CP just after me, passed me due to my mistake and so I caught him back up and we travelled together along another relatively flat few kilometres of disused railway line.

This was then followed by a good 300m climb over boggy ground from Newsham towards Clough Head, before reaching [singlepic id=269 w=320 h=240 float=right]a good track across moorland which we had to follow for 6km to the next CP.  Craig was stronger up the hill and after I reached the Old Coach Road I tried to focus on enjoying the view, but my heavy eyelids would not stay open and several times I found myself wondering across the path and stumbling myself awake.

It is surprising how quickly things can go completely belly up. The only consolation was that several runners passing me confirmed they had already been through bad patches. Often you just have to ride it out, but it is depressing when people you have put so much effort into passing come strolling past you with an apparent sense of ease.

As if the somnambulism was not bad enough, I also started to have an ache in my stomach and was forcing myself to eat to try to stave off the exhaustion.  As I had not even reached the halfway point, I was seriously considering giving up.

At the Checkpoint, I had a cup of water and what I can only describe as a miracle flapjack and felt a million times better! I also made a mental note to remember this for the future 😉

CP7 to CP8 – Dalemain

I did not think after the last section that I was going to get much further, but since I had reached the 50 mile point and nominal halfway, I decided to try to make it to Dalemain at 60miles, which was the next major stop with the added incentive of my drop bag. Surprisingly things actually got much better after this, and on the road down into the village of Dockray and the subsequent gentle rise up and round Gowbarrow Fell on the north bank of Ullswater, I passed ALL of the runners that had reeled me in on the previous stage.

[singlepic id=272 w=320 h=240 float=left]Then, after passing Craig again and Brenan Morgan, #87, I made my way ahead but then had to stop dead in my tracks for sheep.

Yes, sheep.

A shepherd was moving his flock between fields and asked me to wait so that they did not scatter again into the surrounding bracken. My two colleagues, Craig and Brenan, soon caught back up and we put our shepherding skills to the test for the next 15 minutes!

After we had left the sheep behind to their uncertain fate (judging by the look of the fiendish implements the farmer had awaiting them at the other end of the trail) we all carried on together and I spoke to Tim as we made our way onto the tarmac roads which were to take us on the final 5km to Dalemain, although I left the others behind at this point as they were pacing themselves.

The track through the estate to Dalemain House seemed to go on forever, but eventually I reached the marquee set up in the grounds and shocked the staff manning the checkpoint at how happy I was looking as I ran in at about 9:30am, 16 hours after starting.

I changed my top and my socks again (for the final time) and had more pasta and coke from my bag and after chatting briefly with photographer Mark Gillett I was on my way.

Although this was the 60 mile point for me, the 50 mile competitors would be starting here in 3 hours or so, and completing a 4 mile loop before joining the prescribed route back to Coniston.

CP8 to CP9 – Howtown

I left Dalemain and set my sights on trying to reach Ambleside, the final major checkpoint, 28 miles distant.  I was conscious the next four stages to CP14 included at least another 2000m of ascent although the next section itself was relatively easy.

[singlepic id=275 w=400 h=300 float=right]Liz and myself had made a partial arrangement to meet at Pooley Bridge, but through necessity this had been a fluid schedule as neither of us knew what time I would be there.  I had kept Liz and my family informed of my progress prior to Dalemain and I duly stopped and waited at the scenic bridge over the River Eamont at the north end of Ullswater for 15 minutes.  Depressingly because phone coverage was bad and it turned out they were too far away, I had to leave without seeing them.

Yet again I had to reel in and overtake people after this as I made my way up and down to Howtown on the south side of Ullswater, although this was another pleasant part of the journey along well trodden paths and trails, with plenty of other people out for the day enjoying the environment, many of whom quizzed me on the race I was taking part in and most of whom had difficulty comprehending having started in Coniston the previous evening.

As I finally reached Howtown, both Coniston and the previous evening seemed like a distant memory to me also.

CP9 to CP10 – Mardale Head

This stage started out ok, but after a hard long climb on my own up to Wether Hill, the highest point of the run, I got lost crossing peat hags and was caught again by a couple following who I was determined to leave behind.  I then had a tough time getting down through more bracken and fern covered trods where there was absolutely no path to speak of and by the time I got to the bottom I was very tired and depressed, so I simply sat down.  I looked out across Haweswater for a few moments before finding the path along the next section which consisted of a simple 6 km undulating trail along the side of Haweswater; exhaustion and mind games again got the better of me, and I spent the next while thinking of quitting.

It was about 3km into this last section that I started being passed by 50mile runners – the first few of whom were speeding impressively along but all encouraging to me, which gave me a minor spark of hope to grasp onto in my current low state.

Nevertheless after about 4km I stopped, took my pack off and laid down using it as a pillow, much to concern of passing runners, many of whom woke me by asking if I was alright as they ran past. After about 15 minutes (I think!) it was starting to rain so I decided it best to press on.  The weather was mild that day, but I recognise how easily the mind might make foolish decisions under circumstances of duress and had the weather been more typical of the location, I could well have been in a different and far more serious situation.

Eventually I made it to checkpoint with the only saving grace being that I had completed the final section with an ascent greater that 700m. The clouds and the rain which had rolled overhead during this section were there to stay, and I was hoping the same was not true of the greyness in my mind.  I put on my light waterproof while trying to shelter behind the landrover which was the checkpoint and had some hot soup which tasted fantastic, but despite searching high and low, to my disappointment, there were no flapjacks to be found 🙁

CP10 to CP11 – Kentmere

The rain was now becoming very heavy and although this was a short stage, it still had over 500m of ascent, most of which seemed to be covered in the zig-zag trail in the first kilometre up to Gatescarth Pass.  I was covering this terrain with the wind blowing the rain downhill into my face, and with my light waterproof proving next to useless, I contemplated What next?

As it was, the 50 mile runners and myself actually got to the top of the pass relatively quickly and after the saddle, there were a lot more defined tracks to follow and I settled into more of a rhythm and began running steadily again – indeed, running as fast as most of the 50 milers was my own motivation tactic, and although the terrain was still predominantly loose scree, by trying to use the grassy verges where possible I began to make good time again.

[singlepic id=283 w=320 h=240 float=left]After a few more undulating fellsides, now well away from any of the lakes, but still soaking wet nonetheless, I arrived at the next cp which was thankfully inside and warm.  I changed into the heavier gore-tex jacket I had borrowed from John and after the customary sweet tea and biscuits I was on my way out the door again.

CP11 to CP12 – Ambleside

The trails into Ambleside were very similar to those on the previous stage, with loose scree and gravel to negotiate both uphill and downhill, but I was pleased after over 80 miles I was still managing to run a lot of the way and with the motivation of a major checkpoint in my sights I was feeling no ill effects from my demise earlier on.

The route had now turned predominantly west although the low clouds were obscuring any chance of a run into the sunset.  Nevertheless the trail was again stunning through Skelghyll Wood after the hamlet of Troutbeck and I was thankful at least that the rain had stopped, even though there was still some drizzle.  I felt there was a strange comfort and familiarity in the overcast environment, almost as though this was how things were supposed to be; this was the Lake District, not the south of France and it is an area unique to England, a jewel in her crown – I enjoyed it for what it was.

As I came down the road into the CP there were crowds lining the streets and so for the first time in over 26 hours there were people that seemed to understand what we were doing, what I was doing, and didn’t look at me like I had two heads at every turn – their applause and the arrival at the Lakes Runner shop in Ambleside was truly warming.

Inside, they further raised my spirits with my favourite, tomato soup, which was most welcome and I filled my pack for what I knew would be the last time and then after a quick mental preparation stepped once more into the breech.

My family were waiting for me 🙂

[singlepic id=354 w=320 h=240 float=right]I had been in the shop for 10 minutes or so and they had arrived in the meantime.  We greeted, hugged and I took a bite of some DELICIOUS pizza as the children, no doubt still somewhat confused about what I was doing and why they hadn’t seen me all day, played on.  After 88 miles, my thoughts of abandoning had been well and truly banished, but the effort it took to drag myself away from my family was more monumental than any hill I had had to climb during the day. Suitably refreshed and motivated to finish after the impromptu meeting, with one look back I was on my way to cover the final 16 miles.

CP12 to CP13 – Chapel Stile

The next short section started out relatively easily, as a number of the 50 mile runners and myself ran out of the bustle of Ambleside on a Saturday night.  The terrain was the same as it had been for the last 20 miles or so and even though my ankles were starting to complain a bit, I was beginning to feel as if I was on the home straight.

After making it back onto the fell, there was another minor rise to contend with followed by a good third of the stage on a gradual downhill before joining the road again passing a busy pub at Skelwith Bridge, where a number of the patrons were clapping and then further along the Cumbria Way path again next to the river, where I startled a young deer before reaching Elterwater village.  Interestingly, after the encounters I had had during the Cotswold’s race, I was expecting much more in the Lake District, but this young doe was the total extent of my zoological skirmishes.

I reached the school at Chapel Stile as the light was fading once more.

CP13 to CP14 – Tilberthwaite

After losing the light the penultimate section started out flat, but then quickly turned into a nightmare.  The ground quickly became uneven, boggy, wet and difficult to navigate in the dark and I often found myself wishing I had pushed harder during the hours of daylight. There were frequent areas of ferns and bracken but I maintained my running with the other around, both 50 and 100 milers.

My ankles were really suffering now with the uneven terrain although I was still happy that I had been running for over 28 hours without any major trauma, but getting lost and having to climb up a bracken rise for the second time in the day was not ideal.

The checkpoint could not arrive too soon and after a brief but most welcome section of road, we were at the final CP and the 100 mile mark had passed unnoticed.

I stopped for less than a minute as I grabbed a quick water and a lump of buttered Soreen and was off again, with a mere 3.5 miles to go.

CP14 to Finish – Coniston

As I started first in our group up some steep steps once more, I heard someone mention about a ‘sting in the tail’ of the race.  Maybe this was it.  After the slippery steps, there was a more gradual climb contouring round the fell of Wetherlam – not that I could see it as the rise has taken our group into the low cloud and my head torch was usefully illuminating the six inches in front of my face destroying any night-vision I had remaining.  The path was very indistinct in places and involved a lot of clambering over rocks and boulders of various sizes as I followed Crook Beck up to its source.

[singlepic id=358 w=400 h=300 float=right]With the others, I got lost twice on this barren landscape a mere stones throw from the finish and I later found I had lost a number of places because of this. Navigation is key.  To compound the problem, my headtorch was also dimming and being conscious of the time I was losing I didn’t want to stop to change batteries!

Eventually we started climbing down the typical loose gravel/scree trail and then one final excursion through ferns to a good track, and past the Miner’s Bridge we had crossed 31 hours before in the other direction and we were down to the tarmac for the final time.  I ran the rest of the way into village, desperately hoping my headtorch would hold out until I got to the streetlights of Coniston.

It was 1:30am on the Sunday morning and Liz was waiting opposite the school finish (without the children!) and we hugged as she ran to the finish line with me so I could ‘dib’ my timing chip for the last time.  My final placing was 22nd of 123 starters, covering 103.9 miles in 32:00:32.

Epilogue

I went into the hall as happy as ever that I had finished – this was one race, more than any other that I had considered abandoning.  At each checkpoint my recovery was fast though, the simple reward of attaining another milestone, and setting another goal – even if only to reach the next checkpoint – works for me.

I was weighed (for medical research?) and discovered I had lost 4kg throughout my endeavour, mostly I hoped through dehydration and as I sat and ate some warm food, I was given a beer by one of the chaps from the pub at Skelwith who, good to his word, had promised there would be beer at the end!

I would like to again that my family for all their support, as well as those who sent me messages of encouragement throughout the race – it make a significant difference knowing that people are thinking of me and following my progress from afar.  I would also like to thank the organisers for such a smooth, well-planned and supported race – the staff and crews at all of the checkpoints were fantastic.  Full marks.  Here’s to 2011.

7 thoughts on “Bogs, bracken and the night of a thousand steps”

  1. I think you are amazing ML : ) and you have me choked, again.
    I think to finish this race in such good time when all your being at so many low points just wanted it to end is truly admirable, the stuff of heroes.
    I cannot WAIT for Leadville : ) whoooo-hoooooooo : ) x xxxx

  2. blimey Richard, seems as though you are punching these 100 milers out every weekend! well done, particularly after so many low points. didnt someone once say it was 90% mental and the other half physical? sounds about right!!!

    btw, didnt I read on one of your posts about 2011 MdS? You going there too?

    Well done again!

    1. Yes – I set myself this mad challenge of completing 3 of these things in 2 months – seemed like a good idea at the time 😉 and yes I am booked in to do the MdS in 2011. Happy to chat about kit / food at any time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *