Dig deep! – TDS Race 2014 Race Report

Introduction

 
It has been over a month since my experience of running the TDS so it’s about time I got around to writing about it! Here goes…

I was delighted to get a place in the ‘Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie’ (TDS), a wild trail race of 119km with 7,250 metres of climb which starts in Italy covering some amazing terrain across the Alps and ending in Chamonix.

TDS 2014 Climb Profile

It had been a dream of mine to run one of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc series of races for a few years ever since I became interested in Ultra Running. In fact, my choice of first Ultra was made based on the fact that the Norfolk Coastal Ultra carried 2 qualification points for the UTMB races. To be at the start line (let alone the finish line!) of such an epic race was the culmination of two years of planning, training and hoping that I would get a place as entries are managed by a lottery system with only a one in three chance of getting in to some races. I had hoped to get a place in the Courmayeur, Champex, Chamonix race (CCC) a slightly shorter event covering 62 miles but I was not successful in the lottery for 2013 or indeed 2014 (with double the chance) such is the level of interest in these races. Fortunately I was offered one of the few remaining places in the TDS. I later found out that the TDS doesn’t get as oversubscribed as the other races, partly because it is a newer race but mainly because it is widely regarded as the toughest of all the races!! ‘The wild alternative’ is how the website bills this particular race and rightly so as I found out! A huge amount of other planning and logistics all had to come together to make this happen too. I had to arrange the time off work, book accommodation and arrange ferry bookings as you would expect. In addition I bought a caravan, had to order a new company car with a tow bar and then arranged a camp site for the family to stay at, making a family holiday of it. A lot had gone into this adventure!

First long descent after a couple of hours climbing

The Event Build Up

I found out that I had a place in the race early in January, seven months to plan, train on the hills, prepare, check and re-check kit and generally wonder how you could possibly do all you can to be ready for such an undertaking! Those months flew by and I was able to get some good training and enter a few races with a suitable amount of climb. This was the aspect that concerned me most. I was confident that I could go the distance and had the stamina to keep going but the amount of climb was something else! It is hard to equate it to something meaningful but seven times up (and down) Snowdon from sea level sounds daunting so that will do! One of my training events was to complete the Welsh 3000s, a 25+ mile route covering all of the mountains in Wales over 3,000 feet (15 of them) in one day. This has 4,000m of climb so having completed that I was at least gaining more confidence that I had it in me.
The months passed and my family and I were soon off on our adventure, driving onto a ferry at Dover for a trip of over 650 miles towing to the campsite near Lake Annecy. It proved to be a good choice with a great swimming pool and mini waterpark for the kids. The site was about an hour away from Chamonix and there was plenty of time to relax and explore in the lead up to the event. Perhaps I was a little too relaxed as I totally forgot about the race until the day before and didn’t really consider my usual pre-race preparation. More about that later!
On Tue 26th August it was time to relocate to Chamonix and get register for the event. The heavens opened and it rained non-stop for 24 hours+. Such was the intensity of the rain that damage had been done to river beds in France, Switzerland and Italy! Fortunately there was no impact on any of the races, everyone just got soaked while queuing to register.
The morning of the race I knew I had to be on a coach at 4.30am from Chamonix, though the Mont Blanc tunnel to the start at Courmayeur in Italy. On reflection, to spend the night before in a shared dormitory in a hostel was probably not the best idea and consequently I had very little sleep the night before, with noisy room-mates and an incessant alarm clock going off every ten minutes from midnight onwards! I did feel I had got my own back somewhat when I got up at 3.30am and made little effort to be quiet.

The atmosphere at start line in Courmayeur was electric. 1,600 runners all ready, all singing and cheering as the start klaxon sounded with a helicopter hovering overhead filming the events. 7am came and we were off on this incredible shared journey.

The start line in Courmayeur

The Race

 
After an initial 2k jog through the crowd-lined streets of Courmayeur the course soon started twisting and turning up the route of an out-of-season ski run and the pace slowed. One of the hardest things about entering a large race is not being able to travel at your own pace and this was one of those occasions. A slow walk with nowhere to go because of the sheer numbers of people ensued and several competitors’ flailing walking poles around without regard for others didn’t help much. Soon this section was over and the first checkpoint passed. Numbers began to thin out as people found their own pace. The scenery became more and more impressive and the constant sight of snow-capped Mont Blanc and other high peaks was breath-taking.
Magnificent view of the Alps from the Italian side

The early miles of a long race are always a tentative time when you realise that you have a long way to go and anything can happen! A few hours in and a few checkpoints covered then things start to settle down. It had been dry all morning and the sky was clear. A marked contrast from the previous day and this meant a different set of challenges. The temperatures in the valleys were climbing and as I started the long 8 mile descent into Bourg St-Maurice I was sweating heavily and working hard to keep hydrated. Fortunately in some of the mountain villages there were drinking water fountains with ice cold water flowing freely. These were very welcome as the temperature must have been in the high twenties.

An early climb

The Bourg St-Maurice checkpoint had the usual variety of food, hot and cold drinks but I was getting a little bored with cheese, salami and French bread now having had it for the last few checkpoints. I opted for some chicken noodle soup and this became a firm favourite of mine for the rest of the race. It was easy to swallow, salty and tasty. No chewing required! There was plenty of other food available, fruit, chocolate, cereal bars, biscuits and cake to choose from.

Looking back down into Bourg St Maurice

The climb out of Bourg St-Maurice is long, very long and it was still very hot. Quite a few runners were stopped at various points along the side of the track and I saw a few people reacquainting themselves with their choice of nutrition from the last checkpoint! This was getting tough now. 25 miles in, about 50 to go! The seemingly endless climb was briefly split up by an unofficial checkpoint and pop-up shop set up by the local farmer’s family who were out milking their goats at Fort de la Platte. Three generations of the family had come out to cheer runners on and sell them coke, fruit juice and the like. I passed on the goat’s cheese raclette but did have a welcome rest before carrying on. Night was starting to fall and so was the temperature as I continued to climb. Several hours after struggling to stay cool I was now layering up and starting to shiver, my breath visible in front of my face. As the climb continued up to around 2,600m the temperature was little above freezing and the best way to stay warm was to keep going.

The scale of the challenge became even more evident now. The landscape barely visible in the moonlight but lines of headtorches showing the rough line of the course and the sheer size of the mountains. Some of those lights seemed so high up, surely they were passing planes not solitary figures on a track which I would have to climb soon! The climbs were relentless and the terrain so technical. One particular section seemed to go on forever, an incredibly steep descent of over 500m which zig-zagged down the mountain side. So steep that the organisers had deemed ropes and chains necessary and installed these at various points. I am pretty confident on technical ground and found myself looking to overtake a number of the slower competitors during this descent which brought its own challenges. Most were more than happy to move over and let someone faster show the way in return for a short rest. On more than one occasion I was glad I had my trekking poles and the extra stability they provided. Definitely worth the extra weight.
As the trudge continued long into the night my spirits began to sink and I started to feel like I might not make it to the finish line. The enormity of what lay ahead dawned on me and my mind started to flirt with the idea of DNFing and what this would mean. Determined not to let this happen and very aware that success or failure in an Ultra is largely in the mind I resolved to press on to the next checkpoint and sort myself out! I was having a real low point and decided that I needed to spend as long as necessary at the Cormet de Roseland checkpoint and leave feeling good otherwise it would be game over! I knew my drop bag was waiting for me there and gladly underwent a full change of clothing, a fresh slathering of Vaseline on my feet and lovely clean, dry socks. Food time! For the love of God, not more salami and cheese!! Even though I love them I couldn’t face any more. Thank goodness for chicken noodle soup. After nearly 45 minutes at the checkpoint and countless bowls of soup I did indeed feel better and slapped myself metaphorically in the face, deciding that there was no way I was quitting unless I was taken off on a stretcher! My experience in long events previously had taught me that the rising of the morning sun has a miraculous effect, seeming to cure all ills and give a new lease of life. If I could make it to the sunrise I’d be fine. Sure enough the sun eventually rose and I pressed on with a renewed sense of purpose, visualising my glorious crossing of the finish line to rapturous applause, still some 20 miles distant!
As the hours went by my focus changed from whether I’d make it to whether I’d make it IN TIME! With a 33 hour cut off I had calculated I was a good couple of hours clear of this but I had a scare on reaching one of the final checkpoints. I had expected to find that there were 8 miles to go as I reached what I thought Bellevue. It turned out that I was actually at Chalets du Trucs and had 5 more miles to go than I thought. Panic set in, how could I have miscalculated? Did I really have to cover 7 miles in an hour and a half to avoid being timed out when I had managed little more than 2 mph during the night! I bolted and covered the next descent in a remarkable time. I overtook 20+ people on this leg and remember thinking do these people not know that they are pushing the cut-off or have I got it wrong? I wasn’t slowing down for anyone though – I was in the zone and loving it! Hurtling past surprised, tired runners like I was being chased by a madman! My choice of shoes (my trusty Adidas Kanadia TR6s) seemed to provide a level of grip that many others couldn’t match and were really working for me. Several of the guys in Salomons seemed to be struggling on the wet, slippery grass and one guy in particular wasn’t keen on me passing him. When he had slipped on to his backside at least five or six times in front of me I’d had enough. I picked my moment and leapt around him as he floundered.

From the last checkpoint at Les Houches the final few miles into Chamonix seemed to take forever, running down a never-ending forest track. Finally across a bridge and back into civilisation. The streets of Chamonix were lined with hundreds of people cheering everyone on. With half a mile to go I found my family and my eleven year-old daughter ran in with me. I was feeling quite emotional at this point anyway but on seeing me running in hand in hand with my daughter the cheering and shouts of ‘Allez Allez’ got even louder. I was overwhelmed at the support of total strangers and crossed the line with tears in my eyes after 31 hours 34 minutes of effort. My goal achieved I was on top of the world. What an experience!

Approaching the finish line with Rachel

After the race

 
My seventh Ultra completed. Without a doubt this was the toughest race I have ever done. Never have I had to dig so deep to complete an event and I learnt a lot about myself and about running during the race. At the finish line I was really thinking maybe that’s it for me and Ultras, perhaps I should give it a rest for a while, the fateful words ‘never again’ were uttered! The nature of this type of event though is incredible and the atmosphere indescribable. So much so that the pain soon fades and thoughts turn to ‘what next?’. Barely 18 hours later I was googling the other races in the series!! How much longer is the UTMB? How much extra climb is there?
Finisher!

‘Pain is temporary – pride is forever’ they say. This may be a cliché but I now know the true meaning of those words and that is why I’ll be back! As soon as I can get a place I’ll be at the start line of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 105 mile race through three countries with 9,600m of climb. A little wiser perhaps and a little more prepared hopefully but definitely in awe of mother nature and the truly awesome challenge provided by the magnificent Alps.

Lessons Learnt/Ultra Advice

1.      Man cannot live on electrolyte alone! Alternate with water/cola/other drinks.
2.      Trekking poles can be a lifesaver on steep terrain in the mountains.
3.      There is only so much salami you can eat – even if it is your favourite!
4.      Plan a nutrition strategy and know in advance what works for you.
5.      Know that an Ultra is almost entirely a mind game, won and lost in your head.
6.      Anything can happen on an Ultra. Stick to your race plan and KEEP GOING!
7.      Sunrise will happen! Hang on in there.

Welsh 1,000m Peaks Race 2014 Race Report

Introduction
Another iconic race which I have been aware of for some time; this was the 43rd edition of the Welsh 1000m Peaks Race. The race has been going since 1971 and has had its fair share of controversy including the death of a competitor several years ago in a fall from an exposed ridge which led to a course change. The race is held on the first Saturday in June, starting on the coast at Abergwyngregyn, climbing up and over the five mountains over 1,000m altitude in North Wales before finishing at the summit of Snowdon some 20 miles and 3,000m of ascent later. Not for the faint-hearted this one, as there is no waymarking and competitors are required to bring their own maps, plotting the coordinates of the checkpoints themselves then navigating from point to point with a number of compulsory routes between out-of-bounds areas.
The Event Weekend
The usual long drive to an event area took place on the usual Friday afternoon with the usual traffic conditions. Nevertheless I was at my chosen campsite by around 7pm and was able to pitch my tent and relax with some easy camp food Lidl-style! This consisted of smoked salmon and mussel chowder, followed by chicken tikka masala and a luxury tiramisu. All went down rather well and cost barely a fiver!
I almost managed to spend a whole night in a tent in Wales without it raining! 15 minutes before I had to get up at 6am the heavens opened and the tent took the inevitable deluge well. Breakfast, wet tent packed away and then it was time for the 20 minute drive to Llanberis to register and receive my electronic chip ‘dibber’. The scene was set for the potential weather conditions on the day when a thunder storm hit at around 7.30am taking out the power in the hall. Kit checking in the dark followed before I boarded the bus to the start. The organisers were rather concerned about the conditions and the briefing focussed on what competitors should do in the event of an electrical storm while up high on one of the exposed ridges which featured heavily in the route after the first few miles. ‘There is no point cancelling the event because of something which may not happen’ said the race official and this was proved correct as I saw no more lightning for the rest of the day.
The Race
At 9am around 120 people in the ‘A class’ – (fell runners 5 peaks) set off and began the first ascent from sea level up to Aber Falls. After an initial burst of speed along the road section people stopped off one-by-one to remove waterproofs and extra layers. It had stopped raining and become very humid. Most people were down to one layer now with the rest safely stowed away in their rucksacks. The section up and past Aber Falls became quite technical and single file before the terrain opened up into a long climb up to the first checkpoint at Foel Grach.
From here the route to the next checkpoint took a long and steady climb up towards the ridge near Carnedd Daffyd then an out and back of around a mile each way to the summit to ‘dib’ the control. Unfortunately this is when the rain started again. It quickly became heavy, then heavier still. After a couple of minutes the intensity of the rain was such that you didn’t think it could get any heavier but it did! Torrential really is the only word to describe it. My pace quickened in the rain – I really didn’t want to be up there if this was the moment that the storm decided to return.
Checkpoint cleared and the rain stopped after half an hour or so. Descending into the valley at Ogwen the temperature increased and I grabbed a couple of flapjacks and a banana from the aid station before continuing. The next challenge was an ascent of Gylder Fach before dropping down into the valley at Pen-y-Pass for the last aid station. At this point I made my one and only navigational error which meant I descended too soon and ended up faced with a 10m high cliff with no way down.
Some extra climb and an additional 20 minutes added I reckon. After Pen-y-Pass came the final gruelling climb of Snowdon following the Pyg Track. A marshal at the aid station helpfully said that the remaining distance was only 3.75 miles – not too bad I thought. ‘It’ll take you a couple of hours though’ he added – bugger! He wasn’t wrong. The Pyg Track is like a never-ending staircase of helpfully placed slabs of rock marking out a path of sorts. The main problems with this ascent were the tiredness I was feeling in my legs and the hordes of tourists everywhere, some ascending but mostly descending, taking their time about it and generally getting in the way. This meant that often the best line to take up the mountain to avoid a stationary queue at a tricky bit was to take a wider and more exposed line nearer the edge and the increasing drop down to Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn lakes below. Fine on a leisurely stroll up to the summit but rather annoying on a long timed climb after 18 miles running and walking! After what seemed like an eternity I neared the marker stone at the top and peeled off to the right to collect the last checkpoint at Garnedd Ugain before retracing my steps and heading up to the summit of Snowdon and the finish line. 7 hours and 20 minutes had passed since the start. An hour longer than I had (roughly) planned but I had done it and received a rather unusual slate medal as my reward.
After the race
Once completed there was the small matter of descending some 6 miles down to Llanberis to collect my car before beginning the journey home. I had been warned about how quickly you cool down at the top of Snowdon and how important it is to take extra layers. This wasn’t a problem today though as the summit was blanketed by a warm mist of cloud (and body heat from several hundred tourists in hot pants and stilettos – bloody mountain railway!). It seemed rude not to jog down the mountain so set off with another guy and proceeded to jog down by the side of the railway track for the first couple of miles.
At this point I bumped into my friend Simon ‘having a rest’. Clearly the extra energy he had used finishing ahead of me had left him tired and we walked the next bit together, stopping off at the Halfway Café for a drink and snack. ‘So, is this place exactly half way then?’ said Simon to the lady behind the counter. ‘It is on the way up’ came the reply!! Still not quite sure how that works!
Another memorable day in the mountains and one I would recommend to any runner with a sense of adventure who fancies a challenge. As the saying goes ‘I’ll be back!’.

‘Boggy foggy madness’ – Fellsman Race Report 2014

Introduction
What an amazing event and a truly epic experience. I’ve been meaning to blog about races I’ve entered for a while but just not got round to it. So… where to start? My first attempt at the Fellsman – a 61 mile ultra run held over some of the most inhospitable mountain and moorland terrain in the Yorkshire Dales. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for  when I entered the race several months before as part of my preparations for the Sur les Traces de la Ducs de Savoie (TDS) – an even longer race I have qualified for in the French Alps this August!

Heading across the moors and up into the clouds
The Fellsman has a long history, having been run for over 50 years. The route is a large horseshoe shape stretching from Ingleton to Threshfield mostly across private land involving multiple long climbs (over 3000m in total) and navigation across large tracts of featureless terrain, largely off any sort of trail. Factor in the length of the course, the weather and the prospect of a long time out on the fells at night and you have a real challenge on your hands. This event has a fearsome reputation (which I found out after I had entered!) and this is not undeserved. This was my fifth ultra and although I had completed a race of the same distance and a race with the same climb this was the first time with both of these elements combined.
The Fellsman route (http://www.fellsman.org.uk/)

 

The Event Weekend

I travelled up with a friend and fellow entrant Stephen McAllister on the Friday. After a five hour journey we arrived in Threshfield at 7pm for registration and joined a long queue for the obligatory kit check. Once completed it was time for a pasta supper from the event kitchen, then a final bit of kit-faffing before settling down to spend the night with 100+ other competitors on the floor of a school sports hall. A 5am alarm woke me on the Saturday morning ready for a breakfast of porridge and bread before our scheduled shuttle bus departure at 06:30. Once at the start in Ingleton we were quickly checked in and then found somewhere to sit inside to keep out of the rain which had been falling for most of the night. A slight feeling of trepidation of what lay ahead was mixed with excitement as at the start of any race. Recognising a few of the sport’s top guys and some previous race winners I knew that, as always, this wasn’t about winning or even about position for me. It was about completing the challenge I had set myself, experiencing the event and getting out there in the mountains. The course record incredibly stands at less than ten hours but I was setting myself a seemingly more realistic rough target of twenty hours, approx. 3mph over the course. With the start time set at 8.30am this meant that I was in for a long day and night with a target finish time of 4.30am!

Just before the start
The Race
A few announcements and we were off. About 400 guys and girls in a variety of bright coloured waterproofs running across the wet playing field towards the first gate, followed soon after by a hefty climb to one of the highest points on the route, 724m high Ingleborough and the first of 24 checkpoints dotted across the fells towards the finish. The checkpoints are all compulsory and split into hill-top and roadside checkpoints, with the latter providing a variety of hot and cold food and drinks to keep the runners fuelled up. After Ingleborough came a very tricky technical steep descent on the rocky side of the fell. I saw one guy take quite a nasty tumble but luckily he seemed to be ok and carried on. After the first roadside checkpoint at Hill Inn I got into a rhythm and found my pace passing beautiful scenery including the famous Ribblehead Viaduct. A few miles later my pace was spoilt somewhat by the incredibly steep slog up Gragareth which I had been warned about.
 
The short, sharp shock of Gragareth
Once that was dealt with and after 20 miles came the very welcome sight of the roadside checkpoint in the village of Dent which offered hot food. Mmm, hot sausage rolls. On reflection four was probably one too many and they sat heavy on my stomach for the next hour or so. They were good though! By my calculations at this point I was on roughly 15 hour pace. Oh how things can change!
Turning right to head east the route then took in some featureless moorland before going through a wooded area and on to the next major checkpoint at Stone House. My favoured dish here was a tasty bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and grated cheese. Blea Moor and Redshaw dealt with and time was pressing on.
Heading down to Stone House
Night Falls
Fleet Moss was the next major checkpoint at the 37 mile mark and anyone arriving after 19:30 at this point was put into a compulsory group of at least four people to face the most difficult terrain in a group rather than the potential nightmare for the organisers of a lone hiker lost in the wilderness. A bit of quick thinking meant that I had managed to get myself grouped with a good group of four, one of whom was familiar with the route. I had avoided being grouped with a party of three chinless wonders who I had instantly felt the need to avoid, having seen their hapless navigation and heard their irritating waffle earlier. Result! Leaving Fleet Moss around 7.45pm and just as the sun began to go down everyone noticed the marked drop in temperature, not helped by twenty minutes in a warm marquee with hot stew and other treats on offer, so extra layers were added. I had heard that things get tough on this course at night so was really pleased when our unanimously appointed team leader who had completed the race before led the way faultlessly for the next eight miles or so as darkness fell and our pace slowed dramatically. Head torches were switched on and zips fully fastened to lessen the impact of the cold wind which had hampered us all day. Suddenly it seemed a lot worse and we were all thankful to the guy leading us across the endless field of peat hags, tussocks and energy-sapping bogs which played with us. Go on, take a step but how deep am I? Ankle deep? Knee deep? Even deeper??? Our cold, quiet trudge continued and our spirits collectively fell as we realised how slow our pace had become across Fleet Moss to the next major checkpoint at Cray. Our delight at reaching the checkpoint was short-lived as one of our group declared he had had enough and was retiring. This meant we would have to be re-grouped, as it happened into a group of nine! This, I felt, would not be to our advantage. The larger the group, the slower the progress, also more chance of one of the group sustaining an injury across the nightmare bogs and huge peat hags that would only get worse as the night wore on. Fortunately the nine of us seemed reasonably well matched and no-one had any intention of running at this stage. We were all content with slowing to a purposeful trudge for the next big climb up Buckden Pike knowing that we still had over sixteen miles to go. It was 11pm by this stage and the weather had really closed in. Thick misty drizzle with virtually zero visibility was accompanied by an incessant chilly wind. I knew any hope of a particular time had gone but despite plenty of thoughts about quitting there was no way this was going to beat me – I’m way too stubborn for that. Retiring would plague me for ages and make me question why I bothered to enter if I was going to give up when the going got tough. Dig deep and get over it. This was a game of mental toughness, the aching legs and muscles didn’t matter now and I was used to it by then! One rough night out on the fells in return for a massive sense of achievement and memories – deal! Plus if I completed it this time I’d never have to put myself through it again!
Yet another gate
From Bad To Worse
The next few checkpoints were duly collected, slowly but without incident, other than at CP 21 Park Rash where I tried to eat my own body weight in cocktail sausages! Believe it or not this is when things got really tough! Shortly after 4am our navigator lost the plot, or rather he didn’t, he just made a small navigational error, unsurprising after 20 hours on the go! We weren’t quite where we thought we were, perhaps only 500m away from the checkpoint. In zero visibility, high on the fells and at the speed we were travelling this was a problem. We searched aimlessly for the elusive checkpoint for over half an hour eventually almost becoming separated, with one group on higher ground than the other, disagreeing about the direction we should take. Sensing disaster I stepped up to the plate and felt I had to take charge as I knew standing still much longer would result in one (and then soon after nine!) cold potentially hypothermic people on a remote fell with little chance of imminent rescue. My GPS was telling me it was 500m south of our location. Shouting up to the rest of the group in the most commanding voice I could muster I reasoned that someone had to make a decision and everyone needed to follow me and I would lead them directly to the checkpoint. With my heart in my mouth I led the quiet group in the direction of the blue arrow towards the little green dot! After what seemed an age appeared the familiar sight of a red rotating beacon visible from a few metres away. We were back on track! Huge sense of relief and thank goodness for my trusty Garmin which I quietly kissed in the darkness soon after!
Final Stages
After CP23 it gradually began to get light, the mist brightening shade by shade until it became foggy daylight again. Things got a little easier for the last six miles and the compulsory grouping was lifted at the final checkpoint allowing everyone to cover the final two miles at their own pace. I managed a slow jog and finished at around 6.30am in just under 22 hours. Plenty had finished in front of me but there were still over 100 yet to finish behind me.

The coveted Fellsman finisher certificate
After the race
After the finish I somehow managed to peel wet, mud-soaked compression layers off and had a token 2 minute shower followed by an hour of sleep before the presentations took place. Incredibly, the joint winners completed the course in around 10 hours 30 minutes and must have arrived just before sunset! For me, a mentally testing, very long and often unpleasant night on the fells had turned into a huge sense of relief at completing the challenge. Thank goodness I wouldn’t have to do it again. Although… if I made slightly better progress early in the day I’m sure I could go sub-twenty. Couldn’t I???

Mid-race selfie

 

Salty coffee and tomato soup – Lakeland 50 2013

 

Now this might seem like a strange title to most people but these are the two things which got me through my 50 mile ultra-marathon challenge in the Lake District last weekend! When entries opened for the Lakeland 50 event last September I was reminded by my friend Simon to enter quickly. It was a good job I did as entries sold out within a couple of days.
The months passed by and then suddenly July is here! In the meantime I had decided to move house and inevitably this turned out to be last Thursday, the day before I was due to head up to Coniston to register for the event. Together with a really busy couple of weeks at work this didn’t add up to the best preparation! I made the final decision that I was going at lunchtime on Friday, heading up at 8pm to avoid the legendary northbound M6 traffic on a Friday afternoon. Unfortunately this meant that the campsite was closed when I arrived at 1am and I spent a rather uncomfortable night in the car, probably managing 2-3 hours’ sleep. Simon had a similar experience and ended up parked in the same car park in the centre of Coniston. Registration opened at 7am and we duly presented ourselves for the obligatory kit check, weigh-in and issuing of map and road book. Soon after we were on a coach to the start at Dalemain near Penrith, wondering what we had let ourselves in for. The Lakeland 50 is an ‘ultra-tour of the Lake District’ starting with a four mile loop around Dalemain before following a sweeping route which takes in Ullswater, Haweswater, Elterwater and finally Windermere, finishing in Coniston. Over the 50 mile course there is around 3,500m of climb across the various mountains.

 

11:30am soon came and we were off – 587 runners all heading on the same loop around the Dalemain estate with 50 miles to go. The first few hours were hot and humid making for less than pleasant running conditions, albeit with beautiful long-distance views across the Lake District in the clear air and sunshine. The initial excitement at the start soon wore off and the pace gradually slowed as the reality of what was ahead dawned on people. The course was split into sections with six checkpoints along the way in various locations. All had an array of tempting and necessary food and drink on offer together with electrolyte drink, gels and other essentials. I arrived at the first checkpoint at Howtown after a couple of hours and was pleased to see Simon hadn’t left by the time I got there. I was feeling a little pain in my left knee and was grateful for some painkillers which I knew he had stashed in his pack. We had agreed that we wouldn’t run together, running our own races to see how we were feeling with the pace and distance in the heat. By the second checkpoint at Mardale I was feeling quite dehydrated and drank two bottles of electrolyte before filling up my water bottle again. This was a good move as it was still extremely hot and immediately after the checkpoint is a big climb which was hard going. I was also starting to feel ‘on the edge’ of cramp in my legs. This, I have learnt, is about electrolyte and sodium balance as you need to replace that lost through sweat. Craving salt I proceeded to have a tomato soup with three salt sachets in it – lovely, followed by a coke with salt in it – not as bad as it sounds! This became a regular routine and by the time I reached checkpoint 4 at Ambleside I was experimenting with two salt sachets in a cup of coffee! Somehow my experimentation worked and although I had struggled with the first twenty miles I felt stronger for the last thirty. Ambleside was crowded with people lining the streets and in the pubs. It’s a great feeling being cheered on by spectators who don’t even know you, just know what you are attempting. I did comment to a fellow runner that I am glad I’m not famous though as I imagine it could get a little wearing being recognised, congratulated and cheered on ALL THE TIME! Soon after Ambleside the weather had turned and persistent rain had started to fall. This would remain the case for the rest of my run. It was starting to get dark as I came to the fifth checkpoint at Chapel Stile. From a way back I could see the twinkling fairy lights and glowing fire buckets leading the way into the relative comfort of the checkpoint. Together with some comfy sofas and hot food this was looking like a welcome break. As I took my food to a table who did I see? Simon! I had caught up with him at last. ‘What are you doing here? I thought your knee had given up’ he said, surprised to see me. ‘I’m’ off he said, eager to finish ahead of me despite his ITB playing up and meaning that he was struggling badly with the descents. With that he bolted with some parting banter about whether I would catch him he disappeared into the gathering darkness. Forty down, ten miles to go! Headtorch on and map in hand it was time to concentrate and make sure not to make any silly navigational errors – so easy to do when you’re tired, even easier in the dark and rain. Rather than my first thought of hunting him down and whizzing past him I decided to take the sensible option and slowly jogged the last few miles in with a group, some of whom had run the event before. With the rain still falling and some quite tricky navigation on the last leg this proved to be a good idea. Soon the long twisty descent into Coniston appeared and the last few miles were done. I crossed the finish line in 13 hours 21 minutes at around 1am.

Me and Simon at the finish

In summary, great event, great support, great aid stations. Truly a classic and I can see why it sells out in 24 hours every year. Will I be back to do the 100 mile course one day? Probably!