2nd time lucky – knocking off the Lakeland 100.

Dalemain Estate, Saturday 27th July, 2019. 11.25am. 59 miles.

The mind is the funniest thing. Sometimes trying to control it is the worst thing you can do. Negative thought processes are all-consuming, a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy – in everyday life, never mind ultra running. In our current climate of mindfulness and general awareness of mental health issues, we have never been more conscious of mental well-being. We have all kinds of strategies to improve our mental health; indeed, I find running – ultra running in particular – is one of the best strategies. But as this race wore on towards the 18th hour, even knowing there was probably nearly the same amount of time to do again, I found myself in that most blissful of places. Positivity had been building through the morning and was now reaching a critical mass. That doesn’t happen often, does it?!

A year ago I’d arrived at the same checkpoint 10 minutes earlier feeling good but then fatally faltered, taking far too long to eat, change clothes and refuel – over an hour in fact – before my race unraveled in six windswept, rain-sodden, sleep deprived hours.

Like last year, the aim was to be back out on course before the 50 mile race runners joined us. Their race started at 11.30 with a four mile loop around around the estate, so I had roughly 25 minutes to get out of there. It was a mini-race within a race and it kept me utterly focused on the task in hand. Checkpoint 8 (Dalemain) is the only CP where you have a drop-bag; that is, a pre-packed bag of your belongings which you can dip into like spare clothes, your own food and drink, or extra bits of equipment that you don’t want for the first half of the race that you think you might need for the second half. I had laminated a list of jobs so I couldn’t get flustered. I only changed my top – my shorts, socks and shoes were wet from the previous 17 hours but it actually started to rain heavily right on 11.30 as we heard the 50 race begin – so no point changing into dry clothes that would be wet again before leaving the field. That saves another five minutes! Charge watch. Get food and drink. I stuffed two bowls of stew down my throat and grabbed a cup of tea. Re-stock my bag with salt tablets, High5 hydration tablets, energy gels, Kendal Mint Cake, other assorted nibbles and snacks, swap charger packs – I was glad I’d made that list now!

Leanne and the girls weren’t there – on purpose. They were down the road at Pooley Bridge, part of a carefully crafted plan to get me out of Dalemain as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t linger unnecessarily knowing they were waiting for me a couple of miles away.

Emma (Who? You may well ask – more later!) was struggling to take any food on by this point, so she was looking at me with her now familiar ‘Let’s get out of here!’ eyes. I didn’t need too much prompting. She even got my water bottles filled while I sorted my drop-bag out. We had become a good little team, a mini-battalion pushing each other on and not allowing distractions or slacking off from the task in hand. One last check that we’d completed all the menial tasks that needed to be done from drop-bags and we were out again into the now heavy rain (some things never change!) at 11.50.

I knew it then. Barring unfortunate accidents or an injury, I was going to finish the Lakeland 100.

Thank You!

I’m going to open this blog in reverse order. It is the usual form (certainly for me) to do the thank yous at the end. But just this time they are so important that I need to do them first.

To Leanne (plus Hannah, Nancy and Lottie!) – I’ve said it many times before, but this year in particular, I could not have done it without Leanne. She was the one who talked me out of dropping out on several occasions earlier in the year. She was the one who sacrificed all those hours letting me catch-up on training, she was the one who let me sit on my backside for a week before the race so that I was as rested as possible, (she even replaced BOTH our family cars in this time!), she wasn’t offended when I said I wanted to travel to the lakes alone and hide away by myself in the camping field (more later), she sorted all the children’s belongings and needs for the weekend, managed to travel out to see me on course (prescribed places only!) and then even got the girls out of bed at 4am to see me finish! Amazing. But, these physical acts aside, it was mostly the mental knowledge that she never doubted I would finish that drove me on. I knew she would be watching that dot every minute possible and I was determined to make sure that every time she looked, the dot was moving!

Mum and Dad – they couldn’t come up for the entire weekend as they would have liked, but insisted on coming up at 10pm on the Saturday night to support. This was an invaluable little pick-me-up, especially when I inevitably started to get a bit sleepy towards the end! I’m so glad you made it and got to see the end! Thanks for making the effort!

Marc Laithwaite, The LL100 team/family and every single volunteer – this race is regarded as the UTMB of Great Britain – the UTLD no less! The reputation is formed with good reason. It is the best one day race in this country. Clearly it takes more than a day; my race spanned three days for a start! But you are supposed to complete it in one go – sleep is neither recommended nor encouraged. (Obviously, I’m placing the Spine Race and Dragon’s Back in a different category – but they are multi-day races.) Thanks to every single person who contributed to the organisation of the race or who volunteered to help at it. It is a truly mind-blowing event. I totally get why people return year on year and I will definitely be back in future! (Not next year though – the family deserve that much!)

Friends and family out there on social media – I said before the race that, because I now knew how many people became obsessed with dot watching on the live race tracker last year, I would use that energy positively during the race. This definitely worked! Thank you so much to everyone who watched the tracker, followed Leanne’s posts on social media and sent messages during the race. Every time my phone picked up a signal en-route I could feel the vibration as the messages poured in. I only looked at a couple of crucial points, I didn’t want too many distractions – I didn’t take any photos for example as I knew I’d then look at my phone – but I knew what the vibrations meant and you would be amazed if you knew what a positive impact they had on my mind and body at the time. Thanks everyone, it took me three days to read all the messages back after the race!

Team Lister – Rob smashed it! It nearly smashed him back but, like myself, I don’t think  the finish was in doubt this year, barring injuries. But to Leanne, Lottie, Riley and Noah (and the dogs!) I knew Leanne and the girls would be royally entertained in your company, and one of the benefits of Rob and I running separately was that child-minding duties could be shared allowing the adults to get out and about and do some extra cheering! Thanks for your excellent company this weekend and for letting Rob and I do stupid things for no good reason!

Jon Cadman & Jeff McCarthy – thanks to these two chaps. I spent an inordinate amount of time messaging these guys in the build-up to the race! Both completed the 50 this year, Jon for the second time and Jeff for the first time. Both had to do so in trying conditions for various different reasons so I was delighted both to see them out on course and also to hear they’d completed successfully. But pre-race, both were sources of re-assurance, inspiration and just down-to-earth sanity during my many periods of self-doubt this year. Thanks for all of it, chaps! (Self doubt is not something I often struggle with, in running terms at least!) Plus, Jon generously supplied me with every size of Sudocrem tub known to man pre-race and Jeff got out of his sleeping bag within hours of finishing himself to cheer me into the finish!

And finally, Emma Humphries – hard to know where to start here. I think anyone who has read my blogs before will know that I like to run solo. I don’t like other people affecting my race or my thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rude; I’ll say hello to anyone and offer words of encouragement or share a joke out on course BUT I will go out of my way not to fall into step with someone or ‘buddy-up’ – it’s just not my thing. So it tells you a lot about Emma’s determined, driven personality that we ended up running together for some 50 miles and the best part of 14 hours. Slight spoiler alert here; Emma finally dropped out at Kentmere (82 miles) but this was nothing to do with ability or determination, more that she’d barely eaten at all in the entire time I spent with her and there is only so much you can do without getting some fuel on board. Without that issue, I am pretty certain Emma was much stronger than me and we would, in all likelihood, have finished together in fine style. I am going to try and be brutally honest in this account which means my selfish nature will be described in detail, particularly when Emma started to falter and I got increasingly desperate to run on as I got colder and time ticked away. But this in no means is a criticism of Emma. She was a massive help to me during the race, I learned a lot from her, we could chat happily about all sorts of nonsense, we had similar levels of sarcasm and humour (always important!) and we drove each other on really well. Her family (and dog!) were lovely when we met them out on course and she enjoyed meeting Leanne and the girls, however briefly, at Pooley Bridge. It would be great to meet Emma and her family again at some point and I would happily team up with her again in a pairs event of some sort. Thanks for your company Emma! Hopefully we will catch-up at a race sometime in the future!

Double finally… thanks to you for reading this! I have been genuinely surprised by how many people have asked when the blog is coming out – especially those who seemed to ask it without a trace of sarcasm! So, without further ado, here it is.

Pre-Race Prep.

The Kit.

Another whirlwind school year finished the week before the event, giving me seven days to prepare for the race. The shopping had been done previously including all the usual paraphernalia. But there were a number of purchases bought at what could be described ‘the last minute’ which definitely flew against the well used running rule of not using anything in a race which you haven’t tested thoroughly in training! (A rule which I would fully advise you follow, despite my own bad example right here!)

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Shoes – This was not as much of a gamble as it would appear. I loved my Hoka Mafate Speed 2s last year. I put them on at Dalemain last year having worn Inov8 Trail Talon for the first 59 miles. There was nothing wrong with the Inov8’s but I wished I’d worn my Hokas throughout as there is a lot of solid surface bashing after Braithwaite. The old pair were still running fine but I always wear the grip away on the outer heel, (Pronating? Over? Under? I can never remember which it is, but I do it!) so I wanted the grips as good as new for the probable wetter conditions this year. So I bought the replacements a few weeks before, fully intending to run them in. However, I only did about 15 miles in them beforehand – so you could describe it as wearing new shoes for the race, I suppose. In my defence, they were exactly the same as my old ones which I wore out of the box for a massive recce run on the route last year without any problems, so it was hardly a massive gamble. But I would recommend you do a few more miles in new shoes before a major race. On the plus side, the grips were pristine!

Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest 4 – Poor Leanne. She bought me the Ultra vest as a surprise birthday present, understandably thinking the word ‘Ultra’ would mean it was the right vest! It isn’t quite big enough for this race’s mandatory kit list though, so I returned it for the Adventure vest. But the medium was too small, so that went back. When I finally got the right bag it was spectacularly comfy to wear – even in comparison to the previous model, which I have. But there were so many pockets I was stressing about what I’d put in them and one of the drinks bottle pockets had been replaced by a huge phone pocket. I didn’t have time to test it properly pre-race as the right size only became available in early July, so I decided I would stick to my old bag as, wear and tear aside, I was still perfectly happy with it.

S!Caps salt tablets – Again, I should have tested these in other races or runs beforehand. But the forecast was hot and the weather in the build up was really hot, so I thought a bit of insurance hydration wise would be useful. Rob has dodgy runner’s tummy but had been using them all year and felt they really helped him. So I bought some to take on the race, thinking that if I started to feel ill in the race I would just stop taking them.

Body Glide – Not a risky item, but I have had issues with my pack rubbing my back in very hot or very wet conditions. Lots of people told me Body Glide was a really good option – a bit less sticky than Vaseline – so I picked that up too.

Fun Fitness waist belt – this was literally the week of the race! I wanted a slightly bigger ‘bum bag’ style bag so that I could put in the handy things that had proved to be a pain in my race pack last year – phone, charger pack, electric leads, hydration tablets etc. Plus, last year I bought a filter bottle to use in streams for drinking in the extreme heat if I ran out of water. The problem was all the streams were dry! That wouldn’t be a problem this year, but I couldn’t see myself rooting around in the bag for the bottle if I was moving OK or was simply too tired or grumpy to be bothered. So I bought a waist belt with a bigger pouch and two extra little bottles, thinking I would use them on the longer legs in the day if it was warm. If I didn’t feel I needed them for a particular leg, I wouldn’t fill them.

The rest and mental preparation.

Last year was a bit stressy right up until the race start. For example, Hannah was on a High School trip so Leanne couldn’t pick her up until 3pm in Wigan. That gave Leanne three hours to get up to the race for the start. She was desperate to be there and I was desperate for them to be there. For a ‘normal’ race it wouldn’t matter, but in this case it’s just a waste of nervous energy that you don’t need. Add up lots of those little things and I learned the hard way that, for a race of this magnitude, those seemingly minor pressures and stresses add up and impact severely on your race energy. This year I was determined to be stress free.

The week before the race was boiling (as it was last year) with record temperatures – especially at night. This made sleeping really difficult so, with Leanne’s never-ending support, I slept most of the days instead! I figured that the time of day I slept was largely irrelevant as we would be running through two nights and one day anyway. Better to get the maximum amount of sleep possible whenever that may be! This also inadvertently paid off on the Friday of the race as I did actually sleep for quite a decent amount of time after registering. On one of the afternoons that I decided I needed to lie in bed for the entire afternoon, Leanne had to take all three girls over to Bolton to sign papers for our new family car – plus choose a replacement for our smaller second car! I’m not sure I could have completed that task by myself, never mind drag three young children with me to do it! (I told you Leanne’s support was amazing!)

We had booked a cottage in Coniston village with the Lister family but, as is the case with these things, you could only pick up the keys at 3pm – hardly ideal with a 4.30pm briefing and 6pm race start. I knew this would lead to stress as we tried to get the keys as early as possible – time that could be spent sleeping or resting up would be wasted. So I removed myself from it totally and told Leanne I wanted to travel up by myself first thing in the morning, register as early as possible and then just put up the one man tent and crawl into it!

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I love the hustle and bustle of the race HQ on the Friday, there’s always someone you know knocking about and the time passes quickly. I chatted with Jon Cadman from Wolves (he may not be a Sudocrem Sales Rep, but he should be!) and Matt Rushbrook, back for his second LL100. Rob had arrived too. Fortunately, the record temperatures of the preceding days had given way to a much more pleasant, cool day. I only had one semi-stress when I somehow managed to pack all my kit and just about complete the official kit check when I realised I’d left my compass at home! So there was a quick, swear-word-laden ten minute walk to and from the village to buy a replacement! But, that aside, I was good to my word – I took myself away from the hive of activity, packed my race bag and drop bag, ticked off my checklist for the 20th time, had a bite to eat, then pitched the pop up one man tent and had a couple of hours of really good rest.

By the time I woke up I had a message to say the families were in the cottage, so I walked up there and even managed to nap again before the briefing!

Being our second time at the event, I can’t say Rob and I were keen to attend the briefing in a hot, stuffy hall. But Marc and Uncle Terry always make it entertaining and a couple of the things Marc spoke about left a real lump in the throat this year. This slightly emotional state carried on once we’d said our goodbyes to our families and made our way to the start pen.

Last year, Rob’s family hadn’t arrived when they should have so we were stressing about that. Plus I was fretting about my watch settings, we were very tense in general and I never really took in my surroundings until the amazing run through the village.

Given what I considered my good fortune to even be on the start line this year, I was determined to savour the moment. I think my calm, relaxed state of mind made me more susceptible to the emotion of the situation and I was very relieved no-one tried to speak to me during the traditional pre-race live singing of Nessun Dorma! I was quite choked up and momentarily overwhelmed by the highly charged atmosphere. Maybe Jeff arriving just before the start from a family funeral contributed to this; I wasn’t sure he’d make the weekend at all and it was really good to see him.

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One more pre-race note: the problems of new kit for a race. I only discovered that the waist belt had an elasticated waist band when it was too heavy to stay round my waist when I strapped it on! This was with empty bottles too as I didn’t think I’d need them full for the early stages. This felt awkward and uncomfortable – to the point that I nearly ditched the belt pre-race. It was a good job I didn’t…

And so, finally, after a twelve month wait, we were off again! 105 miles to go!

The Lakeland 100, 2019 edition.

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My little laminated race sheet. Informal prediction times linked to previous year. I wasn’t going to stress about being in front or behind them, it was more a guide for keeping ahead of the cut-offs and giving my family a rough idea of where I might be at supporter points.

Leg 1 – Coniston to Seathwaite – 7 miles.

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Can’t remember who sent me this picture of Rob and I leaving the start line! Thanks whoever it was! (Could have been Jeff but I can’t swear to it!) We are right in the front of the two supporter mobile phones in shot!

The run through the village was every bit as memorable as the previous year. You really do momentarily feel like a professional athlete! There were a few people I knew dotted around and even if I didn’t spot them, I heard their shouts. Thanks!

Obviously, Rob and I were not going to be sticking together this year. As discussed in my previous blog, aside from the mental stress of trying to stay together, Rob has been flying this year. It was also in his best interests to get round as quickly as possible as his arthritic hip, which will eventually need replacing, had been playing up of late, meaning a couple of injections were required in order for his fantastic training block not to be scuppered due to injury. The sooner he got round, the better! We had even added each other to our text messaging lists so that we could see how the other was getting on. We definitely felt that running individually, and assuming the other person would definitely finish, was the best motivation either of us could have!

Still, we ended up together on the initial climb (thanks to club running mate Steve Nicholls and his daughter who were up by one of the gates to give us a cheer!) and so we decended towards the Walna Scar Road together past the official photographer who always positions himself above the car park there!

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I let Rob go ahead on the Walna Scar Road climb, I wanted to ensure I dictated my own pace and was pretty determined to be a little slower than last year. My rough plan was to move a little slower (taking it easy due to my lack of fitness) but be a lot more economical with my time in the checkpoints.

The Walna Scar Road goes on forever, but it does allow you to get settled in without rushing – I walked all of it – and before too long you are dropping off the other side. To my surprise I found myself passing people immediately on the descent. I have really improved my ability to control descending these days and not pan my legs, so I was mildly mystified as to why I was suddenly flying. I’ve no idea if I was just technically strong or whether I simply wasn’t fit enough to stop myself! (I suspect the latter!) Anyway, what ever the reason, Rob got a proper shock when I steamed past him near the bottom!

He reluctantly tagged on and we managed to put a lid on the craziness when we reached the road! I didn’t feel like I was being reckless but the number of people I overtook may suggest otherwise! I certainly didn’t feel reckless, and my legs didn’t display any fatigue so it was all good!

Into the CP we went, and I was surprised to notice I’d drunk an entire bottle of my fluid. Still, no problem, hydration tablet into the bottle, filled up, didn’t fancy anything to eat but suspect I must have grabbed a jelly baby at least. 1hr30 was definitely on the fast side, but that was due to the descent. On we go!

Leg 2 – Seathwaite to Boot – 7 miles (14 miles in total).

There was a slight diversion here due to a fallen bridge, and straight away I noticed how hot and humid it felt in the valley. There was a lovely cool breeze on the first leg but now this woodland section felt more like a rainforest! I decided to take my first salt tablet here seeing as I was getting a sweat on. I’d never really taken any notice that they were in capsule form as opposed to tablets until now, and I had quite a bit of difficulty swallowing it. I got used to them as the race went on, though my body must have been rattling with little plastic pieces by the end!

The next bit of climbing was mostly in trees (Rob turned round and gave me a thumbs up here – that was the last I saw of him until a congratulatory hug on Sunday morning!) and I was suddenly really thirsty, and sweating like it was midday. As we dropped towards a farm on an entirely runnable section, I didn’t feel much like running at all. No big deal; plenty of time. But as we climbed through the next plantation to the summit of this leg before dropping into Eskdale I was well aware that I was sweating buckets and had nearly finished one bottle of water already. (I was using High5 tabs in the water – 2 soft flasks.)

The drop into the Eskdale valley is quite technical through bracken and rocks. Quite irritating early in a race when you just want to knock out some miles but then you are reduced to clambering down fallen rocks clinging onto a fence! But hey, this is the Lake District! Once out onto the valley road there are a couple of runnable miles, pleasantly along the river and then into the village of Boot. Normally I’d run all of it but this time I had to force myself to concentrate on not just walking. I felt drained of energy and the sweat was pouring off me. At the time I thought it was just me – only reading other people’s blogs has made me realise everyone was feeling the same way – I don’t think anyone wants to admit that they feel terrible 14 miles into a 105 mile race!!!

I fair staggered into Boot at 3h10m. I had a bit of a battle with one of my bottles that I managed to trap in a knot on my bag – but it was telling that I was needing to fill both bottles at this point. I didn’t feel great at all. I don’t think the Christmas themed checkpoint helped my mood – I bloody hate Christmas music in November when it starts in the shops; I don’t need it in July! Still, I did keep in with the theme and enthusiasm of the brilliant volunteers and wish everyone of them Merry Christmas. (They didn’t have Mulled Wine which might have actually helped.)

Leg 3 – Boot to Wasdale Head – 5.4 miles (19.4 total.)

Climbing out of Boot I felt nauseous. I remembered Rob feeling the same here last year. Leg 3 is comfortably the easiest leg of the race. It’s only short and, after the initial steady climb, is beautifully runnable on soft grassland with tremendous views into the heart of lakeland. Couple this with the fact that, at this time of day, it’s usually sunset too and you have the ultimate ultra runner utopia. But as I completed the climb and stared out over the stunning vista, I just felt like sh*t.

At least I had worked out by this time that my feelings were humidity related. I’d never fully understood humidity before this. In our country humidity levels are nearly always linked to hot weather anyway so you can’t tell the difference. But not tonight. It was clear the actual air temperature wasn’t too high, but the air was so close, it was genuinely uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I couldn’t run – it was more the feeling of lethargy that I couldn’t be arsed running. I just wanted to throw myself into the beautiful Burnmoor Tarn and cool down.

I carried on going through my water like it didn’t exist. It felt like I was just sweating it straight out again. I genuinely considered ringing Leanne to meet me at Wasdale! How ridiculous to drop out at this point?! (looking at the stats later on, it was amazing how many people actually did drop out at Wasdale and before – it must be a record.) The only reason I erased the idea was because I knew the two Leanne’s would definitely be enjoying a well earned Kopperburg after the kids’ race and I didn’t want to spoil their night! I wasn’t spent to the point of needing to drop out, it just seemed futile to try and do another 90 miles.

I had to put the headtorch on at the side of the tarn, earlier than the previous year. Dropping into Wasdale in the dark is still stunning and I tried to console myself with the views. Like I described at the very start of this blog, once you get in a negative circle of thought it is hard to dig yourself out of it. My head was telling me there was no way I was going to finish this race – on the walk into Wasdale Head (I should have been running) I decided that I would walk through the night to Braithwaite (33 miles) and decide what to do there. It was a genuinely beautiful night after all – let’s at least try to enjoy the magic of the moment!

I stumbled into the Wasdale CP at 4hr41m – it had just taken 90 minutes to do the shortest, easiest leg of the race which would normally take about 60/70 minutes. Things were looking bleak. I was immediately lifted by the Beer Keller/Alpine Yodeling themed checkpoint! The Sunderland Strollers are legends of the LL100 and always provide the craziest, highest energy CP! If Christmas had turned my stomach, the Austria theme warmed my heart and I immediately ‘Danke Schoened’ my way round each person who helped fill bottles or serve drinks!

I was suddenly aware that, salt capsules aside, I hadn’t eaten anything since before the start of the race and this could be contributing to my lethargy. (I’d read a really good article by Damien Hall that week where he explained that body temperature is really affected by lack of food.) I really just wanted to drink all the flat coke in the CP but saw orange segments and immediately attacked them instead – thinking thirst quenching and solid food in one combo! I also decided that, as I had just drained both water bottles for the second leg in a row and the next leg is the hardest of the race (in my opinion – maybe Fusedale is close) that I would fill my additional bottles here too so that I could drink lots more; that is what I bought them for after all! I saw another runner fill one of his bottles with flat coke so I thought that would be a good idea. So my two soft flasks still had High5 hydration in them, but my two little waist belt bottles had coke in. Might be a useful little pick-me up.

Leg 4 – Wasdale Head to Buttermere – 6.9 miles (26.3 total)

This leg is a deceptive 7 miles, in so much as it has lots of climbing and descending in it and only relents as it skirts Buttermere itself, so it feels a lot further. Black Sail Pass is a big one straight out of the CP and I was already pre-preparing to feel terrible! (Negative energy, man!) However, the dark of night (it was approx 11pm) had just led to a slight relenting in the humidity. Plus climbing higher afforded a bit of a breeze. Also, did I feel a bit better for eating? Either way, I got into a bit of a rhythm climbing up and, as I remembered last year, the absolute best view of the entire race is here. Just before the area where you cross the stream, you can look back towards Wasdale Head and see the line of headtorches of runners still descending into Wasdale a couple of miles away. Then you also have the headtorches immediately behind you on the Pass and then also the torches above, in front of you. It is a truly mesmerising site and one of those magical moments and views which make all the pain, effort and preparation worthwhile. The picture below is taken on the same stage on a later descent but gives a great idea of what I mean. Magical.

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Official (time lapse) race photo of the headtorches dropping down Scarth Gap into Buttermere. There is simply nothing like a night time ultra in the lakes on a clear night!

There is a stream crossing at approximately half way up the Black Sail Pass. It’s quite a tricky one and I’m sure some poor runner must have fallen in at some point! It was here that, on a recce with Rob the previous year, I had totally conked out in searing heat. Only putting my head in the water had saved me; that, and Rob forcing some Kendal Mint Cake down me to get me going again!

I had told Nicola, the Headteacher at my school, this story sometime in the past so she had very kindly bought me a huge stash of Kendal Mint Cake before the summer holidays – and I’d put some in my bag. I felt like the orange segments had powered me to this point but I was still low on energy. Now it was time to start forcing the food down – there was no way I could finish this race if I didn’t get busy eating. So out came the Kendal Mint Cake – and the effect was immediate. it was like Popeye eating spinach! (Younger readers might need to ask someone older what this means!)

I crested the summit in better spirits and headed for the tricky descent, happy that I had done this section just five weeks earlier on my solo recce run. It is a spot where people choose their own routes but I was happy and confident to guide a couple of debutants down what I feel is the best path; I think they were both grateful to be shown the way at that point.

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The view down to Black Sail Hut from the top of Black Sail Pass. (Taken five weeks earlier in the light!!!)

I munched a bit more KMC as we passed the Black Sail Hut and was now also making sure I took my salt tablets regularly. I rewarded myself with one of my little bottles of coke too – it was reassuring to know that I could pretty much drink as much as I wanted and I wouldn’t run out. It was cooler now but still very warm for midnight in the lakes!

On the short climb up Scarth Gap I got talking to a lad who had done the GB24 race the previous year and therefore knew quite a few of my GB Ultras friends. We were at the top before you knew it; a few hardy souls were supporting on the col here which was nice. One of them had a gruff Scottish accent and I only realised later that the other chap was proper LL100 legend John Kynaston! I would definitely have shaken his hand if I’d known it was him – his You Tube videos of the route helped immensely last year as I prepared for my first attempt at this race.

I wasn’t necessarily feeling physically better as I dropped down into Buttermere (see earlier night picture) but mentally I was getting myself together a bit. I knew my low energy levels could only be replenished with food. On my original plan I was going to have a food break at Braithwaite (33 miles) but I realised now that I needed to get food in me asap before it was too late, so instead of just filling my bottles at Buttermere I would make a point of stopping and eating.

It was also noticeable that I was still catching and passing people on every descent, even when I felt bad. This was a bizarre theme which continued throughout the entire race. I am normally, by my own admission, an incompetent descender at best. How come in this race I seemed to be flying downhill? A mystery.

The path round the lake is gently undulating and I made a point of trying to run the downhills at least. I needed to mentally snap myself out of the slump and running a couple of quicker miles would improve my mood. This seemed to work and I reached the next diversion actually catching one or two people up. (And obviously I knew the diversion route from my recce.)

As I crossed the alternative bridge and turned towards Buttermere village, I spoke briefly to a girl called Emma who actually said thanks when I spoke to her! This surprised me a bit, but she explained how she’d been really disappointed by how many fellow runners ignored her when she said hello. She then promptly trotted off up the path to Buttermere. I walked. I was feeling a bit better, but I certainly wasn’t feeling like running anything which wasn’t downhill. Little did I realise at the time what an impact Emma was going to have on my race!

I arrived at Buttermere at 7h27m of running (walking!) About 30 minutes down on my estimate. 2h45m for the stage seemed such a long time. But that didn’t matter. I needed to stop and eat, whether I liked it or not!

I decided on taking a seat and, as usual, the CP volunteers were amazing. They were serving those cheap, tinned hot dogs which some may turn their nose up at but, at the time, wrapped in a slice of bread and lathered in ketchup, were just what I needed! I had three or four of them, washed down with a couple of sweet cups of tea. Just what the doctor ordered.

Leg 5 – Buttermere to Braithwaite – 6.5 miles (32.8 total)

The last killer stage for a bit. I don’t know if all 100 runners feel the same, but I regard Braithwaite as a bit of a gateway moment. If you can make it there, you have knocked off easily the most difficult third of the race and the 26 miles to Dalemain are relatively less intimidating. (Not flat mind, this is still the lakes!)

However, straight out of the Buttermere CP is a 3.5 mile climb with the brutal scree slope up to Sail Pass at the end of it. If you make it there, you can freefall three miles down to Braithwaite and reward yourself with some brekkie!

The effect of the food was pretty immediate. For the first time since Coniston I felt OK. Not flying or anything, but I was able to find a rhythm on the uphill and stick to it. The main reason I began to enjoy it was that I had it all to myself; there were lights ahead but they were a fair way away and there was no-one following me. Having a Lake District path to yourself is always a moment to treasure, especially at night with the reassurance of someone definitely being along in the not too distant future if you did injure yourself! (And it is quite a tricky path in places, it would be easy to turn an ankle here.)

Nothing much happened, I just hit a sweet spot. There are three gullies you have to walk into in order to cross some gills which flow down into the valley, and each time I emerged from a gully the lights ahead were closer – for the first time all race I was making progress against the field! (Uphill!) Hitting the steep section of scree is not easy, but I was actually ready for it. Just 15 minutes of effort, I kept telling myself. I broke it down into 5 minute sections and actually caught and passed a couple of runners who were suffering a bit.

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The infamous scree path up to Sail Pass in daylight. At least at night you can’t see it! Take a deep breath…!

Cresting the saddle of Sail Pass was mildly euphoric! I passed another Emma at this point and we chatted as we tackled the tricky, technical initial downhill section. It turned out she owns the house at the end of Haweswater in Burnbanks which the Lakeland Trails 110k ultra passes. I’d only run past it 4 weeks ago! So she was going to be Emma Burnbanks for the rest of the race, seeing as I’d already met one Emma!

As soon as we’d done with the tricky bit at the top and got onto more runnable terrain, my descending boosters kicked in again! I’ve no idea how quickly I did the descent, but I do know that I overtook 13 runners here because the official stats show it. In reality I probably took more because I spent a fair while in Buttermere CP so some runners will have arrived there later than me but left before me.

Anyway, details aside, I was flying. I couldn’t wait to get to Braithwaite and get some more food in! There is one junction which runners who are not familiar with the area often miss and two poor headtorches were trudging back up the hill having obviously done just that; it must be soul destroying when you realise what you’ve done and your descent to a CP turns into another climb.

I arrived at Braithwaite after knocking off the leg in under 2 hours, 9hrs 36m in total. This was about 30 minutes slower than last time, but I knew I was planning on only stopping here for 15 minutes or so, when last year we were there well over half an hour.

I drank a lot of tea here and also ate a lot more orange and also forced down some coldish rice pudding. I was determined not to get too comfortable. I sent Leanne a first text of the race. I told her I was pretty lethargic and miserable and I’d probably pack it in at Dalemain!

However, my lowest point had passed. The positivity was about to begin! And I was about to meet an unexpected teammate!

Leg 6 – Braithwaite to the Blencathra Centre – 8.5 miles (41.3 total)

Last year Rob and I walked out of Braithwaite on the main road, so slowly that I fell asleep! For 12 months I told myself that the turning point of my second attempt would be reaching Braithwaite in the same time as last year, but not stopping in the CP as long and running along the main road!

Well, I was behind on the clock due to my uncomfortable night, but I did only stay in the CP about 15/20 minutes and I was determined to run on that road!

The positivity which swept through me was immediate. And I mean I could actually feed off the energy; it was stark proof of what positive thinking can do. Because I also had in mind my disaster at Dalemain last year – even if I got there slower I wouldn’t stay as long and I would definitely be in front of last year’s times after that! At that exact moment on the A66, it was far from certain whether I would reach Dalemain before the 11.30am 50 mile race start, but I would definitely still have a chance to be out on course before they’d done their four mile loop at midday.

Just before the steep climb up to Latrigg Car Park through the woods out of Keswick, I actually stopped to send Leanne another text to tell her that I was on my way and feeling loads better, so she was to ignore my earlier miserable text! (This was approx 4am so I’m pretty certain she hadn’t seen the original text yet!)

Morning light began to break as I climbed the steep track – just as it had last year – but this time I wasn’t sleepy! I had passed some runners on the road and now, up ahead, I was catching two more. It turned out to be the two Emma’s who I had spoken to previously. I could hear them nattering and thought that was quite convenient, as I had a bit of a plan to try and listen to some music on the terrific path around the Glenderaterra valley. This had worked a treat last year to arouse me from my slumber, so I thought I might give it another go this year. As we finally got to the top of the steep track, Emma Burnbanks stopped to take her headtorch off. I said ‘Hi’ again as I marched past. The other Emma carried on to a gate and waited for me to go through. ‘Thanks!’ I said, making sure to talk to her as I remembered she’d not been happy with the ignorant guys earlier in the race!

I assumed she was waiting for the other Emma, but no, she closed the gate and tagged along. We had a brief chat about how it was going and I asked if she was waiting for the other Emma. ‘Nah, I think she’s dropping out at the next CP, she says she’s had enough.’ That was a shame, as she seemed to be doing just fine. (She did drop out there, results confirmed later.) As we chatted, I told Emma of my plan to put on some music once we were through the car park, as the path was nice and it might keep me awake.

‘Don’t do that, talk to me instead!’ she said. ‘Erm no thanks! [I thought in my head] I’m off in a minute!’

‘We could stick together to the next checkpoint. If it’s going well to there, we could probably team up all the way to the end!’ she said.

My eyes must have nearly popped out of my head on stalks, but I held it together quite well I thought. ‘There’s more chance of me winning this race than there is of me teaming up with anyone!’ [again, I thought in my head.] ‘Haven’t you read my blog? Don’t you understand? I’m a solo runner, I don’t do chatting! STICKS DOESN’T SHARE RACES!’ [still in my head.]

‘Er, yeah OK,’ was my actual meek reply!

Anyway, we chatted about this and that. As soon as we crested the hill into the car park, Emma said ‘Let’s run this bit,’ so we did. We walked the uphills and then one of us would suggest a run to a certain point, and on we went. We tagged the unmanned dibber at the end of the valley and dropped down to cross the stream before following the same pattern on the opposite side of the valley. It was surprisingly pleasant, this being sociable lark! But the main positive was that, as soon as the path allowed, one of us would suggest to the other that we ran, so the pace was satisfyingly high throughout. If I’m being honest, I suspect the running was often at Emma’s suggestion, but that suited me fine because I was easily feeling the best I had felt all race.

As we began the descent into the Blencathra Centre CP, the official filmmakers appeared on the path ahead. They filmed us running past but also had their drone flying in the valley alongside us. We made the final cut of the film too! Click the link below to watch – the whole thing is only six minutes long and captures the event perfectly. Emma and I feature at 2m57s, taken from the drone shot.

Click here for the Official Montane Lakeland 2019 film

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Screenshot from the official film of Emma and I making our way down to CP7 in the Glenderaterra Valley, approx 5.45am. Approaching 12 hours into the race, 41 miles done.

We reached CP7 at just after 6am after 12hrs 18mins of official racing. I grabbed a brew and tried some flapjack. I’m not entirely sure what I did eat here as I was so distracted by the whisky on offer! It was a heavy metal theme – the same as last year, but that suited me fine as they are nearly always playing something like AC/DC or Led Zep which defo keeps you awake after a sleepless night. Emma came back from the bathroom and wasn’t really bothered about eating (If I’d known then what I know now…!) so she fairly hurried me out of the door.

My plan to go it alone appeared to be in tatters. But on the plus side, Emma seemed good company and if she was going to make me run faster and hurry me out of checkpoints, this could just work!

Leg 7 – Blencathra Centre to Dockray – 7.7 miles (49 in total.)

It started to rain for the first time while we were in the CP. It looked bright enough to be just a shower so we tried to save time by not putting our waterproofs on. This lasted about 500 metres once outside as we realised it wasn’t just a shower, it was quite heavy. So we stopped under a tree by the road to don waterproofs for the first time. Like last year, I’d forgotten to give my watch a charge at Braithwaite but with the charger handy in my waist belt it was easy to attach the charging dock to my watch and carry on. (I had a right old palaver last year trying to do this! Another sign that I was more mentally switched on this year.)

Again, we adopted a run/walk strategy with one of us (usually Emma) suggesting a run to the next tree, or junction, or incline – whatever feature was available to inspire us to not fall into the trap of just walking.

We crossed the road at a manned CP – usually you backtrack under a bridge here to avoid the busy A66. It’s done for safety purposes obviously, the organisers don’t want runner-shaped-roadkill splattered in the gutter, but I for one was very pleased the path was closed and we were diverted across the road – much quicker!

For a time we were joined by a very quirky guy who yo-yo’d in front and behind us all the way to Dockray. He was a subject of conversation for the next hour or so! But mostly it was just Emma and I knocking out a pretty decent tempo. By now we knew all there was to know about each-other’s families and I felt very comfortable being informally teamed up – who would have thought it?!

It stopped raining again, (it wouldn’t start again until Dalemain – a bonus) so we removed the waterproofs again before the pull up onto the infamous Coach Road. This is (approximately) a four mile section of long, wide track – most of which can be seen for the entire time. This can be a bit of a mental drain as it seems never ending, but we were chatting away and pushing the pace too so it seemed to pass quickly. I was making sure I was constantly topping up calories munching on whatever I had in my bag. I think it amused Emma no end the amount of snacks I was offering her! Kendal Mint Cake was still my go-to snack of the day. But it was noticeable how Emma would try everything once, but not have it again. She was really struggling to eat. Salt capsules were the only thing she would accept without question when offered.

We reached the CP at the end of the Coach Road at 14hr 37m, knocking off the leg in only slightly over two hours including the Blencathra stop. This was going well! It was 8.45am which meant we had a really good chance of reaching Dalemain around the 11.30 mark.

You have probably noticed that usually by now in a race blog I would have mentioned toilet visits – especially if I’m with Rob! But I simply hadn’t needed it. However, I felt my stomach churning a bit approaching Dockray so, despite Emma and I agreeing that this would be a quick pit stop, it was time to sit on the throne. (That’s ultra code for smelly portaloo.)

However, after five minutes of non-stop trumping but no solid transaction (too much information?) I realised that my stomach was churning not because I actually needed the toilet, but because I had been politely holding in my farts due to running with a lady who I didn’t know so well! I would not be making this mistake again!

That was five minutes wasted time, and when I emerged from the portaloo Emma was ready to go. But I hadn’t filled my water bottles, had a drink or eaten anything. I didn’t eat at the last CP other than a quick snack and the next stage is the longest of the race (10 miles) so, whilst not wanting to spend a long time in the CP, I did want to fuel up. Emma was getting frustrated as I filled my cup with soup and started perusing the sandwiches. (Probably because she was really struggling to eat and was getting annoyed at her impromptu partner troffing like a horse!) Eventually I had to tell her to just go because I wasn’t going to rush or not fuel up for a long stage. She looked at me like a wife looks at a husband in the pub who says ‘I’m just going to have one more pint with the boys, I’ll be home in ten minutes!’ and left.

I knew I wanted to eat but just didn’t fancy the savoury sandwiches. It’s so strange how one race you can crave a certain food and the next race not want it at all. But the soup was going down well and, just as I was about to give up, I saw one of the CP heroes making a huge pile of jam sandwiches! My taste buds pricked up! ‘Can I steal a handful of those, please?!’ I asked. Food choice sorted. I stuffed a couple down my throat right there, then grabbed a couple more to take with me. It was time to get to Dalemain before my self imposed 11.30 cut-off.

Leg 8 – Dockray to Dalemain Estate – 10.1 miles (59.1 in total.)

Target: 2hrs 45m to make it to Dalemain, the chase was on and I felt gooooood! The first two miles are pretty steep down hill. This can be quite painful on the legs so you have to be careful, but it was great to be running non-stop, eating jam sarnies as I went and still racking up a couple of ten minute miles. I pretty much farted my way down the entire hill too!

Something did feel unusual though. I was all by myself approaching one of the most scenic spots on the course, but something was nagging away at me inside. Was I actually missing my running buddy? This can’t be! I love being my myself! But, as I charged down through Aira Force towards Ullswater, there was no doubt about it – with every corner I turned I was glancing up the path to see if Emma was in view yet.

After the fast two mile descent, the course swings North at Ullswater (I nearly missed the turn at the bottom of Aira Force as I flew along, it was a good job I had just overtaken some runners who called me back – my only navigational error of the entire race) and climbs steadily upwards for a number of miles. This affords a quite spectacular view down the lake towards Glenridding and Patterdale if you look over your shoulder. As I climbed, I was momentarily startled by one of the official race photographers hidden in the head high bracken. Still, it was worth the shock, as he took probably my favourite ever official race photograph…

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On a mission! Powering towards Dalemain with the stunning backdrop of Ullswater. Glenridding immediately behind my head. What a photo!

Whilst climbing, I had spotted Emma up ahead rounding Yew Crag with a couple of other runners. I was going really well at this point as the path continues to generally climb, but it still took a couple more miles to make the catch. I don’t think Emma expected to see me again but I think we were both pleased to be back together. She was clearly making me faster and if she was going to continue to bully me out of checkpoints then I should be using that as a positive, not a negative! I informed her that, from now on, I could only apologise for the fact that I wasn’t going to be holding wind in any longer! (She didn’t want me wasting time in toilets after all!)

Through the course of the morning she had been filling me in on her partner Tom and their boys – all good runners by the sounds of it. Tom, currently injured, is ultra-competitive and she told me how he would be really pleased to see us really pushing each other on – he didn’t like people not pushing themselves!

As we rounded a corner approaching Priest’s Crag, near the Quiet Site above Ullswater, a little dog rounded the corner in front of us. There were quite a few morning ramblers out on the paths by now. Suddenly, Emma said ‘That’s my dog!’ Huh?! But, sure enough, it was! Round the corner came Tom and their boys, greeted with wide smiles, hugs (for Emma) and handshakes (for me!). She had only just told me that one of her boys had won the Lakeland 1 kids race the night before so I offered him my number and asked if he wanted to finish for me!

Eventually this section stops climbing when you hit the tarmac a couple of miles before the village of Dacre. From here, it is about 3.5 miles to Dalemain, mostly on tarmac, all runnable. It was really useful to have a teammate here as the road can feel to stretch on forever, so we made a pact to run all the way to Dacre once we crested the mini road summit. I rang Leanne here. It was great to speak to her. They were having a nice time in Pooley Bridge, Rob was going well and had just been through, which was good to hear. It looked like 11.30 for Dalemain was on the cards and I assured her that I would be out of that blasted CP before any 50 runners came past. I could tell she was as excited as I was; this was going well!

The run into Dalemain was uneventful but we maintained our pace most of the way. Emma’s family surprised us again by Dacre Castle but we were cross – it was the first time we’d had a break from running in over two miles and we’d been spotted by her family walking! ‘Get moving!’ was Tom’s cry from behind us as we headed down into the Dalemain Estate!

We arrived in the courtyard at 11.25! I was made up! It wasn’t quite the rousing ovation Rob and I got last year when we arrived at 11.15 to be greeted by hundreds of 50 runners and their families – at this time they were all massed in the start pen at the bottom of the field, so the CP itself was pretty quiet. But now the mini-race-within-a-race-dropbag CP challenge was on (as described at the start of the blog.) We set ourselves a target of 11.50 to be back on the course. Emma had to chivvy me on a bit; she couldn’t eat the stew even though she tried, whilst I was eating as though someone was about to steal it from me! (I didn’t eat here last year and it really cost me.) But I was glad she was gently nagging me, it was exactly what I needed. Don’t get comfy, don’t relax. At 11.48 exactly, we were back on the course! I was buzzing!

Leg 9 – Dalemain Estate to Howtown – 7.1 miles (66.2 in total.)

As previously described, it had started raining heavily while we were in the CP. With the occasional brief break, rain would be the general weather of the day for the next eight hours. So waterproof jackets were back on, rendering the clean, dry tops wet and sweaty pretty quickly. But the weather was not going to be a factor for me this year; I’d learned that lesson last year. If it was to rain for the rest of the race, so-be-it. This is the Lake District, there is no point expending energy worrying about the weather.

Emma had mentioned Fusedale with increasing frequency on the last stage, and was talking about it again now – in terms of how she wasn’t looking forward to it and how hard it would be. I wasn’t sure why this was the case; she’d completed the 50 on a couple of occasions and finished in good times too. We were on familiar territory for her now and she was travelling so strongly. I reassured her that we would simply march it out and move on.

Another feature of conversation with Emma was just how many people she knew in the ultra community! There wasn’t a CP we had been through where she didn’t know the people running it or volunteering in it. Now, as the lead 50 runners started to pass by the road crossing, I was amazed by how many of them she knew, or knew her, or she could give me a potted history of their previous races. On the approach to Pooley Bridge there is one little single file section before the path opens up into the village. It was quite awkward here as the lead 50 runners were flying through and it was tricky getting out of the way of them!

One of them was Steven, a parent from my daughter’s school, making his ultra debut. He was absolutely flying, as he had been in all his training runs. I wished him luck and hoped, to myself, that he wasn’t setting off too fast. He finished in fine style, so he clearly wasn’t overdoing it!

My excitement was building with every step towards Pooley Bridge to see Leanne and the girls. This particular plan had worked to perfection – them not coming to Dalemain so that I would leave quicker was simple but so effective. I knew how excited Leanne would be to see me feeling so positive – especially after how broken I was last year at the same point.

Crossing the bridge, I knew which coffee shop they had had to camp in to escape the still heavy rain. I think the picture below perfectly sums up how I felt seeing them all!

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The joy of seeing Leanne and the girls! I wish I had a picture looking the other way so you could see the equal looks of happiness from them!

I stopped for a moment for a hug and a chat, but there was no way we were going to waste too much time and Leanne, like the top running coach she is, was soon shooing me away up the path to get on with it!

‘Your family is lovely!’ said Emma. ‘Your wife just gave me a hug!’

Thus I spent the next ten minutes, on the steep climb out of Pooley Bridge, filling Emma in on how understanding my wife has been down the years when supporting me and how, when I was at my fittest and fastest, I would usually find myself finishing every race I did with the leading lady – to the point where Leanne thought I must be doing it on purpose!

As we climbed up the road it was great to be caught and passed by Jon Cadman from Wolves. He’d injured his calf a few weeks previously and hadn’t really run since. I suspect that even at just 6ish miles into the 50 race, this was probably the furthest he’d run in weeks! He went on to finish well again; I’m really pleased for him. Does the 100 beckon…?

We climbed up to the path junction before making the turn southwards on another one of my favourite sections of path. The route gently descends in rolling style alongside the Eastern shore of Ullswater all the way down to Howtown, which is visible in the distance throughout – a white painted house is prominent from a good distance away. We were still using our run/walk strategy and we were still moving well although, looking back, the first signs of struggle for Emma were there as the banter was drying up and she was still muttering the word ‘Fusedale’ like it was a haunted castle in a horror movie!

Julie from the running club passed as we descended. It was her debut on the 50 too but she is one determined runner; she looked to have started strongly and I had no doubt she would finish well. (She did!)

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Some things in life appear guaranteed. One of these is that, in certain parts of the Lakeland 100, it must clearly hammer down all the time. The Howtown Bobbin Mill is one such place! The rain had actually eased on our approach to Howtown but, just like last year, as I dropped down the steep road into the CP, the heavens absolutely opened again!

This was the one checkpoint where, for once, I knew the CP manager and Emma didn’t! Julie Lavery was her usual cheerful self and I think she was really pleased that I, in stark contrast to last year, was equally cheerful! She wasn’t entirely certain how her husband, Matthew, was doing in the race but he was definitely still moving. Last year, he’d had to drop out injured at Dockray, so I had my fingers crossed he would get round this time.

Our speedy CP work at Dalemain had paid off! We had gone from 15 minutes behind my mock schedule to 30 minutes up in one go! 19hrs 43 minutes into the race. I knew my family, watching the tracker at home with my time estimations in hand, would be made up to see me smashing the times all of a sudden! I had allowed three hours for the next leg – the killer Fusedale/Haweswater stage, but we were definitely going to be quicker than that now – or so I mistakenly thought. One thing was for certain; whatever happened, I would beat 24 hours at Mardale Head – the time I arrived there last year. The positive vibes were still in full flow – let’s get going!

Emma had gone inside to the bathrooms. I, for once, was going to be ready first! I quickly got my bottles filled and munched a few of the goodies on offer outside. Inside was comfortable and warm – I wasn’t making that mistake! As I stood waiting, Jeff McCarthy appeared at the growing dibber queue as the main body of 50 runners began to appear. It was great to see him and he looked really well. We had a quick joke about the rain before I heard my name being called.

It was Emma at the door. ‘There’s a room in the back and it’s pretty quiet. Let’s go in and get a brew.’

I was not expecting that. I thought I was the one who messes around at CPs while Emma pesters me to get going? I was dying to set off right there and then. Still, the next stage is a big one, we were going to be out in the rain for a good three hours, maybe a brew wasn’t a bad idea. Emma was clearly in need of a drink – more importantly she was in need of food – and I at least owed it to her to give a bit of moral support. Inside we went.

Emma looked tired and was still fretting about the Fusedale climb. Again I told her, ‘We just tap it out one step at a time. It’s not going to be quick but it doesn’t matter, in an hour we’ll be over the top.’ I fetched every bit of food on offer for her to try, but she pretty much wretched at everything. I have a well established reputation at work (and elsewhere) as being a feeder! I was not used to watching someone literally unable to eat. Still, she got a few calories in at least and the hot drink at least made her look the right colour again.

It was time to face Fusedale.

Leg 10 – Howtown to Mardale Head – 9.4 miles (75.6 in total.)

It was still hosing down outside – was it ever thus?! We climbed up the road from the CP, trying to give encouragement to those passing in the opposite direction down to the sanctuary of the Bobbin Mill.

After the initial tarmac climb there is a brief respite on the flat valley bottom before the long, seemingly-never-ending, climb begins in earnest. Once we hit the single file track I noticed pretty quickly that, when I was in front, Emma was dropping behind a bit. I know from experience how dispiriting this can be and, given that the entire climb is on a single track, I suggested to Emma that she go in front and I would walk behind at her pace instead.

This definitely worked and we steadily began to climb up the valley head. The single track was definitely an issue now for two reasons. Firstly, we were in the thick of the 50 runners; some of whom were feeling tired for the first time at this point. Overtaking is impossible, so we were forced to travel slowly at the speed dictated by the person at the front of the inevitable snakes of humanity that formed. Secondly, now that a good few hundred runners had passed before us, the single file track was being reduced to a sludgy, muddy mess. This did not help either stability or energy levels.

Onwards we climbed. It doesn’t matter how many times you do Fusedale, it always goes on forever. It was soooo slow, but there was nothing we could do. Overtaking would only burn unnecessary energy. Long term, it was probably better to go slow upwards, and make up for it on the descent. Emma was going well. The talking had stopped completely, but she was climbing well. I was reasonably confident that, on reaching the top, she would be pleased to have the climb behind her and would recover a bit of her mojo.

By the time we crested the top of High Kop – the highest point in the race, we had been in the clouds for some time, but at least the rain had relented. It was quite eerie but it always feels good to top out there. We ran a little bit of the grassy top, it was wetter than last year but still dry in comparison to the usual boggy standard. As we began the steep grassy descent towards Haweswater my legs were running away with me again. I was a little startled when I realised how far behind Emma had quickly dropped. I think this was the moment that I realised she was in genuine danger of not finishing. As we passed through the horrible, rocky, muddy bracken covered section at the bottom of the descent I saw that she looked ashen – like I must have looked at the same point last year when I dropped out at the next CP, in fact.

There was one comical moment in the bracken. There was a 50 runner directly in front of us. The section of path was horrible – mud covered rocks hidden by the thick foliage, but this guy must have had the worst balance ever! I didn’t know whether to laugh at his comedy efforts, or cry because I was so desperate to pass and get on with it! Eventually I spotted a gap and jumped past him – leading to the inevitable! As soon as I landed my overtake manoeuvre I knew I wasn’t going to make the corner of the path! Embarrassingly, I plopped gently in the bracken head-first while the aforementioned bloke looked on incredulously! (Probably thinking ‘That’s what happens when you go too quickly, ****head!’) I jumped up as quickly as I could and scooted ahead of him, keen to never ever make eye contact with him – ever!

We finally bottomed out onto the Haweswater path, with somewhere between three and four miles along the shore to travel to reach Mardale Head – the famous Azkabhan of my 2018 race. I’ve never liked this path, but I’d run it well in the Lakeland Trails Ultra earlier that month and I was determined that it wasn’t going to beat me this year. Mentally, I just accepted that some parts are slower and more technical than others, and that I would just knock it off without a second thought.

Unfortunately, the wheels fell off for Emma at this point. It was a major effort for her to get to Mardale Head and our pace ground to halt due to the technicality of the path, her lack of energy and the constant stepping aside to let 50 runners past. I have to admit now to my first feelings of selfishness here; I was desperate for Emma to feel better and get going but, for the first time all race, I was now watching my watch tick on knowing that I could have been at Mardale Head by now. I’d calculated that we would probably get to Mardale Head at 4.45pm, ahead of my 5.00pm schedule and an hour ahead of last year. That would give us a decent chance of a 32hour finish which was my dream ticket. Emma had originally targeted 30, I believe, though we’d realised much earlier in the day that 32/33 was more realistic.

5pm came and went. I kept encouraging Emma and, to be fair, she never stopped or complained, she just kept churning it out. I had to admire her tenacity whilst also bear in mind that I was in exactly the same situation, in the same place, last year.

‘Just get to the CP. You have to get fuel inside you, then we go again,’ was my general line of encouragement. The food was crucial now. Not stopping long at Mardale was equally crucial.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity (Haweswater does that to you!) we rounded the head of the water and dropped into the CP, dibbing in at 23hrs 26 mins. I knew I’d lost a good chunk of time there, but I was still enthused by the fact that I was over 30 minutes up on last year and I was getting the hell out of Mardale Head at the earliest opportunity! And it could be worse in Azkabhan, because at least it wasn’t raining!

We got inside the CP and got Emma a seat. Immediately it started raining! Azkabhan – I bloody knew it! I cannot help but admire the CP volunteers at Mardale. Both times I have got there it has been at peak time for the 50 runners, so the gazebos just aren’t big enough to take the sea of exhausted humanity trying to cram inside them once the rain comes. It was awful in that marquee. Emma now had every item of clothing on she owned, including winter gloves, but was shivering uncontrollably. The poor volunteers couldn’t get to their work stations because runners had filled every available space. I had to go back out into the rain to get Emma some soup. She had to eat. She got some down her, so I went and got her some more.

It was horrible outside, not quite as windy as last year, but just as wet, unpleasant and uninviting. Emma was cold, I was getting cold. This could only go one way – the nice warm drop-out bus was beckoning!

I brought Emma more soup. ‘Shall we sit here and wait for the rain to pass?’ she asked.

It was time to be firm and honest (not my strengths!) ‘Mate, I was right here last year and the same thing happened. So I dropped out. For one thing, it will never stop raining here – it is always raining here! Drink that and then we are setting off. Five minutes max, because sitting here it’s only going to get worse!’

Aside from my general concern for Emma, I knew that all of my family and friends would be watching my dot on the tracker with baited breath! After last year’s drop-out, I had to get the little number 300 dot moving out of Mardale as soon as possible before Leanne had a heart attack!

Emma mentioned dropping out. I told her how long she would have to wait here, the 90 minutes plus drive Tom would have to make to pick her up, or the four hour wait in the bus. I still felt responsible for Rob dropping out here last year, I was responsible for me dropping out here last year. I wasn’t going to let her drop out here this year.

Eventually she agreed. I told her how, if she still wanted to drop out at Kentmere, at least it was really close to Ambleside and Coniston and much easier for Tom to collect her. She’d climbed Fusedale well, she could do Gatescarth. Decision made, out into the pouring rain we went again.

‘Av that, Azkhaban!

Leg 11 – Mardale Head to Kentmere – 6.5 miles (82.1 in total.)

It was 5.45pm and we were climbing out of Mardale! I was thrilled; I knew there would be a major celebration from Leanne and close friends to see the dot on the move! There was no way I wasn’t finishing this race.

Emma, who looked beaten a few minutes before, settled straight into a metronomic pace on the immediately steep climb. This was incredible; her tenacity could not be questioned, that was for sure. I was absolutely blowing out of my backside to keep up with her from the bottom of the climb to the top! We were passing people with regularity. By now, even the 50 runners were starting to look a bit weather beaten and weary. The rain stopped briefly about half way up. It was only a brief respite before it returned on the descent, but at least it was a short break. Still Emma climbed. There is a false summit with a steep set of zigzags near the top, but we both knew it was there. 30 minutes effort, that was all that was required.

For the second big climb in a row, Emma had climbed like a woman possessed. For the second climb in a row I was sure that she had conquered her bad spell and would now power on. Unfortunately, for the second time in a row, it was the descent and flats which proved that she was simply completely out of gas.

A stage that should have taken less than two hours took us 2hrs 45 minutes. The rain had returned with a vengeance and everyone on course was soaked to the skin. After the always technical, rocky descent into Longsleddale, there is one more sharp little up and down to reach Kentmere. I think we both knew the game was up here – it was really sad.   I would run, trot or walk on to the next gate, open it, wait for Emma so she could walk straight through, close the gate, then repeat the process. I’m sure I probably offered words of encouragement, but they are a bit hollow by then for the person you are talking to, because keeping moving at all is such an effort.

I don’t want to sound like a hero here because, in fact, the opposite was actually true. With every fibre of my being I wanted to just run off at this point. Running as a pair is great when it’s going well but it’s horrible for both parties when it’s going wrong. I know loads of ultra runners who thrive on these moments, indeed they only enter ultras to help other runners in distress, but I’m not one of them! I felt great in myself, but I was soaked, I had no more clothes to put on (apart from waterproof trousers) and I was getting really cold every time I stopped to wait. I simply wasn’t moving fast enough to keep warm. There was no way I could hope to finish at that speed. I wasn’t going to abandon Emma before the Kentmere CP, I’m not that heartless, but I was going to have to get moving properly after it. Selfish? Yes, undoubtedly, but I entered this race to finish it and that was suddenly in jeopardy.

Another brief comedy moment – approaching Kentmere there are two farm tracks flanked by high walls which you cross. This is achieved by using big stepping stone stiles built into the walls! You should try getting over these after 80+ miles and 26 hours!!! I just about made it over them all with dignity in tact (four in total I think!) but there must be some runners who have to DNF right there and then because they can’t climb the stiles!

As we approached Kentmere I ran ahead to try and bag us some seats in the checkpoint. I knew there was hot food in there and suspected that, given the unrelenting wet conditions, the village hall might be full to bursting.

I wasn’t wrong. It was packed. the poor CP volunteers were having to put bin liners over the chairs to protect the cushions from the soaked runners. Yet again, I marveled at their unwavering enthusiasm and cheerfulness whilst helping the sorry, dishevelled bunch of hoboes staggering through the door!

I got a brew and got out my waterproof bottoms. I reckoned my gloves had seriously saved the day on the last stage (winter gloves – in July!) and now I was going to put on my waterproof pants. I’ve owned them for four years, bought for my first ultra where they were part of the mandatory kit. They always are mandatory kit, but I have never even thought of actually putting them on before. But I remembered last year, when all the finishers were the people dressed for winter walking while all us summer runners shivered and dropped out. I wasn’t making that mistake again!

Emma arrived. She dropped her bag and headed for the toilet. She came back with a bowl of pasta but nearly gipped everytime it got near her mouth. I felt terrible about what I knew I had to say, but it was time. I told her I’d set off up the Garburn Pass with her; she had, after all, climbed tremendously throughout, but I was determined to run the nice, gentle descent into Troutbeck to keep myself warm before it was too late. If Emma stayed with me, great, but I couldn’t afford to wait and get cold anymore. Emma asked which bits of the course I thought I could run. So I listed them – it was exactly this point which I had been considering for the last hour.

Emma had a moment, then said it was time to drop-out.  Night was about to fall again and she said that her waterproofs had failed and she too was soaked to the bone, wearing everything she had to wear. I still feel terrible now for not trying to persuade her otherwise, but I think it was the right decision at the time. I didn’t try to dissuade her at all, in fact, I went to find the CP manager to see if Emma could use the satellite phone to call Tom for a lift. As luck would have it, at that very moment a bloke came through the door saying he was in a minibus to pick up anyone dropping out. So, as simple as that, within five minutes of the discussion, Emma was out of Kentmere on a minibus. It was quite emotional saying goodbye really; it is amazing how utterly invested you become in someone else’s race – a total stranger to you a day ago feels like a close personal friend a few hours later. (She told me later how Tom had collected her from Ambleside, where she promptly had to stop the car to spectacularly throw up at the roadside! She thinks, if she’d done that earlier in the day, she might have been OK the rest of the run! She’s probably right too!)

Anyway, back in the Kentmere checkpoint – I had already scoffed my (and Emma’s) pasta, (some things never change!) I gathered my belongings as quickly as I could and headed straight for the door. It was time to knock this race off.

Leg 12 – Kentmere to Ambleside – 7.3 miles (89.4 in total.)

At first, my emotions were quite mixed. On the one hand I was so disappointed for Emma, but on the other hand I felt like a cork released from a bottle. It genuinely felt like the start of a new race. Energy-wise it was like nothing had happened. I had 23 miles to go and I felt fresh as a daisy. Straight out of the CP I was rocketing up the Garburn Pass overtaking people. I know from the race stats that I overtook 26 runners in the 100 race between Kentmere and the end, but there is no way of knowing how many 50 runners I overtook – it must have been into three figures by the end though. What I do know is that, between Kentmere and Coniston, I was only overtaken by one person moving faster than me – a mad 50 runner descending down the Wrynose Pass at such a crazy speed I couldn’t tell if his legs were moving or if he was on roller skates!

One amazing thing did happen about ten minutes out of Kentmere. About half way up the pass, the cloud suddenly broke and revealed a stunning, clear blue sky! I couldn’t believe it – I’d finally put my bloody waterproof bottoms on for the first time ever and the sun had come straight out! Still, I wasn’t complaining, for the last hour of daylight we were treated to normal weather like normal people in a normal place doing something normal. I did wonder if this would have helped Emma out if she’d carried on but, to be honest, unless she was feeding through photosynthesis, it probably wouldn’t.

I was soon over the top and onto the descent. I’d warmed up nicely on the climb – too much in waterproofs in the sun really. At last, a decent running track. I actually had to force myself to walk some of the steeper bits; I didn’t want to go completely crazy and blow-up before the finish now. I’d lost a lot of time since Howtown, but it never really mattered, this was all about the finish and I still knew that, barring accident or injury, I was definitely going to finish.

Night crept up quickly. As I approached the main road before Troutbeck I knew we passed into some trees which would be dark, so I paused to get the headtorch out of my bag. I even replaced the battery with a spare as, by my reckoning, I was pretty much going to be going right through the second night to finish now.

Once out on the road I knew I had a phone signal, so I rang to fill Leanne in on the events of the last few hours and mostly to let her know that, despite the apparent slowing pace of the dot, I was actually feeling great and – now solo – back to normal speed again. There are a couple of real ‘house envy’ properties on the road up through Troutbeck – I nearly always ring her at this point if I’m out in the lakes. She said she’d see me in Ambleside, that my Mum and Dad would be there too, and that Rob was on his way to Tilberthwaite broken and battered, but still going – this was great news too.

I hung up and put my head down to power walk the hill through Troutbeck when, suddenly, Leanne was right there in front of me! So were Mum and Dad! Ooohhh she is sneaky! Although she did say it was weird when they were watching the dot approaching them on the tracker, when I suddenly rang up! Rather bizarrely, there were also three cows stood on the corner cheering, which did make me wonder if the hallucinations had begun!

A quick hello, then onwards and upwards through the woods into Ambleside. I was still feeling good, power walking the ups and trotting the rest. By now it was 10.30pm and it was death march time for some of the 50 runners. There was lots of good natured banter as I ran past between the red numbers (100 runners) and blues (50s). Generally, what would happen is I would catch a group of runners and wish them well – the names on the back helps you to do this. Then I would get a cheery ‘Well done, you’re going well, keep it up!’ before I passed and they spotted my red number! Then I’d get a ‘Bloody hell! How come he’s moving like that when he’s done 90 miles? Bloody show off!’

I arrived in Ambleside bang on last orders, just as I keep getting told it’s best to do in other blogs! Even though I’d been told about it, it was still lovely to get so many cheers in the town, both from supporters of other runners and the ‘generally inebriated around town’ folk as well!

Leanne, Mum and Dad were there to welcome me into the checkpoint too, it really was lovely. 15.5 miles to go, 28hrs 54mins on the race clock, you could barely keep the smile off my face.

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Blurred ‘cos I’m moving so fast… Arriving at Ambleside CP, 10.55pm. I could have had a pint in a pub, but that’s outside assistance. (Photographic proof that I wore my waterproof bottoms for one stage of one ultra. too.)

Into the checkpoint. It was my plan to try and eat something here, as I didn’t plan on stopping in either of the last two CPs other than to fill bottles. There was Seabrook salt and vinegar crisps (made in Bradford, the best crisps in the world) and tomato soup too! Magic. I’d been waiting all day for tomato soup! The only problem was the room was hotter than the soup – and the soup was very hot! It was boiling in there and I started to feel pretty rotten in there quite quickly. It was time to get out straight away. I quickly took the waterproof bottoms off and got ready to leave again.

Leanne appeared and I wondered how she’d blagged her way into the CP! But it turned out that someone had asked if anyone could offer mercy lifts for retired runners back to Coniston, so Leanne came in to collect three people I think and take them back to base camp.

I’d read so many accounts of people hitting the wall after Ambleside that I was determined not to be one of them. I’d not eaten as much as I wanted, but it was time to move.

Leg 13 – Ambleside to Chapel Stile – 5.6 miles (95 in total)

The race was now easily broken down. One steep up and down, then flat into the Chapel Stile CP. Then 10 miles to go. Done. Then bed!

As soon as I left the CP it started raining! I couldn’t believe it, I’d only just taken my waterproof bottoms off! Still, I warmed up quickly on the climb and it turned out to be a brief passing shower. I was suddenly really sleepy. I’m sure it was due to the heat of the CP, but also it was probably the excitement of reaching Ambleside followed by the reality of having to carry on. It probably explains why people hit the wall here, but I really couldn’t keep my eyes open!

My legs were still going well but my brain was shutting down. I made it up to the crest of the shoulder of Loughrigg and then ran as much of the descent as I safely could. This woke me up a bit. Then Mum and Dad were there waiting for me at the Skelwith Bridge hotel, which helped to bring me round a bit. But once back on the flat Elterwater path I was weaving around again. It seemed like ages since we’d last done a flat bit of path! The sleep induced hallucinations came thick and fast now as my headtorch made strange shapes of the moving shadows of the trees. Stormtroopers. There’s always Stormtroopers. But there was also a very vivid set of four goblins fishing on the path, ghosts hanging from trees, a huge naked man lying by the tarn. All in a normal night’s running!

I was still overtaking though as I zig-zagged my way along the track and Elterwater village was soon in sight. I’d heard a lot about the infamous Chapel Stile CP with it’s open fire pits and couches – how it tempts in runners who promptly get comfy, fall asleep and are never heard of again! It was an airport theme this year. I was quite looking forward to it but I had decided not to stop, other than to fill water bottles if needed.

I approached and, water bottle in hand, dibbed in. Exactly 31 hours, unbeknownst to me. Yet I still got tempted inside! I decided that I might need a minute to wake up before the last ten miles. The stew smelled lovely and it would give me chance to find my headphones and use music to wake me up on the next section.

It was at this point I realised I’d left my spork/foon (whatever) at Kentmere! Bloody hell. I had a go at drinking the stew from the paper bowl but it wasn’t happening. At least that hastened my decision to get going again! Chapel Stile, you nearly tempted me in – but I wasn’t stopping now!

Leg 14 – Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite – 6.5 miles (101.5 in total)

1am. I put on some music as I left but, to be honest, I never really got comfortable listening to it at night. It only lasted three songs before I turned it off again. I know the Langdale valley path really well but I still felt it was best to have all my senses, hearing included, available to me alone in the Lake District at night.

I also knew the section of path opposite Stickle Ghyll, passing above the National Trust campsite, was going to be wet and horrible and it didn’t disappoint! The track was clear enough but, like Fusedale, had been mushed to a messy pulp by the previous runners. In the dark with a headtorch it looked like a solid track, but it was just mulch. The pace slowed quite a bit as I slipped and slid my way across the hillside. The two or three tall stiles took a bit of negotiating too!

Once on the Side Pike switchbacks I got going again and continued my lone quest to pass every runner left out on course. I ran quite nicely through the woods on the lovely path alongside Blea Tarn. I was pleased not to have the music on as two owls were clearly having a right old chat in the trees above me, (probably asking what all the nutters with lights on their heads were doing below them) – it was quite an ethereal moment considering I was nearly 100 miles and 32 hours into a running race!

Once you emerge from the woods, there is quite a technical section alongside a beck and then a less technical, more outright pain-in-the-arse section up to meet the Wrynose Pass road. I was suddenly aware that the only thing which would now stop me finishing was breaking my ankle making a stupid mistake. So I was extremely slow and cautious in this section, so determined was I not to cock it up at this stage.

There is an unmanned dibber checkpoint at the top of the road junction to make sure that no-one cuts the corner. As I approached catching another group of runners, we were guided in by some little fairy lights! It was also very apparent that, unless I was hallucinating again, the dibber was very much manned! A big chap, not unlike a shaven Hagrid, held out the dibber to make sure we didn’t forget the task in hand. His little dog was friendly too. It turns out this guy is not an official volunteer, he just appears every year because he loves it so much! And he sets the lights up too! Amazing! I did wonder, when I first saw the lights, whether Marc had finally gone soft and marked the course!

As I dropped steeply down the road (passed by the lightning 50 runner) I was aware that the soles of my feet were a bit sore. That was literally the first pain I’d felt all day, aside from knowing I’d clattered my left big toe on rocks on the very first descent of the race, all that time ago near Seathwaite. (Was it the same race? The same day? The same week? It seemed a lifetime ago!) The steep tarmac didn’t help I suppose. I also guess we would pass the official 100 mile mark somewhere here? My watch always adds distance on in CPs so is never the most reliable of distance measurers.

Next up was the little climb over to Tilberthwaite. Every other time I have done this path it has really dragged but, on this night of all nights, I was so high on finish line fever that nothing was going to dampen my spirits.

And thus began the drop into Tilberthwaite and the view of the final checkpoint lights across the valley. If you looked up high enough, there was also a string of headtorch lights cresting the final col to drop into the Coniston mines valley. I have to say this was quite an emotional moment; the first of a few to come. I had thought so long and hard about what it would be like to see those lights, the sense of knowing you were one more pit stop from home, that I definitely enjoyed a little self-satisfied moment there. This was exactly how I’d pictured it; alone on a star lit night in the lakes, feeling really good physically and mentally. Too good to be true really, but I felt I’d earned it.

Round the valley road I went to dib in at Tilberthwaite. 101.5 miles gone, one big mother of an up-and-down to go! 33hrs 29 mins suddenly seemed a long time, but it wasn’t about that. I felt great and I was going to enjoy this run to the very end.

‘What can we get you?’ asked one of the fantastic volunteers. There was all sorts of goodies available, including cheese toasties on an open fire pit I think! But, personally, I was staggered to see how many runners were hanging around here. ‘You all know there’s only 3.5 miles to go, don’t you?!’ I thought in my head!

‘Nothing thanks, I’m straight out of here!’ is what I actually said! Next stop Coniston!

Leg 15 – Tilberthwaite to Coniston – 3.5 miles (105 in total.)

To be fair to the runners spread-eagled at CP14 (or CP7 for the 50 runners) I can appreciate why they might want to stop and gather themselves for a moment. The last 3.5 miles of the LL100 could not be much harder – if there is a tougher final 5k in a 100 mile race in this country I’d like to see it! (And that’s without the fact that, technically, you’ve already done your 100 miles!)

Straight up out of the car park, keep going up, then a stinging, technical mile descent (which catches a lot of people out) before a mile of tarmac descent allows a bit of respite to finish. It’s tough on the legs. The steep staircase out of the car park is re-named Jacob’s Ladder in honour of the child of a runner/volunteer who is suffering with a childhood cancer. There is a fine/toll/charge of £1 for all runners to climb the ladder, but being kind souls (and thinking of weight) most runners drop a note in instead, as did I.

I do think though, that the climb has a reputation based on the first five or ten minutes. There’s the steps, then a steep path through the old quarry and even a famous section of all fours scrambling to negotiate but, once you are above the quarry, the climb is actually gentle and kind underfoot, (aside from the fact that it was churned up mud by the time I got there!) To be fair though, it must be hell if you are dead on your feet, but that was not a concern of mine as I happily floated up on the crest of a wave.

I’d waited 18 months for this and I was extremely fortunate to be well enough physically to actually enjoy it. I’d set myself a new mini target of making sure I got into Coniston in the dark. For some reason I felt a night finish was a better result than a finish the next morning in daylight – even if the difference was only 30 minutes!

Eventually the path levelled off at the top and suddenly was dropping away below me. I was looking down at Coniston. Or rather I should have been, were it not for a perfect cloud inversion! It was amazing! I tried to take a picture (my first picture of the entire race!) but it was too dark to take.

My awe and wonder only lasted a second though. The descent is pretty technical and slippery at the top – this was the reason I wanted the shoes with new grips! – so, as soon as I began the descent, I dropped into the cloud and suddenly couldn’t see a thing! Headtorches and fog/cloud don’t mix, you see. The light of the torch reflects straight back at you from the water particles (did I sound like a proper scientist then?) reducing vision to precious little. Yet again I was overcome with the fear of running 103 miles on a 100 mile race, then breaking my leg in the last two miles!

Bit by bit I inched down, still time to overtake some runners on the way and then, thankfully, just as I reached the s-bend that marks your return to civilisation and solid paths, the clouds cleared like they’d never been there! A quick glance at my stopwatch told me I’d been going for 34 hrs 40 minutes. There was no way that clock was going past 35 hours, plus it was still dark (competitive to the end) so I set off at a rate of knots on the final glory mile and a bit back into the village, still overtaking as I went.

I was so grateful that I’d had this opportunity to enjoy the entire run. I was so lucky that, aside from a dodgy couple of stages right at the start (Seathwaite to Wasdale) and the unfortunate Emma running out of steam, I’d barely had a single problem all run. It was slower than I thought but I genuinely didn’t, and still don’t, care about the time. This race was solely about the finish. It was learning my lessons from last year – ultra running will never be a perfect science – and physically and mentally removing any barriers to finishing this race.

There are so few ultras that I have finished in as good a condition as I was in as I entered Coniston village. If I’d been made to carry on, I could have done. (I wouldn’t have liked it, but I could have!) Mum and Dad were on the corner by the pub; the marshal panicked ‘cos he thought I was going to turn left instead of right on the main road! But to be fair, my Mum and Dad totally failed to recognise me for the third time that night, so they couldn’t tell him what I was doing! Quick hug with them, then past the garage and down the road to the school and finish line. It was 4.50am but there was Leanne, Hannah, Nancy and Lottie all cheering me in! What a moment! The girls all joined me to cross the line and I pushed Lottie in the pram. Jeff McCarthy was there too; unbelievable given that he’d completed the 50 a few hours ago and should have been tucked up in bed! How amazing that he was there to film us crossing the line – it would have been even more amazing if he’d actually pressed ‘record’ so that we could all see it later! (Sorry, Jeff – I couldn’t resist that!)

Leanne, Mum and Dad were soon there too – special moments. They could then make their way into the marquee as every runner is announced into the finish in official style – a nice touch which is really appreciated after all that effort. It seemed a little strange to have finally finished (a bit like writing this blog!) but it was great to have everyone there to share the moment. Phew. #LakelandLegend at last!

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#Lakeland Legend. 34hrs 51mins 32secs. 153rd place. 462 starters. 265 finishers.

I got to chat to friend Denise in the finish pen. Unfortunately she’d dropped out of the 50 this year but she was/is an existing #legend so it wasn’t her a-race this year; she wasn’t too disappointed. One thing that did disappoint us was looking at the live tracker in the marquee. At that very moment, Matthew Lavery’s dot was just approaching Ambleside and that, unfortunately, meant that he would be timed out at that point. Such a shame to be beaten by the clock as opposed to injury or fatigue. But at least he knows he can do it now – a bit of extra speed and he will soon become a 100 legend to add to his 50 legend status.

It felt very strange to sit and eat and not feel like I should stuff it in my face quick and get going again! But it was so nice to be relaxed and content and to share the moment with the family.

It wasn’t too long before I was tucked up in bed with a brew. I’m not going to go into the detail of the shower I had and the horrendous things Leanne had to clean for me as I was suddenly unable to bend over or, really, stand up at all! Poor Leanne – her supporting role still wasn’t over as I convalesced over the next few days!

Rob and I were finally reunited the next morning. He was battered but on the mend, although he did require a couple of hospital visits in the days afterwards! It may be quite some time before we call each other by our actual names again – ‘Legend’ it will simply be for at least the near future!

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‘Morning Legend!’ Morning to you, Legend!’

Problems since? Well, just my feet really. They were fine for 99 miles, but they take a hammering ultimately. Once your socks are removed you find things you didn’t know were there. An infected big toe has meant I have only run 20 miles all August, but I was happy not to run and just rest. Both feet were swollen for a number of days afterwards, but I have no long lasting effects and need to get back running in September.

Just for the medical aficionados amongst you, here is a slideshow of my feet recovering. Please don’t look if you have just eaten.

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There is so much more I’d like to say, but I’ve kept you long enough. I’ll save it for the ‘Things I learned running 105 miles in the Lakes’ blog. If you have any sense, you won’t bother reading it!

So there you have it. Nearly in real time too! I’m so sorry that’s taken you so long to read. I feel like you have earned a finisher’s medal if you got to the end of that. I needed to get it down though so I can read it back when I’m old – as I might never do another running race ever again!

Over and out!

Sticks

#LakelandLegend

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Lakeland 100 take 2 -time to close the loop.

So here we are again. Lakeland 100 week. Three days to go. The training is done. The lists are written. The kit sorting and packing has begun. The hourly weather forecast check is underway – never a good thing to do where the Lake District is involved! The mental anguish is in full flow! Like many events in life that cause stress and worry, I am at that stage where I am thoroughly fed up of over-thinking what is to come and desperately need to just get on with it!

So, how are things looking with 72 hours to go? Well, I have to say the positives vastly outweigh the negatives and, to be honest, I feel I have done a decent job of banishing the negative thoughts. Everything is focused on reaching that finish line. Last year was about the experience; this year perhaps doubly so. But, despite the physical preparation being anything but smooth, I definitely feel a little more pressure to get it done this year. If pre-race nerves are genuinely a good thing, then I am definitely ready to go!

Before I dwell on these things though, let me just look back for a moment at a couple of absolutely crucial days in the Lake District which went my way, fed my confidence, and re-assured me that – at the very least – I should be on that start line at least giving it a go.

Saturday 22nd June – recce/training run: Braithwaite, Buttermere, Black Sail Hut, Black Sail Pass – and back again. 24ish miles, 6500ft climbing.

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Climbing out of Braithwaite towards Sail Pass – the reverse of the LL100 route in which this path is a descent at the 30 mile point.

I was traveling alone. This suited me fine as I did not want anyone else affecting my pace or decision making on the day. I chose, in my opinion, the toughest section of the LL100 route to out and back on. Not for bravado or anything; just that, given how all my training had been on the flat as I recuperated from injury, I desperately needed to be climbing up and descending on the kind of technical terrain that the Lake District offers. Plan A was to get all the way down into Wasdale and back. This would have been about 28 miles.

I parked in Braithwaite rather than Wasdale due to the easier, quicker drive and was climbing by 8.00am. This direction also meant I was returning in the ‘right direction’ for the LL100 on tired legs after the outward journey. Although I don’t normally like ‘out and back’ runs due to the mental torture, I do find for reccying routes that you get a lot more familiar with the terrain by traversing it in both directions.

The other reason for choosing this section is that it is completed in the race at nighttime. I hear lots of people saying you should recce the night bits in the night, but I want to see it in the day and be familiar with what it looks and feels like – it’s a personal thing but that helps me to visualise it in the night when you can only see as far as your headtorch beam.

I made the three mile climb up to Sail Pass reasonably comfortably. As I reached the saddle I was aware of a long line of walkers crossing in front of me and heading up Sail itself. It turns out I had chosen a busy day in this area as the ’10 in 10′ event was on – a charity event where you walk over 10 local summits in 10 hours. Fortunately I was not summiting and dropped off the other side with the path to myself, towards Buttermere. Anyone who knows the Lakeland 100 route will know this bit of path has a bit of a reputation – it’s probably the steepest, hardest bit of path on the entire route. It’s only about three-quarters of a mile but on a very steep, scree scattered path. And I can tell you it is as difficult to descend as it is to climb! In fact, this was the one moment in the entire day that I could feel my calf nagging me again. Once on the more sensibly contoured path below, I could trot the three miles down to Buttermere with relative ease and comfort.

It was in the course of this descent that I realised I was going to face an unusual problem (for me), in that my stomach was turning somersaults. I had had ‘a problem’ the night before but assumed it was just a bodily reaction to a long, difficult week. Now I realised it might be more of a bug – I was extremely fortunate that my route of choice afforded me regular access to public conveniences; I was going to need them!

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Beautiful Buttermere. The Haystacks summit, Wainwright’s favourite, peaking around the far end. Is there a finer Lakeside view in the National Park?

After the first of what would become regular ‘pit-stops’, I skipped freely down towards the lakeside – keen to spend a moment admiring one of my favourite views. So keen was I in fact, that I continually ignored the diversion and ‘No Bridge’ signs until I reached the end of the lake and – guess what? There was no bridge! So I had to retrace my steps back towards the village and follow said diversion route to the next bridge down river. From standing at the place where the bridge should be, to the same point on the far bank, was probably close to 1.5 miles. I should probably have just forded the river in the first place! It will be interesting to see if we are allowed to do that on race day or if we are instructed to follow the diversion to the bridge.

From that point it is a pleasant, undulating run through the woods alongside the lake until the stiff climb up Scarth Gap Pass – a tricky, technical descent in the opposite direction, in the dark, on race day.

The weather was warming up now and my stomach wasn’t really playing, so I was very pleased when I dropped off the other side and Black Sail Hut, the remote Youth Hostel at the head of the Ennerdale Valley, came into view.

Bag dropped, straight into the toilet, about 12 miles (including my unintentional diversion) under my belt. It was decision time. I sat facing the next climb, Black Sail Pass, considering my options.

I had to be sensible; if I climbed up the next pass and dropped the 2.5 miles into Wasdale on the far side, I was then committed to coming all the way back again. Progress was not fast due to the terrain, my cautious pace, the increasing heat and my unhappy tummy, which was starting to leave me a little weak.

I made what turned out to be a great decision. I knew I would be cross with myself if I simply turned round from the hut, so I decided to climb to the col of Black Sail Pass, but turn around at that point. I could then make a cup of tea – as well as use the ‘facilities’ – at the Hostel on the return route before heading back to Braithwaite. I estimated that would still be well over 22 miles and a lot of climbing too.

It’s another steep, technical climb up Black Sail Pass, but really useful as it is a popular spot for LL100 runners to make a navigational error in the middle of the night. So it was good to ascend and then immediately descend the route again and get used to the right / left path wiggle that so many runners miss in the dark.

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Looking down on Black Sail Hut (the little black dot centre picture) from near the top of Black Sail Pass. The Scarth Gap Pass over to Buttermere is on the left hand side of the photo. (Photo taken facing in the right direction for the LL100 night section!)

And so the day continued, re-tracing my steps from the morning. I didn’t eat a thing all day as I wasn’t sure what would happen, but drank lots and used my electrolite tablets to keep me well hydrated – as well as toilet stops, I was lucky that the same places gave me lots of chances to re-fill water bottles throughout the day.

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Dropping down the Scarth Gap Pass towards Buttermere again.

I had a long stop at The Fish Inn in Buttermere, a beautiful spot on a hot Summers day, and downed a couple of pints of full fat coke to give me the energy for the 3.5 mile climb back up to Sail Pass. This climb had killed Rob and I on our scorching recce the year before and, given that we climb it at approximately 1am on race day, it can also be a point in the race when enthusiasm and energy is waning.

But I plodded it out reasonably steadily – with the exception of the dreaded scree path at the top which is guaranteed to suck the last reserves of energy from tired legs!

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The dreaded cairn which marks the start of the scree climb up to Sail Pass from Buttermere. Take a deep breath, try not to cry, and suck up the pain for 15 minutes!

Finally reaching the pass, I knew I could enjoy the three mile descent into Braithwaite satisfied with my day’s work. But thank goodness I chose not to drop into Wasdale, as I was utterly drained by the time I reached the car! I found some shade behind a bush and lay out for quite some time, guzzling Lucozade for all I was worth. My calf had survived, but my legs cramped so badly that, being alone, I couldn’t move for some 15 minutes as my leg spasms rooted me to the spot!

Still, on reflection, a hugely successful day and one which eased just about all my mental fears about starting the big race.

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At last! The saddle of Sail Pass and the three mile descent to Braithwaite to come. Skiddaw gazing over imperiously from across the valley.

Lakeland Trails 100k: midnight, Saturday 29th June. (Legs 1-5; deliberate DNF at Glenridding, 39 miles.)

And so to the following Saturday. The forecast was hot, both Friday and Saturday, which at least made my pre-race decision easier. After my good run the week before, I now knew that there was no need to risk injury, dehydration etc just to prove a point and finish this race. A tough 35-40 miles was an ideal way to follow up the previous weekend. If I dropped at Glenridding feeling good and capable of continuing, then all the more reason to stop and feed my positive energy.

And boy was the Friday hot! Much like LL100 the year before, pre-race sleep was impossible as there was nowhere cool enough to sleep! The tent was like a pressure cooker!

This meant that the midnight start – which I intended to use to test my ability to cope with sleep deprivation, was going to do just that!

So, I hear you ask, how did I cope with the sleep dep – knowing that it was there and was the sole cause of my potential mood? How much had I learned from my reflection of last year’s LL100? Well, in short………

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Honestly, you wouldn’t believe it! I was so tired after a week at work, I knew I wouldn’t sleep pre-race, so I knew exactly what was going to happen! Here was my chance to show that I could win the mental fight and know, deep down, that I wasn’t unfit or unable to run, I was just sleepy. And what happened….?

I sulked for the entirety of the run!!!

Pathetic! The night run was magical on a beautiful night. Lines of lights strung out behind on several parts of the course on a humid, crystal clear night.

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Climbing up Nan Bield Pass from Kentmere, looking back at the line of runner headtorches behind. Stunning.

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Dropping down the other side of Nan Bield Pass towards Haweswater, Headtorches reflecting off Small Water.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, NOTHING in running beats the night section of an ultra on a beautiful night. Unfortunately, I was in such a frightful mood that I had to absolutely force myself to look around and take it in. I saw Rob coming out of the first CP at Kentmere (7 miles) and told him that, if Leanne had been there in the car, I would have got in without hesitation!

Still, I persevered (there was nothing else to do after all) and, once the dawn started to break, a funny thing happened. As if to prove how much ultra running is all in the mind, my mood lifted with the light and, by the time I reached Bampton 23 miles in, I was ticking along nicely. They do bacon butties at Bampton as part of the ‘breakfast time CP’ theme but I utilised my new ‘streamlining-time-spent-in-checkpoints’ routine and left after 10 minutes having downed a cuppa and a couple of sarnies.

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First light breaks around Haweswater. This is the Azkabhan of the LL100, but I truly loved it on this route! Mindset; nothing more, nothing less. (Having said that, the weather helped!)

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Dawn around Haweswater. Approx 4am, during the Lakeland Trails 100k event, Saturday 29th June 2019.

I gently cruised through the next stage to the Howtown Bobbin Mill, scene of last year’s LL100 biblical deluge but still easily my favourite CP venue of any ultra I have ever done.

I cannot tell you whether I was subliminally happy to be finishing after the next stage, but even the tough climb up to Boredale Hause passed peacefully and the tag on miles alongside Ullswater saw me moving better than I had all race and actually overtaking people. But what it does show is that mindset is everything. The temperature was rising but I knew I would be finished by 9am. There was a big climb looming but I knew I wasn’t doing it. Suddenly everything became easier. If I can’t learn a mindset lesson from this then I never can.

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Where the Lakeland Trails 100k and Lakeland 100 routes merge. The gently sloping path along Ullswater down to Howtown.

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Climbing the steep, bouldered slopes of Boredale Hause. Funny how easy it seems when you know you are dropping out at the next checkpoint?!

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The stunning view along Patterdale to Glenridding from Boredale Hause.

Leanne and the girls met me at the Glenridding checkpoint. Leanne asked me what I wanted to do. ‘Fry up,’ said I! So off we went to a nice little cafe round the corner where we sat outside in the sun and I promptly fell asleep on my plate.

Training run reflections:

Let’s start with the negatives – except there are no negative thoughts from this point on so, in good old performance management speak, let’s consider my ‘points for personal development!’

  • My stomach – was very wobbly at Braithwaite and still a bit wobbly a week later. I never normally suffer from this, so hopefully a restful build-up to the LL100 will help.
  • SLEEP! – Oh my word, need I say more??!! All I can say is I feel more mentally prepared to battle on in what is my ‘A’ race and, ultimately, the only race I care about this year. I think I was grumpy about the Lakeland Trails as, in my head, I wasn’t finishing it so I wondered why I was bothering! I should be rested on the start line for LL100 so, hopefully, by the time I get sleepy – which is inevitable – I will be far enough round the course to realise that the quickest way to get in bed is to finish the race!
  • DNFing is easy! – I had no idea! But I do now. I’ve broken the seal on DNFing: one by accident, one pre-planned, but I need to be hugely conscious of how easy it is to just pack it in. This is the race I need to finish.

OK, I told you I wasn’t being negative! Here is a much longer list of positive outcomes and lessons learned/remembered from the two prep runs:

  • I am officially over the calf injury! I have done quite a variety of runs the last few weeks, including a five miler where I significantly tried to push the pace on. I wouldn’t have dared do this a month ago. Both of my long runs were in the 9 hour range and, genuinely, the only time I even thought about my calf was when it was pulling sliding down the steep scree. If I get injured in the LL100, it will be unrelated to what has gone before. In the injury sense, I am fully fit.
  • That said, I think I will be sticking with the calf sleeves for long days out and ultra races. When my legs cramped at Braithwaite, my calves didn’t. I couldn’t wait to get them off for short runs, I don’t like wearing them ultimately, but if they are a bit of a comfort blanket for ultras, them so-be-it.
  • I made a series of sensible decisions over the last two months which got me to the start line fit instead of jeopardizing getting there at all. First of all, I binned off the Lakeland Trails marathon at a time when I was vulnerable to re-injury but also stressing about lack of miles. Half-term in Wales, and specifically the accidental adventure run with Leanne, was the turning point in the process. Then I decided not to go down to Wasdale – I would have been wrecked! Finally, I stuck to the plan to drop out of LT100k, even when I felt OK and know I could have gone on to finish, (slowly!)

Lessons learned:

  • My legs! They rarely let me down. Let’s be brutally honest here; this is the least fit I have been since 2014 by my reckoning. It’s my biggest race and my lowest level of fitness, but I think we’ve established beyond reasonable doubt that my legs will keep moving as long as my mind wills them to. Last year, during the spell of races I did in the lead up, I was constantly reminded of how, in ultra running, your legs can often feel dead at 15/20 miles but then stay at that level for the the next 30 or 40 miles. I had forgotten this and did panic when I felt tired after 10 miles this year both times. But, sure enough, I never really felt worse after that and, in the case of the Lakeland Trails, I actually felt better after 39 miles!
  • Positive mindset positive mindset positive mindset. Forget the broken training, forget the missed races and planned meet-ups with Rob, forget it all. Because, once you cross the start line, it doesn’t matter anyway. I got there and that is a bonus.
  • Time to cash in the lucky chips. Last year, I overplayed the enormity of the race and it’s huge drop-out rate – and inadvertently gave myself an easy drop-out clause. Obviously I am still nervous about the race and how difficult it is, but I am definitely not intimidated by the actual route anymore. My legs will get me round if my brain tells them to. And it will. Last year I was comfortable with my decision; I can’t see me being happy this year if I did the same thing.
  • If it is hot, I MUST still eat. The second you stop eating is the second you run out of energy. It is so easy to guzzle liquids at checkpoints due to thirst, then feel full so forget that you haven’t eaten. Then, five miles later, you feel dizzy and your legs have turned to jelly and you think you are dehydrated. Nope, you’re hungry!
  • Pre-empt the comfort problems: Use toilets when they are there, Vas up pre-race and constantly thereafter, regardless of chafing. Last year my vaseline turned to liquid in the incinerating heat of the pre-race Friday and I was walking like a drunk cowboy the next day! This year, the Vas is going in a cool bag if it’s hot! I’m very lucky with regards to blisters and don’t usually suffer (thank you Hoka Mafate!) but if I feel anything starting treat it straight away. Same thing with any other bits of equipment rubbing.
  • Don’t let the weather get you down! The forecast is currently changeable – surprise surprise! But, being positive, it doesn’t appear to be extreme either way. The heatwave looks to be dissipating by Friday and, although rain is forecast Saturday, it will hopefully be of the shower variety – without the biblical rain, violent winds and temperature drops of last year. But, whatever happens happens. Carry the right gear and crack on. (Easily said, but I feel ready.)
  • I’ve laminated a jobs list card for Dalemain CP, where last year I dillied and dallied for over an hour in a mental fog that I couldn’t shake. This was the beginning of the end last year. This year I’m going to work through the tick list of tasks and get out of there as soon as possible!

And, finally, the absolute most important thing…

  • ONLY THINK ABOUT THE NEXT CHECKPOINT. Don’t think about how far it is to the finish as it will blow my mind. Just think how far it is to my next cup of tea and snack! When I get there, don’t even think about getting comfy and definitely don’t think about calling it a day. Leave the CP as soon as possible and think about the next checkpoint. Repeat. x15!

Coniston Bound.

That’s about it then. Nearly time for the thinking to finally stop and the action to start. I can’t finish without wishing my good running buddy Rob Lister all the best too. He has been absolutely flying this year and, as such, our stars have passed in opposite directions running wise. He has trained with iron will and determination and I am sure he will get the finish and time he deserves this year. Good luck mate!

Next, I’m really looking forward to catching up with a whole bunch of friends this weekend and am going to be embarrassed if I miss someone out now – there are so many people I know running!

On a local level, good luck to Matthew Lavery and Steven Quilliam from our estate! Matthew, a 50 #legend trying to add the a 100 finish to his #legend status. Steven is debuting on the 50 but, if his training runs are anything to go by, he will run straight through the finish line and simply keep going! Good luck boys, let’s do it for Shevvie Vale!

Next up, Jon Cadman from Wolverhampton, my internet running buddy! (This disturbed Leanne no end at first, especially when we met up one Boxing Day morning in Wolves for a run and Leanne gave me the full internet stranger danger safety lecture!) Jon is already a 50 #legend and was hoping to run a fast one this year until the calf injury jinx struck him too. He has been on enforced rest for a month but was going great guns before that. Hopefully see you on the course, mate!

Then there is Jeff McCarthy, who featured in my last blog when I briefly described his battles with Lyme’s Disease. Jeff’s training has been understandably up-and-down health wise but his family have also suffered a terrible loss in the last fortnight. My thoughts are with his family at the moment and I sincerely hope, of all the people participating this weekend, that he is the one who makes it successfully back to Coniston to complete his 50 at 50 challenge. Good luck, Jeff, hopefully we’ll share a few miles out there.

Denise Zacharisz is also an existing #legend who has been struggling with injury recently. But she always pulls the big race out of the bag when it counts and, should I get out before the 50s on Saturday, I know she’ll come past at some point. Hopefully see you out there, Denise.

Chris Kay is back too. He is an existing legend who had an utterly epic year last year, including this 100. He’s had problem after problem this year but is back. If I can borrow some of your iron will Chris, I would really appreciate it! I look forward to you tearing past me on every descent!

I know for a fact that other people have told me they are running, but I can’t remember who has told me! Please accept my apologies and, to one and all – Bon Voyage!

Finally, the usual huge thank you to my amazing wife, Leanne, and the girls. I reckon I’ve been quite difficult to live with at times this year but they support me 100% regardless and encourage me when I doubt myself. Nancy in particular has no idea what effect her regular, pointed question, “Dad, do you think you are actually going to finish this year?” has on me! I know for a fact that, if I falter at any point, I will definitely ring Leanne (if there is a signal) before I make a hasty decision so she can tell me off back onto the trail!

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Last year’s start line picture.

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Rob and I top out on the Walna Scar Road last year and say goodbye to Coniston Water. We won’t be running together this year, but I’ll be watching him on the tracker!

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Sat with my coach after last year’s race while she told me how I am definitely going to finish in 2019…

OK, over and out. Let’s go and finish a little running race.

Cheers for now, thanks for reading.

Sticks x

#NoneShallSleep

 

 

Clinging on to the hope of becoming a #lakelandlegend in 2019. (And the ethics of a deliberate DNF.)

Well, where do I start in order to pick up from my last blog? It was written on March 23rd, nearly three months ago, as I contemplated comeback number 4 from the not-so-little-calf-niggle that I experienced on February 10th. It covered the 11 mental stages of injury as I had experienced them in that six weeks. If you want to read it, click the link below:

The 11 mental stages of an injured runner.

At the time we were three weeks from a family holiday in Snowdonia with my ultra running buddy Rob and the Lister family.

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Good times, baby! (Stone Roses reference just for Rob.) The Lister and Morgan-Hillam families outside their favourite holiday home!

I had an ultra-cautious cross-train, run/walk, regular physio visit regime in place to get me to Snowdonia fit to utilise the spectacular scenery. It was booked nearly a year ago specifically with Lakeland 100 training in mind. To cut a very long story short; the plan worked and I made it to Snowdonia ready to ‘do a bit’. I say ‘do a bit’ because I was still on the comeback trail so was still planning walk/run strategies and rest days in order to achieve a starting point from Snowdonia, rather than hammering up and down hills for a week and emerging from it firing on all cylinders, which was the original plan.

Day one of the holiday (14th April) was a pleasant surprise. I was able to walk the steep mile uphill and then jog the mile downhill into the next valley. I jog/walked the roughly 5k loop of Llyn Crafnant before walking the mile climb and jogging gleefully back down to our cottage retreat. Over 7 miles of sensible hill work. Being back out in on the trails in fresh, exciting scenery was so invigorating. We walked a similar route in the afternoon with the children; I carried Lottie in the backpack and felt fine. The comeback was on!

The comeback lasted 24 hours.

In hindsight, I should have realised that, after two months off running, I should have had a rest day. Also in hindsight, carrying Lottie for a couple of hours on hilly terrain after my morning run was probably also overdoing it. Anyway, I went out the next morning, walked the hill again (so I wasn’t being reckless or anything, but still…) and jogged down into the valley. I had a pre-planned run/walk strategy and, as I neared the next little climb which would signify the next planned walk section, I remember glancing up at the view and thinking ‘Wow! This is great! I’m actually running again!’

‘Twang!’ went the calf.

I was literally ten steps from where I would have walked again.

I admit I nearly cried there and then. At that point I thought the Lakeland 100 was over. With three and a half months left to the race and being back at square one injury wise, there seemed little hope, or point, in trying anymore.

I trudged back to the cottage and fully planned to e-mail Marc Laithwaite (Lakeland 100 Race Director) there and then to pull out and offer to volunteer to help on race weekend.

So why didn’t I pull out?

Well, I admit there is a little bit of a tight-Yorkshireman element to this! Not necessarily in order of importance, the reasons I didn’t pull out were as follows:

  • In the back of my mind, I still felt like this injury was just a niggle that I was managing badly. What if I pulled out (at any point – I nearly did it lots of times!) and then found myself running freely again three weeks later?! How upset would I be in Coniston watching the start if I felt, deep down, that I could have been fit to start the race?! [Why would I be at Coniston for a race I wasn’t in, I hear you ask? Well…]
  • We have forked out £1000 for a cottage for the weekend!!! I told you there was a tight-Yorkshireman element to my decision! Leanne said from the start, after last years failure, that we were going to do it properly this time. We had a cottage booked within 30 minutes of me gaining entry to the event. Again, we’ll be sharing with team Lister. It’s not fair on the Listers to not turn up and leave them stuck with the full bill just because I wasn’t racing – the girls would be furious at missing out on a holiday with the Listers as well! So we will be there regardless of my participation.
  • If there is the slightest chance to get this race boxed off in 2019 I need to try and take it. I really don’t want to spend next year focusing on training so much, it isn’t fair on the family. I can enter more road races and shorter trail races without needing to commit so much time to training. Without sounding complacent, I can knock off 50 mile ultras to a reasonable standard without upping my training too much. But a race of this magnitude demands attention, it demands commitment, it demands reccying of the course – or at least visits to venues with similar terrain, ascent and descent. You cannot enter this race and not commit to it. Even in this year of injury I have spent an unhealthy percentage of my waking hours thinking about it. In times of injury doubt, this is hugely mentally draining.
  • Coupled to the above impact on the family is the timing of the race on the last weekend of July. Perfect in terms of running the race – I can rest up for a week after breaking up from school before hitting the start line. However, this is not ideal for family holidays. We can’t book to go away early in the holidays and we can’t really book the week after the race either as we can’t be certain what physical state I might be in after the race! (You’ll remember last year, a factor in me dropping out was my panic that I was going to be too ill after the race to go on holiday when the weather deteriorated.)
  • I’ve saved the most important one until last – if one thought has reached prominence in my mind these last few weeks it’s this: don’t just assume that you are going to get loads of chances to do something. If you have chance, do it now! I have spent most of this year knowing that I’m not going to be anywhere near peak fitness for the LL100. Many times I’ve thought, ‘I should drop out and just wait until the year after.’ But what if this is the fittest I will ever be from now on? What if I never get another chance to run it? Can I guarantee that I will get another chance? Life has taught me this year that the unequivocal answer to this is – no! I keep hearing horror stories of people my age having major health issues and what have you, and it scares me daily. (I think I talked about my daily ailments in my last blog!) But there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll get another chance, so I’m clinging to this one as long as I can, regardless of whether I am ultimately successful or not!

In summary, there was just enough to keep me from sending the dreaded race-resignation e-mail until it was a physical certainty that I couldn’t race.

Saturday 11th May – a date with destiny. (Well, a date with Jeff McCarthy – he’s not the Grim Reaper or anything.)

Fast forward another three weeks. Another three weeks of cross training, walking and lightly jogging wondering when I’m going to feel that next twang of the calf muscle. False starts, false hopes, nervous abandoned sessions etc.

Early in the year, before the injury malarky, I had promised to take Lakeland Trails friend and general life inspiration Jeff McCarthy on a recce of Fusedale, the most formidable and iconic section of both the Lakeland 100 and it’s twin event, the Lakeland 50.

In Jeff’s case, I don’t use the work ‘inspiration’ lightly. I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself this year. The mental battle with this injury for the last three months has felt like three years. But – and here’s the important bit I have to remind myself of – it will end at some point.

Jeff mentally (and physically) battles Lymes Disease every day of his life. This battle won’t end – ever. But, instead of feeling sorry for himself, Jeff refuses to give up on his passions (like running) despite the obvious barriers presented. He may be a #Lakelandlegend in waiting, but he is already a fully fledged #lifelegend in my eyes – and he has an award winning blog to boot! It is a consistently brilliant read, with interviews and witty race reports but, perhaps most importantly, a no-holds-barred honest approach to writing about the massive impact Lymes Disease has on his daily life, family life and mental health. The link below is not to his homepage (but you can click the link at the top of the blog after you’ve read it!), it’s the write-up he did for Lymes Disease UK (LDUK) charting his battles. Please give it a read here:

Jeff’s amazing blog about his battle with Lymes Disease

Jeff also did a cracking job of writing up the day out which I am about to recount to you on his own website. If you want to read about it from his point of view, click here:

Jeff’s review of our day out in the lakes

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With the #lifelegend Jeff McCarthy, climbing into Fusedale with our starting point, Howtown on Ullswater, slipping away in the distance. Can we book the same conditions for race day, please?!

So, why was this a date with destiny for me?

Well, It was now well under three months to race day and I still couldn’t/hadn’t completed any run over 2 miles. I had run/walked 6 miles once and 5 miles another time, but these were a week apart and with zero confidence that a full on run would result in anything other than injury.

In summary, I fully expected my injury to flare up in the Lakes with Jeff and then I would drop out of the Lakeland 100 officially.

Why was I going if I thought injury was inevitable?

Well firstly, I was fed up of the battle. Two mile walk/run sessions are not what I am about, and are not going to cut it as preparation for the Lakeland 100. It was time to test if there was any chance of my calf surviving a bit of work.

Secondly, I desperately wanted to keep my promise to Jeff. This is such a big event for him and I knew that reccying the important parts of the route would be invaluable for him – as it was for Rob and I last year.

If I can’t start the race this year, it would be great to help someone else finish it.

Finally, I was just dying to go to the Lake District again! If there’s one thing I have learned about ultra running whilst preparing for Lakeland 100 these last two years, it’s that races come and go, but the days out in beautiful scenery preparing for the races are the ones you actually enjoy and remember!

So off we went to the lakes! We utilised cars so that we could run point-to-point like the actual race day. We met at Kentmere, left Jeff’s car, drove to Howtown and ran back over Fusedale, along Haweswater, over the Gatesgarth Pass into Longsleddale, then over to Kentmere. Not the Pooley Bridge to Ambleside 20 odd miler I had originally planned, but a solid 16 miles with 4000 feet of elevation! And the calf survived – bugger, I had to carry on now!

 

In many ways I had been looking forward to the closure of dropping out of my races. I was genuinely surprised that I got through the recce with Jeff. I now had to formulate a new plan. Obviously, this year my plans have changed on an almost daily basis. But here are the general plans I had at the start of the year in terms of racing – and bear in mind that I wasn’t/am not bothered about my performance in any of these races, they were all stepping stones to LL100.

Plan A

The usual weekend long runs and a series of recce visits with Rob – with the following races to break it up:

  1. GB Ultras Chester 50 – early March
  2. Various Cross Country races, including the National Champs in February
  3. GB Ultras Chester 100 – May 18th. (This was if I was feeling great – and also needed the blessing of eldest daughter Hannah, as it was her birthday!)
  4. Lakeland Trails Marathon – June 2nd
  5. Lakeland Trails 100k – June 29th
  6. Lakeland 100 – July 26th

When I initially got injured, I thanked my lucky (financial) stars I hadn’t entered the GB events, as these were gone.

Plan B (pre half-term holiday)

Now I had survived the recce with Jeff, I planned to gently train for the three weeks (including the half-term holiday) before resuming my plan with the Lakeland Trails marathon as the next stepping stone fitness test.

  1. Gentle build up to half term – no long runs,
  2. Steady week on holiday in Portcawl – front load a long run as the LT marathon was the final Sunday of the holiday
  3. Lakeland Trails marathon – June 2nd
  4. The first 5 stages of Lakeland Trails 100k – June 26th
  5. Lakeland 100k

However, Andy McGlynn, who has been doing some excellent physio work for me (check out his facebook page here – Sport and Injury Therapy facebook page ) strongly recommended I didn’t do the marathon. He said I’d be better off doing 10 miles followed by rest day (then repeat) for the entire holiday week and coming out of the half-term break fitter, rather than risking the injury. I wasn’t convinced at first, but he’d planted the seed of doubt, and I knew I would feel like a prize plank if I got injured when a physio told me not to do it! So…

Plan C – the current plan!!!

We had a lovely family week with the Morgan crew in Porthcawl, South Wales. I was actually even more cautious than I thought I would be.

Day 1 was 7.5 miles, but all flat and split into three lovely sections (in horrible weather!). The first 1.75 miles was with a brave, and soaking, Nancy!

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Nancy putting on a brave face in the squall!

The next 2 miles were with an equally brave and soaking Leanne!

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Insanity setting in! Literally the only time Leanne smiled in 2 miles! (She does like her new jacket though!)

I then tagged on another 3.75 miles myself to the end of the breakwater, (nearly got blown off…)

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Good old British summertime!

Ironically, given the weather conditions, this run was exactly a year to the day that Rob and I nearly died of heat exposure (I might be exaggerating a little bit) running 33 miles from Coniston to Braithwaite! I would also say the two runs are fully accurate reflections of where my fitness was/is. A year ago I could knock-off a huge day in incinerating heat and do 26 equally tough miles the next day. This year I tiptoed round 7.5 miles on the flat and kept my fingers crossed I made it back to the caravan in one piece!

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The same day last year! Rob and I losing our marbles 26 miles into an epically hot day in Buttermere. Check out my face shape last year to this for a direct comparison to the shape I am currently in fitness wise!

Holiday day 2 run was better. A slow, but sunny, 10 miles – the first two with Leanne, incorporating a nice bit of coastal trail around the perimeter of Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. Whilst it definitely game me a bit of confidence, in that I ran the whole way with no walking sections, I also felt I was definitely in need of a rest afterwards.

As a result of this, in the next two days I accumulated a grand total of 2.75 miles! I went for a recovery trot the day after and was sure I felt a twinge. No way was I taking a chance, so I called it a day and the day after, when the weather came back in to soak us again, I never bothered going out at all! There is a fine line between caution and outright laziness and I was flirting with the latter!

The weather the next morning was no better, so I persuaded Leanne to don her nice new rain jacket again and explore the beach in the opposite direction, westwards, for a change. Inadvertently, the accidental adventure that came from this decision became, perhaps, the turning point in my year.

Off we toddled along the coastal path which quickly dwindled away leaving us floundering on the beach in soft sand. Normally, I might relish this kind of extra-intensity training but, on this day, I just felt I was putting undue pressure on a gammy calf trying to push through soft sand – just not sensible.

Originally, Leanne was only going to do two miles out with me and then turn back. However, now I changed my plan (thank you OS maps – that app is bloody brilliant on your phone to save you taking the paper map out in the rain with you!) and decided to cut inland through the dunes and pick up what I hoped would be a more solid path back home.

Leanne asked if I would mind if she tagged along as she didn’t fancy the soft sand either. Of course I didn’t – this run was not about pace, it was time on feet and, anyway, I was only going to do about 5 miles. (WRONG!!!)

So we followed a path into the dunes. But, good grief, it was a maze in there! Again, OS maps to the rescue! We were never truly ‘lost’ – we knew where we were, but having that little dot show on the map was very reassuring when one sand dune looks exactly like another and you have gone full circle by accident!

Eventually we emerged into the car park I had aimed for before immediately taking on a monster sand dune – and it wasn’t even in the right direction! Finally we located the real path but, with 5 miles already in the bag and an hour on the clock we knew this was going to be a lot more than the quick trot we had told Leanne’s parents we were doing!

We ended up doing only 7.5 miles but were out for 100 minutes! A sign of the terrain covered. But what a great morning we had – the time passed in a flash and the path home was so lovely, rolling up and down in and out of woods and into the dunes that I used it out and back the next day for a long run.

The adventure with Leanne was completed without the hint of a twinge and, given that I had by now made up my mind not to travel to the Lakes on Sunday for the marathon, I needed to get some sort of long run in and try and find some lumps among the flatlands.

The final day of the holiday was much better weather wise and I finally set an alarm to get up and off early doors. I ran 16 miles and searched out every tight knot of contour lines I could. I ultra-walked the steep bits and ran the rest. It was comfortable, it was enjoyable, and it eased my mind that I had done the right thing to miss the marathon on Sunday.

We travelled home on the Saturday and, on the Sunday, I took to our local trails for 6 miles in what I described on Strava as my first ‘proper’ run in three months – in that I purposefully ran a couple of miles at 7.30ish pace – the first time I had done anything other than an ultra trot or walk in that time period. This meant I had done exactly 50 miles in the 8 days of half term. Not a massive amount but, as physio Andy said, I came out of the holiday period fitter than I went in, confidence building, and looking forward to the next two months – the sensible attitude and correct decisions made, it was time to plan the next month up to Lakeland Trails 100k.

June – the story so far.

Without really realising it, I have run 68 miles in the first 14 days of June. And that does not include the long weekend run that is about to take place as I type! Again, not a massive amount, but huge in terms of what I achieved in May, (108 miles – and 16 of them were on the last day on the run described above!)

This has been a pleasant surprise as I haven’t consciously built-up, it’s just happened by being careful and cautious. Obviously, at this stage, pace is out of the window. I still panic if I speed up too much but, ultimately, it’s not worth the risk. Time on feet and endurance training is the priority now. I am fully aware of the importance of speed work to aid endurance training, but I simply don’t have confidence in my calf to push it and, 6 weeks from the big day, I have zero room for any more niggles. So every run is taken at either ultra trot pace or, at fastest, gentle recovery run pace. But, without realising it, I’m not walking anywhere anymore! My running events are just that – running. Now don’t get me wrong, if I am in doubt at all on any of my runs I slow right down and will walk if necessary, as I said I have zero wiggle room here. But, for the first time since early February, sometimes now I will be out running and will actually stop thinking about my leg. Not all the time – on Tuesday in yet another rain sodden run, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the thought that it was going to go at any moment. Confidence is so fragile from run to run. But I CAN run. So what next?

Lakeland Trails 100k (28th June) – the dilemma.

On the face of it, it makes no sense to do any of this run. (I certainly know what physio Andy would say.) There are three options:

  1. Don’t do any of it!
  2. Do some of it!
  3. Do all of it!

Let’s break down the pros and cons:

Don’t do any of it – pros:

  • I won’t get injured,
  • I could do a different long run appropriate to my current fitness at a time and venue of my choosing.
  • Given that, if I go, we might camp as a family or, at the very least, spend quite a bit of time in Ambleside, I’ll probably save some spending money by not going!
  • I don’t have the hassle of sorting all my kit out.

Don’t do any of it – cons:

  • I have to get some hills in at some point. I have to do 105 miles in the Lake District in six weeks, for goodness sake!
  • IT COST ME £115 TO ENTER! (Tight Yorkshireman kicking in again – especially as it cost me £48 to NOT run the Lakeland Trails marathon!)

Start it AND try to finish it – pros:

  • Imagine the confidence boost if I knocked it off?! I’d know I was fit to go to LL100 and give it a good shot.
  • The two other times I have completed this race, (the LT110k in 2015 and 2016) everyone I spoke to seemed to be using it as a last training run for the LL100, so it must be a sensible plan if lots of other people do it, right?
  • I can’t think of another positive – I genuinely think I would be stupid to try and complete this race just four weeks before LL100. I was never that convinced when I entered it in the first place and thought I would be super fit by now. I was going to enter the 55k (I wish I had now) but I got bullied by Rob (he’s mean.)

Start it AND try to finish it – cons:

  • In my opinion, if I went all out to finish this race, I will either get injured trying or will be that battered after it that I can’t rest and recover enough in four weeks to be fit for LL100 anyway. And the whole point of this race is prep for my main objective. That’s the only negative I have, but it’s pretty conclusive I think.

Which brings me back to the potential sensible option I now have to take, which I referenced in my title for the entire blog…

Am I really going to turn up for a big race like Lakeland Trails 100k with a deliberate, pre-determined plan to DNF?

It’s one thing to go to a race that is not your ‘A’ race for the year and go steady, treating it like a training run. Last year, I used this strategy brilliantly. I could barely get out for training runs at all last year, but used a carefully scaffolded set of races as preparation and long run training to get myself in a good place for the LL100. In fact, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, this relaxed, carefree attitude to my ‘B’ races actually produced some of my best ever actual race results! Thus proving that, in ultra racing, often going deliberately slower and steadier can actually result in faster overall performances!

But it is another matter altogether to stand on a start line, look around at the many organisers/volunteers and your fellow runners and know that you are going to drop out of it on purpose, as part of a pre-determined plan.

So let’s again break down the benefits and potential pit-falls:

Why bother starting and then deliberately dropping out?

  • Well first of all, as already mentioned – I’ve paid £115 to enter!!! (Are you spotting a pattern here?!) I won’t get the t-shirt, or the pride of crossing the finish line, but I will get some sort of value for the money!
  • It’s a midnight start. This is a big one; if you know anything of my ultra running history, or my daily life, you will know I get sleepy! You will also know that my low tolerance for dealing with sleep deprivation was the over-riding factor in me dropping out of LL100 in 2018. This race is the perfect opportunity to go out running at midnight after a full week at work and get used to dealing with my incredible grumpiness levels when I want a nap!
  • Night running is the greatest thing! Ask anyone. Once you have experienced an ultra running event which takes you through the night, you will tell everyone what a magical experience it is. The excitement as dusk turns to darkness and the headtorches are switched on; the thrill of looking over your shoulder on a hill and seeing a never ending stream of headtorch lights following you is truly mind-blowing. The incredible energy boost you feel when you realise the night sky is beginning to brighten the next morning is amazing. Running through Ambleside at midnight, as the drunks stagger out of the pubs to cheer you on, (or abuse you – it’s a fine line!) is great in it’s own right.
  • The Glenridding CP is at approximately 37 miles and comes after quite a difficult part of the course. For me, 35 miles is about the recce distance I would be looking for as a long run four weeks before the main event. I think I can physically recover and carry on training a bit by doing that much. Ideally, I would like to continue to Grasmere as that would include the big climb up to Grisedale Hause, but that would take me to 45 miles and I fear that may be too much to recover from, or at least increase the chances of injury enough to make it not worthwhile.
  • I’ve done the last part of the route around Langdale and Little Langdale absolutely loads of times AND it’s on the LL100 route too! There is nothing to be gained and I have nothing to prove by running (staggering) through Langdale again – I can save that experience for six weeks time!
  • I will have all the kit I am going to use for LL100, so a 35(ish) miler around the Lakes is a good final opportunity to run a proper kit check and iron out packing issues and or chafing/rubbing hot-spots using the exact kit I will wear on LL100 day.
  • There genuinely is no substitute for training for a Lake District event than being in the Lake District.
  • If I didn’t go to the race, I would only be running my own recce anyway. I might as well take advantage of the feed stations and practice nutrition too! (And have I mentioned I’ve paid £115???!!!)

Are there any reasons why I should NOT deliberately DNF a race that I am only using for training?

  • Well, ethically I would have to leave that to the Race Directors that I know. Marc Laithwaite, Graham Patten, Wayne Drinkwater, Ronnie Staton to name but a few, would all have opinions I am sure – and I’m genuinely unsure what those opinions would be. In my opinion, I’m fairly sure that they would say that, if I’ve paid my money and I’m not endangering fellow competitors or inconveniencing volunteers, it is my choice. (Marc would definitely call me a complete wuss – although he might be tempted to leave it due to the fact that it is his race that I am aiming to complete!)
  • ‘You’re making life difficult for the organisers and volunteers’ – If I thought this was the case I definitely wouldn’t start. Obviously, I don’t want to take up the time of race officials or volunteers, or make life difficult for them. Wherever I drop out will be pre-planned with Leanne to pick me up (I’m not stupid enough to expect a lift from someone!) and I would be sure to report to both CP marshals and also return to the finish line to ensure that officials know I have dropped out and am safe and well.
  • ‘You’re taking the place of someone else who could race it and finish’ – Well, no in this case. In both the LT100k and the LL100 there is no refund and no transfer of places. This is totally fair as it protects the Race Directors from losing all their money by people entering, not training and then asking for their money back! I would never ask for the entry fee back anyway as both races do loads for the Lake District itself in terms of local charity contributions, Mountain Rescue donations etc. So my place wouldn’t go to a ‘reserve list’ and I wouldn’t ask or expect money back. There is still a possibility that I will not be able to take part in either race – the fact that I have paid nearly £300 to enter LT marathon, LT100k and LL100 is the risk you take when you enter them in the first place!

So that is where I am at the moment. (Well, at this exact moment I am sat typing this cos it’s raining outside and I really can’t be bothered getting soaked again this week even though I need to go and run up some hills!)

I’d be interested to know what the opinion of my fellow ultra-running friends are on the should I start/deliberately DNF/ try to finish the LT100k quandary. Please don’t be abusive though – constructive comments only!

Conclusions from the last 3 months.

It’s been a funny old spell. As with any period of time where things don’t go your way, I do tend to discover that you find out more about yourself dealing with adversity than when things are sailing along smoothly, so here are some general comments, again in no particular order, to round off another blog:

  • don’t assume you are going to get lots of chances to do something – do it while you can! Could also be titled ‘live in the moment’. In modern life this is still very hard to do. It’s impossible not to wish life away to get to events you are looking forward to. But Leanne and I feel like we are surrounded by events which remind us that people our age keep dying unexpectedly! (A bit morbid, I know, but true!) I barely seem to flick twitter on these days without being told of the shock death of and ex-footballer, pop star, or even teachers at local schools or family members linked to our schools, dying in their 40s. It never gets less shocking. The only positive I can take from this is it has helped keep my injury in perspective. But I am certainly still trying to take in surroundings and experiences and not take life for granted.
  • things change quickly! This has certainly been the case this year! Leanne and I have both had new roles this year which have been enjoyable and challenging at various times. But just be sure of one thing – the status quo will never be the status quo for long! The rug will be pulled from under your feet! Similar to the above, appreciate what you have because it might change quicker than you think!
  • Did I miss running, or the freedom of running? I think it was the latter. I have written at length about running being hard, and fitting running into daily life being difficult. But I don’t think I have dealt too well with not being able to run. I think it was the ability just to climb out of the rat race for thirty minutes that I missed. Running certainly helps you to clear your mind, especially on a peaceful, quiet trail. There is absolutely no doubt of the link between exercise and mental health. The two go hand-in-hand, and I have definitely been more irritable and grouchy (or at least felt that way if I didn’t show it) as a result of not running.
  • The pressure of LL100 can be overbearing. Linked to the above, I think if I hadn’t had LL100 hanging over me I could have just let my injury heal and sit out a few weeks. But I started the year so well, I knew time and fitness was slipping away. I so wanted to be fitter than ever this July, and it was/is/has slipped away. Hence putting pressure on myself to get out there. I still don’t deal well with things that I have planned not coming to fruition!
  • Search for inspiring people to lift you. My problems are minuscule. Some people have real problems. That day out with Jeff McCarthy was like a therapy session for me. Jeff has a genuine physical illness which restricts his ability to train and race. But you wouldn’t know it. The more I listened to his story, the more I realised I’d better shut my whinging up and crack on with it! Just this week, Nancy has been trying to nail a round-off to back handspring at her gymnastics sessions. The mental commitment required to throw your head and body unnaturally backwards is easy to underestimate until you watch someone try to do it! She landed it at gym on Tuesday, and since then has been trying to nail it at home on her birthday present – a 4 metre air track (our house is slowly being turned into a gymnasium, or so it feels!) Watching Nancy try over and over, constantly landing on her head, shoulders and back, was both scary and inspirational at once! If she can keep trying that, why the hell should I give up on a little race just because I’m a bit under-prepared?
  • It’s a good job I run, or I’d be 18 stone! And I don’t even drink – at least not much! I don’t weigh myself religiously or even regularly, but I know my healthy, active weight is around the 13st 3lb mark. Last year I was hovering around the 13stone dead mark, and sometimes slightly below, due to lots of long, slow, mostly under-fuelled runs completed in the intense heat and humidity of last summer. A couple of months off this year and I am straight up to the 13s 12lb area and, due to not running at high intensity or for great lengths of time, and the weather being unseasonably wet and cold, the excess is not shifting quickly or easily. Obviously, I could just stop eating cake and biscuits for a bit – BUT I DON’T WANT TO!!! I might need a little crash diet in the next few weeks, but I would rather keep my calorie intake up and work it off naturally. Either way, I can definitely feel the difference that three-quarters of a stone makes to my running.
  • If I don’t complete the LL100 this year, I’d definitely be back! It might not necessarily be next year, that would be for a discussion with Leanne and potential family holidays next summer would take priority. But I would definitely be back at some point. In fact, if I scraped a finish this year, I’d still be back at some point. Last year, I never was really that upset about DNFing. I gave it my best shot, a couple of things took me by surprise a little, but I was comfortable with my decisions and the end result because everything I did last year was on terms of my own choosing. This year, my fitness has been out of my control (to the extent that I picked up an injury in the first place) and I will definitely feel this year, if I don’t finish (or start!) that I will not have given the best account of myself. Just one year, I want to be stood on that start line in the absolute best condition I can be in, and give it a proper good go. Even if I make the start line this year, it will be with the attitude of sneaking round rather than knocking it out of the park. (A few mixed metaphors there, I think!) And should the amazing happen, and I reach the finish line, that would be incredible but probably not the best I am capable of.

I’m going to stop now as I am waffling on again. Thanks for reading. Feedback is welcome, and hopefully see you all out and about sometime. Whatever your life goal is, go and get it now. Don’t wait until later, because later doesn’t always happen! (How’s that for a cheery message to leave you with??!!)

Over and out!

GBSticks #traineelegend

x

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The 11 mental stages of an injured runner.

Today – right now in fact – I should be halfway up Fusedale in the Lake District with my good running buddy Rob Lister, part way through our second private recce day on the road to redemption towards the 2019 edition of the Lakeland 100.

But I’m not. I’m sat here in the office contemplating my longest injury layoff to date in the eight years since I realised that I wasn’t just messing about trying to get fit, I was actually something equating to a proper, regular runner.

Tomorrow will be seven weeks since I felt a little tweak in my right calf which I initially misdiagnosed as a bit of cramp. This led to me continuing for another eight miles through the mud when, had I stopped there and then, I would probably have not gone through the whole injury process at all.

It has been an extremely annoying and frustrating time. I mean, honestly – I actually tore my calf muscle seven years ago and I was back running quicker than this! But that was part of the problem, this niggle has been minor enough to trick me into thinking I was fine to get going again on more than one occasion: three times, in fact, I have set out on a comeback run only to break down again immediately.

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Rob and I viewing Fusedale for the first time, last July.

So, as I near Comeback 4 – The Final Return, I was thinking about the stages of mental torture I have been through in the last seven weeks. Stages that all runners will be miserably familiar with.

This is not a scientific journey – there will be an official Sports Psychology paper published somewhere. This is a personal journey. I may have inadvertently missed some stages out; please do message me to let me know.

Here, in my humble opinion, are the 11 stages of mental anguish you will pass through – from the moment the pain strikes to (hopefully) that joyous moment when you realise you are back on your feet and in your smelly trainers. Some stages are repeated on a loop within the process, some you will definitely only experience once. Obviously, this being my blog and I am prone to waffle, I will elaborate below…

1 – Panic

2 – Relief 

(You may be eligible to skip straight to 10 at this point.)

3 – Denial

4 – Depression

(You may well repeat stages 3 & 4 many times before ultimately reaching 5.)

5 – Clarity (Also known as the ‘Oh bugger’  moment.)

6 – Resignation

7 – Relief

8 – The Runners Bug

9 – Fear

10 – The Comeback

(Unfortunately there is the possibility of returning right back to 1 at this point.)

11 – Elation!

I’m guessing some of you are already recognising this pattern. Some of you may currently be part way through this process. For the record, I am at stage 9, contemplating stage 10. Some of you may be laughing at how much time you spend bouncing around stages 3 and 4 before you finally reach 5! (This is a common runner problem!)

So, what do they all mean in detail? (Here comes the waffle bit!)

Stage 1 – Panic.

You’re out running, minding your own business. Or racing, and therefore probably paying too much attention to other people’s business. Worse still, you’re not even running, or even exercising, it might be something as mundane as going downstairs or getting out of bed.

Then, out of the blue, comes the pain.

Whatever the situation, you immediately know something doesn’t feel right. If you’re anything like me you are immediately consumed with what this might mean to your current training schedule, or upcoming races and events.

I’m not a meticulous training schedule person. Our hectic family life means schedules can quickly be rendered irrelevant. It’s rarely written down. I hate those ‘1 mile at 50%, 3 miles at 75%, 1 mile at 100%, 1 mile at 50%’ style regimes. That’s why I naturally drift towards trail running and ultra racing – pace and schedule do not play as important a role and certainly do not define whether your run was a successful one or not. That being said, I DO have a plan for the week in my head, and I always know when and where the long, hilly training runs are taking place, (eg. TODAY!)

For most runners, deviation from ‘THE PLAN’ (however that manifests itself) will result in one thing – panic!

Stage 2 – Relief!

This is a slightly unusual one; perhaps contentious. Or maybe it should be called 1a?

But I think this is definitely a stage in it’s own right, particularly for us Vet category runners!

You see, I am of an age where funny pains are a daily occurrence. Rare is the 24 hour period where I don’t think that I’m having:

  • a heart attack,
  • a stroke,
  • a slipped disk,
  • a severe blood clot to the brain,
  • DVT,
  • A funny tingling feeling in my fingers and/or toes,
  • I’m losing my vision,
  • I’m losing my marbles,
  • Everyone around me is losing their marbles.

Therefore, I would hazard a guess that I hardly ever have a run where I don’t experience a fleeting pulse of pain where I momentarily think that I have picked up an injury of some sort.

I am also of an age where simply getting out of bed is painful. My back aches, my neck aches, my legs can’t get going etc. Indeed, if Lottie cries out in the middle of the night and I jump out of bed quickly (Leanne will tell you this never happens) then the temporary complete loss of balance usually results in me falling over anyway – and Leanne still has to go and see to the baby.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Stage 2 – Relief! is a real thing – 99 times out of 100 I am not injured at all. My next run is absolutely fine; that twinge I felt turns out to be nothing and I am good to go, either by ‘running it off’ (eg stiffness/cramp) or just that there really was nothing there in the first place.

Unfortunately, the above statistical likelihood, (which I have just mathematically calculated at 99% above – can you tell I’m doing Y6 maths this year?) results in Stage 3….

Stage 3 – Denial.

The singular stage which every runner will cling on to for dear life.

This is also the most dangerous stage as it often results in exacerbating the initial injury, (as my current situation proves!)

I bet if I turned up to my running club this week (“As if that’s going to happen!” shout my club mates!) out of the 100 runners who will be there I hazard a guess that 25% at least will be in some form of denial about an injury they have.

Runners at the denial stage are ridiculously easy to identify too. They will invariably be saying things like this:

“It doesn’t really hurt.”

“The pain wears off after a mile.”

“I can run it off.”

“I’m pretty certain it’s not going to drop off.”

“I googled it and it just said to go easy for a couple of weeks.”

“I’ve been training for this ****ing race for 15 ****ing weeks and I’m not ****ing dropping out now!”

Denial is dangerous and is really just an escalation of Stage 1 – Panic in which you cling to the last vestiges of possibility that there really is nothing wrong and your normal schedule can continue.

This inevitably leads to…

Stage 4 – Depression.

Obviously I don’t mean proper depression, I mean the kind of depression that runners feel when they have that nagging feeling that this isn’t going to end well. It’s not a nice feeling and, I suppose, for those who do suffer with mental illness and anxiety, it’s even worse.

This is the stage where you have that sinking feeling that all your plans, routine and organisation for the weeks ahead are about to come crashing around your ears. This is why people cling to Stage 3 – Denial – it’s a lot more tolerable to feel like it might be OK rather than confront what is becoming increasingly inevitable. (“I’ll just give it one more try…”)

As previously mentioned, I flitted between stage 3 & 4 three times before finally landing at stage 5. Each time I felt the niggle it would be gone within three days. First I waited five days before running, then eight days, then I cross-trained and did a little tester run with no ill-effects during an eleven day break. But each time the end result was the same. The third time, a wet Tuesday night three weeks ago, I genuinely thought I’d fixed it. I ran gently for two miles and began to feel that happy glow of what I thought was Stage 11 – Elation. But half a mile later the little nagging pain was back and I knew immediately that I was moving onto Stage 5…..

Stage 5 – Clarity (aka the ‘Oh Bugger’ moment.)

When realisation finally hits home, it doesn’t so much dawn on you gently, more like smacks you full in the face with a wet dishcloth.

Clarity. This stage probably only lasts an hour. In many ways it feels like the low point but, in reality, it’s probably one of the high points because you know you have reached the point of no return. “Oh bugger. I really am injured and I absolutely need to stop messing around and get it sorted.”

In my case, I knew I had totally wasted the last three weeks trying to dodge the issue when, had I stopped straight away, I would probably be running again. To be fair to me, the third time I thought I had done everything right by gently cross-training and throwing in a little tester run, but in my heart of hearts I think I knew that I was masking the issue rather than dealing with it. I had had such a good start to the year and had a pretty solid plan in place for the next two months – I desperately wanted to stick to it.

You only experience Stage 5 – Clarity once. And once you do, you cannot go back to stage 3 & 4 after that. If you do, you never reached stage 5 in the first place, you were still messing about in stage 4! Clarity is the point where you resolve to move on and solve the problem. But there are a couple of tricky stages to negotiate first…

Stage 6 – Resignation.

Maybe this should be stage 5b, it happens quickly on the back of stage 5. But I associate Stage 5 – Clarity with that angry feeling of injustice, Stage 6 – Resignation is more about plotting your next course of action, no matter what that might entail. It may involve time (and money) on physio, it might entail not participating in that race or event you really wanted to take part in as you know it won’t help, it will usually almost certainly mean an entire stop on all forms of physical exercise – at the very least completely resting the body part in question.

I used the word ‘resignation’ deliberately though, as opposed to slipping back to ‘depressed’ because, although the above list is full of bad news for the runner, you at least now appreciate that you are doing these things for your own good – stopping doing the thing you love is the quickest way to get back to doing the thing you love!

You have finally accepted your fate and are now formulating a new plan. It doesn’t feel great at this point but you have drawn yourself a new line in the sand and, initially at least, might even be a little bit motivated to do everything in your power to accelerate the process.

The only problem with this is that the next stage can become very nice indeed!

Stage 7 – Relief.

This is another contentious one but, for me at least, it’s the most dangerous stage of the lot. I know loads of runners and many of them will point blank refuse to accept that this phase exists at all. They’re the annoying ones who tell you that running is some other-wordly utopia where they experience inner peace and zen-like happiness – the running-magazine-front-cover land where every training session is like skipping through a sunny field of gently waving wheat to the bleat of new born lambs.

Bollocks.

Running is hard.

Not running, however, is easy!

Here are just a couple of reasons why NOT running is great.

  • No pressure to get out there and run – this is the whole point of Stage 7 – Relief. You can relax; there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
  • Less time constraints – it’s amazing how many more hours I seem to have in a day when I’m not trying to crow-bar a run into our busy schedule. School work is more likely to get done, housework is more likely to get done. Blogs are more likely to get written!!!
  • Quality time with the family – I’m not disappearing for a quick five miler at bedtime, I’m reading stories with the kids or doing bathtime. I’m not too tired on a Saturday to actually organise something else.
  • Weekend lie-ins – Saturday or Sunday is more than likely to start with a nice brew in bed. And it certainly isn’t going to involve an alarm clock! (Well, a little human one perhaps, but even that is preferable to the 6am run alarm with rain pounding against the window.)
  • The washing basket is 50% less full, and 95% less smelly – enough said!

I could go on – NOT RUNNING IS EASY!

Running is hard. If it was the other way around everyone would be doing it!

Hence, Stage 7 – Relief is potentially fatal for your running career. I can name runners who have slipped into this stage of injury and have never even bothered to re-emerge! What’s the point? It’s loads nicer drinking beer and eating crisps!

Once you enter stage 7, you’d better make sure you retain your focus. If you don’t, your only hope is that there is some sort of event to snap you out of the other side and into stage 8…

Stage 8 – The Runner’s Bug. (aka ‘Itchy Feet’!)

Once the pain has subsided and a suitable period of rest has been endured (or enjoyed!) hopefully your mind is going to start telling you that you want to get back out there. Sometimes that happens naturally, sometimes you need something to jolt your memory and remind you that you enjoy it.

In my case, the motivation to complete the Lakeland 100 has been enough to keep my mind occupied and keen to get going again. But other things help too, like last Sunday, when I volunteered to marshal at the Wigan Run Festival half marathon.

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Ready to greet the Wigan Run Festival half marathon runners at mile 9 (and mile 11!) in Haigh Hall, with my fellow Harriers friends Wendy, Stuart, Diane and Sarah.

There are few things I now enjoy more than helping out at a running event. It is great to be able to give people a little shout of motivation or, in this case, hand out gels just at the point that people really needed them! (Mile 8 to 10 of the Wigan half is a seriously tough climb up to local landmark Haigh Hall.)

Plus, seeing other people achieve things they are proud of certainly inspires you to go out and get stuck in yourself. Well done to the organisers, and all the runners who took part in the Wigan Run Festival last weekend, whichever distance you ran! I hope you had an enjoyable day.

Stage 9 – Fear.

I mentioned at the start that I feel this is my current point on the progress chart. So why fear?

Well, I am approaching three weeks since my last failed run. It must be well over a week since I last felt any pain whatsoever. So there is no reason why this comeback shouldn’t be a success – is there?

I’ve been sensible and stayed away from all forms of training. I was desperate to go to the Lakes today – I cherish every visit – but I knew it was ridiculous to push my body to try and do something which would do more damage. In short, I feel I’ve done everything right.

But what if it goes again? What if I start running and, 2.5 miles in, like the last three false starts, the pain returns? Do I have to wait more than three weeks? On top of what I have already missed?

Throughout this process, I have been consoled by my (our – including Rob) long-term plan. Rob and I (and the families) have a cottage booked in Snowdonia for the second week of the Easter. We can spend a whole week running in the mountains and relaxing. It’s exactly three months before the Lakeland 100. In other words, it would be the perfect starting point in order to peak at the end of July.

It wasn’t supposed to be a starting point. I was supposed to be super-fit by then to maximise the hill time. But I have to look on the bright side. If I can get a bit of running in my legs in the next three weeks, I can go to Snowdonia and really get stuck into some proper hill running and kick start 2019.

But…… Stage 9 – Fear; what if I break down again? That means a longer lay-off and I am in danger of not having time to train properly for such a big event. What if the injury just re-occurs and re-occurs?

I’m sort of pleased I have ‘The Fear’ as it is certainly holding me back from trying too much, too soon. But I am definitely a bit scared; and I am sure I will be extremely nervous when I resume training, however gently.

Stage 10 – The Comeback.

This time it’s going to be ultra-gentle. It’s going to involve lots of slow, short one and two milers and a lot of cross-training. I have to build-up gently. I have to be patient. So far I think I’ve been very patient, but that will unravel quickly if I feel any discomfort in those early comeback runs. (Hence I’m still at Stage 9 – Fear!)

Stage 11 – Elation!

I’m not entirely sure when I will first feel this. I thought I had it on the first three comeback runs when I seemed to be travelling smoothly. So I suspect I won’t feel properly elated unless I reach the Snowdonia training camp week feeling fully fit and ready to go.

Obviously, we will have a great week away with the Lister family in our little cottage, but it was booked for one reason only – to train for Lakeland 100. The hills are brutal, the running and training opportunities limitless, and we will all have a great time into the bargain.

But I can’t begin to imagine how I might feel if we go there and I can’t run. It would be a week long reminder of my uselessness. So I have to be fit for it; hence ‘The Fear’.

 

Soooooooooo, there you have it. Stage 10 – The Comeback will probably begin with some cross-training tomorrow, or maybe even a little one mile run. It can’t be anymore; I can’t cock-up Comeback 4! I know I am forever telling you I will blog more, I just don’t want lack of running to be the reason I am blogging!

Onwards and upwards, 18 weeks to go to the Lakeland 100! That sounds terrifyingly close, my margin for error is narrowing. Here’s hoping my next blog is full of pictures of hills and countryside!

Get out there and see it everyone!

Cheers for now!

Mark!

@GBSticks11

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“How many miles of the Lakeland 100 left now, Rob?” “103, Mark.” “But we’ve just done 2 miles?! How can there be 103 left?!” “Cos it’s 105 miles, Mark. That’s how long a 100 mile race is.”

2019 – Altering Mental Perceptions and Preparing for Sleepiness!

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Rain? What rain? (Photo courtesy of ‘Jumpy’ James Kirby, Lakeland Trails Helvellyn, Nov 2018)

Discomfort. For most runners, whether fast or slow, running long distances or short sprints, peak performance is all about your tolerance of discomfort, or at the very least your ability to ignore it.

This is obviously a choice, or a state of mind. It is quite possible to run, even perform well, in training and in races, without experiencing too much discomfort. Gnarly, old-school club runners would accuse you of coasting and not pushing yourself but I certainly wouldn’t. If that’s what you enjoy and it keeps you fit and active, go for it.

However, most runners are generally trying to push the envelope at whatever level they are operating at, and to do that you have to manage discomfort.

I know many a very fast runner who would consider discomfort anything over the 10k mark and think anything over half marathon to be the domain of utter psychopaths and lunatics! Personally I am the opposite; I’m increasingly scared of pushing myself to the limits in training or 5k/10k races but am more willing to push the envelope in terms of time, distance or terrain.

But something I am still learning, as I become more experienced, is that discomfort is a lot more in the mind than you may think – or at least that you can train your mind to manage that discomfort at the time you need to overcome it.

Why am I telling you this? Well, mostly because, as I continued to think about my experiences on last years Lakeland 100 and read the feedback from my blog last August, a couple of points made by fellow runners really stuck in my mind. I will come to these later, but first, a little 2018 race recap…

September – December 2018 – back to the short stuff.

The pressure of training for a big ultra can be overbearing, just as it can be for a marathon or a debut half marathon. The enjoyment of running can quickly be lost as you feel the pressure to ‘have to’ go out for a run, rather that going because you want to.

I wanted to relieve myself of that pressure to end the year so I literally just went out when I wanted to. I binned all the long runs and just ran for fun. I did, however, make a conscious effort to train faster and smarter. By necessity the first half of the year had been to run far and slow whenever I could. The end of the year would be short and as fast as possible.

Parkrun Debuts!

I’d never done Parkrun before until this summer! But camping near to the Eden Project gave us a great opportunity as, not only is it an amazing place to take the family for a little run, you also get FREE entrance to the Eden Project itself if you take part! (I must have mentioned this to everyone I’ve met since!) So we went on both Saturdays of our holidays.

The course is quite a challenging one as far as Parkruns go, as you spend the entire 5k running up and down the hillside paths round hairpin bends. It’s certainly a good challenge though! The first time I ran round with the girls for fun but the second week Leanne gave me the green light to run alone and see what I could do. I was pretty pleased with 19m11s in the circumstances of the course and as it was only a couple of weeks after the LL100.

Leanne and I went to the Wolves Parkrun at West Park in early November and I ran 19m06s. I was hoping for sub19 really but I enjoyed the challenge none-the-less. It certainly backed up my introduction comments that I find a ‘full-gas’ 5k harder than most ultras!

 Keswick Lakeland Trails 15k, Saturday 1st September 2018

I’m not sure if my view of this race is distorted by the fact that, after the summer holidays, I often arrive at this race on the first week of September not at peak fitness! But I find this the hardest race on the Lakeland Trails calendar. At least I was mentally ready this time – I knew from the year before that the opening woodland section which has replaced the old railway line start is infinitely harder. Last year I was burned out in the first two miles – this year I took it easy until the climb begins in earnest and was able to finish stronger. I was only 45 seconds faster than 12 months previously but I felt a lot better about my run. I was still spent though – that steep descent into Keswick really does not agree with me! Oh, and as the picture below shows, I was nearly knocked off the path by a killer Labrador…

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Look at the killer instinct in that dog’s eyes. How brave am I? (Photo again courtesy of ‘Jumpy’ James Kirby, Lakeland Trails.)

Endurance Store MacMillan Coffee Morning Run, Saturday 29th September, 2018.

1st place! All-be-it in very fortunate circumstances. But “A win is a win!” as Marc Laithwaithe, the organiser, said so, given that it is probably the only individual running race which I will ever win, I’ll claim it!

Pretty much a straight shoot up and down Parbold Hill from a school near my house, I set off in 2nd place and knew that is where I would remain as local lad and St Helens Strider Kane Green disappeared into the distance. As I huffed and puffed my way to the half-way point around the Beacon at the top, the marshal shouted “Well done lad, it’s your race to lose now!”

“I’m not even winning!” I replied.

“Well your the first runner to get here,” he replied!

So I set off on the return leg which, being an out and back, affords you a view of the competition in persuit. With no Kane Green in sight and the other runners a decent way back, I knew I could enjoy the return leg to the finish line. It turned out Kane missed a turn just before the summit, hence my ‘win’ being more than a little fortuitous.

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From worst to first! A slight improvement in result from the last Marc Laithwaite organised event I entered! (He also Race Directs the LL100!)

Rainford 10k, Sunday 7th October, 2018.

This was the big one for me really. I mentioned in the introduction about how I am more intimidated by 10k than ultra. Ever since I ran 36m50s, mostly in surprise, at the 2016 Wigan 10k, I have never run a 10k since. Mostly because I just don’t do many road races but at least partly because, as I had always previously beaten my PBs, I knew I couldn’t beat that one. I was genuinely apprehensive of laying it all out for 40 minutes and how that would feel.

So I deliberately chose a race that was reasonably small and that I was pretty sure no-one I knew would be attending. I didn’t want to be distracted by anyone else’s pace, just to give it absolutely everything I had and, if I completely blew up, it didn’t really matter. In my head, if I could go sub 40 and maybe get close to 39, I would be delighted.

It was a perfect morning for running and I absolutely went for it from the start. I went through half way in 19m15 – it was the only time I looked at my watch! I was totally gassed by 6k and by 8k I could have crawled into the road gutter and cried!

As I mentioned in the introduction, discomfort management is the key in these short and (for me at least) painful races. I told my brain that every corner in the course was the finish line. When I got there, I told my brain it was the next corner. And so on. It really is the only way I find to keep myself going at maximum pace.

The last few kms have a bit of trail involved which inevitably took a slight edge off my pace. But I was pretty delighted to finish in 7th place in a time of 38m44s. It was more than I dared hope for and, I could certainly say with hand on heart, was the absolute best I could achieve on the day.

I can also now scientifically say that I am exactly two minutes slower than I was two years ago!

Lakeland Trails Dirty Double Weekender, Helvellyn/Ullswater, 13th/14th October 2018.

The picture at the top of the blog is of the Saturday race – enough said. An utter monsoon! I spent more of the race on my arse than my feet as I quickly realised that the dry summer trails had removed the grip from my Inov8s!

A few glasses of wine followed again at the hotel on Saturday night with good company before the Sunday dawned. Again, for the umpteenth time, the boats were cancelled. However, in all honesty I now prefer the Lakeland Trails back-up route more – it’s definitely more challenging – and I ran OK on the Sunday without mishap.

This weekend is way more about the social than the running though and Leanne and I had a great time with our friends.

Standish Hall Trail Race, Saturday 2oth October, 2018.

More scientific proof that I am exactly two minutes slower than my previous best! I hadn’t realised that I hadn’t run this race for 3 years, when I finished 4th in the race. Mostly I have cheered Leanne on here since. So it was nice to get back out there and see what I could do.

I ran pretty well to finish in 13th place. The course is bang on 10k and I finished in 42 minutes which wasn’t bad. The conditions were pretty dry really so it was another good gauge of pace.

It was nice to be back amongst Wigan Harriers friends and we claimed the team prize again thanks to a good team effort.

League Cross Country Fixtures: Sefton Park, Liverpool and Hyndsford, nr Accrington.

Sefton Park is a biggie, tied into the National U23 Champs, so you get to run against some young good ‘uns! I’ve done this one a few times before so it was a bit of a surprise at first to find I was over a minute faster than I’d ever been! But then I quickly realised that this event is usually a mud fest and this year it was extremely firm underfoot, which fully explained the average pace.

Hyndsford was probably my favourite XC course to date. Mostly because it is more like a trail race than a cross country. The weather was absolutely foul which certainly gave it more of an authentic cross country feel! Our team tent barely survived the wind and rain onslaught but our actual runners stood up to the test much better and performed really well.

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Wind, rain, mud banks – a proper XC experience at Hyndsford.

And so to 2019…… the return to The Lakeland 100.

I had planned to write this blog a couple of weeks ago before the end of January. If I had I would be telling you all about my best ever start to a year (mileage-wise at least) and how positive I am going to be this year.

However, I am now sat here on the first day of the half-term holidays injured and slightly apprehensive about the next few weeks. What I thought was cramp in my right calf during last weeks muddy trail run is now appearing to be more of a calf strain so I am desperately trying to remain patient and let it heel whilst all the time watching my excellent start to the year disappear over the horizon!

Obviously, having successfully re-entered the 2019 edition of the Lakeland 100, I have only one aim and one focus for the year. I have entered some other races but they are all preparatory training runs building up to the big one. In running terms, nothing else matters and everything I do running wise will be focused on one (and a half!) days in July.

So, linking to my introduction, what do I think I have ultimately learned from my 2018 Lakeland 100 experience?

Firstly, thanks to everyone who read my race report. I received all kinds of feedback from all kinds of people – runners offering support and advice; non-runners wondering what the hell I am thinking in the first place.

Some advice was good, some (in my opinion) not so:

Pop the Pills!

It never ceases to amaze me how many runners get by fuelled on drugs! More than one person suggested a regular intake of painkillers and/or Pro-Plus to stop me getting sleepy. Each to their own and all that, but I cannot believe this is how some people choose to run. I am no doctor but I’m pretty certain this is not a healthy way to operate and, in more extreme cases, must border on dangerous.

Pain is ultimately your body telling you something is amiss. Obviously a race of this magnitude is going to hurt so I am definitely going to go down the line of embracing the pain rather than masking it. If it really hurts that much then, from a health point of view, it is probably better to stop. I may be being totally naive here, or not ‘professional’ enough, but personally I am not willing to risk my future health to finish a running race. It’s not that important.

How are you going to practice getting better at sleep deprivation?

This is a great question as, ultimately, I don’t think I can. I just love a nap! Even when fully rested I can always sneak an afternoon nap if time permits. That’s just the way it is. But what I can do is be more aware of the potential for negative thinking when I get sleepy.

This was brought home to me on December the 23rd this year. Leanne and I had done some Christmas wrapping and were just going to bed at about 1am when we inadvertently disturbed Lottie. NFL was on TV so I did the ‘dedicated Daddy’ bit and took Lottie downstairs. BIG MISTAKE! She now thought it was morning! For the next 5 hours she played like it was proper morning and absolutely refused to accept that it was actually the middle of the night!

By about 5am I was beside myself! I was so angry and frustrated – I couldn’t think of anything except getting in bed! It was at this point that I realised this was my mood exactly at Mardale Head last year when I dropped out – ‘Just let me get in that nice warm minibus and have a sleep!’

So, what can I do to improve this? Nothing really, in my opinion, although I have entered a night ultra to get used to that grumpy feeling and run through it. But that is what I hope I’ve learned – I can’t get better at it, but I can get better at RECOGNISING it. If I can recognise it, I can tell my brain that it’s nothing to do with not being able to run anymore, it’s simply sleepiness. And I’ve got lots of time to sleep after the race! I still remain convinced that physically I was in good shape to finish the race in 2018 but I let the sleepiness beat me.

How do you plan to develop your mental strength?

This is ultimately the crux of my 2019 effort. And this is where I think I have the answer for next year.

As with sleep deprivation, you can’t really get better at it, but you can get used to it and be better prepared for the negative thoughts that are inevitable in these races.

Firstly, I already know that there are peaks and troughs in a race. I had a low point at Dalemain last year and recovered. I need to remember that.

Secondly, I avoided low points at Dockray and Howtown. I could have sulked about the terrible weather at both those checkpoints but I actually used it to my advantage and just kept going with a minimal break – I didn’t allow time for my mind to wander towards stopping. Both times I emerged from the checkpoint feeling great! I’ll remember this next year.

Thirdly, Rob and I have talked at length about our ‘team decision’ to drop out! I can pretty much guarantee that that situation will not arise this year! Rob is still fuming about his DNF so there is no way we’ll be asking each other if we’re going to stop this year!

But fourthly, and this is the biggie….

I re-read my pre-race blog and race report and was a little taken aback by the negative mind-set that underpinned those blogs. I was very quick to tell you that only 60% of runners ever finish the race on average. Last year only 50% finished. Both of these are indisputable facts, so why are they negative?

Well, I realise now that I was building myself an escape hatch! By constantly telling you all how hard the race is, I feel I was building it up to be more than it is whilst at the same time allowing an avenue for me later to tell you that ‘It’s OK that I didn’t finish because it’s really hard.’

I completely convinced myself that I was out of my depth and it would be amazing if I finished. I’d done well just to qualify for the race so not finishing was no disaster.

This will not be the mindset for 2019.

The course no longer intimidates me. I know it well and will have run most of it three or four times by the time of the 2019 race. Of course it’s a challenge but I don’t need to be afraid of it. Just work from checkpoint to checkpoint and don’t think about the long game. I know I can run round the course comfortably in the time limit; I just need to manage my mindset, be prepared for the sleepiness and deal with the external factors (like conditions underfoot and weather) as they present themselves.

Rob and I returned to Mardale Head to run the last 30 miles of the race route to Coniston a couple of weeks ago. We thought it was appropriate to begin our 2019 training by completing the circle from 2018.

Again the lakes threw a weather bomb at us but we absolutely cruised along. 12 months ago I would have considered this a major day out. This year we had just run three-fifths of the Lakeland 50 as a comfortable little warm-up jaunt. And that is all down to mindset. If you think it’s going to be easy, it probably will be. If you think it’s going to be impossibly hard…

So there you have it. Up-to-date and up for it. I am just having my own little mini-mindset crisis – trying not to totally lose the plot over this injury and the lost miles this half term. But the plan is solid. Easter is going to be massive – Rob and I are spending a week in Snowdonia hitting the hills, and again have a race schedule to build us up to the main event.

I recently looked back over my running from the last couple of years and have targeted areas where I can make sizeable improvements to my training for this year. (Ironically, one of them was February half-term! I lost 2017 half term to illness and 2018 to injury. Oh well, 2019 has followed the pattern!)

Rob is absolutely flying along though. We can’t control the weather or the conditions but we can control everything else. Let’s see where it gets us.

Oh, and I’m going to blog more too…(!)

Hopefully see you all on the trails in 2019. Belated happy new year to all of you. Don’t waste it, life is too short.

DNF debut – failing to become a #lakelandlegend on the Lakeland 100.

(nb – by way of polite information for any non-runner friends, DNF stands for ‘Did Not Finish’.)

Before I begin, a short public service announcement. This blog is all about my failure to complete the recent Lakeland 100. I have seen how these things go on social media – they are often a cry for help and are followed by loads of supportive messages like ‘You are still a legend in my eyes!’ or something similar. Whilst this is very nice, that is not the point of this blog.

I am not tearing myself apart with angst over the events I am about to describe. It was not a disaster. I have not suffered crippling personal heartache or personal tragedy (or even injury!). In life I am a very happy person; indeed, a very lucky person. There are people out in the wide world today (some of them my friends) who have to deal with real tragedies and life issues at the moment – failure to finish a running race does not constitute such an issue. I am happy with the decision I made on the day and, whilst obviously not happy that I didn’t finish what I set out to do, I am certainly not beating myself up about it.

What follows is an honest account of what happened (or what I think I remember!) and then a critical analysis of what went wrong. Because it did go wrong – I didn’t finish. Please don’t tell me I’m ‘still a legend’ because there are countless blogs out there from the true legends who battled through exactly the same conditions and problems as me and didn’t give up – because ultimately that is what happened; for whatever reason, I gave up. Not injured, not timed out – just gave up. Battling against everything thrown at you and coming out of the other side is precisely what makes a true #lakelandlegend and that is EXACTLY what separates people like them from people like me. (Look up Sal Seeney or Christopher Kay on Facebook and read the accounts of their races if you want to know about grit and determination and being a proper #lakelandlegend!)

I’m going to be very self critical because ultra running is ultimately a never ending learning curve. I learned so much in the build-up to this race, I learned a lot during it and I think I have learned an even greater amount by reflecting upon it. Being critical of a failure is how you move on to try and correct that failure. (Spoiler alert right there – I’m hoping there will be a next time!)

Right, glad I got that off my chest. If you are still reading, thank you for not just thinking I am an egotistical ****head and clicking the little cross at the top! What follows is my recount of the race, a review of the event as a whole, then the analysis and conclusions I have drawn during a wonderful fortnight in Cornwall with my amazingly supportive and loving family. Enjoy…

The 2018 Lakeland 100.

Date with the Dementors – Mardale Head (75.6 miles, 24 hours.)

Finally Mardale Head came into view through the sideways bullets of rain driven by a spiteful wind. My watch beeped a mile for a 75th time as my stopwatch ticked towards the 24 hour mark. The semi-apocalyptic weather matched my mood entirely. I was suddenly re-cast back into a whirlwind of sleepy, tired depression.

This was in stark contrast to an hour earlier. The hail (yes, hail) had stopped as I continued round Haweswater and the sun was making a concerted effort to peep through. I was in the ultra zone: pain, yes, but I had my positive vibe back. I was moving well and looking up towards the Gatescarth Pass climb knowing that, on all my recce runs, I’d considered the top of that pass as my gateway to the finish line. The route isn’t all downhill from there by any means but, as far as I was concerned, it was certainly pretty straight-forward from there, (if still 30 miles away)!

But now the wind and rain were back in force. It was so dark, so wild, so wet, so bitterly cold – utterly ridiculous to think that we’d started the race at 6pm the day before in sunshine and heat so intense that I spent the entire day hiding away in whatever shade was available.

The next day a running friend of mine described Mardale Head as ‘The Azkaban of the Lake District’ (credit to Warren Moorfield – thanks!) and I think that sums up the situation perfectly. Haweswater isn’t even a ****ing lake! When they flooded that valley and destroyed the village they took away it’s soul – and now I truly felt like a Dementor was sucking the last reserves from my running being. (How ironic that the summer had been so utterly glorious to that point that the ruins of Mardale Village were actually visible?!)

Across the water I could make out a silver VW Touran in the car park. How I wished it was Leanne come to rescue me out of this hell-hole. But I knew it wouldn’t be. I’d shown her the race booklet and it specifically said not to come to Mardale Head – I knew she wouldn’t jeopardise a disqualification for me to come here. There is absolutely no phone signal at Mardale Head so at least I could not retire from the race here. But I was definitely going to ring Leanne when the signal returned (usually at the top of Gatescarth Pass!) and get her to pick me up from Kentmere, less than 7 miles away. I was spent. Done. Finished. Wet. Miserable. And I really wanted a nap!

The 50 mile event runners were passing thick and fast and, to a man/woman, they were unbelievably supportive. As I rounded the waters edge towards the car park a really nice girl, running with a couple of friends, asked how I was going. I told her I wanted to pack it in. She said I was moving far too well to stop and should have a quick cup of soup and definitely not stop at the checkpoint. She actually hung back from her friends and I could tell she was going to make sure I got some food onboard and then drag me out towards the pass herself!

I wasn’t sure how the Checkpoint gazebo in the car park was remaining upright in the maelstrom but, as I dibbed in, I could see why. It was packed with runners all sheltering from the elements – none of them looked like they intended to leave anytime soon! Oh, and the superb, wonderful marshals, many of whom were literally holding the tent in place to stop it disappearing towards the Pennines!

And there, in amongst the steaming, soaking throng, was Rob. Last time I saw him he was running out of the previous checkpoint at Howtown as I was going in. Despite the utter monsoon conditions at Howtown, Rob finally looked to be going well and I was hoping not to see him again, in terms of hoping he was going well enough to finally run away from me. But here he was. The 50 mile race girl who was going to bully me into keeping going looked very disappointed. She could see how this conversation was going to go. (Thank you whoever you are, if you happen to read this!)

“How’re you feeling mate?” Rob asked with a clearly sunken tone to his voice.

“Utterly ****!” was my reply.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

I told him of my plan to get some soup, wait for the rain to pass, then set off on the next stage to Kentmere and ring Leanne as soon as there was a signal so that she would pick me up from there.

Rob was injured though, plus he had struggled from the start with stomach issues meaning he couldn’t really eat. He wasn’t fuelled, the injury had flared and he was dropping out there and then.

“So what are you going to do?” he asked again.

“Mate, I’m not waiting ’til half ten for the pick-up bus. There’s no signal here to ring Leanne to come and get us.”

“That guy over there has a satellite phone. We can ring now for someone to pick us up.”

“Really? OK then, I’m out too.”

And that was it. As simple as that. DNF.

The brilliant, ever-supportive marshal cut off our timing chips and removed checkpoint dabbers, snacks and warm drinks were provided while we dozed in the drop-out bus and waited for Leanne to arrive. Consolation was gained from the fact that, in the 90 minutes we sat at Azkaban waiting for Leanne, the biblical wind and rain did not let up once.

Hot showers, hot food and a warm, comfy bed were provided for us in our cozy base-camp cottage back at Coniston by our fantastic wives and children when, by rights, we should have been outside battling the elements in the second night on the fells with the other legends.

But we weren’t.

The legends were…

In The Night Garden – Coniston to Braithwaite (0 – 33 miles)

We departed the John Ruskin School in Coniston at 6pm the previous evening, at the end of a breathless, sweltering day typical of this summer. The aim: 105 miles in a circular tour of the entire Lake District, finishing back where we started within a 40 hour cut-off period. To say the start of the race was an experience is somewhat of an understatement: massed ranks of runners, even greater numbers of supporters, Nessun Dorma live, a countdown led by brave little Jacob Willett, then finally the run through the supporter lined village was like nothing I have experienced before – the UTLD is truly like the UTMB!

 

Rob and I had a loose plan to stick together to Braithwaite (33 miles) at least. That would get us both through the first night, get us past a couple of tricky navigation spots in the dark and also get us through the toughest stages of the race (excusing Fusedale).

The plan pretty much worked too. There were numerous highlights during that first night: the cooler conditons, the support of the volunteers at each and every checkpoint, spending a good bit of time with Chris Kay (who we would generally overtake uphill before he sprang back past us like a newly born lamb on the descents!), the first clicking on of the headtorches as we headed for the descent into Wasdale, the incredible string of lights we could see as we climbed Black Sail Pass and looked back beyond Wasdale. The weather also played it’s part to a certain extent; there were numerous short, sharp showers but it remained largely pleasant temperature wise and the only slight frustration was the putting on and removing of waterproof jackets – they were needed in the showers but it was way too warm to run in them when it wasn’t raining. We climbed strongly, descended sensibly, navigated perfectly and could generally be very pleased with our start.

On the negative side, Rob’s digestive system had decided it wasn’t going to play at ultra running this weekend and he soon found himself making mad dashes for toilets or, more regularly, secluded spots off the trail to try and alleviate the issue (ahem). I will elaborate on the pros and cons of running with a good friend later, so for the time being this will sound selfish – it gets you down a bit when you feel great and are loving the experience to listen to someone else go on about what a miserable time they are having! (See, I told you it would sound selfish!)

However, we duly arrived at Braithwaite over an hour ahead of my rough schedule and feeling strong. I duly stuffed myself with just about every type of food available in the village hall while Rob sat in a little room nearby trying to empty his stomach (again!).

Summer? What Summer? – Braithwaite to Dalemain Estate (33 – 59 miles)

We departed for the middle third of the route feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. It was still dark for a start which meant we were doing better than expected. Unfortunately the route out of Braithwaite follows the main A66 road, only for a couple of miles but, having just filled my face so comprehensively, my body reacted in the way it often does after a feed – it was nap time! Before I knew it I was falling asleep mid-stride. As the path left the road and hit a wooded section, Rob’s rhythmic steps ahead in my head torch light had the same effect as sheep jumping over a gate. If Rob’s achilles heel is his bowels, then mine is my total inability to remain conscious at important moments!

As we completed the climb into Latrigg car park and the light of a new day finally broke, I was reaching a mini crisis point. The path at that point affords a beautiful view as it winds round the valley head, but I was falling off the path as I continually dropped to sleep. Desperate measures were called for – it was time for me to take some PETs – Performance Enhancing Tunes! I will elaborate more on this later but, suffice to say, they had the desired effect and I was soon fully rejuvenated and running again. In fact, I clean ran away from Rob at this point (unheard of!) and fairly skipped into the Blencathra checkpoint. Rob soon arrived and made full use of the facilities (his stomach still not settled) and we were soon on our way again.

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A rare photo en route, looking down towards Derwent Water from above the Blencathra Centre checkpoint (approx 40 miles into the race). Fuelled by my PET’s!

At this point (about 6am) the conditions were absolutely perfect. The forecast morning rains had not come and the weather was overcast and cool – perfect for the job in hand. Unfortunately this was not to last…

As we climbed onto the Old Coach Road, Rob and I were together again. I was sleepy tired but strong, my only issue being an increasingly severe bit of nappy rash caused by wet shorts from the night rain. Rob was managing his difficulties and moving well despite total lack of fuel intake. The sky was darkening by the minute when my watch beeped to let me know it was running short of battery.

I tell this next story just to give you an idea of how my sleep deprivation issue manifests itself. Bear in mind I’d only missed one night’s sleep – no great deal in the general scheme of things. All I needed to do was fix my watch to it’s charge lead and fix the lead to my little battery pack. No problem. The problem was I did this with my running backpack off and then, when I put my pack back on, I found myself completely tangled up. Bugger. Untangle myself and start again. But could I work out how to attach everything without tying myself in knots? Hell no! It must have taken ten frustrating minutes of watching Rob disappear into the distance and a steady stream of runners trickle past before I finally found myself fully dressed with watch charging.

So what happened straight away after this debacle? The heavens absolutely opened. Now I had to remove my back pack again and get out the waterproof jacket and put it on, working out how to fit the watch lead through my sleeve to prevent it getting wet, linked to the battery pack in my back pack. This was a task too far for my tired brain and I was nearly crying by the time I finally sorted myself out. I don’t know how much time I wasted but I suspect you could at least double the ten minutes I’d wasted the first time around. I didn’t see Rob for the best part of 10 miles from here and I was moving better than him at that point as his struggles continued. Fortunately Chris Kay caught me up during my battery lead struggles and I think that distracted me from another potential mental low point as we chatted about the route and the weather.

The checkpoint at Dockray (49 miles) is a little gazebo affair and it didn’t take many runners to fill it to sweaty bursting point in such atrocious weather conditions. However, in stark contrast to Mardale Head later on, I used this as a positive. All the runners looked shattered and fed up, so why waste my time here where it’s so uncomfortable? So I grabbed a couple of quick cups of soup, a handful of sandwiches, and headed straight back out into the wild weather, very content with myself for overtaking all those gazebo bound runners in one fell swoop!

And the good vibes continued as the weather worsened. It was absolutely hammering down now but still reasonably warm once off the exposed Coach Road. I was moving really well and knew I was going to reach Dalemain well before the 50 runners set off – a main objective of mine. It was a shame that the weather spoiled the magnificent views of Ullswater at this point but I was too focused on making progress to care – I’d done my view gazing on the recce run. It just shows how much of ultra running is in the mind that a stage that I thought I would find tough was one that I was cruising on, despite horrible weather.

I caught Rob again with about four miles to Dalemain. The weather pendulum swung again and suddenly it was warm and sunny. As we hit the road to Dalemain, quick phone calls to wives were made to confirm that they were indeed at Dalemain to see us. We were both tired but happy with how it was going. It was amazing to think we had been moving 17 hours – it didn’t feel like it. But I think we both felt, prematurely, that the race was there for the taking. (Certainly, if you’d told me at that point that neither of us would finish, I would have laughed at you.)

Entering Dalemain at 11.15am was another amazing highlight of the race. With all the 50 competitors preparing to start, along with all their supporters, we genuinely felt like famous athletes as we were given a huge ovation passing through the estate. The incredible support of the 50 runners would become a feature of the rest of the day. Unfortunately our families missed our entrance! They were at Dalemain but the Leannes (Rob’s wife is also a Leanne!) were still organising getting all the children out of the cars in the car park – we thought they were there and waiting for us! I only mention this as it may go some way to explaining the bizarre next 45 minutes or so…

The Wheels Fall Spectacularly Off – Dalemain Estate CP (59 miles)

Pre-race, I had planned to make a little laminated list of jobs I had to do at Dalemain so that I wouldn’t forget any or have to worry about it when I was tired. How I regretted not doing this now as, in the checkpoint, my race suddenly began to unravel.

The weather was lovely at this point, but there was quite a breeze blowing through the marquee. As soon as I stopped moving I felt cold. All the seats were taken so I wandered aimlessly for a few minutes. The main thing occupying my brain though was Leanne and the kids. She said they were there; why hadn’t I seen them? When they arrived outside the tent and we realised what had happened, I was irrationally gutted. The girls would have been so proud seeing their Dad come through the estate to such a rousing reception – I couldn’t believe they’d missed it.

Then there was the ‘no outside support’ rule issue. I didn’t want help, but I did want to sit with the family and chat. Instead I felt like I was stuck inside the CP and they were stuck outside. They’d driven for an hour to watch me sit in a tent.

I knew I needed to change into my dry kit but I’d got the shivers and didn’t want to take off the clothes I had on. I had a couple of cups of tea to try and warm me up but I suddenly couldn’t be bothered to eat (not an issue I ever usually experience in my life!) I desperately tried to remember what jobs I needed to do (eg. charge my watch and phone, replace gels and snacks, replace electrolyte tablets etc.) Leanne peered round the tent, clearly looking concerned, and gave me exactly the pep talk I needed.

“Get your stuff sorted. You need to get back out there.”

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“Where are my wheels? They appear to have come off?!” Trying to mentally sort myself out in the CP at Dalemain.

One moment of genius I had had on Friday was to pack a thermal, long-sleeved base layer in my dropbag. It seemed ridiculous to pack a winter base layer in the sauna like conditions of Friday; it didn’t seem much more sensible to decide to wear it in the Dalemain sunshine but, not long after, it proved utterly invaluable.

I received blatant outside assistance in getting Leanne to hold a towel round me while I changed my shorts! (If this does indeed break the rules, I will just get my chafed nuts and bolts out for the masses next year!) I made another mistake here which also required outside assistance. My nappy rash was pretty intense at this point (I must buy some of that body glide for future races) so I applied masses of Vaseline which I hoped, with dry shorts, would at least help for a little bit. (I had some proper chafing cream but it had made absolutely no difference.) The only problem was I then promptly left the Vaseline on the chair and Leanne had to deliver it to me in a mercy dash to Pooley Bridge later!

Getting changed felt so difficult. At that moment everything felt difficult. Rob had sorted himself and hit the trail. Chris Kay had checked in and out again. The 50 race had begun, four mile Dalemain loop completed, and now the runners were steaming back past the CP on their fit, fresh way! All my friends taking part in that race, who I hoped would be able to give me some energy as they passed me in the afternoon, were already passing me while I stood there! I put my head on Leanne’s shoulder and told her I wanted to get in the car with her and the kids.

How had it come to this?! Less than an hour ago I had skipped into Dalemain on the crest of a wave, utterly confident and feeling strong. 45 minutes later I was still there and wanting to pack it all in?

Leanne was utterly amazing at this point. Sympathetic wife to the rescue? Absolutely not! A good old fashioned b******ing was required, and that is what I got!

“There is no way you have trained so hard and planned all this to jump in the car now and just give up. So get your **** together and get out down that path right now before I kick you down it myself!”

She was absolutely right, obviously. I didn’t agree with her at the time, but somewhere deep in my soul something stirred, and within a couple of minutes I was waddling, John Wayne stylee, on my way to Pooley Bridge and Howtown.

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Putting on a brave face (and a winter long sleeved base layer in the sun!) after being given a good telling off by the missus! (Notice the 50 runners streaming past in the background!) On my way to Pooley Bridge…

Back On The Horse, Into The Broom Wagon – Dalemain Estate to Mardale Head (59 – 75 miles)

I must have cut a forlorn figure as I waddled, at a ridiculously slow pace, out of Dalemain roughly an hour after I arrived. I genuinely thought my bottom was going to rip apart it was so sore, (is that enough information for you?!) Straight away though, the 50 runners provided a source of energy and inspiration. I know some 100ers tire of the ‘keep going’ comments from the other runners, but I am not one of them. Thank you to everyone who passed me and either showed concern or just told me to dig in, I really appreciated them all.

But, and this is what I need to drill into my consciousness for next year (or any other event for that matter), those feelings of desolation pass. By the time I reached Pooley Bridge (which did take quite a while, granted) I was fully back on the horse. Your brain admits defeat and just decides to stop sending the pain messages from bottom and/or legs:

(Subconscious brain chatter) ‘OK rest of body, I can clearly see you are not going to listen to any of my messages of sanity, so I’m just going to sit up here in your head and say nothing until such a moment as you decide to start behaving like a rational, sensible human body again.’

As soon as the path struck uphill out of Pooley Bridge, I began to re-pass some of the 50 runners who had overtaken me on the flatlands below. I climbed reasonably well to the crest of Askham Fell and had some pleasant conversations with several runners (including one in depth Wolverhampton Wanderers chat in honour of my in-laws with an accent I recognised!)

My newly recovered positivity, and that of all the fresh faced 50ers too, was about to receive its sternest challenge to date though. The weather was about to come to play, and this time it wasn’t going to mess about.

The rain had started climbing out of Pooley Bridge, but nothing too serious. But descending to the Howtown CP it got darker and darker; the rain fell heavier and heavier. By the time I hit tarmac and turned steeply downhill for the checkpoint, it was an absolute deluge.

It was at this point that Rob and I crossed paths again – him climbing up out of Howtown as I dropped in. As mentioned earlier, he was looking better than he’d looked at any point in the race. He is naturally much quicker than me, so he checked on me (initially mistaking my wave for an ‘I’m out of here’ surrender signal!) and I wished him good luck as I genuinely did not expect to see him again until the finish line.

I dropped into my favourite CP venue in any Lake District race, the Howtown Bobbin Mill. (If I’d had a kayak at this point, I’d have got in even quicker!) It is a fantastic little building; packed with olde-worlde Lakeland character. I love it in there. On this occasion it provided a momentary break from the monsoon. Again though, in stark contrast as to what was to come at Mardale Head, I used a potential negative moment to my advantage. (ie. it’s terrible weather outside, everyone in here looks miserable, I will too if I stay too long, so I’m going to grab a hot drink, a quick snack, and get back out of here before I get comfy and never leave myself!)

Another boost here was seeing Julie Lavery who was on CP dibber duty. Seeing her stood still in those conditions actually made me realise that she had a worse job than me! At least I got to move about to keep warm! Unfortunately she told me that her husband, Matthew, had had to retire injured earlier in the day meaning I was the only Shevington Vale Primary School parent now out on course – so I definitely had to finish!

Again, it was just the little pep talk I needed and I struck out into the wild, determined to knock off the infamous Fusedale climb.

To give you some indication of the wind and rain at this point, as I climbed into the valley bottom and the initial part of the climb came into view, there were several competitors making their way back off the course and back down to the checkpoint! And not just one or two either – quite a lot! I don’t think I have ever seen that before in any race. Fusedale has acquired a bit of a fearsome reputation on this race, granted, but I was still taken aback and to be honest, selfishly, it gave me a little boost. (‘All these people turning round while I tough it out – what a #legend I am!’ Pride before a fall and all that…)

Conditions were appalling, but I was still in the zone. Plus I was definitely feeling the benefit of the winter base layer, without which I think I would have been freezing. I can’t honestly say I felt positive, it was too miserable, but I was resigned to my fate and was determined to slog out the climb. Just keep moving and keep positive. And that is what happened. The wind and rain did not let up for one second, but at least the wind was predominantly behind us! An hour later I crested the summit with a satisfied, self-congratulatory pat on the back and even managed to run most of the grassy descent to the little trig point which marks the beginning of the steeper, more technical descent to Haweswater. (Including a slap-stick, Benny Hill moment with a poor fellow 100 running female competitor desperately trying to find a quiet spot for a wee!)

The descent was tricky; in parts very thin and hidden by bracken. But I made it onto the Haweswater path in one piece. This section of path is not my favourite. The contours on the map indicate that it should be a decent running path but, in reality, it is quite undulating and very technical in places, meaning you just can’t get into your stride.

I was in a really good place though. Sure, everything hurt by now, and a brief hailstorm tried to dampen my positive vibe, but soon after, unbelievably, the sun came out! Yes, it really did! It is amazing what a difference it makes! I actually stopped and took my rain jacket off as, in my long sleeved top, I was quickly overheating.

I was constantly doing little mental checklists between chats with the stream of 50 runners: yes my legs were aching but that was to be expected after 70 odd miles. I was moving strongly, my feet were perfect – not a blister feeling to be had, my chafing was bad but tolerable.

In summary (and I distinctly remember thinking this) if I could have pre-booked feeling this good at this stage of the race before it began, I would definitely have taken it.

I could now see Gatescarth Pass up ahead – my mental gateway to the finish line. Unlike many other runners I spoke to, I like the climb; it’s a decent path with a consistent (if steep) gradient, meaning you can get into a rhythm and just churn it out. Probably only 30 minutes or so of effort with the great reward of a long descent off the other side.

The huge clap of thunder was the first harbinger of doom.

I only heard one clap of thunder all day (the storm was forecast so I was nervously looking out for it) but it was so loud and so prolonged that it seemed to shake the mountainside. (Runners up ahead told of one lightning strike hitting very close to the path.) Suddenly the wind began to howl, into our faces at this point, and everything got very dark and very wet very quickly. Waterproof back on; suddenly it was like we were in a different world. Azkaban indeed…

You know the rest. I think it took less than half an hour to mentally break down from ‘I have totally got this’ to ‘Here’s how I’m going to drop out’. There was no injury (for me), no illness, no blister disasters, no genuine, singular excuse. I was just done.

Post Race Conclusions.

It’s three weeks to the day since the race and I’ve carried a notebook around with me ever since, noting odd thoughts as they have come to me. It’s important to point out that these are not excuses; as I have already stated, everyone else experienced the same conditions and discomfort. What I am trying to do is pinpoint what made this race so different for me to my other races – why did that iron will to finish evaporate?

So, in no particular order…

1 – I’m not as mentally strong as I thought I was. For the first time ever, I actually WANTED to drop out.

I’ve said it many times in many blogs, ultra running is mostly in your head. With the exception of actual physical injury, everyone reaches a certain point in an ultra race where you are really tired and hurting. Obviously, this point comes at different stages dependent on your ability, but what I am saying is that, once you reach that point, what keeps you going is your mental fitness. If you can remain positive as things start to unravel, and retain that steely resolve to complete the job in hand, you will finish. If you think about the pain and suffering, or the magnitude of what you are doing, then you will be quickly overwhelmed.

If I look back at other races where I have hit crisis point, never once did I consider dropping out as an option. In the Robin Hood 100, I comatosely staggered the last 16 miles in the dark, in the Ultimate Trails 110k of 2016 I walked in the last 15 miles when I realised I was spent. But I never wanted to stop.

Even in this actual race, I had a few points where it would have been easy to stop. At both the Dockray and Howtown CPs there were a lot of sorry sights but, if anything, they spurred me on. I wasn’t going to be one of them. But twice – at both Dalemain and, ultimately, at Mardale Head, I wanted to stop with every fibre of my being. I was mentally ready for the fight – what I wasn’t mentally ready for was the fight being against myself.

If Leanne had been at Mardale I don’t think there is any chance she would have let me retire, and a good talking to from her would have worked too. Infact, she drove to Mardale to tell me to carry on and was quite disappointed to learn we had already handed in our trackers and dibbers!

In future, I definitely need to try and remember Dalemain – how I felt like stopping but how, once I got going again, I felt fine(ish)! I am not as mentally strong as I thought, so I need to work on that more.

2 – I never seriously expected to not finish – I’m a statistic!

“Be a #legend, not a statistic!”

So said one of the 50 runners passing me when I told them I was sulking! What a great phrase it is!

In my pre-race blog, I told you all about how, mathematically, I shouldn’t finish the race. There is a 45% drop out race across the 10 year history of the event. I told you how I didn’t feel I was in the top 55% of the entry field and how, therefore, I would have to beat the odds to finish.

Did this knowledge make a DNF more acceptable to me in my subconscious, because I knew it was going to be so hard? In all honesty I genuinely do not know the answer. What I can say is that, when I typed it, I told you it not because I thought I wouldn’t finish, I told you it to make sure you knew how hard the race was!

I totally expected to finish. There were a lot of scenarios in my head pre-race for what might happen, but not one of them involved a DNF. It would take an injury or getting timed out to stop me, I said.

But, in actual fact, the opposite happened.

Just for the record, the completion rate for this year was 51%! One of the lowest ever! So I certainly wasn’t alone in failing. In fact, the stats show that I was actually going really well when I dropped out and was having a good race in general. Most people who retired dropped out before Mardale and the largest drop out point was, in fact, Mardale. The majority of people who left Mardale reached the finish. So I certainly was not alone in the way the race transpired and can be reasonably pleased with my efforts – but only to the point of acceptance that I still failed.

I think the fact that so many people did retire at Mardale leads nicely to my next point.

3 – The Weather!

This is not an excuse! You cannot enter a race in the Lake District and not expect variable weather conditions! If you don’t want to get wet, don’t go to Cumbria!

But was the weather a factor? Yes it was. In fact I can say pretty much with hand-on-heart that, if the sun had remained out round Haweswater, as it was an hour before I retired, I would have finished. It was the combo of wind and rain that was the final straw mentally, along with the latent threat of lightning.

But which weather is worse – hot or cold? Wet or dry? If the race had been run on the Friday it would have been murder in that heat. I could barely go outside on Friday, never mind run 105 miles! So the wind and rain was grim, but be careful what you wish for!

I’ll enter many Lake District races in the future, including this one (I hope). Weather comes with the territory. Next year the weather conditions may be perfect, but if it has been wet in the build-up then the footpaths will be immeasurably wetter. I have read lots of blogs and all comment on how easy the going was underfoot this year. I also heard many tales of trench foot from previous years in the wet, boggy conditions! This year the trail conditions were perfect, so I certainly cannot complain about the weather conditions. After all, the true #legends dealt with it.

4 – There’s no shame in a DNF, but should I be angrier?!

DNF – did nothing foolish.

I have heard a few such comments and certainly the one above rang a little bell for me. I could feel the wheels coming off, I was starting to worry about what finishing this race may cost me physically, I was certainly concerned about the threat of lightning if I headed up Gatescarth. So ultimately I have been comfortable with my decision to retire and have not beaten myself up too much about it.

Most other runners who DNF do beat themselves up though, Rob certainly has. Hence our joint decision to hit the internet on the 1st September and try to enter again!

So, should I feel more angry about my lack of resolve? Should I be beating myself up more? Should I be using that anger and disappointment to fuel a concerted bid to succeed next year?

I am genuinely quite perplexed that I’m not too disappointed. I think, by nature, I tend not to dwell on things. That is how I manage to retain a positive outlook on life. I don’t let negatives get me down and I look forward rather than back. I’ve made myself critically analyse this race not out of anger, but just to try and improve myself. I think in general this attitude stands me in good stead in life.

So am I angry or frustrated beyond belief at not finishing? No. If anything, it’s the opposite; a small part of me is angry that I’m not angrier! Shouldn’t I be angry about failure??!!

5 – Being a parent makes you soft!

Wow, family was definitely a factor in this one. Usually it is in the positive sense, as in how pleased and proud Leanne and the girls will be to see me run well. I was certainly really upset that they missed our entrance into Dalemain. I’m not sure what happened at Dalemain after that; I’m usually so pleased to see them that it gives me a real boost. This time, however, when I went into my slump I think I was worried that the girls might be worried about me.

Fortunately, Leanne was there to save the day and I think I left Dalemain without the children really noticing that I’d been in a bit of distress.

However, when things started to unravel around Haweswater, I was definitely thinking about Leanne and the girls. What if I was the unlucky sod who got struck by lightning? What if I got in a real hyperthermic mess on the hills and got carted off to hospital? What if I finished in such a terrible state that I was unable to go home and pack the camping stuff in the next couple of days, meaning the children miss the start of their holiday?

All this is nonsense really, but it was definitely on my mind. If I get in the race next year we will definitely make sure there is a full week before any holiday is booked so that my stupid running hobby does not impact on potential holidays for the children!

6 – I’m still rubbish if I miss sleep!

I don’t know how many naps I have had in our 2 week holiday in Cornwall, but it must average out at more than one a day! I could definitely be Spanish – I’m more than happy to get up early, stay up late but have a siesta in the middle! Unfortunately, this is not much use once the ultra event of choice includes a night section.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love night running; it’s my favourite part of any event in which it is included. It’s just I get really sleepy once I hit the 24 hours awake mark. I expected to get tired in the LL100, but I didn’t expect it to be at dawn after the first night! Maybe the roasting hot Friday played a part – it was certainly difficult to relax in the heat.

If the race was a 6am start and not 6pm, I would be in a much stronger position. Two days and one night would suit me much better than two nights and one day. But obviously that isn’t the case in this event so I have to try and adapt better and, whilst I can’t alter the fact that I get sleepy, hopefully I can minimise the effect.

Leanne and I have already decided that, should I get in the race next year, we will get up there on Thursday to allow as much time for sleep in the 24 hours prior to the race as possible.

7 – Think one stage at a time, not about the finish line. (Basic, simple ultra running rule no1!)

Yes, it’s obvious. But I definitely dropped the baton in this regard when things finally went pear shaped around Haweswater. I would say, to that point, I had never thought about the finish line and had very strictly worked on the ‘get to the next checkpoint’ mantra.

So why did I stop doing that at Mardale? The answer seems pretty obvious to me now. Throughout the training/recce phase I always said that, if I got to Mardale Head, there is no way I wasn’t going to finish. Get some fuel on board, get up Gatescarth, then get to the finish. Once the wind and rain came down near the checkpoint, I couldn’t think past the fact that I still had 30 miles to go, it was going to get dark in about three hours, the weather was horrible and I was going to die either of hyperthermia or lightning strike!!!

If I had just thought, ‘Walk up Gatescarth and coast downhill to Kentmere, it’s only 10k away’ it might have eased my mental state. Let’s not forget that I thought I was going to have to do it anyway, as I had no idea about Rob and I had no intention of dropping out at Mardale Head. But I was thinking way past Kentmere, hence my distorted ‘must drop out asap’ mentality.

Unfortunately, I used the exact correct mental strategy at Dockray and Howtown but wasn’t able to replicate it at Mardale, predominantly because of weather conditions but also due to thinking too much about the end game. Lesson learned.

8 – Running with someone else – easier or harder?

This is a contentious one as Rob is clearly a good friend of mine and I really enjoy both training together and racing together with him. Plus our families are a great support team for each other and us!

I think we had a pretty decent plan this year and, once we’d got to Braithwaite, didn’t necessarily stick together like glue. The problem basically lies in the fact that, if we are running together, that is not a good thing for Rob, as it generally means he is not having a good race! He is quicker than me and so, all things being equal, he should be ahead of me. I am more than happy not to see him in a race as it means he is going really well and, as a result, I can focus on me and be inspired to get as close to his time as possible.

In the case of this race, things were going well for me and badly for him and it was difficult to keep my positive vibe going when he was in the pits of despair. As before, this sounds selfish, but you cannot afford to have anyone putting negative thoughts into your head – it’s hard enough when it’s going well!

Then there is the thorny issue of the end game. Personally I don’t blame Rob for me dropping out at all; I was more than ready to drop out and was very happy and relieved to do so. But I wouldn’t have dropped out at Mardale as I didn’t think we could, so I would definitely have gone to Kentmere where, who knows, I may have got a second wind.

Conversely, I’m pretty much certain Rob wouldn’t have dropped out if I hadn’t arrived when I did and said I was spent. If I had turned up at Mardale and told Rob I felt great, he admits that pride would have forced him to carry on. If I hadn’t arrived at all I think he would have carried on out of sheer bloody mindedness – he wouldn’t have wanted to drop out thinking that I may be carrying on!

In summary, we both made it very easy for both of us to drop out! There was comfort in knowing we’d both achieved the same thing and could look each other in the eye. If either one of us was capable of saying to the other ‘Get your arse in gear and let’s get going!’ then the situation would have been very different. As it transpired, we both gave each other the easy option and accepted it with open arms!!!

One year, I would love to do the event as an actual pairs team with Rob. As I said before, I really enjoy running with him and I think we would work well as a real team. But first we have to prove to ourselves that we can actually complete the event as individuals. In a perfect scenario I don’t see Rob in a race at all, because he is up the road going really well!!!

9 – I don’t need to beat myself up about training! Train sensibly, train smart, train on course whenever possible. But get to the event fit and injury free.

I touched on this in my pre-race blog. Due to family and work circumstances, I have done less miles this calendar year than in any of the previous three years – since I began ultra running, in fact. I have still not quite reached 1000 miles for 2018, for example. This was a constant source of worry and frustration to me, as I felt mentally like I had to be fitter and faster than ever to compete in LL100 and that I should have done more miles than ever before.

Ultimately this wasn’t the case at all. Of all the problems I encountered on race day, fitness was not one of them. Aside from chafing, I had no injuries, no blisters and my legs were still moving me along just fine when I dropped out. I did not do huge mileage, but we recced the course really well and got some really good long runs (and races) in during the build-up.

Baby Lottie is getting older and both Leanne and I have a change of role at school next year (both becoming Deputy Headteachers at our respective schools). Whilst the pressure of work will undoubtedly ramp up, I am hoping I can manage my time better (in terms of work/life balance) in the coming 12 months. I do not intend to massively ramp up my running as that would be hugely unfair on Leanne (more later) but I can definitely do better and I can DEFINITELY introduce core training!!!

10 – I’m not scared of the course anymore. I know I have the capability to complete the route.

This sounds a little silly/arrogant coming from someone who has just failed to do exactly that! But what I mean is, before race day, I was scared of even making it to Braithwaite!!! Our recce run from Coniston to Braithwaite on bank holiday weekend was so epically long, hard and hot that I couldn’t really conceive any idea of how we could possibly get further than there!

But obviously, when it is race day (or night for that section) you are thinking of the long game and getting to Braithwaite seemed little more than the opening warm-up to the big event. This calmed me massively and, as I have mentioned, for most of the race day I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I didn’t finish.

I think I learned that I am in that group of runners who can/will complete a Lakeland 100, but I probably need that little bit of luck to break the seal – as opposed to the top level ultra folk who complete all these things whatever conditions/scenarios are thrown at them.

11 – Would looking at my phone have helped? (#lovelivetracker!)

In the build-up to the race I put the link for the tracker on Facebook and Twitter and told family and friends about it. I have a special hashtag that I use when watching other people via live trackers (#lovelivetracker) but really, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was just for nerds.

Or so I thought….!

In the days after the race I was completely blown away by the number of people who told me they’d been following the tracker. Indeed, they’d been absolutely engrossed with it! (Just as I am now watching lots of friends cross Scotland tonight on the UGB200 race!)

The number of messages posted on social media during the event was totally unbelievable. I didn’t really think anyone other than my nearest and dearest would give a monkey’s how I was doing. I had no idea during the race as, having felt I spent a bit too much time during ultra races on my phone in previous years, I have made a conscious decision not to use my phone at all during races this year.

But the question has to be asked: had I known just how many people were watching and cheering me on during the event in real time, would it have spurred me on to not give up quite so easily? Would the sheer will power of family and friends, plus that little shove of peer pressure, been enough to get me out of Mardale Head car park?

I think it probably would have been! I think sheer vanity might have driven me on! I’m not saying I plan on hitting social media again in future ultras because, to be honest, I have done much better in nearly all my races this year by focusing on the job in hand and not wondering where I might do my next Facebook Live! But, maybe getting out my phone and reading a few messages in CPs from now on might just spur me on a bit in times of crisis. We’ll see.

12 – Music truly is a PED! (ie cheating!)

In terms of running I am, at heart, an old fuddy-duddy. I’m a cross-country, short shorts kind of guy. As such, I don’t like the headphone brigade. I don’t mean for training or just ‘popping out for a run’. If it’s music that gets you out of the door and gets you fitter then I’m all for it. That being said, I don’t like Leanne going out for a run wearing headphones because I think your hearing is quite an important sense in terms of personal safety and self preservation when out running the streets.

Personally, I started running to literally escape from noise. Classrooms are claustrophobic places to work in and, once you add children to your household, home life can sometimes feel the same. I have always enjoyed the peace and solitude of running in the countryside and actively seek quiet places to run so that I can enjoy the sound of nature around me. It reminds me that the stresses of the daily grind aren’t always as important as you think they are and that nature is, and will always, be there. (Unless you think The Lorax is a true story, obviously.)

But, in terms of races, I’m dead against headphones. For safety, for organisation, and because, in my heart-of-hearts, I think it’s cheating. Running should be you against the road/trail/elements. If you feel tired – good, that’s the idea. Dig deep and find the will to win. Sticking ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on your playlist to get you going is outside assistance. If you need ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to get you going, just start singing it to yourself!

However………………… every-bloody-body seems to do it these days, and I have long wondered if my ‘music on the run’ theory was old-fuddy-duddy stuff or if there was some truth to it. So, literally the week of the race, I purchased my first ever pair of wireless sports headphones, just a cheap pair, synched them to my iPod and stuck them both in my bag for the race, just incase the opportunity presented itself.

And as the more observant of you will remember (from about 500 paragraphs ago) the opportunity did present itself. Morning had broken above Keswick, breakfast consumed, eyes suddenly not open enough to see where I was going, quiet footpath with no-one around (except Rob; he doesn’t count): let’s see if music can wake me up?!

And bloody hell, did it ever! I’ve no idea what songs I listened to; I had a 100 mile playlist pre-made but I put it on shuffle deliberately. But the effect was instant! Within five minutes I was wide awake, alert, and running again whilst singing away to myself.

This confirmed two things to me immediately:

  1. Music is definitely cheating! Anything that makes you feel that good, that quick, should not be allowed in a race!
  2. I will DEFINITELY be using this again in future ultras to pick me up in times of need!

I still don’t think I would listen to music from the start as others do. I think I will keep it for times of need as I think it will have the most impact for me that way.

For the more observant of you one more obvious question may have been raised: if it made me feel so good why didn’t I use music around Haweswater? Well, the simple answer is that the weather was so bad at that point that I didn’t want to start fishing around in my bag for electrical equipment! By then my phone, iPod, charge packs etc were in about 5 sandwich bags surrounded by my other kit to keep them dry! I will have to check if my earphones are water resistant before my next race!

Thank You Lakeland Family!

Before I look to my running future and close out another epically long blog (sorry!) it would be entirely remiss of me not to say thank you to every single person in the self-styled ‘Lakeland family’. From the point of entry to my point of withdrawal, it was the most professional, minutiously organised event I have ever participated in.

At first I found the rules a little prescriptive, but I grew to love it and most races I do could learn a lot from it: no excuses, no shortcuts, no exceptions – these are our rules. If you don’t like it, don’t enter and don’t turn up!

I loved ringleader (see what I did there?!) Marc Laithwaite’s honest and, at times, caustic, response to rules enquiries. I even fell foul of it myself once when I inadvertently opened the ‘two cups’ can of worms debate on Facebook and he threatened (jokingly – I think!) to throw me out of the race!!!

I loved the roadbook and the map. What a great idea! Don’t mark the course for people, it’s time consuming and then some ****end goes and nicks the signs/tape anyway. Give everyone a book of written route details (loads easier to follow than a map – and I love maps!), make it free to download, and let everyone find their own way! Brilliant!

But the beauty of clear and concise rules and instruction is you know exactly what you are going to get on raceday. And what we got was exactly what we were told we would get. An unbelievable Race Headquarters, superb, dedicated and enthusiastic marshals and a feeling of camaraderie that made what is a very big race feel like a very small race.

The 100 and 50 events fitted together seamlessly and neither race was made to feel bigger or smaller than the other one. Everyone was in it together. The support I got from the 50 runners was amazing and I did my best, energy permitting, to reciprocate.

I tried to do my bit for the Lakeland family when a lad from Cornwall posted on Facebook to say he’d forgotten to pick up his drop bag before his journey home. I got in touch with him as we were travelling to Cornwall that week, and exactly a week after we started the race, we met on Pentewan Beach to hand the stinking bag of rotting clothes and trainers back to him! (Maybe we should have opened it and washed his stuff first, but we were busy packing the camping gear!)

In fact, my only gripe about the whole thing is the finishers t-shirt! I bloody loved that t-shirt and I would bloody love to have one! I never considered them as finishers t-shirts before as I have always finished! But I never really comprehended that you would only get a t-shirt if you crossed the finish line until the day after – when I didn’t cross the finish line!

But hey-ho, them’s the rules and, as Marc himself said, if you don’t like the rules – don’t enter (or just make sure you finish the bloody race!)

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And here’s what I could have won! What a bloody great t-shirt! I bet that, if I ever do finish the race, it will be a really crap colour and not a brilliant one like this!

Finally (Phew!) What’s Next?

To be honest, I don’t really know. I’m at a bit of a running crossroads to be honest. My pace has gone west with the endurance training so I’m going to work on that a little bit, although I’m still not really interested in entering a road race.

One thing I can say with certainty is that there will be no more ultras until 2019. Leanne deserves to have me not clearing off out of the house for 4 hours, or an entire weekend, at a time, for at least the time being. I’ll probably help out at the Wigan 10k on a water station, I’m definitely helping out at GB Ultras Snowdon Ultra event, and I’m actually the 50 minute pacer for the English Half Marathon 10k event in Warrington in a few weeks. I’ve never paced before and I’m really looking forward to it. In fact, I’ll need to do a little bit of speedwork to ensure I can get the pacing right!

We have entered the Lakeland Trails Autumn series as a family so will enjoy our days out there. Ironically the very path on which I tried out my earphones for the first time is the exact same path as the Lakeland Trails Keswick 15k route! (Albeit in the other direction!)

I’ll probably do a few club cross countries in the autumn and winter too. I’m not sure whether I will renew my club membership or not next year at the moment; I haven’t been for ages and I haven’t missed it to be honest. The best time for us (as a family) for me to train are either on the way home from work or much later at night. But if I enjoy the cross-countries (they’re the reason I joined in the first place) then I probably will, even if I train by myself.

And what about a Lakeland 100 return, I hear you (not) ask?! Well, my notes in my notebook say it all:

Sunday (24 hours after the race) – Nope. Never again. I said once and I meant once.

Monday (48 hours after the race, sat in our Coniston cottage window, looking down on a now empty John Ruskin field) – That was an epic event, I can see why people return year on year. Not me though.

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John Ruskin Playing Field. Monday morning. (From our cottage window) Did I just dream that event? Where has everyone gone?! Marquee just visible through the trees. (nb notice how lovely the weather is…!)

Tuesday (speaking to Rob for the first time since the event) – I think we have to go back and do it again… (Rob said that btw, I just listened intently…!)

Friday (1 week later, on Pentewan beach) If I had the chance to set off again right now, I’d take it!

Blog writing 3 weeks later – OK let’s do this! Family, if you would please mind not using the wifi for 30 minutes from 9am on 1st September that would be really helpful!

FINALLY FINALLY!

Once again I am totally indebted to my number 1 support crew, my amazing wife Leanne. I genuinely have no idea how she puts up with me at times. If it’s stressful for me it must be stressful for her. And I’ve said many times that it’s more difficult looking after the kids than it is doing the running.

But in this event she was even more than that. I would have kicked myself forever if I’d dropped out at Dalemain. There was nowt wrong with me except for being a bit sleepy! Leanne knew it and knew exactly what to say to get me going again. If she’d been at Mardale there is no way she would have let me drop out and if she’d met me at every CP thereafter finishing would not have been in question. She was/is amazing and I am very lucky to have her there when I need her, (even if she does bully me back out onto the trail!)

Relaxing with my no1 team around Coniston the day after the race.

Right, that is actually that. Thanks for reading. You could probably run the Lakeland 100 yourself in a quicker time than it’s taken you to read that!

See you around – happy running!

Mark (GB Sticks to most of you!)

 

 

 

Aiming to become a #legend on the Lakeland 100.

In three days time I will be starting out on my Ultra Running Holy Grail – the Lakeland 100. I have had this race on a pedestal from the day I first heard of it. In my mind I have long considered it to be the pinnacle of single day (ish!) ultra/trail running in this country, (without taking on crazy scrambles like the Skyline series or multi-day events like The Spine or The Dragon’s Back). Training has been injury free (glass half-full) but inconsistent and erratic (glass half-empty). However, as it has been OVER FIFTEEN MONTHS since I wrote a blog, there is a need to go back to the start to fill in some blanks…

Welcome to the World, Lottie!

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Happy family! (Or the calm before the storm!)

Daughter number 3 (was it ever in doubt?) arrived on 19th April, 2017. Lottie Mary was born on a lovely spring day and, it has to be said, has pretty much been a little bundle of joy ever since. Clearly she is going to be my excuse for everything that has gone wrong with my running since that date but, hey, I live in a house full of girls now so I should be allowed to whinge every now and then!

Clearly, as I have not blogged since, she is now 15 months old and looks like this:

 

Time flies. Literally. I have no idea where this 15 months has gone. I am aware of some of the things that have happened. Other things… not a clue. But what I can say definitively, whatever I may be about to tell you in terms of my running, is that our lives are better with Lottie in them. Our little band of five feels complete (it had bloody better be!)

The 2017 Resolutions.

Mainly shambolic. But for the purposes of honesty and integrity here is a brief review:

1 – Beat the 2017 mileage (1800 miles) – er, no. I was just about on target in April – until Lottie was born. (Baby excuse 1.)

2 – Run a 100 mile race – YES! Yes I did! Details later.

3 – Marshal at a race – YES! Yes, we did! (Leanne and I). We achieved this one with distinction too. Details later.

4 – Take Hannah and Nancy to Parkrun – well technically we did, but I’m only going to claim a 50% pass on this one. We went once in Leicester while visiting friends because they go a lot. But, to be fair, whenever we go to races and there is a kiddies race the girls happily take part, so I do at least feel like I am inspiring them, even if I could do a lot more.

5 – Get St Catharine’s running – no, not really. Need to try harder with this next year.

6 – PB at 100 miles, 50 miles, marathon, half marathon, 10k and 5k – nope. I did the 100 and 50 PBs by virtue of running those distances for the first time! But I have only done one road race in 18 months now, the Wigan half, and that is a hilly course where a PB is not going to happen anyway. I’m disengaged and uninspired by road running at the moment and, even if I wasn’t, the PB pace, fitness and form is way off over some distant horizon.

7 – Update the blog regularly – no answer required. Utter shambles.

8 – Baby buggy run! Yeah baby! Went a little bit belly up in the end, but I did it. Details to follow.

2018 Resolution.

In light of recent failures, I revised my Resolution Strategy for 2018; this year there was only ever going to be one:

1 – Complete the Lakeland 100

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So, with reference to some of the above, let’s take a look at a few highlights since I last bored you with the details. In no real chronological order:

Holiday Running

Holidays continue to be the time I enjoy running the most. Exploring new places and getting up and out there really give me a lift. There were a few new places to try out this year; Lottie has been truly blessed to travel to so many different places for mini-breaks in her first year. In no particular order: Woolacombe (Jeez the cliff up to that caravan park!), Anglesey, London, Yorkshire (Pennine Barrier 50 [2017 & 2018]), French Alps, Snowdonia, Porthcawl, Prestatyn, Birmingham (!).

 

The Pram Push Resolution – #DaddyDayCare

Due to the fact that I have an amazing wife, and a very understanding boss, I was extremely fortunate to be able to share maternity leave with Leanne. So, after the Summer holidays 2017, Leanne went back to work, and I stayed at home with Lottie for seven weeks until the October half term. Looking back on it now, I can say that I probably spent too much time at home doing washing, ironing and housework and not enough time getting out and about with the baby but I can still say, hand-on-heart, it was seven of the best weeks of my life.

To actually have time to be a real parent, to know that everything you are doing is for the benefit of your family, to have time to spend with your precious baby – was just the best thing. If we could afford to do it full-time we definitely would. Leanne is at her happiest at work; I am at my happiest at home. We were the perfect team. The girls loved it, (I think!) We had half the children on the estate coming round for breakfast by the time the seven weeks were up, and the rest came to play after school. I could do homework with them. I knew what was going on at school. They didn’t have to get up at 6.45am every morning, so they woke up refreshed and happy. And yes, I did sometimes go out and do coffee with some other fellow human beings!

But you haven’t come here to listen to family planning – you’ve come for the running! So, here’s how it worked: every morning I got up and put my running kit straight on. Then I got the baby up, then I got the girls ready. Then we walked to school. And guess what? At 9am every day I was waving the girls into school with my kit on and the baby strapped in. What are you going to do?!

 

And so the #DaddyDayCarePramPush was born! I became quite a well known figure around the local estates; my fellow parents at the school gate clearly thought I was insane, people would stop me to ask what I was doing, I’d see the same old dears at the same bus stops every morning, I got a bit of social media buzz – I think I could have made a career out of it if I could have afforded to stay off work longer!

The weather tested me – so many showers! I felt like I spent more time putting on the rain cover and taking it off again than running at times. The pavements round here are dire; how Lottie didn’t end up with shaken baby syndrome I do not know. There is so much dog **** around here which just gave me another reason to hate dogs even more than I already do: I loved cleaning those deep buggy tyre treads dog owners – thanks very much. And, oh my word, the hills round here get hillier when you are pushing a buggy up them!

Still, we persevered through all these things until the straw which broke the camels back – Autumn. Things started falling off tress. Sharp things. And sharp things puncture buggy tyres. EVERY TIME. After a couple of weeks of non-stop punctures and buying new inner tubes, I gave it up. Cycling will never be for me – I get far too irrational when things (mechanical things) out of my control stop me doing what I want to do.

But it was good while it lasted. The #DaddyDayCarePramPush got a bit of a dusting off this Easter when we travelled to the French Alps for a family ski holiday. We took it in turns to stay off the slopes and look after Lottie while the girls were at ski school. Might as well be productive, eh?! I can now officially tell you that pushing prams up hills in a foot of fresh powder at 2200metres above sea level is even harder than doing it around Wigan!

 

 

The Marshalling Resolution – the Official Wigan Harriers Checkpoint of the UGB200 2017!

Oh my, have Leanne and I found a new fun pastime?! We both think it might be better than actually running! We always suspected that it would be great to help out – and it is. We’ve marshalled a couple of Wigan 10k Trail Races now and love it. I also took the girls to give out bottles at the water aid station at the Wigan 10k and loved that too. But none of these compared to organising the Sykehouse checkpoint, 143 miles into the 200 mile UGB200 race, last summer.

I won’t bore you with the details, other than to say that obviously, after 143 miles, the competitors are very spread out and in varying degrees of distress! Thus, work really started on a Sunday lunchtime at about midday, getting ready to welcome the leading runners who had covered the distance to date in a little over 30 hours! And we didn’t stop working until the last of the runners left the CP on Tuesday morning – nearly 48 hours after we had started! It sounds terrible, but it was utterly amazing!

Some runners were in and out quickly, some stopped for a sleep, some wanted pampering, some wanted leaving alone, some couldn’t eat, others couldn’t stop eating! But it was a pleasure to help them all. It was incredible how well you felt you knew people who only flashed into your life for 30 minutes at a time. We were watching the tracker and plotting their progress towards us; much of the time their families would arrive before them to cheer them in, so we felt like we knew everyone before they even got to us!

I cannot possibly name check everyone who we met – but many of you will be reading this now. We made friends for life with people we met for less than an hour. It was inspiring to be part of, regardless of whether those runners eventually reached the end of the course or not. Congratulations to each and every one of you – it was 48 hours Leanne and I will never forget.

Finally, a big shout out to the team at GB Ultras – what a team of heroes they are! You don’t have to do 200 miles – they have other, shorter events as well! Many are ideal for the debut ultra runner, if you are thinking about it! Check out their events on the link below:

www.gbultras.com

 

 

The 100 mile race resolution – The Robin Hood 100.

If you have read between the lines so far you will have worked out that, as soon as Lottie was born, running took a back seat. Not through any conscious decision, just that there simply wasn’t enough hours in a day anymore (this is still largely the case – Baby excuse 2) But I had reached a stage where I was finding the 50-60 mile ultras a bit ‘easy’ – this obviously isn’t the case but, mentally at least, I had switched off from them.

I needed something to occupy my mind and I found it –  after 3 years I felt that The Lakeland 100 was finally an attainable goal.

I decided that, given the difficulty of the terrain, I didn’t want the LL100 to be my first 100 mile race; I needed to mentally and physically conquer the distance over easier terrain. By chance I stumbled across the Robin Hood 100 in the t’internet, taking place mid-September, and phase 1 of my battle plan was sorted.

The battle plan was a little unusual though! I didn’t want to dedicate my summer to training – so I didn’t! We went to Anglesey and I ran most days, but nothing oppressive – I think the longest I did was 12 miles. I was just ticking over. I did one long run of 21 miles, out and back on the canal at home, as there was a long stretch of canal on the Robin Hood 100. Other than that, training was minimal in the extreme.

The reason for this ‘lax’ attitude? Well, I figured that, no matter how fit I was, the LL100 would be beyond physical; a complete mental battle. So I figured running a ‘flat’ 100 miler at less than peak fitness might provide the same mental battle as the LL100.

See? A valid reason for not really training!!!

Anyway, again I won’t bore you with an extended race report of the Robin Hood 100, too much time has passed. But I loved every minute of it – or at least the first 85 miles!

I got the mental battle I wanted after 84 miles. From there it was homeward bound on a canal towpath in the night, my achilles heel of sleep deprivation properly kicking in – plus I realised it was going to be 103 miles and not 100, which knocked me for six at the time! My only goal had been to break 24 hours, which I was well inside, but the extra 3 miles would make it closer. But finishing was never in doubt. I went through 100 miles in approx 22h45 and finished the race in 23h40. I think I was asleep within 5 minutes of crossing the line!20170917_085647

Lakeland 100 – the Recce Runs.

And so into 2018. The determined plan to be at my absolute peak of physical fitness simply hasn’t happened. In fact, in terms of pace, this is the slowest I have been for four or five years. It hasn’t been a complete disaster by any means but, as previously mentioned, just way too inconsistent. Great training week has been followed by a poor one. Mega mileage week followed by 10 days of not running at all. Life has certainly got in the way (Baby excuse 3) but sometimes you simply have to have other priorities in your life and, ultimately, being a parent is one of them. (The most important one, I hasten to add!)

But, taking my usual ‘glass-half-full’ approach, there have been definite training highlights and positives. I haven’t been injured all year for a start, that’s a definite positive of training less! I have generally managed to keep the ‘long’ training runs going at weekends, it’s been the midweek quick-fire stuff that has been often missing. Consequently, I do feel that my ‘ultra-fitness’ is there – I’m just lacking fast twitch muscles fibres at the moment!

But unquestionably the highlight of training has been the real emphasis on visits to the Lake District to recce the Lakeland 100 route. Along with Rob Lister, my trusty teammate (and also a father of 3!), we made a conscious decision that we had to train smart for this one. There really only is one way to train to race in the Lake District – that is to train in the Lake District!

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Rob and I overlooking Windermere on the Lakeland 100 route into Ambleside on a typically sweltering 2018 day!

I ran from Ambleside to Coniston and back (31 miles) by myself in April; a combination of very well known spots (Langdale) and some lesser known corners of the Lake District (Tilberthwaite). Rob and I ran 20 miles in May, including the Mardale Head to Ambleside section. So that was legs 11 to 15 sorted.

Then Rob and I spent the May bank holiday weekend running the 59 miles from Coniston to Dalemain, split over two days. If we thought the first two recce visits were warm, it was nothing compared to the Bank Holiday! Scorchio! We both suffered from wobbles at some point but we were massively under-fuelled compared to what we will be on race day, (bearing in mind that we had to carry all our provisions, whereas in the race we will be fed and watered at checkpoints!) So that knocked off legs 1 to 8.

Finally, we took advantage of a spare day before the Lakeland Trails 55k race to recce Fusedale and the descent to Haweswater from leg 10. So the only leg we have missed is leg 9 and we have used that path before in other races.

 Rob and I counting off the checkpoints during our roasting Bank Holiday recce runs. I’ll leave it to the experts to name the CP venues! (Legs 1 to 8!)

As the race day approaches we both feel that, without these recce runs, our chances of finishing the race would be practically zero. As it is, we have given ourselves a chance.

The 2018 Ultra Races.

GB Ultras Chester 50 miles (10th March – 9hrs, 5 mins. 21st place)

It’s very hard to remember that, in this Summer to beat all Summers, we actually had dire weather all the way into April! The entire Winter, and a good chunk of Spring, were spent running through muddy sludge. This race certainly encapsulated that! After a gentle-ish 20 miles on mainly firm towpath, we hit the mud! And mud was all we saw for the majority of the next 30 miles! I was so glad I took it easy at the start as I actually finished quite strongly whilst many wallowed around sinking to their doom! No-one who ran it will forget it, that is for certain! A great event, and a course that I really enjoyed and would do again. I should certainly smash my time given slightly firmer conditions!

GB Ultras Pennine Barrier 50 (23rd June, 9hr 52mins, 20th place.)

Delighted with this run. I suspect I will look back on this race as being my peak of fitness for 2018. Cooler conditions than the inferno of 2017; reflected in the time. 2hrs 25mins faster in fact! I took it steady and, consequently, pretty much held my pace all the way round. I enjoyed route marching the hills and consciously tried to go slower descending (definitely something I have learned this year.) Improved positioning of checkpoints and slight route amendments for the better from the excellent GB Ultras team meant a smooth day out. The Yorkshire Three Peaks were absolutely heaving (I was quite lucky to pass them early, being one of the quicker runners on the day) and, to be honest, I’ve seen enough of that route now to probably pass on the event next year, but it was a great day out and highly recommended for those looking for the perfect blend of hill climbing/descending and smooth running.

Lakeland Trails UT55k (8th July, 7hrs 15mins, 54th place)

Our last long run, 3 weeks before the big one, was the UT55k. We’d completed the 110k previously but that was no longer an event and, to be honest, I’d long wanted to try the 55k route. It was worth the wait. It is a terrific course which requires quite a bit of thought. Attack early and you will definitely come a cropper later. As it was, the muggy conditions meant that, after a really good start, we both decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Leaving the Grasmere CP at 20 miles in 32nd and 33rd place, we could both feel the conditions taking their toll. Neither of us wanted to blow up just 3 weeks before our ‘A’ race, so we settled down and enjoyed the scenery a bit. To be honest, I think if I had pushed on I would have suffered later, so it was nice to wander round and enjoy it, despite having to reign in competitive instincts as runners passed by. I was pretty bushed by the last checkpoint – it really was one of those days when it was difficult to get enough fluids on board. Still, we had a good weekend including the recce the day before. Have we done enough? Time will tell.

IT’S TIME……. THE LAKELAND 100

So this is it. In 72 hours time I’ll be on course. The Lakeland 100 is a 105 mile race (of course it is 105 miles, how long did you think a 100 mile race is?!) in a clockwise loop. Starting at 6pm on Friday 27th July in Coniston, the route takes in places like Wasdale, Buttermere, Braithwaite, Pooley Bridge, Mardale Head, Kentmere, Ambleside and Langdale before finishing (hopefully) back where we began, in Coniston, within the 40 hour cut-off on Sunday morning.

How hard is it? Well the number that has been ringing round my head for 10 months is 45%. What is 45%? That is the percentage of competitors who do not finish (DNF), on average, every year. That sounds bad enough until you realise that this is not a race for beginners; there is a pretty rigid qualifying criteria – I was relieved to be accepted into the race, that is the level we are talking about. Put another way, I am definitely not in the top 55% of runners in this field meaning that, statistically, I shouldn’t really finish the race.

Conditions will play a massive part and, to a certain extent, I believe we are in a lucky spot. The Summer has been so long and dry that many of the well known boggy sections of the route are entirely dry. Whilst that makes hard packed trails very unforgiving on the feet, the lack of boggy ground should at least help the legs. The obvious downside of this is that the weather is likely to be warm again, which brings with it a different set of problems. (At the moment the forecast appears kind – fingers crossed!)

I am not in my best shape physically but I feel I am in my best shape mentally. This should count for a lot because, as I learned on the Robin Hood 100, there is a point when you can’t get anymore physically tired than you already are and that’s when your mental state kicks in!

I have learned so much in the last six months, which surprised me because I thought I was a pretty competent ultra runner before that! Slowing down my pace has meant faster race times, preparing for checkpoints before I reach them and having a plan for those breaks has massively reduced my time spent stood still.

And here’s an amazing thing I’ve only really grasped recently – drinking water is really not a good idea! Doubly so in this heatwave. Keeping hydrated with electrolytes is something I have done for a while but I hadn’t really grasped how vital it was! Sweating out salt and only replacing it with water just means diluting your salt levels. If you do this over and over in an ultra you are going to end up in a mess. Now I absolutely make sure I finish my electrolyte drink before I reach every checkpoint so I can refill and go again. Sounds simple but it’s so important.

I only have two targets for the race; the first is to finish and, ultimately, that is the be-all and end-all. The other is that I would love to reach Dalemain Estate (59 miles) before 11.30am on Saturday. The Lakeland 50 event starts then and I know so many people taking part that I think it would be a huge mental boost to see them all and then be overtaken by them all in the afternoon! Friendly faces go a long way when you are in the hurt locker!

So…… it’s time. If you are interested enough you can follow my progress on a live tracker through the weekend, the link to which is below. I am number 309 and my little dot will be on the move from 6pm on Friday, (I hope!)

Follow little red dot 309 by clicking here!

My twitter feed will automatically update every time I reach a checkpoint – you can follow me at @GBSticks11 (or use the link to the right of this blog).

Apologies for not setting up my charity for this year – I may have mentioned I’ve been busy? (Baby excuse 4.)

All that remains is to say thanks for reading, special mega huge thanks to Leanne, Hannah, Nancy and Lottie who have again let me go out and do things that reasonable families would have every right to complain about, thanks to running buddy Rob Lister – we have both needed support at times this year and it is invaluable to have someone there going through the same things, thanks to the organisers of all these amazing events – so much goes on behind the scenes that the vast majority of runners don’t even know about and, finally, thanks to all those fellow crazy fools out there in the ultra running world who I share these adventures with – there have been too many people in the last 15 months to name check but everyone we meet at both GB Ultras and Lakeland Trails in particular are great people, (you are probably one of them if you are still reading at this point!)

Good luck to the organisers of the Lakeland 100 and 50 events at the weekend, I hope you have a stress free and successful event. Good luck to my fellow 100 and 50 runners aiming to become #Lakelandlegends over the weekend – I hope to catch-up with you all at some point!

LET’S DO THIS PEOPLE!

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Thanks again Jemma Coleman!