A Journey Through Life To Junction 36.

A spur-of-the-moment musical choice sparks a surprising wave of nostalgia upon finally returning to the Lake District.

Friday 16th April, 2021. The last day of our school Easter holidays. The 4.30am alarm should kill me, or at least irritate me but, just for once, I was already awake waiting for it. Really, I am too old to get excited about things like this but, to be fair, I have been waiting 537 days. Today, I am going back to the Lake District.

I want to be driving by 5.45am so I am up early enough to actually eat for once (I never normally eat before I go out for a morning run), enjoy a nice coffee and complete the ‘rituals’ that all runners need to complete before a long run. (If you don’t know what they are, I’m sure you can use your imagination.) Other than that, all my kit is packed and ready to go.

The forecast is an absolute spanker; Lake District Fells Weather forecasters are 100% guaranteeing perfect visibility and conditions on the tops. It will be close to freezing, especially early on but, other than that, just the perfect blue-sky, early Spring day.

The coffee tastes good, the porridge goes down surprisingly well (I really don’t like eating when I first wake up) and even the ablutions go to plan. (D’oh! I said I wasn’t going to tell you about it!) Just like clockwork, I drive away from the house at exactly 5.45am.

One of the absolute best things about where we live (just off J27 of the M6) is that, with a clear run, we can be driving alongside Windermere within an hour of leaving our house. As such, junction 36 has always assumed an almost mythical status in my mind. (Junction 40 is similar, but it’s further away. Four junctions, in fact…) I always know that, whatever the reason for leaving the M6 at J36 is, it is always for something good.

Stunning sunrise drive up the M6. (The car has been cleaned since, honest.)

Musical Memories.

I don’t know if it was the music I spontaneously selected or the ridiculous amount of time since I last made the journey, but I was feeling incredibly nostalgic during the drive. The music, since you ask, was the album ‘Hopes and Fears’ by Keane, an absolutely terrific debut album which was immediately followed up by… well, nothing really. A classic example of a band writing such a brilliant first album that the ‘difficult second album’ would ruin them forever. I selected the album because of the essential ‘road-trip-music’ status it assumed with Leanne and myself when we played it on a drive into Kitzbuhel in 2006. So much so that we made sure we played the same album again at the same point of the same drive in 2008! Since then it is an album that I completely associate with that drive into the Alps and, as I haven’t listened to it in about a decade, felt like it was appropriate for a drive to the local mountains!

My earliest recollections of J36 are associated with family drives to the Lakes from Bradford in my childhood. Like most children, I wasn’t particularly excited about those trips at the time – I would have rather played out with my friends. Obviously, these days I look upon those trips as the absolute best thing my parents ever did for me – a theme I will revisit this later. However, in those days we would cross J36 having used the A65 past Settle. Apologies for going ‘road-nerd’ on you but, you see, the problem in those childhood days was that I used to get really travel sick! I’d take those Sea Legs tablets to help but they didn’t really make any difference and, invariably, Mum and Dad would have to stop the car somewhere between Settle and Kendal so that I could be sick. As such, I did not really look forward to days out in the Lakes at all as a child.

Later in life, during the wonderful, glorious late teen years, (Remember those? Money in pockets, freedom to drive, old enough to do everything legally, no real responsibilites?! Aahh, magical days!) I would travel up the A65 again, this time with my mates, and join the motorway at J36 to go and spend the weekend in the ex-high school hostel near Penrith, for a weekend of heavy drinking and fresh air courtesy of the generosity of our ex-PE teacher, who would let all his favourite ex-pupils use the hostel at weekends for a nominal fee while he took his basketball teams to play local Penrith schools. Oh, the joys of Blues and Toppers nightclubs in Penrith on a weekend in our youth!

I put the album on ‘shuffle’ to add a touch of drama to the playlist. It could clearly sense my nostalgic mood though, and kept dropping appropriate songs/lyrics to match my mood…

(Passing Lancaster University)

“If you only knew the way I feel,
I’d really love to tell you but I
Can never find the words to say,
And I don’t know why.”

On A Day Like Today, Keane.

Leanne and I met at Liverpool John Moores University in September, 1996. It sounds totally corny but I can still remember the first time I saw her. I can tell you what she was wearing if you want me to prove it. I loved her there and then and knew we were going to get married – quite a surprising level of confidence for someone who couldn’t usually get girls to even engage in conversation. It wasn’t too long before I began my favourite, carefully-crafted flirtation method of telling all her flat-mates and friends that I liked her. This always works, right? Because girls always tell their best friends everything, right?

Wrong!

When we finally did get together some three years later, I was absolutely staggered to learn that NOT ONE of her friends had ever told her! Not one! EVER! I told all of them on most nights out we ever had FOR THREE YEARS!!! What was wrong with you people???!!! It’s a bloody good job there was a happy ending…

(Passing Carnforth)

“…on your own,
Bedshaped
In legs of stone,
You will knock on my door and up we’ll go
In white light.
I don’t think so.”

Bedshaped, Keane.

Hannah was born on Friday 18th May, 8.40pm. This was quite a shock to us at the time as she wasn’t due until July 4th! Just 4lb 1oz, she was pretty much whisked straight from us to the Special Care Baby Unit, where she was sedated and ventilated. Looking back now, I can only put our joy at the time down to the utter naivety we had of the situation unfolding down the corridor. Saturday and Sunday were a whirlwind of family visits to the hospital on a two at a time rota basis (SCBU rules) which kept me pretty busy. Leanne had pre-eclampsia causing the early delivery; in this case, it is the mother’s life in danger which pre-meditates the early delivery, so Leanne was still pretty much wired up herself through Saturday and, therefore, couldn’t really visit Hannah down the corridor as often as she would have liked, leaving me to flit between the two.

By the Sunday night I think the initial euphoria and adrenaline had very much worn off for both of us. When I left the hospital at about 10pm, Leanne was exhausted, sore and recovering in one part of the hospital; Hannah was in an incubator and not really responding to treatment in a different part of the hospital. I went home to an empty house and, I don’t mind admitting now, totally lost it.

I have no idea why the words to this song take me back to that moment; I certainly didn’t hear it or play it at the time, and I don’t think the song is about anything like our situation at the time, (unlike ‘Wires’ by Athlete, which is written specifically about our situation and stirs the same emotions in both Leanne and I,) but, on this morning drive in particular, I really felt it. Fortunately for us, this story also had a happy ending.

(First views of Windermere on the A591.)

“I knew the pathway like the back of my hand.
I felt the earth beneath my feet,
Sat by the river and it made me complete.
Oh simple thing, where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need somewhere to rely on.”

Somewhere Only We Know, Keane.

Now, come on! You cannot tell me there is a more appropriate lyric ever written to describe my returning to the Lake District after a 537 day absence?! (Maybe change the words ‘the river’ to ‘the summit trig point’ but, to be honest, that doesn’t really flow as well!) By now, this drive was assuming life-affirming status and I hadn’t even got out of the car yet! My senses were at spine-tingling levels and I knew this day was going to be very special. Little over an hour after leaving home, I pulled into Miller Bridge car park next to Rothay Park in Ambleside – a venue used for most of my greatest ultra-running moments – and opened the car door to breathe in Lakeland air, having already been put through an emotional wringer! Kit quickly donned, off I trotted towards the park at 7.10am with the place to myself. The Lake District was not going to let me down.

The Fells Put On Their Best Clothes.

Images from Ambleside to the top of the Garburn Pass.

The route I had chosen was a mixture of semi-recce run and tagging a few summits. The former involved running from Ambleside, through Troutbeck and over to Kentmere before climbing the Nan Bield Pass. This was in preparation for my return to ultra racing in the Lakeland Trails 100k, which starts in Rothay Park at midnight. The section I was running in light this morning is therefore entirely in darkness on race-day and, whilst I know the route pretty well, I figured it was useful to refresh my mind of the steep bits and also to run steadily and give myself a rough idea of a sensible time to complete that section of the route on race-day. From the Nan Bield col, I would then take a left and run over a few fells of the Kentmere Round and probably tag High Street too for a bit of extra elevation and mileage. This was in the ball-park of 25 miles which would do just nicely for a morning’s work.

As I made my way through Ambleside I had the plan in mind to try and run the entirety of the route. As I have said before, walking the uphill forms a crucial part of my ultra-race strategy, but today was training, so over-exertion was not such a problem. However, the second I turned off the side roads to head into Skelghyll Woods, the path was so immediately steep that I was walking straight away! That’s that plan out of the window then! It was a suitably quick reminder of the first thing I learned on the day – If you want to train for a Lake District race, run in the Lake District! It is steeper, further and more technical then training at home!

As the pictures in the above slideshow demonstrate, The Lake District was well aware of my return and was going to put the full, technicolour-dream-coat show on for me. The sun was climbing above the ridges and gently melting the frosted fields below. The light greens of the land already contrasting brilliantly with the deep, dark blue of the clear skies.

I wanted to stop and take photographs of every changing view around every single corner. My heightened senses after the emotional drive led to me eagerly trying to soak up every moment: every smell, every noise, every view. Simple things like the swinging of a gate, the bleat of a lamb or the clicking of a stile made me feel irrationally happy.

So busily was I trying to take in every sensation around me, that I completely fell over whilst climbing The Garburn Pass towards Kentmere. And I mean, flat-on-my-back, what-just-happened fell over! I was trotting along, fortunately very slowly, admiring the views of the fells I would be crossing later in the day, and had a proper, slow-motion tumble – so slow that I had time to gently roll in mid air onto my side and, eventually, allow my body weight to be taken by my running pack on my back, full of nice, soft waterproofs and spare clothes! So, fortunately, no damage done and not a single other soul in sight to witness the absolute buffoonery on show!

A little higher up the pass, I passed a sheep in distress. It had obviously just given birth to a lamb on the verge, but the lamb clearly hadn’t survived the birth and the mother didn’t look much better. A few metres later I began to think that perhaps I should inform a local farmer of this. That thought proved to be a costly one in terms of time and wasted effort. Once the idea was in my head I felt compelled to do something (must have been my emotional state!) so I looked up some local farmer phone numbers. This is both an advantage and disadvantage of technology: the advantage is it is so easy accessible in an emergency, the disadvantage is that, on this occasion, I felt guilt-tripped into trying to resolve something that couldn’t be resolved!

It was approximately 7.30am so early morning; not early for farmers obviously, but still very early to ring a random farm household to ask if they knew who had sheep on the Garburn Pass! So I opted for the RSPCA – big mistake. It took 5 minutes to get through their obligatory ten layers of pre-recorded menus before finally getting through to a hapless telephone operative in the Kendal office. It took a further 10 minutes to explain where I was to her. I mean, I know not everyone knows the Garburn Pass, I wouldn’t expect that, but I would expect someone in Kendal to have a rough idea of where Ambleside, Troutbeck or the Kirkstone Pass is! I was there over 15 minutes in total which totally removed the aspect of taking a rough time-bearing of the run out of the equation and also served no purpose whatsoever, as both lamb and mother were still there when I returned two or three hours later, although I can at least happily report that the ewe appeared to be recovering.

Cresting the Garburn Pass, I began to descend into Kentmere and finally began to meet other humans for the first time that day. Most would clearly be on their own journey on the Kentmere Round, a popular walk in the area taking in seven summits in a beautifully arranged horseshoe and, as such, I would cross paths with all these walkers again later in the morning as I turned back towards Ambleside. No matter how many times I descend this path, it always takes me by surprise how tricky and technical it is; sub-consciously I must transform the relatively wide track into a much flatter surface! Less haste and more caution are the requirements – no point ending your race before the first checkpoint!

From Kentmere I gradually climbed up to the Nan Bield Pass, a lovely run along the valley which can be separated into four distinct sections: flat bit, steep bit, flat bit, steep bit! I really enjoyed this path as I again found myself with an entire valley to myself in picture-postcard conditions.

Images from Kentmere to Nan Bield Pass

The col of Nan Bield is quite spectacular on race night. The dark gives a sense of being much higher than you actually are, the zig-zag of lights in front and behind you is awe-inspiring and there is invariably a race marshal at the top with a cow-bell to provide additional atmosphere!

For race-prep, taking in the descent down the other side down to Mardale Head would also have been useful; it’s the most technical, tricky part of the whole race but, to be honest, I’d done a lot of reccying the last few years and thought it was about time I headed to some different paths and, in particular, a few summits. I had, mistakenly as it turned out, got it into my head that by running over passes and not summits in the Lakes, I was somehow ‘copping-out’ of the really hard running. But I soon found this to be way off the truth as I seemed to top out on Mardale Ill Bell within minutes of leaving the pass. High Street was right there, it seemed so close as to be ridiculous to miss it out and I was there in no time too. By the time I doubled back slightly and headed for Thornthwaite Crag and it’s slightly self-exhibitionist Beacon, I had knocked off three tops in what felt like no time at all and was suddenly realising that, in actual fact, summit bagging was actually significantly easier than using passes to travel from valley to valley! (Maybe the Bob Graham Round is slightly more attainable than I thought!)

Mardale Ill Bell to Thornthwaite Crag

From here I had the most spectacular view of my route back down to Troutbeck: three more summits of Frostwick, Ill Bell and Yoke on a sweeping, roller-coaster ridge, before a good three or four mile descent back into Troutbeck, all with Lake Windermere now clearly visible to mark my final destination.

The roller-coaster ridge line of my return route all the way to Windermere (far right).

Pride Comes Before A Fall!

It was at this point of the run that I began to re-meet the walkers I had passed on my descent into Kentmere. The first of these was Claire, who had asked me if I was on a recce run as I passed her the first time rapidly descending into Kentmere. I didn’t stop on that occasion, just a quick ‘sort-of!’ and on my way. So I stopped for a chat this time as she clearly had some knowledge of the races which use the Garburn Pass. It turned out she has done the Lakeland 50 before and was hoping to complete the 100 this summer. We chatted about the route, tactics, weather and such-like for five minutes before she said;

“My husband is coached by someone who has a client who is up here training this week. That runner is hoping to win the Lakeland 100 this year. Is it you?!”

Clearly, I was very quick to point out that, no, it wasn’t me and that – where LL100 is concerned – I am very much in the ‘finisher’ category and not the ‘racer’ category! But, equally obviously, I felt pretty damn good about myself as I trotted off down the path, making a point of trying to look a little extra athletic, thinking to myself, ‘Claire thinks I look like the kind of person who could WIN the LL100! Why, thank you!!!’

This pride and boastfulness was quickly quashed within 15 minutes. Having climbed over Frostwick and then up onto Ill Bell, I decided to have a proper sit down with a snack and a drink and soak up the last big view before descending back towards sea level. Already in situ on the summit were an elderly couple who I had also passed earlier in the day on the Kentmere descent. They asked about my route and we chatted about their visit – they owned a second house in Kendal but obviously hadn’t been allowed to visit it much in the last 15 months. I told them my last Lakes visit was November 2019. Wow, they said, and then asked;

“So, are you retired then?”

What? Retired?! Me?! I’m young, athletic and, according to the last person I talked to not 15 minutes before, a potential winner of the Lakeland 100!!! Oh well, back to reality with a bump!

Views while crossing Frostwick, Ill Bell and Yoke.

From Ill Bell, Yoke barely makes an impression on the long, steady descent all the way back down to Troutbeck. Aside from the realisation that I desperately need to do some ankle strengthening work as I less-than-nimbly pottered my way downhill, I was already feeling deeply satisfied with my morning’s work. I was genuinely surprised at how easy the second half of the run had been and how good I was feeling; confirmation that the extra mileage I am running in 2021 will at least have some form on impact on race day.

I always enjoy a bit of house envy as I walk up the steep road through Troutbeck and also looked back fondly on my last visit, just as darkness fell on the LL100, when Leanne and my parents surprised me by appearing on the street corner to give me some extra encouragement. Oh, and the four cheering cows. (No, not hallucinating – four people also cheering on runners, dressed as cows – honest!)

Before I knew it I was dropping back through Skellghyll Woods and into Ambleside: just under 25 miles in 5 hours 48 minutes total time. Taking into account view gazing, chats, photo stops and the bloody RSPCA call, my actual moving time was four and a half hours, but today was all about stopping to look at the views, and much less to do with pushing the pace, so I was delighted with all of it.

Final views returning to Ambleside.

Lessons Learned From the Lakes Return.

There’s always lots to learn from any run, but this one was perhaps magnified due to the length of time away. So, in no particular order:

  • The Lakes got steeper! Erm, no. But you do forget the difference between climbing in the Lakes, Snowdonia or other mountainous places and climbing on ‘provincial’ footpaths. They are steeper, more technical and go on for longer. I know to focus on as similar paths as I can when training at home. I really thought I could walk up the hills and control my breathing – you can’t! But, by walking, you are conserving your legs, and that’s the important bit.
  • Forget what the climb looks like: Don’t be intimidated by the climb to come on the walk/run in. They all look like that! But, in reality, you will be up most Lakeland passes 20 minutes after you’re stood at the bottom, so try not to panic and just keep moving upwards, it really will be over sooner than you think.
  • A bit of core/strength work would not go amiss: I know, I know. I say it every time and I still don’t do it. My left ankle was rubbish going downhill though, and I haven’t even injured it!
  • Eat and drink as much as possible in races: On this occasion I was carrying all my liquid and the day started chilly, so I deliberately kept as much drink stored for later in the day as I could. I never really ate as I never felt hungry. But on the return run I was pretty dehydrated even though I drank loads in the last half of the run once it was established that I wasn’t going to run out. A good reminder to keep topping up eating and drinking, little and often, in the race.
  • Suncream! Enough said!
  • Calf sleeves: I’ve never really liked wearing them but, over the last 12 months or so, I have found myself wearing them more and more, especially for fast efforts or long efforts when I know I will be putting my calves under pressure. I have no idea if it is a subconscious thing or what the actual physical benefits are, but I think my calf sleeves are here to stay for ultras. If nothing else, I can feel their support when bouncing downhill so that must be doing some good, I guess.
  • Wear as little as you can get away with: There is a very well known general running saying: ‘Dress for the second mile.’ This is hard to follow but so useful to do! It is so easy, especially on long ultra-style runs, to overdress and then be roasting for the whole run! Speaking for myself I know that, once I have started, I cannot be bothered taking off my pack to remove or add layers and will invariably run in whatever I am wearing until I have absolutely no choice but to do something about it! So the rule for me has to be the above; you dehydrate and sweat so much more in a jacket than without, so try not to wear it unless absolutely necessary. (Obviously, in terms of safety, you still need to carry the warm clothing you are not wearing!)
  • Please can I book the same weather and underfoot conditions for race day?! It is so much easier to run in the Lakes in pleasant conditions and with dry conditions underfoot. There were quite a few sections of this run which would normally be very boggy, and there were quite a few tricky descents which would be immeasurably harder if it was wet and slippery. Finally, it only really started to get warm after midday, by which time I was all but finished. If you could run ultras every time in these conditions, boy would that help!
  • The training appears to be paying off: I won’t truly know this until I am 10 hours into a race – that point where you are drained of all race adrenaline and start to feel a bit miserable. But on the evidence of today, I moved smoothly enough throughout, didn’t wilt in any way and could move around reasonably freely afterwards. There have been times when I have arrived in Ambleside in the past after similar runs where I needed peeling off the floor! (Usually because Rob has made me run the last two or three miles at 7min/mile pace!) If you had forced me to go round again I could have at least set off, which is always the sign I am looking for. So far, so good.

And finally:

  • Try to forget the pain and appreciate the scenery: this was very easily done today. I don’t think I ever struggled because I was just so busy enjoying and appreciating everything. This mindset can be very hard to maintain in races, especially if the run is not going the way you mentally planned it. But if we aren’t running in the Lakes to enjoy being in the Lakes, then why are we there at all? Today was the very definition of mindfulness – especially because it was a pre-planned mindfulness, it happened genetically.

Final Reflections on the Day.

What an unusual day! I think I thought, in the days before I went, that I was over-playing the return to the Lakes and that I would soon be whinging and moaning about how tired I was. And, I suppose, the fact that I am quite fit at the moment certainly helped me enjoy the day. But, looking back, if anything I think I under-played the return, and that’s why it became so overwhelming at the time. Perfect weather helped. The music DEFINITELY added to it. I usually listen to podcasts these days, so had perhaps forgotten the emotional places music can take you.

But mostly I think it was the fact that I used to take a day out in the Lake District for granted. It can never be taken away from you because it will always be there – even long after we aren’t here ourselves. Because it’s there all the time, we can go anytime.

Until you can’t.

I hadn’t really thought of that before.

A target for LT100k race day will be to try and enjoy every last minute of it, even the paths that I know really well, and try to remember that, like the last 15 months, you never quite know when you might be there again.

As for other future visits, I will try to include the family as often as possible. On this particular occasion they didn’t come with me as Leanne wasn’t quite convinced how happy she was taking the children to Ambleside, COVID-wise, having read some horror stories about some popular tourist spots being absolutely packed over the bank holiday weekend. It was so strange though, and again I don’t know if it was the drive, the music or the run that did it, but when I returned to Rothay Park there were lots of families, all nicely spread out I have to say, enjoying the park, the fresh air, the fish and chips, the ice creams – just like normal really, it was lovely to see! But, in that moment, I was absolutely gutted Leanne and the girls weren’t there to share it; as I ran in to the park I really hoped they’d come up to surprise me!!!

But it is so important to show children that, yes, there are arcades and fairgrounds and smart phones and ‘stuff’ but there is also something else out there, just like my Mum and Dad showed me. It’s free and it will be there everyday forever and, if you appreciate it, it will bring more joy and pleasure to you than any man-made object ever will. Then they will start to make their own memories. As a parent, you can’t do better than that. I genuinely think of this every single time Leanne and I drive our children North and turn-off at Junction 36 – where all the best things in life truly begin.

Happy running and racing everyone! Thanks for reading.

“Running down corridors through automatic doors,
Got to get to you, got to see this through,
First night of your life, curled up on your own,
Looking at you now, you would never know.”

Wires, Athlete.

Leanne and the girls with my Mum and Dad – it’s their fault I’m writing this!

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