(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!
Nervous pre-race smiles in the heat with my team of LL001 #legends!
Even more nervous smiles with my good running buddy, Rob Lister.
Climbing out of Coniston in the sultry evening heat.
Summiting the Walna Scar Road and saying a last goodbye to Coniston Water.
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.
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.”
“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.
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:
- Music is definitely cheating! Anything that makes you feel that good, that quick, should not be allowed in a race!
- 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!)
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.
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!
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!)