A few weeks ago, fired with enthusiasm by reading Jez Bragg's account of this year's Lakeland 100, I put my name on the entry list for 2010. The event is modelled on the UTMB, and indeed the concept is similar; you start in a valley, climb over a col and get to another valley, climb over another col and get to another valley, repeat until you're tired, carry on repeating until you're very tired, carry on repeating..................well, you get the picture. It all adds up to a circular tour of the Lake District starting and finishing at Coniston, just over 100 miles in length and just under 23,000 feet of ascent. The 2010 date is five weeks after the WHW and five weeks before the UTMB, so even assuming I get into either of those two it should still be OK (ish).
But when I first set out from Milngavie on the Highland Fling, my first ultra all those years ago (or was it just in April 2007?), I felt that I already knew the West Highland Way route despite never having trodden a yard of it. I had shared the tracks, the rocky lochside, the climbs, the loneliness of Rannoch Moor, the darkness of the forest, the highs and lows of the journey, the despairs and triumphs of a dozen or more runners via their racetales from previous years. The Lakeland 100 is too new to have such a wealth of literature, and while he's a great guy and writes a good story, Jez's tale will never reflect the experience likely to be had by a shuffler like me near the other end of the field. I thought I should get out on the trail and find out what I've let myself in for. Of the 15 sections that make up the course I've covered 11 over the past few weeks, and I already knew most of the rest. I called it a day the week before last, when the shortening days made a trip to the Lakes a rather rushed affair - a decision reinforced by the dramatic weather conditions in the area over the past few days.
So what have I learned? Well firstly, the route takes you to some beautiful corners of the Lakes that you're unlikely to see as a climber, peak bagger, or even Bob Graham aspirant. I would never have visited the lonely Burnmoor Tarn, traversed the quiet valleys from Buttermere to Braithwaite, or reached as far east as Mardale and Longsleddale without the prompting of this event. OK, it was October/November but I rarely saw another person on my days out, and they were all rewarding even if the weather hardly ever matched the scenery.
Secondly, although perhaps not actually tougher than the UTMB as the route planners claim, this is definitely a big and burly 100 miler. It's a full 100 (I think nearer 105), and the climbs while never individually daunting keep coming right to the finish, but above all it's the ground underfoot that makes this a tough deal. Stony tracks, boulder hopping, slippery steep grass, knee-deep bog, it's got a fair share of everything, and there are long sections where you need to pay attention to each footfall which makes it mentally as well as physically taxing. A big plus though is that the checkpoints are never more than about 6 miles apart, and most of them offer some sort of food and drink, so it should be possible to "just think of the next few miles" when the going gets tough.
The route seems to divide naturally into three main parts with different characters. The first part from Coniston to Braithwaite (sections 1-5, about 34 miles) has the toughest ground, most of the tricky navigation, and most runners will do over half of it in the dark. 30% of the total distance but 40% of the climbing. Rough paths and boulder-strewn hillsides, with an expanse of open moor from Eskdale to Wasdale and a series of easily missable path junctions on the final stretch to Braithwaite. No easy going but if you work too hard you won't be able to cash in on the more easily runnable sections later on. And in the dark, if you don't have your compass or GPS out regularly here you either know the way like the back of your hand or you're with someone who does! I think if you can make it to Braithwaite in good shape you're in with a chance of getting round.
The next part from Braithwaite to Howtown (sections 6-9, about 33 miles) is a cruise if you've saved some energy. Daylight, easy to follow tracks, gentle climbs. A few messy bits here and there, maybe not great psychologically because you're starting to tire and feel you're still going in the "wrong direction", but physically easy going.
After Howtown there is a steady climb up to the high point of the course as you cross the High Street range and some great grassy running down to Haweswater if you still have the legs and your navigation's OK. A few miles along the lake to Mardale Head and this is where the final attritional 30 miles kicks in. From here to the start of the final section at Tilberthwaite there are no real navigational problems, just miles of stony jeep tracks, climbs in a seemingly unending progression, and of course it's now dark again. The sting in the tail is up from Tilberthwaite quarry to a rough fell path difficult to follow in daylight until the well-defined valley leading to the final col is reached, and the (inevitably) stony descent down to the finish.
I've put a lot of waypoints into my GPS!
Rain (July is statistically not great for the Lake District and both runnings of the event to date have been wet) makes the route much harder, turning tracks into streams and bouldery paths into slippery nightmares. Shoe choice will be hard in the dry and harder in the wet. I'm normally a road shoes fan but if you wear them over the first third in the wet you'll fall over a lot (I tried and did), and the continual pounding of the stony tracks all round will test the cushioning of even road shoes before the end. You're allowed a drop bag at 50 miles so I might even consider lightweight boots for the second half.
So that's about it for now. I'll renew my relationship with the Lakes when the days start to lengthen again. Am I looking forward to the Lakeland 100 (the "Ultra Tour of the Lake District"), and 36 hours or so of hills, mist, dark, bogs and stones, aching limbs, sore feet, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and probably a comprehensive soaking as well? Can't wait.