I had a bit of unfinished business with the Lakeland 100, having had to pull out last year with 89 of the 105 miles completed; on the other hand with the UTMB coming up just 4 weeks later I didn't want to feel too trashed at the finish. This is a big, burly event, nearly 7000m of climbing, difficult ground underfoot for a lot of the way and tricky navigation on the wilder sections which nearly all come in the dark. I thought 36 hours would be a reasonable target on which to base a timetable.
A few familiar faces appear in Coniston, Jon Steele, Shirley Colquoun, John Vernon, Flip Owen, all enjoying the warm sunshine just before the 5.30pm start. Then Joss Naylor sounds the hooter and we're off. One of the four big climbs, up to the Walna Scar pass, is in the first leg but everyone has lots of enthusiasm at this stage and the 7 miles and 2200ft of ascent go quickly with stunning views everywhere, getting me to CP1 at Seathwaite in 1hr34, 10 minutes faster than planned and around the middle of the field. The next two legs to Eskdale then on to Wasdale Head have no big climbs (around 2000ft in total for the 12 miles) but plenty of opportunities to twist an ankle or get your feet wet - even on a dry weekend like this the knee-deep Lake District bogs can catch you out. I arrive at CP3 Wasdale Head after 4hr45 feeling pretty good but knowing that this is where the real work starts.
Soup, tea and coke, then on with the headtorch and off to tackle Black Sail pass. Wasdale to Buttermere has over 2300ft of ascent in the first five miles, up and down stony paths and almost paths. Tonight there is no mist or rain so you can see headlights ahead, I still have to think a bit to find the right stream crossing going up Black Sail, the way down the other side, the bridge over the river before Black Sail Hut, and the gap in the wall coming down from Scarth Gap but it all goes OK. I'm followed over all this territory by a French guy, who declares at that "surely no-one can find this route without some local knowledge!" - not really true but I get his point, this is not like the TMB. There is no moon tonight but no clouds at all, and descending into uninhabited Ennerdale gives us fantastic views of the stars. Eventually we reach Buttermere lake, then it's a gentle couple of miles jog around to CP4 in the village. I'm there a minute or two past 1am and with the cutoff not until 3am that's fine. I stop for a drink and some food and just as I am about to leave Shirley arrives and carries on through almost right away. We catch two other guys at the first turning point, and the four of us then do the majority of the next climb, the third of the four big ones over (another) Sail Pass, together. I remember that the final mile or so down to Braithwaite has a great angle and surface, so I say I'm going to run it all. Shirley comes with me and we arrive at Braithwaite together, 33miles in, at 9hrs44 from the start.
Again Shirley pushes on almost straight away, but I say I'm going to take some time here. I decided beforehand that around 24 hours is the most I can manage effectively in a single push, so I will break this event into four sections and have longer "recuperation stops" at Braithwaite (33m), Dalemain (59m), and Kentmere (82m). These are big checkpoints that serve meals, and also have space for you to sit (or lie) around for awhile to get your head around the next section. Braithwaite in particular is a great place to reach, marking the end of the really wild part of the course and coming before the easiest 25 miles or so. I take in plenty of pasta, rice pudding and tea, change my wet socks for dry ones, and leave after about 30 minutes rest.
There are two completely flat miles out of Braithwaite, but I'm feeling good and I don't want to spoil that with indigestion so I settle for a steady walk. Somewhere along here it gets light enough for the torch to go back in the bag. A longish but not arduous uphill then gets me to Latrigg and the Back'o'Skidda track, by which time I'm ready to run again. These sections from Braithwaite to Dalemain contain lots of runnable ground so I try to make the most of them. I run the first one to Blencathra Centre mostly on my own. From here the route drops down through a few steep fields to a disused railway line which we follow for a mile or two, and along here I catch up with Jamie who seems to be going about my speed so we carry on together. Just before the end of the railway we catch Shirley again; she says she's not doing too well, being unable to eat very much. There's a significant climb from here up to the Old Coach Road. I take it very slowly and steadily, Shirley and Jamie a bit faster so they reach the high point well before me. The Old Coach Road, another very runnable track, snakes off across the moor towards Dockray for another 3 or 4 miles. I overtake Shirley who has stopped for a breather, and just before Dockray catch Jamie again. Dockray is the nearest checkpoint to halfway in distance (49 miles) and I still feel remarkably good. Jamie and I run almost the whole of the next long (10 mile) section together. It goes downhill on tracks through woods at first then follows a beautiful rising balcony singletrack above Ullswater. By now it's around 9am and starting to get warm, it's going to be another cloudless day. Jamie and I reach Dalemain just under 17 and a half hours after leaving Coniston, good going as my plan was for 18.
Another half hour stop and a good meal here, more pasta followed by Swiss Roll and custard, with the usual (for me) pint of tea. I have a fresh pair of shoes here too but decide not to change - for the first time in a real event I have been wearing the relatively new super-cushioned Hokas and they have proved excellent; in fact after changing my socks at Braithwaite I don't look at my feet again until I get back to Coniston. I head out at a steady walk along the river towards Pooley Bridge. Jamie comes with me, he is clearly a faster runner but this is is first long ultra and he says he thinks my tactics seem to be working so he'll tag along. Dalemain, which I leave at 11.30am is also the start point for the Lakeland 50 race, which leaves here at 12.30 for a 4 mile preliminary loop then follows the same course as the L100 until the finish. We calculate that the first L50 runners will start passing us at around 2pm.
The stage from Dalemain, through Pooley Bridge and over to Howtown is one of the easiest on the course, 7 miles, less than 1000ft of climbing and easy underfoot. We walk strongly to the highpoint at roughly halfway, then run the rest to Howtown. The next leg from Howtown to Mardale Head is an altogether different proposition, beginning with the biggest climb on the whole course up to High Kop on the High Street ridge. Initially the climb is just steady, but it is by now a very hot day and there is not a breath of wind. Fusedale feels like a furnace. Just here the leaders of the L50 come past - and these guys are running! But another great feature of this event is that from here to the finish we will be passed by L50 competitors who always seem to offer a word or two of encouragement to those of us who have reached exactly the same place by a rather longer oute. The final 1000ft of the climb are steep and tough. I sense that Jamie is falling steadily further behind me but my rule is never to stop on a climb so I shout back a word or two of encouragement, he says keep going I'll get there. I don't see him again and found out later that he stopped at the next CP, a shame because he was going really well up until then. At the top, a few hundred yards of easy walk is followed by wonderful downhill grassy slopes all the way to Haweswater, so the running is easy again. I'm not going as fast as most of the L50 runners however, and down here one of them recognises my West Highland Way teeshirt as he goes past and shouts to me. It turns out to be Steve Weston who ran in the WHW this year, and is having a good run today also.
But when we reach the lake the second problem of this long (9 mile plus) stage kicks in. Four miles of tortuous singletrack along the lakeside, rocky ups and downs and hot hot hot. I'm relieved to reach the Mardale Head CP, feeling for the first time pretty battered. Tea and soup changes the outlook a fair bit, and I resolve to take the next climb up to Gatescarth Pass fairly slowly. I do, and it goes, then I run (or rather jog!) all the way from the top down Longsleddale to Sadgill. The little climb up from here takes more out of me than it should, as it did last year, and I can't run down the other side. I feel a bit queasy here, normally a sign of low electrolytes. I've been taking Succeed caps but maybe not enough for the hot conditions. I take another now, but I don't really have enough water left to dissolve it and I throw up almost immediately. I sit by the track for five or ten minutes to compose myself then walk the final mile or two to the Kentmere CP very slowly.
Entering the hall at Kentmere I feel pretty awful. I certainly can't contemplate eating or drinking anything, I just stretch out full length on a bench. Although I assure the checkpoint staff that I'm OK, just need a rest, that's far from how I feel. My race has fallen apart in a very short time, I can't imagine going on from here. Half an hour later I feel no better. I'm going to have to pull out again, I've not even got as far as last year. Maybe these long events are just too big for me. I'll have to pull out of the UTMB too, it just wouldn't be sensible to start. I've reached my limit in ultra running.
Eventually, the voice of reason gets heard. You've got lots of time left, why make a decision now? Just hang around a bit longer.
After about an hour and a quarter I start to feel just a bit human again. I have a cup of tea and a small plate of pasta. I don't relish them, but it's a start. No good reason not to go on. I'll take the next climb up Garburn pass very, very gently. Maybe I'll get by. I get up and over the pass, then walk steadily down the other side in the company of a L50 runner who insists his name is just Moose - a local from Cockermouth and a really nice guy, he helps me a lot. On the next climb up from Troutbeck I tell him to go on, I'll take it steadily, so he does. It's now dark again, and as I walk up to the high point above Jenkin Crag I remember being here last year, seeing John Vernon's light getting fainter and fainter as he pulled ahead of me into the distance. It occurs to me that I'm going better, and feeling better, this year - maybe I'm on the way back! My pace quickens on the downhill to Ambleside, more tea in the CP there and I'm good to go, though still tired.
I know the way over Loughrigg to Skelwith Bridge having walked, run, or biked it many times, and I pick up three L50 runners who seem happy to tag along, and I'm happy to have the company now well into my second night out. On the short road section down to the bridge we meet Sarah, a L100 runner who joins our band, and the 5 of us continue together for most of the way to the finish. At the next CP at Chapel Stile there is a log fire and beef stew on offer, it tastes wonderful, and for the first time since Kentmere I'm confident again that I'm going to make the finish.
The first three miles of the next leg comprise a rocky, boggy, undulating, difficult to follow track along the south side of Langdale. Sarah is an Ambleside local and knows it; the rest of us are more than happy to let her do the work. Then it's a steep climb up to the pass above Blea Tarn, down to the tarn and then probably the worst track on course skirting Blea Moss down to the Wrynose Pass road. By the time we reach the road we are all soaked to the knees again, but on the plus side it is starting to get light. Down the road, then a simple two mile "up hill and over" jeep track to the final CP at Tilberthwaite. I'm starting to feel really good again now, and vote myself a cup of coffee, the first of the event, for a bit of added go on the last steep climb. I'm wanting to get away now but unwilling to leave the other four who have definitely helped me over the last couple of legs, so we set out together on the final steep 900ft climb. By the time we get to the high point there are three of us, the others have said carry on they'll get there soon. By now my bad patch is well and truly over and I feel I could carry on for hours. We discuss running down to the finish but it's rocky ground, so we walk. A few hundred feet and then its an easy walk to the finish. The L50 guy decides to wait for his companion so Sarah and I carry on down the last mile or so together. We could run now, but we agree not to. She's tired and I always find these last few minutes of a big event too precious to waste in an effort for a few minutes off the clock. We actually lose 5 places in this last mile or so to people jogging, but for me this is nothing compared to letting the high go on for a few minutes longer before you have to face the music at the finish. We save our presentation run for the last hundred yards or so, and cross the line back in Coniston 37 hours and 39 minutes after setting out, 94th out of 226 starters.
I feel great, the Lakeland ghost laid. I get a meal, then a shower, then wander off for a few hours' sleep before the prizegiving.
A great event, certainly the biggest and most satisfying one I've completed. The course, organisation, checkpoints, and all the people who run them were superb. The winner's time of under 22 hours, breaking the previous record by nearly an hour, was an amazing performance. This race is a classic, every serious ultra runner should give it a go.
(no photos sorry - I'm currently in Chamonix for a bit of climbing and can't make the portable technology work!)
(no photos sorry - I'm currently in Chamonix for a bit of climbing and can't make the portable technology work!)