A few years ago I ran the "Devil of the Highlands" race from Tyndrum to Fort William along the northern forty-odd miles of the West Highland way. One of my reasons for this was that I had already done a couple of complete WHW races and I wanted to know what the northern half felt like when you didn't have to run 50 miles to the start line. I felt a bit the same way about the Lakeland 50, which follows the same course as the second half of the Lakeland 100; an added bonus here though is that the two races are run together, with the start of the 50 timed so that the finishers all come in over more or less the same time period, which with nearly eight hundred runners involved in the two races makes for a great weekend. I'd also decided that I didn't want a big demanding event just now because I didn't want to interrupt my training for the Tor des Geants in September with any taper or recovery time, so I signed up for the 50.
I left it a bit late considering the Friday afternoon traffic but still arrived at the John Ruskin School in Coniston just about in time to see the start of the Lakeland 100 at 5.30pm. A number of people that I knew were running and I wished them well at the start of their adventure.
|Mark Leggett, John Kynaston and Dave Troman at the start of the L100|
|Jon Steele and Shirley Colquhoun starting the L100|
John Kynaston was aiming for around 30 hours; I said I would try to catch him before the end but I didn't honestly think it was likely. Within a few minutes they were on their way in the fine sunshine. The weather forecast was good overnight but turning showery before our start at noon the following day.
The school is used as the main base for the event, with camping on the school field and a seemingly continuous supply of food available from the volunteers in the school kitchen. So while the real runners forged on into the night, we L50 dilettantes were able to take our time registering, having supper, and watching bits of the Olympic Opening Ceremony on the TV in the dining room. It was an easy evening and I didn't really get into race mode until the next morning, when a fleet of buses ferried the 500 competitors over to the start at Dalemain just north of Pooley Bridge on Ullswater. While we waited for the start we spent our time cheering on L100 runners coming into and (most of them) leaving their major "halfway stop" on their round.
I'd thought a bit about the L50 race. At over 9700ft it has quite a lot of ascent for a 50 miler, but when you look carefully at the map you see that almost all the uphill is concentrated into 10 discrete climbs, over a total distance of only around 11 miles. I decided that I could afford to walk all of this at the steady pace I'd been practising over the past few weeks, which should leave me with enough gas to run the rest at a reasonable pace - at least until things started to get hard, which they normally do........
At three minutes past twelve (this becomes significant later) the hooter was sounded and we were off. The first ten miles or so are easy going, a short starting loop on the Dalemain estate then on via Pooley Bridge over a gentle moor to Howtown; just one short walking ascent involved and a lot of fast (well....) running territory. I didn't bother taking a Garmin because I was treating this more or less as a training run, but I guess I was able to keep a 10-12 minute pace going on most of the runnable territory. I'd also decided not to linger at checkpoints, superb and welcoming though they are at this event, so I got into a system at the first one at Howtown and stuck to it throughout the race: one - make sure to "dib" the electronic bracelet into the machine, two - refill water bottle, three - drink a cup of coke, four - grab something tasty "to go" (flapjack, nuts, jelly babies, always lots of choice), five - thank the volunteers and get going! I doubt if I stopped for more than 5 or 10 minutes total in the whole race.
Out of Howtown comes the biggest climb on the L50 course, over 2000ft up Fusedale to the top of High Kop. I remember that on last year's L100 it was like a furnace, temperature in the high twenties, not a breath of wind and not a cloud in sight. This year in complete contrast running conditions for the whole of my race were almost perfect - cool but not cold, a breeze but not a wind, and occasional showers but long bright periods in between. I wore a single layer long sleeve top the whole way, the rain jacket stayed in the bag. Conditions underfoot were still occasionally sloppy, legacy from the rain of recent weeks, but you can't have everything. The climb went well, the run down to Haweswater was easy and the 4 miles along the lake to the next checkpoint at Mardale head seemed to go quickly. This checkpoint was run by a club called Delamere Spartans who meet in the forest where I run at least once a week, so I said I would get in touch with them when I got home.
Next came the second big climb up to Gatescarth Pass. I was getting a bizarre feeling on this run. Because I was just walking steadily up the hills and putting in a fair bit of effort on the descents and flat bits, I was actually looking forward to the uphills - to get a rest! I marched up to the top and started to accelerate down the other side, when I saw a L100 runner in front of me. They were usually easy to recognise by their numbers being less than 300, and it's something of a tradition in this race that the L50 runners always recognise their senior colleagues with a word or two of encouragement as they pass - after all, whenever I passed a L100 runner he had always been out on the course eighteen and a half hours longer than me. I said something like "Hi, well done" and was just easing past when he said, "Hey, Andy, It's me!" It was John K, who I hadn't expected to see until much later, if at all. I walked and jogged with him for a few minutes. He said he was fine but had had one or two low points, including running an unnecessary extra mile when missing an unmanned checkpoint in the dark. He was clearly going to finish OK, so I wished him well again and pushed on - sorry I didn't stay longer John. John went on to a 34hrs 33min finish - anything under 35 hours is a fine time for this event, I reckon it equates to something like a 24 hour West Highland Way.
I carried on down the first of the long stony descents, territory made for Hokas. There is still a lot of debate about these shoes but on this sort of ground I think they're unbeatable. I passed numerous runners selecting footfalls on individual stones or searching out short sections of grass to the side of the track, where I could just cruise straight down the middle as easily as if it were asphalt. I caught and ran for several miles with a guy who was trying Hokas for the first time; when we got down to Sadgill he said "that descent alone was worth the £75!" We were soon up and over to Kentmere, another major checkpoint with lots of temptations to hang around for, and where on last year's L100 I spent the best part of two hours getting my body and mind back together after a major low point. This year I was in and out in less than a minute, hands full of chocolate chip cookies and jelly babies. My fuel strategy was pretty simple for this race. You don't need a lot of food to get round a 50 miler, and digesting what you don't need just takes unnecessary fluid and energy, so I took a drink and a gel every hour plus a handful of whatever looked nice at each checkpoint. It was a coolish day so I just took a Succeed cap every two hours for electrolyte. I drank only water, plus a cup of coke for a quick sugar and caffeine hit at all of the checkpoints that had it.
As I settled into a steady walk up the Garburn Pass, I was aware that I was now over half way with only just over 5 hours on the clock. I hadn't set out with any sort of schedule; I sort of assumed I would get round in twelve hours give or take but wasn't really bothered, I was only here for fun. But I was still going easily and a "stretching target" (the sort of thing that always seemed to be popular with the management when I was gainfully employed) started to form in the back of my mind. You always expect to slow down in the second half, and I had never been able to beat ten hours at the Highland Fling in spite of a couple of serious attempts, but although the L50 has more climbs and some tough ground underfoot, it is a fair bit shorter. Maybe. Cresting the pass, I started to push a bit harder down the next long stony descent to Troutbeck, then walked just a tiny bit quicker up the hill the other side. Just a cruise now down to Ambleside.
Ambleside was amazing. On my previous two visits on the L100 I had arrived late into the night, streets deserted, the town almost sleeping, the checkpoint crew getting ready to end their shift. But this time it was just after 6.40pm and although I was the only runner in sight ahead and behind there seemed to be people cheering at every corner. The final little road up to the checkpoint was lined both sides with clapping supporters, it really made you feel you were achieving something, and of course it puts an extra spring in your step. In and out of the checkpoint with even less delay, I was now on a mission.
Down through the park then on to the steep little hill up Loughrigg. I had been passing L100 runners occasionally but for the first time for quite a while I saw a L50 competitor a hundred yards or so ahead. He seemed to be going faster than me but I must have caught him by spending less time in the checkpoint, so he gave me a target for the next few miles. As the track opened out onto the fell the steepness lessened so I decided it was time I started running a few uphills, nothing to lose now, don't want to "leave it out on the course" as they say. A bit of heavy breathing then over the top and a nice easy descent to Skelwith Bridge. Here I caught a couple of L100 runner, one of whom was Mark Leggett. In spite of an arduous Bob Graham attempt a couple of weeks previously Mark was going well and went on to complete the L100 in a shade over 30hours, a super performance. OK, I thought, as I set off along the most runnable couple of miles of my route, now where's Dave Troman? Not a chance though, Dave was long gone and at pretty well that precise moment was reaching the finish in Coniston in tenth place overall, in a time of under 26 hours which may even have surprised him. I'm looking forward to his story.
Along the flat path from Skelwith Bridge to Elterwater I was probably doing 9 minute mile pace but not gaining on the guy ahead. I finally passed him on the gentle rise after crossing the river when he paused to walk for a short while, then I was soon at the Langdale checkpoint. Four or five other L50 runners were just setting out so I did my stuff quickly and tagged onto them. They had obviously stiffened a bit from too long a stop and were slow to get going so I went past, but I could hear them behind for the next few miles so they must have quickened up again. This bit of track is undulating and bouldery but runnable in good light so I pressed on. It then steepens up to a sharp climb to Blea Tarn which I walked, passing a guy who said it "felt like Everest" on the way. I passed more L50 runners on the track through the woods by the tarn then set off on my least favourite stretch of the whole route, the tortuous track out to the Wrynose road. There was an unmanned check right at the end of this, so no incentive to drift down out of the boulders and shortcut through the deep bog down to the road, which I'm sure I would have been tempted to do otherwise. As I "dibbed" my bracelet in the checkpoint I was aware of someone coming up behind. Glad to get that bit out of the way I said, the other runner agreed. It was a young guy called Nick running the L50, and we carried on together from that point to the finish.
I hadn't covered this ground since last year and couldn't remember where the next couple of turns were, but Nick had reccied the section very recently. We ran down the road, across a flat bit and carried on running up the hill on the far side. "There's a signpost at the the turning" said Nick "It says one mile to Tilberthwaite but it isn't, it's quite a bit further than that!" We resolved to run to the signpost, then we walked some of the steeper sections but ran when we could to the first false top, groaning a bit as the second and finally third real top arrived. On the descent we discussed the 10 hours. It didn't really look on, we both knew about the steep climb out of Tilberthwaite, but we decided to keep pushing at least to make best use of the remaining daylight because it was now touching 9pm and starting to get a bit gloomy. A bit of heavy breathing from Nick along the road but he was back on song for the final down slope to the last checkpoint. A cup of coke, grab a flapjack and go, no need to top up the water, I was unlikley to drink anything else from here to the end.
We had just under 50 minutes to cover about 3 and a half miles with just under a thousand feet of climb and twelve hundred of descent. Nick took the lead up the steep steps and the scrambly ground beyond, and for the first time in the day I was glad to follow someone's heels, he did a great job up there. Two guys we had caught at the checkpoint were also pressing hard, and as the slope eased off onto the open fell I waved them through. This turned out to be a good move because although I lost two places here, they gave us a great target on the long gentle uphill to the final pass and we probably ran a lot more than we would have done without them. We counted down the final uphill, two hundred yards, a hundred yards, yes that's definitely it, downhill all the way from here.
But the course still had a final small problem for us; we had a fairly technical descent of a few hundred feet and dusk was fast approaching, just the worst time for my eyesight (it's a date of birth problem I'm afraid). I didn't want to put my specs on, and neither of us wanted to get a light out because the re-adjustment would likely cost us more time than it would save. So we pressed on down carefully but as fast as we could, a last grassy shortcut then we were out onto the relatively smooth track at last. How far from here I asked, a mile and a half or so was Nick's guess. Eleven minutes on my watch, not really enough as it was almost dark now but we kept going, picking our feet up high to avoid tripping on the stony track. Then the asphalt arrived much sooner than we expected, how fast can you go Nick, I think there's still nearly five minutes left, you might do this even if I can't. He hared off into the darkness. I did my best, certainly reaching my highest speed of the day but he was still twenty seconds ahead at the end.
I made the tape in 9hrs 56mins 55seconds. Where did that extra three minutes come from? Yes, you got it - I was wearing an ordinary wristwatch, not a stopwatch, and had completely forgotten about the 3 minutes delay at the start. Sometimes a bit of technical incompetence helps you on your way. 35th place. Possibly my best ultra performance to date, and with my 64th birthday next Monday one I'll be doing well to repeat; definitely one to treasure. Into the bright lights, welcoming supporters, satisfied fellow-finishers, nice medal and tee-shirt, and wonderful bowl of chilli.
This is a great weekend, whichever race you do. I'm sure I'll be back.