Thursday, 31 July 2014

A Tourist's Guide to the Lakeland 100

The Lakeland 100 is a compelling mix of beauty and challenge, and if you're an ultra runner in the UK you will sooner or later get around to thinking about it. If you're good at your sport then making the trip will not be your concern, you will be focused on winning the race, getting a top ten finish, coming in under 30 hours, or whatever your particular target is.  But if you're like me, and I suspect like many of the runners setting out from Coniston on a Friday evening in late July, then your only aim is to be coming back through the school gate sometime on Sunday morning. You just want to finish.

Last Friday I started the event in almost certainly the worst shape of any of my four attempts, but I think I've learned quite a lot from previous success and failure so Sunday morning saw me collecting my finisher's medal and teeshirt after easily the most enjoyable trip of the four. So rather than do my normal blog of the day (or nearly two days, as it is in this particular event), I thought I would also reflect a bit on what made it so much easier this time around.

A couple of warnings before we start. This may be quite a long ramble, so I would advise you get equipped with a gin and tonic (or maybe a bottle of Coniston Bluebird to set the scene properly) to see you through. And no pictures! Well, if you're really into this event you will already have seen plenty of stunning stuff all over the Lakeland 100 site and Facebook, and I'm not going to try and compete. So here we go.

A "Tourist's" Guide?

Quite a few years ago I was climbing Mont Blanc du Tacul above Chamonix. My climbing partner and I were treating it as a training climb for bigger plans we had later in the trip. Some way up the route we caught up with a pair of French female climbers, and we all stopped for a few minutes breather and chatted a bit. Did they have other plans after the Tacul? "Oh no, this is fine for us, we're not serious climbers, just touristes really." This was far from the truth because we were still on a 4000 metre peak and the way up was via a crevassed ice face which they were tackling very competently, but the term stuck with us. We went on to the summit and back down by the same way, meeting the girls still on the way up but clearly having a great day out. "Bonjour les touristes!" we greeted them as we passed. And so the term came to mean for us an outing motivated by enjoyment as much as achievement, but still carried out skilfully and competently. So to complete the Lakeland 100 within (but not much within) the allotted 40 hours, you need to become a touriste.

Some Background

I first attempted the Lakeland 100 in 2010. As have many other first-timers, I underestimated the scale of the challenge and ground to a halt in Ambleside, unable to move fast enough to cover the final 15 miles before the time ran out. Lesson learned, I came back in 2011 better prepared; I still went through a dark patch between Kentmere and Langdale, but pulled through it to finish in around 37 and a half hours. In 2012 I had entered the Tor des Geants in early September and didn't want to compromise this with a demanding event in late July so I opted for the Lakeland 50. In the near perfect conditions we had that year I had a great run, finishing in just under 10 hours (a bit of a false time for comparisons though because the preliminary loop around Dalemain was about 2 miles shorter that year).  In 2013 I was in good form, coming to Coniston off PB's in both the Highland Fling and the West Highland Way, and was expecting a good Lakeland 100. But you must never take this course for granted. After my fastest time yet to Dalemain (about 16 hours) I blew up in the heat and finally ran out of steam at the top of High Kop , choosing to retreat to Howtown rather than facing the lakeshore to Mardale Head.

This left a ghost to be re-laid, I needed the confidence of a much better outcome at Coniston, so I entered again for 2014.  But in October 2013 I pulled a calf muscle, which despite all sorts of measures refused to come good. In February, at a session with the physio to try and get some reason into the problem, she pointed out that I didn't have as much muscle mass as I should on the offending side, there must be some reason that I was favouring the other leg. There was; I had a bad knee which I had put off getting fixed because I thought I could live with it; I clearly couldn't. I had the necessary knee surgery in the middle of March, and started running again in mid April, having done virtually nothing but walk for 6 months. It was going to be a long road back, but in the meantime I decided to start participating in events as a touriste  - going just fast enough to complete within the time allowances. This strategy saw me through successful completions of the West Highland Way and the Lakes 10 Peaks events in June, and I saw no reason why it shouldn't, if I was smart enough and careful enough, work equally well for the Lakeland 100  -  after all, I had paid the entrance fee and it's always a good weekend so nothing to lose really. The only problem was that six days before the event I had a final hilly outing and managed to tweak the calf again, first time since February. I rested, massaged and stretched, hoped for the best and turned up for the start in Coniston.


Let's go back a bit.  Before you tackle the Lakeland 100 as a tourist, there are a couple of things you need to understand.

1. Just because you're aiming for the maximum time, that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. You need to be clear about what you are getting into. Race Director Marc Laithwaite's pre-start briefing last Friday was priceless. "So who's attempting this for the first time?" Hands go up. "And out of you first timers, who has already done the Lakeland 50?" Quite a few hands remain up.  "Of course, well, it's only twice as far then, isn't it?". A pause, a smile, a ripple of laughter from those who know, and the briefing moves on. You have to understand that the Lakeland 50 is a nice course, good for a first 50 miler because of the generous time allowance, but no harder than many other UK classics such as the Hardmoors 55 or the Highland Fling. The Lakeland 100 on the other hand is, as far as the UK goes, as big and gnarly as they come.  Some people have made a successful first-time step up from the 50 to the 100, but more have found it a step too far. I personally would recommend getting some experience at an intermediate challenge, such as the Ultimate Trails Lakeland 100k (tough, and actually about 66 miles), or the West Highland Way (95 miles but on easier ground) before going for the hundred. I'll just finish this little element by saying that some Lakeland 50 runners say they find the climb out of Fusedale hard because it's the biggest on the course; Lakeland 100 runners find the climb out of Fusedale hard because they've already done three that are just as big.

2. If you're going to complete the course in (just) under 40 hours, then you're not going to run very much. Jogging the downhills and walking the rest will get you there. Run any more than this and you're on for a faster time (or a failure if you're not fit enough!). If you're going into an event where you will walk a lot, climb a lot of hills, and do a bit of mediocre downhill shambling, then that's what you need to train for. Training by doing a lot of shorter (or even longer) faster runs isn't going to help. My training this year was enforced by injury, but it proved quite good enough for a tourist. In the 15 weeks I had since starting in mid April, my most aggressive run was 6 miles at 9 minute mile pace, but I walked up to 40 miles and averaged nearly 8000ft of climb every week.

3. Finding your way. Navigation isn't difficult on this course, and many "Lakeland 100"  trods have gradually been worn in since I first reccied the route in the autumn of 2009. In daylight it would be a breeze, but as a tourist you go through two nights and this makes things a bit trickier. The hours of darkness come roughly from CP2 (Eskdale) to the descent to CP5 (Braithwaite), then again from the descent of Gatescarth en route to CP11 (Kentmere) to around CP 13 (Chapel Stile). It's worth getting Eskdale to Braithwaite firmly in your head with a couple of reccies, one preferably at night, because it's possible to make some big mistakes here - at the back of the field there are not so many other runners around and you can't rely on help or lights to follow. The second night is much easier, the only tricky bits are the last mile into Kentmere and the first mile or so out of Ambleside  -  worth fixing if you have time but a bit of bumbling around here is not too costly in time anyway.

Tourist Strategy

If you look at the splits over the years, you'll see that most finishers use half their time getting to Dalemain and the other half getting to the finish. Sometimes you'll see for example a runner getting to Dalemain in say 17 hours then taking 23 more to Coniston, but this was obviously a "Plan B". He got half way on his schedule then something went wrong and he had to tough it out slowly to the finish. It probably wasn't a lot of fun. You don't have this problem as a tourist because their is no Plan B. Plan A is all you have, stick with what works for the majority, and that means Dalemain in 20 hours. Starting from here, I worked out a schedule of timings at key points on the course. These were quite rough and their main purposes were (a) to prevent me getting carried away with enthusiasm and going too fast through the first night, and (b) to give some focus through Saturday.  Six hours to Wasdale, another five and a half to Braithwaite, then eight and a half to Dalemain (20 total). From there seven to Mardale Head, six to Ambleside, leaving an easy seven to the finish. That's the tourist timetable.

Well, all prepared apart from being undertrained and still having a dodgy calf, how did my tourist trip go?

In the Event.......

The Lakeland 100 anthem Nessun Dorma ("None shall sleep") was sung live by tenor Alexander Wall immediately before the start as the field waited in bright warm sunshine. A great moment and one for we back-of-pack runners to reflect on, as we would have been awake for something like 50 hours by the time we finally crashed out on Sunday morning. Then on the dot of 6pm we were off. I had my plan but it still required a degree of self discipline to set off at a steady walk as the great majority sprinted, ran, and jogged up through the streets of Coniston. I was pretty firmly at the back by the time the road steepened after the museum, but then my walk seemed just a little faster than some others and I least had the impression of one or two people behind me over the first few legs. After the first short jog down from the high point after Miner's Bridge a nice cooling breeze kicked in and it was turning into a lovely evening. I walked steadily up and over Walna Scar without breaking stride except to say hi to Drew Sheffield and Clare Shelley who appeared running in the opposite direction as I was on the steeper bit near the top of the pass. One of the finest views on the course is when all the central fells come into sight as you crest the pass here, and it was worth pausing a minute or two just to take it all in.

On the gentle jog down to the first checkpoint at Seathwaite I caught up with John, who I spent some time with over the next few hours, and who was also aiming "just to finish".  We arrived at Seathwaite in a shade under two hours, but John was more efficient in the checkpoints than me so was soon out again. My checkpoint strategy was to check in ("dib") first, then refill water bottles (I was carrying two 500ml "Oasis" bottles  - I think normally one would do on this course as the checkpoints are very close together, but I had taken a second one one account of the hot conditions and was glad of it). After that, ready for the next stage as it were, I would eat and drink something at the checkpoint, normally about 200 kcals worth, to avoid carrying too much in between. Then, on an average stage I would eat a couple of gels, a shotblok, or an equivalent amount of something similar en route to the next checkpoint.

Leg 1 is just a big steady climb on very good tracks whereas leg 2 is just the opposite. Not a lot of height gain but underfoot varying between stony path, grassy field, bog, boulders, and everything in between. A bit of care needed as it's ankle-turning ground in places. I caught up with John somewhere around Grassguards Farm and we wandered up and over the Harter Fell col, me getting throughly wet feet at one point from a not very clever choice of line, then down to Penny Hill and along the river to Eskdale and the Boot checkpoint. Again John was in and out in no time, I was longer, getting my headtorch out in readiness as the light was beginning to fade. Here I ate a delicious but enormous and rather filling flapjack, which definitely added ballast for the next few miles. The landscape starts to open up from here and I just managed to crest the rise from where you can see Burnmoor Tarn before I had to switch my light on. The view here was stunning. No moon, but the glassy tarn was clearly visible, maybe half a dozen lights ahead down by the tarn outflow and on the dark rise beyond, the paler fells behind Wasdale in the distance, and a clear sky just starting to show its first few stars. It was a warm, almost Mediterranean like night, with just the gentlest of breezes. At times like these you know there is definitely nowhere you would rather be.

I caught John and two other runners after the final uphill after the tarn. We soon located the line of cairns leading down to the good track through Brackenclose to Wasdale, and so along the short bit of road and through the fields to Checkpoint 3 at Wasdale Head. The Sunderland Strollers running this CP were having a sixties night, quite nostalgic for me as I'm a child of the sixties, I started university in 1967. Nice soup, bread, coke, and ready to go.

There seemed to be more runners around now, and I started the climb up to Black Sail Pass in a gang of maybe 6 or 7. I was at the front and asked several times if anyone wanted to come through but all seemed happy as we were.  I don't climb fast but I don't stop, and I was aware that the number of footsteps and voices I could hear behind was dwindling, until maybe a couple of hundred yards from the top a voice behind said  "Well, I think think you've burned everyone off." It was John again and we carried on steadily to the col, where I stopped a few minutes for a drink and something to eat. We were joined by Sharon, and the three of us set off down towards Ennerdale. We were passed by three or four runners who were more competent descenders but it didn't take long to get down off the rocky bit, locate the bridge over the river (although after the long dry spell this was less important this year, the river was down to a small stream) and on to the Black Sail Hostel. We stayed together down the jeep track to the turn-off towards Scarth Gap, then I seemed to pull away a bit on the little climb up to the col. I waited for the others at the top, and told them that it was best to stay fairly high on the descent until the gap in the wall is located. I pulled ahead again as we set off down but didn't feel too bad about carrying on, conditions were good and I knew there were other runners behind us now. The descent and the walk around Buttermere lake were uneventful and CP4 at Buttermere showed up soon after. I asked how many runners had been through so far. About two hundred and ninety was the reply  -  so with three hundred and six starters I was still fairly solidly near the back, but over an hour inside the Buttermere cut-off time, both of which were good. My wife Jan was probably looking in occasionally on the live feed, and I had told her that if I got out of the last twenty before Braithwaite, I was going too fast.  By the time I had restocked water and eaten and drunk something, Sharon turned up. I asked her if she knew how John was doing, she said he wasn't far back but was struggling, which was a pity as I had enjoyed his company.

I set out alone on the next section. Although Buttermere to Sail Pass is the biggest single climb on the Lakeland 100, the first few miles are a gentle ascent along a delightful traversing path. Some years in deep bracken, this time it didn't seem too bad. It steepens up for the final half mile or so to the col, a bit of a pull, but you have the knowledge that from this high point it's not only downhill all the way to Braithwaite, but the majority of tough ground on the whole Lakeland 100 is now behind you. After seeing no-one but a few lights in the distance on the way up, I passed a few runners as I shambled down for breakfast in Braithwaite at eighteen minutes past five, just twelve minutes up on my pre-race schedule.

I had decided to have three "sit down rests" for a bit of a breather and a bit more to eat, at Braithwaite, Dalemain, and Kentmere. I found this psychologically quite good as it meant I could work through the course about a quarter at a time, and view setting out from each major stop as the start of a "new" event. I find if you're running an ultra that having too much to eat in one go can leave you with digestion problems immediately afterwards, but another advantage of travelling tourist class is that this problem mostly goes away. I knew I was going to walk all the way from Braithwaite to the unmanned check at the top of the Glenderaterra valley, so the second helping of rice pudding and the other goodies on offer were welcome. I stayed longer than I perhaps should because John Vernon was at the checkpoint; I've known him for a long time and we chatted about what we had been doing earlier in the year. But eventually I got going again.

After the rugged beauty of the first thirty miles, the whole section from Braithwaite through to Dalemain is much gentler and a bit of an anti-climax, though still with nice views and you can use it as John Vernon (who has several Lakeland 100 completions to his name) advised as "recuperation time" - that is, take it easy and don't blow it by going too fast. Though I saw other runners from time to time, I travelled most of this stretch alone. Highlights were the spectacular "Tour de France" style welcome at the Dockray checkpoint, and the wonderful traversing path around Gowbarrow Fell, one of my favourite sections of the whole trip. We had been promised a cooler day for Saturday, but the clouds started drifting away on the last ten miles to Dalemain and it was becoming quite hot again. Just after Priest's Crag I caught David Mould, who was struggling with a leg injury; a real pity as he had prepared well and run sensibly and I had really hoped he could finish this year, but alas not to be. I'm sure he'll be back. I trundled on, jogging the long easy descents along the lanes, and walked into Dalemain nineteen hours and fifty-four minutes after the start. Remember what I said way back  -  Dalemain in twenty hours is the tourist plan. So far so good.

Tea, stew, coke and a clean shirt. Brilliant. I had a hot spot under one sole so I changed into some dry socks too.  It was a small blister which I covered with a plaster to be on the safe side. It came from incompetence  -  I knew it was starting on the long traversing path up to Sail Pass which always slopes away to one side  -  I needed to tighten my shoe but didn't, so a bit of friction resulted. My own fault. I don't understand why people put up with bad blisters, they're easy to avoid, I wrote a lengthy blog about it way back, I'm convinced that if you suffer you have only yourself to blame.

As enjoyable as it was sitting around eating and drinking at Dalemain, time was moving on and so must I, with a gentle walk through the fields and along the river to Pooley Bridge, before the fells start in earnest again. Pooley Bridge was like a seaside resort, there were so many people in and around the river. It was also hot hot hot, so I couldn't resist stopping for an ice-cream. As I was in the shop, I picked up a cool-looking can of 7-Up and shoved that in my pack too. I don't know if this counted as "illegal outside support", but as the facility was available to any runner who chose to use it, I don't feel too guilty. And the Solero was delicious.

After the climb up to the Cockpit, the breeze started to get a grip once more, and the walk/jog down to Howtown saw me overtaking a few runners again. From here on, I seemed to be very much more part of the event, for the first 60 miles or so I sort of had the impression that I and a few others were way behind any action  -  the race had moved on before we got there! After my lengthy stay at Dalemain I was keen to keep the checkpoint times down a bit until Kentmere, so I was in and out of Howtown quickly, and heading for the last big climb on the course. As I said earlier, my technique is to take climbs slowly but without stopping, and a steady plod saw me on the flat ground by High Kop an hour and a quarter after leaving Howtown. I sat down for a minute or two and enjoyed the 7-Up  -  the treat I'd promised myself when leaving the checkpoint. There were a few runners about now, and I chatted with several as we all made our way at different paces down to Haweswater.

I always find this a tough section, not particularly because of the climb, but because when you've got yourself up and down that, you have the four miles of quite hard undulating track along the lake, which has always seemed a hot and windless place to me. For the first time I was also starting to feel a bit sleepy as it was now around twenty four hours since we'd left Coniston.  But I'd had a good trip so far, so mustn't complain; I dug in and made my way along the lake. Just before the checkpoint I was encouraged to pass my first Lakeland 50 competitors. OK, they were going very slowly, but it was a start and I would see more of them between now and the finish. The welcome from the Delamere Spartans at the Mardale checkpoint was brilliant - guided to a seat, cup of tea in hand before you could look round, water bottles refilled, right, what do you fancy to eat? Actually, I'd been looking forward to soup but when I got there I didn't fancy any. What they did have was crisps though, and a pint-sized paper cupful of them really hit the spot.

The thing about the climbs after Mardale is that each one is smaller than the last, so you feel you're sort of on the run in. Gatescarth Pass is steep but steady, not difficult, an easy track, just do it. I walked up it with a team of three Geordie girls, and the main topic of conversation was whether we needed waterproofs on or not. It had clouded over quite quickly and the first rain was not long after. To start with it was really pleasant after the heat of the day and we convinced ourselves we would be just as wet with tops on. Then we realised that we were actually getting really wet, so tops went on and before long we were not only really wet but really hot too. And so it went on. The saving grace was that the temperature never went down too much, so being wet wasn't really any problem.

It got dark enough for headlights on the long descent down Longsleddale. I tackled the final hill from Sadgill over to Kentmere on my own in steady continuous rain in the darkness. This is the one bit of the course that always seems to go on too long for me. You feel that you've done your shift up Gatescarth then down the long stoney valley; a checkpoint should turn up soon, but you still have a few hundred feet of climbing back up, a long jeep track, and finally some faffing around through bracken filled fields and over stone wall stiles before you get to the bright lights of Kentmere.

I hadn't felt like eating or drinking in the stage from Mardale to Kentmere. It's a very lucky ultra runner who doesn't get this feeling at some stage during a long event, and you need to have a strategy to deal with it. Mine is as follows:
1. Don't panic! It's easy to get into a downward spiral mentally here and feel that the end of your race is nigh. It isn't.
2. Don't listen to well intentioned fellow runners or checkpoint staff who insist that you need to eat or drink something to keep going. You don't. We can all keep going for many miles without input. Forcing stuff down is just likely to make things worse.
3. Find some "go to" drink, and hopefully food, that you can deal with in almost any circumstances. Over a number of years I've discovered that for me, these are tea (usually available at most checkpoints late in all ultras) and ginger biscuits (I always take a packet with me).
4. Ease off a bit, have a rest if possible.
Usually, you can get things back together. It might take several hours, be patient.

So although Kentmere is famous for its pasta and smoothies, I settled for a pint of tea, half a dozen ginger biscuits (50 kcals per biscuit!) and a ten minute rest, then tumbled out into the night again to tackle the Garburn Pass. It went slowly but I was still catching people, then managed a shuffling jog all the way down the other side to Troutbeck. I had just completed the shortish climb up Robin Lane to the flat section before Skelghyll Farm when three runners came past at a good pace. Fifty yards further on they stopped to negotiate a gate, then one of the headlamps came back towards me. Fredelina said she couldn't comfortably keep up with the other two, so could she go with me until the next checkpoint as she wasn't completely happy in the dark. No problem I said, why were they going so fast? She said that they had calculated that unless they ran a lot from here they wouldn't be able to finish inside the 40 hours. Well, I'm going to finish, I said, and I'm only going to run the downhills, and not very fast either. She seemed relieved to hear that.

Ambleside turned up before too long, a little oasis of battered bodies and friendly staff. More tea and ginger biscuits for me. I was confident now, I'd reasoned that even if the world was collapsing I could get from Ambleside to the end in seven hours, and we had nearly seven and a half. The first section to Chapel stile though took longer than I expected, the only section of the course where I'd made a serious miscalculation. I think the problem was that I would normally run a lot of the almost completely flat section from Skelwith Bridge to Chapel Stile, but that wasn't in my tourist plan so we walked it. Also, the checkpoint at Chapel Stile was several fields beyond where I expected it to be, but on the plus side it was now getting light again and the torches could go away for the last time. Just before the checkpoint we caught up with Fredelina's earlier companions, who had recalculated and slowed down, but she decided to stick with me to the finish anyway.

Barely 10 miles to go and slightly over five hours left. It was going to be OK. We walked steadily along the valley to the wood behind the Great Langdale campsite, and even the little hill up to the col by Blea Tarn didn't seem too bad. The only problem I had was that my weak right calf, which had been no more than a bit achy for most of the way since Coniston, now started to hurt properly, a sort of "something's pulled in here" pain. Well, I'd been lucky so far, it could have broken down at Seathwaite on Friday evening, so it certainly wasn't going to stop me now. We jogged the downhills past the tarn and out along the bouldery path above Blea Moss to the unmanned checkpoint on the Wrynose Road. Fredelina said her feet had been hurting for a long way now, but she was still able to manage a faster-than-walking jog down the road. When we hit the flat bit we just walked steadily around then up and over the jeep track to Tilberthwaite.  A couple of runners we were with set off jogging as we left Tilberthwaite Farm, but I held to my rule that if it wasn't downhill it was going to get walked, I don't think it cost us much time.

With all due respect to the wonderful marshals at every other one, Tilberthwaite, just over 3 miles from the finish, has to be the favourite checkpoint for all Lakeland 100 finishers. It's a place of great joy and expectation. Everyone who passes through is hurting, but they know it's going to stop soon, and they know they're going to finish.  Even the horribly steep and high rising steps as you leave the checkpoint are now known in the event as "The Stairway to Heaven". So, no need for much more fuel now, just a celebratory cup of coffee, first of the event for me. A number of runners came along and pushed straight through but I couldn't resist 5 minutes of soaking up the atmosphere of the place. Then we were on our way.

But it's still the best part of a thousand feet of up before you get to descend to Coniston, so we worked away at it steadily, as I had on all the climbs so far. As we were gradually funnelled into the little V-shaped notch that the path goes through, we talked of reaching the last high point and how there should be some sort of sign there saying "Downhill Only to Coniston" or suchlike. Anyway, we reached it, and I'm not sure how it started, but we set off jogging down the other side, then suddenly we were running, bouncing down the steep bits as if it were mile 3 rather than mile 103, racing past runners from both 100 and 50 events in one non-stop blast all the way down to the Black Bull. It was too good to stop now so we looked at each other then ran uphill past the petrol station  -  the very first uphill run of the course for me - and down to the finish. Job done.

The Lakeland 100 and 50 races just go from strength to strength. Those of us who just turn up and run (or walk!) owe everything to Marc, Terry and their whole team for each year putting on such brilliant events that manage to be at the same time so challenging yet so much fun!

I'm sure I'll be back for another tourist experience. For those interested, my splits on the "Tourist Timetable"  are shown below.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Cut off in one's prime

Cutoffs. If you're up at the front of the field they have no relevance to you. But if you're near the back they might dictate your whole race strategy. So what are cutoffs all about?

I was up in the Lakes on Tuesday and managed to turn my ankle on an innocuous-looking bit of rocky path alongside a wall, so I've spent the last few days enjoying some rest, ice, beer and the Tour de France. I seem to be able to walk without limping again today so I should be OK for the start of the Lakeland 100 in a couple of weeks time. That's what I was doing in Cumbria; in my "year of running extremely slowly" I was trying to get a feeling for the pace required to "just" make the Buttermere cutoff 26 miles into the race. As it turned out, I had covered enough ground before my mishap to conclude that doing these 26 miles in the 10 hours allowed is pretty straightforward, and I'll probably shoot for a 9 hour schedule on the day.

A bit of a contrast to last month when I was preparing for the West Highland Way Race. I hadn't done any real running in preparation but I'd walked a lot, so I was confident I could do the 95 miles in the 35 hours allowed, but only if I could make it through the first cutoff  -  19 miles in 5 hours. That's nearly four miles an hour, and if you throw in the few hills involved including several hundred feet over Conic Hill, it can't be done without a reasonable amount of running or jogging at the very least.  Well, it worked out OK on the day (or night, as the race starts at 1am!) but these two different experiences set me thinking about how and why cutoffs are set. I started by comparing the cutoffs in four fairly well-known "100 mile" events, the two already mentioned, the Hardmoors 110 and the UTMB.

I think the table is more or less self-explanatory, I've just calculated the pace that you need to maintain to reach the next cutoff in time, having just made the previous one.  I've missed some of the intermediate cutoffs out in the UTMB (because there are so many), and I've also added the overall pace you would need to maintain to meet the overall time allowance for the event if there were no intermediate cutoffs.

What you notice is that in the Lakeland 100, at no stage do you have to move more than about 5% faster than the overall average pace. In the Hardmoors you have to make average plus 20% up to mile 21, and in both the West Highland Way and the UTMB the first 19 miles have to be covered at 40% above the average required for the whole distance. So what are the reasons for this high pace requirement at the start in these two races?

Before I start trying to tease this out, I'll preface it by saying that I recognise the absolute right of race organisers to set whatever rules they want. I'm grateful that they put in so much work so that we participants can have some fun at a weekend. I'm just interested in the thinking behind some of these rules.

So far as I can understand, there are two main reasons given for tight early cutoffs. The first is that the experience of the organisers and results from previous races show that if a runner can't make these times then he is unlikely to finish within the overall allowance. It's tempting to say that this is just observing what runners do rather than what they should do  -  most people start out too fast and slow down too much so that's how the race ought to be run. But I think there's a bit of history in play here. For example, if you look at the results of the West Highland Way Race for 2004 you'll see that of the 73 finishers, 3 finished in under 20 hours and 25 in under 24 hours; compare this with the 2014 race when of the 157 finishers, 22 finished in under 20 hours and 74 in under 24. And yet if you look at the split times for Balmaha (19 miles in, with a 5 hour cutoff), they show a remarkably similar average for both years. So what is happening here is that runners nowadays are running much more even-paced races than they did a decade ago. This is hardly surprising, as this is the decade in which ultra running has moved from a fringe sport to one enjoyed by hundreds of people every weekend. More participants means more sharing of good information, runners being better prepared and trained, and running strategically better races by not taking too much out of themselves early on. Running the first half of a race and walking the second half was probably seen as normal for a high proportion of the field in the past, whereas I think now it would just be seen as starting too fast for one's level of fitness. Ask any runner who has done both which they would rather do - finish the final miles feeling strong and at a pace similar to what they were doing in the first half of the race, or toughing it out at a slow walk because they're too exhausted to do anything else. One thing that I'm really convinced of is that if you are capable of doing the distance there will be a pace that you can maintain throughout, and that will get you your best result. In one of my most satisfying ultras, the Tor des Geants, the very first climb was 1300m vertical which took me two and three quarter hours. Over 200 hundred miles and 20,000m of ascent later, the final climb was 1300m vertical and took two and three quarter hours. So I believe that tight early cutoffs reflect how ultra races used to be run, rather than how they are run now. A relatively new event like the Lakeland 100 has grown up assuming competitors will have a more  even-paced strategy if they want to be successful, and the more evenly balanced cutoffs reflect this. The event may still be too tough for an individual runner, but it's much easier to live with that knowledge than feeling that you could have completed it in the same time under different rules.

When you look at the actual numbers that are "timed out" by missing cutoffs, it is actually very few, just a handful in the UK races, though maybe up to 10% in the UTMB. But this doesn't count those who have to work much harder than they would have wanted to early in the event to avoid being timed out, and who end up paying for this later. This effect is worsened by the fact that sailing too close to the wind is quite stressful so runners are likely to set their pace to meet the cutoff with something to spare to allow for something going wrong  - a bit of bad navigation, having to deal with clothing or equipment malfunctions, etc  - which increases the pace that they need to set to be "safe".

The other reason I have seen for unbalanced cutoffs is so that competitors have to "run" some of the race as opposed to walking all of it, because the race in question is a running race and walking the whole thing is against the spirit of the event. I can buy into that but it can also lead to the other extreme of competitors running quickly between checkpoints then having long rests later in the event when they have built up a "cushion". Some events such as the Grand Union Canal Race and I think the LDWA Hundreds combat this by setting maximum times that you are allowed to stop at checkpoints, but this is then another "rule" for the race. So you can wind up a long way from the original challenge of "get from A to B in 40 hours" to "get from A to B in 40 hours, but you must be at C in 5 hours and you mustn't stop more than 1 hour anywhere and......" if you see what I mean.

So as I said in a post a year or two back when I asked the question "What makes a race tough?", the answer is of course the guy who sets the rules. And if you don't like them, do another race!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Lakes 10 Peaks

I didn't think I would get around to this event this year, but I felt fine after a (rather slow) West Highland Way Race the previous weekend, and I had already paid the entrance fee (43 years married to a Yorkshire lass has ensured I now subscribe to that county's ethic of getting value for money), so I decided to go up and give it a shot. I could take it easy and if things didn't quite work out it would still be a good day out.

The Cliff Lakes 10 Peaks has been run for 3 years now I think. The Classic "Long" Course which I had entered takes in, as it says on the tin, the ten highest tops in the district  -  Helvellyn, Bow Fell, Great End, Ill Crag, Broad Crag, Scafell Pike, Sca Fell, Great Gable, Pillar and Skiddaw. Starting from Swirls car park by Thirlmere the tops have to be taken in this order (Gable and Pillar may be reversed but we'll come to that later on), with a number of intermediate checkpoints and finishing at the football club in Keswick's Fitz Park. It's a mountain event rather than a trail race, which means (a) you can choose your own route so long as you turn up at the right places in the right order, and (b) you have to be able to navigate because no-one will come to find you if you get lost  -  other than the Mountain Rescue if you really get it wrong! A "Short" course is available for those favouring a more leisurely day, which misses out the three most far-flung summits (Sca Fell, Pillar and Skiddaw) but adds in three more amenable ones (High Raise, Esk Pike and Dale Head) to maintain the "10 Peaks" idea. Finally, introduced this year for the more hardcore is the "Extreme" version which extends the plan to a complete circle from Keswick covering 20 tops and over 70 miles - not quite a Bob Graham in tops but probably just as tough in effort required due to some of the low-lying compulsory checkpoints (like having to climb Blencathra and Skiddaw separately from Keswick...)

The long course was billed as 45 miles and 18,500 ft of ascent (but we'll come to that later as well) with a 24 hour time limit.

The Scottish midges would have been proud of their Cumbrian cousins at 4.45am in Swirls car park on Saturday morning on what was clearly going to be a lovely day  -  when it got going. The assembled company, covering up as much skin as possible with buffs, scarves and any other spare clothing to hand looked more like a guerilla army than a bunch of runners out for a day on the fells. But at 5am sharp we were away, trying to shake off the biting hordes as we gained a bit of height. I was amazed at the speed at which the field took off  -  it's a good path up Helvellyn from here but it does gain 2000ft in the first mile or so  -  I definitely had some feelings of being a bit out of my league amongst the heavy breathing, so I played my own game at the back and let them go.

There was a bit of early morning mist on the top, but the summit appeared out of the gloom after about an hour and I found the first of the unmanned "dibber" stations which would be on each of the 10 objective peaks. Taking a bit of care in the mist to find the turn-off for Wythburn rather than end up at Grizedale Tarn, I was soon down out of the mist, passed three or four runners on the way down to the church, then it was a quick scoot round the southern end of the lake to the first mandatory checkpoint at Steel End. The marshals were taking a breather here  - almost all the Long Course runners had been through and they were waiting for the mass of the Short Course field which was setting off from Swirls an hour after us.

A long, occasionally boggy hike followed all the way up Wythburn to Greenup Edge. I started to see more competitors and after about half way the first of the Short Course guys came speeding past. There's a reasonably well defined path for most of the way up here nowadays, but the half mile before the final rise up to the col is mainly trackless swamp, you just pick a likely looking line and go with it. It was interesting looking back from the start of the rise to see runners scattered pretty well all over. No way of getting to Greenup with dry feet!

After Greenup the ground improves and it's just an easy steady climb up to High Raise. This is not one of the "10 Peaks" on the Long Course but is a mandatory checkpoint so you can't skirt around it  -  debatable whether that would help much anyway. The next objective is Bow Fell and it was nice to have some downhill to get a bit of speed up after the long uphill valley. Conventional wisdom is to head from High Raise towards the Langdale Pikes for a few hundred yards before cutting down to Stake Pass, but at this point I was with two or three other runners and we agreed that as all this ground is similar under foot and we could see the Stake Pass tarn, we might as well head directly for it. The reward for this was that after a short distance we picked up a pretty good developing trod which led all the way to the pass. I'm speculating that this could be the result of increasing numbers of people attempting the Joss Naylor Challenge which passes this way.

I was slightly faster than the guys I was with, so I then picked up the traversing path which goes around the back of Rossett Pike to Angle Tarn. I was progressing well enough, walking all the ups and jogging or shambling the downs, feeling pretty comfortable, and by now it had turned into a perfect day for running in the hills, dry, great visibility but with some cloud cover to keep the temperatures down a bit. 

After Angle Tarn the terrain changes from grassy and typically wet fells to rocky hills with stony paths and frequent boulder fields, awkward greasy territory in the wet but today was dry and the going easy. Up to Ore Gap then the short out-and-back to Bow Fell; I got to the top of "peak 2" over four hours after "peak 1"  - I really needed them to get closer together! Back to the gap, over Esk Pike (another mandatory "dib") but not one of "our" peaks, then down to the second manned checkpoint at Esk Hause, which I reached in just under six hours after the start. I had reasoned beforehand that if I looked upon this first fifteen miles or so as the "warm up", and got to the Hause in around six hours feeling strong then I was probably on for a finish. So far so good; this was a great psychological boost and I set off up Great End in good spirits.

The game really got good from here, not only was the going dry, but all this ground is interesting and the peaks come along very quickly. An hour after leaving Esk Hause I had picked up Great End, Ill Crag and Broad Crag and was standing on the summit of Scafell Pike. Six peaks down with barely seven hours on the clock. But I do know this area; Sca Fell would come quickly but the final three would need a lot of work.

The first decision was how to get to Sca Fell. Broad Stand is out of bounds in this event so the choice is Lord's Rake or Foxes Tarn. I had mentioned my preference for Foxes Tarn to several "regulars" over the past few hours, and all stressed that it was a lot of height to lose and the Rake was much faster. But when I arrived at Mickledore I could see the Rake was completely full of runners who in those crowds wouldn't be having a great experience, so I dropped off down to the left instead. An added bonus of the Tarn route is that there is flowing water in the approach gulley; in events of this nature the marshals at the mountain checkpoints will never be able to provide enough water for everyone's needs, so it pays to fill up whenever you get an opportunity. It's a straightforward descent and an easy climb back up, and I was pleased to see the same people just arriving on Sca Fell that I had left on Mickledore so there can't be that much difference in time, not in our bit of the field at least, about 45 minutes from leaving the Pike for me.

The big decision of the day needed to be made now. From Sca Fell you can tick Pillar and Gable in either order. Either back to Mickledore, round the Corridor to Sty Head, over Gable to Beck Head then a long, long out-and-back to Pillar, or straight down to Wasdale, up Pillar then pick up Gable on the way home. The latter route is slightly shorter and I think both more elegant and better psychologically as avoids covering a lot of ground twice  -  the disadvantage of course is that it's the best part of 3000 feet down to Wasdale and the same again back up to Pillar. I hadn't made a decision even as I left Sca Fell top, but as soon as I was off the summit mound I turned left, lost a hundred feet rapidly, and was committed to Wasdale.

After the first few hundred feet of scree which is wearing a bit thin now, it's grass all the way to the bottom, steep, easy and fast. I was making good progress at a steady jog when I was passed by Nicky Spinks who was flying down, on her way to an outright win on the Extreme Course. There was an Extreme Course checkpoint at the bottom, and although I explained I was just an eccentric Long Course runner (most people had gone the other way) they were keen to get my number as I went by. An impressive feature of the event was that all the manned checkpoints took your number and time as you went through, then sent this information by radio back to the Race Headquarters in Keswick, so they knew pretty well where everyone was in areas where phone and internet coverage is almost non-existent.

Anyway, all that was required now was to get back up to Wind Gap and on to Pillar. I'd done the ascent a few weeks ago and knew what it was like  -  a wander up the Black Sail path to the big cairn, a few hundred more yards of level, then about 1000ft of steep grass and the same again of even steeper scree, topped off by a steepish rocky ascent to Pillar summit. I had to whack through some quite deep bracken on the last level bit and I was glad I had gone for tights rather than shorts as I hadn't brought a tick tool with me. Then it steepened  up and I took it steadily but easily, finding a better line on the grass than on my earlier ascent and remembering to keep well to left to use odd bits of rock and grass to make the scree slope easier. It's still a pull, and it took me well over three hours from Sca Fell to Pillar, but I arrived happy in the knowledge that it was now mostly downhill to Honister.

Pillar to Black Sail Pass, then Black Sail to Beck Head always seem to take longer than you expect in either direction, and I was glad that I'd chosen to cover this ground only once, in a mostly downhill direction, so another hour saw me from Pillar down to Beck Head, passing many runners who had gone for the other route option along the way. I arrived at Beck Head out of water, I should have filled up at Black Sail Beck but didn't. The marshal said he could only let me have half a litre, because he was still expecting around 90 runners to come through, but that was fine as I hadn't much ground to cover now to Honister. I had to go up Great Gable of course, but from this side it's quite a short climb and done in half an hour. After the up, the scrambly bit down to Windy Gap was a bit tedious because with now tiring legs I wasn't skipping down the rocks as confidently as I had earlier in the day, but it didn't take long. When I came round here a few weeks ago I had gone down the nasty stone shoot from the gap to the Moses Trod path, which then seemed to be uphill for a lot of the way to Honister, so this time I elected to put in a last bit of fast height gain to the top of Green Gable, then down and round the shoulder of Brandreth to pick up the Honister path much later on, which turned out a far better idea. As I hit the old tramway track for the last few minutes to Honister, the clouds blew away and we had a beautiful sunny evening. I arrived at the Honister checkpoint 14 hours after leaving the start.

At the YHA this was the only indoor checkpoint, and you could send a drop bag there also. The first luxuries were a clean shirt and dry socks, then plate of pasta bolognese and a cup of tea. This was a real pick you up and get you going again place, magic. I loitered for maybe twenty minutes in all but time was marching on and so should I.

Most people were heading up the short climb to Dale Head Tarn then over and down the Newlands valley to the next checkpoint at Nichol End Marina at the north west corner of Derwent Water. I chose Borrowdale - it was a bit further in miles but I could start with a downhill while dinner went down! A couple of hundred yards down the road I picked up the Coast-to-Coast track, which then leads to a lovely undulating bridleway round the back of Castle Crag to Grange  -  I knew of this because it is taken by the Scafell Pike Trail Marathon which I ran last year. At the high point just before Castle Crag I found I had a good signal so called Jan at home, just to let her know that I was doing OK and should finish sometime during the night. I told her that we'd had wonderful weather to which she replied that it had been raining in Chester. I maybe shouldn't have said that because almost as soon as I put the phone away a light drizzle started which accompanied me for the next few miles.

But it had stopped by the time I reached Nichol End. Outside and again niggled by midges in the fading light, the marshals were welcoming as ever, and another cup of tea was available and gratefully accepted.

One climb to go. A bit cruel that the biggest single height gain of the trip should come right at the end, but we always knew it was there, can't take a joke, shouldn't have joined sort of idea. Two or three miles of field paths and minor road lead from Nichol End to Millbeck village. It was now about 10.30pm and time to prepare for the night. Hat and gloves out, head torch on. From Millbeck to the Skiddaw summit ridge the track rises 2800 ft in just under 2 miles. I wasn't fast, but apart from a brief pause to put on a jacket as the evening wind got colder and fiercer, I took it without  a break. I kept thinking this was a good exercise for bringing the Lakeland 100 climbs down to size  -  come on then Fusedale, is that the best you've got? At around the 2000ft mark the mist closed in and visibility shrank to a few yards. On reaching the summit I was amazed to find it manned by a marshal - what a hero!  He was by his tent inside the stone shelter wall, and it was going to be a long night for him as the last of the Extreme Course runners was not likely to be through until after 8am.  I asked where the dibber was and he told me it was on the trig point, except that you couldn't see it from where we were standing  -  a distance of a dozen yards.

So, last uphill done, I set off down. This is not a dangerous place, and ridiculously easy to see where you're going in good visibility; however under these conditions a bit of care was needed with the navigation at the top to avoid coming down the wrong side of the hill and ending up with a long walk back. Typically, visibility improved at just about the same point as the track became better defined with two edges to see. After that, it was just a gentle jog back to Keswick. I lost two places at the finish by forgetting that there was a back way into the football ground and treating myself to a lap of the hospital and the car park, but in the grand scheme of things a resigned chuckle seemed more appropriate than real annoyance at the end of a rewarding day. It was nice to get into the warm of the football club, sit down in the knowledge that legs were finished with for the day, and be served tea and pizza by the Race Director himself.

I finished in 21 hours and 24 minutes, in 53rd place out of I think 91 starters. Without this year's injuries, with time for some proper training (and possibly without a 95 mile race a week before), I think I should be able to get this closer to about 18 hours, but it's still difficult to take in that the winner got round in under 11 hours - an impressive run. My Garmin recorded 48 miles and just under 20,000ft of ascent for my trip.

It was a superbly organised event and a great day out. I've already signed up for a sister challenge, the "Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks" on the first weekend of September.