Well, for the second weekend running I was off to the Lakes for the inaugural running of a nice looking 50 mile event. The Lakes in a Day Ultra, organised by Open Adventure, goes from Caldbeck in the far north of the district to Cartmel in the south, via Blencathra, the Helvellyn range, then lesser heights, woodland and lakeside trails to the west of Windermere. A base with facilities for camping at the Priory School in Cartmel and buses laid on to take runners from here to the start in Caldbeck makes it an easy trip logistically, so although I was still feeling a little tired from splashing around the wet 3 x 3000 the previous Saturday I was looking forward to the day.
I travelled up late Friday afternoon, registered at the school then wandered into Cartmel for a meal and a beer before bedding down in the trusty Octavia with the alarm set for 5.30am. It seemed to rain pretty steadily for most of the night, but Saturday dawned dryish if still rather grey and misty. The buses left on the dot at ten past six, getting us to Caldbeck with a few minutes to spare before the scheduled 8am start. A quick chat with Jon and Shirley Steele, the briefest of briefings, then we were off.
The first few miles were familiar ground to me, following the same route out of Caldbeck, up High Pike and down to the Lingy Hut to that taken by the Grand Tour of Skiddaw back in August. By here the field was starting to spread out, we had had our first sharp rain shower, and we had reached cloud level.
Unlike most "mountain" ultras there were very few unmanned checkpoints ("dibber boxes") to ensure that competitors completed the required route; instead, the course was shown on the map supplied by the organisers and each runner carried a tracking device so it could be seen whether any illegal shortcuts had been taken. The system seemed to work well, and has the added advantage that race HQ knew where everyone was at any time.
The only bit of the course which had a free route choice was from High Pike over to Blencathra summit, mainly I suppose because there are no real paths in this area. The first objective was to get down to the River Caldew. On the Tour of Skiddaw we had gone down Grains Gill to the big track to Skiddaw House, but a mile can be saved by pushing directly over Comb Head and that's what most of the field seemed to be doing. A variety of lines were taken with runners seemingly scattered fairly widely over the hillside in deep heather in the fog, but we all managed to converge on the jeep track that the map said was there for the final run down to the Caldew, where we were out of the clag and for the first time that day in some sunshine.
Thinking about the course earlier in the week and mindful that the amount of rain we'd had might make wading the river at this point "interesting", I had planned to go a mile or so upstream to the pole and fence that spans the stream just above the traditional Bob Graham crossing point, then pick up the BG trod to Blencathra, but the organisers had provided a direct option by way of a temporary bridge which seemed too good to miss, and was in any case quite a classy construction.
|Bridge across the Caldew|
Any hopes that this might keep feet dry were quickly dispelled however as we then had to cross a knee-deep tributary stream anyway. The next few hundred feet were tedious, trackless tussocky grass, the sort of territory where you're always convinced that everyone has picked a better line than you. As soon as the ground started to level out on the edge of Mungrisdale common I cut rightwards to pick up the BG route and things got a lot easier to the top of Blencathra. By now we were in thick mist again - the cloud level on the tops seemed to be hanging around persistently at about the 2000ft level so no views again. There were a few other runners around but in these conditions they seem to disappear into the fog when not far off.
I had my first navigational moment on Blencathra. I knew the way, I'd been there before. Up to the top, turn left onto Hall's Fell Ridge and straight down to Threlkeld, easy. Except after five or ten minutes on the ridge I suddenly realised I wasn't on a ridge at all but following a vague track down an open hillside. A bit of a pause to consult map and compass more carefully and I worked out that I'd sidled off the ridge to the right and was heading into the gulley between the ridge and Middle Tongue. I traversed horizontally back for maybe a hundred yards to get re-established and carried on down, paying a bit more attention. The path got easy just as I came down out of the mist, typical. I don't think mine was the only error, looking at the shots taken by the photographer near the bottom of the ridge, quite a proportion of the runners appear to be emerging from the lower part of the gulley so I might have been quicker just pushing on down!
|Down out of the mist on Blencathra|
Quickly from there down through the fields to Threlkeld and the first main checkpoint and feed station at 11.40am. There were three of these stops on the course, at Thelkeld, Ambleside and Finsthwaite; all were indoors, warm, welcoming places with lots of good food, real oases along the way. I didn't stay long at this first one but was soon out and onto the longest stage of the day over to Ambleside.
We followed the old railway path under the main A66 and along to Newsham. The next few miles to Helvellyn would be an exact reversal of what I had done last weekend in the 3 x 3000 event. The climb up Clough Head is long and steep, but by following the BG trod just to the left of the rocks I seemed without going any faster to overtake quite a few runners who were seeking less steep ground over to the left. Once on top, that was the major effort for the stage made and I could enjoy the remainder. Easy running in now lovely sunshine over the Dodds, Raise, Whiteside and Lower Man to Helvellyn, following my now re-established regime of walking the ups and jogging everything else. By the time I got to Helvellyn I was in the last bit of mist again, so I celebrated by not paying attention to the path - navigational moment number two - and realised quite soon that I was making good progress towards Wythburn rather than Grisedale Tarn. No real harm done, a contour across the hillside got me back on track with the loss of maybe five minutes at most. I should have topped up water at the tarn outflow but forgot and was running on empty by the time I got to Ambleside. Fairfield was a pull but went quickly and the long run down the "easy" side of the Fairfield horseshoe to Ambleside was pleasure all the way.
I had hoped to reach Ambleside in daylight so was pleased to trundle in a minute or two before 6pm. Pasta, pizza, tea and dry socks set me up nicely for the easier second half of the route, but which would be done mainly in the dark. I was surprised to see Jon Steele and Mark Dalton at Ambleside as they had taken off a lot faster than me from the start, but Jon said he'd found the climb up Clough Head hard and had also injured a knee so had been forced to slow down. I left on my on but expected them to catch me up.
The route from Ambleside tracks the western shore of Windermere, sometimes closely, sometimes a mile or so distant. The start was a few miles down the cinder cycle track alongside the road to Low Wreay, which apart from the steeper ups I took at a steady jog. On the half mile of tarmac up to High Wreay we lost the last of the light and I caught up with Iain, who I was to stay with for the next few miles. We made our way through the woods to the top of Claife Heights, with one pause to check that we really were in the right place - plantations are hard in daylight, let alone in the dark. Then the run down the easy track past Moss Eccles Tarn to Sawrey was fine on what had become a nice moonlit evening. There followed a bit of road then a twisty lakeside footpath, through fields and woods and even along bits of the lake beach at times, which was slower going. A hilly bit of road then another section of lakeside path, a bit more tortuous this time, led back to the road near the YMCA water centre.
The last couple of miles or so to the Finsthwaite checkpoint involved a stiff climb of a few hundred feet through woods up to Scott Heights, then over to High Dam. As none of the paths were marked on our maps, this was one of the few sections of the course to have been marked - just as well, it would have been quite tricky without, as I said woods are not easy at night. I suggested Iain carried on as I was going to stop for a minute to get my poles out. Now alone, I made my way steadily upwards and just before the top I was caught by another headlamp, this time it was Mark. I expected him and Jon to have caught me earlier but he said Jon's knee was clicking so he'd had to slow down and told Mark to go on. Jon wasn't far away though, he turned up at Finsthwaite OK. The checkpoint was again well-appointed, soup and hot sausage rolls to see us through the eight miles to the finish. Because of the darkness in the second half, the race seemed to acquire an atmosphere you usually associate with much longer events, where runners travelling at similar speeds congregate at the checkpoints for some mutual chat and support before setting off again into the night. One of the staff did an impressive knee strapping job on Jon, who then declared himself good to go. He was going to be accompanied by Shirley for the last stretch, so off they went. I followed a few minutes later. It was now around ten minutes past ten; I had hoped to finish before midnight, 16 hours after starting, but that looked unlikely now, I had to average over 4 miles an hour and get all the navigation right.
There was a little climb through woods again, then a steepish descent to Newby Bridge and another steady ascent out of the other side of the village. Patches of thick fog appeared from time to time, making visibility pretty poor. Not far out of Newby Bridge I saw some lights ahead in the gloom and found it was Jon and Shirley. We followed a long, muddy, narrow path over a bit of low moorland, then a short road section led up to Bigland Tarn. Just beyond here the route joined the Cumbria Coastal Way until the final road section. We hoped it might be well marked, and to start with it was good, over a little rise and across a bit of moor. Then it plunged into another plantation and things got harder. The tracks on the ground didn't really match those on the map (do they ever in plantations?) and we'd lost the CCW signs. We caught up with another half dozen runners including Mark who were equally perplexed. Fortunately this bit of wood was relatively short and we soon stumbled out onto a road crossing barely a hundred yards from where we should have been.
Now we were on open moor again and the track relatively easy to follow, of course the CCW posts appeared to keep us company. A gentle up and over, a short wood, then we were out onto what we knew was the final couple of miles of narrow road into Cartmel. I was with Mark, slightly ahead of the others. We ought to show willing I suggested, so we broke into a jog, then a slowish run. The others followed and we all manged to keep it going to the finish, all finishing within a few minutes of each other. I lost out to most of the others, including Jon who overcame his knee pain to put on a fine effort over the last mile. I must be getting old.
My time in the end was 16:34:53 which gave me a provisional 84th place out of 152 finishers (don't know how many starters the were). I seemed to be the first "over 60" home by the simple tactic of being the only entrant in the age group. The overall winner's time was 10:37:21.
Finishing at the school was superb. We were treated to baked potatoes with a choice of fillings (definitely chilli for me!) and lots of tea. We sat around eating and relaxing in the warm for a while, then went off to make use of the wonderfully hot showers. I've done a lot of ultras over the years and this was without doubt one of the best organised I've done; for Open Adventure to achieve this on the first running of the event was a great performance, many thanks to the organisers and all the marshals.
There was some debate about the distance. 48 miles was on the tin, most people who had Garmins got 52-53, but then almost everyone made an error or two along the way. Race Director James has since said that the best route on the day was actually just on 50. As for the 4000m of climb, I think the jury's still out! It may be right, but I think everyone found the climbs tough, due to the steepness and the ground underfoot. Whatever, this is a great course, with a bit of everything that the Lakes has to offer. I'll definitely be back next year!