After several years of running the Lakeland 50/100 events I had decided to give them a miss this year; partly because an active weekend at that date didn't really fit with other things I have on for the year and partly because I didn't fancy getting involved in the inevitable scramble for places when entries opened on 1st September last year. The races filled up in something like 20 minutes, so it seems some sort of ballot is inevitable in future. That's the way of the ultra world now, contrasting with the first time I did the Lakeland 100 when I put my entry in around Christmas I think.
It's always a good weekend though so I decided to volunteer to help. I guess I'll end up kit checking or suchlike in July, but volunteers were also asked if they could help out at the official "reccie" weekends. The idea of these is to give prospective entrants a chance to explore the course and meet some of their fellow competitors. The organisers also arrange some talks on the afternoon before the actual outing on the course, covering topics like training, navigation and so on. It's a format that's been run successfully for some years now, and I thought it might be interesting to get involved so I said I was in. I expected I might be manning a checkpoint or something, but I was asked if I could be a "support runner". The idea is to have a few people who know the course spaced throughout the field on each reccie, to help out if anyone needs a hand or gets into trouble. The brief is to avoid doing any actual guiding as one purpose of the reccies is to get prospective competitors finding their own way around the course, but to try and make sure no-one gets too lost and that everyone who starts out shows up at the finish. This seemed like a good deal, a nice day out in the Lakes with a free bus to the start so I said yes straight away. Being still on something of a road to recovery from last year's injuries and not wanting to go too fast anyway, I volunteered to sweep (run behind the field and make sure that no-one gets left behind) and I've done this for the first two reccies.
Now sweeping in an actual race (so I'm told), particularly in the latter stages of a long one, can be a bit of a tiring affair. You're likely to spend time with the final one or two competitors, and if they start to struggle you have accompany them probably quite slowly to the next checkpoint. Then if they drop out you have to get something of a shift on to catch up with the new tail end of the field before the process repeats itself. But for the reccies you have none of these problems; they're not particularly long days out so unless there's a disaster everyone's going to finish, no-one gets too distressed and you get a good day out with some nice people.
The first reccie was in November from Coniston to Buttermere. A bit of rain, a bit of mist, typical for the time of year, but it's a long, tortuous journey of two hours or more from Buttermere to Coniston by bus so we didn't get away particularly early and it was inevitable that the slower runners would finish in the dark. After a steady afternoon I put my torch on going up Black Sail Pass. The guy that I was with had actually done the course before, so the descent in the dark down to the bridge over the Liza and the Youth Hostel didn't come as a shock - as it clearly had done to runners I have been with on at least two Lakeland 100 events who hadn't reccied the course beforehand and who kept asking rather nervously if I was absolutely sure that it goes down here....
The second reccie last weekend was a short affair, 15 miles from Ambleside over to Coniston - the "finishing stretch" for both 50 and 100 events. But this one was timed to ensure that everyone got a chance to run (and navigate) in the dark. The talks were earlier in the day this time and the field set off from Ambleside at around 4.30pm. At the start I asked Terry Gilpin, one of the race directors and the course and reccie guru, what time the last runner finished this particular reccie last year - just before midnight was his warning. I said we would try to do better.
It was a pleasant evening, not too cold with a gentle breeze, with the odd spatter of snow or rain, difficult to tell which in the dark. It was interesting to watch the navigation techniques of the various people I was with through the evening. Some favoured the map, others the "roadbook" - a fairly detailed written description. I didn't see anyone following a GPS trace, so one up for the traditionalists, in my bit of the field at least! The last three miles from Tilberthwaite up and over to Coniston were a new experience for me in the dark; in the L100 it's always been into Sunday morning by the time I got to here, and on the one occasion I ran the L50 I (just) made it in the fading daylight of Saturday evening. So some learning for all of us. We all made it safely back to Coniston with the last group finishing in fine order just before 9.30pm, in plenty of time for a pint of Coniston Bluebird in the Black Bull before setting off home.
Next up is Buttermere to Dalemain at the end of March. It's the weekend after the Hardmoors 55 for me, but I somehow think it will still be a good day out.