Looking back last summer I realised that I had been involved in running one or other of the Lakeland 100 or 50 races every year since 2010. I knew I had other things on this year that would have to interrupt this sequence but it's always such a good weekend that I decided that I would stay involved by joining the marshalling team.
After volunteering, we were asked if anyone would like to help out with the ''official'' recces of the course as well, so I signed up for those too. During the year running up to the race there were four of these, the normal format being some relevant talks on the Saturday evening followed by a recce of part of the course on the Sunday, including a bus from the finish to the start and regular checkpoints providing water and snacks. We covered Coniston to Buttermere, Buttermere to Dalemain, and Dalemain (or rather Pooley Bridge just down the road) to Ambleside in this way. The fourth recce to complete the Lakeland 100 loop was a bit different in that the talks were on the Saturday afternoon followed by a run from Ambleside to Coniston in the evening, giving runners a chance to practice their night running and navigating skills! I ran as ''sweeper'' on all four recces, running at the back to make sure everyone was accounted for as we passed through each checkpoint and off the course at the finish. I really enjoyed these days out. Not too taxing from a pace point of view but always a good outing on a section of this beautiful course, time on the feet to add to the training, and I met lots of interesting people through the year.
I also got to meet some of the key people in the Lakeland team, Marc, Terry, Chris and Jo, who were always there at the recces, Marc contributing to the talks in his inimitable way (if you've been to a briefing or presentation at the events in July, you'll know his style!) and the others more involved in organising the run itself. Whether this helped or not I don't know, but when the rota came out for marshalling duties during this year's events, I seemed to have got some pretty nice jobs, all based in Coniston.
Turning up just before 9am on the Friday morning, we were issued with our badges and nice yellow teeshirts then were quickly engaged in competitor registration. Everyone had a nominal job, mine was checking photo ID's and phone numbers, but we tended do go where the pressure was and I spent most of my time on the kit check station.
Now this is generally good fun all round for both checkers and competitors. The style varies from race to race of course, I once turned up to one of the early Tour de Helvellyn runs when there was clearly going to be knee-deep snow over a lot of the course; my kit was checked just before the start by the RD Joe Faulkner who looked me up and down, then at my bag, then said ''That looks big enough, you'll be OK'' and I was on my way. A man with experience. But we amateurs at the Lakeland had specific instructions on exactly what would pass and what wouldn't. Most competitors had read the kit list well enough so there weren't too many debates, although the guy across the room did a fairly good trade selling waterproof trousers and first aid kits (the things we never use, or I suppose more accurately the things we probably need only once..........but then we do need them!)
What was interesting from my side was how different competitors presented their kit. The old hands came with everything unpacked in a carrier bag or a plastic box, everything was accessible and the whole deal took seconds before they were away. Next were the people who had all their stuff neatly packed in their running sack and they knew where individual items were so they could be produced fairly quickly then put away again. And then there were the guys who knew they had everything in there somewhere but couldn't quite remember where it all was........ Quite often, the easiest way was just to say ''Well let's just get everything out then we can work through it as you put it back!'' Tables were strewed, I hope everyone went out with what they came in with! But everyone was pretty relaxed and we only built up an incoming queue at the very busiest times. Kit check went on until about 4pm, though there were enough of us to get a long break each. During my time off I was able to catch up briefly friends who were running the L100 like John Kynaston, Dave Troman, Jonny Rowan, Marco Consani, Jon Steele and others. I also met Mike Churchyard who I had been communicating with on Facebook. Mike's aim was to finish, he wasn't too bothered about the time; he had read my blog from last year ''A Tourist's Guide to the Lakeland 100'' and said he was going to follow my splits.
At 4pm, we quickly cleared the hall of barriers, tables, and clothing racks (when you're a competitor you don't really stop to think that all this is going on in the background) ready for the L100 briefing, after which I was outside to help to try to separate competitors from supporters ready for the start. The start was a good as ever with the now-traditional Nessun Dorma (''None Shall Sleep'' !) sung live, the countdown, then 300 brave competitors cheered off at the start of their adventure. It would be nearly two days before some of them made it back to Coniston. Registration then continued for L50 competitors (over 600 of them altogether this year) until later in the evening, then we had finished for the day and I wandered up to the Black Bull for a welcome pint of Coniston Bluebird. It was quite relaxing camping on the school field without the feeling that there was a race to be run the next day.
A couple of hours final registration time on Saturday morning, then the L50 competitors were off on their fleet of buses to Dalemain. All we had to do after that was clear the hall and get it ready to receive finishers, then I had time off for several hours. It was a beautiful day so I took a bit of time out for a run. I did the ''Coniston Horseshoe''; starting up the track which all the competitors would finish down over the next 24 hours or so led me up to the little col after the ascent from Tilberthwaite, from where a good track leads up the ridge to the summit of Wetherlam. 500ft or so of height is then lost along the continuation ridge, followed by a rough, rocky ascent up a track called the Prison Band to the summit of Swirl How. Gentler running then leads southward over Brim Fell to the final summit of Coniston Old Man. I decided my knees would not be best served by the direct descent to Coniston so I came down via Goats Hause, then passing under Dow Crag where I've spent many days rock climbing over the last half century, finally joining the Walna Scar Road (which the L100 competitors had gone up the evening before) back down to the town. About 10 miles and 3500ft of ascent - a real walk in the park compared with what the L100 and 50 guys were going through, but a nice enough break from the proceedings at Coniston.
My next spell of duty was at the finish line, greeting finishers. I wasn't due to start until 5pm but once I'd had a shower and a bit of a rest I wandered over there anyway, just in time to see Paul Tierny winning the L100 race. He stopped at the finish line, crouching and dripping sweat for a few moments, but then looked in remarkably good shape for a man who had just run 105 miles of hills in under 21 hours. About an hour later last year's winner Marco came home in second place; he too looked good but said he'd found it hard this year.
At 5pm, 23 hours after the L100 competitors had set out, I took over on my first shift at the finish. This is a great job. It needs three to five of you, depending on the volume of finishers coming through, and you have to make sure that every finisher makes their final ''dib'' into the finish counter, then escort them individually from the finish gate the thirty yards or so to the hall, checking that they are basically OK and if there's anything they need immediately, and finally to announce them into the hall as a finisher where they get a good round of applause from the ever-growing crowd inside. A few people finish in a bit of a distressed state, but the most common emotion is the sense of achievement they have at having done the job. Yes they're hurting, sore feet, aching muscles, short of sleep and generally knackered, but elated nonetheless. The finish of these events is a good place to be.
I'd hardly got started when Dave Troman arrived, cracking his 24 hour target with plenty of time to spare for a 6th place finish. He looked good but said he'd had a tough time overnight; that's an experience I've had here too, the race is long enough for you to go through extended hard periods and then get through them. A great result for Dave. Jon Steele appeared after getting a lift back from Dalemain; this wasn't a good year for him in the 100 but he was concerned that carrying on when things weren't right would affect his Sparthalon chances later in the year. He was just in time though to see his friend Jayson Cavill come home in first place in the 50, another great performance. Debbie M-C came in an hour later to claim 2nd lady place, and before long there was a steady stream of both 50 and 100 finishers. As darkness approached we got busier and busier. Around the 9 or 10pm mark we started to see one or two competitors who were very near the point of collapse when they crossed the finish line and needed looking after carefully through to the hall. We speculated afterwards that these were mostly good runners who had the mental strength to push themselves right to to their limits, because later, as time went on and runners were finishing at a slower overall pace we saw hardly any of this effect.
I was due to finish at 11pm but I'd been watching John Kynaston's splits and I knew he would be in before his midnight target. John and I have known each other since we both started running ultras around eight years ago, and although we rarely meet more than three or four times a year we follow each other's progress with interest. When John last ran the L100 he had a really tough time with foot pain over the last 30 miles or so and finished in around 33 hours (a time I personally would be over the moon with!). I was in the 50 that year, having one of my best days ever to finish in just under 10 hours, and I passed John just over the top of Gatesgarth Pass. But this year he had trained really well and had a good race plan, and was determined to finish in under 30 hours. It was now clear that he was going to make it, and he came home with around half an hour to spare, looking tired but otherwise in good shape and justifiably well-pleased with his trip. It was good to be there to congratulate him at the finish.
I went off for a bit of sleep at around midnight and was back at 5am. I didn't have to wait long to see Nick Ham, resplendent in pink tutu, finish his 5th Lakeland 100. Shortly after him, Jonny Rowan arrived to complete his first. A steady stream of finishers came in all through the morning. Just before 9 o'clock I started to look out for Mike Chuchyard; I had followed his splits all through the race (apart from when I had been asleep) and it looked like his plan was working out fine. He soon showed up, with an overall time of 39 and a quarter hours, looking absolutely fine and very pleased, a text-book "I'm here to finish" performance, well done Mike!
The 40 hour maximum time allowance was due to be up at 11am, and the 24 hours for the 50 at 11.30. Our little finishing line team speculated on what we should do about runners that we knew were still on the course who came in after these times. I said I was sure that finishes had been credited to competitors slightly over these times in the past, but as 11am got nearer I checked with Terry just to be sure. If anyone gets out of Ambleside inside the cutoff and makes it to Coniston then they're a finisher, was his answer. Quite right too! (although I'm not sure if any of us realised at that point the ramifications of this stance on this particular day....)
As the 24 hours approached, a big crowd gathered outside the school to watch the final few L50 finishers come in, including 72 years old Donald Kitching in 23:38 and especially 80 years old Harry Thompson in 23.43, both getting a huge round of applause. John Vernon, who is not far off my age and who I had been chatting to on and off throughout the morning, remarked somewhat dryly "less than fifteen years, young man, that's you and me!" as Harry came in.
The penultimate L100 finisher Steve Blythe had already come in safely almost half an hour earlier, in an overall time of 40:03, but we knew there was one more, John Miles, still out on the course. We knew John had left Tiberthwaite half an hour or so after Steve so we thought his arrival must be imminent now. We waited at the finish as the presentation ceremony started in the hall. After a wonderful weekend for weather it was now raining steadily. There were 3 or 4 of us at the finish, now including the Sport Ident guy (whose name I forgot, sorry!) waiting to collect the final "dibber" and the finish station boxes so he could pack up their operation. One of our gang, Helen, said "I'm ready for a bit of exercise, I'll walk up and meet him". An hour later we had not seen John, nor heard from Helen. We started to gather clothes and a bit of gear to go up and look. Then we heard from Helen who had found him off route but was now getting him back on course, still on the far side of the final col. The others were ready to go anyway, so two or three of them went off up the hill to see if they could lend a hand, while I stayed at the finish to let Terry kn ow what was going on when (as soon happened) the pesentations finished and everyone was streaming out of the hall.
What had apparently happened was that John had not taken the slight left turn up onto the fell after the climb out of Tilberthwaite, carried straight on and ended up on the wrong side of the valley. An easy mistake, as the party just ahead of me on the night recce would acknowledge after I let them take this direction for fifty yards or so before gently prompting "Are we totally happy about this then, team?"
The finish arch had been dismantled and most of the hall returned to its school appearance, but everyone stopped what they were doing to give a warm welcome to the final Lakeland 100 finisher of 2015, who made his final "dib" 43 hours and 36 minutes after leaving Coniston on Friday evening, and was then presented with his finishers medal by Terry himself.
Time to go home. I made a quick round of goodbyes, after a weekend over which I had witnessed some stunning performances, seen some very brave people, met a lot of new friends and thoroughly enjoyed myself. "All right for the recces next year then?" was Terry's parting shot. Is this a lifetime job? But unless something unforseen prevents me, of course I'll be there. After a year or two this event gets under your skin a bit, wouldn't miss it. A few days later we got an email from Chris, thanking all the marshalls for their contributions and asking if we would like to have a place in one of the races next year, and if so which one? Well, the 50 is a really nice race and I do have other stuff planned a month either side............ but the 100 will always be a real adventure. No contest really then.