Thursday, 11 August 2016

Lakeland 100 - back to the party again!

Looking back now after 5 starts and 3 finishes I wondered if I still had anything to say about the Lakeland 100. But it's an event that keeps on giving and returning to Coniston for the 7th year in a row (including one year marshalling and one running the 50) naturally resulted in a host of new experiences and memories to savour. I have to write this stuff down so that I can look back in my dotage at how I used to spend my time, but if you want to come along with the story you're more than welcome.

Preparation hadn't gone exactly swimmingly. A hamstring pulled 4 weeks before the go, probably as a result of taking up running again too soon and too enthusiastically after the West Highland Way Race, resulted in a couple of physio visits and some missed training. Given the go-ahead after 2 weeks, a first gentle outing went fine but the second resulted in the muscle playing up again. I decided further medical consultation was futile as I'd already made my decision. I stopped running but a slowish traverse of Blencathra and a casual outing up Place Fell with Jan convinced me I could still walk OK.  I'd played this game before, I knew how to get round the course with virtually no recourse to running, and as Marc Laithwaite was later to say at the briefing that everyone in the field was probably injured anyway I had no excuse even if I'd wanted one.

Parking on the school field on Friday afternoon, a lot of familiar faces around. Hello to the Consanis, the Steeles, David, Phil and others then in for registration. My kit check done by Steve who I'd run the last day of the Ring of Fire with last year. Dave in the hall but not running this year, mind focussed on the TDS in a month's time. Pick up the dibber "you've done this before haven't you?" Back to the car for a rest and the crossword in the sunshine. Warm but not as hot as last time, 2014, cracking the flags then, all day and night, but a nice cooling breeze today.

"Your main aim is to finish. Anything else is a bonus"  - Marc at the briefing. I know that, except for me the only aim is to finish. I know I can do this race but it's too big for me to have any other goal than to be arriving back at Coniston sometime late on Sunday morning. We shake hands with whoever is next to us, wish them well. No deciding who will finish this year, a higher completion rate has been achieved last year and is expected again; 70% or the boss will be disappointed, we promise to oblige.

Then outside, Nessun Dorma, the Final Countdown and off through the streets of Coniston. Walking at the back for me but it won't cost much time as I know there will be a queue for the gate at the Miners' Bridge. There are still a few people behind me as I settle into the first little climb, then break into an extremely slow jog down to the start of the Walna Scar road. Everything seems OK.

The climb over Walna is one of the biggest on the course but it's at an easy angle on a good track so not too much of a chore and you are rewarded with the first stunning view of the trip at the summit. All the central fells come into view in the evening sunshine. Then it's an easy descent all the way down to Seathwaite. Dib in, refill water bottle, eat a couple of custard creams and a slice of cake then off down the road. I pass Mike at the gate. He followed my "tourist" splits for a 39 hour finish last year but is hoping for a bit better this time.

Walna Scar ascent
I've got the nutrition on this event honed to a plan that suits me so I don't have to think too hard about it now. I carry one 600ml water bottle which I plan to empty during each leg; one leg Mountain Fuel then the next water, alternately until Dalemain. After that, when I won't be eating so much food, Mountain Fuel each time. At each checkpoint I drink another cupful or two of fluid and eat one or two hundred calories worth of food, what ever appeals at the moment. I don't carry any food with me up to Dalemain, after that just a packet of ginger biscuits which I can turn to when nothing else seems palatable. I've eaten and drunk both too little and too much in races in the past and I know this approach works for me in a steady 100 miler. I think now the biggest thing about food is not to fret about it. If you're not hungry then don't eat, you'll still get round.

I pass and repass a number of runners on the section up to Grassguards. I seem to be steadier up the hills but they cruise past on the level bits where I'm walking pretty much everything.  After Grassguards we hit the wet; the section of the course that in any year, no matter how dry, you're going to get soggy feet. Except this year I stay dry because as an experiment, knowing we've had a lot of rain in the Lakes recently, I've gone with "Sealskin" waterproof socks (actually the rather cheaper ex-army version for me) and they seem to be working. Finally out of the swamp and over the fence, the tricky little decent down to Penny Hill then along the river to Boot and Checkpoint 2.

"Andy Cole!" I hear as I arrive, it's Drew and Debbie handing out drinks - pretty high-class marshals at some of these stops. I ask how many people still to come, at least twenty, I must be going too fast then, the last handful is where I should be at this stage. More custard creams and chocolate chip cookies, the sort of thing I never eat at home but on an event like this they really seem to hit the spot. Darkness seems to come early tonight and the torch is on as soon as I leave the checkpoint. I stride up the first mile or so of enclosed path followed by some more lights. I ask if they want to come past but they say they're happy with the pace and will just tag along. So I enjoy a sociable leg over to Wasdale Head in the company of Eamon and Steve. We manage to find a bit more wet ground around Burnmoor Tarn outflow but it then dries out over the next hill. I'm happy with 6 hours to Wasdale but this slightly shorter leg has gone quickly and we're there with a quarter of an hour in hand.

I always feel that Coniston to Wasdale is the "warm-up"; the real business starts here, so a bit of sustenance before setting out. The Sunderland Strollers have a good spread so soup, a cheese sandwich and a quick hit of coke and I'm good to go. Eamon and Steve have been much more efficient, I see them leaving several minutes before me; I don't see them again but they finish OK in around 38 and a half hours  -  my sort of runners. I work my way steadily up Black Sail on my own. I can see lights ahead and behind but they're some distance away. I don't like to stop on climbs so I plod away and eventually catch and pass a couple just at the summit. The ground down the other side suits me and I jog down at a casual pace. I overtake several more runners here but I think maybe because I have a better line; their lights are over to the left but I always go by local expert Dave's rule - "stick by the stream, it's the fastest way down".

Almost no moon tonight so I'm pleased to find the footbridge then Black Sail hut springs up suddenly out of the darkness. Steadily up to Scarth Gap; I'm really enjoying the climbs and the rest seems to be going painlessly enough. I know that's going to change soon though for the few hundred yards from the col down to the "gap in the wall" are possibly the roughest on the whole course. I know that following the big cairns will get me there because I came up here again in daylight barely three weeks ago, but with lights all over the place I get distracted and still manage to find the higher gap rather than the correct lower one. Another runner has done the same but it's only a few yards downthe hill to the path and from there it's easy to Buttermere. Gareth and I stay together all the way to Buttermere; we seem to have a similar strategy  -  run only when it's actually easier than walking.

The two big stages on the night shift are a formidable part of the first half of the race, and that's one of them done. I'm 45 minutes ahead of the cutoffs at Buttermere so I don't need to think about them again, it gets easier from here.

Again I set out alone and it stays that way for the long climb up to Sail Pass. The bracken's higher than normal on the first section and I'm glad I haven't brought poles this year, not many places where they would actually have been any help so far, but they're in the bag at Dalemain, ready for the pulls up Fusedale and Gatescarth after some tiredness has set in. Easy going up to Terry's second cairn and the left turn, then steeply up for half a mile or so to the col. A bit of a haul this bit but it's over quite quickly. I've been gaining on the light ahead since we made the last turn; I catch it just before the pass and it turns out to be Gareth again. We find our way down to Braithwaite together; at Barrow Door it gets light and we enjoy a gentle jog all the way down to the village.

I've been guilty of eating too much here in the past so I just have a couple of bowls of rice pudding and a welcome first cup of tea. We have to carry our own cup for hot drinks this year but at the majority of checkpoints they are still using paper cups anyway. It always seems cold when you leave here, so another layer on and down the road. It's good to get Braithwaite behind you, it means the majority of the hard ground and three of the four big climbs are now done, and coming up is a relatively gentle twenty-five miles or so across the Northern section of the course to Dalemain. In my first three starts (only one of which was successful) I used to look on this section as an opportunity to put on a bit of speed and get some time in hand, but I was advised by a wise friend that the best way to treat it is as a time for recovery after the first tough thirty-odd miles, and since then I've heeded his advice and the second half of the race has been much more enjoyable. So I carry on jogging the downhills and walking everything else.

Along the road then the path along the old railway, then coming out by the Pheasant Inn (best steak pie in the world) I see a figure sitting on one of the seats outside the biker cafe; a bit strange at six in the morning. It turns out to be John K who is spending today watching the race then tomorrow learning part of the "Lakes-in-a-Day" route. We chat a minute or two then I ramble on my way and start the climb up Latrigg. Once out of the trees, every time I look back on opening a gate I see a figure in red a hundred yards or so behind. I eventually work out that it's Mike; I expect him to catch me but he doesn't so we each carry on thinking our own thoughts.  I've been having difficulty staying awake since Braithwaite so I just have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other; the early morning after travelling through a night is never a great time for me, but I can usually shake off the tiredness eventually. At the non-manned check at the sheepfold I shout to two or three runners ahead who have overshot the right turn, which to be fair is today a bit obscured by the much higher than usual bracken. They lose barely a minute or two. On the run-in down the other side to Checkpoint 6 at the Blencathra Centre I manage to catch another two or three runners, so at least I seem to be progressing through the field OK.

Tea, biscuits and several pieces of Dave's Mum's famous chocolate cake and I seem to be coming round again as I set out for Dockray. The first mile or two has changed this year because of the floods, straight down the road to Thelkeld, not as interesting as the old way but easier. A little cluster of us reach the unmanned check under the underpass together, and for the next mile or so I find myself chatting with Peter and Simon. They are from Jersey and are friends of Steve, who I covered quite a few miles of the Dragon's Back with last year; even with the explosion of participation over the last few years, ultra-running is still quite a small world. I pull away up the gradual climb up to and along the first bit of the Old Coach Road, then it's just a steady walk for most of the way to Dockray.

The field's thinning out now (or to be more accurate, most of it is way ahead of me) so every checkpoint is offering almost personal service to every arrival. Have a chair, can I refill your water, what can I get you to eat and drink? We really are being spoiled by these brilliant volunteers. Soup and bread and a cup of tea will do me fine thanks.  The next section to Dalemain is a long one but it starts off with an easy downhill road section, then a beautiful descent through the woods past Aira Force to the start of the lovely traversing path around Gowbarrow.  Somewhere around here I meet John; he's running more often but I'm walking faster so we seem to maintain the same sort of speed. He can tell I know the way so just cruises for a while but then pulls his road book out  - "I have to keep track of where I am in this, otherwise if one of us slows down I'm lost!" Sound reasoning, so he checks off all the decision points as we pass them. On the climb up Gowbarrow we're caught by Billy, who has been my "sweeper" companion on some of the "official" recces this year. Last year he started very slowly but then speeded up to finish in around 33 hours and it seems that his plan is the same today. We wave him through but he says he's happy just to stay with us for the time being.

I haven't been round this way recently so I'm surprised to see many trees in the wooded section after Gowbarrow have been felled, opening up the path and views and drying out the normally sloppy ground underneath. At this point Billy decides it's time to press on so he trots off ahead at around double our speed and is soon out of sight. I warn John of the wet field coming up after the next road crossing; on the recce back in March Billy and I had to help pull a runner who had got stuck up to the knees out of here, but when we get there all the cows have gone, there is a good track through the now knee-high grass and it's more or less completely dry. Always fascinating how this course changes every time you follow it. When we reach the uphill on the road out of Bennethead I'm walking comfortably a bit faster than John so I press on ahead. I don't see him again but he obviously had plenty left because he reaches Coniston about an hour ahead of me.

Dalemain in 19 hours 11 minutes. That's fine, 20 hours would be OK, anything else is a bonus. Now up into 232nd place, which considering there were 345 starters is a bit surprising; there are now over 100 runners either behind me or out. Dalemain is pretty quiet, the L50 runners left hours ago. Here I must remember to change the batteries in the torch, after that it's all relaxation and being waited on again. Tea, pasta, a clean shirt, poles to see me through the second half, a thicker fleece because tonight is forecast colder. I spend far more time than I should here, over half an hour, but it was great at the time.

I see runners in the distance and pass the odd one or two during the long walk through Pooley Bridge and up over Askham Moor, then a bit of jogging and Howtown (Cowtown?  - cowboys everywhere) comes up. This is a place you must not linger; every minute you stay here the next climb up Fusedale, the last big one on the course, grows by at least another hundred feet in your mind. A bit of an instant energy fix for me, haribos and coke, then off up the road. It's not so bad really of course, it's neither as long nor as steep as Sail Pass, but then that was forty-odd miles back when you were relatively fresh. I just get into a rhythm, get the poles working, don't stop and I'm cresting the col by High Kop just on the hour after leaving Howtown. Just after the first wooden post I catch the first (or rather the last) L50 competitor, a lady making her way steadily across the moor. Then it starts to slope downwards and I can jog down to the lake, past Terry's new post and the lonely cairn. I pass a couple of runners at the footbridge who are not sure of the way so I say it's through the gate and take the right-hand option. This is another track which has appeared as a direct result of the Lakeland 50/100 events; the old one was a scrambly affair right by the side of the beck, the new one goes easily down through the bracken, cutting a bit off the corner in the process.

I used to dislike the section along the lake but now I know it better and can recognise the landmarks I find it easier to get my head round. The last time I was here wasn't so long ago, coming in the opposite direction in the "Northern Traverse" event back at the end of May. Just before the junction with the Kidsty Pike path I pass a couple of runners and ask them how it's going. The lady says she's struggling. I carry on to the Mardale Head checkpoint.  This is special for two reasons. First, I feel it's the place where the hard work of the L100 is really cracked; you're three quarters of the way round with all the big climbs done, there are still some ups but they get progressively smaller from here,  it's mostly easy to follow tracks all the way home. Second, it's run by Delamere Spartans; these guys are actually my closest running club at home, I've been wandering around Delamere Forest for over forty years, and I keep promising myself that I'll join and never getting around to it. This year I will  -  if I ever get around to running at a respectable speed again that is!

Soup and a handful of crisps and I decide to take a breather and sit down in their gazebo for five minutes. Nick is there, having to pull out because his knees have given up. It must have been a hard decision because he doesn't stop often - he's already completed 5 Lakeland 100's. The couple that I passed a bit earlier come in. The lady is convinced she's going to stop here. All around her including me try to convince her to wait awhile before making a decision, she has plenty of time left yet. As I leave she seems to be looking a little better. Her name didn't stick but looking over the results I think it must have been Amy  -  who went on to get all the way to Coniston.

People complain about the next climb up Gatescarth, but it's really just steady on a good track, just one foot in front of the other again, as slow as you like but don't stop and it will soon be done. Half way up I catch two L50 ladies, one of whom I recognise as Nici, but I can't remember where we've met. She reminds me that it was on the January night recce from Ambleside to Coniston; there were three or four of us at the back and at one point up on the moor on the last leg from Tilberthwaite we decided to take a breather. We stopped, all turned our lights off and spent just a few minutes enjoying the place with not a light to be seen anywhere in the darkness.

The bonus with Gatescarth is that when you've reached the top, you have a great descent that goes on for miles, barely a hundred yards of slight uphill all the way down to Sadgill, a no-energy cruise all the way. It's this sort of ground where I think cushioned shoes really come into their own; you don't have to concentrate on individual stones, you can just drop your foot down anywhere and let the cushioning do the rest. You have to be a bit more careful with them on bouldery ground to avoid turning an ankle, but there isn't much of that on the L100 so for me it's a small price to pay. I did my last L100 in Hoka Stinsons but over the last couple of years I've changed to Sketchers Gorun Ultras, which for the sort of running I do, and at my rather pedestrian pace, suit me perfectly.

On the hill just after Sadgill I meet Zelia, who has been a fellow marshal with me at numerous recces and last year's event. This year she's decided to have a go at the L50. She's with 73 year-old Donald, who I remember from last year when I did his kit check and then "dibbed in" at the finish. They seem to be going well and I'm sure they'll finish OK (they do). Then up the rest of the climb, I normally resent this one because you sort of feel you've gone far enough to warrant a checkpoint at Sadgill then you still have this non-trivial little up-and-over to get to Kentmere, but today it doesn't seem too bad. Kentmere and darkness arrive at pretty much the same time.

At Kentmere I reach the point that probably hits most people somewhere in a long race, none of the food at the checkpoint looks appealing, so now is the time to pull out the ginger biscuits, my "go-to" nutrition for these eventualities. I drink two cups of tea and eat four biscuits - at 50 calories a go that's good enough to get me up Garburn, otherwise don't waste time but get out into the night. There are two torches just ahead but they seem to be climbing faster so I just wend my way up at my steady plod. Surprisingly, I catch them up shortly over the top of the pass, along with another two or three runners and we set off down. I seem a bit more comfortable going down so I pull ahead, but we catch others and there is a lot of general passing and repassing down here, I guess because it's an easily runnable track and it just depends how tired you are at this stage. By the time we come out onto the road before Troutbeck I seem to have worked my way back to the front of the little band and it stays that way, apart from being passed by one runner going strongly, all the way to Ambleside.

The climb up through Troutbeck and along Robin Lane seems to go on a bit longer than it should, but eventually it levels, and once through High Skelghyll farm it's down hill all the way to Ambleside. All the way that is except the last bit. The one bit of this whole course that really bugs me, unreasonably so I'm sure but that doesn't help, is Old Lake Road. You come down out of the woods and end up on level ground, 50 yards from the main road by the garden centre. From here there is an obvious, safe, and more importantly level footpath along the main road into Ambleside. But instead of the is we have to take a backstreet with poor lighting and no footpath, up a hill then down again, being (hopefully) missed by car drivers who at the time I get there always seemed somewhat surprised to see runners about so late, which gets you to exactly the same place. Rant over.

The Ambleside checkpoint is full of clowns, including another star of earlier L100's Gaynor. Another quickish stop for me though, more tea and ginger biscuits and away. I cover the stretch from Ambleside to Elterwater completely alone, emphasised by the darkness of the virtually moonless night. It's beautiful over Latrigg and a little tedious alongside the river, a wide level path with the only distraction being the sheeps' and cows' eyes picked up in my torch beam. I pass a couple of runners just before Elterwater then catch up three more just coming into Chapel Stile and tag along with them to the checkpoint. I'm ready to eat again here and the beef stew goes down a treat. I set out with the same three guys along the undulating rocky path along the valley. It's good to have some ground you have to concentrate on again after all the straightforward tracks, especially as I'm starting to feel tired and quite sleepy again now. We make quite a good pace (though still walking, you understand!) through to the boggy bit around the campsite and up the little hill to the cattle grid, then the easy track down to Blea Tarn.

The others stop for something here so I set off down. It's light enough for the torch to go on again here. I've done two recces in darkness since I last saw this section in daylight, and I'm surprised at how straightforward it is when you have a broader field of vision. I remember to stay high after leaving the wall and it's only a few yards of paddling across the top of the moss to the Wrynose road and the final non-manned check. No need to keep anything in hand now so jog down the road and along the track to the old house, then a steady walk up the jeep track past all the false summits, to the final jog down the otherside and the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite.

I vote myself a two or three minute sit-down here, just enough time for a cup of tea and a handful of jelly babies. I'm really not looking forward to the steep climb out of here, but it's the last one so I stick to the plan, one foot in front of the other and don't stop. I haven't really thought about times since I knew I was clear of the cutoffs, but once over the first steep bit I start working out how long I might be from the finish. It's interesting enough so I push on a bit across the less steep ground up to the final col. I look at the watch here. If I can get down in half an hour, and if I've remembered my other times correctly, I'll be close to my previous best.

I can do the steeper stuff down to the old miners' cottages so I make the most of it, clattering down at a respectable pace. I'm not so sure when I reach the gravel road, a bit more effort required, but I manage a slightly-better-than-jog, then when it gets steeper near the bottom and onto the tarmac the gradient speeds me up nicely. Outside the Black Bull I see Terry, I'm pleased I'm still running to put on a bit of a show "Well run that man!" is his comment as I pass. I manage to run uphill past the petrol station (my first uphill run of the whole trip), then it's down the road to the school and done.

37:29:01 The best of my three finishes. Only by eight minutes or so, but at this stage in my career I'll take it, thanks.  Apart from a couple of periods of sleepiness I felt pretty sound the whole trip. I'll probably be back. Maybe not next year (time to marshal again I think, it's a lot of fun) but sometime.

Thanks to Marc, Terry and all the gang for putting on an event that just keeps going from strength to strength, and to all the brilliant checkpoint crews for being so helpful, friendly.......and entertaining!

After a hundred miles with no ill effects I was sure my hamstring was cured. I sensibly waited until the following Wednesday before going out for a very gentle four mile run. After three miles it was tight again, enough for me to stop. UTMB in three weeks time now. Ah well, I guess that's another longish walk then.


Ben Pine said...

Well done that man. Great report.

Robert Osfield said...

Wahooo, another L100 finish, and a nice PB too, well done. Interesting how you were just looking after yourself and focused on making steady progress without worrying about time until the very end when you found yourself in a position to be able to chase a PB.

Best of luck with final weeks recovery before the UTMB, have a great race.

Running man said...

Good read that. I recced the course a few months ago using just the map to navigate and the only bit I couldn't work out from the map was the correct path after the footbridge on the descent to Haweswater. You explained it perfectly and that's the path I took.