Saturday 8th October saw the third running of the "Lakes in a Day" event organised by James Thurlow's Open Adventure team. I had taken part in and enjoyed the two previous ones so what was not to like about a third trip down the course? The run starts in Caldbeck, over in the north lands "back o' Skidda", and winds its way over High Pike and Blencathra, Clough Head and the whole Helvellyn/Fairfield chain to Ambleside, then down the west side of Windermere to Newby Bridge, finally finishing half a dozen miles further south at Cartmel. It has a bit of everything the Lakes has to offer and is a great day out, though at 50 miles, 13,000 feet of ascent and plenty of tricky ground underfoot it's no soft touch, much more challenging and varied than say the more famous Lakeland 50.
By this time of the year I sort of feel that the season is winding down gently, after the training effort of the spring and the major target events of the summer, it's time to take things a bit easier and tip the balance a bit more in the direction of enjoyment rather than achievement. That's the way I have approached the Lakes in a Day in the past and I saw no reason for changing now. A fine autumn day out amongst the hills and woods of the Lake District will do fine for an October Saturday, albeit quite a long one as my previous times for the event have been 16hrs 34min in 2014 and 15hrs 38min in 2015.
A 4.30am start from Keswick saw me down at Cartmel in time to catch the buses back to the start. I'd said I would look out for John Kynaston who was also taking part, but across 3 buses in the dark at 5.30am the task proved too difficult so I just grabbed a seat for the sleep up to Caldbeck. On arrival it was straight into the pub for coffee and a sit in the warm until 10 minutes before the race start - I've played this particular game before. Venturing outside again, about the first person I saw was John who then immediately interviewed me for his blog, asking what were my two top tips for the day. I suggested that he should not miss filling up with water at the Grisedale Tarn outflow as it is the only source on the long second leg, and to watch the navigation over the final few miles in the dark. John was shooting for a time of around 13 hours so I didn't expect to see him again all day - I said I would probably show up around midnight if he was still awake.
James is pretty strict about getting his races away on time so at 8am precisely we were off down the road and then soon up and out onto the fells. As usual I was very near the back after the first 10 minute cavalry charge but started passing people as we got stuck into the first climb up High Pike. I spent a fair bit of this in company with Jacqueline who it turned out had done the race in 2014; we discovered that we had finished within a few minutes of each other, both beating Jon Steele when he was "docked" half an hour for missing the route. This is another feature of the Open Adventure events, they work on a set route on a map which you are given; there are no "dibbers" but each runner carries a tracker and all your timings are based on the information relayed by that. And if you are seen to to have taken an unwitting "shortcut" then time penalties will be applied!
Both previous runnings of the Lakes in a Day had seen good weather and today seemed to be following the pattern, just a few high clouds and an almost perfect temperature, it was shaping up to be a lovely day. After High Pike you're treated to a bit of easy level running along the Cumbria Way track, but when it dives off down to the left our route carries straight on over the more or less trackless Coomb Height. I had mentioned to John K to navigate carefully to the jeep track descending the far side, otherwise you find yourself with a few hundred yards of knee-deep heather, but I needn't have bothered. Since I was here last year all the heather had been removed by a fire so you could run almost anywhere on the hill with no difficulty at all!
The next obstacle is the River Caldew. It was running very high in 2014 so James's team had built a temporary bridge, then last year it was so low that you could skip across the boulders without getting your feet wet. This year was more typical conditions, necessitating a few yards of knee-deep wading - not to bad if you don't fall over! After the river is the climb up Blencathra, "Well, an hour of uphill from here" remarked the guy behind me. And actually, that's more or less what it turned out to be. It's hard work for the first two thirds, up deepish and sometimes tussocky grass with no path, but then gets easier as the Bob Graham path is joined for the final third. Joe Faulkner was marshalling on the summit - he seems to pop up at most of these Lakeland events.
After that it was an enjoyable easy scramble down Hall's Fell Ridge to the village hall in Threlkeld and Checkpoint 1, which I reached in just under three and a quarter hours from the start. I later found that I was in 169th place at this point which surprised me as I thought I must still be quite near the back, although I had been passing people steadily after the first couple of miles.
For today I had decided against eating lots of the good food available at the checkpoints, on the basis that this slows you down for half an hour or so afterwards, so my main calorie input was Mountain Fuel, which I've been playing with for a year or so now, supplemented by a couple of Shotblok bars and flapjacks. So I was at Threlkeld just long enough to refill the bottles then out again. Outside I saw Keswick Locals Dave and Tracey Troman, so I stopped for the briefest of chats. Dave said that John K was only about twenty minutes ahead of me, but we'd just covered the ground that I suspect John was least comfortable so I expected him to be hours away by the finish.
The climb up Clough Head is quite stiff but it's shorter and much easier underfoot than Blencathra so seems to go relatively quickly, then you are rewarded with a great ridge for miles, only short uphills, all the way to Helvellyn. This is a trip that I do fairly regularly, it's good running with nice views and a frequent bus service back from Ambleside to Keswick. This was probably the section of the course that I did fastest relative to the rest of the field and I arrived at Helvellyn two and three quarter hours after leaving Threlkeld. A bit more easy ridge now but at the back of your mind is the final big effort of the day, the climb up Fairfield. So down the rocky path to Grisedale Tarn, refill a water bottle and get stuck in. It's not long, probably around a thousand feet of vertical, but it's steep and fairly unrelenting and comes at a time when you're starting to tire, having been on the go for six hours or so by now. I felt I was slow but that's relative as I continued to overtake people on the way up. I passed one lady with my usual comment "How's it going?" and she said she had run out of water. On reflection, I suppose it wasn't very helpful to point out she'd just passed a full lake of it. I told her that is was only about five miles to Ambleside though, mostly down hill when you've cracked Fairfield.
And it is. I jogged easily over the rocky tops of Hart and Dove Crags then started the wonderful four miles of continuous gentle downhill. The only "problem" here is that a wall runs the entire length of the ridge with a path on either side and it's easy to convince yourself at almost any point that the one on the other side is better, which can often lead to a lot of crossings. Today I decided to avoid this mental game altogether and stick to the left hand side all the way down. The usual bogs were minimal and it was a lovely run down. Just before the bottom though the mountain wouldn't let us go without a final snap at the heels and we were presented (I was with three or four other runners at this point) with an obvious section of deepish bog ahead, only avoidable by crossing the wall. The general feeling was that as we had fresh shoes waiting in Ambleside, ploughing straight through was the obvious option.
Odd to be running through crowded Ambleside on a sunny Saturday afternoon after over eight hours of relative quiet on the fells. A few cheers though from people who knew about the race, and a great reception from those around the checkpoint at the Church Hall. I reached Ambleside in 8 hours 44 minutes from the start, now in 110th place. The only drop bag you are permitted in this race is a shoe change at Ambleside because the ground underfoot changes quite markedly from fell to trail at this point. I changed shoes and socks, had a couple of cups of tea, refilled water bottles. I must get some better water bottles. I normally use proprietary PET bottles that have had drinks in - Coke, Lucozade, etc - because these are much lighter than the specialist "running" ones and you don't get any PE flavour. But the ones I had brought today had narrow necks and it was taking an age to get each sachet of Mountain Fuel into the bottle; I refilled six or seven bottles during the day so the time added up rather frustratingly. I ate a quick slice of pizza and shoved another in my bag "to go", then was off again, but my inefficiency here was huge, I spent nearly 20 minutes at Ambleside.
From Ambleside, the route follows undulating prepared cycle tracks and country lanes for several miles which I jogged along steadily at maybe 11/12 minute mile pace, then it crosses Claife Heights, a climb of a few hundred feet and descent down to Sawrey and eventually the Windermere shore. In the woods going up through Claife I was passed by four runners going at a good pace; they said they had just worked out that if they cracked on they had a chance of finishing in under fourteen hours. I hope they made it, it seemed like a long shot but I didn't see them again. The ascent through the woods is easy enough, then you are out into open country again for the descent, a lovely track down past two little tarns and then into the sort of pastoral farmland that tells you that you're starting to leave the fells behind.
When I reached the lakeshore beyond Sawrey it got dark enough to get out a torch. It seemed that I had got further than on my previous completions of this run so I must be going a little bit faster, but I hadn't bothered to look at my previous splits so this could have been due to different conditions or the date being different.
But when it gets dark I'm hopeless. Outside in daylight, even if it's quite gloomy, I can operate pretty well without my glasses and have good enough vision to see distance, the track, my feet and the map/gps/watch etc all perfectly well. But in the dark all that changes. I need my specs and as these are varifocals I have a continuous battle to keep tabs on the track ahead, the ground underfoot and any device I need to consult. It was a fine enough night on Saturday, but if conditions cause the lenses to get steamy or wet the situation gets several times worse. The result is that I'm very liable to trip on rocks, roots, etc. In longer events I compensate by going much slower at night, often dropping to a walk even where I could otherwise run, but in a 50 miler like this you want to keep pushing along a bit. So I was resigned to slowing right down on any uneven ground and just speeding up when we got to bits of easy track or road. I'm seeing the optician next week to explore whether there might be a contact lens option that could work better, but I'm not over-hopeful.
Tracks that would be lovely in daylight but are a bit tortuous in the dark, both to navigate and to run, lead along the lake shore through woods, fields and beaches for several miles, only interrupted by a short stretch of road in the middle. Then a couple of miles before the next checkpoint at Finsthwaite the route leaves the lake near the YMCA centre climbs a few hundred feet again up to a little tarn at High Dam, then down a rocky path through woods to the checkpoint in the village hall.
The whole section of the course from where you first hit the lakeshore to the finish in Cartmel, about 15 miles in all, can be tricky at night. There are many paths and options, a lot of turnings you have to get right, not much permanent signage and in some places the paths you need to use are not marked on the OS maps. To make things easier, on the first run in 2014 James's team put luminous arrows on the section from the YMCA to Newby Bridge, about 4 miles in all. A lot of runners, me included, still took wrong turnings and had to find ourselves again, particularly on the bit south of Newby Bridge, so in 2015 the YMCA to the finish was marked which made things a whole lot easier, and was a major factor in my improved time over the two years. This year, the whole of the route from Ambleside to the finish, I think about 22 miles in all, was marked!
I reached Finsthwaite 12 hours and 37 minutes from the start, in 102nd place. I reflected that if all had gone to plan, John K should just about be hitting the final couple of miles of road into Cartmel by now (he was). Tea, soup, change of shirt as the night was getting a bit cooler, refill one bottle. These things should take no real time, yet checking my watch it was on 12 hours 53 as I walked out of the door and back into the night.
I wasn't really bothered though. I had had a great day so far, and with over 3 hours left to cover the 7 or 8 miles to the finish I was going to make it easily before midnight. Three or four runners were behind me as I tackled the short but steep little up and over through the woods from Finsthwaite to Newby Bridge. I asked if anyone wanted to pass but everyone seemed happy enough with my pace, brisk walk up gentle jog down. They all went past as we hit the road in Newby Bridge though as I stopped when a voice from the darkness exclaimed "Hey, Andy Cole!" It was Billy Burns who has a caravan in Newby Bridge, and with whom I had shared the "sweeping" duties at the Lakeland 100 reccies earlier in the year. A brief word or two then Billy jogged with me as far as the Swan pub, where we wished each other well. There was good support from people outside the pub and other bystanders as we went through the village, then it was out into the darkness again.
I expected the bit of low moorland to Brow Edge to be boggy and it was, but then I knew that the markings would make the final bit of cross country round Bigland Tarn to the Cumbria Coastal Way and over Speel Bank easy to follow, and they did, then I was out onto the final two miles of narrow country lane to the finish. I should have looked at my watch here but I felt I had made my pacing decision back at Finsthwaite so I didn't bother. The road dips down past a farm then climbs for about half a mile, up a slope which is runnable after the first short distance, then it's a gentle downhill all the way to Cartmel. I jogged down enjoying the evening and the satisfaction of having completed this great event for a third time; I felt in pretty good shape for a pensioner who's just covered fifty mountain miles.
There was encouragement from outside the pub in Cartmel, then it was soon through the village, out to the school and the finish under the arch. I arrived in 96th place, finally breaking into the top hundred and the first third of the field. My time was 15 hours............and 41 seconds!
There is always good food at the end of this event so I went through to the hall and dropped my bag on a chair. As I was getting my first cup of tea John K appeared, pleased that he'd had a good run and finished in a minute or two over 13 hours, his "gold medal" target. I got some food and we chatted for a while. He said this would be his last event of the year but I tried to persuade him to come to the Wooler Trail Marathon next month (a few days later, I found that I had succeeded!)
The Lakes in a Day is a great event, one of the very best the Lakes has to offer, a wonderful course and great organisation by James and Open Adventure. I would recommend it to anyone. I can see a fourth entry on the horizon already.....