This is a story about a DNF. Thankfully I don't have too many of these but this one was always on the cards, one half of the gamble if you like. And teasing out the real reasons for failure, rather than the uncontrollable reasons we sometimes like to comfort ourselves with, can be instructive. So here goes.
I met Mike Jones after I had put in an entry for his Ultra Tour of Snowdonia 50 late last year and ticked the box labelled "Are you interested in coaching?" Mike lives just two or three miles from me in Chester so after a chat in one of our local pubs he agreed to take on a near 70 year old with dodgy knees for a few months. What were my ambitions was the main question, what did I want out of this? Well, I had completed three L100's in good order but modest times, my best being just under 37.30 in 2016. I wondered if I could crack 35 hours. It seemed a stretching but achievable target, with a bit of added interest for Mike because he had won the race himself in 2016 and 2017.
I won't go through the training plans and stuff, a lot of which I had to abbreviate because of various knee and muscle problems, but the race strategy which evolved over the six months before the race is worth a bit of a look. On my previous two finishes I had gone at what I called my "Tourist" pace which basically involved running only the easier downhills and walking everything else. In 2016 this resulted in an average pace of 21:42 minutes per mile. To get under 35 hours I had to cut two and a half hours off this, to get to an average of exactly 20 minutes per mile pace. This makes it sound easy, less than a 10% improvement, but it got harder when I started to think about where the time saving was going to have to come from:
1. I'm a good climber, it's what I've worked at to compensate for not being able to run so consistently for the past few years, so I was unlikely to gain much on the uphills.
2. I used to be a good descender of steep ground after a lifetime in the mountains, but I have lost some speed on this even since 2016. Over the last year I have started to use poles to reduce the impacts on legs and knees, which is inevitably slower than just bouncing down on two feet which is what I always did before.
So it seemed that the options for me to take time out of the race, to compensate for slower steep descents and then improve by two and a half hours, were limited. They were however still there:
3. Checkpoint management needed to be improved. There are 14 checkpoints in the race and even 5 minutes less at each on average will save well over an hour. This had to be the sum of small gains stuff. I tended to turn up at a checkpoint, decide what to eat when I saw what was there, maybe have a cup of tea or two, then get ready for the next leg. Mike encouraged me to plan nutrition for the race right from the start. Fortunately at the Lakeland you get a list of what each checkpoint will offer which makes the plan easy (it can also come unstuck as we shall see later, but I didn't predict how). So I had an overall checkpoint strategy which was as follows:
(i) In the last few hundred yards before the CP, put new Mountain Fuel in empty bottle while still moving. First action at CP after checking in was to refill bottle.
(ii) Pick up the food/ drink that I had decided on in advance. Eat/drink only what couldn't be conveniently carried out.
(iii) Exit the CP eating/drinking what I had picked up, walking until finished if necessary. The race rule of bringing your own cup actually facilitates this, so I may use it in events in future even when it's not required.
(iv) Fuelling in between checkpoints would be what I had carried from the start, a sachet of Mountain Fuel for each leg plus a few gels for the first half, then re-supplied by the drop-bag at the 59 mile Dalemain CP, with the gels then replaced by ginger biscuits, which I know work for me in the later stages of a long race.
4. The only other way I could save time was to run a lot of the ground that I would normally walk, that is the flat bits with runnable ground. I went through the course and found that there was a total of around 20 miles of this. I can normally keep up a good walking pace for many hours, around 17 minutes per mile, whereas I couldn't guarantee to run (or, more accurately, jog) for such a long event at more than around 12 minute miles. This meant that for every mile that I ran I would save five minutes, and if I could run the total 20 miles that would be an hour and forty minutes. It seemed quite a high price to pay in effort, but I really had no other options. And overall, if I could get an hour out of the checkpoint times as well, then I had my two and a half hours and a (tiny) bit to spare.
Mike pointed out that I would have to arrange my nutrition so that I didn't eat anything too substantial directly before runnable sections, so for example the usual breakfast of pasta and rice pudding at Braithwaite just wasn't on!
After considering all this I was now under no illusions that getting the 35 hours was going to be challenging, but if not this year then when, so I put a plan together.
I took my two events in the run-up to the Lakeland conservatively so as not to interrupt the training and build-up. I walked pretty well every step of Mike's Snowdonia 50 (55 miles and around 20,000ft of climbing in May) in 25 hours, and at least three quarters of the West Highland Way (95 and nearly 15,000 in June) which I finished in 29 hours.
I told one or two friends about my 35 hour plan, but mostly I just kept it to myself. I felt I didn't need any extra pressure.
It was a hot and sunny afternoon when I turned up at Coniston for check-in at around 2pm, and it stayed that way through to the start at 6pm. It was great to get into the buzz of one of the UK's premier ultra events again and see some familiar faces. I'll describe the race with a few more details and a bit less emotion than usual, because I want to record these for future reference before I forget them.
CP1 Seathwaite 7 miles: Plan (elapsed time) 1hr 50min, Actual 1:48
There was a longer queue than I remembered previously at the Miner's Bridge gate and slow going up the first little climb, I guess as a result of a bigger starting field than I had experienced in previous years. Once on to the jeep track up Walna Scar it all sorted out and everyone could find their chosen pace. I chatted at times to friends from previous events, Tori Miller, Mike Churchyard, Dan Milton, whose partner Claire Turton was marshalling at Kentmere and would have a significant influence on the latter part of my race) and others. This section always bowls along easily, the key is not to race the climb which is easy but long and quite steep to avoid blowing things right at the start. I was pleased with the run down to Seathwaite. This has always been money for jam for me but I was worried about the effect my weak right knee was having on recent downhill performance. However it seemed fine (although I had decided to take painkillers every 6 hours from the start to keep it a bit under control) and I managed to gain quite a few places for no effort at all on the longish and very runnable descent. I arrived at Seathwaite on time and feeling good. The CP plan worked and I guess I was there a maximum of two minutes, bottle refilled and with Coke and biscuits to go.
CP2 Boot 14 miles: Plan 3:50 Actual 3:44
This was a leg where I needed to take out time by running as much as I could from the Harter Fell col all the way to Boot. In general it went well. I got held up by a train of fairly slow moving runners on the gentle ascent from Grassguards up to the forest, but from there it was fine, particularly because of the very dry conditions underfoot, and I arrived in Boot a few minutes ahead of plan. Coke from Lorna and water bottle top-up from Debbie, both WHW stars but seemingly Vikings for the evening, and again I was in and out pretty efficiently.
CP3 Wasdale Head 19 miles: Plan 5:30 Actual 5:26
This is where it normally gets dark and I was now conscious of going marginally faster than usual because I didn't have to put a light on until well onto the fell, rather than when leaving the checkpoint. There were also a lot more people still around than I was accustomed to, though whether this was because I was further up the field or the field was simply larger I couldn't tell. The only bit of "normal walking" due to be run on this leg was from the head of the lake up the road and short path to the CP, and it duly got done. I passed Jon Steele just before the Lake, he seemed to be going along nicely en route to his 5th finish. The only other thing of note was that we had a brief but quite heavy shower as I was approaching Burnmoor Tarn; the good weather had finally broken. This one was quite welcome though as the night had been very warm up until then. Wasdale was the first of my "main feed" stations. I stopped long enough for crisps and a delicious chunky soup, and walked out with tea and cheese and pickle sandwiches, feeling well set up for the climbs over the next two legs.
CP4 Buttermere 26 miles: Plan 8:20 Actual 8:27
I felt no real pressure on the majority of this leg, I always enjoy the ups and downs, there's plenty of interest and the weather was pleasant and dry again. I was held up by a train of slow moving descenders from Scarth Gap when I didn't feel it was worth the energy required to work past them, and there were one or two bits of the final easy lakeside path that I should have run but didn't, so I arrived in Buttermere about 7 minutes down on my overall schedule. I wasn't too bothered about this though as intermediate targets in an overall plan can never be too precise, it's the overall trend against them that tells you how you're going. Buttermere was another quick stop but I did have an unplanned mug of milkshake which was great, maybe a thing to remember for the future.
CP5 Braithwaite 33 miles: Plan 10:40 Actual 10:42
This was a leg that I planned to do no differently from usual, walking all the way up and jogging all the way down so again it was pretty relaxing mentally. It was clear that overall I was starting to win my time over previous years though, because it was still well dark at Sail Pass whereas usually it is light enough here for the torch to go off; this year it stayed on until Braithwaite. On the way down I caught Dan, who had been ahead of me but said he was having a bad patch. We carried on together down to the checkpoint. No drawn-out breakfast for me here this year, just a quick bowl of rice pudding and out into the dawn.
CP6 Blencathra 41 miles: Plan 13:10 Actual 13:10
This was one of the sections I was not looking forward to; after 33 miles of the toughest ground on the course, I had to start running on the flat. Still, I kept up a steady uninterrupted jog all the way from Braithwaite to the start of the hill up Spooney Green Lane. I also ran most of the flat bits and all the downs along the Glenderaterra valley. The payoff was that I covered this leg almost half an hour quicker than I had ever done before, and arrived at the CP bang on schedule again.
CP7 Dockray 49 miles: Plan 15:20 Actual 15:18
The run down the lanes to the A66 was easy and that along the flat bit of old railway line a bit tedious but OK, then I got my first real rest for a while on the nice long easy climb up to the first high point on the Old Coach Road. Somewhere along here our second period of rain started. Since the first one last night the weather had been dry, cool and pleasant, but this time the rain went on for longer, was quite heavy at times and accompanied by a bit of wind from the east. I put on a rainproof top but stayed with shorts below; the numbing effect of the cold on my knees seemed to take the edge off them a bit. Once onto the undulating part of the Coach Road I was able to run all the flats and downhills again, and again reached the checkpoint in the time planned.
The grand scheme went slightly wrong here however. I had planned a bit of a sit-down rest and a good feed at Dockray, with soup and sandwiches out on the chairs in the sunshine. When I arrived it was still raining quite hard so the small marquee was packed with runners eating, changing clothes and some clearly trying to get a bit of warmth back before the next leg. And because of the colder and wetter conditions the soup had proved so popular that it had run out. Looking around it was clear that I could waste a lot of time here, so I just refilled the bottle, grabbed a couple of cheese sandwiches and ran off down the lane, thinking it would be more efficient to get warmer by some activity rather than another layer of clothes. I would have to eat more than planned at Dalemain to compensate, but I would think about that later.
CP 8 Dalemain 59 miles: Plan 18:00 Actual 18:02
In spite of the hammering rain and being wet through from the waist down I enjoyed the brisk run down to Dockray village in a perverse sort of way; a bit of battling the conditions occasionally is part of the fun in these events, and soon after the village we were rewarded for our efforts with a cessation of precipitation and for the first time since the previous day, a bit of warm sunshine. I jogged the woods past Aira Force then walked steadily up and around the beautiful Gowbarrow track. This really is a leg of two halves, the first all interest and contrast then the second a few soggy fields then a series of long straight lanes and jeep tracks.
In my "tourist" years I would just take this second half according to how I felt, sometimes jogging the gentle downhills, sometimes walking most of it. This year, as soon as I hit the road before Bennethead, I jogged all the way to Dalemain apart from one short stretch of uphill. The roads felt OK, but the flat track through the estate to the CP started to feel a bit of an effort. I had another new experience here, just after passing Dacre Castle I got a word of encouragement from Marc Laithwaite as he passed me, leading out the L50 runners on their start loop. Normally the L50 is long gone by the time I get to Dalemain, now they came flooding past. On reflection this was perhaps a mixed blessing. The encouragement from almost every runner passing was great, and certainly kept me running all the way to the CP; had they not been there I may have slowed to a walk along here which may have been better for my day overall. I trundled into the halfway checkpoint feeling, for the first time since the start, a bit weary. It's allowed, I thought, that's the worst half done. I had averaged 18:20 minutes a mile up to here; I just needed to make 22:10 for the remaining 46 miles and I was home.
I swapped my sweaty teeshirt for a fresh long-sleeved one as it was clear the weather was likely to get worse rather than better. Apart from that, no changes. My feet had got wet but felt fine so I didn't look. I had a bowl of stew and a sandwich, coke and tea, and was good to go.
On the way out I ran into David Mould who was marshalling this year. He commented that I was early for me (he wasn't aware of the plan); he also said I was looking good, although the photo he took I think tells a different story.
CP 9 Howtown 66 miles: Plan 20:20 Actual 20:24
I had planned to run along the flat to Pooley Bridge, but walked it to let lunch settle down, and carried on at a steady pace up to the high point on Askham Moor. From there I ran most of the way to Howtown, which meant that in spite of the added time spent at Dalemain and the walking out of it, I was still on schedule. The downside was that for the last 3 miles or so the rain had come back, so in spite of being almost completely dry again by Dalemain, I was now back to the erstwhile wet pretty well everywhere state and a bit chilly.
Howtown is another CP that is normally outside, in the yard of the Bobbin Mill; it is also the one that experiences the biggest "rush hour" on the course, having to deal with a steady stream of L100 runners together with all the L50's very soon after their start. The rain was steady and the wind was coming back, so all the runners at the CP were crammed inside the smallish indoor spaces available, some were changing clothes, others were clearly contemplating or even arranging evacuation from the course. I felt it would be unwise to carry on over the high point of the course without a few more clothes, so I found a corner and put on another layer under my top and some waterproof trousers, then headed out into the wind and rain.
CP10 Mardale Head 76 miles: Plan 23:40 Actual 24:15
The conditions really weren't too bad once you got started, and by the time I got to the start of the climb up Fusedale the rain had stopped again. I was moving steadily and overtaking people all the way up, though to put this into perspective these were mostly L50 runners who were going to take quite a while completing their course. The first niggle of doubt appeared when I reached the top of the climb. I looked at my watch and saw that it had taken nearly an hour and a quarter when it should be an hour. Five minutes of that could be put down to faffing with clothes at Howtown but it was till not a good sign.
I pressed on over the high point and jogged the long easy section down to the lake. Halfway down here we had a brief but quite enthusiastic shower of hail - even with a hood up it stung the side of your face quite noticeably. Along the lake I got into a train of L50 runners and just tagged along. I really should have made the effort to get past and up the pace a bit but I was having difficulty finding the energy, so I just went with the flow and lost more time. I'd not bothered with the odd five or ten minutes up or down against plan from the start, but when I finally rolled into Mardale Head I was 35 minutes down, and that was clearly significant.
I wasn't despondent exactly but the shine had been taken off the day. It was raining steadily again and Mardale Head Checkpoint never has any shelter, simply because there isn't any there, just a tent big enough to cram the food provisions into. I had some nice soup, crisps, coke and tea, and plodded back out into the rain.
CP 11 Kentmere 82 miles: Plan 26:10 Actual 27:00
Whether it was the psychological effect of knowing that my scheme was probably blown, or whether is was a build up of tiredness that would have got me anyway, my race changed over this leg. The climb up Gatescarth felt hard, and although I was still overtaking runners, some were overtaking me also. I found it hard to maintain much above a good walk down the other side, despite the long descent of Logsleddale being normally one of the easiest sections of the whole course.
But what really got to me was the final climb from Sadgill over to Kentmere. I slowed to a snail-like pace on the up and could only walk the down. Other competitors seemed to be flooding past me every few minutes now. More seriously, although I had on all the clothes that I had, I just couldn't keep warm, I seemed to be shivering continuously and the weather didn't look as though it was going to get any better. I couldn't see how I could sensibly carry on from here. I barely noticed that I had arrived at Kentmere in daylight for the first time ever.
I checked in at Kentmere and the first person I met was Claire Turton. In response to the "how's it going?" request I had to admit I was on the point of stopping, but would give it some time first. She and the other marshals looked after me brilliantly, being really helpful and positive without fussing around too much and leaving me on my own when I needed it. At first all I wanted was a cup of tea and a long rest. I lay down on one of the benches. Not sure if I actually went to sleep but a couple of hours or so flashed past. After that I still didn't feel great but at least felt up to the "James Thurlow test". The last thing that tipped the decision was that the weather was looking up again. So I had a bowl of pasta and a couple more cups of tea, thanked everyone and walked out of Kentmere just two and a half hours after arriving; the deal was that if I got a kilometer along the track and still felt I should quit then I would come back.
CP12 Ambleside 89 miles: Plan 29:00 Actual 32:11
I started off up Garburn with a guy and two ladies but I got to the front and into a slow but steady pace and by the time I got to the levelling out at the top just one of the ladies (Christine, I think) was still with me. We started down the other side but she was a bit concerned that we had left Marie behind. We didn't actually wait but we certainly didn't hurry and before too long Marie caught us up and we carried on together. Now even on a tourist schedule I would normally do a bit of jogging down here because it's such an easy descent, but tonight I could only manage an unimpressive walking pace. The others seemed quite happy with this though, they maintained that as I knew the way I would save them a lot of time navigating.
Although we were only around two and a half hours from Kentmere to Ambleside, the leg for me seemed to go on for ever. The descent to Troutbeck was much longer, the climb up Robin Lane longer and much harder than ever before. Once past Skelghyll Farm, lots of L100 runners overtook us going at a much better pace. Even on the easy track and tarmac down to the town I was finding every step hard and conscious of wandering from side to side fairly continuously. We climbed the final mountain up through the town, then shuffled down to the checkpoint. I walked up the steps like a 90 year old and slumped down in a chair. The three miles from Troutbeck had been the hardest I could ever remember. I got a mug of coke but only managed half of it. If I could have kept going at the same average speed I'd made from Kentmere to Troutbeck, then I would have been fine for a finish even after a fifteen minute sleep, but I knew there was really no way back this time. Phil, John, Noanie and Lorna working at the checkpoint all know me and there was no serious attempt at persuasion to carry on. Phil said he needed to pick up some people from Coniston and could give me a lift if I wanted; he removed my dibber and tracker and I called it a day. I guess I wasn't very communicative on the drive back as I was continually falling asleep, but thanks Phil, it made the ending once my decision was made so much easier.
I slept most of Sunday. By late afternoon I was up and about but still feeling far more tired than I normally do after a long event. Thankfully, by Monday morning things seemed to be more or less back to normal. The things that normally worked OK had worked OK, I had no injuries, no bad aches and pains, no blisters. I didn't feel particularly disappointed, I had made a gamble that hadn't paid off. I was interested to work out why, but given the same circumstances I'm sure I would have done the same thing again. I'd still had a worthwhile, and for around 70 miles enjoyable, experience. The Lakeland weekend is always a great show, whatever the outcome.
It didn't take long to work out what went wrong. I could feel it happening from around 35 to 40 miles from the start. Had I binned the project at that point I would have slowed down and probably finished OK. But we tend to favour hope over experience, and I persisted on the basis that I would probably never have a better chance because (a) next time I would be older, and (b) we were never likely to get such good conditions again in the near future. OK we had a bit of rain from time to time but it was far from extreme and the ground underfoot was the easiest it's ever been.
The problem was that I simply wasn't fit enough for the running. When I started the specific training back around the end of February, Mike was clear that the first priority was strength and speed. Looking at results from all my recent races his take was that I was good at grinding out a finish but I simply had to go faster. He was right of course, I knew this from training runs. My 10k time had slipped over two or three years from around 43 minutes to nearly 10 minutes slower, and comfortable 8-10 milers through the local woods had gone from 8 minute miles to over 9. I went into the programme enthusiastically but found after a week or two that anything that put serious impact on my right knee, either exercises or quicker running, put me out of action for a day or two afterwards. I worked at it but missed too many sessions. Even the relatively modest target of 4 hours for the London Marathon was not achievable when the knee went wrong at mile 18 and I hobbled home in 4:16. I compared this with 2016 when a relatively comfortable 3:52 at Manchester set me up for the summer ultras. I did what I could but it wasn't enough. I hoped that my experience and better race management would see me through but it didn't. I was doubting even on the 3 mile run out of Braithwaite whether the extra effort I was putting in to save 5 minutes a mile was really wise, but I carried on in case I was just being a wimp.
So although I gave it my best shot on the day, my project was probably doomed from the first step out of Coniston.
I could carry on doing what I'm doing now and plan the races I enter according to my ability, but the non-stop 100 milers will soon become beyond me if I do this. I could still manage the longer events which for completers like me tend to be about managing a journey rather than running ability, and I'm sure I'll be able to cope with the 50's for a few years yet. But I don't like to think that I will never complete another Lakeland 100.
I have some hope in that I've just been to a new Knee Man, recommended by Mike, who is convinced with a sustained programme of the right exercises I should be able to see significantly reduced pain in 3-4 months. I'm definitely going to give it a go. Maybe I'll get back to running properly again, you never know.
Meanwhile there's Deadwater coming up in about three and a half weeks, 235 miles over 6 days. I'm really looking forward to it, though I suspect there will be a lot of walking!