A year ago I signed up for the Ultra Tour of the Lake District, otherwise known as the Lakeland 100, with the intentions of running the 50 mile course. In my naivety I ran the Clif Bar 10 Peaks Long Course the month before, 45 miles and 5600 meters of climbing, over the 10 highest fells in the Lake District. It destroyed me. Taught me a valuable lesson. Moreover it side-lined me from my goal.
A year later I was driving up the motorway network towards Coniston, mentally running through my mandatory kit list periodically, checking if I had left anything at home. A boot full of ultra and camping gear, the coming 36 hours would be challenging…………
The Ultra Tour of the Lake District consists of two races, 100 and 50 miles, circumnavigating the Lake District National Park. An unmarked route across fell and bog, it is the pinnacle of UK ultra-running. The 50 mile route starts in Dalemain, heading to Howtown, Haweswater, Kentmere, Troutbeck, Ambleside, Langdale, Tilberthwaite and finally Coniston.
With 2965 meters of ascent and 3069 meters of descent it’s a tough course, whilst carrying essentials for any problem you may face. 1 litre of water, waterproofs, thermals and survival kit adds up, but it’s a level playing field.
Arriving in the nick of time, I was able to witness the start of the 100 mile race, as they set off the night before my race, at 6pm, before I striked camp and signed in.
After showing I.D., having my kit checked, receiving my dibber and being weighed (that’s my little secret) I was free to relax under a stunning sunset over the fells surrounding Coniston. With a mind that wondered about what lay ahead, rather than filling it with doubts, I slung some headphones on and watched Outside Voices, following ultra legend Jenn Shelton on her travels amongst other trail running films.
Waking up early, race briefing starting at 0830, I had plenty of time to walk around my mini camp, scoffing a variety of food from my Ellipse cookwear. With time in hand, it allows you to eat slowly, promoting proper digestion and preventing GI distress. Neck your breakfast and you may find yourself sprinting for a bush in the early miles.
Laying out my kit for the 4th time, I wanted to make sure I had everything I would need for the coming 50 miles. The reality is most of what goes into the pack will not be used and certain items should never be used unless an emergency occurs.
The contents were as follows:
Waterproof Jacket & trousers
Long sleeve baselayers, top & bottom
First Aid Kit
400 Calories of emergency food
Charged Mobile phone
This would be on my back for the good part of half a day, so making sure my pack fitted well and didn’t rub was essential. I opted for my favourite Lifesystems Safety Whistle, despite my pack having one built in, as I know it’s easy to locate, ridiculously loud and is my one go anywhere piece of kit.
I stripped back my Nano First Aid kit to meet the minimum requirements of the race. Though comprehensive and designed for endurance sports, I took out the sun cream and primary care leaflet to make it that bit lighter and smaller. Hidden in the depths of my bag, I had a Light & Dry bivi bag, ultra light and compact, if I or someone else had to use it something would have seriously gone wrong. Finally, I bathed myself in Active 40 sun cream before heading to the start line. With hours of being exposed to the elements in the middle of summer, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about being burnt or UV damage.
Keeping all of this organised (if only my house was), I used 3 Lifeventure Dry Bags to colour code my kit. Red for emergency, Blue for waterproofs and Green for thermals. Thought it didn’t rain, it meant the contents would be protected from my sweat, as well as making finding kit in a hurry easier. Dry bags are often an overlooked tool in the outdoor kit arsenal and using a large bag liner doesn’t make finding your head torch any easier.
So the run itself. After an hour or so sat on a bus to Dalemain and standing in a toilet que full of nervous stomachs, runners huddled into the starting pen, as the atmosphere grew in energy. With a 10-1 countdown by the crowd, we launched into the Dalemain estate, running a 4 mile loop before heading onto the main 46 mile course.
Dispelling nerves by locking into a comfortable tempo, each field saw the elite pack increase their lead and break away. Running out of the estate, passing 100 mile runners, who by this time had been on the move for 18+ hours, thousand mile stares were common. Finally out on the course, it was liberating and a little terrifying. My plans to train had failed and having missed out last year, I felt a certain amount of pressure on myself to get the job done. My aim was simple, keep things consistent and above all, finish.
So when I came into the first checkpoint at Howtown, 11 miles in after 1 hours 40 minutes of running, I knew I would pay for this later in the day. I was running way too fast. If this was a trail marathon, I’d be struggling to keep that pace up for the second half, let alone for 39 more miles!
The ascent up High Kop was a real slog, my legs, unaccustomed to ascending anything of any real height suffered and the earlier blast of speed meant my system was attempting to slow me down. To add to this, my competitive side didn’t want to lose position, despite many clearly being more prepared. After the descent to Haweswater and contouring the shore line, I had more energy back and felt strong again, but with reasonably high temperatures for me, I had gone through my litre of water and felt myself slow again. To keep moving, I used my mug to take gulps from streams, before finding a fast flowing waterfall where I was confident in filling my flasks. Once again the climb up Gatescarth Pass took its toll, why did I leave my poles in the car??! I had used them at the 10 Peaks Race to keep myself moving on steeper ground and I was paying the price for a lack of judgment.
From that point till Ambleside, I ran flats and descents, a walked/power hiked (I sound like Homer Simpson when he changed his name to Max Power) anything with a slight vertical gradient. Seeing Windermere in the distance, glimmering in the afternoon light, I was re energised knowing it wasn’t long till I’d be pounding the streets.
Up to this point, I had been mainly fuelling myself from Mule Bar energy bars, Mountain Fuel Extreme Energy drinks and a combination of crisps, sandwiches and biscuits from checkpoints. In Ambleside I opted for soup, which cranked a hot body to boiling point, only managing a couple of mouthfuls before I had to bin it and return to cooler solids.
Leaving Ambleside, although 1/3 still stood in the way, I felt good and knew I would finish. The flat paths of Elterwater were great for some consistent running in, after miles of undulation causing stops and starts.
The checkpoints were incredible. I remember being in the Wild West, Sparta, Hogwarts and then my mind goes blank. Not through spacing out, I just concentrated on getting in and out as quickly and efficiently as I could. Dib in, refill bottles, neck a couple of drinks, eat, stash food in bag, breath. Run.
As night set in, the mood changed. Eyes became transfixed on the spot of light thrown out in front by a head torch, noises suddenly became clearer and then a bull charged in front of me, stopping directly in my path. Making noise as a fellow runner shouted to make some, it moved off the path and the race continued. And then it happened again, this time he didn’t shift. Gingerly moving behind him, potentially in kicking range, we both took off up the trail.
The checkpoint at Tilberthwaite was special. Lights lit up the steps, leading onto the final climb. A few small EZ Ups providing the last safety and chance of refuelling before heading into the abyss. I pretty much walked straight through, filling one bottle, grabbing two biscuits and onto the final climb.
My quads screamed as I forced myself up, 3 miles from the finish and yet it felt further away than halfway. Using my watch to navigate the paths and head torch to prevent myself from falling off the cliff edge to my right.
And then the lowest moment struck. By this point my feet had become saturated and sores were developing. As we summited, a searing pain shot up from my left foot, leaving me incapable of walking a step forward. I was defeated. Short of screaming out, I clenched my fist as those that had lined up behind me moved past, their head torches disappearing into the night ahead.
I’m so close. I’m so damn close.
I’d set myself the task of getting round in 12 hours and I could see the minutes ticking ever closer. Hobbling, then walking, I made my way down the descent, taking my time on anything technical, wishing I had my poles, telling myself off.
Hitting the fire road, I started running and kept a conservative pace given I wasn’t sure how far I had to go or how long my foot would last.
Seeing lights, hearing voices, I pushed on. Joining the main road, a roar erupted as my torch beam came into view, as despite it being 11.30 something PM, crowds of supporters were still out welcoming runners in. Turning into the final road, bystanders funneled me into the finish arch and my adventure was over.
50 miles. 2965 meters of ascent. 3069 meters of descent. 12 hours 7 minutes and 58 seconds.
I was 8 minutes outside of the goal I set myself, but I was happy. I’d achieved the first aim of all races, finishing. I had learnt a lot about my dietary requirements, physical ability and mental strength. I walked away, ok hobbled, with a sense of my mental strength having been increased, better understood and above all in control, bar a momentary lapse late on. They say endurance sports are all in the head, the mind leads the body and I feel on this occasion it literally did. I was ill prepared and had several opportunities to quit in relative comfort throughout the race.
Of course, the recommendation is you do this prior to a race, but hey, it’s good to keep the spontaneity in life. If I can get a spot next year, I’ll be back on the 50 start line and have all the intentions of training properly.
A huge thanks to Lifesystems for their continued support.