I'm not really sure how to go about documenting my thoughts on the race weekend. You are always advised to write an essay plan before starting a piece of work; well bugger that, if ever a blog post deserved to be written as a ramble, it is this one!
I was confident in my preparation, particularly as I had completed every long training run that I had intended to do. The result from the Highland Fling 53 mile race back in April where I ran a 40 minute personal best also told me I was in good shape, so in the final week before the Lakeland 100 it was good to have that feeling of wanting to get started rather than any feelings of trepidation.
I collected all my kit together on Wednesday and split it into that needed for the 1st half and the gear I would need in the drop bag for Dalemain. I ummed and ahrred about certain bits of food but finally decided to put everything in; better to be safe than sorry. On Thursday morning Tracey and I (mainly Tracey) cooked my last meal (for the condemned man?) of noodles, chicken and cashew nuts, which I intended to eat on Friday lunchtime at the event campsite.
John and Katrina arrived at lunchtime on Thursday and, despite spending so much time with them over the year, even as we opened the door and greeted each other, this time felt different. We talked about the time we sat down at John's dining table some time in December and planned our long recce runs round the course, starting the whole journey in the snow at Buttermere in March and here we are now with one day to go. John and Katrina had a walk round the shops in the afternoon, while I put together the remains of my stuff for the weekend's camping. That evening, we had a lovely lasagne (thanks Tracey) and tried not to stay up too late talking into the night.
We all headed down to Coniston on Friday morning, wanting to get there before registration got too crowded. It was a lovely day which made the hours before the race so much more pleasurable as we were able to sit around the campsite, chilling out in the sun. As soon as we arrived at the event and walked into the school, a chap came up and introduced himself as Gancho, saying how much he had enjoyed the videos John and I had made of the route. This became a bit of a theme for the weekend as we became known as "the video guys".
Registration involved being weighed with the details added to a wristband, a full kit check, collect a goody bag and finally having your dibber attached to your wrist. This now gave us a few hours to relax, eat lunch and sort out kit again before the race briefing at 4 o'clock. I met and chatted to a few friends but generally tried to keep a low profile as it is easy to spend these hours standing up walking around when I feel my legs are better served with a sit/lie down.
Finally, at about 5:15pm, John and I said goodbye the Tracey and Katrina and made our way into the start area, ready for the off.
Leg 1 - Coniston to Seathwaite
My battle plan was to take the first couple of legs nice and easy, just trying to ease myself into my running. With this in mind, I had a point on the road out of Coniston from which I intended to walk and then would just go with the flow from there. I saw Tracey and Katrina part way up the track and then settled into the single line up to the track by The Bell. Once the track widened out and all along the Walna Scar Road, I tried to run my own race but it was difficult with so many people around. I was constantly questioning the pace I was running at, tagging onto some groups and letting others go.
The important thing was that I reached the Brown Pike col feeling good and immediately started to pass runners on the run down to Seathwaite. I tried to stay comfortable on the descent, saving my quads for later and trotted into the village hall, looking for a quick turn round. The marshalls were so helpful, even with the large numbers, and I was on my way in less than two minutes.
1:28 hours (99th place)
Leg 2 - Seathwaite to Boot
With such a quick turn round, I got ahead of the crowds and the field already felt a little thinner as I made my way up towards Grassguards. On our recce run, both John and I found this section quite hard and I made a note to self to accept the fact that this is going to be muddy, slow, slippy and damned hard work. It is the same for everyone and there is no point in fighting the route; just relax and get through it.
I must admit that at this point I didn't feel that I was really into the race and I was struggling to say I was enjoying the experience. On the plus side, I was covering the ground well and looked more comfortable over the rough terrain than most of those around me. I had a pain in what felt like my bladder; that pain you get when you need a pee when one the motorway and the next services are still 20 miles away. I tried a few pit-stops but it still remained. I was fine on the uphills but the jarring of a downhill caused problems.
I got through the plantation and out onto the open fell and thought that the whole experience hadn't been too bad. I had remained reasonable clean and was ready for a nice run down into Eskdale. As ever, as soon as you get cocky, this course will kick you in the bum - literally! A small slip and I was sitting on by backside in the marsh, feeling like an idiot. No damage done and, with the fine weather, I was already drying out by the time I ran into the Boot checkpoint.
2:57 hours (71st place)
Leg 3 - Boot to Wasdale
My race took a turn for the better as I climbed up out of Boot. To put things bluntly; I farted, nearly blowing my shorts off and immediately felt the pain in my lower regions ease. I spent the next 10 minutes "easing the pressure" and apologising to the runners around me, who were very supportive, with some even joining in with the roosting chorus. I felt like I had been released and, although I had been moving OK, now I felt much smoother and in my mind the race had finally started.
The views out over Burnmoor Tarn were fantastic as the sun was making it's final efforts of the day. I was pleased with the way I was covering the ground, especially the uphills, using the other runners around me to pull me along with minimal effort on my behalf. To be running at this time of day in a t-shirt was lovely and the group I was with chatted our way down the Wasdale as it started to get dark.
The checkpoint was a sudden assault on the eyes after so long in the gloom. My eyes took a few seconds to adjust and I nearly missed the dibber box; so thanks to the marshall who pointed me in the right direction. I had a half cup of soup here as a marshall filled my bottle for me and I left fully ready to take on the night.
4:06 hours (61st place)
Leg 4 - Wasdale to Buttermere
I made the decision to leave my head torch in the rucksack for a while as my eyes seemed to adjust to the fading light well, coupled to the fact that most of the next 45 minutes I would be walking uphill. Looking around, everyone else seemed to be taking the same approach. On the first part of the climb, I settled into a gap, running about 20 metres behind another runner so they would show me the general direction but I could concentrate on the path immediately in front of me. I especially made sure there was no drama crossing Gatherstone Beck and even managed to run a small part of the climb, reaching Black Sail Pass right at the point where I needed my head torch.
Number one priority on this descent is to get to the bottom without injury, so I took things nice and easy, passing a couple of runners who had lost the path and were climbing back up; they sounded rather pleased to see another light and we tracked down to the bridge together.
On the climb to Scarth Gap, which is never as bad as you think it's going to be, a small group formed, including one runner who's head torch had packed up. He obviously needed the help of others here but his pace was really good considering he was only working with peripheral light.
It is always a relief to get down the first rough section of the drop to Buttermere and find the gap in the wall. Probably for the first time in the race, I allowed myself to turn up the gas a little here and really enjoyed the run along the lake shore to the checkpoint. After nearly 6 hours of the race, this is the first opportunity to settle into a proper rhythm for a couple of miles.
6:04 hours (40th place)
Leg 5 - Buttermere to Braithwaite
Leaving the checkpoint, I made a mental note that, even though I was on home territory, there were three significant turnings that I had to make on this leg. The first of these comes early on when you turn off the lower path to do a rising contour in and out of the three becks. I stuck to my guns when I could see head torches cutting off too early, though I don't think they lost much time as they were running parallel, just a bit too high. I ran more of this section than I thought I would and started to feed off the positive vibes I was getting from the enjoyment of the night section. At no point was I thinking about daylight and the point when you can switch off your head torch, which to me suggests I was having a good time.
I made the correct turning up to Sail Pass and was soon on the rough descent towards Braithwaite. The turning off here, towards Barrow Door, is the tricky one. I remembered that, of the potential junctions, it is the third one and there is a small, flat boulder just after the junction - I could almost have kissed the boulder when I saw it; I love it when a plan comes together!
As far as I was concerned, that was the last of the tricky night-time navigation adventures done; from now on I was truly in my own back yard. I skipped down into the rather splendid checkpoint at Braithwaite and spent 4 minutes having a regroup, drinking coke and eating rice pudding.
7:48 hours (35th place)
Leg 6 - Braithwaite to Blencathra Centre
By now it is about 1:30am and there is an eerie quiet as I make my way out of Braitwaite and along the A66. I catch up with two runners, Jules and Tom, who have formed a partnership on the course and we fell into a nice rhythm together, past the back of the school where I work, past the pub where I partake of an occasional drink and onto the hill (Spooney Green Lane) where most of my training runs start. I would be running with Tom and Jules, on and off, for the next 6 hours.
I gave John a quick ring to see how he was getting on and he sounded in really good spirits, running well, just on the drop towards Braithwaite. I warned him about the tricky path junction and wished him well.
I love the run along Glenderaterra and passed quite a few runners, even pulling away to be on my own for a while. Then, like most others, I had a small mishap with the dibber on the sheepfold. I arrived ahead of a group and couldn't find the dibber. I went right round the sheepfold three times, lifting stones, but still no sign. Someone suggested that we might not have gone far enough but I assured them this was the correct spot and showed them where the path was that we were supposed to take down to cross the beck. We agreed to carry on to the checkpoint and vouch for each other. No sooner had we started to run down the path, then we saw a dibber on a different sheepfold about 75 yards further down the track. It was a little annoying but I only lost about three minutes which is nothing in the greater scheme of things (others would lose much more!) and I was quickly able to put it out of my head - no negative thoughts!
As I ran back along on the main track towards the Blencathra Centre, I could see two runners (well their lights) heading down the "short cut path" which I found rather strange after all the instructions we had been given and as I caught another runner and commented on the dibber being in the wrong place, his response was "What dibber, I thought the extra dibber was much later." At which point he stopped and was obviously mulling over whether to go back or not.
Without even realising, the sky was suddenly starting to look a little lighter and I thought it wouldn't be too much longer before I could turn the head torch off - a spring in your step moment.
The loop round Glenderaterra really seemed to thin out the field, the checkpoint was less crowded and from now on it became a rather quieter race.
9:45 hours (22nd place)
Leg 7 - Blencathra Centre to Dockray
As I left the checkpoint, again with Jules and Tom, I started to estimate when I might be able to turn off the head torch, thinking it would be somewhere along the Old Coach Road, so just had this as my next target, making my way there with the minimum of fuss. I was really pleased with the way I was able to cover the ground and felt that I had a good pace along the old railway, though I could feel a small blister forming under my left little toe. If that is the worst niggle I get - give it to me now!
The muddy section from Newsham to the Coach Road was everything it should be and I soon gave up trying to find a dryer line but, again, I was climbing strongly and reached the track feeling that was a job well done. I felt this deserved a treat, so switched off my head torch on the first climb, allowing my eyes to adjust and finally making the decision that I was good to go in natural light. You cannot underestimate the lift you get from this moment and it was great watching the countryside come to life as the morning gathered pace.
Jules, Tom and I continued our way towards Dockray with J & T seeming that little bit stronger. Their running pace was just a little faster than mine but I was able to run a little longer on the uphill sections which basically kept us together for the duration of the leg.
11:32 hours (20th place)
Leg 8 - Dockray to Dalemain
This next leg is split into two extremes; the first half is simply gorgeous, taking the wonderful singletrack round Gowbarrow Fell, whilst the second half is across muddy fields and along roads, which simply has to be endured.
I might have been in the middle of a race but you just can't help yourself pausing and taking in the view round Gowbarrow. The three of us stopped and were all pulling out cameras, soaking up the special moment as the sun rises over this stunning landscape. Sounds a bit Zen-like that, but it was nice!!
Once we were over the muddy (though I think it might have been more than just mud) fields to Bennethead, the same pattern continued along the roads with J & T pulling away and me slowly catching them. I wasn't particularly pushing myself to stay with them but I think I was using them to pull me along, I certainly made sure I did not go "into the red" at any point and, although I could feel the small blister, every quick MOT I gave myself was passed with flying colours.
On the final track into Dalemain, Jules and Tom decided to walk in preparation for a good regroup in the checkpoint, so for the first time in 6 hours I was on my own. I ran round to the marquee where the marshalls did another great job, collecting my drop bag, setting up a chair and sorting my bottles for me.
I decided not to rush this checkpoint and set about changing my socks and shoes, giving my feet a good dry and reapplying Sudocrem to my toes. Looking around, most of the other 5 or 6 runners looked worst than I felt (though I am free to admit I may have looked worst than I felt too) and I started to feel this could be my day. At this point I had no idea what position I was in, it was always a case of get to Dalemain and see how things go from there.
I had originally intended to change tops here too, but decide to just keep going with the t-shirt as it was such a nice day, a decision I would come to slightly regret later. I had one more look down my list of jobs to do at Dalemain; split into "must do" and "might do", heaved myself out of the chair, lugged my rucksack onto my shoulders and set off for the rest of the adventure.
13:43 hours (17th place)
Leg 9 - Dalemain to Howtown
I had a little walk out of the marquee, just to get my legs going again but soon foun that I was able to get into a run up towards the woods. Sometime before the race I had had a look at last years results, looking to see where Dalemain comes in relation to overall time. I had a rough idea that if I doubled my time, that would be a good target and there was a chance that I could run a slight negative split. Based on that, I was looking at around 27:30 hours if I could hold things together. I would be delighted with that but felt I was running better at this point than I expected to be - time to put on the game face, there is work to be done.
I had a great boost on the way through Pooley Bridge as four close friends came out to cheer me on. They said they were addicted to the race website and couldn't wait to see if I had moved up any more positions between each checkpoint. They were so excited for me and gave me such a lift but I don't think they realised how important that visit was. Thanks Mark, Kate, Simon and Viv. They said that at the last time of looking (Dockray) I was in 20th place.
Once I got over the shock of realising I was up at the sharp end, I gave Tracey a ring to let her know I was going well and feeling good. She told me I was up into 17th place at Dalemain and she too was glued to the screen back in Coniston. Knowing that everyone was watching me from checkpoint to checkpoint gave me a real boost and I felt that it was the next best thing to them being out on the course.
All this gave me a lovely trip down into Howtown and I started to get my mind ready for the long climb up to High Cop.
15:25 hours (15th place)
Leg 10 - Howtown to Mardale
During our recce run back in April, John and I had talked about how nice it would be to be able to run the technical singletrack along the shores of Haweswater rather than walk. I kept this in mind as I started the long climb up through Fusedale. Suprisingly, I felt that I could have really pushed the climb but in my head I kept that image of me on the singletrack. I made sure I didn't go into the red at any point on the climb and, although I was slowly catching two runners further ahead, I just kept them in sight and stuck to my plan.
I reached the first col and remembered John laughing at me as I finally took my gloves off on the lovely hot day in April. Looking up, I could see the other runners part way up the final climb which seemed to break the route down for me and without killing myself I made it to the top. I'm sure others found this an equally significant moment as this is the high point of the course, though you'd be hard pushed to say it is all downhill from here!
There is a nice, slightly downhill, soft underfoot section to Low Cop which gives a bit of respite for those aching knees but you are soon back onto the knee jarring drop to Haweswater. Although I could feel my quads were a bit sore, they were nowhere near as bad as I thought they would be at this point - perhaps all those long descents of Skiddaw in training were paying off?!
Along the shore, it was game-face on for the rough singletrack, be as smooth as possible, don't fight the trail and run as much as you can. This was the point where I really started to feel this could be my day as I ran the majority of this section, just passing the two runners I could see on the climb in the final half mile to Mardale.
The few runners in the tent looked like they were having a regroup before the big push up to Gatescarth Pass, particularly as the weather was taking a turn for the worse, I knew I was on a roll and wanted to keep moving to prevent any stiffness so kept my pit stop to 4 minutes, but I did enjoy the soup, just to warm my core before the battle to come.
18:04 (13th place)
Leg 11 - Mardale to Kentmere
It was this moment that I regretted not putting my long sleeved top on at Dalemain. As soon as I started the long climb, I put on my lightweight jacket and within a couple more minutes I had to put on my full waterproof jacket too. I thought about going for the gloves but really wanted to keep them dry for any later battles with the elements so just pulled the jacket sleeves down over my hands. I could see the weather was better in the surrounding valleys so figured I could tough it out.
As I looked back down the track I could see two runners approaching fast, though I didn't recognise them. I assumed they were catching me and thought I would just let them go and stick to my own race. It was only as they powered past and shouted encouragement over the wind that I discovered they were not part of the race but out training for the UTMB. I tried to get a drag from them but they were going too fast so I let them go, wishing I still had that spring.
The descent to Sadgill was going to be another test for the quads but I was becoming more confident that they could take it now; I figured that if they were going to fail they would have done so by now. I started to warm up as I made the drop and by the time I got to the farm I felt back to normal and in race mode rather than survival mode.
As soon as I started the climb over to the Kentmere valley, I had to take off a jacket and allowed my mind to wander a little, particularly trying to remember what big climbs were left. The only two that still held any fear were the climbs out of Langdale and Tilberthwaite - the end was starting to feel nearer. I was suddenly brought back down to earth with a thud as Ken Sutor shot past me like I was standing still. I had no choice other than to let him go, there was no way I could raise my pace to match his; he looked so smooth. We shouted encouragement to each other and I quickly lost sight of him.
I was somewhat relieved when I got to the checkpoint to find Ken still there as I thought I might get some kind of a tow over the next section with him, though as we got chatting over some snacks, he said he was starting to struggle a little. I told him how strong I thought he looked and fully expected him to be battling the final sections with me.
19:54 hours (12th place)
Leg 12 - Kentmere to Ambleside
I was out of the checkpoint before Ken and soon making the long trudge up to Garburn Pass. Although this is a long drag, it is not a particularly steep hill, perfect for just a nice steady grind without going into the red. As I neared the top, I could see Ken not too far back but knew I had been running well on the downhills, so got on with the task in hand. The drop to Troutbeck is made a little easier as it runs diagonally down the hill and I was really pleased with the pace I had, just being careful to get the correct righthand fork just after the woods.
Climbing out of Troutbeck, I started to feel like I was turning for home even though I initially said I wouldn't entertain these thoughts until Ambleside. I took the climb nice and easy which meant I was able to run all the way down into Ambleside. There were obviously a few tourists in the streets who knew what was going on and I got a few cheers as I ran in, though the reception at the Lakes Runner shop was special. Nothing was too much trouble for the marshalls; I remember I seemed to do very little other than think this is a bit surreal as I sit here in the middle of a 105 mile race as people look at the latest Gortex jackets or fleeces.
I was out of the shop before any other runners came in so I knew I was building a small cushion in the race for Coniston.
21:47 hours (11th place)
Leg 13 - Ambleside to Chapel Stile
I metaphorically rolled my sleeves up at this point and really got the bit between my teeth; a top 10 placing was possible, though I had no idea how far ahead the next runner was. (in the end, I made up the final placing as someone withdrew from the race.)
My pace on the uphills was remaining fairly constant now; not fast but good enough. I started to walk with my hands clasped behind my back under the rucksack and this seemed to ease the pressure off my aching shoulders. I made sure I did not hammer (as if that was possible!) on the drop to Skelwith Bridge as I was determined to run all the flat sections to Elterwater. My reasoning was that, although I could have been a minute or two quicker on the drop, I could be 5 or10 minutes quicker if I could run on the flat. I think it worked!
As you enter the marquee in Langdale, you cannot help but smile. Here you are in the middle of a remote valley in The Lakes, on your last legs as part of a monster race and you stumble into this huge marquee with sofas and heaters. It wasn't quite Costa's, but at this stage it felt fantastic. I made the decision to avoid the sofas as, like many others, I knew that if I sat down, I might never get up.
23:07 hours (10th place)
Leg 14 - Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite
As I left the checkpoint, I had the climb out of Langdale very much to the front of my mind. I managed to run quite a lot of the section to the foot of the climb, though I wish someone was filming me as I climbed over the two big ladder stiles. As I negotiated the stiles, all I could think of was "don't get cramp, don't get cramp". I put two feet on every rung, sat on the top and repeated the process on the way down, sitting on each rung - seemed to take an age.
The climb itself was just a trudge, no dramas, no red zone, almost a little anti-climatic (give me that every time!!)
I found the small trod round to the extra dibber without any problems though I was pleased I came and had another look four weeks ago. The track was hard work and I was conscious of the fact that I was starting to stumble when my head was saying run but my legs were saying walk (though I think my legs were using stronger language than that!)
As I ran down the road, I looked across Bleamoss to see if anyone else was making their way round and I hoped to be out of sight before they did. At the time it seemed to be really important to avoid being the hare for someone, whereas, in reality, there is not really anything you could do at this point and if someone had caught me, I probably wouldn't have cared.
The climb over to Tilberthwaite is not too bad and is broken up by the post John and I designated as the 100 mile point. We have no idea how accurate it is but it's a nice psychological marker. I found the last half a mile round the road to the car park quite hard; the checkpoint just never seemed to be getting any closer.
I had taken a caffeine gel to blast me through the final leg and I was desperately trying to do the maths and project a finish time. I had slowly come to realise over the last few hours that I had a chance of breaking 26 hours, though I possibly never wanted to admit it and put pressure on myself. In my head, I had a time of 1:10 hours for the final leg and I arrived at Tilberthwaite in 24:53 hours so I knew things were going to be touch and go. I thought back to when John broke 20 hours for the West Highland Way by only 27 seconds and knew I didn't want that kind of close call. With all this in mind, it was just 30 seconds at the checkpoint and away up the steps.
The race was on!!
24:53 hours (10th place)
Leg 15 - Tilberthwaite to Coniston
Having seen some video clips of people dragging themselves up this climb, I was pleased with the way I plodded up. It was hard and my calfs were burning but I made good progress. Once round the corner onto the open fell, I was taking quite a battering from the wind and really needed to stop and put a jacket on but If I had done that and missed 26 hours by a few seconds, I would have been a little annoyed. This was the perfect time to zip up the old man-suit and get on with it. I had my gloves in my pocket and they would just have to do.
The cold may have encouraged me to get into a run more than I would have expected and I made good time up round to the small tarn at the col. At the top of the final drop to Coniston, I took a deep breath, said to myself "This is it!" and went for it!
On our training run, John and I had said how great it would be if you were still able to run all the way down into Coniston, so this was the final task I set myself. I had no idea how long this would take but knew I must be in with a good shout of breaking 26 hours. After the first couple of minutes, down the really steep and rough section, my quads were basically numb; if I couldn't feel the pain, I was quite happy. There were a couple of spots where I had to pick my way through some rock steps but apart from that, I ran all the way.
As I hit the tarmac road and could see the museum, I knew I was going to break 26 hours and could really enjoy the run through the town. There were huge cheers from the crowd in the beer garden of the Black Bull and I was even able to run up the short raise past the garage. Turn into the school lane and I could see the small group of people around the finish area. A huge grin swept over my face and I punched the air as I crossed the line and dibbed to finish in 10th place in a time of 25 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds.
Tracey and Katrina came straight over and I sort of folded myself around Tracey. I think my first words were "I nailed it!"
You are taken by a marshall across to the school hall, though nothing can quite prepare you for the wave of emotion that hits you as you enter the building to be greeted by whoops, cheers, applause and whistles. Everyone in there seems to understand what that moment means and want to play some small part in your elation. It was a moment I will never forget and I enjoyed being on the other side of the fence later in the day, playing some small part in others success.
Two years ago, after finishing the West Highland Way race, I suffered a sudden drop in blood pressure and nearly passed out so now, straight after getting my medal and t-shirt, I went over to one of the crash mats (never was there a better named bit if kit) and lay down with my feet up on a chair for 15 minutes. Eventually, I thought it was safe to head out back to the van.
With some careful manipulation, I managed to get into one of the shower cubicles and have a clean up but I couldn't face the prospect of someone touching my legs, so gave the massage offer a miss. Once I was tucked up in a sleeping bag I had a look at the messages and tweets with which my phone had been going berserk. I got quite emotional reading the comments; some of my family and friends had spent almost the whole day glued to the race website following the updates. I also had a phone call from my Mom and Dad but by now I was starting to drift off. The last thing I did was set my alarm to give me enough time to wake up and hobble over to the school to see John finish.
A few hours later I joined the screen watchers in the school and started cheering each finisher. I gave John a call to check on his progress (you can read his report here) and tried to keep up with Katrina who was devouring strawberries by the punnet.
John came in to the finish about 4am after having suffered with really sore feet for half of the race - this was a serious case of zipping up your man-suit and getting on with it. Tracey and I now felt it was time to get some proper sleep, so it was another hobble to the van and then zzzzzzzzzz.
The following day revolved around the full cooked breakfast made by angels and the prizegiving hosted by a comic.
It is difficult to portray in words the scale of this event; the complexity of the organisation, the severity of the course, the enthusiasm of the marshalls, the amount of Jelly Babies, the lack of sleep from everyone. Thank you so much to the organisers of this event, regardless of your role, and congratulations to all of you that managed to drag your body round that course.