I had some great recce runs on the route (with John, Jonny, Marco and Rick) and felt really well prepared physically and confident in my ability to run the whole route without need to look at a map.
John and Jonny arrived in Keswick early on Thursday evening and we spent the night talking about the race and enjoying a lovely chicken lasagne (thanks Tracey). All my kit was packed ready for the drive down to Coniston the following morning. I find it interesting how little you pack when you have to carry everything yourself in the race (plus one drop bag) compared to the ridiculous amounts you throw into the car for a supported race like the West Highland Way Race.
We headed down to Coniston mid-morning, hoping to avoid any queues for registration and wanting to start soaking up that electric atmosphere. Within moments of arriving I was back to being either "John's mate" or "The guy in the videos" - well, I suppose it's better than just being a number. Then I registered and was number 296 ;-)
It was lovely spending a few hours chatting to friends and putting faces to social media friends. I even had a chat with a couple of runners over from America who introduce themselves after recognising my voice from the videos John and I made during our recces of the route in 2012. It was surprising how quickly time passed and before I knew it we were making our way into the pre-race briefing. I thought I was fairly calm until I came out of the briefing with race director Marc Lairthwaite whipping the runners into a frenzy - thanks for that.
|Myself, John and Jonny pre-start. Photo Rick williams|
Then suddenly I found myself on the start line. Time to put this plan into action.
|A couple of miles after the start. Photo Debbie Martin-Consani|
In 2012, I found myself in an early dark spot on the second leg, but this time I was skipping along nicely, enjoying the improved path alongside Grassguards Gill and through to the col below Harter Fell. One part of my game plan was to run well on the rough rocky sections. I have identified this as one of my strengths and figured I would play this card as often as possible, meaning I could conserve energy on the big climbs as I would be able to make time on the rough stuff.
I arrived at Boot (CP2) roughly on my expected time, but feeling great and, once my bottle was filled with water, I was on my way, running most of the way through the woods out on to the fells towards Burnmoor Tarn. I slowly caught up my friend, Dale Mathers, little knowing that we would be running together on and off for the next 16 hours. Once again, the sunset over Burnmoor Tarn was stunning, almost worth the entry fee alone with the surrounding fells basked in a red glow.
I knew that I would be turning my head torch on somewhere near the top of Black Sail Pass so wanted to get some warm food in me before night drew in. As I came into Wasdale (CP3), I was met by a club mate, Steve Angus, who informed me that another team mate, Andrew Slattery, was well up the field in 4th place (even though he had been suffering with illness in the build up to the race). I knew I was feeling good and took great pleasure in stuffing some soup and bread in.
The long climb to Black Sail Pass seemed to go without stress and I picked a great line down the technical descent into Ennerdale. I had only had the head torch turned on for 20 minutes, but on the climb to Scarth Gap I felt that my legs were losing power - I was putting in too much effort at this point in the race. At this point, I was just allowing myself to be dragged along by Dale and was glad to get onto the rough path down to Buttermere as it gave me an excuse to slow the pace down, hoping to recover somewhat. Unfortunately, once on the flat path along the lake, I was back to the struggle and to compound matters I started to feel a little nauseous. This was not part of the game plan, especially this early in the race.
At Buttermere (CP4), I managed a mouthful of soup and a swig of coke, hoping some caffeine might wake me up. I also made the decision that I would just use some Mountain Fuel Xtreme energy drink over the next section and not try to put any solids in at all. I needed to try and settle things down a bit as I was starting to lose my positive frame of mind - I should be enjoying this more than I actually was. I felt I should not try to keep pace with those around me but run my own race at this point; pushing on at this point could prove disastrous later.
I don't remember much about this leg, but do recall turning my focus back on to pick up the correct path to Barrow Door (always a good moment) - I guess it was just a grind. I hoped I might feel better once I got to Braithwaite (CP5) and walked in with the intention of eating some rice pudding. I sat down, looked at the bowl and knew that there was no way any was passing my lips. OK, same again, swig of coke another bottle of Xtreme energy and off we go.
Although I was feeling like crap, I was still covering the ground OK - not as fast as I wanted to be, but still putting one foot in front of the other and I knew that the easiest few hours of the race lay ahead of me, hopefully giving me time to get through this patch. At this point, I felt that I had lost more than enough time to make the 24 hour target fairly unlikely and this did little to brighten my spirits.
As far as I can remember, it was just more of the same through to the Blencathra Centre (CP6) but I had made another decision - I would try a new flavour. I forgot that I had some beef jerky with me and thought I would try that. Even if I couldn't stomach the food, I would at least chew the jerky and spit it out. The first few bit stayed in my mouth for ages but eventually I spat them out - it felt like progress. I had one other thought on my mind; lets see the sun come up.
I played a little psychological game with myself here. In 2012 I turned my head torch off as I stepped onto the Old Coach Road. This time we had started 30 minutes later, but I had turned my torch on at the same point. If I could turn my torch off at a later point, I must still be generally running faster than last time so I made the point of covering a mile or so of the track before turning off my torch. As the sun came up, I managed some more beef jerky which was swallowed; I'm going in the right direction. I managed a couple of small Mountain Fuel Power Pancakes which are really easy to eat and felt that I would leave things like that until Dalemain. A bit more coke and a few minutes sit down at Dockray (CP7) saw a bit more of a recovery and I set of with renewed vigour towards the drop bags at Dalemain.
Issues started to sort themselves out on the leg as a few elements conspired to aid the situation. The sun was coming up, I had my favourite part of the course to run on (the terrace path round Gowbarrow Fell overlooking Ullswater), I had managed to hold down the pancakes and jerky and my drop bag was waiting.
As I approached Dalemain, I knew I was really starting to get things back together, though I was still behind the time I felt I needed to run sub 24. I thought I would sort all my kit out first before even thinking about food - but I had a plan.
The marshals at Dalemain, and at every other checkpoint for that matter, were just amazing, nothing was too much effort for them and you had the feeling that you were the only person that mattered to them at that moment. What a wonderful event!
During the UTMB, I had Clare, on the Lakeland 100 I had Tom. Sometimes something just happens at the perfect moment which makes a huge difference. As I came into the tent at Dalemain, my friend Tom Sutton, who I met and ran with in the 2012 race, was there to give support. We chatted as I sorted my kit out, he said all the right things and he provided a familiar face just when I needed one. I can't thank you enough Tom.
I used my "Must do, might do" list, which everyone was very impressed with and by the time I had sorted my kit out, I was ready to think about food again. In training, I had been experimenting with using a Mountain Fuel Morning Fuel mixed with chocolate soya milk and had prepared the right mix of milk for one portion which Tom sorted for me, with everyone enjoying the paper party bowl I had in my drop bag.
Looking back at the results, I was in 23rd place at Buttermere as I started to feel rough and, despite easing back on the gas through the night, I was up to 15th by Dalemain. I stood up after a 14 minute break in the checkpoint and knew I was back in the game - time to get back into the sub 24 hour groove!
Everything was just so different now. I timed my departure to leave a few runners to chase in the early part of the leg to Howtown and felt like I was in a race now. I passed a couple who were taking a mile or so to get their legs moving again and pushed on trying to catch another friend, Richard Lendon, who was having a storming run, well ahead of his time from last year. I didn't hammer it to catch Richard, but used him to draw me along towards the checkpoint on the long drop down. Just before the CP, I finally caught my club mate, Andrew, who was starting to suffer. I have just found out that, not only did Andrew suffer with illness in the run up to the race, but he twisted his ankle somewhere in the first 25 miles, and has just been confirmed with a broken metatarsal. This is a tough race, but you try doing 80 miles of it, over that terrain with a broken foot and still come in 15th place overall! #machine #legend
|Andrew and I approaching Howtown. Photo Andrew Slattery|
Another friendly face at Howtown (CP9) as I was greeted by Mike Raffan and I quickly left with Richard for the longest leg of the race, up Fusedale, over High Cop and along the side of Haweswater to Mardale.
I do like this leg. That's the only attitude to have. Simple plan; don't go into the red zone on the climb up to High Cop so you can run most of the rest, especially the technical single track along Haweswater. I could see some runners further ahead which gave me something to chase and I just found myself in that comfortable zone, covering the ground and, most importantly, smiling. I knew I was going well and the results show that I was 3rd quickest on this leg. Just as I approached Mardale (CP10), I finally caught up with Dale again who still looked strong, which made me feel better still.
If I'm being truthful, I really used Dale to drag me along for the next three hours or so. He was looking smooth and covering the ground well, so I was able to just concentrate on my running style and tried to do some calculations as to whether sub 24 hours was back on the cards or not, but I wasn't able to get my head around that so thought I'd wait until I was nearer Ambleside. On the ridiculously long descent to Sadgill Farm, all I could think about was the fruit smoothies at the Kentmere checkpoint. It was quite warm at this point and I was craving a different flavour.
Dale and I arrived together and I looked on enviously as Dale threw down a bowl of pasta. I stayed a minute or two extra to enjoy my smoothie and some coke and then headed out, once again using Dale to drag me up to Garburn Pass. At times, Dale pulled away from me, sometimes out of sight, but I felt that I was running the pace I wanted to and was still feeling OK. Every MOT I gave myself was a pass; head, shoulders, stomach (just), legs and feet. If those elements stayed as they were, I was going to finish strong.
I caught Dale again as we approached Ambleside (CP12) and I was able to make some calculations. A nice easy training run would see me take about 3:20 to 3:30 hours from Ambleside to Coniston. As we arrived in the town, we had 3:45 hours to break 24 hours. The game was on.
|In Ambleside. Photo Rupert Bonington|
I had one final boost at the checkpoint as my friend Rupert Bonington was there to cheer me on. Rupert, who is part-owner of Mountain Fuel, really revved me up and gave me some information on those runners just ahead of me. I was in 8th place, but more importantly the chance of sub 24 hours was there and, possibly, a couple of extra places to grab.
The leg to Chapel Stile is relatively flat and short so it's a bit easier on the psyche and I left Ambleside feeling like I was on my way home. I lucked out here as I left just behind Lawrence Eccles who has a metronomic gait, perfect to drag me through the flat tracks past Elterwater and into Langdale. My plan was to make a move on the rougher ground after the Chapel Stile checkpoint as we made our way into Langdale.
I arrived about a minute after Lawrence but, as ever, the marshals did a fantastic job and by the time I had swigged some coke and had a few mouthfuls of stew, my bottle was ready and I was off. I hoped to open a small gap and then make use of the rougher terrain in the valley. It was great to be on my own again and running well so close to the finish, but as I approached the first of the big wooden stiles, I caught up with Kevin Perry who said he was going through a bad patch. You know you must be doing well if you are anywhere around Kevin; his record in this race over the years is phenomenal - 6th, 5th, 7th and 4th! This put me up to 6th place and I, stupidly, assumed that I would just waltz off into the distance. Kevin had other ideas. I would run on for a while, look back and there he would be. He hung on magnificently for a while and it wasn't until after the dibber on the gate above Blea Moss that I finally started to pull away.
I enjoyed the small climb and drop round to Tilberthwaite (CP14) - it really is a gorgeous, quiet part of the Lakes. My eyes flicked between the trail and my watch as I ran round the road to the CP. Could I make the 24 hours? In 2012, it had taken me 59 minutes to complete the final leg and as I arrived this time, a quick glance showed that I had 1:02 hours to break 24 hours. This is sooooo on!
I already had my poles out ready, dibbed, got half a bottle of water and set off up the stairway to heaven/road to hell (depending on your physical and mental state). It was all about rhythm; if I could get into the right groove, I would cope with the climb and still be able to drop like a stone back into Coniston. I didn't want to be cutting it fine, I wanted to enjoy the finish.
It didn't take too long to climb the steep part and, most encouragingly, I was able to run some of the lesser climb up to the start of the final descent. The poles were already stowed away as I crested the brow and I quickly got that short, fast step gait going to make an efficient drop down. In no time, I was on the tarmac road going past the Miners Bridge, swinging round past the parked cars and onto the main road through the village. Great support from the beer gardens of the pubs put just that little bit extra spring in your step and I crossed the finish line in 23 hours, 47 minutes and 18 seconds.
I managed a hug with Tracey on the way to the line and was greeted by a smiling Andy Cole. Then you get to experience on of those special touches that makes this event so good; you are taken, by your own personal marshal, through the canteen area where you are announced to receive cheers before being taken into the hall to be awarded your medal and finishers t-shirt. That marshal will only leave you once they are happy you are OK or they have passed you onto someone else who can look after you - a lovely touch.
|Tired but happy!|
The camper van bed was all set up ready for me, so I had a bit of a chat with Tracey and a bit of a doze, but within 40 minutes, I was ready for a shower - which was fantastic!
It was time to be on the giving end, so Tracey and I went into the canteen for some food and had a nice meal and chat with Tony Holland and family. Congratulations to Tony, who smashed 10 hours in the 50 race after being injured for much of the year. It's great, having a conversation that is broken every 2 minutes by applause and cheers, then you just carry on as you were.
What I would say is that I know some hellish good runners - congratulations to my friends who kicked some ass over the weekend; Jayson Cavill winning the 50, Matty Brennan sprinting to take 2nd in the 50, Debs being the machine she is taking 2nd, also in the 50, Marco grabbing 2nd in the 100 and Paul Tierney for getting the big win.
We waited for John to finish and had our fingers crossed that he would break 30 hours and we didn't have to wait too long as he rocked in at 29:36 hours - much bigger smiles than last time. I couldn't quite wait for Jonny as I was too tired, but was delighted to find out the next day that he had completed in just over 36 hours.
This event, and ultra running in general, was kind of summed up at breakfast the next day. I sat there in the sunshine, eating my fry-up, around the table we had runners of every ability from those delighted to finish the course to Great Britain internationals - you gotta love that :-)
Like every runner, I have to thank the whole crew that put this event on; from Terry and Marc to every marshal at the checkpoints to the event centre staff. This event is special and long may it remain so. I will be back... I'm not sure when, but I will be back.