Lakeland Trail Ultra 110km. 1st July2017
‘My polenta is cooling and I’ve just got to pack my yoga-mat and then I’m setting off.’ As I sent the text message to Sinead I thought, ’tis a long way from polenta and yoga-mats you were reared Lynch!’ It was race weekend and Sinead, Lisa, Mauro and I were heading north to Ambleside for the Lakeland Trail Ultra. Sinead, Mauro and I were taking on the 110km and Lisa the 55km event. Originally I had planned for the 55km but a cracking weekend away at the Ben Nevis Race last year over several post race beverages Sinead and I discussed the joy of running for adventure and running’s sake rather than running to race and I swapped over to the 110km. For me the experience and adventure is really important. Don’t get me wrong, I will turn up to the start line with the intention of using certain races as training events or not racing them as they clash with another event later that week, however when the legs get moving I find it hard to ignore the red competitive mist which can descend. But there is something special about that ‘first time’ feeling when you run a new race.
I remember running my first marathon in Nottingham in 2010. Huddled in the starting pen, shivering with nervousness, the smell of deep heat wafting about; and feeling very excited in knowing that later that day I would be a fully fledged marathon runner. I used to watch the Dublin Marathon on TV when I was a child and in the days before gels and sports drinks, when shorts were short and sun-cream was for posh folk, runners would fall jelly legged over the line, dehydrated and exhausted. Sitting in my parent’s living room drinking red lemonade (it’s an Irish thing!) no wonder I thought this was beyond me. However, that day I ran a respectable sub 4 hour race and have been running long distances since. What has all of this got to do with this particular ultra and this weekend? Every marathon I’ve run since has never felt as good as that first marathon where the expectation was to conquer the distance. The expectation was between me and myself alone. At subsequent events I’ve had a PB goal, or a position goal sitting on my shoulder nagging me and while these have been excellent motivators there is something about ‘the first time’! SO this ultra would be the longest distance I’ve run, the most climb in one event I’ve done and it was an overnight run. Lots of firsts to be had. I was very very very excited!
Arriving at Ambleside on Friday afternoon, I met up with Sinead and we went to register. I was laden down with a shopping bag full of sealed drop bags for each checkpoint. I have coeliac’s disease and so food at the checkpoints would be unlikely to be edible for me, and I was afraid to risk cross-contamination so hence the reason for the polenta. I had a picnic of chocolate soya milk (if it works for Eoin Keith…) crisps, cereal bars, fruit cake or brownie and polenta in each bag, along with a gel. The organisation at the Lakeland Trail events is fantastic in my opinion. After a minor faff and panic that I may have missed the vans bringing food to the checkpoints I dropped my stuff off with assurances that they would do their best to get bags to where they needed to be. On top of everything else they needed to do. I’m a race director at my club and our races are on a much smaller scale but the collective effort involved in any event is a mighty task so I really appreciate the care taken with my food. Anyway more about the food later.
We registered got our trackers and timing chips (please can someone make these smaller!) and then we went back to the camp site on the football pitch where I PITCHED A TENT ALL BY MYSELF!!!!!! I. Pitched. A. Tent. Solo! Given that I nearly divorce my husband each time we pitch the family tent this was a massive deal for me. Another first. It’s the little wins which get you through life! Anyhoo, tent pitched (last time I will mention this I promise) Lisa arrived and we all had a brew a bite to eat and a natter before trying to get some shut eye before the race. It was 5pm. I jokingly said ‘if you don’t see me by 10:30 wake me up’. I dozed until around 9pm, and phoned hubby and kids for a chat. Then I had a quick bowl of cereal and was going to get up but thought as there was still a while to go I would shut my eyes for 5 minutes. My eyes opened and it had gone from light to dark outside! I grabbed my phone and couldn’t believe that it was 11:10pm! The compulsory race briefing was at 11:30 and I was still in my jimjams! In this situation there was nothing to do but keep calm and carry on. However I chose to instigate the mother of all faffs and went into a complete tizz and panic. By this stage Sinead had realised that I hadn’t gotten up so she tried to help me sort my gear and get ready. Note to self: it is really hard to put in contact lenses when in that state! I had planned to leave my tent tidy with everything laid out so when I finished I could just crawl to the shower and then to bed with minimal thought. Instead I left the tent looking like it had been ransacked and dashed to the safety briefing. Graham Paton the race director went through the safety list, and reminded us to thank marshals and to stop occasionally and look around and then with a quick hug to Sinead we were out of the tent onto the starting line. Torches on, a balmy night, ready, steady go.
The start to an ultra is odd if you haven’t done them before. There’s no dashing off at 6 mile an hour pace (for me anyway). It’s a bit like a pack run pace and a fast walk up the hills. My mini tantrum before the start had triggered my IBS (I’m a delicate flower where me bowels are concerned) so I felt pretty rough and in a lot of pain for the first few miles. However having said that the atmosphere was really pleasant, not much chat as we had been asked to keep the noise down out of respect of residences and also I guess everyone was in their own head space remembering their training etc. The first few miles take you along country roads and tracks. My mind began to settle down and in spite of the rebellion happening in my innards, I began to appreciate the surroundings. Sheep’s eyes glowed in the fields as we ran past. It never fails to amuse me when a sheep bleats that it always sounds like someone doing an impression of a sheep. Note to self: need to get out more.
I saw a female runner ahead of me and was about to up my pace when I remembered the scale of this event. I had run a whole 3km and had 107km to go. Probably a bit to early to start racing Lynch. And the goal is to finish. Anything else is gravy. The terrain began to change and become more uneven and eventually became trail. I like trail, I like having to concentrate and bob about and chose my footing. We were also beginning to climb a bit more and so the pack pace slowed. Again I needed to remind myself to spare the effort for when it might be needed. My mind set for this event was that I was allowed to run for a day. To have a play out for hours and hours and to enjoy it. And so with this firmly back in my mind we began the ascent of Nan Bield. My friend Jill, who had taken part in this event previously, told me to stop on this section and look back at the view. Jill gives good advice, the view was incredible. A chain of torch lights outlining the route against a backdrop of silhouetted countryside and a clear night. The climb was technical but not too tricky. The humidity of the night gave it a degree of difficulty it might not have had otherwise. By this point I had caught up with the lady who I had in sight earlier on and we began to chat. It became very clear that she was far more experienced than me having completed and podiumed this event last year, completed the UTMB and a number of other big races. We summitted and were greeted by the union flag and two glow in the dark skeletons tied to the rock and cheered on by two brilliant marshals. Later we found out that these marshals who were up all night on the summit then completed and won category prizes in the 55km event. People are amazing!
The Nan Beld descent is a different beast to the ascent. Rain earlier in the week had added volume to becks and the tourist path we were following was wet and slippery. I went into my default mode in these conditions and descended like someone’s grand aunt trying not to get to the party too early. I deferred to the other runner’s experience and moved aside as she flew down the mountain. It felt like the entire world went past me on that descent but as soon as the terrain grew less steep and a bit more runnable I shifted gears and picked up speed, my legs very happy to have a stretch out and to get moving again. We had first checkpoint in our sights and first loo point. I had caught up with the female runner again and we sprinted together for the checkpoint and a rather welcome comfort break. At the checkpoint the cheery marshals scanned us in and I grabbed a cup of Nuun and cola from them. Once on my way I realised that I felt good. In fact I felt great. The tummy issues had settled and I could see the beginnings of an orange dawn appear in the low sky. The next section had more road and track and less climb than the previous section but still provided enough to keep runners entertained with some good early cross country training sections in for us to negotiate. The second checkpoint in a small carpark was manned again by cheery marshals who helped refill bottles and the first of my packed lunches was waiting for me. I gratefully stocked up as I had not eaten much up to this point and was conscious of how important fuel is in ultra events. It helps to be greedy someone once told me and having supported a couple of Bob Graham attempts I saw how much those runners ate en route and knew that I needed to pay more attention to this from now on. So at silly o’clock heading towards Haweswater with dawn now engaging more fully I scoffed a pack of crisps. Happy days! It is at this point that I wish I had a degree in English Literature so I could describe in glorious detail how beautiful the next few hours were as the humidity lifted, it grew light and the water of the lake was still. But I don’t so you will have to trust me when I say it will stay with me for years!
Conversation was still pretty scant but I think everyone was just enjoying themselves and it was nice to have a chance to be introspective. I let my mind wander, thinking of home and family, how lucky I am to have a life and the health to allow me to take these events on. A sheep bleated; I laughed.
Then I ate some polenta. Some cold greasy polenta. The less said about that the better. My tummy died a little then, wondering what it had done to offend me so much. I didn’t tell it that we would have to get a lot more of that down us over the next few hours as it was my only source of easy carbs. I had toyed with the idea of making some sandwiches but if anyone has ever tried gluten free bread you will be aware that they are made up of 2 parts evil, 3 parts sawdust, mixed together with sand. If I want to play out on longer runs this is something I need to work on.
The next checkpoint came and went without incident (polenta intake notwithstanding), however the section between 5 between Ullswater and checkpoint 6 at Glenridding was challenging as some ‘ helpful’ soul had removed all the signs and flags from a large section of the course. If the idea behind this was less than well wishing the fact that runners, are by on large, a friendly helpful bunch and we stuck to form helping each other through this too. I was fortunate to have had a runner with the GPX file on his watch and we trusted ourselves to technology. It was tiring and a bit worrying as we couldn’t see other runners and began to doubt we were on course, figuring that eventually we would arrive in Glenridding but just when we began to doubt this we saw a little pack of runners ahead of us and were reassured. We were in a valley on a trail with a slight incline leading to a technical climb and scramble over and eroded path to a the summit of the climb. The appearance of a flustered marshal at the top of the hill assured us we were on track and we continued. Although I couldn’t wait to get to the checkpoint I was still feeling really positive.
The utter joy of a drop bag! Who knew dry socks would feel so darn gooooood! For once my forward planning paid off and I treated myself to a baby wipe bath and a complete change of kit (although not shoes as I only own 1 pair of trails). Again, kudos and thanks to the marshals at this point who helped refill my camel pack and had my picnic waiting. I restocked (sneaking the flipping polenta into my bag before my stomach saw it) and opened a carton of chocolate soya milk to slurp along the next section. I was looking forward to this next bit. It goes through Grizedale past the tarn round Seat Sandal and down to Dunmail crossing the road and circumnavigating Thirlmere tarn. Grzsedale Tarn and Thirlmere fight for my favourite water spots in the lakes. Also I assured myself that a chunk of this section takes the same route as the 55km which I had run last year, so it was familiar. Off I went down the road and was faced with a choice of paths to take. And no signage. Someone again had helpfully removed them. So I turned on heel and trotted back towards the checkpoint figuring I had time to sort it out. On my way I bumped into a runner who had the gpx and we ran together for a while. Faced with another path choice and no signage I opted for a one with a right hand climb rather than a left path on the straight. Alarm bells began to ring when I remembered that the route should lead us past the climbers hut and onto the right hand side of Grizedale. This, I thought would lead us left and possibly towards Dollywaggon/Hellvellyn direction. I stopped and looked around. I spotted a runner, then 2 on the lower path. I turned back, retraced my steps and picked up the lower path. At this point I knew I was 4th lady, ahead of me was Sally Forde in 1st position, winner of last year’s race and a great ultra runner. Second was a runner from Northern Ireland who had flown past me effortlessly in the very early stages. 3rd was a Scottish runner who was having a really strong race but I had seen her leave the last checkpoint as I came in so I figured that over the next 40 or so km I may be able to catch her. And behind me was the runner from Nan Bield. I knew she wasn’t racing today but still was aware that if she changed her mind I would need a bit (a lot) of distance between us to maintain 4th. I also realised that I had shifted from running to racing mode. It was too early for this and I needed to put a lid on it. So I focused on the terrain, nutrition, and before I knew it I was crossing the beck at the lower end of Grizedale Tarn. I nodded ‘hello’ to Fairfield’s grassy back. We have developed a begrudging friendship over the past few months on various recces, races and BG support legs. I acknowledged Dollywaggon. She’s a bit of a ‘wan’ hiding her summit on me every time I go up there. I have Strava sections where I waste time circling her before eventually getting the right peak! Anyhoo, another digression. Back to the Ultra.
I reach the marshal at Grizedale. If ever there was a thankless and difficult role, this person has it. At Grizedale Hause the route splits, us greedy folk running the 110k go right and follow the trod and flags to cut down the gully between Seat Sandal and Willy Wife Moor. The 55km runners turn left heading towards Grasmere. And Grizedale Hause is a cold spot even with the small shelter of the wall. I was lucky, at this point there were few runners out so she had time to identify which race I was doing and correctly direct me. Also at this point, the section still had flags and signs. I know this area so could have made my way down without too many problems. However if you didn’t you could end up going wrong easily. A few hours later a random runner came up to the marshal and said ‘real fell runners don’t need flags and I’m going to take them all down’. And he did. He removed the flags from the 110k section leading down Seat Sandal and many runners lost their way and time before they got onto the race route again. I’m a real fell runner (whatever that means). Not a particularly good or fast one and when I sign up for a FRA race or a BOFRA race then I don’t expect flags or signs. This is a trail race, for all abilities, advertised as signed and marked. What this guy thought he was achieving is questionable, but putting runners at risk is not clever and not helping anyone.
I made my way down Seat Sandal. I passed a man walking his dog and asked for the time in the ‘real world’. He laughed and said it was half 9. This was surprising. I hadn’t really thought of time much. I knew how much time had passed and how far I had to go but this was arbitrary data. I would be done when I was done. It didn’t matter what time it was. Just keep on running until the finish line. Everything else is irrelevant. Onwards or downwards to Dunmail, crossed the stile (hate them), crossed the road and vans of people waiting for a BG attempt to come through. Cheery hellos were issued and my legs were running on fresh tarmac under blue cloudless skies with beautiful Thirlmere ahead of me. Before I knew it I was at the next checkpoint restocking my picnic (more polenta….) and being told I was 3rd lady. No 4th, I countered. No definitely 3rd the marshal assured me. I certainly didn’t pass the Scottish lady so wondered if she had taken a wrong route or worse been injured. I don’t feel comfortable picking up places this way although I know that’s part and parcel of racing. I continued. In a nearby field a farmer was rounding up sheep with a sheepdog. Having just finished reading the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen, I consider myself positively an expert in all things ovine and watched him as I ran past. The sheep bleated; I laughed. A cyclist kept pace with me for a while and we chatted about sheep and running and cycling. Life was pretty damn good.
The next section was going to be boggy the marshal at Thirlmere had warned me. Mate, I run on the West Pennines and in Yorkshire. I’ve done the Wadsworth Trog in February. I grew up in Ireland. If there is terrain I am comfy on its bog. Bring. It. On. But first up a fern and foxglove lined rocky gully. The heat of the day was building and the polenta fermenting. At this point my tummy was planning a revenge. My legs however were happy as happy things and we enjoyed the freedom and familiarity of the open bog and alpine views around us. I passed and was passed by a couple of runners who I saw on and off for the remainder of the event. Below me was Blea Tarn and perched ahead of me was a lone marshal, happy to confirm I was on the right route. It was happy going but I began to feel a trace of tiredness for the first time. I chugged on a caffeine gel and kept going and eventually made it to Borrowmere checkpoint. My tummy who had been quietly simmering for the past 20 minutes or so, had in a plot in mind to rival anything on Game of Thrones, roped in my legs and staged a coup! I got into the hall and my whole system shut down. I have never felt fatigue anything like this before. I berated myself for not eating enough and with the thought of more polenta or crisps my rebellious tummy sent more shots over the bows, so to speak. A runner sat opposite me was saying he couldn’t go on. Saturday morning choons from the hit parade played out while marshals had a little bop behind the counter trying to pick our spirits up. I forced down a banana, had some rola cola and stood up. That was hard work. The marshals were escorting runners down the road to the correct gate and I could just about muster a walking pace. The next 4 miles were horrific. I guess looking back I was experiencing the famous ‘bonk’ ultra runner talk about. It’s just phase, it will pass. I read Lizzie Hawker’s biography a few months ago and recall her saying that she was having a tough time in a race but would just repeat that until she felt better. I chose to do this. No-one forced me, now get on with it. I also knew that unless I got some non-polenta food into me things were going to get worse so I had some chocolate milk and a cereal bar. My legs ached and in the distance I could see the massive mass in front of me. I knew I had another big climb coming up but I remember thinking, please not that one, please not that one. A couple of multi-coloured specks climbing up it confirmed that that was indeed Stake Head and indeed I would be going up it. The route at this point is stunningly beautiful. Golden trail banked by lush green mountains and even Stake Head boasted a waterfall that would have the tourists swooning. But my head was going through the mother of all battles with my body and only hindsight has allowed me to appreciate what I saw. As I began the ascent, passing some walkers who quipped ‘ not far to go now LOL’ (grrrrrr) I realised I had felt this awful once before. In the final stages of labour with my middle daughter, which seemed never-ending and exhausting but as there was only one way it was going to end I had no choice but to keep going. And just like that, today on this mountain I had no choice but to keep going one foot in front of the other. And half way up as suddenly as I had crumbled, I felt great. Not just OK, I felt flipping great. Tummy was happy with its chocolate, legs were on autopilot and the views were stunning. Right, down to Dungheon Gill and then a longer stretch over to Langdale where we intersected again with the 55km route this time spotting runners from this race. I spotted a photographer and vanity forced a smile to my face. But it wasn’t a fake smile, I was genuinely very happy. I had less than 12 km to go but more importantly had run more than 90km. I had hit the wall and recovered. Next time I hit the wall I will know I can get through it. So onward past the campsite on the tailored trail, through the village and into the primary school. I wasn’t really hungry so just grabbed crisps and ‘donated’ the rest to the check point as I had done on the last few. I had run the last section solo and so the appearance of another runner who didn’t seem adverse to running the final section with someone was very welcome. Again familiar with the final 10k of the route I was happy enough to coast and glancing over my shoulder occasionally confirmed that if anyone was behind us they were out of sight and a way off. I was ready at this point to fight for 3rd but was rather thankful that I didn’t need to. My companion Jose, was from Spain and we chatted about politics and life. Just kidding, we, as all runners do, especially while running, talked about running. The final section of the ultra sneaks a couple of sapping climbs in and the last one goes over Loughrigg. This race has a lovely descent on the road (don’t judge me!) which corkscrews into Rothey Park. I love the fact that you enter the park and pretty much run straight over the finishing line. No laps of a field or fighting up a last minute slope. I airplaned and Jose eagled over the line (don’t judge us..). I crossed the line 3rd lady in 15:50. Collapsing on a chair to have my timing block removed by a marshal (seriously I defy you to find an event with better volunteers) and did what many people do at this point. I cried like a baby! Proper embarrassing snotty sobs. This sent the concerned marshals into overdrive until i managed to tell them they were happy tears. I couldn’t believe that silly little me could do what I had just done. I allowed myself a few moments of self indulgence and then phoned hubby to tell him I was alive and then my coach to thank him for convincing me I could do this.
The rest of the evening was a blur of hugs from friends, watching team mates crossing the line. All of my friends completed that day, some with PBs some with blisters and injuries that would stop a horse, but they train us tough up here in Radcliffe! The downside of too much caffeine is it keeps you awake but at least I was able to stay awake long enough to watch them finish and go to the pub with some other runners where we talked about life and politics for the evening. Just kidding, we talked about running.
The next morning once I took down the tent I pitched on my own (oops sorry I promised not to mention that) trotted the short distance back to Rothey Park and took my podium spot and was given my enveloped prize by Graham’s 7 year old son. Later opening it i was pleased to receive a voucher for an In0V8 jacket and free entry to next year’s race. ‘You won what?!’ shouted tummy; ‘A jacket’, I said……..
Food for the race, please do comment with suggestions!
Alpro Chocolate Milk. Incredible stuff.
Cliff Mocha gels (they worked well)
High 5gels (again worked well but a touch harsh of the tummy)
Gluten free cherry bakewells. A nice treat.
Cereal bars. Ok in moderation.
Brooks Seasalt crisps. Again work well but in moderation
Polenta. Never ever again.
At the check points.
Rola Cola (couldn’t get enough of the stuff)
Nuun electrolyte gels. Worked a treat.
Pre Race prep.
Lots of long races with climb in over the winter. I didn’t run more than 32 miles on one go (Haworth Hobble).
Marathons over sequential weekends.
Overnight runs in the lake district.
Asking experienced runners for tips and advice and taking this on board! Absolutely invaluable. There is definitely a mind over body element to this. Or at least there was for me.
You are not at a disadvantage to others if you turn up to the start line not feeling in top form. Just do your best. That’s all you can do and you might not know what your best is until you cross that finishing line!