LOVE FOR LAKELAND
Sitting here in my Lakeland finisher’s shirt two weeks after the race, I felt compelled to write about my third run around the fantastic Lakeland 50 course. Yes, it’s that good I have run it three times and I don’t doubt I will run it again.
The 2021 race wasn’t the result or the race I’d wanted but I’m proud of myself for finishing under 12 hours. I am also happy to have finished inside the top 100 for the third time. Initially I had gone to race with the stated ambition of lowering my 2016 course PB of 10:31:58 – the omens on race day were good. It was hot and there was no chance of rain, and I like running when it’s hot. The omens leading up to race day, on reflection, did not point to my being able to run 10:30 or better. But that didn’t stop me having a go!
I approached the 2021 Lakeland 50 initially as I do any other A-Race. Two months before the start of the training block I mapped out the overarching plan in TrainingPeaks in a structured and methodical way. The shortest block I ever allow myself is 10 weeks and I have found the longest my body can withstand is 14 weeks (not including race week).
For 2021, I planned an 11 week training block which included weight training, speed sessions, long runs and hill sessions. It also included a trip to the Peak District and a trip to the Brecon Beacons where I planned to run at my Lakeland 50 goal pace/effort.
I have laid out the overview of how each week of my training went below, and it will soon become apparent why it was unlikely I’d be beating my course PB!
Clearly there is way more red than green in the training table and for some reason I decided to spend quite a bit of time running speed sessions and, you know, throwing in a 10km road race/PB attempt into the mix. The speed stuff and the 10km race totally detracted from the importance of running long on the trail, running with kit and fuelling for a long day out! By the time long run day came around prior to getting injured in Week 7, I was basically too tired or too distracted to get out on the trails for a long run. But for some reason none of this was registering as detrimental to my ‘Lakeland 50 training’ – very much inverted commas!
Compounding tightness in my glutes and hamstrings leading up to my 10km PB, I injured myself properly on the Tuesday of Week 8 by stupidly getting carried away in the gym. The session I had planned was primarily deadlifting, but only to 80% of my maximum, but instead because I felt great I pushed on for a PB. Whilst I was lifting beyond my maximum it still didn’t register in my mind that this wasn’t exactly optimal training for Lakeland 50.
Normally I keep a close eye on my training on a week by week basis – I will look back at the previous week’s training and make adjustments to the week ahead if needed but every 4 weeks or so I will check over the entire block from start to finish to ensure I’m on track and so I can move sessions around as appropriate – usually depending on other commitments, tiredness, niggles and life stressors. But this time out I didn’t look back over the block, or look ahead over the block. I basically just did what I had pre-programmed in April and if I didn’t feel like doing the pre-programmed stuff I swapped it out. On reflection this is probably the most spontaneous ‘training’ I have ever done for something I considered to be an A-Race. I spontaneously dumped long runs, I spontaneously did 3 workouts in a week, I spontaneously entered a 10km and spontaneously started (and stuck to) swim training from Week 4 onwards. There was seemingly no rhyme or reason to the structure of each week as it changed almost daily from the overarching structure of the block based on whatever I felt like at the time.
I may not have put in the most disciplined, structured or specific training block for the 2021 Lakeland 50 but by the time it got to race day I actually felt surprisingly strong and confident. In my mind I had arrived at the start line undertrained, fresh and with a positive mental attitude. That is all I needed to get me moving and to then keep me moving towards what I still felt to be an achievable course PB.
I ran the first 16 kilometres to Howtown checkpoint very comfortably, smiling the entire way and enjoying the views. I felt much better than I did in 2017 which is the last time I ran the course. I fast hiked the uphills and cruised on the flat(ish) and downhill sections. Fast hiking uphill is my strength and I guess my training kept that up as each week at the gym I warmed up with 15 to 20 minutes of running and fast hiking at between 10-15% gradient on the treadmill.
I had analysed my previous two runs at Lakeland and I knew that if I didn’t dawdle at aid stations and instead got what I needed, and quickly, I could save myself quite a lot of time. So into Howtown I did just that – I had my mug filled with juice, I took three biscuits and emptied two packets of salted crisps into a zip-lock bag and I was on my way pretty quickly. I knew the climb up Fusedale was coming, and it was 16 klicks to the next aid station at Mardale Head. I love the Fusedale climb, I have done since my first race and the 2021 race was no different – Strava tells me I ran segment PBs on every segment from Howtown up to and out of the Mardale Head checkpoint.
I was in and out of Mardale Head nice and quickly too then away up my favourite section of the course with a mug of juice and a jam sandwich. There’s nothing specific about why I like the climb out of Mardale at all either, it’s not like it’s easy going. The view is behind you, it gets steeper as you go, it’s winding and it’s rocky but I absolutely love it. The heat wasn’t really getting to me, and boy was it hot, and I enjoyed the descent and run over to Kentmere as it gave a little bit of breeze.
I got to the Kentmere checkpoint which is around halfway and I was feeling very, very good! My watch was telling me I was on pace for about a 10 hour finish and my mind and body felt that was realistic. I had been eating enough, drinking enough and as per my pre-race plan I had stayed within myself physically and mentally – by that I mean I had said ‘Hello’ to a few people along the way, but I hadn’t struck up a prolonged conversation as I have done in my two previous races – my plan this year was very much to run my own race and to do that I would have to do it solo.
I departed Kentmere with a mug of juice and some frozen fruit feeling great. Then, all of a sudden I did not feel great at all. My stomach started to make strange noises as I fast hiked with my mug of juice and fruit, and almost as soon as my mug was empty my mouth went very dry. I knew I would have to experience a bad patch at some point, it’s almost inevitable in a 50 miler and even more so in the heat. I just hiked as fast as I could but could feel the energy draining – I did my best to talk to myself positively and to maintain an outward smile. I was still passing people at this point and the feedback I was getting from people was I looked strong – that was great to hear and things started to feel like they were getting better as I got to the top of Gatesgarth Pass.
Alas, they may have seemed to be getting better but when I went for a pee it was very worryingly dark, darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not a good sign. But I put that out of my mind, took a drink of water, forced down a Shot Blok and then I began the descent willing myself to put a decent shift in. My plan at this point was to take advantage of the downhill and to drink and eat once it flattened out a bit. Even making the plan was making me feel better and I was still very much in the position of believing that I could achieve my goal. Then I slipped or tripped (I don’t really know which) and feel head over heels. It was a shock. My hands were cut, my knees were cut, I’d hit my ribs the rocks and landed on my shoulder. I sat there for about 5 minutes in the sun starting to feel worse and trying to pull my mental game together. I chanted a mantra of ‘This too will pass’ interspersed with a good few swear words. Eventually I got up and tried to get moving again but all the self-belief and positivity seemed to have been replaced by self-doubt, nausea and a wonderful headache that made thinking, let alone running, feel painful.
I kept trying to run for about 2km and then I stopped for another pee and saw that it was still dark. I stopped, drained a bottle of water and felt like I was going to throw up and then attempted to eat a Shot Blok which went down like gravel. From this point I knew it would be difficult to hit a course PB – still achievable but it would be hard work and likely painful. I tried to run again and to get the motivation back but as soon as I hit patches of shade heading to Ambleside I basically gave up and walked the 8 or so kilometres to Ambleside with my legs feeling like they were on fire, my head aching badly and my stomach absolutely refusing all but the tiniest sips of water. Eight kilometres has never felt so long and I was feeling extremely demoralised as I was passed by so many people.
The most crystal clear thought I could pull together in the woods just outside Ambleside was that 10 hours was not going to be salvaged, a course PB was also unlikely and maybe the race was over for me. Ambling into Ambleside I figured I’d drop at the checkpoint. I called my wife and let her know that is what I was going to do but she told me I should think about my options when I got there – goals can always be adjusted, and I’d be so proud of myself if I pulled it together and cracked on! She said it didn’t matter how long it took. Those of you reading this who have been in similar positions will know that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear at that point, the words came easy from the wife but the actions required to do what she knew I could do did not at all come easy on my end of the phone!
After ending the call I was still pretty much sure I’d be giving up. The last two times I have loved running through Ambleside and I have felt great on arriving and leaving that checkpoint. This time was an entirely different experience. I limped along with my head down and all I could think about was getting to the checkpoint, withdrawing from the race and then finding some paracetamol, a cold juice and perhaps lying in the park for a nap before getting a bag of chips.
I got to the checkpoint walking and still despondent, about to call it a day when a wonderful volunteer (dressed a lemur, or maybe a sloth?!) sat me down, told me to relax and to try and start eating. I mentioned my pee was very dark and then all of a sudden two people in high vis t-shirts were there to look at me. Hello there race medics. I thought they’d tell me I was done for and in all honesty that’s what I wanted! I wanted that decision taken out of my head and out of my hands, I didn’t want a choice to carry on. I wanted to quit. But damn it – they told me I could finish, I could even have a good last third, I just needed to sit and be patient. They asked if I had any SCaps or anything like that but when I said I didn’t like them as they’d made me feel crap at previous races, they said not to mind and to eat two bags of salted crisps, drink some juice and get a litre of water on board. They would ask me how I felt after I’d done that. So, to my surprise, I did as I was told. I sat on the floor with my hoard of goodies and started to make my way through them. Slowly I began to feel much better. So much so that I even managed to eat half a jam sandwich!
After I had finished my stash I got up, went to find the lemur/sloth volunteer and asked to refill my bottles because I was going to get myself on out of the aid station. I cannot explain how good it made me feel to see the smile of this volunteer and to hear their words of encouragement and positivity – I don’t remember what they said but I remember the feeling. I was going to finish…but first, please could she persuade the medics to give me two paracetamol to get rid of my headache! It didn’t take long before I had two paracetamol in my system – once they were in my hand my resolve strengthened and I almost cried with joy and relief! I think I was in the aid station for about 40 minutes and that was enough – it was time to get up and get a move on. I was going to finish the 2021 Lakeland 50 and I was going to finish strong. I felt rejuvenated and the air had cooled a little which was refreshing.
On the walk out I had a word with myself, adjusted my expectations and said to myself let’s get back to Coniston in 12h30m or less. It can be done. I will do it. And then I did it.
The last 25km were really good and I made up a lot of places. I was moving well again, not quite as well as the first 45km but well enough and I was enjoying the scenery and the feeling that my mental game is getting stronger with every passing race. I don’t have many specific memories of the route from Ambleside to the finish but that wholly unexpected feeling of rejuvenation, resolve and enjoyment carried me to Coniston mostly with a smile on my face. I may have let go of the 10 hour finish and the course PB at Ambleside but I carried a racing mentally out of there – everyone I saw in front of me with the blue Lakeland 50 bib gave me something to work towards and I did just that. Nobody passed me from Ambleside right up until the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. Over this whole final section I kept myself to myself, kept my interactions with other runners to a minimum and kept on moving forward at the best pace I could muster right until I crossed the line.
I made it back to Coniston in 90th place in 11 hours, 14 minutes and 6 seconds. My slowest time at Lakeland 50 but I think my most gratifying finish of the three. I didn’t reach my A-Goal of 10:30 or better but I did reach my B-Goal of a top 100 finish and my other goal of just enjoying myself. The enjoyment, even through the suffering on the way to Ambleside, was very real. If you know, you know. To suffer is to grow. I enjoyed every step up to the point I fell. I took a lot of learning, not quite enjoyment, from every step of the way into Ambleside and I felt my mental strength grow as I sat there willing myself to get up and get going and then the enjoyment returned as I walked out of Ambleside and starting running again.
I’ll be back again. And next time it might be for the 100…