The Lakeland 50, although one of my 3 Bucket List Races in 3 Months (Mont Blanc Marathon, Lakeland 50, TDS), was always meant to be a preparation event for the TDS at the end of August.
Just over half way into the race, feeling strong and marching up Gatesgarth Pass it shifted in my mind from preparation event to a race that I might actually do quite well at if I kept my head and kept moving as per my pre-race plan – hike conservatively at the beginning of climbs and harder toward the top, run the downhills and then take the ‘flat’ sections as run/walk intervals to conserve energy and reduce muscle fatigue!
Initially, when I entered the race my goal had been to finish in daylight or at least just before sunset – ambitious but ultimately not something I think I could have achieved this year. After Mont Blanc Marathon I reset my goals for the race and they were to enjoy it, not get lost and to get around without injuring myself. The closest thing I had to a time/A-goal was to finish somewhere between 11 and 13 hours. I honestly didn’t think I would be racing into the top 100, finishing with my headtorch still stashed in my pack and only 45 minutes after sunset!
I cannot stop thinking about the race and how well it went – I would definitely say it’s the best race I’ve ever run when it comes to strategy and tactics. This being the case it has now become my focus and my A-Race for 2017, my first 100 miler is on the back burner and it might stay there for some time until I feel as though I’ve reached my potential at 50 miles!
Onwards then, to the race report which is broken down in CP to CP sections.
Dalemain to Howtown (Total Distance 17.8km)
I slept unusually well the night before the race. Unusual because I don’t normally get more than five hours before a race and also because I happened to have ended up camping next to the porta-toilets for the entire Lakeland camp! I got 8 hours of unbroken sleep and woke up feeling mentally focused on the task ahead. I had the luxury of time so I took a shower, grabbed an egg roll and walked into Coniston to get a decent cup of coffee with my fellow campsite resident and Lakeland first timer (and first time ultrarunner!), Franck.
After standing at the back of a very cramped school hall trying to listen to Marc and Terry (RDs) explain what lay ahead all 675 competitors filed out and got onto coaches to take us to the start line an hour away. All I picked up from the race briefing was that once we got to the top of Fusedale Pass and onto High Kop we needed to go to the right of a wooden post and pass a cairn which would be to our left before descending and running alongside Haweswater Reservoir. Also, we were told that if we were planning on getting lost we should take someone with us!
The first 7km or so of the race is over uneven, hilly and grassy ground which is really not great to run on. For some reason the slow start, although fitting my plan, really started to mess with my mind. Until we got off the Dalemain Estate and through the village of Pooley Bridge my head was telling me that I wouldn’t be able to get through the race. It was telling me I was going too slow, it was probably going to rain and I’d hate that. It was telling me my left hamstring was too tight to progress much further than the first CP…
And then, all of a sudden, we were on the High Street trail and climbing with Heughscar Hill to our left and I began to feel all misty eyed and felt a sense of wonder and joy building up as I looked up and saw people hiking up in front and people dropping back behind us. I was hiking along with Franck chatting away and we were both very happy with our pace and with the plan we had talked about during the morning – the plan I mentioned in the introduction: hike up, run down, run/hike the flat.
Howton to Mardale Head (TD 33km – from last CP 15.2km) (129th place)
In what felt like no time we dropped down into the checkpoint at Howton and greeted the competitors hiking out and back onto the course with smiles which were returned – it seemed everybody was starting to really enjoy the day!
With my mental demons now vanquished and feeling warmed up and confident about my strategy I breezed into the aid station employing my “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” mantra that worked so well at Mont Blanc Marathon. I got my bottles filled, grabbed some salted crisps and two cookies and then hiked out of the CP eating on the move and heading toward the biggest climb of the day up Fusedale Pass.
On the climb I caught up with my friend and fellow blogger Giles Thurston who was well into the 100 miler – I gave him a pat on the shoulder, some words of encouragement and a smile and then picked up my pace as we neared the top of the climb. We topped out on the bog of High Fell and picked up into a jog, nay a canter. Or, really, was it more of a hop, skip and jump as we all tried not to lose our shoes! I knew this section would go on for a kilometre or so before dropping into a pretty serious descent – the first steep one of the day.
At the beginning of the descent the clouds parted and the sun came out and this was enough for me to decide I was going to hammer it! So I did. In so doing, I passed a fair few people before reaching the bottom and starting on the relatively flat (but rocky and narrow) trail alongside Haweswater to Mardale Head CP. I hadn’t realised it but at this point I had put a gap between Franck and myself so I was running solo for about 20 minutes before deciding that as the weather was heating up I should stop to fill my spare bottle from a stream and dip my visor – Franck skipped past and said the CP was only 3km or so ahead. I stuck to my plan, let him go and said I’d catch up to him before then.
I was feeling great. I’d cleared my right bottle of water, was halfway through the left side bottle filled with Tailwind and I was feeling extremely happy that I’d had the foresight to pack a spare bottle for extra water in case the weather heated up. The views were spectacular and I initiated my run/walk strategy opting to fast hike for longer than I have previously in races – along Haweswater it was about 600 to 800m of fast hiking followed by 800 to 1200m of running. I caught up with Franck just as we rolled into Mardale Head.
Mardale Head to Kentmere (TD 43.4km – FLCP 10.4km) (119th place)
‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ – I had my bottles filled and calmly spoke to one of the volunteers about how the 100 was going whilst I downed a couple of cups of orange and berry squash, picked up a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches, filled them with salted crisps and then headed on out to climb Gatesgarth Pass with Franck.
On the early stage of the climb we chatted between ourselves and with a few other people around us. At this point I began to feel very strong and I think it must have been an unconscious ‘Central Governor’ moment because I leaned into the climb and began to storm up the hill, passing quite a few people. My mantra on the way up was “Catch, Match, Pass”. My confidence was boosted by a couple of runners I passed who remarked on my technique and speed. In my blind focus I didn’t realise that I had dropped Franck at this point, it was only when I neared the top of the climb I took the time to turn around and look back at Haweswater and take a quick picture that I saw he had slowed quite a bit – it transpired that he was suffering with the heat and nutrition. Franck gutted it out and finished in 11:08:25 in 113th place.
I topped out and hiked along conservatively for about 60 seconds before realising I would be continuing on alone into Kentmere.
After the climb up Gatesgarth there is a long, rocky and unstable descent down to Sadgill. Descending on this type of terrain isn’t really a strong point of mine at all and so I took it real easy to conserve energy, avoid potential injury and to take on some more solid nutrition. I did hammer where I could but I was passed by two people on the way down. I didn’t let it phase me and made a mental note of their numbers…I thought to myself that if I caught them later down the trail I would pass confidently and strongly!
As the descent flattened out a little and we entered a stretch of gravel I started to catch other runners and began to break away from those behind me. I was feeling absolutely brilliant and I ended up catching, matching and confidently passing the two who passed me on the descent! I went into Alpine race mode from this point and didn’t talk to others around me because I was so focused on my strategy and running my own race. All the way to Kentmere from Sadgill I kept swapping position with three or four runners but resisted temptation to pick up the pace and it turned out to be a good thing because about a klick out of the CP I took a wrong turn, adding about 600m in total to the journey –and thankfully found that I wasn’t alone and had the company of another Lakeland novice! We stopped and briefly consulted our road books before retracing our steps back onto course, adding around 600m to the journey.
I spent a little longer at Kentmere CP as I was feeling a little nauseous. Again, I didn’t let it phase me and I pushed aside any negative thoughts and focused on the fact that at my current pace I would be finishing under 11 hours! I didn’t want solid food so whilst I waited for my bottles to be refilled I had two vegan smoothies (Blueberry and then Raspberry) as well as drinking a few more cups of orange and berry squash. Whilst mulling over how to get over what was a very minor upset I decided I would go for a first for me in a race and I headed to the porta-toilet for a quick bio break – this really did the trick and I was on the move again feeling much more comfortable!
Kentmere to Ambleside (TD 55.2km – FLCP 11.8km) (112th)
Feeling much refreshed and refocused I continued out of Kentmere CP, passing the turning I took in February on a run around the Kentmere Reservoir. I was still running solo at this point, nobody left the CP with me and I couldn’t see anybody in front so I began to worry slightly that I might get lost again! I referred again to the road book and then, to make doubly sure I was heading on the track, I took a quick look at the map before getting my bearings and reassuring myself that I was indeed going the right way! This in itself made me feel confident and there was a definite quickening of my pace as I turned off a paved section and headed up onto a stony bridlepath.
I hit this climb hard as I could see a number of people in front who were taking it easy and I passed around six people here before topping out and entering into a long, rocky descent. I was passed by somebody who would soon become a good friend here! His technique was spot on and I latched on to him and vowed to catch him at the bottom and then pass on the next climb!
It didn’t work out that way as we both took it fairly easy out of the descent and on through a paved climb through Troutbeck village. So it was that I made friends with Rob and from this point on we chatted, laughed and raced as a team all the way to the finish. Rob had run the 50 the previous year and had also run the 100 twice so he was pretty confident anytime we needed to take a turn or choose a track to follow.
We rolled along comfortably through the rest of this section, picking up the pace towards the tops of climbs, passing people with confidence and then attempting to gap those we’d passed on the descents. The strategy worked well and we led a group of about 5 runners (including ourselves) into Ambleside! It felt strange entering civilisation again with lots of noise and cheering from the pubs in town and, as I did in the Alps last month, I gave a running bow and doffed my visor to a large group which got a great reaction.
Ambleside to Chapel Stile (TD 64.2km – FLCP 9km) (99th)
On the way into Ambleside CP Rob told me he was 50 minutes up on his A-Goal whilst I was 60 minutes down on my very ambitious and original A-Goal of finishing before sunset and had put mine to bed. I told Rob that I’d gone to B-Goal of getting in without using a headtorch and hopefully making last orders at a pub in Coniston!
This being the case we took the time to check our phones for messages and I found that when I arrived at Kentmere CP I had been in 112th place – I set a new goal of getting as far into the top 100 as I possibly could! I figured that as we had both run a really solid section prior to Ambleside and passed quite a few people we might already be somewhere around 95th to 100th.
I ate another cheese, pickle and salted crisp sandwich and washed it down with my first black tea of the race and grabbed another sandwich before fast hiking out of the CP with Rob – it was another smooth and fast transition through an aid station and we joked and laughed all the way to the bottom of the steep climb leading out of Ambleside and back onto the fells. Again, I stuck to my pre-race plan and opted to fast hike the entire flat, paved section out to conserve some energy, allow food to digest and with the knowledge that this section had some very runnable terrain. It also meant we didn’t have to batter our feet on pavement. Rob was wearing Inov8 Mudclaw and I was wearing La Sportiva Helios 2.0 neither of which are great for road running!
I think, as we climbed out of Ambleside, both of us knew we were on for a fantastic day and a fantastic result. We were constantly smiling and remarking about the beauty of the countryside around us. Rob led the descents and I stuck as close to him as possible and I led the ascents with Rob following close behind too. With this said, I think I can safely say this was the most difficult section for me as there was quite a lot of pavement to contend with which was beginning to make the bottom of my feet feel quite battered. Although it was hard on the feet it, was easy on the mind because Rob and I kept each other’s spirits high and every time we saw a white bib in front we instinctively made a move to catch, match and pass them!
Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite (TD 74.8km – FLCP 10.6km) (94th)
After the pavement pounding of the previous section we were both feeling a bit sore when we arrived at Chapel Stile and on the way in Rob and I decided to take the time to eat some solid food relatively slowly and to stretch a bit. I ate a very nice bowl of vegetable broth, drank a black tea with about 3 sugars and waited for my bottles to be refilled and then we were on the move again – all in all I think we spent around 6 minutes here.
We climbed out of Chapel Stile with the Langdales cutting an imposing figure in front of us. We passed the second woman in the 100 miler at this point who was struggling but still looking strong! After a few words of encouragement we picked up our pace, topped out and entered onto a boggy section with some high ladder stiles to get up and over. I don’t know why but I loved this section! After Ambleside I was a bit worried about getting on over the flatter sections and I’d been really enjoying hard climbs all day but for some reason I felt great here and Rob and I increased our pace and began catching, matching and passing other 50 mile runners again.
After the bog section came a pretty rocky and tough section to run – I could see three guys in front who were running as a group and who I had noticed kept checking back on our progress. I signalled to Rob that we should maintain our distance to see if they would try to increase their pace and, consequently, possibly tire themselves a little more! We were both feeling really strong and I had definitely started to get into a bit of a ruthless racing mentality…
We caught up with the guys quite quickly and they let us pass, immediately Rob and I picked up our pace and headed towards an unmanned control checkpoint before hitting a road descent to the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. I knew that we were on for a finish with no headtorches! All we had to do was keep on pushing whenever the opportunity presented itself. Looking back at the splits and the placings Rob and I moved up from 95th and 94th place respectively to joint 86th on arrival at Tilberthwaite.
Tilberthwaite to Coniston (TD 80.5km – FLCP 5.7km)
Arriving into Tilberthwaite I was feeling energised, pretty fresh and very excited. I dibbed, had one bottle refilled and Rob and I began to climb out of the aid station within a minute!
The steps up and out of the aid station caused no problem and they seemed to be done with very quickly and then we were on to a narrow, rocky track ascending up to a flatter, boggy section. Rob kept spurring me on and we were grinning like Chesire cats as we closed in on somebody just ahead. We passed with a quiet word of encouragement and then climbed/scrambled over a small lump of rock to be met with the view of four runners a few hundred metres in front – I looked back, grinned at Rob and said “Let’s get a move on!”
We caught up first with two guys who turned out to be running the 100 mile event and who were moving very confidently. They let us know that the two in front were indeed 50 runners and we could certainly catch them. So, we pushed on again and made the most of our positive mindsets and the fact we felt physically invincible at this point! I remember passing Michael Harley who ended up finishing in 86th place which moved me into 84th position (which I didn’t know at the time) but I don’t remember passing the final runner who put me into 83rd?! The last thing I remember, as we approached the long, steep and rocky descent down into Coniston was asking a 100 mile runner: “Seen any 50s lurking about mate?” to which he replied, “Aye, there’s two just ahead, if you get a move on you can catch them!” Rob made me laugh with his reply “You shouldn’t have said that…off we go!” – and off we went still grinning, still having fun and determined to run in a strong finish.
As we hit the paved section into Coniston we both decided that we would race it to the finish and we certainly did. I ran my fastest kilometre split of the day with Rob snapping at my heels all the way from The Black Bull pub right over the finish line – we certainly gave the spectators some entertainment and we even ran past the finish line dibbers and had to dive back to see who could dib first! It was the perfect end to what now stands as my perfect race. I can’t wait to go back next year and do it all again!
A big thanks to Franck Lahaye for running with me from Dalemain to Mardale Head and a huge thanks to Rob Spavin for the encouragement and the company all the way from Troutbeck to Coniston. See you next year!