Thursday, 1 August 2013

Montane Lakeland 50

Having completed the Lakeland 50 in 2011 and the Lakeland 100 in 2012 I was returning to the 50 this year with my eyes fixed on a good time. Back in 2011 I had a very tough day, sapped by heat it was a fight from 10 miles and I finished in 13:25. This year, with much more experience under my belt I felt I could probably go sub 11 but would be disappointed with anything over12 hrs. I ended up battling with the heat, feeling ill from 10 miles and finishing in 13:15. Hmmmm, sounds familiar.

Well, of course I have a few excuses!
  • I had a stomach bug the week before the race and wasn’t fully over it
  • I don’t do well in the heat and conditions were tough this year

But ultimately what it comes down to is this.
  • I thought I was capable of a sub 11 hrs Lakeland 50
  • I wasn’t

I think I would have done much better at the end May, when my running was on top form, but since then my training has been so disrupted that an 11 hr target was simply unrealistic. I actually enjoyed most of the run at the time but on reflection I’m pretty crushed that yet again I have failed to perform when racing an ultra.

The Spartan Army pre-race start

On the start line the Spartans were clustered together at the front over on the right hand side of the starting pen, chatting and laughing. I wanted to be with them but felt I just needed a bit of space so I moved to the very left of the line and into my own bubble. It felt incredibly antisocial but I was trying to find my race head. Having helped organize the Lakeland 1 kids fun run this year my build up to this weekend had largely focused on the kids’ race. The weekend so far had seen me doing my marshalling duties, talking to the growing number of friends in the ultra running community, visiting the Spartan family zone and even squeezing in a few daddy duties with my own kids. Friday was just manic. So I found myself at the start of my main A race of the year feeling mentally unprepared. I needed these last few minutes alone to get ready for what was to come.
Standing right at the front (over on the right) with the quick boys

I had a plan to get to the first CP at Howtown (10 miles) around 1:45 so I knew I would have to put in some effort on the initial lap of the Dalemain estate to beat the crowds. It meant running beyond “comfortable” on the first few climbs but I felt I was holding back enough. Nick was ahead and Andy just behind and we were very much at the front of the field, running in space with no congestion at the stiles. When we hit the gravel track I decided Nick was going a fraction quicker than I wanted to so I feathered back and let him drift away.

Through Dalemain past cheering supporters then off to Pooley Bridge with more encouragement from Terry Gilpin, Tracy Dean and Bev Notton who were marshalling along the way. I was feeling fantastic at Pooley Bridge and was lifted further by a Spartan Flag waved by Niamh and Val Whittaker. Andy caught me on the climb and we walked over the top together, chatting away, admiring the views before starting the wonderful run down to Howtown.

I hit CP1 at 1:40 feeling great and 5 min up on where I wanted to be but then the wheels fell off. I got out my poles to find that the fastening mechanism was broken on one so I would have one and a half poles today. Then I went into the pocket of my rucksack to get some sweets and the zip broke. Feeling a little frustrated I checked my Garmin only to find it had accidentally stopped at the CP when I took off my bag to fill up on water. A mental triple whammy!

Anyway, I set off up the biggest climb of the day and immediately started to suffer. I felt sick with cold shakes and the quads started to cramp even before the climb got steep. The effect was so dramatic that I think the lingering stomach bug must have played a part. I quickly (and easily) threw away my time plan and went into self preservation mode. Having read an excellent article on the causes of cramp I wanted to be good to my central governor so I ate some salt sachets and slowed the pace to a stroll. The field was flooding past, including many Spartans, but I wasn’t at all concerned about that. I just took it easily and stopped quite a few times. It seemed about one in thirty people were struggling around me and at least one turned back to Howtown. Throughout the climb I was surprisingly positive and pragmatic.

I started feeling better once over the top but eased back into the running very gradually. I tried to treat my central governor by giving it some gummy bears and salt and walking for a while. I was able to build slowly to a run and felt better and better as I ran over Bampton Common.

A quick pause at the stream to poor water over my head and fill my bottle, re-passing Hackos along the way, then a quite enjoyable run around the lake. There were hold ups but I was expecting them this year so just went with the pace of whoever was in front of me.  I re-passed Paul C who made a comment about me coming back from the dead. I was feeling really pleased with how I’d looked after myself on the climb and got myself running again.

Into Mardale (20 miles in and 20mins down on plan) to the fantastic reception of the Spartan CP crew. In hindsight I should have stopped for ten minutes here and taken on some soup but instead I snatched a Pepsi and headed straight back out onto the trail.

I soon caught Nick who was weaving around like a drunkard. He mumbled almost incoherently that he had been sick and was feeling bad. I told him I thought he should go back and take a break at the CP and he told me he had been stopped there 15 mins. I stopped in my tracks, feeling very worried about my mate. If this is how he looks after a 15 min break he really should not be climbing up this mountain. To say he looked like crap is a huge understatement. He convinced me to carry on and I decided I would pull ahead but keep an eye on him. He actually tagged me and my worries ebbed when he passed me towards the top! For me this climb, and all others, were causing my quads to cramp and left me feeling weak. I slowly stumbled my way to the top.

I quite enjoyed the run down the valley but found the route after Sadgil Farm quite lonely. This bit of track always makes me feel quite sad during the race. No idea why. Jon and I hooked up just before the road section and basically ran into Kentmere together (26 miles).

The CP marshals were really on the ball as always and my bottles were filled as I sat with a group of Spartans and enjoyed a strawberry smoothie then it was back out onto the hill. John and Jetpack passed me as I struggled upwards. I ran okay down to Troutbeck, taking walks when the cramp got bad, but struggled out to Jenkins Woods. I was being passed a lot and felt quite demoralized. Then it started CHUCKING it down. The rain was bouncing but it was lovely and cool and I stayed in shorts and vest on the run into Ambleside. The rain meant I didn’t get the famed support as locals had scattered for shelter but there were shouts from the pubs and families were out around the CP itself (34 miles). I gave Mich and the kids a kiss and headed inside.

Bottles were filled by Mike and Annette Raffan while I sat next to Nick, who was still looking rough but much better than when I’d last seen him. I left him to his soup and headed back outside. The highlight of the race was running through the park with Mich, Val and a gaggle of Spartan kids. It was a scene straight out of Rocky 2, with children running next to me hurdling park benches while an 80s rock ballad thumped in the background. It was the first time I’ve not been able to keep pace with Alex and Josie and I had to ask them if we could walk for a bit. Embarrassing! 
Rocky II

I was feeling mentally strong and once I got over the climb out of Ambleside I had a very good run down to the wonderful checkpoint in Chapel Stile with its lights, fires and sofas all in a marquee in the middle of a sheep field. I saw this as a chance to make up ground on those ahead so dibbed and headed right out into the fading light. It was a mistake and I really should have taken ten minutes here to eat and rest. I left exhausted and barely ran another step to the finish.

So, the walk down the valley was tiring and as I hit the climb I was passed by a large group of runners, including Hackos. I eventually staggered to the top, where a remote-controlled UFO was zipping about, freaking out the 100 runners. I felt completely spent and had to sit on a rock for 5 minutes while I put on my headtorch and waterproof top and tried to get some energy.

On the walk past Blea Tarn I was looking up ahead when I stumbled on a rock and rolled my ankle. I screamed, painted the air blue with curses then sat on the ground panting while the pain subsided. At first I was seriously worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk but when I braved it to my feet I was able to hobble for a couple of minutes until the pain ebbed away then it didn’t bother me at all. I watched my footing more closely after that!

On the road section after Blea Moss I was starting to get very cold in the heavy rain. Last year there was very limited undercover space at the Tilberthwaite CP so I looked around for shelter and soon spotted a large tree off to the side of the road. It took me about 5 minutes to wrestle on my waterproof bottoms and gloves but I felt much better with the extra layers on.

Into Tilberthwaite feeling as weak as a kitten and I grab a seat while I drink Pepsi and eat orange slices. I’m just about to go when a lovely lady asks if I’d like a cuppa. Oooooooooo you know what, that would be perfect! One cup of sugary tea later and I’m stumbling up the steps.

I was progressing slowly when towards the top I was passed by Martin Loveless, who I ran with on sections of the 2011 L50 and on much of the 2012 L100. We hung together over the top and ran/walked all the way to the finish, dibbing together on the count of three. It was a great end to a tough day out in the hills.

And so after the race was over the self analysis started. I really love long runs out in the hills but all the ultras I’ve raced, with the possible exceptions of my first Sandstone Trail and my second Long Tour of Bradwell, have been disappointing. I’ve generally under-performed, dealing with cramp from an early stage and struggling on all the climbs. Why is that? Yes, my training was inconsistent and not specific enough this year (too little time in the mountains) but did all those people who floated effortlessly past me on each and every climb train better? Surely not! I’m left feeling disillusioned. I certainly need to address nutrition; I basically fueled myself on a handful of gummy bears and half a bar of Kendal mint cake. That’s not enough to keep yourself going on this monster.

As a result of this race I have made a sober, pragmatic decision not to apply for entry to the UTMB next year. I don’t want to enter another long race until I can commit to train properly for it. With three small children at home and a wife who will be training for the Lakeland 50 next year I just won’t have time to commit to the level of training I think would be needed to avoid a 70 mile death march in the Alps. Instead I’m going to take some time out and try to re-kindle my love of running with a few personal challenges. And yes, I will return to the Lakeland 50 one day. Hopefully third time lucky will see me put in a run I am happy with.

Footnote: This is a rather negative blog about a day that I largely enjoyed. I am extremely disappointed about my own performance on the day but it was great to be out in the hills, especially with so many mates. To say I am proud of the Spartans is a bit condescending and doesn’t actually encapsulate how I feel. It’s great to see not only the Spartan Runners having the satisfaction of completing this very tough event but also seeing how excited and supportive their families were. The whole weekend was brilliant. The run just went on a bit too long.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Norley Primary School Sports Day Dads Beanbag Race

Alex bouncing to third place in the sack race

I hadn't planned to enter the Dads race at the school sports day. I broke away from work to cheer Alex on and was intending to dart back as soon as his events were over. He competed in and enjoyed the 25 yard sprint, the egg and spoon race and the beanbag race. As I was about to head home I had a rush of guilt and decided I had to stay so Alex could cheer on his dad.

After the mums egg and spoon race came the big event. The bean bags were placed, the starter was ready and the finish line officials positioned themselves, poised eagle-eyed to count the finishers home. Meanwhile the dads strutted about the field, not wanting to get into position too soon or look each other in the eye.

I finally made my move to the start line only to discover that all the places had been taken. About seven of us would not be able to start. A decision was quickly made that there would be two heats and I had to decide which I should enter. Lined up in heat one were Wallman, an ex-professional footballer and a host of tasty looking lads. Hovering behind were a group of largely portly middle aged gents who looked like they hadn't done a step of exercise since leaving school. Well, I'm not going to fight to go into wave 1!

Wave one finishes and it's time to get on the blocks. You can cut the tension with a knife. In scenes reminiscent of London 2012 the crowds are jumping up and down cheering and dancing. Someone may have let off a smoke flare. We athletes are oblivious to all of this however, our entire being focused on that first small beanbag ten meters away.

Tooooooooooooooooooooot goes the starter's whistle and we are off. I'm not happy with my start, my shoes slipping slightly, but I nail the first bag and deposit it into my hoop on the start line in about second place. I'm out to bag two, only just catching it with my fingertips on the turn (careful Stevie!) and back to the start hoop in first place. Out to the final bag and I am already lapping the slower runners. I am comfortably in first place and feel I can stroll in from here.

As I drop my final bag into the hoop disaster strikes. Maybe it's my choice of footwear (I wasn't planning to race) or maybe I'm just thinking about leaping to glory over the finish line but as I turn my foot slips from under me and I am down on the ground. The crowd take a collective gasp then the stadium/school field falls silent. I scramble to my feet as one,  two, three dads pass me. My legs are pumping trying to make ground but I feel as though they have a mind of their own. There's obviously a technique to this sprinting business and I haven't got it. I pass two dads but one remains ahead. I ease back the cadence, desperately trying to regain control of my legs and it works. I feel the blast of pace and start chasing the leader down. But have I left it too late?

Ten meters to go and I almost have him. Yes, I am going to get him. But what's this? With a glance over his shoulder he sees I am gaining and starts to drift into my lane. Up comes an elbow then a shoulder then I'm being barged off the track, much to the delight of the crowds. We both dip for the line and the officials award a draw.

Lessons learned are to wear trail shoes, ensure you pick the right wave to run in and watch out for the rugby player in lane two. Great fun!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

EnduranceLife CTS South Devon Ultra

It's not a race. You're not in racing shape so just treat this as a long, hilly training run. The goal is simply to enjoy the day, make it to the finish and collect 1 UTMB qualification point. That was the plan and it was one I was comfortable with...until about a week before the race when the devil on my shoulder started whispering. "Why not go out hard? What's the worst thing that can happen? If you blow up you blow up, you'll still finish". Then I got a message from Nick on the day before the race "Give it some beans Steve". YEAH! Let's go for it!!

The CTS South Devon event consists of four races: 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon (29 miles) Ultra (35 miles), the ultra following the marathon route then heading out again on the 10k loop. This year a major landslide a week before the race had closed part of the coastal path but EnduranceLife did a great job changing the course around, making it a little longer than usual but ensuring the race went ahead.

I got myself close to the front at the start and when the horn sounded I found myself racing across the beach in eighth place out of 120 starters. The first couple of miles had lots of short, steep climbs and I was racing up them, concerned about the burning quads but wanting to stay with the top ten. What am I thinking? I'm doing a full on hard hill-rep session and have 35 more miles to go. Is this really a good idea? (It turns out it wasn't but we'll come to that).

I eventually fall into step with a fit-looking guy I'd been chatting to pre-race. He's a PT in the Marines and is jogging along with a HR of 140. Mine must be up around 170 but I'm settling into a nice, brisk pace and thoroughly enjoying the rolercoaster singletrack of the South West Coastal trail  in good company. Sometimes we're right down next to the sea, other time we're several hundred feet up running within arms reach of perilous cliff edges. The views would probably be amazing but all eyes seem to be on the immediate ground in front. A trip here could prove to be pretty messy. We're in joint 12th and I'm happy with that. There's a big gap behind us but I can see a team of five working together. As the miles go by I can see that they are slowly but surely reeling us in.

At 16 miles we hit a CP and turn away from the coast to head inland. After a rollercoaster couple of miles inland we headed back to the coastal trail, moving against the flow of tail end Ultra runners and the early marathoners. I had been pulling away from Ben (I actually never found out his name but he looked like a Ben so that's what he became) on the descents and he pulled ahead on the climbs. As we turned away from the Coast again at 19 miles we had a long drag uphill. Ben pulled away and I marched up alone. My quads had been feeling tender for a few miles (due to the crazy hill reps at the start) and on this climb they finally started to cramp up. I was also dealing with sharp pain on the inside of my left knee and in my right groin. As I'm trying to get my head around this the group of five who have been chasing us down for 10 miles finally catch and pass me and in the space of a few seconds I fall from 13th to 18th.

I reach the top of the hill and consider trying to hold on to the five but bad stabs of cramp in the quads make me think otherwise. I'm into survival mode already and all thoughts of racing are tossed into the mud. I walk while I fish out some salt sachets I had picked up from Burger King on the way over. In normal circumstances eating neat salt would be pretty grim but here I greedily swallow it down and am licking the empty packet to get every grain. It's funny how something revolting tastes great when your body needs it. My legs still hurt but there is a noticeable improvement almost immediately and I'm able to break into a solid ultra-plod.

Where the coastal trail was stunning the inland sections are awful. Hills that go on forever, wading through ankle deep, thick, red clay-like mud with 10ft hedges on either side of the path blocking any views. It was mentally very tough and I felt pretty low from miles 20-27. The quads and calves were cramping and I was struggling with groin pain on the climbs and knee pain on the descents. I wasn't plummeting though the field as I had expected though. Two guys came past me around mile 25 and another two at 27, putting me in 22nd. At mile 27 we climbed out of the mud onto some duck boards winding through a nature reserve. It was interesting running with nice things to look at and I knew we would soon be back on the coastal path so felt good about that. I was enjoying the running and then overtook my first person in the race so far. My mood flipped and I felt super-positive again. The pain felt less, the running easier and the course better.

I head towards the start/finish area with a young lad in his first ultra. He's flapping about the cut off, which was only announced just before the start. I tell him we're at the front of the field and we really don't need to worry about cut offs. "Really", he says, "it's at 2:15". "What time is it now?" I ask. "2pm" he says. Wow, a lot of people are not going to make this cut off and will be pulled from this 36 mile race at the 30 mile mark. It seems more than a little unfair when I don't think a cut-off was announced before hand.

We run through the finish area and I tell the lad I'm going to try and hunt down the guy I can see ahead. He tells me he was working really hard to make the cut off and now he's spent. He's just going to cruise in. We wish each other luck and I pull ahead. I'm feeling completely on top of things as I head out to Start Point and although I never caught the guy in front I enjoyed hunting for him.

The second placed lady passed me with about two miles to go, dropping me back to 22nd. I glanced back crossing a big field with about a mile to go and saw someone gaining on me looking strong. Time to give it those beans Nick was talking about! I got my head down and really worked hard to the finish, doubling the gap between me and the guy behind and crossing the line in 7:05 in 22nd place.

Post race I've got very mixed emotions about this. On reflection I did quite well. I ran beyond my current level of fitness, got battered but then held on well to finish quite strong. My mad charge at the start was just crazy. I need to show more will power in future races: there's a difference between going out strong and destroying yourself. Next time my ego may have to allow people to overtake me early on if they are going faster than I know is sensible.

Regardless of how foolishly I started I'm still disappointed that things went wrong so early. I did not expect to be struggling at 16 miles. So, I need to loose the 5kg I put on over xmas, stretch regularly and strengthen the legs. My confidence has been knocked by this race but there's plenty time to get my stuff together before my target races of the Sandstone Trail in May and the Lakeland 50 in July.

My Runkeeper info for this race:

Friday, 9 November 2012

Going from A to...?

I've been doing a lot of thinking about progression and goal setting lately and Alan's comment on my previous blog asking if his goals were too conservative made me think I should put my thoughts down here. I'm not totally sure where this is going so let's just start typing and see where we end up.


As I sit writing this I weigh around 77kg. My racing weight is 75kg but at 77 I feel pretty good. When Mich and I got married in 2003 I was 97kg (four stone heavier). Here's a photo from our big day...

Compare that to now (I'm the one in the middle)...

If you would have asked me on my wedding night what weight you thought I could eventually reach I would have wondered what you were doing in our hotel room on our wedding night. However, if you'd have asked me a day or two later I probably would have said I could loose 3-5kg. I certainly would not have thought I could ever be the shape I am now.

What's this got to do with running? Bear with me, there's a lesson about goal setting here that I'm hoping to reach.


I have always loved running, right back from when I was at school. But it always hurt. I used to suffer from agonizing knee pain which would flare up after three to four miles. My first race was the Liverpool 10k and my pre-race preparation consisted of downing two Ibuprofen, applying painkiller gel to my knees and saying a silent prayer to the running gods that the pain wouldn't be too bad. I had never run more than 4 miles before and when I completed it (in just under an hour) I felt like the King of the world. I didn't take my medal off all evening. On that same day Mich was running the Liverpool Half Marathon, a distance I was certain I would never be able to run. A marathon was just out of the question.

This is me completing the Lakeland 100.


So what am I trying to say? Well, natural ability does make a difference when it comes to finishing times; we can see that when we get to the elite level. But, I really don't believe that most people are running anywhere near their full potential. If you run a 2:05 half marathon this year it's easy to say you'll aim for sub 2 next year. But what if you are actually capable of 1:30? Are you limiting yourself in your physical and mental approach by setting goals which are just way too low? You may not be able to run that 1:30 next year but by aiming to improve only marginally you may never get there.

The record pace for our club 4 mile time trial is around 6min miles. I genuinely believe that most of the club are physically capable of achieving this pace over four miles with the right training but hardly any of those runners are looking at the record holder and thinking "yeah, I can do that". Now our work/life balance may mean we never reach our full potential but if we accept that this potential is way higher than we are currently running then it allows us to target big improvements somewhere between that top end potential and where we are now. 

I'm not a coach and I can't describe how to get from A to B. All I'm saying is that maybe you can open up your mind and consider that you could be aiming to go from A to C. Or maybe even to D.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Running through Hell

From the moment I hit submit on the entry form for the 2012 Hell Up North Hellrunner I had been dreading this race. I had a very definite game plan. One that would not be fun.

I have been entering Hellrunner off and on since it was first held in Delamere Forest around 2006. It's a fantastic mix of glorious trails with steep hill reps (the Hills of Hell) and chest deep freezing mud (the Bog of Doom). Back in that first year I was new to running, hadn't really done any trail running and was about 20kg heavier than I am now. It was a tough old day in the forest and I finished a broken man in around 500th place. The last time I entered was two years ago when I was racing my workmate, the super-competitive Barry. I managed to duck inside the top 100 on the Saturday event (and more importantly beat Baz!). This year I secretly wanted to go top 50.

So, how would I go about getting a top 50 place at Hellrunner? Simple! I would line up at the front of the field, beast myself over the hill at the start then hang on by my findernails for 10 miles. Now you can see why I wasn't looking forward to this!

The morning started really positively, with a nice walk in with Alan then a chat with a bunch of Spartans. We were taking just shy of 30 to this event (which is afterall on our turf) along with families so there was a great atmosphere.

Time to line up and I moved right to the front, just two rows back. After some taunting from the Devil Himself the airhorn sounded and off we stormed into the red smoke. The climb up Old Pale is familiar ground on our club's Tuesday sessions so it was really easy to gauge a hard-but-not-suicidal pace. As we approached the summit it seemed bizzar to be in Hellrunner and only have a hand full of people ahead of me. Even more bizzar was the thought that there were 2100 runners behind me.

I overtook a few people on the way up but was passed by maybe ten or twenty. Charlie and Kev were the only two Spartans ahead of me and as they are both superhuman I never expected to be able to challenge them. If another white shirt appeared I would tag them but apart from that I would stick to my own pace.

Over the top and we hit the descent; now it's time to pass everyone who went by me on the climb. I open my stride, add in some bounce and accelerate to fly through the field. Except everyone's going just as fast as I am. Remember you're at the front of the field this time Steve! I go tearing down the hill, shoulder to shoulder with another runner. We're both running out of control and each time we hit a corner we are trusting whoever has the inside line not to drift too far and wipe the other one out. Fun? I could sell tickets for this!

We hit the flat and loop back towards the start line for a pass through the supporters before heading into the forest. I am dying on my feet, just as I had planned. I guess that's good then! Nick pulls onto my shoulder and we run through the start area side by side. "Come on Steve...this is OUR forest". "Weeeeze.....yeah....gasp....".

We head out on fabulous single track trails, Nick generally setting the pace and me holding on. "Time to re-group" says Nick. Sounds good to me. It strikes me that it would be amazing to finish together...but that's still a long way away. We're holding our own and enjoying the running and I feel good enough to start taking turns in front. Just before we cross the road I pass a couple of people and find that Nick's no longer with me.

Through the Puddle of Peril without too much drama and as we hit the fire trails I put in some more effort and start moving past a few people. The plan was to be hanging on for dear life at this point, hating every step. But I am no longer sticking to the plan. I have a HUGE smile on my face; working hard but loving this race.

Hey, is that a Spartan Shirt ahead? Looks like Big Jase. I was certain he was behind me, I wonder where he overtook me? I pull up behind him as we hit the singletrack again and I have to laugh; I am working my ass off but J is just jogging along chatting to another runner about the High Peak 40. I jog along with them but I'm not talking...I don't have the spare breath for it. The trail opens up and I wish him the best and pull ahead. It turns out he'd got a little lost and had cut a corner. Once he realized he jogged back through the field to run in with Paul A. Getting lost in Sparta! Maybe it's time to revoke his club membership?

I continue drifting up the field with a silly grin on my face. Through the Hills of Hell with my legs intact and as we turn towards the finish I'm running in a bubble of about four runners, with the second placed lady just ahead. I know from previous years that we have some single track to go, then the Bog of Doom and then the finish. Actually, not this year! We turn a corner and are directed by a marshal into a lake.

The water is numbingly cold. I'm splashing along behind another guy when he suddenly disappears  I'm next and as the water hits my stomach it absolutely takes my breath away. We quickly realize that there is a ridge somewhere in the black, icy water and it's not a good idea to step off it. I pull ahead, aiming to get close to the lady in front. She's really handy: every time we reach a hole in the "path" she disappears under the water and reappears with a loud yelp. It's a perfect warning for me to watch my step. :-)

The water goes on forever and by the time we climb out my legs are totally numb and by feet feel like they have been replaced by house bricks. We cross the road again and I'm still in the same bubble of four runners. I try a couple of times to break away but they tag me and I get sucked back into the group. Beyond our quartet there's not another runner in sight, just empty trail. This is not Hellrunner as I know it! Where are  the crowds?

I run along with the group until we hit the final stretch of fire trail. I realize that I need to break away now or we'll be together right through the bog and that will mean hard work out-sprinting them at the finish. I put in a big effort and this time I sustain it. It hurts but I manage to pull a 20m gap and I feel the elastic break between us. I'm away!

I enter the bog right behind the second placed lady. I don't really notice the crowds, smoke and music; I'm just focused on getting a good line into the water and keeping my footing. I pass the lady and spend the entire Bog of Doom with people screaming "You're second girl!" at me. I manage to face plant in the water as I turn to acknowledge Neil and team. So many friendly Spartan faces shouting support. Brilliant!

Out of the bog and my legs are lead. As I start the lap of the finish field someone passes me and we have a battle up to the final corner when I put in a sprint to pull ahead. I cross the line in 1:46:17, in 38th place out of 2,113 runners.

I am absolutely delighted with everything about this race. I discovered that I can go out hard in a short race, re-group and still finish strong. Back when I ran that first Hellrunner and finished 500th I never, ever could have imagined that one day I would finish top 50. What a confidence boost! Now all I have to do is figure out how to go top 20 next year!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Montane Lakeland 100

It’s 4:30am on Sunday morning. I’m high on Yewdale Fell and I have been on the go now for 35 continuous hours. Visibility is poor as the headtorch beam struggles to fight its way through the heavy rain. I am still shivering uncontrollably but I no longer think that hypothermia is a serious threat. I have large blisters on the soles of both feet and under all my toes. My right ankle is swollen and each step brings a jolt of pain. I am 103 miles into the 105 mile Montane Lakeland 100 race. This is what I do for fun.

One Doubt and You’re Out

The Lakeland 100 is widely considered to be the toughest single stage race in the country. 105 miles through the most aggressive terrain in England, with high mountain passes, scrambly rocky trails and muddy bogs to negotiate and no route marking at all on the course. Add to that the fact that for most of the runners this will involve running through two nights and you've got yourself a beast of a race. Every year a field of experienced ultra runners line up to complete this event and every year 50-60% of them fail.

The route:

Due to an achillies injury I couldn't train as hard as I would have liked in the build up to the 100. In fact, my mileage was pretty terrible, although I didn't admit it to myself before hand. I had spent a long time preparing mentally for the race though and was going into this feeling completely confident that I would finish.

The Race

Photo @Montane

Start: Coniston, Fri 5:30 pm

Standing in the starting funnel it felt very surreal to be here. After obsessing about this race for a full year it didn’t feel like this was actually happening. The horn sounded and 263 runners headed past cheering crowds through Coniston and off up into the hills. I fell into step with a familiar face, Martin who I had bumped into several times on last year’s 50, and we got talking. On these events the conversation doesn’t usually really start until a few hours into the race so it was really nice to be chatting away so early. Before the top of the Walna Scar Road Andrew Evans and his friend Andy caught us so there was more conversation. Good company from the start – fantastic!

Once we crossed the col I took the descent at a very gentle jog, enjoying the stunning mountain vista. I had been struggling with some tendonitis of the right knee caused by tight quads so I wanted to go easy on the descents right from the start. A few people came flying past but most were going steadily. I was taking it easy but I still drifted away from the Andrews. I noticed that we seemed to be at the back of the main string of runners, the numbers really thinning out behind. I was surprised because although we weren't hoofing it we weren't slouching either. Was I going too slowly? My plan was to run at a good pace early on until knee pain forced me to slow/walk later so I was not expecting to be at the back of the field now.

CP1 Seathwaite (7 miles, Fri  7:07pm) 178th

Into CP1 and there’s John Kynaston. I know he’s going for sub-30 and he’s experienced enough to be comfortable in his pacing. If he’s here then I don’t need to worry that I’ve started too slowly. Into the village hall and I get a tap on the shoulder. It’s Peter Jamieson who I ran with on one of the reccies. It’s really crowded in the building and the dibbers are right at the back. I don’t want to get chatting and forget to dib so I give him a hand signal which is supposed to say “I’m going to right back” but of course, when I get back he’s long gone. I top up my water (it’s a hot evening and I’m drinking lots), add my electrolyte, have a bite of cake and I’m away.

I expected stage 2 to be grotty, with its infamous bogs, but it was actually very pretty. After a good climb onto the fell, where Team Andrew caught me up, we ran together  through some lovely open fell to Grassguards farm. Here we hit the bogs and conditions were pretty bad, with long stretches of deep gloopy mud to fill the shoes. Working as a team of three we passed a lot of runners on this stage and when we hit the long descent I pulled away from the Andrews again. I had a dilemma here. I had been really enjoying their company and found I wasn’t enjoying the run as much on my own but I also felt that I was running at the right pace and so I allowed myself to drift away.

As I pulled ahead I had a slight lapse of concentration going over some rocky ground and went over on my right ankle. I did the stagger, stopped and waited for the explosion of pain, but it never really came. I walked a few steps. Seems ok. Broke into a jog and a trot and it seemed to hold up. away with it! I honestly thought my race was over for a minute there! Eyes open Stevie! A lovely run by the River Esk brought us into the third checkpoint in the pretty little village of Boot.
Running into Boot

CP2 Boot (14 miles, Fri 8:43pm) 133rd

I topped up my water, grabbed a bag of nuts and got out my poles for the first time in the race. I am a complete convert to using walking poles in hilly races. They really help so much on the climbs and this stage is basically one long climb followed by a sharp descent.

As I walked up the hill I was pleased with how the race was going. I had some pain in my groin but my knees, which were my big worry, were completely fine. I didn’t have a schedule for the race but I had looked at last year’s times to get an impression of when it might get dark. I knew that some finishers go through Boot in the dark so it was great to get here in the light. If I could make it all the way to the next CP in the daylight that would be fantastic!

Burnmoor tarn was beautiful in the dusk and the water levels were much lower than when I’d reccied this stage last year (when the bridge was completely under water). I still got wet feet in the bogs but around the lake the footing was good. I took it easy on the descent and made it into Wasdale just as we lost the light.

CP3 Wasdale Head (19.4 miles, Fri 10:00pm) 120th

The checkpoint, in a brightly lit barn, was warm and full of friendly runners and marshals. Quite a change after being out on the fells basically alone for the last hour. I topped up the water and electrolytes again (still hot and still drinking lots), ate some soup with buttered bread and grabbed some snacks. On with the head torch, out with the poles and out into the black night. This is the most aggressive stage on the entire route, crossing two mountain passes which are difficult to navigate and you have to do it in the dark. If any stage is going to knock the stuffing out of you then this will be it. It is also the most beautiful and the highlight of the race for me.

The initial climb was wonderful. A group of about five of us bunched together and worked our way up the hill. One of the lads in front was singing some dodgy songs from American musicals which really lifted the spirits. I would have joined in but I didn’t know the words or have the spare breath to sing.

We could see a trail of lights working up the hill in front of us and as we got higher you could turn around and see the lights stringing all the way down the hill back to Wasdale a mile away. It was utterly beautiful. The climb went on. And on. And on. But I was enjoying it, the poles coming into their own. We crossed the col and began the descent. This is notoriously tricky to navigate but I had the route programmed into my Garmin Forerunner GPS so all I had to do was follow the breadcrumb trail. I was very glad I did as the path really was difficult to follow. Even if you had spent time recceing this you would not be able to easily find your way in the dark.

It was a boost to hit the bottom of the valley because I had reccied every step of the route from here on in. No more surprises! I can see the lights zig-zagging up the second climb of this stage and I join them as we work our way up to Scarth Gap Pass. It’s a bit showery and cool and I pause to put my waterproof top on.
This climb isn’t so bad and we are soon over the top and down the other side. The legs are tired though and where I blasted down here with Flip and Peter earlier in the year today it’s a slow, careful walk. I hit the beautiful lake shore, though it’s too dark to see the lake, and run around to Buttermere. That’s a marathon covered, in seven hours!

CP4 Buttermere (26.3 miles, Sat 12:31am) 97th

This checkpoint was a flying visit for me. I was planning my first sit down stop at the next CP, where they were serving hot food, so I just dibbed and continued into the night. From the recce days this had been one of my favourite stages of the entire race but here in the middle of the night it was pretty horrible. With no views to see it was just an ever rising path, a relentless slog up hill.

While crossing Addacombe Beck I noticed that there were lots of stars in the sky. I stopped for a moment and switched off my headtorch. The sky became a canopy of stars, framed by the shadows of the mountains. As I stood there a shooting star streaked across the sky. Breathtaking! I didn’t actually wish for “a finish” but it felt like a good omen.

The up hill graunch continued and I was fading. Right before the summit I was finally caught by team Andrew, who were looking great. I was feeling weak and was very glad to reach the summit. I enjoyed the nice gradual descent into Braithwaite and arrived ready to take on some fuel.

CP5 Braithwaite (32.8 miles, Sat 2:42am) 102nd

Braithwaite Checkpoint was more like a nice little cafe than something you’d expect to find on a run. I took off my shoes and socks and grabbed myself some pasta with spicy bean sauce. Delicious! Rice pudding for dessert, with crisps and biscuits on the side. Fantastic! I checked my feet...some trench foot but they didn’t seem too bad. Mick Wren came in and sat down next to me. After reading Mick’s blogs and chatting on Facebook it was nice to finally meet in person. After a 15 minute break I put on new socks and headed back into the night.

I had decided to walk for at least a quarter of a mile from the checkpoint in order to let the food settle. It was cold outside now though and I was starting to shiver so I stopped at a bus shelter to put on my waterproof trousers. Much better! I was passed by a few runners as I jogged along the road in the dark but I was determined to take it easy and digest this food. I was already feeling a huge boost from the combination of food, a sit down and a dry pair of socks.

After the climb up Spooney Green Lane, which was enjoyable, chatting away with a few people, we reached the Glenderaterra valley. This is a great, trail and as we jogged around the sky grew steadily lighter and by the time we got to the head of the valley we could switch off our lights. This was the first time I have ever run through an entire night and I was surprised that I hadn’t  got tired at all. I guess I’d been too busy concentrating on where I was going!

We’d had heavy showers through the night but the sky was looking clear in the morning light. After hunting around for the unmanned dibber point for a few minutes we were turning South and heading away from the northernmost part of the course.

CP6 Blencathra Centre (41.3 miles, Sat 5:25am) 110th

Another great checkpoint at Blencathra Centre, with lots of marshals fussing over us runners. I took off my waterproof trousers here but left my top on. Bottles were filled, tea was drunk and cake was eaten and I headed out ahead of the group of about five I had been running with on the last stage. I wanted to start easily and speed up when the others caught me.

Initially this stage is lovely: flat running along an old railway line next to a beautiful river as it winds its way through lush woodland. The climb up to the Old Coach Road was boggy as ever and the Old Coach Road went on for ever.  We were now in a group of about six, including Martin and North Lakes Andy, who I had been running with off and on through the night since the first checkpoint. Conversation was good if the running was starting to get hard. In the last quarter of a mile before the checkpoint I drifted off the back of the group; pain on the inside of my left knee, tiredness and sore feet slowing my pace.
Photo @Montane

CP7 Dockray (49 miles, Sat 7:3am) 101st

The small group of marshals at the little car park checkpoint in Dockray were doing a sterling job and our group all crashed out in deck chairs while we drank soup and tea. Again I was the first to leave, thinking I would get a nice warm up for half a mile before the others caught me up but Martin and a couple of others followed me out. I had to quickly decide whether to stay with them and work harder than I wanted to or to let them go and loose the company. I decided to let them go and dropped back into a comfortable jog down the pretty, winding tarmac lanes into the village of Dockray.

On my own I found the going was easier. I took it easy and enjoyed the stunning trail down through the woods by Aire Force waterfalls, the water churning away to my right. The first sight of Ullswater was stunning in the morning light, with the mountains of the northern Lake District spread out all around. I kept the poles away for this climb because it’s on a narrow path and the poles had been a real nuisance on a similar path on the climb up Sail Pass in the night, constantly getting tangled in the bracken.

I loved the trail around Gowbarrow Fell and even passed two or three tired looking runners. The forest at Swinburn’s Park was stunning, with shafts of sunlight finding their way through the tall pine trees down into the shadows below. The sun was starting to get warm and it was nice to find the shade. I stopped and applied sun cream to my head. Don’t want to be forced to retire due to sunstroke!

As I left the woods and started making my way across the (very) muddy fields I could see the group I had been running with earlier only a few hundred meters ahead. Having relaxed my pace for a while I had found my legs again and was now making up good ground on them. The two miles of road into Dacre village were horrible. I started to get a pain in the bottom of my right shin which was forcing me to walk. It was a nasty pain...the sort you wouldn’t dream of running through if you were on a training run, but I had 48 miles still to go! I found myself walking much of the gently descending road, trying to protect the shin.

It was nice to hit the stony path into Dalemain estate, but every stone made my sore feet shout out. Dalemain is the first real point where supporters are allowed to see you and I couldn’t wait to see Mich and the kids. I looked at my watch and was really shocked to see I would be arriving at 10:30am...a full 90mins earlier than I expected to be here. Mich has a history of missing me at events because I finish too quickly. There was a real chance that she would not be here and I had to mentally prepare for that.

CP8 Dalemain (59.1 miles, Sat 10:28am) 97th

And sure enough she wasn’t there! It made me chuckle and I took the positives from it: this means that I’m doing really well! Oh, but there’s Charlie Sharpe over there! What are you doing here, shouldn’t you be out at the front battling it out with the quick boys? Turns out he’s hurt his shin but despite the disappointment he’s nothing but supportive, telling me everything I need to hear and helping me swap things over from my drop bag to my pack.

I’ve only been there a couple of minutes when Mich arrives with the kids and we’re all laughing about me being too bloody fast! Honestly, if you saw me running right now there’s no way you would call me fast!  I have a really good chill out at this stop as I sit down and eat some meat stew. I’m scared to look at my feet but force myself to. The trench foot is worse and there are two large blisters several inches long on the sole of my right foot. It could be worse though.

I’m enjoying this stop and I think I’ve been there 15 mins but Charlie tells me it’s more like 30. Best get going. I get the poles out (they will be out for every step of the remaining 45 miles to the finish) and go limping across the field towards Pooley Bridge. The new, dry shoes and socks feel great but my right shin is very tight and there’s a sharp pain with every step.

I got into a rythm, running with the poles down the lovely single track trail next to the river to Pooley Bridge, where Mich and the kids had leapfrogged ahead to see me one last time. It was great for  them to see me running well and positive. As I climbed out of the village I was on such a high, being so far ahead of the 50 start. My goal now was to clear Howtown before the leading L50 runners caught me (their race started at noon from Dalemain). The views across Ullswater were stunning as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful descent. I was passed by two L100 runners but felt I was going at a good pace, especially given the blisters.

CP9 Howtown (66.2 miles, Sat 1:04pm) 95th

The L50 runners still hadn’t caught me at Howtown and there was a surprise waiting for me there: Paul and Jason from the Spartans should have been marshalling at HQ but Marc Laithwaite had shipped them over to help out here. Marc was there too and I sat down and relaxed for a few minutes, enjoying having them all fuss over me, fetching tea and filling my bottles. My memories of this checkpoint are all super positive. I remember telling the lads that I was hurting but in a great frame of mind. This photo of me leaving definitely shows I was suffering.
Getting going again after the stop at Howtown. Painful stuff!

Onto the biggest single climb of the race. Last year Fuesdale knocked the stuffing out of me in the heat but the temperature now was perfect and the climb isn’t half as serious as some of the things we’d been up in the night. I kept tap-tapping away with the poles and was enjoying it. I managed to get half way along the valley before the 50 runners arrived and was stunned to see my mate Jeff “Lightning” McQueen leading the pack, with Dave “Wallman” Douglas close behind in 6th. It was brilliant to watch the front runners powering up the hill.

I enjoyed the climb until about ¾ of the way up, when I just got bored of it. I wasn’t struggling though and it made me laugh that I was able to run across the top of Low Kop far better than I had in last year’s 50. The descent to Haweswater was tough going, with every step causing a bolt of pain through my shin. L50 runners were flooding past and I really appreciated it when they took the time to pass on encouragement.
The technical single track is great fun on the recce, hard work on the L50 and just bloody awful on the L100. It was very hard to get into any sort of rythm and every time I did I found L50 runners catching me so I would have to stop and stand aside to let them through. This would cause the legs to stiffen and make running again painful. After 30seconds of running the pain would just start to ease when the next group of L50 runners would catch me and I’d have to stand aside again. I had been looking forward to feeding off the energy of the L50 runners along this section but in practice I found I was getting frustrated at having to stop all the time. The positive comments were great though and occasionally someone would say something that would move me almost to tears.

CP10 Mardale Head (75.6 miles, Sat 4:35pm) 95th

Welcome to Sparta!

Mardale was was being manned by my running club, the Delamere Spartans, so I was going to see all my mates. As I approach the checkpoint Tim started ringing a cow bell and hollering that a Spartan was coming and lots of faces popped up to cheer me in. It was wonderful! It was also great to see them doing such an amazing job at running this isolated checkpoint. Bottles were filled and a cup of soup was thrust into my hand as I walked around to say hello to everyone. They were obviously having a great time themselves, with a real party atmosphere there.
A little piece of home

I didn't hang around too long because I was planning a longer break at Kentmere so I said my goodbyes and headed out to the climb up Gatescarth Pass. The last stage had knocked the stuffing out of me but I quite enjoyed this climb. I was generally holding my own with the L50 runners, which was a good boost. The descent on the other side was a different story. My shin was really painful and my feet were killing me. I made very slow progress down here, trying to stay positive but finding it tough.

Martin Clayton, another Spartan, pulled up to me on the descent and we had a chat. Martin was looking really strong in his first 50 and after a short while I encouraged him to go on ahead rather than loose time with me. I didn’t enjoy the run down the valley, didn’t enjoy the climb at Sadgill Farm and didn’t enjoy the hobble into Kentmere. I arrived there in a bit of a funk. My feet were trashed, my shin was very painful and I still had one major mountain pass and 23 mles to go.

CP11 Kentmere (82.1 miles, Sat 7:20pm) 100th

As soon as I entered the building I got my shoes and socks off before getting a bowl of pasta and a fruit smoothie. The room was full of excited chatter but I felt isolated from it all. I sat eating my pasta alone, staring into the middle distance. A guy sitting next to me was telling a marshal that he might have to quit because he had an ache in his foot when he raised his toes. Dude, I’m struggling to bare weight on my right leg and my blisters would give you nightmares! I left here quicker than I planned because I didn’t like feeling so negative.

I staggered on towards Garburn, not worried about the climb but dreading the rocky descent on my blistered feet. I had a brief lift when I met Paul Nesbitt. Paul was also in the 100 and we've been chatting on various forums for years without ever actually meeting in real life. It didn't last long though as Paul and his running partner soon shot off up the pass, leaving me to hobble on behind.

The descent was excruciating and my pace was getting slower and slower until I was met by Ben Leigh-Brown, another 100 runner. Ben was able to go faster than me but he said I was the first 100 runner he’d seen for hours and he wanted some company so we hooked up together. I upped my pace to try and stay with him and it really helped me get all the way through to the climb out of Troutbeck where I just couldn’t keep with him any longer. I let him go and my pace plummeted again.

As I walked around Jenkins Crag looking at the sun setting over Lake Windermere I started thinking about what was to come. I was in a lot of pain and had about 18 miles to go. I was scared, not that I would quit but because I was in so much pain and I knew I was going to keep going to the end. I didn’t think I could run another step and my fuddled mind started to work out timings and convinced myself that I would get timed out if I walked all the way from here. As I entered the shadows of Skelgyll Wood I put on my headtorch for a second night, took a deep breath and broke into a jog. To my surprise it changed the pain in my feet, making it feel better than walking. As I ran through the woods I was surprised to see three 20ft high emerald statues of Chinese gods. I looked at them for a while before they changed into a grassy bank. OK, so the hallucinations have started then. This night is going to be interesting!

CP12 Ambleside (89.4 miles, Sat 10:42pm) 98th

I ran all the way into Ambleside, past the cheering crowds in the beer gardens of the pubs, to find Mich waiting for me! It was such a nice surprise. I told her my fears about getting timed out and she tried to convince me that I was well up on the cut offs and there was no way I could be timed out.  I stepped into LakesRunner to grab a cup of soup and there was Ben just getting ready to leave. He was stunned that I’d made up so much ground and asked if I wanted to hook up again. Absolutely! If you don’t mind waiting for me to change my socks.

Out into the night and I am still a little fuddled because I ask Mich to get on the iPhone and check that I have dibbed at the last CP. Quick kiss and smiles and I follow Ben out into the night. We have a great journey through to Skelwith Bridge. A group of jolly 50 runners hooked onto us and we just jog along listening to their chatter.

I was pleased with the way I was moving now. I couldn’t keep up with Ben’s walking pace but every now and then I would put in a little jog to catch him up. Until nature called for Ben. He disappeared into the bushes and I acted as watch man, shouting when headlights were coming down the trail. After a few minutes all was right and we got going again but the stop had trashed my legs. I just could not get started again. I struggled up the valley, onto the course of the Great Langdale Trail Race where I’d run so strongly a few weeks earlier and into the checkpoint at Chapel Stile, trailing Ben by a good 50m.

CP13 Chapel Stile (95 miles, Sun 12:56am) 98th

Running through the dark valley we turned a corner to find a marquee in lights with music thumping. Is this anther hallucination? As we get closer I see a chimenia and soft, comfy sofas. Definitely a hallucination. But no, it turns out to be real. We dib and grab some stew and bread, sitting down on hard chairs, avoiding the sofas. They look just too comfortable.

We keep this stop short, knowing the legs will stiffen but even so, it's hard to get going again. Ben is staying behind me, jimmying me along, and we chat away about everything and nothing as we make good progress to the head of the Langdale valley. There a group of about five L50 runners catch us. “Stick with them Steve” says Ben and I hook onto a competitor who’s number displays the name “Gary”. I find that focusing on Gary’s footsteps takes my focus away from my sore feet and I am able to keep pace. We climb out of the bottom of the valley and all the way down past Blea Tarn together. There we skirt Bleamoss and climb up hill to hit the unmanned dibber post that is new this year.

We dibbed and headed down hill on the tarmac of the Wrynose pass. Ben drifted ahead and I fell into step with Gary. I saw Ben look back a couple of times to see where I was and I was willing him onwards. I had slowed again and really felt he should crack on. I was relieved when I saw him pick up his pace and start to move away. Gary and I were chatting away making pretty good time. Once we hit the trail again I started to get into trouble. I was falling asleep as I walked. Gary would start up a conversation and I realised that I couldn't see and talk at the same time. Every time I answered a question it was like someone had switched off my eyes. As soon as I finished talking I could see again. I was negotiating rocky ground during the black outs so obviously on some level my brain was still in control but it was very unnerving. I was also periodically zoning out; going to sleep as I continued to walk over technical ground.

It was raining quite heavily and a cold wind was blowing. I was shivering and the periods of sleepwalking were getting more frequent. I worried about what lay ahead; I had now covered 100 miles and had only 5 to go, but these would involve a 928ft climb over bleak mountain fell, in the dark, in heavy rain followed by a steep rocky descent into Coniston. I had planned to zip straight through the last checkpoint but now I realized I needed to get more layers on, drink tea and generally sort myself out before I headed into the hills.

CP 14 Tilberberthwaite (101.5 miles, Sun 4:06am) 98th

Except there was no cover at the checkpoint, only a campervan with an awning covering a table containing the CP refreshments. The marshals were doing a great job warming a L100 competitor who was shaking with cold while about 20 L50 runners stood around in the rain trying to get their heads under the shelter of the awning. If I took my waterproof off in this rain in order to put on a base layer I would get even colder. I had to make a quick decision but in my current state of fatigue could I trust myself to make a safe choice?

I grabbed my poles and headed to the climb, deciding to put in a big effort in order to get warm. I was carrying a full bivi bag and was prepared to use it but I was concerned that I would not recognise the point where that became necessary. As I began to walk away I got a shout from Gary who came over to join me. I hadn’t even thought to find him but I really wasn’t thinking clearly.  It was such a relief to have him still with me. I was still shaking with cold but I had a big smile on my face as I headed up the steep steps. This was it...the final leg and I was going to do it!

I actually enjoyed the climb and passed several groups of L50 runners. I had no navigation issues on the top, despite the poor visibility due to heavy rain. The hallucinations were coming thick and fast now and tigers, cougars and other big cats were stalking me across the fell. As I hit the col that marked the start of the final descent the sky grew lighter as dawn broke. I had gone through my second consecutive night and the end was literally in sight.

The rocky descent was very painful, with every stone making my blisters scream, but I made reasonable progress onto the metalled road in the valley: one easy mile to go to the finish. And that’s when I fell asleep. I was still walking slowly but my brain finally gave up. My eyes were open but all I could see was a constant stream of dreams. I was looking around but as hard as I tried my brain just would not process what I was looking at. I was effectively blind. Is this it? Am I really going to collapse within a mile of the finish? If I collapse when I'm technically in Coniston will I still get a medal? As I am starting to think that there is no way I can get to the finish my saviour, Gary, appears on my shoulder again. He is carrying a knee injury and had told me to go ahead on the descent and I tell him he can go ahead now but am so relieved when he insists he’ll stay with me. I feel very vulnerable and really need help now.

Gary walks me into town as the sky grows light, sacrificing time in his own race to make sure I finish.  He wonders if we'll cry at the finish. I tell him I just feel so tired and empty I really don’t have any tears in me. How wrong could I be. We turn the corner and I can see Mich down the road. I feel the tears coming and it feels like when they start they are not going to stop. I warn Gary that he needs to go ahead if he doesn’t want to see me cry like a baby. “No mate, we’re seeing this through to the finish” comes the reply.

Mich comes running up the road to me and I see Dave, Steph, Jason, Claire, Paul and Sam there, all cheering me in. I manage to hold it together until Mich is close then I bury my head in her shoulder and start bawling my eyes out. She is trying to prise me off, telling me that I still haven’t finished yet but I don’t care, I’m here in Coniston and I’ve made it. I walk to the final dibber and hear that last, satisfying “beep”, 36hrs 25mins after I started.

Post Race

I was so moved that Paul and Jason, who were marshalling at HQ, requested extra shifts so they would be working when I finished. It really meant something that J announced me to the room and the cheers from the runners in the hall was a special moment. I was also deeply touched that Dave, supportive as ever, had run 50 miles then got out of bed in the early hours to see me finish. Dave has been a constant source of support and inspiration from my early days battling through knee pain to do three mile jogs around the forest and it meant a lot to me that he was here to see me finish.

For several days I could not weight bear on my right leg. My foot and knee ballooned and there was a lot of creaking and groaning down there. As I write this, a week later, my right shin is still very painful. It’s going to be a while before I run again but it was worth it.
The day after the race


I spent a weekend running around the Lake District with some amazing people but special thanks need to go to two people who I really do owe my finish to. If it wasn’t for Ben Leigh-Brown giving me a kick up the backside from Garburn onwards I think the need to sleep would have been overwhelming and I doubt I would have made it. Sheer tiredness would have defeated me.
In the end when I was struggling it was Gary Brooks who sacrificed time from his own race in order to see a complete stranger safely to the finish. My thanks at the time really didn’t indicate the depth of feeling and appreciation that I felt. I’ll never forget what you guys did for me and hope I get a chance to return the favour out on the trail in the future.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lakeland Trails Coniston Marathon 2012

Being so close to the Lakeland 50 I missed this event last year but this year was going to be a real Spartan-fest, with 16 club members turning out across the Marathon, half and 10k. I couldn't say no!
Gareth, Paul A and Alan studying the route
at Bank Ground farm

The previous night we had a fantastic club get together at Bank Ground farm. Large amounts of delicious lasagne was wolfed down followed by excited chatter about the following day. I had a firm plan not to run this one hard but to treat it as a final long training run. I’ve been battling with some pain in a ligament in my right knee since May so with one month to go before the Lakeland 1oo my only goal today was to end the day that at the finish or before. This was the first time I have ever gone into a race expecting not to finish.

Mich and I got up early to pack the tent away and head over to John Ruskin school for 8am. All was going to plan until we jumped into the car and found that I had run the battery down charging my phone. We faffed around for a bit before abandoning the car and hot footing it with two small children in tow over the mile walk to the school. I just made the start with seconds to spare, feeling pretty stressed. Not the best way to start a race!

The race began with a lap of the school field, and it was really nice to see supporters before we headed out into the hills. The Spartans generally stayed together for the initial lap (except Nick, who bolted off into the horizon like a man possessed) before settling into our natural paces. I hooked up with Paul Crisp and we just jogged along, chatting away at the perfect pace for this race.
Having a great time with Paul at Tarn Hows, around 10 miles in.

The first few miles out to Tarn Hows were on new ground to me and the route was superb, mainly on undulating metalled roads with stunning views but mixed in with some single track. Paul and I were just chatting away, thoroughly enjoying the day. At one point Andy Whittaker blasted bast with Jim in tow but Paul and I let them go. I’m not racing, remember!

Paul and I went through half way in 2:02, both feeling as fresh as a daisy. Coming into Grizedale we caught and passed a pretty dejected James Hack. He was having trouble with pains in his quads and was really struggling. He did battle on to make it to the finish though so respect there!

At the bottom of the lake, around 30km, Paul stopped to take off some layers. I was starting to feel the first signs of tiredness as well as some worrying niggles on the inside of my right knee so I carried on, expecting him to catch me in a mile or two but this would be the last time I would see Paul until we were almost at the finish. 

The route setters had planned a real sting in the tail for the last 10km, with climbs, lots of mud and some technical descents to finish off the quads. At 20miles I still felt great but soon afterwards I started to struggle a little. I had only eaten two blocks of Kendal mint cake all day and now my body was getting unhappy about running. I got slower and slower as we ran on the lovely single track by the lake. It should have been a wonderful location to run but I just wanted the race to be over. I had pain on the inside of both knees but that wasn’t the main thing slowing me...I just could not maintain a pace. What's going on? Aren't I supposed to be top shape and about to run a 100 mile race through the mountains?? I really should not be feeling this tired 23 miles into a run that I have paced sensibly.

Half a mile from the finish Paul finally caught me. He slowed to my pace but I encouraged him to carry on and go for a strong finish. A few more people passed me and I just jogged along. As we entered the school field for the final lap Andy W flew past with a huge smile on his face. The man had rockets on his heels! I had just enough time to shout "hey...aren’t you ahead of me already?” before he vanished into the distance.

On the lap around the field I jogged over to my family to get some pre-finish kisses, remembering to smile so the kids know that this is what daddy does for fun. Mich asked if I wanted to carry Josie over the finish line.  Erm, ok...I feel wobbly but I think I can just about manage that.

I finished in 4:20 and felt pretty shot at the end. Mich has seen me like this many times and took charge, walking me over to a quiet spot so I could sit down while she went to get me some food and a cup of tea. By the time she got back my whole body was shaking. So THAT’s why it was so tough at the end then...very poor nutrition. After food and a sugary tea I was back chasing the kids around the field again; legs feeling strong and ready to go for another run. 

It was a really good weekend with the Spartans and we had some impressive results. The club is really growing in strength, which is great to see but more importantly it is the social/supportive side that is still very much at the heart of things.