Lakes in a Day: 50 mile and a bit ultra

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My 4.30 alarm woke me ready for the experience ahead, to be honest hadn’t slept much anyway. Up I get and prepare myself a few rounds of peanut butter on toast, final kit check and jump in the car. I set off to Cartmel Primary being the registration point and finish.

Registration was carried out fairly promptly, followed by a quick kit check then a photo in front of a blown up map of the route. We were then loaded like lambs to the slaughter onto the coaches that would take us on an hour’s drive to the starting point in Caldbeck. When we got there it was daylight but the rain was starting, so we all bunched together to hear a few words from the race organiser.

At 8am the horn sounded and we were off. “Don’t set off to fast,” I kept saying to myself, and for once I didn’t – steady away for a mile or so to the start of the first climb up to High Pike. Nearing the top we were deep in cloud and the wind was starting to pick up, a man at the side was asking another if there were a lot of climbs like this. Did he really ask that?

Turns out he was from London and had just run his first marathon early in the year, he’d then been convinced by a friend that he needed a bigger challenge and thought running through the Lakes would be an experience. What was he thinking?!

High Pike was gone and onto our first descent to the river Caldew which we had been informed was quite impossible to cross at the moment because of heavy rain fall, so the organisers had found a friendly troll to build a temporary bridge for us to cross.

The next climb to the peak of Blencathra seemed to go on and on and the wind and rain increased with altitude. Blencathra’s top finally arrived and so did the section I was most worried about, Hall’s Fell Ridge, probably not the hardest ridge to traverse in the Lakes but in the rain and strong winds the organisers had offered an alternative route option of a Blease Fell descent.

I made the decision to stick with the original route and brave the ridge, a decision I was soon to regret. The stone was so smooth and wet my Mudclaws had no chance (please don’t get in to a shoe choice discussion here, I will tell you now Spiderman would have come unstuck up there that day), I was like Bambi on ice and wasn’t the only one.

What followed was a very slow descent of which most was done on our backsides with many a foul expletive shouted aloud. As we finally reached the end of the ridge it was just a short run down to the first feed stop at Threlkeld. The checkpoint could not have been better stocked with multiple flavours of soups, pasta, savouries, cake and RICE PUDDING - loved this with plenty of jam. After about half of hour’s recovery I stuffed a load of chocolate brownies in my pack and headed off on the next leg.

As most of the first half of the race was open navigation with only a few points on the map to hit, my plan was to follow the Bob Graham Round route as far as Fairfield and bag a few Wainwrights. This plan soon changed half way up the mighty Clough Head climb, the weather took a serious turn for the worse with visibility down to around 10-12 feet and horizontal rain it was a struggle to walk in a straight line. Up and up we climbed eventually reaching Clough Head and at this point the map and compass had become unusable, which was a shame because I think I was doing Mr Stobbs’ map reading classes some justice. Out came the GPS which also presented a problem because I had to keep taking my gloves off to operate the damn thing.

Slowly pushing on toward Helvellyn I wasn’t sure how many of the Dodds I’d bagged, to be honest all the cairns were starting to look the same (sorry Mr Wainwright). As I got close to the climb up to Raise I had a plan to go round rather than over. D’oh, nav error! Seems going round was quite a bit further than I estimated and I had also dropped a hell of an elevation too which meant quite a steep climb up Lower Man before reaching Helvellyn.

At this point I really was starting to get in a bad way, my calves were starting to cramp and I was shaking quite uncontrollably with the cold. Flashbacks of last year’s nightmare on the Tour of Pendle were filling my head and I still had around 32 miles to go. A fellow runner asked me if I was ok “I’ll be fine,” I said, “just need to get down to Grizdale Tarn and have a good stretch.”

After a long, painful hobble I had reached Dollywaggon Pike and the cramps had passed as I made the descent to the tarn. Topping up with water in the tarn and having a good stretch I looked up at Fairfield trying to think how much more climb there was to reach the summit, the cloud was so low I had no idea how high it was, so up I got and started to climb the winding trail just knowing that it was going to get wet and cold again very soon.

As it turned out to my relief the cold didn’t last too long on Fairfield as once at the peak it was straight back down the other side with a quite technical descent out of the clouds. Just as we broke through cloud the most amazing panorama of Ambleside and Windermere came into view and the first chance I had to get my camera out. Although now I’m nice and warm sat at home the picture doesn’t seem to have the same effect it had when I was stood there taking it. Sure it must have just been the thought of getting warm for a while and stuffing more rice pudding down my neck “Mmmm, it’s never tasted so good!”

My food stop at Ambleside was longer than I planned but I didn’t care from this point I knew one way or another I would finish. Leaving Ambleside I was half way through and knew the second half was going to be easier on the climbing side of things but it was also getting dark very quickly so out came the head torch.

The route ahead followed the length of Lake Windermere starting a lovely section of bog hopping and a steady climb to Claife Heights. The navigation of the second half turned out to be easier than I thought with the odd sign pointing the way through village sections and the rest was fairly obvious trail, the only tricky bits were the rules about not being allowed to run on any A or B roads and any that you came across had to be crossed at set points on the map to avoid time penalties or disqualification.

After a steady but again boggy descent from Claife Heights the route travelled to the trail that runs right along the edge of the lake (when I say edge It was actually a few feet into the lake due to the rainfall). What followed next was around two miles of wading through a foot of water with the odd face plant thrown in for good measure as you tripped over exposed tree root that under normal circumstances would have been visible.

A few more small climbs and boggy fields then we arrived at the next food stop at Finsthwaite. Just seven miles to go from here so I didn’t hang about, a quick drink with another brownie and I was off and feeling good. “Six miles of mainly wood land trail and a mile of road to the finish – easy,” I thought, until about a mile in when my head torch started flashing, imminent battery failure alert!

No problem, I had a spare battery kindly loaned by Adrian (thanks pal). I sat myself down and got the spare battery out of my pack, disconnected the flat one then DISASTER, the spare didn’t fit as the connection was all wrong (I’d treated myself to a new head torch just before the race and the mandatory kit required taking a spare battery, but at £50 a pop Adrian offered to lend me his, unfortunately it now turns out that for some reason the latest model is a different fitting). I was well on my own at this point and there was no way I’d be able to get through to the end without a torch.

Think mark! The flashing battery may get me another mile or so and I’ve got my iPhone light that might get me another mile or two or wait for another runner and ask if I could tag along. Then I had a thought, the battery housing came apart and perhaps the actual battery inside is the same. A carefully perched iPhone light…fumble, fumble…and hallelujah…there was light…I was saved, the battery fitted.

I was off again with around 10 minutes rest I was moving quite well, I even managed to pass quite a few other runners over the last few miles, who all looked quite amazed that I was still sort of running. To be honest no one was more surprised than me, the most I’d run before was around six hours and I was a good nine hours past that now.

Suddenly I came out of the woods over a stile and hit the final Tarmac stretch in to Cartmel, less than a mile to go. I turned in to the school grounds where the finish was sited. Crossing the line after 16 hours 8 mins there were a few photo flashes and a medal thrown over my neck with the question “So how was your day?” I couldn’t put it in to words at that moment but it certainly was one to remember. Bring on the next challenge! Answers on a post card please.

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