Written by Jeff Mitchell aka @UKRunCat
“The Lakeland 50 is one the greatest ultra running and walking challenges in Europe, perhaps the world. It is run over the second half of the Lakeland 100 Ultra Tour of the Lake District, completing the final 50 miles of the 100 course. As it’s only half of the Lakeland 100 course it’s the easy option…right? That’s the first and worst error you could possibly make..
It’s a fact that 50-60% of the 100 mile competitors don’t finish the course, 80-90% of those drop out prior to or ‘at’ half way. Many great ultra runners have started the 100 course and found it just too difficult, too demanding.. half of the course was ‘enough’. The Lakeland 50 is ‘half of the course’, it’s almost double the distance of a marathon, it’s on rough terrain and there’s approximately 3100m of ascent to deal with. Whether you choose the 50 or the 100 mile course.. there is no ‘easy option’ available. The Lakeland 50 is a huge challenge, it requires commitment, drive and the ability to ‘just keep going’ when most folk would ‘just rather not’. “
As planned I travelled up to Cumbria the weekend before raceday and I was already terrified. Not a great surprise, I had signed up for the Lakeland 50 because it scared me but I had hoped that I would have felt better prepared going into it. A combination of illness & injury meant I had fallen off the wagon at the start of the year & struggled to get back into routine of training.
I have discovered over time that my performances are better if I don’t taper so the plan had been to head up the mountains to get my legs working. Unfortunately a number of events conspired against me & although I did get some time completing some mountain ascents it was far less than I had hoped & I went into race weekend with misfiring glutes, a niggling groin strain & zero confidence.
Friday night saw the start of the Lakeland 100 and arriving in Coniston I was taken aback by the scale of the event, the small road to the school that hosted the start/finish was gridlocked with supporters & 50 runners there to watch the 100 start & register afterwards. The rousing rendition of Nessun Dorma performed by Alexander Wall saw the 100 guys set off & then I had to register & suffer the kit check. This is taken much more seriously than other events & saw my waterproof trousers fail, so I had to pick up a more suitable pair from the onsite Endurance Store.
I arrived back to Coniston early on race day and got a front seat at the briefing. The usual safety instructions delivered by Terry Gilpin were followed by a more amusing & motivating speech, by Marc Laithwaite delivering the theme of the weekend… to #liveinthemoment. This was something I kept in my mind & probably helped me enjoy it more, or at least recognise the positive moments as they happened rather than enjoying it in retrospect . The long coach journey to the start at the Dalemain Estate provided plenty of time to attempt to eat & fail to fight off the ever growing nervous tension. I had to wait anxiously at the start for just under an hour, during this time I watched the 100 participants pass by. I was struck by how comfortable they looked as they headed towards the CP, despite the fact that these guys had been on the go for over 17 hours. All of them ran down the stretch of tarmac into the marquee & very few seems to be in much pain, rather than fill me with confidence it again instilled the sense that I didn’t belong in this company & I was setting myself up for failure.
Thankfully we were invited to enter the start pen before 10.30am, I gladly joined the throng of runners & loitered in the middle ready to go. The countdown commenced & we were finally on the move. The first loop around the Dalemain Estate was hilly & hot, I struggled to get into a rhythm with my glute and groin problems causing discomfort within minutes & I was glad to finally pass by the start area & join the track leading out of the estate. It was here that I passed the first 100 competitors with many 50’s giving them encouragement as we passed.
The path down along the riverside to Pooley Bridge was lovely & provided some much needed shade. We arrived in the village all too soon, reaching the point I had started my recce of the route from. Passing a number of bemused tourists & unhappy drivers stuck in a tailback probably caused by our presence the steady stream of runners then turned uphill for the first of many ascents, the long grind up to the stone circle known as the cockpit. The steady slog was worth it for the phenomenal views over Ullswater, which we were treated to throughout the long descent along the fell side to Howtown. I was frustrated that I unable to run as easily as I would like downhill, with my groin in particular causing issues but I still felt strong as I made it to our first CP.
Receiving a rowdy greeting from the Howtown Chia Charge Cowboys & Indians I dibbed in, grabbed a drink, filled my bottles, ate a few jelly babies & took a packet of dried banana pieces before heading straight back out on the route. Mistake. A mistake that almost ruined the entire race for me.
From CP1 the route heads into Fusedale for the first of the big ascents to cross High Street, the highest point of the race. Previously climbing had been my strength, I’m not a fast runner but I’m lithe which makes me a good ascender. So my plan had been to make time on the climbs, sadly the diagnosis of anaemia earlier in the year has further repercussions, most telling here is my stamina on climbs has been reduced. Dramatically.
But I still attacked the climb with my usual short step, fast cadence style… and I blew up about ¾ of the way up the first section of the climb. I was done. I should have rested longer at the CP & I should have eaten more. It was hot, the blazing sunshine beating down on us with nowhere to hide took its toll and other participants I’d just passed started going back by me & I knew that this was only the first half of the overall climb. The next steep section broke me & by the time I struggled to the top my legs were shaky & I felt nauseous. I didn’t want to stop here & stubbornly continued on, but in retrospect I should have stopped to refuel & recover as this would have save me time in the next stretch.
When I completed my recce in February the frozen descent from High Kop & Low Kop to Haweswater was great running with good views & I found it a pleasurable plunge down. On race day I didn’t enjoy it at all, in fact, I disliked it intensely as it was no longer frozen and the top was boggy and tough going. My stomach felt like it was going to empty at any point when I tried to pick up the pace & I had little control over my legs which made the descent slow, painful & hard going. The sun came back out as we dropped to the lake side to take the track around Haweswater, nicknamed ‘Death Valley’ due to the fact it captures the heat & is a hard rocky path. I was circling the drain. I struggled slowly round this 3 mile section, unable to gather the strength to push on as competitors passed & quickly disappeared into the distance. At the top of every incline however short I had to stop with my hands on my knees & I was asked repeatedly if I was ok, I answered “yes” each time… but I wasn’t – at this point I genuinely believed I was going to DNF at 20miles at the CP2 in Mardale Head.
I finally staggered into the marquee & collapsed in a spot of shade next to a young guy & a 100 runner who had passed me after chatting on the climb out of Fusedale. I looked at the food available but couldn’t stomach the sandwiches even though I knew I desperately needed to eat, I drank a couple cokes & inhaled 2 cups of soup while I was slumped in the corner for a good 30mins. After chatting to a couple guys who were concerned having seen me limping I wished everyone good luck & as an afterthought I took some painkillers hoping they would help reduce the pain in my glute & groin before heading towards the second big climb of the day, Gatesgarth Pass.
Following my struggle up the previous climb & my distinct suffering I made the decision to climb slowly, literally one foot in front of the other up the long steep ascent. I was passed by a lot again, including the young guy from the check point but I tracked an older guy up passing both near the top. As I rounded the top I felt a revelation… my legs felt good. I had energy again. I didn’t feel sick anymore.
I started running.
And I kept running.
I made good progress down the descent, not quite letting my legs go like I have previously but still making good time passing many that had overtaken me on the ascent, I started to feel happy & my groin no longer hurt. I was enjoying it for the first time all day.
Reaching the bottom of the descent I caught 2 runners, the woman dry heaving continuously. I slowed to see if they were ok & was told she hadn’t been able to hold anything down all day. I slowed to accompany them over the next short sharp climb before losing touch heading through the twists & turns into Kentmere.
I entered CP3 a different person form the one who had gone into CP2, I was focused, happy & confident. I picked up a coke, bowl of pasta & a famous fruit smoothie before taking a seat with mixed bag of 50 & 100 entrants. We had a chat while we ate, the 50 guys all had stories similar to my own which added to my new found positive mental state. I didn’t stay long before heading off towards what, when I recce’d the route had been my least favourite climb, Garburn Pass.
I again took my time on the ascent, making steady progress but not pushing too hard. I remembered to #liveinthemoment enjoying the views as we headed into early evening & the shadows became longer on the fells. This time of the day is probably the best to be in the mountains of Cumbria, the colours are stunning. Reaching the high point I hit the descent & found I had got the legs for a comparatively fast descent for the first time all day, quickly finding myself in Troutbeck & onto Robin Lane, the track I knew we followed into Ambleside.
I was still having a ball, passing various others when I caught up a small group on a short sharp descent. One of them followed me down & we got chatting, she led me through Skelghyll Wood & paced me onto Ambleside, Di was great to talk to & I was thankful for the company. I saw my Dad & partner Anna as we entered the town & after a very brief hello Di & I trotted on past a group of Orc & Rohirrim sparring in the street & raucous encouragement from the pubs before reaching CP4.
I hobbled up the steps into the warren of hallways, taking a couple cokes & a couple soups I went back out to meet my support crew. It was brilliant to be met by people you know & even better to see the pride in their eyes. They seemed as surprised as me at how comfortable I was, that said I wasn’t averse to asking a marshal to go up the stairs for me to top up my bottles! I spent a little longer than necessary here, but this gave me the chance to prepare for the night putting my jacket & headtorch on.
I set off towards the climb out of Ambleside, realising it was now quickly getting dark & I was on my own I looked for my route description, only to realise I had left it at the CP. I called Anna, asking her to go back & I’d meet her halfway, but a very kind pair offered me one of theirs just before I started descending again. Bonus! Saved me a leg burning & soul destroying trip back! Having done this climb earlier in the week I dispatched it quickly and it was on the following descent that I had another #liveinthemoment. I was running along a track, completely alone in the inky darkness of the Lake District Fells after covering 40 miles & I had an epiphany.
THIS is what I DO.
I’m not good at it. I’m not competitive & I’m never going to be but I love it & I’m capable of doing it.
This affirmation was then added to when I headed towards Skelwith Bridge Hotel & there were supporters on the corner give encouragement as I passed. I plodded along the next section that follows River Brathay into Elterwater past Chapel Stile into CP5. I was well looked after here & enjoyed a nice bowl of beef soup & a cup of tea that was brought to me where I sat. I made the decision to stick with a trio of Lakeland veterans to the next CP as I knew it was over a less defined path & I was more unsure of the route, particularly in the dark. I introduced myself to the Grange Hobblers who I had been leapfrogging since before Kentmere. We took it steady and I again enjoyed being in company & having a chat, by the time we had made it to the manual dibber there was about 10 of us the group. I said my goodbye’s as I wanted to push on they left me with the advice of making sure I had company on the last climb from CP6 & ran down the road enjoying watching the bouncing spots of light as other runners made their way round the side of the fell.
I again made easy work of the next short ascent reaching the final CP, the Stairway to Heaven before I knew it. I grabbed a quick coke & knowing I’d only got 3.5 miles to go I disregarded the advice given by the experienced runners & went off alone, I wasn’t alone long as I caught & passed several 100 competitors before reaching a 50 pair nearing the top. I followed them to the start of the descent where letting my legs go I plummeted off the top, I dropped off in good time, leaving the others a long way behind and my legs feeling remarkably good for 48miles in them & 15hours on the go.
Reaching the road I started to feel the first real pain in my feet, I could feel my nail lifting but despite the increasing pain I didn’t want to stop. I wriggled my feet until they’d moved enough that the nail didn’t lift & continued the slow trot down into Coniston.
I was struck by how comfortable I was as I headed towards the finish, despite the fact that this guy had been on the go for over 15 hours. I ran into the entrance & was met by 3 marshals, one who led me into the school suddenly shouting “Fifty Finisher” to which I received a rapturous round of applause – a completely unexpected & outstanding end to a fantastic event. I picked up my medal & t-shirt & wandered to find a seat a little dazed & confused but euphoric.
I sadly only stayed a short time as I started to get cold & needed to change, once I got to my car I decided I would be best driving home to get sleep or I might get stuck there I’d hoped to see Grange Hobblers again to thank them properly & I never spotted Di again as I wanted to say thanks to her too.
I went in to this completely unprepared, undertrained & unconfident. I know I could & possibly should have finished far faster & in the usual after event analysis I started looking at where I lost time unnecessarily. But completing it feeling as comfortably as I did has filled me with a new confidence that I have at least a little aptitude for this & more importantly rekindled a love for running.