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Ultra Tour of the Lake District - The Lakeland 100

By Johnny Parsons
08, Sep, 2011

Enduring the 100 mile Tour of the Lake District

Smiling-at-mardale

Following my previous article, it has been a month of lounging around and not much running, except for an amazing day/night/day/bit-of-a-night out in the Lakes.

The Lakeland 100! Described by the organisers as follows: “The Lakeland 100 ‘Ultra Tour of the Lake District’ is the most spectacular long distance trail race which has ever taken place within the UK. The circular route encompasses the whole of the Lakeland fells, includes in the region of 6300m of ascent and consists entirely of public bridleways and footpaths. The route starts in Coniston and heads south before completing a clockwise loop which takes in the Dunnerdale fells, Eskdale, Wasdale and Buttermere before arriving in Keswick. From here the route heads to Matterdale and continues over to Haweswater before returning via Kentmere, Ambleside and Elterwater to the finish at Coniston.

The route does not pass over any of the ‘popular’ Lakeland summits. Instead, it weaves its way through stunning valleys, contours picturesque fells and cuts its own line through the amazing Lakeland topography. The Lakeland 100 will take you to places in Cumbria you may never have visited before and it’s likely you’ll wonder why.”

“Tapering” is another word for doing much less training, in the time leading up to an event, in order that one’s legs/body/mind will (hopefully) be fresh, relaxed and ready to rock and roll, on the big day. One excellent thing about long training runs is that it takes one’s mind off everything. Problems seem to disappear, obstacles appear to dissolve and the World is a good place. (Unless one is carrying an injury, or gets crocked, when everything generally goes the other way!)

So, after months of hard graft, suddenly not having to go out on 8hr runs, left the mind with a little too much time to start wandering…

I felt fine until the Tuesday before the event, then my mind started working overtime; doubts, doubts and more doubts. Would I make it?!?

As always, race day left me with shedloads to do, bits of food/kit to buy, packing and heading across the Pennines to Coniston, race HQ. A bustling hub of activity.  It really was perhaps the best organised event that I’ve ever been involved in. Arriving at midday, checked-in, registered and weighed, gave me a few hours to sort out my gear, food, get my tent up (for when I returned) and spill the bulk of my just-about-cooked pasta and sauce all over the floor. A safety briefing and then some words of encouragement by the Lakeland fellrunning legend Joss Naylor MBE. A quick cuppa and suddenly it was 5:30pm and time for the Off…


A medal well earned. 224 started, 116 finished.

How do you pace yourself on a 100 mile race? One thing is for sure, a race can only be lost, not won, in the first 10 miles, so I decided to start off at the back of the field. It was still warm, a beautiful clear evening, perfect conditions.

At this point I must confess, I’m not an ultra-runner, merely a clapped-out fellrunner having a go! Time, age and injuries have slowed me down, so I just try to keep moving as long as possible. The Lakeland 100 is quite different to most races that I’ve run, in that it follows a set (but not marked) route, in which recces, or local knowledge plays a huge part. There are no “good lines”, nor crafty short-cuts and checkpoints must be visited in a set order. Food and sustenance are provided en-route, so it’s not necessary to carry huge amounts of fluids/tucker, however there is a kit list that must be adhered to (and it was checked too, start and finish).

224 runners started. Running up Coniston High Street, cheered on by wellwishers and happy looking people sat in beer gardens (life is not fair at times!) The first leg heads over the Walna Scar road to Seathwaite, a mere 7 mile warm-up. There we were greeted by mountains of cakes, washed down with mugs of tea. Feeling good. I got chatting to a chap called Adrian, from Halifax, and as it happens we stayed together until the finish. He had run the “50” last year, but fancied stepping up this time, he had done extensive recces of all the course, great company. There was a tremendous feeling of camaraderie, throughout the whole race, brilliant, brilliant stuff. A feeling of “We’re all in this together!” Seathwaite led to Boot, via the flanks of Harter Fell (memories of the KIMM 2000, best forgotten!) Then a fantastic leg over to Wasdale, via Burnmoor Tarn. Crossing over Bob Graham Round territory, but not really covering any of the same route. (Yewbarrow always looks steep, even when you’re driving past!) Arriving at Wasdale Head, just in time for last orders (I wish!) Soup and sarnies, cake, bananas and more tea, to sustain us all up over Black Sail Pass, and it was pitch black. A new moon shone no light on us, as we chugged between Kirk Fell and Pillar, dropping down to the Black Sail Hut and onwards towards Buttermere Village Hall. An exact marathon distance covered by now, arriving sometime after midnight, a trail of headtorch lights stretching along the lake shore. A good feed here; coffee, bananas, cake and jelly beans, then up in the direction of Sail Pass, a leg which I didn’t know too well and wished I had.

On a normal day (in daylight) it would have been a pleasant stroll, but at night, in the inky blackness outside my headtorch beam, the path sloped off steeply to the right, into bottomless bracken, and a long tumble down to Newlands Pass. In addition, it was hard to see where the path went up, or down, so there was a bit of stumbling on my part. It was a relief to get onto open ground and cruise down into Braithwaite, the lights of Keswick twinkling in the distance. Onto the road and into Checkpoint 5, lashing and lashings of pasta, rice pudding and tea. Quick pit stop and off. Extremely grateful of the fact that my new buddy, Adrian had done a recce of this stretch! Twisting lanes led us up towards Latrigg, then Skiddaw, before levelling out for the track that does a dog-leg out towards Skiddaw House. The day was breaking, and with no clouds, it looked like it would be a warm one, as indeed it hadn’t really cooled down much at night. A quick cuppa, banana No. 45 and a free pair of socks (bonus!) at the Blencathra Centre, then on to Leg 7. A lot of runners moaned about this stretch across the Old Coach Road, but I quite enjoyed it, good running underfoot, excellent views back to the Saddleback ridge and the prospect of what was to be the best soup and coffee that I’d ever tasted at Dockray (can you see a trend here, running between food-stops!) It always seems strange running through the night, into the day. Similar to finishing a nightshift, but without the prospect of a bed, not just yet, the mere prospect of running another fifty-odd miles before any shuteye! I always think that it will be like waking up on an early morning, but the on-the-run tiredness doesn’t fade away. The coffee helped.

With the field fairly strung out by now, we seemed to be almost alone. A fairly genteel leg high above the shores of Ullswater brought us to Dalemain. The main half-way checkpoint and the start of the Lakeland 50 route. It was a place of luxury, as a “halfway bag” had been transported here from the start. Fresh socks, undies and top, restocking with goodies, vassed-up and a decent feed; 2 bowls of pasta, 2 helpings of jam roly-poly and custard and two cups of strong coffee (maybe part of the reason that I only lost 2kg en-route, as opposed to some runners losing up to a stone in weight!)

Revitalised for part II, and pretty much bang on track schedule-wise. We had 3hrs start on the midday kick-off for the “50”, a limping hare, for the eager greyhounds! Catching sight of two friends at Pooley Bridge, Glen and Gill, who’d travelled over to support, lifted my spirits even more. (Although support in any way regarding food, refreshments, gear or anything other than a “Well done” is punishable by a time penalty/disqualification. It does offer a level playing field for everybody I guess). Over the tops to Howtown, to perhaps the biggest pile of bananas, ever assembled. A cuppa and what was to be a bit of a lifesaver for me. In a nutshell, I don’t have a very sweet tooth, so glugging sports drinks and eating sweets is not easy, especially after about 12hrs, when it just leaves a sickly sweet taste in one’s mouth. There is a magic new sports drink, which just needs 2 drops into 500ml of water. It tastes like water, but has all the electrolytes one needs. (Drinking pure water can lead to severe dehydration in hot weather/long events). I managed to blag a small bottle of this wonderful magic potion from the lovely checkpoint people, it helped me tremendously. The next bit was tough, not especially difficult ground, just the heat, a bit of a climb and accumulated tiredness. There was simply no shade, nor breeze and with high humidity, I had an insatiable thirst. I snapped out of this bad patch by Haweswater, when I was back on familiar turf, with one of my favourite corners of the Lake District ahead. Great to see Glen and Gill, my (vocal) support group suddenly appeared here. My tired brain couldn’t puzzle out how they had got here so quickly, (it had of course been several hours since Pooley Bridge and they had a car!) The lakeside path was hot, it felt like being in a pressure cooker, time to dig in. Another quick feed at Mardale Head, then up and over Gatesgarth Pass. Incidentally a place where a large amount of 100-ers dropped out. Possibly a psychological low-point for many; a long way from home, with a sharp climb in the searing heat, or the alternative of a bus-ride back to the start, in the broom wagon…

For me, it all seemed to be going pretty well!

Anticipating the front-runners of the “50” to come flying past at any moment, on the way down to Longsleddale and daydreaming about food, my mind started to wander a bit. It’s a bit of a chossy, chaotic track and a sharp “crack” brought me to my senses. Ouch!!!  I’d gone over on my ankle. I weighted it and although it was sore, I could run/hobble. Thoughts and doubts starting racing through my head. “Bite-sized-chunks” I’d told myself right from the start. I’d see how I got on. Food craving fantasies, (ultra-running is similar to pregnancy, I imagine. Both involve pain, both can last a long time and cravings are common!) I started to think about what would be the best thing to eat/drink would be. A strawberry smoothie became my dream tipple. Could you imagine my surprise and delight when it was on the menu at Kentmere Village Hall!!! Pasta, rice pudding, coffee and a smoothie, awesome! Kentmere is a special place for me, my first ever fell race (the Kentmere Pike Race in 1987). Suddenly, the lead trio of the “50” arrived and left. Leaving Kentmere, we also were now a trio, a lad called Ryan from Liverpool had joined us. We were all suffering inside now, but with sights firmly fixed on Ambleside, we hobbled on. Over Garburn to Troutbeck, the miles melted away, it was a cracking evening, I was with good company and I even allowed myself the thought that I might just do it…

Crowds of people enjoying themselves were sat outside the pubs of Ambleside (lucky punters!) A fair old group of wellwishers outside what used to RockandRun, now Lakes Runner, cheered us on. Almost 90 miles done, surely it was in the bag?!  I’d set myself some theoretical targets, the first was to give it my best shot and try to get round, secondly, to try and finish before it got dark. Trying to do the sums in my head, but unable to work it out, maybe it could be done??? Mainly the fact that, psychologically, going into a second night would be tough.

Ambling out of Ambleside towards Chapel Stile went well, more and more fresh(er)-legged “50-ers” passed us over Loughrigg, inevitable, all offered encouragement, we must’ve looked like we needed it! At the next stop, foodwise, there was a really good spread on offer, music too, bit of a carnival atmosphere, I had resisted sitting down at most previous stops, but comfy chairs looked good, so I took a seat for 5mins, my legs seized up completely! Passing an extremely crowded campsite near Langdale, happy campers with their coolboxes and barbecues, I became aware of a noise, which I couldn’t quite identify. It sounded like singing. As we got closer, we could hear the dulcet tones of Dolly Parton, seemingy being strangled, ringing out across the valley from the New Dungeon Ghyll pub. Was I losing it? Somebody was doing their utmost to destroy all of Ms. Parton’s finest. It speeded us up on the climb towards Side Pike pass. The encroaching darkness muffling the racket as we climbed higher. Blea Tarn is a beautiful picture-postcard spot, however, with night now upon us, it was headtorch time and a tricky, contrived route around the tarn, would drop us into Little Langdale. I was starting to feel a bit weary by now, the path was only just wide enough for one, and with the finish getting closer, people started jostling for position, which spiced things up a bit! I hadn’t done a recce of this last bit, but knew there was a sting-in-the-tail. It was in the post! We climbed and climbed, for what seemed an eternity. Tiredness and darkness started to make me stumble a bit, but I was determined to keep it together. My ankle was sore now, I was starting to “bonk” a bit, and stuffed flapjack down my neck, stick with it lad, stick with it. Eerie lights from headtorches looked like a shedload of Chinese lanterns on speed. Due to the darkness of night, it was almost impossible to see the relief of the terrain, we just seemed to be going up and up. Checkpoint 15 at Tilberthwaite, manned by the enthusiastic bunch of runners who are the Darwen Dashers. A lightning quick cuppa (time was-a-ticking) and up the final (?) climb. A quick 3.5mile dash to the finish, more food and glory…


The result of running 105 miles in the mountains!

Climbing wasn’t really a problem, it was the downhills that were giving my ankle jip. Route planners can be a sadistic bunch at times, the climb in the darkness seemed to take a long time, then down, then up, then down, down and down. A huge wave of “50-ers” passed us on the track near the Miner’s Bridge, all saying “Well run” (the 50 and 100 mile runners are distinguishable by different coloured numbers on their rucksacks). Almost home. Descending the very same path that we had climbed 30hrs earlier, it seemed like much longer than that. Past the Black Bull Inn, over the bridge, past the garage and onto the home straight, our speed picking up all the time. Aches, pains and tiredness were all forgotten, washed away by an amazingly overwhelming sense of happiness and relief, as we crossed the line. Joint 43rd with my new mates Adrian, and Ryan. 31hrs 55mins. (224 started, 116 finished). Into the Hall to amazing applause (every single runner was cheered in, first to last). Weighed, checked over, medal round my neck and the best tasting cup of tea ever thrust into my hand. It was over, job done!

Postscript: A huge THANK YOU to the Organisers of the Lakeland 100 and all the amazing support teams/marshalls/helpers, to my new ultra-running buddies, Adrian and Ryan, and to my wife, Lina, for putting up with my tiredness, grumpiness and general neuroticism!

After being checked out by a Physio, my elephant ankle remained swollen for quite some time, I saw my Doc, who said that it was probably a result of running 105 miles in one go, (he’s used to me!) A week later I started training again, but was struck down by a sharp pain in my other leg. Doctor Internet diagnoses it as shin splints, or a stress fracture, so I’m resting up for a while. When I am right again, I’ll be planning my next adventure…

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