Course profile

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What lies in wait on 2nd July - The 110k course profile

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Post ultra reflections

A week ago today I was somewhere along the course of the Ultimate Trails 110k race. It seems longer than that, but it's long enough to reflect on the whole slightly surreal experience. (warning: This makes for a bit of an epic blog entry ....).

My parents arrived on Friday and after doing all the pre race preparations mentioned in my last entry we all had a (very) early night at 18:00 in an attempt to get a few hours kip before the race. At 10:30, after no kip at all we all got back up, had a bit of breakfast (weird at that time) and headed off to Ambleside where I had a compulsory safety briefing at 11:30 to attend.

Rothay park was busy with excited chatter, nervous faces and blinding headtorches. There was quite a lot of random milling around before we were summoned into the big tent for the briefing, where a rather quite voiced man (made even harder to hear by the heavy rain that started drumming on the tent roof) ran over the rules and regulations for those who hadn't bothered to read the information sent out to us.

After this it was back outside for more milling in front of the start line until finally, at about 10 past midnight, there was a countdown and we were off past the shouts of well wishers, through the park and onto the streets of Ambleside. It was quite exciting really, but I adopted the same tactic as for the Coniston marathon and hung back near the rear of the field to prevent getting carried away and going too fast in these early stages.

The first 12k to check point one passed through the woods around Wansfell and took in the first big climb of the route, over Garburn Pass. I ran with a man who said he'd tried this last year with a friend, but had to pull out just before the first check point with a twisted ankle, which he unexpectedly got on a road section. His friend had stopped with him, but unfortunately this year had had to pull out before we even got out of Ambleside as he was ill and felt he couldn't breathe properly ... what a run of bad luck!

These first few kilometres were characterised by a cautious pace and lots of chatter. Saw another runner with the weediest head light (surely you'd check this before you set off?) and shared a chuckle with some others over the way we were optimistically avoiding puddles despite the fact we knew wet feet were inevitable in the end.

Check point one was Kentmere Institute, where I had some tea and cake (sounds very relaxing) and set off with a handful of crisps. I'd already become aware that I am a lot more comfortable on rough and steep ground than most of the other runners I saw, as I overtook many people on the descent here - something that continued on the long run up the Kentmere valley and the big climb up to the top of Nan Bield pass, the highest of the route.

The final pull to the top of the pass are a series of tight zig-zags and it was a memorable sight looking back down the valley to see the snaking head torches weaving their way up the valley towards me, a sight that was repeated on the descent.

By the time I got to checkpoint two, 22km in at a tent at Mardale head, it was 3:30 and light was already showing in the sky. While I was looking forward to turning the torch off, I was sort of sad that this initial atmospheric part of the race was almost over - it definitely felt that the character of the day was about to change.
Dawn over Haweswater

Maybe it was due to the coke and super sweet flapjack I had at the last checkpoint, but I started to feel a little queasy on the long run along the side of Haweswater. I settled my stomach a bit with a piece of the Spanish omelette I'd cooked on Friday, but by the time I reached the road at the end of Haweswater I was feeling a little light headed and tired and my legs had started to ache, which was worrying at such a relatively early stage.

Janet and my parents had driven round to check point three (35km, Bampton village hall) and looked a little concerned at my rather pale appearance when I arrived at 05:00. I'd run much further than this and on the actual course a few times in training, so it was a shock to feel I was struggling already. However, a bit of a sit down with a cup of tea and a small portion of porridge seemed to revive me and by the time I left 10 minutes later I felt a lot better.

It was a good job too, as the next stretch differed from the route I'd run in training (I think a last minute change due to land owner's permissions), heading along the road for another few miles instead of the nice grassy riverside path I'd been expecting. I found all this tarmac hard to run on and was overtaken by a fair few runners as I eventually started walking, but this isn't the sort of thing you worry about on a race like this.

The support team (Janet and mum and dad) had driven past me on the road, cheering out of the window Tour de France style, heading to the planned rendevous at Askham. I caught up with them after a few miles though as they'd spotted the signs for the run sending us up onto Askham Moor before getting to the village so were waiting for me. It was lucky they had seen them too as they had some more supplies for me to pick up. We'd been told in the pre race briefing that you were only allowed extra supplies if they were in your drop bags, or if you carried them with you - fair enough, but it was a bit late to tell me that 10 minutes before the race started when all my extras were in the car. And no, that wasn't in the pre race notes ....

Bleak! Heading across Askham Moor, string of runners in the distance
Spanish omelette supplies replenished, I headed up onto the third climb over Askham Moor. We'd got away without any rain during the night, but now the weather really put it's back into it with the wind getting up and some stinging rain blowing in across the bleak expanse of the moor. I distracted myself from the unpleasantness by chatting to a fellow runner, asking him if he'd done anything like this before. 'Only the Lakeland 10 peaks' he said, a 73 kilometre 24 hour race with 5600 metres of ascent up the 10 highest peaks in the Lake District. 'When was this?' I asked. 'Last Saturday .... my legs are suffering a bit'!

This surprising answer gave me plenty to muse on as I headed to check point four (50km, Howtown Bobbin Mill). I arrived at this rather homely feeling little room with a group of other runners at about 07:00, all of us agreeing that it was a bad idea to sit down but then promptly plonking ourselves down on the array of comfy chairs irresistibly lined up around the tables within. Everyone was starting to look a bit bedraggled now, with some worried they were going to have to stop due to injuries flaring up, others shovelling noodles down in quiet urgency and some just staring into the middle distance. I felt sort of ok, especially after some more porridge, but was aware that after this I'd be running further than I ever had before so also felt, for the first time, a little nervous.

The nerves soon faded as I headed out for another stretch of road along the Boredale valley. I was now really noticing how my definition of what constitutes 'up hill' had changed. An ultra marathon maxim has it that you 'Walk the uphills, run the downhills and some of the flats' but by now even the slightest gradient was proving enough to get everyone slowing to a brisk march.

I tackled the fourth climb to Boredale Hause alongside a girl who surprised me with her really strong Bristol accent. She'd done a few Ultras before, even 100 mile races, but really didn't like hills or rough ground so was wondering if she'd entered quite the right race ... but did say she liked a challenge ....

The descent from the top of the pass to checkpoint five at Glenridding (60km) at 09:00 was where things really started to hurt, so by the time I arrived at the village hall I was ready for a bit of a rest. Luckily this was the location of the drop bags and the 'support team' were there, so with chatting and changing socks I had plenty to while away half and hour. It was a nice big hall, but unfortunately the toilets were down a flight of stairs - an extra little bit of descent and ascent that myself and many other groaning runners could have done without!

A big climb over Grisedale Hause came next, round Grisedale Tarn and down the rough and steep Raise Beck. The weather took a turn for the worse again here, so I was surprised to see Fix the Fells volunteer Charlotte and a friend waiting at the top of the pass with an illicit drop of brownies - this was planned, but not expected given the rough conditions. As with meeting Janet and my parents at the checkpoints I was finding these meetings were giving me a nice little boost, taking my mind off of the increasing difficulty of actually running.

The next check point was another one with just a tent, down by Thirlmere and at 72km, which I made by about 12:30, feeling pleased to have conquered the second really big pass of the run. There was no let up in the climbing though as from here it was a very boggy route past Blea Tarn and down to Watendlath. This stage had been squishy enough in my relatively dry training runs, but today was a different matter altogether with the saturated ground capable of swallowing runners whole. Well, maybe not, but by the time I got to Watendlath (after an unexpected meeting with some more of the Fix the Fells lengthsmen on the path down) for another meeting with Janet and co they'd seen plenty of runners go past with mud caked right up their legs and occasionally their backs where they'd taken a tumble. I think my experience with this type of ground once more paid off as I got through relatively unscathed.

From here there was another short climb back up, much to the disappointment of a fellow runner who was searching around for a feed station, before the descent to Rosthwaite and check point 7 (Borrowdale institute, 83km) where our other drop bags with spare shoes were waiting. I almost didn't bother changing mine as my feet were not uncomfortable, but the lure of having dry feet for a bit proved too tempting. It was a real pleasure getting my shoes off and sitting down for 10 minutes with my feet in the open, eating about 10 pieces of the cold pizza provided. I was also pleased to note that despite my pre race concerns my feet didn't seem to have swelled up at all.

But it couldn't last and all to soon I felt I should force myself from this comfortable refuge and push on towards the last big climb, over Stake Pass. I walked the first half mile from the check point alongside another runner, both of us marvelling at how hard it had become to make the transition from walking to running, before forcing myself into a slow jog. The journey up Langstrath over quite rough ground seemed especially testing, but nothing like the pain of the climb up to the top of the pass - a proper gruelling hands on knees slog.

It was with a real sense of elation I reached the top, to be greeted by a cheering Abi and Simon who had made the hike up there in horrible conditions to support me. Again, this helped pull me out of myself a little which was a real help as I was really starting to feel very weary indeed by now, although increasingly confident I could complete the challenge with 'only' about 20km to go.

Feeling guilty at spending so little time with them after they'd walked all the way up here I set off down to Langdale Coombe and the last big descent. I knew this path very well, having spent a summer season working on it so was able to distract myself from the agonies of the downhill by examining some of my past handiworks - all holding up well!
Fleeing the rain at a moderate pace down Mickleden

I met up with with Janet, Mud and Dad again halfway up Mickleden. By now I was down to a walk, but did feel slightly disappointed that just before I saw them I had managed to squeeze out a few hundred metres of running. They all looked very wet and said they'd had to retreat from their original spectator point with a view further up the valley due to the driving rain, something that made me realise how tired I was getting as I'd not really registered it (although I did have my back to it).

The last 9 miles/15k or so were torture. I'd was on my last legs (now I really know what that means!) and only managed a few more hundred metres of running. A particularly difficult point came just after the New Dungeon Ghyll pub, where I started to be overtaken by loads of runners who were all actually running. I couldn't understand where they found the energy from when I was reduced to a walk and was even more bugged when they all went past patting me on the back and saying 'well done', almost as if they were taking the mick. Luckily, I soon realised that my race had merged with the 55km one and it was those runners that were springing past me like they were on a 10k fun run. What a relief!
A special effort required here to smile and run for the official race photographer!

I met Janet and my parents once more at the final checkpoint at Chapel Stile (98k), where I failed to get a drink and something to eat, due to the room being tiny, very hot and packed with 55k runners. A short video taken by Janet there shows me mumbling and with my eyes half closed and I really felt quite desperate to just get to the finish. There was one last climb up to High Close, nowhere near as big as the others but still tough at this stage. I struggled up this and round Loughrigg, fighting a very strong temptation to sit down on every wall and log I went past 'just for five minutes', before the final steep descent down the small road leading to the back of Rothay Park and the finish.

My main memories of the last few kilometres are telling myself I mustn't forget that it really hurt, although I can't remember the actual physical sensation itself any more. I was met at the bottom of the hill by a marshall, who gave a cheery greeting before her tone changed to a more worried 'are you alright?'. Janet, Mum and Dad, Abi and Simon and Sarah from the upland path team were also there and it was flanked by this escort that I made my shuffling way into the park before a final 'sprint' finish across the line. Apparently I got a louder welcome than most runners as I think the state I was in was now obvious to all.

I've never felt the need for a chair so strongly as in the immediate aftermath, but luckily Lakeland Trails know this and there were plenty in the finishing area. The marshall had been considering referring me to the medics, but with a change into some warm clothes and a bit of a sit down I was soon feeling (and looking) much better. I'd finished in 19 hours and 44 minutes, longer than I'd anticipated but I'd not taken into account the time spent in the checkpoints when I'd tried to estimate it beforehand.

More importantly, at the time of writing this my sponsorship page total is up to £2413.75 (£2900.95 with gift aid). Although I am dead chuffed to have completed an Ultramarathon, there's no way I would have attempted it in the first place if it wasn't for what happened to my sister and it makes me feel she would have been proud that I went through all this to honour and remember her. I've also had so many messages of support and encouragement throughout this whole thing that it's really helped my on my way, I think people have appreciated the level of challenge involved and I'm glad I decided to do something properly difficult and worthy of sponsoring.
Probably the only time I'll wear a medal! T-shirt might get a few trips out though ...
So I've done my first Ultramarathon, something I can never do again now I am experienced. Would I do another one? Well, give me a bit of time, I've only had a week to think about it  - but I did find myself looking at the Montane Lakeland 100 miler website the other day, just out of interest ......

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