The Lakeland 50 holds a special place in my heart as the race that inspired me to start ultrarunning. It was my first 50 mile race, and I loved the experience so much that I was hooked! I returned to Coniston 2 years later to run my first 100 mile race in the Lakeland 100, and while it may be a while before I decide to tackle the challenge of the 100 again, the Lakeland weekend provides a race experience unlike anything else in the UK and I was keen to come back and run the 50 with the benefit of more experience.
It was a strange experience to arrive at John Ruskin School feeling relaxed and knowing what to expect. 4 years previously I felt like a fish out of water, goggle eyed at the athletic looking runners and shiny kit on display; 2 years later I was a bundle of nerves, taking a huge leap into the unknown to see whether I was even capable of running 100 miles, let alone doing it across such challenging terrain. How different it felt this year. I felt confident to be there, surrounded by the ‘Lakeland family’ and many friends and familiar faces, rather than feeling out of place. I felt happy and calm and was ready to enjoy the whole experience.
I had two goals for this race: the first was to beat my 2014 time of 15:09, something I was reasonably confident about as I know I am considerably fitter now than I was then, while the second was to manage myself well during the race. In 2014 I nearly ended my race by managing myself badly in the heat, projectile vomiting at the top of the Fusedale climb and then spending 10 minutes sat in Measand Beck while I allowed myself to cool down! I have learnt a lot in the ensuing 4 years and I was determined to focus on nutrition and good personal management during the race. I knew that if I did this it would allow me to run well.
Registration and kit check went smoothly on the Friday evening and the atmosphere was amazing to wave off the 100 runners as they set off through Coniston, before it was time for the main event of the weekend, the Lakeland 1. My two children were both running and we were very jealous of the fantastic buffs they received for participating, emblazoned with ‘Future Lakeland Legend’ – a great touch from the organisers. The race brief on the Saturday morning didn’t work quite as well though – this event continues to grow and not all the 50 runners could actually fit into the school hall to hear the briefing. It might be time to move the briefing into a bigger space with the large numbers now participating!
Dalemain to Howtown (11.2 miles)
The start area at Dalemain was buzzing as we all got ready to set off, the 50 runners occasionally breaking off from their last minute preparations to cheer the 100 mile runners as they came through to reach the 60 mile checkpoint here. We were corralled into the start area and soon set off for the initial 4 mile loop around the Dalemain estate. It was great to get going, but I was feeling pretty sluggish at this point. The first part of the loop is on rough and undulating ground and is very congested so it is difficult to get into a good rhythm. After about a mile and a half there are a couple of stiles to negotiate, which are frustrating in that runners have to queue, but do at least start to spread the field out. From this point the loop mainly follows good tracks; there was more space and I started to get going properly.
Heading back through Dalemain the supporters were lining the route making for a fantastic atmosphere and I had a big smile on my face as we set off across the fields towards Pooley Bridge. The short section of fields passed quickly and we were soon wending our way through Pooley Bridge itself. The village was busy with the usual Lake District weekend collection of tourists and locals, who divided neatly into two camps, those cheering us on, and those determined that these crazy runners were not going to interrupt their Saturday stroll, the latter absolutely refusing to cede any pavement space!
I felt a sense of relief as I started the climb out of Pooley Bridge, the hubbub of the start of the race quickly replaced by the quiet of the fells. As I climbed a light drizzle started, which gradually became heavier. Despite some heavy showers during the morning, we had started the race in blazing sunshine and I was just wearing a T-shirt, knowing I would quickly get too hot wearing any more layers for the first loop. Now however I looked down the valley along Ullswater to the mountain ranges beyond and could see the dark clouds and the heavy rain rolling in. I took advantage of the relatively gentle climb to keep walking while I put my waterproof jacket on and was very glad of it minutes later as the first downpour of the day began. The jacket would in fact stay on for the rest of the race!
Howtown checkpoint soon arrived and was complete chaos with all the 50 runners arriving in quick succession! I had stuck to my plan to drain one of my water bottles by this checkpoint and then start the next section to Mardale with two full bottles, so I quickly topped up my empty bottle and got going.
Howtown to Mardale Head (9.4 miles)
The section to Mardale Head is by far the most challenging of the Lakeland 50 and negotiating this section well definitely sets you up for the rest of the race. It starts with a 3 mile climb up Fusedale to the highest point of the course at High Kop, before a glorious descent on faint grassy tracks to Haweswater. The final sting in the tail is the path around Haweswater; not the level lakeside path you might expect, but technical, often rocky and undulating single track.
I settled into a good rhythm heading up Fusedale. The climb usually takes me around an hour, so I knew what to expect and just focused on holding a strong but steady pace. We were facing into a strong headwind now, with driving rain that turned to hail near the top of the climb. There was none of the normal chatter of this stage of an ultra; everyone was just hunkered down under their hoods, getting the job done. I was starting to feel quite cold despite the effort of climbing and was starting to wonder whether I might need to stop to add gloves and an extra warm layer. However, just as we reached the top of the climb, the storm blew through and the sun came out. The wind was behind us, the clouds had cleared and I had an easy run for the couple of miles descending to Haweswater, admiring the stunning views in all directions.
I am probably into double figures for the number of times I have run the Haweswater path now and I have concluded that it is absolutely key to have the right mental attitude for this section as it is so easy to get frustrated by slow progress. For me that means going into ‘trundle’ mode; running where I can, fast walking the rest, but above all staying in the moment and not worrying how far I am along the never-ending lake! I felt strong and made good progress, not allowing myself to get frustrated when I got stuck behind other runners. The downpours coming after weeks of dry weather had loosened the edges of the path here and it was giving way if you stood too close to the edge; one runner ahead of me took a heavy fall, but thankfully was able to pick himself up and carry on.
As I came down to the Mardale Head checkpoint there was a massive clap of thunder and the rain started again. Mardale checkpoint was the stuff of nightmares! It is incredibly bleak and remote and the checkpoint staff were working in one marquee. All the food and drink was in the marquee, but unfortunately given the weather conditions so were all the runners. Pointy elbows were required just to make your way in to get water bottles filled and there was little hope of checking out the different food options on offer. In any case I didn’t want to stay long among the damp and dejected souls hiding in the tent, so grabbed a cheese and pickle sandwich, some Coke in my swanky collapsible cup (provided by the race to reduce plastic waste) and set off up the climb towards the Gatescarth Pass.
Mardale Head to Kentmere (6.5 miles)
Gatescarth is probably the steepest climb of the race, but has the benefit of being relatively short, so you know that 30 minutes of effort will see you to the top. I climbed strongly, but by the pass was starting to feel tired. I decided that some sugar was required, so grabbed a handful of sweets to eat as I reached the top of the climb and faced my least favourite part of the race.
The descent to Sadgill is long and follows a bridleway that consists of rough stone slabs and stony rubble; it is all runnable, but tough on tired legs and feet. Several runners shot past me here, making better work of the steep sections near the top, but as we continued to descend my legs began to loosen up, the sugar kicked in and I caught back up to them as the descent became more gradual. The rain had stopped again and I debated taking off my waterproof jacket, but opted instead to roll up the sleeves, allowing me to cool down, but still protecting me from the cold wind.
The short climb over to Kentmere passed quickly and I chatted briefly to a couple of female Lakeland 100 runners who were moving really strongly as we descended to Kentmere.
Kentmere to Ambleside (7.3 miles)
Another quick checkpoint stop and I headed off up the Garburn Pass. I joined up with two other runners and chatted to one of them, Sean, for most of the climb. It was his first Lakeland 50 (and first 50 miler) and it was strange to feel like an old hand as I explained the upcoming sections of the course. I would end up running and yo-yoing with him for most of the rest of the race.
The miles were flying by and I was soon through Troutbeck and looking forward to reaching Ambleside. Passing through Ambleside in the evening is one of the great parts of this race (and something I really missed at 4am on the Lakeland 100!). As the race has grown in participant numbers, so has the level of support and there was a cacophony of noise as I ran through the town; not just from the pubs, but from supporters lining the streets, cheering and ringing cowbells. I had hoped to make it to Ambleside for 9pm, so was delighted to see that it was not yet 8.30pm when I reached the checkpoint. I briefly wondered what sort of time I might manage to finish in, but dragged myself back to focus on the present moment.
Ambleside to Chapel Stile (5.6 miles)
The rain showers had now cleared and left a beautiful evening with great running conditions. After the climb out of Ambleside onto the flanks of Loughrigg, the rest of this leg is easy runnable ground, with much of it on the flat surfaced path along the Langdale valley. I caught up to some other runners as we headed around Loughrigg, but they began to pull away once we reached the flat valley path.
Langdale was stunning in the evening light, the Langdale Pikes looming in the now clear skies and a faint mist rising from the river. I was having my only low point of the race though and finding it tough to resist slowing to a walk. Although the other runners had pulled away I could still see them up ahead and I forced myself to pick up the pace and keep them in sight. I was now feeling both tired and hungry and couldn’t wait to reach the oasis of the Chapel Stile checkpoint. This has always been my favourite checkpoint and even under new management this year (the Lakeland checkpoints are all run by different running clubs or local organisations) it didn’t disappoint. I needed to take the weight off my feet, but didn’t fancy sitting in a chair, so ended up kneeling on the floor (in hindsight right in everybody’s way in the middle of the checkpoint!), stuffing myself with delicious chocolate brownies and custard, while I fished out my headtorch as it would soon be dark.
It was a wrench to leave the checkpoint, but I knew my stomach wouldn’t be able to digest too many more brownies, so after a couple of minutes rest I was back on my way.
Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite (6.5 miles)
Leaving the checkpoint I still felt tired, but hoped that the food would soon kick in and give me some energy. I made frustratingly slow progress to start with, but by the time I reached the two giant ladder stiles I was feeling much better and was back into a strong rhythm. The short sharp climb out of Langdale was quickly dealt with and I felt great again as I ran down past Blea Tarn and around towards Blea Moss. The path above Blea Moss was very dry and I didn’t need to stay too high up the hill to avoid the bogs as I crossed to the unmanned dibber that prevents runners cutting the corner here.
Down the road into Little Langdale and then over the short climb to Tilberthwaite I was really enjoying myself and starting to feel as though I was on the home straight.
Reaching the checkpoint at Tilberthwaite I just stopped long enough to grab a few sweets and drop my donation in the bucket for #JacobsJoin (this year the race was aiming to raise money to help fund cancer treatment for 2 year old Jacob Willett, son of a Lakeland regular), then it was off up the steps (known as the Stairway to Heaven) to start the final climb over to Coniston.
Tilberthwaite to Coniston (3.5 miles)
My legs were aching and my lungs were heaving, but I knew the steep section of this climb was only short and it was time to go for it. I kept pushing up and up, past the lone tree and towards the small tarn at the top. I permitted myself a quick glance backwards to see the fells silhouetted against the night sky, with the occasional pinprick of light from the headtorches of runners below. Through the col I looked into the distance to see the lights of ships far away on the Irish Sea, then it was time to fix my eyes firmly on the tricky final descent to Coniston.
I concentrated hard, ignoring my screaming legs and passing several runners on the descent (not bad for someone who trains in the flatlands of East Anglia!). Down to the Miners Bridge and I picked up the pace again, knowing there was only about a mile to go. Very soon the lights of Coniston appeared; over the bridge, past the garage and then a final charge down the hill to the finish at the school, to a great reception from waiting marshals and supporters.
One of the highlights of the Lakeland races is that you are announced into the marquee as a finisher. The reception was as special as I remembered and I was delighted to find that I had finished in 13 hours and 19 minutes (nearly 2 hours faster than my first attempt in 2014).
Not only had I run a time that I was extremely happy with, but I had enjoyed the whole race, despite the best efforts of the weather! There are so many fantastic races out there to experience, but the Lakeland weekend has such an amazing atmosphere that it keeps pulling me back. After the fun of this weekend I might even consider the 100 again one day (after a few more years for memories of the pain to fully recede)!