It was back in September 2012 that 7 Wigan Harriers signed up for arguably the toughest 50 mile ultra-marathon in the UK in the form of the Lakeland 50. Dave Waddington and myself had regaled the club with tales of our successful 2012 adventure and somehow persuaded otherwise sensible runners that it would be a good idea to pit themselves against 10,000ft of ascent over the unforgiving Cumbrian terrain. Julie Platt, Kevin Edwards, Gary Wane, Tim Pilkington and Martin stood up for the challenge alongside myself and Dave.
Over the following 9 months various combinations of the above runners wore grooves in the M6 as we travelled up and down to train over the course. From Boot to Buttermere, Pooley Bridge to Staveley and numerous trips from Ambleside to Coniston we ran the route in almost every weather condition. An early recce from Ambleside saw Julie myself and L100 finisher Sally Howarth wading through thigh deep snowdrifts over the tops from Tilberthwaite before slogging back along the Cumbrian way to Ambleside. Later in the year we crested the rise of the Garburn Pass and found ourselves able to stroll up the snowdrifts and simply step over the remaining 2 inches of a 5 foot gate. There was even an occasion when Gary, Kevin and myself enjoyed a day of blue skies and spring sunshine along the banks of Haweswater. From rain, hail, gales and blizzards we had trained through just about every condition imaginable …apart from those we were to encounter on race day itself!
Saturday 28th July loomed in our collective imagination for 9 months without ever coming any closer. It was a preposterous proposition that we would be running the entirety of the brutal course that we had recced over in again in bite sized chunks. Then with shocking suddenness race day came charging round the corner and we found ourselves assembled at the John Ruskin School in Coniston all weighed in, tagged with our dibbers and ready to board the coach to Dalemain and the start of our Lakeland odyssey.
Joining us on the coach to Dalemain was Warren from Wigan Phoenix fresh from a successful visit to the Mont Blanc marathon. His exotic foray to the home of European ultra-running occurred at the same time as Kev, Julie and myself had undertaken our final long run before the 50 in the form of the Coniston Lakeland Trail marathon. Kev had told me it would be a good confidence booster before the big day itself. Considering he and I ended that particular event in the medical tent we travelled to Dalemain with a healthy level of respect for the challenge we were about to take on!
After months of training through snowdrifts and rainstorms the increasing heat and humidity at the race start were met with a deal of anxiety amongst those of us who had thrown a wobbler in similar conditions at Coniston, (that’s me and Kev). Whilst temperatures had dropped from the fiery 30 degrees seen a week or two earlier, the humidity was building by the minute. An impressive posse of Harriers supporters were assembled at the starting field and there was time for me to bump into fellow Lakeland Trail enthusiast Gary Spriggs from St Helens Striders. A fair amount of nervous banter was swapped before we filtered into the starting pen and dibbed our electronic tags ready for the off. Unbelievably I then bumped into Ian from Bolton with whom I had shared the final 25 miles of the 2012 event and hadn’t seen since. Ian was to have a fabulous race and was sitting with a big grin on his face back in Consiton by the time I came stumbling home myself many hours later.
We took it steady over the first few miles around the Dalemain estate, content to trot along at the pace dictated by the early congestion of 600 runners negotiating the same narrow paths and stiles. The heat of the day rapidly increased, seeming to bounce back from the sweating greenery and reaffirmed our plan to start easy. Dave Waddington disappeared straight from the off and this year I didn’t make the mistake of trying to keep up with him. From the recce runs we had undertaken together I had seen just how much more comfortable he had become with the rocky terrain to come and knew that I stood even less chance of keeping with him than I had last year.
Hot on his heels were Andy Kaufman and Martin accompanied by Warren from Phoenix. Andy had replaced an injured Tim Pilkington as he and Martin ran together as a team. Andy had already notched a magnificent run at the Hardmoors 50 earlier in the year whilst enduring some especially testing winter conditions. Following up were Julie, Kev Gary and myself in a brick of 4. Gary and I took on the role of Chief Morale Officers as we shared such motivational nuggets as “if you’re feeling good on a Ultra don’t worry, it will soon pass…”. Oh how those words were to come to haunt me!
Once off the estate we were out on the fells proper and charging down the wonderful path alongside Ullswater towards checkpoint 1 at Howtown. Sunderland strollers were out in force along the track high fiving their teammates in the race and giving everyone a lift with their enthusiasm. The views up the lake were stunning in the clear air, with the Helvellyn range clear against a blue skyline. This really was a beautiful day to take a stroll in the hills and soak up the views, though perhaps not as perfect for running 50 miles through those views!
I had set myself a 2 hour time target for this section; half an hour slower than last year when I had arrived at Howtown in an unrealistic 87th place and promptly blown up along Haweswater as a result. This year we cruised into the Bobbin Mill checkpoint bang on the 2 hour mark and feeling reasonably good. That was soon to change as we began the first major climb of the 50 route with the endless slog up Fusedale towards the highest point of the course at High Kop.
By now the heat of the day had built, and the humidity in the valley along with it. There had been plenty of rain in the Lakes in the days before the race. All that moisture was now boiling off the vegetation and thickening up the air so that it felt like there was less and less oxygen available in each breath. There was still enough to keep Julie chatting as she found a chap with the same surname as her, (Russ Platt), and nattered to him all the way up the gruesome climb! Kevin and I followed her up and remarked on how different it looked from the last time we had been this way worried about avalanches!
A refreshing breeze greeted us at the top and we enjoyed a section of fine running over the springy tracks over to Low Kop. This section is usually quite boggy but after a period of sunshine it dries out and becomes almost bouncy. Taking full advantage of that was Rach Atkinson who flew past us down the hill declaring this to be the “best bit of the route” over her shoulder as she went. I’d like to claim my more conservative descent was a tactical decision to save some energy in these early stages, but I don’t think I’ve gone as fast over Low Kop as Rach was going!
When the path dropped to the Haweswater valley we were suddenly robbed of that cooling breeze and the temperature blasted up the scale. The heat was almost palpable as it radiated up from the valley. Once amongst the sweating bracken which reached shoulder height in places, (head height for Julie), it was like being in some tropical jungle rather than the English Lakes. “Sauna like” may be a cliché but that was the most apt description for the thick heavy atmosphere along the rocky lakeshore path.
The three of us separated a little along here with Julie striding out ahead of Kev and I in the later stages as we both adopted a more cautious approach to the treacherous path. Kev has never been a fan of these technical sections. I usually do enjoy a bit of a canter along here but the conditions were beginning to get to me and I was feeling increasingly unwell as we ran. I dipped my hat in every steam we passed and used the old trick of wrapping a cold wet buff around my neck to get the cooling effect directly to the carotid arteries. It worked a little but I still felt vaguely dizzy, out of breath and a little nauseous.
Having experienced the same sensation last year in almost exactly the same place I held out some hope of putting myself back together at the Mardale checkpoint. I knew I needed fuel and a rest if I was to avoid a DNF at the 18 mile point. I almost didn’t make it that far. With a 100 yards or so to go I was overcome by the need to lie down for a few moments, and actually went as far as to get down on my hands and knees. Kevin verbally kicked my backside and bullied me into the checkpoint for which I am hugely grateful. It would have been race over if I had stayed where I was.
On our way into the checkpoint we were passed in the other direction by Andy and Martin on their way back out again, both looking strong with big smiles on their faces. As soon as we dibbed in we found Warren who had kept pace with Andy and Martin until going over the top of Fusedale where he had begun to encounter the same feelings of dizziness and nausea as me. A cup of soup, refilled bladder and a coffee were soon working their magic on me but didn’t seem to have the same restorative effect on Warren. As we organised ourselves to go again Warren opted to stay on a little longer to recuperate. Just at that moment Gary Wane came charging in looking like he had worked as hard as the rest of us!
Kev chose not to repeat his recce heroics and run all the way up Gatesgarth and we took the opportunity to finish off our coffee and walk our recovery section on the climb to the top of the 2000ft pass. The last 20 miles were now apparent in tightening, achy muscles and the rocky descent down the other side of the pass was tortuously painful on knees and hamstrings. From this point onwards it was a matter of discipline and determination to settle into a shuffling ultra-paced jog over the loose pebbly path that led down the Longsleddale valley. Julie managed this at a quicker pace than Kev and I and was soon lost to sight. With a bright sun burning down on us we chose to maintain our steady pace and promised ourselves a dip in the river at the point where the bridge crosses it at Sadgill as our reward for keeping going all the way.
That cooling dip was possibly the most sensuously pleasing experience of my life as I dropped my poor knees into the icy stream and put my head beneath its glassy surface. I dread to think what passing runners made of the moans and groans of pleasure coming from under the bridge before Kev and I emerged with relaxed smiles on our faces…
From here climbed over Sadgill with only the thought of the Kentmere checkpoint on our minds. The magic 26.2 clicked past on my Garmin and I resisted the temptation to utter the de-motivational line, “that’s the marathon completed…just a marathon to go then….”. Black clouds were gathering and we were teased with the occasional tiny droplet of rain. All of us wre willing the clouds o tlet loose but as thunder rumbled back towards Haweswater we seemed to be running away from the rain.
We re-grouped with Julie at Kentmere where I was disappointed to discover that rice pudding wasn’t on the menu this year. I knew I hadn’t been putting enough food into my system and still felt a little sick, but I still couldn’t face the bowl of pasta on offer. It rolled around my mouth a few times before I gave up and tried a fruit smoothie. Julie declared these to be delicious but again I found my stomach didn’t agree so my main fuel source was once again a few cups of flat coca cola.I was busy changing my socks when Julie and Kev got up to go again and I opted for another couple of minutes to sort myself out and let them go.
That was a decision I regretted within seconds of seeing them go. I had happily taken on the L50 alone last year, making friends along the way. This year I had trained and recced so many miles in the company of my club mates that to be suddenly without them after 28 miles of effort seemed wrong. I laced up quickly, got my backside in gear and set off in pursuit! Luckily for me Julie had stopped to get her magic poles out and I could still see them way ahead. A little effort from end I had caught them in time for us to march up Garburn Pass as a team once more.
We passed through the gate at the top of the pass commenting upon the occasion we had come this way in the snow and literally stepped over the buried gate. This time we encountered a mountain biker who approached the summit and promptly turned round to free-wheel back down to Troutbeck, which was a cruel sight to see when you have pain wracked legs and another 22 miles of running to do! “Give us a backy” shouted Kevin to no avail.
On the way down this section the long promised rain finally arrived and we scampered down the hillside glorying in the freshness of the shower. A couple of runners had stopped to pull on rain gear but we chose to soak it up and make the most of the free dousing. By the time we had reached the bottom and begun the climb back up to Troutbeck village the air seemed lighter and we all had a little extra energy in those aching legs.
In fact we had so much energy that we made good progress up the lanes and were running at a decent pace on our way towards the woods. Ambleside and the prospect of seeing friends and family drew us on and the pace steadily rose until we were tripping along at about the same pace we would have tackled this section as part of a stand-alone recce on fresh legs. We strung out a little with Julie inevitably stretching ahead and me and Kev losing sight of each other through the technical sections, but there was an unspoken understanding that we would soon be re-grouping at Ambleside anyway.
I charged down the final tarmac section marvelling at how it is possible to be on all fours with concrete legs after 18 miles, but running at 10k pace again after nearly 35 miles!
And then I rounded the corner into Ambleside itself and the world went a bit funny….
The centre of the village was lined with people 3 or 4 deep all cheering and clapping as I came running up the main street. With the competitors so spread out there was no-one running with me at this stage so it felt like every pair of eyes was on me as I played to the galleries, shook my fist in the air and made the absoloute most of the overwhelming support. For a moment I questioned thos reality. It was too close to all those idle fantasies of running through adoring crowds on the way to a famous victory, but no, I really was charging through Ambleside soaking up the energy and encouragement of so many smiling faces. It seemed like the town had come to a standstill for the event.
I suddenly spotted the family who added to the surreality by shouting “come on Daddy you can still win this” – for a moment I almost believed them and found myself running even faster down the alleyway towards the church checkpoint. I was then overwhelmed to come across even more crowds of people lining the route down to the park and that crescendo of noise seemingly to carry me along. At the checkpoint itself were the fabulous Wigan Harriers crew of family and friends making a super racket.
Once I had gathered my wits I realized that myself, Kev and Julie had arrived at almost exactly the same time as Andy and Martin meaning we had 5 of our 7 strong entry all together. Jacqui Jones passed on the incredible news that coach Dave Waddington had already passed through the Chapel Stile checkpoint before we had even reached Ambleside. I knew Dave would run well this year but even I was taken aback at just how well he was going. We were also relieved to hear that Gary was also going strong and had passed through Kentmere. Unfortunately Warren wasn’t with him as we had hoped having dropped out at Mardale Head where we had last seen him suffering from dizziness.
When the euphoria of the run in had worn off I realized I was still feeling a little sickly and had to fuel up. The sandwich I had taken from the checkpoint stuck in my throat and with so little solid food having gone down I chose to go for the conventional option and took an energy gel for the next section to Chapel Stile. My girls popped back into the checkpoint to fetch me another coca cola whilst my mum filled up by bladder with fresh water, and it was time for the off.
Re-united again it was Julie, Kev and I that trotted out across Rothay Park wincing and groaning a little as cooling muscles were forced back into action. Julie soon dropped us on the climb up Loughrigg as Kev and I marched our way up still fuelling on gels or hydration drinks. At the top Kev forced us into a run again but pulled back a little as cramp began to trouble him. Making the most of the “free energy” the descent offered I let gravity have its way and carried on down the hill chasing Julie. I passed a 100 mile runner who looked unreasonably fit and healthy considering he had covered about 90 miles by this point, (the 100 actually being a 105mile run in total!). I passed a few words of encouragement and wondered how he could still be running after that distance given how painful I was finding each and every jarring step. I think it was right there and then I decided I wasn’t ever going to enter the 100!
Julie took a minor detour before Skelwith Bridge adding a half mile or so of extra travel to her day and allowing me to catch up again. She had made another friend along the way and so it was 3 of us that jogged along the meandering patch to Elterwater. Julie and companion had also found a Petzl torch obviously dropped by another runner, and were asking everyone we passed if they had lost one. Their selfless persistence was to pay off by Chapel Stile when they finally re-united it with its owner.
The energy gel had done its magic for me and this next section involved some strong running. My Garmin had died by now but it felt like a good 8 minute mile pace along the valley as for once I drifted a little bit ahead of Julie. We were both a little concerned about Kev who we hadn’t seen since Loughrigg, but given his preference for flat running we expected him to make up time on us here. We managed a heroic jog past the drinkers outside the Wainwright pub before dropping to a sneaky walk the second we were round the corner and out of sight! From here on the running seemed to get tougher as very tired legs seized and groaned over the last mile or so to the penultimate checkpoint.
Chapel Stile never seems to arrive, and then arrives all a once. Hidden round a bend past the campsite it suddenly appears like a ship in the night, all lit up with fairy lights and marked out with flaming braziers like an oasis. Once inside the marquee the energy from the staff was electrifying. We were met with a wonderful welcome from the team who fuss and care for each runner with an unbelievable amount of energy and charm. We were served with our soup, sat down and then waited on as staff appeared with bread, utensils and asking after our needs. It also became clear that each arriving runner was being assessed as they arrived and a close eye kept on each of us to spot anyone showing undue signs of distress. We were about 40 miles in by this point, (95 for the 100 runners), and with the extremes of weather and the now dropping temperatures this was the point when a lot of competitors began to suffer.
Tempting as it was to stay and enjoy the hospitality we knew we had to crack on. It may now only be 10 miles to the finish but some of the toughest terrain of the race was to come and darkness had well and truly fallen now. Kevin had shaken off his cramp and caught up with us again, as had Andy and Martin. Martin was beginning to suffer badly with cramping muscles. We wished them the best and set off into the darkness with our head torches probing the way.
Within 10 minutes of the re-start we had stopped again to pull on our waterproofs as the rain began to fall. It wasn’t exactly cold by now, but our lowered reserves left us sensitive to the drop in temperature and the rain looked like settling in for a while. The running became trickier over the wriggly grass paths and boulder sections up the Langdale valley, more so in the dark and rain . Julie set the pace along here and despite the difficulties we kept up a constant jog over the terrain. The next big challenge was the zig zag path out of the valley before we crossed the road and picked up pace on the hard packed trail down to Blea Tarn.
By now the rain was heavy and cold. We knew the section over Blea Moss was far too bouldery to take at pace even in daylight, let alone on exhausted legs, with tired minds in the dark and rain. This meant a drop in speed and greater exposure to the cold as we picked our way across treacherously wet and slippy rocks just waiting to shift beneath our feet and cause a fall. Spasms of cramp and plain old muscle fatigue made the going extremely painful over here. I had been feeling the bone weary ache of a long distance run from the 25 mile point way back at Sadgill. By now, 20 miles further, stumbling over rocks in the pitch black the discomfort was beyond words. Walking was no relief from running.
Somewhere over the moss I found a knee deep bog to sink into and heaved desperately to free my leg from the sucking gloop. The leg came free but the sudden effort prompted an excruciating cramp in my hip which left me unable even to find a suitable swear word. If the previous 43 miles had been tough they were childs play compared to these final testing leagues through the dark.
“Waddi will be in the bloody pub by now” Julie remarked. At that point we hated him a little.
We found the unmanned electronic checkpoint and began the tortuous descent down the tarmac road of the Wrynose pass. Julie trotted off into the night but I found the hard road far too painful to allow more than a shuffling excuse for a run. Somewhere over the boulder filed of Blea Moss we had lost Kevin. Wherever he was he was too far back to respond to our shouts so for the first time in 11 hours the team of 3 were completely separated.
At the point where the path finally leaves the road I managed to pick up a little bit of a run and fought hard to keep my thoughts and attitude positive when the path turned upwards once more. In terms of mileage I was close to the finish, but that still meant a testing rocky climb over to Tilberthwaite followed by the final heart breaking ascent from the quarry and over the mountain to Coniston. With reserves low and every step and agony it was all too easy to let the misery build as the rain hammered down. I could now feel a blister on my right heel and the ends of my toes felt like they were on fire. My neck, shoulders, biceps and lower back all added to the chorus of protest that greeted each upward step as we climbed into the night once more. My legs burned with an ache that seemed soul deep, whilst hamstrings bit and glutes spasmed with each misplaced step.
There comes a point when all the mind games and tricks to keep you going stop working. When all those motivational phrases become hollow homilies; when the mantra becomes a mindless dirge; when there is no mental hiding place from the pain, and when there is no buffer left between that primal self and the brutal reality of putting one step in front of the other because that’s the only option left. At that point there is only one thing left to do: you start running again.
I don’t know how long it was but my torch eventually picked out a familiar green anorak in front, followed by the lilt of a Scottish brogue as I caught up with Julie once more. She was happily chatting away with a fellow runner and offering support to the odd desolate looking 100 miler we passed. Re-united we staggered into the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite seeking refuge from the battering rain beneath their welcome canopy.
The wonderful people at the checkpoint ushered us into a row of garden seats, took our order for coffee and lifted our spirits with their cheerful chatter. I think my brain was slightly addled by fatigue at this point as I observed out loud that these were “probably the nicest people in the world”. It was true though! Within minutes of sitting down my temperature seemed to plummet and I was shaking and shivering from head to foot. I dug out my remaining baselayer but was worried that I would be disqualified if I finished the race having used the “not to be used” final layer. Then it occurred to me that the shaking had become so bad there wouldn’t be any finishing the race unless I layered up.
When my speech became gabbled due to the shivers the checkpoint staff leapt into action and took over. They opened up my bags, rooted out my water proof trousers and made me put them on before put my gloves and buff on for me and standing me up to get my pack back on too. I have absoloutely no doubt that they saved my race and for that I can’t thank them enough. Tilberthwate is a mere 3.5 miles from the end, but as it involves a monster climb over rain swept barren mountainside it may as well be another 50 miles when you are too cold to stand un-aided.
Spirits were further lifted with the arrival of Kevin, meaning the 3 of us were together again as we hauled ourselves up the greasy steps out of Tilberthwaite car park and upwards into the rainy night sky. The checkpoint staff were correct. Within minutes of setting off again I was warmed up and feeling good. Then, incredibly, we were running again. First of all it was shuffling kind of run more akin to a quick walk, but through gritted teeth we picked up speed and were eventually picking our way along the narrow tracks by torch light at a respectable jogging pace. Kevin had torch trouble and dropped back as he switched over to his back-up unit, only to have that fail too. Luckily for him he was accompanied by a pair of lady runners who got him over the mountain in one piece.
The descent to the miners track down that evil, rock strewn scramble took another lifetime and a world of extra pain to accomplish but Julie and I were finally running down the final mile of roadway towards the beckoning streetlights of Coniston. A turn trough the deserted village and past the guest house in which Dave Waddington was already tucked up in bed and then we were on the final straight to the school, crossing the line together hands held aloft.
I punched the air with sheer relief that the whole thing was final over when we entered the school hall. An overwhelming burst of noise hit us as we were cheered into the room by the Harriers support crew and those runners who had finished before us. It all got a bit messy after that. I collected my medal and t-shirt, went a bit wobbly, tried not to cry, stole Darren Jacksons jumper to warm up in and only just managed to stop myself declaring undying love for my two Harriers ultra-companions like an emotional drunk!
It had taken Julie and I 13 hours and 44 minutes to cover the 50 miles. That was a good 40 minutes up on my time from last year, but included the extra 2 miles missed off at the start in the 2012 event. That probably equates to about an hour faster in real terms with which I am more than pleased. With different weather conditions I am sure I could take a little more off that time, but I also know I could never put as much effort into a race as I did this year. Physically and mentally I was running on fumes by the time we reached Tilberthwaite. I had run as hard and as far as I know I’m capable of doing and take home the satisfaction of knowing with some certainty that in terms of effort that was my best performance ever.
We stayed in the school hall to see every Harrier home safely. Kev came next, followed by Andy and Martin and we all gathered together to wait as Gary Wane battled his way home through the dark. The poor lad looked shell-shocked when he entered the room to be met with a wall of noise from his assembled team mates. We even managed to get to our weary feet to give him a standing ovation, whistling and cheering as he staggered backwards from the noise a little!
Dave Waddington will play down his performance over the next few weeks but those of us who ran that day will confirm that his 11:25 for 61st place was an incredible achievement. Just short of 600 runners started that event, with 472 crossing the finish line in Coniston. None of them were “have a go” heroes, underprepared or unfit for the challenge as we often see in road marathons. To place 61st amongst such company is outstanding.
The Lakeland 50 will always be a uniquely challenging event thanks to the landscape and tough terrain. This year the weather conspired to make it tougher still with the baking heat of the early stages contrasting with the monsoon conditions in the darkness later on. Every single runner who battled across Cumbria truly earned their medals in 2013!