Lakes in a Day

A week after my last Lakeland excursion I headed up to Cartmel for Open Adventure’s Lakes in a Day Ultra. Having seen James Thurlow’s C2C bike course, I expected a scenic but challenging day. I also expected some sadistic surprises worthy of the Marquis himself; I wasn’t disappointed.

 

The bottom line up front, this 48 (or 50+ with nav faff) mile and 4000 metre event was incredibly challenging, and absolutely stunning. As you would expect from Open Adventure and Team Thurlow, it was very well organised and supported (particularly for an inaugural race), and everyone involved seem to be fully read in to every aspect of the race. It is almost entirely self-navigated, with signs leading through a couple of the towns only. Navigational ability IS required, particularly if you’re going to be out after dark or in the cloud (a sped up video of the trackers should provide an entertaining look at how badly some folk went off route). You absolutely should give this race a try, but be prepared; if some of the best runners around are taking 10h30 to cover 50 miles then watch out – it’s going to hurt.

 

After the standard reduced night’s sleep beforehand, we climbed bleary-eyed on to the coach to the start at Caldbeck at the northern border of the Lake District National Park. The route would take us over some of the highest parts of the Lakes, heading over Blencathra (the mountain currently up for sale), the Helvellyn ridge and then along Windermere to the finish in Cartmel, on the southern extremity of the park.

 

(C) James Kirby/Lakes in a Day/Open Adventure

(C) James Kirby/Lakes in a Day/Open Adventure

An hour of fitful sleep on the coach did a world of good. As 0800 neared, I had a few minutes to catch up with some guys I’d run against in the past, before we headed up on to the Caldbeck Fells. I’d invited Matt, one of my triathlete friends, to enter this as his first ultra – fresh from Ironman Switzerland he was running along pretty comfortably and I started to worry that I’d be chasing him for the rest of the day. As we emerged on to the fell, I could see Alex from Team Lakesmultisport.com at the front of the pack, already over a km ahead. Mid-pack, we trogged up in to the cloud, with last week’s hip problem coming back with a vengeance as soon as we hit anything approaching an incline. Conversely it disappeared on the first gradual descent to be replaced by crippling stomach pains. An awesome start to what would be a very long day. A quick detour via a ditch well off the path and things were back on track.

 

The first steep descent brought us to the fast flowing River Caldew. Open Adventure, ingenious as ever, had come up with a novel way of crossing the river without drowning; an 8-inch wide bridge made from one of their finish gantries. To the waiting photographer’s chagrin and despite my wobbly-legged best efforts, I made it across in one piece. We finished off the last 3km of ‘open route choice’ with a steep and treacherously slippery ascent on to Blencathra. As iffy as the climb had felt, the descent was worse. In the thick fog, a group of 15 or so had dropped off the ridgeline path that drops towards Threlkeld. In addition to the loose rock and shale that was slipping from higher up, the gradient increased until we were scrambling down a waterfall. I gambled on which side of the ridge I’d dropped and stayed high to meet the path, but lost Matt in the process (not to mention shredding the left side of my body, hanging on for dear life in the heather and brambles. As a result I managed an extra 10 minutes stuffing my face in the Threlkeld aid station chatting to the chirpy and mega helpful crew there.

 

Matt appeared and refilled his bottles, then we began the daunting climb on to Clough Head. The 13km climb to the summit of Helvellyn was by far the lowest point of my day, with my hip and knee cramping constantly. With Matt having to wait repeatedly, he started getting cold and by the time we summited we were both pretty miserable. The jog down towards Grisedale Tarn perked me up a little and most of my aches and pains had gone away (apparently it now takes me 20 miles and a bag of jelly babies to warm up). I stretched my legs a little on the climb up Fairfield and, aside from narrowly avoiding being taken out by Dave Macfarlane’s tripod, I had a good climb. Matt however was struggling. Despite us having made the last big ascent, his head was down. Our descent to Ambleside was painfully slow, with groups passing us regularly. The pizza, crisps, coke and Lisa Thurlow fiddling with my tracker at the aid station however improved morale all round. Key though was the chance to change my shoes. Having worn my Speedcross 3s all morning on the fell, I changed in to dry socks and my Hoka Rapa Nuis for the “flat” second half. At 1900, after 11 hours moving, we set off for Cartmel.

 

A fast walk ate in to the 21 miles remaining, with the first stretch waymarked. As soon as the arrows stopped however, the map came out. While far from the most technical navigation was required on this stretch, when you’re bleary eyed and tired, it can be very easy to relax and follow the head torches in front – a dangerous gamble as we proved later on.

 

Although it was in fact several hours of walking through the dark, the 20 miles in to the finish seemed to fly by for me, though less so for others. A 30 minute wait at the last feed station for Matt (who I had accidentally dropped on a cheeky hill about 3 miles back while deep in conversation/stuck in to the map) and we were on the home stretch. After a minor nav faff (I attempted to navigate a maze of trees and scrub using The Force rather than the more traditional compass) and a more major one (following the torches of the guys in front in to a dead end) just 4 km from the finish, we found ourselves on the final 2km road stretch to the giant inflatable finish arch, which was lit up like a Christmas tree. A token jog across the line with Jeanne, my nav partner/recipient of my bad chat for the last 15 miles and we were greeted by Jameses Thurlow and Kirby to dib us in and take a quick photo, 19 and a half hours after starting.

 

Reflecting over a baked potato at 0330, although this was far from a great time, I hadn’t set out with a time goal in mind beyond my usual “less than double the winner’s time” (succeeded). With a hard 16-hour 50 miler a week ago, and some epic mountains and nav, it was never going to be fast. Completing alongside Matt was the main objective, and although he had a hellish day, I thoroughly enjoyed mine – a feeling that doesn’t normally emerge until at least a couple of days later. As is now expected from OA, the day was run superbly, with a smile (and a lot of food). Next year’s event will be in my diary as soon as it opens, though I’m dreading the inevitable step up from the Lakes…I’ve no doubt the sadist Thurlow has something planned.

Skyrunning UK: 3×3000

This weekend’s Skyrunning UK 3×3000 in Keswick started badly. Leaving Oxford with 2 hours in hand to get to registration by the cutoff turned in to arriving at Crow Park 45 minutes after it closed, having traveled via the M6 car park. Happily, the organisers’ flexibility and can-do outlook became evident, and a couple of (handsfree) phonecalls later I had arranged to check in ‘before 0430’ in the morning. A quick RV with my Dad just off the M6 to drop off all my camera kit before leaving my car for the day, and I was pulling in by Keswick theatre. Badly missing my VW Transporter, I settled in in the boot of my Golf for a few hours of kip before the start.

I should’ve known it was going to be a bad day when, after 4 hours of broken sleep, I stepped out of my car at 0345 in to an ankle deep puddle. This pretty much set the scene for the rest of the day. Of the 299 entrants, 110 saw the weather forecast and did not start. The rest of us set off in the dark towards Scafell Pike along the lakeside, to discover that the first 5 miles was ankle to knee-deep flowing water. Even by Northern standards, conditions were pretty gnarly (compounded by the first 2 hours being pitch black). On the plus side, concentrating on not drowning did a lot to help the first 10 miles fly by. I narrowly avoided falling in the raging torrent that used to be a beck a couple of times, but took an entertaining 2 feet in the air tumble down a slab of rock. Happily, my fat ass broke my fall so cracked onwards! 6 weeks off running due to work/achilles problems in the run up, plus some poor lifestyle choices (the little known Dominos diet) suggested that this event would always be about survival, but apparently even my balance had deserted me.

(C) Grand Day Out

(C) Grand Day Out

The organisers made the decision to miss out Scafell Pike due to the weather – given the conditions in the valley, the exposed nature of the mountain and the fact that the first runners would be there in the dark, this seemed a sensible call, and there weren’t too many grumbles about it. I for one wasn’t gutted to miss the extra climb! A damp(!) descent to Thirlmere via High Raise was pretty enjoyable aside from the occasional muddy faceplant, though 1 lady took a very rough knees and hands first crash on to the stone path. She sucked it up but was obviously suffering, and dropped at the next CP.

I pootled in to the CP at Wythburn Car Park to find James from Castleberg Outdoors manning the aid station. Unfortunately I was too busy chatting to him and tucking in to doritos and the awesome caramel slice to realize that one of my freshly filled soft flasks had fallen out of my vest. When I finally noticed 10 minutes up Helvellyn, I planned to crack on. I asked the friendly photographer coming down the track to give it to James if he found it, but he suggested that the next CP was a long way off. After a moment of reflection, I realised he was right and headed back to the CP. As I snaffled another chunk of caramel shortbread and aimed for the hill, it clicked that the friendly phot was Ian Corless, loquacious host of TalkUltra, Director of Skyrunning UK and recently named one of URP’s most influential figures in ultra. Good first impression Ben. You just looked daft in front of the man that brings Emelie Forsberg to our ears every fortnight. Oh well.

By the time I’d cleared the treeline, the mildly bruised buttock from my earlier fall had migrated in to a very stiff hip and knee which started complaining at the slightest incline. Helvellyn is not a slight incline. After slowing to 33 minutes a mile on the climb, I was greeted by a very cold marshal and photographer coping with 30mph winds on the already cold summit. Thinking how glad I’d be to be off the top and out of the wind, I set off down the ridge towards Clough Head. FYI, this is the longest bit of hill in the UK. Fact.

After the nigh on vertical descent from the CP and a steady walk along a disused railway line past the cool paragliding shop in Threlkeld, I finally made it to CP 5/8 at Latrigg. With a geriatric-style hip and expecting 30mph of wind, temperature hovering just around zero on the tops, and persistent rain, it would have been very easy to pack it in and go to the pub at this point. Especially as the sadistic course planner had brought us within 3km of the finish and given the option of a shortened course, the bugger. But, I was well ahead of the cutoffs and had all my toenails, so ate the aid station out of doritos, stuffed some more caramel slice down me and hobbled off around the bloody big mountain.

4 hours later, I made it back to CP5/8. The less said about those 12km the better, but if it hadn’t been for the risk of hypothermia from the sub-zero wind chill on the climb I think I’d have stayed up there and cried. I had to dig deep just to keep moving at a snail’s pace. Everything changed though when I made the summit. The sun was just setting, highlighting the clouds over the horizon – it was simply stunning. Finding the marshal cocooned in a blue binbag trying to find some shelter by the trig point was also oddly chuckle-provoking. The moon was already up, so after checking he was still alive, I set off trudging down towards Keswick without my headtorch on, enjoying the night. I stopped to look up at the stars, but nearly toppled over backwards, so I figured it was time to get on with it, head to the finish and then the chippy.

By the last CP, the guy behind me had caught up, so we descended together, the random chat taking much of the pain away. The signs through town were nice and clear, and after checking the chippy’s closing time, we crossed the finish line, 16 hours and 2 minutes after starting. To call this event epic doesn’t quite cover it. The lows of the weather, the falls and the ascent were balanced as ever by the other runners, the friendly marshals, the caramel shortbread at the aid stations, and the scenery when the cloud lifted/rain stopped/wind dropped. The organisation by High Terrain Events was first rate, and the marshals awesome as ever (even from inside a bin bag!). Best of all, the best caramel shortbread I’ve ever had (does anyone have the recipe?).

Another race spent towards the rear of the field, but each time I run I’m reminded that not competing for a place allows me more freedom to take in the astonishing scenery we have on our doorstep in conditions that most folk won’t experience. Summiting Skiddaw just as the sun set, I realised that while the fast blokes had finished 7 hours earlier and were no doubt gutted to miss out on such an awesome view while nice and warm in the pub ;)

Why ultra running and drinking beer are the same thing…

I just had a text conversation along the lines of:

Mate: “Did you book any more crazy runs while you were recovering (from a 50k) yesterday?”
Ben: “I already have a few booked in later in the year.”
M: “OMG!! I can understand ticking it off your list, but to keep doing them…different planet.”
B: “Why is it weird? Is it any different than you going out and getting shedded on a Friday night?”
M: “I don’t understand…”

running after the christmas party. any feeling of wellbeing is a temporary illusion.

running after the christmas party. any feeling of wellbeing is a temporary illusion.

Permit me to elaborate:

1. Your bank balance will take a hit. A big night out, including taxis, beer and takeaway can run to £100 easily. Entry fees, travel, accommodation and food can at least equal this.

2. You know you will enjoy yourself early on, but towards the end you’ll start to feel rough, lose your balance and possibly throw up.

3. You will consume an unknown but statistically significant number of calories (you never remember quite how much you’ve eaten in aid stations or kebab shops) during your run/binge.

4. You will make some awesome new friends on your journey around town/the course.

5. You will not remember their names, or exactly what they looked like.

6. You will have your photo taken at some point thinking you look amazing. You will in fact be a dribbling mess.

7. You will wake up in the morning feeling like crap, dehydrated with aching muscles.

8. With bruises that you can’t account for.

9. Your flatmate/significant other/parent will look disapprovingly at the state of you the next day and complain at the trail of sweaty and/or beer soaked clothing from the front door to your bed when you were too tired/smashed to put it in the washer.

9. As a result of all of the above, you will swear blind that you will never put yourself through something like that ever again.

10. But within a week you’re back at it, planning a big night out with the girls/lads or entering just one more race. A bit longer this time. After all, it wasn’t that bad, was it?

Perhaps because of the similarities, many folk like to have a go at both MUT and drinking, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I would say though…a beer tastes amazing after going for a run, but a run feels awful after a night on the beer.

Drink sensibly. Drink British.

Skyrunning UK – Peak Skyrace

After hearing Ian Corless getting excited about Skyrunning UK on TalkUltra, I decided to have a pop at it. Alas I missed the first round – the Welsh 3000s – due to work so went straight to round 2 instead. A 0400 drive up to Buxton led to a 0745 walk through the quiet town to the sports field where we were due to start. A field of less than 100 athletes frightened me somewhat – with a number of familiar hardcore UK names, plus some overseas pros involved, I had visions of getting sprinted off at the start and not seeing anyone all day. Worse, being timed out wasn’t out of the question – an 8-hour cutoff for this very hilly 30 miler was only barely achievable at my current poor levels of fitness.

a bad picture of beautiful hills

a bad picture of beautiful hills

A race brief, a little wait for some latecomers, and then we were off – a short lap of the field to reduce the bottleneck on the singletrack and we were on to the hill. So many of us all at once meant we were forced in to a very gentle pace, which frankly was welcome. Climbing through the woods and out on to the hill, we were greeted by the sound of a bekilted piper and the clack of Mick Kenyon’s Nikon capturing our breathless grimaces. At this point, less than 5 minutes in, I started to get quite severe pain in my shins. With stabbing pains on both the climb to and descent from Solomon’s Temple, I considered dropping straight away but a few stern words from the bloke running behind me sorted me out.

The long road climb out of Buxton turned in to boggy singletrack. This is where we first had trouble with the black and yellow minetape used to mark the course. Either some of it had been eaten by sheep, or it blended perfectly with the long grass we were running through, and suddenly 20 of us were standing in the middle of the moor with nowhere to go. I dug out my 1:25,000 for a sanity check and we ploughed on, picking up the marked route again half a mile further on.

At 5 miles, the pain in my legs eased just in time to attempt to breathe in and look like I was running for Mick’s camera again. After almost neglecting to clip my tally at the first control (race head was on, even if it’s a lot slower than it used to be), an undulating track led us in to CP2 and some more water, pepsi and crisps :D The day was deceptively hot, with a cooling wind masking the risk of dehydration, and I’d only gone through 1 flask in the first 10 miles so I stocked up and set off up the next rise. CP3 led us up on to the incredibly beautiful Roaches Ridge. I managed to keep a decent pace along the ridge while dodging climbers and walkers – everyone was cheerful and very supportive, stopping to let us past despite my less than terminal velocity at this point.

The ever-chirpy aid station guys at CP6 topped my flasks off and provided more crisps and Percy Pigs with an understated ‘only 3 hills to go’. These hills included Shining Tor and the ‘Peak District Matterhorn’, Shuttlingsloe. The Matterhorn is a triple whammy: a steep climb, including a near-scramble at the top, descending that same hill on tired legs, and the fact that you can see the hill coming for a couple of miles before you get to it! Sheltered from the wind on the climb, the true effect of the sun kicked in, to be replaced by 20 knots of wind coming over the ridge. A quick turn around the trig point and back down the steep sided ridge. My downhill skills failed me and I was down to a stagger – Kilian Jornet descended the whole of the real Matterhorn faster last year – but I made it in one piece. A little bit of route faff coming off the bottom of the descent led in to another long climb to the final manned CP at the Cat and Fiddle pub. The sun had finally taken its toll and this climb was a thirsty one – much pepsi, squash and cheerful conversation solved this problem (I wasn’t carrying any cash so a pint was out of the question) before the final trog up to Shining Tor. This being the second out and back hill section of the route, I passed all of the runners I’d been to-ing and fro-ing with all day. Pretty chuffed I was still in sight of some of them, this gave me the boost I needed to push on to the finish A gentle descent punished my shins a little more but my watch was showing less than 3 miles to the finish. One last long hot hill through the bracken and Buxton was in sight.

I was pretty comfortable descending back in to the town, overtaking the chap I’d climbed Shuttlingsloe with earlier, though I was pretty much out of willpower as I approached the finish for a handshake and a photo. While I’d posted a slow time, averaging barely above 4mph, 7h18 over 29.5 miles, I was happy that I’d run more of the flat than usual. However, there’s still plenty of work to do on the climbing side before back to back Lake District 80km runs in Oct. On the plus side, I got the feeding and chafe-management spot on, and kept all my toenails for the first time :D

Despite the black and yellow minetape issues (difficult to see in the woods but there was no red and white tape left in the shop – sh1t happens), this was a very well organised event and met and exceeded my expectations in terms of my first Skyrace. While the Peaks aren’t the Alps, the route choice was a good one, including both vicious hills and challenging underfoot conditions. The 8 hour cutoff, while generous in theory, may have over-estimated back of the pack pace on this hilly course, but it seems all the volunteers stayed in place to the last runner – the mark of an RD who cares about his runners! Aid stations were well-stocked, marshals were ever friendly and helpful, and with a slightly shorter gap between water supplies towards the back end, things would have been spot on. Best of all, my ‘large’ race t shirt is actually a large I can wear, instead of the standard 6-8 years size issued at a lot of races. I’ll definitely be back next year with, I suspect, a much bigger field! More details at http://www.skyrunninguk.com

South Downs Way 50

This was my first 50-mile event, and with a busy run-up I wasn’t confident of a good time. I had half an eye on 10 hours, with 12 hours as my real goal. After a fastish uphill start, I settled in to a comfortable pace along the ridge, taking things aid station by aid station. Struggling on the hills turned in to just struggling once I passed 30 miles. I finally made it in to Eastbourne as night (and the rain) started to fall, completing my lap of the track in a shade over 11 hours, pretty chuffed. An incredibly scenic route, chirpy marshals, happy competitors and excellent organization made for an outstanding day.

Image

Completing my 4th ultra, I realised a few things, life and running lessons:

 1. For me, an ultra isn’t a race. My fell running competitive streak is still inside me somewhere, and it emerged in force during the first half of the race. I need to stifle it in ultras, at least until I’m fit enough to give it free rein.

 2. It’s not all about weight. I was overtaken towards the end by a couple of guys carrying quite a bit more weight than me. This will no longer be an excuse for coming in at the back.

 3. Running hurts. For long stretches in the second half, I found myself walking when it didn’t hurt to run. I need to work on my mental toughness and motivation and push myself more.

 4. Poles could be useful. It may be because I’m just back from a couple of weeks of Nordic skiing, but I really found myself missing my poles on the steeper hills.

 5. I carry far too much food. I haven’t yet done a race where I’d eaten all my food by the finish. I had a ridiculous amount left at the end of SDW; I’m not sure why. I could be getting better at using fat, or it may be because of the impressive array on offer at the aid stations. Aside from the few times I’ve started bonking, I only need enough in me to stop the feeling of empty-stomachness.

 6. Dislocation of expectation still sucks. It’s astonishing how devastating it can be when you get to an aid station having wanted a coke for the last 11 miles, only to discover the faster runners have drunk the last bottle. (check the gif!)

 7. People are awesome. Every race I do, I meet more amazing people. Every one has a different story but, to a person, they are friendly, supportive, and despite having only just met you, they have your back if you need them.

Image

(Pictures by Centurion)

Brecon Winter 40

As I round a corner and start back up the dark hillside that marks the start of mile 36, my headtorch picks out a figure doubled over at the side of the track. “OK dude?” The response is a heave and the splatter of vomit. He wipes his face and displays a rictus grin before setting off running again. I’ll take that as a ‘don’t ask’.

Image

Mention Brecon and you would likely summons images of soldiers trudging up hillsides with enormous packs. The area is renowned for its toughness and challenging conditions. It is also the host to a 42-mile ultra marathon – one of the Welsh Ultra Running Series, the Brecon Winter 40.

The start, below Tal y Bont reservoir, is understated. A quick race brief, then we’re off up a track in to the dark. The route is well marked – no navigation is required today, though we all carry map and compass in case the visibility closes in – and the stream of faster runners leads us on. The first 12 miles are a mix of steep climbs, painful descents and flat stretches. By 15 miles I’m starting to feel the lack of training and my pace drops off – I cross a dam and cross a featureless moorland marked with Welsh flags. Not even halfway.

Image

I feel the impact of those first steep descents with every downward step now – toenails being driven repeatedly back in to nail beds. I refill my soft flasks with water at the CP and aim for a forestry track with my head firmly down. People are coming past me every couple of minutes now, which is making me feel worse. I eat on the move and swallow some painkillers for my feet, hoping they’ll work quickly. After walking a 5-mile climb, I run the last few metres downhill to the road and summon a smile (mostly because of the photographer I can see hiding behind the footbridge), but I know I’m close to withdrawing.

I hadn’t counted on the chirpy marshals’ infectious good humour as I stumble in however. Being close to Christmas, they’re all wearing comedy antlers, Santa hats and big grins. Hugely lifted by their banter, I grab a photo with them and, pride being at stake, set off running again up the hill.

I pass 2 runners tucking in to the Storey Arms Burger Van’s finest fare, but decide against partaking. The marshals’ enthusiasm has rubbed off and my food and brufen have finally kicked in, so I head up the Pen Y Fan path at a slightly faster pace. The wind over the ridge is vicious and the night is closing in as I descend off the shoulder of Corn Du. I catch a small group of guys descending to the CP and we set off along the road section at a steady jog. I stop to get my headtorch out, and soon find myself running alone through dark fields.

Image

I can see lights ahead that are helping me navigate, and I adopt a walk-run to catch them. I pass one of the burger van guys just as he’s bringing up his dinner. The last few miles are a seesaw traverse along the steep hillside. The 12-hour finish is almost within reach, and I push for it for no better reason than because. 3 of us run in the last 2 miles along the road to cross the line together.

Image

The majority of us start knowing that we won’t win; indeed, the winner will be home and showered several hours away before we cross the finish line. For most, it is a personal challenge, with a certain time, or just a finish as the target. Many, like myself, are taking this final opportunity to gain much needed points for that chance to earn a coveted Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc place for 2014.

A month later, I’m on exercise and hunting around a hillside for 3G signal to check the entry list on the UTMB website. I type in my name: Refused. My name hasn’t been one of the 2000 drawn from the hat this year. Of 363 British entries, 155 don’t have a place. My entry will be carried to next year, with double the chance of being drawn. I have an extra 12 months to train and get fitter. None of this is of any consolation. I am gutted. Next year.

This event is run by www.mightcontainnuts.co.uk, and is without doubt one of the most friendly and well-organised races I’ve run. The map and route were clear, the marshals were friendly and helpful, and the route was challenging but rewarding. Thanks MCN!

An Ongoing Bucket List

Xmas Run

As I spend more time delving in to the ever changing world of Ultra, I hear of new races and events that tickles my fancy. I’m currently adding events more quickly than I’m ticking them off, so very much a work in progress, but here goes!

Races

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (just because)

Fellsman Hike April 2013 (my local Ultra)

Sierre-Zinal (I saw this advertised 10+ years ago when I was in the area and have wanted to do it since)

Bob Graham (just because you have to do it at least once)

OMM October 2009/2010/2011(Classic!)

The Spine (Hardcore Winter)

Lakeland 50/100

South Downs Way 50/100

Ultra Trail South West

Trans Vulcania

Other Stuff

Organise an Ultra

Photograph an Ultra

Crew for another runner

Make a running film