Cumbria Way Ultra 2018

After failing to complete the SDW 100 earlier this year, I believed my UTMB 2019 ambitions were dead in Devil’s Dyke. Upon checking out the website however, I realised that I could go for a 5/5/5 point option rather than my planned 6/5/4. The most appropriate available event was the Cumbria Way Ultra, by Pure Outdoors Events. At 73 miles, the run is on the long side, travelling from Ulverston to Carlisle via Coniston, Keswick and Caldbeck. Although not the hilliest route in the Lakes, it still had a healthy 10,000’ of ascent. With only a bit of Orienteering and a growing injury list since Gran Trail Courmayeur, as always, completion wasn’t assured.

The pre-race admin pack was comprehensive, including detailed route notes for the whole length. With registration at Ulverston on Friday night only and driving up from the South during the day, it was a night in the car for me, before a 0540 race brief and 0600 start. Some fun weather was forecast, and dark clouds delayed the dawn as we set off from the Gill, out on to the Cumbria Way.

I took a chance by leaving my head torch packed away, and with a lot of others lighting the way, we climbed out of Ulverston on a rocky single track. The fact that I had been unable to find a loo while heading to the start was weighing on me, though this was offset by a lovely sunrise over the southern Lakes. Once we were sufficiently off the beaten track, I took advantage of some convenient woods, then continued through the fields and past a spectacularly still lake reflecting the Coniston Gullies.  The technical section along the side of Coniston Water, with a lot of roots and leaves, was beginning to take its toll, and by the time I hit the aid station at the far side of the village, feet, ankles, knees and hips were stiffening up.

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Photo c/o Paul Mitchell

Mum drove in to the car park just as I was leaving the aid station, starting her first time crewing me for an ultra. I gave her a quick wave, and set off towards the Langdales. I knew coming in to the CP that I was probably going to be walking the rest of the way; I had no spring in my step at all. With over 50 miles to go, I was anticipating a long night. Mum’s first RV was at Elterwater, site of my 2004 knee injury. It arrived just in time for a swap out of flasks, good long pull of coconut water and a bag of crisps to get some salt in. Having her, and the crew for one of my fellow runners, appearing at random intervals was really great for the mental game, breaking up the long legs. A quick stop at the New Dungeon Ghyll (again, bringing back memories of 2nd place in the Blisco Dash quite a few years back), and it was onwards towards Stake Pass, at the head of Langdale. Unfortunately, a couple of folk missed the bright yellow way markers and headed up the steep climb towards Stickle Tarn instead of the relatively flat valley.

Having climbed the pass at the start of the 2017 OMM, it wasn’t too daunting a prospect, and while I didn’t exactly motor up it, I didn’t hang about either. The weather, already closing in as we came along Langdale, decided to forewarn us about the night to come as I dropped down towards Derwentwater. I stopped at the end of the lake for a wet wipe clean down and to empty my shoes. I spotted a big hole in my sock, but instead of changing it, I decided to crack on to Keswick – fool!

I could feel the insole of my trainer rubbing my foot for the next few miles, until hitting Keswick feed station. Mum very kindly nipped out to get me a Snickers, then again for a bottle of Fanta to help me burp some gunk out. It got dark as I made the long traverse round the East flank of Skiddaw, and it was fully dark as I dropped from Skiddaw House to the Caldew. I overtook a guy who was in a pretty bad way (mostly mind, partly body), who was looking for a way out. That was my prompt to stop for a sleep too. The biggest climb, up towards High Pike, was imminent. I took a very generous 15 minutes of shuteye before heading uphill. Following the beck, the next mile was absolutely gopping, with regular knee deep bogs. Coming on to the flat, I saw head torches off the right, where the Lingy Hut marshals were checking on us. I dug out my bag of haribo to say thanks, and cracked on. It was windy, wet and very wild, but coming over the summit, I could just about make out Caldbeck below.

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Photo c/o Paul Mitchell

Mum had been making friends at the Aid Station, so I was warmly welcomed. I grabbed another 10 minute power nap and some food and drink, then set off again, following the Caldew towards Carlisle. Although it should have ben straightforward and was very well marked, I still managed to let my tired brain take me off course a couple of times. It was a steady plod down to Dalston; the hall (and its facilities) arrived just in time, with my stomach starting to complain a little bit. I should have stopped to sleep again, but instead, cracked on, for the 5 miles in to the finish. Much of this was cycle path, and I should have been able to make good time. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me. With the rain still falling, all the frogs were out on the path, and their eyes were reflecting my head torch, which was really unnerving me. The single track in to Carlisle came in to view as it got light, and as a few runners came past me, I had neither the will nor the ability to speed up and stay with them. With over an hour in hand inside the cut-offs however, I was happy enough just to keep plodding.

Carlisle Castle finally came in to view; with a final climb over a footbridge, it was over the moat to the sound of a cow bell, and done. Mum and the organisation’s team were awesome throughout. UTMB points in the bag, but utterly broken in spirit and in feet. This race, more than any other, has shown me that I need to sort my sh1t out. Too heavy and too slow. No more long events booked in until April, so I’d best get on it…

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