Monday, 3 August 2015

Ultra Tour of the Lake District

Hello plodders,

This week's post is dedicated to Julian, who became the first Plodder to compete in one of the Lake District's notorious ultra marathons. 

Julian at the start line

On Friday 24th July, the day had finally come when I was on my way to Coniston to take part in the Ultra Tour of the Lake District (UTLD). Entries had sold out in 20 minutes back in September so it had certainly been a long wait, but I had been up to the Lakes for a couple of recce trips and was now all set for the race itself. The UTLD is a circular route around the Lake District, starting and finishing in Coniston for the 100-mile competitors, whereas the 50-mile event would start from Dalemain and complete the second half of the 100 route with a finish in Coniston. I was ‘only’ doing the 50.
On arriving at race HQ at John Ruskin School in Coniston it was immediately apparent that this is a big event in the Ultra Running Calendar. With 1,000 competitors and the majority of them camping at the school, the playing field was starting to resemble a scene from a music festival. I pitched my tent near to the school and went through the formalities of registration in the afternoon. With race pack in hand it was time to relax and re-pack the bag in preparation for the race tomorrow. There was time to watch the 100 mile runners depart at 6pm, going through the centre of the village and past the Black Bull, before they headed off into the hills. Right now, I was quite glad that I was only doing the 50 and not having to race through the night like these guys were. Then it was back to the school for a bite to eat and a relaxing evening, before heading to the tent for an early night and a good sleep.
The sun was shining on Saturday and it was a beautiful morning to wake up to, with mountain views all around, reminding me of all the good things about camping. However, this had been my first night under canvas in nearly 20 years and I had not slept particularly well, so give me the home comforts of a nice bed anyday. An entertaining race briefing was held after breakfast, no last minute changes to the route, so it should all be straightforward. However, news was reaching us that some of the 100’s had already dropped out after a night on the fells! Oh dear! Then we were all on our way to the buses for the hour long transfer to Dalemain.
Unfortunately mine was the last bus to arrive at Dalemain, which meant the toilet queues were at their longest but when you’ve got to go……….. 11:30 came and we were gathering at the start line and soon on our way for the 4 mile loop around the Dalemain estate. It is a pretty low key start to the route to be honest across fields before we hit the footpaths along the river to Pooley Bridge. There was good support in Pooley Bridge which was a sign of things to come and we were soon on to the open fellside heading for the first Checkpoint at Howtown. I had set myself a target of around 10 and a half hours to complete the course and although this was an easy start to the route, I was conscious not to go off too quick, so just held back and enjoyed the views along Ullswater and looking across to the Helvellyn range. What a lovely day to be in the Lakes.
CP1 Howtown – Distance covered 11.2 miles (965ft ascent, 935ft descent)
Time: 1:36:54 (76th place)

Each Checkpoint on the route has a theme and in Howtown it was the wild west, so we were greeted by Cowboys and Injins eager to fill our water bottles up. I grabbed some banana flapjack and quickly headed on my way up Fusedale. This is the longest single climb on the route at c1,000 ft, but it never feels that bad. A fairly gentle start before the trail hits the steepest part, finally arriving at the highest point of the course at High Kop (2,200 ft). There were a few peat groughs to navigate here, reminiscent of Kinder Scout so I was feeling well at home, before a lovely grassy descent across to Low Cop and down to Haweswater. I was starting to overtake a number of runners from both the 50 and the 100 by now, exchanging a few words with each competitor. The trail along Haweswater, although not particularly hilly, is fairly rocky and technical in places. With fresh legs this was not a problem but the 100 runners were struggling across this terrain, having covered over 60 miles by now, so I was keen to offer a few words of encouragement as I passed them. This is a great trail to run along and I approached the next Checkpoint in good spirits, but I also knew what was coming next.
CP2 Mardale Head – Distance covered 20.6 miles (3,475ft ascent, 3,140ft descent)
Time: 3:30:49 (46th place)

The helpful volunteers from Delamere Spartans refilled my bottles and I mixed in some Energy powder into one of them. I had some flapjack bites already but was looking for something different to eat, so went for a Cheese & pickle sandwich which looked inviting, but what to drink? Coca Cola maybe? Now, normally I hate the fizzy sugary crap, but it just felt right and was pretty flat, so fairly palatable… much so that I helped myself to a second cup. Right, back to the route and the next challenge…Gatescarth Pass. Although not as much elevation as Fusedale, for me this is certainly tougher as it’s just a long slog straight up the track to the col. In my recce runs the col had been in cloud which at least meant you couldn’t see the top, but today with good clear visibility, I could see every last bit of the ever steepening trail. Hands on quads…left..right..left..right….finally I was cresting the top and starting the descent to the hamlet of Sadgill. What looks on the OS map as a nice trail down from the top of Gatescarth for 2 miles is actually a rather horrible rocky track, where it is difficult to gain any sort of momentum. Nearly half way round and other runners were now thin on the ground, so no one to follow. I was glad of the recce runs that I had done as I made my way up over the next climb and down into Kentmere. There are a choice of footpaths around here, but my recce runs meant that I was wasting no time thinking about the correct path. In fact, I had passed a couple of runners who were checking their maps and was able to advise them of the correct route as they followed me on the last paths into the village.
CP3 Kentmere – Distance covered 27.1 miles (5,152ft ascent, 5,072ft descent)
Time: 4:56:12 (38th place)

The Kentmere checkpoint is run by a local scout group and is famous for their smoothies. “Would I like a smoothie” says a young volunteer as I enter the Checkpoint, “probably” I relied, “but I’m better off just sticking to water”. He helpfully refilled my bottles as I helped myself to some jelly babies and a few crisps. There was pasta as well, which looked very tempting, but I only had time to grab a Chocolate Chip Cookie instead. Up into the village of Kentmere and I picked up the track for the Garburn Pass, walking where it was steep, but trying to run wherever I could. I knew now that I was under 10 hour pace and still going well, but didn’t want to blow up during the second half of the race. Over the top of the pass and I started the descent down to Troutback, with the views of Lake Windermere opening up. I think I was just starting to admire the view across to Langdale when suddenly…..trip...stumble…crash….aarrgghh!! I had fallen across the rocks and was now flat out on my front, my knee was throbbing, hands were sore and my legs were starting to cramp up. This was not a good place to be. I was also feeling a bit dazed as I lay there, first of all just trying to stretch my legs to get the cramp to disappear, before I could assess my wounds. Finally, doing my best ‘bambi on ice’ impression, I raised myself up and took a few deep breaths. Ok, a few cuts, bruises and a bit of blood, but nothing too bad I think. I could still bend my knee, even though it was now a nice shade of red and although my hand was pretty sore, I could still bend my fingers. A few slugs of water and I gingerly made my way down the rest of the descent. I tried cleaning my wounds a bit, but in the end just left them to dry up and I continued on my way. By the time I got to Troutbeck, I was back running again ok and thinking that it wasn’t far to Ambleside and then it was only 15 miles to go. Nearly there!
There were some people by the Troutbeck PO and I think I got an extra cheer in my bloodied state as I started my way along Robin Lane. Before long I had reached the ‘metropolis’ of Ambleside and was now running smoothly along the main road. Shoppers and tourists appeared oblivious to me as I made my way into town, but on approaching the White Lion, with the sun soaked drinkers outside, I heard a ripple of applause. Within seconds, everyone was clapping and cheering as I went past, providing me with an extra little boost to get to the Checkpoint at Ambleside Parish Centre.
CP4 Ambleside – Distance covered 34.4 miles (6,763ft ascent, 7,047ft descent)
Time: 6:31:29 (35th place)
Outside the Checkpoint I was greeted by a Clown, painted up with a big smile on his face and waving at me as he said “up the steps and turn left to the Checkpoint”………….STEPS!!! What do you mean UP the steps….I’m running a chuffin Ultra, I don’t need to be going up steps as well. Anyway, there was no alternative, so after a few painful steps I was inside the hall. OMG, there are Clowns everywhere!! Now luckily I do not suffer from Coulrophobia, but this was pretty un-settling. Maybe it was the shock from the fall kicking in, but this felt really strange (imagine what if must be like for the 100 runners with their sleep deprived hallucinations!). Ok, don’t make eye contact with them, just look at the food. I helped myself to another Cheese & Pickle sandwich and more Coke, then some crisps as I’ve got to keep the salt levels up I thought. Uh, ok, how do I swallow crisps when there’s no saliva in my mouth? Coke was the answer, but note to self ‘keep drinking lots of water’. A quick exit out of the hall, I practically flew down the steps, and into the park, no more Clowns please.
It was then up and around Loughrigg, before the descent to Skelwith Bridge and the ‘easy’ section along the Cumbria Way. On my recce runs, I had imagined that this would be some easy miles, skipping along at under 8 minute mile pace. However, with 38 miles in my legs, I could barely hobble along at 9:30 and was being caught by a few other runners. Don’t worry I said to myself, I’m still on for sub 10 hours, just keep going. I approached the Wainwright Inn, just past Elterwater, with lots of people all cheering and clapping as I approached. This is good I thought to myself, lots of encouragement, before they all started shouting “Come on Gino!” and “Go Gino!”. Hang on a minute, who the flip is Gino, I’m Julian!! A few seconds later Gino comes running past, obviously going a lot better than I am at that stage. (Gino Sassanelli ran a great race and was to finish over 10 minutes ahead of me) 
Running into Langdale would normally be a highlight of any trip to the Lakes with the late evening sunshine creating wonderful shadows across the valley and up to the Pikes. However this was no time to be admiring the views, my eyes were firmly focused on the ground and where each step was going, with the rocky ground proving difficult to run on at this stage. But I was still going well and just keeping inside 10 hour pace as I arrived at the next Checkpoint.
CP5 Chapel Stile – Distance covered 40 miles (7,531ft ascent, 7,746ft descent)
Time:  7:36:03 (34th place)

Approaching the Checkpoint, a concerned looking marshall said “Are you ok?” when noticing my blood stained arms and legs. “Yeah, I’m fine” I replied, trying to convince myself. “Would I like some stew?” they asked, mmmmmmm…well actually yes I would love to sit down and enjoy some stew whilst watching the sun go down over the hills, but I’ve only got 10 miles to go and must be on my way. Refilled water bottles, a few jelly babies, some crisps and I was back on my way again. I had been dreading the next section as I knew that there were some ladder stiles, which I’m not very good at going over when I get tired.  Although they appeared to be at least 10ft higher than I remembered, I slowly scrambled my way up and down each of them without cramping. That’s a good sign I thought, keep going, come on, just a couple more climbs to go. Up to the top of Side Pike Pass, descending down past Blea Tarn, I was now more determined than ever to keep the pace up and really try and go for a sub 10 hour time. There was a self checkpoint at Bleamoss and then a short road section, which I seemed quite comfortable on. I had a blister developing on my right foot, but nothing was going to stop me now pushing on and I was surprised at how re-energised I felt at this stage of the race. Although I had been overtaken by a 50 runner (James), I was now able to use him as a pacer on the track around to Tilberthwaite, the last Checkpoint. I was gradually losing ground to James, but was just able to keep him in my sights as I approached the last Checkpoint.
CP6 Tilberthwaite – Distance covered 46.5 miles (8,801ft ascent, 8,806ft descent)
Time: 9:02:55 (32nd place)

The Tilberthwaite Checkpoint is known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ due to the lovely ascent that was just about to start, only 3.5 miles from the finish but still such a long way. I grabbed some more water and a few jelly babies and was on my way, I couldn’t afford to stay at the Checkpoint long. The stairway to heaven name comes from the steps built into the side of the hill that you have to go up from the Checkpoint. These were tough and my legs were really struggling by now, but the first steps are not as bad as the technical climb that was to come. A very slow section of scrambling meant that I was now losing time on my 10 hour target and I was struggling to break out into any sort of running motion, even on the short sections of flat ground. I stopped, took on some water and a few jelly babies, then it was self-motivation time. Come on Julian, get yourself going, you’re so close!!! It doesn’t matter how much it hurts, just keep going. I was managing a sort of running shuffle as I made my way up the valley on the final climb, not much of a run really but I was moving forward. I was overtaken by another 50 runner and managed to exchange grunts as we both struggled to the top. Finally, I was cresting the top of the climb, but had just slipped outside 10 hour pace. However it was downhill from here and I had 25 minutes to cover the last 2 miles to the finish! ‘This is still on’ I said to myself as I started the technical rocky descent down towards the Coppermines. Knowing that there was no more climbing to come, I suddenly felt much better as I started skipping across the rocks down into the valley. Reaching the valley road, I checked my watch, 15 minutes to get to the finish line, run, run, run. The pain had subsided and I think the adrenaline was taking over as I picked up the pace into Coniston, overtaking a weary looking 100 runner as I passed the crowds outside the Black Bull. Up to the finish line, check the watch, YES!! Sub-10hours.
Finish Coniston – Distance covered 50 miles (9,729ft ascent, 10,069ft descent)
Time: 9:53:28 (33rd place)
Escorted into the main hall, with the announcement ’50 Finisher’ shouted out, generated a round of applause from everyone present which was a nice welcome. I went and collected my medal and t-shirt and took a seat. “How are you feeling” one of the Medics asked me, “I’m not too bad thanks” I replied………..10 minutes later, uh oh, I’m not feeling so good now, I need to lie down. I was shivering under a blanket for the best part of an hour before I could manage to sit up again and have a cup of tea and soon the pain went away and all the good feelings that you get when completing an Ultra were starting to set in. That wasn’t too bad I thought, think I’ll go for the 100 next year.