Friday, 26 August 2016

Lakeland 100 - it messes with your head. Part 1. Coniston to Braithwaite.

Coniston to Seathwaite (7 miles, 7 miles total)

I couldn’t believe how many people had turned out to line the streets of Coniston as we set off. Whooping and cheering, videoing and high-fiving, it was incredible. I was trying to look out for my friends and managed to hear Keith and Caroline shout for me.  Round the first corner and there I found Susan and Dawn.  I was so pleased to see them there as they’d helped me with my last wee bit of race preparation whilst Paul had been unpacking our bags with the kids at the cottage.  They both thought I was a bit crazy attempting the 100 but had really encouraging in that final hour before the start. I thought Paul and the kids would be at the road junction but panicked when I couldn’t see them. A minute further up the road heading out of Coniston and there they were.  I stopped as I wanted to give them all a kiss and cuddle (which I did) but Annabel was shooing me along saying “mummy, don’t be last”.  She is very ambitious for her mummy.

I ran off, waving behind me.  If all went to plan I would see them again sometime in the middle of Saturday at Dalemain. Once out of sight and as the gradient increased I steadied myself into my hike up the track.  There were small groups of people at the side of the route cheering us on and just as I reached the miner’s bridge and a big bottle-neck of runners I got a shout of encouragement from Dave Troman which was lovely.

A few of the runners seemed frustrated about having to wait for a minute or so to get through the gate, but I was quite happy for the wee break, listening to all the chat and cheers.  There was a long way to go and a minute’s wait wasn’t going to make much difference.  Or so I thought at the time!  Through the gate, and this felt like we were starting the race proper. Out there on our own, away from the crowds and the applause and the giddiness was over and the hard work had to begin.

You can’t really choose your pace up the first section of the climb (unless you’re up the front!) so it’s a case of follow the ultra-train and try not to get your eye poked out by any poles while we were all so tightly packed.  I tried to avoid any major puddles or muddy bits, without going too out of my way.  I didn’t want to get wet feet this early in the race.  At one point a runner called Stephen (I think) went charging past everyone swinging his poles along and that was the first of many times our paths would cross. He, like many others, seemed a lot stronger than me on the climbs.  I thought I had started near the back of the field but I seem to manage to still have a steady stream of people passing me.  I didn’t mind within the context of the race, but it was a little frustrating in the context of my training as I had really worked on my hills.

The climb goes on for a really long time.  I think it’s about 5.5 miles before you finally reach the top.  That’s a really tough way to start any race, never mind one that is 105 miles long.  I’d forgotten how long it went on for.  But you go into the race knowing you have this series of big climbs throughout the race so there is a feeling of satisfaction knowing that you’d ticked the first one off.  The descent to Seathwaite is a great one.  If I was just out for a jolly I would have absolutely bombed it down there – proper eyeballs-out, freewheeling trail fun.  But, with my sensible head on I just took it steady trying to save my quads for the miles ahead.  I passed a few people, and a few passed me and there was still some nervous chatter between us.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was trying to ‘save’ my legs or perhaps it was just bad luck but before I had even reached the tarmac at the bottom of the hill my hip flexors were tightening up and my left one in particular felt rather uncomfortable, almost painful.  As we trotted down the road into Seathwaite I was in a group of maybe 6 or 7.  I got chatting to one man (whose name escapes me) and he had numerous 100 finishes and said he was bang on schedule so I felt happy that I had made a good enough start to the race.

We arrived at Seathwaite Village Hall at 1:54 race time.  That seemed ok.  In my head I think I probably hoped to be there quicker but it was all about running by feel and so I had to be happy with that. I grabbed a cup of blackcurrant squash and then set about refilling my bottle. This was the first of many times that I would get p*ssed off with this task.  I had a new race-pack, a Montane Jaws 10, which I adore.  I absolutely love it.  It’s so comfy and fits me perfectly.  It comes with soft flasks, which is my preference, but they have a narrow top.  If I was just drinking water or maybe using something like a Nuun tablet for my drinks, then this wouldn’t be an issue, but see trying to pour a sachet of Tailwind into one of those flasks, it is not fun!  Time consuming and messy, but I needed to just suck it up as I needed to make sure I stayed on top of my nutrition.  But honestly I could have really done without all that faffing.

Seathwaite to Eskdale (7 miles, 14 miles total)

So the checkpoint took a minute or two longer than planned, but once out of the door I put the frustration of the bottles to bed and focused on Leg 2. I headed along the road feeling comfortable and looking forward to the next few miles along to Grassguards. I heard someone shout behind me to tell me I, and the others close ahead were going the wrong way.  I knew we weren’t, as did the others, and I did worry for the runner(s) as he seemed to want to go heading off through some random field. As I glanced back a second time I was relieved to see he was reading his road book. Hopefully they made it round without any further issues.

This is a beautiful little valley and I was looking forward to running through the woods. We were trotting along and arrived at the first bridge, I followed the runner in front up onto the bridge but mustn’t have been entirely paying attention because, BAM!! I whacked my head off an unfortunately rather solid branch just to the side of the bridge. I swore under my breath thinking “are you freakin’ kidding me?! I’m only 7 miles into this thing!”  Angrily I raced on past the runner in front of me as he was walking on a flat part.  This was supposed to be the fun bit, and now I had a throbbing head.  This was not in the plan.  By the time I arrived at High Wallowbarrow Farm I had chilled out again.  This was where I first met chatty Pete. He came chuckling through the farm from the wrong direction saying he knew that wasn’t quite right and then followed me along through the gates before we headed up the hill and then along the track towards Grassguards. It was good to have someone jolly around after my earlier disagreement with a tree. We ran together on and off along this stretch along with a few others, regularly changing places with others. The one point where I was on my own on this stretch proved to be another minor disaster for my already throbbing head.  About half way along the track you go through 2 deer gates.  When I did my recent recce of this section a few weeks ago I didn’t open the gate wide enough and whacked my head off one of the upper bars of the gate.  You would have thought I would have remembered, especially it was only a few weeks beforehand, but clearly the memory had been knocked out of my head as I did the exact same thing again! What a muppet!  Now I had a bang on BOTH sides of my head. Fortunately I was alone at this point so I was free to swear as much as I wanted, and I did.

Grassguards soon arrived and there were two young lads waiting at the farm gate cheering everyone along. Impressive I thought considering the amount of midges around but they were probably used to them.
Grassguards I imagine is one of the least favourite parts for 100 runners. Only about 10 miles or so into the race and unless you are lucky (like I had been on my second recce run) this is where your feet will inevitably get wet. Previously I had been able to get as far as the final bog before the descent into Eskdale before my feet got wet, but this time I was barely a couple of hundred metres past the farm. We all tried to keep our feet as dry as possible but it was just so wet and muddy up and through the plantation.  Then it was so boggy on the far side that inevitability we all ended up just charging on through the bog as there was simply no way around it.

The soggy feet did not take away from the beauty of the sunset we were running towards as we began our descent off Harter Fell into the valley below.  It was absolutely stunning.  I was so impressed I actually took out my phone and took a photo.  My phone battery is a complete liability so I hadn’t wanted to take any photos so as to preserve the battery as long as possible but it really was a majestic view.

Had I by some miracle managed to get through the bog with dry feet, they would have been wet soon after.  There were stretches on the rocky and steep descent that were above ankle deep and it was unavoidable. The new fence has done much to improve the descent – something to hold onto! And with it being so wet and slippery we were glad of its presence.  Unfortunately a new fence can’t save us all and this was where I saw my first casualties of the race. One fellow runner took a nasty fall on a particularly slippery rock and another chap (not quite as unlucky) broke one of his poles. 

It was strange going down the hill with so many other runners around me as I was sure I was going to be going through this section all by myself given how long Leg One took me.  I was glad of the company though as I was having a real struggle with my head.  The descent again had been painful and even when we reached the valley floor and headed along the beautiful river path my left leg was radiating pain. My left hip, quad and glute were all throbbing and super tight, and I was really starting to doubt if I could keep this up for another 90 miles. I couldn’t help but let thoughts of the full 90 remaining miles creep into my head.  I had been trying really hard to just think one leg at a time, one mile at a time, but the mental crush of the hundred mile race held me in a vice-like grip.  These easy two miles along the river should have been joyful.  It’s so pretty along here and holds happy honeymoon memories for me but I was really struggling.

I knew Debs was going to be helping at the checkpoint in Boot and I had jokingly said to her in the lead up to the race that I would still be happy at Boot, and that I wouldn’t be crying until I got to Buttermere.  I had said it in jest and now I was worried that I might actually cry when I saw her.  On the half-mile stretch of road before the checkpoint I gave myself a real talking to. I couldn’t throw my toys out of the pram in front of Debs barely 14 miles into the race.  FFS she got hit by a car 50 miles into a 60 mile race and still broke the course record – Debs is an ultra-running ninja! I had managed to compose my head enough and appreciated the applause from the pubs before arriving at the Checkpoint 2 at Eskdale. More annoying faffing around with the Tailwind was followed by getting my buff and headtorch on.  I used my mandatory cup for the first time to get some water here and grabbed a couple of digestive biscuits before having a hug and some encouraging words from Debs. Phew, made it through without making an idiot of myself (I think).

Eskdale to Wasdale Head (5.4miles, 19.4 miles total)

This was one of the two sections I was dreading in the race. Not the climb out of Boot itself but once up on the moor I knew it was going to be tricky to navigate in the dark. Dusk had long since left and we were definitely into night time now.  I had left Boot with a line of 4 or 5 runners just in front of me.  This was just what I wanted as I didn’t want to be trying to work out my way across this moor alone, especially knowing how easy it is to miss the path to the right to get down to Burnmoor Tarn.  There was no moon but there were no clouds either.  Nobody seemed to want to put their head torches on.  It almost seemed like a competeition to see who could last the longest without switching it on.  Inevitably I was one of the first as my eyes are truly rubbish in the dark.  I still managed to stumble on a rocky patch but I was glad for the extra light.  Still most of the others around me didn’t turn theirs on so I kicked on.  I really wanted this section over with as I wasn’t happy so I pushed on ahead and ended up in front and then alone on the very section I hadn’t wanted to be alone on.  I felt like I needed to be proactive though: to do something positive to help with the negative frame of mind I had been in for too many miles. So I pushed hard across the moor desperately hoping I might catch a glimpse of a light somewhere ahead.

Nothing, I couldn’t believe my rotten luck. I must have been in complete blackness (other than my own light) for a good 10 minutes before I caught a glimpse of the tarn twinkling in the faint light of the night sky. And there, snaking along the right side of the tarn were lights!  Head torch lights! Oh what a relief, a sight to behold. I had no lights showing me where the turn in the path was but I was just glad to see where I needed to get to.  I turned slightly too early but managed to find my way to the vague path, came over a ridge in the path and found more lights just approaching the tarn.  Bonus!  I charged down into the night, reinvigorated and relieved. My left leg hated me every step of the way but I didn’t care at that point.  I was using the adrenaline whilst I had it.

As I trotted across the stepping stones I caught up with the runners head. A quick glance around and I saw the futility of trying to avoid the water and splashed on through the river. I quick glance back and I saw the head torches of the runners behind me winding back up the hill.  Out of the other side and on the final part of the moor crossing and Pete caught up with me again.  We laughed about me rocketing up across the moor and he chided me for being too busy chatting, and then he and a fellow runner decided it was time to pick up the pace again starting our descent into Wasdale.  I tried to keep up, but my left leg, the entire thing was screaming at me by this point.  It was a slower descent than I hoped and I was glad to reach the carpark. A random runner greeted me at the bridge so I felt I needed to push on along the flat road so forced my legs to keep moving over rather than stop for the walk they were crying out for. By the time I reached the bridge though I had to walk.  There just wasn’t the movement in my left leg.  It wasn’t far to the checkpoint now.  I just focused on getting my first cup of soup.  Blocking the pain from my mind I just kept thinking ‘soup and sandwich, soup and sandwich will make it all ok again.’ Of course I knew it wouldn’t fix my leg but my mind needed sustenance as much as my stomach and legs.  Here we are, one mile at a time again: back in the zone.  It was midnight and I dibbed in at Wasdale Head, checkpoint 3. 

More carnage: I wondered if we all looked equally terrible.  One girl was in tears, another man looked like he had no plans on leaving.  I knew I needed to get myself in and out as soon as possible or else I would be tempted to stay too long and possibly add to the crying girl numbers.  A man in a white boiler suit (or something?) sorted out my drinks for me whilst I got myself some soup and a cheese and pickle sandwich. Soup drunk, drinks packed and after a quick stretch I headed out towards the massive climb up to Blacksail Pass.  As I left I saw chatty Pete was still there.  I was pleased that I must have managed to be pretty efficient with my stop, but figured most of the runners there would soon catch me on the climb.

Wasdale Head to Buttermere (6.9 miles, 26.3 miles total)

I left the checkpoint glad that I was on the move again and feeling ready to give the climb my best shot.  I knew it was going to be a hell of a long slog up to Blacksail Pass but it was just going to be a case of head down and one foot in front of the other.  At least I could take comfort in the fact that there wouldn’t be any flat or descent to run on for a good while so at least that pain would subside for a while (silver linings!). Looking up I saw one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen during an ultra; a line of twinkling lights winding their way up the mountainside and towards the ink-blue night-sky and scattering of stars lighting our way into the night.  It was so beautiful.  I could have sat down there and then and watched those lights all night.  Actually I think I would have much preferred that.  An ultra high quickly followed by an ultra low.

Surprisingly only a handful of runners passed me on the climb, and this was in the first quarter mile and included chatty Pete.  That was the last I would see of him until Langdale.  The climb is not too bad for the first half mile but then it takes a severe turn upwards as you climb the rocky path with the sounds of the beck growing increasingly louder.  This was the second part of the race I had worried about.  Not the climb.  It’s a huge climb, massive really, but I had more than doubled my hill training this year so I could tackle these climbs. No it wasn’t the climb, but crossing the beck about half way up the climb.  It was a fairly hairy crossing when we did it at the official recce back in November, and it daylight and I had company. Not fun.  I had thought it wouldn’t be so bad come the summer months but the heavy rainfall in the couple of weeks before the race and reports of the water being really high I was particularly nervous. In the road-book it says “If water levels are high, follow stream bed up (NE) until safe to cross and regain main track).”  So the higher I climbed, the louder the beck roared and the more nervous I became.

The line of lights up the mountainside ahead and the lack of screams in the darkness assured me that it was safe to cross but my nerves were still fraught.  Finally the crossing came into sight and of course I had built up the drama in my head out of all proportion.  The water was pretty high but it was perfectly crossable with some careful foot placement.  I guess that’s what happens in the middle of the night when you’re alone, in the dark, with many miles ahead: everything becomes heightened.

Once across the beck I knew this was where the real work of the climb began.  The relief of crossing the beck didn’t last long. The more I climbed, the more the mountain seemed to stretch up above me.  The beautiful twinkling lights that I had been mesmerised earlier were now mocking me: taunting me with their distance and my inability to close in on them.  The week before the race a fellow ultra-runner had shared an article on the Lakeland 100/50 Facebook page about the stages of an ultra. During the last part of the climb up to Blacksail Pass I was definitely in the ‘This is bullsh*t’ stage. I was actually muttering that under my breath as I climbed.  I was seriously p*ssed off.  And I knew I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy the descent with my leg being the way it was.  I was in a serious funk and nothing was going to pull me out of it at this point. 

It was a painful and stupidly slow descent off Blacksail. It certainly felt like it, but I still managed to get caught at the back of a que of traffic at the tricky rocky scramble near the bottom.  I was past caring about having to wait to get down though.  Once down I stuck to the right and the noise of the stream and soon enough arrived at the bridge crossing.  The undulations past the youth hostel felt huge and I couldn’t run a single one of them.  I was beat. And my legs and my mind were trashed.  I could barely manage a jog along the fire road.  I tried to cheer myself up – the climb up to Scarth Gap is only half a mile, a piece of cake compared to Blacksail. And on the bright side, I never ever have to climb up to Blacksail ever again.  It was done, in the past.  I never have to see it again. Once over Scarth Gap I would have the lovely soft trail alongside Buttermere, such a joy to run along and the next checkpoint and more soup. I was telling myself all the right things and force out the negative and soon enough I reached the top of Scarth Gap and got a good line across the top to the left of all the wet and rocky bits. We had made a bit of a hash of this  in the dark on the recce run and had a total mare on the descent going dangerously off-course on the descent (proper scary, clinging to grass for my dear life, almost in tears type nightmare).  Luckily, multiple daylight recce runs meant that other than my legs being in agony the tricky rocky route down to the gap in the wall was no bother at all and I was glad to have no extra drama there.

I’m not used to being overtaken on a downhill (except by proper fell-runners) so I knew I was in a bad way when multiple runners came past me. I was so slow that it wasn’t surprising that they passed. I was wincing with each step.  My left quad and hip felt like they would explode with each jolt.  I wished for the flat along the side of the lake to hurry up so I could get some respite and hopefully start a bit of running but I couldn’t.  It was horrendous. I felt utterly helpless.  I couldn’t even run along one of the gentlest trails in the whole of the Lake District.  What hope was there that I could survive another 80 miles? My misery was compounded by being used as a mobile feast by the midgies due to my slow progress: easy pickings for them. The first thoughts of a DNF were lurking round the edges of my mind.

I love Buttermere. I have spent lots of fun times around here and along these gentle trails and throwing stones in the lake with my kids. Happy, carefree times so far from where I found myself now. The pain in my leg was starting to be mirrored in my right leg.  Not to the same extent but it was certainly starting to make itself known.  I walked dejectedly through the edge of the village and braced myself ready to face the checkpoint.  I made no attempt to smile for the video camera they could take me as they found me, as I wobbled my way up the steps to the big black bin of water. I spoke something fairly incoherent to the marshals but they must have understood what I was said as they helped with the joyful task of refilling my bottles with Tailwind.  I give so much credit to these amazing people.  It must be such a task to help all us broken runners passing through their little haven in the middle of the night. Once sorted with my fluids I headed inside for some soup and a dry piece of bread.  The soup was welcome, although the dry bread was hard to get down so I dried to eat it whilst having some water in my cup. Once it was down I grabbed a digestive biscuit and although I really wanted to have a seat and to stop and have a huge crying meltdown I forced myself back out into the night, alone once again.

Buttermere to Braithwaite (6.5 miles, 32.8 miles total)

I had never thought too much about the first part of this leg up through the woods, but now I was doing it in the dark it was unexpectedly scary; a narrow, sometimes slippery section of single track gradually climbing higher above the fast flowing beck somewhere down to the right. This leg was the only other part of the route that I had been worried about being alone on (after the section over Eskdale Moor). I felt a sense of relief as a pair of lights and voices approached behind me as I reached the end of the woods.  Thank goodness, I was so glad I would have company for this stretch as I had been super nervous about it. The relief was short lived.  Those lads were going at some rate and I could barely keep up for more than 100 meters or so, and soon they were gone.  No lights in front and no lights behind.  I was alone on the very worst section to be alone on.  I had tried to run flat out to keep up with the lads but my legs were screaming at me. Despite keeping on top of my fuel I felt completely drained.  I could barely run along the flat and I was so worried about trying to keep on top of the navigation on this section that my whole body wanted to give up and turn around and go back to the checkpoint.  It was then I realised I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to find my way back.  I felt so disorientated. I couldn’t use my garmin to work out how far I had gone as it was playing up on me. The key to navigating this section was based on sticking exactly to the road book, measuring how far you were going and looking for those cairns and sheep scoops.  How many had I seen?  How many becks had I crossed?  Was Third Beck stills second or was it fourth?  I had taken a mental note during my many recces of this section about the irony of Third Beck not being third and now I couldn’t remember which number it was and couldn’t remember how many I’d already crossed.  Where was the steep indistinct climb up from the beck searching for the well-worn path?  I had no idea if I’d been on it or if it was still to come.  I couldn’t make sense of anything.  There were no lights around me.  Had I gone horribly off course? I couldn’t tell.  I thought I was being careful but I was so confused. Suddenly I found myself slipping my way along a narrow path going sharply upwards towards a beck crossing ( I hoped) when I was sure it shouldn’t have been this steep, and why was the beck so far below me to my right?  I don’t remember going along beside a drop this high on my recce runs. Where the hell was I and where was everyone else?  I was in full on panic mode. I felt dizzy.  The ground around me looked so alien and I felt out of control.  How could I have got it so horribly wrong when I thought I had been so careful? My race was over.  I was done.  I was scared for my safety, dizzy and in more pain than I have endured in a race.  Continuing was a fool’s errand.  I just needed to get myself out of the situation and whatever it took, get myself to the checkpoint at Braithwaite. I was done with the Lake District.  I wanted out. I hated it.  I hated the race. And I hated myself for being foolish enough to think this had been a good idea.

I have never felt so low and so utterly filled with despair and misery during a race.  This was a low beyond anything I could have anticipated. Everything felt against me and I didn’t have the strength to continue and I just bring myself to care anymore.  Why had I put myself through this misery and pain?  I was never going to get a fast time or be ‘noticed’ by anyone when I finished.  It was just my own self-indulgence that had led me to this point.  I wasn’t an elite runner with people watching my every move.  Nobody would care if I pulled out.  Nobody would notice.  I was just an also-ran with ideas above my station.  It was time for a reality check. It was time to call it a day.  Get out of the race and get out of ultras.  Who was I kidding anyway?

Who was I kidding?  It didn’t matter, what mattered was moving forward and getting myself slowly to somewhere that looked familiar.  I looked behind and lights were heading my way.  If I was off the route then they were too.  At least we’d be off the route together.  We weren’t. Across the next beck and there was the familiar scree slope. Finally I knew where I was and realised I had been on the right route all along.  Whilst I was relieved to have the runners pass me and have someone to follow up the final ridiculously steep climb up to Sail Pass my head and my heart were gone.  My legs and now my feet were in so much pain and I just couldn’t bear to spend another minute out on the route. 

My recent recce runs paid off in that I had no trouble finding my way across Sail Pass and the descent from the top. But suddenly was head-torch started flashing and then soon after faded to half-light. I couldn’t believe it.  I must have switched in onto the wrong setting when I left Buttermere. Momentarily distracted I mis-stepped and stumbled down the rocky path twisting my left ankle. “F*ck!!!!” I screamed. And then I got up and forced myself back down the path.  I just wanted to get off the trail.  I hobbled along the rocky trail and down onto the flatter section where, in a panic I thought I better get my spare head-torch out of my pack. In that moment, stopped at the side of the trail, I couldn’t hold back anymore and the tears came. Tears of excruciating pain, tears of misery and disappointment, tears of relief at knowing it was almost over, tears of shame.  I was beaten and now I had to phone Paul (at 5:something in the morning) and tell him I was done.

Luckily I didn’t need to use my spare head-torch as dawn was breaking. By the time I reached Barrow Door (where many go wrong in the dark) it was light enough for me to easily find my route over and start what should have been a wonderful descent into Braithwaite.  It’s a lovely gentle and soft open expanse and if you had the legs you could fly down here like a child pretending to be an aeroplane. It’s probably the easiest and most enjoyable descent in the country but I could barely jog down and by the time I was halfway down I had built up the courage for that phone call.

Paul was awake, as I expected. Very early mornings are familiar things in the Hart house.  Surprisingly the kids were still asleep, fortuitously perhaps. It was a difficult and emotional conversation that lasted the remaining way into Braithewaite. In short, I had been instructed to get myself into Braithwaite, take on lots to eat, have a rest and think hard about what I really wanted to do. Ask myself if I could really stand being in Coniston for the next week having not finished the race? As the kids were still asleep Paul would wait for them to wake and then meet me at Blencathra where we could then head back to the holiday cottage.  Whatever happened I knew going into the checkpoint that I had to get myself into a frame of mind that would get me another 8.5 miles along the route

I felt so sad arriving at the village hall. I had nothing left to give. I faffed around a bit:  I couldn’t decide what to eat and found myself incapable of even pouring some sauce onto a bowl of pasta.  A checkpoint marshal took pity on me and helped me out and gave me a cup of tea, and then a second.  I ate the pasta and some meat pie and then some crisps. I must have been there about 25 minutes or half an hour and got to the point where I couldn’t just sit there anymore. It was time to face the race again.  But just for one last section, and then it would all be over.

1 comment:

IanB said...

Great story so far, looking forward to the next instalment. Think you are very courageous for doing it in the first place, huge respect!
Ian Booth, chard, Somerset