Featured

Lakeland 100 – July 2021

The Summers Day, Mary Oliver

…. Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Fairly recently a friend who lives many miles away but shares many of my aspirations and joys shared the above poem. The last four lines of it, see above, definitely strikes a chord with me.

Last year I lost my beloved mum to Motor Neurone disease and my seemingly robust partner received a cancer diagnosis for something I had never heard of. Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer that is treated, but not extinguished. My mum was not old, I don’t consider 74 old. She was a lively, active retiree enjoying many trips and adventures with my dad, and despite the diagnosis she maintained mental strength and good humour as she lost first her speech and slowly her ability to eat. Not bowing to the disease, she insisted on making her annual, solo, pilgrimage from Salisbury to Forres by Train to stay with us and was making her legendary cakes until the end. My partner, has been challenging the various chemos and a stem cell transplant with a mission to finish climbing all the Munros, and a ‘f*ck-it List’ that seems to be increasing by the day. With all this in mind, my daily moans and groans about niggles and aches seemed feeble, although there IS something therapeutic about the occasional good whine! Far too long since I pushed myself out of my comfort zone; menopausal anxiety had been getting the better of me and it was time to fight back. I’ve done long hard races in the past and it’s the challenge of overcoming the mind vs the body that I especially enjoy.  But the terrain needs to be harsh, beautiful, and if it’s unknown then that is a bonus, part of the adventure!

Winter came with its usual hours of darkness, and this year snow. A time for hibernating but my ‘tribe’ made it all bearable. Fab friends who picked me up when I was struggling mentally, as many  of us have these months past. Miles of trail running with my friend Liz, who’d previously declared she didn’t really enjoy running all that much! Confined to Moray, we sought adventure amongst the Forests of Darnaway and Culbin, new paths each week. These were the longest, most consistent miles I had run for a few years; lots of laughter, chat and a reassuring fitness base.

Spring arrived, the snow didn’t go but restrictions loosened and finally we could escape Moray, the mountains were not just calling, they were shouting.  It was all about the Munros, Liz had only a few left to nail and the four on the Northern shores of Loch Mullardoch gave us a great opening to the season. What a day, a remote glen and magnificent scenery.  With Jon’s peak bagging efforts too, despite having no previous desire to chase these summits, days not full of teen-herding and work were spent up and down hills, housework chores were bottom of the pile and races were starting up again. All the fun of opening your emails to discover races you had forgotten to cancel in 2020 were being rescheduled! 

Bagging the Mullardoch Munros

The Cairngorm Ultra was one of these.  64km starting from Mar Lodge. Also entered was my friend Jeni, too long since we had adventured together; she’s a very awesome bundle of endurance energy but equally happy to go with the flow, just as well because I didn’t feel remotely prepared for 64km. The day brought blue skies and wall to wall sunshine in a stunning setting, but with the mercury creeping into the mid-20s it was a shock. Not helped by the fact I’d failed to pack any electrolytes when I had chucked everything in the car the night before. Straight water really didn’t cut it, I sweated it all straight out again, felt nauseous and couldn’t eat or pee (both rare!). By 50km I was fading but Jeni skipped along with myself and her friend Emma in her wake.  I whimpered over the line, delighted I had actually made it but frustrated by how badly I’d managed the race.  The positive was that my legs recovered really quickly.

More hot days in the hills did little to build confidence, struggling with energy despite the fitness. On a particularly hard day, climbing Ben Cruachan with Jon, I declared there was absolutely no point in me attempting Lakeland when I was dragging myself up the hill like this … until I opened the latest race bulletin. The one reminding us it was all about getting out there, not the pace, walk if necessary, lets celebrate being out there … ha!!  The swithering continued, Covid cases were up and down and I fretted about the risk of infection, and bringing it home to my nearest and dearest.  And now it was race week … encouragement and support from my team of wise women, including my daughter pointing out I had nothing to lose by trying had me doing a last minute dash sourcing random essentials.

With a race that starts at 6pm on the Friday night, if you are anywhere but at the sharp end of the race, you are pretty much guaranteed to be out for two nights on the trail, it’s definitely not easy for us tail-end-charlies!  There is a 40 hour cut-off, so if you make it through the various checkpoint cut-offs you have until 10am on Sunday morning to complete.  Due to various logistics, I wasn’t able to leave Forres on the Moray Firth until Friday, so 5.30am saw me heading across the moors to the A9, in my calamity van, arriving in Coniston some eight hours later in a very sweaty mess!!

Scotland has spent a fair bit of time in more restrictive Covid ruling than England, this was the first weekend that restrictions started to ease  and the cramped atmosphere in the registration tent felt too overwhelming for me with it’s complex and busy queuing system.  It took a while to get processed, but eventually I emerged from the oven of a marquee with a tracker on my race pack and my number in my hand.  My friend Jodi was chilling under a tree in the shade, I paused to chat but then it was mission on, I needed to pack, hydrate and fuel in the next couple of hours before race start. Time was short!

Finally sorted but I missed out on the race briefing due to lack of space in the hall, I didn’t fancy getting packed into there anyway, so hoped I wasn’t missing anything important! Finally, time to head to the race start.  I was feeling pretty stressed out but in the field I found Jeni and Sharon.  Familiar faces, hugs and a general talking too got me calmed down and excitement replaced the anxiety. 

It was warm, even the wind was warm, but rain and wind, being wet and cold before you even start? I’ve done that, it’s unpleasant, so time to suck it up!  Time to race … winding our way out of Coniston, running where possible, the sheer volume of runners meant that there were inevitable bottlenecks.  Frustrating but nothing like those of the TdS in 2016, where the first three to four hours were spent in queues and bottlenecks; that race was even warmer, temperatures had reached the mid-30s and a large portion of the field dropped out. During this race I was to find many parallels with the TdS, and drew strength and inspiration from that finish, trying not to listen to the voices reminding me that was five years ago, five years younger, faster, less creaky… don’t you just love those voices in your head!! 

Friday Night is Party Night – check out those colours, with matching nail polish too!

I set off with Jodi, an ultra buddy I met at the Montane Cheviot Goat race in December 2018, we fell into step early in the race, slipped into easy chat and that was that, discussions of the no holds barred variety, not unusual in these races. Picking up where we left off,  we agreed to run our own race, own pace, own way, and enjoy the miles that we shared.  The magic of that first night which is hard to describe really was all the better being shared. It would be a glaring omission not to mention that Jodi had put considerable time, effort (and petrol) into recce-ing various sections of the route.  I, on the other hand, had done none of this. Living in NE Scotland means I often haven’t checked out a race terrain unless it’s in Scotland, and I personally enjoy the adventure to be had by the route unfolding from my map; but knowing where you are going allows the miles to pass more freely, and Jodi was a fantastic tour guide – I highly recommend!  I had at least checked out the route on various maps and committed to memory points where navigation might be more challenging. You are provided with a 1:40000 Harveys map which has the route on it, along with the cut-offs at checkpoints, also a ‘race book’ which is like a route card. That was invaluable too.

Checkpoints were anything between 5 and 10 miles apart and varied across the entire route, there were a couple of notably long stretches near the end of the race and those were mentally tough as it took longer and longer to cover the distance.  

Finally through the large bottleneck at Miners Bridge and onto Walna Scar road towards CP1, Seathwaite.  I hadn’t been feeling the trail running love, my guts felt awful, a combination of heat, eating so close to the race start and then trying to move my legs.  Thankfully some large clumps of grass provided an opportunity for shelter and relief!! With little needed at the first checkpoint we moved through quickly, soft-flasks filled and grabbing biscuits.  After a summer of struggling with dehydration I finally remembered that Nuun tablets worked well for me, throughout the race I had one flask with Nuun tabs and one with water. This worked perfectly.

Just a typical Lakeland trail …

CP2 was at Boot, and we reached there with little bother. We paused on route to take out head torches in preparation for the night ahead as it was tricky to tell when dusk would fall and it’s easier to faff with a torch BEFORE it gets dark!

As the sun set, the moon rose, a hazy red that added to the magic of the night. Writing it down I can’t do justice to how it felt, in fine company, up on the fells. Looking back over our shoulders the horizon was dotted with head torches as runners moved across the fel, it’s a sight that makes the hairs rise on your arm as you realise the enormity of the challenge you are doing. More than once we commented on how lucky we were to be up there, in that moment, a photograph definitely wouldn’t have done it justice. Past the tarn, with runners coming from all directions, then a descent to Wasdale, CP3. At almost midnight it was strange to think the previous evening I was splashing in the sea with my daughter! 

First night Sunset

The route to CP4 at Buttermere took us up and over the Blacksail Pass. A cheeky climb, and an even cheekier descent! Rock strewn boulder fields disguised as tracks, with vision reduced to the limits of your torch beam. My poles came out on this climb, and stayed out for the rest of the race, they can be annoying but with nearly 7000m of ascent there was no obvious point where it was worth putting them away and they are so light they are barely noticeable. I love my poles!! Past Black Sail Hut and it’s sensibly snoozing residents, below Haystacks and Innominate Tarn where once, many years ago, I wild camped with a friend and either sheep or foxes stole our food from the tent porch. We found it floating, destroyed in puddles the following morning, realising the strange rustling we had heard was not the wind!  4 checkpoints down, 10 to go!  Don’t count the miles, just the checkpoints.  

At each checkpoint I’d been gathering food to munch on the go – mostly a cheese or peanut butter & jam sandwich and a few biscuits, drinking steadily and topping up with the odd bar from my pack. Chia seed mini bars were working with the odd handful of dolly mixtures or a shot block for an extra boost.

The route to checkpoint 5 at Braithwaite was not kind.  Innocuous on paper, the reality was a lengthy traverse across the fells, with streams crossing our path. Traversing is ankle grinding and each stream needed a clamber in and out again.  But, just as I was asking Jodie when it got light in the Lakes, the sky started to lighten, an eerie cast to the chilly dawn gloom. Looking over my shoulder on the trail off the fells it wouldn’t have seemed strange if Gandalf had appeared out of the morning mist!

Saturday Dawns

Breakfast time at Braithwaite held the promise of hot food but the pasta was on the chewy side so I went for peanut butter and jam sandwiches in the interest of preserving my digestion! With flasks refilled we headed out into the now fully awake sunshine. Trotting down the road we heard our names called, Angela Wilson appeared, off out on a run herself, she had come to give Jodi and I a very welcome cheer, much needed after a night of no sleep.

Checkpoint 6 was a virtual checkpoint. Where previously an SI unit needed to be dibbed, now you just had to pass up close so your GPS trace could be detected. We were now on the Cumbrian Way, a decent track underfoot.  Somewhere along here we agreed to go our separate ways. It was clear from early on that Jodi had the edge for overall pace – I’ll blame it on her youth 🙂  She’s a strong climber and I only really gained on the descents, something I’ve become increasingly fairy-like on in recent years and am determined to work on.  But the solo miles felt good in the sunshine, views opening out, in my happy place; so good I forgot to check the route card and went sailing past the turning to descend to CP7 at the Blencathra centre!  Thankfully I hadn’t travelled far when I realised and another runner also called me back.

At the bottom of Blease Fell I spotted a figure heading up the track. There was something familiar and I realised it was my friend Liz, on holiday in the Lakes and out to meet me before heading out for a run in the hills herself.  It was just brilliant to see her and I got quite emotional, it also seemed so right after all the hours of training we shared through the long winter.  We ran down the track together and she off-loaded a couple of Eccles cakes on me before heading on her way. That gave me a boost for quite a few miles.  

Race Face is on!

Whilst in the checkpoint, getting my water bottles filled up and making up a strange concocted sandwich of toast and crisps – apparently they had run out of butter :-O – I spotted Jodie sitting on a chair. I was surprised to see her but she said the heat had taken it out of her and she had some pretty nasty chafing. I don’t think I fully took on board how down she was and one of my biggest regrets was not pulling her out the door with me and subjecting her to a few more miles of my endless random chat – she may well be very thankful for this though!!!

As I left I did a head to toe check-in with my body, legs ticking over fine. The ankle niggles that I constantly whine about were niggling but not getting any worse and the road book was firmly clamped in my hand. The Coach Road felt like it went on forever. I covered a few miles with a lass I’d passed earlier, that helped; she pulled away but I was to see her again several times over before the race was done.  Finally, down into Dockray and another handful of biscuits to keep the fuel going.

The sun was now very intense, and felt no cooler than yesterday, and my lifted spirits were starting to wilt in the heat! The Aira Force trails were busy with tourists, for a while I ran with a guy exchanging tales of mutual races we’d done, he moved on and I was alone again. This stretch was very tough mentally for me. Despite the glorious views there was no respite from the sun, it’s easy to get sucked down into dark holes even when you know that just as quickly it can flip again and you feel better again. The narrow trail was hemmed in by bracken on either side and the tourists were very accommodating of the overheated, deeply unclean runners staggering past!! I was so glad I had a baseball cap, shade for my face. 

Finally off the endless trail onto the road, still feeling low but I could feel my drop-bag and ‘half way’ calling me. Time for some very loud singing to jolt me upwards, thankfully few were near enough to hear as runners were pretty strung out here; it might explain the bloody awful screeching from the bull in the field I trundled past. I sang anything I knew words to, I made up my own lines, not always polite, and I repetitively belted out anything that matched the timing of my tip-tapping poles on the tar – it was tuneless and bad but it worked 🙂

Heading into the checkpoint I spotted Jodie’s husband and dog. I have never met them in person but feel I know them through Jodie’s Instagram feed that is full of tales about those she holds most dear.  He confirmed my fears, that the heat had done for her, and the chaffing. She was not alone, a fair few had dropped before here, that heat was tough. She will be back in 2022 to nail it – definitely!

So this was ‘Checkpoint Have a Bit of a Faff’! I arrived and immediately felt overwhelmed by decision-making, frittering precious minutes trying to focus. I know better and should have put the note in my drop bag that I had planned to, bullet point instructions for a weary mind. Eventually I got on with it, tea, followed by stew and then cake delivered by the awesome checkpoint staff. I should have taken seconds, after I set off it became clear I was STILL hungry but my brain was definitely struggling here! My big toe was showing signs of the nail coming away from it’s bed where I’d kicked a rock earlier in the day and there was a blister on a smaller toe too but my feet were in pretty good shape for the miles.  Clean socks, clean t-shirt, clean underwear and cleaned teeth along with the food and I was feeling like a new woman 🙂  

Into my bag went a resupply of snacks, another spare layer – anticipating that I might actually feel cold at some point, a spare torch and my battery pack so I could begin charging my original torch for the night ahead.  I’ve never used a battery pack mid-race before but I charged my phone and watch as well, while on the move, useful practice for longer multi-day races and personal challenges I’d like to do. The torch collection probably sounds overkill, but one of my biggest worries on races like this is that a torch will fail in some way and I’m left in darkness or reliant on others, something I saw happening several times out in the race.  It definitely wasn’t terrain I wanted to traverse using a phone torch!  So for the extra weight I felt secure. Finally I was ready to go and tackle the remaining 46 miles …

I set off with the lass I had met on the coach road and a few others. By now we were moving in loose groups that changed little throughout the rest of the race. A longish section took us along more of the Ullswater Way to Howtown. I don’t have much recollection of it but I do know I was loving wearing my comfy Hoka Challengers. The Inov8 Terrafly Ultra G had served me brilliantly for the first half but I just needed a bit more cushioning for my old lady feet!  The Challengers are not technical shoes at all, but by now my pace was even less competitive and I just wanted to move well on anything that was non-technical.  

The climb up Fusedale was better than I expected, long, but with fantastic views when you lifted your head, another stunning evening up on the fells. Slow and steady, plod, plod, plod; I kept moving with just a couple of stops, placed in the middle of a strung out group heading up and over High Kop.  The air was cool, a light breeze chilling a body low on sleep and solid fuel, I paused to add a layer as I was starting to shiver. We arrived above Haweswater in a bit of a muddled bundle and a tired grumbly debate followed about the route, being on your feet for 24hrs and staying awake was taking its toll on all of us. I set off at a speedy power hike/jog, it was narrow and overgrown, but with another sunset upon us there was a sense of urgency to cover ground quickly before darkness arrived – again.  The end of the lake  was always frustratingly just out of reach, but eventually, 8.30pm and the motivating clang of a cowbell called you to the checkpoint. It was a midge/mosquito/clegg hell, not a place to hang around but the dodgy toenail needed some more tape, and my body needed soup and tea and biscuits!

With head torches on I left here with Janice.  She had been motoring along behind me, mutterings about trying to hang on and be pulled along by me. There was no pulling required, she was powering along brilliantly and we agreed to head on together while it worked.  Up Gatesgarth, so glad of my poles!  Uniquely Lakeland – when the map suggests it’s a track it’s a boulder strewn trail of hell. But if I thought the ascent was bad, the descent was hell. On and on, and now dark – perhaps a blessing!  Whilst my challengers did not feel remotely nimble here, my feet were blissfully cushioned, which at 70+ miles was a definite bonus. We picked our way along twists and turns on the trail, descending into the valley, we passed a few here, and hauled our less than mobile limbs over stiles in dry stone walls. Tottering at the top of a stile when your limbs are not listening to your brain is hysterically funny at 11pm on a Saturday night … who needs drugs or alcohol when you can have delirium fuelled by tiredness …

The clock was ticking on the 40 hour time limit, and cut-offs still to be met. If you are not at the pointy end of the race then these present a real challenge and don’t become more generous as the race progresses. It’s an act of determination to fight back against them. Janice was familiar with these cut-offs so we had an added motivation to push hard.  I had no idea if my legs were capable of speed but it was all an experiment jolted me out of tiredness for a while!

Checkpoint 11 at Kentmere came and went, no hanging around. Up the Garburn Pass, more boulders to play football with – my poor poor toe. Always the same toe!!!??? And then the road, thank God! A nice flat bit of flat tarmac had become a fantasy.  We hit Ambleside running, as many lay sleeping in their beds we were actually running – in my head it felt like 8 minute miling, I seriously doubt it was.  Some utterly lovely members of the checkpoint guided us through the twists and turns of Ambleside, ensuring silence for the slumbering souls of Ambleside, and providing awesome motivational chat. 

Essential Saturday night accessories at Ambleside – Head torch and Nav4 Mug!

Here were familiar faces, hugs, banter and fruit!! After a diet of sandwiches, biscuits, cake and soup, the simple watermelon was a gift!  I still left the checkpoint with a mug of tea in one hand and biscuits in the other – moving with a mug of tea is a real skill 🙂  

From checkpoint 12 to 13 it all got a little strange.  The adrenaline drained away, still trying to push hard, our tired brains were struggling. I had been reading aloud the road book to back up Janice’s memory from previous races, with the odd check on the OS maps app on my phone. This had worked really well, but now we were in a larger group and nobody really knew the way. I was finding it pretty stressful trying to keep up the pace and navigate plus I managed to drop my road book somewhere on the way to Loughrigg Tarn.  The skies were lightening which should have lifted my spirits, but instead I but felt tearful and frustrated. I announced I couldn’t run and read the route/check the map; time to do my own thing for a bit and get my head together.  

The jog along beside the river into Elterwater was beautiful in the early dawn.  Then pulled out the map to double-check the route into Chapel Stile and I could have been reading Latin upside down! My tired brain could  make no sense as I’d not been thumbing the map as I went.  I was on hands and knees with the map open on the ground, trying to figure it out. It was ridiculously simple of course, but I was so tired. I was very grateful to see a 50-mile racer appear through the gate who took pity and confirmed I WAS going the right way! I jogged into checkpoint 13 feeling very spaced out, tired and cold. 5.30am.  I spotted Janice, so we grabbed soup and biscuits, put more layers on and moved out together.

This was probably my lowest point of the race, not bad really given how long we had been on our feet. I’d only succumbed to vague hallucinations in the night going over some of the passes, and had about 20 minutes of wandering along wanting to go to sleep. But now I felt tired, sick and sore; the finish was close but not close enough.  I forced down the food I had in my nose bag with extra doses of dolly mixtures. It all tasted horrible, and my teeth felt disgusting after hours of random foods, but anything to get the brain functioning better and keep me moving.  One foot in front of the other. Past the campsite, how they slept through the din of the herd of sheep baaaaahing very loudly I don’t know. In my exhausted state the baaaahing was driving me nuts!  We trudged on in silence but as we turned towards Blea Tarn the fuel started to kick in and I felt more human.  It was warming up – again, the extra layers came off and my legs picked up. Janice was still struggling a little so we moved at our own pace. I had the map out and had been vaguely following the route so my nav was fine, plus we were now passing L50 runners too. It was daylight and sociable!

Another virtual checkpoint to tag on the road at Castle Howe and then a warm climb to Checkpoint 14 at Holme Fell. So hot, and I wanted all this done!  Another low was looming and I was despairing of actually making the cut-off in time. I could see from the map what lay ahead. Why take the easy way when you can go the hard way!!! But first, huge plates of fruit on offer – so good I grabbed several large handfuls! So nowl the final section lay ahead. I had 1.5 hours, but as the lovely lady at the checkpoint said, it’s a horrible 3 miles!  She was not wrong.

A scrabbling clamber up into the mines high above an obvious path. Then Zig Zags down on bruised feet and battered quads that have now covered many miles and much height. I was determined to banish some of the ultra shuffle and actually run! Uplifting words of encouragement followed me all the way, from women I passed on the 50-miler to families out looking for their own runners.  It was more than enough to lift the waning spirits of this battered runner and my heart beat a bit faster. I was actually going to do this, it would be tight but if I just kept going it would happen!. A brief pause to reassure another runner we were going the right way and finally I was on the road into Coniston with marshals telling me to just keep going, just down ‘there’. ‘But where is there?’ I keep running, WHERE is there? ‘Where am I going?’ I ask again, frustrated I can’t actually see the finish, fearing I’ll end up missing a turning, it’s so close to the cut-off. I’ve been lost in the final miles of a race with a cut off looming before, it wasn’t completely random ranting! But they didn’t seem phased and eventually the turn came into sight and I was running up to the finish banner. There were tears. The finishing team took me in hand, calmly guiding me to the medal and t-shirt collection, a finish photo – where I was reassured my Buff was straight!! 🙂 Strange concerns after a 105 mile race!!

Dazed, confused and finished!

After over 39 hours of almost continual movement, you stop. No longer one foot in front of the other. What to do?  I had my drop bag and needed to lie down. My van was down the road somewhere but in my exhausted state I had no idea where and had to ask a marshall for directions!

The camping field had emptied out a bit and my van was thankfully not as hot as I expected. Somehow I managed to get the kettle on, change out of my skanky clothes and just lie there, in a dazed doze wondering what to do next.  I needed decent food, but I couldn’t face another walk back to the event field so I scraped around for whatever dregs there were in the van not destroyed by the heat.

Eventually a WhatsApp chat with a friend from the awesome online running group mentioned at the start, known over 15 years, but not actually met 🙂 provides a much-needed lifeline.  Michelle was meant to be racing the 50 mile event but injury prevented her. On holiday in the Lakes anyway, she very kindly offered up her driveway for my van for the night.  I got a shower, a beer, food and someone to do the whole race download thing with, total game-changer to the post-run return to reality and the eight hour trip back up to Scotland could wait until the morning.

Looking back now, I’m still very proud of myself and so grateful to have a body that lets me do these things.  I knew I wouldn’t be fast, I hadn’t put that kind of training in.  I was averaging about 25-30 miles a week, occasionally a bit more, but I was getting a fair bit of climb in. I don’t know if I’ve got the potential for more speed, it’s not important. I’m still learning how to train this age-changing body to keep it in one piece for many more years. But I’ve still got endurance and bloody-mindedness and I’ve lots of experience which counts for a lot more than I’ve given myself the benefit of appreciating.  The main thing that stood out to me was that I mostly had an absolute ball out there, which has to be a pretty good reason for doing these things.  Away from home, mum hat and all the other hats we wear firmly on the shelf, just being utterly me. 

Advertisement

Salomon Ring of Steall Sky Race – 22 September 2019

 

Finally race weekend was here, and the race planets aligned, with an unusually favourable weather forecast and a fairly low niggle level. In 2017 I entered but didn’t make the start, I was injured; in 2018 I entered the big sister race, the Glencoe Skyline, made the start line, riddled by self-inflicted anxiety as I lined up with all the ‘proper’ Sky runners at kit check, knowing I’d be racing the cut-offs. As it was, the weather was interesting and we ended up on the bad weather course, cutting the distance by half and removing one of the scrambles. We still had Curved Ridge to contend with and the weather ensured it was a challenging if achievable day out. That year, my other half skipped around the Ring of Steall in just shy of 5 hrs, a great run, raving about the route and I knew I wanted to have a go myself.

Roll forward to September 2019, and I’ve navigated seven weeks of school summer holidays without totally losing the plot (my kids may disagree). At my request, Jon had given me the basics of a training plan back in the Spring. I tried to follow the essence of it (it wasn’t complicated, and it made complete sense), I really did try, but I am sure he read with bemusement my weekly Strava input and wondered if I’d paid any attention to what he’d suggested! But ready or not, race day was here.

It was stunning driving down Loch Ness on Friday evening, although driving with autumn sun in your eyes is never the easiest of tasks! In a bid to keep things easy and cheap, we would be living in the Adventure Van for the weekend. It’s cosy and basic, not really a van at all (Nissan Elgrand) but does the job and I love the freedom it gives to run away when I can. Quick stop in Morrisons at Fort William for final food supplies, and because everyone needs a stack of three pink Lama snack pots 🙂

We pull up into the big parking area behind the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven and bump carefully around to locate a good spot to park for the weekend. I’ve been super-organised and actually pre-cooked dinner. I realised that the last couple of mountain training days I’ve done I’ve been under-fuelled, what with the dash to actually make a breakout I’ve run off with not enough food to keep me going, and knew I needed to sort this out. Curry, followed by cookies, and encouraged by Jon, a large G&T, did the job perfectly!

At 9.30pm the registration queues are gone and I whizz through the process: collect number, photo taken with race number, strange ankle tracker collected and GPS tracker attached to run pack. Also collect ‘goodie’ bag – am looking forward to getting my race beanie.

img_20190920_215332767
Ankle Dibber

A 10.00 am race start in the morning feels a luxury as we settle down for the night and set a 7.00am breakfast alarm. It’s pretty quiet apart from the guy in the car next to us who seems to set his car alarm off every time he turns over in his sleep!! Saturday dawn’s bright and sunny and with the kettle on for the first coffee of the day, I am trying desperately to stay in my sleeping bag, I’m really not a morning person. Breakfast part 1 is consumed and I’m feeling quite relaxed compared to the state I got myself into last year, but soon nervous anticipation starts to build.

Breakfast part 2 is consumed and it’s time to head to the start pen leaving Jon to sort his own kit. He’s planning to mountain bike through while I run, meeting me at the first WHW crossing point, and then at Polldubh. On the way to the pen I come across Neil, who I ran with in March at the Lakes Mountain 42. Through the simple kit check (show waterproof trousers and jacket and survival blanket) at the gate and then we are into the pen. I’ve got strict instructions from Jon to not do my usual, which is to get busy chatting and then fail to notice I’m right at the back where I will inevitably stay. It’s difficult to tell, I’m a vertically challenged and there are lots of people packed around me, but I think we are somewhere in the middle, good enough!

The bagpipes are going (Lewis who blasted us competitors awake on both mornings of the Scottish Mountain Marathon is back to motivate us all), then it’s a countdown and off we go. A pause, a shuffle and we are out onto the road and able to spread out a bit before we hit the path leading up to the WHW. I’m moving steadily, not especially fast but I try and wiggle past a few people here.

The path both narrows and climbs, with boulders, tree roots and numerous stream crossings. People seem strangely keen to keep feet both dry and clean – ha! Not for long! The temperature is bearable but it’s steadily heating up, not a cloud in the sky. Jog a bit, hike a bit, grind to a random stop, leap round someone because the path is a bit wider, and so it continues. As we approach the WHW crossing I spot Jon and a few other spectators, plus the marshalls to see us across. Up we go, past a lady sitting in the sun playing her fiddle and singing to us, past cow bell ringers, up, up, up. The path rapidly becomes narrow, rocky, and very hard to pass anyone, but there is space on the grass if you are keen. Sometimes I make the effort, sometimes I save my energy, keeping steady. I reccied this stretch with Jon back in 2017 and had blissfully forgotten how long it went on for … we leave the narrow, boulder strewn path behind for something far more mucky – deep, wet bog … no dry shoes here! Eventually we hit the final pull onto the first ridge, leading up to Sgorr an Lubhair at 1001m. It’s all looking pretty magnificent and it’s only going to get better.

Navigation is easy, even without the obvious trail of people, Sky Races are marked by little red flags, fluttering in the breeze or flattened into the ground by the hundreds of passing feet. Quick pause to tighten shoelaces, pass the summit and then a quick deviation for a pee – I really need to concentrate on the next bit and a full bladder isn’t going to help that!! I’ve lost a few places but we are soon onto The Devils Ridge, a simple scramble. The path avoids the most exposed scrambles should you choose, but even so, there is an impressive drop either side. That’s what freaks most people I think. The wind is gently gusting, enough to swoop up and fluster you a bit, I seem to spend a fair amount of time with my skort being blown up round my armpits, pity whoever is stuck behind me on the scrambles! Now I’m hitting the parts of the race that bring me real joy – rock that you get to hold onto and lever off – scrambles. I may be a fairy on the descents and not the strongest at actually running uphill, but on rock I come alive. My climbing days seem far away but I feel confident on this and manage to pass a few people. Most are gracious, letting faster runners past, but you get the odd ego that can’t cope … I skip past one of those and ignore the ‘I wouldn’t do that’ … I would, and did!

devils_ridge_south_0924
North Devils Ridge

Descend to the col and then it’s a sharp climb onto Sgurr a’ Mhaim, 1099m. Another summit bagged and the knowledge that it’s one hell of a descent between us and the checkpoint at Polldhub. Dropping just shy of 1000m over about 2km. It’s both brutal and exhilarating in the sunshine, with the wind at your back, swirling around. Starting off on quartz white scree, we are flailing, flying and skipping our way down, you can mostly pick your line; but soon we are on a more defined path and it becomes more hair-raising! I’m determined to stay relaxed descending the relentless small switchbacks, the wind gives more momentum than you need. Someone behind loses their footing and you hope they won’t take you out too. I willingly let faster runners pass me, just trying to keep steadily moving downwards, muttering ‘just relax, just breathe’ to myself, trying to preserve my quads, knowing what lies ahead. I think this paid off as I reach the bottom buzzing but not broken. After the scree and switchbacks it’s a bit of a shock to hit the bog and mud again, but I pick my way across joyfully knowing I’ve reached the nominal half(ish – not quite)way point. I’m running along the path searching out for Jon, and hoping he’s not late!! But he’s there, grinning in the sunshine and I refill my bottles with water/nuun tab, grab more gels and set off munching on a banana, past the checkpoint and then a sharp turn onto the riverside path.

70876080_10220447997331667_2524286411687854080_o
approaching mid-way

Flat riverside path, it feels great and some of it’s in the shade, but as we cross the bridge and hit the road to Glen Nevis, I feel weary, my legs are not too keen on the continuous running thing! I walk/run the next bit, and we are soon signed off the main drag, onto a thankless boggy path that does a rising traverse above the valley below. You know you descend eventually, it did little to lift the spirits and I know I was not alone here! Hot and sticky, I feel rubbish!! A welcome head dunk in a waterfall restores me and I slither down to the main track and river crossing near the Steall Falls.

Wading the river felt lush on overheated muddy feet, you couldn’t help but laugh, boosted by views up and down the valley and the blue blue sky. The banana started to kick in and I lobbed another Mountain Fuel Jelly down for good measure, laughed with the photographer, exchanged a hello with Gary T and headed onwards to The Next Big Climb – An Gearanach at 982m, all that straight up from the valley bottom. It’s a bit epic, but folk were happy to let you pass if you needed and the chat was friendly. I got into a good groove with a couple of others and the chat got us all up that climb better than going solo. This climb is seriously deceptive. You zig-zag, cross the river and, longer zig zags across to a shoulder, where you could easily assume it was nearly in the bag. No, another steep pull and then, finally the top. 360 degree views were incredible but no time to pause. Straight onto a traverse and scramble that I actually think is way more entertaining than the infamous Devils Traverse. Again, I managed to overtake a few along here, totally loving it, such fun. As we dropped down to the col we could already hear the sound of bagpipes again swirling in the wind, across from the summit of Stob Coire a’ Chairn. It made the hairs on your arms rise, definitely an emotional moment. You could be fooled for thinking this was the last climb, but the mass of Am Bodach could be spotted across the ridge.

A green grassy slope led down from the summit and felt lush in comparison to all the rocks and I couldn’t resist almost skipping down here. A hill walker yelled encouragement, asking me how I looked so fresh … he clearly wasn’t standing close enough to see the reality!! The grass ended and then it was time to grit my teeth and nail Am Bodach. By now the sun was slipping down the horizon and I was climbing in the shadows. The wind kicked up a notch, swirling, blowing gritty dust into your eyes. My dehydrated and calorie deficit body felt cold but I just wanted to nail this last sting in the tail. Clambering up these last rocky holds, into the sunshine and onto the summit – Am Bodach, 1032m. Time to pull it all together for the last push, I start to shovel in what remaining fuel I’ve got left and hope it’s enough. I usually carry a complete larder with me but had been persuaded that in the interest of moving a bit faster I didn’t need three course meals!

am_bodach_1120
Am Bodach

Off the top, running as best I can, the trail is OK to start, rocky and dry, but all too soon we are onto the boggy trail we covered on the way up this morning. The bog got swampier but I really didn’t care and just ploughed through, making sure I stayed within the taped areas. On the way up Am Bodach I passed a guy using poles, these are an excellent tool if you use them well, this guy was doing a great job of waving them in the faces of anyone unfortunate enough to be behind him which gave me a huge motivation to pass him, sadly he got in front of me again on the descent, but I managed to pass him again and didn’t see him again – kept my eyeballs in tact!!

descent_to_west_highland_way_1466
Graceful river crossing

The trail felt never-ending until eventually the WHW came into sight again, but I’d forgotten that the trail heads uphill initially – brutal. I’ve definitely foreshortened all of this in my head and at each turn in the path I’m willing my eyes to spot the road through the trees but it just isn’t appearing. I run with a guy who took a fall early in the race for a while, but leave him behind, I want that finish – now! My hopes of 6.30 are dashed but I’m still determined to beat 6.45 and I pass a few more people willing the road to appear. Finally, my feet hit the tarmac, but cruelly it’s uphill again and my legs are really done. I summon a shuffle/run and my face probably says it all, I am spent. The wonderful marshalls assure me that ‘just around the corner’ I will see the flags marking the run in to the finish so I dig in and run, it feels like I’m doing 8mm but the reality is unlikely and finally, it’s here. The finish. 6 hours 38 minutes. I want to cry, it’s been a while since a race finish has made me want to cry. But I’m just so delighted and overwhelmed, I finished and it was awesome!!

70670561_10220448000051735_5716711976189558784_o
Race face finish

The Lakes Sky Ultra – 15 July 2017

56km and 4500m of climbing and descending; soaring ridges, airy traverses, technical downhill and hill running lines for route choice. Sounded fun! The entries for the race are vetted for experience on this particular kind of fun, especially moving on technical rocky scrambles, being comfortable in the mountains and the ability to make sensible decisions in the weather and scenarios common in mountainous terrain.

19990157_1963084793905135_383092528837749108_n

The race caught my eye late last summer, upon returning from the TdS – part of the infamous UTMB race series in Chamonix in August. Although much of the airy/adrenaline busting elements of that race were passed in the dark, memories from a life on rock, pre-kids, were ignited. The entries came up for this race, and as we of that nature all do, I filled out the entry, listing my experience, and pressed ‘enter’ before I dwelled on the reality too much! ‘Accepted’ came back far too quickly … oh dear, what have I done? I then injured myself rather spectacularly – a stress fracture in my fibula – meaning I didn’t revisit running until the Spring of this year. I had a lot of work to do.

A chance (and rather speedy) run with the all-round fabulous Jeni Rees-Jenkins, in Culbin, at Easter confirmed we’d both entered this crazy race, and were equally apprehensive. We raced round the Lochalsh Dirty Thirty together in June, pushing the pace, but having top banter all the way too. A great way for me to get a PB on this event I’d done twice before as running with Jeni ensured I spent little time photo taking! We agreed: make the start line of the Lakes race and kick each other up the backside to get through it.

The end of June and I reached the start of the school summer holidays. At two weeks before the race my legs were well rested (probably a bit too rested); and Thursday night found me child free, packing ready for a Friday departure. All week I had been closely watching the MWIS weather forecast, hoping it would change from the predicted poor visibility, wind and drizzle. No luck, we would be in for a damp and breezy race. Kit packing was not hard, it was all usual stuff I carry out on my own wee adventures and I only had one pair of shoes that I thought might do the job, so instead of my usual ‘take every pair and decide on the day’ I chucked in the Salomon Speedtraks and hoped for the best! The trusty old Salomon 12-set, looking rather worn and mud stained, was packed with primaloft top (spare warm layer), OMM Kamleika Smock and Alpkit stretchy waterproof trousers (waterproofs with taped seams and hood on the jacket), warm hat, torch, first aid kit, survival bag (not a blanket), whistle, compass, map, spare food (to be carried for emergencies) and gloves. More of a faff was what to take to eat and what to put in my drop bag. I just dumped everything I could think of in my ‘spares’ bag. There were a lot of ‘spares’ in the bag!

Race HQ was in Ambleside at the university campus. All competitors needed register, have kit checked and attend a compulsory race briefing. We made Ambleside in good time and I passed kit check, collected race number, an SI dibber – to be used to register me at checkpoints and finally have a GPS tracker attached to my bag. This had a dual purpose of safety on the hill if we got into trouble, but mostly to track that we were on the route and not taking short-cuts or lost. The race did not require us to navigate in theory, it was a marked route, small red flags or perhaps tape on rocks; but we still needed to have map and compass or GPS in case of problems.

19904998_1964603383753276_401198700882860348_n

The safety briefing consisted of showing us YouTube snippets of super speedy mountain goats from previous races, with focus on the more challenging aspects of the race – the scrambles of Swirral Edge (descent), Striding Edge (ascent), Eagle Crag (descent), St Sundays Crag (ascent/traverse of). They took us through safety during the race – ropes on trickier sections, positions of marshals on the hill, emphasised use of Sound Mountain Judgement (SMJ) and a discussion on cut-offs and how they would be adhered to whatever, regardless of weather.

19400041_1964168913796723_7449288938030444595_n

On the subject of cut-offs; I’d done my own calculation of the route from the comfort of my kitchen table and realised after looking at the different sections, height gain vs distance vs ability, it would be tight for me. There was a cut-off at Patterdale (approximately half way) and another one at the Kirkstone Pass, just before the last climb. Runners not making the cut-offs would be pulled. I did NOT want to be pulled!!

It was time to head for a bit of kit faffing and rest if not sleep. I faffed a lot with my drop bag – one bag allowed for Patterdale – settled on putting in my poles for the less technical climbs in the second half and a load of spare clothing in case I was frozen and wet. I also added random foodstuffs – the checkpoints on the race were mostly providing water or energy drink, with small snacks being provided at Patterdale and Kirkstone, so the reality was a mostly self-sufficient race, I like that, you know where you stand. Random foodstuffs included a bag of boiled/fried/salt & peppered potatoes along with a resupply of gels and bars.

Race start was 7am, staying just down the road meant I didn’t need to get up ridiculously early, but I still didn’t want the 5.45 alarm call. Just enough time to dress, get a mug of tea down me and eat my muesli with a brief stop to clean teeth on the way out. Jon dropped me off just in time to gather for the start. It was warm but there was already a hint of drizzle in the air. A countdown and at just after 7am, to the sound of cow bells we ran out of the campus and up the road, heading for the first big climb of the day …

19961311_1964622717084676_8057805860582465192_n

Up to Fairfield, via a checkpoint on Dove Crag, just over 700m of climbing from the off. It felt hard and my stomach was not enjoying the early breakfast and the climb, with my right calf tightening ominously. Despite the warm humid air, as we climbed the wind started to pick up and the drizzle intensified; no view whatsoever and runners were slowly disappearing into the mist. Eventually waterproofs were going on, everyone doing the contortion to remove jacket from pack without losing stride! A lovely guy offered to hold my pack while I contorted; this was a theme of the race, certainly in the pack further back, helping each other out, checking on each other. Made me smile. I had managed to pull ligaments in my fingers earlier in the week, moving a fridge!! I’d taped them up in anticipation of the scrambles, but as I climbed the fingers were swelling against the taping, so that was ripped off and in the end, the fingers were the least of my problems.

300m down to Grizedale Hause on narrow zig-zags; the red flags were sometimes close together sometimes not and at one point myself, Jeni and another guy paused to check our map after seeing no flag for a while, the compass confirmed all was well. Click, another CP, climb up to Dollywaggon Pike, followed by Nethermost Pike.

20121152_1967498696797078_8017588031180263071_o

The marshals were swathed in full winter kit, some in bivi bags to stay warm and see us through without succumbing to hypothermia.

From Helvellyn it’s down onto Swirral Edge. Directions from the marshal ensured we hit the ridge at the right point, the mist was so thick you could see very little. This was a down climb, always trickier than up, aided by a lovely cross wind and the persistent rain. You could say the lack of visibility was a bonus. The down scrambling was fine, but so slippery, the first of many ‘dancing on ice’ moments. I am too used to the grippy granite of the Cairngorms which somehow grips even when wet, not so the Lakeland rock.

20121252_1967479240132357_4749777299214960249_o
Dove Crag in the murk

Our little group made it down to Catstye Cam and dibbed in before hanging left off the ridge down to Kepple Cove. Not the standard route at all if you are doing this circuit. But, of course, we needed a down so we could climb back up again!!

At the CP at the bottom I scooped Mountain Fuel energy drink out of the large plastic tub into my cup. We all had to carry cups, rather than have them provided. Kinder to the environment and I often just scoop water out of the streams on the hill anyway. After this  was a brief runnable section of grassy narrow trail, and then of course a slog back up to Hole in the Wall and the next scramble.

Striding Edge, looked menacing in the mist, but I was looking forward to it. The flags were placed on the top of the ridge, we really did have to stay on route and avoid the ‘granny paths’ to the sides, nothing easy about this race. Over the tops of the little towers, slithering and balancing but I was in a happy place, singing to myself as I balanced my along. It’s a longer stretch than Swirral Edge but soon we hit a rough path and picked our way back up onto Nethermost pike.

20024003_1964857160394565_2878623370820262046_o

Another brief runnable stretch before the descent of Eagle Crag. I’d not been on here but read a few race reports of others and the marshal gave us a few words of advice on tackling it. There were three of us girls on this stretch. To start, a jog down a steep grassy slope,  then a steep, narrow, switchback path through scree and dealt with both of these efficiently if not especially speedy. We slowed as a rope came into sight. This we used as a handrail, sticking to the grassy mud at the side. It’s a steep gully and  was slippery as heck. At one point we just stopped, looked out and whooped at the craziness of it!! Soon we were ejected into the valley bottom, a brief respite for the others to empty grit from their shoes, my debris gaiters had done their job well. We looked with trepidation at the climb ahead.

20157347_1964856963727918_5834129442443573084_o

Some 500m of crawling and climbing on hands and feet. Steep, slow and humid until we are high enough for the wind and drizzle to reach us again. I chuckled to see a group of guys walking on the path along the valley, looking up at these dots and thinking what ARE they doing????

After the crawling, and munching on blueberries I eventually reached the bottom of challenge no. 4. Top news was that due to the weather conditions the main hard move has been removed. It later turns out that the rope had been stripped from that section, it wasn’t protected and with conditions as they were it was too much of a risk. I’ll not pretend that despite my love of scrambling, I wasn’t a little relieved. There was a bit of a traffic jam here as people got onto the route, but oh how I loved this section. Proper lovely scrambling; balancing and picking my way, it was over far too soon. A favourite moment of indignity was the half knee lock/sumo roll move needed to get onto the ledge to dib the SI unit.

19984123_1964987300381551_3790330201535881065_o
the traverse to climb up to St Sundays Crag – fun times with a rope

And then we were up and all that stood between us and our drop bags in Patterdale was a long rolling descent of about 650m. Easy running and the views were opening up, as was the sun. To emerge out of the gloom was fantastic but I was boiling up in my waterproof jacket. The CP was at Side Farm, a bit of a tarmac jog that felt very weird after all the terrain running. I was tired and my legs were telling me so! Half the route completed, well over half the climbing and mostly in zero visibility, drizzle and wind. I realised I was starving and dreamt of those potatoes.

We rolled into a sunny Patterdale at 13:56 against a cut-off of 14.45, well within the timings thankfully. I felt pretty good despite stiffness in my knee. I’d had niggles in training where the quad feeds into the knee and the severe descents were starting to take their toll.

Jon was there and was perfect support, refilling water bottles and sourcing coffee. 20032107_1964697323743882_8556245220299865590_nMy potatoes hit the spot perfectly, so I shoved some sweet snacks from the checkpoint in my pack and swapped out my manky base layer for an old windproof top and picked up my poles ready for the remaining steep climb. I didn’t sit down and soon we were on our way again.

 

We now had some 10km to cover, taking us to Haweswater by way of Boardale Hause, Angle Tarn, The Knott, and High street. The first stretch up to Boardale Hause was still in sun-shine, briefly. We met a few hikers and it felt warm in the sun. We were fast hiking the inclines and jogging anything that was runnable.

20106323_10155464038235775_2413807629210121969_n

I think that was the last moment I properly enjoyed! Much became a blur hereon in. We were up in the mist, which got denser and wetter and the wind really picked up. It felt utterly miserable.

20017784_10155465106405775_4446087246698614780_o
Pausing for a moment at Angle Tarn. So beautiful

That we ascended The Knott and High Street meant nothing because you could see nothing, you couldn’t judge what was coming next – obviously a recce might have helped here but living in NE Scotland that wasn’t going to happen. Jeni was moving faster and headed off, not far but enough that I could have been alone. Mostly I was moving OK but it felt bleak in the mist, with the wind howling, and always peering for the next red flag. The absence of marshals compared to the first half of the race was very obvious.

At one junction, the flag had been blown off course, lying 90 degrees out; I turned to follow but my gut said no, this was wrong, and I corrected. Jeni had paused as she too was struggling in the loneliness of it and we travelled together again for a while, overtaking a couple of guys but on the descent she pulled ahead again. Here I took my first proper slip of the day, it wasn’t even on rock, just stepping on a wooden plank in a puddle. Thump, I went down, the back of my pelvis connected with a rock and it really hurt!! I lay in the muddy puddle for a few moments, determined not to cry, laughing that I was already so wet and soggy that lying in a muddy puddle wasn’t a problem!  I picked myself up and continued steeply down to Haweswater ignoring the stinging and throbbing. Yet again hazy sunshine at lake level. This was a simple checkpoint, a top up of liquid, I scooped energy drink up from the tub and we pressed on. My Garmin had now died so I had no idea of time but was acutely aware of the cut-off at Kirkstone Pass, knowing I had slowed on the last section.

20106323_10155464038235775_2413807629210121969_n

From here the route sort of doubled back on itself, quickly returning us to the torrid weather conditions I was dreading as we skirted round Small Water and up to the Nan Bield Pass. I’ve descended from this pass – another ultra (Ultimate Trails 110km), that one in glorious autumnal sunshine. I recall slipping and slithering down the path, going up was infinitely better even if the weather wasn’t. It soon got pretty lonely again, less wind but the mist was even thicker and wetter.

I was sandwiched between two groups – a couple of guys behind and Jeni and some others ahead. Like before they were just metres ahead, but it could have been miles. Occasionally a voice whipped towards me in the wind, but it felt far away. I fell into a pretty black place of misery on this leg. The undulations just went on and on and on. Because you couldn’t see, you had no concept of what you had climbed and what was left to climb. I think Threshthwaite Mouth was where I really suffered. I knew I had to eat, that it would help lift the gloom so I forced down a banana. I was starting to chill down too; the windproof top had done a great job of keeping the worst of the weather at bay but the rain was seeping through onto my skin. Reflection says I should have put my waterproof top on at Haweswater, hindsight is always very useful!!

20106241_10155464038820775_2879648298542167521_n

The banana clearly kicked in and the pathetic/self-piteous phase, passed. I marched a bit faster and jogged what I could and saw Jeni and the others just a couple of metres ahead, spurred on I caught them, that felt so good. So now we were a group of six, marching across Caudale Moor in the gloom. Cow bells, we could hear Cow bells, there were actually other people out there! We marched quicker, the chat level picked up. Oh how the mood changes. The cowbells emerged, held by a real live person who gave us some much-needed cheer.

We started to descend from the moor and I recognised the silhouette of Jon in the mist, he’d walked up from the road and gave us the good news we were just 100m from Kirkstone Pass. You would never have known, you could barely hear the road!! Someone asked me, the other day, if the checkpoint was by the hotel – I had no idea, so little could you see!!

This time we rolled in shortly after 7pm against a cut-off of 7.15, that was pretty tight, but we made it. So relieved, after feeling so miserable up on the top it would have been too painful to fall at the last hurdle. Some were not so lucky though and I really felt for them knowing how close I came. At the briefing, the race director had emphasised that the poor weather would make no difference to the cut-offs, they would remain the same regardless. It’s a long day for the marshals on the hill and their safety was important for our safety.

The stop here was really brief, just enough time to grab some sweet snacks from the trays laid out, and then off again; this challenge needed to be over!

I’ll be honest, I have no idea why we had to take the route we did up the back of Red Screes! We contoured round the back, passing a perfectly decent, if steep path, and started to ascend a grassy slope not dissimilar to the one up to St Sundays Crag, but possibly steeper. My poles were really useful; planting them on each step allowed me to stay upright and breathe more easily. Off the grassy, muddy steps and into some kind of shale-filled gully for a scrabble up to finally emerge on … the path!! … a final push to the summit and a dib in for the final checkpoint.

This section and the next were meant to be a race for King (and how about Queen?) of the mountain … the fastest up and the fastest down, as you do, at the end of a 56km mountain race!! Frankly I didn’t care about any of this, I just needed to be off this darn hill. I set off from the top on my own, loving the run/jog down despite the mire and mud which was pretty awful. After a while I realised I hadn’t seen a red flag for a while … I followed the obvious muddy trod for a bit and then it kind of petered out. I started to head back up to see if I could pick it up again but this seemed pointless. So I continued down, getting a bit stressed, so tired, and wet and cold. I quickly realised that despite being merely kilometres from the finish I needed more clothes on before I became a hypothermia victim.

Being tired, wet and low on fuel it was a close call, my brain definitely wasn’t firing on all cylinders. The wind was coming straight up the face of the hill, driving the rain. The only logical thing was to drop off the side a bit. Finding a hollow, I got my soggy waterproofs on, discovered the cakes I had stashed earlier in my pack and got them down me and instantly started to feel more in control again. I also unravelled my rather soggy 1:50000 map I had stowed which thankfully had highlighter pen on the route as I couldn’t actually read the map properly – it was disintegrating despite the map bag!! A rough bearing showed the direction I needed to get off the hill, regardless of whether I picked up the red flags. I confidently set off, climbed a six- foot wall, nearly fell off the wall when my leg went into cramp, and spotted a red flag. I am ashamed to admit that for some reason I started to follow the flags back UP the hill … noooooo … but quickly noticed the muddy footprints appeared to be going in the other direction!!

I could hardly believe it when minutes later I descended out of the murk into daylight. I could see the lake and Ambleside down to my right and suddenly I felt really really good, back in my happy place. I jogged on, singing to myself, little sign of the near-hypothermic woman of 20 minutes earlier!! Off the fields and onto the road I jogged still singing and smiling. A car drew alongside, the marshal from the Kirkstone Pass, checking I was OK and asking if I wanted a lift, with a big grin on her face. ‘Er NO!’ ‘are you sure?’, she asked, ‘absolutely, no way’, said I. The route wriggled alongside some fields and then I emerged into Ambleside. Jon had jogged up to see if I was coming down, after watching with some bemusement at my hill antics via the tracker. Just a few more metres to go, so of course I was running up the steps to the finish, with about seven minutes to spare! So close!

Dibbing the finish, they checked I was OK and took my SI dibber and GPS unit away. I was handed my finishers bottle of local cider and despatched on my way with a meal ticket to find warm clothes and recover. I couldn’t believe I’d made it. Despite being so close to the final cut-off I was incredibly proud of myself and of Jeni who’d come in about 20 minutes earlier. We had fought against and won the battle against a fair few demons out there!

I wasted probably about 20 minutes on the hill faffing around at the end, but if I hadn’t stopped I would have been in a far worse state. In the results I am last, coming 73rd out of 73rd in my first every Sky Race Ultra. Behind me were a number who missed the cut-offs or dropped out earlier in the race. I met the cut-offs, I completed it and even with the dark places I absolutely loved it, all of it. I will be back for more of these antics.

Photos courtesy of the Lakes Sky Ultra Facebook page plus a few by myself and Jeni

Whirlwind Adventure in the French Alps … the TdS

TDS – The Wild Alternative – Sur les traces des Ducs de Savoie, 119km, 7250m climbing

In semi-autonomy, starting from Courmayeur on Wednesday 24 August at 6.00am

1700 runners, maximum time allowed 33 hours (approximate time for winners – 14 hours)

This race is one of five that are the UTMB series taking over the French alpine town of Chamonix during the last week of August. Below is a table used on the website to help interested runners decide which race might most appeal …

A comparison of the level of difficulty of the races

Race Average race time Technical difficulty
OCC

10:30

Some difficulties

CCC®

22:00

Quite difficult

TDS®

27:30

Difficult

UTMB®

40:00

Quite difficult

PTL®

136:00

Very difficult

Technical difficulty

Terrain

Requirements

Some difficulties

Paths sometimes steep; a few stone fields ; altitude 2000m

Experience of hiking in the middle mountain; capable of being autonomous for 4 or 5 hours; the know how for confronting difficult conditions (rain, wind, cold (< 0°C), snow)

Quite difficult

Paths sometimes steep; some areas with stone fields;  altitude 2500/ 2600m

Experience of hiking in the middle mountain; capable of being autonomous for 4 or 5 hours; the know how for confronting difficult conditions (rain, wind, cold (< 0°C), snow) day and night

Difficult

Unclearly marked paths; very long ascents and descents; exposed passages secured with a rope, use of hands necessary to balance oneself, remote itinerary, altitude 2700m ; few refreshment points

Elementary experience of the mountains: capable of being autonomous for 5 or 6 hours; the know how for confronting difficult conditions (rain, wind, cold (< 0°C), snow) day and night

ery difficult

Often without paths; exposed difficult terrain; tricky grassy slopes, some easy rock climbing; glaciers and névés with a risk of sliding; very remote itinerary, altitude > 3000 m; no refreshment points

Good experience of the mountains, ability to orientate oneself, capable of being autonomous throughout the day; the know how to confront very difficult conditions (very heavy rain, abundant snow; high winds ; intense cold  <-10°C) day and night

The races are so popular getting a place is tough, unless you are an elite runner. For mere mortals like me it’s a complicated process; gaining points from completing races recognised by the UTMB organisation, then entering the annual ballot in December. Each race in the series requires a different amount of points and the distance / technicality of the race dictates how many points the race is worth. Points are valid for two years. Being unsuccessful in the ballot is common, you are offered a place in a different race if there is space – this is usually the TdS, or have two tickets in the ballot the following year. By mid-January you know if you have been successful. The longest race in the series, requiring the most amount of points is the UTMB. So for about the last four or five years I have been playing this game – gaining enough points, entering, failing ballot entry, not having enough points. Finally two years ago I gained enough points to enter one of the shorter races – the TdS. With my love of solitude and wild spaces it appealed the most.

January 2016  I have a place in the TdS. It’s OK August is months away,  but my first priority is to speak to my wonderful parents and ask if they would come and holiday on the Moray Firth for a week whilst overseeing the kids. Superstars that they are, they agreed. I enter the Glentress Marathon to kick my ass into gear for some training as the MCN Beacons Ultra at the start of December seems a long time ago already.

February The Glentress Marathon definitely kicks my ass, on sketchy training I complete it but am humbled somewhat by wimpy performance on technical descents, and a dodgy calf muscle pulled just days beforehand. But I complete. There is hope. 

March Right, I really am going to do this race, I need to book flights and accommodation. Chamonix is selling out FAST as people worldwide are booking too. The logistics of getting from Forres to Chamonix are stressing me out a bit, but helpful advice from an old climbing friend Steve Day (more of him later) who ran the OCC last year and was doing the TdS this year, and another ultra running acquaintance who did the CCC last year I have something of a plan coming together. Have also sold the idea of being a team in the last Highlander Mountain Marathon to my orienteering friend Jane Halliday, so now I really do need to get into the hills once the snow has retreated more.

April through to June pass in a blur of life – class teaching, child herding/rearing, entering and completing the Glen Lyon 30 mile Ultra; the Highlander completed in scorching temperatures, training runs in the Cairngorms’ at random times of night or day, wherever a child-free window appeared. Thankfully this far North in Scotland the hours of daylight increase to such a length that setting off for a 25 mile run in the hills at 3pm on a Friday afternoon really is doable, all in daylight. I’m getting the miles in, acquiring new kit, and have finally found a pair of shoes that seem to be comfortable and have incredible grip on rocky boulders.

July The kids have broken up from school so it’s a kind of taper whether I like it or not. But the kids are game for a few day trips to local hills, with friends along for the ride. A week in sunny Wales saw the kids climbing Tryfan and Snowdon; and then I had a child free window – a lovely relaxing few days in Yorkshire and the Lakes. Looking back now I’m very glad I got Swirral and Striding Edge on Helvellyn in. Before I knew it August had arrived and the kids were back at school. 

Mum and dad arrive and take over on the Friday before I depart. My bags are packed with the usual panic of whether I have the right stuff. It’s very different to chucking it all in the boot of the car and dragging out what I need on race morning. Sunday night, I’m efficiently whisked down to Edinburgh. In a Travelodge, have the best nights sleep I’ve had in weeks; and then I’m dropped at Edinburgh Airport on Monday morning with plenty of time for me and my bags to check in. Really glad the start of my adventure is going smoothly. It’s hugely exciting, for five whole days I get to be surrounded by mountains, my mum hat is firmly on the shelf and I can step into a world I’ve not been in for a while. My stomach is fizzing with nerves and excitement, it feels quite decadent and I mainly have a huge grin on my face! 

It’s an event-free flight to Geneva, and I chat to some other ultra runners from Scotland as we queue for passport control. Not all are racing, some have come to cheer on friends, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy running in the French Alps. Drinking beer and social running suddenly seem very appealing! And one of them has agreed to stash some kit for me in case I end up in Chamonix in the middle of the race with things not having gone to plan. Thank you David Heatherington for more useful pre-race advice to a novice in Alpine races!  Alpybus are my transfer to Chamonix, a small delay while the driver has his tea break, and then we are on our way. It’s scorching out there the sky is bright blue, not a cloud to be seen. 

Monday night is in Hotel Fleur de Niege on the outskirts of Chamonix. A simple hotel, a bed space in a bunk room for four women; with a lovely walk through a woodland area, past all the paraponting into town. I dump my bags and head in for a wander round, time to soak up the holiday vibe and enjoy being back in Chamonix for the first time in 16 years. The place is buzzing. Banners hang everywhere for the races, the finishing straight is all set up, the expo area is being put together ready for Tuesday and the whole town is heaving with tanned healthy looking runner types and their families. I’m supposed to be looking for food but keep being distracted by gear shops – they are everywhere! Eventually I purchase a large tub of cold Tartiflete, a Savoie speciality, several fresh peaches and big bottle of mineral water. I also can’t resist some fancy La Sportiva arm warmers. Back to the hotel for a decent nights sleep fingers crossed as I am shattered. 11.00pm and the fire alarm goes off but eventually it’s sorted and I sleep well.

Tuesday. A leisurely continental breakfast of cheese, ham, croissant, bread and coffee followed by a massive kit faff as I am to head through to Courmeyeur in the evening for a night in a hotel there before race start. But I need to keep with me my race kit and stuff for my drop bag which means lugging that around with me for the rest of the day. I then finally read my bus timetable to get to Courmayeur and realise I actually needed to pre-book my bus ticket, I’m using public transport rather than the bus put on by UTMB on Weds morning from Chamonix. Huge panic and a 1.5 mile stomp to the bus station with all my kit. Relief, lady is nonplussed and books me on the 6pm bus through the tunnel. Another stomp back into Chamonix, still with heavy bags and the temperatures are hotting up, not the most restful day before a big race. I’ve arranged to meet with my old climbing friend for bib collection and kit check together. This opens at 13.00 hrs in the sports centre and there is only a small queue when we arrive but Steve quickly realises he’s left his passport ID back up at his hotel in Argentiere, further up the valley – Grrr! He’ll have to come back later to do this as you have to have ID. The process is very slick and painless. First you are ID’d (the passport) and handed a list of five items you need to produce for kit check. You put these in a plastic tray and move to the desk where they are checked. A brief panic when they thought my OMM Kamlieka smock was too soft to be waterproof. I convinced them it stood up to Cairngorm weather and all was well. Next I take paper confirming kit is OK and have a timing tag attached to my bag. Then I move along and collect my race number, a blue wrist band with TdS marked on it that is not to be removed, safety pins, drop bags x 2 (one for race and one for finish) and finally I get a Buff scratch card and find I’ve won a Buff folding sun hat – I never win anything, well chuffed!! Heartily relieved this has all gone well but still lugging round large bag of kit, we go and find somewhere for lunch. Predictably a large bowl of pasta – need to get the carbs in and keep drinking. 

There is a lovely old church behind the finish line in Chamonix, a mix of sun and shade, a perfect place to while away a couple of hours before my bus so I head there to have a final kit sort out and try to rest up, and deposit my kit I’m leaving in case of a DNF with Amanda from the Scottish gang.  Soon it’s time for another yomp with my packs in still scorching heat to the bus station. My bags feel really really heavy and I don’t feel remotely rested for the race ahead. The bus is packed – I can see why it needed pre-booking. I think I am the only British person on the bus, but it doesn’t stop a delightful older guy, Swiss I think, spending a good 10 minutes telling me how this is his 4th attempt at the race, it’s going to be really hard, you need to have reccied it (he has – of course), really warm and I need to be hydrated … perhaps 6pm the night before the race it could be a bit late for that advice. He also took great delight in telling me just how hard the big climb would be. Perhaps it was his way of dealing with nerves but it didn’t help me much! 

Courmeyeur is a calmer place, the sun has already set on this side of Mont Blanc and it feels chilly. My hotel is at the top of the hill, so more trudging around with heavy bags, but the staff are welcoming and my room is comfortable if very warm. It’s nice to have a bit of space and peace, where I can put down my bags and think without other people in my space. What with Chamonix being so busy, sharing bunk rooms, checking in kit, it’s been a bit of a whir and I really need to get my head in the right place for the morning. I’d bought some ham and brie and a large baguette, no guesses what my tea was going to be. The cheese was perfectly warmed, and stunk! But tasted lush, so I had a fine picnic feast on the bed before settling down to work out what the hell I was going to wear/carry for the race.  

We’d received a text asking us to all carry an extra litre of water on top of the mandatory 1 litre, 2 litres is pretty heavy to carry. Our essential kit to be carried at all times consisted of: Waterproof (taped seams) jacket and trousers, warm hat, warm gloves, waterproof gloves (marigold rubber gloves!), full leg cover (if you were wearing shorts then you still needed full leg cover too), a spare mid layer (either thin base + wind proof top or a thicker thermal), sun hat, two good torches + spare batteries for both, a sticky elasticated bandage, space blanket, a phone that roamed the 3 countries, and spare food. Walking poles were highly recommended. Random kit checks were carried out on route so you had to have it all, and if you started with poles you had to finish with them.  I had a choice between a very cheap bladder I had bought just before departure or an extra 1 litre platypus bottle on top of the two soft flasks. The bladder was awful, making my rucksack look like a balloon and pulled on my shoulders badly, so it had to be the extra bottle, but OMG the bag felt heavy, no idea of actual weight, perhaps 4 kg Eventually I’d whittled everything down and settled on my clothing choices. I had no idea how cold it was going to get overnight, I chill easily and when you are tired and low on energy it’s worse. So I carried my Inov8 smock for my night layer and left various extras in my drop bag, basically I was too tired to think any more and figured I’d lump it all in the drop bag. I needed sleep but was terrified I’d sleep through alarms – so I set the alarm on my phone and on my Garmin watch. I’d decided not to use my Garmin in the race as it only lasts 8 hours max and I would be out 4 x that. I think I dozed at best and soon it was 3.45am, no more fake sleep, time to get ready and downstairs for my 4.45am breakfast. 

Now this was a truly surreal experience. The hotel is a spa hotel and is really rather grand. The night watch man took me through to breakfast and was very sweet. Did I want this? Did I want that? Would this be OK? The most delicious spread of continental style breakfast and I struggled to do justice to it. The apple cake looked delicious, but at 5am it wasn’t going to do it for me! A few more people came in, the mood lighting was on, light jazz/blues background music playing, the toasters were rolling, the waiter was hovering and there were about 10 ultra runners enjoying their breakfast!! The images of this kept me entertained at several grim points later in the day!! When I checked out, the night watch man wished me a lovely farewell and good luck. 

Down the hill to the main street and it’s packed. Head torches on, people everywhere, chaos actually. I couldn’t tell you what was being said in the loud speaker.  I got rid of my drop bags in the appropriate cages – and joined the inevitable loo queue. By the time I’d got out of this there was just 5 minutes until the start. A text from my friend Steve said he was near the loo queue too, amazingly, with some pole waving I saw him and managed to push my way through the crowds to his side. I can’t explain the atmosphere, couldn’t understand most of the languages but we were all raring to go. Suddenly it’s the countdown and the music is playing, I’ve no idea where I am in the crowd, a long way back I think but nothing to be done about that. We are running, running round the streets of Courmayeur – we really were running at this point. Crowds are cheering us on our way and soon we are leaving the streets behind, the sky is starting to lighten, we are on our way. 

This first section is on wide trail. Fire tracks. But with 1700 of us in the race, unless your are right at the front you are still queuing. As you climb higher the tracks get narrower and zig zag and the queuing goes on and on and on. It’s mega frustrating but there is little you can do. Sometimes you can pass and at times I did but eventually it became impossible. I resigned myself to thinking it will stop me from pushing too hard too soon. I clearly had done a good job of the hydration as I needed to pee several times before the first drink point, frustrating as you lost places pretty quickly, but running with a full bladder really isn’t funny! The trail is steep but not really a hint of what was to come. We rolled into the first drink point (Col Checrout) pretty quickly, I grabbed a cup of lemon tea with a lump of sugar, a piece of bread and honey and was one my way. I’d hoped that getting past here the queuing would improve – oh how naive was I! It got worse. The frustration of standing still on the trail with no idea what exactly was slowing us was almost too much to bear. I soon settled into a familiar group though with Claudio from Romania and a couple of Spanish guys, complete with Manuel moustaches, who I was to see many times but never got their names. Claudio was young and full of energy and lots of bravado – as you are when you are 25. He had managed to twist his ankle several days earlier climbing Mont Blanc. I envied his efforts to acclimatise to the altitude having had no time to do this myself. I knew I would struggle with the altitude, I’ve never adapted quickly to it and didn’t expect it to be any different this time. 

A torturous zigzag ascent over the Arete du Mont-Favre eventually took us to the first proper refreshment point at Lac Combal. I could feel nausea creeping in – the Arete was at 2435m so we had already climbed 1300m since leaving Courmeyeur. But the scenery was stunning and being fresh still I shook off the nausea and pressed on to the descent. I needed to sort my socks out; I’d found walking around Chamonix my feet had swelled with the heat, so I’d gone with just one pair of socks but it was clear this was not enough and my feet were sliding. I wanted to sort this early so added a thin pair of Ininji liner socks, perfect. Off again. The crowds were starting to thin and I was able to get into my own pace. Another 600m climb up, the sun was beating down and the sky was bright blue with no clouds. A sudden change of incline and we were on a steep descent on a narrow switchback path into a gorge, across the river, round the corner and then another river crossing – I think this was Alpetta but it’s a bit hazy. We crossed through pastures and many stop, including me, to photograph the cows. They are gorgeous with shiny coats,  brown and cream. Usually I steer well clear of cows, they are far too nosy and at times aggressive. These were laid back, contentedly chewing the grass and paying us no attention as we passed – just as well given the crazy Japanese guy in front of me who insisted on leaping around shouting at them, I was glad to drop him. From here we dropped down to the shores of a bright blue lake. 

It was idyllic, with families picnicking and swimming, I so wanted to join them. The next climb, 600m up to Col du Petit St-Bernard was on a path cut especially for the TdS I decided. It seemed to me that if there was a tough way to do a climb or descent, our route took it. This path zig-zagged its way vertically up through thick blaeberry-type vegetation on a narrow shale track. We were pulled forward by enthusiastic bystanders – the cry of Allez, Allez, Courage, Courage were shouted by virtually everyone we passed. Children high-fived you – possibly not pleasant with a sweat encrusted, sun cream bathed smelly runner!! But finally we were there and a short descent brought us to another refreshment point. I didn’t hang around here, took what food I needed, dropping it into a plastic food bag I carried attached to the front of my pack, refilled water bottles and moved on out. I had a strange collection of food in that bag – Oreos I supplied, paired with French cheese make a revolting but wonderful combination!!  Nothing was hurting at this point and essentially I felt good, but the heat was energy sapping on the climb and it was clear that I was not going to escape the effects of altitude. I had given up worrying about the fact that running really wasn’t featuring as it was just too damn hot, my main focus was looking after myself, trying not to overheat so I could survive the daytime hours, and keep ahead of the cut-offs. At every opportunity – mountain stream, river, water butt, we were dowsing ourselves in water, dipping hats and buffs, throwing water over ourselves trying to cool down.

Another long long descent in full sun, eventually passing through the villages of Saint Germain and Seez. We descended a total of 1500m to reach the valley bottom and the next big refreshment point of Bourg Saint-Maurice. It was like descending into a furnace, no breeze, no shade, temperatures into the mid-30s. It felt like forever to reach the checkpoint – along a main road, through a park, round a few corners in the park, into the outskirts of town and eventually the centre. There is no signage to indicate how far to the checkpoint, and all the while, over to the right, you can see the huge hill that will need to be climbed after the checkpoint. I can’t say I was feeling my best!

Bourg Saint-Maurice at 16.02. Entering each refreshment point I repeat to myself what I need to do so I don’t get distracted. The points are really busy with piles of people crowding for water and food. I dump my pack and poles in a quietish corner, not caring it’s in the full heat of the sun. There is a large water trough and people are washing down their feet and legs as well as filling water bottles. There are the usual huge platters of food – cheese, salami, salty biscuits, dark chocolate squares, ginger cake, marble cake, noodle soup, coke, water, tea. I have my usual noodle soup and stock up on cheese and ginger cake. The next leg is a long one so I need to be sure I’ve taken on enough food and got enough to see me through. I am also carrying gels, something I rarely use these days but they have been great to take before a big climb. A Japanese bystander spots me sorting out my kit and eating, he asks me if I am OK – I thought I was but perhaps I didn’t look it? I am trying to drink my soup from the bowl, it is going everywhere except my mouth. I assure him I am fine and then proceed to try and eat the noodles with my fingers and make even more mess. Ultimately I am attempting to lick my fingers clean and wipe my face clean on my arm … classy!! He offers me a tissue … what a gentleman, I’m glad I will never see him again!! After making use of the composting toilets this race is using (sawdust in them), I head out about 25 minutes later bracing myself for the climb. But first we have to produce three more items for a random kit-check – emergency blanket, head torches + batteries and our phones.   

It is everything I thought it would be and more. The start of the climb is more zigzags up a near vertical grass slope. I quickly rename this climb ‘vomit hill’, there are people everywhere on it just sitting down gazing vacantly around. The sound of retching and vomiting breaks the general silence, people are beyond chatting and I observe it’s mainly the guys I see vomiting. It looks like a war zone. Eventually the route takes us into the trees, away from the searing heat, but the climb is relentless. I am plodding away with my poles, left, right, left, right I chant, upwards. I pass plenty of people but eventually I have to pause to recover. It’s the heat and the altitude. The bodies continue to accumulate on the route, and also I see those who are turning around and heading back down to Bourg, calling time and none of us can blame them. We are aiming for a fort but it is further than I realise. First we reach an outlying building that looked like a fort, I thought I was there and was feeling rather excited about it, despite passing a guy lying in the recovery position awaiting recovery. We cross a road and pass this false fort, and continue to climb on new zigzags up a new grassy slope. I start to feel quite sick, I am now so hot I feel cold and actually feel like I’ve stopped sweating. I’m sure this is not a good feeling to have! Up and up and I realise my mistake, that was not the fort, because above is the real Col de la Forclaz. I continue to pass people but am feeling very nauseous and very spaced out. Eventually I reach the fort, and should  have just plodded on through but the lure of Orangina being sold is too much. I managed to depart without my phone so had to backtrack, thankfully I’d not gone far. We’ve climbed 1600m in the last 8kms and there another 400m to go to take us back up to 2567m. 

I am feeling totally crap and despondent, hitting my worst low of the whole race. I can’t eat – I try and eat a piece of ginger cake, delicious earlier, it now takes me 10 minutes to move it round my mouth and eventually swallow, and I feel even worse. I force down a gel and hope it kicks in. I want to cry, a lot!! I am still gaining height and overtaking the odd person somehow. I come across Liz Jones, a fellow Brit who I met on a race in the Beacons last year. She is in fine form and I attempt to be smiley but fail miserably. I definitely feel crap!! As we approach Passeur de Pralognan we pass some small lakes. One of them is flanked by cotton grass and looks so tranquil I take a photograph but I’m convinced we still have even further to climb before a descent and this adds to my gloom.  

Eventually, the top and I collapse gratefully on a rock after being checked in, comparing notes with a French girl next to me who wants to drop out. I point out that dropping out on the top of a mountain is a bad idea and that nothing should be decided until the next checkpoint which is the drop bag. I’m thinking please may this not be another Spine race effort, I need to, want to finish, too much put in place to get here. Feeling a bit tearful, a face pops up in front of me – Steve, my climbing friend. Hello! OMG, how well timed is that! He confirms we are definitely at the top, there is no more climbing (for now) and we agree that we will head down the next section together. I’m already feeling renewed, although I still haven’t eaten any real food. The French girl also gets her head together, we don head torches as the light is going fast and head over to the descent … 

We are stopped by race marshals who firmly plant our poles in one hand and put our other hand on a rope, I look down at the descent, all I can see silhouetted against the darkening sky is pointy bits of rock. It was like descending down striding edge, by torch light, at altitude. This is AWESOME I shouted out loud, so COOL, all thoughts of altitude sickness, tears and being pathetic are forgotten, I remember that mountains are where I thrive and go to find balance in life. We scrambled, slithered and down climbing some 600m, eventually emerging on a hard packed trail. Running wasn’t really happening but I can knock out a mean pace with my hiking poles so I stormed off along the trail leading us to Cormet de Roseland. This is our drop bags, it’s 66.6km in and nearly 10.30pm. We’ve been on the go since 6am and it’s now pitch black.  

It’s heaving in here and I lose Steve amongst the chaos. So I grab my drop bag and find an alcove by the entrance to  tuck myself away and kit sort. I change out of my totally minging top into a long sleeved thermal top, and into my knee length tights, thereby slightly lightening the load of my pack. My feet are feeling fine so I don’t look at or touch them. Dry clothes feel amazing. Restocking my hydration tabs and snacks bars in my bag, along with a fresh run vest for morning when we are back in the heat again, I manage to locate Steve and we agree to stick together through the night section at least. I’ve also managed to eat a bowl of pasta and some noodle soup. I’ve gone from rock bottom to feeling strong and sound again – such is the way of these races. 

Out into the darkness, I’m not really sure of what lies ahead as it’s all gone a bit vague. Heading uphill of course. Soon we are on a hideous grassy slope with lots of divots and little sheep tracks. The posts marking the way (with reflective markers on them) suddenly become a rare and don’t really line up with the sheep tracks. We stumble along getting very frustrated, 350m to gain on this section and it’s mainly through this. The light is fading on my torch a bit and I fail to work out whether I’m stepping on a big wet rock or into thick mud … yup, it was the mud, down I go, mud on my arse and my hand and my pole! It’s all pretty undulating and we can’t see much at all aside from shadows in the torchlight. 340M up to Col de la Sauce, 700m down to La Gitte. There are people sitting by the side of the route all the way along. Sleeping, resting or just eating. Still there are people turning around and heading back down to retire. Onward we plod. Keeping it steady, frequently being the leaders of a little crocodile. No one is bothered about overtaking, it uses up precious energy trying to get past, and then you discover they are going about your pace anyway. Despite this, Steve and I are chattering away, no idea what about and I’m sure it was exceptionally annoying to the mainly silent other Europeans; but I’m feeling good now I have food in my stomach and it’s cooler, tired but not falling asleep.

500M up to Entre Deux Nants, 151m down to Col Est de la Gitte. We have no idea what we are going up or down, sometimes there are thin ropes separating you from steep unfathomable drops, sometimes there is no rope, but still the unfathomable drop. Often there are vertical slopes covered in slippery grit, the paths are incredibly narrow and hug the edges of sheer drops zigzagging up and down, cows wander everywhere, their bells clanging in the darkness. At some point we are walking above a deep gorge, you can hear the water roaring below, scanning the torch around, large boulders loom above you. I’m thinking it will be spectacular by day as it is by night. Sometimes there are marshals in particularly tricky areas, they don’t speak with you, just hang out in case. We cross rivers on small planks of wood and clamber up and down more small scramble sections, all in the limited light of your head torch. Despite the fact it’s slow going I am feeling good and mainly having fun, this stuff is what I thrive in. It gets a bit strange heading across to the Col du Joly. The route meanders and you think you should be there when you are not. There is some exciting scrambling followed by a walk out along what felt like a long ridge but you could see nothing really so it felt like empty space either side of you, like the world was at your feet. As we approach the Col du Joly we have been hearing loud music and a booming female voice. For some while we’d been debating the source –  Bingo, but really? Up on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere. We walk through a cattle farm and plenty of cow poo; the cows are waiting for milking, perhaps it’s for the farm workers … we can see the building and the lights flashing out of it, and that music. Soon I realise that the markers for our route seem to be leading into and out of the building … this is for us!! I say. Frustrated that we have to walk extra metres to go into the building, we are greeted at the entrance by a crazy French lady shouting out our name and number. On the bench outside the checkpoint there are a number of bewildered looking ultra runners sitting in a daze whilst this continues around us. Definitely bonkers!! 

Exiting the party checkpoint, we have 800m of descent to do. My quads are crying at the thought! It’s still dark. Initially the path is good, grassy and even beneath our feet. It hops around a bit but is heading downwards, eventually though it gets steeper and steeper and steeper. The ground is becoming more technical underfoot and I am beginning to struggle with it. On the plus side it’s getting lighter, but I’m definitely feeling mentally tired now. We head down into the trees and start to encounter damp wet tree roots on top of all the slippery gravelly stuff. I start to stumble and take several falls, swearing louder each time. The final stumble has me in tears. But not half as many tears as the guy who realises he has left his walking poles 800m back up above in the party house … he went back for them! This is another low point for me, I feel I’ve been pathetic coming off this hill and lost precious minutes for the cut-offs but I couldn’t have gone faster if I’d tried. At least we can now turn off our head torches. We then start down a road, it’s a ridiculous road as it’s very very steep and actually looks like an abandoned river bed. We know it’s a road because we saw a car emerge at the top of it, how it managed I have no idea! 

We are eventually ejected out into civilisation and an endless walk into Les Contamines that we both grumped our way along. We didn’t spend long but I made the most of running water in the public toilets – washing my hands for the first time in 24 hours– yuck!! Although traditional French squat toilets are so not what you need at this point in a race!!  I also took my first pain killers of the race, figuring I needed all the support I could get for the remaining downhill sections as my right knee was really quite sore.  Although we did debate how long it would take for them to kick in given how hard our bodies were working.

So we reached here at 7.14 against a cut-off of 8.30am. We couldn’t quite push away the underlying fear we would be timed out so got on our way as quick as possible. We were finishing whatever, that was our deal but even so, the deadline called.  The food I consumed kicked in and I got a bit carried away on the first climb, being reined back in by Steve as I enthusiastically sped off up 566m up to the Chalets du Truc above the village. I couldn’t help it, the trail was firm, we were in the shade still, I could actually see the ground beneath my feet again and I was starting to smell the finish. We overtook a few groups on this which felt good.  

Up to the top and then 200m down, before the final big climb, 600m up to Col de Tricot. This was an evil climb of all evilness! A rock barrier between us and Chamonix. Back to plod, plod, plod, back to left, right, left, right. We passed groups again and gained the height smoothly and efficiently despite the steepness. I might be pants on the downs but on the climbs or striding out on the flat with my poles there was no stopping me. I was really chuffed with how well we dealt with this climb.  Views of The Dru appeared and soon we were on the Col de Tricot at 9.52. A quick stop at the top to dump the extra litre of water I was carrying and swap out of my thermal as I was now boiling. However the descent was equally hideous, 500m down over more boulders and narrow ankle biting tracks, a rope bridge across the nose of the Bionnassay Glacier that swayed and bounced much to the horror of the runner in front of us. Then even more very steep, bouldery, tree-rooted descents. A small rise took us up to the train station at Bellevue, and then another 800m down to Les Houches.

We were now in the full heat of the sun, with no sun cream on! I couldn’t find my baseball hat and was wearing my glasses and felt I was being totally blinded by the glare, making do with a buff. Coming down into Les Houches we were seeing more tourists and race supporters, all giving us lots of encouragement and detail as to how far it was to the village. Even when we hit the road it just went on and on. At this checkpoint we barely paused , a quick coffee and a handful of biscuits. No time to hang around now, we just wanted to nail this thing. The thought of an 8km stomp along the trail from Les Houches to Chamonix was daunting though. Really we needed to run this, but my body was not buying that idea. The pack felt heavy and I was tired. We stomped along the riverside trail. Initially it felt gloriously cool in the shade of the trees but soon this felt claustrophobic and overheated, 8km seemed like a really long way to go. Of course, it wasn’t flat either.  

We entered the edge of town. We were actually going to do this, and in time too. My stomach started to churn with excitement. It was still a fair walk as we were going in round the edge of town but who cared? We strode out faster and agreed that once we neared the centre we would have to break into a run, no way I was walking up that final stretch. I really wasn’t sure I COULD run though, so we agreed we would start earlier to make sure our legs worked. My legs definitely worked, we started jogging, I got faster and faster, and soon I was sprinting away. Typical to the race that the finish was uphill up a cobbled street. The biggest grin as I reached the top though. So so so so chuffed! The crowds line the streets and shout and cheer you on, it’s an incredible feeling.  

So you have the moment of glory, the crowds roar and then you are chaperoned off and handed your finishers gilet. Everyone knows about the UTMB Gilet, a coveted item. A lovely woman who is supporting a runner agrees to take a photo of Steve and I in front of the UTMB banner, I’m feeling pretty dazed at this point but definitely on an adrenaline fueled high!  

Steve’s friend David Murdoch was doing the full UTMB race on Friday, he was in town with his family and scooped us up taking us off to a coffee and smoothie bar right close by. Upon his insistence, we were ordered strawberry smoothies, as per advice given to him by the well known Dr Andrew Murray, finisher of many many hardcore ultra races and a friend. David,I thank you for those smoothies, they tasted like heaven after 31 hours and 40 minutes of water, electrolyte tabs, noodle soup, muesli bars, ginger cake, strong cheese, pear drops, salted crackers, energy gels and lemon tea.    

So what happens when it’s all over? Well, I shuffled off towards my hotel, stopping by way of drop bag collection. I’m stopped by a few people asking what I’ve done – you feel like a local hero!! So I am now back to hauling all my kit around. Its about a mile back to the hotel and the hotelier is delighted to see me and very very excited I’ve finished. He helps me in with my kit and I sit on my bunk in a bit of a daze. Obviously at this point I should collapse in a heap and fall asleep, instead I shower and then get a text that another old friend (Ian Grimshaw) doing the OCC (a 50km race) is about to finish. So of course, I walk the mile back into town, wait for him to finish and then a group of us go and have a well-earned beer and pancake. That walk back to the hotel post-beer is very very slow, the adrenaline is wearing off and I definitely want my bed.  Why did I think I needed to walk an extra two miles?!

I get my sleep, a bit of disruption from noisy room mates but I quickly fall back into a deep deep sleep. Could have done without a 6.30am alarm call from an overly cheery German lady sharing the room though.  In usual post-ultra recovery, I’m not especially hungry – yet – but do manage some croissants and cheese. I have to get my flight back from Geneva this afternoon so I have a morning to spend enjoying Chamonix. I have sustained very little damage really, my knee is still sore but not as bad, I have a small blister on the side of each heel. The worse damage is to my big toe, I remember kicking a boulder and it really hurting (rude words were used). The nail is cracked and it’s blistered underneath – yeuch! But after taping it up I find that my Hoka trainers are wide enough for a damaged toe and I make that mile long walk back into town again to hunt for some gifts and enjoy a celebratory coffee with Steve. I’m clearly still in TdS bubble, I can’t believe I’m up and walking!  

I’m very sad to leave the blue skies and sunshine, but by midday I’m back on the Alpybus on the way to Geneva airport. A flight delay, an argument with the ticket guard at the station at Edinburgh, running for the train – yes, really, running, and then my parents collecting me from Aviemore station. I finally get back to Forres about midnight.

There was a 41% drop-out from this race this year. I think it usually has a high dropout but the heat definitely added to it this year.  When I set out on this adventure I had thoughts of a sub-30 finish, perhaps a bit less if a miracle happened but, once I got stuck into the race I realised that just finishing was going to be enough of a challenge, and I am so damned proud of sticking it out and getting there.  And was so chuffed to meet with and finish with Steve Day, it made the second half of a very tough race, a whole lot of fun and very special.

The Spine Race 2015 (well, the first 70 miles of it anyway)

When this race first appeared on the scene a few years ago, I’ll be honest, I was a little cynical – why pay to race along something you could follow any time you liked, it being a way-marked National Trail. Despite that, my curiosity was piqued and I tracked that inaugural race; I tracked the race the following year, I read the race reports and the cynicism started to wane. I dithered for a bit longer until eventually January 2014 arrived with a desire to be brave, the form was filled out and submitted, that very same afternoon it came back confirming that I did indeed have a place. I had no idea how I was going to juggle being away from the family for a whole week.

For at least six months I happily pushed all thought of it to the back of my mind, not that I was idle in that time, long distance trail training for other races, and I did line up my fabulous parents to travel up and cover the childcare for me as that was the most important concern. I hadn’t quite factored in destroying my knees on a blinding run in the Great Glen Way Ultra at the start of July, which in turn halted any plans for blasting into training once the kids were back at school after the summer break.

Finally, late autumn and niggle free I settled into some training, but I’d definitely abandoned any thoughts of running parts of the race as I didn’t feel I had enough time to get strong enough to run with a loaded pack on that kind of terrain. It was definitely going to be all about walking – not slow walking though, this was no leisurely amble! New kit was tested out on a couple of solo adventures; firstly Knoydart, and then the Cairngorms. Despite well over 20 years of exploring hills and mountains, I’d done very little of that on my own but the summer of 2014 had seen me doing long solo runs in the Cairngorms and on my local moors; and I realised the pleasure to be had of setting off alone, carrying everything I needed on my back.

January, the Christmas holidays finally over and the kids back to school leaving me the rest of the week to get in a complete panic locating kit and packing. We were allowed a 20kg kit bag that would be dropped at four indoor checkpoints along the route, allowing you to access clean dry kit, food supplies, new batteries and any other essentials.

The weather was already making itself known, with Scotland hit by massive winds on Thursday evening. I barely slept a wink between listening to garden furniture hurtling around the garden, and fretting flights from Inverness would be cancelled. The 4.30am alarm call came after checking the clock every hour anyway.

Predictably all flights from Inverness were delayed. Plenty of time to drink coffee, mark up my maps with route notes and almost miss my flight because they didn’t actually make any flight calls until the last minute. I also managed to drop my beloved phone, therefore cutting myself off from any social media for the next seven days!

The flight was bumpy but uneventful and soon landed at a rather drizzly, but definitely less windy Manchester airport. My drop bag for the race had been in the hold – weighing in at 20kg I can’t say I was delighted to retrieve it from the baggage area, let alone lug it 10 minutes down the way to the train station, to catch a train to Buxton. At Buxton I met my old climbing friend Suzy, stowed my kit in her car and we went on a ‘supermarket sweep’ of Waitrose finding treats to fuel me the length of the race. Shopping done – not sure whether the Peshawari naan really would have held any appeal 150+ miles into the race, but I was trying to be creative!

Next stop, Outside in Hathersage for a pint of tea, enormous piece of cake and catching up on long overdue girlie gossip. Here we waited for my friend Nick to arrive. He was to take over ‘care’ of me here-on-in. So despite some travel disruption, the plan was actually going like clockwork. Still not convinced it made for a great way to spend the day before the race though!

Nick and I set off for Edale: event registration, race brief and kit check. Registration was straightforward and quick. The race brief less so, we were booked into time slots for this, me being in the 5.00pm slot. 5.00pm came and went and still the briefing went on but eventually, about 5.30pm it was our turn. It started off covering race basics: the route and some safety aspects – all good; then followed a lengthy discussion about hypothermia. Now this is a real issue on races of this kind, but I’m not convinced that the depth of discussion we were having on the Friday evening just before the race was the best time for it. Certainly I was struggling to stay awake or concentrate having been on the go since 4.30am, knowing I had a load of kit to sort out before I got to my bed that night, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in this state.

Finally, brief completed, we headed back down the road to collect our race number (and have our photo taken with it); have the GPS tracking device fitted to our packs – you all know about those devices because they allowed plenty of you to follow number 56 wherever she went and witness all her navigational ‘moments’! The final step was kit check. All my kit was randomly packed between the hold bag and my race pack in no logical order, it had been all about trying to make the hold bag as light as possible. Ultimately though, I passed the inspection and shoved everything haphazardly back in my bags. It was now about 7.00pm and we returned to Nicks place in Sheffield.

Here I exploded all of the kit and food across his lounge floor while dinner cooked, but gradually order appeared in the chaos. Dry clothes were packed into small bags and labelled in my drop bag, hoping to make access at checkpoint easier. Food was divided up amongst the shopping bags ready for loading in the back of Nick’s car. Nick had kindly volunteered to support me for the first couple of days of the race. He’d successfully completed the Challenger the previous year (this being the ‘shorter’ but by no means less challenging race, at 107 miles). Being supported meant he would meet me at various road crossing points on the route, giving me access to food and hot drinks and possible shelter from weather, rather than just relying on the race checkpoints which were placed some 40 miles apart. There is a view out there that this is taking the ‘lighter’ option of the race, but as a newbie to the race, and given the complications of even getting to the start line, frankly I was happy for the assistance and certainly don’t feel it ‘lessened’ the experience in any way.

Finally about 11.00pm I turned in for the night and actually had the best night sleep I’d had in ages, clearly so exhausted from the journey and the prep that there was no way I could stay awake.

7.00am Saturday morning the alarm went off, outside it was all about blue skies and sunshine, where were the signs of the evil MWIS forecast we’d been looking at the day before, the forecast that kept upgrading the weather from Severe to ultimately Acute!! Breakfast – muesli, toast and tea and then we loaded all the kit in the back of Nicks’ little red car and headed off to Edale again. I felt nervous, but in a detached kind of way. The enormity of this race was so huge I didn’t really know how to take it on board.

Arriving in Edale it was a bit breezy, but still no real sign of what was going on up on the tops. Heading to the start building I walked past a fellow competitor and overheard mutterings of a delayed start – delayed from 9.30am to 11.30am, could this really be true? I could have had another hour in bed, more importantly, two hours LESS daylight! In a race with limited hours of daylight, and knowing I would be nearer the back of the pack, this had a big impact on things, although I appreciated that with a race being held at this time of year, weather conditions were always going to be a key influencer of race logistics. Once inside it was soon clarified that yes, the start was delayed and very probably until 11.30am. I toyed with the idea of heading off to a café but even the vague possibility of them going earlier made me stay put. We had access to endless cups of tea in the small kitchen anyway. OK, plenty of time to sit and goggle at everyone else’s gear and chat to fellow competitors. The time passed quicker than I anticipated but it was still hard to imagine how windy it was up on Kinder and Bleaklow.

Well, that was until Marcus Scotney, a favourite to win the Challenger race, came limping back in with a bad sprain after being blown over multiple times. Rumours were also creeping in of some of the Challengers being held at Snake Pass for a weather window. With all this hanging around I nearly forgot to eat, something I would definitely had been doing if I’d been out on the trail already.

Finally, 11.15 am and the much-awaited cry to assemble for the start. The wind picked up lowering the temperature, and it started to drizzle. I was already wearing my heavy mountain waterproof jacket and a last-minute change had me putting on the heavyweight trousers too. I’m so glad I did, I wore them for my entire time out on the course.

I was under no illusions as to where to place myself at the start for this race, back of the middle, kind of near the back suited my expectations just fine! The countdown started and before we knew it we were piling out of the field and onto the road leading up to the turning for the Pennine Way, heading off to Upper Booth and ultimately Kinder Scout. I watched with amazement, envy and amusement as frontrunners set off RUNNING – as you do when you’ve got 268 miles ahead of you – ah if only.

We turned off the main road and on good tracks gained height heading up Jacobs Ladder. By now the wind really had started to pick up, gusting at us, tugging at us, the struggle began. Despite this I felt very comfortable striding out steadily. I chatted to a few guys and even jogged the odd stretch of downhill but mainly climbing up, beyond Jacobs Ladder and onto the Kinder plateau. Eating was a challenge; I found I had to virtually suck food out of its bag if it was to make into my mouth so it wasn’t whipped away by the wind. It was during one such food-sucking episode (whilst trying not to be blown over) that I almost made my first route error of the race – embarrassingly early to be going wrong but I only went a few metres before I realised my mistake. Back on track and now following the trail towards Kinder Downfall. The hammering from the wind was increasing with nowhere for us to hide although skies were actually quite clear and the views beautiful when you managed to look around and take it all in. I saw a few people blown off their feet but miraculously I managed to stay upright. All those hours spent running in Scottish weather paid off, I have clearly learnt to drift with the wind rather than fight it! I actually found my poles of little help, bracing yourself against the wind seemed to create a greater resistance for the wind to bounce off it, floating definitely seemed preferable!

You could see the spray from the Downfall blasting upwards, we were showered with water as we passed behind it and the water was starting to freeze where it landed on the turf. It was a spectacular sight. A couple of stream crossings gave opportunities to scoop up drinking water in the cup I always carry attached to my pack, ensuring I keep the water in my bottles for when there is no other water to be found. So I was across Kinder Downfall and on my way down to the Snake Pass, the going was good here, a bit of mud hopping but soon I hit the pass, crossed the road and gave my number to the race official there.

As I descended off Kinder I’d been starting to think about the next stretch, mainly about where my head torch was – I reckoned I’d be coming off Bleaklow at dusk. It wasn’t in my front pack where I usually carry it and I couldn’t picture what I’d done with it the night before – but clearly remembered the conversation about which torch had the brightest beam, but where the hell DID I pack it? Luckily there was a huge pile of those white bags they use for lifting in large piles of rocks, a perfect place to hunker down and dig around in my pack out of the wind, success, I found the torch; it was also the perfect place to take a pee – it’s not great being female on this kind of event when nature calls in a howling gale on an open hillside!

Upward from here terrain changed, it was a lot wetter and muddier underfoot with streams of water making it hard to decide what was path; but I was moving well. It was here that I started to walk a little with Richard Fish, exchanging a bit of chat and during this I learned that he had a heart condition and a pacemaker fitted (more on this later!). Sometimes I was ahead, sometimes he caught me; eventually we emerged onto Bleaklow itself. The weather had been relatively clear and dry until now, but mini blizzards started to whip up, enhanced by the ever-present howling gales. I knew I had to pay attention to route-finding here specifically. My dad, who has spent many many hours of his youth running across Kinder and Bleaklow as part of Four Inns races and recces, had reminded me more times than I can remember of how tricky it can be to get off Bleaklow in bad weather conditions, having been involved with a serious incident during one of the Four Inns events in the 1960s which ultimately resulted in the deaths of two competitors. A stark warning that you don’t need to be in far flung locations for tragedy to strike.

At the summit I paused to look at my map, and Richard caught me so we put our heads together to plan the descent. I think we probably did start off on the right bearing, but somewhere it all went a little bit wrong. Blizzards had dumped a covering of snow on the ground, obliterating any tracks that went before. We clearly drifted off course, but somehow did that age old trick of making the terrain fit the map. We crossed a fence via a stile and even crossed a river and celebrated our success??? We started to descend and I finally listened to that feeling in my gut that I’d been ignoring, stoped and looked at the map – about 1km off track, on the wrong side of Wild Boar Clough. I know many of you watching the tracker wondered why the hell we were going that way, or thought it was some tactic to avoid the wind – if only! We continued the descent with the terrain becoming steeper and rocky, the little path we were on disappeared, so we decided getting on the correct side of the river would be a good start. This involved a rather ‘interesting’ scramble down the side Wild Boar Clough, in the dark; very glad I found that torch!

Safely at the bottom of the section we found a safe point to cross over the river and Richard was quite anxious to inform HQ that although we were off-course we were fine. I didn’t realise he was actually experiencing something of a medical emergency with his heart at this point. I also picked up a worried text from my dad ‘note you’ve stopped in Wild Boar Clough, east of the Pennine Way love dad’ along with one from Nick asking if all was well? Climbing out, we found a small track heading downwards. I was very relieved to be away from the steep rocky ground and led the way down off the hill to the disused railway track at the bottom; an easy stomp to meet the Pennine Way, Nick and his little red car. Here awaited a mug of fantastic US style hot chocolate and I resupplied with food for the next leg (nuts, raisins, salted cashews, Battenburg cake and salami). Richard and I agreed that if we could move at similar paces we’d stick together otherwise we’d go our separate ways. We headed round the edge of the reservoir, turning just before Crowden to start the next climb up towards Black Hill.

Now Black Hill I had been warned about, Damian Hill mentions it in his fabulous guide to the Pennine Way, Alfred Wainwright has not a good word to say about it. But, do you know what, actually it wasn’t that bad. Richard and I set off together but it soon became clear that I was moving at a faster pace, he was having concerns about his heart rate and after double-checking that he was OK about this, and he insisted he was, I pushed on ahead. The trail rose steadily but the path didn’t seem especially challenging, it just went on and on, I guess I was ‘in the zone’ and just got on with it. I can’t remember what the wind was doing – perhaps it was temporarily behind me – more likely I’ve just blanked it from my mind as it was ever constant, never really letting up. I did at one point notice the rather severe drop off to the right as the path contoured above Bareholme Moss. Nothing would slow your passage if you took a slip there.

Finally six kilometres of steady climbing brought you to the summit and then the route descended off towards Wessenden Reservoir. I was feeling good, quite happy on my own, but the effect of the wind was desperate if you stopped, so continual forward motion was the only way unless the wind blew you somewhere else. The route picked up the infamous Pennine slabs, wonderful when dry but treacherous when covered in slime and moisture and the wind is gusting from behind, forcing you to brake and steady yourself with every step.

Finally I hit the road head on the A635. I’d written on my map that there was a possible snack van here – ha ha, not at 7pm on a windy night in January! But, there was a large camper-type van belonging to race support. My number was taken and I was offered shelter inside to eat, catch my breath, have my water bottle refilled and then sent on my way ensuring I knew where I was going. They were absolutely lovely and I was very grateful. Up the road and turning North onto a path that took me past Wessenden Reservoir. With decent terrain underfoot and temporarily clear skies, it was a joy to turn off the head torch and walk with only the moonlight to guide me. I was warm and I was headed in the right direction, life was good.

Past the reservoirs, the route headed out onto Black Moss. The trail was clear although occasionally boggy and, of course, the wind continued to batter and beat me. I successfully navigated across here with no map mishaps, meeting Nick at the road crossing of the A62 for more hot chocolate and the news that Richard had appeared to have stopped. I refilled my ‘nose bag’ (chest pouch) with supplies for the next stretch. And changed the socks on my left foot as my waterproof sock appeared to have sprung a leak, the foot was frozen and numb (and stayed numb for about a week after the race). I also put on another primaloft jacket as it was really chilling down outside and having not had a hot meal for 24 hours now, my body was vulnerable to cooling down very easily.

Buoyed with confidence from the last leg, I promptly went wrong! I set off just fine, taking the Pennine way along Millstone Edge. I even paused by a great big finger post to check my map, and then breezed on down the Pennine bridleway, I headed along this for a good kilometre before realising my mistake, there was no other option other than to back track and take the correct path, the one marked Pennine Way. Nick had even warned me against doing this before I set off too! Climbing onto the moors, it was rutted, muddy and wet; all very unpleasant. This joined with the Oldham Way – something that was not especially clear on my Harveys map but very clear on the OS map (knew I should have stuck with OS). I took my bearing at a significant path junction, but had been looking at the WRONG stretch of moor when I did it (we had been walking across several stretches of moor, all separated by small roads crossing. My error took me across an evil stretch of bog with several leg-sucking experiences in knee-deep mud, with several more blizzards to add to the fun. It was as the path started to turn West I finally listened to my gut instinct and back tracked. A text from Nick asking if I had my GPS on was not amusing; although he DID have a point, having watched me wander around a bit on the tracker! Up until now I had been trying to do this the ‘proper’ way with my map and compass, but I was carrying a GPS with the route uploaded on it with way points on it, so there really was not a viable reason to be blundering around in bogs on the wrong track at 10pm at night! It’s hard to relinquish the old ways!

With the help of my new friend GPS, I arrived back where I started to go wrong and met two head torches who shouted out to me. They had almost followed but luckily realised I was wrong. I was moving a little faster than these guys but my confidence had taken a bashing. The point when I was trying to work out where I was and the map wasn’t making sense (because I was looking at the wrong bit) and I was all on my own in the darkness and the blizzards was probably the only point when I wondered what the hell I was doing. Feeling stressed and muttering at myself to sort it out, there were tears before I got my act back together. So although I walked ahead I stayed with these guys for the next couple of sections. More moor, more bogs, more paving stones, constant wind blasting, sometimes a blizzard.

I met Nick was at the parking point on the A672 before you cross the M62, near the radio mast. Whilst sheltering in the car drinking hot chocolate, a race medic jumped into the car and asked if I was OK. I was a bit surprised by this, especially when she kept asking me – as if I might not be sure. I presume she was doing the same for all those still out on the course at the back of the pack. There had been so many drop-outs earlier in the day, and we were getting into the colder hours of the night but I seemed to convince her I was OK. While I was eating there was also a bang on the window, it was a guy called Steve I had chatted to on the way up Kinder Scout. He was just heading back out with a Czech lady called Alzabeta and we agreed to stick together for the next bit.

The snow on the ground had deepened as we set off up onto Blackstone Edge. This was another navigational ‘black spot’ – my map notes said ‘vague path, boulder hopping, use poles and cairns, worst = leaving crest ridge’. I attempted to keep us on track with the GPS and Steve had the map and compass. We were definitely all showing signs of tiredness at this point, getting tetchy and sniping if we seemed to be off the path at all. We descended off the edge with little incident though, joining the Old Packhorse Road and then picking up the trail across Blackstone Edge before heading down to the A58.

Here was the infamous White House Inn. Originally I had hoped to be here about 9.00-9.30pm and having a hot meal before pressing on, but sadly the two hour delay at the start meant it was now 11.30pm and well past last orders. So no hot food. Steve decided that he was going to pull out; he had a supporter meeting him at the pub so we said our farewells and then Alzebeta and I pushed on alone.

We made a good team, and it was easy flat terrain so we kept a good pace past Whiteholme Reservoir and on towards Warland Reservoir, although the signing was a bit random in places and we temporarily lost the route only to follow a narrow track making its way up onto what looked like the wall of the reservoir which revealed another great big track and another massive Pennine sign post. Alzebeta remembered this stretch from the one recce she’d managed to do, it was pretty flat but boggy if you happened to slither off the slabs at any point.

Heading across Withens Moor, Stoodley Pike started to come into view. This was the next big landmark and also a point of excitement because once you descended off, the next point of interest was Hebden Bridge and Checkpoint One! However Stoodley Pike took forever to arrive – it was probably only about three kilometres away but the wind was blowing at us head on and it was so cold, plus by now we’d been on the go for about 18 hours almost non-stop with the wind sapping extra calories as you fought onwards. I actually still felt OK, fuelled by a desperation to reach the monument and finally drop out of the godforsaken wind, maybe. Reaching the monument was a battle, but I spotted some doorways inset in the monument – perfect to grab 10 minutes of breathing space to get some food down and check the route again.

Heading off Stoodley Pike, we overtaken by a team of three or four who went steaming past. Joy of joy the sky started to lighten as well. Having been in almost total darkness for over 12 hours I was desperately craving daylight. The route was fairly straightforward here with just a few confusing field crossings, soon we were zig-zagging through the woods down to the road where we met Nick again. This was about 7am on Sunday morning.

We didn’t stop for food and hot chocolate, we knew the checkpoint was just six miles away, although it was a tough six miles that took us about 1.5 hours to cover as we had to climb up and over a couple more ridges. I was leading the way here, Alzebeta was virtually sleepwalking – an impressive feat! The route was a bit confusing but I just stuck the GPS on and followed the dot on the route, I’ll not even pretend I map-read my way through here!

Finally we picked up ‘Spine’ signs … OMG … finally the checkpoint … well once we’d negotiated steep switch backs down into a wooded valley where the centre was. I was ignoring all thoughts of the slog involved to get back out again later! As I descended I passed people in varying levels of sprightliness. Some were literally springing around, others were looking distinctly less than impressed and didn’t really need my morning smiley cheer I am sure! It was 10.00am at Checkpoint One. Hard to believe it had taken 22.5 hours to cover about 47 miles (including my little detours). Usually I can cover 50 miles in anything between 11 and 13 hours. I appreciate I was walking rather than running, but the impact of the wind was significant too.

Nick met us in the car park as he had my resupply bag in his car, and after a bit of wandering around we located the right place to check in. The place was pretty quiet as we really were at the back of the pack BUT, most importantly we hit the checkpoint within the deadlines (you needed to have left checkpoint one 24 hours after the start of the race, which was 11.30am). I found an outside tap and attempted to wash some of the mud from my ankle gaiters and shoes before I removed them – they were caked. I hung as much kit as I could up to dry in the sun and wind and then went inside to find food. Starving hungry, jacket potato and chilli, followed by bread and butter didn’t touch the sides, along with several mugs of tea. Another ‘team’ were about to head out – the guys that zoomed past us up on Stoodley Pike. They had grabbed some bivi sleep earlier in the night so were just eating here, not sleeping. I now had about 45 minutes before officially we needed to be out of the checkpoint. I decided 20-30 minute power nap was probably a good call, so I retrieved my sleeping bag from my drop bag and fairly quickly fell into a deep doze on a bunk in a dormitory. All too soon I became aware of a lady sitting beside me demanding what my plans were – I replied in sleepy confusion that I absolutely was planning to continue … ‘well, you’ve got 15 minutes to be out then, you had better get a move on’ was the encouraging reply.

In something of a panic I headed out to my kit bag and rucsac and grabbed dry spare socks and base layers along with fresh batteries. Shortly after this the checkpoint controller arrived (and what a lovely man he was). ‘What is all the panic?’ he asked and I explained. He basically said that the forecast for the evening was horrendous and we were to take the time we needed to ensure we had ALL the kit to make sure we were warm and safe out there, he would check us out on time. I relaxed and focussed on getting everything packed up properly.

Alzebeta was packing too and ready to go at the same time. There had also been another guy sitting in the dining room with us (Tom – Tom Jones) and we invited him to join us … he ummed and aaaahed saying he didn’t want to hold us up but we were extremely persuasive! So he joined our little gang and Nick headed off with an agreement to meet again at Ponden Reservoir.

We left not that long after 11.30am, and almost immediately went wrong on the zig-zag trail back up to the road. Alzebeta and I went one way and Tom another but we all arrived at the road and I picked up the pace, fuelled by the hot meal. Alzebeta fell behind but Tom soon caught me as I paused to check the map and it turned out that we had a pretty similar pace. He jogged a bit more on the flats, but I was faster at yomping the inclines. Of course, it was still windy, but the sun was shining a bit and it seemed warmer than Saturday. We made speedy progress over Clough Head Hill, past Gorple Lower Reservoir and across to the Walshaw Dean reservoirs, with only a minor detour when Tom attempted to take us on a little variation up Old Dike Hill, luckily I managed to persuade him this was not necessary and we were soon back on track. The miles passed quickly, easy inclines and good conversation make for fine travel companions.

We climbed up past Withins Heights, descended past the ruins so famous in Wuthering Heights; the wind seemed picked up another notch and the sky had darkened ominously so we pulled into the ruins for Tom could put another layer on. We shovelled some more food down and headed out on our way again quickly, standing still I found I got cold very quickly despite all the layers I was wearing. Heavy rain started to fall. Clearly it had all been going a little too well at this point and we relaxed, deep in conversation, jogging down the road off the moor, stopping to check the map, but managing to walk straight past the path across to Ponden Reservoir. Another classic ‘make the terrain fit the map’ moment, and then I noticed that we were approaching a village, and it was called Stanbury, nope we definitely didn’t need to be there. We’d probably gone about 800m off route, but when we tried to backtrack and find the correct path, we struggled to locate it in the dark and the rain, it should have been easy! Just as Tom went to check out an option (actually the right one) Alzebeta appeared over the brow of the hill and confirmed it was indeed where we were meant to be going. Another 40 minutes or so of time lost to silly mistakes – grrrrrr. It was the last one we were to make though so I guess we were learning our lesson.

Finally, we emerged by Ponden Reservoir. What followed felt like something out of a comedy; if only I’d been able to video. Nick’s car is very small, I think I’ve already mentioned this, and the back seats were down to fit all the food and kit in it. As we opened the doors to climb in, the wind whipped the doors out of our hands, and then we realised there was another person in the car. Another Spine Racer that Nick had rescued from the weather and let sit in his car to recover a bit. Nick was becoming something of a guardian angel for the back of the pack, but he is so very good at looking after people. So we had four soaking wet racers on the two front seats, with wet packs on their laps, and Nick curled up in the boot attempting to supply hot chocolate to the front. I was trying to change the batteries in the GPS and Alzebeta was trying to give Nick money for some batteries he’d bought for her, it was absolute bloody chaos, hilarious and annoying at the same time! Eventually we just had to eject ourselves back out into the weather, but oh my god, that weather – the doors were ripped out of our hands as we attempted to open them and we fell into the wind and rain, doors slamming behind us. It was pitch black and you could see very little even with the torch beam due to the horizontal rain. This weather went well beyond ‘invigorating’.

We set off as a group of four, the new addition being the other guy in the car, conveniently also named Tom, making life easy for me. Tom Jones clearly had a problem with names because as the evening progressed he started to call me Claire instead of Fran. I never did get to the bottom of why this was so and eventually gave up and just answered to Claire.

A little bit of confusion about the route as we set off – Tom J was convinced the route started off through a sailing club (I think that is what he said anyway), but even the people in a car that passed us by hadn’t heard of the sailing club, and I elected to follow the GPS blob, which brought us to a path conveniently labelled ‘Pennine Way’. A slightly confusing section through paths and road crossings followed, during which Alzebeta fell back from the rest of us, but soon we were on a path heading up onto Ickenshaw Moor. This was not pleasant, with the driving rain and wind, it became noticeable how much we were slowing on the climbs, we put this down to needing another decent hot meal in us and resolved that as soon as a suitable place appeared we would try and cook something up, not being anywhere near suitable hostelries. My map notes stated route finding was tricky here with a big climb at the beginning. I agree with all of that! The GPS backed up the map and with Tom J and I working in tandem we made good, accurate, progress. The descent was really horrible, with bogs, mud, and hidden ditches all making for an obstacle course by torchlight. At one point my foot went down a hidden water-filled ditch, I landed on my hand and felt the thumb make a definite noise it shouldn’t have, going fizzy and numb.

Finally off the moor we hit the road and had a bit of a debate about whether to look for some kind of shelter in Ickornshaw or press on. We eyed up a bus shelter, and even sat in it briefly to test it out, but it had no windows so decided it was no good. Onwards then, crossing muddy field after muddy field, none of which contained suitable spots for cooking or sleeping – they were just fields of slurry. I realised my water was pretty low and if I wanted to cook food I needed more, but all the water seemed to be flowing through cow shit! Eventually I found a stream I deemed clean but Tom J was not convinced, despite me pointing out it was going to be boiled, not drunk unboiled. We then hit a minor road with a few buildings and I found a corner of trees and undergrowth next to someone’s garden, it was quite sheltered and we were not actually IN the garden so agreed it was a good place to stop and cook up some hot food, but I couldn’t persuade the two Toms it would do for a power nap! Not sure what the time was, possibly about 11pm, but I texted HQ to advise that we were stopping for a cook-up. Amazingly we had a break in the rain at this point and sat comfortably in our hollow cooking up our own little feasts – I will concede I was definitely envious of Tom J’s meatballs, my drooling was clear and he is a very generous soul, and then also gave me a mug of delicious hot lemon and honey, AND some of his stash of chocolate … what a love! Not that I didn’t have food of my own … I did, and I was eating it, but his was so much more delicious!!

Time to hit the trail again with the village of Lothersdale being the next target. To reach it lay more miles of navigating across muddy fields in the pitch black. I’m sure it would all be a breeze in broad daylight. Crossing into each field involved either a metal gate that may or may not open, or a stile. The stiles were definitely the worst. They were hardly wide enough to get a body through, even my slim build struggled, and often had a sprung-loaded gate attached on the other side (which depending on the wind direction were often impossible to open). Teamwork was essential. On either side of the wall would be a massive pool of slurry. Sometimes it wasn’t that deep, but usually it was at least ankle deep. One benefit of the darkness was not being able to see this muck but you could smell it! We crossed about seven of these fields, and with each one we could feel ourselves getting grumpier. Sleep, we desperately needed sleep, I knew I was defnitely tired and irritable and by Lothersdale I announced that I was going to sleep, whatever. We then wandered around the streets a bit trying to find somewhere suitable, sadly there seemed to be no bus shelters, Tom J didn’t seem too keen on the corner by the wood pile – someone might wake up and see us, so we walked on up the road in the direction of the next stretch of field and there we found a nice grassy pull-in – slurry free – by the field gate; I spotted the most beautiful sight; a tractor – we could all fit under it! Luxury, a bivy with a roof.

The weather was taking another break from hurling its worst at us so we could at least unfurl sleeping kit and climb into bivy bags without getting wet. The Other Tom (not J) announced this was one of the most bizarre moments of his life – he probably had a point, but I was really quite excited about it all (or perhaps just a little delirious with tiredness), and just so relieved to be climbing into a warm dry sleeping bag, briefly out of the wind. I sent a text to race HQ to say we were stopping for a 2 hour nap (it was 1.00am) and settled down to at least doze if not sleep. I was very cosy and comfortable and remained warm, must have been the tractor shelter and three of us lined up like peas in pod!

3.00am the alarm went off, I’m warm, it’s raining again and nobody wants to move. Another 20 minutes we agree. 3.20am, alarm goes again, Tom J and I were clearly awake but we wondered whether the other Tom had perhaps died in his bivy bag due to the total lack of movement. We shouted several times before he eventually emerged! Reluctantly we climbed out and packed away kit. My liner socks had dried out a treat while I dozed. Thankfully being under the tractor gave us shelter to get sorted, but all too soon we were back out into The Weather.

3.45am I guess and we started to head off, am not sure I felt especially refreshed but the rest did us some good, however the weather is truly awful and daylight was still a long way off. At this point we were briefly caught by Alzebeta who tried and failed to sleep because she was so cold. We crossed a couple more fields; the next stretch was a bit more tricky. Tom J had a great plan involving contouring, which all sounded lovely but a bit complex for 4.00am when we are tired so I got the GPS fired up and with his bearing on both our compasses and the back-up of my GPS blob I reckoned we could keep random wandering to a minimum – well bogs tend to take you off track so easily as you try to dodge and extract. The plan paid off, we gave a little dance of jubilation as we hit the cairn on Pinhaw successfully. Somewhere on the way up onto here Alzebeta fell behind again but we tried to guide her onto the correct path with our torches. Reading her comments after the race, I think she thought she was hallucinating flashing lights, but they were real, they were us!

I had agreed to meet Nick at East Marton, some 5 miles North of Pinhaw. As we descended to the road off there we saw a torchlight and a red-jacketed person walking to meet us from the parking point. I thought it was Nick as I greeted him and then soon realised it was a member of the Mountain Safety Team. This was something of a rare breed by now, as since leaving CP1 on Sunday late morning, we had had no communication with anyone (apart from a brief reply to my text saying we were snoozing); in direct contrast to Saturday, where racers were being ticked off at crossing points and checked out for mental well-being by staff.

Bearing this in mind, I was completely unprepared for what followed: asking how we all were, and then telling us we were being pulled from the course. I was pretty stunned by this. When I asked why, we were told it was because we were not going to meet the checkpoint deadlines and the Mountain Safety Team could not cover the back of the pack. I can’t explain the feelings that went through me. I was too thrown at that moment to do the maths regarding checkpoint cut-offs, but was fairly sure we were within schedule. I couldn’t remember whether we were to leave CP2 60 hours or 66 hours after the race started. Despite my confusion, I knew I wasn’t happy. Yes, I was tired and my waterproofs were definitely wet through, but I was fine (as was Tom J), we also had a support car waiting just five miles away. Tom J was probably a bit more rational and polite to the MST guy, and I guess having completed the entire race a couple of years ago, was able to put better perspective on the moment. For me, I was thinking of all the complicated logistics I had got in place to get to the start line, and then, through no decision of my own, it was game over, despite me feeling fine.

The other Tom decided he was done in and was going to pull out anyway. We asked if they had pulled in Alzebeta yet, and so the MST guy phoned HQ to find out about her situation as he wasn’t aware of her presence. Alzebeta has her own tale to tell of that stretch of moorland and what happened to her, but ultimately she was picked up by the MST a while later.

I suggested that whilst the Safety guy was waiting for official confirmation from HQ, could he let us walk onto the next village as standing still in the rain I was getting incredibly cold. To be fair to the safety guy, he was the messenger, not the decision maker, never a nice task; and even he conceded that we did indeed look fine. However, I did need to get moving – I was wearing two merino wool thermals, a merino wool jumper, two primaloft tops, my mountaineering waterproof jacket, two pairs winter running leggings, waterproof trousers, hat, balaclava, buff, primaloft mitts (with liner gloves), ankle gaiters, knee-length gaiters, wool liner socks and waterproof socks (that I later discovered were full of mud!) and was staying warm providing I was moving, what I really needed was a decent fry-up!

Tom and I set off for the two-ish mile trudge to Thornton-in-Craven. We stomped and discussed, trying to work the maths for the checkpoint cut-offs. We agreed that there was no way we were bailing we would have to be pulled.

We came to the conclusion that we didn’t actually need to have left CP2 (Hawes) until 11.30am on Tuesday morning. Given it was 6.00am on Monday morning, and that CP was about 38 miles away, we had at least 27 hours to get into and leave Hawes. We fantasised about the hot breakfast we would buy in Gargrave and the hot pies we would buy in the Coop. Gargrave was only four miles from East Marton where we were meeting Nick, so we would be there by 9am definitely. Hot food was within touching distance.

We reached Thornton-in-Craven … no sign of the Mountain Safety car, we just started to head off up the track towards East Marton when damn, the guy came running round the corner. We nearly got away … should have turned off our torches!!

The show was over; HQ wanted us off the course. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. We got in the car, which I won’t deny, was lovely and warm, and the guy said he would take us up to CP2 at Hawes (where the Challenger race finished) where we could sort out our kit etc. Tom was going to head up there, get some rest and join the Mountain Safety Team for the rest of the week; he is a stronger braver person than me. I’d said to myself before the race that I would happily do that if I had to bail out. Being confronted with being pulled off despite being fine, I couldn’t face the thought of seeing the Challengers coming in joyful at completing, or seeing the racers still going coming through CP2 and continuing on their way. I asked instead if he could at least take me round to East Marton and drop me with Nick and I would decide then. We headed round there and thought about Tom, Nick and I at least going to get that hot breakfast and then realised we could only fit two people in Nick’s car.

It was such a shock and having to say goodbye so quickly to my fantastic companion for the last 18 hours (who I’m not sure I would recognise in broad daylight, minus layers of thermal and waterproof coverings!). I wasn’t too happy about that either. It was all very sudden and very horrible, and felt very wrong.

I climbed into Nick’s car, put my head in my hands and just cried – tears of anger and frustration. So much effort put into trying to get down to do the damn race and it felt like I couldn’t even prove I DID have the mettle to finish. Knowledge that there were people moving ahead of us, but not an awful lot faster didn’t help. I also felt, that given we were now in the valley, it was getting light, we were close to villages, we were not a million miles from Malham and CP1.5 and we definitely were still in time-scales for leaving CP2, and at no point had anyone even given us a hint that this was potentially on the cards – no text to say ‘keep your phone on, we are monitoring you, we have concerns about your speed’, nothing, and that bothers me.

I don’t want my race report to end on a sour note. I had a fantastic time out on the course, and that is even with some of the most extreme mountain weather I’ve been out in. The extremeness being emphasised by how sustained it was, no let up, ever. I travelled with some amazing people who I laughed with, got a little lost with, stayed on track with and shared memories with. That you can’t beat. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not a little antsy about how it panned out, disappointed. Countless people have talked to me about ‘unfinished business’, going back to prove myself, but I’m really not sure actually.

My kit worked – the only thing I’d like to source is a lighter sleeping bag but everything else worked really well for me.

I had some stupid dodgy navigational moments – which actually, now I’ve read some of the other race write-ups, I realise others also made. But overall my navigation was actually pretty OK, and I now know exactly how useful a GPS can be.

I felt fine in myself – that for me was a massive confidence boost. I actually ‘enjoy’ challenging myself like this – I kind of always knew it, but it’s good to have it reaffirmed after you’ve been on the go for 48 hours with no real sleep to speak of and are still able to make rational (well they seemed rational at the time!) decisions.

The Adventure Hub – Northumberland Ultra Race, Wooler, August 2011, 100km and 3800m

Adventure Hub are a relatively new company, organising adventures further afield as well as six ultra races around the UK – varying distances but all with an accompanying marathon.  They are trying to introduce a bit more of a challenge into the race besides the distance alone – they certainly did that in this race!!

 This was always going to be tough. Entering on a whim at the start of the school holidays ensured that what little running I’d done over the last few months was unlikely to be supplemented by many long runs in the coming weeks. I also knew that 100km across the Cheviots was not to be underestimated, especially with the organisers emphasising a need to be familiar with a map and compass even though the course would be marked.  Memories of childhood holidays in the rivers and hills was one big draw, and the final pull was the chance of gaining three points towards the five I needed to apply for the North Face UTMB race 2012.

 So, hoping the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon I’d done at the beginning of July, a few days climbing the peaks of North Wales and a couple of long runs under my belt would be sufficient to see me through, I turned up in Wooler on Friday evening, ready to take on the race in the morning.

The forecast for the weekend had already been dire so I was well-prepared for the fact it was probably going to rain for the majority of the race. A streaming cold that broke out on Monday ensured my lungs were in less than top form.

 The family people-carrier converted into a camper van for the weekend, I prepared my enormous mountain of pasta and sauce and then went for a brief recce to locate the start. Apparently this was in the field opposite my evening campsite but I couldn’t see anything to suggest a small number of lunatics were to meet from 6am in the morning. Just as I was giving up a couple of vehicles pulled into the field and put my mind at rest.

 Bag packed and re-checked numerous times I set my alarm and fell into a restless sleep.  5 am and the alarm, accompanied by the sound of rain rattling down on the roof.  Several cups of tea and a huge bowl of muesli and I was ready to register in preparation for our 7am start.

 There were nine people starting the ultra race, three of whom were women and 16 for the shorter marathon distance, all guys. A total of six no-shows – perhaps the weather had put them off?  The rain was pouring down outside but sounded far worse thrumming on the roof of the tent.  Number pinned under my waterproof, I’d 30 minutes to spare before the start so time for a banana and some sports drink before the off.

 7 am, the hooter blasts and the ultra-runners set off up the high street of Wooler.  The field is varied – for three it is their first effort at an ultra, others have longer distances under their belt – 100 milers in the UK and Himalayas for example.

 As we are on a hill, I am walking – little did I know this was to set the general tone of the race!!  Generally the rule of thumb for ultra running (unless you are the elite), is walk the hills and run/jog the flats and downs.  There was an awful lot of up in this race, and the majority of it was in the beginning – quite a lot of walking then.  Heading out of Wooler into the woods, the ground is sodden and running with streams of water, feet are already soaking and muddy.  Winding through the forest we break out onto the fell. Although it’s still raining the temperature isn’t bad and it’s not particularly windy.  The scenery is glorious – purple heather and deep green bracken cover the slopes and rivers and waterfalls break it up, all in all it’s fantastic actually.

 My lungs are feeling particularly grumpy and I struggle to get air into them when there are opportunities to run, it all feels fairly uncomfortable. Six miles in, checkpoint number one, so far the navigation has been pretty straightforward – we have small laminated cards of the map with the route marked on it, along with photos of appropriate landmarks to help us stay on track.  Carrying the full maps and a compass and being able to use them were part of the rules along with carrying a head torch, sufficient food to survive an emergency situation, spare warm layer and waterproofs.

 The five checkpoints were all equipped with tea, coffee, hot chocolate, jaffa cakes, nine bars, glucose powder, peanuts and cheery enthusiasm from the marshall. Checking in and grabbing a handful of jaffa cakes I set off again, ready to start the serious climbing ahead. The first big ascent hill was Hedgehope Hill at 714m, slow but steady climbing brought us to the top and miraculously the rain started to recede, we dropped off here and then up again onto Dunmoor Hill, and so it went on … climb a hill, lose most the height, climb another hill, lose the height again.  Sometimes it was impossible to run/jog the descents as they were so loose and rocky you ran a risk of serious ankle injury. If we weren’t climbing and descending the route took us through fields and open moorland and the occasional stretch of single track road. Other challenges that continued through the night included opening increasingly complicated styles of five-bar-gates and climbing over slippery stiles!

 Of the nine in the group, five very rapidly disappeared into the distance at the start, leaving the three women and one other guy spread out behind.  Ascending Hedgehope I caught up with Nick, this was to prove an enduring partnership for the remainder of the race.  We left the other girls behind and soon caught up with a guy in front of us who’d got lost. It was his first ultra and he was blown away with how hilly it was and how tricky the navigation was. Many of the paths are merely small sheep tracks rather than obvious bridleways and it was easy to get confused.

 We pulled ahead of him and that was the last we saw of any other competitors for the remainder of the event.  Nick and I were both reasonably confident navigators but even so, we made some silly mistakes and it became a standing joke when a marshall said ‘now the next section is dead easy, you can’t possibly get lost!!

 I’d given up looking at my watch by now.  Our briefing had said we needed to reach checkpoint 4 by 4pm as a cut-off (this was just over halfway of the route) otherwise we might not be able to continue.  I think it is telling of the conditions underfoot and the terrain that we missed that cut-off by 90 minutes!! However, we were both in good shape and moving well albeit slowly so refuelled by yet more jaffa cakes we continued onto the next big section. This was to be a toughie, we had a 13 mile stretch to cover, taking in the ascent up to the Pennine Way, continuing along here and then descending to the valley and the final checkpoint before the finish. Thankfully we avoided any ascent of The Cheviot and Windy Gyle.  It was about 5.30pm when we left this checkpoint, yet another daft detour – no idea what happened this time and we were getting demoralised and worried as we now knew we’d be on the tops in the dark.  However, working out where we were and getting back on track our spirits lifted.  Finally, hitting the Pennine Way we knew we might get some decent footing to ‘run’ on. Much of the path is paved by huge flagstones and duck boards. At random points they disappear into peat bogs which take you by surprise and immerse you ankle-deep in sludge. But we picked up quite a pace there.  We needed too, the light was fading fast, the wind had picked up and was very cold, it had started to drizzle and there was a thick mist developing.  Just what you don’t need when you’ve been on your feet for 14 hours surviving on jaffa cakes!!

 Eventually we had to give in and get the head torches out as we could no longer see the map clearly. Head-torches and thick mist don’t mix – the beam reflects off the mist and kind of dazzles you. Running in a torch beam makes you feel a bit seasick after a while and I was feeling spaced out and nauseous at intervals along here. Nick was cooling down rapidly and I insisted we both stopped and put on over-trousers.  I could sense he was as concerned as me about being up in such an exposed area in our current state. We were hypothermia time-bombs!!  I forced myself to run, even though my body really didn’t want to. More of a problem was my lungs than my legs – they just couldn’t get air in to give me what I needed (a doctors appointment some weeks later identified me as an asthma sufferer!!).

 Darkness descended in full and by now I was taking on more of the navigating duties. Nick was struggling with his ITB and knees and was generally cold.  We started the descent off the top, as I put my foot down it hit a wobbly rock, this in turn pitched me forward and my shin slammed into another boulder – ****, ****, ****. That seriously hurt. Thankfully the ibuprofen I’d taken 30 mins earlier dulled the pain and we continued. We had just started picking our way down the path to the valley when a torch started vigorously flashing at us from the top.  Wondering if it was someone in trouble we backtracked up and headed to the light.  It was by a mountain bothy – a group of guys up there for the night enjoying some beers and interesting tobacco who thought they’d say hello!!!! Strangely I wasn’t overly impressed with this and pointed out a little grumpily that we were taking part in a race and were about 50 miles in, they were really apologetic and we went on our way.

 I was very worried I wouldn’t be able to backtrack and re-find the path but thankfully we did.  Pausing on the way down we looked up to be confronted by the most awesome night-sky display.  The sky was just full of stars and planets and satellites. I could have looked forever, but there was a small matter of getting down into the College Valley and a checkpoint …  Downward we plodded, at my encouragement Nick got his lightweight poles out to help his knees.  Amazingly, apart from my useless lungs I felt in brilliant shape – yes, I really mean that. The ibuprofen was clearly dulling some of the niggles but I had no blisters and mentally felt strong too.  The dizzy patches that I’d felt on the top seem to have disappeared and I positively bounded down the hill.  Pitch black in the valley – lots of stars but no moon – meant we stumbled around a bit in stream tributaries and sheep poo trying to find the main path but soon we located it and finally we saw the lights of the Youth Hostel and a marshall standing on the path to guide us in.  I was actually running at this point!

 Here we refuelled again. I was very concerned we wouldn’t be allowed to continue. It was now gone midnight and we had 12 miles left to go. Our pace was pretty slow what with navigating in the pitch black and being tired/sore. I wasn’t sure Nick felt he was able to go on, and knew they wouldn’t let me go on alone, not that I really wanted to do that anyway.  The marshalls’ were all set to pull us off the course but we put on such a convincing show of good spirit that after consulting with the race director by phone they let us continue. I was delighted and relieved but aware that I was probably the stronger of the two of us at that time, and really needed to hold it together.

 The next stretch was road – thank god – I don’t usually say that but the knowledge we wouldn’t be falling in bogs and ditches for about four miles was wonderful. We even broke into a decent trot for most of this, jogging past a wedding party in a marquee at one point. Both of us determined to try and eat up some miles before we were forced to walk again. The remainder of the route was along the St Cuthbert Trail, this apparently is way-marked all the way to Wooler. I’m sure the marking is clearly visible by daylight, not in the pitch of the night.  However, regular bits of tape tied on bundles of grass meant that we were several miles off the road before the navigation got hard again. Thankfully I managed to unravel most of it and we were finally strolling across our last stretch of fell before hitting Wooler town. The relief of knowing the end was in sight – well it would have been if we’d gone the right way!!!  Yet again I had that nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that we were off course (never fails me that feeling).  Thankfully there were some dredges of charge in Nicks GPS and we powered it up to get a grid reference for location – I was very close to the edge of losing it now and was so relieved when it showed we were actually only a little off. (small note here – we did not navigate the whole way with the GPS, that was done with map and compass, but desperate times call for sensible measures …).

 Finally we were ‘running’ down Wooler high street, the clock said 4.10am – OMG how long were we out?

 On reaching the end we were met by delighted organisers – you’d think they would have lost the will to live by this time of night. I was the only woman finisher – the other two stopped before the section over the tops. The guy who got lost also stopped then. There was one other guy still out there somewhere and they were having trouble locating him as he kept phoning his parents instead of them for updates, I’m assuming they did eventually locate him!! I couldn’t have asked for a better team-mate on the way round and it made a huge difference to the enjoyment of this event – yes I did actually enjoy it.   We finished in 21 hours and 15 mins (I think). The winning time was 16 hours something.  Again this is very telling as the original specified cut-off for the race was 16 hours and none of us made that, not even the really speedy guys.

The Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, 5/6 July 2008

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mountain Marathon is an extended form of fell running, usually over two days and often with a strong orienteering element. Competitors usually participate in teams of two, and have to carry their own food and tent. There are various classes of event (such as, for the Karrimor IMM – Elite, A, B, C, Long Score and Short Score).

Principal UK events

The start arrangements on the two days are usually different (and are designed to encourage navigational independence). For example, on day 1 of the SLMM a staggered start is used, with teams being sent off at 1 or 2 minute intervals, and not getting their way-cards until they are ‘on the clock’. On Day 2 the overnight leaders are often sent off half an hour before the others (a ‘chasing start’) and a mass start, for those more than half an hour behind overnight, then follows.

The races have provided the stimulus for various items of specialist lightweight gear, for instance lightweight tents (Saunders) and multipouched running sacs (the ‘Kimm sac’).

 

Way back at the beginning of the year my friend Charlotte announced that she wanted to train for something ‘different’ to the ‘normal’ marathon.  A foolish thing to say to me, as I have a whole list of ‘different’ challenges on my ‘to do’ list, and a reputation for dragging people into doing them with me.  In fact, all mountain marathon’s I have done to date have involved ‘suggesting’ to people they might like to have a go at them; two victims later and I’ve reached Charlotte.  So a plot was hatched to take part in the Saunders Lakeland Marathon.  A friend who had done it said it was ‘great fun’ and much nicer than the OMM because you got loads of daylight, and more importantly, beer and fresh milk at the half-way camp. This friend was someone I’d persuaded to join me in my first ever mountain marathon – A KIMM back in October 2000, so it’s possible he couldn’t have been stitching me up by way of revenge!!

Spring arrives and we have the ‘girls’ team (Charlotte and I) and the ‘boys’ team (my husband and a friend) – no competitiveness there then!!  Charlotte and I plan in some form of training – tricky with four children and two husbands who travel to work around.  But, we managed to get some training runs in – you probably spotted us at various points trying out our fell shoes, and trying to get used to running with a rucksack.  Various items of shiny new kit were purchased and before we knew it, it was July and we were on our way.

It didn’t get off to a good start struggling to find the A404!!  Blame that one on the boys though as they were in the front driving/navigating.  Finally on our way we get a phone call from Charlotte’s husband, the M6 is shut.  So, we zigzagged our way up England via the M1 and various other motorways I’d never heard of, finally arriving at Kendal Travel Lodge about 11.45pm.  Alarms were set for 6am and we fell into bed for a night of comfort.

6.00am – alarm, leap out of bed and sort kit. What to wear?  What to throw out of the rucksack as wasted weight?  Breakfast time and Charlottes ‘hot milk frothing machine’ worked a treat for our porridge.

7.00am – meet boys in car park, throw rucksacks in boot and set off for 20 minute drive to the start.  The event started from St-Johns-in-the-Vale, Ullswater.

7.30am – arrive at start and park in large field. Leaving kit in car, head to Event HQ (large marquee) to collect ‘dibbers’ and register. These are an electronic tag which one of the team members has to wear throughout whole event – you use it to ‘dib’ the checkpoints when you find them.

7.45am – start to feel very worried in the face of ‘real’ fell runners, scary hard-looking women (glad I wasn’t wearing my pink nail varnish on this occasion) and psycho looking men with huge calves!! All of which have TINY looking rucksacks compared to ours.

8.00am – Steve decides to buy a ‘proper’ mountain marathon rucksack and has to completely repack; Charlotte and I do final attire selection and eject a few more pieces of flapjack (well, we eat them so I guess still technically carrying them).

8.30am – no more faffing, kit check for waterproofs and food, then it’s off to the starting queues.

8.50 – we have a map, we have a list of coordinates, we are off!!!  We get past the start and join everyone else in a mass huddle on the ground, plotting grid references on our map and planning the way to first checkpoint.  As I plot the points, any hope that we will be keeping low disappears, we will be exploring the entire Hellvelyn range from every angle and height – nice.

So far the weather is being kind, the predicted rain isn’t yet here and it’s quite mild. The first few checkpoints are relatively straightforward to locate but already the terrain is giving us a hard time. Lots of traversing across grassy slopes, running on the sides rather than the soles of your shoes, fabulous for ankles etc!  Gradually the weather starts to close in and sky goes ominously dark, it’s only going to be a matter of time before we get wet.

A checkpoint by a sheepfold, then, shall we traverse Helvellyn or go to the summit – a hike up seems preferable to ankle burning traversing so we head up into the cloud. We are immersed in thick cloud and driving rain. At the summit I do a blind bearing down into nothing and am relieved when some 400m later we emerge on the correct stream junction and find our checkpoint.  Then, 300m back up a severely angled grassy slope (we are almost crawling), and onto Dollywagon Pike. Here the going eases a little as we are on a path, and dare I say it, we manage to break into a jog, something that has happened rarely so far!  The weather by now is pretty abysmal but every now and again the cloud parts to allow me sights of Ullswater (or was it Haweswater?) so that I can double-check our location on the map.

Charlotte is hanging in well. I can still remember what a shock my first KIMM was like, nothing could quite prepare me for how flippin hard it was, in fact Charlotte is amazing!  We drop down towards Grizedale Tarn and I’ve somehow got to find the next checkpoint, cunningly tucked into a small cave. Miraculously I find it and it’s on to the next.  We are jogging along in the most appalling weather. The rain is literally running down us. Our lunch consists of a continuous supply of energy drink, but the honey rolls were a welcome break.  The next checkpoint involves another gruelling slog up bog-infested grass onto the tops.  I try my first ever energy gel and nearly throw-up at the gloopy consistency, HOW VILE?? But it gives me the desired energy boost.

Another checkpoint ticked off, and then we discover the next one involves either cutting directly up onto Striding Edge, something we’re not keen on or another killer grass traverse, we went for the latter. The rain started to abate and we even saw some sunshine, when our heads were not firmly pointed to the floor.  We nearly couldn’t find one checkpoint, and then just as I despaired, the fog lifted and there was the crag.  We started to dry off, our spirits lifted.  The weather continued to hold.  Finally, after yet another slog up yet another steep grassy slope, the penultimate checkpoint for the day; and a view of overnight camp – a row of portaloos in the valley has never looked so attractive!!

We have been on the go for some 8½ hours and we are so tired.  The route from the last checkpoint to camp seems endless and then we are there. We buy milk and stagger off in search of a spot for our tent.  The camp is full of competitors milling around, exchanging tales, cooking food, drinking beer…. We spot the boys having wondered when we’d see them. Unfortunately for them, they had failed to get two of the checkpoints and were effectively disqualified for this.  Steve had sustained injury to his calf from all the traversing to add to their challenges.  I was very diplomatic and kept my mouth firmly shut but Charlotte and I did share a look of triumph – well wouldn’t you?

We got our tent up (well Dan’s tent – many thanks) just as the heavens opened.  About two inches of rain fell in 10 minutes.  It passed as quickly as it arrived though and we didn’t care – we were inside. By now Charlotte and I were exhausted and needed hot fuel in us fast.  Hot chocolate, pea soup, spicy pasta, chocolate roll and a cup of tea all went down the hatch.  Any thought of beer – no chance!!!

Wet clothes and shoes were dismissed to the porch, water bottles full, earplugs in place and Ibuprofen consumed, we crashed out.  Surprisingly I managed to sleep quite well – thankfully neither Charlotte nor I are large otherwise the tent would have been a challenge.

Sunday morning, the view from the tent is dismal – grey low cloud and drizzle.  Hot chocolate and two bowls of porridge, raisins and sugar followed by that all important cup of tea put a better slant on things. Plus they gave us our checkpoint list early so we could plot over breakfast. We reluctantly put back on our wet clothes from yesterday – I can’t describe how unpleasant that is – carefully putting plastic bags over our dry socks before putting our feet back in our mud-encased shoes.  We can set off any time we like provided we have left the site by 8.30am.  I attempt to re-dress the enormous blister I sustained on my heel the day before. It felt OK until I put my shoe back on, even Compeed couldn’t deal with the amount of water we encountered and in the end I had to just ignore it.

We set off into the mist; an army of ants were swarming over the hills in various directions as the different course competitions headed off.  It was all quite straightforward to start with so we set off in good spirits.  Bodies were definitely stiff and unwilling but the ground was reassuring to start with so we got quite a good pace and even overtook a few teams.

Unfortunately a combination of my tiredness and appalling visibility meant I made a couple of silly navigation errors. One involved a rising traverse (we love those so much) to regain lost height, the other a blind bearing off a top we weren’t meant to be on!!  I could tell Charlotte was struggling too, but, she didn’t complain once.  The only sign she gave that things had got really bad was the comment ‘Fran, I know you’re my friend, but I might have to tell you to f**k **f in a minute!!’.  Given the conditions, I think that was very restrained and I told her I quite understood!

I kept my finger and eyes on the map like hawk from thereon in and we picked our way around the rest of the course without further miss-hap.  The final sting in the tail was a 500m descent straight down off the hill to the finish.  It was excruciating on exhausted quads that were burning and screaming but eventually the finish was in sight.  We managed to summon up beaming smiles for the photographer (they must have been convincing as he took three or four photos) and hobbled to the finish and the boys.  They set off for day two anyway, but Steve’s calf was pretty sore and in the end they had to abandon the route.

We set off at 8.15 am and at 14.30 we dibbed our dibber for the final time and staggered into the finish marquee.  To consume the hot meal, slice of cake and cup of tea that is part of the entrance fee.  Again we’d been fuelling on energy drink so this was VERY welcome.

The finish contained a map showing the route planners ‘desired route’. This was an ‘as the crow flies’ route, involving miles of agonising hill traverses.  Our course was supposed to be 19km on day one and 14km on day two (if we’d followed this route), we did 27 on day one and 20 on day two plus all the height gain and loss, that of which I don’t want to even consider.

So, Charlotte and I succeeded in our aim to complete the event, I hope she will forgive and forget enough to have another go next year and see if we can improve on our placing.  For our category ‘Carrock Class’ 127 teams started and 87 finished of which we came 83rd I think. Our category had the highest rate of team dropouts – I’m not sure what that says about the route we did!!

The Adventurehub Frostbite 50, January 2012

A 50 mile jaunt starting and finishing at Whitby Abbey

My pre-race logistics are always complicated – this race involved a flight from Inverness to Manchester the night before the race, collecting my husbands’ car from Manchester upon landing (don’t’ ask why he has a car parked at Manchester airport when we live in Scotland) and then driving across to a nice b&b in Whitby for a good nights’ kip …

It all started to go wrong at the airport on Friday eve when I checked in at Inverness airport for my flight; and they calmly slipped in that the 17.55 flight was due to arrive at 21.15 … cue me having a mini-meltdown on the phone to hubby, and agreeing he should try to book me into a Travelodge or similar somewhere between Manchester and Whitby as I clearly wasn’t going to make the B&B that night. The flight slipped to 22.10, 22.20 and finally arrived at 22.40. By the time we took off it was gone 23.00 hours … we landed, I got the bus to the car park (1.00am), there was a queue of people stuck at the barrier as their plane had been delayed and their tickets expired so they were paying excess, by card, through the speaker system!!! I Cleared that and got on the road, then three junctions were closed on the motorway due to snow, so I had to pull over and work out a new route through, got going again, got onto M1/A1 and then came off at wrong junction as there are two with the same number, eventually got onto A64 – pitch black dual carriageway, managed to miss the Travelodge in the dark and had to faff around getting back on right side of road to get in.

It’s now 3.15am and I have had many mini-meltdown/talking-myself-up moments in the car. The guy at the lodge quite rightly thought I was bonkers. I sorted out my kit and made enormous quantities of tea for myself and then lay in bed seriously contemplating bailing the race and enjoying a day out in York, doing the marathon race or just going for it and seeing what happens and it’s now 4am so I set alarm for 5am. I couldn’t get the door on room to lock properly so just kind of dozed as could hear people wandering up and down corridor – why one earth would anyone else be up at this time!!!! 5am dawns, time for a breakfast of porridge and raisins and more tea and I just shoved on my clothes without engaging brain and headed to car. The reception guy thought I was even more loopy at this point.

Driving towards Whitby I felt so so sick and incredibly tired and really needing to get a few extra items like some water to mix up my electrolytes having not brought any on the plane. I drive through large patches of thick fog on the road but thankfully no snow and arrive in Whitby at 7am, (registration at 7.30am), find a petrol station and water and finally reach the start.

I registered and got my number. The girl I was meant to be meeting at B&B had got my key for me so at least I knew I was sleeping in a comfortable bed whatever on Sat night! It was still dark as we stood at the start listening to the briefing. It was also absolutely freezing so I shoved on some extra layers knowing I was probably wearing too many clothes but hey ho. I was still feeling quite sick but decided to just start and see what happened. Because the beginning and end of the course were the same I knew that provided I bailed before we got on the moors it wouldn’t be too complicated to get back to start.

We set off, the sun was rising, the sky was blue and there were lovely views out over the bay. It was very slippery and greasy on the coastal path but I wasn’t in any hurry – quite happy to let the racing snakes head on and just take my time. This was definitely not going to be a ‘race’, more a completion. As usual I chatted to a few people on the way out, the coastal path was pretty undulating and at times quite steep and dangerously slippery – note that for the return journey … We hit checkpoint no. 1 after about 6 miles and then onto a cinder track – a bikeway – for the next few miles. This was slow gradual climb, a little torturous because it was quite hard packed and my trail shoes didn’t really have enough cushioning in them for it. But it was good going underfoot, a bit of a rain shower but that cleared off and then we started the climb up towards the moors. Another checkpoint – covered about 13 miles by now (only 37 to go!!). I’m thankfully starting to feel a little more human by now. A short stretch along a very busy main road and then off into fields – passing through gates which were ankle deep in freezing water and mud – nice! Then a really pretty section that took us alongside a river, through woods. I was able to get a comfortable trot going through here but it was treacherous in places where mud banks just went straight down to the river – very keen not to end up in river! A steep climb out of this and we were heading across farm fields towards the moors.

This was the start of the mud section, and the mud was BAD! The fields were merely a bit muddy, when we hit the track leading onto the moor it alternated between deep gloopy slurry and thick squelchy stuff with a clay-like consistency that just built up on your shoes. So your feet became soaked, your shoes filled with bits of gritty mud and the soles of your shoes had no grip whatsoever. I gave up trying to run in this. It was a mentally challenging section too because the path was almost dead straight and went on and on and on! I did most of this bit on my own before catching up with some army guys (some of which were on TV – the program about injured soldiers going to the pole with Prince Harry) – that was pretty inspiring – one had broken his back and another had a prosthetic foot; puts things into perspective for sure. Topped up on food at the checkpoint up here and pushed on, not wanting to linger too much. By now it’s an absolutely glorious day, you could see for miles and sun was warm

The next section was quite runable so I made the most of that, although I think definition of run is probably a bit loose but I was definitely lifting my feet off the ground!!! So we completed a loop that lead us back to the checkpoint and the nasty gloopy track again. I tagged along with a couple of guys from York who were doing this distance for the first time. They were moving well and we stuck together until the end. We were determined to get off the track and through the woods back to main road before the darkness hit. From there the route back was pretty straightforward.

By now I was physically feeling good and mentally strong too, only downer was my left foot felt very bruised underfoot, partially due to numbness from cold and once we got running again and I took a couple of painkillers it seemed to ease. As the temperature dropped the mud solidified a bit and the going got easier. Suddenly we were at the road and along to the checkpoint and we only had 14 miles to go. These last 14 miles were the most pleasant I’ve had on an ultra I think. The painkillers had eased the niggles and I felt energetic and optimistic – all quite bizarre really. The guys were in good spirits too though and I think we kept each other up. If I’d gone on alone, I could have gone a wee bit faster but the flipside would have been if I’d hit a bad patch I’d have to deal with it on my own. As it was I didn’t hit a bad patch and we positively yomped back along the coastal path section after running most of the cycle path too. Not to say we didn’t feel discomfort – oh yes it was there, but all manageable. The sky was awesome – thousands of stars and just the odd flicker of head torches from other competitors. The organisers had placed glow sticks at important points on the route so there were no navigational epics this time (unlike my last one) and I felt I stormed into the finish. Time was 12.40 and I’m pleased with that. Had hoped for nearer 11 but given all my challenges that was good enough for me. When you break that time down, it makes for pretty slow progress on paper, probably avg about 12-14mm but this includes stopping at checkpoints for cups of tea, wee stops (although think I only had one of those in 12 hours – eek!!) etc etc

The guys I finished with asked if I wanted to join them for fish and chips but I really couldn’t stomach the thought of that and was VERY keen to find B&B. Finished at 8.40pm so a nice civilised hour. It took me ages to shower the mud off my feet but I crashed into a very comfortable bed and the cooked breakfast the following morning didn’t touch the sides!!!

I then ambled back across to the Peaks and dropped in on a friend of mine for tea and gossip for a few hours before navigating my way to Manchester Airport (I HATE driving round Stockport area in the dark – soooo confusing!), locating the correct car park to leave hubby’s car for him to collect the following morning when he’s flown back down; and ultimately getting my plane home again. I got home about 10 o clock and was then too wired to sleep properly!

The Great Glen Way Ultra 2014

This was the first official running of a new ultra in the Scottish Ultra-racing calendar. Last year a small group of selected volunteers ran the route as a test to see if it would make a viable race.

The route is 72 miles long, following the Great Glen Way from its start point at the end of the West Highland Way, in Fort William; finishing on the sports track at Bught Park,  Inverness.

With the lure of a race which finished under an hour from my home, it seemed rude not to enter. Unlike races such as the West Highland Way, it did not require support crews which made logistics perfect for me as the challenge of childcare AND crew are just too much on top of actually doing the bloomin’ thing, and I do like the lure of the extra distance in a race.  Not having support crews meant we were to use a drop bag system, assigning a bag to each of the six checkpoints.  Quite a big point was made of the fact that support of any kind was not encouraged, with just a couple of checkpoints permitting vehicular access. This was to minimise the impact of the race on the environment and actually, I like this set-up, makes you feel like you are doing it all yourself properly!

Training was the usual mix of injury and family commitments, and spending the first couple of months of the year out of running with back/hip/knee problems didn’t fill me with confidence once I finally got running again after Easter. That said, training did go well, getting in regular runs, even if the accumulated mileage didn’t seem that great (25-45 mpw). I did however start to add in a longer bike ride when I could each week (up to about 40 miles at a time), and I also did a couple of shorter races to remind me what it felt like to run fast!! I think the cycling has definitely helped with leg strength. I have also started to orienteer with our local club and recently have run a couple of harder courses, where, let’s be honest, I had some complete epics of mis-navigation. Several hours-worth of running around on pathless terrain is fantastic for building stamina!!  I’m spoilt for training areas, runs were on coastal path, forest trail, Cairngorm trail, and pathless forest.

Thursday night – any hope of a good night’s sleep before a night of no sleep was a complete fail after commuting husband returned and fidgeted and snored the night away – bah

Friday – school run and then lining up six Lidl carrier bags and flapping about what to put in them. Made what I will now forever call ‘Rocket Fuel Flapjack’ and put several lumps of that in each bag along with bananas and salted cashews/almonds/raisin/chocolate drop mix and randomly threw in some peanut butter or honey sandwiches plus a pair of spare socks and a spare base layer for approximately midway.  A brief power nap after the school run did at least make me feel a little more with it … 6pm dishing up tea to the family … 8pm I have ditched ‘mum head’ and after some rummaging found the ‘ultra runner’ head.

9.30pm, Inverness Leisure Centre in the sunlight of a North Highland summer – it still doesn’t get properly dark until almost midnight. A large group of people are gathered surrounded by varying piles of carrier bags and kit. I’d been flapping about what to wear along with the Lidl bag contents. How cold was it going to be waiting? Did I need to ship stuff back to the start?  Ah well, I went for wearing my long-sleeved base layer over my vest and hoped it would do.  We all shuffled onto the luxury coach ready for the trip down to Fort William, stuffing our bags around our feet.

The journey passed quite quickly actually, the scenery was stunning in the dusk and we chattered amongst ourselves and dozed too.

I really wasn’t convinced of the concept of a race starting at 1am, thus starting with sleep deprivation, but then again, it does seem pointless going to bed the night before a race when you never sleep for fear of sleeping through the alarm!! No such problem here.

Arrived at the start at about 11.30pm I guess, and it’s almost dark. The midges swoop with ferocity  as we put our drop bags in piles by numbers for the checkpoints, ready to be transported.  Registration is in a hotel with a couple of rooms for our use … and more importantly proper toilets – last I will see of those for a while.  With registration sorted I find a space at a table with a lovely couple of ladies from Stonehaven and Audrey who’s rucksac I covet because of it’s gorgeous colour scheme! We have a conversation about where she should wear her torch and I tell her to ignore her husbands suggestions and stick with what she knows!  Number pinned on, I make the most of the proper toilets, eat the rest of my tea that I couldn’t stomach earlier in the evening and generally wile away the time until THE START …

Finally, 12.30am, briefing time (the canal is deep – don’t fall in – you will drown); we’re herded out to the canal loch gates in the dark to await the countdown to 1.00am (and of course I needed yet another wee, so off into the bushes for that).  Eighty-six people dancing around with nerves and cold, torches on, a quick countdown and we are off into the darkness. The first six miles are along the canal towpath and pretty  flat but there are plenty of deep potholes and puddles to look out for, as I found to my cost when I try turning off the head torch and stick my foot straight in a puddle – lovely, wet feet and I’ve not even run a mile!  I start the race running with Matt Weighman whom I met on the bus to and from the start of the Dirty Thirty I completed in June. It is lovely to see a face you recognise, it seems many of the runners here know each other and sometimes, despite the extreme friendliness of these races, it can seem a little lonely if you are not one of the ‘regulars’.  But, I also realised I am running with Sarah Sheridan who I met on the Lairig Ghru Race last June, and finished just in front of me … maybe I am a ‘regular’ after all!

Lots of chatting and joking in the darkness along here, and the group of four Irish guys in front had me chuckling away listening to their banter.   We are jogging along nicely at 9.5ish mm, sometimes overtaking the odd person but just keeping steady. Matt has a torch of wonder, my torch is quite bright but totally inferior in the presence of his lighthouse (I see a new purchase coming on for The Spine Race in January!!).  Sarah drops slightly behind but Matt and I press on.

3.00am on the Caledonian Canal
3.00am on the Caledonian Canal

The skies gradually lighten even though it not remotely near dawn.  We leave the towpath, cross the canal onto tarmac with a short sharp climb and drop onto the most delightful loch side and beach path. It swoops in and out of woods and feels magical in the darkness – I LOVE this bit.  Loch side turns into forest track, the pace slows a little but remains steady; there were a few more undulations than the route profile suggests but they are all perfectly runnable.

Checkpoint 1 is about 10 miles. I restock with a piece of flapjack and head out really quickly as I don’t need much this early on. I leave Matt here and head out on my own; I do miss his torch beam though!!  Somewhere along here I run for a little while with Antonia who jogged comfortably past me after we pause briefly at a junction to decide which way is correct. I am quite happy to see her go as I know she will end up way ahead of me anyway (1hr:20 in the end) and her easy demeanour is deceptive.  The skies keep lightening with a faint pink glow on the horizon but it is still quite cool (glad of my highly technical £1.99 fingerless gloves from Tesco). Early mist is hanging in the valleys over the waters of Loch Lochy and I just have to stop and take pictures as the beauty is breath-taking.

For a while I run with Colin Meek, a runner from Ullapool.  Our pace is evenly matched and we chat about the joys of juggling training around family, and discover a mutual passion of rock climbing (albeit no longer something we do regularly – that family thing again!).  I’m still knocking out steady 9-10mm with the odd 11mm for undulations.  Checkpoint 2 came and here I ditched my compression shorts which I’d purchased for the SDW 100 a couple of years ago but in reality seem the most uncomfortable things ever. I tell the checkpoint lady I never want to see them again and she can throw them in the bin! About 19 miles covered although this checkpoint arrived a bit sooner than I expected.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know WHEN the checkpoints were going to appear, the information we received before the race seemed to contradict itself several times over – and even on race day the numbers given at checkpoints rarely stacked up!

Sunrise on Loch Lochy
Sunrise on Loch Lochy

The run into Fort Augustus is along canal towpath … for six miles … and it’s absolutely grim. Whilst I am pleased to see I am clearly not the only one finding it a struggle, it’s a little worrying to realise that we’ve not even reached halfway yet!!! My right knee is beginning to ache in an ominous fashion, on top of the sleep deprivation I can feel myself descending into one of the ‘dark zones’ and dig out my Ipod. I hardly ever use this on races, but after scrolling down and finding Supertramp the world starts to look a brighter place and I manage to jog into the checkpoint feeling a little more positive.  As before, my drop bag is open and ready for me to grab and run. I can’t believe how quickly I am getting through the checkpoints.  More flap jack and some nuts/raisins, refill of water/Nuun tabs in flasks and I am off down the road.

083

As I leave the checkpoint someone steps out on the road and asks if I know where I am going? Should I? “Um no, I have absolutely no idea” I say and am directed up a small path beside a fence that I really wouldn’t have spotted.  All good except we emerge onto a road and the way still isn’t exactly clear, so a bit of guesswork, and the guys behind me follow so I guess I am looking convincing.

I undergo a complete mental/physical transformation at this point … and I am practically skipping along waving my hands around to Supertramp which goes round about four times before I get bored and ditch the Ipod – I am feeling so good I am afraid to break the mood!! On I cruise, keeping in the good place mentally despite the aching knee; overtaking guys here and there. A small moment of confusion where a guy in front of me is convinced we need to go one way and I’m convinced not, I follow my head and it seems to work.   Coming into Invermoriston (40ish miles) and checkpoint 4 I knew the first of the proper big climbs is on its way but I’m still feeling positive because I am WAY ahead of my numbers in my head. The midges are evil here and one of the lovely checkpoint ladies doused me in a very chemical-tastic, but effective midge repellent. I grab some more magic flapjack and salted cashews mix and ditch the long-sleeved top as it’s warmed up properly now.

I set off up the start of the hill, passing two guys who tell me there is a lady in front I can easily catch, I’m intrigued as to who it could be but just keep the pace steady but brisk. It starts quite gently and I am able to run more stretches than I imagined, I meet and pass the lady mentioned a couple of  guys and the climb starts to steepen.  Soon I was onto really steep switchbacks, I mean REALLY steep, but the steepness feels good as I can stretch out muscles that haven’t had a chance to so far. I am now completely on my own and seem to have lost sight of anyone in front or behind me. The route is marked throughout by blue marker posts with the Great Glen Way symbol on them, but there is an ever constant fear that if you take your eye off the trail then you might miss an important marker taking you away from the more obvious trail.  I am sending a couple of updates by text back home and at times worry I have done just this.

Views along the Great Glen
Views along the Great Glen

The switchbacks just keep on coming, with more and more views of Loch Ness and then finally, the top of the hill arrives and then it’s a long old down, down, down towards Drumnadrochit.  The descent  on the forest trails is actually not that bad, but my knee is really beginning to scream a bit now, and my mental calculations are telling me that there really should be a water station somewhere around here.  My Garmin is beeping to tell me that it’s batteries are about to fail too.  After what seems far further than the 45 mile point (rumour has it at actually about 48 miles), I emerge into a little car park where two very lovely souls make sure my water bottles are topped up and work very hard to reassure me that the next checkpoint (Drumnadrochit) is a mere three miles away – a few little undulations of road and then it’s all downhill apparently.

Well I can say it is the longest three miles I have ever covered, and it bloody hurts!!  I give up on the mental calculations and my Garmin has now officially died.  I set up my phone to record the rest on Endomondo and then bury the phone in my bag; I really don’t want to know the real-time details at this point.  This stretch of road is soulless and looks like it just goes on and on (and I don’t enjoy road running anyway).  Eventually, hurrah, the route leaves the road and joins a trail over a smaller but far from insignificant, hill. No, we are back on road again, this time downhill zig zags, oh the joy … knee is really sore now, and I really just want to see the checkpoint, surely it must be close now?  Eventually the route joins the main A82 and I turn onto the pavement hoping I’ll see the checkpoint poking out somewhere very soon.  But no, the pavement drags on, as do I and my body, although apparently I am still running 10mm splits at this stage.

Anyway, FINALLY Checkpoint 5 comes into site. For some reason I can be in the depths of despair but upon sighting a check point I will transform into smiles and jokes … why?  The usual efficiency and friendliness see me moving through pretty quickly, desperate not to hang around here. I think these check points are the speediest I’ve ever passed through. Drop bags really help – no queuing for food and with it being a small race there were plenty of helpers on hand to fill water bottles etc. In fact the helpers were all absolutely fantastic.

checkpoint 5 dropbag

So, 22 miles left to go. This should have sounded a really positive thing, but I hit another dark place. I think perhaps I’d mentally had in my head that the wheels would fall off about 50 miles because I’d been feeling too good – bad brain – I should have kept up the positive thinking or stuck Supertramp back on again.  I stop shortly after the checkpoint and put some KT tape on my knee (so much for dashing through the checkpoint), not that it helps much, bit too late for that, but any psychological boost welcome now!!  I also take some drugs.

I hadn’t realised that the route doesn’t leave the pavement for a couple of miles yet, so it’s grim plodding along the pavement beside the A82. Despite this, I am doing 9.4mm for those pavement miles which is pretty miraculous for me at 50 miles!! Yippee, the pavement runs out and there is a huge signpost pointing off to the right. It’s pretty obvious hill climbing will be involved, but that’s all good because I can legally walk the hills … The path is narrow but kinder to the body than the pavement. It undulates, following the contours of the hill but at least it doesn’t drop back to the road (my secret dread).  Eventually the path widens (I think,  but it’s really beginning to get a little hazy now). I know we need to climb back up to get to Abriachan, and it was not likely to be a subtle climb. Abriachan is the only part of the Great Glen Way I have visited, taking the kids and their new bikes up there last Tattie Holidays, so I knew it was up a blooming great hill!!  Anyway the inevitable undulations and I am definitely slowing.   A guy overtakes me, but I cannot find any enthusiasm to try to keep with him, just one foot in front of the other. The drugs are making very little difference to my knee but I guess they are taking the edge off. The trail is hard-packed here and the heat seems really intense.  Suddenly though, the trail starts to gently descend, and I can see a table beside the path, and some people gooning around … Checkpoint 6 … OMG … less than 10 miles to go (possibly …).  Some cheeky  back chat with the ‘goons’, more lovely assistance from the checkpoint ladies, more ‘rocket fuel flapjack’, and I am off on my way to Inverness.

Abriachan, CP 6 (61 miles - perhaps!)
Abriachan, CP 6 (61 miles – perhaps!)

An extra water station has been laid on in ‘about’ four miles, so that was a mental aim anyway. Leaving Abriachan and crossing the road, the next stretch seems quite surreal.  The trail is very narrow and overgrown, and there is a café tucked away in there. It is quite well-known in the area, the owner has placed various hand made wooden signs in the undergrowth advertising the various drinks and snacks on offer, but I can summon up little enthusiasm for the potential treats (not that I am planning to stop anyway).  I am definitely on walk/run mode now, the run bits getting shorter and shorter.  Ultimately of course, we pop out onto the road, and it’s back to undulations.  A guy comes ambling past looking very comfortable. He tries to assure me that looks can be deceiving but he’s eating up the metres and it motivates me to put more effort into my run sections and I make good progress along here despite really being in an awful lot of pain.  Just my bloody knee, and the hip-flexor, the rest of me feels pretty good so would be interesting to know how I would have fared if knee had behaved.

The trail turns away from the road again, and becomes a really rather nice path (except for the hill it climbs).  Eventually it heads into a leafy glade and set up in here is the water station and more wonderful checkpoint ladies.  Looking at photos of people arriving later on, they were offering up all manner of treats to runners depending on their state, they clearly decided I was in good shape and needed to be moved on with no delay as I was offered water refills and firmly but gently told that I was 3rd lady and was that enough of a boost to get me on my way. Only six miles from the finish and yes, that absolutely was enough to get me moving on.  Being completely unable to tell how far behind the next lady was, it was pain over-ride, get my head down and GO!  I take my first gel of the race as am feeling a little spaced and even manage 9mm for the next mile.  The trail is actually lovely, narrow but slightly downhill in pleasant green shade, soft and squishy underfoot (mud) and no midges.  I pass various walkers, cyclists and families who all smile at me in a slightly quizzical fashion … personally I don’t blame them, I would do the same!  Finally I emerge from the trees to distant views of INVERNESS, OMG the end was in sight, albeit still looking a bit too far away for my liking.

At last, Inverness comes into to view, 3ish miles to go
At last, Inverness comes into to view, 3ish miles to go

Apparently this descent is meant to be nice.  Hmmmm, perhaps if you haven’t done 68 or 69 miles already, you would enjoy steep switchbacks … as it is, I am whimpering quietly to myself and have to walk some bits to give knee a break, but, downward and ever closer to the finish.  I am slightly confused by diversions around a building site but happily discover it doesn’t mean I have to walk further and pick my way around.  I am eyeing up the crossing of the road at the bottom, hoping I don’t need to do a manic dash to avoid cars.  A guy appears from nowhere behind me and overtakes but doesn’t do much more than stay just ahead.  Onwards and downwards towards the canal we head, crossing via the bridge (thankfully not swung to let a boat through) and then the proper main road with buses, but marshals ensure we don’t kill ourselves.

Finally I am on a stretch I recognise – the canal towpath – although I could do without the out-of-control dogs chasing us staggering runners … and finally, into the stadium. Oh god, the joy of hitting the running track – I’ve never run on a track before, it’s so soft and springy!!! Suddenly I discovered the ‘sprint’ finish and positively bound across the finish line in 13.38.  Given I’d imagined a finish time of about 15-16 hours, based upon a couple of Highland Flings I’ve done, I was absolutely gobsmacked to get a time starting with 13. In fact I really don’t know what to do with myself so I kind of hang there, bent over, hands on knees, getting my breath back after the sprint and deciding whether to laugh or cry!!  Wow!!

Sadly, domestic duties called with my husband due to depart the following morning on an overseas training course, so any thoughts of staying over, socialising and attending awards ceremonies were not to be.  As we cheer in more runners coming over the lines, I am handed my post-race goodies.  The heavens then choose to open and it absolutely throws it down as I retrieve my kit bag and stagger into the changing rooms to attempt a shower before returning home to re-find my ‘mum head’ and less than 24 hours after leaving home I head back into the breach.

The boring details:

72 miles travelled (probably)

10,800 feet (3291 metres) climbed (also probably)

Zero blisters

One stuffed knee (although two weeks on tentatively hopeful for healing)

Food: 2 bananas, 1 x peanut butter and jam sandwich, 1 x honey sandwich, god knows how many pieces of ‘Rocket Fuel Flapjack’, salted cashew nuts/raisins/peanuts, 1 gel

Drink: not sure how much but clearly enough and supplemented with Nuun tablets

Pack was fantastic – Solomon S-lab 12, definitely like not faffing around with bladders to refill

Shoes (Inov8 Terrafly) were great from a blister perspective and very comfortable but a wee bit more cushioning would have saved some of the pain from the impact of harder surfaces

This race is fantastically runnable – with the exception of the extremely big hills – so much so that I managed probably my best ever ultra run BUT it’s not to be underestimated … the hills are big and aside from the two obvious ones, there are other smaller ones that it’s easy to overlook on the map but they come back to bite you.  Running on dead flat is HARD, there are no natural breaks provided by inclines – this can be tough mentally and physically.

It’s a fantastic race, the team that put it on a brilliant fun, and the checkpoint teams are absolutely amazing, providing just the right balance between a kick up the bum, and sympathy and efficiency.

Lakeland Trails 100km (and maybe a little bit more) Ultra Race

So the packing for this little race finished about midnight on the Thursday evening, with complicated arrangements in place to cover childcare until husband returned from the depths of middle England.  Friday morning was just a case of dropping off the kids and tying up with the two friends who were accompanying me down to Windermere, although they had a weekend of Christmas shopping, cream teas and historic house viewing lined up instead of my idea of fun.

The journey down provided plenty of disgusting weather, which I really really hoped would abate for Saturday.  A pretty slow journey down the A9 but eventually we arrived at Brockholes.  I went in and collected a bag for my drop-bag contents, had my kit checked – was so pleased they actually checked waterproofs as I am so fed up of doing races where they make a real song about having the proper kit, never do the kit check and most people travel light with none of it! Boo bah humbug!!  I also collected my electronic tag (to be worn throughout the race as a means of tracking), and my race number.

My friends were staying in the relative luxury of a B&B for the weekend, but I’d opted to camp at the start/finish, figuring this made life easier for everyone and I’m sure they didn’t really want to be up at 5.30am on the Saturday to drop me at the start!  My tent pitched, and friends checked into B&B, we went in search of a suitable pre-race food loading venue. Lazy Daisy‘s in Windermere did a fine job: Cumberland sausage on a bed of mash, encased in a giant Yorkshire pudding and liberally doused with red onion/wine gravy – yuuuuuummy!  Then, my friends dropped me back at the campsite so I could indulge in a good hour of kit faffing in the tent before finally setting the alarm for 4.30am. Such a lovely time to be eating breakfast and trying to stick contact lenses in eyes I think …

I guess I dozed a little, I was certainly warm and comfortable but all too soon the alarm went off.  I was unsure what to wear really as the MWIS forecast had suggested afternoon showers and light winds up to 15 mph, so opted for a long-sleeved base layer. Why I thought I’d need my compression shorts under my knee-lengths I’ve no idea but seemed a good idea at the time. A large bowl of muesli and yogurt and a cup of tea was breakfast; final kit adjustments and then it was 5.40am – time to head to the start area.

It was still quite dark and a little chilly. There were two categories completing the 100km distance – ‘racer’ with 24 hours and ‘challenger’ with 26 hours (I think), plus a 50km race covering the second part of our course.  A nice friendly atmosphere under the starting arch, then a countdown and we were off to much clanging of cow bells, an obligatory circuit of the grounds before heading out onto the road, we were off.

The light improved pretty quickly and the head torch was soon off and tucked away. Along the road and then off up a narrow bumpy track. I found this stretch quite frustrating as there was a lot of bunching and walking as people jostled to find their place. But soon the route opened out and people settled into place.  The sun kept rising and the views kept opening out as we headed across towards Troutbeck and eventually picking up the Garburn Road which is a track leading up to the village of Kentmere (first checkpoint). I was alternating between jogging and walking depending on the incline, sticking firmly to my rules of walking the hills and jogging the rest. I’d say my jogging pace was slower than I would have imagined but I did jog a fair bit.

Out of Kentmere onto more tracks and it started to feel more like heading into the hills. We climbed above Kentmere Reservoir and the views were simply stunning.  Ahead I could see a steep pull up to the Nan Bield Pass and thought this would be a good point to try out my new lightweight poles.  Took me a while to get the hang, as ground was quite uneven, but they definitely helped.  Suddenly we popped out at the top of the pass, greated by a marshall in fluorescent jacket. Was so funny, everyone was stopping to take pictures, much like coach tourists!!!  From the top of here we looked down at Haweswater.  The descent  was pretty technical, more so than I expected and I took a couple of tumbles on the way down, particularly as the rocks were slippery from yesterday rain.  But arrived into second checkpoint, Mardale Head, at the bottom in one piece having covered about 13 miles by now.    Quick water bottle refill – they were supplying Nunn tablets which were fantastic. I found them really refreshing and suffered from very little cramp throughout entire race.


010

Off onto the next section – Mardale Head to Bampton village. This took us round the bottom of Haweswater and onto a track that followed the edge of the Lake. Terrain was relatively flat with the odd climb, but path was narrow so in places it was tricky trying to pass people. This passed fairly pleasantly and we popped out on the road, with probably a 3 km run along the road up to the check point.  Resupply here, tried for the first time the Grasshopper Food porridge that was on offer. OMG, it was delicious, I am not a porridge fan really but the Coconut and Date one really did it for me. Grabbed a lump of flapjack, refilled water bottle, made use of toilets … and stripped off the darn compression shorts as I was absolutely melting by now!!

011

Twenty-ish miles down, but feeling pretty fine and dandy!!! The route continued along the road for another km or so before turning off onto a track which led up onto Askham Moor. Really enjoyed this stretch, there was a slight cooling wind, it was soft turf underfoot and I found someone to chat to :-D, I am easily pleased!!  Some gentle climbs here but nothing evil and then we were dropping down some switchbacks into Howtown and checkpoint 4.  Didn’t hang around too long here as just wanted more liquid.  I was carrying a 500ml squidgy bottle in the front of my pack and then some spare in the bladder at the back (probably about 3/4 ltr) for emergencies, so I just kept refilling the front bottle.

012

I headed out pretty quick from here, leaving my companion behind. This leg would take us to the half-way point, it would also take us over the first significant climb of the day – up to Boredale Hause. We started on fairly flat road, which eventually became a flattish but boulder-strewn trail and then eventually it turned into a steep, narrow trail into the hause – 200m of climbing over about half a mile I suppose.  So short but definitely NOT sweet!! I chatted to a couple of people on this stretch, a lady I was to leap-frog with many times throughout this race and a guy I was also to see several times throughout.  That’s what I love about ultras, you get to chat to lots of lovely interesting people, who don’t think you are strange for doing this kind of thing for pleasure!!!

Up to the top of the hause, and then off the other side into Patterdale, the half-way point and our drop-bags. Somewhere about 32 miles completed at this stage in 7:55:53. I was happy with that, but did make we wonder how much time I’d lose in the second half seeing as that was harder and hillier, was kind of hoping to get in about midnight if possible … given the lack of training throughout the school holidays I was prepared to be flexible with this guestimate though!

Fresh t-shirt time from the drop bag, as the other was disgusting. The showers and wind had not materialised and miles of blue skies and sunshine were evident in the state of the long-sleeved base layer I’d been wearing – yeuch!!! Another pot of porridge, a cup of tea, a cup of Nuun and a piece of flapjack shoved in my pack pocket. I decided against checking my feet as currently there were no hints of blisters, so I shoved my spare dry socks in my bag in case I needed them later on, grabbed a few more gels and off I went again.

Am always surprised how settled in people seem to get at checkpoints, me, I’d be terrified of not getting up again!  The next leg involved another grueling climb – this time up to Grisedale Hause. Another longish flat yomp along a reasonably flat trail before a long tough pull up to the tarn. I started off with a guy who seemed to be wearing far too many layers, he paused to de-layer but soon caught me and we chatted about triathlons (his main sport) as he worked on persuading me to do Keswick Tri as a good first one … soon it became clear he was working at a different speed to me and he left me behind. I caught up with the guy I’d climbed the previous Hause with, he seemed to be having a tough time so I worked on encouraging him and trying to ignore how bl**dy hideous the climb seemed.  As before, the path was boulder-strewn and you seemed to be continually kicking large rocks or trying not to trip over.  Eventually the tarn came into sight. Such was the nature of this race, the obvious route round one side was ignored, sending us what seemed the longer (and more climbing) way. Eventually we started to lose height, but it was down a fairly tortuous route – more boulders in a steep gully.  Finally onto an open forest track leading to CP 6 on the roadside at Dunmail Raise, just before Thirlmere.

I don’t remember much here, I suspect more water bottle filling and I think I grabbed some ginger biscuits before heading off again.  This is the stretch where I hit probably my worst patch in the race.  We did about 1km on the road, then headed off west, over terrain I’d covered on a mountain marathon a couple of years ago and I chuckled thinking of us trying to find a checkpoint here.  Soon we were in hot sticky undergrowth, a small wood but it was really humid and sticky underfoot too.  My stomach was grumpy and bloated and I just felt bleugh … onwards and upwards and eventually we popped out by a small tarn, along a bit further and then out onto Watendlath Fell, which was just horrible as far as I was concerned. Apparently we were on a footpath, but it was just all bog. I can’t imagine anyone would choose to go walking up there on a Saturday afternoon. My general grumpiness was made worse by the sight of two girls and a guy in front of me, completing as a group, who appeared to be skipping and laughing merrily across this horrible nasty fell!!!  We probably had about 3km of this joy, there were some lovely marshalls sitting at the top of this stretch to check all was well, they were welcome sight.

Checkpoint 8 was in Watendlath itself, again, I don’t recall much of this checkpoint, I think I picked up some more ginger biscuits and put on my windproof top as the sun was starting to dip a bit making the air cooler.  This was the point I started to feel better, I suspect I had got overheated earlier along with the effort used to get over the two big passes.

I skipped out of here with my poles, along with a couple who appeared to be completing together (a guy and a woman). A bit of jostling for the front spot here but I eventually headed to the front and positively yomped through to Rosthwaite (oh boy do I love my poles). I was alternating jogging and walking and still legs were feeling pretty good. Quads were definitely feeling a bit trashed and right hip flexor was niggling but feeling good and strong.  Along the Cumbria Way we went, passing below the Borrowdale Fells. It was significantly cooler, but still no wind and the sun was starting to go down.

I was loving this stretch, travelling pretty much on my own, but knowing people were ahead and behind; so I reveled in feeling strong. I paused to get my head torch out as it was difficult to tell when darkness would hit. Stake Pass was the next big climb and it could be clearly seen up ahead.  It was actually way better than I thought it would be. The path was nice firm gravel rather than the dreaded boulders, so although it was steep with lots of switch-backs you could get a good steady pace on. At the top of Stake Pass there was meant to be an un-manned checkpoint with a dibber to swipe, instead we were greeted by marshals instead, who were having a fine time sitting up there taking in the stunning views. The sun was almost down, the moon was up, bright orange surrounded by grey clouds. Wow, it was amazing.  I headed on the path that works its way across the top, a bit more boulder here, and then was looking down into the Langdale valley.  The sun finally went and the route down was a zig-zag of glow sticks going down, down, down to the valley below.

The head torch came out and I headed down. It was quite a tough long descent, especially getting used to the reduced light again.  A marshal was heading up towards us and said it was 4km down into the valley and the checkpoint was at the Sticklebarn (a pub up near Chapel Stile).  All I can say is that it was a bl**dy long 4km! My Garmin had faded before I got over Stake Pass so I wasn’t too sure how far I’d traveled anyway.  Once down off the hill it was a fairly straightforward and flat track into the Langdale Valley, but the moon had gone behind the clouds and I found it difficult to get a perspective on where I was. There are several pubs in the valley and I knew it wouldn’t be the first one, but with party music drifting down the valley it was difficult to work out what was coming from where.

This was compounded by a complete disappearance of regular signing. Up until now the route had been fantastically marked throughout (we were not meant to need to do any navigating on this race, so consequently competitors were generally not following the route on a map) with flags and signs by day, and then signs and glow sticks in the dark.  A sign took me off main track and up a minor slope and then there was nothing for a fair while … I started to doubt myself and have visions of going for miles in the wrong direction (can you tell I was a bit tired by now?!). So I hesitated, I back-tracked to the sign, I waited for some head torches, and then after wasting about 15 minutes I thought “oh sod it!” and just pressed on anyway.

Eventually I popped out behind the Sticklebarn Pub and was guided in by glow sticks.  I was a bit dazed at this point, especially when the guy running the checkpoint (later realised was Andy Mouncy) greeted me by name (it’s on my race number of course!).  Anyway, he was awesome – did I want a plate of chips? oh my, did I?  A piping hot plate of French fries smothered in salt and tomato ketchup … I didn’t bother with niceties and just shovelled them all straight down with my fingers, washed down with a cup of Nuun.  By now quads were stiffening up spectacularly, my hip-flexor was having a good old whinge but I was actually still feeling pretty good, not lacking for energy at all. The lovely man serving the chips kindly wrapped up some ham sandwiches in cling film for me (so they didn’t crumble in the pocket of my pack) – I was so over sweet stuff by now.  I’d been on the go for 15:28 by now. Just Ambleside and the finish to go, so in theory about 10-12 miles to go.

014

I successfully managed to negotiate the steps downstairs to the way out, via yet more nice toilets. I think I’ve never done an ultra race where there has been access to so many nice clean toilets!!!  Into the car park, and then doh? which way? no signs again … got onto road and right direction but again, stalled by lack of clear signage so I backtracked to the pub, and came across two guys having the same problem but the marshal didn’t seem to know either. So we hung around while she double-checked and eventually she came out, pointed us in right direction (I had been correct) and off we went to Ambleside.  The two guys provided great company for much of the remainder of the route.

It was all fairly flat at this point so we took it in turns to motivate running stretches in-between yomping … they could run faster than me, but when I started yomping with  my poles they couldn’t catch me. One of the poor guys had stood on a plug the wrong way up the day before, so he’d already damaged his foot before he even started! We negotiated our way along the footpaths, taking it in turns to fathom out how to open the hundreds of gates we passed … they were such gentlemen actually, I did chuckle, always holding the gates for me etc …  Signage was a bit variable and we were kind of guessing our way in places.  Eventually we caught up with another guy going at our pace, he was local and had recced this section into Ambleside. This proved invaluable as a lot of signage and glow sticks were now missing.  A slight shock to body as we negotiated Loughrigg Fell … I thought we were done with hills, and then eventually we popped out into Ambleside, the final checkpoint before the finish.

This was in a very posh community hall, more nice warm toilets 🙂  No idea what I ate here but I grabbed another cup of tea, although as I tried to drink it while jogging through town centre I think I ended up wearing most of it!  Met a few of the locals on a night out and put up with the usual questions and comments … “run Forest run” … “how far you goin'” etc.

I knew it was going to be horrible getting out of Ambleside – another nasty hill, it started off on road and then became a vile rocky uneven thing. We were literally guessing our way through here by now as most glow sticks had disappeared.  I didn’t care, I just pressed onward and upward. No more running for now as was just climbing again up through Skelgyll Wood.  I started to pull away from the two guys I’d been with but was just so desperate to get to finish I kept on striding.  Signs started to reappear making navigation easier and I caught up with a guy I’d jogged behind earlier.  So we had a good old chat as we climbed up onto the trail that took us to the path we’d come out at the start on. This was a bit gnarly so no jogging down this. but once we hit the road at the bottom with a marshal pointing us to the final stretch then we both started running.

Of course, we got to where the finish was to find we had to run a lap, albeit a smaller one, to complete the race … so round we jogged, and came in at 19:21:54.  Final distance not really confirmed but apparently 110km and possibly 112km.

Quads absolutely trashed, hip-flexor groaning, knee definitely having a whinge, NO BLISTERS, but I didn’t feel tired or hungry and if it hadn’t have been for state of quads I could have kept on going for a fair while longer …

So having made the finish, I thanked the guy I came in with for that final push and waited for the two other guys to come in and cheered them in.  Then I had to walk UP a hill to collect goody bag and drop bag … and then back DOWN the hill to find my tent … ouchy ouchy ouchy!