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!
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!!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!!
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.