Former RF Editor, Julia Buckley, recalls her first ultra run, a 50-mile voyage including: wrinkly feet, running in the dark, food stations and new friendships…
photographs: Marc Laithwaite, The Endurance Coach
The darkness has almost completely lifted now and with it the mist, revealing a stunning vista of majestic fells sweeping far into the distance, their proud backs veined with fast flowing streams of the rain we battled hours earlier.
“‘It’s hard to feel glum when you’re looking at a view like that,’ I say. Rob agrees, before I have a chance to add, ‘Yet I am actually managing to muster a prizewinning level of self-pity.’
“We’ve just finished the final thigh-frying climb of the Montane Lakeland 50, my first ultra marathon. We’ve taken a pew at the side of the trail while we gather what’s left of ourselves for the last couple of miles, to the finish at Coniston. It really is a knockout view. Unfortunately, after 48 miles and a total of 3,100 metres of ascent, I’m barely conscious enough to feel the blow.
“Rob, at this moment (7am-ish on Sunday 25th July 2010) is my best friend. I met him the day before and have spent every minute with him since (with the exception of visits to the bushes). Back at around mile 15 between High and Low Kop three of us who were wandering around the trail confusedly looking at our maps decided to put our over-scratched heads together.
Fortunately, the fact that we took a wrong turn and ended up bowling down a slope of supersized ferns didn’t dissolve the alliance.
“The Lake District is a national park, so waymakers are not allowed. Instead we were equipped with a book describing the route and a map. Being about as a handy with a map as a blind chicken, I also had a nifty Garmin Dakota 50 navigation device loaded with the route.
“The third member of our trio, Mark, had remained at the 37-mile checkpoint in Chapel Style for a nap. I tried to chivvy him into pushing on with us, but he simply motioned to his legs and proclaimed,
‘There’s no running left in these puppies,’ before collapsing onto the narrow school bench he’d claimed for a bed.
“At our end of the field (i.e. the back) I don’t think there’d been any actual running left in anyone’s…um… ‘puppies’, since about mile 25. But we were never in danger of not finishing within the 24 hour cut-off time. The race started back in Dalemain at 12pm on Saturday and we had until 12pm on Sunday to finish.
The Penultimate Challenge
“At least, that was where it started for us, the 270 competitors in the 50-mile race. But we weren’t the only ones out on the course. There was even longer race going on too. The Montane Lakeland 100 started at 5.30pm on Friday, at the sound of a gun fired by fell running legend, Joss Naylor.
“The tagline of The Lakeland 100 is ‘The Ultimate Tour of the Lake District’. I suppose this must make The Lakeland 50 ‘The Penultimate Tour of the Lake District’.
“Setting off from Dalemain it seemed the only way was up. And up. And up. Followed by some tricky descents. And then up again. The climbs were tough, but we were richly rewarded with some of what must be the country’s – if not the world’s – most breathtaking views.
“For the first 15 miles I went along at a slow jog. And then got slower. I managed a couple of trots on the downhill sections up to about mile 25, at Kentmere, by which point it was 9pm and getting dark.
“There were seven checkpoints along the route. Each an oasis, where we runners (although in my case this term would apply progressively more loosely as the miles mounted), were fed and watered and sometimes even offered the luxury of toilet facilities. Each checkpoint had its own unique feel, from the village fete atmosphere of the first at Bobbin Mill at Howtown, where cakes were laid out on trestle tables and good humoured ladies dispensed tea from large pots; to the bustling atmosphere of the Lakes’ Runner Shop in Ambleside where a chipper chap behind a camping stove enthusiastically tried to feed us ever more portions from the huge vat of soup he was perpetually stirring; to the cheeky banter and tasty (albeit lukewarm) stew we were treated to in the early hours of the morning from the guys at The Climber’s Shop.
“But king among all of the checkpoints was Kentmere. Ah, Kentmere… To fully appreciate this, it will be necessary to put yourself in my shoes. This is not something you would want to do literally, as The Lake District had experienced several weeks of downpours leading up the race and mother nature had been keeping herself amused with a mix of drizzle, mist, rain, and wind since about 2pm on race day. After traversing just over 25 miles in wet shoes, no one’s feet are at their best.
“We heard the soft thump of music as we walked up the path approaching the door to the Kentmere Institute. Warm light flowed from within. We stepped through the door, blinking in the light. I’ll be there crooned a young Michael Jackson from the speaker and an angel in a white T-shirt gently led us to a couple of chairs. ‘Would you like some pasta?’ she asked. ‘Or rice pudding? And tea or coffee. Or smoothies…’
“I couldn’t have been more grateful if she’d offered to pay off my mortgage. ‘I’d love some pasta,’ I said ‘and tea. And the rice pudding sounds good, too.’ “There were physios massaging legs on tables at one end of the room, medics taping blistered feet at the other – it was ultra-nirvana. Paul Cosgrove, from Montane, the event sponsors, was running the show. We were chatting away as I removed my sodden socks to examine my prune-like feet. Seeing my grimace, Paul said:
“‘You think that’s a wrinkly foot? I’ll show you a wrinkly foot.’ He passed me a camera. Displayed on its viewer was a creased and crumpled mash of skin that was barely recognisable as part of a human being. ‘This is the foot of someone from the 100,’ Paul grinned in admiration.
“If that runner could carry on, then so could I.
Darkness on the Fells
“When we prised ourselves back onto the course, it was completely dark. I started out with my head torch, somehow still retaining enough deluded vanity to feel silly (as if my damp, salt-encrusted hair was looking just wonderful before). But I found it a bit disorienting and all I could really see was the rain, which was pelting down heavily now, so I transferred the torch to my hand.
“I’d been a bit worried about tackling the fells at night, but the darkness bought a comforting calmness, and we marched on, quieter now. When we reached the descent into Ambleside mist had gathered over Lake Windemere. The moonlight burnished it with a silvery haze which danced above it shimmering reflections across the water. It was a magical sight. Not for the first time I was shaken out of my growing tiredness and reminded what a privilege it was to be able to be right where I was in the moment.
“My knees were killing me by now, but with only two miles to go I was going to finish if I had to crawl. Which I did for some of the steeper parts of that last climb!
“I staggered those last two miles at a pace that an extra from Dawn of the Dead would be ashamed of. Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes often talks about taking ‘baby steps’, but I don’t think this was exactly what he meant. My three-year-old nephew walks with strides double those I was shuffling. I developed a mantra of complaints ranging from descriptions of my various aches and pains, to an explanation of how sick I was, of having to look at the array of slugs. Every couple of yards Rob would stop to wait for me, from somewhere mustering a smile and a patient, ‘We’re nearly there’.
“And somehow, eventually, after 20 hours 43 minutes, I hauled my bedraggled and depleted body across the finish line.
“‘We did it!’ exclaimed Rob wrapping a comradely arm around my shoulder.
“I’m ashamed to report that I responded with all the gratitude and warmth of a malfunctioning car park barrier. I hope he realised the stiff arm I mechanically clasped onto his back and the croaked, ‘Yeah, well done you too,’ were no reflection of the gratitude I felt for his help over those last few miles.
Well Earned Pint
“It wasn’t until I was snug in the welcoming atmosphere of Traveller’s Rest Inn up in lovely Grasmere with my boyfriend, Ian, that night that I really began to grasp what I’d achieved. Sharing the tales from trail over a frothy pint brought home what a fantastic experience it had been, and how much I’d learned and grown over those 50 miles. This period of illumination was rather short-lived however, as halfway through my second pint I was giggling like an idiot and had to go to bed.
“The Lakeland 50 was without a doubt the toughest thing I’ve ever done. It was also one of the best. I’ll be back next year to do it all over again.”
The 2011 Montane Lakeland 50/100
After a successful third year, The Montane Lakeland 100 and 50 looks set to become a classic ultra race not only in Europe but the world. Registration for 2011 opens 1st September 2010.
From £65 for 100-mile race; from £50 for 50-miles (plus camping).
Enter online at: www.lakeland100.com
Traveller’s Rest Inn
If you’d prefer a more comfortable night and perhaps a postrace pint the Traveller’s Rest Inn, Grasmere, welcomes competitors. The current tariff is £45-£60 per night including full breakfast.
Book online at: www.lakedistrictinns.co.uk/travellers_welcome.cfm