It’s taken a while for me to get this one down ‘on paper’ as I’ve found it incredibly difficult to put into words just how good the entire weekend was and what it meant to me. It was a life changer, you may laugh or snigger thinking Stuart’s gone a bit soft in his old age but that’s how it still feels, over two months later…
Montane Lakeland 50, Ultimate Tour of the Lake District, UTLD 50, no matter how many different ways you write it down, the LL50 (miles) is a bloody long way. Add in a few fairly brutal climbs and I can reliably inform you that this race lived up to its reputation as one of the toughest 50-mile trail races in the UK.
Thursday night came round and I was feeling as fit as I’d ever been and not suffering from any random pre-race ailments or illnesses. I’d got everything ready with Wendy keeping me focussed as I inevitably faffed about and checked kit, checked and checked again. And then checked it some more… as you do…
Go to sleep, nothing you can do now.
After an easy Friday morning at work, a quick stop at home to pick up Wendy and all my gear, the journey up to Coniston started, a journey that realistically started 5 years ago when we decided that we needed to do something about our fitness and we found the Couch to 5K running program on the NHS website.
We arrived in good time and after parking the car headed over to the huge marquee for registration where the mandatory kit was checked (full waterproofs and all the usual bits and pieces) and I was given this year’s map and road book plus a few other bits and pieces. After being weighed just in case of medical emergency (this being written on our wristband) and not seeing anyone we knew yet as it was still quite early, we checked in to the Bed and Breakfast 15 minutes away along a few very windy roads near Hawkshead.
It didn’t take us long to get settled into the excellent High Grassings Country House so after a quick brew and a few obligatory photos we meandered back to Coniston to watch the start of the LL100, the 100-mile big brother to the LL50.
Crowds lined the street outside John Ruskin School near the start and silence fell as the now traditional sound of a lone tenor sang Nessun Dorma (Non Shall Sleep), a fitting tribute to those were about to embark on such a huge task. As the final notes drifted tensions and emotions were high and then to a huge cheer from everyone present they were off.
The area was buzzing and a short while later the kids’ race set off, Mr Fox leading them out and back through the rain, smiles all round from future runners big and small.
The rain started to come down a bit more and I couldn’t help but feel for the guys and girls that had only just started their race, about to head through the night in the pouring rain.
After another quick stop at the B and B, we made our way into Hawkshead village to the Queens Head where I’d booked dinner, not wanting the hassle of organising anything the night before the race. Keeping it simple we both had a single pint of beer and Fish and Chips, both of which were excellent and just what I needed before spending the rest of the evening sorting out kit, distracting myself with random bits and pieces on the internet and chilling out before getting some sleep.
No sooner had I drifted off than it was time to get up. A pot of Wolfies Coconut and Lime porridge kick-started race day then it was the quick journey to Coniston where Wendy dropped me off before heading back to the B and B for her breakfast.
The obligatory run brief was given by Marc, a very relaxed affair which helped us first timers get relaxed, thankfully there were no last-minute changes and although it was a little damp at the moment we were told the forecast was for the weather to brighten up throughout the day.
As the 50 is linear most of the runners elected to get the provided coaches to Dalemain which made life a lot easier, one less thing to worry about. I managed to sit next to a couple of girls I’d met earlier in the year during the January recce so we passed the time chatting while watching the wonderful lake district through the coach windows.
An hour or so later and we disembarked where I managed to meet up with Wendy, who’d driven to the start, and the rest of my friends from Red Rose Road Runners, some of who were running and others who were there to offer support which was fantastic.
The call went out to gather at the start and then it was time… time to see if the training had worked, could we do it?
In less than a day, we’d know one way or another, the only thing to do now is place one foot in front of another and keep moving…
The start was quite slow as everyone got into the swing of things but the undulating fields of the Dalemain estate gave enough time for the field of runners to spread out so by the time we exited the estate, back past the start and our cheering friends, runners were strung out in a line rather than a bunch.
It didn’t seem 5 minutes since the gun went off and then, all of a sudden, we were being cheered through Pooley Bridge before heading up onto Askham Fell and then following a well-marked path SW towards Howtown. Thankfully it stopped raining along this section and with the trail underfoot being good I was able to get a good pace.
The views of Ullswater to the right as we descended to the first checkpoint were spectacular and I almost missed Debbie who’d run the LL50 the year before coming the other direction up the trail to add her support to our endeavours.
After 11 miles I arrived at the first checkpoint (CP) manned by the guys from Chia Charge 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Am I going to fast?
I felt that my pace was as it should be so I quickly filled up my bottles, one with water, one with Mountain Fuel energy added (this was to be the scenario at all the CPs), grabbed one of the Chia Charge flapjacks as a snack and then headed South for about half a mile before hitting the first major climb of the race, Fusedale.
I broke out the poles as there was no way I was going run up the pass which looked amazing, a good job as it felt never ending and for once I was glad I hadn’t recce’d the area because if I’d done this before I’m not sure I’d have been quite as positive coming into the race as I was.
It was approximately 2 miles before we stopped going up and started a gentle decent over the other side of High Kop, along Brampton Common then down to the banks of Haweswater. This section was fairly easy although a lot wetter and marshier than I’d hoped so although it was fast, it could have been faster had we not been dodging bogs.
The section down the western edge of Haweswater was one of the worst bits for me, the ground was very wet and hence boggy, littered with rocks of all shapes and sizes and very undulating. I found it almost impossible to run at any sort of speed along this section and after being passed a few times I found myself for the first time beginning to doubt myself.
Ironically slipping over and ending up face down in some bracken just before someone else did exactly the same thing fixed this little mental blip as we both laughed, a little hysterically I must admit, at our fate and the stupid things we do. I didn’t get the name of the chap I fell in with (literally) but by the time we ran into the Mardale Head checkpoint to be comically challenged by the Delamere Spartans who were heroically providing support, I felt a lot better.
It was these moments that made the day for me, the selfless kindness and understanding of strangers, willing to help out or laugh along with someone who it is unlikely they will ever meet again.
Out of the CP and another climb, this on up Gatescarth Pass for a mile and it was a killer. Steeper but thankfully shorter than Fusedale I was glad I had the poles for this section and I powered up and over, going past Adam Seat on the right and then following a trail along the start of the River Sprint as it made its way down to Sadgill where the trail headed west over a slightly smaller hill before we descended into Kentmere for another CP stop.
I loved this section, the weather was good, footing was excellent and my spirits were high and then, just as I thought it couldn’t get any better I was met at the Kentmere checkpoint by some more friends, the entire Royle family (Jon, Carole, Finty, Daisy and Maisie the Labrador) and Neil McDonald. It was a wonderful surprise and I spent far too long chatting with everyone but I knew I was still ahead of schedule, nothing was broken and I was now just over half way.
Still a little in awe of my friends who’d come out to support us I left the Kentmere checkpoint with some very tasty flapjack stashed in my vest for later and ran the short distance up the road before breaking out the poles once more to tackle a couple of miles of climbing up Crabtree Brow and Garburn Pass.
At the top of the pass, the trail headed southwest along Garburn road. Another fantastic section of running saw us pass to the south of Troutbeck and skirting the hills to the North of us it wasn’t long until this great section of trail turned North West and gave us our first glimpse of Windermere. I’d joined another couple of runners along this section who were very familiar with the area so our pace increased and we arrived in Ambleside well ahead of schedule.
Ambleside was spectacular.
The town was alive with crowds lining the streets along with people cheering us from the front of the pubs. I’d never encountered anything quite like it and it made us, made me, feel special, as if what I was doing truly mattered to these people. It was a joy to run through the streets and then as if it couldn’t get any better I saw more of my friends, Amy, Sal and Marc (I’m sure there were more). In the diminishing light, they probably couldn’t see the tears of joy but they were there and it was wonderful.
I remember telling myself to focus, the CP is approaching and Wendy would be there so I mustn’t look too much of a mess, I got my self together in the few minutes it took to get to the Parish Centre CP where we were cheered in by another huge crowd, a few more friends scattered throughout. No time for hanging about, a quick kiss from Wendy, water filled up, photo’s taken and then it was time for the three of us to hit the trail once more.
I was ahead of schedule but tried not to think about it as although I’d recce’d the route from here I knew there was still over a 13 Miles to go and it would soon be dark, making some of the latter more technical sections difficult. My legs were starting to ache and the definition of what gradient of hills should be run or walked changed somewhat but the run around the edge of Loughrigg Fell, through Skelwith Bridge and past Elter Water seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.
Robin and Anthony had run a lot in this area and it was as if I had my own personal guide to the Langdales as they chatted about the local hills, trails, lakes and most important, cake shops as we made our way up Great Langdale Beck to the Chapel Stile checkpoint, the light still good enough for us not to need head torches.
Anthony had been suffering a little with a stomach issue and told us to go on ahead, he was going to slow down a bit but was confident of making it as he’d trained in the area and knew it well so after another quick refill myself and Robin set of in a westerly direction following the beck for a couple of miles.
For me this is where it started to hurt, the light level dropped and although it wasn’t properly dark, it was dark enough to make the footing uncertain. Add this to the obvious tiredness, mentally and physically I started to drop off the pace Robin had set us to try and get in on the same day, a task I’d never imagined but we’d discussed it earlier and at our pace, it seemed possible.
I told Robin to go on ahead and as I started being passed those inevitable thoughts started to creep in;
just sit down for a minute…
have a little rest…
it doesn’t matter, you’re not really racing…
why am I doing this…
I got to the section of the route where the trail takes a sharp turn south and starts the long climb up to Blea Tarn, looking up I could see the other runners struggling up the hill. Someone with a yellow number (a Lakeland 100 runner) went past me, puffing, panting and not looking at all well, but he was still moving. I remember thinking do I look like that?
Screw that, let get this done.
I left the poles stashed as it was too dark to use them safely, caught up with bloke doing the hundred and together we climbed. I’m not sure who helped who but by the time we got to the top he was moving better and my pace and mood were both lifted a little. Sometimes all you need is a little encouragement, or maybe it’s sharing a moan, either way, it worked.
The light level had started to drop so just before Blea Tarn I turned on my light, I didn’t really need it just yet but better safe than sorry, especially under the cover of the trees near the tarn. Running down Blea Moss to the compulsory unmanned checkpoint on the road I felt good as the route turned east and I spotted Little Langdale Tarn in the distance before heading south once more up and over a few quarries to the last checkpoint at Low Tilberthwaite car park.
I’d dreaded this section and it was just as bad as I thought it would be. I managed to tag along with a couple of guys who were running the hundred which managed to distract me from the lung-busting climb. I was walking a lot more here than I thought I would be, tiredness was definitely a factor as we concentrated on the climb, one foot in front of the other, again and again, and again…
I remember thinking ‘only a parkrun to go’ but if there’s a parkrun out there like that last 3 miles it’s not something I’d take on lightly. North of Coniston the fell was undulating, ankle twisting, rocky and wet, it was the toughest bit so far but the killer was the 1/2 mile descent before the final road section. On legs which had no strength left, concentration at maximum and fighting to keep my vision focused on the trail the rocky descent was brutal, for me it was un-runnable and almost un-walkable in places. All I kept thinking was don’t fall now, if you fall here it’s going to hurt… a lot.
Don’t fall now…
Somehow I managed to catch up with a few guys as I reached the track at the bottom of the fell, most were in a bad way but they were nearly home and as the lights of Coniston came into sight miraculously we all started to speed up. We looked at each other and after saying we weren’t going to sprint finish we all knew that with journeys end in sight that’s exactly what we were going to do.
I came over the bridge in Coniston and my pace increased again as one of the hundred guys somehow took off and we all tried to chase him down. Left onto Lake Road and it felt like I was still speeding up and then I saw Wendy jumping up and down, shouting and cheering me in. She bustled me to get ‘dibbed’ and it was at that moment that I realised I had arrived before midnight, over half an hour ahead of my best case time, on the same day I’d set off!
I turned and saw eyes shining with pride in the darkness and the world was a wonderful place as I fell into the best hug and got the most welcome kiss ever.
Returning to the marquee after collecting my medal the cry went out ‘fifty finisher returning’ and a cheer went up as I entered, it was amazing.
I grabbed something to eat as I was a little bit peckish (slight understatement) and we sat outside for a while. Just resting, not thinking of anything in particular, sitting, chatting and not moving.
It was soon time to go back to the B and B where I spent a fairly restless night keeping Wendy awake with legs that wouldn’t stay still until I gave up trying to sleep and got up before breakfast to make a brew. I’d arranged breakfast for later assuming I’d be so tired I’d end up sleeping in but we managed to get it brought forward and I had a wonderful ‘full English’.
Feeling remarkably OK except for the inevitable trouble going up and down stairs we made our way back to Coniston to see the final finisher, watch the prize presentation and have a final chat with our friends before heading home. A few commented that I’d made the qualifying time for the 100 next year but it’s not something I want to do, I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys and girls that have done it but the 50 was enough for me. All being well we’ll continue to help out with the #lakelandfamily and be part of events to come but I’ve no desire for a rematch.
I’ve run the Montane Lakeland 50 at 50 and it was far, far more than I could have hoped for.
It was life changing.
My final position was 194th out of 722 starters in 12:24:44 (we set off a bit late)