Monday 30 July 2012

Lakeland 100 - July 2012

This weekend I took part in the Lakeland 100, a 105-ish mile jaunt through the Lake District, one of the bumpier areas of Great Britain. Only 4 weeks after the South Downs Way 100, and 5 weeks before the Utra Trail de Mont Blanc (my 'A' race for the year), a 21,00 ft climb along some seriously tough terrain was perhaps not my best laid plan. I actually signed up to Lakeland last year thinking that I would never get a place in UTMB (I did) and because, in 2011, it was one of the 12 events of the Runfurther series of ultras, and would give me both a fantastic jaunt through the Lake District and also count as one of my 4 races required (it is no longer a Runfurther race this year). Bad planning all around methinks!

"Who put this lake here?" Lake Windermere halts my drive to Coniston. Stupid SatNav...
I very nearly decided to miss the race and come back another year to give the race the focus that it deserves, particularly when Mimi Anderson wagged her finger at me and told me off for even contemplating it. I tried to swap onto the 50 mile event, or get my entry postponed until next year, but to no avail (not that I expected to be able to - it must be a logistical nightmare anyway, so it's not like they need me messing things up because I'm a numpty). In the end, I decided to go along anyway, thinking that it would be a good way of getting some hill training in the legs. I figured that I would run to how I felt, and wouldn't worry if I had to pull out. My goals (in priority order) were as follows:

  1. Don't die
  2. Don't get injured or jeopardize my chances at UTMB
  3. Get some hilly miles in
  4. Make it to Dalemain (about half way)
  5. Finish the course
  6. Win the race (ahem...)
The day before the race proved to be quite a day for my wife and me. We had our first scan to see our new baby. It was an incredible experience (it still amazes me that we made a person), and to celebrate I buggered off 'oop north leaving my pregnant wife all alone. Father of the Year, here I come! Kharma decided to bitch slap me however, and I ended up in the traffic jam from hell, with a quite impressive series of accidents and feats of vehicular ineptitude unlike anything I have ever seen. I made it to my midway stop off at 2:30 am (nearly 4 hours later than intended), crawled into bed at 3 am, then woke up bolt upright at 7 am. Stupid body clock.

Signup was conducted with military precision!
I made my way over to Coniston and into the school that was acting as race central. The race actually started in the early evening, so I had plenty of time to get sorted, pitch my tent, prepare my kit, and shoot the breeze with some of the other runners. Given the terrain and the changing weather conditions in this part of the country, the required kit list was quite strict. Complete waterproofs, complete set of base layers, hat, gloves, head torch, food, map, compass, foil blanket, first aid kit, and whistle (for emergency impromptu raves I guess?). I was a bit annoyed to find that the new waterproof trousers I had purchased that very day were not up to spec, and was forced to buy a new pair of superlight Montane trousers or be stuck with a stupidly heavy pair that I had brought with me just in case.

I'm not entirely sure how I managed it, but I managed to fit everything into my Salamon 5L pack. I had the 12L pack with me as well, but decided to give the 5L a try based on a conversation I had had with James Elson where he claimed you can fit the required kit for UTMB in there. Turns out he was right!

My home away from home
We lined up ready for the start just before 5:30 pm. It was quite warm, but I had decided to wear my long sleeve top as the sun would soon be going down for the night section. The weather forecast was for showers starting in the early morning, but with all of our gear we would be ready for anything. The count down went and we were off! There were a lot of people lining the streets of Coniston cheering us on, with a shout of "almost there!" making me laugh. How droll. We got to the miner's bridge which marked the entrance into the hills, and took off towards the Walna Scar Road which skirts around the Old Man of Coniston. This was a nice obvious route, undulating nicely between some relatively tough climbs and some nice (not too technical) descents. I was trying to be relatively sensible, walking the tougher uphills and running the rest. I was feeling good, and was having a blast with the amazing scenery all around me. The sun was surprisingly warm and part of me wished I had gone for the t-shirt, but I knew that in a few hours I would be glad of my decision.

The final descent into Seathwaite was a lot of fun. Very steep, but quite technical with lots of large rocks underfoot. I had a nagging voice in my head telling me to be careful as I didn't want to jeopardize my chances at UTMB, but I ignored it as I was having too much fun! I shot down past a group of cyclists, keeping pace with the runner just in front of me. We hit the bottom of the track and joined the road in towards the village hall. I checked in (in 14th position), filled my water bottle, grabbed a banana and headed out again.

Well. We don't have those in Cambridge!
My biggest worry with this race was navigation. I prefer to run as well as I can without having to worry about finding my way, so prefer well marked races. The Lakeland 100 is a lot more of a navigational challenge than most other races that I have taken part in. I hadn't had a chance to make any of the recce days that had been running throughout the year, but had managed to watch the fantastic videos from John Kynaston which show the main navigational points of the entire route. I also spent some time going over the course on Google Earth, using the road book to plot out the course as best as I could to upload to my Garmin. This was working perfectly!

As we came out of the checkpoint and turned into a wooded area. I had heard that this was the boggiest section, and boy were they right! It soon became clear that there was no way to avoid the mud, so I took to just ploughing straight through (as it should be!). I was joined by another runner, Ian Bishop, who had run the race twice before to no avail, and was hoping for his first finish (which I'm happy to say he managed, coming 25th in 28:47:37!). We chatted for a bit, mainly about some of the guys up at the sharp end of the field. As we were crossing a boggy section, Ian hopped off of a small log which see-sawed up and cracked me in the shin. Ow! A little bit of blood, but nothing to worry about so on I went. We were also caught up by Kevin Perry who I believe came 5th last year (and came 7th this year in 25:09:57). We ran together for a short while, until I ran into a slight issue. My right foot went into the bog and, when my body went forward, my foot didn't. I felt a twinge in the ankle which I had had problems with earlier in the year - not pain, but a warning sign that all was not grand. Whilst there was no pain, it made me more aware that something could easily go wrong, putting me out before UTMB.

The ground 'oop north is far too lumpy.
I started to slow slightly as I became more conscious of the underfoot terrain. Ordinarily my proprioception is pretty good, possibly as a result of years of Tae Kwon Do. But now I was thinking about where I was putting my feet rather than going on feel. I kept rolling the ankle, each time making things worse. We came down past the church in Boot and headed towards the checkpoint. I was just behind Ian and Kevin, and after a quick refill and a handful of nuts, I was off again.

The next section was a bit of a slog up a track leading out into a much more open area alongside Burnmoor Tarn, with a rather indistinct path making it's way across Eskdale Moor punctuated by cairns along the way. I could see Kevin and Ian off in the distance, so was happy that I was going the right way. My Garmin course was pretty much spot on here, and I could just about make out the route across the moor. This section was relatively simple, although I could feel my ankle niggling away at me as I kept turning it in the mud. I came into the checkpoint at Wasdale Head, and decided to stop briefly to rearrange my socks which had started to become a little rucked up in my shoes. I also decided to take some time to eat and drink - something I am normally pretty bad at. A group of about 5 runners that were just behind me arrived, and I set out with them with a handful of jelly babies.

The next section was where it all started to go wrong. Up until now my pace had not been too bad, and my ankle was an annoyance rather than anything to worry too much about. But now the terrain became a little more technical, with rocky ground and boulder fields doing their very best to trip us all up. I took my mind off it by chatting to Jonny Pawson, who was running the Lakeland 100 as his first ever ultra (talk about jumping in at the deep end!) to raise money for the NSPCC. He had been fell running for a while, mainly in the Yorkshire Dales, so was used to the sort of terrain that we were dealing with, but wasn't sure how he would cope with the distance (I'm very pleased to say that he finished in 34:29:05 - excellent work Jonny!). The descent alongside Sail Beck was tough, and my ankle kept turning, punctuated by a lot of swearing from me. Darkness was kicking in so the headtorch came out. Technical descents are NOT improved by a lack of visibility... I ran with Jonny alongside the River Liza and past some bemused looking people outside of the Blacksail Youth Hostel. We climbed up and then ran back down towards Lake Buttermere, catching a couple of other runners along the lakeside path. 

Happy running before it all went wrong!
My ankle was now starting to hurt. It wasn't just a fear that I might do something that might damage my chances of completing UTMB, but almost a certainty. My running was becoming laboured, and my usual gazelle-like (ahem...) running was becoming heavier. The four of us pulled into the aid station together, still in ~20th position. But I was starting to worry. I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I wasn't going to make it around (and winning was looking pretty unlikely as well), so I decided to just focus on getting to Dalemaine. But that was still over 30 miles away.

The next section was not fun. We made our way out and up a path through Ghyll Woods. Things started badly as something bit or stung me on my knee. I don't know if it was just the fact that I was already starting to feel pretty negative, but it bloody hurt (and today my leg has swollen to twice it's usual size which has been fun)! And up we went, along a very narrow path through the bracken. Getting a foot wrong meant slipping down the bank - and that happened a lot, always on my right ankle. Then it started to rain. I wasn't too fussed about this to be fair, rain doesn't bother me too much and I had my jacket if it got really bad. But it didn't help with keeping my footing, and things just got worse as the terrain changed to slippery stones on an unbelievably steep slope (almost requiring hands to get up it). And what goes up must inevitably come down. 

By this point I was fed up. My legs were fine, and I wanted to push harder. But every time I attempted to run, I would feel my ankle almost go over again and think better of it. Frustrating. My pace slowed a lot as I decided to just take it easy down to the next checkpoint where I was contemplating stopping. One guy passed me and when I said I was thinking of pulling because of my ankle, he started asking if I wanted him to walk me in. Convincing him that it honestly wasn't that bad proved quite tricky; I think that he thought I had broken it or something (to be fair, I may have been moaning as if I had). I had an issue putting my map book back in my bag and swore at it, which brought him running back shouting "Sam, Sam! Are you alright Sam!". Erm. Yes thanks! He headed off and said that he would inform the aid station volunteers about me - I had to work hard to dissuade him from sending a search party out after me! 

We were told not to smile for the camera, hence me not looking cheesy for once!
I trundled down the hill into Braithwaite, where the best laid out aid station I have ever seen was waiting for me. I decided to sit, have some food, stretch, and take stock before deciding what I was going to do. Once I had done all this, I checked my ankle. It actually seemed to be okay; it was more the worry of going over on it that was getting to me. And my legs still felt fine. If I could just get my footing sorted then I would get them turning over again and I could carry on. But then I wondered what that would accomplish. Was I going to get to the end? Probably not, at least not without doing some real damage. So what would getting to a later checkpoint, only to DNF anyway, really achieve? Well it might lead to me actually doing some damage and not being able to complete UTMB. And I will complete UTMB. So I dropped. 

So that's it, another DNF, but another DNF with a very good reason. It may sound like excuses, but I'm happy that I made the right call. If the same thing happens at UTMB and there is no physical reason to pull out other than some discomfort you can bet I'll push through it. But unfortunately Lakeland was not an 'A' race this year. Which is a real shame as it is a hell of a route. I'm disappointed to have not been able to see the sun rising as I made it into the midpoint aid station. I'm disappointed that I didn't get to see the entire course, running the fabulous hills of the lake district. You can bet I will return and give this race my full focus, and the respect that it deserves. 

As for winning it? Yeah, that ain't gonna happen! This year the race was hotly contended by a group of about 6 runners, but was ultimately won by last year's winner Terry Conway in 19:50:37. That is an excellent time for a 105 mile run at the best of times (average pace of just over 11 mins/mile). But for that 105 mile run? That time is insane! The guy is a beast, and I'm sure that we will soon be hearing great things from him in the mountain running scene. Joint second place went to Paul Tierney and Barry Murray, who came through the line together in 22:01:08 - almost as quick as Terry's winning time from last year. The winner of the women's race was Rachel Hill in 28:47:52, with Catherine Holloway coming in second in 29:49:04 and Nicky Taylor, Julie Gardner and Angela Armstrong arriving in joint third place in 30:30:06.

Winner Terry Conway comes through the line in 19:50:37 looking far too fresh for my liking!
For the 50 mile race, the finish was incredibly exciting and much closer than the 100 mile race, with only a few minutes separating the lead runners. The gold was taken by Steve Angus in 8:30:51 (just over 10 mins/mile!), followed closely by Grant MacDonald in 8:34:36 and then Matty Brennan in 8:35:40. The women's race was won by Tracy Dean only a few minutes later in 8:38:08, followed by Annie Conway in 8:41:35 and Lizzie Wraith in 9:05:31. All in all some fantastic finishes, not only from those attaining a podium place, but from every single person who made it back to Coniston.

The atmosphere at the finishing line was amazing. When Terry came through, he was so quick that there was hardly anybody there to greet him (just those of us who had dropped from the course). But as more and more people arrived, the cheers as the finishers came through got louder and louder. It was so great to see so many people accomplishing the goals that they had set out for, and everybody shared in that joy. I had originally planned to be running until Saturday night, but now I had the opportunity to head back early to see Jen. And since I seemed to be spending most of my time justifying my decision to drop to complete strangers who couldn't care less ("no, honestly, it's not that it was too tough. UTMB! UTMB!!!"), and explaining that I had my sideburns long before most people had even heard of Bradley Wiggins ("but... his are rubbish compared to mine!"), I decided to head off back home - disappointed but happy with a great weekend. 

And now? Well now my focus is on UTMB, and given all of my protestations that I only dropped to save myself, I have a lot to prove. I'm fired up to give UTMB a damn good seeing to, and to run it to the best of my abilities. My ankle feels good today, so I'm happy that I made the right call and got out when I did. Maybe I shouldn't have even started, but hey I got a nice 35 mile hill run in, which is good training for the Alps. The general consensus seems to be that the terrain is much less technical at UTMB (although the climbing is much greater as well), so hopefully that should mean that I won't have any problems with turned ankles and I can just run. So four weeks this Thursday I'll be heading off to Charmonix. And I can't wait. Bring it on!

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