UTLD, the Lakeland 100 mile race is a fantastic event. It began three years ago when Mark Laithwaite (one of the race directors) had a friend who did the UTMB (100 miles around Mont Blanc, starting in Chamonix - yes: it's on my to-do list) and thought it would be great to have something similar in the Lake District. It first ran in 2008 (before I was really aware of what ultra running is), then in 2009 I popped along to have a go at the Lakeland 50 (the second half of the 100 course). It was the toughest event I'd ever done and remained so until this weekend. I knew that even considering the full 100 would be really silly (especially as the first half of the course is harder than the second). So that's the one I entered this year. A lot of people are calling it the UK's toughest ultra and probably the toughest 100 miler in Europe. They might be right.
I was feeling pretty fit after lots of running this year. The distance doesn't scare me - 100 miles is a long way, but perfectly doable. My knees have been a bit dodgy so I wondered how they'd cope with lots of steep hills and rough terrain. The time limit (40 hours total, with cut offs at some of the checkpoints, such as 9.5 hours for the first 25.3 miles) looks quite slack, but there are no marshalls or signs on the course, so it's a case of using map and compass and reading the 'road book' carefully in an attempt not to get lost. My navigation is usually ok, but in the dark it's always tricksy, especially once the fatigue kicks in. Plus I knew that well over half the starters have dropped out in the previous years. I was more nervous than I have been for any event before. And also really excited about it.
I took a 9:30 train up to Windermere on Friday (or tried to - it was delayed and I ended up being collected from Oxenholme) and got a lift from Lindley (a great Fetchie I have run with before, similar pace to me - he finished both London to Brighton trail and the Boddington 100K within about half an hour of my times) to Coniston for registration. We got there early afternoon and had to be weighed, have our compulsory kit checked (waterproofs, spare base layers, foil blanket, first aid kit, emergency food, compass, whistle, head torch, spare batteries), get a dibber (timing device) attached to a wrist strap and collect our race numbers to be pinned to our packs. This didn't take too long and there was plenty of time to kill before the 4pm race briefing. So I had a relaxing massage. And more food. The race briefing was entertainingly presented by Mark and Terry. They gave us info of a course change (due to a river being uncrossably high at one point) and some final tips and advice. Joss Naylor also gave a short speech and wished us well. There were over 100 competitors and the atmosphere was positive, but with an apprehensive vibe too. We then had to wait till 5:30pm for the start. It seemed a little cruel starting so late, as those of us at the slow end of the pack would have to run through the night, all of Saturday, then overnight again into Sunday morning.Picture shows Lindley, Katie, Darren & me before the start (four Fetchies). That shirt is actually red, not the pink it appears to be!
It was quite a relief to finally get going. As with most sections of the course, we started by heading up a big hill of variable steepness, on rocky, slate-strewn tracks, with scree sections and through streams and several gates. The descent into Seathwaite was down a very stony, shingly track that, even with fresh legs, was hard to get down. It was only 6.4 miles to the first checkpoint, but with over 2100 feet of ascent it gave us a fair idea of what we were in for. The views from the tops in the evening sunshine were beautiful. That section took me an hour and a half. I chatted with several runners along the way, including Carlos (who I'd run most of Caesar's Camp 100 with) and his brother. I also first met Alec just before the checkpoint. He hadn't run more than 100K before and was a bit concerned at how jellylike his legs were after only the first big downhill. We dibbed in at the checkpoint and the times were instantly relayed to the website, where people could track our progress online. The checkpoint at Seathwaite was manned by very supportive volunteers, providing us with cheery words, food and drink and brief shelter. These great people really added to the atmosphere of the event and we looked forward to each checkpoint very much. Not that we stayed very long - it's all about making progress.
So onto the next section to Boot. This was the first place we encountered very boggy ground (though only ankle deep if we were careful). And lots of roots. And stiles. Alec was going at about my pace and we got chatting some more. He had a very good GPS that showed both the route and where we had gone very clearly. That added extra confidence, as while the road book and map were clear, it would still be easy to get lost. We did manage to miss one turn and ended up at stepping stones instead of a bridge. This was another high river and the stones were not actually sticking out of the water, but clearly visible just below the surface. I took the lead and went across anyway, enjoying the cool flowing water on my already battered feeling feet. At the next checkpoint the volunteers excitedly told me I was second lady. I didn't feel like racing though. It's like Mark said - UTLD is more than just a 'race', it's an 'event'. I didn't want to be worried about how far in front and behind me the other competitors were. I just wanted to enjoy a day or so out in the Lake District. Completing the event was challenge enough - racing it wasn't something I was interested in. I think Britta passed me after checkpoint 3 or 4 and I was more than happy to see her go strongly ahead (she went on to win). Alec and I seemed to be sticking together and he later said he liked that he could tell I was going to finish, matter-of-fact. I figured I could definitely make sure he completed his first 100 miler and he would be good company, particularly important through the night (and I admit his GPS was greatly reassuring too!). I think I was a bit fitter, so there was no pressure to keep up - I felt veryy comfortable with the steady pace. My walking was faster but we ran at the same pace so it worked well. He needed maybe a few more walk breaks than I would have had otherwise, but then maybe if I'd run more I would have been more fatigued later.
The fourth section from Wasdale Head to Buttermere was the first of the real biggies, with nearly 2500 feet of climbing. It was also where it got dark. The ascent went steeply on and on and felt really hard, until we started the technical descent which was even harder. The 'path' was slippy as the shingle slid around beneath our feet and rocky too. Even with a good headtorch it was easy to misplace my sore feet. My legs were tired but feeling strong and my knees were holding up very well. I wasn't sleepy and really enjoyed the night section. It was only dark for about 6 hours. I like the way sheep eyes seem to glow yellow in torchlight. Buttermere was the first place with a cutoff time, which we were well inside by more than two hours. That was quite a boost. The following section had just as much uphill, including a relentless 1km steep scree slope that came at the end of one of the climbs. My hamstrings and calves were burning, finally to be relieved when the quads took the strain on the next steep downhill. We were very glad to have those two sections out the way and enjoyed some hot pasta at Brathwaite. The weather had been very kind to us too: it was a clear, dry night with a nearly full moon and not cold at all.
The next section took us past Keswick, where I'd had many happy childhood holidays and more recently have been to stay in my parents' flat there. It was nice to know the route for a while, as the track took us up round the back of Latrigg, a path I'd walked a couple of times in the last year or so. It made me realise that doing a route recce would be wise - not just for knowing where to go, but because actually knowing what the course is like adds a lot of reassurance. There was only about 1500 feet ascent and it got light at about quarter past 4, making this a very pleasant section. We'd hooked up with another couple of runners, Dick and Gary, overnight and were all in good spirits as it dawned and we approached the Blencathra checkpoint. It was strange that we got to know Dick and Gary quite well after running together for hours in the dark, but I had no idea what they looked like until we were all indoors at one of the checkpoints. They didn't look like they sounded.
The four of us stuck together to Dockray. Alec was finding it tough but kept moving on (not that there was another option). I was happy enough walking for a while and enjoying chatting and admiring the views. Dockray was almost halfway and we all felt a bit more awake after the check there. A good thing as the following section to Dalemain, up past Aira Force then higher up to get stunning views across Ullswater, went on forever it seemed. Dalemain is where the 50 mile runners start (though they do a little loop there - we've actually done about 60 miles by that point) and there were plenty of people around cheering us on, including Alec's dad and brother. We were also allowed to have a kit bag there, so I changed into clean socks and shoes and restocked some food in my pack. It was very good to be well past halfway and on the home stretch. I knew there were some very tough bits still to come, but having done them before made them less daunting. Only the leading three 50 milers overtook us on the section to Howtown.
Flip (ultra-running but currently injured Fetchie) took this at about 65 miles, shortly before Howtown. That's Alec just behind me.
They were all really encouraging, taking the time to say hello despite their speed and focus on their race. At the checkpoint at Howtown, more friendly helpers commented on how fresh we looked and said we were far more coherent than some of the others who'd been through. We had food and coffee in preparation for the huge hill that was looming before us. It began raining as we left Howtown, so I got the chance to try out my new OMM Kamleika waterproof smock, which turns out to be a fantastic bit of kit.
The climb went on for a very long time, up to High Kop (at 665m it's the highest point on the route). We were passed by many 50 milers, all of whom respectfully wished us well. They were struggling with the climb themselves, but appreciated how much harder it would be with nearly 70 miles in the legs already. The way down is through bracken with no clear path. It was quite a sight seeing the top halves of people all over the hillside, making their way through a sea of green down to the lake. The last bit is a scramble down slippery rocks, before the path by Haweswater begins. It's described as a 'good undulating path' in the road book. Well, I suppose it's good in that it's clear, unlike some of the very indistinct paths elsewhere. But it's not good in that it's very narrow, slippery, has a steep drop off to one side and has many rocks to be clambered over. And it goes on for 4 miles. To the next checkpoint which is a van in a carpark. By this time it was getting very windy, the sky was very grey and the persistent rain was getting heavier. A nice dry and warm village hall or even a barn like some of the other checks would have been most welcome.
So, onward and upwards. It was pissing down, howling wind and we were heading up into a black cloud. Alec remarked that he was glad we were getting to experience some proper Lake District weather. We were actually both quite happy to be out on the hills - it's all about having the right clothes I guess. Another steep climb up to Gatesgarth Pass and over to a really horrible track down. Very steep in parts, but also covered in rocks and slippery slate that made it very hard to get down. It would have been a struggle in walking boots. I think I only slipped once - but my thighs really didn't enjoy getting up again. It did make me more aware that my legs were actually generally feeling quite ok though, which was pleasing at this stage in the race. Another long climb followed, but we knew that the next check was indeed an indoor one, with lots of food. It was lovely to arrive at Kentmere, which was full of people from both the 50 and the 100. Some were having a full massage, others eating and drinking. I had two bowls of pasta and coffee and biscuits. And it was warm and dry and just had a brilliant atmosphere. Alec had his feet seen to so we were there for quite a while. I put on my waterproof pants (Inov-8 - more good kit).
Another large hill out of the checkpoint, followed by a nasty bumpy track down - there's a pattern here, isn't there? - then up again with a view over Windermere. I remember seeing it last year and thinking about how I'd be running round it 10 times in May. It was good to be looking at it again and thinking how well those ten laps had gone and what a great experience the 10in10 was. A trot down through some very dark woods, again a really rough surface and very slippery as everything was wet, hard to see in the torchlight. We were getting tired and sleepy and Alec was starting to lapse into dreams a bit, so we were keen to get to the next check to wake us up. There was a stretch of tarmac road which allowed us a jog (ok, shuffle) that helped kick the fatigue to some extent. We were nearly at Ambleside, where the checkpoint is in the Lakesrunner shop and was another buzzing place to be. Alec's dad and brother were there too which was good.
Only three sections to go. We were worried about how sleepy we were getting, but the fact that Alec's GPS was running low on batteries and he didn't have spares (and I'd already used my spares in my headtorch) was a bit of a concern and that helped us stay focused. As I said, my navigation is pretty good, but when you're knackered and it's dark, everything gets a bit harder, so knowing we were on the right route meant a lot to us. I realised that the batteries in my Garmin were quite fresh, so we used those and they had enough juice to last us past the last checkpoint. It was good to see those little dots on the GPS confirming our way, especially when we got to a hilltop and everything was just white in the clouds. We couldn't see anything. The headtorch light just reflects off the moist air and it's all quite surreal. Having said that, none of the people I was with at any point were hallucinating, which often happens on ultras. At the end we heard of one guy who hallucinated a letter T. He was having a conversation with it. Apparently it was a capital T in Times New Roman font. Other people saw trains and monsters and frogs and all manner of things. There's a really boggy section before the last checkpoint, where we all went at least knee deep several times. (There was me and Alec and a runner from Durham at this stage.) There was no clear path and there were lots of sharp rocks, mostly hidden beneath thigh-deep bracken. And it was still very blackly dark. But after that bit we finally found the road we were looking for and then got onto a clear track to the last checkpoint.
It felt very good to be at Tilberthwaite. The final checkpoint (just another van in a carpark, but we didn't plan to stop long anyway). And it was just getting light too. I knew what was in store for the last 3.5 miles. Namely, another big hill of course. This one starts with steep stone steps, then steep rocky bits that you have to climb up using hands as well as feet. Then just more uphill until finally getting to the 'notch in the sky' at the top. Then comes possibly the worst descent of the whole course. It's stupidly steep and rocky and with loose shingle and stones the whole way down. Plus it was all wet and slippery. But we got to the last track down (where a mixed pair overtook us - I could have run past them to be the third woman to finish, but it seemed like it would be better to finish with Alec after we'd shared such a long time together) which finally became tarmac and then we were in Coniston. We saw that it was nearly 6:30am, so put a bit of a sprint on (tee hee - I can only imagine what our 'sprint' must have looked like to anyone watching) to make it in under 37 hours. Which we did - 36:57:15. (We dibbed in and instantly got a 'receipt' showing all our splits.)
There were plenty of folk around at the finish and we were cheered in like heroes. I loved being around at the finish then, cheering on the next people to arrive. We noticed that while the road book said the route was 103.9 miles, it seemed to have been under-measured. That plus a couple of detours we made, meant we ended up clocking 110 miles.
There was veggie chili for us at the finish. I sat there eating and it felt very much like afternoon or evening, certainly not 6:30am. I got several congratulatory texts from friends who'd been tracking me online. There had been a lot of chat on the Lakeland thread on Fetch, as there were quite a few Fetchies between the 50 and the 100. Darren and Katie and Lindley were around, having pulled out on Saturday. (Katie's knee was injured and Lindley was just not quite fast enough to be sure of meeting the cut-offs.) Some of the 50 milers had finished shortly before and it was great chatting about how it had been for everyone. After food it was fantastic to get a shower. And then a massage. I was tired but not really sleepy, so I just hung around socialising and enjoying the atmosphere until the presentation at 1pm.
As it turned out, I was awarded the prize for 3rd female in the solo category. I got a great shiny trophy, a Petzl bag and headtorch, running socks, visor and a voucher for £75 of Montane gear. Not bad for someone who wasn't racing I guess. UTLD really is a brilliant event. Yesterday I was sure I didn't need or want to do it again. But already, I'm thinking maybe...
Britta gave me a lift back to Windermere and I got the chance to chat to her about UTMB and the use of poles. She had finished in 32 hours, winning with style. I got some food at Booths at the station, but didn't eat much as the train journey quickly lulled me asleep.
I was home by 7pm. It was great to see Jim, who is now also on summer holiday. Sweet. I iced my feet (only two blisters and a generally battered feeling, but not really painful) and watched the Tour de France highlights. I fell asleep sometime after 9 and was awake and feeling good at 6ish this morning. My ankles are puffy, feet a little sore, but my legs feel good. I did a gentle 2.5 miles recovery run which felt great. Might go for another in a bit. Especially as it looks like it might rain on me...