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I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write about this race. Partly, I didn’t want to write an account that sounded in any way like a bad review, or anything too negative. Partly, the story is kind of personal, and I can’t write about this race without going into Personal Stuff in at least some detail. But I like to write these reports for my own records, and after reading a comment on the Lakeland Trails Facebook page this morning about someone else going through something similar to me, I thought it might be of use to someone if I were a little bit open about this stuff. So here goes.

This race was almost a DNS (did not start) on countless occasions. On almost every long run I’d make it to the one mile mark and consider turning home and dropping out. I never did. My training runs were poor at best, but I did every single one, totting up some of the highest weekly mileage I’ve ever managed. Running became increasingly difficult, and when I went to see my doctor (also a marathon runner) who said I probably wasn’t over-training, I went for some tests to work out what was going on. Two days later I got my B12 anaemia diagnosis, and my first thought was that I’d finally have a real excuse to pull out of this race.

And I was looking for an excuse. In the paradoxical world of being human, I was pushing myself out on runs of up to 20 miles, when even walking around the corner to Sainsbury’s was becoming a problem. The long runs were a nightmareish story of grumbling anxiety peppered with full-on panic – I did one 16-miler without straying more than a mile from my front door, just looping around a nearby 3-mile circuit where I felt ‘safe’. To put it bluntly: panic attacks. Daily, sometime hourly, bursts of near-death experience. As I write this I’m wondering why I didn’t just give myself a break and pull out of the race.

The panic wasn’t enough to stop me, and neither was the anaemia. I found myself in Coniston on 4th June, overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun and the greenness of the trees. There was so many people, children everywhere, bright colours and shrieking from every angle I turned. There was no peace, my mind was raging with the explosion of newness around me. I really really tried to look forward to the space of the marathon the next day, but there was only dread, and under that, utter terror. After a night of almost no sleep, I found myself at the startline at 6:45am, where finally there was peace as runners assembled all with their own nerves and fears about the day (and the heat! it was already hot!) ahead. I cried into Daniel’s chest, totally resigned to feeling too fragile to run a marathon. We had agreed weeks before that I would pull out at the first nudge of anaemia-ish symptoms – I was going to start the race, that was all. A DNF (did not finish) seemed inevitable.

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And so we were off and I was crying as we set out, but soon enough it was ok. I focussed on my steps, upon setting a gentle pace that I could keep up for a while as my thoughts slowed into a comfortable rhythm. It was ok, I was ok. Not great, but ok. Not even two miles in and sweat was dropping from my face, but the heat wasn’t really an issue; if I could deal with my head I could deal with the heat no problem. At mile 8 there was a feed station and I noticed that one lady was dropping out. I could join her. A car will be coming, I could wait and get in that car and we can go back together. I carried on, reluctantly – mile 8 seemed too soon to drop out without an injury.

We got to the beautiful Tarn Hows section and I remembered walking here on the last day of our honeymoon. We talked about all of the things, it was warm and sunny, I was totally content. I tuned in to that day as hard as I could, remembering that feeling of joy and newness, tucked away in the Lake District far from all of the normal life stuff. I chatted to a few other runners here, pushing down the nausea and battling forwards. My Garmin beeped 10 miles and a small group of us cheered – 10 miles already! Around and around Tarn Hows and then up a track past some super marshalls to find James basking in the sun with his camera. I think I felt good by this point – certainly good enough to have a joke about suncream. It was hot, and not even 10am. It was getting really hot.

Coniston

Another feed station, almost 12 miles in and just before Grizedale forest. I had been looking forward to shade: there was no shade. The sun was blazing right above, and everyone kept stopping to walk, drink, moan quietly. I stopped to reapply suncream, afraid of heat stroke, alongside everything else. This was getting hard and I didn’t think I’d be able to finish. But all the time, as always, amazing runners sharing the dregs of cheer that they could muster up. Some familiar faces from previous races, a lot of new people to talk to. The next feed station was at 19 miles – Just another 10km and then I’ll see about pulling out. I looked forward to being shuttled back and sitting in the sun waiting for Daniel to finish his half marathon. Dreams of pulling out pushed me forwards, albeit incredibly slowly.

At mile 16 I saw a marshall. It had been a very long, lonely mile or so and I was at rock bottom. He told me I was halfway. But I’ve done 16 milesOh you know these events, 26 miles is just an estimate, he replied. I had done the run last year, I knew it was 26 miles, not 32. But my spirits dropped from low to rock-bottom. The next 3 miles are a blur in my mind. I was dying the entire time, seemingly encapsulated in panic, far from anyone or anything, with no shade from the sun. I was in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever run in, and I couldn’t think coherently enough to enjoy it, only feeling surges of dread all over the place as I clambered over the rocks. It was here that I encountered The Guy Who Got Me Through, though it wasn’t until later that he really saved the day. We were both in a slump – he said he’d love to be sitting at home drinking a tea. I hadn’t even had a cup of tea that day (no wonder I didn’t feel good), and all I could think of was sugary tea from there on (note: I felt too ill to eat by this point, and was relying on coke from the feed stations to get some sugar in me).

This is a long account. It was a long day.

Every story needs a hero, and there are many many heroes in this one, but my first hero (and probably that of many other runners that day) was the ninja feed station at mile 19. It was here that I was supposed to drop out – I had actually decided that this would be the case – but instead I came across a little table and two friendly people handing out water and Kendal mint cake. They had done the race before, but had decided this year to hand out refreshments to runners instead, setting up outside a friend’s house where they could use a tap all day long (bearing in mind that the official feed stations were usually tap-less, so precious water had to be shipped to us – water really was at a premium that day). Here I got chatting to a small group of people and it turned out that we were all struggling with major issues. I WAS NOT ALONE. I told them that I had decided to drop out, but that their company might be enough to see me on a little further. We ran together for a while, and stuck together on and off for the remainder of the race.

This was the turning point for me. It took 19 miles (and who knows how many hours) of journeying forwards before my mind started to calm, but I got there. By this point the heat was seriously bad, and I was aware that it would be too much for many people, but miracuolously I felt ok. I had ample water and was soaked in suncream. I also have to mention here the lovely family of one runner, to whom I’d mentioned that I was getting some chafing from my backpack. She had given her family a description of me, and as I approached them they were holding out a tub of Vaseline, complete with kind words and well wishes. I wasn’t surprised – this level of kindness and camaraderie is what I’ve come to expect on Lakeland Trails events. If you’re reading, fellow runner, thank you – and well done on such a great run 🙂

The last six miles? Easy peasy compared to the first 20. I had blisters all over my feet, I was starving hungry, I had a grumbling headache and I hadn’t had a wee for more hours than is probably safe, but I felt as if I could do it for the first time since March. I ran along chatting to the same guy who I’d met earlier (now known as The Guy Who Got Me Through since we didn’t bother asking for names), whose company and really good conversation (how is it that you can be that tired and still really enjoy a conversation?) took me from enduring to enjoying my time out on the fells. He was one of a number of really awesome people who I met – always a theme at Lakeland Trails days out!  I actually felt kind of cheerful, and when we reached the final aid station (3 miles to go!) it was a veritable festival of joy. Here I bumped into Mark (sorry I called you Jeff – was a bit delirious by this point!) who was ploughing along like a running machine, and who offered me some great words of encouragement to see me through those last couple of miles. Up a bit, then meet the lakeshore and just a couple of miles of flat from there (oh and a wall to climb over).

I petered out in the last few hundred metres and ran in a sort of ‘creeping’ style over the finish line – not the strong finish that I usually like to go for. But who cares? Somehow I’d made it, battling on past the lowest of all lows to actually gain some real positivity from the run. Ask anyone who has ever run a marathon and they will tell you that the challenge is almost completely mental. Mostly, I agree with this. But somehow this run showed something different. I had no mental strength that day, none whatsoever. The thing that got me through that marathon was the strength of others. So, while I am free to think what I want of my own mental strength, which may or may not be available at any point, at least I know that there is a goldmine of strength to be found in other people. And I really hope that I can give back as much as I take – the runner who got treated to my ‘Last few miles rap’ at mile 24 (sorry) may have something to say about that one…

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*To the tune of So Solid’s 21 Seconds, but replacing the seconds with distance as you get closer to the end…

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The Hoka One One 25km race was the main reason for our visit to the Keswick Mountain Festival, and also the reason I decided not to take part in Keswick Half Marathon (which took place just two weeks before the festival) for the first time in six years. I figured that a 25km off-road run would be a much better option for my UT55 training, and gosh, I was right.

I’d noticed on the entries list that only 252 people had signed up for the race, which immediately left me worrying that I might come last. Generally I don’t come last; usually I’m around the middle of the pack (and am always happy to be there), once I was sixth in my category (those were the days, eh?), and, just once, I did actually finish a race in last position. Still, for whatever reason I was panicking – I guess I didn’t want to be demoralised at this stage in my ultra training; as it turns out, getting practice at being demoralised is incredibly good for ultra training!

In the starting pen people were bandying around their expected finishing times – I heard a few people mention times over 4 hours, which I thought was odd; I hoped to finish in about 3-3.5 hours, based on my normal ‘ultra(slow) pace’ plus some time for walking and even a bit of stopping. Perhaps I wouldn’t finish last after all – phew! Daniel took the generic starting pen photo and then headed off for his boat to the start of the 10km, and moments later we were off!

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You could say that the race was off to a bad start before I’d even left Crow Park; I was too hot, I had a wedgie (note to self: a 25km race is not the time to start experimenting with different underwear) and my new shorts, which I’d bought two sizes bigger as my normal size was just so…short, were riding up and giving me rather a lot of grief. Still, I got into a nice steady pace, feeling surprisingly good despite the previous day’s hilly 15-miler still in my legs, and at about mile 1 I started to feel more optimistic. The hills came and they were MASSIVE. That’s ok; I can deal with hills – I ran up the less steep bits and power walked the rest, and was able to overtake a few other runners here. I gained some confidence and settled in to the race; by mile two I was flying along, and really enjoying what was a phenomenal course. Trails took us through glorious woodland filled with bluebells, and around every corner was a glimpse of the surrounding mountains before they were hidden again by thickets of trees.

Once out of the woodland the terrain started to get tricky – I found myself walking increasingly often, as the trails were too narrow and totally unforgiving if you should land a foot in the wrong place. It was slow and exhausting, but at least the other runners around me were also having the same issues – we egged each other on and swapped encouraging comments; the awesome thing about these races is the other runners, always. It wasn’t until Ashness Bridge – probably around mile 5 or 6 – that the terrain became a little easier, but even then I was walking more than running. I stopped off for a loo break at this point, and by the time I was back on the course I was completely alone; all the other nearby runners had passed, and I started to feel incredibly demoralised.

There were only two things keeping my spirits up by this point: firstly, the friendly walkers who had endless flattering and encouraging comments – one guy told me I was a hero, which was rather nice. The other was the spectacular scenery, which just kept on giving with every corner and climb. I even stopped to take a selfie, but then a nearby walker (who stopped to check I was ok as he saw me fumbling in my bag) offered to take the picture for me; these were real high points, enjoying the humbling combination of kindness and nature. It made me very happy to be alive, and gosh, if nothing else I really did feel alive. Finally another runner caught up, and we ran together for a while, joking (in all seriousness) about how unforgivingly hard the race was, and how we could always pull out and go to the pub instead. She assured me that a checkpoint was around the corner, but not before the most ginormous hill of the whole race, veering upwards towards Rosthwaite. I pulled forwards at this point and left her behind for a while, and it wasn’t long after we separated that the lows really started to come.

No photographers at this event, so I had to arrange my own...(and why the thumbs up everywhere?!)

No photographers at this event, so I had to arrange my own…(and why the thumbs up everywhere?!)

After the massive ascent there was an equally steep descent, which was so rocky underfoot that I had no choice but to walk very carefully, sometimes using both hands to lower myself down between the rocks. Twice I went over on an ankle, and here I noticed that there hadn’t been a single marshall since about mile 2. I started to panic. The day before I’d been marvelling about how wonderful it was to be completely alone and miles from anywhere in such an incredible place, but now I was becoming pretty fraught for exactly the same reason – what if I fell and couldn’t keep going, who would help me out then? It wasn’t long before the girl behind me caught me up again, to my relief, and here my fear was proven to be justified: she’d fallen in the stream running parallel to our route, and had to get running pretty swiftly in order to stay warm. I think we were going through similar crises, and stuck together until we finally got to the check point at Rosthwaite.

After this point I knew the trails pretty well, and had walked and even run on them a number of times. I knew it was going to get easier, and so I was able to pick myself up a bit and keep on going. Not long after the check point, though, my ankle started to ache pretty badly. I was able to run, but with every step I felt a dull thud rising through my foot and lower calf, which started to unnerve me over time. I made it through the woodland section near to Grange, but as I climbed towards the foot of Catbells I started to toy with the idea of pulling out. But wait, there were no marshalls: at the very least I had to run another three miles before I reached the next check point. I was lamenting at the fact that I might have to ruin my hopes of running the Lakeland Trails marathon in three weeks simply through poor organisation in this race. I was angry at the organisers and the festival, and this only perpetuated the negative energy that was hindering my running.

Luckily, I came across two other runners who were obviously struggling, and shared some of my chocolate with them as one guy was obviously in a pretty bad way. Chatting to them perked me up a bit  – as I get deeper into despair I put on an increasingly cheerful persona, which actually helps in these less-than-cheerful circumstances. I also had some chocolate, and found myself enjoying the soft terrain underfoot and the opportunity to get covered in mud, safe in the knowledge that there were only a few miles left. At the road the route was completely ambiguous: a sign with an arrow reading ’10km route this way’ but no mention of us 25km-ers. Luckily I know this area well, and decided to follow the arrow anyway as it would eventually get me back to Keswick, whether or not I’d be following the right trail. I didn’t see another runner for the entire stretch, but it was my favourite part of the race – such beautiful running next to Derwent Water, and even though my foot was hurting I was in reach of home. I texted Daniel to let him know that I’d be 20 minutes or so as my Garmin beeped 13 miles, and a comforting sense of optimism started to grow inside me.

I still have no idea whether or not I took the correct path at the road there, but as I came back onto the main road there was a sign reading ‘5km to go’. I’d already run 14 miles and wasn’t in the mood for another three, but I had no choice. The lady at the checkpoint joked that I was getting more for my money but I found this incredibly ironic and couldn’t even feign a chuckle. I was exhausted, in pain and angry. I ate a Penguin bar and gritted my teeth.

In fact, those last three miles were really fun, and probably better for my UT55 training than anything else I could have done that day. I ran past a number of ultra runners who were coming to the end of an even tougher course that was also double the distance, and swapped encouraging comments with them as I ran by. I found some power from somewhere (probably that Penguin) and forgot about the pain in my foot. The crowds got bigger and louder, and it seemed that everyone was cheering me on, as if I was about to win (I definitely wasn’t). A cruel rocky hill up into Crow Park and I could see the finish – I crossed the field and the finish line, and felt more relief than joy or tiredness. I really didn’t think I’d finish that race – mainly because my heart left the building for the last few miles and I didn’t want to risk an injury in a race that I wasn’t enjoying – but there I was, and glad to be there, too. Daniel greeted me with a hot Vimto, and then we headed to a lovely cafe, the Little Chamonix (another great spot – do try it out) for a hot chocolate and a tea cake. We swapped stories, and I was so pleased to hear that Daniel had run a great race and enjoyed every minute – certainly our experiences were very different.

Proud 10km-er

Proud 10km-er

I want to say here that I’ve heard only good things from other people about this race, but for me the organisation wasn’t quite up to it. I’ve never felt afraid on a race until this one, and certainly I’d never felt so alone on a route – I didn’t pull out only because there were no marshalls around to make sure I got back safely, and I don’t think that’s nearly good enough. It cost £28 to enter which is as much as any brilliantly-organised Lakeland Trails event, yet there was minimal support, no photos, and a goodie bag of stuff that we’ve mainly recycled or given away already. I’m not in it for the free stuff, obviously, but when I spend that much money I do want to feel that I’m part of something, and not just on another run. The course was spectacular, though, and I’m so glad that I did it despite all of the negativity.

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And, in terms of negativity, this is something that I’m now glad to have had practice with. I felt so low, and I’m sure I’ll feel similar at points on the UT55, but I was able to practice picking myself up and drawing from the other runners, as well as giving back to them. I didn’t come last, and I met some great people en route – I see that they did all get back ok in the end and I hope that they have some good memories too. Running is so much more mental than physical, and timing the most mentally-challenging event I’ve ever done only six weeks before the ultra was in fact excellent planning!

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