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Posts Tagged ‘Lakeland Trails’

I signed up to run the UT55 again this year because I wanted to go back and do a better job. I wanted to train harder; to turn up to the start fit and well-prepared, with hindsight from 2015 and a more recent recce of the route under my belt. When I signed up to this race, I was under the impression that my first attempt had somehow gone badly, and that I hadn’t yet earned the rights to call myself an ultra runner, not really. I wanted to  go back to that course and earn those rights.

Not one aspect of my training went properly to plan. I started too early and peaked too soon. I say peaked, but really there was no peaking – the long runs were the worst I’ve done for any long-distance race, and unlike last year, I never felt ready for marathon+ distances; every week I finished my long run with less confidence then when I started. I didn’t manage a single recce of the route despite numerous weekends in the Lakes. Various health issues got in the way of my training, and after a really difficult time on the marathon – planned as my final long run and a pre-ultra confidence booster – I had to reassess my intentions for the race. I considered dropping out and almost committed to it on a couple of occasions, but decided instead to enjoy what I could of the amazing route, knowing that Daniel would be around the course and ready to collect me should it be required.

The day before the race I was resigned to not finishing. I was sad that this wouldn’t be my time, but also had to acknowledge the fact that my health was the priority, and that I could come back another time when I was in better shape to put in the right sort of training [Note: I did train, and put in a lot of miles, but anaemia got in the way and my fitness didn’t seem to improve one bit]. We arrived at Ambleside that evening, and the place was absolutely heaving. I was feeling incredibly negative and the hoards of people and queues of cars only added to my bad mood. After checking in and getting some stuff together I headed out to get my racepack checked – without the mandatory kit, runners would be disqualified from the race. It was here, in the prerequisite stage of the UT55, that I found my first really positive focus. The lady who checked my bag is a familiar face on the Lakeland Trails scene, and we’ve often said hello on previous events. She asked how I was feeling and, rather than giving her my entire life story, I told her I was nervous (which I was, very much so). It turned out that she had been ill for six months, and despite desperately wanting to run the race, she wasn’t able to. She reminded me to be grateful of the fact I was there at all; at the very least, I was healthy enough to give it a good go, and I shouldn’t take that for granted. This was probably the most helpful thing that I could have heard at that moment – I promised her that I’d think of her at the top of Grizedale Hause. I didn’t tell her that I wasn’t sure I’d get that far.

Ultra day came, and the weather kept to its promise. The skies were dark and heavy, and the rain was already pouring when I first dared to peep out of the curtains that morning. MWIS promised us wind, hail, and a strike of lightening or two just to add to the challenge. My dad texted me from over halfway through his 110km run to let me know that it was cold; I packed an extra base layer and decided to set off in my rainproof – combining anaemia with hypothermia didn’t seem like a good idea, no matter how much I hate running in a coat. The start line was quite subdued, but Graham spoke some really helpful words as we gathered and I remembered that this wasn’t about running, it was about moving forwards. I also spotted an incredible dog (maybe a mix of husky and bear?), which the owner kindly allowed me to pet for a while. Anything to calm my nerves. We set off in the rain, and, for the first time in days, I actually felt ok.

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The Struggle to Kirkstone Pass

I had a race plan and I stuck to it. Keep moving. Run whenever possible (even the uphills if I feel able to). Walk fast when I can’t run. The second most important thing: EAT. The first most important thing: talk to people, receive and return positive energy wherever possible. I look back at the marathon and last year’s UT55, and on both occasions I wouldn’t have made it without the help of others. Acknowledging this was key to a good race.

I don’t need to go into too much detail about the various sections (check out last year’s post for more detail about the actual course), but what I do want to say is that I ran a very good race overall. Despite all of the things that got in the way, both in training and on the day itself, my race strategy – mainly my eating and my sharing of positive vibes – was absolutely on point. I really did run as much as I could, and it worked. Running felt so positive, so it helped me keep my spirits up, and converted more positive energy into movement. My body held up incredibly well, and I had hardly any aches and pains until the very last couple of miles, but even then it was minimal. As expected, I walked a substantial amount, but mainly this was walking in the form of ploughing forwards. Later in the race I had to remind myself to walk fast as it didn’t come naturally after hours on my feet, but again, it generated positive vibes. Constant forwards motion was very helpful – I spent no more than a minute or so at the two main check points where Daniel was waiting (enough time to refill bottles and food supplies and grab a quick kiss), and passed all of the others without stopping. My eating was carefully timed thanks to the help of baby food sachets. There’s a useless amount of calories in them, but they’re very easy to take on and keep in place – I had baby banana porridge at mile 3, which meant that my stomach wasn’t empty and acidy at mile 7, so it was much easier to take on solid food. I ate baby food tactically, filling in gaps where I didn’t actually need food, but keeping my stomach lined at all times ready for when I did. It worked wonders.

It was on the enjoyable ascent of Grizedale Hause that, for the first time since March, I allowed myself to believe that I might finish; only 12 miles in – it seemed like a risky thought to be entertaining so early on. The rain was pouring, and as we reached the top the winds were so strong I was almost knocked off my feet. There was also hail, and it hurt. As I passed Grizedale Tarn the winds subsided and the sun came out, there were no other runners in sight and everything was completely still and silent. I was truly lucky to be there, totally exhilarated, fit and able enough to trek/run 15 miles over such difficult terrain. I thought of the lady at the bag-check, as promised, and sent some positive energy her way.

 

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Heading up towards Grizedale Hause in the rain

 

While I’d made it up the hardest ascent with a spring in my step and a smile on my face (very different from last year), it was the descent that I was worried about. Descents are my weakest point by far, quickly transforming me from feeling positive and powerful up the hill to being a nervous wreck who’d happily take a cable car back down. The weather made this one all the more challenging – it was slippy and the noise of the wind was disorienting. I focussed on getting down steadily and promised myself that I’d push forwards quickly to Grasmere once I got to the road section, but all plans were soon scuppered when I found myself on my bum, screaming out in pain, worried (just for a moment) that I might have done some serious damage. I looked up and a group of helpful runners were surrounding me – they looked quite worried too. The lovely lady who I’d been chatting to helped me out and reassured me that I was ok, and so I set off on my way, feeling at best demoralised, at worst injured, and definitely as if I might not be able to carry on beyond Grasmere. Well, spoiler alert: I did carry on, but it hurt a lot. My right bum cheek was (and still is) very badly bruised, and it hurt to move, never mind to run. Daniel checked me over in a car park at Grasmere, by which point a swelling had started to appear – the jury was out on whether I was ok to carry on or not, but my back felt ok and I was determined to give it a go. Just as a disclaimer, I already had my sensible hat on at the start of the race and continued to wear it throughout; I absolutely don’t think it’s ok to run through injury if the running might make the injury worse, but in this case I didn’t think it would be exacerbated by continuing on the race.

So, back to my awesome race strategy, which had been scuppered slightly by the fact that it hurt to run, because running made my bum jiggle around. It did at least make for some good jokes, and a number of people shouted ‘How’s your bum?’ to me as we passed. One lady offered to firm my jiggle up with some rocktape, and a marshall suggested that I use a Buff as a bum-holding device. So here we return to the first most important thing: with or without the injury, as usual it was the other people around me who made this day what it was. I met so many amazing people, many of them tackling their very first ultramarathon, some of them seasoned to the graft, familiar with the challenge of long days out in the wilds. A number of people were also signed up for the Lakeland 50 four weeks later – I wish all of you well! We laughed and joked our way around, sharing low points and positive energy wherever necessary. For me, the hardest part of the day was a long section around mile 26 when I was completely on my own. I couldn’t see anyone ahead or anyone behind, and the yellow flags which marked the route were my only comfort and company. As mile 26 arrived I felt a surge of tiredness so strong that I wanted to lie down in the rocks and sleep. Fearful that my anaemia was hitting and would lead to heart failure and I’d die in the rain and mud on my own in the fells, I tried to sum up some positive energy. I came up with a single positive thought – how depressing. I decided instead to sing, but couldn’t even make it past the first few lines of my favourite Green Day songs. Clearly my thinking mind had shut down in order to conserve some precious energy; I commanded myself to ‘WALK FAST!’, and managed to catch up with two ladies ahead who I stuck with for some time. Positive energy restored; Operation: Complete Ultra was back on!

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As I mentioned, my body held up amazingly. As I ran in to the final checkpoint at mile 31, a number of people commented on how fresh and lively I looked. Bum pain aside, I felt fresh and lively – my body felt great, which made the bum pain a little more frustrating than it might have otherwise been. But no time to dwell on that. By this point the light was starting to fade, which provided simultaneous motivation to press on quickly and the ultimate in Lakeland running awesomeness. After 16 miles of painful movement (and 15 miles of comfortable movement before that), I finally managed to put the discomfort aside and focus on the last 5 miles. And with this, I was about as happy as it is possible to be: running, in my favourite place in the world, the dusk chorus just starting up, the most beautiful pale light all around, running through empty fields and past still tarns, knowing that in a couple of miles I would have completed the UT55 for the second time, against all of my expectations. I didn’t want it to end quite so soon – I desperately wanted to hold on to those last few miles for as long as I could, knowing that I wouldn’t be back running in the Lake District for a long time.

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Only four miles left!

With that, the sharp descent into Ambleside appeared and I crossed that finish line. Unlike so many of the finish lines that I’ve crossed over the past 12 months, this one brought the ultimate in joy and pride. I’ve typed and re-typed and re-typed a number of sentences to follow that one, but perhaps if you are a runner (or indeed any other sort of person) and you’re reading this then you’ll know what I mean without me having to explain. The fact is that I didn’t need to have another go at the UT55 because I didn’t go a good enough job the first time around – I was already an ultrarunner (if that’s really so important anyway) before I crossed the finish line. In fact, I was slower this time, by a good hour; I didn’t necessarily do a better job – those who care only for time on a watch might say I did a worse job the second time around. But it doesn’t feel like that – I genuinely feel that I excelled myself that day, in numerous awesome ways. Getting to the end and acknowledging that I’ve done something really, truly difficult, and that I actually enjoyed myself while doing it is the best outcome I could have hoped for. Other people might run further or faster, but what anyone else does is totally irrelevant: as the saying goes ‘it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’.

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And my bum? What was a small swelling at Grasmere ended up looking like I had a banana planted underneath my skin by the end of the race, and certainly horrified the sports massage therapist two days later. I won’t be posting a photo. I got checked over by my doctor on the return home, and aside from a bruised coccyx everything is in working order. Unfortunately, I now want to return to the UT55 when I get back from living in the USA to see if I can manage it without damaging myself on Grizedale Hause – the challenge awaits!

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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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I’ve been running for over 10 years now, and have learned a lot of lessons on the way. I think most runners generally agree that running is awesome, and can make a positive contribution to many aspects of non-running life: from overall fitness, ability to run for the bus, self-discipline, motivation at work, being part of a great community…the list is endless. But, as time has gone on and I have seen my life and myself change in various different ways, I’ve also come to realise that there are some aspects of running that aren’t all that positive. During a long run earlier this week, which involved running 2-mile loops of York’s very flat racecourse for 2 hours, I came up with a list of less-good lessons that running has taught me: a much shorter but essential counterpart to the long list of awesome things that running has brought to my life.

1. A marathon is not a diet plan
I learned this lesson the hard way with marathon number 1. I’d gained some weight during the first months of working in an office after my MA, and while signing up for a marathon had nothing to do with losing that weight, I had hoped that it might help along the way. It really didn’t; despite the hard training, my body required some serious nourishing in response, and I got to the start line a couple of kgs heavier than my pre-marathon state. This has been consistent across all of the marathons I’ve done: the amount of training puts my body into survival mode, and I tend to gain a little bit of weight over the course of the 4 training months. Rather than trying to fight this, I’ve come to respect it, and make full and proper use of rest days to allow my body the space that it needs to recover. While running helped me lose 6 stone when I first started out 10 years ago, it now seems to have the opposite effect: when I recently took a month or so off for injury in autumn I suddenly found that my jeans were a bit too loose. Our bodies are pretty amazing, eh?

2. No matter how hard you train, it doesn’t always pay off
I’ve always worked with the mantra that the more I put in, the more I’ll get out, but running appears to be the exception to this. I’ve never worked harder than I did for UT55, and I got to the start-line feeling as ready as I could be, but at only 12 miles in things started to go wrong. The same goes for two marathons where I’ve put in a solid amount of training in the hope of a PB, only to lose out by minutes or even seconds on race day. And, as I push towards the longer distances, my ability to get close to my PB in half marathons has waned significantly. This is the risk we take with running; with all the months of hard work, early mornings, sweaty speed sessions and long runs when we’d rather be in bed or drinking tea with someone lovely – it can all go wrong in an instant. A mis-judged breakfast choice, starting out too fast, going over on an ankle, leaving it too long for an energy gel – there are many reasons why we might miss out on a time we’d been chasing, a finish line or even a start line. Accomplishing a running dream hangs on so many tiny choices and moments of fate. I’m so glad that this isn’t the case in normal life!

3. Some people are effortlessly (annoyingly) good
I’m sure we’ve all been there. You invite a non-running friend to try running, and they’re better than you before they’ve even started. Or the person who shows up to a race totally unprepared but finishes way ahead of you, despite the fact that you’ve given so much of your life over to training in the previous months. This was the case on my first marathon. Oh, and my second. In fact, I don’t think my Dad has ever trained for a marathon, but he’s still managed to come way ahead of me in all but one marathon that we’ve run together. And, miraculously, with nothing more than a week of mountain biking in the Alps as ‘training’, he managed to chop 25 MINUTES off his marathon PB at Loch Ness in September. I kid you not. The only comfort to this is that I share his genes; I just might have to wait until my 50s like he did before I start getting speedy.

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First marathon success.

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Haweswater 2012: the year my Dad had sciatica so ran the whole HM a meter behind me, telling me to run faster.

4. Running isn’t always good for you
I learned this the hard way when I discovered that what I thought had always been a way for me to manage my mental health had turned into a major source of anxiety in my life. Especially with everyone sharing their escapades on social media, it can become increasingly difficult to feel that you are ever doing ‘enough’ when it comes to running and fitness in general. You thought running four times a week was a lot, but everyone else appears to go out five times. And everyone else is doing dynamic yoga and HIIT and spinning, too. And barre, whatever that is. And while you’re relaxing on the sofa in the evenings, everyone else appears to be locked to a ‘turbo’ in their living rooms, burning endless calories even as they watch TV. And then they post a picture of their ‘breakfast’ (seriously, does anyone on Instagram eat more than 500 calories a day?) and it’s smaller than the afternoon snack that you ate yesterday before an evening meal that contained CARBS. Lots of them. I think this is a growing issue for a lot of people: getting outdoors and doing something energetic is great, but it isn’t a case of more = better. I dealt with this by unfollowing people on Instagram and Twitter as necessary, and also by writing about it on this blog. It’s a work in progress, but it has helped no end.

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Sometimes it’s more fun to just lie around.


5. 5km is a tough distance

Another lesson learned the hard way. I did my first ever 5km race two weeks ago, at my first ever ParkRun. I’ve never had any interest in this distance because I admit that I’m just not quick enough for it to be any fun. I’m much more excited to see how far I can go than how fast, hence 5km and 10km races tend not to be on my radar. But this year, I want to try pushing myself to get a bit faster. Nothing super speedy or impressive, but I do want to see my times improve over shorter distances again, even back to how they were a couple of years ago. So, I thought I’d give my local ParkRun a try. Only 5kms, how hard can it be? Whether I was naive or simply arrogant I do not know, but I set off at a comfortably speedy (for me) pace, rushing past lots of other runners and enjoying the opportunity to push myself hard from the start. About a mile in and I was feeling great, but not long after that the lack of breakfast and unfamiliar effort of running at that pace took its toll, and I wasn’t sure if I could get to the end without stopping to walk. Everything hurt, and I slowed to snail pace in the last mile, only hoping that I’d be able to make it to the end. I finished in 29 minutes, complete with lots of respect for all of those people who do a good job at running that distance. This Saturday I set off at a much steadier pace and shaved more than a minute off my time. Phew.

6. Enthusiasm is as important as talent
As I document over and over again on this blog, I love the Lakeland Trails events. I was lucky enough to win a season ticket to the Autumn series in a spot prize back at Cartmel in March, and so Autumn 2015 saw us take a number of trips up to the Lake District to take part in the four Autumn events. A couple of weeks ago my Dad texted me to ask if I’d seen the results from the Autumn series. I hadn’t, since being in the last quartile of every race I’d taken part in meant that I tried to avoid dwelling on how much slower I was than everyone else, but I took a look, just to be polite. What my Dad wanted me to see was that he’d come top in his category and eighth overall – very impressive. But when I looked at the ladies’ results I noticed that my name was also up there – a rather less impressive 20th in my category and 66th overall, but even so it felt fantastic to be so high up on the list. The fact is that it was my love for running in these races, and by no means my running skills, that got me there. And I’ll take that, no problemo.

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In my happy place

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I have no idea how to even begin to describe my UT55 experience. It was both the most brutal and the most brilliant thing I’ve done, and I’ve spent the past five days in a sort of trance, unable to think of anything else. I feel a little lost now it’s over; I find myself running those trails constantly, in my thoughts and in my dreams – I’m reluctant to return to the normal world, not just yet.

The UT55 was so different from what I expected. It wasn’t ‘just’ a marathon with 10 miles on the end. It wasn’t ‘only’ 55km. I’d talked myself down constantly in the run-up to the event, unfairly comparing it as a lesser challenge than the 110km route that many other runners (including my Dad) would be taking on at the same time. And fair enough, it was half the distance and half the ascent, but there was no ‘only’ about any of it, and I paid for my ignorance over every single one of those 55km 58.1km. Because this event wasn’t about the distance; the 55km part was just a small detail in relation to the climbs, the downhills, the terrain, the pain, the heat, the nausea, the fear, the sweat… Three weeks prior I ran the Lakeland Trails marathon at ‘ultra pace’ in six hours; with ‘only’ 10 extra miles to run I’d estimated what I thought was an overly conservative finishing time of 9 hours. Oh how wrong I was.

The days prior to the event had been agonising. I’d missed out on a lot of training thanks to general over-tiredness and a too-busy schedule, and on the Thursday my doctor diagnosed an annoying sore throat as pharyngitis and advised me to consider not running on Saturday. From that point I had almost exactly 48 hours until the start, most of which I spent obsessing over my swollen glands, gargling saltwater and consuming a large amount of very expensive Manuka honey (I even bought the 10+ variety – anything to get me to that start line!). My missing appetite wasn’t helping, and I became immersed in a self-obsessed gloom that would not budge. But, after an unusually long pre-race sleep and a surprisingly hearty breakfast (neither sleep nor eating come easily to me before races), by 10:30am on Saturday morning I felt calm and eager to start the race. The odds seemed to be stacked against me, but by this point the only thing I could do was start running and see how far I could get before I needed to stop.

The start of the race was unconventional and inspiring. Graham (Lakeland Trails Race Director) announced that Kim Collison, extremely smiley TeamGB ultra runner, was about to finish the 110km race, and so our race started with the finish of another: cheering in an awesome runner and his huge grin as he claimed the course record after under 11 hours on the trails (wow). Batala Lancaster set the pace with their amazing drumming, and with that familiar rising sensation in my chest we were off – the UT55 had begun!

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The race details described the first leg as ‘a struggle to Kirkstone Pass’, and this was by no means an exaggeration. Not even half a mile in and we had all slowed to a walk – this felt totally counter-intuitive so early on in a race, but I followed the lead of those around me and pushed my legs up the massive climbs. Roads gave way to trails, by which point I’d already reached the realisation that this was nothing like marathon running. The atmosphere was relaxed and extremely friendly – we were all in it together, rather than trying to push ourselves past one another in some egotistical chase of a number-driven goal. The sun was out, everyone was smiling and chatting – I felt very content, though very aware of my swollen glands and sore throat.

I kept telling myself that every uphill step earned me a downhill step for later, but I soon ate my words after we passed the first checkpoint at the top of Kirkstone Pass. Leg two was described as ‘downhill to Brotherswater’, but even this first descent was quite technical and tough on the thighs, and was nothing compared to what was in store a few miles down the trail. It wasn’t too far downhill before we finally reached some lovely flat terrain – the first of the course so far – and I got chatting to those around me, soaking in the sunshine and really enjoying myself. Before I knew it 9 miles had passed – the point at which I usually have my first snack, but I was lost in conversation and didn’t bother to stop and eat anything. Two miles later we hit the second checkpoint at Glenridding, which was roaring with support and boasted a little tent filled with snacks, water and energy drink. I stopped here for my first jacket potato (I mainly supplied my own fuel on this race as I wasn’t keen to repeat the ‘wheaty sandwich’ incident from a training run – I’ve steered clear of wheat ever since), took on plenty of water and some Coke (Lakeland Trails events are the only time I ever drink Coke, but it must be the best running fuel there is), and then hurried off out of Glenridding. I knew the biggest climb was coming up, and I didn’t want to lose my momentum by stopping for too long at the checkpoint.

At this point the whole thing went simultaneously uphill and downhill, and both were equally massive and uncomfortable. It was only mile 12; I should have been filled to the brim with energy and enthusiasm, but not long after the checkpoint I started to feel really strange. Perhaps it was the heat – I was climbing and climbing and sweat was running off me on the first proper sunny day of the year – or perhaps it was the fact that I’d failed to get any fuel in me until mile 11, but I started to feel incredibly sick, tired and dizzy. My throat hurt, I started to panic, I felt more sick, more dizzy. Suddenly I was really cold and shivery even though the sun was blazing down. I didn’t want to run, and I didn’t know how I could possibly keep going for another 24 miles. I started to get a bit tearful; I wanted to speak to my Mum, to get some rational view on how I felt and some words of comfort. But there was no phone signal and she would almost certainly have told me to return to Glenridding and pull out. So I kept plodding forwards, much too aware of the water sloshing around in the bottle that sat right over my stomach. The nausea rose and fell, the heat irritated me more; I kept breathing long slow breaths and tried to stay calm. I spoke to myself aloud ‘stay calm, just focus’. I ate a fudge bar and felt a little better. Mile 13 passed, the trails were lovely and the day was just beautiful. Let’s just get to the next check point, where Daniel will be waiting.  And then, in slow motion just as last time, I fell hard onto the floor. I can still hear the thuds of my body as various bits slammed against the ground – luckily I hadn’t been running very fast, or the fall would have been harder. Even more luckily, my hands responded this time, and stopped my face from hitting the rocky ground. My knee and leg weren’t so lucky, and as I crawled back up mud and blood intermingled in a gooey mess down my shin. The lady ahead turned back to check that I was ok – ‘I think so’ – I washed myself in a nearby spring, started running a bit more. Things couldn’t have felt any worse at that point. Mile 13 and I was ready to stop.

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The hardest point of the race came almost precisely after that moment. The path veered upwards, rocky scree underfoot, and soon I’d caught up with a number of other runners who were also trying to make the ascent. More runners piled up behind, and I think it’d be fair to assume that we were all going through something similar. The climb kept on coming; even walking this path was difficult, and my anxiety, nausea and dread melted away in the effort. This was the point where I really began to draw on those around me, all chatting with good-humour to try and relieve the burn in our legs and the fatigue that was creeping as far as my fingertips already. At this point I let go of all of my shattered expectations and realised that every step was a new challenge – every step was unknown and the only thing I could guarantee in the moment. Letting go of all of this made the load much lighter; the nausea disappeared and I didn’t see the sore throat again until 2 days after the run.

I say that was the hardest point of the race. In fact, I just assumed it would be the hardest point because it was the biggest climb. But no, the hard part was the excruciating descent once we’d passed Grisedale Hause. I could feel the fibres in my thighs shredding into pieces. Oh my, it was agony. Again, the runners kept me going, as well as the promise of seeing Daniel, who was waiting just three miles away. I was way behind schedule and had no signal to let him know – I knew he’d be very worried by now.

The heat of the day hit at around 3pm, and as we came down from the mountains it started to get very hot, but at least I was able to get some proper running in, pushing myself as much as I could to get to the checkpoint at Grasmere. I felt stones in my shoes, but when I took them off to empty them there was nothing there; not even 15 miles in and I already had a number of nasty blisters developing, thanks to the combination of heat and damp in my shoes. I decided to push forwards and hoped they’d go away; stupid really, since I learned (the hard way) years ago that blisters don’t just disappear.

Arriving at the checkpoint was a real high; Daniel ran with me for a bit and then I went inside to get a cup of sweet tea. We sat down in a shady area (first time off my feet in 5 hours!) and I ate some more food, gulped down loads of water and topped up my bag with extra food and fluid. Daniel covered me in more suncream and gave my shoulders a rub. Pack heavy, replenished and feeling positive I set off again, wondering how on earth my Dad was able take on double the challenge – I’d heard from him at about 9am, when he’d already completed the full distance of my race.

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This is where my race strategy really started. The plan had been to get through the first 18 miles, then on to the checkpoint at mile 23, and then I’d see Daniel again at the final checkpoint at mile 28. My newly-refreshed mind was able to focus on these smaller milestones, and so I decided to take the next five miles carefully, one mile at a time: at this point I felt for the first time that I might actually be able to finish. And, despite aching knees, agony in my thighs and blisters covering the majority of the soles of my feet, I really started to enjoy the running. The support from marshalls and bemused passers-by was simply astounding, and the runners around me felt more like friends than near-strangers. At the next check point I caught up with Maria, a lady I’d run with at the marathon, and it was great to see a familiar face and to swap ultra-notes. I heard myself proclaiming ‘only a half marathon to go!’ at this point: looking back I can’t quite believe that this somehow reassured me! Still, I’d reached my check point – so far so good – and the next challenge was a 10km run to Stickle Barn Tavern, where Daniel would be waiting.

Just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I had to do; I kept reminding myself that the only challenge was in the moment, to move forwards step-by-step despite what was now excruciating pain in my feet. I had blister plasters, they were part of the mandatory kit, but the problem was that I didn’t have spare socks and I couldn’t bear to remove my crusty ones and then have to put them on again. The good thing was that the pain had become irrelevant – my only clear thought was getting to the next mile, and then to the next checkpoint. Running is a meditation for me, and I can’t remember at all what went through my head in this final half of the race. I was enjoying it, and I wasn’t feeling unwell or anxious or negative in any way, so all I can assume is that I was lost somewhere without any thoughts. The Lakeland fells and the tap-tap-tap of feet on surface allow that kind of escape from everything; it’s why the idea of travelling so far on my own two feet was so appealing in the first place.

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The peace that I’d found in this penultimate leg was shattered in the best possible way at Stickle Barn Tavern. It was overrun with people – runners, spectators, marshalls, casual diners, cyclists – and the buzz of excitement (only 7 miles to go!) was fuel in itself. I took some soup and a cup of tea and stumbled back onto a bench outside. It was gone 7pm by this point (8 hours on my feet) and the glow and scents of the evening cast a warm tinge over everything. Daniel had brought Coke, which I gulped down, and presented me with four more Fudge bars which I refused. I’m not sure I want to eat another Fudge bar in a long time. With some trepidation I got up and started running into the evening, assuring Daniel that I’d see him soon enough at the finish. With only 7 miles to go I was pretty certain that I’d get to the finish, I just had to keep putting those feet in front of one another.

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Thanks to James Kirby as always for the excellent photos!

Surprisingly, these last 7 miles were the easiest for me. There was a lot of smooth surface to run on, and I was able to keep running without stopping to walk for miles at a time. Everything hurt, but it was irrelevant – I could keep going forwards, and so I would keep going forwards. My Garmin beeped me through 30 miles and I got a rush of excitement: this was a strange new territory, but I quite liked it. At mile 31 I felt the sharpest and worst pain yet; it came and went in a moment, yet it led me to cry out in agony as I felt as if I’d stepped onto a shard of glass or a nail. Something warm tricked over my toes, and I realised that the worst blister had popped: finally I was free to run on my forefeet again!

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I was pretty much alone for these last few miles, intermittently catching up with or being caught up by familiar faces. At mile 32 I started singing to myself Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen (unfortunately I only know a few lines so it got a little repetitive) and Superman by Goldfinger (I know all the words to that one). Mile 32, how had that happened? Only a Parkrun-plus-a-warm-up left. Mile 33 – only a Parkrun left to go; each mile seemed easy when I imagined setting off from my front door and running down the river and over the bridge until my Garmin beeped one mile outside Rowntree Park. Not far at all. Mile 34 and a marshall assured me that there were only two climbs left and then it was all downhill. Two climbs and downhill? There was nothing ‘only’ about any of that, but then I’d get over another mountain if I had to; I’d run 34 miles, I could do anything! Mile 35 and day finally turned to dusk, which made me a little sleepy after 10 hours of running. I could hear a tawny owl, and beyond that, the finish line. Then came the downhill of my worst nightmares, so much so that I had to cut out the running and walk – my eyes were watering from the screaming in my shredded thighs. But then we were in Rothay Park, and there were people cheering and clapping, and my legs took over and the pain disappeared: I was sprinting around the corner, cheered on by people who I’d been encouraging onwards hours and miles ago. I saw Daniel, and my Dad standing next to him, and part of me didn’t want to be finished quite yet.

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Awestruck, of myself and of everyone else. Of Graham Patten and the Lakeland Trails team who completed an ultramarathon of organisation that weekend. Of the marshalls who were the kindest people I’ve ever met even after hours standing around taking care of us tired and hungry runners. Of the people cheering. Of all of the other runners, equally the fastest and the slowest of us all – we achieved something brilliant on Saturday, whether or not we crossed that finish line (a good number didn’t; pulling out can take more strength than staying in). Of the guy with the cowbell who cheered me up on both occasions that I passed him – never underestimate the power of a cowbell. Or of a Fudge bar and some Coke. Of my Dad who ran double the distance and still had the energy to complain that he didn’t do a very good job (something that I am often guilty of myself). Of my husband who gave up his Saturday to support me, and who was, on a few occasions, the only reason I carried on. Of the person who decided that veggie chilli would be the appropriate meal to serve us after such a long day, and the girl with pigtails who let me have a massive second portion. And, most importantly, of every single runner who I spoke to during those long 10 hours and 53 minutes; you are the main reason that I was able to finish the UT55, and I wish I could thank each one of you for helping me through. If I’d been given a free mile for every person who asked if I was ok upon seeing my bloodied knee I could have done the UT110 without much effort. But then without the effort it wouldn’t have been so much fun, would it?

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Early bird entries for 2016 open soon. The only decision to be made is whether to do the 55km or to go mad and do the 110km this time instead.

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I’d been awake for over an hour when my alarm went off at 5am on Sunday morning. Most of the night had been spent lying in wait, listening to the wind rattling the window and the woman in the bunk above me snoring. We were staying in the remote and rather magical Coniston Coppermines youth hostel, nestled just below the Old Man of Coniston and about two miles up a rather terrifying dirt track from Coniston itself. Everyone in my dorm groaned as my alarm sounded, and I got up and dressed silently by torchlight, heart heavy in my stomach: I have never felt so unprepared for a marathon, and I knew that I had a tough day ahead.

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I ate breakfast with an enthusiastic Scotsman in the empty kitchen, which reeked of Deep Heat and strong coffee (neither of which had anything to do with me). He told me, with some pride, that it was the hardest race he’d ever done; it turns out he’d run a number of extremely tough ultras, so this didn’t help my cause. But by this point I was resigned to the fact that I would run that race – it was my only chance of feeling at all ready for the UT55 in under three weeks’ time.

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The startline was buzzing quietly, in a rather pleasant 7am sort of way, and the lake glistened in the morning light. Somehow it felt different from any other race I’d done, possibly due to the early start and hence the rather small number of runners (220) and spectators, and partly because this was the first time that I expected to be running for a really long time. My only deadline was the ‘Apres Trails’ celebrations, which required me to be back at base and not comatose by 3:30pm. That meant I had over 8 hours to finish the marathon, but still I was unsure it would happen. Only three weeks before I’d been ready and eager for a marathon race, but a nasty chest infection/flu dealt a massive blow to my training, and I didn’t feel I could ever get back to where I had been a few weeks before, when I’d felt at the fittest I’ve ever been. Typical.

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We set off after a quiet countdown from 10, and I started moving slowly along the familiar tracks from Coniston Old Hall and back up towards the hostel. Not even a mile in we came to a gate, and the runner ahead of me stopped to hold it open as I came through. I thanked him; “no problem, we’ve got a long day ahead”. Already, there was something wonderfully convivial about the race, and I was comforted by his thoughtfulness rather than worried by his words. I got into a steady pace and ran quietly, listening to the chatter of those around me. It continued like this for a while, and slowly but surely the miles started to pass. I walked almost every hill, stopped to enjoy the scenery, and purposefully kept to a slow pace – this was my dress rehearsal for the big day, and I wanted to stick with the ‘training run’ attitude, rather than get carried away by the race. Many of the others around me were also signed up for the UT55, so it was easy to hold back and stick to my nice steady running. It was much more comfortable than any marathon I’ve done before, despite it being by far the hardest course.

Two hours or so must have passed before the sun started to show through, and by this point I was enjoying myself so thoroughly that it seemed as if the weather was just a reflection of my mood. It still felt like a different sort of race – I hadn’t really spoken to anyone at all, and was just enjoying some quiet contemplation and spectacular scenery around Tarn Howe and the endless fells that abandoned all signs of human existence. I was running a marathon (I kept having to remind myself) but it felt more like a meditation. Just me and the gentle slosh of my water bottles, and the footsteps of those runners who I’d managed to stick with for so many miles.

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It continued like this until mile 20, at which point we came to a checkpoint and I decided to practice changing the water in my new ultravest. Only a few meters down the road I started to feel water dripping down my side, and had to stop to fix the bottle. This process repeated itself three times, before I got frustrated and decided to empty the water out and get on with only isotonic until the next water station; the trusty runners who I’d stuck with for 20 miles were long gone, and it was looking like my hopes of finishing in under 5;30 had disappeared. Slightly frustrated, I carried on, but it was hard to get back into a rhythm at this point: my Dad had warned me that the last 6 miles was the most technical, and I was finding myself having to walk much more than I had done previously. The upside to this was that I got chatting to some of the people around me, and we helped each other through the more difficult terrain with jokes about missing teeth and lost shoes. I was still having the best time of my life, and would quite happily have continued running in this race for another few hours.

At mile 23 another water stop appeared, almost a mirage amongst the long grass and hillocks in my path – I was getting desperate for water by this point, as the sugary isotonic was everything but refreshing. The marshalls were so friendly and kind – I stopped for a couple of minutes to chat with them, and we cheered on some of the passing race runners, who had started two hours after my race and were doing amazingly well on such a tough route. Not long after this stop we descended to the side of Coniston water, and we really were on the home straights. For some reason this was the point when I really started to tire, and runners who I’d been ahead of for the entire race overtook me in this final stretch. I kept tripping over and had to walk any technical bits as I couldn’t really focus properly: I’d been running for almost 6 hours, which is by far the longest time I’ve ever taken in a race. I thought I saw a snake on the path at one point, and when I realised it was actually just a twig I knew I was starting to get a bit delirious. This wasn’t something entirely unfamiliar – during training for my first marathon I’d experienced similar things (one time I thought someone had grabbed me from behind, and turned to find no one there!) – and I knew that it just meant I needed a rest, ASAP. My watch called out mile 25 just as the path widened out and became much easier underfoot, so spurred on I pushed ahead and picked up the pace – I could still beat 6 hours if I had a good final mile. But the final mile was anything but good.

In slow motion, I started falling forwards as my feet somehow gave up from under me. Perhaps I tripped, perhaps I just really wanted a lie down, but my increased pace meant that I hit the ground with a serious wallop. Unfortunately my hands were elsewhere in my time of need, and my face hit the floor with a bang, the force pushing my head back upwards and hurting my neck. Silence for a moment, and then panic. The blonde girl who I’d been running with and encouraging on a moment ago was kneeling beside me in an instant, and I was shaking as I tried to stand, knees hurting badly as they unfolded from under me. I spat out a large amount of ‘lakeland trail’; lots of blood followed, but luckily no teeth. I was in a bit of shock as I’m incredibly squeamish and there appeared to be a lot of blood, but my saviour assured me that I was ok – my nose wasn’t bleeding and my bottom lip was still attached. I rinsed out my mouth with isotonic and carried on running shakily – as if the final mile of a marathon isn’t hard enough! Luckily the fall had also given me an adrenaline boost, and I seriously wanted to see Daniel by this point, so I pushed ahead, adamant to finish before I keeled over again.

And, to cut a rather long final mile short, I did. Rather than dipping my legs in the lake, as I’d been dreaming of for two hours, I spent the first post-race 15 minutes in the first aid tent. After some recovery shake and a large pot of chick pea tagine I was feeling a little more revived, and we sat in the sun being serenaded by Pete Lashley, on a high after a brilliant weekend that I’d been quietly dreading for a couple of weeks. Final mile aside, I’d just finished the hardest and most enjoyable run of my racing ‘career’ so far, and even in that first post-race hour I started really looking forward to my first ultra experience.

DSC02673I must have said it three times already, but this race was simply magnificent. I can’t imagine that it could be beaten in terms of route, support, friendliness and difficulty – there’s no wonder it’s up there with the world’s best marathons. A massive thank you to everyone involved, especially Coniston Mountain Rescue who provided fantastic marshalling support, and all of the other marshalls and friendly faces along the way. I am seriously looking forward to my next Lakeland Trails event…let’s hope it doesn’t get too hot and sunny between now and then!

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