[See here for a Dutch version of this story – Kijk hier voor een Nederlandse versie van dit verhaal]
Leading up to the race
Mid-March I did a little dance when I learned I could run the Lakeland100 at the end of July. This was the kind of long and rough challenge I was looking for. The Lakeland 100 is an iconic* 105 mile (169 km) race in the U.K. Lake District.
Little did I know that my preparation would go horribly wrong. After a year of keeping my Achilles’ tendon issues more-or-less in check, things started to deteriorate leading up to GTLC end of May and jeopardized my participation in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail end of June. In the latter race I went off from the gun naively thinking I would be alright, only to experience a complete break down a good 30k into the race. I seemed to recover well, but after an inspection of my tendons I was put on rest on doctors order, and this with only 3 weeks to go until the Lakeland100 race. My first reaction was that there was no way I could (or in any case it would make any sense I would) start, but the idea of starting the race wouldn’t leave my mind… and I mentally prepared for running at a much slower pace than usual, hoping this strategy would carry me further along the course.
After 12 days without running, I made an attempt to get the legs moving again. I felt worse than before stopping, but things gradually improved over subsequent runs. My physio warned me not to run on consecutive days though… With less than one week to go I tried to run 10-12 miles on very easy, paved road, which went more or less OK. If I’d failed at this, I wouldn’t even have started.
As we would spend our family holidays in the Lake District, we already took the ferry Zeebrugge-Hull on Tuesday night. During our 2-days stay in the North Pennines, I got the chance to have a last training run on somewhat similar terrain and getting used to walking with soaked feet all day. On Friday, we arrived in Coniston around 2.5 hours before the race start. Just in time to collect the race pack, check-in at our holiday cottage and return for the briefing, which already gave me a good “family” feel about the race.
Coniston to Seathwaite: Happy to be moving
Despite the last hours stress to get to Coniston, I felt relatively at ease in the starting zone and very mindful that I should start extremely easy (in my head I imagined this as being equivalent to running a +4h marathon on 2:40 fitness). I passed my wife and kids hidden in the pack and could only make up a faint “papa”-shout. During the gentle climb on the road I already switch to run-walking as a strategy to both conserve energy and forcing myself to keep it slow. After miners bridge, we get onto a very nice single track. I was really enjoying it and couldn’t be bothered by the light drizzle. While continuing on the wider Walna Scar Road, the rain started pouring down and I got soaked before I even made up my mind about getting my waterproof out. Luckily my merino wool T-shirt stayed comfortable all along. Descending into Seathwaite was another test for my running. It all felt a bit tedious, and I also applied the run-walk strategy here to save my legs on the somewhat more demanding sections. Overall my tendons were holding surprisingly well and I only experienced some minor aches, esp. left shin splint.
Seathwaite to Wasdale Head: Checkpoint fun
I had prepared a whole checklist of (potential) checkpoint tasks, but was feeling so great that I restricted my stay to grabbing a small bite and taking a “celebration selfie”. During the next leg I covered more soft-ground terrain, seriously soaking my feet, but again everything seemed to hold reasonably well and I really enjoyed the dramatic views. As the field spreads out, I am starting to find a comfortable position and am chatting to a few runners about the course (the majority of people I speak to seem Lakeland veterans) and (fell) running.
Passing through the aid station in Boot I am glad I am still out of trouble, but am very conscious I should keep it easy and consider each aid station a victory. Over the next leg darkness starts to set in, I enjoy the course, esp. on the rather indistinct paths along Burnmoor Tarn. Arriving at Wasdale Head, the checkpoint beach party is kicking off. It’s big fun, but I don’t stay too long and disappear in the darkness towards Buttermere. Looking around, it’s amazing to see the trail of headlamps over the fells. Although it is dark and cloudy, there is still a kind of “glow” over this open landscape, and I can still quite appreciate the “surroundings”.
The night passes quickly
Leaving Buttermere, I am on my own and need to closely watch the navigation for the first (longer) time in the race, but except for a small glitch in the forrest I manage pretty well combining GPS and map (for the bigger picture). During the climb over Sail Pass I am closing in on one of the top ladies Charlie Ramsdale, but am on my own again during the descent into Braithwaite, closely watching the line I am taking through the bracken. This checkpoint is a bit more serene in terms of “party atmosphere”, but has excellent offerings in terms of food. I am tempted by a bowl of grapes (cut in half with seeds removed!), man these taste so good!
I join Dean and Pete who run as a team on the somewhat boring road towards Keswick and am happy we can easily locate the unmanned checkpoint. I still hang on to the team runners for a bit, but not much later I experience my first sugar crash (rebound hypoglycemia). Luckily it doesn’t get too bad, and things are improving by the time I reach Blencathra Centre.
The night is almost over and I am happy to put my headlamp in my pack. It is fantastic I got this far without any significant trouble and I am starting to believe I might make it without having to go through another night. I am conscious that it is still a long way to go and that the lack of training will probably kick in at some point. I am around other runners for the first 3rd of this leg, all in good spirit now that we can enjoy some sunlight again. The course runs through a boggy area and turns uphill. I am still moving quite well in the climbs. It is time to get my raincoat out, but I have no trouble staying warm and the clouds are high enough to enjoy the magnificent view on the fells. Before I know I get to the aid station in Dockray, almost halfway through the course.
Dockray to Dalemain: Nothing to stop me yet…
At Dalemain I have a drop bag waiting for me, but first I have to cover 10 miles, the longest between checkpoint distance. I am delighted to see a sign for Aira Force – this waterfall is one of the major attractions in the Lake District – but the course runs uphill passing it, so I’ll have to come back another time… During the uphill I catch up with a runner who’s specialised in 24h-racing. We stay together for several miles chatting along (and briefly missing a turn). While we cover the last miles on the road (up to the estate where the checkpoint is located), I am experiencing some serious top-of-foot pain, but so far it doesn’t stop me from running at a reasonable pace. I am glad to notice that (for one of the first times along the course) I have reception on my phone. I manage to call my wife and kids, happy to report that I’ll reach Dalemain much earlier than anticipated (even in my most optimistic scenario) and I hope I can make it around in time for them to see me at the finish.
Dalemain to Mardale Head: The going gets tough
I take plenty of time (maybe a little too much) at Dalemain, settling down in a camping chair and enjoying the excellent service, eating some warm custard, drying my feet, re-taping my Achilles-tendon, changing T-shirt and filling my pack with bars and gels (the latter will stay untouched). Getting up from the chair it takes quite a while to get rolling again. It seems the rest did not really help, but luckily it is general stiffness rather than my Achilles tendons which are blocked. Charlie, and two male runners who seem to pace her, quickly pass me, but somehow I keep seeing them up to Howtown where we leave the aid station together for quite a serious climb over Wether Hill. The climb doesn’t feel very steep, but we are moving very slowly as if the soft ground is draining our energy (and in my case the top-of-foot pain doesn’t help). As we approach the highest point High Kop my legs start moving again and I manage to pick up the pace descending over the grassy ridge towards Low Kop. This feels really strange, visually it looks like I am on a very easy uphill, while in reality it is definitely downhill. The soft underground somehow allows me to run without too much discomfort in my feet. Turning towards Haweswater I am still moving reasonably well through the bracken, but once I arrive on the track along the lake my pace drops spectacularly. I don’t know what’s so particularly demanding about this path, but I don’t manage to run well on this stretch. As the shoelaces of one of my shoes gets loose, I stop to re-tie them and realise that my feet may be swelling and that this didn’t help with top-of-foot pain, so I also tie my other shoe again. The pain seems to be dancing around from time to time, disappearing in one foot and re-appearing in the other… By the time I reach Mardale Head I feel pretty battered, but determined to push on.
Maredale Head: Avoiding disaster
To my surprise I am meeting Dean and Pete here again. I keep seeing them for a few kilometers until I am getting in trouble negotiating the gravel during the descent. The pain on the top of my feet has moved higher up and now I am really starting to understand that the tendon of the Tibialis anterior muscle is starting to give up. I’ve had this injury before and know more or less what to expect. I still give myself a fair chance of finishing the race, but realise that finishing under 28 hours or even 29 is now out of question. I try to keep rolling while lifting my feet gets progressively more difficult and am glad once I get to climb again…
Arriving at Kentmere I immediately ask for ice to massage my tendons, but it seems I’ll have to do with an instant cold pack. An assistant medic comes up to me and asks me about my injury and any other issues I have experienced so far (blisters, headaches, stomach issues, fatigue, which all get answered with a resounding no). I don’t want to take my shoes off fearing that my feet would swell, so I try to apply kinesiotape under my dirty socks. A while later the assistant medic wants to see my feet and I need to take my shoes off after all. This all seems to take up a serious amount of time, and as I leave I am ready to see how my tendons would behave. After some climbing, the descent into Troutbeck is a first real test for my tendons. At this point it seems that the tape might be a “race-saver”, but obviously the descent is still quite tedious. Nevertheless I am in good spirits as I am approaching Ambleside. I only briefly stop at the aid station thinking that 28h may be feasible after all, only to realise during the next climb that I made a miscalculation from miles to kilometers. Moving through the Langdale valley up to Chapel Stile, the course is quite flat, but my pace is barely faster than walking. Strange enough, I seem to cope better with the pain while doing some pseudo-running rather than walking, which I keep for a 30 seconds rest to break now and then. At this stage I am hanging on to a guy who is suffering from sore feet and who is basically doing the reverse (i.e. more walking than running), but still moving slightly faster than me.
Chapel Stile to Coniston: A painful affair
As I have not been eating in between aid stations for the last 4 hours or so (just didn’t feel like it), I enjoy the veg stew here. I take a cup of tea, as I have been doing throughout the race and start walking until I can put my cup back in my pack. The trail along Blea Tarn is quite nice, but it’s not sufficient to get my mind of the suffering. Although the course up to the very last aid station -from where it’s less than 6 km to go- is quite easygoing, I experience my progress as painfully slow now, but try to keep moving to the best of my ability as I expect that my family is waiting for me at the finish and there is no way to alert them I will probably run late…
At Tilberthwaite I quickly move through the aid station, I really want this to be over as soon as possible, but first there’s some serious climbing to do. Given the circumstances, the climb still goes reasonably well, but the descent ends up being an hour long torture. At the same time overall fatigue is starting to take its toll for the first time in the race. I am not sure whether this classifies as hallucinating, but seeing a big stone sinking 10 cm in the earth probably comes close. At times I am shouting in pain, but I manage to remind myself I really want to keep moving and finish this otherwise incredible race. While the moving is painful, I try to avoid actually stopping and have a hard time convincing myself that I really need to get a piece of clothing out of my backpack to avoid hypothermia or even to get my headlamp (which I hoped not to need anymore). Every step hurts as it is impossible to keep my feet straight on this irregular terrain, and I am not sure whether I would have survived this without poles. I try walking backwards for a bit, contemplate rolling or sliding down, but this is obviously not a feasible option either. Once I am on the wider track passing miners bridge, I realise I am almost there. I have the feeling several other 100-mile runners (along with hordes of 50-mile runners) still pass me on this stretch, but I can’t be bothered with it anymore. Spectators shouting at Black Bull Inn motivate me to pick up running again. I am happy (but probably too exhausted to express it) to see my family on Lake Road and take their hands to cover the last meters to the finish.
Finished against all odds
After the finish I was escorted to the tent where I could sit down, received 2 cold packs, a hot meal and care from my family before walking up to our holiday cottage. The fact that I made it around the coursenis a miracle in itself, but things didn’t come easy either. I was mentally prepared to dig deep, but in the end you need to manage the race as it comes. I am grateful for this incredible experience, but at the same time unsure whether I would want to start a similar race in case my race preparation would go as bad…
*featured in Ian Corless’ book Running Beyond: Epic Ultra, Trail and Skyrunning Races
P.S.: I was quite happy with my kit choice running with inov-8 Terraclaw 250, merino t-shirt, ultrashell and race ultra boa.