Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Race Report: The Ultimate Trails 110k

It was with some concern that I made my way back to bed late Thursday night. You see, I'd spent the last few minutes being violently ill. No fun at the best of times, this was especially worrying as, in a little over 24 hours, I would be toeing the line at the Ultimate Trails 110k: my biggest race to date, and one for which the preparations had gone far from smoothly. To be faced with a stomach bug on top of everything was far from ideal.

Since 1 January this year, I've had setback after setback. Broken toes, quad strains, angry Achilles tendons... Whilst I've managed to put in some very respectable training blocks, including my first hundred mile week, they've been interspersed with several periods of six weeks or more where I've not run a step, and have had to resort to biking or pool-running. It had been bad enough to feel a cold coming on the week before, but it seemed to be becoming something a little more significant.

Waking up on Friday morning, I knew I was in for it. Sitting at the kitchen table, I even said to Rachel "There's no way I should be racing... I'm going to, but there's no way I should." Trying to replace lost calories from the night before was the name of the game, as well as re-hydrating, so I forced myself to eat some porridge and a slice of toast, and began working my way through pints of water as we loaded up the car with our camping gear. I then hit on the idea of making up some Tailwind in order to kill two birds with one stone. Despite waves of nausea continuing to wash over me, I did manage a smile when Xander spotted me getting the tent out of the shed and excitedly shouted "Open! Tent! CAMPING!!!". I'm so pleased we decided to take him camping from an early age, as he loves it now, and it makes racing further afield a lot more affordable than if we were having to arrange B&Bs all the time.

Rachel had kindly offered to drive from Hexham to Ambleside so that I could get some sleep. Because of Xander's car-seat being behind the passenger seat, and because of the length of my legs, it's not really possible to get at a comfortable angle so, whilst I'm pretty sure I did doze a bit, it was fitful, and I was still able to hear the radio. A brief stop in Keswick for lunch on the shore of Derwent Water, and then on to Ambleside for registration and kit check.

Kit check was super smooth, and I showed my ID, signed my disclaimer(!), got my mugshot taken, and my GPS tracker attached to my race pack. I then sorted out the contents of my drop bag (a new experience for me) and took that to the waiting van, to be transported to CP5 at Glenridding. It was then a case of heading to our campsite, pitching the tent, and trying to get some more shut-eye before cooking up some pasta and heading to the start (early, so that Rachel could get back to camp and get Xan to bed).

The night was really warm, so I lay down on a park bench near the start line and munched on a PBJ, looking like a very odd vagrant. My stomach felt like it had settled by this point, and I was feeling ready to go. Calm, and focused. Normally I'm a bundle of nerves before a race but, presumably, this was so far out of my sphere of reference that I just didn't know how nervous to be and so wasn't! When the time came, I mooched over to the tent for the safety briefing, final trip to use the facilities, and then it was headtorch on and over to the start line.

The anticipation builds
A countdown was given and then we were off, leaving Rothay Park at roughly 12:05am. I had my watch set-up to show my heart rate and pace, as usual, but had turned off autolap as I didn't want to be reminded too often how far I still had to go! Instead, I had an app running that told me how many beers I had earned.

You know that feeling in your leg muscles when you're ill? Like, they go really weak and wobbly and feel like your blood has been replaced by bile? Yeah, so that kicked in almost immediately. I mean, we hadn't even made it out of Ambleside and I was thinking shiiiiiiiiiiit. As we hit the first climb I, along with most of the other mid-packers, settled into the first of many 'tactical hikes' and I crossed my fingers that I just needed to warm them up.

Then the nausea hit. Oh, this wasn't good at all. Acid reflux and continual 'sicky burps' (sorry!). I was really starting to worry at this point; we hadn't even got halfway to CP1(!) and my stomach was revolting. In more ways than one. Still, I continued.

My plan had been to drink 500ml of Tailwind between check points, which would give me 200kcals as well as ensuring I was hydrated (something I really struggle with) and then, once I'd been clocked in, snack on whatever solids took my fancy. Coming up on CP1 I realised I hadn't come close to drinking all my Tailwind, so downed it like a fresher who's just been pennied. This would not end well, though I wasn't to know at the time. Use the facilities, mix up another bottle of Tailwind, and then away we go. A group of us managed to miss a flag in the dark and went a bit off course but fortunately the combination of a guy with local knowledge knowing we shouldn't be descending that far, and my GPS shouting at me for going off route, meant that we didn't lose too much time. We did see one poor bugger's headlight disappearing off into the darkness and, despite shouting him, he didn't turn around...

That Tailwind that I had inadvisedly chugged was really starting to make its presence known now and, seeing I had a bit of a gap between the runners in front of me and those behind, I ducked off to the side of the trail and discreetly... got rid of it. Feeling a wee bit better, but still not able to face taking anything on (even water), I set off again telling myself I could always drop at CP2.

Between CP1 and CP2 we had to negotiate the Nan Bield pass. In the dark. With rocks slick from torrential rain the week previously. Excellent. "Just make it down in one piece and then my job is done!", instructed the incredibly cheery marshal. My regular reader (hi there!) will know how much I adore slippery technical descents so, combined with returning nausea, I started to get quite low. We were still, at this point, barely out of the blocks in ultra terms. Feeling like Bambi on ice, I gingerly picked my way down, managing to catch a nav error early on, and was overjoyed to stumble into CP2, which was a tent at Mardale Head.

At least, I was overjoyed until the bastard midgies attacked. There was a thick black cloud of them and I swear they all turned and looked at me then, in one co-ordinated move, moved in for the kill. The marshals at that check point deserve a medal. Still, it got me moving again, as no way was I going to drop there and get eaten alive waiting for the broom wagon!!! A few steps further along the trail, and with the nausea getting even worse, I made a decision.

I hit ctrl+alt+delete.

Which is to say, I crouched down in front of a dry-stone wall, stuck my fingers down my throat, and puked until there was nothing left and I was dry heaving.

"Are you...ok...?!", other competitors concernedly asked as they passed.

HNEEEEEUUUUURGH!! "I'm fine, thank you for asking!" HNEEEEEUUUUURGH!!, I managed to reply.

This taken care of, I had a word with myself, and pushed on, ready to re-assess things at Bampton, which was CP3.

As we trotted along the western shore of Haweswater Reservoir, dawn began to break, and I was quickly able to put my headtorch away. This, along with no longer feeling like I was going to lose the contents of my stomach any minute (because I already had), did a good job of lifting my spirits.

Dawn over Haweswater
I've done a lot of training in the dark this year, and I actually really enjoy it. However, probably because of feeling so rough, that first 3-4 hours was a real low point for me and I was glad of the daylight, though unfortunately no sun rise to speak of because of the cloud. This leg contained some of the few sections I found myself able to run, being neither slippery technical death-traps nor bogs, and so I set to work reeling a few people in and making up some ground. Before long, I started to recognise where we were and realised we were approaching Bampton.

At CP3, it was time to give the feet some attention, as they had been soaking wet pretty much from the get-go and that, combined with trail debris, was a recipe for blisters. I wouldn't be able to change socks until Glenridding, as I had none with me, but managed to get some paper towel to dry them off and get rid of most of the grit. Fodder included crisps, which I managed a handful of, Nutella sandwiches(!) which I again managed a couple of, and some caramel shortcake, which I had a square of. This was probably too much in one go, but it didn't come back, so I got away with it and the calories were necessary. Out the door to CP4.

The leg to CP4 was fairly well groomed initially, and I got back to work making up time and places, rolling at 3:30 marathon pace at times. Once we made it up onto Askham Fell, it became a bit tougher going, but still not too bad; just heavy legs. On the descent into Howtown, and CP4, I started to get Tweets coming through from my mates who had clearly just woken up and fired up the tracker, and this was another real boost; I'm a lone wolf most of the time when running, but I was feeling it on Saturday, so that little bit of contact went a long way.

At CP4 I snatched another couple of caramel shortcakes (these were basically my fuel of choice from this point onwards!) and headed straight back out again, fortunately realising that I hadn't clocked in before I got too far from the door, and rectifying the situation, thus deftly avoiding a DQ.

The next leg was fairly uneventful, except for slightly more reliance on the GPS than expected due to the theft of some of the course markings. An annoyance for me, but I had both GPS and paper map and compass; since neither were mandatory kit, some people could have been in a bit of a pickle. Still, one should never go out without a map and compass, mandatory kit or not, and there's got to be a degree of self-sufficiency on an ultra. Anyway. Dropping down from Boredale Hause, I started to think I recognised the terrain, and then remembered that I'd covered a small section of the route, basically heading into Patterdale and then to Glenridding, as part of the Dirty Double last year. A flat section which swapped between road and trail led into CP5, and we were greeted with whoops and cheers by the people of Glenridding, which was another boost.

CP5 meant drop bag, which meant clean and, more importantly, dry socks. As with all the aid stations, the crew here were brilliant, and found my drop bag whilst I decided to respectfully deviate from the ultra-runner mantra of 'beware the chair' and have a well earned sit down. Feet were dried off and inspected, found to be in astonishingly good shape despite essentially having trenchfoot, and new socks were donned. This was bliss. Truly. Putting on dry socks at this point was one of the best feelings in the world. I grabbed my third and final pair of socks, shoved them in my pack as spares, and then left the rest of the contents there; since I hadn't managed any more Tailwind there was no point me taking the additional sticks I had in the bag, and nor did I want to change shorts or put on my cap. I spent about 15 minutes at CP5, the longest so far, and I think that it would have been worth spending a bit longer there tending to my feet. However, I didn't really have the supplies so there wasn't much more I could do. Onwards.

I don't remember much about this leg until we got roughly halfway through it, to Grisedale Tarn, and the wind hit. My, how the wind hit. Pretty unexpected, and had me reaching for my smock, as hypothermia doesn't sound like much fun, and a sweaty Helly Hansen baselayer doesn't provide much protection when you're sleep deprived and running on fumes anyway. As soon as we got around to the western edge, however, the wind dropped and the temperature rose again. This, namely the Lake District micro-climate, was to be in full effect all day, and was something that fascinated me throughout the event; in a car, which is how one would normally cover those distances(!), you're so cut off from nature that you don't notice such things, so it was something that particularly caught my attention.

Grisedale Tarn
The second half of the leg involved scrambling down Raise Beck. This was just silly, to be honest. I was not a happy bunny on this section, smacking my ankles and feet on rocks left right and centre, as well as losing my footing a couple of times and bruising my hand. Added to which, the eccentric contractions were murder on the quads. People with the bottle to actually run down that section, or at least move more quickly than I did, probably saved their quads. Alas, I didn't have it in me. Down to Dunmail Raise, then north to CP6 at Wythburn.

Another tented CP, and super friendly crew. At this point it was really starting to warm up, so I applied some sunscreen (too late, as it turns out) and got the X-Men sunglasses out for the next leg.

The next leg. Oh, the next leg. I absolutely hated this leg. I mean, really hated it. The climb up to Watendlath Fell was brutal, with the trail seemingly a stream/waterfall(!). Y'know those lovely dry socks? Soaked. Very slippery footing, and hot humid work. At one point we passed a couple of lads coming back down.

"How far to the top?" the guy in front of me asked.

"Err... I'd love to tell you it's not far but... well... a long way. And it's boggy too. REALLY boggy."

"You could have lied...!" I snarled (I did then smile at them and say thank you)

Once we got onto Watendlath Fell, it just got worse. This was pure bog. Leg strength sapping bog. Once more, I found myself unable to run. Time was slipping away even more.

"Ultra-running is really fucking stupid", I growled to myself.

I thought I was low during the night section but, honestly, I think this was the low point of the race for me. This was the point at which I really had to dig deep to keep going, and where I hated the very idea of ultra-running. This was the point at which I needed...

A montage.

Sadly, I had no montage, so just had to keep going anyway.

Rolling into Rosthwaite, and CP7, I smelled the most amazing smell. Pizza. Cheese and tomato pizza. Now, this pizza was some of the best pizza I have ever tasted. I don't know what the geniuses at CP7 had done to it - possibly laced it with EPO?! - but it went down a treat. I managed 4 slices of it before forcing myself to stop so as not to shock my system. At this point I debated changing my socks again, but decided there wasn't really much point given how quickly the last pair had got wet.

Leaving the CP, I ran for a while with a guy called Steve who was also doing this distance for the first time, and we talked about everything from previous races to kids having their own unique vocabularies. I'm not normally one for running with people, but it was nice to have some company and it helped pass the time. As the wind started to pick up again, I stopped to put my smock on, so Steve carried on. I knew we were approaching the final monster climb - Stake Pass - and started to do what I could to get in the zone to tackle it. I knew there was no chance of me running at this point, but I was determined to powerhike to the best of my ability.

"You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts..."
Stake Pass is a twat. Especially with 80k and a few thousand metres of climbing already in your legs. Eating the elephant one bite at a time (vegetarianism: yer doin' it wrong), I resorted to hiking a couple of zig zags, stopping to look behind at the view, hiking some zig zags, etc. Upon reaching the top, and CP8 (which was simply a safety check) I was met with the question "How're you doing? Alright?"

"Well, y'know, ok for 85k or whatever...!"

The guy on the checkpoint laughed heartily and assured me I didn't look bad, all things considered, and I thanked him as I began the descent.

A walker who, as I was passing, asked what my goal time was seemed rather taken aback when I responded "completion!" but, at that point, I had absolutely no idea when I would get back; only, that I would get back. I was going to finish this, no matter what. I'm not sure when I stopped considering dropping, but certainly by this point there was no question. The descent along the Cumbria Way was tough on the quads again, and I couldn't manage anything more than a few metres of trot at a time on the flats. I was also starting to get some fairly gnarly blisters. As a weather front moved in (more Lake District micro climate!) the smock went on, the hood went up, and it was off to CP9.

Whilst I'd been getting Tweets from friends, there was no data signal and next to no mobile signal at our campsite; consequently, I'd had no contact from Rachel all day. We'd sort of arranged for her to be at CP9 with Xan, and I'd been texting her with my location and time so she could try and gauge it, but had no way of knowing whether they were being received. At some point along the Cumbria Way I finally got a text saying they'd gone to CP9 and asked when I was expected, been told about 4:15pm (the text came through at 5pm!), and so they'd gone to Ambleside to find a playpark for Xan. This was a blow; I'd been looking forward to seeing them but, obviously, toddlers have needs and hanging around an aid station probably doesn't meet them! Still, I wasn't far from the end now, so I was sure I could handle the disappointment.

"Look, there's Daddy!"

Well, that took me by surprise as I staggered into CP9! Turns out that they'd gone to Ambleside to kill time, but then come back to wait for me! Whether the text was unclear or I just didn't understand in my sleep and glucose deprived state doesn't matter; they were there. Hugs and kisses (Xan was far more interested in trying to steal the food from the aid station, though I did get a fist bump from him eventually) and a quick run-down of what had happened so far followed, whilst eating caramel shortbread and getting my bottles filled by the lovely crew, before estimating my arrival time in Ambleside. Buoyed up for the final push, I kissed them both goodbye and set off. Only 10k to go.

Turns out, 10k is still a really long way when you've already covered 100k by that point. Whodathunkit, eh? However, aside from some unwelcome hills, which on a normal day I'd probably mockingly have referred to as speed bumps but felt like Himalayas, the leg passed without any issues and before I knew it I was starting to get Tweets and WhatsApps from friends and family; a sure sign that I was approaching civilisation. Then I heard it.

The sound of a PA.

At the end of a long race, the sound of a PA is a thing of beauty. It means you're nearing the finish line. Which means you can stop. And eat. And have a sit down. Sure enough, I started to pass people - spectators and other competitors - and the applause started in earnest. And then the finish line was in sight.

Before the race, I'd said to Rachel that (provided I wasn't in a sprint finish for 1st!), I'd like to cross the line with her and Xan. Cheesy, maybe, but training for this event had required a lot of good will from both of them, and I wanted them to be a part of it. So, as I rounded the final corner, I heard "BEN!" and turned to my right to see my son being thrust at me whilst looking slightly confused! Taking his hand, and eventually persuading a reluctant Rachel to take my other hand (thanks to the MC for egging her on!), we jogged towards the finish line.

"Hey, Xan! Running!"


He won't remember it, but I'll remember the look on his face as he crossed the line with everyone cheering.

89th out of 202 finishers, time of 18:38:47.

More hugs, more kisses, and then off to get my timing chip and tracker removed, and some hot food from the excellent Green Canteen (seriously, a Bhaji Butty?! Amazing! Shame I couldn't manage it all).

My one gripe about the event, and it's only a minor one really, is that once again they'd run out of small t-shirts by the time I finished. This happens on a fairly regular basis with Lakeland Trails events, and I'm sure that it could be avoided, either by having people pre-order their size or just ordering more smalls! Ah well. I usually only wear the t-shirt for about a week afterwards anyway.

Given the time I finished, it was straight from the event HQ to the Stickle Barn pub for some food. Fortunately, the race had gone straight past their door, so they didn't bat an eyelid when I showed up looking like I'd had a fight with a bog monster. A chickpea burger and chips was ordered, along with a pint of their own ale or, as I call it, malted barley recovery drink. The beer went down pretty well, but I couldn't face the burger at all, and promptly started to fall asleep on the bench. After concernedly (and very kindly!) offering me a pint of water with some sugar stirred in, the guy serving food wrapped the burger up in tin foil for us to take away; I subsequently had it as (first) breakfast the next day, and can confirm that it was a very good burger.

Upon getting back in the car, I started to shiver violently, which was a cause for concern both for me and for Rachel. I can only assume that fatigue, dehydration, and a rapid drop in exertion all resulted in a plummeting core temperature; this is why big city marathons often hand out foil blankets. Upon getting back to our campsite I was ordered into a hot shower by Rachel, before crawling into my 3-season sleeping bag wearing my merino base layer and a hoody; after being awake for essentially 40 hours straight, I was out like a light. An effective, if unorthodox, cure for insomnia.

So that was that. 110k of the Lake District, with over 3k of vertical gain, covered on foot. A few people have asked, did I enjoy it? Honestly, at the time, no I didn't. Don't get me wrong, the views were incredible, the event was extremely well organised, and the marshals and crew were brilliant. The problem was entirely mine. Having done the Lakeland Trails Marathon twice, I had assumed that the terrain would be similar. Challenging, technical in places for sure, but still largely something I could run. I was wrong. So very very wrong. Someone on Facebook the next day made the comment that, on the continent, those kinds of things are described as foot races rather than runs, and that's a fair point. I lined up expecting one thing and got another. Consequently, the event didn't meet my expectations and I enjoyed it less than I would have if I'd taken it on face value or, better, known precisely what I was letting myself in for. There's also the fact that I was pretty ill, and a quick tally up suggests I completed the event on 12-1400 kcals, and sheer bloody-mindedness (luckily I'm quite fat adapted, and never really felt like I couldn't keep moving; I just couldn't move fast).

What would I do differently? For one thing, due diligence on the course! Some recces would have been a very good idea but, with injuries and family commitments, that just wasn't going to be possible. Even then, no amount of training in Northumberland could really have prepared me for those climbs and descents; if you want to race well in the Lake District, you have to give it the respect it deserves, and train in the Lake District. I'd have taken some savoury snacks with me, and maybe something with ginger in to settle any stomach issues. I'd also have changed my socks at CP7; whilst they would have got wet again very quickly, they wouldn't have had all the grit in them and so I might have got away without the gnarly blister on the outside on my right heel.

Now the dust has settled, though, I feel more positive. It was an adventure, albeit not the one I had expected to have, and regardless of how well I did or didn't do timing-wise, I did just run 110k across the Lake District which, y'know, doesn't suck. Definitely type-2 fun, but an experience I'm very glad I had. One thing's for sure: I'll be an awful lot better prepared for the next one...

My watch cut out at 85k, but I still caught the bulk of the course profile
Massive thanks to everyone involved in the event; you were all superstars and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a beautifully brutal day out in the Lake District (so long as they realise there ain't gonna be a lot of running involved!).

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