The Lakeland 50 (and its big brother, the Lakeland 100) is really quite well-known. A lot of people who run ultras have it on their bucket list, as it is fairly accessible (i.e. in the UK), as well as being suitably tough. The 100 mile option also acts as the ‘Ultra Tour Lake District’ or U.T.L.B, which is brought to you by the same people who do the U.T.M.B (Ultra Tour Mont Blanc). When entries opened for this years race, it sold out in 6 mintures…that’s how popular it is.
Which makes it all the stranger that I only entered it because I was sitting at my computer on a fateful Friday morning in 2015, when an email popped up saying that entries opened in 30 minutes….and because I wasn’t allowed to enter the 100 mile option (you have to do the 50 first) I checked my calendar and entered the LL50. I’d obviously heard of the race, but never having run in the Lake District (or been to the Lake District) I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
The website states:
The Lakeland 50 is one the greatest ultra running and walking challenges in Europe, perhaps the world. It is run over the second half of the Lakeland 100 Ultra Tour of the Lake District, completing the final 50 miles of the 100 course. As it’s only half of the Lakeland 100 course it’s the easy option right? That’s the first and worst error you could possibly make.
There is a 40 hour cut-off for the 100 mile race, which sounds quite generous until you take into account the amount of ascent & terrain – it is tough enough to just finish, even if you consider that most competitors would be out there for 2 nights without stopping. The 50 mile race had a cut-off of 24 hours, which made it accessible for first-timers as well as walkers – a nice touch.
My first taste of the lakes area was going up for an organised recce run of about 15 miles of the course. My long-suffering wife was really excited about going away for an anniversary weekend, and even more excited when she heard we were driving 300 miles northwards in January (rather than flying south 500 miles), but I suspect her excitement peaked when she heard that our long weekend away accidentally coincided with a run, so I’d be disappearing for a day running.
Anyway, the recce run was my first taste of the course, from Ambleside to Conniston, which gave me a healthy respect of the climbing involved, the general terrain (frequently un-runnable), the weather conditions (although it only rained a bit, we actually had snow on the ground at the top of Tilberthwaite climb) and generally that this wasn’t a normal 50 mile run. For most people who are used to fell-running the terrain was fairly typical, but to me, used to running a long way but generally on the flat, it was a bit of an education.
In fact, those 15 miles took about 3.5 hours, and although they were thoroughly enjoyable, it definitely got my attention! I was lucky to be able to snatch a few days away in April, and returned to the Lakes to cover some more of the course and also try out my new passion for wild camping – basically where you carry tent and everything with you, and stop at any point to camp in a nice spot. It was a more of a hike than run due to the weight of my pack, but was a great time getting away from civilisation for a while. I managed 30 miles on the first day, over some unbelievable ascents and saw some amazing views (look under ‘Other A outdventures’ for the pics).
So, it was fair to say I knew what I had ahead of me by the end of April. It seemed a shame to travel all the way up to the Lakes for just a weekend running, so I went up a week early with Michael (16 year-old son, who’d just finished his GCSE’s and needed to be wrenched away from a wi-fi signal for a bit), and hiked and wild camped for 3 days at the start of the week, before a couple of nights in a b&b and the race weekend.
We got to the school field in Coniston, where there was free camping for participants, early on the Friday morning. I’d been worried about how they would fit everyone in, and wanted to be in a quiet part of the field
but I needn’t have worried as the car parking marshals were expertly lining everyone up, and this was the first taste I had of the flawlessly slick organisation that was to become my most vivid memory of the weekend. Everyone setting up their tents was clearly excited to be there, and we had a lovely day for it! After a rainy day on Thursday, Friday was blue sky all the way!
Once we had the tent organised, I trotted up to the school buildings for a surprisingly swift registration before it got too busy. Probably the only kit check where they have checked every single piece of mandatory kit (including the plastic cup, which was a new addition for this year, prompting much angst on Facebook amongst some about the extra weight (!)). After registering, and being given my dibber which was a little piece of electronics that would register me into every checkpoint, I was weighed (to aid medics if I got into trouble on the course – a nice touch!) and sent on my way.
The school canteen was doing a brisk trade in very reasonable food, which was another notable plus point for the organisation. Usually, eating out ramps up the price of a weekend race, but not here! It was great watching the field fill up with cars and tents, and as the hot afternoon wore on there were clearly two types of competitor. Those like myself, doing the 50 mile option who didn’t start until the Saturday morning, and hence were quite relaxed – generally lazing about in the sun. Or those doing the 100 mile option, who set off at 6pm that evening – they weren’t quite so relaxed.
At the start of the 100, 6 pm on the Friday night, quite a crowd had assembled to cheer everyone off, and an opera singer to serenade them with ‘Nessun Dorma’ too! All in all, it felt like a proper ‘event’ to be part of. The guys at the front looked suitably excited and focused…I wondered how they’d be in 24 hours. It was still very hot and muggy, and would not make for pleasant running for the first few hours.
After a reasonable nights sleep, I was woken by the sounds of all the tents unzipping at about 6.30am around the field. I’d already got most of my kit together, changed batteries in the GPS and head-torch, and done a lot of faffing already, so all I had to do was get changed, visit the toilet and get to the mandatory briefing for 8.30am. Interestingly, the worst sight of the whole weekend was during the toilet visit…for those people used to portaloos, as you have at most races, I had assumed they are emptied by a subtle valve at the back, very out-of-sight and minimal fuss. No! A bloke with a tanker turns up and puts the nozzle of a huge vacuum hose into the seat of the toilet from above…and the long flexible tube that the stuff is sucked through into the tanker is….transparent. Hence, while queueing for the toilet, I was treated to the sight of gallons of ‘sewage’ zooming through a tube into a tanker. The smell was indescribable, even in the open air. That’s a story I didn’t want to relive.
Anyway, enough of this. The mandatory briefing was amusing and brief. Clearly quite a lot of people were doing this race for the first time, like myself, but many people returning. That was the whole feel of the weekend really.
Then quickly onto a bus, to be taken to Dalemain, the start of the 50 mile race, and the halfway point for the 100 mile race. Not a great bus ride as it happens, very twisty (as you’d expect) and quite stuffy. I was chatting to the bloke next to me…this was his first LL50, his first ultra, his first time on the course – he really had no idea what he was letting himself in for (I’m not really sure I did either!).
At the start I did the obligatory toilet visit and hung around for 45 mins. There was quite a crowd of people there, both to see us start and also to see the 100 mile runners at the halfway stage. The roar from the crowd as these runners came through while we were waiting to start was amazing, and the aid station there was dressed up as a military hospital (like the TV series MASH). It was my first view of the aid stations, and the effort they made to be a bit special, which I will talk more about later…suffice to say that they stood out as great fun!
Most of the 100 mile runners coming through looked in decent shape, and managed a healthy run in front of the crowds. They were at about 18 hours of their 40, and so were slightly ahead of being halfway through the race in half their time. I reckon that it would be impossible to complete the second half faster than the first, so I’m really not sure how many would finish if they reached the halfway stage in over 20 hours.
It was in these 45 minutes before the start that a couple of things happened that stood out. Firstly, I had a text from work. Nothing serious, or even important, but at the end of a week off it dragged my mind back to work-related things and reminded me that I was driving back south the following day (Sunday) irrespective of how my body felt after the run and very little sleep. Once again, looking back, I am reminded about how much my mindset affects my running (much more so than the physical act) as I spent the first 10 miles completely distracted by work stuff, and not enjoying the run at all.
Secondly, and slightly oddly, I thought I had something in my shoe. Not a problem – I took off my shoe, felt around, nothing. Took off my socks (three pairs, naturally!)…nothing. Put my shoe back on, something there. Very very odd. I still couldn’t find what it was, so in the end gave up, started running with it, it was very evident on the underside of my foot, but seemed to shift after a few miles and then disappeared entirely. I’m still not sure that I didn’t imagine it!
Anyway, it wasn’t long before we were called into the large start pen and had a few words of encouragement, before finally getting going.
You’ve done very well to read this far, and I’m happy to say you’ve now (after 1700 words) got to the run itself. Congratulations!
I took up my customary position at the back of the field, and was probably in the last 20 to cross the line. We started with about 4 miles around local fields to make up the distance, which was a slow measured plod for me and most of the people around me. There was rather less chat than usual in those first few miles, but that may have been because I was still festering about work stuff. I did hear a couple of people chatting about their marathon PB times (both under 3 hours 10 minutes, very respectable!), which spurred me on a bit.
The first leg, to Howtown, was fairly flat (compared to the other legs) so I knew I was going to take it quite easy and just enjoy the run. As we spread out, we 50 mile runners would overtake the 100 mile runners that were ahead, and were identifiable (very cleverly) by their race number on the back of their packs being yellow rather than white. This meant that as you approached someone from the rear, you would know that they were already over halfway of their 100 mile run, and had been going for 18 or 19 hours at that stage. Most of the 100 milers that I saw looked in amazing shape (compared to how I feel after 50 miles of 100) and interestingly, looked generally male and over 45 – but that might have been my imagination.
As we passed through Pooley Bridge, the first major village of the run, there was an impressive (and unexpected) crowd at the various pubs, all cheering us on. When these crowds realised there was a 100 mile runner in amongst the fresh 50 mile people, a huge shout went up “A HUNDRED!!” and the crowd would erupt. That was my first insight into the regard that everyone (both public and racers) have for the 100 runners…they are collectively known as ‘legends’ and I have to say I agree – having done numerous hundred mile races (and further) I’m not convinced I could do the Lakeland 100. We’ll see!
After Pooley, was the first aid station, Howtown. Naturally, everyone there was dressed as cowboys, but I didn’t stay there to do anything other than ‘dib’ in. I should explain really. We all had little electronic dibbers attached to our wrists, and at every checkpoint you have to register by dibbing your dibber in a little electronic dibber. Basically, just electronic timing, but from the 80’s….it worked fine.
So in and out of Howtown, and onto the next leg that had some proper ascent involved! We’d done about 11 miles by this point, and about 1000 feet of of climbing. The next leg, to Mardale, was 9.5 miles but 2500 feet of climbing, over two big grassy hills called (I think)
High Kop and Low Kop. although I hadn’t done this part of the course before, I’d done enough climbing in my recces to be expecting the worst, and so was pleasantly surprised that 1) it was a long grassy climb, not the rocky mountain trail I was expecting, and 2) that I was striding faster than the majority of people ahead of me. In fact that turned into something of a trend – I was faster marching up the ascents, but then was slower on the running downhill (simply because I didn’t fancy a broken ankle on the steep rocky descent, that apparently everyone else was suicidally happy to gallop down).
After a slow start, I’d reached the last checkpoint in 386th place (out of about 650 runners). I would get to the next checkpoint in 290th place, showing perhaps that my steady pace had left me in good shape for the first serious climbs.
Occasionally, on these long ascents, we would queue up behind a runner doing the 100 mile race, naturally going a bit slower on the single file track, and would patiently wait for the track to open up before all sprinting ‘politely’ to get ahead of them. We all wished them well though, knowing what they were going through.
I have to say I really enjoyed this part, over the two big hills. It was sunny, warm and very pleasant. I imagine if it had been windy, cold and raining it would have been a very different matter!
I drank most of my customary 500 ml bottle of red coke quite early on in this leg, and then ran without water for most of it. I wasn’t too worried as the checkpoints were so close together I was never going to get properly dehydrated, but it was unusual of me to not have water with me, and I probably got a bit hung up on that in the heat.
The final few miles of the leg was a long narrow stony track along side a lake. It sounds idyllic, but the flatness meant you felt you needed to run it, and the stones underfoot made it treacherous. I had already started to get a crick in my neck from intensely staring at the ground about 2 metres in front – and never looking away. Chatting to a few others around me, we agreed that we couldn’t really enjoy the scenery around us as we were watching the uneven ground so carefully. I did suggest mandatory place to stop and look around for 15 seconds but I’m not sure it will catch on!
By now, perhaps 16 or 17 miles in, the field had really spread out quite a lot, surprisingly. I was running smoothly, after a sensible start, and I was getting the impression that I was catching quite a few of the 50 mile runners that had started too quickly. I was pleased to have my GPS for reassurance that I was on the right track, and there were a few forks in the trail at this point that there was little indication of the correct route.
I caught up to a 100 runner, Raj, who was clearly suffering even though we could see the next checkpoint around the top of the lake. I remembered him from the start of the 100 mile race as he’d been standing right at the front and I thought he looked like a contender for winning the whole thing. Now, however, he was clearly knackered, and slightly disoriented. After a brief chat he accepted a Twix from me to try to get his blood sugar up a bit (I had loads with me, as usual) and I think he went on to finish – good man!
The next checkpoint arrived, Mardale, and here the support crew were dressed as Spartans (after their running club). I had a massive drink of water, filled my bottle (won’t make that mistake again!) and had a cheese roll. I was carrying about 4 cheese rolls, it being the food of champions (and me) and had had one on the bus to the start. This second one went down easily, and I was happy that my stomach seemed to be behaving itself, perhaps because I wasn’t overloading it with water.
The next leg began with an unbelievable climb, a long rocky trail that snaked up the side of a mountain (yes, mountain, not hill!) It was probably made worse by the fact you could see it stretching up ahead of you, and appeared to go on for ever. This was Garthston I think, and although the whole leg was 6.5 miles and 1600 feet of ascent, I suspect all the ascent was in the first mile or so. However, I was still climbing faster than most and was feeling good.
On the long descent I was caught up by a few people, and had the chance to ask them how they had learned to descend so quickly. Every single one lived locally or somewhere where they had similar trails/mountains to run on, and could not imagine running on anything else. I tried to interest them in an absolutely flat 20 mile run along the seafront in Kent sometime, but they were adamant that they wanted hills!
The next aid station, Kentmere, was at mile 27 and arrived fairly quickly. It had everyone dressed in Hogwarts kit, which was very good, if a little surreal. This one had pasta, fruit smoothies and what felt like a hundred scouts available to help everyone. I took the opportunity to have a sit in the sun for 5 minutes, with some pasta and a big mug of tea. I felt fine, and although tired I had no niggles or aches (other than my neck) to worry about. Given my total lack of serious training after the Thames Path 100 in April, I think I was getting off lucky! It was about 6pm, and I had been running for slightly under 6.5 hours. Provided i kept moving at a reasonable pace i should finish somewhere about 1 a.m. which would mean I could get some sleep and not be out all night (and would be better than the 14 hours I was expecting to finish in).
I had also moved up in my position from 290th at the last checkpoint to 247th (although I didn’t know this at the time). If I carried on gaining 50 places on every leg I would be first in another 5 legs!! (There were only 4 remaining, thank goodness).
Leaving this checkpoint, I was even feeling good enough to chat to a family of supporters who were drinking beer on the roadside, and who had a little boy roaring at the runners. Good fun!
The next checkpoint was at Ambleside, where I had recce’d the route from so I knew what to expect beyond it, which mentally was great. A climb is much easier when you know how soon it will finish, and I had done the Ambleside to Coniston 15 miles in total 3 times, so I felt I knew it really well. It was a significant advantage, especially as I would be doing it in the dark.
I don’t remember much about this leg, I don’t remember it involving any serious climbing but it must have done with 1600 feet of ascent in 7.3 miles. Perhaps I was just enjoying it too much (?) The last few miles were lovely road running, as we descended to Lake Windermere and the reasonably big village of Ambleside. It was about 8pm, and there was a group of perhaps 6 of us running smoothly together as we entered the town. Entirely unexpectedly to me, the streets were lined with people out drinking and to go from hardly seeing a soul as we ran through the wilderness, it was spectacular to suddenly be surrounded by cheering people. It was (a little) like the London Marathon, where you suddenly realise what ‘real’ athletes must feel like when crowds cheer them. Brilliant.
Even more brilliant, this was 34 miles, and I knew the route ahead had a few climbs, but nothing unexpected. Mentally, I was almost home.
The aid station was a bit of a blur, except for a bearded lady, who poured me a cup of cold coffee from a plastic jug. No idea what was going on there, except that later I found out the bearded lady was none other than Barefoot Aleks, who I stalk on Facebook for his amazing runs. Small world!
I set off for the next leg (5.6 miles, only 770 feet of ascent) with quite a spring in my step, and was chatting to a runner in a Trilby hat (no idea why he was wearing a trilby), as we came to the top of the first climb. Perhaps it was because I’d been setting my sights on reaching Ambleside, but at about 3 or 4 miles in, I came to a very flat cycle path that instead of running easily I ended up walking most of. My energy just seemed to disappear when I had the best opportunity to run. Shame.
But on the bright side, take a look at what the next checkpoint had in store for me:
Who would think to bring some sofas, rugs, and generally provide a sitting room as a checkpoint? It is easily the best checkpoint I’ve ever come across, and was made all the better by the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere
It was just starting to get dark, so I changed into my head torch, warm hat and warm top. Meanwhile, a cup of ‘Big Soup’ which went down really well and another big mug of tea. There were a few 100 runners that I caught up with here, that had been moving for about 28 hours, over horrendous terrain. There were pooped, and taking a well-earned rest before the last 10 miles. This checkpoint, Langdale, is surely the rest that everyone wants at 90 miles, but must be very dangerous to stay too long at.
The next leg (a mere 6.5 miles and 1200 feet climbing) was memorable only by the fact that it was as boggy as I expected. A lot of it was running along a hillside in thick grass, and was cut up by streams running down the hillside to make it interesting. There were various sections that were simply too waterlogged and meant getting through ankle-deep boggy sections as quickly as possible. I was wearing my usual 3 pairs of socks – waterproof on the outside, which worked really well, and two pairs of lightweight socks inside to soak up the sweat inevitably caused by wearing waterproof socks.
After this section, there was a long section that I had been dreading, alongside a small lake ‘Blea Tarn’ where the path was particularly rubbish, made even more so in the dark. I was helped by the wet footprints of previous runners showing the route everyone had taken over the rocks, so it was actually better than I expected.
It seemed natural to form up into groups in the dark, and I was pushing hard to stay with some very speedy runners that I caught while going uphill, but who I would lose when the next descent started. On one such descent I suddenly heard a chorus of “What the f-!” from the 5 people ahead of me, and saw them all stop. When I caught them up, with absolutely no idea what could have stopped them all in their tracks like that, I saw a huge cow, with massive sharp horns, lying peacefully across the track. We gingerly tiptoed past it, but it was not a pretty sight in the pitch-black.
Getting to the next, and final, checkpoint at Tilberthwaite had its good points and bad points. It meant I had only 3.5 miles to go, which was good, but there was 928 feet of climbing involved. Basically, it was a hard climb straight out from the aid station (the first section had stairs it was so steep) and then a short flat before a steep descent, which for me meant very gingerly picking my way down over the rocks…in the dark, with my legs trembling from the stress.
Once again, I was grateful the weather was so good, as this last leg would have been dreadful in the rain & wind. I stayed at the checkpoint for probably longer than I should, having some soup and tea, just to give myself some drive for the hard climb. There were a few people arriving at the checkpoint that clearly did not know what they had ahead of them, and it was painful watching them realise that the line of head-torches they had seen from a distance stretching vertically into the air was not an optical illusion but it really was that steep. A few of the marshalls took some pleasure in this it seemed!
Once again, I was reminded how tought the 100 mile race was, having to contemplate this climb and descent for the last 3 miles on already battered legs.
Well, without any more procrastination, I got on with it. The climb was as hard as I was expecting. It was the only climb of the whole 50 miles that I had to stop at halfway and catch my breath. Meanwhile as other runners struggled past me I had to tell them I was just admiring the views (in the pitch black) as I desperately tried to fill my lungs with air.
However, as always with these things, I eventually reached the top. There was a little group of 4 of us using our combined light to show the way, as it was easy to lose the trail in the dark. It didn’t take long to get to the descent, which meant we were perhaps only a mile from the finish.
One of the four of us shot down the descent at an unbelievable pace, and finished about 4 minutes ahead of me, risking life & limb over the rocky trail. The other two were a little more reserved, but still disappeared into the distance quite soon. I won’t go into any more detail about the slowness of my final descent, it was too depressing.
The final road run through Coniston to the finish was spent looking over my shoulder to make sure no bugger overtook me in the last few hundred yards of a 50 mile race. Meanwhile simultaneously texting my son (who was fast asleep in a tent) that if he hurried he could meet me at the finish (I should have saved me energy really, he was sleeping the unwakeable sleep of a 16-year-old).
I got into the finish at 12.47 am, which i was quite pleased with, and after dibbing my dibber for the final time, I was ‘announced’ into the hall to cheers from all the finished competitors and their families. It was entirely unexpected, and a really really nice touch. The cheer that went up for a 100 finisher was spectacular.
I didn’t hang around long, unlike most finishers that were eating the free pasta meal provided or just sitting to recover in the warm hall before retiring to a cold tent. I knew that i would stiffen up fairly quickly, so got back to the tent and basically downed 2 pints of milk in one go. The rest of the night was spent mainly awake, drinking some bottles of Becks that I’d thoughtfully brought and eating Pringles (in the absence of any Doritos available). I did all this with my head-torch on, while my long-suffering son slept on the other side of the tent. I still don’t know how he managed to sleep.
About 2 hours rough sleep, and I was up at 6, packing the tent to be on the road before it got too busy. It was a shame to miss the prize-giving as I suspect it was as funny as the pre-race briefing, but I was keen to get home and sleep in a proper bed!
So, thoughts on the Lakeland 50? Definitely the toughest 50 mile race I’ve done! It wasn’t just the amount of ascent and descent, but the actual terrain was simply un-runnable to a soft southerner like myself. It was clearly OK for the majority of people who had the opportunity to train on it, but that was not me!
I finished in 12 hours 47 minutes, which is a fair bit longer than my usual 50 mile time of about 9.5 hours. However, I’m not complaining at all, as this was not a ‘normal’ race. I finished in 234th place out of 625 finishers (672 started) and my positions improved at every checkpoint, which means I got my pacing about right, although I faded towards the end. In that respect, I had a good run.
I’m not convinced I could complete the 100 mile version. It is definitely a whole new dimension on just running a long way, involving some really technical skills that would take time to build & train. Perhaps that needs to be tested at some point in the future…the far distant future, when I’ve forgotten how tough it was. I think I was lucky with the weather, having decent summer weather all the way. I’m sure the wind and rain would make it thoroughly unpleasant.
The whole Lakeland 100 & 50 experience did live up to the hype I’d read about it though. It had some of the best atmosphere that I’ve experienced, and the fact that it was a whole weekend experience, with food available and free camping, meant that I’m sure I will be back. It really did have everything that you could want on a weekend away.
The organisation was faultless, and with so many competitors to look after (about 350 in the 100 mile and 650 in the 50 mile) it was impressive to see such a well-oiled machine working. Every from the camping to the checkpoints was very well done.
Overall, probably can’t recommend the race enough…but be careful of what your letting yourself in for!
|Team:||Thanet Road Runners AC|