Last updated: 20-Aug-18
By Dan Stinton
You do realise we’re running sub-7.5 minute miles don’t you? says Helen, my new ultra-running buddy, as we pass through Coniston.
A fantastic crowd is cheering us along, many standing outside the local pubs clearly making the most of the evening, some probably puzzled as occasional exhausted looking runners trot through the village.
It’s dark, the rain has finally stopped and the waterproofs have been stuffed into our packs an hour or so ago once it got to the point that we just stopped caring about the weather.
Predictably, so close to the end of a race, the chat for the last 30 minutes has generally been about the beer tent back at race HQ. We turn the corner and looming in front is the large Montane-branded finish line…
I’m getting ahead of myself – some 11 hours and 12 minutes ahead of myself to be precise, which is when this journey started in the bright sunshine in Dalemain for the Lakeland 50.
The race route covers the second half of the Lakeland 100 which starts from Coniston and completes a clockwise loop which takes in the Dunnerdale fells, Eskdale, Wasdale and Buttermere before arriving in Keswick. From here the route heads to Matterdale and continues over to Haweswater before returning via Kentmere, Ambleside and Elterwater to the finish at Coniston. The pre-race briefing warns us that there should be no thoughts of this being only the 50.
With a large proportion of the Lakeland 100 runners dropping out of the race before 50 miles, this isn’t the kind of distance anyone should take lightly, especially considering the elevation, terrain and (as we’re about to find out) the variable English weather.
Dalemain is buzzing with activity – carefully packed bags are being unpacked and re-packed, queues snake away from the plastic portable toilets with runners giving a final push before they set off and occasional Lakeland 100 runners enter the checkpoint and are cheered past, the enormity of their undertaking well understood.
They’d started at 6pm on the Friday evening and are now some 17 hours into their race with a further 46 miles back to Coniston (we’re about to do a 4-mile loop to make our race up to 50 miles).
We’re ushered into the starting pen and after a few blasts of rock music and a bit of microphone banter the race starts. Hundreds of ultrarunners stream across the line, mandatory kit cups swinging on their packs behind them.
The first section around the Dalemain estate is pretty easy going but there’s clearly a pile of enthusiasm and many pick up the pace immediately. Speaking later to fellow runner, David Fort from Padiham, he claims that he was in first place for at least 3 seconds!
It’s easy to get caught up in a fast start but I decide to really try and hold back on the effort – my first aim is to finish and secondly, whilst I’m nowhere near competing for a top spot, I want to achieve consistency and finish strongly which is a great mental boost.
Around 11 miles later I run out of the first checkpoint at Howtown. I know the biggest climb of the race is coming up so decide to avoid thinking about it. Instead I chat to various people on the first stage of the climb.
I hear an unmistakeably Dudley accent (town in the Midlands) which isn’t far from where I grew up. I found out this was Jon Cadman, who said that he’d been persuaded into this by a friend who for some reason was nowhere to be seen!
Further along I spot an ex-work colleague who was on the Lakeland 100 so would have ran somewhere between 60-70 miles. I wonder if the ideal greeting would be a slap on the back along with “Pick up the pace a bit lad!!.
I consider for a brief moment whether this may be a bit inappropriate, insensitive or both, but do it anyway… best to try and keep spirits high, eh?
The weather began to worsen during the long ascent to High Kop. This became generally single file hiking but I decided to start giving it a bit of a push after holding back at the start and managed to move through the field a bit.
The path was relatively good underfoot but the weather got worse and worse with a barrage of wind and rain from every angle.
In true childlike form, I tried to take advantage when the wind was behind me by outstretching my arms to make myself as big as possible and let it blow me along which was good fun. It was quite a different story when the wind is against you and you’re your hunched over gripping your hood wondering just when the next cup of tea will happen.
Whenever I’m stuck in poor weather I always try to look on the bright side, more often than not, things pick up so I pushed on waiting for a moment of magnificence. The trail down and along the edge of Haweswater certainly delivered.
It was a beautiful moment and one of those times when pretty much nothing else matters and I became totally absorbed in the moment. I soon remembered the small business of getting back to Coniston some 30 miles away before the bar closed, so pressed on.
Bashing through some rather challenging English weather, including a loud thunderclap and inside-your-hood hail, I arrived at the checkpoint in Kentmere and, after climbing some stone steps, I was greeted by what can only be described as a shirtless man in a grass skirt.
A very friendly man he was too, as he welcomed me in to the building and offered me anything from the array of treats within. I stood firmly next to the watermelon section and start gobbling down slices like they were the last melons on earth.
I’m sure any runner who ran this course will offer their heartfelt thanks to all the checkpoint marshals/volunteers – they were brilliant throughout, really enthusiastic, fun and helpful and really made the runners feel special and they really help make this type of event possible.
Leaving Kentmere the racers were well spread out but as I entered Skelghyll Wood I saw a friendly looking face and said hi. The face in question was Helen Etherington and we ended up running the rest of the race together.
Helen falls firmly into the category of runners that are good fun to run with and we soon started happily chatting away, about life and how to make loads of money – crime, apparently (Note this approach is not endorsed by RunUltra).
We do, of course, talk about running and it turns out Helen is an amazing runner currently embarking on a leg-aching string of ultras culminating in the race that needs no introduction, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) at the end of August.
Having done the Snowdonia Trail Marathon, GB24, now the Lakeland 50 and then Peak Skyline the following weekend, she was certainly getting the miles in!
I like to stay positive and have a laugh on all these runs and Helen is the ideal candidate running with enthusiasm, positivity and maintaining an infectious grin for the whole way. As we descended into Ambleside the support was amazing. There are cheers from every angle, clearly many there to support the race, but others who just happen to be in Ambleside that weekend.
I even spotted a group of grumpy teenagers who seem mildly impressed that something quite exciting is happening in the town. The support here was so good that we almost felt like we’d finished the race but there was another ten long miles to go.
The final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite is a mere three and a half miles from the end, but believe me, you are going to know about those miles.
This year, the checkpoint is themed to fundraise for the Manchester Children’s Hospital, so the steps leading from the checkpoint are renamed Jacob’s Ladder after young Jacob Willett who has been diagnosed with cancer and had made an appearance the night before to start the 100-mile race.
The initial climb reduces us to a hands-on-knees hike and, as we dare to look up, we spot flickers of torch light steadily spreading out into the distance cruelly marking out the climb ahead.
We know this is just a matter of pressing on and, after the tough ascent, carefully descend down a rocky path into Coniston deciding that risking an injury to gain a few minutes just isn’t worth it at this stage.
That brings me back to the beginning of this report, the final celebratory run through Coniston and stepping over that finish line… hugs, medals, sports massages, t-shirts, photos, chilli and beer ensued. Sometime later I hobbled back to my tent to complete a quite fantastic race day.
This race is brilliantly organised, with all race information clear and available well in advance, regular updates during the build-up and then everything went smooth on race day.
A few more camping facilities would have been welcomed, especially to those of us in the overflow field, but nothing too concerning.
The reputation of the Lakeland 50/100 clearly make it a crowd-puller with well over a thousand entrants over the two distances. The winning times for the 50 miler of 7:36:11 for Oliver Thorogood and 8:12:19 for Katie Kaars Sijpesteijn are phenomenal and show the quality of runners out there on the course.
If you want to enter, get your fingers on the laptop ready for early September as it’s bound to be another sell-out!
About the writer: When not in the doghouse for long hours of training, Dan likes nothing more than escaping into the Dark Peak and then writing about how difficult it was at All Hail the Trail.
All images Dan Stinton.