Lakes Sky Ultra

Saturday, September 12, 2015

This was the first time I’ve started a race wearing my waterproof jacket, with winds reportedly reaching 65kph and beyond on the summits, and torrential rain. I quickly lost the dexterity and feeling of my hands, not ideal for a race featuring both running and climbing. My background as a rock climber made the inclusion of Pinnacle Ridge an awe-inspiring and alluring prospect. However, as we faced the terrible weather the thought of a serious grade-three scramble made me edgy.

Sadly, though, it wasn’t just the weather that cast a shadow on the weekend. On the way to the Lakes Sarah had received the sad news that her aunt Margaret had been hospitalised and was on life support. She was a wonderful person, much admired by Sarah and I had the pleasure of meeting her when we were in Australia. She will be fondly remembered.

As neither of us had much experience or knowledge of the Lakeland fells, during our carbo-loading meal of potato salad the night before we meticulously went through the race route on our iPads, using the Ordnance Survey app, studying the route profile, taking into consideration the location of food stations and making ourselves aware of what to expect along the course. In retrospect we didn’t need to prepare any navigation aids as the race came under the remit of the Skyrunning series, which meant the course was very well marked, with flags every 25 metres or so.

As we made our way to the start line, and waited for the horn blower, I had a moment of equanimity, as fear and nervous tension were replaced by calmness. I think the bad weather brought some relief. The risk of dehydration was reduced, at least, admittedly to be replaced by the risk of exposure. But we were moving fast and light with a view to be competitive, and we saw the weather as an added challenge that would reward anyone willing to face it with ample kudos. I felt motivated and ready as we were unleashed onto the fells.

The leader set a good, if quick, pace for such a long race. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, but as the adrenaline kicked in I felt compelled to hold on and follow, just in case!

The first descent after Fairfield revealed an amazing view of Grisedale Tarn, quickly followed by a climb up a grassy slope onto Helvellyn. By this time Norwegian athlete Eirik Haugsnes had caught up and looked strong; he queried me about the leader and if he normally sets such a rapid pace at the beginning of a race.

We worked well as a trio for a while, but the brakes were truly engaged as we negotiated the first technical section of Swirral Edge. We probably looked like ducks out of water, but I prefer to imagine we were like ducks coming to land, in perfect formation. At any rate we lost our grace for a while until we adapted to the greasy Lakeland rock. The pack was reduced to Eirik and me as we climbed Catstycam, followed by a fast technical descent negotiating a whole range of terrain, from zig-zagging scree, tussocks, the odd boulder field and small streams that you had to hop over, or stop and have a swig of pure mountain water. The next climb was hard to Birkhouse Moor, steep tussock grass again but Eirik was unfazed and strode out into a brisk race walk. I held on for dear life, not ready to run my own race quite yet but suddenly felt I still had a lot to learn as I approached the end of my second season of racing.

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The mist was thick as we exited Striding Edge and made our way up Nethermost Pike. I was in a little discomfort and had to submit to the call of nature. As I saw Eirik disappear into the mist I knew I wouldn’t see him again on the course. When I got going again I was considerably slower without someone to pull me along, but I was happier running my own race and had a moment of reflection, looking back on my performances over the past few years since I started racing. I’ve fought in previous races, but it’s not possible to do that all the time.

I think I’ve started to dread the painful week of recovery when I’ve pushed that little bit further. I find I recover a lot quicker, and certainly feel like I’m adapting positively to the pressures of running and racing, but feel it’s the right thing to run within yourself sometimes, pushing the boundaries from the inside, exploring limitations from your comfort zone, withdrawing when it feels right to do so, being intuitive. I had that privilege at this race; I knew Eirik was too strong for me to beat, and I had a good lead on the other competitors. It was also an opportunity to fully absorb this amazing course, all of its complexities and unique character that came from the vision of the two very passionate race organisers, Andrew Burton and Charlie Sproson.

The next climb, up St Sunday Crag, was gruelling, on all fours, pulling with the arms and pushing with the legs, but it made for a nice distraction from running. The first marshal I passed made me aware that Pinnacle Ridge had been pulled – phew! A decision that was made only 10 minutes before we arrived.

Reaching Patterdale, there was a delightful welcome from one of the ladies helping at the helm, who made sure I had a nice cup of coffee and plenty of snacks for the next leg. A few encouraging words by Andrew Burton, and I was on my way again.

The descent off St. Raven’s Edge was great, and as I approached Kirkstone Pass I could see and hear the crowd of supporters. This was a massive pick-me-up, when by now all I wanted to see was Ambleside and the finish. More coffee, and this final feed station tent was like an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful snacks.

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I was glad to summit Red Screes, an over-enthusiastic marshal made me smile as I prepared myself for the final descent, not wanting to get it wrong at this stage. It was surprisingly kind considering the rest of the course. The heavy rain had softened the ground just enough to cushion the blow a little, and I could let myself go, even at this stage when everything was starting to hurt. The final tarmac section through the quaint town of Ambleside was also wonderful, with a little detour through someone’s paddock, a grand welcome at the finish line by Charlie and a crowd of supporters.

Third-placed Jim Mann came in shortly after, and we were encouraged to refuel at the café where they had a hot meal of jacket potato and stew with a variety of delicious cakes. It was nice to review the race with Eirik and Jim while I waited for Sarah to come in.

As the season draws to a close I find myself reflecting on my second year competing in running events. After my first 10km, representing my country in the Snowdon International Race, competing in a half marathon, marathon and too many fell races to mention, and now several ultra races later, this day stands out more than any other to-date. The sheer beauty of the course, exhilarating vistas and the added element of risk to traditional fell racing made it a truly unique experience.

On the day, most of my motivation came from the passion of the past legends that have given these fells their reputation. Recalling tales of their exploits gave me strength to embrace the weather and make the most of the opportunity. I can only hope to be invited back next year and have another chance at completing this amazing race in the glorious weather it deserves.