Lakeland 50 2014 Report

By Paul Hughes

David has already written an excellent report on the Lakeland 50 but I thought I’d add a report on my own experiences of the race…………

The Lakeland 50 is an Ultra Marathon held on the last weekend of July each year in the Lake District along with its sister race the Lakeland 100. The course runs from Dalemain in the North lakes down to Coniston. As the name suggests it is 50 miles long with the added bonus of ten thousand feet of ascent/decent (that’s two and a bit Ben Nevises or two thirds of a Mont Blanc in mountain terms), you get twenty four hours to complete the course which when you work it out is quite generous provided you can just keep moving and do without sleep. There’s more on both races here…….. .

My last attempt to complete the race ended badly – I tore my calf muscle and withdrew after 4 miles – the truth is that I shouldn’t have been running anyway (I knew there was a problem with my calf) but my ego took a bit of a blow and it then took 4 months and a lot of physio work to get running again. This time a friend (Scott) had also signed up for the race and initially we were planning on going for a sub 13 hour time but further injury issues forced a bit of a re-think and the new target became 15 hours.

Lakeland 50 route
Lakeland 50 route


Registration takes place the night before the race. You go along and have your race kit checked (all runners must carry a pack with spare gear, survival blanket, hat, gloves, waterproofs, spare food, first aid kit, map, compass, hydration tablets and water etc) depending on how much you’re prepared to spend this can weigh up to 6kg when the weather is hot as you need to take more water. Failure to have all the gear leads to disqualification and unsurprisingly the race organisers take this very seriously. As part of the registration all runners are also weighed (slightly embarrassingly your weight is then written on your race number for all to see!) and we are given a timing chip which has to be dibbed into a reader at each check point along the route. The hall where registration took place was packed and we couldn’t help noticing that the competitors this year looked even more wiry, athletic, experienced, well equipped than usual. As it turned out there was a good reason for this as this year the race was the official UK athletics national ultra running championship, most of the country’s elite ultra runners were here hoping for a top ten placing. Suitably humbled by the company we were in me and Scott got through registration and headed back to our digs to carb up on pasta and a couple of beers, secure in the knowledge that we wouldn’t see much of the elite guys except at the start line.

The morning of the race we fuelled up on porridge and we made our way to the race safety briefing. Mark Laithwaite (the race director) gave a mostly fun but occasionally stern briefing with the main message being “this is a hard race and the weather forecast is for temperatures in the high twenties with high humidity and no breeze, if you haven’t made a plan B yet you have short time to make one, today is not a day for records”. Briefing over we were bussed out to the start – there was about an hour to wait before the 11:30 start time during which we could feel the temperature steadily building and go to the loo a lot.

All smiles before the race
All smiles before the race

At 11:25 we were summoned into the starting pen, there was music coming from the PA system (not Last of the Mohicans this year – sorry Sumanth). Then there was a ten second countdown and we were off!

Leg 1 – Dalemain to Howtown (distance 11.7km [7.4miles] – Ascent 294m [965 feet])

The race starts with a lap of the Dalemain estate, mostly undulating on good tracks – running felt comfortable but with two litres of water my pack felt heavy, the heat was high but not awful though I could feel the humidity and was sweating heavily straight away. With the first 4 mile loop out of the way the track heads to Pooley Bridge and the runners start to spread out. We jogged through Pooley Bridge and there were lots of cheers from supporters. Once through the track heads uphill for about a kilometre before hugging the contours along Ullswater. The track then headed downhill for a bit until we hit CP1 Howtown – five minutes to grab a couple of bits of flapjack, re-fill the water bladder in my pack and add hydration tablets (I’d drunk 2 litres already), and dib in to register I’d got there.

Leg 2 – Howtown to Mardale Head  (distance 15.2km [9.4miles] – Ascent 765m [2510 feet])

Out of the Howtown checkpoint the track runs up a steep south facing valley, the heat was really starting to build by this point, there was no shade and no breeze. All along the way runners were stopping to either soak hats in streams to try and cool down, or in many cases just shoving their heads in. At the end of the valley the path gets even steeper and running is impossible – the heat was horrendous and walking was hard enough. After what seemed like an eternity I reached the summit at High Cop and could see the track dropping down to Haweswater. As the track levelled out we could start to jog again……… then run……… The path eventually drops down to the lakeside and levels off – the heat had built up again (we later found out it had hit 30 degrees at this point) and it became an exercise in heat management, I could only run for a few minutes at a time then had to walk and cool down for a bit, then run again. This kept up all along the lakeside until at the south end I saw the sign THIS. IS. SPARTA. that showed I was arriving at CP2 (CP2 was being looked after by Dalemain Spartans).

The checkpoint was well stocked with flat coke (this is nectar of the gods in that heat) and more flapjack. I took 5 minutes to cool off in the shade, re-filled my empty water carrier and headed off again.

Coming up the valley from CP1
Coming up the valley from CP1

Leg 3 – Maredale Head – Kentmere (distance 10.4km [6.5miles] – Ascent 511m [1677 feet])

The track out of Maredale heads straight up Gatesgarth Pass – this is another steep section and I had a chance to think about my pace. I’d made better time than I was expecting and it looked like I would make 15hours comfortably so long as I kept going. After the top of Gatesgarth there is a long downhill section, a bit steep in places and very stony so you definitely don’t want to fall here but it is runnable – the problem was that my shoulder and back were starting to ache. This is one of the problems with having to run with so much water, on the downhill sections your pack gets bounced around and you get shaken to bits. As the track continued the pain got worse and I had to stop and walk a couple of times, even when the track levelled off it still hurt – I readjusted the straps and that did improve things but it still wasn’t comfortable and my progress slowed as I headed in to Kentmere. The heat had reduced a little but the humidity was still high and this was continuing to sap energy levels.

The Kentmere CP is an important point on the 50 mile course as you’re past halfway when you get here and it’s a big morale boost – I’d got here in 6 hours, way sooner than I’d expected but there was still a long way to go and I was well and truly knackered. I fuelled up on flat coke and pasta (many people have described ultra-races as merely eating competitions) and re-filled the water carrier yet again. An attempt at using the loos here yielded no results – sorry if this is too much information but running these distances puts your digestive system under quite a lot of strain with all the shaking about and no-one wants to have to do a Paula Radcliffe if it can be avoided.

Leg 4 – Kentmere to Ambleside (distance 11.8km [7.3miles] – Ascent 491m [1611 feet])

Coming out of the CP I started running/walking with a chap I’d met on the Hardmoors 55 a couple of years ago. We got chatting about that race and the freezing temperatures/headwinds/blizzards we’d had to run through, we both agreed that we’d rather have freezing weather than the heat we were having today. We were also both experiencing difficulties taking in calories and suffering after effects from the last CP. My companion couldn’t stop belching (too much flat coke drunk too fast) and I couldn’t stop farting, he thought this was unfair as whilst I was gaining a small amount of forward thrust from this he was experiencing the opposite, none of this seemed to impress the couple of middle aged hikers we came across who seemed horrified by the noises we were making. We made our noisy way up the Garburn pass together and then parted company at the top, the track down to Troutbeck is a good section so I wanted to make as quick progress as I could. The ache in my back and shoulder had now become a sharp pain that was getting harder and harder to ignore but I knew I had to make the most of the good sections and could let this recover on the slower uphill parts. I got an unexpected boost when I saw Mark Willet at Troutbeck and that gave me some added impetus to push on into Ambleside. The town was packed as I ran through and got loads of cheers from folk in pub gardens along the main road – couldn’t resist hamming it up a bit and doing a Rocky running pose as I went through which seemed to go down well – lots of the people I passed were shouting encouragement, by this point in the race it really does give you a lift.

Gave myself 5 minutes to stop at the Ambleside CP, enough time for more coke and to grab a sandwich – which for reasons I can’t properly explain I waved at the cameraman waiting outside the CP – I think my head was starting to go by this point.

Leg 5 – Ambleside to Chapel Stile (distance 9.0km [5.6miles] – Ascent 234m [768 feet])

There was another chance to walk for a bit over the ridge to Skelwith Bridge before getting on the path up to Langdale. I was struggling more and more with downhill sections due to my back but then it started to rain and I started to cool off properly for the first time during the race. I decided to walk for a bit more and did a bit of a self diagnostic – wasn’t feeling great but not desperate either and that sandwich I took from the last CP was tasted blody awful – started jogging again through Langdale village and into the CP and Chapel Style. For the first time I didn’t need more water!

Leg 6 – Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite (distance 10.6km [6.5miles] – Ascent 387m [1270 feet])

The light was starting to go as I jogged up the Langdale Valley – not dark enough to get the head torch out but seeing the path was getting harder. I was struggling and more worrying I also started to see things. This happens quite a lot to people doing 100 mile races due to the sleep deprivation but is less common for distances under 50 miles. I suppose it must have had something to do with the heat (or just being a bit soft) but suddenly all the sheep I was running past were wearing hats and looked very cross. I knew this was all in my head and it wasn’t scary but it was a very odd experience. I just had to try not to look at them – other objects seemed transformed to – a rock turned into a big black dog. The hallucinations stopped as I got over the pass at the end of the valley and jogged the last bit of flat track into Tilberthwaite.

Final leg – Tilberthwaite – Coniston (distance 5.7km [3.5miles] – Ascent 283m [928 feet])

Tilberthwaite is only 3.5 miles from the finish once you’ve got here you know you’ve effectively made it. There is a nasty final sting of a hill as the path climbs nearly a thousand feet but you know this is the last steep bit and that helps.

There’s a steep section coming down off the hill down into Coniston that with a clearer head on I might have slowed for and then a nice smooth bit of road where you can put the hammer down for the final mile into town. There were a few folk about as I went past the pubs and there were a few cheers – then the final left hand turn and as I had planned I made aeroplanes for the last 50 meters. Dibbed in to the final CP and it was over.

Race HQ – Recovery

Within 10 seconds of crossing the finish line my legs went. Some very nice marshals helped me get into race HQ. I was plonked down on a plastic chair while my timing chip was removed and a printout was made of my overall timings – the marshals were a little bit worried about me as so held me there for 20 minutes while I was force fed energy drinks and crisps and Harribo (the later two mixed together!?) – once may colour had returned they let me go and get some proper food. I had a look at my print out and couldn’t believe my eyes – 11 hours 40 minutes and 53 seconds! Well under target and 84th out of the 600 starters – I was absolutely over the moon.

Printout of race splits
Printout of race splits

All finishers are given pasta at race HQ – it can be hard forcing yourself to eat but it’s pretty important as everyone loses a few kilos during the run. I had an added difficulty to go with the loss of appetite as my hands were shaking pretty badly – my first spoonful of pasta was inadvertently flung over the woman sat to my right the shakes were so bad but I got the rest down without incident.

It turned out Scott was a little way behind me on the course, he’d had big problems with the heat near the start and had had to slow his pace a lot. (he finished in a very respectable 13 hours and ten minutes) and David did a sprint finish to get in under 15. It’s a tough run but I would encourage anyone thinking about trying an ultra to give this one a go, it really is very well organised and all the marshals/competitors are very friendly (plus at an entry fee of £70 on a cost per mile basis it’s a lot better value than the Great North Run!).

The following morning with t-shirts and medals
The following morning with t-shirts and medals