“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on until you come to the end: then stop.”
The quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland had been my mantra ever since reading it in Lizzy Hawker’s Runner earlier that week – and it seems similarly apt now.
The problem with writing a blog on the Ultimate Trails 55k is knowing just where to start. It was an amazing day: the most beautiful race – if not run – I’ve ever done; an amazing atmosphere; perfect weather and superbly well-organised.
It was also by far the toughest, most challenging race I’ve ever run; it was acutely painful at times; and a fairly long, dark period in the first half pushed me closer to a DNF than I’ve ever been before.
Coming into the race, I felt confident. I’d run further before and done so in worse shape than I was in now. I’d had a really strong year so far, and felt I’d trained reasonably well for this – I’d probably not done as many miles as I’d have liked since Manchester Marathon, but back-to-back weekends running the Coledale Round and then the Borrowdale Trail 21km in May had at least put some hills and trail in my legs.
My biggest worry was how I’d cope mentally with running that kind of distance alone. My two previous ultramarathons had been group efforts and I knew not having friends around me to give me a lift when I was struggling would be new territory for me.
The plan was to take it really easy to Grisedale Hause, and then see how I felt after that – hoping that I’d be able to push on and run the second half reasonably hard. But looking back now, that plan had gone out of the window before we even started – for two reasons.
The first was the buzz we got from witnessing some super-impressive running ourselves. The Ultimate Trails 55k is one of two races that day, the other being a 110km route that started at midnight.
As the 350 or so of us preparing for the 55k were making our way to our 11am start, however, news filtered through that the lead runner in the 110km event, Kim Collison, was already close to finishing. It was an honour to line up at the start/finish and cheer him over the line, then have the chance to congratulate him as he passed among us to get his medal. 11 hours to run 110km over that terrain! Wow!
The second reason was that I lined up at the start alongside an old school friend who’d done this run before. Dave is a better runner than me, and I suspected his friend Mark was a better runner than him, but I felt my training had been good, and Dave was being characteristically self-deprecating, so I thought I’d see how long I could keep up with him. So much for the plan.
Starting in Rothay Park, the route heads out of Ambleside and up alongside Stock Ghyll towards the Kirkstone Pass beneath Raven Crag. I didn’t manage to keep up with Dave and Mark initially but caught them at the first food stop as they stopped to take on food and I didn’t. As the path then pointed downhill, Mark skipped goat-like ahead, building a gap that Dave and I didn’t make up until long after passing Brothers Water.
Although we were making up time, we didn’t finally catch Mark until the next food stop, at Patterdale. This time, I did stop. I quickly gulped a few cups of flat coke and shoved a fistful of peanuts and jelly babies into my waist pack before setting off again, heading up the valley following Grisedale Beck.
But while we had taken the pace quite easy, I wasn’t conserving as much energy as I’d planned to. I was also conscious of the climb ahead and felt I’d be better taking my own pace from here. I politely bowed out and encouraged Dave and Mark to push on.
Without Dave to keep up with, I immediately slowed a lot, especially as we began to climb. Finding myself being passed by runner after runner, I took the opportunity to take a few photos and soak up the view. The short rest did me good and, as the path levelled again, I picked up the pace feeling a chunk fresher than I had just a few minutes earlier.
Another mile of flat trails, however, and the path turned up once more for the sustained climb up towards Grisedale Tarn. Again, I found myself slipping backwards through the pack. I wasn’t even walking with purpose and, reaching for refreshments every few yards, I found I’d now run out of water in my Camelbak as well.
I knew this would be the toughest part of the course, and probably the hottest part of a hot day, so the fact I’d made such an elementary mistake by not topping up at either of the food stops so far was really frustrating.
It wasn’t a serious problem as I knew I had a bottle of flat Coke in my backpack, but I was annoyed at myself. Not only had I ignored my plan, but I’d ignored the basics as well. What an idiot!
To top things off, my dodgy left achilles was also making an unwelcome reappearance – not really painful but enough to notice.
I promised myself cold pizza and coke at Grisedale Tarn as an incentive to keep pushing on, but it was no use. I was barely moving forwards at some points, questioning why on Earth I thought I could train on flat roads but race in mountains, and seriously considering calling it a day when I got down to the next food stop at Grasmere.
Well if that was an option, I might as well eat some of the food I was carrying sooner rather than later. Still a few hundreds yards from the tarn, I found a flat rock to sit on and tucked in.
When I got to the tarn and started filming a few shots on my camera, I felt re-energised and broke into a run again. I started passing some of those who had walked past me on the climb, and I soon got chatting to another runner who was running this to raise funds for the hospice that had looked after his mum in her last weeks. And there was I, 20 minutes earlier, moaning about not being able to run hills and having a slightly sore achilles!
The descent was great and before long, Grasmere School brought more snacks and the opportunity to refill with water. A quick Facebook post to reassure those at home that I was alive and well, and on I went – again overtaking quite a few runners who had decided to stop for longer.
The next climb – between Sheep Crag and Raven Crag, before turning towards Great Langdale – was shorter and easier, and while not exactly easy, was over before I had time to worry about it.
As I crossed the top of the climb and settled into more gentle trails, I found myself singing Amazing Grace. I might have had 20 miles and lots of ascent in my legs by this point, my heel and ankle might have been turning from niggle to ache, and from ache to pain, but looking at the scenery as we headed towards Great Langdale it was hard not to feel incredibly blessed.
We might have only passed a few miles from the fells below Helvellyn and from Patterdale earlier, but the fells here are so different, it is like being in a different country. The sun was out and I just drank in the views. I suddenly felt that this was what Lizzi Hawker meant when she wrote about living in the moment.
I found myself running more and more: The more beautiful the views, the better I felt physically. The better I felt physically, the more I ran. The more I ran, the more I caught and then passed other runners. And the more I passed other runners, the better I felt. It was the most positive of all positive feedback loops.
Others were talking about there being chips at the next (and final) food stop and were clearly using that to drag themselves along. But strangely, I didn’t need to look ahead. I was just enjoying being right there, running and taking in the views.
From Great Langdale, we turned south towards Little Langdale before completing a loop past Little Langdale Tarn, Blea Tarn and past Side Pike before rejoining the Cumbria Way along to Chapel Stile and Elterwater. As we did, 20 miles became 23, then 25.
I stopped to take a photo as I hit what my watch said was 26.2 – marathon distance – at Blea Tarn (I knew I’d missed the first half mile, but that didn’t matter), and then pushed on again.
I could have run round here all day.
When I finally reached that food stop, there was soup but no chips, but even then, I didn’t care. Others were taking the opportunity to put their feet up for 10 minutes, but again I grabbed some jelly babies, downed some Coke, then pushed on again.
By now, my heel and ankle was becoming really painful – especially as I came out of the food stop and tried to start running again. But then I found that, while it hurt when I start running, if I could just keep running, the pain disappeared, only to reappear when I walked and tried to start again. The solution was simple: don’t stop running!
As we crossed Loughrigg, I had no option but to walk. A few of those runners I’d caught and passed since the food stop caught me again but at least I was walking with purpose this time. And if I could just get running for a few dozen yards on the descent, the pain in the ankle would disappear again and I could run.
Fortunately, I managed to break into a run just before spotting James Kirby – the official photographer for today, and for all Lakeland Trails’ races. Ignoring my ankle, I mustered up what strength I had left for the photo opp – and thankfully James caught it beautifully – as you can see above – I wouldn’t have fancied having to do it again!
Keen to get the finish on film, I turned my camera onto myself and just refused to stop. I had no idea how far from home we were, but you could feel the finish getting closer. There were more dog-walkers around, more people just out for a gentle amble, more people saying we were nearly there.
And then, in the distance, a tannoy in the air.
Picking my feet up, I caught one or two last runners before turning into Rothay Park again and finally seeing the finish line.
The pain rushing back into my heel as I stopped was nothing compared with the euphoria that flooded over me as the volunteers hung the medal round my neck. So what if I couldn’t walk? Nor could many of the other runners I could see!
A short hobble and I was then given a bowl of Wilf’s famous vegetarian chilli and cheese – and it tasted heavenly.
For half an hour, I compared notes with other runners – some I’d run with for long spells, others I’d merely seen on and off since the start, some I’d not noticed being near me all day – and we discussed future plans. The consensus was that if we could do today, then a great many other ultras – including some that are much longer – would be easy. Or at least less painful.
And from there, the long drive home to Manchester. What an amazing day!
Two weeks have passed since, and I’ve not run any more than a bath in that time. That painful ankle/heel turned out to be more achilles tendonopathy, which is still swollen a fortnight on.
The initial assessment was that I might not be able to run for three months, and on my second trip to see my physio yesterday, the only consolation he could offer was that I’d “done it good and proper”. Well if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing “good and proper”.
But sitting down to write this, even the thought of three months off can’t dampen my spirits. It was just an amazing, awesome day. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to run in the first place. Not many can drive to and from the Lake District from home in a day to take in the views I saw. And very few get the chance to do so while also running 36 miles with some amazing people.
The fact I got that chance was largely thanks to the organisers of this race, who put on a truly amazing event, and also to the injury-free year I’ve had until now to get myself into shape to complete a race like this.
For all of that, I am so grateful, and so lucky. Amazing grace indeed.