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Race Report: Lakeland 100

105 miles. 21,000+ feet of elevation. Through the Lake District. Over 3 days and 2 nights. It was every bit of difficult as I had expected and then so much more... in fact I'll try and convey why this was the hardest race I've ever done!

Race Report: Lakeland 100

Paul Johnson

30 July 2023

Link for further info

I have Doug to thank for convincing me to do this race. As a certified Lakeland Legend (with his slate marking 5 completions) alongside Dave Speake returning with even more completions I was very tempted. I asked Claire if she fancied a 'holiday' to the Lake District with a little race thrown in and was stunned when she agreed. My ballot entry was successful and I was left with some training to do!
This report could be pages long if I described the detail of the whole setup so I will try and keep it brief! The start is at John Ruskin school in Coniston with the enormous hills (I'm sure they should be called mountains) looming ominously over the village in the distance. As there were 2000 people taking part across the 50 and 100 this established event was ready with its marquees and this year's Western theme was visible with the Stetson-wearing marshals. The race briefing in the school hall was more like a stand-up routine and added a real buzz before we were due to set off at 6pm that Friday evening.
We gathered at the school gateway and the Start/Finish gantry and with the last few minutes and live performance of Nessun Dorma really helped add to the epic feel of what we were about to take on. The countdown began and then we were off through the streets of Coniston which were lined with hundreds of spectators reminding me of the London Marathon's atmosphere.
It was then that the first climb began. I was near the back with Doug, Armando and Dave. We had a queue for a few minutes at a narrow bridge before beginning our first real ascent up into the Lakes. This is where I had the first real taste of what would be in store over the next 37 hours. In Cornwall we say we are used to hills and we are - the coast path has some tough climbs. But here most of the climbs were at least 45minutes long and some were well over an hour. This continuous drain on the same muscles was tough and when you finally reached the top (often after several false summits) it would then be a case of a 45minute to 1 hour descent smashing your quads! Throw in the boggy/rocky paths (more on those later) and it was quickly clear why this would be an incredibly demanding race!
The early miles set the tone for what was to come - everything was much slower than I'd expected. My only point of comparison is the Arc 100 which is brutal but has sections which are at least runnable. The early miles here were around a 20 minute mile pace or 3 miles an hour because of the technical terrain. Because sections were sheltered and marshy we were also ravaged by midges too!
Night fell and head torches went on at about 10pm. As we approached midnight and about 20 miles the line of headtorches stretching up into the distant sky revealed the next mountainous climb which included crossing rivers and waterfalls on stepping stones. And then the rain started...
Coats and hats went on as the exposed location meant we were being buffeted by the brutal winds that would knock you off your feet. The little circle of light from your headtorch in many ways is a blessing as you can't worry about what's coming, instead just living inside the moment of that little bit of illumination.
Across the 105 mile route there were 14 checkpoints and they were staffed by incredible volunteers. They were all themed and many wore fancy dress including Grease (with accompanying soundtrack), Elton John and French to name a few! They were a chance to stop, refill your bottles and pick up some food. Across the checkpoints I managed to enjoy hot dogs, soup, smoothies, toasties, pasta, stew, sandwiches plus your standard fare of crisps and sweets.
It rained for the whole of Friday night until dawn on Saturday. At this point Dave, Armando and I were still together reaching the checkpoint at Braithwaite around 40 miles in. We stopped for longer here to eat, refill and sort out our feet for the new day. Getting going again, leaving the warmth and sanctuary of a checkpoint is never easy especially as the morning had turned very cols. As we climbed out of the valley we were given a beautiful rainbow over the landscape below.
It was now daytime on Saturday. The next few hours brought both similar and different challenges. It was a case of keep putting one foot in front of the other as we navigated boulders and rocky ground through woodland, a long out and back valley, long climbs, a disused railway (my favourite bit - power walking at an amazing 15 minute miling!) onto the 4+ mile stretch of the 'Old Coach Road'. This was a soul-destroying stretch that should be easy but instead drains your mental stamina as it stretches off into the distant horizon. I can't imagine how coaches would have tackled the boulders and rocks that tore at our feet!
The day continued with more epic views this time over Ullswater: one of the many bodies of water that give the Lake District their name. This stretch took us slowly and steadily towards the 50 mile point and our drop bags.
The nature of the roads and impact on locals meant you weren't allowed a crew on this race. So unlike the Arc, where your crew would have anything you wanted and help you out, your option on the Lakeland was your pre-packed drop-bag at the 50 mild mark. I grabbed some stew and cake and custard and set about putting my watch on charge, changing my socks and coating my feet with more Trench, swapping out wet clothes for dry and then sitting down for a few minutes. I couldn't quite believe I still had 50% to complete (+5 miles!) As I felt well and truly exhausted and not quite sure how I was going to make it through the next 12ish hours!
Bizarrely I bumped into Fergie (RD from Mudcrew) who was out for his own run. He said after the next climb I had broken the back of it!
That next climb was utterly miserable. From Howtown at the bottom of a valley we climbed over 500m to the top of High Kop. The rain was driving in the ferocious winds where we were more and more exposed the higher we climbed. After many false summits we made the top. The next miles were among my darkest moments of the run.
We were descending from the peak and then had to follow around Haweswater. I'd hoped this would be flat being a flat body of water (and maybe even some road) but my naive self was proven very wrong. If you've ever run between Zennor and St Ives you'll know its reputation with the unrunnable boulders and drops. This was Zennor on steroids. I was done and mentally broken. If you'd been with me you would have heard me swearing out loud at the ground for being so horrible and that every part of this course was being deliberately difficult. I've never been so verbally angry at rocks and mud before and it really wasn't its fault for being hard to move over. Really it was my fault for not picking up more food at the last checkpoint so low blood sugar probably was partly to blame along with sleep deprivation. After about 4 hours I finally reached the next checkpoint.
I'd like to say things got progressively easier as the miles began counting down. But that would be a lie.
I can summarise the next few hours as: incredibly steep uphill, very steep downhill that was almost worse, checkpoints that seemed to get further away, lanes which were always pitted with rocks and boulders with water running down them. And then more climbing long ups and downs. Repeated again and again.
But perhaps the weirdest part of running over many hours are the hallucinations from your sleep deprivation. I'd had these last when being driven home from the Arc. This time they had started on Saturday afternoon and increased once darkness fell. It's no exaggeration to say I could see faces and animals in every single rock on the paths. Nighttime brought a new level of disturbing - in my peripheral vision ghostly children's hands reaching for me only to disappear when I turned to look! This went on for about 6 hours of the darkness.
The second night was a battle against fatigue. My legs were actually feeling pretty decent despite the pounding and the miles. But I needed sleep! On at least 3 occasions (that I can remember) I stopped on a rock/in a layby/ on a bench and shut my aching eyes for 2 minutes but it didn't really help. My swearing at the landscape returned again as I ran a section that I could have sworn I'd been out on before (proving I was losing the plot with lack of sleep - I'd never been there before in my life!) Seemingly stuck in a vortex of repetition the daylight brought a slight lift as the race entered technically its third day!
The final 10 miles remained brutal. The landscape throughout was beautiful and barbaric, inspirational and viscious, epic and endless.
A cheese toastie (cooked over a brazier) and I was ready for the final punishing downhill miles. A final few turns and Coniston reappeared and there it was- the finish gantry I had been praying for. 37 hours and 38 minutes and I had completed the course. It had beaten me up but I had beaten it through determination, willpower and sheer bloody mindedness.
This event gets many returning runners who seem pulled by its challenge and the spirit of the organising team. I can honestly say I really didn't like it. If you'd asked me on the day I would have definitely have said I hated and despised it. Why? I loved the climbs and coped with the descents. I found the terrain horrible because there weren't really sections that could be run (when compared to Cornwall). That's just my opinion and others may well disagree. I would definitely recommend that you try this race for its atmosphere and its challenge - it'll push you to your limits and beyond! It's a very special location and team and well worth considering if you enjoy an ultra that you feel you've worked for!
And I must say an enormous well done to Jodie for her 3rd place female finish. How you finished it the time you did is beyond comprehension!
Well done Dave and Armando, Doug for toeing the line yet again and to Claire, Pat and Karina for completing the 50!

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