A weekend in the Lakes

A free weekend in July seemed like a good excuse for a running trip to the Lakes. My solo lap of the UTMB route 2 years ago was my running highlight of that Summer. So I wanted to try and recreate that experience, but closer to home, on the Lakeland 100 (L100) route.

I’ve never actually run the L100. People often assume that I have. But I’ve never quite got around to it. I did the inaugural L50 back in 2008 as my first 50, not quite realising what I’d got my self into. My natural sense of direction is quite good so I’d never had to learn to map read. But, I discovered, a ‘quite good sense of direction’ was not sufficient to get me around the L50 route... At least not back then, when there were only 40 entrants, the road book wasn’t so polished and the route wasn’t so obvious on the ground. Thankfully I teamed up with someone who’d recced the route and, after some heavy storms through the night, we hobbled into Coniston in just under 18 hours. These days that time would see you at the back of the field, but in 2008 it put us in the top of half and, to my amazement, as 2nd woman (out of 3...) I won some Petzl goodies. The first time I’d ever won stuff for doing something sporty.

When I entered the 50 I’d naively thought I might do the 100 the year after. But the 50 made me realise it was way beyond me. Quite how far beyond I didn’t appreciate for another couple of years, until I’d ‘crawled’ the last 30 miles of my first 100. Which left me scared of the L100. To be honest, up until a couple of years ago my climbing skills were so pants I probably couldn’t have got around in the 40 hour time limit. With the right preparation I’m fairly sure I could now, but the proof is in the finishing and it’s never quite made it to the top of my priority list. I’m pondering the Tor des Geants in 2016 (my main focus for 2015 is probably going to be the Thames Ring 250) and the L100 might be good preparation. Writing that down makes me realise quite how far my boundaries have shifted in the past couple of years...

So, back to the here and now. I cooked up a plan to get the train up to Penrith on Friday evening, walk to Dalemain and then run/walk the L100 route Spine style (i.e. with a big rucksack and not much sleep) over the weekend, catching the last train home on Sunday evening. Some basic maths revealed that this was a tad overambitious. There are 48 hours in a weekend. The L100 cut-off is 40 hours. And I would be carrying a rucksack full of supplies and stopping to sleep. So I revised my plans to arrive in Penrith early afternoon, giving myself a whole half a dozen extra hours...

After a couple of busy road-crossings and frequently jumps onto the verge on some narrow country roads, I was relieved to make it onto the route at Dalemain. The first few fields contained some of the skankiest sheep I’ve ever seen. I was tempted to say something (in my best bumpkin accent) to the farmer silaging in the neighbouring field, but thought better of it. I managed a bit of jogging along the river into Pooley Bridge, where I paid 20p to use the loo, hoping to top up my water supplies. Unfortunately they had one of the fancy ‘all in one’ hot water and soap machines so I bought an over-priced bottle from the village shop. I then made decent progress up to the cockpit and down to Howtown, passing lots of mountain bikers in a race struggling up in the heat.

The climb up to Fusedale was fine. I don’t really get the fuss about it. Sure in the L100 it’d be hard work, but after 70 miles any climb is tough. And this one, while long, is easy underfoot and not too steep. The route over High Kop and down to Haweswater was far easier to follow than it was six years ago. Back then I’d had a mental picture of a nice smooth track to jog around the lake, and the rocky narrow track came as a nasty surprise and I think I walked the whole way. Now, with a few more off-road miles in my legs, I jogged the whole way, despite the heavy rucksack, with one stop to collect and filter some water. At the top of the lake several people were wild-camping and relaxing outside their tents. I felt a slight pang of jealousy. It was only ~8pm and I was planning on pressing on for another three or four hours. I did treat myself to a quick stop at Mardale Head for an expedition meal. While the water was boiling I took my boots off and was somewhat alarmed by what I saw. Since I was carrying a heavy pack I’d decided to wear my Roclite boots, for extra ankle support. However, inside the water-proof lining, my feet were broiling, and I already had the start of a blister. I should have dressed it there and then but I was getting ambushed by midges. So I stuffed my feet back into my boots and headed up Gatescarth pass, expedition meal in hand. I stopped half way up to eat it but got ambushed again, and ended up trying to eat while climbing.

The descent to Sadgill was every bit as rocky and painful as I remembered. I’d initially planned to stop somewhere on Garburn pass, but the small climb out of Sadgill over to Kentmere took the wind out of my sails and I stopped at the top and bivvied. It was a warm night and I ended up sleeping with my head out of my bivy bag. This was fine until dawn when the midges struck again (despite there being no water anywhere nearby). Instead of having breakfast and dressing my feet I got straight back on the ‘road’. It wasn’t the smoothest start to a day. First, on a short road section, I met an over-protective cow who wouldn’t let me between her and her calves, but didn’t want to join them on the other side of the road. Then I screwed up my navigation and headed out of Kentmere in completely the wrong direction. I was short of water and, due to the heat-wave, I got a long way up Garburn pass before I found a decent stream. Jogging down the other side I passed a couple of proper fell-runners, heading up faster than I was going down.

I stopped in Troutbeck for a late breakfast (of 2 day old sandwiches and Hula hoops) and sorted my feet out. By now I had a blister right across the ball of my left foot. Looking on the bright side this was a great opportunity to test the Spine race medical team’s recommended blister care technique: drain it, cushion it with moleskin and secure with kinesiology tape. The footpaths got steadily busier, and (after 18 hours on my own in the hills) Ambleside felt like hell on Earth-dozens of tourists milling around in high end outdoor gear. I stopped at the supermarket to buy water and a couple of kingsized Mars bar. And wondered if I was invisible as several of the ‘high end walking gear’ types jumped the queue for the self checkout in front of me. I then had to do several laps of the town centre before I found the route through Rounday park.

Just before Skelwith Bridge I stopped to look at the map and was caught by a bloke in a 2012 UTMB t-shirt with a big rucksack. He was doing this year’s race and recce-ing the route from Ambleside to Keswick. We had a brief chat (in which I put my foot in it by saying ‘2012-that was one of the shortened years’) before he powered away from me on the flat path to Elterwater. My feet were pretty sore by now and I was (slowly...) walking anything that wasn’t a gentle downhill. After a brief stop for more sandwiches and Hula hoops I slowly plodded my way through Chapel Stile, past Blea tarn and over the pass to Tilberthwaite. I was barely moving faster than people who were out for a walk, but the climb out of Tilberthwaite did at least feel easier than it did at the end of the 50.

By now it was late afternoon and I’d have loved to stop in Coniston for an ice-cream, but if I was to have any chance of completing the loop I needed to press on for another 15-20 miles. At the base of Walna Scar Road it started raining and I stopped and put on my waterproof jacket and trousers. And felt like a complete wuss when a fell runner steamed past in vest and shorts... In fact there were walkers descending wearing less clothes than me. After Seathwaite the rain got heavier and I was tempted to stop in the woods and camp, but it was a bit too early to stop. Thanks to the dry weather the plantation wasn’t too boggy and (unlike my last rece) I even managed the descent down into the valley without landing on my bum once.

I eventually decided to call it a day just after Boot. Where I had the worst night’s sleep ever. It was raining heavily but humid. With the zip on my bivy bag nearly closed the condensation from my breath was soaking my down sleeping-bag. With the zip even slightly open the rain poured in and I ended up lying awake in my foil survival bag in a puddle, shivering for several hours. When dawn came I put on all my layers and marched off, hoping to warm up and dry off. In fact it didn’t take too long. By the time I passed the Bob Graham support crews waiting at the campsite in Wasdale I was stripped back down to tights and a long-sleeve top. The climb up Black Sail pass was fine. However the descent down the other side was a bit tricksy. In the dark in the race it would be ‘fun’ to say the least. Passing the Youth Hostel it started raining again.

I plodded over to Buttermere on increasingly sore feet, modifying my plans for the weekend. There was no way I could get back to Penrith by that evening. I could have extended my trip by a half day but my gear was soaking wet, and I didn’t fancy another night shivering in a puddle. Finding a B&B was another option, but Keswick was the last decent size place I’d pass and an evening stuck in a B&B in dirty, wet clothes wasn’t particularly appealing either. So the sensible option was to cut the loop short and head back that afternoon/evening. There was a bus stop with a route map in Buttermere, and I must admit that if there’d been buses running from there I’d have got one. But there wasn’t. So the decision then was whether to get the bus from Braithwaite or Keswick. The route between Braithwaite-Keswick runs alongside a main road, so it didn’t take much to convince myself that stopping at Braithwaite and getting home earlier was the better option.

As I struggled to find the route out of Buttermere, the bloke I’d met the previous day reappeared. (He must have thought I was the world’s bigger navigationally numpty.) He’d stopped at Boot, but had got there several hours before me (and left several hours after...). After another brief chat he pulled away, even more rapidly this time. With my head no longer really in it, I made several minor navigation errors and was taken aback by quite how steep the climb up Sail pass was. After overshooting the turn up to Barrow Door (this section definitely warrants another recce) I finally jogged down into Braithwaite, just in time for the hourly bus. The bus filled up in Keswick, but the seat next to me remained empty. I guess I might have been a little bit smelly...

Written down, it doesn’t sound like it was much fun. But it, mostly, was. And while my feet were very sore in the end (lesson learnt: never wear waterproof boots in hot weather), the Spine race blister care let me plod out another 60 plus miles without too much pain. It’s a bit depressing quite how slowly I was moving at the end. I deliberately haven’t checked, but I suspect the section from Coniston to Buttermere took me several hours longer than the L100 cut-off. On the day I wouldn’t have 50 miles in my legs and a 7kg rucksack on my back. But I definitely shouldn’t under-estimate it.