Lakeland 200: All We Love We Leave Behind

As I write this its four days until I leave on a 3-month long adventure in New Zealand, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. For some time now I’ve wanted to get out there and see some areas of the world and New Zealand has always been at the top of my list. Everyone who I’ve spoken to who is well travelled confesses it was their favourite place.

This is after having returned to the grim northern winter after my last adventure in Canada and South America, feel free to have a look at my images on Instagram @michael_james_jones ;), having witnessed the devastation that the floods this winter have caused to our beloved Lake District from afar. I should be packing and finalising the details of my trip but I find myself reminiscing of my farewell lap of the Lake District last Autumn, as I remain on hiatus from the fells…

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Anyway, back to the topic in hand.  It was around April time last year when I came across the Lakeland 200 mountain bike challenge, which involves riding a 200km route with 6400m elevation, around the Lake District. It takes in many parts of the Lakeland 100 race route, which I unfortunately didn’t get a place in last year and would also give me lots of trips down memory lane (trail?) along its route, perfect! The ‘rules’ are simple: Just get round under your own steam, in under 40 hours. More info can be found here: http://www.selfsupporteduk.net/routes/Lakeland200.html

‘Great! I’ll have a bash in the middle of Summer, and try and hit it non-stop, just like an ultra race, seeing as I’m not in the 100!’ I thought. Races came and went and I kept putting it off until the last week of my tenancy at my house in Ulverston. It was now or never and despite being days before the Cumbria Way ultra race, my flatmate and I agreed I should use the force of the yolo and crack on with it, as it may be a long wait before I had another opportunity. Due to less daylight and poor preparation I would just go out and enjoy the adventure, hopefully within the time allowance, but over two days.

I was up late faffing with my bike and packing my rucksack so only got a few hours sleep in before I woke to a grey and drizzly day, en route to Staveley where I’d start.

The first miles were fast and flowing and spirits were high as I anticipated the coming day’s adventures. A couple of brief stops to tighten my GPS device on my handlebars didn’t upset my flow and I was soon floating down the Garburn Pass into Troutbeck. I smiled as memories came flooding back of riding up this trail in the other direction on my own one winter, at the tender age of 12, on my steel hardtail shod with 1.75” tyres, desperately out of my comfort zone but loving every second. My Mum was waiting for me at Kentmere to collect both a battered bicycle and I, both tyres cut to shreds by the ruthless lakeland rock…

Ambleside to Elterwater was pleasant as the day began to brighten, with happy memories of living in Elterwater last Winter still fresh in my mind, though I wondered when or if I’d get the chance to do similar again in future. I stare at the Langdale Pikes and feel inspired, as I will no doubt during mile 90-odd of the Lakeland 100 in July. My mind wanders into autopilot and I find myself riding down the Red Bank road into Elterwater, back towards my old home, before realising I’ve made a wrong turn, so as the challenge rules stipulate, I turn around and grind back up to the turn off. A few minutes lost but all is well.

I’m making good time, though aware I’ve not done much climbing so far and my rear end is starting to get uncomfortable, with the weight of my rucksack pressing it down into a new saddle I’d only just installed (rookie error!). I’ve settled into a good rhythm though, flowing nicely over towards Claife Heights and finally riding new trails I’ve been meaning to ride for years. I feel strong and fortunate to be able to immerse myself in the adventure, playing a friendly game of cat and mouse with a day rider until we arrive at Grizedale Forest Centre.

New and familiar trails come and go and I stop at Coniston petrol station for a good feed before pressing on, embracing the first real struggle up and over Walna Scar pass and into Seathwaite, the first check point on the Lakeland 100. There’ll be no Jamaican ginger bread waiting for me in the village hall this time though, so I stop for a quick drink at the Newfield Inn.

The day begins to cloud over again with the occasional light drizzle but my spirits aren’t dampened as I head over to Eskdale, knowing I’ll soon be in my favourite place in the Lakes: Wasdale. A quick stop at Boot and I’m riding over towards Burnmoor Tarn, pleasantly surprised that I posses the strength to ride the whole section. Yewbarrow pokes its head above the horizon as I descend into Wasdale and I pause to appreciate the view down towards Wasdale Head, nestled in the bottow of the valley, surrounded by a panorama of fells of such innate, delicate beauty, I’ve yet to find another place with such character. A special place for me, always.

I stop at the Pub for a good hour or so to eat properly and contemplate paying to camp in the adjacent field. I do some sums and realise it would only mean more riding and climbing the next day and the thought of wild camping in Ennerdale is too tempting to resist, so I push on (literally, stomach laden with enough calories to ensure I won’t be losing any weight today!), up Black Sail Pass, the gentle dusk light fading to reveal an array of soft pastel colours as I descend carefully into Ennerdale. It doesn’t take long to find an ideal place to pitch and after a quick swill in the river I’m soon dozing off to the peaceful sound of the river flowing nearby.

The next day is a bit of a struggle to get going as tiredness from the previous nights catches up with me, but I’m rolling again by 9. The cool morning dew sprays up from my tyres, splashing over my legs as I make my way over Scarth Gap pass, greeted by a glorious, still Buttermere, not a cloud in the sky. It’s going to be a great day!

I’ve yet to eat and after grinding up Honister Pass I start getting a bit shakey as I make a wrong turn at a fork in the trail so get some energy drink on the go, to last me until Keswick, where I would stop for a dirty cooked breakfast, pastry and two large coffees. It was probably the instant hit of dextrose but the section along Derwent Water, below Catbells was sublime. Fast and flowing with a stunning view north, towards a purple-heather shrouded Skiddaw, when I could afford to take my eyes off the trail.

Skirting Latrigg I’m on familiar Lakeland 100 territory, though this section is ran in darkness, benefitting from a slightly different street-lit view back towards Keswick. Down into Threlkeld and it’s time to change the GPS batteries while chatting to another cyclist who soon gets going up the old coach road which skirts the north of Clough Head. I catch back up and we share the view towards Blencathra briefly, before I press on, aware I’ve still got a way to go today.

The following miles go by nicely, though my bottom bracket is making some rough sounds as dry dirt rubs around near the bearings. It comes and goes, as does the strength in my legs. A quick stop at the now sadly non-existent Pooley Bridge to rehydrate and I ride on towards Howtown, reliving fond memories of the Lakeland 100 as I follow its route, feeling somewhat fresher this time around!

It’s after Dale Head, hiking the slog up to Boredale Hause when I run into my first real difficulty. I start to bonk hard and am really thirsty. It’s a slow walk to the top with my helmet removed to try and cool down. I listen to some music and appreciate my surroundings and the weather I’ve been blessed with. This will soon pass once I get back on top of my energy levels. I fly down towards Hartsop, brakes off, grinning from ear to ear, where I’m able to get some water.

Just two big climbs left, but hiking up on to high street via Hayeswater is difficult at the best of times and I stoop to a new low, my energy levels in the gutter this time. Shortly after the battery in my GPS watch, which I’m using to record my effort, dies, so I won’t be able to submit my ride for official verification. ‘Oh well’, I think ‘I’ll have to come back next year and do it in a oner!’ I take it easy and just try to keep going, slowly but surely until the top arrives and I’m on High Street, steadily making my way to Thornthwaite Beacon. Just one last climb! The views from here are wonderful and stretch for miles, right out down towards the Furness Peninsula.

My energy returns and I start the grassy descent towards Troutbeck with renewed vigour. A bit too renewed as I nearly go over the bars several times in dips and ruts that are hidden in the grass. ‘Calm down lad, a broken collarbone now would not be fun!’ I think. Definitely a descent to return to with company. At the bottom I chat to a farmer briefly and refill a bottle one last time, before I begin the last ascent up and over the Garburn Pass.

The sun hangs low in the sky as I commit to riding the whole climb without pushing, which is a lot easier now most of it has been resurfaced. A final backward glance to the Sun and it’s down into the shadowed valley of Kentmere, carefully picking out a line down the loose and rocky south side of the pass. Not my best riding but I’m glad to be down in one piece this time, 14 years on, with no slashed tyres…

Out of Kentmere and I’m soon on a new trail which an old work colleague enthused of, although I can’t take full advantage of it this evening as I can barely make it out at times in the fading violet light, illuminating only the moon and clouds above me. I arrive back on the road to Staveley that I departed from nearly 36 hours previously and in haste forget to check the GPS, realise I’ve gone about a mile down the road when I should’ve just crossed it onto a footpath into Staveley instead. I laugh and backtrack, now in total darkness under the cover of trees and wary of traffic. A quick blast through a farm and I’m back into the fading twilight, arriving at my car in Staveley thoroughly exhausted, but completely at peace, my sense of self once again restored by the beautiful Lake District.

 

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Cumbria Way Ultra 2015: Running Away from Home

Beepbeepbeep, beepbeepBEEP, beepBEEPBEEP, BEEPBEEPBEEP!! 5.48?! shiiiIITT!! I threw back my covers and leapt up in panic, the start was in 12 minutes! I’d set my alarm for 4.30 but didn’t get to bed until after midnight and when I could hear my flatmate talking on the phone through the wall decided to put my new earplugs in, which did their job a bit too well!

I rushed downstairs and threw on my clothes, fortunately I’d packed everything the night before. Ugh no time for coffee but I scoffed a solid breakfast of a banana and a Gu lemon cheesecake pudding which I was hoping to save until after the race, downed a pint of water and bolted out the door, into my car and up the road to the start. Yup I’d missed it by 6 minutes or so but I just had to laugh and get on with it.

Dawn over Ulverston.
Dawn over Ulverston.

I’d known about the Cumbria Way for a long time and it’s always been on my bucket list of long distance challenges. The novelty of a point-to-point race starting in my home town of Ulverston appealed and though it was quite soon after UTMB, I decided to enter anyway.

I caught the back markers swiftly enough and began working my way through the field, stopping to see the sun rise over Morecambe Bay behind the Hoad monument. My legs felt pretty bad after the Langdale half marathon the previous Saturday and doing the Lakeland 200 mtb route over two days a few days before and I was still half asleep so took my time, stopping often to take pictures. 6 minutes would be easy enough to make up over 73 miles!

Sunrise near Gawthwaite.
Sunrise near Gawthwaite.
Approaching Gawthwaite
Approaching Gawthwaite

I began to catch sight of the leaders over Blawith Common, a beautiful area where I’ve spent many happy days as a child, swimming the Beacon Tarn. It was looking like we were in for a treat weather-wise as the sun rose, bringing into light a thick layer of mist over Coniston, which we would soon descend into. I start to think to myself, it’ll be a long day and you don’t have great legs so there’ll be no touching Donnie Campbell’s course record from last year but if you can’t win this…

Beacon Tarn Reeds
Beacon Tarn Reeds

You’re shit.

The Coniston Fells, home sweet home.
The Coniston Fells, home sweet home.

A few miles of technical woodland running along the eerie shores of Coniston and we were soon arriving at the first CP in Coniston itself. I was pretty hungry by now so stopped for a load of flapjack, cake and coffee before making my way onwards, aware the leaders were 5 minutes ahead, no worries!

Coniston
Coniston

Through Tarn Hows and towards Skelwith Bridge I’m running alone and can’t see anyone ahead so put some music on and push a little, thinking it’d be nice to be leading by the start of Stake Pass. I soon catch the two leading groups before the second CP at Sticklebarn in Great Langdale. The running here is on my old haunts as I lived in Elterwater last Winter which was great. It was nice to be back briefly, reminiscing of running the Lakeland 100 last year and looking forward to racing it again next year.

A few more bites to eat and myself and two others were making our way towards the bottom of Stake Pass. The pace was quite easy so I carried on alone and pushed slightly to open a gap. Looking back a few hundred metres up the pass I noticed one man had given chase so I pressed on, running where I could and taking advantage of my ascending ability on what is overall a very flat course (73miles, 3000m+). Hunger ebbs and flows but thankfully today my appetite is fine and I’m eating well, I have a large pack of sweet chilli peanuts and several gels to strike a good balance between fast and slow release energy and to give my palate some variation.

Nearing the top of Sake Pass
Nearing the top of Sake Pass

Through Borrowdale I start to feel the first real signs of fatigue. I’m only half way but try not to focus on that, admiring my surroundings and the prospect of finishing in daylight. The weather couldn’t be better either and the fells look amazing so there’s not a lot to complain about. I bump into an old friend along the shores of Derwent Water which is random, almost running right on by in my own little world.

Derwent Water, looking towards Skiddaw.
Derwent Water, looking towards Skiddaw.

Skirting around Cat Bells and I’m on very familiar ground, having been here only a few days previously on the bike. I strike up conversation with another runner and try to run with him, but it quickly becomes apparent that I’m now a lot slower than usual and make my way to the Keswick CP alone. It’s great to stop, sit down for a proper rest and scoff some veggie chilli and rice, plenty of cake and flapjack and coffee. Bottles refilled, I make my way onwards, walking for a good mile or so to let the food down before making my way around Skiddaw.

Looking back, skirting Skiddaw.
Looking back, skirting Skiddaw.

I look back often but can’t see anyone which is reassuring, but I don’t want to rest on my laurels and I do want to finish in under 14 hours, before it gets dark! The going is tough underfoot from Skiddaw house YHA onwards and it’s difficult to find a rhythm and maintain running on legs which are now very tired. My hip flexors aren’t used to running so much and when I can it’s more of a fast shuffle as a couple of relay team members overtake me. I take in the scenery and think of how different it is to running the Bob Graham Round Leg 1.

Climbing alongside Grainsgill Beck it’s nice to shift into a hike, even if I am a bit slow now. I keep glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone is behind me and as I approach the top of the last climb to High Pike before the Caldbeck CP I can see a runner in a fluorescent green top. ‘Shit, the guy I dropped before Stake Pass was wearing a similar top, it must be him! Either I’ve slowed down a lot (looking at my split times Keswick to Caldbeck was a bit slow) or he’s saved himself for a strong finish!’ I panic a little and press on, running all the way to the top to get out of sight as fast as I can. I go offline a little descending the other side but quickly rectify my effort thanks to my handy SatMap, bit frustrating and I half expect to look left and see him barrelling downhill straight past me. I push on along the road to the Caldbeck CP and eat some vegetable soup and the usual flapjack, cake and coffee before getting back out as quickly as I can.

Pan-flat half marathon to finish mmm
Pan-flat half marathon to finish mmm

Again I can only manage a walk to let the food settle and make my way along some undulating wooded sections before the trail becomes more runnable. From here the course is pretty much pan flat and includes a lot of tarmac. Yay! I glance back again just before Sebergham and lo and behold here he comes. Fuck.

It’s time to make some swift decisions. I think at first maybe it is another relay runner but then assume it is him, he has a similar build and height and maybe he’s ran a wiser race than me, held back until his time to push came, and take the win. I slow to let him catch me, totally confused at his race closing speed and feeling very deflated, ‘maybe I can run with him for a while and try and up the pace nearer the finish? No! Jesus how many times have you done that in mtb races in the past and let things slide for good? This is no time for making friends, you want to win this so bad, you have to go NOW!’

I commit myself to opening the gap again and up my speed. I was hoping for an easy win but now I’ll be running the last 10 miles faster than I did the first. ’Just hang in there, this isn’t too bad, another hour or so and it’ll be done and dusted, you’ve got this, stay calm.’ My heart rate hovers around 160, my speed around 7mph. It’s tough but sustainable as the adrenaline starts to settle. I keep glancing back and the elastic tightens as he drops back, then I glance again and he’s maybe 100m behind! Shit I don’t think I can crack him! Will it really come down to a sprint finish?! I don’t take my eye off my SatMap and am infuriated when I see him straight lining through fields I’ve skirted the perimeter of, staying true to the Cumbria Way route. The anger makes me dig deeper and I open a fields-length gap on him but am shocked when I see him duck under a fence, when the route clearly follows the course of the river.

“What are you doing?! Follow the path!” I shout. He sheepishly backtracks and follows the footpath. I may have won the moral battle but I still had a finish line to cross. Fuelled by the passion to win I keep pushing onwards, draining the battery on my Sat Map by having it lit all the time.

I’d seen a few other relay members cutting corners and it really pisses me off. It’s not a fell race, it’s not a pure navigational event, despite being unmarked. You follow the designated route and everyone does the full distance. May they with the strongest body and/or mind win. This equality is what defines ultra running to me and it’s a shame when individuals feel they are an exception. I can understand the temptation can be there when a podium is at stake but if you haven’t got the legs to win on a level playing field (pardon the pun) it’s a hollow victory in my eyes. Rant over!

The last few miles from Dalston are mentally excruciating. It’s nearly all tarmac alongside the railway and I can’t help but think how much of a grim start it would be to the walk if you were going the other way! The miles tick by and I’m thoroughly aware of the pounding the tarmac is giving me in my hard trail shoes. I wonder what the people I’m running towards think, looking a bit sorry for myself as my number is on my back. Sure enough the castle comes into sight, marking the finish and I hobble over the main road bridge, up to the castle entrance and into the grounds to cross the line with my arms in the air as a winner, at long last!

Finishing time of 13:49. I laugh when the guy behind me crosses the line. Yep, relay team member. Oh well had he not pushed me so hard I’d not have finished in under 14 hours or in daylight! Now shivering from the cold I haul myself up and hobble off to the nearby Hostel to wash, change and head out for a well earned feast.

Good value oop nort!
Good value oop nort!

The next day my legs aren’t too sore so I mooch around Carlisle centre for a while and get breakfast before the prize giving and coach ride home, happy to have hit two birds with one stone by winning my first Ultra and completing the Cumbria Way.

UTMB 2015 – The Hunger Games

I first heard of the UTMB several years ago when a biking friend confessed it was on his bucket list of events to complete. I knew nothing about running at the time but thought it seemed a bit mad to run so far, nonstop. Funny how things work out. I didn’t get in last year so when I missed the slim window of opportunity to enter this year’s Lakeland 100, UTMB quickly became my goal for the season. Almost a year ago I decided to put my career on hold and left my cushy office job as a design engineer at Siemens to throw some caution to the wind and spend some savings fulfilling my childhood dream of being a full-time athlete for a year. My two build-up events to this (Trans Gran Canaria in March and the Chamonix 80km in June) had both gone diabolically wrong, so the stakes were high for me to put in a solid run and justify my ballsy life choice.

4.2. This was the number I had to beat. 4.2mph average would get me round in under 26 hours and considering I managed the Lakeland 100 (105miles, 6900m+) last year in under 24 in my first 100, I thought this was realistic. I’d prepared much better too. My fitness was at an all time high since my mountain bike racing days, verified by a recent VO2 max test and I’d been around the route twice, over two three-day recces, managing some long days (38miles) at 4.2 with a heavy pack on. I’d shed a few spare pounds, been obsessive over my race kit and nutrition and confidence levels were high.

During the days before the race I was surprisingly calm and on the start line I was just ready to get stuck in and not nervous at all, despite a few espressos! I started in road shoes to save my feet a bit and over the first 10 miles ran well, keeping a close eye on my heart rate, not playing with those faster than me. ‘My race, my pace’ I told myself. ‘Be the predator, not the prey’ Tim told me, wise words indeed. I was feeling great up the first climb, chatting to Charlie Sharpe and Davide Grazielli, an Italian who I’d had a battle royale with at last year’s Lakeland 100 and lost. I’d settled into the race well, working my way up through the field but still feeling relaxed and eating regularly.

All smiles early on.
All smiles early on.

I arrive at Les Contamines (31km, 1153m+) to see Rich, a great guy who I’d met at the Chamonix 80km a couple of months before and was living the VW T5 dream for the Summer in Chamonix. He would be supporting me around the course and gave me my trail shoes to change into. I grab my food and get going, spirits high in anticipation of the night ahead.

Notre Dame De La Gorge
Notre Dame De La Gorge

Incredible atmosphere at Dotre Dam De La Gorge

I move well up to Col du Bonhomme, passing many runners as I open up my long, rangy power hiking stride and am closing in on the top 50, right where I want to be. Over the top I catch Joe Grant, who I met while running at Trans Gran Canaria earlier in the year and we get chatting, both agreeing that there would be a lot of casualties later on in the race. I check my average speed at 5.7 and am very happy, this means I have a large buffer to slow down and still get around at the necessary 4.2. Little did I realise at the time this was a false figure.

I make my stop at Les Chapieux (49km, 2823m+) as swift as I can and after the compulsory kit check I walk through the marquee without stopping for any food, I’d been eating plenty so far so why stop for more? A possible mistake in light of what was to come.

Ascending Col de la Seigne I realised I hadn’t eaten much for a while now, since I didn’t hang around at the last aid station to eat. I tried to nibble a Nakd bar but I just couldn’t get it down, I started to worry a little and hoped things would turn around soon, as they have done when this has happened in other races and training. I make it over the col in 50th and we descend together before beginning a newly added section which seemed somewhat contrived, but I quite enjoyed how technical it was underfoot, reminding me of some of the trails in my Lakeland homeland. My first cup of coke at the top and we descend down to the Lac Combal station (66km, 4052m+). I decide to ditch my 500ml flask of energy gel here. I’m not going to need that extra weight now! I eat what noodle soup I can and fill a flask with coke and we press on. I find it very hard to stay in contention up Arete du Mont-Favre but once the trail flattens out we find a good rhythm and chat away. ‘Maybe this is a blessing in disguise?’ I think. Maybe tomorrow my appetite will return and I’ll be able to push again and have more strength for later on?

We arrive at Courmayeur and there is a delay while the marshal’s find my drop bag, bit frustrating but I manage to find it myself and tuck into the only food I find appetising: a couple of pots of pear puree. I don’t bother changing my socks and press off in pursuit of Joe who left a while earlier.

I catch him before the steep climb to Refuge Bertone, (84km, 5336m+) which marks the half way point in terms of both distance and elevation, though I try not to think about this! We stop and sit with a couple of other runners as the light begins to pick up and down sweet tea, though I stop after two cups as I start to wretch a little. It was after here I looked at my watch and realised the average speed way very wrong as it said I’d covered over 70 miles! The frustration was immense as it’s not the first time it’s happened in a race. I adjusted my mindset and pressed on, feeling somewhat deflated.

My energy levels ran low again and despite catching several runners, I let them go again as I struggled to maintain a run on the undulations. I decide to let Joe go after Refuge Bonatti, accepting it may be the last I see of him. Shortly after, Italian Davide passes me and would go on to run strong to finish 27th in 26:03. I struggle to come to terms with how things are playing out. After such perfect preparation, my body has betrayed me when it mattered most. I’d put a lot of eggs into my basket during my preparation for this race and as the hours slip by I slowly accept the fact that today will not be the day I come to see my dreams hatch into fruition. For factors out of my control, once again my potential will not be realised. I look at my environment, the early morning light catching the south face of the Mont Blanc massif and I feel extremely privileged. So my race isn’t going as planned but I still have eyes and legs that work, I still have a love for the mountains and I still have a passion for pursuit that has lead me here. Here I am, running UTMB! I will make it to the finish before the end of the day.

The tired eyes of a broken man.
The tired eyes of a broken man.

I make my way into Arnurva and stop to lie down for over half an hour. I think I slept briefly once a marshal covered me in a foil blanket. It was difficult to comprehend leaving but I sit up and eat what more food I can, mainly the juice of oranges and noodle soup.

Embracing the struggle with Mum, just like old times.
Embracing the struggle with Mum, just like old times.

I leave feeling a new man with my blood sugars raised and ascend Grand Col Ferret with haste, passing several runners. I look at my Mothers wedding ring swaying side to side on my necklace, wonder what she’d make of all of this and laugh to myself. Giving up was never an option for her and so I push onward and upwards and am told at the top I’m around 70th. I grin and say ‘a long way still to go, top 50 maybe’… My enthusiasm is short lived as my energy levels bomb again after the next descent and I walk long sections towards the next aid station at La Fouly. Again, I eat what I can and lie down for half an hour, ‘just keep going, one aid station at a time and the end will come, you’ve chosen this path and everything will be ok’ I tell myself again, closing my eyes.

Shuffling down to La Fouly
Shuffling down to La Fouly

Eventually I get going and begin the long undulating section to Praz de Fort, which I run most of in the strong heat. I take my time up the ascent to Champex Lac (124km), where Rich awaits, stopping once at a water fountain to nibble some crystallised ginger. I don’t feel as bad now and stay maybe 15 minutes, after eating what I can.

The next climb to Bovine was cruel. The organisers had chosen a steep, technical footpath in favour of the TMB route which I’d recced. I make up a few places though as steep ascents are something I revel in. Cresting the top we dodge docile cows and begin the long descent to Trient (141km). My quads are very sore now but I run well considering. Just before the aid station I realise I didn’t pay attention to my sums and from here it’s actually 18 miles to Chamonix, not 12! It’s almost enough to make me crack, knowing for sure now that I’ll finish after dark, but I accept it and adjust my mindset accordingly.

Again, Rich welcomes me into the marquee and we sit and chat while I nibble away at what I can. I don’t stay long as I’m keen to get home now. The next section was undoubtedly the most testing of the event. I’d climbed the next climb before with relative ease during training but now I was spent, running totally on empty. My breathing was shallow and laboured and I crawled along, hunched over my poles. I think I stopped to sit at the side of the trail about 4 times over 3km. The top finally came but I was spent and couldn’t even run any flat sections. I was at my lowest ebb. I could only go up from here but the pain of not knowing when was almost unbearable ‘could it really be like this, even if only for 15 miles more?’ 15 miles is a long way to walk in such a state but I tried not to think about it, took in the scenery and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I notice my watch says 24:30, the longest I’ve ever been on two feet so far…

It was shamefully embarrassing but I walked all the way down into the last main aid station at Vallorcine (150km, 8922m+), the pain in my quads combined with my state of mind too severe to permit running. Spectators offer sympathetic claps and cheers of support but I couldn’t care. I hadn’t even the energy to smile now. I slumped down on the table with Rich, staring into space, aware of others arriving and leaving quickly, perhaps having prepared for a stronger finish. I ate what I could. The supporters of another runner offer me some left over chips and I eat a few and put them back down. Hang on, they were nice! I grab them again and wolf them down. ‘Wow, something appetising at last!’ I stay maybe 10 minutes before walking out, just 12 miles left and the start of a second night.

I walk all the way to Col des Montets, a gradual gradient but not worth running now, before beginning the long, winding ascent up onto the Aiguille Rouge, a beautiful area of the valley but one now shrouded in darkness. I start to feel ok, then good! The pain in my quads has magically disappeared and I feel full of energy. The chips have worked wonders! I pass a few others with relative ease and my confidence builds. Headlight on and I see more ahead. Yes! I feel good! I feel normal at last! I push on, catching more and passing them quickly. More lights ahead, great! I feed the hunger with each person I pass and am running well. I use my poles to descend from La Tete aux Vents well, passing groups of runners and grinning to myself as I whiz by. How could this be? I’m gobsmacked and once again amazed at the subconscious minds control over the body. The brakes are well and truly off now and I have nothing to lose: I decide with conviction to leave everything I have on these next ten miles or so. I move as fast as I can, I can even push the ups without walking.

I pass maybe 20 people and leave them all standing but one isn’t having it and decides to give chase. Nice try sucker, as I wind it up again and put some distance into him. I rush through La Flegere (162km, 9789m+) and grab a quick cup of coke, drinking it on the move as he chases me down the fire road and into the final singletrack. I push as hard as I can, bouncing off rocks and roots with my poles, adrenaline coursing through my veins but still see his light above me. The descent seems to go on for far longer than I remember, switchback after switchback, down, down, down but I still feel strong. Finally La Floria arrives and the trail opens up, the last final fire road down to Chamonix itself. I hurl myself down with reckless abandon and open my gait, passing two more runners and nearly stacking it completely on the loose surface.

Finally the streetlights of Chamonix arrive and I hit the tarmac and push again. I see one of my best friends from school, Andy, who lives and works in Geneva and had come out to see me finish. I notice his camera flash first but once I recognise it’s him we shout ‘BROW! ROPE! HURGH!’ to each other (an in-joke that would take way too long to explain and probably isn’t even funny). The end of the course weaves its way through town and I’m running well, really well. I clap outstretched hands and can’t stop grinning, thoroughly glad it’s all coming to an end now. I cross the line in just over 29 hours for 70th. I’m more than happy to take that considering and it’s all smiles and hugs when Andy finds me. The MC wants to talk to me and I explain I’m from the beautiful Lake District. He asks if I know the singer Mike Jones and I stupidly say yes, but manage to fumble my way out of singing one of his songs with him.

The finish I thought at times may never come.
The finish I thought at times may never come.
Andrew and I in Chamonix.
Love you like a brother Harle.

I slump down for a while and catch up with the messages of encouragement, still unsure how the hell I managed to run so well over the last 10 miles. I crave ice cream, I have been all day so we get some on the way back to the camp site I’m staying at, shower and settle down for the night. I slept like a log and was surprised to be walking ok the next day, with my appetite well and truly back.

Ice cream the day after :)Mr Yogi Tea and I at the finish, cheers for the brew!

I write this 10 days after the event and am surprised how quickly I am recovering compared to my last 100, perhaps a sign that my energy issues didn’t allow me to dig as deep as I otherwise could have. I’m still questioning why things went so wrong. Was it the salt and pepper cashews? Did I eat too much early on? Did my mind just not want to play ball after what’s been a turbulent year for me personally? It would explain the lack of nerves before the start. I’ve lived in five places the last 12 months, left my job, left my girlfriend and am often worried about what things hold for the future and my currently unsustainable way of life.

My favourite place: Goat's Water from Dow Crag
My favourite place: Goat’s Water from Dow Crag
Drying off after a waterfall shower to cleanse the mind.
Drying off after a waterfall shower to cleanse the mind.

Yesterday I went for my first run off road, just the usual eight miles around Coniston Old Man and Dow Crag and felt fine, running well uphill. After I went for a swim in the lake to jump off the same rocks I did as a child and looked at the Coniston range, that same view I’ve looked at all my life which never tires of being special and thought of all the obstacles I’ve overcome in the past three years since I started running and what other challenges I’ll face in the next year, as I embark on 12 more months of travel and adventure and take a step back from racing.

Ivy Crag, looking towards Langdale where I lived last winter.
Ivy Crag, looking towards Langdale where I lived last winter. Soul food.

I won’t keep it a secret that I’d one day like to make that same journey around Mont Blanc in under a day, to feel complete as an athlete who realised their full potential and performed perfectly, right when it mattered, just once. A dream maybe but I know I’m still a young pretender in a sport that rewards experience. Who knows where I’ll be after another three years of athletic growth as a runner. Until this dog has his day I must remain patient and ensure I drip-feed my competitive appetite slowly over the coming years…

 ‘Without patience you will never conquer endurance’ – Yiannis Kuoros

Movescount data from the race here. Think I need a new watch!