30 days after the event and I suddenly feel the urge to write about Lakes in a Day whilst two hours into a journey from Ha Long to Hanoi. A well-trodden, unspectacular 4-hour ride punctuated by a stop off at the worst service station-cum- tourist trap I’ve ever seen, but I get a pang of need out of the blue and frantically start tapping nonsense into Samsung notes. So here we are.
Weight: About 6 tonnes, according to the Vietnamese tailor who gasped and said “WOW!” when measuring me up for a suit
Number of runs in the last 30 days: 3
Days until next ultra: 25
Failure is an uncomfortable feeling. Regardless of the circumstances, which may be detailed and complex, a broader look back in the imaginary history books only yields one truth: whatever it is you set out to do, didn’t get done.
Ultimately, the black and white truth in this case, is that I didn’t finish Lakes in a Day. I didn’t and other people did – so there can’t be any excuses for that really. 30 miles, 12500 feet of incline and 14 hours into what I can only describe as the worst weather conditions I have ever witnessed, or could ever conceivably imagine, and I was forced to come down from the high peaks for safety reasons, thereby ensuring disqualification. My legs were willing, my heart was willing, but my brain – along with the brains of four other people – took a difficult decision and now here I am, 10 miles closer to Hanoi than when I started writing this, reliving the despondency of the last few moments of descent, before getting into the event minibus and admitting defeat.
I’ll keep the review of the event relatively brief. We started at 8am in wet but easy conditions, following the route we’d recced only four weeks before. The first summit took about 15 minutes longer, due in part to queuing near the start and because of the rain making the going very soft underfoot. The heavier you are, the more your feet are grabbed by the muddy ground as it absorbs all your energy, forcing you to start from scratch with every step. I weighed in at 102kg including my race pack and this began to take a toll towards the top of Blencathra, but as it had done a month before, the knowledge that it would be the last incline for several miles spurred me on.
At the top though, the weather had started to worsen. The steward before Halls Fell right told us it was “like an Italian’s comb” and the wind had really picked up, so we chose the safer option, despite the hefty time penalty it involved. We eventually arrived at checkpoint 1, registering a time that was over an hour slower than our recce day.
Things didn’t improve. As we began to climb Clough Head less than an hour later, Storm Callum took aim, let rip and didn’t stop its bombardment until we called it a day some 8.5 hours later. The wind was so strong it lifted me from my feet several times, the rain was so fierce it was like being tattooed on my face and eyes and visibility dropped quite dramatically. At one point, we were physically unable to walk forwards and had to take shelter. By the time we got to the top of Helvellyn, visibility was about 10 feet, our waterproof bag covers had blown away and I’d briefly lost my partner as, at a good 20kg lighter, he had been simply unable to move. We later found out that one entrant had removed their backpack to retrieve some food and the entire thing had been wrenched from his grasp, disappearing over a cliff shortly afterwards. He sat and waited for mountain rescue for 3 hours and still looked like he’d seen a ghost when he ran into him at the Ambleside checkpoint. Another man suffered a pulmonary embolism and one man we were with near the end started showing signs of early-stage hypothermia as the cold came on strong with the cover of darkness.
There was no let up – not even for a minute. The elite athletes had avoided the worst of the conditions by being far quicker near the start. This had never been an option for us and we paid for it in spades. I would set myself at an angle against the wind, legs wide apart, but it would change direction in a second, knocking me off my feet almost effortlessly. On a couple of occasions, especially when it became pitch black, it did occur to me that we were in danger – it turns out that our wonderful supporters at Ambleside were similarly concerned. In the end, as we slid down to Grisedale Yarn, there was only one decision to make. Fairfield and the east side of the horseshoe were far too exposed and narrow in winds that we would later learn had got up to nearly 100mph, so we decided to get off by the most direct route possible.
Of course, that isn’t so easy in the middle of a storm. Our first attempt resulted in us having to retrace our steps. The second involved crossing the tarn, which had turned into a waist-high waterfall – one of our party lost his footing and was almost washed down the mountain. We then passed around Fairfield and tried to descend again, this time being thwarted by a stream crossing I had done a couple of years ago in flip flops being transformed into an un-cross-able force, as impressive as any I’ve seen in the country. We eventually found our way down at the third time of asking, but the two failed attempts had cost us nearly two hours and when we reached the road, there was no time to follow it to Ambleside before being timed out, so we called it in. It was a tough decision which still gnaws away at me a month later.
The 9-odd hours in the middle of Storm Callum were perhaps the most taxing, unpleasant hours of my life. I hated every minute of it. And yet, on Monday 5th November, I was among the first to sign up for the event again – on October 12th 2019. Why? I couldn’t really tell you. There’s something horribly, masochistically addictive about pushing yourself to the limit. I enjoy this level of fitness, the challenge and the feeling when you finish. Also, I’m a stubborn little bastard.
Epic foreboding face (thanks to LIAD for the photo)
To everyone who sponsored us this year – thank you. We smashed our £1500 target, raising over 2 grand for Yorkshire Cancer Research. Cancer is shit – I should think it has affected every single person I know – but I believe that it can be beaten. Apologies for the cheese there, but wouldn’t a world without death from cancer be quite something?
Anyway, up next – Leeds Country Way part II on December 8th. We are recceing the section of the route that caught us out last time seven days before the event, then we’re going to smash it. In winter. In the dark. In potentially sub-zero conditions. 61 miles of smiling then, eh?