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An Uncomfortable Truth

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.

Race Review

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.

                         Halls Fell Ridge looking stunning from ten feet away

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.

Example of what had happened to “streams” – this one at Ambleside earlier in the day before the worst weather had even hit

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?


                                      Me, smiling. Just to prove that I occasionally do (but perhaps I shouldn’t)

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5 Days to Go: All Manner of Swearing

Weight: 93.5kg
Body Fat: 18%
Resting Heart Rate: 50
Miles Run This Year: 1000
Fear Levels: Through the roof

Well, there’s not a lot more I can do now. The miles have been run, the muscles have been pulled, stretched, repaired and pulled again many times over and I’ve spent about double the amount of sponsorship raised on equipment, proving in the process that a) It would have been better for Yorkshire Cancer Research if I’d just given them the money I have had to spend, and b) the old adage that running is a sport that is accessible to all is absolute rubbish.

But here I am, well into the taper and carb load stage of the year. I like a good carb – at least, I thought I did. I’m pretty sick of them right now though; in fact, I feel sluggish, lethargic and fat. A few hours ago, I got back from my final decent-length run – an 18k jog around the woods and canal of Bramley, Rodley and Calverley. I got in, took off my pack and sweaty vest and discovered an impressive waist strap mark has set up camp right around a little paunch that has developed within a week of eating nothing but potatoes, rice and bread. I think it must only be people in carb loading phases who can stroll around an 18k trail route without really breaking a sweat, complete with pot belly.

Me, recovering in a field on my run today

I imagine that this week will see the commencement of a week-long extravaganza of nervous pooing – and lots of stretching, of course. There will also be the compulsive weather forecast checking – at least five times a day. The current forecast is for pretty much constant rain and 100km winds on top of Blencathra and Helvellyn. Which is nice. I expect to be thoroughly fed up at least 35 miles from the finish – but I will finish, barring injury or exhaustion to the point of collapse. Probably. And then it’s time to relax! Except it isn’t, as I still need to do another couple of hundred miles to reach 1253.93 – or 2018km – for the year. This, of course, includes re-running and completing the Leeds Country Way because I. Just. Can’t. Let. Things. Go.

Suffering from anxiety is exhausting. I know it will be on overdrive this week, playing the role of bastard as it does so well, telling me that I can’t do it and refusing to let me sleep. But when I look back on 2018, I can truly say that it has been the least anxious year in recent times. Part of that is, of course, down to a career change – I will never deny that. The other part though, is undoubtedly down to running and what it has done to my health, my confidence and my perspective on life. I think that this is reason enough to feel proud at this point of the year, regardless of what’s happening in just over 5 days.

In fact, it’s perhaps the best time for me to understand this, so I can remind myself of these words at multiple moments during Saturday, when I catch myself cursing the idiocy of my decisions and I creak and wobble my way along the hardest run I have ever done. Wish me luck!

      No joke. This is how far we have to go. So far, that it goes off the edge of a map of the entire Lake District. Shit.

If you would like to sponsor Tom and I as we come towards the end of a truly epic year of ultramarathons, pain and eating, just click here.

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32 Days to Go: Learning to Fail

Weight: 94kg
Body Fat: 17%
Longest Distance Covered: 82km
Joints: Starting to give way

If I’m not ready now, then I’m not going to be. In four days, I’ll be slogging my way down the first 22 miles of the actual Lakes In A Day course – 7,500 feet of incline, not much way-marking to speak of, a few GPS black spots and a ridge descent that has claimed a few lives over the years. Not ideal. It’s a recce that will either give me huge confidence, or increase the fear quite considerably. Of course, the main problem is that my body still hasn’t properly recovered from 10 days ago…

The Country Way

I suppose that all these pre-ultra ultras have been a learning experience, but anyone who really knows me will know that setting out to do something, then failing to finish it, is not something that sits very well with me. But that’s exactly what happened on the Leeds Country Way (delete one “o” where necessary). There are positives of course. 1) I ran for 11 hours and only walked for 90 minutes – not something I thought I was capable of. 2) I covered 82km – the main event is roughly the same distance, give or take an extra 8,000 foot of incline. 3) I played squash 42 hours after finishing and ran a 5km the day after – so my recovery is certainly where it should be. 4) My Garmin tells me that I have the VO2 Max of an “excellent 20 year-old”. I don’t really know what this means, but I’m certainly going to milk it.

This fella followed me for quite a while!

But the negatives are that 1) we were ultimately defeated by poor preparation in terms of navigation – as soon as the GPX went wrong, we were completely stuck and, ultimately, had to call it a day – and 2) our head torches were not sufficient at all. So it’s more money on better gear, and some considerable homework on the route. But these are not issues beyond our control at least. And being the stubborn man that I am, I am going to recce the final section of the Leeds Country Way, plot it on a better route map and then redo the entire thing. I might leave it a few weeks after Lakes In a Day though…

The Bottom Line

32 days is not a long time. I’ve been building to this for the best part of 9 months. Obviously, I simply have to complete it, but there’s something else to consider. What comes after something like this? I don’t want to entertain the idea of sitting in a chair and getting steadily fat for the rest of my life. But equally, it isn’t feasible to train like this forever. I do fancy a tilt at a few other things in this country – the Pennine Way, the Dales Way, the Coast to Coast, Hadrian’s Wall, the Leeds-Liverpool canal… perhaps a Bob Graham round attempt?! But I’m not going to compromise the lifestyle that I want just to do them. So, I’m going to lurk on a few forums and find out what people do next – and if anyone has any suggestions, I’m open to them!

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52 Days to Go: Final Preparations

Remaining Ultramarathae: 2
Tendons: Shot
Body Weight: 94.2kg (14 stone 12)
Body Fat %: 19%
Confidence Level: 5/10

Don’t be looking at that confidence level the wrong way, y’all; a five is what I aspire to in life as a general rule. This is a good thing.  Other than generally ticking over though – not doing any really long runs, but not allowing fitness to drop – I don’t have much to report. I had a lovely jaunt in the mountains to keep the buns steely and I’ve been doing plenty of 10km-ish runs to keep my feet… runny. All that really remains is to summarise what’s left to do and look forward to the main event. I actually booked accommodation for the night before the main event this week, which is like when your recently single mate finally wants to talk about their break-up (which probably happened 8 months ago) – it’s my version of admitting that it’s actually happening.

The Leeds Country Way – Saturday 1st September

If you don’t know, then this is the final pre-ultramarathon ultramarathon, and it’s a biggie. The Leeds Country Way is a 61.34-mile (98.7-km) round of the countryside of Leeds’ outer suburbs. In terms of incline vs. distance, it’s not too bad: just the 4,225 feet of incline. To put that into context, the first 30 miles of Lakes in a Day covers nearly 9,000. So, it’s a distance challenge rather than an incline one. As with most things (for me at least), this is a purely mental exercise. It’s validation that I can cover a really long distance in one sitting. I suppose it’s the last piece of the puzzle, really. Anyway, if you live around the route (see below), then I’ll be posting rough arrival times at the end of the week, so if you want to come and say hi / cheer / heckle / give snacks, then that’d be great. We’re aiming for sub-16 hours, but to be honest I’ll be happy just to finish with both feet mostly intact.

Oh, and don’t worry for those of you with OCD: we’ll be rounding the route up to 100km on the nose.

The Recce – Saturday 15th September

The final marathon-esque distance will be in the form of a recce. We are going to go from the start of the Lakes in a Day route and do the first 23 miles; Calbeck to the Helvellyn summit. It’s about 7,500 feet of incline, which will be awesome training and also includes  the only sections I have never done before at some point, so we’re giving ourselves a better chance of not getting lost on the day.

The Main Event – Saturday 13th October

Just a reminder for any of those who want to sponsor us – this is all for Yorkshire Cancer Research. Here’s that link again.

We recently passed the £750 (50%) mark, so massive thanks to everyone who has donated (some more than once, Mum!) It means a lot to be supported in this way – but to be honest everyone has been supportive and encouraging when they’ve spoken to me face to face about it. Loving comments like “You’re an idiot” and “You’re too fat to do this”, or “You eat and drink like a Lord – you can’t do an ultramarathon” have made all the difference.

xxx

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80 Days to Go: Infections, Feet and Fear

Weight: 93.8kg
Longest Distance: 28.6 miles
July Miles: 125 (including this coming weekend)
Fear Level: Intensifying
Next Challenge: Back-to-back ultras this weekend (gulp)

You know things are getting serious when you stop counting how many weeks you’ve been training and start counting down to the actual event. 80 days! I can actually count that far. The level of fear I have is directly related to how I feel when I have four or five miles to go of a 25-odd mile training run. It hurts. And if it hurts now, how the hell am I possibly going to manage over 50?! Speaking of over 50, Facebook has taken to trolling me this week, posting a fresh-faced picture of me 7 years ago, next to a picture I took before taking on the Ilkley Skyline round last Sunday. There’s no way around it – the idea that men improve with age is a myth. I blame running entirely; there’s no way this can be remotely attributed to habitual binge drinking, eating curries every week or having an unkempt lazy-man beard at all. See for yourself:

I can’t be entirely sure as they’re so unnervingly similar, but I think the one on the left is seven years ago…

Anyway, as per usual, I’ve learned a lot this month. I feel like a sponge, but an old one that smells of damp and has found its way round the back of the toilet. The first thing I’ve learned is that injuries and illnesses are really inconvenient. I’ve struggled through a chest infection over the last couple of weeks that has made training a real pain. I’m also sure that while plants appreciate water, they aren’t so happy to receive sudden bright yellow gobs of phlegm right to the face. I may have turned half of Ilkley Moor into a sticky, contagious desert. Ho hum.

I’ve also been struggling with pain in my big toe. My feet are absolutely disgusting after all this running anyway – more closely resembling Sloth from the Goonies’ face than feet, but this pain has been a new development. Now, while this could oh-so-feasibly be gout, it’s more likely to be tendonitis or something related to massive levels of overwork. I understand how to get rid of tendonitis when it’s in your knees, but my big toe? I’m stumped. So far, I’ve been using the patented “Ignore it and it will probably go away” method. It hasn’t worked yet, but I’m sure that covering 57 miles and 8000 feet of incline over two days will sort it right out.

Which brings me to…

The Herriot Way

This weekend, my running partner and I will be taking on the Herriot Way – a four-day circular route of the North Dales, except that we will be covering it in two days. This means back-to-back 28.5-mile ultramarathons, the first of which will cover 5,000 feet of incline (including Great Shunner Fell, the third highest mountain in Yorkshire), followed by 3,000 on the Sunday – but on knackered legs. This should be a brilliant test of endurance ahead of the “big one”, but is also a significant part of the “5 ultras in a year” part of our fundraising.

As usual, I’ll post photos and a write-up of the event, as well as the Strava logs. If you’d like to sponsor this leg of the fundraising (all for Yorkshire Cancer Research, then go to our fundraising page here – we’re on £590 so far, and are hoping to get up to £1500 by the end of October. Your help means a lot – not just to the charity – but to my own mental state. Every pound represents encouragement, and I need all I can get! To be honest, even if you don’t want to / can’t spare the cash, horribly trite motivational memes involving popular C-list celebrities from the 80s and 90s would more than suffice.

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Like this…

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“Team Yorkshire”