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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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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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72 Days to Go: An Emerging Sense of Belief

Ultramarathae in the last 7 days: 2
Remaining toenails: 8
Muscular Pain: Comprehensive
Recovery pizzas consumed: 3
Days to Go: 72

It’s taken me until Thursday to be able to properly process the weekend. My assessment has included swollen feet, missing toenails and a stench to rival the red liquid in that old sarcophagus (which I will come to later, perhaps in more detail than you would like), but it has ultimately led me to a realisation: I can actually do Lakes in a Day.

It’s not that I wouldn’t have given it my best shot. Anyone who knows me is well aware that while others are blessed with raw talent and innate inner fitness, I am blessed with raw stubbornness and innate inner bloody-mindedness. But after managing 58 miles spread across two days, with significant amounts of incline and very challenging weather and terrain in parts, I now believe that I can successfully make it to Cartmel before I fall apart, both mentally and physically. There’s still work to be done, though, but for the first time, I feel up to the task. Here’s my assessment of the weekend then:

Cartmel may look pretty, but it is in fact my nemesis.

The weather makes a massive difference

The last two months have been like my own personal battle with sweat and dehydration. During the Y3P ultra, I drank 10 litres of water and felt dizzy after a particularly enthusiastic early afternoon 5k stretch of the route. This past weekend though, I drank 3 litres of water per ultramarathon and felt completely fine, cardio-wise, for both days. However, when the weather really hates you, it always has a trump card to play. This time round, it was torrential rain, a lightning storm so close overhead that we had to take shelter, a hailstorm that left me with bruises and a second day full of trudging through mud and over paths that had turned to rivers. While the lower temperature no doubt helped with the cardio, it slowed things down considerably. We didn’t run a single step on day 2. Although this was due in part to…

Once you go significantly beyond 50km, it hurts

I suppose this should be obvious, but the second half of day 2 was purely a mental struggle. A significant, painful swelling developed on my right foot which severely restricted movement and meant that I was relying so heavily on my left foot that I rolled my ankle – fortunately, this was 2 miles from the end. I need to make sure that my body can definitely stand up to 80+ km without a midway sleep, and I would like to “enjoy” the latter stages of the event, so…

The Leeds Country Way

A bonus ultra! Date: TBC. The Leeds Country Way is a 100km circular route that takes in parks, footpaths and countryside around Leeds. It’s only 4,000 feet of incline, which works out as pretty flat when you take in to account the distance. This is the perfect check that my feet can handle it, and if the same areas suffer, then I know which supports to buy ahead of October. Plus it doesn’t involve driving 70 miles in the throes of pain and exhaustion, like I stupidly did at the weekend; instead, I can get an Amber Cab 2 miles back home when I finish.

Coming soon to a masochistic idiot near you…

The Herriot Way is home to a deranged monster

No, really. I’ve never seen so many decomposing rabbit and sheep carcasses in quick succession in my entire life. It was like the aftermath of a live action Watership Down. I could feel General Woundwort’s hot breath on my ankles the whole way round. Come to think of it, his fate does remain a mystery after his fight with Bigwig and the dog…

The comforting mental image in my head the whole way round 

Anyway, it’s been a fairly quiet week, all in all. Today, 4.5 days after I finished, I managed 1 hour of circuit training and a slow, 5km treadmill jog on the hill setting. I felt sluggish and physically tired, but I’m sure that next week will be fine and I’ll get back to training and building up to the next challenge. Before Lakes in a Day, there are two ultras left: The Yorkshire 3 Peaks ultra route again, and the Leeds Country Way. There’s also an 18-mile mountain recce of part 1 of the race, and at least 30 pizzas to eat. Other than that, it’s head down and plod on. But before I go…

The most important piece of advice I have ever offered anyone…

Never, NEVER leave your running bag packed with wet clothes for five days. Don’t do it. Unpack IMMEDIATELY. The resulting smell is somewhat intense – it could easily kill a small child, render you bald for life or, alternatively, make you do a little sick in your mouth, both at the moment the stench hits your nostrils, and for several hours afterwards whenever you think about it. I think I heard my dead relatives crying. Seriously: that Egyptian sarcophagus aint’ got nothin’ on 5 days of stagnating sweat and rain after 58 miles of fuckery in the Yorkshire Dales.

Consider yourselves told.

Actual picture of my bag this Thursday evening

 

 

 

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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”

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Weeks 26 and 27: Coming in Hot

Ultramarathae this year: 2
Ultramarathae remaining this year: More than 0, disappointingly
Days until next ridiculous activity: 25 (52 miles, 7,500 feet – but split over 2 days)
Number of black toenails: 3
Weight: 94kg

Miles from most recent run: 27.5
Incline: 5,034 feet
Time: 7h 45

It’s about 53 hours since the most recent ultra and I’m back: rising extremely gingerly like a phoenix with really tight calves. I’ll not beat around the bush though: take a look at these numbers!

I can’t even begin to explain the satisfaction that can be derived from fisting an entire large Domino’s pizza, complete with stuffed crust, right down your gullet like… I’m not even going to articulate what it was like… and STILL having 5,000 calories and 180g of fat left of your daily budget. And some vague nonsense about pride in doing a long thing with your legs and yada yada.

PIZZA. It’ not even good pizza. It’s basically the pizza equivalent of spitting on an Italian man’s mother and burning down his local church. It’s a soggy disc of shame and regret, made entirely out of Peter Andre, but then, just to make it worse, you’ve stuffed the outside of it with the bits of cheese that even cheese itself wouldn’t eat. And I ate the whole thing and I didn’t even suffer the next day. HA.

But now the pizza is gone. And here I am again, two ultras down and several more to go. Last time, I found it hard to deal with the post-euphoria comedown. This time, it’s very different. Here are my key takeaways (mmm… takeaway) from this latest one.

Motivation is hard

It is so much more difficult to do one of these when you don’t get an arbitrary medal and t-shirt at the end. All I could do for the first 6 miles and 2000 feet of incline was think about how much I didn’t want to be there. When I compare this to the first one, when I had a number awkwardly pinned to my shorts and the (unfulfilled) promise of a free half pint of Magic Rock waiting for me, I can only recall excitement, fear and energy from the first 6-10 miles back in Calderdale.

The heat is a killer

There was no shade whatsoever on the route on Saturday. It had uncomfortably surpassed 20 degrees well before we even began, and went on to rise over 30 for the rest of the day. I applied sun cream four times and still got a bit burnt. I drank 10 litres of water in under 8 hours and have still spent two days with mild heatstroke and dehydration. The run-to-walk ratio was severely affected, because we both thought we would vomit from the heat after one particularly enthusiastic four-mile stretch. This is probably a plus point; the Lakes in October will pose no such problems.

The other noticeable issue with the heat is that it slows you down. As we neared the top of Whernside, the wind suddenly hit and we sped up by several minutes a mile, despite being towards the end of a prolonged, steep incline. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do the route significantly more quickly next time, purely because of more favourable conditions. But then again, just look at the beauty when the weather’s like that….

Pen-y-ghent from a farm near Horton in Ribblesdale

View from Whernside

The summit of Ingleborough. The least impressive of the three, but, crucially, the end of the final incline!

 

Muscles adapt…

Aside from fairly tight calves, I can genuinely say that I am physically unaffected by Saturday’s jaunt. My quads, glutes and feet feel fine. My back and shoulders are stiff, but in far better shape than last time, when I had to take 8 Ibuprofen during the run itself (this time I took 2 in the pub afterwards). Had it not been for the heat, I could have comfortably managed another 5-10 miles.

…but fitness has its limits (unless you’re a mentalist)

I’m six months in to this now, and I think I’ve earned the right to make some assessments. The first one is the most brutal: I am never, ever going to be fit enough to run up the side of a mountain without stopping. I’m also never going to be fit enough to walk briskly up the side of three in a row, without it hurting a bit. Now, I could make it easier for myself by compromising heavily – no more alcohol, lose 15kg, do the Yorkshire 3 Peaks every day for a year… but I’m also never going to do these things. And that’s OK. This isn’t about pretending to be someone else. This is about being happy with myself, my capabilities and my limitations. Let’s face it: I’ve done two ultramarathons (ultramarathae) in a month – I’m not exactly unfit. I’ll leave the ridiculous sub-3-hour marathons to the experts though. I like booze. I like working out. I like spending my free time socialising with my friends.

A reminder of the challenge

HOWEVER… the fact of the matter is this. Lakes in a Day is equivalent to doing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks twice without stopping, then going up Pen-y-ghent for a third time – both in terms of distance and incline. There are now 103 days until I have to be able to do that, and I am currently some way short. So, I’m going to make the booze and fun-related sacrifices for the month before the event, and in the meantime I’ll keep plugging away. The Herriot Way at the end of the month will be an excellent next step, as it will represent an equivalent distance, albeit with less incline and with a break in the middle for sleeping. I think we’ll find a way to make each day over 26.2 miles though, just so we can say we’ve done two ultras in two days. Because, as I said before, it’s easier when there’s some kind of medal at the end – even if it’s only a conceptual one.

If you enjoy reading my rubbish, or if you feel that Yorkshire Cancer Research is a cause worth donating to, here’s the link to our page.

We’re on £490 so far – I hope we can raise another £1000. The way I see it, it’s £1000 closer to beating cancer.