Autumn 2016 and I was considering entering the Lakes 50 again, or possibly even the 100! Instead I opted to have a go at the Lakes Sky Ultra (LSU) as I had been aware of it and thought it looked like a good challenging course more akin to the type of terrain I like to be on than the slightly tamer ground of the UTLD courses.
I applied to enter and passed the vetting procedure (to check if you are crazy enough) but then omitted (due to having moved house and being without internet) to complete the entry process. No matter, I was given more time and duly paid the fee and took a cursory glance at the route, making a mental note to get onto the course over the winter/spring.
My whole winter/spring leading up to May had been about being in shape for the Old Counties Tops race, which I was running for the third time. It went well, with me and my partner Andy winning our category (V90 combined age) for the third year in a row. So that was my 'A' race done, and there was a reasonable gap to the LSU which I had marked as my second target event of 2017. (the third being Borrowdale and the fourth being the HMBR ream relay)
But by June I hadn't been on any reccys or even looked properly at the route map! I knew the course was flagged (as per Sky Race stipulations) so wasn't too fussed and reckoned I would just turn up on the day and follow them.
Then disaster struck about 5 weeks before the race when I stupidly fell on the parachute decent of Blencathra and badly twisted my ankle. I usually shrug of ankle twists but this one was significant, with my ankle being swollen and quite sore when running on the flat. Luckily it was no problem running uphill so I tried to retain fitness by doing plenty of hard hillclimbing then taking it very easy on the flat and downhill.
Downhill was the big issue though, it hurt increasingly the longer I descended. And I was descending slower then usual in an attempt to make every right foot landing a more measured step.
We (me and Andy) managed to help break a record for the Bob Graham Relay by running leg 1 in 2hrs 43 mins, but Andy had been well ahead on every descent and had to wait for me, costing a good 10 minutes I reckon . But our time for the climb to top os Skiddaw was my best ever, proving I was at least retaining my fitness.
With all that in mind I felt sure I would have to withdraw from the LSU, given the crazy descents and length of the course. But as the weeks went by I found that although my ankle hurt while running, it didn't hurt the the next day and I could string 2 then 3 days together without anything terrible happening. ( I usually only run 3 days in a row anyway).
As a final test, 7 days before the LSU I set out from Borrowdale to intercept the Wasdale race. I ran the Wasdale course from Pillar to Scafell Pike plus back to Borrowdale - a total of 6 hours, again without any lasting legacy soreness. I knew the LSU would be a lot longer than 6 hours but figured I should at least start it and see what happened.
I had long since abandoned any hope of doing 'well' in the race and figured getting round would be the best I could hope for. A few days prior I realised that I would have to go to Ambleside on the Friday night to register and attend the safety briefing....then go back again the next morning for the event itself. Totally understandable from the organisers point of view but a right bloody pain in the bum for me. Usually taking an hour at tourist time of day, I discovered it was possible to get from Ambleside to home in just 36 minutes at 2130 hrs but that was still very late to be having my pre race tea.
Race day dawned - it wasn't raining but the cloud cover was very low and I didn't imagine it was going to improve. Leaving home as late as I imagined was safely possible I had only about 10 mins at the HQ before the gun went. This was OK but meant I was last to leave the toilets and was last to 'dib in' to the start pen. So as we all set off I found myself the last 'runner' of about 100. I saw little point in rushing past people to take my likely proper place in the order so just walked strongly at the back.
Within half a mile I had passed half a dozen who were also walking. Then, when the track turned onto a field and then more felly and greater inclined terrain, I passed a few more. A couple of lads would pass me back when they ran on a short flat section but I would reel them back again once it got steep and their walking pace was less strong than my own.
After a couple of miles of making up places by walking only, I made the decision NOT TO RUN AT ALL until the summit of Fairfield. It was very tempting to have a little jog every now and then, especially as the climb via Low and High Rigg and Dove and Hart Crag is not particularly steep or rocky, but I stuck to my plan and on the rocky pull from Hart Crag to the Fairfield plateau I caught up with a group of about 4 lads which , by very roughly counting I reckon made me about 20 from the back.
Coming off Fairfield was horrible - the smashing grassy line 50 metres to the right had to be ignored in favour of sticking to the flagged route which of course stuck to the loose and rocky tourist path. Nevertheless, being finally unleashed from the walking plan meant I was able to run freely now, which saw me pass 4 or 5 by Grisedale Tarn, then another couple on the boggy traipse cross to the Dollywagon climb. That climb is very steep and I passed 3 or 4 more as I walked as hard as I possibly could to reach the famous iron post that has surely seen many a BG'er onto the right course in dark and mist.
Once onto the mainly gentle incline to Helvellyn I again decided I would not run unless downhill. This did allow one chap to pass me but he never got far ahead and by the marshal on Helvellyn I had despatched him and two others.
Going down Swirral Edge I wasn't easily able to see the red marker flags, so I kept to the highest ground possible and anyway knew that unless you descended the path to the right, toward the Tarn, it wasn't possible to go anywhere other than Catstycam, our next checkpoint. (It later transpired that some of the flags had blown away off Swirral Edge).
The descent off Catsty (to the NW) is a very steep rough path which again helped me gain a place or two. We then had to turn back almost on ourselves and cross the valley floor to then climb toward Hellvellyn again. Some of that was runnable but I still resisted doing so.
I had realised that people were only going faster than me when they were running along the flat or mild inclines. Walking up steep hills I was stronger, and running down any incline I was better able to negotiate the terrain and deal with poor ground at a faster pace. I had been eating well and felt confident I would continue to make my way through the field.
Going up to Hole in the wall I passed 4 more, then another 2 on Sharp Edge. I saw nobody at all except the marshal on the gentle downhill to Nethermost, but then as we headed down a crazy route toward the floor of Grisedale Valley via Eagle Crag, including a roped section I was again in my element and passed a dozen lads before the arduous climb of St Sunday began.
This was by far and away the longest, steepest and most difficult climb of the whole route. I knew the rock climbing of Pinnacle ridge was waiting at the end of this grassy climb (which must have been 1 in 1 or even steeper), so I knew that to avoid having to queue to climb the Pinnacle I had to pass as many lads as possible. By the time I reached the safety marshals I looked back and noted a good gap to 4 or 5 people I had climbed past. Good!
Climbing Pinnacle was far from the enjoyable jaunt it had been when I first visited last Summer with Andy Slats. On that sunny night we had hopped and popped up the minibus sized chunks of rock and joked around and took pics. This time it was hard work, very slippery and probably quite dangerous.
I did end up queueing a little while but it was quite nice to stand around and chat to Paul Aitken who was one of the safety team.
Once onto the top of St Sunday I was straight past the lads I'd queued behind and descended with another 2 who I had caught up. Unfortunately my ankle started to hurt somewhat and they both slowly pulled away from me.
But then when we got to the CP in Patterdale I overtook them both again by spending no more than a couple of minutes getting my bottles topped up with Mountain Fuel. I always try to spend as little time as possible stopped at checkpoints, so I hadn't bothered with a drop bag here. Because Patterdale is only about a dozen miles from home I did give a brief thought to packing in and phoning for a lift, but I knew my ankle wouldnt hurt going uphill out of the valley and anyway, it id soon be at the top of Kirkstone and could phone from there if I really had to.
I also thought back to the Old Counties Tops race and how most every year me and Slats both said afterwards that, due to knackeredness or the dire weather conditions, we would have packed in at Angle Tarn but never said anything to the other, and so always finished (usually strongly in sunshine).
It was quite a long way to Haweswater, and not all familiar ground, but once we intercepted the Hodgson Bros relay leg 2 and climbed High Street I was happy to know exactly where I was in the world. Dropping off High St I caught up with a chap from Dumfries who remembered me from roadrunning. We had a good chat but then he got cramp and moved away ahead of him.
Climbing up away from Haweswater it was now raining heavily. It had been a wet day on and off but this was proper 'on' rain. I considered putting a rainjacket on but I was already soaked through both layers and wasnt at all cold so just pressed on, passing a chap who had stopped to put his waterproof on.
I'd long since lost count of how many I had passed butI felt sure I was in the top half of the field by now, and I still felt fine. Quite tired but with energy and enthusiam aplenty. Reaching High St again and onto the familiar pull up to the Thronthwaite Beacon, I was then slightly perturbed NOT to turn right (as per Hodgson Relay). So a bit of unfamiliar ground for a while before once again getting onto Leg 2 for the long stepped descent then final short climb from which Kirkstone Pass summit beckons.
I caught one more lad on the descent to Kirkstone and was soon at the CP where I was told not to dib in. This was due to there being a timed ascent to Red Screes so they didnt want your CP time to count as climb time. . I wasn't in need of anything from the CP so left, only to be called back to dib in.
I had never done HBMR Leg 3 so had never climbed Red Screes from Kirkstone. Wouldnt have been any help if I had though, 'cos within 100metres we were directed off the path and up some crazy steep grass and rough gullys. The visibilty was really poor now and if this has been downhill there would have been little chance of seeing the red flags marking the route as it was anthying but obvious and actually quite counter-intuitive.
I must admit to have very weak legs for this climb but eventually the summit marshals were reached. I thanked them and declined the offer to look at their map - I knew it was 2 or 3 miles straight downhill to Ambleside and all I cared about now was getting there without stumbling on what had now become very bothersome ankle.
The descent was dreadful - I was scarcely doing 10 minute miles despite the constant elevation. Every rocky area encountered had me slowing to a walk to better protect myself from a painful landing. I figured that I would soon come out from the cloud and be able to see Ambleside. But that never happened - it really was a dreadful weather day - the first thing I saw of civilisation was a caravan in a field, so I knew we must nearly be at a road.
Unexpectedly, a chap flew past me on the short road section. I had last seen him struggling on a climb but he had plenty in the tank for downhilling - I had nowt.
Then there I was back in the University Grounds I had left almost 11 hours earlier.
I stopped at the bottom of the steps then took a run up and bounded up them two and three at a time to cross the line to much applause and cowbells.
10 hours 54 minutes. 21st position. 3rd veteran. (and only one girl beat me)
Overall I enjoyed the whole thing, I was never cold or hungry or pissed off or in real pain. My ankle hurt a bit, but in the grand scheme of things it was nowt.
Could I have done better if I had made more of an attempt to run, especially those early miles up to Fairfield that were not at all steep? Maybe, maybe not. I would surely have been at Helvellyn 30 minutes sooner, but then maybe I would have been slower still in the second half. I certainly never found myself pressing on as hard as we do in the OCT race, but I think that race features a lot of 'unsaid' strategy where you just do what you have to do, pretend you are OK when you are not really OK and just pray for Langdale to come back into view. My head was never really in this Ultra, it was more of a damage limitation and test to see if my ankle would hold up. I'm pleased I did it and would not rule out doing it again (but not next year or 2019 'cos I already know what I'll be doing in June/July for the next 2 years and there wont be much spare energy for 10 hour Ultras)
One week after the LSU I reccy'd Borrowdale in very sultry conditions next weekend is the race itself. And yesterday I was back on Helvellyn in the most glorious evening sunshine. Handily, my duff ankle seemed to survive a speedy rocky descent to Greenside without hurting, so maybe thats finally getting better too? Ambleside Sports tomorrow - Fairfield again, cant decide if I want it to be pissing down or sunny. Pissing down for the race then sunny for drinking a cold beer afterwards would do.