The Ultimate Trails 110km race took place on Saturday 27th June 2015, starting at 00:15am; when around 300 runners toed a very quiet start line in the heart of Ambleside to take part in the second running of this 24 hour, 110km endurance challenge.
There was no doubting the route was stunning, with around 5 mountain passes that Map my run rates as cat 2 – second highest to the cat 1s! However, and just to make it more exciting, the first 3:30 hours were in pitch black with just the illuminated snaking trail of runners gingerly picking their way over Garburn Pass and Nan Bield Pass to light the way. I remember climbing up and out of Ambleside to look back and see an eerie Lake Windermere lit by a half moon shrouded in wispy cloud. It was definitely a highlight of starting so late/early.
By this stage I’d already been up since 9am, 16 hours earlier. The intention was to get to the campsite, register, set up the tent and sleep and although the campsite was fantastically chilled out, sleep did not happen. The weather was humid and overcast but as the evening wore on and the excitement began to build, the clouds did part, the sun did come out and the prospects were looking good for favourable weather; something the race director, Graham Patten is renowned for providing.
Kit check was thorough with a mandatory kit list including full waterproofs, an emergency 100ml bottle of water and 200 calories of food, a first aid kit, head torch and spare batteries – and photo id. It made for a heavy pack but everyone was in the same boat and it was common sense to be safe on such a long course. The good selling point for this race for anyone who is new to ultra-running, as I am, is that the race director guarantees it is all marked and sign-posted so no need for map reading skills. It sticks to established trails (ok so maybe only mountain goats might use some of them) and by and large it was straight forward, although there were one or two points that you had to take an educated guess at but overall it was a well-marked route enabling me as a runner to focus on making it through without the additional mental effort of being responsible for route finding. It might not suit purists but it didn’t detract from the challenging nature of the route.
Although navigation wasn’t required, I did study the route in order to create a game plan, which had me down for 16-18 minute miles to come finish under 20 hours. As a pace it seems bizarrely slow, basically a brisk walk but after doing some homework and speaking to past participants I felt it was a realistic aim given the terrain. As it was I was on track for the faster end until about mile 43, around Grisedale Tarn, when heat and some serious climbs/descents had a deleterious effect on my.
The route itself was a huge circular course, starting in Ambleside, moving on to Kentmere, Haweswater, Mardale Head, Bampton, Howtown, Glenridding, Grisedale Tarn, Dunmail Raise, Borrowdale, over Stake Pass (never again) to last check point at Stickle Barn Tavern and then on to Ambleside. 65 miles of pure Lake District hard work.
Seeing, or hearing to be more precise, a couple of marshals I knew at the top of Nan Bield Pass was a real boost before starting the tricky descent to Mardale Head, then at about 3.45 the dawn began to break over Haweswater and 20 mins later I was able to take off the head torch which was starting to irritate after having it on since about 11.30pm. By the time I reached Bampton it was a glorious sunrise but I was unable to enjoy it too much as I managed to throw up big style in the gents and had a wobbly few minutes. However after a cup a soup and a bit of bacon (no bread for me thanks) I was right as rain and on my way again with no lasting ill effects.
In total there were 9 checkpoints with varying food options; I’d listed these on my plan as mental stepping stones to help get me through each stage and to minimise having to carry too much nutrition. I knew which CPs had coffee, sandwiches, soup, chips, pizza and which one had the option of beer (mile 57 Stickle Tavern). So it was a bit of a blow when the key food stops I’d earmarked basically came up short, no chips and no pizza and many checkpoints were running out of coke. It seems trivial but when you plan something into your endurance challenge and it isn’t there then it can reverberate throughout the day.
Ultimately it didn’t interfere too much, I had trail mix of my own and ate copious bananas that were on offer, indulged in flat coke where available – which was great especially as I haven’t touched it for over 2 years, and the cup-a-soups helped with the salt intake. I ate absolutely no gels, no crisps and no sweets, but I did purchase 2 orange ice lollies from a tea room near Watlendloth before the Borrowdale checkpoint. It was the boost I needed as coming off Dunmail Raise had left me a bit dehydrated and nauseous.
During the course of the event there were 2 bag drops, Glenridding (36 miles) and Borrowdale (50 miles) but the day was hot and dry so a change of socks at the first one, followed by a bladder malfunction (not mine, my backpack’s) cost me 30 minutes in some blistering sun. In future I will be adding additional nutrition in with my drop bags so as not to have to rely on the organisers, oh and also sun cream which was probably a rookie mistake to forget.
The Borrowdale checkpoint (50 miles) was a real morale boost, manned by a genuinely upbeat chap dispensing sustenance and advice. I took both and realised that I had never done this distance, for this length of time ever, it was a great moment amid a brief respite.
Stickle Tavern was a great final checkpoint with cheering crowds and well wishers but it was unfortunate that in order to get there you first had to ascend the zig zag craziness that is Stake Pass. By now it was mid-afternoon, the heat was ferocious and I’d been walking through every clear stream to cool my feet, wet my head and a few other body parts. As crazy as the ascent of Stake Pass was, the descent on the other side was worse, boulders, rocks, crazy angled paths never ending switch backs – it is one steep hill.
On the approach to the last checkpoint, Stickle Tavern, there was another morale boost when a friend from my running club popped up as she waited for hubby and fellow OAC her husband (doing the 55km), a pleasant surprise is always welcome on a long run and although I was a bit spaced out at the time it was a welcome diversion. On arrival at Stickle Tavern I downed some water, flat coke (which was a sugar free cola so we were adding our own teaspoons of sugar) as well as leak and potato soup. None of which touched the sides and all of which tasted fantastic. To send me on my way I ordered half a pint of the tavern bitter, served to me in a big paper coffee cup so I could walk on, as long as I promised not to discard it carelessly. It was beautiful moment and another highlight.
From here on it was more runnable than it had been since before Stake Pass and what surprised me was I could still run, even after 14 hours! The last few miles were twisty and turny, my fellow club runner, Tom, spooked me by shouting my name from behind and for a brief second I thought the trees were calling to me. Those last few miles took longer than expected but it was great to be able to run without boulders underfoot and finally, after a longish last 3 miles, the finish in Ambleside burst into view, I crossed the line and it was done. 18 hours, 56 minutes for 65 miles of hellishly challenging Lake District terrain in hot and windy conditions.
How did it feel finishing the longest and hardest race I’d ever done? Muted is the only word that springs to mind. I wasn’t elated, I wasn’t injured, I had a cold shower (no hot water on the site, bit of a shock), walked around Ambleside looking for food, finally got some fish and chips and watched some of the later arrivals. And then bizarrely I packed my tent up and drove home. I figured if I was going to be in pain then I’d rather it was in my bed and not flat on the ground hours away from home.
As it was I arrived home at 11.30pm (the last runner didn’t get in till 1.40am) after being up for about 40hrs, I ached for a few days, my sleep pattern was all over the place and overall recovery took approximately 2 weeks. Although it is only now, just over 4 weeks since the event, that I am really starting to get back into the swing of running. This is more the mental fatigue following a big race, which I was half expecting. Now I look back and after some reflection I am extremely proud of what I achieved. It was the culmination of a lot of work this year; with my April marathon, May trail 40 miler and now the Ultimate Trails 110km. A lot of it may have been walking but traversing 5 passes in the Lake District is no picnic.
Winner came in at 10:48:57, and first lady was 14:49:01 in 13th position – both from the local area. I came in 102nd in 18:56:29 out of 194 finishers – what happened to the other 66 runners who knows as no DNS/DNF listed.
So for any aspiring ultra-runners I would say that this is a challenge that will test your body and your mental toughness. The views are stunning, the night time section was incredible, the sunrise, the friendliness and helpfulness of the marshals and the enthusiasm of the race organisers is not to be doubted. But don’t underestimate it and make sure you put your training in on terrain that is comparable – better still try and recce some of the route beforehand.
1 Get used to running with a headtorch, it hurts after a while, consider wearing a buff over your forehead and then the torch on the buff.
2 Be prepared for your plan to go south as inevitably things will change on the day. Do not let this put you out too much.
3 Additional nutrition in your drop bags – if you don’t need it leave it (and if it says just shoes, stick a bar of something in your shoes)
4 Emergency money is a must (£10 – enough for an ice lolly and a pint)
On my feet I had bog standard New Balance off road shoes but conditions were good and the course was mostly dry, the descents were a bit dicey but there were no falls or sprains.
I wore my Nike 2-in-1 shorts and a long sleeve HH top with a t-shirt over it that had a bit of a collar, this stopped my arms burning and protected me a bit in the wind.
For anything of similar nature I will be investigating the use of poles, for those that used them they looked like an asset – especially the folding ones.
Finally, I knew my Garmin would not have enough juice to be of any use and even my phone was not likely to last the day so I took a mobile battery pack for the phone, it is a bit of extra weight but it meant I was guaranteed use of the phone (camera, music) and I managed to keep Map my run going all the way round.
Going into this challenge I started to doubt I would be able to complete the distance, I thought my body would fail me, my legs would buckle or calfs cramp but it turned out the body was fine and the mind was strong and clear. The twitches and tremors were just bit of pre-race anxiety that faded at the start. Any signs of tiredness also vanished and my motivation was high and I knew if I had to that I could dig deep and call on characteristics such as persistence, resilience and a positive attitude – collectively known as mental toughness. The perfect weather conditions helped tremendously; could I have remained upbeat in the face of howling gales and torrential rain – I don’t know but I have a feeling one day I might find out.
Watch this space.