COVID. A word immediately associated with 2020. From a runner’s perspective, it meant a premature end to the racing season for many. Or so we thought. Once we were allowed to ‘play’ outside again, there has been a flurry of elite runners breaking records and ‘fastest known times’ (FKTs) up and down the country. How can you not be inspired by this?
With all of my main events cancelled, I was in awe of the some of the things going on in the running world and I needed to fill the void with a mental challenge so I could end the year satisfied. The Cumbria Way virtual race fit the bill perfectly. A solid 73-mile route with a modest elevation gain. Ideal for me, as I needed to make up for the lack of exposure on the fells over the summer (my laziness, not COVID). I also haven’t covered this distance before, and it would be my first ultra-marathon on my own for over 2 years.
So, all that was left was the easy part……. training. Now normally I would work back from race day, building mileage week on week, along with adding in specific elevation goals closer to the event. I would also try and fit in a training run in the form of a race a few weeks out to practice fuelling etc. Unfortunately, after a couple of great months road training during the early stages of lockdown, my consistency had been lacking. I went into this event with a 25 miles max weekly mileage and a long run of 9 miles……….Less than ideal. However, I didn’t set myself any extreme goals in terms of finish time and I knew I could cover the distance no matter how little preparation I had. It would just be a case of how long I could keep a reasonable speed and ensuring I had enough food to keep me going. Ultras are very much about mental strength.
Kit wise I knew I would be fine. As I was doing this solo and with only 1 ‘checkpoint’ at around the 43-mile point, I needed to make sure I carried the right kit and food. My pack weighted between 7-10kg throughout and I had the following on me:
- Alpkit Koulin Trail shorts and t-shirt
- Alpkit Vayper long sleeve top
- Alpkit Gravitas waterproof running jacket
- Alpkit Manta headtorch
- Alpkit Haline and Gabbro waterproof gloves
- Alpkit Compact Hiker poles
- My Race Kit hat
- Hagloffs waterproof hat
- Garmin Etrex GPS with race route loaded
- Garmin Forerunner 235 watch
- First aid kit
- Survival bag
- Montane Minimus waterproof trousers
- Injinji socks
- Hoka Torrent trainers
- Spare batteries
- Mountain Fuel Feel Good Bars
- Sun Maid raisins
- Sausage rolls
- 2-3 litres of water
- OMM Classic 25l pack
With kit sorted and checked, the day soon arrived with a bleary eyed 0400 wake up call to take the 60-minute drive to the start. Arriving at The Gill in Ulverston, it was very easy to spot the well-known monument that marks the start of the Cumbria Way. With GPS synced, it was time to hit the road.
I started off with a modest 10:00-10:30/mile pace despite feeling really good at these early stages. After clearing a few farmers’ fields, the route opened nicely to trails and tracks which are very runnable. I was very fortunate that the weather was awesome with clear skies and beautiful sunshine encouraging me to maintain around 4.5mph average. The trail was amazing, hitting tarns and making my way to Coniston lake with a lovely lakeside path for a few miles. The heat was starting to take its toll a little bit by this point, but I was still feeling strong as I looked towards the next pit stop at Sticklebarn.
The trail soon became a lot more about loose rock and boulders making it tougher underfoot and more demanding on energy reserves. I was struggling a bit on the final descent into Sticklebarn, which marked 27 miles into the run. However, a cake and a coke (always carry cash/card) lifted my spirits as I headed towards the first proper climb of the route - Stakes Pass. I deployed my poles to try and save some leg energy before hitting the descent with a good pace. With 7 or 8 miles left until I arrived into Keswick, my pace slowed dramatically to a shuffle as I didn’t want to burn out before reaching the checkpoint and welcome break/resupply with Jayne.
Coming into Portinscale, I mustered up my original pacing just as I was met by Nick, Sophie and Jen which was an epic surprise. These guys spurred me on to hit the last part into Keswick and gave a massive boost to morale. I arrived at Fitz Park, 45 miles down and with tired legs but feeling very strong mentally. I knew I had this in me at that point. I sat in the boot of the car while Jayne squared my kit away. My feet were great and no real issues. But with no other meeting points and places to get supplies, I opted to take more food and liquids for the last 30 miles, making my pack even heavier.
After around 15 minutes, I set off with Stef who helped me get through the next stage to Caldbeck as the sun began to set. The trail turned boggy as we began the second and final big climb up to High Pike in the dark. I really struggled with the initial climb as I was very unsteady over the boggy awkward terrain and closed my eyes a few times. I just kept moving, focusing on Stef’s footsteps ahead. I was very grateful for the company on this section. As we hit High Pike I shuffled downhill but struggled with the impact on the bottom of my feet (lack of prep) so had to fast walk down. The cold and icy wind had set in by this point, but we were soon in Caldbeck to be met by another surprise visit form the same crew + Paul and Clare who came bearing gifts of glorious flapjack. This is where Stef got off the fun bus and I was once again on my own, but knowing I only had 15 miles to go, there was no doubt in my mind I was going to finish, and finish under my 24-hour target.
The next 6 or 7 miles were spent frantically shining my headtorch around fields to ensure there were no aggressive cows wanting to trample me to death along with having poo number 3 (always carry toilet paper). I was then met by even more epic humans as Jonny and Lauren met me in the middle of the night with Jonny accompanying me through the last stages. After hitting Dalston, it was 5 miles until the finish which was along boring cycle paths. Jayne and Lauren walked back from the finish to meet me and take me across the line at Carlisle Castle which again lifted morale. I managed a steady shuffle to cross the line, arriving just after 0300 and taking 21 hours 40 minutes to complete 75 miles. I felt fucked…….
Jayne was a hero once again and sorted me out before the 60-minute drive back home. She hadn’t slept and looked after me and the dogs the whole day/night. Being support is tougher than most realise.
Despite my lack of training, I was very happy with my time and very surprised at how mentally strong I felt the whole way. I really enjoyed the route and the experience, and I think the lack of pressure I put on myself to perform helped with that. I got to just enjoy the purity of running and the elation of pushing outside my comfort zone and coming out the other side on top. Something I think a lot of runners (including myself) tend to forget that in the pursuit of racing and chasing times. As for recovery, I always take a full week off from training. I was walking the dogs about 12 hours after finishing and my legs were already feeling better. Compression leggings and foam rolling were on the menu fort the next few days. 48 hours later I was back at the gym coaching and demonstrating exercises with ease. Testament to strength training and proper recovery protocols.