It was never my intention to really race the Lakes Sky Ultra. I saw it as an opportunity to remind myself what long days out are like and to iron a few things out before Glencoe Skyline in September. Not so much training as practice.
Preparation was appropriate for those objectives. Read as: it wasn’t very good. An Teallach Hill Race the weekend before, speed work and gym work in the weekleading up to the race. I pitched up in Ambleside slightly sleepy, more than a little creaky and hoping for a miraculous overnight transformation into a race ready runner.
Which, of course, didn’t happen. Saturday morning brought light winds, cloud cover and hamstrings and hip adductors (abductors?) which were tender to touch. Unsurprisingly I felt pretty bad from the beginning. Chatting to Kristian Morgan and handing out dates on the way up to Dove Crag were pleasant diversions from clunky legs and an acidy stomach. (Ironing: eat breakfast <45 minutes before the start.)
This set a trend, as running with other people was part of what made the first half really enjoyable; clinging on to Lawrence Eccles a bunch, before his Unfair Advantages (4 metre legs) carried him off into the mist on at least three separate occasions; barely staying with Charles Hutchinson on the descents of Swirral Edge and Catsye Cam; following Bjorn Verduijn down Eagle Crag (how someone from Holland can descend steep ground so smoothly is a total mystery to me.) In fact, the steeper descents with those two were the times when I felt like I was moving best. I didn’t feel I had the range of motion to move well on the more runnable sections, climbing was laborious, but falling down the steep stuff and doing my best KillianOnTheMatterhorn impression on the fixed lines with Bjorn was, dare I say, fun.
Even those that weren’t running added to the enjoyment. Perplexed looking walkers on Striding Edge, Littledave Cumins, the shiny one man band on Catstye Cam and the marshal at the top of Nethermost Pike whose “You’re not doing badly” came straight from the Grounded Realism School of Raceday Encouragement, a refreshing change from the usual well-intentioned lies. (Dragon’s Back, Day 5: Ally and his tendonitis are shuffling through Llandovery, unable to run flat sections of tarmac. Enter stage left Jim Mann and Jasmin Paris: Good job mate, you’re looking strong. Am I fuck.)
Speaking of fun, the scrambling sections of the course were just that, and the first half is packed with them; down Swirral Edge, up Striding Edge, down Eagle Crag and finishing with the jewel in the crown of the LSU course, Pinnacle Ridge. The latter featuring encouragement in the dulcet tones of UK Skyrunning’s own Craig Bantum-Hugs. Even the bash up to Pinnacle Ridge was ok, the blaeberries turning it into nature’s own delicious aid station.
Anecdote for Future Use
I arrived at the fixed lines right behind Jim Mann. Not fancying himself as much of a climber, Jim very kindly stepped aside to let me past. I thanked him, striding confidently up to the steepest, most technical section of scrambling on the course. I love this stuff, eat it for breakfast etc. The very first thing I did, no hesitation, was to barndoor* straight out of the corner, arm and leg outstretched, looking for all the world like a misplaced pole dancer. The attendant marshal held his breath, visions of my tattered corpse flashing before his eyes, hand slowly creeping towards his radio, ready to summon some men in a Sea King. Hehe, whoops-a-daisy, on we go, I’m usually fine actually…
And that was the last time I had anyone to run with. Also, for that reason and others, the last time the race felt like anything any normal person might regard as fun. After the bag drop at Patterdale things are less technical, going over High Street to Haweswater then back to Ambleside via Thornthwaite, Kirkstone Pass and Red Screes. In 5th at this point, the prospect of a nervous ~30 kilometre time trial to the finish wasn’t all that appealing. First half fun, second half work. But there was nothing to do but keep eating and drinking, try not to check behind me too often and hope that things didn’t fall apart.
Long story short, they didn’t. I was surprised to be in 5th, confused to later find myself in 4th (I hadn’t realised that the guy sitting on the ground at the top of High Street was Gareth Hughes) and pretty much terrified to pass Murray Strain to go into 3rd. Holy shit, that guy holds the Pentland Skyline record… It was all I could do not to ask for an autograph. Thankfully there was never any prospect of getting close to Donnie Campbell or Neil Talbott. Out of sight since the first 100 metres, they could have been at home with a good book, a cup of tea and a couple of chocolate Hobnobs for all the difference it would have made to me.
Seeing Tim Miller at Kirkstone Pass was an unexpected little lift. As always, his wise words teetered on that fine line between encouragement and abuse. The final Super Stage climb up Red Screes is probably the worst on the course, whoever thought it would be a good idea to encourage people to push there was clearly taking the piss. By that point you’re just ticking them off, marking time to the finish. Unless of course you’re Thomas Paris who flew up in 18:45. I have no idea how.
The final run down to Ambleside was a mix of grinning and wincing, expectation and cramp. Another brief cameo from Mr. Miller (local vicar and serial killer) and it was onto the road. It took longer than I would have liked but I didn’t really mind, I was already preemptively chuffed. Chuffed became chuffedchuffed as it became clear that I would break 8 hours, my pre-race IfItWasAnARace fantasy time. Up the steps, dib, hug Charlie, collapse.
* * * * *
And so now it’s really a case of trying to figure out exactly what went right and how I can replicate it in Glencoe. Or rather, what exactly prevented things from going wrong. I felt bad from the beginning, but over the course of the race never got much worse. A little more tired, definitely, but the wheels never came completely off and for races in the 8 hour range maybe that’s the best advantage you can hope for. I didn’t go out too exuberantly, 17th at the second checkpoint before moving through the field for the rest of the race. This mirrors my previous Best Performance, the 2014 Mourne Skyline, where I was 10th at the support point and finished 4th. It looks like it works so I’ll try and stick to it.
Eating by the watch, every thirty minutes from the beginning, worked well. A mix of gels, flapjacks and other assorted bits gave me no stomach trouble other than a veritable cacophony of burps the whole way round the course. No joke, if my diaphragm control was a little better I could have performed Beethoven for the aid station volunteers. (5th symphony probably, I lack the finesse for the 5th piano concerto.) I drank six or seven litres, mostly water with a litre or two of the Pura Hydrocharger 90 electrolyte stuff that they had at the aid stations. Kit’s all fine, I’ll only change what’s in my bag if conditions dictated that it is likely to see extensive use.
The worrying thing is that this continues the trend for my best runs coming from B race prep and A race execution; the Mournes in 2014, Fairfield in 2015, Clachnaben in April this year. Maybe I’d be best served by running loads of volume right up to the 17th of September, going on a bender in Kinlochleven (is that possible?) then getting a little heavy gym work in in the morning before the race. Victory guaranteed.
Who knows. Anyway, chuffed. Sorry I have no photos, here is an artist’s impression of the day.
Lastly but most importantly, thanks to Charlie et al for putting on a really, really fantastic event. The course is ace, an interesting mix. The Sky is in the first half, the Ultra in the second. The marshals on the course, the safety team on Pinnacle Ridge and the aid station volunteers were all absolutely brilliant, couldn’t have been any better. Tremendous thanks to those guys, they made it all pretty painless. (That’s a blatant lie but you know what I mean…)