It should be mandatory to have a hotdog checkpoint in every race. I want to see them at the 10K Summer League and 5K in you've got to stop and get a hotdog down, or 3 in my case. I was bloody hungry to be fair and it was about 1am on Saturday morning. It's funny what your mind remembers and what it doesn't.
I'm sat here back at home looking at my race route and realising that much of it has already blurred in my mind so I want to get some semblance of English written down before it becomes more of a blurry mess. Get yourself a cup of tea and read on.
The Lakeland 100. The mileage is never what it says on the tin, it's 105 miles. A circular from Coniston to Coniston. Set off at 6pm on the Friday evening and you've got 40 hours to get the job done. Do the maths. 2.625 miles per hour. Not even a parkrun! The Lakes is no Knavesmire though and certainly during the opening 25 mile section it was a pleasant surprise to get any sort of terrain that was runnable. Chuck in the inevitable fatigue, the inevitable inclement weather, the inevitable mind games and you've got yourself something of a challenge on your hands. If it was easy we'd all be doing it.
It's fair to say that I've been looking forward to the race ever since I completed the Hardmoors 110 at the end of May. I'd checked and re-checked my kit and was ready for the drive over to Coniston. It was a lovely when I arrived early on Friday afternoon. The sun was shining, the car parking fields were filling up and the air was thick with anticipation.
First job was registering and it was a full on kit check. Everything out and get it ticked off one by one, about 15 items altogether and proving to the volunteers that your waterproof kit with taped seams did indeed have taped seams and wasn't some cheap imitation from the Lidl Middle. Safely passed, got my tracker attached, photo taken for the tracking website and job done. Back to the car for some R&R before the off.
There were over 700 of us on the start line ready for the 6pm off but not before an emotional rendition of Nessun Dorma from the local tenor. Never mind thinking about what was ahead, my mind went straight back to 1990 and Gazza's tears, Platt's winner against Belgium and Waddle's penalty that I think is still rising even now.
I've never been to Chamonix where the UTMB starts but I've seen the footage of the crowded streets as the runners depart, feeling like rock stars. That's just how it felt in Coniston. The streets were crowded as we ran through the village, feeling on top of the world at 400 metres in. I wish I could have bottled that feeling.
The cheering soon subsided as the first ascent of many began and the mental challenge started to kick in. On the long ones I like to cut out a small square of cardboard from a cereal packet or a bit of loo roll tube this time. A square of card small enough to write down the names of all the checkpoints, what the total mileage is at each checkpoint and what the cut off time is at each one. I then keep it safe in a waterproof bag and put it in the front of my race vest, only getting it out at every checkpoint to undertake a little maths test each time. How far to the next checkpoint and how much time have I got?
The reality was that cut off times weren't an issue at all. The accumulative mileage and vertical ascent certainly was though. To emphasise my point, the first cut off time came at Checkpoint 3 at Wasdale. 19.4 miles in and the cut off was 12.30am so 6 1/2 hours. Sounds easy doesn't it! I was about 2 hours inside at that point so going nicely. The checkpoint comes before the climb up Wasdale though and that, in my humble opinion, is the toughest climb on the entire route. I kept looking up and the lights from a multitude of headtorches just kept ascending, up into the heavens.
Even at the top it didn't get any better as the descent of Black Sail Pass is one of those that is typical of the Lakes. Plenty of loose rock and regular drops of a couple of feet. Mix that with the rain and it was a case of careful tip toes in the night sky.
Another 7 miles had passed by the time I finally arrived at Buttermere checkpoint, 26.3 miles in and the first marathon done. Despite the relentless ascent of Wasdale, I was still 2 hours inside the cut off time and feeling good. This is where I encountered the hot dogs. It was the only hot food on offer and they were most welcome. No regulation hot dog bread rolls here though, just slices of white bread with a couple of hot dogs popped in the middle before you fold the slice over and get on with it. Simple food but they felt gorgeous. I was in the middle of a Michelin starred feast, or it felt like that. I was finding I could more than hold my own against the best eaters out there! 3 hotdogs later and I was back on the road towards Braithwaite.
You might not immediately know where Braithwaite is but if you've ever done Whinlatter parkrun you will have driven through Braithwaite as it comes right at the foot of the climb up towards Whinlatter. Braithwaite comes at 32.8 miles in and a cut off time of 6am, 12 hours after we set off. I rolled into the Church Hall at 3.33am, still nicely up on the cut off time.
Being indoors at 3.30 in the morning whilst it was raining outside was a blessed relief. Not a seat to be had in the Church Hall, no doubt fuller than it was for the Sunday morning service later on that same day. The bowl of pasta washed down with a handful of custard creams and a pot of coffee was most welcome.
Leaving Braithwaite behind it was time for a bit of tarmac. Never knew they had such a surface in the Lakes. The A66 no less towards Keswick for a few miles. Didn't last long though before we turned off and up Spooney Green Lane. Many of you will know it. It's not far from Keswick parkrun and it's also the start of the path you take if you're chasing the Wainwrights of Skiddaw, Blencathra and Latrigg. The one salvation in this race was that we didn't ascend any Wainwrights, well not all the way to the top. That's not to say there wasn't an inordinate amount of climbing.
Up we went skirting the slopes of Blencathra whilst the rain was at its strongest in the early morning gloom otherwise known as Saturday. My next cut off was parkrun time, 9am at the Blencathra Centre. I arrived at 5.58, more than 3 hours up on cut off and another indoor venue and more feasting to be done!
Now I was kind of looking forward to the next race within a race. 8 miles to Dockray and the checkpoint manned by my mates from the Hardmoors races. I knew I was in for a warm welcome but I had to get up and up the old Coach Road first. A seemingly never ending trudge, god knows how coach's ever managed to traverse the terrain and god knows how many times I'd been on a path that felt never ending.
The good thing about never ending is that there is an end. Eventually. The usual motivational Hardmoors signs told me of my pending arrival into Dockray. Time to start doubting and stop believing was one such announcement. I knew there would be a fellow Postie waiting for me at Dockray to deliver a bit of TLC so it was lovely to see Jo ready with a big smile and an even bigger pot of soup. I was more than 4 hours up now, time wasn't the issue and I was still feeling good considering I'd got 49 miles in the tank. Almost halfway!
From Dockray it's a drop down until the beauty that is Ullswater comes into view. The sun was shining and it was 9am, Saturday morning so I was naturally thinking about all you Posties doing your parkruns. I never want to hear anyone moaning about 5K ever again!
I picked up the Ullswater Way and headed all the way up the west bank of the lake, eventually reaching the Dalemain estate, notable for being the start point for the Lakeland 50. It was another opportunity to feel like a rock star as the 1700 or so folk doing the 50 were lined up to cheer us into the checkpoint, a real morale booster. Into the marquee I went for a welcome bowl of stew and a selection of biscuits. It's worth it just for the never ending supply of confectionary!
Dalemain was also where my drop bag was and a complete new set of kit. It needed a nifty bit of towel work to change my shorts without upsetting any of the female runners but I just about managed it. Not bad considering how difficult it was to bend down by that point but I guess the last thing anyone needed to see was my arse, not that I think anyone cared. Apparently. Still 4 hours inside the cut off time and I headed off freshly decked out in my clean gear. I even brushed my teeth, a great recommendation from local running legend and now 4 time 100 finisher, Rich Ginn.
Still feeling good considering. I didn't know at that point that I'd just made my first mistake at Dalemain and it would turn out to be a bad one.
Dalemain to the next checkpoint at Howtown felt good, buoyed on by the stream of Lakeland 50 runners passing me and many acknowledging the fact that they could tell from my race number that I was putting in more of a shift than them!! It was a great boost to hear my name called out so many times and it more than compensated for the fact that I was getting overtaken at a rapid rate by the fresh legs of the 50 runners.
I arrived into Howtown checkpoint at 1.12pm, yep still on Saturday albeit who knew what day of the week it was by then. I was just over 5 hours up on cut off by now. I felt like I needed them for the next section though.
I don't know which climb is the worst one on the course, Wasdale or Fusedale. My feeling is the former but Fusedale was a real genuine bastard. It was the bastard that just kept on giving. Up and up, you thought you were there and then it went again. As I say, a bona fide bastard of a climb. I'll be glad if I never see the like of it again.
Up and over the top and Haweswater came into view including the beautiful Haweswater Hotel on the opposite bank. We stayed there last year and it's an absolute beauty, a tricky one to get to but well worth the effort. The single file path to Mardale Head at the far end of Haweswater became a slow trudge in the persistent rain. The doubts crept into my mind for the first time.
You see the checkpoint a long time before you actually get there. It plays with your mind if you let it. It was most definitely toying with me. Those dark DNF thoughts had most definitely surfaced. I was physically in decent shape considering the mileage but I wanted to go to sleep more than anything.
I finally arrived into Mardale nearly 6 hours up on the cut off time but I was struggling with sheer tiredness. There was no warm indoors to bail me out and the wind was howling around the gazebos, lifting the weights holding them down clean off the ground. I found a camp chair, sat down and promptly went to sleep only to be woken by an apologetic medic wanting to check I was OK. I'm OK I said, I just need to sleep. I couldn't sleep, too much wind, too much rain and guess what. I'd stopped so I was cooling down rapidly and the shivering was setting in. That's when I realised my mistake. Stupid bloody schoolboy error.
When doing my full kit change at Dalemain, I'd forgotten to replace my long sleeved top and I bloody needed it now. My waterproof jacket was doing a brilliant job of keeping the rain out, it's the Montane Spine Jacket and is an absolute beauty. With only a t-shirt underneath it wasn't doing a great job of keeping me warm. My error.
That kind of made my mind up but I made another mistake. I didn't get my adapted loo roll out and check my timings. Had I done it I would have seen that I had about 18 hours to do around 26 miles to the finish. 18 hours! Why didn't I look? Had my mind given in and decided I was calling it a day?
I'd decided I was stopping. No injury to tell of, I just wanted to sleep and I didn't fancy another night out in the rain. And I thought I was a tough Northerner.
I found a marshall and told him my news. His response? I've got to ask you 3 times if you want to DNF he said! I hated those few moments as he tried to talk me out of it but my mind was made up. Another couple of runners even offered to walk to the finish with me as they were knackered as well but my mind wasn't for changing so I handed my tracker in and climbed aboard the DNF bus to be greeted by proper DNFers. One broken wrist, several twisted ankles. My reason? I wanted to sleep. That was it.
26 miles in 18 hours. That was the ask. I've been asking myself the question ever since. About 1.5 miles every hour. It would have been grim but I made my decision.
The respect from friends and fellow runners is often overwhelming. I'm beating myself up every day about stopping. My rationale about being sleepy doesn't wash anymore. It was my 15 year old son who said to me that doing 76 miles was brilliant. I know he's right and whilst it's heartwarming reading the Strava comments, I'm still beating myself up. That's just the way my brain is wired and that's why I'm not done with this thing.
Entries for the ballot open on 1st September. We've got plenty of Posties who should strongly consider putting their names forward, at least for the 50. It's an amazing experience. It's really, really tough but amazing in equal measure. None of us truly know what we can achieve and you'll never know if you never try. I tried this time. I'll be back next time and I can't promise I'll finish but I'm not quitting at Mardale.
I dare you to watch the official You Tube film of this year's event but be careful, it will make you do things you least expect. See you on the start line in 2024!