Review by Garry Cochrane:
The Ultimatetrails 110km race took place on Saturday 27th June 2015, starting at 00:15am; when over 300 runners toed a quiet start line in the heart of Ambleside to take part in the second running of this endurance challenge with a 24 hour time limit.
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 hrs 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.
Here’s the course profile from Map my run:
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 campsight 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 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 and produced a game plan for the race, which had me down for 16-18 minute miles to come 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 I think heat and some serious climbs/descents had a bit of 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.
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 through each stage and to minimise having to carry too much nutrition. So I knew which ones 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 downer 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 save my own life by purchasing 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 mins in some blistering sun. For future reference in a drop bag I would add additional nutrition, and not rely on the race’s and also sun cream which was probably a rookie mistake to forget that.
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 before setting off.
Stickle Tavern was a great final checkpoint with cheering crowds and well wishers but it was unfortunate that to get there I 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, boulders, rocks, crazy angled paths never ending switch backs – it is one steep hill and one I don’t intend to traverse again.
On the approach to The last checkpoint, Stickle Tavern, there was another morale boost when Kirsty Pomfrett a fellow OAC, popped up as she waited for hubby and fellow OAC Tom (doing the 55km), a pleasant surprise is always welcome on a long run and although I was a bit spaced out it was great to see here. On arrival at Stickle Tavern I drank water, flat coke (which was a sugar free cola so we were adding our own teaspoons of sugar!) and 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, Tom spooked me by shouting my name from behind – I think I thought the trees were talking to me before he sprinted off appearing fresh as a daisy! 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.
A great moment at the finish was when I was spaced out at the water table and Kirsty came bounding over and gave me a hug and congratulated me – I’d gone up to do the race on my own and even though I knew people there it was still a lovely moment.
How did it feel finishing the longest and hardest race I’d ever done? Muted is the only word. 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 has taken approximately 2 weeks. 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 Ultratrails 110km. A lot of it was 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.
If you want to know more and want to see some great photos of the event then head over to http://www.ultimatetrails.com/ and hunt them out on facebook https://www.facebook.com/UltimateTrails If you fancy this for next year and want to chat them come find me.