Report from Dan Lambert:
In the last couple of years I seem to have developed a bit of a thing for running round lakes. I’ve done the Coniston 14 and the Windermere marathon – which both circumnavigate their respective lakes – twice, and have run round Ullswater (highly recommend, following the route of the newish Ullswater Way), Derwentwater and a couple of the smaller ones. This, combined with a lack of sobriety one Friday evening, led to my attention being caught by an advert for a new 45 mile ultra race, loosely around Windermere, enticingly called The Lap. As someone who isn’t very good at long distance running, as evidenced by my cramp-induced crawl to the finish in both marathons I’ve done, I should have immediately thought better of this manifestation of a mid-life crisis and bought a leather jacket instead. I am, however, an idiot, so enthusiastically filled in the entry form.
All preparations were going well (ie I’d done nothing to prepare) until I spoke to my wife on the Friday afternoon before the Saturday morning race start, who reminded me that she had a long-arranged night out that evening. This, combined with a lack of babysitters, put paid to my plans of driving up the night before, pitching the tent and getting a good night’s sleep ahead of the 6 am start. So instead, I scrabbled around trying to find waterproof trousers (realised belatedly full FRA kit list required) for a couple of hours and set the alarm for 2.30 am to get there in time to register at 4.45 am. Arriving at race HQ, the very impressive YMCA near Newby Bridge, in the pitch dark and being directed across sodden fields to park in the middle of nowhere was a slightly surreal experience, and made me wonder, again, what the hell I was doing. This feeling was compounded by my arrival at registration, already with sodden feet, to find everyone else looking very fit, very prepared, very awake and very much more suited to this than me. A coffee and a cake proved just the tonic though and I joined the back of the line to start, looking forward to a day out in the Lakeland hills. As the piper played, we headed out into the woods with first light spreading through the trees.
The first couple of miles were very slow with single file paths, tree roots, bogs and stiles providing entertainment. The course then turned ominously uphill. I should say here that the course was described as ‘low-level’, which I took to mean not particularly hilly. Compared to the Bob Graham that might be a fair description, but flat it is not – speaking to other finishers I wasn’t the only one who had underestimated this. Gradually the pack spread out and I found myself alone, jogging along at sunrise and generally feeling quite perky. Irritatingly, someone kept ringing my mobile phone; given the time of day I assumed wrong number or PPI fraudsters, but eventually stopped, dug around in my bag and answered it. It turned out this was a wise decision, as it was the race director telling me I was going the wrong way (all competitors had GPS dongles). The course was described as marked, which it was, but as is often the case some signs had gone walkies or were easily missed and there was an expectation that we at least had a vague idea where we were going. Fortunately, this didn’t seem to result in a long detour and I was soon back on course; rather fortuitously just in time to arrive at the first feed stop.
When I say I’d done no preparation for this event, that isn’t strictly true. I’d read a few things online about ultra-running and the two things that stood out for me were a) it’s ok to walk a lot and b) eat as much as you can. So I took the opportunity to put b) into action with gusto, discovering in the process the unexpected culinary delight of crisps sandwiched between Edam cheese slices. Twenty thousand calories later, it was back on the trail for the longest section without a feed station. I was fortunate to get chatting to a group of runners who all hailed from within a few miles of Morecambe and who, despite having never met before, gradually discovered they all had friends, family, hairdressers as mutual acquaintances. I’m guessing Morecambe is a very close-knit place. They were a lovely, friendly and funny bunch and this made the miles pass quickly – if very boggily – to the next stop, Troutbeck, for lunch. Now at about 26 miles, I felt tired but generally moving reasonably well, and with a few exceptions, spirits were generally high.
Had I looked at the elevation map beforehand, my enthusiasm might have been dampened by what lay ahead, but I hadn’t, so I set off up a beautiful country lane in late summer sunshine feeling quite pleased with myself. This is when things got a bit more serious. The route turned off the road onto a footpath signposted Wansfell Pike. Normally, on a sunny September afternoon with the skylarks singing and a gentle breeze fanning the bracken fronds, this would have been a slightly strenuous but pleasant climb. After running for six hours already, it was rather more challenging. This is when I really embraced the ‘it’s ok to walk’ ultra philosophy and hiked my way to the top, thinking I could make things more respectable by running down the other side. This I did, but the descent of Wansfell is steep, rocky and tricky for a non-fell runner like me, and I felt pretty battered by the time we hit Ambleside and fought our way through the tourist traffic to what I thought was the next feed stop. As it turned out, it was actually a village cake sale, held in a very neat and clean-looking church hall, which I really didn’t think would welcome me and accumulated peat, sheep dung and sweat of 30 miles. So I dug the map out of my bag for the first time, and decided I’d wait until the next feed stop for refreshment.
What I didn’t notice from my brief inspection of the map was that Loughrigg fell lay between us, and the next source of food and water. My only previous experience of Loughrigg was staggering up it with a crunching hangover on a camping trip as a student, so I didn’t have entirely fond memories. My impression hasn’t been improved. It starts steep and wooded, is steep and boggy in the middle, and steep and rocky at the top. Scafell Pike it ain’t, and I’m sure proper fell runners would consider it a pimple, but getting up and down it at any kind of pace was quite a challenge for me after 30-odd miles. This was the only time on the course when I ran out of water, and it wasn’t a pleasant few miles on what turned out to be quite a warm afternoon. Eventually arriving at Skelwith Bridge, I filled up on cheese & crisp sandwiches, drank a gallon of Pepsi and headed out for what the organizer (who happened to drop by while I was filling my face) said was the most scenic and easiest part of the course, with ‘just a niggle’ between there and the finish.
Suitably replete, I headed off, by this stage only running flat and downhill and walking anything remotely uphill. Even in my compromised state, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of this part of the Lakes, between Windermere and Esthwaite Water. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Lakes over the years but have never ventured off road in this bit; I understand it is called ‘Little Canada’ and I can understand why. A sprinkling of tarns, rolling hills and incredible views formed the backdrop to the next few miles, the only fly in the ointment being the conditions underfoot; most of it was narrow, boggy and rocky paths making progress very slow. To top it off, ‘the niggle’ turned out to be a horribly steep little climb (Latterbarrow); halfway up I met a kind lady walking her dog who tried hard not to look genuinely concerned about the ungodly sight before her. After what felt like a ridiculous amount of time to cover a few miles I staggered past a very tempting pub into the last feed station, in the outrageously beautiful Far Sawrey. Here I managed to let a wasp into a Pepsi bottle, triggering a farcical chain of events which wouldn’t have been out of place in Some Mothers Do Ave Em, and meant I exited back onto the course – slightly red-faced – a little earlier than I’d planned to. This was probably a good thing, as I was rapidly running out of daylight and really didn’t want to finish in the dark.
At this point, 40 miles in, the organisers revealed their sadistic side by including a little loop over a hill and down through some very steep and muddy woods back down to the shore of Windermere. After stopping to read a rather incongruously placed sign informing visitors about the Victorian fashion for Picturesque, in which a mirror was provided for well-healed visitors to survey the views with their back to them, as apparently direct confrontation with such natural beauty frequently occasioned swooning – a 19th century posh selfie – I walk-jogged off along the road. I must admit that at this point I was struggling. I was very tired, probably exacerbated by sleep deprivation, my stomach was starting to remind me that eating cheese, crisps and peanuts all day does not a happy digestive system make, and I was aware that I didn’t have a huge amount of daylight left. To compound it all, looking at the map my creeping suspicion that my early detour had added more distance than I’d initially thought was realized, and that five miles, rather than two, remained between me and a pint of Bowness Brewing Co’s finest. Normally, covering 5 lake-side miles in over an hour would be doable wearing flip-flops and carrying shopping bags, but after 43 miles it seemed almost insurmountable.
After a few slightly unpleasant minutes on the road (particular shout out to the chap in the blue Hyundai who nearly clipped me with his wing mirror despite there being nothing coming the other way), the course veered into the woods for the run for home. This section was, for me at least, completely un-runnable; dodging under fallen trees and clambering over rocks, I resolved to just enjoy the views and the likelihood I was going to make it, and in daylight. I stopped to take a few bad photos and chatted to a local competitor who caught up with me in my reverie about the joys – or otherwise – of living in the Lake District. Eventually, the huge inflatable finish funnel hove into view and I jogged the last hundred yards, trying to make it look like I’d done that all the way round. This illusion was slightly marred by the family I’d seen earlier on the route who shouted ‘well done, you made it, we weren’t sure when we saw you last!’
I’d been out so long my Garmin had gone flat at 40 miles, and the remainder recorded with dubious accuracy on my phone, but I think the final distance covered was about 47.5 miles. Most people seemed to have done a bit more than the advertised 45, but I think most people had also taken the odd unintended detour. The race was won by Tom Booth in 8.21, with first lady a tie (sprint finish?!) between Lorraine Hopley and Louise Goddard in 9.32. I finished about halfway down the field in a leisurely 13.46. 139 of 169 runners finished, probably testament to the kind weather conditions. A huge thanks to the organisers – this was the first time the event was run and there were a few niggles but that is to be expected. The marshals, who were out from very early morning until late at night in some cases, were always upbeat and encouraging, and the registration efficient. Recommended – if you’re silly enough to do such a thing.