Why a 50 mile ultra?
We all have things that represent a huge challenge to us. Depending on my wellbeing, fitness and life, this has ranged from the most basic to what some would regard as the extreme.
After discectomy surgery in 2001, it was learning to walk across the living room in the space of a week. After crashing with chronic lyme disease in 2013 it was overcoming anxiety for the first time in my life when returning to work. I could barely walk the 200 metres from where I’d parked and had the urge to flee the building on entering. On a daily basis it’s the desire to enjoy the present while not overly succumbing to the pressure of the world around us which can encourage a relentless striving for improvement in some way – be it via kindness, education, fitness etc.
So why the hell did I enter the Lakeland 50? Well, just as doing the UT55 in July 2015 was a case of proving to myself I could do something out of the ordinary, so too the challenge of running 50 miles in the Lakes is a challenge that is fuelling my passion for life. Ultimately it’s a wish to be part of something that I find life affirming at a time when there seems to be so much polarised debate and toxic discussion in the country. I want to play a part in creating an ultra experience that transcends sport for fellow runners, spectators and organisers. To show there how pushing ourselves to extremes and being stripped down to the creatures we are, shows how positive the human spirit can be. If this sounds a bit cheesy I don’t give a shit.
I also want to show my kids (18 & 15) that they should not put limits on themselves. Since the second each of them were born they have inspired me every day. That may through the questions they ask, the joy they get from some achievement, the lessons they learn when things don’t go to plan. I have learned a great deal from them. A typical Type A personality, from a very young age I have unintentionally put pressure on myself, trying to be perfect. That idealism resulted in precisely the opposite kind of behaviour at times. Now I’m more realistic and have a more balanced perspective. Take things as they come. Tend to dwell on things far less. Accept other people’s behaviours more readily. Be kinder to myself when I may not meet prior expectations of myself. It’s something several family members had said to me over the years but I never understood what they were really getting at. Ultimately I had to realise it for myself.
Is the Lakeland 50 more of the same? In a sense yes. I’m putting pressure on myself to complete a 50 mile ultra that includes 9,728 feet of climbing, 10,069 feet of descent! However I remind myself that it isn’t literally running 50 miles. Every uphill/incline is hiked. Every flat or ridge is run at the pace of a jog. Descents are either run or hiked – depending on how technical they are or the need to conserve energy for other parts of the route. I am not putting the pressure of a target time on myself. Much more simply, aiming to finish. The only target times are the cutoff points for each of the 7 legs for the 50 mile course. It’s a psychological challenge more than a physical challenge.
So it’s a case of spending a maximum of 24 hours on my feet getting around a course that goes from Dalemain > Howtown > Mardale Head > Kentmere > Ambleside > Chapel Stile > Tilberthwaite > Coniston. Along with hundreds of others – plus the bonus of potentially a few hundred of the Lakeland 100 coming through our start (50 mile point for them!!) – I will set of Saturday 27 July 11:30 and keep going until I’m finished. I learned in the only other ultra I’ve done that completing an ultra involves a totally different kind of pain to running a 5k, 10k, half marathon etc. It’s a case of keeping moving forward. Not letting yourself stop when your mind and body inevitably reach the point when they are each screaming at you to stop – sometimes they will scream at me separately or collectively. Through some incredibly difficult stages of the UT55, my internal motto became “Ask the question.” That referred to asking my legs to take another step. To asking my legs to run on a flat. To asking if I could get to the next stile. Etc. Etc.
As a Dad and husband, I’m acutely conscious of the need to work training and the event itself around family. Training to date has involved only 1 long day in the Lakes and myself and Mark were up at 04:30 in order to minimise the impact on family time. I have two more recce days planned and will go about them in the same way. Very early rise, arriving in the Lakes early morning, completing a recce before 1pm and enjoying bulk of the afternoon with family. We haven’t worked out what we’re doing yet during the ultra weekend itself. Again I’m very aware of the fact I’m either away or asking my family to spend a weekend in the Lakes when they won’t see me for half of it. It’s a balance any parent and husband/wife/partner wrestles with for something like this.
I haven’t worked to a training plan at all. With having chronic illness there is no point in putting pressure on myself to follow a plan when my levels of fatigue and my symptoms can fluctuate so much depending on how busy I am in work. For example I had a really good 4 weeks prior to this week. With a very long couple of days this Wednesday and Thursday I knew my fatigue would dramatically increase, hence I have done barely any running at all since last Sunday. I have had to spend most of my spare time recovering by actively resting, meditating, sleeping. That is just as important to my preparation as any time on feet. Without rest I simply wouldn’t even get the start line. Again, I know I will arrive at the start line of the Lakeland 50 in Dalemain probably having spent much less time on my feet and having run far fewer miles than the vast majority of fellow runners. I accept that and will go with it. I also have to prioritise my PhD study over any training. This demands energy and has to be my main focus through 2019 and much of 2020 when it will be completed 🙂 Maybe the fact that 90% of ultra success being in the mind will work to my advantage?! With not spending as much time in the Lakes as many others, I have found John Kynaston’s YouTube episodes of each leg invaluable. They’re a fantastic way of helping you visualise key parts of each leg.
Nutrition is essential for successfully completing any ultra. I learned from a Nicky Spinks masterclass that from the very start of any ultra you need to take on board food and fluids very regularly. If you wait until you feel thirsty or hungry you are very likely to end up in serious trouble as it’s likely to already by too late. Luckily I don’t tend to suffer from stomach issues but I’m taking no chances. So my nutrition of choice will be almost exclusively real food based, principally homemade energy balls and date bars, supplemented by Longhaul Endurance sachets. And anything that may take my fancy when I arrive at one of the 7 checkpoints on the day/night. Fluids will be water. Simple! Maybe the odd coffee or flat coke (something I never normally consume).
Avoiding cramps is a massive one for me. I used to suffer terribly with them and did so at around 15 miles (circa 20-26km point) of the UT55 which totally scuppered me for the next 2-3 hours. Thankfully a mate at Rochdale Harriers (Mark) suggested daily magnesium tablets after that and I haven’t suffered cramps since late 2015 – hope I’m not tempting fate here!!
In summary, yes I’m nervous about this. In fact there are times when I’m cacking myself. But I’m much more excited by it. Excited by spending time on paths I’ll mostly have ever been on once in in my lifetime prior to race day. Excited to see what I’m capable of. Excited about treating myself to some Lakeland 50 merchandise on finishing – I refuse to buy anything until I’ve earned the wearing of their product. Excited to spend time with others doing it for the enth or the first time. Excited to encourage each other on – be they fellow 50 or the more insane 100 runners. Excited to thank volunteers, villagers, organisers, or anyone who encourages us in some way while we’re on the course. I don’t think anyone who encourages us knows just what a difference they make. I vividly remember a 4 year old running alongside me (racing me!) when I was badly cramped up on my way to Grasmere, the clapping Patterdale and Glenridding visitors, the kids in the field clapping us into Grasmere, the pissed up beer garden people in a Langdales pub, the people at the finish line, very single checkpoint volunteer or marshal. Every single person puts that extra milimetre, bounce, ounce of energy into your step just when you need it most.
In the words of the late Mark Hollis, “Life’s What You Make It” eh 😉
All the very best