Every challenge, particularly those that carry a high chance of non-completion should have a ‘why.’
At around 1am late last July, just 27 miles into my 5th Lakeland 100 on a dark rainy trail near Buttermere, I fell and sustained a nasty comminuted fracture of my right shoulder.
The road to recovery since that night has been long and uncomfortable. Although I was back running within a couple of months, I didn’t venture out from local trails into open country before early February. A dented mojo and a lack of confidence due to absence of big adventure miles meant I desperately needed a proper challenge to get back in the groove.
Step up the Northern Traverse with a good strong why. The 300km Wainwright coast to coast route sits on my bucket list of challenges and so no sooner had the New Year’s hangover subsided, I decided this might as well be the event to kickstart my comeback. Don’t do easy.
A quick call out to see if any of my mates fancied a crack at it and I soon snared Jason who willingly jumped in with both feet and that was it, done. Better do some training then!
The uncertainty of this race slowly grew in my consciousness as March loomed. Up to the Lakes for a first 2 day training run in late Feb. 31 miles from Rosthwaite to Shap was my first time back out in the hills and my biggest run in 8 months, followed up the next day with a soggy jaunt over the Gables and Scafell Pike.
Only enough time in early March for one last 2 day recce, Shap to Kirkby Stephen and then on to Richmond the next day. I had developed a bit of a tight hamstring by now, probably due to the ramp up in intensity. On a grim, wet and windy day we set off for KS, slipping and sliding all over the heavy ground. Just 2 miles from the end of day 1, I overextended my left leg on a downhill greasy slope and felt the searing pain of a torn hamstring. In that instant, the race evaporated before my eyes. 19 days to race day. Game over?
Back home I booked myself in to see the physio to get an assessment of my recovery chances.
Gym sessions continued, gentle walking instead of running and then one last physio session on Monday before the race. Physio raised his eyebrows and stayed diplomatically on the fence, but I made the final decision to modify my entire race goal and just go for it. My wife stayed tactfully away from voicing opinion and so I prepared myself for my biggest distance challenge to date with the least preparation ever.
So there’s the Why. Adjust the goals (i.e. don’t run), nail the positive mental attitude and stick to the plan.
Although I was excited to be at the line in St Bees, the unacknowledged inner sense of uncertainty about my hamstring actually calmed the nerves a bit and I didn’t have the usual sick feeling before the start. Jason and I dipped our feet in the sea, I collected a pebble, wondered whether it would reach the North Sea and if so, how long would it take.
Might want to choose a smaller pebble!
I always have some kind of race predictor, so on paper in my pocket I had a drastically changed goal time of circa 90 hours, calculated at a pace to avoid running and to take around 15 hours of rest. If I wasn’t racing then there was no need to be totally deprived of rest and to refuel properly! With no experience of events beyond 135 miles, it was anyone’s guess and the plan was only a framework.
A cold but bright morning for the off and for the first few miles it was impossible not to run on the easy headland section and lanes before Ennerdale. The pace however was very sedate and we soon found ourselves towards the rear of the field. I had long made peace with this, so we made our way happily towards the looming peaks of the western fells.
When you aren’t pushing the pace, you also get to stop for a bacon sandwich at the first café you see. I could get used to this way of racing!
A fine sunny start
In my ‘plan’ Rosthwaite, 29 miles in would be reached around 7:30pm, but I was pleasantly surprised that we arrived just before 5pm, feeling good, the hamstring held firmly in place with a compression quad sleeve. (We will come back to that later)
Refuelled and back out in under an hour, I braced myself for a very wet leg to Grasmere, given the biblical day we had endured on the recce. The path up to Greenup Edge was no longer flooded with torrents of water crossing it and after the climb we enjoyed the fading light across Grasmere Common, playing headtorch chicken, finally conceding just as we dropped to the lanes before crossing the A591.
On our recce we went up the steep bank of Little Tongue to Grisedale Hause, but instead we followed the race diversion to the right, which was far easier! Down into Patterdale and into the CP by 11:30pm, hours ahead of my guesstimated time.
Before the race, Jason had planned to split the race into 5 distinct legs and sleep at all checkpoints, effectively making full use of 5 days. I was against this plan and wanted to judge sleep stops by fatigue. I had no sleep planned before Kirkby Stephen. However, in my revised plans I was happy to take a stop here and appreciated the company, unconcerned about time. It was a liberating and novel experience as the opposite is usually the case!
So, we ate well, headed to a tent and got our heads down for a few hours, though I didn’t really sleep much. More food and back out onto the trail around 5am.
The climb over Boredale Hause with an unexceptional grey dawn up to Kidsty Pike was cold and foggy. We finally dropped down the tricky and slippy descent to Haweswater. I was super paranoid about losing footing and overstretching my hamstring again, so this was slow and tedious, but I was glad to be doing it in daylight and not tired.
Out of the mist from Kidsty Pike
The shore path to Burnbanks was dull. I’ve made the journey the opposite way 7 times in the Lakeland 100/50. It doesn’t improve the experience going the other direction! Also notably tedious was the diversion up a concrete road to avoid a grumpy farmers land. We were both delighted to see Shap appear in the distance, with the realisation I was still in one piece having crossed the Lake District.
We had an hour at Shap, ate well and in good spirits headed onwards for the next 20 miles to Kirkby Stephen. We enquired how many people were still on the course and the answer was something like 4 people. We were at the back of the pack!
Unconcerned, the sun came out as we crossed the M6 and for the next few hours we were treated to spectacular views of the hills that we hadn’t seen during our last recce of this section in the wind and rain.
Views for miles
Jason was starting to stretch the pace a little, but I was still wary of the wet terrain. Eventually we reached the grassy slope of my impromptu slide 3 weeks earlier. Underfoot conditions were so much better today though and with the scene of the crime behind me, we yomped our way in the evening sunshine to the CP at Kirkby Stephen rugby club, arriving at 7pm and ready for food.
Dampening the mood, I was getting a significant amount of painful burning chafing to my groin area. I realised that the quad sleeve I was wearing was bunching the skin up and now it had rubbed itself raw and blistered. I had applied gurney goo before the race and again at Patterdale, but now it was a big problem and beyond the ability of cream to fix it. This was a real worry with over 100 miles left to go.
At the last minute before leaving home, my wife Sian who works for 3M Healthcare had given me a wound care management sample product called Cavilon Advanced. It’s a wipe on applicator used for chronic wounds and effectively paints new skin on like a silicone barrier that dries flexible and stays on. Quick text to ask her if it might help. Yes!!
I went and had a shower in the rugby club, something I hadn’t imagined doing before the race. With clean skin I carefully painted this stuff on, held the skin apart so it could dry and hoped for the best. I also decided to abandon the mental protection provided by the quad sleeve and got into fresh, dry kit. Wonderful.
With negotiation, Jason was happy to get some rest but agreed to head out around midnight as it seemed wasteful to spend all night at the CP. After a couple hours laid down, we regrouped, ate more food provided by the awesome volunteers and here we hooked up with Richard who was sat ready to leave at the same time. We actually left around 1am into a very cold, clear and beautiful night, under a full moon, to make the crossing of Nine Standards Rigg and the boggy moorland to Ravenseat and beyond.
Nine Standards Rigg under a full moon
The leg to Richmond was possibly my favourite of the entire race. I had never set foot beyond Kirkby Stephen and after the steep climb up the hill, we ventured across the bogs, the three of us working well together under a fabulous clear moonlit sky. Possibly luckily for us, crossing at 3am had partially frozen the ground and we picked our way across efficiently and without any waist deep dunkings for our troubles. My water bottles did freeze up though!
Beyond Keld, dawn started to break along the track past the grouse butts. We were treated to the most inspirational and uplifting sunrise, with the soundtrack of numerous amorous male grouse in full romantic pursuit of females. What a privilege to be up here it was.
The best dawn ever
Energised on the moors
The run down to Reeth seemed to take forever, one example of many where it felt like the target was always just out of reach! Finally arriving and having long fantasised about a warm café with bacon butties and coffee, it was deflating to learn that on Mondays all the cafes in Reeth are closed! Undeterred, we raided the local newsagents, realised the Dales Bike centre was on the outskirts of the village, and quick stepped it there, where coffee was a welcome boost.
The day was warming up and I was happy to reach Richmond at just before 2:30pm. The plan here was to eat as much as possible, tend to the feet and just chill out before pushing on to make the most of the light on the next leg. Several awesome helpings of curry later, it was time to sort the trotters out.
My feet had been getting progressively worse with nasty hotspots and blisters since Kirkby Stephen. Every step was becoming excruciating, but it was time to practice the art of mind over matter.
My chafing pain had vanished though and when I had chance to take a look down there, I was stunned to find that basically the treated area had healed! No redness at all, it was like I had imagined the chafing damage. Game changer.
I was so amazed I had to tell the medics all about the wonders of Cavilon as they expertly helped drain and tape my blisters.
We headed back out around 6:20pm. I wasn’t looking forward to the Vale of York section, but Wainwright had to join the Dales to the N Yorks moors somehow, so make the most of the easier terrain was the plan.
Absolutely nothing of interest happened, other than stopping to add more tape to a blister that burst on the lanes to Danby Wiske.
Sleep deprivation started to play its part. I managed to traverse most of the boring dark lanes sections with my eyes closed, using my inner radar to track Jason and Richard ahead of me. Then as I rallied, Jason was hit by the sleep monsters and it was out with the caffeine tablets to bring him back to life.
We fixated on the A19 services, but as we crisscrossed numerous fields and crappy paths, it was like they were moving further away. Our pace suffered as did our collective mood, possibly the low point of the race. Eventually the yellow glow materialised before us and we stepped up to the oasis and bought supplies, the highlight of which were two massive scotch eggs.
I had no idea of the terrain ahead, but it was a relief to leave flat ground and begin the climb up Arncliffe woods and onto the Cleveland Way. As we climbed up, down and around the woods I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were just on an endless loop of the same ground. Eventually though we broke out onto the top of Live Moor and into a fierce freezing cold headwind. Time to get a shift on. Now it was Richards turn to hit sleepy mode and our group stretched out a bit before reaching the trig point that signalled the drop down to Lordstones.
Into the CP just before 5am, slower than I had anticipated. Christ it was freezing in the marquee and the fantasy of a nice warm checkpoint was replaced by the reality of getting food in and a bit of down time with the feet up. We chatted with James and Lee who were prepping to leave as we were putting our feet up. I left Richard literally hugging the tea urn and went to lay down still fully clothed in my sleeping bag in a freezing tent being buffeted by a cold wind.
It was impossible to get any sleep as dawn was already breaking. Thinking that Jason and Richard were still asleep I switched the phone on and sent a few messages home while faffing with what food to put in the pack for the last 42 miles. Jason’s head appeared in the tent flap, they had given up lying down, so it was a rush to get up and out again. This took forever, a combination of a slow tired brain and a wholly inadequate choice of backpack for a multi day event making the faffing about quite protracted. I hadn’t looked at the race tracker, but when I asked who was left out on the course the answer was 29. Quite a change from our position at Shap, we had gradually leapfrogged our way forwards with steady momentum.
Eventually I was ready for the off. My kit had dried while in my sleeping bag, I don’t think I even changed my socks, I just didn’t want to look at my feet anymore.
What a beautiful day we stepped out into. My mood lifted and the energy returned, over Kirby Bank up to the Wain Stones. I still had 4 layers on from the night leg and stopped to remove a few layers in the sunshine, though the wind was still very fresh.
Loving the morning over Wainstones
I was surprised how good I was feeling, no doubt massively helped by the stunning panorama before us. I immediately gapped Jason and Richard, feeling guilty for this as they had wasted time waiting for me in camp. However, you have to make use of energy while you have it and I knew we would regroup.
Final morning sunshine
My elation at reaching this far on my injured leg pushed me onwards. I caught up with Guy and then Melissa along the disused railway track towards the Lion Inn.
A new fixation loomed; a pint of Guinness as my traditional treat in an ultra. However, the pub, packed with the lunchtime crowd didn’t have any Guinness so it was Timothy Taylors and a tuna sandwich. Nice.
Jason and Richard arrived and decided to stop for a proper hot meal, so I left with my new pals. Having been sat down for 30 minutes, my legs had seized and my feet were on fire. Guy was feeling the same and he decided to make a slow restart, leaving Melissa and myself to march on. I confess I am mostly a solitary runner, happy in my own company, but it was great to chat along the trail and it certainly made the miles tick by and distracted us both from the increasing pain and discomfort of battered feet.
At Egton Bridge we stopped for a drink and it became a welcome regrouping of the 5 of us for a few miles, until we hit the steep road out of Grosmont.
The hill climb became a determined stomp at a good pace. Jason and Richard dropped off and this was the last time I saw them until the finish. Being less than 15 miles to the end, I knew Jason and Richard would stick together. The pain in my feet was making every step beyond excruciating and I just needed to get to the finish. In my head I opened a box. I put my feet inside the box and locked it with a key. The power of the mind is an amazing thing. The last 100 miles of the Traverse taught me a hell of a lot about resilience.
Melissa treated us to a mini karaoke session of the Struts and the obligatory Proclaimers 500 miles. We must have looked a sight, stomping and singing along the lane to Littlebeck.
We navigated the woods at Falling Foss, which felt harder than it should have been. The twinkling lights of Whitby in the distance gave a false illusion of the end being close as we headed onto very boggy moorland. To manage the burning pain in the feet I found myself gapping my two buddies as my pace picked up, feet being cooled by splashing straight through the wet spongy ground.
With about 7 or 8 miles left I waited for the other two to catch up and announced that I needed to push on. In my head, the only way to end the pain was to pull the pin out and so I apologised and converted the immense anger at my feet into rapid forward progress. The Garmin was predicting finishing at 3:20am. Stuff that. I set myself a target to finish before 2am to be inside 90 hours and headed off to Hawsker.
Finally I was onto the coastal headland. 3 miles to go! I was trying to get my pace up, but any uneven ground made my feet roll in my shoes and the dried muddy rutted path made for an unpleasant experience. Robin Hoods Bay appeared ahead below.
As I headed off the coast I let out a bit of a roar and spent a moment thinking of my friend Chris who had lost his life just one year ago.
Emotions were at risk of overwhelming me, so I was glad to head down towards the steep downhill finish, alone in the darkness.
Out of nowhere one of the event team appeared and Sheena ran down the hill in front of me as downhill inertia provoked running speed!
Then it was all over. 1.44am, well inside my last little solo goal to beat the Garmin eta. Happy with that. 89 hrs 14 mins and 193.6 miles clocked. 98 starters, 40th / 69 finishers
End of the journey
I had privately given myself about a 20% chance of finishing this race, but with a controlled effort my confidence grew and the injured hamstring was forgotten after Shap.
With just Colin and Sheena to listen to my babbling and stop me wobbling over, I dipped my feet into the North Sea. Out came my pebble, but I decided to pick up a friend for it instead of launching it. So now I have a pebble for each end of the coast to coast.
I had to be there for Jason to finish, but there was no way I was going back up that hill and down again! On with all my layers, including a coat donated by Manouk from the awesome event team, I waited happily at the finish until the wobbling headtorch lights came down the hill. That was an emotional moment, our Northern Traverse was now complete. It was all about the completion not the time and we managed that and enjoyed (almost) every minute!
What an awesome experience.
Three Amigos re united
Thanks to everyone in the event team for looking after us so well. I met and shared trail time with some awesome people. Thanks to Jason for agreeing in a heartbeat to enter the race with me. Thanks to my family for the continued patience to let me vanish for almost a week to do these things.
Next up, to slay the demon of last year’s Lakeland 100 and finally collect my piece of slate. Thanks to you if you read this far!
Pic credits: No Limits Photography