I’m not writing this as a typical race report of my experience in what is well known as a tough, dig deep ultra trail race. I actually wasn’t going to write anything at all, but changed my mind after a couple of weeks of contemplation.
It’s more of a tale of a journey, fuelled almost entirely by a motivation to reach the finish that is not directly rooted in endurance sport, but a journey that I hope helps give legacy and tribute to a sadly missed dear friend.
The Lakeland 100 is arguably the most popular trail ultra in the UK. Into its 11thyear, entries open a full 10 months before race day and the 1500 or so places for the two distances of 50 and 100 miles sell out online inside 10 minutes or less! In 2017, after 4 years of competing in the 50 and the 100, I marshalled at the Delamere Spartans Mardale Head checkpoint, so had a guaranteed place and thankfully escaped the 9am Sept 1stcomputer paranoia!
The problem with entering a race that far in advance is that it leaves a long time for things to either go well in training, or to unravel!
Like many long distance runners, I have a chronic injury that is increasingly limiting my training and racing. My right knee is pretty much worn out at the kneecap joint. It is mostly manageable, but hard work up and especially down, hills. As I only run off-road and love the mountains you can see the issue.
2018 has been plagued with flare-ups and so I eventually put myself in front of an orthopaedic surgeon in early May to assess damage and options. No surprise to be diagnosed with end stage arthritis. One option is an operation to remove part of the kneecap and realign the whole knee joint. As I work in orthopaedics, I know this is serious stuff!
I was still considering this option when I arrived on the start line of the inaugural Snowdonia UTS in Llanberis just a week later.
My theory was that 50 miles of the finest mountains in Snowdonia, including 2 x up Snowdon and a total of 22,000ft of ascent would be a good activity to help me decide on the best decision for the future. Really. Stop laughing please, this is what runners do; justify the means to their own self justified end!
I recommend the UTS. It goes up, down, up, down repeat. No flat bits. Anywhere. Same elevation as UTLD 100 in half the distance!
Having survived a pretty brutal 21 hours, desperately undertrained and slow, but with relatively little knee pain, the prospect of making the start line of the Lakeland 100 in July really only entered into my conscious thinking for the first time all year. My confidence about finishing was pretty low, knowing the race from 2016, but the UTS gave me a boost to at least start to get some late training miles in. One two day trip in June to re engage brain with the fells, plus the usual last minute panic miles.
If there is one thing that I have learned in endurance running, above absolutely all else, you need to have a rock solid state of mind with a very clear goal for the event. Whatever that goal may be, without a deep reservoir of grit, even the physically fittest athlete may not make the finish. You can do as many hill reps as you like, but neglect the mental training and you’re a DNF in the making.
So to my goal this year.
This is where it is hard to put it all easily into context with words. A very dear family friend, and my wife’s absolute best friend was diagnosed with a very aggressive and rare form of leukaemia less than 2 years ago. Zahra has an extremely strong and engaging personality and so while we were all a bit shell shocked at the news, she launched straight into her fight with amazing power and strength. She dubbed herself 'The Ox' as a bit of a joke, with all the battling qualities you associate with an Ox and it just kind of stuck! Incredibly brave throughout her courses of chemo and radiotherapy, she reached a blessed state of remission and then had a successful bone marrow stem cell transplant in the Spring of 2017. The treatment she had at The Christie in Manchester was amazing. She joked while in hospital that I would have to run over and see her. So, inspired by her strength of spirit, I raised some money for the hospital and ran the 41 meandering off road miles from home to the hospital on the day she was discharged, accompanied by some great friends from our club along the way.
A happy day.
Knowing the transplant was only the end of the beginning, the last year had many ups and downs for her, without a flicker of a moan at any point ever. The devastating news of a return of the cancer a short time ago was a really devastating and cruel blow. From here the crash was rapid and Roger, Leo and little Ed lost Zahra on July 2nd.
A feeling of such anger, but also such helplessness is very hard to manage. The best way I could think of to try and demonstrate to the rest of the world what an incredibly brave and selfless person she was, was to honour her memory on a difficult journey of my own.
A mere bloody fraction of the pain she endured of course, but I hoped to channel the strength of The Ox to get me the 105 miles around The Lakes in the absence of proper preparation and a working set of legs. Accompanied by The Ox I knew I could get all the way around.
My wife Sian follows my races and of course there are occasional worries about how I will get on. She has seen me in a right state on too many occasions to name! However, after the race was done, she told me that she never once doubted or worried this year. The power of The Ox was infectious for us all. On arrival in Coniston we all had our Ox tattoos penned on for the weekend. Mine would guide me well.
With an ever changing weather forecast, we set off from Coniston at 6pm, in a temperature of around 26 degrees with very high humidity. I must have lost a kilo of sweat in the pre race briefing and drank half my water stood on the start line. We knew the heat wouldn’t last, but I am sure the extreme weather changes had a negative effect on many people and influenced the 50% drop out rate.
Me and The Ox on the start line.
Once we had left the streets lined with cheering spectators, the slog up into the hills soon began and as the field stretches out you can soon be alone. I set off running with Andy, a fellow Spartan. We have shared many adventures over the years and we seem pretty comfortable in each other’s company, with no firm rules on staying together. You could say that we run on a piece of elastic that can stretch several miles at times, but we always seem to regroup. How long we might stay together on this race we didn’t know, but as the miles went by our elastic stretched and recoiled quite happily. Neither of us had a grand race plan nor any idea if we would finish together or not, but we weren’t worried about it! I had my race focus firmly written on my left arm.
The air was incredibly humid, even as darkness fell it remained hot. I only had one strict rule for myself and that was to eat early on and to stay well hydrated. Two years ago I ate virtually nothing for the first 9 hours and ended up suffering nausea for endless hours as a consequence. This year I think I made a much better job of nutrition. I had no real episodes of sickness at all.
Headtorches came out as we dropped down into Wasdale around 10:30pm and the heavens opened for the first time as we hit the checkpoint. However as we left shortly after with our jackets on, it still seemed far too warm, so jackets came off again and we ascended Black Sail Pass with warm rain and some thunder rumbling somewhere. I love this dramatic and steep section of the course and the miles passed quite easily, with a bit of a slippery descent here and there but no dramas.
First light came at 4am as we climbed out of Keswick on the approach path to Skiddaw. Taking off the headtorch is always a great moment and the spirits lifted with daylight. I never usually suffer sleepiness in races, but just after first light is the time where the body starts to remind you that a nights sleep has been missed! This year however I had a real problem with persistent drowsiness. Hot sugary tea at checkpoints helped a little, but I just couldn’t shake it off. Andy also seemed a bit sleepy and our pace remained modest but steady as we headed along the Old Coach Road towards Dockray.
The thing that eventually woke us up was a rain storm that suddenly blew in, wind whipping the rain right across our faces as we headed for the checkpoint. Out came the jackets, but when we reached the CP at around 7:30am we were utterly drenched and I was freezing. I quickly put on some layers and tried to eat as much as I could, but I couldn’t stop shaking and my hands weren’t functioning. Several other runners sat huddled in chairs, with the medic busy trying to wrap someone up who was in a worse state than us. We decided the only way to get warm was to get out and running again and try and generate body heat as it was so cold standing around. So we headed back into the rain in full kit, the next stop being the halfway point at Dalemain, except it was at 59 miles and not halfway at all!
The next couple of hours were pretty miserable at times, no views along my favourite stretch of Ullswater, but we both cheered up as the rain eventually stopped and we approached Dalemain, where our families would be waiting to say hello.
As we came into Dalemain we were greeted like race winners by the runners waiting to start the 50 mile race. What a great feeling, as was seeing Sian and my two girls. Tiredness gets forgotten. Into the checkpoint and job number one is open the can of Guinness in my drop bag! I had a written list of jobs for this stop; change socks, shoes, shirt, re lube and eat as much as possible. Our general disorganisation meant we overstayed my pit stop window of 20 minutes and Sian yelled at me to get a move on! Off we shuffled, now buried in the midst of 50 mile runners as their race had started while we arsed about in the checkpoint.
Pint for breakfast? Don't mind if I do!
From here the weather was a mixture of warm and dry and wet and wild. We made good time marching up Fusedale but as we dropped down to Haweswater, a massive crack of thunder greeted us. I felt great for some odd reason and ran off, all the way along the lake, overtaking all in front of me, reaching Mardale Head in a state of euphoria! Being greeted by friendly Spartan faces at our club run CP was great.
How to announce your arrival at a checkpoint!
The Andy elastic had been really stretched, but I couldn’t wait long here as the shivers came over me again once I stopped. However we crossed paths as I left Spardale and he arrived. I knew we would regroup and he headed in to get some soup while I walked off up the big climb up Gatescarth Pass and smack straight into another huge rainstorm. Wow, full kit on, poles tapping out a steady climb up the hill and head facing down to avoid being lashed by the rain. I was feeling fine, the rain actually kept my core temperature at a level that suits me I think, it’s just stopping that is an issue as all heat evaporates as soon as I stop.
Coming off Low Kop down to Haweswater before the thunderstorm
As I was refuelling at Kentmere, the next CP and preparing to leave, Andy arrived, looking much better and back on his game. I waited for him to fill his bottles and then the pair of us headed off towards Ambleside. Our elastic didn’t really stretch much again from here and we resolved to tough it out to the finish together.
From here is where the strong mental resolve really gets tested. Ox power was called on several times in the last few hours. We had burned a lot of time at checkpoints, more than usual due to the bad weather, so although our moving pace was OK, our overall time was slow. This meant we would be getting to Ambleside later than expected. I spoke to Sian and told her not to hang around and wait for us.
My tiredness was now giving me some hallucinations in the gathering gloom, mostly rocks looking like small animals, nothing exciting. Until we climbed up the hill from Troutbeck that is. After pointing out another phantom creature to Andy, we reached the top of the hill to be greeted by 4 enormous yellow ducks. Not a hallucination this time but hilarious and a welcome distraction!
Hello Duckie! Thanks to the owner of this photo I pinched from FB!
We finally reached Ambleside as darkness closed in. As we ran through town, folks outside pubs cheered us on, this was another great source of motivation and some brief but exuberant energy!
From Ambleside things took another dip. Our legs were dead and we just had to power walk, fighting the drowsiness more than ever. I think I actually covered several miles with my eyes shut here! At Chapel Stile CP the pair of us sat like zombies, I didn’t even recognise a bowl of brownies on the table! Eventually we were goaded back into moving by a sympathetic 50 runner and we headed out with him for the final slog, in the midst of a bigger group.
As we got gradually nearer to the finish my energy seemed to return, as did Andy’s. I made up 15 places between Langdale and Coniston and we overtook numerous groups of 50 runners. We pulled away from the group we were in as we climbed up Side Pike and from here I think it’s fair to say we were on it. My toes and heels were really burning now, but constant movement eventually numbed them, stopping was the nightmare, so we pressed onwards. After a dry few hours, at Tilberthwaite the weather turned wet again, just as we had decided to strip some layers off. So jackets went back on again at the top of the steps of doom. With just 3.5 miles to go from here I got all giddy again at the prospect of the finish and set off with a goal to run hard and overtake as many people as I could.
Unfortunately my calf that had started tweaking a few miles earlier really wasn’t impressed by this sudden turn of speed but at this stage all pain vanishes. As we neared the top, descending mist added to the rain and really hampered visibility as it reflected the headtorch beam. The descent was tricky but eventually we hit firm ground and it was a race to the finish, such a great feeling. Our GPS trackers had alerted the families of our location and so as we legged it down the road to the finish we were greeted first by Dave and then by the kids, dragged from their beds at 4am to stand in the rain and watch us finish!
Hard core fambo support!
An emotional finish and a journey to remember. The total raised for the hard working folks at Anthony Nolan now stands at £860 and I would like to thank all the very kind people who donated, it is hugely appreciated. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/nick-wishart1
If you are reading this and not on the bone marrow Register, get online and order a pack now!
Someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer every 20 minutes and you can really make a difference.
I hope my journey was a small symbolic gesture to honour the memory of Zahra.
At times I definitely sensed her kicking me up the backside to get a move on! Her strength will live on to guide Roger and the boys in everything they do.
Thanks to Andy for the company along the way, we don’t often spend an entire race together, but this was a good one to share.
Mates at the finish. Job done!
Not forgetting big thanks to the fantastic marshals all around the course who make the race what it is.