I decided that it was time for me to do my first ultra. A longer than marathon length run, without any extra sports mixed in to break it up. My theory was that winter would be a good time. It would be clear of swimrun training / racing, I could put my feet up for a break over Christmas and with a bit of luck we’d get some epic weather!
After a lot of searching for events that met my criteria, I settled on the Tour de Helvellyn. Run by Joe Faulkner / Nav4, who I know from adventure racing, it’s 60km over hills in the Lake District, with no route marking plus limited and not guaranteed feed stations. Perfect!
I spent a lot of time preparing for this one as it was my main target for the winter.
- Quickly realised I’d need a bigger race vest bag to carry all the kit. Impulse bought one when spending a voucher on something else.
- Tested bag and all kit on a long run round the city when the sun was still shining and I could wear shorts and t-shirt. You never know when you might need a survival bag and heavy duty waterproof.
- Got zip fixed on my primaloft jacket after over a year, so I could take and use it as an emergency layer.
- Read a lot of other people’s blogs!
- Bought two new pairs of possible shoes and got them broken in, after discovering the upper was about to part company with the sole on my both my old pairs.
- Weekend trip to recce the lollipop part of the route with Izzy and Elizabeth. This also served as one of a couple of long days out on my feet.
- Found out my compass didn’t point north any more. Fixed it by waving it at a strong magnet.
- Designed a version of the map that got the whole route onto two A3 sides at 1:25k and arranged to get it printed onto a single sheet of waterproof paper. Thanks Paul!
- Every good race deserves a spreadsheet. On this one I calculated slow, likely and fast paces, working out when it was best to start to make the most of the daylight, arrive at the first checkpoint within the specified time window and not miss the final cut off.
- Decided last minute to recce ‘stick’ part of route on mountain bike the week before. Investigated the footpath/ road shortcut option which is reputedly possibly maybe faster than going round the bridleway.
- For the first time in ages, cooked two types of feed zone portable, after thinking about the fact I couldn’t last 9+h on flapjacks and honey stingers.
All that was left was to negotiate the work Christmas lunch, a very busy train and possibly icy roads to get to the start / community hall in good time on Friday night.
It was a little bit daunting to arrive at the hall and not really know very many people. However, I soon found I was sleeping two along from someone I had met at a swimrun and then Steve who is a friend of mine from Open 5s popped up! I felt better already. I set up the old-skool campbed that Izzy had lent me, feeling a bit daft in amongst all the high tech kit. However, I did not feel so daft after a comfortable nights’ sleep!
We were advised it was ‘lights on’ at 6am, so I was duly awakened and served porridge, toast and … I hesitated over the tea then declined, knowing it would cause frequent pee stops if I did! The most difficult decision of the morning was which shoes to wear … Inov8s that are good on wet muddy stuff, or my Icebugs which I thought would be better on ice but have little by way of cushioning and can give me sore feet on stony surfaces. Reports were of ice aplenty, so I went with the latter.
I was warned there could be queues for kit check, but maybe they had more people on it this year, as there were none at all. I stuck to my plan and headed in to get looked over a few minutes before 7:45. They were very good and it wasn’t too difficult to wiggle everything back into the bag again afterwards.
Headtorch on and off I went. It was snowing. This wasn’t in the forecast! After about 10 minutes I realised it was light enough not to need my torch and switched it off. There were not many people around as I headed up the hill and onto the moors. I think the ground was more frozen solid than the previous week when I had recced this part, but there was less sheet ice. I was confident in my route to the Cockpit, then headed down across the hillside towards Ullswater.
The Cockpit to Side Farm – outward ‘stick’ – everything under control
A few people overtook me on the moors, including a lady running with another chap. It turned out we were going almost the same speed. I said hello but they weren’t much for talking, even as we passed and re-passed each other a few times over the next 10km or so.
I took what I had decided was definitely the shorter route on a footpath down to the lake and up the road. A number of people around me did the same, although looking up to the hillside on our left I could see crowds who had stuck to the bridleway. I was in good spirits at Martindale church, the first checkpoint, as I made sure to eat something and kept a good pace on the road section.
Soon enough I was at the ascent to Boredale Hause. I kept running here for as long as I could, and when forced to walk I ate some more and powered my way to the top. There were lots of people around now, as everyone was converging on the next checkpoint which had a fixed opening time. At the top, everyone headed a different way to the one I had checked out with Izzy. I debated what to do but in the end followed them. It looked more direct – and it was.
We re-joined the bridleway I was expecting, where several people skipped down the rough descent, overtaking me with ease. I tried to stay cool. When Nicky Spinks glided past, I was trying to copy her style! Soon at Side Farm, first food checkpoint. It opened at 9:30 and I got there at 9:35 – perfect! I grabbed some crisps, malt loaf and satsuma and headed straight out again. Along through Glenridding and Nicky and her friend were still in sight for quite a while.
Side Farm up and over to the other valley – first half of lollipop – what a lot of snow / wish I could descend more proficiently
Up the hill past the YHA and I knew I had run most of this with Izzy on legs more tired than these, so I kept running! As we reached the end of the road, there were plenty of people around carrying skis. I mean, there was a bit of snow, but I was astonished they thought they could ski on this? When we had run here earlier in the year, Elizabeth asked if in the race I would do the zig zags or cut the corners. I had answered that it probably depended what everyone else was doing. They were cutting the corners.
It didn’t look too bad so I followed. At one point I wasn’t sure if the path went left or right (it was covered in snow), but everyone was going right. I went with them, but was soon wondering why, as other racers were on the main path above us and we were scrambling up a snow-covered boulder-strewn hillside. I concentrated on putting my feet in the same places the person in front had marked out and tried not to dwell on the fact that I wished I had gone the other way! It was with some relief that we re-joined the path.
Swart Beck footbridge came quickly, a picture perfect winter scene of white snow. Now I understood the skis! I was very glad I was not the first to come through, because it meant I could follow the trodden path in front and avoid any very deep snowdrifts! A few more passed me, including a very fast and cheerful girl in a running skirt. I couldn’t stay with them at all and just tried to hold my own pace. I realised I was well down the women’s field and decided this meant I could find time to take a couple of pictures to capture the experience!
Over Sticks Pass it was cold and white with a dense fog. Not windy though, so it could have been worse! The long descent was nothing like the recce. This time it was a race through soft snow. Others were still braver than me, even though I told myself any fall would have a soft landing. Emerging from the fog and dipping below the snowline, we were on one of the steepest parts. I cursed as I fell several times, once almost attempting the splits. Streams of people came past me and it was rather demoralising. I thought this was just everyone I had managed to overtake earlier on the hills, but in retrospect a large portion were probably faster runners who had started later than me and were catching up.
I was relieved to get to the fingerpost at the bottom in one piece and turned left to make my way along the valley. This path was rough and stony. We had pondered race tactics here before and noted that it would be easy to expend a lot of energy trying to go fast. I kept a lid on it and concentrated on not having an unpleasant fall. There was someone behind me who decided to do the same. It was actually quite good to have their footsteps urging me on a little, but agreeing that their toes kept catching and tripping on things too!
Swirls car park to Side Farm – second half of lollipop – I am in love with ultra-running
Arriving at the car park I was disappointed that the toilets were shut (though this was one of the few chances to nip behind something) and surprised to find a feed station. I stocked up on handfuls of food again and walked the first hilly parts of the fireroad eating and drinking whilst it was easy to do so. I also tucked into some of my own savoury snacks. Then it was time to run. I made good time along here once my legs got going and before I knew it, I was at the waterfall and ready to start the next climb.
Here there was another route choice – to cut across open hillside or follow the path along to the river then turn left. I stuck to my plan and smiled to myself as the two other runners who had stopped to think about it also followed me. We could see someone cutting across, but I decided this time I was not going to be influenced. I was glad of it, as it was easy running on the path, the river was straightforward to cross at the bottom and I was soon on the path heading up the other side of Raise Beck.
At this stage I was feeling fantastic. I spotted Santa up ahead taking photos and I was leading a group of people who had passed me in the woods earlier on. At the top I tried to pick up the main path instead of landing up in bog around Grisedale Tarn. However, I soon got confused and found myself romping across fresh snow, in the right general direction, but certainly not on a footpath! Suddenly I felt my left leg sink … right up the full length of it, with my foot at the bottom in something very cold and wet! Eek! A runner called out if I was OK … I was and managed to hoik myself out. “Are you on the path?!” I yelled. He was, and I hastily made my way up there.
I took the next descent down Grisedale a little carefully due to ice, but again was spurred on by someone else who was running just behind me. I recognised the places we had stopped and chatted on our recce and was thinking about how much I LOVED this ultra-running thing. I planned to eat again when we hit the wide easy track at the bottom. Despite finding myself on some little path with the main one below me (how was it possible to drift off it? I have no idea) I soon dropped back down and got munching and into a good rhythm.
In my head I was thinking ‘two more checkpoints, two more small-ish hills. That’s all, and you’ve just passed marathon distance!’ I kept up running all the way into the return checkpoint at Side Farm, avoiding looking at the short but steep climb to Boredale Hause ahead. More snacks taken and I decided to top up my water a bit too. I had probably only drunk about a litre and still had some left but thought it worth the precaution, especially once I had gone to the trouble of fishing my drinks bladder out to check.
Side Farm to Cockpit – return ‘stick’ – body in meltdown
I was feeling chirpy as I headed out and up the hill, despite being overtaken by a handful of faster runners. I followed the same plan as before, walking and eating and choking on a stray grain of rice … then halfway up something bad happened. I don’t know what. I just felt weak, so tired. I was at about 45.5km. I thought it would be fine after the hill. As we crested the top my head told me to start running again, the gradient was easy, but my body refused. We got to the descent and my legs felt like jelly and not entirely under my control. It was tricky and I slipped and fell. I had to let two guys go away as I tip-toed down. Soon enough it flattened a little and became grassy.
I did a quick self-assessment. I felt too hot, my legs hurt, I wasn’t quite with it. I took action in the only ways I know how! A buff was snatched off my head. I ate a gel and a packet of honey stingers (reasoning that I had run low on energy coming over the last big hill and that the food at Side Farm wasn’t sugary enough to have kicked in yet). I slowed down a touch to let my body recover. I drank (I didn’t think I would be dehydrated in this weather, but knowing me, it was entirely possible). As another couple of people passed I exchanged a few words. “How are you?” they asked. “I’m in a dip” I answered. Off they ran. We had a long road section and I worked hard to keep moving and keep the gaps from widening. We got to Martindale and I was on the home stretch. ‘Only’ an hour or so from here! “Are we nearly there yet?” I joked with the marshals, hmm, I’m sure they heard that one a hundred times that day!
Cutting across the zigzags of the road, I paused to admire the view. It was quite stunning, with the sky pinkish from the low sun, and the hills reflected in the still waters of the lake. At the bottom I ran along the road feeling heavy. I had words with myself. If I ran like I felt, I would feel like that and worse. I tried to make myself run ‘properly’, nice and tall with some zing, in the hope it would lift my mood!
Up the footpath and back onto the bridleway. Now I started the mind games. 8km to go. Just like a lunchtime run at work with Neil and Jonah. I imagined what we’d be talking about; parkruns and races or gender identity and workplace confidence (!). 5km to go, just a parkrun. 3.5km to go, just the final run at Ötillö with Izzy by my side. 2.5km to go, just a run along the esplanade at Silverknowes. I made myself run the sections I knew I had ridden up the previous week. I ticked off the landmarks and promised myself more Honey Stingers at various points. I drank and drank, glad I had topped up after all. Somewhere near the top, I recovered…
The Cockpit to Askham – yippee!!
Suddenly I felt alive again! There was no one in sight in front or behind but I was happy in my own world again. I was running along familiar ground, and it was still light. I knew I would make it back well inside my target time despite the wobble. I took a slightly delirious selfie and charged down the hill and into the village. I realised I hadn’t checked which door the finish was at, but guessed correctly that it was the same one I had come out of. I ran round the corner. I tripped on the steps and crashed into a shut door. Joe opened it, looking bemused, and directed me to the table inside so that my number could be scanned for the final time. That was it! I had finished!
I wandered into the hall in a daze. The hall was hot and packed with runners, all doing their own thing, tucking into food and oblivious to me. I missed the feeling of finishing with a friend who has shared the same experience. I felt a few tears well up in my eyes, all emotional from the effort, but blinked them back and texted my coach and boyfriend instead. I could hardly move my legs, let alone climb the steps to the stage to retrieve my change of clothes. Luckily I had been organised and was able to get my stuff with minimum faff, shower, change and sit down. What bliss! Sitting down!
I chatted with a few people and settled down to wait for Steve. At some point tables were cleared and I was able to set up my camp bed. My sleeping bag was so soft and snuggly. I nearly fell asleep at 19:30 (utterly unheard of for me). Just after 20:30 in came Steve, to a big cheer as part of the last group to make it and not get cut off. Hurrah!
I finished in 8h24, inside my target of 9h. I was 9th female, 50th overall. Results here. I pondered if I had got my pacing wrong at the start, but I know I’m usually so good at this, and you’ve got to learn sometime! My split placings were fairly consistent. I don’t regret setting off with conviction as I did, even if I was slower coming back. I did also recover the situation when I blew up. Despite being mindful of eating frequently, it seems I should do it even more, as well as drinking more too. All in all, I decided I hadn’t done too bad for my ‘first ultra without any handy swimming breaks’. Post-race damage seems to be limited to general exhaustion (caught the bus to work for a week), sore legs, the skin off one heal and one bruised toenail. But I’ll wait to see how quick I properly recover before fully committing to another!
Many thanks to Joe and team at Nav4 for the race, to all the photographers (donation made to Patterdale Mountain rescue), to Steve for taking me back to the station and my fellow racers John and Hisayo for company for 3h as we waited for the first trains out of Penrith!