Ultimate Trails - Race Report

Race Report by Anna Boardman

It was deepest darkest winter, I was at low ebb with the dark nights and cold weather and needed a new challenge to spur me on. Luckily I found the inspiration in the form of an email which popped into my inbox with just the run I was looking for. The Lakeland Trails people, who run a fantastic series of races in the Lake District were setting up a couple of new ultra-distance races to be held in September – the Ultimate Trails - a 100km and a 50km run. They were going to be on trails, fully way-marked (glowsticks for the night section!). Plus they were perfect for both experienced ultra-runners and novices like myself and there was still plenty of time to train! 

Well September rolled around fast and about that training… whilst I did quite a lot of running and other activity this summer, due to one thing or other the long distance runs didn't really happen and I only managed a couple of 15 milers. I wouldn't recommend it, but I thought I would still give it a go as I could walk if needs be and just had to hope I could make the cut off times that were to be enforced at each checkpoint. 

The race HQ was at the Lakes Visitor Centre at Brockhole on the shores of Windermere. The 100km was to be a loop starting and finishing at Brockhole taking in most of the Lake District with 27hrs to complete the route and a lot of ascent! The 50km was to start half way along the 100km route and finish at Brockhole and would have a 12hrs time limit with about 1800m of ascent. 

So the day dawned bright and clear, having got registration, kit check and briefing over with the day before. I was very happy to be doing the 50km as we had a much more relaxed 9.30am meeting time, to catch the buses to the start line. The mad 100km runners had set off from Brockhole at 6am! The weather was absolutely incredible, clear, calm, wonderfully sunny but not too hot. I couldn’t have asked for more - except perhaps the foresight to wear suncream. 

A few coaches shuttled us over beautiful Kirkstone Pass and down into Patterdale to our start line, there were toilets, a band providing the entertainment and chance to relax/get more nervous, in the sun. While we were waiting to go, the first few 100km racers ran through – they had made it over a hilly 50km in 4hrs 57mins! We gave them a good cheer and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing them again! While I was waiting I added up the distances between checkpoints on the map we had been given, it was 46km! Hmm, I wonder where those 4km went?

Our start was at midday and having got chatting to a couple of runners that were obviously super athletes I was keen to make sure I didn’t get carried along with the crowd and set off too fast. I wanted to take it super steady, knowing I had a long way to go. The time came and luckily all but a few runners at the front seemed to have the same idea and we all trotted up the stunning Grisedale valley together admiring the views and getting into our stride. 

The going got tougher uphill out of the valley up to the hause, past Grisedale tarn and down to Thirlmere with some super rocky paths and steeper terrain, but it was great fun, especially in the sunshine! The info we had been given said this leg was to be 7.5km but my Garmin had clocked up 10.5km by the time I got to the first checkpoint and it certainly felt like it. Having entered a 50km race and then been given info that said it was 46km, I didn’t know what to think? Perhaps that 3km was part of the missing mileage and everything would be ok from now on? I’d also made it over an hour ahead of the cut-off time, so I could relax a little too.  The checkpoint at Thirlmere was amazing – filled with friendly folk, hot and cold drinks and lots of food! My kind of race!

The next leg was a short flat road section followed by a steep and slippy climb up to Watendlath Moor – the route chat before the race had mainly focused on this section being the boggy bit – they weren’t wrong! I waded through and descended off into Borrowdale – the views here and all through the race were fabulous and the checkpoint again was a welcome break, I drank a flat coke and ate some ginger biscuits and off I went. I also had my own food with me – mainly Nakd bars, flapjack and marmite sandwiches and I munched on those periodically, which was a good strategy as the next leg was the longest and most remote of the race. It was slightly flatter to begin with as we made our way into Langstrath however the path was one of the toughest of the day – seemingly a flat surface but with endless rocky boulders to break up your stride. There was no way to just cruise along, it took all my concentration just to stay upright. I had a morale low at this point - my knee was beginning to hurt and if I couldn’t even run properly on the flat sections, how was I going to get to the finish? 

The next uphill shook me out of that – Stake pass is steep but with a good new path and nicely graded switchbacks, I made great progress up to the top and was cheered on by some lovely marshalls in their little tent looking out for us all. The views down into Langdale and across to Bowfell and Crinkle Crags made me actually grin and with a renewed sense of purpose I set off downhill, unfortunately my knee was really beginning to hurt with the impact but as this was the last pass of the day and I could almost see the finish line – albeit across 20km of unudulating countryside – I was sure I could make it. This leg was again longer than the info suggested, by the checkpoint I was supposed to be at 29km and my Garmin said I was on 36km already! Just how far is it to the finish!? 

My family caught up with me at the checkpoint at Sticklebarn in Langdale which was also the most memorable because not only is it a great pub, there was a band and they served chips! Winner. I changed my top, filled my drinks bottle and off I went again. 

There was a small bunch of us keeping together at this point which was good for morale and we walked/ran along the Cumbrian way, nearly up to the top of Loughrigg Fell and then it was a fast downhill into Ambleside. It was about 8pm by this time and starting to get dark. The checkpoint was in the Parish Church and was another good one with proper toilets and plenty of food but by this time we had clocked up 48km or so and I was keen to push on to the finish. According to the route info the finish was about 5km away but I suspected it would be a little more, going on the earlier legs. Well it looked like my first ultra would be a little more ultra than I was expecting but what was another few km at this stage?! 

I set off through the town and out the other side to tackle the last hill of the day. I really needed my head torch by this point and after a km or so I was dismayed to find a big path junction without a waymarker. Now this shouldn’t be a problem for me, I know roughly where I am, I can read a map and I even have a phone with full battery and GPS in my bag. But after almost 50km and 8+ hours I just wanted to follow the promised markers and this seemed like a huge mental blow and I just stood there for a minute or two before my mental faculties came back and I got my map out – bizarre to look back at now. Fortunately a lady jogged up behind and together we worked out which path to take and carried on. A little way ahead there seemed to be a bunch of lights glittering in the woods we had just entered – Yes! 

The promised glowsticks or the finish line! Hooray! No such luck, just a cluster of lost runners with maps out trying to work out which of the three paths was the correct one! We worked it out again and carried on in a small group, a bit wary that this may happen again. There was a few complaints voiced about this and the extra distance we were doing but we had a joke about the ridiculous nature of what we were doing anyway and soldiered on. Navigation versus marked trails in a race, is a wider debate altogether, but the event organizers have since apologized to the participants as the markers and glowsticks were removed maliciously and they had to replace quite a few of them in the middle of the night for the 100km runners to follow. 

After what seemed like hours of night running/shuffling/walking across open hillside and then rough track, I finally heard the road coming up which signalled the crossing into Brockhole. This was it - the finish was ahead! Mustering up every last scrap of energy, I broke into a run down the road and into Brockhole. My family just spotted me in the darkness and I was cheered enthusiastically on the final run round the field and through the line. Well I was just about ready to collapse and with a final dib of my dibber, I was done. I was scooped up by the family and escorted off to complete the formalities and have a sit down. 

I was slightly disappointed to get a mans cotton t-shirt as the “specially designed finishers memento” but the friendly congratulations I got made up for it and the much needed bowl of hot soup and a roll were a great finish to it all. Then it was off for a bath, a dab of aftersun and a sleep.

After having a look at the results the next day, I was super pleased to find I had come 66th out of 101 with a time of 9 hours 18 mins. The winning time was 6 hrs 10 mins and the 100km was won in 11 hrs 38 mins! Unfortunately my Garmin watch ran out of battery just after Ambleside but I believe we ran about 55km in the end! Hats off to the 100km runners, who ran at least 105km, especially the ones who were still running in to the finish line at dawn on the Sunday having been on the go for over 24hrs! 

The event will be on again in June 2015 as the organisation is a mammoth task and the organisers want to give it a bit of time to reflect on feedback and give it their best shot at organizing a full way-marked ultra in the Lakes, similar in style to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I for one, hope to be there and couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Anna Boardman