Sunday 22 May 2016, around 3pm: I looked at my Suunto Ambit 3 Sport and it read 52km – I was about 2km from the finish line of my first ultramarathon!
As soon as I heard about Keswick Mountain Festival Ultra 50k last year, I knew that it would be a must-do race for me in 2016, and signed up as soon as entries opened.
At 54km in length, and about 2000 metres of climbing and descent, this one-loop course looked perfect for my first ultra. Plus, it is run around one of the most beautiful parts of the UK, the Lake District, which I had not yet had the opportunity to explore, so this was the perfect occasion to get out and indulge in some of the best scenery and mountains the country has to offer.
The ultramarathon is one of many sporting events put on by the mountain festival organisers – there is something for everyone on the festival weekend, from kids events, climbing walls, 5km runs and lake swims, to kayaking, triathlons and longer distance trail runs, up to the big daddy, the 50k! The festival itself is a great weekend, even if you’re not doing any sporting events – just enjoying good music, food, speakers and atmosphere in Keswick and the shores of Derwent Water (the lake next to Keswick) would be a great way to spend your time.
A one-loop lap starting and finishing in Keswick. There were three big climbs and descents, with the rest of the terrain appearing undulating on the course profile:
I liked the look of the course profile, as I thought that once the big climbs were out of the way, the other sections would be pretty runnable – particularly the flatter section in the middle of the course, which was along the shores of two lakes.
The route was marked with red flags every 50-100m or so, and didn’t require navigation skills.
I’d had some bad luck a couple of weeks ago. After a perfect training run, I took my shoes off and found that I couldn’t put weight on or walk on my left foot. The diffuse pain persisted for two weeks, improving only slightly. I got to Keswick on the Saturday, the day before race day, and genuinely didn’t know whether I ought to even attempt to run an ultra marathon with this problem still lingering.
In the end I decided to go for it, on the basis that I was going to be at Keswick anyway, I could now just about walk on it without the pain getting any worse, and so as long as it didn’t become excruciating, I should start the race, give it a go, and get around by taking it easy and not pushing it. If it became unbearable then I would have to stop, but at least I tried – no regrets!
I booked a 15 minute sports massage and taping session with Hannah at Cumbrian Events Sports Therapy. She loosened up my calf and taped the foot up to give a bit of support for it during the race the next day. £10 well spent 🙂
As we had to be up early the next day, we stayed in the race venue only a couple of hours in the early evening, to eat dinner (pizza!) and watch some of the live music, before going to our B&B for an early night, going to bed about 9.30pm. The race was on the Sunday, and I wished it was on the Saturday (the same day as the triathlons and 25k race) so that we could have stayed up post-race to enjoy the Saturday evening’s entertainment.
The race started at 6am on Sunday so we had to be up at 4.45am to give time to eat something and get to the start line ready for the briefing. Breakfast was a pot of Moma porridge and a big cup of coffee to get our bodies going. This is a great combination if you are staying in a hotel/B&B, as all you need is a kettle and a mug (which are usually available in the room) and it is quick to prepare.
I had prepared myself mentally to be out all day. I felt that, by running on the dodgy foot, it was like running on a timebomb – it could go off at any minute, with a wrong step or a slight twist, it could be game over! So I owed it to myself to expect to take a long time getting around the course, and that what I was there to achieve was (a) to have a great day out seeing some of the best the Lake District has to offer, and (b) finish my first ultra.
About 185 people started, and after a short and clear briefing from the race director, we were off! I thought I recognised a few people, some from the CTS race series (including Exmoor marathon last month), and one lady I couldn’t place – later realising that it was ultra running legend Lizzy Hawker, who had been in Keswick speaking at the event two days ago (before we arrived unfortunately).
After a few kms warming up on flat terrain, we started our first climb. I had planned to walk up all the climbs and was taking it very steady. Downhills were going to take even more concentration, and I gingerly placed my left foot down each time, careful not to roll it. Most people ran ahead, and I told myself not to worry about position or being left behind – I was just grateful to be out having this adventure, it didn’t matter how long it was going to take. I don’t have any pictures of the technical sections because I was too busy concentrating.
Our biggest climb of the day was after the second aid station, up to Honister Slate Mine about 16km in, and then the descent down the other side was the most technical section of the course. This was steep, with loose, sharp rocks and some steep drops off the side. This stuff is not my forte at the best of times and it took a huge amount of concentration, and the use of my poles, to get down in one piece without falling over. Once I got to the bottom I had definitely warmed up, the sun was out, the day was beautiful and I knew then that I would finish the race! The foot hurt with every step, but it hadn’t got worse and I could hold out until the finish. Plus, I was about to reach a 10-15km runnable stretch, wasn’t I?
Running through bogs – a new experience
I hadn’t expected the terrain to be so difficult – even on the flat sections. It was very uneven, a mixture of grass, waterlogged bogs, and the odd sharp stone. I’ve run some technical trails in the Alps, Gran Canaria and around Cheddar Gorge, but nothing like this. I kept my feet dry up to about 21km when I gave in and started running through the waterlogged sections, sometimes up to my knees, not knowing if it was going to be just a wet foot or if I would sink down lower, or if it would be a soft landing or I would end up on a rock. This was new for me, and I found it tough going – my finishing time was going to be very slow at this rate! Having said that, I started to enjoy getting wet feet, the shoes (Asics Gel Fuji Attack 3s) held up well, didn’t rub, and the water helped keep my temperature down.
I spent much of this section running near two other ladies who were running together – we were constantly overtaking each other, and although we were not running together, it was nice to have others nearby, and I think this kept me moving as they became a good speed benchmark. After a long stretch of about 13km, we reached the third aid station at the end of the lakes section at the same time, very grateful to be able to refill our water bottles, which had been empty for a few km. One of them offered me a piece of Kendal Mint Cake, which I gratefully accepted – it was delicious! The aid station team were friendly and helpful, helping to refill my water bottle and giving me another one for the road. I took this gratefully, grabbed a sandwich and started moving. I don’t like to spend much time at checkpoints, preferring to grab and go – you can eat and drink while walking, and be moving closer towards your end goal.
Just over halfway…
The next section was one of my favourites, runnable trails through woods on the other side of the lake. It was nice being able to run, after hours of enforced walking and hopping through bogs. It soon became tougher though, as I started up on the next big climb, from about 35km. The paths were nice here, and there were lots of people out walking with their families and dogs. I was getting very warm and swapped my long sleeved top for a t-shirt – you couldn’t ask for better weather – there was a breeze, the sun was out, and it was about 16 degrees – absolutely perfect!
The climbing went on and on… I reached a grassy traverse, which looked perfectly runnable but as it was sloped to the right, I found it very painful on my sore foot. I hopped and cursed my way across this section and into some remote and beautiful mountain trails, crossing small streams and trying to run the flatter sections. Eventually the two ladies I had been with before overtook me, I ran after them downhill all the way to the penultimate checkpoint. It was a great feeling getting down there, where we were greeted by more friendly marshalls/volunteers, and my watch read 45km. Not long to go!
The last few km…
From then on it was roads and easy trails to the finish. I skipped out of the checkpoint with some bananas and a cup of coke, keen to get to the finish and take advantage of another section where I could actually run. I drank the coke and used the empty cup to store my banana pieces in so they didn’t coat my race vest pocket in banana slime, feeling quite pleased with my ingenuity.
When my watch said 50km I started getting a bit frustrated. Where was this finish line? I had kept myself together and had a steady run so far, but freaked out a bit when I looked at my watch and saw it was already reading 9 hours! I had hoped to finish in under 8 hours, but that was before the injury. I rang my husband and he told me that it was actually 54km long – I blubbed a bit, grunted at him down the phone and kept running. Despite being so slow I wanted to finish strong. I had passed a few people at the previous checkpoint and really wanted to finish running, and not get passed by anyone in those last few kms. So I ran – slowly – but I was running – through Keswick, appreciating the cheers from people I ran past, and after 9+ hours, wanting so badly to be finished and stop running.
Finally… the race village was in sight. You have to run past it, and then almost back on yourself to get to the finish line. I rang Ali again, listened to his words of encouragement, assured him that his wait for me was nearly over, and pressed on. It was amazing to finally get back to the race village, and that there were still people cheering at the finish line, making me feel like a superhero and so so proud to have finished this tough race!
I carried water (one 500ml soft flask), 4x shot bloks, 2x high 5 gels and a clif bar. I ate most of this, half the clif bar as I found it too dry to get down me. The gels kept me going in the last half hour, when I was trying anything at this point to get those last 4km done. I picked up a couple of banana pieces at each checkpoint, tried a few mouthfuls of sandwich halfway, and enjoyed the cup of coke at the 4th checkpoint.
It was hard to choose what to wear for the race. The mandatory kit list stated you needed to take a long sleeved fleece, so I compromised by taking both a long sleeved top (which I started off wearing) and a t-shirt (which I put on half way around, when it got pretty warm).
- Shoes – Asics Gel Fuji Attack 3s – new, so comfortable, moderate cushioned and fantastic grip. Loving these shoes.
- Clothes – Lululemon Run Swiftly long sleeved tech top, short sleeved tech t-shirt, and leggings. The leggings are great because they have deep pockets on the thighs, and a zip up pocket on the back. Balega socks
- Race vest – Ultimate Direction Vesta, filled with mandatory kit, food, water and folding Mountain King Trail Blaze poles.
- Watch – Suunto Ambit 3 Sport – customised design