LATE NIGHT DOUBLE BILL
For 2015 I had a plan to do a kind of mega triathlon, a long bike, swim and run, with enough time to train for each one. More adventurous than another season of regular races, still switching focus between the three sports. Interspersed with some middle distance racing on the newly acquired TT bike.
I ran the Boston Marathon in April (great city and race, miserable conditions, wanted 3.44, ran 3.48 with cramp for last 3 miles) and felt well set up for the season ahead. However, a training outing for the Coast to Coast in a Day bike ride (Keswick Mountain Festival Triathlon – see “There will be Gore”), turned into a close encounter with the hillside. As Sly Stallone so memorably said in Cliffhanger (1993): “A lot of things fell apart on that mountain that day.”
In my case a smashed bike, broken left hand, cracked ribs and split open left knee. I know I was lucky to get off so lightly, but I challenge any regularly obsessive amateur athlete not to be downhearted as all those months of work disappear in no time at all and you start from scratch the dull, slogging effort of recovering fitness. Trotting round parkrun after six weeks without falling over was a little triumph but then I seemed to be stuck. I was exhausted after 5k, every breath in the pool was a pain, literally and even if I’d had a bike I had no appetite to ride it, less still to try the TT bike in my feeble and nervous condition.
While the road bike was having multiple fractures repaired under Ciaran’s careful oversight, I concentrated on swimming and, gradually, running. Swanage Olympic distance race mid-summer proved that running even 10k off the bike when you have done no cycling is ugly. Otherwise I spent a lot of time in the sea near Lulworth Cove, at Man O’ War Bay and in various pools.
In the process, I met some lovely open water swimmers and my wetsuit became more Black Witch than neoprene.
The goal: the River Dart 10k swim. I had never swum more than 5km at one time, and that in a swimming pool. My estimated swim time was 3 hours 20 minutes but the results from previous years showed that most people took between 2.30 and 2.50. They might all be super-fast swimmers who knew what they were doing but I hoped it meant the tide and current were going to help.
Help I would certainly need. I don’t do cold very well and, as one chilly August day followed another, I was starting to panic more than a little. The water temperature, about 18 by the end of July, was plummeting: 16, 15, 14 degrees. Longest open water swim so far – 45 minutes and frozen blue. A neoprene raid was in order and I just managed to try out excellent Sailfish booties and a Zone3 vest in Hampstead Lido before it was time to go. Ate a lot. Obsessively checked the weather forecast. Slept little.
I was so focused on the cold that when we rolled into Totnes on Sunday morning in glorious September sunshine, I found myself sweltering in layers of thermals and sweatshirts. To catch the tide our swim didn’t set off until 1 pm so there was plenty of time for a leisurely meal by the river before heading down to the start area and joining the neoprene army. Boots and vest on under the suit, I zipped up as late as possible to avoid boiling in the bag but it was a real pleasure to slide into the cool brown river water.
Swimming a long distance is a strange and quite monotonous activity. It’s not hard if the water is calm, which it is for the first few miles; there’s the regular sound of my own breathing; splosh of hand entering water; a slight internal crunch in my neck as I turn my head to breathe. The regular blink of sideways vision as the town peters out and we pass green rushy banks, with scrap-built mermaids at kilometer intervals, warm sunshine on cheek, hand and shoulder, but above all the sensation of being in a large body of water for a long time.
After the first mile comes a series of bends through steep green woods. As I try to keep count of bends and mermaids, I am very surprised to come upon the first feed station: a crowd of hi-viz helpers on a moored raft mid-river, handing out food and drink. Here I realize that, though imperceptible while swimming, there is indeed a current. Firstly, I am at the 4km station already and secondly, as soon as I hang on to the raft my legs drift sideways.
Encouraged, I strike out from the raft enthusiastically. Aargh! Cramp in both legs. No, no, much too soon for that. But through painful experience I have learned to swim out cramp – ankle at a firm right angle, no foot pointing – and it eases. I continue cautiously, a bruised ache in my left calf.
The river widens and we cross two tributaries, a daunting expanse of water. By now the crowd of swimmers has thinned out greatly and I am glad to see another red cap here and there. That’s a big difference from a triathlon. You do bump other people a bit to start with but it’s all very polite, everyone giving ground and keeping an eye out rather than swimming over each other like mating eels.
The water is brackish, which sounds unpleasant but isn’t – slightly salty from the sea tide. There are cold patches but, with the sun blazing and my extra neoprene, I am a comfortable temperature, which is a huge relief. I treat the second raft (7km) with more respect, only stopping for a quick swig of lucozade to wet my whistle. I struggle with the idea of eating while swimming – nursery rules about not swimming for an hour after eating are hard-wired into me.
Another wide bend and a lot of boats moored. It’s hard to see where we are heading, I’m struggling to recall the map and the paddle boarders don’t seem to know any better. A shoal of us take a very wide corner when we should go straight on and, as the chop slaps into my face whichever way I breathe, my left shoulder starts to hurt like hell on each recovery. I adjust my stroke, even swim one-armed for a short while. And then, just as I’m thinking this has stopped being fun, I see bright flapping flags and an ant-trail of neoprene figures on the shore, and stand up dizzily in the muddy shallows.
My husband is there to meet me and I feel immensely happy and relieved. I had privately imagined getting too cold or exhausted to continue, unbearable cramp, drowning even, which all seems ridiculously melodramatic in the afternoon sunshine – but I’ve made it, in only two and a half hours, thanks to the current. And here’s another strange thing, no real tiredness. As soon as I stop lifting my left shoulder it stops hurting. No sweat, no aching muscles, no gasping for breath. The sun shines on Dittisham Green and all is right with the world.
Swim done, it’s time to focus on the final challenge, the Lakes in a Day 50 mile ultra run. Again, this is absurdly beyond me: I have run a few trail marathons but never further than 27 miles and never in such extreme territory. But a woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?
The plan had been to maintain my Spring marathon fitness with 10ks, half marathons and middle distance tris and add in a few longer runs. As it was I had managed a couple of slow 10ks and no run over 20k since the accident in May. Happily, although my knee is a little tight from the scarring, there is no structural damage. I took advice from Jo Carritt at Everyday Training about what to do with the month left and she said: Walk plenty, and run down hill. So I did.
Some people thrive on the unknown. Not me. Another glorious September weekend took me up to the Lakes again, where I did the second 8 miles of the route alone on Saturday and joined an organised recce of the first 10 miles on Sunday morning. I was a bit alarmed that even people anxious enough to come on a recce had far more experience than me. And, after struggling up boggy hills, down heathery ones, not quite understanding how to take a bearing (I lied, Kev), and clambering down vertiginous Halls Fell Ridge through the clag (Lake District for cloud), I was not at all sure that another 40 miles would be on the cards.
Happily this was not to be a solo venture as I had lured Lotte, Mauricio (both Alpine ultra veterans), Kevin (several ultras) and Martyn (whippet speedy though injured) into joining me. We shared a certain amount of collective anxiety and I felt my role was to be reassuring: I’m going to do it and you’re all better than me, so what is there to worry about? Or some equally dodgy logic. Manically prepped maps, ran down more hills and walked up them. Borrowed Naomi’s GPS and brilliant Salomon backpack. Ate a lot. Obsessively checked the weather forecast. Slept little.
We met at Euston for the train ride to our cottage at Grange-Over-Sands, a mile and a half from race base. That doesn’t sound like much but how to get to registration on Friday night, without wearing ourselves out? How to get to race base in time for the 5.45 a.m. coach to the start? When we realised there was quite a substantial hill involved too, we got very excited about Tony’s Taxis, the one man band providing all transport options in GOS on a Friday night. But Tony was quite clear that he wasn’t interested in a 4.30 a.m. pick-up so there was nothing for it but to shoulder our backpacks and walk it.
A last cup of tea and onto the coach, trying to not to be over-awed by the sinewy bare legs and knowhow on display. A bad moment when I realised I had left all my carefully marked up maps at race base, as I was trying to convince Lotte that she couldn’t get lost with me around! But in truth everything I could know was in my head and it turned out I didn’t miss them.
So, as dawn turns to day, a nice one too by the look of it, we set off from Caldbeck village at an undramatic trot on tarmac and tracks through the heather – although the front runners are soon far ahead up the hillside. The first section is mostly an open route, any way you like as long as you reach the top of Blencathra. From the recce I know there are a couple of tracks, not easy to find but significantly faster than wading through knee high heather or over boggy tussocks and spongy moss. By this means I catch up with the much speedier Lotte. Martyn comes with me and we all reach the top of the ridge together. Along the shoulder of Blencathra and we come to Halls Fell Ridge, a dinosaur spine of rock and scree with unforgiving drops to either side. Second time around, and in ever-brightening sunshine, it’s less terrifying but still awesome. The view across the valley is magnificent too, though tempered by the knowledge that our route is up those majestic hills.
Photo: Ian Corless
Into Threlkeld village and the first aid station. Tea, cakes, smiling volunteers. Lotte and I are keen to keep moving and impatiently leave Martyn faffing with his bottles. No sign of Mauricio and Kevin at this point though they aren’t far behind. We cross under a main road and along a disused railway line, one of the few points where actual steady running is a possibility, then start climbing again, joined by Martyn. The hill rises steadily then dramatically, as steep as a hill can be without being a cliff. I zigzag stolidly across the straight up path, falling into a silently agreed pattern with another lady. Behind me I can hear Martyn suffering, which of course makes me feel much better. Lotte and I make it to the top, after a cruel false summit, and again without a word spoken, leave Martyn behind.
I keep saying “Lotte and I”, as if we are a partnership, but at this point I know that I have no business running with Lotte: she is much younger, faster, and more experienced. She goes way faster than me downhill and I laboriously catch up on the ups – so I am probably blowing myself up by trying to stick with her. And the elastic between us is long, thin and easily snapped as we run along the top from White Pike towards Helvellyn, a series of ups and downs like a chain link fence where the posts are trig points on each fell. The weather is simply astonishing, bright sunshine, slight haze, no wind. I have never been on top of a Lake District hill with no wind. Never ever. Reaching the top of Helvellyn feels like a major achievement and we stop for a moment to snap a selfie and savour the pleasure, knowing there is much more to come.
And some of that more is soon awesomely revealed. Far below us the slate blue water of Grizedale Tarn and rearing up on the far side, a near-vertical climb up the shoulder of Fairfield. In order to get up we have first to go down Dollywaggon Pike, stopping to refill bottles from the tarn and then climbing up a black shale path that feels like a lost route into Mordor. There are plenty of others around us and spirits are high, if with a touch of hysteria in the laughter. What are we all doing? I give some Nuun tablets to Paul, who is suffering with cramp, and we press on, eager for the downhill to Ambleside and the halfway point.
Somehow I thought that after Fairfield there was a very long descent but we seem to go on doing ups and downs for ages, on hard-to-run stony, boggy terrain, till finally we start descending properly, only to find we are scrambling down sheer rocks with both hands and bottoms. This descent lasts forever and then twice as long again. We can see Ambleside, all whitewashed cottages and quaint tea shops, but it never comes any closer. I begin to obsess about my fresh shoes waiting in a bag at Ambleside. If I can only change my shoes everything will be alright, my toes will stop hurting, I will be able to talk and smile again. At last the ground changes from tumbling rocks to stony tracks and I hobble behind Lotte into the tourist-filled streets, feeling as though we have emerged from the jungle after many weeks.
The bliss of changing shoes and socks is everything I dreamed of. Gobble down slices of pizza – already I never want to eat another sweet thing in my life – refill our bottles and set off briskly. After two hundred yards I realize I have left my Garmin footpod on the floor in the shoe change-over and turn back for it, Lotte being heroically patient. Then on, out of town on small roads and pretty bike trails through beech woods, golden in the evening light. After what we have just done this seems unfeasibly easy going but of course it can’t last. Once again we start to climb, Claife Heights, and on such rough stony trails that we are grateful not to be doing them in the dark. Now and again another runner comes by or we to and fro with them, meeting Paul, Jen, Charlotte, Charlie and various others from earlier in the day. The light gradually fades on this beautiful day. I offer to let Lotte go on without me and she does the same.
Quite suddenly we run under trees and it’s so dark that we need our head torches on so as not to trip on the stones. Lake District stony paths are the stoniest I’ve ever encountered. Not content with awkward big-step stones, little jar-your-toe stones and loose, slithery twist-an-ankle stones there are also thin flat stones set on edge, uncomfortable to step on, just high enough to catch the tired trailing foot. They are evil and their evil is only truly revealed by the circle of light from a head torch.
First Lotte and then I have bad patches somewhere in these long miles. The circle of light becomes disorientating, it grows incredibly hard to eat anything or to keep it down if you do, the darkness robs us of any sense of progress or context, no idea what’s beyond the torch beam let alone around the next corner. Only more bloody stones. My borrowed Garmin GPS, which I don’t really know how to use, constantly beeps to say I have stopped then beeps again to tell me I’ve started. It’s not only infuriating but demoralizing too – yes, I do know how slowly we are moving, thank you, how our earlier, optimistic, daylight estimates of finishing are sliding horribly – and Lotte’s rage is remarkably restrained. I would gladly throw it away but it isn’t mine and anyway it may be our only way home. I have by now withdrawn the offer to let Lotte go on without me, which is just as well or I might still be out there.
Thankfully, although the organisers have told us there won’t be route marking and we must rely on our maps, they have shown mercy and the tricky navigation on multiple trails through the woods and down the side of Lake Windermere in the dark is pretty well marked with reflective arrows. The lake, silky black and quiet, is a reassuring navigation aid for a good while, although the path alongside it adds gnarly twisting tree roots and sudden boggy patches into the diet of stones and more stones. We join a group of runners at this point, which is great as more torches improves visibility generally and relieves the sense of being in a tunnel. But one of our party is obsessed with how near we are to the next aid station and although we know he’s wrong and it’s much further than he keeps saying, it’s hard not to raise our hopes a little. We leave the Lake and head up hill again, meeting Paul the formerly-cramped, who kindly leads the way up a very tough stretch of steep paths with deep mud added to the usual stone mix. At one point we find ourselves on the wrong side of a fence and have to scramble over it to get back to the Lake – the only time we are lost all day.
When it seems we will never reach the last aid station, we finally get a hint of tarmac and there it is, the yellow glow of Finsthwaite Village Hall, with the best soup I have ever tasted and some very kindly helpers. Once we have eaten some warm food and got our heads back together we realise that there are others who have done what we’ve just done all on their own – and have been nearly broken by it. Young Eric is contemplating getting a lift to the finish, now only 12 kilometres away, but we persuade him that we can all make it together. We team up with another guy and set off at a weary little trot, hoping the last few miles will be kinder. After a mile or so we pick up speed a little, inspired by the thought that if we finish near midnight we will be able to get a taxi back to our cottage. Suddenly this is the most important goal of the whole day so we leave the boys to it and press on.
We catch up with some former companions, Charlotte and Charlie, who were suffering at Grizedale but now seem disconcertingly spry. We tag along with them for a while, through bracken, grass, mud, fields, but gradually we drift back. I am sorry to lose the extra light but, in the grip of Ultra psychosis, I found myself hating their cheerful chatter and the spring in bloody Charlie’s step. I am sure he was holding the gates for me in a patronizing “poor old thing” way and I wish he wasn’t right! On our own again we rely on the glimmer from the next reflecting arrow, having given up any pretence of map reading. We see one ahead and go through a kissing gate into a field. Suddenly the “arrow” moves and there’s a huge animal thudding towards us in the dark: an inquisitive horse, wondering what we are doing in its field. We rapidly exit the field then find it is the right way after all, slightly hysterical by now.
A series of five foot high walls with stone steps provide an interesting challenge to leaden cramping legs and jumping eighteen inches to the ground is risky. For a while we have been heading towards the sulphurous orange glow of a big town –Morecambe Bay across the estuary – but now, thrillingly, tantalizingly close, we see the street lamps of our final destination, Cartmel. A village sign confirms it and then we find ourselves by a pub and see a taxi ahead. With tremendous presence of mind Lotte pounces on it and extracts a card and the promise of a pick up – our vision of glory is almost achieved! There follow three extraordinarily long kilometres of tarmac before we round a last bend and put in a final trot over the finish line. It is done. We hug. Our unlikely team has made it and I feel so grateful to Lotte for putting up with the beeping Garmin and my slow descents, and amazed and delighted to have reached the finish at the better end of my estimate – 16 hours, 29 minutes.
The boys arrive back at the cottage an hour or so behind us, we eat strange meals scavenged from the local convenience store and crawl into our beds for a few hours of sleep before creaking our way home. An amazing adventure.
[Shortly after completing this report I fractured my ankle on a training run. I am recovering well, if a little more lumpy, slow and cautious. My sympathy and admiration for anyone who has to deal with chronic illness and injury, that really is heroic.]
If you feel inspired:
Coast to Coast Cycle 25th June 2016
Dart 10K 3rd September 2016
Lakes in a Day 8th October 2016 http://www.lakesinaday.co.uk/