I sit down on a bench at a round table, littered with empty plastic glasses and paper cups of tea, and sit our son Ted, on my lap. My mum hands me a bottle of warm milk. I lean Ted, 14 months old, into the crook of my left elbow as usual, and he starts to drink it. My body is exhausted and I squirm in the seat trying to get into a comfortable position.
“How was it Em?”
I look up and see our new running friend, Jim, smiling at me in support. Don’t be confused. Jim is not a new runner, he’s a very accomplished runner. But he is a new friend of mine… a ‘friend of a friend’ in fact. Who I stood alongside just under 35 hours ago, on the start line of the Lakeland 100.
“Yeah, a bit wet, but good. Nice to finish in the dark for once!” I shift about in my chair, now the weight of Ted on my legs is a bit painful.
“You’re over halfway to the slate!” says Jim, (speaking about the slate trophy you receive after 5 Lakeland 100 finishes).
“Haha….. yeah I think three is enough!” I mutter back with a smile.
3 years later, at 5pm, Friday 29th July 2022. My husband Andy and I exit the side door of the busy hall at John Ruskin school, Coniston, and wander over the fields, carrying our full race packs past the busy portaloos and into the campsite to see a familiar face sitting outside his van. We ask Jim if we can eat our final, pre race sandwiches and banana outside his van, away from the busy race start. He smiles and offers us some chairs. Jim’s wife and their friends join us, and we quietly contemplate the 105 miles we are about to attempt. I recount the moment from 3 years earlier where Jim had pointed out that I was already over halfway to becoming a ‘Lakeland 500 legend’; a 5 times finisher of the Montane Lakeland 100. So far my finish rate of this race was 100%, 4 finishes out of 4 starts, but there was still plenty of time in the next 40 hours for my first Lakeland DNF.
My previous L100 finishes…..
2015 – First attempt, felt great in the first half. Couldn’t handle the sleep deprivation on night two. Was falling asleep on my feet. Got in with 30 minutes to spare. Finished in 39:26.
2017 – Second go, just to prove I could do it again. I had run the Grand Union Canal Race about 6 weeks before and had an ongoing knee issue. Had to walk all the downhills. Almost pulled out at Mardale Head with painful feet. Big PB time of 36:47
2019 – Third attempt. 14 months after having Ted. Couldn’t get in the same mileage in training as I had previously. Did 70% of my running with the buggy. Yet ran another PB of 34:44. Almost pulled out at Howtown due to macerated feet, but was told to ‘put your fucking shoes back on and get out there’ by the checkpoint marshal who then said ‘You paid to be here!’ I felt obliged to carry on.
2021 – Fourth. 14 months after having Fergal. Did lots of double buggy running in the training. But with the restrictions and difficulties imposed by Covid-19 and two young children it was just a ‘complete not compete’ year. It was super hot, the trails were bone dry. Around mile 70 I strained my left hip flexor and struggled to lift my leg. So slowed a lot and finished in a time of 37:49
So, 2022 … This year, I had asked Gary House, (House Running Club) to coach me for my final 3 months of training into Lakeland 100. Gary is an experienced hill runner and has completed many fell and mountain races similar to Lakeland, as well as being a successful run coach. As a coach myself I was well aware that I could have just written my own plan, but I simply don’t have the experience in coaching for the mountains / fells and in hindsight, it was probably the best decision I made for this years race. In April, I had run in the Crawley 12hr track race. Leading up to that I’d built up a good amount of fitness (albeit going round and round in circles) and was prepared to start doing more in the hills. Gary threw every hill session possible into my plan. I had hours and hours of hiking up and down the North Downs. At times it felt like I was slower than ever. But I trusted the plan, and kept at it. My alarm clock went off at 4am every Saturday morning for the 3 months before Lakeland so I was out early and back to spend the day with Andy and the kids. Mid week would often involve a hill rep session. I could mostly do these while friends and family watched our youngest and the oldest was at preschool. Or after the kids were in bed I would drive around to local hills to find the ones that were long enough to do 1 mile reps, as was on the plan. There’s actually not that many in North Kent.
As we got closer to race weekend I practiced my fuelling. This year I had started using more Veloforte gels and chews which I got on with. I went through packs and packs of Lidls Stroopwaffels and a tonne of sour jelly beans. Looking back through notes from previous races I realised I don’t often fuel enough in the first half, which has a negative effect later on. This year I carried enough gels for each hour of the first half of the race, and more in my drop back for the second half. I also took on food from the checkpoints had Tailwind in one of my bottles.
This year I was really happy that quite a few other runners from our club had also signed up to either the Lakeland 50 or 100. There were about 10 of us running, including my husband Andy, plus supporters. Because it was my 5th L100 we rented a house in Coniston and it became a family affair.
We checked into our house in Coniston at about 2pm Thursday, after a 5am start and long drive up from Kent. We settled in and sorted our kit. Friday morning we were at kit check early to go through the process and pick up any last minute supplies like socks and gels. Our family took the kids out for the day so we could get out kit re-packed and have a lie down before the start.
The race briefing at Lakeland is always a highlight of the weekend. The race director Marc always asks previous finishers to make themselves known and especially if you are going for your fifth 100 like myself. There were around 20 of us going for the 500 slate including myself and two other ladies.
After the briefing it is a quick goodbye to the kids, family and our fellow club members who are preparing for the 50 the next day. We say a quick hello and goodbye to our friends Nick and Jess who live in Cumbria who have had a rough time health wise in the last couple of years. I offered to take Jess’ running mascot ‘Ratty’ with me on the race. I put him on my front pocket as something to remind me to keeping pushing on, when things get tough.
On the start line I say my goodbye to Andy as he is determined to stay near the back of the pack and I move forward to hear the tenor sing Nessun Dorma, and get going.
Coniston to Seathwaite
6pm. We’re off, and climbing up the Walna Scar road seems to go quicker than before.
My plan for this race was to stick to a steady pace and get to Dalemain in one piece, before 11.30am on Saturday the 50 mile race starts. So on this first climb I push upwards but when I feel a little nauseous I ease off a little. I decide to water down my cola flavoured tailwind which tastes a bit like dishwater. I haven’t mixed it up enough.
Running down the descent of Walna Scar and 500 legend Jackie Stretton makes a fun ‘weeeeeeee’ as she flies down beside me. We discuss the slate and how I am out to get it this year. I see Jackie a lot later on in the race and she cements her place in my Lakeland 100 family as the contents of her stomach decide to fall at my feet and we run together for a bit.
Into Seathwaite and I nip inside for a wee and continue, grabbing a couple biscuits as I go.
Seathwaite to Boot
7.30pm, On the leg to Boot there is a turn off the path through thick fern and over a stile which I make a habit of missing every year. This time I see it coming and I get it right. Here the descent down is steep and, as previously, we hang onto the wire fence on our right as we make shaky steps downwards. The night still feels warm and sticky but my nausea has settled and I get some orange squash in Boot checkpoint to replace the tailwind which seemed to have upset me. I see our friend Karen outside the pub on the way into Boot and she gives me a cheer. Later on my husband sadly drops at this checkpoint after a couple of falls and he realises he’s too injured to try to just ‘get round’. The next couple of legs are really remote and involve a lot of rocky descent. So a sensible decision.
Boot to Wasdale, Wasdale to Buttermere, Buttermere to Braithwaite
I always enjoy the madness of this first night at Lakeland 100. From the exit of Boot aid station it is starting to get dark. And will be all the way to Braithwaite at least. A long three sections with some big climbing and a lot of ‘technical’ trail, i.e. don’t fall over or you’ll be calling mountain rescue. I know these routes pretty well and have historically made good friends on these sections with people who are willing to talk to me! In 2021 on the climb up Black sail pass (the second highest ascent on route) I met a runner called Matthew who I stayed with for most of the first half. In the hour it took us to climb to the top he knew my family history, where I went to school and what I like on my toast. This year there were just as many friendly people to share the trail with and before I knew it I was in Braithwaite village hall getting a bowl of pasta. I was in the checkpoint earlier than I had ever been before, just after 3am, and left still in darkness.
Braithwaite to Blencathra, Blencathra to Dockray
32 miles run, and I get word that Andy had dropped out at Boot as I am walking down the road towards Keswick. I stick my headphones on and trot along the road. My legs are feeling surprisingly good. In fact, after a quick wee stop behind a wall near the base of Blencathra I feel so good, I run the entirety of the next section. On the Old Coach Road, which normally feels like a never-ending undulating track, I am running at 11 minute mile pace. I have never felt this good at this point in the race. We are approaching the 50 mile point and my legs feel absolutely fine. I down some soup in Dockray and try to keep my momentum going as I head down towards Aira Force.
Dockray to Dalemain
At 10 miles this is the longest section of the whole race. And features a nice descent to aira force waterfalls, then round Gowbarrow fell towards Dacre and then Dalemain. I’m still moving pretty well, but having to stop a lot to wee. At one point I don’t go off the path enough and another runner passes, definitely getting full view of my bum. There is a long tarmac section which runs all the way to the village of Dacre. At this point my momentum seems to have ended. I need lots of food and some motivation to get through the rest of the race. As I jog into Dalemain the Lakeland 50 runners are arriving on coaches and 100 runners get a nice cheer from them as we enter the checkpoint.
It’s 10.20am and I sit down and have a bowl of stew, and some cake and custard. I change my top and get some fresh socks on. I go to put on my (normally comfy) Saucony Peregrines and find they feel tight around my feet and clunky, in comparison to the La Sportiva shoes I have run the first 59 miles in. So, for the first time in all the 100’s I have run, I stick the same shoes back on and carry on in them to the end. They are wet but my feet don’t feel restricted in them and tbh it looks like my feet are only going to get wet again.
Dalemain to Howtown
As I leave the checkpoint at Dalemain I can see a big group of our club runners standing to the side cheering for me. They are about to start the 50 mile race and I have a chat with them as I drink my cup of tea. I shuffle away and start running across the fields to Pooley Bridge.
As I get to the river and the village itself I see my family waiting for me. The heavens open and I stop with Ted to get my coat on before saying goodbye – till tomorrow morning. The kids are happily off to Hill Top to see the home of Beatrix Potter while I will be on the fells.
Running into Howtown I realise I am still ahead of my PB pace. I am in the checkpoint when I see the leading man, and, shortly after leading female, Katie Kaars Sijpesteijn come through.
Howtown to Mardale Head, Mardale Head to Kentmere
At the bottom of the next climb, I stop to let the legend that is Sabrina Verjee come past me on a footbridge. She gives me a ‘well done you!’ as she skips past. I stick my headphones on and try to move up the grassy climb as quick as I can. By the top my legs are very tired, and I shuffle across the peat bog as Lakeland 50 runners come past me thick and fast. I turn to see a fellow Harvel member Toby catching me up. He stops to say hello before flying off down towards Haweswater. By Mardale Head I feel like I’ve slowed a lot but as I get to the checkpoint it is nice to see our friend Freya and get some more soup. It’s now just after 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I have run 75 miles.
The rain from here to Kentmere is relentless. Not heavy but relentless. I stick on my waterproofs but find myself removing them again not long out of the checkpoint. It’s a big climb, long descent, and then another before we go down and in to Kentmere. My feet are really hurting and stepping on every stone in the path is painful. I am continually surprised at how well my legs feel. I get to Kentmere at 10 minutes to 7pm. It’s busy and I find a spot to sit down and change socks. My feet are very macerated. I try to dry them as much as I can and get some fresh socks on. After some pasta I get a cup of tea and a bag of sweets and get walking out of the checkpoint.
Kentmere to Ambleside, Ambleside to Chapel Stile
At this point in the race it’s hard not to start focusing on the mileage. Early on it’s just too daunting to think about the enormity of the distance. But now with over 80 miles run, you can’t help but start counting down. At some point over Garburn Pass I bump into Jackie Stretton again. We hobble down to Troutbeck together. When I meet my husband and family at the bottom, Andy tells me ‘Stick with Jackie! She’ll keep you going!’ I do stick with Jackie as unfortunately she is struggling to keep food down so I stop to make sure she is ok. We stay together for a bit and then at some point around Ambleside she leaves me for dust! Coming down into Ambleside I spot my husband and my uncle again as they sit in the car park with a takeaway pizza by Ambleside Youth Hostel. I decline the pizza and jog round to the checkpoint.
90 miles done, at Ambleside I head inside the checkpoint to get a cup of tea and see a couple more of our club members who are running the 50. I use the loo, the first proper one in a while. The checkpoint inside is roasting hot and I don’t stay too long so I don’t feel the cold too much when I leave. I grab a few pieces of cake and start walking through the park.
The road towards the fells is a winding steep hill. Once we get out onto the open fell it feels really dark and lonely with lots of the 50 runners passing me, I chat to some but they move on ahead, full of energy. I follow the route down and towards the next road, struggling to stay awake. I consider sitting on the side of the path to have a 10 minute snooze, when a club runner in the 50, Gavin, walks up beside me. I apologise that I am going to interrogate him for as long as I can to keep myself going. Thankfully Gav is quite happy to have a chat and we talk about the race so far, how everyone else is getting on and the route ahead. Before I know it we are in Elterwater and not far from the next Checkpoint. I tell Gavin to move on as he is doing really well and on for a sub 16 hour finish. I’m feeling a bit more alive, but still desperate for a lie down in the aid station. My feet, which started hurting back in Kentmere, are still slowing me down. My legs feel completely fine, but the soles of my feet are agony every so often I purposely step into a cold puddle to numb them a little.
At Chapel Stile, I go straight to the inflatable mattresses on the floor and lay down under a blanket. I ask Raj, a volunteer I recognise from previous Lakelands, if he wouldn’t mind waking me up in 15 minutes. I shut my eyes but all I can hear is commotion in the tent around me. Eventually I drift off for what must have been about 3 minutes, before Raj gives me a gentle nudge to get me up. Whilst I had my eyes shut a 50 runner had collapsed in the tent and was being looked after by medics. I get up and give the volunteers my blanket to keep him warm. It’s nearly midnight on Saturday and everyone is wet and cold. I have to have 2 cups of tea to stop me shaking. I take some cake with me and am about to leave the checkpoint with twin ladies who are in the 50. Just as I leave, my head torch gives a couple flashes before turning off. Fuck. I change the battery pack and it seems ok, for now. But I think the rain may have finally got to it and pray it will last till the end. Sadly I’ve now missed the buddies I was about to leave with.
Chapel Stile to Tilberthwaite, Tilberthwaite to Coniston
I leave the checkpoint and make my way across the field and back out onto the fell. The single path across the fields and through some sheep folds is muddy and wet from the hundreds of runners who have passed through before us. I get to the first A-frame which is basically a ladder up a dry stone wall and down the other side. Each ladder has about 3 rungs on it, each quite wide apart, and after you have run over 95 miles, they are difficult to move over. The mud from the fields is also now all over the rungs of the ladder where you pull yourself up. I don’t care about getting muddy, but it does make things slightly more precarious. Runners help each other out at each ladder to make sure they can see the rungs and the floor beneath by shining light from each others torches. It is at one of these a-frame ladder things that I start chatting to another 100 runner called Stephen. Stephen is from Worthing, and this is his first Lakeland 100. We end up staying together till the end. The route through to Tilberthwaite is a section I know very well by now and as he is unsure of the way, Stephen sticks with me. We are both keen to keep our minds off of sleep so we chat about absolutely everything – chatting is my favourite in race activity. Our favourite films, races and family who are supporting us are all discussed. By the time we are at the next aid station we decide we are sticking together to the end.
We reach Tilberthwaite, 102 miles, at 2:50am on Sunday morning. We are treated to a cheese toastie and a cup of flat coke. I send my husband a message to tell him I’m on the last section now. I am keen to press on so we get up to go, but then my head torch completely dies. We are certain to be in darkness for the remainder of the race and the final descent is very steep and very rocky. Thankfully, Stephen has a spare lightweight head torch which he lends me. Without this I very probably would have fallen and done myself serious damage so I was very very grateful. The route winds up the fell to a small stream crossing beside a single tree. When we get there I realise we have sleepily made an error and retrace our steps to the crossing. A bunch of 50 runners, unsure on the navigation, follow us, and Stephen reassures them ‘she must know the right way, this is her 5th time!’
We get to the final descent and take our time to get down in one piece.
Before I started the race this year I had set myself various goals. My absolute ‘stretch’ A goal was to finish in under 30 hours. When I first took part in this race the ladies record was 30hours, (now the course record is a lot quicker than that!) but I remember thinking, what an achievement that sub 30hours would be. My B goal was to run a personal best. Sub 34.44. That seemed achievable. My C goal would be to crawl round. I had to get the slate even on my hands and knees.
Early on in the race for quite a while I was running at pace that would get me in under 30 hours. I was so amazed at how actually, it seemed achievable. Up to 70 miles, I was on it, and so proud of myself. Now, at this point, with less than a mile to the finish, I was settling for a personal best, and that was enough for me today.
We get down the rocky descent and pass the footbridge we crossed at the start of the race 34 hours earlier. Stephen and I hit the tarmac and jog down to the Black Bull, over the bridge and onto Lake Road.
It is 4.35am and still raining, so I am surprised to see my family waiting for me as we cross the line, 34 hours and 36 minutes after the start.
I head into the marquee to meet my family, husband and kids, have our photos taken and have a sit down.
After a bath, some sleep and some fresh clothes we go along to the presentation, and I pick up my slate. Exactly 10 years since I first ran an ultra marathon. I’m pretty happy about it.
And Ratty…? He enjoyed his 105 mile trip and returned home safely.