I have a difficult relationship with the UK’s Lake District. It’s beautiful. Stunning. Some of the most beautiful views to be had whilst running anywhere in the world. But it’s also tough – really tough – going and the scene of some of my biggest ultrarunning failures. There have been some highs too – but it’s the failures you learn lessons from and that can improve your training. So I wanted to share the lessons so you can learn from them without having to fail first…
I was fit going into the Scafell Sky Race. Really fit. But I didn’t finish. I tapped out, utterly exhausted and spent, at the checkpoint. I’d done all the hard work, only the smallest climbs were left, but I had absolutely nothing left and couldn’t move. What went wrong? I hadn’t respected the event. I looked at the distance – manageable I thought, the elevation – manageable I thought – and the area – I knew it well. It was a marked course so I didn’t need to worry about navigation. I thought it would be easy. I didn’t look into the ethos of the sky race, the race reports, the tales from other competitors. If I had, I would have known it was a scramble, kilometre after kilometre of scrambling over rocks, not following trails. I wasn’t ready for it. My core was too weak after years of neglecting strength and conditioning in favour of running and riding. When I got to a section I could run and was too exhausted too, I was broken.
I loved this race, which unfortunately looks like it might not happen again for a while, if ever. It was worth it just for the mapbook, let alone the views along the route. In many ways, this is a success story – I finished, in a fast time. And a year later I finished again and went faster. But it was victory from the jaws of defeat. I ran the first 11 miles to the first checkpoint far too fast. The next 11 miles, to checkpoint 2, included the big climb of the event. By the time I got to the second checkpoint at 22 miles, I was in trouble. It was one of the hottest days of the year and by the time I got there I was dehydrated from running too hard too early, tiring, and it was starting to get to heat of the day. I then overcorrected – I drank and ate too much, felt terrible, and to cap it all off, got stung by a wasp as I was changing my vest.
When I tried to run away from the checkpoint I managed to shuffle for 100 metres before realising it was time to walk. That continued for 5 miles as I gradually recovered, having taken on fluids more sensibly, taken some painkillers, and, most importantly, just kept going. What kept me going? I knew I could walk it in and still make the time cut off – so I did. It kept me moving. But once I’d recovered I was able to run it in. I caught up and took over many who were beginning to struggle on the last climb (and descent) and finished just 5 minutes behind my running mate.
The Saunders is a two day summer mountain marathon with an overnight camp. On this occasion it went wrong for me on day two – I couldn’t move and we scored really lowly as we made our way to the finish. We’d been reasonably high in the rankings on day one but plummeted on day two. I let my teammate down.
I’d been used to being strong on two day events like this – I had hill resilience to keep me going on the second day. But on this occasion it had vanished. Why? I hadn’t been paying attention to being fit for it. Not running fit – hill fit. At the time I was spending a lot of time in the city and away from hills. My ankles weakened. My core weakened. And after contouring endlessly with my feet and legs at weird angles for the entirety of day one, I no longer had the resilience to keep going on day two. I got to the finish and completed the event, but performed appallingly.
Key take homes