The Lakes and learning from failure

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…

Lakes lesson 1

Know the event and be ready for it (Scafell Sky Race)

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.

Key take homes

  • Really research the race. Make sure you know what to expect and train for it. 6 months of hanging leg raises would have been good prep for this one…
  • Make sure you are rested before the big event – I had raced another event, a trail marathon, just two weeks before. I did not have enough time to recover. These days I work off 9 weeks between events (if I am giving them maximum effort). At the time I thought I would get away with this because the Sky Race was manageable (see above point).
  • Don’t neglect cross training – you will need it. I’m not going to labour this one here, but will cover it more in Lakes Lesson 3 below.

Lakes lesson 2

Pace yourself, look after yourself, make sure you finish (St Bees Ultra)

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.

Key take homes

  • Pace yourself. I went off too hard, too fast, too early. The next year I did the entire event faster, but the first 22 miles a lot slower.
  • Eat and drink sensibly throughout and use checkpoints for an additional treat and to restock your pack. Don’t run hard and binge eat at the checkpoint.
  • Just keep going if you are struggling. Ultras are long and hard. Everyone has low moments. You need to weather yours and manage your way throughout. You will get moving again and you probably won’t be last (but even if you are – you beat those that didn’t finish at all)

Lakes Lesson 3

Condition yourself, don’t just run (Saunders Lakeland Marathon)

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

  • If you aren’t getting enough training time on hills and trails, you need to condition your feet and legs to deal with it. Consider doing some barefoot work, gym work (barefoot single leg romanian deadlifts will soon strengthen your ankles, as will doing barefoot squats on a bosu ball).
  • Even if you are getting time on the trails, you need to pay attention to your core and your all round strength and resilience. After this race I took to wearing barefoot shoes almost full time (in every day life), though not necessarily to run in. I went back to the gym and trained on my strength almost exclusively for a few months to build back up. But don’t get to that – make sure you have strength and conditioning training in your schedule every week. Make it progressive, just as your runs are. Extra weight or extra reps or more difficult variations of the exercises will all allow you to construct a progressive strength and conditioning routine.

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