Martin’s epic 100-mile journey

Warrington Running Club’s Martin Thomerson blogs about his unique 100-mile ultra experience.

Lakeland 100 2015 – snakes, frogs and mice

lakeland100The Lakeland 100 is a 105 mile circuit of the Lake District with 23,000 foot of climbing. I’ve previously run 100-mile races 7 times; 5 of them took me between 26 and 29 hours, missing a single night’s sleep. I’ve done the Lakeland 100 twice before, both times taking nearly 39 hours and two nights without sleep. It’s a monster compared even to other 100 milers.

Words from the organisers:

“The 40 hours available to complete the course may seem manageable upon your first calculations but don’t be fooled. The event requires competitors to be experienced ultra distance runners with excellent navigation skills. The climb, descent, rugged terrain, darkness and tricky navigation generally ensure a 50-60% failure rate over the 100 mile course. Seasoned ultra runners have tried and many have failed, a finisher’s medal in the Lakeland 100 is one of the most treasured possessions you will ever receive. There are few things in life for which you will have to work so hard, show such commitment, desire and the simple stubbornness to keep going.”

And so it began

I’ll start with the build-up. Back in May I picked up an innocuous shin niggle while road running. It was one of those niggles that you always get that usually go way. This one became worse so I rested up for a few weeks before running the 100 mile SDW100 in June. I finished that race but it blew the niggle into a full-blown injury just 6 weeks before the Lakeland 100. I had shooting pain up my leg and couldn’t put any weight on it. After a fortnight the pain was less but I was still limping badly and unable to push up on my left ankle. I saw my physio Tracey who didn’t rule out the Lakeland 100 but recommended getting it checked out properly as it could be a stress fracture. An A&E physio gave the same diagnosis but an x-ray proved it to be soft tissue damage only. Rest and more rest was prescribed. It was another two weeks until I could walk without limping, leaving just 2 weeks until the race.

During this period I cycled a lot to keep my fitness up but took a full 2 weeks absolute rest before the event. So in the 11 weeks running up to the Lakeland 100, I’d run just once and that was another 100 mile race. The lack of running didn’t worry me too much as ultra running is an unorthodox sport. But what did worry me was my ability to carry a recovering injury through such a hard event. The SDW100 had been very painful but that was 12 hours shorter. I knew I’d probably damage it badly again and need a lengthy lay-off, but I’d accept that just to be able to finish. Couple this with my record of finishing every event I’ve started. This is very rare for an ultra runner but something I’m incredibly proud of. The day I don’t finish an event I’ll be devastated. So taking an injury into the UK’s hardest single-stage race with a 100% determination to finish is not a good combination for a healthy outcome. If I’m honest I was worried about how much I’d hurt myself. But not once did I ever think about skipping the race. Not even when a stress fracture was a possibility. My mindset is: It’s the Lakeland 100. I’m starting. I’m finishing. There is no other outcome.

So on to the start at Coniston at 6pm on Friday evening. I was running with Brandon as always and we lined up in the starting pen with 300 other runners. The event anthem Nessun Dorma (aptly translated “none shall sleep”) was sung by an opera singer and then we were off. A slow jog through Coniston with crowds cheering and we were rolling.

The important thing about ultras is not to think too far ahead. Especially on a long one like this; the time involved is too daunting to be able to deal with. Run for say 6 hours on any day and you’ll be knackered; if you think about the 33 hours still to go you’d collapse mentally. You have to deal with the time stretching in front of you by ignoring it, or it’ll weigh you down.

The route is broken into small sections by the 15 checkpoints en route. We both had a laminated sheet with our split times from 2014, so we could track our progress. The other thing I do is work in time and not miles. This works much better because a mile at the end is much slower than a mile at the start, with your speed slowing about 70% in a long race. But time doesn’t slow. It’s just simpler and is easy to track on your watch, especially when you’re shattered.

The first section is 7 miles over the Walna Scar road (a rocky track) to Seathwaite in the Duddon valley, less than 2 hours. This was taken at an easy jog for the flat sections and a brisk walk on the uphills. We just chatted to a few people and enjoyed the evening, getting the first 2,000 feet of climb completed and the first few hours out of the way. I could feel my shin straight away which was a worry for later but it wasn’t restricting anything. We arrived 5 minutes ahead of schedule due to the good conditions.

We then headed over to Eskdale, which is a rough section, although a lot of recent track improvements helped. We knew the route well and were very careful to pick our way round boggy sections to minimise getting our feet wet. On a normal run you wouldn’t worry but on a long event wet feet gives trenchfoot and your feet then blister badly. This happened to me in 2012 and I was in agony so I will do everything to avoid it again. The weather was cool and perfect so we arrived ahead of schedule, refilled water bottles, grabbed cake and headed on.

Next was a short 6 miles over to Wasdale Head past Burnmoor Tarn, a very boggy area. It got dark on this section so we donned headtorches and picked our way round the boggiest patches. There was half a moon so you could make out the outlines of the mountains around. Fantastic scenery but a pity to be doing it without views. We gained slightly on this section and arrived in Wasdale 14 minutes ahead after 5 hours of running. A good start. Soup and a sandwich and off we headed for the big climbs.

There were 3 big passes to climb through the night, all on rocky tracks. First over Black Sail Pass to Eskdale, then over Scarth Gap to Buttermere and finally over Sail Pass to Braithwaite. 4,500 feet of climbing by headtorch. On all these climbs you could see lights of other runners stretched out above and below you, plus the stars above, an incredible sight in the dead of night. Descending a steep section from Black Sail Pass, Brandon slipped on a rock and fell heavily on his hip. No harm done but a reminder of the risks of overnight running on rough ground when you’re tired. One wrong foot and your race could be over.

After hotdogs in Buttermere at 2am, we had the long slog up Sail Pass on a small path. I was leading the way and navigating but my batteries were fading. There was one point where I lost confidence as I’d passed a path heading off to my right which I thought was wrong but couldn’t find the features I was looking for to confirm we were heading the right way. In my faded torch I couldn’t see far enough to reassure us easily but after a few minutes it became clear. These little things play on your brain as a navigation error is very easy to make in the dark when tired. I didn’t bother changing batteries as the spares were in the bottom of my rucsac and it would be light within an hour.

As we headed up towards the col, I started dozing off on my feet due to fatigue. I’d also got pain in my foot as I could feel the first blister forming. 9 hours gone and already little stress factors building up; each small and insignificant but at 3am and with another 30 hours to go these things can soon get on top of you. As we summited the col, I fished my poles out of my bag and used these to stabilise myself on the long descent, to stop me staggering about when falling asleep and prevent aggravating the blister.

It got light on the descent and Keswick was below with the mighty Skiddaw and Blencathra across the valley. We would be heading that way next. We stopped to change socks on a bench before heading into the checkpoint at Braithwaite. The blister on my foot was surprisingly big and I was going to have to run 70+ miles on it. I drained and taped it, re-applied plenty of lubricant and we headed into the village. We ate pasta and rice pudding and pressed on. We’d lost time on this section against the schedule and were now slightly behind. This wasn’t a worry but more a comparison that were running close to our last year times and a 38.5 hour finish. It was 5am and we’d completed the first big milestone by clearing the big mountain climbs and the first night.

We ran round Keswick and climbed up Latrigg heading towards Blencathra. This climb is steep and as we were walking we both started falling asleep. I was really struggling, staggering about like a drunk until I could snap awake again. This happens to me on most overnight runs and is the most horrible experience I’ve ever encountered. You fall asleep, then stumble and jerk awake again. All you can do is keep going. After half an hour or so you recover and sure enough, on the faster section around Lonscale Fell I was fine. We arrived at the Blencathra Centre at 07:30 with 41 miles done. We buzzed through quickly, filling bottles and grabbing cake and biscuits but there were a lot of dead bodies here. The night had taken it’s toll and the retirement rate was starting to mount.

Next stop was Dockray after another 2 hours or so. A friend Jon Steele was sat here in a chair, retiring as he was recovering from a virus and couldn’t go on. Jon’s a top ultra runner and completed before, but asked us “why did I eneter the 100? Why didn’t I just enter the 50?” Good question Jon and one we’ve been asking ourselves. He wished us well and we pressed on to the midway checkpoint at Dalemain where our drop bags were. Our schedule had us arriving at 13:07, we arrived at 13:04 so were bang on last year’s pace.

Another friend and veteran of many 100’s, John, was knocking about here as was organiser Terry and Angela from the Endurance Store. All were great and said we looked fresh which always helps. There were a few bodies in a right state lying around us but we just concentrated on the job in hand. A complete change of running gear, including shoes, re-supply of food into rucsacs, while they supplied us with stew, pudding with custard, tea and we were refreshed and ready for the back half of the course.

Then into a long afternoon and evening, running down to Ullswater, over to Howtown, through Fusedale and over High Kop, endlessly down the side of Haweswater to Mardale Head, over Gatescarth Pass into Longsleddale and finally over the pass to Kentmere. It was dark as we ran into the Kentmere valley but we had enough night vision to cope without headtorches until we reached the checkpoint. We were within 10 minutes of last year’s times all the way which gave us a massive boost. My feet were sore with multiple blisters, muscles were hurting, legs stiff and everything hurt so I was taking painkillers every 4 hours but we were in great shape.

We had soup and smoothies in Kentmere, put an extra layer on and headed off into the second night. A big climb up the Garburn Pass was tricky with tired legs on unstable rocks but I was leading the way and using my poles for stability. Brandon was starting to fall asleep again but I was ok and another competitor Emily was with us so we did our best to keep chatting to stay awake. The descent into Troutbeck was absolutely endless and I had a major wobble near the bottom when I thought I’d missed the track we needed but couldn’t tell. I hadn’t, but in the darkness and with such fatigue little things get magnified massively.

From Troutbeck we headed over to Ambleside on a section that I always struggle with. It’s straightforward but on both previous events I’ve had massive low points here and been hallucinating badly. No trouble this year as I navigated and was very attentive, although another wobble when there was a left/right decision to make and I was reading the notes and couldn’t make them out. There were 4 other runners with us who were like zombies so I needed Brandon to catch me up to confirm my thinking. Problem over.

John was at Ambleside at 2am. A massive boost as he told us we looked great, while most coming through were the walking dead. Soup, sandwiches, yet more foot repairs, clean socks and off into the night again. It had got cold now so we’d got fleeces, jackets and hats on, as when you’re so tired you feel the cold badly. Heading up onto Loughrigg we passed Stewart who was bent over a fence looking at the ground. “Have you seen my mate?” he asked us. “Is that Joe?” Brandon asked. We hadn’t and he didn’t seem too worried and kept waiting as we headed off. Under any other circumstances at 2:30am it’d be bizarre. In an ultra, it’s just normal. The great thing is you all have your names on your rucsac in large letters and become soulmates on such an epic journey. Joe and Stewart finished a few minutes ahead of us in the end.

Climbing over Loughrigg wasn’t a problem but then we had a mile or so of straight, easy track towards Elterwater. This was where the fun started. Brandon started falling asleep and bumping into me. Then I lost it too and was sleeping and staggering. It had got freezing cold and I was shivering because we’d slowed down. There was a mist too which was playing tricks with my brain; I’d see the mist in my headtorch and it would come down like a curtain and the lights would go out as I fell asleep. Then I’d jerk awake. I was hallucinating too: there were snakes, frogs and mice everywhere I looked on the path. Bizarre dancing shapes to the side. Small screens playing videos on the floor too. It was a wonderland of colourful madness. Snakes were sticks, frogs and mice were leaves, dancing shapes were bushes and the screens were puddles reflecting torchlight. Brandon had a severe pain in his kidney and was hunched over. He kept stopping to double over and relieve it. We were both gone.

We eventually emerged at Chapel Stile at 94 miles at 4:30am to a roaring fire and music. I’d snapped back out of it with daylight emerging but was worried about Brandon and his kidney. I grabbed stew and bread while he headed slowly to the loo. A few minutes later he emerged, rubbing his hands, a huge grin on his face and a spring in his step. “That’s shifted it. The kidney’s sorted. What is there to eat?” Absolute classic! He was too far gone to realise he just needed a massive poo after 34 hours of running and eating!

Onto the final push. Just 11 miles to go. We’d lost a lot of time on that last section and had a slight concern over the finish cutoff. We had 5 hours to get there and had taken 4 last year. But we knew we’d been lightening quick last year at the end. So I set the pace and we pushed on as fast as we could to minimise the risk. I was in agony, my whole body hurt, my legs weren’t working as they should. They’d be fine going uphill but as soon as you crested a rise or headed down they’d just not work in a coordinated way and screamed pain until they got used to the motion again. My feet were wrecked with blisters and sore all over. Every footstep hurt, we were on the death march but we were getting there.

Over the pass to Blea Tarn and the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. We’d matched last year’s time for this section so the pressure was off for the finish cutoff but we needed to be done with it. The final climb over the Yewdale fells and an agonising rocky descent into the valley. A mile of downhill road running and I could feel the emotion welling up in me. We shook hands on the final road and dibbed in at the finish for the last time. John was there shaking us by the hands and slapping our backs. We’d done it.

We were led into the hall and announced as “100 finishers” to applause. Finisher’s medal, t-shirt and the till receipt of spilt times. Too tired to care. We slumped in a couple of chairs, utterly drained. 38 hours and 54 minutes and we were done. Literally. I could hardly move.

A shower, the greatest bacon buttie and cup of tea in my life, an hour’s sleep and I was able to function again, although with the body of a 90 year old.

While driving home I stopped at the motorway services. I was wearing my Finisher’s t-shirt. As I was hobbling at snail’s pace across the car park, an unknown guy came up to me, patted me on the back, pointed to my t-shirt and said “You’re a legend. No one here knows what you’ve done, but I do. You’re an absolute legend.” I had tears in my eyes.

I’d had no contact with anyone outside the event since starting, except a quick text to Clair after finishing to say I was safe. She’s in the USA at the moment so I couldn’t ring. On both my previous finishes I was in tears when ringing her. At home I switched my ipad on and it had gone mad with notifications from the running club. I couldn’t believe that so many people had been looking out for me. I cried again. I’m not an emotional guy but these big ones proper destroy you, not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. They strip you bare and let you find out what you’re really made of. I’ve never come across anything else in life that does that to me.

To show how wrecked I was, I went to bed at 6:30pm. I woke at 2am to find the bedside light still on. I must’ve passed out the second I climbed in without switching it off.

What a journey that race is. It’s preposterous. In my head I can’t actually see it as one race; it’s more a series of disjointed memories spreading across 2 days and 2 nights with a whole host of backdrops in the glorious Lakes. At times the views were fantastic and the climbing was easy. At others you’d hit the depths of despair and struggle to keep moving, struggle to keep eating, drinking and navigating and knowing what the hell you’re doing. It’s like a surreal experience that didn’t happen, something I dreamed, the very best of life and the absolute worst, all rolled into one agonisingly painful experience. It takes time to come down again and get it back in perspective and to actually enjoy and appreciate what I did.

How’s the shin? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t get any shooting pains but it ached. But I was in so much pain in my lower legs that I didn’t notice it after the first night. A day later and my feet and lower legs are swollen, feet are sore with some corking blisters so I still don’t know. My legs are so stiff that I can’t even move about much to see, so I’ll have to wait a few days for everything to recover and then see. Crazy.

The big, bad Lakeland 100. I’ve now entered 3 times and finished 3 times. There are only a handful of people who can say that. Shall I leave it at that? Retire on a high? Not risk that 100% finish rate?  No. Absolutely not. I’ll definitely be back.

It’s the the most horrific experience I’ve ever been through but also the greatest.

3 finishes. Three! I can’t believe it.