Way back in 1988, I walked the Coast to Coast path with a friend. Backpacking and camping, it took us 3 ½ days to cross the Lake District and we were mightily pleased with that. We thought we were invincible. So when I learned that the Northern Traverse race 2018 was going to include a shorter, Lakes Traverse option, it jumped straight to the top of my to-do list. I was looking for a 50-mile ultra somewhere in the Lake District, and although this one was advertised as 60 miles, it otherwise ticked all the boxes. Point-to-point, low-key, with only 2 feed stations and the requirement to self-navigate; it was my kind of event.
After six months of very focused training, I found myself queuing for my race number, surrounded by some seriously inspiring runners. Most were about to set off for Robin Hood’s Bay, 190 miles away; only 36 of us were taking the ‘short’ option to Shap. Having never run more than 32 miles before, I wondered if I was out of my depth. But it was too late for worries. The race briefing over, we headed down to the beach for the start, where the pre-race buzz was contagious. As the Northern Traverse runners set off over the cliffs (with a half hour head start), it all started to seem very real. We posed for photos and it was our turn.
The countdown started and before I knew it, I was on my way. The first couple of hundred metres were pan flat so I allowed myself to run. I knew that my ‘walk the uphills’ strategy would need to kick in as soon as the path headed uphill and over the cliffs. With such a small field, we were soon pretty spread out, so I had plenty of space to enjoy the stunning views. The sea was deep blue, the gorse bright yellow, and the red sandstone reminded me very much of the cliffs of east Devon. I should mention now that I had made a deliberate decision not to take photos during the race, as I wanted to avoid time faffing about. I was pretty sure I was capable of finishing well within the 28 ½ hour cut-off, but I’d have hated to have missed it by minutes because I’d wasted time. That blue and yellow sea scene will remain in my head for a long time though. 4 miles done, 56 to go.
After about 4 miles the route left the cliffs and headed inland, bringing some of the easiest running of the race. Cycle paths and field crossings with not much ascent all meant that I could buy myself time for when things got tougher later on. I’d covered about 6 miles when I passed an old farmer who was sweeping his yard. He tutted with a toothless grin and said ‘You’re way behind the rest you are’. Thanks! It made me smile though; I wasn’t right at the back, we were just very strung out. I had already got used to not being able to see any other competitor at all. In fact, I probably spent 75% of the race alone. 10 miles done, 50 to go.
Reaching the Lakes
It was a cloud-free day and pretty warm, so I popped into a shop in Cleator to buy some ice-cold water. I suspected I’d run out before the next topping up point, at about 26 miles, and I knew that the first proper climb was imminent. Heading up and over Dent, I was glad of its coolness; the water in my drinks bladder was already very warm. It was on the descent that I made my first mistake. I turned down a steep, forestry track, arrived in the valley below and just knew I'd gone off-course. My first thought was ‘Oh no, I hope no-one is following my tracker online. They’ll see I’ve gone wrong!’ It turned out that, up on the felltops several miles away to the north, my husband, Richard, had indeed seen my error and was screaming for me to put myself right. I stopped for a few minutes and with map, compass and some intricate back-bearings (not easy in a forest!) I managed to get myself back on the right path and heading for Ennerdale Bridge. 15 miles done, 45 to go.
The lakeside path around Ennerdale rose up and down, steeply in places. Just before the end of the lake, Jim, also in my race, caught up with me. He was the first competitor I’d seen for ages, so we ran together for a bit before he headed off. For the whole of the next 4 miles to Black Sail YHA, we remained exactly the same distance apart. I was run/walking and so was he, so every time the forest track straightened out, there he was ahead. I found this very reassuring. I popped into the YHA kitchen to refill my water; three Northern Traverse runners, Jonathan, Martin and Peter, were having a brew. They soon caught me on the climb up towards Honister, and I passed them again as we headed down to the mines. They finally crossed their finish line 4 days later. Respect to them all. 27 miles done, 33 to go.
At Honister, Richard popped up to say hello. He joined me for a little way with me to check how I was. I’d covered 27 miles and couldn’t quite believe how good I felt. I knew the next section really well as I’d done it in the Four Passes race last autumn; it was an easy descent to Rosthwaite and the first feed station at 30 miles. I was apprehensive about sitting down to be quite honest, as I feared I wouldn’t be able to get going again, but I needed to eat something more substantial than the snacks I’d been having along the way. Soup and sandwiches washed down with Coke was just what I needed, and I was soon ready to head out again. Just as I was leaving, I was surprised to see Peter (who organises the lovely local LincsBox event) come in with Stuart. They’d been ahead of me but due to a navigational error (theirs, not mine this time), I’d got ahead. I’d see them again much later on. 30 miles done - halfway!
Evening turns to night
I wasn’t really looking forward to the next section; the climb up and over Greenup Edge. We’d reccied this in March, in deep snow, and I was hoping that the navigation at the top would be easier this time. It’s a bit flat, bleak and boggy up there. Pepped up by the Coke, I motored along the flatter part of the valley before slowing considerably for the steeper climb. I found the cairns that led the way over the top and the long descent into Grasmere. By now it was mid evening and starting to rain. The daylight was fading fast and the path into the valley went on and on. I got all the way to the village edge on night vision alone before realising I had overshot a left turn. I was about to dig out my headtorch when I saw a bright beam heading towards me. Mike, a Northern Traverse runner, had also passed the turn so we headed back the 100 metres or so together. He might have regretted teaming up with me when, out of the blue, Tonia, a good friend of mine who lives in the village, appeared on the road with Richard and her son, cheering like mad things! That was a lovely surprise, and it set me up nicely for the next climb to Grisedale Tarn. 39 miles done, 21 to go.
A long, wet night
It was pitch black and raining more heavily as Mike and I plodded up the hillside together. A bit of faffing went on as we climbed the steep path. Putting on waterproofs, sorting my Garmin as the battery had decided to give up, and getting ourselves back on track - we mistakenly went over a footbridge and started to descend on the wrong side of the river. Mike was having problems with his feet but I still felt really, really good. Just after 2am we finally arrived at the next feed station, Patterdale, at 46 miles. I was surprised to find Richard there, chatting to various competitors. I noticed Peter and Stuart at the table; they’d overtaken whilst Mike and I were on our footbridge ‘detour’, as had Lora and Thorlene. I should perhaps mention that there were only 6 women in the race (there were 5 DNSs), and the last time I’d seen one of them was on the ascent to Dent, when Lucie, the lady who eventually came third, was just ahead of me. Lora and Thorlene had been behind, so I was in 4th place. Once I’d eaten my jacket potato, beans and cheese, a massive Bakewell tart and downed some more Coke, I changed my wet top for a drier, warmer one and headed back out into the night. 46 miles, done, 14 to go.
The biggest climb
Kidsty Pike is the highest point on the route at 2560 feet and this was the climb I faced at 3am in the dark and pouring rain. I knew that Peter and Stuart were about 10-15 minutes ahead, but I was otherwise alone. On the first steep slope up from Patterdale, my headtorch battery died, so I had to change the batteries by the light of my watch; not easy! Sorted, I carried on up, noticing that although it was still pitch black, the birds were starting to sing. Dawn was on the way. Minutes later, for some unknown reason, my new batteries died too, so there I was, high on a mountainside, in the rain, unable to see a thing. Luckily the path was a light-coloured rock and so I hesitantly inched my way forward until the sky lightened a bit and I could see. This all coincided with me reaching the point at which, on the recce, we had misread the map and gone up an extra summit by mistake. I was determined to find the right path this time. I did, but noticed a Northern Traverse runner had gone the wrong way I shouted at him to come back. He then sped off, so yet again I was alone. It was OK though – I was quite content moving along by myself. 50 miles done, 10 to go.
The final stretch
In my mind I had an image of a glorious sunrise over Kidsty Pike but the reality was nothing but a cold, grey gloom. I was keen to get down and onto the home stretch. The descent was, however, not quick. It was steep, rocky and boggy, and four times I fell flat on my back. I was wearing my Hoka Speedgoats, which have great grip on wet rock but little traction in wet mud. On fall number four, into yet another black, boggy swamp, I swore out loud for the only time during the race. I was cold, wet, and ready to finish. There was, so I thought, only another 7 miles to go and I’d be home and dry. As the sun warmed me up and I started round the lakeside path, my thoughts turned to a nice cup of tea and some breakfast. It was now around 7am after all. The far end of the lake never seemed to get any closer though, and I could start to feel my feet becoming sore. They’d been wet and dried off more times than I could care to remember in the last 23 hours. I knew I must be tiring as I started to hallucinate somewhat. There was a row of Peruvian women in yellow costumes lined up alongside the track, and a stream where all the rocks were labelled with handwritten signs saying ‘rock’, ‘stone’ and ‘pebble’. I nearly tripped over the red and yellow paracetamol capsules littered all over the path. It made me chuckle to myself as I walked along! 56 miles done, 4 to go.
As I reached the fields with just a couple of miles to go, I saw two figures ahead. It took a long while for me to realise that it was Peter and Stuart. They were moving very slowly so, despite my searing foot pain, it didn’t take me long to catch them. I joined them for a while for some company. Together, we realised that the next two miles were actually going to be more like four. The other unfortunate feature of this part of the course was the stiles. There had been no stiles at all until now, not one, and now there were loads; not ideal after nearly 60 miles. As we pulled ourselves over each one, I noticed Lora and Thorlene catching up, and before I knew it they had passed me. I liked to have gone with them but whilst my head was willing, my feet just couldn’t do it. They were spent. 60 miles done, 4 to go!
Leaving Peter and Stuart behind, I joined a group of Antipodean walkers for the final field crossing; well, they were forced to join me as they had to wait while I slowly manoeuvred myself over the final stile. ‘Gee’ was all they could muster having asked me where I'd come from. They told me it had taken them five days to walk to that point from St Bees. 63 miles done, 1 to go!
The final stretch to the finish line was painful. Shap is built along one long, straight road. I’d entered the village at one end and of course the finish line and village hall were at the other. I trudged along the tarmac willing the purple flag to come into sight. Eventually I spotted it, along with one very excited husband. 25 hours and 12 minutes, nearly 64 miles and over 12,300ft of ascent after leaving St Bees I crossed the line, one very, very happy runner. I’d really not known what sort of time to expect, so to finish more than 3 hours inside the cut-off, 26th finisher and 6th woman I was pretty pleased with. 64 miles done, 0 to go.
Having had a finish line photo taken and a rather lovely medal put round my neck, I limped inside. How on earth was I going to remove my socks and shoes? I was scared to touch them but they had to come off, as I was in agony. With some very gentle peeling, I unearthed the damage; white, sodden skin that looked like it had been attacked by a lawn aerator! With some warm socks on and the promise of a fried egg sandwich and a cup of tea from one of the wonderful volunteers, all was soon right with the world. I ate and drank and was delighted to see Peter and Stuart cross the line, followed by Jim who I’d followed all those long miles ago through Ennerdale. Phil, who I’d first met at YHA Black Sail on the March recce arrived on his way to Robin Hood’s Bay, and then Martin and Peter from the Honister climb. It was like one big family reunion.
Despite spending a lot of time on my own on the course, running and walking in my own little world, the people I met made this race. From the camaraderie and support between competitors to the genuine kindness of the volunteers; from the thought put into absolutely everything by James and Open Adventure, the race organisers, to the random members of the public who gave encouragement along the way; everyone was amazing. And of course, the support of my husband Richard, who put up with my training, helped me recce the route in some of the coldest weather imaginable, and not only popped up now and again along the way but also kept all of my ‘dot-watchers’ updated online; many good husband points!