Lakes Traverse race report

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.

My 1988 Mountain Leader's log of the route

The start

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.

All ready for the off - only 60 miles to go!

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.

My battered race maps barely left my hand

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.

Caught on camera and interviewed for the daily race film!

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.

Running along the Ennerdale lakeside path - enjoying myself!

First stop

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.

My 111 'dot' heading up and over Greenup Edge

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.

Kidsty Pike, the highest point on the route, is at about 50 miles

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 end!

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.

Tasteful bling!

The aftermath

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.

The final scores

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!

Taper time

After 5 months of solid, event-focused training, it’s finally taper time - hurray! I’ve run 888 miles in that time, including 62,475 feet of ascent, and my body is crying out to cut back. On one level I’m feeling great, fitter, stronger and faster than I have done in a long time, but I can feel a deep fatigue inside me too.

It's time to put my feet up!

My trip to the Lakes took some recovering from. It was a good two weeks before I felt back on form and the training benefits started to come through. My partial rejuvenation coincided nicely with the Exe to Axe race, which was a key event for me in my Lakes Traverse build-up. Classified as a fell race, this lovely low-key event takes in just over 22 miles of the South West coast path in Devon. It includes over 4000 feet of ascent on cliffs at least as steep as anything I’ll encounter in the Lakes. I first ran this race 10 years ago and loved it, and knew it would be a perfect preparation race.  My plan was to practise my race strategy; running the flats and the runnable downhills and walking all of the uphills. In the Lakes I’ll have to keep moving at 25 minute miles or faster. In this race I needed to maintain at least 16 minute miles to avoid the 6 hour cut-off. I planned to run very easily and scrape in just under 6 hours.

Raring to go at the start of Exe to Axe

Conditions were perfect for race day; cool and overcast, with only a gentle breeze, and I felt great as we headed east along the coast. I deliberately put myself near the back of the field; the tail runner was in sight for the first 15 miles or so. The first few miles were pretty gentle and I got into my groove well before the first biggish climb and descent, just before half way. It was great to arrive at the 11-mile checkpoint feeling as if I’d barely run at all.

Looking back to where we'd come from - around the distant headland

The second half was very different terrain-wise, with relentless steep climbs, many of them on wooden steps. These were followed by equally steep, quad-crushing descents, made all the more challenging by the mud. There was lots and lots of sloppy, gloopy mud. I christened one set of steps ‘slurry steps’ for every tread was full of wet mud, with very little to actually step on. My progress up some of these steps was painfully slow to say the least, and certainly nowhere near a 25-minute mile! I was feeling good though, very good, both physically and mentally.

Flat, dry, mud-free sections were few and far between!

Once over the last of the big climbs I was able to pick up the pace over the grassy clifftops and along the flat seafront to the finish without any problem. Crossing the line in just over 5 and a half hours I was rather pleased; pleased with how I’d paced it and pleased with how I felt. If I can run like that in the Lakes, I’ll be over the moon.

In the couple of weeks since Exe to Axe, I’ve been totting up the miles with lots of shorter runs. Despite that deep-down tired feeling, I’ve managed yet another parkrun PB, proof that running lots of long, slow miles is great for developing speed.

But now it’s time to cut back, to taper. It's time to let my body recover properly, so that when I stand on that start-line in just under 3 weeks, I’ll be as fit as can be and raring to go. I’ll be reducing the volume of running a lot, but keeping the intensity, until the final few days when complete rest will probably win. Rest, excitement and anticipation…

Onwards and upwards in the Lakes

In the couple of weeks following the Belvoir Challenge, my training for the Lakes Traverse slowed down a little. Some kind of virus left me feeling rather tired and out of sorts. It was nothing major, but I knew that pushing on would make things worse, so I backed off as I wanted to be as fit and well as possible for the end of March. Aside from a hilly and snowy weekend in the Yorkshire Dales with clients, I kept my running to a passable minimum, for March was all about my big training week in the Lake District.

Enjoying some Yorkshire Dales sunshine on our women's only trail running weekend

Masquerading as a holiday to celebrate my birthday, the week in the Lakes with my husband was also my training camp. Aside from improving my overall fitness and building my hill climbing strength, I wanted to use some of the time to recce the potentially more difficult to navigate sections of the Lakes Traverse. My plan was to mostly walk for the week, with a little running thrown in at times, and with less than 7 weeks to go, I hoped to gain a massive boost to my confidence.

It was the weather that provided as much challenge as anything to the start of the week. With yet more snow having fallen and temperatures having plummeted, the wind chill was around -20 degrees for the first couple of days. It was so very cold that I didn’t dare wear my running shoes; my walking boots became the order of the day, making me feel as if I had weights on my legs. Having picked two sections of the race route to recce in the cold, navigation became interesting as it was just too cold to stop for long to look at the map. This meant doing a few interesting loops on Greenup Edge looking for the correct path, as it was covered in snow, and climbing an extra Wainwright (mountain over 2000ft) on the route to Kidsty Pike. This was great for Richard’s Wainwright tally but not so good for me - I wanted to have walked the right route! I was pleased about making the mistakes in hindsight though, as they made me look much more closely at the paths and junctions on the way back, more carefully than if I had gone the right way in the first place.

Bitter cold and snow on the way to Kidsty Pike certainly kept us moving!

With the two major recce sections out of the way, we switched to walking and running some of my favourite routes, trying to build as much variety into each day as possible. From the Fairfield Horseshoe, 12.5 miles and nearly 3500ft of ascent in glorious sunshine to running 3 miles uphill and 3 straight back down on the lower slopes of Helvellyn, I tried to balance good quality training with some recovery time. I did a short road run (just for nostalgic purposes – it was a route I used to run 30 years ago) and a run over Loughrigg, my all-time favourite fell.

Relaxed walking with friends on the Fairfield Horseshoe

Towards the end of the week, we moved from our Ambleside base to the wonderfully remote Black Sail youth hostel in Ennerdale. It’s somewhere I’ve see many times, and it just so happens to be on the Lakes Traverse route, so was a perfect place for a weekend. Our full day walk from there covered 13 miles and nearly 3600ft of ascent, with 4 miles of our route matching the Lakes Traverse. The visibility from the tops was so clear that I could actually see all the way to St Bees Head, where the race starts, to the point where it leaves the next valley. That was about 27 miles of the route in one go! An extra bonus was I now know I’ll get a warm welcome at the hostel when I pass, and that their ‘honesty café’ is always open for a cuppa and a cake. That will be something to look forward to at 25 miles! It was great to meet another competitor who was staying in the hostel too, so much sharing of recces and plans was done.

England's most remote (and cutest) youth hostel, Black Sail

In 8 days I spent nearly 32 hours on my feet, walking and running. I covered 79 miles and over 19,000ft of ascent and descent. Looking at it like that, it makes the Lakes Traverse seem quite achievable; I’ll have 28.5 hours to cover 60 miles and 12,000ft. I just need to bring it all together and do it in one go. Did my week in the Lakes boost my belief in myself to do it? Overall, yes it did. Yes, I had my moments, the ‘I’m too weak/slow/unfit to do this’ moments, coupled with those ‘What on earth have I let myself in for?’ thoughts. They were balanced out, however, by those ‘Yes, I can/wow, this is going to be amazing’ thoughts.  In 7 weeks’ time I’ll know for sure. In the meantime, I'll take it easy for a day or two to let the training benefits of all those mountains sink in. Then it will be back to the grindstone for 3 weeks, before it's time to wind down and taper. Shap Memorial Hall, I'm coming to get you!

Looking all the way to St Bees Head - the first 25 miles

Testing, testing: the Belvoir Challenge

When planning my training and events in the run up to the Lakes Traverse, I had a few key events in mind that I wanted to include. The National Cross-Country championships and the Belvoir Challenge marathon were two of them. When it dawned on me that both were on the same day, a decision had to be made. Should I go with my heart and run again on the muddy, beast of a course that is Parliament Hill? Or should I go with my head and opt for a much longer run, one that would enable me to test out every aspect of my training so far? In the end, head won over heart and so on a very cold February morning, I found myself lined up for the start of my first marathon in a while.

Vale of Bevoir - one of my favourite places to run (photo taken earlier in the year)

My aims

I had some specific aims for this run:

  • Practise my race strategy of running the flat sections and the downhills, and walking the uphills
  • Keep my heart rate at an easy effort level, in or below Zone 2 (ideally with an average of around 130)
  • Run on my own (as I'll most likely be on my own in the Lakes)
  • Feel both physically and mentally strong throughout
  • Be able to run and walk normally the next day

To make the ‘testing’ more realistic, I decided to run with the full kit I’ll be carrying in the Lakes. Whilst some were in vest and shorts and carrying nothing, I was laden. In my pack I had 2 litres of water, food for the day, waterproofs, a spare top, first aid kit and bivvi bag. I think the only thing I forgot was my headtorch! What I didn’t do is to run in the shoes I will use for 60 miles, my Hoka Speedgoats. I just didn’t think they’d be grippy enough for the mud, so chose my less cushioned Inov8 Mudclaws instead.

One of my weaknesses in a race is that, once I have a number pinned on me, I tend to set off too fast. Having chatted to the several clubmates and clients that were also running, I got into my zone and reminded myself to forget about what everyone else was doing. It helped that almost everyone I knew was doing the 15-mile route and not the 26. Once the race started, I settled into my groove and headed out for what I planned to be around 6 hours.

To checkpoint 1

In my head I had broken the route down into the 5 sections between checkpoints; the first was just over 5 miles away. Once out of the village this involved a gradual climb, becoming steeper. The ground was frozen, and the course quite crowded, so it was easy to keep my effort level in check. I relaxed and went with the flow. Going up and over the ridge, I could feel the benefit of all my fast-walk training. I was walking comfortably uphill at the same speed others were running. Dropping down the other side to checkpoint one, there were long queues for a couple of stiles. I just saw it as a chance to rest and enjoy the scenery on what was a stunningly beautiful day.

Queuing for the stile...

To the castle

Having plenty of food and drink with me, I ran straight through the first checkpoint without stopping. The course was still quite crowded; I was keen to get to 9 miles, where the routes split. There were some large groups of people trying to run together and I was hoping they were going to take the 15-mile turn. I’ve no problem with people running with a friend, but groups of 8 or 9 on a narrow path? It doesn’t really work. The split soon came and before I knew it I was running through the wooded Belvoir Castle grounds in complete solitude. I could see a couple of guys way ahead, and I knew one was about 100m behind, but that was it. As we climbed up to the top of one of my favourite hills, I felt great. The descent to the next checkpoint was down ‘that’ hill (some of you will know which one I mean from our guided runs!) and I was soon grabbing a quick drink and a slice of cake. I’d started my eating strategy from about an hour into the race. I had my usual ham sandwiches and mini scotch eggs on board. Somehow, I felt I was lacking something, though, and a piece of lemon drizzle did the job.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

With 12 miles done, I headed onto the flatter but muddier part of the route. Whilst some ground was frozen, the mud was a real challenge in places. I’d get into a great running rhythm across one field, only to enter the next field and find that the consistency of the mud was completely different. Some were gloopy, some bouncy and some sticky like strong glue. It certainly made the 5 miles to the next checkpoint interesting. With the course being so much more open, it was now much easier to see where everyone else was. Despite sticking rigidly to my run/walk/easy effort strategy, I started to pass people. Stopping for the portaloo at checkpoint 3, I even managed to pass some of them twice.

Sticky mud, lots of very sticky mud

Back up the hill

I knew that the final climb back onto the ridge would be the toughest. It was the longest climb and was 19 miles into the race. Two weeks previously it had been really slippery in the mud. But the sun was out, the mud had dried up and I felt great all the way up. My fast walking came into its own once again. As I left the final checkpoint at 21 miles (with another piece of lemon drizzle on board!) I knew it was pretty much flat or downhill to the finish. I caught and passed a few walkers from the 15-mile event along the way, plus a few marathon runners too. Having done the shorter event two years ago, I was expecting the last couple of miles across the flatter fields to be a real drag, but they weren’t. I didn’t appreciate the number of stiles, though, but at least they gave my legs a stretch!

Before I knew it, I was back at the village hall and crossing the finish line. I’d been pretty spot on with pacing to my planned time. I finished in 6 hours and 10 minutes, but my actual moving time was 5 hours 43. Those stile queues and loo stops had added up!

My thoughts...

So how did I do against my aims? My race strategy went to plan. I did sneak in a couple of runs on gentler inclines and I did walk a bit on the ‘gluey’ fields but overall it worked well. I kept a really easy effort level all the way round and managed a heart rate average of 135; I’m happy with that. Physically I felt fine all day, absolutely fine. Mentally, the only low point I had was between about miles 7 and 9 where I couldn’t wait for some solitude. My spirit was, of course, helped by the fact it was such a gloriously sunny day. Aside from a few chats with people as we passed, I ran the whole way on my own. And the next day? I managed a very gentle 30-minute run followed by a hilly 6-mile walk, both with very little difficulty. The only discomfort I’ve had is a slightly aching foot. I’m not used to running in Mudclaws over a long distance and I won’t be making that mistake again. Comfort will win over grip!

Heart rate (red), pacing (blue) and course profile

What next?

Overall, my day out at the Belvoir Challenge confirms that my training is on the right track. I’m especially pleased with the progress I’ve made in fast walking; it will really help on the big day, I’ve no doubt. What I need next is some mountains in my legs, some big hills, both uphill and down. Trips to the Dales, Lakes and Devon over the coming weeks will sort that. I also need to give some more thought to food. Food during the race that is – I think about food in general a lot! I don’t think I ate enough at Belvoir. I was fine during the event but my hunger levels over the next 24 hours were high, and I was up raiding the fridge at 5am. At that time the next day on the Lakes Traverse, I’ll still be running….

An Inspiring Individual…

I'm so proud to be featured in the latest 'Inspiring Individuals' post in Gareth Mate's blog. Gareth is an amazing adventurer, photographer and outdoor fanatic in his own right, so am rather chuffed he finds me inspiring! Thank you Gareth!

Ups and downs: the rollercoaster of training

No matter what you are training for, there usually comes a time when you realise that you are actually on some form of rollercoaster ride. Your direction of travel changes unexpectedly, and fast. There are the ups, where everything is going to plan. You feel great; you're running further and faster and feeling stronger. There are the plateaus, where it all just ticks along nicely. And of course there are the downs, where it feels as though the wheels are starting to come off. Whether it's due to injury, tiredness, loss of motivation, or something else entirely, things feel like they are going wrong. For the first time since I started training for the Lakes Traverse, my rollercoaster took a dive this last weekend.

I'd rather run 60 miles than go on a rollercoaster!

I was feeling physically great. I'd had a rest week and was raring to go, with a race I'd wanted to do for some time lined up. The Charnwood Hills race is a 14-mile iconic race in Leicestershire, known because it's the only official fell race in the county. I'd run a fair bit of the route before and loved it, and, as I don't race very often, was really looking forward to the event. I knew it would be tough, very tough, but had no worries about meeting their strict cut-off time at 6.5 miles. But perhaps I should have. A combination of very muddy conditions, queues for the many gates and stiles and a brief stop to help someone who had fallen into a ditch slowed me down. At the checkpoint I was surprised to be told that I had missed the cut-off by 3 minutes and could not carry on. Shocked and gutted, I made my way back to the start with another competitor; we moaned and grumbled the whole way!  By the time I reached home I'd concluded that I must be the worst runner in the world, and that I must be delusional to think I could run across the Lake District. For 48 hours I wallowed in self-pity.

Bradgate Park, home of Charnwood Hills race

But the downs never last long. The sun was soon out, and after a lovely guided run in the muddy woods, followed by a walk in which I finally managed a sub-14 minute average pace, things were looking up again.

Something I've never experienced before is a race briefing held months before the event, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Open Adventure invited us all to a webinar last night. What I got was a lot of really practical, useful information. I now know exactly what maps will be provided and what I need to sort myself. I learned exactly which bits of the routes I'll need to recce and which I won't. I found out more about the rules and the food and everything else associated with the event. But most of all, what I got from that hour online was a much-needed mental boost. I came away feeling so, so, excited and ready for an adventure. My rollercoaster is back on an up and whilst I know it won't stay there for the next 13 weeks, it's great to be on top of the world again for now.

Running in the Lakes - can't wait for 12th May!


Lakes Traverse – 15 weeks and counting

Time has flown by, and there are now just over 15 weeks until I’ll be in St Bees, looking out to sea and awaiting the start of the Lakes Traverse. My excitement is gradually building, aided somewhat by the ‘dot-watching’ I’ve been doing over the last week. I've been tracking those inspirational people running the length of the Pennines in the Spine Race, knowing that before long, I’ll be one of the ‘dots’ being followed as I cross the Lakes on foot.

60 miles, St Bees to Shap - no problem!

My plan:

So how have the first few weeks of my focused training been since I last posted? Well, so far I am pretty pleased. I’m feeling fitter and stronger, both physically and mentally, and although I only measure it by the fit of my clothes, I have lost some weight too. Although I’ve a lot of experience in endurance events and in the mountains, these 60 miles will be the furthest I’ve ever run in one go. Therefore I’m applying my breadth of knowledge and experience to adapt my training plan as I go. Sometimes I’ll do a more traditional 3-weeks build, one-week recovery cycle of training, and at others I’m working on a harder week/easier week pattern. It’s all about listening to my body. I’ve a pretty good understanding of how much training (running and otherwise) my body can tolerate, at what intensity, and how much recovery I need, so have been able to gradually build up to the point where I’m averaging around 42 miles of running a week without any detrimental effects (touch wood!) with some Pilates and strength work a regular feature too.

My long runs / walks:

My priority has been getting the long, easy-paced miles in my legs. I want to maintain the strong foundation I’ve built over the past year or so. Long runs have become longer and longer, and I’ve started to supplement them with long, fast-paced (but easy effort – perceived and checked by heart rate) walks. I know I’ll be walking some (maybe quite a bit!) of the event, so I need to get my legs in shape for that now. Running fitness and walking fitness are not quite the same. Some of my most enjoyable training sessions so far have been the long walks, and they’ve provided a great opportunity to refine my nutrition on the go, eating and drinking without losing pace. I’ve yet to master the art of getting food out of a plastic bag when wearing sodden mittens in a snowstorm though!

Frozen ground makes for very fast walking!

The other addition to maintaining a strong base that I’m fortunate to have is that, as a running coach, I spend a lot of time on my feet, a lot. Sometimes I’ll join in with clients’ warm-ups and cool-downs, and all those miles add up. Leading guided trail runs adds quite a few fun, low-effort miles each week too. Sometimes it’s a juggling act to balance those miles with my own training miles, but overall it’s worked well.

Other runs:

In addition to the long, slow stuff, I’ve varied the rest of my training with sessions that will build leg strength and maintain speed too. Each week I’ve allowed myself just one harder-effort run, normally a parkrun or cross-country race. Wherever I can I’ve made these hilly too. The exceedingly muddy Notts cross-country championship race was the highlight so far, being the perfect combination of hard running and fun too.

It was a bit muddy at the Notts cross-country championships race!

My mind:

Whilst I’m running more and more miles, and gaining some incidental speed as a bonus, the biggest progress I have made to date has been mentally. I’ve had some epic adventures in my time that have tested my mental resolve to its limits, but after each one I tend to put that mental strength to the back of my mind for a while. Thus the thought of running over mountains for what will be in the region of 20 hours or more was feeling somewhat scary and beyond my capabilities. A week of following the Spine Race though, being inspired by people digging very, very deep, gave me a lot to think about. On a 19-mile fast walk into a snowstorm, I occupied my mind by recalling a very bleak few days many years ago in Scotland, in winter, on my own. I realised that the ‘me’ that can and loves to persevere when the going gets tough is still alive and kicking inside. Bring on May and those Lakeland mountains – I’ll be coming to get you!

A bleak day on the Viking Way - perfect for building mental strength

Aqua running: why I ran in the pool

Aqua jogging, pool running, aqua running, pool jogging; running in water, or more usually a swimming pool, goes by a variety of names. Infrequently seen in UK swimming pools, it is sometimes used as a means of rehabilitation following surgery, and sometimes as a training tool by injured athletes, including many Olympic athletes. Many years ago, I attended a ‘try aqua jogging’ class out of interest; it was hard work but fun, and once finished, I stored all that I had learned in the recesses of my brain, assuming and hoping that I would never need to use it. Fast forward many years and, finding myself unable to run due to a torn calf muscle, I dusted off the memory of that class, ordered an aqua-running belt and headed off to the pool. In a short space of time, I’ve learned a lot about aqua-running, what it is and what it is not.

Aqua running is just that...

It’s weird: When you arrive at the pool, head to the deep end and clip a large blue float around your waist, yes, people will stare. They may not have seen an aqua runner before, and, if they have, it may have been someone recovering from surgery. You may be asked how your hip replacement went, as I was. The novelty will soon wear off though and you may find that people actively avoid you, which helps when finding space to run. Where in the deep end I should run was my first dilemma. Should I run in the slow lane and risk getting in the way of the slow swimmers, or should I go to a public session where finding clear water could be a challenge? I was lucky to find that, twice a day, my local pool used half the pool for lane swimming and half for a water-bsed class. They were quite happy for me to stay in the deep end of the ‘class’ side of the pool, and it was a bonus that the 'HydroPole' class was way more interesting than my running, so no-one looked at me!

The belt helps maintain good posture

It’s hard work: Water is, of course, much denser than air; the resistance it creates means that running in water is much harder than on land, much harder. For the first few sessions I felt I was, quite literally, going nowhere. Every attempt to move forward was a real effort for my arms and legs, yet I struggled to raise my heart rate at all; as the pressure of the water helps the heart pump oxygen around the body, my heart rate was lower than it would be for a similar level of effort on land. The support provided by the water felt immense, hence aqua running being a safe non-impact recovery session for many running injuries. The theory says that it allows the body to focus on healing and recovery whilst maintaining fitness for between 4 and 6 weeks; from my experience of just the first few sessions, I knew it to be pretty much true.

It’s great for running form and technique: Running in water (and actually moving forwards, rather than running on the spot!) forces the athlete to focus on good form, and therefore keep the body’s running-specific muscles active. Keeping upright, even with the support of a float, requires the abs to engage. Moving forwards requires the knees to be lifted, more so than when running on land, and the arms to power at the sides. Just as is good practice in a land-based session, once warmed up, I started every workout with drills. Practising the drills until I’d got the technique in water just right definitely paid off; it enabled me to move much more efficiently when I ran.

(Diagram source unknown)

It’s boring: Yes, aqua running could be boring, very boring indeed. Ploughing slowly up and down the pool with no particular focus would be mind-numbing, hence the need to structure the session. I followed the same pattern I would for a coached session on dry land, warming up with some very easy running on the spot or a very gentle swim, followed by some agility, balance and co-ordination work. Who knew you could hop, jump and do hopscotch in the deep end of a pool?! Skipping is what I struggled to master; the water resistance was just too great to move my legs and feet quickly enough in the right way. Once I’d done my run-specific drills, I started to run. Everything was interval-based and focused on effort. Time goes so much more quickly when broken up into short slots of varying difficulty, with recovery time in-between. Attending a coached aqua running class would have been the obvious solution, but these were, and still are, few and far between.

It’s not just for the injured: In just a few weeks, I saw and felt the impact that aqua running could have on my body, my fitness, and hopefully in the end, my running. The sessions were hard, really hard, and yet because there was so little impact, easy to recover from. Afterwards, aside from feeling very hungry indeed (but then I always do when I have been in a pool), I felt great. Putting recovery from injury aside, running in the pool is a great form of training in its own right, and having heard and read so much about top-level athletes who use it regularly as a training tool, even when not injured, I know that I will do the same. I think my body and my running will appreciate that.


6 months to 60 miles

“How on earth will you train for that?” has been the response I’ve had from quite a few people upon reading or hearing about my 2018 Lakes Traverse event. After all, ‘running’ 60 miles without stopping (well, without stopping overnight somewhere for a sleep - I’m sure I’ll be pausing along the way!) isn’t something that most of us normally do, never mind across a mountain range. So with the race now just under 6 months away and my training started, I’ll share what I plan to do.

First though, I’ll take a step back, back to 6 months ago, when I decided to enter this race. Although my formal training plan did not start then, from the minute I clicked on the ‘enter’ button, my mind switched to preparing my body to run 60 mountainous miles. I knew, having not done a challenge this big for a while, I needed to make sure that come November I’d be in good enough shape to train, and train well. So all summer and autumn I’ve been making sure that my runs were on as difficult a terrain as possible (a great excuse to sneak in some trips to the Peaks and the Lakes!) and working hard on building my strength and agility in particular, so that my body can cope with an increased training load. But most of all, I’ve been running lots of easy miles, really easy miles; the kind of miles where I’m not out of breath at all, and the kind of miles that will provide a great foundation for the harder training to come.

Can you tell I love running in the Lakes?

So with my pre-training training done, what next? I’ve devised my training plan based on what I know my body should be able to cope with, working on a traditional 4-week cycle. For 3 weeks I’ll gradually increase my training load (overall mileage and the length of the weekly long run) and then for the 4th, I’ll have an easier, recovery week. Each 4-week block will get progressively more challenging, until the final one when I’ll reduce back down to ensure my body and mind are fresh for the race. I’ll be building up to 50 mile weeks; I know that’s about my limit before injury and illness become a real risk. Within each week, nearly all of the miles will be easy running (or sometimes walking - I’ll be walking the uphills in the race, so I need to be practising that from the start), but I’ll allow myself one ‘speed’ session each week to keep me on my toes, so to speak (plus, I really can’t bring myself to give up my cross country and parkrun addictions!) What I will also make sure is that as much of my running as possible is on rough and hilly terrain; as I don’t live in the mountains, that means being creative with what I have locally. Whether it’s a rough farm track that is great for mile-long hill reps, or the amazing up-and-down flights of steep wooden steps that I’ve found, I’ll be there! And of course, whenever I can, I’ll be heading off to the Peaks, Lakes and Dales to give my training a boost.

I'll be getting very well acquainted with these...

I’ve also given careful thought to which other races I’ll do in my build up. There are so many out there to choose from that I could be racing every week but I need to be careful; staying fit and injury-free is key, so I’ve been picky. If the Lakes Traverse is my A-race, all of the others are Bs and Cs; I’ll be taking part, but not ‘racing’ as such. From ‘Exe to Axe’ (20 miles and 4000ft of ascent along the coast path in Devon) to the Charnwood Hills race (the only fell race in Leicestershire!), I’m looking forward to them all.

Bradgate Park, home of the Charnwood Hills race...

I’ll also be carrying on with my strength work, with everything that I do being running and off-road specific, and keeping up with my well-established Pilates and stretching routines. Coupled with eating well and sleeping lots, they will be just as important as all of the running in getting me to the start line in great shape and raring to go.So, in a nutshell, that’s my next 6 months sorted. There will be ups and downs along the way, I’m sure (both literally and metaphorically), but I’m excited already and looking forward to the training challenge ahead, and the rewards that will come on race day.

Originally posted in November 2017

Journey or destination?

It’s been a while since I’ve had a proper, ambitious running goal. Over the past 18 months, getting Mud and miles up and running, so to speak, has been the focus for much of my time. Yes, I’ve still been out there running, quite a lot in fact, but if you’d have asked me what I was training for, the answer would have been “Nothing really”. I’ve achieved a few parkrun PBs and enjoyed some races in spectacular places, but I couldn’t honestly say that I was training for them; they’ve just kind of happened along the way.
I’ve always intended, though, that 2018 would be a ‘big race’ year for me. In 2008 I celebrated a big birthday by jumping off a car ferry into a Norwegian fjord at the start of the Norseman extreme triathlon (I did do the rest of the race too, in case you were wondering!) so for while I’ve been mulling over what my challenge for next year might be. I knew it had to involve running, definitely off-road, and I wanted it to be long; it also had to involve my favourite area of the UK, the Lake District. Having ruled out a couple of events for having too many participants and too much bling, or being at the wrong time of year, I came upon the Lakes Traverse, a new event for 2018.
Starting in St Bees on the west coast of Cumbria, the 60 (ish) mile (and 12,000ft of ascent) route follows the Coast-to-coast path right across the middle of the Lake District to the village of Shap, on the border with Yorkshire. I love a run with a distinct starting point and a destination elsewhere, and when I discovered this was an unmarked route with just a couple of feed stations on the way, I was sold.

I'll have run about 45 miles when I pass here in May...

So, November marked the first day of my journey towards my destination, Shap; my event-specific training started. All that running I’ve done over the last 18 months has prepared me well and I feel ready; fit, strong and raring to go! I’m looking forward to sharing my journey with you all along the way and hope that we can all learn something from it. And in case you are wondering what my first day of training involved, it was Pilates. No running, just an hour’s class focused on moving and moving well. After all, that’s what will help get me through my journey to my destination.
Originally posted November 2017