‘Ohmygodohmygodohmygod it says he’s leading – that can’t be right, can it?
Is this thing working right? Steve…?’
A somewhat flustered Charlotte looks across to our friend Camper Van Steve who is also bent over his phone dot watching the live tracker with a furrowed brow while our boys start to wonder what all the fuss is about.
‘Yep – same here: He’s leading…’
5 miles in and Husband is indeed at the business end.
Meanwhile I was having a happy time completely oblivious to the fact that I was apparently leading. I’d worked my way through to the front but I could still see a couple of figures ahead as we climbed to the high point of the first stage and as far as I was concerned that was the lead. This year the first 60miles were all about a rehearsed Pace – and wherever that put me was wherever that put me. Position would come later.
Doing A Deal
So in my defense to Mrs Mouncey (later) I was just doing what I’d rehearsed. And she knew I’d been experimenting with target pace ‘cos I’d told her. What she didn’t know – ‘cos I hadn’t told her – was what that target pace was. I figured 21 hours would win it and 22 hours would podium. The problem is that while it might be 9 years on since my fastest time at this race – 24.5 hours in 2011 – I still think I can go faster and win this f***er.
Our boys Tom and Joe think so too – and have told me many times - which kinda clinches it.
So we made a deal: They’d run as fast as they could in the Lakeland 1 – the one mile race for the kids that takes place after the 100 has got underway – and I’d run as fast as I could…
Leverage: Doncha just love it.
Rehearsal v Recce
Now many runners will go out a recce a race route with the goal of becoming familiar with the terrain and navigation. Rehearsal kicks that up a few levels but it is simply that: Out on the stage practicing the performance in every aspect. What this means is that I’ve been out on sections of the race route covering the ground at the pace I want, running the bits I need to run, hiking the bits I need to hike…where to slow, where to speed, what to think about, what to say to myself – as detailed as I can get it so when it’s show time I slide right into the state and speed I need to be.
Then once back home I write it up move by move.
Think of it as a three dimensional script – your own ‘How To’ manual: I’m now at this bit so this is what I need to be doing, thinking, feeling…
It’s a technique I’ve borrowed from the world of climbing most recently and famously seen being used by Alex Honnold in the film Free Solo in which he is seen breaking his epic climb down to the individual finger and toe hold
‘Muscle Memory’ is a term sometimes used but it’s not that ‘cos muscles don’t have a memory. What they have are nerves and nerves can be trained to respond in a certain way to specific triggers in the context of specific goals.
So I’ve been training my brain.
Now what I don’t know of course is whether I can take the energy I need to power a performance of that level for that long while sticking to the script, deflecting the heckling and getting back out there again after the ice creams at the intermission.
But I wanna find out.
And f** it – that’s why we race, right?
First leg 7 miles/659m climbing later and I’m 2mins faster than target and in with the first few. So as far as I’m concerned the tracker was wrong as race stats have me arriving here in 5th - but hey, if it gave the folks at home something to raise the heart rate over…
I don’t know the numbers at the time ‘cos I don’t race with a watch and I don’t ask for updates at the checkpoints – but it all feels sweet, I’m on script and everything is in the green.
It’s also hot and wet underfoot – humid actually: Properly dripping – and as the late great Robin Williams once said: ‘That’s nice if you’re with a lady, but it ain’t no good in the jungle!’
We learn later that many folks will cite the humidity as the reason for DNF, and while for me it will mean periodic and somewhat worrying building cramps in the first 20 miles or so – the symptoms never get to full Cramp Attack status. I figure later it’s a signal of my very business-like pace and probably less than diligent with electrolyte intake. So another one for the Lessons-Reminders file…
Leg 2 passes without incident other than Competitive Bloke is out early and starting to pay attention to what’s happening around me:
Who looks tidy and efficient?
Who moves well over the rough stuff?
Who’s faffing and looking around?
Who’s good on the descents?
Where am I catching/passing people without trying?
All filed For Future Action.
Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
This is also the leg where I’m very aware that while I’m very much in control I am breathing deeper and moving faster than ‘easy’. It’s deliberate and something I’ve worked on with A my coach – though our relationship is very different this year: I will say ‘this is what I want to achieve and this is what I think I need to do’ to which A will pour cold water / point to the obvious I might have missed / give me an alternative to think about etc.
Being comfortable with being more uncomfortable earlier and longer is something we have worked on. Part of this is trusting the training, part of this is being OK with this state given my goals, and part of it is having a strategy to adjust and recover through the night if needed so I can push again through the day. And if being in this state puts me at the front end from the start then so be it – I can do commitment and I wanna find out if I can make this stick.
I arrive at the end of Leg 3 at 20miles into Wasdale in 4th still utterly on script. Ahead is 2300 feet of up-down as a big climb up and over Black Sail Pass and the shorter climb over Scarth Gap before the long difficult rocky drop the Lake Buttermere where disaster is one missed step away. I figure I can get up and over the first one before the head torch is needed which will put me well up on last years’ effort.
And so it proves.
It’s on this leg that the Random Acts of Contact start to happen. Actually, that’s not strictly true ‘cos they were happening pre-race as well – but they all start like this:
‘It’s Andy, right?’
‘I read your books / blog / seen you speak…’
And then we’re off.
So I’m standing on the start line with a few minutes to go doing my best nonchalant impression when Andy introduces himself: The Andy who passed me heading out of Keswick at around the 35mile point last year as he was just starting his Bob Graham Round - the classic Lake District 24 hour mountain running challenge. I remember him for three reasons: He was sporting a searchlight as a head torch, was moving at a speed I could have a wet dream over and he got in touch after reading my blog report to say ‘Hey - that was me!’
And here he was on his first 100 start line – amazing.
Then there was Dan from Bristol who caught me on this leg, did the standard intro thing and then asked after my prison work – which was lovely and threw me completely as I was forced to come off racing script and rummage frantically for my social enterprise files as although I’m not a talker during races I was brought up to be polite.
Sorry Dan – I did try!
The Gift Of Feedback
Competitive Bloke is somewhat pissed to lose two places on the second smaller climb and two more places at the end of the big rocky descent. The two on the climb I didn’t care about – so I told him - ‘cos my climbing was all about just being efficient and get it done without any noticeable increase in effort. So if folks want to push then go ahead and fill yer boots.
The descent I did take as a personal affront given I regard it as a strength and this one is especially tricky where familiarity is a real boon especially in the dark. Competitive Bloke submits his feedback form as we headed along the lake shore to the checkpoint and I had to reluctantly agree that he may have had a point with the second pair. So I gave him some extra points on his loyalty card to keep him sweet.
Two hot dogs later and I’m heading into the last push to the one third distance point where I will Take A Big Breath. Before that the goal is to recapture how I felt and moved in the rehearsal of this section – which was joyously floaty. Admittedly that was in daylight on a sunny day fuelled by ice cream when I’d only got 90mins in my legs already, but f**k it: Act As If, right?!
I’m 15mins up on target and target is way faster then anything I was putting out last year.
While I’m slower over the ground than the rehearsal everything else is as script: I run the bits I need to run and start to push on the steep hikes. Then like a muppet I miss a turn only realizing when I don’t recognize what’s ahead and around me in the torchlight. It’s hardly consequential time-wise in the big scheme of things but it does need an uphill retreat that I really could have done without (sigh).
The Adjustment Bureau
7th into the Braithwaite check on the outskirts of Keswick and a big tick to go with The Big Breath. I’m taking stock as I shovel soup, rice pudding and fruit salad and the conclusion comes pretty quick: The smart move is to take my foot off the gas now during the slower night stages where there is a lot of runnable terrain and to try recover so I can push into daylight and the ‘halfway’ check at Dalemain and 59miles. I reckon my ‘cruise’ would still be OK and be enough to give me some space to settle. We’re also more spread out now so the likelihood is that I’ll be on my own more – which is just how I like it. I can still be on script just operating at a slightly reduced tempo.
And for the next couple of stages and 17miles that’s what happens.
By Dockray (50miles) I’d given away another 3 places and taken 2 back which puts me in 8th and still in Happy Camper mode. The rain has also arrived through the night. Heavy drizzle at first and still on-off but this will get less ‘off’ and more ‘on’ as we head into the day. It’s still warm and remarkably there’s still no wind which means if you’re moving well and generating heat you don’t need a waterproof. Everything’s just soaking wet – and soggy and mascerated feet (sorry – look away now!) will become an issue for many. I’m one of them but over the last few years I’ve got better at managing this: It ain’t pretty or pain-free by any means but I can keep it tolerable and that’ll do.
Of Men & Muppets
I’ve also indulged myself by handing out certificates at my annual Head Torch Muppetry contest. It STILL never ceases to amaze me how many people have sloppy head torch discipline. And while this may sound like a rather dubious practice between over-friendly neighbors in more well-to-do parts of town, what it actually refers to is the practice of turning round and checking what’s behind you while racing with a head torch.
You might as well send a flare up and announce your position via megaphone ‘cos to anyone with any remotely competitive tendencies anywhere behind it means you’ve just gone from Out Of Sight & Mind to Oh – THAT’S where you are… And when one is looking for more incentive during the dark of the night this will do nicely, thank you.
So for the umpteenth time – there are two rules:
One: Keep your eyes front.
Two: If you really can’t manage that then for gawd’s sake just put your hand over your light.
‘No idea what was with people this year but by Dockray I’m out of certificates.
I’m still blind to the times and positions but tracking progress on how close to daybreak I am compared to last year – and I’m way up. Nine miles to the key ‘halfway’ checkpoint and my plan is to continue to cruise as we take the high traverse around Ullswater – and one of my fave parts of the course – then back into ‘push’ mode so I have some momentum to hit the checkpoint with.
I gift another place early in the leg as Red skips past. We’ve been playing tag for a while now and I’m still in disinterested mode. Once I press ‘interested’ it’s not long before Red appears in the cross-hairs:
Ah! Red’s Dead, then…
Not that dead. Despite my best efforts to put Red To Bed, he is 100 frustrating yards ahead of me at the checkpoint - which puts me 9th, soggy and very switched on.
It’s all business at what is a very quiet Dalemain check. As ever there are some familiar faces in the crew and this works both ways as I’m greeted with some knowing smiles, quiet efficiency – and my dropbag. I order my veg stew, custard and tea – not together, silly – find some personal space near the exit, nod to Red and go to work on transition:
Eyes on task, deter casual chat.
Shirt off, wipe down, dry off.
Drink tea. Order more tea.
Shoes off – kneel, no sitting remember! – socks off, dry and air feet.
Eat. Drink tea. Order more tea.
Arse out – discretion please! – fresh lube to cheeks and undercarriage.
Dry shirt on, dry socks on, dry cap on, change shoes.
Drink tea. Order more tea.
Retrieve poles and strap poles to bag.
Drink tea. Remember I’ll need to wee if I keep this up. Stop ordering tea.
Replenish personal nosebag, bag up skanky gear, stash soggy waterproof in my belt.
(I’m still holding out against going race-vest as per the masses preferring my trusty bumbag and handheld bottle combo. It makes me almost unique in the field but if it ain’t broke…)
Look at written checklist on dropbag to make sure I’ve done everything I need to do.
Smile, say my thankyous – and depart before Red.
Pretty swift as major stops go but to my slight concern I’m not exactly skipping out of there straight into my running.
The fresh kit does feel very nice though…
I do get going and right back onto script with one exception: Later study will show I ship 10minutes on my target time for this 7mile and pretty flat section.
And that’s just a bit crap.
The standout moment? I see a red squirrel at the same spot as I did last year – running along the same wall along side me as last year. Amazing – and has me grinning all the rest of the way to the checkpoint.
‘Cos now we’re at what I regard as the crux: Two legs, 16 miles and over 4000’ climbing to get me within striking distance and 7miles of Ambleside (90miles) and Family Mouncey.
And last year I fell apart on the first leg – the longest and hilliest leg of the entire race.
That is NOT going to happen this time.
Let’s f**kin’ play, then…
Still On - And Signs Of - Off
I set my sights on the climb to the high point of the whole race. Easy to fall into simply hiking the whole thing and most do. This time I’ve rehearsed running the gentler stuff before the poles are due to make their first appearance on the steep sections. The rain has set in and the clouds are right down and I try to find the point at which I’m pushing without blowing out of my arse.
I find a good rhythm in pole-mode and seem to be up and over fairly respectably then onto the difficult tussock-strewn ground that is an energy-sapper if you try fight it. I do my best to flow with it as I drop out of the cloud and head towards to the drop down to the shore of our next lake, Hawswater.
And now the fun begins.
The weather has been generally wet and warm up here for a while now which means everything has rather grown. More specifically it means that much of the bracken that characterizes this part of the course has assumes triffid-like proportions – that’s ‘unfeasibly and unpleasantly large’ to those of you brought up after the time of the cultural touchstone that is John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic novel - obscuring much of the broken, slippy, narrow rocky path – and making any running impossible in many places.
This 6km section round the lake can be a morale-sapper at the best of times and it’s really easy to just throw the towel in and walk those sections which are - if you can get your head and feet around it - actually runnable. I have had my head around this for a while and do my best to stick to my script but that doesn’t stop me taking a couple of falls into unseen holes and opting for safety over broken ankles instead. I reassure myself that it will be the same for everyone and that all the times on this leg will be relatively slow.
That doesn’t seem to stop Red Coming Back From The Dead and passing me again on this section (sigh).
So I’m back to 9th by the Mardale Head check at the head of the lake and 76miles and slower AGAIN than target – this time by 20minutes.
I’m not worried ‘cos I don’t know.
As far as I’m concerned I’m moving way better than last year, (which is good) I feel OK, (which is OK) though some nagging doubts about being marginal on fuel are starting to surface, (which is not OK but I figure I can fix with some soup on offer here).
Hint Of Future Headlines
Next up is the small matter of a 500m climb in a very anti-social 1.9km and it’s here that my Rage Against Footpath Repair Teams takes first fuel. Now just for the record: I’ve been a volunteer on Fix The Fells, I’ve done footpath repair work and I see almost every day the damage that lotsa feet on the same place on fragile fells can do over time. So rationally I get the case and I support it.
And emotionally in the heat of battle I’ll tell you this:
When the goal is to cover uneven and broken ground as fast as possible over a very very long time and stay ahead of as many other people as possible locked in the same battle while staying as upright as possible, thinking clearly under pressure and stay sane and enjoying the process…the LAST F**KIN’ THING YOU NEED is some well-intentioned but ultimately misguided *!??*&*** making the ground MORE uneven and broken!!
To the ultra running person with 76 miles in their mascerated and tender footsies it’s as if someone has just dumped a several truckloads of large rocks and small boulders on the path then stood back and decided that’s really not enough – and done it all again. *!%?**!!
And we’re trying to go steep uphill as well!
And it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was in store – but it did seem to me that this year was especially shit in this department. Which either means it was actually me that was especially shit and I just needed something else to blame, or it really was especially shit. So I’ve made an effort to be dispassionately reflective in an effort to get to the bottom of this shit and here’s what I’ve come up with:
It really was especially shit.
And it was to get worse.
I have a steady climb. I wasn’t challenging the laws of physics by any means but it did feel respectably steady. My creeping concern was that I could hear voices behind me which weren’t going away.
No matter – I’ll lose ‘em on the descent.
‘Cos it is a brutal drop: Long, broken, rocky slippy – with two horribly steep sections that can reduce you to tears if your quads are anyway trashed and most are by this stage. But this shit is my strength, right?
Er, not it seems today.
I don’t know it yet but this is the start of the WTF? as far my legs are concerned. I will steadily loose function on anything uneven and by the final few miles descending will become a pathetic lurching stumble requiring the assistance of poles. That’s all to come. For now I know that my descending has been reduced to ordinary – and I know this because while I’m still moving reasonably well I’ve been passed not once – (Red: Really Not Dead Then) - twice but three times by folks who look like they’re positively skipping.
Rage At The Dying Of The Run
Ripping my poles out I hit the gas at the start of the shorter climb that comes before the final long easier drop into the check at 82miles – but while I’m moving well I’m not making the inroads I expect and those three whose parentage I questioned are moving steadily out of sight. What throws me is that I am still on script – running the stuff I need to run, speed hiking the stuff I need to hike etc – but folks are passing me.
And I’m damn sure it should be the other way round.
It’s taken me 83miles to slip out of the top 10 but I arrive at the Kentmere check still talking the talk (to myself) but back in 12th. I still have no idea of times and places, but am well aware that way more people have passed me recently than ever have – and that is definitely NOT in the script.
The horror show opens with a vengeance right out of the checkpoint as we start the climb of Garburn Pass. I figure the footpath repair teams have had a sit-in on this part of the course because I can’t find a stable foothold ANYF**INWHERE. There’s someone in sight and I think ‘right sonny, you’re mine!’ – and he just disappears while I flounder around like some demented half-drowning idiot turning the air blue.
I can’t seem to get any power through the push off and I can’t stabilize in order to fix the power even if I did have any to apply – and that’s with poles for gods sake! All I can seem to manage is treading gently with a measured cadence.
How on earth no-one passes me on this leg is beyond me because the long descent is pathetic – I only really get going as the path smooths out and the gradient flattens – and the final steep twisty drop through the steady rain into Ambleside degenerates into a pain-wrestling fest as I battle to stay upright and moving over the slick rocks steps and tree roots. I’m in genuine pain below the waist and now officially and properly pissed off: It’s all going to hell in a handcart fast but what hurts most is that I have no f**kin’ idea why.
I clamp down a wobbly bottom lip moment as I glimpse Charlotte for the first time in her usual greeting spot in Ambleside. In all the four previous occasions we’ve done this I’ve been moving way faster at this point and she has to know this. I’m very aware that I’m suddenly very tired indeed.
A smile, a touch and she’s trotting with me.
‘The boys are just ahead,’ she explains ‘We’ve split up this time.’
I gather energy enough for a sentence.
‘Don’t tell me where I’m at - just talk to me.’ I pull a face at her that is supposed to be a smile. ‘I’m OK…just a bit tired…’
Bless her, she does – and while she fills me in on the last 20 hours or so I register what a downer bad weather can have on the casual spectator. Last year Ambleside was jumping and I fed off the energy. This year it’s all very damp and subdued. Much like myself.
We turn a corner and there’s Tom – a smile and a touch – and then across the junction there’s Joe and Camper Van Steve. I award myself points for threading my way through the traffic without actually stopping – then it’s a half hug with Joe and a smile and half a hand for Steve as I dare not stop before the check. The boys are less animated than usual clearly picking up that something is not completely right – ‘cos hey, Dad at 90miles into a 105mile race is otherwise perfectly normal in their world – so I do my best to engage. No points for syntax and articulation though…
Big Picture Perspective
Ambleside check and the boys and Charlotte are very definitely in crew mode. This can’t be a long stop though I’m sporting a shade of white Charlotte is less than happy about. One very important hug to one very important friend I spot standing quietly who is going through way worse shit that I am right now helps restore perspective and Mrs Mouncey goes Big Picture to provide the rest:
‘Just keep moving…you can do that, right?’
Right. Moving. I can do that…
Thank god for poles and that fact that the climb out of Ambleside is steady and pretty smooth underfoot. The descent is another matter but after that it’s flat and I just key Keep F**kin’ Moving mode.
Once again – remarkably – no one passes me and once again – remarkably – I’m only 15mins down on target time which given I’m pathetic on anything vaguely up or down I’ll take, thank you very much.
95miles to the good and I have my reunion with my Angels Liz & Jill at the Chapel Stile check. Last year it was full blood sugar crash and collapse under multiple blankets on their most excellent inflatable sofa while a rainstorm raged outside. I’m told I’m yet again an unhealthy shade of white but that’s fixable if…
I recall the fix from last year: Tea, chocolate brownies and tinned peaches – times three please.
I fix the inflatable sofa a hard stare:
‘And you can f**k right off.’
A change to a dry long sleeve top to go with my returning pink complexion and I’m waved ceremoniously off the premises after a significantly shorter – but no less welcome - stop than last year. It needs to be ‘cos I’m haemorrhaging time everywhere else.
Just keep moving…
Eventually walk turns to hike and hike turns to shuffle – but then the footpath repair devils return to f**k with me and/or the trail descends and it all degenerates into a stumbling lurch.
Periods of redemption are experienced on anything smoother and steadily up – which is fine except that kinda stuff is in the minority on this leg. By the time I lurch into the final check with 4miles to go I’ve shipped another two places – and it’s about to get way worse.
The Final Nails
Straight out of the final check we face an 800 foot climb that starts with a set of steep slate steps. Picture a sloth with trekking poles attempting this section and you are close to what I looked and felt like. I nearly had to stop, hook a hand under my knee and pull my leg onto the next step. Tears of frustration and shame were bubbling and I was only thankful it was just me lost in the misery of my own hood.
That’s when I heard the cheers from the checkpoint crew below as I crested the final step, looked up and saw the photographer (sigh). So there I am preserved for posterity in the official race video. Watch out for the sloth in yellow waterproof and blue shorts skipping up the steps at 4mins 48seconds in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI4xSCAK_Q4
That was respectable compared to what came next: Hands and knees and crawling over a couple of steep rocky sections I just failed to get my legs to work on.
Just. Keep. F**in’ Moving.
Level ground across the top and I spend the last of my spluttering matches on the climb to the final high point. I surrender two more places without a fight and I will gift four more on the final descent. I had resigned myself to this being a down hike – it’s steep, stepped, broken and now skatey as heck – but I had not expected to be completely bereft of any motor control whatsoever. How I didn’t snap my poles is a mystery – and testament to the mountain-king poles - because that final tortuous drop was a seeming never-ending sequence of lurch-fall onto poles-curse–repeat.
Just. Keep. F**in’ Moving.
Finally I’m down but am too bone weary and wracked with pain to do anything more than shuffle my sorry ass into Coniston. I’m just thankful there’s no-one I know to greet me early and…Oh.
Charlotte and the boys.
A weak smile and a touch is all I can manage and then summoning something from somewhere to get up the slight rise past the petrol station that really isn’t a rise – even a slight one.
‘Final turn slightly downhill and 100 yards. The boys are smart enough to see Dad hasn’t a prayer in pulling anything like a final trot and they settle for a final group shuffle through the rain.
25 hours 45minutes and 20th place: Not my fastest or my prettiest but my fifth finish from five starts spanning 12 years. I set my stall out and went with it till I couldn’t – and then I kept at it till it was time to stop.
I fixed the shit from last year and came away with answers and some new questions to feed the flames.
Un-pissed? You betcha.
Thanks to our good friend Steve Bailey for the great photos and also to No Limits photography for race photos.
Full race results here.