Lakeland 50: discovering the beauty of trail running

It's been more than 2 weeks since the race, but I was constantly on the move since then and only now managed to sit down and write this post. Hopefully I still remember enough to give a decent account of the big day, but first...

The day before...

One day to go. It's time to start getting nervous but somehow I'm not. I fly in the morning from Amsterdam to Manchester, then a train ride to Windermere where I stop for an obligatory pasta meal in a pub. Then 1 hour bus ride to Consiston, where I register and check into a B&B.

Now would be a time to try to take it easy and go to bed early; instead I decide to walk the last stage of the race that is coming tomorrow. Risky decision as I should be as well rested as possible, but I decide that I want to know what's in store for me on the race day. Moreover this gives me a chance to test out some things before the race (for instance GPS-based navigation), not to mention that this last stage I'm most likely to have to face by night, so having done it before could prove very helpful indeed.

It's just 3 miles but it's on a rocky path, with plenty of ascent. I walk it at a very brisk pace so my heart rate sometimes goes up to serious values. But I quickly calculate that if I did the whole race at that pace I should be able to finish it in around 14 hours. Not bad.

After coming back I eat some pasta and go to bed. Long day tomorrow.

Before the race

I get up in the morning, collect my gear, eat breakfast and head for the compulsory briefing. I'm slightly late and the room is fully packed, so standing outside I cannot hear a word; hopefully I'm not missing anything important.

I do feel a slight pain in my back. It's a familiar feeling for me, having to do with my kidney. Usually I can keep it in check by drinking enough water. So now, not only I'm faced with the pain but I also suspect I may not be hydrated enough. I try to amend it quickly by drinking a lot. Then straight to the bus and off we go to the starting area. The bus ride is a serious nightmare for me as my hydration attempts mean that now I very seriously need a toilet. But finally it's over.

We have almost an hour to start. It's already 3 hours after I had breakfast so I'm getting slightly hungry. Gladly, I took a lot of food with me so I stuff myself to the point where I think that I may have overdone it. I also debate on the running gear to use. I took my normal running socks and the compression socks as a spare pair, but after the walk of the previous day I feel my shins hurting slightly, so in the end decide to wear compression socks under the normal ones. It was a bit of a gamble as I hardly ever run in them, but given that my shins gave me no trouble at all during the race, I guess that was a good call.

While waiting we see some 100-mile runners passing by every now and then. This is the mid-race point for them and some of them look as if they've been through a lot, which probably they were. Soon enough the race starts for us as well.

The race

We begin with a small 4 mile loop around the estate, but the leading person makes a mistake so we end up with only 2 miles, meaning the race will be 2 miles shy of the target. Too bad.

It's impossible to give a minute-by-minute account of the race. For once, I don't remember all the details anymore. But more importantly, this is the kind of race that you need to experience for yourself to understand what it's about.

At first I'm running on my own but by the second checkpoint I meet a compatriot, Kristof, and we team up together. Some time later we're joined by Tim and since then it's the three of us together almost until the end. This is the best thing that I could have hoped for in the race - trudging together is not only more fun than alone but it also gives a huge mental boost... not to mention that I'm off the hook with navigation as for the most part Kristof and Tim take care of that. We do get lost once doing an extra kilometer or so and loosing 10 minutes, but that's only to be expected in such a race. So, long story short: thanks guys!

Given the length and intensity of the race, and my previous experience, I expect a big crisis at some point. I'm so sure of it that I don't even wonder whether it will come, but only when will it come. I even plan ahead for it, thinking that if it hits me at 40+ miles I should be able to push through it until the finish line, but if it comes closer to 30, I'll be in serious trouble. But it never comes...

We're going at a good pace too. I was worried of running by night, but it's only when we reach the last checkpoint that it gets dark and we need to turn on our headlamps. From then on it's only 3 miles till the finish and it's the section that I already did the day before! However, will all the previous miles in our legs and with my crappy lamp, it proves far more difficult than the day before.

But still the main factor that slows me down is the technical path and poor visibility, and not lack of cooperation from my legs. So the funny thing is that, contrary to all marathons I ever did, I finish in a sprint like fashion with some energy still in store.

I finish in 10:52:42, well better than even my most optimistic goals. I spent 0:46:38 at the 6 checkpoints and the remaining 10:06:04 racing (7:47 min/km average). I also run a fairly steady race with my position at checkpoints varying in the range of 56-76 and finishing in the 63rd spot. This year this is only enough to be in the top 14% of the pack, even though last year such time would secure me 18th place (top 5%).

Crossing the finish line feels really great. A feeling that I can only compare with my first marathon finish, almost 10 years ago, in Amsterdam. It's also rather unusual that, even during the race, I already know that soon I'll be coming for more ultra-marathon experience.

After-race thoughts

Probably the first thing that strikes me about this race is how different it was than road racing. Sure, I anticipated that, but given how simple running seems to be - after all it's always just about putting one foot in front of another - the difference is really remarkable.

The first thing is that in every road race you give someone the time and distance and it pretty much tells the whole story of the race; or at least of how well one eventually did in it. In trail racing there is at least one most variable to consider: total ascent. Running uphill is not only tiring, but it also slows you down. Like hell. Early in the race I realized that you should walk all but very gentle slopes. Except for short races, everyone does that, elite included. Also, before the race the 3300m of ascent were just an abstract figure for me. Having completed it I now know that 40+ meters of ascent per kilometer means that there will be very serious hills to negotiate. And that this over 50 miles, means serious climbing indeed.

The next thing is descents. In road racing even if there are some ups and downs, they usually nearly cancel each other out, with gaining on the way down what you have lost on the way up. Not so in fell racing. Not even close. The ascents are painful, but the descents can be almost equally demanding. Sure, there were few grassy slopes where I just recklessly went down at full speed without the brakes on, but that's a rare opportunity. Many descents would be technical, where you have to watch your every step and which would put serious strain on your muscles; at some of them we'd not be moving much faster than on the way up.

Finally, there's the surface. There were moments when I so longed for the road! Grass, mud, rocks, you name it, we had it all. Compared to that the DiemerCross was a child's play. If you don't believe me look at the photo on the left showing the state of my shoes after the race. Actually, I think they look much better on the photo than they did in reality. To give you some idea: I left them behind as it was impossible to clean them or take them like that in my luggage.

All in all this means that the dynamics of such a race is very different than in road racing. Road races are like driving on a straight highway: you just shift into the highest gear, step on the gas and hope that you reach the finish before running out of gas. Ultras such as Lakeland, are much more like city driving, with a lot of gear shifting and speed changing... and I have to say I like that much more!

Another important difference is eating. During marathons you can easily get away without fueling on the way (at least I do); on a 11h ultra that is simply not an option, so that's yet another thing one has to "learn". Moreover, it implies logistic choices, as usually you'll need to carry at least some food and drinks with you. The logistic part is also where I failed. I ordered a new water pouch for my camel pack, but it did not arrive on time. I decided, what the heck, I'll just use bottles. Nothing wrong with that (plenty of ppl were relying on bottles) but the problem was that the bottles were placed in my backpack in such a way that I could not reach them without taking it off. Since I needed constant access to them, I ended up running most of the time with a bottle in my hand; certainly not ideal.

After this race I was wondering how come that I was never hit by a crisis. Was it, as Kristof suggested, the fact that I was eating a lot on every check-point therefore never running out of fuel? Or was it thanks to the constant varying speed and switching between walking and running? Or was it simply because I didn't run close to my limits? My rather low average heart rate (149, excluding breaks) seems to kinda support that theory. But I guess in reality it was the combination of the above.

Another thing I was wondering about is why did I enjoy this race so much. I guess I already covered part of the answer in this post so far. Another part, such as a feeling you get when you get an amazing view from the top of the mountain, after just having climbed it, is difficult to put into words. But I think big part of the answer to that question lies in just one word: adventure. This is how this race felt and it is not something I would say about any marathon I did.

What next?

I loved it and I'll certainly do some more ultras. Unfortunately it's impossible to train both for trail ultras and road marathons, so that will probably mean no more marathons for a while. But for now I'm registered for Berlin at the end of September and until then I'm going to focus on that, which means less volume and more speed work (not much time left and with my busy travel schedule I'm afraid my preparations will be lousy :/). And then... I already have plans for races to conquer and adventures to be had, but I think that deserves another post. Until then!

P.S. I have the feeling that I did not properly convey the difficulty of Lakeland 50 in this post. Yes, I finished relatively ok, but no, it does not mean it was a walk in the park. Far from it! And therefore I cannot even begin to phantom what it must have been to complete the twice longer course of Lakeland 100, staying on the go for more than 24 hours (only 6 people needed less than that). So I'd like to express my deepest respect for everyone who finished it; you guys (& gals!) rock. Kudos.

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