I find myself writing about the inevitable. Anybody who participates in endurance sport long enough knows there is nothing more certain than a DNF… for us it joins the infamy of death and taxes1. I’ve always wondered what would bring it about and always assumed it would be injury, illness or a course just finally beating me, but I don’t feel that it was any one of these. No doubt there will be some readers of this blog that will think I’m kidding myself, that I just don’t want to admit that I couldn’t continue, but I just don’t believe that is the case – if it were I’d feel regret at stopping, I would agonise over the what ifs, how I could have done that little bit more, how I should have crawled if I had to. Right now I couldn’t feel more serene!
So what happened? Well, things were going well. My plan had been to try and get down from the Black Sail pass without needing to use my torch; I did that and didn’t need to put my torch on until the descent from Scarth Gap pass. I was running well and competing. I hit Buttermere to find Charlie Sproson had stayed up a little later than he’d planned so I had a nice boost there and Andy Burton threw on his running gear and ran with me to Addacomb beck which was fantastic. The night recce I had done with Braddan had really paid off as the three guys I was running (including Matty Brennan) with who had shot off from Buttermere weren’t 100% on the route so I caught them up and started to lead the way.
All sounds good, but I’d been plagued from the start with a stomach of discontent. I’d been suffering from diarrhea since the previous Sunday and whilst it looked like it might be clearing up on the Wednesday evening it certainly didn’t. Metres after Andy turned around to return to his check point duties I found myself frantically searching for some cover. Dead of night, head torch blazing, other runners behind with equally dazzling wide beamed head torches… it wasn’t an easy job, but I found cover and lost 10 minutes to nature. I’d hoped the stomach cramps that had plagued me all the way around would go, but they didn’t and I felt totally drained as I climbed up between Sail and Causey Pike.
On my own I decided to put my stereo on to get things going again, the moon had come out and it was particularly spectacular. I cracked on and slowly but surely started to regain my feet. I was running well and I was quite happy. Matty had been struggling since Boot. Great on the down hills but suffering everywhere else. We’d been on elastic since the start, either running together or me going ahead on the uphill knowing Matty would catch on the down, I’d then have to catch up and thus we were working really well. I finally caught him up nearing Braithwaite and we trotted in together for an extended stop. It was party food time, jelly, pork pies, crisps, sausage rolls, etc.
We left and headed to Keswick together putting in roughly 8 minute miles all the way to the start of the first climb on the Bob Graham. I settled into a pace, said something to Matty but had no reply. He was some distance behind me so I figured he’d catch up. I felt great and ran almost all the way to the car park after the initial steep section. I maintained this pretty much all the way around to Blencathra where I had to stop for another 10 minutes to answer the call of nature. Explosive.
I chugged away to Dockray playing head torch games – I’d done the same around to Blencathra partly for the fun of playing tactics against the other runners (amusing to me as I wasn’t not on the bleeding edge of competition) but mainly because the moonlight was so bright it was just beautifully peaceful to run with what nature provided. I found myself in Dockray being asked if I was Chris and did I know Kirk! One of the chaps on the checkpoint recognised me from a kayaking trip about 5 years previous. Small world… but of course everybody knows Kirk so it was an easy question to ask J
The three people in front that got 10 minutes on my back at Blencathra were working really well together, I was on my own with an inspired selection of music, but it’s far from the same. I was losing them to the night. Coming around the side of Ullswater on Gowbarrow Park, I passed the memorial seat and turned to see the most incredible sunrise I have ever seen. The red was magical, the sky almost clear save for a few early clouds that were to burn off. I literally out aloud said “Wow” as soon as I saw it, my breath taken only to have it taken again in shock as a hand landed on my shoulder. Another chap had caught me up and scared the life out of me! Still, I chuckled about it and watched as over the course of the next 60 or so seconds the sun appeared as a slither of flame then showed itself in all its glory. Really magical and energising.
I ran reasonably well into the 59 mile mark to be reunited with my drop bag at Dalemain. I was really starting to chaff and whilst the wonderful checkpoint people fussed over me I exclaimed that I was about to get naked. Drying off and new pants & shorts were very, very welcome. My previous set were soaked with sweat and the combination of water and salt were taking their toll. I found my lanacane applied and headed onto Pooley bridge just outside of the top 10.
The solitude and the chaffing continued to Howton. I made a mistake here and whilst I’d planned to fill up my bottles (I’d been managing my fluids well up until then) I didn’t in my confusion and just headed back out again moments behind the Greek pair as they had a quick checkpoint turn around. I caught them further down the road and we headed up High Kop together. Separated again by the descent to Haweswater I was regularly applying the lanacane to Mardale head and an excellent checkpoint support crew from the Delamere Spartans.
I went up the Gatescarth path well, but this is where the route really falls apart for me. I must caveat this and state that there is a real loyalty towards the Lakeland 100 and 50 and people do love the course. For me it just doesn’t work. It’s a great genuine circumnavigation of the Lakes, but I personally really don’t like the route – to the point where had I recced it before entering I wouldn’t have entered. It’s a very clever route, it minimises climb but still gets 22,500ft in, minimises risk, there are few places if any on the course that aren’t easily accessible by rescue services (much of which a 4×4 can get to or very close), easy to navigate and it makes it easy to set up checkpoints. However it is horrendous underfoot for a huge amount of it and for me as a mountain runner I found it pretty bland as it is just motorway sized rough rocky paths for much of it. Yes you can look around at the fantastic sights (and I did!) and in good weather (which we had) the views are difficult to rival, plenty of people love it, but it is just not really my thing… which is good to know as there is so much choice out there that I need help to narrow it down and get to the essence of what I want to do. Learning point for me then!
I cannot describe just how terrible the paths are underfoot. Baby head sized rocks and loose stones. It destroys ankles, it’s exceptionally difficult to run, mentally exhausting and, well… it’s just not enjoyable. That’s the essence of it, for me that kind of terrain (which the course is to a greater or lesser extent for 60+% because it uses bridleway so extensively) is not fun to run on and after so much of it, totally detracts from the overall event. This is not a rant or throwing blame, it’s just my preference and why it doesn’t work for me – I’m sure there are plenty out there that would think the idea of running across the Carneddau in missle is hell, but for me it’s freedom and a happy enjoyable adventurous place.
I run long because I love it, not for some kind of masochistic fantasy. It was so rough underfoot that, for me, it became about enduring, not endurance.
Smoothie at Kentmere CP was fantastic, but even that couldn’t lift my spirits or mood as I knew I had the same hell to endure to get over to Ambleside. On my way up in the blistering heat I started to question what I was doing. This is pretty common for me; in fact I have in the past purposely gone there to remind myself of my motivation. This time I was surprised to come back with nothing on the personal front. Yes I felt guilty towards those that had put their faith in me through sponsorship and that kept me going on, but I was curious to find nothing else.
It’s difficult to explain really, I wasn’t in a real funk of negativity, in fact I was starting to feel very positive about it. I realised that I had nothing to prove to myself or others and I have always questioned if that is what drives me on. I think since the Dragon’s back this has changed in me. I knew I could finish the Lakeland 100 if I wanted to, but for once I made a sensible, clear decision without any ego getting in the way. There were contributing factors that make up the whole picture and some people will think I’m mad given where I was in the field: When I dropped out I was in 15th place, 90 miles in, had done all the hard bits and had 15 miles most of which was pretty flat and almost all is nice run-able path. The key factors were:
1) I’d had the runs since Sunday and they continued to provide stomach issues and the runs on the way around, it was draining in more ways than one and it felt wrong to keep scaring people by suddenly appearing from behind a bush in the middle of the night
2) Chaffing where the sun don’t shine, I was very sore from Dalemain so spent the next 30 miles packing as much lanacane between the cheeks as possible
3) Just not enjoying it – I run long because I love it, not for some kind of masochistic fantasy. For me, it became about enduring, not endurance.
I saw the family at Troutbeck which was a real boost for me although I don’t think I showed that. This is my only regret of the event, that I couldn’t change my face right then, that I didn’t stop and get down to the river to see the dam Rhys had built. I spent the time between there and Ambleside wondering what I’d gain and if it was really worth rubbing for 15 more miles which would equate to 3-4+ hours and not being able to sit down for a week. I did feel a responsibility to those that sponsored me, but equally I felt I had nothing to prove and that continuing just for the sake of finishing was not the right choice.
Rhys’ dam aside, I’ve absolutely no regrets, like I said, I’d done all the hard bits knew I could finish but had done enough for the sense of achievement. Continuing on would have just ruined it and derived little satisfaction to recompense. Again, to many that will sound odd, to the ultra runners that live by the mantra: ”Never, never, never, give up” and other such “motivational” phrases, but in my clarity of self discovery I could be more content – maybe because for the first time I made a good decision with my head rather than one with my ego.
I’ll reflect further, but it feels like the Dragon’s Back taught me that I no longer need to do things just to prove it to myself or others – I’ve conquered my Everest so whilst I’ll still push myself and still compete like crazy, it won’t be for the sake of it any more.
Knowing this is a great thing to come away with. Like I said earlier, I take part in these crazy races because I enjoy them, yes I suffer, yes I push myself, yes I go beyond the rational, but I love them… maybe not in the moment, but I know I will at the end. Given the course I realised that I just wasn’t enjoying it and didn’t need to continue even though it was predominately good paths to the finish, but it wasn’t about that for me.
The Lakeland 100 (like all of my other races) are about self fulfilment and discovery. When I get to the nub of it that is what they are about. I did fulfil myself on this run, but it also went beyond that and that lead to the self discovery. This race taught me quite a bit in the end. For me all these races present a lesson of some sort about myself. Sometimes it’s about what my body does, others it’s deeper and teaches me what matters to me, going to the extreme gives me that clarity. This time I realised it isn’t about completion and proving something without enjoyment. I loved every minute, even the excruciatingly painful ones, of the DBR and I guess that was a major factor in me wanting to and eventually completing it. So whilst I started with a plan based around getting a good first quarter in and then completing, it turned into a contentment of having had enough and real clarity of thought. As a result it was surprisingly fulfilling, not what I expected from my first DNF.
PS – Thanks to all that made it possible and thanks to all my sponsors. I will be mailing you all soon directly and will be happy to repay any sponsorship due to my choice not to finish. I know the websites make you pay up front as a “donation” rather than a “sponsorship for completion” so I’ll be happy to cover any made as the latter of the two.
PPS – DNF = Did Not Finish
PPPS – Physically I am in pretty reasonable shape. Sudocreme is my best friend and has worked wonders. My left ankle is a cankle as it is pretty swolen and painful to walk on. My right is swollen too but not as much. The soles of my feet are painful as the rough ground did its best to remove the skin. Other than that I could head out for a run today so a pretty good result.
PPPPS – Fantastic wins by Stuart Mills (awesome and gutsy run to win the 100), Ben Abdelnoor (50 record breaker!) and Lizzie Wraith (Ladies 100 winner and record destroyer!)
- Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
—Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789