Lakes in a Day With MTD Elite Ben "Bajan" Rajan
It’s always strange lining up on the start line for a race after the focus of your year has been completed. Those A-race nerves and anticipation are lacking and it leaves you feeling a little confused about why you woke up at 3am and got a coach from the finish to the start line in Caldbeck in the North Lakes. But on the morning of 13thOctober that’s where I was, and as the rain started I began to worry if I might be a little under prepared for what lay ahead.
Lakes in a Day is a 80km/50mile point to point race from Caldbeck in the North to Cartmel in the South of the Lake District, following a near straight line cutting through the heart of the area. After racing in the Ultimate Trails 110km a few years ago I’ve always been keen to get back to the Lake District; the scenery is truly amazing and it’s easily the most challenging place to run in England with some long climbs and often pretty rough weather. Signing up for this race was meant to be the close out of the year; with TDS wrapped up at the end of August I thought I’d, after some recovery, try to string another race onto the back of a tough training block and close out the year with another ultra in the bag. In truth, the nigh on 24hrs spend running at TDS has taken me significantly longer than I imagined to recover from but I’m only just starting to realise that.
So, as the klaxon went at 8am in the sleepy village of Caldbeck and the rain began to fall, I started off with the front pack and wound our way towards foot of Caldbeck Fell and into the race proper. The first 18km was an open navigation section with runners allowed to take whatever route they found best, this said the path was fairly clear and as we hit the first ascent and my calves started to burn I took my map out and made the conscious decision to let the front runners go. I’ve always struggled to run my own race, hanging onto others coat tails too longer and regretting it later when I find myself struggling but today I was pledging to run with a sensible head. There was nothing to prove, no months and months of focus for this day. This was meant to be a day for me; an enjoyable adventure to round up what’s been a tough year of pushing boundaries.
I snaked my way up High Pike, checked my map, and made a beeline for the path I thought would direct me towards the Cumbria Way and River Caldew. This was to be the first sign of one of the themes of the day; water, and a lot of it. We’d been advised on the start line that we would need to cross at a marshalled hand line as the heaving rain over night had turned the small river into heavy surge. As I straight-lined through heather and grass and the river came into sight I laughed that I’d started off trying to avoid small puddles. The river was icy cold and over the knee. Clinging on the hand-line and with the aid of some extremely hardy marshals in waders, the river was navigated and I emerged the other side. Calves now stinging from cold not exertion, the wind adding to the chill.
The wind began to strengthen and as we climbed up to the top of Bowscale Fell and I was passed by several more competitors in various bright coloured jackets, hoods tight pulled around their faces to provide a little shelter from the elements. Soon, we were on the scree of Atkinson Pike approaching Blencathra, and I slid and slipped my way to the top and the approach of what I knew to be one of the most technical sections. The descent to Threlkeld and the first aid station was via Hall’s Fell Ridge, a rocky knife-edge dropping into the valley. Today, due to the persistent rain, it was slippy in the extreme and a few falls sent my heart racing as I tried to navigate the safest route; this wasn’t the time for speed. The marshals shouted encouragement and advice, and with only a few bumps and scrapes I found myself trotting into the Threlkeld aid station thankful for the shelter from the wind and the chance to top up with more Tailwind.
After only a minute or two pause, I was off again, snaking through the valley and happy to feel my legs still had some strength on the flats. A sudden flash of doubt crossed my mind and I slowed for a minute, checking my supplies of food and drink. I’d remembered that the next section, easily the hilliest, up across the high peaks and down into Ambleside was just under 30km and I needed to make sure I was stocked up. Confidence gained, I continued on towards Clough Head. Looking back checking my supplies was probably one of the best moves I made that day. The initial climb was hugely steep and all signs of the strong-on-the-flat legs were gone after a few minutes. The climb continued on and on and I prayed for the top and relative flat of the ridge that I’d be following for the next few hours. I had no idea what I was heading for.
As I reached the flat the wind started, and oh my, was it some wind. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say the gusts must have been up to around 80mph coming head on. At the worst points even progress on the flat was brought to a walk, several times the gusts caught me off guard and I almost went to hands and knees for stability. The rain was still pouring down but now came in parallel to the ground, whipping the face and legs like being pelted with gravel. Those people I looked at at the start line with confusion, with goggles attached to their packs, clearly knew what to expect. The visibility was down to maybe 10m and I was thankful for the GPX navigation on my watch as nothing else was visible in my small bubble around me. I felt isolated, remote, overwhelmed and out of my depth. This felt like a true adventure; the adrenaline rushed.
This went on for hours. I passed peak after peak, no clue of where I was, only the slight flattening of the terrain and the presence of a cairn gave any indication that I was up high. Occasionally I’d pass another runner, or a very brave hiker, and we’d share a thumbs up, neither bothering to attempt speech in the deafening roar of the wind. At some point I must have passed Helvellyn; as I felt my path dropping I knew I was heading down to Grisedale Tarn. I didn’t see it until I was nearly in it. I wish I’d stopped to take a photo (though later I’d find out my phone had been drown) of the icy black water covered in foamy white waves. It looked wild and menacing, and crossing via the useless submerged stepping stones, once again covered the knee and took real concentration without support of others. The steep climb up to Fairfield was actually appreciated as the incline provided a little shelter but as a trade-off for a brutal ascent. Once at the top, usual service resumed with no let up until the approach to Ambleside. As my foot touch the first tarmac signalling civilisation I grinned to myself. I was stinging, soaked, bruised and battered. But I had done it, and that was enough in itself. And as relief and the smell of pizza wafted over me as I entered Checkpoint 2 in Ambleside I had to remind myself that I was only just halfway.
If the theme of the first half was wind, then the second was rain, or water at least. As I set off from the aid station, satisfied by some pizza and a chat with some other battered runners, I was told of “a bit of flooding”, making me happy I didn’t think of packing a dry pair of shoes to swap into. Crossing the River Rothay was something I’ll never forgot; crossing is the wrong word. On the approach of footbridge my knees were covered, but on the other side the water was waist deep and I was slowed to “wading pace”, something I’ve never experienced during a running race. Another brave and slightly mad marshal (standing up to their waist in the water) advised the path was submerged deeper further up and ushered me onto the road for safety. And as I skirted the western edge of Windmere this continued, the intended path and usual shoreline lost under the lapping, icy waves.
It was around this point into the race that I made two mistakes, both of which I’ve made before and, with all likelihood, will make again. Firstly, although knowing this wasn’t the case and despite being advised by many, many people not to, I allowed myself to believe that all the ascent was done and I was in for a flat run to the finish. As I climbed out of High Wray up through the woods of Claife Heights I cursed myself for not taking this on board. Although lacking the altitude of earlier in the day, the steep climb was a struggle on tired legs and I realised how deep I’d already dug just to keep progressing in the wind earlier.
My second mistake, and this may sound somewhat antisocial, I listened to another competitor telling me how far away the next (and final) aid station was. On these longer races I have been trying to entirely ignore my watch, running off feel and a vague appreciation of what is where on the route map. As such, I had a pretty good idea as I re-joined the submerged shoreline near to Graythwaite that I still had about 5km remaining until I could restock supplies and enter the final 10km. So when a runner said he’d been told by another (a local no less) just behind us that we were within a mile of comfort, I don’t know why I entertained the glimmer of hope. Maybe I was running faster than I thought? Maybe I had been ticking through the miles unaware? I should finish my Tailwind and remaining food to give me the opportunity to restock shortly. 5km later, as we eventually nearer the final aid station in Finsthwaite I made a mental note to back myself in future. I downed a couple of tinned peaches and continued, head torch on, and longing for the finish line now.
The final 10km to the finish was a struggle for me. The small inclines and soft ground were tough on my now screaming legs. I was cold, drenched, and longed for a sit down without the prospect of more Tailwind. A group of 3 or 4 runners who’d been a minute or so back for the last section pushed through and I could do little to hang onto them. I focused on sticking to my own race, running what I could, power-hiking the rest and staying positive. This race was just for me and I was meant to be enjoying it. Finally, lights on the horizon indicated civilisation, the ground under-foot turned to tarmac and I knew the last few km were here. I fell into stride with two other runners I’d caught and we silently descended into the outskirts of Cartmel. At the sign welcoming us to the village I gave my legs a final kick; I had to at least finish on a positive. One of the other runners stuck to my heels and we zipped through the sleepy village I’d driven through at 4am that morning. We passed his family and he burst into a sprint and pulled ahead, not something I could muster after the previous 80km. A sharp left and we were into the school and across the finish. 12hours 2mins after starting I could finally stop. And after a drenched, sweaty embrace of the two other finishers I crumbled into a heap in the school hall.
So my ultras are over for 2018, finishing off with 8thplace and a day I will never ever forget. It wasn’t what I was expecting but I’m proud to know that I can handle those conditions and stay positive. The rest of the year will be spent relaxing, running for enjoyment and also planning. Because after this year, 2019 has a lot to live up to!
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· Salomon Adv-Skin 12 pack
· Way too much Tailwind
· Garmin Fenix 3