Going the Distance – My First Ultramarathon (pt 1)

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The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” – Arthur C Clarke

When I first started running in 2015 just getting two miles down the road without stopping seemed impossible. My burning lungs and lead like legs would slow me to a walk. As the months went by what I had once deemed impossible became possible, falling like dominoes; running 10K without stopping, finishing a half marathon and then finally I crossed the finish line of my first marathon. Anything became a possibility.

But since that day in 2016 I had not ventured into the impossible. Sure I had run 13 more marathons but through the start line nerves I knew it would be possible, one way or another. I needed a new, unknown challenge so I signed up for Lakeland50. Running my first ultramarathon became my new impossible. 

The 50 miles wasn’t the only impossible part though.

Lakeland50 is often labelled one of the toughest ultras in the UK. With 10,000+ feet of cruel elevation, steep technical descents, rocky terrain and having to run through the night making it tough enough but as a stark contrast to other big ultramarathons this race is completely self navigated. No handy signs, no pacers, outside help or marshals to guide your way just a map, a road-book and hopefully a good sense of direction. Add in the notoriously volatile Lake District weather and you can see why I’ve been having more than a few sleepless nights and crises of confidence in the lead up.

I arrived the day before the race and the beautiful Lake Distict was bathed in hot summer sunshine. The UK has been going through the hottest heatwave on record and while some rain was predicted for race day it was unclear if it would come.

The first thing to do was kit check, something I had never done before and I was nervous that I had forgotten something or the kit I had would be incorrect. As the lady ticked off the many required bits of kit I felt like a fraud; a couch potato dressed in runners clothing. Some of the kit I would be using I had never even worn before (like my waterproofs) and my navigational skills, which we were pre-warned might be tested, were budget at best. Regardless, I passed and was moved along to be weighed. Seeing that I had gained 3kg during tapering really knocked my self-confidence. I laughed it off in front of the marshals but having my bloated size written on my wrist for the race would be a painful reminder of how I hadn’t shifted the weight I wanted to have lost by now.

The night before I slept deeper than I had done in weeks. Nerves replaced by a calming sense of inevitability as I had given in to the fact that anything can and probably will happen tomorrow and there was simply nothing I could do about it. With no hard aims for timings the goal was simply to finish with a smile on my face.

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I woke up early to an unfamiliar sound; rain. Heavy rain.

I ate my porridge sat in the window seat of my hotel room simply staring out at the weather. As the soothing rain drops cascaded down the window I tried to imagine what these 50 miles would hold. I simply couldn’t, the unknown of it all meant my mental image was only dark shaded outlines. A final unpack and repack of my bag later, taking the total times I’d done that into hundreds, I headed out the door not knowing when I would return.

Before the race briefing I met up with Steve and the pair of us shuffled apprehensively into the briefing. Steve and I had been chatting on Instagram about the race and we talked hypothetically about buddying up but truth be told I assumed we would run a few miles together and then drift apart. Even as we boarded the hour long bus journey to the start and shared a sandwich I still thought eventually one of us would speed up or slow down and that would be the end of our story. I was wrong, very wrong.

After a final hug with my dad the start line beckoned and as AC/DC blared loudly through my now numb, nerve riddled body we embarked on our adventure. The race starts with a four mile loop around an estate and with the sun breaking through bathing us in warm light you couldn’t help but feel that primeval joy of running as a pack towards the same goal.

The euphoria carried me quickly to the first checkpoint and my first experience of an ultramarathon aid station or as they should be realisitcally name buffetpoints. Through out the race I would consume the following at the six well stocked checkpoints:

6 sandwiches, 16 chocolate biscuits, 4 brownies, 1 bowl of pasta, 2 bowls of meat stew, 12 cups of flat coke and 7 cups of coffee.

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My first of many biscuits in hand we made our way through Howtown and towards the dreaded climb up Fusedale valley. With 1,500 feet of elevation in less than two miles the task is the first true test of endurance and one on paper I was sadistically excited to tackle. As we approached the base of the climb the sedate weather sinisterly unshackled itself. Violent gusting winds whipped through the valley and began to batter my determination.

The light rain turned into a torrential storm with bouts of painful, piercing hail. Unable to look around, my line of sight was narrowed to just the feet ahead of me. With no knowledge of how much of the climb was left or if this weather would relent for the next 38 miles I could feel panic rapidly bubbling up like a pan about to boil over.

My heart began to race and I feared my resolve was already about to shatter.

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10 thoughts on “Going the Distance – My First Ultramarathon (pt 1)

  1. Marianne says:

    Great writing, James. Looking forward to reading the rest. Fascinating that you slept really well the night before! Xx

  2. Steven Judson says:

    Part 2 please Legend!

    Fusedale was a special little ‘hell on earth’ just for us … thank you Lake District!

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