Written by Andy Mouncey - http://www.bigandscaryrunning.com/
‘I really hope this works, Andy…’
15 seconds into the race and Co-Race Director Marc Laithwaite appears to be having doubts about where he’s placed his bets this year. The reason? Last year’s second placer – that’s me, dear reader – has just walked past him right at the back of the field appearing not to have a care in the world as the rest of the 233 runners stream away from the start.
I find out later that he was not alone in the raised eyebrow department: A whole bunch of folks did a big collective ‘What the f***?!?!’
Bless ‘em – but they didn’t know what I knew: I had a plan, and I was just working the plan. It was just that that plan was the exact opposite to last years’.
Truth be told, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that. I wanted to take in the experience of the start – much more support here this year with the bigger field – and I needed a walk to let some emotions bleed out. You see, I’d prepared for a stack of scenarios in advance of this race, but there was one that took me completely by surprise: The number of people who greeted me pre-start with words along the lines of:
We’re rooting for you, Andy.
This is your year, mate.
We really want you to do it this time.
Back at the tent I sit down very quietly feeling quite humbled by the whole experience. Charlotte (my wife) looks at me in that wife way and I tell her.
A huge smile and a hug is her response: ‘But that’s because we all love you and just want you to do well!’
‘I know that, but - oh, bloody hell!’
This would all have been fine except for one teeny weeny detail: I’d had an almost completely different prep period for this race than I’d had for my previous two outings. The length of my specific training period and the content of that was, well, like nothing I recognised. Some of that was by chance and some of it was by design.
A result was that many of my usual indicators of readiness were missing – which meant I really had no clue as to my condition. I mean, I figured I was in OK shape – but how that actually translated? ‘Might as well ask the audience.
Except this audience clearly expect me to deliver a win – and nowhere in The Plan did it mention the word ‘win’.
But you’re not going to let these people down, now are you?
Er…’get back to you on that one, can I?’
So I needed the walk ‘cos there was a bunch of re-framing to be done before Mr Fridge was back in control.
So I walked, looked, took it all in, and went to work on the inside stuff. And I actually thought I held it together quite well as there were indeed a few wobbly bottom lip moments.
And all that in the first 200 yards. Jeez! I’ve got a night and day of this stuff yet!
But it’s a good plan for a goal that has taken me a long time to be at peace with.
The Plan – like any good plan, was simple:
Start at the back.
Walk the first bit.
Keep it relaxed, easy and in your bubble all the way to Howtown (65miles)
Fast through the checkpoints.
Walk anything that’s vaguely uphill.
Use the poles from Howtown on the climbs.
You can start racing at 65 miles.
The Plan got underlined and refined at Race Briefing after a few words from non other than special guest Joss Naylor:
‘Keep it relaxed, easy,’ said the great man.
‘Enjoy it and stay in the present.’
Relax, easy, be in the present.
And The Goal?
Finish having run as even a pace as you can. Do it right and it should only get interesting in the final third/quarter. One out of two people DNF this race, so a finish is special. Remember that. Anything else is a bonus. Finish with a run and a smile. Your boys need to see you happy and making good on a commitment – so finish.
Past the pubs in Coniston and equilibrium is returning. I’m chugging along quite happily in the late afternoon sunshine already starting to weave through the field. Sometimes chatting and fielding the occasional ‘But aren’t you..? And shouldn’t you be..?’ but mostly quiet taking in the scenery and the sights and sounds of being at the back.
So this is what it all looks like from here…
The first plummeting descent from 600m to the valley floor and the first hiccup. I’d not laced my shoes up tight enough and the result was feet sliding around inside the shoes. I can feel hotspots developing under the heel of each foot. Not good. Pull over off the track and sort it out as everyone I’d left on the descent come past. Oh well…
The second hiccup comes two thirds of the way into the second leg as we skirt Harter fell en route to Eskdale. There’s a sharp descent and at the bottom is a sharp left turn. I’ve done this countless times in reccies and races…and I miss it completely and go straight on bringing a few folks with me. Fortunately I realise my mistake quite quickly and backtrack to a chorus of heckling deriding my assumed route knowledge. I have the good grace to wince audibly: Sorry chaps.
Right, so all this ‘relaxed – easy’ is fine, but not so relaxed and easy that you’re asleep. This is a competitive outing. Can we please pay attention as well?
Heading into Wasdale at around 19 miles and everything is very much in the green. I smile as I remember how swiftly I was moving by comparison last year at this point in the company of Adam Perry & Duncan Harris. Duncan is missing today but Adam is here and I expect him to be somewhere up the front. That’s for later – for now I chug into the CP and swiftly out again leaving behind a handful of folks in the process but not before I fail to block someone telling me I’m in 7th place. It’s the last thing I want to hear.
7th place. What the heck am I doing in 7th already? This is waaaaay too early. Oh well…
I ‘black-bag’ that piece of information and set my sights on the upcoming lumpy bit: Two serious climbs and descents totalling 750m that will take me into Buttermere. I’m making a serious effort to relax on the climbs in contrast to last year. I’ve worked on my walking and my power-climbing so I figure I should be able to climb respectably without busting a gut. It seems to be working. I pass a stricken Ian Bishop part way up Black Sail who is wobbling all over the place after a fall. Help is ahead of him and he seems determined to make it. I can only wish him well as I head off.
So that makes it 6th, then...
The headtorch comes out at the start of the final descent down to the shore of Buttermere – bit earlier than last year then, son – and the start of periodic toe-stubbing stumbles which will trash my feet by the end.
There’s just no two ways about it, it HURTS. It really does. Even if it doesn’t floor you – which adds bashed shoulders, knees, hips, elbows, hands to the inventory – it will progress from tiresome-uncomfortable to seriously pissing you off and a trigger for language your mum would be appalled by. Cumulative effect: Oh, it’s lovely!
Night-time is also a great opportunity to see who has the headtorch discipline nailed down.
Good Practice Tip No 1
When turning round to either check the view or the opposition, always turn your torch off or cover the light with your hand.
I’m constantly amazed by how many people don’t do this. Might as well fire off a flare and scream ‘I’M HERE!!’ There are few things more encouraging in a night section than being able to see where folks are ahead of you – particularly if they’ve been out of sight during daylight.
Tonight it seems I am blessed because on a night with no moon – so it was black out there, really really black – I can see some twinkles ahead as I thread my way through the bracken-dense hillside towards Braithwaite.
And a very bright twinkle ( two people?) is close.
Sure enough as I near the top of the high point for the stage two lights come into view just below me.
Ah, missed that last turn then…
It spurs me into making the most of the pass, and without increasing effort I focus on a smooth descent and spot-on nav down what is a steep rock-strewn path with a crucial navigation section in order to hit the correct exit line.
I’m completely in the groove feeling effortless and grinning like a loon as I dance through the darkened hills. Into the CP for the first serious feed:
4th then & just over one third of the way in…
I have a very happy, peaceful night section. It’s dry, warm, the stars are out and it’s all about me. My internal jukebox offers up some 80s classics while I break off periodically to check the ‘relax-easy’ dials.
Climbing upto the Old Coach Road at around 45 miles at the top of Threlkeld Common will be the start of 4miles or so of undulating open stony track. I’ve learned to just relax into this because otherwise it can feel endless – doubly so in the night with little/no references to provide perspective and a sense of progress.
As the hillside opens out ahead I am rewarded with my first objective measure of the runners ahead of me – headtorches: One very faint and about to disappear out of sight, the other – no, wait, that’s two close together – much closer.
Well hello, boys…
I play the guessing game – half an hour to the lead torch? (I’m wrong, because the splits later will show Terry Conway is around 40-50minutes up at this point and going away with every stride) and 10-15 minutes to the pair (which is more like it).
Once that’s done I file it under ‘Future Action’, close the file and pull my focus back to me and right now. Sister Sledge start up on the jukebox and normal operations resume.
Dawn finds me contouring round the western shore of Ullswater heading for Dalemain House and the 59m CP commonly referred to a ‘halfway.’ It’s my second section that has bordered on ‘blissful’. It’s quiet, still – there’s just been no wind at all during the night – and I’m still in my bubble chugging along. The views afforded from this hillside path around Gowbarrow Fell are to die for, and I’m thoroughly enjoying treading the twisting undulating singletrack I’ve not seen in 12 months.
Dalemain. There’s the tent and there’s… ‘Mr Perry – Good Morning!’
Adam & Paul Tierney are doing their thing at the CP and I shout a greeting. I don’t know it at the time but the splits will show later that I’ve closed significantly over these final few miles. The splits will also show that I’m only around 5 minutes slower to this point than I was last year. And last year I was at record pace for the first quarter or so and then was just trying to hold it together. I remember my legs being pretty stuffed and I took an age here and miles and miles to get going again afterwards. It really wasn’t pretty.
What I do know is that 2nd and 3rd are still here which to my mind means either they’ve just arrived, or they’re lingering – either of which is good news for me.
And my legs feel great.
I remove myself to the opposite end of the CP, make my food order and get business-like with my drop-bag.
Sit down, ditch the torch, grab the gel flasks, poles and shoes. I’ve decided on a shoe change just to change the pressure points on my feet. It very dry and the forecast is for hot stuff today. I’ve no blisters but I want the security and relief of worn shoes and a slightly bigger size. I’m quick with the kit, secure the poles for action from the next CP then focus on getting some hot calories down my neck as Adam & Paul get ready to leave.
My already high spirits are threatening to go orbital and I have to give myself a serious talking to while shovelling chocolate cake and custard down my neck.
Calm down, you’ve still gotta relax on this section. Pay attention, let’s see how they’re doing, and stay behind them. Plenty of time to decide how you’re gonna do this. Stay with the plan, man…’
So I do.
The elastic stretches and shortens periodically over the next 7 miles as we all head to Howtown on the other side of the lake. I’m still operating my bubble but this time the forward sensor suite is deployed. I notice a few things:
They’re moving as a pair and running well over level ground.
I’m catching them on the climbs.
They appear to be less than sure about the route-finding.
It all gets filed but this time the file is staying open…
Howtown. 65 miles in and I can’t wait to play. We all coincide at the CP and I assemble my weapons. The ‘to pole or not to pole’ question has interested me for a couple of years now, and in that time I’ve gone from sceptic to ‘it’s not for me but I can see some value’ to the ‘sod it – I really need to figure this out.’
So I’ve had some serious pole-time as part of my prep for this race. The result is that I’m now a fan of the featherweight variety which collapse down into 4 sections, and a decision to use them for this latter part of the race. We head out of the CP 200 yards apart with me trailing and set our sights on the steep climb to the high point of the race at 665m.
Tapping out a great rhythm, I steadily close and we come together about a third of the way up as Adam & Paul pause to check directions. I march straight past.
‘We’re good, fellas – this is the path.’
I crack straight on feeling great as we get onto the long steep stuff. As I make the crest before the final approach to the actual high point I catch a glimpse in my peripheral vision of Adam & Paul right behind me.
Time to try an experiment, then…
There’s a key route choice right here and I need to see how confident they really are. So I stop and slowly stash my poles wait to see what happens.
The boys have stopped a few yards away and are in conference.
I leave it a few more seconds more just to be sure, get up and walk to the correct path.
‘This one, fellas.’
I jog away and my mind is made up: I need to drop them on this next section otherwise they’ll be able to tag me all the way to the next CP at the head of Haweswater at 75m.
Paul I don’t know, but Adam I do and have raced him on two previous occasions. Our score is 1-1. He’s talented and tenacious and I like him tremendously.
But today we’re racing and I need to break this elastic.
A footbridge some way ahead is a critical feature to hit en route to the shoreside path on the western side of the lake. The approach is down a steep bracken-covered hillside. There is a maze of paths and trogs all now hidden by waist-high lush bracken.
After two previous L100 races and many reccie trips I now know the perfect line through the maze – and can find it even when it’s hidden. I’m betting that Adam & Paul don’t and can’t – and I don’t intend to hand it to ‘em all gift-wrapped and lovely.
It’s the perfect place to make a break – but I need to manouvre them infront of me in order to pull it off.
One small problem: There’s no cover up here. No trees, rocks, anything to disappear behind. It’s just open moor and on a day like today you can see for miles.
So this ain’t going to be subtle.
A fierce grin at the prospect of what could be a crux move: Sorry boys, I just don’t do freebies when I’m racing…
And so the games begin.
I pull over, kneel down and fiddle with a shoelace.
Adam & Paul come past and move slowly ahead. The track is really faint here and I recall the first time I did this trip – not very sure at all…
Hmm, need to get further on where it firms up…
Ahead again. Stop for the other shoelace. Wait.
Back moving but even though we’re all still pretty close together, Adam & Paul are ahead.
Then Adam stops for a fiddle of his own which has me nearly breaking out in a fit of giggles at the comic cat and mouse routine that’s going on here.
He’s sussed what I’m upto – he must have!
So what. I’m staying right here and you boys are going on ahead…
I stop for a piss and for good measure un-ship my rucksack. And wait.
The path is now visible as far as we can see ahead. We’re all moving once again and Adam & Paul are starting to jog away.
I resolutely stay walking and will them onwards doing my Jedi mind-trick thing.
This is the path you’re looking for…move along now…
Weird Jedi stuff or not, Adam & Paul are gathering speed and heading into the distance. I follow and give them 100 yards, 200 yards then make a break to the right, running hard down the flank of the hill to get out of sight. I’m now behind and below them and going like stink to get to the top of the bracken field before they can see me again. I figure even if they clock me in a sea of bracken they still have to figure my entry point.
I nail my lines and hit the bridge. My ‘eyes-front’ rule means I have no way of knowing what’s going on behind, so I do the only thing I can – keep going to make the final drop to the shoreline and invisibility as fast as I can. I scream around rocks, holes and into yet more bracken-parting stunts and I finally drop onto the shoreline path breathing harder than I’ve done for any of that previous 15 hours or so. Just in case they’re right on me I give it a little extra for a while because out of sight can really be out of mind in this game.
And then back comes the bubble, I key ‘easy-relaxed’ and the Spice Girls start to sing. It’s a long pull round the lake, but all the indicators are in the green and as the clock ticks on to around sixteen and a half hours I trot into the CP at Mardale Head at 75miles.
Terry is on another planet ahead, but the splits will tell me later I’ve put 10 minutes onto Adam & Paul during that stage to put me in 2nd place.
All I have to do now is hold it for the final 29 miles…
The monster climb out of the valley up Gatesgarth is followed by an equally monster descent and then another big pull and drop before the next CP at Kentmere. The footpath repair schemes have meant that fresh supplies of large stones and small rocks have been dumped on what is already a loose difficult rocky path. It’s a horrendous surface to negotiate if you’re trying to do so with any degree of urgency - and has seemed to me to get worse every year. But my weapons of choice are coming into their own helping me tap out a great rhythm and keep a good efficient posture. It’s like keying the turbo-boost and I bless my decision to use ‘em. The drop down the other side to Sadgill is measured, and as the sun starts to really burn I start to look forward to seeing my friends Phil & Annie at Kentmere.
I arrive at the CP to a skeleton crew and am momentarily non-plussed: Wasn’t this place jumping last year? Also there is no sign of my friends. I deflate alittle more – after a long time solo I realise I’d been quite looking forward to this, especially as the edges of first real tiredness are starting to set in. A big inward sigh and I attend to the practicalities and am out of their sharpish. Ahead and Terry is now nearly two hours ahead, but behind me the gap has stretched to nearly 13 minutes…
Garburn Pass: Another loose rocky monster of a climb, but at the end of this leg is Ambleside at 88 miles and Ambleside means Family Mouncey. I allow some leakage and fantasize about seeing our boys and Charlotte. Big smiles inside and out soften the early stages of the climb, but very soon full Attention To Task is required.
Three figures ahead by the side of the track and two of them are…Annie & Phil, Mr & Mrs Alpine-Oasis. A fierce grin around a brief but heartfelt greeting. Phil is on film duty for race sponsors Montane and is snapping away like the seasoned trained professional he is. Run ahead, stop, turn and do the fast multiple shutter thing as I march past. Run ahead, stop, turn and do it all again. While I’m concentrating like crazy part of me wonders how long Phil will keep this up – not all the way to the top, surely?
Yep – all the way up the 450m. By that point I am barely registering his herculeon feat as I’m consumed by pulling off one of my own. My pace hasn’t slackened but it’s requiring more of me to hold it together. Phil’s shouted farewell ‘I’m loving your work, Mister!’ sends me jogging over the top and then it’s wits-about-you stuff for the descent. Another pole-assisted pull gets me overlooking Ambleside before long I’m chugging along the High Street searching ahead for the first sign of Charly and the boys.
And then they’re there. Tom (4) jumping up and down in excitement with Joe (19 months) waving frantically in Charly’s arms. ‘Hi babe!’ Kisses, smiles and hugs all round. But while the happy score is off the scale I’m also now very tired indeed. Worse, I don’t fancy anything to eat from the selection on offer and settle for a cup of tea.
‘How far ahead?’ I ask Charly. It’s the first time I’ve asked on the leader.
She waves a hand dismissively. ‘Oh, long gone – hours.’
Oh. The subliminal message is clear. Forget him – focus on you.
Meanwhile our eldest is chatting away much to my delight and the amusement of the CP crew. I give him some attention around my slurps as I get the run down on his day so far.
Charly tells me later she can see I’m really tired – I’m alittle bit all over the place and my eyes have a hint of thousand yard stare in them.
‘Just finish. You’re doing great…’ (she’s smart enough not to tell me the time) ‘Look after yourself. We want you back safe and sound, remember?’
I remember. More hugs and kisses and time to go. It’s another brief stop while behind me the gap is holding.
The final three stages have hint of death-march. I’m not dying but it’s taking EVERYTHING I have to stay chugging along. I recall it felt slow, but here’s the thing: Running the numbers afterwards (I did not wear a watch or ask for time checks throughout) and a very different story emerged. I was significantly faster over all three final stages than last year, and even widened the gap on Adam & Paul until the final leg. My goal of ‘even pace’ is holding up.
I’m also burning up in the fierce sun to the point where I say ‘f*** it!’ and go and do a dead starfish impression in the river by Chapel Stile for a few minutes – much to the bemusement of the tourists. Full submersion is pure bliss and the reset button has been successful keyed.
Tilberthwaite CP and 4 miles to go. For the first time at a checkpoint I sit down and close my eyes as waves of fatigue wash through me. ‘Time me for 30 seconds, will you?’ I ask the crew. I know I need to get going but sitting and sleeping feel wonderful. I’ve not been able to get anything down me except a few chunks of Kendal mint cake since Ambleside and a few mouthfuls of soup at Langdale. Part of me thinks it might be a good idea to eat something. The other part of me figures it’s just too much like hard work. The CP crew are totally on the ball and fantastically encouraging and I prise myself upright for the final time.
I crawl nearly on hands and knees in slow motion up the final murderous climb. I do get going again at the top and I need to. Adam & Paul will halve the gap between us on this short final leg. I tread a careful final descent and then it’s a very very weary trot down the track to Coniston village. Still doing ‘relax-easy’ and still holding the finish images at bay, I tell myself I can do the finish-fantasy bit when I hit the houses.
Right, left and 200 yards to go and as last year here comes Tom racing towards his Daddy. I remember dropping my composure all over the road at this point 12 months ago, but this time I’m just too tired. I’m barely able to pick him up for a welcome hug and have to put him back down again. He charges off while I wobble towards a very happy wife and waving baby. Big hugs and shining eyes, then all that remains is for Tom and I to do the finish line bit. 2nd again. So yeah, Marc – it really, (nearly) worked.
I was completely oblivious of my time and splits throughout. I ran it blind. When Charlotte told me ’24-27’ a few minutes after I finished I was shocked. ( We have a great photo of that very moment!) If you’d have asked me to guess I’d have said, ‘er, 26ish?’ My time gave me a 70 minute improvement on last year and The Plan gave me a consistently faster final quarter. Something to think about, then…