• The Long Game: From Road Runner to Ultra Runner – Laura Hastings

The Long Game: From Road Runner to Ultra Runner – Laura Hastings

My Journey to the Lakeland Trails 55k (08/07/18)

If you’d told me a year ago that I would be entering an ultramarathon in 2018 there’s no way I’d have believed it. I had only run one marathon (Yorkshire Marathon 2015) which was a bit of a miserable experience, and apart from that had mostly stuck to half marathon distance or less. I was a road runner with some occasional trail/cross country thrown in. Yes, my running was continuing to improve but I was very average in terms of speed – no way would someone like me be able to do an ultra! In fact, I knew very little about the world of ultra-running at all; it was like a mythical sport for the superhuman and I had no business prying into it.

Things began to change when I met Alex, who has a wonderful confidence that if you want to do something you can do it. There are things I would write things off as impossible that he’s so cool about it and just goes for it. His interest in ultra-running began to rub off on me as he introduced me to all the amazing videos available online and I was astounded by these ‘normal’ people achieving incredible things. Still, it was great to watch it on screen but not something that would ever be a reality for me. Too hard! I wasn’t fit enough, fast enough, mentally tough enough.

Then late last autumn Steve Rhodes from my running club (‘inner city club’ Hyde Park Harriers!) suggested we have a go at the Billy Bland challenge, which is the Bob Graham Round done as a relay across 5 legs. Although the team would consist of our faster runners, anyone was welcome to join the recces. The first was organised back in November and Alex wanted to go; I was reluctant (okay, scared) as I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with everyone, but with some encouragement and the knowledge that a mix of abilities were going I braved it. As soon as we started out from Honister we were going uphill… and we were walking it. Oh, you don’t have to run uphill! Immediately fell running became less terrifying to me. I survived the experience and found I enjoyed it immensely, with the stunning views, the mix of terrain and just being in the great outdoors.

This was followed by another recce a couple of months later which ascended Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra in some full-on white-out conditions. I felt like a proper adventurer! I was way out of my comfort zone, but with such a positive group of people around me I never felt like I couldn’t do it. In fact, I started to notice that I could hold my own when it wasn’t all about pace, and I wasn’t too bad at toughing it out in difficult conditions. Confidence was growing!

I knew if I was going to try an ultra it would have to be something special to keep me motivated. The Lakeland Trails 55k felt like a good option as an entry level ultra. It was a long way to run, but an achievable distance all the same. It would be beautiful. It was a marked course with proper check points, so navigation and support wouldn’t be a big worry. I had time to train for it. Still, when I actually went ahead and signed up for it I was pretty surprised at myself! If Alex hadn’t encouraged me it never would have happened.

Training was actually really fun. On holiday in Switzerland we had more mountain adventures (and oh my goodness the altitude was a shock to the system!), then I did my first fell race with lovely people from my club, and a trail half marathon. The final test was a solo circuit of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. If I could nail that I would be ready! It was an enormous relief to complete the 24 mile route, especially under 6 hours, and I was thrilled that I felt decent during and after.

The Time Has Come!

Well, after all that build-up it seemed pretty surreal when it was finally time for the event. The weather had been sweltering for weeks, making the last weeks of training really draining. We knew we were in for a hot race, but you can’t change the weather so all you can do is prepare for it and be sensible on the day. Keeping hydrated and fuelled would make or break it. When we went to register the day before the race there was a full kit check – and what a relief when they told us we wouldn’t have to carry full waterproofs and gloves! More space for precious water.

After an interesting night’s sleep interjected with random shouts of “It’s coming home!” from outside (England had just qualified for the World Cup semi-final) we woke up at 5am to force down some porridge – not an easy feat when your stomach really doesn’t want it! After a bit of stress trying to figure out where to park (which included us tailing Nicky Spinks in her van, hoping she knew where she was going) we were finally there on the start line, too late for nerves now. I had just passed by Nicky and stopped to congratulate her for her amazing achievement of being the first person to complete a double Charlie Ramsay Round just last weekend; unsurprisingly she said that although she was feeling pretty good she wasn’t quite up to running the 55k! Great that she still came along though – she is a huge inspiration, especially for us females who are constantly being told by society that we are the ‘weaker’ sex. I kept her in mind when I was struggling later in the day – I really recommend you check this documentary out if you want to know more about her.

And so onto the race itself. It began slowly as we started ascending out of Ambleside immediately. There was chatter and excitement amongst all of us as we set off, all playing the long game and walking as soon as we hit the first hill. Up we went into Kirkstone Pass, and it was difficult to overtake people at this stage so I went with the general pace of the pack until we started to spread out more after about 4 or 5 miles. The heat was already cloying; I spoke to a lady who said she was aiming for 9 hours (as I was) but we knew the temperature would play a big part in the reality, and it wasn’t long before we were separated.

The trails were lovely; a great mixture of different terrain to keep things interesting, within stunningly beautiful landscapes. The miles ticked by quite comfortably over the undulating countryside, with nothing too steep but still a lot of steady ascents giving plenty of opportunities to walk, and nice descents that were technical enough to be interesting but not too challenging.

The climb up to Grisedale Tarn was where we really started to spread out and I could see some people beginning to struggle. This is a long, rocky slog which can definitely wear you down, but for some reason I felt quite energised by it – there was no way I could run it so I was happy just plugging away at it steadily. My hill training was definitely paying off! At the top was the tarn (and plenty of midges) and there were even people up there waiting to cheer us on. To the right was a peak which I could see people climbing, and I mentally prepared to do the same, so it was a pleasant surprise to skirt around it and start the descent instead. This was perhaps harder than the climb – quite steep and very rocky so it was difficult to build up much momentum because of all the trip hazards. I stumbled quite a lot, but fortunately didn’t fall!

I won’t go through it all in detail because it becomes a bit of a blur, but the five checkpoints were a godsend and really helped to separate the race into manageable chunks. It was a relief to be able to drink as much water as I needed, knowing I’d be able to refill my bottles regularly. The support from the marshals and the general public all the way round was so uplifting, especially as the day went on and the exhaustion started to set in. I set myself goals along the way – I wanted to get to 24 miles in 6 hours to know I was in line with my Three Peaks pace, then 26.2 miles was the next milestone as it meant I was entering the territory of my longest ever run. After that I focused on my 9 hour target and that kept me going.

By 30 miles I was getting really tired and having to coax myself into running, and my knee (problematic for years) was starting to hurt on the road sections in particular. After the last checkpoint, hearing that the course was a couple of extra miles long and there were still about 5 miles to go, I had a little exhausted cry. But there was never any thought of giving up; I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, every step taking me closer to the finish.

We were spread out now, all of us in our own little ‘pain caves’ and a handful of us playing a bit of leap frog as we alternated between running and walking. There was another climb, then a paramedic who had come up to tend to a guy who wasn’t in a good way (so close to the end as well – I really felt for him and I hope he’s okay) and FINALLY the last descent into Ambleside. This was the worst part of all: what should have been a victory mile down to the finish was so painful on my knee that I just cried all the way down. Lovely walkers cheered me on and gave me sympathetic words of encouragement for the last few hundred metres – apparently my sunglasses weren’t disguising my weeping as well as I’d hoped! I held back the tears as I ran into the finishing funnel amidst the cheers and high fives, over the line to smiling volunteers and that hard-earned medal. Oh and a ladies fit t-shirt: such a novelty!

Alex came through to find me, having finished a bit before me, and then more tears from me – relief this time. After all months of build-up we had done it. What a journey! Would I do it again? Haha, probably. I was so proud to make it and really happy with my time of 9:17 (if the course hadn’t been long I would have made my 9 hour target so as far as I was concerned it was mission accomplished). Alex did brilliantly too and we both finished comfortably in the top half of the finishers’ results table. I’m really chuffed that I even made it into the top quarter of the ladies who finished. Not too bad for an ‘average’ runner!

Thanks to Lakeland Trails/Ultimate Trails and Inov-8 for putting on a great event. The organisation was top notch and the marshals were absolute legends. And thanks to my running club mates who inspire me every day with their amazing achievements. For anyone who doesn’t think they can run an ultra, heed my story and consider it. If I can, you can! We are all stronger than we think.

Laura Hastings

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