Project Ultra’s Tim Major headed to the Lake District for the Ultimate Trails 55k and got a little more than he’d bargained for
Whatever distance you’re planning to run, you can always go a little bit further.
Of course, I had no intention of testing that particular theory as I stood at the start line of the Ultimate Trails 55k on a rainy June morning in Ambleside. The distance (which actually promised to be a little more than the advertised 55k), combined with some gruelling climbs up a selection of Lakeland’s highest passes, already seemed daunting enough as we nervously waited, the scent of Deep Heat and fear filling our nostrils.
The “decision” to run bonus miles was not made early on. In fact for 28 miles, the race went like a dream.
An enjoyable start had us climbing to the Kirkstone Pass. I chose a gentle pace and chatted with other runners as we ascended. From the first aid station on the pass, I picked up some speed on the wonderful descent to Glenridding via Brothers Water and had a clear sight of some speedier runners who I eventually caught. Heading through Glenridding I was told that I was in the top 20 and I pressed on, enjoying the scenery and the feeling that I had plenty more in the tank. Nobody passed me and I overtook a handful of runners over the next few miles.
Grisedale slowed us all down and I climbed with hands on knees through the wind and rain, keeping pace with the runners around me. For the struggle of the climb, the descent to Grasmere was a glorious release and I threw caution to the wind, hopping over rocks and surrendering to gravity.
Quads thoroughly worked, I struggled a little along the paved section to the next checkpoint. Then, with some cramp kicking in, I pushed on towards the loop to Blea Tarn.
It was this section that I have now re-lived so many times in my mind, each time kicking myself for my lack of care. Coming out of the loop, I didn’t pay enough attention to the signs and, as I turned a corner, I was faced by two runners coming in the other direction.
“It’s the other way” they said “we’ve just been sent back”.
I gullibly followed them up the next climb not realising that they’d been sent back because they hadn’t done the loop yet. After a long climb, the small aid station that we reached looked horribly familiar.
“Have I been here before?” I asked in a panic.
They checked the list. My worst suspicions were confirmed. I’d just run three miles back up the loop.
With my mind racing through my limited options (go back and finish or curl up in a ball and cry), I set off down the track, retracing my steps and attracting some strange looks from the competitors coming the other way. Three more miles later, I rejoined the intersection between the loops and set off on the right track. I was now 34 miles into a 36 mile race. I’d lost nearly an hour. I still had 8 miles to run.
I tried to keep my spirits up by telling myself that I’d never even run this far before, let alone the 42 miles it would take to finish. Sadly, it didn’t help – I just felt stupid and like I’d destroyed my chances of what would otherwise have felt like an impressive finish to my first ultra.
After the final checkpoint in the Langdale Valley, the terrain got rough climbing out of the valley and then to Loughrigg Tarn. I kept pushing but the urgency had gone out of my running. I tried to enjoy the fact that I was out on the fells in my favourite place in the World.
The amazing support as I came down into Ambleside lifted my spirits further and I crossed the line with a mixed sense of happiness, relief and regret.
The truth is that my goal was to complete but, having made a good stab at also competing, I was disappointed to have let such a schoolboy mistake cost me a better time. I’ve read many accounts from ultra runners who have concluded that they learnt so much more about themselves from their failures than their successes. I’ve listened to an interview with Jim Walmsley, who famously went off course a few miles from the end of what would have been a spectacular win and course record at Western States. It does help provide some perspective on my relatively insignificant regret. Aside from the obvious ‘pay attention and don’t just blindly follow another runner’ lesson, which has been well and truly reinforced by my experience, I can reflect on finding a resolve and mental toughness that I didn’t know I had. I committed not to quit and I completed an ultra in 59th place having run 6 miles more than everyone else. Bang goes the theory that you can’t give more than 100%. I most definitely gave 117%.
Just to be clear as well, this error of mine takes nothing away from the race. It’s a wonderful event that is brilliantly organised and I can only see will grow in popularity. All in all, it’s a great day out in the Lakes. A day that, for those of us who like to give a little bit extra (or are incapable of following the simplest of instructions), can always been extended.