I will have to travel back in time to give my 2023 Lakeland 100 experience a bit of context.
In 2018 I ran the Lakeland 50. It was the first time I raced in the Lake District. I absolutely loved it and made the journey from Dalemain to Coniston in just under 16 hours which qualified me for a spot in the 100-mile race. In 2019 I was back to volunteer for the event, which was also great fun and guaranteed me a free entry.
One pandemic later, in July 2021 I stood at the start line for my first attempt at the Lakeland 100. The lead up to the race had been anything but ideal. During the various lockdowns I had lost my running mojo and much of my fitness. My move to Scotland had invigorated my joy of exploring new trails but I had ramped up the mileage far too quickly which promptly had ended in a plantar fasciitis injury. A more sensible person would not have started a 100-mile race with that kind of injury, but I was determined (or stupid). Well, it was a proper suffer-fest! I felt horrible from the start but at least it was an even level of misery and did not get any worse. I wanted to get at least to Dalemain (mile 59), there I decided to keep going until I either got to the finish or timed out. Eventually I slowed down so much that I missed the Ambleside cut off (mile 89) by 4 minutes. I was a little bit heartbroken, but mainly relieved that the ordeal was over. I learned a few valuable lessons that day and I proved to myself that I had grit if nothing else. I was confident that in better circumstances I could make the full journey.
In 2022 I was back for my second attempt; not injured, better prepared and with quite a bit more hill training in my legs. But I was very nervous due to my experience the previous year. I just wanted to finish! I estimated it would probably take me the full 40-hour time allowance, but then surprised myself by running the first half of the race much stronger. I got to the checkpoints well before the cut offs and felt fine. If I could only I keep up this pace, I would finish in approximately 36 hours! That is an insanely fast time in my world! Reason tried to argue that I still had a long way to go as well as a second night period, that I would naturally slow down and that I should not get carried away about finishing times. Emotions would not hear any of it and completely fixated on this new time goal. And so began the deconstruction of my race. Of course, I did slow down. My sweet cut off buffer got so slim that I ended up freaking out if the 40-hour finish was even possible. I got deeply frustrated and blamed myself for being too slow and too weak. Physically I was still fine but mentally I was enveloped in a dark cloud of self-loathing and got increasingly more upset the longer I was going. After 39 ½ hours I crossed the finish line emotionally exhausted. That race experience took a while to process and at first I was not sure if I wanted to run the Lakeland 100 ever again. Or any 100 miler for that matter! While the 2021 experience had been physically rough, the 2022 race had sent me deep down into the emotional corner of the pain cave.
However, this got me interested in the question whether it would be possible to run 100 miles and stay content for the whole time. Or was it inevitable that the wheels would come off at some point? Bring on Lakeland 2023 and my little self-experiment. My race goal was simply to get round, stay ahead of cut offs but otherwise disregard time. My other goal was to pay close attention to the point at which the race stops being fun, then explore the driving factors for that and how to counteract them.
The first half of the race went pretty much exactly like the previous year. I was moving steadily and was comfortably within the cut offs. There was not much else to do but to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, so to speak. The rain started in the wee hours but at first the showers were coming and going, and the night was quite warm, so despite being soaked I was not feeling cold. We got a proper deluge early in the morning with the first daylight. Luckily, I was just striding out of Braithwaite at that point and could dive into a bus shelter. Occasionally I caught myself building up pressure in my head about a possible finishing time – I was yet again on that magical 36-hour schedule. I managed to push those thoughts aside, assuring myself that this run was about having fun, not about time.
On the Old Coach Road towards Dockray I made a new friend, Sarah. We shared a few happy miles together fangirling over Courtney Dauwalter, which was one of the most fun conversations I have ever had during a race. At Dacre a lady runner came my way, stopped and greeted me with “Oh! It’s you! How are you getting on?”. Seemingly she knew me from somewhere, but I had to apologise “I am really sorry, you totally look familiar, but I cannot place you just know!” It turned out she had the same issue. “I am Carol!” The penny dropped! “You are CAROL MORGAN!” Obviously, I know about Carol Morgan and her amazing running adventures, and I might have volunteered at events where she was at, otherwise I cannot figure out where she would recognise me from. But it brought a massive smile to my face. Carol was super nice. Another phenomenal lady I could fangirl over for hours and hours.
Shortly afterwards I turned the corner into Dalemain Estate and caught up with the tail end of the Lakeland 50 race on their 4-mile loop around the estate before they joined the main race route. With big cheers all around I was swept along the seemingly endless estate road to the checkpoint. At Dalemain checkpoint I had my drop bag waiting and since my feet had already started to turn into little pancakes, I had to do a bit of foot care and change into bigger shoes.
Up to this point everything had gone really well, but the first wobble happened when I left Dalemain. I was thinking too far ahead and the remaining 45 miles seemed quite overwhelming. I reminded myself that the whole point of why I was here again was to explore what had gone wrong the previous year, so what lay ahead was the relevant and interesting part of the race. 45 miles of explorations! Therefore…onwards to Howtown!
From Fusedale over to Haweswater I climbed into rain and a strong, cold headwind, but I started to catch up with more and more Lakeland 50 runners, so there were plenty of people for a chat and mutual encouragement. That took my mind of any discomfort and the miles passed quite quickly. Even the dreaded climb from Mardale Head over Gatescarth Pass was less horrible than I remembered and not long before Kentmere I caught up again with my new friend Sarah from the Old Coach Road. We reached the Kentmere checkpoint just before nightfall and decided to stick together through the next sections.
The climb from Kentmere over Garburn Pass is my least favourite part of the whole race, it takes ages! After a 3-hour traverse Sarah and I reached Ambleside at about half past midnight. 30 ½ hours on the go! From experience I knew it would probably take another six or seven hours to the finish, maybe even longer. I noticed how my patience was running out. At some point you just want to be done, sooner rather than later, and the prospect of another several hours on your feet can turn you into a miserable git. Luckily, physically I was feeling ok…..ish. Obviously, I was tired and there were aches and pains. My feet were macerated, the right knee was complaining, and my quads and glutes were done. But there was no big drama and I had minimal chafing. That made it easier to put the physical side into a “ignore-now-deal-with-later-box” and to concentrate my energy on keeping my mind happy. It was unrealistic to assume I would speed up over the remaining 16 miles, but there was no need to stress about cut off times. I accepted that I still had a bit of a session to do, and I just needed to get on with the job.
Sunday morning dawn began just before I reached Tilberthwaite, the last checkpoint before the end. From here it was only 3 ½ miles and one last climb over to Coniston. Just after 7 am – a little over 37 hours – I came into the finish, delighted that the race had gone so well. I had been in control from start to the finish, managed some minor wobbles and avoided stressing out. Consequently, I had been more relaxed, my running had felt easier and the whole race experience had been an absolute joy.
Without a doubt I owe the positive outcome to being much better trained than during both previous attempts. Chasing after stronger and faster runners across the Scottish hills has made me stronger and faster also, and it is much easier to stay happy when you are not falling apart. I am very grateful for this positive race experience, especially over a very challenging distance. I am intrigued to see what future races will bring. I am sure not all will be such smooth sailing, but it is reassuring to know that a happy 100 miler is indeed possible.