The Lakeland Five Passes Ultra – my very first DNF

Spoiler alert: for those of you who may not know what DNF stands for, it’s Did Not Finish.

There was always a distinct possibility that I would not be able to finish this gruelling event, but the chances of that increased as I lay in the dust below Loughrigg with one leg bent under me and an ankle at a funny angle (see previous post Disbelief mingled with the pain: only moments before I’d been congratulating myself on feeling so strong yet now I was bloodied, swollen and unsteady, limping the last half mile of my walk.

A week later I was convinced that I was healing fast enough to enter. Two weeks later I was back in the Lakes testing my recovery, only to set it back by too ambitious a trip round the Buttermere Fells, the descent from Red Pike sending shooting pains through my right knee, although the sprained ankle seemed fine.

Ascending Fleetwith Pike in the heat
Ascending Fleetwith Pike in summer heat whilst on a circuit of the southern Buttermere Fells

The following week I developed swollen glands and a mildly sore throat. This disappeared but the week leading up to the event was busy and stressful and I knew I was tired as we drove up on the Wednesday night. But two easy days would sort that out, wouldn’t they? All I was worried about now was the heat and humidity that had been the theme for June.

At this point I must apologise if this blog seems long winded and self indulgent. I’m really writing it to remind myself of the processes I go through before challenge events as I have a very poor memory of the way I always react. I am totally useless at regimented preparation ( I’ve only ever had a training regime once – for the 2004 London Marathon – and that resulted in persistent injury as I stuck to the regime rather than adapted to how my body was feeling) so I knew that although I had put in plenty of long days walking and backpacking, I didn’t have enough running miles in my legs. Because of this I spent the Friday packing and repacking my sack, and plotting a ‘get me round in 12 hours’ schedule so that I would have an idea of how well I was going on the day. The heat of the previous weeks abated as Storm Hector swept through and persistent rain with possible thunderstorms was predicted for Saturday. Maps were sealed into plastic bags and an extra layer of clothing added. I had the luxury of a husband on road support if needed but I was still shaking with anxiety as I sorted my kit. I really wish I didn’t get so nervous before any kind of challenge. You’d think that I would have learned patience, good sense and the ability to relax somewhere over the last six decades, but I still don’t seem to have mastered it. Ah well, there’s still time…

My friend Matt joined us on Friday evening. This was to be his second fell running event: his first was the Lakes Four Passes, also organised by Ascend Events It would be the furthest he had ever run (32 miles), with a phenomenal amount of ascent (10,000′). He had never yet run as far as marathon distance but seemed remarkably sanguine about the whole business compared to my abject panic. Mind you, the nerves settled once I’d prepared my kit and was resigned to my fate.

Looking back to the start from a mist shrouded Loughrigg

The start ‘line’ was just as informal and restrained as before, with Jeff calling out a few instructions culminating with ‘Stay safe, it’s a bit wild out there. Right, off you go’ before we ambled off into the heavy drizzle and mist. Matt stayed with me along the road out of Grasmere to give himself time to settle before powering off up the steep end of Loughrigg. I was feeling heavy and tired but I often feel like that at the start so I kept it steady up the stone steps and jogged easily down into the first checkpoint at Ambleside. A swift guzzle of juice and a Jaffa Cake and I was off again, waving to my husband, Barry, beside Zeffirelli’s.

Descending to Ambleside
   Leaving Ambleside, still smiling     Photo: Barry Wakelin

On the climb up to Wansfell I caught up with Ian, another competitor. He and I ‘leap frogged’ all the way to Longsleddale, where I lost sight of him in the mist after stopping to add more layers of clothing. I still felt quite weak and feeble but put it down to the cold and wet. At the summit the wind was whipping the warmth away so I messaged Barry to bring an extra layer of fleece to our next meeting at Troutbeck Bridge. I was really appreciating his support, although I didn’t expect to see him again until Kirkstone Pass.

Climbing the stairs to Wansfell
 Leaving Troutbeck Bridge with more kit     Photo: Barry Wakelin   

My fast uphill walking and easy downhill jogging were working well, and I was already considerably faster than my ‘get me round before the cut off’ schedule, although I knew I would probably be the last back. This would be a very new experience for me, in fact thirty odd years ago I was very occasionally amongst the front women runners. How times change – coming last would have mortified me in my youth, and yet it is an honourable position to hold. I began to enjoy myself. Rainwater might be running down my neck and out of my leggings but I was just about warm enough, and it was good to feel happy despite the elements.

Garburn Pass

This feeling of well being was not to last. As I caught Ian again on the descent from the Garburn Pass I could feel a niggle in the outside of my left knee (not the one I’d bashed earlier) and recognised the first signs of ITB (Illiotibial Band) trouble. I slowed down and tried to adjust my posture to nip it in the bud. I just hoped I could fend it off until the end, or at least until Kirkstone Pass. Running downhill has always been my greatest joy, but now I was picking my way carefully over the cobbles.

 Running down to Checkpoint Two    Photo: Ascend Events   

By the time I reached the next checkpoint at Kentmere Hall I was wondering whether it was sensible to continue but I was over an hour ahead of my schedule and climbing well.  Two delicious egg butties washed down with a mug of steaming hot tea persuaded me that I was being a wimp.

Kentmere Hall Checkpoint – thanks for the tea and butties!

It was good to see Emma (whom I had met on the Four Passes and chatted to on Twitter) at the checkpoint. She was helping with organisation and food on this event. I didn’t want to sit still for too long as I was getting cold so it was back to playing leapfrog. As we descended towards Sadgill two competitors passed by going back up towards Kentmere and I guessed they had decided to retire. I kept pace with three women runners who had been in my sights all the way but lost them in the mist when I took advantage of a barn entrance to don another layer of clothing. This was not easy given how wet most of my kit was. I added a thin fleece over my soggy t-shirt and donned waterproof trousers before setting off up Longsleddale with the wind behind me.

By now my knee was really sore and the sodden leggings were clamping my overtrousers to my legs and causing more pain. I pulled up the elasticated hem to the top of my calf so they bagged loosely over my knees. It looked as if I was wearing transparent plus-fours but I was beyond caring about appearance. Yet even with the pain and restriction I was still improving on the very generous ‘just get me round before I’m timed out’ schedule and it seemed no time at all before I’d reached the top of Gatescarth Pass.

The full force of the wind hit me side on as I climbed steadily higher towards Harter Fell. The fabulous views from my backpacking jaunt were lost in thick mist, and my legs tried to trip me up as the wind blew them about.  For a while the rain felt like hail, and although my poles were also being blown about they did help me stay upright. It was quite bleak, but at least navigation wasn’t a problem. What was a problem was the pain which was now constant and slowing me down as the knee threatened to buckle under me, adding the new worry of hypothermia. There’s something quite refreshing and liberating about running whilst rain sodden, but rivulets of water trickling out of your underwear loses its charm when it’s so cold.

The tiny green checkpoint tent on the summit of Harter Fell looked fragile and precarious, blown almost flat by the wind, but its cheerful occupants clipped my tag and offered jelly babies. I couldn’t take the jelly babies with mittens on, but I could let them know that I was considering retirement at Nan Bield Pass if my knee was very troublesome on the descent. They were quite concerned, but I reassured them that I’d have a phone signal at the pass and would be able to let Jeff know and to contact my husband for assistance.

Knowing the route really helped in finding the start of the descent in the thick mist. And then suddenly, as if a slide was fading to another frame, the mists were gone and the sun came out. I could see many other runners on the climb to Mardale Ill Bell. I felt desperately keen to carry on, but my knee was refusing to bend, and I kept emitting involuntarily groans of pain. To compound matters the other knee, the one I’d bashed up a couple of weeks earlier, was also complaining.

All the way down I kept looking across and visualising the rest of the route, but I knew that even if I could get to Thornthwaite Crag I would not manage the descent to, and climb out of, Threshthwaite Mouth. I was also very cold now that I couldn’t keep up a decent pace and climbing yet higher into the wind seemed risky. At the Nan Bield shelter I found an abandoned orange foil emergency bivvy so stuck my legs in to keep warm whilst I extricated my hands from soggy mitts. Blessing the invention of the mobile phone I called Barry who hurried back from his stroll to drive round to Kentmere, and then called Jeff to let him know what my plans were.

Nan Bield Pass shelter in better times. This shot was taken on my backpacking trip round the route.

One of the problems with drinking plenty of fluids in cold weather is the amount that makes its way through the system, and wrestling with multiple layers of drenched clothing with frozen fingers is not an easy task. Before the jarring descent ahead of me I needed to relieve the pressure. I had just managed to offload the excess fluids and readjust my clothing as two young mountain bikers popped up from Mardale asking me whether that was Kentmere below. When I confirmed it was they asked where they were and were surprised to be told Nan Bield as they thought they had already gone over it into Mardale. I assume their Garmin was back to front as they described Gatescarth Pass as the one they thought was Nan Bield. They were still debating their route as I hobbled off towards Kentmere. I felt like a very old lady, bent almost double over my poles as now my lower back began to add its voice to the litany of aches and pains! I alternated between groaning and giggling at the ridiculousness of my predicament. I did straighten up as the two guys passed me – still some pride left.

Kentmere is a decidedly long valley. Fortunately the steepest part is short and it was much less painful walking on flatter ground. The sun was almost warm and my body began to thaw out, although feet and hands didn’t recover full feeling until I was in the car. I could look about and appreciate how lovely the upper reaches of Kentmere are, with gushing streams – many of which were now knee deep across the path – and walled tracks. And finally the church spire and the welcome sight of Barry waiting beside the car came into view. Many many thanks for being there.

One of the walled lanes in Kentmere, shortly before the church tower came into view. Note the sunshine!

I’ve never appreciated heated seats quite as much as I did on the drive back to Grasmere to check in and retrieve my kitbag. We missed seeing Matt’s triumphal arrival by minutes but caught up with him back at the flat. I think I was more joyful at his achievement than I would have been had I completed. He had never run that distance before, never even covered marathon distance before, had only started running seriously a year ago, and yet finished in good form in an excellent time. Brilliant! The conditions were quite tough at times, and I know many dropped out, either by not starting at all or en route, so congratulations to all who completed. Very well done. And many thanks to Jeff and Ascend Events and all the volunteer marshalls for relentless cheerfulness and excellent organisation.

The wind was so strong it brought down half an oak tree next to the finish at Grasmere Hall

So what did I take from this? There was an initial crushing disappointment as l decided to bail out, but once I’d made that decision I felt quite pleased with myself for accepting that I was injured and not taking foolish risks. I eventually jogged and walked over 21 miles and climbed 6500 feet in challenging weather. I’d got myself down from the fells on my own without needing any help beyond a lift from the roadhead. And I have other plans to stay strong for: the weekend after next I intend to celebrate my birthday walking in the Lakes with my daughter, and I have unfinished business backpacking the Welsh Coast, not to mention an Alpine trip at the end of the summer. Success comes in many guises.

Notes to self for next time!

  • More consistent running over the winter months
  • Perhaps enter more events to get ‘racing miles’ in the legs – I’m looking for suggestions…
  • Try to find running companions of a similar ability to keep me motivated (anyone out there?)
  • Don’t fall over & hurt myself shortly beforehand – the ITB problem is likely to have been caused by the ankle injury. It’s certainly not age related as I had appalling ITB etc trouble on my other leg about 15 years ago which was gait related. I reckon this will recover quickly and well.
  • Remember that my moving time with a 10kg backpack got me round in 12 hours of walking and I was well ahead of that on Harter Fell.
  • A DNF was a new experience and being last will one day be another!
My final route….

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