Lakes in a Day - My First 50 Miler
I’m sat in my van swaddled in blankets watching the colours seep out of the hills; unable to run for the time being I’m seeking other ways to get out and about. In fact, it’s not just running. Cycling, swimming, walking, yoga - it’s all off the cards with this injury. So I’ve packed a bag with snacks, books and my laptop and decamped for the afternoon.
Being injured also means that I’ve returned to the remaining items on my ‘lockdown to-do list’. There’s been a lot of sorting through old, embarrassing photos and sifting through files on long forgotten hard drives. As part of this I’ve stumbled across drafts from my early blog posts. In 2016 I set up Travels in Trainers to write about my running adventures. The blog has since been deleted and I haven’t read these stories for a long time.
It’s interesting revisiting a former version of myself in this way. The naivety and freedom with which I approached races is something that I miss, less so the catastrophic and painful mistakes. Reading these posts makes me realise how far I’ve come in the last five years. Below is an account of the first ultra I ran, which I entered on a whim just to see if I could. In true ultra fashion I can remember finishing and swearing I’d never run a long race again. It was a short lived resolution.
I’ve resisted editing the original post, even though the English teacher in me is itching to remove commas and play with sentence structures. Parts of this post make me cringe, others make me smile. It’s been just over five years since I ran this race and my life has changed a lot in that time. I left London and moved back to Scotland, I retrained as a teacher, and I’ve run many more mountainous ultras. I can’t help but wonder what 2015 Georgia would make of me now?
Lakes in a Day - My First 50 Miler
Having always wanted to explore the Lake District, but never really having had the opportunity to do so, when I stumbled across a race titled 'Lakes in a Day' it seemed perfect. There was only one hitch. The Lakes are rather big, and I'd never run an ultra before.
I had a long summer of good racing and training in the bank, but the longest race I would normally do is about ten miles. Lakes in a Day is 50 miles long with 4000m of ascent. And that's without getting lost.
In the run up to the weekend I switched continuously between avoiding the topic at all costs and nervously releasing streams of conversation. I was scared, I felt sick, and I wasn't sure what I'd got myself in for. But I was also curiously excited.
Taking the Friday afternoon off work and hopping on a train up north a sudden calm descended on me that, fortunately, would last throughout the next 36 hours. I was one of the first to arrive at the campsite and got chatting to the woman pitching her tent next to me. In doing so learnt my first lesson about running ultras: everyone is incredibly friendly. I’d also found someone to eat with and we soon headed off for a filling (if a little intimate and awkwardly candle-lit) pub supper before getting an early night. The next morning we rose before the sun, hopped on a bus north, and were on the startline ready to go by 7am.
Tip Number One: If you’re considering running an ultra absolutely everyone will warn you of the dangers of setting off too quickly. Listen to them, as obvious as it seems this advice is far too easy to ignore.
As soon as the whistle blew my mind and my body entered into a doomed battle. 'Slow down! You've got a long way to go!' my head nagged away, whilst my legs tentatively picked up the pace. Ascending the first hill I pulled away from the group of runners I had been running with and pulled alongside another female racer. She was lovely, friendly and we chatted about fell shoes. She was also disastrous. At first we seemed to be progressing at the same pace, however, it soon became apparent that she was a lot faster than me. For the sake of some motivational company I tried to keep up with her. I shouldn’t have. I should have listened to the advice.
This became especially apparent when the paths and tracks we had been merrily following gave way to long grass and open land. She whipped out some poles and sped off whilst I was left alone to a long trudge up Blencathra, cursing my short legs all the way. By the time I reached the top I was tired, very dehydrated, and a little demoralised.
Tip number two: make sure your water is easily accessible. This doesn’t mean you have to drink everything through a blue plastic hosepipe, just make sure you can reach the pocket your bottle is in. Don’t set it up so that you have to take off your bag to get your water. This is idiotic, and also a mistake that I made.
Fortunately, the drop from Blencathra down Hall’s Fell Ridge to the first aid point was beautiful. We were high above the steep drop into the valley, crossing technical terrain that made you forget how tired you were, and the sun came out.
Reaching the first checkpoint, however, another problem soon became apparent. With my fell shoes falling to pieces I had impulse bought a new pair two days prior to the race.
Tip Number Three: Don’t run your first ultra in a new pair of shoes.
Utterly predictably I peeled off my socks only to realise I was missing the heels from both my feet. Hastily patching up the bloody mess and setting back out before stiffness could set in I decided to ignore the problem and set out on the second leg of the race.
The pain was only really bad when going up hill, and after gritting my teeth and pushing up to Clough Head I was rewarded with a long, relatively flat stretch. After Hall’s Fell Ridge this was my favourite bit of the run. The ridge heads almost directly due south and towers above the surrounding land. This forms a sort of elevated footpath that gives a real sense of progress to run along and is gloriously undulating underfoot. I was very sorry to descend down into Grisedale Tarn, which was 25 miles in and marked the halfway point.
Unfortunately there was a final long climb before we were to reach the next checkpoint. Desperately consuming energy gels and trying to ignore the pain in my feet I plodded up all to ready for a break in Ambleside.
Once in Ambleside I intended to pause only for ten minutes to eat some food, but my body was not in agreement. At this checkpoint we were able to change into trail shoes for the final two stages of the race, but when I removed my fell shoes to do so it became immediately apparent that my blisters needed attention. The lovely First Aid people tried to convince me to drop out and with exhaustion setting in it was very tempting. I knew the second half of the race was over easier terrain and slightly shorter, and I am very stubborn. It took half an hour to patch me up and try to force myself to eat some pasta before I was able to set off again. Tracking my progress from London my mother was having conniptions at the lack of my little red dot’s progress.
Tip Number Four: Only tell your Mother your race number if she has nothing else to do all day. My Mum tracked me the entire way, could be heard shouting at her laptop when I took a wrong turn, kept a series of notes logging my progress, and became emotionally involved in the fate of the other faceless numbers around me. I honestly think she found the whole experience more stressful than I did.
From Ambleside onwards I remember few details of the race. I managed the first few miles reasonably well but was soon flagging and shuffling along at next to no speed. I was suffering for my speedy start. Fortunately, whilst at my lowest point I was caught up by two others runners. They chatted away, motivated me to stick with them and soon revived me. One runner headed off as we reached the final feed station, but the other was lovely and stuck with me right to the very end. By this point it was dark, I was tired and I was very glad for the company.
Despite being born and raised in the city I am rarely afraid of the mountains and love being in them. What does unsettle me, however, is the absolute darkness and countryside noises of the night. In a tent? Fine. Wandering through forests exhausted and hungry? Less fine. I had been nervous of this all day and was very glad to have him with me. Especially when I hopped over a stile, looked up, and saw two big black eyes staring back at me from the darkness. It turned out to be a large, black horse, but I can’t have been the only runner it gave a fright that night!
By this point we were nearly at the finish. Our chatter had given way to silence and concentration (it is amazing how much of a struggle putting one foot in front of the other can become), but there was only one more obstacle in my way. My headtorch ran out of battery.
Tip Number Five: You can’t put in your spare batteries if you don’t have a light to see by. Actually, I don’t have a way around this and without my new friend I would have been stuffed. This is more a warning than a tip.
As we hit the tarmac the final 5k flew by in an excited haze. Pride and exhilaration kicked in and we crossed the finish line with huge smiles on our faces.
My smile was soon replaced by a slightly dazed look that didn’t leave for at least a day. The cold set in and I was soon shivering uncontrollably. I needed a warm shower but the pain from my blisters was excruciating. I wanted to sleep but the flexibility to get into my sleeping bag had left me somewhere around mile 40. Once I was finally tucked up in bed, however, the sense of achievement washed over me. I had pushed my body in a way I never had before. I hadn’t tested speed so much as pure toughness. And I had survived! I got the train back to London on Sunday in an utterly dishevelled state feeling like I had an abominable hangover. Much like with a hangover, however, the cause of my pain had been huge fun, and completely and utterly worth it.