After the V3K I was pretty fired up for the Lakes Sky Ultra. I didn’t have a great race in Snowdonia and wanted to try for a better result in the Lakes. 

With only three weeks separating the two events there wasn’t much training to be done, just a case of keeping things ticking over and not getting injured.

We were away for 10 days celebrating both mine and Victoria’s birthday in Milan, Zermatt and finally Servoz just outside Chamonix so plenty of big hills in The Alps to run up for training. The biggest problem was trying not to overdo it in trail running heaven.

Lakes Sky Ultra course profile

Course Profile – Just a bit of climbing involved

Billed as one of the spiciest races in the country The Lakes Sky Ultra features 56km of Lakeland paths, trails and tussocks with 4500m of vertical ascent and descent. With grade III scrambles and knife edge arêtes, the race is not for the faint hearted.

It is extreme. It is gnarly. It is hardcore. It is awesome.

After the race I can quite happily report that all four of these are indeed true.

Lakes Sky Ultra - Course Technical Profile

Lakes Sky Ultra Technical Profile – a few tricky sections

Conveniently the race is based at the University of Cumbria in the town of Ambleside and right across the road from one of our favourite places to stay The Apple Pie so we booked a room there for the night. They also do fantastic Bath Buns at The Apple Pie Cafe and Bakery which are worth a trip to Ambleside alone to sample if you haven’t done so already. NomNomNom!

After a pretty efficient kit check by Simon Franklin, I collected my number and got the tracker attached to my pack. Not before having to return to the room twice, firstly get my waterproof trousers I had forgotten and secondly to collect my pack to have the tracker attached after I had left it in the room after the first trip to collect the waterproofs. Least we weren’t staying far away.

At 8:15 we gathered in the big lecture theatre for the race briefing. After the rather horrific power point presentation at the V3K bestowing the glory of veganism I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’ve got to say I was impressed with both the enthusiasm for everyone to have a good time and genuine concern that everyone got back safely that RD Charlie Sproson showed.

After the safety briefing, it was straight back to the room to get some sleep for the fairly reasonable 7 am start in the morning. The only problem was a combination of nerves and excitement meant sleeping was difficult.

Start – Patterdale

My race strategy was to just go drop in with the front runners and see what happened. I would either pull a decent result or would blow up somewhere along the course and have to death march to the finish. Secretly I was going to try for a top three finish.

Start of the Lakes Sky Ultra 2017

The start of the Lakes Sky Ultra 2017 – Photo Credit:
Victoria Millward

The first section up to Fairfields is very runnable and it would have been easy to get carried away and push too hard. I made sure that I walked any steep sections to save my energy for the last half where the course should have played to my strengths more.

I settled in nicely with the leading pack and was finding the running easy and relaxed as we climbed towards the first checkpoint at Dove Crag. We were in the clag now and visibility was really down as we pushed on to Fairfields.

The descent down Fairfields is a tricky scree slope which was made trickier by the conditions and it was here where I had the first of many falls during the day. The Scott Kinabalu RC’s are a fantastic shoe but they were no match for the Lake District conditions on this day. I lost traction and started skidding down the slope only for my toe to catch a rock which sent me head first down a banking.

This one is really going to hurt I thought as I tumbled towards a big pile of rocks. Fortunately, I cleared the rocks and landed on the down slope just to the left of the main path. I was straight back to my feet with no major damage although there was a nice cut in my right knee which was bleeding quite badly. It’s always my right knee that gets it for some reason.

I gingerly tip toed down the rest of Fairfield whilst I gathered myself together. Bloody hell, how could I have fallen so soon into the race and only about 20m down the first descent!

The flat section around Grisedale Tarn gave me chance to regroup and try to pull back the time I had lost going down Fairfield. Problem is that you can’t afford to lose any time to runners like Andy Berry & Björn Verduijn. I think this was probably the last time I saw them.

The straight up climb to Dollywaggon Pike is just one of those that you just have to get your head down and get on with it so I did just that and ground it out.

It wasn’t long before I reached the top of Helvellyn and the start of the section I knew I was going to slow on. From the top of Helvellyn to the top of St Sunday Crag the course features the majority of it’s scrambling sections and the plan was to just get through this section safely.

A couple of us took a line slightly to the right of the marked line down Swirral Edge and it took a few minutes to realise our mistake. A quick traverse round the hill got us back on track and onto the ridge but this was more time lost.

Coming off Catstycam is very similar to Fairfield with lots of scree and loose rocks. I was really struggling for grip in the wet conditions so I took it as gingerly as possible so I didn’t end up on my arse again.

A quick refill of water at the bottom and you get a brief respite before climbing up to The Hole in the Wall and the start of the ridge line of Striding Edge. A couple of us missed the turning off the main path but we quickly realised the mistake and cut across the hill line to join back up with the course.

As this was a Skyrunning event the course went straight over the ridge on Striding Edge. No granny paths for us on this event. The clag was really down at this point and it made the rocks really slippy. Just don’t die I kept telling myself.

Striding Edge – Photo courtesy of Guillem Casanova: Guillem Casanova Photography

I really enjoyed Striding Edge, it was tough and testing but part of the reason I wanted to run the Skyrunner series was to put myself out of my comfort zone and try something new. To walk these sections is one thing but to race across them takes it to a whole new level.

A short stretch to the headwall on Nethermost Pike in the clag made the flags difficult to see and then it was back into the technical scrambling section down Eagle Crag.

Tommaso Migliuolo, who I spent a lot of time running with on the V3K, caught me by this point and I knew he would be quick this section so I did my best to keep with him.

Eagle crag was roped making getting down a bit easier but Tom was much quicker down here than me and he started to pull away. A pretty horrible scree slope completes the descent of Eagle Crag.

The roped section down Eagle Crag

With no let up in the climbing, you go straight into the hands and knees scramble up St Sunday Crag that leads to the pièce de résistance of the Lakes Sky Ultra at Pinnacle Ridge. I’m not going to lie this climb is a real bastard. It’s just relentless and so so steep, it feels vertical. Halfway up I thought it will never end and by the time you reach Pinnacle Ridge your heart and legs feel like they are going to explode.

Despite all this, I made decent time up to the ridge. I made some time back on the runner in front, couldn’t tell who it was and pulled a bit of a gap on the guys behind me.

Compose yourself and take your time. Now isn’t the time to be racing

Some very sound advice from the safety guys as I took my first step onto the ridge. Just take your time and make sure you don’t slip I told myself. The climb up the ridge was so much fun, the only slight downer was being told that we wouldn’t be doing the pinnacles themselves as someone had removed the safety ropes that were put out the day before. Really hope that they are returned.

Reaching the top was both a relief I was still alive and disappointment that the scrambling sections were over for the race. For a brief second, I thought about going back around for another go. Can’t say I was particularly quick but I don’t think I lost too much time either. Having said that Tom was now right with me again after I pulled a gap on the climb up to the ridge. Must practice these for next year so I’m a bit quicker.

Tom and I ran together down into Patterdale. Me slipping and sliding all over the place trying to keep up. I went over firstly on my right ankle and then a few minutes later my left. Descending was proving to be a bit of a nightmare for me today. 

Victoria said she was going to come to Patterdale so as we ran into the aid station I saw her cheering me on. It always lifts my spirits when she is there at the checkpoints and I think we were both relieved I had survived so far. Not sure she was too impressed with the stream of blood pouring from my knee though.

Lakes Sky Ultra Patterdale checkpoint

Another race, another bloody knee – Photo Credit:
Victoria Millward

A quick refill of water bottles and food then we were off, not before having some delicious energy balls courtesy of The Fell Pack. For those that don’t know this is a new cafe opened in Keswick and by all accounts is superb. Can’t wait to try it next time we’re there.

Patterdale – Finish at Ambleside

I left Patterdale with Tom fired up and ready to chase down 3rd place. The weather seemed to be picking up as expected from the forecast and the second half of the course was more suited to my strengths.

Climbing up to High Street the visibility dropped, the wind picked up and rain got heavier. The weather just wasn’t playing nice today.

This section was a bit of a blur. With visibility down to about 10m – 20m there was no landmarks or views to take your mind off things. I hadn’t recced this section of the course and I was running on my own after pulling away from Tom up to High Street. It felt incredibly isolated and I thought I was making very slow progress into the headwind. I really thought the entire field was going to come past me at any second.

I had already rubbed the profile map off my arm so couldn’t figure out where I was on the course. The only thing to do was to push on as hard as I could. I made the decision to stop and put my waterproof on just before I reached Highstreet. I haven’t put a waterproof on in a race for years but as my pace was slow and the conditions were deteriorating I could feel myself cooling down so thought it was the sensible thing to do.

Dropping down to checkpoint 11 at Haweswater gave a brief respite from the conditions. As I left the checkpoint I could see a couple of other runners dropping down off the fells, probably about 5mins behind so I put my head down and pushed on knowing that I at the very least I must be half way to Kirkstone. The mountains weren’t going to beat me today.

The mountains weren’t going to beat me today.

With visibility down on the tops it was difficult to see the red flag markers but thankfully they were spaced close enough together to spot them fairly easily. As I climbed back onto the fells the sense of isolation came back and I convinced myself that I could hear the clack clack of poles behind me.

‘Come on dig in and push on’ I kept telling myself. ‘Don’t lose any places now’. A good few miles on I realised it was the flags flapping in the wind. Still nothing like thinking someone is going to pass you to get you motivated and moving. 

Every time I thought the descent down to Kirkstone had started another summit appeared through the mist. I really wasn’t enjoying these last few miles but eventually, I heard the sound of car engines. Must be close now!

Lakes Sky Ultra Kirkstone

Coming out of the clag at Kirkstone. Relieved to see some civilisation – Photo Credit:
Victoria Millward

Dropping down onto the road and the first thing I saw was Victoria looking like a vision in her bright orange Marmot jacket. I know she had a day planned at the spa in Ambleside but I was so glad she decided to meet me at the checkpoints instead.

I grabbed a few flapjacks from the checkpoints, dibbed in and was off, just Red Screes to do then it’s downhill all the way to Ambleside.

Spirits lifted after seeing Victoria and knowing the finish was close I got my race face back on and set off trying to catch third place. There weren’t many miles left to close a 10 – 15min gap but I was going to try. Tired legs can rest when after the finish.

It wasn’t long before the flags veered off the path and straight up the hill line. A steep, slippy grassy ascent with a few scrambling sections up through some gullies. A real bastard of a climb to finish off.

About a third of the way up Red Scree I started hearing voices behind me, or at least I think I did, so I pushed on into the clag as fast as I could. One of the photographers had positioned themselves on one of the scrambling sections. ‘How far to the top?’ I asked ‘You must be about three-quarters of the way up’ came the reply. Right, come keep going. I wasn’t sure who was behind but if it was Tom then I know he’s faster than me on the scrambling sections so all I could do was I kept going as fast as I could.

The top of Red Scree marks the end of the KOM Super Stage Uphill and the start of the Super Stage Downhill and there was a pair of marshalls with a dibber sat at the top. Conditions were really horrible – heavy rain, strong winds, nothing to look at apart from clag and these guys were here until the last runner came through. I really did feel for them as I dibbed in and set off on the final leg.

If I couldn’t catch third then I sure wasn’t going to lose fourth now so I started pushing hard on the descent. I’d not gone far before I landed on my arse for what must have been at least the 20th time of the day. Luckily no damage so I was straight back on my feet and off again down as fast as I dare into Ambleside. A couple more meetings with the ground and I was spat out onto the road so just a short section back to the university.

I was really tired by this point, my legs were screaming and my heart felt like it was going to explode through my chest but I kept pushing. It’s not over until the last dib.

Turning into the university there are a few steps to climb before reaching the finish. This was by far the worst section of the day. I just wanted to stop and walk up them but there were quite a few people around including photographers and videographers plus Victoria was waiting for me so I wasn’t going to embarrass myself and wal. My legs were hurting a lot now.

I dibbed in at the finish line and my legs just gave way from underneath me. I was knackered. It’s certainly one tough race.


Yes it was tough out there – Photo courtesy of Guillem Casanova: Guillem Casanova Photography

After a minute or so I picked myself up. Fourth place in a time of 9:05. About an hour slower than my target time but the conditions made a tough race even tougher.

The race is absolutely awesome. The course is tough and tests every aspect of trail/fell/mountain running to the limit. Organisation is fantastic. I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll certainly be back next year looking to improve on my placing.

So that’s 2 rounds of the UK Skyrunner series over and I’m loving this new challenge. Next race is the Ben Nevis ultra in September and I can’t wait for that as it will suit me more.  I was much happier with my performance in the Lakes than I was in Snowdonia, I felt stronger and my nutrition was a lot more sorted. Thanks to some drops from the doctor my ear infection had cleared up so this didn’t cause me any problems. 

Thanks

Victoria for just being amazing and meeting me at the checkpoints. I’m sure there are a million things you would rather do than follow me around the Lake District for the day.

My coach Jayson Cavill for getting me fit enough to tackle these events and for all the help and advice. Looking forward to getting me ready for Ben Nevis.

Charlie Sproson and team for putting on such a great race.

The marshalls and safety team who spent their day on the fells in some horrendous conditions. The race couldn’t have happened without you.

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