Three Crazy Months

The Lakeland 100

I’m shuffling, not running. This has been the case for several miles. Runners doing the Lakeland 50 are overtaking me with demoralising frequency. Both of the soles of my feet are one big blister. The rest of my body is seizing up as you’d expect for someone who has just run 101 miles.

I’ve just taken an age to put my head torch on. Everything takes longer than it should by this stage in the Lakeland 100. And then I hear a man and woman whispering behind me. Despite lots of women from the 50-mile race passing me, this one gives me a sinking feeling. I know without turning around that’s it’s her…it’s third girl.
Her partner runs up to me and I cheerily say hello and ask if he’s doing the 50. “No, we’re on the 100.” Disappointment sinks into my stomach. I’ve stayed in 2nd place for 101 miles and now a woman who has run a better race than me, staying at a steady plod instead of my highs and lows, will now overtake me. Third will still be amazing, but I could have done it…
But it’s not over until our feet cross the finish. They’re picking up their pace. I stay with them. I still haven’t even seen third girl but she’s behind me. The lights of Tilberthwaite, the last checkpoint are ahead. I’m tired but I can’t stop for food. I can get away without filling one water bottle…I hatch a plan. There’s two dibbers. I have to reach the second before third girl. I pull out my water bottle as I run. Dibber. Fill. Hit the steps out of Tilberthwaite.
I tell myself I now have to forget everything that’s gone before, this is now a 4-mile fell race. I have no idea what her background is but I’m best on the downs so if I can just keep her behind me for the climb, I convince myself I’m in with a chance. I’ve spent the last 15 miles forcing my brain to believe the pain in my feet is just pins and needles. Now, I don’t care what it is. It’s irrelevant. I climb as fast as I can before catching up with Euan, who I ran with for 30 miles or so earlier. He’s surprised by my transformation from the crippled woman who couldn’t cling on any longer 20 miles ago to the sprint I’ve started on the crest of the hill. This is the second time I’ve put on a spirt upon learning how close third girl is. The first time amused him too. “Go on Fiona! We’ll slow her down!” It feels good to have friends on my tail.
I destroy myself, stride by stride, hitting the tarmac through Coniston, where my boyfriend Martin runs alongside me. All I want to know is if third girl somehow got past me? “No.” I’m going to do this. I’m actually going to be second in the longest race I’ve ever done.
Ashleigh Bennett turned out to be exactly why I hadn’t wanted to meet her: a lovely, friendly, nonchalant Northerner. We laughed on the podium about how broken we both were at Tilberthwaite and she graciously said she couldn’t have taken it from me at that point. But our appearance shows who is the better runner: I’m the only one on the podium aided by poles.
But the story that day was Beth Pascall: she crossed the finish line 8 hours before I did, smashing the female course record by 2hours 45 minutes. My skins tingles thinking about it even now. We are living through the most incredible time to be a female long-distance runner. Women are taking on the men, achieving feats we never thought imaginable. Beth was fourth overall, having run most of the race in third. All any of us wanted was for her to take first overall – that would feel like an achievement for every woman in the race.
Only a few months before, Jasmin Paris smashed the women’s record for the Bob Graham. When Nicky Spinks broke her own record by 20 minutes, she did so throwing up along the side of the road. Jasmin took 2 hours and 42 minutes off that. A few weeks later I shook Nicky’s hand as the Helm Ladies, Lee Procter and I waited at the big green door of Keswick’s Moot hall for midnight.

The Bob Graham

I went off far too fast. Even Lee told me to slow down. I could feel how nervous my support runners were, including Martin, but I felt great. I’d trained, I’d rested, I’d eaten, I knew this was the best I was going to feel for 24 hours and I wanted to get some time under my belt. They say if you’re more than 50 minutes up on your split time for leg one you’ll fail a Bob Graham. Thanks to Catherine Niblock’s cracking night navigation, we hurtled down Hall’s Fell Ridge with flickering head torches 30 minutes up. The lads were still ambling at the top as I slurped my tea by the car.
Leg 2 should be the easiest leg but the clag was down; my friends (including Helm’s Caroline Holmes) brilliantly and calmly navigated us round and I clung on to my half hour lead. Running down Seat Sandal I knew a disapproving Andy Cox would be waiting. He didn’t disappoint.
Coxy, Rik and Darren played a blinder on leg 3, having reccied the best line on every peak and keeping my half an hour lead but forcing me to slow down so I didn’t gain anymore. This was sensible: too fast and your muscles stiffen up, ending your run.
I started having low points but I was still loving it by Wasdale. Joss Naylor remembered me from interviewing him a few weeks earlier and cycled down to see me and the others attempting a Bob on the longest day of the year. It was a beautifully hot day and I changed my compression leggings for shorts. It wasn’t until the top of Yewbarrow that I regretted that terrible miscalculation.
I hadn’t realised the compression had been holding me together. My legs now seemed full of fluid. It wobbled painfully with every step. I got slower and slower through leg 4, following Helm’s Tim Murray and Scott Umpleby from the Brathay Trust as I struggled to make sense of the peaks I used to know so well, as Lisa Galloway brought her own brand of amazing positive energy to the day.
It hurts now and I’m tried so I’m on the edge of tears. Then I start descending Grey Knotts to realise the huge group of loud, hollering people with cowbells at Honister Pass are some of the best people I know. That’s it, the tears are out, I’m too tired to cope with the extreme emotion of love, happiness and gratitude.
We leave Honister Pass bang on schedule, having lost that 30 minute lead. I know we’re going slow up Dale Head but my new group of mates are cheery and we’re having fun. Rowan Ranner is the first to realise we’ve lost 8 minutes. She launches a mission to get me moving quicker, but it’s hard. She tells me I’m cold but I don’t want to put another layer on – my top is uncomfortable but I can’t fathom why and so think I must be too hot. She realises it’s wet and once I’m wearing a dry top I warm up and realise I’m feeling better and can run faster. We pick up some speed on the descent and undulating flat 5 miles to the finish.
The Bob is the most incredible day out with friends. The months of logistics have given me a new respect for paying a race organiser £100 for an ultra: it’s worth every penny. It’s the only individual challenge I’ve ever done yet it was more about teamwork than any other. 16 awesome people got me round with their navigation and encouragement; 4 more made it all possible with their support at the checkpoints and driving for hundreds of miles. I’m still bowled over by the generosity of strangers to help. One even contacted me on twitter. But I get it now: if anyone asks me, I’d move heaven and earth to be there, partially because I’ll be forever grateful for the support I received and know how tough those logistics are but also because I loved that day and would be honoured to be part of someone else’s.

The Fred Whitton

The Bob was 6 weeks before the Lakeland 100 and 6 weeks after the Fred Whitton. It’s been dubbed the hardest one-day cycle sportive in the UK. It’s 112 miles over all the Lakeland Passes. Only 5% of entrants are women.
It was my first ever cycle race. 2,000 riders means even over a course that long, you’re always surrounded by cyclists. There were too many men to race against so I decided the only ones that mattered were women. I’d see one in the distance and race up to overtake her, then realise I’d have to maintain that sprint to stay in front. This kept me pushing the whole way round. It’s not the hills that are the hardest part of the Fred: it’s hitting them after hours of sprinting.
You hit Hardknott Pass at mile 96. Most people are walking. The narrow, twisty road is lined with hundreds of spectators. It feels like you’re in the Tour de France and just like with the whole way round, as soon as anyone sees a woman, they’re all shouting for you. Unfortunately some motor bikers seemed to have taken umbrage at all these cyclists being on their roads on the nicest day of the year so far and had taken to sitting on your rear wheel and revving. One decided to undertake me on the hardest, steepest section, as the cyclist in front of me fell off his bike and we navigated an oil spill. I screamed. I genuinely thought I was about to fall off my bike, yet somehow swerved into the space vacated by the undertaking motorbike. Luckily, his friend didn’t follow.
The crowd saw and cheered louder. A man ran down to me and totally went for it: he ran with me, screaming encouragement all the way to the top of that hardest section. My lungs were at their maximum capacity and I couldn’t even look at him so I don’t know his name or what he looks like but I think he’s the best person on the planet. I overtook another lady at the top, cheering each other on that we’d both made it on the bike, a feat most Fred riders don’t achieve.
Still pursuing a sub 8-hour time, I came flying out of Little Langdale too fast, remembering the sharp left-turn at the bottom of a hill too late. The marshall shouted “change down” frantically and I panicked, my chain coming off, and my knees hitting the floor. I couldn’t face looking at my friend’s bike to see if I’d damaged it but I didn’t have time. A shirtless man vaulted the pub wall and between him and the marshall they had my chain back on in seconds. He pushed to get me started again on the hill. I crossed the finish at 8 hours 14 minutes and I don’t think I could have done it a minute faster – it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But that was before the Lakeland 100.
Personally, I feel ashamed that it’s 2016 and only 5% of Fred finishers are female. The Lakeland 100 is the first time I’ve run an entire race with just men. Of course that’s because there was only one woman in front, and she was a long way in front, but it’s crazy that I could run a puny 29-hour 100 and come second… And yet women are often better at endurance sports. They have more fat to burn, and childbirth has taught generations of women to cope with pain for hours. This is such an exciting time with women threatening the expectation that they’ll be behind the men. I firmly believe our daughters are going to make even bigger strides.
I race because I want to see how far I can push myself but seeing young girls cheering reminds me that we run for something much bigger than ourselves. Ultras are the friendliest races because you all feel part of a team with a common goal: you’re in it together, proving how far human beings can go, and for me, I’m part of the ladies team too. It makes me so proud to be a woman and I hope it inspires more girls to believe they can smash it too.

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