If you are ever daft enough to do an ultra-marathon, especially one over rough, mountainous terrain, you can expect to have a bad patch or two. I hit a brick wall on the slog up to Grisedale Hause. I tried to encourage myself by repeating that this was no steeper than the path we follow everyday on our dog walks. Unfortunately, I kept replying that though this was no steeper than our dog walk route, it was four times longer and that I didn’t normally start a dog walk having run 12 miles over a high mountain pass.
Sheltering from the wind, about half a mile from the top of the Hause, I took a break to put on my windproof and was just trying to work out how to get my legs moving when Terry caught up to me and said “alright then lad, are you coming?”. “Aye, I’m coming”, I replied. And the pattern for the next seven hours was set as Terry and I ran, jogged and walked for twenty something miles through some of the loveliest landscapes on the planet.
When I tell you that Terry has completed a Bob Graham Round in under 24 hours, it may not mean much to you. However, those who know the arcane world of trail running will know that I was in the presence of one of the elite of the sport. You will be even more impressed that I was able to run with him for as long as I did. You might be less impressed if I mention that he is seventy three years old and that at times, I struggled to keep up with him!
I first chatted to Terry on the way up to Kirkstone Pass, the first major hill on the run. There was a point where the route went through a stream and lots of people were slowly trying to pick their way across stepping stones. Neither Terry nor I bothered about that, we just plodged through the stream, with a nod to each other that said that our feet were going to get much wetter later on, so why try and keep them dry.
We more or less arrived at the first checkpoint at the same time, but Terry left just ahead of me. On the long run down to Ulswater, I could see Terry about 10 yards ahead of me, but I wasn’t able to catch up with him. On the easy flat bits, I’d get closer to him, but he would stretch out the distance whenever the ground was rough and steep.
I finally caught up to him at the second checkpoint. Terry was drinking a cup of tea as I headed out after a brief stop (too brief in hindsight). An hour later, as I sheltered from the wind on Grisedale Hause, he caught me up again.
It turns out that Terry lived in the Lake District and had been a mountain guide for 40 years until his retirement. I’m fairly sure footed for an old bloke and on these long runs I reckon to make up time on some of the younger, fitter and slimmer characters on the descents, but I’ve honestly never seen anyone like Terry. He must have knees and ankles of steel to descend steep rocky slopes the way he does. Whenever the ground got rough and steep, he would be ten or twenty yards ahead of me in a few seconds. Then he’d turn round, and call out “are you alright, Eddie?”, “aye, I’m alright”, I’d gasp back. With those few words, he challenged me to run faster, but also made sure that I wasn’t pushing myself too hard – he must have been an amazing mountain guide.
So we made our way down to Grasmere, settling into a slow shuffling run across the fields to the next check-point. The room was filled with people sitting down, drinking tea and chatting. It must be nice to be young enough to sit down at that point in a race and know that you’ll be able to stand up again afterwards. Terry and I stayed standing for our cup of tea and pot noodle, then headed out through the streets of Grasmere towards Silver Howe. On the climb up over Silver Howe, it became obvious that Terry was suffering. On the steep uphill sections his legs were starting to cramp up pretty badly, but he paused, stretched and pushed on. The over the shoulder of Silver Howe down into Langdale is lovely, a long slow descent along the side of the mountain with great views, including our campsite down in the valley floor. My feet even dried out for a wee while!
We crossed Langdale and made the next checkpoint in good time. Sue was waiting there to cheer me on, which was a real encouragement. The next section, around Little Langdale, was my least favourite last year, it seemed to go on forever. This year, it was much more enjoyable, though the weather got pretty awful for a while and I struggled on the rocky ground with misted up glasses. By now, I was a little stronger than Terry and I was the one making most of the pace on the flat ground and the uphill sections. He still outdistanced me on the rougher ground and especially on the steep downhill section from Blea Tarn back into Langdale. We jogged and walked along the valley, passing our tent where Sue was sensibly sheltering from the weather, and on into Chapel Stile for the last checkpoint. More tea and a few sandwiches and we were off again for the last few miles over Loughrigg and into Ambleside.
As we hit the last two steep sections, it became obvious that Terry was struggling. The cramps in his legs were hitting harder and he suggested that I should just go on ahead. I though about it for all of half a second; we’d covered the best part of 20 miles together and he’d waited for me on plenty of steep downhill sections, I wasn’t about to break up a winning team at this point.
So we crested the last shoulder of Loughrigg and could see Ambleside below us. We ran and shuffled down the steep section, turned left over the bridge and headed to the finish in the park. Just before the end, Terry’s daughter called out to him and he slowed down to chat to her so I crossed the finish line a few seconds ahead of him.
I’d probably have finished the route if I hadn’t got running with Terry, but I’d have taken a lot longer and it would have been a lot less fun. What surprised me was that just before the end, he told me that if we’d not paired up to run together, he’d probably have given up at the half-way point. That meant a lot. I owe him a pint or two of St Miguel!
Just a few more random thoughts:
- Events like this depend on a huge number of volunteers, serving tea and providing instructions on the route. Thank you to everyone who was out there on Saturday helping us along, especially the loony with the big smile standing out in Little Langdale in the pouring rain.
- I was surprised at how much I struggled going up Grisedale. I’ve worked hard on my leg strength and I should have done better. Hey ho, I’ve got more work to do before my next ultra in a couple of months.
- Why do I do it? Why wouldn’t I? It’s fun, I’m still strong enough and I get a massive amount of satisfaction from pushing myself and enjoying beautiful places. A few weeks ago, I went to see a physiotherapist because I had some aches and pains from running; she said that if I led a sedentary life, I’d have far more aches and pains, but I’d just accept them as a normal part of growing old. Exercise may hurt from time to time, but it’s better than sitting still!
- The photos on this post remind me that I need to lose a bit more weight!