If you’re reading this, the chances are you’ve completed at least one or two official races as a runner. You’ll be used to the electric atmosphere and that amazing feeling of momentary celebrity – OK, so Taylor Swift you’re not, but who can deny the high you get from a stranger shouting your name in encouragement whether it’s a 5k or a 50k?
As a runner it’s refreshing to dip your toe into the other side and view proceedings as a spectator once in a while. All the atmosphere, none of the blisters – amirite?
This past weekend saw me doing this for the second year running at the Grand Tour of Skiddaw as my boyfriend Jak took part again.
Is it weird to write up a race I didn’t actually run? Hoping not, because a) walking upstairs without getting out of breath is an achievement in my 6.5 month pregnant state and b) I can witter on about anything I decided to go for it. Bearing in mind at this point in my pregnancy I feel akin to Carrie Bradshaw in her “Are men like socks?” writers’ block low.
If you want to hear about the race from an actual competitor, Jak’s report is here: https://tofellandback.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/most-people-never-run-far-enough-on-their-first-wind-to-find-out-theyve-got-a-second/ (pictures by me).
If you prefer the waffling of someone who spent the day eating cheese sandwiches, trying to navigate perilously narrow lanes with only Bernard for moral support and pondering the ethics of sneaking flapjacks meant for competitors, read on.
Setting off to Lime House School in Dalston, Cumbria at 5.15am on Saturday morning I wished I was going anywhere but there. But as soon as we rolled up at 7am in good time for Jak to register you could feel there was a nice vibe about the event and it set the scene for an actually quite fun day of cheerleading.
Now in its third year, the Grand Tour of Skiddaw in the Lake District is organised by Pure Outdoors Events who put on a really good weekend for runners and their families – they hire out the school sports hall and field where you can camp cheaply and use the showers and changing facilities.
There’s a food truck serving up fresh omelettes, porridge and coffees as runners limber up in the early morning sun for the big day ahead – they turn their hand to stonebaked pizzas once the competitors start to roll in later that day (yum).
The race is actually 46 miles long but advertised as 44 – twice Jak’s Garmin has tracked the full 46 and I heard other people say the same on the day. The killer ascent of Skiddaw (all 931 m/3,054 ft of it) comes at the halfway point so I am wildly impressed with anyone who manages to finish. Not my idea of a fun Saturday.
The event has a festivally vibe with all the campers and music blasting out from 7am – while I have both years refused to camp and have that power as the designated driver, I can see how people enjoy making a weekend of it with kids and dogs running around helping to get the party started.
Setting off at 8am, the 100 or so runners made their way out of sight sharpish as the music was promptly turned off and marshals dispersed. Bernard and I jumped into the car to make our way to Latrigg, the 19.7 mile checkpoint at the foot of Skiddaw. It took me hours to find it last time (it doesn’t come up on sat nav and I have zero navigation skills, one of a million reasons I would never dream of running the actual race) but an organiser pointed me in the right direction and we arrived with plenty of time for an hour’s stroll up Latrigg viewpoint before settling down to chat to a lovely family from Nottingham who had come up for the weekend to man the checkpoint.
If you’ve never been to an ultra before, the food stations are seriously impressive. Runners tuck into flapjacks, cake, sweets, sandwiches, fresh watermelon, nuts, biscuits, bananas, jugs of cordial and gallons of flat cola. It’s like the Famous Five set up the mother of all picnics in the middle of nowhere. A handful of supporters had already started gathering by 11am as the first runner zipped in (to the rousing sound of a bell rung by twins Florence and Bella) and everyone was excited to welcome him in, feed him, fill his water bottles and wish him well as he whizzed off up the mountain.
By 11.30ish Jak made it into the checkpoint in an amazing 8th position and shovelled down a load of watermelon mumbling about his dodgy hip. He came 22nd the previous year so had been aiming for top 10 and seemed to be doing well, but it seemed apparent the mental side of the race was taking its toll more this year.
I had only planned to go to this checkpoint but a cyclist who was following a friend round each checkpoint got his map out and helped me locate the next one, so I decided I might as well have a go at finding it since the only other option was a Kindle marathon with a bored beagle.
Two hours later we caught up with the runners again at Peter House Farm at the other side of the mountain. Jak came in at 10th but even his favourite part of the race – the scrambly Skiddaw descent which slows a lot of runners down – hadn’t lightened his mood. It’s hard to know what to say when you see someone for those brief seconds – from my perspective as a steady Eddie he was doing amazingly well but he was on such a downer there wasn’t much to lift him out of it. I usually rely on Bernard to cheer him up in these situations but even he barely raised a smile and I was left to cope with an inconsolable dog as his favourite running buddy ambled off without him for the third time that day.
One of the marshals at Peter House Farm was a woman who had aced the race the previous year, coming in as the third woman home in 9 hours 20. She told me the next checkpoint was in Caldbeck, which I know all too well from ferrying Jak to the recce days for the race so by 3pm, Bernard and I had settled into our next station – Caldbeck Parish Hall, where some friendly ladies were manning the checkpoint and offering freshly made salted popcorn to runners.
Among the marshals here was another of the women to complete last year’s race (I think someone said she was the 2nd woman) who found out afterwards she was pregnant at the time – her three-month-old baby had come along for the ride this year. Slightly bigger dead dogged my “four weeks pregnant at Canalathon” story but hats off to her for managing that with a baby on board, what a woman!
Just before the runners came in, I overheard a message on the walkie talkies saying a couple of runners had somehow taken a wrong turn down Skiddaw and wound up back at the Latrigg checkpoint they all dib into BEFORE the climb. They had decided to head back up the mountain and asked for assistance finding the right path down. I’ve had some pretty dark moments in my running career but that has to top them all!
I met a couple from Bolton here who had brought their grandson along to cheer on his dad (who came in an impressive 3rd to that checkpoint) and camp with him that evening. I also caught up for the second time with a girl whose partner was taking part. One of the best things about the day was the camaraderie between supporters – everyone was so chatty and welcoming it was a surprisingly pleasant way to spend a day and trust me I had been DREADING it, thinking it would drag even more than running an actual ultra.
Along the way we met marshals, medics and mums, dads, wives and kids of runners who were all great company. When you’re so used to being the runner it’s rare you see this side of it and the atmosphere of such a relatively small but excellently organised event was really friendly, warm and fun. It’s touching to see people giving up their day to help out and cheer people on to give them that lifeline of a boost in the middle of a long and difficult day. I am NOT the sort who likes New People so the fact I easily passed the time nattering away says a lot about the event.
Jak stormed into this checkpoint – around the 35 mile mark – with a couple of guys who had entered as a pair and kept him company for a good few miles. One of the hardest things I find about long distance running is the boredom; even with each other to natter to Chaz and I struggled with this on both the marathon and ultra we’ve done together and we can talk forever.
As Jak had been running solo for the large part of this race, a bit of company had cheered him up (very slightly – not exactly visible to the naked eye) and although he was still feeling pretty low, he only had about seven or eight miles to go so Bernard and I did our best to gee him up for the last slog. He even drank Coke so anyone who knows him can imagine these were dark days.
Refusing to let the ultra cloud darken OUR day, Bernard and I trotted off for an ice cream once we’d waved Jak off for the last time and sat in the sun congratulating ourselves on the navigational feat of our own locating each of the checkpoints.
Back at Lime House School around 4.30pm we met up with some of the other supporters and sat in the sun cheering the runners home. The winner managed it in 7 hours 17 minutes – Jak was actually running alongside him for the first few miles before he took off on his own. The first woman came in 5th – drawing gasps of admiration from those of us who had been sitting around snacking and clapping all day.
Jak came in at 12th place at 9 hours 16 minutes – 10 places up and 36 minutes down on last year’s place and an incredible achievement by any standards. He took advantage of the massages available at the finish line and I even procured some free medical advice for him from my new medic friend who diagnosed a labral tear on his hip – ouch.
Tucking into the free soup for finishers, Jak chatted to the runners he’d met along the way while Bernard and I said our goodbyes to the supporters we’d got to know over the past nine hours. Having met runners in this situation before it’s always weird to spend crucial minutes running together getting each other through tough times only to never see each other again – but after two years of Skiddaw even anti-social Jak had made a few friends.
Spectating an ultra makes for a long but pretty rewarding day – I really enjoyed cheering everyone on in such spectacular surroundings (the weather was unexpectedly good after Jak’s week-long rain dance in the hope it would give him the edge) and seeing other supporters’ excitement when their guy or girl made it into a checkpoint or the long-awaited finish line.
Next year I will pack way more snacks to avoid gazing longingly at the food station spreads – but other than that, it was an interesting way to spend a bank holiday Saturday with the friendly faces of the ultra running community. Surprisingly tiring work, though.