Those that have been following my “Road To MDS” series will know that Rat Race’s inaugural Man Vs Lakes was one of my major targets for the summer. This year I have changed my running style and training regime dramatically, with the aim of running for longer distances with more efficiency and speed, and ideally with less pain.
Rat Race’s latest challenge was timed perfectly - just when I wanted to test myself over a challenging marathon distance. However, after a long drive up to the Lake District on Friday afternoon, my excitement turned to anxiousness when speaking with Rat Race’s Alex Reily. He warned us to expect a significantly tougher challenge than Man Vs Mountain (which broke me) and to prepare to be out on course for around seven hours. I suddenly felt uncertain about what lay ahead, and worried about whether I really was prepared enough.
The morning of the event started with an unsettlingly long coach journey from the finish village to the start line, which I mostly spent faffing with gear and worrying about whether I had enough food. I’m one of the latest Mountain Fuel converts and I found myself in an unnecessary internal panic about whether I should have eaten breakfast as well as drinking Morning Fuel (I’m not one for reading instructions). I chowed down on a couple of Clif Bars and a banana just to make sure. I was getting the biggest pre-event nerves I’d had in a long time!
There's plenty to read below, but have a quick watch of my GoPro highlights first:
As we walked from the bus towards the start line we found many of the Mudstacle regulars huddled under a tree, shielding themselves temporarily from the dreadful weather. We looked out across the massive expanse of Morecambe Bay, which had to be the most unique starting arenas I’ve encountered. Although I’d seen a route map, I hadn’t imagined the crossing being quite so large. The banks on the other side were dim and clouded by lashing rain and, as we later found out, were seven kilometres away. Between us and them was rippled sand, some of which deadly quicksand (apparently), along with fast-flowing channels of water.
Thankfully Rat Race had enlisted the help of the Queen’s Guide To The Sands Cedric Robinson (MBE). The 83 year old sand guru has been guiding people across the bay in his tractor for over 50 years, so it certainly felt like we were in the best possible hands, as we trundled out into the perilous unknown.
Thankfully wet sand offers a good resistance, so we could jog fairly comfortably, however the surface had formed significant ripples, which put strain on the ankles, as they fought to stabilise every footstep. I trotted along in a pack of five or six runners, watching BMF Race Team’s David Hellard accelerate away. It was clear that he was of a completely different class to anyone else here and, in fact, it looked like he could have been running faster than the tractor, had it not been in his way.
The highlights of that 7km sand crossing included a very unsettling moment where we felt a patch of sand wobble beneath our feet. It felt almost like we were running along the skin of a rice pudding. Although it was fun to experience a completely new feeling terrain, I didn’t fancy hanging around on it much, just in case it was the start of quicksand! Also we crossed a very fast flowing channel of water, which really challenged my notoriously-lacking sense of stability.
After waving goodbye to Cedrick in his tractor, we headed out onto Kents Bank and picked up some significant pace along the paved promenade that led towards the town of Grange over Sands – one of the last bits of civilisation we would witness over the next few hours. From that point onwards we roamed typical Lake District terrain in typical Lake District weather. For the unfamiliar, think hills, bogs, hills, wetness, hills… and hills.
I was in my element. After 10km, I was feeling physically and mentally strong, with the second place runner only a few yards ahead. This was a completely unfamiliar situation for me and I started to relax into it. Unfortunately, it seems I relaxed a little too much and missed a turning. To cut a long story short, a small group of us managed to add an extra couple of kilometres onto the “Vertical Kilometre” section of the race. Maybe I wasn’t mentally ready for the lofty position I had found myself in after all. I made a mental note to pay more attention and pounded down the next downhill section, trying to reclaim as many places as I could.
The hills that followed were glorious. Although I travelled fast, I was completely aware of the stunning surroundings and enjoyed every footstep. Although we wound our way mostly on paths, they were fairly un-beaten and technical, so required a massive amount of concentration at times. Particular highlights included single-track trails disguised by overhanging bracken. The thigh-high greenery allowed zero visibility of the trail that lay below, which meant relying on jedi-like powers to avoid walking, although it was impossible not to in some areas.
I’m becoming a big lover of technical downhills and in some very steep woodland around 27km into the race, I focused two footsteps ahead and let rip, with arms flying out wildly to my sides. This was it! This was my opportunity! I already knew that I had made my way back to the top ten and at this speed, I’d be picking off a couple more runners… that was until I bumped into Merlin Duff coming back in the opposite direction. Yet again, I had relaxed into my position and concentrated on enjoying my run or, in this case, the small patch of ground a couple of footsteps ahead. Generally, that’s not where you’ll find course markings, so it’s no surprise that I’d missed a sharp left turning 500 metres back. That climb back up hill was soul destroying. I had worked very hard to weave my way back through the pack and I wasn’t sure I had the will to do it again.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, I’m not sure whether it makes a sound… But if Pete takes a wrong turn in a forest, you’re likely to hear his expletives on the other side of the world!
Anyway, all I could do was battle on, even though the toughest sections of the course were yet to come. The last 10km of a marathon are notoriously tough, physically and mentally. Yet in this one, we faced the added challenge of Lake Windermere. Before reaching it, we had already crossed a couple of ponds, however there were several full submergence points towards the end. The first was an exhilarating Tarzan swing out into the lake. It was a considerably more nerve-racking challenge than jumping straight off a platform, but I absolutely loved it! At the next station, I was directed through the green door of a boat house, through which was a run along an unstable jetty and a jump back into the lake. Then the last water challenge consisted of a series of swims and watery obstacles, including climbing onto floats and boats, monkey bars and jumps between floating platforms.
Although the water was pleasantly warm, it still managed to play havoc on my legs. Pretty much every muscle pulsed and tightened with cramp on the hills that followed, which isn’t ideal in the last few kilometres of a marathon. The end was in sight though and, although I had lost a lot of my pace, I continued to get the job done.
Entering the ground of Graythwaite Hall was a massive relief. I could hear the event village and managed to squeeze the last dregs of energy. The final challenge was a water slide, which I would normally penguin down at great speed. However, that wasn’t going to work with my GoPro strapped to my chest so I affectively sat down on the slide for a few seconds before standing back up again (spurred on by the next runner sprinting past me)… I really need to think more competitively if I’m going to hang around in such positions!
My own mishaps aside, I absolutely loved Man Vs Lakes. Natural terrain is my thing, and you’d struggle to find another race as varied as this. The opener across Morecambe sands has to be my favourite race start to date, the route through Lake District hills is expertly crafted and the unique watery twists at the end ensure that this isn’t just a fell run (if that wasn’t apparent enough already).
I found the logistics of the event a little challenging. The start line, finish line and registration point are all a looooooong way from each other and it’s (almost) by chance that I managed to make it to the registration point in time on Friday evening. If I’d have missed that, there would have been no racing for me! So, I massively recommend getting your head around transportation and accommodation on the weeks and months leading up to this event. Also, the areas surrounding the finish (where it’s advisable to stay) are very isolated, albeit very nice. So, you need to be careful not to get stranded without being able to eat on the evenings before and after the race. That being said the event village at the end is good, with a lovely warm tent (great touch), bar and a food stall, to at least tide you over before you find a place to settle for the evening.
As this article doubles as a review and “Road To MDS” blog, I should really finish on my personal thoughts on progression. This was more than I could ever have hoped for! It sums up every bit of progression I’ve made over the last six months. I’m back to loving running again. The changes I’ve made in technique are allowing my feet to glide a little more, so my knees aren’t hurting like they used to. I’m expending far less energy so, combined with more structured training, I’m finding I can run faster and for longer than I’ve ever been able to before. This is the last of my major summer targets and I’m feeling more confident and excited about Marathon Des Sables than ever. The next major stop will be an Autumn multi-day ultra. Watch this space!