The inaugural 13 Valleys Ultra. 185km. 7000m elevation. 6pm start. 2nd female. Only 26 finishers.
As some of you will know, I’ve been training for the 13 Valleys Ultra for four months and it’s safe to say that recently, it’s consumed every aspect of my life. From pacing spreadsheets to kit lists, I’ve fully immersed myself in my first 100 miler, 185km in fact. It’s crazy to think that when I last updated this blog I had just completed my first marathon. Ordnance Survey, who I work for, are the event’s official mapping partner and I’ve been working with the team in the lead up to the inaugural 13 Valleys Ultra.
So, I thought it was right that I document my experience of one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life…so far.
My emotions were high at the start line which was stressful as the zip to my top broke with two minutes to spare. I had to stand in my bra while Carlos tried to fix it with a safety pin. I ran well and got into a nice rhythm chatting to a guy called Jonathan. I off-shot the first checkpoint (CP) so had to run back and lost Jon as he ploughed ahead. I ran (and chatted!) with Lewis over Black Sail Pass and naturally joined a bigger group at the next CP.
We waded through mountain bog in the early hours of the morning in what felt like incredible scenery but I couldn’t see past the beam of my headtorch. It was a beautiful calm evening with the harvest moon making an appearance as the clouds parted and then vanishing again. Running in a group certainly had its perks. I was faster and there was no stopping. This also meant I was unable to go to loo or change head torches, with mine becoming dimmer by the minute. I had to rely on the person in front of me to make out the path I was running on.
Carlos met me at 4am at Coniston CP where I gobbled more food and chatted for a bit. I left in high spirits looking forward to putting my poles away for a flat (ish) “easier” section. I was wrong. The forest path had plenty of tricky bits until we reached a track which was a quagmire. The clay-like mud made progress painfully slow.
Morning came and Wray Castle came into view. I loved this checkpoint, mainly because they had delicious brownies baked by a volunteer called Charlotte but they also had a cute dog and lots of benches to sit on. I tended to my feet, changing socks and lubing up whilst eating pasta and brownies. It was here we were told we were the 3,4,5th ladies. This got me excited! Then, an unexpected text message came through from the organisers to notify us of a last minute route change due to deteriorating weather. At first, we were a bit disgruntled as it wasn’t raining – a beautiful morning in fact – but later we were so thankful!
Ishmael (who I volunteered with at UTS this year), Louise and I continued on running well. I was on for a 34hr finish, far faster than I anticipated which I put down to the others. Approaching the Stickle Barn, I surprised myself by being unusually good on the pavement, even better than the Lakeland mountain goats I was running with. I thank my local road running clubs for that one! My friend Alastair came to meet me at Stickle Barn CP (80km) but I was in the loo so he missed me! It was a long old slog up to Angel Tarn and over the Langdale Fells but we made it to the next CP. Louise, Andri, Chris and I left together to tackle Grasmere Common but the boys shot off up the hill and my stomach took a turn for the worst. I knew this would happen as I got tired.
I can’t remember when it started raining because it rained for 18 hours non-stop so I blanked it from my memory, but by this point it was coming down hard and it was incredibly windy on the tops. It was so bad that it would have been dangerous to stop to put on layers. We had to keep moving. Louise and I ran in silence. Survival mode activated. Carlos was at Grasmere CP with my drop bag at 120km. He was amazing and got me fed and warm. Clean clothes, warm soup, foot care, a new headtorch and trail snacks. I’ve had people I don’t know message me on Instagram to say how good my support man was!
It was here Louise decided to call it quits as she struggled to warm up. This wasn’t her A race and she could have carried on, but it was obvious that the fun had disappeared. She gave me her warm jacket and gloves. I felt like she sacrificed her own race to help mine and I will be forever grateful for that. I spent a good 90 minutes at the CP but decided not to sleep. I was now 2nd female and wanted to keep it that way. Off I went into the second night, still in the rain, alone. As I left Grasmere CP the 3rd lady arrived. So I ran. Hard!
I was rather exhausted by the next CP just 8km away where Carlos handed me a cheese sandwich and prawn cocktail crisps – a request I made hours earlier. Impressive service! I left with Andri and Chris to tackle the new bad-weather route. As we made our way out of Ambleside I heard my name being called. It was Charlotte the brownie lady who had waited up for me and come out of her house as I ran past to hand me a bag of brownies. This put a huge smile on my face. I told the boys I was going ahead alone which was a poor decision. I was so desperate for 2nd place I raced up Scandal Fell to get ahead. Coming down to Hartsop zapped all my energy. Wet slippery boulders, a river or grassy bog. There was no easy route down. I screamed in agony as my knees took a pounding. I’ve always had issues with the cartilege in my knees and I thought about the lasting damage I could be doing to myself. The 40-minute detour uphill to the next CP was the final straw. I had stopped enjoying myself. I asked for wifi and texted Carlos to say I was struggling to stay awake. I was also struggling to eat and drink and it was only 1 am. “Just a marathon to go”, I thought.
I put on the emergency Spotify playlist Carlos had made me and ran to Pattersdale singing out loud before becoming too tired to run. My eyes kept closing and I kept seeing suitcases in the rocks and squirrels in the ferns. No real hallucinations but my mind was certainly playing tricks on me. I power walked up the miner’s track to Glenridding CP and put my head in my hands as I slumped down on the sofa. As usual, the volunteers kindly asked what they could get me. Nothing. Nothing would make this better. Two Swedish runners were also struggling and we all sat on the sofa munching crisps in silence. I wish someone had taken a photo. I should have stuck with them but I lingered too long and left alone at 4 am.
Sticks Pass was horrendous, the rain kept coming straight into my face and I really struggled to stay awake. I couldn’t make out much but it felt like I was on Mars, with rocks and sand and vast amounts of nothingness which I’d love to see in daylight. I missed Carlos at the bottom in Legburthwaite by a minute. I could see his car but I didn’t have the energy or voice to catch him. The 8km “nice valley trail” as Paul from the safety team put it, was relentless. “Why am I doing this to myself”, I thought. This hasn’t been fun for hours. I met my first 7 Valleys runner here and he was worse off than I. I filled up my water in a stagnant river. I was too tired to get my filter straw out so I risked it.
Carlos surprised me at the side of the road to witness my zombie walk. “My body is failing”, I groaned. I honestly thought I was shutting down. My mind, my digestive system, my joints, my bowels, my feet. It was all fucked. He shoved some ginger cake in my mouth and forced me to take a drink. Andri and Chris caught up with me Threlkeld CP – our last – and as usual I lingered for far too long chatting. I managed some soup and a caffeine gel, thanks to Paul. The sun was rising and my stomach cramps subsided. I left alone again and 500m up the road I was unable to run due to what felt like horrendous blisters. I should have taken more care of my feet. With just 30km to go I was powering through just wanting it to be over but 30km can take a blood long time if hobbling. Lesson learnt.
By this point my mind was numb. I didn’t care about my position, I didn’t care about the rain, I didn’t even care about not being able to run across the finish line (something I had wanted to do), I just wanted it to be over so I could sleep. That aside, I never thought about quitting. It’s not in my nature. But I promised myself NEVER again, the fun stopped at 130km so why bother with 100 miles?
Carlos met me on the last hill into Keswick. I cursed the event team for making us run around Keswick, the same brutality they’d shown when making us detour to numerous CPs on route. But these additional kms were actually some of my best. I felt like a celebrity in Keswick on that Sunday morning. Random people were shouting “Come on Helen” and “Second lady” I couldn’t understand how they knew but of course, they were tracking the 13 Valleys Ultra. It was heartwarming. The final few strides to the finish was a bit of an anti-climax. I was so tired I struggled to process what was happening. I was interviewed and photographed and Louise, the lady who I had run a big chunk of the race with, presented me with a trophy. I was touched to see so many familiar faces. I waited for Ishmael who crossed the finish line not long after me and stayed chatting for a bit, comparing our white trench feet and horror stories.
There’s no denying that the inaugural 13 Valleys Ultra was one hell of a brutal course in brutal conditions. My feet were saturated for over 40 hours and I had rain coming into my face for over 18. I learnt a lot about my body and my mind but the physical problems I experienced were nothing new. Feet and knees – my biggest downfalls as a runner. Despite the feet and the knees, I felt relatively OK which makes me think my training went well. Very little in the way of aches and pains and I had no issues with my kit. Next time – and yes I’m now considering another – I would try not to hang around and chat at every aid station because time on your feet really does count. I would also try to stick with others more – it was the kindness of others that made this experience a good one after all.