Ever wondered what it’s like to run 50 miles? Ever wondered if you could? I’ll admit it, it’s a bit of a daydream of mine. So when Paul Waldron got in touch after the London Marathon, asking for a Chi Running refresher to help him prepare for his next challenge, the Montane Lakeland 50, I was more than a little intrigued. Paul and wife Rachel had came along to one of my Chi Running workshops last summer, and he’d been able to train and complete the marathon without picking up any injuries – a first for him. But the Lakeland 50 was a whole different scale of challenge.
Almost a double marathon, over ankle-twistingly technical terrain, and with nearly 3100m of ascent, the Lakeland 50 is laughingly described by some as the easy option to the full 100 miler. The race organisers are quick to point out: “That’s the first and worst error you could possibly make.”
OK, spoiler alert – not only did he make it, but he actually enjoyed it! Despite – or maybe because of – the super tough course, and terrain that was much harder for much longer than expected. I was keen to hear more about what it’s like to run and run and keep on running, and Paul very kindly agreed to talk to me about his experience. I hope you enjoy his story as much as I did.
So the first question had to be: how did you find yourself running 50 miles?
The pivotal moment came courtesy of an article in Trail Running Magazine last spring by ultra running legend Lizzy Hawker. “I’d been doing 10Ks, 5Ks a few away races. But I’d lost my mojo. I was getting bored, not getting quicker. There were still one or two races I loved to do, but I’d lost the spark and desire to race. I was missing something and I didn’t know what. PB and 10K were no longer exciting words.”
Lizzy talked about how running for her meant so much more than PBs and podium places. It was about ‘the fears and the tears…the shared experiences and raw emotions.’ And something struck a chord for Paul. “I began to get excited…and I suddenly realised what I loved about certain races but failed to find in others. It was the journey, the personal challenge to step outside what I found comfortable, the sharing of experiences with great people and the opportunity to visit some beautiful parts of the world.”
He ran his first ultra, the 32-mile Roseland August Trail (RAT) along the Southern Cornish Coastal Trail, and it gave him all he hoped for and more. He was hooked.
Paul wrote to Trail Running Magazine about what Lizzy’s article had meant to him, won star letter and a place in the Lakeland Trails 55K, where he heard about the Lakeland 50. “It sounded great. Off road, outdoors, with fantastic scenery. I wanted something new.”
And what sort of training programme did you follow?
“I changed my style of training this year. I used to train, get injured, train. I’d come across Full Potential while preparing to run the London Marathon on behalf of the BHF. Their training plan is based on effort and time on your feet, rather than mileage. So when I was training for the Lakeland 50, I got in touch and asked if they could do me a plan for an ultra.
Training was a mix of easy runs, steady pace, intervals, with back-to-back runs at the weekend, all based on effort. And I didn’t have a single niggle.
People said ‘oh, you’ve only done 13 miles since London.’ I worried that I hadn’t done enough. But I proved them all wrong.
It did play on my mind on the day. Were back-to-back 2 hour and 3 hour runs over Dartmoor at the weekend enough? Did I have the stamina, when others were talking 20+ miles? It was only when my Garmin packed up that I realised I felt good.”
Talk us through your experiences of the day – what were the highlights and low points?
“Before the day, I was looking forward to it, feeling focused and upbeat. Then I started worrying frantically about the kit check. I went really early in case there were any problems – there weren’t – but I kept worrying until I got to the start line. On the bus, there was no going back, and I started to relax. I didn’t enjoy the build up.
I’d packed too much food out of panic. I was fretting: am I eating enough? Am I taking enough salt? Would I bonk? It never happened, I felt fine. I got to the Mardale Head checkpoint at 19 miles feeling a bit rough, had some soup and suddenly was OK again. After that, I just enjoyed it.
I spent too long at the checkpoints. They were all themed! There was a 70s disco. Chia Charge turned Howtown into cowboy HowdyTown. Mardale Head was Sparta. And Kentmere was Hogwarts.
I was always just thinking about getting to the next checkpoint. The worst part of the route was the bit I knew, around Ambleside – mentally, I find that the runs I don’t know are easier. I broke it down into small chunks – run to that rock, run that downhill.
And Chi Running helped. Even when my brain was fried, I’d find myself checking what I was doing. For example, if my hip flexors started hurting, I’d check in with my posture. And keeping my cadence up made a difference. Every time I felt a niggle, I’d go back to the Chi focuses. They helped keep my quads loose – I had no cramps at all.
The highlight was when the Garmin stopped. I didn’t fully enjoy it until I could switch off from focusing on pace. And the views! Fusedale was the first big climb. Everyone was moaning and I was just blown away by the view.
Psychologically, getting to Kentmere was a big boost. I’d done the two big climbs that everyone says are really hard, and I hadn’t found them that difficult. I wasn’t quite half way, but I felt as though I was on the homeward run.
I met Karen and then Steve after Kentmere, and we decided to stick together. By the time we got to Ambleside, it was getting dark and Steve was starting to suffer. He encouraged Karen and me to go on ahead but we were happy to stay with him.
I’d never run in the dark, and there’s a good stretch where you’re on your own and you have to navigate yourself. Looking across the valley and seeing the long line of head torches winding into the distance was something else!
When we three crossed the line, it felt fantastic to have worked together and helped each other. It really spoke to what Lizzy Hawker had talked about. We finished as a team and that felt really special.
We finished way after the winner – they did it in 7:38, and we came in around 17.5 hours. But there were still people clapping and cheering us in. In the finish hall, someone announces your name and everyone cheers and claps. It felt incredibly emotional.
The camaraderie, the scenery, the whole journey. Once you get over ‘it’s 50 miles’, it just becomes a lovely day out in the Lakes.
There were no real low points. I saw stars, a few meteors. We even saw the ISS. The only low was the morning before the race. Worrying whether I’d picked the right shoes. I loved every minute of it.”
And any advice for new ultra runners?
“If you think about the effort in moving up from a 10K to a half marathon, or from a half marathon to a full marathon, jumping from a marathon on the road to an off road ultra is so different. You need time on your feet. Get off road, toughen up your ankles, and build endurance.
There’s a mental side. Can you run without an iPhone? Running for a long time with no distraction takes mental strength to fight off the demons tempting you to stop, because they will come!
Break the route down into little chunks. Know the course. Train in the environment that you’ll be racing in. I’ve never known a course so rubbly and boggy – it was ankle twist city.
And go for something that interests you – it will help keep you motivated during training.”
And the Lakeland 100 next year?
“Not yet! I’m taking it slowly. I fancy a 100K next!”