I once heard a yachtsman say that ocean racing was like standing under a cold shower for hours on end tearing up ten pound notes, but he somehow couldn't give it up.
I've been involved in the Lakeland 100/50 events for 8 consecutive years now, either running or marshalling (I stayed away for the first two years, looking back I can't think why) and it's always been a weekend to remember. 2017 was a non-running year, so I spent 12 hours or so checking runners in, a short while at the 50 start watching sheep go wild near Dalemain, then a further 12 hours on the finish line.
The finish is always a great place to be, welcoming in runners who have made it home from whichever adventure they set out on. The brief for the marshalling group here is to make sure that runners make their final "dib" to give them their finishing time (including a fair bit of "co-ordinated dibbing" for the numerous finishers who want to record the same time as the person they finished with), then escort each runner to the inside finish area, announce their finish as they face the bright lights and applause, then hand them over to receive their medals (and any TLC they might be in need of at that point!).
This year the finish was a bit different for me for two reasons.
Firstly, because this year the finish was in the big tent rather than the school hall, the distance between the finish line and the "reception" was about four times as far as usual. Although that gave us a slightly harder job in making sure that the finishing athlete got into the warmth and safety as soon as possible while understanding the natural tendencies to celebrate with loved ones, take photos and so on, it also gave a longer oppportunity to ask how the finisher had found the experience of their event, which was fascinating.
Secondly, this was the first year that I've been involved in marshalling that we had some bad weather. Although there were longish dry periods, it rained on and off throughout the two days of the events, but what may have been particularly significant was that just after the starts of both the 100 and the 50, paricipants were treated to a noticeable shower. On top of this, as the Lakes had had significant rainfall over the preceding few weeks, the ground was much wetter underfoot than in most other years.
The first finishers I saw at the start of my first "shift" at the finish line were those completing the 100 in between 24 and 30 hours. The earlier ones were mostly in really good shape. When I asked about the rain on Friday night, a common response was "well it was just a shower and it was a pretty warm night, didn't affect things too much". Contrast this with comments from more than one 100 finisher who I saw during my second shift on Sunday morning, who said they had been suffering "since the first torrential downpour just after leaving Coniston".
Of the later finishers in both races that I saw on Sunday morning, of course all were pleased that they finished but it was clear that some had had a much more pleasant experience than others. The two main problems of those suffering were (1) of being continuously wet and cold, and (2) of having problems with feet, blisters and shredded skin. Others however, despite being out on the course for almost 24 hours (for the 50) and 40 hours (for the 100) came back with "no blisters, no problems, will be back next year".
So why did different runners have such different experiences over the events?
I think it comes down to two factors, which are separate but related. The first is experience. Runners who complete half a dozen or so ultras a year (and I know some who do many more than that) will have had their share of poor weather conditions, and if they operate in the mountain or moorland areas will have had plenty of wet ground to deal with. Nothing sharpens your decision-making as well as a bit of suffering, you learn how to avoid it. But I suspect that in some of the "big name" races like the Lakeland or the West Highland Way, the event is the sole target for the year of runners who don't have the time to indulge in running and training for more events, and under these conditions experience comes slowly. But it's still possible to mitigate suffering quite a lot by using other peoples' experience and a bit of smart planning.
I always feel good planning is the difference between enjoying an event and just "getting through" it.
Training for the specifics of the event are important; for example for the majority of finishers in the Lakeland 50/100, the event itself will consist of some jogging over uneven ground and a lot of walking up hills and shambling down them so that is what you need to train for, but that's not really what I'm on about here, I'm sort of assuming that's a given that everyone understands. The real issue this year was planning for the conditions.
Everyone knew that it was going to rain to some extent (the forecast said so) and everyone knew the ground was going to be wet (it had been raining on and off for weeks). Let's take these one at a time.
When it rains during a long event you get wet, and unless the sun comes out or you have a change of clothes, it's hard getting dry again. (Forget about the idea of a waterproof jacket keeping you dry in the rain, you get thoroughly wet from sweat). Now being wet isn't a problem (you could stand under a warm shower pretty well indefinitely without getting uncomfortable), but here is the key - you don't select your clothes in a long race to prevent getting wet, you select them to prevent getting COLD.
I wrote a complete post about this a year or two ago ("My Waterproof Jacket Leaks", if you're interested you can find it here), but here are the basics. You stop getting cold by making sure your clothing does all it can to minimise heat transfer, that is:-
- your jacket needs to be windproof (you blow on your tea to cool it down, remember)
- the outer surface needs to shed water droplets rather than hold onto them (this is why you "reproof" breatheable materials, to make them shinier)
- you need something to keep the cold surface (the inside of your jacket) away from the (you hope!) warm surface (your skin). This can be a mesh lining on the jacket or some sort of long-sleeved top; the thicker the top, the better it prevents heat transfer. On top of this, thinner and more flexible shells cling to your shape and induce more heat transfer than heavier, stiffer ones - that's why heavier jackets (and/or lined ones) feel more comfortably "waterproof".
The only added factor here is that faster runners generate more heat than slower ones so can tolerate more heat transfer without feeling uncomfortable. A couple of days ago I ran a bit of the course in reverse, from Coniston to Langdale, in continuous heavy rain. I was completely comfortable in a thermal vest and a thin waterproof shell because as I was only out for a couple of hours I could run all the time; had I stopped to walk I would have quickly felt very cold, so wouldn't contemplate such light clothing for a long event with rain forecast.
I spent a good few hours on kit inspection for this years event. I was a bit concerned by the number of runners presenting really thin lightweight kit which they could only fit into a tiny race vest with difficulty. Sure, it met the specifications in the rules, and was entirely appropriate for a runner intending to complete the 100 in around 24 hours or the 50 in 10 hours. These guys would go fast enough to keep warm. But for those who would spend a lot of time at or near walking pace it was going to lead to a race that wouldn't be much fun, especially as they had no room in the bag for any insulating layer that they could use (as opposed to their emergency layer, which they couldn't). As a runner normally finishing the 100 around the 37-38 hour mark, I wouldn't have set out on Friday without a stiffer than normal jacket and a light fleece that I could wear under it, with a replacement in the bag at Dalemain.
Now let's have a quick look at feet. By Lake District standards both the 100 and the 50 are dry courses. The only places you are likely to get wet feet in a normal year are on the col before Eskdale, possibly short bits up to the Coach Road and coming down from High Kop, and the hundred yards of shallow bog to the Wrynose road (which is almost at the finish anyway). With a spare pair of socks in your bag and plenty of trail to drain and dry your shoes, these are easily managed. But as runners found this year, even a few days of steady rain beforehand can turn the course into one where you can get wet feet in many other places, and under these conditions they are likely to be continuously wet.
Experienced runners would probably have met and learnt from courses with a lot more wet ground (higher ground in the Lakes or Wales, lots of runs in the Pennines and Dales, etc), looked at the recent weather and prepared accordingly. But here again it's possible to learn from others' experience. Approaches to dealing with wet ground vary hugely, there is no one answer, you have to find out what works for you. But if you wander around the Facebook groups that cover races with guaranteed wet feet potential (The Spine and its derivatives, the Dragon's Back, there are plenty if you look around - remember some of these guys have to deal with continuously wet feet for a week!) you can find lot's of ideas to try. Too many for me to cover here. But trial is the key, if you think you have found a solution, go out somewhere you know is wet and plough through it for twelve hours or so. Again I wouldn't personally set out on a course like the Lakeland 100 under the conditions we had this year without a strategy which I knew was going to see me through a couple of days with no foot problems.
So in the end, your ultra experience (whatever the conditions) comes down to this:
You can look upon it as a huge undertaking which will test you to the limit in every way, expect to suffer and overcome the suffering, derive great satisfaction from completing it and end up with a bit of a battering that may take you a few weeks to recover from.
Or you can understand the task in hand, both in general and in the conditions predicted for the day, train and plan accordingly, execute your plan, enjoy the trip, then look forward to the next adventure.
I'm not saying either of these is best; both are valid and worthwhile approaches.
It's a choice.