Limits set to be pushed in Lake District 24-Hour Record attempt
There’s just four days left until I attempt to beat The Lake District 24-Hour Record and it’s fair to say I’m more than a little nervous. Normally, if I’ve done the training and the mental preparation I feel fairly calm before a race or ultra event. This time it feels different because I know, having had a crack at the record last year, that I will be right on, perhaps even beyond, the limit of my physical abilities.
Steeped in history and its record books littered with legendary names, The Lake District 24-Hour Record is the ultimate running test over England’s highest peaks. The challenge is relatively simple -bag as many summits as possible within the 24-hour limit. In reality, it’s brutally difficult. In 1975, Joss Naylor managed 72 tops (100 miles / 37,000 feet of elevation gain). The bar was raised several times after that. Mark McDermott took the record from 72 to 76 peaks with an incredible run in 1998 before current record holder, ultra runner Mark Hartell, topped 77 peaks (109 miles / 39,000 feet) in 1997. To put this amount of elevation gain in perspective, that is like climbing Mount Everest almost one-and-a-half times. The route roughly follows the traditional Bob Graham Round (a 66-mile circuit over 42 summits including 27,000ft of elevation gain), with, of course, the addition of all the extra summits and miles.
78 mountain summits in under 24 hours – an average of approximately 3 peaks per hour
I’ve meticulously planned a schedule that will see me attempt 78 peaks, starting at Braithwaite at 5am on Saturday morning and finishing at exactly the same place a shade under 24 hours later. Last year I got close, very close. Ultimately, however, I was not close enough. Just like Mark, I managed 77 peaks but I was outside his completion time in doing so (Mark’s completion time was 23hrs 47mins). This time I want to bag 78 peaks in under 24 hours.
Preparations since my last blog in May have gone well. Winning the Old County Tops ultra race (36 miles / 10,000ft) alongside Martin Mikkelsen-Barron has given me a real confidence boost, particularly as we raced over some of the open fell that forms part of the 78 peaks route. Our winning time of 6:48:22 was the fastest, I think, since Dave Nuttall and Colin Valentine set the current course record 26 years ago. I felt great on the day and was delighted that, with 25-plus miles in the tank, my legs were still fresh enough to run the gruelling, steep climb from Cockley Beck towards the summit of The Old Man of Coniston.
Birkinshaw, Spinks, Collison, Abdelnoor, Hartell – the support crew is stacked with experience
Despite this, I still feel nervous. Every day I wake up and the first thing I do is check on the weather forecast for Saturday. Everything is so finely balanced. I know that the weather will have a massive part to play in the record attempt but, unlike all other preparations, it is something I have no control over whatsoever. If the mist shrouds the mountains at any point, I make a mistake and fall 10-12 minutes behind schedule, I know the attempt could be over. The schedule is so tight that there really is no margin for error. The same goes for rolling my ankle, taking a fall or failing to stomach food. These, however, are not things I can afford to worry about on the day. I know I will have to run hard, fast and without fear.
Luckily I will have a great support team, both on the hill and at the road crossings. Experienced ultra and mountain runners like Steve Birkinshaw, who twice had a go at The Lake District 24-Hour Record, Nicky Spinks, who recently beat her own women’s record for the Bob Graham Round and holds the women’s best for The Lake District 24-Hour Record (64 summits), Kim Collison and Ben Abdelnoor will be amongst those pacing me over various sections of the route, helping with any necessary navigation, as well as forcing food and fluid down my neck!
The 60-second family and friends pit-stop
I’m also really pleased that Mark Hartell, the current record holder, will be there on the day too. He’s flown in from California and plans to take part in Saturday’s Darren Holloway Memorial Race (Buttermere Horseshoe) before meeting me later in the day. It’s ultra and mountain runners like Steve, Nicky, Kim, Ben and Mark to whom I look up too, not only for what they have achieved but the way in which they have done it. In that respect, I couldn’t be any better prepared.
At the designated six road / track crossings (Threlkeld, Dunmail, Langdale, Wasdale, Honister and Newlands) I will have further support, with friends and family on hand to deliver a pre-planned, well-oiled pit-stop routine. Given I will stop for just 60 seconds maximum at each of the six crossings, it is important that everything, from food and fluid to a potential change of kit, is ready for my arrival. I am so lucky to have people willing to come out and support me like this, especially given the fact they will only see me for about six minutes throughout the course of the 24 hours!
Wasdale – high mountains, rocky terrain and the all-important additional peak
From Braithwaite, I will head for my first summit of Lonscale Fell, before Skiddaw Little Man and Skiddaw. A further eight tops will be bagged before I drop down the ‘parachute route’ to Threlkeld. The times Mark put down on this first section when setting the record 18 years ago are super-fast. The long climbs up Skiddaw and Blencathra will be tough but I know I need to attack them to ensure I stay on schedule. And when all that’s done, there’s the small matter of needing to plummet more than 2,000ft down Blencathra’s notoriously steep and rocky ‘parachute route’.
Later in the day, the section out of Wasdale will be critical. By then I will have been running for more than 14 hours. I need to make it to Wasdale on schedule because what lies ahead is arguably the most difficult section, packed with high summits and rocky terrain. The first top on this section is Yewbarrow. From there, the route to Great Gable is essentially a high level traverse across really challenging mountainous terrain, including a visit to Haycock, the additional summit I need on top of Mark’s 77). It is one of the most inspiring parts of the Lake District. Hopefully it will inspire me on the day!
It will also be on this section that darkness will fall, probably as we run over Pillar / Kirkfell / Great Gable, and when fatigue will become a real battle. At this point my support team will play an important role. In my tired eyes the boulders will seem bigger and the hills steeper, so I will lean on my support team for morale as well as navigational help in the dark.
Maintaining mental strength and staying alert on the most dangerous of traverses
Having reccied each section several times, I know the route very well and I can picture it all in my head. However, I’m well aware that a misty, wet day can change all that. But again, I can’t control the weather so I just have to deal with the hand I’m dealt. Physically, I feel fit and ready. I have trained hard so that the ‘risks’ are minimal. I know fatigue will strike but I must try and remain fully concentrated. Sections like the descent off Scafell where I’ll negotiate the deep, exposed and often damp West Wall Traverse will require absolute focus. No matter how tired I get I must remain mentally strong and alert.
Last year I was lucky to come off relatively unscathed from a fall as I descended into Honister. In a moment of tired stubbornness I ignored my pacer and ended up flying through the dark night sky before hitting the ground hard. It cost me a few minutes on the schedule. Hopefully now I’m a year older and a year wiser in that respect. I will again be committing myself fully to every descent, but this year I’ll try and listen to the advice of my pacers too!
Ultra runner vs 24-hour clock with 78 mountains standing in the way
The schedule offers no time to ease off and that is what makes it such a unique challenge. In its simplest form it is essentially me vs a 24-hour clock with 78 mountains standing in the way. Mark’s record, as it stands, is outstanding. I feel humbled and privileged to even be able to have a go at it. Without what Mark, and the great record holders before him, achieved the notion of 78 peaks would be impossible and that is no lip service.
So that’s that, in four days’ time I will head out into the mountains for the biggest ultra run of my life. I will be carrying a tracking device so anyone who wishes too will be able to follow my progress via an online map (more details to follow later this week). Hopefully through a bit of gritty determination and a good slice of luck I can repay the support and faith shown in me.
Editor’s note: Current Lake District 24-Hour Record holder Mark Hartell has kindly contributed the following words ahead of Adam’s attempt:
In four days’ time, Adam will set off to complete what so narrowly eluded him last year. It’s the culmination of many years of training and toughening the mind and body to tackle a record that has stood for 18 years. That Adam is doing this makes me very happy. It validates the effort and sacrifice I put in over the years in my own three attempts at the record.
I know Adam from having run against him in various ultra races and he shares with me the belief that a rigorous apprenticeship is one of the keys to success. On the day, there can be no doubt, no hesitation and no reworking of the plan. Adam is also wise in that he has waited until my mind has accepted that once the record is gone it’s gone! There is no way I could even dream of regaining the fitness and resilience that allowed me to run so many long days, back-to-back races and intense seasons.
On the same day, I will return to one of the first long races I ever did -the Buttermere Horseshoe. This will be a stiff challenge for me these days but I’m very keen to take part as it is one of the races that was formative in my conversion from one-time smoker/climber/orienteer to obsessive mountain runner. That evening I hope to see Adam go through Honister. This is the spot where previous record holder, Mark McDermott, saw me on my successful round. On that day, as the cloud and drizzle descended again, Honister was the place where I thought it was slipping from my grasp. “I’m losing it,” I said desperately to Martin Stone and the dozen or so people gathered there. From there on it was tense and my supporters did everything they possibly could to ensure not a minute was lost.
For Adam and his pacers I hope it will be easier -an execution of the schedule with no fuss. If and when he gets the record I will be sad, of course. It is one of the last of my records to stand and certainly the hardest. I will also be very happy that it has gone to someone whose approach and values I admire. He will be a worthy holder of the title, if and when he succeeds.
* On his 2014 attempt at the ultra record Adam wore inov-8 X-TALON 212 shoes (which is now available in two fits -precision and standard, the latter being wider in the toe box). He will wear the same model of shoe again this year.
* Key criteria (taken from official Lake District 24-Hour Record webpage): In order to break the existing 24-Hour Record, a contender must either traverse the same peaks as the current record holder in a faster time, or traverse the same peaks plus at least one additional peak. For these purposes, a peak must be over 2,000ft (609m) high, be at least 0.25 of a mile away from the nearest other peak on the round and involve at least 250ft (76m) of descent/re-ascent from the nearest other peak. The round must be completed within 24 hours. It must also start and finish in the same place, which does not have to be the Moot Hall in Keswick.