Cumbria Way Run Trip Report, by Mark Austen 11-12th July 2011 Mark is just beginning his A Levels – here’s his report of an epic 24 hours in the holidays.

The Cumbria Way is a long-distance walking route that runs the length of Cumbria, starting in Ulverston near the south coast of the county and crossing the Lake District, eventually finishing in Carlisle. Its 75 miles cover hugely varied terrain, with the green fields of the first few miles being traded for rocky mountain paths and then concrete cycle routes that cover the last few miles.

I set off at 3.20pm exactly, running at a relaxed pace until I was out of sight of my waving mother, brother and sister, so I could stop and sneakily adjust my frustratingly jiggling pack without looking like I’d given up before I’d even properly started.

The next stop was Beacon Tarn, which, at nine miles in – nearly double figures – felt like the start of the route proper. Coming round the top of it, I could see the Old Man of Coniston in the distance, heralding the end of the first stage in Coniston, 7 miles distant. I refilled my water at Sunny Beck, then ran down Coniston Water to reach the town 20 minutes ahead of schedule, at 7.40pm. The next section was 14 miles long (approximately) and would take me up to the top of Stake Pass, a 1500ft climb at the end of the Langdale Valley, around midnight. Bring on the night, I thought.

I gently ran into Skelwith Bridge, then into Elterwater beneath the silhouette of the Langdale Pikes framed by a pink sunset. Elterwater marked a third of the route, and I was 50 minutes up on schedule. I felt strong, happy, and seemed to have passed through “The Wall” (the point when your body runs out of glycogen reserves so dreaded by marathoners) without even noticing it. This may have been in part to the food I was carrying – two kilograms of jelly babies, neatly packaged into bags of eleven, which provided the magic number of 60g of carbohydrates per hour.

Soon the night came, and with it, the start of the real struggles of the run. As I ran and walked along the Langdale Valley, I slowed down more and more as it got darker and darker. At 11.00pm, I jogged out of the dark into the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel, surprising two men sitting with the beers beside the bar. Before they could react to the sight of a 16-year-old running into nine miles of completely isolated mountain terrain, with no sign of civilization, I was gone, vanishing into the night. I was struck in that section by a powerful sense of isolation. If I wanted to get out, if I wanted to end it now, I was stuck. It was the night, and I was committed. This was the path I had set for myself, and I now had to follow it. At one point I sat on a stile and played back the videos I had on my camera simply to remind myself that I wasn’t the only person on earth, trapped in a tiny bubble of light, by hearing other human voices. Climbing Stake Pass was a slog. I walked the whole thing, with my only target the silhouette of the mountains above me. It seemed to grow achingly slowly, and I eventually reached the top at midnight – I’d lost all the fifty minutes I’d gained in just six miles. It was a disappointment but not a surprise, and I was still on schedule.

By this point I was struggling to motivate myself to run, so most of the time in this section was spent walking. The rocky path into Rosthwaite didn’t encourage it either, as with only a headtorch to see by, it’d be all too easy to put a foot wrong. After Rosthwaite, I crossed the Derwent River on the stepping stones and followed it north, towards Derwentwater I reached the shore of Derwentwater as the first blue hues of the dawn appeared, lifting my spirits: I’d beaten the night. As the sun rose over the mountains in the east, I wearily jogged into Keswick, a little before 5.00am. I made my way through the houses and shops, bathed in the cold, blue, morning light, not stopping until I reached the path that marked the start of what I viewed as the home stretch. I’d done 45 miles.

Soon came the second long climb of the route: the ascent to Lingy Hut. The valley turns a corner and suddenly there’s another 1500ft climb. I refilled my water on the way up, struggling in the mud and boggy terrain. Upon finally reaching the bothy (Lingy Hut), I made a point of not going inside, knowing that with only 20 miles to go, I needed to finish, not rest.

I left my camera in a field coming soon after Caldbeck, and frustratingly had to backtrack a few hundred metres to collect it again. Little delays like that mattered a lot to me on the run – especially now, when I was painfully aware that I was behind schedule and had a race against time to finish in 24 hours.

As I neared Sebergham, a few miles beyond Caldbeck, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of tiredness. For the second time on the run, I stopped, set an alarm on my phone, and lay down and slept beside the path for ten minutes. Because I was so fatigued, I hit deep sleep very quickly and so just a ten minute snooze was enough to get me going again. Through Sebergham, I headed on the path to St Mary’s church, passing by a house where a very nice lady chatted to me briefly, offering me tea and biscuits, which I had to decline, anxious to finish. Soon, I hit the River Caldew again, and counted the fields as I cruised closer to home, wrestling with exhaustion. I reached Rose Castle – just seven miles to go! But despite the vast distances I’d racked up so far, the distance seemed to be getting longer and longer.

I ran most of it, coming into Cummertrees just after an amusing incident with a cyclist, whose reaction when I answered his question, “How many days are you doing the Cumbria Way in?”, was priceless. Two miles to go. So nearly there. Waves of exhaustion were washing over me, but I knew I was still a long way off breaking point. Gradually the sights became more familiar: the suburbs of Carlisle melted into more built up areas and buildings. My shoes were uncomfortable, with grit inside them, but I kept running. The town centre was in sight now – I crossed the railway bridge, jogged past the station, round past the shops into the pedestrian section. My brother and sister were waiting, and I sped up to a sprint. And then, 23 hours and 22 minutes after I started, I slapped Market Cross with both hands: I’d done it.

I caught a bus back home, polished off a big plate of pasta (though my appetite didn’t match my body’s need for food – it had shrunk because of the prolonged exercise). I had a snooze before supper, but was so exhausted that I went straight to bed and fell into a deep sleep for fourteen hours. Physically, I recovered in a few days, but mentally, the run took a larger hit, and I didn’t fully recover for a week. By that I mean I felt in a state of mental tiredness, and found my thinking was a little sluggish.

For those who sponsored me – thank you very much! I raised £1215, well beyond my target of £1000. That alone justifies the run for me, and I’m glad I was able to contribute in some way to Toybox’s excellent work, helping street children in Latin America.

Mark Austen (WFM)