“Few Runners are Born, Most are Made on the Trail”
The SBU35 is aimed at newcomers to ultra running with around 40% of entrants having never completed a race longer than a marathon before and many never having run a marathon before. Whilst you are expected to navigate around the course yourself, the organisers pride themselves in the extensive guidebook that they produce. It’s incredibly detailed and features OS Maps reducing the need to carry your own.
Keen to try out my first ultra, the SBU 35 seemed to be the ideal choice and with family living in the Lake District, should I DNF I could always be picked up from somewhere along the course.
Even though the St Bega’s Ultra has 35 in the title, it is in fact approximately 36 miles in total (my Garmin measured 36.5 miles). Starting at Dodd Wood near the eastern shore of Bassenthwaite Lake, the route heads south near Keswick and hugs the shore of Derwentwater before leaving and winding through Borrowdale.
After a stop at checkpoint 1 in Rosthwaite you head out along the River Derwent and Johnny Wood to Seatoller before the steep ascent to Honister Slate Mine and then onto the even steeper climb to the quarry. You cross an old dismantled tramway and along a rugged path beneath Grey Knotts. To the north is a panoramic shot of two dales with Buttermere and Crummock Water in the one and Ennerdale Water in the other.
Following a steep descent you follow a long, undulating forest track to checkpoint 2 and onto Ennerdale Water where you follow the northern edge of the lake before heading off to Ennerdale Bridge.
Leaving the village you climb up towards Flat Fell then descending to follow Nannycatch Beck. This can be an opportunity to gain a little distance before the second big climb of the race – Dent aka Bummer’s Hill. A steep descent from the summit leads through a wood and onto checkpoint 3. The placing of this checkpoint means that there are only around 4 or 5 miles left to the finish and it’s predominantly flat or downhill until the dash across the playing field at St Bees School.
The British weather is difficult to predict at the best of times and the Lake District is even worse, particularly when you are running near Seaththwaite – one of the wettest places in England.
Early in the week the weather for race day was not looking good with rain predicted throughout the day and an increasing chance of thunderstorms in the evening. As the week progressed the outlook improved with less rain and more cloud forecast. Drier weather is definitely more welcomed but I was hoping for much better weather so that I could take some good photos.
On race day the forecast hinted at sunny spells but would still be cloudy. Luckily the forecast wasn’t correct and we were blessed with wall-to-wall sunshine – perfect weather for taking some amazing shots. The heat did make the latter stages of the race a bit more difficult.
Checkpoint to Checkpoint
Dodd Wood to Rosthwaite
Starting in Dodd Wood on the eastern side of Bassenthwaite Lake, the race begins with a long but steady ~300ft climb up a forestry track. With many runners bunched together on the track I walked and jogged this section but many people were purposely choosing to walk this section. The climb culminates with a rewarding view across to Cat Bells and Derwentwater before descending quickly through the edge of Dodd Wood. Luckily the slope was dry so wasn’t too slippery although a couple of runners near me lost their footing.
At the base of the wood you head out for approximately 2 miles across fields to Portinscale. Running through the valley you are rewarded with a 360° view of stunning scenery with peaks in every direction.
Beyond Portinscale the route follows the edge of Derwentwater then heads south towards the village of Grange and then Rosthwaite where the first checkpoint awaits. This first section is largely flat so is a great introduction to the race and you can’t help but run at a quick pace. Apart from one or two large boggy areas where you just have to accept you’re going to get mucky, the section was pretty straightforward.
Rosthwaite to Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre
Featuring the largest climb of the course, the second leg takes a fairly steep ascent along the side of Honister Pass before briefly leveling out at the slate mine providing a moment to catch your breath. An internal stone track still in use by heavy machinery leads north from the mine to a quarry and can only be described as killer!
As I had done a recce run a month before the race I knew I had it in me to run up the ‘easier’ part of Honister Pass and as many other runners were walking I wasn’t sure if I was doing more harm than good by not walking. When it came to the internal track, just a power hike was strenuous enough.
Interestingly, looking back at photographs from this segment, there were at least three runners that kept a similar pace to until the end of the race. It showed just how early into a race runners can settle into a position.
Before reaching the quarry the route spurs off across an old tramway and climbs up alongside Grey Knotts. I had studied the route in some detail in the weeks leading up to the race but I wasn’t expecting another climb at this point and I certainly wasn’t expecting the descent to be as brutal as it was. I had heard that the descent was tough but I had presumed it was a steep decline rather than one that included what seemed like 1,001 rocky steps! Clearly I need to brush up on my map reading skills!
What I love about the Lake District is the wide variety of terrain and scenery, even in a relatively small area. One dale may be lush and green the next one over barren. Heading down into Ennerdale felt like being in a completely different place. A huge valley with the River Liza winding through lush flowers and grass and thick woodland.
I had already been warned that this section would test your mental skills. A long, long track that barely changes from mile-to-mile but did offer some welcome shade from the midday sun. The route appeared to be popular with hikers and cyclists and with it being the Coast to Coast path you may see an adventurous hiker in the early/late stages of the cross-country trek.
I’m sure that many people, myself included, were extremely relieved to see the sign to checkpoint 2 and the marshals did a superb job of lifting spirits with the Spanish-themed fancy dress. The only thing I had left in a drop bag at this stop was a phone charger for my almost empty phone. Stupidly I’d not included the correct cable but thankfully the guy I was running with saved the day. Was more than happy to share my power with him for the rest of the course.
Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre to Cleator
Both arriving and leaving checkpoint 2 I felt at my worst. 20 miles in I had hit the wall and hit it hard! My quads and calves were really aching and my shoulders were equally sore from carrying the weight and from looking at the floor too much rather than straight ahead. A brief massage and ice pack at checkpoint 2 offered a brief respite from the shoulder pain.
For the next few miles along the shore of Ennerdale Water my walking increased and stopping at stiles allowed me to stop but this was probably the last thing that I should have been doing. The temperature was reaching it’s peak during this part of the course and the urge to dive into the lake was rising! Volunteers were on hand with bowls of sweets and oranges.
After leaving Ennerdale Water and running along one of the few road sections, a pop up water station was positioned in the village of Ennerdale Bridge. I’m not sure if this was an ad-hoc station based on the weather or is usually located there but with my water running low I was relieved that I had the opportunity to refill my water bottles.
Leaving Ennerdale Bridge you climb up towards Flat Fell then descend to follow Nannycatch Beck. Running along the beck was technical with jumps over the stream and running through bogs which added some interest to the section. It was along this section that I encountered my first group of American tourists that were so supportive.
Next up – Bummer’s Hill! The hill does break you in gently with a moderate climb at first but turn a corner and it gets a lot more vertical, and then some! At this stage in the race (~30 miles) it’s difficult climbing a steep hill knowing that you are going to have to start running again when you reach the summit. And it’s even harder descending the steep hill on the other side when your quads and calves are already hating you after Honister Pass.
Being so thirsty and aching on the way down I was focusing on drinking as much as I could and taking an ice pack with me for the final stretch.
Cleator to St Bees
The positioning of this checkpoint certainly helped psychologically. After the climb over Bummer’s Hill, it was a relief knowing that there were only a few miles left to St Bees and it would be predominantly flat. In reality, however, my legs were so tired by now that ever the slightest incline felt like a mountain.
For the last mile or two (it was hard to gauge distances by this time) my mind was continuously hoping that the finish line was just around the corner yet so many times it wasn’t. I was ready to finish and each step was a struggle until I got to the gate leading to the final run along the sports field to the finish line! Just seeing the finish line in front of you was so rewarding.
This was my first ultra marathon and the furthest I’d ever run. It was hard, very hard, easily harder than any run that I had competed in to date yet despite the pain there was never a time that I felt like quitting. Strangely, there was a point where my focus changed and I knew that after leaving checkpoint 3 it was easier to continue to the end and that gave me a boost.
Looking back at my Strava and Runkeeper records, my first Parkrun was in March before progressing to a 10K race in June and then the Bath Very Long Half Marathon (16 Miles) in July. I’ve always wanted to see how far I can push myself and find where my limit lies and during this race I think I was finding that limit. I’m pleased with how well I performed and setting out with a target of 8 hours I only missed it by 6 minutes.
During the race I was wondering whether I had attacked the distance too soon but I still completed it. I will take plenty away from the race and know of areas that I need to improve training (really need to run at a slower pace!) and will assess my nutrition. I made a point of eating something every 15 mins and taking salt tablets and fluid every 30 minutes and kept the up but at the checkpoints I would focus more on the fluids (probably due to the heat) and not on the food. This was mainly due to either not feeling like eating or not wanting to eat too much. I’m not sure whether this approach hindered at all.
Number of Starters/Finishers: 144/142
Elevation Gain: 4,202ft
Finish Time: 08:06:02
Strava: Race Analysis