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Trust me, on the sunscreen (Or, 17 things I learned on the Cumbria Way)

Last week I set out on an adventure to run the Cumbria Way – a 70 mile route with over 2000m of elevation which I completed in 22 hours and 30 minutes, solo and self-supported. I’ve been asked what that means – it means I was alone the entire time. I had no pacers, no support vehicles and no supporters; nobody met me along the way, and I carried my own gear. I was allowed to visit shops and cafes, so a bacon roll, a cup of coffee, and a pint of lemonade were the only items, besides water, that I did not carry from the start. I did it because I wanted to learn: about myself, and about how to take care of myself over long distances and durations. I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to complete the challenge – that was part of what made it exciting. Here are 17 things I learned along the Way.

1. I am resilient and strong. I ran further and for longer alone than I ever have before, including in supported events. I ran through the night without fatigue. I managed my effort, kit, fuelling and hydration sensibly and proactively. I had plenty of positive self-talk, and no low moments – I stayed focused on the next small section ahead of me, and didn’t allow myself to become negative or anxious about anything.

2. Don’t call it too early. Having said all the above, I learned not to congratulate myself before the challenge is complete. At 50 miles I was cruising, and felt great physically and mentally. I started congratulating myself on a great run, and then with 15 miles to go, it got hard. The final 10 miles were a gruelling countdown.

3. I respond well to gentle pressure. Sharing my tracker link widely was a gamble; I hoped that knowing people were watching would keep me moving forward proactively. It worked well; that knowledge kept me going but didn’t cause me anxiety or stress.

4. I’m good with food! I am yet to find a food that I can’t stomach on a long distance event, and this remained true; I ate a lot of different stuff! I was disciplined about eating regularly, including through the night, and I think this was a big factor in feeling so good until late in the run.

5. It gets cold overnight. My pack included warm layers because I anticipated needing these on the two hour train journey home. I also packed waterproof layers, despite the scorching weather forecast – mountain training drumming into me never to set out on the hill without your waterproofs, no matter the forecast. I didn’t anticipate needing these layers, but they were lifesaving overnight when the temperature dropped dramatically and my sweaty kit made me cold. Combined with slower movement in the dark, I’d have been in trouble without my coat.

6. I run more slowly in the dark. Overall my pace predictions were good – I hoped to finish in 21-22 hours, and ended up with 22 hours 30 minutes. At least 15 minutes of that were down to a tricky diversion at the end of the route: very overgrown and with difficult navigation. The remaining 15+ minutes can be chalked up to me not remembering that I’d move more slowly overnight.

7. The night is amazing! I have run plenty of times in darkness, but never so completely on my own. I loved having the landscape all to myself, seeing the stars, and watching the movement of the moon through the night. The wildlife was awesome – more rabbits and deer than I’ve ever seen, and even a badger.

8. Preparation is everything, but so is flexibility. I planned meticulously – fuelling, water stops, safety precautions and bail out plans. Mostly I stuck to my plans, but I adapted when necessary – for example taking advantage of tap water where I hadn’t expected to find it, or missing out planned re-supply points because I didn’t need them. My adaptability was tested to the limit on ‘that’ diversion in the final 10k. I had used the route before but I had forgotten its low-key ‘Barkley Marathons’ nature, and my positivity was stretched as I repeatedly got stuck in dense undergrowth, stung and scratched, and retraced my steps from paths that led nowhere. The only time I cried on the whole run was on finally exiting this maze onto ‘normal’ field paths.

9. My feet can get really big! I managed the whole run on a single pair of shoes and socks, but my feet were so swollen at the end that it was hard to remove the socks. If I had been continuing, or running for a second day, I’d have needed the next size up in both.

10. But they are also well-conditioned. I typically spend between 15 and 20 hours a week on my feet, a mixture of running and hiking, which means my feet are resilient. I finished with a couple of small blisters, easily remedied with a sterile pin and a bit of tape.

11. I need a ‘why’. My last big event, the Lakes Traverse (100k across the Lake District) nearly came to an abrupt end after 30k because I realised I didn’t know why I was doing it. This time I made sure I was clear on that, and as a result didn’t have a moment of doubt about whether I wanted to continue.

12. Niggles can be in the mind. Four weeks ago I strained a muscle in my back, and had to take a week off training before returning slowly. I worried about this trip, but in the end felt ok to set off. I had a little pain for the first five hours, and then it diminished to nothing. I’ve experienced this before with long-standing niggles that suddenly become much worse in event week, and have learned that the brain has as much to do with pain perception as the body. It’s telling that post-run, I have no pain at all.

13. Cows can be tricky. The Cumbria Way passes through agricultural land in the first and final 20k; there are a lot of cows. I have taught myself to be confident around cows – moving slowly but purposefully, without showing interest in them, is usually enough to stop them from coming to investigate. This didn’t work last week – I had to divert my route, crawl under and over barbed wire, and in one field was chased by an aggressive pair. With memories of reports of walkers being fatally trampled, it was a real test of nerve to keep walking steadily away and not break into a run. Thankfully this worked, and the aggressors calmed down and stopped following once I’d moved past the herd.

14. Music is a blessing and a curse. For the first 90k (roughly 18 hours!) I had just three ‘earworms’ playing in my head on repeat – I wouldn’t have thought this was possible without going mad. For the final 25k I promised myself the treat of listening to the radio, which was a great boost and distraction, especially getting a shout out from my favourite show.

15. I love lists. I have always made mental aid station lists, and find these indispensable for being efficient and not faffing at rest stops. I took advantage of those terrible earworms and set the lists to music. I can still remember them now (stop 1: wee, medication, charger, headtorch, food, coat; stop 3: text, lemonade, wee, water, tailwind, watch, radio) so it must work!

16. Active recovery works. On day one I could barely move, and stairs were reminiscent of my first marathon. On day two I went out to help marshal a local race, spent 7 hours on my feet and came home surprised to find I was moving completely freely.

17. Don’t apply suncream with one hand while eating a bacon roll with the other. The backs of my legs and neck ended up lobster in shade. As Baz Luhrmann would say: trust me, on the sunscreen.

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