IT would be a bit much to describe crossing Morecambe Bay as a lifelong dream. However, calling it a childhood ambition wouldn’t be too wide of the mark.
My Grandma had a caravan at Grange-over-Sands, a sleepy resort on the Cumbrian side of the estuary, so while playing in the sand or walking along the Promenade, I’d often gaze across in wonder. I was amazed to see quicksand warning signs on the Prom so was fascinated to discover you could actually cross the Bay, led by a man who has permission from the Queen!
That’s because it’s a perilous route. Just ask Nick Tilsley. His recent quicksand drama in Coronation Street was filmed here. And, joking aside, there was the tragic tale of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004 too. Still, as an adventurous youngster, I resolved to one day venture across the sand myself, so imagine my excitement when I heard about Man Vs Lakes.
The marathon-distance event, organised by Rat Race, begins near Morecambe with a 10km crossing of the Bay. The point-to-point route then winds up through the Lake District and skirts Windermere before ending a few miles later near Grizedale Forest.
I hadn’t run a marathon before, I’d always assumed I wouldn’t be able to finish. And then I find myself signing up for one which, on top of the distance, features 3,037ft of ascent. What can I say, they had me at ‘Bay crossing’!
The event has a mandatory kit list and registration is required the day before in Kendal, roughly halfway between the start and finish points. I opted to camp at the event village, at the finish line in the Dale Park area of Graythwaite Estate, and pay for a transfer to the start in Silverdale.
There was a long queue come what was a murky Saturday morning and with the road to the event village being so narrow, a relay system was in place. A couple of mini-buses took us a few hundred metres up the road to a waiting coach, which, despite the queue, got us to the start in good time.
To reach it we had to walk through the Gibraltar Farm campsite, who kindly let us use their toilet facilities for a final pre-race stop. I spotted Clare Rees (Miller), winner of BBC’s Ultimate Hell Week in 2015, amongst the crowd. Man Vs Lakes is billed as ‘The Most Adventurous Marathon in Britain’ and if Clare felt the challenge was worthy of her attention then it must be tough!
I also noticed that many runners were travelling light. So light, in fact, that they couldn’t possibly be carrying all the mandatory items which had been checked the day before. Never mind, that’s their choice, but I wasn’t going to cut any corners. And although it was raining, at least it gave me a chance to put my waterproof jacket on now rather than unpacking it during the race. If we needed a reminder as to how exposed we were to the elements, it came from the trees atop the cliff as we waited to descend onto the sand. Their branches were almost horizontal, such has been the battering they’ve taken from the wind.
And we could creep down onto the sand once Cedric Robinson MBE, who has been the Queen’s Guide to the Sands since 1963, arrived in his tractor. We gathered on the sand, taking in the view, and after a slight delay we were off, a mass of bodies following Cedric in his tractor, bouncing towards the horizon. We waded through a few river channels, which were no more than thigh-deep, and as the pace slowed I tried to admire the view around the bay. Unfortunately, with it being murky, there wasn’t much of one.
Cedric placed big branches in the sand/mudflats to mark the safest passage and when one runner tried to take a more direct route, Cedric soon told him to get back on course!
Running across the bay was a peculiar sensation. There was a bit of give in the surface and it shifted slightly underfoot, while the splish-splosh of every step helped me get into a good rhythm. With my hood up and head down, we seemed to reach the grassy banks on the other side in no time.
We came back to shore at Kents Bank train station and having now got a sweat on, I stopped to take off my jacket. Although there was still a bit of rain, I had a merino baselayer on so was quite warm and we’d get some protection from the weather now we were heading inland. I didn’t need my jacket again for the rest of the race. We soon joined the start of the mile-long Prom at Grange and continued past the derelict lido, which has stood idle for 30 years, before turning under the railway line and into the Commodore Inn car park for the first pit stop.
At the start we’d been warned that the route across the sand may be extended due to the weather but by the time we got here my Garmin showed around 10.5km, which was expected. Some skipped the snacks, but coming right up was the Vertical Kilometre (the ‘race within a race’) and the other pit stops were at 23km and 32km, so there was no way I was following suit. I ate on the go as we went straight up out of Grange, past the Hampsfell House Hotel. If this was just the walk up there, I dreaded the actual Vertical Kilometre. But it wasn’t actually that bad. It was flat through Eggerslack Wood and then maybe 500 metres of it were uphill before a large cairn at the top of the hill marked the end of the section.
Now it was downhill and time to let rip, before easing along a narrow trail and rejoining the tarmac to climb over the A590 into the village of High Newton. We had another chance to stretch our legs along the main road before turning off into Whitestone Caravan Park. Some holiday-makers waved from the warmth of their caravan before I headed up through ferns on the hillside. Looking back over the A590, I was surprised we’d got this high this quickly. As I said to a fellow runner (although there was no running right now), ‘this is the Vertical Kilometre. Not that before.’
We reached the 20km mark just before heading back downhill. One moment it was open and bright, and we were running across lush greenery; the next we were heading through a gloomy wood surrounded by mist. We emerged on the outskirts of Staveley-in-Cartmel, where the second pit stop awaited us. By now, my calves had started to tighten but otherwise I felt in good shape. Nonetheless, I made sure I took fuel onboard while I could. Besides the usual snacks there was a selection of homemade cakes. ‘I could stay here all day’, I said to one of the volunteers as I tried one cake after another. But with my body starting to cool, I had to get moving again.
Newby Bridge, at the bottom of Windermere, was just around the corner and was seemingly convenient for supporters to stop as dozens had gathered by the Swan Hotel. Some cheered enthusiastically for Ben and for a brief moment I thought some friends or family had surprised me. No, turns out there was a Ben just behind me too, so I had to rely on myself for motivation as we climbed through another wood before emerging in the village of Finsthwaite.
The further we raced, the more difficult the uphill sections seemed to become, but the greater the rewards. I’d never been to High Dam before. And with the woods so quiet and the water so still, it seemed like no-one else ever had either.
Running around Great Green Hows, it felt like we were on the moors, and one guy had come prepared with a novelty hat like a mini umbrella. ‘I wish it affected my performance too!’ he joked. We then had to wade through Green Hows Upper Tarn, where in places the water was chest-deep, and I saw the day’s first casualty, a unfortunate fella who’d suffered a nasty gash on his shin. Thankfully the medics were approaching in a 4×4 as we carried on through another wood before emerging beside Green Hows Tarn.
No obstacle race in the Lakes would be complete without a nod to Swallows and Amazons, and it came with a rope swing off the top of a shipping container. It seemed daunting at first but I’ve long since realised that in OCR the best way to tackle your doubts and fears is just to throw yourself into it – usually literally!
The third and final pit stop came straight after, at 32km, and I was still buzzing from the adrenaline rush provided by the rope swing. We then entered the grounds of Graythwaite Hall, where there was a water slide and where I was later informed the race finished in 2016. This year we carried on past Silverholme Manor to finally meet Windermere. Here we tackled various floating obstacles, although you are free to bypass them and avoid getting wet.
The cloud had now given way to bright sunshine, perfect for running along the Windermere shore. What made me think I wasn’t up to completing a marathon was the mental aspect rather than the physical. I thought I’d become bored and wouldn’t be able to handle the monotony come the latter stages. I’d also heard about ‘the wall’, that psychological barrier many hit somewhere after the 20-mile mark. But I didn’t hit any wall, I was too busy enjoying myself! And how could you possibly get bored with this scenery?!
The obstacles came at just the right time in the race, mini-challenges giving my head something else to focus on while each dip in the water re-energised my aching legs.
And they were now beginning to ache. As we headed away from the shore and through the forest, I did more walking than I would have liked. Joining the road which I knew led to the event village gave me a much-needed boost. This must be the home straight.
But we weren’t done yet. Instead of heading straight towards the finish, we were sent back off-road for an arduous climb through the woods. While up there we could finally hear the PA before dropping into the valley and then the event village.
The organisers had put a sting in the tail but we wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a final reminder of how challenging and rewarding this race is. I hesitate to say ‘epic’ but what other word can you use to describe a race that takes you through so many different types of landscape and terrain, and through one of the most beautiful parts of the country?
Incidentally, Clare Rees (Miller) came 2nd in a time of 4hrs 31mins. I, however, was 208th from 655 starters in 6hrs 28mins yet the race didn’t drag and not for one moment did I contemplate quitting, which had been my biggest concern. Not only had I finally crossed ‘the Bay’ but I had completed my longest race yet – and my most enjoyable.
Village: The parking and campsite were well organised, and the showers were excellent. Covered bar area with plenty of seating and a live band playing after the race 4 (out of 5)
Course: Only a few obstacles which were mainly a bit of fun, a kind of reward after putting in the hard yards. Man Vs Lakes is about the route, which is stunning. Goodness knows how long it would take to plan a route that takes in so much. It is over 26 miles long so you’ve a lot to work with but it felt like there was a new experience round every turn 5
Goodies: Technical Rat Race t-shirt and Rat ‘rag’, plus free soup and roll, a beer, water and Rat Race flapjack. Also a medal and a free finish-line photo you can download online (like mine above) 5