“Relentless” is how one fellow runner described this course and it’s probably an apt description for what was, by far, the hardest run I’ve done so far. I would like to claim that me finishing the run in one lump was the biggest achievement of that day but I’ll let Andy Murray claim the credits with his win at Wimbledon. I’m that kind.
Possibly down to naivety, while I had expected a half marathon through the Lake District hills to be harder than ‘normal’ half marathons, I hadn’t quite anticipated how much harder it would be and how many leg muscles I was clearly lacking!
In preparation, I had trained by getting an official 5km PB at the Dulwich run in London (18.52) and, most relevantly, by running up and down Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh a few times. This was surprisingly hard and, in hindsight, was maybe the first hint that trail runs require a different approach other than buying some extremely multicoloured new shoes and a normal running programme. I had hoped to climb more hills but working in London during weekdays meant that opportunities were few and far between.
My new slightly psychedelic shoes…
Anyway, the race! The half marathon is self-described as one of the most scenic half marathons in the world and it certainly is (even if you can’t look at the views that much as you’re constantly keeping an eye on which bit of sharp rock you should next land on).
You set off from Coniston Hall next to Coniston Water, which is the third largest lake in the Lake District and, for the geographers amongst you, an example of a ribbon lake formed by glaciation. Uhhu. It’s also where people keep trying to beat world record water speeds.
The race actually started quite well and I – much to my amusement, ended up being the pace setter for the first kilometre or so. You almost felt important/impressive having the car driving off a few meters in front of you clearing the road for your arrival. However, once we’d exited the village, we started going uphill and, at that point, my race started going downhill!
The inclines were probably disappointingly nowhere near as steep as they felt but it’s fair to say they were regularly at more than 10% and the descents were consistently steeper than the inclines (i.e. we spent most of the time running uphill and just a little bit of time zooming downhill). Runners with GPS said there was over 500m of climb which seems fair. We steadily ran northwards away from Coniston and crossed a number of bemused-looking walkers. As our gazes met, you could clearly see they were silently asking you “why??” and I certainly couldn’t compute any humanly rational answer.
Maybe (probably) I’d started off too quickly so I certainly was not upset or surprised to see people overtaking me relatively regularly. It was slightly disheartening however to see some over 50s casually stroll past me over the rocky paths and ankle-threatening roots but I made myself feel better by assuming that, if I ran trails for another 30 years, I’d be pretty good at them too (or in a wheelchair with destroyed knees).
Check out the thighs on the eventual winner in white
The course goes to the west of Helme Fell and swivels around when you reach Little Fell after ~10km. By this point, I knew my time would be crap but I was slightly perplexed by quite how slow it seemed (more on this later). We headed back towards Coniston after a very beautiful loop of a few kilometres around the Tarn Hows lake. Finally, after about 16km, we started heading downhill and downwards we certainly went! Over about 2km, we went from a few hundred metres altitude down to lake level in what could have easily been a teeth breaking, ankle shattering exercise as the adrenaline/relief of finally going downhill made you forget about the dangers of whizzing downhill with no ability to stop (apart from smacking into a tree/the floor). I was actually surprised to only see one person covered in blood and bandages on their face at the arrival (she didn’t look too happy…). Another factor in the ‘increased’ energy levels was that we had caught up the slower of the ‘half marathon challenge’ runners which had set off an hour before us and we were comparatively feeling pretty good about ourselves again.
Circling Tarn Hows Lake
The good thing about being on the flat near the lake again was that, well, it was flat. The bad thing was that we were now out of the trees and back in full sunshine! I decreasingly cared about my time and just wanted to finish what was becoming a quite painful (but still masochistically fun) exercise. We ran back via the lakefront and got back to the field where, when I last left it, I was zooming along at the front of the race. Not quite so much now!
Partly because of the mental arithmetic which suggested the race was almost over and the fact that we could see the finish line, we assumed this last kilometre was the last kilometre and most runners used the little bit of energy they had left to run a little faster towards the end of the torture. However, much to our horror, just as you enter the ‘arrival area’ and were only 50 metres or so from the finish line, the course veered off to the right to go all around the car park for another kilometre or so. Ugh. By that point, my legs said that “enough was enough” and I had to walk/trot this last loop.
Painful end is in sight…
About 20 minutes behind target, I finally crossed the line (with each finisher’s name announced as they crossed the line) to the relief of the panting cats who had been waiting in the car for me to arrive (and of Pippa, who knew I should have been back sooner). The shoes came off, the (stinking) tshirt was ripped off, the aching toes were wiggled, the water was guzzled and I was straight in the lake to cool down – one of the advantages of finishing next to a lake in the middle of nowhere!
Cooling down in Coniston Water
After I came out, I overheard a number of runners commenting on the fact that their GPS all showed 23+km for the race. This was confirmed by further comments online the next day and, well, it kind of makes a little sense. My 15km ‘split’ time was 1h15 and, while I know I was slowish, 46 minutes for the last 6 kilometres seems ludicrous (despite a little bit of walking towards the end). Similarly, the winner would have taken 34 minutes for the last 6km which is equally unrealistically slow (as he had more muscles than a mammoth and certainly wouldn’t have slowed down like I did!). This tied into the fact that my pace always seemed very strange throughout the race when we went past the 5/10/15km checkpoints and I would have finished over 150 places lower in the rankings with such a time in 2012. Although it doesn’t really matter, it made me feel a little better about the pace!
The rest of the day was spent placating the miaowing cats as we drove back up to Edinburgh, cheering on Mr Murray, doing our best to avoid cramps and stopping for ice cream in the sun in Biggar like any self-worthy tourist should!
So, while the time wasn’t great (albeit with a little leeway for the “2km bonus” in the run), I still achieved something which I certainly considered pretty damn hard (in hindsight!). I also regained a little confidence a week later by running the Edinburgh Great Run 10km in 41.01. I’ve still not broken my 40minute target but, once again finding excuses and blaming the significant amount of inclines in this course), I know that it is feasible: I just need to find a flat 10k race to do! Next stop: Gateshead for the Great North Run in September! Time to train a little harder…
Enjoying not running up and down a hill….
Final Time: 2h01.09, 40th/419