Sitting at home, with half term ideas scuppered due to the ongoing broken ankle, Rowan decided he was no longer so scared of Gollum and would like to watch Lord of the Rings. The scenery in the film is beautiful, and I am finding that every time I watch ANYTHING with mountains and trees (including Minecraft!), I feel a pull to the outdoors. I was much like Bilbo – I wanted to see mountains again, and go on adventure. As we watched Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli chase down the Uruk-hai, Rowan turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Mummy, you will be able to do that again soon” and watching Gimli’s little legs bringing up the rear, I was reminded, not only of how ace my little lad is, but of my biggest running adventure earlier this year – Lakeland Trails Marathon. I decided it was about time I wrote that one up – so grab a brew, it’s a long one.
My training for the marathon had gone well. I had managed to do all the long runs in the training plan, and had enjoyed most of them, with two notable exceptions. My supposed 15 mile run round Rivington Pike started off really well but, due to starting late and messing up my food intake, it ended in tears and frustration at 13 miles. The second was at Lyme Park (scene of the later, broken ankle) and my last big run of 20 miles. I had started in Poynton and ran three loops of the brilliant Trust 10k route, which is normally really nice, but for some reason, I didn’t enjoy it till the 18th mile. And that was probably because I was nearly finished.
Towards the end of the plan, I also had to cut out one of the smaller mid-week runs as I was starting to feel a little tired and it was getting a little too close to the big day for my liking. So for the three weeks prior to the marathon, I dropped from four runs a week to three, with a focus on the long and back to back runs. At weekends, I tried to get up a hill somewhere, with my brilliant friend Kathryn joining me for some awesome days out. Rick and Rowan would sometimes join me on their bikes, and during the week, the one mile circuit of the nature reserve was my go to, doing as many loops as required and making many dog friends. As long as it is ok with the dog parent, dog friend fusses are a legitimate reason stop (and rest).
The next challenge was to find somewhere close by to stay. With coronavirus restrictions still in place, many camp sites were not open for booking until the shared toilet restrictions were lifted, so I was unable to book early. By the time I started looking, everywhere seemed to be full. But luckily, I found a lovely campsite, a mile walk from the start. That’s not too far, I thought – but would I live to regret it?
We arrived in the Lakes the day before the race and set up in a fab spot, spending the day relaxing and carb loading (one of my favourite things). The site had takeaway pizza van which was perfect for my tea and by 10pm, I was in bed ready for my 5am get up. My start time was 7:30, and I needed time to eat, and poo. Yes – I had considered everything in my preparations, including getting up with enough time to go to the loo, so imagine my horror when I woke up to realise I had forgotten my breakfast of choice. Argh!!! Luckily, I had over stocked on race nutrition, so decided that I would have to eat a packet of the mushroom sausage rolls. I had done much of my training eating these on the move and managed not to bring them straight back up, so I figured they would be the best option for my breakfast. And the packet was similar in calories to my original choice. Panic over.
After checking my water bottles and running pack (again!) we began the walk down to the start line. We had scouted the place out the day before so knew exactly where we were going and how long it would take. The only thing I hadn’t been able to control to the nth degree was my bowels. They weren’t sticking to my plan – the horror! Luckily, the start line had portaloos (unlike most of the course), but try as I might, I couldn’t go. Plan B was in order – Imodium. The last thing I wanted to worry about was a case of runner’s trots and no loos.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, all runners had taken a lateral flow test prior to turning up on the day. In addition to this, the start was a phased one, with the race organisers setting us off in groups of six to allow for social distancing. Rowan might have been feeling sleepy but I felt pretty good as we stood and cheered on the runners starting ahead of me. It was already shaping up to be a sunny day and I was glad for my sun visor (thanks Kathryn) and the factor 50 I had already applied, with extra in my pack for later.
Knowing how much I like my bed, I had picked a 7:30 start time to give myself a little longer to get sorted in the morning, but I was now ready to get started. Soon enough, my time came and I was off, heading down a gravel track in the direction of the mountains. I found out later that Rowan had run after me, the little star. I was gutted I hadn’t realised – it would have been nice starting with the boy and it may have improved my eventual time.
The beginning of the race was an easy, flat route along the shores of Coniston and through the village. But despite this, I was finding it hard work – my pace was slow, and I felt more out of breath than usual. This didn’t bode well and as I headed out of town towards the bridleway that would lead me towards Holme Fell, I found myself getting a bit annoyed and pushing harder than I should to get to the pace I had expected, whilst wondering why it felt so difficult. I had done all my carb loading after all.
This was completely the wrong mind set for me. I like to enjoy my long runs, rather than worry too much about pace so, as I reached the tree covered track, I had a word with myself. I was here to see if I had a marathon in me but, just as importantly, I wanted to enjoy the landscape and explore new areas that I might miss by just heading up to a summit. Something about being under the trees, with their instant chill out effect, calmed me down and I began to settle into my stride, relaxing into the run.
At just over a mile, I was feeling much happier and comfortable with my running. I wasn’t breaking any speed records, but I was really enjoying it. I reached the road that runs between Holme Fell and Coniston moor, alongside Yewdale Beck and turned left – Raven Crag towering ahead. The path now climbed and I took it easy, walking when I needed, as I made my way up to the right turn that would take me back onto a grassy track, the little yellow Lakeland Trails flag assuring me I was on the right track.
It was not long after this that I started being overtaken by the runners in the marathon race – a common theme for this racing snail. I’m always slightly in awe of these speedy folk – sure and light footed – basically Legolas to my Gimli. It never bothers me though. Everyone was really friendly and encouraging, with a hello as they strode by. And with views like these, it was hard not to be cheerful.
At just over 8 miles, I reached the first feed station. And what a welcome sight it was! I pulled my face mask from my pocket (the organisers had asked everyone to wear a mask as they came through to keep everyone safe). It was turning out to be a hot day. My Strava later implied at was 13 degrees. It sits on a throne of lies! I took the opportunity to fill my soft flasks with water and my face with the vegan flapjack (so good). My earlier anxieties about not going fast enough had disappeared. I was out to enjoy the day and take it all in. The marshals were brilliant, pouring water for everyone who passed and warning of a road crossing up ahead.
I was now making my way towards Tarn Hows, a lovely little spot I have visited a number of times. The route had been steadily climbing since leaving Coniston and my walk/run strategy was working well for me. I even managed to put a little spurt on and get the horns out on when I spotted the race photographer – can’t be walking past this guy.
It was a loop and a half of Tarn Hows; my many circuits of the local nature reserve meant covering the same ground twice didn’t bother me. The marshal sat at the turning did an amazing job of keeping an eye on those who needed to continue round and those who needed to turn off. There was plenty of support from the public (and a few dogs to meet too).
Leaving Tarn Hows, and with the little yellow flags giving reassurance I was on the right track, I reached the road crossing before Hawkshead Hall Park, and another opportunity to top up my flasks at the feed station.
I was now just about halfway in and still feeling good. So good in fact, that I decided to see if I did have a bit of wood elf in me, trying to keep fast feet as I descended a short downhill. The result was lots of whoops and nearly sliding onto my backside. I opted to stay safe and keep to what I knew.
By this point, the course had been generally uphill the whole way. I was on the opposite side of the lake to where I had stated, but there was still more climbing to go before the summit of the course on Monk Coniston Moor. I was ready for some downhill.
It was bright on the forest road, and there were lots of runners about. It was nice to have a quick chat as they went past. I was mostly power walking (that’s what I call it) and as one guy jogged uphill past me, he mentioned he had been trying to catch up to me for ages and I walk really fast. I was chuffed to bits.
Around three miles after leaving the last water station I finally reached the summit of the course, and what a view! It was brilliant! Cotton wool clouds hung over the Coniston fells. I could see the bay on the lake where I had started earlier that morning. I was around 16 miles in, was not struggling with my stomach despite the gels, sausage rolls and flapjacks I had been popping and I was REALLY looking forward to some nice downhill on this lovely gravel track across the open fellside where I could make up some time. Well – right after the flattish bit that lay ahead. I felt elated!
It was short lived.
The nice downhill I was looking forward to was actually a track that dropped off the side of the world. Okay, so that is possibly an exaggeration, but it was fairly steep (for me) and with lots of loose rocks that really taxed my suddenly, impossibly tired legs, and to make things worse, the fear raised its ugly head. Cue lots of muttering, deflation, cries of woe – oh why! can’t I run downhill? Oh yes! It’s because of all these boulders! (They really weren’t boulders). I was a sorry state and the result was the slowest two miles of the run so far, (aside from the miles where I encountered feed stations). There are no pictures of this section as I was just too annoyed. And I had never been so happy to reach a tarmacked path as I was when I reached the road that would lead me to Water Yeat.
I pulled myself together and began to jog again and when I reached the water station at Water Yeat, I took a bit of time to eat, slather on some more sun tan lotion and use the hottest (but still clean) portaloo in the world.
After saying goodbye to the marshals (I’ll say it again – they were all flipping ace) I set off, feeling much better, and even managed to spot some ace rock formations. (Whaleback, maybe? Geography was a long time ago.)
It wasn’t long before I was climbing again. I knew from checking the race profile that there was another hill before the end of the race, and this was it. It was going to be around 400 feet and by this point I was mostly “power” walking, though I think I may have been experiencing a power cut as it became more rugged underfoot.
After just over a mile though, I had broken the back of it. I popped over a crest to be greeted with the most exquisite, tranquil tarn – the cool clear water so inviting as I marvelled at the scene in front of me.
The Marshal of Beacon Tarn was brilliant – so friendly and encouraging as he pointed the way round the tarn and the first boggy section of the marathon so far. I wound my way round, passing under Blawith Fells and picking up the Cumbria Way.
I passed over another section that was difficult under foot but, at 22 miles in, pace did not receive the slightest consideration and I took my time, thoroughly enjoying the adventure. As I reached a smooth, grassy path, I could see a road ahead of me and wondered whether I would be on the tarmac again. And surprisingly, I felt a bit more life in my legs as my fifth/sixth/whatever number it was wind kicked in.
A quick glance at my watch told me I’d been going for six and a half hours and was nearly 23 miles in. I compared my time to a mile splits spreadsheet I had pulled together and printed off (knowing that maths wasn’t going to happen when I was tired) and I was happy that I was going to finish before the cut off of 8 hours. I had just over three miles to go, I was tired, but the last section was alongside the lake so it wold be flat. I reckoned an hour or so would have me back. It was time to give Rick a ring so he, Rowan and the mutts could walk down from the campsite to meet me at the finish line.
Weirdly, I was beginning to feel almost sprite-like and was gaining on the runners ahead of me (weirder still). I started to worry that I had given Rick the wrong time and he and the boy wouldn’t get to the finish before me, especially with this new found energy (the joy of SIS gels). I quickly called him back to revise my finish time.
Making the most of this new found vigour, I pressed on watching the clouds cast shadows on the mountains and crossing a bridge before coming to the final water station of the day. I had a swig of water, a quick chat and set off.
Only a few minutes later, my tummy decided it did not like the water and for the first time of the day, it started to cramp up as I descended towards the lake shore. I took it easy and let it pass, knowing that there wasn’t much further to go – just a pretty flat section, alongside the cool lake under the shade of the trees where I could pick up to that power walk, or maybe even a jog.
And then I entered Mirkwood!
Oh, it looked lovely, with trees lining the track, dappled light playing on the floor and shade from the afternoon sunshine. But it was evil! Never-ending tree roots of doom criss-crossed the undulating path and for nearly two miles of hell, I picked my way round, through and over these trip hazards, stubbing my toes, stumbling and swearing whilst grieving for the flat finish I had created in my head. At one point, whilst clinging into a tree trunk I stood on my own foot trying to get round a particularly tricky bit, squishing my already hammered toes into submission. I remembered my ace friend, Sarah (who had completed the marathon previously) suggesting running a recce as part of my training. But no! I had wanted it “to be a surprise”. Well this section was definitely that. The photo really doesn’t show just how doomy the roots were, nor did I expect to have to clamber over a wall, even if it was covered in mats for protection.
But eventually, the path did clear, and I was level with the lake, with no more hills to go. Just a flat run to the finish line. I’d like to say that all thoughts of the tree roots were left behind and I trotted to the finish line like one of those elf types, but my toes were throbbing far too much for that. I was starting to feel giddy about the prospect of finishing my first ever marathon, but it didn’t translate to my legs, so I contented myself with shuffling toward the finish line, tired, but very, very happy and extremely pleased with myself.
As I reached the Coniston Showground, I was weary but I could hear music and the buzz of people who had already finished. I resolved to “run” the rest of the way. I spotted Rick, Rowan and the mutts waiting for me and cheering me on. As Rowan ran towards me to round the field to the finish line with me, I fought back the tears, unsuccessfully.
26.2 miles, 2,945 feet and 7 hours and 47 minutes later, I finished my first ever trail marathon, and what a day it had been! Rick filmed me and the boy as we crossed the line, and I collected my T shirt and MEDAL feeling very, very tired but so, so happy and proud of myself. And I didn’t need to poo en route!
At first glance, choosing your first marathon to be a hilly, trail marathon rather than one on the roads may seem like an odd choice. But the views, the challenge of different terrain, the organisation, the support from the marshals, other runners and my family was amazing. So much so I am booked on again for 2022, and I can’t wait. And if my broken ankle doesn’t heal fast enough, well, I’ll do it in 2023. Take a look at the Lakeland Trails website for details of their events. I have done a few now and they are brilliant. Oh, and the mile walk back to the campsite, aided by a lemonade lolly, was not too bad at all.