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Archive for June, 2015

I’d been awake for over an hour when my alarm went off at 5am on Sunday morning. Most of the night had been spent lying in wait, listening to the wind rattling the window and the woman in the bunk above me snoring. We were staying in the remote and rather magical Coniston Coppermines youth hostel, nestled just below the Old Man of Coniston and about two miles up a rather terrifying dirt track from Coniston itself. Everyone in my dorm groaned as my alarm sounded, and I got up and dressed silently by torchlight, heart heavy in my stomach: I have never felt so unprepared for a marathon, and I knew that I had a tough day ahead.

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I ate breakfast with an enthusiastic Scotsman in the empty kitchen, which reeked of Deep Heat and strong coffee (neither of which had anything to do with me). He told me, with some pride, that it was the hardest race he’d ever done; it turns out he’d run a number of extremely tough ultras, so this didn’t help my cause. But by this point I was resigned to the fact that I would run that race – it was my only chance of feeling at all ready for the UT55 in under three weeks’ time.

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The startline was buzzing quietly, in a rather pleasant 7am sort of way, and the lake glistened in the morning light. Somehow it felt different from any other race I’d done, possibly due to the early start and hence the rather small number of runners (220) and spectators, and partly because this was the first time that I expected to be running for a really long time. My only deadline was the ‘Apres Trails’ celebrations, which required me to be back at base and not comatose by 3:30pm. That meant I had over 8 hours to finish the marathon, but still I was unsure it would happen. Only three weeks before I’d been ready and eager for a marathon race, but a nasty chest infection/flu dealt a massive blow to my training, and I didn’t feel I could ever get back to where I had been a few weeks before, when I’d felt at the fittest I’ve ever been. Typical.

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We set off after a quiet countdown from 10, and I started moving slowly along the familiar tracks from Coniston Old Hall and back up towards the hostel. Not even a mile in we came to a gate, and the runner ahead of me stopped to hold it open as I came through. I thanked him; “no problem, we’ve got a long day ahead”. Already, there was something wonderfully convivial about the race, and I was comforted by his thoughtfulness rather than worried by his words. I got into a steady pace and ran quietly, listening to the chatter of those around me. It continued like this for a while, and slowly but surely the miles started to pass. I walked almost every hill, stopped to enjoy the scenery, and purposefully kept to a slow pace – this was my dress rehearsal for the big day, and I wanted to stick with the ‘training run’ attitude, rather than get carried away by the race. Many of the others around me were also signed up for the UT55, so it was easy to hold back and stick to my nice steady running. It was much more comfortable than any marathon I’ve done before, despite it being by far the hardest course.

Two hours or so must have passed before the sun started to show through, and by this point I was enjoying myself so thoroughly that it seemed as if the weather was just a reflection of my mood. It still felt like a different sort of race – I hadn’t really spoken to anyone at all, and was just enjoying some quiet contemplation and spectacular scenery around Tarn Howe and the endless fells that abandoned all signs of human existence. I was running a marathon (I kept having to remind myself) but it felt more like a meditation. Just me and the gentle slosh of my water bottles, and the footsteps of those runners who I’d managed to stick with for so many miles.

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It continued like this until mile 20, at which point we came to a checkpoint and I decided to practice changing the water in my new ultravest. Only a few meters down the road I started to feel water dripping down my side, and had to stop to fix the bottle. This process repeated itself three times, before I got frustrated and decided to empty the water out and get on with only isotonic until the next water station; the trusty runners who I’d stuck with for 20 miles were long gone, and it was looking like my hopes of finishing in under 5;30 had disappeared. Slightly frustrated, I carried on, but it was hard to get back into a rhythm at this point: my Dad had warned me that the last 6 miles was the most technical, and I was finding myself having to walk much more than I had done previously. The upside to this was that I got chatting to some of the people around me, and we helped each other through the more difficult terrain with jokes about missing teeth and lost shoes. I was still having the best time of my life, and would quite happily have continued running in this race for another few hours.

At mile 23 another water stop appeared, almost a mirage amongst the long grass and hillocks in my path – I was getting desperate for water by this point, as the sugary isotonic was everything but refreshing. The marshalls were so friendly and kind – I stopped for a couple of minutes to chat with them, and we cheered on some of the passing race runners, who had started two hours after my race and were doing amazingly well on such a tough route. Not long after this stop we descended to the side of Coniston water, and we really were on the home straights. For some reason this was the point when I really started to tire, and runners who I’d been ahead of for the entire race overtook me in this final stretch. I kept tripping over and had to walk any technical bits as I couldn’t really focus properly: I’d been running for almost 6 hours, which is by far the longest time I’ve ever taken in a race. I thought I saw a snake on the path at one point, and when I realised it was actually just a twig I knew I was starting to get a bit delirious. This wasn’t something entirely unfamiliar – during training for my first marathon I’d experienced similar things (one time I thought someone had grabbed me from behind, and turned to find no one there!) – and I knew that it just meant I needed a rest, ASAP. My watch called out mile 25 just as the path widened out and became much easier underfoot, so spurred on I pushed ahead and picked up the pace – I could still beat 6 hours if I had a good final mile. But the final mile was anything but good.

In slow motion, I started falling forwards as my feet somehow gave up from under me. Perhaps I tripped, perhaps I just really wanted a lie down, but my increased pace meant that I hit the ground with a serious wallop. Unfortunately my hands were elsewhere in my time of need, and my face hit the floor with a bang, the force pushing my head back upwards and hurting my neck. Silence for a moment, and then panic. The blonde girl who I’d been running with and encouraging on a moment ago was kneeling beside me in an instant, and I was shaking as I tried to stand, knees hurting badly as they unfolded from under me. I spat out a large amount of ‘lakeland trail’; lots of blood followed, but luckily no teeth. I was in a bit of shock as I’m incredibly squeamish and there appeared to be a lot of blood, but my saviour assured me that I was ok – my nose wasn’t bleeding and my bottom lip was still attached. I rinsed out my mouth with isotonic and carried on running shakily – as if the final mile of a marathon isn’t hard enough! Luckily the fall had also given me an adrenaline boost, and I seriously wanted to see Daniel by this point, so I pushed ahead, adamant to finish before I keeled over again.

And, to cut a rather long final mile short, I did. Rather than dipping my legs in the lake, as I’d been dreaming of for two hours, I spent the first post-race 15 minutes in the first aid tent. After some recovery shake and a large pot of chick pea tagine I was feeling a little more revived, and we sat in the sun being serenaded by Pete Lashley, on a high after a brilliant weekend that I’d been quietly dreading for a couple of weeks. Final mile aside, I’d just finished the hardest and most enjoyable run of my racing ‘career’ so far, and even in that first post-race hour I started really looking forward to my first ultra experience.

DSC02673I must have said it three times already, but this race was simply magnificent. I can’t imagine that it could be beaten in terms of route, support, friendliness and difficulty – there’s no wonder it’s up there with the world’s best marathons. A massive thank you to everyone involved, especially Coniston Mountain Rescue who provided fantastic marshalling support, and all of the other marshalls and friendly faces along the way. I am seriously looking forward to my next Lakeland Trails event…let’s hope it doesn’t get too hot and sunny between now and then!

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