A magnificent hat-trick of race reports from Tim Hawkins, Alan Wallace and Steffen Haugk.
The Coniston Half Marathon would be my first trail race, and I wasn’t sure what to expect other than a) hills, and b) challenging terrain. On these counts it did not disappoint.
Starting early, but buoyed by the magnificence that is DD’s megamix CD, Steffen Haugk, Alan Wallace, Claremont’s Sumanth Nayak and I headed over to the Lakes. The constant rain and the fact that the clouds were almost low enough to touch didn’t dampen our spirits. Much.
The races began on the field of John Ruskin school in the village. First away was the full marathon (the slower paced marathon challenge having left before we arrived at 7am), and after an hours’ break it was time for the two waves of the half, 30 minutes apart. There was a free choice on the day of which wave to start in, with the organisers advising a handicap style system with the faster runners in the second wave, so I optimistically took that option. Having cheered away Ang Harker of the Rocktarts Runners (who had convinced me to enter the race in the first place) in the first wave and gotten used to the fact that the rain was only going to get heavier, it was time to go. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the race but had set myself a target of 2 hours.
For the first 9 miles or so the route was identical to the marathon; setting off through the village and very quickly finding the first hill. The pace was very fast over the first mile but eased off as the route left the road for the trails. At this stage reasonably flat, nice solid paths with not much more than a few puddles to contend with – it would not stay this easy!
Shortly after an early water station came the first big challenge: A steep climb up a tough rocky trail. Having approached too fast this was a real lung burster and before long I was forced to walk. I hadn’t expected the race to beat me this early and mentally this was a bit of a blow as the competitors I’d felt uplifted to have overtaken a few moments before slogged past me. I got the sinking feeling that this race was going to be a lot more than I’d prepared for. I was, however, in the process of accidentally discovering the tactic that would serve me well for the rest of the race. With legs (and lungs) used to running flat roads, I was best slowing to a swift walk to recharge on the steepest parts, breaking back into a run as soon as the incline shallowed. I found myself playing leapfrog with my closest competitors, but gaining ground all the time.
So the route continued, weaving up the hillside with the trail becoming ever wetter and rockier. Having to watch every step may have taken away from some of the chances to take in the beautiful scenery but as the pack thinned out it kept even the loneliest sections from becoming boring. The occasional road section always seemed to punish by packing in a steep winding ascent.
Eventually we came to the highest section of the half marathon, and the last part shared with the full marathon; the loop around Tarn Hows. Even on a dull, rainy day like this the views over the tarn were breathtaking and my spirits were lifted, even if my legs were getting heavier with every step.
Then came the fun bit.
Knowing that all the climbing was nearly done, I pulled myself over the last ascent away from the tarn, and then it was down into the woods. Now was my last chance to make up for all the uphill walks and, with a glance at my watch, I realised I still had a shot at getting in under my target 2 hours. So I let gravity work on my side and threw myself down the long downhill section. The trail was steep, muddy, rocky, waterlogged and strewn with tree roots. My legs were really starting to hurt. But I just went for it, flying past the other runners in a pack that had become much denser since the loop. It may not have been the most sensible approach but it was the most exhilarating bit of running I’ve ever done, and certainly took a big chunk out of my time.
With 2 miles left to go the route left the woods and levelled out, back onto more solid paths. The breakneck descent had left me low on energy, legs heavy and sore, but with enough adrenaline to keep me coasting past the tip of Coniston Water and back towards the school. This was no time for a sprint finish but I managed to pick off another couple of runners on the playing fields before exhaustedly, elatedly crossing the line in an official time of 1:48:35.40. With the help of some accidental tactics and a bit of bravery on the descents, I’d smashed my 2 hour target and, although my Garmin measured the course short at 12.66 miles, put in a time on a par with my road half marathon PB of around 1:50.
I was 56th in a field of 383 with victory going to Hoad Hill Harrier Steven Brennan in a time of 1:25:31.30. First lady home was Helen Sharpe of Fife AC in 1:33:15.15.
The events were all well timed such that I didn’t have to wait long for Sumanth, Alan and Steffen to reach the finish, my ruined legs increasing my respect for anyone that could take on the full 26 miles.
All in all a very tough course, a beautiful setting, a well organised event and an awful lot of fun. Highly recommended and I’ll be back next year – with a lot more training – for the full marathon.
The Coniston Trail Marathon was my first marathon and my only one so far. Last year it was baking hot and I loved it, despite the fact that it was so tough. So I entered it again this year looking for more of the same. So here is my story of the race.
Since September I have had a few injuries and my long runs suffered quite a bit only managing a 15 miler a few weeks ago. Prior to that my last long run was in March. I’ve lost a bit of weight in recent weeks and also managed a 10k PB as well (injuring myself in the process!). Nevertheless, after 3-4 weeks injury free I was all set for Coniston.
I travelled across with Steffen, Tim and Sumanth (Claremont), setting off at around 4-30am. With DD’s Megamix playing on the CD for the drive across we made it in good time for registration. The weather had changed quite a bit on the journey across and it was dull and dreary when we arrived. Registration was quick and easy and, after a race briefing, we were ready.
The Rocky tune was playing loudly as we stood huddled at the start, our legs being whipped by the wind and rain. What a contrast to last year’s wall to wall blue skies.
Off we went and we were straight into a lap of the school field. The course was short last year so the lap of the field had been added at the start and finish. I knew from last year that the first 2-3 miles were fairly flat and thought that it would be a good place to try to make up some time in my quest to beat last years time of 4-54.
So my first mile was a little quick at 8-03! 2nd mile was an 8-48 and the third mile was 8-34. I was feeling pretty good but I knew this wouldn’t be a safe pace as I was set for a 3-45 finish at this rate!
Mile 4 saw the first of the “Walkables” i.e. hills that I would walk. I don’t mind walking during a race, I walked whilst setting a 10k PB once, and in view of the challenges ahead, I felt that I was putting myself at an advantage. The climb was a rocky muddy trail which was steep but not too bad. I’m sure there were a few folks thinking that it was all going to be like this. I hoped it would be this easy but at the back of my mind I knew different. Mile 4 was 11-08.
Mile 5 was a long rocky downhill covered in 8.40. Not too difficult technically but you needed to watch your footing at all times. Mile 6 levelled off a little and was more of the same rocky, puddly trail. Covered in 8.45 I was keeping my average pace down and was starting to get a little concerned about maintaining it. The rain was coming down non-stop with varying ferocity and I was still dry underneath my Madison waterproof which was only £30 at Start Fitness. Unfortunately the breathability is not too good and I was heating up fast with the effort. Do I slow down? Or do I man up and get wet. I got wet.
Last year I wore an Inov8 race backpack and carried 3 litres of liquid, waterproofs, food, phone and all manner of extras. This year was about being light. I bought myself a small Inov8 bumbag for £15 and carried my gels, gloves and an empty bottle. The race organisers had recommended carrying 2L of water and using the feed stations as well but as it was a cool day I decided to fill up an hour before the start and to fill my bottle at the 2nd water station. This is what I did but shortly afterwards I lost the top off the bottle! So I ended up having to ditch the bottle and run without fluids. There was lots of water around in the streams and figured that if I was desperate I could just drink some of that (or ask another runner for a sip).
Mile 7 signalled the start of the never ending climbs. The terrain at this point was fairly good with a lot of road. Still trying to keep the pace down mile 7 and 8 were 11.21 and 9-32. Just before the 8 mile point we reached the beautiful Tarn Howes. I spotted a few of the faster runners as the past me having completed their lap. There were plenty of people around supporting and shouting you on. One young lad shouted “Nearly there”. Not sure if knew I still had 16 miles to do. It took my mind off it for a while though as I pressed on.
This year’s race was chip timed and there was a mat placed at the far end of the tarn just in case anyone decided to get the bus. Not that there was any traffic. I only saw a couple of vehicles throughout the whole race.
So, having completed my lap of the tarn I was directed up a hill, surprise, surprise. Miles 9 and 10 were 9-12 and 9-29. I was still concerned about my pace but I felt pretty good and had started to run along with a group. Well, I say run along with them, it was more like they passed my on the hills and I went past them on the downhills. This continued for quite a while as we moved into a forested area on mainly gravel tracks. The hills were not steep but long and seemed never ending. Miles 11 and 12 were 11-50 and 9-45.
My average pace was dropping but was still way below 10 min miles and I could sense a decent PB could be on the cards. Last year’s average pace was over 11 min miles. At around 12.75 miles we passed a sign saying “Half way”. That would be right if it was last year as it was just over 25 miles. I wonder if it will be under 26 again this year. This would give me extra incentive to maintain the pace. My PB could be even bigger. But maybe not? I didn’t know. At 13.1 miles I noticed my time was 2-05.
I knew I was coming up to the highest point on the course and there was a nice descent on grass to follow so I did my best to keep the pace up as we went through a narrow trail through the forest. The Pine branches were slapping me in the face as they sprung back from the runner in front of me. But I didn’t care, I was loving it. This is what I was there for. I felt good and I was starting to pass people who had passed me on the first hilly sections of the race. Miles 13 and 14 were 9-25 and 8-46.
Out of the trees you are back out into the open and suddenly you are met by a spectacular view along the length of Lake Coniston. The clouds were covering the mountain tops of Coniston Old Man and Wetherlam but the area is stunning and I could have pulled up a deck chair and sat there for the rest of the day. I did stop there last year and had a bite to eat. There was a race photographer at this point last year also and I was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t there this year, especially having taken the time to apply my lipstick whilst running through the trees.
What goes up must come down though and that lovely descent that I was looking forward to wasn’t so nice after all. My right knee was starting to give me jip and I just couldn’t seem to get any speed out of the legs. The terrain had changed again and was now boggy trail and after losing a lot of height we were given a nice little climb up the side of another hill. This track followed the contours of the hill and was still quite high and gave us tremendous views of the lake. I was still passing a few folk and knew there was a descent to come. Mile 15 and 16 were 9-39 and 9-40.
Eventually the gradient eased and started to point in the right direction, down! The track turned gradually into large rocks and slippery, exposed bedrock. The water was cascading down steadily through the rocks and there were plenty of sections where you just had to take a gamble and run through the water, not knowing what was underneath. I was passed by a few guys who were just flying down over the rocks with ease. I couldn’t go any faster and my quads were starting to hurt. My knee was still letting me know it wasn’t happy and I was starting to wish I was climbing again. After nearly 20 minutes of this we were down at the river.
Last year the bridge was closed so we had to wade through the river but fortunately this year it was ok. The river was very high this year due to the floods and probably would have been impassable. Along the side of a boggy farmers field and over the bridge, and we were at the feed station for some electrolyte drink and some Kendal mint cake. Miles 17 and 18 were 10-00 and 9-04.
Running out of the small village I knew what was coming. The final climb to Beacon tarn. 2 miles of climbing. Twisting boggy trail and rocky paths just sapped any energy you had left. There was a few false summits and more swear words. I was out of gels now and felt like I was fading fast. Looking at the Garmin though I knew that I had something like an hour and a half to do 7 miles to beat last years time. I knew I could do it but I wasn’t sure I would be able to last. Miles 19 and 20 were the worst I have ever felt in a race and were 12.03 and 14.06.
Eventually the tarn revealed itself and we were thrust into a boggy stretch. I started following a guy in front and just concentrated on his feet, following every step. Running straight through the bog up to our calves, passing runners from our own race and the earlier marathon which had set off 2hrs earlier. At the 20 mile point the climbing was done and we started the rocky descent.
I wore my road shoes last year and nearly broke my toe on a tree root so this year I wore my Salomon speedcross. I was confident that I could fly down this section but it was worse than last year. It was terrible. Sharp rocks and boulders covered in boggy, muddy mess that had already been trampled on by hundreds of runners from the earlier race. It was really frustrating and it was impossible to get any speed going. The trail eased up a bit before the rocks gave way to smaller stones and bog. Miles 21 and 22 were 12-08 and 9-44.
We hit the final feed station and I had noticed people looking at my shirt. I hadn’t put enough cream on my nipples and I was bleeding. I was too knackered to care though and I pressed on down to the lake shore. I knew that I was going to get a massive PB if I kept going. I passed a lady from the earlier race who was clearly struggling and gave her some encouragement and pressed on.
I’m pretty good with numbers but I couldn’t seem to work out what my pace should be for a specific time. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I would finish under 4-30 if I maintained 12 minute miles. I’ve never been so happy to be running 11-30 pace! I started running with a guy who I had seen a few times in the race. He was going well and I just hung onto him as we passed a load of runners.
The trail was rocky and was not flat. There were a number of small climbs where you needed to concentrate or you could fall 20ft down to the lake. But we were whizzing along nicely and it must have been around this point when I started egging myself on, “Come on, come on!”. Miles 23 and 24 were 11.36 and 10-03.
The terrain changed again to a long section with exposed tree roots. I remember watching a lady hit the floor hard last year at this point. I felt good though. I knew the terrain, I had my grippy shoes on and from somewhere I got some energy. I pressed on from the guy and increased my pace. I couldn’t work out my times, I could just see my average pace for this mile was staying at 8-43. I couldn’t quite believe it. Still passing runners I saw a guy, Paul, from Claremont ahead. He had stopped and was taking some fluid or food. I managed to catch him up and offered some encouragement. He seemed to get something of a lift from this and after a minute or so his pace increased and he was off. Mile 25 was 8-43.
I could now see the finish in the distance, tantalisingly close. But my watch was telling me there was still a mile to go. Hopefully it would be short again! My legs were doing their best but there was nothing left in the tank. I was still passing people as we entered the school field for the lap round to the finish area. My pace for the last mile was 8-34. I have no idea how as I felt like I was close to walking pace.
Coming into the finishing straight I managed to up the pace and finish with a blast as the guy called my name over the tannoy. Looking at my watch I was shocked at 4-15. I made my way over to get my medal and then wobbled over for my t-shirt and was met by Paul from Claremont and Sumanth, who both had great times, and Tim who had ran equally well in the half marathon event. After a bit of food and juice I walked down to cheer on Steffen who had ran with no jacket!
I love this event. It is tough and gruelling and it will break many people. But it will also make many people stronger. It will give you great reward for your effort. After all, isn’t that why we do it?
I had originally volunteered to write the race report. Tim had agreed to contribute a paragraph to share his experience. But now he has knocked out this cracking report, and Alan couldn’t help himself and has written this excellent and detailed report in no time at all. All that’s left for me is to add a few of my thoughts. So here we go.
I had a number last year but couldn’t run due to family commitments. I have literally waited a whole year for this day. Unfortunately I wasn’t really prepared. I recently had bronchitis, spending days in bed and taking days off from work. Since the Edinburgh marathon five weeks ago I have run no more than 32 actual miles. It was also not clear to what extend my bronchitis was still inside me. If I had a personal trainer or coach she would not have allowed me to run, I am sure.
The highlights of the journey in the morning were i) DD’s megamix CD, that truly deserves its name, and ii) a hare we saw on the road to Windermere.
The weather was ideal. I didn’t bother with anything but shorts and vest, I reckoned anything else would only get wet. There is nothing worse than wet pants clinging to your legs. I would carry my gels in one hand, and my new Hydraform bottle in the other. I have never ran with a handheld bottle in a race before, this would be a first. As for shoes, I wore inov8 x-talons. I have great confidence in these shoes. The studs, which perform well on grass and other vegetation, are made from magic so they grip on wet rocks no problem. They have a problem with wet wood though. There are at least three wooden bridges in the Coniston marathon, plus countless exposed tree roots of considerable size!
I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that Alan ran the marathon in just under five hours last year. I thought that I couldn’t expect to be any faster than that.
Shortly before we entered the loop around Tarn Howes I spotted a herd of Galloways, my favourite cattle breed. What a joy. Two cows had somehow come off the field and were standing next to the path, watching us. At the far end a guy was swinging a cow bell, there was a water station, and I refilled my bottle. I was looking forward to completing the lap, because then I would run past the beautiful Galloways again.
I enjoyed the views and the steep descents, even though the latter were hard work and required utmost concentration and leg-eye coordination. I knew I could count on the x-talons.
When I approached the finish I didn’t have much strength left, a sprint was out of the question. On entering the school field Alan greeted me. He told me about five times that it was only half a lap to the finish. He must have known that anything less wouldn’t have penetrated to the conscious part of my brain. Everybody was waiting for me. I finished in just under five hours, that’s all I wanted. It took me just over two hours for the first half, and little under three hours for the second half. I loved every moment of it. I totally agree with Alan on this, this is when we feel alive.
Thanks go to Tim for taking our pictures. I am happy he enjoyed the downhill chase so much. You might have discovered your hidden talent here, Tim. As they say, uphill sections require little more than strength and determination, it’s the downhills that show the true fell and trail runner. You either have it or you don’t. One race is enough to tell. And you were bounding down, not teetering. And you loved it. Well done!