It was an early start to the day as myself and better half Sandra headed to Hawkshead for a spot of marshal duties ahead of this years’ Lake Trails event. We had both signed up to man a checkpoint with Sandra on duty at the water station for the day, and me covering the 10k race before heading back into Hawkshead of the 17k race.
Not only had the Lakes endured several days of persistent rain in the week preceding Hawkshead, but a plague of hailstones had also descended on the Friday night to paint the fells white and add to the tricky logistics of putting on an event of this scale. Organisers had re-arranged the start/finish arrangements in an attempt to find what Event Director Graham Patten called, “the only patch of dry ground left in Lakeland!”. A special bus service was also laid on to get runners in and out of the village to alleviate parking congestion.
I dropped Sandra off at the water station just before the infamous Coffin Trail climb, before jogging back along the shores of Windermere to my own position at the entrance to Wray castle, (about 4k into the 10k race). The sun had begun to appear for brief interludes, but it was still fresh enough to have me texting fellow Harrier Mike Harris advising him to bring a base-layer!
With radio in hand I was kept in contact with race HQ and the other Marshals and had a fascinating insight into operations behind the scenes. As runners, we tend to turn up in a cloud of self- absorption and run the race without a thought beyond our own performance. Seeing the effort and care that goes into dealing with a myriad of issues to ensure 700+ runners get safely around 2 differing routes over 13 miles of trail or more gives a deeper appreciation of those who put on these races for our pleasure.
Just a small example: in amongst hauling stuck cars off a muddy field and dealing with radio interference from a motorsport event in the Isle of Man, the crew still found time to relay a radio message to race marshals to inform a particular runner that his car keys had been found before he had even passed the 5k mark!
The 10k event itself is a great race to observe. The eventual winner went through at what appeared to be a leisurely trot and eventually won by 7 minutes. The guys in 4th and 5th looked like they were actually going faster!
Then came the real heart and soul of the event as the mid to back of the packers came through, giving everything they had and doing it with a smile! These are the people with the courage to step outside of the ordainary and pitch themselves into something extraordinary. Watching people pass it was obvious that effort levels are just the same across all the range of abilities, with actual speed becoming irrelevant. My position was at the top of a short tarmac climb so I was able to give the classic Marshals good news that “its downhill from here!” This was often met with “that’s what the last marshal said!”
With my marshalling over I got a lift back to Hawkshead where I met up with Mike for the traditional Harriers debate about “man suits” before going our separate ways to warm up and get into race mode. Up until now I have largely taken part in the Challenge events. Recent improvements in form have culminated with a 13th pace at Cartmel, which my ever supportive club mates had greeted with derisive enquiries as to when I was going to graduate to the race proper. Peer pressure being what it is I upgraded my entry at Hawkshead to test myself against the more competitive runners, although I was beginning to regret the pre-race “smack down” talk with Mike!
By the time we lined up for the race the sun had finally turned up and concern about how cold it would be in just club vest and shorts turned to vague thoughts of sunburn. The Batala band drums beat at the same rate as my heart as the atmosphere and adrenalin built. Me and Mike shook hands and he kindly said he hoped he wouldn’t have to wait for me too long at the end….
There was a lot of shuffling in the pack over the first climbs out of the village as the race settled down into a steady slog up the loose rocky track. Just as we turned off the first climb the leader of the Challenge event came hammering down the hillside looking like the coffin Trail hadn’t bothered him at all.
From this point the route takes in some fabulous rolling trails through forest and field offering the chance to get a bit of speed up over the technical, rocky descents. I was enjoying vying for position amongst a pack of around half a dozen runners. Some would pull ahead on the inclines before being overtaken on the descents with the obvious road runners taking the advantage on the flatter sections.
It was the second major climb of the route that began to sort us out as we passed the water station so cruelly positioned right outside a pub! The climb from here seems endless and is pitched at an angle that is still possible to run despite the building lactic. It took huge willpower not to give in and walk a little here. My main fear though was just how bad was the coffin trail going to be if this particular leg sapping climb hadn’t even been mentioned! I lost a couple of positions to some sprightly younger lads on the way up, but took disproportionate pleasure in re-taking them on the flat!At about 7 miles we closed in on the second water station and I had the peculiar experience of having to pass my own car parked up at the foot of the coffin trail where my wife was marshalling. Luckily I didn’t have the key with me so couldn’t give in to temptation! It was a slurp of water, a wave at the wife and up the rocky steps that mark the start of the toughest bit of the race.
The whole Hawkshead event is branded around this mile long, almost unbroken uphill slog over tough rocky ground. I must confess a perverse affection for running uphill and I had taken all the pre-race warnings with a pinch of salt. When Mike told me he had never yet managed to run the whole length of the coffin trail I arrogantly decided that I would do so, and this was where I would haul back some time and make up for his unfair advantage up to this point, (that unfair advantage being he is a better runner than me…).
Well that lasted all of 50 yards until I was out of sight of my wife and walking with the rest of them already. I lost about 5 paces but didn’t seem to lose a great deal of ground on those who passed. The brutality of the climb is leavened by the fun the organisers have obviously had in adorning the route with humorous surprises. Mile markers shaped like huge coffins ask “are you tough enough”, skeletons dangle from tree branches and despite my fatigue I laughed out loud when I nearly tripped over a human skull half way up!
The tougher the event the greater the camaraderie. By now we had caught a few of the Challenge runners who graciously moved aside for the overtaking runners, often with a “well done” as we passed. Those of us with breath to spare responded with a “keep going” in return. It was us v the hill instead of us v each other…
Obviously all of that changed at the summit when a hell for leather charge down the hill announced that the race was back on!
I found myself mixing it with the same group who had dropped me on the way up, with us all giving it everything we had left across the rain soaked fields. You can usually tell how far behind you the nearest competitor is by the splash as they pass through the previous puddle. On that field it was the swearing as they found the same knee deep bog that I’d just ploughed through!
I once again reeled in the sprightly young lads on the tarmac through the village before making one last effort to be a hero on the finish field in front of the family. Myself and a guy in blue made a sprint for the line, with him having the legs on me. We also caught a lady runner who suddenly slowed up as she passed the first gantry but before the actual finish line. I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage and pushed her gently onwards towards the line ahead of me, (once I had checked behind to make sure no-one was catching me too – I’m not that much of a gent!)
I usually like to have a bit of a post-race boogie to Pete Lashley but this time I was flat out on the floor enjoying the sunshine and a beer instead. A tough race but huge fun, and I wear my super quality “Coffin Trail” t-shirt with pride!
The result show I’d come 66th overall from 240 finishers in 2h 26 with which I’m pretty pleaded. Mike recorded his best time over the course for 33rd place in 2:20, (beating his previous best of 2:25), and I’m taking credit for providing the motivation to get a shift on!
I’ve never yet left one of these Lakeland Trail events without a big smile on my face and a high that lasts for days. Hawkshead was no exception.