There are a few marathons that lay claim to being the most beautiful in the UK. There are also a couple of contenders for the title of the toughest; there are none that can compete on both fronts against the Lakeland Trails Coniston Marathon.
Set amidst the splendour of the central Lake District, The Coniston Marathon takes in the wandering tracks out of the eponymous village, through pretty Yewdale and skirting Tilberthwaite on a rollercoaster route of mixed terrain before climbing steadily for a lap around the stunning Tarn Hows. From there it is another steady climb onto the heights above Lake Coniston and a hilltop path down to High Nibthwaite in the south, before turning north once more to climb behind Beacon Fell, and finishing along the rocky lakeside path back to the start/finish.
For outright chocolate box, picture perfect beauty I find it hard to believe this course can be beaten. For leg smashing, soul scouring ego breaking toughness it easily tops my personal list!
The Lakeland Trail series as a whole is characterised by stunningly beautiful courses over surprisingly testing terrain wrapped up in a family friendly festival of running. They are a celebration of what the ordainary runner can achieve given a bit of support, encouragement and a pretty snazzy t-shirt at the end. The positive, celebratory community feel of the events also serves to mask the pain of the run in the same as gas and air does in child birth.
It was perhaps this anaesthetising aura of happiness that led me to treat the Coniston marathon with a little less respect that it deserved. I approached the event as a final long run in my training build up for the Lakeland 50 ultra-marathon to be held just 3 weeks later. Having already covered 26 Lakeland miles a few weeks earlier, along with several back-to back mega weekends on the fells I expected to trot out a steady run without too much trouble. In fact my burgeoning over-confidence had swollen my self regard to such an extent that I entertained thoughts of taking down my existing road PB of 4 hours, (and 6 seconds).
My self delusion was bolstered by running mates for the L50 who also thought that on current form I should make mincemeat of the 4 hour time I set during the legendary hurricane that was Manchester 2012. In truth, the only thing set to become mincemeat were my quads and ego. I believe the appropriate word is “hubris”.
Mike Harris, Julie Platt and Kevin Edwards made up the Wigan Harriers contingent along with Peter Mills who was set to take on the simultaneous half marathon event. Julie, Kevin and I were fresh from several months of ultra training ahead of the 50 mile challenge. Mike Harris is a fellow regular at Lakeland Trail events and had made the marathon his “A target” race for the summer, so had sensibly tapered a little before-hand. Mike and I usually swap a deal of smack-down banter ahead of an LT event despite the fact that it always ends with Mike finishing in front by a comfortable 5 minutes. This time Mike was playing down the how much he would beat me by which un-nerved me more than the “trash-talk” we usually enjoy! His caution was due to a well founded fear of the re-occurrence of the vicious attacks of cramp that had scuppered his last two marathon attempts .
As we assembled on the landing point near Coniston Hall we were relieved that a covering of cloud looked set to spare us from the blistering sunshine of the past few days. The start venue is based on a small promontory of land that just out onto lake Coniston near the campsite just south of the town. The views up and down the glassy lake were suitably calming as quiet groups of runners gathered around the start funnel. Race Director Graham Patten called us to order and with little fanfare we were soon underway.
Mike and Kevin shot off towards the front of the pack as Julie and I settled into a steadier pace near the back. Our race plan was clear : we would hold back and go steady all the way round, treating this as just another training run for the 50. That good intention lasted until the route veered up the valley towards Tilberthwaite where we encountered a queue for fluid at the first aid station. I quickly decided to take advantage and skip past without stopping. Julie did suggest we may regret doing so, but she had a waist pack with a back-up bottle of water so missing a cup of water here would make no difference. As a moderately experienced trail runner and a regular on the LT events I was of course relying on no more than over-confidence and optimism to keep me going!
Meanwhile, further up the field Kevin Edwards had surprised no-one but himself by abandoning the “steady run” strategy and taking off like a branded whippet in an attempt to put some distance between himself and Mike Harris. Kev figured his natural caution on the rocky descents would see Mike drafting past him the first time they hit a rocky downhill section. To counteract this, he chose to go like a lunatic in the early stages building up a buffer by charging up the ascents with his trademark 100% commitment to marathon running, (go hard or go home!)
Julie and I made good progress in the early miles, even keeping enough discipline to walk a few of the stiffer climbs. By the time we reached Tarn Hows the cloud cover had thinned and the heat of the day was beginning to come through. Some fellow runners who had donned a couple of extra layers at the start were obviously beginning to struggle already with sweat dripping off them on the rolling path around the pretty lake.
My family were gathered near the Tarn Hows aid station and handed us both a little bottle of zero hydration drink as we passed. This had been Mike Harris’ idea and was a nice way of involving the kids in the event even though I probably wouldn’t need it given the water stops en-route. I was to carry that little bottle the entire rest of the race and was immeasurably glad I had it by the end!
After a loop of the lake we turned south and began the climb up to Grizedale Moor. A check of the Garmin made it apparent that any prospect of breaking 4 hours was already gone. Although I was feeling relatively strong at this point it was clear that I had massively underestimated the difficulty of the terrain in the first 13 miles. With the last of the thin clouds now burned away by the summer sun we made the most of the patches of shade on offer from the trees along the fire track through the forest. It was undeniably hot now and lots of runners were dipping their hats in cooling streams to help cool their heads a little.
Breaking free of the forest the route suddenly hits open fellside and reveals stunning vistas across South Lakeland and towards Morecambe Bay. I paused for a second to look northwards and was rewarded with a crystal clear view of the start/finish area nestled beneath the looming magnificence of the Old Man of Coniston like a model village. It was a cruel beauty. We had covered around 14 miles with a tough 12 to go, a large proportion of it in the opposite direction to the finish line that taunted us across the twinkling expanse of lake.
From here the route heads Southwards towards the end of the lake. Logistics make it difficult to site an aid station along this stretch and on a normal day it probably wouldn’t be needed. With the mercury nudging into the high 20’s, and having been stupid enough not to bring my own water supply, I was more than grateful for the little bottle I had taken from the kids.
I would never normally venture into the fells without my backpack bladder and a few emergency bits and bobs – not even in fine weather for a shorter run than this on familiar ground. Quite why I jettisoned all that hard earned fell sense on marathon day I cant explain, but by the time we were descending towards High Nibthwaite with my bottle dry I was cursing my mistake. I was also wondering why it seemed a good idea to lighten the load in my waist pack by taking one less gel than needed….
Meanwhile at the sharper end of the race, Kevin had stuck to his plan of charging uphill at full speed and was still running scared with the fear that Mike Harris was about to pass him on every descent. Mike had stuck with Kevin in sight for a few miles before deciding that the pace was suicidal and sticking to his own race plan. Mike had also benefitted from grabbing one of the little water bottles at Tarn Hows, whilst Kevin hammered along relying on the aid stations alone.
Julie and I hit the tarmac road at the southern tip of the lake with 19 miles covered in 3 hours. This was outside the unrealistic 4 hour target but still respectable pace for the course and conditions. By now I was feeling increasingly thirsty and was plagued by visions of ice cold cans of coca cola. That goes some way to explaining my over exuberance at the aid station when it finally appeared: I swiftly downed 3 cups of coke in quick succession followed by a cup of water, a hydration drink over the head by mistake, and another down the hatch for good measure. It didnt take a great dealof post race analysis to work out that this was the turning point of my race….for the worse.
Within minutes of setting off again I was feeling decidedly queasy as half a gallon of fluid sloshed around my innards with every footfall. Whilst I obviously needed to hydrate in the oppressive heat, my stomach was in rebellion at the huge quantities of fluid I had just downloaded. Every successive sip of my water bottle made me feel sicker still.
The final 6 miles of a marathon are always going to be tough, and they become tougher still with a fell to clamber over, bogs and rocks to negotiate and blazing heat to contend with. Although we had been travelling somewhat faster than out planned Ultra-marathon pace, it was increasingly clear that I was holding Julie back by now. The difference in our abilities became yet more obvious over these final few miles as my fatigue and nausea built as her competitive instinct kicked in!
Cresting the rise we encountered the cheeriest marshal in the world stood out on his own directing runners past the boggy section around the tarn. He must have been out there since dawn when the challenge runners set off, and has my total admiration for his relentless good cheer for each of us who passed.
I paused to soak my hat in the tarn before setting off in weary pursuit of Julie once more.. suddenly she let out a shout: “Thats Mike Harris up there! Come on Graham, lets go!”, and with that she was skipping along the path chasing the red and black Harriers vest ahead. Mike was clearly suffering with his dreaded nemesis in the form of crippling cramps once again. At first I had assumed Julies’ urgency in catching him was to check on his well being but as she scampered past with a quick “Y’allright?” I guessed that the competitor in her was out of the box and running. It was with a little relief and a lot of admiration that that I watched her go dancing down the fellside like the start of a 10k race!
Mike had reached around the 20 mile mark before his lurking fear became a reality and the cramp bit. From that point he was reduced to marching out the cramp and running a fee yards between attacks whilst waiting for Julie and I to catch up. I walked a few yards commiserating with Mike before heading off in Julies wake.
I was still running reasonable well when I reached the final water station and realized as soon as I stopped that I was in real danger of actually being sick. I still needed to hydrate, but the cup of fluid I downed just seemed to make me feel sicker still. I set off down the twisting path towards the lake shore dodging the tree roots and feeling worse by the minute. A wave of dizziness had me holding onto a tree for support and then I was seeing that last hydration drink make a re-appearance!
From here on it got decidedly ugly. Having slowed to a walk my legs began to seize and my progress dipped to a shuffle. At one point I dipped my head in the lake in an attempt to cool off before getting worried about passing out and drowning! The last 2 miles were an agony of cramping legs and dizziness as I trudged along the lake shore with dozens of fellow sufferers in a similar state. It felt like being part of a retreating army clad in colourful lycra! Some time earlier Kevin Edwards had passed this spot also fighting off debilitating cramps and trying to maintain some reasonable forward progress!
With around yards to go before the final trudge around the cow field I was caught by Mike. despite his cramp he had been able to stagger along at a faster pace than me over the last few miles. Mike gallantly tried to encourage me in a “brisk walk” over the last 1/3 of a mile but I was already stumbling along ta maximum speed. He shuffled off to re-take his place as 3rd Harrier leaving me to my impression of Shaun of the Dead as I stumbled, staggered and tripped my way around the field.
Shortly after crossing the finish line I found myself playing the drama to the full in the medi tent, occupying a stretcher bed only recently vacated by fellow Harrier Kev Edwards. Kevin had finished in an impressive 3h56 and 33rd place, but in his usual state of total exhaustion and in need of medical assistance.
The lady medic had asked if this was his first marathon to which he replied that he had completed quite a few already.
“So has anything like this ever happened before”, she asked as he shuddered in pain once more.
“Yep”, said Kev, “every time!”
Julie managed a 4:27 to grab 96th place, whilst Mike and I would rather forget our respective 4:51 and 5 hours respectively.
They say you learn something from every marathon. I learned a bit about hydration in hot conditions, but also to never disrespect the distance. A marathon is a serious undertaking no matter how fit or experienced you think you are. I paid the price for over confidence this year, but I’ll be back next year with some unfinished business to settle!