Report by Sumanth Nayak
Soon after doing the Sunderland marathon, I read an article in Runners World on the top races in the UK. The Lakeland Trails marathon at Coniston was voted the most scenic marathon and after a little research I found out that it was being held in July, giving me enough time to recover while still being marathon fit. I had never done a trail race before (Kielder doesn’t count, it’s mostly on hard surface), but I decided to plunge into the deep end and do a full marathon. I had done no hill training whatsoever before Kielder and suffered as a result. I didn’t want to make the same mistake this time so I ran up Westgate Road repeatedly two or three times a week hoping that would prepare me for the grueling hills at Coniston. The organizers recommended runners use trail shoes, especially given the torrential rain of the week before the race. I didn’t have time to buy a pair and break them in so I had to use my road shoes and hope for the best.
I got about two hours of sleep at best the night before the race. Three Tyne Bridge Harriers were kind enough to give me a lift and we set off from sunny Newcastle at 4:30am. As we drove west, the skies grew overcast and there was a slight drizzle. The race started and finished at the local high school in Coniston village taking in an entire circuit of Coniston water along the surrounding hillside.
I’ve had bad experience with energy gels in the past, so this time I decided to carry a bottle of Lucozade and rely on the Kendal mint cake and isotonics provided at the feed stations. When we got there, I met up with Paul Hughes and his brother, got our numbers, and we were off at 9am. The first two miles were relatively flat but from there on, it was a steady climb for the next 13 miles. The surface was mostly fine gravel and a few tarmac stretches, at least for the first half of the course anyway. The sound of my trainers on the gravel was quite soothing and I found the climb quite easy, never feeling the need to walk even on the really steep bits.
The trail was quite narrow in places and we had to run single file. There was a stiff breeze but the first half of the course wound through the sheltered woods. After 14 miles, at the highest point on the course, we were out in the open and the views of Coniston water and the surrounding hills were absolutely breathtaking. I can only imagine what it would have looked like had it been sunny. I almost felt like stopping just to take it all in for a few minutes. Up to this point, my trainers served me well but it all went downhill (both literally and figuratively) from there.
There was a sharp descent for the next three miles and I found it hard to get a firm grip on the mud. I slipped and fell onto my knee on the narrow trail and ran with some pain for the next mile or two. Conditions underfoot only got worse after that as we were scrambling down huge stones and in ankle deep mud. For the rest of the course, I was actually going slower downhill than the climbs! Some people were just flying downhill, either their shoes gave them a firm grip or they just had no regard for their own safety. I didn’t want to risk slipping and breaking my neck just to gain a few minutes so I took it very cautiously.
There was another steep climb from miles 18 to 20 which I was actually looking forward to because I found the ascent quite easy. I was passing a lot of people who stopped to walk but they soon started passing me as we hit the final descent to the lakeshore. The trail here was even more treacherous and I just couldn’t get any traction on the mud and boulders. I was averaging around 10 minute miles at this point. The final four miles were supposed to be an easy, steady descent to the finish but this was quite possibly the worst part of the course. The trails here were full of tree roots the width of my leg! I could have easily got caught on one and gone tumbling down the side into the lake. With 3 miles to go, I had 20 minutes left to finish under four hours but it seemed less and less likely with all the hurdles I had to navigate. I wasn’t feeling particularly tired (not surprising as I was averaging 9:30/mile) and when I finally reached the paths back to the school I picked up the pace and managed a sprint to finish just under 4:05 on my watch. I collected my medal and t-shirt, got some food and watched the rest of the finishers coming in.
The course was quite tough with some long and steady climbs but nowhere near as challenging as Kielder, even though I ran 15 mins quicker there, despite walking a lot of the last 6 miles. My training really paid off as I had no trouble on the ascents. If it hadn’t been for the treacherous conditions underfoot on the descents and my lack of appropriate footwear, I’d like to think I would have done a better time. The views from the top of the hills were absolutely majestic and the race certainly deserves its status as the most scenic marathon in the UK.