I’ll start this story at the back in December 2017 when I decided I was signing up for my first marathon. Like a lot of my fellow Humbugs I signed up for May’s Windermere Marathon. I still count myself as a relative novice at this running lark and wasn’t doing a very good job of reading the signals from my body, and in particular my knee.
By the 1st January I could barely walk upstairs, never mind run a marathon. Off to the physio I went and was diagnosed with Patellofemoral pain syndrome. Whilst spring brought some improvement, I just couldn’t put in the training distances and also got a massive bollo…telling off from my physio for even contemplating it. Brathay offered me a place in the October Langdale Half Marathon instead of Windermere, and the physio gave me the thumbs up.
Over the next few months, I’ve gradually improved and got back into running 10K (that’s 6 miles if you voted for Brexit) as part of my training runs but in truth my biggest barrier has been my ‘mojo’. I’ve really struggled for motivation midweek and the knock-on effect is I haven’t got anywhere near close to the pre-injury distances I was achieving. A few parkruns in-between running there and back has been my biggest achievement, but a couple of attempts at running ~20K from Saltaire to Cononley along the canal has seen me fall short at Silsden. It’s okay though I told myself, it’s be all right on the day…won’t it?
On October 20th I found myself traveling up to the Lakes to take on this challenge. The forecast was dull and wet, so I was on my own as my little fan club opted to stay back in sunny Kelbrook. I was a little apprehensive about the challenge ahead, but told myself I’m good at hills and racing is always different to training. I’d been asked by my old boss earlier in the week, who’s one of those odd neutral football fans, if I’d like to meet him before the Man City v Burnley game, and joked that I couldn’t as I was doing the Langdale Half Marathon as I’d opted for the option with the least pain! It’s only a few hills right. Those few hills look like this!
The forecast was to prove accurate. As soon as I got to Kendal it turned to Lakes weather. Grey skies, mountains covered in mist and constant drizzle that didn’t stop until I went back past Kendal later that day. Arriving at Sticklebarn, the facilities were very impressive with all the things you’d expect and loos everywhere. Why is it so many men think a last-minute number two will help them be number one? There’s also a festival to coincide with the race, with live bands at Sticklebarn and plenty of food options. You know, because runners really need the smell of bacon butties before setting off on a (half) marathon. I tried to take in the surroundings, but the grey weather was not for moving so I just had to imagine all the surrounding peaks. I had a brief look around for other Humbugs, but it didn’t look like anyone else made it.
10:20 came around surprisingly fast and after a race briefing we were off.
I already knew it was a gentle first mile followed by the toughest hill of the route, so I took it steady allowing the runners to un-bunch. Approaching the hill, I passed a trio of runners from London. Always makes me wonder how people from places like that prepare for this kind of race. Stair reps up The Shard maybe? I thought I won’t see them again. Who was I kidding? The ‘hill’ was everything it promised to be and would best be better described as a mountain pass. I gave it a good go, but by halfway up like many others I had to walk. Even the ones still running were hardly making any headway. The strava segment is called ‘Road to Hell’ and it’s not hard to see why (I was 46th out of 135 for today at last count).
Half a mile later and I was at the top. The next 6 miles I found very enjoyable. The course was undulating with nothing too long and steep. I should mention the many drivers who pulled over on the narrow lanes to let us pass. I was disappointed that many of my fellow competitors didn’t feel the need to thank them even with a courteous wave or thumbs up. From what I could see, the scenery was stunning as Blea and Little Langdale tarns came and went. There was one tough hill where I had a bit of breather and walked a couple of hundred yards, but in the main it was going well. I knew this because I was doing my bestest Rachel Riley (I’m good at maths, not English) and had worked out after 10K in 54 minutes, that I could do the next 10K in 6 minutes longer and still leave myself a final kilometre driven by adrenaline in under 6 minutes to get me over the finish line in under two hours. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that.
I had an idea of the challenges that I faced on the route and knew there was a big hill in the second half of the race. Around 10K in, we got sent up the narrowest country road I’ve ever seen. It was a long climb, but steepness wise it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I thought I’d got my estimations of where the big hills were wrong and was feeling chuffed with myself for easing up it.
Approaching Skelwith Bridge at getting on for two-thirds of the way around I was ready for following the B road back to Sticklebarn. I’d already decided on the drive up that the was nothing on this section to worry about. I’d got it wrong though, and on crossing the main road, we were sent up an obviously steep country lane. If the gradient in front of my eyes wasn’t enough to set alarm bells ringing, then the 25% gradient road sign certainly did. I straight away decided to take it easy and not overdo it opting to walk the high gradient ascent out of the village. The problem was this was the big hill I thought I’d done! The second problem was that as well as being bleedin’ steep in places it went on for what felt like forever. Looking back, it was a mile and a half of constant climbing. Even walking some of the tough bits, I’d gone from feeling great to having legs like lead. One thing I learnt today, is that whilst what goes up must come down, in the lakes the down is usually very steep as well, so when finally at the top, there was only a brief respite of steep downhill, before you’re back on undulating roads.
By the bottom of the hill, I told myself I was in Parkrun territory; “that’s all I’ve got to do”. I’d eaten into a lot of my contingency time and had 30 minutes to run the remaining 5k or so. Again, I told myself I’d be fine. Truth is I got another half a kilometre or so, and as well as my legs feeling like lead, all my will-power had gone. My strava shows that from 17k to 19k I’d dropped to seven-minute kilometres doing run-walk, and some of the walking was on flat as well as uphill. Special mention at this point for the beautiful village of Chapel Stile which I will have to go back to on a nicer day.
There were times at this point when I couldn’t see any way I’d be able to do anything other than walk the rest of the way. A chat with another runner helped me though. I chatted to him as he slowly went past me about how hard it was. The guy agreed, then said he was on the full marathon. This made me feel a bit pathetic, so I pushed on and I realised that if I could get a decent pace going I had just over ten minutes to do 2K. I gave it a good go and was beaten by one of the many smallish hills on the undulating roads. When you turn a corner and realise there’s yet another incline, it’s soul destroying. My splits for the last two kilometres showed a marked improvement though back down to not much over 5-minute kilometres.
I did feel a bit bad for one runner who I seemed to be neck and neck with throughout the second half of the race. He’d jog past me as I walked, then I’d jog past him walking and this happened over an over again. A few hundred yards from the finish I passed him for the last time and turned to him and offered words of encouragement “come on mate, there’s only a few hundred more yards to go!”. The poor sod looked back at me, and you’ve guessed it, he was another on the full marathon.
At this stage, I’m still waiting for my official time, but Garmin clocked me at 2:01:18. My target was under two hours, but I knew how tough it could be and I’m not going to beat myself up about getting so close. Sometimes you have to put things in perspective. Driving back along the country lanes over half an hour after I’d finished, I passed many people still out running, and some of them still had a good couple of miles to go. After earlier on in the year, I’m just glad to be back running again.
I’d recommend this race to fellow humbugs, especially those who like road running who are looking for a challenge. How tough is it? Well I’d rate it as tougher than Hendon Brook, but less painful than watching Burnley get beat 5-0 by Man City. I definitely made the right decision.