Running the Lakeland Trails Marathon

Last weekend I headed off to Coniston to take part in the Lakeland Trails Marathon. This was a bit of a personal challenge for me as I’d never done a marathon before – in fact the only race I’d ever done was a half marathon back in 2010. The Lakeland Trails’ course is billed as possibly the ‘hardest’ marathon course in the country, so maybe not an ideal choice for my first… so why did I choose it? Well, the thought of completing those 26 odd miles on the road caused my shins to think ‘ouch’ and my mind to think ‘bored…’, so a trail marathon it had to be. I looked at quite a few smaller races and decided I’d prefer a bigger event with much less chance of finishing last and a bit more collective psyche to get me round. With a field of roughly 900 runners split between the marathon and half marathon events, the Lakeland Trails seemed perfect.

Race day was hot, very hot! Fortunately I’d signed up for the ‘marathon challenge’ event rather than the race, which is the same course but started a couple of hours earlier to increase the cut off times. Beforehand I’d been dreading the 7am start, especially as my planned 7am long training runs to work had been beaten by my alarm’s snooze button, but on the day I was very glad of the early start to beat the worst of the day’s heat.

Marathon and Half Marathon Route - from lakelandtrails.org

The course starts just south of Coniston village on the large campsite at Coniston Hall – making the previous night’s accommodation a doddle! From there it’s a blast on wide gravel trail and road through the village, then up on to a smaller rocky footpath. From the 4km mark it kicks uphill a bit more (I certainly wasn’t alone in walking the ~900m of hills on the course!), mainly on wide and rocky bridleways, before dropping down to Tarn Hows. A loop around the tarn here is a little soul destroying but passes quickly enough and you’re soon past the 15km point and on into Grizedale. I’d expected the Grizedale section to be the most brutal as it’s around 12km of forestry road. It did drag a little but fortunately everyone seemed to be feeling it a little by this point and there was plenty of chatting between the runners to pass the miles. What didn’t help was a lack of any kilometer markers or marshalls right the way through – although the route was well signed, there were no distance markers between the 15 and 30km points. Whilst that’s fine for those with GPS watches, for those of us without it would have been nice to know we were past halfway.

Dropping out of Grizedale, you pass the 30km point and the worst part of the race in terms of the course, a slow section through several fields with many gates and stiles. Another aid station and then uphill again, to Beacon Tarn. The heat was hitting hard at this point and it was a sweaty struggle up to the tarn then back down to the road – aided by a very thoughtful marshall who had wet sponges waiting! One last aid station, then 6km along the lake to the finish. Unfortunately to make up distance there was a long lap of the grassy, cow-patty field at the end before crossing the finish line – really miserable when you thought you had 100m to go and it turned out to be more like 1km! General consensus afterwards seems to be that it would be better to put this in at the start rather than the end, maybe this will be changed next year. However, a great atmosphere awaited you at the finish with music & plenty of supportive spectators.

Overall the event seemed well organised, although we were delayed by 10 minutes or so setting off as the road through Coniston wasn’t yet closed. Marshalls were enthusiastic and well-informed as to remaining distances etc, and the course was well signed although only had 5, 10, 15 & 30 km markers. Aid stations were slightly bizarrely spaced, though this was due to where the road crossings were so unavoidable really. They were well stocked with water, isotonic drink, coke, jelly babies, Kendal mint cake, flapjack and bananas, with a couple of water-only stations too. Apparently water started to run out later on, presumably due to higher demand in the heat, but pretty rough on slower runners and hopefully something that would be sorted next year. This was the first year they’d run it from the campsite, which worked well given the weather (with plenty of sunny field to laze around on and a lake to jump in to at the end!), but I could see it being miserable in bad weather as there’s no shelter at all and no cafe/pub nearby to hide in.

I opted to wear road shoes for the race, though there were plenty in trail shoes too. The course is split probably 40% on rougher rocky trails (still fine in the dry in road shoes), 50% gravel trail/forest road, and a few bits of tarmac and bog thrown in for good measure. Pretty much everyone carried water & snacks in addition to the aid station supplies, I used a Raidlight Trail Running Bottle which worked perfectly. I would have hated to not have water with me in those temperatures, though with a maximum of ~12km between aid stations it would be ok if it was cooler.

Finish line... still smiling, just!

I’d definitely recommend the Lakeland Trails event to anyone looking for a large scale trail marathon. At 44 it’s not a cheap event, but I didn’t feel too cheated by the cost given the good support and event set up. There’s even a Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding in the goody bag (yum!) and free event photos which is a nice touch.

And how did I do?? Much better than I’d hoped for, although 2 days later I’m still limping round the office like an old lady!

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