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What lies in wait on 2nd July - The 110k course profile

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Tough lessons on the Coniston marathon

As I write this I'm recovering at home, two days after completing my first 'official' marathon, the Lakeland Trails Coniston. I'd gone into the race with a feeling of quiet confidence - after all, I've run over a marathon in training now - but, as I'd hoped really, the whole experience taught me quite a lot. But not in the most pleasant way.

The weather has been warming up steadily for weeks now and by the time it was race day was forecast wall to wall sunshine and high twenties. No great shakes for lots of the world but for us Brits and especially those who've done all their training over a Cumbrian winter, quite a shock to the system.

So I had good reason to be glad I'd entered the 'Challenge' version of the marathon. It follows the same course but with much more generous cut off times than the more competitive 'Race' and crucially, starts 2 hours earlier at 07:00. Even so, it was already pretty warm by the time the fairly low key and rather sudden start was announced and we were off, jogging through the flat meadows towards Coniston village.
Lovely gentle start towards Coniston village

This early part of the race was crucial. Part of the reason I'd entered this event was to get some experience of running my own race and not getting carried away trying to keep up with much faster runners. So I was very happy to spend the first 7 or 8 miles up to Tarn Hows meandering along, walking the uphills and chatting to fellow runners. Many of them had the same idea as me as almost everyone I spoke to had also entered the ultra in a months time, albeit the 55km version, and were using this as a training run.

I saw Janet again at Tarn Hows (she'd been on the Yewdale bridleway to cheer me on, then walked up for this second rendevous) who had a surprise bonus of some grapes for me, very welcome. After this I realised that I'd started to overtake quite a lot of runners, not really deliberately but just through settling in to a natural pace. This continued up into Grizedale forest, along the wide tracks and through a lovely shady singletrack until we suddenly popped out of the trees high above Coniston water. This moment stopped most runners in their tracks, partly because of the view and partly because of the sudden exposure to the day's oven like heat.
Runners rather distracted by the view ...

It really was properly hot now but I felt fine and kept pushing on through the pack. I really noticed all the training I've been doing on trails paying off on the downhills, where I was able to fly down at full pelt while most of the other runners were picking their way down very gingerly. Past another feed station (there were four with snacks and a further two with just water) and I was on to the final climb to Beacon Tarn. During this I started to develop that all over glowing feeling you get when you're really too hot, so was only too pleased to dunk my head in the tarn at the top. To my surprise the marshalls there said I was one of the first to do this!
Beacon tarn - refreshing!

The marshalls also said that I'd 'reel quite a few more in at that pace' so by now all thoughts of running this at the same pace as a normal long training run had gone out of the window. After the rough descent to the last road crossing for the final few miles back along the lakeshore some spectators informed me that I could be in the top ten if I could pass 5 more people, so I carried on pushing on, pleased to discover I could still run up as well as down the many undulations in the path.

I did pass more people, all of whom were walking, and it was only within sight of the finish arena I started to feel quite odd. Pins and needles in my hands and a dizzy head led me to realize I'd not really eaten anything all race, except crisps at the feed stations and an early bit of home made flapjack. It felt wrong to stop now, but I didn't want to pass out on the finish line, so I got myself a bar out of my bag and scoffed it down with literally 500 metres to go.

Hot and bothered - coming in to the finish line

It worked, and I was able to complete the unexpected loop of the finishing area, now packed with people, in reasonable style. The results showed I came in 14th, with a time of 4hrs 53mins. To put this in perspective, the winning time was 4hrs 20mins but last year's winning time was 3hrs 37mins - a difference I'd put down entirely to the heat.

I think pretty much every runner ended up in here ...
At this moment I felt fine. Ten minutes to sit down, a quick leg soak in the lake and I was ready for a falafel and an ice cream, after which we settled down for the afternoon to cheer on all the other finishers making their way in. I don't know if the damage was already done when I finished, or whether it was the further sessions of sitting round in the sun, but it was later on after getting home and having my tea that I started to feel pretty awful. A night of vommitting and diarrhoea saw me in a very miserable state the next morning, something I'm only just recovering from now after two days off work.

So all in all a very positive experience - the run itself that is. I was pleased that I held up very well during the running, pleased that I kept to my own pace and especially pleased to do so unexpectedly well. But it's really taught me a good lesson about looking after yourself (I didn't have any hat, sunglasses or suncream on), something that will be especially important in the upcoming ultra marathon. I've seen a quote about ultras saying they're really 'just eating and drinking competitions with a little light exercise thrown in' and while I'd quibble the lightness of the exercise this whole experience has drummed home the importance of this other side of things. Get that wrong on the day and I'm toast, especially if it's as hot as this was .....

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