Howgills Trail Marathon

The Montane Trail26 Events Howgils race is part of a larger series incorporating races at Delamere, Grizedale and Helvellyn.

After a restless night sleep camped at Keswick Mountain Festival (high winds and a gazebo next door meant loud noises every half an hour. Within seconds of the owner proudly boasting it survived in the morning it folded in on itself).

After a broken night I made my way to Sedburgh, the start and finish of the race, nestled to the south of the Howgills range. After parking at the school and collecting my race pack of t-shirt, number, timing chip and car sticker; I sat back in the car for a good 45 minutes waiting for the briefing to start.  With changeable weather and no experience of the course, my eyes scanned fellow competitors to see what they were taking and how much. It was also a great opportunity to look at what is trending on the fell currently…. Anyone like Speedcross?

Arriving for the briefing, we stood outside under the finishing arch for a good 20 minutes. As this time ran its course, people began to wonder why we were stood there, in the cold, with no one apparently there to talk to us. After a very brief explanation to walk across the timing mat in pairs, we were lead through the town’s streets, a piper at the head of the group.

Coming to a halt on the high street, we were told to stick to footpaths and close gates, and with a subtle 3,2,1 we were off.

Winding through the streets, the ascent started immediately, as we worked our way to the foot of Winder.  As the going got steep, most walked as these were the opening minutes, panting heavily and stripping wind shells to aid ventilation. Winder led to Arant Haw, quickly followed by Calders, Bram Rigg Top and the Calf.

It was around this time that the Osprey pack I was reviewing decided to burst a bladder seam, and my arse got soaked. On realising my dampness, I stopped and emptied the bladder – I didn’t want chaffing or rapid cooling due to the winds to take place. Thankfully I had a soft flask in my pack, brimmed with 500mls of water to use instead. I was pretty glad the mandatory kit stated take emergency water!

After a punishing 1hr ½ of ascent, we were blessed with the descent following Bowerdale Beck. Where before the path was expansive, wide and relatively hard packed, this gave way to singletrack, with mud and puddles.  Meandering our way down the valley, it was a chance to finally stretch our legs (as you can tell I am no elite) and spread the long train of runners out. Paths developed into roads, and the pace quickened as runners pushed along the furthest point from the start, in their quest to get to Ravenstondale and the elusive aid station.

Nothing was flat, with every small incline sapping vital energy from already weary legs and declines invoking small pace increases, taking back anything we could. As I entered the aid station is was a chance to fill my soft flask, which by this time was bone dry, top up on fluids and help myself to flapjacks, jaffa cakes and a jelly baby or two.

Nutrition is always something I struggle with. I’m happy to eat it, I just forget. Over the course I would consume: 4 gels, 1 energy bar, a few pieces of flapjack, several jaffa cakes and 4 jelly babies.

Heading back into the high ground Wandale Beck, it’s like someone turned down the power bar, as every ascent felt like it had to be walked. By this time I’d made some new friends for they day who were more than happy to walk and talk. Conversations about what was ahead, as well as the Lakeland 50 were in abundance. Contouring round, the climbs were short and the scenery changed. Whereas the first half had been baron, smooth rolling fell side, the scenery now had trees, fields and gates. Lots of gates.

Running through farmers fields in ankle deep mud, I was glad to have picked the new Adidas Terrex Boost as the combination of a relatively aggressive outsole, combined with sticky Continental rubber meant even when slipping it was controllable.

The final checkpoint was an out and back over a wooden bridge. Jaffa’d up, it was time to see what I could do. I had tracked my time and distance, and I realised I could go sub 5 hours, a PB for me. I upped my pace and was able to run all bar the steepest short ascents. And yet, I still found myself stopping to hold gates open for fellow runners. Trail running is an inherently social sport, despite what team sport players may think and throughout the day I had taken it in turns with others to open/close gates.

With two miles to go the going got relatively flat, I was able to locate runners and pick them off one by one. I live in an ideal area for fell running, Milton Keynes, so my training is predominantly flat. These flat miles came to be useful as although my pace wasn’t high, I was able to maintain it.

Finally back within Sedburgh, I looked down at my watch and saw it pass 26.2 miles. Where on earth was this finish? 500m from the finish, two climbs stopped me in my tracks, and I was back to walking, and a guy I’d passed 3 miles ago appeared behind me. I held out a hand and shouted “you paced that to perfection” as he low fived me and said “thanks”. Yes, I’m a friendly runner.

And there it was the finish arch, and I was relieved to see it. As I came through the funnel and heard the timing mat chime I was relieved. 4 hours 53 mins. Scrapping just within the top third of runners.

Medal around my neck it was time to relax.

The Montane Trail 26 Howgills is a great event. The setting is stunning, we often put most of our attention to the Lakes, which are more often than not overcrowded. The Howgills are a gem.

The course was spectacular, a great challenge and I would happily come back…. with a bit more hill training!! Marshalls were brilliant, given there were only 160 of us on the marathon course. Click here for a 3D course map from Sunnto

Tips for anyone looking to take part, practice long hills and get good at opening/shutting gates.

Given Marc Lathwaite organizes the Lakeland 50 for which I have a place, I look forward to taking on another of his events.