Hawkshead Trail Race 2009: Beaten by a Hill called Ron.

hawksheadfinishBefore running the Hawkshead 15k Trail Race, I had provisionally titled this post ‘Taking Kendal Mint Cake From Strangers.’ Clever huh? Can you see what I (nearly) did there?

But then, as so often on these occasions, if you’re me, fate intervened and threw up something far more relevant, interesting and…well…slightly embarrassing. But before I get to that, what about the race itself?

The Beauty and the Beastliness of the Hawkshead Trail

Hawkshead is a fairly small village, so I rolled up at the event in plenty of time, to find that not only was it possible to park within yards of the finishing line, but that there was a great atmosphere for this one, as befits a race being held in one of Britain’s prettiest villages and under clear blue skies.

Registration was quick, easy and friendly, and I was even given my finisher’s t-shirt before the race (though I did wonder if that was a wise move on the part of the organisers. The unscrupulous and the very nervous could simply have cleared off at that point. And I fell into at least one of those categories…).

It was just a few hundred yards walk to the start line in the village, where after waiting behind the drum band, we set off pretty much on time, tracking through the village before hitting a gently inclined rocky trail that was a pretty tame introduction to what was to follow. As is my wont when I’m not fully fit, I hung near the back from the start, but quickly regretted it, as some competitors at my end of the field were walking before we’d gone more than a kilometre. So, unusually for me these days, when the trail opened up a bit, I found myself passing a few people and really enjoying the feeling of performing fairly well on what is the rockiest course I’ve ever run.

It couldn’t last though, as even on the single flat stretch that runs alongside Lake Windermere, there are still rocks and rabbit holes aplenty for the unwary, so by the time we reached the foot of the infamous Coffin Trail at the 11k marker, I really was all in. Even after grabbing some Kendal Mint Cake and Water, I was totally out of strength, and had to resort to walking up this smooth rock path.

Strangely though, while this part of the trail runs for nearly 2k, during which I was able to run only intermittently, I wasn’t passed once; as everyone behind me at this point was just as shattered as I was.

All except for one man, as it turned out…

Just as we reached the 200m high peak of the Coffin Trail, I was finally passed by my worst nightmare: a spry, fairly elderly gent, wearing heavy knee support, but moving as if he hadn’t even seen the hill he’d just run up. He wasn’t going that fast though, and once we were on a flat-ish section, I picked up the pace again with every intention of putting on a fast finish to make up for my shameful performance on the Coffin Trail.

Before I could overtake the old chap though, I spotted the legend emblazoned across the back of his running vest: Doctor Ron Hill MBE.

Yes. It was that Ron Hill. You know, running legend Ron Hill. Former marathon World Record Holder Ron Hill. The man whose name features in the little logo on the corner of my shorts Ron Hill.

I ran alongside him for a minute or two, desperately wanting to say ‘hi’, but not really wanting to put him off his stride, or, if I’m honest, to look like the world’s most red-faced and out of breath autograph hunter. And so the moment passed, and I had to console myself with the fact that for a minute or two on a glorious spring day, I had had the honour to run alongside a living legend.

And now the really bad bit…

While I was feeling OK again by this point and all ready to give it my big finish, I really was loath to blast past the great Ron Hill, what with him being a couple of decades older than me. And so, I took the decision that I would simply run the last couple of kilometres in his wake, basking in the turbulence of his magnificence…oh, and getting my picture taken with him at the finish…

And then, as the trail became rockier and more steeply downhill, he took an enormous rolling fall, obviously hitting his left hip pretty hard on the ground. I, and another guy we were running with, stopped to help him up, but he was back on his feet having hardly missed a stride, and setting off down the horrendously steep and difficult trail like a mountain goat.

I tried to stay with him. Really I did. But I had neither the balance nor the courage to get down the jagged, treacherous, plummeting trail as fast as he did. On the upside though, neither did quite a lot of other people, my age and much younger, with the upshot that I finished about 10 places behind the great man, even after my big(ish) sprint finish allowed me to pass quite a few people over the last 400 metres.

All in all, this is a difficult but rewarding race, and one I’m almost certain to enter again next year. Obviously my 1:46 time is appalling for just 15k, but not so terrible when you consider the terrain, which is as bad to run down as it is to run up. And where flat sections that allow you to get into your stride are few and far between.

As it turned out though, the greatest challenge I faced on the day was my own misguided notion that if I finished behind the great Ron Hill, it would be through choice…

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Don’t taper for short races. Just put your feet up.

feetupIt’s the eternal puzzle for runners I suppose: how much tapering is right before a race? The question is on my mind at the moment because I’m gearing up for the first of the Lakeland Trails 2009 series on Saturday, which takes place in and around the picturesque village of Hawkshead in the Lake District.

The thing is, it’s only a 15k, albeit one which includes a couple of very steep uphill sections, including a one mile stone staircase that’s poetically called ‘The Coffin Trail’ (unless I’ve misunderstood, and it’s actually the ‘coughin’ trail’, which sounds equally likely, having studied the frankly terrifying course profile from the website). Now, as any half way serious runner will tell you: while you need to taper for anything from a half marathon upwards, you really shouldn’t need to taper for a 15k fell race. Well, that’s the accepted wisdom anyway.

However, maybe it’s just because I’m well into middle age, but I always find that a full week off training before a race does me the world of good, allowing me to turn up on the line feeling much more fresh and rested than if I’d run within the last 2-3 days. It’s a theory I’ve tested a few times now, and which has absolutely always worked for me.

And so, having knocked out roughly 25 miles a week for the last couple of months, ending with a 12 mile mixed road and trail session last Saturday, I’m spending the week working from home and chilling out as much as possible, apart from doing a few stretches twice a day, just to make sure I don’t tense up too much without my regular mid-week 6 milers. But lest you think that I’ve grown soft with age, this is the course profile for Saturday’s 15k.

hawkshead-profile The low points are roughly at sea level, while the high points are a shade over the 200 metre mark. So I’m assuming that the final big ascent between 11k and 13k will be the much vaunted Coffin Trail. I would further postulate that I’m going to be in really bad shape if/when I make it to the 13k point.

But having shared my dazzling cleverness with you all in suggesting that a week off before races as tough as this is a really good idea, I should also ‘fess up to my immense stupidity in failing, yet again, to read the race notes thoroughly before putting my entry in for this event.

Why you should always read the race notes…

You see, there are actually two overlapping events in Hawkshead on Saturday: the Puma Hawkshead Trail Race and the Puma Hawkshead Challenge. I blithely entered for the Race, assuming that the Challenge would be, well, more of a challenge. But, as is traditional on these occasions, I have cocked up badly.

Thus it is that at 13.15 on Saturday, the Challenge people will set off at their own pace to walk, run, jog, dander or sashay their way around the course in a welter of bonhomie and Werthers originals; having a lovely time and stopping to enjoy the view every now and then, secure in the knowledge that they’re just there to have a good time.

At 2pm, however, many of Cumbria’s most serious and sprightly fell runners will be lining up to tackle the Race, which covers the same 15k course as the Challenge, albeit at quite a bit more speed.

Frankly, however much rest I give my legs this week, I don’t think I’m going to be able to stay with them. And so, I have an alternative plan, which is as follows. Before the Challenge sets off, I’m going to earmark the least competitive-looking competitor I can see in the crowd, and designate them as ‘the Fox’, regardless of their sexual attractiveness, or, indeed, their sex.

My task then, is to pass ‘the Fox’ before the finish – having afforded them a more than generous 45-minute head start. It looks like an uphill struggle, but I’m certainly going to give it my best shot. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and put my feet up…