It is interesting approaching what is billed as one of the toughest trail marathons in the UK and thinking of it as just a training run but for me Coniston 2012 was just that. My big prize for the year is the Hardmoors 60 trail ultra in September and with that in mind Coniston was in my mind simply 26.2 miles in my legs in race conditions. The race arrived a full 12 weeks before Hardmoors and I prepared for it totally differently from previous marathons. In particular I focused on the less is more principle. Rather than running daily I focused on running 2 to 3 half marathons a week leaving at least one rest day between runs. I have to say that this, combined with doing all my running on trails rather than tarmac has made a huge difference in terms of reducing niggling little injuries and I feel strong every time I go out running. I was also going into this race a full stone less than my last competative outing at the Frostbite 50 so was feeling pretty confident....Importantly and contrary to most principles of marathon preparation my longest run was just 17 miles before this race, a distance I only completed once. This element of my prep did worry me as it had the potential to totally blow up in my face.
The weather in Coniston didnt dissapoint us. The rain across the North West had been torrential for weeks and this day was to be no different with us running in awful conditions for nearly the entire race. It made the decision not to camp but to use the YHA seem like a particularly wise one even if the tent would probably have offered more luxury. Having trained solidly on trails for the last few months and having recently taken on a tough trail ultra I was not particularly concerned about the terrain at Coniston, this was to prove a huge huge mistake. Coniston marathon is a VERY VERY tough course with 3500ft of ascents and descents and with large parts of the course involving running on seriously technical trails which were made all the more tough by the amount of water both standing and running that covered the course. In particular I was finding the long descents an absolute nightmare as I battled over wet slippery angled rock beds that had become streams in the deluge of rain the area had suffered.
The early part of the race went really well, Alistair and I had made a decision to run a really conservative pace with our focus simply on miles in legs and finishing the race in one piece. Despite the heavy rain the testing ascents soon saw us dumping our waterproof rain jackets into our back packs as our body temps sored and the jackets that not only kept the water out also did a great job of keeping perspiration in. When will somebody produce a truly breathable jacket? I have done a lot of my running recently in ankle braces having sprained an ankle at Frostbite. On race day and for some inexplicable reason I decided that I would wear the brace to protect my previously injured left ankle but would not bother with one on my good ankle. It was to be a fatal mistake and one I am still paying for now. On seven miles I turned unbraced ankle on a rock, it wasnt too bad and luckily I had brought the spare brace with me. A two minute pit stop to lace up the brace and I was back on the move, a little sore but convinced the ankle wasnt too bad. As time went by my confidence grew, the ankle felt strong again and I put it to the back of my mind. The miles passed by quickly and soon we had passed halfway, a mile stone I had been looking forward to as it spelled the end of the major climbs. From here on in it "should" have been a far more easier race. Unfortunately I had not taken into account just how technical and difficult the descents would be. In short they were a nightmare and at times we were slowed to a virtual walk as we clambered through streams and over jagged rocks. On more than one occasion we heard crashes and yelps only to turn and see fellow runners had taken a tumble and on one occasion spill some serious claret all over the rock bed. From 14 to 21 miles the course was a mixture of rocky terrain and what seemed like bottomless muddy bogs and on many occasions we were running nearly knee deep in icy cold stinking mud and water but I have to say that far from spoiling the race it was absolutely fantastic.
As we entered the last 5 miles we were moving freely and if anything both Alistair and I were picking up the pace and picking off runners as we went. The trail ran along the river bank of Coniston but it was good at this point although single file. I felt strong and headed a small train of four or five runners through this point. Entering the last 4 miles a familiar foe returned to ruin my 2nd race on the trot. As we passed some walkers on the trail I side stepped and rolled the ankle I had tweaked earlier but this time I had done it properly and once again I found myself in the familiar position of writhing around on the floor, screaming in agony with a sprained ankle. Having been here before at Frostbite (and run on it for 25 miles) I knew the initial pain would only last a few minutes and with just 4 miles to go I decided to go on (not much choice as in the middle of nowhere). It was an awful last 4 miles and as anybody who has sprained and ankle will tell you the fear of putting your foot down and turning the ankle again is absolutely sickening. After what seemed and age I finally approached the school field and the finish line and crossed in 4hrs 48 mins. It is a sign of just how tough this race was that I was absolutely thrilled with this time.
Post Race and lessons learnt
Well 2 weeks post race I find myself in a familiar position, recovering from an injury and being unable to run. I have researched why I could be having trouble with my ankles and have invested in a wobble board in an attempt to both rehab my injured ankle but also to strengthen all the muscles around both ankles to prevent future injury. The wobble board is quite good fun and I can feel that the excercises that I am doing are working the ankle although only time will tell if it will prevent injuries in future races. In terms of the race itself I felt really good and really strong despite my reduced mileage during training. The lack of 20+ mile runs simply did not inhibit my ability to complete what was a pretty brutal marathon course. This is something I will use again as I prepare for marathon distances in the future although I think it would be foolish to believe I could do this for ultra distances too and the last place I want to realise I am undertrained is half way round the Hardmoors 60. The biggest lesson was however not to alter the things that have worked through your training. Why oh why did I not start Coniston wearing both braces? It is a decision that I have paid a huge price for and that could potentially put me out of both the upcoming Northumberland Trail Marathon and Hardmoors too.
Thanx to Alistair for some great company both on race day but also chillin in the YHA the night before. Arriving the day before a race is definitely something I recommend, it was great to get focussed, to be able to talk running rather than get dragged round the shops while pretend I was not focusing on my race and just get into "the zone".