Speed takes time

Coniston Fell Race 2012

I raced through the grassy meadow towards the taped lines that marked the end of the Coniston Fell Race. I couldn’t quite believe it, the leagues of fast runners had not materialised, the agony of having kept ahead on the climbs, only to be overtaken on the flat had not materialised. I’d just finished in 20th place, normally such a place would not have stirred quite the sense of satisfaction that it did, for this was Coniston, it attracts a quality field, a fast time can easily result with a finishing place well past 30.

Parking up in the school playing field in Coniston, one had the feeling of being involved in a very British event. It felt like a proper Spring day and there was a noticeable air of excitement and anticipation in the conversations of those around. Walking into the village, two elderly gentlemen’s gaze was drawn to the lush green slope of Mauldry Bank. ‘Have they started yet?’ one asked, their years didn’t diminish their enthusiasm for this annual village event.

And on a day like today it was hard not to be full of enthusiasm, fluffy white clouds were filtering across the sky and the sun was doing its best to warm the cold air, if any day was to convince you that running up and down a mountain made sense, today was as likely as any.

Rich at the top of Mauldry Bank

Leading runners above the Coppermines

A few minutes after 1230 hundreds of runners found themselves snaking their way up the steep slope of Mauldry Bank that heralds the start of the race. Hand on knees, hunched forwards I moved upwards, already some metres behind the leading pack but some way in front of the snaking masses also. It felt hard but within acceptable limits, some ten minutes later as I began the drawn out ascent to Wetherlam I felt on the edge. The ground was soft, my quads were twanging with a burning desire to be on the flat and I was strangely alone. Ahead 2 other runners could be glimpsed but looking behind there was no-one. For 5 minutes that felt like an hour, it continued, until pulling on the broad flat top of Red Gill Head I spied the chasing pack down and to my left.

Hundreds of runners snake their way towards Crook Beck & Wetherlam

Faster ground ensued as we approached and past the summit of Wetherlam, running across Black Sails I passed Rich Stevens and Jim Byrne, two fellow Ambleside runners who were checking out an alternate route that included dropping off a small cliff (!) before our paths came together.

I arrived at the Black Sail Pass with 44 minutes on the clock. Slightly disappointed but aware that if I ran hard enough my target of 1hr 25 was still a goer. The scramble up Prison Band was a mixture of running and hands on knees walking, clawing my way towards Swirl How as fast as I could. The last 30 feet or so spurred my guilt ridden body back into running, pausing on the summit only to throw some water down my neck and devour a jelly baby. I attempted to look poised as Mike Robinson took a photo but probably failed.

Turning north, I headed towards Levers Hawse, forcing my stride, so conscious was I of runners behind, I was counting those I could see ahead, I knew there weren’t many and that only sought to increase my paranoia and expectation of a sudden swathe of sprint merchants flying past. I took the fastest line I could remember and ran as hard as I could comfortably sustain. Passing one ‘well done’ after another from the steady stream of fell walkers I reached the low point on the ridge that marks roughly the half way marker between Swirl How and the Old Man.

Undulating ridge lines are always harder than they look, those seemingly irrelevant short inclines, each individually maybe no more than 20 or 30 metres join together to drain leg muscles. In training runs this was where my motivation would normally hit that mental barrier but today with stronger more motivated legs I kept running. Shortening my stride but not walking, the sounds of people behind had vanished, I kept going, keen to put as much distance between me and the mysterious runner behind me. Sure there were obviously hundreds of other runners behind me but whether the person who I had believed to be on my heels was actually there or not, I knew not. The wind and my mind were playing tricks and it wasn’t until I began the last climb of the race, onto the summit of the Old Man itself that I felt certain no-one else was going to pass any time soon.

The descent off the summit of the Old Man is a classic and it’s steep, hurtling straight off the summit, you need to remind yourself it’s runnable, so steep that the ground simply drops away from you. Thundering down the steep grassy slope and jumping between the loose slate that litters this mountain I scoured the ground ahead looking for the quickest line. I aimed for a small rocky knoll, choosing then to veer off to the right before cutting back left.

Rich descending from the Old Man of Coniston

Rejoining the main path, I raced down the track, dancing between boulders, with one last surge of energy kicking in as I past Lizzie Adams. I was nearly home, joining the track that ran down from the Coppermines, the last few hundred metres was a heavy pounding on the feet, before I turned onto the soft grassy meadow and raced for the finishing line.

I looked around there was only a small group of finishers, all strong runners. I grabbed a drink, sat down on the moist grass and soaked up the spring sunshine, feeling strangely content. Rhys Findlay Robinson who finished well inside the top 10, remarked that I’d had a good race commenting that people don’t get fast overnight, it takes time. After the last few years I’ve had I would be inclined to agree.

Coniston Fell Race 2012

Distance: 14km Ascent: 1065m Time: 1hr 22 minutes Position: 20th

Rhys Findlay-Robinson

Rob Hope on his way to winning the Coniston 2012 fell race

Lizzie Adams about to add Coniston to her list of Women’s titles


About Richard Talbot

An accomplished fell-runner as well as being a keen climber and mountaineer. Since 2005 he has worked for the UK based manufacturer Mountain Equipment and is currently Director of Product. He has worked in the outdoor industry for over 15 years.
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