In my memories of doing cross-country in school PE, it’s always raining. I’d trudge round the fields, woods and boggy lanes getting progressively wetter and then be one of the last ones to get back and try to get warm in two minutes in the showers.
Thirty years later, I was sitting in my car in a muddy field at Dungeon Ghyll watching rain that was heavier than any of my cross-country memories and wondering just what I was about to do.
Weather in the Lake District is often forecast with the old saying that if you can see the mountain, it’s about to rain, and if you can’t see the mountain, it’s already raining. I’d been watching the regular forecast all through the week, realising that the stubborn black clouds with raindrops underneath them weren’t going away and it was going to be a wet one. I wasn’t doing this run for charity, I’d made no promises to anyone that I was absolutely going to do it, and yet here I was, preparing to start Britain’s toughest road half marathon while the rain was managing to both fall heavily and fly horizontally as the wind swirled round. What’s more, this would be essentially a solo run. Covid-19 means there are no mass starts in races now, and runners were instead heading off at no more than two a minute, spread out across the course from the start. Wait in the car until your time is called, then jump out and dash across muddy fields to register, get your number, pin it on and then go out into the mist.
I’d first heard about the Langdale Half Marathon (there’s also a marathon option for those who want to do it twice in a row, a level of dedication to enduring pain and discomfort I can only imagine) back around 2018. Like a lot of runners, I’d taken part in “Finish for Matt” where people ran 3.7 miles in memory of Matt Campbell who’d died that far from the finish of the London Marathon. That was in support of the Brathay Trust, a Lakes-based charity for young people who organise a series of races in around the Lake District. I was already looking towards running the London Marathon when I first read about the Langdale race, but it lodged in my head as something I wanted to do at some point and so back in February, when I still didn’t understand how weird the world would get by the time October came around, I signed up for it.
I live in a place where our biggest hill ascends about 50 metres above sea level, and this was a race with a total elevation of 500 metres, including two savage climbs where the gradient touches one in three at points. Add to that that it was taking place in Cumbria in October, and years of half-term visits to my grandparents in Barrow had taught me just how wet that could be. That far out, though, I could still imagine it would be an unseasonably warm day by the time the race came around, and that regular jaunts up Ipswich Road would somehow prepare me for steep Lake District hills.
Langdale is one of my favourite spots in the Lakes, and even in the rain it has its own kind of beauty. The route starts on the valley road, going towards the head of the valley. Through the rain and low cloud, the Langdale Pikes loomed over to my right, while ahead of me the fringes of the Scafell massif loomed through the cloud, their tops lost in the mist, but the slopes of The Band pushed out from it with Wrynose Fell rising to its left, the sky just clear enough to see where it dropped a shoulder towards Side Pike and Lingmoor Fell, creating the pass at Blea Tarn, and as the road turns left at the end of the valley, it’s the route up to there that looms in front of you.
The climb up to Blea Tarn is relatively short but savage, the road switching back and forth as it seeks a purchase on the steep ground. The higher I got, the more the rain seemed to fall and the stronger the wind got as the shelter of the pass fell away. Legs that had just about warmed up on the damp jog to the foot of the climb were complaining at just trying to walk up there, suddenly realising how far they were from the speed bumps that masquerade as hills in Essex. The climb starts and finishes with cattle grids, and reaching that second one was a moment of pure relief and a chance to notice the view had changed. Great Langdale was now behind me, and Little Langdale was ahead.
What goes up must come down and the road drops straight down past Blea Tarn and into the valley. I wanted to enjoy the downhill, and my legs did benefit from gravity for once, but it was just as I entered what would turn out to be the worst weather of the day. For a moment I thought it was hail, but instead it was just harsh rain, whipped to a painful impact by a wind blowing directly at me, crashing loudly off my tightly zipped running jacket. This felt like a moment calculated to make me want to quit, but came at exactly the wrong point for that, as turning back at that point meant re-ascending to Blea Tarn, while pressing on was lower and flatter.
I was feeling more comfortable than I expected to by this point, being wet but not cold and still moving well enough. I’d been doing my best to keep my feet as dry as possible, weaving along the road to keep out of the bigger puddles and sticking to the driest parts possible. That felt like being clever, until I hit the points where there was so much water pooled in the road that even the shallowest path through it was ankle deep. There was a marshal standing by the first one I encountered, and I wondered if he was there to show a side route that avoided it until I realised he was just there to make sure we stayed on the right route and didn’t follow the side road that was helping feed the small lake on the road. Walking right through it was a whole new experience for me, and I could feel the water soaking in to my trainers, but then had the relief of feeling it drain out of them almost as quickly as I started running again without a permanent squelching sound accompanying every step.
As I passed Little Langdale Tarn, the weather started to ease off, the rain becoming more regular and vertical, the clouds lifting to reveal more of the fields and hills around me, allowing me to enjoy the view as I pressed on, bumping along the small inclines and descents, watching the mile posts go by. By the time I got to the one water station a bit before 6 miles, the rain had almost completely ceased and I could unzip my jacket for the first time. For a time the route followed the main road, then I realised the marshals weren’t directing me to carry on down along, but instead were highlighting the arrow pointing towards what looked like nothing more than a wide path off to the right that went quite sharply uphill. This was for a section through some real back roads, looping up and around through Skelwith Fold, then dropping down to the river at Skelwith Bridge.
By this point, I had a rhythm of walking the ups and running the downs, even running the relatively few flat sections. It wasn’t quick, but it was getting me round the course, and now it was time for the ascent to Loughrigg. Skelwith Bridge was the lowest part of the route, but as soon as I reached it, I could see the second of the big ascents directly ahead of me, a road that looked very straight and very vertical. A few years ago, we had a holiday in Langdale and stayed at Neuam Crag, which is at the top of the first part of this climb, and the directions to get there and to go anywhere once you were there were very clear on avoiding this road unless you were feeling particularly foolhardy. Now I could see why. It was shorter than the climb to Blea Tarn, but eight miles of up and down running in, it was just as hard on the legs, and unlike that first climb, it didn’t end with a descent. Instead, it levelled out for a while, then kept on going up, not quite as savagely, but still steadily up to Loughrigg Tarn and beyond, this time with enough trees around that the top of it wasn’t obvious.
That point came with reaching the Langdale Youth Hostel, at the aptly named High Close, where the climb finally levelled off and revealed the valley below, Great Langdale spread out at the bottom of a long drop down. The rain had returned, but now felt more of an annoyance than a threat as there was no way I could get any wetter than I already was. The long wall of Blea Rigg was visible rising up from the edge of the valley, and even the Langdale Pikes were just poking their noses through the clouds in the distance. All I had to do was reach them.
It took a lot quicker to lose all that height as the route dropped into Elterwater, and after looping through the village and the grounds of the hotel, it was back onto the main road just outside Chapel Stile and time for the final couple of miles to the finish. There weren’t any major climbs through this section, but it was still refusing to be flat for anything other than a few metres at a time and legs were not enjoying even the smallest of ascents. However, I could now see the water cascading down Stickle Ghyll in the distance, and I knew the finishing line was at the bottom of that temporary waterfall, so as it got nearer and clearer, so did the end of this run.
That final stretch was the same as it is for any race, only the staggered starts meaning all the different types of race were happening at the same time. Some of us were struggling through and pushing ourselves to the end, others were cruising past us, pushing themselves in search of new PBs and high finishing positions, all of this mixed in with the regular traffic on the road, with cars, bikes and walkers heading back and forth along the narrow road. Amazingly, except for one speeding idiot in a Porsche, everyone gave the necessary space to everyone else and I never felt in any sort of danger and soon the profile of the hills was looking familiar and the end was in sight. A quick dash over the grass and it was done, with a medal depicting one of those peaks that now loomed overhead waiting for me.
As this is 2020, there’s aren’t the usual finishing line scenes, with people not milling around and sharing their experiences. The timing system meant I got a printout of my time as soon I checked in my timing band, so anyone around me would have heard my cry of “Yes! Not last!” as the printout told me I was 101st out of 102 finishers at that time, and it would turn out that there were still several more people to come in slower than me.
So, now I can cross the Langdale Half Marathon off my list. It was one of the toughest runs I’ve ever done, not as tough for overall endurance as a marathon, but incredibly physically demanding. The opening climb to Blea Tarn really puts you under a lot of strain and I could feel the effects of it on my legs for the rest of the run, compounded even more by the Loughrigg ascent. The weather made everything tougher, of course, but I surprised myself in how well I was able to deal with it and how much being soaked just became another thing I could pretty much ignore. Though when I got changed afterwards, the sheer saturation of everything I was wearing makes me think I was carrying a few extra pounds of water around with me for most of it!
While I don’t think I’ll ever be in the sort of condition to realistically attempt the marathon, I would like to come back to Langdale and try it again. Maybe another roll of the dice on the Lakes weather might finally come up lucky and give me a dry, clear day to really enjoy the scenery and the experience.