Sedbergh is a lovely little town nestled beneath the Howgill Fells which are either an outlier of the Lake District or in the Yorkshire Dales, depending on your point of view. In good weather the open and rounded fells offer beautiful walking country with fantastic views in every direction. But that openness together with a lack of distinctive shaped summits and features can make for tricky navigation when the weather is not as benign and springlike as it was yesterday. There was barely a breath of wind, mild temperatures and a few fluffy clouds drifting around; ideal conditions for the Montane Howgills Marathon and Half Marathon.
I was down for the half and was including it as a tough training run in my buildup for Ironman UK in July. A couple of weeks ago I had strained the ligaments in my left foot again, so my plan was to take it steady and try not to go over on my ankle again. No chance of that over the first few kms as the start was a real calf buster. Although the tops of the Howgills consist of long and open ridges along which you can wander for miles without losing or gaining too much altitude, to get up there requires you to climb the steep fellsides. Taking a direct path from Sedbergh to the top of Winder the contour lines are crowded together and only the absolute fittest of fell runners are ever going to take the ascent as anything other than a walk. It was calf busting stuff, but all the hill running I had done was paying off as I overhauled a number of runners who had shot off a little enthusiastically. Once on the top a stony path was picked up that dropped down a little before another steep section to the top of Arant Haw. Now, at last we got some open fell running though, again, for the most part it was on rocky paths requiring concentration. I was enjoying myself, putting in a decent pace and still overtaking a few. I reckoned I was well in the top 50 at this point. Gentle undulations led us northwards over Calders and Bram Rigg Top towards The Calf. Here we took a turn to the right and began the sharp descent to Cautley Spout. Now my enthusiasm started to get the better of me and I shot down hill like Joss Naylor overtaking several more runners. The inevitable happened and I went over on my ankle again. Not too seriously, but enough to shock me and slow me right down. All those who I had just overtaken duly repassed me.
By the time I reached the top of Cautley Spout I hadn’t yet reached half distance and now there was a horrid and really steep descent down to the valley once more. I took it fairly gingerly but my ankle was holding up ok. As the terrain levelled out at around 10km in I could feel the damage that all that ascent and descent had done to my legs. The second half of this race was not going to be pretty. Luckily, the only feed stop arrived at a timely moment and I necked a couple of cokes and grabbed a handful of jelly babies. I had burned a lot of energy and my sugar levels definitely needed topping up.
The next few miles I found very hard as I tried to recover from the brutal first half of the race. The trail tracked around the edge of the hills but was still very uneven underfoot requiring constant concentration. My kilometre splits between 11 and 15km were quite a slow 6:45 which despite the relative evenness of the route showed how much the first half had taken out of me. Again, several runners passed me as I struggled to regain form. Luckily, a few hundred metres of metalled lane allowed a mental break from the stone and root hopping and I started to feel better again. The route now followed the River Rawthey on much more even ground back to Sedbergh. I picked up the pace a little and overhauled a number of the runners who had taken me during my bad section. By the time I reached Sedbergh once more I was down to a more respectable 6:15 per kilometre. Thoughtfully, the organisers put in one last nasty climb before the finish which put paid to my efforts to haul in one more runner, and it was a very weary me that jogged in to the finish in 2:43:37. That was good enough for 52nd overall out of 136 finishers and 5th in my age group (only 8 minutes away from 3rd). My ankle had held up well and I suspect my trip on it had only cost me a couple of minutes.
With over 800 metres of steep ascent and consequent similar amount of descent the Howgills Half is the toughest half marathon I’ve ever tackled. It really tested my running fitness to the limit. It was a very well organised event and I would thoroughly recommend it if you want to take your running into more adventurous terrain. If you haven’t done a trail race before then perhaps the Montane Grizedale race in February might be a better starting point as the terrain is much easier, and although it too has plenty of climbing, it is nothing like as steep. I did the Grizedale race this year in 2:12, over half an hour quicker that the Howgill race and that will tell you plenty about the relative toughness of the two. We were very lucky with the weather yesterday and tough conditions would make this a very hard race indeed. Kudos to the almost 200 that did the full marathon!
I really love this sort of race but I’m going to have to stick to road running for the next couple of months as I can’t afford to risk another ankle injury 2 months before Ironman UK.