We set off early for Keswick on Sunday morning. For those who don't know this amazing part of the world, Keswick is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts on the edge of Derwent Water in the Lake District. The Lake is surrounded by some of the most exciting mountain trails in Europe, and the views are incredible. I spent every family holiday by Derwent Water for 20 years, and I still haven't grown tired of the adventure that surrounds that lake. I chose the Keswick Half Marathon as my first 13 mile race because of this; it was an adventure I hadn't yet experienced here, and the route passes by so many places that are special to me; the little cafés and cottages, streams and hills and mountains that for one week every May had contributed a rare freedom in my childhood.
The route was essentially a circuit of Derwent Water, treating the runners to some of the most stunning views of the Lake District. We arrived early, so took the opportunity to show Daniel around Keswick while we stretched our legs after the drive. We headed to Derwent Water, and the sheer size of the Lake surprised me, despite having seen it, rowed accross it and swam in it on many an occasion. It was clear to me how far 13 miles really was, and I was amazed that I'd even started training with such a huge goal in mind!
We headed back to the carpark to get ready, which was now swarming with runners. The atmosphere was incredibly stern; everyone had their own goal in mind and the presence of the task ahead loomed large. Despite the fact that I wasn't intending on running the whole race, and in essence was just going out on a leisurely 10km run in an amazing environment, I was a bag of nerves. I couldn't eat anything despite my Dad's insistence, and I was quite ready to give in and opt out. The starting point was a mile out of Keswick, so we jogged our way through the fields alongside the other runners, and as I jostled around in the hub of runners I started to feel a pang of excitement - I was here, and I was going to run; that was the main thing.
It was chaos at the start! Everyone was lunging and stretching in different directions, squashed in between two garden walls by the sides of the road. I made my way towards the back, but suddenly the horn sounded, and we were off!
I knew the race started on a hill, but the other runners and the cheering crowd carried me up it easily. People started to spread out as the route widened out; speedy latecomers fled past, while I found myself overtaking other runners. Everyone fell into their own pace and their own run in preparation for the next 13 miles. There wasn't much time to bed down into a steady stride; the first hill flattened out to give way to a long, steep incline; my first run outside Yorkshire presented me with gradients that Yorkshire just could not prepare me for, no matter how prepared I had been! My legs were already burning as I approached the top and I wasn't even a mile in, and as the peak flattened out I let out a loud cry, allowing the strain and the aches to wash over me as my heart rate slowed down.
The long hills continued for the first four miles. I couldn't believe how hard it was; and I took comfort in the fact that even if my training had gone to plan, it wouldn't have made this any easier. Even so, I had no complaints; every hill took us higher, and before I knew it I was looking down over Derwent Water, with the bright daylight creating streaks and shadows accross the valley. It was more beautiful than I could have imagined, and I was loving it. I missed my turn-off at the 4-mile mark; I didn't want to turn back. Every mile seemed surprisingly long, yet my knee wasn't even aching; I was running comfortably and loving every step. So i continued, knowing that the stewards were spread out along the route to get me back if I needed it.
I was in my element; running on roads that I'd walked, cycled and driven on throughout my life, and as I ran the memories ran with me; feeling such warmth towards the versions of myself that had been there before me, and the adventures I'd had when my life was no bigger than the family around me. There was an important reason I'd chosen Keswick as my first Half Marathon, and I kept thinking of my Dad, probably miles ahead of me, whose love for adventure had provided me with so many of my greatest adventures, this being one of the biggest of them all.
I passed the fifth mile marker and then the sixth; I had almost done my 10km, but the route was getting more and more beautiful as we got higher - the roads were opening up to reveal the Lake stretching out to my left, and on my right the land swept upwards into the blue. The seventh mile brought us to Grange, and I knew the route back from here like the back of my hand. I also knew that I'd be crossing that finish line, whether running, walking or hobbling - I was on the home straits. Six more miles along the flat Borrowdale Road seemed more than do-able, especially as it would be scattered with landmarks that I knew and loved.
I wasnt far down the road before I started to ache. First in my hips, then right the way down my legs. With every movement my legs begged me to stop; they were moaning as if from boredom, they wanted to stretch, a break from the same push-pull repetition of the previous 7 miles. I upped the pace a little and watched the miles pass by even more slowly than before. The familiar landmarks didn't help; they just demonstrated how far I had left to go. At 10 miles I started to lose my strength. I'd come further than I'd managed during my training, and every step reminded me of how under-prepared I was. My insides felt bone-dry, my head was throbbing, pains were shooting up and down my legs and my head was heavy, desperate to loll to the side and sleep. I've never felt such an intense need for sleep while my body is being so active before, and I was worried: maybe I actually couldn't do it. To make matters worse, my lungs started to tighten. I never suffer with breathlessness normally and as my chest squeezed up I started to panic; I felt as if I were breathing through thistles, and coughing sounded more like barking. Maybe this will kill me! I thought, with visions appearing of my wheezing lungs collapsing alongside me on the curb.
I passed a water-point, and tipped my head, open-mouthed, to drench myself with what felt a lot like new life in a cup as it splashed into my mouth and over my face. Two miles to go. I knew I had to do it, I just didn't know how. Runners ahead of me slowed down to a walk; I had to pass them before they tempted me to do the same. The road was quiet and I cried out to myself words of motivation; "2 miles and you're home, nearly there, come on".
I couldn't help but carry on, pushing through the agony as I thought of my Dad (aiming to finish in 1 hour 45) and Daniel at the finish. The road had been flat for 2 miles and it was more than my stiff body could bear; I was anticipating the infamous hill at 12 miles, the steepest of the race, and I was grateful for the change in muscle tension that lay ahead.
Like a mirage the 'Welcome to Keswick' sign appeared ahead of me, along with the hill I'd been waiting for. I pushed and pushed. I gave it all my body could give, which wasn't a lot. The final mile felt like a marathon in its own right, but the on-lookers' claps and cheers gave it a fresh face and I couldn't help but well up with joy - here I was!
I approached the finish line and heard my name over the tannoy as everyone started to cheer. Daniel and my Dad were hanging over the barrier, huge grins of pride on their faces, and I saw the huge stop watch - 2;24.32 - "is that hours or days?!" I shouted, not believing for a second that I'd been out there less than 2 and a half hours - it felt like forever!
I ran over the line. 13 miles (and a bit). A woman handed me my medal, and I carried on running, round and round; I couldn't stop. I was in agony. My face was crusted with sweat and saliva and dead flies; my body was covered in sores, each of my toenails was throbbing and threatening to fall off, my head was pounding and my legs were in so much pain that I felt sick. I drank and drank and coughed like I have never coughed before. At once I felt the most terrible and the most amazing that I have ever felt.
Back at the car I flopped. I managed a bag of Mini Cheddars. I couldn't move my fingers or my legs or anything else. When I looked in the mirror, a hideous red-faced woman looked back at me - I was a mess!
I arrived home to a hot bath, a roast dinner and a well-earned pint. Two days later I still ache, I still feel nauseous and I am incessantly thirsty. Pangs of pride and wonder keep interrupting periods of dejectedness, as I mourn the passing of this amazing challenge and my body comes round from the trials I put it through. Two days later I'm eager to do it all again; it can't have been that hard, can it?