8.7 miles, 3494 feet
The Old Man of Coniston was the first ever Munro I remember walking up with my parents. This is despite the fact that it is neither a) above 3000ft, or b) in Scotland. Having grown up North of the border, with parents who would occasionally drag us haphazard gang of children up the odd hill, asking if something was a “Munro” was simply a way of gauging how long and awful the day’s outing would be. It didn’t have specific criteria that must be met to earn the badge, it was just a way of figuring out if our efforts would include a really big hill. It wasn’t until I was far too old for it not to be embarrassing, did I realise that The Munros were a defined set. Anyway, the memory of slogging up to the slate mine in sweltering heat, while pouring with sweat, is very clear in my mind. The steep rocky path seemed neverending. Chimes of “are we nearly there yet?” rang in the air almost constantly. I remember the twisted and rusted metal relics of the old mine and how impossibly cold Low Water felt. I even remember my disbelief watching a Speedo-clad old man happily wade in before pushing off for a swim. I couldn’t keep my toes in the water it felt so cold, never mind popping in to do a couple of lengths. I’m not sure if we even made it up the Old Man, but in my mind, we’d definitely climbed a Munro.
I ran the Coniston race for the first time last year, and I’d been mightily happy with my result. I’d come much further up the field than usual and I simply assumed that the race must’ve suited me really well. In reality, it was because there was a championship race the next day, which had massively thinned out the field. Ignorance is bliss. I had run well though, by my standards at least, managing the steep descent straight off the Old Man and hanging on to the speed right until I ran straight past the bridge I was supposed to cross in the final kilometre. The guy who had been just in front suddenly appeared on the other side of the river about 10m to my left. I instantly recognized my mistake, but enthusiastic descending left me unable to run back uphill to the crossing. In the heat of the moment, I dashed straight down the mini ravine separating the two paths and scrambled back up the other side. I’d lost 10 places and a couple of minutes but at least I’d never make the same mistake again. It’s not a route choice I’d recommend.
Race day this year was warm with promise of colder winds higher up, ideal conditions. It went as it always does, heads bobbing up the road in waves before the turn onto the fell. I felt great going up this bit last year, but my legs couldn’t be bothered now. It kept coming. Step, step, step, occasional scurry over a flatter section, step, step, step. Reaching Wetherlam was a relief as I joined my running mate Bill. I was glad to have someone to run with, but also cursing the pace. We leapfrogged back and forth, gaining and losing distance as the terrain pandered to and protested against our merits and shortfalls. Up and over Swirl How, and it sped up again. I was trying to gauge our contours correctly, aiming to skip unnecessary summits without shooting too wide. I’m on the fence about the efficacy of our strategy, but that happens no matter which way you choose. Coming off the Old Man, Bill took the rightward line directly east, and I took a crap line sort of north-east and so we parted company. The steep and tufted grass was hard to descend with its jutting rocks and uneven surface. I found myself cutting sharp turns as if I was skiing moguls, twisting left and right, highly focused on not going arse over tit. The crapness of my line was made clear as I rejoined the path at the disused quarry. I’d barely saved any distance on the path, and I still had most of the awful flagstones to descend. I was however fortunate enough to find myself in sight of people better acquainted with the route, so I followed them as they minimized their time on the unforgiving rocky path. Flying down, last year’s missed turning was at the front of my mind, as I crossed the bridge and joined the path back to the start. The steep and feet-slapping tarmac made my battered feet wince, but I still had enough beans left for a sprint finish.
The rest of the day was spent with a quick visit to the slightly bizarre Ruskin Museum, with its interesting juxtaposition of information about the humble origins of life in the Lake District, and Bluebird, the jet-engined hydroplane. Informed, if a little baffled, we sauntered along to the pub to enjoy a great post-race pint of Bluebird X7, and to chat running-related nonsense with the other runners.