Smiles better than a marathon 

It’s tempting, sitting at a keyboard early on the morning of the London Marathon, still glowing from a marvellous LTR run the day before, to pose one of those horrible questions: An LTR Taster is better than a road marathon. Discuss. 

Is it even possible to compare, fairly, such vastly different experiences? One is a gruelling tarmac and concrete challenge with a huge infrastructure. There are crowds of supporters and bands to provide the motivation to keep the flagging going. The other is a romp across fields with the accompanying bleat of lambs and blackbird song. One gives a finisher bragging rights, the other just a sense of satisfaction. One is … well, I could go on all day.

There are some similarities, no doubt. I guess a lot of runners, particularly first-timers at the 26.2-mile distance are feeling apprehensive this morning. I guess some of those who ran their first LTR event yesterday were also a bit unsure what they’d let themselves in for. But the experience of a guided trail run is nothing to fear. Stepping away from the tarmac and onto the grass, allowing yourself to have no idea where you’re going to go, and trusting someone else to take you through hidden gems of the Lancashire countryside, is liberating. 

And blimey, didn’t we have good weather for it. At times, it felt like the very earth was singing – from the brilliance of beaded dew on the grass first thing to the swelling buds on the trees. Brilliant blue above, verdant green below and a chatty bunch of runners between. It wasn’t a day for rivalry, targets, personal bests or for getting in front. It was a day for holding open gates, making friends and pausing to take in the view. 

We set off from Café Cargo at Foulridge Wharf on the Leeds–Liverpool canal, nipped through a works’ yard and within a minute or two were surrounded by the lush and the green – climbing. Just because there was a nice, level canal near our route, with a well-travelled towpath to potter along,  didn’t mean we’d use it. First we ran up hills on the west side of the canal, heading north past Foulridge Hall and out to Daubers, then turned, lost the height we’d gained, ran down and crossed the canal before repeating the exercise on the canal’s east side, moving north along lanes shaded with holly bushes, across fields drying out after the wettest of winters and past ewes cudding with their lambs tucked close.

At Great Hague, we stopped and were shown the spot across the valley where we were heading. It seemed too far, too high, but of course, it wasn’t. Like that marathon distance, you just break it down, first through the farm, past the sheds still filled with housed cattle, then down the lane, across Lancashire Gill and wonderful wide-open fields to the cobbles of Mill Hill Bridge and back across the canal. You don’t worry about the rutted terrain slowing your pace because you’re not thinking about the time. Besides you’re too busy nattering to someone about your running history or finding out you have a mutual friend. 

Unlike London’s streets, on a great trail run, the surface keeps on changing: a soft squelchy bit, dust and grit, a patch of hardcore, short grass, longer grass, tractor tracks, footbridges, stone stiles, wooden stiles. The body adapts, speeds, slows without split times or pacemakers.  

We encounteed fiercely sprung gates, branches lying in our path, river shingle washed by flood waters onto the bed of a bridge. There were lurking stones, tree stumps and the odd rabbit hole. You can’t switch off, but why would you want to, when you can leap that branch or skip over that stone? Even the sprung gate, banging shut, offers a satisfying thwack.  Without the need for headphones and a motivational playlist, we reached our half-way point – that impossibly far farm up beyond County Brook – and were slurping down drinks and scoffing raisins in the sunshine. 

And now, our route headed down the hill, first through a cluster of houses pretty enough for any calendar, where daffodils were growing out of the dry stone walls, and then along the crest of a hill by a stand of mature and still winter-bare trees. The bright green grass was swirled with brown – a farmer had been out spreading, but even though it was a warm day, the smell was surprisingly sweet.  Then we found ourselves on the most technically demanding part of the route, a lane that narrowed and where the footbed started as a few stones and turned into a rubble and stone gully. The walls and the lane were soon shaded by trees. Mosses covered every surface. It was cool, damp, earthy, elemental. The sound of running water was reflected in the splashing sounds as we picked  our way through. There was a house to one side, a sunlit garden with a ‘host of golden daffodils’. 

A horse was waiting to say hello at the end of the lane. It got a bit of fuss before we headed off along the side of Slipper Hill Reservoir, past anglers in their shelters, and then dropped down to follow the course of Wanless Water before we made the short climb to Foulridge Reservoir. We might not have seen Buckingham Palace on our route but there was a smashing view of Pendle Hill. No Cutty Sark but there were small yachts out on the reservoir. We followed the southern shore, blue waters on one side and woodland on the other, carpeted with the yellows and greens of spring. 

We approached the end of our run. Houses reappeared, then a children’s playground, there were kerbs to think about and then everyone managed to put a spurt on for the closing stages as we headed back to the wharf. The Café Cargo team did the honours and we gathered around a big table, topping up the fluid levels and making room for a second breakfast. The poached eggs were particularly tasty, the cakes a well-earned treat. 

There were no medals, no t-shirts. There was no point checking times – we’d not been racing. We’d been running. We’d done about a quarter of the marathon distance, but we’d had a brilliant bit of exercise without the stress and worry of a major event. 

Most people who run marathons will say there’s a point in the race, when they really don’t want to be out there anymore. Maybe they get to mile 19 and know they’ve got another hour, or more, to go, and they question why they signed up. The challenge? The good causes? All good enough reasons, and I’ll admit that when I pop the TV on shortly to watch the race, I’ll feel a tiny bit jealous that I’m not there on that start line. But running isn’t always about further, faster, bigger, tougher or even louder. Sometimes it’s about a small group, talking to a horse, the smell of a newly trimmed hedge or the twisted growth of a tree. 

Sometimes its about seeing a distant farm across a valley and getting there.

Kate Woodward