No ordinary half marathon

A few years ago, M&S decided to sell chocolate puddings using arty camera work and Dervla Kirwan’s husky voiceover. It worked until we all caught onto the phrase and started taking the mick. But I’d like to borrow the now infamous “This is no ordinary” line for the LTR approach to the half marathon.

This was no ordinary half. For a start, it was about half a mile above the distance. Not that I’m complaining, but if you were trying to get a PB, that extra distance isn’t going to help. In many ways the lack of PB potential is irrelevant (if you can get a half marathon PB on this route, by the way, I’ll buy you a chocolate pudding). It’s irrelevant because there is more to running than raw speed. An ordinary half might have a fast, flat route. An LTR half will give you switchbacks and fences, grass that needs wading through and at about 5 miles, a sponge.

Not, you understand, a sponge to cool off with, but a sponge to wobble across – a bed of cushiony moss, which moved a bit like a bouncy castle, with the added benefit of damp. It was ever so pleasant for a landing, which was handy because I lost my balance a few times and couldn’t get up for laughing. How many ordinary halves does that happen on? 

When did you last try to see Yorkshire from the top of a rocket during an event? Okay, Jubilee Tower isn’t a real rocket, but if you can’t see the spaceship in the architecture of this Victorian monument, I’d like to suggest your imagination needs topping up.  We couldn’t see Yorkshire, but who cares? We could see the other side of the valley where we’d been an hour or so earlier, and it seemed a mighty long way away.  

The idea of distance recurred throughout the run. With the route’s key landmark possibly only a mile from our start point, we spent much of the morning moving away from it. I’m assuming the plan was that we’d get a good run up to the tower, just in case anyone wanted to vault it. Every so often we would spot it, hazy on the top of the hill – but not the hill we were on. That would be far too simple, and we wouldn’t be able to potter about in bits of woodland and do our bit to keep the byways of Britain open. Ordinary half marathons don’t have nettles and brambles. This had lots. 

Those ordinary ones are just a bit tame. Ordinary half marathons don’t challenge your balance as well as your stamina. They don’t have tree stumps to clamber across and slippery descents into gullies. They also don’t bother with the glossy leaves of holly bushes or footbridges that are being steadily colonised by encroaching branches. They don’t divert into quarries where birch saplings are gaining a hold and where the dry weather has turned whimberry bushes flaming orange. They don’t let you feel and hear the crunch of beech mast under your feet or lead you through heather that’s just coming into bloom. They don’t invite you to watch the aerial acrobatics of a swallow. They don’t lead you across moorland where the larks have done their ascending and are singing their joy. 

Today, we were bobbing and weaving through thistles and rushes. In an ordinary half you might bob and weave to move through the pack, but we were more like a pack. And running with people, finding out about them, supporting, and encouraging them is surely every bit as valid as getting in front of them. I’m willing to bet another M&S chocolate pudding that you have never had a conversation mid-race about why we all use the expression that the weather is ‘close’ but that there’s no saying that means the opposite. 

It was close. Muggy. Sticky – call it what you will. It was overcast and there may have been a spot of damp but with the terrain changing all the time, there were whispers of breeze. There were tiny footpaths snaking through the grass, lanes with cobbles, chapels nestled in the corners of fields, broad trails of hardpacked earth and cinder, farmyards, mown and unmown fields, reservoirs peeping through the contours of the hills, staircases that wound their way into forests and rail bridges with huge stone steps. 

We met in Darwen, and although we started and finished in the centre of town, the areas we explored were diverse. Down through Spring Vale and Cranberry, through Grimehills and out onto the spongy ground of Aushaw Moss. Then round and east towards Entwistle, passing on high ground above Turton Reservoir before heading north again, following the lower edges of Turton Moor, skirting Whitehall before we made our final climb onto Darwen Hill and its tower. That’s the short version of the route. If you want to visualise the route profile, imagine a set of jagged teeth, up down, up down, each tooth getting bigger until you reach the massive molar at the end. 

But crikey, it was worth it. And after that, things went downhill. On the, run I mean. There was no more up available. 

We got back into town, via some soft, shaded, earthy lanes, and then took ourselves off to Darwen’s Artisan Café, where with a little gentle arm-twisting the chef agreed that, despite it being lunchtime, we could still have breakfast and produced a pile of food that we definitely deserved and thoroughly enjoyed.  

You know what? I don’t think I’d enjoy an ordinary half. I’ve got used to the extraordinary, where the physical challenge is every bit as intense, but the mental stimulation is in a different league and where discovery and adventure are part of the package. 

Kate Woodward