A grand day out 

The marathon distance is a key challenge for many runners. They want to see whether they can keep going when their brain begins to tell them enough is enough. They want the excitement of the big city setting, the support of people lining the course and the kudos. They want the medal, the t-shirt and the been-there-done-that tick on the bucket list. I know, I’ve been there, and I understand it.

But this way of running the longer distances, the one that often has a by-product of disruption, plastic waste and consumer hype, isn’t the only way. We can run the iconic marathon or half marathon distances without it being an exercise in who’s the fastest, the fittest or the most able to afford the flights to the race locations. Yesterday, a group of us did just that. No bells and whistles, no fanfares or tat, no steel-drum bands or blaring beats, no litter-strewn aid stations and no supporters along the route – unless you want to count the singing birds. 

And to me, the beauty of this kind of distance running is that it stops being an activity with worry attached. The days and weeks leading up to the two road marathons I’ve completed weren’t that pleasant. Training runs were dull slogs and I watched the days count down with impending dread about start-line nerves. I worried about whether I’d trained hard enough. I had a target time in mind and knew that hitting it or missing it would define my satisfaction. I guess many others feel the same as they approach a flagship event on their calendar. 

I turned up yesterday morning with curiosity, not stress. I was feeling relaxed, not concerned. If my knee’s whining got too loud, I planned to call it quits, but it wouldn’t have ruined my day or my “season”. I wouldn’t feel the bitter sting of disappointment of a missed goal, nor would I need a list of excuses ready for social media.

Runners have become focused on entering races, and yes, there’s a place for racing. It’s great to test yourself and there’s nothing wrong with competition, but sadly many have become blind to the alternatives. Nowadays, there seems to be training or racing, and that’s it. Going for a run purely for the fun of it is seen as something weird, but what on earth is weird about prioritising enjoyment in your life?

Yesterday, we ran in one of England’s most striking locations. The weather couldn’t have been kinder. Conditions underfoot were good. Instead of desperately trying to swig down a bottle of water at an aid station, we stopped on a sunny hillside to refuel, because nobody was being driven by a relentless ticking clock. 

Several times during this run, we hung around on bridges, spotting fishes in the water.  We didn’t fret about lost seconds when a group of cows and calves needed a wide berth. When a river presented the chance for a paddle, we took it. Instead of the aromas of diesel and burger vans, we had the heady scents of hawthorn and bluebells, and just occasionally a healthy whiff of farmyard manure. 

When those of us doing the half marathon distance – a glorious clockwise circuit of Derwentwater – had completed their run, we all had lunch together, sitting outside The Chalet in Portinscale, stuffing our faces with real food.  There was no sense of us and them, we were just a group of people with a common interest in trail running enjoying a sunny Saturday in the lakes. 

I’ll admit that, when we were running, much of the time I had no idea where we were. We trotted through pretty hamlets, filled with whitewashed cottages. We slipped through gates and were in the cool shade of trees. We picked our way through twisting technical terrain, up and down steep steps and steep banks. We ran over rocky outcrops and felt the spring of mossy ground. We emerged onto the lake’s shore and crunched across the pebbles, and minutes later we were climbing a path above a wood where a cuckoo was calling. 

There were moments that were chatty and times when we fell quiet as the effort level rose. We shared snacks and shared stories, meeting new people, discovering the things that make them tick at and at the same time, we discovered some of the more peaceful corners of the national park. The beauty spots piled up – highlight after highlight: waterfalls, Ashness Bridge, Borrowdale, Brandlehow, Cat Bells and a cool, welcoming wooded section of the Cumbrian way. After lunch, we headed south along the valley between Swinside and Barrow towards Newlands and then turned north again, connecting Braithwaite, Cornthwaite and Applethwaite by footpaths and farm tracks, by winding lanes and shaded routes through sections of forest. We ran along flat valley bottoms through fields of shimmering grass, passing herons, new-born calves and sun-sleepy lambs. A track along the side of the Derwent was too narrow for feet but speckled with wildflowers. The gorse prickled and shone gold. We splashed into the river and took care to jump over the glistening black slug which shared our route.

I’m not saying that the run was a breeze. It was a tough route and several of us did have to battle the fatigue. I know I cursed at the last uphill section, but I never felt that anyone would be judging my performance or that I had anything to prove. The support didn’t come from the crowds. It came from each other and from the constantly changing scenery. It wasn’t a grim teeth-gritting process of counting out every kilometre along a trunk road or city street. 

We had no big city landmarks, no pacers, sponsorship or chip timing. Our finish line was an ice-cream van rather than a giant digital clock because this wasn’t about all that. It wasn’t about expectations, pressure, status, praise or glory, but about enjoying running, for the sake of it. And it was, although rather knackering for me at least, a grand day out. 

Kate Woodward