How two colleagues ran around the 16 largest lakes in the Lake District

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 September 2019

Penny Oliver running round Haweswater

Penny Oliver running round Haweswater

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Two mums who met at work in Penrith have completed a gruelling challenge by running around the region's largest lakes. Sarah Lewis-Briggs explains how and why they did it

Sarah Lewis-Briggs during the run around Crummock WaterSarah Lewis-Briggs during the run around Crummock Water

A group of runners shivered on a chilly March morning, waiting to race 10 miles around Crummock Water. For two of us this was the start of a challenge which was going to see us clocking up plenty more miles. Penny Oliver, my friend and training buddy, had decided that to celebrate turning 50 she was going to run around the 16 biggest lakes in the Lake District, and she asked me to join her.

You'd think running around lakes would entail relatively flat routes, but having chosen to run off-road at times we were away from the shore and up on the surrounding fells, dramatic climbs rewarding us with stunning panoramic views of lakes, such as above Aira Force on the Ullswater Way.

We had to fit the runs in around family life and work, but we have completed the challenge, clocking up almost 150 miles in the process.

Penny and I met not long after I started working at the North West Development Agency. She was at the Forestry Commission and started coming in about a day a week to work in our office. She happened to sit next to me and we got talking about running and triathlons - and then we started going running at lunchtimes.

Penny takes a breather at ConistonPenny takes a breather at Coniston

Since then we've run through heartache and happiness as well as snow, wind, sun and rain. Although we're both 'incomers', we both love the county and it would take a lot to make either of us move away. If either of us is upset or fed up, we can run up on the fells or by a lake and exult in the scenery (whatever the weather).

Navigating for the runs around the lakes was mostly straightforward but sometimes paths had closed: we had to keep a careful eye on the map in the hills to the south of Windermere village heading towards Gummer's How; and United Utilities haven't re-opened the lovely path on the west of Thirlmere, nor have they maintained the path coming back along the eastern side of Haweswater: a pity as the path along the opposite shore is stunning and a circuit is somehow always better than out and back.

It was hot and dry when we ran Haweswater and a few weeks later the lake level had dropped so the remains of the old village of Mardale were nearly apparent; in contrast when we ran round Ullswater, Buttermere and Ennerdale we got soaked - I even slipped and fell in a stream running around Ennerdale but it hardly mattered, it was raining so hard.

We ran throughout the year as the runs didn't happen at regular intervals - running has to fit around our jobs, family commitments and other hobbies. As a result, on some days running was hard, and not necessarily around the largest lakes: I've struggled around Grasmere and Rydal Water, for example. What were the 30-40 miles around Windermere going to be like, even if split over two consecutive days?

The lakes we liked the least were the ones where it was impossible to avoid doing a high percentage of the mileage on road; Coniston was one, although I loved the run through Grizedale Forest. Loweswater was another - there is National Trust woodland and a bothy on the southern shore but otherwise it's not very exciting. Bassenthwaite Lake had some lovely sections on its eastern side and while on the west we found paths we hadn't expected, much of the trail was close to the busy A66.

Others stuck in our mind, though, because of unusual features like running through a rock tunnel by Buttermere. But the lake I have always thought has the most sinister beauty is Wastwater.

We didn't heed the advice to climb on to the fell top but instead scrambled across the endless scree, at times slipping, afraid of starting a stone avalanche and ending up in those dark, cold, haunted waters.

There is a similar risk of falling in running over narrow Angler's Crag as part of the 10km (six mile) Ennerdale trail race, but the route around Ennerdale is one of my favourites - it is trail running at its best.

A forest track to start with followed by a rocky path splashing through mountain streams, all in a valley which its owners are trying to keep as natural as possible. Derwentwater by contrast is accessible and therefore touristy, but was another favourite route. Its 10 miles were fairly flat, easy to navigate and mostly along the shore - but also the day we ran it was a stunning sunny spring day. In contrast, the Ullswater Way takes you 19 miles around Ullswater, across a variety of terrain ranging from wooded crags to fellside tracks, and we felt a huge sense of achievement at having completed that distance.

Windermere was almost the last lake we ran, on day one we ran from Wray Castle to Newby Bridge (19 miles), taking in Ambleside, Windermere and Gummer's How. We both had a sports massage that evening and the next day the legs were amazingly non-achy.

Running up the lesser-known western side of Windermere was an absolute joy - there are footpaths and bridleways over that side of the lake that are well worth exploring, with a folly in the woods above the village of Finsthwaite, a winding route up past High Dam above Stott Park, then to Claife Viewing station and Courtyard café, to finish back at Wray, with beautiful and varied scenery en route.

This had been a journey of discovery, we have both lived in Cumbria for some time but the challenge took us to places we'd never been before. Now we're going to try to run new routes and explore the area more. Meanwhile another friend, Anne, turns 60 next year.

Her challenge is to swim in the 16 biggest lakes.

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