Taking running underground – tunnel vision on the Monsal Trail

Digested read: change in strategy.  Instead of long and hilly, I went for long and flat, first time out on the Monsal Trail.  It is indeed long and flat, but it has loads of fabulous tunnels.  Tunnels are fun.  I’m still scared of this marathon malarkey, but slow progress is still progress, and I can’t change how much preparation I’ve done to date, I can only make the remaining weeks count.  More running, fewer donuts. That’ll work.  All the same aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.  I think that’s normal though.  Probably.  Eek.

Yesterday, I ate five doughnuts, pretty much in one go.  In my defence, they were proper ones, by which I mean jam donuts (all other types are in my view an abomination against nature), and also, it was an accident. I’d been to the gym – I think dear reader you know how much I love doing that – and then went food shopping afterwards when I was feeling rungry.  Big mistake, but I hadn’t expected to walk past a bakery counter with a special offer at 45p for a big pack of warm donuts, it was a temptation too far. Of course I succumbed.  I didn’t feel guilty eating the first one, and then the second didn’t really hit the sides, and then once you’ve had three in a row, you have to concede that’s your healthy eating plan for the day jettisoned, so you may as well write the rest of the day off and start again tomorrow, best course of action is to remove the temptation altogether by polishing off the lot.  It’s frankly a miracle I didn’t just inhale them sitting in Sainsbury’s car park, the fact I made it home in the car before ripping open the pack should be seen as a mitigating factor.


Despite this attempt at justification, it wasn’t the best of nutritional choices I’ve made in recent times, and naturally I was full of self-loathing afterwards, and felt a failure not only as a runner but as a human being.  Fortunately, I have a little Facebook messenger group thing going with some other people I met at a London Running Weekend a while back. These are new buddies,  who are also doing the London Marathon in just a few weeks time.  Aaaargh. This meant I was able to share my panic at having so spectacularly failed at my nutrition control, and feeling down about my marathon training progress, which is lamentable. Sharing is good.  Though over-sharing of course isn’t, and sometimes it’s a fine line.  On this occasion however, my virtual running buddies scooped me up in a collective cluck of reassurance.

Since knowing I was going to be running London (gulp, still struggle with putting that out there!) I’ve read loads about marathon running through the medium of the oracle which is google.  I have searched every conceivable variation on the term ‘marathon’ including, as an illustrative not comprehensive list, the word streams: ‘first marathon’; ‘top tips for crap runners’; ‘how to complete a marathon’; ‘how to start a marathon’; ‘how far is a marathon again’; ‘why would anyone want to run a marathon’; ‘who’s idea was it to run a marathon anyway’; ‘what was I thinking when I entered the London ballot’; ‘why didn’t that Pheidippides just do a relay and call it a day at 5 miles‘ – and every variant question you might think of in between.  I find googling about running a pleasing substitute for actual training in general and running in particular, but it isn’t always good for nerves.  I only found out today that blooming Pheidippides dropped dead at the end of it! WTF?  I thought he was lauded and got a medal, this is not as planned…  Not such a brilliant role model and running target after all is he?  … Are we seriously emulating someone who drops dead at the finish without getting their bling or a selfie next to a national monument/ reality TV celebrity at the end?  I clearly should have researched this marathon malarkey thing a bit more before signing up for it…  So easy to get caught up in the hype isn’t it, and look where that leads.

why didnt he die at 20 miles

Leaving aside the ‘whose stupid idea was this in the first place?  Oh, mine, OK then‘ factor, one constant theme in the marathon advice is that it’s a really hard thing to do on your own.  The training is potentially isolating, there are a lot of hours running on your own, and your mind messes with you a lot.   Well, mine certainly does, it just won’t SHUT UP!  Now, some people have friends and family on their doorstep to rally round, and that’s great if you have, but you know what, the support I’ve had from my Facebook friends has been amazing.  Scooping me up with a rush of positivity and empathy, that helped me through a really tough few days.  So thank you virtual marathon running buddies.  You are appreciated.   I still don’t know if I can get round this marathon or not, but I do feel somewhat more chilled about giving it my best shot.  Also, it just really helped to hear their own horror stories about the challenges they are facing in their training.  It’s hard this Marathon training thing, however hard you think it’s going to be, it’s much harder.  There are so many elements outside your control – and I don’t only mean the allure of freshly baked doughnuts.  Even those elements inside your control aren’t that easy to deliver because (who knew) heading out on your own for 15 miles in the cold isn’t as instantly appealing or rewarding as you might think.  Delayed gratification is massively over-rated.  You don’t have to be a psychopath to think so.  Even so, perspective check,  there are a couple of things I do want to remember about running:

  1. it’s supposed to be fun,
  2. I remember being really sad at seeing someone, somewhere comment on a discussion thread, that running a marathon had killed their love of running.  To me that seems to be not only a sacrifice too far, but also an unnecessary one.  I don’t want that to be me. I’m never going to impress anyone with my running, not even myself, but I do want it to continue to be a part of my life that gives me joy.

Run often, run long, but don’t outrun your joy of running as the saying goes.


Maybe also try not to run to the point you drop dead at the end of it.  Just a thought.  But if you must, make sure the on-site artist captures your best side at the moment of collapse.  Also, maybe think about wearing some pants.  Maybe our mum’s had a point about having to wear clean knickers every day in case you get run over by a bus.  Or was that not a general thing?

Though, don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never been massively sold on the ‘clean pants in case you get run over’ scenario, as surely in that eventuality you’d wet yourself or worse.  Wouldn’t it be better to carry a spare set of underwear with you, along with Kendal mint cake and a toothbrush at all times, and then you’d be sorted in any number of scenarios? Oh I don’t know, I seem to be losing confidence in my decision-making capabilities in every context, not just running.  It’s like low self-esteem and poor self-confidence is self-perpetuating.  It’s so hard being me right now, you have no idea….

So, what I’m basically saying is, yesterday was a bad day.  Running a marathon feels impossible, I’d binge eaten doughnuts without even really taking pleasure in them and was really doubting what ever made me think I could do this. However, after a collective pep talk/ group hug from my virtual London marathon running buddies, I decided to stop comparing myself to other people, and just crack on.  My mantra is along the lines of ‘if I make it to the start uninjured, I’ll make it to the finish‘.  I know I’m behind where I’d ideally like to be with my training, I ‘should’ be running much further by now, but I also know that if I try to skip a week, and start suddenly doing loads of extra stuff, it’ll probably lead to counterproductive injury.  Slow and steady now is better than did not start.    Even so, time for a bit of a change in tactic.

I’ve been doing the Round Sheffield Walk fairly regularly as a training route to up my mileage, but its combination of steep terrain and ice and snow means it’s been basically just that, a walk.  That may be good for strength and miles on the legs, but it’s nowhere near good enough to replace actually running. Today therefore, I headed to the Monsal Trail. As super flat as flat can be.  For the uninitiated, it is described thus:

What is the Monsal Trail?

The Monsal Trail is a traffic free route for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and wheelchair users through some of the Peak District’s most spectacular limestone dales.

The trail runs along the former Midland Railway line for 8.5 miles between Blackwell Mill, in Chee Dale and Coombs Road, at Bakewell.

Most of the route was opened to the public in 1981 but four former railway tunnels had to remain closed due to safety reasons, with public footpaths taking people around them. From 25 May 2011 the four railway tunnels – Headstone Tunnel, Cressbrook Tunnel, Litton Tunnel, Chee Tor Tunnel – will also open for trail users. Each tunnel is about 400 metres long and will be lit during normal daylight hours.

Two shorter tunnels – Chee Tor No.2 and Rusher Cutting – already formed part of the Monsal Trail.

The public can now experience the full length of the former railway route at their own pace and see breathtaking views at places like Water-cum-Jolly Dale that have remained hidden since the railway closed in 1968.

As a former railway line, it is basically, long, flat and even.  Like an outside treadmill, also fortuitously furnished with a cafe AND of a good length for my long runs.  I decided I’d head there, and play around with my run walk strategy, and try to do a greater percentage of actual running than I have for a while.  I tried to keep my expectations realistic, this would be a learning experience, I’d try not to be over ambitious, but just get a sense of my baseline of fitness as of now, and build it from there.  This was the theory.

It’s about a 13 mile drive from where I live to the Hassop Station Cafe and car park on the Monsal Trail.  Despite my best efforts at keeping positive, treating today as a fresh start etc etc, I found my mind demons had clambered in the car and come along for the ride too. It was a cold day, but basically dry – perfect for running really – but as I drove out towards Bakewell I became preoccupied with just how far it was to get to Hassop, and how long it was taking EVEN IN A CAR, and how once I arrived I’d be setting out to run even further than I’d just driven.  Yikes.  This is what they mean when they say running is mostly in the mind.  I need to find a way to bury such negative thoughts, they don’t help.  There is that truism that if you don’t believe in yourself you are making it twice as hard to achieve any goal, and that’s probably true.  How does the saying go? She thought she could so she did?  The opposite is also a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Aaaaargh.

I want to believe but… even so I have deliberately picked an image with the robin on it, as that is the sort of robust body shape I can relate to.   If a robin (or indeed a bumble bee) can fly, then why shouldn’t I run? (No answers on a postcard please, today is about positivity not realism, you have been told).

I arrived early.   There is a pay and display car park, but also a free one for customers of the cafe.  I was planning to have lunch afterwards in the cafe, but I knew I’d be out running for blooming ages so I wasn’t sure of the etiquette.  In the end I nipped across to ask a bored looking staff member if I was OK to do a run and then come back later.  She was friendly and completely unconcerned.  I suppose if it was a busy weekend it might have been more contentious, but as it was, I was practically the only car there.

I headed off.  I had decided I’d play around with my run/walk strategy.  To be fair, I had no idea what I was doing.  I decided as the received wisdom is not to set off too fast, I’d walk a mile then run a mile.  This had the advantage of being simple to follow as my tomtom watch is set to vibrate every mile and the disadvantage of being completely crap as a strategy.  It was too much walking so I got cold.  As a learning curve though it was useful, in that I realised I don’t know all the functions of my watch well enough to use any other strategy. Time?  Shorter distances?  Well I could, by looking at my watch every 20 seconds, but that’s not great either.  I need to wise up to other approaches.

I haven’t ever been down the Monsal Trail, which is something of an omission.  I’d been warned it is a mighty dull route, but I didn’t find it that.  I mean, I wouldn’t want it as my only running option, but there was something quite hypnotic about the even terrain.  There was hardly anyone out and about, and I see the potential for the path to have a therapeutic feel to it, plus I liked all the paths that cut across offering promise of new places to discover, and there was some awesome views. Plus, it starts and finishes at a cafe.  BIG tick!

Once on the trail, there was a handy directional sign:


and that’s it, you take your pick, and off you go. You can’t get lost, but you can have micro adventures along the way. I had lots.

For example, who knew that tunnels were so much fun?

I mean, I got excited at the first one.  Which frankly, is like thinking a speed hump constitutes a hill, which is pretty much what I thought until I got to Sheffield, well, Monsal Trail does tunnels really well. First off though, a gentle contemplative trot, gazing ahead at the long open road and marveling at the moss-covered trees along the way.

It was OK to begin with.  I felt quite unexpectedly strong.  The route was quite sheltered, so that was good, and although I felt under pressure at needing to bank a good one, I felt at least I was doing something positive in being out and about.  Amongst other advice, I have been picking up that those most likely to complete the London Marathon do quite whopping mileage (by my terms) of around 37 each week. This kind of whisper is really difficult. It might be true, but that doesn’t take into account those who get injured doing that sort of mileage without a proper training base.  I think the conclusion I’ve come to is that for me, more miles will help me be strong and build endurance, but I have to be realistic, I wont be able to do that many as running miles. If the Monsal Trail is OK, this could be a great weekly addition to my training plan.  Somewhere to get flat running miles in, whilst keeping the elevation mileage in with my long weekly round Sheffield Walk. We shall see.




The route for me today had a certain novelty value.  You notice things first time round, especially at slower speeds.  I was fascinated by the sound of water trickling first down the sides of the embankment and then later within the tunnels.  Early on in my run, when I was feeling upbeat and invincible the musical tone was enchanting, later on, it felt like the haunting sound of better runners than I,  who’d missed out in the London ballot, weeping in sorrow as they watched my piteous attempts at running and could not hold back their tears of frustration as they nursed the jealous knowledge ‘it should’ve been me’.   Maybe it should, that’s the thing about a ballot, it’s random, it isn’t based on merit or worth, just on luck, or not, on the day. Sad but true.

Pretty though, freezing water trickling through that glorious green wall of moss.


Picture doesn’t quite do it justice, you’ll have to use your imagination, or better yet, go check it out for yourself.  Shortly after the first of the whispering water, there was the first of the amazing tunnels.

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Quite aside from being a great feat of engineering, and offering stupendous as yet unfulfilled potential for a film set, this was super fun.  I was a bit perturbed by the sign saying WARNING, do NOT touch the sides of the tunnel.  I was fixated with what might happen if I did. Would the whole structure come tumbling down like dominoes or jenga blocks, or would I maybe get stuck to the walls as if by some invisible force, like people who end up stuck to random objects after poor choices relating to superglue use.  Inevitably, I also had to really, really fight the urge to go and plant my maximum possible body surface against the Victorian bricks just to see what might happen. I held off though, I’ve seen what happened to Father Dougal with the Red Button.  It didn’t end well.

red button

It was weird being in the tunnel, it sounds different, not so much echoey as slightly disembodied.  Other worldly even.  I was impressed by this first tunnel, but I ain’t seen anything yet I later realised.  Once you get spat out the other end I seemed to have a greater appreciation of the views and the skill of the construction team that made it so.  It really is quite something.  I mean, I know I must be getting old to officially find Victorian industrial heritage so fascinating, but honestly, it is remarkable.  Go check it out!

Out of the tunnel and on to a bridge, and you are so high up, amazing views.


I didn’t know it at the time, but the other hilarious/ pleasing thing about doing this route, is that Strava doesn’t know you are on a long flat route. Thus, you go under a mountain in a tunnel, Strava thinks you have womanfully sprinted up one side of the mountain and down the other side. Similarly, you go over a bridge, Strava believes you have slid down the slope to the river on your arse (presumably, it’s too steep to traverse it any other way) and clambered up the other with your bare hands, clinging to tree roots for whatever traction you can to get back up onto the path.  This may mess with your head, because you know it can’t be true, but I won’t like it felt good at the end of the run to think, ‘wow, I actually took on 3,173 foot of elevation over those 15 miles, no wonder I’m tired, I’m awesome’.  I find self-delusion a boon to keep my running demons at bay.  A short live boon, but I’ll take what crumbs of comfort I can.

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It was quiet out, I saw hardly anyone.  A couple of cyclists whizzed by as I was heading out, went to the end of the trail, and came back again whilst I was still heading out.  There was some intrepid walkers I met as I exited one of the tunnels, they actually had hand-held torches with them, which at first I thought was over kill (the tunnels are lit during daylight hours, and they are not so long you’d be very likely to find yourself inadvertently trapped in them overnight, even if you only yomp round at my speed). Then I found my mind preoccupied with wondering what secret mission they had planned that might require them.  Perhaps it was like their own personal Count of Monte Cristo – they’d be taking their lives in their hands and counting and touching bricks until they found the treasure map, or blue diamond, or hidden corpse or whatever it was with no price too high or sacrifice too great to make in pursuit of their end goal.  But what was it?  I may never know.  Or maybe I do know, but choose to keep this to myself as a great secret and source of mystery I will take to me to the grave….

Onward I went, there were catkins and signposts and weird abandoned bunkers that reminded me of pictures of deserted and crumbling settlements in Chernobyl.  I wonder if radioactive mutant animals and people emerge from dark corners hereabout after dark.  Probably.

Some nice remainer graffiti was politely hidden within.  This is what contemporary social history looks people.  And quality urban art with a correctly used apostrophe to avoid antagonizing the grammar police which is always good to see.


I didn’t find the route too samey.  There was lots of interest.  There were clockwork information points at intervals that you could wind up and listen to explanations of what you were looking at. There was even an old railway station – incorporating decent loos and an adjacent ice-cream van for the seriously hardy in search of something cold to ingest to match the cold of outside.  There were moss-covered rocks, and soaring embankments, even a rainbow, but i think you’ll have to squint a bit to see that in my photo, though I did try to capture it just for you.

There were iron bridges and there were reclaimed architectural features, re-purposed as wildlife hotels.   There were sweet little wooden sculptures and just loads to see and explore.

Now, this might just be me, but some of the soaring constructions, emerging skyward from the undergrowth really reminded of hidden Aztec cities or mayan civilisations.  Just as Mexico has it’s Chichen Itza and Cambodia has its Angkor Watt, the Peak District has its, well I’m not sure what it is, but you surely see the similarities?

Spooky eh?

There was one bit of the trail where there was a bit bridge and a separate area reserved for abseilers.  I don’t know if this segregation was for their protection or mine.  Maybe if you stand over the line you are compelled to go over the edge of the bridge whether ready or not. Harsh, but fair, you were warned.  I didn’t break protocol on this occasion, maybe next time…

There were lots of tunnels, I didn’t count them.  Sometimes there would be a gentle, hiss, growing to a crescendo behind me, like being chased by hornets, and then some bikes would appear.  Towards the end of the trail a group of four cheery runners romped on by, they were chatting companionably as I was pausing to take some photos.  I later saw only two coming back together and wondered if it was foolish to ask where their compatriots were.  I mean, if they had done away with them, then I’d drawn attention to myself as a possible witness, the last person to see them all alive, and clearly I couldn’t outrun any of them. They said though they were fine, just behind them, and I chose to believe them.  After all if you can’t trust a fellow runner out on the trails, who can you trust?

The only thing really not to like about this route if you are like me, is that it’s an out and back, rather than a circular run.  Also, the evenness of the terrain, which I thought would be easier on my feet, actually made for a more uncomfortable run as my little plate like feet had no respite from the rhythmical hammering and I did end up with a blister for the first time in my marathon training.  Ooops, not a bad one, but I need to watch out for that.

Oh actually, there was one other annoying and distasteful thing. The poo bag bauble decorators were out in force in some parts of this route. What is that about, hanging poo in bags on trees. Don’t delude yourself dog walkers, you have no intention of coming back for it, and even if  you are, why display your dog’s poop with such abandon for the duration of your walk.  You might wish to celebrate your hound’s every motion, but others do not share in your unadulterated joy.  But you know this already.  Desist dog walkers please, desist!


You know what dear reader, you may think I’m pretty unbearable already, but just you wait. When I think how exercised I am already on the matter of dog poo, it is only a matter of time before I start writing ‘why oh why’ letters to the local paper on the topic. I’ve already started emailing school principles about their students (didn’t get a reply) in a few years I’ll be openly remonstrating with dog walkers whilst out and about.  Sorry about that, but I see the signs, I’m not sure I’ll be able to contain myself.  I might not live that long though.  See reference above about side-effects of running a marathon.  I’d be OK with that, I can think of worse ways to go.

So I reached the end, peered over the rail at the icy view:


and then turned around and trotted back.

Trotting back, I was tiring and there was a headwind.  I got a bit cold, remembered I’d had nothing to eat or drink so had a naked bar and some water which sustained me en route.  I hadn’t felt hungry or thirsty, but I did genuinely notice I was struggling to remember how many miles I’d done and couldn’t work it out from the kilometres on display on my watch.  I’m not particularly numerate, I rather went off maths after we were no longer allowed to play with colour factor, but I can normally do that sort of calculation in my head.  I’d only done 15 miles and it seems brain fog had crept in.

colour factor

So what to make of today.  Well, I did my 15 miles, and although I was still piteously slow, I was a good couple of hours faster doing this flat route than doing the same distance on the Round Sheffield Walk route.  I wasn’t broken at the end of it, not physically, but mentally I felt empty and weirdly and unexpectedly emotional.  I sat drinking a latte in the cafe afterwards and found myself feeling really overwhelmed and a bit weepy. Like being hormonal only I wasn’t I was just exhausted I think.  In some ways I think I did OK, I mean I did cover the distance and learn a lot, but it’s increasingly dawning on me I have to do this distance PLUS ANOTHER ELEVEN MILES near as dammit, and I can’t even imagine right now how this is possible.

It’s tough you now, because I think I agree with those who say the real challenge of this undertaking is in the mind. You have to learn to adopt some mental mantra to keep you going.  So simultaneously you must listen to the voice in your head which encourages you onward, whilst crushing the voice in your head that is demanding you immediately capitulate to its request for intravenous doughnuts and a lie down.  It’s hard.  So many voices screaming for attention.  How can I tell which one is right?

Since writing this post I watched one of the Martin Yelling (brilliant name by the way) Virgin London Marathon live Facebook talks.  He was saying that it’s normal for your body to start protesting at this point. Of course it wants you to stop. You are asking a lot from it.  It doesn’t want you to keep on doing this.  It’s making great demands on your resources.  that doesnt mean it can’t be done, but it does mean you need mental strength to push through, not to the point that you damage yourself, but enough to silence the voice of doom that tells you it’s impossible and replace that with ‘I know it’s a challenge, but I’m sure we’ll all get through this together’.  I need to channel my inner Shackleton.  He got everyone home, and I think it’s fair to say he was having a way worse time of it.  If I don’t make it round, it’ll be sad, and I will feel I’ve failed, but I wont be made to carry a boat across pack ice for weeks and then sleep under it on an island waiting for rescue with only walrus blubber to sustain me and dreams of what might have been.  This is what endurance really looks like:

Touched Up no sharpening

Honestly, it was called Endurance.  How apt.  That sets the bar pretty high for endurance challenge purposes, a little marathon is practically a walk in the park compared to that.

Aaaargh, I still really want to do this, but I don’t know how I’ll get from where I am now to the start of London let alone the finish.  I do know though I am where I am, I just have to keep on keeping on.  Thing is, it’s hard enough running the darned thing as it is without having to battle with all the negative thoughts that consume me.

Note to self.

It’s supposed to be fun.

It will be fun.

Type two fun is still fun.

If it isn’t fun, there may still be a decent anecdote in it, and it’s still an adventure, and it would be a dull world if we stopped seeking those out wouldn’t it.

Wouldn’t it?

comfort zone



Also, if I don’t try, I’ll never know will I?  I might surprise myself….


Even so can I just say again, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.

Thank you.

Categories: off road, running | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Taking running underground – tunnel vision on the Monsal Trail

  1. Amanda Forrester

    Hey Lucy – I think you are doing amazingly and I love reading your blogs. I’m an injured runner staring in at the activities of the Smiley Paces longing to join them! Haha! I have a vest! Anyway – waffling – I just wanted to say that my friend who is a non runner but got a place in the ballot trained for the London marathon last year on the Monsoll Trail alone. She added a bit on mileage wise by coming off the trail at the end and doing a little loop around Buxton before she ran back. She swore by it to get used to the “flatness” of London compared to Sheffield. Good luck.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Amanda, thanks so much for taking the trouble to read and comment on my blog post, I’m really touched. Sorry to hear you are injured at the moment that’s so frustrating, it’s ridiculous how annoying it is not to be able to run. Your comments about your friend who trained on the Monsal Trail are just what I need to hear – please tell me it got her round! I honestly have no idea if I’m going to make it or not, but I do feel the Monsal Trail will help, if only because at least I know there’s a loo and a latte at the finish. I’ll check out the Buxton route addition, that sounds like a good plan. Hope I’ll see you out and about in a Smiley Vest soon. I never go to Smiley organised things as I’m too slow, but always good to see a gaggle at local events. Take care, and thanks again. You’ve made my day, and boosted my fragile moral too. Result. 🙂


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