A mountain marathon? What’s that? 26.2 miles in the mountains? Well no, if you’ve not heard of mountain marathons then they are exactly un- that. With varied distances, and varied ‘courses’ they are a complicated affair which I won’t go into too much, but require more skill navigating your way out of a shopping centre than actually running. Having to carry all your own gear for two days, to more or less self sufficient, tent, tent pegs, tent poles, food, cooking stove, food bags, poo bags (!), water filters, clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and under no circumstances any sort of GPX device or smart phone allowed unless you wanted to declare yourself ‘noncompetitive’. (‘If you choose to carry a phone for use in an emergency this must be turned off and placed in a sealed bag).
Truly it may be said that the outside of a mountain is good for the inside of a woman – George Whery
And then there are different courses for horses. Elite courses, A courses B courses and probably Sea horse courses too. Along side that there are short courses and long courses, solos, pairs, mixed pairs, and maybe apples and oranges too. Got all that?
So it would be my first experience at this, the ROC Mountain Marathon. I wasn’t the best navigator in the world though I could find myself at the bottom of a peanut butter jar quite easily. So it was a good job my team mate, Adam who I had met on the Ring O Fire in Anglesea some 4 years ago had brushed up on his navigation skills and could run a decent pace as well. I had doubted myself too for I am not the best on fell like terrain, afraid of falling with two left feet, but its good to try new things and important to try new things, its all an adventure and all that. Let the adventure begin.
Influence is the compass persuasion is the map – Joesph Wong
We’d opted for what you call the ‘long score’ apologies for those who I am teaching to suck eggs but some people probably don’t know what a mountain marathon is all about. Hell, I only learned about the courses when we’d decided to enter. So the Long score is 7 hours on day 1 and 6 hours on day 2. Each day all runners would get a map with various random little circles dotted about the map. Each circle would have a number representing its difficulty. From 10 points up to 60. The idea is to accumulate as many points as possible in whatever way possible you want without going ‘out of bounds’ which was clearly marked on the map. Simples.
We’d practised our ‘kit’ on Bleaklow some few weeks before, and even then I was unsure, the rucksack felt heavier than a lorry of peanut butter. Too much food, too many clothes, too big a sleeping bag etc etc etc. What was the all-important weather going to do? Was it going to be wet? wild? windy? It had been forecasted blowing heavy winds on top of the mountains, so would shorts suffice or would I need longs? Do I put my long thermals in for the night time? Do I need 6 pairs of gloves and 66 buffs? Maybe not. No kitchen sink but just a water filter and a gas stove between us. No GPX files were allowed so that left space that would be otherwise taken with the Suunto lead, power bank, mobile phone and lead and all the other crazy gadgets that we may have these days. Instead, I was to carry a £1 Casio watch borrowed from Adam just to tell the time.
There is no wifi here but go where the connection is strong
So day one commences. We were fixed with a tracker I guess to see if we went out of bounds, you know, just in case we couldn’t map read and went out of bounds. You never know. I can’t imagine dot watching was of much interest to those dot watching as there was be no way of knowing scoring etc – Which field? Which mountain? Which gulley? Which river? Apart from if you go ‘Out of Bounds’.
We dibbed in and sat down to ponder over the map that runners are only given once they have crossed the start line. Its a chilled type experience being able to start any time between 7-9 am on day 1. Having done the Lakeland 3 Day 18 months ago (despite doing the Cafe route and walking) it was and organised by the same outfit so I knew roughly what to expect apart from having to choose our own route carefully to gain maximum points.
I let Adam choose but he would negotiate and check in with me to ensure I was happy with the decision. The first control was hidden amongst some featureless tussucks, it felt like the whole world was heading up there. Only a few runners had dispersed into other directions but there was no knowing what category people were in or where they were going. Some were on the liner courses (following all controls in one line) or short and long courses, the difference between the former and the latter was just one additional hour on the long course per day so just longer on your soggy feet.
After dibbing at the first control we were almost on our own, runners dispersed as quickly as peanut butter in my mouth. Straight away I could tell Adam was rather excited as he headed off on his bearing treading over other participants. I was taking my time. I felt heavy and uncontrolled, somewhat off-balance. I’d had a few problems with my chest over the past week but didn’t want to use this as an excuse, the course of antibiotics hadn’t fully cleared it up either. But no excuses on the mountains, the mountains give no excuses so neither would I.
A fell shared is a fell halved
So onto the next control, following Adam as best I could, we re-assessed the route having a good idea where we were going well in advance and apparently part of the Bob Graham Route, Adam knew his stuff as we climbed higher to the next peak. We’d been out about 45 minutes and I could feel the cold on my legs, the bitter wind. Wearing shorts, and long socks was a mistake as the power from my body was being used just to keep me warm instead of being used for energy to run. I needed that power bank to give me some energy. Lesson learned – layer up and don’t disrespect the Lake District hills, they make the Peak District hills look like minor bumps in the road. To add to my excuses, I’d only had a couple of slices of toast for my breakfast and I felt my energy levels seep as we hit the next control and the one after, Adam taking the lead and me just following like the lonely black sheep at the back of the pack.
Our next control was only worth 10 points but on the top of Skiddaw, so we had to scramble up the featureless side of the mountain, no paths, just the looming top of Skiddaw awaited with 50mph gusts of wind. The idea was that we would bag the 10 points then drop down and across to bag a 50 and a 40. However, my body was not functioning as I struggled to pull myself up the high ground. Despite throwing peanut butter bars down my throat, the energy would not disperse around my body. At one point my legs just wouldn’t move, breathing was difficult and I was getting cold and disheartened with it all. Adam was doing his best to cheer me up but knowing it was frustrating for him just increased my own frustration. What was going on in my body? I was not supposed to feel like this 2 hours into a 7 hour day. I know it was different terrain, scrambling through heather and jumping over tussocks, I know it was a different sort of event with brainpower but really?
I suppose if you could have only one thing, it would be that energy. Without it, you haven’t got a thing. – John F. Kennedy
The crunch came as we hit the main path near to the top of Skiddaw, 50 mph winds hit, I had my waterproof zipped up to my nose, thin gloves and buff tight around me, but still I was unable to move forward in a running like motion. The bitter wind was making me feel even more bitter, let’s face it I was cold and stupid, and cold and stupid enough to then face-plant straight onto the rocky pathway. I lay there hopeless, my brain didn’t connect to my feelings and my action of falling, I couldn’t function to even pull myself up. Apparently, someone waved Adam back to point to the hopeless dead turtle humanoid sprawled out on the now wide and not so isolated pathway. This was not the place to face-plant on top of one of the Lake Districts highest mountains.
The most useful thing for a competitive runner to know about fatigue is that it is fundamental to nature. Fatigue is not an enemy, and if you fight it as if it were, you squander what little energy you still have. – The Longest Race
I eventually picked myself up and hit the control – all for 10 points, was it really worth it? It was then decision time. Adam knew I was suffering, there was a ridge with a 50 pointer lurking somewhere beneath but I was too cold and too annoyed with myself to even think about points. We made the disappointing decision to let the 50 go and head towards the 40 which meant heading down and away from the bigger winds. Once we were sheltered a little from the wind I began to pick up a bit and once off the main Cumbrian Highway, we found ourselves scrambling down scree like waterfall and I began to enjoy myself.
We hit the control nested between two water outlets and were joined by a couple of other participants who had emerged from different directions, probably bagging the 50 pointer previously. We made a tactical decision to take a more easy route over less technical terrain than set out for climb back up the scree of waterfallness. I soon found that the longer but more runnable route around the Cumbrian Way suited me much more so. I was angry with myself for not respecting the difficulty of the terrain or the way my body was but there was nothing I could do now that period of blurghness was over. I just needed to focus on ahead and manage to stay on two legs.
Feeling like I cant doesn’t mean its true
Running long the Cumbrian Way was beautiful, runnable, fun, skipping and jumping over the small rocks and down the meandering streams with awesome views of the vast valley stretching far into the distance. The near on Autumnal colours glistened in the cool September sun. It was a purely beautiful day, visibility was excellent, the sun was out, the sky was blue and once out of the winds the running was blissfully beautiful.
The next control could be seen a good mile or so ahead, attached to a little wooden post, easy, got it. In and out we go and onwards and upwards we go. Adam would carefully plan the route and take bearings to accurately hit the next control. I was finally enjoying it, embracing the format, the terrain and the decision making settling into the whole newness of Mountain Marathon Running. It just requires a slightly different ‘head’ a slightly different bodily movement and more courage and determination than what I had earlier.
Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
We had about an hour or so left as we took our penultimate control, debating whether to risk going up again to bag another 30 or so points or whether to head home with a final control almost en route. In the end we decided to leave the extra 30 points and head back with plenty of time to spare. This was a wise decision as we had a little river crossing to negotiate along with a photographer and one final control before the end was in sight.
As we had plenty of time we walked the last mile into camp chatting away about the day’s shenanigans. Where we’d made mistakes I rephrase that, where ‘I’ had made bodily mistakes and what we (I) could have done if. There is always an IF and at the end of the day, you can only do what your body can do. Maybe I’d overestimated my fitness and my brain and my ability to do this event. Never underestimate a Mountain Marathon.
We humans…don’t just sense what’s happening in our bodies through the mediation of our consciousness up top in the ivory towers of our heads, but through our feet. – The Longest Race
At camp the first thing I was advised to do was to get warm clothes on then get our super-duper lightweight tent up, so I did just that. New waterproof bottoms were immediately put on and I threw on another top to keep my torso warm. We erected the small mountain marathon tent and sorted out our little thermomats and sleeping bags. My sleeping bag was a nice warm down one – but quite heavy but it would keep me warm on what would be a rather windy night.
Then it was time to light up the powerful little stove that was about the size of a pea and cook up a gourmet concoction lentil and rice mush. Before doing so we had to locate the stream to collect our own water from the local river. I used my little water filter to drain out the sheep poo and then filled up our bottles for the following day, whilst the rest of the water was boiled for our ‘instant meals’. We even had desert, custard crumbled with a chocolate crepe – delicious if I may say so, who need 5 star Michelin rated restaurants when you’ve got this, surrounded by stunning mountains gleaming in the low evening sunlight, and enough minimalist kit to only fill up a 12 litre rucksack.
Adam caught up with his mates at camp, one of whom did have a 12 litre rucksack with such minimalist kit. Camp was a chilled out affair with only the luxury of portaloos and toilet roll. I soaked in the atmosphere, people watching along the way, with big names such as Jasmin Paris (all complete with pushchair) and Steve Birkenshaw all part of the camp, I’d have been star stricken if I could have distinguished between peoples’ plastic bags on their feet. Plastic bags are a must fashion accessory for any muddy wet running camping expedition. I’d got shower caps on mine as they were lighter and just as effective. So there.
Time camping isn’t spent its invested
Lights were out around 7.30pm and the winds were getting up so there was not a lot else to do apart from take the somewhat arduous climb into our sleeping bags, good practice for the following days’ climb I guess. With an early start the following day too it made sense to head inside.
There were slight concerns that the tent may take off at one point with the strong winds against us but it remained intact. I was restless for a while as my leg had sciatic like symptoms again, something I’d not had for a while now. However, I eventually got some sleep and woke up around 6am to the standard campsite like rustling outside the tent as the mountain marathon humonids were emerging and gathering all their kit together for another day on the hills.
Mountains are the beginning and end of all natural scenery
It was soon time to say goodbye to our tent space, pack up and get some breakfast down us. This time I’d opted for proper porridge, wholesome and plenty of it, along side a crepe or two, that should do it for energy levels for me. A little cuppa tea as well also helped set me up for the day. I was feeling much more positive today as I knew I’d come in the day before with enough energy to charge up my mobile phone which had been left in the car back at the start.
Lets wander where the wifi is none
Our packs were much lighter than the day before which also must have helped. Just before we set off, a final trip to a portaloo, it began to rain quite heavily and the cloud was coming in thick and fast. I stupidly put on my waterproof trousers but once we’d dibbed in and decided our first route choice back up the valley that we’d come down the day before and across the river crossing I was already boiling in a bag. I stripped off to my longs which I had slept in the night before and took off another layer on top. It wasn’t cold just damp.
I was looking forward to today knowing what to expect and hoping to help with more of the decision making this time around. We’d decided on a route and were both happy with the choice. Adam was very positive that we could visit all the controls in the allocated time. I trusted his decision though it looked a long way. However, I was reassured that it wasn’t really that hilly in places as we would contour around the gnarly sections and switch on beast mode on the easy runnable sections. A couple of rather easy controls bagged within an hour, and really fun descent down the claggy hillside back to the river crossing we’d been so many times before.
Over the mountains and through the woods down the river and up the valley over the boulders and through the stream to nobody’s house we go
My body was much warmer and I had so much more energy and strength than the previous day. Although navigation wasn’t difficult the low cloud and drizzling rain meant that I was being particularly watchful of the weather and responding quickly to dress appropriately.
We were struggling to find one of our controls in the midst of the hillside, eventually I spotted the sheepfold where it must be, Adam had wandered off a little, so I felt like I had finally come in useful having found the control and then setting the compass to understand how to reach the next control. Something clicked in my head once I had worked out with help from Adam that I had my compass the wrong way around. I finally got this navigation lark – how long has it taken me? Whilst I was having a magic moment, Adam was bonking and stuffing his face full of nuts and chocolate peanut butter spread. For the first time I was taking the lead and feeling the real love for the hills and the fells, loving every minute of it.
When you confront a problem you solve it
I was also in much more control of my body temperature before the clagg came in I would put on my gloves or hoist up my hood ready for the spitting rain and coolness of the low cloud. Once it had passed I was able to shed the layers again. I was learning and loving the learning adventure too.
Another control bagged, which we could see in the far distance as we descended off the hillside and across swampy terrain. This was now fun and time was disappearing like the cloud driven by the winds. We ran (in the loosest of terms) through some quite tough characterless landscapes, hoping over the moor covered hills to bag the next control.
Running: enjoy see feel climb run remember the world under your feet
We came across a stray control next to a tiny river source – not ours, must have been for the linear course. Finding our penultimate control we then had one more climb up the yonder hill then we’d be ‘home’ and our day would have been rather successful. With beast mode switched on we had about 30 minutes to power on up the hill and then 30 minutes or so to get back home in order to get in within the 6 hours cut off and not gain a penalty.
We were on a time bomb as I, in particular, put maximum effort into the ascent to the top in the fastest known time (FKT) that I could. We’d made it in around 20 minutes, and time was on our side. We dibbed into the control then celebrated with a high five and presumptuous smiles all round, then hastily discussed the route off the hill.
What does not destroy us, makes us strong. – Nietzsche
‘That way lets follow the wall,’ we decided. ‘Oh look there’s a car park with cars, must be the finish, yes that way lets head towards the car park’ we said as we danced merrily off the hill, blasting ourselves down the slope.
We’d got about 20 minutes to cover around 2 miles – we could do this, after all it was downhill and flattish and we knew the way, we were heading in that direction towards the car park. Of course, logic in our head said that a way.
However we both lost.. literally lost… our minds. I knew in my subconscious mind that the car park wasn’t the event centre car park as there was no marque and it was also in the wrong direction but my conscious mind told me it was the right way. Likewise, as Adam directed us around some marshy land and through a little gate we knew we weren’t quite on track, yet we continued. We backtracked a little after realising our mistake but still our heads were on the ‘not the event centre’ direction, so we ultimately took the wrong bearing.
Instead of taking a few minutes out and recomposing ourselves, we opened a gate, the first proper gate we had gone through and yet we both knew that it was wrong yet even 2 minds weren’t being practical as we were focusing on the clock rather than the navigation and route choice. We realised our mistake as we hit a farmyard a few minutes later and there we’d lost. We’d DQ’ed having gone off bounds, into someone’s yard. The kind farmers let us through as we hit the road, some 2 miles out of our way. I’d given up by then, my mind had sunk into one of the swamps back yonder. If only I’d been a bit more alert and a little better with my navigation if only I’d listened to my subconscious thoughts. If only.
You have brains in your head.
You have fee in your shoes.
You can Steer yourself any
Direction you choose!”
– Dr. Suess
Beast mode became a colossal shame mode, as we did the guilty walk of shame to the finish the opposite way to everyone else, knowing how shortsighted we’d both been, a most idiotic imbecile blunder of its kind.
We were only 100 metres or so off the bearing that we should have taken, which would have led us onto the correct path and near to the hillside of Little Cockup. A big cockup at its perfect best.
We turned ourselves into the DQ department, with our rucksacks between our legs. What a learning experience, a fun exhausting and exhilarating learning experience for two days. With around 17-18 miles each day and between 4000 and 5000ft of climb each day these events are not to be sniffed at.