Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon

I’m really not a runner. Well, maybe just an occasional one, when it’s too wet to climb or my elbows are sore, but somehow I’ve managed to average about one mountain marathon a year for the last decade – usually in the company of Jim (okay, not “company” as such; perhaps “wake” would be a better word as he IS a runner and a particularly good navigator. By the time I’ve caught up at a checkpoint he’s usually got the next one sussed).

For those of you who don’t know the format, a mountain marathon is typically a two day event, in teams of two, where you carry everything you need to be self sufficient (tent, sleeping bag, stove, food etc). You visit checkpoints at specified grid references (different ones for different categories) and get to an overnight camp where you clock in after maybe 25km or so (depending on the class you have entered), then repeat the exercise running back to the start the next day.

Anyway, breaking with tradition, I roped my brother Justin into partnering me in the SLMM this year. Just has really got into running in a big way over the last few years, with a bunch of marathons and half marathons and a few hilly things, not to mention road biking and rowing, so his fitness wasn’t going to be an issue. Mine, on the other hand, was distinctly questionable – almost no running in the last year or two (not enough rain!). Worse still, we’d be relying on my limited navigation skills.

With only 3 weeks to go, I picked up an acute achilees tendinitis on the trip to Kalymnos (still can’t understand how) and was hobbling around, barely able to walk. I pondered bailing but was really looking forward to some quality Bro time, so I made a trip to the physio, had a couple of weeks rest from climbing and decided to wing it.

A late drive up on Friday night and we were in the campsite around 11ish and tucked up in the campervan before midnight. Saturday morning dawned clear and bright and things were looking good. About 1,000 competitors set off for the slightly annoying 4km walk to the start line on the edge of Ennerdale Water, and at 8.57 we were off.

With good visibility and even better luck, we pretty much aced the navigation and route choices. The course took us anti-clockwise around the lake and up to Haycock before plunging down to valley level to wade across the river at the head of the lake before heading up to Red Pike and then skirting Hen Comb before jogging into the overnight camp near the end of Crummock Water. We were astounded to find ourselves 24th out of 99 teams in our class and decided to award ourselves extra beer rations to celebrate (despite the “fully self-sufficient” ethos, the SLMM organisers do lay on beer at the overnight camp – very civilised!)

A potentially pleasant evening was somewhat undermined by continuous rain from 4pm through until 9 meaning a retreat to Justin’s commodious racing tent. It only weighs 900 grams so not surprisingly it’s quite snug.

Sunday was chillier, with drizzle in the air and mist on some of the tops – more challenging nav but a shorter route. Aching feet were forced into saturated running shoes and we set off with the mass start just after 8. Our route took us back over Hen Comb then zigzagging towards Loweswater and over a few tops to the penultimate checkpoint at the foot of a waterfall. From here it was no more than 4km to the finish line, and we were in decent shape. A couple of checkpoints had taken a bit of finding but we’d moved pretty efficiently and more or less kept our place in the pack. We just had to get from A to B on the map below

The obvious contouring line looked like a winner – minimum height gain and a good navigation beacon parallel to the fence line should take us round to the boundary crossing and over the last hill for a sprint to the finish and glory! There was even a decent trod and a couple of other teams heading the same way. We set off confidently…

It all looked good for a km or so, but the trod dwindled to nothingness and an impenetrable bank of gorse on the hillside gradually funnelled us down to the river. The only options were to head back the way we’d come or bushwack up the hill. In hindsight, breaking trail through waist deep gorse for a hundred vertical metres is not to be recommended – one of the toughest and most unpleasant things I’ve ever experienced. Exhausting too, much harder work than chest deep snow and a lot more prickly – I’m still extracting little needles from all sorts of unexpected places!
Having lost about half an hour with this sub-optimal route choice, not to mention any remaining energy, we just about made it up and over the final hill for the glory run down to the finish line.


15th Vets out of 40 and 44th overall out of 99.

Still very chuffed with the result, given the “off the couch” level of fitness, and more importantly some great memories of a fun weekend of Bro time.

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