Friday, 5 October 2018

ROC Mountain Marathon

I really love mountain marathons. It is great being self-sufficient for two long days running and navigating in the mountains. I have done over 60 in the last 34 years and it is great to still be up there competing near the front of the Elite course, but over the last few years I have found them really hard. There were times during this year’s ROC MM when I thought how nice it would be to have two relaxing days on the fells rather than pushing my body to the limit.

This year’s ROC MM ( was in the Northern Fells of the Lake District and I was doing it by myself (doing it in pairs was also possible). It was very much home terrain as it included Blencathra – my local and favourite fell. Setting off from the Uldale side the competitors in the 6 different classes got their maps at the start line. I immediately looked at the distance of my Elite course; it was 44km on Day 1 – slightly further than expected so I thought it was going to be a long day. The first two controls took us right across fast running ground to the area on the southern side of Blencathra. There are paths up the ridges to the summit of Blencathra on this side of the fell, but anywhere in-between is really tough ground – mainly deep heather with loose rocks all on really steep ground. This is the sort of terrain where I excel but by the time I had got out of it and appraoching number 4 the effort was taking its toll and I felt light-headed with a dip in energy coming on. A couple of bars sorted it out but it was not a good sign with only 3 hours gone. As I approached the end of the long leg to control 5 I saw my main competitor Tom Gibbs come out from a different route just ahead of me. We had a quick chat and found out I had caught him up 14 minutes, although we were moving at a similar speed – I had taken some better routes. By the time we reached control 7 I started to struggle badly. Tom was off and moving well, I was moving very slowly. How much time would I lose to him before the finish 12km away? My bonk got worse I was wobbling around struggling to make any progress. I tried eating but my stomach was really dodgy so I had to stop as I knew I would be sick. There was the last  climb of the day up to control 9 and I risked some more food but my stomach had had enough and I spent a couple of minutes knelling down throwing up everything (a real waste of all the energy that I needed the rest of that day and the next day). Things got worse as I fell over and broke my glasses (I normally wear contact lenses but I can see both the map and land better with my varifocal glasses). I lost a couple of minutes finding the next control as everything was blurry and then struggled to run downhill quickly. Eventually I reached the finish and Tom had finished 21 minutes earlier – I was seven minutes down on Day 1 having run for just over 7 hours. As I said to people I chatted to it was a good 5 hours followed by 2 hours where everything went wrong. I got all my spare clothes on, collected water and put up my tent. But I was very cold. 7 hours of running and then being sick had completely reduced my energy stores. After noodles and couscous I felt OK but I was not expecting to feel good on day 2.

Day 1 Map

Day 1 route from the trackers every competitor carried. Route  = 47km with 2400m of climb

The second day started with some positives. I was not feeling sick, I had slept a bit and was reasonable warm and dry all night, I did not have any injuries and I had even managed to get my contact lenses in. I was not expecting to catch up the 7 minutes on Tom but I would give it my best shot. I took some stupid routes to controls 1 and 2. I did not follow my normal plan of going straight if I cannot choose between two routes. Knowing a clever route around Sharp Edge helped on control3 which took us to some more really rough terrain on the southern side of Skiddaw. I was working hard but not moving very fast. It was all a struggle and it was no surprise when I saw Tom catching me up on the way to control 6 – having started 20 minutes after me he was extending his lead and there was nothing I could do about it. He eventually finished just in front of me. It had been another hard 6 hour day.
Day 2 Map

Day 2 route. 38km with 2200m of climb

Winning this event meant Tom had also beaten me to win the British Mountain Marathon Championship. So congratulations to Tom for a well-deserved win. Even with home advantage over the weekend he was better than me. In the end I was happy to come second. Congratulations also to everyone else that got round the elite course - it was a tough one to finish before the courses closed.

The weekend was really well organised by Shane and his team of cheerful helpers. I thought the courses planned by Graham were great. There was a real mixture of terrain from the rough, tough terrain on the southern slopes of Blencathra and Skiddaw to the faster running further north. There were tricky route choices on just about every leg and I made at least three stupid selections. 

I am annoyed I had such a bad bonk and was sick on day 1. I need to work out why these happened. However, overall I am happy because although I was tired afterwards (and felt sick) I had none of the really bad fatigue that has plagued me for 4 years. I slept well afterwards and my heart has been beating normally. As for the future I am going to have to think about if I want to continue to push it hard on the Elite course or maybe go for an easier option.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

LAMM 2018 – Mountain Marathon on the Isle of Harris

My main memories of this year’s LAMM are the amazing scenery of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and getting completely dehydrated whilst running. It was a memorable, at times very painful and ultimately successful way to spend my 50th birthday.

I previously visited Harris in the outer Hebrides as a competitor on the Hebridean Challenge as part of a team running, cycling and kayak from the south of the Hebrides on Barra up to the very north at  the Butt of Lewis lighthouse. Martin Stone was course director and took us to some beautiful places. With Martin organising the LAMM I knew we were in for a treat. Thinking about the type of terrain the Mountain Marathon would be visiting I thought that Neil Talbott would be an ideal person to run with. Neil loves rocks, tussock, heather. He loves anything rough – he hates tracks and roads and there was going to be virtually none of this sort of terrain on Harris. Luckily for me he was happy to run it with me. I met Neil in the queue for the ferry at Uig in Skye after the long drive up. We decided to stay at a simple hostel about 10 miles from Tarbert (where the ferry docked) to avoid the midges and hopefully give us a better night’s sleep. We managed to get the last start on the Elite which gave us plenty of time in the morning. A quick drive back to Tarbert and we got on the event bus which took us to the start. It was a tough start to the course as the second control took us to the summit of Clisham the highest point on Harris (799m). On the third control we took a typical Neil route choice avoiding the obvious ridge run by going straight with a drop to a lochan and a climb back up to the control. It seemed to work as the Chepelins who started before us were now in sight and we overtook them soon after. However, I was finding the running hard going. It was hot and humid with no wind, I was sweating loads but the sweat was not evaporating off me and cooling me instead it was just dripping off me. I could feel my core temperature rising. Every stream we crossed I drank water and poured it over me but it was not helping. I slowed down a bit and let Neil do all the navigating and just followed him trying to use as little energy as possible. Controls 6 and 7 were very close together on headlands separated by a lochan, we were expecting a wade/swim and I was looking forward to this. When we got to control 6 it was actually a time out with the time stopped until we reached control 7 after a short boat journey. It was my chance to recover; I took my pack off and lay in the lochan for a couple of minutes. I immediately felt more comfortable. We ate and repacked our packs so everything was ready for the rest of the day and took the boat over to control 7. Control 8 was about half way but as we approached this the heat was getting to me again and my legs were starting to complain. Neil took my pack and we carried on slowly through the heat to control 9. I was slowing down and wondered how I was ever going to finish, I wondered why I was putting myself through this pain on my 50th birthday.  I needed to use all my determination and experience to keep moving forward as fast as possible. Neil encouraged me and reminded me that everyone would be finding it hard. Control 10 was the longest leg of the day and had a key route choice. It was either a longer route through the valleys or straighter, up and over a couple of ridges. We went for the ridges as the vegetation in the valleys was really hard going. Higher up and better drained ground had more short grass and rocks and so was much faster underfoot. We also hoped for some wind, which did appear and slightly cooled me down. A couple more times of lying down in lochans also helped stopped me completely overheating. Finally we reached control 12 the last one of the day. It was all downhill to the finish and what a finish. A lovely grassy area above a beautiful sandy beach and the turquoise sea. After 7 hours 30miutes I was completely knackered and did not want to move but it was important I started my recovery for the next day immediately. So I quickly had a recovery drink and some salted nuts and lay in the river to cool off. The tiredness and pain from cramp was relieved a bit by finding out that we had a lead of just over an hour- everyone seemed to struggle in the heat. The normal boring Mountain Marathon food was supplemented with some birthday cake from Neil and some from Nicky Spinks who I only told it was my birthday on finishing the day. 

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Overnight Camp at Loch Crabhadail (credit: Dale Rodgers)

We nearly missed our day 2 start at 7am. It was 2 minutes along the beach not in the download tent from the previous day – we got laughed at as we ran up with 10 seconds to spare. With such a big lead our plan was just to keep moving steadily and not do anything stupid. Despite my best effort from the previous evening I immediately knew I had not recovered properly and was still slightly dehydrated. Neil was quickly doing his bag carrying duties and all the navigation while I hung on trying to save energy and drinking and eating as much as possible. Looking at the map we expected a 6 hour day, this gradually increased as we realised the amount of climb on the course and as the heat built up, eventually taking 7 hours 15 minutes. We were running out of food but with a bit of rationing we just about made it to the end. We were delighted to run into the finish for the win, my second overall win at the LAMM (I have also been first mixed on the elite on three occasions). For the next hour of so I was completely exhausted and just lay in  a quiet dark corner until I had recovered enough to eat and drink without throwing it all back up.

It took 36 hour after finishing for me to stop feeling sick. I also got irregular heart beats afterwards, which is usual for me these days, but after 36 hours these went back to normal.

The LAMM is a special event. I have done 10 of them and it has taken me to some of the best places for views and mountain running in the UK. Martin Stone has done a great job organising them all together with his team of brilliant helpers. So it was quite emotional when Martin announced it was to be his last ever LAMM and he got the standing ovation that he deserved.

Results are here:

Courses and route can be seen on Route Gadget:

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Collecting the winners trophy. Neil Talbott, Martin Stone and me (Credit Jon Brooke)

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Marmot Dark Mountains

I am climbing a tussock and heather covered hill in the un-forested “Forest of Bowland” with my partner, Andrew Berry, it is 4am on Sunday morning, we do not know where we are, visibility with our headtorches on is down to 10m, it is pouring with rain and we are both getting dangerously cold. Should we stop and get out the extra clothes which we are carrying, which will be almost impossible to put in the wind, or carry on trying to move fast and hope not cool down any more and also hope to relocate and eventually get somewhere less windy to get some more kit on? This is part of what makes Marmot Dark Mountains a great event. It is not just moving quickly and navigating well it is looking after yourself and your partner at night in winter.

We had set off at just before 8pm on Saturday night with 54km, 21 controls and 2000m of ascent to navigate round on the Elite class. We set off fast, probably too fast in hindsight. On the first 4 controls we found good routes and our navigation was perfect. Then I suddenly started to feel tired, I said to Andy that I would be OK if we took it easy for 30 minutes – 3 hours later I finally picked up a bit. Andy took my pack and took over the navigation. I tried to run but I just kept falling over and swearing. There did not seem to be anything in my legs – a classic bonk. But it is even worse than a normal bonk when it is rough underfoot and dark. Then the cramping started in my hamstrings, calfs and even my quads and there were screams as I fell over. I was still suffering badly as we finished a loop of the 1st half of the course and we were only 4km from the finish. Andy asked if I wanted to give up. I said no, I did not give up Mountains Marathons just because I am feeling awful and suffering badly. Also I know from experience that it is possible to recover from the biggest depths. I have only given up one mountain marathon and that is because my knee swelling up overnight and I could barely walk the next day. I do not know why I felt so bad, probably I was still not completely recovered from a really nasty cold that had finished a couple of days before.  Eventually as we ran towards 13 I did indeed up a bit and was enjoying myself again.  There was some tricky navigation but we did not make any big mistakes. Then there was a long leg (17-18) into the wind and the rain started. I should immediately have put a warmer top on underneath my waterproof and some waterproof trousers. But I thought I would be all right. However in the wind and rain and through the peat groughs I drifted off my compass bearing. We hit a river and fence but nothing made sense as we were getting cold. I made a guess as to where we were and we continued on a bearing but we were climbing much too much. At this point I was getting worried about how cold we were. Andy suggested what we could have done and the map finally made sense. We were lucky it was not the way we intended to go to 18 but it was an OK route and we did not lose much time. Finally we reached control 20 a trig point on the top of a hill, still dangerously cold, but just a log descent to a sheltered valley. I was descending very slowly because I was so cold but also I could not really see as my head torch batteries were also nearly gone.  Andy got us sheltered and changed the batteries on my head torch. Finally we reached the bottom and I got my Berghaus HyperTherm on, although my hands were so cold it took ages. Then there was just one more climb to the final control. Just as we approached the top I had another even worse bonk, although at least I was now warm. I could barely stand let alone make forward progress. I had the final small bit of food we had left and eventually it kicked in enough for me to start moving at a reasonable speed again.  We reached the final control but had lost big time, taking 1 hour 46 minutes on leg 20-21 compared to 1 hour 19 minutes to eventual winners Sabrina Verjee and Tom Gibbs. Then it was just downhill in the dawn on the road to the finish – which I was very relieved to finally get to. 

 I am happy to have worked with Andy as a team to get round and there is something amazingly satisfying about navigating at night over some of the roughest terrain you can get.  There is also something amazing funny about pulling yourself out of another waist deep bog, apart from when you have cramp. Overall, I made loads of mistakes but that means there is always room for improvement in future years.

Congratulations to Sabrina Verjee  and Tom Gibbs  for another win of this tough event. Lawrence Eccles and Ally Beaven got round in the fastest time of the night on the Elite course but went to the wrong number 7 (which we also did but luckily Andy checked the code) and Jonathon Davies  and Neil Talbott also very nearly won but accidentally went into an Out of Bounds area near the end. It is tough when these things happen but I am sure they will be back.  As well as these performances the impressive thing is anyone who goes out on a Saturday night on the fells in winter, looks after themselves and their partner and sees what they are capable of. 

Thanks to Graham Gristwood for some great courses and also Shane Ohly, the Ourea team and all the volunteers for putting on the event.