Scenes from SLMM-continued

Midcamp evening musings

We're sitting in the rain. I'm tired, hungry and achy after the day we just had, and now I am also wet. What started as drizzle while we were pitching the tent has now turned into proper rain. It is hard to keep things dry. We can't sit in the tent, there is just enough space to lie down for both of us, but not to sit. Space is at a premium in ultra-lightweight tents, and the only thing you really need to do inside is lying down and sleeping, so you can be ready for the next day.

We work our way through a wet three course meal: potnoodles, spicy and warm, perfect starter. While we boil the second lot of water, we mix our Rego chocolate recovery drink in the empty potnoodle pots. It's the Mountain Marathon equivalent of the mid-meal sorbet, I assume. A choice of dry-freeze chilli or curry is next and it went down really well last year. Today I stare at my bag of chilli which should have come to live by adding some hot water, but it ain't quite what I hoped for. I look at the tent, it looks back with inviting glances. I poke my chilli a bit more. "I quite like camping," I said yesterday evening. I now change that to "I quite like camping if it's dry." We can't finish our meals, too salty. Somehow even the simplest instruction "just add hot water" is too complicated for us at this point...

We pack everything as best as we can under the "front porch"- a small awning that should protect our stuff from the worst of the weather, but everything is wet already. Inside the tent, I put on dry warm clothes, including a woollen hat and gloves. Now I know why gloves, hat and warm clothes (top and bottom) are part of the compulsory kit list, and I am happy with my choice for 100% wool for those smaller items. Sheep have got it all sorted, I muse, they know how to stay warm in this weather on the hills. Before I put dry socks on, I look at my battered feet. Hmmm. Not quite the equivalent of foot rot in sheep, but definitely a contender for the title "Queen of Blisters, with Pink Raisin Toes". Two plastic bags over my socks should keep them dry overnight. By the time I have wrestled myself into the sleeping bag I am hot and take off the hat. That can serve as my pillow for tonight!

Rain, rain, go away

I wake up, and turn on my back. Over my head, a puddle is building on a crease in the tent canvas. We had stretched it out, but somehow the water still gathers. I've been instructed not to touch the tent from the inside, as it is not entirely waterproof. Where you touch wet spots, it will leak. Hmmmm. Marj wakes up around the same time, and pokes the canvas at a slightly higher spot, to dislodge this latest addition to the Lake District's water features- hopefully without getting us wet. It works, but we have to repeat this a couple more times through the night. When will it stop raining? How low will the clouds be on the hills when we get up? If there is one thing we both agree on 200% it is hill fog: any of that stuff, and we can be found in the pub in the dale. We had one encounter with these low clouds last year in training and it was very scary. Twenty meters out and everything is white, gone from the face of the earth, even if things look clear from the valley. You have to navigate completely on compass. The motto of our team is "Crazy but not Stupid" (crazy according to most people, we feel perfectly well-balanced). After that experience we classified running in hill fog as Stupid.

As we went to sleep last night, we were in doubt whether to start on day 2, or not. The course was significantly harder than last year's, and we were both wiped out. Would we recover sufficiently? The weather forecast for the morning was clouds, then better. But they had been wrong about the rain, which arrived much earlier and lasts much longer than expected, it is still raining now, and it is past midnight. What else will they be wrong about? Again, the scene of Black Combe in fog comes to my mind's eye and I wonder if I have improved enough as a navigator to get us out of anything similar quickly. We will decide tomorrow morning, after we have plotted the course, what we will do. Attempt the race; walk back to the finish the shortest way; or try to find a ride back and not even go up the hill. Until we know the route they have in mind, it is no use speculating, but I do it anyway. I check the lake on the tent, decide we won't get flooded and try to find a comfortable position to sleep.

Breakfast for hill runners

No coffee. No tea. Sort of forgot to bring tea bags, but we will manage without, we have trained that bit in China in June, when we did kaishui (hot water) all the way. Peperkoek is my favourite running fuel if I can't get porridge, and we have plenty of this stuff. Chocolate, too: with nuts, and Cote D'Or Double Lait. Some cheese and oatcakes, and we still have some peperami mini sausages (no bacon or eggs, though it would be very good right now), a handful of nuts. Anything that is high in calories and does not take up a lot of space, or provides slow-release energy and some protein. Add dried apricots for fruit, and you have a balanced diet right in your backpack.

While we are munching our way through these snacks, we have picked up the course descriptions and start to plot the route. Oooooh. Straight up that bit we came sliding down yesterday evening, first thing this morning. Back up to 850m, then all the way round Fairfield to do the controls in the right order, followed by a very very long trot to Birks, and then down the hillside to the start area from yesterday. No path for that last descent. My toes protest violently. They don't like free-style downhill. Still, I guess I could do it. It won't be easy, but this is why I did "double hard" weekends: back-to-back long runs of up to 10miles, until my legs threatened to turn niggles into injuries.

What worries us both is the presence of hill fog. "Oh, it will have cleared away by the time you're up there." I am not sure. Those clouds are at 600m or lower. Even if we decide to walk straight back to the finish we have to get across Fairfield at 850-870m, there is no other way. The clouds above us move quickly, but the hillside we need to climb remains stubbornly wrapped in cotton wool.

A second question to be considered is recovery. Did Marj recover sufficiently from yesterday's exertions? She's a runner with Parkinson's disease (or something that behaves similarly), and recovery is not as straightforward. These challenging events are just the thing to keep her motivated to train, but she knows her limits. Will today's course be too much? Will we just squeeze in on time like last year? I leave the decision- start or no start- with her, as we have always agreed that she calls the shots. The start is at 8am, so I just ask that she lets me know by 7am if I need to put my wet clothes back on. I don't relish that prospect but worse things happen at sea. At least I have dry feet, long live the plastic bags.

DNS/DNF/victory*  (*delete as appropriate)

Almost immediately, Marj tells me we're not starting. We're not going up there. Today will be a DNS (Did Not Start), which immediately turns our race into a DNF (Did Not Finish). She is not confident we can do the race course, and to be honest, I am not confident I could do it before the cut-off at 4pm. We're not going to walk back to the start, either. That is a bit shorter, but still requires the deadly climb of more than 600m in one go, and climbing is not our strongest side. Between that and the hill fog that may or may not lift, it's decided. We're crazy, but not stupid, and we don't want to create unnecessary work for the Mountain Rescue.

We are lucky and will get a ride back with one of the volunteers. Four or five other people hang around waiting for a ride, too. Injuries, mainly. Running downhill, taking risks, and now sidelined. These folks will be out of action for about 6 weeks, I guess. We're lucky, we will be back on the road in the next week if we choose.

We get back to base-camp, which doubles as the finish area, and officially register our DNF. I am not sure what I feel right now. We both know that it was the right decision. I am a bit disappointed, but I know we could not have done it. Not after having seen the landscape we drove through. It is beautiful, but it is hard work to get around in that terrain. We still get our T-shirt, and the free meal, and it feels good to be recognised as a competitor, even if we did not make it to the end. Over sausages, jacket potato and beans, our post-race analysis starts and before long turns into plan for what we can do next.

Those plans bubble gently along in our conversation, while we sit near the finish and applaud all teams as they come in, throwing in an encouraging shout "Well done!", "Looking great!", "Good job!" All manage a smile, or a thumbs-up in return. Many even make one last extra effort and break into a sprint, or -for those who had a really hard time up there- a slightly faster hobble. For some reason, that little bit of encouragement enables runners to dip into that last reserve. I know how it feels, and as a back-of-the-pack finisher I have always appreciated it when the race snakes took the time to welcome us at the finish. Today we can return the favour. After a long wait, and with very few minutes to spare before the cut-off, Marj's son and daughter-in-law come into view. They ran a longer and more difficult course, and they had a very tough two days. Victory for them!

And in a sense for us, too. The carrot and stick approach to training works: sign up for something you really really want, and then train for it. If you don't train properly, there is no point in showing up at the start. It has got me out of bed for early runs, through the snow on wintry runs, and kept me going on those hot summer runs while I was melting. I can't afford to be the weakest link, I can't afford to let somebody two decades my senior (and with PD) beat me! For Marj, it has kept her another year on the road, being a runner rather than a patient. The proverbial two fingers up to Parkinson's, and a major victory for Team Kingfisher.

And our plans for next year, you ask? We're doing it again, if they let us. Perhaps we are crazy after all.

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About Tineke

Flemish Belgian formerly living in the US, now back home. Eternally amazed at the world around her. Knitter, (sometimes) yarn spinner, returning long distance runner, ex academic historian of China and East Asia. Opinionated about chocolate and beer.

3 thoughts on “Scenes from SLMM-continued

  1. Julia

    Well done both – a wise decision I have no doubt. Having just spent a day with a friend with Parkinson’s I think Marj is doing a wonderful thing – definitely crazy but certainly not stupid!


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