Car park at SLMM base camp
First mountain marathon. You sign up in late January, train for five months, and then suddenly it is there. Nervous? A bit. More excited than nervous, to be honest. Rookie’s excitement, no doubt. No idea what is coming at me, despite our training weekends in Cornwall (gentle hills to ease me in) and the Lake District (Skafell Pike on my first day out there, why not?).
The format of Mountain Marathons is straightforward:
- You show up at the start in a team of two.
- You get a map, and a piece of paper with the locations and descriptions of control points you have to find.
- You take everything you need for two days with you (tent, sleeping bag, food, clothes, and everything on the compulsory kit list from the organiser).
- You mark the controls on the map, and using a compass, the map and your wits, you work your way through the controls in the set order and as quickly as possible. At each control you stick your team’s little dibber in; when it beeps you know the signal has been accepted and transmitted.
- Pitch your tent at mid-camp.
- Repeat all over the next day.
- No GPS allowed. Of course not.
We had signed up for the easiest/shortest course available. Between a rookie and a PD runner, who both live and train in very flat locations, that was probably a wise decision. This still meant a first day of 16+km in the field, and 875m total elevation, if we did not get lost. As the designated navigator of Team Kingfisher and Master of the Map, it was my responsibility to find the optimal route and make us stick to it, but I was glad I could rely on the experience of my teammate: I used my first compass in earnest about four weeks earlier…
The Wansfell course started with two controls that lay just off well marked paths. Easy peasy! The second control was near the top of 600m high Black Combe. We had been there in dense fog early in June, and the difference between that pea-souper with 20m visibility, and this sunny Saturday morning was staggering. That time we never saw the tarn just off the path where the control was hiding this time.
But from then on, no more easy paths to follow, hard-core navigation became necessary. Especially when we figured out that after the fourth control we were the last ones on the hill, and there was nobody to follow from a distance. Ah, the peace and quiet! The larks ascending! The never-ending marshes after we got off the hills! Squelching sounds under foot as we made our way straight to control five! Here I can do little better than quote my teammate’s blog:
Sight down to the stream junction where control 5 was sunbathing on the rocks just down there – but separated by a fence. It is Wicked and a Sin, we had been told, to cross a fence or wall. We were novices, and obediently walked the half kilometer along the fence to a gate and half a kilometer back. It became apparent that others didn’t.
Until that moment I never realised controls would take on a personality: relaxing and sunbathing like this one, or just surprising us like number 6, me thinking “Oh, you’re there already!” I had counted the steps and should not have been surprised but my focus wandered off temporarily, I guess. Number 7 was cheeky, and played hide and seek on the banks of the fourth gill we crossed on the side of Corney Fell, and number 8 sung its alluring siren song from the top of Stainton Pike. Ascending another hundred or more meters at the end of a long day was hard work, but the control rewarded us with a bip bip as I stuck the dibber in. From the top we could see the mid-camp, and after a steep descent we squelched another kilometer or so through the fields on to our way to number 9, casually waiting for us. “Oh, hi! Nice of you to drop by!” it seemed to say. “Finish is just over there, by the way.” We gratefully accepted its hint, and checked our first day off.
We asked about climbing over fences. Came the return question: “You mean those fences you can just stride over?”
“Hm, perhaps if your legs are a bit longer than ours!”
Well, in that case it was allowed to climb over. Maintained walls, however, remained on the Verboten list, but this clarification made a good deal of difference on day two.
Setting up a tent when you’re dead tired is one thing. Doing it when one of you has no idea how it is constructed makes it even more … interesting, shall we say? For a moment we thought that one of Marj’s tumbles (double roll through the bracken, no harm done!) had broken one of the poles, but that was false alarm. We got the thing up and running, and got down to the business of cooking dinner. The world’s tiniest stove on top of the gas canister which had poked into my back most of the afternoon amazed me. Before long we were enjoying our three-course dinner: a choice of rehydrated freeze-dried chili-con-carne or chicken korma with rice in a bag, followed by chocolate SiS ReGo recovery drink (with some added swimming pool taste from the water-treatment tablets), and to finish off some chicken-noodles in the aforementioned (but now empty) bag.
The lumpy bits under the thin sleeping mat, churned up by the cows running through the field a few days earlier, massaged my back. I fell asleep pretty much as soon as my head hit my improvised pillow of spare clothes.
Next instalment: From breakfast to Finish, in record time!