The Saunders Lakeland Marathon 2014 took place in Deepdale (near Patterdale) in the Lake District, on 12-13 July. Team Kingfisher (=Marj and I) was there, and I wrote up these short scenes to give you some idea of what happened and what goes through my mind while we're out there. For the basics of Mountain Marathoning UK style, please look here. Click on the pictures for a bigger view, in my Flickr account (doesn't work for the bits of map).
I'm running, with a big backpack. I'm not yet even anywhere near the Lake District where the race will take place. I am running through Brussels, on my way to the railway station to catch the Eurostar. The best laid plans of mice and men... I checked carefully which tram would get me there on time, but unfortunately two trams did not show up at all. Traffic congestion further up the line, I hear later. I see multiple trams going the other way, and I wonder if all these trams ride down some dark hole, never to be seen again... That might explain why none of them ever come back up the line again.
I am running with quite a bit of additional weight, this is everything I need for four days away and not my light race pack with minimal kit. The breathing is fine, it's comforting to know the training pays off. The knee, however, isn't fine after about 10 minutes of this unexpected extra training. I slow down to a walk, and curse the Brussels public transport authority under my breath. If this race turns into a DNS (did not start), because I bugger up my knee, they'll hear about it.
I make it into the Eurostar terminal, and just as I am looking around to find a place to sit down and have a breather, boarding begins. I am glowing profusely (horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow, apparently) but I caught the train. On the train from London to Cambridge I text my teammate Marj with a request for a bag of frozen peas to ice my knee, just to be on the safe side. I also get a tweet from Brussels transport with an apology for the delay, after I called them out on Twitter. Kind, but as useful as a chocolate ashtray on the back of a motorbike... Team Kingfisher is reunited at basecamp Cambridge before driving out to the Lake District. We're a bit apprehensive, but excited none the less, when the "lumpy bits" come into view.
Base camp at Deepdale, the evening before the race.
Victory no. 1: the start line
If you're training for a long race, like a marathon or a multiple day event, getting fit to the starting line is a victory in itself. The year has been hard for both of us. Training this winter for me felt more like I was preparing for the winter Olympics, with all the snow and temperatures that made my freezer seem comfy warm, but things improved when spring finally came. Marj had more serious setbacks, which left us hesitating to sign up for the race until March. But now we are at the start line, and we are over the moon. We're feeling ready, my knee is fine. We know it won't be easy (though we don't know yet how bad it might be), but as we line up for our start, we lift our eyes unto the hills and feel the thrill of the race. Bring it on!
Ups and downs
We're sliding down a hill side, and dropping height quickly. This is good, because I managed to waste time and energy by going past the 1st control, and we had to turn back. In my defence, it was located east of the boulder, and not west as indicated on the directions. We saw many other teams struggling to find the darn thing but I should do better as chief navigator and keep my eyes peeled. The 2nd control took us up a steep hillside, but was easy enough to find. But it came with the realisation that we have to get over this sheer wall of stone in front of us, and then immediately back down again to number 3, and there is no path down... Fortunately, there is soft grass, and so we just slide down and lose about 250 meters in no time.
We then have a long way to go to control 4 (Look! Picture!), but there is a path and the views are rewarding: Ullswater in the distance, as we are going around Grisedale Brow. I can't quite see the way to control 5 yet, but the contour lines on the map are ominously close together. There is a path, but with many switchbacks (i.e. zigzags), which suggests the same: it's going to be seriously uphill, baby.
The list of should-haves
With every race, there is a list of should-haves. A sample of my past races: I should have trained harder/differently; I should have put on different socks; I should not have had that fish and chips yesterday for dinner. Today's should-haves include: I should have checked the map and seen that we need to take on water at Mires Beck, where everybody else was doing this. As it is, we're working our way up the steep path to control 5, and there is no good source of water until we're heading off the mountain towards the end of the day. I am fine, but Marj is starting to have trouble as we make our way to the top of the ski-tow where control 6 awaits us. The climb is a good 225m higher up from control 5, although not vertical, but the long day is getting to her. There's another one: I should have made sure my teammate is "grazing" on snacks throughout the day, like me, but it's hard to force food into somebody who claims not to be hungry. But hauling yourself and a pack up the hills consumes a crazy amount of calories and they need to be replenished, even if your health situation means appetite is suppressed when you're nearing exhaustion. We have a brief rest, ration the water, and prepare for the big one: the top of Helvellyn, the third highest peak in England at 950m. We will just follow the path south to Whiteside (868m), then onto Helvellyn Lower Man (925) and Helvellyn itself a bit further with control 7. We have to go this way to get off the hills anyway, to the midway camp, and we're not giving up. Not yet.
Stairway to Heaven
I am walking on the saddle between White Side and Lower Man. To my left in the distance the blue Ullswater. On my right I see Thirlmere, another lake. I have done this route on Google Maps as part of my orientation preparation, but that pales in comparison with the real thing. At the far end, where the path climbs to Lower Man, the sheer cliff face from Swirral Edge bumps into the top of Browncove Crag. I am walking on the spine of the world, and I am suddenly overcome by intense emotion: utter bliss, feeling part of the universe, and a deep sense of gratitude that I am allowed to be here. I am exhausted, thirsty, hungry and could lie down for a nap here and now, yet I feel more alive, in every cell of my body, than ever before. This moment of pure joy is worth every step of the long and hard way we took to get here. I am on the stairway to Heaven.
Google Earth view of my stairway to Heaven. It doesn't do it justice at all. Go up there and experience it for yourself. Worth every step of the way. Go on. You know you want to.
Who moved my sheepfold?
I am walking back up the hillside in search of a blimmin' sheepfold that contains control 8. I saw it as we were walking down from Helvellyn and started our descent on the path to the north of Birk Side. It's freaking big, you can't just tuck it away. Yet that is exactly what happened, because as we were going down the path it did not just pop up on our left side as it should have.
Now we have come down too far. Marj is completely exhausted, but we found water. While we wait for the purification tablet to work its wonders, I decide to trot back up and find the control. I look back regularly to make sure I know where to find her again. You're not supposed to leave your teammate, but asking her to go back up there is just mean at this point. There is no danger of hill fog, so we should be fine. I am annoyed with myself for missing a second control in one day. Chief-navigator and Master of the Map, my a***. The sheepfold is as big as a house, literally- how can you miss it? Some kind competitors confirm my suspicion that it is just a bit further to the north, and my determination (stubornness?) pays off. I stick the dibber into the control and I have rarely been this relieved to hear the *beep beep* as it radioes our time to race HQ.
I go back down to pick up Marj, who's significantly more chipper now we have water, a rest, and some food. We study the map, and head out in search of control 9, which is all the way at the bottom of the hill, some 350m lower.
Lessons learned from last year
I don't like the look of those contour lines. One of the should-haves from last year pops into my head, and I remind Marj of the longest twenty minutes of our lives. I can't quite see how we- completely at the end of our reserves by now- will make it safely down between the cordonned-off area and the stream, on a hillside at a 45º angle or worse. We're not even worrying anymore about being done before the cut-off time, that is pie in the sky by now.
"You see those runners there? That's where I'd like to be." I say to Marj. She's good at finding paths and making tracks, and is usually out in front doing exactly that. Much to my relief, she complies with my request, even if it means going back up 100m or more, so we can safely cross the stream. I see my old friend the sheepfold again, from a distance. It feels like we're going round in circles this last hour, but at last we get on the other side of the stream, and onto the grassy hillside. This one is also at a silly steep angle, but there is space. And we can slide down, because there is simply no point in standing up. As soon as we take two steps, we're back on our bum, so we lose a good 300m height in very good time. We are both very happy with the decision to take this route, even if it looked like a detour. No gorse or bracken to pick out of our underwear (and worse places) for the next three days, like last year.
To the finish, and victory again!
We get to control 9, and our quick descent means we do actually stand a chance of making it to the final control on time. It is just a few hundred meters along an easy, even path. We clock off with ten minutes or so to spare. The course was much harder than last year- with 18km and 1310m of height in the ideal case, and my navigation mistakes added probably another 2-3km and maybe 150m. We'll worry about tomorrow after we have had some food and a rest. Today is a major victory, and we'll cherish it.